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The Return
Chapter information
Series

Air

Chapter

Fifty-Seven

Written by

Wordbender

Release date

February 5, 2013

Chronology
Last chapter

The Aftermath

Next chapter

More Tales of Ba Sing Se

Previously in Air

The Gaang is recovering from the attack at the coronation, and Ursa has something to tell her parents.

Chapter Fifty-Seven

The blaze of the late afternoon sun settled over the Upper Ring. As she staggered through the heat haze, hugging walls and peering around corners, Azula knew she had failed.

She despised failures.

Today should have been a day of so many glorious victories. They should have claimed the great Earth Kingdom capital as their own, bought with the blood of its king. Kuzarr should have known by now that he was only a pawn, that the true power lay only in the blood of royalty, not a common soldier. And most importantly, as the sun shone down on these triumphs, Azula should have been rejoicing in her new status as an only child.

But everything had gone wrong. This wasn't like last time, when Ba Sing Se was a victory and the loss and betrayal had come after. They were turning on her faster than they should, escalating the time table.

So Azula would slow them down.

Seeing her target ahead, she ducked into the shadows between two buildings. She glanced about to make sure no one was watching. Not many people were out in the streets, instead at the Palace for the coronation, and those who were had themselves toted around in rickshaws or carriages.

Smiling, Azula slithered up a drainpipe. Crouched low, the dishonored princess crept along the roofs, leaping from one to the next with as much ease and glee as a child jumping rocks to cross a babbling brook.

The sun pounded on her back, a watchful eye forcing sweat down her spine as Azula squatted on the corner of the building, leaning down to study The Jasmine Dragon.

Zuko should have died today. But since she'd been interrupted, she'd settle for the next best thing.

The outside of the building remained unguarded, but Azula glimpsed movement along the windows. Doubtless the old tea drinking fool had set some kind of guard. Even he wasn't stupid enough to leave the child unprotected. However, the only movement came from the main level. Under the peak of the roof, she spotted several small windows hinting at a second floor.

She scanned the rooftop of the teashop to find it barren. With no witness but the burning sun, she leapt across. Her foot slipped on the tiled roof and she cursed her clumsiness. Bouncing into a handstand, she cut short the soft scrape of her heel on terracotta. For a long moment, she listened for signs of pursuit or investigation. Nothing.

"Fools," she spat.

Azula lay flat on the roof, her thin form conforming to the tiles and camouflaging her from sight. She sidled to the edge. Leaning down, she peered through the dark windows. She watched for a long moment, she noticed no movement.

Digging her heels into the gutter rut at the roof's edge, Azula lowered herself down. She faced out into the street, but it provided her with better flexibility as she curled her body under the roof to force the window open. The lock popped, and the window swung wide, inviting her in with open arms.

Azula swung herself to gain momentum and vaulted through the opening. She hit the floor rolling, the sound of arrival muted by the thick rug on the floor. Still, she froze, waiting for any signs that her arrival had been detected.

Down the hall, she caught the sound of gentle footsteps. Someone coming to investigate. Azula rose, closing the window. As the steps drew closer, she used a small table to launch herself toward the ceiling. Catching hold of a rafter, she squirmed her way atop it, lying flat and willing the shadows to conceal her presence.

A moment later, a guard rounded the corner. No ordinary guard, either. Azula could tell –not by his garb, it was common ware, but by his stance and how he held himself– that this young man was an Imperial Firebender, one of the royal family's personal bodyguards.

She was in the right place.

Azula stifled a giggle, pressing her face into the rough wood until the bodyguard passed beneath her.

Nice try, Uncle. But that won't stop me.

The bodyguard's head swiveled to the left. Azula descended on him from the right, driving her elbow into his neck as she fell.

Gasping in pain, the bodyguard crumpled. He twisted as he dropped, kicking at her legs. Azula leapt the blow, planting her hands on the guard's shoulders as she cartwheeled over him.

He swung out blindly. Azula blocked the punch. She goaded a blue flame into her palm, sparks flying and charring the rug. As the bodyguard dodged her feign, she swung her heel into his temple.

This time, the guard crumpled and did not move. Azula watched him a moment, as blood slowly oozed from his wound into the carpet. Still he did not shift. His eyelids remained closed.

Satisfied, she crept further down the hall.

There were no other guards on the second floor. But he had not been the only one, she realized as she slipped down the stairs. The staircase stood between the kitchen and the large tea room. Crouched behind the banister, Azula glimpsed another guard in the kitchen, placed near the backdoor and idly watching a kettle on the stove. What she wanted did not lie in that direction.

Lanterns burned bright in the tearoom. It would be harder to hide in there, but Azula suspected any guards would be focused on the main doors and their charges.

Squatting low, Azula peered around the corner. Her uncle and the boy sat in the middle of the room, enjoying tea and pastries while they leaned over a Pai Sho board. Two female bodyguards watched over them. One stood, as expected, near the main foyer, simultaneously watching the doors, the street and her charges. The second remained at the boy's shoulder and, though she occasionally offered him hints on the board, Azula could see she was on alert, eyes roaming. Tables were scattered about the room and could easily be used as cover. Avoiding the guard's gaze wouldn't be easy, but it was all about perceiving where she was most likely to look and Azula had a way of observing how people worked.

The bodyguard's gaze flickered toward the windows. Azula eased into the room, heading for a table to her right.

The boy laughed. Azula didn't know what at, but the childlike innocence of that purely joyful sound was infectious. It reminded her of something. But what? Her head swung toward him, at his bright face, and the strings of her heart squeezed tight, and fell loose again.

Warmth. She remembered warmth, comfort. Happiness. Someone's arms wrapped tight around her as she giggled, their fingers tickling at her even as they joined in her laughter.

Azula's breath caught. Rage boiled inside, but not as powerful as the ache of longing that stretched through her every fiber.

They were her mother's arms, her mother's comforting embrace.

The bodyguard's head swiveled back to scan the room. Azula gritted her teeth, realizing she had frozen in open space. Growling softly, she slipped back around the corner to avoid detection. She leaned her head against the wall and gulped for air.

What was wrong with her? What kind of pathetic amateur was she to become distracted like that?

She pressed her eyes closed, clenching her fists as she forced her mind to clear itself of anything but her target. It was the only thing left, since she had let Zuko slip away, since the assassination was foiled. She needed some success. She needed to please him; the only way to do that was with Zuko's blood and it coursed freely in the boy's veins. And wasn't it a better way? Zuko should suffer. For all the misery he had caused, she would break him before she ended him. She needed to kill the boy.

"Do you really, Azula?"

Azula's eyes snapped open, the blood turning to ice in her veins. No one stood in the hallway with her. The guards remained oblivious at their stations.

But she knew that voice.

She glanced upward. In the mirror hung on the wall she saw herself reflected in the glass. Crouched against the wall like a frightened animal, disheveled and disgusting, she looked so small and pathetic. But another face appeared in the glass beside her.

Snarling, Azula lashed a streak of lightning at that face. The glass exploded, tiny fragments ringing as they fell to the floor.

A bodyguard shouted. Footsteps stormed toward her.

Azula cursed. She rushed for the stairs, bounding to the second floor. The bodyguards pursued, but she could not tell if they had seen her. She did not pause. She did not consider the possibility of defeating the guards. She did not remember her mission.

Her mind remained fixed on that face, overcome with the overwhelming need to flee it.

Down the hall she ran, leaping over the unconscious guard, not even bothering to open the window before hurtling herself through it. Glass shattered. Sharp edges tore through her skin, but Azula ignored them.

When the bodyguards reached the window, they saw nothing of the attacker, save the sun glittering off the shards of glass far below in the street.

***

"There's something I have to tell you."

The chills still raced up Zuko's spine as he remembered his daughter's words. His heart thrashed against its cage of ribs, the frightening pulse raced through his entire body. The only other sound was that of his own steps on the stone floor, echoing around him in the dark corridor.

Ursa's eyes remained fixed on her feet as they swung several inches off the floor. She refused to look at either of her parents.

"It's about the tunnels," she said quietly.

Zuko allowed the prickle of fear on the back of his neck to dissipate at these words. "I already know about the tunnels, Ursa," he said, stroking her hair. "Jeong Jeong told me. We can talk about it later."

Ursa shook her head. "No," she insisted, still refusing to lift her eyes. "We have to talk about it now."

Zuko swallowed hard. He glanced at Mai, but her uncertain eyes were already on him.

Ursa filled her small lungs with a deep, shuddering breath. "There's...there's something I haven't told you." Her voice was so soft they barely heard her. "There are lots of tunnels. And they don't just run under the Palace, either; they're all over Capitol Island."

Her mother's fingers tightened around her hand again. It made Ursa feel even more guilty, something she hadn't thought possible.

But her father only nodded. "Jeong Jeong and I suspect they may have originally been part of the tunnel system Sozin used for his bunkers. If they really stretch across the entire Island, he probably had most of them collapsed and their existence erased. They could have made him vulnerable to an earthbending attack."

Ursa frowned. She'd never bothered to think about where the tunnels had come from or whether they had been used in the past.

Mai, however, simply didn't care. Her dark eyes never wavered from her daughter's downcast face. "You've been traveling all over the Island in those tunnels? Alone?"

Ursa flinched. Her mother's voice was soft but her words were choked with uncharacteristic emotion. Ursa felt a lump form in her throat. She was a horrible, awful daughter for causing her mother pain. She wiped at the tears as they began to spill. "I-I'm sorry, Mother. I didn't mean to–" Didn't mean to what? Ursa wasn't sure. The truth was, when she explored the tunnels, the fun had outweighed the guilt.

Ursa shook her head. This wasn't the time for apologies; that would come later. After she told them.

"There are tunnels all through the city," she explained. "And there are tunnels that lead into–" Her voice cracked. She had to take a moment to catch her breath. "They lead into the prisons."

Her parents flinched; she could feel it in the hands that caressed her, the arms that held her tight.

"The prisons," Mai repeated dully, as if unable to comprehend those simple words.

Finally Ursa raised her eyes. She couldn't resist. She had to see the look on her parents' faces, she had to know for sure. There it was, that fear in their eyes she had never truly understood before today.

A tortured sob escaped her. She drew her legs to her chest and sank her head to her knees.

Zuko frowned. His daughter had always been easily susceptible to guilt –it was one of the things that made her so precious. But it was not guilt making her cry. He wrapped his arm tighter around her. "Ursa–"

"Is it very hard?" she asked, voice muffled, face still buried in her legs.

"Is what very hard, Ursa?" Mai asked. She stroked her daughter's hair, but her fingers trembled. She knew just as well as Zuko did.

Ursa's shoulders shook with a silent sob. "Is it very hard to...to look at me?"

Even now, the question made Zuko flinch. Anger with himself –disgust even– flared at the thought that his daughter could think such a thing for even a second. But he knew why. And it was his fault.

"Ursa." Mai's eyes welled with tears. She bent down to press her head against her daughter's. "Don't say that. Don't even think it."

"I understand now," Ursa insisted, her voice choked with tears. "I know why you –why people sometimes give me those looks, like they're afraid I'll do something stupid or dangerous or like they're just...afraid."

The words stabbed at Zuko, tiny daggers slashing at his heart. His precious Ursa sounded almost sympathetic, as if she couldn't even blame them.

"It's because I look like...her."

"Ursa, look at me." Zuko gently raised her chin. Her big brown eyes, streaming tears, stared back at him. Zuko took her face in his hands and wiped at the tears with his thumbs. He leaned down and kissed her forehead.

"When I look at you," he said quietly, "Yours is the only face I see, Ursa."

Ursa's eyes clouded with doubt. "I don't ever remind you of her?"

Zuko's throat tightened. Ursa's resemblance to Azula was uncanny. Ever since she was a baby, it had been obvious. The servants, even some of the soldiers, had shied away from her. They whispered it was a curse the spirits had laid on Zuko for betraying his family, but he had quickly put an end to such talk. It was something he had never wanted Ursa to realize; a pain he wished she would never suffer. But now that she knew, he couldn't lie to her. He wouldn't.

"Sometimes," he admitted.

Ursa swallowed hard.

"And every time," he went on, "It reminds me how incredibly lucky I am."

Ursa frowned, confused.

"No matter how much you may look like her, Ursa, you're not her." Zuko smiled. "You're my angel; that's who you've always been and it's who you'll always be. Nothing will ever change that. Do you believe me?"

Ursa studied her father for a moment. Finally, she nodded. More tears fell from her eyes and her parents quickly wrapped her in a tight embrace. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

Zuko shook his head, kissed her hair. "No, Ursa; we're sorry. You shouldn't have been able to think that, even for a minute, and that's our fault."

The three sat for a long moment, holding each other tight as the momentary heartbreak began to mend.

"I still haven't told you," Ursa whispered. She rested her head against her father's chest, her mother's forehead pressed against her hair. "It's about the prisons. I...I found something there."

Zuko came to a doorway at the end of the corridor. Two Earth soldiers stood guard, their spears crossed before a solid metal door. Zuko said nothing, but passed a scroll to one of them.

The solider unrolled it to glance at the contents, his eyes instantly drawn to the Earth King's seal at the bottom. He nodded to his companion and the spears parted. The soldier unlocked the door and pushed it open. Zuko stepped inside.

The door clanged shut behind him. The lock turned, clunking into place.

"Ah, so the fool has come looking for answers." Kuzarr chuckled.

In an instant, Zuko took in the surroundings. The cell was empty except for a chair. Kuzarr was bound to it, held in place by metal clamps around his wrists, arms, ankles and shins. His smile taunted Zuko; Kuzarr, even in his own defeat, was determined to realize this loss held no sway over the inevitable triumph of his cause.

Zuko shook his head. "We'll have all the answers from the Dai Li by dawn."

Kuzarr laughed. "You think too much of yourself. They won't tell you anything."

This time, it was Zuko's smile that taunted Kuzarr. "They don't have a choice."

His Uncle had arranged that. In the past, the Dai Li proved impervious to interrogation, but Iroh brought forward a friend of his, a man named Ru Yong, who knew an old technique that could pry answers from even the most determined foes.

Kuzarr's smile sagged. He had to be lying. Didn't he?

"If they were talking," Kuzarr insisted, his heart pounding, "You wouldn't be here. Unless–" His breath caught. "Unless you're here to kill me."

Zuko's eyes bored into his. He moved forward with deliberate steps until he stood inches from the chair. "Don't worry," he said flatly, "You'll live to make it to your trial."

An unbidden chill crept across Kuzarr's flesh. He knew what Zuko didn't say; his judges may very well decide Kuzarr was too dangerous to keep alive.

Kuzarr's eyes narrowed. "Then why are you here?"

"Confirmation."

Kuzarr raised an eyebrow. He snorted. "Of what? Your own failures?"

Zuko ignored him. "Why Azula?"

"What?"

"Why would you use her?"

Kuzarr smirked. "She proved an excellent distraction."

Zuko shook his head. "But she was supposed to kill me, wasn't she?"

Kuzarr said nothing, but his eyes flashed, betraying him.

"Instead she decided to toy with me. She told me she wanted me to suffer. Whatever your plan was, Kuzarr, she's more interested in revenge. She failed again today, and I just had an interesting conversation with my Uncle. Apparently she tried to attack him. Why would she do that?"

He watched Kuzarr, but he didn't expect an answer in the traitor's eyes. What he saw was disgust and frustration.

"The only thing I can think of is that she's trying to placate someone," Zuko went on. "But not you. To her, you're nothing. She wouldn't be scared of you."

Kuzarr averted his gaze, but Zuko continued. "In her present state, she's unreliable. A liability. There is no way you could have hoped to control her, and you know it."

Kuzarr tossed his head in frustration. "What are you trying to say?" he asked, fighting to remain aloof.

Zuko nailed him with a penetrating gaze before replying. "You couldn't hope to control her," he repeated. "But there is someone else who could. And so I believe you're not the one calling the shots. You're only a puppet."

Kuzarr's eyes darted away. His body tensed.

Zuko began to pace, circling Kuzarr. "The Guild was only a pawn. It wasn't the Dai Li, either." He passed behind the back of the chair and paused at Kuzarr's right. "They're followers, not leaders."

Kuzarr felt a trickle of sweat course down his neck.

"Pawns are used," Zuko continued, stepping back toward the door. "And strings are manipulated."

He glanced over his shoulder at Kuzarr, just in time to catch the traitor's eyes glued to him, burning with intense hatred.

As their gazes met, Kuzarr's face drained of color. He cast his eyes aside, but too late.

Zuko smirked. He knocked on the metal door. The lock turned. The door slid open.

"Confirmation," he said again, slipping out.

Kuzarr's frustrated scream echoed down the dark corridor, the only sound as Zuko made his way out of the Earth prisons.

***

Captain Kio did not enjoy sifting through paperwork. He liked it even less when the reports didn't add up, and there was a sizable stack before him that chilled his gut with sinking dread.

He sat back, staring at the pile of transfer requests and equipment release forms. Looking at it from a different angle certainly wouldn't change the evidence, but he needed to process it all.

His suspicions were first aroused by an unusual bulk of transfer requests from soldiers who specified preferred regiments and an equal number from officials interested in individual soldiers. Transfers were not wholly unusual; every man in the military found one or two officers they naturally butted heads with, and some soldiers caught the attention of captains and admirals. But they rarely, if ever, coincided with one another. Kio had pored over them for hours, realizing that each solider who named a specific regiment corresponded with a request from the preferred official requesting the same soldier. Never before had Kio seen such a pair of requests, and the records of the past few weeks were filled with them.

These fears were founded when he asked for all official records of the last two months and the Records Head Clerk attempted to deter him. Kio didn't have time to waste. He impounded the Clerk and tore through the records in a single, tiring day, looking for clues.

The paperwork pertained mostly to transfer requests, but also to the uses of navy vessels and supplies.

It only took a little more digging for Kio to confirm that none of the listed commanding officers actually existed. Some were completely fictitious, some retired, some dead for decades. All of them had requested and received vessels and even recorded the dates they had left port, the last being only three days ago.

Kio saw the requests for what they were. Whatever traitors or spies had still been within the Fire Nation military had used the transfers not only to escape, but to steal ships and supplies to fuel their own cause.

There was one thing Kio couldn't quite understand. Whoever lay behind this, they had gone to the trouble to make it look official. They went through the right channels, submitted requests, even waited for approval from the Clerk's office. These approvals were not even legal, since the Clerk signed them himself and he held no military power. So why go to all that trouble? What was the point? The charade must be a message –a taunt or a mockery. It was the only thing that made any sense. And who would want to send such a message?

Kio had experience with the Loyal rebels, back in their prime. This felt exactly the kind of thing they would pull.

Someone hurried into the room, breathless. "Sir?"

Kio glanced up. The guard's lips trembled, his face as white as if he had seen a ghost. Or perhaps, as if he had been in search of a ghost and found him vanished.

Kio didn't need to ask, but he did. "And?"

"You were right," the soldier replied, voice quivering. "He's gone."

A heavy sigh escaped the Captain of the Guard. Deep in his gut, he had known the truth, but the confirmation sent chills up his spine.

"Order everyone on alert," the Captain told him, "But keep it quiet. Those who don't need to know won't find out. And get me a hawk to Ba Sing Se."

The soldier bowed quickly before stumbling out of the room.

Kio rubbed at his tired eyes. The complicated ins and outs of this convoluted attack were beginning to make sense. He pulled down a small blank parchment and reached for a quill, struggling to find the right words.

How did one tell his Firelord that the worst was yet to come?

***

Even though it was late, Zuko did not go straight to his quarters. After the second and final attempt at a coronation, a number of meetings and discussions were necessary. The world's leaders couldn't pause long for a celebration, especially after a failed coup and assassination, leaks to find and a slew of traitors to interrogate. Zuko was exhausted, but he had to check one thing first. He knew he wouldn't be able to sleep if he didn't see his children and make certain they were safe.

The quarters set out for the Prince and Princess was beside their parents'. Zuko slowly opened the door, willing it not to creak. It swung open soundlessly. He wasn't even surprised to find Mai standing at the foot of the bed.

Zuko slipped into the room, closing the door behind him.

Mai did not look up as he stepped beside her, but continued to watch over her sleeping children.

Roh-Roh had fallen asleep with his head on his sister's shoulder. Ursa's uninjured arm wrapped protectively about him. They breathed easy, their faces content and peaceful.

They were finally safe.

The sudden realization flooded Zuko with relief. All the journeys, the fights and the raw emotions of the last few weeks caught up to him, seeping into his bones. He suddenly felt very, very tired.

Zuko laid a hand on his wife's arm. Mai must have been watching Ursa and Roh-Roh for hours. "You should get some rest."

"I was scared." Mai's voice was soft, distant. She finally turned to Zuko; he saw the fear and uncertainty that still lingered in her eyes. "I've never been so scared before, Zuko."

Zuko took her hand, pulling her into his arms. "I know."

Mai shook her head. "I can't leave them. Not yet."

Zuko nodded, resting his head against hers for a moment as they watched Ursa and Roh-Roh sleep. He didn't think he could ever be parted from their children again.

There was a couch close by. Zuko gently led her to it. With her head resting on Zuko's chest, her gaze still locked on her protected children, Mai began to relax. Zuko still held her hand; she laced her fingers between his, squeezing them. Finally, she looked up at him, eyes beginning to calm.

"I missed you too."

Zuko smiled. He kissed her. "I know."

Wrapped in one another's embrace, they fell asleep on the couch, lulled by the gentle sounds of their children's calm breathing.

***

"It's been too long, Your Majesty."

The ocean breeze felt good. He had forgotten what wind on his face felt like, how the mist of the waves coated his skin with refreshing droplets.

"Much too long, Admiral Liang," Ozai replied. He smiled as they pursued the horizon, the prow of the navy vessel cutting through the swells in its hurry. "But it has finally ended. You have done well gathering the forces. Have you encountered any suspicion?"

"Not by the time we set sail," the admiral replied. "The port believes I am taking my fleet out to greet the Firelord upon his return."

A frown tugged at Ozai's mouth. "She has failed me again."

The admiral nodded. "I'm afraid the princess is no longer what she was, Your Majesty."

"Unfortunate." Ozai pursed his lips, his gaze growing distant as he contemplated the loss of his daughter and greatest tool. He shook the thought away and stepped to the ship's rail. "Have the Dai Li given us any trouble?"

Liang smirked. "Not in the least. They have not fared well since the war, banned from both the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom. They were so relieved to receive your call for aid, to learn of the princess' fall from grace and the mistake of their banishment, I believe they would have stormed the Earth Palace themselves if you had requested it."

Ozai smiled. There was no servant more willing than a tool in need of a wielder. "The time has come for the Fire Nation to regain its glory, Liang."

A triumphant smile twisted Admiral Liang's face. "It only waits for its Phoenix King to rise from the ashes, my lord."

Ozai stood tall, regal, radiating dignity and power. The crumpled, defeated old man from that prison cell was no more.

The Phoenix King had returned.


Author's Notes

  • 'From the Ashes' was a contending title for this chapter, but I was afraid it might give too much away. ;)
  • "Princess Ursa had the same black hair as her mother, and the face of a woman she never knew." -from Ursa's introduction in Within the Palace Walls
    • 8o You're so evil...
  • I know. XD


  • If anyone's interested, to me Ursa basically looks like Jade from the Jackie Chan Adventures. Not quite that tough, though. ;)
  • I love the final scene with Mai and Zuko, watching their children sleep. I wrote it a long time ago, and I knew it was the perfect close to the harrowing venture of seeing their children in danger.
  • Admiral Liang was in the original series. I just don't remember where, and I'm apparently too lazy to look it up. :P
  • Things are definitely starting to heat up. ...muahaha....

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