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The Fire Lord's kitchen was engulfed in flames as he hurled a massive torrent of fire at the direction of the intruders who had taken his uncle away through the window.
Jin hardly had time to react, narrowly getting out of the way as the wave of flames roared by her.
Through the smoke and seared window, the two of them saw no one. The Daughters of Ozai had vanished with the Dragon of West.
Zuko remained firmly rooted where he was, his fist still outstretched in the direction of the window. He was breathing so heavily, Jin thought about calling in a doctor out of fear that he would pass out. The Fire Lord looked at his right shoulder, saw the dart protruding from it, and did precisely that as the toxins did their nasty work.
Zuko slowly awoke in what initially appeared to be a blinding white room. As his vision returned, he could clearly see this was not the case and everything came into focus. Without thinking, even for a second, he shot up in his hospital bed, fists blazing, but stopped when he saw Jin sitting at the foot of the bed.
"Hey, are you good?" she asked.
It took a few moments for Zuko to turn his focus away from the thought of his uncle suffering at the hands of Mai and look at his advisor. "What kind of question is that?" he asked in a hoarse half-whisper.
"Because I need you to be if we're going to track those harpies down," Jin said.
"And I suppose you know where they went?" Zuko asked.
"I don't know if you've noticed, Zuko, but your uncle isn't exactly a lightweight," Jin replied. "They can't get far with him and they have to have a place somewhere near here where they can hide out."
Zuko knew where she was going with this. "And you know where we can look?"
"Having a criminal past helps me know where all of the best hiding spots are," Jin said.
"Alright," Zuko said, having regained his composure. "Tell me where they could've gone and I'll set out immediately."
"I think it would be best if I showed you myself, sir."
"No, Jin," said Zuko. "This is something I have to do alone."
"With all due respect, sir, I'm coming with you whether you like it or not," Jin said firmly.
"Why do you think that's necessary?" asked Zuko, too focused on his mission to really argue with her.
"Someone has to watch your ass," Jin answered. "And I'll always be there to do it."
A smile spread to the edges of Zuko's face as he took comfort in his friend's words. "Alright, Jin. Now let's get moving."
"You don't need time to recuperate?"
Zuko was already out the door by the time he said, "No."
Iroh awoke in what initially appeared to be a pitch black room. As his vision returned, he realized this was not the case and that there was a single light in the room, a dim light bulb that hung over Mai's head.
The Dragon of the West sat up and calmly looked Mai in the eye as he spoke. "I don't think I need to tell you that what you are doing is foolish," he said.
"Why?" Mai asked. "Because Zuko is going to find me? That's exactly what I want him to do. I'm setting a trap for him and you're the bait."
"No, I didn't mean that," Iroh said. "It is foolish, because there is no reason for all of this to happen."
"Oh, is that right?" Mai asked.
"You feel you have been wronged by Zuko and you want to make him feel what you feel," Iroh started. "That much is true, but is this persona you've created really who you are? A daughter of Ozai? I've known a true daughter of Ozai. Let me tell you what is takes to be a daughter of my brother. You have to be evil, cruel, calculating, and merciless."
There was now a huge camelephant in the room and it only took Mai moments to shoot it down. "You're talking about Azula aren't you?"
Iroh stroked his beard as he replied. "Yes. I remember when Azula was four years old, she loved to play with dolls. Her father never noticed, because he was too busy with his duties as Fire Lord. Then one day, she got a brand new, specially-made doll that was only sold in the Fire Nation. Her mother arranged for her to get the very first one before they were sold to all the other children in the Fire Nation. She showed it to everyone in the palace, including her father. When Ozai saw the doll, he ripped it from her hands and tore its head off, telling her such things were not meant for her and that she needed to be tougher and stronger. I never saw her as a normal child from that day on. She spent all of her time training and conditioning herself to be this thing that she wasn't. Then by the time the Avatar resurfaced, she had become something of unspeakable horror."
"I didn't know you had it in you to say mean things about people," said Mai, genuinely shocked at Iroh's words.
"I'm not saying it was her fault. Her father conditioned her to be that way," Iroh said. "And after she nearly killed me, I said to Zuko that she was crazy and needed to go down."
"And do you still feel that way?" Mai inquired.
"Yes," Iroh said. "Because no matter how much I wanted her to become her own person and not who her father wanted her to be, I realized that she never could."
"So you're not as forgiving as you've lead all of us to believe over the years."
"Say what you want to, Mai, but my biggest regret other than not being able to save my son was not being able to save my niece," Iroh said.
"Why are you telling me this?" asked Mai.
"Because I am trying to save you, Mai," Iroh said. "You have branded yourself as the bearer of Ozai's legacy, but it is not too late to redeem yourself. You can walk away from this and have closure with Zuko the right way."
Having heard enough, Mai stood up and made her way towards the door, stopping to speak only once more. "I've always respected you, Iroh, but I'm going to have closure with Zuko my own way. I'm sorry you got caught up in this." She then closed the door behind her, leaving Iroh by himself.
It had only been two hours since Zuko and Jin had left the Fire Nation Capital and already the two had to stop and make camp for the night. The Fire Lord was feeling weary and could not continue until he had more rest, although he'd never admit it.
The two of them were seated around a campfire, their tents standing behind them, and were feasting on smoked sea slug prepared by Jin. Normally, Zuko would have done it himself, but she insisted he rest and given his current state, he wasn't really in a position to argue with her.
"I told you," Jin teased. "You should have gotten more rest before we came out here."
"I only said we should stop, because it's getting dark," Zuko insisted.
"Oh, please," Jin said. "The toxin that was in your system combined with the amount of medication they put you on is enough to tranquilize a baby komodo dragon. I'm surprised we made it this far."
Zuko took a bite out of his slug, savoring the delicious taste the creature gave him. "Why do you do it, Jin?" he asked. "Do what?" Jin asked.
"All of this," Zuko explained. "Ever since I took you in, you've watched out for me like I was your younger brother. I'm just curious as to why you do it? What have I ever done for you that made you feel the way you do about me?"
Jin sat in silence for a moment. She was completely still, not even breaking eye contact with Zuko.
Zuko could only assume that she was looking for the right words to say.
When she finally found them, she replied. "When I was nine years old, my brother died in the war. He was my closest friend and confidant and I just took him for granted. I never stopped to think that one day he might be gone. Even if I had, I wouldn't have been able to do anything about it. I was nine. Then back when you and I were still enemies, Banhen killed Chao. He was the closest thing I had to a friend at the time. He sacrificed himself to save me and again I was powerless to stop it. Then you took me in even after all of the terrible things I had done and have been so kind to me ever since. Now you're the person I care about most and I am not going to sit by and let someone take you away from me. I am strong enough to protect the people I love now. I'm not some stupid kid. I can protect you."
Zuko smiled the sweetest of smiles, touched by his friend's words. "You have no idea how much that means to me, Jin. How much you mean to me."
It was as if the fire separating them was no longer there. Zuko bent his way right through it and was met on the other side with a soft pair of lips. He and Jin held their intense kiss for several minutes, although it felt more like an hour. The two caressed each other, running their hands up and down all of the right places. They bolted like wild mongoose dragons towards one of the tents and began taking their clothes off when Zuko stopped.
"What's wrong?" Jin asked.
"I can't," Zuko said quietly. "I'm sorry." He walked back to his own tent and zipped it up tight.
He didn't say why he couldn't do it, but Jin knew. This mission was bringing all of the memories of Mai back into his head. Now she had seen the full extent of how badly Mai had screwed him up.
The next morning, things were different. Zuko had regained his strength and was on his feet, ready to move on. He and Jin had not spoken all morning, creating an even more deathly awkward atmosphere than the one that had already existed.
During their entire journey, not one of them uttered a single word. Both of them pondered certain things along the way. Why did this have to happen? What would have happened if Zuko hadn't stopped? What caused the two of them to lust after each other so passionately after all the years they had known each other as friends?
Before either of them knew it, they had arrived at their destination: an abandoned military compound.
Zuko approached first, slowly making his way inside.
"Be careful," Jin said.
Zuko nodded and walked inside the compound, taking notice of the rusted walls and ceiling as well as the scattered helmets and spears that littered the floor. The soldiers that left this place didn't do a very good job of cleaning it up he thought to himself. He and Jin crept along further into the base until they came to a room. It was a hexagonal room with sliding doors all around it. They both assumed it must have been a sparring room.
They looked up and in an instant, three dozen women surrounded them, all with their weapons drawn.
"Look who's come to play, girls," said one of them. "The Fire Lord himself."
"It's good to see you're actually willing to fight me this time instead of running away like a coward, Aya," Zuko spat. He had not seen her since she nearly killed him after Aang's trial.
"It's also good to see you've decided to face me alone instead of sneaking into one of my friends' homes, Mai," he added.
Mai looked at him dead in the eye and revealed the darts she was hiding in her sleeves. "Are we going to talk or fight?" she asked. "Where is my uncle?" asked Zuko.
"He's in the back room," said Mai. "But it doesn't matter, because you won't see him again!"
Mai shot her daggers at Zuko, who firebent them to a crisp. He then leaped into the air and unleashed a stream of fire at her with his feet, which she flipped backwards to avoid.
Zuko landed right in front of her and bent two fire daggers into his hands while she held two genuine ones in hers. He raised his daggers, which she parried with greater strength than Zuko had anticipated, causing him to fall backwards. Mai took advantage of this and leaped towards him, her daggers at the ready. Zuko managed to roll out of the way of her attack just a split second before she landed.
Meanwhile, Jin was dealing with the rest of the group. They all came at her at once, their weapons at the ready, but she bent a spinning column of fire around her, fending them all off. The column widened and increased in size, preventing any of them from landing a finger on her.
However, one of them bent her way through and lashed out with a fireball.
Taken off guard, Jin lost focus on her column and created a fire shield to defend herself from the attack.
The Daughters of Ozai saw their opening and attacked her at once, knives, daggers, and fireballs flying at Jin all at once. She jet propelled herself into the air, raining down a torrent of fire on her opponents below before landing back on her feet. She then eyed the door on the other side of the room and broke into a sprint towards it. The others followed in hot pursuit.
Zuko was finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with Mai's pace. She had clearly been training since their last encounter. What would Uncle do? That was the question jetting through Zuko's mind. Stand firm and break her root. Zuko remained planted where he was and shot a fireball at Mai's feet just as she leaped off the ground, causing her to spiral and hit the floor.
He then formed a fire whip and lashed at her, barely missing her as she rolled out of the way.
On Jin's side of the fight, things could have been going better. She was being chased and shot at by nearly three dozen women. She turned every corner, entered every crevice, hoping to find what she was looking for. Finally she came to a locked, metal door and knew she had found it. She kicked the door down and saw Iroh sitting in the center of the room. She ran over to him and burned away his chains, freeing him at last.
As the Daughters of Ozai entered the room, they were met with a fiery bombardment of flames coming from Iroh's mouth, reminding everyone why he held the title of Dragon. Most of their opponents had fled, but the ones who still thought they stood a chance fled soon after as a bolt of lightning sped their way.
"Thank you for freeing me, Jin," said Iroh. "Now where is my nephew?"
To answer his question, Zuko was on the verge of beating Mai. He had her on the floor without enough time to react to his next blow. Had it not been for the nearly three dozen women scattering in his direction, he may have killed her.
He raised a fire wall to defend himself from their attacks, only to see Jin and Iroh come rushing out to his aid. Jin blasted a hole in the roof and reached out to Zuko. "Come on, Zuko!" she called out.
Zuko looked to Jin and then looked back at Mai. He knew what Jin's plan was and if it worked, they would be rid of the Daughters of Ozai for good, but that meant he would have to give up killing Mai himself. He only had an instant to decide and he had to do it now.
"Zuko, it's time to go!" Iroh called out.
Zuko clenched his fists in frustration and regret as he jet propelled himself out of the building along with his two comrades.
Jin formed a fire bomb in her hands and dropped it into the compound, taking all who still remained inside with it.
"Well, that's that," said Zuko.
The three walked all the way back to the Capital in complete silence.
Jin was resting in her bedchamber when she heard a knock on the door. "Come in," she said.
Zuko entered the room and sat at the foot of her bed. "Listen, Jin, I just wanted to say I'm sorry about what happened last night. I wasn't emotionally ready for that."
"And now?" Jin asked.
"Yeah, I think so," said Zuko. The two moved in closer and embraced in a kiss once more.
"Oh, wait, I forgot," Jin said abruptly. "A message came for you from Aang. He wants you to help him ease the tension between the nations. He said to meet you in Republic City."
"Sounds great," said Zuko, only half paying attention.
The two of them laid back and this time they completed the transaction.
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