Media: Fic
Title: Solar Winds (Avatar: The Last Airbender Fusion, 55/?)
Rating: PG-13 for innuendo, swearing, violence.
Spoilers: None for either series that I am aware of.
Warnings: None.
Word Count: 28,000
Summary: When a usurper sets eyes on the Fire Nation throne, Avatar Kurt and friends find themselves on the run with the deposed Prince Blaine in a country gone mad. Can they escape Lady Sylvester's wrath? Or will her minions snuff them out for good? Fusion fic!

Author's Note: Holy crap, massive chapter! O_o;; Those Warblers demanded backstory, and I had no choice but to deliver. Don't worry though—I've worked extra hard to try and make this chapter awesome due to focusing on side characters, and it's the last backstory chapter before we return to our regularly scheduled Klaine. ;) Until then, enjoy this brief spotlight on the AU!Warblers, and how they came to be. ^_^

CHAPTER 55 Dragon Hawks, Part 2
The Tale of the Hawks

"So… wait," Wes says, gesturing to Kurt. "This is awful monster who broke in while you were in prison?"

"The very beast himself," Thad says haughtily.

David tilts his head at the Avatar. "…you told us he was ten feet tall."

"A trick of the light," Thad says.

"And that he had horns like a gorilla goat," Wes adds.

"His hair was messy."

"And that he was covered in blood," David adds.

"…so he washed it off!" Thad says.

"You said he flew away on enormous wings of midnight black," Wes says flatly. "I see no wings."

Thad still refuses to budge. "Perhaps they only come out at night. I've heard stories of people who transform into monsters during the full moon."

Kurt gives him the stink-eye. "The only thing that happens to me during the full moon is a boost to my waterbending and occasional insomnia. Where did you get all of that stuff?"

Thad crosses his arms. "I… might have exaggerated select details, but my story captures the spirit of the encounter. Is that not more important than minute factual details?"

"Not really," Wes says.

"He left me in there!" Thad cries, outraged. "He knew for a fact that I was wrongfully imprisoned, and flatly refused to aid me. Not only that; he had the nerve to mock my situation! Such behavior is bestial by anyone's standards."

"Well, then, maybe you should flee the scary monster boy and do something else," David says diplomatically. "Why don't you go help pack everything up? We need to leave soon."

Thad glares at David and Kurt in turn. "…fine," he seethes, turning and stomping indignantly over to the others, who are tittering around between various ostrich horses, packing under the apparent guidance of Mercedes, who is directing traffic. Finn, his shoulder now bandaged, sits in a nearby chair-shaped rock that Artie bent up as Rachel hovers around him, chattering away, not noticing that he has fallen asleep.

"Well, that was suitably awkward," Blaine says. "I can't believe someone would make up a story like that just to discredit you."

"Well…" Kurt says. "There might be just a smidgen of truth to it. I mean, I did meet him in a prison and… sort of… declined to rescue him."

Blaine is somewhere between surprised and disappointed. "Wait, really? Why?"

"I thought you had been captured!" Kurt says sourly, crossing his arms. "I only had room for one rescue that day, and he was not it."

Wes snorts in ill-contained laughter.

"And what, praytell, is so funny?" Kurt asks.

"We once made a similar mistake," Wes says with a smile as David rejoins them. "Not exactly the same, but close."

"Oh?" Kurt says. "Do tell."

"Yes, please," Blaine says happily. "I want to hear the rest of the story."

"Alright," Wes says. "But no more interruptions! We have a lot of ground to cover before we go. Now… I believe we left off in Fenghuang…"

"…we're not alone!" Wes says, cracking a smile. "David! Why are we doing this by ourselves? Surely we're not the only ones who will take up this cause," Wes says. "We could get our friends to help us!"

"Marvelous idea!" David says. "One problem—we don't have any other friends."

"That's not true! There's… well… there were those people back at the Palace, but heaven only knows what happened to them. Other than that, we have… well… there's our families, but I don't think I want mine involved in this if I can spare them," Wes says thoughtfully.

"And I feel the same," David says. "Which leaves a grand total of no one."

Wes looks thoughtful for a few moments. "Well…" he says casually. "There's always Thad."

David stares at him flatly. "You can't be serious."

"What's wrong with Thad?" Wes asks.

"Thad is a pompous, overbearing, self-absorbed nitwit!"

"Who happens to be my friend, and I'll thank you not to insult him in my presence," Wes warns.

"Oh, please. You agree with me and you know it," David scoffs.

"That is entirely beside the point," Wes says, not budging from his position. "Think about it! Thad would be an excellent ally. He is very traditionally-minded, and well-connected to boot. Plus, he could feasibly walk right up to the assassins and have a casual chat with them."

"You could say the same thing for a charismatic street urchin," David says, still not convinced.

Wes rolls his eyes. Truth be told, he has been friends with Thad longer than he has with David. David, he met at Dalton. Thad, he's known since he was barely old enough to string words together. They formed a bit of a trio during their time at Dalton, but it was largely centered on Wes. David and Thad were not buddies by any stretch of the imagination. And Wes can't exactly deny David's assessment of some of the more… challenging aspect of Thad's personality.

But Thad does have one major trump card…

"Not many street urchins could offer the wealth or clout that comes with the Harwood name," Wes adds. "Lest we forget, the Harwoods are outlandishly rich."

David raises his brows in thought, tumbling the thought in his mind. "So, how is dear old Thad?" he asks with a grin. "We should in touch with him again. How I've missed his self-aggrandizing ways!"

"I knew you'd see the light eventually," Wes grins.

The next morning…

Wes and David set out bright and early to the local Hawk Office, to send Thad a letter. On their way, however, they are briefly distracted by a huge explosion. Wes puts a temporary mulligan on the no-staring rule, and the two head over to the site of the blast, which has torn a sizeable chunk out of the upper floor of one of the nicer inns in town. Voices burst from the smoking building…


"You said you were good to go!"


"Then why'd you say you weren't?"


David tilts his head as a small crowd gathers around. "Is it just me, or does one of those voices sound familiar?" he asks.

Wes takes a look at those evacuating the inn. Among the standard crowd of vacationing families (with parents doing their best to shield their childrens' ears from the coarse language billowing out with the smoke), there are several lady soldiers, and two very familiar ladies.

"Shit!" Wes whispers. He starts to grab David and pull him away, but then he takes a closer look. Santana and Brittany seem to have eyes only for each other and the disaster unfolding on the upper floor. Brittany lays her head on Santana's shoulder, looking forlorn, and Santana whispers something that makes her giggle. They haven't noticed Wes or David, and don't seem likely to.


Another explosion rocks the inn. Down below, the innkeeper despairs as his life's work slowly becomes kindling.

At this point, Wes decides that he'd rather not chance it, and pulls David aside so they can watch from a street corner.

"Wesley, what are you—"

"Look," Wes says, pointing to the ladies.

"…what are they doing here?" David asks.

"I don't know!" Wes answers. "Perhaps if we shut up and listen, we'll find out."

Unfortunately, they aren't able to catch much. A final explosion precedes Puck taking a flying leap from the upper floor onto the street and dashing off like a man with a starving tigerdillo on his tail. Quinn emerges from the flaming wreckage shortly thereafter, her Chi-Ryus there to assuage her rage. Slowly but surely, the crowds start to disperse.

"Damn it," David says. "The show's over."

"Let's get out of here before they spot us," Wes says.

"I second that motion," David says. They return to their original task of heading to the Hawk Office, passing the local stables on the way. There, they notice something odd—there is now a komodo rhino roosting beside Speedy (their newly-chosen name for the mongoose lizard), along with several dragon moose.

Outside the stables, a group of soldiers is conversing with a couple of Chi-Ryus. Since they don't have to worry about being identified by any of them, Wes and David decide to listen in on the conversation, under the guise of retrieving Speedy.

"…pect us to ride fucking dragon moose!" a dark-haired Chi-Ryus says.

"I'm sorry!" a soldier replies. "That's all we could bring on such short notice. There's a fort east of here with some rhinos you can use. The moose are just temporary."

"Look, the Captain is not in a good mood, okay? We may have only hours left before she full-on explodes," a sandy-blonde Chi-Ryu adds. "Like, literally. Complete with a mushroom cloud. Did you bring anything useful? Do you at least have some good news?"

"Well, I can't say there's much news to report from the Capital," the soldier continues as Wes starts climbing the saddle. "I hear the Fire Lord found some curly-headed punk she was lookin' for, got him locked up at the Palace…"

It's unfortunate that Wes hears this as he is climbing onboard Speedy, as his hands properly forget how to function, and he falls on his ass.

"What was that?" the dark-haired Chi-Ryu asks.

"Nothing!" David says lightly, sticking his head out "My friend here is a little new to the concept of saddles."

"Is he alright?" the sandy blonde asks.

"Fine!" Wes grunts, picking himself up. "When you fall off the lizard, you just have to get back on!" he says cheerily.

"That's the spirit, kid!" the soldier says. "You just gotta take what life gives ya sometimes, ya know? You girls should tell that to your boss."

"Why don't you tell her?" the dark-haired girl says.

"…ahhh… no thanks. I've got a thing… at a place, y'know?"

"Thought so," the dark-haired girl says. "Thanks for nothing."

And they all part ways, leaving the stables empty of other humans for the time being.

What was that?" David asks, glaring at Wes.

"I was shocked!" Wes says. "Did you hear what they were saying?"

"Yes," David says. "The Fire Lord has 'some curly kid.'"

"Exactly!" Wes says. "And what curly kid would the Fire Lord possibly be looking for?"

"…good point," David says thoughtfully. "Do you think we should investigate?"

"Oh, I think we should do more than that," Wes says. "I have an idea…"

Once we finally got to the Hawk Office, we sent a letter to Thad warning him of our impending arrival—we intended to visit Dalton that very day, so we instructed him to gather up his friends to help us on a little 'project' we were working on. A short while and a brief detour later, and we returned to the old school at last.

The proud buildings of the Dalton Firebending Academy gleam in the afternoon sunlight as Wes and David pull into the courtyard on their lizard, which is slightly weighed down by a rather large cart attached to its tail. The sight that greets them is nothing less than appalling.

On the left side of the courtyard, a member of the custodial staff is chasing down several boys who were, just moments before, burning the outline of a large penis into the grass. In the middle, two boys are riding on the statue of the Dragon-and-Phoenix, two figures constantly circling each other and breathing flames. Male and female teachers desperately implore them to get down as they try to figure out how to turn the statues off. On the right side of the courtyard, several boys in a tree have turned the branches into a makeshift catapult and are laying mock-siege to the Windsor dormitories, who counter with flaming rolls of toilet paper.

"Is it just me," David asks, "or have the disciplinary standards… slipped just a bit?"

Wes hops off of speedy. "Something has slipped, alright," he says. "Stay here and make sure none of these hooligans gets to our cargo."

"Why do I have to stand watch?" David says.

"Because I have to go find Thad," Wes says. "Unless you want to chat up the old boy."

David crosses his arms. "Fine. I'll protect the contraband—"

"Not so loud!"

"—just try to make it quick."

Wes nods his assent and heads towards the lobby, ducking underneath a paper crane and stepping over a burning bag that smells very suspicious. As he enters into the lobby, he is spotted almost immediately.

"Wesley!" someone whispers. "Psst! Over here!"

Wes walks towards the sound of the voice, but the only thing he finds is one of the many ceremonial suits of samurai armor that stand watch over the school. "Hello?" he asks.

Thad sticks his head out from behind the armor. "Shhh!" he says. "Don't draw so much attention to yourself."

"What are you doing there?" Wes asks. "What happened here?"

"The Fire Lord has called a temporary halt to all educational activity in order to review and revise the current curriculum. Class is canceled for the foreseeable future, but the school is contractually obligated to continue to board us. Now the school is little more than a playground for bored adolescent firebenders. The structure has collapsed. Anarchy reigns supreme!" Thad whispers urgently.

Wes shakes his head. "Amazing how much can change in such a short time," he says softly.

"What is wrong with the Fire Lord?" Thad asks. "You work at the Palace, you should know. Has he gone mad?"

Wes looks up at his friend, disbelieving eyes scanning for any sign of disingenuousness. "…do you not know?"

"Know what?" Thad asks, looking around. He steps out from behind the armor. "Come, this way. We'll speak in private."

Thad leads them into a small, unused (of course) classroom, closing and locking the door behind them.

"Thad," Wes says carefully. "Something incredibly profound happened last week. Do you honestly not have any idea what?"

"You mean those strange sky-lights?" Thad asks. "Because I distinctly remember those. Everyone seemed either afraid of them or outraged by them. The racket made it very difficult to properly center myself."

"So you have no idea what else happened on the night of the lights?" Wes asks.

Thad shakes his head, looking at his old friend oddly. "No. The staff has seemed a bit on-edge lately, but no one has told us anything. Why? Is there something I should know?"

Wes can hardly believe it. Dalton is fairly secluded, even by Fire Nation standards—it was apparently converted from a monastery, so its out-of-the-way nature makes sense. Still, he can't fathom the staff keeping something of this magnitude a secret. At least… not willingly. "Thad… the Fire Lord was killed that night. There was a riot in the capital, followed shortly by a coup."

Thad's countenance goes from confusion to disbelief. "You're joking. That's… insane."

"I was there, Thad," Wes insists. "I saw it with my own two eyes. The Fire Lord is dead, and the Prince is missing, breaking the line of succession. An emergency Fire Lord was elected by the council. She is the one who issued the edict."

"But…" Thad says, shaking his head. "You and David… you protected the Prince, did you not? If… if there was a coup… good gods, man, are you alright?" he asks. "Where's Thompson? Is he… surely he's still…"

"David is alive," Wes says. "We're both fine. We narrowly made it out with our lives intact, and we're looking for the missing Prince right now. That's what this 'project' is about. The New Fire Lord got her position via sabotage, subterfuge, and assassination. The Fire Lord is dead, but if we can find the Prince, we stand a chance of invalidating her rule."

Thad blinks in complete shock, having to sit down and compose himself. "That is what your letter referred to? That's… it's… is this dangerous?"

"No," Wes says firmly. "David and I will be doing all the dangerous parts ourselves. All we need are a few good firebenders who can follow instructions."

"So it is dangerous," Thad says. "Just… not to the other students. Well, that's good. I did manage to wrangle up a few of my classmates, but… good gods. I can't believe it. I'm in shock."

"I haven't completely recovered, myself," Wes says. "But you don't have to worry. You will not be risking your life on our behalf, I assure you—"

"I most certainly will!" Thad says, offended. "How dare you insinuate that I would let my friends charge headlong into danger while I sit and sip tea!"

"Thad," Wes says, shocked. "Are you serious?"

"Of course I'm serious," Thad scoffs. "The Harwoods have a proud legacy of service to the Fire Nation. What kind of shame and dishonor would I bring my family if I shirked that duty?"

Wes shakes his head. "Thad, this is about much more than your family's honor. Can you even fight?"

This just causes even more outrage. "Can I fight? You may recall that during your time here, I was ranked Third Flame, behind only David and yourself, and I certainly haven't faltered since then. And did you forget about my swordsmanship?"

"Oh?" Wes says. "I remember your 'swordsmanship' from before I moved. I presume you've graduated from sticks?"

"Of course!" Thad scoffs. "I've been training with real weapons for nearly a decade. The Harwoods have been renowned for their bladework for generations! My father won countless exhibitions and competitions in his youth, and my grandfather and namesake so impressed the Fire Lord during the War of the Silver Flame—"

"—that he was given the honorary title of 'Dragonclaw.' You've mentioned it before," Wes says, rolling his eyes. "Once or twice."

"I see nothing wrong with taking a little pride in my heritage," Thad says, crossing his arms. "I do not take upholding the Harwood name lightly. Now, do you want my help, or not?"

Wes smiles, shocked but pleased. "Thad, of course I want your help. I just didn't expect you to jump into it quite so… enthusiastically."

Thad shakes his head in disappointment. "You have come to me in friendship, yet you expect me to refuse? To haggle price? You wound me, Wesley." He walks over to a fireplace, pulling out a poker and holding it up to the heavens. "By the life-giving light of Agni, so long as I draw breath, I pledge my sword to your cause." A short pause. "…I know this isn't actually a sword, but I think you understand the notion. You are my friend. I will not suffer you to face this alone."

"I apologize," Wes says with a soft smile. "I meant no offense. Thank you, Thad. There is just… one more thing I need to ask of you."

"Yes?" Thad asks, putting the poker back in its place.

"We… erm… weneedmoney," he coughs.

Thad blinks at him. "What was that?"

Wes sighs. "We need money. David and I are penniless at the moment, and we can't get money without going to our families, who I am fairly certain will tackle us and lock us in a basement at first sight; a rather ignominious end to our journey."

The young patrician regards his friend carefully. "That…" he says, trailing off thoughtfully, "…should not be a problem. I can give you a little to start with, and a short trip to my house will secure anything else we need."

"What about the others?" Wes asks. "You said you had gotten other students who would help us."

"I don't think it would be prudent to take them all to my house and back," Thad says thoughtfully.

"That's not what I meant, but you do have a point," Wes says. "Perhaps you could take our lizard.

"…your what?" Thad says carefully.

A short walk later…

"…ye gods," Thad breathes, staring up at the creature before him. "He's magnificent. What is his name?"

"Speedy!" David announces.

Thad looks at him in thinly-veiled horror. "Speedy? Have you no respect for this creature? Mongoose Lizards are among the rarest and most beautiful of all mounts! They cannot be bred in captivity—their eggs will not hatch. They must be caught wild and carefully trained. Someone sacrificed years of sweat, tears and money to acquire this creature and you have the gall to call it Speedy?"

David glares at him. "He's very fast. Thus, Speedy. The name fits." He rolls his eyes. "He's just a lizard."

Thad's jaw drops in horror. He reaches up to cover the lizard's ears, only to quickly realize he doesn't exactly know where they are. "Pay no attention to him, Cornelius."

"Cornelius?" David barks. "That's your name? How is that any better than Speedy? How?"

"It's much more dignified," Thad says haughtily.

"Both of you, just shut up," Wes sighs. "Thad, be very careful with the lizard. It was incredibly expensive."

"And bought with someone else's money," David adds.

"I shall treat it as my own," Thad says proudly. "Now, as for the others… I didn't know what time you would arrive, so I instructed them to meet in the training room around sunset. They should be very receptive to your instructions, whatever they may be."

"Very well," Wes says. "When you get whatever it is you need, come to the Capital. We'll be looking for you at a restaurant called 'Breadstix.' Understood?"

"Perfectly," Thad says. "Now, if you'll excuse me… hi-ho, Cornelius! AWAY!"

With that, Thad rode off into the horizon, leaving David and I to find a place to hide from the chaos while we waited for the other students to show up. We sequestered ourselves in the practice room and awaited the arrival of Thad's helpers, who arrived in ones and twos just before sunset, arriving at a final total of nine.

Nine students, willing to help us with a task they did not know about, whose names we didn't even know…

The atmosphere is just a little awkward. The students appear to be waiting for orders or instructions—a side-effect of a Dalton education, Wes would venture to guess. The two leaders sit at a table, facing the other students, strewn across various bits of furniture. Wes decides to break the ice.

"Since we are going to be working together, if only briefly, I feel it is important that we get to know each other," Wes says. "We will each state our names and something about ourselves."



"Wait, wait! Let's keep this nice and orderly," Wes says. "One at a time, as you are called upon. David and I will demonstrate." He stands up and clears his throat. "My name is Wesley Montgomery, 'Wes' for short. I went to school here before being employed by the Fire Lord. My favorite subject is History."

He sits down, and David stands up. "My name is David Thompson. I also went to school here, and I find history—and, consequently, Wesley—to be a bit dull."

A few light titters of laughter. Wes is willing to forgive a joke at his expense if it eases the tension. "Now, it's your turn. We'll start from this side of the room. Since you two were the most eager, you can go first."

A black-haired student stands up. "My name is Nick Duval. I'm here on scholarship, and my dream job is to become an adventuring archeologist."

"That job isn't as fun as all those serial scroll-stories make it sound," a larger boy butts in.

"Hey!" Wes says. "Wait your turn. It's rude to interrupt."

"…sorry," the boy says, shrinking down slightly. Wes feels a pinch of guilt from making him look so scolded, but maintaining order is important.

"I guess I'm next," the blonde says, standing up and proudly clapping Nick on the shoulder. "Jeff Sterling. Nick here's my best bud. My dad's in the Navy, and I have four brothers and sisters."

"Each?" David asks.

Jeff scoffs. "No. I mean… three brothers, one sister. I'm the oldest."

"Still," Wes says. "That's a pretty busy household." He moves along the room to the next participant, the larger boy who spoke up before. "Now it's your turn."

The boy stands up. "Thank you. My name is Trent Nixon, and my dad's an archaeologist. Really, the job is pretty boring. You mostly go around looking for old stuff and then trying not to break it once you find it. There's a lot of dusting involved."

"I can dust," Nick shrugs. "I'll dust from dusk 'til dawn!"

Jeff snorts a laugh.

"In that case, you'll fit right in," Trent says. "My mom is also a researcher. She studies volcanoes." He starts to sit down. "Oh! And I have a twin, but he doesn't go here."

"Very good," Wes says. "Next?"

The boy next to Trent stands up. And up. And up. He's a tall one.

"Flint Wilson," he says calmly. "I read."

And he sits back down.

"A man of few words," David says. "I like that."

"'Words are the greatest form of bending. Benders bend the elements—words bend the benders,'" Flint quotes. "I speak carefully."

"An admirable trait," Wes says. He moves on to a shorter, mousy-looking boy. "And you?"

The boy seems somewhat hesitant to stand up. "My name is Nick. Also."

"Hmmm…" Wes says. "That presents a problem."

"You could call me Nichola—"

"He came first," David jumps in, pointing to Duval. "You can be 'Other Nick.'" He smiles, pleased with his problem-solving. "Go ahead, Other Nick!"

"Okay," Other Nick says. "I'm Nick Hudson, and… I… I… don't really know what to say. I'm kind of quiet. But not because I'm profound, like Flint. I just don't like talking. Normally, that is. Sometimes I ramble. Mostly when I'm nervous. Like, right now is a good example. I'm rambling, because I don't know what to say, and I just kind of keep going, because I can't think of a good stopping point, because I didn't really mean to start, and—"

"Okay!" Wes says, cutting him off. "I'll make a note of that, thank you."

They move on down the line.

A dark-skinned boy with very large hair. "Luke Wright. I once ate five live crickets on a dare."

"How did they taste?" Wes asks.

"Crunchy," he replies.

Most of the room cringes.

"Moving on," Wes says.

A tall blonde. "I'm James Kirk. I want to be a ship Captain."

"…that seems appropriate. I'm not sure why," David says.

"I think you'd make a good Captain," Wes comments. "Next?"

An average-sized brunet. "Ethan Moore. My girlfriend keeps forgetting my name. It makes me sad."

"…thank you for sharing that sadness," David deadpans. "Now I'm sad. But… not for quite the same reasons." He buries his head in his hands, quietly muttering. "I need a girlfriend…"

"Well, that's introductions out of the way," Wes says diplomatically. "It is very nice to meet you all. I'm sure we'll work well together."

"What, exactly—" Nick starts.

"Please raise your hand and wait to be acknowledged if you have any questions," Wes says.

Nick looks at him, confused. He looks at Jeff, who just shrugs. Then he raises his hand.

"Yes, Nick?" Wes asks.

"What, exactly, will we be working on?" Nick asks.

"I'm glad you asked," Wes says. "I'm not sure how many of you know it, but there has been a recent upset of incredible proportions in the upper echelons of Fire Nation government. What I am about to tell you must not leave this room, understood?"

The students look at each other a little nervously, but they all nod their assent sooner or later.

Wes looks around, making sure all the doors are closed, before he breaks the news. "The Fire Lord is dead."

Gasps of shock and horror and outrage. Even the stoic Flint looks moderately taken aback. Other Nick curls into the fetal position on a courch as several other students stand up and start speaking loudly over one another.

"Shhhh!" David shushes. "Keep it down!"

"Order!" Wes shouts. "Order!"

No one listens to him.

"Damn it, give me something to—" He reaches over and grabs a small stone carving of an armored Fire Nation soldier and bangs it repeatedly on the table. "ORDER!" he shouts.

The banging seems to get their attention, and the students quickly quiet down.

"We have to keep this under wraps," Wes says. "For some reason, the staff is conspiring to keep this a secret from you, and I don't know why. If we're found out, we could be in terrible danger."

And the clamoring just starts again.

Wes bangs the soldier against the table. "ORDER!" he says, and the prattling ceases.

"Who are—"

"ORDER!" Wes bangs the soldier again, accidentally breaking its head off. "…shit." He shakes his head. "I'm sorry, but please raise your hand and wait to be—"

Trent raises his hand.

"Yes, Trent?" Wes asks, as David politely sweeps up the remains of the stone soldier's smashed skull and deposits them in a nearby potted plant.

"Who are you guys?" he asks. "Why do you need us, and what does the Fire Lord being dead have to do with anything? Is this a draft? Are we going to war?"

"What? No!" Wes says emphatically, trying to calm him down. "Oh, heavens, no! We're not—"

"We're the Fire Prince's bodyguards," David says. "He disappeared during the coup—"

"There was a coup?"

BANG. "Order!"

"—and we haven't been able to find him since," David finishes. "We believe the New Fire Lord, the one who planned and carried out the coup, is keeping him prisoner. We're going to break into the Palace and find him."

"We're gonna what into the where?" Other Nick balks.

"No, no!" Wes clarifies. "Not 'we' as in 'all of us.' 'We' as in 'the two of us.' David and I will be doing all the dangerous work. We know the Palace inside and out, better than anyone, and we would not dream of purposely endangering you. You can all relax."

They do, if only slightly.

"But you do need us," Flint chimes in. "For what?"

David puts his chin on his hands and smiles mischievously. "Our master plan is somewhat complex. The Palace is heavily guarded. Breaking in would be very difficult under normal circumstances… so we have decided to make the circumstances decidedly abnormal."

"We recently acquired a rather large amount of… shall we say… perception-dampening substances," Wes says. "Very potent stuff that we have a bit of experience with. When burned, it produces smoke which acts as a powerful painkiller and induces feelings of euphoria."

"Sweet," Jeff says. "Care to share?"

Nick slugs him. "Dude, shut up. Not the time."

Jeff rubs his arm. "I was just asking…"

"Our plan," Wes says, continuing as if uninterrupted, "is to smoke them out. And that is where we will need your help. The job should not put you in any kind of direct danger—if caught, you can simply pretend to be bored sniffers looking for a fix. That said… there is always an element of the unexpected, and I should warn you that the woman who did this is very dangerous. David and I will do all we can, but there is a chance that we will fail."

"We'll try to keep the heat off of you and onto us, but we can't promise 100% success. There is an element of risk here, so be aware. We're trying nothing less than to save the true heir of the Fire Lord's throne from a murdering usurper. You've seen already what Sue Sylvester has done to Dalton in a week. Imagine what she might do given a lifetime to rule an entire Nation," David says.

Several queasy, fearful looks are thrown around.

"What we're trying to say is…" Wes says. "You're all… well, technically, we're all considered children in the eyes of the law. This is a difficult burden to ask of anyone. So if you want out, now is the time. You may get up and walk through that door, and we will not think any less of you for doing so."

Wes nods to the doorway, and allows a moment of silence. The gathered students exchange a series of inscrutable looks.

"Where's Thad? Did he chicken out?" Trent asks.

"Oh, no," Wes says. "Thad went to his house to get some supplies. He's with us for the long haul."

"Unfortunately," David mutters.

Trent crosses his arms. "Well, if he's doing it, then I'm certainly not going to back down. It'll be a cold day inside Mt. Juku before Thad freaking Harwood is braver than I am."

He sits back down, to a small titter of laughter from the others. No one gets up.

"Really?" Wes asks. "No one wants out?"

The students eye each other once again, but no one gets up.

Wes smiles. "Well, as the sun rises! I knew Dalton wouldn't let me down."

"I'm impressed," David says. "I think this might actually work."

"So… what's the plan?" Other Nick asks.

"We'll go over it in more detail during the train ride tomorrow," Wes says. "For now, you should all get some rest. We've a big day ahead of us, and we'll need to be in top form."

The students file out of the room.

"Oh, and… thank you," Wes says quietly. "You honor the Fire Lord with your bravery."

After that, he's pretty sure at least a few of them walk a little taller.

The next morning, we made the arduous journey down to the nearest train station, and took a train to Dun Qi Kong. It was a bit of a challenge to smuggle all the Zaru Leaf we needed onboard, but we managed to hide most of it in carry-on bags. Fortunately for us, the guards seemed to be screening for something other than contraband—they each took long, hard looks at our faces before allowing us to pass. Flint and James were held up for being too tall, but in the end, they too were allowed onboard.

From the Monkey City, we were able to hitchhike with some local traders to the actual Capital. Neither of us had been back to the Capital since the night of the riots. We were so caught up in our planning and scheming and new friends that we never stopped to think about what was truly waiting for us in the city we called home…

Nick and Jeff are in a heated discussion on the proper punchline to a particularly dirty joke, and the entire cart full of boys is in stitches. The two are so into it that they don't notice as the laughter rapidly dries up, until suddenly, they are the only ones making any kind of sound. They look up to find the faces of their fellows staring out of the cart. Each of them looks to be largely devastated, but none moreso than Wes and David.

"Wes…" David says, his heart in his throat. "Wesley… look at it…"

"I see it," Wes says quietly.

The city is ruined.

Sure, many of the buildings still stand. But many are collapsed—little more than blackened piles of wood, mortar, and metal, jagged beams sticking out at all angles like boarcupine spines, warning away those who might get close. Many more are well on their way to falling down—a three-story inn seems to have had a good quarter of its face stripped off, and what remains leans to the side precariously, looking like the slightest breeze would be enough to send the entire thing toppling. Windows are shattered left and right—some with torn cloth hanging over them, swaying back and forth in the still air, others are half-heartedly covered with boards or paper. Glass litters the streets, rubble and debris haphazardly swept to the side and clogging up gutters—wheels, broken furniture, animal carcasses, and Agni only knows what else. Black streaks and scorched holes are visible in nearly every edifice, scars of firebending gone wild. Many doors hang open, but no one comes or goes. From the corner of his eye, Wes thinks he sees a few people peeking out from the shadows, but as soon as he tries to find them, they vanish.

"Holy shit…" Jeff whispers. "You guys didn't tell us it was this bad."

"We didn't know," Wes says thickly, shaking his head. "We didn't know."

"She did this," David seethes.

"How could she make an entire city destroy itself?" Wes asks.

"I don't know," David says. "But I just… this is her fault. It has to be."

The unspoken statement is as clear as day. I need someone to blame for this. I need someone to hate. For David, Sue Sylvester fits that mold perfectly.

The other citizens, however, have been given a different scapegoat.

"Down with the Avatar!" a voice cries from their left.

"Down with the Avatar!" a chorus of voices echoes back.

The boys their heads just in time to watch an effigy in the likeness of the Avatar set alight, to the angry cheers of the crowd surrounding it. The thing appears to have been constructed to take plenty of punishment; rocks, bottles, and fireballs are thrown at it from all angles, but it remains standing defiantly even as it burns, allowing the citizens to vent their anger.

When the cart finally stops, the boys hop off with their bags of contraband, leaving to make their way through the destroyed city. Some areas are better than the one they entered through. Some are worse. But they all have one strange thing in common…

"No one is rebuilding," David says. "It's been over a week since the night of the lights. Why does it still look like this?"

There are a few slapped-together repairs, but Wes sees no professional work. Nothing is being done to rebuild, or to even prop up the buildings that seem dangerously close to collapse. As they move through the city, they come within sight of the Palace, and the reason for this becomes very, very clear.

"I guess all the contractors in the city are busy with other projects," Wes spits.

The only large-scale reconstruction being done at all is being done to the Palace, and it certainly isn't being half-assed. The entire building (or at least the parts that can be seen over the walls) is surrounded by scaffolding. Any damage done to it has been quickly painted over. A few parts still look a little uneven, but even from here, Wes can see people working on it at the very highest levels.

"Hey, watch where you're going!" a man growls at him as Wes almost steps on him.

"…sorry, sir," Wes says, bowing to the poor fellow.

The man just spits and goes back to sitting against the wall, legs splayed out across the sidewalk.

Wes blinks at the man. "I don't mean to be rude, but… why are you sitting where people walk?"

"Ain't got nowhere else to sit!" the man grumbles.

"Are you homeless?" David asks.

"Am now," the man says. "Me and a shit-ton of other folks."

"…that's awful," Wes says. "And nothing is being done to help you?"

"Pfft," the man says. "Times like these, people gotta help themselves. There are parents out there with kids to worry about. Nobody's got time for a sorry old ass like me. Now go on, get out of here. 'm tired of talking."

"…yes, sir," Wes nods. "Sorry, sir."

He starts to walk off, but something stops him. Reaching into the small money pouch Thad provided him with, he takes out a silver piece and offers it to the man. "Would this help you at all?"

The man glares at him, teeth parting into a snarl. For a second, Wes is sure the man is going to slap the money out of his hand, snarl at him, tell him that he has no need for Wes's pity. But after a second, the man just snatches the money and looks down at the ground. "Thank you, son," he says quietly. "Now go on. Get out of here. And take my advice; don't go flashin' that money around, y'hear?"

Wes nods. "Yes, sir."

With that, the boys file past the man, moving deeper into the city.

"Guys… where are we going to stay?," Trent asks suddenly.

"What do you mean?" Wes asks.

"Think about it," Trent says. "Any inn that's left standing is going to be completely booked by people and families with nowhere else to go. We're not gonna find a room."

"Surely we can find something," David says.

But soon they realize how right Trent is. Every inn that they pass has a 'No Vacancy' sign. One even has a dirty-looking family pleading with the innkeeper for the prospect of paying and sleeping in the lobby, only to be told that his lobby is already rented out.

After a few more minutes of searching, Wes finds a relatively clean place to sit against a stable-looking wall, and plops down, taking a moment to rest. Around him, the boys quietly murmur to each other as they join him.

"This is a nightmare," Wes says. "I don't… I don't even know what to say."

"I live in a coal mining town," Nick says quietly. "There was an explosion one day that wrecked almost half the town. I thought I'd never see anything as bad as that, but… I guess I was wrong."

Jeff gives Nick a supportive shoulder clap.

"Can we… I don't know… do something to help?" Trent asks.

"What can we do?" Wes asks. "This is far bigger than any of us could possibly hope to remedy. Nothing we do would even make a dent in this disaster."

"In a dark room, even the dimmest candle is a comfort," Flint says.

"True," David says. "But we can't forget why we came here to begin with. If we can find the Prince, we can invalidate Sylvester's rule and give these people real help."

"David is right," Wes says. "For now… I think we should stick to the plan."

"We still don't have a place to stay," Jeff says. "Are we just gonna… camp out or something?"

David and Wes share a look.

"…there might be one other option."

As one of the perks of our jobs, our families were provided with relatively nice houses in the hills just outside of town, which were largely spared from the riots. To be perfectly honest, I think we both had hoped to avoid seeing them. Not because we didn't love them, but because we did. We feared that we would reach home and fall into the comforting arms of our parents and siblings and never want to leave them.

But desperate times called for desperate measures. So we steeled ourselves as best we could, and prepared to face what were by far the most terrifying obstacles our journey had presented us with thusfar…

Mrs. Montgomery rushes to the door, opening it and nearly fainting from shock when she sees her son on the other side, surrounded by five other boys.

Wes gives her a slightly queasy smile. "…hello, mother. May we come in?"

Mrs. Thompson sends her little girl Alicia to get the door. She opens it to the sight of her big brother and a bunch of other boys.

She looks at him, flatly unimpressed. "Boy, you are in trouble. MOM!"

Their respective reamings begin almost simultaneously, with slightly different flavorings.







Mrs. Thompson massages her forehead, while Alicia watches from the staircase with thinly veiled glee.

And then, both women ask the killing question.

"Well, what do you have to say for yourself?"

"I'm sorry, mom, I just…" David says, looking down.

"I am truly sorry, mother, from the bottom…" Wes starts.

Neither of them gets to finish. David finds himself in a crushing hug, his head reaching just high enough to rest on the tall woman's shoulder. "You scared me, David. Don't ever scare me like that again," she says even as she squeezes him.

He wishes he could promise her he wouldn't.

Wes, by contrast, is pulled into a tight embrace by a woman he is shocked to find that he now stands taller than. "My baby," she whispers. "Oh, my baby. I was so worried about you."

He wishes he could make her stop.

But neither of them has the power to make their wish come true. So for the time being, they allow themselves to be comforted, offering whatever comfort they can in return. It's wonderful to be home again… but they know it can't last.

David's mother took a bit of convincing, but eventually, she opened her doors to the other students. She believed them to be homeless boys from the riots, and David did not correct her.

My mother was a bit easier. She was a teacher, so she knew about the ban on teaching. I told her they were friends from Dalton, which technically wasn't a lie, and she allowed them in.

That night, we all got a good, home-cooked meal. David was subject to a second chewing-out from his father when he got home from his restaurant. Mine was stuck attempting to sort out the chaos at university, so I was spared a similar fate. I was not, however, spared from my older sister, Ashley, who got home later that evening, threw me face-down on the ground and sat on my head for fifteen minutes, my punishment for the crime of 'being a punk.'

It wasn't until the next day that either of us dared to try explaining things to them. We figured it would be more effective if we did it as a unit, so while everyone else went out to map the city and take care of the first part of the plan, I took my mother over to David's house, and we did our best to explain what happened…

"So let me get this straight," Mrs. Thompson says. "You're telling us you both nearly died on the night of the riots, you've been running around for a week chasing after dangerous criminals and dangerous assassins, and now you want to walk right back into danger—into the home of someone you claim is crazy enough to turn the entire Nation on its head and commit murder to get what she wants. You want to close enough to smell this woman's breath, all to rescue someone who may or may not even still be there. Is that about right?"

"Well…" David says. "When you say it that way, it sounds downright insane."

"Alicia!" Mrs. Thompson calls. "Go to the market and buy mommy a straightjacket, please!"

"What size?" Alicia calls back.

"Doesn't matter! One size fits all, sweetie," Mrs. Thompson replies.

"Wesley, you are not going back out there," Mrs. Montgomery insists. "What's done is done. I know it hurts that you lost your friend…"

"Mom, this isn't right!" Wes says. "That woman is evil! She hired those assassins, I know she did."

"How?" Mrs. Montgomery asks. "If you have proof that she got her throne illegally, why not bring it forth?"

"I… don't have 'proof,'" Wes says. "All I have is my word."

"And mine," David chimes in. "You're not listening to us. How can you just sit there and worry about us when the future of an entire Nation is at stake? You believe us, I know you do. We wouldn't lie to you. Not about this."

Mrs. Thompson looks at David flatly. "I know it sounds bad, but you are more important to me than the Fire Nation."

"You are just children!" Mrs. Montgomery says. "It's not your place to take matters like this upon your shoulders."

"If not us, then who? No one else is willing," Wes says. "And we're not children. In the eyes of the law maybe, but after everything we've been through…"

"We're not kids. Not anymore," David finishes.

Wes's older sister, Ashley, watches the proceedings silently. Her face is inscrutable.

"I'm sorry," Mrs. Thompson says. "But I can't let you go back out there and risk your lives over a ghost. For all you know, those assassins just dumped that boy's body in a river somewhere."

"So that's it?" David asks. "You know the truth, and you choose to do nothing about it?"

"I refuse to let you throw your life away for nothing," Mrs. Thompson replies. "You're not going."

"This is far too dangerous for boys to be handling," Mrs. Montgomery says. "You are staying with us, and we are all moving away from this horrible place. That is final."

And there, the conversation ended. Judging by the looks they gave each other as we left the house, I think deep down our parents knew what was going to happen that night. When the others came back having completed their tasks, they were quickly turned away and told to go back to Dalton before they got into trouble. David slipped a note to Flint about a rendezvous point before they left, looking suitably dejected.

That night, we waited until we were reasonably sure everyone else was asleep. Then we packed a few things, wrote our apologetic goodbye letters, headed to the doors, and… got our asses kicked by our sisters.

Ashley slams Wes into the wall, holding his arm behind his back and keeping him pinned. "You are such a punk," she says.

"Let me go," Wes growls. "I have somewhere to be."

"Mom's not asleep, you know," Ashley says. "She knows you're going to sneak out. And she knows she can't stop you."

"And yet you seem to have missed the message," Wes sighs.

"So that's it?" Ashley asks. "You're just leaving without even saying goodbye?"

"…I have a note," Wes says quietly.

She presses him harder into the wall. "You. Are. A. Punk."

"What do you want me to do?" Wes growls, breaking free of her grip and turning around. "I'm sorry, Ashley. I really am! But there is absolutely no part of me that is willing to sit around and do nothing while a murderer sits on the throne."

"I know," Ashley shrugs. "I don't have a problem with you leaving. I have a problem with you sneaking off like a punk. Like a little coward who can't even face his family and tell them that he loves them, but he has to do things his way. That, little brother, is what an adult does. That is why, no matter how big you think you are, you're still a child."

The anger leaves him, and he feels deflated and weak. "I just… I thought it'd be easier this way," Wes says quietly.

"For who?" Ashley asks. "For you?"

"For everyone," Wes says.

She crosses her arms and stares him down. "Fine," she says. "Go. Slink off into the night."

"Are you trying to use reverse psychology?" Wes asks. "Because it isn't going to work."

She shakes her head. "I'm not trying to do anything. I've said my peace. It's your life now. You make your own choice."

She turns and walks back into the house. Wes turns towards the door, pulling out the note and setting it on the mantle where he knows she is sure to find it. His hand slows to hover over the wood, the paper resting delicately in his palm.

Closing his eyes, he crumples the note and burns it, scattering the ashes into the fireplace, and marches back into the house. Down the hall, to the end, where he sees a flickering light from behind the door. He slides it open slowly. His mother takes one look at him, dressed in travel gear with a pack on his back, and bursts into tears. He hugs her as tightly as he can.

David is assaulted by Alicia. Being that she is only seven, she isn't quite as physically oppressive as Ashley, but what she lacks in strength, she makes up for in enthusiasm.

"YOU SUCK!" she squeals, jumping on his back from the stairs and pounding him with a barrage of tiny fists. "YOU SUCK, YOU SUCK, YOU SUCK, YOU SUCK!"

"Quit it!" David hisses. "You're going to wake mom and dad!"

"No, she's not," a deep voice says.

David growls in frustration as his sister continues to beat him senseless. David's father and mother both light lamps to illuminate the room as he grabs the squirming pile of anger and pulls her off, holding her at arm's length before she squirms free of him and runs to hide behind her parents.

"Going somewhere?" Mrs. Thompson asks.

"Yes, ma'am," David says plainly.

"That's an awfully big bag," Mr. Thompson says. "I guess you plan on being away for a while."

"It's a possbility, sir," David says petulantly.

"I don't know what happened to you that made you think you can just disrespect us like this, but you better straighten your head out, son. Running off without even telling anybody—"

"I left you a note," David says.

"Oh, well, thank you so much for thinking of us!" Mrs. Thompson says.

"You won't listen to reason. You won't listen to me," David says. "I see no other options. Mom, Dad… blazes, let's throw Alicia in here too; I love you, but I can't walk away from this! Something well and truly evil is happening, and Wesley and I… we might be able to stop it. It started with a riot, a coup, and a murder. Heaven only knows how it's going to end. I don't want to wait around and see."

Mr. and Mrs. Thompson look at him, their faces stone cold, their eyes assessing. Mr. Thompson speaks first. "…you really believe that, don't you?"

David nods. "I do."

"And the decision's made? No changing your mind?" Mrs. Thompson asks.

"No," David says simply.

They stare at him a little while longer, before Mrs. Thompson finally speaks, her voice thick. "Alicia," she says. "Say goodbye to your brother."

Alicia jumps out from behind her, looking heartbroken and angry. "You said he wouldn't leave! You said you wouldn't let him!" she says.

"Honey, your brother is a man now," Mr. Thompson says gently. "We have to—"

"No, he's not!" Alicia yells. "He's just a big stupid boy! You said he wouldn't leave and you lied!"

She runs up and starts kicking David's shins. David swallows a lump in his throat, gently kneels beside her, and wraps his arms around her until she stops kicking and starts crying. "I'm sorry," he whispers. "I love you, Little Leesha."

"You're stupid," she sobs. But she hugs him back.

Back at Wes's house, Mrs. Montgomery finally calms down after a few minutes. "You're my baby," she says quietly. "My little Wessy. I didn't think I could have any more children when I had you. I thought I was too old. And then… surprise!"

Wes chuckles. "Didn't mean to startle you."

"Oh, hush," Mrs. Montgomery says. "We all need a little surprise every now and then. It helps give us perspective. Just when we think we have everything figured out, the universe shows us how little we truly know."

"I wish it didn't have to. It'd be nice if we could just depend on things to stay the way they are," Wes says.

"Yes, it would," Mrs. Montgomery says. "But the universe is too big and too complicated for that. Too many things moving around that we have no idea about. This world is so much bigger than us. I think you're starting to see that now. I think that's why this is so important to you. You've found something bigger than yourself that you believe in."

"So you're letting me go?" Wes asks.

"I don't have a choice, do I?" his mother replies.

Wes shakes his head. "I have to do this. I swore I would do everything I could for him. I swore it. I know I was just a kid, but I swore. Blaine was my friend."

She smiles. "Then go help him. Go, before I change my mind and get Ashley to tie you up and lock you in the basement."

Wes laughs, and gives his mother one last hug. "I love you."

"I love you too, Wessy," she says tearfully.

A few minutes later, when he emerges from his mother's room, he finds Ashley waiting for him in the hallway with crossed arms.

He stares her down for a few moments. She stares back.

And then she smiles, and pulls him into a hug. "Wise choice, little man," she says, squeezing him just tight enough for it not to hurt. "Wise choice."

Wes smiles. "Thanks."

"Stay alive, okay?" Ashley says, rubbing his back.

"I can promise you that I will do my absolute best," Wes replies.

Alicia cries herself to sleep on David's shoulder. He picks her up and holds her gently, carrying the sleeping girl to his waiting parents.

"I know it's hard for you to understand, but…" David sighs. "I feel protective of Alicia. She is my little sister. I want to look out for her. But… Blaine was honestly like a little brother to me. I wanted to look out for him, too. Someone attacked him, killed his family and took him away… and that this very person is sitting and being rewarded for this makes me sick inside. I can't stand by and do nothing."

Mrs. Thompson quietly takes Alicia from his arms, putting the girl against her shoulder. She holds the girl silently for a few moments. "Don't think I don't understand, sweetie," she says. "How do you think I feel about Alicia? About you? I'd just as soon tear down the walls of the Palace myself."

"I'd rather you didn't," David says. "In fact, I think Mrs. Montgomery was right. You all should move away, as soon as possible. The Fire Lord gave you these houses—the new one can just as easily take them away. She'll probably do worse if she figures out who we are."

"Son," Mr. Thompson says. "I still don't agree with what you're doing, but I won't stop you from doing it. You're at least as hard-headed and stubborn as I am, so I don't see much point in trying."

"Well, thank you for that vote of confidence," David says with a smile.

His mother hugs him. "Please try to be safe," she says. "Please."

"I'll try," David says. "I promise."

Mr. Thompson pulls him in for a hug. "Take care of yourself, son."

David nods. "The world might be getting very dangerous, very soon. Take care of everyone."

"That's my job," Mr. Thompson says quietly. "I'll do mine if you do yours."

When David reaches the end of his yard, Wes is there waiting for him. Both young men take a minute for one final look at the houses they've called home for years.

"Ready?" Wes asks, not looking at David.

David takes a deep breath. "Ready."

They walk away without looking back.

When they get to the rendezvous point, it's almost sunrise. The boys congregate in the ruined shell of a butcher's shop, which still smells very faintly of rotten meat.

Everyone's eyes snap to Wes and David when they walk in. Judging by the looks on the others' faces, they must look pretty bad.

"You guys alright?" Jeff asks.

"Yeah," Wes says.

David nods. "Yeah."

And that's the last they speak of it.

That day, eleven or so days after the riots, we were finally able to move on with the plan. We tried to wait for Thad, but a unique opportunity presented itself to us. As we kept eyes on the Palace, we noted a rather large and elaborate caravan of carts, tanks, and mounted cavalry pouring out of the gate at one point. A little investigation confirmed that it was none other than the Fake Fire Lord herself, on her way to visit a nearby military base to look at some kind of new machine they had built. Her exit took a great number of guards along with her. David and I knew that a golden opportunity like this was unlikely to present itself again, so we could wait no longer.

We prepared to sneak into the Palace, while everyone else got into position…

"Was that there before?" David asks, pointing up to the Palace wall.

Wes looks over to see an enormous likeness of Sue Sylvester carved from stone, its size a massive overstatement of the woman's importance and an understatement of her ego. Much of the statue is hidden by the Palace walls, but her head is clearly visible peeking out over the top, as if you say 'I'm watching you, bub.' Her eyes do seem oddly piercing.

"That is highly unsettling," Wes says.

"How can she honestly be building a monument when the City looks like… this?" David asks, gesturing to the catastrophe around them. If anything, the city looks worse than it did when they arrived. A rainstorm the previous day has made everything a little soggy and stinky, and washed a bit more nastiness out into the streets for people to try in vain to sweep up.

"It doesn't matter what she builds," Wes says. "We're going to ensure that it falls."

He kneels down next to a sewer grate, pulling out a small firecracker and lighting the fuse with a finger spark. Once lit, he lets the explosive drop, where it detonates with a loud pop!

The two then hurry off to get into position.

The pop echoes through the sewers, reaching the ears of their companions. None of them are particularly happy to be down there, but Wes is fairly sure that if given the choice, they would take their current jobs over infiltrating the Palace any day of the week. Having received the signal, the underground workers start working.

Much of the work was done the day before—the boys spent the day mapping out the sewer system and marking which junctions needed to be blocked off. One by one, the boys move through the sewers and check their debris walls to make sure they are stable. They're careful not to restrict the water flow, but at the same time, they must be relatively sure that little air can get past them. Fortunately, most of the sewers are pretty narrow, especially once you get closer to the Palace—it seems that the builders of the system wanted to be sure that no one could sneak into or out of the Palace from below. Once you get within a certain distance of the Palace, it's almost impossible to actually move through the sewers without crawling, and there are several metal grates to block intruders.

Above ground, Nick and Jeff have a job of their own to do. Casually strolling down the street from their designated starting point, they start subtly covering sewer grates and blocking up gutters. The excess of clutter makes it easy for them to casually knock things over and kick things aside as they pretend to goof around with each other, something the two apparently excel at.

At one spot in the sewer, relatively close to the Palace, but not too close, is Trent and Flint, with their entire supply of contraband. Pulling the thick bandanas over their faces to ensure they don't breathe any in, they wait for the signal fires from the others that indicate the blockages are secure. Once they see them, the boys light up the junk and get out of the sewers as quickly as possible.

All of this is to achieve one singular effect—as the Zaru Leaf burns, the selective blocking of the sewers and the covering of the grates means that the smoke has only one place to go; beneath the Palace, where the grates are not blocked.

Wes and David watch carefully. After a few minutes, smoke starts rising from behind the Palace walls.

The boys share a little grin at a job well done. It's go time.

Dipping their bandanas in water to make sure they act as decent filters, the boys tie them tight over their mouths and noses, before hopping up the same tree that Blaine used to use to get into and out of the Palace.

"I can't believe they still don't know about this!" Wes says happily as he scrambles up the branches.

"I know," David says. "I guess the glorious new leader is too busy erecting monuments to herself to worry about plugging holes in her security."

They reach the top of the branches. Wes jumps over and scrambles up the wall, grabbing the top with his fingers and hoisting himself up. David follows after him, having just reached the top when he hears a slightly panicked whisper from Wes. "David?"

"Yes?" David says.

"Pull yourself up very carefully," Wes says. "I think they know about the security hole."

David is a bit wary of that statement, but he does as he is told, carefully hoisting himself on top of the wall and taking stock of the world around them. The Palace Yard is literally chock full of tents and temporary shelters, while various bits of scaffolding and support beams hold up the Palace itself. Most of it is apparently less-than-habitable at the moment, though the main wing and the prison are both relatively intact. Smoke filters up from numerous sewer grates, clogging the air and sending the various guards and Chi-Ryus running around, trying to figure out what's happening. But the guards and Chi-Ryus are not their main concerns at the moment. All across the top of the wall, below it, and on almost any surface they could conceivably land on from it, are dozens, if not hundreds, of goddamn iron bear traps. Wes himself is literally inches away from triggering one, breathing very heavily.

"Good gods," David says. "That is beyond evil. That is just… mean!"

"I agree," Wes says. "If we keep our wits about us, I think we can navigate around the traps. The smoke is obscuring our position, so hopefully we can get down off the wall before anyone sees us."

Carefully, oh so very carefully, the two of them stand up and start stepping around the bear traps. David briefly considers triggering a few on purpose, before realizing they are probably connected to some kind of alarm system. Slowly but surely, they make their way across the wall, heading towards the kitchens, where they can jump down onto the roof without killing themselves. Hopefully. Assuming the roof isn't manned by ravenous vipiranha's or something equally horrifying just waiting to kill them in the most gruesome way imaginable.

"What's going on here?" Wes hears someone cough from below. "What is this?"

"It looks like smoke!" someone else says. "And it tastes like smoke. But it doesn't smell like smoke. Not normal smoke. It smells like… like… happiness."

"Is it just me, or do I no longer care what this is or why it's happening?"

"IT'S TOTALLY NOT JUST YOU! Oh… oh man… my face is all tingly. It's awesome! I bet if you punched me, I wouldn't even feel it. Do it! Punch me in the face!"




"This is some powerful stuff," David says. "Whoever that airbender was, he carries good shit."

"Just be careful not to breathe any yourself. The last thing I need is you getting all loopy on me again," Wes says.

Taking a moment to make sure the kitchen roof is relatively clear and trap free, Wes jumps down and lands in a roll. When he hears no snaps or cries of pain, David follows him.

Unfortunately, the reason there were no traps located on the kitchen roof is because the building itself was heavily damaged by the Avatar's assault. It supports Wes easily enough but the second David adds his weight into the mix, the whole roof caves in and dumps the boys onto the second floor.

"…ow," Wes grunts.

"We do not have good luck with rooftop landings," David groans, picking himself up and helping Wes off the ground.

They take exactly two steps before the floor gives way under them again.

"Fuck our lives!" is all Wes has to say about the matter.

"Shh!" is David's reply. "I think someone is coming."

The boys get to their feet and lurch over to hide in the shadows, listening to the voices as they get closer.

"I heard… I heard something!" a female voice says. "It was emphatically loud and crashy!"

"Yes!" a slightly deeper female voice says. "Something definitely crashed! It was like 'PHWOOM.'"

"We should investigate!" a male voice says.

There is a brief moment of silence.

"Have you found anything?" the higher-voiced lady says.

"Nope," the lower pitched woman replies.

"What were we looking for?" the male asks.

"The thing that crashed!" the higher voice says.

"Ohhhhhhhh," the male says. A few seconds of silence. "FOUND IT! It was the kitchen!"

"Holy shit, it was! Good job, soldier!"

"Now we can get back to what we were doing before."

"What were we doing before?"

"I don't remember."

"We should ask an adult for help!"

"Let's go find one!"

And the sound of footsteps follows.

"I can't believe this is actually working," David chuckles.

"Don't count your turduckens just yet," Wes says, lighting up a small flame so they can see in the darkened, condemned building.

The two navigate their way outside, where the smoke-filled world somehow seems even more surreal than when they left. A group of Chi-Ryus is loudly accusing a group of guards of stealing all the mayonnaise. The guards counter with the argument that they would never do that, because mayonnaise would make them fat. Several people are on the ground, rolling around in the grass and/or dirt. David is able to count at least twelve sets of girls braiding each others' hair at various points around the yard.

Sneaking around is incredibly easy, as absolutely freaking no one seems to be paying any attention to anything at all. After a while, they actually stop trying to sneak. No one notices.

"How oddly anticlimactic," Wes says as they reach the prison cells. He stops just outside the door. "Well, this is it," he says. "The moment of truth."

"What if he isn't in there?" David asks. "What if he's hurt? Or worse?"

"Whatever comes, we'll deal with it. That's just how life is," Wes says. "Ready?" he asks.

"Let's go."

The door opens, and in they charge, slamming the lone guard into unconsciousness in a second flat. They lift the keys off of his unconscious body and dash into the holding cells.

"Blaine!" Wes calls out.

"Blaine, can you hear me?" David yells.

Each of the cells they come to is empty, except the last one, which contains a very prominent head of curly hair, belonging to none other than…

"…Bird Guy?" David balks.

Bird Guy stares at him flatly. "I have a name, you know. It's Jeremiah."

"What are you even doing in here?" David asks.

"The Fire Lord locked me up because she doesn't like my hair. And apparently because I let slip that Blaine once had a crush on me," Jeremiah replies.

"You knew about that?" David asks.

"He wasn't exactly subtle about it," Jeremiah says. He sighs. "Poor kid. I kind of miss him…"

"…you're not Blaine," Wes says, his voice oddly monotone.

"…no," Jeremiah says carefully. "Should I be? I thought Blaine was dead."

Wes looks at him for a long moment. And then, it begins. It starts off relatively small, but it grows fast. "Shit," he says quietly. "Shit. Shit. Shit. Piss. Bitch. Fuck. Ass. Damn. Damn! DAMN! FUCK! PISSING ASS-BASKETS OF SHITTING KUMQUAT FUCKBALL CORN NUGGETS! SON OF A WHORE AND A PROSTITUTE! GREAT SLOPPY PILES OF STEAMING FECES IN THE SHAPE OF A PENIS MOTHER OF *FUCK!*"

By the end, he's breathing flame and kicking explosions into the wall. David, just a wee bit freaked, puts his hands on Wes's shoulders and pulls him away. "Calm down! Wes, get a grip, man! What's wrong with you?"

"Don't you get it?" Wes growls despairingly. "It was all for nothing. Again! Every fucking thing that we do is for nothing! We have accomplished absolutely dick here, save for a massive waste of everyone's time! We risked our lives, we pissed off our families, we stole a hundred pounds of narcotics—"

"You did what?" Bird Guy asks.

"—and what do we have to show for it? FUCKING JEREMIAH!" Wes roars, kicking the bars of the prison cell.

"Wes, please," David says carefully. "Calm down…"

"I can't calm down!" Wes says. "This isn't right! Why does this keep happening? Why can't we find him? Why can't we do anything right? Why couldn't we save him?"

"Wait… find him?" Jeremiah asks. "He's still alive?"

"He might be," David says quietly, while Wes punctuates his nervous breakdown by repeatedly bashing his head against the wall. "Official reports say he's missing and presumed dead. We're looking for him."

Suddenly, Jeremiah smiles. "You do know there's one surefire way to track him down, don't you?" he asks.

Wes stops beating himself to death and slowly turns around. "There is? What is it?"

The birdkeeper shrugs. "Pavarotti."

"Pavarotti?" David asks. "That foul-spirited fowl?"

"Do you know any others?" Jeremiah asks. "Pavarotti is Blaine's dragon hawk. The thing that makes dragon hawks ideal as messenger birds is that they form life-long bonds with their masters. They can find them anywhere, no matter where they go!"

Wes blinks at him. "You're shitting me," he says.

"Nope," Jeremiah says. "The Aviary was hardly damaged at all in the attack. Assuming my replacement isn't a complete boob, Pavarotti's still in there, same place as always. If Blaine is out there, Pavarotti should lead you right to him."

Wes smiles, feeling slightly delirious. "Unbelievable. That's… I… thank you!" he says, reaching through the bars and shaking Jeremiah's hand.

"Um… you're welcome?" Jeremiah replies.

"Feeling better now?" David asks.

"Yes," Wes says, taking a deep and measured breath. "Come on! We have a bird to find."

They start marching out of the cells.

"Hey, wait!" Jeremiah says. "Aren't you gonna let me out?"

"Oh, right!" Wes says, tossing him the keys.

"What, you just expect me to sneak out by myself?" Jeremiah asks.

"Honestly? Yes," David says. "It's easier than it sounds. Just hold your breath!"

The situation outside has deteriorated even further by the time they re-emerge. Their journey to the Aviary takes them past the duck pond, where several Chi-Ryus have shed their armor (and everything else for that matter) to take a dip in the cool, clear water.

"Don't look," Wes says.

David looks. He doesn't really mean to stop walking, it just sort of happens.

"Focus, man!" Wes says, grabbing him and pulling him on. David's actually grateful for the tug—it means he can walk without watching where he is going, trusting his good friend Wesley to guide him through the perils of life while David's eyes focus on more important things, like a smokey pond of naked ladi—


And suddenly, David has a face full of wooden pillar.

"You steered me into that on purpose, didn't you?" he grumbles.

"Get your head in the game, for Agni's sake," Wes sighs.

Once they reach the Aviary, it takes Wes all of ten seconds to find Pavarotti, as fierce and ornery as ever. The bird does its level best to snap his finger off when he reaches for the cage.

"Oh, you hateful little bundle of feathers and fury," Wes sighs. "How I've missed you!"

"Who's going to save his county? Who's a good bird and going to save his country? You are! You are, Pavarotti!" David coos.

The bird snaps at him and screeches indignantly as he detaches its cage from the hanger and carries it outside.

"Jeremiah aside, this is all going stunningly well," Wes says.

"I know," David says. "Now, all we have to worry about is getting back out. I don't think we can go out the way we came in. There's no more roof there."

"At this point, I think they'll open the gate for us if we ask nicely enough," Wes chuckles.

They step out of the Aviary, and suddenly, they are confronted by a group of very angry-looking Chi-Ryus.

"Hhhhhhh!" one of them gasps, pointing at the cage in David's hand.

"…thieves!" another one says.

Wes laughs nervously. "Who, us? No, no, we're… bird doctors!"

"Yes!" David agrees. "We're bird doctors. These are our… anti bird-germ masks!" he says, pointing to their bandanas. "Don't want to get bird flu!"

"LIARSSSSS!" a Chi-Ryu hisses. "You are not doctors. You are thieves."

"You're stealing our food!" another cries.

"No, I promise, we're… wait, we're stealing your what?" Wes says.

David clutches the cage protectively. Pavarotti isn't quite sure what's going on, but something about the looks in those girls' eyes makes him uneasy. He screeches threateningly at them, though his screech seems a bit… mellower than usual.

"WE HUNGER!" a Chi-Ryu says.

"We need food. Now! Like right now! We might die!" another one hisses.

"Get the food! Eat the chicken!"

"Eat the chicken!"


"No!" Wes says. "Don't eat the chicken!"

"It's not even a chicken!" David says.

"They're stealing the chicken!" one of the Chi-Ryus bellows to the world at large. "SOUND THE ALARM!"

"OKAY!" someone shouts back.

There's a few seconds of silence.




"Shit," David says.

"We're boned," Wes agrees. "Run!"

Neither of them needs to be told twice. David heaves Pavarotti above his head to keep him safe from the munchies, and Wes charges past the somewhat sluggish, but still shockingly formidable Chi-Ryu. He tries laying down a line of fire at their feet to push them back, but the girls are fearless and apparently mostly numb. They just stumble right through the flames, mostly unharmed. David shakes one off of Pavarotti's cage and trips her. Wes is forced to wrestle with one, holding her by the shoulders as the tries to bite him.

"Wes, look out!" David says.

Wes snaps his head around just in time to see a guard lurch towards him, with a groan of "THIIIIIIEEEEFFF." With little else to do, he tosses the Chi-Ryu into the guy's arms and rams them both, knocking them down and jumping over them.

The two manages to shimmy and shake past several more of the shambling hoards. Their escape attempt is futile, however. Soon the entire yard is filled with groaning, sluggish, lurching figures oddly immune to pain. There seems to be an endless number of them, and they all seem rather terrifyingly intent on eating the boys and their bird. Their backs are against the wall.

"We're surrounded!" David says. "Fuck! What do we do?"

Wes desperately scans their surroundings. "…we get high!"

David tosses his hands up. "Well, we're dead anyway, why not? Smoke 'em if you got 'em—"

"No, you idiot!" Wes says, pointing to the Sue Sylvester statue a short distance away. "We take the high ground! Come on!"

Wes runs up the wall and springs off, bouncing across the heads of the slobbering masses, eventually making it to the scaffolding around the incomplete statue. David tosses him the birdcage, which Wes is barely able to snag out of the air before it plummets into the hands of the hungry crowd. David follows in Wes's footsteps, stepping across heads even faster than his friend.

"Now what?" David asks.

Hands start to reach up and pull at the scaffolding as the crowd groans louder.

"Climb!" Wes orders, jumping up the scaffolding.

"And then what?" David asks, jumping up after him.

"I don't know!" Wes shouts. "I'm just trying to avoid being cannibalized! If you have any ideas to contribute, I would love to hear them!"

The two flip and leap up the scaffolding as the hoard grabs and shakes it. David tosses Pavarotti at Wes just in time to jump up and join him on Sue Sylvester's terrifyingly broad shoulders as the scaffolding collapses entirely, raining debris on the crowd below (which doesn't bother them much).

"Great!" David says. "Now we're stuck up here!"

"Once again, I do not hear any productive suggests from you!" Wes says.

Pavarotti, feeling thoroughly mellow, caws calmingly as David tries to find a way out of this disastrophe. "…is it just me, or is her head on crooked?" he asks.

Wes turns around to look at Big Giant Sue. Sure enough, her head is slightly twisted. It doesn't appear to be completely attached to her shoulders. Apparently, it really was only just recently added to the statue, and they haven't quite finished screwing it on.

Suddenly, the statue itself lurches violently as the teeming masses begin to pull on the support ropes.

"I think I can contribute now!" David says, flipping up on to Stone Sue's head. "Toss me the bird!"

Wes hurls Pavarotti and joins David on the peak of Mount St. Sylvester.

"Hit the support ropes on the Palace side!" David orders. "We want to fall towards the wall!"

Wes nods, and whips his hands in the air, bending up some fire ropes. With as much speed and precision as he can muster, he snaps both whips at the support cables, explosively severing them one by one. Every cable causes the statue to lurch slightly, forcing the two to rebalance themselves. Once Wes has severed all four ropes on the Palace side, the balance is broken entirely.

"Hold the fuck on!" David shouts. Wes crouches down and braces himself as the statue slowly tilts, further and further over, until it starts falling outright. Fortunately, David's idea comes through with flying colors—the statue is just tall enough for its head to slam into the top of the wall, smashing the neck and decapitating it.

David finds himself hanging on by a nose—Sue's nose, to be precise. One hand clutches a fantastically relaxed Pavarotti in his cage, the other clings tight to the Fire Lord's nostril.

"Hang on, David!" Wes says.

"Oh, I almost forgot to do that! Thanks for reminding me!" David replies.

Wes rolls his eyes and jumps down onto the side of Sue's nose.

Suddenly, the wall beneath them gives a mighty groan and shudder. Large cracks spiderweb outwards from the head's impact site. Apparently, the reconstruction on the sections destroyed and destabilized by the Avatar hasn't quite finished.

"…that's not good," Wes says.

"Pull me up, you idiot!" David yells.

"If I move again, the whole thing might collapse!" Wes calls back.

"If you don't, I'm going to die!" David orders.

Wes takes a single step forward.

Another shudder, and the cracks practically start racing each other to see which can get to the ground first.

Knowing that he has little time left, Wes grabs David and heaves him onto the topmost part of the head, landing him in Sue's ear.

The wall shudders again. Wes has just enough time to pull himself onto the royal noggin before the cracks reach the bottom and the whole damn thing collapses. The head falls with the boys on top of it, bouncing off a segment of falling wall and pitching forward. With legs flailing, they manage to stay on top of the royal noggin even as it starts rolling away from the Palace.

"Hey!" someone shouts. "Stop those guys!"

Wes doesn't think they could stop if they wanted to. The stone head has too much momentum; their only options are to keep on running with it or stop and be squished by it. A few fireballs and a couple of arrows whiz past them as they keep up as best they can.

"Neckhole!" Wes warns in vain, just as the aforementioned hole swallows them both, landing them inside the head of the False Fire Lord.

"Ha!" David chuckles, even as he keeps running. "Would you look at that? Completely hollow!"

"Shut up," Wes says. "We need to figure out how to stop this thing!"

"Look out!"



"Quickly!" Wes says. "Before someone gets hurt!"

"Do you have any ideas?" David says. "Because I'm running dry!"

"Watch out, Mr. Mailman!"

"Watch out for wha—AHH!"


"…it's a miracle! I'm alive! I'm oka—AGGHH, OH MY BACK."

There's a series of KTHOOMS and THUNKS as various fire attacks and projectile weapons impact the cavernous cranium. None of it has any effect. If nothing else, Sue Sylvester has a very hard head.

"Is it just me, or are we picking up speed?" David asks.

"Oh, fuck," Wes groans. "I think we're on a hill."

"I can't keep running like this!" David says, already short of breath.

"Screw it!" Wes breathes. "Protect the bird and pray!"

David throws his body over Pavarotti's cage as his legs give out from underneath him. Wes's collapse as well, and soon, the two find themselves thoroughly plastered to the inside of the Fire Lord's skull as her enormous grinning mug smashes through everything in its path. The stone shell shudders with every impact, and soon, bits and pieces start to chip off of it, letting in small bits of sunlight.

Wes feels a strange sinking feeling as the destructive impacts cease. It takes him two seconds to realize—

"We're airborne!"

And then it all comes violently crashing down. The head shatters against the ground, the world becomes a series of flashes, crashes, and incredibly painful rolls. When they come to a stop, Wes is sprawled out on his back. His vision is white, and his ears are ringing.

His hearing comes back first.

"…landed over here!"

"Come on, hurry up!"

Crap. Crap! Get up, Wesley! Get up, get up, get up! Wes tries to move, get up, get ready, do something to stop himself from getting caught after all that, but his abused body just isn't cooperating. All he can do at the moment is roll his head from side to side and groan.

"Grab them. Hurry up!"

He opens his eyes, and slowly but surely, the world comes into focus. Dark shapes move around above him. Hands come down to grab him, and he manages to summon the gumption to swipe at them.

"Whoa, dude!" one of the shapes says. "Chill, okay? It's us!"

The picture comes into sharper focus, and Wes is finally able to make out the shape of Nick above him.

"We've got you, okay? Just relax."

"We…" Wes says weakly. "We got him."

"Got who? The Prince?" Nick asks.

Off to the side, he sees Jeff lifting up Pavarotti's cage. "…your majesty?" he says.

The bird promptly pukes on him.

And there, Wes passes out.

Our memories of the remainder of the day are just a bit hazy after that. We'll let our brothers-in-arms fill you in on the rest of what happened.

Nick? Jeff?

"Are they dead?" Other Nick asks. "They look kind of dead."

"They're not dead," Trent says. "They're unconscious."

"Are they gonna wake up?" Other Nick asks.

"I don't know!" Trent says. "Why would I know that?"

"You knew the answer to the first question," Other Nick points out.

"They're probably gonna be hurting pretty bad when they wake up," Luke says.

"That was a pretty epic crash," Nick nods.

"They were like—WHOOSH. Whee! KSHOOM," Jeff says, re-enacting the moment.

The boys have taken cover in the basement of a half-collapsed dojo. The building is in bad shape, but the basement is actually fairly intact, which makes it a great hiding spot. They managed to drag David and Wes away from the crash site before the guards showed up, and they're currently sprawled out on tables, having been KOed for about an hour. The bird hangs out in his cage nearby, mellow as fuck, rubbing its head against the bars and, like, bird-purring. It's weird.

Suddenly, Wes's head shifts to the side, and he groans.

"Oh, hey!" Nick says. "You're awake! Dude! What happened? What's with the bird? Why'd you cut the giant scary Fire Lord's head off?"

"…ow," Wes says. "Ow, ow, owww. Ow, oh fuck, owwww."

"What hurts?" Trent asks.

"Living!" Wes replies honestly.

"Dude," Nick says to Jeff. "Go get some of the Z-Leaf you stashed for later."

"You know about that?" Jeff says.

Nick looks at him flatly.

"…I mean, umm… what Z-Leaf?" Jeff amends.

"Just go get it," Nick says. "You don't have to bring it all, just enough for—"

"Oh!" David says suddenly. "My organs. My precious internal organs! What did I do to make you hurt me so?"

"…on second thought, bring it all," Nick says. "I think they need it more than we do. Errr, you. I meant 'you…'"

A few minutes later…

"…it's like… it's like we all have hands, you know?" Wes says, staring at his hand. "And they can pick stuff up, and do things, and operate machinery… but can they feel?"

"I'm pretty sure they can," Nick says carefully.

"But do they?" Wes insists. "Do they feel what we feel? Do they feel the feelings they create? That… that's the kind of thing you have to think about."

David shakes his head at his friend, clearly awed. "When did you get so smart? That was… that was very deep. It was deeply deep. You are like, below the ground deep. Far down… so far… too far… I can't see you anymore. Wesley!" he calls out. "Can you hear me?"

"I can't. I'm too deep…" Wes says sadly. "It's dark down here, in the cavernous depths of wisdom."

Jeff leans over and elbows Nick. "Dude is baked."

Nick nods. "I think they might be a little overcooked."

"Look at you!" David says, crawling over to Pavarotti's cage. "So majestic… so free. But so caged! That's… that's not right."

Pavarotti is still pretty mellow. It's rolling around on its back, but it caws in acknowledgem.

"Fix it," Wes says. "Fix it, David! Right the injustices of the world!"

"I will!" David says. He opens the cage. "Be free, majestic creature! Go, and sing with all the voices of the mountains!"

Pavarotti screeches happily and flies out of its cage… straight into a wall.

"This is pointless," Trent sighs, grabbing the disoriented bird and shoving it back in its cage. "They're completely incoherent! We're not going to get any answers from them like this!"

"Hey," Jeff shrugs. "It was either incoherent with pain, or incoherent with happy smoke. Friggin' obvious choice. It's like… you have to take a bath. Do you want to use a sponge, or a baby boarcupine?"

"Thus sayeth the master of incoherence," Trent says sourly.

"Hey!" Nick says. "Ease up, dude. We might be able to get something out of them. Hey, Wes! David!" He snaps his fingers. Two sets of slightly bloodshot eyes lock onto him, however momentarily. "We have a couple questions for you guys, okay?"

"Questions and answers are two sides of the same coin," Wes says. "We must flip to decide which is which."

David starts clapping. "Somebody hit a bongo for this man! He is a poet."

Nick shakes his head. "Oh, boy… okay, first of all; what the fuck happened? Was the mission a success? Why did you bring us a bird?"

"First…" David says. "The iron teeth threatened to devour us. Then the world fell from beneath our feet, and we plunged into darkness. We went where we wanted to go, and found that which we did not know we sought. The shambling hoards turned upon us, and we rode away in the Head of State."

"Heavy is the head that wears the crown," Wes says profoundly.

"The weird thing is," Other Nick whispers to Flint, "I don't think he's lying."

"Truth comes in many forms," Flint says.

"Okay," Nick says. "Let's just… stick to one question. The bird. Seriously, what's with the bird?"

"The bird is the way," Wes says. "He is the hope of the future."

Pavarotti seems to be squinting at a dust bunny, trying to determine whether or not he should eat it.

"Why?" Nick presses, desperately hoping for some kind of answer.

"He's a dragon hawk, man," David says. "He belongs to our little brother… our main man Blaine."

"Dragon hawks form life-long bonds with their masters," Wes says. "They can find them anywhere."

Suddenly, David sits straight up. "Dude. Wes," he says. "I've just thought of something. Pavarotti is like us. No, no—we are like him!"

Wes gasps. "You're right! We're… we're birds of a feather! Flying towards the same sunset…"

"You hear that, little buddy?" David asks, holding up Pavarotti's cage. "We're right there beside you. We know how it feels!"

"We're all dragon hawks, in the end," Wes says. He looks over at Pavarotti. "CREEEEEARK!"

"CAW! CAW!" David says.

Pavarotti caws back.

"The bonds of brotherhood are not bound by species!" Wes says proudly.

From there, it just deteriorates. Wes stands up and starts flapping his arms. David hops up on a table and roosts proudly on his perch. Eventually, both of them try to fly. Neither succeeds at doing anything but rendering each other unconscious.

"Well," Nick says. "That was definitely... something."

Well, that was far more embarrassing than I had anticipated. I kind of regret letting you tell that now, but it's out, so there it is.

Once we had Pavarotti, we had a surefire means of finding Blaine. The only problem was… we didn't have much of anything else. Thad was still missing, and while he was able to give us a decent amount of money to start us off, it wasn't going to last much longer.

We awoke the next day, feeling a little hazy, but in much less pain. Unfortunately, things had gotten worse while we were out. The Fire Lord returned, took one look at the catastrophe we left in our wake, and declared martial law until we were found. The city's gates were blocked, and we knew any attempt to get past them would likely result in our arrest.

For the time being, we were stuck.

Thankfully, our unwitting savior was not far off…

The gang hangs around Breadstix, which is still mostly intact, looking for any sign of their errant member. They set up in various positions around the ruins of a candy store. Wes and David keep their heads down, as guards and Chi-Ryus now patrol the streets. They know that the chances of them being recognized are slim—after all, their faces were covered, and most of the people who saw them were high off their asses. But slim isn't the same as zero, and the risk of being thrown in prison suddenly seems very, very real.

They are, for all practical intents and purposes, enemies of the state. It's an odd realization to come upon them so suddenly. They more or less knew what they were getting into when they started, but now that the reality is upon them…

"By Agni, Wesley," David says. "We're fugitives. We're wanted men; we are criminals."

"Not exactly," Wes replies. "They don't technically know who we are. But… I see your point. We are… wow, we really are sticking our necks out here, aren't we?"

"It's you and me against the world," David says.

"You and I," Wes corrects.

"Hey," Nick grouses. "Don't count us out."

Wes and David tilt their heads. "What do you mean?" Wes asks. "You weren't involved in any of the major lawbreaking. You don't have a stake in this—you can leave, if you like."

Nick looks a little uneasy, but he shrugs it off. "So… what if I don't want to?"

David squints at him. "I don't understand. You're saying you want to help us? Even knowing what it might cost you?"

Nick sighs. "This?" he says, gesturing to the ruined city. "Looking at this makes me sick. When my hometown got blown up, it did not look like this after a week. All the construction work is being done on the Palace and that stupid statue you guys broke—a statue whose giant head crushed even more of the town."

Wes and David give a slight wince. "We didn't mean to make things worse," Wes sighs.

"Oh, no, I'm not blaming you guys!" Nick says. "That stupid statue should never have even been there. It's just a giant ego trip, and the fact that the Fire Lord thinks that a giant ego trip in the middle of a freakin' disaster area is okay…" He clenches his jaw. "…let's just say that even if I didn't know the truth, I'd probably hate her. I want to help. I want to help you guys take her down."

Wes walks over, his eyes assessing Nick. "You really mean that, don't you?"

Nick nods. "And I can't speak for him, but I'm pretty sure Jeff will hang around too, if you want. A lot of the guys will. I mean…" He laughs. "I don't know if you realize it, but that shit you guys pulled yesterday… that was pretty badass."

David crosses his arms, a smug look on his face. "Well, thank you. It's nice to have that acknowledged."

"It was also dangerous," Wes says seriously. "Either or both of us could have died doing it. Or we could have been captured, imprisoned, tortured…" He shudders. Now he's just freaking himself out. "Are you sure you want to expose yourself to that kind of danger?"

"I don't know," Nick says honestly. "All I know is… this?" He gestures to the wreckage. "This is wrong. And I want to do something about it."

Wes starts to say something else, but Jeff barges into the ruins of the room. "Hey, guys! I think we've spotted T-Bag!"

"…T-Bag?" Wes says.

"Uhh…" Nick says uneasily. "Little nickname we have for Thad. It's kind of… we're not… he's not exactly our favorite person in the world."

Nick walks off before Wes has the chance to question him further.

"Hmmm…" David says. "I like it! It's succinct, insulting, and even somewhat subtle."

Wes rolls his eyes. "Come on."

They march to the front of the wrecked shop, peering through a broken window at a small caravan of rhinos. Sure enough, the lead rhino carries Thad himself, looking a little ruffled and distinctly out-of-place. With an expensive-looking pack at his side, he hops off.

"Once again, Master Harwood, I cannot apologize enough," a soldier says. "For the misunderstanding, for the lost lizard, for… everything."

Thad smiles at him semi-graciously. "It's quite alright," he says. "Water under the bridge, you know."

"Thank you, sir," the soldier says. "Your forgiveness is far more than we deserve."

"Well, I'm glad we agree on that!" Thad says lightly. "Now, someday—and that day may never come—I will call upon you to perform a service for me. Until that day, however, you may consider my forgiveness as a gesture of my goodwill."

"Y-yes sir!" the soldier says.

Thad nods at him. "You may go now."

The rhinos march off, leaving the overdressed Thad standing on the sidewalk. As he looks around for any familiar faces, some unfamiliar faces begin to eye him with a distinctly hungry look. Wes sees at least two people with sheathed knives in their belts, and suddenly, he remembers the old man's warning about flashing his money around.

"Get him in here!" Wes says urgently.

With a shrug, Ethan hops out from behind cover and pulls Thad over.

"You don't have to tug me!" Thad grouses. "I'm quite capable of independent locomotion, thank you."

"Thad!" Wes says, pulling him further into the back rooms. "Are you insane? You're going to get mugged walking around like that!"

"Walking around like what?" Thad says.

"Like… that!" he says, pointing to Thad's obviously tailored and expensive clothing.

"…these are my clothes, Wesley," Thad says carefully. "Would you rather I wear nothing?"

"Could you not… I don't know… tone it down a bit?" he asks. "Do you own nothing less expensive?"

"How am I supposed to know how much my clothes costs?" Thad scoffs. "Nice to see you too, by the way."

Wes sighs. "Where have you been, man?"

"And where is my damn lizard?" David asks.

Thad takes a deep breath. "You want to know where I have been? I will tell you where I have been. I have been to the very depths of human depravity. I have seen things which no waking eye was meant to see! I have experienced horrors that would have broken the mind of a lesser man."

"…what?" Wes asks.

"I shall tell you the tale," Thad says simply. "Those of you with weak constitutions may want to excuse themselves before I begin, for mine is not a tale of sunshine, or puppies, or butterfly rainbow candy apple gumdrop sugarplum fairies. It is a dark, twisted tale of corruption and evil at the highest levels. Listen, friends, and be warned of the dark that waits…"

The following is, more or less, the tale as he told it. As we mentioned previously, there may be just the tiniest hint of bias in the narrative, so take what is said here with a grain of salt, as it may not be one hundred percent accurate…

Thaddeus James Harwood the Third rides upon his noble steed, the mighty Cornelius, fresh from a visit to his beloved homestead. He carries with him supplies vital to the resistance movement, a rag-tag band of young soldiers with an unfailing sense of right and wrong and an appetite for justice. It is his noble duty to lead these young men into battle against the vile and wicked forces of the Usurper Lord, and he intends to do his duty at any cost.

Suddenly, his path is blocked! Snarling, bestial rhinoceroses foaming with rage burst up from the very earth to impede his progress, carrying scallywags and ruffians of varying degrees of filthiness.

"Hol' it right thar!" one of the ruffians grunts. "We's lookin' fer curly folks. Fire Lord don't like them curly folks."

Thaddeus is taken aback at both the complete lack of manners and the incredibly potent stench of the man before him. "Well, my good sir, I assure you that no 'curly folks' can be found here. My hair is wavy at best, and I tame it with a generous application of gel."

"LYE-ER!" the man grumbles. "Yer fancy gellin' don't fool us none! GET HIM BOYS!"

Suddenly, there are twenty other men and rhinoceroses, descending upon him from all directions at once. Nonetheless, Thaddeus has little trouble fighting them off. Their uncivilized and unskilled flailing could not possibly hope to match his elegance and ferocity in combat. His victory seems certain, until one of the peasants gets a lucky shot by knocking a tree down on top of him, rendering him unconscious.

His cargo and his mount are confiscated, and he is thrown in the deepest, blackest pit of a prison that exists within the Fire Nation. Foul, rancid fluid seeps from the walls like blood, running along the floor in thick, sticky rivulets. The stench of human suffering is almost too much to bear, and all around him, the screams of damned and miserable souls echo from the metal walls.

Thaddeus remains determined to escape, his mind always on his comrades even as hope rapidly begins to fade from sight like the moon before the dawn. But just as the midnight of his soul seems blackest, a light appears!

Little does he know; it is not the light of hope, but the light of darkness! A flame fueled by despair, lit with human suffering and stoked by the tears of recently orphaned children.

The walls seem to scream in terror as their metal is torn apart like tissues rife with phlegm. From the very deepest places in the earth, where nameless horrors too terrible to comprehend fester in the shadows, an impossible figure crawls into the waking world. He is moon-white skin, cloaked in shadow, bathed in blood, half-man, half-monster, the horns of a gorilla-goat jutting from his skull, eyes afire with light unnatural, sharp fangs dripping with stinking ichor.

The horror sniffs about the room, its senses searching.

Thaddeus can barely remain coherent in the presence of this abomination, but he holds together for the sake of those who depend on him, addressing the frightful creature. "E-excuse me, sir—" he starts.

The dark one turns and snarls at him. "SNRRRRK GRRMBL GRHHHHHK XCKKK BLAINE."

It is a testament to this brave young man's fortitude that he is able to speak at all. He continues. "I am not certain who it is that you refer to, but if I could just have a moment of your time—"

"STOP RIGHT THERE!" a voice cries. A hapless guard, seeing the abomination from a distance, rushes forward in a brave attempt to fight the evil.

"No, don't!" Thaddeus attempts to warn him, but alas, it is for naught.

"BLAIIINE!" the dark one roars, as the terrible light from his eyes flares up, leaping from his skull like twin beams of sheer terror, streaking across the room to slam into the man, whose head suddenly swells and bursts like a fermenting watermelon left out in the sun. The man gropes blindly at the wall, smearing handprints into his own splattered gore, before falling down dead.

"You monster!" Thad breathes, horrified. "How could you? Such violence, such wickedness—"

"THRABKPT you monster! SNRRECKT BLMPTHPT oh, save me! FRRRK KRNKT EEP NOT-BLAINE," the dark one insists.

Thaddeus grits his teeth in rage. "You mock me, beast?"

The thing snorts in derision.

"DIIIIIIEEEE!" Another guard bravely rushes in to avenge his fallen comrade, but the creature seems to melt into liquid shadow before his very eyes, rushing towards him like a flood and sweeping over his body. When the shadow passes, where once stood a man, there now stands a mere skeleton, its bones stripped clean of all meat. The man's remains crumble into a heap as the creature reforms and picks bits of sinew from its teeth.

"Abomination!" shouts Thaddeus. "I can bear this carnage no longer! Begone from my sight—your 'Blaine' is not here!"

"BLAIIIIIIIINE!" the dark one screeches, his voice high and terrible as the wail of a murdered woman's ghost. The shadows around his body unfold into tremendous, pitch-black wings which swallow all light and goodness. With a single flap, the creature bursts through the ceiling, tearing through floor after floor and escaping into the night sky.

Having seen such terrible things, Thaddeus's mind reels. He sits and centers himself, meditating and purifying his spirit. Eventually, he falls into a fitful slumber.

When next he awakens, he is being examined by three strange new figures. A bald Neanderthal, a dark-haired seductress, an airy blonde fairy, and an angry blonde harpy.

"Happiness. Puppies. Rainbows. Fireflies," the airy fairy sighs.

"RAWR RAWR RAGE ANGER," the harpy harps.

"Whatever, whatever, who cares, whatever," the seductress purrs.

"ME LIKE SEX," the Neanderthal grunts.

"RAWR I HATE YOU RAWR," the harpy cries at the Neanderthal, breathing fire at him.

"HELP, FIRE AM SCARY," the Neanderthal grunts, hiding behind the seductress.

"Whatever, whatever, I do what I want," the seductress purrs.

"Sweet lady kisses!" the airy fairy sighs.

"RAWR NOT THE RIGHT GUY, IDIOTS STUPID MORONS HATE YOU ALL DIE FOREVER," the harpy shrieks, before setting the Neanderthal on fire and stomping out of the room.

"MY PAIN IS HURTY!" the Neanderthal yelps, running out after her.

"Whatever, whatever, sexytimes?" the seductress purrs.

"Loving. Touching. Squeezing," the airy fairy sighs.

And then, for some inscrutable reason, the two begin to make out.

Thaddeus most certainly does not watch them while pretending to be asleep.


And then they leave. Shortly thereafter, a guard finally comes down to free him.

"Master Harwood, I am so sorry for the mix-up. We found your family ring while performing a standard search of your belongings. I nearly had a heart attack!" the guard says as they head to the upper floor, where the four strange figures are still grunting and arguing.

"I assume you treated my possessions with the proper dignity?" Thaddeus says primly. "I would hate for any of my priceless family heirlooms to be scratched.

"Of course, young sir!" the guard insists. "Nothing was damaged at all. Except… well, I'm afraid your lizard was lost during the break in."

Thaddeus is crushed. "Say it isn't so!" he cries. He imagines the poor creature looking up in horror as the vile abomination swooped down and took it into its claws, carrying it back to its nest to feed its wicked spawn. Thaddeus sheds a tear for noble Cornelius, his life ended too soon.

"Alas, then I am undone. For you see, I was on my way to the Capital, on a mission of utmost import, and now I am without transport," Thaddeus laments.

"Oh, fear not!" the guard says. "We will provide you with transport ourselves! It is the least we can do after all you have suffered…"

"…and they provided me with a personal escort to the Capital, thus bringing us to the present," Thad says, finishing his story.

The others are eying him with varying levels of skepticism, ranging from 'are you sure?' all the way up to 'bender, please.' Wes and David, however, have their minds elsewhere. There is a certain other aspect to Thad's story they feel compelled to address.

"…wait," Wes says. "There was a name."

"What?" Thad says.

"When the… the thing broke in. It wanted someone specific. It said a name. Say it again," Wes says.

"Oh!" Thad says nodding. "It was… Blaine. Yes, that's it. Blaine."

David's jaw drops. "I don't believe it…"

Wes smiles at him, at a momentary loss for words.

"What?" Thad asks. "What's so important about that name?"

"That's the Prince!" Wes says, laughing. "That's his name, Thad! They were looking for the Prince!"

Thad's eyes go wide. "Really?"

David nods, starting to smile as well. "There is no way to be completely sure, but…"

"It's the closest thing to genuine confirmation we've seen," Wes says. "David… he's out there. He's still out there!"

David nods. "And we're going to find him! What do you say, gentlemen? Are you up for finding the real Fire Lord?"

"All in favor, say 'aye!'" Wes says.

"AYE!" the entire group choruses.

"Fantastic!" Thad says. "…wait, how are we going to find him?"

"We have our ways," David says sneakily.

"But what we don't have is 'transport,'" Wes says.

"Good point. Even if we did, we need a way out of the city," David says. "The whole place is locked down because of the little stunt we pulled."

"Pulled?" Thad gapes. "You did it without me?"

"Oh, don't soil your hanky," David says. "You were running late. We're on a schedule."

"Besides," Wes says carefully. "I think you might be able to help us nonetheless. Just… exactly how much money did you bring?"

It took some arguing, and maybe even a bit of arm-twisting, but eventually, we got Thad to buy some reduced price ostrich horses from a nearby stable. Apparently, people are so afraid of the spread of plague that few are willing to buy Earth Kingdom animals, even if they are bred in the Fire Nation. I have to give it to Thad—his haggling skills are quite impressive.

And his bluffing isn't bad either…

The gang comes up to the blockade, manned by a bored-looking city guard reading a scroll.

"Excuse me," Thad says. "I need to pass, if you don't mind."

"Sorry," the guard says. "Nobody is allowed out of the city until the terrorists are captured."

"I see," Thad says evenly. "In that case, may I have your name? I'd like to be able to cite you in my letter to grandfather explaining why I can't attend his birthday celebration. I'm sure Grandmaster Harwood would love to meet the imbecile who detained his firstborn grandson as if he were a common criminal."

That gets the guard's attention. "Wait, what? You're talking… the GrandmasterHarwood? The D-Dragonclaw?"

"The very same," Thad says proudly.

"You're lying!" the guard accuses. "You're full of shit. You ain't a Harwood!"

"Oh?" Thad says lightly. "Well then where did I get this?"

He flashes his family ring at the guard.

"Recognize the crest?" Thad says.

"S-sir!" the guard says, scrambling to his feet. "I am so sorry—you don't, you don't really need my name, do ya? I mean, this was all just a misunderstanding; I'll open the gate right now!"

"Well, in that case, I suppose we can let this pass without incident," Thad says lightly. "I assume my entourage," he says, gesturing to the other boys on ostrich horses, "is also cleared to pass through?"

"Certainly!" the guard says, unlatching and pulling open the gate. "No problem, sir! You have a safe trip, and tell your grandpa happy birthday on my behalf!"

"I shall," Thad says airily as he passes through the gate.

Once they are well out of hearing range, Thad breaks into spontaneous laughter. "I can't believe he fell for that!" he sighs.

"Fell for what?" Wes says. "Everything you said was true."

"No it wasn't," Thad chuckles. "Grandfather's birthday isn't for another three months!"

And so, that evening, almost two weeks after the riots, we began to track you down in earnest. We were somewhat worried about Pavarotti flying off and leaving us in the dust, so we wound up tying him to David by a rather lengthy string. Fortunately, to a certain degree, Pavarotti seemed to understand what we were trying to do. He flew just fast enough for us to keep up, though he did wind up taking a rather odd series of detours into various woods and clearings. At one point, it even sidetracked into Fenghuang, of all places.

By that time, it was around midnight, and, as Nick so helpfully informed us, both the horses and the men were considering mutiny, so we stopped and let everyone rest.

David and I got almost no sleep ourselves, however. Something about having what was almost proof that you were alive had supercharged us, set us on fire, figuratively speaking. We set out the next morning—FAR earlier than anyone would've liked—and after a rather odd detour that took us up a sheer cliff, we wound up in Sho Fa late in the afternoon. We felt like we were closer than ever. Unfortunately, there was one roadblock we never saw coming…

It just kind of happens. Pavarotti soars into the edge of town, seems to spot a particular building, and proceeds to dive bomb the fuck out of it.

He slams through the window with absolutely ridiculous force, prompting a rather undignified squeal from whoever is on the other side.

A panicked Wes and David hop off their mounts and rush into the building to retrieve the bird and, possibly, the boy it belongs to. But instead of finding the Prince, they find two rather fascinating queens.

Hiram and Leroy stare warily at the bird on the table. Hiram bravely threatens the ornery fowl with the business end of an ink pen. "You stay back! I will give you such a smudging…"

"This never would've happened if we'd had sparkly windows," Leroy mutters.

"Sorry!" David announces. "Very, very sorry, our messenger hawk is somewhat… aggressive."

"We're looking for someone," Wes says urgently. "Someone about… yay tall, with dark, curly hair, possibly held in place by copious amounts of product, slightly tan…"

"Oh, you mean that boy with the Councilor?" Hiram says. "He left just a few minutes ago."

Wes actually jumps up and down with excitement. "Come on, David! Grab Pavarotti and let's move!"

David snatches the hawk from the desk to a squawk of protest, and dashes out the door alongside Wes.

"Hey!" Leroy shouts. "You just broke our window! You can't just leave!"

"Somebody has to pay for this!" Hiram shouts.

"Thad!" David says as they mount their horses again. "Pay the men."

"What?" Thad balks. "Why should I be held responsible for damage caused by angry birds?"

"Just do it!" Wes shouts. David releases Pavarotti, and the two are off again.

Thad smiles somewhat uneasily at the two gentlemen staring at him from the inn's door. "…well, I really must be going at the moment, but I'll be happy to come back and haggle price with you later. As a gesture of my sincerity… you two!" he says, pointing at James and Ethan. "Stay and help them clean up."


"Why us?"

"Because you were closest to my pointer finger," Thad explains simply. "As for the rest of you… onwards!"

They follow in the footsteps of Wes and David, only to find them coming out of a hair salon of all places, another broken window at the storefront. The process repeats itself, and this time, Luke and Other Nick are the ones who have to stay for janitor duty.

Wes and David are far too close to give up now. Not even when their psychotic avian guide smashes into a theater during a rehearsal. The rather large number of indignant and somewhat melodramatic actors and actresses upset by this particular intrusion keeps Thad occupied far longer than usual, and the two leaders have little choice but to leave him behind as they continue to the uppermost level of the city.

Pavarotti soars high above the glittering mansions, seeming to eye one in particular. It's little trouble for their ostrich horses to leap clean over the walls protecting this mansion and its occupants, despite the many loud protests of the guards below. They're over the top before anyone has a chance to stop them, and the noble dragon hawk leads them on, around the yard of the main mansion, to a separate party hall on the side, where it dives through another window, placed slightly up the wall. The boys have to put their climbing skills to good use to get to the entrance, which makes them more certain than ever that this is where they will find Blaine, that this is where their journey comes to fruition at last.

One at a time, they swing through the window and land on the floor of a bathroom, before barging into the room beyond.

They expect a familiar face.

Just… not this one.

There is a brief moment of silence, as the three occupants of the room stare slack-jawed at one-another. When they speak, they are the voices of each others' thoughts.

"You have got to be kidding me," they say in perfect unison.

"You," Jesse St. James growls, quickly pulling his shirt back down over his head (was he changing clothes?). "You dare show your faces here? Of all places?" he says. "Your brazenness is equaled only by your foolishness!"

"Wait!" Wes says, holding up his hands. "This is all a misunderstanding. We weren't looking for you at all—believe me, you are the last person I care to see right now."

"Cut the crap!" Jesse barks, slowly stalking towards them. "I know why you're here. You just never give up, do you? What was your master plan this time? Kidnap Rachel, and hold her for ransom? You make me sick!"

"I don't know who Rachel is!" David says. "Really. Seriously. If you let us leave right now, we won't bother you at all. Or Rachel! we promise!" Pavarotti squawks indignantly at David speaking for him. He doesn't like Jesse.

"It's too late to back out now!" Jesse says, gritting his teeth. "My shitty time in the Fire Nation started with you two. It's fitting that it will end the same way." He smirks and whips out his staff. "People like you never stop. This doesn't end until one of us is dead. Or… you know… two."

Wes grits his teeth. They are so close. "You don't have to do this…"

"But I want to!" Jesse says.

He whips his staff around his body, creating a tremendous whirlwind which lifts up and swirls damn near every small object in the room—including an indignant Pavarotti.

"Hey!" David shouts. "Easy on the bird!"

The firebender punches a flame through the whirlwind, landing a direct hit to Jesse's cloak.

The wind ceases immediately, and Pavarotti recovers enough equilibrium to fly out the window.

Jesse looks down at his burnt clothes, shocked and appalled.

"Come on," Wes says. "Let's go!"

They make a valiant attempt to leave through the window, but before either can make it through on their own, a powerful blast of air does the defenestration for them. They land several yards away from the window, rolling to a stop. They kick back to their feet quickly, but Jesse has already chased them through the window, sending a slice of air that knocks Wes into a bush. He lands, sweeping David's feet out from under him and launching him headlong into his ostrich horse. The upset animal whinnies and flees the scene of the violence.

"Everything you've put me through… I'm going to pay it back," Jesse says, his voice low and dangerous. "Times ten!"

Wes pops out of the bush and punches a fireball at him, but Jesse pivots around it easily. David tries three sweeps in quick succession, but Jesse bounces over every fiery wave like he's playing a game of hopscotch.

"There they are!"

"Hey, who's that other guy?"

The guards start charging them from both directions.

"Shit!" Wes curses. He sends a fireball into the ground in front of St. James, forcing him to jump back. With the path cleared, he dashes forward and flips on top of the remaining ostrich horse. David hops up behind him, and the two begin to make a hasty exit.

"Stop right there!" the guards shout, but Wes pulls his o-horse into hopping right over them..

"Where do you think you're going?" Jesse says. "We're just getting started!"

The animal jumps again as they come to the wall. Unfortunately, this puts them right in the airbender's home territory, and he wastes no time in seizing the opportunity. At the peak of their jump, Jesse soars over on his repaired glider and grabs David, attempting to fly off with him. With little other choice, Wes grabs on to David's leg, and suddenly, all three boys are taking an impromptu flight through the city.

Jesse makes a valiant attempt to steer them into every chimney and weathervane he can spot. Wes swings himself around them, discovering that if he swings hard enough, he can steer the glider just a little bit. The resulting battle for control nearly kills all three of them several times over. As Wes is dragged through the tops of a small row of blazewood trees, David makes a valiant attempt to set St. James's glider on fire. He can't quite manage it, but he does distract the villain long enough for Pavarotti to swoop in from above and claw the ever-loving shit out of the thing. The bird's talons tear through the canvas with ease, and soon, all three of them are headed for a crash landing on the middle level.

Jesse lets them go just in time for them to slam painfully into yet another rooftop. Fortunately, this one at least has the courtesy to hold together while they bounce off of it. Jesse himself makes a slightly better landing a short distance away, on the roof of the same theater.

Wes winces as he gets up, feeling a slight twinge in his leg. David stumbles to his feet, seeming a little dizzy, as the smug snake stares them down from across the roof.

"Just the three of us," Jesse says lightly, collapsing his shredded glider back into his staff. "As it should be. I am going to savor this!"

A surge of adrenaline fills Wes. He is sick and tired of being blocked at every turn. He is tired of chasing wild ferretgeese, tired of running into brick walls, tired of airbenders, tired of drug dealers, and tired of failing. "Fine," Wes says, letting the adrenaline push the pain to the back of his mind. "You want to fight? You want to finish this? Then let's finish it!"

"I'll give you something to savor, motherfucker," David growls. "TASTE THIS!"

Pavarotti circles above them, looking down as brilliant orbs and stripes of flame cut across the roof, exploding and colliding against blasts of air as the three combatants begin to fight in earnest. A short distance away, a unit of guards is moving towards the building, several of them gesturing wildly to their fellows, who are yelling loudly for more support.

The bird knows that Wes and David aren't his true masters, but they freed him from captivity, and took care of him, so he feels an attachment to them. Even as they fight, he can tell that they are injured and running on adrenaline. They will need help. So he goes to find it.

Thad emerges from the Groban Theater for a breath of fresh air after some very intense negotiations with the theater's owners. He's contemplating encasing Pavarotti in some kind of foam rubber shield to prevent it from causing so much destruction when the very thing itself suddenly soars into his field of vision. It flaps about in front of his face, squawking and screeching and making a general nuisance of itself.

"Go away!" he says, swatting at the thing. "Haven't you caused enough headaches for one day?"

The bird flaps over and sinks its talons into his shirt, pulling him somewhere.

"What is wrong with you?" Thad barks. "That is a very nice outfit that you are shredding!"

The bird continues to ignore him, pulling him along until finally Thad wrests himself free of its ironclad grip, turning around to glare at it. "You are seriously testing my patience. I hear dragon hawk is a delectable entrée if prepared properly, and the more you squawk at me, the more of an appetite I develo—"

"MOVE!" someone shouts.

Thad jumps to the side just as a group of panicked guards dashes past him.

"Come on, guys! They say they've got the Avatar fighting a couple of firebenders on the roof over here," the guard calls to a few of his fellows.

Thad's jaw drops. He looks over at Pavarotti, who squawks at him and takes off in the same direction the guards were running.

"Well, why didn't you just say so?" Thad says, running over to his saddlebag. "I just need one thing…"

Back on the rooftop fight, Wes and David are quickly finding that they have seriously underestimated Jesse St. James's skill level. The two have laid down an impressive amount of fire, but they have yet to land a hit on the slippery airbender. He splits and leaps and flips and twirls in the air, deflecting or dodging just about everything they throw at him, all while blowing them all over the blasted rooftops. Airbending attacks aren't terribly painful on an individual basis, but when their effects are stacked over time and combined with plenty of hard surfaces to slam against, they definitely add up.

David swings his fist along the ground, sending a shark-fin of fire slicing through the roof. Jesse steps to the side. David steers the fin around to attack him from behind, but the airbender just leaps over it. Wes pulls out his twin fire whips in an attempt to slam him back down, but Jesse actually throws himself down first, pushing a gust of air above him and rocketing to the ground. He dashes under the whips at Wes, who dispels the ropes and hurls a two-handed blast of flame at Jesse. Not only does the airbender turn away from the attack—as he turns a Jesse-shaped blast of concentrated air continues in his stead, breaking through Wes's attack and slamming into him with enough force to carry him clean over to the next rooftop. David charges and tries to engage him in close quarters with blowtorch-daggers, and he is almost agile enough on his own to keep up with the airbender. But after a short exchange of missed blows, Jesse feints and sweeps his arms around in a quick circle. A miniature tornado appears and bends over, lifting the firebender and spinning him around before sending him over onto the next roof to join his friend.

Just in time, too, as the guards start climbing onto the roof to join them at this point. "Stop, whoever you are, and whatever you're doing! You are under arrest!"

"Really?" Jesse says. "I don't feel like I'm under anything. I'm on top of the world!"

And he jumps clear over their heads to punctuate the point, landing on the next roof, where Wes and David are just beginning to pick themselves up.

"Aww, are you tired already?" Jesse says. "Because I'm just getting started. You know, my boss sometimes had us spar with each other for twelve hours straight. As a warm up."

"Oh, eat a dick," Wes says sourly. "I have heard enough of your voice to last me a lifetime."

"Well then," Jesse shrugs. "In that case, allow me to introduce you to eternal silence. Sweet dreams!"

He starts to charge them, only to falter when suddenly the roof explodes underneath him, sending him flipping over onto his face.

"Did someone call for an ass-saving?" Thad jumps up from the flaming crevice, landing poised and proud on the roof behind Jesse. "Because I am here to deliver."

"Thad!" Wes says.

"How on earth did you find us?" David asks.

"A messenger told me," Thad says casually.

"Who the dick are you?" Jesse growls, bouncing back to his feet.

Thad grins. "I am so glad you asked," he says. He steps forth, reaching down to a hitherto unseen sheathe and pulling out a beautiful sword, the blade gleaming in the late afternoon sun. "I am Thaddeus James Harwood the Third, wielder of the Red Whisper, heir to the Harwood fortune and the legacy that comes with it."

Jesse shakes his head. "…who?"

"Don't worry," Thad says lightly. "If you have trouble keeping all of that straight, I'll be happy to carve it into your memory."

Jesse rolls his eyes. "Fine! Fuck it! I'll kill you, too!"

He charges in, rapidly assaulting Thad with his staff, flipping it back and forth, striking with both ends and from every angle. To the surprise of Wes, David, and especially Jesse St. James, Thad deflects each and every blow handily. His dexterity and flexibility is incredible—he seems to be able to spin, flip, and otherwise rotate the sword on whatever axis he needs to at a moment's notice. Not only does he defend against Jesse's strikes, he actually deflects his staff into the ground, breaking Jesse's guard long enough to kick him in the stomach.

"…huh," David says. "He's… actually quite good with that."

"Told you," Wes says.

It is at this point that Jesse seems to realize that the twerp in front of him has just scored the first successful offensive hit against him in the entire fight.

He is furious. "Oh… now I am just… I am just… you know what? Just for that, I will kill all of you twice."

Thad's sudden appearance is enough to bolster Wes and David's spirits, allowing them to rest for a moment and get back into the fight. Which is good, because Jesse seems to figure out an effective anti-Thad strategy fairly quickly; keeping him busy at range. By hurling airbending at him from a distance,he keeps Thad busy enough to make it almost impossible for him to close in. Thad defends himself fairly well, but the airbender is steadily driving him towards the edge of the roof.

Fortunately, David charges in at this point and grabs Jesse's staff, flipping backwards and kicking Jesse into the air. Wes's fire whips are already on their way down by the time he is launched, and they smack into him with enough force to make him bounce off the rooftop.

Jesse breakdances on his way up, spinning his legs and creating a whirlwind that blows Wes and David a short distance away. Unfortunately for him, Thad is already on his way in, and no sooner than he is on his feet than the blade-wielding firebender is in his face again. Sword and metal staff clang and spark against each other, but the firebender is canny enough to take advantage of even this, scraping his sword along the staff and enhancing the sparks created into full-blown flames that nearly burn Jesse's hair off.

The airbender gets enough of a break to feint backwards and throw a gust of wind at Thad's chest, but as Thad flies backwards, David leaps over him and takes his place, landing in front of the airbender and sending a rolling wave of fire at his ankles. Jesse steps over it, only to have David start giving him lessons on fancy footwork. Every time the airbender tries to put his foot down, David beats him to the punch with his own foot, stepping in front of him, around him, and behind him, kicking him away and blocking him. Jesse is so concerned with staying upright that he doesn't notice Wes until it is too late—the firebender charges in and slams a concentrated fireball into the ground beneath him, causing an explosion that sends him flying.

Jesse lands on the edge of the roof, getting up and gritting his teeth. Thad, Wes, and David all approach him slowly, ready to fight. Even worse, the guards have now figured out how to get onto this roof. Several of them are climbing up at that very moment.

"Sur… surrounder!" one of the guards pants. "You are completely… surrendered! I mean… surron… surrenderoni… just stop fighting!"

Several more guards climb up beside him, and suddenly, Jesse is looking at odds that are very much stacked against him. He grits his teeth and fights the urge to scream. He refuses to lose to these idiots. REFUSES.

And he still has one trump card up his sleeve.

"HEY!" one of the guards calls out from below. Wes looks over to see most of the guards on the ground rapidly filing away from them. "Get down here! They found the REAL guy! We gotta go catch him!"

"But…" the guard on the roof pants. "But I just got up here!"

"I don't care! Forget about these guys and get back down here! That is an ORDER!"

"Awwww," the guard grumbles, slinking sadly off the roof.

"Well, so much for the support of local law enforcement," Thad says lightly. "Ah well. I'd say we're quite alright without them."

"Well, you're not the only one with support," Jesse says with a grin. Wes turns around to see him casually tossing a small white object up and down in his hands.

Wes's eyes nearly bulge out of his skull as he recognizes the whistle. With quick-draw skills he never knew he possessed, he blasts the instrument mid-toss, sending it flying off the roof. "Ha!" Wes says. "Let's see you blow your fancy whistle now."

David sneezes.

Wes freezes.

Jesse sleazes. "Already blew it."


Thad turns to the side. "AHHH!" he barks. "What is that?"

An enormous white beast easily the size of a house now floats just off the roof, eying the firebenders with a very unhappy expression. Its braided hair flaps gently in the breeze, prompting a short facepalm from Jesse. "Damn it, Brittany…"

"A sky bison," David says miserably, sneezing again.

"I hate sky bison," Wes groans.

"What a coincidence!" Jesse says. "They hate you too. Mr. Duck! Attack!"

The bison draws in a deep breath, and before they can move, it blasts the firebenders with a hurricane-force wind, stripping a large segment of the roof completely clean of tiles and sending all three boys flying clear across the street.

They slam rather painfully into a slanted rooftop, and Thad has to jam his sword into the tile to keep from sliding off. Wes and David rather unhelpfully cling to his feet, adding more weight to the strained blade.

"Wesley!" Thad warns. "So help me heaven, if this sword is scratched…"

"Shut up, Thad!" David says. "We have more important things to worry about!"

Jesse sails over on Mr. Duck, the bison preparing for another breath of flesh-stripping air, when suddenly, the beast finds itself with a face full of feathers and fury.

"Yes!" Thad says.

"Go Pavarotti!" Wes shouts.

"Get that douchebag!" David encourages.

The bison twists and groans at the avian assault, but seems largely powerless to do much else. The bird is too small and quick for it to swat away. Fortunately for Mr. Duck, that's where Jesse comes in. The airbender swings his staff at the bird, helpfully gusting it aside.

"Hey!" Wes shouts. "Do not mess with the bird!" He angrily hurls some fairly impressive fire rings at the man-and-beast duo, the rings going around Mr. Duck, but being just enough to freak the bison out and threaten the airbender. Jesse responds by backing Mr. Duck off, before turning the beast around and facing them with its rear.

"What's it doing?" David asks.

Mr. Duck answers by flapping its enormous beaver-like tail, sending a blast of air so powerful that it slams the boys through the roof, landing them in the attic of the building.

"Ffff… fuck me," Thad groans. "Are your jobs always this painful?"

"Usually," David says.

"You'll get used to it," Wes grunts.

That's all they have time to discuss before Mr. Duck 's face fills the hole they left behind. The beast takes another deep breath.

"…oh, crap," Thad says.

It is at this point that Pavarotti recovers from his blow, and heads off to seek more help. Much more help.

"I think that's the last of it," Jeff says, as he dumps the broken glass into the trashcan. "What is featherbrain's beef with windows, anyway?"

As if on cue, Pavarotti proceeds to smash through another window, right next to the first.

"Oh, fuck you, bird!" Jeff says, flipping the bird the bird.

Pavarotti swoops down and starts screeching and fluttering around Jeff's head.

"Ahh! I didn't mean it! Help!" Jeff says. "He's gone rogue!"

"Whoa, easy!" Nick says, running up and grabbing Pavarotti right out of the air. "Chill out, Pav! What is it?"

The bird squawks indignantly, as if to say 'if I could talk, I would, dumbass.'

"What's going on?" Trent says, running into the room. "I heard glass brea—PAVAROTTI. SERIOUSLY, WE JUST FINISHED."

Pavarotti squawks and screeches, struggling free of Nick's grasp and flying wildly around the room.

"I think it's trying to tell us something," Flint says calmly. "What is it, buddy?"

The bird squawks and screeches.

"They fell down a well?" Flint asks.

Pavarotti shrieks and flies around.

"Oh," Flint says. "My mistake. But they are in trouble?"

A caw.

"Dude, what do you think you're doing?" Nick asks.

"I'm communing with nature. Shhh!" Flint says. "What was that? Some kind of giant animal?"

Jeff tilts his head. "…what's he saying?"

"Wes, David, and Thad are in trouble. They're being attacked by a giant animal," Flint says.

Trent rolls his eyes. "Oh, come on. There is no way you got all of that from that dumb bird fluttering around randomly. And why on earth would there be a giant animal in Sho Fa? You guys are crazy if you actually believe—"

Suddenly, the building is rattled with a thunderous impact, as if a multi-ton object just slammed into the roof. The entire building quakes, bits of dust and fluff falling from long undisturbed nooks.

Nick, Jeff, Trent, and Flint share a look.

"That was probably nothing," Trent says lightly.

Something roars above them.

"…but maybe we should investigate anyway," Trent continues. "You know, just in case."

Actors and actresses, orchestra members, and a few crewmen all suddenly flood into the lobby.

"What is that?" one of the actresses calls out.

"It's probably nothing," Nick says. "Nut on the off chance it isn't… do you have any weapons in this building by any chance?"

The girl stares at him. "I don't know… try the prop closet."

"Thanks!" Nick says, dashing off, with the others not far behind. Pavarotti screeches after them.

Mere moments later…

"Damn it! Wrong closet!" Trent says.

Another impact.

"Fuck it!" Nick says. "Just grab something and let's go!"

Above them, Mr. Duck takes to the air again, leaping upwards only to belly flop downwards in another attempt to squish the panicked souls scrambling about on the roof. They've been blasted or smashed across six rooftops at this point, and to say it's taking its toll is putting it very lightly. They barely have time to get to their feet before Mr. Duck smashes into the roof again, its massive girth kicking up strong enough winds to knock them over again.

"It's going to kill us!" Thad says miserably, leaning on his sheathed sword for support. His very nice clothes are now covered in dust and thoroughly ragged. "Why does it hate us? Who is this airbender? What did you do to him?"

"Who knows?" Wes breathes, crouching on one knee and wiping some blood from his mouth. "Life is full of mysteries."

"Most of them want us dead," David says, bent over double and clutching his stomach.

The bison jumps up again, and the boys scramble away from each other, only for the bison to land in the middle and send all three of them sprawling.

"You attacked me," Jesse says. "Sabotaged me, humiliated me, and stole from me. And all that… all that, I could take. But when you showed your faces here… when you threatened her, you crossed the line. And once the line is crossed, there's no going back."

Wes weakly tries to pull himself up, but his arm gives out beneath him. "I swear," he says tiredly. "All of that was an accident! We don't know what you're talking about!"

"Seriously!" Thad implores. "I just got here!"

"Yeah, well…" Jesse says. "You just piss me off."

"Right back at you!" David says petulantly.

Jesse lashes the reins, and Mr. Duck walks on its six legs to stand over Wes, bearing its massive teeth in a snarl.

"It's over, firebender. I've always wanted to see if he could actually do this," Jesse confides. "And thanks to you, I can! Mr. Duck! Eat!"

"What?" Wes barks.

The bison opens its mouth.


And suddenly, it has a squeegee jammed between its teeth.

The beast tilts its head in confusion, causing Jesse to flail around as he tries in vain to keep his balance. While the two are distracted, Trent grabs the battered Wes and pulls him to safety. Wes soon sees that Thad and David have experienced similar rescues by Jeff and Nick.

"What the… why are you… how did you…?" Wes asks.

"We heard you needed some help," Nick shrugs.

"From who?" David asks.

Flint climbs up the ladder, Pavarotti perched on his shoulder. "A little bird told us."

"You crafty little thing!" Thad says fondly, looking up at Pavarotti. "I take back every disparaging thought I've ever had about you!"

Pavarotti tilts his head and squawks in the vein of 'whatever.'

Jesse finally gets the presence of mind to jump down and remove the bison mouth-guard manually, popping the bent pole out with his bare hands and turning to face the newcomers. "There's more of you?" he cries, exasperated. "What the fuck? Seriously, who are you guys?"

Trent twirls his broom over his head. "Oh, nobody special."

Jeff stabs at the air with his mop. "Just… birds of a feather."

Nick dual-wields a plunger and a toilet brush. "Flying towards the same sunset."

Flint swings around a rather filthy length of rope. "We're all dragon hawks, in the end."

Pavarotti screeches and takes to the sky, carrying a small scroll in its talons.

"That was beautiful," Wes says. "Where did you come up with that?"

The four look at him a little confused, but they shake it off quickly. "It's not important," Nick says lightly.

"Shut up!" Jesse shouts. "I have had it up to here with this country! As soon as we're done conquering the rest of the airbenders, I'm going to suggest we conquer the other nations. Starting with this one!"

Jesse lashes Mr. Duck into a charge, but Nick, Jeff, Trent, and Flint all combine their efforts into raising a massive fire wall in front of it. The bison balks and screeches to a halt, tossing Jesse overboard. The airbender performs a torpedo spin to break through the flame wall, but a world of hurt awaits him on the other side. No sooner than he lands than Nick and Jeff are all over him. He barely has time to pull out his staff and defend himself as Jeff wields his mop like a spear, while Nick spins his twin toilet instruments with the expertise of a professional sword fighter. Jesse finds himself assaulted from both sides, while Trent and Flint work on Mr. Duck. The bison seems to know that its master is in distress, but the fire makes it nervous. A nervous bison can't quite remember how massive and powerful it is, or how easily it could probably blow said fire out. Working together, they keep the fire moving steadily towards the bison, which moans and backs off.

Meanwhile, although they use them well, Nick and Jeff's janitorial supplies aren't quite up to the craftsmanship of Jesse's metal staff. When Jeff's mop snaps in half, Jesse is able to jut his staff into his stomach, knocking the wind out of him. Nick counters in a rather unorthodox way by jamming the plunger onto Jesse's face. The airbender begins wildly tossing gusts around the roof as he desperately tries to pull the horrible thing off of his beautiful mug.

The plunger comes off on its own when Jeff pays Jesse back by smacking him in the face with the still-damp business end of his mop. Jesse coughs and sputters, just distracted enough for Trent 's broom to sweep (heh) him off his feet.

Watching their fellow Daltonians fight gives Wes and David a short second (or third?) wind, enabling them to struggle to their feet. Thad stands a short distance away, watching with a small measure of pride as the students fight off the airbender and his beast.

"These four are on the school's competition wushu team," Thad says smugly. "Along with yours truly, the Team Captain. They're quite good, wouldn't you say?"

"Oh, I'll say plenty," Wes says.

With little other option, Jesse is forced to back off for the moment. He flips to his feet, and dashes towards Flint, using a powerful gust to blast away the fire keeping Mr. Duck under control. Mounting the bison once more, he flies up to hover just out of reach.

"Had enough already?" Nick says, pointing at him with his brush.

Jesse grits his teeth, contemplating his next move. A distant screech calls his attention to the horizon, where he sees something that just flabbergasts him utterly—more reinforcements on their way in, bounding across the rooftops on ostrich horses.

"It's over, airbender!" Wes says, standing side-by-side with Thad and David. "You can't win this fight!"

From the streets below, the occupants of the Groban Theater have gathered to cheer them on.

"Get 'em, boys!"

"Take that puffball down a peg!"


With a somewhat sick expression, Jesse realizes that Wes is right. And honestly, that just makes him all the more furious. He's contemplating a suicide run out of sheer spite, when suddenly…


An impossibly loud scream echoes across the city from parts unknown.

Jesse's eyes widen. "Rachel…" he whispers.

Taking one last look at the bird-brains who dared to hand him something resembling a defeat, he decides that he can't just leave them there victorious. So he takes one final parting shot.

Lashing the reins, Mr. Duck dives down and swoops back up again, swinging his flat tail at them as he goes. The gust slams into the three apparent leaders of the mob, sending them sailing towards the edge. That's all he has time to see before the reinforcements on horseback start tossing fire at his rear, so Jesse St. James flies off into the distance, looking to more important matters.

It becomes apparent to Wes almost immediately that they are going to fly off the roof. After everything they've gone through, their journey is going to end with them smeared on the pavement.

"Catch!" Flint shouts, hurling his rope at him.

A rocket-stream from his hand allows him to pivot in mid-air and grab the rope. David, in turn, grabs onto Wes's leg. Thad grabs onto David's.

Flint steadies himself as the rope is pulled taut, and the three boys swing right smack into the wall of the theater. After the beating they've taken, that final blow is almost enough to knock them clean out. But it seems that even Thad is able to find some hidden source of strength to keep him hanging on as the boys work together to haul them back onto the roof.

It is as they find themselves on solid ground again that Wes notices something.

Applause. Whistling, shouting of all sorts.

"You guys kicked ass!"

"That was awesome!"

"Encore! Do it again!"

"Is that… are they cheering?" Wes asks.

Picking himself up, he moves on pained and unsteady legs to the edge of the roof, where the Groban Theater crowd has been joined by a mob of citizens, who are currently giving them a standing ovation (well, they likely were never sitting to begin with, but still). They clap and cheer, some of them offering fist pumps of solidarity, others jumping up and down in their excitement. Several children are riding on their parents' shoulders to get a better view. All twelve boys are now standing in full view of the crowd, their ostrich horses parked behind them.

"What should we do?" Thad asks.

"I'm not really sure," Wes says.

"Take a bow?" Other Nick suggests.

The boys look at each other.

"All of us, on three," David says. "One, two, three."

They bow.

And the crowd goes wild.

Wes finds himself smiling in spite of himself. He's never been much of an attention-seeker, but this feels strangely nice. He can't let himself bask in it for too long, but still… it's nice.

"Come now," Wes says. "Let's not stick around. We don't want to draw attention to ourselves."

"You mean more than we already have?" David asks.

"I see nothing wrong with a little attention," Thad says, smiling and waving to the crowd. "I rather like it."

Wes rolls his eyes, and turns around. "We have work to do. Come on, we're closer than ever, we have to find…"

It is as he is walking away from the cheering crowds, as the adrenaline surge slowly subsides and everything that has happened starts to catch up to him, that Wes suddenly feels a bout of vertigo that stops him cold.

"…we have to…" He shakes his head, which only blurs his vision further. "…oh boy…"

"Dude, are you okay?" Nick asks, suddenly at the end of a very long and dark tunnel.

Wes can think of only one thing to say to that. "…motion to pass out," he mutters.

"Second," he hears David echo.

"All in favor… lower your entire body…" Thad groans.

He doesn't need to be told twice.


As much as we would've liked to keep going, a solid sleepless night and a sound, thorough thrashing at the hands of an airbender and his ten ton friend left us down and out for the time being. It was quite frustrating to come so close, only to be violently blown backwards, but… I'd hardly say the day was a complete waste.

Something happened to us that day, as we fought beside each other for the first time.

You might say that was the day we vitrified.

"Man," Jeff says, reclining in a chair next to Wes's bed. "You guys get knocked out a lot."

Wes blinks and tries to shake the cobwebs out of his head. He looks up to find himself in a fairly nice inn, David and Thad already awake and sitting on the other beds beside them. David's abdomen is tightly bound with bandages. Thad has a bandage wrapped around his forehead, and he keeps scratching at it.

"Stop that!" David mutters.

"Don't tell me what to do," Thad says petulantly. "You are not my nanny."

"Where are we?" Wes groans.

"Berry Inn," Nick says. "Thad brokered a deal so he could pay for rooms for everyone in lieu of actually paying for the windows."

"We can't…" Wes shakes his head. "We can't stay here, we have to—"

He tries to get up, only for the world to determinedly tilt on its axis.

"Yeah, uhhh, no," Jeff says, tapping him on the forehead, which is more than enough to knock him over in his current state. "You need to take a fucking break, man."

"Jeff's right," Nick says. "Airbender dude laid you guys the fuck out."

"It was the beast that did most of the work," Thad grumbles.

Wes lays his head back on his pillow. "But… we were… it seemed like we were almost there…"

"Wesley," David says simply. "We're not going to do Blaine much good if we go and die before we get to him. As much as I hate it… I think we need to rest for a bit. We still have Pavarotti. We'll find him."

Wes sighs in frustration, but has little choice other than to admit defeat. "I suppose you're right," he says.

Nick nudges Jeff, who clears his throat, and stands up. "So, uhh… we were kind of thinking… since you guys' jobs mostly seem to consist of you getting your asses kicked and running yourselves into the ground…"

"Hey!" David says, offended.

"…you might want a little more help," he finishes. "Like… on a… more permanent basis, you know?"

Wes blinks at the ceiling, and sits up (slowly this time) to look at him. "…what are you saying?"

Nick shrugs. "We want to join you. You and David."

"And me!" Thad adds testily.

Nick rolls his eyes. "And Thad."

"Join us?" Wes says. "But…"

"You guys need help," Trent says. "At the very least, you need people to make sure you eat and sleep while you hunt down missing royals."

"Plus, what happens when you actually find the dude?" Jeff asks. "I don't think Sue Sylvester is just gonna step aside so you can plop him on the throne. You might have a little fight on your hands."

"You want to help us fight?" David asks. "You've never even met Blaine, but you'd be willing to fight to help him become Fire Lord?"

"I don't know if you've noticed," Luke says, "but Sue Sylvester won't be winning any Fire Lord of the Year contests. This year, or any other."

"She's kind of evil," Other Nick chimes in.

"She must be stopped," Flint says. "Her rule is poison. Without the antidote, the Nation may not survive."

"After all the crazy stuff we've seen," Nick says. "You really think we're just gonna go back to Dalton and twiddle our thumbs while we wait for the nice lady to tell us we can learn again?"

"This is dangerous!" David says. "You saw us getting bison-bashed out there."

Jeff shrugs. "So? We can fight. We're pretty kickass."

"You know the saying," James (or is it Ethan?) says. "'There are no bad benders at Dalton.' Everyone in this room is at LEAST above-average in terms of their bending prowess."

"Are you serious?" Wes says, shaking his head. "All of you?"

Thad scoffs. "Of course they are! We're proud students of the best boys' school in the Nation. We have a legacy to uphold, after all."

"It would be nice to have some dependable back-up…" David says thoughtfully.

"What exactly do you think you'll be doing?" Wes asks.

Ethan (or is it James?) shrugs. "You guys have been calling the shots so far, and you're the ones who know the Prince. You're the leaders."

"I'm cool with following you guys," Trent says. "Provided you don't, you know, order me to kick a puppy or rob an old woman or something."

"I've said it before, but it bears repeating—you guys are kind of badass," Nick says. "And you're pretty good leaders, too."

Wes honestly doesn't know what to say. He's never really thought of himself as a leader, but everyone in the room seems sincere. They're willing to follow him. To trust him, to help him find Blaine and put him back where he belongs.

"If you really want to help," Wes says, with a small smile, "then who am I to say no?"

"I'm sure Blaine will appreciate it, as well," David says.

Thad stands up, a little wobbly, and makes his way to the front of the room. "Let's make it official!" he says. "All in favor of taking a temporary leave of absence from our non-education in order to offer our services to this noble cause, say 'aye!'"

"Aye!" a chorus of voices says with just the slightest variation in enthusiasm.

"That sounded suspiciously unanimous, but I must ask; all opposed?" Thad continues, quirking an eyebrow.


"Well, there you have it, gentlemen," Thad says, smiling at Wes and David. "We're with you until we are no longer needed. We should… oh! We're all Dalton students—this is practically a school club! We need a name…" He purses his lips in thought. "Daltonians for a Better Tomorrow? Future Noblemen of the Fire Nation? The Gentlemen's Club?"

Pavarotti sails in through the open window and lands on the table behind Thad, a small, dead ratsnake in its claws.

Wes grins at the bird. "How about 'the Dragon Hawks?'"

A number of small, sly smiles seems to suggest that the name is a good one.

"What an ingenius idea!" Thad says, elated. He gestures to the bird. "Witness, gentlemen, our mascot, the noble Pavarotti! A powerful specimen of finest breeding and utmost dignity, a creature with the air of nobility around him, graceful, neat and poised in all he does…"

Note that he says all this as Pavarotti rather savagely tears the ratsnake's head off of its body and scarfs it down in a single gulp.

"All in favor of the name?" David asks.

Everyone raises their hand.

"All opposed?"

All arms downward.

"Well then," Wes says proudly. "It's settled. From here on, we are the Dalton Academy Dragon Hawks!"

And so we were.

David, Thad and I took a day or so to get our strength back up. It was during that time we learned of Quinn and her assassins' presence in the city, and their failed attempt to defeat the Avatar. Thad identified her almost immediately as the 'harpy' from prison, and David and I knew we probably needed to keep track of them. So Thad called in a favor…

Thad walks into the fortress like he owns the place, spotting the leader almost immediately.

"Young Master Harwood!" the man says. "Wonderful to see you again, sir! To what do I owe this pleasure?"

Thad grins at him. "Remember when I said that someday, I would call upon you to perform a service?"

The man nods, now seeming slightly nervous.

"Well, that day is today!" Thad announces happily. "My friends and I are in need of some armor. Costumes, you see, for a historical re-enactment. We'll need weapons too, of course…"

And just like that, we had Fire Nation military uniforms and weapons. From there, the plan was simple—while Thad and the gang kept the assassins and Chi-Ryus distracted, David and I would take Pavarotti and try to track you down before they did. And as luck would have it, we succeeded.

"And so here we are," Wes says, crossing his arms and posing proudly next to his ostrich horse.

Blaine stares at him, mouth agape.

"I think we've rendered him speechless," David says lightly.

Blaine blinks, and looks down. "You guys… did all of that… went through all of that… for me?"

Wes grins. "Well, not just for you…"

"There is the Fire Nation to consider," David says lightly. "And our own sense of moral outrage. But… if it makes you feel better, then you could say we did it for you."

Blaine laughs, still looking down.

"They're looking at you, you know," Wes says quietly. "They've never seen a Prince before. Don't feel too pressured, but… you are kind of like a symbol of hope to them."

The Prince looks over his shoulder, catching several pairs of eyes that quickly and nervously look away.

"Maybe you should say something," David says. "We're almost ready to leave."

Blaine nods. "Line everyone up."

"Hawks!" David calls out. "Fall in!"

The soldiers quickly drop what they're doing and try to form a line. Thad has to step out and redirect them so that they remember the proper order.

Blaine watches as they scramble around, an inscrutable look on his face. Wes, David, and Kurt watch him watching them, trying to see what's on his mind.

"You've got some pretty dedicated friends here," Kurt says softly, nodding at Wes and David. "Don't be too nervous."

Blaine shakes his head. "No," he says quietly. "They're not my friends."

Kurt raises his eyebrows at that proclamation. Wes looks mildly devastated—David looks almost angry.

But the troops finish lining up before they can say anything, and Blaine steps forward to address them.

"Hello," he says, clearing his throat. "I'm sure most of you already know this, but just in case you don't; my name is Blaine, son of Fire Lord Anderson, and Crown Prince of the Fire Nation. I just wanted to take a moment to thank all of you for… everything you've done. I felt like I was alone in this, for quite a while, and I can't tell you how much it means to learn that isn't the case." He pauses, and smiles. "I especially want to thank my brothers, Wes and David. They never gave up on me, and if it weren't for them, I wouldn't be standing here today." He nods to the boys, who are too caught off-guard to reply. "There will be time for more formal introductions later. Right now… I smell terrible, and I'm pretty sure this shirt belongs to a dead man. Who votes we find some civilization, ASAP? All in favor, say 'aye!'"

This gets a decent laugh, and several enthusiastic 'ayes!' from Hawks and non-Hawks alike.

"Alright, let's do it!" Blaine says.

The soldiers break off and head to their ostrich horses, and Blaine walks past the three of them like it's no big deal. Like what just happened was nothing at all.

Wes stares after him. "What did he just call us…?"

David blinks. "I think… I think he said…"

Kurt just grins, and pats them both on the back. "Welcome to the family!" he says lightly, sauntering off to join his boyfriend.

The two boys share a look. They grin, and shake their heads at their sentimental little brother.

And then, they walk off to join him.

A/N: And there you have it, folks! Blaine now has his very own set of Dragon Hawks to play with. :D Don't worry about them stealing too much spotlight, though—I love them, of course, but this is Blaine and Kurt's story. For the video gamers out there, you might think of this as the point where we change from Final Fantasy to Final Fantasy Tactics. As someone already pointed out, the Dragon Hawks answer only to Blaine. He is their leader, which is a major responsibility that he hasn't really had to deal with before. How will he cope? Only time will tell. ;)

COMING UP NEXT: After a lengthy stint as an object of myth, Sue Sylvester makes her triumphant return to the story. ;)