Author’s note: In which Zuko has a badass moment, the final epic battle does… not happen and there is an almost-meeting.
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***The Invasion (Part 2)***
The sun was slowly becoming hidden by the moon and Lia paused, starting to feel a little lightheaded. Her powers weren’t completely connected to the sun but that didn’t mean she wasn’t feeling any discomfort at the moment. She knelt next to her brother and Sokka, while Toph a little further away was knocking tanks out of their way. Sokka winced when a rather loud explosion happened next to them before looking up. His face lightened up as he saw Katara and their father approaching.
“Dad! You’re on your feet again.” Katara helped Hakoda to sit next to his son.
“Thanks to your sister. I’m in no shape to fight but maybe there is some way I could help,” the Chief said.
“Everything’s going smoothly and the eclipse hasn’t even kicked in yet,” Sokka reported.
“Let’s hope our luck holds out.” Hakoda turned to his daughter to see her watching intently the horizon. “Katara, you seem distracted. Is something wrong?”
“Yeah… Is that… is that Aang?” the waterbender pointed at rapidly growing shape at the horizon.
“What?” Lia asked incredulously.
Indeed it was Aang. He avoided a couple of projectiles and landed in front of the rest of the gang, looking unusually grim.
“Please tell you’re here because the Fire Lord turned out to be a big wimp and you didn’t even need the eclipse to take him down,” Sokka said hopefully. Zuko snorted at the thought, his hand going involuntary to his scar.
“He wasn’t home. No one was. The entire palace city is abandoned,” Aang explained. Everyone palled.
“They knew,” Sokka whispered.
“It’s over. The Fire Lord is probably long gone. Far away on some remote island where he’ll be safe during the eclipse,” Aang said disappointed. Zuko shook his head.
“No,” he said. “Before I left there were some plans being discussed. They were going to make a secret bunker. Somewhere where fath…the Fire Lord could go so it’ll be safe during a siege but still be close enough to lead the Fire Nation.” Toph cleared her throat loudly. Once she felt everyone’s eyes on her she said:
“If it’s an underground secret bunker we’re looking for, I’m just the girl to find it.”
Sokka took out a small device from his pocket.
“The Mechanist gave me this timing device,” he explained. “It looks like we’ve got about ten minutes until the full eclipse. Ten minutes to find the Fire Lord.”
“We can still do this. We can still win the day,” Aang said hopefully but Katara didn’t seem to share the sentiment.
“Wait. If they knew we were coming, it could all be a trap. Maybe we should use the time we have left to make sure all of us get out of here safely.”
“Everyone who’s here today came prepared to risk everything for this mission. They know what’s at stake. If there’s still a chance and there’s still hope, I think they would want Aang to go for it,” Hakoda argued back. Everyone turned to Aang.
“What do you think? You’re the one who has to face the Fire Lord. Whatever you decide, I’m with you,” Sokka said seriously to the airbender. Aang took a deep breath.
“I’ve got to try,” he said decisively.
Katara decided to stay with the invasion force just in case. Before the rest of the gang left, Zuko took his sister to the side, to have a word with her.
“If anything goes wrong, keep an eye on Katara for me,” he said grimly.
“You think we’ll walk right into a trap?” Lia asked seriously. Zuko offered her a small smile.
“I don’t think so. I know. Azula had all the time and resources to learn of the invasion while she was in Ba Sing Se.” Lia nodded in agreement.
“Perhaps Aang can still beat Ozai,” she said, trying to keep uncertainty away from her voice. She hugged him briefly and then they walked over to the rest of the team. Zuko and Katara only nodded to each other, not wanting to consider the possibility of not seeing each other again.
The group took Appa and flew towards the volcano inside which the palace city was built. The closer they got, the tenser Lia seemed to get. Everyone jumped down as soon as the bison landed.
“Do you feel anything down there?” Aang asked Toph. She nodded, her eyes half-closed in concentration.
“Yep. There are natural tunnels criss-crossing through the inside of the volcano.”
“Anything else? Is there a structure somewhere?” Zuko asked.
“There’s something big, dense, and made of metal deep in the heart of the volcano,” the earthbender added after a moment.
“Sounds like a secret bunker to me,” Sokka said, raising an eyebrow.
Toph made a tunnel into the ground and everyone hurried in. Aang turned to Appa and Momo.
“Stay safe. We’ll be back soon,” he said before he jumped inside the hole to land behind Toph. The earthbender was feeling the ground.
“This way! That one’s a dead end,” she said, jumping on her feet and rushing down the tunnel.
“What would we do without you?” Sokka asked as he raced behind her.
“Perish and burn in hot magma,” came the cool reply. The boy gulped as they passed next to a small waterfall of lava.
“Yeah, pretty much,” he squeaked.
They paused at the opening of a cave, filled with vents that could occasionally spit out steam and magma.
“The tunnel continues on the other side and it leads right to the bunker,” Toph explained. Sokka made a movement forward.
“We’ll have to be fast but careful,” he advised the rest of the group. One of the vents erupted right in front of him. Zuko grabbed him from the back of his armour and yanked him backwards.
“How was that careful?” he asked.
“I was wrong. We need to be fast, careful and lucky,” Sokka amended. With some careful running and dodging (and Zuko and Lia stopping a few vents before they could erupt) they managed to reach the other side of the cave. The sight that greeted them made everyone let out a sigh.
“There’s no floor! It’s just a river of lava.” Sokka whined. “How are we supposed to cross this?”
“That’s why you have me here,” Lia said, moving to stand in front of everyone. Moving her hands she made the lava rise at their level, before she bended the heat out of the molten rock, making a narrow bridge appear. Toph tested it and raised an eyebrow.
It wasn’t far from there that they stopped again, this time in front of an enormous metal contraption, with an equally huge entrance.
“That’s some door!” Sokka whistled impressed. Toph pressed her ear against it and knocked the metal before smiling.
“Not a problem.” A few jabs, punches and kicks later the door had an opening big enough for them to pass through. Toph took the lead again, pointing at the right direction.
“I am so glad we added you to the group,” Sokka called after her.
Outside, Bato turned to address the soldiers, having taken the lead once Sokka and Zuko had left.
“The eclipse is only minutes away. We should be able to make it up the hill by the time it starts and secure the entire palace by the time it’s finished!” he explained to the men. With a battle cry they started pressing forward again. Katara turned to her father. They had been moving at the back of the force since Hakoda was not in any shape to press himself.
“We can wait here if you want,” she offered.
“No. I want to press forward with the others,” he insisted and they continued moving.
As they ran through the tunnel the teens heard a gasp. Spinning on their heels they saw War Minister Qin pressed against the wall, his arms in surrender. In a second he had a sword, a staff, a small rock and two fireballs aimed at him.
“The Fire Lord’s chamber is that way down the hall to the left and up the stairs. You can’t miss it,” he blurted immediately. They all looked at him suspiciously for a moment longer before Aang gave him a cheerful smile.
“Thanks!” he said and they continued at the direction he had pointed. As they ran Sokka took out his clock.
“Only 30 seconds until the total eclipse,” he informed the others. They came to a halt in front of a door with the royal symbol etched on it. Aang took a deep breath and looked at the engraved flame with determination.
“I’m ready,” he said. “I’m ready to face the Fire Lord.” He made a move to blast the door when Lia stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Wait,” she said and turned to the earthbender. “Toph, how many people are in there?” she asked. Toph placed a hand to the ground and concentrated.
“There is one man sitting on the back, a line of guards behind him and…” she trailed opened her eyes and turning to the others. “Azula is there too.” The others shared a look of uncertainty.
“I still think we should go for it,” Toph said dismissively. Aang nodded.
“Yes, after all no one in there will be able to bend.”
Without further ado the door was blasted off its hinges, and the team rushed in. Ozai and Azula looked up from their thrones, a line of the Imperial Guard behind them standing in attention.
“So… you are alive after all,” Azula drawled carelessly at Aang, not sparing the rest of the group a look. Her father was glaring full-force at Zuko. “I had a hunch that you survived,” the princess continued as she stood from her throne. “It doesn’t matter, we’ve known about the invasion for months.”
On the hillside the invasion force was steadily advancing towards the palace city. The Mechanist paused to observe the sky. The sun and the moon were nearly completely overlapping.
“The eclipse is starting,” he warned the others. “Put on your eclipse glasses.” The men stopped for a second to put on the devices that would protect their eyes and then pressed on.
Underneath, inside the bunker, Zuko felt a sudden wave of energy leaving his body. Lia next to him looked a bit nauseous but otherwise fine. The eclipse had started. Aang seemed to gather his wits because he daringly stepped forward and pointed his staff at the Fire Lord.
“Fire Lord, your reign comes to an end today. Surrender or” here the boy visibly gulped, although his voice remained strong, “this will be a fight to the death,” he finished. Ozai did not answer but Azula stepped towards the small group with a mock-hurt expression on her face.
“You mean I’m not good enough for you? You’re hurting my feelings.” Wordlessly Toph encased her on a cone of earth.
“The eclipse has started Azula,” Zuko said shaking his head. “There is nothing you can do.” His younger sister smirked when suddenly the rock encasing her shattered.
“When I left Ba Sing Se, I brought home some souvenirs.” Two Dai Lis landed in from of her. “Dai Li agents. Do you still think that there is nothing I can do Zu-zu?” Aang tried to blast the earthbenders away with his airbending but they made a wall rise protecting themselves and the royalty behind them.
Outside the invasion force had reached the edge of the crater. Bato turned to give the next set of instructions to the men.
“Surround the periphery! We have to secure the palace by the time the eclipse is over. Otherwise, we’ll be in for the fight of our lives.”
The invasion force scattered around the capital, all of them heading towards the palace. A small group of earthbenders came across some guards.
“Stop! Surrender peacefully and we won’t harm you,” one of them, Tyro, said.
“We’ll never surrender!” one of the guards said arrogantly. He started moving his arms frantically but not even the smallest flame came out. He shared a nervous look with the rest of him team. “Okay, we surrender,” he amended hastily.
Katara and Hakoda had paused to catch their breath at the edge of the crater. The beauty of the relatively peaceful city took the waterbender by surprise. She suddenly knew why Zuko had been so desperate to return.
“There it is. The Fire Nation royal palace. We’ve come so far,” her father said in admiration. Katara shook her head.
“It’s not over yet,” she said as they began their descent.
Toph and Aang burst through the stone wall. The Dai Li attacked Aang who blocked their attacks with ease. Toph came to his side and drove them away, before bending a stone wave towards Azula. The Princess used it as leverage and jumped back on her throne. Zuko and Lia were forced to stand to the side along with Sokka. At this point they would be more of a hassle than help for the two earthbenders on their team. Aang turned his attention to Azula and tried to blast her away but the Fire princess cartwheeled out of reach, avoiding his blasts with ease. With the help of the Dai Li agents she jumped through the hole of a wall that Toph had made later and landed near her brother. Aang and Toph rushed after her, the girl having the good sense to block the exit with another wall.
“I can’t pin her down. She’s too quick!” Aang panted. Toph nodded and paused long enough to detain the agents with a few quick metalbending moves. The two of them return to cornering Azula when suddenly Sokka called them.
“Wait! Aang, Toph, stop attacking.” Everyone looked at him in shock. “Don’t you see what she’s doing? She’s just playing with us. She’s not even trying to win this fight!”
“Not true, I’m giving it my all,” Azula sing-songed.
“You’re trying to keep us focused on you and waste all our time!” Toph exclaimed.
“Um, right. I think your friend just said that genius. And since you can’t see, I should tell you I’m rolling my eyes,” Azula snorted. Zuko made a move to lunge at her but Lia held him back.
“I’ll roll your whole head!” he snapped at his younger sister angrily.
“She’s just baiting you again,” his older sister said calmly.
“Okay, so what do we do? Just ignore her?” Aang asked confused.
“We don’t have a choice,” Sokka decided. “We need to focus on the Fire Lord.”
They turned to leave when Azula’s voice was heard.
“It’s a trap. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Everyone stiffened at her words and Aang and Toph almost turned back.
“Ignore!” Sokka said shrugging. The princess frowned before trying again.
“So, Sokka’s your name right? My favourite prisoner used to mention you all the time.” Sokka stopped and turned around shocked. “She was convinced that you were going to come rescue her. Of course, you never came and she gave up on you.” Forgetting his previous words the boy lunged at her with a yell, missing her smug smile.
“Come and get it…” Azula mattered under her breath. Before she could throw the dagger in her hand she found herself pinned to the wall while Zuko was struggling to hold Sokka back. With a jerk the Water Tribe warrior freed himself and rushed to Azula.
“Where is Suki?” he asked furiously. “Answer me!” he demanded when the girl remained silent.
“Sokka, she won’t talk,” Aang said calmly. Sokka hesitated for a moment before turning back at Azula.
“Where are you keeping her!” he yelled. Azula smirked smugly.
Lia was about to physically drag Sokka away from the princess when a wave of energy hit her. Zuko next to her must have felt it too because he doubled over. On the other side of the room Ozai stood and with a single fireblast cracked the earthen wall.
“Oh. Sounds like the firebending’s back on.” Azula blasted herself free, satisfied to see the horrified realisation in her enemies’ eyes. She blasted the wall again, causing it to crumble.
“I’m sure dad will be glad to see you now,” she said cheerfully.
Indeed Ozai was slowly approaching them with an emotionless face and an impressive fireball ready to launch. Lia shook her head slightly and the fire went out. The man’s impassive expression turned to one of annoyed surprised as he failed to keep his fire going long enough to throw it at anyone. Lia gave a look to the teens around her.
“I believe it’s time to take our leave.” Aang was about to protest but thought better of it. They started backing towards the door when Azula sent a fireblast to their direction. Lia turned to block it, her attention momentarily diverted, which was more than enough for Ozai. Lightning crackled and launched towards the retreating Avatar. Zuko stood protectively in front of the boy, catching the lightning in his hand. The electricity surrounded him and he nearly lost his balance but managed to follow through the movements Iroh had taught him and send it back to his father. Ozai was blasted to the wall as smoke filled the room. When the atmosphere cleared the Avatar and his friends had disappeared.
“I fell for it!” Sokka lamented as they hurried to the surface again.
“It’s not your fault, Sokka. Azula was ready for us. She had every move planned out,” Toph tried to cheer him up. It didn’t work.
“And now it’s too late,” he sighed.
“The Fire Lord knew we were coming this time. We thought we had surprise on our side but we didn’t. It just wasn’t our day. What we need to do now is go help the others,” Lia interjected calmly. “Aang will get his chance soon.” They exited the tunnel and stopped to survey the scene. Suddenly Zuko started to run away.
“Where are you going?” Aang asked confused.
“To find uncle,” Zuko explained, looking back at them. “I can’t leave him here.” The others looked ready to protest but the Fire prince ignored them. With a sigh Lia laid a hand on the Avatar’s shoulder.
“I’ll make sure he doesn’t kill himself,” she promised, hurrying after Zuko.
With low spirits, Sokka, Aang and Toph climbed back on Appa to meet up with the invasion force. When they landed Katara ran to them with an anxious expression. Aang hung his head, not wanting to admit his failure.
“It was all a trap. Azula knew we were coming and she’s plotted out every move,” Sokka explained. “We’ve got to get to the beach as fast as we can. If we can make it to the submarines, maybe we can get away safely.” Everyone cast a nervous look at the war balloons that were rapidly approaching.
“They’ve got air power, but so do I!” Aang said resolutely. “I’m going to do what I can to slow them down.” He flew away on his glider.
“Appa, you and I can help too,” Katara said, jumping on the bison’s saddle. She desperately wanted to know what had happened and more importantly where Zuko was but now was not the time. She bit her lips in worry and gazed at her targets. Hopefully he was safe.
As it was, Zuko was running towards the Capital’s prison. He was aware of Lia following but his sole focus was getting his uncle out of his cell and meeting with the others. The door of the building lay in shambles and the interior was not in any better condition. Zuko ignored everything, focusing solely on finding Iroh, but Lia paused surprised. The invasion force hadn’t reach this far. What had happened there? Reaching the last cell Zuko burst in.
“Uncle!” he called frantically. The only person there was a guard. Zuko ran to him and grabbed him by the collar.
“Where is my uncle?” he demanded angrily.
“He’s gone. He busted himself out. I… I’ve never seen anything like it! He was like a one man army!” the man stuttered shocked.
“He’s gone Zuko,” Lia said calmly. “We need to get to the others.” Zuko followed her wordlessly although in his mind he was screaming.
“I shouldn’t have left him in Ba Sing Se,” he only said.
As they raced outside the sounds of bombs greeted them again. A fleet of zeppelins and air balloons was heading for the subs. Zuko and Lia watched in horror as one by one their means of escape were blown away.
“How will we escape?” Zuko whispered, his eyes scanning the land beneath him for the invasion force. A hand on his shoulder made him turn to where Lia was pointing silently. The familiar figure of Appa rose in the horizon, his back loaded with passengers.
“Katara and the others are probably on Appa. At least the younger ones,” she reasoned. “Now we just need to catch up to them.”
“With one of these,” her brother finished with his eyes trained on one of the war balloons, a familiar spark in them.
“What goes around, comes around I guess,” the Fire Spirit sighed in wry amusement.
They found one unguarded balloon and set out on figuring out how to make it take off, which was much simple than they expected. Once in air and concealed by the clouds, Zuko started scanning the horizon for Appa. He could just barely make out his form in the distance but it was enough for him. After all it wasn’t as if he had never been to their destination before.
“Looks like we’re going to the Western Air Temple,” he announced.