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|Where There's a Will|
June 11, 2013
Previously in Air
The death of Jeong Jeong brought a shadow over the gang. Ozai refused to heed Aang's warnings about Koh and seems bent on plunging both worlds into chaos. At the camp of the Phoenix King, an airship arrived, carrying more troops and piloted by War Minister Qin, who has promised Ozai an improvement on the ship trubechets that will further put Zuko at a disadvantage.
Chapter 70: Where There's a Will
The Dai Li bowed before the Phoenix King. It occurred to Ozai that he didn't know the man's name. He supposed it was of no importance now, this far in. And he was the only Dai Li left, so it wasn't as though he would get confused.
"Report," Ozai barked. These Dai Li were a skittish bunch. But who could blame them, after their fruitless wanderings over the past decades, banished and shunned by all but the worst criminal kind, until he had rescued them. They would hardly speak unless first given explicit permission. At first, Ozai enjoyed this, but it had become something of a nuisance that they couldn't accept subtlety as direction.
"Min is almost ready for the next step, Your Majesty."
Ozai forgot his annoyance. His teeth gleamed in a bitter smile. "Excellent. I have just the candidates for her."
"They don't pay us much mind, do they, sir?" Si Yung whispered, as he stretched his arm as far as it could reach and then a little farther. He felt the shard of sharp rock tickle his fingertips before sliding farther from him on a shift of sand.
Jee kept his eyes on their guards, ready to warn the corporal if someone turned toward them. "No, they don't. That'll be their mistake, won't it?"
Gritting his teeth, Si Yung pushed himself closer to the shard as quietly as possible. "Still on the same routine, sir?"
Jee watched as one pair of guards circled the beach hideout, just as another set disappeared into the forest. "Like clockwork."
"Good." Si Yun grinned as the shard fell into his palm. He clutched it tight.
"Company," Jee hissed, letting his body go limp.
Si Yung shifted, lying atop his hand to conceal his prize. Who was it? Tao again? The Corporal's heart pounded at the thought of the 'interrogator' but he stomped the fear down. He was a soldier. He couldn't allow himself to be ruled by fear.
It was not Tao. It was Ozai, accompanied by a Dai Li and a soldier. The earthbender was still garbed in the old, patched garments of his former rank, as though he had never betrayed his people.
"Here they are," Ozai said, holding his hands out as though presenting two prize hippo cows. "Does she want anything in particular?"
The Dai pursed his lips, musing. "We'll take the younger one for now," he said finally. He flicked his wrist and earthen cuffs leapt from the earth, clamping around Si Yung's ankles. "She requires a great deal of strength."
Jee, still bound, lunged toward the Dai Li's feet. "Then it's me you want," he said. "Any fool can see I'm stronger than this whelp."
The Dai Li turned up his nose at the graying Captain.
The soldier accompanying them reached down, hauling the Corporal upright.
"Wait! What are doing with him? Why are you taking him?"
As the Dai Li and soldier marched away with their prisoner, Ozai couldn't help a smile.
"Don't worry, Captain. You'll find out soon enough."
Jee fought against his bonds, but in vain. Tired of the scuffling, one of his guards lashed out. Lying on the sand, Jee could only watch, helpless, as the Corporal was dragged away, and hope that Si Yung managed to escape.
Toph sat alone in the house, thinking. Well, not quite alone. She had her fears to keep her company. After reinforcing the bunker, Katara had ordered her right back to bed. Toph wanted to complain, to insist that she was fine, but fatigue reigned her body and she couldn't even speak.
Rest was required, even if she couldn't sleep, and Toph had spent hours with her churning thoughts.
She couldn't forget that momentary panic, that dread that Min may have taken away her earthbending. Because the thought that jumped into her mind in that instant, when blind terror had hidden her abilities, still haunted her: Haru was right.
He was right, because maybe she had been doing some thrill seeking by selectively choosing her metalbenders. Because maybe she did like that control, to be the only true earthbending master.
Because there were still things –forms and knowledge– that she hadn't passed down.
Oh, sure, she'd given each student what they could handle, taught them well. But she hadn't taught them everything.
And the thought that Haru had been right –and truly recognized it before even she did– rankled her.
And made her terribly ashamed.
What if she had lost her bending abilities? What then? She wouldn't have made a very good teacher.
Because of her selfishness, could the true mastery of metalbending have been lost to the world?
"Your Majesty." The Colonel bowed quickly. "Enemy soldiers have been spotted in the woods."
A thin smile graced Ozai's lips. "So it has begun. Are they preparing an attack?'
"Not as yet. They have hemmed us in from the Forest, doubtless an attempt to keep us from the farm."
There was only one reason Zuko would dispense his soldiers toward the beach, and that was to confront the threat. The Firelord and his friends knew that the biggest threat was not the Loyal, but the spirit Ozai intended to ally with –they had said as much. But they were here, not at the cliffs. The Phoenix King's smile widened. Which likely meant they didn't know where Min and her anchor were.
"Should we engage?" the soldier asked, though the question sounded more like a formality. The soldier was already rising to prepare an attack.
But Ozai shook his head. It would due to keep Zuko's soldiers occupied and distracted as long as possible. "Not yet, Colonel."
The Colonel hesitated. "Your Majesty?" Are you certain?"
Ozai's smile remained, but his eyes flashed. "What exactly are you questioning?"
Realizing too late his bad position, the Colonel gulped. "None of it, sir," he assured. "I was only thinking they had the advantage of high ground."
Ozai nodded. When they arrived on the island, they had not expected an encounter. The Forest rose up form the beach, running along it like the lip of a small canyon. It had provided them a cover to avoid attention, but could now be used to the enemy's advantage.
"And I," Ozai said coldly, "Was only thinking of the ships offshore. The Forest will provide an easy target for our trebuchets. Will that suffice?"
The Colonel flinched. Bowing low once more, he gushed, "You are most wise, O Phoenix King."
The compliment did little to charm him. "Keep an eye on them," Ozai ordered. "Watch your tongues, but let them feel they're accomplishing something. And move our guest. If this is some kind of poorly executed rescue attempt, I'd rather it no succeed. Min may still need him in the future. Dismissed."
With a few more gushing words, the Colonel departed.
Ozai contemplated what was to come. Soon, the first step would be complete. Not only would the Firelord fall much more easily thanks to his lack of numbers but Ozai would soon have at his disposal the greatest power ever known to mortals.
Yet still he did not smile.
Something niggled at the back of Ozai's mind. It crept up from the depths of his subconscious, worming into his thoughts like a shadow, tainting the brilliant light of his victory.
It was doubt.
"Who are they?" Captain Lao asked, distracted.
"Mechanics, sir," his lieutenant, Hun, explained again. "War Minister Qin sent them with some modifications for the ship."
Lao huffed through his nose in frustration. "As if I don't have enough to do already," he muttered. "I can't be in three places at once. Where are they?"
Hun gestured toward three individuals waiting patiently outside the bridge. Garbed in mechanics uniforms and armed wrenches and blueprints. There were two men and one woman, which surprised Lao for a split second until he noticed her toned and thick muscles. Usually mechanics was too laborious for females, but not for one with muscles like that.
"All right," Lao said. "With me, lieutenant."
Hun followed his captain to the mechanics, who greeted them with quick salutes.
"What is it exactly you want to do?" Lao demanded.
One of the men, sporting an eye patch and a medley of scars on the left side of his face, smirked. "Only a couple o' quick fixes, Cap'ain. We have some adjustments for the trebuchets, give 'em a longer reach."
Lao snorted. "And it has to be done now?"
The female, whose hair was a wild elephant rat's nest of tangles, flexed her muscles. "Yes, sir."
"Phoenix King's orders," the third man added, his blue eyes seeing right to the heart of the matter. No captain liked to see his ship tampered with by outsiders, renowned mechanics of the War Minister or not.
Lao huffed again. "Very well. Lieutenant, accompany them."
"Thanks, Cap'ain, but if it's all the same," the eye patched man put in, "We'd just as soon get it done ourselves. We won't be needing extra hands, or anyone gettin' under foot."
Hun clenched his teeth. Lieutenants did not get 'under foot'.
"It isn't all the same," Lao snapped, his face reddening in anger. "This is my ship. If some stranger has to come aboard tinkering with the devices, I'm going to keep a good eye on them." He turned to Hun. "Watch them, Lieutenant. Make sure they don't ruin anything."
Hun saluted as the Captain turned back to the bridge.
The lieutenant turned to the man with the blue eyes.
"He's got a bit of a temper."
Hun shrugged. He'd seen worse, and he could understand a bit of the Captain's frustration. "Trebuchets are this way." He turned about sharp, leaving the three mechanics to scurry after them.
Hun watched the mechanics while they worked, his eyebrows raised to skeptic heights. They fiddled with parts and twisted at bolts and levers, adding on extra pieces and jamming them in place. He wasn't much for mechanics, and even the summary the blue-eyed mechanic was giving him as they worked went over his head, but it looked like they were giving the device a complete overhaul.
"Adjustments, huh?" he grunted.
"Yessiree, it's true. Just in time for the next big step, eh?" The eye-patched mechanic winked.
"Qin seems to excel at that talent," Hun said with a wry smile. "Between you and me, I think he likes to sit on his findings until the most opportune moment."
The blue eyed mechanic chortled. "Who can blame him? Careers aren't formed by chance, after all. Hard work and timing, that's what does it."
The three mechanics laughed as they worked. As one, they heaved up on the giant gear at the base of the trebuchet. The veins in their necks bulged.
"Do you need a hand?" Hun cried, starting forward in alarm.
The gear shifted, falling into place with a clang that echoed throughout the deck.
"Whoo!" The female mechanic cried, leaping away. She ran her sleeve across her brow to clear the sweat from her bangs, but it did little to improve her unruly mane. "All good, sir. Just getting a little tired. This is the sixth ship on our docket." She grinned at him, revealing a few gaps in her smile. "Arms are getting sore!"
The other trebuchets complied to the adjustments without much trouble, though one did have a few sticking gears that had to be oiled down. Hun found himself in interesting conversation as they worked. These mechanics were characters, but an agreeable sort. It was nice, when most of your job was spent in the middle of the ocean with the same crew who couldn't appreciate a good joke, to find a few like-minded people.
Once they had finished, he escorted them down the ramp. "If you don't have orders up on the airship tonight," Hun said, "You ought to stick around the beach. Corporal Pian always pulls out his pipa to sing, and we've got a few around here with some decent talent."
The patched man snorted. "Seems like a good way to spend the evening waitin' for an attack!"
Hun grinned. "Killing time, I guess. Can't do much until they make a move. We've got them on watch now, up around the forest, and we've got orders to make it look like business as usual."
"You said this Pian can sing?" the woman wanted to know.
"Oh yes," Hun said. "Croons like a true heartbreaker."
She broke into a grin. "That's something we can't miss then. Come on, lads," she said, turning away. "Let's get these ships finished so we can make it to this party."
"Yes, ma'am!" the patched mechanic cried heartily.
They followed her down the beach with a little too much energy. As they passed a group of soldiers coming up, the blue-eyed man lost his footing, bumping into the trio.
"Sorry about that!" he cried, jumping away.
One of the soldiers grunted. He jerked at the man beside him, and the mechanic realized he wasn't a soldier at all, but an enemy prisoner.
"Better watch your step," the soldier advised, eyeing the wrench at the mechanic's belt. "This one might nab that and beat you over the head with it."
The mechanic paled, and began to pat himself down. "Looks like everything's still here." He wagged a finger at the prisoner. "You aren't getting any help from me."
The soldiers rolled their eyes, and pressed the prisoner onward down the beach.
Jee didn't know why he was being moved. For the moment he didn't have the presence of mind to care. All his strength had been spent sending his hope and wishes to Si Yung. It was no physical help, but it was all the helpless Captain could manage. He only hoped that –somehow– his efforts leant strength to the Corporal's will and resolve.
A shadow passed over Jee as he was led into the belly of the navy warship, but he refused to let it weigh on him. Jostled and shoved, the guards led Jee into the prison block where a dozen empty cages waited for him to choose from. He was pushed inside and bound by his right hand to the bars with a rope.
That made him chuckle. "Scared, boys?"
Neither replied, only slammed the door shut, bolted it, and retreated back toward the daylight.
Jee didn't know why he was here, but he could guess. Ozai had mentioned someone needing Si Yung, and Jee must be awaiting the same fate. But something had spooked the Phoenix King. For some reason, Ozai had decided the beach was no longer safe, even with the added bonus of showing off his might to his prisoner. And what could spook Ozai?
A grin stretched across the Captain's face.
Firelord Zuko was coming.
"You should go with them," Toph said.
Haru jumped, startled by her voice, and losing grip on the stack of blankets he carried. He whipped round to find her lounging nonchalantly against the side of the barn, picking at the grit under her fingernails.
"How long have you been standing there?"
Toph shrugged. "You should, you know."
Bending down to retrieve the blankets that had fallen, Haru grunted, "Someone has to stay here, too. I might as well, since the Faceless know who I am now."
"Yeah. I heard that speech."
Haru flushed bright red. She'd heard that? He shook himself hard. It doesn't matter what she thinks. Remember?
"It was pretty good. You might make a politician yet."
"Um, thanks. Anyway, that's probably why I should stay here."
Toph shifted. She opened her mouth, closed it. Shifted again. "Would you reconsider?"
Frustration spiked through Haru. "You just don't like any of the choices I make, do you?" He tried to make it sound light, a joke, but the words came out bitter.
Her cheeks reddened. "That's ...not what I meant, Haru. I –" She cleared her throat. Pulled away from the wall. Sank back against it. "Zuko's pretty sure they're outnumbered already. I just... I think they ought to have an earthbender with them."
Haru frowned. An earthbender? But– "What about you?" He finally turned to face her. Toph's expression was part grimace, part rueful smile. "You're not going?"
"Nah. Turns out that psycho chick really did a number on me."
Dread tingled through Haru. He swallowed hard. "Are you okay?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah, fine. Just really tired. Especially when I earthbend. Katara thinks it's because of whatever she did to my energy. After fortifying that bunker –well, it kind of wiped me out."
Stacking the blankets precariously, Haru stood. "I could have done that," he said quietly.
"Yeah, you could've. But then I would've stormed the beach and realized too late that I was this close to falling on my butt."
Haru rested his hands on the stack. "You were testing yourself."
"You bet your pretty 'stache I was. What, surprised?"
He shrugged. "You just sounded so convinced."
"Well, you know. I'm not that gung-ho."
"Will it fade?" Haru asked, picking at the lint on the blankets. "Over time? You'll get back to normal soon, right?"
Toph smiled. Not sardonically at his questions, but genuinely because she heard the concern in his voice.
"We're not sure. It might. I might have to build up my endurance again."
The words were spoken in a level and clear voice, but she couldn't be that composed about it, could she?
"You mean, you might have to retrain yourself? Like a beginner?"
Toph shrugged. "If by beginner you mean someone who's already mastered every form with class and style, then yeah."
That got a chuckle from him. "Any chance you'll learn some modesty this time around?"
They stood for a moment in awkward silence. Others shuffled about the barn, gathering supplies or just shuffling, uncertain what to do.
"Look, Haru..." Toph hesitated. She pushed away from the wall and back again. "I never said it before, but I really am sorry about upsetting you. About what I said. I guess... I guess it's none of my business. And after seeing you with those Faceless, I think you're going to be good at it." She grinned. "I think sticking around in a small town is going to drive you stir crazy, but if you're convinced it's the best place for you, then it is."
He didn't say anything for a long moment, only cocked his head and stared at her. "Thanks, Toph. That means a lot."
Toph nodded, just once, and turned to go.
He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry too. About saying you only teach because you like to boss people around. I don't really believe that. And about metalbending– I was just really upset. I'm sorry."
Toph paused, but she didn't turn back to him. "Don't be," she said, her voice calm. "Actually, I wanted to thank you for that. You might have been right. Huh."
And she walked away, something rang in Haru's head. Possibly the sound of his perceived reality crashing down.
Doubt would not leave Ozai's mind no matter how hard he shook it away.
Azula noticed the shadow in her father's face, where only yesterday there was the self-confidence of assured victory.
"What troubles you, my lord?"
His eyes flashed. "Who says I'm troubled?" he demanded, gaze darting about the room, searching for any audience.
But Azula had ensured they were the only two present. After all, it certainly wouldn't do to have listeners. Her father would be furious. To his subjects, he must be flawless, perfect. God-like. In their eyes, he had no weaknesses. But Azula knew her father, and offering him advice or comfort might reestablish her in his eyes. Above Min, once more.
"It's what the Avatar said," Azula guessed.
He looked at her with a skeptic's glance. Such a shift, from the deranged woman who had returned from the forest, cackling and cursing in the same breath.
"Why does it trouble you so? Surely Zuko and his allies are only attempting to drive us off course?"
Ozai frowned. "The Avatar's naive reverence for all life troubles me. Because he lacked the resolve to kill me at our last encounter, I am inclined to think his warning is no trick."
"You wish, then, to reconsider our arrangement." Azula's heart thudded with a strange emotion. Not fear, but hope. Hope that perhaps she would not be forced to face that spirit again.
"Not reconsider." Ozai mused, rolling the idea around in his head. "I was thinking 'rearrange'. I am beginning to wonder whether the Face Stealer has made me a pawn in his own game." He turned to Azula. "When you spoke to him, he never offered his service or pledged his allegiance."
Azula pursed her lips. Her eyes drifted upward as she sorted out the memory. "Not in so many words," she recalled. "He did sound supportive of the idea. An 'interesting proposition,' I believe were his exact words." All expression drained from her face as the memory expanded. "Then he snatched that lieutenant away and said goodbye."
Her voice was cold, dead of emotion. A chill settled over Ozai's skin and he shivered.
"I think we should have another word with this spirit. I would hate for him to be under the wrong impression when he arrives in a permanent immortal state in our own world."
Azula shuddered. A terrible fate indeed, if they found themselves confronted with a terrifying, all-powerful and impossible to kill spirit with his own agenda.
Ozai stood. "Come, Azula. Let us speak with this spirit once more before Min opens the passage."
Sweat prickled her neck. A volcano of dread erupted in her stomach while chills shuddered across her flesh.
She almost protested. Another encounter with Koh was perhaps one of the worst fates she could imagine. What was worth that?
Her father stood, waiting for her. Offering her a place at his side.
Azula rose. "Of course, Father."
Si Yung stumbled on the rocky footing, taking the opportunity to slash again at his bonds with the rock shard biting into his palm.
Behind him, the soldier propelling him forward cursed. "Clumsy oaf!"
"Maybe I wouldn't be so clumsy if you geniuses would've let me walk around a little the last couple days. A body needs exercise!"
The Dai Li and soldier ignored him. Si Yung hid a smile as he felt the fuzzy fray of the rope tickling at his wrists. Just a few more stumbles and–
"Here we are," the soldier grunted, shoving Si Yung forward.
The Corporal staggered on his tired legs, truth to his complaint after all. He stumbled past an upright rock and was cast in the glow of torchlight. He stood before a cave entrance, hidden behind a sheet of upright rock on the jagged cliffs.
"She's been expecting you."
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Focus on your goal. Envision your target.
A haggard smile twisted Min's sickly face. A target. Two words, so simple, and yet before her, in a moment not too far from now, she saw the possibility of a changed world spread out before her.
A world ruled by fire and darkness. A world saved from itself by the hand of her King and her savior, with a tethered Spirit by his side.
Her task unfolded in her mind's eye. Shadows, chants, words with no true meaning, all bent to the design of stealing from a person the one thing thought to be beyond the reach of any.
How else would one describe it? She took from them not only their mobility, but the memory of mobility. Not only the ability to act, but the ability to think of action.
Her pale lids opened, dark glazed eyes drawn to the Anchor. He had nothing left. He lay there, insensible, and helpless.
Footsteps echoed from the rocks, bounding through the chamber.
"Have you brought it to me?"
"Yes," came the curt reply of the Dai Li.
She turned. The earthbender stood at the entrance, a soldier by his side, and a captive before him.
The captive was propelled forward. She saw the spark of life, the defiance in his eyes. He stumbled, collapsing to his knees.
Min frowned. "He is weak." She rose.
"Not as much as he pretends," the Dai Li assured her.
Min grunted, unsatisfied.
"I need a powerful life force," she murmured, stepping closer. "Not a beaten captive."
"You won't get either," Si Yung snarled, lunging for her. The rope fell away from his hands as he sprang, armed with a sharp rock.
The soldier started forward. The Dai Li shifted to call upon the earth, but the Corporal was almost upon her.
Min raised her hand.
Si Yung froze. The air left him in a gasp of shock as his body jerked to a halt.
The men by the door paused as a shiver rushed over them.
Shock, horror, disbelief –they all fought for room on the captive's expression. Min smiled. She had not been wholly unprepared. Wrapped around her fingers was a length of cord cut from the man's armor, which she had requested when he and his companion were fist captured.
Min flexed her fingers and Si Yung's face twisted. Not in pain, exactly, but discomfort. He could feel his insides shifting and stirring.
"Wha– what –"
"Shh..." Min hushed, her husky voice far from comforting. She twisted the cord between her fingers, murmuring under her breath. "Shh."
Si Yung's eyelids drooped. Tiredness crept through his limbs, sapping all strength, but it wasn't a normal fatigue. Emptiness, instead of weariness, seemed to fill his muscles.
He gasped for breath. He tried to squirm, to writhe free, to attack. But his body only sunk to the ground.
The last thing he saw was the growing satisfaction of the woman's smile, as she watched the will drain from his eyes.
When Haru realized the others were finalizing their strategy in the farmhouse, he almost didn't go in. He could wait, couldn't he, until they came out? But he knew it was stupid. Even as he opened the door, he knew he didn't have any real reason to be embarrassed or nervous. Just because she was there.
Toph sat reclining in her makeshift bed as the others stood talking around her. Even if she couldn't fight, she could still provide input into their plans. She didn't look happy about sitting, but Katara stood at her side to ensure she didn't exert herself any more.
The glum atmosphere crushed Haru's hope that someone had come up with an ingenious way for them to defeat Ozai with ease. In fact, the air felt so dire Haru wondered if they had any ideas at all.
He sidled up beside Sokka and Ty Lee, trying to convince himself he wasn't using them as a shield between him and Toph.
"So do you have a plan?" he asked.
Sokka arched an eyebrow at him. "Are you coming?"
"Yes," Haru said, keeping his face straight and his gaze far from Toph's.
The honorary Kyoshi Warrior broke into a grin. "Then yes!"
Haru's stomach flopped. "I'm going to pretend you had a backup plan," he muttered.
When Haru spoke, Katara saw the relief in Toph's face. She also spotted the blush creeping up her friend's cheeks and she fought to hide a smile.
"Zuko and I are going to take on Min and disrupt the passage," Aang declared. "The rest of you will join the other forces at the beach and attack the Loyal's camp."
"Why not attack the cave directly?" Haru asked.
Ty Lee answered this question. "What little I saw of the cliff is treacherous and vulnerable. Taking a large force would draw their attention, and we could easily be picked off."
"Instead we're going for stealth," Sokka said. "A pair of attackers might be able to creep to the cave without any notice."
"One would attract even less," Aang insisted, but Zuko only shook his head.
"We've been over this, Aang. The passage is your responsibility as the Avatar, but Ozai is the one who made it. That makes it my responsibility, too."
"And once they're up there," Sokka went on as though they hadn't interrupted, "I wouldn't bet against them no matter what kind of security there is."
Sokka clapped his hands, the sound echoing through the room. "And that's the plan!"
Haru gulped. It wasn't much of a plan.
"I'm still working on the finer details," Sokka added, as he noted their dismay. "Once we get to the beach, it'll be easier to figure out how best to attack. But don't worry. I'll come up with something."
As the others exchanged uncertain glances, Zuko spoke.
"We'll move out soon, so now is the time to say goodbye to those not coming with us, and ensure they're all secured within the bunker."
"That's our cue," Katara said, reaching down to help Toph to her feet.
"Yeah, yeah," the earthbending master grumbled. "Down into the bunker with the women and children, I know."
Katara huffed through her nose, peeved at the comment. "Keep it up and I'll give you something to really gripe about," she muttered.
At the door, Toph paused. She half turned her head back to the others and said, "Don't worry. I'll look after the Faceless."
She didn't say his name, but Haru knew that was meant for him. As he watched her shuffle out the door, part of him hoped his face wasn't turning red. The other part of him didn't really care.
Ty Lee fell into step beside Haru as they filed out of the farmhouse. "I thought you were going to stay behind?"
She cocked her head to one side. "What changed?"
Haru hesitated. He didn't want to blurt out 'Toph asked me to.' It sounded so...sappy, and love-struck, and hopeless. That wasn't the real reason he was doing it. It wasn't! After all, it was a good idea for the team to have an earthbender with them, even if he hadn't yet mastered metalbending. It wasn't like he was doing this just because she asked him to. She had good reason to worry about her friends, and he did too. That was why he was going.
When he didn't reply right off, Ty Lee only smiled. She patted his hand. "It's good to have you."
Haru heaved a sigh as he watched Ty Lee bound toward the other Kyoshis. The answer swelled in his chest, bubbling up and yearning to be spoken. With no one to hear, he whispered, "Because Toph asked me to."
"What?" Mai asked, surprised. "You're not going to ask me to stay behind?"
Zuko grimaced. "I had a feeling that wouldn't go over so well."
"You'd be right."
"I do want you to stay here—"
"We're doing this together, Zuko. No more waiting around for you, wondering if you're going to come back. I'm not that type of girl."
Her husband hesitated. He glanced to the right, and Mai followed his gaze to where Ursa and Roh-Roh sat talking with their grandmother, trying to ignore the horror and unease all around them.
"What about the children?" he whispered.
Mai softened. "You and I both know that if this doesn't work –if we can't end whatever evil plan Ozai has– the farm won't survive, bunker or not. Our best chance is to attack with all we've got." Her eyes darkened. "It's the best chance we have at saving them. I've got to do something, Zuko. I have to protect them."
Zuko took her hands in his, pulling her close. "We'll finish this," he promised. "We'll come back to them."
"Together," Mai added with such vehemence and determination that Zuko almost pitied any enemy that stood in her way. "End of story."
And it was.
Zuko and Mai were talking quietly.
"What's he doing?" Katara asked.
"Trying to convince her to stay, I imagine." Aang turned back to his wife. He took a deep breath. "Katara–"
"Don't bother," she replied, with a wave of her hand.
Aang's heart sank.
His wife took a step forward, and suddenly swayed. Alarmed, Aang caught her.
"I'm too tired to fight," Katara admitted with a weak smile. "And Toph could still use some healing."
Relief flooded through Aang.
"Don't worry; I'll take care of everyone else, too."
"Don't forget to take care of yourself," Aang told her.
Katara smiled again. "And don't you forget to come back. Be careful, Aang."
He kissed her.
Garbed in their green and black uniforms, the Kyoshi Warriors prepared for battle. They finished applying their war paint, sharpened and shined weapons, pulled back hair, stretched.
As he wiped his freshly-sharpened blade, Sokka caught sight of Aang and his sister, in the midst of a fond farewell. Then he spotted Zuko and Mai, in the middle of doing the same.
He glanced at Suki. She flicked her fans open and closed, testing their quickness and response to her touch.
"Suki..." he hesitated.
"Yeah, Sokka?" she asked, not looking up.
"When we get ready for a fight, do you ever think...well, do you ever worry that...?" Sokka couldn't bring himself to spit it out.
"I usually don't think about much before a fight," Suki told him. "Except winning, of course."
"Oh," Sokka said, disappointed. "Right."
He didn't always worry she might die in battle. They fought so often as Kyoshi Warriors, the worry itself would kill him before someone else could. But sometimes, before a particularly challenging or big fight, he did worry.
But he guessed Suki didn't. Of course, thinking on being victorious was probably better motivation than picturing his wife dying a gruesome death just before a battle. As usual, Suki was right.
Sokka turned back to sharpening his sword, but Suki threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. Passionately. Like it was their last kiss. Like they would never see each other again.
"What was that for?" he managed, after the fireworks stopped exploding in his head.
Suki shrugged. "For luck."
He didn't believe her.
Aang approached Zuko reluctantly. He and Mai held their children tight, whispering goodbye and promising to return soon. Ursa and Roh-Roh tried hard to be brave, but tears streamed down both their faces.
At first, Lady Ursa stood back and watched. She didn't seem awkward in the least. She watched her son and his family with sad eyes, hoping that when this terrible battle was over they would still be whole. Ursa finally dragged her grandmother in to complete the family hug.
Aang cleared his throat.
They all looked up.
"Are you ready?"
Zuko nodded slowly, though he didn't look ready in the least. He and Mai tore themselves away from their children, but their fingers held on, unwilling to separate.
They all met in the openness of the yard: Zuko, Mai, Aang, Toph, Sokka, Suki, Haru and Ty Lee. Behind them, their various anxious troops waited for the charge.
Avatar Aang took the lead, his eyes and tattoos shedding white light.
"It's time to end this."
- Look at Toph and Haru! Daaawww! (That was for you, Fruipit. XD)
- Sorry this is incredibly late. I had to work at the last minute, but it's here now! Enjoy it, me hearties. Yo ho! #couldntresist.
- And I totally just used a hashtag on that, which means I'm either way too tired or my new Twitter account is beginning to rule my brain. Probably both. (Psst, if anyone wants to know, I'm @WordbenderManda)
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