Ready or Not
It was quiet in the Earth King's garden. Birds called to each other from their nests—melodic songs to welcome a new day—yet no human voices disturbed the stillness. There was only the whisper of wind, of leaves rustling, and the occasional thick-booted tread from the guards who patrolled the paths and ornate pavilions sheltered within the walls. Zuko kept walking. Dawn had stirred him awake with an energising kick. There had been no hope of falling back asleep after that, so he'd found himself exploring the different sections of the garden. Eventually, he came to a part with a low mound of grass that overlooked a pond and a weeping willow tree. The scent of lilacs filled the air. His throat got choked with a sudden lump. The garden reminded him of home. He could almost see his mother kneeling by the pond, a smile on her lips and gesturing for him to come closer.
"Come and see, Zuko. Look at all the baby turtleducklings."
Zuko closed his eyes. The longing he felt for his mother was never far from his heart; it was a wound made fresh ever since he'd learnt she might be alive. He missed her. He missed her with an aching intensity that was like a thousand splinters burrowing into his soul. Yet he knew this was not the time to let his mind wander down muddled paths of yearnings and old hurts. He had to stay calm and focussed. Unstable emotions only got in the way of bending. He needed to be in top form if he wanted to be of use to anyone.
"There's nothing you can do for now," he told himself.
Still, his feet would not budge. Something in him wanted to linger in this garden. Zuko sighed and sat down on the mound of grass. Maybe there was no harm in staying—at least for a little bit. He decided to try meditating. It had been a while and he knew he needed it. Aang was still in a coma; they had also been unable to locate Sokka, Shizue and Mai. Then there was the issue of the girl he had seen in the Lower Ring, the one who looked like Azula. Put simply, his mind was a mess.
He inhaled deeply and tried to focus on the feeling of the sun giving him energy: warm, gentle, but also invigorating. Zuko held his breath for a beat before exhaling. Footsteps approached. The light step sounded different from the guards who were on patrol. He opened his eyes and saw Toph settle next to him on the grass. She looked like she'd just crawled out of bed: all wild, unbound hair and sleepy eyes. His brow creased.
"You're up early," he observed.
As far as he knew, she still hadn't spoken to anyone. Nor did she speak now. The fact she'd made it outside on her own showed that she was moving around better, though. That could only be a good thing. He decided not to push her for an explanation as to why she'd sought his company; she would speak when she was ready. So he relaxed once more and resumed his breathing exercises. Energy thrummed through him, illuminating his meridian paths to his mind's eye and touching upon the threads that connected him with those whom he had bonded. So much power at his fingertips. The feeling wasn't so frightening anymore. More familiar, like the throbbing of his pulse. He exhaled and breathed in again, now extending beyond himself, feeling the life all around him and how it was in harmony with the sun—how they were all connected by the same energy.
"Does it help?"
Zuko stilled. Her voice sounded hoarse from disuse—a rusted thing that made his chest ache when he thought of how brash and loud she had always been before. He glanced down at her. She was still staring straight ahead, absently pulling bits of grass free and rolling the blades between her fingers.
"You mean meditating?" he asked.
"I guess." He shrugged. "It's mostly just a habit now. All firebenders are taught to meditate; it helps with control."
Toph said nothing. He watched her scatter the blades of grass and then sit with unnatural stillness, her eyes unblinking. Something twisted in his stomach. There was so much that needed to be said, so much she was still keeping silent. Meditating had made him more in tune with his power—with her as well. He could feel the pain trapped inside her: twisted, festering, like rot eating into a moon peach. There was no balance. The healer in him wanted to fix it, but he didn't have the words. Her pride was a rock that held him off; he worried about shattering it carelessly. Still, he had to do something.
"Do you want to try?" he asked after a moment.
She twitched. "What?"
"Meditating. Sounds like you haven't really done it before."
Toph pulled her knees up to her chest. "I don't think it will do anything. I'm always in control of my element; it's how I see."
He didn't point out that meditation was more to do with finding a sense of calm and harmony, not just connecting better with her element. She wasn't stupid.
Zuko gently pulled her hands away from her knees. "Let's try anyway, okay?"
Her eyes widened and her grip tightened on his hands a bit convulsively. For all her attempts to appear like stone, her vulnerability was bared in the way she greedily latched onto his touch.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Just relax," he murmured. "I'll help you through it."
Some of the tension eased from her posture. He took that as a sign to continue and began guiding her through the exercises: deep, steady breaths to relax, and then he told her to look within herself, to feel the energy as it moved through her body. She shuddered and pulled back. The motion was like the screech of an unoiled cog—jarring and making him glance at her in concern. Her face had gone as white as fresh snow.
"I can't," she choked out.
Zuko's brow creased. "What do you mean?"
She shook her head and said nothing, angling herself away from him. He wondered if he had pushed too much even trying to get her to meditate. The silence dragged.
"Hey, don't worry about it," he told her. "You don't have to do it if you don't like it."
Still, she said nothing. Zuko bit back a sigh. Trying to talk to her was like feeling his way through a thick fog; he just felt helpless.
"I guess you want to be alone," he mumbled. "Sorry."
He shifted to stand, but her hand grabbed his. Zuko paused. Though she did not face him, her grip only tightened. The request was clear: she wanted him to stay.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "It kind of seems like you want me to go away."
"I don't want to be alone."
Her voice was quiet. Vulnerable. It made him think of the crate he'd found while looking for her in the Old City: so small, so marred with scratch marks, filth and blood. She had been on her own then.
Zuko settled back next to her on the low mound of grass. She was still holding his hand and he made no effort to break the contact. He didn't try to breach the silence either. Instead, he sat with her and looked out over the garden: at the willow that caressed the pond's surface with its tear-like leaves and the lilacs that rimmed the path in splashes of purple. It was the kind of garden that was designed to encourage tranquillity, yet the girl beside him remained taut like the pulled string of a bow.
"I wish I could forget."
The confession slipped from her lips with the hush of a pebble tossed into water: a muffled thing that should have been too small to do much, but he felt the ripples go through them both. Such a confession could not be ignored or taken back. He stared at her profile, not wanting to speak in case he said the wrong thing. Toph let out a shaky breath.
"Bending has always been everything to me," she continued. "It gave me a life. A chance to be more than the helpless girl my parents wanted to keep locked away." Her hand trembled in his. "But now—now it just feels wrong. All I can think of is that room. I remember how thirsty I was. I remember their screams. I remember the way their bones just snapped, and I—"
She shuddered again. He was startled to see a few tears roll down her cheeks. Zuko had never seen Toph cry. Not knowing what else to do, he released her hand so he could instead wrap his arm around her. Toph curled into him without hesitation. She hiccupped a little and clutched at his tunic like a drowning thing. It struck him then how small she was—how young but also how impossibly brave. Not many other people could have come this far without crumbling.
"I'm sorry," he murmured. "I wish I had got there sooner. You shouldn't have had to go through that."
She shook her head. "I was the one who—"
"Don't." He held her tighter. "Don't ever blame yourself, Toph. You were amazing. We're the ones who failed you. We were supposed to have your back, and we didn't."
More tears fell and dampened his tunic. "It's just—I really thought I could do it all on my own." Another shudder. "I'm glad you came. You and Katara."
Zuko rubbed her back soothingly. Others might have told her empty platitudes then just to fill the silence, but he didn't have the heart. He knew that nothing about this situation was okay; it probably wouldn't be for a while. Not for her. She had been forced to suffer, to kill. It was no wonder she wanted to forget it all.
Eventually, her exhaustion caught up to her and she fell asleep in his arms. Zuko got to his feet, now carrying her, and headed back to the guest chambers. He laid her to rest on the bed. Even in sleep, she didn't look peaceful: her jaw was clenched tight and her eyes were red and puffy from crying.
"How is she?"
He turned to see his uncle standing in the doorway. Zuko shook his head in a helpless gesture. "She's talking again, but I don't think we should expect more from her." His stomach twisted as he remembered what she had confided. "It sounds like bending is distressing for her now. It brings back bad memories."
Iroh nodded in understanding. "The poor child has been through a lot. It would be best to let her rest."
Zuko agreed to this and fell silent. His mind was a buzz of thoughts as he wondered what would become of Toph—of them all. They had come so far together, but there was no denying Ba Sing Se had taken its toll. Too many people had been hurt.
"Uncle," he said grimly, "I want to resume my training."
Iroh raised his eyebrows. "Training?"
"We don't know how long it will take to find Sokka, Mai and Shizue; the city is huge and they're probably hiding somewhere." Zuko shook his head. "I don't want to just sit around. You and I both know we haven't seen the last of Azula, and there's no saying if we can even trust the Dai Li to behave." He met his uncle's gaze. "You're the only one who can teach me. Please, help me to master the advanced techniques."
Iroh's brow creased. "It won't be easy. You've only just moved on from the basic steps."
"I know, but I have to get stronger." Zuko lowered his gaze and clenched his fists. "I want to protect my friends."
"That is a noble desire." A smile curved Iroh's mouth. "Very well. We'll start as soon as you're ready."
Zuko straightened. "Then let's start now."
There was no time to waste. For the sake of his friends, for the sake of all of those who had been put in danger because of his choices, he would make sure he got stronger. Next time, he would be ready.
Sokka frowned at the burly man in front of him. They sat in the apartment Enlai shared with his children, though neither Jin nor Wan were at home. Enlai was sprawled on a bunch of floor cushions and picking at the food stuck in his teeth with a toothpick. His eyes were bloodshot. The scent of rice wine lingered on him like a cloying perfume.
"You haven't been drinking again, have you?" Sokka demanded.
Enlai waved a dismissive hand. "It's fine, it's fine."
"You stink of the stuff."
"I'm telling ya, I'm as sober as a cow-rabbit's backside." The older man tossed his toothpick aside and sat up straighter. "Now stop your fussing."
Sokka pursed his lips. He wasn't sure what a cow-rabbit's backside had to do with being sober, but whatever. For all that he was pretty sure Enlai had been drinking, at least the man wasn't slurring his words or stumbling around like a boneless fish. It would have to do.
"So?" Sokka prompted, deciding to get to the heart of the matter. "How did it go? Did you find anyone who can help?"
Enlai flashed a grin. "Oh, I found 'em, alright." He reached into his pocket and pulled out the Pai Sho piece that he liked to carry around with him, which he spun between his fingers. "My old man taught me a thing or two before he was taken by the Dai Li. Those bastards thought they crushed the Order, but the ancient ways haven't been forgotten." He slammed the tile down on the low table. "Give me a week and I'll have even more people."
"We might not have a week."
Enlai's grin faltered. "Here now, boy, don't go killing the buzz before we've even got started." His brow pinched. "Though I'm damned if I know how you even found out about the Order."
"Simple deduction." Sokka shrugged. "What can I say? I'm kind of a genius."
Enlai stared at him flatly for a moment before barking out a laugh. He clapped Sokka on the shoulder with his big, meaty hand. The impact had the teen almost face-planting the floor.
"You're a funny one," Enlai observed, still chuckling. "Alright then, Mr Genius. You just keep up your side of the plan and we'll do ours. Don't'cha worry your head; we'll make sure you get no nasty surprises."
Sokka managed a smile. "Thanks."
For all his boasting, he had been unsure if following the trail of the white lotus tile would lead him to anything. Finding out about the secret society had given him hope, but then he'd learned it had been silenced and disbanded by the Dai Li years ago. Now, Enlai was trying to reunite the members who had not been captured or killed—the ones like Enlai himself who had given up in despair after the deaths of friends and loved ones, but now were ready to fight again. Sokka just hoped the other White Lotus members hadn't also turned to drink to drown their sorrows over the years.
"Listen," Sokka began, "if you—"
He broke off when the door opened and Jin and Wan entered. The two were carrying what looked like sacks of vegetables and rice; they must have been at the market. Jin took note of his presence and quickly scanned the room. Her shoulders slumped.
"Luan isn't with you," she observed.
Sokka scratched his cheek. "Uh, no. Sorry."
He wondered if Jin had been told or even realised that the "boy" she had a crush on was actually a girl. The whole situation was awkward as heck. He hadn't dared ask Mai any more about it, much as he was tempted to after the little kiss confession slip. Best not to put his nose in that business.
"Well, I'd better get back," Sokka said, standing up from the cushion. "I'll see you guys around."
Enlai gave him a lazy wave and went back to picking at his teeth. It was Jin who stopped Sokka with a tug on his sleeve. Her grip was surprisingly tight. Sokka held back a wince at whatever was about to come out of her mouth. Every male instinct in him warned this was going to be uncomfortable.
"Need something?" he asked.
She bit her lip. "Is Luan home?"
Mai didn't like the Lower Ring and had made it clear she had no desire to be out on the streets when there was no need. The last he'd seen of her, she'd been sharpening her many knives while Longshot and Ty Lee attempted to recreate some kind of sweet they'd tried in the market. If he were to be honest, it had been more distracting to see the archer and acrobat working together in the kitchen than anything else.
A breath escaped Jin's lips. "Then I'll come with you."
Sokka opened his mouth to say that might not be a good idea—if Mai wanted to talk to the brunette, she would have done so by now—but then he closed it again. The stubborn tilt of Jin's chin told him that she wouldn't back down. Not from anything he could say, in any case.
"Alright," he said with a shrug.
It wasn't his place to meddle in Mai or Jin's affairs. The girls would have to sort out their own problems.
The two left the apartment and walked down the hallway. Sokka stilled when he saw Azula facing off against Jet outside the door to their own apartment—for that was the only way it could be described. Azula's lips were pursed a fraction as she stared at the messy-haired teen; Jet, on the other hand, stood with his hands clenched at his sides, breathing harshly. The tension between them was so thick that Sokka thought he could have reached out and touched it. When Jin tried to keep walking, Sokka quickly pulled her back and pressed his finger to his lips. This was a conversation he did not want to miss. Fortunately, the girl was nosy and didn't mind eavesdropping with him.
"I warned you to drop it," Azula said in a cool voice.
"I can't do that."
Even from this distance, Sokka could see the way her eyes narrowed.
"You will if you know what's good for you."
"Is that meant to be a threat?" Jet stepped closer, backing her against the door. "To me, it sounds like you're just trying to run away." He held her gaze and his fingers skimmed her cheek. "What are you so scared of?"
She let out a scornful laugh. "I'm not scared of anything."
"Then why have you been avoiding me? Why won't you—"
Azula slapped his hand away. "Don't get cocky."
Jet froze at finding himself rebuffed. His mouth twisted. "You've got some nerve."
"The one who has some nerve is you." She stepped away from the door so that he was no longer crowding her space. "You tried to steal my letter. You're lucky I even bothered to humour you that night." Her voice turned icy cruel. "Just what did you think was going to happen?"
His expression edged with a look that reminded Sokka of the forest—of crazy plans and obsession. "You say you just humoured me?"
"Of course. Why else would I—"
Jet yanked her forward and crashed his mouth against hers. Sokka's jaw dropped. Jin also had to stifle a gasp. The kiss looked bruising, but it didn't last long. Azula shoved Jet hard—hard enough to knock him backwards and have him struggling to regain his balance. Her cheeks looked a bit pink, yet her expression was as cold as the snowy tundra of the Southern Water Tribe.
"Touch me again without my permission and I'll make you regret it," Azula said in a voice of iced steel.
"Enough of this." Her lip curled in what might have been distaste. "If you can't start thinking with your head instead of what's in your pants, you're of no further use to me."
Jet made a frustrated sound. "Are you even listening to yourself? How can you—"
She turned away from him, a clear dismissal, but then her gaze fell right on Sokka and Jin. The princess froze and her eyes widened. Sokka was amused to note the way the colour darkened on her cheeks. It seemed even a ruthless monster like her could get embarrassed just like any other teenager.
Azula pointed her nose to the air, trying to act indifferent, and then stalked off down the stairwell. Sokka let out a low whistle once he knew she was out of earshot.
"I can't believe you kissed her," he said. "You know she's totally crazy, right?"
Jet straightened his tunic. "She's not crazy."
"Trust me. Getting close to that girl would be like wanting to date a viper-spider. If you want my advice, you should stay away from her."
Jin tilted her head to the side. "Is Ruolan really so bad? I'll admit she's a bit proud and standoffish, but it's not like she's a horrible person."
"Just trust me on this one," Sokka said. "Ruolan isn't who you think she is."
Jet's eyes narrowed a fraction. "You've said something like that before. Just what do you know about her anyway?"
Sokka blinked as he realised the trap he had created for himself. A part of him did want to say the truth, but he knew the time was not right. Not yet. Plus, there was no saying how the Freedom Fighters would react to learning that Mai and Shizue were Fire Nation as well. For now, he needed to uphold the truce he had made with the princess. That also meant keeping her secret.
"I can't say much," Sokka admitted. "I agreed I wouldn't. But what I will say is this: what that girl has done, it makes what you tried to do back in Gaipan seem minor in comparison." He shook his head. "She's dangerous, Jet. Just be careful."
Jet raised his eyebrows. "Worried about me?"
Sokka folded his arms and looked the other way. It was no secret that neither boy had ever cared much for each other.
"You said you're trying to make things right now," Sokka said a bit gruffly. "I still think you're a jerk, but the least I can do is warn you off from trying to fix your interest with a viper-spider."
Jet let out a reluctant laugh, though there was something off about the sound. "That so." An odd smile curved his mouth. "Well, you're wasting your breath. She already warned me against getting close to her."
"She did?" Sokka said in surprise.
"She thinks I'll just regret it."
Sokka wasn't sure how to respond. He hadn't expected Azula to show so much conscience. It had always seemed like she'd been happy to manipulate Jet and even use his feelings for her against him if it suited her purposes. What had changed?
Jet shrugged. "Anyway, I don't plan on giving up on her. It's not every day a girl like that comes around."
"It's your funeral, man. I've said my piece, so it's up to you if you wanna listen." Sokka scrunched his nose. "But, just so we're clear, I think your taste in girls is horrible."
Jin elbowed him in the ribs. "Don't be so rude. I'm sure Ruolan has plenty of good points."
"Sure, if you like getting stabbed in the back."
A disapproving expression was all Sokka got in response. It reminded him of the looks Katara gave him when he said it was girls' work to mend socks or something. Maybe that was why he straightened his spine and felt the need to defend himself.
"Look, Perky, you don't know her like I do," Sokka retorted. "You'd best stay away from her and Dandan as well."
"Dandan is my friend! I won't let you say bad things about her!"
Sokka raised his hands as if to say he washed his hands off both Jin and Jet. "Fine, do what you like. Just don't blame me if you get hurt."
He didn't have the time to waste on trying to convince them any further. So he simply told Jin to hurry up if she wanted to talk to "Luan" and then marched ahead and entered the apartment. For him, there was only one thing that mattered now: he had to make sure he stayed one step ahead of Azula, and that meant no distractions. There was no doubt in his mind that she would betray the rebels she had gathered together. The question was not if but when. He wanted to be ready for that moment. Still, he couldn't help but listen when Jin approached Mai and asked if she wanted to go for a walk.
"A walk," Mai repeated flatly.
Jin nodded. "I know you're trying to avoid going out too much, but it can't hurt if it's just for a little while, can it? Please say you will."
Mai heaved a sigh and glanced to the side. "Did you miss the memo or something? You know I'm a girl, right?"
"Um, yeah." Jin blushed and fidgeted with her hands. "Dandan said you were only pretending to be a boy because you had to for your safety."
"But you still want to go walking with me?"
Jin blinked. "Why wouldn't I? You saved me." Her voice lowered. "And I—I hoped we could talk."
Mai stared at the brunette for a long moment. "Alright," she said, standing up. "A change of scene might be good."
Now it was Sokka's turn to blink. He hadn't expected Mai to agree. The two girls left the apartment while he still sat there open-mouthed and gaping.
"Something wrong?" Smellerbee asked, quirking an eyebrow at him.
Sokka closed his mouth. "Uh, no. Not really."
Mai could go on walks with anyone she liked; it wasn't like she needed to discuss it with him first. Even so, he found that he kept glancing at the door long after the girls had gone. His knee twitched up and down and he fidgeted with anything that came close to his fingers—chopsticks, a bit of fluff, even just tapping out meaningless beats on the table. All the while the sky continued to darken outside. A gong clanged somewhere from within the city.
Smellerbee closed the blinds and resumed her position on a cushion next to Longshot. Everyone was settling down for the night, though Sokka wasn't sure where Ty Lee, Azula or Jet had gone; the acrobat hadn't been seen for a while, and Jet hadn't bothered to come in after his little spat with Azula. Still, their whereabouts weren't the ones of interest to him.
"Shouldn't Luan and Jin be back by now?" Sokka asked.
Shizue rolled her eyes as she walked past him to the kitchen. "Teenagers," was all she muttered.
Sokka's cheeks warmed. He fell silent again and tried to be subtler in his habit of glancing at the door. If Smellerbee's laughter was anything to go by, it didn't work.
"Isn't this far enough?" Mai muttered, casting a bored look at the multi-storeyed buildings around her.
She had decided to humour the brunette, feeling she owed it to Jin after not clarifying sooner that she was actually a girl. Now she regretted giving in to her nicer impulses. Jin had been cheerful and chatty throughout their walk; the brunette had also asked too many questions. She wanted to know what Mai liked, whether she had any siblings ("You have a little brother as well!" Jin had exclaimed. "But then we're the same!"). On and on it had went. Mai's patience had never been great; it was like strained threads now.
"Let's go back," Mai tried again. "The others will be worrying."
"Just a bit farther." Jin grabbed Mai's hand. "You have to see this!"
Mai stumbled as she was tugged forward and forced to quicken her pace. They ended up in front of a fountain that was surrounded by a circle of lanterns. Smaller lanterns, including floating ones, lit up the fountain itself and were all glowing with a mesmerising brightness so that it was like looking at a gathering of fireflies. No one else was around.
Jin met her gaze with a smile. "It's pretty, isn't it? This is my favourite place."
"It's okay." Mai slipped her hand free. "Anyway, we shouldn't linger. Let's head back."
Some of the light faded from Jin's eyes and the corners of her mouth drooped. "Oh." She lowered her gaze. "I guess—I guess this isn't really your thing."
Mai's brow creased. The girl seemed a bit too disappointed. "Jin."
"Was this meant to be a date?"
Jin's cheeks darkened to the colour of ripe plums. "O-of course not!" She waved her hands in a negating gesture. "I mean, that would be weird, right? I know you're a girl now and—"
The brunette deflated under the power of that flat stare. She chewed her lip and gathered a fold of her dress between her fingers. "I—I don't know. I just—I can't stop thinking about you."
Mai blinked. Well, that was a blunt confession.
"After I found out you were a girl, I was so confused. I'd kissed you, and I'd liked kissing you. But you're a girl." Jin bunched the fabric tightly in her hand. "I didn't know what to think. I told myself that I needed to get over whatever—whatever this was that I was feeling. I mean, girls aren't meant to be attracted to girls, right?"
"I've never really thought about it before."
"Neither had I until …" Jin trailed off and avoided her gaze. She released her dress and rubbed her arm as if trying to chase an itch. "Anyway, I thought if I got to know you more—the girl you—it would all go away. Everything would go back to normal."
Mai stared at her a bit pityingly. "I'm guessing it didn't."
"No." Jin let out a stilted laugh. "When you're near me, my heart pounds so fast I can barely breathe. This whole time, I've just been thinking about how I can be closer to you." Her blush spread in a bloom of pink and she finally dared to raise her eyes. "I—I think I like you, Luan. Really like you."
Mai said nothing. Her flat expression could have hardly been described as encouraging either. Jin moistened her lips and went back to bunching her dress in her fist.
"Sorry," Jin murmured. "I guess you just think I'm strange."
Green eyes peeked up at her.
"I can't say what's meant to be normal or not," Mai said with a shrug. "Feelings hardly ever make sense." She shook her head. "But as for my own? I'm sorry, but I don't feel the same way."
Jin's shoulders slumped. "Oh. Well, thanks for being honest, I guess."
Mai said nothing further on the matter and simply suggested they head back to the apartment building.
"Um, I might stay here for a while." Jin gestured at the fountain. "I want to enjoy the lights some more."
Mai doubted that was the truth, but she was shrewd enough to see that Jin wanted a chance to be alone. "Alright. I'll head back fi—"
Both girls froze at the shout. Mai turned her head to see two Dai Li agents moving swiftly towards them. Bo shuriken were rimming her knuckles in an instant.
"Go," Mai urged in a low voice.
Jin made an upset sound and dashed for the connecting street behind them. One of the agents thrust his hands forward to raise the earth and block her path, but he was quickly forced to defend as a dozen needle-like knives came glinting towards him. Mai followed up with a second flurry that targeted both men. Two walls of rock met the points and made the blades bounce off harmlessly. Not that Mai cared; by that point she was already running.
She avoided the street Jin had chosen and ducked down the one to the right. There were no crowds of people to hide in—just a scattering of stragglers heading for their homes or a place to eat and drink—but there was nothing she could do about that. Instead, she strained her ears beyond the pounding of her heart for the sound of pursuit. Mai knew it was a risk to leave Jin on her own, but taking different paths also meant the agents would have to split up or just focus their attention on one person; it was unlikely they would both pursue Jin.
Footsteps thudded behind Mai. Only one set. So, it seemed the agents had chosen to split. She reached for the mechanisms tucked into her sleeves and got fresh knives ready. She'd have to be quick if she wanted to catch up to Jin.
"Stop!" the same man from before yelled. "You've got it wrong! We just want to—"
He yelped, forced to duck the knife she threw at him. Mai kept running. The street branched off into a spider web of narrow alleys. She turned sharply into the closest and almost collided with a trader moving a handcart full of cabbages. Her pursuer had less luck; there was a loud thunk and lots of clattering sounds from behind. She glanced over her shoulder to see cabbages rolling everywhere and the trader on his knees, clutching at his green hat.
"My cabbages!" the trader cried with all the dramatic despair of one who has lost a child.
The Dai Li agent jumped over the man and kept running. "Wait!" he called to Mai. "Just wait!"
She knocked over a crate in his direction, hoping to slow him down. "Like I'm really going to!"
"Listen! I don't mean you any harm! I—" He yelped again as more of her thin blades came for him. "Would you stop that!"
Mai's brow furrowed a bit. Maybe it was because his voice cracked like a whiny child; maybe it was because he wasn't even doing much in terms of earthbending, short of defensive moves; the Dai Li had always been so quick to lash out with their rock hands and walls. Either way, she found herself almost believing that he didn't intend her any harm. Almost. It was hard to forget what had happened in the bunker underneath Lake Laogai; even harder to forget what had followed.
She turned down another side alley and had to stop as she came up against a dead end. There were a few barrels and bits of rubbish, but none of that would help her. Mai adjusted her grip on her knives and turned to face the agent. To her surprise, the man was stooped over with his hands on his knees.
"Phew," he said, straightening back to his full height. "You're pretty fast."
Mai raised her eyebrow. Now that she could see him up close, the agent was a lot younger than she had expected. Or maybe it was just because his features were the boyish kind that made it difficult to gauge his age—all unlined softness and bright green eyes, though he had a scar that looked like an old knife wound reaching from under his right eye to the bottom of his cheek. He held his hands palm up; there were no traces of the rock moulds that often accompanied the motion. It seemed he was offering her a sign of peace.
"Luan, right?" he said, careful not to make any sudden movements. "We were told to—"
Something swooped down from above. The next moment, the agent was struck in a series of precise jabs and he fell limply to the ground. It was all over so fast that neither Mai nor the agent had time to react. Not that Mai would have done anything. Instead, she scanned the walls that surrounded them before fixing her gaze on Ty Lee.
"Nice of you to drop by," Mai said, though her tone was dry. "I suppose you were just in the area."
Ty Lee grinned. "Uh-huh. Aren't you glad?"
A ripple of irritation passed through Mai. She met Ty Lee's eyes briefly before directing her attention to the immobilised agent. Better to not respond to the obvious lie. This wasn't the time or the place, and she found she wasn't in the mood to play their old game. She hadn't been in the mood for a long time now.
Undaunted by the lack of response, Ty Lee smiled and leaned over her victim, nudging his hat back with the toe of her boot. "Hey, this one's not bad." She poked him in the cheek. "What's your name, cutie?"
"Er, Ju Long."
"Ju Long, huh?" She flashed her teeth in a brilliant smile. "That's a nice name."
Mai resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Who cares about his name? Let's just get out of here."
"Wait," the agent croaked, and probably would have held out his hand to stop them if he could move. "Just wait. You've really got it all wrong."
Mai drew closer. Her knuckles burned white as she tightened her grip on her knives. "Thanks to the Dai Li, a lot of people I'm indebted to were hurt. What makes you think I'll listen to or even believe anything you say?"
"It's the Earth King," he said a bit frantically, perhaps worried she would give him a new wound to mirror his scar. "He ordered all the charges on you to be dropped. He's the one calling the shots now that Long Feng and Shirong are gone." Ju Long sought her gaze. "The Dai Li aren't your enemy anymore.
She almost laughed. "You expect me to believe that?"
"It's the truth! I know the Dai Li have done a lot of terrible things, but it's not as if we're all like Shirong and Long Feng. The Dai Li—we were created to protect the city and its cultural heritage. It was never meant to be about control or brainwashing." His voice lowered and seemed to sink inward. "It was never meant to be like that at all."
"Pretty words." Mai's tone was as dry as a withered reed. "It's too bad I don't believe you. If you didn't like what the Dai Li were doing, why did you even become one? Why keep supporting Long Feng at all?"
The expression he gave her was like a punch to her gut. It reminded her too much of how she'd been before she'd made her stand against Azula: despairing, resigned. It was the face of a man who knew he was a coward and hated himself for it.
"What else could I do?" Ju Long asked, his voice almost a whisper. "I had no idea what was really happening until I got promoted, and then I only had two options: shut up and obey the orders I was given or have my mind tampered with just like those Joo Dees." He moistened his lips. "What would you have done in my position?"
Mai swallowed and straightened her posture, trying not to show how much he had shaken her. Even still, the truth trickled down her spine like corroding acid, making her want to hunch into herself. The Avatar had almost been tortured in front of her eyes because she had been too slow to act on her conscience. Could she, had she been given the choice, have found the strength to act differently from Ju Long? Could she have accepted losing her identity and memories just to stand up to corruption? Mai doubted it.
"So, you're saying the charges have been dropped against us?" she asked.
Ju Long nodded. "The Earth King's word is law. I'll admit that not all of the Dai Li are happy, but they're not stupid enough to try anything. Some of your friends are with the king as we speak: the two firebenders, the waterbender, the young earthbender, and—"
"They're all there?"
The words slipped from Mai before she could stop them. Her relief was so strong that it almost knocked the balance from her; she felt like she might crumple to her knees. Even the corners of her mouth threatened to curve too far upwards. A smile, a laugh—rarely did she express either, yet it was as if everything in her had lightened and now took flight, pushing at the seams of her control, wanting to be free.
"They've been looking for you," Ju Long said, his own expression softening. Perhaps he could sense how much she was struggling to contain her emotions. "That's why I'm here; my partner and I have been helping with the search."
Mai didn't know when it was she had lowered her knives, but now the handles felt odd in her clasp. She realised she didn't have to hold them anymore. If what Ju Long said was true, her fight with the Dai Li was over. It was over for all of them.
"Oh, cutie, I wish you hadn't said all that."
Ty Lee's voice broke the stillness. Mai turned just as a fist came for her arm. Numbness spread in an instant and the thin blades slipped from her fingers. She tried to dodge the next string of blows, but her momentum was already off. In seconds, she was on the ground next to Ju Long and unable to feel her limbs. Her eyes narrowed on the chi blocker.
"Sorry," Ty Lee said with a forced attempt at her usual brightness; even the smile was strained. "It's just, Ruolan won't like it if her plans are spoiled now. You know how she gets."
Mai's gaze did not waver. "Don't do this."
"It's okay. I'll make sure you don't get hurt this time."
"Do you think that's what this is about?" Mai wanted to stand up and slap some sense into the brunette; she could do nothing. "You heard Ju Long: the Dai Li have lost their leaders. They're following the Earth King now."
There's no need to keep fighting!
Ty Lee offered a smile even more strained than the first. "You and I both know it doesn't matter to her who the Dai Li are following. She's going to make this revolution happen regardless."
A bitter taste filled Mai's mouth. "And I suppose you'll stand at her side and support her all the way?"
"If that's what it takes." Ty Lee lowered her gaze to her hands. "She needs me, Mai. I can't betray her now."
"She's just going to hurt you! Can't you see that?"
"But, see, I think that she's the one who's really hurting."
Mai shook her head. "That doesn't mean you can fix her. She's sick in the head. We both know it. We've always known it." Their eyes met again, connecting in an acknowledgement of the truth. "Don't do this. At least when she was younger she still had some restraint, but now it's like there's nothing holding her back. I'm worried about you."
"Even so, I have to keep trying."
"No, you don't!" Mai could feel herself losing her cool; it was a tremor in her voice, her useless limbs. "You don't have to let yourself be dragged down by her anymore. You can come with me right now. We'll go back for Sokka and Shizue and then—"
"Thank you." Ty Lee's mouth curved into a sad but genuine smile. "I always wondered if you'd still want me around after what happened at the drill. I mean, I was the one who got in your way and made it impossible for you to escape with the others. Now I know you still care."
A lump formed in Mai's throat. "Of course I care, you idiot. You're my friend."
"But that's why I can't go." Ty Lee crouched in front of her. "Mai, you've got new friends to be there for you now, and for that I'm really glad. But she has no one."
"There's a reason no one wants to be around her. You should get out while you can."
Ty Lee's lips quirked up a bit more. "That's so like you to say that." She stood back to her full height. "I wish you were still with us, but I know I can't expect that from you anymore."
"Don't worry about me." She grinned fully now—bright and like sunshine, even if there was an edging of clouds. "I'm pretty strong, you know. Besides, there's no saying what she'd do if her plans are messed up again. It's best if you don't interfere. I don't know if I'll be able to protect you otherwise."
"Damn it, Ty Lee!" Mai strained against the paralysis keeping her frozen. "You have to see that she's too far gone now to help. She doesn't need your friendship; she just needs to be stopped! Look at what she did to her brother! Look at what she did to me!"
The clouds in Ty Lee's smile darkened. "I know. I'm well aware of what she's done."
"Because I still see her."
Mai furrowed her brow. "What?"
"The girl who encouraged me to be my own person and not stay as part of a matched set—she wasn't a monster. She was just a girl who wanted her friend to be happy." Ty Lee hugged her arms to herself. "I know she's done awful things and has only got crueller over the years, but I don't think she's as far gone as you say. I won't believe it." A wistful tone crept into her voice. "I mean, it's never too late, right?"
Mai could only shake her head. She'd already said all that she could; it was obvious that Ty Lee wasn't going to listen.
The acrobat straightened from her huddled posture. "Anyway, we'd better get moving. We've lingered here too long."
She placed her thumb and forefinger in her mouth and let out a loud whistle. A moment later, two men dropped down from the other side of the wall. Mai recognised them as the earthbenders who had guarded the base where all the rebel meetings had been held. Ju Long's eyes widened and he wriggled feebly, trying to get away. Mai got the impression he'd only been still and silent before because he'd been hoping she'd be able to convince Ty Lee to release them.
"You guys can carry them, right?" Ty Lee asked the newcomers. "Ruolan will want them taken back to base and locked up for the mean time."
"No problem," the bigger man said with a smile that showed a few missing teeth. He hauled Ju Long up by the scruff of his robe.
"Hey, wait!" Ju Long caught Ty Lee's gaze. "Shouldn't you rethink this? I mean, that girl just said—"
"Shh." Ty Lee stuffed a handkerchief in his mouth. "You really shouldn't talk so much, cutie. It's gonna get you in trouble."
All the colour drained from his face. She patted his scarred cheek and then nodded to the earthbenders. Mai didn't resist as she was picked up—there was no point. It would be a while before the chi blocking wore off.
"What happened to Jin?" Mai asked instead. "You were tailing me, right? You must have seen the other Dai Li agent go after her."
"Oh, I sent her back home," Ty Lee said in her easy way. "I helped her first since I knew you could handle yourself."
Mai kept her expression blank as she accepted this information. It was only later, once they reached the underground base and she and Ju Long were locked up in a storage room, that she allowed the tiniest of smiles to curve her lips. Ju Long noticed the expression and stared at her as if she had grown a second head.
"What can you possibly find amusing about this situation?" he demanded. "I can't believe we're being held captive by Lower Ring rebels. We're probably going to be killed!" The metal cuffs encasing his hands and feet rattled as he shifted uncomfortably. "If only I could bend."
"Relax," Mai said, leaning back against the wall. Though not chained like him, all of her weapons had been removed. "I don't think we'll be stuck here for long."
"Huh? How do you know?"
"Because Ty Lee made a mistake. She let Jin go."
Ju Long's brow creased. "Do you mean that girl will help us escape?"
"No, but I suspect he will."
More creases. "Uh, he?"
Mai didn't bother to explain. Instead, she relaxed more against the wall and closed her eyes. There was no way Jin would be able to keep the evening's events to herself. All Mai had to do was wait.
Sokka stared at the knife resting on the table, watching the way the candlelight caught the blade and made the inscription glow. It was the pearl-handled one that Zuko had given to Mai when she'd lost all of her other weapons. Ty Lee said she had found it when she had gone back to look for Mai after helping Jin to escape the Dai Li. There had been no sign of the short-haired girl.
"I'm sorry. I was too late. The Dai Li must have taken her."
Sokka balled his hands into fists and looked away from the blade. One by one, the people he cared about were being picked off by the Dai Li. Still, there was something about the situation that bothered him. It was a pinprick down his spine, subtle yet niggling. Jin had claimed that only two Dai Li agents had come after them. One had followed her while the other had gone for Mai. If there was one thing he knew about Mai, however, it was that she could well and truly hold her own in a fight—especially against a single Dai Li agent.
"She shouldn't have been captured," he murmured.
The truth of these words settled on him like a weight. His brow furrowed and he ran his finger along the characters etched into the knife. Ty Lee had insisted it was too dangerous for him to leave the apartment now—not even to look for Mai. The Dai Li were hunting him in earnest, she had said. He and Shizue shouldn't take any risks in case it brought the Dai Li upon all of their heads. It made sense, but the pinpricks digging into his spine refused to fade. If anything, they just got stronger.
He stood up abruptly from the chair and shoved the knife back into its black sheath. Then he marched for the door. Ty Lee slipped in front of him like a whisper of air—unexpected and soundless. He hadn't even realised she had been watching him.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
Something in her smile made the prickling sensation become dagger points. His fingers twitched on the sheath.
"To Jin's place. You saw how upset she was; she's probably still blaming herself that Luan got captured. I want to make sure she's okay. Cheer her up." He shrugged. "You know, be a decent human being." His tone became even more sarcastic. "Or are you going to tell me I can't even do that now?"
"No, I think that's a good idea. I'll come with you."
This time it was his gut that twisted. He wasn't even sure why. Ty Lee was a nice person; it made sense that she would want to join him. Yet as they headed down the hallway together, it felt less like they were companions on the same mission and more like a gaoler minding her charge. Being around her had never felt so discomforting. Her presence was cloying, sticking to him like a shadow he didn't want.
"You know," he found himself saying, "it just occurred to me you never did explain how you realised they were in danger. Jin and Mai, I mean." He glanced down at her. "How did you even know where to find them?"
Ty Lee clasped her hands behind her back, walking with that peculiar grace and spring in her step that reminded him oddly of Aang. It was like the two walked on air currents rather than the floor. The familiarity hurt Sokka a little. He didn't want to see his friend in this girl. Not right in that moment, anyway.
"Just chance, I guess," Ty Lee spun back on her heel to meet his gaze. "Why?"
He shook his head. "Nothing. Just curious."
She let the matter drop and kept walking. Sokka stared at her back and only then did he notice he was gripping the knife tight enough to make the grooves dig into his palm. He exhaled and forced himself to relax his hold. His instincts had always been good: they'd warned him once that Jet could not be trusted back in Gaipan, they'd picked up on the clues that had eventually led him to the Order of the White Lotus, and right now they whispered that something was wrong.
Something was very, very wrong.
Sokka frowned and trailed behind Ty Lee. Was it really just chance that she had found Mai and Jin? Somehow, he doubted it.
There was a leak in the roof. The repetitive plink, plink as drips fell and landed in the bucket placed to catch the water was irritating. Azula curled her lip at the rundown room and then shifted her attention back to the man seated opposite her. Jing Sheng poured her a cup of tea and placed it before her. He'd tried to dress nicely for the occasion. How pathetic. The cheap fabric of his clothes would always damn him for what he was: a peasant trying to grasp at the sky in the hopes of elevation. Still, he was easy to manipulate. That made him useful.
"Rumour has it the Earth King has finally stepped out of his bubble," Azula said in a detached tone. "He's taken control of the Dai Li."
Jing Sheng shrugged. "It won't change anything. The Lower Ring will not forgive him so easily. The Earth King has had years to help his people; he chose to stay shut away and become nothing more than a puppet on Long Feng's string."
"You're right, of course." Her eyes met his, sharp and commanding. "That's why we should strike now. The Dai Li have been divided and weakened. The Earth King is a fool. It's the perfect time."
He paused in the act of sipping tea. "I am not opposed to the idea, but what of—"
"My army is ready," she confirmed. "While you and the rebels provide a distraction, the earthbenders I have handpicked will help my tanks and soldiers to enter the city."
"But the Outer and Inner Walls—"
"Will not be a problem." Azula raised her cup. "My chi blocker will support the earthbenders so they don't run into any issues while tearing down the walls. It's much easier to take down a shelled beast from the inside, after all; no one will expect it." Her eyes narrowed a fraction. "You just make sure you don't muck up your part."
He licked his lips. "Of—of course not. I will do everything in my power to assist you." A dip of his head. "Princess Azula."
She smiled and took a sip of her tea. It tasted as foul and cheap as she had expected, but that was fine. Soon, she would cast off the name Ruolan for good. She would bring this city to its knees and show them the true power of one born to rule.
Try and stop me if you dare, Brother.
Azula repressed a laugh as she took another sip of the foul tea. Yes, let her brother, her uncle, and any other fool come. She would be waiting. She would be ready.
I'm so sorry I have left you without an update for so long. Basically, my health has been really poor and I needed to give my hand a rest (alas, this author is turning into a feeble thing full of pains and problems; it's a great tragedy). I wish I could say I will be able to give you weekly updates again, but I don't think that is possible at the moment (at least not until my health gets better). All I can ask is for your patience and understanding. My goal is to complete UF this year, so I will try my best to update as speedily as I can.
In any case, everything is finally, finally all set up to end the Ba Sing Se arc and what has been the equivalent of "Book II: Earth" (huzzah!). We also meet Ju Long in this chapter (don't be fooled by my wording; he's not that important, lol). I only mention him because he's an original character I have slapped onto an existing canon character. This time it's the scarred Dai Li agent whose expression is all "this princess be crazy" when Azula openly takes control of the Dai Li. He's also the dude who Iroh and Team Avatar interrogate to get the location of where Zuko and Katara are being imprisoned. Great guy. Maybe talks too much to be good at the whole Dai Li secrecy thing.
Also, for those interested, a new scene between Zuko and Azula has been added to chapter 11. Chapter 26 also features a new scene between Zuko and Sokka. Neither scene changes any of the story "canon", so you also don't have to read them if you can't be bothered; I've just been revising earlier chapters (you may have noticed about 10,000 words have gone missing—there have been a lot of deletions). So yeah, read or not at your discretion.