It was an educational day for Azula. It began pleasantly for her, especially after getting a little light hearted revenge on Daniel and she had been further amused when she had gone to fetch Reena.
The other young woman had unintentionally fallen asleep in the royal bedroom late the night before and that was where Azula found her with the sun just beginning to peak over the horizon and with Kuzon just beginning to stir in his cot. Resisting the urge to laugh, Azula left Mai and Reena to sleep a moment longer then went to her nephew and guided by vague memories of something her own mother used to do with her and Zuko, she took him up in her arms and went quietly out onto the balcony to watch the sunrise with him. Then feeling a little awkward but determined to master the skills of an aunt (it helped that there was no one else around to watch her rather inexperienced fumbling's) she tiptoed back into the bedroom to fetch some things for Kuzon before going back outside to change him in the warm sun. She skilfully avoided his sly attempt at soaking her, then as Kuzon happily squirmed and kicked his legs and after several mishaps that saw her puncturing her own thumb with the pin, twice, she got a fresh diaper onto him and soon after had him dressed in clean clothes. She was eager to start her day, having arranged the night before to finally start her Waterbending training but for now with the sun creeping up the sky, Azula was content to sit with her nephew in her arms, stroking the fine black hairs on his head and gazing into his bright gold eyes that reminded her so strongly of her mother's.
Finally as he grew restless and hungry, Azula took Kuzon back inside and stood at the end of the huge bed, coughing politely to awaken the two sleeping upon it. Starting their night on opposite sides of the bed, Mai was now curled into Reena's back, spooning the other young woman and they both jerked awake with a start as they realised their position, their faces reddening when they saw Azula smirking back at them. Leaving Kuzon to his embarrassed mother's care, Azula took Reena by the hand and, avoiding the next room where she knew her brother and Toph currently remained fast asleep and naked as jaybirds on a couch, Azula instead resorted to the chi pathways. She took them to the nearby bathroom first but Daniel had already gone and Azula noted how cold the room had become since she had left him there, the sunken bath apparently filled with floating chunks of ice. This got another smirk from Azula and Reena glanced at her questioningly but without enlightening her companion, Azula next took them to where she guessed he might be.
They appeared in the centre of the large training grounds near the palace and instantly Azula knew she had guessed correctly, detecting his scent before she turned to see Daniel approaching them. He appeared nervous at first, earning another curious look from Reena but his eyes remained fixed to Azula, his cheeks lightly blushing as he came up to them with something held behind his back.
"I, uh, thought I'd come out and get some things ready for today." Daniel said in an oddly subdued and shy voice, half turning to point over to the far corner of the training yards, "It's a proper training pool. Wide and deep just like the one Re and our Aunt Katara first trained me to Waterbend in."
Looking past him they could see there was indeed a wide sunken pool in the corner of the training yards with what appeared to be cushions scattered on the ground around it.
"Something soft to sit on is a nice touch." Reena commented, eyeing Daniel's blushing face as she added, "And what are you hiding behind you?"
"Oh, umm, since everyone's joining us today I snuck down to the kitchens and prepared some food. To keep everyone's energy up." Daniel said haltingly, his face growing even darker as he brought his hand around to hold out a large box to Azula, "And…I made you these because…well, because I know you like them."
Taking the heavy box from him, Azula opened the top to reveal it was filled with small brown squares and the air around them was instantly filled with the overpoweringly sweet scent of chocolate.
"All these just to keep my energy up?" Azula asked with a raised eyebrow, "Daniel, if I ate all this I would have so much energy I'd explode. Not to mention I'd end up the size of a Hippo-cow."
"Oh, you don't have to worry about that, you have an amazing body." He began in a casual and dismissive tone but upon hearing his own words, Daniel gulped and stepped back as his face paled, "I meant healthy and…and fit and…uh, your metabolism is, err…I think I'll just…I gotta…I'll be back later."
He vanished with a sharp crack leaving Azula wearing a fresh smirk and Reena gaping open mouthed at the place he had been.
"OK. That was weird. Even for him." Reena said, frowning now at Azula, "Did you guys have a fight or something?"
"No." Azula replied simply, taking one of the small chocolate squares and taking a delicate bite, a tiny moan escaping her as the tart yet sweet flavours filled her mouth.
Taking one for herself, Reena sniffed at the small square and took a bite, her face showing first surprise then blissful contentment as she popped the rest of the morsel into her mouth.
"Wow. I don't normally go for cherries but whatever he did with these is just…wow." Reena commented, taking another chocolate from the box, "These are amazing. When did he find time to do this?"
"You know him." Azula said as she ate the last of her piece, "Give Daniel a lump of meat and a handful of vegetables and he'll have a ten course meal fit for an emperor whipped up in ten minutes."
"That's true but he's definitely gotten better since we were kids." Reena added, helping herself to another chocolate and sighing as she popped it into her mouth, "Are you sure you two didn't have a fight? He seems to be trying awfully hard to apologise for something."
"It seems that way, doesn't it?" Azula said, smirking as she took one more square and snapped the lid of the box shut, much to Reena's disappointment, "Aren't we supposed to be Waterbending?"
"Well, alright then." Reena answered, her curiosity still piqued though her eyes remained glued to the box in Azula's hands, "But only if you're going to give me some more of those."
One sour point to Azula's day began as she and Reena sat beside the deep pool Daniel had created for them, sitting closely together as Reena instructed Azula and together they rocked back and forth, their arms and wrists making fluid motions before them and the water within the pool responded to this by sloshing back and forth in small waves. Although Azula knew this was only because of Reena's influence. After ten minutes of this the only effect Azula was having was raising thick clouds of steam above the pool as the moving water bubbled violently.
"Damn." Azula hissed as droplets of hot water splashed onto her legs for the second time.
"I told you. Water is your natural opposite. Don't expect instant results." Reena told her as she continued the exercise, "Water is the element of change and just like Firebending, is strongly affected by your emotions. Remember, we push with the strongest emotions like the tides and we pull the water to us with the gentler emotions, like the moon. Positive and negative together. Yin and Yang."
"The concept of the push I understand." Azula snapped testily, throwing out a hand and scattering the rising steam with a blast of wind, "Danny already helped me master that along with my Airbending."
"Yes but Airbending and Earthbending can be very cold elements. Firebending and Waterbending require passion." Reena explained and grinned as Azula turned a disbelieving stare onto her, "What I mean is, earth and air can be mastered emotionlessly but I learned from my Kuzon that Firebenders have to put a bit of themselves into their element and it's the same with Waterbending. You need to put that passion you feel for your element into this too if you want to Bend the water."
"I understand that. I do." Azula said insistently, frowning as she dropped her eyes, "I just don't…feel the water yet, not like I do with my flames."
"Well, you're feeling something otherwise we wouldn't be enjoying this early morning steam bath." Reena said with a smile, "But let me ask you, Azula, what passion drives your flames? What emotions do you experience when you Firebend?"
"Anger." Azula replied readily, raising her eyes again to glare at the steaming water.
"No. Anger is a darker blue. Closer to purple really." Reena said thoughtfully, "I see your flames reflected in your aura, Azula and that colour blue tells me you're afraid."
Her head snapping to the side, Azula turned her glare onto Reena who leant away, bringing her hands up defensively though she was grinning as she did.
"Ok, that colour is definitely anger." Reena said with a soft laugh, her expression becoming more serious as she added, "But there is fear in you and until you address that and come to terms with those fears, it's going to continue affecting your Waterbending."
Silent at first, Azula turned her glare back to the now still pool, her eyes lost in the dancing reflections on the water, her thoughts dwelling on Reena's words. She thought again of those embarrassing yet intriguing moments before Daniel had awoken and with that her thoughts turned next to the evening before, those passionate few minutes shared between them, the feel of his mouth as they devoured each other's lips, the heat of his skin pressing into hers, the electrifying touch of his hands against her body. But as always the heat that had arisen within her had fled, a cold weight settling in the pit of her stomach as the memories of her childhood had arisen uninvited into her thoughts, her father's sneering face replacing Daniel's loving smile.
"I don't fear HIM anymore." Azula snarled at the water, "I don't!"
"Your father?" Reena asked and brought her hands up again as Azula turned an even more furious glare onto her, "I only ask because I heard something about it from my Aunt Ty a long time ago. I don't know the details, just that you, Ty and Mai were abused by your father when you were growing up."
"He wasn't a father. He was a monster." Azula spat, turning again to the pool, "He tried to make me into something like him and…for the longest time that's what I wanted too." Her voice softened, carrying her regret as she squeezed her eyes shut, "Until I realised that's exactly what I had become."
"Well, I won't pretend to understand what that was like for you but…you're not a monster now. You've been a good friend to me. Better than I deserve really." Reena said quietly, reaching out to put a hand on Azula's shoulder but drawing it back as she jerked away, "I can see those memories still bring you a lot of pain. You don't need to speak about it, Azula but…I'll listen anytime you want to."
"Thank you." Azula replied in a hoarse whisper, opening her eyes though her gaze remained fixed to the pool, "We should get back to my training."
"Alright but later I think I would like for you and Danny to sit down with me, Katara and Aang so we can begin letting go of these fears and opening your chakras." Reena added, smiling as Azula turned questioningly to her, "Just like I can see it in you, we've both seen the way Danny still carries his pain and fears with him…just like I do too. We can help each other by working through those together."
"More of Aang and Katara's…therapies?" Azula shot at her dryly, rolling her eyes at Reena, "Oh, you have no idea what you're getting yourself into."
The smirk returned to her lips as Reena appeared confused and still grinning, Azula reached to her other side and slid around the box she had left there, opening it between them. Her own smile quickly returning, Reena snatched two of the chocolate coated cherry slices as Azula took one for herself, the pair moaning contentedly as they ate.
The creator of their delicious treats was currently sitting in what was becoming a regular place for him to be, atop the highest tower of the Firepalace where no one on the ground could see him and would have been just as difficult to see from above where he sat hidden amongst a forest of chimneys and arching buttresses. He had come here seeking a moment of solitude to collect his thoughts, to meditate and plan for the day although what was really preying on his thoughts right now had nothing to do with training or focusing his mind.
"I just don't get it. The mantras my father taught me always worked before." He was saying in a low voice, "It's just…when we were kissing last night, it was so…intense but I was in perfect control which is a big thing…for me. But then I had those dreams. I've never had dreams like those. The meditation techniques Dad showed me always kept them suppressed but…it felt so real. She was…it was so…amazing." He shuddered, drawing his legs up and wrapping his arms about them as his face darkened in embarrassment, "And I know she must have seen what those dreams did to me before I woke up and then this morning I go and say something stupid like she has a great body? She must think I'm terrible now. Hell, I think I'm terrible. I just…I can't stop thinking about her."
"I told you, Azula." He snapped in an annoyed tone, turning to the source of the voice, "Haven't you been listening?"
The Owl-cat perched on the short chimney beside Daniel turned its head slowly to give him a wide eyed and very superior stare.
"Who?" It said again.
"You're a great help you are." Daniel grumbled at the bird, resting his chin on his knees as he stared blankly out at the sky, "I wish I could talk to…someone about this. I wish my Dad was here."
"Who?" The Owl-cat asked again.
"My father." Daniel answered reflexively, "Just…go back to sleep and…thanks for listening anyway."
"Whoo." The bird called mournfully, its feathers fluffing out as Daniel reached over to lightly scratch at its neck.
Staring pensively out at nothing as the bird tucked its head under one wing, Daniel was again mulling over his thoughts though he was not entirely focused only on himself. As always he was alert. With senses far beyond the ordinary he was watching the comings and goings of all within the palace and even the grounds surrounding it. Even now with the sun hanging a hand's breadth above the horizon deliveries were being made, mail and supplies being brought to the palace, fresh produce for the kitchens and staff were arriving for work, others leaving to go home while the Firelord's personal staff, the noble men and women who directed the day to day activities of the Firenation were arriving in their ornate palanquins and carriages.
All seemed perfectly ordinary which came as a relief and yet also something of a disappointment to a frustrated Daniel who at that moment found himself hoping for a demon he could get his hands on (or possibly teeth into) and so he turned his attention to his family who were making their way out of the palace, on their way to the large training yards and he knew he would have to go to join them soon. Azula and Reena remained at the training ground and his senses focused on one of them in particular, taking in the bright beauty of her spirit, the delicate yet purposeful motion of her body and even from here he could detect just a hint of that intoxicating scent of rose mingled with cherry blossom. He suddenly shook his head violently and trying to distract himself from her he instead turned his full attention to the others nearing the yard and a frown appeared on Daniel's face as he noted something odd. He was aware of the consuming eye Aang now had but what he had first assumed was the eye, as he focused closer on Aang he now realised was something different. Something strangely familiar that sent a chill down his spine.
There were others working within another training yard, this one however floored by ice and snow and currently it was filled with rows of people, all of them stripped to their underclothes and sweating even with flakes of snow drifting in the air about them as Swordmaster Piandao ran them through a gruelling series of exercises again and again. He at least seemed comfortable in his black and gold trimmed robes, the light silk flapping in the gentle breeze but the swordsman ignored the cold with ease, his attention focused entirely on his students.
"Many of you are Waterbenders." Piandao said, his students continuing their exercise as he walked amongst them, "Therefore you understand the importance of versatility. Remaining flexible. Adapting at a moment's notice."
Without turning his head, Piandao's arm shot out at his side, his sheathed sword in his hand and a young woman standing there twisted aside as the scabbard cut through the air less than an inch from her face, turning fully about as she raised an arm, bringing it down as she came back around to face Piandao with his sword now trapped under her arm. Nodding his approval to his student as she released his weapon, Piandao walked on.
"But Waterbending is an example of only one martial art." Piandao continued, "By having full awareness of your surroundings and by melding all of the various martial arts, you can increase your strengths and abilities almost without limits."
Reaching the end of the row of students, Piandao turned about and moved along the next row, noting that many of the men and women training around him were eyeing his prized weapon with wary gazes.
"Airbending emulates many of the martial arts used Firebending and yet the primary purpose of the Airnomads techniques is for flexible defence." Piandao spoke, his lips twitching briefly upwards as he noticed almost all of those he walked past tensing in readiness, "Airbending is strongly adapted to keeping the wielder away from danger by finding the safest and fastest routes possible."
Moving so fast that few were able to see him, Piandao spun about and jumped back the way he had come, his feet sliding over the ground as he swung out his sword at the head of one student, the man he was aiming for managing to bend over backwards to avoid the strike but as Piandao slid up to him, the swordmaster's foot nudged one of the student's and losing his balance the man toppled over onto his back.
"A Firebending strike followed by a gentle push." Piandao explained, holding out a hand to his prone student, "Even Airbending has its uses as an attack when applied correctly."
Nodding again as this student got back to his feet and rejoined the exercise, Piandao resumed walking. Once more he reached the end of the row, turning about and now he was walking along the front row of his students, fighting to keep the smile from his face as he noted that the sweat freezing to their skin appeared to have more to do with their nervousness than it did from the exercises they were doing.
"Contrary to popular beliefs, Earthbending is much more than brute strength." Piandao continued the lesson as he walked along the line of men and women, "It is about perseverance even in the face of greater odds. About facing your foe head on and making his strength your own so that you may turn that against him."
Again moving faster than most could see, Piandao jumped at an older man working amongst the other students, his sword again leading as he brought it down in an overhead chop. Reacting quickly however the older student lowered his stance as he brought up his arms crossed before himself, catching the scabbard with his forearms then twisted his arms to get his hands about the weapon, suddenly shoving hard and it was Piandao who was pushed back several feet over the icy ground.
"Excellent." Piandao said, allowing the smile he felt to show as he bowed low to his star pupil.
As he rose however he noticed several of the younger students roll their eyes, sharing a silent smirk between them at their master's obvious favouritism and narrowing his eyes, Piandao raised his sword once more to point at each of them.
"You, you and you." Piandao snapped coldly and the three he had pointed to swallowed nervously, "You were each a part of this nation's royal guards before joining this school, were you not?"
"Err, yes, master Piandao." One replied in a quiet voice.
"Then your skills must be great indeed." Piandao said, his smile becoming somewhat ominous and frightening, "And since you are so great, let us see how you fare against another of your fellow students. One with the least experience at using the Waterbending forms."
The three groaned as the rest of the students quickly backed away to the walls of the training yards, leaving them standing in the centre and Piandao's favourite student standing before their master. At least twice the age of everyone else, the others knew the older man to be Piandao's friend and constant companion and they suspected (rightly) that he was receiving extra lessons after the rest of them had gone home.
"What do you say, Lao? Care to show these three how a Bei Fong gets things done?" Piandao asked the man.
"I shall do my best, Sifu." Toph's father answered, bowing low and giving Piandao a wink as he rose upright.
Shirtless like most of the other students and with beads of sweat frozen to his skin, Lao wore a grin reminiscent of his daughter's as he turned to the three standing in the centre of the training yard, those three tensing nervously as he dropped into a loose mantis stance.
"Oh, don't worry gentlemen. I promise I won't be as rough this time." Lao said cheerfully, as the three he faced drew together, two of them grabbing for each other as the older man suddenly lowered his head and charged.
They're getting good up here at the north. Jin called from where she hid on a rooftop higher up the city slope, A little too good maybe. His students move almost as fast as we do.
The city around her was built of ice and snow on the side of a mountain that itself was hidden beneath a mile deep glacier. Jin was several hundred yards away and higher up the city from Piandao's school, her glowing eyes watching from within the depths of the hood of her cloak.
Yes, I remember Piandao. Phoenix's disapproving tone arose in her mind, A skilled master at many things but also a dangerous thinker. He felt himself too good to fight in my armies in the Firenation although as I recall he served my mortal father for many years. Until he was dismissed for…fraternising with a male recruit.
Grinning to herself, Jin laughed out loud as she watched Lao throw one of those he was sparing with then drop to his knees as another sent a high kick toward him, leading with his shoulder as he rose and another went tumbling away from Lao who then jumped toward the third man. Rising to her feet, Jin turned away from the entertaining sparring match going on far below her, a long white cloak covering her today that she pulled tightly about herself as she walked out over the icy rooftop with casual ease.
This is a really nice city. Very pretty. Jin called again with her thoughts, I can sort of…feel the life of this place with my Waterbending. It almost seems a shame to smash it flat.
I have never seen it with my mortal eyes although my spirit, Koh has memories of it. Phoenix answered her and added in a warning tone, But you must remember, Jin. Two of the Elementals make their homes there. They must not become aware of you.
I'm supressing my energies like you showed me. She reassured him, coming to the edge of the roof and looking down at a busy street below.
Unlike most cities, this street was mainly a wide canal of water with boats and canoes taking the place of carts, the walkways either side filled with warmly dressed people going about their daily lives.
And how are you doing with your appearance? Phoenix asked in her mind, You have a natural talent at projecting illusions but anyone with a strong and unclouded mind could still see through them.
I've been sticking to the rooftops mostly so that hasn't been a problem so far, Mast…Umm, sorry…Phoenix. She replied, cringing slightly at her slip, But I'm about to go down and scout the street levels now so I can check out my first targets. I remember what you taught me. Let them see what they want to see and most of them won't even know I was there.
That's my Dark Angel. Phoenix rumbled approvingly and Jin smiled to herself, I will contact you when it is dawn here and we are ready to begin so you may begin your diversion there. I was most impressed with your plan, Jin. My only regret is that I cannot be there with you.
Thank you, Phoenix. And don't worry. I won't mess this up. Jin told him, I am your perfect weapon.
I know. Came a surprisingly warm reply before she felt his mind recede from hers.
Still smiling, Jin threw back her hood and jumped out from the high rooftop, falling more than forty yards straight down into the deep water of a canal with barely a splash, then just as suddenly rising from the water which carried her up to deposit her gently onto the busy walkway. A few people exclaimed at her sudden appearance though Jin only bat her bright blue eyes at them, smiling from an unscarred face and raising a hand to wave. Reassured that she was only a local Waterbender showing off, most shrugged and continued on their ways while a few young men took a moment longer to admire the beautiful woman, her deep brown hair and tanned skin not so uncommon here and her smile grew at the way their eyes lingered on her impressive bust beneath her thick winter clothing.
"Momma." A little girl traveling with her family in a large canoe called, staring straight at Jin, "That lady's all hairy and got no clothes on."
"Enough of your stories, Hanu." The girl's mother chided her, the woman giving Jin an apologetic smile as their canoe drifted past, "Such rudeness. Don't make up lies about ladies walking down the street."
"But Momma," the girl whined, being shushed once more before the family drifted past and out of sight.
Jin glanced down at herself, knowing the child to be absolutely right but glancing around again she was reassured as most of the other people moving around her paid little or no attention to her at all. She did notice however another small child being carried in the arms of his father, the little boy staring wide eyed at her as father and child walked by and Jin quickly stepped into the crowds moving along the walkway, drawing her cloak tightly about herself. She was an oddity only to the few very young children who caught sight of her but Jin wasn't concerned about them, her eyes were fixed upon another canoe drifting down the canal between the walkways, this one larger and more ornate than most. Making her way through the people around her, Jin waited until the large canoe was moving past and then toppled off the walkway with a fear filled cry.
"Help." She cried out and sank beneath the water.
With smug satisfaction she felt herself rise almost instantly, lifted by the water itself and the cause of this proved to be several Waterbenders in the large canoe, the men's arms moving fluidly to guide the water that carried her over and deposited her gently on the wide wooden floor of the boat. The Waterbenders stepped back and a richly dressed man came to kneel before her, waving a hand at one of those who had rescued Jin and the Waterbender quickly stripped off his thick coat to drape it over her shoulders.
"Oh, Th…thank…y…you, good sir." She stammered, her teeth chattering as she hugged her arms to herself, "I wa…wasn't watching…were I was g…going and I f…fell in."
"Do not worry, dear. You are safe now." the richly dressed man said, again turning to one of the others, "You. Get that water off her before she catches her death."
The Waterbender without his coat came forward again, his arms weaving briefly before himself and the water soaking Jin's cloak and fur was drawn away although all those within the canoe saw was that this young woman's thick winter clothing now appeared to be dry. The man before her helped her to her feet and Jin smiled sweetly at the well-dressed nobleman though shivered once more, hugging her arms about herself in way that lifted and enhanced her bust.
"Thank you again but it's still so cold here." She said, moving closer to the nobleman as though seeking his warmth.
"Ah, you must be one of the many tourists that grace our fair city these days." The man said, bowing to her before he put an arm about her shoulders, "And to have such a terrible welcome. You must be traumatised. Come and sit with me, my dear and I'll keep you warm. My name is Councillor Lardok. Financial advisor to the King."
"I'm Kiko. From Gaoling." Jin replied with another smile, joining the man on a wide seat and pressing herself into his side, "This is my first visit to the Watertribes and I can't believe I've been rescued from drowning by such a great man." Her voice lowered to a purr as she added, "The King's own advisor…and such a handsome advisor too."
He was close to his middle years and long years of comfortable living had left him decidedly rounded about the middle yet he smiled pleasantly at her compliment while Jin smiled to herself as his eyes roamed up and down.
"Oh, my dear Kiko. It was nothing." The man boasted expansively, "It was my duty to step in and help such a beautiful damsel in distress."
Jin noticed, even if Councillor Lardok did not, the way the Waterbenders in the large canoe with them glanced at one another and rolled their eyes but she ignored them and then as a gentle breeze washed over them she shivered again, hugging herself to the nobleman's side and she smirked inwardly as his eyes lingered on her chest. She knew what he and everyone around her saw was a young woman wearing a tight blue parka, the simple mental projection she was using clothing her in similar attire to what many wore in the Watertribes but Jin could not help wondering to herself just how much lust would remain in his gaze if he could see the downy fur that covered her bare breasts and much of the rest of her.
"My home is not far, very near the palace in fact." The man was saying, a shiver running through him as Jin turned to face him, pressing her chest against him, "I would be honoured to have you as my guest and perhaps I might tempt you with something to drink. To help…warm you up?"
"That sounds wonderful." Jin purred again, smiling seductively at him, "My clothes are dry now but…they still feel cold and stiff and so uncomfortable."
"Then…we shall have to do something about that." The man returned with a lust filled grin of his own.
She lifted herself up, shifting over to sit in the man's lap as she made a show of loosening her imaginary clothes, giving him a perfect view down her illusionary parka to the swell of her breasts, the man licking hungrily at his lips. As Jin returned his eager smile, what neither he nor the Waterbenders propelling the canoe could see was her free hand going to her simple cloak, reaching into a pocket secreted in the folds of the material and fingering a hemispherical shaped stone she had hidden there.
It wasn't long after they resumed their training, once again wreathed in clouds of steam, when both Azula and Reena sensed the large gates in the walls of the training yards open and their friends and family enter. The royal palanquin came first, carried by four stout men wearing the heavy armour of the palace guard and following just behind came Aang and Katara with their children, Zhu Lee and Tom Tom walking with them and entering last came Jeong Jeong with the Huntress by his side. Reena quickly sent the steam settling out of the air and then pursed her lips to blow softly toward the pool, cooling the water and making it go still as she and Azula stared. They were surprised to see Zhu Lee carrying a baby, walking calmly beside Tom Tom as she cooed and fussed over the tiny boy in her arms.
As the palanquin was lowered gently to the ground nearby, the curtains were twitched aside to reveal Mai blinking in the early morning light yet as always immaculately dressed, her hair combed and brushed to a glossy sheen and drawn up with the stylised pin of the Firelady affixed to a topknot atop her head. In strong contrast, Zuko's clothing was rumpled from quickly dressing and he appeared to have gone without a shave this morning while he regarded those outside the palanquin through bleary, tired eyes and leaning against his side, his shirt sleeve damp where her open mouth rested against it, Toph was snoring quietly.
"Good morning, Avatar Azula. Lady Reena." Zhu Lee said politely, earning another blink of surprise from both women, "Firelady Mai let me hold Prince Kuzon. Isn't he just adorable?"
"He is now and I can guarantee he will be a decade and a half from now too." Reena replied with a grin.
"And he's just so cute in his little red jammies. Yes he is. Oh, yes you are." Zhu Lee burbled to the baby, more of her usual self coming through as she continued, "And you know, my Tommy's got a pair of onesies just like yours and last time I saw him wearing them, he'd forgotten to button the flap and he looked so cute with his butt hanging out. I bet yours is cute too. Yes it is."
Kuzon gave a little squeal of pleasure as Zhu Lee nuzzled at his nose with her own and tickled his belly while around her grins were breaking out, those grins being directed at Tom Tom who pulled at the collar of his shirt with his good hand, his other arm still wrapped in bandages and right now he wished he had more to wrap about his face as it blushed darkly.
"Well, at least it seems some of us are prepared to greet the day with a little dignity." Azula said pleasantly as Mai slid gracefully from the palanquin, "I'm also glad to see that everyone appears rested and ready for the day's training. Well…almost everyone."
A grunt came from the palanquin where Toph had flopped to her side onto Mai's vacated seat, her legs drawn up though one foot was kicking at Zuko and from her arose half heard grumbles along the lines of, "Sparky hoggin' couch." and, "Keepin' m'up all nigh."
"You were the one who wouldn't let us get any sleep." Zuko mumbled, still seated upright though his legs were stretched out before him, his head tipped back with his eye closed, "Katara was right. You are trying to get yourself preg,"
He didn't get to finish as Toph suddenly kicked out hard and with a cry of alarm Zuko slid out of the other side of the palanquin, hitting the ground on his back with a grunt. Everyone laughed loudly although Mai and Jeong Jeong hid their smirks behind their hands while even the four guards who had carried the palanquin looked away with slightly strained expressions. Ignoring Zuko as he got up grumbling to himself, Zhu Lee turned back to Azula and Reena.
"We had a wonderful evening at home last night." Zhu Lee said to Azula enthusiastically, "Daddy and Momma get along really well and they even helped me practice my Airbending for today."
"Indeed, we did have a very…productive evening." Jeong Joeng growled sourly, "And I only hope the workers I was forced to send for this morning will have all the damage repaired by the time we get home."
"Aww, Daddy. It was only a few windows." Zhu Lee said, a pout on her lips as she mumbled, "And that chandelier…and those paintings…that bookcase…your trophy cabinet and…Tommy again…a couple times,"
Grins were again breaking out all around but Zhu Lee quickly rallied as she stepped up to Azula and smiled sweetly.
"Anyway, where's D…my brother?" she asked, glancing at the four silent guards standing to attention beside the palanquin.
"Ah, don't worry about these boneheads. These are just some of Sparky's Special Flamio Forces or whatevers. Trained by him and Snoozles." Toph groaned, properly awake now as she climbed from the palanquin. Her arm swinging out, Toph's fist slammed into one of the guard's arms and the man stumbled several steps to one side before he managed to straighten himself, "Run along boys. Leave the ride here and make sure no one bugs us while we're training, alright? Otherwise your next training session is going to be with me."
"At once, Princess." All four men intoned, bowing deeply to the royal family before they turned as one to jog quickly away and through the gate of the grounds.
"Was it just me," Aang began, whispering to Katara beside him, "Or did those guys look like they were about to wet themselves?"
Standing at her mother's side, Ana heard this as well and grinned along with Katara, as did Mai, Zuko and even Toph who chuckled happily as the final guard to exit cast her a slightly frightened look as he shut the gates.
"So where's Danny?" Zhu Lee asked again the instant they were alone, "Angel Aangy said I could give him his present this morning."
"Aangy?" Reena asked with a brief grin before she added curiously, "And you got Daniel a present? Like what?"
"It's…well, complicated." Aang replied evasively, dropping his gaze to give the girl beside him a stern look, "And I told you, Zhu Lee. I need to speak with Daniel before you give him this. Daniel has rather…strong feelings where this is concerned."
Reaching behind himself, from the folds of his shirt Aang extracted something slightly over a foot long wrapped in a familiar length of dark red silk, its scorched and frayed ends hanging free.
"I wondered what happened to that." Azula said as she recognised the blindfold, "I thought it had been lost in the Earthen Kingdoms."
"Oh, you mean his blindfold. There's that too I suppose." Zhu Lee said with a shrug, moving away from Aang then as she went to pass Kuzon back to Mai, "But this is a special present from someone else and he told me exactly what I have to,"
Zhu Lee. Wolf's growl interrupted, his deeply worried voice bringing everyone around to stare at Tom Tom, My boy knows. He's coming and he,
But Wolf was silenced and everyone jumped as a bellowing roar shattered the air and they turned to see something streaking down from the sky. It was Daniel in his Wolf-bat form, a white trail of torn air in his wake as he flashed over the high walls of the training grounds, changing to his human shape even before he reached the ground and streaking up to those gathered by the palanquin. Frozen in surprise like everyone else, Aang didn't even have time to blink as Daniel rushed up to him, one hand whipping out faster than he could see to slap the thing Aang held from his grasp and sending it tumbling away across the ground. The blindfold uncoiled from about it as it rolled, revealing a long silver blade that skittered and jingled to a halt on the flagstones a dozen yards away.
"DON'T TOUCH IT! It's him!" Daniel shouted at those standing around him before he grabbed Aang by his shoulders, glaring suspiciously at him, "What were you doing with that thing, Aang? Or more to the point, what has he done to you? He's influenced you somehow, hasn't he? Gotten into your head."
His face was twisted in anger but also by obvious fear as he released Aang's shoulders only to take Aang's head in his hands, Daniel's glaring eyes suddenly bursting into bright white flame.
"Hey, Danny. Just let me explain," Aang began, squirming in Daniel's grasp but was unable to pull away.
"No. He's done something to you, hasn't he?" Daniel growled, twisting Aang's head from side to side as he examined it with his glowing eyes, "Just let me find what influences he left here and whatever he did, I'll fix it. Don't worry, Aang. I'll help you."
"But he didn't do anything. You know that and," Aang began and then yelped as Daniel tightened his grip.
"Danny." Zhu Lee whined and then added in an angrier tone, "Get your thumb out of his eye, you big dummy and just listen for a minute."
My boy, she is right. You must calm yourself. This is not what you think. Wolf added as Tom Tom rushed over, grabbing one of the man's arms.
"Yeah Chuckles, quit it!" Toph cried out, she and Zuko rushing to Daniel's other side.
While Aang and those about him tugged at Daniel's arms that may as well have been forged from steel, Jeong Jeong, Reena, the Huntress and both Katara and Mai all remained still and uncertain when Azula stepped around to face Daniel, reaching out to cup his face in her hands.
"Daniel, hey. It's alright. You know nothing's been done to Aang." Azula tried a softer tone and at the warmth in her voice he turned his blazing eyes to her, his gaze fearful and pleading at the same time.
"He…Nomad must have done something to him." Daniel said in a trembling voice, his eyes turning to where the silver blade lay on the ground and his brow creased in fury once more, "That must be why he brought that thing but I won't let Nomad hurt anyone I love ever again. I won't let him use me to,"
That was as far as he got as Zhu Lee, who'd had more than enough, marched around to stand behind Daniel as he spoke, no one paying any attention to the girl as she drew back one foot and then kicked out savagely so that her foot sailed up between his widely spaced legs to impact solidly against him. The flames burning in Daniel's eyes winked out and he blinked them several times at Azula before they crossed, his hands finally falling away from Aang as he grasped at the pain burning through him and dropped slowly to his knees.
"Oooooh." Aang, Zuko, Tom Tom and even Toph moaned in sympathy though a moment later they were scurrying out of the way as Zhu Lee stomped around to face Daniel.
"You are the dumbest, poopy headed, smelliest, butt brained big brother in the entire world." Zhu Lee shouted, punctuating each insult by slapping Daniel across his face, "You always think you're so smart, that you know better than everybody else. Well, guess what, Danny. You're wrong about Nommy."
"Nommy?" Daniel began in a wheeze, a growl creeping into his voice as it grew louder, "Zhu Lee, that thing put Wolf and me through hell…LITERALLY! He was a monster!"
"He was YOU, Butthead!" She shrieked back at him causing Daniel to lean away.
But not to be denied her hand flashed out again and this time his rose to intercept it and yet she was not trying to slap him again, instead her hand went straight to his face and she jammed two fingers up his nose, his eyes watering as she used that hold to pull him closer.
"You know now that Nommy didn't come from this world but to be a part of it he had to take a bit of you and Wolfie into himself." Zhu Lee snarled, the uncharacteristic fury on her face keeping everyone else as silent as Daniel, "All the things he did, all the bad things he did was so that YOU wouldn't because that's the way you were going, Danny. He showed me the things you did when you were growing up. You did horrible stuff." He flinched but her expression suddenly softened as she released his reddened nose, "And you did good things too. That's what Nommy showed you. That you have good and bad inside you but you always have a choice. You could have been a terrible monster and turned into something like Fate or…you can have a family that loves you…that you can love too. You can be my big brother and look after me. Just like I'll look after you."
She gave him a brief smile and turned away, again those behind her and this time even her father quickly backing out of her path as Zhu Lee went over and picked up the silver blade where it had fallen.
"Zhu, wait." Daniel began, his fears still plainly obvious on his face.
"Don't you see what this is, Danny?" she said, coming back over to him with the long knife cradled in her hands, "Nommy knew you were good because he showed you your bad side but you chose to turn away from that. You've always tried to make up for the things you did and do good, that's why he made you this. Just like the one you made for Reena."
She stopped before him and held out the blade though Daniel made no move to take it from her, everyone else gathering around closely to stare as he was at the single word etched into the side of the blade of the silver knife.
"An unbound totem? For…for Ku?" Reena breathed from behind Daniel, adding excitedly, "You could give him his life back. Like you did for me."
"He told me to tell you something too." Zhu Lee said softly and Daniel looked up at her, fear, confusion but also just a touch of hope in his eyes now, "When you have full understanding and mastery of who and what you are, you'll be able to take Reena home and make things right with your family there but only if you stay on the path you've chosen."
Looking up at her, all of his anger had faded now, the fear too as he looked to the young girl with only regret in his eyes and Daniel slowly reached out but there he hesitated, his fingers hovering and inch from the blade.
"I've examined it thoroughly, Daniel." Aang said from nearby, "There's no trace of the Nomad left there."
"See? It's ok." Zhu Lee said softly, pushing the blade closer.
But for the longest moment he only continued to stare at the silver knife and after a moment more Zhu lee's smile faded as Daniel slowly rose to his feet, his expression becoming hard as he glared coldly.
"No." He growled.
"But," Zhu Lee began, her expression a little hurt now.
"No! I will not let the Nomad take this from me! He doesn't have the right!" Daniel snarled with such ferocity the others stepped back again.
"But…we could get him back, Danny." Reena said loudly, two tears slipping from her eyes as she grabbed his arm, "If…I mean, when you figure out how to get us home. You could do for Kuzon what you did for me. He'd be alive again and…it'll be like it never happened."
"But it did happen." Daniel rumbled, suddenly pensive, "Here."
Reaching out he took the blade from Zhu Lee and then turned to face Reena, bringing the silver blade closer and as he pressed its flat surface to her wrist it suddenly bent and flowed like living mercury. Wrapping itself about her forearm it spread and branched, forming a latticework of silver whorls and spirals all the way to her elbow with one wider strip of silver remaining about her wrist where Kuzon's name could still be seen. She stared at his creation curiously, lifting her arm and the silver shimmered and seemed to move against her tanned skin like the dancing patterns of light on water.
"But," Reena began again, turning her curious gaze back to him, "But it's for Ku."
"If there is no other way, I will use this to restore Kuzon." Daniel rumbled, smiling briefly as he stroked the silver webbing on her arm, "But what happened between us back then, Reena…what I did to Kuzon is my responsibility and it is up to me, not the Nomad, to return to our family what I took from them. What I took from you. And I will be the one to do it because it is the right thing to do. It is what I must do…and it is what I will do."
"But," Starring intently into his eyes, Reena grabbed his shoulders, "Promise me. Swear to me you can do this, Danny."
"You know I do." He replied with a brief grin.
She searched his face for a moment more and then Reena lunged forward, throwing her arms about his neck as she hugged herself to him tightly.
"YES!" Zhu Lee's sudden squeal of delight made everyone jump and they turned to stare at the grinning girl as she punched a fist into the air, "That worked perfectly! Nommy was right about you, Danny."
While everyone else was staring open mouthed at Zhu Lee, Reena releasing Daniel so she could peer around him, he remained with his back to the girl, his shoulders hunching as he locked eyes with Azula.
"I've just been played, haven't I?" he asked her.
"Played quite masterfully it would seem." She answered him with a smirk.
"So…all of this," Daniel growled, turning about and glaring at Zhu Lee, "After all this I'm still doing exactly what the Nomad wants me to do?"
"Yep." She replied, grinning up at the man, "And now you'll work extra hard to do it too."
"Why you little," Daniel growled, moving toward the girl but was stopped as Zhu Lee stepped into him, her chin bouncing off his chest as she returned his glare without fear.
"Don't you get cranky at me, Buster." She snapped, then grinned at him again, "You're supposed to be teaching me Airbending and if you don't get to it real soon, I'm going to get cranky…again…and you're the one standing here with your doddle still hanging out."
He actually jumped back from her almost knocking down Reena, his face paling as he slapped his hands over himself and a moment later the others were grinning along with Zhu Lee as Daniel sidled around behind Azula.
"Here. I had a feeling you'd be needing a spare pair." Azula said with a sigh, reaching over her shoulder to extract a pair of silken trousers from her small pack.
"Thanks." He breathed from behind her and quickly pulled them on.
"I don't get it though." Zuko suddenly pipped up, "Why would the Nomad give you that. Surely he would know you wouldn't accept it."
"Nah, he gave it to Danny to help my brother make the right choice." Zhu Lee was the one who answered, still grinning at Daniel, "And he did. Just like Nommy said he would."
While Daniel glowered at the girl, Zuko and most everyone else were still staring at her in confusion.
"Don't you understand?" Azula suddenly asked and they turned their confused expressions to her next, "The Nomad, with Zhu Lee's help, just manipulated Daniel into doing something he both wanted and didn't want to do and they did it rather skilfully too. Not only has the Nomad reinforced Daniel's desire to master his abilities but while rejecting the Nomad's gift, he cannot simply dispose of it either. If Danny here truly wishes to help us win this war and then return home to do the same there, and we all know he does," Smirking she reached over to grasp Reena's silver coated arm and lifted it for the others to see again, "Then he has no choice but to keep this totem close either as a backup or as an example he can use to create his own totem for his blood brother Kuzon."
"Umm, if you just said Danny will work extra, extra hard now then…Yep." Zhu Lee said, a somewhat smug smile on her face as she giggled.
"I'll deal with you shortly." Daniel growled menacingly while Zhu Lee only continued grinning at him. Then looking about at the others, he stepped up to Aang, "Listen I, uh…once again I owe you an apology. I guess I owe everyone,"
"No, Daniel." Aang interrupted him warmly, "I understand,"
"Hey. Forget it, Chuckles." Toph interrupted Aang with a dismissive wave of her hand, "We've gotten used to you being the loveable, dumbest, poopy headed, smelliest, butt brained barrel of laughs in the world. Don't sweat over it."
"I'm sure what Toph means is," Aang began with a disapproving frown at the young woman who was grinning as widely as Zhu lee at Daniel, "We know how you feel about the Nomad. I wanted to talk to you before giving you that and I didn't know what else Zhu Lee had planned but we're not surprised by your reaction."
"You do have a habit of overreacting, Danny." Mai added, looking down at her son in her arms, "But since you didn't disturb Kuzon, I think I can forgive you this time."
"Thank you." Daniel breathed, then pointed to the far corner of the training grounds, "I've put out some food for all of you and afterwards you should start training. Unfortunately though, you'll have to train yourselves this morning," he suppressed a grin as several of them sighed in relief, "While I give Zhu Lee exactly what she wants."
A huge smile spread across Zhu Lee's face at this though she didn't see the way those who knew the man best, Zuko, Toph and Aang especially turning grins of their own onto her.
"Hooray." Zhu Lee cried enthusiastically, bouncing on the balls of her feet, "I'm gonna learn to Airbend like my brother."
"You're going to learn alright, my little sister." Daniel's growled, his ominous chuckle finally taking the smile from her face. "Oh, yes. You will learn."
The morning progressed slowly, for Azula at least who was again beside the pool with Reena, Mai joining them as well even if she couldn't (and nor could Azula yet) actually Bend the water. Steam was again rising in great plumes as Azula's continuing efforts only seemed to boil the water within the pool but she persevered. Although she was finding herself unusually distracted from her task. This had nothing to do with Mai stripping off her fine silken dress after about an hour, growing tired with practicing the Waterbending forms. While the other two continued their work, the young Firelady sighed occasionally with pleasure as she reclined back onto several cushions, enjoying the warmth of the sun within the greater warmth of the steam surrounding them in just her underclothes, themselves ankle length and crafted from the finest silk.
Nor was Azula distracted by Zuko and Toph sparring together on the opposite side of the training yards. The ground shuddered violently sometimes as Toph tore up huge chunks of stone, tearing these apart next with her Earthbending and sending a hail of small stones flying out at Zuko. He responded with a rapid stream of fireballs that blasted most of the stones to dust, those that got through he then merely halted in the air by reaching for the latent energies within the stones with his Firebending. Then as he sent huge blasts and sheets of flame roaring out at her, Toph simply folded her arms as the air surrounding her blurred, Zuko's flames washing harmlessly around her as her spinning shield of fine silver dust drew the heat from the air, breaking the force of Zuko's attacks so that Toph's hair barely stirred as she stood there grinning.
Closer to the boiling pool, Aang sat with Jeong Jeong, Ana and Gyatso, a small fire burning between them and with several small objects drifting about that they were passing back and forth. In Gyatso's case however he merely giggled happily as he attempted to catch the things the other three were Bending around the circle although he currently sucked the fingers of one hand after learning it was not so very wise to try and grab the floating coals drifting about with the other things above his head.
Over In the far corner of the training yards, where Daniel had set up a low stone table beneath the shade of a stone awning he had also created with his Earthbending, Katara sat with Tom Tom, her hands coated with brightly glowing water as she run them up and down his injured arm. On a large cushion beside her, Kuzon slept peacefully and curled up beside him (her nocturnal instincts getting the better of her) the Huntress slept as well.
None of these were what constantly drew Azula's attention. What was keeping Azula distracted through the long hours of the morning was the man training alongside a young girl out in the centre of the large courtyard. With the sun high in the sky now, Zhu Lee was drenched in sweat, swaying a little on her feet but determined to learn everything Daniel had to teach her and he was putting her through set after set of gruelling exercises to familiarise her with the Airbending forms. While she knew she was supposed to be focused on learning her own forms, Azula watched him from the corner of her eyes, all of her senses drinking his blazing spirit, his earthy scent of sweet musk, the commanding tone of his deep voice as he kept Zhu Lee working and with her eyes Azula took in every angle and curve of his athletic body, his every motion as he trained alongside the girl. He wore only black trousers, the long strip of silk he'd once worn about his eyes now tied loosely about his neck and Azula admired the way hardened muscles twisted and coiled beneath his pale skin as he dipped and rose. A tiny smile grew on her lips as she watched the sunlight glistening from the faint sheen of sweat on his broad chest as he gracefully spun about before he thrust out his arms in a precision strike, twisting about in a full circle then as he performed a series of strikes, his airblasts perfectly controlled displaying his mastery of the skill.
"Enjoying the view?"
Turning back to the pool, Azula glanced guiltily at Reena as her face darkened and hoped her companion might mistake her rising blush as a product of the steam surrounding them. That steam rushed away suddenly as Reena lowered her arms, the pool before them growing still.
"Alright, maybe it's time we take a break." Reena said with a smile, "But I'd like to ask you something too. About what's blocking you from Waterbending." She paused to glance at Mai, lowering her voice, "I know you went through…some bad times as a kid but when you look at Danny, I can see how you feel about him in your aura and those same fears that are blocking your Waterbending are connected to your feelings for Danny too. So I have to ask you something personal, Azula," moving closer she whispered, "Are you having any trouble…you know, being intimate with Danny?"
"What?" Azula demanded incredulously, "What does that have to do with Waterbending?"
"Because I told you, Waterbending requires passion but your passions are being clouded by the negative feelings inside you." Reena explained calmly, "That works fine for Firebending because the positive and the negative inside you can both fuel your fire but you can't Waterbend while your emotions are at war inside you." Reaching out she drew a small stream of water from the pool, making it coil and twist about her in a complex and beautiful dance, "Waterbending is a reflection of ourselves and it takes understanding and acceptance of not just the element but of ourselves as well. You need to love the water, be as intimate with it as you are with yourself."
"Intimate with myself? How exactly?" Azula asked in worried tones, drawing her legs up and hugging them to herself, "Are you saying if I want to Waterbend I have to materb, err, I mean touch…umm,"
She frowned as Reena suddenly laughed loudly. Even Mai who had obviously been listening as she lay back snorted with unladylike laughter until Azula sat up straighter and folded her arms, glaring across at her old friend.
"No, Azula. Not THAT kind of intimacy although I'm not saying that wouldn't help." Reena told her, her grin fading as she added curiously, "Are you saying you've never…touched yourself?"
"I take it you know what Ty Lee used to be like with the guys?" Mai suddenly asked as she sat up, "Well, Azula has always been the complete opposite."
"Yes, thank you for clarifying that, Mai." Azula shot at her dryly before turning back to Reena, "And no, I've never touched myself except to keep myself clean. I have experienced something like the pleasure that is supposed to bring but to be honest, that was mostly by accident."
"You know, when we do get you Waterbending, I can teach you a way of streaming the water that can be a LOT of fun." Reena said, her grin returning as Azula simply glared, "Anyway, I wasn't talking about physical intimacy before but how you feel about yourself. Here, let's try something different. Look at this and tell me what you see."
Reaching to the pool again, Reena brought the water sloshing toward them and it splashed up in front of Azula, freezing suddenly into a tall and thin sheet of ice. Azula stared blankly at her reflection in the ice for a moment and then turned to give Reena a shrug.
"I see myself." She said, "So what?"
"But what do you see when you look at yourself?" Reena pressed her, reaching over to turn Azula's head back to the sheet of ice.
"It's…just me." Azula said, shrugging again and her reflection was sharing her confused expression, "I don't understand. What is it you are expecting me to see?"
"Azula, don't you see? You are a beautiful young woman." Mai breathed from the other side of the pool, "You should be able to see that for yourself. It's been drilled into you your entire life after all and I know Ty Lee always used to praise you so much I'm surprised her nose didn't turn brown."
"You know that was because of my station. A princess is supposed to be perfect in every way." Azula shot back at her in annoyance then touched her plain clothing with another shrug, "These days I don't usually concern myself with my appearance. I prefer to judge my worth on my skills."
"But there's nothing wrong with taking a little pride in how you look." Mai told her, "Did you realise you have your mother's eyes? They're a much brighter gold than mine or Zuko's and I think Kuzon's inherited them as well. And I'll admit, I've always been so jealous of your hair."
"My hair?" Azula asked, reaching up to touch her bangs, "But yours is always immaculate."
"Only because I spend several hours combing, brushing, oiling and conditioning mine two or three times a day." Mai told her, "You brush yours once and even with all your running around and turning into an animal it looks perfect all day."
"And let's not forget, you've got a body most women would kill for." Reena added, rubbing at her legs, "I'm afraid I inherited my Aunt Katara's thighs. Chunky legs run in the family and if I don't watch what I eat and exercise every day, they swell up overnight."
"Then stop eating all of my chocolates." Azula snapped playfully but her smirk fell away as she added thoughtfully, "I still don't understand though. What does my appearance have to do with this?"
"Not so much your appearance but how you feel about yourself. Inside and out." Reena told her warmly.
"You've always had an inner beauty even if that you hide that well but we see it too." Mai said although as Azula's confused and disbelieving frown remained and she turned that expression from them and back to the mirror, Mai frowned herself as she added, "You really don't let yourself see it, do you?"
"Azula," Reena began, suddenly uncertain and hesitant as she said, "I think you have a very strong and deep seated fear of intimacy."
"What?" Azula said loudly, glaring at both the other women, "I…I do not."
"I think you do." Reena said, rising then to her feet, "Now, I want to try something else. Switch to a Tigress for me."
"What? Why?" Azula asked.
"Come on. It's important." Was all Reena said in reply, half turning away to walk slowly around the edge of the pool.
Azula glanced around out of habit but no one was looking their way and she simply dropped into the moment anyway, blurring with activity as she striped her clothing and transformed in the blink of an eye. Standing on four feet she shook herself, stretching before she sat back down and relaxing a little as her heightened senses drank in the world around her.
"Good. Now look again at the mirror and tell me what you see." Reena said and Azula did as she was instructed.
The same as before, I see me. Azula reported with her thoughts, her golden eyes taking in her wider feline face, narrow yet muscular body and her tail twitching restlessly behind her.
"And you've explained to me before how it feels to be a Tigress." Reena said wistfully as she stopped at the edge of the pool across from Azula, "It sounds wonderful to me. To be unencumbered by thoughts and desires. The way your human concerns fade away leaving you to be guided by instinct and pure emotion."
And with that Reena struck, her silver clad arm going down then rising up before her and the water within the pool rushed away from her, rising with Reena's motion to form a huge wave that hovered briefly over Azula who flattened her ears and backed away. Then as the wave began to crash down, the Tigress did the first thing that came to her and opened her mouth and roared her defiance. It was instinct alone that compelled her to do it but she blinked as the wave split down the middle and spread apart as it splashed down either side of her. Some water washed over her paws but Azula looked about at the wet flagstones around her then turned her astonished gaze back to Reena.
I…I felt it. She growled with growing excitement, That was Waterbending. I could feel the water as it moved.
"Uh, you going to have to speak properly." Reena said, tapping the side of her head with a finger, "I don't understand growl, growl, hiss, spit."
I do not spit. Azula returned with her thoughts, once again becoming a brief blur of activity and when she was done she was human, dressed again in her clothes and adjusting her fine silver chain about her throat, "I said I felt it that time. Like with my flames or the air. I wanted to keep the water away and I felt it move around me."
"I thought that might work." Reena told her with a wide smile, coming back around the near empty pool to Azula's side, "I could see it in your aura. Those same fears are still there but they can't get in the way of your Tigress's spirit."
"It's good to be making some progress at least." Azula conceded with a small smile, "But I still need to find a way to achieve that when I'm human as well."
"You will, Azula." Mai said warmly, rising to her feet and coming around to Azula's other side. She glanced at Reena with just the briefest hint of hesitation before she returned her smile to Azula, "I want you to know, about what happened to us back then. The scars your father left with us will always hurt, Azula. I'm afraid that pain never goes away." As Azula flinched at this and dropped her eyes, Mai hooked a finger under her chin and gently lifted Azula's eyes to hers again, "But it does get easier. Especially if you have those you love around you and lean on them when you need their support. That's why I know you'll get this because I'll be here for you. Me, Reena, everyone in our family. Anytime you need us."
Azula found her throat constrict and didn't reply as Mai stepped closer to plant a soft kiss on her brow. But then surprising her friend, Azula quickly wrapped her arms about Mai in a tight if brief hug.
"I might go check on my little man to see if he's getting hungry." Mai continued, pointing past Azula, "And it looks like everyone else has the same idea. Shall we join them and I'll send for some of the servants to fetch us lunch."
They moved off together, Azula pausing to collect her box of chocolates which had thankfully survived Reena's Waterbending and then went to join the others. They all gathered around the low table in the shade, watching the last two who remained out on the training fields. Zhu Lee looked ready to drop but still Daniel drove her on, her movements a little uncoordinated now as she tried to copy his motions, obviously exhausted with her hair plastered to her head and back from the sweat that literally poured from her.
"Hey, Chuckles." Toph shouted, growing impatient, "Give the kid a break will ya? We wanna order some lunch."
And stop he did. Daniel spun about to glare at those under the awning while Zhu Lee dropped her arms with obvious relief but as her trembling knees threatened to buckle beneath her, he spun back and quickly scooped her up in his arms, throwing the girl over his shoulder before walking over to the others.
"What do you mean, order lunch?" Daniel demanded when he got to them, "I set out a ton of food this morning."
"Yeah, so? We had that for breakfast." Toph shot back at him with a grin.
"Breakfast? But I made a platter of spiced fish cakes with Juk and spring vegetables and a big tureen of Hippo-beef broth with noodles. And you scoffed all that for breakfast?" Daniel snapped incredulously, glaring down at the empty table, "For spirits sake, there was even two pots of rose and ginseng tea."
"Yes, we noticed. All of Azula's favourite foods." Mai said softly, almost but not quite suppressing her smirk, "And a box of chocolates for her as well. What have you been up to, Danny?"
"But…but I haven't, I mean, I didn't," Daniel began, his anger dissolving into a panicky expression as the others grinned knowingly at him.
"Chocolates?" Katara pipped up then, unconcerned with Daniel now as she turned to stare wide eyed at Mai, "Azula's got chocolates?"
"Alright. That's it. You've all gone soft while I was away." Daniel growled, quickly rallying and setting the glare back onto his face, "I was going to continue with Zhu's training this afternoon but I can see you lot need me more. Enjoy your damn lunch because once you're done with that, you're mine." A few of those before him blanched at this but Daniel's glare only softened as he turned to one of the youngest of the group, "Ana, I'll need you to take over with Zhu Lee for the afternoon."
"Oh, thank goodness." Came a plaintive voice from behind Daniel.
Bending forward he set Zhu Lee onto her feet and she made her way unsteadily around the table, Reena rising quickly to grab the obviously exhausted girl and helping her down onto a cushion.
"Daniel, what have you been doing to her?" Reena snapped at the man while summoning water from the air to her hand, resting this against Zhu lee's forehead.
"Only something even the Nomad couldn't do." Daniel replied with a lopsided grin, "I shut her up."
Jeong Jeong did his best to hide his own grin though he watched his daughter with mild concern as she grabbed Reena's silver coated arm, pulling the young woman's hand down so she could greedily suck at the water Reena was Bending there.
"Oh, sweetheart. You must be dehydrated. Here, I'll get you some more." Gesturing toward a cup on the table, more moisture condensed out of the air and quickly filling the cup, then bringing this up to Zhu Lee to drink, Reena shot a hard glare at Daniel, "How could you be so irresponsible? Did you even let this poor girl have anything to drink while you two were working out in the hot sun all morning?"
"Of course I," Daniel started.
"No he didn't." Zhu Lee interrupted in a miserable voice, tears welling in her eyes as she gazed up at Reena, "He made me work and work and he wouldn't let me rest even though it's so hot today." She sniffled loudly as a tear slipped from one grey eye, "My brother's a big meanie."
"Yes he is." Reena answered her before snapping again at Daniel, "And we will be having words about this later, Daniel."
"But I," Daniel began to argue but now Reena's lips compressed into a pale line, her eyes narrowing in a glare that would have made her mother proud.
He returned her glare silently because what Reena could not see was Zhu Lee's small yet triumphant grin and the way the girl poked her tongue out at the man before her face again adopted an exhausted, miserable expression as Reena offered her another sip from the cup of water.
"She is good." Azula whispered to Mai beside her, the pair sharing a knowing smirk.
"Fine. Whatever." Daniel growled, his own glare hardening as he looked around at the others, "And I suppose I had better make myself scarce while you order your lunches."
"You know that's the way it has to be." Aang told him kindly, "But you don't have to go anywhere. You could just become a Wolf-bat and stay here."
"I think I'll go elsewhere to play dead. The rest of you just make sure you order plenty to drink. You're going to need it." Daniel growled ominously, his glare locking onto Tom Tom next, "How's your arm now?"
"Oh, err, much better, thank you." Tom Tom answered politely, holding up his arm to display pink skin in strong contrast to his usual light golden tan, "Lady Katara is amazing. There's not even any scarring and,"
"Yeah, great. Now come here." Daniel interrupted, leaning over the table to grab the boy's shoulder, "I need to borrow you and a friend of ours."
And before Tom Tom or anyone else could raise a voice in protest, Daniel and the boy were gone.
Councillor Lardok was no stranger to fear and violence. He had been a junior minister to the then king of the Northern Watertribes during the Firenation's siege more than a decade before and had fought alongside his people, had continued fighting even as the moon turned red and their greatest warriors Bending had failed them, had cheered alongside his people as the ocean spirit had risen up to send the Firenation's soldiers running and sent more than half of their enormous fleet of warships to the bottom of the ocean.
Today however, Lardok was more terrified than he had even been in his life. He was currently tied to a chair in the main hall of his expansive home, his robes torn and shredded and dripping with the blood that seeped from the many scratches and deep cuts that covered his chest and stomach. Across the huge room were his personal Waterbenders, the house guards and his staff, most of whom were gathered together on one side of the huge room and looking back at him with eyes that glowed faintly red. Only a few of the servants remained bound as he was and he watched, unable to look away as the strange woman he had brought into his home moved toward them, her appearance greatly altered since he had first seen her.
"Please…no more." Lardok pleaded, flinching as the cold flames in place of Jin's eyes turned to him, "Take what you want from me…just don't hurt them anymore."
"Oh, I haven't even begun taking what I want from you." Jin said pleasantly, her smile far from pleasant however as she turned to her latest victim, "And what I'm doing to them doesn't hurt a bit…Well, as far as I know anyway. Now, let's see what's in this one's head first."
Jin grabbed for a young woman kneeling on the floor, the servant's hands and feet bound, her protests muffled by a gag tied tightly about her mouth. Pulling the woman's head back, Jin placed her other hand on her forehead, the servant's cries ceasing as her eyes rolled and her body jerked and twitched.
"Whoa, another one?" Jin snapped with a disgusted expression as she released the woman, the servant flopping to her front on the floor apparently unconscious, "Seriously, have you screwed your way through your entire staff? Maybe I should have been checking the guys too."
Still glaring at the bound man, Jin next reached behind herself and drew something from her white cloak, kneeling down to slap the unconscious servant's cheek until her eyes fluttered open and then Jin suddenly thrust her other hand close to the young woman's face. Darkness erupted about Jin's hand and again the servant girl twitched and jerked until there came a muted flash of light and the young woman went still. As the darkness faded, Jin drew her hand back and waited silently, still smiling to herself as, after a minute, the young woman laying beside her suddenly pushed herself up, looking about with eyes that glowed with an internal light.
"I am here." The now possessed woman said in a low voice.
"And now that you are, get over there with the others." Jin snapped, her voice suddenly cold and commanding, "Then keep your mouth shut and wait until I give you your orders."
"Where is Phoenix?" the woman demanded threateningly, "My orders are to report only to,"
Moving faster than the man across the room could see, Jin grabbed the possessed woman about the throat, forcing her back and down so that the woman ended up on her back, her eyes widening in surprise as Jin's flared brightly.
"I am in charge here." Jin hissed into the woman's face, "And the next time one of you pathetic demons forgets that, I will teach you levels of pain you never dreamed of."
Rising upright, Jin lifted the woman with the hand about her throat, hurling her suddenly across the room and those already possessed scattered as the woman crashed into a table where they had been, shattering it and several chairs.
"What," Lardok whimpered from his chair, "What are you?"
Jin's feline lips spread apart, exposing long and pointed teeth in a frightening grin but without answering she moved to the last few unpossessed and terrified servants kneeling on the floor, her grin widening as they struggled against the ropes holding them. One after another she first invaded their minds, taking what she wanted before she brought out the stone, banishing their souls to the consuming eye and then waiting until they arose with fresh souls possessing their bodies.
"There now. That's everyone." Jin said happily, turning her twisted grin to Lardok.
He writhed about in his chair as she approached but could not pull free of the ropes holding him as she came to stand before him, her hand flashing out to grasp his face and hold him still as she bent down to bring their faces level.
"Except for you, you filthy letch. I have something special planned for you." Jin breathed, licking at her lips, "You're going to get us into the palace and help us destroy your own city."
"N…never." Lardok said bravely, flinching as her blazing eyes drew closer to his.
"Oh, you won't have any choice in the matter." Jin told him, exposing more of her teeth as she grinned, "But tell me something first, how many servants work in this city? How many rich assholes like you have places like this?"
"Wha," he began but her smile vanished as she dug her claws into his cheeks, silencing him as she pulled his face closer.
"They come to your palaces day after day. Working for a pittance before they go home to their little hovels only to came back and do it again. Just like my mother did for most of her life." Jin snarled at him, "You treat them like dirt and pay them just enough to keep them alive. It's no wonder so many of them are willing to spread their legs for a little extra." She reached down with her other hand, her claws shredding what remained of his robes and underwear and she grinned again as she looked down at his exposed flesh, "And I really do mean little. I always heard you Watertribe boys were supposed to be impressive but that's just pathetic."
She released him, straightening up as she reached to her robes, bringing forth the consuming eye and the man whimpered, tears spilling from his eyes. Jin suddenly paused however as she glanced over at her possessed minions waiting across the large hall. Turning back to Lardok, she put away the stone as she leaned over him again, her smile already so frightening before now inspiring true terror in the man she faced.
"Actually, why don't we have a little fun first?" Jin breathed, stroking his cheek with one hand and he shuddered as she trailed her claws down his chest, over his ample belly and then he grunted in a mixture of pain and fear as took a hold of his anatomy down between his legs, "After all, so many of your youngest maids were willing to play with this little thing for a bit of extra cash. It must be a lot of fun so…why don't I show you how I like to have fun with dirty old men?"
And then Lardok screamed as Jin's claws dug in and she pulled, the part of him she held first stretching and then with a sound like tearing cloth, it parted from the rest of his body in a spray of blood. Those across the room, demons long used to cruelty and torture, all stepped back, some of them turning away as Lardok's loud screams became muffled as Jin shoved his torn anatomy into his open mouth, blood spraying all about as Jin laughed while slashing at him again and again with her claws.
It was a very tired Owl-cat who fluffed out it's feathers in annoyance as its sleep was again disturbed by Daniel and now Tom Tom as well on the highest roof of the palace. They were paying no attention at all to their sleepy companion however as Daniel paced back and forth in an agitated way while Tom Tom flexed his freshly healed arm, testing it out further with a few press-ups and then attempted a handstand.
My boy, Wolf can no longer read your thoughts but, Wolf began, pausing as Tom Tom toppled onto his back on the roof tiles, But Wolf can still feel your emotions. Is it the Nomad's…gift that has you so confused? Wolf believes you made the right choice not to accept it.
"I know." Daniel mumbled distractedly, still pacing between the chimney stacks, "He certainly knew how to motivate me but he should have known I'd refuse that. How can I hope for Kuzon or anyone to forgive me if I rely on someone else to fix my mistakes?"
Then perhaps he had some other purpose for this gift of his. Wolf suggested and Daniel stopped, turning to Tom Tom in surprise.
"Of course." Daniel exclaimed before adding pensively, "But the question is, what is it for?"
That we cannot know. You know how the Nomad worked. The purpose of his gift will only be understood when the time is right. Wolf growled and nodding, Daniel resumed his pacing, Of one thing Wolf is certain. Aang was correct when he said nothing of the Nomad remains within it. It is no different to the piece of that backpack we crafted for June and then used to save Reena. Nothing but a great deal of energy given physical form.
"And that's what I have to figure out how to make." Daniel growled himself, his face set in a pensive frown as he paced, "Not to mention figure out just how to get Re home as well so I can restore Ku's life. And somehow I need to figure that out AND work out how the hell to defeat Fate all while making sure no one finds out that I'm alive."
So is that what is troubling you, boy? Wolf growled curiously, It might not be comfortable for you but it is a sound plan. Let Fate believe you dead and keep her attention turned elsewhere. That way we have plenty of time to train our family.
"I know. I know. I hate to admit it since Nomad thought it up but…it's still a good plan." Daniel growled sourly, spinning around to pace the other way as he added darkly, "I just don't have to like it."
So if this is not what is troubling you boy then what is? Wolf growled impatiently, You have been worked up about something all day.
"I know and…it's the reason I brought you up here." Daniel said haltingly, his face screwing up in frustration, "But now I've got you here…I can't."
And why not? Wolf snapped indignantly.
"Because you're currently a twelve year old boy!" Daniel all but shouted in reply.
"Hey, I'm less than a month away from being thirteen." Tom Tom returned heatedly, glaring defiantly back at Daniel, "My Father said I can have a shaving kit for my birthday."
"Hooray for you…kid." Daniel snapped, throwing his arms up in the air, "Look, Tommy. Could you…switch places with Wolf for me? I need to talk to him…privately."
Boy, you above all know how our bond works. What Wolf knows, Tommy knows. Wolf growled.
"And besides, I think maybe I can help you." Tom Tom said and Daniel only rolled his eyes, turning to continue his pacing when Tom Tom added slyly, "Wolf thinks I'm wrong about this but…I was awake early this morning when your emotions started jumping all over the place. Those kinds of dreams will do that to you, won't they?"
Daniel suddenly froze, one foot still hovering above the rooftiles with his back to the boy though Tom Tom could clearly see the blush spreading down Daniel's neck to his shoulders. Then spinning quickly, Daniel's face was livid with anger, his fists half raised and trembling with suppressed rage but Tom Tom rose to his feet without concern, smiling as he approached.
"Like Wolf said, what he knows, I know." Tom Tom said warmly, "So I know you've been suppressing this part of yourself for most of your life but remember, you're whole now. Your spirit is finally able to grow and mature and your body knows that even if you don't."
"I am not discussing this with a twelve year old CHILD." Daniel snapped furiously but with unmistakable fear in his voice too before he turned away again, "You're too young to even be thinking of that kind of thing and I…shouldn't be thinking that way about Azula anyway."
By the Ancestors. Wolf growled in sudden amazement, Tommy was right!
"Look, just drop it alright!" Daniel growled without turning, "I have to get back to start the afternoon training and then,"
"Daniel Bei Fong!"
The voice that rose from Tom Tom was a mixture of his and Wolf's together and Daniel spun back around in surprise. The boy took a deep breath and when he next spoke he used the authoritive tone of the command.
The expression of shock and absolute amazement on Daniel's face would have made anyone else laugh as his knees buckled of their own accord, his legs folding beneath him and dropping him heavily to his backside onto the roof tiles.
"How did you?" Daniel began.
Boy! You will stay where you are! Wolf's growl demanded only obedience, You will shut up and you will listen!
And he did. Only able to stare as Tom Tom came over to him and sat down at his side. Then as Daniel stared open mouthed, he could do nothing but listen as the preteen boy at his side began to explain.
After lunch and since Daniel had not yet returned, the others separated into groups to continue their training (mainly because no one wanted to be found sitting around doing nothing when he did return). Near the covered table, Aang had rebuilt the small fire and once again was helping Jeong Jeong to develop his Bending with the addition of the Huntress who had joined them if only to watch what they were doing curiously. Zuko and Toph were sparring across the large courtyard and Mai had elected to join them, their training far less vigorous than it had been that morning and their sparring match focused more on hand to hand fighting with a great many attempts at holds or pinning each other to the ground. Ana and Zhu lee were together in the centre of the training yards, Ana instructing the older girl on a technique known as the Dancing Leaf, something Zhu lee was grateful for since it was a far lighter and easier exercise than anything Daniel had put her through that morning. Only Gyatso and Kuzon remained beneath the awning near the table, both of them fast asleep on large cushions, their bellies contentedly full after their lunches.
And once again Azula sat beside the sunken pool with Reena, Katara joining them this time and while some steam still arose from the water, Azula was the only one moving at its edge. As she weaved her arms, rocking back and forth, a tiny wavelet rolled across the surface of the steaming water, surging away from Azula as she leaned forward and then striking the far side of the pool it reversed course as she drew it back.
"Excellent, Azula." Katara said warmly, "Keep your centre focused. Feel your emotions, let them flow from you to the water."
"I am trying." Azula breathed, frowning as she dropped her arms, "But shouldn't I be achieving more than…that?"
She glared as her little wave hit the far side of the pool by Katara, rebounding as barely a ripple that quickly faded and she sighed as the pool grew still.
"It's not bad for your first time." Katara told her with a smile, "Although I suspect your emotions are conflicted at the moment and that is why you're having this difficulty."
"Yes." Azula admitted, glancing at Reena beside her, "We have…discussed those."
"And I think I can guess what those were." Katara added with a nod, looking then to Reena herself, "Have you tried separating the emotions yet? Getting her to focus on just one side?"
"Not yet but," Reena began, glancing at Azula, "The positive and negative within her are mixed up and twisted together. I was worried that trying to make her separate them might be more harmful than good for her."
"True but I'm thinking that rather than trying to force her to bring forth the positive, we go the other way." Katara said, "It could actually help her to begin by focusing instead on some of that stronger negative chi and channel that into her Waterbending."
"Hmm, maybe." Reena said in agreement, "That could backfire though. You know what she's been through."
"Oh, yes. She's spoken of it with Aang and I before." Katara continued with a nod, "But it's those emotions she needs to deal with the most if she can ever get past the things her father did to her and I know she carries a lot of guilt over some of the choices she made herself back then."
"You know, I am right here." Azula snapped testily, "What are you two going on about?"
"Just an idea." Katara told her, "I'm not sure you'll like it very much but…think of it as the next stage of your therapy."
"Oh." Azula returned flatly, her displeasure obvious on her face, "Goody."
"Stand up for me." Katara instructed and with a little difficulty, rose to her own feet with a groan, one hand resting on her bulging stomach, "Alright, now I want you to follow my example."
With her other hand, Katara reached out and the water in the pool before them humped upwards, a blue tentacle of water reaching up several feet in length to dance and twist about with its tip just under Katara's hand.
"Go on. Now you try." Katara instructed, continuing her Waterbending.
Azula did as she was instructed, holding out her hand and concentrating, bringing her arm up slowly in a lifting motion, grasping with her hand as Katara had done but at first nothing happened. She kept it up however and after a minute was rewarded for her efforts as the water at the edge of the pool humped up in a small wave, then immediately collapsed back down. With Katara and Reena's encouragement, she continued and with each motion of her arm the water rose and dropped repeatedly yet while Katara still held her thin stream of water upright on her side of the pool, for all Azula's effort and concentration she could raise the water no more than a few inches.
"Keep it up, Azula." Katara said encouragingly, "Now, close your eyes and I want you to remember something from your past. A powerfully emotional event. I want you to remember…the night your mother died."
Her heart skipped a beat and Azula almost stopped, her brows furrowing but understanding in part what Katara was attempting with her, she closed her eyes. She kept up her movements, uncertain if the water still moved but focusing less on that, Azula turned her thoughts inwards and thought of that night almost fifteen years ago. It did not take a great deal of effort to dredge up the memories of something that had once been a common theme of her nightmares. She could vividly remember the way her mother had pleaded with her father and while she did not see it at the time, she could clearly remember the sounds of her mother's pain filled cry and the blow that had ended her life, the dull thump of her body hitting the floor in the hallway outside Azula's room. And yet what brought the worse pain, even worse than her father forcing himself into her tiny and defenceless body, was the memory of her mother's blood seeping beneath her bedroom door. She lay on her bed, her father grunting atop her, her vision blurred and shaking as he sated his cruel lust upon her yet she could not turn her eyes away from that dark red stain as it grew and spread across the floorboards of her room.
"No!" Azula gasped, not noticing the strange crackling sound as she stepped back then hugged her arms about herself and shivered, "I don't want to do this. I don't want to…remember."
"Azula, it's alright." Came Reena's soft voice growing closer, "We're here. It's ok, now."
"She's right. You're safe. You're with us. It's alright." Katara's voice came from her other side, "Just open your eyes, sweetheart. Open them and see."
Slowly she did, her eyes focusing gradually to see Katara and Reena's concerned faces before they moved aside and Azula jerked in surprise as she saw the pool behind them. The water was gone. What filled the pool now was ice, great spikes of it jutting up into the air, dozens of them some of which were thin and several yards long and the white ice glistened, droplets of water rolling down the spikes or dripping to the ground as the warmth of the sun slowly began to melt them.
"I…did I…do that?" Azula breathed in amazement.
Katara only nodded in answer, looking behind Azula at something and then quickly drawing a small piece of blue cloth from her shirt sleeve, using that to wipe at Azula's cheeks and eyes and when she drew it back the handkerchief was dark with moisture. Azula reached up to touch the tears that still clung to her eyelashes, her cheeks colouring in embarrassment though she smiled briefly in gratitude.
"Thank you." Azula breathed when she felt a little steadier, pointing then at the melting ice, "I think I felt…something while I was Waterbending but I had no intention of doing…that."
"Getting you to put some emotion into it helped." Katara told her, turning to look at the ice herself, "Although I had a feeling that particular memory would have a more…profound effect."
"But we're also making some real progress now." Reena added with a smile, "Do you think you can remember how to draw on your emotions again for the next time?"
"I think so…Yes." Azula said, wiping at her eyes one more time before she added with determination, "I'm ready to try anyway."
"Perhaps not right now. We might save that for when you can have a little more privacy." Katara said and as Azula turned questioningly to her, Katara pointed behind them.
Turning, Azula blinked in surprise to see the training grounds empty. Aang and Zuko were approaching from the far corner where the covered table was, their sleeping sons in their arms while Ana and Zhu Lee, Toph Mai and Jeong Jeong were already gathered by the palanquin. And looking at the palanquin where it had been left that morning, what Azula had at first assumed to be a large pillow stuffed under the seat she realised was the Huntress, curled up and comfortably asleep again.
"Just what do you all think you're doing?" Azula demanded as she marched over, "We are supposed to be training."
"Yeah and we did train." Toph told her with a grin, "But since Chuckles is busy elsewhere, we decided to go shopping."
"Okay, even I have to question that." Katara shot back dryly, "You, Toph? You actually want to go shopping?"
"We understand that training is important but we have a wedding to prepare for too." Mai answered primly, plucking at her silk dress with one hand, "Now that I've had Kuzon my wedding dress needs adjusting. Toph's still isn't finished and you need to come with us too, Azula. You too, Reena. We can't have you two coming to the wedding dressed in…that."
While Azula glanced down at her plain clothing, Reena's eyes grew as wide as dinner plates and an enormous grin spread across her face. Folding her arms across her chest, Azula narrowed her eyes at Mai.
"We are ALL supposed to be training." She said sourly, looking about at the others, "Not playing at dress-ups and Daniel could be back at any moment."
"Well, we better hurry up and get out of here then, hadn't we?" Toph snapped with a wider grin, putting two fingers to her lips then and releasing a piercing whistle.
The wide gates across the training yards opened a moment later, the four guards who had carried the palanquin that morning entering and approaching as Toph assisted Mai up into their transport, Zuko passing Kuzon up before he joined them.
"But," Azula began as Reena moved away from her, joining the others gathered about the palanquin, "What about my Waterbending?"
"Learning to relax is another part of your training." Katara told her, "Come on Azula, you might even enjoy yourself. Think of it as…a different kind of therapy."
"Speaking of therapy, I'm taking Ana to my favourite day spa." Zhu Lee said next, "They do this thing with big flat stones they heat up and then put them all over your back which feels amazing and there's a lady there who's a genius at shiatsu massage."
"Shiatsu? Wasn't Danny trying to break you bad enough?" Ana said with a grin and then asked hopefully, "Do they have mud baths? I love those. Especially just before a nice sauna."
"Oh yeah. Great big ones heated by underground springs." Zhu Lee told her, "And the volcanic mud does wonders for your skin."
"Ooh, I'll be in on that if you got room for one more." Reena threw in enthusiastically.
Sharing a glance between each other, Mai and Toph were quick to volunteer changing their own plans to join those intending to seek a little pampering before going to see their tailor.
"Okay, decision made." Katara said, grabbing Azula by her upper arm, "We're going to the spa."
"For a mud bath?" Azula asked in distaste, finishing somewhat lamely, "What about training?"
"This is training. We'll have mud baths, a swim to wash off before we get massages and then a nice long relaxing sauna before another hot soak to finish it all off." Katara said with a smile, her hand still firmly clamped about Azula's arm, "Most of which involves water so even you or Danny can't argue with that."
In slightly stunned silence, Azula found herself dragged away after the others following the royal palanquin.
Just like on any other day and well known to those he passed, Councillor Lardok walked (with a pronounced limp) in the midst of a large group, two of his elite Waterbenders supporting him either side. Unusually today though he had a great many of his servants following him, most of them walking a respectful distant behind their master and they made their way through a wide archway, the entrance to the palace grounds and paused like everybody did to admire the great crystalline spires and towers of the palace itself.
"Councillor Lardok, back again I see. I thought you'd retired for the day after this morning's meeting." Another man called in greeting as he approached, dressed also in fine robes and with two Waterbenders dressed in official robes, a scribe and a rather skimpily clad young woman following after him as well, "And you have quite the escort. Have you brought your entire household?"
"Oh, they are just here to help me carry some things." Lardok replied in a gravelly voice, the other man giving him a curious stare. Clearing his throat loudly, Lardok continued quickly, "I had a…nasty accident at home and require their assistance."
"Nothing too serious I hope." The nobleman replied jovially, glancing back at the young woman who was following him before he added slyly, "You weren't…working your staff a little too hard and…strained yourself, did you?"
He laughed at his own joke but the man quickly fell silent as a nondescript looking woman just behind Lardok side stepped forward, giving him an altogether inappropriate glare for a mere servant. Quickly putting a hand on her arm, Lardok smiled reassuringly.
"No, nothing like that. Just a fall but my healer here is keeping me on my feet." Lardok replied casually and the young woman at his side stepped back again, "Now, we must go. There are…scrolls and files I must collect from my offices."
"Actually decided to do some work, hey?" the nobleman tried joking again although a touch nervously as he continued staring at the woman, the entire group surrounding Lardok merely staring back at him silently, "Well, I…uh, I have work of my own I should be…getting to. Good day to you, Lardok."
"Councillor." Lardok replied, the two bowing to one another before the Nobleman hurried off with his smaller retinue following.
Lardok moved deeper into the palace, the entire structure consisting of dozens of levels, stairways, corridors, courtyards and balconies where visitors could gaze out over the entire city below. There were many others going about their duties within the palace this day, just like on any day but few took notice of Lardok and his large number of servants as all the other well-dressed noblemen and women who made their way about the palace did so with sometimes as many as six or even more servants following along silently behind them. Personal guards, scribes, messengers, servants loaded down with boxes or armloads of scrolls and more than once the young woman walking just behind Lardok narrowed her eyes when she noticed more than a few of those servants following subserviently after their masters, young women and even a few young men wearing tight or revealing clothing that was certain not suited for the cold climate.
Eventually the group found their way to Lardok's private offices within the palace, within one of the highest towers and not very far from the royal throne room. Since the real councillor had already gone home for the day, his offices were deserted and the large group quickly sealed themselves inside. The young woman who had walked Beside Lardok moved over to a large window formed of clear ice, her form shimmering and blurring and a moment later Jin was throwing back her hood, her blazing eyes glaring out at the city below.
"Ugh! The people in this city seem fairly ordinary but once you get up here," Jin snapped sourly, "These scum are no better than the criminals I used to work with. They treat their people like their own playthings."
"Such is the way of those with power. I was a politician in my first mortal life too and had my own concubines to attend to my...needs." Lardok said to her, his voice again deep and gravelly as a dull red glow came to his eyes, "It didn't come as much of a surprise when I ended up in hell."
"So you're no better than the scum who run this place." Jin said coldly, turning her blue glowing eyes onto him.
"Are any of us?" he returned with a light laugh, his mirth shared by many of the demons filling the room. Then groaning as he went to sit in a chair, Lardok narrowed his glowing eyes at Jin, "And you think yourself any better? What on earth did you do to this body before I possessed it? I could barely walk let alone keep a straight face as we came up here."
As Jin's eyes flared brightly, Lardok kept up his own glare and did not notice a widening circle around him as the other demons backed away, some of them leering at him expectantly. But they froze warily a moment later as the door to the office opened and someone entered. They had to look twice to see it was a woman, her robes the uniform of a palace scribe and her position was made even more obvious by the pile of scrolls she had in her arms that all but hid her face and by several quills that protruded from the tight bun of hair atop her head.
"Councillor Lardok?" the woman's muffled voice came from behind the scrolls she carried, "Someone said you had returned to the palace and we really need to go over the docking accounts, Sir. People are wondering what has happened to the funding for,"
She froze, the scrolls she carried clattering to the floor as an arm snaked its way around her shoulders, another going about her waist and pulling her tightly back against a surprisingly soft body. Turning her head in surprise, she blinked her eyes in shocked silence at the sight of Jin's feline face grinning at her from a few inches away.
"Who? What?" the woman squeaked, "I…Is there…a costume party I didn't hear about?"
She fell silent again however as her eyes darted about the room to see the dozens of figures scattered about the office, all of them grinning back at her with eyes that glowed dully.
"Oh, we're going to have a party all right. And it'll go off with a real bang too." Jin breathed in the woman's ear, "And let me guess, you must be Lardok's secretary or something?"
"I…yes. I'm the councillor's personal assistant." The woman admitted, struggling weakly but her arms were trapped by her sides by Jin's arms, her feet kicking feebly an inch above the floor, "Who are you? What is going on?"
"And tell me," Jin continued in a soft, purring tone, "Have you spread your legs for our fat friend here in exchange for a few gold coins?"
"What?" the woman said, a little indignantly despite her current situation, "I am his assistant only. I would never…I mean, the man is…he's my employer and,"
She trailed off, still struggling but unable to resist as Jin's hand slid slowly up her abdomen, a clawed yet soft hand stroking her in a most intimate way through her clothes.
"You're not answering my question." Jin breathed again, her tongue protruding briefly as she ran it up the side of the woman's earlobe, the woman cringing even as goose pimples exploded down the side of her neck, "So I'll ask one more time. Would you, like so many of his poorly paid servants have, give this great tub of lard free access to your most precious of places in exchange for money?"
"No…never." The woman managed to blurt out, twisting her head to the side so she could give Jin an angry yet frightened look, "Lady…the man's a pig."
Jin exploded with laughter, shaking the woman in her arms who looked about in growing fear again as many of the demons within the room laughed as well, the cruel glee on their faces bringing true terror to the woman now.
"Oh, I like you." Jin said to the woman.
The woman found herself free of Jin's arms only to be twirled about like a dancer, ending up facing the strange woman with one of her hands still trapped in Jin's grip.
"It's such a shame I have to do this." Jin breathed sadly, suddenly pushing her other hand close to the woman's wide eyes.
Darkness erupted about Jin's hand, the demons standing around watching dispassionately as there came a dull flash before that darkness vanished and the woman's soulless body crumpled to the floor.
"Lardok's personal assistant." Jin said with a smile, watching as the woman twitched and began to sit up, "I'm betting she has a better understanding of the palace layout than her boss ever did. Which means," she turned, raising her empty hand toward the possessed figure of Lardok still sitting in his chair, "Your services are no longer required."
Lardok's glowing eyes barely had time to widen before he jerked in his chair, only a pained grunt escaping his lips as dark red spikes by the hundreds burst through his skin, some projecting several inches through his robes. Frost was quickly forming on his skin and the spikes of frozen blood that had burst from him glistened in the afternoon sunlight streaming through the window.
"I really didn't like either version of you." Jin told the corpse sourly, then turned a small smile to the woman as she got to her feet beside her, "Welcome. Do you have full access to that body's memories?"
"Yes." The woman replied and Jin smiled again as the woman bowed respectfully before turning her redly glowing eyes onto Lardok's frozen corpse, "And for some reason, I feel very satisfied to see that man dead."
Jin laughed loudly again at this and then walked calmly over to the nearest desk and swept the various scrolls, ink pots and quills onto the floor, stripping her much stained cloak then and laying it out flat onto the desk. From various pockets sewn into the thick material she drew forth stone after stone until she had a dozen of the palm sized, hemispherical eyes spread out on her cloak.
"Gather around everyone." Jin snapped in suddenly commanding tones, "Those of you possessing bodies with memories of the palace layout, take a stone but remember, keep your heads down and remain inconspicuous. Target only those servants who won't be noticed and do not risk exposure until Phoenix makes contact but work fast. I want a sizeable demonic force ready for when he does give the signal."
"Lady…I mean, Master Jin." One of the demons began hesitantly, "How will we know when it is time to strike?"
"Oh, you'll know when I start the fun." Jin replied, her smile again making those before her tense fearfully, "Remember, stay away from the top of the city and the Elementals. They'll probably get into the fight soon enough and it won't take long for the Avatars and their friends to get here either but until then, make your way down into the city and smash everything in your way."
"Yes." One of the demons hissed with a twisted smile, "This city will be ours before sunset."
"No. This isn't about conquest." Jin said and the demons gathered around her tensed warily again as she grinned and jerked a thumb toward the demon now possessing Lardok's personal assistant, "Like I said to my new friend here, we're just here to party."
"So…it happens to everyone?" Daniel breathed in horrified wonder.
"That's what my Dad said when he gave me the talk." Tom Tom said with a shrug, "He's a lot older but he said he still wakes up with one most mornings."
"The…dreams too?" Daniel asked, his face almost glowing and he found he could not look Tom Tom in the eyes.
"I have those kinds of dreams a lot these days and I always wake up with the…you know, the reaction." Tom Tom answered with a grin, nudging the man beside him with an elbow, "But, uh, you didn't wake up with a big mess did you? That's happened to me a few times now and I do my best to clean it up but the old lady who does our laundry at home keeps giving me these funny little smiles all the time."
"Mess?" Daniel breathed again, his haunted gaze staring blankly out at the sky, "What do you mean…mess?"
"You mean you don't know?" Tom Tom asked in disbelief, "Sheesh, didn't your parents give you the talk at all?"
"Yes." Daniel snapped in annoyance, "Although…that feels like lifetimes ago now. It's just…the meditations my Dad taught me are supposed to keep those feelings suppressed. I shouldn't be having dreams...like that."
Oh, my boy. Do you not realise? You are whole now. Wolf growled to him, These feelings are perfectly natural and nothing to be feared.
"Yeah, but," Daniel began, "I shouldn't be having…thoughts like that either. Not about…about her."
"Why not? Azula is really pretty." Tom Tom told him and then smiled wistfully, "It's not like I don't wonder what it will be like with Zhu when we do it and she's the one I usually have those dreams about."
Spinning to the boy sitting beside him, Daniel's brow furrowed as he glared furiously, a rumbling growl rising from deep in his chest.
"You do know that's my sister you're talking about?" He snarled threateningly.
Then you had best have this talk with her considering she is the one who keeps pushing her tail in Wolf's face. The animal spirit within Tom Tom growled with a chuckle although this only increased the fury on Daniel's face.
"He means Zhu likes to tease us both with that." Tom Tom added and not at all intimidated by the angry man at his side, the boy's face blushed lightly as he continued, "I like it when she kisses me but we both know we're too young to…you know…go any further with that. We played mothers and fathers when we were little but we're not ready to be a real Mom and Dad yet."
"Good. Just you remember that." Daniel growled, his anger fading as he grew pensive once more, "I know all the…mechanics involved with doing…that…but I don't think Azula and I are ready to…go any further with that either."
She is still plagued by the fears from her past? Wolf asked.
"Yeah. We were…kissing last night and I could tell she wanted more." Daniel said, his face growing crimson once more, "But after she got frightened by that I…I still wanted more too and…and," he paused, turning his blushing face to Tom Tom, "And it scared the hell out of me."
"Why?" both Tom Tom and Wolf asked at the same time.
"You share Wolf's memories. You know what happened between us and June. What…I did." Daniel said quietly, "Azula's suffered enough because of her father. I…how could I live with myself if I lost control and hurt her like that?"
Foolish, pup. Wolf admonished him gently, Do you forget so soon? You have the pure spirit of a Wolf-bat now. So tell Wolf, when she grew afraid last night, with you both desiring more, did you let those desires control you? Did you try to take from her what it was you desired?
"No." Daniel answered slowly, shaking his head, "I don't want to hurt her."
Then stop being afraid of your own past, my boy. Wolf told him with a chuckle, Stop fearing what you were and embrace who you are now and Azula will only love you all the more.
"I…I guess." Daniel began hesitantly, "I just…I want to help her not to be afraid anymore. I want Azula to be happy."
And you can do that for her. Wolf told him, But only when you stop being afraid of yourself.
"But most importantly, just keep being her friend." Tom Tom added warmly, "That's what works for me and Zhu. We both know we're growing up and things are changing but we never let that get in the way of our friendship. That's why I love her so much."
Daniel nodded slowly, his face still pensive though he was far more relaxed now as he sat on the roof next to Tom Tom, turning to the boy then to give him a wry smile.
"Who knew you'd turn out to be exactly who I needed to talk to?" Daniel said softly, putting a hand on Tom Tom's shoulder and giving it a squeeze, "Thanks Tommy…for being my friend."
And what about me? Wolf growled, Did not Wolf's words of wisdom help?
"As always, yes. So thank you too, old friend." Daniel returned with a grin, "Anyway, I'm not sure how long we've been up here but we better get back. The others are no doubt slacking off again."
They got to their feet together, Daniel again putting a hand to the boy's shoulder before he carried them away into the chi pathways, reappearing instantly in the centre of the training yards. His hands flashed out to administer the chi release on Tom Tom the moment they were there, the boy still finding travelling that way highly uncomfortable but no sooner had he straightened up when Tom Tom noticed Daniel's low growl and a moment later he realised why.
"Where is everyone?" Tom Tom asked.
"Ok. Slacking off a bit I can take. But skipping out on MY training sessions?" Daniel growled furiously, "Oh, they are going to suffer for this."
Tipping his head back, Tom Tom sniffed at the gentle breeze, first facing the tall structure of the palace where they had just been but following the faint scent he could detect, he was soon facing away from the palace.
"I think they've all gone into the imperial city." Tom Tom commented curiously, "What are they all doing there?"
"They better be facing a horde of demons and fighting for their lives." Daniel growled angrily, "Because if they're not, they're about to face something much worse."
"What?" Tom Tom asked.
"Me." Daniel snarled in answer.
He dropped forward then, transforming as he did and raced away as a Wolf-bat, Tom Tom glancing down at the man's trousers where they had fallen away and then down at his own clothes but shrugging to himself he began pulling at his shirt and a moment later Wolf raced away in pursuit.
Within the most exclusive day spa in the Firenation, Mai and Toph had sealed themselves away in a private room and were currently enjoying a soak together in a hot tub. In a nearby room, Zhu Lee and Ana lay on their fronts on tables while two young women expertly kneaded and massaged the muscles alongside their spines, the two girls groaning contentedly at the attention. A third masseuse, a slightly bemused young man, was working in a similar fashion on the Huntress who lay on her own table, the Wolf-bat groaning as loudly as the girls as her masseuse ran a bone handled, silver backed brush over her fur.
Within another much larger room, Katara, Reena and Azula were sitting together in a wide, circular bath. A bath by name only since it was the size of a large swimming pool although at the moment the huge volume of warm water was swirling about as they guided its movements with their arms.
"You're doing wonderfully, Azula." Katara said encouragingly, "I can feel the effect you're having on the water."
"You must be focused on a good memory." Reena said from her side of the bath, grinning slyly, "At least you haven't cooked us yet."
"Although it is getting warmer in here." Katara added, smiling as Azula frowned, "If you don't mind my asking, what memories are you focusing on?"
Her cheeks suddenly blushing, Azula dropped her arms into the water and the whirlpool between the three women reduced noticeably in size.
"I…uh…just something that happened recently." Azula answered hesitantly.
"Ha. I think I can guess." Reena said teasingly, dropping her own arms, "I bet it involves baths too."
With a nervous glance at Katara, Azula narrowed her eyes before thrusting out both her hands, sending a small wave rushing across the water that splashed up into Reena's face.
"I wasn't thinking about…that." Azula snapped testily as Reena wiped at her face, still grinning back at her however, "I was thinking of the other day, when we first got Daniel back."
"Oh, I know what you mean. It was such a relief to know he was ok and back with us." Katara said warmly, "And just that you're able to talk freely with us about these things is a wonderful thing too and it will go a long way toward helping you master your Waterbending."
"Just from our talks earlier you're showing some amazing improvement." Renna added.
Nodding, Azula brought one hand up above the water's surface, concentrating as she raised her hand higher and the water before her humped upwards, a tendril of blue water lifting from the bath and growing to be almost a foot long before it trembled then splashed back down.
"See?" Reena told her encouragingly, then grinned suggestively again, "And once I show you how to stream the water, you'll never want to use your fingers ever again."
"I don't want to now." Azula snapped in annoyance, "Please keep your filthy ideas to yourself."
"And please," Katara shot at Reena as well, "Please tell me your Aunt Katara did not teach how to stream the water that way."
"Nope." Reena replied, leaning back against the side of the bath as she grinned, "I worked that one out for myself when I was eleven."
"Eleven?" Katara breathed in wide eyed surprise, "I was almost fourteen before I figured out how to do that."
"You mean," Azula began, her own eyes wide as she looked to Katara, "You did...that sort of thing too?"
"Did? I still do." Katara exclaimed with a small grin which caused Azula's mouth to drop open, "It's a great stress reliever and a wonderful way to relax."
"But…you're married." Azula breathed in disbelief, causing Katara to laugh lightly.
"Yes I am and Aang is…amazing at that kind of thing. He has ways of touching me that just makes my toes curl." Katara answered Azula who curled her lip in distasted but found herself listening in fascination as Katara continued, "But I'm also a healthy young woman and there are times when I just want to relax and do it for myself. Sometimes I like to be in bed but my favourite place is definitely in the bath where I can control the flow of the water around myself and make it hit all the right spots."
"Hmm, I know what you mean." Reena added wistfully, "The hard part is not drowning yourself when it gets really good."
"But…uhh…neither of you are doing this right now, are you?" Azula asked in worried tones, looking at their thoughtful expressions.
"No but I have to say I'm sorely tempted." Katara answered her, her grin widening at Azula's expression, "Aang's just too gentle with me when I'm pregnant and I can't remember the last time I had a bit of real relief. I wonder if they have private baths in this place?"
"I'm ready to go right here." Reena added and sighed loudly.
"Ugh." Making a disgusted sound that matched her expression, Azula turned away and rose as though to climb out of the bath.
"Wait. We're kidding, Azula. Just kidding." Reena said quickly, "You really need to learn to relax."
"She's right you know." Katara added as Azula slowly lowered herself back into the bath, "We're only having a little fun. You know we don't mean anything personal by it."
"I know…it's just," Azula began uncertainly, "I've never been…very comfortable around…that."
"That's understandable, considering what you went through as a child." Katara said to her warmly, then asked in concern, "But you are getting better with that, aren't you? How are things between you and Danny, you know, that way?"
Her face quickly colouring again, Azula dropped her eyes but forced her uncertainties and discomfort aside as she took a deep breath.
"We…kiss and…last night, when he held me and the way he was…touching me…it was wonderful but," Azula started slowly, raising her eyes to Katara's before she continued quickly, "But the memories of what happened to me keep bubbling up and I get frightened. I want to be with him that way. I really do but every time things get…heated between us, I just freeze up and…I can't."
"That's just one aspect of your fear of intimacy but you understand now where that comes from and that's the first step in overcoming it." Reena said kindly, "You've already made great progress with that today and your Waterbending reflects that."
Nodding again, Azula raised a hand from the bath, concentrating this time on Daniel's warm smile and almost instantly the water before her rose up, a long stream of blue that danced above the water for several long moments before she let it sink slowly back down into the bath.
"So do you think…uh," Azula began, unable to hide her uncertainties this time, "If I can master this and my fears, do you think that will…help me to be more…intimate…with Danny?"
"Most certainly but I wouldn't go trying to do anything you're not ready for." Katara told her in a kind though stern voice, "You'll only bring yourself more pain that way and possibly hurt your relationship with Daniel just as much."
"That's true. Listen, I'll tell you something about doing things you're not ready for or might never be ready for but only…only if you promise not to tell Danny." Reena said, suddenly blushing and a little uncertain herself but as the other two nodded after a moment she continued, "I've had plenty of time to think long and hard on the mistakes me and Danny made when we were younger. I know he blames himself for what happened between him and Kuzon but…I played a big part in that too." She dropped her eyes, her voice growing sad, "When Danny went away with his father for a year to master his Bending skills and earn his tattoos, things began to change between me and Kuzon. Those two had always been like brothers to me but with Danny gone, Ku started treating me differently. He kept bringing me flowers and presents, taking me out to nice places and then just after my sixteenth birthday, he kissed me and…suddenly I was kissing him back so hard and…and later we snuck out to the hot springs behind the village on Kyoshi…and we made love under the stars all night."
"Oh, that's so romantic. My first time was like that." Katara breathed and then her brow furrowed as something occurred to her, "But…if you were sixteen, how old was Kuzon? I thought you were a couple years older than him and Danny."
"Which is no older than you are compared to Aang." Reena shot back, "And how old was he when you let him knock you up with Ana?"
"Yes, ok. Point taken." Katara said with a slightly embarrassed grin, "Anyway, what happened next?"
"Yes, I'm curious myself." Azula added, "How did things change for you after that?"
"Well, everything was perfect for a while. Kuzon and I found time to be alone every chance we got and I'm amazed I didn't end up pregnant myself." Reena continued, her face sad yet wistful as she spoke, "We had a few blissful months together before Daniel was due to come home and we decided we would tell him together. But when Danny did return home, Kuzon was back in the Firenation with his father and Danny just turned up at my parent's house one day. He just came up to me and announced that he loved me and…and suddenly I made the stupidest decision of my life." Drawing in a shuddering breath, Reena looked up at the other two, "I was so afraid of disappointing him and…I knew it would never work with him and Kuzon together but…I did love Danny even if that wasn't the same kind of love I shared with Kuzon now but I still somehow convinced myself the three of us could be happy together like my older brothers were with Oma. Daniel was definitely happy by the time he left but I hadn't told him about me and Ku yet…I just couldn't. Then when Kuzon returned to Kyoshi I told him and…well, he wasn't happy. We had our first and only fight that day but Ku convinced me we needed to tell Daniel the truth. I felt so ashamed for not telling Danny straight away and Ku could tell how I felt so he held me in his arms and kissed me…which was when Daniel suddenly walked in the door."
Reena fell silent, dropping her face again as two tears slipped from her eyes, glittering as they fell to the bathwater below.
"And the rest, as they say, is history." Katara breathed after a moment, "Daniel's shown us the aftermath of that but I think I can understand why you made the decisions you did. It's never easy to disappoint the ones you love."
"Yeah, I know but if I'd just told him the truth," Reena said quietly, "If I hadn't been so afraid of hurting Danny's feelings, then maybe all the terrible things that happened after might not have happened at all."
"Perhaps…or perhaps not." Azula told her softly, "From all you've told me of those two, once Daniel and Kuzon discovered themselves to be rivals for your affections, I suspect they would have been at one another's throats anyway."
"You're probably right about that." Reena replied with a small smile, "But my point is, just like when you're fighting someone, when you're in the arms of someone you love you can't let fear guide the choices you make or you just end up hurting yourself and them."
"Yes. I think I've been learning that for myself for some time now." Azula said to her, giving Reena a warm smile, "But thank you for speaking so open and honestly with me. I should have said before now but…you have been a good friend to me too since we met."
"Ha. You're just glad to hear I'm not your rival for Danny's affections." Reena shot back with a soft laugh as Azula's smile vanished. Then pulling her arm from the water, Reena gazed affectionately at the silver webbing coating her forearm, "Anyway, we both made enough mistakes looking for something between us that just wasn't there. I just hope he works out how to get us home and back to my Ku soon."
Silence fell between the three of them, all three smiling wistfully as they dwelt on their thoughts until Katara sighed and slowly pushed herself to her feet.
"Well, now that we have spoken so openly and while your emotions are still raw," Katara began with a wide smile, "Now we can really get you to start letting go of some of those inhibitions, Azula."
"What do you mean?" Azula asked a little worriedly.
"She means," Reena told her as she too rose to her feet, "It's time to let go of those old fears and really Waterbend."
"Come on, Azula. I want you to throw a wave at me." Katara said, "But this time focus only on your feelings for Danny, how he makes you feel and not just when you're kissing or touching but all the time."
"And when your fears begin to surface, you can change it, Azula." Reena added, "Are you ready? Let's get to it and I'm sure I don't need to tell you to give it your best."
Nodding first, Azula joined them on her feet, the three of them equally spaced about the huge bath, facing each other as they stood in the waist deep water. Concentrating on his smile once more, Azula swept one arm out at her side and then down, her fingers trailing through the water which rose up to form a wave a little over a foot high that rushed across the wide bath toward Katara. Bringing her own arms up, Katara spun slowly in place guiding the wave so that it passed by to one side, gaining size as it circled about behind her before she sent it rushing away toward Reena. She too caught the wave, her hands weaving as it passed behind her then with a thrust of her arms, Reena sent the wave back toward Azula.
Still concentrating as it rolled toward her, Azula hesitated briefly as her father's face rose uninvited into her thoughts but she rallied quickly, turning her thoughts instead to the last time she had sparred with Daniel, remembering the almost effortless way he fought, the way coiled and hardened muscles moved beneath his pale skin. She felt it an instant before the wave was about to break over her, laughing as she took control of it and guiding it with her hands, a wall of blue rushed about behind Azula before she spun right around and sent this much larger wave rolling toward Katara. It didn't take long before all three were laughing, more than half their bath water rushing about as a gigantic wave as they continued their game.
"Umm, we found them." Said a youthful voice belonging to a pair of deep gold eyes.
"Yes. We did." A distracted voice belonging to the green eyes beside these said softly.
"We…probably shouldn't be watching their…err, them. Should we?" the golden eyes asked, still wide as they stared straight ahead.
"No. We probably shouldn't." the green eyes replied without turning away.
"They're in the bath." The gold eyes pointed out.
"So they are." The green eyes said distantly.
"And they've got no clothes on." Said the owner of the gold eyes.
"No. They don't." said the green eyes in agreement and then suddenly darted away, the skin around those eyes blushing darkly before they withdrew.
"And they're so…bouncy." The golden eyes said dreamily.
Only a low, rumbling growl answered this but the golden eyes didn't seem to hear and remained affixed on what they were watching.
"Miss Reena and Azula have nice ones but Lady Katara's are so big and round and the way they move is just so,"
That was as far as the golden eyes got before Daniel reached over and grabbed Tom Tom's ankle, yanking the boy suddenly back and away from the edge of the roof they were on.
"I don't know if you've noticed this little fact, but we've got no clothes either." Daniel growled quietly, glaring at the boy, "And I don't think either of us want to get caught out up here naked and spying on three women Waterbending in a bath."
Grinning nervously back at Daniel from a deeply blushing face, Tom Tom glanced one last time at the large windows high up the day spa's wall opposite them and then quickly scrambled further back from the roof's edge.
At least those three are training. Wolf growled, Even if they do seem to be having a great deal of fun in the process.
"It is one of the best ways to learn." Daniel answered with a shrug and then frowned, "As for the others however,"
He turned his other senses onto the day spa, senses that could ignore the large building itself to peer through walls to find those he sought. Though what he did find caused his frown to become a grimace before he quickly turned his senses away.
"What is it?" Tom Tom asked in concern, misinterpreting Daniel's reaction, "Are they in trouble?"
"Not till I get my hands on them but trust me, Tommy you do not want to know what your sister is doing with Toph in that sauna." Daniel growled with a sigh then grinned ruefully, "At least Ana and Zhu lee are just getting facials with my mother. Although she seems more interested in licking the stuff off their faces at the moment."
"It's probably that green gunk my mother puts on her face before she goes to bed." Tom Tom commented while making a sour face, "It smells like old socks and mustard."
Daniel chuckled at this, Tom Tom joining in with him but a moment later the man tensed, a frown quickly forming on his face again as he turned sharply to one side.
"What is it?" Tom Tom asked again.
"Follow me." Was all Daniel breathed, leaning forward as he transformed and then stalked away toward the roof's edge.
Tom Tom was quick to follow suit, transforming into Wolf who followed silently after Daniel and a moment later both Wolf and Wolf-bat were peering down into the street below.
See him, Wolf? Daniel growled quietly, That one down there in the merchant's clothing.
The street was not very busy and it only took a moment for Wolf to find the man Daniel had indicated, walking down the street away from the day spa and wearing long red robes with a wide yellow sash worn diagonally across his shoulders. He seemed no different to the few dozen others walking up or down the street but Wolf's keen senses were soon registering what Daniel had already noticed.
Demon. Wolf growled, his tone showing his eagerness, You must remain hidden, boy. Let Wolf take this one and,
Wait, Daniel interrupted him quickly, There's another further down the street and I sense more nearby but there's something, he turned back to Wolf with wide, fearful eyes, I smell Aang and Zuko down that way. They've got Gatty and Kuzon with them.
They'll be at the Ongaku Club then. It's just down the street. Tom Tom said, adding as Daniel looked confused, Oma's parents play music there with her uncle. The club's been really popular since they started playing there.
Oma's parents got…jobs? Daniel couldn't help but ask, Seriously? Oma's parents?
Focus, boy. The one below us seems to be headed that way. Wolf reminded him, How many demons do you sense and where are they?
Closing his eyes, Daniel tipped his nose upwards and drew a deep breath, the fur across his shoulders lifting as he bared his teeth.
At least six within a mile of us, all converging on a building a block away from here. I hear the music now. That's definitely Chong and Lily. Daniel answered after a moment, If Aang and Zuko simply walked openly to this place, the demons may be about to attempt to abduct one of them, or more likely…it's an assassination attempt.
Then we shall hunt them. Wolf growled, And take their throats before they ever get there.
But…you mean, kill them? Tom Tom's mental voice was wavering, fearful.
With so many threatening our family at once, Wolf tried to say reassuringly, It is best to remove that threat as quickly as possible.
No. I promised my mother, Wolf. No more killing. Daniel said firmly, turning then to stare along the rooftops lining the street, I've got another idea. Follow me.
He took off then, Wolf racing after him and together they leapt out to the next roof, overtaking the demon Daniel had first spotted, leaping with ease from rooftop to rooftop and soon they spotted another figure different in subtle and not so obvious ways from all the others down in the streets below. They saw two more before they were drawing close to their destination and a building away, Daniel suddenly skidded to a stop.
Ah, there's what I need. He growled eagerly, looking down into an alley between the buildings at various sized pieces of cloth strung out on a line to dry.
Clothing? What on earth would you want with clothing, boy? Wolf asked curiously.
A disguise. Daniel growled in answer as he glanced about, making certain they were alone before he transformed and reached down.
Umm, Daniel? Tom Tom asked as the man began pulling things up from the line, Those are ladies clothes.
"Which just means no one's going to recognise me." Daniel replied with a grin, quickly pulling a thin silken underdress over his head.
And, uhh, Tom Tom began again as Daniel struggled, I think you have that inside out and back to front too.
"Oh. Well, it's not what I'd call a perfect plan but it's sure going to be fun." Daniel said, adjusting the slip and then quickly began wrapping the thicker silk of a dark, deep green coloured kimono about himself, "Here's what's going to happen. We wait until the demons are almost ready to pounce. You know how they work, Wolf. They'll go rushing in yelling and blasting anything that moves. So just before they do, I'll go in and evacuate everyone from building, apart from Zuko and Aang," he paused, sniffing at the air, "Oh, and Jeong Jeong too since he's slacking off in there with them. Then once the demons go in, you two guard the entrance to keep everyone else out and I'll take care of the rest."
He fell silent, still grinning back at Wolf as he took up a long piece of silk that he began wrapping about his face and head, covering his mouth, nose and hair and leaving just his green eyes exposed. Apart from his eyes, only his hands were visible now, the rest covered by a voluminous dress of green silk that billowed out around his chest, billowing out even more around his waist and legs and reaching down to the rooftiles, hiding his bare feet from sight.
"There, what do you think?" Daniel asked, performing a quick twirl that caused Wolf to step back hurriedly.
My boy, not even your parents would believe that was you dressed like that. Wolf said in a monotone, Wolf does not wish to believe it either.
But…wait a minute. Tom Tom began in worried tones, Did you say, once the demons go in you want to seal the place up with master Jeong Jeong, Firelord Zuko and Avatar Aang…still inside?
Though they couldn't see it anymore, Daniel's eyes twinkled in a manner that told Wolf and the boy within him that Daniel's evil grin remained unchanged.
"I'll teach them to skip out on my training." Was all he said with a low chuckle.
Being only mid-afternoon, there were only about a score of people within the Ongaku Club at the moment, most of those seated about the tables that lined the walls. The interior was mostly open space with the bar at one end, the stage set at the other with the wide dance floor in between the two. There was no one dancing at the moment however although the band were on the stage, light music filling the club as they practiced for the evening's performance. As always they were colourfully dressed and Chong stood to one side of the stage, his fingers dancing over the strings of his rounded guitar, his wife Lily taking centre stage as she sang and behind them Moku added a beat on his drums. Set out along the very edge of the stage were a dozen of the large crystals created by their daughter, the crystals glowing and the light that rose from them grew brighter and dimmed in time to the music they projected.
"They've certainly done well for themselves." Aang commented, pointing at one side of the stage where a large, glass jug sat already a quarter filled with bronze, silver and golden coins.
"You should come back after dark when this place really takes off." Zuko told him, sitting between Aang and Jeong Jeong with his son in his arms, "I came here last week with Mai and Toph and I'll swear there must have been more than a thousand gold pieces in that tip jar."
"It doesn't seem they actually do much with all that money." Jeong Jeong said, eyeing the musician's bright though slightly threadbare clothing.
"I don't think Chong and Lily have ever had any money before to know what to do with it." Aang added with a small grin, looking down to his son sitting in his lap as Gyatso tapped his small hands on the table in time to the beat, "They've always just been happy travelling from place to place, playing their instruments in exchange for the occasional meal but I'll admit, this new music of theirs is really catchy. It's no wonder they're so popular now."
Even Jeong Jeong had to nod to this assessment as they fell silent to enjoy the music once more, all three men tapping their feet beneath the table. People came and went from the club, more entering than leaving but as Aang had noted, the few who left paused at the stage and they were often generous with their tips but all dropped at least a few coins into the large jug. Some of those at their tables sent curious glances at the Avatar, the Firelord and the celebrated General, all three of their faces instantly recognisable to almost everyone these days but apart from a few who approached timidly to offer their congratulations and praises to Zuko and Kuzon, for the most part they were left to themselves. Everyone was here for the music at any rate so Chong, Lily and Moku were receiving the most attention.
Until a strange woman walked through the front door. At least most people assumed it was a woman. She had a scarf wrapped about her head leaving just her eyes exposed but most strikingly she was at least six feet tall, her long green dress hiding her arms and legs and almost every patron within the club was staring as she paused within the doorway, glaring about the room with her arms folded across her broad chest.
"By the funky feathers on a monkey's butt." Aang breathed in shock, his voice thankfully low enough that only those around his table could hear him, "That's Danny."
"Monkey butt." Gyatso giggled to himself, waving franticly at Daniel.
Before Zuko or Jeong Jeong could comment, the man in drag turned his glare onto them, the strange glint in his eyes sending a shiver down their spines when next moment he simply vanished. And so did a woman sitting at a table nearby and a moment after that so did her companion. As the three men at their table stared in confusion, they caught only glimpses of Daniel as he reappeared only to disappear several times a second, taking someone with him each time and in only moments the club was emptying, one of the last patrons just managing to rise from his chair in concern before he too was gone and a moment after that, Chong, Lily and Moku were gone too.
Reappearing directly beside their table, they could only stare at Daniel in frozen silence and so Aang did not resist as the man reached out to lift Gyatso from his father's lap.
"Danny." Gyatso giggled happily as Daniel deposited the boy onto his shoulders, "You look stoopid."
"Yep but it serves its purpose." He said, leaning over and this time gently lifting Kuzon from Zuko's arms, "Here, let me look after these little guys for you."
"Wait." Zuko said, shaking his head to clear his shock, "What the hell are doing?"
"And what in Agni's name are you wearing?" Jeong Jeong asked, still staring wide eyed.
"What I'm doing is giving you three a lesson." Daniel growled as he straightened up, looking down at himself briefly, "And what's wrong with this getup? I thought it was a pretty good disguise."
"Danny look dumb." Gyatso said in a singsong voice from on high and giggled again.
"Sheesh, everyone's a critic." Daniel grumbled, turning then and making his way toward the stage.
"Daniel, wait." Aang called, jumping to his feet as the two beside him did the same, "What did you do with everyone and…what did you mean…lesson?"
"You should know me well enough to figure that out by now." Daniel called back with a low chuckle, lifting from the floor then and drifting over to the now empty stage, "So get ready boys. Here it comes."
Aang and Zuko, who both did indeed know the man well, tensed in sudden fear but Jeong Jeong continued staring curiously at Daniel as he dropped down to sit in the centre of the stage, settling Gyatso in his lap as he continued cradling Kuzon with one arm. The first thing the three of them noticed was the temperature within the club suddenly plummeting and then the front doors crashed open. A half dozen men rushed into the club, all of them yelling as they waved their fists about but in moments their wild charge stumbled to a halt. One or two merely stared at their fists in utter confusion, others attempting to jab their fists again at the strange looking woman and her children sitting on the stage or at their targets, the Firelord, and Avatar.
"What the hell's going on?" one of the men said, still staring at his hands.
"Where's my power?" another breathed, looking around fearfully.
"Why isn't stuff going boom?" One of the least intelligent of them asked.
"Demons." Zuko breathed, for the moment the two groups merely staring at each other, "Holy crap, they're demons."
"Yeah but…he's suppressing the chi in here." Aang said, his eyes flicking to Daniel before he thrust out a hand, intending to send an Airblast at the group of possessed men and of course nothing happened, "They can't attack us!"
"And what are we supposed to do?" Zuko demanded, his voice rising as he glared toward Daniel, "We're not warriors. We're Benders."
"We can't Bend at all?" Jeong Jeong asked, staring at his own hands.
"Wait. That guy said they got no power either." The demon who'd wondered why things weren't going boom asked, thus proving he was slightly more intelligent than he seemed.
"We won't win Fate's favour by getting captured. Grab a weapon, whatever you can find." One of the possessed men shouted, pointing at the three by their table, "Kill them!"
Quickly they scrambled to grab whatever was closest, one enterprising demon finding a bottle, a few picking up chairs and the slightly but not quite intelligent one picking up a half-eaten plate of deep fried noodles. Their surprise wearing off quickly, Aang, Zuko and Jeong Jeong were soon scrambling themselves to prepare as the demons rushed at them.
Gyatso was clapping his little hands in delight as he watched his father duck a flying chair that shattered against the wall, Aang rising from his crouch to drive his shoulder into the stomach of the chair thrower. In the crook of Daniel's arm, even Kuzon was watching wide eyed as his own father punched a man so hard in the face he dropped, unconscious before he hit the floor and then spinning to find his next target, Zuko was just in time to take a flying plate of fried noodles to the face. Jeong Jeong was faring little better at first, two demons managing to grab his arms as another came at him from the front but the crafty old general kicked his legs up, catching the demon in the chest and sending him flying back and then cringing as the demon crashed into Aang, sending both tumbling to the floor. Chairs and debris flew, tables were shattered as the combatants themselves were thrown about and on Daniel's lap little Gyatso was laughing so hard he clutched at his stomach, a large dark patch of moisture spreading from beneath him over the man's green dress. Not that Daniel minded or even noticed Gyatso's minor loss of bladder control at that point, tears streaming from his eyes as he too laughed and laughed.
Hours later and Azula was again in a bath, sharing it once more.
"So…do you think they actually learned anything from your…extracurricular lessons?" Azula asked without opening her eyes, combing her soapy fingers through her hair.
"They better hope so. They wouldn't like me to repeat the lesson." Daniel replied, he too focused on rubbing soap into a thick tangle of dark brown hair, "Although I think your brother now understands the importance of ducking when someone swings a chair at his head."
After leaving the day spa, she and the other four women, two girls and a Wolf-bat had gone to collect the men and the youngest children only to discover a large crowd of people gathered outside the club where they had been. There were palace guards there carrying away the unconscious bodies of half a dozen men and the crowds were abuzz with rumours that these men had been possessed by demonic forces and had just attempted an assassination of the Firelord and Avatar. Mai had immediately hurried over to one of the guards, Katara and Zhu Lee just behind her but they had been reassured to hear that their husbands, children and Zhu Lee's father were fine and had already left for the palace in the company of Wolf and another Wolf-bat. All of them hurried back to the palace, finding Aang, Zuko and Jeong Jeong in the sitting room within the royal apartments, all three somewhat battered and bruised, sullen and unusually quiet after their 'extracurricular lesson'. Tom Tom was there with them, entertaining Gyatso across the room while in the next room Daniel was attempting to change a fussy Kuzon. He had been grateful when Mai came to take over but as Azula approached Daniel full of questions, her nostrils flared once before she stepped back and pinched her nose shut.
Which was why she was back in the bathroom with him but unlike the last time they had shared a bath, their purpose this evening was more practical than pleasurable because Katara had taken one sniff of her son and insisted they take Gyatso with them.
"And then he actually peed on you?" Azula was asking, looking over at Daniel washing the boy's hair.
"Hey, when Zuko went to punch that one guy and accidently hit Jeong Jeong instead, I laughed so hard I nearly wet myself." He replied with a chuckle, "It was a bit crazy there for a minute but once they got over their surprise, they handled themselves pretty well."
"Who? My brother, Aang and Jeong Jeong…or the demons?" Azula shot back with a smirk, "It was hard to tell with his black eye but I think Zuko looked like he wanted to try taking a swing at you next."
"Good." Daniel returned with a smirk of his own, "Then maybe he'll be down at the training yards earlier tomorrow and actually do some training."
Rolling her eyes Azula returned to washing her hair, still looking through half lidded eyes at the man seated on the tiled floor behind the little boy sitting on the bath's edge. She smiled inwardly at how relaxed he always seemed around the children in their family, watching as he reached toward the bath, drawing a large globe of water up and into the air just above Gyatso and letting it pour slowly down over the boy's head to wash the soap from his hair.
"There you go, Gatty." Daniel told him with a grin, ruffling the boy's wet hair with a hand, "Now we both smell as fresh as a baby's butt."
"Yay. Smell like butts." The little boy shouted, throwing his hands into the air as he leaned forward and promptly fell into the bath.
He immediately sank to the bottom of the tub and first rolling his own eyes, Daniel went to reach for him but Azula acted first, already standing in the waist deep water she thrust her arms out then drew them back and up, the water rising around her until the bath was all but empty and Azula was lost to sight within a thick cocoon of undulating water. In moments however it sank back down, refilling the bath around her and revealing Azula holding Gyatso in her arms.
"That was amazing, Azula." Daniel breathed with a wide smile, "You're mastering your Waterbending a lot faster than I ever did."
"That's only thanks to my teachers but I have a lot yet to learn before I can call myself a master." She replied, looking down then at the boy in her arms, "Are you alright now? You didn't inhale too much of that did you?"
"Wanna do it again." He replied with such excitement that Azula blinked in surprise and then to her horror Gyatso turned his eyes away from her face, looking at the part of her that was before him before he lunged forward to hug himself to her chest, "Oooh, squishies."
"Ugh!" Azula made a disgusted sound, frowning as she held the giggling child out at arm's length and then dropped him back into the bath.
Laughing softly Daniel reached out with his Waterbending this time, making the water surge toward him and over the edge of the bath, the wave retreating again and leaving Gyatso sitting there spitting water. Far from perturbed by his second dunking, Gyatso only clapped his hands in delight, grinning over at Azula in such a way that she half turned away, covering her chest self-consciously with her arms.
"I think we need to give you some lessons on how to treat a lady, little brother." Daniel said, chuckling as he ruffled Gyatso's hair again, grinning himself as he looked up at Azula's narrowed eyed glare, "If you think Gatty's bad, you should see Tommy in action. Now that kid's got a serious breast fetish."
"Oh? And what's your excuse?" Azula snapped testily, directing her glare at him now, "You were enjoying the view through the bathhouse windows just as much, weren't you?"
Azula smirked coldly as he jerked back, Daniel's face paling as his mouth opened and shut before he hung his head.
"You…knew we were up on that roof." He said, not asking since he already knew the answer.
"Oh, please. After searching for you two for so long, don't you think I can pick out yours or Wolf's scents from a mile away?" She snapped back at him.
"But…I wasn't looking at anything…like that." He said insistently, looking up at her but quickly turning his gaze away, "I was just…really impressed with your Waterbending."
"Right." Azula drawled dryly and rolled her eyes, "Just get yourself and that boy dressed so we can join the others for something to eat."
Wordlessly and with his face almost beet red, Daniel rose to his feet, picking up Gyatso and quickly going over to the corner of the room where their fresh clothes had been laid out. And once again Azula watched him from the corner of her eye as he walked away, something of an illicit thrill going through her as he bent down to deposit Gyatso on the floor and she turned more toward him, her eyes travelling up and down as he straightened up again. His chest expanded as he drew a deep breath and then spread his arms, spinning slowly in place and for a moment the air whirled around them, Gyatso giggling as faint wisps of green flame whipped around them as well and in less than a minute the tiny, localised hurricane of hot air had them both dry. When Daniel glanced over at her, Azula quickly turned away to hide her own flushed face and made a show of rinsing the last of the soap from herself, relieved when she turned back to see his attention once more on Gyatso as he helped the boy into his clothes.
After a moment Azula joined them, drying herself the same way as Daniel had and quickly pulling on her clothes while he did the same but Daniel paused when he was done, cocking his head to one side.
"Do you hear that?" He asked and even as she shook her head he was already moving away.
Going to where she had left her small pack and her weapons, Daniel lifted it up and thrust a hand inside, drawing it out again to look curiously at a palm sized coin of polished stone. It was the one he had crafted for Azula months before, showing her human and Tigress faces on each side and she found herself blushing again when he turned to smile at her. Putting it back however, he next drew from the pack a small chip of blue crystal, the sight of it making Azula's heart beat a little faster.
"He's making contact?" she asked.
Daniel nodded but looked around briefly before he answered, going over then to snatch up a small shaving mug from a table and dropping the crystal piece within it.
"Hey, Duke." Daniel spoke into the top of the mug in his hands as Azula moved closer, "Long time no see."
"It's THE Duke! Jeez, why does everyone get that wrong?" Came a tinny and somewhat annoyed voice from the depths of the mug before it added with a touch of excitement, "Sifu? Sifu Daniel, is that really you?"
"In the flesh." Daniel replied jovially, glancing down at himself and adding, "Well, not the original flesh but hey, I'm not going to complain. So, how's things with you?"
"Danny. This isn't the time for small talk." Azula admonished him softly, "He wouldn't be making contact if it wasn't important."
"That's right and I haven't got long to talk." The Duke's voice replied quickly, "Listen, I still haven't advanced very far in the ranks but things have been changing around here and I've been hearing rumours."
"Changing how?" Daniel asked, serious now, "And what rumours?"
"Long Feng has ordered all Dai Li members to begin training. He even has us trying to train the Zombies." The Duke replied, "I'm not sure why or what it's all about yet but he has everyone doing up to four hours of training a day."
"Only four?" Daniel asked, curling his lip, "And what, you contacted me to complain? I made you train harder than that."
"Daniel." Azula admonished him again, leaning closer to the mug, "What about these rumours? What have you heard?"
"The first isn't so much of a rumour. Everyone here is talking about it. Apparently Long Feng is working closely with Phoenix on some grand project and they're actually reducing the numbers of possessed in our ranks. The base where I am had a dozen when I first came here but there's none now. It's like they just got rid of the demons overnight." The Duke spoke quickly and Daniel and Azula looked at one another at this bit of news, "But the main rumour going around the Dai Li is that Long Feng and Phoenix have some kind of deal going with the Ba Sing Se mafia bosses. They have something big planned there but they're keeping the Dai Li out of it."
"So, any ideas of what they're up to?" Daniel asked, "Or when they plan to do it?"
"No idea at all." The Duke told them, "All I know is the rumours going around but apparently Long Feng has even ordered his senior agents to remain in their bases and out of sight."
"What was that about the demons?" Azula asked next, "We had an attack here just today but you're saying Long Feng and Phoenix are reducing the numbers of their demonic forces?"
"Long Feng is anyway and from all I've heard he never liked having them in the Dai Li anyway." The Duke replied, "I don't know much about Phoenix though. I thought he was some kind of demon himself."
"Of some kind, yes." Daniel growled quietly before he asked, "What of the woman with him? Do you know anything about what Jin's up to?"
"Who?" The Duke asked in confusion and then said with some urgency, "Damn, someone's coming. I'll have to go."
"Understood. Contact us again when you can." Daniel said but there came no response, the Duke already gone.
Daniel stood in thoughtful silence after this, toying idly with the mug in his hands while Azula waited patiently. She frowned however as Gyatso wandered over, the boy obviously bored now the attention was off him and he tugged at Daniel's pants leg until the man looked down to give him a small smile.
"Sorry kiddo. You're going to have to go back to your Mom now." Daniel said, bending down to once again ruffle the boy's already scruffy hair, "Big brother and Zula have work to do."
"What are you thinking?" Azula asked.
"I'm thinking we need to go on a little scouting mission to Ba Sing Se." Daniel replied with a somewhat eager grin, "We should take Wolf if Tommy is up for it and Reena too. I was going to ask her to give Sanna and Manny a check-up anyway and between you, me and Wolf, we should be able to scout most of the city before dawn."
"Alright, we'll go and fill in the others before we collect Reena but before that," Azula began, dropping her eyes from Daniel's face, she dropped herself into a crouch to level an icy glare at the little boy standing by Daniel's leg, "As for you, there will be no more inappropriate grabbing or bad behaviour around me or you will regret it. Be nice to me and I will be nice to you. Do we have an understanding?"
His perpetually cheerful expression becoming one of chagrin, Gyatso ground a toe into the floor as he hung his head, glancing up sorrowfully at Azula.
"I sorry, Zula." He said, his eyes filling with tears as his bottom lip protruded and trembled, "You still my friend?"
"Of course but only if you promise not to be naughty anymore." She told him in a softer voice.
"I promise." Gyatso replied instantly, throwing out his arms toward her.
Such was the forlorn, hopeful and pleading expression on his little face Azula could not help but move closer so she could put her arms about him, fighting to keep a small smile off her lips as he wrapped his arms about her neck to hug himself to her tightly.
"You thought Zhu was good at manipulating me?" Daniel said with a snort of laughter and Azula's frown returned as she turned her head to see him grinning down at her, "My little Bro here is the master."
"What?" Azula asked in confusion, "He's being nice."
Without replying, Daniel bent down and scooped up something from the floor by Gyatso's feet, holding up a handful of blue cloth and Azula stared at this in confusion for a moment until realisation struck and she shifted her hands downwards, encountering bare flesh below the boy's shirt.
"GYATSO!" Azula snapped, glaring again as she yanked the boy away from herself and held him at arm's length.
"They fall off." The pantsless boy replied innocently, giving her a small lopsided grin.
The dojo that had been given to Piandao for use as his school was also his and Lao's home while they were at the Northern Watertribe's capital. And like many of the Sword master's students suspected, Piandao was indeed giving Lao extra lessons in the evenings when they had the dojo to themselves. Night was falling outside and at the moment they were sitting close together on the floor, facing one another deep in meditation with only a few small candles illuminating the empty dojo. They remained still and in perfect silence for many long minutes until Piandao opened his eyes, leaning closer and smiling as he inspected Lao.
"Perfect." Piandao said softly, his smile widening as Lao opened his eyes, "You are mastering the self-healing techniques much faster than I could have hoped."
"Well, it was only a bruise." Lao returned with a smile of his own, rubbing at one shoulder, "And I still say that young man cheated. We were supposed to be sparing hand to hand and he threw a chunk of ice at me."
"True but I felt there was no need to reprimand him." Piandao told him with a soft laugh, "He and the other two you were sparring with were sporting more than a few bruises of their own by the time you were done with them."
"Oh I was taking it easy on them." Lao said with a dismissive wave of his hand though he grinned as he said it.
"Which was why I felt no need to punish that one for breaking the rules." Piandao added, "But he and his friends can put in a few extra hours of training tomorrow to make up for their abysmal performance this morning."
"Don't be too hard on them, Panny. It was three against one after all." Lao said with an even wider grin, "I had them outnumbered."
Unable to help himself, Piandao chuckled and rolled his eyes.
"You are becoming more and more like your daughter every day." The swordmaster said, shaking his head.
"Oh? And yet I think you don't find that so very disappointing." Lao returned teasingly, then arched his back as he stretched, raisinmg his arms above his head though he grimaced as he did, "But there is one clear different between me and my Toph. I can't stand the thought of going to bed covered in the day's dirt. I need to wash."
"Then shall we bathe now or would you prefer to eat first?" Piandao asked, rising smoothly to his feet and offering Lao a hand, "We still have some leftover Turtle-seal soup from last night or I could,"
There came a light knocking on the doors of the Dojo and Piandao's sword almost seemed to simply appear in his hand, his expression just as suddenly hard and unreadable and yet he shared a knowing look with his companion who nodded in understanding. Piandao moved away toward the door while Lao hung back in the centre of the dojo, giving himself plenty of room if he needed it. His sword held casually but ready at his side, Piandao opened the doors but relaxed almost instantly at the sight of a man standing just outside. He might have been anyone off the streets of the capital, his blue robes cut in a style worn by most of the average citizenry but he held one hand up by his chest, idly rolling a small Pia Sho tile between his fingers.
"Have you come seeking truth, wisdom and beauty, brother?" Piandao asked the man.
"It is truth I am here to bring." The man replied, tucking his Pia Sho tile away in his robes, "Shadows are replacing the light in high places, growing in number and hiding in plain sight amongst those rarely noticed."
"Then I shall seek the purifying light." Piandao replied, the two bowing to each other once more before the man turned and disappeared into the evening gloom.
Piandao slid the door shut and stood thoughtfully for a moment as Lao approached him curiously.
"What was all that about, Panny?" Lao asked, resting a hand on his friend's shoulder.
"That was an acolyte of the Order. A White Lotus member who resides here in the city." Piandao said quickly, his eyes flashing angrily and bringing a worried frown to Lao's face, "He came to inform me that he has sensed demons infesting the palace. Hiding in plain sight in those rarely noticed. The palace staff and servants are being taken over. I believe this city is about to see a most devastating attack."
Lao gasped, his face growing pale as he stepped back and then turned to dash away although only over to one corner of the dojo, snatching up some things there and rushing back to Piandao's side. The sword master watched with a frown of his own as Lao rammed a large silver helmet onto his head then pulled on a pair of bulky gauntlets to match.
"I'm ready when you are, Panny." Lao said breathlessly, his face still pale though his expression was determined, "It's time I put all your training to good use."
"This will be dangerous." Piandao said sternly, grabbing Lao by his shoulders, "Far more than anything you've experienced before and I can't risk,"
"Oh, don't you start. Now you're starting to sound like Toph." Lao interrupted angrily, "I chose this path so I could be with the two people I love most in all this world. I am coming with you, Panny."
Under Lao's stern glare, Piandao relaxed slightly as one side of his mouth twitched upwards.
"Very well, my friend." Piandao said after a moment, "But I have a task for you first. I will contact the Avatars and whoever else is available to help and then go to scout the palace. You must go and fetch your fellow students. We will rendezvous at the Earth Kingdom embassy just beyond the palace gates."
"I'll have them there in a flash, Sifu." Lao replied, suppressing an eager grin as he bowed, "I won't disappoint you."
As Lao went to step around him to reach the door, Piandao grabbed the man again and held him tight by the arms, his expression softening.
"I would only be disappointed in myself if anything happened to you." Piandao breathed warmly, "Just watch yourself out there and be careful."
"You too." Lao told him, taking the helmet from his head then so he could lunge forward, the two men embracing briefly.
With a last, lingering gaze into one another's eyes, Lao turned and opened the doors, rushing quickly out into the night and with a sad sigh, Piandao slowly closed the doors and then took a small chip of blue crystal from a pocket in his robes.
"This is the blade of the north." Piandao said with the chip held to his throat, "Hakoda? I'm glad you're running the switchboard tonight. I need you to patch me through to everyone. We may have a serious problem here."