|More from Wordbender||Action/Adventure||PG||Positive||No update page|
|A Familiar Face|
April 30, 2013
Previously in 'Air'
In the Spirit World, Aang challenges Koh to a competition for every face in his collection, releasing one face as a sign of good will.
Chapter Sixty-Six: A Familiar Face
Taking several steps back to distance himself from the spirit, Aang sat cross-legged, facing his opponent. Koh took much longer to settle, shifting and twitching before finding a comfortable position.
Haku, meanwhile, looked on, his expression carved from stone. He had begged Aang to reconsider, but he wouldn't listen. Haku cursed under his breath. Aang's mind was focused on the horrors of the Faceless, and he had allowed his emotions to best his common sense.
Glancing at Haku, Koh said with unveiled disgust, "I suppose you'll be acting as referee?"
"I want no part in this," Haku growled.
"Now, now," Koh admonished, clicking his tongue. "You are no stranger to self-sacrifice, Haku. Will you declare yourself a hypocrite and turn your back on Aang, who is only doing the same?"
A shiver shimmied up Aang's spine. Somehow, Koh managed to say so much without any flicker of emotion crossing his face. This might be harder than he thought.
"Self-sacrifice for the greater good is one thing," Haku countered. "But self-sacrifice for a fool's errand is another. I made the sacrifice because there was no other way."
Koh cocked his head. "Are you certain?" he asked, his voice taunting the ghost. "You were quite desperate to prove the worth of humanity to the spirits. Isn't it possible that you may have inferred it necessary to give your own life for the greater good so that you might gain their good graces?"
"No!" Haku cried, horrified.
"You're confident that your actions were not fueled by any selfish desires? After all, the Avatar has been quietly spurned by the spirits for centuries. You were the first to face the opposition on its own turf."
Something flickered in Haku's eyes. Defiance gave way to dread. Was it possible? Was it possible that his act to save both worlds from the Chaos Nithe craved wasn't the pure sacrifice he'd always convinced himself it was?
Blood pounded in Aang's temple as he watched the change wash over Haku. The ghost's shoulders slumped as the idea took form in his mind...
"Stop it, Koh," Aang said, gazing straight at the spirit. "I am your opponent, remember?"
Koh's head swiveled, his eyes meeting Aang's. "Of course, Avatar Aang."
But Aang saw the thoughts in the spirit's eyes. Koh knew the best way to break Aang was to toy at his emotions or –even better– the emotions of others. And Aang knew the best way to break Koh was... Well, he didn't actually know the answer to that. Yet. But he had a guess. For now, he would have to keep Koh talking.
Zuko gazed out over the Faceless. Some stood unmoving beside their assigned cot, some milled about the barn, but most merely sat. A chill crept over him as he watched their featureless faces. It wasn't an easy sight to become accustomed to, and he wondered if Kaori still suppressed a shudder when he looked at them.
There were so many. So very many. How could he not know about this? If he had heard the stories, it was likely he would have dismissed them as nothing but legends. But what about those messages? He had been trying to convince himself that someone in the Palace must have received them and thought them nothing more than the rantings of a mad man.
The more and more he considered it, the less likely it seemed. If there had been two or three messages, even five, perhaps. But dozens? Over the span of who knew how many years? Even if they hadn't believed the message, someone would have realized that something strange was happening. Word should have inevitably reached him. Unless...
Unless someone had intentionally kept them from him. But why? To what end? He looked out over the helpless victims before him, his jaw clenching in anger. What possible advantage could someone gain by hiding this?
A small hand slipped into his, banishing the dark thoughts from his mind. He looked down, and Ursa beamed up at him.
"Don't worry, Father." Her eyes filled with faith and trust and hope. "Everything will work out. Somehow."
Yes, she did believe that. She believed he would work it out. A wry smile pulled at the corner of his mouth. If only he had that same kind of blind faith. Once upon a time, perhaps, when he was young. But not any more.
Absently, he stroked her hand, his finger brushing against the bracelet around her wrist, the one he'd given to her on her sixth birthday. It was a special bracelet, one he had kept for years, and the first time he saw his daughter, he knew that one day it would grace her wrist. He had decided to wait until she was old enough to appreciate and respect it. Always mature for her age, Zuko realized it was time when she turned six. He still remembered how her eyes sparkled when he'd placed it on her, and told her how he had given it to another Ursa. The one thing she would never part with. The only thing Ozai needed as proof.
Thinking of his mother only made the atmosphere gloomier, so he shook the memory away.
"What have you and your brother been doing?" he asked, smiling down at her.
"Helping." Her cherubic face turned serious; not grave or disturbed, but that adorable over-seriousness that children show.
Zuko suppressed a chuckle. Instead, he squeezed her hand. "Thank you, Ursa. I think that's the best we can do for now."
She turned her big brown eyes up to him once more, and Zuko realized he hadn't been entirely correct. Deep in her eyes there shone realization, not just the innocent seriousness of a child, but real concern. His heart ached, knowing that his little girl –his sweet Ursa– shouldn't be exposed to this, not yet. She was still so young, so innocent. These were his burdens, not hers. Yet at the same time pride burst in his chest, flooding him with a warm glow. It was not just concern in her eyes, or even pity, but compassion and empathy and understanding. Someday, he knew, Ursa would become a kind and just Firelord.
"I wish we could do more," she whispered, tears catching at the corner of her eyes.
Zuko bent down, planting a kiss on her forehead. "So do I, Ursa. So do I."
For the first time, the woman took in her surroundings. There were more than just the dusty, cobweb-laced rafters, than the sagging cots lined across the floor. People milled about, their distant forms beginning to take defined shape as the woman focused on them. Everything but their faces. Those remained featureless and blank.
The woman remembered and her breath caught. She remembered that first surge of panic when the world cut itself off from her as, one by one, her senses faded away. She remembered how that panic had settled into indifference. She remembered that she had forgotten a time when she belonged in this world.
And now... Something else surfaced in her memory. Only a moment, cut out from the fabric of time. She was laughing. She held two children close and they laughed. The memory of that joy on those unidentifiable faces –unidentifiable, yet so familiar– sent a thrill of delight and a jolt of pain rippling through her.
Who were they? Were they her children? Was it to them she had clung so hard, during her time as one of these forsaken Faceless?
The woman scrutinized her hands, ignoring the movement and sound from elsewhere –raucous and overwhelming on her newly revived senses– but these hands... These hands were close, personal. She did not remember them, yet they felt –looked– familiar.
They were hard hands, but not always so. She held a vague memory of flawless flesh. Running her fingers over the tough skin, she felt a flush of pride in caressing each callous. A stable cleaned. A floor scrubbed. Stubborn puma goat's wrangled into submission. Ropes tied and gripped and heaved until her hands bled.
Each blemish told its own story and if she looked hard enough, she knew she could find the past they represented.
Aang indicated the shadows where he had seen the Faceless. "How do they survive?"
"Preparing for your fate, Avatar? Very wise."
The certainty in Koh's voice lodged a spike of terror in Aang's heart. Waves of fear spread through his body. They pulled at the muscles in his face. But Aang refused to let his expression slip.
"How do they survive?" Koh repeated. "It's quite simple. It's not as if I kill them. I only take their faces. After all, what's in a face?" He turned toward the shadowy veil, but the Faceless were no longer visible. "But you foolish mortals," the spirit murmured. "You think without a face you cannot live."
"How can they?" Aang demanded, fighting to keep his rage in check. "They have no eyes to see with; no ears to hear; no mouth to eat!"
"Unnecessary. They still have what counts, whether they accept it or not. Soul, body, mind. Is it my fault they choose to dwell on the disadvantages?"
"What do you mean 'unnecessary'?" Aang asked. "They're mortals; they have to eat and breathe, don't they?"
It was Haku who answered. "Not in the Spirit World. Mortality does not exist here, and since a part of them remains within the Spirit World, they are able to survive without these human necessities, if they recognize it."
"I have seen your victims once before, Koh," Aang said. "Here, the first time we met."
"So why didn't you keep them here? To steal their faces, don't you have to bring them into the Spirit World, like you did with Ummi? Why send them back?"
Koh's face didn't move. He took a long, deep breath and his eyes went suddenly dead. His clicking legs stilled.
Fighting back a smirk, Aang felt a flush of triumph. He'd almost goaded a reaction from Koh.
The spirit's shoulders rose and fell in an unconcerned shrug, but the movement was stiff, betraying Koh's true feelings. "Why not?"
Haku frowned. "No, Aang's right. Why would you? Unless..." Realization sparked in his eyes. "Of course. You didn't want them to know." Haku gestured at the veil of shadow. "There are so many, and those are only the ones that have survived! If the spirits sensed so many lost souls–"
"Avatar Aang," Koh interrupted, his voice cold as ice. "As I recall, this is a contest between you and I. Would you be so kind as to tell your past life to stop interrupting?"
The ethereal essence of Haku's form sparked in indignation, opening his mouth to retort.
"If you don't mind, Haku," Aang said lightly. "Koh is right. This is between the two of us."
Snapping his mouth shut, Haku shot Aang a piercing look. His latest incarnation was up to something –he could hear it in Aang's voice– but what? Scrutinizing the other's face, Haku couldn't figure it out. Aang betrayed nothing. Which was a good thing, considering.
Curious, but still uncertain, Haku bit his tongue and stepped back.
"Happy?" Aang asked.
Koh made no reply.
"So if it isn't food and air that keeps them alive," Aang pressed, nodding where the Faceless had stood before. "What does?"
Koh's eyes focused fully on him. "Hope."
"Sis, look at her!"
The nearby whisper startled the woman out of her unsuccessful recollections. Two children, a boy and a girl, stood several paces away, watching her. Her heart skipped a beat. Her children? But no. As they moved closer, she saw that their faces were not the two she remembered. Not quite.
The boy ducked behind the girl as they approached, poking his head around her shoulder for not-so-subtle glimpses. The girl displayed no hesitation. Shoulders straight, head held high, she embodied the fine garments she wore with a sense of confidence and authority. Her eyes, though, told a different story. Rich and dark, soft and kind. They studied the woman's face, taking in every feature that the woman herself could not remember. But the girl did not merely watch her; her eyes sought something in the woman's face, as if expecting to find a familiar smile. What was she looking for?
When she noticed the woman studied her as closely as she the woman, the girl smiled. "Hello."
The uncertainty clinging to the woman began to ebb. "Hello," she replied, not quite knowing what else to say.
The boy and girl exchanged glances.
"This is my brother Roh-Roh, and my name is Ursa." The girl folded her hands in traditional Fire Nation fashion and bowed in greeting, though the woman never felt those dark eyes leave her. "What's your name?"
Her name. Of course she knew her name. Didn't she? The woman opened her mouth, but no words came. She looked down at her hands again. They had already told her many things: she had once led a fine life, she had then been forced to work hard. She was young. Across her skin lingered a phantom touch of small hands in her own which refused to leave. But they could not answer this question.
"I don't know."
Tears spilled from her eyes. She buried her face in her hands, turning away from the children.
A hand touched her shoulder. "Don't be scared."
The woman lifted her face. She found herself gazing into the timid, brilliant gold eyes of the boy Roh-Roh.
Flushing in embarrassment, the boy withdrew his hand. He averted his gaze, but the woman could still see the sadness glistening in them.
"Roh-Roh's right," Ursa said. "You may not remember, but this is a good thing." She pointed to the featureless husks of life throughout the barn. "I think you used to be one of them. But now you're not. Do you know what happened? Maybe we could help the others come back."
The woman shook her head. "Something...changed. I don't know what. I don't think it was me." She saw the disappointment flash through the little girl's eyes, and her heart ached. "I'm sorry."
Ursa smiled at her. "Don't be. I'm glad you're back, however it happened." Her face lit with joy. "It means there is a way, at least. Even if we aren't sure what." She looked at her brother, her eyes shining. "Maybe Katara's right. Maybe Aang did figure out a way to fix it."
"Of course he did!" Shyness forgotten in his exuberance, Roh-Roh leapt onto the cot beside the woman, flinging his arms wide with a grin. "He's the Avatar, he can fix anything!"
A weight dropped into the woman's stomach. The Avatar. Why did that send chills running up her spine? She probed at the elusive blob of unreachable memories in the back of her mind but, though they quivered at her touch, answers refused to break free. Wait. She may not remember why, but there were emotions caught up with the title –first sadness and longing, then fear, hope, uncertainty.
"Isn't he dead?" The question startled her –where had that come from?– but even as the woman said it, it seemed right.
Scrunching his nose in confusion, Roh-Roh plopped down on the cot beside her. "No. Why would he be?"
"People used to think he was dead, a long time ago," Ursa said. "But he was just stuck in an iceberg."
The woman blinked. An iceberg? What foolishness was this?
"That's where he was for a hundred years," Roh-Roh agreed. "But he woke up, saved the world and ended the war. See? He can fix anything."
A whirlwind of blurred emotions caught her by surprise. The implications seemed to register within her –the Avatar, the war– but she couldn't remember why.
"Do you remember the war?" Ursa asked.
The woman tried. Who fought? What for? But no firm answers came. No tangible memories stirred, only feelings linked to the word ran rampant through her chest. Touching her heart, the woman whispered, "I remember loss, and pain."
"Maybe you lost someone during the war," Ursa said.
Had she? Her children, perhaps they had died in the war? No, that didn't feel right. "I don't know."
Swinging his legs, inches above the ground, Roh-Roh raised his eyes from his toes to sneak a peek at her. "Do you remember anything?"
The woman smiled gently at him. She shook her head, hesitated.
Ursa never took her thoughtful, penetrating eyes from her. She saw the flicker of recollection in the woman's eyes. "There is something."
"Sometimes there are flashes of memory. Impressions." The woman shook her head. "But nothing solid. I try to hold onto them, but they keep slipping away."
Crossing to the woman's other side, Ursa lifted herself onto the cot. "Maybe we can help."
The woman wasn't sure what the children thought they could do, but they smiled at her so earnestly, so eager to help, she could not say no. "I would like that, children. Where should we start?"
"Who goes there?" boomed a deep voice from beyond the wall.
"Corporal Wei," came the urgent response. "Returning with more reinforcements. One of them is injured."
Soldiers hurried to unbar the gate. Almost as soon as it swung open, Katara ran out to answer the call for a healer. When she spotted Toph, slumped between Haru and Ty Lee, her face twisted in agony, she cried, "What happened?"
"Not sure," Haru grunted. "We were attacked on the beach. There was this woman–" He shivered just thinking about her.
"Do you mind holding off the chit chat til later?" Toph bit out between clenched teeth. Fresh ripples of hot pain rushed through her, one wave after another, each more intense than the last. She couldn't believe the escalation; after the initial attack had withdrawn, she had felt nothing, like it had never happened. But the more time passed, the more she hurt.
Katara took the exhausted Ty Lee's place. "Sorry, Toph. Let's get her into the house," she told Haru, who refused when a soldier offered to take his burden. "Admiral Jeong Jeong," she called, "Will you tell Zuko? I think he's going to want to hear this."
Halfway to the house, Kaori spotted the group. Though Katara half-expected it, the surly old man didn't protest. Instead, he held the door open for them. As they passed him through the doorway, Kaori ran an expert eye over Toph, noting no visible injury.
"What's wrong with her?" he asked.
Katara had wondered the same. She helped ease Toph down to a thick, worn mat, biting her lip when her friend couldn't help a strangled cry of pain.
"I'm not sure." Crouching beside Toph, she coaxed water from her pouch to coat her hands. "Where does it hurt?"
As if in answer, a wave of agony –first prickling, then aching, then stabbing– surged through Toph. "Everywhere!"
"Where did it start?"
Toph squeezed her eyes shut, trying to remember where that psycho woman had stabbed that doll. But the memories blurred. Her muscles began to spasm, shaking and jerking her limbs. She tried to pinpoint the origin of the pain, but another wave wrenched through her. "...don't remember..."
"Toph, I can't—"
Zuko and Admiral Jeong Jeong hurried into the room, accompanied by Sokka, a clatter of armor and thundering footsteps.
"Katara, what is it? What's happened?"
A vein pulsed in Katara's forehead. "They were attacked," she snapped. "Toph's hurt! The others can tell you what happened. Outside!"
The crowd of concerned friends hesitated. Someone shuffled forward, Katara wasn't even certain who, asking quietly, "Will she be okay?"
Toph's body contorted again, and she cried out. A horrid, helpless sound.
"Everybody out!" Katara screamed.
This time they didn't hesitate. Zuko, Jeong Jeong and Sokka hurried the others out. Kaori, with one concerned glance down the hall, reluctantly followed.
"You, too, Haru," Katara said, not bothering to look up.
Haru knelt on the opposite side of Toph. "It started on her left side," he told her, indicating the place he remembered the needle plunging into the doll. "And her right knee."
Katara raised her eyes to meet his. "Thank you, Haru, but you really need to go."
To her surprise, the earthbender shook his head. "No."
Another convulsion wracked Toph's body. Her limbs struck out at them with no strength. Katara tried to hold her arms down, watching as sweat poured from Toph's brow, her unseeing eyes dancing madly in their sockets until finally rolling back with a pathetic whimper.
Glancing again at Haru, she said, "She wouldn't want to be seen like this."
Katara blinked, stunned. She recognized the stubborn set of his jaw –she'd seen it often enough in Toph. Before she could think of some way to convince him, Toph's body went unnaturally still under her hands.
"Toph?" Katara felt her forehead, ice cold. Terrified, she fumbled with her friend's wrist, checking for a pulse. The vein throbbed, weak and dogged. The earthbender's breath came in ragged, shallow gasps. Summoning her water once more, Katara applied her hands to the affected areas. "Hang in there, Toph."
"What do you need?" Haru asked, a scowl like a thunderclap darkening his brow. But Katara was certain under that lay pure fear. He wasn't going to leave anytime soon.
Katara sighed. "Blankets. And more water."
Haru nodded once, sprinting out of the house.
Outside, the others gathered around Ty Lee in solemn silence.
"What happened?" Sokka asked.
A shiver raced through the pretty acrobat and she hugged herself, rubbing the gooseflesh from her arms. "Haru and I were on the beach," she began. "Toph found us there and told us Zuko wanted everyone to come here. We were heading back when I realized I forgot my shawl. I went back for it. When I got to the beach, I noticed a group of people heading up the cliffs." Ty Lee shook her head. "I didn't think anything of it. I thought they were from the village. But when they saw me, they attacked."
"That is when Toph was injured?" Jeong Jeong asked.
Ty Lee nodded. "They must have heard something, because they came to my rescue."
"These attackers," Zuko said, "What did they look like?"
Raising her wide eyes, Ty Lee met his gaze, confirming his fears. "It was the Loyal. Firebenders, a lot of them, with military training."
Sokka frowned. "Soldiers did that to Toph?"
Ty Lee shook her head, a shadow darkening her usual bright features. "There was someone else. A woman." Even thinking of the evil black aura gave her chills. "I don't know how she did it, either. She never even touched Toph. She only had a creepy doll, and a needle."
"A doll?" Jeong Jeong repeated. To everyone's surprise, his tone was not incredulous, but disturbed. "What kind of doll?"
Ty Lee blinked, taken aback. She shrugged. "I'm not sure. It didn't look like a toy. It was plain wood, maybe homemade."
"Did it have distinguishing features?" Jeong Jeong asked.
Frowning, Ty Lee concentrated, conjuring the image in her mind. "No," she decided.
Jeong Jeong let out a tired sigh.
"What is it?" Zuko asked.
"I have heard of this art, long, long ago."
Terror sparked in Zuko's chest. "Where?"
Jeong Jeong's eyes, suddenly very old and tired, rose to meet his. "From a pair of women, closely trusted by your father."
Zuko swallowed hard. "Li and Lo."
"Azula's advisors?" Ty Lee asked incredulously.
Jeong Jeong nodded. "They had other skills, and not many were publicly known. Before Ozai was Firelord, he realized the potential Li and Lo could bring. They were underestimated by many in the court, but he recognized their thirst for power. During the height of the war, they had been tasked by the then Prince Ozai to find any kind of advantage they could use over the other nations. Any way to bring a quick and certain victory. It was his hope to find a solution others had never dreamed of, to please his father, and place him in good competition for the throne. For years, Li and Lo discovered and studied many dark paths better left forgotten."
"If this was all hush-hush," Sokka said, "How do you know about it?"
To their surprise, Jeong Jeong's pale cheeks colored. He shifted his feet, cleared his throat. "For a time, I...spoke frequently with Lo."
Any other time, the thought of the stern old Admiral with one of the twins would have made many of them laugh. But not today.
"She told me many things she should not have," Jeong Jeong said. "And many of them greatly disturbed me."
Sokka's frown cleared in realization. "Is that why you deserted?"
"In part. Many of the tactics proposed by Ozai were cruel and oppressive. Knowing also that he secretly sought a way to empower himself further through dark arts—" Jeong Jeong shook his head. "I left soon after."
"But Li and Lo have been dead for years." Zuko looked at Ty Lee. "So who was this woman?"
Jeong Jeong scowled in thought. "There was an apprentice," he said softly, "Shortly before I deserted. Lo said they planned to teach her what she needed to know, to eventually assume their duties before Firelord Ozai when they passed. She was a small, sickly child." He shook his head. "I cannot remember much more than that."
But Ty Lee's body had gone rigid. She remembered the woman coughing and hacking in the wake of a sand cloud. "She had dark, sunken eyes. And gray lips." She shivered again. "Her aura was black. Not just dingy or dark –pitch black."
Zuko frowned. A memory shifted in the back of his mind. He was a child, perhaps six or seven, in a courtyard under the bright sun. Azula was with him. They were chasing each other, playing, fighting and arguing. Two women appeared, with a small, dark-haired girl between them. They left her in the courtyard, to play with them. At first, he thought nothing of it. But as the memory expanded, a cold chill settled over his bones. The girl would not play with them. She said she could not breathe well. She did not like to talk much either. Soon, he and Azula had given up, and gone to playing with each other again. He next remembered the scream. He wasn't certain who it belonged to. Perhaps a servant, perhaps his mother. But someone grabbed him and Azula by the arm and pulled them back inside. Zuko had snuck a peek and saw the girl crouched beside a dead turtle duck, hands stained with blood. She'd looked up at Zuko, and her lips parted in a cold, cruel smile.
The others looked at him in surprise.
Zuko fought a shiver, pushing the memory aside. No wonder he had decided to forget it. "I met her once, when I was very young." He looked around at the others, and his troubled eyes reflected the worry in their faces. "This is bad."
Their patrol was thorough, Azula would give them that. But Zuko and his friends were expecting a battalion of soldiers, not one careful spy. She skirted their attention with ease, slipping over the wall while the newcomers kept the soldiers distracted. Quite an impressive display of panic. One of them had been obviously injured, and Azula wondered offhand whether they had encountered her father's camp.
Between the barn and the farmhouse, there was a path just large enough for someone to walk. No one stood near it, so Azula nipped in while their attention was diverted. Already she had learned some very interesting things.
The mere presence of the soldiers revealed that Zuko had become aware of the Faceless. A pity that, but she heard some of the soldiers whispering about what they were expected to do. The Avatar, it seemed, was the only one of Zuko's motley crew missing. Father would be pleased.
But not nearly as pleased as Azula had been when she overheard Ty Lee's account of the attack. She bit her knuckles to stifle a laugh. So the infallible Min slipped up! Not so perfect after all, was she? She rose, impatient to return. The information she had was plenty, and she couldn't wait to see the rage of her father unleashed on the black-clad usurper.
Who is the fool now, Min?
Passing a window, Azula paused. She frowned, turning back to look in. Dozens of cots were lined up inside, but the dust and straw betrayed its past life as an animal barn. The Faceless were herded inside, so perhaps it still served the same purpose. But it was not the Faceless that had caught Azula's attention. It was the face of a woman. A familiar face.
The word escaped her tongue on a whisper. Azula wanted to pull it back, to pull away and run. Instead, she stepped forward, gripping the window sill.
What was her mother doing here? Mocking her? Hoping to distract her? She couldn't bare that Azula would rather stay with her father, than pursue her mother's fickle fading figure. Now she knew how it felt, to be less loved than someone else. It served her right. Azula's lips lifted in a feral smile, but tears stung at her eyes.
But who was that with her mother? A child. Azula leaned in for a closer look at her face– The breath left her in a whoosh. She shrank back. The child –that face –it was her own.
Clenching her fist, Azula struck at the wood panels. It was a dull sound, but pain throbbed through her hand.
A trick! Her mother would stoop to that. As always, she wasn't here at all. She only teased Azula, making her promises she would never keep, showing her happy moments that would never come to pass.
That wasn't her mother. Not truly. It was only a ghost of Azula's past sent to haunt her. What could have been, if she had only been the daughter her mother wanted. If she had only been more like Zuko.
Katara eased her water-encased hands over Toph, her frown deepening. Toph had stopped thrashing, lying now motionless, so still Katara had to check just to assure herself that her friend was still breathing.
Easing a bucket of water to the floor, Haru resumed his position on Toph's opposite side. One look at Katara's face sent his heart plummeting. "What is it?"
Swiping her arm across her brow, Katara shook her head. "I'm not sure. I've never seen anything like this."
There were no physical injuries, but once Katara started looking in the right area, she knew instantly where the afflictions lay. The cool water over her hands seeped into Toph's energy, allowing Katara access to the earthbender's chi paths. Over the years Katara had gained much experience in healing; she had also seen many atrocious wounds. But she had never encountered anything quite like this.
In her mind's eye, a healthy chi path within a person was always colored a light-blue. Whenever there was sickness or injury, the vibrant color might fade, or become discolored, tinged with yellow or gray.
Toph's chi paths had turned black. As Katara explored the shadowy corridors of energy, she could not suppress a shudder down her spine. The brilliant chi, meant to flow freely, was twisted and congested. It writhed in time with the erratic beat of its master's heart.
"The closest I've ever seen was Ty Lee's chi-blocking, but this..." Katara shook her head. This was so much worse.
"What can I do?" Haru asked, looking not at Katara, but Toph.
You could leave, and let me do my work. But one look at his face told Katara that wasn't going to happen. She sighed. Why was it that people had to wait until the last possible moment to realize their true feelings?
"Give me some room," she said softly. "Keep an eye on her. Tell me if she gets worse."
Haru nodded. Eyes never leaving Toph, he stepped a few paces back.
Katara rolled her shoulders to loosen the muscles. Already her back ached from the awkward sitting position. Healing, she had long ago realized, was not a comfortable occupation. Refreshing the healing water from the bucket, she began to ease her hands back and forth across the shadowy chi paths, slowly untangling the mangled energy.
Kaori felt him approach in the prickles at the back of his neck. Kneeling by a bed, tucking a blanket around its corners, the old man ignored the Firelord.
"Are you certain two are still missing?"
Gritting his teeth, Kaori struggled to heave himself upright, ignoring the offered hand. "Course I'm sure."
Zuko only nodded at the sharp tone, though his brow knit in concern. His eyes drifted to the eerie spectres about the room and his voice dipped low. "You said sometimes they ...disappear?"
The Firelord's gaze rose to meet his. A heavy burden weighed it down and Kaori realized that the horror and dismay squelched in the young man's eyes did not reflect on the Faceless themselves, but their mere presence. "What does that mean?"
Kaori shot a glance across the room, where the Firelady lent an awkward hand to help Suki settle another Faceless onto a cot. He remembered what she had said, that the Firelord knew nothing of the island's curse. That, if he had, he would have done something to help. But so many years Kaori had waited for that assistance, never truly believing it would come, while Teya told him every day, Soon. They'll come soon. And the years after that, when she was taken from him, he waited out of sheer desperation, willing, begging someone to come. No one did. He finally gave up hope. Still he felt that burning rage roar inside. And now –Now here the Firelord stood, just waiting for an answer.
With a sigh, the old man cooled his anger. Perhaps the Firelord could do nothing, and perhaps he might be late. But if he could help, Kaori could not stand in the way of the only hope these poor souls had.
"They don't die," Kaori explained, his voice faint. "They fade. It's different for them all. Sometimes they last years. Sometimes a day. It's as if something keeps them tied here, something they hold on to. But after a time, they just let it slip away." His eyes welled with tears, thinking of Teya's hand, clasping tight to his, as though he were the only thing keeping her from vanishing. Someday, would that grip weaken? Would her hand slowly fade, as he had watched so many others? "When it vanishes," Kaori whispered, "So do they."
Zuko looked out once more on the Faceless with new eyes. "Do many of them last?"
Kaori shrugged. "I've never kept track."
"There are quite a few here," Zuko observed. "What's the longest one has survived?"
A strained chuckle rattled from the old man's throat. "Some are older than you. A few are older than I am."
Frowning, Zuko turned back to Kaori. "How is that possible?"
Kaori shrugged. "It seems their faces weren't the only things to be stolen. They do not age. They do not grow ill. It's almost as if their mortality was swept away with their faces."
"Eternal life," Zuko murmured. He watched as a Faceless man inched along the floor, feeling about with his arms for any obstructions. "It doesn't seem worth the price."
Kaori eyed the Firelord, his brow furrowed in thought. "They've all jumped to your defense."
Zuko frowned in confusion, looking back at the old man.
"Your wife, the captain, the admiral –every one of them says you had no way of knowing about them." Kaori jerked his head at the Faceless. "They all offer your excuses. But you haven't. Why is that?"
For a long moment, the Firelord did not answer. His eyes drifted over the Faceless crowd, watching his friends and family care for the unfortunate victims. Kaori wondered if he had said too much –he and his charges, whether he liked it or not, were still at the Firelord's mercy– but he felt no hostility or anger from Zuko, nor could he read his expression.
Finally, Zuko spoke, his quiet words filled with shame. "I didn't know. That is what troubles me. Something this... Something like this should have come to my attention." A troubled frown darkened his brow, casting his face in the shadow. "Even if your messages didn't reach me, I can't help feeling there should have been some way I would have heard. A story or rumors. I should have been more attentive—"
A sharp chuckle cut him off. Zuko blinked in alarm, his distant gaze shifting back to Kaori. The old man laughed quietly, shaking his head in disbelief.
Frustration slowly uncoiled in Zuko's chest, preparing to spring. "What's so funny?" he demanded, voice cold.
Kaori shook his head. "I see it now. Why they defend you."
Again, Zuko blinked. It wasn't the reply he was expecting.
"They truly do believe you're incapable of ignoring something like this. You inspire loyalty in them. They trust you." Koari ran his gaze up and down the Firelord once more. This time, though, his eyes didn't probe for flaws or defaults. This time, they saw Zuko for what he was. "I think I might, too."
The stifling frustration in Zuko's chest burst asunder, washing him in a warm glow of pride. Not because Kaori had decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, but because he knew what the old man said to be true. His people were loyal to him. They trusted him, because they knew he would not betray it. Years of struggle, doubt and resistance had been spent trying to secure that loyalty, and Zuko never forgot that.
Kaori chuckled again, this time the laughter wry. "I must have the worst luck in the world," he muttered. "In eighteen years, ignored by two Firelord's—"
The smile fell from Zuko's face. "Two Firelord's?" he repeated, the warm glow melting away.
"Course." Kaori shrugged. "When I first began sending the letters, Ozai was in power. It was a few years before the war ended and— What is it?"
Zuko's face had grown dark again. Ozai knew about the Faceless. He must. Those letters didn't just disappear. Someone, one of the Loyal spies, had probably made certain to keep them from Zuko, so he would never learn about this island and its secret. That was why Min and her creepy talents were here. Xing Shi Yu wasn't some chance place to hide and regroup. They wanted the Faceless.
The urgency of the Firelord's next words caught Kaori off-guard.
"I may have been wrong. If Ozai learned about the Faceless, I think it's possible he does mean them harm."
"Instead of trying to hold onto the impressions," Ursa suggested, "Maybe you should look at them all side by side. Sometimes we can't always see the whole picture, but if we can fit the pieces that we have into the right place, we can figure out what's missing."
The woman smiled down at the girl, noticing the sun gleaming off her silky black hair. "That's very clever, Ursa."
"What are some of the things you can remember?"
"Children," the woman replied. "There are two children, though I can't see their faces." She looked from Ursa to Roh-Roh. "You remind me of them, I think."
Ursa leaned forward eagerly. "Are they yours?"
The woman hesitated. Were they? She couldn't say for certain. But why else would she feel such a pull towards their memory? She so longed to take their hands again, to laugh with them. Perhaps they weren't hers. Perhaps she only looked after them, or knew them? They could have been the children of friends, even a niece and nephew...
A wave of anger and frustration swept through her. Every fiber of her being screamed in desperation, pounded at her memories. Don't let them go! The memory jarred, solidifying into brighter color. The boy laughed as she poked and tickled him, the girl in her lap, beaming up at her with golden eyes.
"Yes," she breathed. Tears shone in the woman's eyes. "Yes, they are mine. But...but I can't..."
Ursa placed her hand over the woman's. "It's okay." The little girl's eyes blazed with determination. "We're going to help you remember."
Trembling, the woman squeezed her hand. A single tear escaped her eyes, trailing down her cheek. "Thank you."
"Can you think of anyone else?" Roh-Roh asked.
Wiping her tear away, the woman took in a deep breath. "Ah, let's see..." She sat back, leaning on her arms as she turned her gaze up to the rafters. Squinting, she tried to form any of her vague impressions into tangible thoughts. "There is a man, I think. Someone I trust."
Roh-Roh swung his legs again. "Could it be your husband?"
A stab of panic impaled the woman. Sucking a sharp breath, she shook her head. "No. Not my husband. That..." She touched her heart. "It doesn't feel right."
"What do you feel?"
The woman thought about it. She reached out for the impression again, seeing the vague face of a man. A warm glow blossomed in her chest, confidence and determination surging through her. "I feel...comfort. Like I have a purpose. And hope." Brow furrowed, the woman tried to explain the sudden burst of renewed energy within her. "I think I lost it, but for the first time in a long time, he helped me feel hope again."
A sound behind Azula, a sharp clack of armor, made her jump. She spun around to face the stunned soldier, hot tears spilling from her eyes.
"What are you –?"
Too late the soldier realized his spear might be needed. As he hurried to raise the point, Azula leapt at him. Screaming in fury, she loosed the rage in her chest through reams of fire. She lashed blindly as the soldier stumbled back.
"Intruder!" he yelped, raising his arms in defense.
Azula's attack faltered. Gritting her teeth, she cursed herself. Why hadn't she remembered to silence him? What fool was she, to attack in mindless rage?
Nearby she heard the clatter and thunder as reinforcements charged toward the sound. Snarling at the soldier, Azula let the fire fizzle and die. "You were lucky."
The footsteps came closer, echoing off the side of the barn. Azula sprang for the wall beyond. These fools were no match for her speed and stealth.
Something nicked her wrist. Her arm pulled back, yanking her from her escape.
Soldiers rounded the side of the building to find the grass sputtering with sparks, and the mad princess trapped to the trunk of a tree by an arrow through her cuff.
"Well, well, well," Hoo said, stepping forward. "Look what we've caught, boys. Wei, report to the Firelord. I'm sure he'll want to have chat with his sister."
As one soldier raced off to obey, the others watched her –from a safe distance. She tugged and pulled in vain to free her wrist, but the archer had been an expert marksman. The arrow was lodged deep into the wood. Dirt and soot clung to her face in twin streaks. Could it be that the homicidal maniac had been crying?
A shiver racked Hoo's spine at the thought. What could someone like her possibly want to cry over? "What are you doing here?"
The response surprised them.
Azula drew back her other arm, hurling a ball of fire at her own bonds. A torrent of flame engulfed the bulk of her arm. The fabric of her sleeve burned to ash, releasing her from the arrow's hold.
Cackling, oblivious to the pain of her smoldering and smoking arm, Azula pulled herself free. Kicking out flames, she shrieked at the soldiers. "Zuko might have her, but he'll pay dearly for it."
They cowered back as the heat reached for them.
Fireballs lobbed past the wall of flame, but Azula danced around them with ease. Her injured arm trailing behind her, she scaled the wall and disappeared into the Forest.
From within the barn, Zuko heard the cry of 'intruder'. His first thought went to his family. Taking the barn in at a glance, he saw them at the far end. Without a second thought, he raced forward.
Frowning thoughtfully, Ursa asked, "Anything else?"
There were other things the woman remembered. A sound –like skittering against a hard surface– that sent chills of terror through her. The fresh smell of the sea, the spray of water on her face. An instant under the moonlight when her arms had moved with a will of their own. Running, while a giant figure pursued. A tile with a white lotus. But these seemed either too frightening or inconsequential to mention.
"There was a pond," she realized. "With beautiful clear water. I used to sit by it for hours. With my children. We would sit and watch the turtle ducks."
Roh-Roh frowned down at his feet. A pond? He looked up at the woman again, a curious spark in his eyes. He looked at her face and for a moment the woman realized what her own expression must look like as she fought so hard to retrieve her memories. "We have a pond with turtle ducks."
"Do you?" The woman smiled. "What a coincidence."
He looked at his sister and saw that the same thought had entered her mind.
Ursa took the woman's hand again. "Are you sure it's a coincidence?"
The woman frowned down at her. "What do you mean?"
The siblings exchanged another glance –uncertain, but bursting with joy.
A shout of alarm from outside interrupted. Footsteps raced through the yard, soldiers crying out. Balls of flame sparked and flew. One cry came that Ursa recognized, a shriek like a mad animal.
The girl's grip tightened around her hand in terror and the woman held it. She looked down at the small hand. Sunlight glinted off something around Ursa's wrist. Curious, the woman examined the vibrant metal pieces of the bracelet. Her fingers loosened.
"This –this bracelet," she breathed. "Where did you...?" Holding the girl's hand aloft, the woman carefully touched the pieces. She remembered this bracelet, the small hands that wrapped it around her wrist for the first time. The face that beamed at her obvious delight. Zuko.
Everything came flooding back. Her children, and what she had done to protect them. How she had tried for so hard and so long to take them back. The man with the strange tattoos on his forehead who had chased her down to kill her. Another man, who helped her escape, who told her of an organization who might free her children. The lotus tile, the bracelet, the Avatar, the war—
The woman surged to her feet. "I...I have to get to the Palace. My children, they..." Her eyes grew distant as a terrible thought struck her. "Oh, how many years has it been?"
She turned, as if in a dream. That voice, could it be someone she knew? Could it belong to the one face she longed to see? A man stood behind her, as confused and uncertain as she. An angry red scar emblazoned the side of his head, but that couldn't hide the remnants of the child in his face, or the shock in his unforgettable eyes. It couldn't hide the fact that this was her son.
Zuko didn't move. His heart pounded. Thoughts swirled through his head. How could she be here? She was dead. Ozai had her killed by the hand of an assassin. This woman might look like her, but she was far too young. She looked exactly as Zuko remembered, that night she'd disappeared. And the assassin had offered proof, the bracelet Zuko had given her as a child. His mother had told him she would never take it off. But –what if she had?
The woman stepped forward. Tears coursed down her cheeks, and he realized they stung at his own eyes.
Reaching up, she touched his face. "Oh, Zuko," she whispered. "Look at you." She smiled, and Zuko knew then. Somehow, someway, this was his mother.
"How?" Zuko asked, the tears spilling down his cheeks. "How can you be here? What happened to you?"
Her tears continued to spill, but Lady Ursa began to laugh. There were so many things to say, so much time to make up for, so many explanations. But right now –in this moment– they didn't matter. She pulled her son once more into a warm embrace, hugging him tight, knowing she would never again let him go.
Sitting back on her ankles, Katara let out a deep breath. She lowered her arms for the first time in hours, relaxing her muscles.
Haru straightened. "Are you certain?"
Katara nodded, neck aching, her weary head wanting nothing more than to rest. "Whatever it was," she told him, "It's gone now." She raised her hands to show him the water she had used to purge the blackness from Toph's chi paths. The water was no longer clear and clean, but dark and tainted by the shadowy substance. A bucket sat beside her and she added the defiled water to the rest of the sludge.
Still Haru did not move. He sat by Toph's side, looking down at her with dark, soulful eyes. "It won't come back?"
Katara sighed. "I don't see how it could. Not without another encounter." She gestured to the far corner of the room. "There are some blankets there. Why don't you get some sleep? When you wake up, she'll probably be waiting for you."
Haru nodded, but he did not move. Katara frowned. He must be as exhausted as she. So what was he waiting for?
"She'll be fine, Haru," Katara said, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Once she gets some rest, she'll be back to our old self."
As if in answer, Toph shifted in her sleep. Her chest swelled as she took in a long, deep breath, letting it out again with a sigh. The pinched expression that had assumed control of her face throughout the procedure fell away. With it slipped the last of Haru's doubt. His scowl faded to unmask the weariness beneath and his shoulders slumped. Toph's inevitable recovery settled in his mind, Haru nodded, rose, and –to Katara's surprise– left without looking back.
"A curious thing, isn't it?" Koh said, almost in wonder. "They wait –sometimes an eternity– for their special someone to find them, to perhaps somehow free them. Many even remember, for awhile. But eventually they all give in to the inevitability of their fate. Memories begin to dim as they forget what happened to them, forget the ones they loved, forget who they were, before. The strongest still hold onto that remainder of hope, not even knowing what it is. I think, perhaps, they sense it is the one thing keeping them afloat. And so they refuse to let it go. They wander for as long as they can keep it in their grasp, and become the Faceless."
"What about the others?"
"You said they don't die, so what actually happens to the ones that lose hope?"
Koh shrugged. "Those who have a reason to stay, stay. Those who don't...Well, they begin to fade."
"Yes. Until they finally let go completely, and vanish."
"From everything, Avatar Aang. They disappear from existence. It's a lucky thing for me I can still hold onto their faces after they've long since given up."
Disgust and horror quelled in Aang's chest. How could Koh talk so simply about the fates of dozens of people? Fates for which he was directly responsible? He fought the anger in his chest, but an image blossomed in Aang's mind, one where he abandoned this contest in favor of a more direct approach, wrenching the faces from Koh's very essence.
Koh's words, light, with a mocking reassurance, shattered the image. "But don't worry, Avatar. That is one fate you will not have to face."
Aang shook himself out of his reverie. "What do you mean?"
Legs clicking with mirth, Koh replied, "Like all the others, I know you will hold onto hope, and you are fit to bursting with it. You and your wife, you share such a beautiful bond, built not only on love, but faith, trust, understanding –and hope."
A hunk of metal lobbed at his gut would not have shocked Aang as much as the implication of Koh's words, and hurt less. The color drained from his face. His breath caught. His eyes widened. Even as the realization struck, Aang felt his features shift in emotion. He had failed!
The same instant shock overtook Aang, Haku leapt forward. "You can't!"
Koh swung around to face him. "Can," he replied with serene calm. "And will, if Avatar Aang loses this contest."
Behind the spirit's back, Aang caught himself. Haku met his gaze with urgency as the spirit turned back. Forcing his expression to revert, Aang stared blandly back at the unsuspecting spirit. Relief flooded through him as Koh glanced him over once, seeming satisfied.
"No matter what, Avatar Aang, we both know that you will always believe your wife will find a way to save you." The insectan legs clattered against the tree roots. "If you never doubt, you will never fade. And if you never fade, you will never reintroduce the Avatar into the world. The mediator would be lost. Oh, and there are such possibilities with the Avatar out of the way."
Aang gritted his teeth. How had he not thought of that? If he lost, it would be ...disastrous. There was no other word for it. Had he gone mad? What had he been thinking, challenging Koh?
Defiance swelled in Aang's chest. He had been thinking about the countless lives disrupted for this perverted entertainment. He had been thinking of the pain and sorrow Koh had sewn over the years. He had felt the same rage he imagined Avatar Kuruk must have lived with for the rest of his life.
Koh had to pay, and he would find a way to make that happen. No matter what.
The spirit possessed an infinite amount of knowledge, and he liked to show it off. From past experience, Aang remembered how Koh liked to play, to toy with others, and speak in riddles. But the other side of that coin usually meant pride. With the symphony of leg-clicking echoing about his head, Aang decided to play all his tiles on the Pai Sho board.
"I know about the anchor."
Koh looked at him, but said nothing.
"I know you're using a Faceless on the other side, because it has a connection to both worlds. You made sure of that. But you didn't count on me. When I win this competition, Koh, the Faceless will be no more. The link will be severed. Your anchor will be lost, and your plans will be finished."
The legs stilled. Koh stared at Aang.
Triumph surged through Aang as the spirit's gaze continued to bore into him. Beyond, Haku looked from one to the other, his eyes growing wide in realization. That was why he had initiated the contest in the first place! Not to give in to his emotions about the poor Faceless, but to sever the connection and stop the Chaos from entering the moral world.
"Is that what you think, Avatar?" Koh asked.
The victory coursing through Aang shriveled.
"You think that is all it will take to destroy this passage? Ha! You are a fool. The foundation has already been laid! The anchor is now connected to the Spirit World by its very essence, not merely through the face in my possession. Nothing can stop this, Avatar, let alone a derisible contest!" The legs stirred again, trilling across the roots as Koh flung his head back and laughed.
Haku slumped. "I'm sorry, Aang," he whispered. "It was a good plan."
But Aang remained unshaken. "It's still a good plan, Haku." Turning his attention back to the spirit, he said. "I'm so glad I could amuse you, Koh, but–" Looking full into the spirit's eyes, the Avatar smiled. "You lose."
- Yeah, that pretty much covers it, right? ;)
I probably have a ton of other notes I wanted to add but you wouldn't believe how tired I am. *yawn* And hyper. Super hyper. Probably due to sleep deprivation. Heh. Heh heh.
I always said that the reason I wrote 'Air' was to answer this long list of unanswered questions I'd devised. The first and foremost was, of course, what happened to Zuko's mother? It was when I came up with a spectacularly compelling idea involving Koh that I knew I had to write it.
Of course, the hardest part about this was keeping it covered up. Since everybody wanted to know what had happened to Ursa, I wanted to tell the world that I answered that question here! Eventually. But I also knew that the 12-year gap presented a problem. I couldn't exactly lead with 'Answer Finally Revealed!' if for most of the story Ursa I was supposed to be dead.
So, yeah. The hardest part about publishing this was refraining from dropping major hints and keeping my mouth shut. ^_^
The realization that the Faceless woman was Ursa I is probably the hardest scene I've had to write -for this story or any other to date. I think I wrote three or four different versions before settling on this one. At first, I thought I wanted it to be this huge, epic reveal in the middle of a battle with Azula... but it just didn't feel right. Finding something that did was super tough.
- The fact that Jeong Jeong used to date one of the twins kind of came out of the blue, but it really tickled my fancy. Can you just imagine them as a couple? o.0
For the collective works of the author, go here.