attackfish: Jet and Zuko fighting in the teashop, text "Obviously this is the place to come if you want to get murdered by lunatics" (Jet Juko TDL quote)
[personal profile] attackfish
Written for the [livejournal.com profile] atlaland bingo. I blacked my card out, earning 300 points for the Fire Nation, which by the way, won this last round.

The Ghost

Iroh was almost twenty on the day his mother gave birth to his brother. He was unmarried, and he watched, thinking about all of the children that would be coming to him and his someday bride. He isn’t almost twenty anymore. There’s a grave with no ashes in the Fire Nation capital for his only son, and a grave with ashes for his wife of less than a year. There is a niece and a nephew, and his brother sits on the Firelord’s throne.

The ship that carried him home from Ba Sing Se seemed so slow while he was on it, and now he wishes it had been slower. He bows his head to Ozai. “You’ve done well for yourself.”

“You won’t get the throne back,” Ozai tells him coldly.

“No,” Iroh doesn’t smile. “It’s yours now.”

Ozai’s lips twitch up, in a scornful little half-smile. “I expected more out of you, dear brother.”

“Why?” he asked.

~*~

Iroh holds his head up at court some days, but most, he just retreats to his rooms. The endless parade of dinners and appearances where no one talks to him, and everybody sneers at him leaves him angry and trapped, and missing Lu Ten more.

Which is why Ozai orders him to go. Seeing him obey is one of his little pleasures, the sadistic little joys Iroh has been watching him indulge in since he started walking. So Iroh sits near his brother at the banquet and tries not to watch him. His nephew looks down at his plate and toys with his noodles. His arm brushes Iroh’s and he looks up. Iroh doesn’t even realize he’s crying until Zuko pats his shoulder. He shrugs the hand away and ignores him.

~*~

Zuko sits alone in his room until Iroh invites him down.



Reclamation

Lu Ten’s armor glittered in the sun like a beacon, like a banner. Lu Ten’s fire burned on the wind. Lu Ten’s heart pounded against his ribs and lurched in his chest. Lu Ten’s blood thundered in his ears. Lu Ten’s body jerked back with the pain of the fingertip-sized stones ripping through his body. Lu Ten’s body hit the ground. Lu Ten’s father yelled out. Lu Ten’s father’s hands and eyes filled with the same fire. Lu Ten’s father ran to him and lifted him into his arms. Lu Ten’s hands clutched the fabric on his father’s sleeves. Lu Ten’s mouth opened and closed, but no words came out, only blood. Lu Ten’s father held him close. Lu Ten’s father ignored the battle around them, ignored the way he could be dying too. Lu Ten’s breath came shallow and quick. Lu Ten’s spittle beaded up on his lips and colored them red. Lu Ten’s eyes were wide and staring with the realization that he was dying. Lu Ten’s eyes were afraid, very very afraid. Lu Ten’s father’s hand slid through his son’s hair. Lu Ten’s father’s hand patted his son’s cheek and wiped the tears away from under his eyes. Lu Ten’s face when still and slack. Lu Ten’s skin went ashen and dull. Lu Ten’s eyes didn’t close. Lu Ten’s eyes just kept staring. Lu Ten’s blood poured out of his body and into the dust beyond Ba Sing Se’s great wall. Lu Ten’s heat poured out of his body and into the air.

Iroh could feel it leave him.

Bian’s screams cut the air in a little room on the other side of Ba Sing Se as she wiggled and flopped into the world and the midwife gathered her up in her arms and cut the cord.



Foreign

The sand was the place where the earth and sky touched, where they joined and mingled, and held each other close, where the air was full of dirt, and the dirt was full of air and both cut the flesh from bone as easy as screaming.

There wasn’t any sand there. The earth was heavy, and the land green with the river running through and the springs welling up underneath. Gaoling was soft, pretty, strange, with its houses made of wood and stone and its people with uncovered faces.

Soft, pretty, strange and useless, with its green-covered unbendable earth.

Sand flowed like water, and glittered like stars. Sand slipped away under his feet and rippled under his bending. Sand floated on the air and lashed in the wind. Sand was... Sand was...

In the desert, he knew the changing moods and shifting winds, the wells and oases, the fruit trees bending over tiny pools. He knew the signs and the rhythms, and he knew where he was.

Here, it was like the world didn’t change, like everything rushed, and ran around in circles, and if he just stood still, it would all go back to the way it had been the day before.

He had an unreadable map in one hand. He had strange green clothes wrapped around his body and a nose full of damp, growing smells. He had a stomach full of dread.

Ghashiun stood on the hard grassy ground, where his sand-sailor wouldn’t sail and thought about the bison and the avatar, the ambush raids and the rigid, worthless code of honor his father held to, and about banishment and the shortest way out of the desert alive and tried to imagine what people who lived in soft, pretty, strange places like this did with their lives.



There are So Many Names

Joo Dee was a painter who painted the shadows until they made her into one.

Joo Dee served drinks at a cantina, then one day she overheard three drunk Dai Li agents whispering.

Joo Dee lived in a farm house that backed up to the outer wall and saw the Dragon of the West break through with her own eyes.

Joo Dee came in on a ferry and wouldn’t stop telling everyone about the way the Fire Nation soldiers came into her village and killed everyone who couldn’t run.

Joo Dee ran messages for the underground until the Dai Li caught up with her.

Joo Dee was a palace servant who had the nerve to say no to a noble.

Joo Dee climbed the wall to see the world the way the birds did before the Dai Li dragged her down.

Joo Dee talked to herself and always knew people were out to get her.

Joo Dee tended the wounds of the soldiers on the outer wall until she couldn’t stand the silence from the people they fought for anymore.

Joo Dee had two children who thought she was dead, and a husband who thought she had left them.

Joo Dee worked in her aunt’s print shop and made fliers for a missing bison.

Joo Dee

Joo Dee

Joo Dee...

Joo Dee was a talking doll, who went where they told her to and smiled the way they wanted.

Joo Dee was a woman with no past and one future.

Joo Dee was nothing and no one.

Joo Dee loved Ba Sing Se. Everyone was safe there.

Joo Dee lived with her mind blank and her teeth bared.

Joo Dee was all alone in a room full of Joo Dees.

Joo Dee’s name wasn’t Joo Dee, damn it, it was-



Had to Do

His father was a Dai Li agent, his mother was Dai Li agent’s daughter. He had grown up climbing with rock coverd fingertips, and his mom and dad prying him off the walls to tuck him into bed. He grew up looking out over Ba Sing Se and knowing that he was never going to be a part of it, that the city would never let him be, and he grew up knowing it wouldn’t matter, because Ba Sing Se was still going to be his to protect.

He grew up learning how to spot the green-clad shapes in the shadows and reading the secret language of their silent travels over rooftops and behind buildings. He grew up watching them with envy, willing for time to speed up so that he could don the robes and helmet just a little sooner. He grew up-

But it didn’t matter how he grew up. They were all agents. They all had promises to their families, and oaths to their home. They all shared the secrets and kept them. They all lived and breathed for their city, even when it hated them, even when what they did for it made their own king turn his back on them.

They all had known what they were doing when they turned their back on Long Feng, their leader, their leader, and bowed to the Fire Nation princess. they had known what they were doing when threw thrown their king in his own prison. They all had known what they were doing. They all knew what they were doing now.

They all had to stand between Ba Sing Se and ruin.

But, he thought as he stood on top of the outer wall preparing to bring it down, this couldn’t be the way to do it.



Everyday

Aang straitened the sash covering his arrow and walked down the hallway with the strange small kind of steps the teachers liked best when they saw. The air was still and clammy with the humidity, and he felt it pressing him down.

“Kuzon!” One of the boys, a round, tall one who was in the choir instead of the band fell in beside him, hands behind his back.

Aang looked up at him, smiling widely, his steps becoming unconsciously broader. “Hey!”

The other kid threaded his fingers together behind his head. “So some of us were wondering, well, we, um...”

“Yeah?” and his stomach lurched with the sudden conviction that they must have noticed something, that somehow they could just tell, like they could smell it on him or something.

“Well, we’re going down to sit next to that creek that runs next to the edge of the school, and we thought you might want to, um, come eat lunch with us?”

The air felt sticky, like it was clinging to him, asking him to stay there a little longer, to fit in, and be normal for a while, no needing to save the world, no crushing weight of terror and responsibility. No being special when what special really meant was that everybody expected special all the time. It was so much effort to disagree with it. “I um...” He rubbed the hair on the back of his neck. “Maybe some other time?”

“Oh. Well. If you’re sure.”

“Yeah,” Aang said, without meeting his eyes. He swallowed. He thought about what Katara would say, and Sokka and Toph, and about how he already failed. “Yeah.”



Crooked Dice

Long Feng never gambled. It was his job to make everyone else think he was gambling, that they were gambling with him, and leave them never knowing the outcome had been decided before their dice had ever touched their hands. He spent his hours weighting the dice they handed him without even realizing it, weighting them and shaving them until they could only fall just the way he wanted them to.

Beyond the bars on his cell door, he could see just a few his own Dai Li surrounded by her masked Fire Nation men. She didn’t trust them, and he could feel that like something tangible, and he grabbed onto it.

He folded his hands in front of himself. Because it didn’t matter how good she was with the dice, how skilled her hands were, what trick she had in her wrists and the way he threw. He would weigh the dice against her.

She had made him bow, that little Fire Princess, and she was brilliant, and lucky, but he was wiser, and luck only mattered when there was gambling being done.Long Feng had never been lucky, but he was tenacious, and she had left him alive. While he was alive, she was letting both of their dice rest safe in his hands and while she left the Dai L near him, she was giving him his tools, sharpened and freshly polished.

When his agents collected his food bowl, he left messages to them in grains of sand, carefully hoarded together in the corner of his cell.

As the Dai Li agent, his own man, his own man, unlocked the cell door, slipped the cord around his neck and stopped his breath, he wondered when she had gotten his dice away from them and weighted them against him.



Like Dust

He watched the young warriors speculatively out of the corner of his eye as he listened to the ambassador from Omashu. He smiled at the man, but the moon was out in the daytime, and he could see it through the window.

Yue would have been the perfect chief’s wife. She was beautiful and gracious, and she never said the wrong thing. Everything a woman should be, everything he had hoped for. And he loved her. He did.

When she was still small enough to carry on his shoulders, he used to take her to the market and let her pick out anything she wanted from the stalls. She used to hang on his arms and tuck her head all the way inside her parka and giggle when she saw something she wanted.

Sometimes, he took her most beautiful things down to the water altar and sank them for her.

It used to be no matter what he got her, she would smile at him with such naked happiness that he hadn’t been able to speak.

He hadn’t even noticed when she stopped smiling like that.

Or when she stopped telling him her choices, when he stopped being able to tell what she wanted.

She shimmered in the sky out of his reach. Now that she couldn’t (or maybe just still wouldn’t) tell him, he started wondering which of the boys she would have chosen to be chief if he had let her, if she would have picked Sokka, or one of the other boys, or if she would have chosen to leave.

Or if she would have chosen to be chief herself.

Now that it didn’t matter, he was trying to choose what she would have, to give her whatever it was, and make her smile a real smile.



On the Way

She docked in an Earth Kingdom port and slept on her boat so that no one could steal it. The air was cool, and snow floated down to the water like summer at the poles.

On the docks, there were men who would buy the pelts and the carvings she had stolen and give her Earth Kingdom money in exchange. She had heard traders back home talk about how they got the most the further from the poles they got. She smacked one of the pelts down on the merchant’s table and smiled at him coldly.

She kept that hard smile on her face resolutely when he looked back at her, and she was terrified he could see what she had done, that he would have her thrown in prison. There wasn’t any way to get away that didn’t involve stealing. She was stealing herself. And the boat. And the pelts. And the carvings. And the blubbered seal jerky. And the sails and the rigging, and the clothes on her back.

“We don’t usually get Southern Water Tribe this far north,” the merchant told her.

She narrowed her eyes and threw her braid over her shoulder. “I’m from the North.”

He snorted. “Don’t try to feed me that line. Northern Water Tribe girls don’t come down off the pole.”

They didn’t let northern girls leave the pole.

“Check the carvings I’ve got with me. I’ve got the good stuff from the North, and you’re going to pay me like it.”

“A silver piece for the pelt.”

“A gold piece. It’s koala-otter.”

“Yeah, tell that to the next guy. Cutting down tiger-seal skin doesn’t make it koala-otter.”

Kanna swallowed and breathed hard, summoning up her courage. Her hand snatched out and grabbed his hand, forcing it down into the soft, thick fur of the pelt. You touched a man! her aunty’s voice screeched in her head. “You still think it’s tiger-seal?”

He looked down. She could feel him staring at the blisters on her uncallused hands. “Three silver pieces.”

“Five, and I’ll give you a koala-otter pendant to match.”

He nodded slowly and dropped the coins on the table. She picked them up and strung them through the hole in the middle onto her belt. They chimed like bells when she let them fall against her hip.

Sometimes she stayed up at nights on her boat and wondered what the South was like, and before, she hadn’t been sure she could stand it if she made it all the way south and found out they were just like home. But she didn’t have to stay there if they were. She could do this.

She felt like crowing.

I can do this.



If You Become Firelord

Uncle no longer talked about going home. They no longer talked about what kind of Firelord Zuko would be. As he picked at the fire with a stick, he gritted his teeth against the urge to bend just a little, give it just a little push.

“The whole world is arrayed against us, Nephew,” his Uncle told him, sounding worn down. “Against you.”

He sat there in the dirt at the side of the road with the passports and permits in someone else’s name tucked into his robe. The world wasn’t arrayed against Lee. The Earth Kingdom saw him as one of its own. The Fire Nation didn’t know he existed. Lee wasn’t a prince. He was one more refugee among all the rest. He was normal.

He didn’t know how to be normal like that. “I know, Uncle.”

“Just remember, it is not your fault.” Uncle took Zuko’s stick and fished the food buried under the coals out onto the rocks. “And we won’t let them catch us.”

Zuko folded his arms and looked away. “I know, Uncle.”

“You know,” Uncle hesitated. “It will not be a bad thing if you understood how ordinary people can find happiness in a normal, quiet life, Nephew. Knowledge is always a good thing to have. It will stand you well.”

Zuko poked at the charred leaf wrapper on his dinner and snatched his fingers back every few seconds as the heat blistered them. He remembered the stories of ancient rulers who had gone out among normal people to learn how to rule. All those normal, ordinary, happy, fulfilled people who would kill him if they caught him, kill Uncle. Who would fear him. But Zuko heard the unspoken ending to his uncle’s words and held tight to them.

When you become Firelord.



Being a Hero

Katara went home for a while, but the other girls gazed at her like she was a hero. It was like they had forgotten that they had known her their whole lives. Sokka went to Kyoshi, where there were enough heroes that he could hide amongst. But Katara had wanted to go home.

She went to the North Pole for a while, to teach Pakku’s old class and to be among strangers, who wouldn’t make it hurt so much when they looked at her like she was a strange wonderful thing instead of Katara the person.

Aang followed around behind her and charmed her students, played games, made friends. He was a hero too, but he could make the adulation turn into friendship. All Katara could do was inspire.

She heard her students whispering in the hallways and on the practice floor when they didn’t think she was around, about how The Hope of the South had come to teach them, and did you hear how she fought the Fire Princess and brought the Avatar back from the dead.

And she couldn’t stay.

She went on diplomatic missions for a while, her belly growing rounder, and then her arms full of baby. She clasped hands and smiled, and showed off her little boy to her friends in all the corners of the world. Aang came with her when he could, but most of the time, he had to travel somewhere else, and soothe someone else.

News traveled ahead of her, and crowds flocked to see her. They made banners and sang songs, and all she wanted was to slip away.

She traveled with Aang between the Air Temples most of the time now, and things looked better from high on Appa’s back, where the growing stories couldn’t reach her yet.



Getting On

The war is over. They don’t need soldiers anymore. They’re sending them home. They’re retiring them, they’re putting officers on trial. They’re-

Naoko laces up her sandals and dons the initiate’s robes. Her hair is shorn, ready for the high, peaked hat of a sage. She swallows and steps out of her new cell and down deeper into the temple.

She was a soldier. She isn’t anymore.

Their firelord talks about national shame, about dishonor, about the war, and redemption. The crowds cheered them when they left. The crowds cried when they returned, and smiled through their tears, but didn’t stop crying. The only dishonor they face was surrendering, is giving up.

Her parents, her sisters, her brothers, her aunts and uncles, are ashamed to have a soldier in the family.

Her family is ashamed of her, so she climbed the mountain. She begged the sages to let her in.

She can feel the heat of the volcano underneath her sandaled feet. It pushes at the rocks and pulses behind her eyes. The jerky, crooked staircase clinging to the volcano walls slips away from her as she climbs lower. The spirits can light fire to rocks, make rocks into fire. Their people failed to follow their example. Their people failed them. The mountains all around the nation, on all the islands will erupt with their fury soon.

She steps into the temple and bows her head. The whole nation is bowing its head to the Avatar, the Earth Kingdom, and the Water Tribes. She kneels down and puts her hands flat on the floor in front of the temple’s chief sage.

Maybe if she bows long enough to better people, if she soothes the spirits and tends the temple and stops fighting, she will wash away some of that shame.



Color at the Edges

Zuko took the swords off the wall. They sank into their sheath and weighed against his back like they belonged there, like he wasn’t a firebender and they were his only weapon. His feet picked out the path out the door and down the corridor, and when he raised his hand to his face, he almost expected the blue spirit mask to be there.

The wind tugged at the heavy tapestries of firelords, their forms indistinct and nightmarish in the darkness. He hadn’t realized where he was going, and he moved away hastily, hand on his sword hilts.

During the day, the palace was warm reddish orange, with the shadows tucked into the corners. That was always how he had remembered it, with the sunlight coming through the windows and the gaps in the latticework. At night-

He shoved the hood back and stood at one of the open windows. His arm reached out into the moonlight, and it looked gray and insubstantial, not real.

Somehow, when he had remembered the palace, when he had been on his ship, trapped on the ocean, he had remembered the palace during the daytime, with his mother there, as if he could go home, and everything would be like it had been three years before his exile, and Azula would be eight again, Mai and Ty Lee would be there, and he would just be able to slip back into the skin of who he had been.

But it was night. Mai and Ty Lee were there because Azula had dragged them back, not because everything was the same. The scar was still on his face. Everything had still happened. And Uncle-

He raised a fire into the palm of his hand. It threw red around the corridor and glowed hot, like daytime.



Weeds

“So how do you like the Fire Nation so far?” Mai felt like an idiot as soon as the words left her mouth and lingered in the air like all the other brainless polite things her mother had always tried to get her to say.

They sounded right when other people said them. They just sounded stupid when she did.

But Toph just kicked the dirt in the flowerbed. Mai didn’t even try to drag her out. “I’ve been trying to set up a fire rumble, but you know, no one seems to be going for it.”

“Wonder why.”

“People here are weird.”

“So when do you think you’re going home?” She felt sick as soon as she said it, sick and... Now that you’ve won the war, she wanted to say. Which is why I know you wouldn’t like the Fire Nation so far, because we were fighting you. I don’t want you to stay because you think you have to, now that your friends have left. I’m not trying to make you leave. But if she said them, they would just sound worse.

Toph flinched a little and stomped the ground. The flagstones rumbled, and Mai wished Toph would open them up and let her sink into the earth, where she wouldn’t have to say anything. “Thought I’d stick around, keep you and Sulkypants company.”

“That’s nice.”

“But if you don’t want me around-”

“NO!” It came out as a shout, and Mai wanted to scream at herself. “No. I just-” didn’t want you to think you had to. “So you want to stay?”

“I don’t want to go home.”

Mai swallowed. “I want you to stay.”

Toph leaned back against a low wall. “My parents think I’m a delicate little flower.”

Mai smirked. “Of course they do.”

“It’s stupid,” she said, like a challenge.

“Yeah, it is.”

Toph glanced around the garden, and Mai wondered what she was looking at if she couldn’t see. “So... you want me to stay?”

Mai sat down on top of the wall and swung her feet up. “If you want to.”



You Understand

Mai fidgeted and the handmaid grabbed her arm to steady her on the stool. “Aren’t you done yet?” she demanded, but her mother just smiled.

“You want to look your best for Prince Zuko, don’t you?” she said pityingly, and Mai wanted to tear the hairbrush out of the maid’s hand and throw it across the room. “After all, it might be the last time you ever see him.”

“I just want to see him period.” The hairbrush slid though her hair. There weren’t any knots left. “We’re gonna be too late.”

“Calm down, dear. The more you fuss, the longer it’ll take.”

Mai stood on the stool as still as possible. If she could have stopped breathing, stopped her heart from pounding against her ribs, stopped her blood from traversing her body, she would have, if it would all go faster. If she could have just gotten it over with.

The handmaid picked up the ribbons and little ornamental combs and piled her hair up on her head. Two of the combs were leashed together with a rope of little bells, and they rang each time she breathed to deeply, or twitched with the effort of keeping still.

At last the maid holds up the mirror, and Mai almost pushed it away without looking. She glanced at her mother, who frowned a little.

Her mother stood up and opened the lid of a low trunk off to the side of the room. Mai could hear the crackle of rice paper as she lifted something out. “We were going to wait for you to have this until the princess’s birthday, but I think your father will understand if I let you wear it for this.”

Mai ran her finger over the gauzy silk as her mother unwrapped the robe. She understood. Her mom understood that it wasn’t- She understood how hard it was for Mai, and for Zuko for him to sail away, knowing he would never be allowed to come home. That he would never come home to her. “Thanks.”

“Oh, Mai.” Her mom sounded so sorry that Mai wanted to cry, but her face wouldn’t move. Her hands were steady as she took the wide pants that went with the robe and slipped them up over her hips. The thin, slippery fabric swished against her legs.

Her mother’s handmaid opened the robe, and Mai let the woman slip it around her shoulders and over her arms. Her arms fell back to her sides as the handmaid tied and pinned the robe’s layers into place and straightened layers of fluttering gauze. “Come on,” she muttered. “First time a breeze comes up, they’re all going to be messed up again, just don’t-”

“Mai!”

“It’s true,” she mumbled, as her mother’s handmaid dressed her as if she were her mother.

“I was going to let you wear makeup, but if you’re going to act that way, I don’t think you’re mature enough for it.”

Mai flushed and sat down on the stool. “Sorry. I...”

“Lian, get the brushes and the makeup pots.”

“Thanks,” Mai whispered.

The brush ghosted over her cheeks, leaving powder to cover the blemishes and the pimples just starting to spring up on her face. She held her breath so that she wouldn’t sneeze and held her hands behind her to keep her from touching it. The next brush traced her lips and left red stain behind. She rubbed her lips together and tried not to taste the horrible bitter flavor of it. Thinner brushes pressed lines into her eyelids. Her breath came shallow as she just let it happen, tried to forget about how long it was taking when her mother was being nice.

When the makeup pots were screwed closed and the brushes were back in their box, Mai shot to her feet and fought hard not to run for her boots.

“Mai, wait!”

Mai turned around, stamping down a groan.

Her mother opened the trunk again and pulled out a pair of pointed slippers. Mai walked back and slipped her feet inside. Her mother smiled. “Now we can go.”

Mai’s lips curved up just a tiny bit. They walked together out of the house and into the waiting palanquin.

It had never felt that slow before, traveling beside her mother in the palanquin, but she knew it had to be her, it was just how badly she wanted to get there. She-

The bearers set the palanquin down on the ground and she stepped out onto the docks. Her feet were slow and her steps small in the slippers so that she didn’t scuff them up, so different from her boots.

She looked up. “Where is it?”

Her mother pushed aside the palanquin curtain, but didn’t get out. “Oh, has it already sailed away?” Her hand came out to touch her daughter’s shoulder, but Mai threw it off. “I’m sorry, dear.”

“You did this on purpose,” she said flatly.

“Mai!” She looked around for the source of the voice. The princess brushed aside the curtain of her own palanquin and smiled down at her friend. “It’s so good of you to come to keep me company at this trying time.”

Mai glanced back at her mother, expression for once mobile and full of fury at how neatly her mother had done this, protected the family position and trapped her. She bowed. “Of course, Princess Azula.”



Let it Breathe

Iroh holds the teapot in his hand and brings the water to a boil. They pass around the chipped clay mugs and the hard, stale little hunks of bread while he pours.

Jeong Jeong shoots him furtive glares, but he holds his cup out with the rest and pours a little bit of the tea on the bread to moisten it, just enough to make it edible. The tea at least is good, sweet smelling and hot enough to burn his lips.

Behind him, Bumi holds up his mug and shoves it in Pakku’s face. “Pakku, mine’s too hot, cool it down for me?” His voice takes on a childish, mocking whine, and the waterbender turns away from him unimpressed. “Please, Pakku?”

Piandao just holds his own mug in his hands and tries not to smile.

Jeong Jeong sips his tea and watches Pakku blow on his own and the little ice crystals that spring up for just a moment on the surface with envy.

He doesn’t really want his tea any colder. That’s not the point.

Iroh laughs at Bumi and Pakku and waves his hand at them, throwing off a shower of tiny sparks that flicker and die before they hit the ground.

“Be careful!” he yells. Iroh’s head snaps up and he examines Jeong Jeong like he’s a tea leaf with spots on it. Then he chuckles. “Don’t laugh!”

“Jeong Jeong-”

“Firebending is dangerous! You cannot play with it like you can play with waterbending, or earthbending.” Iroh is supposed to be a great master, but Jeong Jeong just can’t see it.

“You think an earthquake or a rockslide isn’t dangerous?” Iroh’s voice is deceptively gentle. Jeong Jeong thinks the words are like strings, soft but sharp. And tangled. “What about a blizzard? Or a tsunami?”

“If you caused a forest fire, could you stop it?” he shoots back.

“Should I douse the campfire? Would that make you feel safer? If I left us in the dark and the cold?”

Pakku and Piandao’s eyes flick from his face to Iroh’s and back again. Even Bumi has stopped moving to watch.

Iroh just poured himself another cup of tea. “Someday, I will show you the beauty of Firebending. It is life.”

“Which means that it eats, and it eats, and it destroys all in its path!”

Iroh smiled, the shadows on his face shifting with the campfire. “No.”



It Changes

At the coronation, she sees him from far away. He doesn’t have any hair. On Ji sees him, and hears them say who he is, and she almost can’t believe it. She sees the arrow tattoos and his calm face, and she starts to believe it.

She feels a wicked kind of joy. A bad kind of joy.

He said a hundred years ago, Fire Nation children had danced. He would have seen it.

For her, the end of the war meant that her mom will come home from the Earth Kingdom and put away her armor. Her father will stop being afraid all the time. She hadn’t thought past that. She had never lived without the war.

Now she starts wondering.

The adults back home haven’t ever lived without the war either. They’re afraid. Some are happy, some are angry, but they’re afraid underneath.

Since Kuzon (Aang, Avatar Aang!) came, she’s been dancing down the road to and from school and behind the backs of her teachers. She’s been out late every night practicing with her new band.

It’s not the Fire Nation way to do things.

But Aang said it used to be.

On the boat to the capital, there was a party. The other passengers had all danced before. But her dad and the parents of her friends all say they never did.

She holds her dad’s hand. It’s shaking as he looks up at the new Firelord and tries not to look at the Avatar.

She grins at him and drops it.

There are Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe people dancing between the rows of people.

Her dad gasps and calls her name, and she waves back to him, but she doesn’t stop. She grabs the hand of a boy in green and whirls him around.



On Your Trembling Knees

“When she turns sixteen, what are you going to tell her?”

Azula held the curtain closed and kept her breathing quiet, lest it reverberate around the throne room, thrilled and gratified to hear them talk about her, like everybody would be someday. She wished Zuko could hear, but he was a coward, and he ran away like it.

Her father looked up at his father from his knees. “I’ll tell her the truth, that she will be as powerful in all the elements as she is in fire, that she is the manifest will of the spirits, and that she will win the world for us.”

She sucked in a breath. And then stopped, and waited, the room quiet.

“You should have killed her when she was still in her cradle!” the great Firelord Azulon, old and feeble, and terrifying barked at his son. Azula clenched her fists. “You should kill her now! Before she is old enough to undo everything we have worked for!”

Sweat broke out on her skin. She backed away from the curtains. She would fight them. If they wanted to kill her, she wouldn’t make it easy, she would-

“Is that an order, my lord?” her father’s voice was low, unreadable, and panic settled deep in Azula’s chest.

The fires around the throne shot higher. “Yes!”

“As you wish.”

Azula ran. Her skin felt cold and too small. She willed her brain to work, and a plan to come, and they obeyed her as her feet slowed, like everything else. She walked back to her room with a smile and crouched behind the door.

It felt like hours until her father came, but it was only minutes. As he walked through, she shot herself into the back of his knees and threw him to the ground. Her hands filled with fire, and she drew them up to burn his head off. “Azula! What are you-” His hands came up and batted the fire away.

“You are not going to kill me!” she hissed. She pulled her fist back, wreathed in flame.

“You were spying?” He trapped her wrists and held them too tight. “Clever girl.” She drew in a breath ready to kick fire into her father’s face, but he just pulled her to his chest. “He is an old, stupid man,” her father whispered into her hair. “You are far to valuable to kill.”



From the Night

She pressed the mask against her face and tied the straps behind her head. The dao swords were heavy in their sheath and bumped against her spine with every step, not like her knives, not like her shuriken. Not like the swords must have rested against Zuko’s back, but he couldn’t wear them for this. As she pushed open the shutters, her feet found the windowsill, and she levered herself up and over the edge.

She swung hand over hand from column to column through the shadows, flinching each time the starlight glinted off the white paint on her mask, off the fangs and the grin. But there was no moon in the sky to reveal her, just stars.

She scuttled up the furthest column, and hugged it with her knees. Her feet slid on the roof tiles and her fingers clung to the ornate gold spikes and hooks. When the guards walked by beneath her, she crouched behind the roof peak and waited. She held her breath and froze, and when they were out of sight, she held in her sigh before she let herself start creeping further along the roof.

She took in one deep breath, and grasped the edge of the roof and swung her way through the open window below. The bed stood in the middle of the room, and she padded across the floor body low. She drew the swords and lowered them crossed to the sleeping man’s neck.

His eyes snapped open. She climbed up onto the bed and onto him, pinning him down.

Zuko grinned even as the swords bit into his neck just a little, drawing blood. He wriggled under her and brought his hands up to cup her face under the mask and stroke her cheek. “I’m so glad you’re home.”



Ruling

“Where exactly is Kyoshi?” It was sad really.

Mai watched, face expressionless as Azula set the hook into him. “Well, it’s an island, so it’s in the middle of the ocean.” Mai watched Azula’s mouth move, voice heavy with contempt, and she watched the Earth King squirm on her hook, eating it up.

She could see the way it was going to go, the pattern already set. It was just the way things happened for Azula, be brilliant, be everything he should be, and smile that little smile, promising that if he just let her, she could make him just like her, and then heap the condemnation on him, and the despair had how incompetent he was, and he would do anything to get her to stop looking at him with that contempt.

And if he fell for it, maybe he deserved to lose his kingdom to her.

Ty Lee could smile at them, at anyone, everyone, Azula needed, or just wanted to play with, and soothe them, and make them feel better about themselves again, to just remind them that they weren’t the scum scraped off the bottom of Azula’s boots. But Mai couldn’t. If she smiled at Kuei- the Earth King, she told herself, not Kuei, don’t even think his name- if she smiled at him, she would crack, and she would hate herself, and run for a map for them to find Kyoshi Island together, and she would confess that she had no idea where it was either, and neither did Azula, no matter how good she was at hiding it.

And then Azula would turn that scorn on her, and she would know she was worthless.

So she didn’t smile. She sat on the steps up to his throne and watched everything slip away from him.



Not Telling

(Part One of Three)

Toph put on the robes and sat in the chair and felt like a lump. “Hey, someone get me a drink!” she shouted. One of the servants scuttled forward, and she grinned. He was scrawny, but she could feel the earthbending in his limbs, and she hoped someone was teaching him. “One of the little fruity things with ice in it.”

He pressed the glass into his hand, and she draped herself in the throne, her feet up on the stone armrests, and wondered why the city even wanted a queen, when they never seemed to need her, if the title was just supposed to be a prize for being the best.

“Your Majesty,” a soldier, a captain? It was hard to feel the metal marks of rank hanging against the cloth, got down on his knees and bowed his head. “We’ve had some problems collecting taxes from some of the outlying farms, they feel that since the previous king allowed the Fire Nation to conquer them without a fight that they’re vulnerable-”

“Why are you bringing this to me?” She swung her legs down to the floor and sat with her hands in fists on the armrests, like the statues in the gallery down the hall.

The captain’s mouth worked. “Because... You’re the Queen!”

“Yeah, so?” She blew the hair out of her face. “You have generals and tax people right? And I’m just going to tell somebody how to do his job, right?”

“Your Majesty-”

“So what am I even doing here?”

The captain shook with fear, and she felt just a little sick. “Am I supposed to figure that out by myself?”



A Mountain Divides

(Part Two of Three)

There is an inkstone that sits nested in silk in the box that holds the royal seal. They set it in front of Toph like there’s actually something she can do with it. Oma and Shu stand on top of two mountains on either side of the grinding surface, their arms reaching out to each other. Sometimes, Toph takes it out of its case and twitches her wrist, and they climb down from their mountains and stand together. Sometimes, she even let’s them touch.

But then one of them says something wrong, and she makes them fight. She moves their mouths, their faces, hollows out their throats so she can feel their tongues move like they’re real people arguing. Why does my name come second, Oma? That’s just typical of you, always putting yourself first. Why is this such a big deal, baby, it’s just a name. Yeah, but it’s your name first, just like it always is. Well if that’s the way you feel about it... And they always end up back on their separate mountains before they forgive each other, and the only thing they can do is reach across the gap to each other.

There are rub marks and polished places in the stone where other kings and queens have ground their ink on it for thousands of years, since the very beginnings of earthbending. She ground a little of the ink against the stone once, and got it wet. It got onto her hands and her clothes, and smudged her cheeks.

She gets out the stick of ink made of stone instead of soot that she could feel on the page. “I want you to teach me.”

The woman who followed her around, took notes and read them back to her when she asked blinked. “What?”

“I want you to teach me how to write.”

“But that could take years!” she exclaimed.

“Yeah.” She picked up the brush. “I have years.”



Talk Amongst Yourselves

(Part Three of Three)

“So my generals tell me you’ve all been talking about how you don’t like the fact that I’m not from around here.” Toph clicked her tongue. She could feel the thousands of hearts below her thrumming with appreciation, defiance, anger. Swallowing, she leaned over the railing and grinned hard and frighteningly down. “But yeah, right before me, you had Bumi, and he was from Omashu, and you didn’t like him any better.”

She could feel the mass of heartbeats through the stone balcony like a plunge into cold water. She couldn’t find one droplet in the ocean, but she could feel it all, seaping into her nose and mouth. She could feel it rising. “So I’ve been trying to figure out, if you don’t like any of us, why do you even want a queen?”

She felt icy cold, like the water was running over her skin and the stone had dropped away under her feet. “My generals think I should start arresting anybody who complains.” She could smell the hatred hanging on the air, and taste it in the back of her throat with the dust, sour and dirty with their fear. “But I don’t think we’ve got enough jails. See, best I’ve been able to figure out, you guys don’t want me, but you need someone like me. You don’t need the greatest earthbender in the world. You need somebody who everybody will listen to, and who files all the right paperwork, and...” She clutched the balcony railing. “And I can do that, and I said I’d do it, so you can all complain as much as you want to, but I’m staying.”



The Bright Burning Thing

(Takes place in the firebender Suki universe)

“They’re my girls!” she shot back ready to scream. “You heard what she said back there!”

“Yeah, and I remember you shoving Azula up against the wall and playing right into her game when we were supposed to be helping Aang find the Firelord!” He braced his hands against her shoulders and rubbed them through her uniform with his thumbs. “The best thing you can do for them is help us win the war, Suki, come on.”

She brought her hands up between his arms and forced them off in one fluid motion.

“Suki!”

“And your father? That’s soooo different, isn’t it.”

“No! It’s just-” Sokka scowled. “Listen, I’ll get them all, just stay here, Aang needs his firebending teacher.”

“Yeah, all he needs is practice, Sokka-”

Zuko lay in the bison’s saddle in the stone cuffs, eyes closed, wrists raw with the force of wrenching them away from the wall and listened to them argue until he couldn’t take any more. “Shut up before you wake everybody up.”

Their heads both jerked up and they stared at him shocked for a moment before their eyes narrowed and Suki pulled her hand back to shoot fire at him. He held up his bound hands. “What are you doing up there?” she hissed. “You’re supposed to be...” chained to the wall and tucked into his bedroll like a good little prisoner.

“So the two of you aren’t up to anything, huh?” he said instead of answering, sliding down Appa’s side.

“Fine, you caught us.” Sokka said resentfully as Zuko landed beside them. “We’re going to rescue my dad and the Kyoshi Warriors.” At his words, the triumph glimmered in her eyes for just a second before she summoned up the steel again for Zuko. “Happy now?”

Zuko’s eyes shifted to the side. “I’m never happy.”

“Listen, get out of Appa’s saddle right now,” she growled. “If you don’t I’ll-”

“You’ll what? You going to wake them all up so they can stop you? And how you going to get there anyway? On Appa? Last time I checked, prisons don’t have bison daycares.”

“They’re my warriors. I was their leader.” Sokka tried to cut in, but she just kept going. “They’re my responsibility, I have to regain my honor. I’m going no matter what you say.”

“You need to regain your honor? Believe me, I get it. I’m going with you.” He started walking away from them. “We’ll take my war balloon.”

“You think you’re coming with us?” Sokka squawked as quietly as possible.

“You going to wake Toph up so she can chain me down again?”

“Fine,” Suki growled and threw herself into the balloon’s gondola, reaching a hand down to her boyfriend.

Zuko clambered up into it awkwardly on his own. “So,” he started, uncertainly. “You going to get these cuffs off me?”

“We’ll get them off on the way,” Sokka told him, fingering his machete and smirking until Zuko’s body felt cold and small and the cuffs felt comforting.

Date: 2011-05-05 01:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] feral-shrew.livejournal.com
All of these were very fun, but I definitely would like to read more of the last one. Poor Zuzu, he is the Distrusted and //Spare// Firebender.

Kanna's moment of truth was awesome, too.

Date: 2011-05-05 01:59 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] attackfish.livejournal.com
Seriously. Every time I make an AU, things just get worse for him. Fortunately, they aren't half as mean as he's picturing, and the Boiling Rock shakes things up. *pats my poor spare firebender*

Date: 2011-05-05 04:34 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] feral-shrew.livejournal.com
It's a gift Zuko has, I think, because it's genuinely odd when he's HAPPY in an alternate universe. He has terrible luck and he's good at making himself grumpy and unhappy. I think the best picture I've ever seen of him was this sarcastic little deviantArt work with puppies and rainbows all over, and this big beaming smile-- creepiest Zuko ever.

Date: 2011-05-05 01:41 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lavanyasix.livejournal.com
* There are So Many Names -- Cool look into the backgrounds of the Joo Dees.

* On the Way -- Kanna, still the hardest core member of her family.

* If You Become Firelord -- I'd bet good money that Iroh didn't intend those unspoken words Zuko's imagining.

* Getting On -- Interesting take on the post-war grunt's place in the Fire Nation. There was a kind of apocalyptic flavor to it, which is understandable considering the events she's been through. Until near the end I thought you were going to have the narrator buy into a "stab in the back" idea.

The issue of the post-war world is, to me, maddeningly intriguing, and we won't get any hints to it until Korra premiers. It's just weird in that the Fire Nation didn't outright lose the war, they just overreached themselves and failed to hold onto their quasi-victory. And neither the Water Tribe nor the Earth Kingdom won, either. That just seems like a recipe for insurrection and disaster.

* Color at the Edges -- Good imagery.

* You Understand -- You had me going at the beginning. Although I don't think I've ever read a fic where Mai and her mother actually get along.

* Let it Breathe -- Iroh's a bit hypocritical here, isn't he? But I guess you can appreciate the beauty of fire while still joking to your niece and nephew about burning down a mega-city full of civilians.

* It Changes -- Not much specific to say here, but I thought it was cute and a good follow-up to The Headband.

* The Bright Burning Thing -- Always good to see another fic in this 'verse! Neat hints about how things have shaken out differently, like Zuko being their willing prisoner with Suki there to provide firebending lessons. I liked the comments about how rescuing Sokka's father wasn't different from Suki's need to save her team.

Date: 2011-05-05 02:42 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] attackfish.livejournal.com
There are So Many Names - I like playing with the Joo Dees

On the Way - Oh God, yes she is.

If You Become Firelord - Oh he might. I'm sure he has deep dark Thoughts about just how horrible a Firelord Azula would be. He probably doesn't want Zuko to pick up on it, though.

Getting On - You were meant to think that. I like to jerk around with you all a bit.

Same here. There is no clear delineation between lost and won here for ordinary citizens that I have a feeling Zuko will be trying to hang onto things by the skin of his teeth. And in the Earth Kingdom? What's about to happen to the military based power structure?

You Understand - I've actually never read any fics with Mai interacting with her family, at all.

Let it Breathe - This was meant to be set between Iroh's escape on the Day of Black Sun and the Gaang's arrival, so Iroh's long past the laugh at burning cities thing. He's into the dancing dragon thing.

It Changes - I seriously needed to write a little fluff.

The Bright Burning Thing - I like this verse. I may just have to continue this and write the story of the Boiling Rock someday.

Date: 2011-05-05 11:57 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lavanyasix.livejournal.com
>You Understand - I've actually never read any fics with Mai interacting with her family, at all.

There aren't a whole lot of them, probably because her parents aren't named in canon and that makes writing them a bit awkward. I've never seen her mother portrayed sympathetically, although sometimes her father gets a softer treatment. Sozin's Bay (http://blue-lacquer.livejournal.com/tag/fic%3A%20sozin%27s%20bay) has her father allowing her to have lunch with a banished Zuko. ab igne ignem capere's Mai-centric flashback chapter (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/6074881/7/ab_igne_ignem_capere") has her father be doting.

Date: 2011-05-05 02:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] attackfish.livejournal.com
I take it back. i have read Sozin's Bay. I never could get into ab igne ignem capere, on the other hand, because I don't like it's characterization.

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