...I'M LATE, I KNOWWWW. I'm working full time at an outdoor education center, aka I'm always on horses and wrangling small children. I also have been working on getting my student visa for my two-year expedition to Spain, so send a good thought my way! I really hope I did all the paperwork correctly and won't have to do it all over again in August.
Here is the first chapter to our epic finale! I had to re-write the outlines after my computer died and i lost all of my original stuff, but thank God it did because my new outlines are SO MUCH BETTER than the old ones.
Without further ado, strap into your seat-belts and get ready for the plot to rear its ugly head again!
If you like this chapter, or have any comments/concerns...
Chapter 26: Crossroads of Destiny – Part 1
Aang's body wasn't moving in the slightest, and yet his mind was working so furiously that it seemed strange that his entire form wasn't drenched in sweat. Even for an Airbender—whose entire life had been spent learning to meditate and calm the mind—opening the chakras was an arduous process.
Guru Pathik hummed in approval when the fifth chakra—the Sound Chakra—surged open, and his rumbling voice filled the cavern.
"Good, Avatar, good. Now, onto the Light," he mused, leaning forward to very lightly tap the Airbender on the forehead. Aang gasped as he felt a resounding pulse in his blood, felt the swirling energy forming there as the old man continued:
"This Chakra deals with illusion, my friend. The greatest illusion this world has to offer is one of separation. Things perceived as different are often more similar than we realize."
Aang's thoughts were thrown back into a time when he felt no fear or hesitation in visiting Fire Nation towns, to a time when people of all nations walked the streets together. He could almost taste spiced fruit on his tongue and hear the boisterous lilt of Kuzon's laughter as the two explored the Summer Festival grounds together.
"Like the four nations," Aang breathed, and Guru Pathik hummed in agreement.
"Not just the nations; the very elements as well. Does the earth refuse to soak in the rain because of personal strife? Does fire shy away from wood in order to hoard its light? Just as the world does not separate, neither should the people who inhabit it."
"Division is the illusion," Aang murmured. With that, the chakra began to release its pressure on his forehead, but just before the gates opened something else came to his mind.
"It's just…I honestly have no idea why I'm here," a quiet gypsy girl whispered, her dark eyes staring deep into Aang's as if amazed that he was real. But at the same time, it felt like she knew him.
The boy flinched as a strange memory came to him, one that was painful and draining. He had never felt it before and yet it felt like he had. Was it possible to have a memory that couldn't be recalled? It was as if his very essence was being clawed from inside of his skin. Slowly, excruciatingly slowly, everything started to fade into a burning red light…
But then, a soft, trembling voice whispered at the edges of the memory. The words were muddled and indistinct but something in them rang with such raw emotion that tears sprung to his eyes. In the next moment Aang gasped for air because strength was returning to him again and his entire being was bursting with pure blue light. The harsh energy was chased away so quickly that it was as if it had never been there at all and yet even as it disappeared Aang couldn't help but feel as if something terrible had happened—
The Chakra released with a slow tingling sensation, and Aang opened his eyes to see Guru Pathik staring at him with calm, unassuming eyes. Had he seen the conflict within the boy's body in those last moments? Or had the physical struggle all been part of the strange, memory-like vision?
"Well done," the old man said quietly, and Aang frowned at the knowing quirk to the man's mouth.
"Did you see—" he tried to ask, but Guru Pathik continued as if Aang hadn't spoken.
"Now, onto the final Chakra: Thought, or the Chakra of Earthly Attachments. This is the most difficult Chakra to master, but it is one you must unlock if you ever hope to consciously enter the Avatar state," he warned, leaning forward to gently tap the crown of the Airbender's head.
Aang's confusion regarding the memory-vision slipped away as he settled back into his cross-legged position. The last step! After this, he could go into the Avatar state without having to lose control!
His optimistic train of thought very abruptly darkened because the moment he relaxed and calmed his breathing, a startlingly vivid image of Katara appeared in his mind's eye.
She was desperately fighting against two Dai Lee agents but it was clear that she wasn't going to win. An unfortunately familiar Firebender—her gold-yellow eyes unnervingly sharp and red lips glistening in the morning sunlight—leered down at Katara as she was quickly subdued into unconsciousness.
Dakota followed Iroh as he gave a grand tour of the Jasmine Dragon—Zuko thought the shop's name was silly but Dakota liked it—and marveled at how quickly it had been built. The teashop was propositioned to the Upper Ring Housing Council a month ago and yet it was already completed and ready for customers. Iroh had a hand in every aspect of construction and it showed; the older man's warmth and subtle artistry shone from every inch of the place. Warm yellow wallpaper was accented with bits of green and blue, while red silk adorned the gleaming oaken tables.
"Nice color choice," Dakota commented. Iroh sent her a very obvious wink and Zuko rolled his eyes. A small quirk of the boy's lips revealed his reluctant amusement, however. He stood on her right side, farthest from Iroh, and so Dakota was the only one to see him touch the red silk coverings with an air of bitterness.
Zuko still missed his home. Dakota couldn't blame him, not even a little, because so did she. No amount of kissing and touching could erase the fact that they were from different worlds. He was from this world, and she was from a place where bending was nothing more than a fictional fantasy and her Firebenders were animated characters. The thought made her frown and pause in her stride to watch Zuko and Iroh as they walked through the main seating area.
Dakota knew that she had to tell the both of them about her knowledge of the TV show. Even with it being so unreliable, the knowledge could still change things for the better. She couldn't afford to be so swept up in her new relationship with Zuko that she forgot the battle that would soon decide the fate of the world.
Even if they hate me for not telling them sooner?
Dakota swallowed hard. She knew that Zuko would question her feelings for him after finding out—any sane person would do the same. Admitting that she knew his name and what he sought as well as the conclusion of the war before ever meeting him would make Zuko wonder if the only reason she befriended him was to change the original story line. How could she possibly convince him that her knowledge was fragmented at best?
The answer came almost immediately: sharing fire.
A huge weight slipped off of her shoulders at that. No one could lie while sharing fire. Zuko wouldn't have any choice but to believe her, right?
But even with that, Dakota had still withheld information from them.
Iroh would most likely understand her reasoning and forgive her, but Zuko? Zuko had been lied to his entire life; how could he take her deceit—however well intended it was—as anything but a betrayal?
The image of Zuko's face crumpling with disbelief and his eyes turning cold and distrusting made Dakota so unbearably sad that for a moment her eyes stung with unshed tears. She distracted herself by examining the wallpaper and after a moment of blinking rapidly the tears were gone. If only her feelings of guilt could be erased that easily.
She had to tell them. Even if it hurt, even if they wanted nothing to do with her afterwards, she had to tell them. How could she continue building a relationship with Zuko if she had this horrible secret dragging her down? How could she consider Iroh an uncle in all but blood if she was afraid that this revelation would make her lose him forever?
Just then, Iroh made a big fuss about going into the entrance hall. He didn't even attempt to give an innocent excuse for leaving, making his true intention even more obvious by sending the two teenagers a suggestive waggle of his eyebrows as he went. Dakota shared an exasperated roll of the eyes with Zuko; sometimes the man was about as subtle as a komodo-rhino.
The moment the older Firebender was gone, however, Zuko crossed the room in several long strides and leaned down to give her a sound kiss. His eagerness was infectious and in no time at all Dakota had her arms looped around his neck and was responding with just as much enthusiasm. Even after an entire night of kissing and touching, her body still desperately craved every bit of him.
She noticed that Zuko's cheeks were pink when they parted but he didn't move away, keeping his arms around her lower back as they both caught their breath. His eyes were burning and yet still so gentle and Dakota felt that sinking feeling again because she had to tell him.
"Zuko, I—" she began, but Iroh's booming voice cut her off.
"We have been invited to serve the Earth King himself!" the man cried happily, rushing back into the room and showing them the letter signed with a royal wax seal. Zuko stepped away from Dakota to better examine the invitation. His face creased in disbelief, but even he couldn't argue with the official seal of the King. Dakota watched the exchange with wide eyes, too confused to try and decipher the icy feeling slipping down her spine.
Iroh beamed. "We are to be escorted to the palace immediately; the King sent his most personal guard to do so," he exclaimed, already moving to collect his tea stores and one of his best teapots. Dakota looked at the letter once Zuko was through, saying nothing.
Zuko gave her a puzzled look, clearly wondering what was wrong, but she shook her head. The moment to tell him had passed—she would have to wait until they returned from the palace.
The moment we get back, I'll sit both of them down and tell them. I have to, Dakota firmly told herself as she moved to help Iroh collect the necessary tools to serve tea to an Earth King; in other words, the most expensive items that the shop contained.
Less than half an hour later they were outside and making their way to the palace. The dark robed Earthbender soldiers beside them were so grave and stone-faced that Dakota immediately felt uneasy. Why would the King send five soldiers to escort a harmless teashop owner? Was the current wartime climate so dangerous that he felt the need to protect himself against people coming to serve him tea?
The more she thought about it, the more it made sense. During times of conflict, leaders couldn't afford to be lax on security where food and drink was concerned. Even with that reasonable explanation, Dakota's stomach was still twisted tight with worry.
Zuko walked close enough for their arms to touch. The brief moments of contact soothed her nerves; if Zuko was next to her, she could make it through just about anything.
Dakota was so lost in her own thoughts that she didn't even notice Obi until he was right in front of them. The King's soldiers reluctantly paused and eyed the tall Earthbender with a distinct air of warning. Dakota saw the surprised widening of Obi's eyes and moved from behind the soldiers to give her friend a quick hug.
"Hey!" she greeted, leaning into his broad chest and relishing the confident strength of his arms as they wrapped around her. She would be lying if she said she didn't wish Zuko was able to hug her instead, but she also would be lying if she said Obi's embrace didn't help calm her down.
Obi pulled back but kept his hands on her shoulders, smiling in an oddly tight way.
"What brings you guys so close to the palace? If you had told me you wanted to see it, I could have brought you—it's my day off, after all."
"Official business. Move along," the head soldier barked. He took one step that forced Dakota to step back and in an instant they were moving again. Obi blinked once but instead of becoming indignant or demanding an explanation—rudeness usually sparked that in him—he said nothing. Dakota craned her head back to smile apologetically at him, but he was already gone.
"The Earth King must really want his tea, eh?" Iroh joked, attempting to connect with the soldier who had spoken.
Dakota couldn't help it—she reached over to take Zuko's hand. He gripped hers tightly and they exchanged quick glances as they walked. The boy hid it much better than she did, but Dakota could see that he was just as nervous as she was.
The two lingered behind the soldiers, and as they reached the palace steps Zuko pulled her back so that they were alone. The Earthbenders noticed them pulling back and seemed ready to order them to keep going, but Iroh—bless the man's heart—asked a question and distracted the man from following through. Zuko watched the soldiers and Iroh walk up the large stone steps for a moment; Dakota didn't have to ask to know that he was waiting for them to get out of earshot.
Zuko turned to face her. They weren't holding hands anymore, but he was standing so close that it almost didn't seem necessary.
"What did you need to tell me?" he asked lowly. Dakota let out a short breath, running a hand through her hair and quickly looking at the group of soldiers. Iroh was effectively distracting them it seemed.
"It's…it's fine, I can just tell you later—"
The touch of Zuko's hands on either side of her waist snapped her out of the nervous staring and made her focus on him again. His brow was creased into an exasperated frown, the concern in his golden gaze blazing so strongly that Dakota almost started crying right then and there.
How could she ever lose this?
"You've been jumpy around me all morning; it's not fine," he bluntly stated. It made her pause because she didn't think he would notice. She kept underestimating how observant Zuko was and it kept coming back to bite her over and over again.
"I can't tell you right now," Dakota blurted out, the weight of his calloused fingers on her hips anchoring her enough to give him the truth. Not the entire truth, not yet anyway, but enough of it for her to stop feeling so painfully guilty.
Zuko scowled. "What's wrong with right—"
"Lee, Coda, we must hurry!" Iroh called down, his voice carrying the slightest hint of sharpness; he had run out of ways to stall.
A harsh breath seeped out from between Zuko's clenched teeth, the thin hissing sound making Dakota smile faintly.
"That," she whispered, nodding towards Iroh and the waiting soldiers. It was several long, tense seconds before Zuko nodded. His hand didn't move from her hip though, and the desire to touch him back was so strong that Dakota couldn't hold back any longer.
She slowly lifted her hands and ran them up his strong forearms. The ridges and curves of his arm muscles were clearly felt even through the sleeves of his embroidered shirt, an observation that made Dakota's cheeks burn a little—there had been nothing between her fingers and his skin last night.
Zuko closed his eyes at the contact, the muscles in question twitching slightly under her fingers. Even with the shirt acting as a barrier she could feel the heat radiating off of his skin and smell his smoky scent surrounding him as it always did.
"After," he said gruffly, opening his eyes to seek her confirmation. There was no question in his voice.
"After," Dakota quietly agreed. Without another word the two separated and started walking up the steps. Dakota forced herself to stay at least a foot away at all times, especially when they entered the palace.
They were led through dozens of large, opulent halls of jade and white marble, and although they were beautiful Dakota couldn't wait to leave and return to the teashop. It was more welcoming and safe than this large, unknown fortress, even with the promise of difficult confessions and possible resentment.
The soldiers didn't speak the entire way, even when they led them into a small room with a low serving table situated in the center. No instructions, no expectations, just the opening of a door and the jerky nod of a head that signified they should enter.
Iroh led the way into the room, humming contentedly under his breath. The moment Zuko and Dakota were inside, the soldiers retreated outside and the ornately carved door slammed shut.
The humming instantly stopped, and Dakota turned to see that Iroh's placid expression had been replaced by one of somber contemplation. Zuko began pacing almost immediately. He sent his uncle a pointed look, to which Iroh responded by nodding.
"You guys are freaked out, too?" Dakota breathed before sinking down onto one of the stools. Iroh sent her a stern scowl—so rare to see on the cheerful man's face—and nodded to the door. Dakota understood immediately and went silent. The soldiers were still outside, most likely listening.
"Please hand me the tea stores, Coda," Iroh asked, his tone as calm and unassuming as it had been since the soldiers' arrival. Dakota moved to do so, and as she leaned in to place them on the table, Zuko bent down to whisper:
"We might have to fight our way out."
His lips brushed against the shell of Dakota's ear, and under normal circumstances this would have excited her. But in that moment, his words did nothing but make her stomach churn.
"Sister?" she breathed back, setting the tea containers down more forcefully than normal to cover up her words. Iroh and Zuko shared another intense but still silent exchange before Zuko slowly nodded.
"Are you sure this is the right recipe for ginseng tea, Lotek?" Dakota asked more normally, turning to Iroh with a frantic lifting of her eyebrows.
How do you know that Azula's behind this?
Iroh caught on right away, sending her a quick nod before moving forward to start setting up the small portable heating stove.
"It should be written on the recipe sheet. Let me know if you need help reading it. My uncle was the only one who could read my handwriting when I was young but perhaps that is because he taught me. My younger brother was taught by my mother, which explains many things!" Iroh replied, tacking on a laugh for good measure.
Dakota laughed, too, to keep up the act, but on the inside she was reeling. Azula had written the note and had somehow signed it with the Earth King's seal. That meant that Azula had taken over the Earth Kingdom throne and was somewhere nearby, waiting to strike. The extra guards made sense now—Azula knew how powerful her uncle was and so she sent five of the Earth King's elite personal guard to collect them.
They were so screwed.
Zuko touched her shoulder, gently squeezing until Dakota looked at him. Once he had her attention, his hand reached up to cradle her jaw and his thumb tenderly traced over her cheekbone before he turned to set the teapot on the stove. The intimate touch only lasted a second or two but it gave her the strength she needed to take a deep breath and straighten her shoulders.
The three of them made the tea, setting out four cups to keep up the appearance of expecting the Earth King's presence, and settled down to wait. Zuko and Iroh sandwiched Dakota between them without a word. Usually, Dakota wouldn't appreciate being treated as the person most in need of protection, but in this case she was glad to have them on either side of her.
The minutes ticked by sluggishly, so much so that when the fighting started Dakota almost felt relieved.
The guards came in very quickly, but Iroh was quicker. One second he had a cup of tea to his lips and the next, he was breathing a huge ball of fire that coated the walls and made the Earthbenders duck for cover. While Iroh created that amazing, unexpected distraction, Zuko grabbed Dakota's hand and they both jumped to their feet. It took only a moment for him to kick the wooden serving table so hard that it skidded across the floor and hit the crouching soldiers solidly in the gut.
"Run!" Iroh bellowed, something that Dakota did not need to be told twice. Gripping Zuko's hand tightly, she darted forward and pushed open the door. All three of them staggered into the hall, squinting through the smoke to try and see their way out. At the end of the walkway was a large window through which sunlight shone brightly through. Iroh led the way towards it, being sure to send fire in their wake to deter the guards. Zuko was in front of Dakota, now, and for a brief, glorious moment it seemed like they were going to make it.
Iroh blasted a hole through the window and jumped through, landing safely in some bushes and gesturing for them to follow. Zuko's looked down at Dakota, wordlessly preparing her for what was coming next. Numbly, she wondered what expression was on her face. Did she look as terrified as she felt, or was she just as determined as he was?
Zuko's body was tensing for the jump when a rope of earth snaked around Dakota's midsection and yanked backwards. She let out an involuntary yell at the sudden attack and another quieter yelp when her body roughly collided with the ground. Her head hit the ground so hard that she saw stars for a moment. Only for a moment, though, and then reality came rushing back.
She was caught. Zuko wouldn't jump to freedom, he wouldn't escape and it was her fault—
"Zuko, get out of here!" she cried, but it was too late. Zuko was already running back, his gaze blazing with such horrible fury that Dakota felt a stab of fear. Not for herself, but for him. He wasn't thinking straight. He was so swept up in protecting her that he wasn't thinking and what if this was the moment that changed the entire story from one of victory to one of destruction?
"Let her go!" the boy yelled, a large whip of fire taking out one soldier before anyone had time to react. The remaining soldiers, surprisingly, didn't retaliate. The reason why became clear in the next second, when a familiar voice simpered:
"Oh please, Zu-Zu, there's no need to be so desperately dramatic," Azula said in a bored tone.
Dakota craned her head back to see that the girl had finally appeared. She wasn't even looking at Zuko, too busy examining her sharp, red-lacquered fingernails with a distinct air of exasperation. The Fire Nation princess was as beautiful and terrible as Dakota remembered, with glossy black hair pulled up into a regal bun and striking yellow-gold eyes.
In the moment Zuko looked away from the soldiers to eye his sister, the Earthbenders moved and suddenly his arms were pinned by strong layers of earth. The bonds bent his arms behind him in such a way that had him gasping for air. Dakota pushed herself to her knees and lunged forward, managing to touch his shoulder before the earth chain around her stomach tightened and pulled her back.
"Take them away," Azula drawled, flouncing away without so much as a backward glance. Zuko tried to attack her as she went but let out a groan of pain when he attempted to move. Dakota wanted to reach for him but knew that it wouldn't do anything—the soldiers wouldn't let them touch. They hadn't bound her hands, though, which made Dakota wonder if Azula had even bothered to tell them that she could Firebend.
Zuko didn't say a single word as they were both forced to walk back up the hallway, didn't speak even as they were led down into a lower level of the palace. It was darker there and Dakota's skin crawled at the odd sounds that echoed about the place every now and then. The soldiers leading Zuko stopped, and Dakota stopped as well, worried about what awaited them.
But the soldiers behind Dakota pushed her roughly, ordering her to keep moving, and it was then that Zuko's head snapped up from its lowered position. His face reflected all the panic that was currently coursing through her veins.
Dakota didn't hesitate—she shoved her hands behind her and sent a large wave of fire into her captors, hearing them yell in confusion but not caring in the slightest. She staggered into Zuko, throwing her arms around him.
Azula wasn't going to hurt Zuko; he was too valuable to the Fire Nation cause, both as the redeemable prince as well as someone who had intimate knowledge of the Avatar's abilities and whereabouts.
Dakota was neither of those things. If she didn't try and set Zuko on the right path now, she wouldn't get the chance because if Azula had her way she'd never see the light of day again.
Zuko had to help the Avatar win the war. It was all that Dakota knew for certain, because how else could Aang ever hope to learn Firebending? In the show, the two had been friends, which meant that Zuko had to have switched sides at some point.
And so, she leaned down and whispered:
"You have to help—"
But she never got to finish.
Her body was wrenched backwards so abruptly that her mouth collided with Zuko's jaw, hard enough that her upper lip split open. Blood dripped down her mouth as she was dragged away from Zuko's side—it left a splotch of red on his skin but he didn't seem to notice. He was too busy yelling her name, shouting so loudly that all the other sounds in the hall disappeared.
Dakota was swept back in time to when they fought Zhao at the North Pole, to the moment when she let go of Zuko's hand and let the Ocean Spirit drag her into the water.
He was yelling just as angrily as he had back then, only this time Dakota didn't look away. This time, she saw the desperation in him, the fierce light burning in his eyes and the need that radiated from every word he spoke.
The only warning she received was a sharp gesture from one of the soldiers, and then a large hole appeared under Zuko's feet and his entire body fell through.
It was so quick that Dakota's entire body froze in disbelief. No, he wasn't just gone, he needed to hear what she had to say, she needed to tell him how much…how much…
"Keep moving!" the soldier behind her barked, sending a sharp blow to her back that sent her staggering forward. But to tell the truth, she didn't even feel it. Her entire focus was on the spot of earth that was closing up behind Zuko. The glimpse of his surprised face before he fell was burned into her mind and yet it wasn't enough.
Why hadn't she talked to him as they walked, why hadn't she kissed him one last time to give herself more to remember?
Dakota's mind revisited the last image she had of Iroh. It was of the man's robe flapping behind him as he jumped out the window. She had missed so many opportunities to sit and talk to Iroh in the past few months because she was always hanging out with Zuko and Obi—why hadn't she given him more time?
The last time she saw Henry he was running away from her, up the hill and down to where their parents were waiting to have lunch. His dark hair had blown around with the wind but the more specific details of him were hazy. She had looked away before he reached the top. She hadn't thought to memorize his smile, his laugh, even the clothes he was wearing on that day. There were times that she couldn't remember exactly what his voice sounded like because she never thought she would have to rely on just her memory—
Sagging against the hands of the soldiers on either side of her, Dakota closed her eyes and screamed.