Twist of Fate
Chapter 1: One Simple Idea
The bolt of lightning shot through the air with a crackle, a bright arc of blue lighting up the surroundings brilliantly for a split-second…
Only to go wide of the narrow target by a millimeter, leaving a black scorch-mark on the far left side of the wooden stake.
"Damn it!" Azula seethed, her amber eyes narrowed into furious slits as she stared down the slim wooden post. That was her third try, and the closest she'd gotten was a pathetic black mark. She should have been able to splinter this miserable plank of wood into a hundred pieces on her first try by now!
A burst of amused laughter drew the princess sharply out of her thoughts, and she spun around to glare at the young man standing behind her.
"What's so funny?"
He slowed his laughter to a trickle and then stopped it altogether, wiping at his eyes to re-focus them.
"You," he said at last, straightening up and scratching absently at one of his black sideburns. "You're hilarious. Cut yourself some slack once in a while, Azula; it'll do you good."
"Well, I'm glad my failure can provide you with amusement, Lu Ten," the princess said sharply as she stalked over towards her cousin, her eyes blazing. "Be thankful that we're family, or I'd burn that smirk right off of your face."
By now she was standing at arms-length from Lu Ten, looking up at him with a face that was twisted into a mask of anger. Lu Ten just smiled, reaching down and ruffling his cousin's hair.
"I'd like to see you try," he said with a casualness that just infuriated Azula even more, but with a smile that took most of the sting from his words. "C'mon," he said with a shake of his head towards the singed post, "let's see if we can't get this right before the meeting starts."
Lu Ten took a few steps over toward the targets. Azula followed in his wake and fixed her hair with practiced quickness, a frown on her face. She was going to make him pay the next time he did that.
"Your main problem is your anger," Lu Ten said evenly, letting his eyes close and taking a few deep breaths to calm himself as his body shifted unconsciously into the stance for lightning formation. "Frustration and other negative emotions can cloud the flow of your chi, blocking or distorting the creation of lightning. The key is to be completely free of emotion; to let the energy flow unimpeded through you. The angrier you get, the more likely it is that you'll mess up the point of release."
Lu Ten stopped talking and brought one arm up above him while dropping the other down lower, before beginning to move them in opposing half-circles. Blue sparks of lightning appeared at the tips of each of his forefingers, growing more and more intense until he brought both hands out in front of him and released the lighting in a tight spread, shattering the wooden stake that Azula had burned earlier.
The princess swallowed her indignation at being shown up and nodded, turning her attention to the lone remaining target. Taking in a deep breath and letting it out in a slow, measured hiss, she forced all emotions from her mind and focused only on her goal of obliterating her target from existence. Dropping into the stance, she split the energy residing in her stomach in two, letting it flow in positive and negative halves as she performed the circular motion with her arms. Maintaining iron concentration, Azula brought both halves colliding back into one as she moved her hands together, forcing the lightning out from a single point of focus at her forefingers.
She heard the groaning sound of wood cracking and splintering a heartbeat later and knew she'd done it. Opening her eyes slowly to savor the moment, Azula saw the smoking wreckage of the former target post and allowed herself a satisfied smile at her accomplishment.
"Impressive," a gravelly voice called over from behind the princess. She turned abruptly to face the newcomer, finding herself looking at the white-haired, scarred face of Admiral Jeong Jeong. "Most impressive, Princess Azula," he said with a half-bow. "A prodigy indeed; you're the youngest Firebender I've ever seen control lightning that precisely. Even Lu Ten here was two years older than your brother is now before he had tamed the cold-blooded fire."
"Was he, now?" Azula asked with practiced innocence, sneaking a glance at her cousin to see him looking pointedly in the other direction. "He'd forgotten to mention that."
Jeong Jeong chuckled.
"Yes, I would imagine he did," the Admiral said with a small smile, before his face became serious again. "Come; your uncle is waiting for us in the Throne Room."
Jeong Jeong turned and walked back inside, leaving Azula and Lu Ten alone again. The princess looked at her cousin and gave him a wickedly satisfied grin, but Lu Ten was unfazed.
Azula held up four fingers: one for each year she'd learned to bend lightning before he had. Lu Ten just frowned.
"Yeah, yeah," he groused, "laugh it up. When you can break three posts simultaneously with a single blast of lightning, then I'll start taking you seriously."
Azula dropped her hand back down by her side, her eyes widening slightly in surprise. She waited for him to laugh it off as an exaggeration, or to tell her he was joking… but when that moment didn't come and he just started walking back inside, Azula felt a sinking feeling in her gut.
"Are you serious?" she asked Lu Ten as they walked back into the palace, side-by-side. "Can you really do that?"
Her cousin didn't reply, merely giving her a smug smirk and a shrug. Azula's previous sense of accomplishment had all-but evaporated by now, replaced by a dark cloud of anger.
"Don't worry about it, Azula," Lu Ten said consolingly, reaching down and ruffling her hair almost absently. "You'll get there; it just takes practice. Probably a lot less practice for someone like you, but still practice all the same."
Azula huffed and busied herself with her hair, promising herself once more that she'd make him pay the next time he did that.
Fire Lord Iroh swept his calm eyes over the table of his top advisers and trusted family members once as he drew a calming breath, preparing himself for the meeting. That done, he looked over to regard his son Lu Ten sitting on his right- and his brother Ozai sitting on his left- before speaking.
"Well, now that we're all here, we might as well begin. Admiral Jeong Jeong, your report."
Jeong Jeong rose from his seat at the long table and bowed his head respectfully.
"My Lord," he intoned seriously. "The treaty with King Bumi of Omashu was signed and witnessed yesterday—for all intents and purposes, the Earth Kingdom has been brought under our control."
Iroh nodded in satisfaction, but not everyone in the room agreed with the sentiment. Jeong Jeong's subordinate, Commander Zhao, was quick to spring to his feet in rebuttal.
"With all due respect, my Lord," the soldier said in a tone that conveyed very little, "I do not believe this to be the best course of action at all."
"Oh?" Iroh said curiously, and if he was angered at all by the presumptuous interjection he hid it masterfully. "And why is that, Commander?"
"I don't trust King Bumi at all, my Lord," Zhao said firmly, standing his ground. "He is as wily as he is powerful, however he might choose to hide it behind false madness. He is a dangerous threat to leave unchecked; dangerous enough, I believe, to cause the Earth Kingdom to rebel."
"I agree with the Commander's assessment," Ozai's smooth, sharp voice seconded as soon as the other soldier had retaken his seat. "We cannot allow misplaced trust to jeopardize everything we've worked so hard to build throughout this war. I admire your confidence, brother, but this is one gamble I simply do not see us winning."
"I beg to differ, uncle," Prince Lu Ten countered evenly, the young man meeting his uncle's firm glare with an equally-unbending gaze. "Ba Sing Se is ours; my father and I have seen to that. And if that was going to change, the people would have risen up against us by now. The fact of the matter is that they know better than to risk their lives starting a war they know they could not possibly win.
"And even if King Bumi decided to revolt, without the support of Ba Sing Se any rebellion of his would wither and die on the vine. We have nothing to lose by trusting King Bumi to honor his word, and everything to gain."
Iroh laughed loudly as his son finished his speech, his amber eyes bright with mirth.
"I could not have said it better myself," he said after he'd recovered, giving his brother a mollifying look. "While I understand your concerns, General Ozai," he said, "waiting for him to make the first move would still be our wisest course of action. If he breaks the treaty, he would be clearly in the wrong and we would have all the justification we need to destroy Omashu completely.
"But I still don't think that will come to pass," he finished determinedly. "I've known King Bumi for many years, and he is an honorable man. He will hold true to the treaty; I can promise you that."
Commander Zhao grumbled something about honor being less than worthless in a time of war. Iroh let it pass, but Jeong Jeong gave his former student a stern look that stilled any further complaints.
"There is one thing I would like to mention, my Lord, if I may," Jeong Jeong said, rising to his feet as Iroh nodded. "I noticed something odd in one of the recent reports sent back by our military base in the Southern Earth Kingdom. It would appear as though one of our platoons was defeated in combat outside of the town of Gaoling."
"A whole platoon?" Iroh echoed in surprise, his eyebrows raising. "I didn't think that part of the Earth Kingdom could field enough troops to take down a platoon without us hearing about it."
"That's because they didn't field any troops," Zhao broke in, his voice low and venomous as rage shined in his eyes. "Not in the strictest sense of the word, at least. It was a small group of Earthbenders, engaged in guerilla warfare."
"And how do you know this?" Prince Zuko asked, causing Zhao to shift his eyes to stare at the young man across from him. Zuko didn't flinch.
"I know because I was commanding the platoon, Prince," Zhao said flatly. "I tried to discover the identity of our attackers, but their use of the terrain was flawless. We were beaten back, and I ordered a retreat rather than risking the loss of any more of my men."
"A wise decision," Iroh commented, but a gale of laughter cut him off.
"You let a ragtag band of peasants beat you on the field?" Princess Azula asked incredulously, her eyes wide. "You didn't even hold your ground long enough to figure out who they were before turning tail and running?"
"Quiet, Azula," her mother Ursa hissed firmly, hushing her.
"You both raise good points," Iroh said equivocally, his voice as calm as ever. "Commander Zhao, you were right not to risk any of your troops unnecessarily in a fight where you were outmatched," the Fire Lord continued. "However, Princess Azula is right as well. If nothing else, you should have discovered the identities of your attackers before retreating. Without those, fair and measured reprisals are impossible."
"There was one person mentioned in the report as having been a hostile enemy, my Lord," Jeong Jeong spoke up, and Zhao's eyes whipped back over to stare daggers at his former teacher. Whether he didn't see the silent demand to stop talking, or simply chose to ignore it, the Admiral pressed on. "A blind girl, apparently about the same age as Princess Azula—if not slightly younger."
This time Azula's laughter was stopped by her hand politely covering her mouth, but her eyes shone with open scorn.
"I see," Iroh said slowly, falling silent into thought for several heartbeats, letting his eyes close as he did so. When they opened again, they glinted with purpose.
"Lu Ten," he said with the regal weight of an order in his voice, "you are to depart for Gaoling as soon as this meeting comes to an end. I want you to find this blind bandit and learn what you can from her: who her accomplices are, what kind of system they have set up, if they have any agents in Ba Sing Se or Omashu—anything you think might be of use to us."
Lu Ten bowed his head in acceptance.
"Of course, my Lord."
Iroh opened his mouth to say something else, but then paused, his hand still in the middle of stroking his beard. His head turned to face Azula, and he gave his niece a wide smile.
"Princess Azula," the Fire Lord said jovially, "I think you should accompany Lu Ten on this trip. If the girl we're searching for is about your age, she might open up more readily to you. If the Lady Ursa would allow it, of course," Iroh amended, shifting his gaze over to his sister-in-law. Ursa smiled, nodding in deference.
"If the Fire Lord wills it, it will be so," she said. "I know that Azula is perfectly capable of looking after herself; with Lu Ten looking over her shoulder, I have nothing to worry about."
"Good," Iroh said contentedly, and Lu Ten broke his mask of solemn formality to slip Azula a quick smile. She didn't react noticeably, but the corner of her mouth rose ever-so-slightly before coming back down again.
"While I am glad to see my daughter being given a chance to prove her mettle, my Lord," Ozai said after the silence had spanned a few beats, "there is something important we have yet to discuss: the Northern and Southern Water Tribes."
Iroh nodded, his face turning stony again. The Northern and Southern Water Tribes were the last two major obstacles standing between the Fire Nation and complete hegemonic control of the world, and they were proving to be quite the stumbling blocks.
"I believe we stand to gain the most from a quick, decisive attack on the Southern Water Tribe," Zhao offered, the earnestness in his voice almost painful to hear. "Removing them will keep us from having to fight a two-front war, and allow our army and navy to focus a siege specifically on the Northern Water Tribe."
Iroh did not speak at once, allowing Zhao's proposal to hang in the air and give someone else the chance to evaluate it before passing his judgment.
He didn't have to wait long at all.
"While I agree that splitting the two Tribes apart is a vital piece of any successful strategy," Ozai spoke up, "the idea of laying siege to the Northern Tribe is foolish. I would propose instead that we wait a few months for the arrival of Sozin's Comet: that would give us more than enough power to annihilate the Northern Water Tribe from the face of the Earth."
Zhao forced back a grimace and nodded, but Iroh's face became clouded and troubled at the track his brother's thoughts had taken.
"Let us hope," he said darkly, "that such drastic measures never become necessary. My grandfather's massacre of the Air Nomads is not an episode in history I would care to repeat—there are other paths to peace besides total dominion, General Ozai."
"Of course, my Lord," Ozai replied with a short nod. "I was merely suggesting the possibility."
Iroh shrugged, his lips pursed like he'd eaten something unexpectedly sour.
"My Lord," Zuko spoke softly into the uneasy silence, "might I say something?"
Iroh gave his nephew an easy smile, the tension in the room melting away.
"Of course, Prince Zuko," he said. "What is it?"
Zuko took a deep breath, and Azula felt her fists clench instinctively as she saw the look on her brother's face; he only got this tense when something truly serious had happened, and it was almost never good news.
"I do not believe," he began slowly, "that the Southern Water Tribe will be easy to conquer."
"Oh?" Iroh exclaimed, his eyebrows rising ever so slightly on his face. "And why is that?"
"I was there this past week on a routine intelligence-gathering run," he said, his voice tight. "I was posing in my usual disguise as a merchant, and no one had any way to suspect who I actually was. While I was there, I overheard some Waterbenders talking about the Avatar."
The silence that fell over the room at that word was palpable, and dense as a tigerdillo's armored plating.
"The Avatar is dead, brother," Azula said at last. "Lu Ten killed the last surviving Airbender himself, fifteen years ago. We have proof of this."
"I know that," Zuko said, his voice sharper than Azula had heard it in quite some time. "They were talking about the new Avatar; the next reincarnation. Water follows after Air in the cycle—I think the Avatar might be a member of the Southern Water Tribe. And not only that, but I think I know whom she might be."
"'She'?" Lu Ten echoed, surprised. "That's a change of pace. There hasn't been a female Avatar since Kyoshi. Who is it?"
Zuko swallowed, regaining his balance and clearly glad that the news had gone over so smoothly.
"I believe her name is Katara," he said confidently. "The daughter of the Tribe's chieftain, Hakoda. I've spoken to her once or twice before; she's strong-willed, and would certainly fight tooth-and-nail to protect her people."
"The Avatar," Iroh said solemnly, and with no small amount of reverence. "This certainly casts things in a new light." He sighed, running a hand absently through his beard. "Thank you for this information, Zuko," the Fire Lord finished with a weary smile. "Unfortunately, this might set our plans back a few years- depending on the course of action the Avatar chooses to take."
"Not necessarily, my Lord," Azula broke in seamlessly, rising to her feet with fluid grace and a mischievous smile. "There might be a way to bring the Avatar under our wings without any struggle whatsoever."
Iroh leaned forward slightly on his throne. "I'm listening," he said, and Azula's smile widened, causing a knot to form in Zuko's stomach. He knew that smile: it was the smile Azula always wore whenever she was about to throw him under some kind of stampede for her own personal amusement.
"The two of them could get married."
This time the silence that settled wasn't nearly as dense as the one that had come before it, but it was equally as palpable. At least, until Zuko broke it with his normal amount of tact.
"What?" He shouted, no small amount of red showing on his cheeks at the suggestion. "How does that make any sense?"
"It makes perfect sense, Zuko," Azula countered, undaunted. Her smile widened and her eyes took on malicious glee as she got ready to turn the screws. "Think about it this way: you're a Prince who's been a bachelor for too long now anyway. She's technically a princess, so the formality side of the arrangement is satisfied," she explained, walking around the table towards her brother. "You've already spoken to her before, so she knows who you are—even if she doesn't know you're from the Fire Nation, but that shouldn't be impossible to work around.
"And, last but not least," she finished, now standing practically over Zuko's shoulder, "she's the Avatar, and this is quite possibly the only way to neutralize her as a threat without loosing a single fire-blast. And not only that, but an alliance through marriage would keep the entire Southern Water Tribe honor-bound to us in the event of a war with the Northern Tribe.
"So you see," she said, turning to face the Fire Lord with a wide smile as she finished with a flourish, "it's the perfect solution to several problems, all at the same time."
Iroh let out a deep belly laugh as Zuko sputtered in his seat, and even Ozai had a smile on his face.
"While I'm not sure I can accept the idea of my son marrying outside of the Fire Nation quite yet," he said at last, "your analysis of the situation is impeccable, Azula. I would expect nothing less from you."
Azula bowed at the praise, and a genuine smile flashed briefly across her face.
"Very well," Iroh said after Azula had taken her seat again. The Fire Lord smiling to himself as it appeared Zuko was deciding whether or not to leap across the table and start strangling his sister. "It seems I have two journeys to commence, rather than just one. Lu Ten, you and Azula will travel to Gaoling as we discussed, in search of this blind Earthbender.
"Zuko, you and Lady Ursa will travel to the Southern Water Tribe. Once there, seek an audience with Chieftain Hakoda, his wife Kya and the Avatar. Do not overplay your hand; simply let them know that we are aware of the Avatar's identity, and make our proposal known to them. With luck, they will accept."
Ursa bowed in her son's stead, as Zuko was still reeling from the unexpected turn of events.
"It will be done, my Lord," she said with a graceful curtsy, and Iroh smiled. He was glad to see that his nephew would at least be considering the possibility of marriage—he had been single for sixteen years running now, far too long for any royalty. Sooner or later, he would need an heir to solidify his line, in case anything happened to his uncle and his father.
"Good," the Fire Lord said with a nod, pulling himself back to the present. "The four of you are dismissed. General Ozai; Admiral Jeong Jeong; Commander Zhao; I would request your presence for a while longer. If war with the Northern Water Tribe is indeed inevitable, a strategy must be decided upon… and the sooner that happens, the better."
Zuko, Ursa, Azula and Lu Ten rose and left, silent until they were outside of the throne room. Zuko shot his sister a withering glare, but Azula only shrugged.
"What?" she asked casually, as if all-but locking her sibling into a marriage was as normal as commenting on the weather. "Why are you staring at me like that? If anything, you should be thanking me. I did you a favor."
"We'll see," Zuko said lowly, glancing imploringly at his cousin over his shoulder as his mother guided him the other way down the hall. But Lu Ten only shrugged, fighting to keep the smile off of his face until after Zuko was out of sight.
"Now that," he said when he and Azula were alone in the hall, "was brilliant. Devious, but brilliant."
"Thank you, cousin," Azula said with a small smile and a nod of her head. "Sooner or later, I'm sure little Zuzu will agree with you. He's so hopeless sometimes it drives me crazy to think I'm behind him in the line of succession."
Lu Ten laughed and ruffled his cousin's hair, motioning down the other hallway with a shake of his head.
"C'mon," he said, dark amber eyes smiling. "We have a lot of ground to cover between here and Gaoling, and we're going to need to be ready to fight when we get there. Once we complete our mission successfully, then you can worry about your brother's girl problems."
Azula huffed as she worked to straighten her hair out again with practiced motions, still unable to keep the slightest of smiles from flitting across her face as she did so.
She was going to make him pay the next time he did that, though.
A/N: And there we have it; Chapter 1. It took me a while to decide on the idea for this story- at first I tried building something off of the end of the series' canon, but it all wrapped up so nicely that I couldn't find a hook strong enough to make it work. I've always liked the possibilities presented by Lu Ten's character, though, so I figured I'd try giving him a reprieve from death and seeing what spun out from there.
This story is the result of that change. I know people are usually pretty resistant to AUs, and especially ones that make an alteration as radical as this... but my hope is that you'll give this yarn a chance all the same- and hopefully enjoy it.
Thank you for reading this far, and if you could spare the time, I'd love to hear what you think in a review. That would be awesome. Regardless, though, I hope to see you next chapter!
P.S.- If you're reading this, Grinja, I apologize for focusing on a different project ahead of 'Legacies'... this one just got it hooks into me and wouldn't let go.