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|The Beach, Part 2|
April 2, 2011
The Beach - Part 2 is the sixth chapter of, which is the ultimate chapter about the love between Cixi and Iroh. It also allows us to explore the thoughts of Jiuan, Baba and Azulon, and to catch a glimpse on the thoughts of others. This is mostly a comical chapter to prepare the reader to the upcoming grim and gloom of Chapters 7, 8, 9 and 10. It concludes the first story arc of Book 1, which deals with Iroh's innocent years.
It's a direct follow-up of Chapter 5, and like Chapter 5 it is based on the famous episode "The Beach".
One word: FINALLY!! This chapter is my longest chapter so far, it took me two weeks to write it completely. The fact that I was in exam time didn't help either ... I was faced with moments of depression (It sucks!) and delight (It's awesome!!). I think this is my favorite chapter so far, but it just might be the joy for having FINALLY finished it.
I'M SO HAPPY!!!!
The sun was lazily crossing the heavens and heading towards the west, as his golden rays were bathing the landscape. Ember Island was a marvel of the world, a haven of quietness.
Not for long.
"TALLY-HO!" Baba shouted for the umpteenth time.
"I'm going to throw up ..." Jiuan said with a sickly voice.
"You're a nice shade of green." Cixi joked. Jiuan suddenly seemed better.
They were in precarious balance on the two planks left of the cart, which were sticking to the remaining wheel by some kind of miracle. Baba was surfing on a lonely wooden board, in a way that didn't show her age. Djorj was running like if he was again a chick-foal.They suddenly were on the slab of rock above the Fire Lord mansion, the summit closing on fast.
"Baba, are you sure of what you are doing?" Iroh questioned.
Baba just answered with a mad laugh. Okay, now I'm officially scared. Iroh thought.
The top of the chunk was closing on faster and faster, and suddenly the wheel stopped rattling against the rock. Time seemed to slow down as they glided above the red-tiled roof of the Royal mansion. It's the first time I see the house from above. Iroh noticed. On the other side, it's probably the last time too.
"You do realize that if we hit the water at this speed, it will be like if we hit the Outer Wall of Ba Sing Se?" Cixi asked him.
"Oh well, we're already doomed." Iroh stated with a calm voice, which surprised him. So calm. Is it because I trust Baba's famous resourcefulness? I just hope she hasn't become senile since our last visit. But she didn't seem weirder than usual.
They now had driven by - flew by - the dangerously sharp golden spikes of the roof and the sea was closer and closer. Iroh realized they were all screaming, though in Baba's case it was more hysterical delight than sheer terror. He kept an eye on her to see how she was going to save the day. But she was still laughing maniacally. And their turquoise death was nearing at any second.
She suddenly turned towards him, perfectly calm. "Whenever you want, dear."
His eyes widened. Oh no. She's counting on me.
They barely were a foot away of the water. With lightning speed, Iroh grabbed Cixi, Jiuan and Baba and put them on the back of Djorj. Then he threw his legs under the Ostrich Horse belly, tightening his hold over the beast's body. He stretched his arms under Djorj ; his knuckles were only an inch away from the deadly water.
He unleashed the most powerful blast of fire he had ever Firebent, rocketing themselves up, as the wreckage of the cart plummeted in the waves, creating a small tsunami which soaked them.
"I just HATE water." Jiuan commented, spitting a small decapus. "It will kill me."
Iroh didn't react to this statement : his fire had propelled him upwards while Djorj was falling downwards, which had effectively crushed him, bearing by himself for a brief second the increased weight of an adult Ostrich Horse. Exhausted, he only managed to bring them near the soft sand, before suddenly releasing the tension in his forearms. They all landed abruptly on the beach, shaken but unharmed.
"You are crazy!" Jiuan shouted at Baba.
"Oh dear, no." She had become once again a quiet and normal looking old lady. "We never were really in danger."
"I know my grandson : my Iroh will always find, no matter the odds, something to save the day." She pulled her hair. "Besides, an old lady needs to have an exciting life. Nothing happens to me when I'm alone, so I must live my life to its fullest when I have the rare pleasure to have my family at home." She looked at Iroh in a slightly angry way then grinned with a perfectly innocent smile. "Does anyone want Flaming fire flakes?" And before they could answer, she headed towards the house, whistling happily.
Jiuan, enraged, turned towards Iroh.
"You know that old idiotic proverb that Ember Island smooths one's edges?" His eye twitched. "It's dead wrong. I have never felt so edgy. So Iroh, I won't repeat it another time : Take. Care. Of. Your. Grandmother." he declared, stressing each word by pressing his finger on Iroh's torso. And he left in the direction of the dock without letting time for Iroh to reply.
"I think he is angered." Cixi confessed Iroh.
"No, really?" he ironized. He suddenly had an idea. "What if I bring Ozai? He always manages to lighten the atmosphere."
"You're using your brother? How superficial is that?"
"Well, Ozai would surely appreciate some company instead of staying in his cradle. After all, it's his birthday today."
"Alright. But seriously, you should insist on visiting your grandma more often. Not only because it would be humane; next time, she might kill you."
Iroh was whacked by her statement and immediately felt shameful. "I know. We ... I have been selfish."
They remained silent, the only sound being the rush of the tides.
Iroh coughed. "Ahem, I'm gonna take Ozai."
"Yes." Cixi said. "I'll go check on Jiuan."
Iroh went up the hill and entered the mansion. He reached Ozai's room. Baba was in there, looking at the infant, who was sleeping in his crib. Ozai was lightly whinnying, lost in a dream. His leg was twitching.
"He's so cute when he's asleep." Baba told Iroh.
"He's always cute, Baba."
"I would just have wished to know him earlier." Baba looked deep into Iroh's golden eyes. "You all left me. You abandoned me. Do you know how hard it is to be old and alone, with your only distraction being a frog? I just have to wait for death. And you all behave normally when you arrive, not even attempting to excuse lamely. As if it was normal."
She paused. Iroh felt his stomach shrink.
"How could you?" she asked.
Tears came to Iroh's eyes. "Baba, I know it seems so hypocrite now, but I am so, so sorry!" He hugged her. "I'm such a jerk!"
"Oh, Iroh, it's not your fault; even though you could have done something, you're not the one who decides."
"It's just sad I had to organize a near-death experience to make you realize that."
"So you're not crazy?"
Baba chuckled. "Not entirely. I do enjoy living thrilling moments. But my greatest joy is to have you with me, my baby."
Ilah fell too in Baba's embrace. "Oh Baba! Will you forgive me too?"
Baba shed a few tears. "Of course, sweet Ilah. You're the daughter I never had."
The three members of the Royal family were huddled together, sobbing. Ozai was snoring.
Iroh suddenly opened his eyes wide. "Wait a sec, Mother, what are you doing here?"
Ilah put a silk handkerchief before her nose. "Well, we were in that spa in the center of Ember Island, and your father had an allergic reaction to the slices of cucumber courgette that were put on his eyes. So we came back earlier."
"You mean he is here?"
"But my spies!" interrupted Baba. "They were supposed to warn me if such a thing were to happen!"
There was a loud noise in the corridor, like if someone was running. A man dressed in the costume of a spa servant entered in the room, panting. "Fire Lady Dowager!" he shouted.
"Hush!" Baba said. "Can't you see that there's a baby asleep here?"
"Fire Lady Dowager." the man whispered. "Fire Lord Azulon had an allergic reaction to cucumber courgette and left the spa earlier than we ..."
"Yes, we know that already, thank you Tiddles, but you're a bit late."
"He's here!" Iroh exclaimed. "What do I do now?"
"But Iroh, what exactly is the problem?" Ilah interrogated.
"Your father knows you're dating Cixi. The sole thing he has asked for is that you don't make her come before your duties. And here, you have no duty of any kind, you're just a normal teenager on vacation. So what is the problem?"
"Let's say I'm panicking." he told her.
"I'll take care of this." Baba said. "Iroh, just take Ozai."
As she headed to her son's room, she shouted: "TALLY-HO!". Ilah started to rub her temples. And I thought she had gone beyond that ...
Azulon was watching the portrait of Fire Lord Sozin. His father. He had been drawn with a black beard. I never saw you with black hair. Small soldiers were in a Firebending stance at the level of his feet. He was holding an open scroll, to show the different reforms he had done to the country. And, of course, the Great Comet of Power was flying above his head. The greatest Fire Lord in World History. But the worst father in the history of fathers.
His mother entered the room. "Azulon, darling? I heard you had discovered yourself an allergy to cucumber courgette. Do you feel better?"
He just continued to behold the portrait. Baba decided to let him choose the time to speak.
"Yes." he finally answered. "My eyes are less bloated now. Thank you for asking, Mother."
Instead of leaving as he expected her to do, Baba sat at his side. Despite the natural shrinking time had made her suffered, she was still almost as tall as her son.
"Sozin." she simply stated.
"I hate him. It's like the old schmuck is still making my life full of anguish, even through the veil of death."
"I have to outdo his successes; I was raised for that, bred for that. His glory is limitless: he wiped out an entire race in one hour. If I want to shadow him, I must win the War before the return of the Comet."
"Why such a desire?"
Azulon's face distorted with hatred. "I must prove to him that I am worthy. That I am not weak."
He focused his gaze on the painting ; it suddenly ignited with azure fire. They watched it burning.
Azulon sighed. "But Mom ... it's so hard. I'm struggling more and more. Those peasants have managed to organize a bit more. They have a new officer, called Klamen, who has managed to pull back our forces. We had long been established on the southern banks of the Western Serpent's Lake; yesterday, we lost ten miles. Ten miles, mother! What if we lose another ten? The generals and nobles will conspire and try to overthrow me. So I must strengthen the terror the civilians have for me. Therefore, I will force more young people to enlist; taxes will double. I intend to increase our industrial production by 25%. Some villages will be moved in their entirety to the Earth Kingdom, where they will create more colonies."
"And those who don't want to?"
"Oh, they will. Otherwise, they won't complain any longer."
Baba looked at her shoes. "That's what your father would have done." she declared with a blank voice.
"Exactly. As usual, I will be perfect."
"You realize he is still influencing you."
"No, he isn't."
"Yes, he is. Everything you have done or you'll do, you make it because of Sozin in Sozin's way to become greater than Sozin. He's still holding you."
Azulon got up. "Do not say that! I forbid you to say that!"
"You have become so terrifying for your son that he is still seeing his girlfriend in secret, even if you already know about it. You have neglected your own mother. For now, in family business, you're not doing any better than Sozin."
"Everything ... everything ... comes second to the War. I will not lose time in petty family matters."
"This is not the way."
"This is the only way!" he roared.
"Have you considered the advantages of having an heir who is faithful to you? How it will eventually benefit the War?"
Azulon turned to the window. Baba looked down on his left heel, which was visible underneath the robes: the skin had burned a long time ago. It still bore scars and ancient marks of burns. She knew that they were both thinking to the same thing.
"Don't be too much like Sozin, my Azuzu. If you're gentler, it will help you." In more ways than you think.
Azulon kept his eyes focused on the dock, near which three teenagers and one baby were playing in the sand.
"It's been a long time since you last called me that way Mom."
"It's been a long time since you last came here, Azulon."
"I saw you had resumed your extreme games, with the cart."
"Have you seen how good Iroh's Firebending was?"
"He reacted far too slowly."
"That's because he trusted me."
"Exactly. Trust is for fools. You can only count on yourself."
"Maybe, but if you focus only on your person, you will forget there is other people than you in this nation. And you will hurt those are dear to your heart."
Baba rolled her eyes. "Oh, I don't know, your mother for example?"
Azulon sadly smiled. "You will never forgive me, will you?"
"No. I will only forget it if you come far more regularly." She looked at her nails. "I would greatly advise you to do so. Otherwise, I will become even more unstable, and I cannot promise there will be an island left."
This time, Azulon openly smiled and turned to face her. "Who are you? A wise mother, a caring grandmother, a sweet tea fanatic, a bitter old woman or a mad old lady?"
"I'm all of that, dear. And much more."
"I have never seen a Sea Lion with a mane before." Cixi said.
"That's because most barges use females, which are more numerous and stronger." Iroh told her. "But Kotchei is unusually strong. And he does have a beautiful mane."
They were sitting on the beach near the dock. Cixi was petting the Sea Lion. "Who's the most beautiful Sea Lion, huh? It's yoooooouuuuu, Kotchei, you're the most beautiful Sea Lion in the world!"
"Now I'm so jealous of Kotchei, Cixi." joked Iroh. "But I wish you loads of happiness together."
In response, she threw a nearby stick at him.
"Ouch, only truth hurts!"
"Sticks seem to hurt too." Jiuan noted, with a big grin.
At this moment, Kotchei sneezed on Iroh and Ozai, covering them with transparent gooey mucus.
"There, you see," Cixi claimed, "my lover punished you for being rude to me."
"Oh, come on, I was just teasing you!" Iroh told her while drying Ozai with a towel. His baby brother was laughing and tried to grab the towel.
"Oh no, you don't, Ozai." Iroh faked to be angry. "If you don't release that poor towel, the big bad Wolf Bat will eat you." He roared in a feral way.
"You can't thind me!" Ozai replied and he hid his eyes behind his tiny fists.
"Roar! Where is the tiny prince?" Iroh bellowed with a deep voice. Ozai, laughing, started to slip between his brother's arms and fled on the hot sand, running on his sturdy legs. He suddenly stumbled and flew over the sands. The three teenagers all gasped. Iroh got up and ran as far as he could. He jumped and managed to grab Ozai. As he lifted his brother in the air to protect him, Iroh landed on the torso. He slid on the beach on a few feet before finally stopping.
"Ouch." he simply said. "Ozai, please, promise you'll try never to get in trouble again."
"Promise." Ozai was grinning, as if he had never been in danger. The brothers hugged.
Cixi was running towards them. "Is he alright?" she asked, looking worried.
"Yes, not a single scratch, thank the spirits. Can you take him, please?"
"Sure." As Ozai huddled with pleasure against her, she gasped. "Oh my goodness!" Iroh's slide on the sand had been extremely painful, as the grains had incrusted in his breast. His chest was now red with irritation, with vertical lines and craters where the sand had printed.
"We need to bring you to Hayao!"
"No, I'm fine, I don't feel a OUUUUCH!!!" Ozai had touched his sensitive pectoral muscles, causing them to bleed.
"You seriously need Hayao. Jiuan, would you mind going inside the house and ask a servant to look for him?" Cixi ordered.
"No prob', Cixi."
As Jiuan left, Cixi tried to see what she could do. Basically nothing; I could disinfect the wounds with the water of the sea. She gazed at the blue water in which they had almost crashed not even an hour ago. She looked back at Iroh: he was clenching his teeth.
"You know," she told Iroh, "there's no need to look so tough. You can openly express your pain."
"Okay, then, ouch, I'm suffering."
"There's no shame in showing your hurt. It's normal. It doesn't decrease your virility."
"I'm not concerned about my virility, thank you. I'm just being strong."
"Strength? Sounds more like stupidity."
"Hey, I'm the one who was wounded h..."
SPLASH! With a quick kick, Cixi had pushed him in the water.
Iroh screamed when the salt entered his wounds.
"There, your injuries are clean." Cixi exclaimed, triumphant.
Iroh drew back his wet hair. "You have so bought yourself a lifetime of suffering!"
"Catch me if you can!" Cixi taunted him.
She was expecting to be chased, but he jumped on her before she had any time to react.
"Release me!" she shouted, giggling.
"Oh no, you're not going to get away with that!"
They laughed for a while but they slowly calmed down. He was hugging her so strongly, it was a bit painful. She was feeling his breath in her neck. Their lips got closer and ...
Ozai had pulled one of Cixi's small braids. The laughing baby rolled on the right, and Iroh fell too, laughing so hard he got the hiccups. "Oh, Ozai, it wasn't the right time at all to do that."
Cixi laid down on the beach with them and the three of them were still chuckling when Baba arrived.
"Iroh? What happened? Oh, spirits, look at your chest!"
"That's okay now, Baba, as soon as no one touches it OUCH!!"
Baba had touched it.
"Erm, Fire Lady Dowager? Maybe we should wait for the medic to inspect Iroh." Cixi told the Fire Lady.
"There he is." Iroh said, his face writhed in pain. Indeed, Hayao and Jiuan were running from the house.
"Why didn't you come back immediately?" Cixi asked Jiuan.
"I preferred to go look for Hayao myself." he replied. "I thought someone wasn't in the right mental shape to do so." He looked angrily in Baba's direction.
But she wasn't paying attention to him. Her mind was entirely focused on the very small man before her. She admired the purity of the white of his sideburns, petted with her gaze his bald, wrinkled, ugly skull. Then Hayao tore his beach robe to make bandages for Iroh, revealing a swollen fat belly. Her eyes widened.
"Excuse me," she questioned the old master with the voice of a teenage girl, "but are you single?"
Hayao stopped bandaging Iroh.
"Er, okay, Ozai, maybe you should not see this, we don't know what might happen." Jiuan told the baby.
"I'm sorry, madam, but my first duty is to my patient." he at last wearily stated. He concentrated back on Iroh. "I'm sorry, student, but I'll have to push you in the water."
"No need, Cixi has already done sooooooooo!" For the second time in less than ten minutes, Iroh was violently pushed in the water. It didn't feel better than the first time.
"Student, I hate to be a killjoy, but your father is summoning you. And he says he wants to meet lady Cixi."
Iroh became pale. "Cixi? Flee please, with Ozai. I give you his bag. I'm taking Jiuan with me to distract him."
Without letting her time to reply, they left her standing alone with Ozai.
"Can you believe he just stranded me like that?" she exclaimed with indignation.
He just giggled.
Azulon was sitting, reading military reports. The Fire Lord Headpiece was weighting hard on his neck. "Captain Klamen is a fearsome Earthbender. General Fuego, who was overseeing our base on the banks of the Western Serpent's Lake, was a battle hardened veteran. He had actually been named General because of the way he fought (and won) against the enemy's bending. But Klamen just ... destroyed him. I have beheld myself his might and I assure you, my Lord, that Klamen will pose the most important threat to us. I do not even want to envisage what will happen if he is promoted and is able to command a greater number of men. Our supremacy ..."
"The Southern Water Tribe has recently grown as vindictive as before. The last reports told that with the loss of all their Waterbenders and the crippling of their chief, their only desire was to stay safe and lick their wounds. However, now they're once again attacking our navy in the South Sea. The Southern Raiders have lost a quarter of their number. We don't know what is making them so effective, or what has made them resume their raids. We may assume that it's that officer Klamen's recent victory that bolstered their morale. However, I have noticed a thing worthy, I think, of your attention: the walls of their main city have been rebuilt, which proves that ..."
"I believe you have asked us to come, Father." a cold voice declared. Azulon looked up: Iroh had entered the room with a fat boy.
"Yes." he confirmed. "Although I had exactly asked you to come with that female you're dating. And I hope that isn't your girlfriend."
"Female"? "That?" How dare you? "Well, I believe Jiuan will be more than able to entertain you." He turned to Jiuan but he seemed absent-minded.
Iroh suddenly noticed that Jiuan's eyes were stuck on the Fire Lord headpiece, with a familiar mischievous gleam in them. Spines of panic erupted between Iroh's shoulder blades: Jiuan was going klepto.
Iroh, fearful, struggled to come back to his body. "Yes, Jiuan is a prestidigitator."
"I do not like illusionists."
Jiuan was entirely cut from the conversation. So ... shiny. I have never seen such a beautiful object before.
You do realize it is right on the Fire Lord's head? You know, the guy who is known for being cruel and merciless?
Oh, don't worry. You've been through much worse.
Remember the time when you stole Mr Luong's pants and he didn't even notice? No one noticed ; everyone assumed it was a Chaos spirit who had played a trick on him. And you did it in broad daylight.
Hmm... If I succeed it will be the apogee of my career. But I must do it subtly and with elegance.
Let's get to work.
"Your Highness, be assured that I have nothing in common with the petty maggots you might have seen so far." He grinned, radiating charisma. "Let me show you." Ignoring all etiquette, he went in Azulon's direction without bowing or crawling on the ground. "Although I am master in most domains of magic," - he made appear out of nowhere a burning small torch and put it in his mouth. Iroh gasped, but when Jiuan opened his mouth, the torch wasn't lit any more and he was unharmed - "my specialty is" - he showed his bare palms to Azulon. His sleeves had been pulled back to his shoulders - "the manipulation of cards." He passed his left hand above his right palm. A complete set of wooden cards rippled, following his left hand as a snake, seemingly appearing out of his naked palm. He suddenly clapped his hands, pushing the small wood plates in a compacted heap. By now, Azulon was reluctantly interested.
"The secret to realize a good trick," Jiuan confessed - with one hand, he opened the deck into a fan, then made the cards slip on his shoulders, making them land in his other hand - "is to make a decent show" - by crossing his arms repeatedly, the cards kept appearing and disappearing - "which is so interesting" - the cards changed into colored ribbons and several tied orange handkerchiefs - "that the vict... er, I mean the audience" - Jiuan went behind Azulon's back and pulled from the Fire Lord's sleeves an endless flow of gold pieces - "is completely unaware" - he made appear two globes of glass in his hand and threw them in the air; however, they never came down - "of whatever the magician is also doing at the moment." His eyes finally focused, greedy, on the headpiece that was only inches of his nose.
However, Iroh glared at him in a way that would have terrified the most battle-hardened Earthbender. Jiuan thus had to plan a diversion.
"A shame Cixi isn't here to see my art." he declared. Iroh's stare changed from threatening to dumbstruck. By the Seven Hells, on whose side are you?
"Yes, Iroh; again you seem to exhibit defiance to my orders. I shall not tolerate this."
"I do not want you to see her, Fire Lord. Your Majesty will earn nothing for the Nation by being acquainted with my lady friend."
"I might be the Fire Lord, but I'm also, and here especially, your father."
"Try to act like a father before asking for parental privileges."
The nearby candles suddenly flamed blue. Woops, Iroh thought, I've crossed the line. He also caught a glimpse of Jiuan's hand stretching towards the gold flame which stood on Azulon's royal head.
He knew he had to act quickly. If he manages to steal it from him without Father noticing, then all will be lost. I will not be able to place it back without denouncing me to Father; only Jiuan could place it back, and once he has an object in his hands, he never gives it back. He had silently come closer of the illusionist and his spectator, watching for the time when Jiuan would attack.
At blinding speed, while his left hand offered a bouquet to Azulon, Jiuan's right hand, in a smooth trajectory, stretched towards the symbol of the Fire Nation monarchy. But Iroh managed to grab the faulty fingers as they were already gripping the gold of the headpiece. This also inadvertently led him to almost run into his father.
Azulon turned to face him. "What are you doing?"
Iroh displayed a huge innocent smile. "Oh, huh, nothing Father, I was just proposing Jiuan to show you the trick of the glass." He pulled Jiuan by the collar, while murmuring between his close teeth. "What are you doing? You want to be cooked to death? Try to refrain yourself!"
"I'm sorry, but I cannot control my hands!" Jiuan protested with an equally low voice. He pulled a small table towards him and fetched a cup of crystal and a long piece of silk. He sat at a chair and covered the crystal cup with the silk. "I want to prove this is a true glass. Your Majesty, would you mind touching it?"
Azulon sighed and leaned forward to touch the cup under the fabric. As he slightly bowed, Jiuan seized the Fire Lord Headpiece. But Iroh put threateningly his index and middle fingers on his back and the kleptomaniac reluctantly put it back, giving it a sorry look. Awww, I'm so sorry, little headpiece. I miss you so much already!
"It is indeed solid crystal, not glass." Azulon finally said, without having noticed a thing.
"Yes, it is." Jiuan pulled it slightly towards him and rubbed its outline. "It's pretty expensive crystal. I guess it is pretty hard too. It would probably shatter if I hit it. Unless I'd break my hand. So it would be impossible for it to pass through that solid table."
"Yes." Azulon confirmed. "It would probably be the case."
Jiuan suddenly slammed the silk-covered cup. Azulon got up, his eyes promising Jiuan a certain doom. Iroh, who had already seen the trick numerous times, was still impressed.
The silk was flat. There was no big hump, no broken crystal, absolutely nothing. As if they needed another proof, Jiuan lifted the fabric, revealing a clean mahogany table, with no trace of impact.
"But look," Jiuan declared with a triumphant glint in his eyes, "what's under the table?"
The three of them knelt. Under the table, still in one piece, was standing tauntingly the crystal cup.
Cixi was holding Ozai by the hand. They were both walking down the beach. They were now several yards away of the house, but it was still visible behind a grassy hill.
Cixi sighed. "Let's find a good spot to relax." They descended the sand dune. While Ozai played in the water, Cixi put out of the bag everything that was in: a small spade, a pink towel she immediately spread on the beach, some additional towels, a battalion of silk diapers, a deck of wooden cards that belonged to Jiuan, numerous scrolls on topics like Firebending, Pai Sho rules, Fire Nation philosophers and tea - a boatload in that latter case. There was also ten bottles of inks of different colours, several brushes and sheets of paper, all of which belonging to her. Painting was her secret hobby.
"Ozai? What if we built a sand house?"
"Yes!" Ozai shouted. "A sand house!"
She knelt in the warm sand and gave the spade to Ozai. First, they put the sand in one big hump, which wasn't easy as the young prince kept forgetting what they were doing and did other things, like tracing curved lines on the beach. Then, Cixi guided Ozai's hand and they both shaped the amorphous heap into a medium-sized cube. The baby, following his brother's girlfriend's directives, pushed with his small hands the top of the cube, creating a pyramid. With her fingers, Cixi consolidated the base and made a few holes representing a door and windows.
"There." she said. "It's your home."
Ozai burst in laughter and started playing alone. While he bathed his hands in the sea, Cixi took her painting kit. A shiver of pleasure went down her back as she felt the raspy texture of the paper. It has been too long. Not knowing if salt water was good for painting, she instead poured in a little clay bowl the one they had fetched in a nearby river.
She sighed with content as her paintbrush shaped a new universe in the blank void of the paper. With her hand, she shaped the sea, the beach, the clouds, the sandcastle, the spade and the merry infant in the center of all of this.
The problem was Ozai kept moving. But she didn't want to ask him to stay immobile, as the painting would lose all spontaneity and truth if he obeyed.
"You're sad." Ozai suddenly declared.
She stared at him with bewilderment. He was so charming and so intelligent for his young age. While still wrapped in childish naivety, he was able to read through everyone's heart.
"Yes." she finally replied. "I'm sad."
"Becauthe of Iroh?" he asked.
She shed a tear on the paper, leaving on it a round grey spot. "Yes. Our relationship is secret to no one, the whole capital knows about it."
She clenched her fists so hard her knuckles became white.
"And yet, when his father specifically asks to meet me, he chases me away! And I can't understand why! Iroh would never disobey a direct order from the Fire Lord unless he really thinks he has to!"
Ozai was looking at her wet eyes. She had difficulty to speak.
"Does that mean I'm not worthy enough to be presented to his father? That our relationship is meant to only be temporary? That he's ashamed of me?"
"I don't know why I'm telling you this, it's none of your business."
The baby prince was still watching her with eyes full of sweet concern.
She dried her tears on her forearm."You know what? It's not important. I must not focus on my own selfish problems but on you. You! You're supposed to have fun! Now let's build a whole sand city!"
As Ozai cheered and Cixi smiled, she finally managed to adorn the baby she had painted with an expression of pure joy. Her heart was weighting a bit less, as she understood for a brief moment the happiness it brought to be a mother.
The sun was setting when they finally decided to go back to the house. Both had had one of the best afternoons of their life. Cixi secretly hoped that she would stumble on Azulon while dropping Ozai, but she doubted that Iroh would let her enter the mansion. Jiuan and her would sleep at Hayao's small cabin.
"Hey!" someone called.
A pretty girl, maybe a year younger than her, had sneaked from behind. "Hi," she said with a happy smile, "I'm Abruta."
Cixi smiled back. "I'm Cixi."
Abruta's honest smile grew wider. "I noticed you, so alone and knowing no one, with taking care of your little brother as your only distraction."
"He's not my brother."
"Even worse. Listen, I'm having a party tonight, so why don't you come with your friends at my place? You will be able to meet people."
Cixi grinned. "That would be great! We're in!"
Abruta felt ecstatic. "Awesome! I live in the house in Ao Zhai which is above the cliffs. You can't miss it, the door has a dragon shaped door knocker. See you this evening!"
What a nice girl. Cixi thought, waving as Abruta disappeared. A party will be excellent to relax Iroh and try to make him tell whatever he's bugging him with me. She was still smiling when she reached the royal mansion. She noticed that it was partly smoking.
Iroh burst out of the house with Jiuan and slammed the main door. The Crown Prince had a badgerfrog on his head. Huh? What's happening?
"Why do you have a frog on your head?" she asked Iroh, snickering.
"Mr Fren-Shi fled with us." Iroh declared. "While stopping Jiuan from stealing the Fire Lord Headpiece, I accidentally threw a bowl full of cucumber courgette at my father's face."
"He seems to be allergic to cucumber courgette."
"Oh. It's problematic."
"Jiuan, I'll say it's entirely my fault and I will not mention the failed pick-pocketing. He won't execute me."
"Failed?" Jiuan grinned. Out of his coat he took a five-pronged flame-shaped gold headpiece.
The Fire Lord Headpiece.
"I used the apocalyptic confusion you've unleashed to borrow it."
Iroh stood wide-eyed, mouth opened.
"Alright." he said. "We're doomed."
"Hey, he'll think he lost it in the fleeing thing."
"Nothing is lost." Iroh said. "We can still leave it in his room."
He showed an open palm. "Give it to me."
"What? How dare you! I've honestly earned it!"
"He'll roast you if he discovers you have it! And he will eventually learn it!"
"Is he that angry?" Cixi questioned.
Both boys shivered with fear.
"I never saw him like that." Iroh confessed.
"His head has already doubled in volume." Jiuan added. "He's so furious that a whole part of the manor is burning with blue fire."
Hence the smoke. Cixi guessed.
"Well, guys, I found the right thing to relax tonight, far from all this anguish. We're invited to a party tonight!"
They both looked dubious.
"Teenagers stupider than I? Giggling girls all the night? Please." Jiuan rolled his eyes. "I need less mental pain."
"I don't know, Cixi." Iroh admitted, scratching his scalp. "I would have preferred to enjoy a nice evening with you alone. I'm not very confident in social matters."
"Well, don't you both want to be far from the Fire Lord's wrath?"
Behind them, a whole portion of the house exploded blue.
"Agreed." they both said in chorus.
She smiled. Sometimes, Jiuan's kleptomania is a blessing.
The sun had left the heavens an hour ago. All the members of Iroh's family were busy doing their own things. Ilah had to sleep early. Azulon was reading more military reports while putting ice on his swollen face. Ozai was in the care of one of Baba's maidens, who desperately tried to make him fall asleep - so far with no success. As for Baba herself, Iroh didn't know.
Iroh tiptoed slowly towards the main door. With my luck, I'll get caught before having left the perimeter of the house. He was breathing hard. Each step was executed with infinite precautions, as he didn't want to make the planks crack. He finally reached the entrance and opened the doors without making a noise. He turned back to the dark hallway : everything was still asleep. No one had noticed that the Crown Prince was leaving the house. Wow, I can't believe it; actually, nobody saw that I was going outside by night.
"Where do you think you're going, mister?"
Iroh jumped, with an heroic squeal. Sat in a velvet armchair, Baba was glaring accusingly at him.
He put a hand at the location of his heart. "Baba! Do you know I could have died of a heart attack?"
"Oh no dear, impossible, you're too young and you work out. Your heart cannot be that weak." She coughed. "Anyway, where do you go?"
"I'm invited at a party tonight, Baba. I will meet Cixi and Jiuan there."
"But where do they live? Are their parents irresponsible enough to let them wander out by night?"
"They sleep at Hayao's home here, Baba. He will bring them at the party and take them back at his house at the time he deems correct."
Baba got up. "Hayao will be there?"
"Er, he's just bringing them. I don't think he'll stay."
"Well, dear, I, a responsible grandmother, (Iroh mentally coughed) cannot allow you to walk out alone by night. I'll bring you there. We'll take my B.I.K.E."
"My Biological In terrae Kingdom-born Equidavian. A.k.a. , Djorj."
"That doesn't mean a thing! It's a stupid acronym!"
"Well, no. There's a pun."
"A pun? The word "Bike" doesn't have a sense."
Baba rubbed her chin. "Hmm ...I think remembering it's an extra-dimensional being who gave me the idea."
"Oh." Really, we should take her to an appointment with Doctor Kaizuh or one of his sons.
Unknown to anyone, including Baba herself, the last tea shipment had been inadvertently mixed with the liquid of a bottle on which was written "Si Wong Desert Cactus extract".
"Enough chit-chat, my little boy. Let's party!"
She grabbed Iroh by the forearm and off they went on Djorj. His long clawed feet were brushing the grey sand with a soft caress. The moon was high in the sky. They didn't talk for five minutes.
"TALLY-HO!" Baba shouted to break the silence.
Iroh preferred not to answer to that.
After waiting one minute for him to react, she tried another topic. She pointed towards the sea. "Do you see that ship in the bay?"
Iroh raised his eyes. On the dark waters lit by the silver light of the moon, he could indeed discern the angular shape of a Fire Nation boat.
"Well, Mr Fren-Shi tells me that there are exactly five of them that cross the bay before me each day. Sometimes when you're not here, I sit on the beach as soon as the sun has risen and I count each ship I see. I stay awake until the sun rises again."
"I never manage to remember having seen the five ships."
Iroh's eyes widened. He let his horrified thoughts sink in. In the silence of the night, only the steady clopping of Djorj could be heard.
Baba suddenly pointed towards the sea. "Do you see that ship in the bay?" she asked with a frail voice.
"Baba! You ...you already s-said that!" Iroh stuttered.
Baba chuckled. "Yes I know. I'm teasing you dear. A woman of my age can have her little pleasures."
"Baba, there are times like that when you completely freak me out."
Baba bursted with maniacal laughter.
The mansion before which stood Jiuan, Cixi and Hayao was luxurious. It was even bigger than the Royal manor. Baba pulled the reins of Djorj. "Are we sure it's here?"
"Er, I guess, since there are Cixi and Jiuan before it."
But Baba wasn't focused on him anymore. "Hello, Mr Hayao. Thank you again to have taken care of my grandson."
Hayao bowed. "I only accomplished my duty, Madam." he stated in his typical cold way.
Baba kneeled at his feet and wrapped her arm around his shoulders. "I would be ready for anything for you. Dying for you!" She kissed Hayao on his bald head.Iroh, Jiuan and Cixi ignored the creepy old people. As Cixi lifted the knocker shaped like a dragon head, Iroh suddenly felt sucked away, like his soul was aspired by the biggest flush in the world. He was now seeing from above four teenagers before the same door, a young handsome man with an enormous scar on his face, a goofy looking girl with a braid, another, tall, gloomy, yet pretty, and a third one who was seriously beautiful, with bangs and a pale complexion. This girl was smiling at a stupid-looking boy who had a striking resemblance with Chan.
Someone suddenly grabbed his forearm and he was soon back in his body. "Are you alright?" Jiuan asked. "For a moment you seemed miles away."
"The spirits just gave me a disturbing vision." Iroh revealed, feeling dizzy. "Though I have no idea of what it means."
The door opened, not on a Chan replica, but on the pretty girl Iroh had met earlier in the day.
"Hello." she greeted. "You all came! That's awesome."
Iroh smiled to her. "Hello again ...Agluta, isn't it?"
The girl's brow furrowed a little. "Actually it's Abruta." she corrected.
"Oh. My bad." Iroh grinned, embarrassed, and put an arm behind his head.
Abruta made an inviting gesture with her arm. "Don't stay there, you'll catch a cold! Enter please."
"Thanks." Cixi told her. As soon as they were far enough to not be heard, she asked Iroh "How do you know her?"
"What?" he whispered. "You know her?"
"Who do you think invited us, genius? I met her on the beach with Ozai. She saw I was alone and she was nice enough to propose me to come at her party. And you?"
"She asked me if I wanted her to make me visit the island, seeing I was not from here. She's very nice!"
"Yes! It kinda changes us of the superficial teenagers we're used to."
"Oh yeah, she's sooo friendly." Jiuan declared with a sarcastic voice in the background.
"What do you mean?" Iroh questioned.
"Nothing. You're just blind." Without adding a thing he left them, walking in the direction of the buffet.
"What's wrong with him?" Cixi said. "He seems less ... flamboyant than usual."
Iroh shrugged. "I don't know. I'll talk to him later." He worriedly looked at Jiuan who was brooding in a corner. "He does seem upset."
"Then go now." she insisted. "I can take care of myself for five seconds."
Iroh had just left when she suddenly heard a voice.
"Hey again, Cixilicious. I don't usually say that to a lot of girls, but you're hotter than the Fire Spirit."
She didn't even care to turn. Why is the Universe so obstinate to make my life miserable?
"Hey; can we talk for a second?"
Jiuan raised his eyes to meet Iroh's worried face. "Nah, it's fine." he answered. They were in a darker part of the house, near a beautiful folding screen which depicted combats between dragons and Firebenders. All around them, teenagers were discussing cheerfully the opposite gender, the latest fashions, Kuai Ball or music.
"You've been so upset lately. At first I thought it was our terrifying ride this afternoon, but it doesn't seem to be it. What's the problem?"
Jiuan stayed silent.
"I'm your best friend." Iroh insisted. "You know you can tell me everything."
Yeah, everything but that. Jiuan bitterly thought.
Iroh was dazzled by Jiuan's rare taciturnity. "Is there anything I can do to lift your spirits?"
Aw, man. What would Hayao do in a similar situation? Iroh wondered. He scratched his head. "You know, sometimes, life seems so complicated that it looks like you're lost into a deep fog, unable to see where to go or to know what to do. But if you allow the mist to not blind you completely, you'll see you'll always have someone at your side that can guide you out of the brume."
Jiuan raised an eyebrow. "Where did that come from?"
"I don't know, I just made it up. Did it sound stupid?"
"I'm sorry." Iroh lowered his head. "I just can't see you so forlorn when it is supposed to be a rare moment of joy."
Pity filled Jiuan's heart. He put a hand on his best friend's shoulder. "Iroh, you're my best buddy, the sole true friend I've ever had. I know you want to help me, but it's just ..." He sighed. "It's just you can't. I have to figure it out myself." He smiled weakly. "But thank you for worrying."
He suddenly noticed something behind Iroh's shoulder and his eyes widened.
"Hey," he quickly said, faking innocence, "wanna see a new "magic" trick? I call it "The Black Inferno". Though it doesn't involve fire. Nor the colour black actually. It's just because the name is cool."
Iroh suspiciously looked at him. "What's the problem?"
"The problem?" the kleptomaniac answered, sweating. "What problem, there's no problem!" Iroh would have bet his title that Jiuan was trying very hard not to look above his shoulder. He turned and froze. Leaning against a column, Chan was talking and smiling charmingly at a sulking Cixi.
"I'll be right back." he declared to Jiuan in a blank tone.
Jiuan preferred to leave before it started to get ugly.
Stay calm and polite. Iroh kept repeating himself. Hayao always repeats that to talk first is less straining and usually more effective.
Well, Father always repeats that you don't earn respect if you don't fight.
Cixi saw him and her face expressed a mix of relief and guilt.
"Chan." he softly said, his calm voice leagues away of the raging turmoil that was burning inside his body. "May I know what are you doing?"
Chan jumped when he heard his name. However, unlike their previous encounter, he managed to not crawl away in fear. "Prince Iroh. I saw that your girlfriend was alone again and I couldn't let her be bored. So I tried to entertain her."
"I'm back now, so there is no further need to stay. I'll be pleased if you leave."
"Lady Cixi didn't seem to mind so if she wishes me to remain h..."
"You said it." Iroh interrupted him. "She's my girlfriend. She's mine. And I ask you to leave!" He had shouted the last words. The whole assembly was now looking at them in silence, but he didn't care.
Cixi whacked him with a tea tray. If Iroh was angry, she was furious. "Listen to me, Iroh of the Fire Nation. I. Am. Not. Yours. I belong to NO ONE!!"
Chan smirked. "I think Cixilicious openly expressed her opinion. Prince or not, she isn't interested by you." He wrapped his arm paternally around her shoulders; however she crushed his foot in response.
Iroh's temper flared. "So, Chan, you think I'm not good enough for her?"
"Well, she just said it."
"I didn't!" she shrieked in protestation.
"And you think you are worthy enough for her?" Iroh continued.
"Pretty much, yeah."
"That's funny, I also kinda think like that." He could barely control what he was saying or doing, having been overcome by a long-refrained rage.
"There's only one way to settle that." The Crown Prince's lips stretched into an evil smile.
At this point, Chan's tiny brain started to wonder if he hadn't been too far. He wouldn't dare ...
"I challenge you to an Agni Kai!" Iroh roared.
The audience gasped. He dared.
"Meet me in five minutes on the beach." Iroh stated. As he left the house, the crowd opened before him, like if he was already engulfed in flames.
"Oh, Hayao!" Baba sighed in delight. "I never met someone like you!" Somehow, she had managed to jump into the old Firebender's arms and was now hugging him tightly. The poor midget with his short legs was barely capable of holding the tall woman in his chubby arms.
"Madam, although I appreciate your marks of (would you mind releasing my head?) of affection, I am a married man and I love my wife and ..."
"You know," Baba interrupted him, "I don't usually say that to a lot of men, but you're hotter than the Fire Spirit!"
"Erm, thank you, but ..."
Chu Baka was standing threateningly before the house. Lightning dramatically fell nearby, lighting her fat bloated face from below. An horrifying sight. Behind her, Iroh slammed the main door and walked fulminating towards the beach.
"MAY I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING WITH THAT WOMAN IN YOUR ARMS?"
"Honey, I assure you, I have no attraction towards ..."
"HOW CAN YOU DO THAT TO ME? AND OUR DAUGHTERS? HAVE YOU EVEN THOUGHT ABOUT OUR DAUGHTERS?"
"Madam, please stay quiet." Baba snappily told the enormous shapeless woman. "You annoy my beloved. With that attitude of yours, it's no surprise his heart became free for a better woman."
"A BETTER WOMAN?"
"With a better breath too I have to say." Baba added, waving her hand before her nose.
Chu Baka almost doubled in volume, scarlet with anger.
"Darling," Hayao said with a small, small voice, "you ...you can't harm her. She's the mother of the Fire Lord."
Chu Baka loudly exhaled, vapor coming out her dilated nostrils. "Not even pulling her arm out of its socket?"
"Er, no." Hayao was sweating now.
"Very well." She grabbed Hayao and put it over her shoulder. "DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT GETTING CLOSE TO HIM IN A SEVEN-LEAGUE RADIUS!!" she bellowed to Baba.
The Fire Lady Dowager was irradiating anger too - literally. "You cannot take him without his agreement! You mustn't! This is no way to treat my beloved!"
"GET OUT OF HERE!" Chu Baka roared.
"Help." Hayao weakly said.
"He's mine!!" Baba shouted.
"NO, HE'S MINE, AND MINE ONLY!!!!"
"Let's settle this then." Baba declared, throwing her cloak away. The party guests who had followed Iroh were now entirely focused on the verbal battle between the two old ladies. "I CHALLENGE YOU TO AN AGNI KAI!!"
"CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!!" Chu Baka shrieked.
"But, sweet heart, you can't even Firebend." Hayao told his monstrous spouse.
"I. DON'T. CARE!!"
"I've never been to a wilder party." an Ember Island girl confessed to her friend.
Their stupid proverb about the "smoothing" properties of Ember Island. Iroh mentally grumbled. I've never felt edgier.
"Iroh, what are you doing? This is madness!" Jiuan argued.
Half of Iroh was agreeing with him. I can't believe I've just challenged someone to an Agni Kai. He was shaking with fear. Am I going crazy?
It will teach him a lesson! his more Fire Nation-like side yelled. I've been fed up for years of his attitude!
But do you realize the consequences if he wins? Or worse, if he loses?
"Can you stop for a second and consider the gravity of your actions?" Jiuan added. "Do you know how serious is an Agni Kai? You don't challenge someone to it for petty love problems!"
"We'll see." He has been too far now. He couldn't step down. And he had to admit he really really hungered for a duel with Chan.
He threw his shirt away, which was set ablaze by his anger. It awoke a flock of pigeon-doves which, frightened, flew behind him. The burning shirt was reflected in his eyes, mimicking his aflame rage. His muscles were tense. Blood was rushing in his ears.
He faced Chan. The foam of the waves was regularly kissing his feet. His untied hair was flowing with the marine wind.
Without warning, Chan put his palm on the ground, spinned and Firebent a whip of fire with his stretched leg. Iroh dodged it and summoned twin fireballs which twirled in a chaotic course towards Chan. However, the latter jumped in the air and sent his foot which put out the first sphere of flames. He landed and nonchalantly caught the second in his hand, before pressing it and turning it into a trail of smoke. He started to regain trust in himself.
"It's the best you can do, my Prince?" he mocked. "Some sparks?"
Iroh ignored the sarcasms. Good. If he becomes cocky, he will be less weary. Chan condensed out of the air a tiny globe of fire which quickly extended into a blazing circle. He directed it with his foot and hit the ground. The circle of flames grew to dramatic proportions and surged in all directions. Jiuan dived into the ocean to avoid it.
He's more a "footer" than an "armer" in his Firebending. I must break his root. The speed of the circle was raising a small tempest of sand which was getting closer at an alarming rate. Iroh jumped high in the air. As his ascension slowly neared to an end, he started charging his Firebending in the soles of his feet. His chi rushed at the end of the energy lines, fed a little by the residual sunlight reflected by the moon. He felt most of his energy came down, so powerful that his feet started to shake as he rotated and came down.
Everything seemed to happen slowly, as if a mean spirit had frozen Time itself. Iroh came into contact with the ground with an horizontal body, however only his hands abruptly touched the sand. Slightly grimacing as his tightened abdominal muscles kept his legs an inch from the sand, he used the strength which had been created with the impact to propel his feet upwards, his chi finally igniting the air. His legs followed and he Firebent a huge stream of flames, standing on the beach only on his palms. As the inferno exploded at Chan's feet and hurled him backwards, Iroh allowed gravity and the massive inertia produced to pull him down. He flexed instinctively his lower limbs and jumped as soon as his toes reached the sand. His right hand in the Ray position and his left arm stretched for balance, he sent one final wall of fire to Chan, who barely blocked it. Iroh spinned and landed right before his defeated opponent, breathing heavily. The duel had not lasted longer than thirty seconds.
"I still fought well." Chan managed to articulate.
"You were not even a match." Iroh retorted.
Cixi was coming down, her face distorted with rage.
"You!" she shouted to Jiuan and Chan. "Go away!"
Strangely, she was more frightening than a Firebending Iroh. She didn't have to insist ; in no time, Chan and Jiuan had retreated to the house, from which were coming explosions.
She was facing the sea; Iroh could only see her alabaster back. They stayed a minute lost in their respective contemplation.
"I'll make a fire." Iroh finally said. He punched the air, setting fire to the sand. Because of the salt from the ocean, the flames partly burnt green.
"How dare you?" she finally said.
"How do I dare what?" he asked.
She turned, tears in her eyes. "How dare you challenge someone with me as a reward? How dare you start an Agni Kai for such a superficial reason?" She sobbed, but more with anger than anguish. "How dare you pretend you love me when you're too ashamed to present me to your father?"
"Chan has been annoying you for years! Have you seen how he treated you? It had to come to an end! This duel was necessary!"
"You never have to fight!"
"He still participated when he could refuse to be part of it! But, strangely, he's not here to be yelled at!"
"Chan is an official idiot! You are supposed to be intelligent, not to act as a jerk!"
Iroh tried to stay calm. "I was tired, okay? My royal duties have been very straining lately and ..."
"By the fiery breath of the Sun, don't start on the "I'm so unlucky." part. I've heard it almost everyday!"
"What? Do you have any idea of what it is to live for your title first?"
"I think I have a pretty good idea! You keep mumbling about it!"
"Then why are you so angry at me?"
"You're so spoiled! You were born a man, full of riches, who can wish and get whatever he wants, and one day you'll be the ruler of the strongest country ever, if not the ruler of the whole world! And I? I'm just a well-crafted object, with no right to speak, no right to think, I just have to wait to be sold to the highest buyer, as were my mother, grandmothers and all my woman ancestors before me! You have so much power and and so many possibilities, and yet you act as if you were the most unlucky person in the world, when I, I have nothing! You know what? You're sickening!"
"Sickening? What are you telling me? That you're just with me because of the power you'll get when you'll be the Fire Lady? You just want power?"
Cixi was about to deny when she realized that actually, she did. She had loved Iroh for himself - his kind soul, his wits, his caring side, his jokes - but she had to admit that she had craved for power, a power that would give her freedom. Indeed, until their attack by bandits, she had accepted to go with Iroh only because of the possibility, the slight possibility, that she could eventually marry him and become a powerful, free, woman : the Fire Lady. And that part of her was still lodged in her soul, and had been slowly rotting her love ever since. Oh no. Zola was right after all.
She hadn't even been able to tell the difference between his voice and Chan's.
Iroh was looking at her with angry eyes, but as she remained silent, a deep pain pierced his heart. He watched her with a mix of horror and despair. A single tear shined at the corner of his eye. The fire flickered and faded, leaving them in the dark.
"Cixi." he said. She couldn't see him; only black was before her. "I think ...I think we should end that relationship for now. I - I - I have to think."
"It might be better." she admitted.
She heard the sound of running and knew she was alone in the night.
Iroh was weeping in silence as he ran back to the mansion. As everyone seemed to have come out to behold what looked like a battle, the house was empty. He sat against a wall and put his head in his arms.
"Hey." someone said. "Are you feeling alright?" The stranger put a hand on his shoulder. But Iroh didn't want to talk.
"You should not stay bare-chested with such a cold night." The girl (she had a feminine voice) put a woolen fabric on his strong shoulders. "Now tell me: what's the problem?"
"My girlfriend ...doesn't seem to love me for who I am."
"Girls can be so manipulative sometimes." Abruta declared with a sly smile.
"EAT MY BOLTS!" Chu Baka yelled.
"SUFFER FROM THE MIGHT OF MY WRATH!" Baba snapped back.
The battle that would be later remembered as the "Duel of the Grannies" was the most awe-inspiring display of power Ember Island had ever witnessed. The local police hadn't even think to stop the two crazy old ladies and had joined the hysterical teenagers who were cheering at the furious women.
"Go, Fluffy Monster!" a tall dark young man encouraged Chu Baka.
"Doom her, Sparky Sparky Boom Woman!" another acclaimed.
"Sparky Sparky Boom" was certainly the best way to describe Baba's fighting style. Being able to only heat up the air, she created small pockets of unbearable heat she then sent to her adversary. However, her Firebending being highly unstable, it tended to degenerate. At the very best, it detonated into sparks. But most often, it exploded.
"MWAHAHAHAHA!" Baba laughed as she created what she called a "heat wave". "TAKE THAT, FLUFFY MONSTER!" The wall of burning hot air slid at blinding speed towards Chu Baka, who jumped out of its way to land only three feet away of Baba.
"WAAAARGGGGHH!!" she roared to the Fire Lord's mother in a feral way. What Chu Baka didn't have in firepower, she replaced it with incredible agility and speed for such a mass of flesh and fat. She fought with twin crossbows; hence the use and (loud) mention of bolts.
Baba melted the ground under her enemy and changed it into lava, before running to a farther corner of the lounge where they were fighting. When Chu Baka smelled the delicate fragrance of burnt dirty feet emanating from her shoes, she leapt before sinking into the deadly magma completely. Landing on a hand, she fired four bolts at Baba who heated up the air at such speed that the bolts caught fire. Manipulating now the burning projectiles, the senile Firebender directed them in the direction from which they had been fired. But Chu Baka wasn't here anymore; she had sprung in the air and into action and was now coming down on Baba, like an Air-to-Surface rock, a heavy and deadly threat.
It was the first time however that actual flames had appeared during the combat and Baba was not going to let that occasion pass. She could not safely create fire, but she could still manipulate it.
From each burning bolt, she summoned five thin fire lashes which she then made rotate at great speed, slashing the night sky with bright red and orange strikes. Chu Baka took out of her sleeves an iron umbrella which she used to shield herself from the fire.
"Why would she have a metal umbrella in her sleeves?" someone interrogated.
"BECAUSE A WOMAN ALWAYS NEEDS SOMETHING FASHIONABLE AND USEFUL FOR SELF-DEFENSE!" she bawled.
Baba quickly spreaded the fire on the sides of the lounge as the bolts were starting to put out. Four walls of flame of equal size grew, taller than the house. The spectators "oh"-ed.
From the tall flames, Baba summoned continuously thousands of small blasts of fire, all aimed at Chu Baka. With a masterful use of the umbrella, the royal tutor's wife made what would be eventually called "fire bullets" ricochet on her iron shield. She charged at Baba and they were now head to head, umbrella against flaming fingers. Baba's hot fingers left red holes in the metal which turned into trenches as she slowly stretched her hand towards Chu Baka's bloated face. Wrinkles were deepened by anger, bones were creaking with fatigue and varicose veins were even more showing than usual with all the physical strain.
"HE'S MINE!" Baba screamed.
"HE'S MY OWN!" Chu Baka replied.
Behind the hysterical crowd, Hayao rubbed his temples. "I knew I should have listened to her parents Wukee and Kasheec and let her marry Hansolo..." he told himself.
Jiuan was encouraging both old contestants when he suddenly noticed Cixi sitting alone on a small wall. Where's Iroh?
He left the raging battle and came sit at her side. "Hey. What happened on the beach? You arrived furious and now you look ...forlorn."
"I'm torn." she answered.
O... kay, that's what I call cryptic. Jiuan thought. "I've been taking bets. 67 people think Baba's going to win but 68 think it will be Chu Baka. The sixty-eighth person was Hayao himself after Chu Baka smacked him for remaining neutral. There is ..."
"Iroh and I broke up." she suddenly announced.
Jiuan stopped talking.
"Can you repeat that?"
"Iroh and I have decided it would be better if we ended that relationship."
Jiuan was dumbstruck. His mind was empty, blank, devoid of anything. Then, slowly, ecstasy spreaded in his chi lines. He didn't ask about Iroh's morale. He didn't think about Cixi's obvious sorrow. His entire mind was focused on one tiny tiny thought :
She is single.
It was so easy. He had done it hundreds of time. A girl who had just come out of a relationship was vulnerable. You just had to show compassion, to listen to her problems, her doubts and she would not forget it. Be gentle.
"Why?" he asked, his voice revealing his barely concealed emotion.
She told him everything.
"So," Jiuan tried to sum up the situation, "you practically ended the relationship all by yourself, but it's Iroh who made it official. So why are so sad?"
She sighed. "I don't know. Mind you, I really think what I told him, I would tell him again if I had to. He acts selfish, he's oblivious to others, he treats me more as trophy than as a girlfriend, not even envisaging a meeting between me and his father! And the fact that he keeps complaining! MY life is much harder."
She looked at the ground, lit irregularly by the explosions. "For the Agni Kai thing, I could have understood if it was because of tiredness and a deep grudge against Chan. It was a proof of attachment, sort of, after all. But the way they called me...like if I was a possession ... Again I could have forgiven him, but he had to ask to be excused! Instead he tried to justify his acts! Is it so hard for boys to say "I'm sorry" and acknowledge the fact they were wrong?" She bit her lower lip so hard a small drop of blood fell on the ground.
Jiuan wrapped his arm against her waist. "But yet ... ?"
She sighed again. "But for the strangest reason in the world, even though I knew how he acted for two years, I loved him." She inhaled. "And I still do."
She got up. "I don't understand myself! If he was so horrible, why did I waited so long for acting? And why did I love him? But I can't deny he's been acting that way!" She turned to face Jiuan. "What should I do?"
That was the moment. What he would say would change the balance. He refrained himself from laughing maniacally.
On the other side ...could he really do that to Iroh? His mind shrugged. The Crown Prince had had his chance.
"If you think it's for the better, then you were right to do so." he said. He added, allowing himself a gentle grin : "I'll always support you, no matter what happens."
She smiled, tears still leaving nacre-coloured traces on her cheeks. "Thank you." She sniffed. "Iroh was right on one thing: you're a great friend."
Jiuan's love and feeling of triumph was suddenly overwhelmed by guilt: he remembered when Iroh had defended him from those bullies when he was twelve, the numerous times when he had given him the correct answers when pressured by Mr Luong, the time when he had taken the blame for a theft he had done.
The time, actually not even an hour ago, when he had told him that he would always be here to help him, no matter what.
Am I ... such ... a jerk? he thought. I cannot betray Iroh, one of the two persons in this world that count for me. He glanced at Cixi who looked lost in her thoughts. And I cannot betray you. I know now I cannot bring you so much happiness as Iroh. Even now, after all the reasons you gave me, you, my love, you still love him. I'm not worthy enough for you. My greatest joy is to see you happy, even if it is with another. I love you too much.
"Jiuan? You look ... disturbed?"
"No it's alright. Cixi ..."
"You're dead wrong."
He rose and started to move in circles. "I do understand and I agree with you that Iroh can be selfish, self-important, over-complaining, everything you said. But sometimes only. He's also brave, romantic, intelligent, polite, and I'm sorry, most of time he actually is selfless. I know him for far longer than you so don't interrupt me!" he shouted as she attempted to talk. He made large gestures in the air. "Look at what he did for Ozai today! Remember how bad he felt when he realized he had been negligent with his grandmother!" To prove him right, an explosion destroyed a part of the wall on which Cixi was sitting and Baba laughed evilly. "He does have faults, but who doesn't have any? You, for example, you're very self-righteous!" Cixi prepared to snap back. "And you're easily irritated!" She suddenly preferred to shut her anger up. "I, I am manipulative, I'm selfish, I lie a lot!" He put his head between his hands. "For goodness' sake, Cixi, he agreed to come here when he would have preferred to stay at home with you!"
Cixi wept. "But Jiuan ...at first I agreed to come with him because of power ...For freedom ... And I'm afraid I love him only for that. I'm not able to say what are my exact feelings!"
Jiuan clenched his teeth. "Cixi, if you were only interested in power, do you really think you would have broken up with him?"
Cixi blushed. "Er. I guess that no."
"NOW GO TALK TO HIM!" He pointed in the direction of the mansion.
"But he threw me away when his father asked ..."
"I DON'T CARE IF YOU HAVE ISSUES, TRY TO TALK ABOUT THEM AND SOLVE THEM INSTEAD OF BREAKING UP IMMEDIATELY, YOU IDIOTS!!!!" he yelled. Drool was coming out of his mouth. "GO!!"
"Aye aye, sir!" she gasped. She ran towards the mansion.
Jiuan sat alone on the remaining part of the wall and put his head between his crossed arms. I can't believe I'm the one who keeps saving their relationship. he thought. He laughed sadly as tears slid down his cheeks.
"Thank you for the tea, Abruta." Iroh smiled. "And the sympathetic ear."
They were on a terrace from which they could see the slate grey sea, crossed by the silver reflection of the moon and the orange light of the explosions which seemed to come from behind the house.
She huddled against him. "No, that's normal. We always should listen to the concerns of others." She sighed. "That Cixi girl didn't seem to appreciate you for what you are. Let's hope you'll one day find a woman who is worthy of you."
"But ... I loved her."
"From what you told me, I cannot say it was reciprocated."
"But we had been so close today! Closer than usual. And now ..."
"Things like that happen if they have to, whatever occurred before."
He leaned on the balcony. "Maybe she was right. I am too selfish."
"A girl must learn to comply to the traits of her lover, no matter what." She stretched her arm to put her hand on the balcony and Iroh noticed a small black and white gasteropod was slipping on a trail of saliva an inch only under Abruta's palm. "WATCH IT, A SKUNK SLUG!"
She gasped but it was too late. The small slug, frightened, doubled in volume and released with a hissing sound a noxious green gas. It smelled terribly. The foul stench spread in the air. They coughed as the gas burned their eyes and Iroh instinctively took Abruta in his arms to protect her. When the green cloud dissipated, he realized what he was doing. "Er, sorry." he said while releasing her.
She laughed. "No problem, it was quite enjoyable actually." She caressed his cheek. "Oh, Iroh, you deserve so much better than an ungrateful girl." Her eyes were shining with the light of the stars. "I love you." She walked closer, their lips being only inches away.
He walked backwards until he was stuck in a corner. "Abruta, you're awesome, but isn't it too early for that? We barely know each other."
"Don't worry. We'll have plenty of time." She leaned forward, closing her eyelids. Iroh could smell her cherry breath. He closed his eyes too and their lips lightly came into contact.
He suddenly backed away. "Wait a minute, who told you my name?"
She reluctantly opened her eyes. "I beg your pardon?"
"My name." he insisted, his brow furrowing. "Iroh. I didn't tell you."
She laughed uneasily. "Oh, you know, you're so famous that we all know the face of our prince and ..."
"And you didn't once show you knew? Not even when you greeted us at the door?"
"How could I have been so stupid?" He hid his eyes under his palms. "You met me on the outskirts of the city, and by a huge stroke of luck, you stumble on my girlfriend and you invite her and whoever is with her. And when I broke up, who was here to console me? You."
She rolled her eyes. "Okay, okay, I admit it, I've set up this whole party to see if I could get close to you and become your girlfriend. And I was so lucky! But what's the big deal? Your previous girlfriend too was interested in power." Her voice was now sounding more bitter, less seducing.
Iroh stood up, his eyes revealing a determination as hard as steel.
"No, if she liked me only for my rank, she wouldn't have had the guts to tell me what she thought! She wouldn't have stood by her principles!" He turned to face the sea. "She endured me when I was sickening her with my complaints and when I was such a jerk with her! She never questioned my choices!" He gave a dirty look at Abruta. "She always was honest with me."
He walked towards the inside. "It's all my fault if she grew fed up with me. I'm going to see her, and even if she doesn't care anymore, I'll tell her that I love her."
"No!" Abruta grabbed his arm. "Don't leave!"
"Leave me alone!" he shouted. "You disgust me!"
"You don't understand." To his surprise, she started to cry. "I had to seduce you."
"Why?" he asked, more startled than enraged now.
She wiped her tears. "My father. He wants me to marry a nobleman to gain prestige at the royal court. But the noble in question is 45!"
She sniffed. Iroh didn't know what to say.
"My only chance to escape this arranged mariage was to find a young man, with more power than this lord, who would love me! When I recognized you near the beach, I couldn't believe my chance!"
"But now, all is lost."
Iroh felt sorry for her. He couldn't just walk away and leave her to her problems.
He suddenly had an idea.
"I think I know how to help you."
As Cixi entered the house, she noticed Iroh closing a door, smiling. His grin vanished when he noticed her. "Hey."
They looked at each other, not knowing what to do.
"Maybe we could go outside on the terrace." Iroh proposed. "The scenery is beautiful."
She nodded. They both went outside. Avoiding to look at each other, they focused on the sea.
"It is beautiful." Cixi finally said.
They both remained quiet. Come on, Iroh. he thought. Watery? He wanted to headdesk to death.
"So." he told her.
Another awkward silence.
"I wanted to talk to you." Iroh finally admitted.
"That's funny, me too. But begin!"
"No no no, ladies first." Idiot! he told himself. Stop acting in a cowardly way! "No actually I'll start!" He danced on his feet, feeling uncomfortable. "Cixi ... I'm so, so sorry. I've been treating you as if you were a thing I could discard. When you're ..."
Amazing me with your personality.
"... so complex and so deep. I don't know if you'll be able to forgive me."
She sighed. "I wanted to say... I'm sorry too. I've been a little harsh with what I told you ...you know."
"No, I'm the one who is sorry. You were right. I'm acting like you said."
"But not only and not always. You're ... a wonderful person, Iroh."
"So are you." He leaned to kiss her.
She slapped him. "I'm not done with you!"
"What was that for?" he exclaimed. They were now facing each other, their bodies expressing their anger.
"I might have been a little exhausted lately, which explained my negative view on your actions, but you still have no excuse for stranding me like you did today!"
"What are you talking about?"
She punched the wall. "Remember, when your daddy-o asked to meet me, and you sent me away with Ozai?"
His skin became paler. "Oh, that."
"Yes, that. If I'm such a wonderful person, why are you so ashamed of me you don't want the Fire Lord to meet me? Am I too low for your royal standards? Am ..."
He put a hand on her forearm and she stopped talking.
"It's not that I don't want him to meet you; I do not want you to meet him."
He looked at the sea. "Although I often say otherwise, I love my father. But he rarely is my father. The first thing he taught me was that duty was above anything else. And he acts more as the Fire Lord ... than as my father. Why would he care to meet you? To test you? To see if you are the adequate person to be the Fire Lady?"
"Maybe he just wanted to meet me because I was the woman his son loved."
"I don't know. It's a sad thing to say, but ..."
He took a heavy breath.
"I'm not even sure that my father loves me." Tears started to form at the corners of his eyes. "I don't want him to break you."
She wiped out the tears. "I'm not afraid."
"Do you think you would be strong enough?"
"No, I won't."
She put her hand on his cheek.
"But together, we are."
He chuckled. "It's so melodramatic. It reminds me of our first date."
She laughed. "Oh, it was a complete disaster. It's the first time you realized I had violent tendencies."
"You mean, when you kicked the thug in the groin?"
They bursted out laughing.
"I like your violent tendencies." said Iroh.
"Even when it's you I hit?"
"Yes. Even that."
They huddled up, not paying attention at the sky which was slowly illuminating with the colours of dawn.
"You know, when I saw Chan kiss you ..." Iroh began.
Goddamn. Cixi thought.
"It was an accident!" she shrieked. "I didn't make the difference between his voice and yours!"
"I don't know what I'm supposed to think of that."
"I was half-asleep and I had been daydreaming all d...I'm sorry."
He smiled. "Anyway, what I wanted to say, when I saw you accidentally kiss Chan ..."
He stood up.
"It didn't cross my mind that you could be cheating on me."
"We're not married."
"Yes, I know. I mean I thought it couldn't be possible."
"So you were upset."
"Yes. I mean no. I mean, yes, but not at you."
He facepalmed. "What I am awkwardly trying to tell you is that I trust you so much that, unless you declared me so, I would never question your love for me."
They were nose to nose. "I love you like I never loved any other girl before and like I will never love again. You are so incredible I can't believe my luck to be with you."
He breathed. "Life without you isn't worth living."
Chu Baka and Baba were both starting to weaken. Their attacks had been a little less dynamic and powerful. They both wanted to end this.
Chu Baka threw out of her sleeve a dozen of metal balls. "What's that?" Baba asked.
"Those balls are full of boom-powder that MY beloved brought me from the battlefield. If you try to terminate them, they'll explode and you'll die!"
Baba gasped and summoned all the flames in the vicinity to create numerous columns of fire. She then used them to rocket the boom-powder balls up in the air.
However, the heat, the pressure and the speed made the small bombs detonate, but in the heavens.
The sky was lit with thousands of colours as Iroh and Cixi kissed each other.Holding hands, they came back inside to see Abruta and Chan in deep conversation.
"I don't usually say that to a lot of girls, but you're hotter than the Fire Spirit."
"You're lying. I'm pretty sure you tell that to every girl."
They both laughed as Iroh and Cixi passed by.
"Have fun, lovebirds!" Cixi wished them.
Chan and Abruta waved, smiling.
"Poor Abruta..." Cixi said. "She's so sweet. She doesn't deserve someone like Chan."
"Oh, I think she is quite happy with it, as with all the lands I gave Chan, he has now a much higher rank than before." Iroh confessed.
Cixi raised an eyebrow but before she could have time to ask a question they were tackled from behind.
"So you're back together." Jiuan told them. He had a strange sour, bitter smile. Then he hugged both of them. "I'm so happy for you two!"
They hugged him tighter. "Thanks Jiuan. But there is one thing that could complete our happiness." He stretched his hand. "Give us our wallets back."
Jiuan cackled. "Ah, it's so good when things go back to normal!"
Iroh left the two of them talking while he looked for Baba. The poor woman. he thought. She must be so bored by now, an entire night waiting for us.
He then stumbled on his father.
"Iroh." said Azulon with a cold voice. "I was looking for you. I've decided to stay one more week than what was scheduled. Don't you know where is your grandmother?"
An explosion destroyed what was left of Abruta's backyard.
"I have no idea, Father."
Azulon smiled. He then noticed a beautiful young lady coming out of the mansion. She was tall, pale, with golden eyes shining with cunning and mischief. Her black hair was tied in a top-knot, but she had several small braids on the right side of her head, and one long bang of hair was obscuring her face on the other side. As she came closer, she smiled shyly. Although Azulon had never talked to her, for having watched her with Iroh, he knew who she was.
Iroh turned towards him, with a radiant face.
"Father, I want you to meet someone."
- This might be French Froglegs's longest chapter ever.
- The Agni Kai between Baba and Chu Baka would have unexpected consequences. The explosions would create radiations strong enough to mutate the reproductive system of a young woman who was standing too close. Years later, her first baby would be born with an over-developped Third Eye chakra and a tendency to make things go boom.
- The fact that Chu Baka uses crossbows is a reference to the "real" Chewbacca who did the same. There are plenty of Star Wars and Chewbacca references in this chapter.
- The Ray position is like a finger gun with the thumb parallel to the index and the middle finger. Many benders do it in the series, but I came up with the name.
- The entire idea of those two chapters came from the picture of Baby Ozai we see in "Sozin's Comet" and me thinking : "In what circunmstances was that picture painted ?".
For the collective works of the author, go here.
|Sozin's Blood Chapters|
|Book 1: Sparks|
|The Second Prince - A Typical Day - The Twenty-First Day of the Eighth Month - To Live - The Beach, Part 1 - The Beach, Part 2 - Inconsistencies - Interlude : Cixi Alone - Southwards|