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The following story is indubitably fanon and should not be considered actual canon.
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A QUICK UPDATERepublic City grows, and Cabbage Corp was created by the Cabbage Merchant. He discovered that it was not the cabbages he was crushed to find destroyed the numerous times he lost his wares, but instead it was his cabbage cart that he really loved! If he could find a way to build a stronger cabbage cart, then maybe he could finally sell his vegetables and get on with his life. Humble Mr. Cabbage-Man opened a company that issued spare parts for carts and wagons that were cheep, affordable, and plentiful because when it comes to being insured with the spare parts you need, no one understood quite like the Cabbage Man! His business skyrocketed and soon, everyone was buying spare parts from Cabbage Corp---the success was only just beginning.
Also, back on Air Temple Island, little Kya has learned that she is a Waterbender just like Katara and is training in the art with her mother and father. Even though she is just a toddler, Kya is already a powerful little bender and will only get better as time goes on. The happy family often goes out to the waterfall and trains together, bonding and teaching their little daughter to Waterbend. She's a natural at it too, just like her parents.
Meanwhile, over in Ba Sing Se, a letter from Beau and Honey (AKA Longshot and Smellerbee) came to all of their close acquaintances, telling of their new marriage and their happy (non-violent) yet slightly boring lives in the Earth Kingdom City. Ba Sing Se really is a pretty decent place to live now that King Kuei and his family have established a good sense of normalcy within the walls. The two retired Freedom Fighters live on a nice little farmhouse on the outer edge of the far side of Ba Sing Se and the each have new jobs to earn income. Beau uses his immense archery talents to guard the outer wall from thieves and wild animals---it is a slow job, but it pays well and let's Longshot use his skills. As for Honey, she got a job in a small shop nearby---nothing exciting, but maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. The world was free from war and now it was time to start thinking of other things other than fighting.
"Mai!" Zuko shouted. He hurried into her quote/unquote "me time" room and swiftly flew through the door, shutting it close behind his heels.
"Knock much, dear?" she sighed eerily, but with a small smile. Mai took notice of his expression and the crumpled letter that he held in his hands, and she wondered, "What happened?"
"You're never going to believe this!" He handed over the note, "After all this time, there have been reports of people who've seen Azula."
Mai read the letter and still seemed unimpressed by it, "You shouldn't get your hopes up. These could just be more dead ends and rumors." She sighed and continued, "Azula ran into a spirit forest, she might not even be on this planet anymore, much less----wh-where is this city in the letter?"
"It's Kasai---" Zuko grinned eagerly, "A tiny village just on the other side of the Forgetful Valley. It's only a few miles from Hira'a. I don't think these are false rumors, Mai. I think that my sister has finally come out of hiding."
"And from what the letter says," Mai continued reading, "If it really is her, she's causing some pretty massive damage."
"All the more reason as Fire Lord I should go and check on things there."
"I don't want you going on another long search away from home again. I'm tired of you never being around, Zuko. You're always off trying to save the world...I'm sick of it."
He smiled and gave Mai a light kiss on the head as she folded her arms grouchily and pouted angrily into the corner.
"If you want," He offered, "You and I can spend more time together and stay at my mother's house in Hira'a for the weekend---right after I check on this sighting, of course. Sound like a plan?"
"There's no talking you out of it?"
She sighed, "Then I guess I have no choice. When do we leave?"
Zuko took the letter and burned it right into thin air, "As soon as possible. I don't want this getting around until I know for sure if what this letter says is true.
"Zuko!" a happy voice called. "It's been ages since you've come to visit, big brother!"
"Kiyi!" He called, waving all the while as he and Mai exited their small War Balloon. Kiyi rushed up and nearly tackled Zuko over in a hug, before he stopped and laughed gratefully, "Thank you again for coming all the way out here to greet us."
"Well, we can't have the Fire Lord showing up in a gaudy war balloon in our little village, now, can we?" Ursa smiled, taking her son by the shoulders to give a much gentler welcoming hug, and then one to Mai.
"What's a few miles when we're housing family for the week, right?" Noren smiled.
Zuko bowed, "We're honored that you would put up with us on such short notice, Ikem----I mean Noren---I uh...ummm..." Zuko became tongue-tied.
"Just call me "Dad"," He offered.
"Thank you---" Zuko mulled the word around in his mouth for a few moments before Kiyi slapped him on the back and he coughed it out in one blurt, "DAD!"
"There now," Ursa grinned, "We have a cart all ready for you; do you have very much luggage dear?"
"No, we tried to travel pretty light to avoid a scene. " Zuko motioned to a few suitcases resting behind them as the War Balloon began deflating slightly with no fire to fuel the hot air. Ikem was already on the bags and he placed them inside the cart as he, Ursa, and Kiyi piled onto the seats.
"Zuko, I can't wait to show you all of our new props for the theater group!" Kiyi exclaimed, "I've been practicing my acting with Mom, and she says I'm getting really good! We're going to reprise Love Amongst the Dragons again this year, I'm going to try out for a part!"
"That's great, Kiyi!" Zuko smiled, followed abruptly with a frown as he added, "But, why don't you guys do me a favor and take Mai back to the house for a little while. Unpack, and I'll join you later this evening..."
Mai gave him a look.
"Awww!" Kiyi groaned, "But, why!?"
Ursa was already on her feet, marching to her son's side when she gave him a stern look and demanded an explanation, "Zuko, just where do you think you're going to go? There is nothing for miles except for Hira'a and the Forgetful Valley."
"There is just something that I need to check up on, Mother...that's all."
"We've all gone into the forest searching for Azula, my love, but we couldn't find her. If the Mother of Faces could have gotten to her in these past eight years then it is very possible that Azula is no longer her old self and she does not wish to be found by us, knowing the consequences beforehand..."
"You wanted to be found in the end, Mother," Zuko argued, "So we found you. And, I have a lead on her location in Kasai. It isn't far from here; I can check the details on my own, but I highly doubt that the Mother of Faces has anything to do with us this time."
Ursa gave him a glare, and shouted back to the rest of the family, "Darling, you take Kiyi and Mai back to the house and get dinner going! Zuko and I are going for a little walk together!"
Ikem did not appear swayed, "You aren't going to do something reckless are you?"
"No honey," She gave him a warm smile, and lied, "Don't worry about us, we'll be back before dark!"
Zuko had finally realized where Azula's conniving charms had truly come from, their highly skilled actress of a mother.
"Zuko," Kiyi called, "You guys better get home quick! I still want to hang out with you before you have to leave again! We hardly get to see each other anymore!"
"I promise, Kiyi!" He hollered back.
"Take care of each other," Ikem sighed in defeat.
"And, Zuko..." Mai frowned, "Just be careful..."
"We will," the young Fire Lord nodded, "And I promise you, I won't let anything happen to us."
With uneager motions, Ikem pulled on the reins and they were heading off in the other direction. Ursa and Zuko boarded the small hot air balloon and he maneuvered it right back into the sky as they headed for the small town of Kasai. Eventually, both parties were far out of each other's sights, and Ursa immediately started questioning her son's motifs.
"What are these "leads" of yours that are so important?" She asked, "And, what do they have to do with Azula?"
"The letter was very precise," Zuko told, "It said that a woman emerged from the forest and immediately started wreaking havoc on Kasai. A spirit, they think, of a mad woman with the power of blue flames and mass destruction."
"Why would she choose now to come out of hiding?" Ursa wondered, "And why stray away for so long? What could have happened to have made her so vengeful?"
"Azula wasn't in the best mental state when she ran off."
"But, after all this time..." Ursa held tight onto the basket of the War Balloon and sighed, light headed in an exasperated breath.
Zuko grabbed her with concern filling up his once unswayable and controlled tone of voice, "Are you alright, Mother?" He asked.
"I'm not so used to this flying, my love..." She swallowed, "But, more than that, I'm just blaming myself for Azula's current state. If I had not abandoned the two of you, she would not have turned out like this...It's all my fault."
Zuko rubbed his mother's shoulders empathetically and replied, "Don't blame yourself. It was my fault she slipped away in the first place. Look, let's just focus on finding her, and we can point blame later."
Ursa grabbed his hand, "Thank you, Zuko."
He smiled and then started to kill the altitude on their flight until they landed just on the other side of the edge of the Forgetful Valley forest. Zuko hoped out and helped his mother to the ground as she attempted to regain her earth legs, and the balloon was folded back into an unnoticeable basket.
"Hey! I was wondering when you'd finally decide to show up!" a cold voice called out. A growl emerged as a large, furry beast crawled over to them; riding atop the massive animal was a rather pretty woman dressed in dark attire, and she hoped down to stand before them, saying gruffly, "I was beginning to think you weren't going to show, and I would've traveled all the way out here for nothing."
A whip was heard and Zuko hollered as he ducked just in time to miss a swift tongue lashing from a very familiar paralyzing monster that just so happened to take a liking to him in the past.
As the two turned around, Ursa took notice of this strange, abrasive woman, and she gave her son a rather guilty glare before asking, "Zuko, who in the world is this woman?"
Zuko blushed at her tone and then sighed and covered his face in distress as he held out an arm to introduce: "June the Bounty Hunter," he grumbled. "June has helped us on many occasions with her Shirshu and she agreed to come to my aid once more to help us find Azula."Both women seemed unimpressed by one another and gave each other scowls of disapproval.
"So, your highness, who's the old lady?" June snickered.
"Excuse me?" Ursa scoffed.
Zuko pounced between them and shouted, "June! This is my mother, Ursa."
"The woman that we tried to hunt down a few years back, huh?" She grinned, "It's not everyday someone can outsmart my Nyla. How did you manage to mask your scent from us so well?"
"Trust me June, it is a long story and we don't have time for it now." He grabbed his bag and handed her half of its weight in gold, along with a hairbrush that was once used by the psychotic Fire Princess. "That should be more than enough for you to track her down for us."
"Hmph!" She hummed, "Always getting right down to business." June sighed and snatched away the supplies, "Fine! Let's just get this over with..."
As June let Nyla sniff at Azula's brush, Ursa creeped over and whispered to her son... "Does your wife know that you were meeting another woman all the way out here, Zuko?"
His face still red as ever, Zuko's voice cracked and he whispered hastily, "Mother! Please!"
"Well, you're in luck for once," June reveled, "We have a trace of her." The esteemed bounty hunter slapped her whip against the grass and jumped onto the back of her Shirshu as she bluntly ordered, "Get on! We're going!"
When the posse reached Kasai, they noticed most of it in shambles, scorched and roasted, as many villagers attempted to search through the wreckage for recyclable material to rebuild with.
"Whoa..." June hummed in intrigue, "What on earth happened here?"
Zuko took note of all the destruction and had only one word of reply... "Azula."
"Hey you!" somebody shouted. He came rushing up to the Shirshu and Nyla snarled at the man before June silenced her beast and he approached Zuko cautiously. "You must be Fire Lord Zuko. So you received our distress letter? A little too late I'm afraid. These raids by the Blue Spirit have been happening quite a lot these last few nights. She comes in and brutally wrecks a little more of our village with every visit, and then the vengeful Blue Spirit just leaves, right back into the forest from whence it came."
"Blue Spirit?" Zuko gave the man a funny look.
"Yeah," he shrugged, "That's what we've taken to calling her, you know, because of the blue Firebending and the---"
"No no..." He stopped the man, and said, "I understand, it's just..." He cleared his throat and changed his tone, "I heard once that there was already a Blue Spirit sighted in the past, and I do not believe these two to be the same thing."
"Well, we don't need another angry spirit around these parts," he stated, "But, whatever you call her, this witch-like woman has been terrorizing us for days. We would sure appreciate your help in stopping her once and for all, sir."
"We'll get to the bottom of this, and I'll see that your village receives the repairs it deserves," Zuko stated strongly.
He bowed, "Thank you, Fire Lord."
"June," Zuko asked, "Where does the trail lead from here?"
"The man was right," She huffed, "The scent goes around the rubble and then right back into the forest. Nyla won't set foot in there, and neither will I. I say it's best to lie low here until she comes back, and then you can trap her."
"I take it you aren't going to stick around for that?" Zuko accused.
June whistled sharply and Nyla sat swiftly, knocking both Ursa and Zuko right into the dirt. She laughed and replied, "You know us too well. But, hey, you ever lose anyone else in your house, you know my fees. See you around, your majesty."
And, just like that, June and Nyla ran off into the distance and out of Kasai. Ursa groaned and stood back to her feet before helping Zuko (whom she had landed on) back to his feet and she roughly brushed the ashes off of his clothing.
"Well, she was delightful..." Ursa grumbled.
"But the point is, she gets results, "Zuko nodded, "Plus, she has a point. The Forgetful Valley is dangerous. The safest solution is to just stay here and wait for Azula to show herself. When she comes out of the forest again, we'll confront her, and somehow get her to come home for good."
"My darling, I love how you are so optimistic about saving your sister, and I want more than anything else to find her as well, but---" Ursa frowned, "But, darling, what if the worst should happen? What if Azula refuses to return? What if she attacks more innocents?"
Zuko also gave off a concerned frown of thought and replied, "I've assumed that outcome many, many times, Mother. If Azula refuses to come back willingly, then we will just drag her back by force. That's all we can do at this point."
THE VENGEFUL SPIRITS
Zuko and Ursa took a seat behind what was left of some poor soul's farmhouse and they waited. They waited and they waited as the day started to drift into evening, and suddenly a loud burst of laughter erupted from the land and filled the air with its heated malice. Zuko and Ursa rose swiftly to their feet only to dodge well-aimed blue fireballs that shot right past their faces. Zuko then leapt over the rubble and shot a blast of scorching red right across the azure flames until they died down and evaporated.
"Azula!" He shouted, "Stop this now!"
"Azula!" Ursa cried, "We're begging you!"
A silhouette appeared from the dark woods and her voice merely cackled, the wicked laughter slowly growing in intensity as the figure of Azula came waltzing unstably towards them. Suddenly the village felt empty, and only the three royals were left in the clearing as all too rapidly, Azula consumed herself in fire and reappeared as none other than the terrifying mask of the Blue Spirit. He then unsheathed his duel Dao blades and came slashing towards Zuko who appeared taken aback and paralyzed from the surprising sight. The Fire Lord searched and his eyes strained to find his mother, but the only thing in every direction was an endless wall of flames. The ring of fire closed in tighter as even the air itself caught fire, the bright embers were clashing off of the Blue Spirit's blades as he drew closer, and that never-ending dark laughter of his younger sister filled his ears to no cease. Soon all three fatalities hit Zuko in one mighty swoop as he screamed and felt the pain of all three blows take their toll----
Zuko jolted forward and opened his eyes only to see the night sky and the village just as it was before. With a heavy sigh, the young Fire Lord groaned and rubbed at his eyes, letting the sweat brush off of his brow as he lay back against the wall and allowed the cool nighttime breeze comfort his nightmare.
"Are you alright, Zuko?" His mother wondered.
Zuko nearly jumped again at the voice, but relaxed and nodded slowly, "Yes," he breathed, "Is there any sign of her yet?"
"No my darling," Ursa smiled warmly under the moon lit stars, she put a comforting arms across Zuko's shoulders and leaned against him. "But, you sound stressed. I promise that I won't let the two of you down this time my darling. I will be here for you---and Azula---always. We will get your sister back."
Zuko gave in and rest his head against his mother's, taking in the true peace of the moment as the silence filled the air. "You know, Mother, I---" But Zuko's voice was interrupted by the distant screams of the villagers and the sudden sounds of total chaos.
"She's here!" Ursa rose to her feet and took off towards the noise.
Trying to repress another terrible dream about his demons, Zuko also stood and ran off to face his little sister.
"When is Mom coming home?" Kiyi yawned to her reflection in the window, "Zuko was supposed to have her back here by dinner, and it's already far past that time, Dad. I'm getting a little worried."
"Don't be, Kiyi," Ikem grinned unsurely, "Those two are going to be alright on their own, I'm sure of it. You just give them time and they'll come crashing through the door any moment now.
There was a light knocking at the door and all three figures in the house let out a startled gasp.
"There, you see?" Ikem clapped, "That's probably them right now." He started lightly towards the door and pulled it open saying, "We were all wondering whether you two would get ba----"
CRASH! And, Ikem was tossed across the house and into the other room.
Kiyi let out a scream and Mai rose with a growl as she sent a fury of knives right through the thin wooden door. The impact of stabbing on the other side was heard, but no screams of pain or collision with a live target was received. Mai readied herself, and moved in front of the fallen Ikem, and the frightened Kiyi as a figure stepped lightly into the home.Step. Step. Step. And, all too suddenly the intruder was before them, standing tall with a gleaming smile and shaking golden eyes of joyful rage. Mouth wide, Mai regained her composure and held the blades across her face, ready to fire.
"What are you doing here?"
Head to toe she was just as she was before, only her uniform was in tatters and her hair had grown long past her waist. She reveled at the excitement and was pure composure as she demanded to know, "Where are they? Mai, you cannot hide them from me, I know they're here...I can feel it."
"Daddy?" Kiyi shook him and he grumbled painfully as he started to wake.
"If it isn't my new little sister and her pitiful peasant father," Azula tittered, "Tell me little girl, where has our dear big brother and our mother run off to? I've been dying to talk to them for the longest time..."
"Don't answer!" Mai shouted, "Kiyi, take your father and get out of here, right now."
"Oh how fun!" Azula clapped.
Kiyi ignored her and asked, "But, what about you?"
"I'll be fine," Mai stressed, "Just get clear."
Ikem started to his feet, but Kiyi was already coaxing him out the back, "Come on Dad!"
Azula started slowly towards her old friend and hummed, "Mai, you're looking well, and still just as defiant as ever."
"If only I could say the same. You shouldn't have come here," she frowned, "Zuko wants to save you, but if you make one more move, I swear, I will end you like I should have done back at the Boiling Rock."
Azula smiled wide, "My, I have never seen you so feisty, Mai. Has some of my brother's pesky emotion finally seeped through to you?"
"I just have something worth fighting for now," Mai almost grinned, "No sudden moves. Hands up, I want you to walk right back out that door, and go back to whatever rock you crawled out from under, then you don't come back to this place again."
"Well that's rather impossible," the crazed princess laughed and pointed, "Seeing as the front door is in pieces along the floor there."
"Out!" Mai shouted.
"Well if you insist---"
Azula turned her back and a gleam in her eye sparked as she grinned wickedly over her shoulder. Mai noticed and with a gasp, threw her stilettos, only to watch them vanish beneath a wall of blue fire. Mai took a step and looked for Azula, but she came rushing her from the other side and kicked Mai right across the floor.
"Ty Lee isn't here to protect you this time, traitor..." Azula's hands lit bright with fire. She rushed rapidly to her toppled victim and just as she was about to strike, Azula froze. Her vengeful face melted away into a pale-looking state of fear, and she started to back away.
Breathing heavily from the kick and the home filling with smoke, Mai glared daggers at her old friend and waited, but she too lost her fury when she took note of Azula's face, and she just lay there motionless as the two continued their stalemate.
Without a word, Azula turned and walked out of the house; the fire dying minutes after she had left. Ikem and Kiyi rushed back through the backdoor and with battle cries, they jumped over to protect Mai, armed with theater props in hand for some humorous attempt at weaponry.
"Where did she go?"Kiyi huffed bravely, her arms trembling in terror all the while.
"Gone," Mai replied.
Ikem helped her back to her feet and took a look around the home, "Why would Azula do such a thing, and why now?"
"I---" Mai stuttered once and stared grimly out into the night after the crazed princess, "I don't know..."
"Help!" a Kasai villager cried out, "It's the spirit!"
"Run for your lives!"
Zuko and Ursa reached the forest's edge and saw a great beast attacking the villagers. The monster was huge and covered in odd designs, just as the rest of the creatures from the Forgetful Valley; it even roared like the sonic screech of thunderbolts, and let loose blue flames of destruction, but...this monster was not Azula.
"It isn't her!" Zuko cried out.
"I see that," Ursa seemed slightly more composed, "Do you think the villagers lied to us?"
Zuko grumbled, but then realized a crucial piece of evidence in the matter and he yelled, "No! There is no way that the villagers could trick June's Shirshu. Azula was here...this is just---just some other angry spirit that must have followed Azula by example."
"The other spirits are going mad because of my daughter?" Ursa grasped, "She is disturbing their peace and causing them to attack the villages, just like she is doing."
"Azula is acting as a catalyst," Zuko started towards the great spirit monster, "Or she is just acting as one of the spirits herself!"
"What are you saying?" Ursa followed close behind.
Zuko explained quickly, "Aang told me that spirits attack a place that has been disturbed or disrupted! Azula only started attacking Kasai recently, just as this spirit is doing right now. So...what if it isn't just a random outburst? What if---"
"What if they're just following their instincts in order to protect the valley?" Ursa understood. "Zuko, my dear, you're a genius."
"I prefer that theory over the latter," he growled to build up stamina, "Let's just hope I'm right!" Immediately after, Zuko leapt into the sky and kicked a wave of flames down at the spirit to get its attention. "Hey spirit! Over here! Follow me! Come on, you want to fight something, fight me!" He coaxed loudly. The beast snarled and started charging towards the two of them.
"Brilliant plan dear, but what's the rest of it?" Ursa started backwards.
Zuko turned and grabbed her as they took off in the other direction, "Yeah, I didn't really think this one through! Run!"
The Spirit Beast was closing in as Ursa and Zuko tried to escape. He shot fire back at it, but that action only made matters worse, and wasted valuable distancing time between them and the monster. When it all looked to be over and the beast's hot breath could be felt just a hair's length away from them, Ursa and Zuko thought that they would surely be vaporized on spot. Instead, a loud explosion was heard, and the Spirit Monster yelped as a breeze carried it away in one mighty blast.
Zuko and Ursa stopped and noticed that something had knocked the beast off course; before it could even regain its stance, another blast of blue fire sent it right back into the dirt and the creature let out a throaty growl of defeat as a figure shot over to it.
"Go back!" She ordered coldy, "Now."
With a whimper, the great monster shrunk in size into a much smaller version of itself no bigger than a wolf. Head slumped low into the dirt, it ran off quickly and vanished in a beam of starlight right at the entrance to the Forgetful Valley.
The shocked Fire Lord and his mother stood awestruck as the woman made their way over to them and cracked her knuckles.
"Azula?" Zuko couldn't believe his own voice; he could comprehend even less how his sister had just saved them both from this massive spirit beast without even missing a breath. He took notice of her gruesome appearance and looked painfully guilty as he stepped closer.
Azula tensed up like a wild animal and her fists caught aflame in warning... "I have been waiting for this moment for quite a while Zuzu...Mother," she spat threateningly.
"Azula honey, we don't want to fight!" Ursa begged, "We've come to take you home, please don't run anymore dear! We're here now and we won't let anything hurt you anymore, just please come back with us darling, I'm begging you."
Azula seemed both shocked and unimpressed all in one confused glare, "I don't need your pitiful protection Mother!" She laughed, "And I don't want to be a part of that wretched mess you call a family!" She looked to her disheveled nails and started to smirk wickedly, "I just paid them all a visit and I must say, the years have not made them any more impressive."
"What did you do!?" Zuko snarled at her.
"You'll have to catch me to find out, brother!" she glared and her long unruly hair started to stand on end as the air started to crackle and heat up rapidly.With wide eyes, Zuko stepped closer and yelled, "Mom! Get back!"
Azula fired a large streak of lighting right into the Fire Lord's fingertips, before she turned and vanished into the forest. Zuko redirected the lightning into the smoke-filled sky and afterwards fell to his knees and took a breath as the electricity fled his body.
Ursa was in awe, but she snapped out of it only to kneel at her son's side and help him back to his feet. She sounded terrified, but her voice was still comforting as she said, "Zuko my love, there isn't any time to rest, we must go into the Forgetful Valley after your sister before she manages to get away again."
He huffed and cringed in defeat, "I know. You're right. We should get moving." And with that, Zuko and Ursa vanished into the forest as the villagers appeared and started to wonder what they had just witnessed.
"They went into the Forgetful Valley!" One said. Another added, "Once people go in there, they don't come back out!"
"We had better hope the Fire Lord can stop the spirit woman and make it back out alive," somebody frowned in concern.
"One thing is for sure," an old woman continued, "One of them will not be coming out, and we can only hope that it isn't our Fire Lord."
As Ursa and Zuko tried desperately to catch up to Azula, they wandered farther and deeper into the ever dangerous and unpredictable spirit forest connecting Kasai to Hira'a. Both of the royal Firebenders had been in this forest before, but Princess Azula has been living---or at least "residing" in these woods for nearly eight long years, lost in her own horribly unstable thoughts, and all alone all this time.
"Azula!" Ursa called out, "Please, Azula!"
"That won't do any good!" Zuko told, "You'll only attract other predators."
"Predators!?" Zuko's mother scoffed, "This is your sister we're after here, not some monster, Zuko!"
"Oh, but you always thought I was a monster, didn't you mother...." Azula's voice drifted through the trees, all of the faces in the Forgetful Valley glowing as her devious words trailed the air.
They stopped running.
"Azula, I never thought you were a monster!" Ursa argued, "I knew you were different, but I loved you anyway and I still do darling. You've always pushed everyone else away from you, and you think that no one understands...but Azula, I understand you more than you will ever know dear... So please, please just come home."
Growls appeared from the leaves and suddenly Zuko and Ursa found themselves surrounded in spirits that did not want the two of them in their forest. The beasts all started closer and Zuko took a step towards them and shouted for his sister...
"Azula! For what it's worth, I'm sorry! I'm sorry you didn't kill me in our Agni Kai! I'm sorry I became the Fire Lord! I'm sorry that you were put into that institution...and I'm sorry that you've been all alone for as long as you think you have." He sighed, "But, the truth is, you never once stopped tormenting me, haunting me every single day while I worried if you were alive or dead. And, if that was your goal all along, then---congratulations, Azula---you win!"
"Stop!" Azula's voice demanded. All of the spirit animals halted in their tracks and the crazed princess came right out of the trees above to land in the center of everything. She tilted her head and in a whisper, asked, "What was that you just said?"
"I said, "you win"," Zuko repeated, "You won, you beat me, and I lost..."
Azula smiled. The forest was silent as not a creature budged and inch, but Azula timidly started to walk forward and Zuko stood his ground. She was right at his toes now, looking up at his face with her golden eyes that still trembled with bottled up insanity. He took a breath and in a flash, Azula was around his waist and her fists clenched together at his back---she was hugging her brother for the first time in---Zuko couldn't even remember when. Ursa smiled as Zuko's surprised arms found themselves around his sister's back and for perhaps the first time in his life, Zuko was genuinely hugging his little sister.
Normally, this would be when Azula tried to stab him in the back, or pull some dastardly prank on Zuko...and he allowed his guard completely down in just that single moment, until he realized just that. Azula never hugged anybody unless she had something up her sleeve. Unfortunately, the Fire Lord was too late in his presumptions and a sharp blade slit the back edge of his neck before he flipped Azula over his shoulders and into the mob of restless spirits.
"Zuko!" Ursa screamed.
He touched the blood running down his neck and hissed at the sting before rising back to his feet with a look of resentment for trusting in his sister... "I'm alright, she didn't cut deep." He looked to Azula as the spirits began to snarl at them again. "You tried to kill me, why am I not surprised?"
"Actually," She grinned wide, "I was trying to take your head off, but either way you see it works fine for me."
"What is wrong with you!?" Ursa stomped forward. The spirits were in an uproar yet stomped angrily in their place as Ursa marched straight over to her daughter and yanked the dull shard of rock out of her hand. Azula stared wide eyed at Ursa as she yanked Azula by the shoulders and screamed into her face, "We don't want this for you! No matter what you do---no matter how many times you try to take us out---we are never going to let you go! We love you! Now get it through that poor chaotic mind of yours that we aren't leaving this forest until you decide to come back with us!"
"Mother..." Azula breathed.
Zuko was also awestruck at his mother's tone, but he attempted to take a step and all chaos consumed.
Ursa pulled Azula's snarling gaze back at her own and the spirits hushed down as Azula's gaze met her mother's. "Darling, please come home with us. There is nothing keeping you here any longer except for yourself."
Zuko watched silently as his mother and sister locked eyes. He studied the spirits and realized that their emotions matched with Azula's and in doing so, when she was calm so were the creatures. When Azula became angry, so too did they, and for some strange reason, these similar creatures listened and followed her every order. Maybe after losing so many people she trusted, Zuko thought, these willing spirits gave her a sense of security and meaning. She needed things to control and she wanted somebody to rule over. She must have found refuge in these spirits and that was possibly the reason why she hasn't come out of this forest in nearly a decade.
"I can't leave," Azula finally admitted.
Ursa seemed taken aback, and held her daughter's face in her hands... "But, why Azula? Why can't you, dear?"
Azula's eyes opened wide as though her worst fears had been standing in front of her this whole time. A disturbing shift in the air made all of the spirits once again start to tremble in fury, and Zuko turned around only to see a massive black and red monster a mere few feet from their circle.
"Oh no..." was all Azula managed to say, and it was the way she had said it that made even the air itself run cold. Azula wasn't afraid of anything---nothing except maybe her own paranoid thoughts, but never did she fear an opponent. For the first time, Zuko realized that his sister's words were true terror, and the way she had uttered those two simple words had made her sound saner than Zuko has ever heard his sister be in a long, long time.
"What should we do?" He whispered.
"Do nothing," Azula breathed.
"What is that thing?" Ursa spoke low and could barely see the beast lurking over her shoulder, but she held firm to her grasp on her daughter and refused to let her go.
Azula frowned as he shaking in her eyes came to a halt. She was truly sane this moment and she looked to the great monster and hushed a response, "It is called the Mu," She said, "It literally means "nothing" and it roams the forest consuming any and all life it finds."
"But the Mother of Faces---" Ursa began.
"The Mother of Faces has not been seen here for years. Many believe she is trying to locate her son, that wretched face stealer named Koh. It is his fault that this creature, Mu, is so angry---"
Ursa snuck a peak backwards and noticed, "He stole the spirit's face?"
The monstrous being was three times the size of a goat-gorilla and the same could be said of its weight. It loomed over the other spirits with an arched back, arms with the girth of tree trunks hanging lazily at its sides, and the spirit held a small head on its shoulders, the black showing off small red patterns along the facial region that at one time perhaps held actual eyes and a mouth, rather a smooth and unmoving gape.
"Why isn't it charging?" Zuko murmured.
Azula rolled her eyes, "I have been protecting my spirit army since Mu has been taking the life of the forest. I hoped that we could all escape together and lay siege to this pitiful world, with me as the new ruler, but---"
"The people of Kasai were blocking your way out---" Zuko gathered, "And your so called spirit army---"
"Is bound to the Forgetful Valley..." Ursa frowned.
Azula nodded, "Once confronted, nothing can stop it...not even me. It cannot see to attack, but its senses are sharp---It can feel the earth like that annoying little blind girl, and sense where we are." She whispered in a matter-of-fact sort of tone, "Which is why it is best not to move."
Just as Azula said that, one of her larger spirits, once trembling silently from the bad spiritual pressure in the clearing, snapped, and it charged directly at the faceless monster. She bellowed at it, running into her mother's grasp as she attempted to drag the spirit back to safety, but it was too late. The massive titan of a spirit faced the valiant member of Azula's spirit army, and the red patterns in its face vanished in an instant to form only a swirling black hole. A blast of white light came pouring out of Mu's facial region and consumed this small spirit in no more than a second, the entire creature vanishing into thin air.
The behemoth took a step towards them. Even with the posse's limited movements, the dark spirit, Mu, had already realized that they were there, and was charging up its next attack.
"Where does that light go!?" Zuko yelled suddenly as all who inhabited the area continued to slowly back away from the enormous giant.
"All I know is--- whenever something gets blasted----they don't come back out!"
"All the more reason for us to get out of here," Ursa bellowed, "Now! Run!"
With one last thunderous stomp, Mu stood tall and then shot out another blast of white light at one of Azula's spirits. After that, it was a stampede of chaos, everything scrambled in different directions to escape the spirit and zap after zap, the spirits were being devoured and the three humans in the forest felt more than helpless to stop it.
"Is there any way to destroy this angry spirit!?" Zuko wondered.
"It consumes everything in its path, and cannot be hit..." Azula ran, and spat out in a tone, "So no! There isn't!"
"The edge of the forest is near," Ursa pointed, "Just don't look back, keep running."
"We'll lead it right to Kasai!" Zuko realized, "We need to draw it back! Somewhere away from the village!"
"The huge clod is bound to attack that village sooner or later!" Azula spat, "So why delay the inevitable?"
Ursa suddenly ran off in the other direction just as the dim lights from the village came into view. She set fire to the forest branches above, and let the noisy ashes collect just before she disappeared through the leaves and shouted back at her children, "I have an idea!"
They stopped suddenly, noticing the pinkish fire continue in a path the farther Ursa ran apart from the forest edge.
"Mom!" Zuko groaned, dodging the burning trees in order to run after her.
With a scoff, Azula trailed behind too and the monstrous creature was hot on their heels. Mu could sense the fire and the trail left for it by Ursa, and angrily followed the trap just as the clever woman had planned.
"One of the lakes should be just up ahead," Ursa informed, leaping through the leaves.
"So what!?" Azula huffed.
"The Mother of Faces used the three lakes as a portal to switch locations," Zuko remembered.
"Right, so if we can get Mu to the portal in the lake---maybe it will consume it, before it gets to us."
Azula rolled her eyes, "That is the worst plan I have ever heard! What makes you think this portal will even be activated when we get to this lake?"
Ursa smirked, "I know...because this was the night thirteen years ago when I became Noriko."
"And also the day nine years ago when we found you---the day that Azula ran off..." Zuko mumbled to himself, almost knocking himself sideways for letting such an important date slip his mind.
"Time sure does fly, doesn't it kids?" Ursa laughed.
"This moronic plan of yours had better work!" Azula ignored them.
"It has to!" Ursa grinned worriedly.
Zuko felt the ground rumble and turned his gaze back only to see Mu toppling flaming trees as it charged closer. "It's almost caught up!" He yelled, "How much farther!?"
"Zuko! Azula!" Ursa ordered, "Split up and fan out, the movement should confuse the spirit long enough for us to reach the lake, and the fire will keep it on course!"
"But then it'll only be chasing you!?" Zuko was not fooled for a moment.
"You are just going to have to trust me my darling!" She winked.
Reluctantly, Zuko groaned and he started veering to the left as Azula ran to the right. Already they could see the edge of the lake glowing in the moonlight and Mu was so close that the air itself seemed to be completely full by the wicked spirit's anger. The lake was merely a few feet away now and soon they would run out of land to run on.
"Now what!?" Azula shouted loudly to her mother.
"Now, come together!" She ordered and they did so.
Azula trembled once, "He's hot on our tail!"
"Now--- Duck!" Ursa screamed, shooting out one last blast of fire over the lake as all three of the Firebenders fell face first into the earth.
Mu stomped right over their bodies and tumbled into the water as the shinning silver water began activating as a portal.
"I can't believe that actually worked?" Azula was so astonished that she couldn't look away from the water as the massive spirit struggled to escape the lake.
Zuko helped his mother to her feet and hugged her close as they walked over towards Azula.
"Now," Ursa composed herself, "Now that that little mess is over and done with...Azula, will you please come home?"
She held out her hand timidly as Zuko and Ursa each opened their arms, blind with forgiveness now that they knew nothing was standing in the way of Azula leaving the Forgetful Valley.
"You still want me?" Azula cringed, "After all that I've done?"
"We do," Ursa smiled. "We're your family, we will always want you no matter what you might try and do. That's what family is for."
Azula stared at the welcoming hand of her mother and her own hand trembled as she reached out to take it.
Then something inside of Azula snapped, she drew her hand away suddenly and she accused, "Wait...this is just another trick!?"
"What?" her mother wondered, "No honey, your mind is playing tricks on you, we just---"
"That's what this is about!" She stomped, "You wanted Mu to destroy my army and then take me home and expect me to go back to the little girl that I was when we were still a family?"
"Azula, stop making up stories!" Zuko frowned.
"Well news flash!" She continued, "Father is in prison, Mother has her new family, our Grandfather is dead, and all I have left is an Uncle who doesn't even live at home like the proud prince he should be, and then I have a brother who just locks me away in a prison rather trying to understand me."
"Because you make it too hard!" He bellowed, "I've tried! I have tried everything with you, but you won't let us in! I thought maybe that year in the asylum might have made you see what a lunatic that you've turned into---but whatever happened on the day of Sozin's Comet has just left you completely insane!"
"Insane am I?" Azula snickered, "You are the one who against all of your better judgment decided to join the Avatar and defeat your own nation!"
"That was years ago!" Zuko argued, "And it was the right thing to do!"
"How do you know? Because it was good?" She scoffed, "Whose perspective dear brother, who decides whether or not something is truly "good". And how will me being back in the Fire Nation do any good to anybody for that matter? You just want me off your conscience, admit it brother!"
"Azula stop it!" Ursa snapped.
"And none of this would have ever happened---" Azula's hands began to turn blue and Zuko called out her name to stop her. The princess ignored her brother and with a massive growl, roared, "IF YOU NEVER WOULD HAVE LEFT!"
In the background, Mu's roaring was growing fainter, but in a last attempt to catch its prey, it shot out a light that tagged Ursa on the back. She began to fade away in that same bright, white light just as all of the spirits Mu had consumed on its path had done when they were consumed.
"Mother!" Zuko shouted.
She looked to her hands that were beginning to vanish, and looked back at Azula for the very last time.
Azula had realized that it was her yelling which had attracted the dark spirit and it was her voice that had caused Mu to fire upon the shore. She stood with wide eyes as her mother began to drift apart into little blips of light, but Azula was too frightened to say anything.
With a loving smile, Ursa merely vanished just as the lake portal had swallowed the devious spirit below the tide. For a long while nothing in the valley made a sound, and when it was all over, Ursa and Mu had both vanished, leaving Azula and Zuko alone in the Forgetful Valley, once again without their mother.
"What have I done?" Azula's normal voice whispered.
Zuko couldn't speak, he had spent so long trying to find his mother---and now---and now...she was gone.
"Zuko..." Azula gasped lightly.
He saw the plea in her eyes and shut off what little hope he had left for her. He grabbed at his holster and pulled out some cuffs for his sister, and he slapped them around her wrist, while she simply looked to them with shock.
"You need help, and if no one else will give it to you, then you are my problem to deal with."
Azula could only tremble... it was if she had been broken by seeing her mother literally disappear in front of her very eyes. She didn't have a witty comeback, an insane assumption, or any attempt at an escape left inside her body. She merely looked to the grass and let her brother take her back to the War Balloon, where he had her returned to the custody of a prison by the very next day.
Two days passed since Zuko and Ursa had gone into the Forgetful Valley, and with not even a moment to spare some rest, Zuko had piloted his way back to Hira'a and to the doorstep of Ikem and Kiyi. He stepped inside and noticed the damage done as if a fire had gotten out of control inside the house while they were gone.
Mai came rushing to his side as soon as he wandered through the door, his face still dirty and slightly bruised, and his clothes a complete wreck.
"Zuko! What on earth happened to you!? We were about to send a search party!"
Kiyi came running to hug him and she scolded, "You big liar, that took way longer than you said it would!"
Ikem was the first to notice. "Where is Ursa?" He asked.
Zuko stared down at the scorched wood floors.
"Zuko?" Mai wondered.
Kiyi shoved away from her half-brother and started to well up in tears, "Where is my mother, Zuko?"
Seeing her face broke poor Zuko in half. He knew the feeling all too well, the feeling of someone telling a child her age why she wouldn't be able to see her mother for a long while. He had to look away from her.
"When we were in the Valley---" It was hard for the Fire Lord to speak, "---We came across a vengeful spirit, and Mother decided to use one of the lakes which the Mother of Faces had possessed, in order to teleport it to another part of the forest away from the neighboring village."
"The lakes would have been corresponding to one another just a few nights ago," Ikem nodded, "That seems like the sort of plan that Ursa would come up with."
"It worked," Zuko said, "But then Azula got out of hand again. She was paranoid, screaming accusations at us, and the noise attracted the drowning spirit---and then it---" He stopped.
"It what?" Mai pressed.
Zuko swallowed and looked Ikem dead in the eyes... "It made her disappear."
Kiyi gasped and ran off into another part of the house.
"Kiyi!" Ikem called. After no reply he sighed and rubbed his face wearily with his hand. "Where did she vanish to?"
"We aren't sure," Zuko clenched his fists as his entire body shook with trembling guilt. "We aren't even sure if she's even still alive! This is all my fault."
"I don't believe that Ursa is dead," Ikem frowned. "I too lived in the Forgetful Valley for many years before I came back to Hira'a as Noren. I met a fair deal of spirits and dangerous ones at that. I have seen some that are able to transport creatures out of their way in order to cleanse the forest—keep things balanced, you know. Never in all my years have I seen a spirit take the life of another spirit before."
"So, you think she's still out there somewhere?" Zuko brightened up with a tiny glimmer of hope.
Ikem nodded, "Often clashing with spirits can cause side effects. Ursa could be a lost soul, without memories, even her appearance altered in some way from just coming into contact with this spirit. I won't give up hope that we will find her, and neither should you, son."
Zuko, on the verge of tears himself, fell over against his step-father and Ikem, in shock, only hugged him tightly and consoled the terrible guilt away from his step-son.
"I'll talk to Kiyi," Ikem said softly, "But, you need to be strong...You're about to become a father yourself, so you need to be there for your family now. It's what Ursa would want you to do, Zuko. Then when she returns, she'll make everything better, just as she always does."
"You're right---Wait---What?" He sniffed.
"You left me here for two days, Zuko," Mai sighed, "I ran out of things to talk about."
Ikem swallowed and patted his son's shoulders apathetically, "He didn't know yet---"
"You are?" Zuko broke away from Ikem and stumbled over to Mai.
"Yeah," she simply grinned and looked over to the side.
Zuko, who hadn't slept in two days, nor has slept well in weeks, slid downward and grumbled, "I think I need to sit down."
As he did, Mai took hold of his face and tilted his gaze up to hers, "I need you to be there for us now. You can't go off on long business trips, or all of these searches anymore. We'll set everything right in the end, I know it. But, for now---I just need you to be there for me...for our family too. Okay?"
"I will..." He didn't blink.
Ikem cut in, "We'll send out a few searches of our own, listen to the spirits, and I promise son, we will find Ursa again. You just take care of your family, and see to it that your poor sister gets a level head. Ursa talked about her so much...She loves the both of you and so long as you're happy, I know she will be well and come back to us someday very soon."
"Thank you---Dad," Zuko nodded and bowed, "Thank you so much, I know I don't deserve your kindness."
"On the contrary my boy, you deserve it more than anyone else I know..." He smiled.
"And Kiyi---" Zuko started.
Ikem groaned, "She is new to Ursa not being in her life, and it will be hard. But, don't worry, Kiyi will be just fine, she is strong like her mother, and strong like you too, Zuko. It's in her blood to never give up hope, and together we will overcome this."
"Thank you Ikem," Mai smiled.
"I can see now why Mother loves you," Zuko half-grinned, "You bring people peace of mind, even in their darkest times. We will find her, Ikem, this I promise you. I will not lose my mother again, and I will not allow Kiyi to suffer for my mistakes."
"Now you two rest up, and get going," Ikem sighed, "Your nation needs you---and you will be plenty busy with a child of your own on the way. I just wish Ursa could have stuck around long enough to hear the good news."
"I'm sure she knew," Zuko smiled, "She always had a way of knowing everything..."
"It is impossible to keep a secret from her forever." Ikem started to feel the remorse for the first time now that his fatherly adrenalin had simmered down.
"We'll find her!" Zuko stated strongly, holding out a warming hand.
Ikem grabbed it and nodded, "No matter what."
- Cabbage Corp will eventually be under the management of Lau Gan-Lan who (Spoiler Alert) will be mentioned later on in this Fanon.
- Having a Waterbending master and the Avatar for trainers means that little Kya will be one of the most powerful benders of her generation.
- Longshot and Smellerbee were last seen at Aang and Katara's wedding in Year Five.
- Zuko's Search takes place long after The Search, but now it is Azula that he is looking for.
- Ursa, Year 3. , and have not been seen since Zuko and Mai's wedding in
- Kiyi is around 15 years old by this year.
- Nyla are the world's greatest bounty hunters. Even so, they were not able to locate Ursa by tracking her scent, nor Aang when he was aboard the Lion turtle. and
- Some say that Azula did not deliver the final blow to Mai because she sensed that Mai was pregnant. Other believe that it was because Azula felt that one of her spirits was attacking Kasai, and her brother and mother. Either way...Azula's spiritual sensory skills detected something---or she's just crazy? Who really knows?
- Whatever happened to Azula while she spent nearly 8 years in the Forgetful Valley will not be discovered for many, many more years to come.
For the collective works of the author, go here.