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|An Electrifying Performance|
May 22, 2012
Previously in Air
The Kyoshi Warriors have begun to suspect Rozen, despite Mai and Jeong Jeong's staunch trust in him. Meanwhile, the Tumultuous Traveling Theatre Troupe begins its first performance with their new Prince Zuko and the actress Tre Lin has had a rather mysterious visitor...
Chapter Nineteen: An Electrifying Performance
"You think it's Rozen?" Mai said.
Sokka nodded. "We've been tailing him the last couple of days. The guy's nothing but suspicious."
Jeong Jeong frowned. "Why were you suspicious of him in the first place?" He tried to hide it, but his tone was accusing.
Sokka and Suki exchanged glances. The Kyoshis had asked Jeong Jeong and Mai for a little conference. They didn't want to tell anyone else their suspicions just yet in case they were wrong. Or –even worse– in case they were right.
"It was Kuzarr who pointed it out," Suki admitted. "He said Rozen has been acting strange the last few days."
Jeong Jeong's frown deepened.
"And he was right," Suki insisted. She nodded at one of the other Kyoshis.
Keiko stepped forward. "Last night, well after midnight, he snuck out of his room. I followed him out to the courtyard. The same courtyard the Prince was taken from."
"He met someone there," Keiko continued slowly. "I couldn't see who. But Rozen passed a scroll off to him."
Mai frowned darkly. She fiddled with one of her stilettos. "And there's no chance it was something innocent?"
The Kyoshis exchanged dubious glances.
"Meeting someone secretly in a secluded area in the middle of the night?" Sokka pointed out. "I doubt it."
Jeong Jeong shook his head. "I don't believe Rozen is a traitor."
The Kyoshis glanced uneasily at one another.
"But..." Ty Lee ventured hesitantly, "What if he is?"
Jeong Jeong's expression did not change. "I am not a fool," he told them. "There is too much compelling evidence not to pursue it." He raised an eyebrow. "But I don't believe he's a traitor."
Sokka shrugged. "That's fair," he said, "So long as you let us look into it."
Suki nodded. "We can keep Keiko on his tail for awhile," she added. "And we'll look for whoever it was he met and get a hold of that scroll–"
"No." Mai's voice –so sudden and commanding– took them all by surprise.
The Kyoshis stared at her. "But...if we don't investigate..."
Mai shook her head with finality and slowly stood. "I agree with Jeong Jeong. What's more, Zuko trusts Rozen." She folded her arms, tucking her knife away. "We're not going to spy on him," she declared; "We're going to ask him."
Sokka blinked in disbelief. He raised a doubtful eyebrow. "...ask him?"
"Yes," Mai said. "We are going to ask Rozen what he was doing, and then we're going to ask if he's working for the Guild. If he isn't, I don't want him to find out that we've been spying on him."
"What if he lies?!" Sokka cried.
Jeong Jeong's voice was level. "I'll know if he's lying."
"But what if he's been lying the whole time?" Sokka insisted. "If he is a spy, he's been planted, and that means he's been pulling the koala sheep's wool over your eyes for years! Would you really be able to tell?"
Mai would not back down. "We'll ask him now."
Suki hurried to block the door before the Firelady passed through. "Maybe you should think this through a little more, Mai," she tried. "I really don't think it's a good idea."
"Maybe it isn't." Mai looked away. "Suki, I don't think it's him. I don't think he's capable." She turned back to Suki, eyes burning with determination. "But if he is the traitor, he'll know where my son is. And I'm not going to waste time to peer around corners and watch him from a distance."
Suki stared into Mai's eyes. Passion burned there –deeper than she'd seen in many– but it was tempered by uncertainty and fear, controlled by cool determination alone. She was awed Mai could keep all that inside.
She stepped aside.
"Suki!" Sokka cried in dismay as Mai hurried into the corridor. "You're not supposed to just let her out!"
She shrugged. "There's no standing in the way of a determined mother, Sokka."
Jeong Jeong followed after Mai, and the Kyoshis –after exchanging a few more disparaging looks– did the same.
Palace guards staunchly barred the door to Rozen's quarters.
Mai glanced from one face to the other.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
The usually unwavering expressions of the Palace guards faltered. "Uh...guarding, my Lady?"
Through the open door they could see more guards moving about the room. They opened drawers, tossed their contents and searched through them; they moved furniture looking for secret caches; they even slit through the mattress cover to search within, spilling the comfortable guts across the floor.
"Why?" Mai demanded. "And it better be a good reason."
One guard gulped. "Our captain ordered it, your majesty."
Jeong Jeong stepped forward. "And where is your captain?"
One of the guards stepped out of the room. He didn't look happy to see them. "Right here, Admiral."
Sokka stared at him. "Kio?"
Kio opened his mouth to reply, but Mai cut him off. Her dark eyes glowered at him. "Why are you doing this?"
The captain bowed to the Firelady. "I have arrested Advisor Rozen, your majesty."
Jeong Jeong's eyes blazed with silent fury. "Why?"
Kio took a deep breath, but he met the Admiral's angry gaze. "He was caught in a treasonous act, sir," he said carefully.
Mai inhaled sharply. "What?"
"Impossible!" Jeong Jeong shook his head. "What was it? There must be an explanation."
Kio shook his head. "It's not good." He glanced around at them, his eyes sympathetic, but the returned gazes demanded an answer. Kio sighed. "Rozen attempted to assassinate Firelady Mai."
Aang and Katara crossed their fingers as Zuko took the stage.
There was not a large crowd, mostly just a few families eager for a treat. The possum-chickens were running rampant, garbed in their critical headgear. They had evaded all attempts at capture and Puon-Tim was in a foul mood. He made certain to remind Zuko of his threat to haul him back to Omashu before the show started.
Zuko played the part. As much as it made his blood boil, he spoke such lines as Woe is me, how my soul is tortured! and I must let the Avatar escape, for he is the only hope left! Zuko would have rather set his tongue on fire than speak the words of this stranger, but he didn't have a choice.
"You're doing great!" Aang told him once, in passing, as Zuko hurried off the stage and Aang went to profess his single line with heart-felt sorrow.
Katara laughed. "Admit it, Zuko," she said. "It's funny."
"Some of it, I suppose."
Katara bit her lip but couldn't hold back her giggles. She was afraid it would make Zuko feel discouraged, but she couldn't help it. "I'm sorry; I just can't take you seriously in that mask!"
Zuko blinked. He raised a hand to his face, the mask with the skin as pasty white as the substance over his eye and the scar on the wrong side. And suddenly, like water bursting from a broken dam, he laughed.
Sensu helped his father load the last bag of seed on the cart.
"You ready?" Gansu asked his son, clapping dust from his hands.
Sensu cast a glance in the direction of the Tumultuous Traveling Theatre Troupe's wagons. "You mind if we stop and have a quick look?"
Gansu smiled. "I suppose it won't do any harm," he said. "We can take the cart out that way."
"Here comes your favorite part," Katara teased.
Zuko made a face. "We're leaving this Troupe the first chance we get," he told them as stepped back onto the stage.
"How will I ever get the Avatar to trust me?" he cried out for the crowd. His performance was as wooden as everyone else's. That the lines didn't have to sound heartfelt made them almost bearable.
The stage was set to depict the spa retreat Zuko and Iroh had escaped to after the disastrous siege on the North Pole. He paused, waiting for Tre Lin to pick up her cue.
For a long moment, nothing happened. The crowd began to murmur.
From his seat behind the 'curtain', Puon-Tim had a clear view of the entire stage. He narrowed his eyes and growled. The possum-chickens ruffled their feathers in anticipation.
Finally, the actress-Azula stepped out of the shadows onto the stage, swaying unsteadily. She was dressed in a similarly ridiculous costume, but it was rumpled and askew. Her thick make-up was sloppy and smeared. The murmurs increased. The actress slouched against a prop, turned to Zuko –and smiled.
He knew then. Even from across the poorly lit stage, he knew. Zuko felt his heart skip, then quicken.
A shiver passed through the crowd. Chills raced through them at the pure malice in her eyes. This actress was good.
Puon-Tim frowned. "Zuzu..." he muttered suspiciously, "That's not in the script..."
Zuko took an involuntary step back. "Azula," he breathed.
It was like the nightmare of a memory. That day, twelve years ago, it had been the first time Zuko had seen his sister in years. Just like now.
He stared at his sister uncomprehendingly. "What are you doing here?"
Was he going mad? Azula couldn't be here, onstage with him in the middle of the Earth Kingdom. Azula was sick. She was in the Fire Nation, locked up and guarded in the institution. How could she be here?
Azula stepped farther onto the stage. There was a small table with two tiny seashells to lend realistic ambiance to the scene and she scooped one of them up, running her fingers over its rigid surface.
"Looking for you, of course," she replied, snapping the shell between her fingernails. She smiled triumphantly. She remembered that part, shattering the fragile shell for terrifying emphasis. But that was only one moment in a whole lifetime. She had to remember it all; she had to get everything perfect. If she didn't, the ending wouldn't come out right. And she needed that ending.
"None of this is in the script!" Puon-Tim fumed quietly.
Azula's cold gaze glanced over Zuko. "You look ridiculous," she said.
The audience chuckled, startling Azula. She glared at them. Who were they? What were they doing here? She shook her head. This wasn't right...This wasn't the way it happened...
Or was it?
Zuko didn't move. He watched her carefully, watched the flicker of change in her eyes. He knew too well that his sister was capable of anything. There were innocent people here. He had to keep her distracted. "Why were you looking for me, Azula?" His voice was gentle, soothing, like a trainer coaxing a frightened tigerdillo.
The crowd buzzed. What drama!
Azula tore her eyes from the audience. Zuko...yes, her brother was the reason she was here. The crowd was quickly forgotten as she focused on him.
She smirked, tossing a strand of hair over one shoulder. "It's simply been too long since we last met," she simpered. "I had to see you, brother" –Azula folded her arms behind her back, smiling innocently– "so I could do this!"
Her expression twisted with ugly malice. Lightning sizzled on her fingertips. She swung at Zuko, lunging toward him.
The crowd gasped in amazement as dancing blue sparks lit the stage. Lightning streaked through the air, targeting the Fire Prince.
Zuko stepped back. He should have anticipated an attack. He should have been ready. But he froze. He simply stared as the lightning bolts licked toward him. It was too late to redirect, and no amount of water healing could help him now.
Someone slammed into Zuko, shoving him to the ground. The lightning hissed over his head and the crowd gasped again, louder this time, squealing with excitement.
"What she's doing?!" Puon-Tim cried, horrified. "None of this is in the script!"
No one bothered to listen to the infuriated playwright; they were too intent on the unfolding drama.
I made it! Katara thought in amazement as she and Zuko tumbled to the ground.
That was when the bolt hit her.
She heard Aang's scream –terrified, desperate. But it quickly faded into the background as darkness took her.
Azula screamed in rage. "I'll get you yet, brother!" The air crackled around her fingertips, sparking with the summoned lightning's raw energy.
For a moment, Zuko was too confused to think straight. He lay flat on his back on the stage floor, his head throbbing. Katara was sprawled across him. She didn't move. Zuko smelled burning flesh, saw the smoke rising from her body. He knew what had happened.
He heard the sharp crackle of lightning. She's going to strike again!
Zuko moved Katara as gently as he could, fighting to stand. He saw Aang out of the corner of his eye, charging onto the stage.
Azula's arms slowly pin wheeled, generating power. Zuko leapt forward. He clamped a hand around her fingers, trapping the lightning.
Azula fought madly to free herself, but he held on. Her hold on the lightning slipped. With no where else to go, the dangerous energy flooded into Zuko's body. The sudden surge of power was intense –exhilarating. Pure, raw energy raced through his very veins.
For a heartbeat, Zuko felt the boundless power contained within his core and he wanted to use it. How easy it would be, to tame the tempestuous monster to his own will, instead of hers –to turn it on her –
Memories flashed before his eyes: his father, unfurling coils of lightning at him; Azula, dancing toward him, her mad eyes reflecting the sparks. And his Uncle Iroh, warning him against the audacious effect of such power.
That wasn't the kind of power he wanted.
Zuko swallowed hard, shaking himself back to reality. The lightning sparked inside him. He struggled to contain it. His one hand clenched Azula's fingers and his other traced the movement of the lightning as he forced it down his arm. He bent his knees, willing the energy to sink into his stomach then pushed upward as it shot into his other arm.
Zuko pointed up at the sky. The air above the stage exploded with the pulsating lightning. The night lit bright as day in the blinding white of the crackling onslaught.
The audience stared at the dazzling light show, awed and terrified.
From his perch on their cart, Gansu muttered, "The play's rubbish, but at least the effects are good."
Sensu frowned. "A little too good."
Gansu raised an eyebrow.
Aang collapsed at his wife's side. "Katara!" he choked. He rolled her over, into his arms. Smoke rose from the blackened skin that ran from her left shoulder all the way up to her neck. The nauseating smell of charred flesh stung Aang's eyes. He fought back tears. The burning anger swelling in his chest brought with it the promise of immeasurable power in the Avatar's glow, but he fought that too.
"Wake up!" he begged. "Katara, wake up!"
She didn't move, but her heart was beating. He could feel it –faint, dogged and erratic– but beating.
Azula felt Zuko struggle under the immense power of the lightning. She punched his side and he released her in surprise. She moved to kick at him with an inflamed heel.
Zuko knocked her foot away with a defensive arm, throwing a fist of fire at her. Azula reared back, crossing her arms to block.
"Get her out of here!" Zuko shouted at Aang.
Aang wanted to glow. Anger, vengeance –hatred, even; they all coursed through his blood, urging him to act. But he held them back. He folded Katara gently into his arms and rushed off the stage.
The frightening display of lightning had blinded the crowd. Now they stared into the darkness around them, uncertain. A spurt of blue flame lit the stage for an instant, revealing in its light the battling siblings. Red fire retaliated, forcing Azula back.
Azula skimmed her foot across the rough stage. Sparks leapt from her sole and she kicked out viciously. She would not be beaten!
Zuko leapt away from the attack, flipping back to avoid it completely. He landed awkwardly, the ridiculous costume not intended for real combat.
The costume did not seem to hinder Azula. She raced at him, sparks spurting from her fingertips.
Zuko anticipated her charge and threw a shield of flame before him. Azula's electric assault faded harmlessly into the fiery curtain. She screamed in rage. She punched a flaming fist through the wall and seized Zuko's arm.
Zuko caught hold of her wrist in return, swinging her around. Azula's steps faltered. She struck at Zuko as he danced her across the stage. When he moved to deflect she flipped away, landed on spread feet, arms extended for attack, fingertips pointed at Zuko's heart. Her hair had come loose in the fight. It fell across her painted face, into her eyes, but nothing could hide her brother from her now.
Zuko broke through the heated attack, dispersing the blue flames with his red ones that together dissipated into the night. He stood patiently, ready to deflect.
Neither moved, waiting for the other to strike.
The audience –forgotten in their struggle– erupted into thundering applause.
Azula blinked. He saw her falter. He didn't dare to breathe. Would she turn her wrath on the onlookers?
A soft breeze gently rippled the hair across her cheek. "Beautiful performance, brother."
Zuko wasn't sure if anyone else could hear the words, but they sent ice through his veins.
With one last smile, Azula turned and fled into the night.
"Those imbeciles!" Puon-Tim howled as the applause broke free. "Not a single bit of that was so much as mentioned in the script!"
The tall, broad-shouldered actor-Toph rolled his eyes. No one could see it for the wig, so he bellowed tersely, "Stick a sock in it. They loved it."
The possum chickens snickered evilly.
"What I want to know," the actress-Aang said, "Is how Tre Lin managed those stunts!"
"I didn't!" The shrill words startled the actors. They turned to see Tre Lin, disheveled in torn and dirty clothes, red-faced and infuriated. "That...that woman assaulted me! She stole my costume and locked me in my trailer!"
"What?!" Puon-Tim exploded. "Another crazed critic of the thespian arts?"
The actor-Toph cracked his knuckles meaningfully. "Which way did she go?"
Puon-Tim seized hold of the actor's shirt, pulling the big man down to his eye level. "Out of the question!" he cried. "You're on in another minute."
Puon-Tim's face flushed an unnatural purple. "Not buts about it! Forget that denigrator! You're on!"
Zuko raced off stage before the panicked stagehand could shout "Curtain!"
The audience pretended not to notice the set changing through the imaginary curtain. They were abuzz with talk of the intense scene. What commentary had Puon-Tim meant to convey by it? Why had Katara suddenly appeared to help Prince Zuko, when she was supposed to be far away with the Avatar? And who was the young man who had come to her aid? And hadn't the actress playing Katara been a different woman only moments before? And wasn't it amazing that the acting could suddenly switch from so horrible to so intense?
Gansu noticed his son's dark expression as they watched from the road. "What is it?"
"Something's wrong." Sensu grabbed the reigns from his father, spurring the ostrich horse into a quick stride.
Various actors and actresses applauded as Zuko bounded down from the stage. They had no idea anything was wrong.
"That's the way to get under Puon-Tim's skin!"
Zuko ignored them, searching frantically for Aang. There he was, by the prop wagon. He cradled the motionless Katara in his arms. Even in the dim moonlight Zuko could see his tears.
Cold, pure terror seized his heart. No! She couldn't be dead! He refused to believe it, that she had died saving him. He wouldn't allow it!
Zuko raced toward his friends, pulling off the stupid mask. He stood over Aang. "Is she..." He choked on the words.
Aang took a shuddering breath. "Not yet," he whispered.
Zuko knelt down to examine the wound.
"Her heart is weak," Aang breathed. "Jolted by the lightning. I..." His voice broke and he shook his head violently.
"Can you heal her?" Zuko asked desperately. It was a stupid question, he realized.
"No!" snapped Aang. "I can't heal!" His grip on his wife tightened. "This wasn't supposed to happen," he shouted. "I didn't want her here!" He looked at Zuko, his eyes desperate and pleading. "Why did she have to be here? Why did you want her here?"
Zuko stared at the black, horrendous wound. He knew that if it wasn't for Katara that bolt of lightning would have struck his heart. "I didn't."
Aang stared at him.
"I didn't want either of you here!" Zuko cried, pain and confusion swelling his voice to a shout. "I wanted to track down the Guild alone, so no one else would be endangered."
The actor formerly known as Prince Zuko made the mistake of interrupting. "They've been calling your cue for three minutes!" he said impatiently. "You're on!"
Zuko didn't even look at him, eyes fixed on the wound that should have killed him. "You do it," he snapped.
The actor blinked, taking a step back in surprise. "What?"
Zuko leapt to his feet, whirling on him. "You're an actor, right?" he demanded. "You know the lines?"
The actor nodded fervently, eyes wide in fear.
Zuko shoved the mask into his hands. "Then go act!"
The actor once again known as Prince Zuko raced off to fulfill his part, feeling more terrified than victorious.
Zuko turned back at the sound of creaking wheels. An ostrich horse-driven cart appeared behind the wagon.
Sensu struggled down, hobbling forward on his crutches. His father was confused, but there was no time to explain. "What happened?"
Aang stared up at him uncomprehendingly.
"She's been injured," Zuko said softly.
Sensu turned to Zuko as he seemed the only one capable of coherent thoughts. "I figured as much," he said. "As soon as Selia..." He shook his head. "I saw that fight. None of these actors are that good." He bent down awkwardly to take a closer look at Katara's wound. His face fell.
Aang took a shuddering breath. "She needs a waterbending healer," he said. "Do you know where we can find one?"
Sensu shook his head. "There aren't any around here."
Aang's heart fell. The chances of Katara recovering from a lightning blast this severe were slim. If they couldn't find a healer...he'd lose her.
"Fly back to Ba Sing Se."
Aang looked up at Zuko. "What?"
The Firelord's eyes were dark. "We know there are a few waterbenders there. One of them has to be a healer," he said. "You can get there the fastest, and if you bring Appa back with you, it could only take you a few days. I'll stay here with her."
"But what if the Troupe moves?" Aang asks.
"I'll stay here," Zuko said. "I'll find someplace to keep her safe."
Sensu struggled to his feet. "No."
The two turned to Sensu in surprise.
"Come to our farm," Sensu said. "It's not far, and it's isolated. There's less of a chance the woman who attacked you could track you there."
Zuko doubted it. He shook his head. "I can't..."
"She already got to you here," Sensu snapped.
"Son..." Gansu interjected.
Sensu ignored his father. "This city isn't safe!"
Aang came to a decision. "Do it," he said. "She'll be safer there."
Zuko nodded reluctantly.
Aang lifted Katara in his arms and laid her gently atop the bags of seed in the back of the cart. He stroked her face and kissed her softly before pulling away. He ducked back into the prop wagon, appearing again with his glider, Momo skittering out behind him.
Aang opened the glider, wings snapping out behind him. "I'll be back soon," he told Zuko. His eyes, tinged with a white glow, bored into Zuko's golden brown ones. "Take care of her."
Zuko did not balk from his gaze. "I will."
Momo spread his wings, but Aang shook his head. "Not this time, buddy," he said. "You watch over her, too."
Without another word, Aang took a running start and leapt into the sky, gliding off into the night.
Momo chittered sadly as he watched him go. He raced up Zuko to perch on his shoulder.
Gansu stared with wide eyes as the Avatar disappeared over the horizon. But if Sensu was surprised, he didn't show it. He struggled up into the wagon beside Katara.
Momo chirped in alarm and flew at him. He landed on Sensu's head, knocking on his brow angrily with a tiny fist.
"It's okay, little fella," Sensu soothed. "I'm just going to take a look at her."
Zuko scanned the night, turning slowly so nothing escaped his attention. There was no sign of Azula.
Why did she run? Why didn't she finish the fight?
How had she even found him?
More importantly, how did she get out?
Zuko retrieved the little they had stored in the wagon and shed as much of the costume as he could. He climbed into the cart beside his wounded friend. It was tight, but the three of them managed to fit. He wasn't leaving Katara's side unless he had to.
"Let's go," Sensu told his father.
Gansu nodded tensely. Entangling yourself in other peoples' affairs was dangerous business. But he flicked the reigns and guided the ostrich horse onto the path.
Zuko's eyes never rested. He scanned the streets and buildings for any sign of danger. But he saw no one. The entire village, it seemed, was captivated by the play. As the cart pulled out of the village and into the dark loneliness of the open road, Zuko wondered if this was cause to relax or worry.
One person did see them leave.
Crouched down low, perched on a roof's narrow point, Azula watched, a predator stalking her prey.
A breeze rustled her long dark hair. She let it brush over her lips, into her eyes –she didn't care. She giggled, eyes blazing.
"You can run, Zuzu," she sang softly; "But I'll catch you."
Azula's lips twisted as another mad giggle convulsed through her body.
- Ooh, the plot thickens!
- I really like the moment between Suki and Mai. These were the two of the most difficult characters for me to write, but I think they interact well together.
- Ah, the end of the Theatre Troupe! Fare thee well, my fair (er, semi-fair? Okay, totally hopeless) thespian artists!
- The actor once more known as Prince Zuko... Okay, okay, I feel I should explain the Prince jokes. See, Prince is a singer, very popular in the 80's. At some point, he officially changed his stage name from Prince to...well, to a symbol. Yeah, just a symbol. Black on a purple background, as I recall. You can't exactly refer to a symbol like this by name, and so the D.J.s of the time had to refer to him as 'the artist formerly known as Prince.' Eventually, Prince went back to being known as Prince -or as the D.J.s said, 'the artist once again known as Prince'. Apparently, checks could not be made out to the artist formerly known as Prince or his new symbol.
- I know, I know. You're sitting there wondering just how a child of the 90's who never heard an 80's song until she was eighteen could possibly know this wonderful bit of trivia. The answer is simple. She likes to hear random factoids and she watches too much Psych.
- Oh. Oh, yeah! And the reappearance of Azula. Crazy Azula. I had so much fun with all her giggling. Apparently I like to write crazy people. I think I'll take a moment and do some soul-searching to make sure I'm not about to go off the deep end. Adios!
For the collective works of the author, go here.