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|The Matter in Ba Sing Se|
Over a month had passed since the Avatar and his friends vanished from An Liao. Firelord Zuko had gone out onto his grand balcony every day to watch for the slightest sign of his friends. Having long since returned to his home Zuko had been shocked to say the least to discover what had occurred in Ba Sing Se after he and his family had left. What had stunned him more though had been Aang's reaction.
It was unlike his friend to just disappear when the situation called for decisive leadership. Concern and uproar over the move was the conversation everywhere he turned. Everyone was talking about the problem in Ba Sing Se now and what was to be done with the newly discovered Air Nomads. Zuko knew more than most, he had written to the Earth King promptly upon hearing the news, urging him to delay any action until Aang returned. The Earth King had immediately agreed to bar any public entry to the city. Guards were posted at all times to forbid entry. The only outside contact that was made came in the form of an Earth Kingdom ambassador who descended the tunnel everyday to simply ask the Air Nomads if they were ready to make the journey to surface yet and if there was any other help they required. So far the responses were all negative.
So they waited, every citizen of every nation lingered on word of a development, either on the missing Avatar or the underground city. Zuko knew Aang would reappear soon, and he guessed that when the airbender and his friends did return that it would be here. It was for that reason that he stood every morning on his balcony and scanned the clouds. Soon, it would be soon.
"Lu Ten wants you to come in and practice firebending with him." The Firelord turned back to the Palace as his wife approached him. She was dressed in her usual dark red and was holding a scarlet umbrella to shield her from the morning sun. "He says he doesn't understand why his daddy wakes up so early just to look at clouds. I must say I kind of see where he's coming from." She drew up next to him and gazed at the sky. Zuko turned back to look as well, for a long moment no words passed between them. "That one looks like a bunny." Mai spoke absent-mindedly, pointing up to one particular puff of water vapor. Zuko smiled. She smiled too.
"I'll be right in." He said. "What do his teachers say?" Mai beamed with subtle pride.
"Oh just the usual...that he's got a natural talent that always manages to far exceed anyone's expectations." She turned to face her husband. "The best they've seen in a decade, since..." Her voice suddenly trailed off. Zuko bit his lip.
"Since Azula." He finished her sentence for her. She said nothing but nodded. Zuko nodded slowly too, suddenly feeling much older than he was. His sister, his poor, twisted, shattered sister. Her luck had run out ten years ago, disappearing with the better part of her mind. For four years she had needed round the clock care and treatment, there were several times during that time when she'd tried to take her own life. Everyone had feared the worst. Zuko still had a vivid memory of the day the doctors had come three years later. He had been so sure they were bringing news of her death, when they had told him that she had been cleared to return home he'd nearly passed out from the shock. After that revelation a long period of arguing had passed between him and Mai.
Mai had been adamant that Azula not be allowed to live with them inside the palace and Zuko had understood why. It was a difficult time enough already with her being pregnant and needing the extra care and attention. To add Azula to the mix was to add a potentially dangerous element. He had been about ready to agree with his wife and sign Azula over permanently to the institution's care when his Uncle had written him asking for his niece to be returned home.
"She has suffered enough." Zuko remembered those words; the only words written on his Uncle's letter. That had changed his mind, if Uncle believed in her well; he was willing to take the risk too. And it had paid off in a sense. Zuko had gained favor in the view of the people of the world as a kind and forgiving leader and Azula; she hadn't done a thing since she returned home.
Her room had been redecorated white and the Fire Nation Princess simply was content to sit in it. Gazing out the window or resting or practicing calligraphy, she kept active but always within the confines of her room. Nothing so far had proven effective in getting her outside of those four walls. Yet everyday Zuko tried. He would send someone to her door and ask if she wanted to come to meals or relax in the garden or anything. On certain, very important occasions he would go himself to talk with his sister and ask that she come outside. The last time had been for Uncle Iroh's funeral and that had turned out as predictably as all the others.
That was all in the past however, and Zuko believed every day should be treated as a new endeavor, which was why had kept coming out to stare into the clouds and why he would continue to do so until Aang arrived.
Mai coughed a couple of times and shivered in the cool morning air. Zuko put his arm around her. "Are you feeling all right?" He whispered. She looked up at him and nodded.
"Just a quick cough. Probably wouldn't have caught it if I wasn't out here, freezing to death, and looking at stupid clouds!" She added lightly. She shivered again. "How can you stand it out here? I hate autumn." She sighed. "I'm going inside. You should to if you don't want to catch your death trying to decide whether that one looks more like a turtle-dove or a tortoise-finch." The Firelord laughed.
"Okay, okay, since you make such a convincing argument." He grinned and kissed her gently. "Better not keep Lu Ten waiting."
Several hours later found Zuko lying sprawled out on his back in one of the Palace's many courtyards. Lu Ten was leaping up and down happily a few yards away having, in his own mind anyway, bested his father at firebending. In reality the Firelord simply found his energy fading and was just relaxing back for a brief rest. But if Lu Ten wanted to win, then he could win.
"Again! Again Daddy again!" The young infant was shouting, throwing his hands up in the air as he leapt up and down.
"Daddy needs a break Lu, why don't you practice with Master Jeong Jeong for a bit while I go sit with your mother." Zuko suggested. He sat up and rubbed the back of his head. Turning to look at Mai who was seated on a bench by the far wall he smiled innocently. She smirked back.
"Master Jeong Jeong is no fun!" Lu Ten protested. "He won't let me shoot fire from my hands, he makes me just breath and stand and only make small fire!" As the infant continued his childish rant the Firelord looked to the elderly master who had been watching with stern appraisal from the sidelines. Though Jeong Jeong still looked like a wild man bereft of civilization, Zuko knew of no one better to teach his son the importance of maintaining composure and control. He had never thanked the old White Lotus master properly for accepting this post.
"Hey!" The Firelord called, snapping the boy from his tantrum. Zuko was quickly on his feet, allowing his tall shadow to be cast imposingly over his son. "Listen to me. You pay attention and mind everything Master Jeong Jeong teaches you okay?" He lightened his tone. "It's the only way you'll become a strong and powerful bender." His son looked impressed.
"As strong as you daddy?" He asked. Zuko smiled.
"Stronger." He answered. He turned and headed over toward Mai. "Always remember my little Lu Ten: now is my time but you; you are the rising sun. One day...one day it will be your time." The infant squealed with joy and immediately engrossed himself into his studies. The Firelord sat down next to his wife.
"Stirring speech there genius." Mai commented. "Does every compliment have to be so dramatic?"
"I only spoke the truth." Zuko replied. "It is very important that he grows up knowing who he is. A lot of responsibility awaits him when he's older."
"That's a long ways away, let's enjoy our little boy while he's a little boy." Mai chided. As she finished she leaned against her husband's shoulder and sighed. Overhead the sun beat down its rays of warmth through the slivers of clouds. Birds chirped randomly from their perches on trees. From somewhere a ways off a feral komodo cat meowed loudly. There was no other way to describe it: this day was peaceful.
"This is the way things always should be." The Firelord murmured aloud. Mai turned to him. "No wars, no famine, no plagues, the world is finally right with itself for a change. Can't you smell it? It's like the air is healthier somehow." She sniffed the air.
"Smells like pollen to me." She joked. Zuko grinned.
"I was being serious." He said back in an attempt of a stiff voice. Across on the yard Jeong Jeong was scolding Lu Ten for allowing his fire to grow too rapidly.
"I know you were." Mai whispered. Then she perked her head up. "Maybe the air is healthier since the Air Nomads have returned. Maybe this is how it was supposed to feel all along."
"Maybe..." Zuko agreed. He breathed in deeply, letting the cool wind stew around in his lungs. The temperature was still chilly. Remembering Mai's cough from earlier the Firelord glanced over to a servant standing by a doorway that led into the Palace. "May my wife and I have some tea please?"
"Oh course Sire." The servant replied, bowing as he exited. Zuko turned back to Mai, who was raising an eyebrow at him.
"Just felt like some tea." He said in what he hoped was a nonchalant tone. Mai cracked a small grin.
"Right." She answered back, her voice very knowing. "I didn't say anything." Then looking out at the courtyard her body suddenly tensed. "Lu Ten stop playing around with that fire and do what Master Jeong Jeong tells you!" She ordered.
"You never let me do anything fun!" The child yelled back.
"Lu Ten don't talk to your mother like that!" Zuko called. The boy made a face but went back to training. The Firelord leaned back on the bench, relaxing again. He expected his wife to do the same yet her body remained edgy. After a moment he leaned back up. "Hey," He whispered. "You okay?" Mai kept watching her son. It was several moments before she allowed herself to relax. Zuko forced him into her view. She seemed to just notice him for the first time. "Are you okay?" He repeated.
"What...yeah, oh yeah fine." She flashed a weak smile. "Just daydreaming." Now it was Zuko's turn to raise an eyebrow. He fixed his wife with an intense stare. "It's nothing." She reiterated, this time her voice sounding much more firm. "Drink your tea Firelord."
"It has to get here first." He joked back. The two smiled. "But in all seriousness though...are you sure everything is fine? Not having another baby are you?" He raised his eyes in anxiety. Mai's grin widened.
"No." She answered back. "Nothing like that. It's just –" At that moment a loud roar overhead cut her off. Everyone on the courtyard froze temporarily where he or she stood. Even Jeong Jeong, who was not easily caught off guard, appeared taken aback. Barely though had any of them the time to register what was happening before Appa touched down on the flat stone blocks that made up the square. One look up told Zuko that everyone was there, from Aang seated at the reigns to Katara huddled up in blankets at the back.
"It's about time!" The Firelord called up to the Avatar. "I was wondering when you'd get here. Tea should be arriving any second if you want to come down for a cup."
"Oh yes please!" Sokka pleaded, leaping down off Appa. Momo came chattering down after him. "We've been flying all day without food or drink and I'm weak from hunger!"
"His mouth's still strong enough." Toph remarked. She and Suki exchanged a laugh.
"I'll have my servants tend to you all right away." Zuko remarked through laughter. He then shifted his gaze to be more directly focused on Aang, the one member of the group, he noticed, who wasn't laughing. "How about you, how are you holding up?" He asked. The Avatar didn't respond right away at first. After a minute though he finally threw a glance in the Firelord's direction.
"I'm fine." He said. "Just make sure Katara is taken care of. You and I need to talk, in private."
Zuko nodded. "I figured we would. Mai, would you mind looking over things here?" He glanced to his wife who shrugged her shoulders.
"What's there to look over?" She asked lazily. The Firelord grinned briefly before gesturing for the airbender to follow him. With a blast of wind Aang propelled himself off of the bison.
"Keep an eye on her for me buddy." He said to Appa, who groaned in response. The Avatar then turned to follow the Firelord. Zuko led Aang out of the courtyard, through several enormous doorways and up a flight of steps. As they walked the corridors there were dark shades of ruby and burgundy all around them, in both tapestries and the painting of the wall itself. Light faded quickly from the interior of the palace if there were no torches to keep it going and already today, even though it was only early afternoon, everything cast a long shadow. Zuko felt this actually reflected the Palace's atmosphere: a place darker and depressing than it should have been. Too much evil and treachery had occurred within these walls for the sunlight to ever again properly illuminate them. Finally he turned off into a small sitting area clearly designed for two.
A table bordered by two cushions occupied the small room. Torches lined the four walls. The ceiling was high and gloomy, much like in any other room of the Palace. Overall it was not a cheery location but it would suit their purposes. Zuko made a motion for Aang to be seated before sitting down himself on the opposite side.
"Now then..." The Firelord began. "Want to tell me exactly what happened down there that made you vanish this past month? The entire world's talking about it!"
"I know." Aang replied slowly. "I didn't want to leave but I felt it was the only choice. I had to distance myself from the situation before I could resolve it appropriately." Zuko nodded in understanding.
"So you were simply just taking a step back to sort it out, I hate to be the one to tell you that's not how people are choosing to look at it. I have heard stories shared by all three nations of how the indecisive Avatar ran away from his first big challenge in keeping the peace. Obviously they aren't gaining any real momentum since anyone with a brain remembers you're the one we have to thank for this peace in the first place."
"I don't need public approval to do my job." Aang snapped back. He looked angry for a second before releasing into submission. "But I can see where they would get the idea. I think...he wanted this reaction. I know he did. If I could only figure out why..." Zuko sat there puzzled. The Avatar was clearly talking more to himself now.
"Who?" He asked. "You don't mean to tell me the Earth King wants the public to see you as incompetent...I would find that hard to believe." Aang snapped back to reality at Zuko's words.
"No, no, no." He responded immediately, waving his hand in a dismissive manner. "Not the Earth King...Monk Quanfar, the leader of the Air Nomads."
"Ah yes." Zuko acknowledged. "I read about him...supposed to be hard to get along with. Very combative for a member of a pacifist society it would seem." The Firelord paused; looking up he could see Aang giving him a perplexed look. "The Earth King shares your low opinion of him." He explained. The Avatar nodded. "But I'm still confused. How and why would Quanfar do it? What payoff could there possibly be in making an Avatar not appear to be doing his job?" Aang shook his head.
"I don't know." He admitted. "I also don't know how he could be so sure of how I would act. He met me just hours before."
"That does seem an absurdly short amount of time to get to know someone well enough to manipulate them." Zuko agreed. "Still the whole thing was pointless. You're here now so that means you've either sorted it out or are very close to. And once you make a decision nobody's going to publicly oppose it."
"Quanfar might." Aang groaned. "So far he's taken every opening he's had against me. No reason to think he won't have something to say no matter which way I rule."
"So?" The Firelord scoffed. "You're the Avatar, he's just a monk. According to your system of government he doesn't even speak for the whole of your people, shouldn't there be a council or something?"
"Should be." Aang said.
"Well I think I might have figured it out then." Zuko replied. "Sounds to me like this guy just enjoys power. He's not used to sharing it and suddenly you come along...you, who have far more power than he can ever hope to achieve. Of course he wants to take you down a peg."
"That's what Katara thinks too." The Avatar admitted.
"Listen to her then. She's right on it this time." Zuko stood and paced the room. At length he sighed and sat back down again. "So what did you decide?" Aang shrugged his shoulders.
"I haven't yet." He said sadly. "After we left we went to the Southern Air Temple so I could have some time to meditate. I thought I would obtain a clear answer but so far nothing."
"What made you decide to come here then?" Zuko asked. Aang smirked and rolled his eyes.
"Because everyone else seems to think that maybe if I just relaxed and we had our Ember Island getaway like planned then maybe I could focus a little more and reach the answer. So essentially we're here just to pick you guys up. That is if you're still coming?" He shot the Firelord a look. Zuko was shocked. As soon as he composed himself though he started laughing.
"Is that really why?" He asked between chuckles. The Avatar nodded. Fighting to develop a straight face Zuko went on: "Well then I agree with them. Sounds like the type of thing Uncle would have suggested. It'll probably work." Aang didn't look convinced. In fact he looked tired, tired and worn out, with eyes full of stress. "Hey have you been doing all the flying?" The Firelord asked suddenly. The Avatar nodded. "And I suppose with all those lengthy periods of meditation you haven't been sleeping much?"
"I have a lot on my mind." Aang retorted.
"I didn't mean to offend. You're not at the reins though, when we leave I mean. I think Lu Ten's at the right age when I teach him to fly a giant bison." Aang opened his mouth to respond but Zuko put up a hand. "Aang, listen to me on this. We've been friends for ten years; trust me and spend some time resting with your wife. She'd probably love the company." Silence followed his words. The airbender kept looking as if he were going to protest. When he finally did open his mouth though, no words of rebuttal came out.
"When do you think we should leave?" He asked. Zuko thought a moment.
"How tired is Appa?"
"Not very. We haven't done much flying. He'd be up for some more at least today. Not enough to manage the whole trip but we could at least get started." Zuko nodded.
"Very well, go eat and tell everyone we'll be moving out soon. Be sure to tell Mai and Lu Ten to grab a few things, the house should be well stocked but just in case. I'll join you in a few minutes." Aang made a face of half-acknowledgement.
"Do you have something to do?" He asked interestedly.
"No." Zuko replied as he rose and made for the door. "Just someone to see."
A few minutes later brought the Firelord to his least favorite door in the entire Palace. Closed, it looked no different from any other door. The wood was painted red and there was a guard posted at the watch just outside of it. No the door itself was just like any other, what was on the other side, however, that made all the difference.
"Sire." The guard acknowledged in smart military salute. Zuko bowed slightly as he approached.
"Open it, I wish to speak with her." He stated flatly.
"Of course Sire." The guard complied. He did not produce a key, for indeed there wasn't one. This cell needed no lock. The prisoner held herself captive. With one fluid motion the guard had extended a hand and grabbed the grip to slide the door inward. There was a sharp jerk and red peeled away to reveal white.
Zuko stepped forward into the white room. He never got over it. Each time the dull ashen color resonated inside his skull. He could feel a headache coming on. It was true the Palace was darker than it should have been but this room, it was like this room was trying to single handedly balance out the rest of the castle. He sighed and began stepping inside.
"Don't come in too far, you'll get it dirty!" Came a harsh, gentle voice. Zuko stopped. That voice had once commanded so much behind it. He loved that voice. He hated that voice.
"I'm sorry Azula." He said quickly, halting mid-step.
"Brother...oh it's only you. Do I need another injection today?" The voice was lifeless, devoid of all feeling. How had this happened? Is this really what living with his father for all those years had done to her? Zuko blessed his banishment more and more with each visit.
"No Azula. No injection...how are you feeling?"
"I am alive. I breathe while stone sits motionless. I flow like stream: through forests, over mountains, I even dribble across deserts on my best days."
"Oh..." The Firelord sighed. "That's good. I'm glad to see you're so talkative today." There came no reply. Zuko stood there, wishing he would sink into the floor. "Listen Azula...Mai and I are going away. Lu Ten and us, we're going on vacation with some nice people...would you like to come? I think the outdoors would do you good. Remember Ember Island?" He could make her out now, a lump in the bed sheets. There was no movement except the slow rise and fall of her breathing.
"Not going to Ember Island." Azula answered back flatly. "You should let the Avatar steer, he knows the neighborhood better than you, knows which spots to avoid." Zuko started in shock from where he stood.
"I'm sorry..." He began. "What did you just say?" Azula was silent.
"Who is Lu Ten?" She inquired finally in an interested voice. Zuko sighed again; this was more like it.
"He's your nephew Azula, remember? I've told you about him before." Another period of silence followed.
"Oh..." Azula whispered at length. "I have a nephew. I did not know I had a nephew."
"So you don't want to come with us?" Zuko asked again. The lump on the bed gave the slightest movement.
"No." She said. "No not today, it isn't time to get up yet." Zuko nodded and stepped out of the room. He made an absent-minded signal for the guard to close the door after him. It was always the same. Every visit he had told her about Lu Ten, she never remembered. Mai of course forbade the child from going near the woman so that was it, with every visit came the shock. Azula found out she was an aunt. He didn't know how long it lasted before she forgot again. A minute maybe, an hour, what did it matter? It was all the proof he needed to face a sad reality. His sister's mind was gone.
Aang allowed Katara to drape her arms around him as they sat together at the back of Appa's saddle. For the first time in weeks he felt like he was relaxing. The warmth underneath him from Appa, the warmth behind him from his wife, it all combined together to put his soul in a good place. With a smile he placed his hand on Katara's belly and allowed it to rest there. She put hers over it.
"You can feel more kicks now." She whispered gently to him. "I don't know whether our baby is going to be a boy or a girl but I can tell you this, definitely a fighter. I never thought it'd be this many." The Avatar beamed up at his wife.
"Well he or she has you for a mommy, what'd you expect?" He said lightly, letting the words flow gently from his mouth. "You're the strongest person I've ever met." Katara smiled.
"Wow, really? Man you need to get out more." Sokka commented from up front. He was sprawled out giving off the appearance of being completely out of it, although Aang was careful to notice that whenever Suki shifted, he'd inch a little closer to her.
"Oh yeah strong guy?" Katara said in mock anger. "Care to back up your words with your muscle?"
"I'd love to see that one." Toph stated happily.
"So would I." Mai added. Then looking forward she checked to make sure Zuko had a firm hold on Lu Ten, who was holding Appa's reins and laughing wildly. "Although maybe somewhere closer to the ground when we're not up so high!" The Firelord turned around as this last part was clearly directed at him.
"We're being careful." He called back.
"Don't worry so much, the worrisome mom bit is never fun to be around, trust me." Toph put in. Mai looked sulkily away.
"Well we can't all play the rich, spoiling aunt." She mumbled under her breath. The blind earthbender grinned sheepishly.
"I can be harsh, I'm very harsh to...Momo! Momo, stop saying those things about Sokka behind his back!" She yelled at the lemur, who just tilted his head.
"What's he been saying? If it's about the polar-leopard underwear it's a total lie."
"Polar-leopard underwear?" Suki repeated with raised eyebrows. Sokka gasped.
"Momo! You did tell them!" Everyone laughed as the Water Tribe Warrior blushed furiously and attempted to disappear from view. Aang smiled and leaned into Katara. She tensed slightly before looking down.
"Hey...careful! I'm already carrying some extra weight here in case you hadn't noticed!" A grin followed these words as she bent down and kissed the top of his head.
"I love you." Aang found himself saying suddenly. Katara beamed at him.
"I know." She replied. The couple lay back and together closed their eyes as Appa continued to soar over the waves.
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