Here is the final part of the story. I did a bit of editing, so hopefully it now flows better than my submission for the Big Bang. I originally cut it down a little, but then it somehow expanded into this monster when I smoothed out some of the POVs. Hope you don't mind long chapters. Thank you to everyone for your wonderful feedback. Beware that there is both a lot of action and a lot of cutting between scenes. Hopefully it comes across well.
The Herbalist Part IV - Agni Kai
General Bujing stepped out from the start of a warm summer day into the much cooler herbalist's shop. He took his time as he walked casually into the store and let his eyes adjust to the comparative darkness. Letting his gaze roam around the room, he took note of the jars and baskets behind the large wooden counter and the door to the side with a thin cloth across, giving the owner a small amount of privacy. He looked down at the dull metal bell that sat on the counter, but instead of hitting it to gain some attention, Bujing merely stepped behind the counter, pulled back the curtain and walked through quietly. At first, the house appeared to be deserted, but the sound of laughter floated in from the back. With a frown, Bujing followed the noise, leading him through the disgustingly small kitchen and out to the garden.
There were three people – two sitting on the decking and one he could barely see the head of on the ground – chatting amicably together. His gaze immediately focused on the young man that his son had described – scar visible for him to see. General Bujing noted with mild interest the small smile on the boy's face and how it almost made him look like he belonged in this quaint peasant scene. So engrossed were the three in their conversation that Bujing was able to move so that he was only a few steps away from them. However, this was hardly surprising considering the boy's compromised vision.
"This is certainly unexpected."
The doctor's girl scooted back away from him, fear evident on her face. The other girl shot to her feet, a fighting stance ready, but it was the traitor's reaction that interested the General most. The boy had yet to move, except to take a sip of the tea that had been in his hand when the General had entered. Suddenly Bujing wondered if the boy had known he was there the whole time. The boy's eyes narrowed and he slowly released his white-knuckled grip on the tea cup – the only indication he was perturbed by the General's presence– as he set it on the floor. He remained seated on the floor, but General Bujing hardly missed the tensing of the traitor's fists, ready for a fight.
"General Bujing." Surprisingly it was that herbalist who found her words first, despite her obvious fear of him.
"I'm surprised," he started, looking at the traitor in the eyes. "My son told me there was a troublemaker in the village, but instead I find a royal visitor. I would hate to appear to be an uncharitable host to the son of the Fire Lord." He paused long enough for each to understand his implication. "You should have sent word that you were intending to visit my humble island, Prince Zuko," he finished with a mocking bow.
The Prince stiffened at the use of his real name and Oka's eyes flew from Bujing to the traitor in dawning horror. Bujing watched as Zuko stood up smoothly, taking a step towards him, effectively shielding the two girls. He looked as if he might say something, but Bujing was hardly finished.
"And your companion must be the Avatar's blind earthbending teacher. I believe you are wanted on several islands, young lady. I am afraid that none of the wanted posters seemed to know your name though…"
"It's Toph," the young girl replied, not the least bit fazed. "Not that it'll help you find Aang."
"Ah of course, I should have remembered that from the Ember Island play about your little mishaps," his gaze met with Prince Zuko's, who glared stonily back at him. "It's apparently quite entertaining. I unfortunately haven't had the pleasure to see it yet."
"What do you want?" Zuko ground out, fists shaking by his sides, clearly not enjoying their conversation.
"It seems that you are at least able to control your outbursts better than you used to," he complimented, though the Prince would know the barbed insult behind it. "But you are correct. You beat my son in a fight that was interrupted by your little earthbending friend right here; am I correct? I am here to firstly confirm my suspicions as to your true identity and secondly to challenge you to an Agni Kai on behalf of my son today at sunset. I trust you will fight honorably despite your traitor status?"
"Hey pops, I only helped him the first time," the little girl countered.
Zuko shushed her before turning back to give him a hard look and nodding slowly. "I accept on the condition that if I win you will order your son and his friends to stop stealing and terrorizing people."
General Bujing nodded in agreement, though an oily smile spread across his face. "Still fighting for the weak, Prince Zuko? I would have thought you had learned your lesson after nearly losing your eye in that pointless defiance."
"I'll always protect my people from men like you who think they are nothing more than pieces on your war map."
Bujing turned away, taking one last glance down his nose at the traitor. "You never understood the bigger picture; your father was all too happy to see the back of you."
Instead of the expected shame and anger, the boy had the gall to look smug. "The only thing I'm sorry for is not standing up to him sooner."
"You tell 'im, Zuko!" the young earthbender supported, cracking her knuckles. She pointed out a finger in Bujing's general direction, "I don't know who you think you are, but Zuko'll beat your kid without me needing to lift a finger."
"Of course; I suppose that was quite rude of me," he bowed towards her, knowing she could not see it. "My name is General Bujing. I am one of the glorious Fire Lord Ozai's most trusted generals."
"The man who sent a platoon of new recruits against a group of highly skilled earthbenders, knowing most would be sacrificed so that an elite platoon could sneak up on the earthbenders from behind and slaughter them," Zuko stated with only a hint of anger bleeding through into his voice.
"Still mourning the 41st, Prince Zuko?" Bujing mocked, "You always have been a sentimental fool."
The General did not even bother to look at their responses before he swept out of the tiny house and out onto the dusty streets back towards his own home.
Zuko continued to stare out after the General, not bringing himself to look over at Oka. A brush of a hand against the back of his own caused him to look down at Toph deliberately cutting herself off from the ground to stand beside him. The gesture meant more to him than she would probably ever know. Gaining strength from her presence, Zuko looked across the porch to Oka, who stared at him in disbelief, a hand over her belly.
"If you would like us to leave…" Zuko offered, but she cut him off abruptly.
"You're the traitor Prince?"
Zuko's conviction in himself increased with her words and he pulled himself up straight and tall. "That's not how I see it." He placed a hand on Toph's shoulder and bent down. "Can you get our stuff?"
Toph paused for a moment before nodding her head and stumbling back through the house, though on much surer feet than before.
Oka turned out towards the garden, sitting back on the porch, her legs swinging down below her. Zuko copied her, but stayed on the other side of the steps, far enough that she felt safe. The two sat in silence for what felt like an age before Oka finally decided to speak.
"Why?" her voice came out as a whisper, but Zuko's hearing had always been better than most.
Not knowing what she was asking him, Zuko continued to stare into the distance and allowed her to gather her thoughts.
He saw Oka turn her head towards him and Zuko faced her as well. "Why are you helping us?"
Zuko forced his head down again, looking towards the dirt below him. "I can't stand by while people are taken advantage of by those who are supposed to be protecting them, especially those that I swore to protect."
"Then why," she asked desperately, "would you abandon us for the Avatar?"
This time Zuko did gain the courage to look her in the eyes with the determination that had kept him looking for a legend for three years even when everyone else told him it was a fool's quest. "I couldn't protect you by staying at my father's side," he glanced around to make sure no one else was listening in on their conversation before continuing. "The Fire Lord and the Generals have approved a plan to wipe out the Earth Kingdom the same way we killed the Air Nomads, by using Sozin's Comet to burn the land and everyone living in it to the ground."
"What about our soldiers?" Oka asked, obviously not quite believing the Fire Lord would willingly sacrifice his own people.
Zuko shook his head, his gaze falling towards the ground again, unable to speak. Oka's breathing became louder, but her revulsion stopped her from a stronger reaction at first.
"How could they do that to us?" she whispered, disbelieving.
Zuko sighed, remembering the day he was banished from his family and his home. His hand unconsciously drifted up towards his scar, feeling the glossy damaged skin under his fingers. He set his hand down again before gaining the courage to speak.
"Three years ago I was banished for speaking out against a plan approved by the Generals to sacrifice young recruits against a much stronger division of elite earthbenders. Their plan was to use the young troop to allow a much older and more experienced troop to cut off the earthbenders from behind and defeat them. Yori is the first survivor of the 41st I have met.
"The Fire Lord and his Generals care little for the people that are fighting their war. While they sit in the Fire Nation Capitol, our people are dying every day from a war that we might win, but only by eliminating any resistance. The Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes will never surrender peacefully and I can no longer stand by and watch my people wipe out the rest of the world."
Zuko risked a glance at Oka, who stared out into the distance. "Thank you for telling me," she said with a sad, but sincere smile. She turned to look directly at him. "It must have taken a lot of courage to leave."
"I've heard courage and stupidity are interchangeable," he responded in a self-deprecating way as they both stood.
If anything Oka's smile grew wider, "I would be honored if you would fight for us."
Zuko smiled at her and dipped his head to her, gracious as any noble. "Thank you."
He was about to step back into the house when Oka called to him, causing him to turn his head back to look at her.
"You didn't get that scar during a training accident, did you?"
Zuko returned her expressing with a bitter smile, "Despite popular belief, even I'm not that unskilled."
Without giving her any further explanation, Zuko walked inside up to the room he shared with Toph to see her standing in the middle with her bag over her shoulder. He sent a quick burst of flame towards one of the oil lamps, giving a little more light to the room. Toph's face was set in a grim line, head held high.
"You sure about this?"
"I can't back down. Not against him," Zuko looked towards his bag and made a split second decision. "Why don't you go ahead? I'll meet you downstairs, Toph."
Toph stood there for a moment and Zuko wondered if she was going to ignore him, but then she shrugged and picked up her bag. "Sure thing, Zuko."
Zuko turned his head to watch her leave, wondering if he should comment about her using his real name. He felt a grateful smile creep onto his face despite the grim situation, however it soon slipped away as he crouched in front of his bag and began rummaging through the contents.
The flash of gold at the bottom made it easy to find the object he had been looking for. Holding it up to the light, he watched orange and gold shimmer off the surface, and scattering the light at odd angles. The crown that Sozin had given to his best friend as a child was still as magnificent as it had been a hundred years ago, but Zuko was careful as he set it down on a nearby table and pulled a brush through his hair and into a topknot. He wrapped a band around it to keep it in place and looked at himself in the mirror to check his appearance before finally removing the pin from the crown and placing it on his head and securing it tightly.
Looking in the mirror again, Zuko automatically felt his shoulders pull back and his posture straighten. He would be fighting Shan as the Prince of the Fire Nation – one noble to another. He sighed a little at his travel-worn clothes, but knew there was nothing he could do to make his appearance look any better.
"Hurry up, Princess!" Toph's shout reverberated off wooden walls, shaking dust from the rafters.
Zuko gave himself one last look-over before letting out a nervous breath and opening the door to meet with the two girls. As he reached the top of the stairs, his eyes gravitated towards Oka, who looked at him as if she was staring at some great and powerful spirit. His expression softened in an attempt to reassure her, which she returned with a tentative smile.
The walk to the General's house was uneventful and silent. All three could feel the tension that was growing in the air. As they entered the enormous walled courtyard, Oka took a step back at the sheer number of nobles standing around the large tiled area that was obviously serving as the arena. Whispers began circulating around the courtyard, several people pointing to Roku's crown on his head. Zuko barely held back the smirk as he watched Shan bristle from across the platform.
"It's all right," Zuko reassured softly, without a shred of worry in his voice.
Toph stepped up to stand just barely behind him on his right, ready to quickly throw up a defense if anyone foolishly decided to start attacking them. However, it seemed as if everyone was more interested in the forthcoming Agni Kai to even consider taking a cheap shot at the traitor.
"Well it looks like you made it just in time." Shan called from the other side of the courtyard, arrogantly. "We were taking bets as to whether you would bother to show your ugly face."
A brush of cloth and Zuko removed his outer robe and shirt adding, "I never back down from a fight."
"You won't be able to cheat this time." Shan smirked, "When I win this duel, I'm taking your head as a present to the Fire Lord."
Zuko did not even deign to honor Shan with a response as he calmly unstrapped his boots and removed them, placing them in a neat pile with his other clothes and ignoring his opponent. He took two bands of gold that were offered to him and slipped them onto his arms. A man stepped forward next to a large gong, which seemed to be the starting signal and the two turned away from each other and crouched onto the ground. Oka stepped forward and placed a cloth on Zuko's shoulders. Zuko heard the tapping of shoes as the two non-combatants stepped back from the arena and a long silence followed, in which even the wind seemed to stop. No one made a sound as the sun continued to set slowly below the horizon. Out of the corner of Zuko's eye General Bujing watched on, knuckles tightening into fists in his lap.
Suddenly the gong sounded, and before any of the spectators seemed to have time to process it, a large burst of flame shot from Shan's backward kick towards Zuko. Zuko, who had been expecting the strike, turned around and gracefully dispersed the flames with the back of one hand, allowing them to scatter away and fizzle out. In contrast to Zuko's calm, Shan was already running towards him with a shout of fury, sending quick, successive punches of fire towards Zuko, who easily knocked each one away all the while keeping his eyes directly on Shan.
Finally, Shan closed enough distance that he probably felt comfortable Zuko would be unable to block the next attack and ducked low under the remnants of dissipating flames, bringing a new fist wrapped in fire up towards Zuko's face and pushing chi through his feet to get extra speed. However just as he was about to land the hit, Zuko's hand shot up and grabbed his fist, smothering the flames without any effort. Shan's eyes widened as Zuko looked down at him with severity, pausing for a moment before letting go of the hand and in a split second bringing up his leg and kicking Shan back with a bare foot.
The noble rolled over his side a few times before coming to a stop and pushing himself out of the way just in time to avoid a concentrated burst of flame aimed at him. He attempted to send a volley of fireballs towards Zuko, but his aim was mostly terrible and Zuko easily dodged the first few, moving closer with each step and finally dissipating the last one, revealing the flaming fist that he punched out towards Shan's chest. It hit its intended target, knocking Shan further towards the spectators, who had begun to move away, jeering Zuko as they did.
Toph felt it as their feet left the ground, leaping away or preparing for a strike. Watching almost gave her the same rush she remembered when observing the Earth Rumble fights, but what she felt was different: the wash of heat compared to the rumble of stone; solid, sure, powerful leaps compared to unbreakable stances. The grin on her face could not get any wider. She had missed this…
"Toph?" Oka looked down at the young girl, whose head had suddenly spun back towards the village, eyebrows pulling into a puzzled frown.
"Hey," Toph asked as if she had missed Oka's question completely, "you mind keeping an eye on Zuko for me?" Toph inclined her head to the side so that Oka could see the serious expression on her face.
Oka gave a nod, followed by a noise of confirmation just in case the young earthbender was unable to sense it. However, Toph was already running down the hill, raising the earth up towards her and pushing it forward like a wave to move faster. Oka looked after her for a moment, unable to understand why Toph would rush away from the battle, but a shout from the arena brought her back to the fight and she turned to watch the duel.
Prince Zuko was effectively pushing Shan into a corner. Sweat was streaming down the other bender's face and despite pouring all of his frustrations into the flames, Shan was unable to burn through Zuko's attack. Suddenly, Zuko kicked out with his foot, catching Shan's ankle and bringing him crashing to the ground. Oka could hear Shan's heavy breathing even from where she was standing as Zuko walked towards him. Flames condensed around the Prince's fist as he stood over Shan, ready to deliver the final blow.
The village was burning. Mei Ling moved as fast as her legs would carry her, all the while cursing her age and the village's vulnerability. It had been too easy to think they had won the war last night. In fact, it had only been one small battle. As she approached the town square, she saw the flames roar up and strip themselves from the roofs to rain down on the intruders. Silhouetted by the flames was Yori standing tall in the middle, fingers splayed out to control the flames. He tilted his head towards her and offered her a grim smile before taking in the developing situation.
"Apparently Lee is quite the firebending instructor."
Mei Ling laughed and surveyed their opponents gathering together to overpower them. "The kid's got something, that's for sure. Can't think of anyone else barmy enough to teach waterbending moves to a bunch of proud firebenders." At Yori's surprised look she added, "Oh come now, I've seen a couple of barbarians in my time to know what another bending style looks like."
Yori smiled, but then turned back to look at the nobles in front of them. "We can't win, you know that right?" Yori asked, his tone changing to quiet acceptance.
"Well, we certainly won't give up without a fight," Mei Ling braced herself as the opposing firebenders charged their attacks.
Just as they released a massive fireball towards Mei Ling and Yori, a giant wave of earth rose up suddenly and blocked the attack. It moved through the square, allowing a small girl in red to coast in over it with a grin on her face.
"You guys want some backup?"
Mei Ling wasted no time, sending a punch of fire straight at the young earthbender. The girl, who she recognized from before as Mai (if that was her real name), barely ducked in time, holding up her hands in a gesture of peace.
"Woah, cool it, I'm on your side!"
"We don't need help from a dirt-eater!" Mei Ling shouted back furiously, but a hand on her shoulder stopped her from doing any more.
Mei Ling turned to look up at Yori, who squeezed her shoulder in reassurance before turning to the young earthbender. "You would help us?"
The young girl gave him a determined nod and stomped the ground to send a few of the vandals running for cover. "No one deserves to be treated the way you guys are, especially considering how much you're willing to give up for your nation. I'm not gonna stand by and let you all get squashed by a bunch of cowards. Besides," she added, cracking her knuckles, "Zuko'd never forgive me if I let his people suffer."
Realization dawned on both of them, but Mei Ling knew there was no time for more explanations as the number of vandals seemed to be increasing. The earthbender smirked at the two veterans before turning to face their opponents.
"You guys tackle the fires while I deal with these weaklings," she sunk into a solid stance. "It's time they learnt not to pick on their own people."
Bujing watched from his seat as the traitor stood over Shan. The boy was so intent on not hitting General Bujing's son that he failed to notice the person approaching him from his blind side until the fire punch almost connected. General Bujing tightened his grip on the chair he was sitting in, lips pressed together in a thin line as Zuko began defending himself against the newcomer. However he remained where he was, eyes trained intently on the former Prince of the Fire Nation as the boy barely threw up an effective block in time, the force from the blast sending him rolling across the ground.
General Bujing glanced over as a third combatant stepped into the arena. The Prince, apparently winded, pushed himself up just in time to see the third firebender sending a punch of fire towards his face. Reacting quickly, the Prince desperately punched out his own fire in a poor attempt to gain some control again. The crowd's cheers continued to increase in volume, chanting for the Prince's defeat.
The vibrations echoed up light armor that offered strong protection against a firebender, but not against Toph. Smirking, she sunk into a lower stance, her head turning to listen for anyone trying to sneak up on her. A woman on the ground ran towards her, punching out a ball of fire in front of her. Toph flipped up a slab of earth to block it up and then split it into pieces and fired them at her. A cry of pain let Toph know she had hit her mark, and she surged forward, ready to incapacitate the woman further and get the man who was standing a few paces behind her.
A sizzling of air and a wash of heat were the only warnings Toph were given before a fireball caught her on the shoulder and sent her rolling into the ground. Eyes wide, Toph attempted to gain control of the situation once more, pulling a large amount of earth around her as she continued to roll. Timing her air supply, she placed her palms on the ground from her shelter to feel out for her assailant, cursing her luck when she realized he must have been in one of the houses or on the rooftops. Knowing she was running out of air, Toph dragged herself through the ground, attempting to find a safe spot to resurface and regroup.
Zuko pulled back out of the way just in time to dodge a powerful strike aimed for his foot, but it did its intended job of throwing him further off balance. Out of desperation, Zuko flipped back on one hand and sent a whip of fire with his other towards his three opponents in an attempt to push them back. One of the intruders stepped in front of Shan and dissipated the whip with ease, allowing Shan's other firebender to rush around his friend and aim a fire-wreathed strike at Zuko.
Zuko ducked under, both feet firmly on the ground and was about to send a strike powerful enough to knock the man flying, when a blast came from his left side sending him rolling along the stone floor.
Oka's cry of warning could barely be heard above the crowd, but it was enough time for Zuko to turn and see the larger bender ready to stomp on his chest with fire trailing from his foot.
Toph heaved herself out of the ground and pressed her back against the nearest wooden building in order to take in big gulps of air. There was a twinge of pain in her shoulder, though fortunately it hardly felt as bad as her feet had been. She was the greatest earthbender in the world, why was she struggling against a few annoying nobles? There were screams coming from nearby, but instead Toph focused on her breathing. The sounds faded as she focused on everything moving on the ground and slowly amplified her awareness to what was above it. She couldn't see through air or wood, but there had to be people in armor above her. She concentrated on the traces of purified earth in the metal armor the enemies were wearing. Through the explosions and screams, Toph felt a trace of metal flying through the air and with a firm grip, yanked down as hard as she could.
Zuko rolled out of the way and swept out a leg out to knock the attacker to the ground. The firebender, not expecting the counterattack, fell back and smacked his head on the ground with a great crack, knocking himself out cold. Zuko swung up onto his feet with one hand still supporting him on the ground. He glanced towards the other two for a brief moment before putting his other hand on the ground and spinning his legs around, fire spiraling outwards. He then flipped up and, twisting his arms around him, brought all the flames not heading towards Shan and his remaining teammate around his body and shot it in a wave at the other intruder like one of Katara's torrents.
Both easily deflected the first wave, but Shan's friend had missed the second volley through the bright flames and was smacked back past the spectators, who managed to move out of the way in time, and into the one of the surrounding walls. Zuko allowed a vicious smirk to spread across his face as it appeared to dawn on Shan that he was once again alone.
Toph heard the surprised shriek of a young man just before the body made contact with the ground, letting out a thump that was muffled by the shouts of panic and surprise around them. Toph grinned in triumph as his metal armor sang in chorus with the ground she was already connected to, allowing her to map his body. Toph stomped her foot, encasing his hands and feet in stone and leaving him unable to free himself. Brushing off her hands in satisfaction, she turned her attention to her next opponent, who was much easier to find as the woman's feet were already on the ground. Toph grinned. No one could stop Toph Bei Fong, the World's Greatest Earthbender!
Shan attempted to duck and weave the Traitor's barrage of fire, preventing him from staging a proper counterattack. The brat had been holding back, Shan realized in a rage. The Traitor moved ever closer with each blast of fire and Shan could only hope for a miracle. It seemed as if luck was on his side as the Traitor sent out a sloppy punch that Shan easily blocked in triumph. However, the victory was short-lived. Before he could even think of launching a counter-strike he froze, realizing his error. Shan, in his hast, had fallen right into Zuko's trap. He felt his legs being swept out from under him, causing him to see stars.
By the time his eyes started to clear and his head stopped swimming, Shan felt a horrible pressure on his throat as Zuko's bare toes pushed down on his windpipe. In the firelight, the Traitor's scar looked even more terrifying than usual, casting terrifying shadows across his face.
"This fight is over."
Shan's lips thinned, draining them of color – a large contrast to his face, which reddened with heat in both anger and embarrassment at his situation. Shan took a couple of deep breaths, feeling an age pass, before he relaxed. Almost as soon as he had, the Traitor removed his foot and turned away without even a glance back. The crowd was deathly silent.
Shan's knuckles turned white as his hands pulled into fists. There was no way he would lose to a traitor! Standing up quickly, he swung his leg around with flames trailing behind. The traitor would regret turning his back on Shan!
All other thoughts were cut off when he felt a pressure around his foot and looked up to see Zuko blankly staring back at him with a firm grip that had dissipated his flames. The look the Traitor gave him was not one of surprise, but disappointment and Shan felt all his resentment against the boy threatening to consume him. The crowd moved towards him and Shan barely had time to send the Traitor a triumphant smirk before he was shoved away, crashing back onto the arena floor. The kid wouldn't get away from this many unfriendly faces, even with his earthbending henchman who was nowhere to be seen.
"Enough!" General Bujing looked every bit as intimidating as his position suggested he should be, especially when the torches surrounding the courtyard jumped four times their usual height.
Shan, hiding his surprise(his father never lost control like that), watched triumphantly as the guards closed in and the Traitor sunk into a fighting stance, glancing about warily, heavy breathing echoing around the courtyard. There was no way he could fight them all off after an Agni Kai. Shan had done his father a favor by wearing the boy down.
"How dare you dishonor me!"
Shan's head snapped towards his father in shock, realizing his father's rage was directed not at the Traitor, but at him.
"Father!" Shan exclaimed in confusion, attempting to stand quickly, but it seemed as if his father was having none of it.
"You will accept defeat like a man of your rank or suffer the consequences," his father interrupted with a voice of steel. "Don't you dare dishonor me more than you already have today."
Shan glowered at his father in defiance and stomped away in a flourish. However, no one walked over to consul him, too interested in the new development between the General and the former Prince.
"We had a deal," Zuko reminded the General, though he was ready to fight and clear a way for Oka to escape if necessary.
Bujing sent one last look towards the house, where his son had disappeared to. He let out a sigh and turned to meet Zuko's stony expression with a neutral one of his own. "And I always keep to my word. We may have our differences in opinion on how this war should end, but an Agni Kai is fought equally no matter who the opponent. My son's friends should never have interfered. You had won the minute they stepped in.
"I will be lifting the protection fee from all the villages and my son and his friends will have to find something else to occupy their time. I give you my word."
Zuko was not quite convinced, but gave a small nod in response nonetheless. The crowd began to disperse with disappointed murmurs as General Bujing stepped closer to Prince Zuko for a private conversation.
"Despite our differences in opinion, I hope that we will be able to work past that to make the Fire Nation a better place for the future," he added to Zuko in a quieter tone that no one else would hear.
Zuko watched General Bujing with suspicion, but gave a curt nod nonetheless. With nothing more to say to the man who had instigated his banishment, the Prince turned away from the arena and, with Oka at his side, put on his boots, slung his shirt and tunic over his shoulders, and walked almost casually back towards the village.
Heavy breathing was all that broke through the near-silence of the shocked villagers surrounding the young girl crouching on the ground, with one arm supporting her and her hand splayed out in an attempt to feel for any more opponents. Slowly, knowing she now had them all, Toph stood and lifted her head.
"My name is Toph Bei Fong, Greatest Earthbender in the World. If you ever threaten this village again, I'll come back and bury you alive!"
In one motion she released every one of the captured vandals at the same time, sending them all flying into the air just high enough to leave an impression.
"Now get outta here!" she threatened, stones moving to her side ready to shoot them at anyone who got the stupid idea that she might be bluffing.
She felt the light footsteps of a young boy around her age happily running over only to be stopped by what she assumed was a stern mother. Getting ready to bring up a shield around her and bury underground, she would never admit she had not quite been paying attention to what the rest of the ground was telling her. She almost visibly jumped when a voice called from beyond the villagers surrounding her.
The crowd parted and the whispers begin as Zuko and Oka approached them. Zuko had an arm up, possibly holding a bag or cloth over his shoulder, the vibrations were too soft to pick out the details. He probably looked pretty calm to everyone watching them approach, but Toph could feel his tension shouting to her through the Earth. He was both exhausted and wary that their recent allies may try to kill them. Toph wondered if he was thinking what she was: how could they leave without hurting the people they had just fought to protect?
"Sorry, I kinda blew our cover," Toph answered without any real apology, attempting to lighten the suffocating atmosphere - it didn't work.
"Don't worry," Zuko replied back in deadpan, "I think General Bujing or his son would have done it eventually out of spite."
Toph felt Zuko walk over to Oka and whisper something in her ear. Her hearing caught both Azula and Ozai's names and Toph frowned in suspicion. Something she would have to bring up later. Now was not the time to pick a fight with her only ally.
Oka's stance made it seem as if she was about to reply, but he pulled away before she got a chance, dropping a pouch with an assortment of bronze, silver and gold coins into her hand just before doing so. Toph waited until Zuko was next to her before turning and falling into step beside him. Despite the hostility emanating from the crowd, no one dared to attack someone who had just defeated at least half a dozen firebenders, even if they had not been military trained. Toph and Zuko left the village without another word.
"Well, this sucks!" exclaimed Toph, kicking a stone out in a huff when they were far enough out of earshot from the village.
"We're enemies of the Fire Nation. I would have expected no less," Zuko replied, though he sounded more resigned than angry.
"So I'm guessing you kicked Shan's butt?"
Zuko shot her a vicious smirk, "I think I successfully humiliated him."
Toph laughed loudly, but calmed down when she remembered his conversation with Oka.
"So wha'd you say to her?"
Either Zuko was as good a liar as his sister, or he was genuinely confused.
"You mentioned Ozai and Azula to Oka back there," she clarified.
"Oh," he paused in realization of her question. "I told her to note which direction we left in and send word to my sister and father."
"You did what," Toph exclaimed. She hadn't meant to sound so hysterical, but the calm way in which he said it had taken her a little off-guard.
Zuko stepped back, seeming to realize how bad that had sounded. "Not like that! The village will be punished if there's even a chance that they let us get away willingly."
"So this way, they're telling the truth that that General guy will most-likely corroborate."
"Plus, by getting word even before Bujing, any suspicion against them will hopefully be lifted."
"Huh," Toph acknowledged, "not bad, Princess."
Zuko groaned. "Alright, Sunshine and Hotman I can take, but please stop using that nickname!"
Toph burst into more laughter and Zuko scowled at her, though without any real heat behind it. However, they both tensed when they heard a rustling of leaves in front of them. Both stood ready, though Toph seemed slightly more relaxed.
"There you two are," Hakoda stepped out of the undergrowth with a friendly smile at the sight of familiar faces.
"What are you doing here?" Zuko asked; a bit surprised at their sudden appearance.
"We were all getting worried about you two," Haru replied, stepping out with Appa letting out a low bellow of greeting. "Aang didn't like the idea of his bending teachers being trapped in the Fire Nation."
"How is he?"
"Everyone's almost back to full health," reported Hakoda, his smile having much more meaning now. "We're just glad you two weren't torn apart by an angry Fire Nation mob."
"Uh…" Toph deliberately trying to look as innocent as possible, "well, we almost did. Zuko ticked off a bunch of nobles. Good thing I scared the village into leaving us alone."
Hakoda and Haru laughed in obvious disbelief as Zuko attempted to splutter out a defense for himself before settling for giving Toph a glare. When the laughter died down Toph continued.
"But seriously, why is it when you go off with Aang and Sokka you get to go on an awesome, life-changing fieldtrip?"
"What do you think that was?" Zuko asked her incredulously as he helped her climb onto Appa.
"Having to deal with a bunch of prissy nobles and get none of the glory; yeah, that's way better than finding the secret to firebending or organizing a prison break," Toph countered, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "Why can't I be the one saving the day?"
"You saved the village!" Zuko countered while Haru climbed towards Appa's head.
"Only temporarily," Toph said, crossing her arms and sitting down in a huff with her nose in the air.
Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, whispering, "Why me?"
However, he apparently had not been quiet enough when he heard a chuckle from Hakoda and a laugh from Haru.
Toph either had not heard or just ignored them. "Next time I want a life-changing field trip with real bad guys, like pirates or a ninja… or how about we find a lion turtle? Apparently no one's seen one of those in a while…"
By now, Toph was grinning as Zuko let out a groan of frustration. Soon Hakoda and Haru laughing even harder as Toph suggested more and more ridiculous adventures. Zuko let out a sigh while Haru urged Appa towards the Earth Kingdom, ready to change course when they were finally out of sight. Despite the outward appearance of being annoyed, Zuko could not help the smile that crept onto his face as he watched Toph lean back to sleep in the saddle. She was certainly a great friend to have around.
The palace prisons were dark, but much less damp than some of the others; or at least that is what Ty Lee optimistically told herself as she sat against the cold, stone wall as close as she could to the window that was in Mai's cell across from her. She watched her friend, who gazed up through the prison window to a blue sky that never showed them the Sun. Mai's face remained a mask of indifference as she stared out towards freedom and Ty Lee could not help but wonder if she was thinking about Zuko again.
Metal screeched and Mai's eyes flicked towards the door – her only movement to acknowledge the new arrival. Ty Lee, on the other hand, could not stop herself from sticking her face up to the bars; already knowing who was coming. The precise drum of boots confirmed any second-guessing. People scuttled to the backs of cells, except Ty Lee and Mai, who was the only one not to acknowledge the Princess' arrival.
Princess Azula first approached Ty Lee, and sent her the kind of smile she would give to her dolls before she set them alight. Ty Lee hunched a little further into herself, smiling brightly and backing away, knowing it would never be far enough if Azula did want to kill her there. Ty Lee continued to stare at Azula, too afraid to look away and potentially send the Princess over the edge. There was a touch of instability in the Princess' aura that Ty Lee had only glanced at when she had stopped Azula from killing Mai. She had hoped she had imagined it at the time.
Finally, after a few more agonizing moments Azula turned to look at Mai, a triumphant smirk on her face. Ty Lee followed Azula's glaze back to Mai, who just continued to watch the Princess without a change in expression, but Ty Lee could see the anger she truly felt simmering in the usual smoky greyness of her aura. Casually Azula leaned against Mai's cell, taunting the noblewoman with her own freedom.
"I heard some news that might interest you, Mai."
All the hairs on the back of Ty Lee's head stood on end and her stomach dropped in fear for Zuko and Mai. Silence was the only thing that answered Azula, but both she and Ty Lee knew Mai well enough to tell that the other girl was interested. If anything, her apparent apathy told both girls more than any expression could have. The silence continued and Ty Lee wondered how long Azula would draw this out.
"It seems as if your boyfriend… oh sorry," she corrected silkily, and Ty Lee cringed, "I mean ex-boyfriend; was spotted in the Fire Nation with that blind earthbending girl. He got away of course," she added in a blasé tone, looking at her perfectly manicured nails, "but it seems he's taken us right to his hideout with the Avatar and all his little friends."
Ty Lee could hear the interest from all around the cell now. The Kyoshi warriors in one area and the Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom further down. Others were listening and whispering, passing the information down and playing right into Azula's trap. Ty Lee wanted to curl up into herself, silently telling them to be quiet, stop making it worse; but her fear for Mai kept her watching with almost morbid fascination.
"Honestly," she continued as if no one but Mai was listening, "he comes to the Fire Nation and he doesn't even come to rescue you?
"But don't worry, Mai," she continued almost immediately, gripping the bars with both hands. "After I'm done with him I'll bring back what's left of his body for you to cherish."
Ty Lee could not hold in the gasp of horror at what Azula was implying, but she appeared more interested in Mai. Silently Ty Lee cursed, knowing she had played right into the Princess' hands again. She looked towards Mai who, obviously having had enough of Azula's taunts, finally stood slowly and gracefully walking up to the front of the cell, her expression remaining the same. Each step was deliberate as she moved closer and closer to the front until they were less than a hand-span apart. Ty Lee held her breath.
Ty Lee almost missed the jolt in Azula's stance as she attempted to stop herself from taking a step back when Mai straightened her shoulders to tower over the Princess. Azula had let go of the bars without thought and now lowered her arms to her sides, seemingly without thinking. Mai looked down on Azula as if she was worthless, as if the Crown Princess of the Fire Nation herself had failed some test that her former friend had set. Against her better judgement, Ty Lee crept back close to the bars, but it didn't matter. All of Azula's attention was now on Mai.
"Do you think I'm the only one who prefers Zuko more than they fear you?" Mai stepped closer so that her face was almost touching the bars, one hand clasped lightly around a metal rung as if she was choosing to remain in there, rather than being locked in. "You treat everyone around you like dirt, from the youngest servant up to your precious Dai Li. Zuko knows they are below his station and yet he treats every one of them with respect, even if they disrespect them."
"Zuko is a pushover. No one will follow someone as weak as him." Azula snapped back, but she was obviously thrown by Mai's sudden change in behavior.
Mai, having noticed as well, smiled maliciously and Ty Lee barely caught the shiver go down Azula's spine. Mai had never smiled at Azula like that before – like a cat toying with its prey. "And yet he did the impossible and not only broke into, but escaped the Boiling Rock. Every day he eludes you is another day people wonder if he really was the failure you and your father said he was."
"He escaped from the Boiling Rock with help and you know it!" Azula hissed a breath away from Mai's face.
"He's surrounded himself with powerful allies whom he trusts and trust him in return. When was the last time you accomplished something by yourself, Azula?"
"Ba Sing Se…"
"Would you have won it without me and Ty Lee, without the Dai Li, without Zuko?" Azula stiffened and Mai pushed through. "What happens when the Dai Li finally grow tired of being ordered around like dogs? What happens when your servants finally realize there's someone better to lead them?"
Azula's scream of pure rage was Mai's only warning before she was slammed into the back of her cell by a sharp burst of blue fire. Ty Lee screamed in horror, causing Azula to glance back at her, but she no longer cared about Azula, instead shouting Mai's name in fear and worry.
"Mai, Mai, are you all right?"
Ty Lee felt the tears at her eyes when she stared over at Mai, who was not moving. Just as she was about to call out again Mai slowly pushed herself up with one arm, the other clutched around her waist, to glare defiantly at the Princess. Ty Lee smiled in relief, but the smile soon slipped away when she looked up at Azula's terrifying aura.
Azula let out a screech and began charging up a shot of lightening, electricity dancing around her fingers with none of the control she was famous for. Ty Lee shouted in warning, not quite knowing which one she was trying to protect, but to her surprise and horror Mai just smiled at Azula grimly, egging the Princess to finish what she started.
Azula turned sharply and the electricity surrounding her died down almost as quickly. "What is it?" she shouted in fury.
The soldier cringed before dropping in full prostration. "Forgive me, Your Highness, but the war fleet is ready to go after the traitor."
All anger left Azula's face and she shot a triumphant smile towards Mai, whose expression had already morphed back into neutrality. Directing all her attention towards the soldier in front of her and ignoring all the prisoners, Ty Lee watched as Azula calmly sent him back to finish with the preparations.
Azula sent one last triumphant glance towards Mai. "It looks like it won't be much longer before I'm celebrating my future as an only child."
The slam of the steel door sounded like a death knoll. Ty Lee glanced over at Mai, wondering if she was all right, only to notice the silent tears falling down the normally stoic girl's face. Nothing else gave the taller girl's fears away and Ty Lee decided that if Mai would not acknowledge them then neither would she. Ty Lee turned to look towards where Azula had left, wondering if she should be more worried for Zuko or Azula.
General Bujing sat behind his desk thinking over the Agni Kai from the previous day. At the recent war meeting he had thought the Prince would speak out against the Fire Lord's plans, but other than his initial shock the boy had said nothing. To Bujing, that had been one of the things immediately setting off alarm bells. He was unsurprised, then, to hear of the boy's defection, but seeing him in that Agni Kai had shed a completely new light on the traitor that everyone had deemed a failure as well.
Prince Zuko had never been talented at firebending, being pushed aside for his younger sister who had so much more potential. Watching the boy's first Agni Kai had only solidified the idea in Bujing's mind that the Prince was weak-minded and a coward. However, the man standing before his son in the Agni Kai was powerful, skilled and benevolent. He could have struck Bujing's son out of spite for what happened over three years ago, but he walked away honorably even after Bujing's own son was so dishonorable.
A disturbing thought came to Bujing at the end of that duel: what if Prince Zuko did have the power to become the next Fire Lord? In the time since Prince Zuko's defection, he had successfully broken in and out of the most notorious prison in the Fire Nation and eluded Princess Azula's capture. With the Avatar now able to master all four elements, it was seemingly more and more likely that the traitor would become the next Fire Lord. So where did that leave him?
"Am I interrupting?"
Papers scattered as General Bujing stepped around his desk and hastily fell into full prostration for Princess Azula. He tried to stop his erratic breathing, hoping that she did not catch onto his traitorous thoughts.
"Of course not, Princess. Your presence is always appreciated in my humble abode," he replied, refusing to stand until she turned away.
"Good. I need your best map," she responded, boots clicking on the polished wooden floor as she walked back out.
With some difficulty – he was getting too old for this – General Bujing slowly stood up and walked out of the room after the Princess, but not before shouting orders to one of the servants.
Stepping inside the dark room that he normally used for dining, he saw several more high-class military figures standing to attention while the Princess stood in the middle. The servant returned with Bujing's best map and rolled it in front of her before ducking away hastily. It seemed Bujing was not the only one who could sense that Princess Azula's patience might be a bit shorter than usual.
"General, which way did you say the bison went?"
Somewhat startled, Bujing stepped forward and pointed towards the north-eastern area of the Earth Kingdom and Pohuai Stronghold. "It took off in this direction. That could mean they have found allies in the northern Earth Kingdom to assist them. There is of course the Northern Air Temple to consider as well."
"Possibly." Azula replied, but seemed to be more interested in studying the area closer to the Fire Nation. "My brother and the Water Tribe boy were spotted at the Boiling Rock. I don't think he is stupid enough to lead us straight back to their hiding place, so…" She trailed off, continuing to study the map.
Several of the other military personnel, including General Bujing leaned in to see if they could find what she was looking for. Finally, a triumphant smile covered her face, touched with a glee that made Bujing's throat go dry.
"Commander," she directed, not even bothering to look at the man as she rolled up the map, "I want the fleets restocked and ready tonight."
"Your Highness, what is our heading?"
Just as she was about to reach the door, Princess Azula stopped and turned her head to look at the Commander. Her smile could only be described as maniacal when she replied finally replied, "To the Western Air Temple, of course." She walked out the door, leaving the men shaken.