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As Je and the city guards work to free the prisoners from a flooding chamber, Zuko, Ron and Kage take on Ban. Meanwhile, Kensei heads off for a fiery confrontation.
"We have to get these people out of here!" shouted Je to the city guards as the water began to fill the chamber.
His men were a bit dazed after having tumbled into the chamber and the ensuing chase through the City's Lower Wall and across the plains, but they had picked themselves up quickly enough and sprung into action loosing the chains on the captives even as the water swarmed up around their heels.
"Je," came a nearby voice, "Over here!"
Je stopped and stared. The whole thing a bit much for Je to take in himself-from chasing down the Blue Spirit to the sudden appearance of the Earthbender who had taken them here-wherever here was-but the most dumbfounding thing of all was the sight of Kensei chained up alongside the rest of the prisoners when Je had been almost certain his old friend had in fact been the one masquerading as the Blue Spirit!
"You going to help me here or not!" Kensei called out.
Je rushed over to free his friend. "How did you get down here?" he said.
'I'll tell you later," said Ken after Je had removed the chains, "Right now I have to find Mae!"
"What's Mae doing down here?"
Ken shook his head. "No time to explain," he said, "you have to get all of these people-"
Bone spikes shot past his face before he could finish. Ken and Je looked over in time to see Ban rushing towards them from the darkness.
"We'll help the prisoners," said Je, glancing over to where Kage was already building up a sort of makeshift ramp to the surface out of the flooding chamber while the prisoners and guards clamored towards the exit.
Ken nodded and turned to face the armored Earthbender. Just as Ron leapt towards him with a fist armored in solid stone, sending him soaring into an iron support beam, fracturing part of his exoskeleton.
Not to be outdone, Ban was up again in a moment and sent another barrage of bone spikes into their midst just as a masked Zuko charged at him with drawn swords. Ban managed to parry the blows with his gauntlets and retaliated with his own assault, forming a pair of bone-mauls, beating Zuko back towards the rising water. Just then, the steel plating of the machine began to rupture, spitting out new streams of water into the open space towards the exiting prisoners.
Kensei realized with a shock that if the water kept up at this rate, none of them would get out in time.
"Ron," said Kensei, over the din of the floodwater.
The Earthbender reacted instantly, calling up great slabs of earth and debris to plug the holes and slow the flooding, allowing Kage, Je's guards and the prisoners the time they needed to flee just as a support beam collapsed nearby on a large blocky piece of machinery, crushing it beneath fallen earth.
"Kensei," said Zuko, tossing him his swords and the mask, "You have to find Mae before this whole place caves in."
Kensei caught them, but even as he did so, he could see the Bonebender getting his second wind. "Look out!"
Zuko turned like a flash of lightning and sent out a concussive wave of blue fire from his palms. Ban was thrown back several feet by the explosion, his armor singed black, but he kept coming, a wicked grin stealing across his visible face. "Go," said Zuko, "We'll be fine here!"
Kensei nodded and took off running into the darkness into which Mae had fled.
Flames of Memory
The rush of water began to die down behind him somewhat as Kensei made his way into the darkness, picking his way through broken machinery and columns of rock. In some places, though, the water was calf-deep and flowed around him in little rivulets and streams.
"Mae!" he called out, "Mae, it's Ken! I know you can hear me!"
In answer, a swathe of flame cut through the gloom, momentarily revealing a pair of frightened amber eyes in the dark.
Kensei shielded himself behind some rocks. "You don't have to do this, Mae," he said, peering out of his cover. "No-one's been hurt. If you come with me, I promise no-one will hurt you either-not Je or the Dai Li or anybody!"
Mae let out a snarl and another barrage of heat singed the hairs of Kensei's neck. "Nobody's been hurt?" said Mae, "Why don't you come out from behind that rock and say that? Do you have any idea what my life was like? Every day when I stepped outside the house, I was afraid. I was afraid that if I lost control of my emotions, the Dai Li would come and take me away from father. I was afraid of what would happen to my father's reputation if people found out that my mother was Fire Nation. Do you have any idea of what it was like living with that kind of burden-knowing that deep down inside I was no different from the monsters that my father and everyone else tried to protect their city from?"
Kensei took a deep breath and stood up to face the girl. Patches of fire burned all around from Mae's attack. Tears streamed her face and fires burned in her eyes, while her hair and clothing were in general disarray. "You're not a monster, Mae," he said, taking a step forward, "The monsters are the people who killed my father during the War. You're not one of them, but punishing those people back there isn't going undo what's everything that we've lost-and it's not going to change the fact that you're a Firebender."
Ken took another step, then another. Mae cringed from him at first, bringing up her fists as though readying another attack. Ken hesitated, then embraced her, bringing his arms around her shivering form. Like an exhausted child, she dropped her arms and he felt her head and hair against his shoulder.
"My father wasn't killed by Firebenders," Mae said.
There was a rumbling behind them.
"He was so happy, he said that it reminded him of mother, and he wanted me to learn how to Firebend-how to be just like her. He said that he had a friend in the city nearby who he said could teach me. But before then I had always wondered why my mother had left me-she must have thought that she had made a terrible mistake-bringing me into the world."
Mae pounded her fist into Kensei's ribs, but he said nothing.
"She was right!" Mae choked out, "I was so angry at her-so angry at all the things that the Fire Nation had done to our people, that I just lost control of myself. I hated myself for losing control, I hated my mother for leaving me and I hated my father because he still loved her for all that time! I hated everything so much I just wanted it all to burn!"
"We can't stay here, Mae," said Kensei quietly, "We have to leave."
But when he released her, Mae stayed where she was. The rumblings grew louder behind them. "Mae, come on!" said Kensei. He went to grab her, but she took a step back with a wave of her fist, created a wall of flame between them.
Kensei shielded his eyes. "Mae!" he cried out.
Mae gave him one last look before she turned on her heel and ran full tilt into the darkness.
"Kensei! Grab on!"
The Blue Spirit turned around in time to see Zuko and Ron sliding towards him on a slab of rock. Behind them, a wall of water was crashing at their heels.
Kensei was afraid he was going to miss, but he caught hold of the Firelord's hand just as they were about to pass him by and Zuko yanked him aboard.
"What happened to Mae?" Zuko yelled over the crashing water at their heels.
"She got away! What about Ban?"
Zuko gave a wry grin and glanced behind him. "Let's just say he's all washed up. He won't be bothering us again."
Ron shouted something in a high-pitched, though severely muffled voice.
"What'd he say?" said Kensei.
"Brace yourself!" said the Fire Lord, crouching down.
Kensei did the same just as the rock-board swooped upward into a naturally-formed side passage branching off from the cavern formed by the interior of the buried siege drill. They ducked into the narrow space just in time to avoid the wall of water that went shooting by below them.
Excess surf sent them scattering to opposite walls of the little passage. For a long time, everyone lay there soaking and sore from the ordeal.
"You sure Ban got away?" said Kensei after a time, "I think that every bone in my body is broken."
Zuko stared off to the end of the upwards-climbing passageway. "We've got a problem." He said.
"What do you mean?" said Kensei, then he saw the dead end.
"What I wouldn't give to have Katara with us right now," said Zuko with a groan, "I doubt well be able to swim that kind of current-or even hold our breath long enough to get back to the way we came through."
Kensei crawled over to where the diminutive Ron lay on a patch of glowing crystal. The Earthbender's puffy garments and whiskers were soaked, Ron's chest rose and fell in a healthy cycle. He was about to put a hand to wake Ron, but the Firelord stopped him.
"I wouldn't do that," said Zuko, "Ron hates being disturbed during his beauty sleep."
Passing the Torch
"So you were the original Blue Spirit?" Kensei stared at in disbelief Zuko, then down at the mask.
The two stood side by side on the shores of Lake Laogai, Kensei glancing with newfound surprise at the blue lacquered mask he had pulled from its waters while Zuko scanned the sky overhead. Several days had passed since the incident at the Fire Nation's buried war machine, and the Dai Li had had to employ the Terra Team to re-bury the thing and fill in any newly-made caverns that could have undermined the integrity of the Great Wall, although none were able to locate the body of Ban the Bonebender. Kage and Kensei had been cleared of all charges after they had gone over everything with Lord Huei himself.
Zuko nodded. "It's funny," he said, "The first time I put on that mask-it was a very dark time in my life-a time when I had lost all confidence and pride in myself-and it was only after I threw the mask away, at this very spot, that I was able to find that sense of honor again."
Ken glanced at him. "What's so funny about that?"
"When I first met you, you were just a thieving street kid-a nobody," said Zuko. "But now-I mean, you're the Blue Spirit, for crying out loud!"
Ken felt his face flush, but he fought down his smile. "Well, it was fun while it lasted," he said, handing the mask back to the Fire Lord, "What was that you said-that I was playing hero?"
Zuko pushed it back at him. "Oh, no," he said, "I've got enough problems playing Fire Lord now."
Kensei was about to object when Zuko cut him off.
"I'm serious," he said, "I didn't realize it back then, but I think Ba Sing Se needs the Blue Spirit now more than ever. Street thief or not, if you hadn't got a hold of the box, I don't know what would have happened-this whole thing might have gotten much worse than it did. The bottom line is you kept a lot of people from getting hurt. Plus, for someone with no Bending, it took guts to go up against a powerful Firebender-even an untrained one. "
Kensei glanced up at him. "You knew about Mae?"
Zuko nodded. "About fourteen years ago-when the War was still going on, a woman came to stay with Tsen Ron Gal. She was Fire Nation, although he kept it a secret except form his closest friends and correspondents. She stayed with him for about a year-before giving birth to a daughter-Mae. She stayed long enough to nurse the girl, and then she moved on-no-one knows where she went. That was what my Uncle told me, from the letters he got and the conversations he had with Tsen while they and some other people set up their protective network to help people like her."
"A lot of good that did her," said Kensei, frowning, "A lot of good I did. I kind of failed to catch her, remember?"
Zuko put a hand on his shoulder. "But you didn't fail her." He said, "If Mae had really wanted to kill those people, she wouldn't have bothered taking all of that time and planning for it. I think you helped make up her mind." He broke off for a moment. "I failed someone once," he said, "Although I didn't realize it until years later. I failed someone very close to me because I wasn't patient enough, wise enough and I didn't care enough to see that they needed my help and support. Because I didn't care enough, I watched them make one bad choice after another and before I knew it-it was too late to do anything about it."
"So what are you saying?"
"What I'm saying is," said Zuko, "Is that it's not to late for Mae-as long as you know it and she knows it."
The two of them were silent after that and spent a long time just staring into the sky reflected on the mostly-still lake without a soul to be seen.
"There's my ride," Zuko said, pointing to a six-limbed dot approaching from behind a wisp of a cloud. As the Sky Bison grew closer, Kensei could see a man in golden robes and a woman in blue about Zuko's age riding in a saddle up top.
"Any last-minute advice?" said Kensei as Appa touched down on the water.
Zuko glanced at the mask in Ken's hands and grinned. "Yeah," he said, "Try not to get caught."
"Dear Kensei," the letter began.
"If you're reading this letter, then chances are I'm no longer in Ba Sing Se, so don't bother looking for me. You won't find me. I thought a lot about what you said. You were right. I'm glad you were able to stop me from becoming a real monster. If things had been different, maybe we might have gotten to know each other better. Right now there are just too many memories for me to handle in the city and so I've decided to do some traveling-see if I can find a teacher-it's what my father would have wanted. Who knows- maybe I'll catch you sneaking around again someday? Mae. P.S. take care of my house for me while I'm gone. I'll leave the key and all of the other things with Iroh."
"If you read that letter one more time, you're going to burn a hole through it with your third eye," Shadow complained.
The Blue Spirit carefully rolled the letter back up and put it back in his tunic. The letter had arrived by messenger-hawk at the Jasmine Dragon a few days ago and he had read it to himself over a dozen times.
Down below the two masked vigilantes, the squat form of Ibaru followed by Yao and Knife advanced towards an old merchant desperately shielding his cartload of cabbages.
"Let's move," said the azure phantom, drawing his twin swords, "No one messes around with helpless merchants in my town!"
Shadow grinned behind the black cloth covering her face and together they leapt into action.
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