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The smear of blood on the corner of his mouth is lurid, as red as the smoking robes he’d discarded on the floor. His chest glistens with sweat, shaggy hair in his mismatched eyes. There’s deadly intent in the jut of his jaw, in the outstretched hands moving in fluid movements.

Fire blooms and breathes in scarlet waves, bursting from his hands like flowers in bloom. The heat of it scorches her, sets her hair on end, and makes sweat pop out on her skin. He desperately meets her gaze across the crowded Throne Room, through the chaos of bodies and blood and flame, and in that instant, she knows.

“Zuko,” Suki breathes as a sword is thrust in her direction, her death written on the blade. Her attention snaps back on the fight and she writhes out of the way, her own sword moving in, blocking the thrust from penetrating her middle. Her skin is pricked, and blood paints her assailant’s blade in a thin trickle.

Her fist lashes out, smashing out teeth with a blow hard enough to break the rebel’s jaw. The man’s head snaps backwards with a wet crack and falls to the floor of the Throne Room with a sickening thump.

Another body takes his place, another rebel, another sword. She dances with the swordswoman, spinning and kicking, looking for the weakness she knows is there. When she finds it she doesn’t hesitate. She buries her sword to the hilt in the rebel’s chest. A fine mist of blood bursts from the woman’s mouth and splashes Suki’s face.

The blood is hot, sticky and it runs down her face and pools on her lips. The rebel woman’s bloody mouth opens and closes and then the light leaves her eyes. Her legs give out on her and she slumps to the floor in front of Suki, who puts one boot on her neck, grasps her sword and wrenches it free of the corpse with a wet, crunching suck.

She looks around the Throne Room, but everything is still chaos. The smell of scorched flesh permeates the room. A tapestry is on fire, sending black smoke roiling into the air. Her eyes water as a wall of flame—friendly, non-friendly, it doesn’t matter—comes boiling toward her like a roaring dragon.

Suki dives out of the way, rolling with her blood-painted sword out of the way. She fetches up against a body and when she opens her eyes, she’s staring into Mi-Lu’s half-charred face. What remains of one eye is staring sightlessly at her, charred face still painted red and white in patches, eyebrows lined with black. Her fan is near her outstretched, inert hand.

Find Zuko. Kill the intruders. Mourn later.

Suki takes Mi-Lu’s fan and tucks it into her belt just as a large man, covered in gore, with clumps of long black hair in between his fingers, spins into her way and delivers a punch straight to her guts.

The air whooshes out of her and she lands on her back several feet away with no recollection of how she’d gotten there. Her sword is gone. She gropes for a weapon, her middle one massive nexus of pain.

The big man laughs, showing a row of broken brown teeth. He’s dressed in black leather, the symbol of the Phoenix King stitched to his chest. He lifts one massive foot and kicks her. She crumples into a ball, in pain, blood in her mouth.

The giant straddles her, pinning her legs to the ground with his knees. His breath makes her want to gag. “The false Fire Lord likes his painted pretties. Well, I like them too. Maybe they’ll let me keep one of you…to play with…”

He bends over her face, intent on crushing her mouth with his, but stops inches from touching her. A surprised look crosses his ugly face.

“I like to play too,” Suki sneered through her teeth as hot blood drenches her from the big man’s slit throat. The dagger in her hand is slippery, small and wicked. He clutches his throat, mouth moving soundlessly and falls to the side. Suki rolls out of the way, grasps her fallen sword from the pool of blood around her and gets to her feet.

She looks around, confused, in pain, her hands shaky with adrenaline, dripping red.

A clot of Palace guards and rebels are fighting nearby. One Guard stumbles away, engulfed in flames and screaming his horror, his pain. Suki ignores him, flicking the blood off of her blade as she scans the melee for the only person that matters to her.

She sees the other warriors first: spots of green in a sea of red and black. Ty Lee is surrounded by thirty men, doing her best to fight them off. Everywhere she spins she leaves a man on the ground with a numb limb, a limp wrist, or unconscious. She’s slowing though and her long brown braid is scorched black to the scalp.

She looks past Ty Lee, past the other warriors as she searches for the Fire Lord.

Her eyes finally find him, backed into the corner, a wall of flame between himself and his would-be assassins. Blood from a gash to his forearm has painted his hand red. Too much red. Her heart leaps with fear.  Ten rebels surround him, looking for a way through the flames. A Firebender is with them, attempting to break through, to charge Zuko’s line.

She knows what she has to do.

She breathes in the smoky air for one long moment, vision narrowing on Zuko, and then she runs flat out across the vast Throne Room, dodging bodies, leaping fires, slipping through slick pools of blood on the marble. Several people try to stop her; she takes off one man’s hand at the wrist, the other gets a dagger to the throat. Nothing can stop her. Nothing else matters except getting to Zuko.

Suki hits her knees, sliding across the blood-drenched marble and beneath the swords of Zuko’s attackers and through the wall of flames. Heat envelopes her with a searing orange blast. The flames try to catch on her clothing, her hair, her skin, but it’s all too wet with blood and she slides through to the other side, at Zuko’s feet.

She gains her feet with a flip, breathing hard, the smell of burned blood in her nostrils. As she turns, a flaming hand comes down in her direction, but she catches Zuko’s bloody wrist, stopping him inches from her face. Surprise and recognition hit him.

“Suki!”

“Miss me?”

“Always,” Zuko admits between hard breaths. He’s flagging, wounded, his Chi nearly depleted. She drops his wrist and sinks into a fighting stance as the flames lower a little, ebbing with Zuko’s energy. “There’s too many of them. I can’t keep them back for much longer. My reserves are gone…”

“They’re going to have to go through me to get to you,” she says adamantly, putting herself between Zuko and the rebels. “And I’d rather do this sooner than later. Drop the flames, Zuko.”

“Suki, don’t.”

She glances sharply at him, sees the fear, the desperation, and all of the unspoken things they had never said to each other in his eyes. She acknowledges them with a painful twist of her heart, with regret and longing and guilt–and then shoves them aside.

There is only duty now, and she will protect him with her life, whether he likes it or not. She tosses him the blood-painted sword and he catches it by the pommel automatically.

“If I fall, fight your way to Ty Lee. Don’t let them take you. Now drop the flames.”

Zuko takes a deep breath and the flames die to nothing a moment later, leaving Suki and Zuko in their corner of the Throne Room, surrounded by enemies who seemed shocked into inaction by the sudden disappearance of the flaming hot barrier.

“Well? What are you waiting for, you Ozai-loving pieces of shit? Here’s the Fire Lord. Come and get him if you can,” Suki sneers, flicking open the fan with a smile.

The thud and pop in her chest the next instant is unexpected and unbelievable.  Pain roars up through her body and then fades into a numb sort of shock as she stares at the arrow protruding from between her breasts.

She hears Zuko scream as she hits her knees, unable to stand, to feel anything but guilt. The sound of her name on his lips is like shattered glass. His fear rains down on her, cutting her to ribbons. Zuko’s arms go around her, catching her as she falls backward.

She can see the horror in his eyes as he screams her name. She’s cold all over, but her blood is scorching hot as it floods out of her with one last desperate pump of her lacerated heart. The rebels seem frozen, as shocked by her downfall as Zuko. He lifts his bloody hand, touching her cheek, smearing her with crimson futility.

“Suki… Don’t go…”

It’s too late though. She has failed him. 

The world falls away from her in bright spots of color that slowly dim, of flame and heat and blood. As if from a long tunnel she sees Zuko lower her down to the ground. He presses a kiss to her bloody lips that she cannot feel and then he stands. The rebels are over their shock. They press in like wolves around prey.

 Fire erupts from Zuko’s mouth as he screams her name, causing a column of flame to scorch the rebels. Then, with the sword in his red-painted hand, Zuko moves like a demonic spirit, hacking and slashing through the rebels. One by one they fall in front of him until she can’t see him any longer, can’t follow him with her eyes.

She can’t help, can’t move, can’t feel anything. After what might have been hours—or just a few seconds, it hardly matters–she slips into darkness, chasing her guilt into nothingness.

(end)