AN: For this, Im gonna go with something sad. Beethovens Moonlight Sonata or the Sacrifice suite from the BtVS soundtrack. Anything that makes you sigh.
Epilogue Beginning of the End
Eeow! This tea is nothing more than hot leaf juice!
Of all the things he could have complained about, somehow it didnt surprise Song that it was the tea that upset Iroh.
She swallowed with difficulty. It truly was awful tea.
Uncle, thats what all tea is.
It also didnt surprise her that Zuko still couldnt distinguish between the former and the latter. Mind you, his tea was typically so bitter it could turn your face inside out.
How can a member of my own family say something so horrible? Iroh hurled the tea out of one of the front windows. Well have to make some major changes around here.
A girl appeared in the doorway of the teashop, a crooked smile on her face and an apron over her arm. Her dark hair was coiled in a bun at the back of her head and secured with a set of three well worn hairpins, each with a small wooden flower at each end. Two had seed pearls missing from their petals. Song noted her eyes as the light caught them; hazel, the left with the tiniest fleck of blue at the outer iris.
Watch it with the hot leaf juice there, she said, smiling now at Iroh and flicking tea leaves from one corner of her uniform.
My apologies, Iroh said, beaming. He bowed. I am Mushi; this is my nephew, Lee and our traveling companion, Song.
Nice to meet you all. Im Paos waitress, Aneko.
Song watched as Aneko took them in. She never hesitated over Zukos scar, but her eyes flickered curiously when she say the faint sadness in Songs. This girl was perceptive.
Youre new to Ba Sing Se, right?
Iroh nodded gravely. We are.
Those terribly perceptive eyes took them in for a second time as she went about pulling chairs down from tables and laying out teacups. The crooked smile came back.
Youll be fine, she reassured them. Its good that youve got jobs now. And once you get settled, the citys not so bad.
Zuko spoke for the first time, his face and voice sullen. Sure, he muttered, Because everyones so safe in Ba Sing Se.
Aneko paused, gazing at him, suddenly serious. Only fools and children really believe that, she said carefully. You dont look like a fool and none of us are children anymore. She exhaled sharply and went back to the teacups. Youll want to put a lid on the attitude too; the Dai Li dont take too kindly to that kind of talk.
Song tilted her head, curiosity getting the better of her. Whore the Dai Li
And so, it began.
It was ending.
Jins hood covered her face, shielding the world from her gimleted eyes as she stood guard in the hallway of Songs apartment building. In her hands the little jade fox turned over and over, over and over, while silently Jins worries did the same in her mind.
It was ending.
Dear spirits, please let me be doing the right thing
With quick, efficient movements, Aneko picked up an under blouse, folded it and laid it in the bag beside a pile of other clothes. Across the room, Song was going through her closet, pulling things out and throwing them on the bed to be packed. When she suddenly stilled, Aneko looked up and followed her gaze.
She was staring at a pair of new traveling boots. Aneko went to her, standing close and taking the other girls hand. She was still holding Zukos dagger. Song spoke.
Id forgotten I had them, she murmured. I bought them our second day here. I thought I thought maybe we wouldnt be staying long, that I should have a pair just in case. She turned to look at Aneko. I suppose Ill need them now, wont I?
Aneko nodded. Brave girls wear boots, she said without thinking.
Oh. She shook her head. It was just something my mom told me, before we moved to Ba Sing Se. I had to wear boots for the journey, when Id never really owned a pair before. Mom told me we were going on an adventure and that
that brave girls had to wear boots to go on adventures.
Song smiled briefly, then held up the dagger in her open palm, looking down at it with shuttered eyes.
Do you think Uri will be okay?
Aneko closed the other girls fingers over the dagger.
I hope so.
She ran as hard and as fast as she could. Her feet beat against the road in time to her heartbeat, in time to the blood pounding in her ears, in her wrists and throat, in time with the rage coursing through her.
When she could stand no more, when the angry tears began, she threw back her ragged head and screamed once to the cold stars overhead.
Idiot for running, idiot for coming, idiot for staying. Idiot for loving them, for thinking him a brother. Idiot, idiot, idiot, oh Zuko you utter fool
how could he have done this. How could he have let this happen?
Zukos our friend. We trusted him and now hes decided hes just going to abandon us (and Iroh!) to follow this will-o-the-wisp, wild hog-monkey chance of capturing the Avatar. The Avatar for crying out loud!
She flew into her and Anekos apartment, furiously swiping away her tears. Dee-Dee came to meet her, meowing plaintively. She spared him a quick pat and a handful of dried meat before whirling away into her bedroom, throwing clothes haphazardly into her old satchel.
He wants to go home, Uri, and he sees capturing the Avatar as the return ticket.
Thats it though! This is home now Im happy here, why cant he be?
Jin had said they werent safe here anymore. Uri knew it was true, had helped to explain it to the other girls. Azula was vindictive, always had been, had been trained to be that way ever since she was small
and Iroh had said it himself; Song was important to Zuko, they all were, and if Azula thought she could get even a small reaction out of her brother by hurting his friends she wouldnt hesitate.
Because theres a crucial difference between you and Zuko; you ran away, but he was banished. Boiled down, you chose this
Yes, he chose. Chose to help Azula murder the Avatar; murder Aang, who had been twelve, with grey eyes and a sheepish smile and the hope of the world on his shoulders. And yet stupidly, Uri thought of Zuko, thought of him pandering to his sisters destruction and all she wanted to do was protect him.
A flash of something crossed her eyes; a memory older than the ones that had touched her in her anger.
She remembered being twelve, being even smaller than she was now and terrified yet determined as she crept through the bamboo scaffolding of the amphitheatre. Above her, the crowd had roared with some emotion she couldnt identify. She had crawled until shed seen a pair of boots she recognized. Her fathers as he sat with that man, that Admiral who had come to see them. He had looked at her and nodded at her father, saying only, Shell do.
And now, here they were, to watch the royal Agni Kai. The prince, up against someone
no one had said who
All she had cared about was eavesdropping on her fathers plans for her after the Academy.
More roaring and ominous silence.
She heard the sound of a boys voice, though she couldnt make out his words. Then a man spoke and Uri peered, horrified, through the gaps in the seat covers.
Ozai looked down with cold eyes upon his kneeling son. You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher.
When the flames had burst to life, Uri had shut her eyes and covered her ears. She still heard him scream. Later, when she felt brave enough to open her eyes, Zuko had been a shivering creature upon the Agni Kai grounds, his uncle rushing to his side. Uri had looked away and into the face of Princess Azula.
All that could be seen
all that could be found on that girls face was cruelty and joy.
Here, now, Uri stepped away from the satchel on her bed and backed slowly out of her room. She lifted her wrist and stared unblinkingly at the pendant of yellow jade that rested, Dragon Blossom side up, upon her pulse point.
She had a plan.
For the first time since her family and its orphans had settled here, Ba Sing Se felt quiet to Aneko. There were no night markets, few teashops still open, many streets darkened without their lanterns lit. She wondered why for a moment before something occurred to her.
It had all been done on purpose. The authorities coordinating with the Dai Li. Keep them inside, they must have said. Its too dangerous to be out in the dark tonight, so dont light the lanterns, and dont allow any markets
keep them all inside
for their own safety.
It was only a very small movement, barely perceptible in the dark, but Aneko felt her lip curling in barely restrained disgust.
Turning her gaze away from the darkened city, she took in her companions as they were upon the station platform. Song stood a little way away with Shan, her forehead bowed to his chest, his arms holding her against the horrors tonight had brought. The already angular plains of the healers face where made harsher by his solemn expression. Beside Aneko stood Jin; both girls were black-eyed in the near-lightless night, sisters shoulder to shoulder in their deep grey cloaks and stone-carved expressions.
Still, it was Aneko who first spotted Uri.
She came bounding up the station steps, only one bag bouncing upon her shoulder and no Dee-Dee in sight. If that alone hadnt been enough to set off a warning bell, Uris face did it.
Somethings wrong, she whispered.
Jins head snapped around, predator look back in place. Before she could ask, Uri was in front of them, Song and Shan following. Uri eyed the healer.
Hi, whatre you doing here? she asked. Tact of a sledgehammer.
Shans helping. Hes acting as an escort to get us out of the city. He knows people who can help us get away. Her eyes narrowed at the little firebender. Whats happened? Whats wrong?
Uri ducked her head taking a few shuddering breaths. She looked up again. Im not going with you.
Song made a sound of pain. There was a sharp inhalation that came from Jin. Aneko felt the blood drain from her face.
I have to stay, Uri told them, determination gathering in her face. Even though even though he helped Azula even though he helped her kill Aang
Her breath hitched. Hes still hes still someone I care about and I I dont believe he did it without some sort of reason, however stupid or foolish or
She choked and seemed unable to continue.
Without speaking, Aneko took both Uris hands in her own. Uri kept going.
Zukos a boy. Hes not as bright as us. Hell hell need to be protected, even if its only from himself. Thats why Im staying. She shook her head, black bangs flying. Dont argue with me on this, guys.
Aneko felt her throat close, thickening with tears. Her breath rattled and she gasped softly. This couldnt be happening. Her best friend
But it was happening, it was happening right now, and it had to happen, because Uri was right; Zuko wasnt as bright as he should have been. He was a boy. He was damaged. He wanted things, things that clouded his judgement, would make him vulnerable. And even though it hurt
She moved forward, wrapping her arms as tightly around the smaller girl as she could. She felt Uri hug her back. There was a soft blur of movement and then Song was there at Anekos left side, her arms around both of them. Jin was next to Anekos right. They bent forward over Uri, Jin and Songs foreheads touching, forming an arch of warmth.
They stayed like that for what felt like an eon and no time at all. Tears ran down every cheek. Every third breath was ragged. Though it remained unsaid, each knew that something someone was missing.
Be safe, Song whispered.
Be careful, Jin added.
Be brave, Aneko finished.
As the train pulled in, Uri handed Aneko her bag. Aneko wordlessly took one of her three hairpins, the one with the red coral centre, from her hair. Uris hair was still too short and ragged for pins, so Aneko tucked it through the collar of her tunic. It sat like a broach, its seed pearl petals winking in the starlight. It looked like it belonged there.
She leant forward, pressing a kiss to the little firebenders forehead.
Well find you, she breathed. Promise.
And then, in a whirl of dark cloth and whispers, they departed.
It was late when she finally got back to the apartment.
Dazed, she moved through its rooms. Nothing had sunk in. Not really.
Silently, she began packing things, digging out the packing crates from the communal storage down the hall. She put away the rest of Anekos things, labeling each crate with her parents address. In one, she wrote a short letter of explanation, hid it in Anekos jewelry box and buried it deep in a stack of winter clothing. They would be sent tomorrow, if she had time.
She packed her own as well, leaving out enough to pack into her satchel and to change into the next morning.
Upon the stripped mattress, Uri curled up with her puma and waited for sunrise.
In the early hours of the morning they moved through the city.
Shadows cast by the watered sunlight hid the litter, the curled shapes of the homeless and the beggars who crouched waiting in the alcoves and closed doorways. What little foot traffic there was parted for them, eyes darting away from the scared boy in a waiters uniform and his silent Dai Li escort.
They had moved steadily down from the middle ring, and since then, Zuko had been a creature of great and terrible rage.
Song wasnt there. The apartment had been empty of human life, and Song had been gone along with a comparative scattering of her possessions. Her clothes
her treasure chest
He wondered if shed found his note. He wondered how she would react when she found out. He wondered if she would hate him for what hed done.
As he knocked hard on Uri and Anekos door, he comforted himself with the rage, the thought that if anyone had taken her, harmed her, there would be hell to pay and he would be the one to extract payment. He waited for someone to answer, waiting minutes, then beat upon the door again, calling, Uri! Aneko! Open up, guys!
From inside he heard soft shuffling, almost inaudible footsteps. The door slide wide and there was Uri, wild-haired and rumpled in yesterdays clothes.
When she looked at him, he felt something curl up inside him and shake.
Wheres Song? he asked.
She gazed back at him, and he saw her own anger moving like a ghost behind her eyes. Gone, she said.
Gone where, Uri?
Away, somewhere. She shrugged. Somewhere safe. Away from Azula.
Zuko seethed. Uri, Azula isnt a threat anymore, she
Uri gave him a disbelieving look. Are you really that stupid, Zuko?
His fists clenched at his sides. He breathed hot gouts of steam from both nostrils and grit his teeth.
Just tell me where she is.
I dont know. I didnt ask and they probably wouldnt have told me if I had. You shouldnt worry. Anekos with her, and Jin and Shan. Shell be fine. Jin seemed to know what she was doing. Uris amber eyes inspected his face. She knew about us, you know? And Iroh. She didnt blame us for keeping secrets. She wanted to protect us girls even me, if Id let her.
Zuko felt his ire melt away, leaving incredulity in its wake.
you could have gone with them?
Uri nodded. He stared at her, perplexed.
Why stay, then?
She stared back at him, her expression inscrutable. I have something to take care of, she said softly.
He looked away, mind and reason scattering as he wondered what to do. There was little point in going after Song if
a fist closed around his heart
if she was afraid of him. A little voice called from far away inside him, and said, yet everything youve done, you did to protect her.
Never give up without a fight.
This time he had to.
He found Uris eyes again. Come back with me, he said earnestly, to the Fire Nation. We can
we can finally go home.
Zuko. She let out a rough sigh and dragged one small hand through her short hair. Its not
its not my home anymore. Besides, if I do go back my father with just trap me again and force me through some farce of a marriage
Zuko shook his head. No, no he wont. I wont let him. You can stay at the palace and he wont be able to get you and
and I wont allow him to marry you off. He gripped her shoulders, smiling for the first time in twenty-four hours. I can do all that now, Uri. I I have it back. My honour as a prince is restored.
She stared at him with flat eyes before nodding slowly.
Okay, she said softly. Just let me get my things.