A/N: So I started writing this months ago. I just remembered it last night and finished it this morning. It's dark- I never thought I'd put character death in my fanfiction, but here it is. I would love to hear your thoughts on how it turned out.

And the cycle, it repeats.

"Azula is a person of extremes. She does nothing halfway. In fact, she's never even left a cup of tea partially finished." The old man chuckled sadly and accepted the coin dropped by his feet. "That is why things are as they are now. The Fire Nation is flourishing, the Water Tribe is enslaved, and the Earth Kingdom is a hollow echo of its past glory."

"But what can be done?"

"What indeed..." His eyes glazed over, his mind leaving the present, perhaps traveling back to before Azula became Fire Lord. When Sozin's Comet came, Avatar Aang had managed to kill Fire Lord Ozai, but died in the process. Princess Azula had succeeded her father and finished the total conquer of the world.

"How do you know so much about Fire Lord Azula?"

The man snapped back to attention, fingers running through his dirty gray hair. "I am her uncle."

"You know no one believes that, right?"

"I know, child. It matters not to me. But if I tell enough people, then one day word might get back to me of the person I lost in the war."

"Who was that?"

"Prince Zuko. My beloved nephew. I still do not know what happened to him when he went to the palace that day..."

/.../

This was Ty Lee's least favorite duty, but she was the only one Azula trusted to do it. Her pink attire was out of place in the dank halls of the high-security prison. At first, she passed guard after guard, but then she reached the hallway only she was allowed in, using three specially made keys to pass through the door. This is where Azula kept her most hated-most prized- prisoners.

In other words, her brother Zuko, Mai, and several of the fallen Avatar's friends.

She didn't know who it was harder to see. It was unbearable to face Zuko and Mai, people she truly liked, and give them meager portions of food as they glared at, but never spoke to, her. She didn't care for the others, but they always talked, either trying to reason with her or threatening her. They didn't know that if not for her, none of them would even be alive. She had convinced Azula not to kill them, but rather imprison them, not expecting to be charged with the task of feeding them. It was a small price to pay, though, if it meant stopping a little of the bloodshed that was becoming much too commonplace.

Ty Lee balanced the bowls of mush and water on her hands and arms and handed them out to the various cells. This might have been the cruelest move of all: Azula had permitted none of them to be close to one another, separating Mai and Zuko by the greatest number of cells. Ty Lee kept her eyes to the ground and started to leave when two things flew by her head. Instinctively, she ducked and did a front flip away from the cells, quickly glancing back to see what had happened.

Suki and Mai, whose cells faced each other, were standing right behind the bars looking livid. Suki shouted at Mai, "Why did you stop me?"

"You are a fool," Mai said coolly. "Ty Lee is the only person Azula has ever shown affection for." Indeed, she had forgiven the acrobat's betrayal at the Boiling Rock- not easily, but after enough time had passed and she realized she could accomplish so much more with her loyal friend back- while still rejecting Mai entirely for her traitorous actions. "If you kill her, we would all die."

"You... tried to kill me?" Ty Lee looked at her feet where a scrap of metal, sharpened to a point somehow, lay innocently. Beside it was Mai's shoe, which must have blocked the metal from piercing her skin.

Zuko growled, "Why would that surprise you? You're as much to blame for what we're going through as Azula is. The world is suffering now, and you don't even care as long as my evil sister likes you!"

He hadn't finished speaking when Ty Lee picked up the metal and ran out of the hallway, then out of the prison. She flung the incriminating evidence into a bush and went back to the palace, where the most despised person in the world would show her love.

/.../

There was nothing.

Not a person. Not an animal. Not a breeze, a cloud, nor fall of snow.

The North Pole was nothing more than an oversized slab of ice and frost. The once-grand city had been leveled, its inhabitants murdered or captured.

They worked as slaves in the Fire Nation now, mostly. Every child suspected of being the Avatar was examined.

The South Pole met the same fate.

/.../

"I-will-never-give-up."

Those were the words Katara thought every morning when she woke up. She thought them when she battled and hid from Azula's army. She thought them when she was separated from all her earthly belongings, including the woven flower necklace Aang had given her long ago. She thought them when she pictured her older brother in jail.

It was her mantra, and it allowed her to focus and move forward even when she felt alone and full of despair.

"I-will-find-him-once-more."

Those were the words Katara whispered to herself every night before she fell into the comfortless binds of sleep, when her exhaustion prevented her from searching any further. She told herself that each time she was overcome by sleep, Azula gained more time to find Aang's reincarnation and kill him or would it be her? too.

The randomness of the Avatar's birth was a blessing and a curse. Enemies would have a hard time finding him, but then, so would those willing to help. Katara, she woke up before dawn and crawled out of the bushes and shook the twigs out of her hair and she still did not give up.

/.../

kill

the

metalbender

Azula hadn't managed to capture Toph in the first place, and even if she had, Toph knew she would have escaped. Earth couldn't keep her, or metal, and like hell she'd let flimsy wood block her freedom.

An earthbender is simultaneously unmovable and unstoppable.

A metalbender adds fierceness and cold, concentrated power to these traits.

So Toph told her students around the globe, training some here, some there, so that Azula's army would one day be overpowered.

"Which metalbender are you going to kill now?"

a legion awaits

/.../

"Please... Just, no... Spirits, protect my baby!"

The firebender slapped the woman, shoved her to the floor. She held the screaming toddler under one arm and walked outside, surrounded by her guard.

The baby's eyes were dark blue, its skin the rich caramel of waterbenders. It was impossible to tell if she was the Avatar, but a rumor of a rumor was enough to justify kidnapping for Azula's servants. The baby was placed with several others in the carriage and maybe it would survive the trip back to the Fire Nation or maybe it would not and no, the spirits are not protecting anyone these days.

...

"I brought some dessert today." Ty Lee's false cheerfulness echoed through the cells.

"Great, let's all forgive her, she brought us dessert!" Sokka rolled his eyes.

Trembling a bit, she slipped the bowl of sweet cream mixed with fruit into his cell first. He turned his head. One by one, they all rejected her offering. She let it drop to the floor and covered her face with her hands.

"I'm trying to make things better for you guys! Do you know how hard it is to keep Azula happy enough so that she doesn't kill all of you? She gives me more and more duties every day and hopes that I will run out of time to feed you! But I always come here!"

It wasn't enough, though it was more than anyone else would do for them.

Ty Lee pulled a tiny metal key from the folds of her shirt and knelt in front of Mai. She clasped it into her hands and Mai's eyes widened just a bit when she realized what was happening. "Ty Lee..."

Ty Lee left as fast as she could, leaving footprints of cream all down the hallway.

/.../

Katara froze the carriage in its tracks. She fought off the soldiers driving it and speared a firebender through the chest with a shining icicle. Katara never thought she'd add to the world's growing kill count.

She trudged through mud and blood to back of the carriage and looked over the infants and toddlers there. One was dead; the other two were barely breathing. Katara bundled them in fur blankets and kept walking, there were too many to save to waste time celebrating small victories.

/.../

"I'll kill her," swore Zuko.

"Quiet, Zuko," Mai reprimanded him.

They'd left the Avatar's friends- Zuko's friends, too, weren't they?- to find their own escape route. Mai had been determined to get herself and Zuko away from the palace, but Zuko only wanted to stay and fight and die, that's how it would end, can't you tell?

/.../

"Aang, please, please come back. Please don't be dead."

Katara sobbed and shook in the dark forest. She was alone again, after leaving the babies with mothers who wanted them, mothers who'd lost their own children in the war.

A branch snapped to her left and she was on her feet, tears gone, instantaneously. She drew water from the puddles around her and assumed a deadly stance.

"Katara, it's me!" a male voice said.

"Aang?" she whispered.

"No... It's Sokka." He lit a lantern and Katara saw her brother and Suki, thin and grimy from their time imprisoned, but alive and there with her.

/.../

"Ty Lee?"

"Yes, Azula?"

"Would you tell me something?"

"Of course, Azula."

"Why did you let them go?"

"..."

"...Fool."

/.../

Zuko hid in the crowd, a soldier's mask concealing his scar. Mai was beside him, though he'd urged her to leave or at least take up another post, so that they would not both be discovered if one fell. She'd refused.

"What's happening?" he murmured as guards ran about and excited whispering spread the word.

A beheading.

An execution.

Hail the Fire Lord, let the traitors fall.

/.../

Ty Lee whined and her back ached. Her wrists were tied behind her and she had been forced to her knees. A guard stood on either side of her, making sure she didn't bolt.

Fire Lord Azula's mere presence caused the gathering crowd to hush. Her amber eyes glittered with power, rage, madness, violence, and sadistic pleasure.

"Let this be a lesson to you all," she announced.

"If I'll kill my Queen-"

-the sword came down so fast and Ty Lee was no more and blood splattered and the sword was covered with it-

"I'll kill anyone who gets in my way."