It's been a while, hasn't it? I hope everyone is doing well. I found myself engaged in a long study abroad program in the UK. I got caught up in traveling Europe and forgot about this story for a moment or seven. Then I saw "SomeGuyNamedMike" say "Finish this shit." Then I realized I told "Kingg6" that I was going to update two weeks ago. Sorry about that, guys. So, without further delay…
His grip tightened on the reigns as he gazed off into the distance.
"Something's not right," Aang whispered to himself while inspecting the smoke on the horizon.
Toph slowly sat up and began rubbing the crust from her eyes.
"What's that, Twinkle Toes?" Toph yawned as she stretched her arms into the cool morning air. "There a problem up ahead or something?"
Aang did not answer immediately. He squinted in an attempt to get a better view before he glanced over his shoulder toward his Earthbending master.
"Toph," Aang hesitated, "You don't' think the capital is in any kind of danger because of its, um, location, do you?"
"You mean besides the fact that it's sitting in a volcano? No, not at all," Toph stated before she dug around in an ear with a little finger.
"Toph," Aang grumbled in a manner too soft for admonishment but too grave to be light hearted.
"Aang, that mountain isn't going to be exploding anytime soon," Toph sighed as she lay back in Appa's saddle. "Trust me, I would've felt it. Actually, I take that back, it won't be going off ever. It's silent as a rock. Is something wrong? Is there something that, oh I don't' know, maybe I should be seeing?"
"There's smoke out on the horizon," Aang stated in a detached manner as he eyed the faint image in the distance.
Toph frowned. Aang's lack of detail was one thing, and his apparent concern was yet another. However, he was leaving her without any clear explanation while she was, quite literally, in no position to see. She felt vulnerable, something that she vowed never to be again.
"What's a horizon," Toph asked in an annoyed tone.
Aang bit his tongue before starting his apology, "Sorry, Toph. The horizon is –"
"I'm blind, not dumb, Twinkle Toes," Toph cut in, "I know what a horizon is. Now that I've got your attention, how much smoke are we talking?"
Aang scowled as his eyes focused out on the distance.
"A lot," he replied.
Toph continued to pick at her ear as her mouth twisted to the side.
"Well, with a capital full of Firebenders, something was bound to catch fire," she said.
Aang remained silent.
"You don't think anything is wrong, do you?" Toph started. "I mean, just basing this on how Azula handled the Yu Dao thing better than both you and Zuko without even being there, running the capital should be a breeze. Besides, if anything happened I'm sure both Fire Lily and Sweetness could handle it, right?"
Aang grimaced as the smoke grew thicker with every bit of ground that Appa gained.
"I hope so," he whispered.
"Well, there's no way to know until we get there," Toph said. "But until then, Twinkle Toes, there's no point in assuming the worst."
Aang glanced back at Toph and then out toward the billowing plumes of smoke. His brow furrowed.
"We need to go faster buddy," Aang yelled out while slightly tugging on Appa's reigns.
The giant sky bison bellowed in acknowledgement and pushed forward, forcing Toph to stabilize herself in the beast's saddle.
"Woah, woah! Aang, what's the rush? I told you that Katara and Azula can handle themselves!" Toph yelled while clinging to the saddle's edge.
"Sorry," Aang shouted back, "I have a really bad feeling about this!"
"Oh yeah," Toph screamed, "Well, I'm about to lose my lunch!"
"It's morning," Aang called out.
"It's a figure of speech!" Toph exclaimed before her cheeks bloated and a hand shot to her mouth.
As Appa barreled forward, the capital came into sight. It was clear that a commotion filled the great city. Its streets were flooded with people and soldiers. A few buildings sported scorch marks while others were completely razed to the ground. However, most were still standing, intact and without damage. Soldiers guided rows of well-dressed men and women bound by rope and chain along main roads. Aang realized that a fierce altercation briefly took place across the entirety of the capital. He assumed it was some form of riot. However, the Avatar's assumptions soured as he caught sight of the royal palace. Portions of its external structure suffered extensive damage, while other parts of the building were completely caved in upon itself. Smoke swelled high into the sky from the compound, giving away the illusion of smoldering mountain.
"No," he whispered.
"What," Toph yelled. "Tell me something, Aang! Don't keep me in the dark."
"Something's happened, we have to get to the palace," Aang blurted out.
Appa roared within the sky and pushed forward towards the usual landing area. As Appa circled, Aang noticed that there were not only members of the royal guard, but also Kiyoshi warriors waiting bellow. Aang instructed his sky bison to land before he leapt from his seated position. He touched down gently before he made his way forward to meet the Captain of the guard and Suki. A trembling shook the ground behind him, signifying Toph's heavy touch down.
"Alright! Between Suki and the court bozos, can someone tell me what's going on here," Toph demanded.
"What she said," Aang growled, looking between both Suki and the Captain.
"Aang," Suki began as she reached out toward the Avatar.
His eyes narrowed as she placed a hand on his shoulder. Her eyes were wide, drowned in concern, as she attempted to speak. However, words were lost to her. The Kiyoshi warrior could find no way to break the news to her friend in a soft, tinder manner. The marred and disfigured remains of the palace betrayed enough of the intimate details to discourage any attempts to protect Aang from the truth. The captain stepped forward and began speaking. Suki turned her head to the side and sighed before contributing relevant details.
As their mouths moved, Aang's heart sank. His throat tightened as the specifics of the night's events were provided to him in broken parcels of muddled fact and speculation. Their words no longer held meaning as their explanation lingered. They delivered only emotion. Each additional snippet of knowledge gained was another blow to everything Aang held true. His lack of foresight regarding Ozai along Azula's deeds were revealed piece by piece, presented before him for all to see. Regret filled his heart as a vaguely familiar wrath swelled within his core. He became detached, separated from his body. He lost control of his actions. His teeth grinded against themselves as his arm shot forward to grab the Captain by the collar. He could hear himself, far away, demanding for answers that the man did not have. He could hear himself repeating the same string of words again and again, each time his voice grew poisoned with rage. The certain and unmistakable fear in the man's eyes did not deter Aang's persistence. The Avatar's native tattoos shone with a brilliant light as terrible gusts of wind blasted in all directions from his being.
Suki gazed upon the Avatar with a foreign sense of dread. Only once had she witnessed the Avatar state, and even then it had been from great a distance. The power of the Avatar, in such close proximity, was stifling and altogether terrifying. As soon as the Captain croaked out scrambled details about the prison he was tossed to the ground. He scrambled backwards to be picked up by his fellow guardsmen. Suki's eyes widened in horror as Aang's neck snapped in her direction. His glowing, luminous eyes pierced her very being as the voice of a thousand life times demanded Katara's location. Suki froze, bound by the chains of fear. Her breath refused to move, and her tongue remained locked in place. While captivated by the magnificence of the Avatar's power, her mind took note of reality. The bindings and whispers of fear melted away in the flames of realization. The Avatar stood before her, not an almighty spirit of unfathomable power, but a dear and precious friend. On that friends face lay a heavy stream of tears that flowed readily from radiant pools of light.
Against instinct, Suki advanced forward and placed her arms around the Avatar's neck. She squeezed gently in her best attempt of comfort. A hand bathed in a glowing sliver of energy gripped her shoulder. Its grasp tightened causing Suki to wince in preparation for a pain that did not follow. The light around the Avatar faded as he eased his grip on the Kiyoshi warrior.
"Please, tell me she's okay," Aang all but pleaded as he fell forward.
Suki bent her knees, supporting his weight in her embrace.
"She's with Sokka in the emergency medical wing," Suki whispered as her voice faltered.
Aang clenched his eyelids together before asking, "How bad?"
"The medics weren't sure when they found her, but they think she'll pull through. It's a miracle that they found her when they did. I think the doctors and nurses have a handle on her situation now. But she'll need a Waterbender soon to help along one of the injuries, can," Suki hesitated as her voice hitched in her throat, "can you do that?"
"Yes, of course," Aang said as he moved out of Suki's arms. "But…I need to go, now. I'll be back soon as I can."
Aang broke away and ran toward Appa. Effortlessly he sprang into the air and landed on the creature's back. In an instant the two of them rose into the sky and headed behind the palace.
"Where are you going," Suki called out into the sky.
Toph stepped up and gave Suki a rough pat on the back.
"If I had to bet on it, I'd say the prison," Toph started.
Suki looked down toward the blind Earthbender.
"If Katara's injured as badly as you say she is, then Azula didn't get away without a scratch. If no one knows where she is, then she hasn't gotten medical attention yet. If that's the case then Aang needs to find her as soon as possible." Toph shook her head and sucked her teeth as she ground her heel into the stone below. "I thought Aang was impossible when it came to dealing with Ozai. He had to do things his own way, and it happened to work out for the best. Well, at the time, at least. But this is different. Azula didn't trust anyone, and played everything too close to the chest. It almost cost Katara her life. It was too much. Not even her little stunt with the former colonies can make up for that. This was dangerous and selfish. If she's alive, then it's going to cost her."
"If," Suki repeated as she solemnly shook her head.
"Yeah, well, let's hope she's made of tough stuff," Toph whispered.
"Wait," Suki began in realization, "What happened in Yu Dao?"
"More like what didn't happen," Toph said as she blew on her bangs. "And you might as well start calling it the Independent Republic, because it's independent from the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation now."
"What," Suki exclaimed as her face twisted in confusion, "How?"
"You can thank little miss selfish," Toph said.
"Azula?" Suki asked as her mouth gaped in shock.
"In one," Toph said, "In one. Now, let's go. I wanna go see Katara. I need to make sure Sweetness isn't going to give up on us."
Appa landed outside the opening of the mountain. Aang hopped off of his companion and began to run toward the white walls of the prison with the force of the wind behind him.
Death and chaos littered the area around him. Seemingly, with each step that Aang took, he passed a corpse that once belonged to a member of the dismantled loyalist cell. Each body added to the bitterness that simmered within his belly. He darted through the gates and past the large doors of the prison. He plunged into the dimly lit hallways and down a series of stairs, almost as if into the Earth itself. As he moved he focused upon his anger, hoping that is may distract from whatever concern lie within his heart. He hoped in vain. He paused once he made it to the metal door that would lead him to Ozai's cell. Fear gripped his heart, sending its icy tendrils through his veins. A distinct, atrocious odor met his nose. It was like nothing he had experienced, yet it was altogether familiar. Something within his collective subconscious caused panic to tear though his mind. He pressed his weight against the door and shouted into the room.
"Azula," his voice echoed throughout the cell.
Sound, sight, and smell all met his conscious mind at once. As he heard his own voice play back into his ears, his brain registered the twisted black figure behind the metal bars. It lay burned beyond recognition, unmoving and dead. Its putrid scent saturated the room causing the Avatar to choke and cough violently. He turned away from the image to see another body outside the metal bars. A beautiful, ragged, and unconscious raven haired young woman lay unmoving upon the stone.
Aang cried out to her, "Azula!"
She did not respond.
He rushed to her side. He kneeled down and gently cradled her head in his arms. He wore a smile as he brought her close. His chest tightened as he felt it. The corners of his mouth involuntarily twitched. Her skin was cold to the touch.
"Azula?" he whispered softly as his voice quivered. "Azula?"
Only the silence answered his pleas.
Aang tapped the side of her face in an attempt to illicit some form of reaction. She remained still. The Avatar shook his head as his breathing became rapid and shallow. He placed an arm under her knees and lifted her from the ground.
"It's going to be okay," he mouthed to woman in his arms.
He held her close. Before attempting to leave the room he stared toward the darkened mass that once occupied the cell. He studied the remains of what could have only been Ozai and then gazed toward the woman in his arms. His body grew weak as his shoulders began to tremble.
"It's," he paused, shutting his eyes. "It's going to be ok. I know I'm an idiot. You were right, I should have listened. You said that I'd regret this, and I'm not mad I just..."
Her body remained still. She was heavy in his arms.
Drops of water fell upon Azula's face. Aang stood bewildered by the sight until his vision began to haze. More droplets fell upon the princess's cheek. The Avatar could not bear the weight. His knees buckled before he crumbled to the ground.
He laid his face next to hers. He bit into his lip. Tears burned relentlessly against his skin despite his tightly clenched eyelids. They were more alike than he realized. To whom much was given, much was demanded; and into demand she gave. In disregarding a mother's love, a brother's trust, a father's pride, a dream's power, and a life of peace, Azula walked a different path. She traveled down a road that the Avatar knew far too well. Aang's chest heaved in a muted fashion as he came to realize just how much she sacrificed. There was no single point in her life where in she was able to live for herself. Her decisions, motivations, and actions were always born from another's will. She was an instrument. The past year was no different. She was an instrument, one that he used just as the others did.
Aang acknowledged, with great shame, that the changes she underwent and the struggle for a new life were expectations he placed upon her shoulders. She carried this new burden for him, and bore its weight to the very end. When confronted with a threat that neither he nor Zuko could have managed, she bled.
"I'm sorry," he breathed over her dormant form. "I should have listened. I should have listened."
Aang imagined a tingling sensation gracing the back of his head, the feeling of her hand gracefully caressing his skin. She responded to his tears with a gentle touch. Her lips moved to insult him before reminding him that there were consequences to leaving her side. In his mind he laughed and pulled her close, forgetting and forgiving everything that happened. He could hear her chastise him about how he was far too lenient with her. She smiled and promised not to tell anyone. She whispered that it would be their little secret. Her eyes shimmered as if two embers in the night.
Reality made its way into his perception once more. In excitement he looked down at Azula expectantly. The joy drained from his body.
Her arms lay limp, one draped across her body while the other hung loosely to the side. Her face lay darkened by soot, discolored by trauma. Her full lips did not part. Her golden eyes sat closed, hidden to the world. She lay heavy, cold, and silent in his arms. He brought her body closer and placed his forehead upon hers.
Aang closed his eyes and rose. Carefully, he carried Azula's body out of the prison and into the open air. The sun shone brightly, caressing their skin to bestow the gift of fire.
Bitter. That's the one word I can use to describe my feelings toward this chapter. It was an extremely odd final chapter, right? That last part was a joke. That's not the end. I mean, could you imagine? We have a few more chapters to go. I guess my time away allowed me to settle on the decision I made a while ago. I'll just say this…don't make any assumptions yet. Though, it'd be realistic to make a few. If there were any huge grammatical errors or typos, you have my apologies. I wanted to get this to everyone as soon as possible. Well, see you all in another fourteen to nineteen months. Another joke. Later days.