Beads clicked on her abacus as Ursa added the receipts for the sale of the mace and nutmeg. It was a truly staggering amount for so little of each spice; easily twenty times what she would have gotten in the Fire Nation. Even when she flicked beads back to cover the payment for the next shipment, they still had more wealth than many families could dream. Even nobles of the Upper Ring came to take tea with her husband and make oblique requests for money and favors.
Five years ago, they had arrived at the gates with forged passports and stolen clothes - she and Ozai could play the bandits when need be - and one precious box of cloves she had snatched before they fled the Palace.
Her mouth curved in a smile as she reached for the receipts for the cinnamon.
"Mother!" Zuko stormed into the room, book under one arm and finger-tips black with ink. "How am I supposed to do these assignments when none of the history books are even real?"
Ursa didn't remember her children being quite so angry when they still lived in the Fire Nation. "What happened, Lee?"
His eyes flashed, and she knew he hated that name. She hated it too, just like she hated Ozai's and Azula's Earth Kingdom names. They were too soft, too quiet. They didn't suit her brilliant family. They didn't suit her.
"We're supposed to write an essay on a recent historical event 'using all the proper forms'." Zuko rolled his eyes. "But none of the history books talk about anything that actually happened! And my tutor says I can't write about the Siege, the Siege never happened! Of course the Siege happened!" He kicked out abruptly, fire flaring red in a perfect execution of the Soldier Strikes the Veil technique. "I hate this city."
Her hands trembled at the blossom of true fire. She should scold him and Azula - he would never do this if Azula wasn't also firebending. They knew better. The Dai Li watched them; the young man with the hard eyes and the long braid was always there when she stepped out of the house, and the broad, bearded man with that same braid was about when she glanced out the windows.
Yet Ozai could drive her wilder than anything with just a flame cupped in his hand, these days.
She said nothing about the firebending. "Find what they do write about then, Lee. It doesn't matter what they teach - your father and I know history better than any of your tutors here in Ba Sing Se."
Zuko snarled, "They're lying, Mother. They're lying about something important, and I can't-"
Ursa slammed her hand down on the desk, making the abacus clatter and her son jump. "You will," she said firmly. "You are at the top of that class. You are better than all of them, and you will not throw that away over something so petty."
His eyes narrowed, and he looked so like his father in that moment it was shocking. "Mother-"
"Choose which hill you will die on carefully," she warned.
Zuko turned on his heel without a word and slammed the door on the way out.
With a sigh, Ursa lifted her hand from the desk and stared at the scorched handprint. "Slag."
"Lin, is dinner prepared?" Inwardly, Ursa winced at the sharpness of her question. The discussion with Zuko had fanned sparks in her that still had not settled, but the cook had done nothing to deserve their sting.
"It's ready, Lady Ying. Hot on the table, and I'll be taking Biyu out with me after I finish cleaning up." Lin glanced over her shoulder, brown eyes kind. "I took the liberty of sending her up with Miss Oma's meal. I didn't think she'd come down to eat."
Ursa frowned. "Oma was going to attend a party tonight. Why is she still here?"
"I don't know, Lady Ying."
Of course not. She often got the impression the servants found dealing with Azula to be an imposition on top of the already strange requirements she had of them. No proper, prosperous family would require their servants to live elsewhere and only work in the house from dawn to dusk. It made trusted servants hard to find - she had been lucky to find Lin, but the woman was half-Fire herself and brawnier than the Earth Kingdom appreciated in its women. An earthbending refugee with tainted blood would never have found work with any other family than hers. Grateful Lin gave Ursa's family their privacy and ensured the other servants did the same.
Without that privacy, Ursa knew her family would have exploded.
"Thank you, Lin. Have a good evening." She hardly waited for the cook's acknowledgment before she left. At the end of the hall, she decided to cut through the courtyard rather than walk all the way around the house's three sides. The late afternoon sun on her face gave her some measure of peace, as did the gentle babble of the garden's stream.
Sometimes, she was amazed at how lovely their home was in Ba Sing Se. They had poured so much money into making it the perfect Earth Kingdom home - the elegant central courtyard, the lovely garden, the family shrine in the center of the building that neither she nor Ozai used, their bedroom on the one side, their children's bedrooms in the eastern wing, their kitchens and sitting rooms in the western wing, their forbidding gate. The perfect Ba Sing Se art, the perfect Ba Sing Se arrangement to the garden, the perfect Ba Sing Se dishes, the perfect Ba Sing Se manners that Ursa still had to remember to use.
It was all beautiful, and only the garden brought any soothing to her soul. There was a koi-pond there, her one stubborn refusal of this perfect Ba Sing Se life.
The maid knelt in the hall outside of Azula's rooms, arranging dinner prettily on the lacquer tray. A drop of sweat rolled down the back of her neck, and Ursa paused. It was just after the spring equinox, only a week after that horrible night when the moon turned red. It was still bitingly cold here in Ba Sing Se, though of course, she hardly felt it.
She never felt the heat either, Ursa thought, but Biyu was sweating.
She and Ozai didn't firebend enough.
"Thank you, Biyu. Help Lin finish in the kitchen, then you may go for the day," she said briskly.
The maid startled, almost sloshing tea on her hand. "O-of course, Lady Ying!"
Ursa's expression softened as Biyu stumbled through a curtsey. She was not yet of marriageable age, and she'd lost a brother the year before. To what, Ursa wasn't entirely sure, but it had shaken the whole house of little tailors. Biyu had apparently been pining away, until an uncle who happened to work for Ursa mentioned to her father that the Lady Ying and Lord Lee needed a new housemaid. A younger daughter getting the attention of a wealthy merchant family was quite desirable, Ursa was given to understand. Especially if there was a son who might be forced into marriage to prevent a scandal.
Biyu scurried down the hall, and Ursa watched until she turned a corner before she opened Azula's door. Heat struck her face-
Blue flame flared and filled the room. Azula kicked and punched in the middle of it, her hair done up sloppily. She wore only breastband and breech-clout, and her skin shone with sweat.
She didn't look away from her katas as Ursa stood in the doorway, so Ursa took the time to study her daughter's firebending. Azula had the basics down perfectly, she noted. She moved through them as smoothly as someone who had performed them a thousand times. Beyond the basics, though, her moves looked self-taught or cobbled together from earthbending moves.
Ursa's eyes itched with tears, and she hated how much Azulon had forced them to throw away. Her little girl should be a wonder just like her father.
She stepped into the room and shut the door behind her. Now she took in the other details of the room - the rugs kicked back so Azula had a clear space to move in, the scorch-marks on the stone floor the rugs normally covered, the bolted-tight shutters. No lamps burned; the room was lit only by Azula's firebending.
Then that went out, and Ursa stood listening to her daughter's soft pants in the darkness. There came a soft sound of displaced air, and the lamps flared with red flame.
"What is it, Mother?" Azula snapped. "I'm busy!"
"Miss Huiliang has her birthday party tonight. I thought you were attending." Ursa folded her arms as she studied her daughter. "Her mother has spoken of nothing but at our teas for the past two months. Only Huiliang's coming-out party next year will be grander, she claims."
"Like I care." Azula rolled her eyes. "I don't want to watch that stupid cow 'bending party favors out of marble."
"It is a useless demonstration of skill," Ursa said carefully as she crossed the room to open the shutters. If she managed to feel it, the heat in here had to be oppressive.
"At least it's a demonstration of skill!" her daughter snapped, whirling towards her. "At least she gets to 'bend! At least someone will teach her!"
Ursa's hands gripped the edge of the windowsill. Before she married Ozai, no one would teach her much more than the basics in firebending. She had been forbidden to enlist. She had raw power - she was the Avatar's granddaughter, how could she not? But it wasn't until she came to be Ozai's wife that anyone would teach her skill.
Here in Ba Sing Se, she and Ozai were the only ones who could teach their children. But both of their firebending styles were too distinctive - her blue flames and his lightning. If the Dai Li even suspected who they had...
"Oh, Azula," she said softly, and her daughter jerked her head away.
Azula's shoulders shook. Ursa took a step towards her, reaching out to draw her daughter close, but Azula snapped around, blue fire blazing in her hands. "Leave me alone! I hate this city! I hate those girls! I hate you! Why couldn't we have stayed home?!"
Ursa folded her hands together and regarded her daughter. Could she even explain the Firelord's cruelty and apathy towards his second son and their family? Would Azula even believe it? "The alternative was far worse than this." She paused, waiting for a response, then continued after a moment, "Your dinner is waiting in the hall. Please don't let it go to waste. 'Bending takes a lot of energy."
"I hate you," Azula said more plaintively.
"I know," Ursa said softly, as she wrapped her arms around her daughter.
The emerald-green curtains rustled, and Ursa lifted her head as Ozai climbed into the bed with her. He drew the curtains around the bed neatly shut, then softly blew the hanging bronze lamps to life. Gold light filled the small room-within-a-room of their canopied bed, revealing his irate expression.
"Ying," he half-snarled, "I found myself scheming this afternoon to get us a home in the Upper Ring. I actually cared one whit about what ring we lived in!"
"Lee..." She held her arms open, and he fell on her with something like desperation. By the time they rolled apart from each other, blood flowed down his back from the rents left by her nails, mouth-shaped burns covered both their necks, and she felt bruises forming over her back and hips.
Ozai stared at her. "This place is killing me."
"It's killing us all."
He stirred restlessly, then extinguished the lamps. The sudden plunge into darkness startled Ursa until he abruptly relit the lamps, and she realized he was feeling the fire in the stars. With his power, it happened often, keeping him from sleep. In the Fire Nation, he'd leave their bed to read in another room. Here in Ba Sing Se, all he could do was come to bed late and play with the lamps.
Sometimes, she woke in the middle of the night and found him gone anyway.
"You need something to occupy yourself," she said, her voice still warm in the afterglow. "Something worthy of you, my husband."
"There is nothing worthy of me in this city."
"Then get us home."
Ozai studied her. The fires in the lamps grew redder, until she reached across to splay her hand against his chest. He sucked in a breath at her touch, and his eyes drifted shut. "You think that is wise?"
"I think we will not live much longer in this city, one way or another." Ursa curled her fingers, nails pricking against his skin.
"No," he said slowly, "One way or another, we'll be gone when the Comet comes."
Her hand slid down his chest, and the lamps went out again.
"The wife slipped."
Dai Li Commander Hyo raised his eyes from the reports spread across his desk. "Oh?"
"She used her daughter's name. Azula."
"Thank you, Tai. That could be very useful."
The Dai Li agent gave Hyo an abbreviated bow of acknowledgment. He paused, waiting for any further orders, then left when Hyo dismissed him.
Hyo bent his head back over the reports, but when he finished the current one, he did not reach for the next. Instead, he picked up a message-slate and chalked a handful of orders on it.
Five years. For the first time in five years, they had something on the mysterious family of Fire spice merchants. Something that required further investigation, but the girl's name was infinitely more than they'd known yesterday about those four.
"Alak," he called softly, handing the slate to the trainee when he appeared. "See this gets where it needs to go."
Iroh rose from his bed to find mid-morning sunlight shining through the windows. The curtains were pulled back, steam rose from the washbasin, and the wardrobe's door was not quite shut. A hint from his servants, slightly more polite than the Palace Chamberlain would have been if he'd come in himself to open Iroh's rooms this morning.
He washed and dressed, then went out to sit in the sun for a while. A serving maid brought him pastries stuffed with fruit and cream, and he found himself watching the sway of her hips more out of habit than any interest. But, he hadn't felt any interest in anything since his son died.
No, he thought as he emptied the plate, that was a lie. He did still care about one thing.
What had happened to his brother?
Six years ago, he returned home from his failure at Ba Sing Se with the vase containing his son's ashes in his hands, and he found the Fire Nation Palace in a quiet uproar. The Second Prince and his family were gone, the Firelord acted as if Ozai had never existed, and the Seneschal was lying to the half of the world who cared about Ozai and didn't live at the Palace. Her lie of choice settled quickly after his arrival - Ozai had retired to his estates elsewhere on the island with his family.
Questioning Kajizu revealed she knew nothing and questioning Father was pointless. Iroh didn't have the energy for that fight, so he'd turned his attention to the servants. Surely, someone had seen something.
It was a stableboy, of all people, who gave him the first clue as to what had happened. He said he'd prepared a carriage for Sage Geming the night Iroh's message of defeat arrived at the Palace. He had been sent away before anyone climbed inside, but in the morning, the sage was still at court and the Second Prince's family was gone.
Iroh licked cream oozing out of the pastry shell. He didn't know what in his message inspired Ozai's flight, but he would ask his brother when he found him.
Other pieces had fallen into place slowly - Ozai was not in the Fire Nation but someone in the Earth Kingdom was receiving spice from Ozai's estates. Tracking them down proved fruitless; whoever received the spice paid well not to be found, and it was almost laughably easy to lose followers in the war-torn continent. Iroh had done it himself more than a few times as an officer.
But in six years, they should have had some scrap of rumor of Ozai. Someone should have whispered about four gold-eyed Firefolk in their town, someone should have seen the distinctive dragon's tongue beard, someone should have heard the accents of Fire Nation nobility.
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
It was as if they had disappeared from the face of the world.
Iroh tilted his face towards the sun. Or, as he'd realized last night, as if they'd gone into a place where news did not come out.
Ba Sing Se.
"We've almost reached New Iroh, my prince." The commander glanced nervously at him, still unsure of how he would react.
Iroh would have tried to reassure the man once. Now, though, he merely dug his knees into the side of his komodo-rhino. Lightly, he said, "Father should have asked before he renamed it. I prefer the traditional name - it has a history."
"Yes, my prince."
They crested a rise in the road, and there ahead of them lay the captured city of Omashu. Smoke hung in the air, some parts of the city obviously still burning. Even from here, he could see the great red banners hanging from the walls and towers, proclaiming the Fire Nation's ownership of the great city.
He had met its king once, he remembered. The incident was tinged with a surreal vagueness, like everything else between the day of Lu Ten's death and the day he set foot in the Fire Nation again. He had... found Jeong Jeong, maybe, and this great strapping earthbender with a damaged eye and copper-burning mind. He'd given Iroh a pai sho tile, a white lotus. The most worthless tile in the entire game, but afterwards-
He thought maybe Jeong Jeong had said he had one, too.
The whole night made even less sense than many of those nights had. He wasn't certain if it had even happened.
Iroh touched the small pouch beneath his robes that held his seals and the white lotus tile. Omashu belonged to the Fire Nation now, and so did its king. If that night ever happened, he would have some answers.
"Thank you, Governor Zatoru," Iroh said for the fifth time. He continued before the man could attempt to compliment him further, "It has been a long journey. I would appreciate a bed to sleep in before dinner tonight. I am sure your servants are seeing to the needs of my men."
"Of course." The governor clapped his hands and a young man flung himself into the room. "See the prince's chambers are ready. Is there anything else I can do for you, Prince-General Iroh?"
"Only prince now," Iroh said politely. "There is another thing. Lady Mai, your daughter, is here, isn't she?"
Wariness entered Zatoru's eyes. He knew about the appetites of Azulon and his eldest son. The man had always been a sharp member of the court, from what little Iroh remembered. One of Ozai's friends, too, but wise enough never to mention that too loudly now that the Second Prince was gone. Yet Father had not merely sent Zatoru to Omashu to get rid of him. He knew how to compliment without flattery, and he knew how to tame Earth Kingdom lands to Fire Nation hands.
"She is," he said carefully. "She and her mother are with the baby right now."
Iroh wondered whose baby it was. Had the girl gotten herself a husband already? He had been certain she was Azula's age... Perhaps she had been older? "I would like to speak to her when she is done, Zatoru. Send her to my rooms."
Steel threaded through his voice. "Is there a problem, Governor?"
"No, my prince." The man bowed his head. "I'll... inform her myself. Yuan will escort you to your chambers."
Lady Mai arrived with a servant carrying tea. An Earth Kingdom black from the smell of it, and Iroh took it with a polite murmur of thanks. The servant bowed, then back towards the door but did not leave. Clever of Zatoru but not clever enough. "Is there something the governor expects from me?"
The servant's eyes widened, and she started to stammer out an answer.
"Get out," Lady Mai said flatly when the servant dithered, and the woman fled. Pale gold eyes met Iroh's. Her voice was still flat, almost bored, when she spoke to him. "What do you want, Prince-General?"
"You were a friend of Azula's. I know where my brother has taken her." Iroh paused to take a drink from his tea and gauge Lady Mai's reaction.
Gold eyes narrowed and one wrist flexed curiously. "So does everyone. They're living on his estates."
"Do you believe that?"
Lady Mai didn't answer. She flexed her wrist again, and something shifted under the blank expression she wore.
"They have gone to Ba Sing Se," Iroh said quietly, setting his tea down. "It will be dangerous to go and get them. We might not ever come out again. That city swallows people whole."
"And chews their bones, I've heard this before." There, under the boredom, he thought he heard the spark of anger. "So you want to take me away to Ba Sing Se and do what? Find a girl I haven't seen for six years? We weren't that close."
"No?" Some part of him wondered if he'd made a mistake, but the spark of anger in her voice was starting to rouse something in him. "I remember a little girl so very excited to bring friends home from the Academy. I remember a little girl who wanted to stay in the shadows of the halls until Azula dragged her into the sunlight and said, 'This is Mai, she's my best friend'."
Lady Mai swallowed and made that same curious flex of her wrist. "That was a long time ago."
Iroh picked up his tea and raised it very slightly towards the young lady. "So it was." He took a sip. "Can you tell me that matters if it means you get out of this pit?"
Lady Mai's glare intensified, then she threw herself into the chair opposite him with enough force that it rocked on its stone legs. "Anything to get out of Omashu," she said fervently. "Why me? You almost had Ba Sing Se six years ago. You don't need a teenage girl with your army."
"I won't bring an army this time." Iroh drained his tea. "An army attracts attention. An old man and his grand-daughters can be just another group of refugees from the war."
Iroh smiled. "I do remember Azula having one other good friend."
After a sumptuous dinner where Iroh ate three plates more than Zatoru, he bade his good nights to the governor and his family. Instead of returning to his quarters, however, he collared one of the soldiers and ordered the woman to take him to where they had imprisoned the earthbender king.
The soldier led him onto a platform supported by scaffolding, then pointed up. Iroh stared into the darkness, just barely making out a coffin-shaped shadow hanging in the air. "There?"
"Yes, Prince-General. King Bumi is a powerful earthbender, and we didn't want to take any chances."
Of course. Most any skilled earthbender was strong enough to break out of a wooden box. Iroh studied the shape hanging in the dark. Metal to contain the man, air to smother the earthbending. It was a well-made prison. "Bring it down."
"Bring it down," Iroh repeated. "You can't have hung it up there without a way to get it down. Otherwise you'd have just killed him."
Iroh gave the soldier a contemptuous look, and she let the sentence die.
"Right. By your will, Prince-General." The soldier strode off into the darkness.
After a few minutes, Iroh heard the faint sound of machinery turning, and the box far over his head began to move. He watched it descend, some odd anticipation stirring in his lungs. He thought, just barely, that he tasted a storm.
The box thunked against wood, and Iroh ignited flame in his hand. His eyes adjusted faster to the sudden brightness; the king of Omashu was still squinting while Iroh studied him. Wild hair but the crown of his head was bald, age spotting his skin, one eye pulled down by an old injury. This was the man he'd seen that night with Jeong Jeong.
"You gave me a white lotus tile once," Iroh said. "Why?"
King Bumi grinned. "That's something for you to find out, m'boy."
"I am well past the age where I am anyone's 'boy'," Iroh said coolly. "I am finding out - by asking you."
He chortled, his laughter full of snorts and a running thread of insanity that disturbed Iroh. "The problem there is, I'm not going to tell you! Be like your brother - open your brain to the possibilities!"
All thought of the white lotus tile vanished. "-What do you know about Ozai?"
The old king snorted. "You're playing with spark-rocks in a firework factory if you go after him. But you knew that already."
Suddenly shrewd eyes studied Iroh, and he squared his shoulders as if he had known that already. No, his little brother would probably not be happy to see him again, but Ozai's happiness didn't matter. He was Iroh's younger brother, and he and his family belonged in the Fire Nation. Venemously, he asked, "Do you actually know anything of importance?"
"I know the price of cabbages in Ba Sing Se!"
A week later, Iroh reined in his komodo-dragon and studied the circus ahead. It was a mass of bright tents, the circus-people hurrying everywhere as they erected more tents and prepared to perform that night. It looked much like any other circus he had seen during his days in the army, though perhaps with fewer armed guards. But this circus didn't intend to perform for bored and unhappy soldiers to raise their spirits; it was here for the town less than a mile down the road.
"This is where Lady Ty Lee is?" he asked, giving the circus a dubious look.
"Yes." Lady Mai sounded bored. "She writes letters now and then."
Lady Mai gave him a sidelong glance, then raised her shoulders in a shrug.
Iroh sighed. "Well, let's go find her."
He ambled through the collection of tents, Lady Mai striding ahead of him. She seemed to have to force herself not to leave him behind. A memory-flash of the days when his son and officers had to fight to keep up with him sparked and died. He shook his head; that had been years ago. Today, there was no hurry - the sun shone gently, the air crisp with the last bite of winter as it fell to spring.
They found Lady Ty Lee balanced on her fingers. Iroh blinked, impressed despite himself.
"Mai!" she said brightly, tumbling forward and coming up on her feet to fling her arms around her friend. "What are you doing here?"
Lady Mai bore the hug stoically. "Looking for you."
Lady Ty Lee looked at her friend curiously, then looked past her at Iroh. Her eyes widened in recognition, and she sloppily put fist to palm in a quick bow. "Prince-General!"
"Lay Ty Lee." He offered her a friendly smile. "You were a friend of Princess Azula's, as I recall."
"Oh yes! She had such a crimson aura." The girl lifted one leg, pulling it up straight against her chest. "I really wish she'd had a chance to say good-bye."
"Then you'll be pleased to help me find her again," Iroh said.
A look of sudden alarm flashed across Lady Ty Lee's face, and she darted a glance at Lady Mai then back to him. "Well, I'd love to, but I really feel like my home is-"
"She's in Ba Sing Se," Lady Mai broke in. "I've never been there before."
Lady Ty Lee brightened. "Well," she said thoughtfully, "my aura has never been pinker than here in the circus, but new experiences always add new colors."
Iroh nodded as if he had the slightest idea what she was babbling about. "Gather your things. We'll leave after your show tonight. It is a long, long way to Ba Sing Se, and there is far too much we'll have to figure out along the way."
"Her name is Azula." Hyo passed the report to the Director of the Dai Li, Long Feng. "Unfortunately, that's not as useful as it could be."
Long Feng nodded as he unrolled the scroll. "A feminization of the current Firelord's name."
"Indeed." Hyo sighed. "We can't know for certain that the Fire Nation follows similar naming traditions to us, but it stands to reason that children named after a long-lived and highly-successful Firelord would be, well, common as dirt."
"A pity." Long Feng glanced over the rest of the report. "I see Bae still wants us to take them into custody."
So did Qin and Jae. Xiang was more direct than that, but Hyo had already banned the captain from offering any opinion on how they handled the Fire Nation family. "One official conversation with the father didn't really tell us much, sir. He thinks mindbending will loosen their tongues."
"No." The scroll went into the green-burning fire. "Selling spice is not disruptive enough to warrant playing that part of our hand just yet. If we ever need to use it, I want it to be a surprise."
Hyo nodded, pleased they wouldn't resort to that. Of course, Long Feng knew of his aversion to mindbending, but at least the Director would have the courtesy to remove him from the investigation before he brought in the mindbenders. "Everything else is routine, sir."
He flashed a hand-sign indicating those reports were in Long Feng's other office, and the director smiled.
"I need to study for exams," Zuko said as he backed out of the dining room. Father barely gave him a glance, and Azula hadn't come to dinner with the rest of the family again. Mother smiled at him, though, and he almost stammered out that he wasn't actually going to study.
But he'd been lying for years. Lying to his family was harder but not impossible.
He skimmed the assigned text so if he was called upon during recitations, he wouldn't make a complete fool of himself. Then he quietly locked the door to his room and opened his chest of clothes. Underneath the formal school uniform he only needed twice a year, there were soft, grey clothes and a blue theater mask. An Earth Kingdom mask, a joke-gift from his friend Bahn after they got into a fight during a play.
There was trouble in the Lower Ring tonight. There was trouble in the Lower Ring every night. Too many people, too many burn scars, too many Fire eyes with Earth hearts. It was like a demolitionist's powder-keg.
Zuko pulled on the dark grey clothes and picked up the mask. Below even the mask, there was a set of paired dao swords and a green-hilted knife.
Father didn't want him to firebend. Well, there were things he could do that didn't need firebending.
Mornings were finally starting to be warm more often than not, and it had been a month since Zuko heard anyone talking about the night of the red moon. A few months since the night itself, and he'd spent most of that time with his nose to the grindstone studying for the spring exams. His excursions as the Blue Spirit had dropped off, which would have made Mother happy if she knew.
Now, though, he handed in his last exam and dashed outside to join Bahn and the others.
"Slow," Bahn teased, slugging him in the arm. "Aren't you supposed to move fast, gold-eyes?"
"Aren't you supposed to take forever?" Zuko rubbed his arm.
Bahn was a soldier's grandson with three older brothers, two of whom were earthbenders. He was a lot more physical than most of the other boys at school, and almost as much of an outsider in the upper Middle Ring society as Zuko was. His parents had worked hard to get all of their boys into good schools, and from what Zuko heard, both of Bahn's earthbender brothers were officers of good standing in the army and his non-bender brother was an official in the Ministry of War. They had good futures.
Sometimes, Zuko thought Bahn was choking behind his eyes when he talked about his own future prospects.
"Come on, Lee," Jing said. "Let's get some food! We've been waiting long enough for you."
The other boys chimed in with agreement, and Zuko let them argue over where they were going to go. It didn't really much matter to him, because all the places where they served spicy food were in the Lower Ring or close enough to the Lower Ring Wall that they wouldn't be going there.
Bahn ambled along beside him, his pace gradually slowing. Zuko slowed with him until they'd dropped behind the other boys then lost them around a corner.
Zuko glanced curiously at his friend.
"What? They won't miss us." Bahn grinned. "I know you, gold-eyes, and lucky for you, my brother told me about this new teashop in the Lower Ring. Let's get something to satisfy all that magma in your belly."
"This is why people say you're--" Zuko muttered, making a gesture to indicate 'into guys'. Father had looked at him funny the first time he'd done that, then quietly explained that there was nothing wrong with that and anyone who said otherwise was an idiot.
"Better that than listening to Jing boast for another hour," Bahn replied, turning off down a different street. "Come on."
The teashop wasn't in a good area of the Lower Ring. There were a few too many hard eyes, too many hungry eyes. Too many gold eyes. If it weren't for his clothes, Zuko knew he'd fit right in here.
Bahn pushed open a worn door, and Zuko followed him inside. The teashop was better than he'd thought it would be from the outside, though it was nothing like what his mother or sister would be caught dead in. Probably not someplace Father would be either, but he still had no idea what Father did in Ba Sing Se.
There were fewer empty tables than he'd expected, but they managed to grab one near the door. Zuko grabbed the seat facing the door out of years-long habit; knowing if Azula was coming had served him very well over the years. Bahn just grinned, then grinned more as a brunette girl bounced over to take their order. Something about her looked familiar to Zuko, but he was sure he would have remembered such a vibrant girl in spring greens.
"Hi! My name is Ty Lee! Do you know what you want, or should I tell you what we've got?"
Zuko froze, while Bahn smiled at her. "We've never been down here before. Why don't you tell us what the special is?"
Ty Lee smiled, and Zuko remembered that smile. Maybe not quite with the little bit extra this young woman was turning on Bahn, but he remembered Ty Lee's grin as she somersaulted through the gardens.
"Well," she said brightly, "we've got a nice selection of greens and blacks, but I'd try the brown rice tea if I were you. It's made with-" she glanced towards the back of the teashop, "-well, not with love today. Our usual teamaker is out, but Mai's pretty good with tea!"
No, no, no. This couldn't be happening. Zuko clutched at the edge of the table, trying to keep his breath steady.
"... Is your friend all right?" Ty Lee asked, leaning closer to him, and Zuko almost whimpered. Green clothes weren't enough, she had to know who he was! If she knew, Grandfather would find out, and that would be... That would be bad. Mother and Father always said that would be bad.
"You know, I have no idea," Bahn said slowly. He leaned across the table. "Hey, Lee. Lee. It's just tea, man." He glanced back at Ty Lee. "We just finished our exams. Guess it caught up with him. How about two of the brown rice tea?"
Ty Lee was still looking at him with concern but no recognition in her grey eyes. "All right. Mai! Two brown rice!"
Then she bounced away, and Zuko sagged against the table.
"We need to get out of here," he said quietly.
Bahn gave him a look. "Lee, we just ordered."
"We need to go."
"What's your hurry?" a girl asked from behind him. Pale hands set down two steaming cups of tea, and Zuko followed them up green-black sleeves to a familiar bored expression. Mai. The girl he'd wanted to protect from Azula when he was still a prince, the girl he missed so much that first year, the girl he dreamed about sometimes.
The girl who was a young woman now and staring at him with recognition in her pale gold eyes.
"Enjoy your tea," Mai said like it was being forced out of her with tongs. Then she walked away.
"... Soooo, ex-girlfriend?" Bahn asked, picking up his tea. "If so, are you still on good enough terms with the braided girl to introduce me?"
Zuko's head thumped against the table.
"Drink your tea, gold-eyes."
Zuko drank his tea, but he kept glancing over his shoulder to keep an eye on Mai and Ty Lee. For her part, Ty Lee kept giving him peculiar looks - she suspected, he was sure of it. Mai just ignored him.
Bahn kicked him under the table. "Stop acting like a crazy person, or she's not going to come back over here."
He yelped softly, then hissed, "I'm not acting like a crazy person!"
"Could have fooled me."
Grumbling, Zuko drank the rest of his tea then scowled at his empty cup. "Fine, I'm done. Let's go."
"Let's pay first, gold-eyes," Bahn said archly, looking at him over the rim of his own cup. "It's polite and all."
His friend looked hopefully at Ty Lee, but she just waved Mai over to get their money. Zuko's shoulders climbed around his ears as he dug out the coins to pay under her unimpressed stare. At least Bahn wasn't flirting with her. He didn't think he could handle the embarrassment.
"Come again," Mai ordered as she scooped up their coin.
Bahn grinned at her back as she walked away. "You're in luck. Maybe she's not so ex after all, gold-eyes."
His fingers ran over the mask. He should go down to the Lower Ring and search them out. Had the two of them come alone? He didn't think they could have, but Mai and Ty Lee had always been- They'd been Azula's best friends, and he'd started to realize how hard that was a few years ago. None of the Earth girls at Azula's school were good enough.
They might have come alone, but Zuko really didn't think they had.
He should go find out.
He should get some sleep. There was an earthball game tomorrow, and he liked the look on Jing's face when his team got beaten by the team with the half-blood.
Earthball was one of the few things Zuko could do in Ba Sing Se that didn't make him feel like an outsider. As long as he was in the court, all he needed to focus on was the ball and the other players.
He stole the ball from Jing and passed it to Dae-Hyun. The other boy ran it up the court to where Quon guarded his team's net.
Zuko shadowed his friend, putting an elbow into Dewu's ribs when he got too close.
Not too obvious an elbow. An earthball brawl would get Mother mad and him too beat up to go out tonight.
Dae-Hyun danced the ball between his feet, studying Quon. He was too careful, for all he was fast with the ball. He should take the shot now-
Jing darted in, an elbow going high and hitting Dae-Hyun's face hard. One of the other boys on Zuko's team yelled in outrage, but Zuko made a quelling gesture. Jing took off with the stolen ball towards where Bahn was guarding their team's net, grinning.
Zuko hissed and took off after him. He was not losing this. One more goal by either team would end the game, and it wasn't going to be Jing's team who got that goal!
Someone hit him hard from the side, and Zuko went tumbling across the stone court. The other boys were yelling, and he raised his head in time to see Bahn deck Jing. A brawl broke out around him, and Zuko looked at his scraped raw hands. He was going to be bruised in the morning, he knew from experience.
But, some part of him thought with glee, this was the best time to put on the mask and go out because he could blame any other bruises on the game.
Zuko crouched on the rooftop across the street from the teashop. The shutters had been closed a while ago, and now he was just waiting for the girls to come out.
The mask covered his face completely, but he still kept one hand on the mud-brick roof. He'd feel it if the tell-tale vibrations of earthbending went through the structure. It wasn't the best way to keep an eye out for the Dai Li, but he needed to focus on the teashop.
The door swung open, and an old man ambled out. Zuko couldn't get a good look at him in the poor light of the lamp he carried, but Mai and Ty Lee stepped out behind him. The three of them waited for the teashop-owner to lock the building, Mai's body-language distinctly bored and Ty Lee bouncing tiredly from foot to foot. Then the teashop-owner went his own way, and the girls went with the old man.
So they had someone else. If only Zuko could see who.
He followed them along the roofs, shadowing them back to a run-down wooden apartment building. It didn't look like the sort of place suitable for ladies like Mai and Ty Lee, which was probably why they'd chosen it. People like them attracted Dai Li.
So thinking, Zuko carefully began to circle the apartment, scanning the rooflines of nearby buildings for the Dai Li agent that had to be there. He always knew where to look to spot Tai or Duyi; even went out to have soup with them some nights.
Where were the Dai Li watching Mai and Ty Lee?
It took him two hours to carefully circle around on rooftops thrice. At the end of the third circuit, Zuko had to admit that there were no Dai Li. He hunkered down on the roof of the building next to Mai's apartment, trying to deal with that idea. Maybe there were just too many refugees, gold-eyed and green-eyed and brown-eyed? He had some vague notion that the war was getting worse out there - otherwise there wouldn't be so many people streaming into the city.
"There you are!" Ty Lee said, and three sharp hits went across his back. Zuko tried to spin but found himself crashing to the rooftop. His arms refused to move, and his legs shook with spasms.
"Oops." She hit him again, and he couldn't feel his legs anymore.
Zuko bit back a scream. No, no, no! No! Screaming would attract Dai Li, screaming would attract Dai Li, Ying Zhen's balls, what had she done to him?
Mai sighed and stepped into his line of sight. "He doesn't look like a Dai Li."
"Well," Ty Lee said reasonably, "it's not like we know what Dai Li look like."
Zuko quashed the retort that anyone who'd seen a Dai Li agent knew exactly what they were looking at without being told.
Mai crouched beside him, and he saw a faint glint of metal before he felt a blade settle under his chin. It stroked a small line on his skin, sending a slight shiver through him, then slid up and hooked under his mask.
His breath came quick and fast as she pushed the mask up. He felt exposed when it was pushed up over his hair.
"I can't see," Ty Lee complained. "Is it the boy from the teashop?"
"Yes," Mai murmured, her knife stroking down Zuko's cheek.
He caught the motion of Ty Lee's nod. "I thought I recognized his aura. I don't think he's a Dai Li, Mai."
"He isn't." The tip of her knife dug into the skin just behind his jaw, and he hissed as he felt blood start to ooze. He didn't remember this about Mai.
Ty Lee tilted her head slightly. "That doesn't mean there aren't Dai Li around. I'm going to check!"
She bounded off into the night, leaving Zuko alone with the girl who was still playing her knife across his throat. "It's been a long time, Zuko."
He nodded, relieved he could still move his head. His fingers began to tingle, the sensation gradually increasing until it was almost painful.
"What are you doing here?" she hissed suddenly, leaning in close.
"What are you?" he shot back, a bit of flame sparking between his lips. "It's safe here, Mai, and you can't-"
He broke off and turned his head away, feeling the knife-blade slide against his skin. He'd said too much; if she didn't know why he was here in Ba Sing Se, he shouldn't tell her. Mother and Father both had taught him that. Answer the questions they asked and no more.
"Safe from what?" Mai asked in a low voice.
Zuko wriggled his fingers. "Safe," he repeated, looking into her eyes. In the dark, he couldn't see their color, but he remembered they were the pale gold of electrum. Pretty. Classically Fire Nation.
Nothing at all like what they had in the Earth Kingdom.
Her knife drew blood again, and he smiled raggedly. "We're in Ba Sing Se, Mai. Everyone is safe inside these walls."
Then he kneed her in the stomach.
He almost got his throat cut, but he rolled to the side in time. Her knife still sliced him open, but it wouldn't kill him. She might, though.
He leapt to his feet, drawing his dao blades. Knives snapped towards him, barely seen in the darkness, and he wove steel in a pattern to deflect the weapons he couldn't see. He felt a touch off-balance still, and his eyes weren't as good in the dark as Bahn's. Some of her blades got through, tearing his clothes and grazing his skin.
At least the darkness was hindering her too. Mai had always been able to put her darts where she wanted to when they'd played throwing games as children.
"I'm not going back for Grandfather to kill me," Zuko snapped. "You can't take me back!"
Mai paused in mid-swing. "What are you talking about?"
Alak peeked into his office. "Tai says the younger Lee went out again tonight."
"That's good," Hyo replied absently. "A little less crime in the Lower Ring."
Normally Hyo was home at this hour of the night. However, both he and Long Feng were still cleaning up the recent mess caused by the war. After the attempt of the Fire Nation drill to pierce the Great Outer Wall, Long Feng had wasted time in another meeting with the Council of Five on why they had to hide the war. Dealing with the rest of the complications had fallen into Hyo's lap.
Long Feng had only returned to his office three hours ago, a veneer of calm concealing icy fury. Hyo's briefing on what had already been done quickly shifted to calming the Director down. Dealing with the Council of Five, especially General How, never made him happy.
"Yes, sir," Alak agreed. "... Do you want me to take Mi-Cha home, sir?"
Hyo glanced at the corner where his daughter had tucked herself in on a mat. She had laid down only a little while ago- He glanced at the timepiece. No, it was even later than he had thought.
He looked down at his desk. He still had seven or eight different things to read concerning how the drill had affected things, who had seen it that shouldn't, and everything else that went along with keeping an entire city silent. No doubt the Director had even more to deal with.
"Yes, please, Alak. If you could spend the night, I would appreciate that."
Azula dressed herself in the morning, something that would be horribly shocking to the other girls in Madame Bao Yu's School for Young Ladies. Even the poorest of them would use the housemaid rather than actually put on their own clothes.
It made Azula want to spit.
Biyu did her hair. The girl had gentle hands, and Azula could never get her own hair perfect. Otherwise, she would have done it herself. She was better than those silly girls at the school. She wasn't some helpless little ornament waiting for her parents to find her a husband.
Outside, Lok waited with his rickshaw, tossing a stone ball back and forth in his hands. He stood head and shoulders taller than her, copper eyes the only thing betraying his mixed-blood. The rest of him was all Earth Kingdom - broad shoulders, powerful muscles, and handsome face. The way he never wore a shirt didn't seem entirely normal for the Earth Kingdom, but it didn't seem unusual enough for anyone to remark on it.
The rickshaw was an elegant little one-seater of polished wood with a cushioned back in emerald green. She climbed into it without speaking, and he tossed the ball back into the wall he'd ripped it from. Then he picked up the rickshaw and took off.
Several streets from her house, he looked back over his shoulder at her. "Where to, Miss Oma?"
Azula considered. Mother had hired Lok to take her to and from school, but in the last three years, she had convinced him to take her wherever she actually wanted to go. It was a steady but worthwhile drain on her allowance. "School today. There's dance class this morning. Come and fetch me at lunch, though."
Dance was the only class where she felt like a real girl. An Earth Kingdom girl could dance quick and hard - though not hard enough to make the earth crack, as Madame Bao Yu warned the earthbender girls.
Lok grinned. "Sure thing, Miss Oma. Want to hear the news?"
"Yes," she said, trying to mimic her father's most regal tone.
"Well, the big thing is the arrival of the Avatar."
"Fei Yen, lift your feet! This is dancing, not advanced walking!" Dancemaster Ae Sook snapped out. "Hua, this is a partner-dance! Stop acting as if Miss Eun Mi will bite you! Oma, if you don't stop snickering, you will have to show the entire class how well you've mastered this dance!"
Azula bit her lip. She could leave all of the other girls here in the dust, but long experience had taught her Madame Bao Yu didn't like uppity girls. She was training them to be ladies, as she would remind Azula whenever she did something 'unladylike'. If Madame Bao Yu decided enough was enough, she would invite Mother over to discuss Azula's progress. Especially all the days she simply never came to school.
"A candle-mark until we can dance with another pair," Lei, the older girl dancing as her 'male' partner, muttered. "I swear, if that clod Fei Yen steps on my heels again..."
"We'll weave into Vanida's group in the next round," Azula muttered back.
"Thank the Earth King." Lei heaved a sigh of relief as she swept Azula through the weaving pattern of the kwadril. Azula loved dancing with Lei - she was one of the only older girls comfortable enough with the 'male' half of the kwadril to dance as fast as Azula liked. Unfortunately, the kwadril required at least four dancers to be performed correctly, so neither of them could really dance as fast as they wanted.
Not that Lei should dance quickly at all, as Madame Bao Yu reminded them whenever she looked into their class. A lady earthbender did not let her earthbending show itself, except in the creation of decorative items to enrich her home.
A lady earthbender certainly did not dance with her earthbending, Madame Bao Yu had said scathingly the one time Azula voiced the idea.
Azula had vowed then and there that she would dance with her firebending. She would not be confined and contained, not like all these pathetic dirt-girls.
The music changed from the strains of the spring-dance to the faster chords of the summer-dance. Azula and Lei wove into a square with a different pair of partners. Lei sighed in relief then began to dance Azula even faster through the kwadril.
"Did you hear about the Avatar?" she asked.
"He arrived a few days ago," Azula said, affecting a bored tone. "Of course I've heard."
"He's a rude kid," Vanida muttered, dancing across from them. "You do not crash a party for the Earth King after the ministers have given you in a guesthouse in the Upper Ring."
"He's from outside, what do you expect?" Lei shrugged. "But I heard he was airbending at the party. That has to be an exaggeration. No one can teach airbending anymore!"
"Lei, the only things a lady should be saying when she's dancing are not fit to be said to another woman!" Dancemaster Ae Sook roared.
Azula let Lei whirl her out, her mind spinning with her body. The Avatar was the master of all elements, and if he'd mastered airbending, then he must have mastered firebending! Mother and Father might be too scared of the Dai Li to teach her, but he wasn't! He'd disrupted the Earth King's party, he wasn't afraid of the Dai Li!
"You're grinning," Lei muttered as she swept Azula back into her arms.
"Of course," Azula purred, dancing closer to her partner than silly bints like Hua would dare. "I'm the best here, and I'm only going to get better."
Lok waited for her outside, crouched on the ground with several other girls' rickshaw drivers. They were dicing, but Lok broke away from the game as soon as she stepped outside the school's gate. When she settled herself in the rickshaw, he picked up the poles and trotted off with her. "Where to, Miss Oma?"
"The nearest Upper Ring gate." Azula watched the muscles in his back work, idly extinguishing the sparks trying to burst from her fingers.
He slowed and looked back over his shoulder at her. "You know they don't allow rickshaws in the Upper Ring, Miss Oma. You want me to take you to the gate nearest to where you're going?"
Her hands tightened in her lap. She didn't know where she was going. The Avatar had a guesthouse in the Upper Ring, but other than that... Lightly, she said, "Well, I thought I might see the Avatar."
"Ah!" Lok grinned. "I've got a cousin who tends the Earth King's ostrich-horses, and he overheard the maids in the Hall of Literary Glory gossiping about Miss Joo Dee - the one helping the Avatar - anyway, he told me where the Avatar's staying."
What impressed Azula the most was that Lok kept running at a constant speed without hitting anyone while he told her all of that. He had family throughout the city's servantry, something she'd taken advantage of in the past and was sure she'd use again in the future.
"So," she said, leaning back in the rickshaw, "are you going to tell me?"
It took her half an hour to walk from the Upper Ring gate to the Avatar's guesthouse. A pretty girl alone on the streets drew stares, but people didn't talk out-of-doors in the Upper Ring. At least not in these neighborhoods. There was a strange hush here that made the back of her neck prickle. She'd lived in Ba Sing Se for five years, in the Lower and Middle Rings both, and she'd never seen people so quiet.
Azula refused to be cowed. She walked with her head held high all the way up to the Avatar's door. She knocked.
"Look, Joo Dee, we don't-" A girl her own age jerked open the door. "-Oh. Um. Hello."
The girl dressed all in blue with a pretty blue necklace around her throat. The shape of her face was exotic, her eyes blue. Azula had never, ever seen a girl like her.
But she wasn't the Avatar.
Azula squared her shoulders and looked the other girl in the eye in a way Madame Bao Yu would have said was distinctly unladylike. "I'm here to see the Avatar."
"Koh and Kuruk!" The blue girl flung her arms around Azula, squeezing her hard in a hug. "You're a real girl!"
Azula blinked and tentatively wrapped her arms around the girl's waist. "Yes. I am."
"Hey, Katara," a boy called from inside the house, "it doesn't take all day to tell Joo Dee to leave!"
"You've got to come inside," the girl, Katara, said as she drew back. She was smiling, blue eyes hopeful.
Azula had expected she would need to argue and bribe her way to see the Avatar. She hadn't thought at all it would be so... easy. But Katara led her into a dining room inside the house, where three other people sprawled on silk cushions. There was a little girl in peasant's clothes, a boy also wearing blues like Katara, and-
And a little boy in saffron silks with blue arrow tattoos flowing down his arms.
An airbender. The Avatar was an ash-choked airbender.
The blue boy glanced up at her, then scrambled to his feet with a warm smile. "Hello. Who's your friend, Katara?"
"This is..." Katara looked at her expectantly.
"You can call me Oma," Azula said, lying like her parents had taught her.
"As in Oma and Shu?" the little girl asked, sounding amused.
"Yes," Azula growled.
Katara smiled at her. "It's a lovely story. Your parents must have really high hopes for you to have named you after her."
"They do have high hopes for me," Azula admitted. They had named her after the Firelord and the greatest Fire Nation general of the whole past century.
"My name is Katara, and that's my brother Sokka. Ignore him if he starts getting weird. That's Toph, and Aang here is the one you came to see."
"You forgot Momo!" Aang said, reaching over to scritch a ball of white fur sleeping on one of the pillows. It uncurled into a creature that wasn't at all the hedgedog she'd been expecting, yawned at her, and curled back up.
"Yes, and that's Momo," Katara said with a laugh. "Come on, why don't you sit over here by me, Oma?"
"You came looking for me?" Aang asked, looking at her curiously as she sat down on one of the floor-pillows next to Katara.
She nodded and almost bit her lip. How much to tell them? As much as it would take to convince them, but she couldn't tell anyone too much. Mother and Father were afraid of the Dai Li for a reason, and she knew the Dai Li had to be watching-
"Oh, now you're getting nervous?" Toph snickered, finally lifting her head. The little girl's pale eyes stared somewhere over Azula's shoulder. With a start, she realized Toph must be blind. Strange. Why would the Avatar keep such a crippled companion? Did he feel sorry for her?
Still, she was right. Azula drew a breath, feeling it fan the flames inside her. "I'm a firebender. My family- The Firelord- He-" she fumbled for words the first time in her life. How much could she really say? She didn't even know what happened! Father would have killed Zuko, she knew he would, so why had they all fled to the Earth Kingdom? Why did they have to go through that horrible year as just another family of refugees, hopeless and poor and lost...
To her mortification, tears welled in her eyes. Katara made a soft, soothing sound and wrapped her arms around her, rubbing her back. "It's all right. You don't have to tell us until you're ready, Oma."
"He's hurt too many people," Sokka growled, and Azula knew he couldn't possibly be so angry on her behalf.
"I've just never had a master," she said against Katara's shoulder, her voice rough with tears. She wished she could dry them up, but she'd just burn her face if she tried. "Please, Avatar Aang, teach me to be a firebender."
"Oh, Oma," Katara said softly.
Azula tried to surreptitiously look at Aang to see how he was taking this. The words were the ones she'd planned to use, but ugh, the crying. That was so embarrassing, and why couldn't she stop?
Aang looked stricken. "I- I don't know how to firebend."
Azula sagged against Katara. He couldn't firebend? But he was the Avatar! He was the master of all four elements! How could he not be able to firebend? Was she going to be stuck in this city until she suffocated like all the other girls, like Zuzu was starting to?
No. No, she wouldn't allow that to happen to her.
"I need to find a firebending master myself," Aang said cheerfully, "so why don't you come with me?"
Kyung fell into step with Hyo on the way out of the palace. The agent looked tired; most of the Dai Li agents looked tired these days. The Avatar and his companions were wreaking chaos in the Upper Ring, the Fire Nation had made its first serious try at the Wall in years, and the city still had a thousand other things ready to go wrong.
"Miss Oma paid a visit to the Avatar's house today," Kyung said. "Miss Katara greeted her very warmly. They've kept the shutters closed, though, and Lady Bei Fong makes it fiendishly difficult to get close enough to eavesdrop."
Hyo sighed. One more thing had just gone wrong.
He really didn't like the idea of their mysterious Fire family bestirring itself from the spice trade.
Iroh came back late.
Mai sharpened her knife and didn't look up as he padded across the floor of their ratty little apartment. He went to the kitchen to brew his tea, saying nothing about where he'd disappeared to after they were done at the teashop. He never did.
"Ty Lee went to bed?" he asked when he came back carrying two cups of tea.
"Yes." Ty Lee went to follow Iroh because Mai asked her to, and she would slip inside the shutters Mai had left open.
He settled himself on the floor across from her, setting a cup of tea by her foot. "I am sorry I have not been able to take you girls around to see the sights. Ba Sing Se really is a grand city, despite what the Lower Ring suggests."
Her knife was sharp enough to cut silk. Mai put it away and drew out one of her throwing stars. "I don't really care."
Ty Lee cared. She cared about a lot of things Mai didn't. Like where Iroh went when he left them during the day. She had followed him twice while Mai had wandered aimlessly through the slums. The sights she'd seen weren't worth the scrap of information Ty Lee brought back.
Iroh went off to visit spice factors.
Last night, Zuko had said his parents were spice merchants. He'd said a lot of things once they'd started talking, and she'd listened while she bandaged his throat.
He had changed from the little boy who had pushed her into the pond to keep Azula from setting her on fire. His fires were banked, his stories full of gaps she heard and gaps she realized were there only later. Someone had taught him to hold back. Someone had taught him to lie.
She thought he would still push her into the pond, though.
Mai would not let Iroh fulfill his father's wishes.
"What are we looking for?" Mai followed Zuko as he slipped across the rooftops. He was wearing the same dark grey clothes and blue mask she'd caught him in before, while she wore her dullest and darkest brown robe.
The monotony of the last two days had been broken by Zuko knocking on her shutters. He hadn't been willing to come inside, just hung upside down from the edge of the roof to talk to them. Ty Lee had turned down his invitation to go 'do something', winking at Mai when Zuko pulled himself back onto the roof. (Perhaps she'd given her friend a small smile before she climbed out the window after him.)
"Could you be more specific?" Doing 'something' was turning out to be more tedious than she'd expected. At least she was learning the roofs. Sometimes she saw furtive movements out of the corner of her eye - they weren't the only ones up here.
"No." He glanced back over his shoulder. "We'll know it when we see it."
Mai glared at his back. Then Zuko paused at the edge of a rooftop, peering down into the alley below. She slipped up beside him and looked over the edge.
An Earth Kingdom girl clutched a satchel to her chest, four older boys surrounding her. The leader held out his hands, and she shook her head frantically.
Oh. This kind of trouble.
"Don't kill anyone," Zuko muttered as he drew his swords. "Don't even maim if you can help it."
"Bit of a challenge," Mai said, anticipation fluttering in her chest. She'd never felt it so strongly before. "Good."
They thwarted three more muggings, stopped two thieves from making off with their goods, and Zuko looked the other way when she nailed a man in the back of the neck. The girl he'd trapped against the wall had looked up at them, but Mai was sure she'd seen only Zuko's mask.
The whole experience was exhilirating. She could have run with Zuko all night, but he turned back to her apartment after only a few hours. "We still have to wake up in the morning."
She looked at his back and wondered how many days of exhaustion it had taken for him to learn that.
They paralleled an alley several streets over from the back of a square of taverns. Mai glanced down and noticed a drunk being helped home by a friend. Zuko followed her gaze then froze. He dropped to the edge of the roof, putting his hand over the mask's mouth when she started to ask him what was so interesting.
"Shoulda seen it," the drunk slurred. "Biggesht damn drill I've ever seen. Mighta been a real threat if the Avatar hadn't come."
"Is that so?" His friend had a familiar voice, Mai thought, but she couldn't quite place it. Maybe he came into the teashop.
"Yeah. Stopped the ash-pisshers cold." The drunk suddenly sounded worried. "But they're still out there. You can see the red when it'sh clear."
The two men turned a corner, their conversation getting lost in the night. But Zuko didn't move to stand, and when Mai nudged him, she found he was trembling.
"There's a Fire Nation army outside?" he asked very quietly.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
She blinked. "I thought you knew. You're the one who's been living here."
He rocked back on his heels, and she wished he wasn't wearing that mask. She needed to see his face. She'd seen his face when she told him Iroh was with them. She'd seen the way his eyes widened, the way he was almost hopeful and so afraid.
She reached over and undid the knot under his hair, pulling the mask away. He raised his eyes to look at her, and she didn't know what to make of his expression. He trembled more violently, and she pressed a hand to his shoulder.
"Father always said we didn't know what was really happening out there," he said hollowly. "That they wouldn't let us talk of the war even if there was an army marching through our streets."
"The Dai Li." Zuko picked up his mask and held it for a long moment. Then his eyes flashed to hers. He demanded, "Did Uncle do this? Did he bring them here?"
"He said we were going to attack anyway. It made a good distraction for entering the city." Something felt off in this conversation, like a burr in a blade's steel.
Zuko closed his eyes. "The Fire Nation almost breached the walls, and no one has even heard anything in the Middle Ring." His eyes opened. "Well, I heard. And so did Father."
Mai frowned. "When did Prince Ozai hear?"
He pointed down at the alley. "Just now."
In the morning, Mai was setting tea on a customer's table when she realized Zuko had talked like he was Earth Kingdom. 'Our streets'. 'Them'. Like he wasn't even Fire Nation, much less a prince of their people.
Like she was Earth Kingdom, too.
She scowled and stomped past Ty Lee chattering with her friend Jin and Iroh making tea like he really enjoyed being in this stupid city. Maybe he did. Maybe she'd turn a corner some day and see Prince Lu Ten being a normal Earth Kingdom citizen, happy in Ba Sing Se.
She went out back and threw knives at the alley wall until she felt better.
"I hate this place," she told Iroh when she came back inside. He nodded gravely, and his old, hard eyes met hers. It left her shaken, and drops of tea spilled down the side of the cups when she picked up a tray.
Prince Lu Ten died here, she thought. How much did Iroh hate this city?
How much would Iroh hate what Zuko had become?
"But he always loved Zuko," Ty Lee protested, her voice rising high. "He wouldn't-"
"Keep your voice down," Mai hissed, tugging her back down onto their straw-filled mattress. "Zuko said his grandfather wanted to kill him, and Prince Ozai refused. Can you think of any other reason why they would run all the way to this place?"
"Well, no..." Ty Lee tugged the blanket tighter around their ears. "But Iroh wouldn't kill Zuko!"
"Maybe, maybe not." Mai scowled. "He is the Firelord's favorite son, and Zuko is..."
She trailed off, not wanting to say it aloud.
Ty Lee nudged her. "Zuko is what, Mai?"
"I think he thinks he's part of Ba Sing Se." She swallowed. "Iroh hates Ba Sing Se. If Zuko's gone traitor-"
"That would mean they all went traitor," Ty Lee hissed. "Azula would never!"
"Azula was eight. She's been in the Earth Kingdom almost half her life," Mai said flatly.
A shudder ran through Ty Lee. "-What're we going to do?"
Mai didn't have an answer for her.
Zuko came back two nights later, and Ty Lee all but shoved her out the window at him. He came again three nights after that. Mai climbed the side of the building to join him without thinking about where she needed to put her hands. Two nights after that, she climbed out the window to wait for him on the roof.
When he saw her, he took off his mask. "Hey."
"Hey, yourself." She turned to look out at the city. The fire fountain was burning tonight, she noticed and wondered who had lit it. No one official.
"I thought- I was wondering... There's a new show at the Badgermole Lane Theater. My friend, he got tickets. Maybe you and Ty Lee would like to go see it?" Zuko paused, then hastily added, "We'd have dinner first! At a nice place, there's a lot of nice places in the Middle Ring, and I've got the money to cover it-"
That was the most painful attempt to ask her on a date Mai had ever heard. "No."
Zuko wilted. "Oh."
She wasn't an Earth Kingdom girl. She wouldn't be courted like one. "I heard the Avatar created a zoo outside the inner wall."
"I heard that too?" Zuko looked at her cautiously, as if trying to gauge her expression in the darkness.
"Ty Lee wants to go."
"-Bahn would probably be okay with that?"
"We have off tomorrow afternoon." They didn't, but Mai didn't care. It was just an awful, boring little Earth Kingdom teashop.
Zuko brightened and pulled his mask back on. "-Oh, one thing. Tomorrow, call me Lee."
Bahn proved to be the young man she had first seen with Zuko. He was broad-shouldered but not as muscular earthbenders tended to be. He had hair the color of walnuts, eyes like green tea, and a smile that made Ty Lee go 'ooh!' beside her. Beside him, Zuko looked uncertain and not quite at ease. He smiled when he saw her, though, looking almost relieved.
"Ladies," Bahn said, offering his arm to Ty Lee. She happily latched onto him, beaming. "Lee tell you what we had planned?"
"No," Mai said. She gave Zuko a stern look when he offered his arm, and he let it drop.
"Good, that means we can make it up as we go along."
Mai blinked, and Zuko's smile grew more confident.
"We might want to find an Earth-train," he suggested, a kind of friendly familiarity in his voice like she'd never heard before. "Unless you plan to carry Ty Lee on your shoulders three-quarters of the way around the city."
Ty Lee looked intrigued by this suggestion, while Bahn waved a hand airily, "Focus, gold-eyes. Food, then an earth-train ride. You don't want to keel over in the middle of the zoo, do you?"
"I just ate an hour ago," Zuko protested.
"Which means you're halfway to starving, I remember the last three years, Lee."
Mai stared. Were they teasing?
Zuko had never, ever had friends to tease like this in the Fire Nation. She wasn't even sure he'd had friends.
"Ooh, your aura is flickering low!" Ty Lee said, peering at Zuko.
"There's a noodle-stand not too far away," Mai said, studying Bahn. 'I just ate an hour ago.' 'Which means you're halfway to starving.' Firebenders burned a lot of energy when they firebent - her cousin could eat like a piggoose just off winter-feed after firebending practice. Did this boy know that?
Zuko gestured in the direction of Old Van's noodle stall. "You'll have to show us the way. I haven't had a chance to explore this section of the city."
Her mouth quirked in a smile. It was nice to know he still wasn't a perfect liar.
The animals weren't boring. The crowds irritated Mai, though, and she pulled Zuko towards the edges. Ty Lee and Bahn followed more slowly. Soon they all found themselves walking the outer periphery of the zoo, Ty Lee arm in arm with Bahn, Mai with her arm around Zuko's waist. Here, she could look over the wall and see grain-fields stretching for miles. She couldn't see the Great Wall at all. Ba Sing Se could have been its own nation, she thought.
Maybe it was. Zuko hadn't known what lay just outside the walls.
Her hand tightened on his waist, and he glanced at her. Then his eyes drifted to look out over the fields.
"What a waste," he said. "Couldn't he have put it anywhere else?"
Bahn snorted. "You think the Avatar even thought about what losing these fields would do?"
Ty Lee looked curiously back and forth between her date and Zuko. "What will it do?"
"The Agrarian Zone feeds Ba Sing Se," Bahn replied. "But we've been taking in so many refugees, the price of food has just been climbing and climbing. It's going to get worse without these fields."
"Refugees from what?" Mai asked quietly. How much did Zuko's friend really know?
He shot her an irritated look. "My brothers are soldiers. You and I both know from what."
"He should have thought," Zuko muttered. "You can't just 'bend things without thinking."
"He's a powerful 'bender. He knows the world is going to do what he wants when he wants it to, just like every other powerful 'bender," Bahn snapped. "That's the way they are, gold-eyes. They've got the world, and they don't care how what they do affects the rest of us."
Mai felt the weight of her knives and blades. Her head spun with memories - Azula putting the apple on her head, Mother saying 'at least the Firelord is too old to take an interest in Mai', Iroh arriving in her city and commanding her presence in his chambers.
She had her blades. She could throw accurately enough and hard enough to fight a 'bender. Uncle Naruzi had taught her to throw like that. Life with Princess Azula had kept her throwing. The princess had fire, but Mai's uncle knew how to cage firebenders. If they could be caged, they could be fought. If they could be fought, she could win.
Ty Lee made a soft sound and pressed her cheek against Bahn's shoulder, but her eyes were on Mai. "You're getting black all through your aura. Stop that."
Bahn took a breath and smiled at her. "Sorry. So, I thought I say someone selling caynar nuts somewhere in here. You ladies ever had those?"
"No," Ty Lee lied brightly.
Mai dug her fingers into Zuko's waist when he started to drift after them. He paused, looking at her curiously, and she jerked her chin towards the wall. Quietly, they walked over there, and she leaned her elbows on the top of it. Zuko's arm settled tentatively around her shoulder.
This was the first wall she'd seen in Ba Sing Se short enough to look over.
"The Ministry of Agriculture has their estimates of the productive land lost," Long Feng said, picking up one of the reports on his desk. "There will be a shortage come harvest, but if there is surplus to be had elsewhere in the Earth Kingdom, no one will go hungry."
"Sir, with the war-" Words failed Hyo. The Fire Nation weakened the Earth Kingdom in many ways, but especially by razing their crops. For years, Ba Sing Se had distributed its surplus; and for years, refugees streamed to the city and the surplus dwindled harvest by harvest.
"I am aware."
Katara put up another poster about Appa on the central pillar of a neighborhood fountain. Everyone always came to water, she reasoned, so a lot more people were likely to see it. Surely someone might know something or know someone who knew something.
She turned at the sound of a familiar voice, her mouth dropping as she caught sight of Oma. The girl sat in what looked like a two-wheeled, open carriage, except instead of an ostrich horse, she had a shirtless young man pulling her. A very shirtless young man. With muscles. Um.
If she had to choose between an ostrich-horse and that guy, she'd go with him too.
Oma stepped out of the strange carriage. "What are you doing?"
Katara held out one of her posters. "We're looking for Appa, Aang's sky-bison. He was stolen by sandbenders in the desert, but they sold him to merchants going to Ba Sing Se. We're sure he's somewhere in the city."
"There's a lot of things in the city," Oma said as she scanned the poster. "You wouldn't dream what you could find here."
Katara's shoulders slumped. This was a long shot, and she and Sokka both knew it. But Aang thought it would work, and she so wanted to see Aang smile again...
"But this is a good tactic," Oma continued. "People hear and see things you wouldn't expect."
Katara smiled. "Do you want to help me put the rest up?"
"-When we asked, Joo Dee said she'd been on vacation at Lake Laogai," Katara said as she handed Oma the tea-strainer. The other girl had insisted on making tea when they returned to the house in the Upper Ring.
"Lake Laogai?" Oma asked, sounding puzzled. "I didn't know there was anything out there."
Katara glanced back at her, watching the Fire Nation girl's brow knit as she considered the problem. Even in her green dress, Oma looked so much like one of Zhao's people, Katara had no idea how she walked freely around Ba Sing Se. She was such a sweet girl, though. Not at all like any of the Firefolk Katara had encountered in the journey to the North and then their journey to Ba Sing Se. Certainly nothing at all like those two scary nonbender girls.
"Well," Oma said at last, "it's not as if anyone tells me what amusements they have in the Upper Ring."
"Hey, Katara!" Toph yelled from the other room, "I thought you were making tea! What'd you do, fall in a hole?"
Oma growled in annoyance, and Katara rolled her eyes. "She's a bit of a pain sometimes."
Katara grinned. "Sometimes she's asleep."
Oma offered her a tentative smile then turned her attention back to her tea-making. She had poured boiling water on the tea leaves already, then immediately dumped the water out. 'To wake the leaves', she'd said. Now she seemed to be actually letting the tea steep.
"This is how Father makes it when he wants tea quickly," Oma said quietly. "He hasn't made it any other way in years."
For a moment, her expression was so sad that Katara just had to hug her. Oma stiffened under her touch but Katara just squeezed her harder. "I miss the way things used to be too."
Oma covered one of Katara's hands with her own. Her skin was shockingly hot, but it was Oma who hissed in surprise. "You're cold!"
"You're hot," Katara said, amused. "Maybe it's because we 'bend opposite elements?"
Oma nodded then pulled slightly away. Katara let her arms drop as the other girl picked up a cup of tea and tasted it. She smiled, then they both jerked around as they heard the door blow open.
"I'm back!" Aang called. "Who came while I was gone?"
Katara shot Oma an apologetic glance and crossed to the doorway. "Aang, nobody has come."
His face fell, and she wanted to sigh. He really was so young sometimes. "It's only been a few hours," she said. "Have some patience."
"Play some mahjonng with me," Sokka said, spreading the tiles out on the low table. "Seriously, Toph? Not so good at it."
Toph snorted. "Maybe if you had a good set..."
"Yeah, so not hauling a carved stone set across the continent, thanks."
Aang threw himself down on the other side of the table from Sokka. "Fine. How do you play?"
"... Right. Katara, you come play."
Katara glanced over her shoulder. Oma was mixing spice into the tea, its aroma growing more delicious by the moment. It would be nice to sit and play mahjonng, drinking good tea and talking. Everyone would have a chance to calm down.
There was a knock at the door, and Aang leaped to his feet. "All right! This patience thing has really paid off!"
He flung open the door to reveal a rough-looking man standing there. The man looked nervous, and he startled back when the door opened. He looked almost like he wanted to run, then he glanced down at Aang. "You the Avatar?"
"I, uh, found this." The man held out one of the posters. "I remember a coupla guys saying something about some animal like this the other day. In one of Master Feng Bao's warehouses. By Pao's teashop."
Aang's face lit up. "This is great! Can you show-"
The man hastily shook his head and took a step back. "No way I'm getting involved with Master Feng Bao's business, sir. Not me."
"That's wise of you," Oma commented from behind Katara. "Thank you for your help."
The man bowed. "You're welcome, lady."
"Oh, before you go..." Oma stepped past Katara, carrying a tray of teacups. "Have you ever been to Lake Laogai?"
Katara blinked, shooting the other girl a look, and she caught Sokka doing the same.
"Oh yes, lady. It's a lovely place this time of year. Very restful." The man bowed again then backed away. "Just wanted to tell you, Avatar-sir. Don't mention it. Don't want anything. Good day."
When he reached the street, he turned and walked away, leaving Aang standing in the doorway. For a long moment, he said nothing then he turned back to them. "What are you waiting for? Let's go!"
Oma knelt down by the low table and set the tray down. "He was lying."
"No, he wasn't," Toph retorted, stomping one of her bare feet against the stone floor where she'd kicked back the rugs. "I could feel his breathing and heartbeat. When people lie, there's a physical reaction. He was telling the truth."
"He was from the Lower Ring," Oma said, voice sharp and contemptuous. "Yet here we are in the Upper Ring."
"Two things," Sokka said, "one, how do you know he's from the Lower Ring when we don't even know the guy's name, and two, why's that important?"
"We lived in the Lower Ring when we first came to Ba Sing Se," Oma said, picking up a teacup and handing it to Sokka. She set another with a deliberate click down in front of Toph. "Katara, Aang, come have tea. Feng Bao is a criminal there. He deals in all kinds of illegalities, and he thought he could intimidate my parents."
Her smile reminded Katara of Zhao. For the first time, she saw the Fire Nation in Oma.
She carefully sat down opposite Oma, and Aang joined her a moment later. The other girl pressed tea into their hands, but Katara wasn't thirsty any more. Neither was Aang, from the way he just held the cup and stared into it.
"He never tried that again," Oma said with satisfaction. "As to the rest of it, people of the Lower Ring are forbidden to enter the Upper Ring without the invitation of someone who lives here. Someone had to let him in."
"I hate this city," Toph groaned, her fingers trailing over the tabletop until she found the teacup. "What kind of stupid rule is that?"
Oma shrugged. "It's Ba Sing Se."
"Why did you ask about Lake Laogai?" Katara asked, finally raising the tea to her mouth.
"Joo Dee mentioned it, and now this complete stranger mentioned it." Oma wrapped her fingers around her teacup. "There's nothing there. I've lived in this city for five years, and if there was something there that both people in the Upper and Lower Rings would know about, I would know about it!"
It was really the best tea Katara had ever tasted. It could have been ashes for all she cared.
Sokka set his teacup down. "Aang? We need to go to Lake Laogai."
Lake Laogai was beautiful. It nestled in forested hills, waves gently lapping against a sandy shore. Katara just wanted to shuck her dress and go swimming. The chance to immerse herself completely in her element was intoxicating. She hadn't had the chance to do so without danger looming overhead since before the Siege of the North.
She sighed. She still didn't have that chance.
"I knew there was nothing out here." Oma glared out over the lake, arms crossed and hair slightly mussed. She kept trying to rearrange it surreptitiously, and Katara almost asked her to come over so she could fix it.
"There's a tunnel right there near the shore." Toph pointed off to the right before walking towards whatever she sensed. At the water's edge, she jumped through an earthbending move, the motion so sudden it was almost startling. A lot of earthbending was like that to Katara - it didn't flow. Earthbenders moved too abruptly, or they didn't move at all, and she could never figure out why they 'bent when they did.
A stone walkway rose from the water. At the far end of it, Katara could see some kind of cover. Stone, of course. Most of the city was made out of stone. If she hadn't seen the North first, she would never have realized why.
Toph strode towards the cover, and they hurried to catch up with her.
"How does she do that?" Oma muttered.
Katara offered her a quick smile. "She's an earthbender. She sees with her feet."
Oma gave her a dubious look. "I know earthbenders. None of them-"
"Most of them do, Sparky." Toph grinned out past Oma's shoulder. "You just can't tell 'cause you're footblind. Now 'scuse me." She elbowed Aang and Sokka away from the cover, then snapped it off with her earthbending.
They all peered down it. Bolted to the side of the stone well was a metal ladder. The end of it was too far down in the darkness to see. A long, long way down, Katara thought she saw a faint green glow.
Sokka heaved a sigh. "Well, let's get climbing."
A shudder ran down Katara's spine as they snuck through the tunnels under Lake Laogai. Green crystals studded the walls intermittently, casting creepy shadows and creepier light. The damp clinging to the walls soothed her enough to keep walking behind Sokka. If the Dai Li came, she'd have weapons.
"Where's Appa?" Aang hissed, practically walking on Toph's heels.
"I don't know yet!" she hissed back. "There's a lot of people down here, and most of them are earthbenders. It's going to take me a little while to sort it out."
There was movement in the shadows ahead, and Sokka grabbed Aang and Toph by the collars and hauled them into a side corridor. Oma and Katara grabbed at each other's arms at the same time, shared a glance, then darted in beside Sokka.
Two Dai Li agents turned into the tunnel, and Katara held her breath as they walked by. If either of them glanced to the side...
Neither did, and she slumped against her brother when they had passed on by.
"Here's a thought," Sokka said quietly. "Let's not move until you get things sorted out, Toph."
Aang shifted anxiously from foot to foot until Oma reached over and grabbed his shoulder. Katara thought she saw the other girl give him a reassuring squeeze, but for some reason, Aang winced. At least he settled down.
"Got him," Toph said a few minutes later. "Follow me."
Toph paused outside a door then gave herself a slight shake. "Through here."
The door slid open on a cavernous room with only a little push. It was so big, Katara couldn't see the far side by the low light of the tunnel. Toph strode in confidently, though, and Aang hurried after her.
Katara felt Oma grab the back of her dress, and she glanced back at the other girl.
"I can't see in there," Oma hissed, then Sokka gave them both a little shove forward.
"We're going to lose Toph if you don't move. Oma, just keep hold of Katara. No lights. We don't want to alert the Dai Li."
Oma grimaced and kept her hand fisted in Katara's dress.
Katara glanced back over her shoulder at the other girl and offered her a smile, before hurrying to catch up with Toph and Aang. Oma almost stumbled and lost her grip as she pulled away, but she held on doggedly. Behind them, Katara could hear the soft rush of her brother's steps as he kept up with them.
They had just caught up with Toph and Aang when the door rasped shut, plunging them into black. Then green light flared in the room. All around the edges, crystals shone shockingly bright after the dimness before, and ahead, Long Feng stood in front of another door, Dai Li flanking him.
"Now that's something different," Sokka said, and Katara shot a look at her brother.
He was looking up. Katara glanced up herself and gasped. There were Dai Li hanging from the ceiling, from the walls-
They're earthbenders, some part of her thought giddily. They're master earthbenders, just like Toph. If this was a city of ice, she could do the same thing.
"You have made yourselves enemies of the state," Long Feng said, the barest edge to his voice. "Take them into custody."
Dai Li dropped from the ceiling to land in a circle around them. Stone-covered hands rose, and Katara had an instant to think how tricky it would be to dodge all of them as she took out the Dai Li. Then two agents launched stone gloves, Oma's hand dropped from her dress, and Toph moved forward-
Rock exploded to dust, and Toph pulled her arms apart. Rock pillars rose, flinging the two Dai Li with the movement of Toph's arms.
Behind her, she heard fire roar and the light went strange and blue. Then Aang leapt forward, swinging his staff, blasting a Dai Li off his feet. He punched earth at another, launching that one into the air.
Katara's blood pounded, and she shared a look with Sokka. Out of the corner of their eyes, both of them saw the two pairs of Dai Li gloves flying towards them. Katara yanked water from her flask, shattering the pair coming towards her. Beside her, Sokka broke his pair with his boomerang, and she almost relaxed as the fight flowed around them. Finally, for the first time in this city, she didn't have to hold back.
Then rock gloves grabbed her dress and yanked her forward. Sokka yelped, and she knew another pair had him. In flashes, she caught sight of Oma punching out with blue fire, Aang swinging his staff at another pair of agents, Long Feng standing untouched by the open door-
Toph darted in front of them, raising a stepped wall and shattering the stone gloves. Katara skidded against the ground, her feet hitting the wall just before it vanished back into the floor. The Dai Li leapt and 'bent together, and Toph raised an earth pillar underneath herself. The agents gave chase, leaving Katara and Sokka alone in the melee.
Sokka glanced at her. "You ever feel like these guys don't respect the Water Tribes?"
"All the time," Katara said as she climbed to her feet.
"We should teach them better." Sokka turned abruptly and flung his boomerang, catching a Dai Li agent in the side of his head. The man crumpled to the ground, and Sokka sauntered over to pick up his weapon.
Katara yanked water out of her flask and looked for her own target. She saw Oma take a running leap, blue flames extinguishing, then grab Toph from the air. Katara ran towards her, seeing the danger the other girl didn't. Oma hit the ground and rolled, the Dai Li agent kicked a stone boot at them, and Katara lashed out with her water whip. Rock shattered, but her whip kept going, slamming the Dai Li agent off his feet.
Oma leapt in front of her as two more Dai Li appeared, slashing out with blue fire. More rock gloves crumbled to dust, then the girl went into a flurry of punches. Katara heard more rock shatter and Toph's feet on the floor as she ran off to find another fight, but what she saw was the way Oma moved.
Oma hardly moved like a firebender at all. Katara had seen firebenders 'bending enough to know how they moved, and Oma moved like an earthbender.
Her heart went out to the Fire Nation girl. How long had she been in the Earth Kingdom, that she couldn't 'bend her own element? What had the Firelord done to her family?
"Long Feng is escaping!" Aang shouted, and Oma snarled and took off. Katara had a bare moment to see Aang blast through a wall and Oma leap after him before Sokka yelled, "Watch out, Katara!"
She whirled and broke another pair of stone gloves. There were maybe only half a dozen Dai Li left standing, but that was still six too many. Oma was with Aang, he could protect her.
Xiang laid a white lotus tile down on the board. "Are we done yet, Hyo?"
"Not until Long Feng sends word," Hyo said, skirting around what the Director was doing. He didn't like it. They were children. Horribly disruptive children who were threatening to throw the whole city into chaos and who had made their Fire Nation spice merchants stir.
He didn't like what Long Feng was doing, but it needed to be done.
Chatri stomped into the room and snapped, "The Fire Nation bitch is with them."
"Miss Oma?" Hyo asked mildly, mind racing as he tried to figure out how Long Feng would handle this added complication.
"Thank you, Chatri," he said. "You may go."
The trainee scowled at them but left, and Hyo turned his attention back to the pai sho board. He and Xiang were fairly evenly matched this game, but with this new problem added to everything, Hyo suspected he was going to lose. "We might need Sang Min to keep Jae out even longer."
"I know why you didn't want me involved," Xiang said as he waited for Hyo's move, "but why not Jae?"
"Because he's much more likely to accidentally kill someone than you are." Hyo set down a Water ship tile as he prepared to launch a flanking attack.
The Dai Li's combat-specialist captain grinned. "Trust me, Hyo. No one would die accidentally if I was there."
Azula charged after Aang, just catching sight of the minister rounding a corner. Her breath felt hot in her chest, and she snapped her hands through the most basic firebending move in the world. Rather than create fire, it extinguished. Any firebender who couldn't master how not to burn wasn't safe to be taught how to burn.
A year before they fled to the Earth Kingdom, Azula had been considered good enough to begin learning how to use her fire. Zuko had still been making sparks if he got angry when he was ten.
Her breath cooled, and she ran faster. She was on Aang's heels when they burst into another stone room. The floor formed a platform, though, with green crystals glowing softly along the edges. Presumably so no one would accidentally fall in, she thought sardonically. Water poured from huge pipes into the space between the wall and the platform.
The minister was nowhere in sight.
Azula snapped her hand open, igniting flame over her palm. Aang readied his staff.
There was a rasp of stone, and the door shut behind them.
"All right, Avatar. You've caused me enough problems." Long Feng stepped forward, and Azula gritted her teeth and refused the urge to step back. "This is your last chance," he said in a hard voice. "If you want your bison back."
"You do have Appa! Tell me where he is!" Aang demanded, lowering his staff.
Azula slowly clenched her other hand into a fist. She had never heard of the Minister of Culture being an earthbender, but since he was... He had to be at least as good as his Dai Li. Aang was a fool to lower his weapon.
"Agree to exit the city now, and I'll waive all charges against you and allow you to leave with your lost pet." The minister's eyes slid to her. "You, I will speak to your father about."
Her blood turned to ice. He knew her father. He knew her. Her breath quickened; what would Father do? Go on the attack, push the minister off-balance- The flame in her hand jumped, and she snapped, "You're in no position to bargain!"
The minister raised his eyebrows. "Am I not, Miss Azula?"
For the first time since she was six, Azula lost control of her firebending. The fire in her hand roared towards the roof, blue giving way to red. Sparks ignited on her breath, and it was all she could do to punch out with her other hand. Flame followed the motion, roaring and hungry, an inferno of red and blue fire. Dimly, she registered Aang's cry of alarm and the flash of fear across the minister's face.
He knew her name, he knew her name, heknewhername! He knew her name, he knew her father, he would take them all away to where those women repeated the Dai Li agent in the same voice, how did he know her name?!
With a deceptively simple shift of his feet and hands, a stone pillar rose underneath the minister. Her fire splattered against it, hot and hungry, burning at the earthbent rock in a way unbent fire never could. Even as Long Feng leapt back into one of the pipes, the pillar teetered. It fell into her flames and burned.
Cold crept up Azula's limbs. Sparks didn't burst into life anymore on her breath, and the flame in her hand guttered and died. She'd overdone it.
As the fire went out around her, she felt wet tracks of tears on her cheeks.
Aang looked back at her, the fire consuming the pillar still burning behind him. His expression- she didn't understand why he looked so sad. The minister had escaped because of her. He should be angry. She'd made a mistake.
"Is that your name?" he asked quietly. "Azula?"
She nodded mutely, and he flung himself at her. She flinched back, too used to Zuko's charges during their fights, but Aang just wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly.
"I'm sorry," he said. His voice hitched, and his arms squeezed against her side. "I should have stopped him. But I'm not going to let him hurt you. Not him, not Firelord Azulon. They've done enough damage!"
Azula stared down at the top of his head and wondering how in the lightless pit he thought he could stop Long Feng, much less her grandfather.
"I'm cold," she whispered, and Aang hugged her harder.
The crackle of flames was starting to die when the door slid open again. Toph stared past them, dust in her hair, and Katara and Sokka stood behind her. Katara's eyes widened when she saw them, and Azula caught Sokka giving the dying flames a very thoughtful look.
He's dangerous, some part of her realized. He's the most dangerous one of them all.
Her fingers and feet were freezing. The rest of her was just cold, and she hated it. This wasn't winter cold, this was firebending-exhaustion. She would be useless until she had something to eat and a chance to rest. If she firebent any more now, she would faint.
Aang and Katara couldn't afford that. But they couldn't afford a useless girl with them in the middle of the Dai Li fortress, either. Azula berated herself again for letting her control slip like that. She wasn't a baby or Zuko. She was a firebender and her father's daughter, and he would never lose control and neither would Mother.
"What happened?" Katara asked softly.
"The minister escaped," Azula said harshly, cutting across Aang's answer. "He'll probably go to the Earth King and get official arrest warrants for us. Then the Dai Li will come."
"And this is different from what just happened how?" Sokka asked as he walked across the burned rubble, pausing to stamp out sparks.
Azula glared at him. Stupid Water Tribe savage. "This wasn't official. They don't need to be official inside their secret underground base."
"Sparky has a point," Toph said, striding past all of them. "Official means they send warrants to the rest of the Earth Kingdom. That would suck. Though, hey, maybe my parents would get one!" Glee filled her voice at the idea, and Azula wanted to slap her.
An official arrest warrant for her could fall into the wrong hands. Fire Nation hands.
"If he's going to the Earth King, then so should we," Sokka said. "This may be our only chance to get to him at all."
"Come on," Toph shouted, "we can walk and talk! Well, I can, anyway."
They all exchanged sheepish looks, then Aang darted off after Toph. "Can you tell where Appa is? He's still down here, right? We can still rescue him!"
"Of course I know where he is, come on!"
"You look tired," Katara said as she kept up with Azula's brisk pace.
"I'm fine," Azula snapped, and Katara grabbed her hand.
"You're not fine," Katara said firmly. "You were baking earlier, and now you're freezing. Something's wrong, Oma."
Oma. Oma wasn't her name, and she hated the sound of it. She hated the city Oma built, and she almost hated the story of the first earthbender. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell Katara to use her real name when she heard Toph shout.
"Appa's just up ahead!"
The sky-bison was much larger than she had expected. Azula had always thought the tattered tapestries in the servants' corridors had to be exaggerrating the scale. Surely nothing that big could just be wiped out in a single strike. It had taken Grandfather and Uncle years to exterminate the dragons.
No, sky-bison were that large.
"Can we please buy a new saddle?" Toph shrieked from where she clung to the beast's thick fur. "Riding bareback is terrifying!"
The blind girl buried her face in its fur, and Azula almost wanted to do the same. Some part of her was convinced, though, that if she looked away for even an instant, she'd lose her grip on the sky-bison's fur and tumble to her death.
"I- I need to go home," she said, not quite shouting to be heard. "Now. I need to go home."
"We really don't have the time, Oma," Sokka yelled back. "Don't worry, we'll be at the Earth King's Palace soon!"
"No." Azula's hands tightened in the sky-bison's fur. "Mother will be angry if I'm involved in revolutionary activity."
Her voice sounded distant even to herself, and she saw Sokka and Katara exchange a look as best they could.
"I hear loon-whales," Sokka called to his sister, and she shot him a dirty look.
"Sokka! That's rude."
"It's true. Aang! Hey, Aang! Set down! We need to let Oma off!"
Aang shot a look over his shoulder, then rubbed the sky-bison's shaggy head. "Let's go down, Appa, real quick! Then we'll deal with Long Feng!"
The beast grunted but angled down, soon hovering just above an Upper Ring street. Azula forced her fists to unclench from the sky-bison's fur and slid down to drop to the street. She brushed white fur off her clothes, then looked up at Katara and her friends. She tried to smile. She didn't think she succeeded, but Katara smiled back.
"We'll see you when this is over, Azula!" Aang called. "Yip-yip!"
Azula had a moment to see Katara staring at her, then the sky-bison heaved itself into the sky almost too quickly to be believed. She watched it fly towards the palace, then turned to look around the street she was on. First thing was first. She needed to find a restaurant and have a good, hot meal. Then she needed to find the nearest gate so she could orient herself enough to go find Lok.
It was the middle of the afternoon when she found Lok, tossing a stone ball back and forth in his hands. He spotted her just after he made another toss, and the ball fell to the street and bounced.
She wondered how bad she looked.
Lok just left his rickshaw sitting on the edge of the street and hurried towards her. His forehead scrunched in that way it did when he was worried, and he picked her up-
"What are you doing?" she snapped.
"You look like you're two steps shy of falling over, Miss Oma" he replied. "I'm taking you to a bath-house, and you're going to get yourself a good scrubbing and your hair washed. If your parents see you like this- Lord Lee will kill me, and Lady Ying will nail my hide to a wall."
A bath sounded so lovely she didn't protest when he set her down in his rickshaw. "Fine. I'll get my nails done."
"Bath, hair, then nails, Miss Oma. Walls and secrets, you're not going to wander off with the Avatar again while I'm around!"
She blinked. Archly, she asked, "And how exactly are you intending to stop me?"
"By physical force, if I have to!"
Azula gaped at his back.
The bath alone took an hour, and Azula was glad she had sent her clothes out to a laundress before she climbed into the tub. She wrapped herself in one of the soft green towels the bath-house provided and clapped her hands. An attendant arrived to escort her to where she would get her hair washed.
After her hair was taken care of and her nails done, Azula dressed in her newly cleaned clothes and looked herself over in the mirror. She looked much better, and she certainly felt so, except for being cold. That would be gone by tomorrow morning, though. Between her meal and her bath, she felt warm enough not to alarm Mother if she touched her tonight. She would claim the academy had been unusually taxing today, and Mother would smile to know she was dedicated to her classes.
Her parents would never know she'd been gone. That meant all she had to worry about was Long Feng.
All. She felt laughter bubble in her throat. Instead of giving into it, she forced a proper lady's smile onto her face. It was too toothy for Madame Bao Yu's tastes, but it made Azula think of Mother with certain of her acquaintances.
Outside, she found Lok tossing another stone ball from hand to hand. A chunk was gouged out of the street in front of him, drawing irritated looks from passers-by. He ignored them, continuing to toss the ball back and forth. Then his eyes landed on her and he smiled.
"Take me to school," she said as she climbed into his rickshaw. "I think there's some sort of etiquette class I can take before the day ends."
"Sure thing, Miss Oma." He picked up the rickshaw and trotted off.
Azula let her eyes drift closed. She wanted nothing more than to go home and curl up in bed, but her parents would be suspicious of the servants mentioned her returning before the school finished for the day. She tried to focus on meditative breathing, but the motion of the rickhshaw was too distracting.
"Shit," Lok swore, and her eyes flew open as he began to run.
The street they were on was nearly empty. Just over the roof of the teashop, she could see the second floor windows of Madame Bao Yu's Academy. Lok ran like the Water Tribe was on his heels, and for the first time, Azula had to hold onto the edges of the rickshaw to keep her seat.
A wall erupted from the street. Lok slewed the rickshaw to keep from charging into it, throwing Azula half-out.
"Shitdamnfuck," Lok breathed. He dropped the rickshaw hard enough to spill her out entirely. She bit back a groan, shooting a venemous glance at his back. A slow creep of fear went up her neck, though, as she stood up beside the wall blocking off the empty street.
There was a soft thump of stone boots hitting stone street, and the street wasn't empty anymore. Six Dai Li stood in a half-circle around them, and fear became a line of ice down her spine.
Azula's hands curled into fists. Fleetingly, she wished she had her brother's swords and the skill to use them. But all she had were firebending katas and dance moves. Useless. If she firebent, she would faint, which was worse than useless.
She snarled, and one of the Dai Li flinched.
Lok snapped forward, punching out a wave of rock towards the Dai Li who flinched. The agents beside him lunged forward, breaking and battering Lok's wave into rubble. He was already moving, though, snatching up three projectiles from the street and hurling them towards the Dai Li agent in the center.
"You must be kidding me, kid." He raised his hand, then deliberately clenched it into a fist. Lok's projectiles exploded into dust. "I don't particularly want to have to beat you kids down, so you can come quietly."
Lok kicked a pair of boulders out of the street, and the central Dai Li agent sighed.
Hyo was coming in from the training yards when the three trainees caught up with him. They were panting like they'd run hard, and it took them a few minutes to catch their breath enough to tell him what was so important.
"What do you mean Long Feng was arrested?!"
Iroh made a pot of yellow tea, humming an old Fire Nation song to himself. This was the slowest time of day in the teashop, he knew. Lunch was long over, and people wouldn't trickle in for after-work tea for another hour or so. The Earth Kingdom man who owned this shop was bustling around, doing something to pretend his shop's sudden success had anything to do with him. The young ladies were getting ready for an evening with the local boys they'd found to amuse themselves.
He hoped they wouldn't get too attached. Young women at that age could be passionately devoted or entirely fickle while professing eternal love. He suspected Lady Ty Lee was of the latter sort, but he had no clear idea about Lady Mai.
He fetched a cup to pour tea into. It seemed he had less and less a clear idea of Lady Mai as the days went by. Her eyes were closed off, and something in the city had caused her to distrust him. She thought she was hiding it, and she was doing quite a credible job for a fifteen-year-old girl. He simply had nearly fifty years of experience on her.
"Pao," he said, teacup in hand, "I need to go look for my brother while it's still light out. I'll return this evening."
The Earth Kingdom man's shoulders tensed, expression suddenly worried. "Mushi, it's been a week. Have you considered that he... never reached Ba Sing Se?"
"Ba Sing Se is a very large city. If I haven't found him in a year, then I'll start worrying." He smiled reassuringly, and the Earth Kingdom man relaxed.
"Well, I suppose. Just be back before full dark!"
"Of course," Iroh said, untying his apron and hanging it on a hook by the back door. If he moved quickly, he could catch one of the earth-trains and visit a few spice factors a third of the way around the city. One of them must be the one Ozai dealt with.
"My brother told me he would find work in the spice trade in the last letter he sent," Iroh explained, smiling congenially at the man listening to him. "It seems reasonable to search for him among the spice traders first. After all, in such a great city as this with so many refugees..."
"Of course, of course." The man smiled. "Well, I can ask around, but you know there's little chance of..."
"Finding him so easily?" Iroh finished. "You are not the first, but if the-" ancestors, Earth men trust in their ancestors- "ancestors are with me, you may be the last."
"It's good to see a man with hope. I'll see what I can do to help, Mushi." The Earth man clapped him on the shoulder, and if there was one thing Iroh would change about the Earth Kingdom before he died, it was their tendency to strike people with affection. "Tell me about your brother."
"He's much younger me. About twenty years. Our father was, ah, quite the lover of women." They shared a laugh, and Iroh went on, "He's taller than me, and his hair is still coal-dark. Mixed-blood eyes, you know how it goes."
The man nodded sympathetically. "A few of my employees have that affliction."
"The last I saw him, he wore a long beard." Iroh gestured illustratively, making sure to show how narrow it was. "The women seemed to think he was a handsome man, but he was very devoted to his wife. Brunette, very pretty woman."
The man nodded, but no recognition lit up in his eyes. "I'll ask around. Is there any way I can contact you?"
"I have a mailbox," Iroh said, listing the neighborhood and number. It was a good place in the Middle Ring, suitable for the prosperous but displaced refugee he was dressed as. The man who invented mailboxes for hire was clever and hopefully rich.
"All right. I'll be in touch." The man clapped him on the shoulder again.
"I do hope so," Iroh murmured.
He had time to visit one other spice factor, who grudgingly agreed to ask around for someone matching Ozai's description. Iroh suspected the man would ignore the request entirely, but he knew Ozai wouldn't tolerate dealing with such a person anyway. His little brother was too proud and too used to the respect due to princes.
The sun touched the tops of the westernmost buildings, and he hurried to the bath-house where he had left the robes he wore in the Lower Ring. To get men of the Middle Ring to listen to him, he had to appear to be someone they might expect to meet in a teahouse or theater. In the Lower Ring, though, such clothes would make him stand out, and standing out in the Lower Ring could lead to all sorts of unpleasantness. For other people, at least until the Dai Li took notice.
He grinned ferally at the idea of fighting one of those bogeymen.
Ba Sing Se quickened his blood, and Iroh felt more awake now than he had... than he had since Lu Ten's death. This hunt invigorated him, even as it left him with more questions than answers.
He remembered Ozai. While Father might never have particularly cared for his little brother, Ozai had always led a pampered life in the Fire Nation Palace. He was a courtier at heart, a Sage by training. How could he have endured the hardship of crossing the Earth Kingdom to arrive in Ba Sing Se as an unknown refugee?
It must have been at the instigation of "Lady" Ursa. The Avatar-blooded woman having such a hold on his brother was disturbing, and if it was true, there was simply no possibility of Iroh taking Ozai as his heir.
And he did need an heir. Returning to Ba Sing Se had reminded him of that. He would have the Bronze Throne within a decade, and it was imperative he have someone to follow after him. The war would end in the next twenty years, and they needed a vital, bright Firelord to rebuild the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes.
If Ozai would not do, though, perhaps his boy might.
The streets were shadowed as Iroh made his way to the train station, the fading light less certain. His inner fire burned lower as the sun set; this had always been the most dangerous time of day for firebenders. Too many ignored the fading of their 'bending to keep fighting earthbenders, and many more thought that because the sun was still up, the shadows were not so impenetrable.
Which was why, when he saw Ozai at the end of the block, he didn't believe it. Not until Ozai saw him-
Iroh stared. Then his mind caught up with his eyes, and he gave chase. People on the street turned to look at him, but most got out of his way. A few he had to dodge. One unlucky man carrying an armful of cabbages he shoved aside, ignoring the man's despairing cry as he reached the end of the block. He couldn't see Ozai down the cross-street, but his brother's flight left a disrupted wake through the crowd.
He didn't think, he just pushed his way into the crowd, trying to keep to Ozai's path. His brother was here, his brother was actually here in this accursed city! If he could just catch him, they could talk and-
He caught sight of Ozai ducking around a corner. Quickly, Iroh shouldered aside a young man and cut behind a wagon of red-feathered domestic jungle fowl. He reached the corner only a minute behind Ozai-
The street was almost deserted for Ba Sing Se. Buildings close to this intersection offered goods for sale or stir-fried food, but the houses down the street had broken shutters and empty doorways. A queer feeling stirred the hairs on the back of his neck, and Iroh walked towards the strangely empty houses. A city as full of people as Ba Sing Se couldn't afford an empty neighborhood. People should be here, every instinct screamed at him.
Two crossed lines were painted in white on the house. Three quadrants were filled; the upper and left with numbers, eight in white and twelve in black on the house to his left. The lower quadrant held a symbol even the most illiterate peasant would recognize: the stylized skull and scythe. Plague.
Had he really seen Ozai? Iroh looked around the empty street. Shadows stretching from the buildings threw the street into a deep gloom that was only getting darker. Had he fallen prey to the folly of sun-eyes at sunset?
No, he thought. Forty years of soldiering had taught him better than that. Whatever he had followed had been real.
But it could not have been his brother. Ozai would never run from him.
Ozai would never.
Seven years ago, wouldn't he have scoffed at the very idea of his brother leaving the Fire Nation?
What had the Avatar-blooded bitch done to Ozai?
"You're back!" Lady Ty Lee threw herself at him, and Iroh obligingly staggered back. She giggled and stepped back; the young lady enjoyed playing the part of a granddaughter. "We were worried, grandpa. Pao said you were supposed to be back an hour ago!"
Lady Mai did not look particularly worried. In fact, she looked only slightly less bored to see him than she looked at any other hour during her teashop drudgery. He supposed enthusiasm was a bit too much to ask from her. At least her lack of it balanced out Lady Ty Lee's overabundance.
"I was delayed," he said mildly. The girls relaxed subtly, and he took the time to study them as he tied his apron on. He really had been neglecting them these past two weeks. They had their own amusements, of course, but someone might notice how little the three of them acted like a family.
He was more than confident in his own abilities against the Dai Li. But the rumors he had heard... It would go very badly for Lady Mai and Lady Ty Lee if they were captured.
Then it would go very badly for the Dai Li when he went after them.
"We all have a day off next week," he said, turning a warm smile on them. "Why don't we go see this new zoo the... Avatar has created."
Lady Ty Lee pulled a face. She hadn't been impressed by their run-in with the child Avatar and his followers, and neither had Lady Mai. Iroh had hardly bestirred himself to fight them - they were just children, after all.
"We already went," Lady Mai said, sounding bored. "Our boyfriends took us."
... Boyfriends? So much for the young ladies not getting too attached. He almost wanted to sigh. Instead, he replied, "Well then, there is always Huaren's Forum."
Lady Mai frowned slightly, and Lady Ty Lee blinked. "I thought the Huaren were the people of the Earth Kingdom."
"They are. However, the Huaren take their name from the most successful dynasty of the Earth Kings. Emperor Ying Zhen's son did not prove as able as his father, and the first united Earth Kingdom split again into eighteen kingdoms. It was the Huaren dynasty who reunited them for..." Iroh smirked. "A good while, at least."
The girls grinned as well. When the first Firelord united the Archipelago, it had never split back into separate kingdoms.
"Anyway, Huaren's Forum is formally Earth King Wu of Huaren's Forum, but that's quite a mouthful." Iroh ignored the pleading looks Pao was shooting from the doorway and slowly checked their stock of tea-leaves. "I am told it is quite the shopping experience!"
Lady Mai groaned like she'd been stabbed. Lady Ty Lee beamed.
"We don't need to go shopping," Lady Mai grumbled.
Lady Ty Lee's face fell, and Iroh turned away to begin brewing another pot of yellow tea. They always went through that variety so quickly. "I suppose you're right," he said. "There really is no need to visit Jian's Armory either."
There was a pause. "That's not at the Forum."
"It is several blocks over," Iroh agreed, keeping the smile off his face. The Armory had been famed for its weapons in Sozin's day, and while rumor in the city said its weapons were not so fine as they once were, the name of the Armory still invoked marvelous quality in Fire Nation minds.
"Ah, white tea too?" Pao called tentatively.
"Of course, of course." He reached for the tea leaves and examined them critically. Pao had the criminal tendency to let them get chewed on by vermin. "I know, why don't you two young ladies bring your boyfriends? It is time I got to know these young men you've been spending so much time with."
Iroh turned quickly, hoping to catch their facial expressions before they put on artful smiles. Lady Ty Lee looked wide-eyed and- frightened? Lady Mai's eyes were also wide, but almost as soon as he moved, he saw her cover whatever she felt behind boredom and disdain.
"Mai. Ty Lee," he said, the old steel in his voice.
Lady Ty Lee winced, and Lady Mai's fingers curled against her palms. "They're just boys," she said. "Who cares?"
"They're local boys," Lady Ty Lee added quickly. "Bahn was telling me about his family came to Ba Sing Se almost five hundred years ago from some city that doesn't exist anymore."
"Local boys." Iroh folded his arms. "Lower Ring boys?"
Lady Mai nodded, and he nearly snorted steam. They knew better. Refugees might have been worth their time - the Fire Nation had displaced more than enough petty nobles and rich merchants in this war. The only kind of locals in the Lower Ring were peasants: farmers, laborers, and crafters who didn't have the skill to move up to the Middle Ring. No one young ladies should spend their time with, no matter their disguise.
"They will take your flowers and leave you heart-broken," Iroh said sternly.
Lady Ty Lee blinked.
Lady Mai leapt to her feet, eyes hard. "That's rich coming from you, grandfather. I've heard all about all the bastards you and your father left behind!"
"You don't want to get in trouble with a spark," he snapped.
"You lit enough-"
Lady Ty Lee grabbed her friend's arm. "Mai, the boys are waiting! Now that Grandfather is back, we can go out!"
Iroh's eyes narrowed. But they were not his granddaughters. He could not forbid them to go, and they were more than capable of ignoring mere words from him. Hopefully they would tire of these boys soon, he thought as Lady Ty Lee tugged Lady Mai out into the main part of the teashop.
Hyo brought a small tray of covered lacquer dishes to Long Feng in his cell. The Director smiled to see him, and they touched foreheads briefly. The gesture seemed to soothe Long Feng somewhat, and it certainly reassured Hyo.
"The Council of Five is making plans for the eclipse attack," he said, knowing he had to keep his report light. The guards did not belong to the Dai Li. Hyo was not sure who they did belong to; ostensibly, the Earth King but even Kuei could not know some of the things he had for Long Feng's ears. Especially not Kuei.
"Good," Long Feng said as he uncovered the dishes and picked up his chopsticks.
"King Kuei has graciously allowed me to remain in my post as commander." Hyo smiled, not unkindly. "He feels such a fatherly, kind man as myself will be able to undo any... damages you may have done."
It was fortunate Long Feng chose to face away from the door of his cell, or his smile would have frightened the guards.
Zuko left the restaurant with Mai's arm around his waist. Her nails dug into his side, and he pushed Bahn's shoulder playfully. "Go save some seats for us. We'll catch up."
The look Bahn shot him said he knew perfectly well they wouldn't catch up, but he was more than happy to scoop Ty Lee up onto his shoulder and trot down the street. She laughed with delight and tangled her hand in his hair, and they looked so happy together Zuko could hardly believe his good luck. He had Mai, his friend had a girl who liked him, Azula was happy with whatever she was doing...
There was a Fire Nation army outside his city.
"You shouldn't rely on luck so much," Mai said flatly.
"Iroh came in the back of the shop while you were waiting for us. If he'd gone through the front of the shop, he would have seen you."
A chill ran down Zuko's spine. Uncle Iroh would kill Zuko if he caught him. Grandfather had ordered it years ago, and Grandfather never let anyone defy him. Especially not Father.
Uncle Iroh loved him and Azula, though. Would Uncle really kill him? Or had he come looking for them to protect them from Grandfather?
If he'd done that, why was Mai keeping him away from Uncle?
Ba Sing Se taught its children to think in layers and lies. Mai wanted him to stay away from Uncle. Grandfather wanted him dead. Uncle loved him. Mai might like him. It had been six years since he saw either of them, and six years ago, Mai hadn't thrown knives like that and Ty Lee hadn't been able to hit like that.
He thought. Maybe. How much did he really remember from the Fire Nation?
A frantic-looking girl, her hair coming undone, hurried past them. Zuko watched her go, distracted by his own thoughts. She was almost on top of Bahn and Ty Lee when she jerked around to look back at him. Her eyes lit with recognition when they met his, and he had no idea who she was.
"You!" she said, dashing back to him. "You're him. You're Oma's brother."
"Uh, yeah," Zuko said, aware of Mai's nails digging into his side.
The strange girl grabbed his arm. "The Dai Li took her."
"First things first," Bahn said as the five of them held a council of war in Zuko's room. "We need to know where she's being held."
They all nodded, though Zuko felt just a bit flummoxed by his friend and the girl- Lei- wanting to be involved. He liked Bahn, but Bahn was from Ba Sing Se. Why would he go against the cultural police?
He felt downright unsettled about Mai and Ty Lee being involved, but they could fight. They would need people who could fight if they were going against the Dai Li. But now they knew where he lived, he thought wretchedly, and he still didn't know anything about why they were really here.
At least he could trust them to fight the Dai Li just as hard as he would.
"How're we going to find out?" Ty Lee asked. "I don't think they have tour guides."
"We catch one," Mai said flatly.
"How are you planning to do that?" Bahn asked, sounding curious rather than hostile.
"They have wanted posters up for the Blue Spirit," Mai said at the same time Zuko replied, "Tai's on the rooftop two houses behind us."
Three pairs of eyes turned towards him. Then Bahn grinned. "Sounds like a plan. He's Dai Li, though, so we're going to need some sort of distraction so you can get behind him, gold-eyes."
Zuko made a strangled sound.
"Gold-eyes, I gave you that mask. Now, a distraction is going to be trickier-"
"Leave that to me," Lei said. She reached up and undid the sash holding her robe shut. Mai slapped her hand over Zuko's eyes, so all he could hear was the rustle of cloth. When she dropped her hand, Lei had rearranged her robes to expose a lot of enticing curves. Then she took a deep breath, and Zuko found himself unable to look away from how her breasts moved.
Mai elbowed him. Hard.
"Uh. I need to- get my mask. And swords."
"Yeah," Bahn said, his eyes still firmly on Lei's breasts. "You do that, Lee."
"I wish I could do that," Ty Lee sighed. "But you're so much better equipped for it than me."
Lei's cheeks colored faintly, and Mai elbowed Ty Lee. Then her eyes flicked towards him. "Weren't you going to get your mask, Lee?"
"... Yeah." Zuko edged over to his trunk. He tossed his formal school uniform onto the floor and dug out the soft, grey clothes he wore as the Blue Spirit. Mask, swords, and knife went on his bed, and he started to undo the frogs of his tunic. Then he paused and glanced over his shoulder. "Will you guys leave? I need to change."
"Awww," the girls chorused.
Bahn shrugged. "We've got the same equipment, gold-eyes."
Zuko breathed shallowly, the sound too loud inside his mask. He hung from the edge of the rooftop behind Tai, listening for a sign that the Dai Li agent was well and truly distracted. A part of him wondered if this were overkill. The more sensible part, which had survived Azula and five years of life in Ba Sing Se, knew it wasn't. His family was too Fire for them to assign a Dai Li who wasn't excellent.
A crickada whined. The high whistle of a night-hawk winged on the breeze. Distantly, a light bobbed on a far street, and the dull clank of armor almost went unheard.
"Hey, miss," Tai called softly, "what are you doing up here?"
Midway through the sentence, the Dai Li agent's voice hitched. Zuko tensed, ready to pull himself up onto the roof. His foot slipped against the worn stone.
"I'm supposed to meet someone," Lei said breathily. Then she giggled. "Was it you?"
Zuko bit back a curse as he scrambled to get his feet planted against the wall again. Hanging by his fingers right now would hurt, and the jounce of taking all his weight on his shoulders would slow his swords. But if he made too much noise-
There was a long pause from Tai. "-No. Definitely not. Miss, you need to go home."
With a grunt of effort, Zuko planted his foot and vaulted before he could slip again. He landed quietly, more quietly than most people would have.
Not quietly enough. He saw the Dai Li agent turn towards him. His hands grabbed the hilts of his swords-
"Oh!" Lei cried out, stumbling forward, her hands going around Tai's shoulders and dragging him back around to face her. "Oh, I'm so sorry, I'm so clumsy-" While she babbled, one of her hands tangled in the Dai Li agent's braid, and she forced his head down perilously close to her heaving breasts.
Zuko drifted into the deeper shadows and drew his knife. If she could hold him for just a few moments more...
"No," Tai said firmly, and one hand clapped over Lei's mouth while the other gestured sharply. The roof under her feet turned to quicksand, and the Dai Li agent jerked away from her grasp even as she sunk. She didn't scream, though; the stone glove he left over her mouth saw to that.
Zuko rushed forward even before Lei started to sink, and Tai found the Blue Spirit almost on top of him. His other stone glove shot out, but Zuko knew this tactic. He parried with his knife, letting go as the glove closed around it. Glove and knife fell into the darkness, and he punched the Dai Li agent hard in the stomach.
Which was how he found out their robes were armored. Tai groaned and awkwardly thrust a column of rock at him. Zuko dodged nimbly, drawing his swords. He suspected he'd hurt his hand more than he'd hurt the Dai Li agent.
This was not a good prelude to rescuing Azula. If they couldn't even handle one Dai Li-
Tai yelped in surprise, and suddenly he sunk up to his knees in the roof. Zuko blinked and saw Lei with her shoulders below the surface of the roof and a scowl on her face. Scattered around the roof in front of her were shards of rock.
"Nasty men shouldn't use nasty tricks," she hissed, and Zuko stepped forward to cross his swords against Tai's throat.
"Let's have some answers," he growled.
Bahn and Zuko hunkered at the mouth of an alley, looking at the only entrance to Old Ba Sing Se in the Middle Ring. "It's going to be a long walk," Zuko said in a low voice.
"Not as long as you think. The crystal catacombs were at the edge of the old city. You didn't want the dead near where most people lived, no matter how revered they were." Bahn dug around in his shirt and pulled out a thick green scarf. He quickly tied it around his face, leaving only his eyes and forehead visible. "We've got an earthbender. She may not be able to fight-" Lei hmphed somewhere behind them. "-but she can tell crystal from stone a good way off."
He drew out another three scarfs and passed them back to the girls. Ty Lee and Lei took theirs curiously, but Mai deftly wound hers over her face.
"Cover up," she told Ty Lee and Lei. "They know Lee is the Blue Spirit. They don't know us."
"How many guards are there?" Ty Lee asked.
"One I can see," Zuko reported.
"Which means two you can't." She grinned. "I'll be right back."
So saying, Ty Lee leapt up and grabbed someone's washing line, flipping herself around it once, twice, and letting go on the upper arc. Her feet hit high on one wall of the alley, and she bounced off it onto the roof of the opposite side.
"Gold-eyes, where do you find these girls?"
Zuko ignored his friend. No one else said anything for a long few minutes. Then they heard a soft sound like a melon breaking, and Ty Lee popped up to wave them over. Bahn and Lei hurried forward, and Mai's hand settled on his arm. Zuko glanced at her, and she pressed her scarf-covered mouth against the mouth of his mask.
His mind froze, then he tentatively pressed back against her kiss. He'd dreamed about this since she'd gone onto the roofs with him, before he'd started to think about layers and lies.
"Don't you dare get caught," Mai hissed when she pulled back. He nodded, and she squeezed his arm, then broke away to join the rest. Zuko was only a few steps behind her.
There was a young man only a few years older than Tai sprawled like trash at Ty Lee's feet. His eyes were open and moving, studying each of them in turn. At least until Bahn pulled the Dai Li agent's hat over his face.
Zuko stepped forward to push open the low stone door. It didn't move. It didn't feel like it could even move. He scowled behind his mask. Slagging earthbenders. He stepped back and motioned Lei forward.
She laid her hands against the door for a long moment. Then she pulled back and began to weave her hands through gestures like a child making cats-cradles without string.
Crossed lines formed in the door, deepening to basketwork designs, then opening to latticework. The latticework continued to open, the space between stone strips growing larger and larger, until the door was gone entirely.
"That was pretty," Ty Lee chirped, and Zuko saw his friend staring at Lei with rose quartz in his eyes.
Zuko drew and split his swords. "Let's go."
"You realize," Mai said drily, "a light would have been helpful."
"You realize a light would go a long way through these tunnels?" Bahn hissed. "Keep your hand on the left wall, this will open into the old city pretty soon. That has light."
Zuko didn't know how his friend could be so calm. The darkness was impenetrable; he couldn't see his hand in front of his face. The only reason he knew the others were still with him was because he could hear their breathing, their footsteps, and their hands rasping over stone.
There had been no guards inside the low door, just a pair of torches and a tunnel leading down into the earth. After two turns, the light from the torches had no longer been visible. Old memories from his first and only trip to the old part of the city had surfaced, and Zuko had joined his swords together. He had touched the wall with his empty hand and saw Bahn already doing so when he'd glanced back.
Ty Lee whimpered. "Lee, couldn't you...?"
"No," Mai snapped. "He can't."
"It's all right," Lei said softly. "It's only darkness. Darkness can't hurt you."
"No," Zuko muttered, "it just hides the things that can."
"Scaredy-cat," Bahn shot back.
Zuko's eyes narrowed behind his mask. "Loser."
Mai sighed. "Idiots."
Almost imperceptibly, the tunnel began to lighten. At first, Zuko thought he was imagining it, his eyes straining too hard in the darkness and inventing other shades of black. But no, those really were tunnel walls he could just barely pick out. He picked up the pace, heard someone curse behind him. Now the tunnel walls were solid, and when he glanced over his shoulder, he could see the outlines of his friends.
They crept forward through the lessening darkness, and sometime later, Zuko realized it was bright enough to see color. Too, he recognized the light - it was the peculiar green of the light-crystals he'd seen in rich friends' homes. Someone went to a lot of expense to light this place up, he thought.
Then he rounded a corner, and the tunnel opened onto a long, sloping ledge overlooking a city plaza. A waterfall poured down the far wall into a decorative stream. Stalactites hung down, a few meeting stalagmites to form pillars. Yet the plaza below was paved with clearly-cut stones. Houses crowded around the edge of the plaza, looking bizarrely overgrown with wild rock. Light-crystals grew everywhere, sprouting from the floor, the wild pillars, the fronts of houses.
"Wow," Lei breathed, Ty Lee echoing her.
"It's empty," Mai noted.
"Empty is good," Zuko replied. "We don't want to deal with the Dai Li if we can help it."
"All right," Bahn said. "Here's what we need to do. Lei, you need to get us a live light-crystal. Then you need to figure out where the biggest mass of crystal is. They're going to keep their prison there - a lot of earthbenders have trouble 'bending crystal."
"Then what?" Ty Lee asked.
"Then we go there and get her back. I don't know enough to make any other plans."
Lei padded over to a small light-crystal conglomerate, and Mai slipped up beside him. Her hand slipped into his empty one, and he let out a long breath behind his mask. Moving slowly so as not to draw attention, he pushed the mask up to uncover his mouth. Then he kissed Mai softly through the scarf covering her face.
Her hand settled into the crook of his elbow, and she pressed against him. Her body wasn't soft and curvy like Earth Kingdom girls. It was hard under the clothes she wore, and her curves were more subtle and more beautiful for being so.
"Hey, lovebirds, now is not the time."
Zuko flushed and broke the kiss. Mai shot a venomous look at Bahn, and her wrist flexed as if she meant to throw at him.
"Don't," he breathed and pulled the mask back down. Slowly, the tension eased out of her shoulders.
Her hand never left his until Lei said, "I have something."
They crossed two smaller plazas increasingly overgrown with light-crystals. The crystals crept into the tunnels after the second plaza. At first, only a handful were scattered across the walls and ceiling, but as they went deeper, the crystals grew thicker, longer, and closer together. Conglomerates jutted out at odd angles, scraping their shoulders and catching on Mai and Lei's dresses.
The floor was entirely free of them. It unnerved Zuko.
When the tunnel ended in an interlocking gate of crystalline teeth, he wasn't terribly surprised. "Any ideas?"
Bahn shrugged and Mai crossed her arms. Ty Lee darted forward to poke at the crystal then shook her head.
"... Great." Zuko turned to stare at the crystal gate again. There had to be a way past this. He split his swords again as he considered - his fire was probably strong enough to blast through this. But he didn't know what was on the other side, and he didn't want to give his firebending away just yet. If it came to fighting the Dai Li, he wanted it to be a surprise.
Slag it, if this were wood, he'd just ram it with his shoulder until it gave-
"Lei," he said, "make a battering ram."
"... I don't know if I can do that."
"Try," Bahn said, touching her arm. She glanced at him, her eyes smiling, and Ty Lee shot them an appraising look.
"All right." Lei kicked off a thin pair of slippers and settled into an earthbending stance. Her eyes closed and for a few long minutes, she didn't do anything. Then her hands came up, and bits of the floor rose. Her hands flashed together, and the rock shards wove into a fluted pillar. She punched, and the pillar hit the crystal gate with a resounding crash. The crystals cracked and dimmed, and Lei punched again.
The pillar smashed through the crystal gate. Lei lowered her hands, and rock crumbled to dust.
Zuko climbed through the hole, his swords at the ready. The chamber looked like wild cave at first glance, but the more he looked, the more the spacing of the stalactites and the stalagmites looked... deliberate.
He took a breath and ignited his swords.
For an instant, he thought Mai was chastising him for firebending. Then a blade flashed by his face, close enough he felt the breeze of its passing-
-And shattered a stone glove.
Hyo snapped awake, instinctively already grabbing rock to form his gloves and launching them at whoever had invaded his bedroom.
Someone yelped and dove to the floor. "It's Lanh!"
Of course it was, he thought tiredly.
Hyo reached over and uncovered the light-crystal near his bed. Their pickpocket trainee huddled on the floor, eyeing him warily. One of the shutters hung open. "What is so important it couldn't be taken to one of the captains on duty?"
"Qin said you needed to know this! The son's name is Zuko."
Hyo sat bolt upright. Zuko and Azula. Zuko and Azula, he had seen those names together before. Where, crush it? Well, they only had so many reports on the Fire Nation. He could read them all tonight. "-Thank you, Lanh. Next time, though, try knocking."
"I didn't want to wake Mi-Cha, sir," the trainee mumbled.
Azula's eyes snapped open.
She sensed fire.
"It's time to go, Lok." Azula climbed to her feet. The nap on the crystal floor had left her sore and tense, and she stretched in all the ways Dancemaster Ae Sook had taught to ease tired muscles. It was imperative, after all, for a lady never to look tired at the end of an evening of dancing. It didn't matter how much it hurt, a lady of Ba Sing Se didn't stop, not for the Avatar, death, or a hundred soldiers.
"Well, that's just bully for you to say!" Lok snapped, jerking on the few inches of slack in his chains.
A thin lattice of crystal divided their cells. In his, Lok stood painfully balanced on a pair of high wooden sandals, iron chains pulling his arms up at an angle that made breathing hard. Sweat plastered his hair to his skull. As she watched, he grabbed onto the chains and swung himself forward- even with the sandals, his kick couldn't hit the door with any force.
The move might not have damaged the door, but it did highlight the always fascinating slide of his muscles. And the bruises darkening his ribs and sides.
She bared her teeth. The Dai Li would pay.
Anger rose hot in her, in every way. She snapped her fingers, and sparks fell to the ground. "Brace yourself."
Lok shot her a curious look that quickly changed to alarm-
Red fire smashed and melted through the crystals between their cells, until the floor blackened and the smoke made her eyes water. Even then, she held it a moment longer before extinguishing it. It felt good to firebend.
Lok had shied as far away as the chains would let him, his face turned away from her. His entire side and part of his back were heat-reddened, and she saw blisters forming on the hand chained closest to her.
Shame filled her stomach. She'd lost control again. Worse, she'd lost control and hurt someone she hadn't meant to. All Lok had done was be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Well, and throw the street at the Dai Li. He didn't deserve to suffer from her failure as a firebender.
She didn't know what to say exactly to explain that, so she fell back on her etiquette training. "I'm sorry."
Lok laughed shakily. "Guess this explains what they wanted you for."
"No, they wanted me for breaking into their secret base with the Avatar," Azula said archly. "They've been watching us for years. Lee's an idiot, so they have to have known about the firebending by now."
"Your father's going to kill me," Lok muttered. "Some job of keeping an eye on you I'm doing."
She blinked. "What?"
"Do you have a plan for the chains, Miss Oma-"
"What was that about keeping an eye on me for my father?" she snapped.
"That's... pretty much the long and short of it, really." He tilted his head up towards the ceiling. "He figured there'd be less unpleasantness about you running around outside of school if you had someone capable of, ah, how'd he put it? 'Hitting anything dangerous over the head with a large rock.'" Lok rattled his chains thoughtfully. "Not a nice man, your father."
Azula gaped. Father had known all along? He'd hired Lok to keep an eye on her- All right, so he could throw around more earthbending power than some soldiers. But he was Lok! He was shirtless and gossipy and always willing to follow her into trouble... "How long has this been going on?"
Lok suddenly found the ceiling even more fascinating. "How long have I been taking you where you want to go?"
That was not acceptable.
"You work for me!" she snapped. "Not for Mother, not for Father, for me!"
"We should table this discussion until we're not in the Dai Li's secret prison." He jerked on his chains again, and she shot him a dirty look. He just spread his hands as best as he was able and grinned. "I'd hate to have my cousin come along and interrupt."
Azula took a deep breath and quelled the fire threatening to consume her. "Don't tell me you have a cousin in the Dai Li."
"Sure thing, Miss Oma."
"Is there any part of this city where you don't have relatives?" She took a breath, held it, and let it out slowly. She did it again and again until the fire in her heart burned absolutely steady. She needed to have absolute control to cut those chains from him.
Lok looked thoughtful. "Not so much in Little Omashu. They're too new."
Azula walked to the far end of the cell, all of five paces. Then she took a running leap towards Lok and slashed out with her firebending.
He yelped and flinched away, and the chains fell free from the ceiling. The severed links still glowed red.
She smiled, pleased with herself. Dancemaster Ae Sook had not intended that as a firebending move, but it worked marvelously. "Hold still. I'll met the lengths off."
"Yeah, no." Lok grabbed hold of a chain and swung it hard into the wall. The -crack- of the chain striking made Azula snap fire into her palms. Crystal chimed crazily as shards fell to the floor.
Lok stooped and picked up a shard. "First, I'm getting these geta off my feet. Then we're getting out of here."
"So, where are we going?"
Azula tossed a glare over her shoulder. "To find my idiot brother. He's firebending, so he probably dove headlong into trouble without thinking. Again."
"Never would have expected that from anyone in your family," Lok said drily.
"What is with you?" she snapped. "You aren't usually this irritating!"
He grabbed her by the shoulder and yanked her around to face him. Then he pointed at the black eye, the bruises covering his chest and sides, and the light burns she'd so carelessly given him. Then he turned his hand over to display the heat blisters. "You'll forgive me if I'm not feeling entirely respectful of your pride, Miss Oma."
She jerked away from him. The sensation of fire flickered around her fingertips. It'd be easy to burn right now- No. She was Azula, she was her father's daughter, and she was in control. She was not some prissy little third-rate merchant's daughter to throw a temper-fit over Lok being unable to ignore his pain. "Let's go, Lok."
"Lead the way, Miss Oma."
She did, stalking off and ignoring the soft clink as his chains clicked against conglomerates of glowing crystal. There was fire close up ahead, real fire, and if her stupid brother thought she needed rescuing, she was going to burn him after she incinerated the Dai Li.
Rounding a corner, she nearly walked into a gate of interlocking crystal teeth. Her glare intensified, and she hurled fire at it, ignoring the prickle of cold in her fingertips. Crystal blackened, cracked, and melted. The sounds of fighting could be clearly heard - the shift and rasp of stone from earthbending, the crackle of flames, the soft sound of things flying through the air.
Azula leapt over the melted lump of crystal and punched fire at the nearest Dai Li agent. With a sharp gesture, he raised a rock shield. It crumbled under the onslaught of her fire, then Lok's chain whistled past her to catch the man hard in the chest.
Across the room, she could see Zuko cutting a path towards her, his dao swords burning red. A girl in a bright green tunic and pants darted around stalagmites, making Dai Li agents fall with only a few quick strikes. She caught sight of a boy Zuko's age kicking a Dai Li agent in the head, then dropping down to sweep the man's legs out from under him. Lei stood by the door, a handful of perfectly oval rocks orbiting around her head. Another girl in a dark green and black dress stood next to her, resolutely sending knives and needles and shuriken at any Dai Li who threatened Zuko or the girl in bright green. Every one of them, except for Zuko, had a dark green scarf covering their face. Even so, something about the two unknown girls seemed familiar. They couldn't be from school, could they?
"'Scuse me, Miss Oma." Lok brushed past her, beelining for one particular Dai Li agent who was doing a good job avoiding the girl in bright green, the other girl's knives, and Zuko's swords. Lok was almost on top of him before the Dai Li agent noticed, and he scrambled to get away. Lok snagged him by the braid and shoved him facefirst into a stalactite with a resounding -crack-. "Jackass!"
"Let me guess," Azula said mildly, "your cousin?"
Lok let the Dai Li agent drop. "Yeah."
"Azula, look out!" the girl in bright green yelled.
Azula whirled, blue fire coming in an arcing shield. One of the rock gloves melted, but the other seized on her dress and started to drag her back-
A shuriken, gleaming bright and deadly, struck it. The glove shattered to dust, and the shuriken clattered to the floor.
Red flame roared past her, igniting the Dai Li agent's robes. He screamed, and Azula threw her own blue fire at him, hot and terrible-
The girl in bright green bounced through the flames and hit the Dai Li agent twice. He dropped like a rock, and she turned to yell at them. "Stop it! He's down!"
Reluctantly, Azula extinguished her flames, and she felt Zuko do the same. His fire snuffed more easily than hers did, but he didn't really train with it anymore. Not like she did. He didn't care about being a firebender, she thought viciously. She turned towards him to tell him what a fool he was for thinking she needed to be rescued-
Zuko's mask was so much charred wood now, and smoke drifted from his mouth. For a moment, he looked so much like Father it made her shiver.
"I think that's all of them," the masked boy said, and Azula recognized the voice of one or the other of Zuko's school-friends. "Let's go before your sister's... friend? falls over."
"I'm a lot less likely to fall over than you are," Lok growled.
"Oh, Azula, who put you in a dress?" the girl in bright green asked, reaching out to clasp her shoulder. "And it's all torn! It looks like it was pretty before."
Azula stared at the girl. Light brown hair, braid, round face, grey eyes- "Ty Lee?" She darted a glance at the dark girl standing next to Lei. "Mai? What are you-? How did you even get here?"
"Uncle's in town," Zuko said shortly.
"Who else has no idea what's going on?" Zuko's school friend raised his hand. "Since when can you firebend, gold-eyes?"
"Since when can you kick people in the head?"
"It's a hobby. Everyone's got to have a hobby."
"Kicking people in the head is not a hobby!"
"Martial training is a hobby."
"Only if you're not planning to be a soldier!"
"Guess what, gold eyes? I'm not planning to be a soldier!"
Lei picked Azula up and hugged her. "You're all right! That's wonderful. You hear such terrible things about the Dai Li."
Azula squeaked. She'd forgotten how Earthfolk could make her ribs creak. Then Ty Lee pounced on her with a hug. Mai just rolled her eyes, which was gratifying. Mai was still Mai, even if Mai was a thousand miles from where she should be, and what did Zuko mean Uncle Iroh was here? Ugh. Ugh, ugh, ugh. She hated the old bastard and the way he had treated her like an Earth Kingdom girl when she was still a Fire Nation princess who didn't even know how they treated Earth Kingdom girls.
Slowly, it crept up on her that she was exhausted. There were Dai Li agents littering the floor, Mai and Ty Lee were here, her stupid brother was arguing with his idiot friend, Lei was here, and her hands were cold. Ty Lee was chattering, Lei was murmuring reassurances, and Mai wasn't saying anything, but she just let their words wash over her.
"Shut up!" Lok roared, and everyone fell silent. His hand settled on her shoulder, and she found herself gently propelled into Lei's arms. "You watch out for her. You three, keep an eye out for Dai Li reinforcements or any of them waking up. Pointy girl, watch her back."
"Pointy girl?" Mai said mildly.
"Yeah," Lok said, his voice hard, then he stomped away. Azula watched him, allowing Lei to hold her. He shifted into an earthbending stance, brought his palms together, then lunged and split his hands apart-
Lei gasped. Ty Lee eeped. Mai looked impressed. Azula stared at the new tunnel still splitting upwards through the rock with a ragged roar.
"Why aren't you in the army?" Zuko's friend asked, sounding gobsmacked.
"Because I'm good at avoiding press-gangs. Let's go, kids."
"Sir." Hyo handed Long Feng an old report. The Director looked as serene and unruffled as he had when Hyo brought him dinner, despite being roused from his pallet several hours before dawn. The guards, on the other hand, were giving him distinctly unpleasant looks. Hyo merely smiled at them and tipped his hat. One paled, and both backed away from the shut door and pretended to be guarding something else that just happened to occupy the same space.
"You're quite certain?" Long Feng asked when he finished the report.
"I'd stake my life on it."
The Director nodded. "I believe we need to speak with Lord Lee then." His eyes flickered towards the guard on his cell. "And if you could be so kind, Hyo, please tell Xin Wan I would like his company tomorrow morning."
It was getting into the hottest part of the afternoon, which made Ozai appreciate the serving maid constantly refilling his glass. The chilled fruit juice was expensive, but not as extravagantly so as it would be later in the summer. The open shutters let in more dust from the street than breezes and the two off-duty soldiers and one smuggler playing mahjong with him were inept at the game. He should have been winning, but the run-in with Iroh the other day still had him shaken.
So his brother had come to take the city again. By stealth, this time, so at least Iroh had learned something. Probably he would open the gates when they were closer to the Comet, let the army waiting outside just march right in and all over Ozai's plans. Wasn't that always the way?
The smuggler startled, nearly sending his stool clattering to the floor, and a hard hand clapped down on Ozai's shoulder. "Sir, you need to come with us."
Ozai tilted his head back slightly to see two Dai Li standing over him. This again? Hadn't their little chat four years ago been enough? "When I finish this hand."
The stone-covered hand on his shoulder tightened, nearly cracking his collarbone. He pressed his lips together to keep from betraying how much it hurt and outwaited the Dai Li agent.
"Whatever it is you want," he said evenly, "it isn't time-sensitive, or you would have taken me already." His voice hardened. "Sit down like civilized people while I finish this hand."
The soldiers and the smuggler looked at him as if he was crazy. The Dai Li sat down.
Ozai smiled. "It's my turn."
The two Dai Li agents escorted Ozai below the Earth King's Palace. Even underground, the opulence of the unacknowledged fourth ring was staggering. It faded as they went deeper, and it was gone entirely when the Dai Li escorted him into what was clearly a prison. It flashed through his mind how to kill each of them, but he tamped down the thought. Not yet. Not until he knew what this was about, or knew he would never know.
Two guards stood in front of a metal door. He had barely a moment to register something wrong with them before the Dai Li shoved him through the door.
A man sat on the floor of the metal-covered cell. His clothes were fine, a deep forest green and black suited for a Dai Li, cut and quality suited for a minister. His forehead was shaved, his facial hair neatly trimmed, and his face handsome. He regarded Ozai with something like amusement.
"Fire Prince Ozai," he said, voice deep and smooth as fine jade.
"Cultural Minister Long Feng." Ozai conspicuously glanced around the cell. "Your circumstances seem... much reduced."
"A minor setback," Long Feng murmured, dismissing it with a gesture.
Ozai suppressed a smile and seated himself before the man. "In the Fire Nation, we use the word 'catastrophe' to describe this sort of thing."
"In the Earth Kingdom, one would say the same of an enemy prince being discovered by the Dai Li."
Ozai spread his hands, showing his empty palms to the heavens. It was a meaningless gesture for a firebender, but he'd seen more than enough earthbenders make it when they wanted to appear harmless. "I might manage something."
"So might I." Long Feng's eyes met his, and he knew the minister wasn't fooled. "Yet I find myself in a complex situation."
"A coup will plunge Ba Sing Se into a civil war, which is bad at the best of times. With a Fire Nation army sitting outside your walls, it would be quicker and less unpleasant to hang yourself," Ozai summarized. "It would probably do less damage, too, but if even half the things I've heard about you are merely exaggerations of the truth, it would only barely be less damage."
"... Apparently a bit less complex than I thought," Long Feng said. Jade eyes reassessed Ozai, and he reassessed Long Feng in turn. Clumsy of the man to forget what it meant that he was a prince. Of course, he supposed if his only other encounter with Fire Nation princes was Iroh besieging the city, he'd think they were all aggressive, direct madmen too.
Ozai shrugged. A suspicion was forming as to what this was about. "Which doesn't explain why you want me here."
Long Feng folded his hands in his lap. "I have heard it said the line of Sozin still seeks the Avatar."
"We do," Ozai said carefully, suspicion blossoming. The Avatar was in the city, the Avatar was the reason Long Feng was arrested, and the Avatar would make excellent bait to ensure cooperation from a Fire Nation prince.
"I can get you the Avatar." Long Feng began to smile, satisfaction warming his voice. "All you need to do is take the Badgermole Throne."
"And give it back to you when the time is right," Ozai murmured. His mind raced; the fool meant to hand him the Earth Kingdom! No, not a fool. He was a dead man if he mistook Long Feng for such. The man was dangerous and had very loyal followers if he could plot treason from his prison cell.
"I need to understand the situation before I can make a plan." It was absolutely critical for him to understand the current situation in the Palace, especially if he meant to put himself on the throne and keep it. "You can guarantee me the Avatar?"
The boy would be a nice bonus to all this. Something to deal with Father over, perhaps more valuable to the old bastard than the Badgermole Throne.
"I can." Long Feng smiled in satisfaction. "Captain Qin will brief you on the situation. My Dai Li will follow your orders in however you choose to handle your coup."
Within limits, Ozai expected. Still, once he had the throne, he would purge the lot of them.
Starting with Cultural Minister Long Feng.
Ozai leaned back in his chair. "Let me see if I understand. The Earth King cannot be considered a political force, but almost everyone in Ba Sing Se will act on orders given in his name. The Council of Five Generals is the current power while Long Feng is imprisoned. The Ministry of War will support them, while the other ministries will not support them but neither will they support Long Feng. However, everyone is used to obeying orders from Long Feng."
Captain Qin nodded. "Yes."
He had expected an actual challenge. This was almost insultingly easy. "A simple coup, then. I will capture and imprison the five generals-" and execute them at his leisure- "gain control of the Earth King, do a bit of posturing as a Fire Nation prince, then Long Feng heroically escapes from his prison, frees the Earth King, duels me and drives me off. Unfortunately he loses the Avatar to me, but at least he managed to save the city and the king."
"That sounds like a good plan," Qin said in his quiet voice.
"As long as the Dai Li will cooperate." Ozai studied the captain, trying to understand what sort of men the Dai Li were. They didn't think of themselves as evil men; no one did. Yet they were clearly plotting treason with their people's enemy. Yes, they undoubtedly thought they would use and discard him, but to even do this in the first place... They were not good men.
He could work with that.
"The Dai Li will cooperate."
"Will Long Feng?"
Qin blinked. "Of course he will."
Of course he wouldn't, but as long as Ozai knew it and as long as the Dai Li thought he didn't know it, all would be well. "He can't just leave his cell, captain. If it looks like he was involved in this treachery, then we will lose everything we are working for. People need a day or two to see him as a prisoner."
"I'll mention that."
"Thank you." Ozai smiled. "What of the Avatar and his followers? I noticed you carefully avoiding any mention of them."
The Dai Li captain wetted his lips. "Avatar Aang has left Ba Sing Se."
Ozai blinked. "-Well, that's not a very good bribe."
"One of his followers has remained here to help the generals," Qin said in a rush. "We believe they will all return within two weeks. Perhaps longer for the Water Tribe boy."
"I don't care about the Water Tribe boy," Ozai said in a hard voice. "I care about the Avatar! This little coup can't move forward until he returns to the city. I will not risk him hearing the city has fallen and refusing to return."
"He will come back for the girl," Qin said softly. "You just need to give him reason to."
Ozai considered. The Dai Li knew the Avatar was important to him. Long Feng would undoubtedly expect a double-cross, but if Ozai could keep him in that metal box for even three hours after the coup, then it wouldn't matter what Long Feng was planning. "A week," he said slowly. "We'll do this a week from today. Fetch me at dawn, assemble your men an hour afterwards. We'll own the city by noon."
The Dai Li sent him home in a carriage, Joo Dee riding with him. Ostensibly, she was here to show the Dai Li's regard for him; if he was any judge, she was one of the Dai Li's watchdogs. She had a distinctive smile, one he'd seen on other women wearing the same clothes in the Upper Ring. With all the whispers in the Lower Ring of some of the things the Dai Li did, Ozai couldn't ignore the women with their smile. Not if he wanted to survive taking Ba Sing Se.
Ozai leaned close to murmur in her ear, "Tell me, who smiles like you do?"
She turned a more brilliant smile on him. "Why, Xin Wan!"
He forced himself to smile back at her. "I see. Thank you. Can you tell me about the Earth King's Palace? I've never had the opportunity to visit before."
Her face lit up, and she happily launched into a speech about the history and function of the most excellent palace in the most wonderful and safest city in the world. He let her prattle on as he considered this Xin Wan. It wasn't a name he'd heard before, but he had a week to find out who the man was. If he could do what Ozai suspected, he had to be killed even before Long Feng. There was no point in cutting off the snake's head if the venom could still destroy him.
The carriage rolled to a stop, and the groom opened the door. Ozai mustered all of his courtly manners and took Joo Dee's hand. He lightly brushed a kiss across the back of her palm. "Do come again. I'm sure my wife might like to meet you."
The woman blushed. He didn't think that was possible. "My duties in this wonderful city would not permit such a thing, Lord Lee."
He stepped out in front of the gates of his home. Something at the edge of a side-street caught his eye, and he waited until the carriage pulled around the corner to investigate. Half-hidden in shadows, a stone fist closed around the blade of an Earth Kingdom knife. Ozai picked it up, turning it over in his hands. A knife. He preferred fists and flame, but flame was far too distinctive in this city and the Dai Li had to know he could fight unarmed. A knife would slow them down.
The Dai Li had already had a run-in with this knife, too.
Ozai smirked and pushed heat into the rock until it started to ooze. Then, quickly as he could to avoid a burn, he yanked the blade from the stone and let the mess fall to the street. He sucked in a breath and the heat with it, and the rock struck solidly.
He tucked the knife into his belt and went inside.
Ursa sat by the koi pond, angrily tearing off chunks of bread and throwing them to the fish. Her eyes snapped up as he crossed the garden to her. "Our children weren't home last night, Lee."
He blinked. "So?"
That was the wrong answer, as Ursa threw the remainder of the loaf at him. It bounced off his chest and tumbled into the pond, exciting a swirl of brightly-colored fish. "So, where were they? What were they doing, and why won't they tell us?"
"Ying, you told me our son had a girlfriend just the other day. I expect he was off doing what young men his age usually do."
Ursa eyed him. "If he is, he should have brought her home for us to meet."
Ozai sighed. He really didn't care who Zuko was tumbling, especially not when he was on the brink of something so important. "Why don't you insist he bring her to dinner in two weeks then? That will give him time to decide if she's worth keeping and us time to prepare a suitable welcome."
She looked only slightly mollified by the suggestion. "Why do I feel like you're keeping secrets, husband?"
"Because I am." He smiled under the withering glare she gave him. "You know what they say, darling. 'Three can keep a secret if two are dead.' Let me hold onto this for a week, then I'll tell you everything."
"Are you sure this is wise, sir?" Hyo set a dinner tray down in front of the Director. "Prince Ozai seems... smug."
"Of course it's not wise." Long Feng picked up a pair of chopsticks and a bowl of rice. "But it's the best we're going to do. The plan he has proposed is sound enough, but I expect he'll try to take the city as well as the Avatar. The Fire Nation has wanted Ba Sing Se too long."
Hyo nodded. "Yes."
"Have him killed immediately after Kuei is secured."
Ty Lee woke to the clean smell of ginseng tea. "Good morning, grandpa!"
"Good evening, you mean," Iroh said, sounding amused. "You two slept all day."
Mai mumbled something irritated and pulled Ty Lee's blanket over her head. Ty Lee let her; Mai had worked all day at the teashop yesterday and gone with Zuko and his friends to get Azula. Ty Lee had only worked the morning, which had made the rescue a lot easier on her.
"We were out all night," Ty Lee informed Iroh as she accepted a cup of tea. "It was fun! The show was a lot better than I thought it would be, then we ran into Lee's sister and her boyfriend. I have no idea why she puts up with him, except for the whole 'muscular earthbender who doesn't wear a shirt' thing."
Iroh blinked at her. "-I see."
"We won't do it again," Ty Lee said solemnly, aware of how often she or her sisters had made the same promise to their mother. And how often they broke it.
"Azula, you were supposed to bring your boyfriend!"
Azula blinked at them, her hand in the crook of Lei's elbow. "My what? And it's Oma, Ty Lee."
Ty Lee sighed - she didn't like Zuko and Azula's Earth Kingdom names very much - then gestured illustratively at Bahn. "Boyfriend. Like the powerful and handsome shirtless earthbender who was fussing over you?"
Bahn was looking at Lei with moony eyes again, his aura all feathery. It was cute, but Lei's wasn't really feathering in return. Probably because she was a nice Earth Kingdom girl, and nice Earth Kingdom girls didn't steal other girls' boyfriends. Not that nice Fire Nation girls did either, Ty Lee reminded herself, her sisters notwithstanding.
She'd have to break it off with Bahn after tonight. He was fun and all, but she wasn't planning to take him home with her.
"Lok?" Azula's voice was sharp, but her aura drifted towards scarlet. "He's not my boyfriend, he's my rickshaw-driver."
"He is handsome," Lei added impishly, "and I've never seen him wear a shirt."
Irritation flashed across Bahn's face and an ugly green curled through his aura. Azula's aura got shot through with black.
Ty Lee smiled brightly. "How long does it take to walk to the Han-Guk quarter? I don't want to miss any of the festival!"
"Not too long," Bahn assured her. "I just want to make sure Lee gets these theater tickets before we go."
"Lee isn't coming," Azula said bluntly. "He got cornered by Mother. She's grilling him about where we were the other night."
"Oma went out the window," Lei murmured.
Ty Lee winced. "Mai's going to be unhappy."
"When is she not?" Azula asked, and Ty Lee frowned. Mai had been happy since Zuko started taking her out at night. Well, happy and sometimes very angry. She'd been happy when they were kids at the Academy together, though pretty much only when they were getting into trouble. She was happy when summer took her out to her uncle, though Ty Lee had no idea why the stern warden of Boiling Rock made Mai smile.
But Mai's happiness was small and subtle, and Ty Lee remembered that while Azula could be subtle, she could also be complete overkill.
The night Mai said Zuko thought he was Earth Kingdom came back to her. 'Azula was eight. She's been in the Earth Kingdom almost half her life.'
Azula hadn't even recognized her at first.
'Half her life.'
Suddenly that seemed a lot more real.
The festival was fun. Telling Bahn he was way better off chasing Lei while she still didn't have a boyfriend went over pretty well, even if Bahn apologized a lot for something that didn't really bother Ty Lee. Neither of them had wanted anything serious, and she was pretty sure he and Lei could get very serious.
Ty Lee went to check the place where Mai said she would wait for Zuko, but Mai must have given up. Or Zuko had found her. Either was possible, and both left Ty Lee walking back alone to the Lower Ring and their apartment there. It hadn't ever bothered her before, but tonight she felt unsettled. No one around her was acting any differently, and even when she almost collided with a boy a year or two older than her in a Dai Li robe with no hat, he just stammered an apology and ducked around her.
She watched him slip into an apartment building and wondered what it was like to live in Ba Sing Se all your life. Or even half of it.
Azula wore a dress. Zuko talked as if the Fire Nation was the enemy.
Zuko lied. Azula hung out with merchants' children and servants.
A shiver ran through Ty Lee as she passed through the gate between the rings. The guards gave her slightly irritated looks, and she knew she'd only just made it befor they shut the gate entirely for the night.
Even as she thought it, she heard the metal gate grind against stone. It shut with a dull clank, and she was locked into the Lower Ring again. The rings locked in each other, the city locked in its citizens, and Ty Lee had never wanted to run harder in her life. Not even when she was her parents' middle daughter, not even when Ta Mei's enlisting led to screaming fights with Mama and her wanting to join the circus just garnered eye-rolls.
The apartment was empty when she crept in. Unease curled in her stomach until she saw the shutters were open in her and Mai's room. Mai must be out with Zuko. Then when she went to make herself tea, she found a note from Iroh saying he had been asked to have dinner with a war-widow.
Ty Lee glanced out the window. It was an hour after sunset, sure, but that was still early for a city like Ba Sing Se. As long as you stayed in your ring.
Her hands trembled while she made the tea, and it didn't really soothe her at all. Afterwards, she got her blankets and curled up on Iroh's pallet, taking in the shadow of firebender-warmth clinging to it and the smell of ginseng tea.
She felt... safe there.
Iroh didn't say anything in the morning, and Mai just gave her a dark look. Ty Lee put on a bright smile and got ready for another day at Pao's teashop. It was a happily boring day and so was the next. That evening, instead of returning directly to the apartment, she went to the fire-fountain.
In the Fire Nation, it would have been what it sounded like. The torch-lit fountain was still pretty, though, and she could watch the interplay of fire and water for hours.
Another girl sat by the fountain tonight, a dreamy smile on her lips.
Ty Lee beamed. "Jin!"
Jin turned to smile at her. "Ty Lee! I haven't een you around much lately."
She shrugged. "I've been busy. What about you? How's your boyfriend?"
"He's... doing well." Jin's eyes drifted back towards the fountain, and Ty Lee saw little black sparks in her aura. "He's doing better every day. Being safe here in Ba Sing Se... He was orphaned by the Fire Nation, you know."
Ty Lee nodded and tried not to say anything about the children in the Fire Nation orphaned by the Earth Kingdom.
"He's been fighting all his life. Having a chance to not fight, to rest... It's been good for him."
"It sounds like," Ty Lee said. "But what about you?"
"I'm all right." Jin smiled at her again. "My brother's been able to find work most of this month, and my sister got me a job at a bath-house. It pays well, and if I learn everything I can, maybe I can get a spot in a better one. Maybe even one in the Middle Ring."
"Maybe," Ty Lee said dubiously, and Jin nodded in agreement.
The only way Lower Ring girls moved up to the Middle Ring was by marriage.
"What about your boyfriend?" Jin asked.
"I broke it off."
The other girl gave her such a surprised look Ty Lee giggled.
"It's all right! It wasn't anything serious, Jin. He was nice and all, but I mostly started it so Mai wouldn't have to be alone with her boyfriend when she didn't want to be."
"Yeah?" There was a wealth of hidden meaning in Jin's tone.
"Nothing bad," Ty Lee said hurriedly. "They just knew each other when they were kids, but his family left for Ba Sing Se six years ago. This is the first time they've seen each other in a long time, you know?"
"People change," Jin said agreeably. "Especially in Ba Sing Se."
"People do change." Ty Lee nibbled on her lower lip. "Because it's safe?"
There was a flash of expression across Jin's face, and her aura went all spiky. Ty Lee blinked and thought maybe not all the Earthfolk in Ba Sing Se thought the city was safe.
"You have to change in Ba Sing Se," Jin said at last. "I mean, there's no war here. How can you still be the same person you were outside the walls when-"
She broke off and didn't say anything more.
Ty Lee wrapped her arms around herself. "I want to go home," she said very softly, and Jin nodded.
"I want to go home," Ty Lee said the next morning at breakfast.
Mai stared at her, and Iroh set down his bowl of rice. "Has something happened?"
Azula wore a dress, and Zuko lied. The walls kept the Fire Nation out and the Earth Kingdom in. Jin wanted to go home.
She shook her head. "No."
Everyone stepped lightly around her at the teashop after Iroh had a word with Pao. Ty Lee gave him a grateful smile, and he smiled back. He had a kind smile, she thought. He cared for her and Mai even though they weren't really his granddaughters. He had to love Zuko enough that he wasn't here to kill him.
"Maybe we should just ask him why we're here," Ty Lee said quietly when she and Mai had a moment together.
"As if he would tell the truth," Mai muttered.
"Maybe he would."
Mai just looked at her.
Ty Lee bought a dress that afternoon. It was a pretty mint green, and it looked nice on her when she put it on.
She couldn't fight in it at all.
Azula had fought in her dress. But Lei hadn't. Lei hadn't fought even a little bit.
Jin's boyfriend had a girl partner who looked and dressed so much like a boy, Ty Lee had almost mistaken her for one even while looking at her aura. But Jin and Lei wore dresses, and Azula could fight in her dress just like the Avatar's fan-girls could.
'That would mean they all went traitor.'
Iroh found her crying into the dress back at the apartment. He murmured softly to her and rubbed her back, then made her jasmine tea. When that didn't work, he drew her into a hug and softly told her the story of the pirate and the landlord's black-eyed daughter.
Her sniffles died away, and she curled up tightly against him.
Mai had to be wrong. Zuko had to be wrong.
Zuko could lie.
What if Zuko was lying to Mai, and he had gone traitor?
She started crying again, and Iroh just held her.
"Hey, Ty Lee!" Jin caught her as she was leaving the teashop the next day. "Come on, it's the Vine Pear Moon! There's all kinds of stalls in the streets by the Agrarian Zone, and so many fresh vine pears!"
Ty Lee blinked at her. "-What?"
"The vine pears are ripe," she said patiently, "so we're celebrating. Come on! Mai, do you want to come?"
Mai heaved a sigh. "Fine."
Jin led them through the maze of streets that Ty Lee still didn't have all figured out. As they got closer to the wall, Ty Lee heard lively music playing and so many voices all together. They ducked into another alley and burst into a crowd at the other end, and a pretty boy grabbed Ty Lee's hands and danced her half across the street before breaking away.
She laughed and caught Jin grinning, then the smell of batter-dipped fruit reached her nose and Ty Lee chased after that.
Ty Lee and Mai brought home armfuls of the golden fruit, and Mai pulled a jar of sugary batter out of one of her pockets. They grinned at each other, and Ty Lee took a dozen vine pears down to the butcher to trade for cuts of calfpiglet.
Iroh just laughed when he came home, a happy laugh from deep in his belly. "You two had fun today!"
"Yes!" Ty Lee said at the same time Mai nodded.
They had peeled vine pears and roasted calfpiglet that night, and Ty Lee curled up under her blanket with Mai and drifted off to sleep holding her friend's hand.
"We found the girls," Xiang said.
"In the Lower Ring, since you're the one reporting." Hyo glanced up from the response he was writing to General How's request for Dai Li cooperation. "Who are they?"
"I have no idea. But the old man they live with is the Dragon of the West."
Phantom pain flared in Hyo's burned arm, and he dropped his brush, spattering ink across his desk.
Mai bit into a vine pear without peeling it, enjoying the tang of the fruit on her tongue. Ty Lee bounced around the apartment, cheerful for the first time since she'd broken it off with Bahn. Zuko had promised to come by tonight so all she had to do was endure the tedium of another day in the teashop.
"I believe none of us need to be anywhere today," Iroh said, setting down his empty rice-bowl. "Why don't I take you to Huaren's Forum like I promised?"
She blinked and mentally counted the days. Oh. She did have a free day today. Her heart sank even as Ty Lee brightened. She didn't have an excuse to get out of shopping.
Of course, she thought darkly, Ty Lee loved shopping and whatever melancholy had taken over her this past week had driven her into trusting Prince-General Iroh. Maybe because he was the only bit of home Ty Lee really had here. She needed to spend more time with Ty Lee from now on. Her friend would be devastated if her trust in Iroh led to Zuko getting hurt.
"Sure," Mai said. "Sounds... fun."
Shops spilled out from the official grounds of Huaren's Forum, and Mai kept her hand on Iroh's shoulder as the crowds of Ba Sing Se got even worse. She hadn't thought that was possible, but so many people jostled against her and Ty Lee that if she let go of Iroh for an instant, he'd disappear in the crowd.
"It's a good market day," Iroh called back to them. "You see all the street-vendors? They only allow them every eighth day."
Mai nodded, aware he couldn't see it.
"They have skewered lizard!" Ty Lee said in surprise, tugging Mai towards one of the street-vendor stalls.
Mai rolled her eyes. "You've been eating street food for weeks, Ty Lee. You've had skewered lizard before."
"... But I like it."
"You eat the weirdest things."
Iroh chuckled. "We're still not even inside the Forum, granddaughters. We need to pass through the arch first."
Ahead, an eight-posted archway stood over the street. There were no buildings around it for a larger space than Mai would have imagined was allowed in Ba Sing Se. In the Lower Ring, shanties were thrown up overnight in alleys, and apartment buildings were always building more stories. Ba Sing Se needed all the space it could find.
But nothing came close to even touching the great arch.
"King Wu's memorial arch," Iroh said, nodding at it. "You can see the badgermoles of the royal family on it."
"Among other things," Mai muttered as they passed underneath the elaborately carved and painted arch. It looked as bright as the day it was built, and Mai couldn't fathom how or why Ba Sing Se had kept it intact. Emperor Ying Zhen had ruled thousands of years ago; his son was the first Earth King. If she remembered her tutors correctly, the current one was the fifty-first. Earth King Wu's arch was ancient, almost as old as Ba Sing Se itself.
Ty Lee squeezed her hand. "I don't get it," she said quietly. "There's so much of the past alive in Ba Sing Se. It's like walking in two cities at once."
"They are Earth Kingdom," Iroh replied. "Earth endures even better than it keeps secrets. Change is slow, or violent."
That was why, as her father would say, the Fire Nation was taking charge of the Earth Kingdom. They were backwards, wallowing in a style of civilization that had worked a thousand years ago but no longer served its people in these modern times. Only the Fire Nation could lead them forward, just as only the Fire Nation could help the Water Tribes find more hospitable lands to settle in.
Mai didn't care if anyone really believed that. She didn't.
"Ooh, lizards in sauce!"
Mai rolled her eyes. "Fine. Go get a skewered lizard, Ty Lee."
Her friend let go of her hand and ducked off through the crowd with a grin. She caught up with them a few minutes later when Iroh stopped to watch a handsome young dancer. The guy worked a clear space in the crowd, dancing with his hands on the ground as much as his feet. It looked like something Ty Lee would do, and Mai threw one of her coins into his wooden bowl.
"He's good," Ty Lee said approvingly as the guy balanced his body in the air with one hand. "It takes strength to do that, but he's making it look easy."
She nibbled on her skewered lizard, and Mai wrinkled her nose. "I can't believe you eat that."
"Just so long as you don't buy scorpions again," Iroh said, glancing about. "Ah! Postcards!"
"They don't sell them up here," Ty Lee said as they followed after him. "Apparently it's Lower Ring food."
"Cheap meat," Iroh murmured and ducked into a shop. All manner of woodcuts and printed postcards covered one wall, a surprisingly colorful selection of embroidered cloaks and tunics filled the shop itself, and there was a rack of rock candy next to the proprietor. Mai eyed it all dubiously.
"Welcome to Ling's Emporium!" the proprietor called. "Let me know if you need anything."
Mai raised an eyebrow, and Ty Lee nudged her with an elbow.
"We don't look like much," she said quietly.
Mai nodded and wandered over to look at the postcards. There were some pretty woodcuts of various parts of the city, including a rather spectacular one from a rooftop overlooking one of the ring-walls. 'Wish You Were Here!' - she couldn't think of anyone she'd wish that on.
"Pretty!" Ty Lee chirped, and Mai glanced over to see her holding up an incredibly green tunic with a skyline of the city embroidered on it.
"No," she said flatly.
Iroh paid for a handful of postcards and pocketed them before Mai could do more than notice he had them. He smiled indulgently as Ty Lee petted the tunic covetously, but Mai's glare convinced her friend to put the silly thing back. "There is a jeweler's shop a little ways down, I saw. Why don't we go look?"
Mai felt a faint stir of interest. Jewelers in the Earth Kingdom tended to do much simpler metalwork than she was used to, but they used colored stones so much more than anyone in the Fire Nation. She didn't really want any pieces, but they were... nice.
The crowd jostled them, and Ty Lee grabbed her hand again so they wouldn't get split up. It was almost a relief to duck into the jeweler's shop-
She almost plowed into Iroh.
"Look, I know you have the slagging citrine necklace! I have a receipt of sale!" Zuko snapped, shoulders tensed as he faced a mildly smiling Earth Kingdom man.
Mai stared as the jeweler turned towards the new arrivals, and Zuko glanced at them, and-
"Zuko?" Iroh said quietly. "Is that you, my nephew?"
"Uncle?" Zuko's voice cracked, and his eyes darted to Mai then away. "I- Uncle, what are you even doing here?"
"Looking for you," Iroh said, and Mai's blood ran cold. "As well as your father."
Ty Lee squeezed her hand hard. Her eyes slid towards her friend, and Ty Lee's pleading expression made her stomach churn. Iroh had lied to her friend- Never mind Ty Lee always could tell when someone lied, he was Iroh.
Ty Lee didn't want Zuko to be hurt any more than she did.
"Why?" Zuko asked, sounding more lost than suspicious.
"I will explain everything," Iroh promised. He glanced at the avidly listening jeweler and added, "Not here. Why don't we retire to one of the restaurants? Girls, you can look around as you like. It is unfair of me to take you away from this shopping."
Zuko frowned but nodded, and Mai flexed the wrist of her free hand. He was so stupid, he was so stupid and she wasn't going to let his stupidity get him hurt!
Ty Lee jerked towards her as a blade dropped into her hand. "Mai! Don't!"
Iroh turned towards her curiously, and she drove the knife into his back. His eyes went wide, and the guard slammed into his back hard enough to send a jolt through her arm. The jeweler yelled, Ty Lee gasped, and Mai jerked free of her friend's grip, eyes going to Zuko. He was just standing there-
"Run, you idiot!" She leapt back to avoid Iroh's grab, ignoring the pain and confusion on his face.
"Lady Mai!" Iroh snapped, "What is the meaning-?"
Shuriken dropped into Mai's hand, and Ty Lee's face crumpled. She lashed out with her fists, tapping Iroh three times across his shoulders, and his legs collapsed out from underneath him. Iroh gaped and twisted towards Ty Lee, confusion etched on his face, and she gently tapped him in the center of his forehead. His eyes rolled up in his head, and he collapsed to the ground.
Mai stared, and Ty Lee burst into tears.
Zuko shook himself and lunged forward, grabbing them both by the arm. "Come on!"
Ty Lee kicked high, catching Zuko in the shoulder, and his arm went limp. "No! I won't!"
Mai blinked, and Ty Lee stared back at her with tears dripping down her face.
"Just go," she whispered, and Mai threw Ty Lee her sharpest blade hilt-first. Her friend knocked it out of the air then ducked to pick it up, and Mai let Zuko pull her out of the jeweler's shop.
Mai scrambled after Zuko through alleys and back streets. Earthfolk cursed as they jostled them in passing, and more than one man thumped Zuko hard enough to send him stumbling. None of them touched her, not even when her dress caught on someone's basket and spilled cabbages all over the street.
She risked glances back whenever she could, but no one came after them. Not Ty Lee, not Iroh, not angry Earthfolk guards. She held her shuriken tight in her hand, though, despite knowing that would make it harder to throw.
Zuko ducked between two buildings then pounded on a side-gate with his good arm. One door opened a crack then was pulled wide by a startled Earth Kingdom girl in servant's dress. "Lord Lee!"
"Biyu, tell Lin we need some hot tea," he ordered as he pushed his way into the house.
Mai stepped in behind him, looking around curiously. This was obviously a servants' area, plain stone swept clean. The room itself was empty, but with both doors in the gate open, someone could drive a wagon inside. They didn't quite organize important houses like that in the Fire Nation, but Mai could see why it worked in Ba Sing Se.
The girl was frowning at her. "Lord Lee, who is this?"
Mai's eyes narrowed.
"This is Mai," Zuko said, draping an arm around her shoulders. His hip pressed against hers, pinning her hand with the shuriken between her dress and his tunic. "She's a friend of mine."
"I see," the girl said disapprovingly.
"Tea," Zuko ordered, and she left. As soon as the girl was gone, he rubbed the arm he'd draped over Mai's shoulders. "Ty Lee really does a number on people, doesn't she?"
"When she wants to."
"Why did you do that?" Zuko asked quietly when they could curl up in his room with cups of hot tea.
Mai inhaled the steam, savoring the scent of the Earth Kingdom green. "You were going to go with him," she said flatly. "You trust him too much."
"I trust you too much," he said in a hard voice, "and you don't trust me enough."
Her eyes snapped towards him.
"I wanted to get outside before I ran." He set his teacup down on the low wooden table with a click. "He was blocking the door, so that meant agreeing to go with him. But you went and started a fight- Chang knows who I am and where my family lives! He's going to tell the guards and the Dai Li-"
"The Dai Li already know who you are," she snapped, her knuckles white on the teacup.
"They didn't have an official reason to arrest me! You don't have to be flashy and violent to solve every problem!" Zuko glared at her, heat rising in waves from his shoulders. "Smelt it, why do you have to be so Fire Nation?"
"Because I am," Mai hissed, "and so are you."
His glare intensified. "Of course I'm Fire Nation, Mai!"
"No," she said, "not 'of course'. You court me like I'm an Earth Kingdom girl. You fight like you're not even a 'bender. Azula was surprised when you firebent. You don't even wear boots - you wear sandals. You're a Prince of the Fire Nation, Zuko, not some Earth Kingdom boy!"
"That's what you have to do in Ba Sing Se!" he yelled. "You act like you're a part of Ba Sing Se, or they toss you down to the bottom of the heap!"
"Then why are you still here?" she asked in a low, dangerous voice. "Azula told Ty Lee and Lei she's going to leave Ba Sing Se to become a firebender. Are you just going to live like this?"
"It's safe here," Zuko snapped, snatching up his tea and taking a swift drink.
"Safe from what?"
"It's just safe!"
He ran around the rooftops in the Lower Ring looking for trouble. He fought the Dai Li. Why was he so scared of leaving the city? Mai took a sip of her tea then set the cup down. "You're a prince of the Fire Nation, Zuko. You can't be safe here." Her eyes narrowed. "You aren't, or you wouldn't be so scared of the Dai Li."
"I get by."
"No, you went out," she snapped.
Tea slopped over the rim of his cup as he stared at her with a stricken expression.
Hyo sat in his office, sifting through reports he'd already gone over twice since dawn. His Dai Li were out there with the Fire Nation prince. The coup could begin any minute now. The coup might have already begun.
He had to go through his usual routine as if nothing was happening, he reminded himself. As Dai Li commander, he had been very low-key and unintrusive since Long Feng's arrest. He couldn't change his behavior now. There was too much riding on this being a surprise.
Of course, he thought darkly, it would still succeed even if the generals knew they were coming. It would just get some of his Dai Li killed.
His burned hand clenched into a fist. The only person who should die today was Prince Ozai.
"That looks like everything," Ursa said as she pressed her husband's seal onto the last document. "Another shipment should arrive in two weeks."
Her manager nodded. "Just in time for the debutante season to begin. We'll make enough money to build all our ancestral shrines with jade."
"Indeed." No matter how much life in Ba Sing Se drove her mad some days, being able to maneuver as a merchant made everything so much better. This was her life, not the life of a shunned princess of disgraced blood. If only the Firelord had done what was appropriate with his second son and sent Ozai to live with her family rather than forcing her to come to the palace. Then they could have all been happy.
"Oh, an old man came around yesterday," her manager said, interrupting her thoughts. "He was looking for his younger brother, said he came to Ba Sing Se ahead of him and was looking for work in the spice trade. The way he described his brother kind of reminded me of your husband."
She turned slowly to look at him as something in the back of her mind started screaming. "What did he look like, this old man?"
Ursa stalked through the gates of her home. She had no idea where Ozai was, but she'd already sent a message to bring Azula home from school. Zuko had gone to the Forum earlier to fetch her commissioned necklace. Once the children arrived, they could pack their essentials. There were fewer places to run to in the Earth Kingdom anymore, but they'd burn that bridge when they came to it.
"Lady Ying?" Biyu said tentatively, stepping into the garden from the kitchen doors. "Young Lord Lee is home."
"Good," she said. "Where is he?"
"In his room, lady. With the girl he brought home."
For a moment, the girl's words simply didn't register. Zuko brought a girl home. Well, she would have to leave- Zuko brought a girl home?!
"A girl? Now?" Her fist clenched, nails digging into her palm. "His timing always was abysmal."
Biyu shrank back against the doorpost as Ursa swept past her. Ursa ignored her, though she made a mental note to see about letting her and Lin go gently. That could wait until she had a chance to speak to Ozai, though. Perhaps her husband had something up his sleeve or a brilliant idea to handle Iroh. He'd always been more clever than Azulon expected, and their life in Ba Sing Se hadn't dulled that.
She hoped Ozai would have some idea, if Zuko had brought a girl home. Her son seemed to have inherited his father's lack of natural ability with women. There should have been more girls before now, or at least hints of them. Especially for a Fire Nation boy.
-If this was the same girl, how serious was it if he was actually bringing her home? Had he lit a spark in her? Oh, Avatar, what if she had a little firebender, what would they do? They could never stay in Ba Sing Se then.
Ursa swept into her son's room. "Zuko-"
Lady Mai of Red Chrysanthemum Island sat across the tea-table from her son, teacup in hand, dressed fit for the Lower Ring. Surprise gave life to her face; Ursa had always remembered her as a curiously expressionless little girl.
She was here. In Ursa's home. With Ursa's son. Iroh had found them out of the tens of thousands in Ba Sing Se, and Lady Mai was here in this room with her son!
Flame ignited before she could consciously summon it.
"Mother!" Zuko yelled. "No!"
But what stopped her from blasting were the sudden shuriken Lady Mai threw. They caught the edge of Ursa's sleeve and dragged it back, pinning her wrist to the doorframe.
"Mother!" Zuko said again. "She's not with Uncle! She's here to help us."
Ursa stared at the young woman with the long knife in her hand. Was this the same little girl who walked in Azula and Ty Lee's shadow in the gardens? Zatoru's little girl who regarded Ursa and Ozai with the same dull, flat expression? How had that child grown up into this lady?
Then her eyes fell on Zuko. "You knew your uncle was in the city? For how long?"
Zuko winced. "Two weeks."
"And you didn't think your father or I needed to know that?" Ursa tugged her sleeve loose from the doorframe and plucked the shuriken out of the cloth. The sleeve looked repairable; she would have Biyu take it to her father.
"What would you do about it?" Lady Mai asked quietly before taking a sip of her tea. "The court always said no one could best Prince-General Iroh."
"The court," Ursa said in a hard voice, "has never seen some of the daimyos roused to anger, and they think noble blood is the only blood with firebending strength. Admiral Jeong Jeong would have destroyed Iroh."
Pale eyes looked down into her teacup. "Admiral Jeong Jeong would not have fought the Prince-General. He didn't when he deserted."
Ursa's mouth curved into an ugly smile. "Prince-General Iroh never fought me."
Ursa ordered Zuko and Lady Mai to remain in the house and inform Azula of the situation when she arrived home. Then she set out to the address Lady Mai so helpfully provided. Iroh's apartment was in the Lower Ring and almost a quarter of the way around the city from her own house. Even taking an earth-train, it took her over an hour to reach the neighborhood Lady Mai had told her about.
She stalked into the apartment building, ignoring the looks her too-fine dress drew. They saw only the rich embroidery, not the way the loose sleeves did not lie quite right on her arms.
At the top of the narrow stairs, she drew the butterfly swords from their concealed sheaths. This pair wasn't the one her father gave her as his last gift, but the blades were good Fire Nation steel nonetheless. Ursa would not face the Dragon of the West with anything less.
She paused outside his door and took a moment to gather her breath. Sparks gathered inside her, then ignited in a rush of blue around her swords.
Using the knuckle-guard of one sword, she knocked on the door.
"I am sorry-" Iroh broke off as he opened the door. His eyes met hers, hard and terrible, and she snarled as blue crackled around the blades of her swords.
"Brother." She twisted the term of affection into the mockery it was, and rage flashed across his face.
"Lady Ty Lee," he said simply, "run."
The girl stared over Iroh's shoulder at her, then whirled and threw open the shutters. A moment's shock went through her as Ty Lee vaulted out the window, then Iroh spat flame at her. She swept an arm up to catch it on her own fire, blue consuming red, and slashed out with her other sword. He ducked back with the agility that had surprised so many and slammed the door as she pursued him. It caught her hard in the shoulder, drawing a hiss of pain.
"What have you done to my brother?" he demanded even as he punched fire at her.
Again, she swept it aside with the corona around her blades. "You always hated me and my daughter. I'm not surprised you came for my son, too."
"What did you do to Ozai?" he roared. "He ran from me!"
Ozai knew?! Ozai knew his brother was in the city, and he didn't tell her! Shock froze her at a critical moment, and red flame burned away the lower skirts of her dress. She snapped up a wave of blue, which he caught and snuffed between his hands.
If Azula had also known her uncle was here in the city without telling her, Ursa was going to have a very long discussion with her family.
"Maybe he finally learned not to trust you," she hissed, darting forward with her blades. The left sword slashed through his robes, cutting a long line across his chest, then he punched out-
The explosion of flame sent her crashing through the thin wooden wall. Ursa rolled to her feet as quickly as she could and knocked aside an incoming volley of fire. Her shoulders and back ached abysmally, and she knew she'd be black and blue in the morning.
Little bits of the apartment burned merrily, some fires strengthening with her ragged breaths, some with Iroh's measured pants.
Her eyes narrowed. He threw around more power than anyone she had ever fought before, but Iroh should be comparable to her husband in skill and power.
Ozai would not be panting after that display of firebending.
Blood oozed from the cut across his chest. As a firebender, she didn't stand a chance of hurting Iroh. He had outright snuffed her flames! But her swords had bit him once and could again.
He surged forward suddenly, and a sheet of red flame raced towards her. Kicking her heel against the floor in pure instinct, Ursa burned the wooden floor and dropped through into the apartment below. She extinguished her swords and darted away from the hole as quickly as possible.
She couldn't hurt him as a firebender, but she'd marked him with her swords. This was no duel, and there were no rules.
Behind her, she heard a heavy thump as he lowered himself into the apartment with her. Ursa kicked the door open into the hall with deliberate noise, then slipped behind the paper screen filling one corner of the room. Through subtle slits, she saw Iroh enter and look around. His hand went briefly to his chest, and she smelled burnt flesh. When he lowered his hand, the gash was cauterized shut.
"Hang the woman," he muttered then stalked towards the open door.
Ursa slipped quietly from behind the screen. She hardly breathed as she padded up behind him, raising one arm to deliver a killing stroke to the back of his neck. Her sword came down-
Iroh whirled, his arm coming up to catch her sword in his sleeve. "Fool-"
His nose made a gratifying crunch as she punched him with the knuckle-guard of her other butterfly sword. "Two swords," she chastised as he reeled back. "Butterflies come in pairs."
She slashed for his throat as his arm came up-
Red flame roared in a tidal wave, and she screamed. Blue fire ignited in an aura around her, and she only barely raised her arms to protect her eyes when the wave struck her. The ends of her hair vanished to ash, her dress melted and burned. Only her own firebending prevented her from burning to cinders. The sheer force of his fire threw her through the wall and into the street.
She lay there for a long moment, blue fire burning down her spine, her cheek against the dust. Exhaustion and pain weighed her body down, but she couldn't sto*. She had to get up, get hidden before he had a chance to catch up with her. All she had to do was hit him hard once.
He'd hit her hard twice now, and she was still alive.
With a grunt of effort, Ursa forced herself to her feet. People stared, and she became aware of how she must look - a woman in nothing more than a shift of burned silk, swords clenched in her fists, fire burning on her skin.
She bared her teeth, and people hastily looked away.
Her eyes went to the hole she had made in the wall. Flames licked hungrily at its edges, and-
Iroh stared at her with the most peculiar expression on his bloody face. In another man, she might have mistaken it for mingled respect and awe.
The very idea of running hurt too much. Ursa slid into a fighting stance and hoped Ozai could take care of the children. "Come on, then, if you think you're hard enough."
"Enough of this foolishness," Iroh said in a hard voice.
"I agree," a man with a Ba Sing Se accent said, then two men in Dai Li robes leaped down beside her. Ursa froze for a brief moment then swung her swords as hard as she could at the one to the left.
He caught them in stone-gloved hands, while the other lunged forward in an earthbending stance. Slabs of rock erupted from the street, overlapping in a cage that pinned Iroh's arms to his sides. His eyes narrowed, and Ursa knew he took a breath even as she wrenched her swords back from the Dai Li-
A muzzle of rock wrapped around Iroh's mouth, and rock-gloved hands grabbed her bare blades.
"Lady Ursa," the Dai Li agent said, "your lord husband requests your presence."
Hyo set his paperwork down abruptly and stalked towards the door of his office. For the last two hours, a growing unease had filled him, and all he could think about was Mi-Cha at home with the trainees. His home, the official house of the Commander of the Dai Li. It was a matter of public record where he lived.
Qin would kill Prince Ozai soon. There was nothing to worry about. Checking on his daughter would just make him feel better about everything.
His steps quickened. Mi-Cha hadn't seen his friend Chul in some months. She would enjoy spending a few nights with him, maybe play with his nieces and nephews. It would take him less than two hours to nip down to the Middle Ring with her and back.
There was nothing to worry about, but a Dai Li didn't live long by ignoring his instincts.
"If you ask for more tea, I'm going to pin you to the wall," Mai snapped, eyes on the edge of one of her knives.
Zuko sighed. All right, they probably didn't need a fourth round of tea. But holding a teacup was better than him holding a sword or her holding a knife and drinking tea meant he didn't have to talk to her. Everything he'd said for the past hour seemed to be the wrong thing; she was still giving him the same flat look she'd given him since she accused him of extinguishing.
The door to his room slammed open. "Lee, what is going-" Azula glared at Mai, "-on? Why does Mother want me home?"
"She knows Uncle is here," he said quietly. "She's gone to fight him."
Azula blinked. Blinked again. "... I need to talk to Katara."
Mai's head snapped up.
Zuko glanced between the two girls. Mai was glaring at Azula, and Azula was looking increasingly haughty. Faintly, he could feel the rising heat in the air, and Mai's grip shifted on her knife.
"You know the Avatar's waterbender?" Mai said at last.
"Of course," Azula replied, condescension thick in her voice. "Aang is going to escort me to a firebending master."
"He's our enemy," Mai hissed.
"No, he's the Firelord's enemy. Since Grandfather is the reason we're stuck out here, I'll be glad when Aang kills him!"
Zuko nodded, and Mai shot him a betrayed look. He shrugged; he didn't know who Aang was - presumably the Avatar - but Grandfather had wanted Father to kill him. He didn't see much reason to like the old bastard or to want the Avatar to lose.
Besides, the Avatar had to be ancient. He'd disappeared over a hundred years ago. He and Grandfather would probably kill each other in their fight. Then Uncle or Father could take the throne, and he didn't think Uncle would want him dead if Grandfather wasn't around.
Mai folded her arms and slumped back against his bed. "Ty Lee was right."
Zuko glanced at Azula, who just rolled her eyes.
"Well, if you're just going to sulk," she said to Mai, "I'm going to find Katara. If Uncle and Mother are fighting, we're going to be leaving the city soon anyway, and I am going to leave with the people of my choosing."
"Mother said to wait here," Zuko reminded her.
"Mother isn't here to stop me," Azula snapped. "Who else is going to? You?"
"I could," he said in a low voice. If his swords weren't in the chest at the foot of his bed. 'Bending against 'bending, he wasn't too sure.
"Are you going to?"
He saw the determination in his sister's eyes. Firebending had always been the most important thing in the world to her, especially after they fled the Fire Nation and her training ended. Mother and Father had been willing to teach them on the road, but that had stopped in Ba Sing Se. Azula had taught herself, sometimes goading him into stealing earthbending manuals for her, too often just locking herself in her room.
The Avatar would take her to a firebending master to train under. The Avatar probably was the firebending master. Azula would kill for this opportunity.
"No," he said. "I'm not."
Azula blinked and looked faintly baffled, as if she didn't quite know who he was.
"Go before I change my mind." Zuko turned away. The door rasped open and shut behind him, and the heat in the room began to fade.
Mai glared at him, her knuckles white against the deep brown of her dress. "You keep saying you haven't extinguished, but you just let the princess of the Fire Nation run off with the Avatar."
"Who cares?" he snapped. "The Avatar's over a century old! He'll be dead in ten years, and the children of Sozin will go on."
Her eyes went wide. "You've never met him." Her voice hardened. "Zuko, he's twelve."
"-So we have a Water Tribe Avatar now?"
"No." Mai sighed. "He's an airbender."
"How does that even work?"
She looked at him, then pointed one toe at the foot of the bed. "Sit down. I only want to tell you this once."
Zuko sat at the foot of his bed, Mai's foot pressed against his thigh. She'd told him a lot of things, including about her encounters with the boy-Avatar. Against Ty Lee and her, he had been... not bad. He and his followers had gotten away, at least. But they'd also never stopped Mai and Ty Lee, and Uncle hadn't bothered to fight them at all. If the Avatar and his followers had a hard time with just Ty Lee and Mai...
He didn't remember his Grandfather very well. Just the throne room and the omnipresent heat and crackle of flames. The Firelord maintained them himself, and Grandfather never lowered his unless he wanted someone to approach and speak quietly.
Grandfather was ancient but still a strong firebender. The Avatar had just barely started to learn earthbending, and he would certainly never be an earthbending master by the time Great-Grandfather's comet returned. Maybe an airbending and waterbending master could survive Grandfather, and maybe the Avatar and his followers together could hurt Grandfather, but...
He cradled his face in his hands and groaned. "The Avatar can't kill Grandfather, Mai. He's twelve."
"Why is this a problem, Zuko?"
"The problem is Azula!" He yelled, flame licking between his teeth. "She'll try to do it! She hates him!"
Mai blinked. "And I thought my family was bad."
Zuko rolled to his feet and snapped his chest open. "Come on. We have to go after her."
"Do you even know where she went?"
He froze, his swords in his hands. The Avatar was in Ba Sing Se, or Azula wouldn't be going to him. But saying that was like saying the Avatar was in the Fire Nation. It narrowed things down from the whole rest of the world, but Ba Sing Se was huge.
"He's the Avatar," Zuko said slowly. "He'll be an honored guest of the Earth King. Which means the Earth King's palace."
He pulled his swords out of the chest and strapped the scabbard across his back.
"You know," Mai said carefully, "it's going to be difficult to get into the palace."
"If you can wait an hour, there's a set of armored dresses and kanzashi in my apartment. We took them from the Kyoshi Warriors." A smile quirked her lips. "They like to think they can fight, but the Earthfolk respect them and they're dedicated to the Avatar."
Zuko frowned. "Our faces are pretty distinctive..."
"They also wear makeup over their entire face."
"-Azula never hears about this."
Zuko bit his lip and tried not to fidget as Mai slathered the white rice powder paint on his face. The hired boy had brought the dresses a little while ago, and he really hoped the Avatar wasn't planning to leave anytime soon. Not that he could; the Earth King would have to give him a farewell feast that would take at least a day.
"Do you have a plan?"
"Um." He blinked. "Find Azula, bring her home."
Mai gave him a withering look.
"What? I've never been to the Earth King's palace before! Have you?"
"No." Mai dug her nails into his chin. "Hold still so I can get this paint right."
The closer they got to the palace, the more the atmosphere of the Upper Ring felt off. Zuko already found it plenty creepy without the usual chattering bustle of people elsewhere in Ba Sing Se, but now there was a sense of... waiting. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
"All we have to do is bring Azula home," he said out of the corner of his mouth.
Zuko gritted his teeth. "You know where our home is, Mai."
"Then the Avatar is going to take her there already."
He nearly went for his swords, but a Kyoshi Warrior wouldn't attack one of her fellows. Everything relied on them being Earth Kingdom enough to pull this off. Mai had told him enough about the Kyoshi Warriors that it would be easy for him-
He was Earth Kingdom enough to pull this off. He knew the right streets to take, the right bows to give, the right idioms to use. He knew it without having to think about it.
He wasn't Earth Kingdom.
"Zuko?" Mai pressed against his side, shoulder to shoulder. It steadied him, and he tried to focus on the problem at hand.
They had to find Azula. That was all.
They had to go home. Where the food was spicy, where people didn't look at him askance for having gold eyes, where turtleducks paddled in still ponds. They had to go home, or he would smother.
He resolutely ignored the idea that he already had.
"Let's go," he commanded. "Let's find Azula."
The guards were nervous. Their eyes kept darting towards the great gates, and their replies to Mai kept trailing off into nothing. They didn't want to let the two Kyoshi Warriors in. Why not? The Earth King wouldn't want to see them. Well, they were here to see the Avatar. He wasn't at the palace. Then where was he? Somewhere else. Ba Sing Se is a big city. The Dai Li probably have it on record.
"Then we need to speak to a Dai Li agent," Mai said in a frosty voice.
The guards paled, and the spokesman glanced at the gate again. "Chen, go and fetch Lady Joo Dee. She can... handle this."
The indicated guard gulped then hurried in through one of the secondary arches of the gate.
Zuko pressed his lips together. Around them, people moved easily out of the palace but he hadn't seen anyone else try to get in. Too, all the people leaving looked... not precisely afraid, but way more than just nervous.
Sometime later, the guard returned escorting an older woman in a fine green dress. She smiled at Mai and Zuko, and Zuko felt an instinctive urge to punch her in the teeth and run. He resisted it. "Hello! I am told you are seeking Avatar Aang."
Mai's flat pronouncement didn't seem to phase the woman at all. "I am afraid he is not here at the palace. He maintains a guest house in the Upper Ring. Would you like an escort?"
"We would like to see him or Katara as soon as possible."
Something flashed in those dark brown eyes at the name Katara, and Zuko shifted forward on the balls of his feet. "The Avatar and all of his companions are staying at their guest house."
'She's lying.' He wanted to tell Mai, but he couldn't talk without breaking their disguise. Too, Mai had always known Azula was lying before he did. She had to know the woman was lying now.
"Then we'll go there," Mai said, "and if he's not there, you'll take us to where he is."
The lady chortled. "We will see what we can do, young misses! I will send for a carriage."
Zuko sat silently by a window, watching the sky. Mai wasn't quite glaring at Lady Joo Dee, who was keeping up the most banal chatter about Ba Sing Se as the carriage rolled through the streets of the Upper Ring. It set his teeth on edge just listening to her, and his knuckles were white as he clenched and unclenched his fists.
A cloud scudded across the sky. Between one blink and the next, it resolved itself into a white point, too fast and small to be a real cloud. He stared at it, puzzled, and it got closer and closer-
Six legs. Beaver tail. "Sky bison!"
Mai lunged towards the window, staring up at it. Then she turned on Lady Joo Dee. "He's going to the palace."
The woman just smiled. "You do not know for certain-"
Zuko reached into the slit he'd made in the dress when he first put it on and drew his swords. "We'll take the risk."
Lady Joo Dee paled. "You're not Kyoshi Warriors..."
Mai smiled cool and tight, needles gleaming between her fingers. "And you're stuck in here with us. Tell the driver to take us to the palace."
"And nothing else," Zuko added in a growl, laying the edge of his sword against the woman's throat.
"Thank you for taking her on such a short notice," Hyo said.
"It's nothing." Chul grinned and patted Mi-Cha's shoulder carefully. "It's never any trouble to spend time with the little princess. She's so much better-behaved than my sister's children."
Mi-Cha held tightly onto the little bag of stones Hyo had given her to practice her 'bending on. She looked at them with solemn, worried eyes, and Hyo wondered how he was going to explain this sudden disruption to her later. He didn't like telling his daughter about the times when being a Dai Li meant killing people.
"I'll see you in a few days, Mi-Cha," he said, kneeling down to give his daughter a hug. "Until then, be good for Chul."
"Yes, Daddy," she said, snuggling into his embrace. "I miss you."
He chuckled. "I'm not gone yet."
"What about the girl?" Ozai asked of the scarred young Dai Li fighting to keep up with him. It really was gratifying to know they didn't all have orders to kill him. A pity about Qin. He'd rather wanted to keep the man.
"She's in our custody," the Dai Li reported. "The Avatar has been spotted flying over Ba Sing Se."
"Excellent. My wife?"
"Two of our agents are fetching her now. Agents have also been sent to fetch your children."
"Good. Tell them I'll be in the throne room, then go check on the Earth King." Ozai smirked. "I don't want the boy to feel... distressed by any of this."
For the first time in a long time, Ozai wore red.
He lounged on the Badgermole Throne, awaiting the return of his agents. He wanted his wife safe, and she would want their children safe, before he dealt with Xin Wan and Long Feng.
The door to the throne room swung ponderously open. A Dai Li escorted Azula in, his daughter clearly seething. "Father!" she snarled as soon as she was within shouting distance. "What have you done with Katara?"
Ozai tilted his head slightly in bemusement. Of all the things to open a conversation with. "Who?"
"The Avatar's waterbender friend." Azula glared at him and crossed her arms. "This idiot won't tell me anything about her! He says you know where she is, so where is she?" A beat. "-And what is going on?"
"Oh, her. You threw her in prison, didn't you?"
The Dai Li agent nodded in confirmation, and Ozai glanced back at his daughter. Fury twisted her expression, and heat rose from her shoulders in waves.
"Well, let her go!" she demanded. "Katara's my friend!"
Was she going to stomp her foot? He was fairly certain she'd grown out of such temper tantrums years ago. Not that he had much to do with his children when they were angry. Ursa seemed to think he taught them bad habits.
"Azula," he said patiently, "I'm using her as bait for the Avatar. When I capture him, I'll be more than happy to let your little friend go."
"You can't capture Aang!" Azula stomped her foot hard, blackening the stone tile with a burst of blue fire.
-What? Ozai tried to wrap his mind around the idea that Azula even knew the Avatar's name, much less cared enough about the man to use it. Even that was more comprehensible than- Well, why couldn't he capture the Avatar? "Speak quickly."
"He's going to teach me to firebend," she hissed. "Something you and Mother won't."
Ozai considered that. It would mean neither he nor Ursa would have to bother with retraining their daughter or finding a trainer for her. It would also give them a pair of eyes and ears (and fists) around the Avatar at all times. "I will-"
A Dai Li agent burst into the throne room. "Prince Ozai, the Avatar is here!"
Ozai smiled. "Excellent."
Through the stone walls and heavy tiles of the Earth King's Palace, he felt the sun high above. He inhaled, fanning sparks to life, then lunged to his feet. His arms came forward, lightning born on his fingertips-
Two white bolts crackled through the throne room, and the two Dai Li agents flew back, holes burned through their chests.
Azula stared at him with wide eyes.
Ozai clapped his hands to summon a page.
A timid-looking boy scurried in and bowed low before him. Even when he straightened, the boy kept his eyes firmly on the foot of the dais.
"Tell them to free the waterbender," Ozai ordered as he sank back onto his throne. "Have her brought here."
The boy scurried out, and Azula gaped at him. "Father?" she asked in a small voice. "What's going on?"
"I've conquered Ba Sing Se."
Before Azula could respond to that, three children burst into the throne room. A little girl in Earth Kingdom greens, a young man in Water Tribe blues, and a -
A boy in Air Nomad colors with monks' tattoos.
They paused at the sight of the Dai Li corpses, and the Air Nomad turned distinctly green. The Water Tribe boy didn't look particularly bothered, and the little girl didn't seem to really look at them at all. He wasn't even sure how much she could see with her bangs over her eyes like that.
"Oma!" the Water Tribe boy shouted, stepping forward with a silver boomerang in hand. "Get back! That guy took Katara!"
Azula stiffened, and Ozai watched with interest as her eyes flickered from him to the floor and back up again. Then she smiled, quick and vicious, before letting it vanish. "Father said he would let her go."
She turned on her heels and spread her hands. "Aang, Sokka, Toph- this is my father, Second Prince Ozai of the Fire Nation."
The Air Nomad boy looked shellshocked, while the Water Tribe boy's eyes narrowed. The Earth Kingdom girl stared vaguely in his direction, tilting her head slightly. A bit of her hair moved, and he saw one milky eye.
Well, wasn't that dangerous.
"Six years ago, Firelord Azulon ordered my father to kill my older brother," Azula continued, her voice full of a sadness he didn't remember her exhibiting at the time. "He refused - what kind of monster could kill his own son?"
The Air Nomad boy bit his lip, looking even more concerned and upset. "Azula..."
"Seriously, Aang, are you going to let us in on where you got that from?" The Water Tribe boy glanced at the Earth Kingdom girl. "Toph?"
"She's telling the truth," she replied. "'Course, Sparky, that doesn't explain why he's taken over Ba Sing Se."
Ozai stepped in smoothly so his daughter could keep her little game going. If they played this right, he could get the Avatar to leave Ba Sing Se entirely peacably and convinced he was a decent man. "You are aware Sozin's Comet will return at the end of this summer?"
The children nodded, the Water Tribe boy glaring at him and the Air Nomad boy dithering with his staff.
"Where do you think my father's armies will strike hardest then?" Ozai made a gesture to encompass the entire city. "The weakened Water Tribes? Or the city that has withstood his armies for a hundred years? The city half the Earth Kingdom has flocked to? One of the strongest-beating hearts of the Earth Kingdom?"
The children paled, and Ozai fought the urge to smile.
"But there is no need to strike Ba Sing Se if it already belongs to the Fire Nation." Ozai leaned back in his throne. "To me, it would be a terrible thing for Ba Sing Se to be obliterated."
What had Ursa said once? 'Your lies are so charming because you phrase them truthfully.'
The Water Tribe boy glowered at him dubiously. "Yeah, and those two bodies are what, signs of your good intentions?"
Ozai shrugged. "The Dai Li are evil men. You ought to know this."
"Where's Katara?" the Air Nomad boy demanded, stepping forward. "If you're such a good guy, why have you taken her?"
"To bring you here."
That answer flummoxed the children. Even Azula glanced back over her shoulder at him, puzzlement on her face. He said nothing more, merely waited until the page arrived leading the Water Tribe girl. The page bowed and scurried out, and the Water Tribe girl flung herself at his daughter in a hug.
"Oma! I've been so worried about you."
Azula looked as surprised as he felt, then she tentatively wrapped her arms around the other girl.
Seriously, he was paying Lok too much if all this had been going on in the past few weeks.
Soon the children were all wrapped up in a hug-ball with many excited exclamations at seeing the Water Tribe girl and was she all right and could they get out of his throne room and go annoy his father sometime soon?
"Now that you're all reunited," Ozai said, interrupting them, "what are you intending to do?"
Azula clenched her fists. "Aang and I are going to learn to firebend, Father."
He almost expected her to add 'and you can't stop me', but evidently she hadn't taken complete leave of her sanity. "Very well. Go. Enjoy yourself. Write, or your mother will be worried."
The children just stared.
"That's it?" the Water Tribe boy said. "We just... go?"
"Now," Ozai added. "Quickly."
"-Right! Aang, let's get out of here. Seriously, this city sucks."
Once the children left, Ozai disposed of the Dai Li corpses then summoned his page again. "Send a message to Lok in the Middle Ring, on the Street of Ostrich-Horses, near the Thirty-Fifth Earth King's temple. Tell him Miss Oma has left the city in the company of the Avatar, and his contract with me has not been terminated. Oh, and send Lady Joo Dee to attend me."
The page bowed in acknowledgment and left.
Shortly thereafter, a Lady Joo Dee entered the throne room with two young women wearing actor's makeup. Then the one with the sheathed sword across her back gaped at him.
"-Zuko?" He studied the girl- boy closely. Yes, despite the dress, makeup, and the gold pins holding up Zuko's curiously undone hair, that was his son. The other girl also looked faintly familiar, though he couldn't place her under all that getup.
Ozai was sure there was an explanation for this, but after Azula, he really didn't want to know.
"Where's Azula?" Zuko asked. "She said she was going to find the Avatar, and we saw his sky-bison coming this way..."
No, he really didn't. "They left already. You just missed them."
The unknown girl stared at him while Zuko cursed. He raised an eyebrow in response.
"We'll never catch up with her on a sky-bison!" Zuko snarled, a lick of flame coming from between his lips.
Ozai frowned at that display of his son's lack of control with his firebending. That was not acceptable for a prince of the Fire Nation. Quickly, he made his decision. "They are going to seek a firebending master. That means they must go into Fire Nation territory. A sky-bison would be a liability."
Zuko bit one painted lip. "-If we can get out of the city quickly, we can probably catch up with her."
"Lady Joo Dee," he said, his eyes lingering on the unknown girl. He couldn't be certain from this far away, but he did not think she was an Earth Kingdom girl. "See that a carriage takes my son and his companion to one of the train-stations going to the Great Outer Wall, and see they are given ostrich-horses when they leave the city."
"As you wish, my lord."
"Thank you, Father," Zuko said with a smile. He bowed in the proper Fire Nation style, then nudged his companion to do the same.
Ozai waved a hand magnaminously. "Go. Write, or your mother will worry. Lady Joo Dee, I will need you when you're done."
Joo Dee returned shortly, and Ozai smiled as he rose from his throne. "Would you be so kind as to introduce me to Xin Wan?"
It took them less than half an hour in a carriage to reach the small, elegant Upper Ring home. Joo Dee knocked smartly on the door, and a smiling man soon came to open it. He was a plain man, except for that smile that could chill blood, and his eyes were far too intrigued for Ozai's tastes.
"Do come in," the man said. "I've just made tea."
Ozai smiled and touched Joo Dee's arm. "Only a moment. I must pay my respects to Commander Hyo soon. Lady Joo Dee, will you see the carriage remains ready?"
She nodded, and he stepped inside the man's house. Xin Wan smiled and gestured to the ewer Ozai could use to wash his feet with then turned towards the far door. "Let me fetch the tea."
It took two strides to reach him, and Ozai yanked the green-hilted dagger out from his sleeve, grabbed the man's braid to yank his head back, and slit his throat. Spikes exploded from the floor and walls then died half-formed.
He wiped his blade clean on the man's shirt and let the corpse drop. "You people are too used to thinking in circles. You didn't expect me to be this direct at all, did you?"
Corpses were incapable of speech when all was well, and all was well today, so he received no answer.
Back at the Earth King's palace, Ozai went to visit Commander Hyo. The man's office was empty, however, and questioning one of the omnipresent Joo Dee secretaries revealed the commander had left some time ago. Of course he would return by tomorrow at the very latest, they assured him. Commander Hyo was a very diligent commander. He would never neglect his duty.
Ozai just smiled and made note to find out if the records had the man's home listed. They seemed to have everything else recorded in this city.
On his way back to the throne room, the two Dai Li agents who had been sent to fetch Ursa caught up with him. "Sir, your wife is in the Palace of Eternal Beauty's bath-house right now."
He raised his eyebrows. "Why?"
"We found her on the losing side of a firebending fight against the Dragon of the West."
The younger Dai Li added, almost hesitantly. "We took him into custody, sir. He's in the crystal prison until you decide what to do with him."
"Let him rot." He would have to deal with Iroh eventually, he knew. But not immediately. "Now take me to my wife."
The Palace of Eternal Beauty turned out to be one of the secondary palaces in the whole complex that formed the Earth King's Palace. The bath-house occupied the entire northwest corner of the building, and he had to hunt through several rooms before he found Ursa soaking in a steaming tub.
He took a moment to frankly admire his wife. The scars of past Agni Kais peppered her limbs and belly, her body well-formed and graceful, her face beautiful. Age and children had rounded her hips and breasts, and everything about her still filled him with desire. He loved her, beyond all reason, as the greatest heroes in Fire Nation tales did.
One eye cracked open, and she regarded him with irritation. "Dearest. What is going on?"
"I've conquered Ba Sing Se."
She sat up abruptly, sloshing water out of the tub and onto the floor. "What?!"
"I've conquered Ba Sing Se," he repeated. "Well, there is something for me to clean up first, but the hard work is all done."
She stared at him.
"You did say I should find a way to get us home," he pointed out.
Ursa just slumped back in the tub. "So I did." She sighed. "Well, go clean up whatever it is you need to do, then come scrub my back."
Ozai grinned. "Of course."
Sang Min caught up with him at the Meridian Gate. Frantically, he grabbed Hyo by his bad arm hard enough to bruise. "Hyo-sir!"
"Agent?" Hyo gave Sang Min's hand a cold look until the younger man removed it. "What is the matter?"
"Don't go back," Sang Min hissed. "He's killing Dai Li. Qin and his squad are dead, and I can't find any trace of Tai or Duyi."
His blood ran cold. "-Long Feng."
"Jae went to fetch him an hour ago," Sang Min said very quietly, and Hyo knew by that answer that Jae hadn't returned.
He saw his own fear reflected in Sang Min's eyes, and part of him screamed to rescue his friend. But if they both died, there would be no one to take care of the Dai Li, no one to fight back against the Fire Nation.
Long Feng waited patiently. He was aware one of his Dai Li should have come for him some time ago, but plans could go awry. Until such time as his Dai Li dealt with the Fire prince, he could stay out of their way and not risk the most important part of this gamble.
His eyes snapped up when his cell door rasped open, and he was on his feet when Prince Ozai strode inside. The man smiled.
A cold prickle of fear ran up Long Feng's spine. He pulled at the stone manacles Hyo had brought that morning, dragging them down into gloves around his hands-
Ozai was upon him in a trice, breaking one wrist and pinning the other behind his back. Heat came off the man in waves, and sweat gathered at Long Feng's temples. He stomped hard, gratified at the crunch of foot bones under his heel, but the Fire prince did not flinch back. Instead, he made a small 'heh' sound.
It sank into Long Feng that he had made a terrible mistake in trying to use this man.
"You Earthfolk," Ozai said conversationally, "you keep expecting me to think like you do. It's almost insulting."
Long Feng didn't reply. He could move his broken wrist freely, agonizing as it was, and he threw a small rock saw at the Fire prince. It was an awkward angle, and he heard rather than saw Ozai destroy it with a spit of flame.
Then Ozai broke his arm in three places.
Black swam in front of his eyes, and Ozai struck him across the back of the knees. Long Feng fell, his broken arm landing at an awkward angle on the metal floor, and screamed.
Ozai laughed softly and seized his good arm again, twisting it up behind his back almost farther than the joint would bend. "Stop fighting. This will be quicker if you don't."
In a haze of pain, Long Feng almost thought the metal was singing.
Then a too-hot hand cupped his cheek and ignited.