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Quotes: "Well then, maybe you should worry less about the tides, who've already made up their mind about killing you, and worry more about me, who's still mulling it over." - Azula
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Gepetto887
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« on: January 08, 2009, 07:48:53 PM »


            

A fic I've been working on for the past while, and first in a series of four. I also have it up at http://www.fanfiction.net/u/1076014/ but I doubt it'll get as many reviews as if I post it here. And the reviews are what I'm after, half because I'd just like to know how to improve my writing, and half because I'm interested to see what people are going to think will happen.

The story is complete, and I'll be posting one chapter every Tuesday (the two I'm posting now are already up on another site, and I'd like to keep every neat and tidy).

First off, while I'm going to refrain from begging for reviews, it seems that people don't review all that often, and when they do, they review only once or twice. So it seems you need some incentive. I'm not going to be holding chappies for ransom, but I will be offering a clue for every fifty reviews I receive. This clue might pertain to something happening currently in the series, or to the events of eleven centuries ago, which influence the current story rather heavily. It might involve other things, too, but it'll be relevant to one degree or another. Considering that even my beta (thank you, by the way, Mr. Ogro) is unsure as to what all is going to happen, and he's been given not just the outline for the story after this but also the ending for the entire series, and numerous other clues, I think you could use the clues. Reviews offering particularly interesting theories, or just plain use old evidence and clues in a new way, get a bonus point. As do reviews guessing at which of the other two one-sided Aangxsomebody ships are present in here (to clarify: they're unrequited from the "somebody" side, not Aang's- he hasn't got a clue). I'll give the bonus point to any reasonable explanation, even Aangko or Zuaang or whatever you kids call it nowadays (though I'll tell you right now that it isn't that one- Aang would stab himself with a knife if he ever found that out).
This bit here is just a brief, erm, spoiler, you could call it, for lack of a better word. I'll be putting one of these 50 Sentences things up at the beginning of each of the stories for my Consequences of Our Pasts series. Consider them fifty free clues, though they'll apply only to events happening within this story. All of these are from Aang's point of view, or relating to Aang, but be careful about assuming who "she" refers to-- There's at least two different people who are referred to as "she" and "her" and such. Some of them also apply to events which are not detailed during the story, but did happen to Aang.
The next chappie, and all those after, will be done properly, and take care to read them thoroughly, since there's at least two or three clues in every one.

The Aftermath: Aang’s Book

“No, I'm not going to end it like this”
—Aang

#1 Walking – Because he rarely flies now.
#2 Something’s missing.
#3 Wishes – They aren’t worth anything now
#4 Wonder – Even now, he feels it when he looks at the world
#5 Worry – Its something he always felt in her presence, once she started talking
#6 Whimsy – As went on, he had less and less time for it, and then even less desire for it
#7 Wasteland – You could always tell where a battle had been fought, but once it had been far worse, someone said
#8 Whiskey and rum – Everyone agreed not to talk about it again
#9 War – Not everybody wanted to go home
#10 Weddings – They married young, but then again, they weren’t that young
#11 Birthday – He wonders what his son is doing today, and if his son understands why he is not there
#12 Blessing – Hakoda died only a few years after he had given it, and Aang couldn’t help but make a connection
#13 Bias – He hates that there’s a part of him that’s not surprised by what the Firebenders did
#14 Burning – He can still remember how the forest smelled, when he fought Ozai, and he can smell it now, too
#15 Breathing – In and out, forever, till it ends
#16 Breaking – Nobody can stand firm forever, and everybody has a price
#17 Belief – War made him sacrifice it, so that he wouldn’t have to sacrifice his men
#18 Balloon – The Mechanist wants to figure out how big he can make one
#19 Balcony – From here, he can see all the way down, to the bottom of the canyon
#20 Bane – And then they learned of the sort of fury which Gyatso had surely unleashed
#21 Quiet – She never talked, when Aang visited
#22 Quirks – We all have them, but sometimes they’re not so innocent
#23 Question – Why does he keep coming back to her?
# 24 Quarrel – There are some things you can’t take back
#25 Quitting – He wishes he didn’t have to keep on going
#26 Jump – Just a little leap of faith
#27 Jester – He was the first to fall
#28 Jousting – Like an Agni Kai, but without fire, and on ostrich-horses
#29 Jewel – A little bit of him, the Roku bit of him, remembered it
#30 Just – Something he hears a lot, and says a lot, followed by another string of words
#31 Smirk -- It was funny, how it could be so uplifting from Toph, and so terrifying from Azula
#32 Sorrow – And Toph doesn’t know, but he can see it behind her smiles
#33 Stupidity – He can’t afford it now
#34 Serenade – He’s horribly embarrassed by it nowadays, and Aang is glad that Katara fails to mention it
#35 Sarcasm – He misses Sokka, and wishes Toph would talk to him
#36 Sordid – When he got the answer, he wished he hadn’t asked the older monk
#37 Soliloquy – Aang walks through the Temple’s halls, and there’s nobody to talk to
#38 Sojourn – They might have gone there, if any had survived the genocide
#39 Share – Sometimes, talking about it doesn’t help
#40 Solitary – Aang doesn’t talk to people much anymore
#41 Nowhere – No matter how long he looked, there wasn’t a trace of what he wanted to find
#42 Neutral – What Would Bumi Do?
#43 Nuance – Koh is in the details
#44 Near – The boy never was, and so he knew only that Aang was the Avatar
#45 Natural – He wondered if the Monks had felt like this, during the attack
#46 Horizon – Hope is always just barely within sight
#47 Valiant – The time for indecisiveness was past, but that didn’t mean he knew that
#48 Virtuous – After it gave way to mere survival on the battlefield, he couldn’t pretend it hadn’t changed him
#49 Victory – When it came, he wondered if the price had been worth it
#50 Defeat – And then he remembered the other price he could have paid

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« Last Edit: January 08, 2009, 09:36:08 PM by Gepetto887 » Logged
Gepetto887
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« Reply #1 on: January 08, 2009, 07:51:23 PM »

Part One: Immediate Repercussions

“Appa's right, Zuko. In our group, typically we start our missions with a more upbeat attitude.”

—Aang


Chapter One: End and Begin

Water Year 1102

Omashu, The Earth Kingdom


But the year is meaningless to you, isn’t it? You haven’t got an idea as to how many years it’s been since the war, and that whole “Water Year” thing just seems like a bad attempt to cash in on the Chinese “Year of the Whatever” style they’ve got. Except that you’re kinda wrong. Maybe.

Think about it, and tell me what you think.

But you haven’t got the faintest clue as to what to date means, and so I’ll simply say that you may as well call this chapter “One Year Later.”

I’d originally intended on that name but then you’d accuse me of ripping off of not just the Chinese, then.

---

“What has happened lately?” one might ask. It would of course be assumed that by “lately” the questioner means “since the war,” and by “the war,” one means, not “the War of the Five Cities, or even “the War of Chin the Conqueror,” but the only war in memory to be so vast as to be called, simply, “The War.” There would be many answers. The city of Omashu has been repaired, and Ba Sing Se as well, while reconstruction is going on in other places across the Earth Kingdom. And the damage sustained to the city in the North Pole had been fixed before The War’s end, so don’t think it’s being overlooked or forgotten about.

But, speaking of Water Tribe cities, Aang and Katara are currently at the forefront of a project involving the construction of a city at the South Pole. Until the year 1040, there had indeed been a city there, but the Southern Tribesmen were, regardless, never exactly what could be described as “city folk.” True, many of them lived in the city, but just as many more lived outside it, choosing instead to risk death in the icy wastes, and even most of those who lived in the city did not do so year-round. The cities at the two poles had originally been constructed for use during the months-long night which came every winter.

They were there to help everyone survive that time where the sun ceased to shine, temperatures fell, and simply stepping outside of the communal lodges (and the heat) could prove to be a death sentence in a matter of minutes for all but a Master Waterbender (or perhaps a Firebender of equal skill, and greater willpower). Those at the North Pole eventually grew so comfortable with their city that they gradually let go of their semi-nomadic history, but the Southern Tribe never forgot, and when the Fire Nation destroyed their great city, they merely fell upon the measures they had used before the city existed. Water adapts, and changes, and so did the South Tribe. Some were even, secretly, glad that the city— and the threat of ending up like their sedentary cousins on the other side of the globe—was no longer standing, though few liked that it had taken a war to do it.

It was, accordingly, proving very hard for Aang and Katara to get enough support, though they are getting by, and the city should be mostly built sometime in late autumn of 1103. Some bits here and there will be missing, yes, but enough of the city will be built enough for its use that coming winter.

Currently, though, Aang and Katara are in Omashu (my, how the circle closes). It is a solemn time, right now. They, and the others, had witnessed much death during the War (although Jet’s demise was rather ambiguous, and while they hadn’t heard of him since, it’s just possible he might have survived), and they had thought that they would not be forced to witness another death for some time.

They were wrong, of course.

We all are vulnerable to the ravages of time, and no man lives forever.

Even a man like Bumi.

---

Bumi had been much beloved by his city, of course, and yesterday his funeral had been attended by nearly the entire populace of the city, and many more besides. He had been ill for many weeks, and by the time he had died, it had become obvious to all the Earth Kingdom— and the rest of the world— that it would happen. The inns had been full for days before his demise, all filled with people waiting for the procession to pass, and then stand by as his funeral was held.

Today, before he is put away, he is visited by Aang and his friends. They wished to pay their respects privately, and of course there can be no arguing with the Avatar. At least, no successful arguing, especially for something which was, in the scheme of things, as trivial as this. The Avatar requested— no, demanded, but demanded politely— that this be allowed, and so it was.

The room is small, with enough space for the nine people there, and Bumi’s corpse, with a little left to spare.

Aang is wondering why he never asked Bumi about anything which had happened to him in the past hundred years. What stories could Bumi have told, and what wisdom could he have imparted? And he is sure that Bumi would have greatly enjoyed it. So why had he been so stupid as to not to think of asking him?

Beside him, to his right, Katara remembers how she first met Bumi. It had been so irritating at first, when she’d learned that it was all, in the end, some sort of massive prank on Aang (for that’s what it really was, wasn’t it?), but later on, she’d begun to think of it as one of the funniest things she’d ever experienced. Sure, she had thought she was in mortal danger at the time, but she was sure (really, she was) that Bumi wouldn’t have let anything happen to her or Sokka, even accidentally. And as she remembers, she holds back a smile.

For is it not disrespectful toward the dead, to express joy on a day meant to observe their death?

Sokka is still somewhat irritated with the event, perhaps more out of habit than anything else, but he had grown rather fond of Bumi since the end of the War. He may have had a bad first impression, but Bumi was the only person Sokka would ever admit was funnier than himself. It was a matter of pride, really, when he placed his jokes above everyone else’s, and partly true, too, but he didn’t feel any harm to his ego in admitting that Bumi could (at times, that is, at times) be funnier than Sokka. Though it was simply Bumi’s age, Sokka was sure. You can’t live so long and not know a few jokes. If Sokka lives as long as Bumi, doubtless he’ll have outclassed him by then.

Suki didn’t really know Bumi all that well, but she respects (respected) him. While she may not have known what he was like personally, she knew his reputation, and that is more than enough to ensure that she feels greatly honored to stand here. But she wonders if she should feel this… detached. To her, Bumi is a great man, yes, but simply that: a great man (and funnier than Sokka, at times). Yes, he died, but… she hadn’t even known all that much about him when she lived on Kyoshi Island. Not even how long he had lived (until meeting the man himself, she was thoroughly convinced that the name Bumi had simply been used by more than one king in a row).

Zuko stands by the door. He knows it’s stupid, but he can’t help but think that he could have somehow prevented this. If he had helped the Aang sooner, then perhaps the War could have ended sooner, as well. And if that had happened, there would have been no need for Bumi to exert himself so much in order to liberate Omashu. Surely, his actions during the eclipse couldn’t have helped him deal with his great age, and it’s very possible that it took just a little bit of his life off. Maybe a few years, maybe a month. Zuko doesn’t know, and doesn’t even know if it would have changed anything, but… it might, indirectly— very indirectly— be his fault, and so this is yet another death he may have been able to prevent, had he simply realized what he had needed to do in time, which might have ended the War sooner.

Zuko is constantly second-guessing himself these days. He won’t allow himself to just let things like this go. He’s afraid that he might become like his father, if he forgets how important even one life is. Zuko is no fool; he’s heard the stories Iroh has told him (how could he not? it’s nearly impossible to drown out his uncle’s voice) and he knows how the War was started. Sozin truly had the best of intentions, in the beginning, and even Ozai was not always so cold. Ursa never would have married him, if he hadn’t been so much kinder, in the past. But Ozai stepped onto a slippery slope, just as Sozin had, and so many others, and Zuko will do whatever it takes in order to keep himself off of it, no matter how much pain and self-doubt it needlessly causes.

Mai simply leans into him, letting him know, even as deep in his thoughts as he is, that she is with him. She knows her husband all too well, and knows that she can do nothing to help him but make sure he knows she is always by his side. Mai will never let Zuko end up like Ozai, or Sozin, and he is aware of this, though subconsciously he wonders how she would be able to stop him. There’s something else she feels, too, but she’s keeping it safely locked up.

It hurts too much to acknowledge it.

Iroh is on Aang’s left, and thinks back fondly on the last Pai Sho game they had played. For a man nearly twice Iroh’s age, the king had played amazingly well— not that Iroh would have expected anything else, but he would have expected at least a few screws to be loosened in that time (and the obvious screws don’t count since, according to Aang, they’d always been like that). Bumi’s passing is sobering as well, though. He knows that he does not have much longer himself; citizens of the Earth Kingdom live so much longer than those from other nations, and Bumi was exceptionally fit and healthy, and a Bender besides. Maybe ten more years, and then Iroh will be lying here, just like Bumi.

Well, maybe not exactly like Bumi, he decides, as he smiles (for he knows that to do is far from disrespectful— it is the most respectful thing one can do, for the dead do not wish for unnecessary sorrow, merely reverence) and places a White Lotus tile on the dead king’s forehead just before the Jennomite crystal finishes its growth, enveloping his head. For one thing, he’s not going to spent eternity surrounded by a casket of rock candy.

Maybe they’ll let him marinate in some good, quality tea before they do the final rites on him. That would be nice, he thinks, and now, strangely, the memories go back now to the first Pai Sho game they’d played. Perhaps it’s only appropriate to think of first meetings, upon the final one.

Toph cannot truly see Bumi, but she can feel him, as she can feel everyone else. By the swift beating of his heart, she knows that Zuko feels some sort of guilt for this, and is glad that Mai is beside him. Toph rather likes the Fire Lord. She can sense Suki’s confusion, and has an idea of what it means, since she feels more like Mai— whose situation is rather like hers— than anyone else. There’s a calmness which only Iroh has, but that’s a different kind of calmness. More like a quiet little bit of joy. And Aang is trying not to slip into despair, is trying not let to let himself realize what this means, and she wishes she knew what to say. Then she wishes that she could do more than just say something to comfort him.

Bumi was one of the few people she truly respected. They had sparred together, and despite all her skills it was only in their last match that she finally beat him. Looking back on it, she considers the possibility that it was just a fluke. It had happened only days before Bumi started noticeably slowing down, and the city realized he would soon die. She’ll give him that one, too, she decides. He’d won enough other matches with her that it didn’t really matter one way or another. She had raw power, but he had the wisdom of a century and more to apply, and she was never all that surprised when she lost that first time.

Ty Lee is much like Iroh. She knows that Bumi wouldn’t have wanted this sort of atmosphere, although she’s also tactful enough not to point this out. She maintains a small, barely noticeable smirk through the whole thing, and doesn’t say a word. Even as the Jennomite begins to crawl over his mouth, and now his eyes, and finally encases him completely, Ty Lee half-expects Bumi to suddenly jump up and start walking around, expressing his appreciation for all the nice things everybody said about him.

She had been able to meet Bumi quite a few times (she was able to say from experience that he was just as funny locked up in a big metal coffin-y thing as outside of one, and didn’t seem to hold so much of a grudge that he wasn’t willing to trade jokes with her during her brief stay), and it’s just the sort of thing Bumi would do.

---

A few minutes later, Bumi is lowered into the ground, and Toph and Aang then form another casket around him, this one a casket of stone, for the Jennomite will not last nearly as long. And the piles of earth are displaced by their Bending, and moments later there is but a single stone to mark Bumi’s grave, for there is not another trace anywhere else.

As according to Earth Kingdom custom.

---

No man (or woman) lives forever.

Everyone dies.

This is important.

---

But there is something perhaps even more important to remember: Even though everyone dies, there is always, always, someone who is the last to die, someone who must live for the rest of their life (however long or short that may be) knowing that they have survived everyone else.

There are no known Airbenders left, save one.

Now, there is nobody left from the time of a hundred years ago, save one.

---

Right now, Aang is the last to die, and it will take decades for him to do so, at least from old age. He knows he will outlive Katara, as well, and many others. Airbenders live a long time. A very long time. Perhaps only Toph will survive him (which, as he stares at the plot of ground covering Bumi, gives him a morbid sort of satisfaction; at least he won’t have to be the last to die among these people). Earthbenders live even longer.

---

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Gepetto887
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« Reply #2 on: January 08, 2009, 07:51:35 PM »

After Bumi’s burial, the nine gradually dispersed, falling away. Sokka and Suki had left first, and then Ty Lee, for she had originally come with them from Kyoshi Island, where they had been staying for the past few weeks. Then Toph departed, heading off to Appa. She was still trying to avoid her parents as much as possible, and had recently taken to following Sokka around, or Mai, or Iroh, or whoever else had caught her interest at the time, until growing bored and moving on to someone else (apparently Aang and Katara, now). There wasn’t really all that much else to do. Even the tournaments lacked their previous appeal. She had outclassed them before, but now? It was almost criminal to take advantage of their inferiority, she had soon decided. She supposed she could make a claim to the crown of Omashu, considering that she’d beaten Bumi, but she would only get tied down to one place. Besides, it wasn’t even that sort of battle, just a sparring match between friends, so she didn’t think it really counted.

Aang still stood above the layer of ground separating him from Bumi, and Katara walked off, realizing that he needed a moment alone. She goes over to Iroh, who is by Mai, who gently, lovingly pushes Zuko, snapping him back out of his thoughts once again, reminding him that he has something else to say.

He walked over to Aang, and opened his mouth once, closed it, and opened it again, beginning to speak. “Aang?” he said.

The Avatar took a moment to respond. “Yeah?”

“About the Air Nomads…” Zuko trailed off. What he was going to say wasn’t even all that bad, but he couldn’t figure out what to say, exactly.

“Yes?” Aang said, with a slight tone of hope.

“Like you found before,” Zuko started back up, “there haven’t been many mixed marriages over the years, few of them involved Benders, and, well, only a handful in all of history involved Benders of two different elements. We didn’t find anything mentioning much about their children, so we don’t know what the results would be.”

“So what’s new?” Aang asked drearily. “Or have you decided to just tell me things I already know?” He didn’t look at Zuko at all, but kept his gaze at the ground, and his hands hidden in the folds of his robes.

“I wanted to let you know that those sorts of marriages— between two different Benders— are becoming slightly more common in the colonies, now that we’re more or less at peace.”

More or less. There were still struggles, here and there, and not everyone believed that the Fire Nation had just picked up and left, but the end of this road was clear, and peace was surely, but steadily, coming.

Zuko continued on, saying, “So I’ve instructed the viceroyalty to keep a close eye on these marriages. In ten or twelve years, we should know for sure.”

“Ten or twelve?” Aang echoed, finally seeming to take an interest in the conversation. “Most everyone starts Bending by five, or six, at the latest.”

“But there may be a bit of a…” Zuko struggled to find the right word, “a bit of a lag, you see, as the two different elements struggle for dominance. Or something like that, anyways. I have a feeling that the Fire Sages were making it all a lot more complicated than it had to be, to get back at me for before.”

“What’d you do?”

“I told them that I wasn’t pleased about their sudden turn of face with the Avatar, when they sided with the Fire Lord instead of you, and Roku’s memory.”

“That was stupid.”

“They’re powerless right now, and I’d have replaced them moments after my coronation if it hadn’t been for the fact that they should be dead of old age in a few years anyways. The Earth King, Kuei, wants you to know that he’ll be watching any marriages in his territory, as well. At least, he’ll start to in a few months.”

“Why the wait?”

“There’s talk of some dissidents in the Si Wong desert, raiding outlying towns, and they aren’t Sandbenders, according to the reports. There’s nothing really to it, of course. It’s just a bunch of bandits, probably a couple, none of them connected to each other, considering the vast range of land these reports are coming from. But if he’s going to be respected, then the Earth King can’t tolerate even bandits, so he’s going to have to focus most of his attention on searching the biggest, most inhospitable place in the world. At the very least, he’ll have to catch at least a few people, doing something bad, and then he’ll be able to say that he’s gotten rid of the dissidents, leave a good amount of soldiers in the desert to search for any other large groups, and focus his attentions on helping us.”

“Thank you,” Aang whispered.

“There’s something else,” Zuko said after a few minutes.

“Yeah?” Aang looked up. The Fire Lord bore a remarkable resemblance to his famous great-grandfather. Both of them, actually.

Zuko pushed something into Aang’s hand, and he took it. “It’s a book. Back when Mai was in Omashu, she spent most of the time talking to Bumi. He was about the only person she could stand. And after the War, she continued talking to him. Bumi probably told you a lot about what happened to him in the past century, but—”

“He didn’t,” Aang said neutrally. “We talked about it a little bit, but he always managed to change the subject.”

Zuko knows why— thinks he knows why, at any rate. Bumi knew he wouldn’t last forever, of course. No man that intelligent could believe otherwise. And Zuko had a suspicion that Bumi tried to keep as much of his past under wraps, precisely so that Aang would get as much as possible out of this, because “Mai wrote down everything they’d talked about. A lot of it is just random stuff, just classic Bumi— you wouldn’t believe the things the two of them talked about— but mostly just about his past. Mai was too easily irritated by everyone else, and Bumi… well, he wasn’t going anywhere back then,” Aang cracked a small smile, though it quickly vanished, “and so they had a lot of time to talk.”

“Thank you. Again.”

“And one more thing, Aang, before I go. It’s about Mai.” Aang looked up him curiously. “You ever need somebody to talk to… The rest of us thought of him as a friend, but we didn’t really know him all that well. But Mai… after you, I think that it’s Mai who misses him he most. There’s quite a few letters between the two, rewritten into the book.”

He turned and walked away, leaving Aang with the book, a large, thick thing, with a leather cover.

---

Zuko stood there for a long time, Mai holding his hand tightly, as he spent just a few more minutes thinking. And then he left.

He felt sorrow at Bumi’s death, of course. This has already been established. But the Fire Nation needed to be run, and there was so much for a new Fire Lord to do, especially after ending a century-long War.

Water Year 1102

Capital City, The Fire Nation


“Pai Sho, Zuko?” asked Iroh (the elder).

He gave it a moment’s thought, and said “Sure.”

Iroh cleared the table, set down the board, and removed two bags of pieces from a pocket. “You go first,” he said, pulling out a chair and sitting down.

Zuko thought for a moment, and chose his move.

“You know,” Iroh said as he considered, “you could say that it’s Bumi’s fault that I’m such a good player.”

“And why is that?”

“He locked me up and wouldn’t let me leave until I’d gotten good at it.”

The Fire Lord tried to banish the resulting mental image from his mind, trying to figure out how it had even gotten in there. “You’re… joking, right?” he asked hopefully.

“How do you win at Pai Sho, Zuko?” Iroh asked, and finally made a move.

“Think ahead, and always stay balanced.” Zuko placed a piece on the board.

“I don’t know why I’m saying this,” Iroh scratched his chin, “but now is as good a time as any. Bumi reminded me that I’m not going to live forever, and... recent impressions have convinced me that I should do this sooner than later.”

“Do what?”

Iroh put down a tile next to his first. “Before he let me go, Bumi told me that he didn’t just look at what I was going to do twenty or thirty moves from now, but twenty or thirty years. With Pai Sho, per se, he may have simply been being Bumi but then, that would be like Bumi, wouldn’t it?” He paused as Zuko put down another piece. “The other thing is that you need a contingency plan. Many contingency plans. The Order of the White Lotus is, itself, a contingency plan.” Iroh looked up from the board, and seemed to forget about the game between them. “For the Avatar.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s look at recent events. When Aang disappeared, we— they— didn’t know what had happened. For a long while, the Order had expected to find some sign of his presence, to discover that he was merely in hiding. So they used their informants within the Fire Nation, and organized searches of their own. Eventually,” Iroh sighed, “they came to the conclusion that it was very likely that Aang had been killed in the Avatar State.”

“And if that had happened…”

“Then there wouldn’t be another Avatar,” Iroh nodded. “But they had already formed a plan, specifically for this incident, within months of the first attack. It would take a long time, but the Order had been formed by Pai Sho players. What else would you expect?” Iroh laughed. “It culminated when Bumi captured me, and tortured me.”

“Tortured you?”

“Yes,” Iroh said grimly. And then he grinned. “Pai Sho! Twice a day! Every day! For weeks and weeks. I liked the game, but there was a point where it was just too much. And I couldn’t just fail.”

“Really? I somehow doubt that there could be too much Pai Sho for you.”

“Because you didn’t know me back then,” Iroh stated. “Bumi always knew when I wasn’t playing at my best, and he’d force me to play again until I did. But to cut weeks of agonizing torture short, in the end, Bumi brought me around to his line of thinking. To the Order’s line of thinking. Balance was the key in Pai Sho, and in life. Do you have any idea was their plan was, Zuko?”

The Fire Lord shook his head. “Although I’ve got no doubt that I’ll be hitting myself after you tell me.”

“They knew they couldn’t bring Sozin around, and Azulon was little better. But me? Once they found out about me, they realized that they finally had someone they could work with. Somebody they could bring around to their side. And once I became Fire Lord…”

“You could end the War,” Zuko finished.

“Then, after Ba Sing Se, it was Ozai who became Fire Lord.”

“So what was their contingency plan for you?”

“Good one, Zuko! Not as dull as you think you are. Stop being like that and give yourself some credit. After all, their plan was you.”

“I’m sorry, Uncle, I must have—”

“You, Zuko. From the moment I joined the Order, my principal goal was to join the bloodlines of Sozin and Roku. Your father wasn’t as bad as he’d become in later years, Zuko, and he truly fell in love with your mother, once I introduced the two of them to each other. It took a couple of years to become trusted by her, and I still don’t take it lightly, but in the end, your parents married, and they had you. I would have taught you the things I did anyways, of course, even if you weren’t a back-up plan, but the fact that you were added extra urgency to things. Under other circumstances, I would have taken things slower.”

“But what about Azula?”

“We didn’t know that someone like Azula would come into the picture, and as firstborn, we didn’t see how your position was at risk. Still, I was prepared for that possibility, and when I began to see what sort of person Azula was turning out to be, I was, secretly, happy that it wouldn’t be too hard, though the fact that I could see myself doing such a thing to my own blood gave me troubles of another kind.”

“You were going to kill her?”

“Azulon, and Sozin before him,” Iroh sighed, “both died under circumstances which could be rightly described as ‘suspicious.’ Once I could be sure of what path you would choose, Ozai would have perished similarly, and Azula, too, once she came into the picture, and became a contender for the crown. And while some might doubt your sincerity, the people follow the crown, not the man who wears it, and within a few years, dissent would have vanished in all but a very few among the nobility. The Order was founded by Pai Sho players. Always remember that. It was foolproof, and we had enough fools— though another term might be ‘mad geniuses,’ I suppose— to prove it for us.”

“Why are you telling me this? I don’t see how this will help me at all. I mean, it’s nice that you had so much faith in me, and that’s kinda reassuring, but…”

“I’m telling you this, because I’m not going to be around forever, and the Order needs to stay around. And it needs to be led by someone like you, Zuko.” Not letting him get so much as a second to say anything, Iroh picked up a White Lotus tile. “Now, let me tell you about the history of the Order. Do you know what happened one thousand, one hundred, and three years ago?”

Zuko shook his head.

“Not surprising. Few do, outside of the Order. We tried to keep it that way, so that people wouldn’t get any funny ideas.”

“Funny ideas?” asked Zuko, confused.

“Like the idea your great-grandfather Sozin got, about conquering the world. You see, just slightly more than eleven-hundred years ago, during the time of Avatar Hahn, the bloodiest War in all of history began…” Iroh continued to talk, and spoke of many things, not least of which was a nation which spanned the globe, the seemingly invincible madman who created it, the society founded to defeat him, and the effort they undertook to make sure that it would never happen again.

Those who do not learn from history may be doomed to repeat it, but it’s also true that some people learn the wrong lessons, and purposely repeat it.

Like Chin the Conqueror.

Like Sozin.

Like one more, whose fall would never have been expected, until it was far, far too late.

The circle goes round and round, and when it closes, it continues once again.

Water Year 1102

Chung-ling, The Fire Nation


This is a nice room, by most standards. Perhaps not the pinnacle of luxury, but certainly nice. Yes, true, the walls are bare, but let us look at other things.

There is a fine bed in the center. Silk sheets and pillows stuffed with the feathers of turtleducks. A cabinet to the side, made of the finest oak in the Fire Nation. Within it is more silk. Silk clothes, all a brilliant red, and many with rich patterns stitched into them.

There is a table here, a few feet in front of the bed, and it is no less luxurious than the other pieces of furniture here. Upon it is a silver bowl, and a set of chopsticks, wooden, carved from mahogany, and the bowl is full to the brim with rice. It does not appear as if the chopsticks have been touched, or the rice even so much as breathed upon.

There are two chairs here. One with its back against the bed, and the other on the opposite side. One chair— the latter— is empty.

Upon the other sits a girl, blank-eyed and motionless, sitting still for hours.

Staring at the wall.

---

Aang. Aang. Aang. Zuko. Aang. Aang. Zuko. Aang. Aang. Aang. Aang.

---

On and on and on we go.

---

Some time later, the rice is eaten. Or it is not. It differs day to day.

---

Some time later, she sleeps in her bed. Or she does not. The table serves as her head’s resting place as often as the feather pillows.

---

Some time later, she thinks of Aang. This is the only definite, for she thinks of him even now, even when she thinks of Zuko, and she’ll think of him even in her dreams.

---

When she does dream. That is not a definite, either.
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« Reply #3 on: January 12, 2009, 11:56:01 AM »

Chapter Two: Highest Punishment

Water Year 1103

Capital City, The Fire Nation


“Fire Lord Zuko,” the man stated quietly. “We… worry for your safety.”

“For what reason?”

“We believe that there is to be another assassination attempt on your life.”

Zuko smiled. “I’ve survived the last few, haven’t I? I appreciate your concern, but really, I think it’s not entirely as necessary as you think. I thank you, though, for alerting me to the situation, and if there is anything further which you believe I should know, then please tell me. If not,” Zuko said, “then please leave my guest and I in peace, so that we may have the conversation for which he is here. I don’t wish to waste his time.”

“Of— of course, Fire Lord,” he said, and gave a quick bow before scurrying off.

“Oh, and Bujing?” Zuko called.

The man stopped in mid-movement, and swallowed. “Yes?”

Zuko walked a dozen steps forward, and stopped by the man’s side. “Do whatever you feel you must, to ensure the safety of myself and all others here at the palace. I don’t mean to appear as if I discount the danger, I merely feel that you’re worrying a little too much.” He gave another smile, but stopped, when he realized that it was more worrying to the man than reassuring. He’d have to work on getting rid of the belief that a smiling Royal meant something bad. “I do not believe I am in as much danger as you seem to think, not because I believe it is nonexistent, but because I trust you, Bujing. You’re an intelligent man, and I know that you know how to protect me. So between you and my wife,” Zuko idly wondered why there was a need for any further security, with Mai around, “why should I worry?”

“Yo—your wisdom is great, Fire Lord,” and Bujing bowed slowly, so as to not appear disrespectful, and then took off faster than Zuko had thought possible.

“Now then,” Zuko said, turning around and heading back to the table. He faced his guest, a tall, broad-shouldered man from the Earth Kingdom. “I hear that your men are doing well. Is that true?”

“Yes. There is not much use for us now, and we were indeed fearing that something worse would happen, but the Earth King has not done more than simply ordering us to return to our homes.”

“And it is my understanding that you wish to do more than this?”

“Peace is… nice, peace is what was the defining word of Ba Sing Se, after all, but…”

“But this is real peace, and that kind of peace is dull. Peace lets you and your talents waste away.”

The man nodded. “Exactly, Fire Lord Zuko. We want to do something more than just plow fields, or wander with the merchant caravans. There’s more we could do than just that, but, frankly, each option seems just as unappealing as the last. We need something to stay active.”

“Well then,” Zuko said slowly, “I’ve been advised that I can, in fact, somehow trust you. And I can certainly see how you’ll be a massive help to certain future endeavors. So do you hereby pledge loyalty to the Fire Lord?”

The reply was swift. “Yes.”

“And will that loyalty continue through the ages, for every Fire Lord who has justly earned the crown?”

Again, the answer came. “Yes.”

“Then I, Fire Lord Zuko, do hereby reinstate, with full privileges, and authority under the Fire Lord, the place of the Dai Li, as agents of the crown, throughout the whole world.” Zuko paused. “Make sure that your people are… inconspicuous. You were feared by the people of Ba Sing Se because you were omnipresent in the city, and your power was all-encompassing. I want you to be feared by other sorts of people, now. And I want them to be afraid because you are ghosts, striking from nowhere and vanishing into the air, without a single piece of evidence relating to your presence. The people you hunt will fear you, not just because of your power, but because it is impossible to escape, and equally impossible to find you.

“I want nothing to connect you to your actions,” the Fire Lord said, “and if you are, you will find no protection from me.”

The man smiled. “Of course.”

---

Water Year 1103

Chung-ling, The Fire Nation


“So how is life treating you, Fire Lord Zuko?” Aang smirked as he said it. Zuko would always get so irritated with it (“You’re my friend! You don’t need to use titles like that!”) and didn’t quite seem to realize that this was precisely why Aang did it.

“It’s treating me quite nicely indeed. I can’t understand why anyone would want to rule a country, though. All that ashen paperwork!”

“You’ve said that a lot, Zuko,” Aang pointed out. “This way?” He said, pointing down a long corridor in the asylum.

Zuko nodded. “And? It’s still true, isn’t it?”

“So, do you know how Azula is doing? I know I haven’t been able to come for a few months, but…”

“But being the Avatar is busy. Don’t worry, I’ve started visiting,” Zuko reassured him. “I’m not happy with it, but I didn’t think that you’d want her left alone.”

“She doesn’t seem all that dangerous, under the drugs. Not all that talkative, but—”

“But that’s the only reason I’m willing to visit her when you can’t. And it’s also the reason we’ve come here.”

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

“I need you to teach me how to… how to…” Zuko couldn’t figure out how to say it. “whatever it is you did, Aang. When you took my father’s Bending away.”

Aang looked at the Fire Lord curiously. “You’re going to take away Azula’s Bending? Why? She’s safe enough with the drug suppressing her Firebending, Zuko.”

“I know, I know. But I’ve been thinking about it, lately, and we need something less messy than the executions. But something still as severe.

“You don’t know what you’re asking,” Aang said.

“No, I don’t. But this needs to be done. I don’t see any other way. What if she got off the drugs? She’s already done it once, and you know it’s bound to happen again. Azula always has something planned.”

“But you’re going to do this to more people than just Azula, aren’t you?”

“Yes. Would you rather they be burnt to death, like we do now?”

“How are you going to handle all those people?”

“I wouldn’t. I was going to ask you about this next.”

“Even between the two of us—”

“No, no. I was going to train others to do it. People you approved, of course.”

Aang leaned against a stone wall, breathing slowly. After a minute, he spoke again. “This is where we’re going, isn’t it?”

“Yes. We took an alternate route.”

“You could have told me, instead deciding to spring it on me.”

“I’m sorry,” Zuko said. “Will you do it?”



“Aang?”

“Yes. Bring me to her,” he sighed. “But make sure you take her off the drugs, Zuko.”

He didn’t know why he wasn’t doing this, really. It wasn’t so that Zuko could have some new punishment to bestow, it wasn’t to give Azula what she deserved, it, it wasn’t to stop the killing, or anything else like that… He just wanted her taken off the drugs.

They resumed walking, but there was only silence, and it felt like an eternity before they reached Azula’s room. At Aang’s private request, the conditions were not too horrible, or even horrible at all. Only slightly worse than a member of the Royal Family would have expected to receive in prison.

There was a large bed in the center of the room, and near it was an oaken wardrobe, filled with silk clothing and some of her belongings (all of her belongings, really, for she did not own anything beyond what was in this room) and she was sitting at a table, with her meal in front of her (and this was not a prison, he told himself. it was an asylum).

Time had not been kind to the one-time Fire Lord. Her hair had been mostly scorched away, from that one time she got off the drugs. What remained looked as if the color had been almost completely bleached away. She stared at the wall, unblinking, and her eyes were just as pale as always. Had he not known better, he would have sworn that she was blind. Her skin clung tight to her bones.

The drugs had been less kind to her than time had.

“Funny,” Zuko said. “She was just like that a few hours ago.”

Aang shook his head, and moved around, to get a better look at her. “You’ve never really paid much attention to her, have you?”

“I’d come in once a week, for an hour or so.”

“An hour more than you’d ever needed to. Don’t think I’m irritated or anything. But this is how she is, a lot of the time.”

Azula suddenly shifted, and Zuko twitched, about ready to attack, before he remembered that she wasn’t a threat. She reached for a piece of bread and broke off a corner, putting it in her mouth. Zuko could barely see her mouth move, as she slowly chewed it.

Aang took the only other seat in the room, placing it in front of Azula, and something shifted in her eyes. “Hello, Azula,” he said. “Sorry I’ve been gone for so long. Anyways, you might be glad to know that we’re going to take you off the drugs. I’m going to be taking your Firebending, but that’s no different from now, right?”

“Why are you doing this?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Aang, and he got up and walked around the table until he stood behind her, and placed his hands upon her head. “I keep on thinking that if I continue to come back, then I’ll figure out why I starting coming to see her in the first place. Now, please be quiet, and watch. I’ll explain what I’ve done after I show you.”

Aang closed his eyes and bowed his head, and collected his energy within himself, gathering it together. Preparation was needed. He allowed it to coil endlessly, gaining pressure, ready to strike out and batter against Azula’s unprepared soul.

He released, letting his energy flow into her in a burst of light. Aang immediately encountered resistance— fierce resistance. It was worse than Ozai, and he marveled at how she had such strength even now, but then it cracked, and he pushed harder, forcing himself through until she suddenly gave way, and Aang reflexively tried to end it, but to no effect. Ozai had possessed incredible force, and until Aang had managed to reverse it and defeat him. Azula was even worse, but she was not trying to force herself into his soul.

Aang struggled to escape, and would have screamed if he could. Azula pulled his essence ever further into her soul, devouring it hungrily, changing faster than he ever had thought possible. He was certainly winning, as far he could tell, but yet again Azula unnerved him, for she was forcing him to do this now. He himself had given up fighting either to change her or escape her.

As his spirit flowed through her, he began to feel her soul, as he had done with Ozai. Energybending gave one a complete knowledge of the other, an awareness more intimate than anything else could possibly give, but here again, Azula surprised him. There was nothing repressed, nothing carefully hidden. No planned manipulations. Only desire.

Complete and total want.

Hunger.

A craving stronger than anything he had ever experienced in his life before, or ever witnessed. Opium addicts had less yearning for the drug than Azula did for… everything.

And then the process was complete

Azula collapsed headfirst, near her plate, and Aang staggered, clinging to her chair for balance.

“Are you alright?” Zuko asked.

The Avatar nodded. “I just need a moment. I didn’t expect that at all.”

“I’m sorry. I should have realized that even with the drugs—”

“You didn’t do anything. You couldn’t have known. I was expecting her to be… difficult. I just didn’t expect things to turn out like this.”

“What happened?”

“There wasn’t any resistance,” Aang said, and he let go of the chair, walking back to the door slowly. “It was almost as if… almost as if she wanted it. I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ll try and make sense of it later.” He stopped at the entrance, and looked back. “You know, the way she is now, the way she’s been since she was under the drug… I never would have thought… I can barely believe it even now, that she’s the same person who tried so hard to kill us.”

“I’ll believe it for the both of us, then. Let’s go,” Zuko said, and he pulled gently on the sleeve of Aang’s yellow robe.

“So are you and Mai going to be coming to the South Pole next month?” Aang asked.

“Ah, yes. I’d almost forgotten,” Zuko joked. As if he could ever possibly forget, with all the badgering his children had been giving him for the past six months, ever since their last visit. “I just need to clear up a few things, and then Mai and I should be ready to be mysteriously gone for a week or so.” Zuko frowned. “You’ve got no idea how hard it is to not just keep up with all these ashen bureaucratic matters, but then get ahead.”

“It’ll be worth it, Zuko. I’m betting Azariya and Iroh are missing their little friend.”

“Which one? The cute Iroh or the tea-addict Iroh?”

Aang laughed, and got a thoughtful look on his face. “Both, I suppose. Though your uncle might ask why you’re referring to your youngest son as a tea-addict,” he said, and then it was Zuko who laughed.

“I’m still wondering what they were doing when they named the kid what they did. What kind of name is ‘Jojo?’ Sounds like a name you’d give to a polar bear dog.”

“Hey! It’s a fine name, with a fine history behind it. Why, for starters, there’s— well, okay. It is a stupid name, and I’m going to spoil the kid rotten to ease the pain, but… long story short, Sokka is whipped, and you should never take naming advice from Suki.”

“Wasn’t planning to.” Aang looked at the Fire Lord. “Do you think you’ll ever release her? Now that she hasn’t got any Bending?”

“I doubt it. It would be just our luck to find out that it can be overcome somehow, or removed by somebody else.”

“Then I guess I’ll just have to keep coming back.”

---
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« Reply #4 on: January 12, 2009, 11:56:58 AM »

Water Year 1103

Maniyok, The South Pole


When he arrives, Zuko is amazed by the sight before him. Towering walls bordering the sea, and by the time the city is finished, it will utilize the same water-locking system as its counterpart at the North Pole. Massive pillars reach up toward the sky, connected by raised platforms and countless gondolas. Vast staircases adorn the buildings, allowing progress to these places, while the ground is covered by hundreds— thousands— of temporary living quarters. Every hundred feet, from any location, the entire area can easily be converted toward defense, and be rendered nearly impenetrable, and if even these measures fail to stop an attack, then the population can retreat up the stairways, collapsing the structures behind them and using the gondolas to travel from tower to tower. Subterranean passageways will be added soon enough, both to take advantage of the heat below the surface (for they will go down hundreds of feet, in the end) and to add yet another way to strike back at an attacking force.

Zuko is not troubled by such an emphasis on defense. They would be fools not to, and it also goes to show just how far they will go to ensure that this city never falls again. If the Northern Tribe had been so hard to defeat, then how much more so for this place, which will in the end be capable of containing not just the entire population of the South Pole even generations from now, but the North Pole and the Swamp as well, and still have room to spare.

The Fire Lord can make out where there will be storehouses in the future, and his eye easily notices the lodges, already finished, where much of the city’s population will dwell during the long winter night.

Zuko shivers at the thought of an entire season without Agni looking down upon him.

And again, he marvels at what he sees.

---

Three years ago, Maniyok had not been even so much as a dream for the Southern Water Tribe. Decades ago, their great city had been destroyed, and its people scattered.

Two years ago, the War was ending, one way or another, but the people had scarcely begun to dream. There was work to do, and damage to repair. Only a few began to travel to the ruins of their city.

One year ago, construction had begun in earnest, as Waterbenders arrive from Sinaliarpok at the North Pole, and the scattered communities from the Swamp. It’s only a trickle at first, but every hand which isn’t need elsewhere eventually finds itself at the site. Progress is remarkably quick, to those who are unfamiliar with the methods of construction these people use. Even in the Earth Kingdom, where stone may be manipulated with a mere thought by those capable of Bending, the proper sort of stone must still be found.

But at the South Pole, the ice is everywhere.

---

“Zuko!” Aang called, and the Fire Lord quickly tore his focus from the city itself to the Avatar. He wondered if he’d be able to ever see him the same way again, and shrugged. It didn’t matter all that much. Taking one last glance behind him, where Iroh was talking excitedly to a Water Tribesman who by the looks of him had no idea why he had suddenly been pulled into this conversation, Zuko pulled at the collar of his thick coat— Thank Agni it was autumn here, when there’d actually be something resembling a “normal” day-and-night cycle— he made his way to Aang, following after Mai and his children.

Aang smiled as Azariya and Iroh ran toward him, and frowned comically, as they ran past him, and within a moment they had gone around a building, shouting “Jojo!” repeatedly, excitedly, though they occasionally interspersed it with calls of “Uncle Sokka!” who could always be counted on to slip them something sweet, even though they had been expressly forbidden to eat such things. Zuko tried to remain calm and keep smiling by attempting to convince himself that, somehow, Sokka had absolutely no idea what monsters they could be on a sugar high, and succeeded only when he realized that Sokka’s child had recently starting on solid foods, and might well need an introduction to that food which, apparently, her father held as important for a growing child.

Never will it be said that Fire Lord Zuko ever let a child go undernourished…

---

There were still some stresses in the world, and the times when they could just get together were long gone (if they had ever been around, considering that the main reason they were together during the War was because of the War). Still, twice a year, they always made sure to get together. They had never really talked about all who would come, but by almost unspoken agreement it was only the core members of their group, those who had stuck with it for the longest, but there always did seem to be someone or another who was new, and would be there for one, maybe two of the reunions. Ty Lee had appeared for every last one but the last one, but had currently decided, for no reason whatsoever, to hitchhike across the world. She wouldn’t be reaching the South Pole for another month, but had told everyone else to just meet without her.

The Mechanist’s kid (Zuko could never quite remember what his name was and, in fact, wasn’t even too sure about what the Mechanist’s real name was, if he even had a name— had Zuko even heard anyone ever refer to him as anything but “the Mechanist?”) had appeared once, and so had some Water Tribe kid (Started with an “H,” Toph was always joking about him whenever Katara was in earshot, but he still couldn’t remember his name). Even Bumi had popped by once, and hadn’t that turned out to be a strange week…

But the main members (the real members, Zuko always thought to himself) always managed to make it (along with Mai and Iroh, since Mai was his wife, after all, and even if Iroh wasn’t family, Zuko couldn’t very well leave him alone with a Pai Sho board, possibly— probably— alcoholic tea— it seemed nothing could not be combined with tea—, and a palace full of poor, unsuspecting servants). The week always went by far too fast, and ended with a meal around a fire. A simple meal, really, much like the ones they’d been forced to subsist on during the War (well, most of them— those of them who hailed from the Fire Nation had enjoyed much grander fare at various points, after all).

---

Laughing, Azariya ran around chasing Momo, in that area where the light from the fire blended with the darkness of night just beyond. Zuko was greatly surprised at the energy he displayed, since he’d just about broken his back earlier that morning, getting Azariya (and his younger brother, who actually was tired) to ride penguins for nearly the entire day, hoping that as night crept closer, they’d be tired enough to sit back and not cause so much of a ruckus.

“So how are things on Kyoshi Island?” Aang asked.

“Mm, pretty nice,” Sokka said.

“We’ve managed to get things calmed down now,” Suki said. “There’s still a few people demanding reparations, even now, but…” Suki shrugged. “Our people weren’t hit as hard as in some other places. They’re not as willing to forgive and forget as the citizens of Omashu—”

“Well, they barely got hit at all,” Katara pointed out.

Sokka nodded. “Which is pretty much the point, of course.”

“And what do you mean they weren’t hit as hard?” Mai asked. “According to what Zuko’s told me, your village got more or less burnt to the ground.”

“Then Zuko was exaggerating just a little bit,” Suki said. “And we rebuilt fast.”

“Maybe we should go there next time, Zuko, Sokka offered. “We’ll be switching back over to Kyoshi Island again anyways in six months, so hey, less traveling for us, right?”

Zuko looked over to Mai, who gave a noncommittal shrug, and then he realized that he didn’t have much of a choice, given that in the space of about three seconds, everybody else had already said how great that would be. He sighed, and said “Okay.”

“Wonderful,” Katara said. “Oh, and I’m pregnant.” She grinned.

It was rather a shame that so many people had already gone off to bed, tired from the day’s work as they were, since they were now rather rudely woken up by the resulting shouts (the loudest of which were coming from Aang, who, apparently, had been kept just as much in the dark as everybody else).

“Well,” she explained some time later, once the noise had died down, “I wanted to tell everybody at once, and I just couldn’t figure out a good time to slip it in. Anybody other than Suki have any suggestions for names?”

---

Sometime later, after Sokka and Suki had already gone off to put Jojo down for bed, and Zuko and Mai were planning to do so with their own children (and then probably collapse of exhaustion themselves), Aang noticed Toph. She was sitting, cross-legged, more or less where the children had been running earlier, just barely close enough for the heat from the fire to be felt. She wasn’t doing anything. Just sitting there.

“You okay?” Aang asked, when he made it over to her.

She didn’t answer for awhile, but just remained there, motionless. Not even making a sound, except for a shallow breath every few seconds. “I’m okay, Twinkletoes,” she finally said. “It’s nothing. I’m fine,” she said, though her eyes looked slightly moister than they should have been.

“Are you sure?” he pressed.

“Yes, I’m sure!” she snapped, nearly lunging at him. “Just look at me. I’m the picture of fine, Aang!” She collapsed to the ground, shivering and breathing rapidly, and a tear was running down her face.

Aang moved to help her up, but she knocked his arm away, and moved a little farther away. “I… just leave me alone, Aang. I want to be alone,” she said, and she stood up and started to walk away. “Just do me that much.”

---

Water Year 1103

The Boiling Rock, The Fire Nation


The halls were bare metal, and their steps echoed through the halls.

About three months had passed since Chung-ling, and Aang had since judged that Zuko was skilled enough to perform “Spiritbending,” as Aang called it.

Aang and Zuko were escorted by a trio of guards, lightly armored.

Since the end of The War, the Boiling Rock had gone from holding prisoners of war to holding prisoners of a more traditional nature, though just as dangerous. Traitors were here, and smugglers, soldiers who’d committed war crimes, and extortionists and thieves.

It was not very long before they entered a largish room, great enough for twenty people to stand inside, comfortably, and with space enough for all to walk about as they wished. There were only a dozen, though, and they stood in a semicircle towards the back, their faces displaying their worry, or confusion, or else nothing at all. One was the warden, two others were guards, and the remainder were from the nobility, representatives, to witness what would occur. In the center of the room, limbs and body both chained so tightly he could barely move even his head, was a man named Jee.

He was a thief.

And a former member of the court.

And a murderer.

And today, he would lose more than just his freedom.

The door opened, and two guards walked in, followed by Aang and Zuko, followed by the final guard, who turned and shut the door.

“This man,” the Fire Lord began, “sought to gain wealth by taking it from others. He didn’t steal from pockets, though, but from the treasury of the Royal Family. And when he was found out, he killed, in order to keep this knowledge from spreading. But it was discovered, regardless, and on the eve of his execution date, I came to him and offered him a chance. Not at freedom, but life, at least. All he would have to do is submit to a technique which, it is possible, might kill him regardless. But if it doesn’t, he will be able to live out the remainder of his days, here at the Boiling Rock.”

“What are you going to do?” one of the nobles spoke up.

Zuko walked over to Jee, and placed his hands upon the kneeling man’s head. “Aang has taught me an additional Bending technique, one which can be learned by any Bender, regardless of their country.” Zuko breathed slowly. “I am going to remove Jee’s ability to Firebend. Permanently.”

The few faces of curiosity joined those displaying open fear, and one man openly took a step backwards, even though he himself didn’t even possess Firebending.

Zuko let himself flow into Jee, and almost immediately encountered resistance. It wasn’t strong, though, and Zuko began to push through it, entering what could be described as being truly Jee. Jee as he was, without anything to filter him.

Waves of greed, and the anger that his grandfather had so abused their riches. A small niggling seed of regret over the death he’d caused, which had come from the heat of the moment, and which he would not have committed had he had the chance to do it over again. Still, it was no more than a seed of regret.

Jee’s essence roared into Zuko’s, battering against him as he screamed, and then as Jee began to lose ground, he found greater strength at his disposal, strength born of desperation. Bashing against Zuko’s mind, struggling against his bonds both here and physically, gaining ground but slowly, and yet gaining ground all the same. An inch is an inch, no matter how slowly or quickly it is acquired, and Jee certainly wasn’t losing any.

Until something snapped inside him. Because Jee had only been reacting. He had no real idea of what was happening to him, and when he forced Zuko out of him, he followed automatically, out of inertia, it could be said, though the term is not completely, is not technically, correct. Jee fell into Zuko’s essence, beating it back and gaining ground in Zuko, but then, he fell apart.

All men may fight against their attacker, but it takes a knowledge of war for one to make good on the gains, and consolidate on the enemy’s ground. Jee didn’t know what he was doing, and he exhausted himself in only a few seconds.

Beaten, drained, half-broken and shattered into a thousand pieces, Zuko took the advantage, and drove himself into Jee, searing his essence with the force of a sun, almost as if he were burning the Bending out of man.

Zuko fell to his knees, panting, and the guards ran over to help him up. Jee himself would have fallen over, but the chains didn’t allow him to do even that.

“Are you okay?” Aang asked.

Zuko tried to gain control over his breathing. “Yes. Pretty much.”

“You almost died.”

The Fire Lord forced himself to laugh, and it seemed to have the intended effect, for then Aang smiled, and the worry vanished. “I’m pretty sure I knew that already.” He stood up and stepped away from the guards. “One of my men has compiled a list of people I’d like you to look over. People who he thinks would be good candidates for the training.”

“I’ll take a look at it,” Aang said. “When can I get it?”

“I’ll have it to you as soon as we get back.” They began to walk away, and the guards took up their previous positions around them, but Zuko stopped, and turned around toward the warden. “I want you to inform the prisoners here, and tell your counterparts elsewhere in the Fire Nation, that we will be reducing the sentences of those who willingly give up their Bending, and likewise sparing the lives of those who would otherwise be executed.” He started walking, and paused again. “Oh, and Mai would like you to come over next week.”

“Of course, Fire Lord,” the Warden smiled.

Things were starting to turn up, Zuko thought.

Everything was going so well.

---

Water Year 1103

Capital City, The Fire Nation


“Is there anything I can call you other than ‘The Mechanist?’” Zuko asked.

The other man laughed. “I think it’s fine enough. Saves a lot of trouble in the ‘So what do you do, then?’ area. So, what did you need my help with, Fire Lord?”

“I’d like for you to work for the Fire Nation again, producing new designs.” Zuko handed The Mechanist a few papers. “Starting with what’s on here. These are mainly just basics. Things we want to be incorporated into a given design.”

The Mechanist looked through them. “Some of these look very… And after what the Fire Nation did with my designs before… I don’t know if I should.”

“I understand. Completely. But it’s for the good of my people. Can you imagine how many people would be out of work? So we’re going to need to continue to produce more machines. Lots more. And we’re going to need to improve them.”

The Mechanist nodded. “Can I go? I’d really like to get started now, if that’s alright.”

“Of course.” Zuko turned to and walked a few steps toward a guard. “Please escort him to his room.” He turned back to The Mechanist. “I think you’ll like what we have for you.”

After they left, another man came from behind. He looked like any other servant in the palace, though a second glance would have made one realize that he was from the Earth Kingdom. “I didn’t think he’d be convinced so easily, Fire Lord.”

“It was easy,” replied Zuko. “And we should be able to produce military-grade designs easily enough. Things are proceeding along quite nicely. How’s Aang?”

“The Avatar is in Sinaliarpok right now.”

“How… curious,” the Fire Lord said. “I wonder what he’s doing there. I thought he said he was going to be in the South, with Katara.”

“We could find out for you.”

“No, no. I’m sure it’s quite innocent. If Aang starts to become dangerous, I doubt that his reasoning for visiting the North Pole right now will reveal that to us.”

---
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« Reply #5 on: January 12, 2009, 11:57:11 AM »

Water Year 1103

Chung-ling, The Fire Nation


“It’s all your fault,” Azula stated.

Aang was startled. For more or less two years now, ever since she had been placed here after the Agni Kai, Aang had made sure to visit her whenever he was in the Fire Nation, or even just close to it, and he had never heard Azula say more than two words in a single day. Usually, a grunt or slight movement of the head as she listened to him talk, rambling endlessly on. So to hear her string together words into an actual sentence was something of a surprise, if you wanted to understate it.

“Come again?” he said.

Even now, Aang didn’t really understand why he kept coming. It wasn’t guilt, he knew. There was something else, which just drew him to Azula. He felt slightly unbalanced when he was away. Not too much, but when he talked to her (literally talked to her, because she herself never really did any talking), it was as if he had been relieved of a pressure so slight that he had never noticed its presence.

“You ruined it all,” she said, in that flat, toneless voice which Aang had grown so used to after all this time. “If you hadn’t come around,” she continued, “I would be Fire Lord by now. I would have everything I ever wanted. Even when you came along, I still could have gotten it, and you, too, in the end.”

Aang stared at her. Even though she was off the drugs, she was still rather unseemly-looking. Her hair had only slightly recovered its previous brilliance, and her bones would sometimes become all too visible if she shifted just so. The look in her eyes, which had once been merely dull and faded, seemed now to bear witness to some sort of hollowness within her.

“It wouldn’t even be all that bad, Avatar, to live under Fire Lord Azula,” she said.

“Oh? Really?”

“I’m not like my father. I don’t want an endless war, which is what he would have gotten. What would have been the point of killing all those people when I could do something else, and still control them?”

“I thought that you were the one who suggested burning the Earth Kingdom to the ground.”

If she had possessed the energy, Aang was sure, she would have laughed, but instead she merely whispered. “Do you really think that we could have gotten the whole continent before Sozin’s Comet left? Didn’t you take a look around you when you fought my father? There was nobody around, Avatar. Just psychological damage. My father is rather intelligent, but he never stood a chance when I decided to play him. Not then, not when I left to get my brother, not when I told my brother that he was going to be killed.”

“What do you mean?”

“Father never had to do that. He had to give him up. Little Zuzu would have taken Lu Ten’s place not by being killed, but by being Iroh’s son. But I couldn’t let that happen, could I? Mother only thoughy I was a monster, never realized how intelligent I was.” She made a sort of sound almost like a chuckle, but which came out more like a cough then anything else. “Neither did Father. I told Zuzu, he told Mother, and, I assume, she went running to Father, begging him not to kill her son, like I’d expected. He probably didn’t have any idea what she was talking about, but Father never had a problem with taking advantage of a presented opportunity, and here was someone trusted by Grandfather, but who was willing to kill him. I was going to be the Fire Lord. I knew that, then.”

“Wouldn’t Zuko have become Fire Lord, though? I mean, you couldn’t have already thought of that. Could you?” There was something about this which was starting to seriously worry Aang, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

It vanished, though, when Azula said “No.” And then it started to come back, ever so slightly, when he realized that there was an “although…” to that statement. “I didn’t think he would be banished, but… The fact that Father had become Fire Lord was proof that birth order didn’t matter. I was the only choice. Father would never let Iroh take the throne, even after his death, and my brother? Please, Aang. Zuzu was everything that Father hated. He was the firstborn, just like Iroh. And even though he hid it well, I know that Father was reminded of himself.” Azula cocked her head sideways. “I think Father was just like Zuzu as a boy. The same weakness, the same pitiful need for his own father’s acceptance and love. And while Father could forgive Zuzu for being born first, he could not forgive my brother for that constant, unceasing reminder. All I had to do was occasionally remind Father of how flawed my Zu— my brother was, in ways that were not always so apparent. He was always so hotheaded, always so unthinking. I put the idea of watching the war council in his head, though I had never thought it would work so spectacularly. I just thought that he would make a fool of himself, and that would be it.”

For the first time in years, Aang saw Azula smile.

“But then, the universe always bows to me. You’ll see. I’ll get out of here. And I won’t need my Bending to kill you.” Unnerved, Aang slowly stood up, and began to walk away, and Azula called after him, jovially. “Come back soon, Avatar!”

He stopped, momentarily. “I will,” he said, and he began to walk away again.

Aang didn’t know why, but there was something that kept pulling him to Azula.
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« Reply #6 on: January 20, 2009, 02:48:13 PM »

Chapter Three: Reparations

Water Year 1104
Capital City, The Fire Nation


“Bujing.” The Fire Lord’s voice cut through the silence of the halls like a razor. The man turned around, almost starting to tremble, and Zuko decided that he really needed to do something about that. “I would like to ask you a question.”

“Of course, Fire Lord,” Bujing said, and he gave a quick bow. “Whatever it is you wish.”

“I want you to talk to the War Minister for me. Tell Qin that I want him to discreetly— emphasis on discreetly— locate the Yu Yan Archers and bring them together.”

“Yes, Fire Lord. Whatever you request.”

Bujing took off like an arrow, and Zuko headed off to see Azariya and Iroh (the younger).

It was time to read them their bedtime story.

---

Water Year 1104
The Boiling Rock, The Fire Nation


Flanked by a pair of guards, Zuko pushed open the door and walked inside the room., the same place where Jee had lost his Bending. With five other people, each holding down a heavily chained prisoner, the warden stood toward the front, staring them down. At the sound of the door, though, he turned around, and his expression turned from disgust to shock. “Fire Lord Zuko? I wasn’t expecting you.”

“I want to see it happen,” Zuko said. These five prisoners were not your ordinary sort of traitor. They, like Jee, had been higher-ranking members of the court. “I want to know that they are dead.” And they had tried to kill him. “And I want to make sure that you do it slowly.” They almost had, too. “I want to hear them scream.”

Much could be said about what happened.

But this is crux of it: Zuko survived, because someone else took the blow for him, and that someone, whose name was Mai, might not make it.

And that was why the warden hadn’t paid it so much as a second thought when Zuko had ordered him to make their existence as terrible, and as painful, as possible. There didn’t seem to be a single collective inch among them which hadn’t been cut, burnt, or touched by acid. Horrible poisons had been administered, food and sleep had been denied.

The warden gave the order.

And as Zuko watched, they were executed, in an age-old method predating even the Agni Kai.

“Make sure Aang doesn’t find out about this,” Zuko told the warden, as they watched. “He might be willing to live with the executions, especially since we’re trying to get rid of them, but not this. He wouldn’t understand.”

It took a long time for the conspirators to die, and Zuko enjoyed every second of it.

They were going to be safe, now.

No more troubles.

No more stress that wasn’t paperwork-induced.

No more fear.

Zuko was starting to understand what his destiny was, and he was going to fulfill it.

Whatever the cost.

---

Water Year 1104
Capital City, The Fire Nation


Zuko stood by, and Azariya and Iroh and Jojo— Oh, the poor child— investigated their new friend, only a few months old. Katara’s hair, but Aang’s eyes. Katara stood nearby, trying to restrain herself from rushing in and grabbing her child, and he could hear her muttering that the child would be okay, every few minutes.

It was just a simple meal that they were eating (sans Katara, that is, who was, as already mentioned, trying to convince herself that her child could survive a few minutes of playing with three other children— she was almost there, but… you know, stuff happened…). Komodo sausages, and heavily spiced rice and fish. For most everyone, anyways. Aang was more than fine with replacing the fish and sausages with ash bananas, and seemed to like it so much that it, somehow, was actually rather suspicious.

Somehow.

“I’m expecting again,” Mai said, and she took another bite of sausage.

“Again?” Sokka exclaimed. He turned to Zuko. “How many kids are you going to have? I mean, aren’t you going to at least take a break?”

Zuko smiled. “You’d have to ask Mai. It’s all fun on my side.”

“I like kids,” came the explanation, and this seemed to be even more confusing. True, she seemed to adore the four who had already come along from various members of the gaang, but she was still capable of being cold as ice in other situations, and it was a little hard to reconcile the quiet, oft-expressionless Mai who was content to mainly observe, interject a comment here and there, and otherwise just play Pai Sho with Iroh— she was getting better, and Iroh had almost lost, once— with the cheery, bubbly Mai who chased screaming little children not because they’d gotten into her things again— though, admittedly, that did happen often enough— but because they were in the middle of a game of tag.

Ty Lee had popped by for a few minutes, unexpectedly, stolen some sausages, and left just as fast. It had taken nearly an hour before everyone had decided to just give up on trying to figure out why, and simply forget about it.

And Toph wasn’t there, Zuko thought for what must have been the hundredth time.

According to Sokka, she was busy arguing with her parents, trying to convince them that she didn’t need to get married, and especially not to “him.” Sokka never cleared up the matter of who “him” was— it was quite likely, quite probable that Sokka didn’t know, either— but at least that was the only problem. Zuko had been getting a little worried about Toph. She seemed to be growing a little… distant.

And should it have really be taking this long? She’d missed their last reunion, as well. He would’ve thought that she’d be able to leave at least long enough for this, of all things.

There was something between her and Aang. Or, rather, something with her, involving Aang, since it seemed that the Avatar was as clueless about all of this as everybody else.

Zuko resolved to figure out what was wrong.

Only moments later, there was a knock at the door, and one of the Palace’s many servants came walking in, head held low, heading toward Zuko. He bowed slowly, but with haste. “Forgive me for interrupting, Fire Lord Zuko, but the ambassador from the Earth Kingdom has just arrived.”

“Thank you. Tell him I’ll be there in just a moment,” Zuko responded, smiling— maybe he should just stop it, he thought for a second, until he figured out how to do it without terrifying them— and then turned around and leaned over to Sokka. “Sorry, but I’ve got to go.”

“Fire Lord business. Gotcha. I’ll tell the others.” Sokka glanced over at the mentioned “others,” and shrugged. “When they finally shut up, anyways.”

“Thanks.”

Scant moments later, Zuko reached the ambassador. He was a tall, gaunt man, somewhere between Ozai and Uncle Iroh in terms of age.

“Fire Lord Zuko,” he said, and bowed, Earth Kingdom-style.

“Ambassador Gatsu,” Zuko replied, and gave a small nod of his head. He wouldn’t have had a problem with bowing, really, but appearances had to be kept up and, for all intents and purposes, Gatsu was just another face in the crowd, albeit one who was currently serving in the stead of His Majesty Kuei, 52nd Earth King, Master of Ba Sing Se, Lord Over All the Earth Kingdom and the Cities Thereof, Scholar of the Old City, yada yada yada…

Zuko found all the titles rather irritating, and found it even more annoying by the fact that, while Kuei might have twenty or more of them, Zuko was still not sure if he had memorized all of the titles of the Fire Lord.

“It’s been awhile, ambassador,” Zuko continued. “I hope you had time enough to spend with your family before you were forced to leave again?”

“Yes. Thank you for asking.” Gatsu smiled, and looked back to take just a little longer of a look at a painting they’d passed. “You look remarkably like him.”

“Sozin? Or Roku?”

“Both, I suppose. It’s strange, but… there’s a lot of similarity between the two.”

“I get that a lot. Did your grandchildren enjoy the gifts I sent?”

Gatsu smiled again. “Oh, most certainly. It’s the first time I’ve ever been told to go away and leave them alone.”

“Oh?” Zuko cocked his head.

“Yes. I was ordered by Their Excellencies, Fung, June, and Pong that I was to leave straightaway, and return to, excuse me for the disrespect, ‘Fiyah Lode Zookoh,’ and get more.”

“I’m glad they liked them. So, is everything well in the Earth Kingdom, then? I’ve heard reports of bandits, and a few rebels, but there’s always that, isn’t there? We have discontented masses of our own here in the Fire Nation, in fact.” Zuko frowned. “Most of my people were all too happy to see The War end, but there have been some who felt that their honor had been besmirched, or simply wanted the power that a successful conquest would bring.”

“There is, in fact, some trouble beyond the norm.”

“Please, tell me. There’s little point to all this otherwise, right?”

“There is some… worry over the Colonies.”

“Oh?” Zuko appeared to be surprised. “What do you mean by that?”

“Surely, you must’ve heard just a little.”

“Only a little. And from what I’ve heard, it’s just general discontent. Nothing to worry about.”

Gatsu scratched the back of his head, visibly distressed. “Many of the citizens of the Earth Kingdom believe that you are merely using this time to take a breather, as it were, from The War, so that you might finish the work of your ancestors that much more easier.”

“And where are they getting these ridiculous notions?” Zuko asked.

“Well, for one thing,” Gatsu replied, “you still maintain a presence in the Earth Kingdom.”

“The Colonies have existed there for generations,” exclaimed Zuko. “I can’t demand that they leave their homes and simply pack up to a place where work is already hard enough to come by. There are actually people still leaving the Homelands just because what work is available wouldn't pay enough to feed a pair of bearded cats. Do you know how many of my people were unemployed until recently?”

“Until recently,” Gatsu repeated, putting extra stress on the second word. “Nearly everyone in the Fire Nation has work now, is this not correct?”

“Yes, and neither you nor the Earth King should forget how our work had benefited your people. Because of our work, every city in the Earth Kingdom will be connected by railroad, in little more than a decade from this very date. And have you forgotten, too, of the massive efficiency we have provided in the trade system? With our supply trucks, the merchant caravans are able to make the rounds in half the time.” Zuko smiled. “I’ll bet the people never thought they’d see a day when the merchants came twice a season.”

“But you retain complete control over the vehicles. Each one must be driven by a Fire National specifically licensed for the job, and those people are the only ones allowed to so much as look at the things when they’re damaged and in need of repair.”

“We can’t just let the whole world learn about how these things work, now.”

“But how are we supposed to trust you, Fire Lord?”

Zuko looked mortified. “Please explain to me how I am supposed to take that, Gatsu. I thought we were friends, and now my friend is saying that my trustworthiness is suspect!”

“I didn’t mean to say it like that,” the ambassador said hurriedly. “Not at all. But the other people. The rest of the Earth Kingdom. After so long, it’s hard for them to…”

“It’s hard for them to move on,” Zuko finished, and Gatsu nodded. “I’ve had similar talks with the ambassadors from the Water Tribes.” The Fire Lord shook his head. “They refuse to choose a single envoy, and so I have to deal with their complaints separately. Surprisingly, though,” Zuko went on, “they do not seem to be nearly so demanding as your people.”

“What have they requested?” inquired the ambassador.

“What have they demanded,” Zuko corrected. “The Northern Tribe is willing to trade with us, so long as we follow a few conditions. We are to follow only along certain previously agreed-upon routes, and while within their territory will be escorted by a number of submarines relative to the strength of the fleet. Further, we are to only enter their waters for trade purposes twice a year, while diplomatic overtures should…” It looked as if Zuko were struggling for the right word. “They should be very rare. They also demanded that all the assets of one Admiral Zhao be given over to them, and that his name be forever stricken from the records of the Fire Nation. I was only too happy to oblige.”

“And what of the Southern Water Tribe?” Gatsu asked.

“They want nothing to do with us. I personally, and the Royal Family, may visit, but only due to our connection to certain members of their people. Until the city Maniyok is completed, no other citizen of the Fire Nation may step foot on the South Pole, or travel through its waters. I think it’s rather fair enough.”

“All that Earth King Kuei is asking for is something he can use as a sign to the people that you can be trusted. I believe you, Earth King Kuei believes you, but not all of the people do. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Zuko said. “But I’ve understood that for awhile, and I’m afraid that I can’t change my position on this matter.”

“They think that you are attempting to use the Colonies as a beachhead, for your next assault.”

“Perhaps they’d like for me to stop production of the railroads,” Zuko said. “Perhaps they’d like for me to buy back every piece of machinery we’ve sold.”

“You seem to be forgetting that there’s always a Fire National in charge of the machinery.”

Zuko sighed. “Gatsu, perhaps you don’t fully understand the situation. I am giving my people every sort of job there is, and I am still having to hire people to dig ditches, just so that I can then hire people to fill those ditches. You have no idea how much I’ve cut down on production in the factories, just to reduce how threatening we are.”

“We have also learned of your employment of The Mechanist.”

“Is that a problem?” asked the Fire Lord. He knew what was going on in the ambassador’s head. The Mechanist was brilliant, but extremely gullible. So long as he had all the funds he could ever need, for whatever new design he was cranking out, then he’d eagerly accept whatever story he was told, so long as it survived the few minutes of examination it would be given before the Mechanist dove into his work again.

Zuko had even hired somebody whose sole job was to remind The Mechanist of when he needed to eat and sleep, and unlike some of the jobs he'd created, that one was actually necessary at times.

“Now, how goes the monument we’re financing in Ba Sing Se?” Zuko asked, once Gatsu shook his head slowly.

“Very good. And the Earth King and I both think that it should help, as a permanent testament of what has happened, and how it will never be allowed again. In time, it should ease some of the worries of the people.”

“At least in Ba Sing Se,” Zuko said. “Now, I’ve heard that you’ve disbanded much of the army, as per the terms of the treaty. How is that going?”

“Good. We’re down to just a little more than three-fifths of the size we had during The War, with most of them having reintegrated into civilian life quite nicely. The Council of Five is, however, quite worried about your efforts at demilitarization. It doesn’t look like you’ve relieved more than a few regiments.”

“We are disbanding as quickly as we can, but we must take into account matters of employment. Do you have any idea of how many of my people serve in the military of the Fire Nation?”

Gatsu didn’t respond, likely because he had an idea. A hundred years of warfare did not translate into a society with a small military, and every able-bodied Fire National, male or female, had served either in the military itself or in some production-related industry.

“Relax, Gatsu. Something like this doesn’t fix itself overnight, or even in just a handful of years.” Zuko reached into a pocket and pulled out a tile, holding it out for Gatsu. “Here. Give this to the Earth King, and tell him to ask General Fat what it means.”

“What does it mean?”

“It means that you and the Earth King can trust me.”

Gatsu took the White Lotus tile, and the Fire Lord smiled.

---
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« Reply #7 on: January 20, 2009, 02:48:50 PM »

Water Year 1104
Capital City, The Fire Nation


“I’ve been thinking, How,” Zuko said, as he walked through the halls of the Royal Palace.

“About what, sir?”

“The… ‘re-education’ process. And if the tools you used were still available.”

“Earth King Kuei ordered us to destroy them.”

“But you didn’t, did you?”

How smiled. “You should know better than that, by now, Fire Lord. Of course we didn’t.”

“Then I want you to contact your agents in Ba Sing Se, and arrange for them to transport everything related to the re-education process. As well as anything else you think may be of value.” Zuko scratched his beard for a moment. “Did they require any unique materials, or might more be produced?”

The Dai Li’s grin grew, until it looked like it would split his face in two. “Oh, we can definitely produce more.”

“Then do so. And make sure nobody hears a word of this. I don’t want anyone to know of it. Least of all Aang.” The Fire Lord scowled. “The consequences for all of us will be dire indeed, if Aang learns about what we’re doing.”

“I assure you, Fire Lord, he won’t notice a thing.”

---

Water Year 1104
Chung-ling, The Fire Nation


“Back again?” Azula spat out. “I can’t imagine why. Certainly, it’s not for the company.”

There was no answer.

“Oh, now what’s this? Are you really refusing to speak to me? Is it because of what I said last time you visited?” Azula asked, referring to the events of two weeks prior, when she had made some rather… sordid remarks. “But then, given what I’d said, I’m forced to wonder why you even come at all.”

She picked up a chopstick and poked at her bowl of rice. “Maybe, it’s because you know it’s true. So how is the little kiddy doing, then? His peasant mother carry him well?” Azula leaned over the table, closer to Aang. “I heard what you named him. So sentimental. And so full of rabbaroo crap. I mean, really, why not something more dignified?”

“I wonder why I keep coming here,” Aang said.

“Maybe it’s because you like me, Avatar. Ever wonder what you could do, here?” Her voice dropped. “Nobody would ever find out, you know. I think that’s why you keep coming back. Your brain just hasn’t caught up with the rest of you, if you catch my meaning.”

“Do you really want this to be a repeat of my last visit? Because, personally, I’m rather tired of hearing this whole tirade again and again.”

“Then why did you only leave early last time?” She asked.

“Probably,” Aang said, “because you decided to go into some new territory, and call Katara a sl**.”

She leaned back in her seat. “Yeah, probably. But hey, it’s not like she’d know about this.”

“And how many times do I have to tell you ‘No,’ Azula?”

“Until you say ‘Yes,’ and you will, in time.” Azula smiled. “I always get what I want.”

“Then why aren’t you free?”

“I lost patience. I need to regain patience. I snapped. I broke. I snapped. I broke. I snapped. I broke. I—” and so Azula carried on, for several minutes, until eventually she resumed her conversation, unaware that anything out of the ordinary had happened. “— snapped. I broke. I shouldn’t have reacted how I did. I should have planned more, and been more ready.” This had occurred before, but never in such an ironic fashion, during a point where she was actually discussing her damaged mental state.

“Perhaps you should get some rest,” Aang suggested.

Aang couldn’t prove it, but he always felt as if, somehow, there was more than just one Azula looking at him from behind those hollow, faded golden eyes. Every so often, the tone of the conversation would change, without any cause. The subject might remain the same, but the way in which she approached it could sometimes reverse completely.

“Let’s play Pai Sho, Avatar.”

“I don’t think so. Last time, you managed to spell out an obscene word with the tiles.”

“Well, I thought it was rather clever, considering that I’d needed to manipulate your tiles as well, and do it just so.”

“How about a game of cards?”

And this somehow triggered a violent response in Azula, for almost instantly she was reached across the table, trying to drag Aang over it, biting at him and clawing with nails which had, fortunately for him, been filed down by the staff. He broke free of her grasp of took several steps back, opening the door and then closing it just as rapidly behind him before leaning against the wall and allowing himself to slide down to the floor, panting.

He’d come back again soon, he told himself, but he was busy for the next few weeks.

In just another week, he said to himself, a month later.

As soon as this village’s problem is resolved, he promised himself, and then I’ll check to see if Azula is doing better.

But other things got in the way, and he was all too willing to allow them.

The months passed, and eventually it didn’t matter so much. Azula had managed to find a piece of glass, and was gone now, and as for Aang, well…

Aang thought he had much bigger problems now, than a raving madwoman.

---

As Zuko said, most people were all too happy to see The War end, but there were others… Some people felt that their honor had been damaged. Some people wanted the power.

Some people just plain learn the wrong lessons from history.

Some learn the right ones.

Time will tell.

“I guess you don't know people as well as you think you do. You miscalculated.”

—Mai


End of Part One.
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