AN: While you read this, listen to something epic.
Chapter Six Signs of Separation
I said no.
Song watched the hurt enter Jets dark eyes just as the temper entered Zukos brilliant ones. Too similar, she thought, too stubborn.
Fine, have it your way.
They watched Zuko stride away, Jet bitterly, and Song turned back to the others, a sigh and an apology on her lips.
Im sorry guys, hes just
In a dizzy instant, Jets hand was gripping her wrist, fingers white-knuckled. The pain was blunt and immediate. Dread pooling in her stomach, Song followed his gaze. Zuko stood berating Iroh, who wore a woebegone expression. A teacup lay on the stone floor. The liquid spreading around it was still steaming.
Song, Jet was hissing urgently. Song, dont go. Dont go with them, theyre firebenders! Theyve lied to you; youre in danger, you
Know exactly where this is going.
With uncharacteristic violence she wrenched her wrist from his grip and glowered at him, feeling fierce for the first time in what felt like an age.
No, she snapped, and ignored the way he flinched. No, Im not in danger. Not from them. Theyve never, ever hurt me or treated me disrespectfully, or lied to me!
No strictly true, but
All that theyve done
theyve done to protect me.
Still filled with bubbling emotion, she stalked away, rubbing her wrist and hoping she wouldnt bruise. But later, as they boarded the train, the rage had boiled away to anxiety, and with good reason; a chance, a random glance, and she spotted them. One carriage down, through a brief gap in the seething crowd, there were Jet and Longshot and Smellerbee. Jet was watching them watching Zuko his dark eyes burning, even as the crowd closed around them.
Fear rippled through Song, and without thinking, she reached down and gripped Zukos hand. He frowned down at her.
But all she could do was wordlessly shake her head and shiver as the train pulled away, towards the Impenetrable City.
They sat upon the steps of the Jasmine Dragon, an untidy gaggle of girls cluttered around a small teapot on an equally small burner, casually drinking tea and ruining their dinner with the leftovers from the Dragons opening day. It was a truly blissful way to spend an afternoon.
Aneko stretched her arms up over her head, sighing, and murmured, Do you guys remember what he was like, when he first got here?
The other girls looked at her, varying smiles on their faces. There was never any question as to who he was. It was Jin who spoke first.
He was so awkward
didnt have a clue when it came to girls. I wondered, she added, turning to look at Aneko and Song, how he managed working with you two.
Badly, Aneko put in, then laughed.
Two steps up and to her left, Song smiled into her teacup and said, ever so softly, He struggled, every day, but he never gave up.
Not without a fight, Uri added, rolling her eyes as she remembered the furtive training sessions between herself, Zuko and Iroh. Oh, the explosions
it was a miracle nothing had burnt down.
Her companions laughed, all thinking along similar lines. As they did, far away, a wall was blown out in the side of the imperial palace, emitting one firebender when there should have been two.
Zuko had indeed changed, but as the girls were to discover, he hadnt changed that much.
He was still a stubborn idiot.
Youre so dramatic. What are you going to do, challenge me to Agni Kai?
Yes! I challenge you! And this time
this time Ill win
I am sooo tired.
Aneko gave Uri a sidelong look before rolling her eyes and bumping her shoulder against the other girls as they ambled through the streets towards their apartment.
Me too, she said softly. I wonder if itll be as busy again tomorrow
Uri shot her a flat look. Are you kidding me? People will know about the place now; itll be twice as busy. She moaned again. Ohh and we start doing nights next week
Im doomed, doomed! Ill have rice flour under my nails forever!
A brief tickle fight broke out when Uri waggled the offended (and offending) digits in Anekos face. When they had broken apart and stood giggling and gasping a safe three feet from each other, Aneko, between pants, heard an odd noise. It came from a roof several buildings behind them and was moving steadily back the way they had come. A rattle, several uneven clicks, the clinking of ceramic on ceramic
a grunt and a soft impact, and then the noises began again.
Trying to pinpoint the source, Aneko thought that perhaps
perhaps it sounded like someone running over the roofs
At that moment, Uri made a soft sound of surprise and Aneko turned in time to see Iroh barreling down the street towards them at a speed rather shocking for a man of his age and stature, steam spilling from his nostrils and a look of grim determination setting his features.
The former General said nothing, simply charged between the girls, leaving them squeaking in surprise as his passing threw up a small cloud of beige dust.
Was that ?
Holy Shu !
I think wed better
Go, yes, yes, Im right behind you!
They took off, pelting after Iroh only to stop short, shocked and horrified, when they came around the corner.
Standing in the street, facing off against a grimacing Iroh was a
Dai Li! gasped Aneko.
Doomed! wailed Uri.
Mud! crowed Aneko, eyes fixed upon a wide and still spreading puddle of it where a down pipe had come loose.
The edge of the puddle touched the agents feet
and Aneko stepped into a stance, throwing her hands up joyously while simultaneously throwing the startled agent into a wall with an infant tsunami of sludge. He hit the wall, very nearly bounced, and lay in the stinking filth with a wide crack spreading from the centre of his helmet to both front and rear brims.
There was a moment of echoing quiet, the only sounds that of water running from the down pipe and the distant, dulled roar of temporarily absent foot traffic.
Very slowly, Iroh dropped out of his stance, and turned to face them. If the girls hadnt been so stunned, they might have found his expression funny; his mouth open in blatant shock.
Uri was the first to recover. She twinkled the fingers of one hand at the General.
Um, hi. Fancy seeing you here.
Let me get this straight, Aneko said, panting a little as she jogged steadily beside Uri and Iroh, the latter with the bound and gagged Dai Li agent across his shoulders. Zukos nutjob little sister is here in Ba Sing Se and secretly using the Dai Li for whatever reason and when you went to serve the Earth King tea, not only was there no Earth King, but Azula was there, and she managed to capture Zuko?
Yes, came the succinct response.
Iroh cut her a sidelong look. You dont believe me?
Oh I believe you; its just that my sense of reality is struggling to catch up. Aneko glowered at the horizon as they ran ever closer to the upper ring of the City. I mean, I know about the war. Im not one of the bleating sheep-pigs that were born here believing they were safe from the world. So, two fugitive firebenders I can understand; I can even wrap my mind around then being the brother and banished son of the Firelord
but his scheming, twisty, hella-awesome-bender daughter? Here, running my homes cultural protection society? Thats pretty epically
Off the map? Uri offered.
for me anyway. Although, strangely, Zooks getting himself captured doesnt surprise me at all
speaking off, she added, eyes narrowing. Why are Uri and I still here?
Uri stopped running. What?
Aneko and Iroh were half a step behind her. Aneko sighed. Dont be angry okay, but seriously, we shouldnt be here.
If looks could have killed, (and Uri couldve bent lightning with her eyes) Aneko would have been a pile of smoldering ashes. Are you saying we shouldnt help? she snarled.
No, Im saying we cant. Aneko shook her head slowly. It may have escaped your attention, Uri (although I dont see how), but we pretty much suck. I have the combat training of your average fig and can only bend mud, which, it being summer, is in very short supply; and even if you do have the training
I do, thank you very much.
Even so, all you can do is throw sparks and breathe hot air. What would you do in a fight exactly? Bake for them until they lapsed into a collective food-coma? She ran one had through her already distrait and muddy hair. Its not that I dont want to, but wed be more hindrance than help. There has to be someone more capable who can rescue Zuko.
And get Azula out of here, Iroh added. She cannot be allowed to subjugate the Earth Kingdom capital.
Exactly. I mean, if we could just alert the authorities
tell the police
Oh come on, Neko, Uri burst out. Shes got the Dai Li dancing like her personal puppet army and the Dai Li own the police; they are the policing force around here.
But we know them, Aneko appealed. We know the guys down at the forty-third lower ring precinct. Theyre our neighbours, our friends. Surely
Surely sure theyd laugh their butts off when we try and convince them their country has been at war with mine for the past one hundred years, Uri responded sourly. And even if that works, do you really think theyd go in for helping a firebender, her mudbending roommate and the General who once tried to take this City over rescue the banished Fire Prince? No, theyd throw Iroh and I in chains, try and go after Azula and get themselves nailed.
Face it, Neko, we have to go. Its us or no one.
Thats not necessarily true, Iroh interjected mildly.
Uri and Aneko turned from each other to blink at him.
Who? Aneko asked softly.
Youve got company.
I dont believe it
Iroh did know someone. And yet, his waitress and baker failed to be impressed.
The Avatar, for spirits sake, Uri muttered.
She and Aneko were loitering upon said persons porch while Iroh was inside attempting to convince said person to assist them. Between them sat the Dai Li agent, still bound and gagged, and now coming round. As the dazed look faded from his eyes, horror took its place. Neither girl could find the emotional energy or motivation to feel sorry for him.
I know, Aneko chimed in. Gee, theyve only been hunting his sorry butt across the world for the past how many months now? We are beyond screwed. She put her cheek on her fist, disconsolately watching a small flock of sparrowkeets take noisy dust bathes on the footpath.
It was then that the door opened and Iroh emerged with three kids; a Water Tribe boy, a girl in an apprentice earthbenders tunic and
And the Avatar.
While Aneko made introductions Hi, Im Aneko, this is Uri, nice to meetcha. Uri scrutinized him closely. Even as young as he was, probably no more than thirteen, he was taller than her (though that wasnt hard). He still had that gawky look of children not long into adolescence, though he hid it well, moving with an almost inherent grace which she put down to his bending training. What really drew the eye to him, however were his airbenders tattoos, the bold lines of blue showing coolly against the warmth of his skin, and his own eyes; large, grey and at this point tightened at the corners with some inner turmoil that made Uri instinctively nervous.
Then she recognized the little earthbender and forgot all about being nervous.
Holy Ancestors, she said faintly. Its the Blind Bandit.
The Bandits milky eyes turned to fix unerringly on Uris left ear. You know me? The suspicion in her voice was sharp.
Well, yeah, Uri piped, to the shock of her boss and her best friend. I was at Earth Rumble this year. You totally rocked! Well, up until that little twerp in the stupid hat showed up. But I totally think you should have won that round!
The Water Tribe boy suddenly guffawed into one fist while tiny Toph Bei Fong, the only person present who was shorter than Uri, rewarded the firebender with a huge grin before turning and squarely punching the blushing Avatar in the shoulder. Hear that, Twinkle Toes?
The Avatar nodded, rubbing his shoulder, then hastily changed the subject. Um, shouldnt we talk to the guy
Toph pulled a few sweet moves and neatly trapped the agent between slabs of stone. Iroh removed the agents gag, showing the scar down his left cheek. To their collective surprise, he didnt even take convincing.
Azula and Long Feng are plotting a coup. Theyre going to overthrow the Earth King.
Anekos hazel eyes hardened. Uri reached out and put one small hand on her friends arm. Beside them, the Water Tribe boy abruptly became a warrior, pointing his machete at the agent.
My sister! he snarled. Where are they keeping Katara?
In the crystal catacombs of old Ba Sing Se, deep beneath the palace. But, he added, watching them with a face caught between caution and earnestness, you should know, she knows youll come for the girl. Shell be waiting for you.
Something dark came into Aangs eyes. Uri felt a thrill of true fear move up her spine and the day suddenly felt colder.
Im counting on it, he murmured.
Youre a terrible person, you know that? Always following us, hunting the Avatar, trying to capture the worlds last hope for peace! But what do you care? Youre the Fire Lords son. Spreading war and violence and hatred is in your blood.
No, no, no
its not true. Jets not right. Im not a monster. I never killed children, I never killed anyone
You dont know what youre talking about.
I dont!? How dare you! You have no idea what this war has put me through. Me personally. The Fire Nation took my mother away from me.
no, just like Song. Just like Song.
Im sorry. Thats something we have in common.
Well, whaddya know, Toph told them, smiling. There is an ancient city down there, but its deep.
Aneko watched the younger girl with interest. How did you do that?
Im made of awesome, Toph said, her smile graduating into a grin. I can feel the vibrations that carry through the earth. Its how I see. She waggled one small earthy foot at Aneko.
Wish I could do that, she whispered, half-smiling.
Why cant you learn?
Its a little complicated
Toph watched the older girl, head tilted to one side, a thoughtful expression on her face.
Toph? Aang called from beside the bison (whom Uri was currently cooing to while attempting to hug one of his massive legs.) Need help with the tunnel?
You wish, Twinkletoes. Aneko watched as the Bandit slipped effortlessly into a stance and pushed down, almost seeming to throw her meager weight against the earth below her. With a crash it gave way, forming the beginnings of a tunnel.
I want to be able to do that
and the intensity of the wanting surprised her.
We should split up. Aang, you go with Iroh to look for Katara and the angry jerk, Sokka was saying. No offense, he added to Iroh.
None taken, Iroh said while Uri detached herself from Appa and padded over, scrowly face firmly in place.
And Ill go with Toph to warn the Earth King about Azulas coup
What about me and Neko? Uri asked.
Sokka darted a look between the little firebender and the General. Uh, so Toph
Lets go, Snoozles.
The two of them beat a hasty retreat towards the palace proper. Aneko sighed. Aang was watching the two firebenders square off with alarm. He looked questioningly at Aneko, who rolled her eyes.
What about me, Iroh?
Iroh gazed at Uri silently for a moment. Song is alone, he said eventually. She is alone, unaware of the situation
and I would have her remain so for as long as possible.
Both girls did an abrupt double take. What?
Iroh closed his amber eyes briefly then opened them. He looked older for a moment, tired. She is important, dear, to all of us. I would not have her worry
His gaze sharpened, eyes narrowing. I would have her protected.
Who from? Aang asked, clearly bewildered.
Azula, Uri said through her teeth.
What threat would she be to Song, apart from the obvious oppression and conquering side of things? Aneko asked.
Song is important to Zuko, and Azula is
How do you know all this about her? Aang queried.
I went to school with her, Uri muttered. She flung herself forward suddenly, hugging Iroh. Be safe. And keep them safe.
I will. He looked past Uri, met Anekos hazel eyes. Be brave, my girls. Today is a big day, and its not over yet.
She put her hand on his scar, and with his eyes closed, he wished it were someone else.
Where are you, Song? What are you doing, right now?
Song was worried.
It was little over an hour since she had gotten home from the clinic, Shan sending her off to be home to celebrate with her adopted family. It bothered Song though; the healing master had been so tense, clearly worried over something that he would or could not tell his apprentice about. Song had tried to keep a clear head, to keep calm, and had mostly succeeded, but with Jin having been so
distracted today at lunch
That and the sun was sinking, and they werent home yet.
A primitive part of her mind was twitching and telling her that something was wrong. Without really thinking what she was doing, she got to her feet, leaving her tea to go cold on the table and padded into Zukos room.
She went for his spare pair of boots, but what she sought wasnt there. She searched for a few more minutes before giving up and going to her own room to find some other measure of comfort.
It was when she opened her treasure chest, the cherry wood glinting in the fading light, that she saw it.
There, resting upon the family documents and her grandmothers neatly folded wedding veil, between the story scrolls and her mothers betrothal gifts, surrounded by the scattered wooden animals
was Zukos pearl dagger.
Zuko, no! Think about what you are doing!
Im sorry Uncle. So very sorry. But I have to do this. This is the only way I can help her
He gazed back at the older man, and somehow, they both knew he wasnt talking about Azula.
Irohs eyes went dead, and Zuko looked away.
Slowly, with infinite care, she lifted the dagger from the chest; touching the beautifully tooled handle, the inset pearls
she drew it from its sheath to read the inscription
Never give up without a fight.
And blinked in surprise as a slip of paper fluttered down onto her lap. It must have been slipped in next to the blade. She unfolded it, read the two inscribed words
Songs hand went to her mouth. As she closed her eyes, a single tear slipped down her left cheek, catching the dying light once before falling away.
I thought you had changed!
I have changed!
I have, I have changed, I changed for her, Im sorry, Im sorry, I have to do this, I have to have the power
I have to keep her safe.
The living room door slid back and Ai Li stilled as she caught the expression on her daughters face.
Mom, Jin began softly, and then seemed unable to go on.
Ai Li looked down, lips parting in muted shock as her gaze came to rest on the scroll case in Jins left hand. With dread, she looked to her right hand. Peaking through Jins fingers was the head of a tiny jade fox.
You knew this day was coming.
Ai Li closed her eyes, clenched her fists, fought down the pain.
When her eyes opened, she smiled at her daughter and stood, murmuring, Ill help you pack, sweetheart.
I thought you said you knew a shortcut, Uri accused.
Anekos mouth thinned. I did know a shortcut, but evidently the earthbenders in this city have no consideration for public walkways.
They trotted in silence for a few minutes. First Uri, then Aneko slowed, stopping to gaze back in the direction of the palace.
I have a bad feeling.
Me too. Lets run, okay?
Together, they bolted towards the lower ring. Or at least, they bolted until they came around a corner and collided with someone in a travelers cloak.
After the resulting embarrassed scuffle, and once everyone was back on their feet, the traveler pulled back the hood on their cloak.
Is that a travel bag?
Aneko frowned, perplexed. Going somewhere?
Jins face was serious, taunt lines surrounding a mouth that was more apt at smiling and tensing usually mischievous eyes. The effect was unnerving to say the least.
She looked like a cornered predator.
We all are, she murmured.
Ill explain in a bit. In the meantime we have to get to Song.
As their friend darted into the gathering night, Aneko looked to Uri.
The voice was muffled, a shout transversing a door and two walls to reach her. With a start, she came back to herself; breath filling her body, sparks going off behind her eyes. The light was almost completely gone now, the sun having set and its last rays touching nothing but the underbellies of the lowest hanging clouds.
Oh, she whispered, and climbed quickly to her feet, rushing for the apartment door. In the unlit dark, she almost caught her feet twice on the living room rug.
Waiting for her, grim and worried faces all, were Aneko, Jin and Uri.
What..? She registered that Jin was wearing traveling clothes. Whats going on? Jin, where are you going?
Apparently, Uri interjected, were all going somewhere, but Jin has to explain first.
Jins expression hardened, but it was only as they seated themselves at Songs table that she began to speak. When she did, it wasnt much, but it definitely made her point.
The Earth Kingdom has fallen.
Are you insane?
What do you mean, fallen?
Jin sighed heavily. I have friends working up at the palace. Not even an hour ago I got a message from one of them telling me the Earth King has disappeared, as have the Council of Five and that
that theres been a coup. Princess Azula of the Fire Nation is here, and shes just killed the Avatar.
Song felt something twist inside her, writhing in pain and building horror.
I know you dont think theres any hope left in the world, but there is hope. The Avatar has returned
Jins jade eyes were focused on her, apology in every line of her face, which didnt make sense; she didnt know anything, not about Zuko or Iroh or how they could possibly be linked to the Fire Princess
She did it with the help of her brother
Jins eyes had tightened with such hurt. Either side of her, Uri and Aneko might as well have been statues.
I know who they are and who you are, Uri Jin whispered.
I know what youve all been keeping from me, though I dont blame you. She closed her green stone eyes. It was Zuko who rescued you from the fire, Song. It was Zuko who helped you fight off those bullies, Aneko. Uri, it was Zuko who kept your secret
And it was Zuko, who just helped destroy the last hope for peace this world has.
Everything Ive done
She opened her eyes, gazed at them one by one.
theyve done to protect me.
Get your things. We have to get out of this city.
Somewhere deep in Songs chest, the writhing thing went still and died.