The Southern Air Temple
Once, this place was alive, constantly filled with activity, monks laughing and working, bringing in vegetables from the garden, baking fruit pies, catching up on the latest gossip from visiting Air Nomads. Aang remembered learning the art of airbending for the first time, remembered taking care of the young sky bison, of returning home after long travels and sharing stories of the world with Brother Gyatso and the others.
It didn’t seem like it was that long ago to him, but to everyone else, it was a historical memory. And now, the beautiful, lively place that he remembered was a mass grave. Aang had come here with the intention of moving the bones to the ossuary, but he found himself unable to do it. Let us stay, the bones seemed to beseech him, so that others may remember what happened here.
Even the bones of Gyatso seemed to gently reproach him for wanting to move them, as if Aang were ashamed somehow, that in his desperate moments, Gyatso had forsaken his oath of peace. I fought in the hope that I could live. And find you. I’m sorry that I could not. The last time that Aang had seen Gyatso’s bones, it had pushed him over the edge, into the Avatar State. Now, he could just sit quietly and sadly with them and think about how things might have been different.
You might have died, Aang, and the hope of the world with it. The earth took you but it also protected you. And look what you’ve become, Aang.
“I know.” Aang replied quietly, his voice thick with emotion. “But I’m also the last airbender. What happens now? What if … what if I don’t have children? Or I do, but none of them are airbenders? Does the cycle end?” Am I also destined to be the last true Avatar?
Do you really think the world would permit it to be so, Aang?
Aang thought on that for a long moment. The balance of the world had been greviously upset by Sozin and the Hundred Year War- the Air Nomads had been wiped out and both the Water Tribe and the Earth Kingdom had been devastated. Aang suddenly remembered the utter serenity he had felt in the moment after the Fire Lord had been defeated and the healing rains had fallen on the charred remnants of the Wulong Forest.
But the Air Nomads were all dead. Devastated was there were, there were still hundreds of thousands of people- perhaps even a million- in the Water Tribes and tens of millions in the Earth Kingdom.
There must be balance in the world. It will find a way.
Fire Nation Palace:
“Copper for your thoughts, my Lord?” Mai glanced up idly at Zuko, from her comfortable resting spot on his chest.
“Just thinking. There’s a lot on my mind right now.” Zuko replied, his eyes drifting down towards her. “We’ve got a lot of work to do-”
“We?” Mai replied with a soft little smile. “You’re the Fire Lord. I’m just the Fire Lord’s girlfriend. Unless you’re thinking to do something about that …” She roused herself just enough so she could look him properly in the eye.
“Well, uh …” Zuko stammered, eyes suddenly widening.
“Relax.” Mai finally replied with another faint smile. It was scandalous, really, how much Zuko made her smile, and sometimes even grin. Or laugh. Or softly cry out his name in the night. Mai liked thinking about that. That would scandalize other people, even if few people had the decency to be shocked by it. “You don’t have to make me an honest woman anytime soon, I promise.” Idly, she reminded herself to order more of the moon tea from the royal herbalists.
“But what if I wanted to?” Zuko spoke softly, his voice nervous but held steady. It was obvious that he wasn’t kidding- unlike his sister, Zuko had no particular ability to hide his true feelings. Which meant that he was seriously mooting the question. Or possibly even asking.
Maybe even proposing.
“I know we haven’t been together for very long, Mai. But … this, us, feels good-”
“Sure, it feels okay.” Mai replied with a faint smirk, unable not to needle him a little bit even though her heart was hammering like a forge in wartime. But she wouldn’t tease him too much, because he was being heartbreakingly earnest right now. Her hand drifted over his chest and she could feel his own heart beating inside of it. Just like hers.
They’d been naked the entire time, but right now, in this moment, Mai felt naked. The astonishing thing was that she wasn’t running out of the room. She had built such walls around herself, to protect her from a world that didn’t care about her or for her. And here she was, with this lovably sincere doof, who seemed to effortlessly climb over those walls.
The craziest thing about it was that she was okay with that.
“I love you and I want you by my side-” Zuko pulled her down for a long, sweet kiss- “Now and always. As my Fire Lady-”
“Fine.” Mai replied with her trademark deadpan tone, before reconsidering and answering him with the same courageous vulnerability he’d shown her. “Yes.” She smiled and this time, the smile reached her eyes and she could feel a tear or two welling up at the corner of her eyes. “Yes, I will.” And this time it was her that pulled him into the kiss.
Jinzhai Province, NE Earth Kingdom:
At night, one could see the fires of a thousand forges, pools of bright red light that illuminated the darkness. To the west of the city were amber fields of wheat and fat pasturelands filled with koala sheep and cowpigs. To the east, there was the sea, trafficked by an endless succession of thick, ugly barges and the odd glimmering warship. To the south, there was the road that led from Jinzhai to the other provinces of the Earth Kingdom, regularly infested with bandits.
It was to the north that the nightfires burned brightest, where rivers of molten slag poured out of vast coking ovens and thousands of labourers worked long and dangerous hours in deep tunnels and vast open pits. Enormous plumes of black smoke poured out of hundreds of smokestacks. Inside the city, less polluting but vastly noisy factories churned out colossal quantities of woolen and cotton cloth. A little further away and one would detect the fetid stench of tanneries, turning the skins of millions of cowpigs and sheep into leather.
Sometimes, when the wind blew the wrong way, a thin layer of soot and ash would cover everything in the city, and occasionally, a dark, foul mixture of smoke and fog would blanket everything. The inhabitants knew on the worst days to stay at home and pray to the spirits for a change in the wind, to bring back the fresher air from the sea.
Nobody could reasonably confuse Jinzhai for one of the lovelier parts of the world. And yet, Azula knew, it was may have potentially been the richest territory on the planet. During the war, so much of the Fire Nation’s industry was located here. There were factories capable of turning out both war zeppelins and tundra tanks. Allegedly, the terms of peace forbade her to build any zeppelins and allowed her only a fairly small force of tanks- but she believed in being prepared. There were many warlords in the Earth Kingdom who looked jealously upon what she had been granted.
“Ew.” Ty Lee said succinctly as she looked outside the carriage. “This place has a lot of negative energy.” She somewhat dramatically held her nose. “And it stinks! Of something different in every part, but always something! First it’s barnyard stink and then it’s something way worse and then it’s smoke and rotten eggs.”
Azula smiled thinly. “I suppose it’s not the loveliest of smells. But sometimes progress looks ugly when it’s happening. Besides …” She turned towards her. “I don’t look towards a country for beauty.” Her eyes flitted over Ty Lee’s curves. Besides, this might just be temporary. I promised Mother that I wouldn’t threaten Zuzu’s throne or plot against him and I do intend to honor that, but there’s no reason I can’t expand my power in other directions.
The whole Earth Kingdom cries out for a strong hand and perhaps I’m the one to give it to them. I’m something of a hero in Ba Sing Se after all, liberating their precious Earth King and saving the city from that dreadful Combustion Man. Perhaps then the world could move on from the unpleasantness of the past and towards a better future.
Imagine what they’d say about you, Mother. Your precious children, sharing the world.
But such a thing would have to be done carefully, lest the Avatar become alarmed.
Azula had heard about what had happened to Father- his bending ripped away from him, leaving him an empty shell of a man. She imagined that he would have begged Mother to kill him. She knew that she couldn’t live without the bright heat of fire in her veins, without the power to focus her being into deadly lightning. I suppose Aang felt he was being merciful to Father. I don’t think he could have been crueller.
“Aww, thank you.” Ty Lee blushed in response and leaned in for a quick kiss before grinning and simply sitting right in Azula’s lap. “You too- and we can take lots of trips to places too. Ty Lee’s hand found Azula’s. “And … after everything, we can be happy.” She inclined her face towards Azula, big grey eyes meeting hers. “Azula?”
“Yes, Ty Lee?” Azula replied with a faint smile, her arms looping around Ty Lee’s middle and her lips finding a particularly sensitive spot on her neck.
“... promise me that you aren’t hatching some crazy plan?” Ty Lee let out a pleased little sound in response to Azula’s lips but she quickly focused herself again. “I … sometimes I worry that you’re still scheming to rule the world. We … we got so lucky, Azula. You got just about everything you could have wanted. And things that I knew you weren’t even thinking about. And you’ve become so much better. You’re not even mean to the servants anymore!”
“Yes, I have learned that it’s best to be feared and loved.” Azula replied. “Don’t worry. You heard me promise Mother. Zuzu and I … I know he doesn’t trust me yet, but I intend to show him that I’m no threat to him anymore. He can have his throne. He’s proven himself worthy of it. I’m not going to do anything crazy.” She punctuated the point with a few more soft kisses to her throat.
“Okay …” Ty Lee smiled and tilted her neck to allow Azula better access, before blushing deep. “We should … um. We’re not actually alone here.”
Azula chuckled softly. “What, you mean, Hakka? You don’t mind, do you? You’ve faithfully stood guard over us before.”
“Do what you want, Your Majesty.” Hakka shrugged, looking out the window. There was something about his language that suggested, however, that he had something to say. The Earthbender was remarkably unattractive, with a long bony face, limp greasy hair, a handful of missing teeth and a semi-permanent scowl, but he was honest and reliable. I don't choose guards for their good looks. He's far from learned- I'm not even sure if he can read or write, but he's observant and more cunning than most suspect.
“... oh, out with it.” Azula sighed. He may be a servant, but he’s the most faithful and reliable one I have. She trusted him. “You want to say something, your Queen grants you permission to speak.”
Hakka glanced over at her. “I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth, your Majesty. And you know that I’d protect you both with my life. But if the Avatar came for you, Your Majesty- well. I’d fight for you, to the death, but I know my limits. I’d lose.” He didn’t say it, but the unspoken part to his statement was that Azula herself would lose, and as much as she truly hated admitting it, he was right. Father was the most powerful bender on the planet, possibly the strongest such for a generation or more. And he lost. And Aang is only going to get more powerful.
“Your honesty is appreciated.” Azula replied coolly. It would reek of insubordination from anyone else, but I know Hakka. He can’t help but speak the truth. Part of her found it frustrating that he wouldn’t grovel or beg for anything, the same way that other servants did. She also knew, however, that his loyalty came from a real place.
Azula honestly believed that he would die for her.
“You don’t need to worry, though. Either of you. I’m not planning anything crazy, I promise.” It’s not crazy, because the world needs me. It needs order. A strong hand to guide it into the future. But first, I need to demonstrate what I can do, and this place will do as well as any other.