Sorry for the wait. Life happens. p_p
Big, big thank you to all the guest reviewers! Special shout out to the "guest" who's been living that procrastination life. I hope you managed to get your work done after all that, though I am happy you like the story so much! And no need to fear, I won't abandon UF. To do so would crush me into a soulless lump of regret after all the sleep and time I have sacrificed just to get this far. So yeah, not gonna happen.
And now for chapter 55 …
The Earth King
"What are you all doing here?" the man with glasses asked in astonishment.
The two guards didn't wait for an explanation. Instead, they moved forward to shield the smaller man and shifted into offensive stances. Zuko and Katara did the same for their own group. No way was Zuko going to let anyone get hurt now, though he'd have to be careful since he was still carrying Toph.
"Wait!" Biyu and the man with glasses cried in unison.
All four froze.
"Uh, Your Majesty," one of the guards said. "These two are clearly not Dai Li agents. Look, that one is even a waterbender." He pointed at Katara, who had an arc of water swirling around her. "We have to apprehend them."
"But you might hurt Bosco."
Zuko raised his eyebrow. That weak looking guy wearing glasses was the Earth King? No wonder the guards had looked so flustered when they'd entered the garden. One of them even looked like he wanted to facepalm. It said a lot when a king was more concerned about his pet's welfare than stopping intruders. Then again, it sounded like King Kuei had lived a very sheltered life; it was Long Feng who ran the show in Ba Sing Se.
Biyu pulled herself together and lowered into a bow. "Your Majesty, please forgive our trespassing in your garden. We meant no harm."
"Save your explanations for the trial," the guard on the left retorted. "It'll be the prisons for you lot."
The ground rose to trap the group, but Biyu countered the move by levelling the would-be cage to rubble. She slumped back into Iroh a second later. Her energy was almost spent.
"Katara, help them!" Zuko urged.
He created a blast-like wall of flames to give them cover to escape. A roar distracted him. Damn it, he had forgotten that Bosco was right there. Animals hated fire, and the bear was no exception. Bosco roared again and almost ran into the flames in panic. Zuko manipulated the fire to curve around and away from the bear. That was enough time for the guards to surround him.
"Lee!" Katara cried.
She turned back to help, already forming a water whip to attack. Zuko tightened his grip on Toph. He hadn't wanted to fight, but it looked like they would have to if they didn't want to be captured.
Again, everyone froze at the command.
King Kuei peeked around the guards to stare at Zuko. "You're a firebender."
Zuko blinked. "Um, yeah."
"I've never seen one in person before," Kuei admitted.
Zuko didn't know how to respond to that. Most people in the Earth Kingdom reacted with fear or anger when they found out about his bending. It was bizarre to have the king just stare at him with big, wondering eyes, like he was a shiny new thing that had dropped into the man's sheltered world. Zuko almost felt sorry for the guy.
"Your Majesty," the same guard on the left said in a half-pleading tone. "These people are intruders. We must—"
"No." King Kuei gestured for the guards to stand down. "I think this woman was telling the truth when she said they don't mean us any harm."
"But, Your Majesty—"
King Kuei jutted his bottom lip. "This boy protected Bosco. He could have let Bosco get burnt by his flames, but he didn't. I won't have you hurt him."
The guard on the right actually did facepalm this time. "Always the bear," he muttered under his breath.
Zuko and Katara exchanged a confused glance. This was not how they had expected their encounter with the Earth King to go. Perhaps they wouldn't have to fight. Iroh certainly seemed hopeful; he cleared his throat and bowed low to the king.
"Actually," Iroh said, "the truth is we would like to request Your Majesty's assistance."
Zuko glanced at his uncle. "We would?"
"Yes," Biyu said, still leaning against Iroh for support. "This could be exactly what we need."
The guards shifted closer to shield Kuei again. They didn't seem to like the idea of Zuko and his companions needing anything from the king.
"You dare to make requests now?" the guard on the left demanded. "You shouldn't even be talking to the king!"
"Stand down, Gan," King Kuei said, though he sounded a bit nervous. Maybe he only got a backbone when the bear was involved.
Biyu struggled to stay upright. There was hardly any colour in her cheeks. "Your Majesty, please listen to us. I know Long Feng has been your adviser all these years, but believe me when I say that he is not your ally. Because of him, the Dai Li have become corrupted. They claim to protect the city, but all they care about is controlling it."
"W-what are you talking about? Long Feng is—"
"He cannot be trusted," Biyu said in a firm tone. "Fortunately, I believe he is still being subdued somewhere, but the Dai Li have continued to carry out his plans. You must stop the Dai Li. Please, Your Majesty. You are the Earth King. Only you have the power!"
Gan's eyes widened. "Long Feng has been subdued? You fought him?"
"We had no choice," Iroh admitted. "He was rather, uh, concerned that we might expose his less than savoury activities. The citizens would not react well to hearing that the Dai Li brainwash people into compliance."
Kuei let out a shaky laugh. "Brainwash? Ridiculous."
"It's true," Biyu said. "I was one of the women he had brainwashed. They call us Joo Dees. Our whole identity is rewritten to turn us into soulless servants who only have two purposes: to keep order within the city and to hide the truth he never wanted you to know, that there is a war happening outside the walls and it is destroying your kingdom."
All the colour drained from Kuei's cheeks. "This, this can't be. You can't just come here and say these things. I don't believe—"
"Please believe it," Katara begged. "The Dai Li almost killed Aang. They were going to kill our friend Toph." She clenched her hands into fists. "They've done so many awful things. We have to stop them."
Kuei shook his head, looking small and lost. It was like he was shrinking into the fine fabric of his pyjamas, like he was trying to escape from them and the conversation. Zuko felt a stirring of pity. It wasn't that Kuei didn't believe them. He just didn't want to believe. Everything would change then. Change was scary. Kuei had depended on Long Feng for too long, and now he was being told that person had never had his best interests at heart. It was a difficult truth to accept. Zuko should know; he'd experienced the same when he'd been forced to accept that his father was just a cruel man who did not deserve his loyalty.
"If you want proof, you only need to look in the Old City," Zuko said quietly. "They moved their base there after we discovered their headquarters at Lake Laogai. Now would be a good time to look. They'll still be focussing on searching for us instead of covering up their activities."
Gan glanced at the king. "Your Majesty?"
King Kuei lowered his gaze. "Order a search," he said in a strained voice. "If … if this proof they claim is there, we will find it."
The guard on the right bowed and left to carry out the order. Judging from the eagerness of his gait, along with Gan's hopeful tone when asking if they'd really subdued Long Feng, Zuko got the feeling that the palace guards were not as enthralled with the adviser or the Dai Li. It was Kuei who still struggled to come to terms with reality.
"This doesn't mean I believe you," King Kuei warned them.
"That's fine," Iroh responded. "All we ask is that you investigate the matter and decide for yourself whether we are telling the truth."
King Kuei said nothing. It fell on Gan to pick up the conversation and demand further details about what had happened to Long Feng and, more importantly, just who they all were. He recognised some of them as the Avatar's companions, but the Dai Li were not very forthcoming with sharing information. If Zuko and the others really wanted assistance, Gan needed to know if they could be trusted. Right now it was only the king's order stopping him from hauling them all off to a holding cell.
The four began to explain the situation, but it was not long before all of Biyu's injuries caught up to her. She fainted and slumped into Iroh, who managed to catch her before she fell. King Kuei perked up from where he had been soothing Bosco.
"What happened to her?" Kuei asked, and then he paled as he noticed the red stains on her robes for the first time. "Wait, is that blood?"
"She was badly injured," Katara said, already rushing over to check the older woman's condition. "We healed her as much as we could, but we had to hurry." Her eyes sought the king's. "Is there a place we can take her? Toph is also in a critical condition; they both need a safe place to rest and recover."
King Kuei and Gan exchanged a glance. Zuko held his breath as he waited for the verdict. So far the encounter had gone well, but the king had still not committed to helping them, even if he didn't feel personally endangered by them.
"It is your decision, Your Majesty," Gan said, dipping his head. "You are the king."
Kuei shifted his gaze to Bosco, who he was still petting absently. "I, I guess it's okay. This is my private residence. No one is allowed to come here except my personal guard or, or Long Feng. Which is still not to say I believe you, but until we know the truth, I suppose I can't let any of you come to further harm." He sucked in a breath. "You can stay here. Gan and his men will ensure your safety."
They bowed to him in thanks. New guards were called to usher them to a set of spacious rooms, all lavishly decorated with green silk and gold trim. It almost reminded Zuko of home: the large beds, the extravagance and wealth imprinted into every ornament, every thread. These were indeed the royal chambers. In that moment, though, he didn't care about the size or the luxury of the rooms. He just appreciated being able to stop and catch his breath. Now that the adrenaline was fading, he realised just how exhausted he was both in body and mind. The thought of collapsing on the bed and going to sleep was far too tempting. Still, he knew that would have to wait.
He placed Toph down on the bed covers, sighing in relief as the ache in his arms eased. Slight as she was, her dead weight had been putting a real strain on his muscles after a while. Katara leaned over the girl and began to check her condition. Zuko took the chance to sit down and close his eyes. His head felt foggy and didn't want to stay upright. Dimly, he could hear Iroh and the guards helping Biyu onto the bed in the adjoining room so she could rest. He could also hear the soft hum of Katara's healing power. It was all so soothing—a reminder that they had finally found a respite from all the craziness.
Something nudged his shoulder. Zuko sat up with a start and realised he had dozed off on the end of the bed. He swiped a hand over his face to help wake himself up more. Katara smiled and sat back to put more distance between them.
"Sorry," he mumbled. "I didn't mean to fall asleep."
"It's fine. You're still recovering yourself. You don't need to push yourself so much."
He shook his head. "I can't leave you to do everything. You've been working so hard: all the healing, fighting and—" A yawn escaped, cutting off the rest of his words.
Katara laughed. "Thanks, but I think it's obvious who needs sleep right now. Get some proper rest, Zuko. There are spare beds in the other room. I can stay with Toph."
A rustle of fabric had them both turning to Toph. The girl had finally woken. The teens were at her side in an instant, checking to make sure she was okay. Toph didn't panic like last time, but she flinched from Katara's touch and averted her face. Not a word passed her lips. That was the most disturbing. Toph had always been such a mouthy brat.
"Toph?" Katara's hand hovered anxiously at her side. "Is … is everything alright?"
Still, Toph said nothing. It was like she had just shut down. Not that he could blame her. Toph had been through so much. He had seen that awful box, seen the room and the blood. Locking herself away into a shell of silence was probably all she could handle right now. To express anything, to utter a single word, would just tear open a dam of vulnerability and distress that she was not ready to let out—not to them and not even to herself. Toph was too much like him in that sense. She never liked to show her weakness.
"It's okay," he told her. "Whatever you're feeling, it's okay. You don't need to say anything. Just take your time. We'll be here."
There was a long pause. To his surprise, a small hand slipped in his and gripped tight. Zuko squeezed back to let her know he understood. She didn't cry or say a word, didn't even look at them, but her grip never loosened. Zuko let her be. Even Katara didn't push Toph into opening up about what was bothering her. Instead, the teens waited until some of the tension in her shoulders relaxed.
"Come on," Katara said gently. "I've prepared a bath so you can get cleaned up. We can get started on getting more fluids in you as well. I've hydrated you as much as I can with my bending, but now you've got to do your part. The drink I got the servants to make will speed up the process. It might not taste very nice, but it'll make you feel better. Okay? "
Toph agreed to this plan with a nod and released Zuko's hand. Katara looked to him to ask if he could carry the younger girl. Wordlessly, he scooped Toph up into his arms. It was hard not to grit his teeth at the listless way she let herself be carried. Those bastards. He should have hurt them more. Seeing the girl who mouthed off at everyone and gave him stupid nicknames reduced to this silent, broken thing was like a puncture to his heart. She wasn't supposed to behave this way. A swell of protectiveness rose within him, and he tightened his hold. Toph really was like a little sister to him. He hated that he had not been there for her.
Katara crossed to the ornate screen, which he had just noticed had been set up on the far side of the room. Behind it was a tub filled with water. Toph was too weak to undress or even bathe herself, but Zuko didn't think she would appreciate if he helped with that—and, honestly, he would just be too embarrassed—so he left her in Katara's care. Katara's fingers brushed against his as he passed by her. A quiet gesture of companionship. It was like she knew what he had been thinking, all his frustration and regret. In that simple touch, she had told him that she understood, but that it would also be okay. Toph was with them now. Time would let the younger girl recover.
Zuko nodded to Katara and walked around to the other side of the screen, allowing Toph to have her privacy. It had been his intention to go into the other room and get some rest, but he instead found himself sitting on the edge of the bed. A breath escaped his lips. He could hear Katara's voice, soft and coaxing, as she washed the grime and blood from Toph's body. The gentle splashes and trickling water, all intermingled with Katara's voice, were oddly hypnotic. It took him back to his childhood—back to when his mother had still been there and had liked to wash his hair, refusing the assistance of the servants.
His chest ached. He missed her so much.
"I won't let them take you away from me … No matter what people say, no matter what you become, you will always be my son. I will protect you."
Zuko closed his eyes and pressed his face against his knees. He must have fallen asleep at some point, because the next thing he knew he was lying down and there was a warm body pressed against his side. He was surprised to find it was Toph. The girl had never cared for human touch before, but now she lay curled up against him like a small tigerfox. Katara was asleep on the girl's other side, one arm around them both, so that it was like she and him were embracing with Toph snuggled between them. It was awkward. He wasn't used to this kind of physical intimacy, but he had to admit it was also kind of nice. They'd all been through so much since coming to Ba Sing Se. To just be close to one another was oddly comforting. Maybe that was why the girls had sought him out when they'd found him asleep.
Katara stirred with a soft sound. The light was dim in the room, but he could still make out the blue of her irises as their eyes met. "Hey," she murmured.
"Hey," he echoed.
Her hand was still resting on his waist. He was surprised that she didn't remove it now that they were both awake, but then Katara had never shied from touching him. She was always so warm and affectionate—the opposite of him. Katara had so much to give to people, but he was still learning how to even express himself. That was why it surprised him when she thanked him for getting Toph to calm down earlier.
"Toph doesn't always react well to me," Katara admitted in a hushed voice. "I, I wasn't sure how to help her when she seemed to not want me close, but you got her to ease up." Her lips curved. "Guess you just have that effect on people."
His brow furrowed. "Huh?"
Her smile widened. "You really don't see it, do you?"
When he just continued to frown at her, some of the amusement faded in her eyes. She moved her hand up from his waist to rest against his cheek. Her gaze was intent, holding him still in a way that made him conscious of his pulse.
"You're pretty nice to be around, you know," she said. "Sure, you're a little awkward and fumble on your words, but it's like when you say it's going to be okay, people can actually believe it." Her thumb brushed his heated skin. "People trust you, Zuko. Being with you is … reassuring."
His face felt too hot and he pulled back from her touch. "That's not, I'm not even—"
She laughed, though she was careful not to wake Toph. "You don't need to be embarrassed."
His blush darkened. That was easier said than done. He wasn't used to people giving him compliments, let alone girls. Zuko always felt so inept when dealing with others. He'd spent too long shut off emotionally, focussing all of his energy into capturing the Avatar and not being crushed by the weight of his personal demons. It didn't make sense that people should find any comfort from him, yet here Toph was snuggled against him. Even Aang had often turned to him in times of distress. It was so strange. Didn't they realise that Zuko was just a mess and had no idea what he was doing half the time?
"Help me with Toph, okay?" Katara continued, following the direction of his gaze to the younger girl. "She still hasn't spoken, but she seems to be comfortable with you. Maybe you can get her to open up."
"I don't know what I'm supposed to do," he admitted. "Even if I want to help her, I don't know how."
Katara's hand found his and intertwined their fingers. "You've done pretty well so far. Don't sell yourself so short."
He swallowed. Her touch and her words made him feel inexplicably warm. It was nice that she believed in him so much—this girl who had once seen him as her enemy. It made him want to return the gesture in some way. She was always looking out for him, always there to say the right thing just when he needed it, but he knew that he didn't give her nearly enough in return. None of them did. Katara was too good at hiding when she was struggling, but he knew better now. She had broken down in front of him. She had clung to him like a lifeline and even cried.
Because she had been worried.
Because she had not known when or even if he and Aang would wake up.
"Katara," he said in a voice more hushed than before. "I … if there is anything—"
He broke off, frustrated that he couldn't formulate the words he wanted to say. Her eyebrows lifted in question.
"What?" she asked.
Zuko shook his head. "Nothing," he said with a sigh. "I'll do what I can for Toph."
She squeezed his hand in silent gratitude. He guessed that this was enough. Even if he couldn't say the words aloud, he could still share in the burdens she took upon herself. Maybe then he wouldn't have to see her cry again. Besides, it wasn't like he didn't want to see Toph get better.
Both teens fell silent as they lay there on the bed, fingers still intertwined and with Toph curled up between them. He wondered if Katara would let go of his hand soon, but she didn't. Zuko hesitated to break the contact. She had admitted that being around him was reassuring. Was that why she continued to seek his touch? It was too awkward to ask.
"Zuko," Katara said after a moment.
"Do you, do you think we'll be okay now? I mean, the Earth King will stop the Dai Li, right?"
He let out a small breath. So that was what had been troubling her.
"I don't know," he responded.
The kinder thing would have been to lie to her and say yes, of course the Earth King would put an end to all of their problems, but Zuko wasn't one for giving false hope. Kuei was not a strong king. The corruption that had taken hold of the city could not be fixed with a simple wave of a hand. Fear, greed, and manipulation had kept the populace in check for too long. The palace guards seemed to support the king, but would that be enough? Zuko didn't know.
"I want to believe we will though," he admitted in a soft voice. "My uncle and Biyu seem to think the king can make a difference, so maybe they're right."
Her grip tightened on his hand. "I don't want to see anyone else get hurt."
He nodded in agreement. There had been too many close calls. The emotional stress had taken its toll on both of them. Healers had the extra responsibility of being expected to work miracles. It was obvious that she, like him, was terrified that next time their efforts might not be enough. Next time, they might fail.
"We'll make it through this, Katara," he murmured. "All of us. Even if the king can't stop the Dai Li, that doesn't mean it's over." His eyes met hers. "We'll just find another way."
She stared at him for a long moment. "You really believe that, don't you?"
"I'll never give up," he said simply. "There are too many things I still need to do—Aang reminded me of that. That's why I won't let myself be defeated here. I can't."
"Because it's not your destiny to die here?"
"Not just mine. It's not any of ours." He had an odd urge to touch her cheek, maybe smooth the hair from her face. Instead, he held her gaze. "Don't worry, okay? We're going to make it. Besides, Aang is trying his best to get back to us. We need to all be there for him when he wakes up, right?"
Her expression softened into a smile. "Right."
She relaxed more into the bed and closed her eyes, still holding his hand. Zuko exhaled and stared up at the ceiling. His own worries still pushed at his mind, but he really had meant every word he had said to her. They would make it through somehow—with or without King Kuei's help. It would just be nice if, for once, the easy route would stay clear for them. He was tired of fighting; he was tired of struggling and seeing the people he cared about get hurt.
Zuko gazed at the dark mound of hair that was all he could see of Toph. Again, he felt a well of protectiveness rise within him. These people were like his family now. No way was he going to let them stay separated. They'd found Toph, Iroh and Biyu. Now all they needed to do was find Sokka, Mai and Shizue. Maybe then Aang would be ready to wake.
Maybe then he could finally find his mother.
Another breath escaped his lips and he closed his eyes. He took comfort in the warm body pressed against his side and the hand that held onto his. Soon, they would all be together again. He had to believe in that hope.
The moon looked especially beautiful that night: full and bright, like a perfect circle ornamenting the sky. Mai glanced ahead to where Shizue and Jet were carrying Long Feng through the streets, though the man was all wrapped up in blankets so he didn't even resemble a human. They couldn't afford to be caught with him. Still, that he was coming with them to the meeting at all was a surprise. Azula had said it was all part of the plan. People would be more inclined to fight for them if they saw proof of their power. Subduing Long Feng was definite proof.
"There's no need to worry. My plans always work—when people don't betray me."
Mai's chest tightened a little. It had been difficult to face Azula without the bandages. The princess had recognised her in an instant, and though neither girl had spoken much since, that little dig had been enough to confirm to Mai that Azula had not forgotten what had happened inside the drill. Azula pretended to play nice, but Mai had still heard the words for what they were: a warning, a calculating statement to remind her that Azula was not a person to be crossed.
Get in my way again and it won't just be your face, Azula had seemed to say with every smile, every friendly word. I'll end you for good.
Mai clenched her hands into fists. Azula was waiting for them at the meeting place with Ty Lee, which gave her a little reprieve from the other girl's presence, but the time spent apart could never be enough. Mai hated how on edge she felt around the princess. Azula was unpredictable—even more so now that they fought on opposing sides. It was like flirting with a poisonous butterfly-snake, never knowing when the creature would strike. Mai was surprised to find that she missed Sokka. He had been by her side almost twenty-four seven since they'd been separated from the others, and it felt strange to not have him with her now. He helped her to feel braver. Maybe just a little.
Ugh. That was embarrassing to admit even to herself. Those idiots and their mushiness were clearly rubbing off on her.
She pulled herself together and walked with Shizue and Jet into the rundown building where the meeting was to be held. Smellerbee and Longshot had already taken up their scouting positions to ensure the Dai Li and city guards didn't gatecrash. It was only Sokka who had stayed behind at the apartment. Aside from the fact his face was still a bruise-mottled mess and would have drawn too much attention, he'd hinted that he might have an idea for how they could get the upper hand over Azula. He was going to work on that while they were at the meeting. It was better if he didn't have Azula breathing down his neck.
"This way," Jet said, distracting her from her thoughts.
Mai followed him down the corridors until they reached some kind of storage room. Barrels and crates had been stacked against the far wall, though most looked empty. Typical for the Lower Ring. Jet picked up a broken piece of wood and tapped out a sequence on the floor. The stone parted to reveal an underground tunnel. Mai's eyebrow rose a fraction. She supposed she shouldn't have been surprised that Azula had already managed to get earthbenders on her side. The princess had always been efficient.
The group made their way into the tunnel and ended up in a vast chamber that was lit by glowing crystals. A part of the stone floor had been raised at the front to create a stage. Azula stood on top of the platform, her expression calm as she issued orders to those gathered around her. She looked like she belonged there—higher than the others, confident in her ability to lead. Mai's stomach twisted. Could they really outsmart this girl?
Ty Lee came towards them, chipper as ever and practically bouncing on the balls of her feet. "Looks like you made it," she said with a smile. "Ruolan wants Long Feng to be held backstage for now. She'll give the cue to say when he should be brought out."
Right. This was all a show, and Azula was nothing if not a good performer. She knew how to make an impact.
Shizue exchanged a glance with Mai—a simple reminder that they had a job to do—and then helped Jet to get the gagged and bound man backstage. Now Ty Lee and Mai were alone. The realisation was like a puncture to Mai's lungs, sucking out all the air. There were so many things left unsaid between them.
"I'd better get back to Ruolan," Ty Lee cut in, already turning away.
The acrobat paused.
"Are you really okay with this?" Mai asked. "She won't change, you know."
Azula was too determined, too ruthless. Whatever remained of the girl they had played with as children could not be salvaged now.
Ty Lee went still for a moment and glanced back to face the short-haired girl. "I'm happy you found friends who care about you, Luan." Her lips curved into a smile. "Your aura is looking much brighter these days."
Something clenched in Mai's chest.
"Anyway, I've got to get back to my duties." Ty Lee headed for the stage, pausing only a moment. "You remember your role, right?"
Mai nodded. She was to keep an eye on things as a spectator to ensure no enemies had snuck in with the crowd.
"Then let's make sure this meeting goes smoothly." Ty Lee winked. "With the two of us here, the Dai Li aren't going to stand a chance."
Mai watched the girl flutter off to join Azula on the stage. Her chest felt too heavy. As she had suspected, Ty Lee planned to stick with the princess. It was frustrating. Frustrating and worrying.
"You can't save her, idiot," Mai muttered under her breath. "Why can't you see that?"
Ty Lee didn't show any uncertainty, though. She just beamed like a bright burst of sunshine as she moved on the stage, helping to set up for the meeting. It was unbearable to watch. How long would Ty Lee be able to maintain that smile if she continued to do the princess's bidding? Mai knew that what the brunette really wanted was to return to the circus—to be free and enjoy the life of a simple acrobat. But Ty Lee was too loyal. She still believed in the friendship that had brought the three of them together, even though it was just a toxic, broken thing now.
Mai gritted her teeth and turned the other way. Soon the chamber began to fill with people. More than expected. Azula had not been kidding when she'd said the Lower Ring was like a barrel of blasting jelly waiting to go off. These people were hungry for change; it was imprinted onto all of their faces. All they waited for was a spark, a trigger to set them off. Azula and Jet were going to give them that tonight, yet neither of the teens took the lead when the meeting began. That was a surprise. Instead, an older man who looked to be in his forties stepped forward to welcome everyone. He had streaks of grey in his hair and called himself Jing Sheng. Many of the people gathered seemed to recognise him, judging from the murmurs and glances they exchanged with each other. It sounded like Jing Sheng was one of the more prominent traders who lived in the Lower Ring.
"Clever," Mai muttered.
Azula could not use her title as the Fire Nation princess to win favour, and Jet was just a nobody refugee in the end, not to mention they were both teenagers. That was why Azula had sought out Jing Sheng to be her mouthpiece. The older man was someone of influence; he had lived in the Lower Ring his whole life and could appeal to the crowd's sense of injustice. He asked them if it was fair that their needs were always ignored, that they had to work and suffer in poverty to provide food and labour for the city, yet all of the rewards were given to those in the Middle and Upper Rings. He reminded them that those on top even tried to pretend that there was no war going on outside, as if refugees were not flocking into the Lower Ring by the day.
"Now is the time for us to act!" Jing Sheng urged. "We have been kept silent for too long! Rise up with me! Rise up and let us tear down the walls that cage us in! Let us take back control from those who have abused it and would keep us oppressed!"
Mai's expression was grim as the crowd erupted with cheers around her. The spark had been lit, though not everyone was sold. One old man pointed out the Dai Li would crush them if they tried to start a revolution. It wasn't like it hadn't happened before. Others joined in on voicing his doubts, reminding them all that every insurrection in the past had been dealt with ruthlessly.
Jing Sheng smiled. "You do not need to worry about the Dai Li. We already have their leader under our control."
Azula raised her hand in a signal. Jet and Shizue brought out Long Feng from behind the curtain. The man was still bound and gagged, and judging from the limpness of his limbs, he was probably chi-blocked as well. A hush fell over the crowd.
"This man, Long Feng, was the adviser to the Earth King and had total control of the Dai Li," Jing Sheng explained. "Perhaps some of you recognise him from when he used to live in the Lower Ring." He paused for effect, and when he spoke again his voice hardened. "Remember that this man was one of us. He could have fought for our rights when he gained power, but he didn't. He betrayed us all, even worked with the Dai Li to keep us here in the dirt like animals."
Long Feng's eyes bulged with rage. It was clear he would have happily crushed the trader's head with a rock if he could.
Jing Sheng spread his hands as he faced the crowd. "I ask again: is this fair? Should we just sit back and allow people like Long Feng to control our lives?"
Boos and sounds of disapproval started up. Some people were already calling for Long Feng to be punished. It looked like the mob mentality had kicked in.
Jing Sheng's smile flickered back into play. Azula had chosen well with her mouthpiece; he knew how to stir up a crowd. Suddenly, a hint of movement flashed in the corner of Mai's eye. She turned, even as a man dressed in peasant garb began to push through the walls of people. Others joined him from all four corners of the room, trying to force their way to the front. Their expressions could only be described as murderous. Knives were soon in her hands. It seemed some uninvited guests had managed to slip in.
"Dandan!" she yelled.
Ty Lee swooped down from the ceiling in a flutter of brown. "Already on it!"
The acrobat took down one of the men with her chi-blocking before he could shoot off the rock moulded to his palms. Mai pinned another with her knives and rimmed her knuckles with fresh blades. A few cries of alarm started up, but most of the crowd were too spellbound to do more than watch. The girls moved with synchronised ease, incapacitating the disguised agents with a swiftness that could not be matched. The last man standing boosted himself up high on a rock pillar—far from their reach. Ty Lee's eye narrowed. She darted up the pillar, almost floating with the grace of an airbender as she climbed and jumped from barely discernible foothold to the next. The agent broke apart some of the rock and sent it careening towards her. Ty Lee dodged the blow, but that gave him enough time to propel himself over her head to the stage. He landed in front of Jing Sheng and raised his arms, preparing to strike. There was a blur of metal. The man froze in his tracks.
"Too slow," Azula said calmly.
Jet removed the hooked edge he had stabbed into the man and then followed up with a criss-cross attack that sent blood spraying in red droplets. The thud of a body hitting the stage signalled the end of the skirmish. Wordlessly, Jet stepped back to fall in line with Azula. Blood still trailed from the stained hooks of his weapons. None of the crowd moved or even made a sound.
Jing Sheng turned back to face those who had gathered. He paused for effect, letting them take in the bodies and the three teenagers who had dealt with the agents.
"Join with us," he said simply. "You have seen only a glimpse of our strength tonight. Join us and I promise you that we'll succeed. I promise that you will all have the freedom you deserve."
The roar was deafening this time, made all the louder as people clapped and stamped their feet in approval. Mai's lips tightened. She shifted her gaze to Azula, who looked far too satisfied. Just as expected.
"You planned for that, didn't you?" Mai demanded later, once they were all heading back to the apartment. "You knew those agents would be there."
"Long Feng's presence was never going to be enough," Azula said coolly. "Those people needed to be reassured that we stood a chance."
Mai bit her tongue to hold back the words she wanted to say. Of course Azula was right. The princess was always right when it came to getting the best results. It just grated. Mai couldn't help but feel like she was being manipulated all over again. Her decision to attend the meeting had been her own, yet now she wondered if this had all just been another anticipated move on the Pai Sho board. Azula had purposely set it up so that she and Ty Lee would be the ones to fight the agents. Jet had stepped in at the end, but it was the girls who had awed the crowd with their skill. A chi blocker and a master of projectile weapons; they were an impressive combination. They always had been. That was why Azula had wanted them to fight with her in the first place.
Azula flashed her a knowing smile. "No need to look so bitter. We're all working towards the same goal, remember? Thanks to your efforts tonight, we're that much closer to getting there. You should be happy."
Mai's hands twitched, almost curling into fists. Azula noted the movement and her smile widened a fraction. She knew how much being used like a tool frustrated Mai.
"You should have finished off Long Feng as well," Shizue observed from behind them. "That man will not talk. Keeping him alive is pointless."
"We can still get some use out of him yet," Azula argued. "Trust me. I know what I'm doing."
Mai didn't doubt that, but whether they could trust the princess was another matter entirely. Azula still had her own agenda. That was just an undeniable fact. Mai hoped that Sokka had been able to make some headway with his counter measure plan. With the way things were going, they might have to act sooner rather than later if they wanted to survive this "truce" unscathed. Shizue met her gaze and nodded to show that she had come to the same conclusion. That was a small comfort. At least Mai wasn't alone in her struggle this time. She just hoped it would be enough.
So this is a crappy spot to end the chapter, and I am aware of that, but it's almost 2:30am and I haven't sorted out my train times, or packed, or done anything much to get organised for my trip tomorrow (er, today). Rather than make you wait longer for an update while I turn this into a 10,000+ monstrosity just to squeeze in all I had planned, I'm just going to call it quits here. But, hey, have the omake I was too lazy to write for chapter 53.
Katara marched over to Zuko and met his gaze with her chin held high. "It's dangerous to go alone. Take this."
He blinked as a sword appeared from out of nowhere. More strange was that it just hovered in the air in front of him. Oh, and odd music played as if to celebrate the exchange.
"Uh, what?" He blinked a bit more.
She stretched forth her hand in a grand gesture. "Now go forth, Chosen Hero, and slay the Ginger Mullet Man of Evil!"
Zuko blinked a bit more. "Ginger Mullet Ma—" He shook his head. "You know what, never mind. I don't even want to know."
That was when Momo started hovering around his head and screeching "Hey! Listen!" over and over. Zuko never did speak again after that. He'd been traumatised into a silent protagonist.
And now I really am calling it quits. Gotta pack and get some sleep. As usual, review replies are coming to those I've missed!