Thistle and Weeds

Chapter 21: Day of Reckoning, Part 3

Azula move lithely along the corridor. Her arms hung straight down and her hands were open. There was no tension in her body, no fear. It was as though she were finally free. She stopped outside Ozai's bunker and tilted her head. Two guards stood straighter, adjusted their spears and remained silent. Their duty was to Ozai. They were each surprised to see the princess, though, and even more surprised to see the rest of the people she seemed to have dragged along, one of them the prince. They itched to inquire, but knew of Azula's temper and cruelty. Waiting was better.

"You're doing a fine job, standing there all soldierly like." She smiled at the men.

Azula was not known for her smiles. The guards shifted from one foot to the other unsure what to do or not do, say or not say. The pair exchanged worried glances as unobtrusively as they could. Something was up. Even they could figure that much out. Still, when Toph encased each of them in the earth that lay beneath the floor, they could not have been more surprised. Spears clattered down. The men grunted. Their brown eyes opened wide and filled with anger.

"Don't go anywhere," Toph cackled as she stepped past them. "So the royal creep is in there?"

Azula nodded, letting the insult to Ozai go, enjoying it even. She slid the metal door back before stepping over the threshold. "Father, I've brought you a surprise."

Ozai sat cross-legged on a dais near the back wall. A carpet bearing a design of flames softened the steel of the structure and a small table with a tea service was nearby. Twelve guards stood sentry before him, helmets on, spears upright and ready as eager new soldiers.

"What do you mean, Azula? Today is not a day for games." Irritated, he tapped his fingers on his knees. His handsome face, once a face that the princess longed to see a pleased expression grace, bore a stern look.

"I know how much you appreciate a good fight, Father. I brought one to you. Let's see how well you do against these opponents." The entire situation was surreal. Azula could not believe she was bringing the enemy to her now defenseless father. It was treasonous and it was unthinkable and yet, it felt oh so right. His children, his tools had turned against him. She laughed then, loud and long and the strident sound echoed in the huge metal chamber.

"Fight? What are you talking about? Guards, seize her!" The Fire Lord saw the strangeness of the situation, his daughter's sense of triumph and began to panic.

With one blast of air, Aang, the Avatar, toppled the twelve men as he might knock down pieces on a game board. His round face, still so very childlike, was fierce and grey eyes burned with righteousness.

The rage that flashed across Ozai's face and the indignation were both sweet to witness. Better yet was the momentary look of misgiving, the hint of worry. Here was a situation he had not anticipated and could not control. He might not come out on the winning end of this fight and he had his children to thank for that. Azula's treachery was the most difficult to swallow. She had always been so loyal, so eager to further the Fire Nation's cause. He could not fathom her actions or her motivations.

But he wiped his face of everything but smug confidence, stood up and walked off the dais to meet his foes.

"Zuko, you've made some friends. I didn't think that was possible."

The prince gritted his teeth and narrowed his good eye. He would not respond to the taunting. He was stronger than that.

"Friends," he said, addressing the gang and Mai and Taro, "why don't we take care of business?"

"My pleasure," Toph laughed. She bent the metal floor beneath Ozai's feet and they watched as he stumbled to his knees.

The Fire Lord ordered his guards to get up and finish off the insurgents. They stood and they lunged at the gang with spears outstretched. With the power of their bending, it was almost too easy for Katara and Toph to dispose of the guards. The earthbender pelted them with chunks of metal and dirt while the waterbender employed her water whip. The guards were tired and frustrated after only a minute.

"Aang," Zuko hissed. "Take care of him. Do it now or I will. The eclipse is almost over."

Zuko felt a strange tingling in the pit of his stomach. It was as though his fires were being stoked and one tiny ember had caught. The feeling was glorious. But he knew that Ozai was experiencing the very same thing. Soon the Fire Lord would have his full power back and that was fearsome to behold.

He searched the room for Azula and found her leaning against the wall, watching the scene with amused interest. She inclined her head, indicating their father and stared back before giving her brother a smirk. Zuko couldn't help but wonder if she would suddenly join the battle and fight with the Fire Lord. Was her behaviour some strange ruse? Was it all just an elaborate trap?

Mai watched everything with detached boredom. This encounter was not nearly as intense as she had imagined it might be. The guards were disabled. But Ozai made a good target. She let one of her blades fly. It neatly severed the crown from his head. The man's eyes smoldered as the headpiece clattered on to the floor. He reached for it. Mai threw another blade, this one shredding his royal robes. She sauntered passed the irate but speechless Fire Lord, and retrieved her blades and the crown. "This belongs to Zuko." She held it out for Ozai to see. It felt good to utter those words.

Mai strode back, passing by the Avatar. "Zuko said to finish him," she whispered. "Don't just stand there."

Finish him; everyone kept using that phrase. What did it mean exactly? Did they expect him to kill Ozai? He wouldn't. He couldn't. He was a monk, raised a pacifist, not a killer. Aang was fine with immobilizing him. That he could do. With everyone looking on, with the eclipse coming to an end, the Avatar took care of business.

~~~~0000~~~~

Iroh punched and kicked his way through the onslaught of guards. He laughed as he sent men flying into the bars of jail cells, down on to the damp stone floor, all of them bruised and battered and in a state of disbelief.

"Is that the traitor?"

"He's a frail, old man; what happened?"

"He's a one man army!"

"He'll pay for this."

"Ozai will have our heads."

"Get him!"

The words followed Iroh, growing fainter and fainter, fading away until they were nothing but memories. Once outside, where freedom seemed a reality rather than a hazy dream, Iroh encountered more guards. They brandished their spears and shouted curses as Iroh sprinted through their ranks, breaking the spears as easily as he might a pair of chopsticks. He truly was an incredible force and as he continued across the drawbridge, the guards stared open mouthed.

Iroh spied the Order member hiding amongst the craggy rocks. He was dressed in ordinary Fire Nation clothes but a white lotus was stitched onto each sleeve of his tunic.

"Hurry," the man urged, waving Iroh ahead. "There's a boat waiting, in the small harbour, down that way."

They exchanged bows before clamoring down the rocky path, not the one that led back into the caldera, but the one that led away from Capitol City and towards a few small fishing villages. Iroh swung his head around and peered at the rooftops of the capitol. The sounds of explosions and shouts, the cries of the wounded, yells of the triumphant, they all reached his ears. But he knew that below ground, in the bunkers, his nephew and others fought a more important fight.

"You can't help him, Iroh, not now. If he's anything like you, Zuko will do fine."

"Yes, he's in a good position with all that help. It's Ozai who has little chance of coming out of this still Fire Lord."

The Order member, his name was Ru, patted Iroh on the shoulder. "I can't wait for the change. Think of how much better our world will be." The man, middle-aged, tall and lean, smiled at the idea of a world without the bane of such a far reaching war. Peace was long overdue.

"It's a good thought." Iroh stroked his long, full beard and nodded.

He imagined Zuko wearing the Fire Lord's robes, the crown upon his head, leading his nation forward, beyond the pain of war. He imagined Mai by his side, free of her unfortunate marriage, a partner, someone to confide in, discuss issues with, someone to help. Zuko needed that, despite his sometimes stubborn independence.

The two men walked side by side, alternating their glances between the steep path beneath their feet and the harbour far below. Once at the shore, they scampered along a rickety wooden dock and climbed into a small boat captained by a very young man, probably about Zuko's age. He gave Ru a brilliant smile and nodded at Iroh.

"Fast as you can, young man; we need to get my friend out of here." Ru patted the man's shoulder and returned his smile.

"No problem, Sir, no problem at all." He was an expert sailor and the day was a breezy one.

Iroh was accustomed to steam powered battleships. But the ordinary people of the Fire Nation, the fishermen and those who sailed for pleasure or moved people from island to island, they used sailboats. Ichise, for that was his name, hoisted the mainsail and the jib and grabbed hold of the tiller. Before long, they were in open water, heading away from the main harbour and the fighting and toward the island on which Piandao resided.

Iroh, though he never doubted his escape, was visibly relieved, almost giddy. He told tales and jokes and fidgeted in an attempt to use up the excess energy he had. The escape had not left him tired, but invigorated. All those weeks in a prison cell with little room to move about suffocated a man. Like an animal caught in a trap, a prisoner often resigned himself and waited for the inevitable. Some found a reason to keep going; the thought of a wife or children, a lover or parents, revenge. Others, with little else to do, nurtured often neglected spiritual sides. Still, no matter how far away a prisoner's mind might take him, how much he focused on a positive, the fact remained that he was a prisoner.

He could pace the perimeter of his cell and no further. He could eat only what was given to him, wear only prison rags. He washed when water was provided, heard only the news that guards gossiped about. He endured taunts and physical abuse. Iroh was luckier than some. He'd had a few visitors to pass the time and give him much to think about.

He had made the most of his time in prison, done what he could to improve himself. But bending those bars and stepping out of that cage was one of the best feelings he could remember.

"It's good to see you so happy, Iroh, and free." Ru's expression grew somber and his grey eyes were deep pools of thought. "When we first heard of your imprisonment, the Order was devastated. You're our Grand Lotus, our leader and without you, our actions became aimless. That's when we hatched our plan to break you out. Well," Ru chuckled, "you did the breaking out."

"Boredom and the need for secrecy brought out my inventiveness. I found fooling Warden Poon both amusing and satisfying. I do hope that Ming is all right. She's a good woman, kind-hearted and compassionate. I hope to see her warden one day. Ha, Poon would keel over. And it would serve him right." Keeping order was one thing. Stripping prisoners of basic dignity was quite another and typical of the Fire Nation's current attitude.

"Your nephew has a lot of work ahead of him." Ru shook his head. "I don't envy the boy. That's a lot of responsibility for someone his age."

"Yes; and much as I would love to help, I think it best if I and the Order keep out of things. Now, if circumstances are dire, that's different. I would never see Zuko swing."

Ichise, absorbed in his sailing and the joy he took from being on the sea, salt spray dampening his clothes, the ocean smell strong in his nostrils, heard only bits of the conversation. But the idea of a man his age ruling the nation excited him. Sometimes it took the very young to make changes that others could not or would not.

"What do you think, Ichise?" Iroh turned a kind gaze on the sailor.

"I'm rooting for Zuko."

~~~~0000~~~~

Taro felt completely useless and began to wonder why he had come along. With his bending gone and Katara, Toph and Aang there to pick up the slack, there was no task left for him to attend to. So he observed from his position near Mai, part of him dying to involve himself somehow. What was he supposed to do, relax and cheer like crazed spectators at a sporting event?

Before his eyes, no matter the outcome, this group of young people was busy making history. He wanted to make it too, help, and be a part of positive change. But when his bending came back, and it was on its way, Ozai's returned too. Taro had heard tales of the Fire Lord's ability.

He had no doubt that Ozai could annihilate him with the flick of a wrist, or with a quick blast of fire from one of his feet. Rumor was he could create lightning too. Part of Taro longed to see that and hoped for an actual bending battle with Ozai. It was a stupid wish. People could get injured or die. He hated that the idea had even occurred to him.

Taro was a decent bender but his natural talent, that indefinable gift that some benders were blessed with in huge amounts, was minimal. Training and more training got him to the level he was at now. While competent, he would never have the grace or style or inventiveness of the top tier benders.

He flexed his muscles and cracked his knuckles and when Mai returned from her little walk past Ozai, he prodded her. "When is the Avatar going to do something? I can feel my fire coming back. He's almost out of time."

She shrugged. "Looks like he's having an internal debate; maybe we should take over, the other benders, I mean."

Zuko heard the exchange and nodded. He found Katara's eyes and indicated Toph and then Ozai. The waterbender frowned at the prince. She couldn't trust him completely, not yet, perhaps not ever. But Aang was waffling and there was no way she would let Ozai come away from this encounter a free man.

The sound of air, a massive gust, drew all their gazes back toward the Avatar. He had sent Ozai reeling backward to slam against the metal wall. The Fire Lord whooped, all the air forced out of his lungs. Gold eyes, eyes that would be beautiful in anyone else's face, glowered with hate and rage.

"Who do you think you are, boy? We wiped out your kind, every last one of those pathetic, weak monks. You should have been dead too."

Images of Gyatso, the only father Aang had ever known, flitted through his mind, sepia coloured memories of warmth and joy and love. Ozai's family was responsible for the end of that warmth. Sozin snuffed out an entire race and Ozai, following the family tradition, was quite ready to eliminate those wonderful, hardworking, strong folk in the Earth Kingdom. What made a man such as the one who stared at him now? What profit, what power or glory could possibly justify the horrors they perpetrated? How did they live with themselves?

"But I'm not!" Aang's cheeks flushed with anger and his right hand clutched his glider so tightly his knuckles were devoid of blood. "I'm alive and I'm here and you're finished." The force and conviction with which he spoke surprised even Aang.

Ozai blinked a few times, quick movements of his eyelids. He was not expecting such vehemence. He could intimidate just about everyone. A twelve year old boy should not pose a problem.

With a flurry of movements that Ozai could hardly keep track of, the Avatar attacked. He fought with a fury that none of his friends had witnessed before and Katara worried that he might enter the Avatar state unwittingly. He didn't, though, but with a combination of airbending and earthbending, battered the Fire Lord, pummeling the man with blow after blow, until he collapsed unmoving on the floor.

"We need to bind his hands and feet," Zuko urged. "The eclipse is over. He can bend now." To prove his point, the prince made a perfect flame in the palm of his hand. He glanced about the bunker for Azula, but she had disappeared.

Where is she? What is she up to now?

"I can make manacles," Toph offered, "with my metalbending."

"What are you waiting for?" Zuko shouted. He was starting to panic now. How could they have frittered away some of those precious seconds? Why did the Avatar have to hesitate?

The brash earthbender used metal from the floor and shaped it into sturdy links. It was intricate work and took much concentration

Ozai stirred on the floor, not enough to raise any suspicions. Taro saw, though, and wanting to serve some purpose besides just standing around, he edged closer to the Fire Lord. He called to his inner fire, breathing slow and deep, before creating a strong flame in his hand. The fire licked harmlessly at its maker's fingers. Taro took a few more steps. He was close enough now to touch Ozai with the toe of his boot. Thrusting his arm forward, he threw the ball of fire towards Ozai's face. It was a warning; Taro hoped enough of one to stop the Fire Lord from attempting anything underhanded. Somehow, Ozai caught the flame in his own hand, and with a movement so quick, so smooth, despite his awkward position on the floor, he tossed it back. His surprise was his undoing. Taro froze and watched the fire hurtle toward him. He was on fire seconds later. The pain was excruciating. Taro screamed.

~~~~0000~~~~

Mai rushed to her husband's side. Zuko, reminded of his own shrieks at the Agni Kai more than three years earlier, accompanied Mai. He extinguished the fire and beckoned Katara over before holding a flaming fist close to Ozai's face, enjoying the look of worry in his father's eyes.

"You can heal, can't you?" he asked the blue eyed girl.

The waterbender nodded. She uncapped her water skin and went to work. Mai stood by, helpless, holding Taro's hand. Toph, hurrying now, finished the chains and twisted them about Ozai's ankles and wrists. There was no give. He couldn't move his hands or his feet at all. The links bit into his flesh. He snarled at the earthbender like a wild beast. The Fire Lord was not to be chained or bound or restricted in any way. How dare they?

"Watch his mouth." Zuko warned everyone to stay back. "How's Taro?" He knelt by the stricken man, close to Mai and watched as Katara, water encasing her hand like some strange glowing mitten, worked on Taro's wounds.

"The burns are bad, but he'll live. There will be mild scarring," she shrugged, "I can't do anything about that."

Unbidden, a strange laugh burst from Zuko. It came from somewhere deep and dark and full of bitterness. "Scarring," he declared, "This, this," he reached for the left side of his face and touched, "is scarring."

"Zuko!" Mai understood where her lover's pain came from, but now was not the time to bring it up.

He snapped back from that black pit of memory and had the good sense to feel shame. It showed. His face and neck both reddened with embarrassment. "I, I'm sorry," he stammered.

Mai didn't reply. She smoothed the hair back from Taro's face before standing up, moving to Zuko and taking his hand in hers. One squeeze and Zuko knew that she understood.

"What do we do with the loser lord?" Sokka smirked at Ozai, his scrawny arms crossed over his equally scrawny chest.

The defeated monarch, crown gone and clothing awry, bellowed flames at the young warrior. "Watch what you say, boy! I'm the Fire Lord. Everyone fears me. You should fear me too."

"Doesn't he get how ridiculous he looks and sounds?" Toph, adding an extra bit of humiliation, flicked a rounded lump of dirt at Ozai's head. "You're done," she stated, addressing the object of her derision. "You are so over."

~~~~0000~~~~

The guards, realizing the change in power, had gotten up and scattered. Rumblings sounded from out in the corridor, people shouting and running this way and that. Zuko had to take charge now; this was not the time to hesitate or second guess his actions. They needed to get Ozai out of the bunker and outside, somewhere people could see him chained and defeated, somewhere Aang and he could announce that the war was over.

"We have to get him out of here," Zuko said to no one in particular. "And we need to get Taro into a bed." Tapping a toe on the floor, he thought. Hearing more noise outside the bunker, Zuko poked his head out and crooked a finger at a trio of servants making their way toward the stairs and the palace proper. "You three, get in here." They obeyed without thought, each giving the prince a bow. Their eyes opened wide when they spotted Ozai. "I want this man put in my room and the palace physician called. Do you understand?" Zuko pointed to Taro. They nodded in unison, like one entity, and moved to the stricken form.

"Gently," Katara chided. She'd forgotten that Taro was Fire Nation. He was an injured man, one she had helped and until he was completely better, she would continue to check up on him.

"He'll be all right, Mai." Zuko pleaded with his eyes.

Don't leave me now. I need you here, by my side, as I begin my reign.

"I know." She watched as the servants picked up her husband and carried him out into the hallway. A few weeks ago she would have been indifferent to his injury. But now, now that Taro and she had formed some strange bond, Mai worried and felt guilt. Pushing that aside, knowing that he was in good hands, she turned to Zuko. "You need to act now, Zuko. The people need to know what's happened and what will happen."

Ozai couldn't walk with the shackles as tight as they were. Toph needed to loosen them just enough to give the man some mobility. All of them would accompany him outside to face the people of his nation.

"Toph, could you make it so he can walk?" The earthbender knew what the prince had in mind and eased the tension on the manacles just a bit. "Father!" He hated calling the man by that appellation. Sometimes it came out unwittingly; sixteen years were not easily erased. "Ozai, get up."

"Make me," the man sneered.

Zuko, careful to stay behind Ozai, yanked hi m up by the collar of his tattered robe. "Start walking."

"Oh and where might you be taking me, son? Are you going to parade me around so you can feel like a man?"

Zuko wanted to hit his father, beat him and beat him until he finally shut up. He wanted to hurt him, make the bastard feel a portion of what he had experienced during his long years of exile and before that too as an unappreciated, unloved little boy. But beating him would only cause physical pain. That was simple to deal with and once wounds healed, the pain vanished for good. Zuko's wounds were of a different nature, wounds of the soul and the psyche. Those took far longer to disappear and some never did. They might fade but still festered and bled when rubbed.

"I am a man, a good man." It was Iroh's voice Zuko heard in his head now. "And today I did the right thing. Uncle will be proud."

Ozai scoffed and, at his son's prodding, shuffled along the scuffed floor. "We'll see, Zuko, we'll see."

He was about to utter something else when a metal muzzle contained his flow of words.

"I'm getting tired of listening to him," Toph smirked. "Thought you might be too." She wound her arm, as if preparing to throw something, and punched Zuko's shoulder, hard.

He gave her a grateful smile.

"It's about time." Sokka grinned. "I never wanna hear that creep talk again."

~~~~0000~~~~

A/N: Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed the chapter. I see maybe 2 more..I'm guessing here.

Alabaster