A/N: Before you say anything, I KNOW! It's been way too long since the update, and I'm really sorry. You'll get an explanation later, but for now, lets move on to the story. First things first:
- This chapter takes place during "Nightmares and Daydreams". I just wanted to get that straight before you started reading.
- This is only Part 1. I wanted to have the Gaang interact with the Krew before they charged off into battle during the eclipse, but it got super long, so I broke it up . Part 2's almost done though, so check back for it in about 2 weeks.
Now, without further ado...
Previously on Avatar…
Sokka frowned as he and Aang stood near one of the cliffs, looking at the night sky. "Are you sure you haven't met her before? Y'know, that girl? Maybe you came across her at some point when we were traveling or something."
Aang shook his head. "I've never seen her in my life, but I've got his feeling… almost like I should know who she is, but for some reason, I don't. It's kinda hard to explain." He stared at the moon overhead, basking in its glow. "I just think there's something special about her, Sokka," he whispered. "I can tell."
"Korra, I have sent you here in order for you to team up with Avatar Aang," Roku said. "With Aang's help, you must defeat Hei An before she reaches Republic City in your era within a few weeks time, or your friends will be in grave danger."
Korra blinked, staring at Roku in shock. "You want me―and Aang to fight Hei An? Are we supposed to go in the Spirit World to find her? What if we can't stop her in time? What if we fail?"
Roku smiled gently at Korra. "I know you can do it, for you have done it before. This time of course, you'll be more successful, and destroy Hei An …permanently.
"I have one more thing to give you." Roku reached into his robes, handing her an object. "This is a sacred stone. It will show you what you need to see most given a particular moment."
"But what if I have more questions?" she wondered. "How will I talk to you?"
"I am part of you, Korra. When you need to contact me again, you will be able to do so."
Sokka groaned after Toph knocked him on his back with a large rock. He appeared to be dazed. "Sorry, Snoozles," Toph said, "But I think you've been out voted." She walked over and stuck her hand out to Korra. "Welcome to the team."
Sokka's eyes darkened as he stared at the teens. He couldn't believe that he was doing this, but if they were going to stay, they needed to set some ground rules. "If I feel like you're doing us more harm than good," he warned them, "And if you do something to jeopardize the mission, if you put even one toe out of line...you'll be out of here so fast, you won't even know what hit you. We clear?"
"Crystal." Bolin nodded.
Zuko watched as the warden unlocked the doors to his cell. The chains around his wrists seemed tighter than ever as he was led inside, shut away from the outside world.
"Lock him, up warden," Azula commanded, sneering at her brother. "I can't stand to look at his pathetic face anymore."
"Yes, Princess," The warden moved to close the cell.
"Oh, haven't you heard, Warden?" Azula turned around, a wide smile on her face. "It's Crown Princess, now."
She made her way to the doors, just as the iron bars of Zuko's cell clinked into place.
Book Two: Air (气)
Chapter 9- Before the Battle (Part 1)
It still didn't seem real.
Mako wasn't sure if he dreaming or not as he lay on his pallet, wide awake. Rays of sunlight filtered in through the tent, signaling the new day. Bolin was still asleep, snoring softly in the corner, but Mako was too excited to close his eyes, both out of happiness and out of fear―fear that this was all too good to be true and that it would be over at any second.
Last night, he, Korra and Bolin all met the original Team Avatar and somehow wormed their way into the group. It didn't add up―really, it should be impossible for a street kid like him to end up in the company of legends and war heroes, but over time, Mako realized that when you're seventy years in the past and the Avatar's your best friend… well, anything can happen.
A hopeful feeling curled in his chest when he thought about how Aang could help them. Everything would be back to normal― he and Bolin would be back at home, and Korra would be able to save Republic city, for sure. Of course, she would have to explain their situation to him first, which she still hadn't done. Mako wondered why Korra was intent on keeping it a secret, and made a mental note to ask her about it later. He lazily rolled over on his pallet, hoping to catch a few more minutes of sleep, when he heard a loud noise coming from outside of the tent.
Thunk, thunk, thunk.
Mako's eyes flew open. Something was out there. He shook Bolin awake on the pallet next to him, and his brother blearily opened his eyes.
"Do you hear that?" Mako asked. "That noise?"
Bolin yawned. "I'm sure it's nothing. Go back to sleep, Mako."
Mako started to believe Bolin, sinking back down into the blankets. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe he was right―
The "thunking" started up again, louder this time. Thunk, thunk, thunk…
"Dammit." Mako threw the covers off, getting to his feet. "I'm going to see what that is," he told Bo. "I'll be right back."
Bolin mumbled in response.
Mako pulled on his pants and opened the flap of the tent. The sunlight stung his eyes and he put his hand up to shield them, allowing them to adjust to the brightness. When he finally blinked to clear the spots out of his vision, he saw what was making that awful sound.
Aang stood across the way ―his hair was a mess and he was shirtless, but that wasn't what struck Mako as odd. It was normal for people to look bad in the mornings. He himself probably looked hideous.
However, Mako was absolutely sure that it wasn't normal for anyone to wake up first thing in the morning and start pounding at a tree, especially not in the crazed, frenzied way that Aang was doing it.
Mako stared at him, opened mouthed. "Bolin?" he called. "You've gotta see this."
"Five more minutes?" Bolin whined, burying his face in his blankets.
Meanwhile, Aang still punched at the trunk of the tree, panting heavily.
Mako didn't know what to make of it. He grabbed Bolin by the scruff of his neck, ignoring his protests, and hauled him to the tent entrance. "There." He pointed to the tree. "Look."
Bolin's sleepy eyes widened. He rubbed them to make sure he wasn't seeing things."Is…is that Aang?" he turned to Mako.
"Yup." Mako nodded
Bolin paused as this sunk in, and his brow furrowed as he watched Aang battle the tree. "What's he doing?"
"Beats me." His brother shrugged.
They ventured closer and Mako heard the rustling of other tents opening. Apparently, he and Bolin weren't the only ones who Aang had disturbed this morning. A grumbling Sokka slunk into view with Katara in tow, still rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Toph was right behind them, looking down right pissed at being awoken so early in the day.
The all froze when they saw Aang abusing the poor plant.
"What the…" Sokka frowned, Katara and Toph mirroring his expression. "Does he know what time it is? What's he doing?"
"Hmm?" Korra―the last out of everyone to arrive―fell in line beside Mako, yawning. "Everything okay? I heard some noise…" Her eyes followed everyone else's and landed on Aang. She turned to Mako. "What's with him?"
Katara hesitantly approached the airbender, looking worried. "Hey, Aang? Are you alright?"
He shook his head, circling the tree. "No, I'm not. The invasion's only three days away now, and I'm not ready! I've got a lot more skills to refine if I'm going to fight Ozai." He delivered another punch to its trunk, which quivered slightly.
Katara seemed baffled. "Aang, what are you talking about? You've spent months preparing for this. You are ready." She frowned and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Besides, even if you weren't... I don't really see how beating up a tree is going to help."
"No, you don't understand!" Aang scowled and shrunk away from her touch. "My form is bad―I can't battle the Fire Lord like this." He gestured to himself. "And I still don't know any firebending, not even the basics!" He whirled on Mako, grabbing him desperately. "You've gotta help me," he begged. "Just teach me a few forms―how to shoot fire, something―"
"Uh..." Mako squirmed away from him, disturbed by his actions. Had Aang lost it? He wasn't sure how to respond, but thankfully, Sokka came to his rescue.
"Don't worry, Aang." He stretched lazily, unaffected by the airbender's hysteria. "The eclipse will block out all firebending, so you don't actually need to know any. You'll be fine." He chuckled. "Besides, it's a stupid element anyway."
Silence washed over the group. Toph snorted into her hand and it took Sokka a moment to realize what he'd said. He squeaked when he saw Mako's murderous glare. "Heh. Did I say that?" he coughed nervously. "I was just kidding. Fire's a great element...buddy." He patted Mako's arm.
Aang lifted a brow. "Anyway… even if I don't learn firebending, I still have to practice what I already know." He raised his fists and lowered himself into a crouch. "I'm going to train all day."
And, with eyes full of determination, Aang took off deeper into the woods before anyone could stop him, kicking and punching at everything in sight.
Bolin stared after him, nonplussed. "Okay…what just happened?"
Toph shrugged. "Twinkletoes had a meltdown. What do you think happened?"
"Ugh, this is all wrong," Katara muttered to herself, rubbing her temples. "I'm going to go see if I can talk some sense into him―you guys stay here." She jogged after into the forest, leaving the rest of them behind, at an awkward standstill.
Sokka broke the silence first. "Well, that was weird." His stomach rumbled and he turned to Korra. "Hey, since Katara's not here…there's no chance that you could rustle up for food for us, is there?"
Korra stifled a laugh. Her, cooking? Now that would be a disaster. "Uh, no. I'm not exactly handy in the kitchen, if you know what I mean. You're on your own."
Sokka's face fell. "Right. Just thought I'd ask." He sighed dejectedly. "I guess I'll just have to make breakfast myself, then. You'll help, right Toph?"
"Of course," Toph drawled. "Just because I'm a girl, that totally means I can cook. Definitely."
"I'm sure you can boil porridge or something." Sokka grabbed her wrist, not quite catching her sarcasm. "We'll see you later guys."
And he and Toph disappeared.
Korra faced Mako and Bolin moments later. "So guys…" she said, "Interesting morning, wasn't it?"
"Mm-hmm." Bolin stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I'm just confused about one thing."
"How is Aang supposed to help us when he's having a MENTAL BREAKDOWN?" He waved his hands frantically.
Korra looked down. "Good point. I never really thought about that. I only come up with the ideas, not―"
"Not the details, we know," Mako finished for her. "Let's just hope he gets better soon," he said, "Because let's face it―the kid's lost his marbles. Did you see the way he was tearing into that tree? I thought―"
He paused when Korra suddenly gave a playful punch, a care free grin on her face. "Hey―lighten up, Cool Guy. Everything's going to be fine. Sure, Aang may be a little off his rocker right now―"
Bolin snorted. That was an understatement.
"―But he'll calm down eventually," Korra promised. "Katara's got it all under control. He'll be back to normal in no time―"
"FIRE LORD OZAI!" Aang shouted from a distance. "I WILL DEFEAT YOU!"
Mako cocked his head toward Korra as if to say, I told you so.
Her grin faded at Aang's outburst. "Or…not."
Mako silently wondered what the hell was going on.
He, Bolin and Korra sat gathered around a drawing board as Sokka attempted to explain the invasion plan. It might have gone okay, but Sokka didn't have the official battle plans on hand, so he had to improvise. Or, in other words, recite his whole presentation from memory, with cartoonish pictures pinned to an easel. Mako inwardly cringed at the Water Tribe boy's awful drawings, full of stick figures and orange blobs that were supposed to be "fire blasts". The whole thing was a train wreck.
"―And after we secure the plaza, we're going up to the Royal Palace," Sokka went on. "It's heavily guarded, so we'll have to use the eclipse to our advantage here." He pointed to a red building in the middle of the map. A stick figure version of Ozai stood in front.
And that was where Mako had to put his foot down. After being forced to work there for a week, he knew that the palace didn't look like a cottage, and that it most definitely didn't have a flower bed in the front yard. In fact, it didn't even have a yard.
"And then, Aang will take on the Fire Lord and end this war," Sokka announced triumphantly. "Any questions?"
"Um, yeah. What's that black blob in the sky supposed to be?" Korra asked, trying to keep a straight face. Her shoulders shook and Mako knew she was on the verge of losing it.
"What?" Sokka looked indignant. "That's the eclipse! What did you think it was?"
Mako gaped. This was too good. He was surprised that Bolin hadn't laughed at this yet. The earthbender squirmed slightly beside him, but said nothing. That's the eclipse?" he repeated incredulously.
"Yeah, what of it?"
A giggle escaped Korra's lips. "Why," she snorted, "does it have a frowny face, then?"
"Because I thought it would look good! It's frowning over the Fire Nation!" Sokka shook his head as in disbelief. "Do you have any more questions? Real questions?" He emphasized when Korra tried to say something.
Bolin's hand shot in the air. "Ooh! Me! Me!"
Sokka frowned. "What is it?"
"I really gotta pee."
Sokka flushed with anger. Korra was openly laughing now and even Mako couldn't help the chuckle that escaped from his lips.
"What? After everything I just said, you want to―" Sokka shook his head. "No. No potty breaks."
Bolin squirmed harder, his face turning red. "But I really have to―" He suddenly squeaked and didn't get out the word "go." Mako couldn't believe how ridiculous the whole thing was.
"Fine!" Sokka growled at him. "Go―but hurry back."
Clutching his fly as he went, Bolin raced away from the campsite, nearly running into Katara. "Excuse me! Coming through!"
Sokka watched him, appearing dismayed. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "We've got a lot of work to do to whip you guys into shape."
Bolin squeaked again, and Sokka sighed exasperatedly. "A lot."
"No, you're doing it wrong!" Sokka corrected Mako's stance as he practiced with his meteorite sword. "Don't hold it so close to your body. And bend your knees."
Sokka had been trying to give the firebender swordsmanship lessons all afternoon, but so far, things weren't going so well. Sokka was losing his patience and Mako… well, he just wanted to stab things.
Grunting, Mako shifted a little. "Is this better?" he asked. He took an experimental swipe with the weapon, causing Sokka to cry out in alarm and duck.
"Hey! You nearly took off my head." He crossed his arms. "Let's try it again, and this time, don't randomly hack at things with it. Master Piandao always told me that your weapon is an extension of yourself, so maybe you should―"
"Who's that?" Mako's knees wobbled from being stuck in the same position for so long. He was almost ready to call it quits and tell Sokka to take his sword training and shove it you-know-where.
Sokka sighed. "Never mind. Just think of the sword as third arm or something." He circled in front of Mako. "Now, are you ready?"
"I've been ready for the past ten minutes."
"Oh. Alright." Sokka clapped his hands. "Let's see what you can do―auggh!"
He was cut off by the flurry of attacks that Mako sent his way. The firebender swung the sword wildly, nearly clipping Sokka's arm.
"Wait!" Sokka tried backing away. "Slow down a bit―"
But Mako wasn't listening. He was letting out ten minutes worth of frustration, and boy did it feel good. He gave another good swipe and Sokka dove behind a tree just as the blade nearly decapitated him.
Instead, it got stuck in the bark of the tree, where it couldn't do any harm.
Mako released the blade and wiped his brow. "How was that?"
Sokka looked from the firebender to the sword impaled tree and the color drained from his face. "Nuh-uh. No more real swords for you." He yanked his blade free and sheathed it in its scabbard.
"You're going to be practicing with something else."
"What?" Mako watched as Sokka pulled something wooden from his belt. His eyes widened in realization. "You have got to be kidding me."
"Nope," Sokka said proudly, waving the toy sword. "Say hello to your new swordy." He shoved it in Mako's face. "Go ahead. Try it out for size."
Mako took one look at the kid's toy in his hands. He pretended to inspect it and Sokka beamed at him.
"See, I knew you'd like it. It's―WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
The sword went up in flames. Mako carelessly discarded it on the ground and the fire began to lick at the grass.
"No, no, no, no!" Sokka stomped and blew on the flames until they went out. He glared at Mako. "Why'd you do that? That was a perfectly good―" He caught the dangerous glare in the firebender's eyes and took a step back, swallowing hard. "On second thought, maybe you should take the rest of the day off. We'll come back to this tomorrow."
Mako gave him a jerky nod and sauntered off, leaving Sokka in the clearing alone.
Muttering to himself, Sokka stared at the ruined sword and kicked its charred remains. "Stupid firebenders."
Bolin gulped nervously as he faced Toph. It was their first training session, and he wasn't sure what to expect. Sokka had said that Toph was strict, and he hoped that she wouldn't be too hard on him.
Toph paced around Bolin, digging her toes into the grass. "So," she said, "You said you're one of the best earthbenders around, huh?"
Bolin's face flushed and he tugged at his collar. "Who? Me?"
"No, Sokka." Toph rolled her eyes. "Yeah, you. You said you've got skills, so come on. Let's see 'em."
Bolin was seriously starting to panic. He may have been exaggerating a little when he said that he was one of the best earthbenders out there. Just a little bit…okay, maybe a lot. He certainly wasn't an amateur, but he couldn't hold a candle to the metalbending cops who patrolled Republic City. And now he was about to square off with Toph Beifong, the girl who invented metalbending?
Spirits help him.
Bolin rubbed the back of his head nervously. "No... I couldn't..." he began. But Toph wouldn't let him weasel his way out of this one.
"Let's go, tough guy." She cracked her knuckles and got into her stance, turning her head to spit onto the grass. Her unseeing eyes showed no mercy.
Bolin paled and began to back away. "Uh, I'm feeling a little tired. Can we do this la―"
"I said let's go!"
Bolin gulped and raised his fists feebly. "Ok. But maybe we should take it slow? Do something easy first?"
Toph paused before grinning slyly. "Alright," she said slowly. "You can have the first move. It'd be my pleasure."
He blinked in surprise. "Um, ok…let's see here…" He a lifted a chunk earth after a moment's hesitation and sent it hurtling towards her.
Toph narrowed her eyes and punched through the rock before it could even knock her off balance, sending fragments of it flying. Then, before Bolin could register what was happening, she stomped her foot and a pillar of earth sprang out from underneath him, launching him through the air.
"Auugghh!" Bolin flew across the campsite, landing with a thump next to the spot where a shocked Katara and Sokka sat. He raised a hand in the air. "I'm ok!" he said. And then his hand fell limp as he passed out at Katara's feet.
"Oh my gosh, Bolin!" Katara patted his face, trying to get him to come to. She glared at Toph. "Did you have to be so rough with him?"
Toph angled her head in Bolin's direction and scoffed, bursting into peals of laughter."Please. He was asking for it. He didn't really think he could beat me, could he? " She clutched at her sides and chuckled harder as Katara ordered Sokka to bring her some water to heal Bolin.
"Toph, it's not funny, you could have really hurt him―Toph!"
Toph wiped a tear from her eye, her chuckles subsiding. "'Best earthbender around', my foot," she snorted. "What a chump."
"Ready Korra?" Katara smiled coyly as she finished stretching.
She and Korra stood opposite each other in the middle of a nearby clearing. Mako, Toph and Sokka stood on the sidelines as spectators, eagerly waiting for the sparring match to begin. Bolin was off recovering from his "accident" and Aang sat quietly by himself, trying to calm his nerves, although Korra didn't think it was working that well. Something about the way he shuddered and kept muttering to himself told her that the young Avatar was still a complete mess.
Korra nodded, getting into position. "Let's do this." She and Katara circled each other, and Katara kept a hand hovering over her water skin.
"I'll go easy on you, ok, Korra? Do you want to go first?"
Korra was taken aback by this. She knew that she and Katara were evenly matched. Why was she being soft with her? "Uh…yeah. Works for me."
From the sidelines, Toph snickered as she watched Korra gear up to deliver the first blow. "The new girl's about to get her butt kicked by Sugar Queen." she said, nudging Sokka.
"I'm not too sure about that," Sokka confessed. "Korra's actually a waterbending master too, so it might be pretty close."
"Oh." Toph nodded. And then her eyes widened. "Wait you knew? You knew that Korra's a master and you didn't tell Katara?"
Sokka shrugged. "She'll figure it out eventually," he replied, and an evil grin swept across his face. "If you know what I mean."
Toph grinned back. "I like the way you think, Snoozles."
They turned their attention back to the match, just in time to see Korra gathering a ball of water in her hands.
Katara smiled sympathetically. "Don't worry if you lose, Korra. I was trained by a Master in the north, so I might be a little more experienced that you."
"Oh, I'm not worried." Korra smirked. "I think I can hold my own." And with that, she released a jet of water that hit Katara head on, knocking her backwards. She hit the base of a nearby tree with a sickening thump, spluttering in shock.
Toph sucked in a breath. "Shit. I think you might be right about this, Snoozles. Did you see that?"
Beside her, Mako smiled faintly. "That's my girl."
Drawing the water from her soaked clothes, Katara angrily got to her feet, gathering water out of her pouch. "I wasn't ready yet," she informed Korra. "You should have given me a warning or, or―"
"Oh, I'm sorry." Korra crossed her arms. "You looked like you were fine to me. And since when do you have to give out warnings during a duel?"
Katara scowled. "No―you're right. You don't."
And Korra found herself being smacked across the face with a water whip. She rubbed the side of her face, feeling a welt form on her cheek.
Oh, it was so on.
Korra pulled more water from her water skin, forming a tentacle with it and snaking it around the other girl's waist. Katara cried out in surprise as she was thrashed to the ground, the excess water soaking her dress. Her breath came heavily as she pulled the water from her clothes. "So you know a few tricks," she panted. "Big deal."
"Oh, you haven't seen anything yet." Korra fired another blast of water at her, thinking that it would knock the girl off balance.
But Katara was ready for her this time. She dove out of the way and Korra's water blast hit the tree behind her. Landing in a crouch, Katara summoned water from the plants around her, forming two tentacles that engulfed her arms.
Korra gasped in surprise. Uh-oh.
Katara smirked as she unleashed a torrent of water at Korra, who had to do a back flip to dodge the attack. She landed shakily on her feet, but barely had time to process what had happened before Katara came at her again, swinging multiple water whips in her direction.
Korra swore under her breath and used her agility to evade each lash, all of which hit the nearby trees instead of their intended target. Their branches quivered in the wake of the attack, and Korra growled. The trees around her began to shrivel and die as she leeched the water from them, firing streams of water at Katara that turned into icicles and soared across the clearing.
Katara tried blocking them with her water tentacle, but one got through and clipped her on the shoulder, nicking her flesh. "Ugh!" she clutched at the wound, sending a death glare towards Korra.
"What's the matter?" Korra called. "Tired already?"
A jet of water to the face was her answer. Korra flew backwards, tumbling to the ground before she painfully rolled to a stop. She coughed, hacking up excess water that got caught in her throat.
Katara's blue eyes darkened. "I'm just getting started."
"Yeah, you tell her, Sugar Queen!" Toph hooted from the sidelines.
Sokka frowned, gnawing on his nails. "Shh. I'm trying to watch."
Korra brushed the hair out of her eyes, scrambling to her feet. She hated losing to the elderly Master Katara, but now she was being beaten by her fourteen-year old counterpart?
She sent a flurry of watery punches her way, employing some moves she learned from pro-bending that involved short, powerful strikes with a fast delivery. Sure enough, this caught Katara off guard and she staggered back as the jets of water hit her, grunting in pain. She steadied herself and mustered up her fiercest glare, but Korra saw the uncertainty behind her eyes.
She had never seen moves like that before.
Understanding crossed Katara's face as she met Korra's gaze. "You're a master," she said flatly. "A master." She swung her arms and water erupted around her, rising to her command. "Why didn't you say anything!" She launched several jets at Korra, steaming with anger. "You had me believe that you were inexperienced, that you didn't know what you were doing―"
"Doh." Sokka pouted as he watched Katara unleash her fury at Korra. "She figured it out."
Toph snorted. "Ya think?"
"―And all this time, you were a master?"
Korra dodged yet another one of Katara's water jets, trying but failing to block them with attacks of her own. Katara's blows were growing stronger, and sweat dripped down Korra's face as she stumbled, losing ground. She couldn't give up. Not yet...
Katara's arms swayed in an arc above her head and the water bore down on the young Avatar, wrapping around her arms and legs. Katara brought her hands down and the water's grip tightened, binding Korra.
"Nggh...uh!" She cried, wriggling in an attempt to free herself. Katara simply grinned nastily and lifted her arms, hoisting Korra in the air.
"I'll show you who the real master is!"
Sokka covered his eyes. "I can't watch this. It's too painful."
"I wouldn't count her out just yet," Mako said. "Korra always puts up a decent fight."
"But how's she going to get out of that?" Toph pointed to the writhing mass of water that encircled Korra. "I'm sorry, but I think Sugar Queen's got this fight."
"We'll see," Mako shrugged.
Meanwhile, Korra struggled to breathe inside Katara's watery death grip. She winced as her restraints became tighter. If she could only get an arm free, she might be able to fire a counter attack. But, for the moment, her hands were tied...literally.
Katara clenched her fists, waving her arms back and forth, and the water around Korra slowly solidified, creeping up her body. A pillar of ice began to form around her, effectively trapping her in an icy prison.
"N-no!" Korra fought against it, but the ice kept climbing, finally coming to a halt when it reached her neck. Katara dropped her hands, satisfied with her handy work. Her opponent was chin deep in frozen water―no waterbender could comeback from that.
"Would you look at that―I guess I won," Katara said sweetly. "Need some help getting down from there?"
Sokka eyes bulged. "What! I totally thought Katara had finally met her match. Korra lost?"
"Mm-hmm, I told you," Toph said smugly. "Now pay up―you owe me two silver coins."
Sokka grumbled, but before he could reach into his pockets, Mako placed a hand on his arm.
"Wait, do you see that?" He pointed to the ice pillar.
"Yeah, yeah Korra's encased in ice and I lost the bet... have you seen my coin pouch?" He looked up, hoping to see it lying around somewhere―
And then he saw what Mako was talking about.
The ice around Korra was melting. Not slowly, like an icicle dripping on a warm day. It was falling away rapidly, turning into a pile of slush at her feet.
"Uh, Toph?" Sokka gulped. "I don't think this match is over."
Katara had turned her back to Korra, scooping up her canteen to take a drink after the exhausting duel. She didn't hear the sizzle of ice as it melted into a puddle around Korra. And she definitely didn't hear the older girl creeping behind her, a blaze of fury in her eyes.
"Katara!" Sokka called. "Katara, look out!"
"Hmm?" Katara turned to Sokka, who frantically pointed in the other direction.
"No, don't look at me! Look at―"
Katara was blasted by a strong current of water.
Korra loomed over the young waterbender, wielding two globes of water in her palms. "You thought you won?" She pulled back, preparing to strike. "Think again."
Korra pelted Katara with fists dulls of water, not even waiting for the girl to get to her feet. Katara managed to roll to the side and shakily stand up, but Korra wasn't about to let Katara get any kind of advantage, much less find her rhythm again. She summoned as much water as she could― from the trees, the grass, even the shrubs―gathering it all into a massive stream of water.
Katara's eyes widened. She hastily reached for her water skin, trying to get enough water to make a wall to block the attack, but Korra was quicker. She sent a wave crashing towards Katara, sweeping her up in the current. Her arms lifted, and the water turned into ice, trapping Katara in a misshapen frozen tower.
Everyone was stunned.
For a moment, the only sounds around the clearing were Korra's pants as she tried to catch her breath, and the occasional gust of wind.
Then a slow clapping started, followed by cheers. "Whoo! Yeah, Korra!" Sokka and Mako hooted from the sidelines, grins on their faces. Sokka pointed a finger at Toph. "Who has to pay up now, huh?"
"You point another finger in my face, and I'll break it."
Sokka quietly backed away.
Korra let Katara down, ice and slush crashing in a pile around her. The waterbender got to her feet, her hair and clothes soaking wet. "How did you do that?" she demanded. "With the water―I've never seen anything like that. And why didn't you tell me you were a waterbending master?"
Korra shrugged as she watched Katara dry off. "I didn't think it mattered. You didn't tell me that you were a master."
"Of course it mattered!" Katara stomped over to her. "You knew that I was a master, but I didn't know that you were. You put me at a disadvantage!"
Sokka snickered from the edge of the clearing. "Oooh. Is somebody a sore loser?"
Katara threw a ball of slush in his face and turned back to Korra. "Well?"
"Honestly…it shouldn't have made a difference," Korra argued. "I think you're just upset because you assumed that you could beat me easily, and that I wasn't very good. That's what you thought, isn't it?"
Katara crossed her arms. "Don't be ridiculous. I just wish that I had known beforehand that we were both on equal footing."
An uncomfortable silence passed between them, and Korra couldn't help but think how immature Katara was being. This younger version of her behaved nothing like the older Katara she was used to. She mulled this over, but her train of thought was broken by an outburst from Aang.
"This just like my dream," he said, panic evident in his voice. Korra had almost forgotten that he had been watching the whole time.
"What is?" Katara wondered, momentarily forgetting about Korra.
"We all died during the invasion in my dream because you got stuck in a bunch of ice and couldn't keep up!" Aang shouted. "This is terrible!" He took off towards camp, shouting more nonsense about the Fire Lord.
Katara groaned. "Aang, come back here. No one's going to die―Aang!" She chased after him, muttering as she went.
Korra watched them disappear into the forest, shaking her head. "Guess Aang's not getting better yet," she said to herself.
"Yeah, you might be right about that." Mako strolled towards Korra, his hands tucked into his pockets. "Great job out there, by the way."
"Thanks." Korra gaze shifted to the side, where Toph and Sokka were in the middle of a heated argument. "What's with them?
"They're fighting over who won the bet." Mako shrugged. "Toph still insists that Katara won, if only for a moment, but Sokka says that doesn't count." He chuckled. "I gotta say, using pro-bending moves on her? That was genius."
Korra felt heat rush to her cheeks. "T-Thanks," she repeated. "It was nothing."
"Yup." Mako nodded. "But you know what else was smart?" He leaned in closer to her. "Using firebending to melt the ice."
Korra's heart sped up. "W-what?"
"Come on," Mako drawled. "You cheated. They don't know that you can bend more than one element, but I do, and you definitely heated up that ice. I mean," he bent down, rubbing a bit of the slush between his fingers, "it's still warm."
Korra scowled at him. "Fine, you caught me. I just didn't want to lose, ok?"
Mako put his hands up. "Hey, you don't have to explain yourself to me. Believe me, I get it." He studied her for a moment. "But I am curious about one thing."
"Why haven't you told them that you're the Avatar?"
Korra froze. She could lie to him and feed him some bogus excuse, but he had a right to know, didn't he? He was trapped in the past just like her, and as much as she hated to tell him, Mako needed to know what was going on. She took a deep breath. "I have something to tell you," she admitted. "It might make things a bit more complicated, but there's no getting around it anymore. Where's Bolin?"
"Back at camp," Mako answered. "He's nursing his injuries from his session with Toph."
Korra nodded. "Let's go get him. He needs to hear this, too."
They found Bolin sitting under a tree, digging into a paper sack. His face brightened up when he saw them approaching.
"Hey guys," he said, swallowing. "What's up?"
Korra forgot what she was about to say when she took a look at Bolin's face. It was covered in red crumbs, most likely from whatever was in that bag. "Um...what are you eating?"
Bolin pulled another crunchy morsel from the satchel, stuffing it in his mouth. "Fire Flakes. Zuko packed them in our bags before we left. Nice of him, wasn't it?"
Mako peered at the flakes. "Speaking of Zuko, what do you think happened to him? We just left him there after we escaped. You don't think he..."
Bolin shook his head. "Nah. Zuko's fine. Besides, even if something did go wrong, he can handle himself. Besides, what's the worst that could have happened?" He turned the bag up and dumped the remnants of the Fire Flakes into his mouth. "Now, what did you want to talk to me about?"
Zuko woke up on the cold prison floor, shivering violently under a thin blanket. It was dark and cold in his cell, and mold had started to set in on the walls. He turned over and crawled to a sitting position, trying to concentrate on raising his body temperature. Uncle had taught him a technique called breath of fire, but it had been a while since he'd used it. Still though, when Zuko closed his eyes, the next thing he exhaled was not a puff of air, but a short burst of flames. He quickly rubbed his hands together, trying to get a much of the warmth as possible.
…It was pathetic. He didn't even try to deny it. Last night he was living it up in the palace, and now he was here, a disgraced prince once again, reduced to huddling in the corner for warmth like a beggar on the street.
Nice, Zuko, he thought bitterly. Real nice.
Of course, he had himself to blame for this. No one told him to play hero and try and smuggle three slaves out of the palace. It was his own dumb mistake.
...Mistake. Zuko almost laughed at how he considered it foolish now, after the fact. But it had more to do with the fact that they had all gotten caught than the actual attempt to pull the stunt. Three people died because of him—he wasn't the one who killed them directly but in his head, he may as well have. Zuko led them into a trap—he should have seen it coming, since Azula had even warned him for Agni's sake, but he didn't. Instead, all of them were ambushed, and he had to watch helplessly as his sister shot the water tribe girl's war balloon from the sky, killing her and her friends. He wanted to believe that they could have survived somehow, but they went down so fast...that it would just be impossible.
Anger bubbled in Zuko's chest the more he thought about it. Azula ruined everything. If she hadn't captured them in the first place, this never would've happened. Zuko wanted to blame her for all of this, but he knew it was her fault as much as his―he shouldn't have gotten involved, but strangely, he didn't regret it. He tried to do something noble, something totally selfless, and while it didn't work out, Zuko found comfort in knowing that he could've made someone else's life better if he had succeeded.
But of course, he didn't…which brought him back to the original problem: being locked up in jail.
Zuko sighed, leaning against the wall, vaguely wondering if there was any way that he could bust out of here. Though the guards worked in shifts, someone was always watching his cell around the clock, and there were too many of them, way too many…
He began to drift off in thought when something nudged against his foot, soft and furry with a slimy tail.
"Arrgh!" he cried, scurrying back in surprise. A humongous weasel-rat sat perched in front of him, glaring at him with its beady little eyes. And as Zuko watched the creature squeak in displeasure, something snapped inside him. Cold, he could handle. Rotting food, he could also handle. But angry rodents? That was the last straw. Without thinking twice, Zuko blasted a torrent of fire in its direction, which it easily dodged, to his annoyance.
Zuko hunted it down, each furious word he uttered punctuated with a searing fire blaze. "Get―back―here!" It scampered underneath his cot and Zuko raised his fist, ready to fry the thing. Got you now, he thought smugly. And you thought―
"Seriously, Zuko?" His head whipped around at the sound of someone entering the room. "Tell me you're not barbecuing the rats. If you miss and set something on fire, you do realize that no one's going to put it out for you, right?"
He blinked in astonishment. Mai stood there, dressed in plain red robes, carrying a small cloth bundle in her arms. A slight smirk graced her lips as she approached the bars that separated them, finally stopping when she could come no closer.
"Well?" she said. "Are you gonna put that out or what?"
It seemed like a fog had clouded over his mind, but after a moment, Zuko came back to his senses and hastily snuffed out the flame, walking over to her. "Mai? What are you doing here? If Azula caught you…"
"Please." She waved her hand dismissively. "Azula can shoot all the lightning she wants at me. I had to see you." She gave him a look, one full of so much emotion and sincerity that he couldn't help but grin a little.
"In that case," Zuko said, "I'm glad you came." His eyes darted to the bundle in her arms and Mai slowly began to unwrap it, laying out the contents before him.
"I didn't know what they were feeding you in here, so" —she pushed several warm, parchment covered packets underneath the bars— "I brought you this."
Zuko picked up a parchment covered package and sniffed. Roasted duck―one of his favorites. The grin on his face widened. "You remembered."
"Of course." Mai shrugged flippantly. "There's banana bread and a custard tart, too―it's really no big deal."
"It is to me." Zuko set the package down and wrapped a hand around the bars in an effort to be closer to her. "You have no idea what it's been like in here. The guards are always talking behind my back, and Azula—she was here the first night." Flashbacks from his encounter with his sister raced through his mind and he did his best to brush them aside. "After all that...it's just nice to see a friendly face."
Mai yawned. "I'm sure it is," she said, eyes flickering down. She tried to keep her expression impassive, but the telltale signs were there―the slight edge to her tone, the clench of her jaw―something was up, Zuko could tell.
"What's on your mind?" Zuko asked casually, taking a bite out of the duck. Warmth flooded his mouth as he stared at her, waiting for a reply. When one didn't come, he tried again, pressing harder. "You know, I can tell that something's bothering―"
"Why'd you do it?" She met his gaze, steady and unwavering. And there it was. She finally got it off her chest, but there problem was, Zuko had no clue what she was talking about. His brow furrowed.
"I don't understand…"
"This," Mai said, as if it were obvious. "Betraying your father. Helping the slaves― why would you do that? You knew what the penalty was."
Zuko suppressed a groan. He didn't want to explain himself again, especially not to her, since he was sure that she wouldn't understand. And, although it hurt, Zuko slowly began to realize that this was the reason why she came―not to check on him or see how he was doing, but for answers. However Azula already chewed him out the night before―he didn't need to hear the same speech from Mai, too.
"I've got time." Mai knelt on the floor, eyes fixed on him in a stubborn glare. "I deserve an explanation, Zuko."
Dammit. Zuko attempted skirting around it, trying hard to avoid this conversation. "Mai." His voice sounded pained, but he kept going. "This isn't a good time―someone could find you here, and you wouldn't understand anyway―"
"Oh, I wouldn't?" Anger flashed across her face. "Oh, I'm sorry―of course I wouldn't. What's there to understand anyway? My boyfriend just suddenly became infatuated with a slave girl, and decided to betray his own father and help her and her peasant friends escape―"
"Stop it." His face flushed at her words. "You don't know what you're talking about. It wasn't like that at all."
"Please," she scoffed, "Enlighten me, then."
Zuko scowled in defeat, because there really wasn't a way out of this―Mai basically backed him into a corner and unless he wanted her to get the wrong idea, he had to start talking. "Kai and I weren't together like….we weren't into each other the way that..." He silently willed himself to stop rambling and actually say something coherent. "We were just allies," He finally managed. "She wanted her freedom and I wanted…"
Zuko faltered and Mai looked at him expectantly. "Well?"
He sighed. "I wanted redemption." A moment of silence passed between them as she blinked in surprise, not quite grasping what he just said.
"I had to redeem myself after everything I'd done," Zuko went on, lowering himself to the ground, face to face with her. "Ever since Ba Sing Se, I've had this extreme guilt inside of me. I had a chance to prevent the down fall of the Earth Kingdom's Capital but instead of doing the right thing, I chose to help Azula conquer it―I ruined the lives of so many people, and I betrayed countless more." He swallowed hard when he remembered talking to Katara in the catacombs, and the sadness on Uncles face as he was led away in chains. "I really messed up, Mai."
She didn't say anything at first, just stared at him blankly. "But I still don't understand." A confused frown pulled at her lips and Zuko distantly wondered how hard this could possibly be to grasp, when she spoke again. "You did a huge service to your country at Ba Singe Se. Securing the Earth Kingdom's Capital was a key victory in the war. Shouldn't you be proud that you helped make that possible?
"That's the problem," he whispered. "I'm not. I had a choice―save a city full of innocent people or bring it to its knees to regain my father's favor―and I chose wrong. I betrayed Uncle, who just trying to help me find my own path...and I betrayed someone else, too." Zuko's stomach sank at another memory of Katara...how she offered to heal him, offered her friendship…
And how he turned around and stabbed her in the back.
"I made a horrible mistake―I guess I was trying to make up for that when I agreed to help Kai and her friends escape. I figured that if I did one good thing, that it would somehow make up for everything else I'd done." He snorted. "Pretty stupid, huh?"
"…You had everything you wanted." Mai locked eyes with him, her voice dangerously low. "You had your home, your crown, your dad's acceptance…hell, you even had me ―but that wasn't good enough for you was it, Zuko?" He flinched at her inflicting tone. "You had had to throw it away for a bunch of―a bunch of―" She bit her lip, trying to reign in her anger. "Even if you felt guilty about what happened in the Earth Kingdom, it's not like you could've changed it. What's done is done, Zuko," she said flatly. "Trying to make up for it now isn't going to fix anything."
"Well I had to try, didn't I?" Zuko ran a hand through his hair, frustration building inside of him. "I couldn't keep living a lie. I thought that if regained my father's favor and restored my honor, then I would feel happier. But I was wrong." He took a deep breath and said what he had known for quite some time, what had been staring him in the face for so long. "I had my honor all long―my father never took it away from me, and I didn't have to go chasing after the Avatar to get it back. Honor is something that nobody can give or take away from you―it's something you gain or lose based on your own actions. His shoulders drooped as he sighed. "I just wish I had realized that sooner."
Mai stared at him, lips parted in slight shock, and it seemed as though he'd finally gotten through to her. "So it took committing treason against the Fire Lord for you to finally have this epiphany?" she asked incredulously. "You're…insane."
That was an understatement. "Trust me―I know." Zuko chuckled half-heartedly, though there wasn't anything funny about this. He saw Mai's expression suddenly crumple, and, to his surprise, a bit of moisture gathered at the corners of her eyes. Were those tears? It had to be allergies, or maybe the mold in the cell was getting to her― because Mai never cried.
"Are you ok?" His brow furrowed as Mai hastily hid her face from him. "You look like you're, uh…"
"For Agni's sake, I'm not crying." Zuko heard a sniffle, and she bowed her head, embarrassed. "I just have something in my eye."
He didn't believe her―he could tell something else was wrong. He'd never seen Mai so visibly upset. Her normally hard exterior was finally cracking, showing the more vulnerable side of her underneath. Part of him wanted to reach out through the bars and comfort her, but Zuko paused as another thought occurred to him. Whatever was upsetting her had to be really bad for her to react like this. His stomach knotted as he realized what the only possible explanation could be.
Hi sister did something.
"What's going on?" Zuko demanded, his eyes suddenly narrowing. "Is it Azula? What did she do this time? I swear, if she―"
"What? No." Mai looked alarmed. "She said something about a war meeting coming up, but she didn't have anything to do with this." She fell silent and Zuko waited for her to elaborate, but she avoided his gaze, suddenly interested in fiddling with her sleeves.
"Didn't have anything to do with what, Mai?" His tone was harsh as he studied her, searching for answers.
"You don't want to know." She didn't look up and Zuko swallowed a growl, vowing not to let his temper get the best of him.
"Look, I can handle it. Whatever it is, it can't be that bad, can it?" He shrugged lightly, but after seeing the look of horror on her face, Zuko quickly realized that this may have been the wrong thing to say.
"You think―" She bit her lip, shaking her head in disbelief. "It's not that simple, Zuko. When I came here…I obviously didn't think this through, but I needed to tell you…Agni, how do I do this…"
He became frantic now, as it was obviously worse than he thought. "Mai just―"
"It's the council," she blurted. "They've moved up the date of your execution."
And everything slowed down. It was like he wasn't even there anymore, but miles away instead. Zuko's mind raced. How could it be moved up? He'd just gotten here yesterday, when the execution date hadn't been announced yet. Usually prisoners with a death sentence weren't executed until months or even years later. His mouth went dry as he looked at Mai, dread coursing through him. "When?"
"Because of everything that's going on, the council thought that it would be best to do it sooner and―"
"Three days," she whispered. She didn't even bother to hide her tears now, flowing freely down her face. "I'm so sorry, Zuko."
Zuko's spun as he tried to figure out how this could be happening. How could he only have three days to live?"It just doesn't...I don't understand..."
"They made an announcement at the palace this morning," Mai explained, dabbing at her eyes. "The council decreed that you, the former crown Prince Zuko, would in three days time would be publically executed by...by..." She stumbled over her own words, saying the last part so softly that he almost didn't hear it."By your father, Fire Lord Ozai."
Zuko's eyes widened. That couldn't be right, but when he saw the sickened expression on Mai's face….he knew she was telling the truth. It shocked him to his core. Zuko's mind reeled ― the walls felt like they were closing in, and he couldn't breathe. A sudden tightness formed in his chest as Mai's words ran through his head again:
…By your father…
He turned away from her, leaning my forehead against the wall. "You should go," Zuko choked out. This could be the last time that he ever saw Mai, and he knew that he should say goodbye and tell her he loved her, but Zuko couldn't bring himself to care. Numbness spread throughout him as Mai spoke again, hurt evident in her voice.
"You shouldn't be alone like this." She stepped closer and he could sense her, leaning against the bars. "Let me help you―I can help, Zuko―"
Something snapped inside him, both at her and at the situation itself. Because the truth was, no one could help him. He was going to die.
And there was nothing he could do.
Zuko couldn't process this―it was too much, and he just wanted to be left alone. "Leave," he snarled.
He heard Mai sniffle, but her footsteps didn't recede. "I didn't just come to bring bad news, you know," she tried again. I came to say goodbye, but if that's―"
"I said leave!" Before he could stop himself, Zuko turned and stream of fire blasted from his fist, nearly scorching Mai. It wasn't close enough to do any real harm, but the damage was already done. Mai backed away, horrified, and Zuko instantly regretted it.
"I…I―" he stuttered, but the words wouldn't come out. He watched helplessly as Mai fled the room, tears in her eyes. The door slammed behind her, and Zuko realized too late that he'd completely screwed up, again. The only difference was that this time, he wouldn't get a chance to fix his mistakes.
He sank to the floor, head in his hands, pure agony burning inside him. This couldn't be happening. It just couldn't…
He delivered a fiery punch to the brick wall behind him, his cry of frustration echoing throughout the cell and drifting through the prison halls.
A/N: Dun, Dun DUN! That would really suck if Zuko died, wouldn't it? Yeah, I know... that's something that you probably don't even want to think about. Anyway...
The reason why this update was so late is pretty simple: School. I'm a junior this year, and I'm taking a crapload of AP classes (AP Bio is killing me!). I've had no time to write, but somehow, I've managed to get this done. Yup. All of this was for you. I hope you enjoy. :)
A couple more things: Reviews. And hits. And faves. ...And follows. I was away for 3 months, but sweet mother of Jesus, guys! I gained 7,000 reviews. 7,000! And nearly 30 reviews and like, 60 followers! That is frickin' AWESOME guys! Thank you soo much! Love you to pieces. ;)
And finally, I have a proposition for you. You know how Toph nicknames everybody in the series (Snoozles, Sugar queen, etc)? Well, I thought that it would be cool if she did the same thing for Korra and Co. So, if you have a nickname that you want me to consider for Korra, Mako or Bolin, let me know and I'll add the best ones to the story. Kind of like a contest, eh? :)
Thanks again for reading and don't forget to review!