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|That Old Familiar Feeling|
January 10, 2012
Chapter One: That Old Familiar Feeling
The small establishment was one of the better in Ba Sing Se's lowest Ring. At least it was clean and moderately quiet. A few families treated themselves to a meal out, several old men groused over a friendly game of Pai Sho or checkers, and one or two couples lost themselves in the romantic light of one another's eyes.
One couple sat close together in a corner table. They didn't speak, busy examining the bustle of normal life around them, but under the table they held hands.
The man peered beneath the hat pulled low over his eyes. It didn't escape his notice that the streets were tidier and the houses sturdier than they had been on his last visit. Gardens had even been planted at intervals to give the place a greener and livelier atmosphere. The whole Ring of Ba Sing Se, low as it was in the eyes of many noblemen, was much nicer than he'd ever seen it. "Looks like our friend Kuei's been busy."
His wife nodded. "They've come a long way." Ever since the war ended and –more importantly- the Dai Li were exiled, Ba Sing Se had made great progress toward abolishing the three walls that separated the city. It was thanks to crown prince Kuei things had come this far. Most of the other nobles protested vehemently, and there was still a lot of work to be done.
He saw Katara fidget again, tugging at her hair with her free hand. She had taken to pulling her long, flowing brown hair back these last years, but today she'd let it loose. Aang liked it when she wore her hair down.
"Are you okay?" he asked softly, trying not to sound too concerned. If she thought he was worried, he'd never hear the end of it. "Are you sure you want to be here?"
"No." Her tone was clipped, on edge. "I think this whole thing is a bad idea. Too much could go wrong."
"That's not what I'm talking about," Aang said gently.
Katara softened. "I know," she sighed. "I'm..." she hesitated. "I'm not sure. But there's no way I'm letting you traipse around the Earth Kingdom, doing who knows what, without me!"
Katara turned to him, suddenly concerned. "What about you?"
Aang frowned. She was talking about the feeling.
At times, the world to Aang felt like an enormous balance. It swayed and tilted, but invariably it always leveled out. When a powerful force jerked down on one side and refused to relinquish its hold, it was the Avatar's responsibility to step in and restore the order. And something, somewhere, was tugging at the scales.
Katara looked as unconvinced as Aang felt. Over the past few weeks, the feeling had lurked at the back of his mind, inhabited a dark corner of his soul. It wasn't yet a strong sensation, merely jostling the balance, almost playful. It was...odd. Aang would have sought it out, but there was unfortunately something much more urgent at hand. Likely the discord would shift and level out before he could even investigate.
They fell silent again, alone with their worries, and waited.
"I wonder where he is," Aang said finally.
Katara tugged on her hair and bit her lip. "He'd better not have run into trouble," she said. "If he got himself kidnapped by marauders or beaten and robbed on the road or murdered by pirates-"
Aang snickered. "Murdered by pirates is good."
Katara was not amused. "If anything happened to him, I'll kill him!
What is he thinking?" she quietly fumed on. "We can do this just as well without his help. I don't see why he has to come out here, endangering himself and everything we've worked for, just to do it personally!"
Aang squeezed her hand to calm her. "Yes you do. I'm actually surprised he's shown so much restraint." His eyes darkened. "If it had been me, I don't know if I could have kept my head long enough to be this smart about it."
Katara looked at him. He couldn't read her eyes; Katara herself wasn't sure what she was feeling. She fidgeted again, practically yanking her hair. "I know, I know. It's just...he's the Firelord, and if he gets caught..." she stopped. "But you're right. I do know why. And I don't blame him either." She sighed. "I just hope this doesn't ruin everything we've worked for over the years. If he pulls some stupid stunt..."
A wry chuckle interrupted her. "I guess I'll always be a hothead."
With all the politics he'd learned over the past years, Zuko knew this was a bad idea. No, worse: it was stupid. Suicidal. Kuei and the Water Chiefs might accept his treaties –even trust him– but their people were something different. If he was found out, what small trust he'd gained from the other Nations could be crushed and probably never recovered.
The Fire Nation could fall.
But this was something he had to do; if he didn't, he'd never forgive himself.
True, as the first genteel Firelord in over a hundred years of tyrannical ancestry, this was the worst possible move he could make. But as a man –an honorable man, a husband and a father- it was the only move to make.
Aang smiled at him. "There you are. We were beginning to wonder if you got lost."
Katara flushed, abashed that she'd been overheard. Zuko thought that odd. Katara didn't usually mind telling other people her opinion. She usually insisted on it.
"I almost didn't recognize you," she said hurriedly.
Zuko slid into the chair across from them. He tentatively fingered the left side of his face and the horrendous scar emblazoned there. It had been obscured by a white paste, but the mark was such that it could not be completely hidden. "That's kind of the point," he said, rubbing at it. "It won't stand up to close scrutiny, but hopefully it can get me through crowds." Between the combined efforts of the white paste and Zuko's thick black hair the scar was almost imperceptible. Almost.
"I don't know..." Aang said doubtfully. "You look pale as a ghost."
"But at least I don't look like the Firelord."
"Good point," Aang conceded.
Zuko took a deep breath. "Is everything ready?" he asked.
"Near as I can tell," Aang nodded. "I sent the messages like you asked."
Katara suddenly reached forward and took his hand. "Zuko, are you alright?"
Zuko looked between his friends. Their concern for him was clear. "Not yet," he replied truthfully. His voice was level, but his eyes burned with an intense flame.
Aang and Katara exchanged glances.
Zuko took another deep breath. He forced himself to relax. "I'm sorry I took so long," he said quietly. "I stopped to have a word with my uncle."
Aang was more than a little relieved. If anyone could calm Zuko, it was his Uncle Iroh. "And?"
Zuko cast a suspicious glance around the room and lowered his voice. "We're meeting with the Crown Prince tonight."
Katara nudged Aang in the rib. "'Crown Prince'," she grinned. "Aang's been trying to call him the 'Earth Re-King'."
Aang shrugged, chuckling. "It's really confusing!"
Zuko knew his friends were trying to lighten the mood. He tried to smile, but the pain and panic he'd fought to restrain these past days swelled up in his chest. No, he thought, not just pain, or worry. It's something more. And it scared him. He closed his eyes tight and struggled to keep control.
"How's your uncle doing?" Katara asked softly.
Zuko laughed, an ironic sound. "Almost as bad as me."
"And Mai?" Aang asked. "Is she handling it?"
Zuko shook his head. He ran a hand through his hair. "She's hid her emotions her whole life and finally it proves useful. I'm surprised neither of us has fallen apart."
Katara was almost afraid to ask. "What about Ursa?"
Zuko's eyes were sad. "I'm not sure Ursa knows how to feel, or what to think."
"That's not surprising," Aang said. "She's got the heart of an angel."
"Yes," Zuko whispered. "She does." He couldn't bear to see that heart broken.
Zuko stood abruptly. "We should get some rest," he said. "After tonight, who knows when we'll get another chance?"
Aang nodded his agreement. "It looks like another whirlwind adventure for us."
Katara smiled. "I never thought I'd see the day."
Firelord Zuko and Lady Mai walked arm in arm out into the sunshine. They knew they would find their children here, in their favorite courtyard with the turtle-duck pond and the sleek black monument.
"Princess, come down from there!" The Imperial Firebender's shout startled them.
Across the courtyard, the guard of the Royal Procession stood shouting up at the roof. Prince Iroh was beside him, staring up with wide eyes. "Careful, Sis!" he squeaked, his voice small and worried.
Princess Ursa balanced precariously on the roof's peak. She teetered suddenly. Roh-Roh gasped, the guard moved to catch her should she fall, but Ursa managed to right herself.
Zuko and Mai hurried to join the guard and Roh-Roh, anxiously watching their daughter's foolish feat.
"Ursa," Zuko called up, forcing his voice to remain calm. "What are you doing?"
Ursa didn't reply. She gave a quick glance down at them, waved jauntily, then took another step forward.
"She's going to break her fool neck," the guard muttered. He suddenly realized what he'd said and began stammering out an apology. The royal family was too focused on Ursa to notice.
Ursa had reached the small turret at the end of the roof. Carefully, sending a jolt of panic through her parents and the guard, the girl knelt down.
"What is your sister doing?" Mai asked Roh-Roh. But the boy didn't hear, consumed staring up at his sister in awe and terror.
They watched as Ursa reached into the turret. Then, slowly, she stood. She took a step back, feeling for a foothold rather than looking.
Mai clutched at Zuko's arm, but other than that she betrayed no reaction. Her eyes remained fixed on her daughter; Zuko knew she was scared.
Ursa retreated halfway across the roof before her foot slipped. This time, she did not use her arms to balance herself. She fell, hitting the rough tiles of the roof and sliding down.
"Ursa!" Roh-Roh screamed. The same cry escaped Mai. Both Zuko and the guard rushed forward to catch her, but it was her father's arms into which Ursa fell.
"Ursa, are you alright?" Zuko demanded.
The little girl would only nod. Her arms were wrapped around her stomach and she wouldn't look up at him.
Zuko gently set her down as Mai and Roh-Roh ran to his side. "Ursa, what were you doing up there?" he asked again, his voice tight. What could she possibly be thinking?
A desperate, frustrated quack was Ursa's only reply.
"You rescued him!" Roh-Roh cried, grinning broadly.
That was when Zuko saw the baby turtle-duck tucked safely into the crook of his daughter's arm. A wave of relief swept over Zuko.
"What did you think I was doing, Father?" Ursa asked sweetly. But it was not Ursa's voice. This voice was sadistic, accusing.
Zuko took an involuntary step back.
The baby turtle-duck began to squirm in the girl's grasp, squawking desperately. Ursa slowly looked up at Zuko. For that moment, it was Ursa's face. But a cruel smile spread across her lips and in an instant the features morphed into Azula's. Lightning sprang to her fingertips and she struck. Too late Zuko realized he was not her target.
"Mai!" he cried as her body fell to the ground. Her dead eyes stared up at him.
Zuko barely heard Roh-Roh's scream over Azula's mad laughter. He whirled to find his son sinking into the earth. Zuko leapt for him, reaching out to grab Roh-Roh's hand, but he only brushed the boy's fingertips as the ground swallowed him up.
Zuko's eyes snapped open. He lay alone in the dark, in a cold sweat, and he shivered from the nightmare. He stared up at the ceiling with unseeing eyes, trying not to think. Thoughts had not served him well these past days. They only served to spur panic. And anger.
Zuko closed his eyes, but the image that filled his mind was Mai's desperate face. He opened them again and sat up.
Zuko remembered the day at the pond, when Ursa had climbed onto the roof. He had been afraid she was up to some mischief, but really Roh-Roh had spotted a stranded baby turtle-duck. Ursa had endeavored to rescue it. When he'd caught her, Ursa smiled sheepishly up at him and said, "Sorry, Dad; I had to. 'Always give aid to the weak and the needy'."
That was his daughter, Zuko reminded himself. Ursa had the heart of an angel. He remembered his nightmare and shivered.
Azula. He had not thought about his sister in a long time. She was always there, at the back of his mind, weighing on him. Despite everything, he felt guilty that Azula was still imprisoned in the asylum. She was ill. He had tried to help her. He still was. He didn't know what else he could do for her, but somehow it never felt like enough. Part of him knew that Azula would never recover; part of him wished she would.
The image of his son swallowed into the earth sprang back before his eyes. Zuko rubbed his face as if to scrub the dream away and rose.
The room was small. The décor was distinctly Earth Kingdom, with green and gold rugs and hangings of the city's insignia. On one wall, though, a Fire Nation tapestry of a majestic dragon hung. Below it, the painting of a young man, with calligraphy script identifying him as Lu Ten. Beside the wash basin, there was a vase of small branches bursting with jasmine buds; the touch was clearly Uncle's.
Zuko washed his face. His reflection reminded him that his shroud of secrecy wasn't water proof. He reached for his small pack resting by the bed. This and the dual blades propped against it were the only things he'd brought with him. He found the small jar and moved back to the mirror, dipping his fingers into the white paste and carefully applying it. It wasn't nearly as soothing as when Mai had done it. He sighed, wishing she were here.
Iroh heard the door slide open behind him. He poured another cup of tea. "How did you rest, nephew?" he asked.
The chair creaked as Zuko slid into it. "I didn't."
Iroh set the steaming tea before Zuko and took the seat across from him, cradling his own cup. The kitchen's dim light cast shadows over Zuko's face. Iroh saw another darker kind of shadow flickering in his nephew's eyes.
"Do not lose yourself, nephew," he warned gently. "It's not worth it."
Iroh wasn't sure Zuko heard him. It took the Firelord a long time to reply. Finally, he took a sip of his tea. "I know, Uncle." He hesitated, then haltingly, "My children have always been proud of me." He frowned, uncertain how to say what he needed to say.
"You have never given them reason not to be," Iroh assured.
Zuko looked at his uncle, distraught, struggling. "I never want to."
Zuko was able to take comfort in this small fact.
Iroh looked out into the night beyond the Jasmine Dragon's walls. "It's nearly time."
"Murdered by pirates is good!" -This is a direct quote from one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride.
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