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17 September 2010 @ 05:29 pm
[ a:tla fanfic // ashes, ashes ]  
Title: Ashes, Ashes
Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender [SPOILERS]
Rating: PG
Wordcount: ~2,600
Characters: Ty Lee, Zuko, Azula, Mai, Katara. Mai/Zuko, but also some varied subtext depending on which way you’re prone to squinting through your shipping goggles. I ship everybody with everybody, so.
Summary: Things go a little differently at the Boiling Rock. As it turns out, sometimes one choice can change everything. Then again, sometimes a different one can change it back again.

For softly_me and helplessdancer, the other two members of my own little Team Fire Nation. Many thanks to phoenix_singing for betaing this for me (and for putting up with the fact that I do things like stick my laptop in front of her and go “READ” when she is trying to watch a movie.)


You start making lists on the way home.

It's past midnight the day after the escape that you get a new balloon. You spend the impossibly long day between sitting on the rocky shores outside the wall. The water is warm there, but not boiling. The prison itself, even the wide and open parts, is so humid that it feels like swimming in sweat and it smells like almost-rotten eggs. You can't imagine how uncomfortable the guards are in their heavy armor.

You take some paper with you. You mean to draw Mai, but everything you try looks wrong. You crumple up each attempt and throw it into the ocean. Eventually you spread out a new, clean sheet. You mark it. You pause, think, mark it again. You open another new sheet. After staring at it for a full minute, you mark that one too.

You get on the balloon. You travel home. Nobody talks to you.

Azula is curious about the lists, but she thinks nothing of them. She probably assumes it’s a counting game you’re using to distract yourself. After all, the two scrolls only have singular marks on them (twenty-three on the first, two on the second) and she never gave you much credit where academics were concerned. Nevermind that your marks were always good - better than Mai’s, even, because she would get bored so fast and stare out the windows, twirling the brush like one of her knives, whereas you would turn it into a game, work at it until you sorted out how to play. Azula got better marks than both of you, but that didn’t really count. None of the teachers were about to tell Azula she was wrong. It was a testament to her natural intelligence that she learned anything at all.

But either way, you remind yourself, the fire nation princess is never wrong.

You look down at the second sheet, mark it a third time.

Azula is kind (by her standards, anyway) and terrifying by turns. She does not have it in her to be grateful, or even to appreciate your loyalty. It’s fear, you both know it, but it’s all the same to Azula so it may as well be all the same to you too. But she knows enough to know you could have chosen differently.

Her paranoia has climbed. However temporarily, she has doubts about you and she turns - as she always has - to fear in order to keep you contained. Fortunately for you, it isn’t long before she realizes that there is little point. If you couldn’t stand up to her then, there’s nothing left that will turn you against her.

Why bother, anyway? You were never really one for vengeance. You always only wanted to stand up, stand out, be glorious. The circus offered that, but it required no courage. You’d never thought about what was worth dying for and what wasn’t. How brave are you supposed to be when you're fourteen and unstoppable?

You wonder if you’d have been braver if you weren’t stuck on the ground, if you weren’t practically embedded in that damn stone at your feet.

*


She only screams once, and not loudly; she never really was the type to indulge in anything so rawly rooted in the the expression of sensation.

You can’t help but wonder if she ever had a chance to sleep with Zuko.

He can’t have heard her then, and somehow that makes it harder because you know that Zuko - angry, awkward, perpetually lost Zuko - would have been able to do what you couldn’t; it wouldn’t have even occurred to him not to.

You wonder if he knew, as all of you watched her set the trolly back in motion from high above the boiling lake, that he was seeing her for the last time. You wonder if he’d have turned around if he could, or if his newfound cause was more important. He’d already left her behind once, hadn’t he? He’d left you all behind.

You wonder what he’ll tell the Avatar. You wonder if he’ll guess. You wonder if it will change the way he feels about firebending. You wonder if he’ll lie awake at night, wondering what it felt like for her.

But you remember his scar - which has never marked him in your eyes until now - and you realize he doesn’t have to wonder. And when you weep then, great huge sobs choking on steam and terror and ash, your princess and her guards think it’s because your friend is dead in front of you.


*


It’s less than a month before you see Zuko again, but in those spare few weeks he leaves a destructive trail of fire across the nation named for it, venting his grief. There’d been something different about his bending at the Boiling Rock, he’d been calm and sure in a way you hadn’t seen. Now the fury that always used to drive him has returned, and it isn’t muddled up in confusion and shame. He looks ready to explode with it.

Azula is waiting for him.

She’s horrible and triumphant; past her paranoia and ready to ignore the yawning abyss below her own feet in order to use her brother’s grief against him. But she underestimated its magnitude and for a moment you forget the comet entirely, even as you realize they’ll burn the whole palace down.

He’s brought the water tribe girl with him. You wonder at that; you’re briefly furious with him for carnal sins your imagination draws up. How could the Zuko in your head betray her like that, when she’d only just died saving his life?

Azula’s drawn the same conclusion like a blade, and she’s ready to make him bleed with it. “Really, brother, I feel this is a step down for you. She’s not nearly as pretty as your last girlfriend. If you’d had the sense to stay, you could have at least had a concubine or something. Make sure you didn’t catch anything, screwing away your sorrows.”

He watches her, silent. He doesn’t flinch; you don’t know if he can beat her in battle but he’s beyond her snide remarks in a way he never had been before. The only person you knew who could ignore her like that was - well, was obvious. You can suddenly see Mai behind him in the shadows from the torches, that effortless mask, and your heart leaps even as you know it’s a lie.

You know Azula will see it too, that it will make her furious, but you can’t pull your eyes away from Zuko. You’re certain he only has eyes for her, but his gaze slides outward, over Lo and Li, and just for a moment you meet his eyes. You’re ready for almost anything - fury, betrayal, all the cracks and scorn he’s shrugged off at you before and after his banishment - but you don’t see your own reflection there, even in passing. Whether you’re the traitor or just the circus freak you’re merely incidental now, and after everything that still burns.

“Well, Brother?”

It’s a moment before Zuko replies, although the time you spend waiting for him to speak hovers without alternative, almost unnoticeable. “I challenge you to an Agni Kai.”

Azula is watching his eyes, so she doesn’t see it - you’re sure she doesn’t. You’re watching his mouth, so you do: the tiny glow between his teeth, the way it doesn’t fade as he inhales. He’s breathing fire, and neither of them seem to notice. Your gut clenches up, but it’s also a relief. This battle is inevitable, but its outcome isn’t.

Azula has always relished fighting Zuko, but much of that has always stemmed from a desire to humiliate him and the simple joy of fighting an opponent skilled enough to make her work for her victory but never skilled enough to take it from her. Now he has more motivation than she ever will. Both siblings loved Mai, but no matter how much more time Azula had with her or what might have been twisted up inside her head at the Boiling Rock, there’s no denying the spectrum between the the royal siblings as they prepare to square off. The ghost has chosen her side, and they both know it.

But she’s only a ghost, and that may not be enough to tip the balance. Not like...

Azula descends the steps to meet her brother on the battlefield. They stand facing one another. You’re almost surprised to notice the water tribe girl; you’d forgotten she was there until she says something softly to Zuko, touches his arm and steps away, back toward the bison. You wonder if you’ll have to fight her later. You haven’t fought anyone since it happened. You don’t know if you still can, if all that training hasn’t melted away since the one opening you didn’t take.

The prince and princess come together in mirror waves of fire that leave the skin on your face hot and stretched thin.

You think of your lists.

Twenty-three different moves you could have used that would have saved Mai.

Three that would have killed Azula.

All treason. All simple, full physical motion that would have saved her, even for a moment until the guards bore down on you both. It’s all very well to know what you might have done then, but what can you do now?

The guards and priests flee as the battle rages and the walls catch, but you stay. You’re able to dodge the flames so easily, so naturally, you practically don’t notice - no more than you would notice unbent earth, or water, or air. The fire’s always been there.

The water tribe girl has more trouble. For the first few minutes she’s able to stay more or less in the same place, near where the bison landed, but even though the castle - and especially the open courtyard - were designed to have as few flammable materials as possible in their construction, whoever built it didn’t exactly have Sozin’s comet in mind. Banners and beams go up and the fire spiders its way around you all, and the girl - is her name Katara? - is forced eventually to circle around and make her way up to the veranda you’ve been watching from.

You brace yourself - not for a fight, but for a rebuke. It isn’t long in coming. “Why are you still here?”

“Why are you?” You reply irritably, without turning to look at her.

“I meant why are you still with Azula, after what she did?” It’s phrased as a question, but you know perfectly well it’s an accusation.

“Where would I go?” You remember absently that this girl was the first to call you a circus freak after you came back to work for Azula. How would she even know? Is it just some singular, defining characteristic written on your forehead that follows you around because there aren’t six other people with your face to make you feel like who you are doesn’t matter?

You can’t go back to the circus and you can’t go home and it’s not as if this girl would have given you refuge before or after what happened at the Boiling Rock.

You wish you had Azula’s way with words. You want to say something really cutting but you can’t think of anything. You were never any good at that. Mostly you just want to yell you weren’t even there and kick her in the shin.

Either way, she doesn’t have an answer to that. You don’t know whether to be relieved or burst into tears.

You can tell - you can always tell - that Azula’s beginning to wear down. Zuko’s still riding high on his rage, but that’s also making him sloppy.

Thirty minutes in they stand facing one another, breathing heavily. You listen to the fire. You listen to how it changes; you know before it’s even visible that the fire has condensed, shifted towards air, curved towards lightning.

You know, from rumor and Azula’s deflection of the topic, that Zuko can redirect lightning. But you watch people, the way they fight, and he needs a peace to pull it off that he isn’t carrying anymore. He’s about to die, because Azula could never reconcile being willing to kill Mai but not Zuko, even if he is her brother.

You’ll tell yourself later that you did it for her, for Mai, because she would be so irritated if she went to all that trouble for him just to have him die a few weeks later. Or maybe you’ll tell yourself that all your regret propelled you forward, pooled in the balls of your feet and exploded, that even if it was a mistake at least it wasn’t the same mistake.

You might try telling yourself you did it because it was the right thing to do, but you’re still not sure about what right even really means and even if you weren’t, it wouldn’t really be why you fly down the stairs to the square now and, with four light taps, bring the unstoppable fire nation princess down.

For a moment everything is still, even the flames.

Zuko stares at you, his good eye wide. The water-tribe girl is still up on the veranda, but she’s probably just as surprised; despite her inclination to lecture you, she never would have believed that you would do anything other than what Azula told you to do.

The guards surround you and the bison, still as a rock in the face of the fire, leaps into action. Zuko and the girl - Katara, you remind yourself again - turn in perfect synchrony, back to back, the way you used to be able to with Mai. They make quick work of the guards but the bells are tolling and more will be coming.

Azula is stirring at your feet; you haven’t moved an inch. Zuko pushes Katara toward the bison and turns to you. “Come on!”

You look up at him, but you have no idea what to say. How can you leave her here alone?

“Ty Lee, she will kill you!” He doesn’t say just like she killed Mai. Then again, he doesn’t have to. The ghost is behind him, blank and almost-bored as always, but she gives you a little smile and tilts her head just the smallest bit toward him.

You reach out and you pray that the ghost knows it’s not because you’re afraid and it’s not because you want to leave her behind, either of them behind, but because you can only hope it will finish what she started. The only way to save what’s left of Zuko is to let him save someone, even if it’s you. You don’t know what will happen to the Fire Nation, but why should that matter to you now when it never has before?

You touch his fingertips and the eastern sky glows red, then blue.
 
 
Current Mood: lazylazy
Current Music: boats & birds [gregory & the hawk]
 
 
 
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Zari-sensei: AtLA Zukoazardarkstar on September 17th, 2010 11:35 pm (UTC)
*Whistles*

Very nicely done. From the summary, I'd thought that it would be Zuko to die, so you took me completely by surprise by killing off Mai. But now that I think about it, that moment is absolutely perfect for changing the latter half of season three. The way Ty Lee mourns for Mai is so perfectly in character to me, not to mention her actions at the finish. I almost wonder if she and Zuko will eventually end up with one another in this new and different world. It was almost like Mai's ghost was not only giving her permission to be happy, to live, but also encouraging it.

Sadly, I don't have an appropriate Ty Lee icon for this.
dragons in paris: fanfic // [a:tla] 'til the enddragonsinparis on September 18th, 2010 02:48 am (UTC)
Thank you so much! I was always a big fan of the episode in question, but it bugged me that it took Mai and Ty Lee out of the final few episodes. On the other hand, they still had a pretty clear impact on what happened, so I figured I'd mess with that a bit. I'm really glad you enjoyed it, and I'm glad you think I got how Ty Lee would react. She didn't have much screentime dealing with heavy shit, so it was mostly a shot in the dark.

As for the Zuko/Ty Lee angle, I kind of left a lot of stuff ambiguous. I pretty much ship the Fire Nation Breakfast Club in any and all combinations just because of the material the series gives us, so I tried to stay true to that, and it would appear from your comment that it worked, at least there. The ghost of course isn't real, it's sort of a psychological manifestation/metaphor for all of them, but Ty Lee is so bad at taking independent initiative that I figured the best way to get her to start making her own choices was for her head to tell her Mai was telling her what to do.

Thank you again for your wonderful, thoughtful comment - I'm so glad you enjoyed the story. ♥
Zari-sensei: AtLA Wang Fireazardarkstar on September 18th, 2010 08:14 pm (UTC)
I would've liked to see Ty Lee and Mai in the finale, but I can understand why they really didn't show up. It had enough things going on in my humble opinion. :)

I don't really have set ships for AtLA. There are some pairings that I find more interesting than others, but I can live with just about anything as long as it makes sense within context of the fic. Iroh/Ursa is the closest I come to an OTP simply because I want Zuko to have a mommy and daddy. :)

Also, knowing what we do of AtLA world and with all the spirits, I wouldn't be surprised for Mai's ghost to actually be there.
dragons in paris: fanfic // [a:tla] 'til the enddragonsinparis on September 19th, 2010 02:10 pm (UTC)
True, it was pretty crazy as it was.

I have a few pairings that I lean toward (many of which contradict each other) but for the most part, I too don't really care what anyone ships as long as it works in context. I'm new to the fandom but I hear there's crazy ship wars, and I'm just like...why wouldn't you want the buffet, people? But no matter.

That's fair enough. I actually hadn't thought of that, but it's a good point. I guess that's open to interpretation too; people can decide whatever works for them. :)
(Deleted comment)
dragons in paris: fanfic // [a:tla] 'til the enddragonsinparis on September 18th, 2010 04:15 am (UTC)
Thank you so much! I was actually most worried about the Agni Kai; I'm rotten at writing fight scenes, and this was mostly just something I pieced together when I was having a block regarding whatever I was supposed to be writing, but I'm such a sucker for the Fire Nation crew and their relationship that I couldn't resist playing with it. Your response is so welcome and so appreciated.

and no pressure, but I'm eagerly awaiting your next installment of Avatar fashion - I absolutely LOVED that post!
(Deleted comment)
monkey monkey underpants!: tv // [a:tla] love him > fear youfragmentedsky on September 18th, 2010 04:30 am (UTC)
[is too lazy to log out of her personal journal] What nation? I MUST KNOW. THE SUSPENSE IS DRIVING ME MAD!
(Deleted comment)
monkey monkey underpants!: tv // [a:tla] SHOPPING!!fragmentedsky on September 18th, 2010 05:23 am (UTC)
SO EXCITED! oh closet how you are doomed.
mynesy: string me along → isn't that cute ♥mynesy on September 19th, 2010 06:22 am (UTC)
I am such a big fan of the Fire Nation kids because I really think that even though Zuko and Azula are heavily concentrated and developed in the series, Mai and Ty Lee never really got that chance. It makes me so happy that you developed them here. <3

But on another note, I love how well you dealt with Ty Lee's reaction. Your writing style is amazing too!
dragons in paris: fanfic // [a:tla] 'til the enddragonsinparis on September 19th, 2010 02:14 pm (UTC)
Honestly, I would have been a fan of more screentime for the Fire Nation kids even if they'd had more than they did. They're just so fun to watch, and The Beach was such a sensational episode.

Thank you so much for your comment (and your compliments!) I was a bit nervous because I was pulling both the story and the second-person narrative out of my...well, wherever I got it, I'm new to the fandom and hadn't written much in this style. >.> So I'm really glad you enjoyed it, and thank you again for your comment. ♥
Me: Avatar Azulasoftly_me on September 23rd, 2010 08:34 pm (UTC)
Okay, so, obviously I love this whole thing to pieces, but I figure I should try to be specific since specifics is what makes the good reviews. Firstly, FIRE NATION OT4! OH, MY HEART, I LOVE THESE KIDS! Secondly, you were working that second person pov. I tend to write in it naturally, but most people struggle with it. You really gave Ty Lee such a distinctive inner voice that her personality cam through wonderfully. Thirdly, these parts:

Nevermind that your marks were always good - better than Mai’s, even, because she would get bored so fast and stare out the windows, twirling the brush like one of her knives, whereas you would turn it into a game, work at it until you sorted out how to play. Azula got better marks than both of you, but that didn’t really count. None of the teachers were about to tell Azula she was wrong. It was a testament to her natural intelligence that she learned anything at all.

THIS IS JUST THE MOST BRILLIANT DESCRIPTION OF EACH OF THESE CHARACTERS! I'm astounded you managed to do it in just a few sentences because that is so them. I especially love the imagery of Mai twirling the brush like a knife.

Azula has always relished fighting Zuko, but much of that has always stemmed from a desire to humiliate him and the simple joy of fighting an opponent skilled enough to make her work for her victory but never skilled enough to take it from her.

So Azula. Perfect for her relationship with Zuko too. Even though she knows she's better, she also knows that Zuko will always make her work for it. I also love that it's Ty Lee making all these spot-on observations.

Both siblings loved Mai, but no matter how much more time Azula had with her or what might have been twisted up inside her head at the Boiling Rock, there’s no denying the spectrum between the the royal siblings as they prepare to square off. The ghost has chosen her side, and they both know it.

This is great. It really feels like both Azula and Zuko blame the other for Mai's death. Ty Lee just blames herself.

You haven’t fought anyone since it happened. You don’t know if you still can, if all that training hasn’t melted away since the one opening you didn’t take.

Ouch, harsh. Love this. And the 'Where would I go?' bit later. Such insightful moments.

He’s about to die, because Azula could never reconcile being willing to kill Mai but not Zuko, even if he is her brother.

Definitely my favorite line in the whole thing.

So, in conclusion: (1) This is awesome. (2) You're my hero. (3) Beautifully written and a beautiful ending.
dragons in paris: fanfic // [a:tla] 'til the enddragonsinparis on September 25th, 2010 03:47 am (UTC)
Okay I really hope you weren't drunk when you wrote this or anything because IT MADE ME SO HAPPY. (especially since it was written for you, since my ridiculous love for this series is ALL YOUR FAULT.) Seriously, this is one of those reviews that I'll come back and read when I'm having a bad day to cheer myself up and make myself think I might actually be capable of this writing nonsense.

I LOVE THE FIRE NATION OT4 AS WELL. As for second person, I'd actually never done it before...except in what I've written for Five of You etc. I actually quite enjoy it, but like everything else, each story sort of picks its own voice for me. I had a good reason for doing this one in second person but I forget what it was.

I'm really glad you liked those moments. A couple ideas were sort of in my brain beforehand, but most of them I just spit out as the story went along, so I'm glad they actually worked. I lose perspective after a while.

Thank you, again. ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO BE ON SKYPE I MISS YOU.
Me: Avatar Mai + Zukosoftly_me on September 26th, 2010 07:39 pm (UTC)
I loved that you think I must have been drunk to leave a review this enthusiastic. Uh, no, you're just that awesome.

(I got pretty new icons. See my pretty new icon!)
dragons in paris: char // [zoe] i have a feline guidedragonsinparis on September 27th, 2010 01:53 am (UTC)
I HAVE ISSUES OKAY. I'm easily concerned regarding my literary skill level. Shut up. :p

(I see [again] it is so pretty!)
snowdevil_crow: .OT4 - the baddiessnowdevil_crow on October 3rd, 2010 05:05 am (UTC)
This was incredible. The second person view-point worked surprisingly well.
dragons in paris: fanfic // [a:tla] 'til the enddragonsinparis on October 4th, 2010 03:28 am (UTC)
Thank you so much! It's the first story I've written (or at least completed) in second person, so that's a relief.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )