Chapter 1: What if Kasai got her way?
What If Kasai got her way?
“ Lets cut to the heart of the matter and get you on the throne. ”
(A/N: This is the start of several Omakes, Outtakes, What ifs.., and AUs related to my story ‘To be Cast Adrift’. Also known as “Writers Block Revenge!” As a size reference, Kasai/XaXu is just a little bigger than Toothless from ‘How to train your Dragon’.)
~~ ( --- ) ~~
Agni waved his hand at her to be quiet. “You will take this task and you will do your best to complete it without fail.” The Great Spirit of Fire waved his hand over the pond causing the surface to ripple a moment before turning a golden color. An image appeared followed by a second. “You will become this young man’s guardian and you will take that shape to do so. You will cross paths with him here,” an image of a location appeared, “and will travel with him until your task is complete.”
“What!? How? I won’t be able to speak or really communicate well for that matter.” XaXu studied the image of the creature she would become. “And then there’s the size. At least make it big enough the kid can ride on my back, it would make it easier to travel from place to place.” If she guessed right, the creature was as long tip of the beaked snout to tip of the whiplike tail, as the distance from the tip of an average man’s fingers to the opposing shoulder. Wingspread looked to be about the same from fingertip to fingertip, the undersides of said wings looked smooth like hide yet the top was layered in feathers like any bird would have. An avian looking head with a feathered crest that flowed into a sinuous neck, a slim body not much wider than a man’s head and only about a third the total length. The rest was taken up with a long tail that could curl about as an anchor if needed. Good strong haunches to launch herself into flight and allow her to sit upright. Forelimbs were also strong looking yet wiry, ending in ‘hands’ that had four talon tipped ‘fingers’ and a ‘thumb’. “Hmmm might be able to hold something and write,” she murmured to herself. “No changing the colors?” The skin was a dark sooty gray that was almost a matte ebony, the feathers were red at the base shading to gold at the tips, and the eyes, Like Agni’s, were molten gold. Overall it gave the creature the look of living embers almost.
“No, a small creature is easily overlooked as a pet therefore you can perform your task without drawing attention to yourself. No, you cannot change the colors.”
“Isn’t this going a little overboard cliche wise? I mean a dragon-phoenix, a creature that hasn’t been seen for a great long while even by the spirits standard, that’s red, gold and black going to the Fire Nation Prince as a companion and guardian. Come on...”
~~ ( --- ) ~~
She wheedled, she whined, she groused and complained for who knows how long (time moves differently in the Spirit World after all) till finally Agni could stand it no more.
“Fine! You want to be able to communicate with him and be big enough for him to ride?” A snap of his fingers and the image rippled and flashed a moment. “So be it, but your immortality while in that form is revoked as well as your immunity to fire. You will live, and die, as a Phoenix-Dragon. Should you die or allow the boy to die then you will have failed and I will see to it you are chained to the heart of a volcano in the middle of the great ocean, where you will stay until the newly formed land meets with the main land mass as punishment for that ‘little joke’ of yours in the Si Wong inland sea.”
XaXu crossed her arms over her chest and cut her eyes to the side to look at Agni. “But I’m still your champion, with all that goes along with being said champion, am I not?”
The great spirit, in an entirely too human gesture, pinched the bridge of his nose as if to ward off an oncoming headache. “Yes, you are still my champion. What has that have to do with anything?”
“Nothing.. just checking,” she replied in an offhanded manner before the left side of her mouth curled up in a smirk. “See you some time next century then,” she said with a barked laugh before diving head first into the pond.
“Wait? What?!” Agni realized too late just what she had implied when she asked about still being his champion. With frustrated yell Agni let off a blast of fire that turned the garden into a molten pool of liquid magma.
In the living world, volcanoes around the world shuddered and roiled, sending great plumes of magma high into the sky, yet no harm was done as the magma dropped straight back down into the volcanoes. In every Fire Temple (Original or over-taken), the sacred fires flared then went out completely sending every single sage, priest, nun and elder into panic. No amount of firebending could reignite those sacred fires. Less than an hour later, those same fires relight themselves without human assistance. In Caldera city, the capital of the Fire Nation, Fire Lord Ozai, Princess Azula woke to cold sweats as their chi shuddered, rippled then was drained away till only enough to sustain their inner fires were left, neither could leave their beds for several days afterwards. Every firebender in the world also felt their chi shudder few heartbeats, the strength of their reactions was affected by how closely they supported Ozai and his regime. Some were so drained they could not leave their beds, much like the Fire Lord and the Princess, while others had an overflowing abundance. The next day, the noon services at almost every Fire Temple were packed and several had to move the services outside to accommodate everyone attending.
Once Agni’s temper had cool he waved a hand, reverting the garden back to its pristine condition. He waved off several inquisitive spirits who came to investigate what had happened to spark the great spirit’s ire.
~~ ( --- ) ~~
Zuko stepped out of the house he had stayed at overnight with all the intention of getting an early start. But the spirits had other plans for him. Or at least one spirit turned Phoenix-Dragon did.
“ Good morning young one. ”
The voice came from inside Zuko’s head and had the feeling of being female but not overly feminine. It also had an accent that sounded familiar yet was unfamiliar at the same time. He just blinked and started, and blinked again as his jaw slowly dropped. A creature sat next to his ostrich horse, long tail curled around its feet and it’s feather crested head even with the hen’s. The pair was nose to nose like a couple old gossiping women.
“ Close your mouth child unless you plan on catching stink-flies like a badgertoad, ” the voice said. “ And I do not gossip. I gather information than you very much. ”
Zuko’s mouth closed with a click. “Where are… what.. who are you?” he finally asked as his thought processes started catching up. He looked around trying to spot the person/creature/whatever it was that spoke to him inside his head. A warm, amused chuckle flowed over him causing his temper to spark. “Stop laughing at me!” he demanded.
The creature turned it’s head to look at him, molten gold eyes in a face that was a combination of avian and dragon, sleek, streamline and deady yet beautifully wise and benevolent. “ I am here for you young one at Agni’s command. My name, young one, is XaXu the Lightbringer. I may be his champion, but you are a child of fire and his chosen one. ”
“You’re lying.. I’m not his chosen.. I can’t be..... my own father didn’t want me so why should he?” He didn’t realize until too late just how fast she could move. He found himself pinned by a pair of deadly sharp taloned forefeet, on the flat of his back staring up into a pair of narrowed molten gold eyes that glowed.
“ Whether or not you believe it now, Zuko son of Ursa and great grandson of Avatar Roku (that idiot), you ARE Agni’s chosen one. It may take a lifetime of constantly reminding you, but one day you WILL believe it, ” XaXu growled then backed off to let the boy get up on his own. Sitting back on her haunches she studied him, turning her head this way and that before snorting, twin plumes of smoke jetting from her nostrils. “ Besides, I cannot lie to you mind to mind. I can avoid telling you the whole truth but I cannot lie…. Anyways, see if you can find out if there is a saddle maker close by, I doubt that hen’s saddle will fit me very well. ” She raised her head and reared up, wings spread for balance. “ I’ll be back in a few there’s something I need to deal with it seems. ” She dropped into a crouch then launched herself into the air.
Less than an hour later XaXu comes walking back into Gaipan with an unconscious teenage male dangling from her jaws by his belt and a gaggle of children and teens following her. Without ceremony she drops the teen in front of the officer in charge. “ It seems I have found your pest problem ,” she said ‘out loud’ so everyone could hear her. “ I would recommend finding some place to put the boy lest he start causing problems again. If there is a Temple close by with a mind healer, I’d suggest there. He has some serious issues with the Fire Nation it seems. ”
The officer was wide eyed at being spoken to by a creature that was, essentially, a hybrid cross between a dragon and a phoenix. But he recovered quickly. “The closest Temple would be.. umm.. Xilin Gol, my lady.” When all else fails treat the person (Spirit creature?) like a noble.
XaXu shot a look at the oldest pair of the bunch, a tall gangly youth who wore a circular cone hat and had a quiver slung across his shoulder, and shorter kid with short yet bushy hair and a pair of red stripes on each cheek. “ Try it you two and see how fast I can snap bones ,” she growled then turned back to the officer. “ How long will it take to get the children there and do you have the resources to do so? ” she asked.
“A week and.. If they behave, don’t fight us and don’t try to escape? Yes,” the officer replied.
“ Is there an herbalist or an apothecary here? ” XaXu called out.
An old man shambled forward hesitantly. “I’m the closest this village has to a doctor and herbalist.”
The phoenix-dragon nodded her head and quietly conversed with the old man. Her head bobbed from time to time as she gestured with one forefoot. The old man would nod or shake his head in reply. Finally after several minutes he shambled off. When he returned he had a large pot filled with what looked to be a tea of some type.
“ As much as I dislike drugging the children, it is the best alternative we have at the moment , ” She informed the officer, who also agreed.
By mid-day every one of the freedom fighters were in the back of a wagon, either asleep or in a drug induced haze. Zuko’s ostrich horse was hitched to the front and several guards were perched on the seat. In the back with the children were rations and the herbal concoction ready to be brewed. Last minute instructions were given as Zuko wordlessly handed over two of the jade tables to cover any fees the Temple may charge the rest would go as a donation for taking in the children and seeing to their care until they could be reintroduced into normal society.
Zuko, now sitting in the saddle, which had been fitted as best as possible, to XaXu’s back, looked resigned to the fact that his travel plans had once more been hijacked by the spirits.
~~ ( --- ) ~~
Zuko was screaming at her, both vocally and over their shared bond, as he beat his fists against the unyielding surface but she was ignoring him. She slammed shields in place that blocked him from her mind just as she had thrown him out of the throne room. Once he was safely out of the way, she forced the hidden doors closed and welded them shut after dropping the heavy bar across them. The normal draps which hid them long since burned away. Now, she had no reason to fear he that he would interfere and be harmed. If she was to die this day, then she would meet her death head on and take both Ozai and Azula with her.
From the outside Zuko kept screaming and pounding his fists against the door, unheeding or just uncaring that the metal doors were starting to glow a dull red. He was grabbed from behind and hauled away from the door several times, each time fighting like he was demon possessed until he got loose and returned to the doors to the throne room. His voice long gone, all that came from him was unarticulated grunts and harsh hissing noises.
“Damn it to Koh’s lair! Someone get that kid away from the damned doors!” The bellowed order coming from the commander of the imperial guards. “I don’t care if he is the crown prince or Agni himself, he’s going to get himself and everyone around him killed!”
Men and women, some armed and armored while others were wearing the livery of the palace servants all scrambled about in the chaos. Those that could bend were focusing on dampening the flames at worst, or putting them out if they could. Non benders formed bucket lines as the garden ponds became the primary water sources when the wells were cut off.
“Move it people! Get everyone out now!” Cmdr. Xunlai bellowed over the noise. “If those idiot nobles won’t abandon their precious possessions then knock them out and drag them away!” His sub-commanders already knew what had to be done and were seeing to their own evacuation plans.
Two of the Imperial guards took the order to heart, as one grabbed Prince Zuko for the fourth time to drag him away from the now white-hot glowing doors, the second drew his dagger, flipped it over and rapped the young man smartly on the temple. Zuko’s limp body was thrown over the first guard’s shoulder as the pair quickly took him to safety.
~~ ( --- ) ~~
Where it was minutes or hours, or even a day or two, the fires were extinguished and the heads counted. Massive amount of damage to the palace, especially around the throne room, due to the intense heat warping metal and cracking stone. Lots of burn injuries, from minor to major, lots of smoke inhalation, but no fatalities thank Agni. Or at least no known fatalities, no one had heard anything of Fire Lord Ozai, Princess Azula or XaXu, Crown Prince Zuko’s companion.
When Zuko woke, the first thing he noticed, was that he was no longer blocked from XaXu’s mind. Overwhelming relief and joy flooded him but that soon turned to bitter ash when he got sorrow, some regret and absolutely no remorse for her actions in return.
“ I’m sorry. I tried to get her to back down, to walk away from this fight and live. But she refused. I’m sorry. I made it fast and as painless as possible, ” XaXu said softly into his mind. “ As for Ozai..he reaped what he sowed. ”
Zuko let out a keening cry for the loss of his sister and wept bitter tears, whether for joy, relief, sorrow or pain, he couldn’t say. His only spoken words, mumbled over and over, were “I hate you!”
The palace physician liberally dosed Zuko, now Fire Lord, with a sleep draught and ordered someone to be with him every moment of the day and night until a Fire Healer could make the determination of his mental state.
When the throne room doors were finally pried open, Cmdr. Xunlai was the first to enter. The smell was terrible, the scene of burnt flesh and feathers permeated the room along with the smell of charred furnishings and spilled blood. Most of the pillars were damaged in some form or fashion, a few were shattered completely. He found Princess Azula off to one side. At first he thought she was unconscious, the only signs of battle was her soot and ash stained clothes and skin. Her hair was in disarray, the topknot holder missing along with the traditional hair piece of a Royal Princess. But when he reached down to touch her, his hand touched cold flesh of the dead instead of the warm flesh of the living. He knelt down to check, rolling her slightly to the side. Her head moved and twisted in such a way he knew without a doubt her neck had been snapped with such force her death was instant. Standing he moved further into the room. A large mound lay close to the raised platform where the Fire Lord normally sat.
Slowly XaXu shifted and sat up on her haunches. Most of her feathers were signed or burnt off completely, one wing hung limp and she favored her left hind leg. She also had numerous burns that looked like they came from fire whips. And like everything else in the room, she was covered in soot, ash and dust.
The state of Prince Zuko’s companion wasn’t what had Cmdr. Xunlai’s attention though. It was the blackened, charred corpse of the former Fire Lord, Ozai. The only reason he knew who it was, was because half the man’s face was still easily recognizable.
“ The Fire Lord is dead… Long Live Fire Lord Zuko, Child of Fire and Chosen of Agni, ” she intoned solemnly, her mind voice reaching out not only to Zuko, but to every single person within the Caldera and the surrounding city. She swayed then slowly toppled over to lay on her side, her breathing evening out as she slid into unconsciousness.
In the days that followed, Zuko refused to speak with XaXu. Instead he poured out his anger and hatred for what she had done. In turn, she accepted it as her due and returned her love and unwavering support of him. It would be weeks before he would come to an understanding of why she had done it and months before he finally forgave her.
~~ ( --- ) ~~
In the year 98AG the Year of the Horse, at high noon on the summer solstice, at age 15 Zuko, former Crown Prince, was officially named Fire Lord Zuko. The youngest ever Fire Lord in recorded history.
One of the first decrees of his reign was to return autonomy to the Fire Temples, no longer would they fall under the jurisdiction of the Crown. Following that was the decree to stop all advancement of troops in the Earth Kingdom. The war, sadly, could not be stopped over night. It had to be a gradual process to ensure the Fire Nation retained its stability while keeping the ability to protect itself from reprisals. Instead, with advice from several sources and his own study of the maps, he ordered a gradual withdrawal of men, women and resources. For the moment the colonies would remain under Fire Nation control until an agreeable plan could be worked out. Third decree was the revocation of the status as traitor to and exile from, the Fire Nation to number of men and women. No longer would they have to hide (though it would take up to a year for this news to reach everyone listed).
The news of his nephew’s ascension as Fire Lord and the death of both his brother and his niece, would not reach Iroh for several months. When it did, it was in the forms of a summons to return to the Fire Nation and speak with the Fire Lord. To say he was surprised was an understatement. Due to Zuko’s age and him being related to both the former Fire Lord and the current one, he was named (and crowned) Regent Fire Lord. He would co-rule until Zuko’s 18th birthday, after which he would step down and could become an advisor if he so wished.
Zuko found himself suddenly the sole owner of not only his personal estates, properties and accounts but those of both his sister and father’s, as well all that went with their titles. Not counting his status as Fire Lord and all that went with it, he became the wealthiest person in the Fire Nation if not the world. His personal income quadrupled overnight. It would take him months to unravel the tangled threads of just how some of those properties and accounts became his fathers. Sadly many of the bloodlines had been wiped out to even the cadet branches so returning them was no longer an option. Instead he found other creative to use some of the properties and to spend the money, almost all of them would eventually enrich the nation in some way, if not in his lifetime then in those of his descendants.
The parts of the Royal Palace that was the most damaged remained the throne room and the surrounding areas. Until it was either repaired or remodeled, the throne room was closed off and court was held in the front courtyard. Sitting at his back, as still as a statue sat XaXu. A living, breathing reminder of Agni’s presence and his approval of Zuko as Fire Lord. While he held court, the priests and sages moved through every room, corridor and corner of the palace, performing cleansing rites and ceremonies to appease the spirits. It would be almost a year before the Palace was considered clean of malicious spirits and harmoniously balanced once more.
Other occurrences happened in his first few months as Fire Lord….
The Hono-Yingzi stepped from the shadows and made themselves known to Zuko. They made their formal oaths and once more became the Fire Lord’s private information network, and when needed, his silent shadow assassins. He gained teachers in the art of stealth, learned how to hide in plain sight and learned a wider range of weapons. Rumors of spirits roaming the Caldera and Capital City spread as small time criminals started appearing tied up in places for the Home Guard to find in the mornings. They all said variations of the same thing; a Water Demon wielding dual blades and a Kitsune who threw knives with deadly accuracy came out of no where and vanished again like smoke in the wind.
A family of Waterbenders arrived in the capital. The child, a 7 (‘Almost 8!’) year old girl named Umiko made it known, quite loudly, that she was here because the Great Moon Spirit Tui asked it of her and she wasn’t about to let Tui down by saying no. Her parents, both waterbenders as well as healers, were Tonraq and Luava. They admitted that they were baffled at their daughter’s insistence on coming but offered their services all the same. It didn’t take long after that before they were integrated into the network of physicians and Fire Healers within the capital. And if Umiko was gaining more practice by healing bruises, scrapes and the occasional sprains, neither she, Zuko or his partner said anything. By his 16th birthday, the scar given to him by his father had been soften, the mobility of the eyelid returned to almost full and his sight in that eye increased to almost normal. Though it could never be removed, the scar no longer defined who he was.
The men and women of the military who had been forced to retire due to injuries sustained in the line of duty found themselves going from sub-par assistance and second class citizens to receiving top notch care and being honored. Many found themselves being requested to work on or assist with various projects that had sprung up all over the nation.
By the end of his first year as Fire Lord, Zuko was in delicate negotiations for a truce as well as opening trade between the Fire Nation and the Northern Water Tribe. Healers Tonraq and Luava provided invaluable information on customs and views which helped him avoid potential disasters (like sending a female diplomat or female guards, no matter how good they were). His offer of truce and trade with the Earth Kingdom met with mixed results. King Bumi in Omashu didn’t even bother with reading what was offered, just accepted it with a hearty handshake, a staggering slap on the back and introductions to his pet Floppsy. No word had yet to come from King Kuei of Ba Sing Se. As for the Southern Water Tribe, he had yet to have a chance at offering a truce and reparations due to the simple fact, no one knew who was really in charge. The current status of the Southern Water Tribe was a dozen or so tiny villages loosely aligned with each other and who often declared war on each other all dependant upon what time of year it was and how good or bad their hunts went.
The education system was being overhauled as well. The dogma of the Fire Nation superiority was removed completely. More emphasis was placed on innovations and free thought, of the freedom of expression and tolerance of other Nation’s customs and views. No longer were some bloodlines revered over others, instead the person’s accomplishments in life became the focus. The concepts of air gardening, hydroponics and sea farming were introduced and expanded on as a way to increase food production without having to rely solely on what was brought in from the Colonies.
A delegation was sent to the Northern Air Temple. The leader of those living at the temple no longer had the threat of harm hanging over his head. Plans for war machines were destroyed (after being secretly copied for archival purposes that is), and instead the focus was shifted to new methods of easier, faster transportation. The idea of air travel was encouraged and if a working plans could be made, the Fire Nation would pay handsomely for it. As for War Minister Qin, he was hauled back to the Fire Nation to stand before Fire Lord Zuko for questioning and reassignment.
Factories around the Fire Nation that once operated constantly, creating environmental and health hazards were reduced to minimal operations until it was determined if they should be kept open, re-purposed or shut down completely. Teams were sent out to deal with the cleanups and help the locals start rebuilding their lives. The Fire Temples sent out their own teams to see about cleansing those areas as well. Many of these projects were funded not by the Crown, but by the Fire Lord personally.
~~ ( --- ) ~~
In the late spring of 100AG, the Year of the Monkey, everything changed. Again.
The last of the remodeling and renovations to the palace had been completed, in part due to the earthbenders who had been hired (after thorough checks) to help assist in the task. The throne room was now a brighter, more open area that was akin to a rather large pavilion than a true room. The Imperial Guards weren't too happy with the new design but at the same time, they agreed that it wasn’t so oppressive anymore either.
Zuko was currently sitting in his office going over the quarterly budget requests and financial reports. Like the throne room, his office was more open. Large floor to ceiling folding panels that could be opened or closed depending on the weather and diaphanous curtains that provided extra light while keeping out the insects. The heady scent of spring flowers and the light breeze which kept it from getting too oppressively hot were a bonus. XaXu was laying curled in a patch of sunlight, listening to him read through the reports and offering her occasional input. Iroh was sitting at his own side desk reading as well, he had his own copies of the budget requests and financial reports due to his status as Regent.
In the distance a horn started blaring causing both royals to look up from their paperwork then at each other. XaXu uncurled and moved to sit behind Zuko like a statue, wings slightly unfurled and her head held high yet angled down slightly. A closer horn blared and the Imperial Guards went from alert to combat ready. The commander of the guard, Xunlai slipped into the office nodding subtly to the royals then to XaXu before taking his place.
A large shadow passed over head and a low groaning bellow sounded off as a creature, easily three times as large as XaXu, if not bigger, landed in the private courtyard off the office. The curtains rippled and blew open revealing a trio of figures slightly smaller than Zuko himself, each armed in some way. The two in the back were wearing Water Tribe blue, the male holding what looked to be some type of club (though why it was bent the way it was who knows), the female was in a waterbending stance and had a globe of water swirling between her hands. As for the first figure, they were much smaller but was holding a staff in hand.
“Fire Lord Ozai! I am the Avatar and I demand you stop this war right now and order your people to leave the Earth Kingdom!” the front figure said. The voice indicated that it was a male and young, maybe just into puberty.
Zuko raised an eyebrow and shared a look with his uncle before he shrugged and went back to the budget request. He was neck deep in dealing with the national budget and quarterly finance reports so wasn’t in the mood to deal with kids.
Iroh shrugged and stood up, “Actually he is not Ozai….” He didn’t get to finish before the kid claiming to be the Avatar slashed his staff forward in an arc causing a huge gust of whipped through the office scattering papers everywhere. He let out a sigh and looked around as the papers fluttered to the ground. “...Oh dear….”
“Ha! Then you’re Fire Lord Ozai! Admit it!” yelled the male Water Tribesman as he pointed a finger at the elderly man in rich red and gold robes.
“No, he’s not,” Zuko commented as he rubbed his temple, still reading the one page he had in hand, the rest, once neatly stacked was now scattered hopelessly around the room. Slowly he lowered the page and aimed a glare at at the boy. “So you are the Avatar?”
“Yep! That’s me,” the boy answered.
The Water Tribe girl hissed “Aang!”
Zuko sighed and leaned back against XaXu’s front legs. “Tell me Avatar Aang, can you balance a national budget and ensure everyone gets what they need to ensure those under them will not go needing?”
“Uuhh.. what’s a budget?”
“Do you even know what a financial report is?”
Avatar Aang looked puzzled. “Umm…”
Zuko rolled his eyes with a sigh. “So, being the Avatar means you’re the master of all four elements right?”
“Well… you see.. about that… I..kindaonlyknowairbutIplanongoingtotheNorthernWaterTribetolearnwaterbendingwithkatara,” Aang said it all in one breath.
The girl, Katara, let out a groan as the water dropped to the floor in a splash. The boy facepalmed and turned away to beat his head against a pillar.
“You are the Avatar but you only know Air….” He facepalmed as well before looking up. “XaXu? Would you show Avatar Aang out please? And Uncle...For the last time.. Tea is not a national requirement on the budget!” he looked at Cmdr. Xunlai, “Could you please summon my secretary? It seems I’m going to need either help straightening up this mess or a new set of papers…”
The trio’s jaws dropped as XaXu folded her wings and stood up. A quick nuzzle to the side of his head then she was walking around the desk. With ease, since the boy wasn’t fighting her, she plucked him up by the back of his tunic and walked out to where the creature they arrived on was standing. A toss of her head had him flying into the air and dropping into the saddle basket on the creature’s back. “ Please see to it that the Avatar arrives safely at the Northern Water Tribe so that he can continue his training. ” She turned to ‘assist’ the two Water Tribe into the basket as well.
“No thank you,” the boy said holding up his hand. “We can get on Appa without help. Let’s go Katara…”
“You are more than welcome to come back when you are ready to learn firebending,” Iroh called out. “I’m sure Zuko will be happy to teach out,” he added with a huge grin.
“Ok!” Aang called out. “Yip yip Appa!”
Chapter 2: For Want of a Mask
Ah the “For Want of A Nail” style AU plotline…. And just a fyi.. being sick… it sucks. Ugh
For want of a Mask
How timing is everything…
What if The Dai Li had succeeded in acquiring Zuko in Wuwei?
~~ ( --- ) ~~
Time, therefore timing, was everything. A few seconds too early or too late could change the course of fate and in that change, change the fate of the world as well….
The man was old, though not elderly just yet. He had grown children and even grandchildren who were coming of age to marry. It was past time to pass on his secrets, yet none of his children had been interested in learning the traditions and the grandchildren were not of the right mindset either to learn. He had no surviving siblings from whom to seek a successor so that meant he had to see outside the clan bloodlines. It took a few years, but he found one that held promise.
It was easy to insulate himself into the servants of the Palace and become one of the many faceless who served the Fire Lord and his family. The child held such potential yet was discarded as useless because he was not a prodigy in firebending like his sister. He watched and listened, finding a pattern that was to his benefit.
The boy excelled in his schooling, outshining his sister in many areas of study yet unable to show it for the derision his father showed him. He was light and flexible in his physical training, able to perform simple feats that older students (and his sister) failed at yet he was told scornfully not to upstage his sister. He was naturally graceful when he was allowed to be, but in the presence of others that grace was turned inward and hidden for fear of other reprisals.
Slowly, cautiously he started interacting with the child. A nameless, faceless servant that would quietly praise the boy from the shadows. Someone who paid attention to the boy, engaging him in little harmless games that sharpened the boy’s mind and reflexes. As he got older that servant became a guard, teaching the boy in secret the very beginning basics of how to handle a blade. When the boy asked why it was to be kept a secret, the nameless guard just smiled and said he should have something he was good, if not better at, than his sister. The boy thought it over and agreed.
It took surprisingly little to arrange for a Master Swordsman to come across the boy practicing. Only a few nudges here and there had the boy firmly under the tutelage of a world class Master swordsman. His job was done with for now. He could return home to his family to teach those who showed promise and to wait once more for the right time to make himself known once more. Maybe by then he would have a worthy successor.
~~ ( --- ) ~~
….Some few years later….
The message had went out that the lost prince had been located. He was the closest to the location where the prince was said to be, thus it was his duty to find the young man and return him to where he belonged.
But timing is everything. It makes a difference between life and death, what could have been and what is.
The old man was more tired than he thought. His grandson had come to visit bringing his wife and newborn daughter with him. The child had gotten colic the night before resulting in the entire household being short on sleep. He left that morning several hours behind schedule after promising his grandson he’d only be gone a day or two at the most. He made up most of the time he’d lost by pushing his mount and the extra a little harder than normal.
Again, timing was everything. The old man missed intercepting the group of Dai Li and their precious stolen cargo by less than 20 minutes. When he arrived in the area that was Wuwei, he found the battle still raging hard. He was able to slip in and free those who had been indentured, able to pass out the gold and jade tablets to those whom he had set free. When he asked about the boy with the burn scar he was told that he had been taken earlier by a group from Ba Sing Se. The old man cursed his ill luck but knew he could do nothing about it except report to the clan elders. So he left his duty unfulfilled.
With no one to pass his knowledge or skills onto, the Shadow of the Dark Water Spirit would fade away with time. The mask would be returned to the Clan Elders so that one day another would emerge and take their place within the shadows.
~~ ( --- ) ~~
…..Two Years Later…..
“There it is! The great city of Ba Sing Se!” came the childishly exuberant cry from the Avatar. “See, I told you guys there was nothing to worry about.”
Eyes squinting against the wind, the last waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe looked in the direction indicated. “I see it Aang,” Katara said with a matching grin.
“I don’t know about you guys but I hope they have a feast waiting for us.. I’m starved,” commented Sokka as he flopped back against the back of the saddle with a groan, holding one hand over his stomach.
“You’re always hungry snoozles, and I still say this is a huge mistake coming to Ba Sing Se,” the small yet powerful earthbender commented as cloudy pale green eyes stared sightless off into the distance. “We should have listened to that old guy….”
Sokka snorted. “What? I can’t help it. I’m a warrior. A warrior needs food to keep fighting….And that ‘old guy’ was from the Fire Nation. Of course he’d say going to Ba Sing Se was a bad idea.”
Aang and Katara shared looks before glancing at the fourth member of their group and the Avatar’s Earthbending master. The Avatar just shrugged. “Come on guys.. everything will be fine!” he tugged gently on the reins, directing his loyal animal companion in the direction he wished to go.
As the group approached the towering walls that surrounded the great Earth Kingdom city, they were flagged down by soldiers on the wall. The message was passed that the Council of Five and the King was waiting for them at the palace. With a cheerful wave the group was off again, this time the flight was much shorter but the greeting was grander.
“Welcome Avatar Aang to the Great City of Ba Sing Se,” a middle-aged man said as he spread his arms in welcome. “I am Grand Secretariat Long Feng. I apologize but Earth King Kuei has not been feeling well the last few days. He sends his regrets in not being able to welcome you personally.” Long Feng brought his hands together and bowed.
“Thank you Grand Secretariat Long Feng for your welcome,” Aang replied back with a bow of his own. “I offer my prayers for Earth King Kuei’s health to return quickly.” He turned his head to the side slightly for a quick glance at Katara. “Perhaps Master Waterbender Katara could be of assistance? She’s not only a superb fighter but a talented healer as well….”
“Thank you Avatar Aang,” Long Fend answered, “But he is in good hands with the Royal Physicians. I shall, however, pass on your well wishes.” Again he bowed, the polite yet meaningless smile still on his lips. “Let me introduce you to the rest,” he said as he straightened up once more. He turned and gestured to the group of five older men, “This is the Council of Five.” The group of Generals bowed to the Avatar. “They are responsible for seeing to all things related to the war as well as our plans in dealing with the Fire Nation and the return of the rightful heir to the Fire Nation Throne to his place.” He turned the other direction and gestured towards the shadows, “May I present the Fire Nation Crown Prince and Future Fire Lord….”
Aang and his companions turned to look at the young man who stepped out of the shadows and made his way to stand next to Long Feng. He didn’t look much older than Sokka, but that was the only thing they seemed to have in common.
He bore himself regally, standing tall yet relaxed, a study of contrasts. Eyes of bright gold stared out of an aristocratic face. The left half bore a dark red scar that covered his eye casting it into a permanent glare, yet the right side was as flawless as his skin was pale. Dressed in Earth Kingdom style armor yet in Fire Nation colors of gold, red and black. His hair was pulled up into a topknot yet it was braided and hung down almost to his waist. A pair of dao blades were strapped to his back, their handles extending over each shoulder but he was an obvious firebender when he swirled his hands around creating a ball of fire between them before extinguishing the flames and bowing low. “Avatar Aang... it is my honor to welcome you to Ba Sing Se. I am Prince Zuko.”
Chapter 3: It could have been Much Worse.....
And to think... it could have ended like this.... *notches up the creepy factor just a little more* MWhahaha.......
A/N: I blame this on Kally Lass and her review of Chapter 2! (Over on FFnet that is)
It could have turned out Much worse….
The Chilling Creepy Factor just got turned up a notch or three…..
~~ ( --- ) ~~
And to think... it could have ended like this.... *notches up the creepy factor just a little more* MWhahaha.......
~~ ( --- ) ~~
A blank faced young man with empty golden eyes and an equally empty smile on his scared face bowed to the group. "Avatar Aang, Lady Toph Bei Fong, Master Waterbender Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, Warrior Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe... Welcome to Ba Sing Se...I am Xue Kho and I will be your guide while you stay in this wonderful city."
Everyone stared then Sokka pointed an accusing finger. "You're Fire Nation!" He threw up his hands "I knew it! Fire Nation has already infiltrated the city!"
The young man blinked and stared. "Don't be silly... I was born here in the city.....There is no war in Ba Sing Se....come, the carriage awaits us..." he turned, hands clasped behind his back and walks off with a gliding steps eerily reminiscent of how the Dai Li move.
Chapter 4: If Mama Tayo Doesn’t Approve…
8/1/15: Yes, I’m still alive. The muses seemed to have gone on vacation as I started helping a friend as a live-in babysitter 5 days a week. Not long after that, I managed to slice off part of my pinky finger with a food slicer while prepping dinner. You never realize how much you use your fingers until you lose the use of said fingers, even if only temporarily.
6/17/16: The finger is nicely healed, can barely tell that it happened unless I point it out and the baby is over a year old now since I last worked on this story.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
If Mama Tayo Doesn’t Approve…
“The trials and tribulations of finding a worthy Fire Lady”
~~ ( --- ) ~~
At 17 he’d been crowned Fire Lord and faced the task of putting his nation to rights after a century of misrule. By 19 the Fire Nation was on a slow but steady comeback. The economy was stabilizing again, trade was starting to pick up as well. His own personal holdings were doing amazingly well thanks to the contacts he made during his travels. The White Lotus Merchant Clan was known for its integrity, the willingness to try new ideas and the assistance it gave to new businesses just starting up. Now at almost 22, his council was slowly starting to pressure for him to either find a bride and marry or take a suitable concubine to bed and start fathering children so there would be a line of succession should anything happen to him.
And that was the crux of the matter.
Every single avaliable daughter (and quite a few sons as well) of nobles that had been introduced at court, held very little interest for him. A few of the nobles had even tried to interest him in their underage children (for Agni sake, one had barely been 5 years old!) he had come down hard and let it be very well known he refused to condone such exploitations of children as a means of gaining political favors with him. He had nothing against the children themselves, often enjoying their refreshingly innocent company over that of their manipulative parents, especially when he introduced them to Tayo. Only a few held back at first, usually the older ones, but soon enough they were up close petting her and asking all sorts of questions. By the time they left they were asking their parents for Ostrich Horses or Emu Ponies of their own. Of the older set that tried to catch his attention, very few were unwilling to enter the stables with him, if it meant there was a chance to become Fire Lady or Consort.
Not a single one made it past Tayo’s scrutiny. And they tried, oh did they try. From attempted bribery (sugar beets, tea apples and sweet treats were the top of the list) to threats of what they would do once they became Fire Lady or Consort. A handful were just outright terrified of her or any large animal in general. Armed with the information passed on to him from Tayo via Kasai, Zuko was able to deal with each one accordingly. Some he managed to steer towards more appropriate suitors and life pursuits, others he let it be know that while their presence at court would be tolerated, he was not required to be welcoming of their presence. Thankfully there was very few of the last type. Overall for the most part, he was polite to those that fell in the middle but made it known he would not be courting them.
Unfortunately the last time he found anyone of interest was when he was 16 and still traveling around in the Earth Kingdom as Xue the Wandering Merchant. He’d seen the girl, interacted with her for all of a few days here and there, then nothing since. It didn’t help matters that she was, at the time, one of his sister’s companions. He wasn’t sure what had happened to her. After a little investigation he found that she’d been disowned by her parents after she had been accused of betrayal by his sister. Her uncle had been pretty tight lipped about her whereabouts at the time as well. He did not press for answers, which was his own fault, but to be fair he was rather swamped since it was close to the start of his rule.
~~ ( --- ) ~~
Currently Zuko was sitting in his office, enjoying the peace and quiet as he read personal correspondences from various people. Kasai was in her normal spot on the rather large desk, a piece of slate next to her along with a bowl full of chalk sticks.
Letters from Toph were interesting. Ever since she figured out the right blend of extremely fine rock dust to ink ratio then demanded he teach her how to write, he’d been getting letters from her at least once a month. Not only did he get some of the latest gossip from the Earth Kingdom, but he also found out some of the latest marketing trends before they reached the Fire Nation. Some of the information he kept to himself, but the rest he usually passed on. “Oh great Agni, not again…” he muttered. When he heard the scratching sound of chalk on slate he looked over and read the odd marks.
‘present/current - what/inquiry’ Kasai wrote out, then added ‘father/brother/elder’
“ ‘What did Uncle do this time?’,” he translated automatically into modern. With a sigh, he scanned through the letter from Toph again. “He’s been gathering ‘potential babymakers’ - Toph’s words not mine - again at the Jasmine Dragon and plans to introduce them to me when I make my trip to Ba Sing Se next week for the annual trade summit.”
Kasai placed one hand over her face as she ducked her head down as she started to make the hissing sounds, which was the equivilent of her snickering.
“Oh sure, laugh. You know if Uncle thought he could find another Phoenix-Dragon like you, he would attempt to play matchmaker between you,” Zuko pointed out as he rolled the scroll back up and set it to the side. “Thank the spirits Tayo isn’t due to come into season for at least another two moon cycles,” he muttered to himself as he picked up another scroll. He knew that besides Tea and Pai Sho, his Uncle loved nothing better than hunting down bargains and playing matchmaker.
~~ ( --- ) ~~
Several days later, way past time when he should be asleep, Zuko was ghosting through the halls of the palace once more. Kasai was, as usual, perched on his shoulder.
It had been another trying evening of dealing with over ambitious nobles and their equally ambitious offspring. All he wanted to do was unwind enough that he could get a few hours of sleep before sunrise and morning court. Early on in his reign as Fire Lord, he found that claiming to meditate during the hour before and after high noon, seeking Agni’s wisdom to make his decisions on matters that had been brought to him during Court, gave him a chance to revitalize himself with the energy of the sun as well as take a much needed nap. Everyone left him alone during those hours, even the Fire sages, though he was pretty sure they knew what he was doing from the few knowing looks he’d gotten.
He didn't go out of his way to avoid the patrolling guards anymore and said guards no longer insisted on accompanying him either. If he planned on skulking around, he would inform Commander Xunlai to station guards appropriately. Since tonight was not a night of skulking, he acknowledged the guards he passed with the tiniest of nods as he headed to the stables. Inside the royal stables, those lanterns still lit were dimmed to allow the stable hands on duty just enough light to see by but not so much as to keep the komodo rhinos or Tayo awake.
Zuko’s unusually sharp hearing picked up the sounds of Tayo cooing and clucking the moment he entered the stables. It was a sound he knew by heart, having been the one to cause her to make those sounds almost exclusively when he’d take a stiff brush to her beak, nares and head. He paused, then slipped into one of the stalls and stealthily made his way to the upper level of the barn. Unlike most stables, the royal stable had an open second floor with moderate sized walkway that allowed access to the large window like structures. The temperature of the stable’s interior was controlled with a combination of trained fire benders and the opening or closing of the structures. Thanks to years of experience and constant training, he was able to stealthily make his way across the walkway until he was in a spot of deep shadows just above Tayo’s stable. (He made a mental note to inform Xunlai of the lack of guards in the stable area. Komodo rhinos were not an infallible determinant for a determined interloper.)
Kasai hopped from Zuko’s shoulder, gliding across the darkness to another cross beam. Her talons made nary a sound as she landed. Slowly she folded her wings before belly crawling along the beam and slithering around the support post. From there she hopped across to the stable’s divider wall, moving across the top then around another support post before winging her way over to land lightly on Tayo’s back. She sat back on her haunches as she flipped her wings closed then chirped inquisitively.
The cloaked figure paused, bringing up a finger to the mouth of the mask it wore. ‘Sshhhh,’ the figure seemed to ‘say’, before they went back to scratching and brushing Tayo around her nares, ears, and crest-mane.
Zuko watched from the shadows as the person continued brushing his ostrich horse. To date, no one had ever come close to turning her into a cooing and clucking pile of feathers. For nearly an hour, he sat and watched, fascinated with the person’s near hypnotic movements.
Somewhere in the distance, a temple gong sounded, breaking the spell. With one last pat, the cloaked figure slipped away. Zuko roused himself with a sigh as Kasai rejoined him. He made his way back down to the ground, stopping by Tayo’s stall long enough to check on her before he departed as well.
~~ ( --- ) ~~
Over the next few days, he returned to the stables each night to wait for the cloaked figure to appear. The time for his departure to Ba Sing Se was fast approaching which meant it would be weeks before he returned to the palace here in Captial City. By the time he returned the mysterious person may be long gone and he would never have a chance to find out who it was.
The final few days prior to departure was were usually made up of pure chaos. The royal air ship was checked and rechecked, the last call for luggage was made for those guests and servants traveling with the Fire Lord and the last of the food items were loaded. The day of departure was filled with ceremonies at the main temple, at the palace and at the airship dock.
As Fire Lord Zuko rode Tayo to the airship docks, sharp eyed nobles spotted the happy expression on his face as well as the addition to his ceremonial robes. A simple netsuke in the shape of an ostrich horse with a phoenix-dragon on its back hung from his sash along with a sagemono, also with the same design carved into it. He had finally accepted someone’s courting offer. Zuko had barely set foot onboard the royal airship when the nobles started their mad scramble to find out just who’s courtship offer he had accepted. No one noticed Tayo’s happy clucking as she followed the dark haired stable hand to her special stall in the belly of the airship.
netsuke - purse ornament/token - given by the woman to the man as a sign of favor or courting.