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April 30, 2013
Previously in Air
Zuko's mother is alive! Aang was victorious! Toph is going to live! Azula escaped!
Chapter Sixty-Seven: Small Victories
A sound like thunder resounded through the Spirit World. Light stabbed through the encasing walls of Chaos. The darkness twisted and convulsed, roiling within the light as it fought against it.
"You fool!" Koh shrieked. "I cannot lose. I refuse!"
"Oaths have a balance too, Koh," Aang shouted, his voice joining another clash of thunder as it shook the shadows. "Go back on your word, and you give me the power to destroy you."
Seething, Koh reared up. Towering over Aang with burning eyes, the spirit bared his teeth. "Not if I destroy you first."
The Spirit World shook. Its foundations shifted, throwing Koh to the ground. The curtains of shadow cracked and a beam of light shot through, illuminating Aang.
Rising to his feet, arrow tattoos and eyes gleaming in the radiance, Aang stood over the Face Stealer. He placed his hand on the spirit's head. Koh shuddered at the touch. He wriggled and writhed, but could not escape. With only the palm of his hand, the Avatar held him there.
Koh's face convulsed, flicking from one stolen face to the next in a blur of speed, each one vanishing just as they appeared. Aang probed into spirit's mind, every corner and dark crevice, searching the creature's entire being until he had drawn out and freed every last ill-gotten face.
As the last one disappeared, Koh jerked back. He twitched, trying in vain to find one more face, but the only one left him his own. Screaming in rage, he clawed at it. His hundreds of legs quivered, filling the quiet air with violent clicking.
The released faces glowed blue in the darkness. They hung in their air around them, taunting the spirit. Shrieking, Koh lunged for one. But as his insectan leg touched its ethereal essence, the face swept away.
Another thunder clap sliced the curtains of shadow. Hundreds of faces danced around the blackened tree. Caught in a windless tornado, they spiraled upward. Aang, Haku, even Koh watched in awe as the faces swirled faster. Some began to fade, winking out of existence. Others shot out from the tornado, zipping through the air and disappearing into other parts of the Spirit World.
Those that remained descended upon Aang.
"Haku?" Aang cried out, as an uncertain panic settled on him. He looked about, but his past incarnation had vanished. Everything had vanished. Everything but the whirlwind of faces, now encircling him. He watched them all, dozens of grinning features looking out at him thankfully, some with tears in their eyes. Perhaps it was his imagination, but as they whipped about him, their motion seemed to whisper. "Thank you, Avatar."
Enchanted, Aang reached out to put his hand into the sheen that surrounded him.
The ground wrenched beneath him. Knocked off balance, Aang was able to catch himself. When he looked up again, brilliant light had replaced the dismal backdrop beyond the cyclone of faces.
"You have done well, Aang." This time it was Yue's voice. "By freeing them, you have leveled out part of the Balance. The darkness has retreated, but soon it will be back. Now you must return to the mortal world and face the Chaos there."
The faces sprang at him. Beyond them, the brilliant light surged forward, plowing into him, seeping inside. The light flashed through his mind and Aang's head wrenched back, eyes widening as a familiar glow returned.
As the light and the faces slammed into him, an unshaken clarity came upon Aang. The jumbled memories and emotions bouncing through his head settled into place. Yangchen, mourning the loss of a murdered best friend, after she had tried so hard to rescue her. The desperation of Kuruk, searching in vain, relentless, for a way to free his wife. Kyoshi's fury and frustration with the safety of her people threatened by tyrants. These memories resounded in his mind and faded once more as a heavy burden slipped from his shoulders.
Relieved of the weight, he floated upwards. The faces swirled about him, carrying him higher. Wind rushed past his face, tugging at his clothes. The brilliant light around him began to fade, not into darkness, but into the warm glow of sunlight.
Min sat with her back to the anchor, though she was not enjoying the ocean view from the cliff opening. Her eyes closed, she concentrated on steady breaths. She had no time for sleep, but her body demanded some measure of rest.
The voices of her long dead mentors, Li and Lo, came back to her. "You must always be refreshed–"
"–prepared to confront any event, at any moment."
"In this manner," they would finish together, "Shall you always serve the Firelord to the best of your ability."
Because that was her purpose. Her service had, and always would, belong to the Ozai. Li and Lo had always told her that. How, in his great benevolence, the former Firelord had lifted her from the clutches of poverty to see her educated and cared for. She alone –out of everyone in the Fire Nation– had been selected for this task. It was a dangerous task, perhaps a deadly one. The arts which she had devoted her life to had been forgotten for a reason.
A spray of sea salt hit her lungs. She coughed hard, losing her breath.
These arts, she knew, were no mere study, even a lifestyle. They were chains, binding her. Granting her immeasurable, irrefutable power, but binding her nonetheless. Entwined in her lifeforce. Draining it and empowering it at the same time.
A thin smile caught her lips. No wonder the Phoenix King himself had decided to refrain from learning it. He could not afford the weakness. She may have given up some things –health, beauty, strength– but she had gained so much more.
Someone gasped. A strangled cry filled the cave. Min's eyes snapped open. She whirled around. Impossible!
The Faceless –her anchor– had revived. He sat upright, gaze dancing madly about. His panicked eyes met hers and a chill swept through Min's veins. A face! How could that be? But the chill only spread, freezing her blood, because there could only be one answer to that question.
The Avatar had intervened. And if he wasn't here, he was coming.
Gritting her teeth, Min stalked forward. The anchor balked with another strangled cry. He twisted and writhed, but the ropes holding him down only tightened. Realizing this, tears began to spill. His mouth opened again, with useless pleas at first, and then with earsplitting screams.
Under her breath, Min chanted. The atmosphere in the cave rippled and darkened, as if a storm cloud had loosed its rage within. Her mutterings grew to full-bodied cries, laced with fury and determination. Unintelligible words flooded from her mouth. Body shaking as she shuddered and convulsed from the power unleashed, Min sprang at the man. He screamed again, but she did not touch him. Instead, she grasped at the ropes that bound him. She twisted and tugged at them, as if following an unseen pattern.
The man shivered, not knowing what this woman was doing, but knowing he wanted no part of it. He jerked away. But his body refused to move. Terror clawing up his throat, he tried once more to scream. No sound came. It rose to his mouth and refused to be released, bouncing through him, resonating helplessness.
With a final shout, Min yanked on one of the ropes. Strength flooded out from the anchor's body. Eyes rolling back into his head, he slumped into unconsciousness.
Gasping for air, Min collapsed on the cold ground beside her victim.
"You will not escape me so easily," she whispered. "Your companion had not the strength to survive the binding. I will not lose you to such a pesky thing as realization."
Swaying, Min dipped her head. Black bit at the edge of her vision. She squeezed her eyes shut, forcing herself to remain conscious. Word must be sent to Ozai. He must be warned of the Avatar's involvement. Silently, she cursed the Avatar. Their schedule was thrown. Double the time would be needed now for her to recover enough strength to complete the passage.
Curse him! He only slowed the inevitable. If it was not she to bring about this end, it would be another. Perhaps years, even centuries from now, but it would come.
Koh would wait.
The world was slow to settle back into focus for Aang. Overpowered by the return of his mind, Aang merely stood, catching his breath.
A gasp floated up beside him. Another followed. In a moment, the air was filled with chatter. Cries of joy, sobs of sorrow and loss, loud confusion.
"Welcome back, Aang."
Aang blinked. He pulled his gaze from the comforting sunlight, glancing toward the voice. "Oh. Hey, Zuko." Blinking again, he took in the scene around them. The building was old and large, covered with dust and dozens of people. He wriggled his toes, realizing there was something soft underneath. It was a cot, and he stood square on top of it.
With a grin, he looked back at Zuko. "It's good to be back."
Zuko's own smile was warm. "You're just in time. We could use the Avatar right about now."
A frown tugged at Aang's mouth. He glanced down at his hand, noticing the receding glow of his tattoos. His grin returned, double in size. "That's me."
For the first time, he noticed that Zuko was not alone. Ursa and Roh-Roh stood close by, but next to Zuko, still half-enfolded in his embrace, was a woman. Aang recognized that face at once.
"You were the first," he said, stepping down from the cot.
The woman, eyes wide in awe, glanced once at the other newly restored Faceless around her. "You freed us?"
To his surprise, the woman swept him into a hug before he could speak.
"Thank you, Avatar," she whispered. "Thank you so much."
Feeling awkward, Aang patted her back. "You're, uh, welcome. I'm just glad I could help."
Over the woman's shoulder, Aang noticed Zuko chuckle and shake his head.
"Aang, I'd like to introduce you. This is my mother, Ursa. Mom, this is the Avatar, and a very dear friend of mine."
The warm embrace didn't feel quite so awkward anymore.
"It is an honor to meet you, Avatar Aang," Lady Ursa said, taking a step back.
Aang swept a bow before her. "It is I who am honored to meet you."
As her eyes slit open and Toph realized that the insane agony that had ravaged her body remained no more, she wanted to say something cheeky. Just to let everyone know she was okay. But when she opened her mouth, she realized she might not be one-hundred percent yet.
The only response was a soft snore.
Toph frowned. "Grrrolllumonuurrr!"
Dozing nearby, Katara bolted upright. "What?"
Words wouldn't come to Toph yet, but her snicker was heard just fine.
Blinking blearily, Katara looked down at her. She smiled, scooting closer as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. "Finally up, huh?"
"How are you feeling?"
This time, Toph took stock of herself before replying. Most of her limbs ached, especially her right knee. A dull pain throbbed in her side, but it was nothing compared to the torture she'd experienced before. She ran her tongue over her teeth, wriggling it around to loosen it up. "A little chilly," she answered, her voice still garbled and rough, but discernable.
Picking up a nearby blanket, Katara draped it over her. It nestled over Toph with added warmth, but it couldn't help penetrate the cold that came from deep within.
"Do you remember what happened on the beach?" Katara asked.
Toph shuddered at the memory, but she wrapped the blanket tighter about her, pretending it was only the cold. Under its folds, she mumbled, "Yeah." A pause. "What did that freak show do to me, Katara?"
The waterbender frowned, a dark shadow clouding her features. "I'm not sure. Somehow, she disrupted your energy. You're chi paths were blocked, but they were also tainted with...something. I managed to clear it all out. You should be right as rain in a day or two."
Burying herself deeper in the blanket to suppress another shiver, Toph nodded. Her heart gave a lurch as she asked, "Were the others okay?"
"They're fine. Looks like you were the only one who was injured."
A wave of relief swept over her, but she ignored it, turning to other matters. "So while you're being the good friend and watching over my recovery, where's everybody else?" Toph suddenly frowned. She squinted up at Katara in confusion. "Hey, when did you even show up?"
"It's a long story."
Toph snorted. "It's not like I'm going anywhere."
A frown tugged at the corners of Katara's mouth. To distract herself, she tucked the blankets in around Toph. Feeling the impulse of a smart remark, Toph clamped her lips shut and waited.
"Aang and I went looking for something," Katara finally said. "He thought he might find it in the Spirit World, so he went there. But he hasn't come back. I think he might be stuck there. We read about this place, because it has a close connection to the Spirit World, so I came here, hoping he would show up. That's when I found out you were all here."
"So... Aang went into the Spirit World and just didn't come back? I didn't think the Avatar could get stuck there. Isn't he part spirit himself?"
"I think he stayed for a reason," Katara said. She had already betrayed Aang's secret to Zuko and Mai; she didn't want to blab it to everyone. "What Zuko found on the island, it's definitely connected to the Spirit World."
Toph listened as her friend explained about the farm with its spectre-like inhabitants and Caretaker. Chills raced up and down her spine, and she couldn't decide whether it resulted from her injuries or the tale itself.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Aang found out about them," Katara concluded. "He's probably trying to find a way to fix it."
"Do I even want to know what could have done something like that?"
Katara thought about what little Aang had told her of the Face Stealer. "Probably not."
With a grunt, Toph settled back into her blankets. Fatigue settled in with the ache of her limbs. The small exertion of waking and talking had nearly exhausted her. "When do you think I'll–"
A brilliant flash of light filled the room. Katara started upright, whipping toward the window. From the barn, the same radiance spilled from every opening.
"What was that?" Toph cried.
Heart pounding, Katara went to the window. She peered out for a better look, but the light had already petered. Only the afternoon sun remained. "I'm not sure," she said, but inside she cried out in joy. It's Aang! It's Aang and you know it.
"Should we go check it out? Is anybody in danger?"
"You're not going anywhere," Katara ordered, turning to glare at her patient. "I don't think..." Her voice trailed off, her wide eyes fixing on a point beyond Toph.
"You don't think what?" Toph prodded. The waterbender did not answer. With a grunt of frustration, Toph twisted around to see what had captivated her attention.
A woman stood in the hallway behind them. What was so significant about that?
"Hello," the woman said.
"Hello," Katara replied uncertainly, running her eyes over the unfamiliar figure. Her hair was silver with years, but her body was straight and strong, not stooped with age. She had kind eyes, and smiled at them.
Tears moistened the woman's eyes. "You came to help, didn't you? After all these years..."
Katara frowned in confusion. "I'm sorry," she said, "But who are you?"
The woman's smile widened. "My name is–"
The front door slammed open. Katara whipped around. Standing in the doorway, trembling, was Kaori. "Teya," he whispered.
They rushed into one another's arms, embracing like long-lost lovers. For the first time, Katara caught sight of the portrait hanging on the wall and she realized that was exactly what they were.
Kaori held his wife tight, stroking her hair, kissing her brow. Whispering her name. "You came back to me. All the others came back, and I knew–" His words choked as tears streamed from his eyes.
Placing a gentle hand on his cheek, Teya smiled up at him. "I told you it would happen, someday."
Burying his face in her shoulder, Kaori shook his head. His voice bitter, he rasped. "I gave up hope."
"Hope is the one thing we must never surrender," Teya said, holding onto him.
Katara ran toward the barn. All the others came back, Kaori had said. It must have been Aang's doing. It had to be. And if he had freed the Faceless, what else was there to keep him from returning?
She burst into the barn. Dozens of people looked about with childlike awe and wonder. Her heart leapt at the beautiful sight. But she could not see the one person she was looking for.
In desperation, she called out. "Aang!" She wound her way between the newly revived Faceless, calling again, "Aang!"
She whirled round toward the familiar voice, tears stinging at her eyes.
"Katara, over here!"
The shout drew her gaze upward and there he was. Perched atop one of the cots, his head high above the crowd, Aang waved down at her.
Katara tried to push her way through the crowd, but there were too many people, all confused and disoriented. Instead, she scrambled onto the nearest cot and, like Aang, she bounded across the mattresses. In the middle of the barn, they collided into an embrace. Aang held her tight, kissing her. With his strong, familiar arms wrapped around her, Katara's racing heart began to settle. The worry and desperation knotted in her gut loosened and untangled.
"Sorry I'm late," Aang said with a sheepish grin.
A laugh straddling the back of a sob escaped Katara. She rested her head against his chest. "You're back. That's all that matters."
Sokka was on his way to the barn when he met Corporal Wei coming from the opposite direction.
"Any idea what that commotion was?" Sokka asked, as they both turned for the barn doors at a quick pace.
"None, sir. I was already on my way to report a breach in the perimeter."
"A breach?" Sokka's feet marched faster. "Do you think that could have been lightning then?"
"I don't know, sir," the Corporal replied with a frown. "I doubt it. Azula had already fled across the wall before it happened, and I don't think she was with anyone."
Sokka faltered mid-step. "Azula? You've got to be kidding me!"
"No, sir," protested the Corporal. "She was spotted by our patrol. We had her trapped and cornered, but she used firebending on herself to get free."
"This day just gets better and better," Sokka growled.
Just then, he looked up and found at least one piece of good news. The Faceless had become the Faceful. The Faced? The No Longer Faceless? Gone were the spooky spectres; in their place remained only a mass of confused and disoriented bodies.
Gazing about, Wei's eyes widened with wonder. "How did this happen?"
Sokka shrugged. "Who knows? But I bet you anything Aang had something to do with it. Look, there's Zuko."
The two men attempted to sidle their way through the crowd, but the disoriented Faced either didn't notice them or didn't care. After so many unsuccessful 'excuse me' and 'coming through', frustration got the better of them and they began to push their way past.
Sokka finally caught sight of Zuko again across the barn. He had his arm around the shoulders of a woman who was most definitely not Mai, which was weird, but not as weird as the suspicion that the woman looked kind of familiar. Racking his brain, he knew he'd never met her before –her soft, warm eyes reminded him of his mother, and he definitely would have remembered that. Weird.
"Hey, Zuko!" he shouted over the crowd. "We've got some bad news!"
The Firelord jumped and whirled about, startled. Wei winced, slapping his hand over his face. Didn't this Water Tribe warrior know that you should use a little tact? Especially when it looked like the Firelord was in the middle of something, not to mention the ripple of uncertainty it sent plowing through the former Faceless.
Keeping his head down, the corporal hurried forward, Sokka loping along behind.
The brilliant smile fell from Zuko's face as they drew closer. With a soft word to the woman, he stepped away to converse with them in private.
"What happened here?" Sokka asked, gesturing back at the crowd.
"The Avatar," Zuko said with a dismissive wave. "What's the bad news?"
Jumping to attention, Wei made his report. "There was a breach in the perimeter, sir. Our patrol caught Azula sneaking around the farm."
His heart leapt into his throat. "Where is she?"
The corporal swallowed hard. Over the Firelord's shoulder, he noticed the sharp reaction of the woman. "She got away, sir. We're not sure how much she learned, but it was before, er..." At a loss for words, Wei gestured at the confusion around him. "Before this. She's injured, so it might slow her down. Should we send men in pursuit?"
"No," Zuko said without hesitation. "We still don't know what happened to Captain Jee, and I don't want to lose anyone else to a fool's errand."
Clenching her fists, the woman stepped forward. "How was she injured?"
Wei balked at the anger in her accusation. "Um..." He glanced at the Firelord, wondering if this was a question he should answer. Zuko's eyes darkened, but he gave the corporal a nod.
The fierceness of the woman's glare made him want to crawl under a rock and hide, but he fought the impulse to cower. "It was by her own hand," Wei explained. "She was pinned by an arrow to a tree. She was trapped. But she hurled a fireball at her arm to free herself and fled."
"Zuko," the woman turned to him, eyes pleading. "Why would they shoot at Azula? What's going on?"
Sokka and Wei stared at the woman.
"You're dismissed, corporal," Zuko said gently. "Double the perimeter, and be on alert. Now that she knows we're here, she might prepare an assault on the farm."
"Yes, Your Majesty." Wei bowed as he backed away, ignoring the protests of a confused Sokka as he dragged him along.
"Who was that?" Sokka cried, watching as Zuko led the tearful woman to a quiet corner. "Is she completely clueless? Who could not know the reason to shoot at Zuko's psycho sister?"
"Someone who doesn't know she's gone crazy," Wei said quietly.
Raising an eyebrow high, Sokka asked, "What do you mean?"
After a moment's musing, Wei decided it wouldn't do any harm to tell the Water Tribe warrior what he knew. "I overheard Kaori talking about the Faceless. He said that losing their faces somehow made them immortal. Some of them have been here for years, generations even."
Sokka frowned. "Hmm. Okay, that might explain how she didn't know Azula was completely off her rocker. But how could she know that and be buddy-buddy with Zuko? The way I heard it, Azula was always pretty psycho."
"Maybe she didn't want to believe it." Wei cast a glance over his shoulder for one more look at the sad sight between the woman and the Firelord. Shaking his head, he turned back to Sokka. "I knew she looked familiar, but I didn't put it together until she asked about Azula. That woman is Ursa the First."
Sokka's jaw dropped open. "Zuko's mother?!"
"And Azula's," Wei reminded. "People have been wondering what happened to her for ages. She disappeared the night Firelord Azulon died, and was never heard from again."
"Wait a minute, I thought Zuko said she died! He set up that big memorial for her, didn't he?"
Wei shrugged. "That was what Ozai told him. And apparently he had some way to prove it, because the Firelord was convinced. He stopped looking for her and held a funeral ceremony. Shortly after that, the Princess was born."
"Ursa!" This time it was Sokka who slapped his forehead. No wonder the woman had looked familiar to him; she had her granddaughter's kind and intelligent eyes.
For the first time, the reality of the revelation penetrated Sokka's mind. She was Zuko's mother. The mother he had lost as a child, returned to him by a freak twist of spirit voodoo and fate. Another piece of Zuko's family restored –one of the few non-psychotic pieces, even. His now had his mother, his children their grandmother and –yikes!– Mai her mother-in-law.
"Good for him," Sokka said quietly. His words caught as his thoughts turned to his own mother, and he cleared his throat. "Let's see about that perimeter."
Wei only nodded, deciding to excuse those tears in Sokka's eyes as the evidence of manly joy on his friend's behalf, and followed him outside.
"How are our guests doing?"
The interrogator, a man called Tao, stepped back from the prisoners, straightening to attention. "They're proving uncooperative, Your Majesty."
Ozai examined the pair, a captain and a corporal. They arrived unscathed, but had sustained several cuts and bruises during their visit.
"You may as well give it up," Jee grunted, wincing as blood oozed from a cut into his eye. "We're not talking."
"Oh? What a pity. For you. As Tao has no doubt informed you, I have little space to spare here. Supplies are limited only to those who prove useful and, believe me, Captain, Corporal, only the information you're willing to share makes you useful. Can you not see the futility of your resistance? This conflict will end soon, and your Firelord will not rise victorious this time. He is here, with few numbers, and I–" Ozai swept his arms out in grand gesture at the great expanse of beach claimed by his Loyal army. "I am prepared for war. So what shall it be?"
His heart pounded in his chest, but Jee gritted his teeth, ignoring the fear and pain screaming through his body. He glanced at Si Yung, hoping the inexperienced soldier could keep his head about him. But the corporal refused to meet his eyes.
"I'll tell you something," Si Yung finally said.
Ozai smiled. "A wise choice, my friend. Your information will be given a just reward."
A just reward meaning death, Jee knew. He remembered how Ozai operated. People couldn't be trusted, especially the ones you turned. "Shut up, corporal!"
Tao lunged forward, striking him across the face and opening a fresh cut on his cheek.
Ignoring the action, Ozai kept his eye trained on Si Yung. "Please, continue."
Pain throbbed on the left side of the corporal's face. His right eye was beginning to swell, so he could not see Captain Jee, but he heard his hiss of pain.
"What information will you share with me?" Ozai pressed.
"You have us outnumbered, but..." Si Yung raised his eyes to meet his and grinned. "You're definitely outclassed."
His attempt at a kind smile slipped from Ozai's face. He sighed, and Tao stepped forward to lash the corporal a similar blow as his captain.
Si Yung grunted, the force of the blow knocking him against Jee, whose sturdy shoulder kept him upright. "You're right, Cap," he said with a strangled laugh. "He just doesn't know when to give up."
The Captain laughed with him, wincing as the bruises on his chest protested. "Grabs on like a catgator and won't let go."
"That's how most of those critters die, you know," Si Yung added.
Clenching his teeth in a steely grin, Jee nodded. "Too stubborn to surrender their prey when it drags them down and they drown themselves."
Ozai's lips curled in disdain and he turned away. "Amusing. Tao, I must leave, but be certain to convey my amusement."
Cracking his knuckles, Tao nodded as the Phoenix King departed.
"Ha!" Si Yung spat out, loud enough for Ozai hear. "We're Fire Nation military. This is no different than a sparring match before breakfast."
Ozai tried to ignore the bravado even as it was cut off by a grunt of pain, but it made him wonder. How did Zuko manage to invoke such loyalty in his men? What did they see in the weakling, other than his fool's dream of peace and harmony?
The moment of joy as the Faceless relished the return of their senses quickly faded into panic. Where were they? How had they gotten here? What had happened?
Between Zuko, Aang, and Katara, they managed to settle them with the explanation that they had been in a sort of captivity, but they had been released. The victims hounded them for more answers, just as Kaori appeared.
"I heard the shouting from the house," he said, clasping tight to an older woman's hand. "What's going on?"
"They want explanations," Aang explained.
"Understandable," Kaori grunted. He squinted at the tattooed young man. "Who are you?"
"Oh." Aang bowed with a sheepish smile. "I'm the Avatar. It's nice to meet you."
"We should get these people calm," Zuko cut in. He glanced at Kaori. "If some of them have been here as long as you say, explaining the situation to them won't be easy."
Slowly, Kaori nodded.
"Is there anything we can do to make it easier for them?" Katara asked, her voice full of sorrow. "It's been hard enough."
"An excellent idea." The older woman strode forward, smiling at them. She looked back at her husband with a reproachful eye. "Aren't you going to introduce me?"
Color rose to Kaori's cheeks, but he beamed at her. "That there's the Firelord, and the Avatar and his wife. This is my wife, Teya."
Teya nodded, satisfied, and turned back to Katara. "I don't know about these others, but I could certainly do with a hot meal. Even if they aren't hungry, it will be a pleasure to put food in their mouths again. We always keep a store of food at the house–" she shot a glance at Kaori– "unless he's quite changed his habits since I've been, er, indisposed."
"Are you sure you have enough?" Aang asked.
Glancing about, Kaori took a quick headcount. "Hmm," he grunted. "Between what I've got stocked up and what's growing in the garden, there ought to be enough for a good meal. A feast to welcome them back. But that will wipe out our supplies."
"I guess we'll have to resolve everything before nightfall," Zuko said with a wry smile.
"Resolve?" Aang glanced between them with a frown. "Resolve what?"
Katara stepped forward. "Why don't I help prepare something, while you and Zuko catch up, Aang."
Squeezing her hand one last time, Aang watched as his wife and Teya filed out of the barn, collecting Suki and Ty Lee on the way. He turned back to Zuko and the shadow in his friend's eye weighed heavy on his heart.
"I'm not going to like this, am I?"
"Excuse me, corporal?"
Wei paused. At one glance he realized the uniformed lieutenant addressing him was not among their current ranks. After the fiasco in Ba Sing Se plus several days alone with only a set number of faces on board a vessel, he had come to recognize each person he was serving with.
"Can you tell me what's going one?"
Wei hesitated. "You're one of them, aren't you, lieutenant?" he asked, gesturing out at the crowd.
The lieutenant followed his gaze. He shrugged, rubbing sheepishly at the back of his neck. "I guess so. I don't know where I am or how I got here."
"What's your name, sir?"
"Ling," the lieutenant replied. "I serve under Captain Shan Yee."
"Really?" Wei questioned in surprise. "Shan Yee?"
Lieutenant Ling blanched. "Is that bad?"
"No. No, of course not. In fact, it's pretty good." Wei remembered the promotion of Shan Yee to Captain; it had only happened within the last year so this man, at least, had not been wandering this farm without a face for untold decades.
"I don't understand what's going on," Ling said, ruffling his hair in frustration. "Can you shed some light on this for me? Where are we? What are we doing here?"
Shifting his feet, Wei cast a quick glance back toward the Firelord, out of sight in the midst of the crowd, and another to Sokka, who had disappeared around the building. What was he supposed to say? Did he tell him what was going on? About the Loyal, and the face stealing spirit? The lieutenant was one of their own, after all. But the Firelord and the Avatar didn't want the panic to spread, and there was no telling what kind of emotional condition Ling was in.
"I'm sorry, sir," Wei said, unconsciously straightening his back rigid. "Avatar Aang and Firelord Zuko will explain in time. For now, just know that you're safe."
"You can't even give me a hint?" Ling pressed.
Wei shook his head. "They were very clear, sir. The Firelord and the Avatar will explain when the time is right."
The lieutenant heaved a frustrated sigh. For a moment, Wei thought he was going to pull rank on him; he was the superior officer, after all. But Ling only nodded.
"I understand, corporal. Thanks anyway."
Somehow, the resourceful women managed to prepare a feast fit for the Firelord's own table. As the delicious and savory scents of the hot meal wafted through the barn on a gentle summer breeze, the former Faceless began to calm. The smell of food brought back memories, and grounded them to a reality they had all but forgotten. Katara soon appeared to announce that dinner was served. The crowd, cowed by the thought that this would be their first meal in who knew how long, slowly filed out into the yard.
Tables of earth, provided by a shanghaied Haru, had been draped in clean tablecloths and blankets and set with dishes of steaming vegetables and meat, and a stack of empty plates.
It took a moment of inviting, prodding and convincing, but soon the unfortunate crowd was settled with their meal on the lawn. Food had never tasted so good as it did that day in their mouths.
Ty Lee appeared at Haru's shoulder. "Katara says she's awake."
His heart fluttered in his chest before plummeting into his stomach. He didn't need to ask who 'she' was. "I know."
"Maybe you should take her some food," Ty Lee said with a careless shrug. She fought hard to make her voice sound aloof, but Haru heard the underlying push.
"I don't think so," Haru said, shaking his head. He felt her large eyes frowning at him. "She probably needs some rest." Even he knew the argument was flimsy. Before Ty Lee could argue, he shuffled away.
Her pretty eyes drawn in concern, Ty Lee watched his back as he retreated. She knew a little something about relationships, even if she'd never had a particularly successful one, and he was an emotional powder keg on the verge of exploding. So was she. And if something didn't change, things were going to get very messy and very angry very fast.
Someone needed to do the diffusing, and it didn't look it would be him. Ty Lee sighed, and reached for two plates.
While Teya and Kaori fussed about their former charges, never releasing the other's hand, Aang reunited with his friends, and Zuko properly introduced them all to his mother. Katara burst into tears of joy at this news. She apologized profusely, blaming it on her hormones, and Zuko gave her a warm if sad smile. The loss of their mothers had always been one of the deepest connections they shared and Katara, of all people, truly understood what this meant to him.
Except, perhaps, for Princess Ursa. Like her father, she could barely be pried from her grandmother's side. Their initial introduction had been an awkward moment. After all, Grandmother Ursa had only just realized that her son was now a grown man, and the revelation that the two children standing by her were his followed quickly after. Roh-Roh had grown even more shy than before, if that was possible, but Ursa –she always seemed to know what to say.
For the second time, the princess greeted the woman with the traditional Fire Nation bow. "It's a pleasure to meet you," she'd said. And while her grandmother floundered for some response, Ursa couldn't help herself. She flung her arms around her grandmother in a tight hug, whispering, "I've always wanted to."
Now the princess sat with her Grandmother Ursa on one side and her brother on the other, grinning one of the biggest smiles any of them had ever seen.
"How long were you here?" Aang asked. "Do you remember?"
"Quite a few years, it seems." Lady Ursa stroked her granddaughter's hair, enchanted by how she resembled Azula, and yet how different she looked. "It was only a few years after my banishment."
Ursa gazed up at her with curiosity. "What were you doing the years in between?"
Smiling down at her granddaughter, Lady Ursa replied, "I was trying to lay low." She looked over at her son, her smile turning sad. "I was trying to find a way to take you and Azula with me."
Zuko took his mother's hand in his. "You never found one?"
His mother laughed a bitter laugh. "I found several. But Ozai always found them first."
Dropping his gaze, Zuko squeezed her hand. "He told me you were dead."
"Oh, Zuko." Lady Ursa stroked his cheek, tears welling in her eyes. "That's because he thought I was."
Zuko frowned. "Why?"
A heavy sigh was his mother's first response. "When Ozai banished me, I don't think he realized how hard I would fight for you. I was prepared to do anything to get you and your sister away from him." Shaking her head, she sighed again. "After a time, he decided it was too much trouble. Perhaps he was afraid that I would speak out about...about..." She choked on the words she could not speak aloud.
"I know," Zuko said quietly, keeping hold of her hand. "I know about Grandfather Azulon. About everything."
Silent tears spilled from her eyes. It was a long moment before Lady Ursa recovered enough to continue.
"For a year or so," she went on, wiping away her tears, "I traveled around the Fire Nation, looking for anyone who could help me. For a time I stayed on Ember Island, but that was when the assassin came."
"An assassin?" Zuko cried. "He sent an assassin after you?"
Lady Ursa smiled at him again. "In truth, Zuko, I was expecting it. I never thought Ozai would let me roam free, anymore than he thought I could just leave. I spent two years running from the assassin. I could never seem to lose him, but it was rather easy to stay ahead of him. He was a giant of a man, and he drew a lot of attention. As long as I remained in populated areas, rumor of him would usually reach me before he did, and I could run."
"Wait a minute." Sokka, suddenly eager, leaned forward with that detective's gleam in his eye. "A giant of a man? Did he have a third eye tattooed on his head? Could he make explosions with his brain?"
"Sokka!" Katara admonished.
He looked at his sister in befuddlement. "What now?"
"I'm pretty sure it isn't polite to ask someone for details about the assassin hunting them down," his sister retorted, shooting him the stern glare she had mastered at a very young age. She was, Sokka decided, fully prepared for motherhood.
"It's alright, Katara," Lady Ursa said, though her face had gone rather pale. "Your brother is actually correct."
Sokka blinked. "Seriously?"
Lady Ursa nodded and Sokka sat back with a roar of laughter.
"Oh, the irony! Do you know what that means, Zuko?"
"Yes," the Firelord said between gritted teeth.
But Sokka was far too amused to catch the murderous glare his friend shot his way. "This means you hired the same assassin to kill Aang that your dad hired to kill your mom!"
This time the cry of reproach came not only from Katara, but everyone else in their circle of friends.
"On the bright side," Aang jumped in, beaming at Lady Ursa, "The assassin didn't succeed. And it was actually Zuko who stopped him."
"Right," Sokka grumbled, shoulders slouched under everyone's glares. "So, in a way, I guess he kind of avenged you. Poetic justice, and all."
Rolling her eyes, Katara decided it was time for a different subject. "It must be so strange to you, for the war to be over and seeing so many different nations here."
Lady Ursa laughed, and this time it was a bright and clear sound. "Uncommon," she agreed, "But not unwelcome. I had long since disapproved of the War. During my travels, I saw upfront just how much loss and suffering it caused. And for what? The Fire Nation was ripping the world apart for nothing more than personal gain, and they didn't even realize it." She shook her head in morbid wonder. "It was that thinking that led me a man called Yuri. I had heard rumors of him, and hoped that he could help me. But when I met him, I realized he could do so much more than bring me my children." Her eyes grew distant as she remembered the face of the man who had revitalized her hope, features now clear and distinct, and her smile widened. "He talked about how the four nations made up the whole of the world and, even separate, they were joined. He made me realize that the War, what I had thought an unavoidable event in history, was nothing more than an assertion of one idea over another. When he offered to help me, he told me about a secret organization with a philosophy of harmony and their goal to make the world realize that the nations were different for a good reason. If enough people realized it, there would be no need for the War."
"The Order of the White Lotus," Zuko guessed.
Lady Ursa looked at her son in surprise. "You've heard of it?"
Zuko chuckled. "Uncle insisted I join."
"Hey, you're not the only one!" Sokka produced one of the leather straps around his neck, revealing the white lotus tile as its pendant. "I received a special invitation from Master Piandao and Gramp-Gramp."
Katara winced. "You know he hates it when you call him that."
Sokka only grinned.
"Didn't Yuri help you?" Mai asked, her thoughts haunted by the idea that Lady Ursa had tried for so long and fought so hard for her children.
"He did," Lady Ursa replied. "He decided the first thing to do was convince the assassin that he had done his job. With the help of some of his associates, we waited for the assassin to catch up with me again, and in that time they taught me many things. When the assassin came, we faked my death." Her hand strayed absently to her bare wrist. "I knew that if he took back my bracelet to Ozai with the claim that I was dead, he would believe it. So we made certain that he found it at the sight of my supposed demise."
"So, you just faked your death and he believed you?" Sokka asked. He received a few more glares, but he was curious.
"It wasn't that simple," Lady Ursa assured him. "We knew the assassin would only believe it if he was the one to kill me. The trap was extravagant to say the least. I lured him to the right place, and when he attacked, Yuri set off a barrel of blasting jelly. In the cover of the smoke, I was pulled to safety while Yuri tossed my bracelet into the debris."
Face cupped in his hands, Sokka listened to it all in rapture. "Explosions, traps, fake deaths! Zuko, you're mom is one awesome lady."
"What happened after that?" Ursa asked, staring up at her grandmother, just as captivated.
A shadow passed over Lady Ursa's eyes. "It was just after," she remembered, her voice growing soft. "Yuri had invited me to join the Order. We were headed to meet senior members, when we were attacked on the road." She shook her head. "I only recall a scratching sound. The next thing I knew, I could no longer see, and someone was taking hold of my hand."
The boards by the door creaked.
"Is that somebody to finally keep me company?" Toph called. "Or maybe, I don't know, to explain what in the world is going on out there?"
To her surprise, it was Ty Lee who answered. "I brought you something to eat. But I can do those, too."
"Oh. Um, okay." Toph shuffled uncomfortably, trying to sit upright.
Strength was slow to return, and she could barely pull herself up. Ty Lee set the plates aside and hurried to help her. Toph gritted her teeth in frustration, but said nothing.
Ty Lee didn't speak as she made certain Toph was comfortable and handed her a plate. As she settled in across from her, Ty Lee explained all about the Faceless, their sudden return, and Aang's surprising appearance. She also informed Toph about Azula's escape, because she knew the earthbender wouldn't be pleased if she intentionally left that out, just because of her injury. She finished with the news that Zuko had discovered his long-lost mother among the victims, and finally lapsed into an awkward silence.
Though fatigued, Toph was also famished. She had already finished her meal by the time Ty Lee fell silent.
"So why are you really here?" Toph asked, after a long moment.
Ty Lee started. "What?"
"You haven't touched your food and something's obviously on your mind."
Before Ty Lee could respond, Toph went on, "But I already know why."
Ty Lee stared at her. "You...you do?"
"Of course. And don't worry. The answer is no."
For a long moment, Ty Lee didn't reply. She blinked once, breaking the stupefied spell. "No?"
Frowning in thought, Ty Lee asked, "Are you sure you know what I'm going to say?"
Heaving a tired sigh, Toph said, "It's obvious, Ty Lee. You have a crush on Haru, and you want to know whether we're, uh, together. Well we're not. So he's all yours."
Ty Lee giggled, which wasn't exactly the response Toph was expecting from a lovesick girly-girl like her.
"I don't have a crush on Haru, Toph."
Now it was Toph's turn to laugh. "Oh, come on, Ty Lee, stop deluding yourself."
You're one to talk, Ty Lee thought, stifling another giggle.
"You've been following him around ever since Ba Sing Se," Toph went on, "Getting him to dance with you, taking beach walks with him..."
"Oh, Toph," Ty Lee cried, "I've only been following him around because, well, because it looked like he needed somebody to talk to."
"About you!" She knew Toph was blind, but she suspected this particular blindness was self-inflicted.
Toph snorted. "That's ridiculous." She frowned. "If you didn't come to plead your love, why are you here?"
The smile fell from the pretty acrobat's face. "To apologize. About what happened to you at the beach."
"Are you crazy?" Toph snapped. "That wasn't your fault! Just because you forgot your shawl, and I got attacked doesn't mean you were the one that screwed up my chi with some creepy possessed doll."
"Well..." Ty Lee shifted, hugging herself to keep the chills away. "It is my fault. I lied, Toph. I didn't even have a shawl."
At first, the words didn't register. They just didn't make any sense. Why would she go back for a shawl if she didn't have it?
The explanation burst from Ty Lee in a rush of guilt. "I thought the two of you needed some time to talk. Alone. Before the next big crisis. So I pretended to forget my shawl, and wandered off down the beach for a bit to give you some room to work things out. Then those soldiers attacked, and you got hurt, and–" Her words broke off with a sob.
Toph couldn't speak. She sat, stunned, as Ty Lee grasped her hand.
"It was all my fault," the acrobat said through her tears. "You wouldn't have gotten hurt if I hadn't stuck my nose in where it didn't belong. I'm so sorry, Toph."
She pressed the earthbender's hand to her wet cheek, and the feel of the tears woke Toph from her stupor.
"It's okay, Ty Lee," she said finally. "I mean, it's not like you knew it was going to happen. You were just trying to help." She managed a smirk. "Even if you were sticking your nose where it didn't belong."
Ty Lee giggled, and the remnants of the sob followed it with a hiccup.
"So...you don't really have a crush on Haru?"
Even as the words slipped out, Toph wanted to kick herself. Stupid! Why would you say that? Why would you care? It's not like you like him! Now she'll never believe you.
Again, Ty Lee giggled, but this time there was color in her cheeks. "No, I've..." She blushed harder. "I've got my eye on somebody else." With a grin, she patted Toph's hand. "He's all yours."
"What? But– I–"
By the time Toph could muster any intelligent protest, Ty Lee was halfway to the door and she ignored them anyway as she bounced back outside.
"You look chipper," Suki observed. "Even more so than usual."
Ty Lee only giggled.
"It's about that soldier you're sweet on, isn't it? When do I get to meet the lucky guy?"
The acrobat's smile slipped a millimeter. "He's on duty. Maybe later."
Suki didn't pursue the subject. She could tell the difference between her friend's cheerfulness, and when she was faking it for appearances.
Resuming her seat with the others, Ty Lee glanced about the group. "Where did everyone go?"
"Zuko and Jeong Jeong went off for a..." Mai hesitated, looking for the right word. "Chat."
"Sokka and Haru are helping with the patrol," Suki said.
"And I guess that's my cue," Aang said, rising. "If you'll excuse me everyone, I have to go thank someone."
"I'm not certain this is a wise strategy, Your Majesty," Jeong Jeong said, keeping his voice low.
"I know. But now they know where we are, and Azula probably counted the number of soldiers and found the best ways to attack the farm." Zuko sighed. "The only reason they would keep Jee alive is for information, and now they don't need it. We have to at least try."
Eyes grave, Jeong Jeong slowly nodded. "It may also present an opportunity to take stock of our enemy. At the very least, Jee and Si Yung may be able to inform us of their strength should we retrieve them."
Zuko nodded once, his eyes dark. "Send the messenger. I want a meeting with Ozai."
Gripping his string of beads, Aang rotated it to the air insignia. He breathed deep and closed his eyes.
Yangchen's presence was the most prominent, but with just a little digging he unearthed the essence he really wanted.
Blue wisps bled from the air talisman. They quivered, merging with one another. The wisps began to shape, taking on the form of one of his many past lives. When the form finally solidified, Avatar Haku smiled at him.
Folding his hands into customary Air Nomad placement, he nodded his head in greeting. "Hello again, Aang."
Aang returned the warm smile. "Haku. It's good to see you."
"We only just parted ways," Haku laughed.
"I know. I wanted to thank you for all your help. Without you, I never would have figured out what's going on."
"But you did have it figured out when you challenged, Koh, didn't you?" Haku shook his head in wonder. "You knew one of the Faceless was the anchor."
Aang shrugged. "If Koh was really in on it, it just made sense. He creates connections between the mortal and Spirit Worlds at will."
"Haku..." Aang hesitated. "I can't lie to you. It wasn't just that. One of the reasons I challenged him was to free them. What Koh did was wrong, and I guess my emotions did get away with me. But I'm not sorry I did it." He sighed. "Even if it didn't work."
"Don't think like that, Aang," Haku admonished. "It did work."
"No. Koh was right; bringing the Faceless back didn't disrupt the anchor. The passage is still open. I can feel it."
Pointing past the haze to the world around Aang, Haku smiled. "But they are all free."
Aang followed his finger, to the dozens of people milling about the farm, reveling in their newly revived senses.
"Don't worry, Aang. You will find another way."
- *looks up at 'Previously'* Hmm, apparently I was very excited to get that chapter up quick.
- The mention of Yangchen's murdered friend is meant to explain the flashbacks/memories Aang had in Just thought I'd connect those for anyone who didn't get it. ;)
- I realize that Ursa I was never the Firelady. She was banished before Ozai became Firelord, and therefore was only technically a princess. I have chosen to refer to her as Lady Ursa, however, to avoid confusion with my other Princess Ursa. So there.
- Originally, there was an entire chapter devoted to the exploits of Lady Ursa, appropriately entitled The Fate of Lady Ursa. On revising, I realized there was no good place to actually fit it in without disrupting the current storyline, so it was put aside. Sad, especially since I had some real fun with it. But don't worry. I have a feeling at least one scene will find it's way over to the Bonus Scene section soon.
For the collective works of the author, go here.