Author’s note: In which tensions run high, there is an epic showdown and any chance the canon had of rearing its ugly face ever is offered as tribute to Koh the Face Stealer (because he was cool and deserved more screen time!).
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***The Crossroads of Destiny***
Aang had flown to Chameleon Bay as fast as Appa could. There he didn’t even have to say a word. His worried expression spoke miles and Sokka followed him without questions. They had flown all night at a frantic pace and now they were able to make out Ba Sing Se’s walls at the horizon.
“So, what kind of trouble is Katara in?” Sokka finally asked, sounding more curious than worried.
“I don’t know,” Aang admitted. “In my vision, I just knew she needed help.” Sokka sighed.
“It would be nice if your Avatar powers could be just a little more specific from time to time,” he said frustrated. Suddenly a rumble was heard from the ground below them. “What is that?” Sokka exclaimed.
They leaned over the edge of Appa’s head to see a cloud of dust moving fast towards the wall. Every now and then a flash of green appeared through it. Aang brought Appa down, near the ground. From there they could make out now Toph clearly through the dust.
“Need a ride?” Sokka called to her. Toph was startled out of her concentration, stumbled and fell to the ground. Aang and Sokka winced.
Meanwhile, inside the city, Zuko and Iroh had arrived at the palace. They made their way towards the entrance.
“Many times, I imagined myself here, at the threshold of the palace. But I always thought I would be here as a conqueror…instead, we are the Earth Kings personal guests, here to serve him tea. Destiny is a funny thing,” Iroh chuckled. Zuko laughed back. For once he appreciated his uncle’s proverbs.
“It sure is uncle.”
After Toph had appropriately punched Sokka for startling her, she sat next to Aang, holding on him tightly as they flew.
“So how did it go with the Guru? Did you master the Avatar State?” she asked him curious. Aang hesitated and then smiled nervously.
“Yes! It went great with the Guru. I completely mastered the Avatar State!” he finally said and prayed that no one detected his lie.
The two firebenders were led to a small antechamber near the actual throne room. Iroh had set everything up and now was pouring himself a cup of tea, seemingly content. Zuko on the other hand felt on edge. Something didn’t feel right.
“What’s taking so long?” he finally asked
“Maybe the Earth King overslept,” his uncle guessed.
Suddenly several Dai Li walked into the room and circled them.
“Something’s not right,” Zuko whispered.
“It’s tea time,” Azula’s arrogant voice travelled inside the room. Zuko sprung to his feet at the sound of it. “Have you met the Dai Li? They’re earthbenders, but they have a killer instinct that is so firebender, I just love it!” she continued. Iroh stood calmly next to his nephew, the full cup still in his hands.
“Did I ever tell you how I got the nickname the ‘Dragon of the West’?” he asked his niece.
“I’m not interested in a lengthy anecdote, uncle,” she answered disinterested.
“It’s more of a demonstration really.” Iroh raised the cup to his lips and took a long sip. Zuko next to him saw his movements and smirked. Suddenly he ducked behind the older man’s back, right as Iroh exhaled a torrent of fire at the Dai Li.
Zuko blasted a hole in the wall and they ran away, Iroh still breathing fire at the Dai Li. Two agents tried to stop them with their rock gloves and missed. As they reached a dead end Iroh shot a bolt of lightning and jumped out of the hole, to land in a bush shaped like a bear. He looked up to see Zuko standing at the opening.
“Come on. You’ll be fine,” he called. Zuko didn’t move.
“No. I’m tired of running. It’s time I faced Azula!” he called back before disappearing. Iroh facepalmed in frustration.
Zuko turned to see the corridor blocked by the Dai Li and his sister.
“You’re so dramatic,” Azula remarked. “What, are you going to do, challenge me to an Agni Kai?”
“Yes! I challenge you!” Zuko shot back.
“No thanks!” she answered sweetly. Zuko raised his hands, making an impressive amount of fire to appear and sent it towards Azula. She didn’t make a move to block the attack, as two Dai Li made a shield out of the floor, before launching two stone gloves against him. Zuko stumbled and placed a hand to the floor to steady himself. It turned out to be a bad idea. A second later it was also trapped to the floor and he was struggling in vain to free himself. Azula smirked. Her older brother was always so predictable…
Katara had lost track of how long she had been wondering in circles inside the catacombs, under the palace. At first she had tried to find an exit, but it seemed like this place was an endless maze. Thankfully she had discovered a cave with an underground river so she wasn’t completely defenceless. Suddenly a rumble was heard from above. She looked up to see three shadowed figures standing at an opening.
“You’ve got company,” one of them, obviously a Dai Li, said as the third person went tumbling down to the cave. As the entrance sealed again the boy got to his knees and looked up at her surprised. Katara felt her jaw hit the floor.
The King had told Sokka, Aang and Toph that Katara was with the Kyoshi Warriors, so they had decided to check on their apartment first. Appa landed in front of it and they ran inside. The moment they opened the door, Momo ran to meet them, chattering as he climbed to Aang’s shoulder.
“Momo!” the boy exclaimed happy.
“There’s no one else here,” Toph said suspiciously.
“Katara is in trouble! I knew it!” Aang told Sokka.
“Oh, no!” Sokka said, remembering all the times Katara had been alone and got herself in trouble.
“Wait, someone’s at the door,” Toph said right before a knock was heard. She smiled. “I know who it is. It’s an old friend.” She opened the door to reveal Iroh. “Glad to see you again.”
“I need your help,” Iroh explained.
Aang felt his head was ready to burst. What on earth was going on?
“Iroh, what are you doing here?” he finally managed to ask.
“Princess Azula is here in Ba Sing Se,” Iroh explained entering the house. If possible, Aang’s eyes widened even more.
“She must have Katara,” he exclaimed worried.
“She has captured my nephew as well,” Iroh added. Aang frowned and crossed his arms.
“Then we’ll work together to fight Azula, and save Katara and Zuko.”
“Whoa there!” Sokka finally said. “You lost me at, ‘Zuko’.”
“Then we’ll work together to fight Azula, and save Katara and Zuko.”
“Whoa there!” Sokka finally said. “You lost me at, ‘Zuko’.”
“I know how you must feel about my nephew. But believe me when I tell you there is good inside him,” Iroh smiled pleadingly.
“Good inside of him isn’t enough. Why don’t you come back when it’s outside him too, okay?” Sokka said stubbornly. Toph raised an eyebrow.
“What’s your problem Snoozles? Zuko travelled with us. He’s part of the group,” she pointed out.
“Toph is right Sokka,” Aang said, speaking over the older boys protests. “Katara is in trouble. All of Ba Sing Se is in trouble. Working together is our best chance.” Said boy sighed. He hated when the others were right.
“I brought someone along who might be able to help us,” Iroh said satisfied.
Outside, a bound and gagged Dai Li was waiting. Toph trapped him between two boulders and Iroh pulled out the gag.
“Azula and Long Feng are plotting a coup,” he said immediately. “They’re going to overthrow the Earth King.”
“My sister!” Sokka said pointing his machete at his face angrily. “Where are they keeping Katara?”
“In the crystal catacombs of old Ba Sing Se, deep beneath the palace.” They didn’t need to hear anything else and they took off for the palace.
Zuko leaned against an overgrown crystal while Katara paced around getting more frustrated by the second.
“Why did they throw us in here? Oh wait. Let me guess. It’s a trap. So when Aang shows up to rescue us, your sister can finally have him in her little Fire Nation clutches.” She made claws with her fingers. Zuko sighed but said nothing. There was no point in trying to reason with her right now. When Katara didn’t get an answer she continued ranting. “Your sister’s a terrible person, you know that? Following us, hunting the Avatar, trying to capture the world’s last hope for peace! But what would she care? She’s the Fire Lord’s daughter. Spreading war and violence and hatred runs in the family.” Zuko’s expression darkened.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he snapped before he could stop himself. Katara’s face reddened.
“I don’t! How dare you! You have no idea what this war has put me through. Me personally.” She turned her back to him, not wanting to let Zuko see her cry. “The Fire Nation took my mother away from me.”
Zuko snapped his eyes from the ground to the trembling form of the waterbender. She had never told him that before. Walking to her he placed his arms on her shoulders.
“I’m sorry,” he said earnestly. He hadn’t meant to bring back painful memories. “That’s something we have in common,” he admitted. Katara stopped crying, surprised from what she had heard. He has never told me that before.
Several levels above them Toph raised an eyebrow impressed. She had expected the Dai Li to be lying.
“Well whaddya know. There is an ancient city down there, but it’s deep.” She motioned to the others to stand back and earthbended a small crater in the ground. Sokka looked thoughtful.
“We should split up,” he said. “Aang, you go with Iroh to look for Katara and the angry jerk…no offence,” he added hurriedly remembering that Iroh was indeed the jerk’s uncle.
“None taken,” Iroh assured him.
“And I’ll go with Toph to warn the Earth King about Azula’s coup,” Sokka concluded.
The two teams split and went on their ways. As they travelled further underground Aang kept stealing hesitant glance at the old man at his side. Iroh was known for his wisdom. Maybe he could ask him for advice regarding the whole Avatar State problem.
“So, Toph thinks you give pretty good advice. And great tea,” he said to the old man awkwardly.
“The key to both is proper aging. What’s on your mind?” Iroh asked him. Aang paused to deepen the tunnel they were in.
“Well, I met with this Guru who was supposed to help me master the Avatar State, and control this great power. But to do it, I had to let go of someone I love, and I just couldn’t,” he admitted a little shamefully.
“Perfection and power are overrated. I think you were very wise to choose happiness and love,” Iroh said calmly. He knew that the young Avatar would eventually have to come to terms with his destiny, but it couldn’t hurt to ease the child’s insecurity for a little while. Aang didn’t seem convinced.
“What happens if we can’t save everyone and beat Azula? Without the Avatar State, what if I am not powerful enough?” he asked.
“I don’t know the answer,” Iroh admitted. “Sometimes life is like this dark tunnel. You can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you just keep moving…” he paused as they entered the beautiful catacombs. “…You will come to a better place,” he concluded.
Sokka and Toph entered the throne room running. The coup had already begun, but thankfully the Dai Li hadn’t reached it yet.
“Thank goodness we’re in time!” he said urgently.
“In time for what?” the Earth King asked.
“Yeah, what are you in time for… cutie?” Ty Lee asked innocently, somersaulting in front of Sokka.
“Uh, I’m kinda involved with Suki,” he said awkwardly. Ty Lee raised an eyebrow.
“Who?” she asked
Toph blew her bangs annoyed and earthbended Ty Lee to the air. The Fire Nation girl yelped and landed on a badger mole statue.
“They’re not the real Kyoshi Warriors!” she explained. The Earth King gasped and Mai smiled grimly.
“Sorry to disappoint you.” She flung three knives at Toph, who created a shield of earth. She then kicked the shield towards Mai, but the knife-thrower jumped out of the way. Once she landed Toph knocked her down, shifting the earth under her feet.
Meanwhile Ty Lee snuck up at Sokka, giggling. The Water Tribe warrior heard her and ducked in time to avoid being paralysed. Ty Lee continued to chase him around the room, still laughing.
“Ooo, it’s like we’re dancing together,” she giggle excitedly.
“This fight is over,” Azula suddenly said. She had entered the room unseen and taken the Earth King captive.
Sokka and Toph raised their hands in surrender, frowning. Ty Lee jumped between them and disabled them. Momo tried to fly away, but a Dai Li saw him and trapped him in a stone glove. Azula pushed the Earth King away.
“Get them all out of my sight,” she ordered.
Katara had calmed down considerably, now that she had vented her bottled-up frustration out.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you before,” she said a little shamefully.
“It doesn’t matter,” Zuko assured her softly. But Katara wanted to explain.
“It’s just that for so long now, whenever I would imagine the face of the enemy, it was your face, and now I realise that Azula’s would be much more suitable.” Zuko drew away from her, a hand covering self-consciously his scar.
“My face. I see,” he murmured. Katara’s eyes widened in realisation.
“No, no, that’s not what I meant,” She said hastily.
“It’s ok,” Zuko said in a flat voice. “I used to think this scar marked me. The mark of the banished prince, cursed to chase the Avatar forever. But lately, you’ve helped me realize that I’m free to determine my own destiny, even if I’ll never be free of my mark.” A thought crossed Katara’s mind.
“Maybe you could be free of it,” she said hesitantly.
Zuko spun to meet her eyes.
“What?” he asked hopefully.
“I have healing abilities,” the waterbender reminded him. He shook his head.
“It’s a scar,” He said bitterly. “It can’t be healed.” Katara reached and took out the vial her waterbending master had given her before she had left the Northern Water Tribe.
“This is water from the Spirit Oasis at the North Pole,” she explained. “It has special properties, so I have been saving it for something important. I don’t know if it would work, but…” She stepped closer to him, a hand lightly touching the scar. Zuko exhaled softly, before searching her eyes.
“Would you waste it on me?” he asked her.
“I don’t consider it a waste,” Katara said, as if reprimanding him. “But yes, if you want, we can give it a try.”
Zuko was torn. To be rid of his scar would be a dream come true. But Azula was here and it was only a matter of time before a battle broke out. A vial of magic water would be of greater use if someone was wounded. So he shook his head.
“Maybe it would be better if you kept it for now, just in case,” he told her. Katara smiled at him. She couldn’t help but feel proud for her boyfriend right now. She hid the vial again.
“Just so you know,” She told him. “I think you look more handsome with the scar.” Zuko smiled back.
“You’re certainly the first,” he told her, leaning in.
“I’m obviously the only girl around using her eyes.” She stood on her tiptoes, in anticipation for the kiss. A kiss that soon grew passionate, as Zuko pulled her body close to his own, his hand playing with her hair.
Then an explosion was heard near them. Katara curled instinctively against Zuko, as he embraced her even more tightly. Out of the dust Aang and Iroh appeared, both looking a little bit shocked on finding the two teens wrapped around each other, blushing.
“Aang!” Katara exclaimed, quickly moving away from her boyfriend. She hurried to the Avatar’s side and hugged him briefly. Iroh was doing the same to Zuko, but the prince was only aware of the airbender glaring at him.
“Aang, I knew you would come,” Katara said smiling to her friend as she drew away.
“Someone had to save you,” he told her smiling proudly. Zuko snorted, but his uncle’s warning glance silenced him.
“Zuko, it’s time we talked,” he said sternly before turning to Katara and Aang. “Go help your other friends. We’ll catch up with you.” Aang hurried back to the tunnel, and Katara followed slowly. At the entrance she turned to look longingly to Zuko. He caught her eyes for a few moments, before turning to his uncle.
Iroh seemed to be measuring him, a look Zuko realised he had seen before, whenever an important decision would follow.
“Why uncle?” he asked hurt. Why do you still not trust me?
“You are not the man you used to be, Zuko. You are stronger and wiser and freer than you have ever been. And now you have come to the crossroads of your destiny. It’s time for you to choose. It’s time for you to choose good!” Iroh said. Zuko closed his eyes. There was no decision to be made now. He had made his decision a long time ago. Before he could tell his uncle that, the crystals erupted, trapping the old man. Zuko turned to a fighting position, as Azula and two agents approached.
“I expected this kind of treachery from uncle, but Zuko, prince Zuko…you’re a lot of things, but you’re not a traitor, are you?” she said plainly.
“Release him immediately!” he demanded angrily. Azula continued ignoring her brother’s words.
“It’s not too late for you Zuko. You can still redeem yourself.”
“The kind of redemption she offers is not for you,” Iroh interrupted.
“Why don’t you let him decide, uncle?” Azula said annoyed. She could definitely do without his interruptions. “I need you Zuko,” she continued on a softer voice. “I’ve plotted every move of this day. This glorious day in Fire Nation history. And the only way we win is together. At the end of this day, you will have your honour back. You will have your father’s love. You will have everything you want.”
“Zuko, I am begging you, look into your heart and see what it is that you truly want,” Iroh said quietly. Azula waved the agents away and moved towards the tunnel Aang and Katara had disappeared into.
“You’re free to choose,” she called over her shoulder.
As soon as she was out of earshot Zuko turned to his uncle, his face resolute. He conjured a flame in his hand and moved closer to the crystal. With a look of deep concentration he began melting it. Noticing Iroh’s pleasantly surprised expression he smiled grimly.
“You really thought I would betray Katara?” he asked. Before Iroh had a chance to answer, another voice was heard.
“I for one didn’t.” Lia stepped out of the shadows. She had arrived right on time to listen to the confrontation between the two royal siblings. She moved near the two men, motioning to Zuko to step back.
“This is going to take a while,” she said pointing at the half melted crystal.
“You need to go and help the others. I’ll take it from here.” Zuko nodded and hurried after his sister. Right before he disappeared at the tunnel he thought he heard his uncle’s voice.
“I’m really proud of him.”
“Me too,” Lia said,
Aang and Katara were running franticly towards the waterfall. They had to stop Azula and the Dai Li before it was too late.
“We’ve got to find Sokka and Toph,” Katara said worried to Aang. Before he could answer blue fire erupted in front of them, forcing them to an abrupt halt. Aang caught most of the impact and was knocked back. Katara called a wave from the river and sent it against Azula. The princess deflected it, but Katara attacked again, this time with a wave that Azula evaporated. Steam covered the battlefield for a few moments.
Suddenly two balls of blue fire came from one of the largest crystals. Aang and Katara bended a shield of water. Azula jumped and landed to another rock. Aang sent a shockwave on it, causing the princess to lose her balance. Paling a little, Azula jumped and landed between the waterbender and the Avatar. Taking a defensive stance she waited nervously for their next move.
Before anyone had a chance to move a blast of red fire landed between Aang and Azula. They both turned to see Zuko in a firebending stance. He was in the simple clothes he wore under his robe. His gaze slipped from his sister to Aang and finally Katara. The waterbender seemed the only one to have guessed which side he was taking. Ending the standstill, Zuko sent another steam of fire against his shocked sister.
At the prison Sokka watched suspiciously through the small window of the cell he, Toph, Momo and the Earth King were in. The corridor was empty.
“See any Dai Li agents nearby?” Toph asked.
“Nope,” he answered. “All clear.”
Toph moved from the wall she had been leaning in. She cracked her knuckles once and then metalbended the door, tearing it from its hinges. She ran out, followed by Momo while Sokka dragged the Earth King.
“I’m not leaving without Bosco!” the king cried as they ran.
Zuko continued shooting fire at his sister and she continued blocking each shot. Katara noticed Azula standing on some water. She gathered it with a sharp movement, causing the princess to trip and lose her balance. Zuko stole an impatient glance towards the tunnel. Where were Iroh and Lia?
“We need to get out of here!” Aang said nervously. The other two nodded and started to slowly back towards the waterfall.
Before they had a chance to move much the ground erupted under their feet. Katara was flung to the crystals behind them and knocked out cold. Zuko made a movement to attack his sister, but Aang stopped him.
“No! Go check on Katara!” Zuko opened his mouth to retort and promptly closed it as they were forced to duck another attack from the Dai Li that had just arrived. Without another comment he raced on Katara’s side. Aang focused again on Azula.
The princess smiled smugly and launched another attack to the Avatar. Aang airbended himself out of danger and landed behind her. He tried to surprise Azula with a waterwhip, but she dodged with her fire and attacked again. Aang made the crystals in front of him rise and shielded himself. Stealing a glance he saw Zuko standing in front of Katara, blasting away the rocks Dai Li sent against them.
Katara came back to consciousness and immediately called water to her forming a ring of watery tendrils around her and Zuko. He studied her stance for a few seconds before turning his back on her and mimicking. A second ring with eight fiery tentacles joined the one made of water forcing the Dai Li to back away a few steps. However they kept coming and the teens were tiring quickly.
“There’s too many,” Aang whispered desperately. Suddenly Guru Pathik’s words rang to his ears. The only way, is to let her go. The Avatar closed his eyes sadly.
“I’m sorry Katara.”
Turning his back to everyone and bended a small tent of crystals around him. He sat down and started mediating. Outside the battle came once again to a standstill. Azula took involuntary a step back as the small crystal tent began to glow. Katara smiled relieved as Aang hovered in the Avatar State. It was a short-lived relief. A flash of lightning shined and Aang writhed in pain as Azula’s shot hit him in the back.
Katara felt the tears run freely down her face as she watched her friend fall helplessly. She gathered all her water in a massive wave and holding Zuko tightly by the arm she sped towards the rapidly falling boy. Zuko caught Aang mid-air and passed him hurriedly to Katara as he stood between them and his sister and agents.
Before Azula had a chance to move a fireblast landed in front of her as Iroh and Lia appeared in the cave.
“You’ve got to get out of here! I’ll hold them off as long as I can!” Iroh called at the teenagers before attacking the Dai Li. Lia was already fighting with Azula. Deflecting a blast she looked inside the younger girl’s eyes searching for something, anything that would prove her theory wrong. Fierce gold glared back at her.
“You hope to stare me to defeat?” Azula smiled grimly. Lia blinked twice. She had been concentrating so hard she had forgotten she was actually fighting. Steadily she pushed the Fire princess away from the waterfall where Katara and Zuko were struggling to get Aang.
“No,” she said coldly to the other girl. “I’m giving you a warning. Don’t you dare come near my brother again.” A flash passed from Azula’s eyes and for a moment Lia saw a pair of much more ruthless and ancient golden eyes glare back at her.
“Your brother…” the princess whispered in strange voice. But before anything else could happen Lia had raced to the other end of the cave (in a speed that would challenge even Aang) and was flying after her friends. She gave one last look behind her shoulder to see Iroh surrendering.
They had stopped for as little time as possible to their apartments to gather some basic necessities. Zuko had nearly raced back to the catacombs when he realised that his uncle had been captured. It had taken Lia, Toph and a Katara close to tears to dissuade him from going. All of them where now on Appa, leaving the fallen city of Ba Sing Se behind them. Katara laid Aang gently on Appa’s back and took out the vial with the Spirit water. She sent a small guilty look at Zuko next to her who was sitting at the front, steering Appa. He had declined her offer fearing something like that would have happened. Sighing she reached and placed the small amount of water on Aang’s wound. It shone brighter than she had ever seen before as the healing took effect. Aang’s tattoos glowed and he opened his eyes for a few seconds. Katara smiled down at him, relieved he was still with them. As Aang fell back to unconsciousness she shifted him so he could safely rest, his head on her lap, while rested against Zuko. The firebender wrapped an arm around her, pulling her closer to him. The last thing Katara heard before sleep claimed her too was the Earth King’s words.
“The Earth Kingdom…has fallen.”
***End of Book 2 – Earth***