|More from Wordbender||Crossover||PG||Positive||TBA|
|A Breath of Fresh Air|
Work in Progress
NOTE: I still haven't done a final read/edit, so I know there are some loose ends and inconsistencies to clear up. Also, I might rearrange some scenes for smoother reading, but this is basically the gist.
Chapter Seven: A Breath of Fresh AirEdit
Sunlight shone off the harbor like glistening patches of diamonds. A breeze rippled through unfurled sails, a cool relief to workers, sailors, and beach-goers alike in the heat of the afternoon. Moisture clung to the air, soaking up the scents of the city: salt of the sea, the sharp spice of cuisine, and the intoxicating sweetness of the island's exotic flowers.
Capital City never endured harsh winters, but there was still something about the beautiful weather of high summer that put a spring in everyone's step.
The harbor churned with activity. Banners denoting good fortune draped over buildings, dangled from windows and were hoisted up on shoulders. Bodies packed on the docks, all shouting and cheering and bidding farewell, either to family, friends, or every voyager in general. Merchants had decided to take advantage of the crowds. Packing their goods onto carts or –lacking that– the bags on their shoulders, they worked the festive audience for a good day's pay.
Pilgrims pushed through it all with pounding hearts. This was it. The point of no return. The end of an old life and the beginning of a new one. The beginning of a new era. Caught between excitement and fear, they carted their precious belongings up the gangway of the massive passenger ship whose destination was painted proudly on the brand at its bow: United Republic of Nations.
At the end of the long dock, a small procession waited. The children of the Fire Lord, surrounded by their Imperial Firebenders and bodyguards, greeted each of the nervous pioneers and bade them luck on their journey, and the new life that awaited them at its end. Emboldened by the wise and comforting words of their soon-to-be former monarchs, the trailblazers cast aside their fear and marched aboard the vessel.
It was an important moment of history, and it was the perfect day for it.
The sun continued to beat down as a rumble of thunder shook the sky. The spectators glanced skyward for any sign of rain. A scattered shower would be a welcome relief from the heat, but no one wanted to be caught in a tropical torrent. Not a single dark cloud blemished the sky.
One of the bodyguards tensed. "What was that? An explosion?"
"Just thunder," the Prince replied with a dimpled grin. "Don't be so jumpy."
"I know thunder," the bodyguard growled, "and that wasn't it."
A force exploded in the midst of the crowd, drying the Prince's teasing response in his throat. Screams resounded with another crack of faux thunder as bodies were thrown back, into others, booths and buildings.
The Prince's hand flew to his weapon the same instant the bodyguard threw herself between the royals and the attack.
"What is it?" the Prince demanded, struggling to see past her. When he finally managed to spot it, he almost wished he hadn't.
A hole –a vast, black void– had torn through the air. No, not the air. Deeper than that. The very fabric of the world. Ripped through it, as though it didn't exist.
Spectators scrambled away from it, but not fast enough. The swirling pool of darkness lashed out with black tendrils like some malevolent monster. Shrieks of pain and terror replaced the shouts of joy of only a moment before. People crippled under the strikes of the black pool, and armored members of the domestic force struggled to drag them to safety as the whirling void churned through the brick of the plaza.
Words died in the Prince's throat.
"What is that?" his sister whispered.
But not a soul could answer the question.
Darkness, nothing but darkness. Ursa's arms wrapped tight around the woman's waist, but they felt distant, disconnected. The vortex batted the two bodies about, but not violently. Merely controlled. As they tossed and turned, it reminded Ursa of floating on the current in Capital Bay.
Then the vortex ended. It thrust them out like rejected sweet cakes and sent them tumbling, skidding over the cobbled street. Her arms tingled as life returned to them. She squeezed them tight. Eris struggled, clawing at her, trying to push her away. But Ursa held on. She couldn't let go. She couldn't allow this woman to hurt her friends, to hurt—
She couldn't let her hurt Yun.
So she clung tight to the villainess, her weak muscles screaming in agony as they plowed into the unforgiving obstruction of a stone street.
A burst of fresh air washed over Ursa as she bounced along the hard, uneven cobbles. Sounds, like a rough wind or the clamoring crowds of the Summer Solstice Festival, rose up from the distance and did not abate. The noise echoed around them. Caught in the claustrophobic confines of this narrow street, it bounced off one building hemming them in only to collide with the other. It smelled hot, of spice and flame. It smelled like home. In the whirl of panic and activity since the first vortex appeared, Ursa hadn't even realized how much she missed the unmistakable aroma of the Fire Nation, but after the South Pole, the desert, and Ba Sing Se, it encircled her like a warm embrace, fully realizing the ache its absence had left in her even as it washed the longing away. With the comfort of the familiar scent, strength surged through Ursa.
It was nothing like the spurt of desperation that sent her racing through the library at her friends' shouts, or even like the hot overwhelming of anger and the ice of fear that simultaneously scoured and froze her when Eris threatened Yun. That had been a distraction from fatigue, but as Ursa breathed in the air of her childhood, strength and hope burst through her, rejuvenating her body and soul. The fatigue was not merely forgotten, but chased away.
The energybender fought in her grip, wrenching to the side, bucking up, but she lost her footing and staggered, dragging Ursa with her. Forcing the weight on the balls of her feet instead of the precariously slim heels, Eris found some purchase and twisted in the Princess's grip, slamming the girl into the side of one of the buildings hemming them in.
Ursa gasped, pain shooting through her side. She refused to relinquish her grip, but it weakened and Eris easily broke free. Denied the supporting weight of her captive, Ursa fell, clutching at her side. Old, discarded crates shattered beneath her, jabbing jagged edges into her legs and palm. Eris pedaled back, her heels on the cobbles rendering her escape a comical and drunken gait.
"Stupid girl," Eris spat. "You've crossed me for the last time!"
Panic shot through Ursa. She couldn't fight energybending. She had to attack now, try to catch Eris off-guard. Maybe –just maybe– she could hold off until the others arrived. They would be only a step behind.
Ignoring the agony in her ribs, Ursa charged forward, punching a fist of flame at her opponent.
"Come on, Yun." Yuhan shook the earthbender yet again, but he showed no reaction. Time for something more drastic. He slapped Yun with a pale hand. "Wake up!"
"Yuhan," Ling protested, but Yun started upright.
"What...what happened?" Yun shook his groggy head. As the events of his last memory caught up with him, he stiffened. "Where's Ursa?"
Yuhan pointed at the gaping vortex. "On the other side."
"What are we waiting for?" Yun surged to his feet, only to stagger as pain shot through every inch of him.
"You." Yuhan grunted, catching Yun's arm as he staggered.
The world spun around Yun in a mad daze. If not for Yuhan's support, he would have collapsed.
"You were out cold," Kaddo said.
Yun tried to shake away the pain, but the world only spun faster. "Forget that. We've got to go now. We can't leave Ursa alone with that woman." Driven by nothing but determination, Yun broke away from the Dai Li agent, stepping toward the vortex. He stumbled, but caught himself. "Spirits! What was she even thinking?"
"Who knows?" Kaddo cried, though his exasperation clearly said 'She's a girl, after all.'
Ling and Yuhan exchanged knowing glances and an understanding passed between the two. If the others hadn't figured it out yet, they certainly weren't going to tell them.
"Let's just find her before it's too late," Yuhan said.
Eris almost laughed. Did this child hope to defeat her with mere flame? She, with ancient knowledge and immeasurable skill? She, who had vanquished spirits? The Princess leapt toward her and Eris stretched out her arms. A smirk toyed over her lips as she reached for a piece of the energy constantly swirling in the world about her.
But no energy answered her call.
She stood weaponless as shock splayed over her beautiful features. Still Ursa charged. Eris staggered back, lifting her arms in defense. Too late. Fire plowed toward Eris. Enveloped in its heat, she choked. The slits of her dress charred in flame as the power of the blow knocked her back.
As Eris skittered over the cobbles, her feet scrabbled in vain for a purchase in the road. She refused to be brought down!
Ursa did not hesitate with her second attack. She landed just long enough to vault into a kick, flame bursting from her foot. Shifting to the side, Eris dodged the attack, though a few cinders smoldered in her hair.
A cry of rage leapt from her throat. Eris lashed out, but she struck with only her hand. Ursa easily blocked, the surprise in her eyes just as obvious as Eris's own.
Eris wanted to scream. What's happening? Where is my bending?
The Princess caught her arm. Eris reached for the energy again, clawing desperately for any trace of it. Nothing. The energy of the Princess, of plants and animals, of wind, of the world, usually pulsed and danced with life force and emotion, but the more Eris searched for its familiarity the more she felt its absence in the pit of her soul.
No. It can't be gone. Without it– She choked. Without it, she was no longer Eris. She had no great power, no advantage to win her justice.
Without it, she could not have her revenge.
Ursa had seen Eris fight before. Without breaking a sweat, the woman had defeated not only the Princess and her friends, but also a fifth man, all on her own. It made no sense that Eris hadn't defeated her by now. Ursa should be at this woman's mercy. Not that she was complaining. She didn't understand why her gut wasn't wrenching with the pain of energybending, but she would certainly make the most of it.
Eris swung at her, face contorted in fury. Ursa flinched, certain that her insides would once again begin their dance to the woman's own tune. She almost balked, but her relentless training kicked in. Even as the panic of her inevitable defeat consumed her, Ursa raised her arms, catching Eris's flailing fist. She held Eris tight, though the hand squirmed, nails extended, clawing toward her face.
You're not defeated until you're dead, Yuki often told her. Even if you look defeated, it's usually temporary. You can always think of something. Don't ever give in too early.
Something held Eris back. Ursa knew that. This woman would not refrain from using her powers for any other reason. Whatever that reason, Ursa was certain it wouldn't last forever. She was going to use her advantage while she had it.
Eris dodged Ursa's attacks mechanically, distracted by the overwhelming pressure in her chest. Years of hate and determination had driven her onward, a lust for vengeance powerful enough to bring down the Avatar himself had been pent in her soul half a lifetime. Now she watched it crumble. Energybending alone was her hope for justice, to finally make him pay. Without it, her existence was pointless. How could she bring him down? How could she avenge the pain and suffering of her family?
Another flash of flame licked toward Eris, adding fuel to the fire in her chest. In the flicker of crimson, memories danced before her. The images that festered in her soul and haunted her dreams now taunted her in the daylight. Two boys, racing about her legs, laughing with delight. Two boys, jealous non-benders, begging to see her skill. Two boys, lying on the cold, unforgiving ground–
Her arms lashed out. "Enough!" Rage burst as a wave of fire from her palms.
The fire coursing through her chi set her innards alight. Hot, insistent, and entirely unfamiliar. Sparks sprayed sporadic from her fingers, not as concentrated a blow as she intended. Glowing embers floated gently through the air, outpaced by lively sparks, as they settled together in the dry fodder of the alleyway.
Flame leapt at Ursa. Firebending! How– Don't think, act! Eyes widening, she sliced into the attack, clearing a path through the fire as it whooshed past.
Panic rose in Eris's throat, stifling her breath. She wrestled with the fire, struggling to contain it, to hone it to her will. The fire fought back. It bucked against her grasp. Sweat trickled down her back as the element retaliated, sending a hot prong through her chi paths.
Eris cut off the attack, heat of rage and frustration joining the fire coursing through her.
As the crackling of the flames died, Ursa and Eris stood motionless, each examining the other across the scorched ground.
"Energybending and firebending," Ursa finally said, her voice tight, uncertain. "How did you manage that?"
A frenzied spark lit Eris's eyes. "Unfortunately for you," the woman hissed, "you'll never know."
She moved to execute a form, but the Princess –quick on her feet– attacked first. An uncanny rhythm of punches and kicks assaulted Eris, each powerful, each accentuated with a burst of focused and perfectly controlled flame.
Blow by blow, Eris staggered farther back, blocking the physical attacks and dodging the flames. All the while, her mind raced.
How long had it been? Surely her years of slaving away to master firebending could not have faded so fast? But the element felt foreign to her now, so completely different from the cold, calculating pulsations of energy.
Energy, the most powerful and influential element of them all, was putty in her hands whenever she used it. It thrummed with the heart beats of all living things. The sheer volume of energy a bender was exposed to was unfathomable, the weight of the world literally falling onto her shoulders. And it was a weight she could bear. Years of training had strengthened her stamina. Her chi became attuned to the rhythm of life –even when its pattern shifted to its fastest pace, to the straggling thralls of death. It dangled at her fingertips, never leaving her grasp.
But fire –it rebelled. A stubborn, wild element. How could she forget so soon it's volatile nature? Its ever-present thirst for destruction? Had it been only four years since she swore never again to wield it, since she decided energybending would be a far more fitting tool for her vengeance?
Ursa advanced again. The slash of flame passed Eris's face as she stumbled back, out of the alley into a wider street. One heel caught on a larger cobble, jerking her ankle uncomfortably to the side.
Once more, she sought out the presence of energy, desperate. This time, its presence loomed. It hesitated, just out of her reach, thrumming as she knew so well, and yet it felt almost as foreign as fire. She tugged at it, but the element shied away.
Fine. Fists clenched, Eris seethed through bared teeth. If energy eluded her, fire was left to her. If fire fought against her, Eris would fight back. And no matter how long it took, how messy it got, Eris knew she would win.
The alley fell silent as the duel left it behind, but it remained by no means peaceful. Unnoticed by the fighters, the effects of their duel would spread long after they'd gone. Smoke curled from the broken boards of abandoned crates, full of brittle straw, a perfect padding and a perfect fuel for the stray sparks nestled there. The gentle stream of smoke grew thicker, its intricate dance more clumsy.
A flame rose from the golden blanket like a child rising eager from bed. It caught the straw, licking toward the worn wood, and burned.
The four friends charged the vortex with weapons in hand, prepared for a fight. Whatever lay on the other side, they would be ready to come to Ursa's aid.
The world on the opposite side lit with bright sun. Yun winced, his eyes accustomed to the dim lighting of Wan Shi Tong's Library. He squinted as his eyes struggled to adjust, taking in as much of the surroundings as he could, never loosening the grip on his earthen sword.
Despite the cheerful sunlight, the hallway in which the travelers found themselves felt dark and heavy. Large tapestries covered the walls, thick carpets padded the floors, and voluminous curtains embraced the exposed windows. Gold thread glittered in the décor, and the sunlight danced merrily from one golden object to the next, like a child bounding along a path of stepping stones.
Kaddo leapt through the vortex, nearly ramming into Yun. Yuhan followed quickly with more reserved steps.
"Um, guys," Kaddo said, voice squeaking in alarm, eyes glued to their unconventional entrance. "Is it getting smaller?"
Yun and Yuhan looked, and before their eyes the circumference of the vortex shrunk another foot, squeezing tighter around Ling as he stepped through.
"Move it, Ling!" Kaddo cried.
Yuhan's hand shot out, grabbing Ling's arm and yanking him through just as the vortex snapped shut, nearly catching Ling's ankle.
"What was that?" Kaddo cried. "It's never tried to close on us!"
Yuhan shrugged, distracted by a disturbing thought. "I wonder what would happen if we were stuck there. Trapped between the worlds."
The thought made them shiver. Gulping, Ling wiped his slick palms against his pants. "Thanks, Yuhan," he said, and no one could blame him for the quiver in his voice.
"From now on," Yun said, "We move faster."
No one objected.
"So!" Kaddo glanced around in curiosity. "Where are we?"
"This is the Fire Nation," Yun said. "I'd recognize it anywhere." He scanned the rich corridor once more. "It looks like we're in the Palace."
"Great," Yuhan muttered.
Yun raised a questioning eyebrow. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Look what happened when we wound up in the courtyard of the Earth King's Palace," Yuhan reminded. "How do you think the Palace guards will react when they find us roaming the halls?"
"Especially depending on which world," Kaddo piped up. "I mean, what if Ozai's still Fire Lord? I bet the reception for some earthbenders and a waterbender will be even worse, and we're not exactly subtle."
"And I don't see Ursa anywhere." Yun huffed. "This keeps getting better."
Clanking footsteps reverberated down the hall, bouncing giddily toward them to echo mockingly about their heads.
"I'm telling you," came a muffled voice from around the corner. "I heard voices."
An unseen companion scoffed. "Maybe you should lay off the flaming firewater bombs for awhile..."
"And better," Yun hissed. "Let's move."
As one, the four spun in the opposite direction and ran. They couldn't risk being delayed. They charged blindly, keeping to the main hall for fear of losing their way. So intent were they on listening for pursuers from behind, they turned a deaf ear to the path ahead. No one heard footsteps until they were nearly on top of the lone guard.
Yun and Yuhan skidded to a stop, Kaddo crashing into them, but Ling couldn't slow in time. He charged straight into the soldier. They hit the floor hard, the man's armor creaking in protest.
Ling tried to scramble away, but the soldier reacted on instinct. Catching Ling's wrist, he twisted it behind the earthbender, planting a knee in his back to pin him down as the soldier claimed the upper position.
"Intruders!" he shouted. "Hostiles have breeched!"
"Wait!" Yun cried as Ling's face smooshed into the carpet. "This is just a misunder–"
Kaddo pushed past him, unleashing a torrent of water at the soldier. "Let him go!"
"–standing," Yun finished lamely. He shot a glare that Kaddo was too busy to notice.
As the wave slammed toward him, the soldier raised his free hand in defense. A futile attempt, Kaddo thought with a smirk. But instead of rolling the soldier back head over heels, the watery torrent split as it reached him, like a river parting for a rock.
"Some misunderstanding," the soldier growled. He twisted his wrist and the water coiled tight, snapping out as he flicked it like a whip. It cracked through the air, hitting Kaddo in the chest. The waterbender staggered back with an undignified squeak of surprise.
The clank of metal echoed as armored feet charged toward them.
"Intruders in the palace," the soldier bellowed, never taking his eyes from the friends or relaxing his grip on Ling. "Guards, to me!"
"Wait!" Desperate to defuse the ordeal, Yun raised his hands in surrender. "We're not intruders. Not exactly. We don't mean any–"
Not until the gauntleted fist slammed down on his forearm from behind and Yun heard his sword clatter to the ground did he remember he still brandished his weapon. Oops. His arms were seized and forced behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Yuhan in the same predicament. Only Kaddo had dodged his would-be captor, for once his youth and size lending him an advantage. He wriggled out of the guard's grip, kicking out with surprising effectiveness. He bounded away, drawing the spilt water to him with a continuous, beckoning gesture.
Soldiers appeared at the opposite end, hemming them in. Nowhere to run. Weapon tips winked at Kaddo in the sunlight and jovial fireballs bounced in open palms.
"Please," Yun pleaded, going limp in his captor's grasp. "This is just a mistake. We're not here to hurt anyone."
The soldier keeping a firm grip on Ling snickered. "Well, boys, it looks like these gentlemen have snuck through our defenses, armed to the teeth, just for a little chat. Shall we show them some Fire Nation hospitality?"
The other guards laughed, gnashing their teeth.
Leveling his gaze on Yun, the playful spark left the soldier's eyes. His face darkened as he took in Yun's costume. "Don't you know impersonating an officer is a capital offense?" he demanded. "Even worse if you aren't even a soldier."
Yun gulped. Because he knew it was true. And, wherever they were, he probably was an impersonator.
"I know how this looks," Yun said. "But it's not even our fault we wound up in the Palace."
The soldier laughed again. "I like this guy! He's got cheek and he can weave a good story."
"We're not here to cause trouble," Yun insisted.
"Speak for yourself," Kaddo snapped. He eyed the soldiers surrounding him and smirked. "I'm not going down easy." He raised his arms to strike, but a barked command from Yun made him pause.
"Stop, Kaddo! These aren't our enemies."
The guards hesitated, perhaps surprised by the genuine sound of his words, but Kaddo only scowled.
"We don't have time for this," the waterbender argued. But his eyes glared at the soldier, and the others realized the flush in Kaddo's cheeks was embarrassment as much as anger.
"We don't have time to be executed for an attack on the Royal Palace, either," Yuhan returned.
"Yuhan's right," Ling said, voice muffled by the carpet. "Why do you think I let him take me down so easily?"
The soldier scowled at his captive, the corner of his mouth turning down in a pout at the implication, but Kaddo hesitated. He glanced from Ling to the others, and they nodded. Grudgingly, Kaddo weaved the water back into his waterskin. Face dark, Kaddo allowed himself to be taken.
The soldier grunted, but whether from surprise or disappointment, they could not tell. He pulled Ling to his feet. "Let's show you to your quarters then, shall we?"
"Look," Yun tried again as they walked. "It's really complicated, but we're looking for a girl."
"Funny." The soldier chuckled. "Doesn't sound too complicated."
Kaddo growled. "It is!"
"A specific girl," Ling clarified. "A friend of ours. She got here just before us and–"
"You're saying there's more of you?" Yun's captor demanded.
The soldier holding Ling –or Captain, as Yun now noticed for the first time the rank insignia previously hidden by fabric– didn't bother waiting for a reply. "Lang, Chen –take some men from the barracks and do a thorough search of the Palace and grounds. And let the guards at the gates know they're not doing their job properly."
"Yes, sir!" With neat salutes thrown in the Captain's direction, the guards marched off to do his bidding.
"She's not dangerous," Kaddo said. "In fact, she's–"
The floor shuddered. A lump rose under the carpet before Kaddo and he stubbed his toe on it.
"OUCH!" the waterbender hollered, louder than absolutely necessary. He turned his murderous glare on Ling, who was shooting him a meaningful glance of his own. "I was just going to say 'she's probably in really big trouble'. What do I think I am, stupid?"
"Oh." Ling flushed. "Sorry."
The Captain glanced at his prisoners as if they were mad. For the first time he believed this young man had let himself be captured. He had originally thought the boy was inexperienced, but a bender could have put up a better fight. So he had surrendered. But to what end? He heaved a long-suffering sigh. "Alright, I'll play. Why is she in trouble?"
The friends exchanged glances. At least, they did their best between the crowd of guards and the quick pace. How much should they tell?
"There was a woman," Yuhan said finally. "An energybender."
The Captain's eyebrows shot up. "Energybender?"
Yuhan nodded. "She was trying to kill us. Ur–" He caught himself. Ursa's identity might not be the best thing to reveal. "Our friend, um, led her away to save us."
"But she won't last long!" Yun insisted. "You have to let us go. We've got to find her and help her!"
One of the guards snickered. The Captain swallowed back his own smirk as they steered the prisoners into a holding cell.
"Right," he said. "Of course you do." The Captain closed the door on them. The lock fell into place with an audible thunk that pounded through their hearts like nails of despair. "We'll be sure to get this sorted out nice and quick, so you can rescue this elusive friend from the evil energybender."
His chuckles were drowned by the clomp of his departing footsteps.
"That guy's a jerk," Kaddo growled, glaring through the door as though the Captain were still visible. "And doesn't anyone else think this place is weird? I mean, really weird. Like, wrong weird."
The others frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Well, this is the Fire Palace, right?"
"But that guy is a waterbender!"
Yun leveled his gaze on the younger boy. "And what's so wrong about that?"
"It just isn't normal! It's..." Kaddo's voice trailed off as he focused on Yun. His face flushed. "Oh. Um. I mean..." The young waterbender huffed in defeat, his face burning. "He's still a jerk."
Yun sighed. "He's just doing his job. We're not supposed to be here and he knows it. In his mind, that makes us either spies or assassins."
Yuhan nodded. "He's right. Without any proof, he won't believe we're anything but."
"Maybe we should have told him about the vortexes," Ling said.
Yun scowled. "He already doesn't believe us. It would have made us sound even crazier."
"Unless," Yuhan pointed out, "They happened to notice a hole in existence suspended in mid-air."
Ling shook his head. "So far, they've been popping up in more isolated areas."
"Even if it was somewhere more open," Yun added, "word probably hasn't reached the Palace yet."
Kaddo perked up at this announcement. "So we're busting out?"
Yun shook his head. "Not the best idea. They took us alive, because they have no idea who we are, and we didn't fight them. But if we try to escape, they'd probably kill us on sight. I think the Captain is inclined to believe we really aren't the enemy, so long as we don't make trouble. Our best move is to wait and see what he does."
"But..." Ling stared around at the others, wondering if they had really forgotten their purpose. "What about Ursa? She's still on her own. With Eris."
Yun's face darkened. "I know. She'll have to hold on a little longer."
"A little longer?" Hands tightening to fists, Ling turned away. His voice, bitter, barely a whisper, chilled his companions to the bone. "That's a death sentence, Yun."
"Don't say that," Yuhan said. "Ursa's strong. She can take care of herself."
Kaddo fidgeted, glancing uncertainly between the three earthbenders.
Heat rushed through Ling, temples pounding with the pressure in his head. Ty Lee was strong, too, he couldn't help thinking, but aloud he said, "Eris is stronger. We all know it." He slammed his fist against the wall, the metal groaning as it bent into a gaping crater. "Ursa doesn't stand a chance, not against energybending!"
"Whoa, Ling." Kaddo scrambled away from the irate metalbender. "Cool down."
Ling glanced over at him, blinked. His eyes were drawn down to the crumpled dent in the wall under his fist. Horror dawned on his face.
Yun stepped forward, clapping a hand on the metalbender's shoulder, brow knit with concern. "Ling, we can't get out of here, not without getting ourselves killed. Losing our tempers will gain us nothing. Just remember that Ursa is smart–"
"How is that going to help?" Ling asked, voice soft and bitter. His eyes, still glued to the remains of his tantrum, watched his fingers flex tight again. "Or have you forgotten what it was like having your energy twisted around by that mad woman?"
"Of course I remember. You think I don't know how much trouble she's in? Thinking about her strengths instead of Eris's is the only thing keeping me sane right now, Ling, because there's nothing we can do."
"The Fire Lord must withdraw! The spirits have spoken. We will not be a part of this. Return us to the natural balance, or Capital City will burn!"
The crowd seethed, many voices rising in an indistinguishable cacophony of rage, but one voice cleared above the others, directing them.
"The Fire Lord and Avatar alike will have to pay for this disrespect! Already the spirits have come to collect, but it is we who are harmed. Will you continue to be the price for their insubordination?"
A furious roar of dissent met the question.
Lieutenant Gin stiffened, fingernails driving into his palms. He remained in position, but he growled, "This is getting ugly, sir. Shouldn't we do something?"
"Negative," the higher-ranking second lieutenant replied. "Our orders are to stand on guard. We only take action if things turn violent."
"With those kinds of words," Gin pointed out, "it won't take long. They're practically calling for the Fire Lord's blood! Isn't that treason?"
The second lieutenant glared his subordinate down in annoyance. "You know just as well as I the Fire Lord's policy on that."
Words are a form of freedom; and my people will have it. When words become action, they will be held accountable.
Gin huffed. "It's inviting trouble if you ask me."
"No one did," his superior snapped. "Stand at your post and keep your mouth shut, lieutenant. This crowd is a powder keg, and they don't need an excuse to go off. The last thing we need is a riot."
Isn't it one already? But Gin clamped his lips tight, eyeing the crowd once more for signs of violence.
The crowd may not have taken up arms, but they were itching for a fight just the same. Fear may have planted the seed, as they fled to the Palace for reassurance and answers, fresh from the scene of that ominous hole, but it was anger and desperation that now blazed in their eyes.
"Republic City will be the end!" came that voice again. The man stood on the gates, having scrambled atop the base of a pillar to be clearly seen and heard. "We must heed the warning of the spirits. Republic City must be abandoned or destroyed. If the Fire Lord and the Avatar will not see their duty, we will make them see!"
The crowd erupted, inarticulate cries echoing the man's determination, not in words, but in pure rage.
"And if they won't see, we will do it for them!"
This time, the cries were manic, deranged like the hunting cry of the rabid hyena-squirrel. The crowd pressed against the gates, reaching through the bars, screaming at the guards on the other side. They pressed against the sentries, too, hemming them in along the street.
"You can't decide our fates!"
"What are the royals doing, besides trying to get us killed?"
Beside Gin, the second lieutenant shifted, knuckles whitening. "On your guard," he ordered.
The soldiers shifted from attention to defense. Sudden movement from the statuesque men surprised the crowd. They balked, but Gin knew that wouldn't last long.
The corporal to his left sniffed loudly, then again. "Do you smell smoke?"
Jinto watched the crowd from his lofty perch. "The spirits have warned us!" he cried, throwing his fist in the air. "The Nations cannot be joined together. Just look what becomes of it! The very fabric of our world is tearing apart! Our natural order must keep the balance. The Fire Lord must withdraw from the United Republic."
The crowd cried their assent, their belief, as they never would have before. Did they even remember now, how they would scoff at his words in the market? He had known what destruction this 'utopia' project would sew; he had tried to warn them. But only now, with the image of that gaping, black void still fresh in their mind, still churning through the stone of the seaside market behind them, only now did they understand.
Jinto was not an anarchist, or a war monger. He wanted universal peace as much as the Avatar. But he knew tainting the individual cultures into a chaotic sludge was not the answer. Harmony between the Nations would be attained, but they must remain separate. They must remain separate, or the balance would become unstable. How could the Avatar, of all people, not see that?
Lieutenant Gin pushed through the jostling crowd, the corporal and three others struggling to follow. The smell of smoke was growing stronger now, though still not enough to alarm the otherwise occupied protestors. Gin expected whatever the cause to be the work of one these rioters, an attempt to urge the crowd into action through terror. He had seen this Jinto before, in vain calling out the doom that the promise of Republic City would bring down on the very soul of the world, always with a crazed look in his eye. It might be something the protestor was capable of.
The angry mob did not appreciate the tactless soldiers. A man with thick muscles –a sailor, probably a first hand witness straight from the docks following the disastrous ceremony– pushed back when Gin shoved past.
"You can't silence me, soldier," the man spat.
I'm not trying to silence you, moron. I'm trying to save you. But aloud Gin said nothing. The second lieutenant gave strict orders not to rile the crowd when he sent them to locate the growing smoke, and so Gin remained quiet, fighting every burning word building in his chest.
Of course, it didn't occur to him that even silence would set this man off.
As Gin moved to slip past him, the sailor snarled. Hands the size of komodo chickens snapped like vices around Gin's shoulders. "Don't you walk away from me, coward!"
Gin seized the man's wrists on instinct, prying them away. He opened his mouth with an order to step back, but before the words could escape, the sailor hauled back and punched them back down the lieutenant's throat.
Gin reeled, blood spurting from his nose. Two soldiers leapt on the sailor, as the crowd scurried away from the violence. The sailor was forced to his knees, arms held down on either side.
Mopping the blood from his face, Gin felt the sudden shift in the immediate onlookers. Raucous before, now deathly still. Watching them. Watching him.
When words become action...
The sailor struggled against his captors. A soldier raised his hand to persuade him into submission. Gin caught the blow before it landed.
The tension eased, as if the crowd had taken its first breath.
"You're out of line, sir," Gin informed the sailor. He turned his head, spitting blood onto the street. "Shen, take him someplace to cool off. Get him a drink."
Around them, the crowd relaxed back into its righteous uproar. Still angry, Gin noted, but not violent. Not yet. The second lieutenant had been right; this mob needed only an excuse to morph into a bloodbath.
"Let's put out the next fire, boys."
The dramatic shift in setting startled Ursa, but before the change could settle forefront in her mind, she shoved it back.
Stay observant, but remain focused, Yuki was fond of saying. It was a skill Ursa had yet to master.
What struck her first was the sudden intensity of voices. The muffled crowd sounded so far off trapped between those buildings, but now they assaulted her ears. The street was wide, bright as the sun bounced off the cheerfully light-colored stones. Ursa recognized the main road of Caldera City instantly. It stretched from the bay, straight to the gates of the Fire Palace. Of her home.
Her heart lurched at the sudden realization. She was home, at her very threshold. Her guard slipped, and Eris struck.
Fire blasted at Ursa. She reacted on instinct, clapping her hands together and driving it into the flame, severing it at its peak. Thrusting her hands apart, the blast split down the middle, a wave of seething flame issuing past her on either side.
This blow was different. Ursa felt the strength behind it, still struggling, but slowly gaining control. Rivulets of unfocused fire strayed off target, but not nearly as many as before.
The intensity lessened as the attack cut off. Before it had fully faded, Ursa charged again, giving her opponent no time to collect herself. Eris's firebending was gaining momentum; if she was as good with it as energy, Ursa did not like her odds. But in the fields of agility and footwear, Ursa knew she far outmatched the vain woman.
Footsteps echoed in the distance. The four prisoners perked up. It was the first sound from beyond their makeshift prison since the Captain had left them, what Kaddo claimed must have been nearly a day ago. Yun was certain the time was closer to an hour, but he let the boy exaggerate. If Ursa had fallen into the clutches of Eris, an hour may as well be a day. They couldn't help her. Yun had struggled with their decision the moment it was made. The more time passed, the more he doubted it. He had been on the verge of telling Ling to yank the metal door off its hinges when this faint echo of hope appeared.
He glanced at the others, and the unspoken hope was clear in their eyes. Were they being released? Had the Captain believed them? Had they found Ursa?
A key scratched at the door, and the lock thudded open.
Yun leapt to his feet. "Did you find our friend?" he demanded, before the Captain even appeared in the doorway.
The Captain huffed. At his shoulder stood three more guards, looking grim. "No one else managed to sneak in the Palace," the Captain retorted impatiently. "And frankly, I've got more important things to worry about."
"But she's in trouble!" Kaddo protested.
One of the guards snorted. "So are you, runt."
Fists clenched and teeth bared, the young waterbender actually growled at the guard. Ling placed a firm hand on the youth's shoulder.
"Then why are you here?" Yuhan asked.
The Captain stepped aside, ushering them out. "Your presence has been requested in the throne room. It seems someone wants a word."
Yun emerged last. Until he had reason to accept this Captain meant them no harm, that he believed they weren't would-be assassins, he would continue to treat this as hostile territory and keep a close watch over his companions. "Fire Lord Zuko?"
The Captain gave him an odd look. "You might want to find another line of work, boys. As spies, you fail. Tragically."
"We told you," Yuhan said with a resigned sigh. The dark rims of fatigue had deepened during their short captivity, and his eyes peered out from deep within their sockets. "We're not spies."
"Right," the Captain returned, rolling his eyes. "Follow me."
Panting from exertion, Eris moved back, her heels hobbling uncertainly on the uneven ground. She spat blood from her mouth, where the Princess had caught her with a lucky blow. Shifting her aching jaw, the ferocious punch replayed vividly in her mind. Perhaps not quite luck after all, she admitted.
Ursa stood several paces away, forcing her breath to come in steady waves, sweat beading at her brow, never taking her eyes from the energybender. Eris spat again, this time in frustration. How could this girl stand without trembling? Her own legs wobbled beneath her, and it was not merely an effect of her inappropriate footwear, no matter how she tried to convince herself. She longed for the touch of energy to wash over her, to refresh her and give her the strength to bring this simpering child to her knees. She continued to reach for it, but the energy remained stubbornly beyond her grasp.
Fire exploded in Eris's chest. Not the element, but anger. Anger and hatred for this girl's sweet, innocent face. Unfurling a whip of flame from her fingertips, Eris snapped it at the Princess, fire hissing through the air. Sparks danced, raining down to earth as it arced above.
As the tip lashed at her face, Ursa swiveled aside. Heat flushed her cheeks. She reached up, batting the flame aside with one hand, reaching out to grab it farther down with the other. When she pulled, the whip faltered and dissipated, Eris too weak to fight both the fire and the Princess. Eris threw back her head, shrieking in rage.
A smile tugged at the corner of Eris's mouth. As the Princess launched a fiery kick, Eris seized her leg, holding it to her with both arms. Ursa struggled to pull herself free, but Eris had enough strength to keep her hold, despite her wobbly stance. Gritting her teeth, Ursa kicked out with her other leg, swiping at the back of Eris's knees while thrusting her weight on Eris. The energybender's legs crumpled and her hold released.
Ursa scrambled away, wondering what she had broken. Could she be lucky enough that it was a leg? She wasn't losing this fight yet, but she had to be honest with herself. She hadn't expected Eris to last this long, not with her wavering control of fire and the toll it seemed to take on her stamina.
On her knees, head bowed, Eris had discovered the source of the horrendous crack. "How dare you?" she seethed. She rose, unsteadily, to her feet. In her hand, she clutched the splintered heel of one shoe. Her fist closed around it, further demolishing the ruined heel. Eris glanced down at herself, for the first time taking in her seared dress, the dirt smudging her grayish skin, and the tangled tousle that was her hair. "What have you done to me?"
A flutter of panic skipped through Ursa's heart. She learned long ago that anger could turn a warrior fierce. It could make them ruthless and prone to mistakes, but it could also make them unstoppable.
Eris leapt the distance between them in one bound. Ursa moved to defend herself, but the attack caught her off-guard. This was not a punch to her side or a blast of fire; with her spidery fingers, Eris yanked at Ursa's hair. The Princess cried out as Eris jerked back, knocking Ursa off-balance with a fist to the stomach, and hauling her across the cobbles by her hair.
Ursa kicked, flailing with her arms. Her fingers grasped at the remaining heel, and she held it tight. When Eris lifted her foot, Ursa heaved and the energybender toppled to the street before her.
The crowd was deafening now. Ursa raised her weary eyes. The back of the shouting protesters gathered at the Palace gates was less than a hundred paces off. She was surprised no one had noticed them yet, but their own focus remained forward, and their angry cries covered the sounds of battle. As she watched, the crowd shifted, reluctantly parting to allow four men through. Four soldiers.
Movement beside her. Ursa realized too late that her guard was down. A hand slashed across her face, long and sharp fingernails raking at her flesh. Hardly a sound escaped her, attention already focused on retaliation. She grasped Eris's wrist, twisting it with both hands. Eris cried out.
"Hey, you!" one of the soldiers shouted, racing forward with heavy footfalls. "Break it up, ladies. This is no place for a fight!"
Eris kicked at Ursa's stomach, and the Princess fell back. Unnaturally blue lips smiling wide, Eris turned on the soldier, loosing a volley of fire.
The soldier shuddered to a stop, raising his hands to deflect. As the first dissipated harmlessly around him, Eris slammed into him, shoulder first. His breath left him in a sudden whoosh and he staggered back, plowing into the other soldiers charging to his aid. Eris targeted one with a burst of flame in the face, and that poor unfortunate soul did not seem to have bending abilities. He fell back with a scream of pain, clutching at his burning skin.
The crowd noticed now. Heads began to turn, drawn by the unearthly howl of the solider writhing on the cobbles. Eris smiled at them.
Ursa was already on her feet, running forward.
Yun had realized some time ago that this was not his own Fire Palace. Each step only assured him of it. In the back of his mind, Yun had thought that the familiarity of the Fire Palace –any Fire Palace– would be a comfort. But though the two places shared many similarities, beneath it all was this underlying sense of wrongness. He looked about him as the Captain led he and his companions toward the throne room, and everything about this place felt false. Like a lie, encompassing his whole person.
The grand doors to the throne room stood wide, and the procession filed in. Yun's heart pounded, thinking of all the possibilities that could lie within this hall. Zuko could be on the throne, young or old, but so could Ozai, as Kaddo had suggested. Or someone even worse. Sozin, or a stranger they knew nothing about. Up to now, they'd had no indication of whose world this could be, and beyond that, time was just as much a factor. Who would they find, a benign ruler or a blood-thirsty warlord? And worse –what would they do with a gang of convicted spies?
This room, just like all the others, was eerily familiar and foreign to Yun. He recognized tapestries, metal work, and the tiles in the floor. But each exacting detail niggled at the back of his mind. This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong.
Solemnity hung thick in the air, and the companions hardly dared breathe should they disturb those gathered. A dais rose at the far end, just as Yun knew it would, and it was here that the Captain led them. At either side of the throne stood a man, one with a headpiece bearing the royal insignia bound in his hair, and the other with embellished markings akin to those of general in Yun's world. Upon the throne, positioned between the two like a portrait in a resplendent frame, sat a woman, her face turned toward the general in hushed conversation. Yun froze. The world spun around him in a whirl of confusion. That face –he knew that face! But how? Dark hair held back by the ornamental headpiece of the Crown Princess, thick bangs encircling her pretty features. The only thing missing was her smile. Of course. He had encountered this woman once before, long ago.
"Show some respect," the Captain barked.
Startled out of his horror, Yun saw that his friends had already bent on one knee before the Fire Lord's throne. Bile rose in his throat at the thought of bowing to this woman, to this monster!
But the Captain gave him no choice. Seizing him by the shoulder, he forced Yun down on his knees.
Yun's mind raced. What world could they possibly be in? Up to now, he had assumed only their own realities were accessible to the vortexes, but if this Fire Nation was ruled by Azula...
"These are the intruders, Your Majesty," the Captain announced, presenting his prize.
"And you have no idea how they got in?" the man wearing the royal emblem asked.
"No, my Prince," the Captain replied, voice tight.
The Prince glanced sidelong at the Fire Lord and the general, a wordless agreement passing between them.
Face scrunched in confusion, Yun tried to clear his head. Who was that man? The difference in age between the Prince and Azula was almost indecipherable, but no scar marred his face, so it couldn't possibly be Zuko, could it? The world spun again as Yun wondered just how far off kilter this place could be from the others.
The woman spoke for the first time. "What is a vortex?"
Yun blinked. That voice...it didn't belong to Azula. He raised his head, daring to meet his eyes with hers. She frowned at his presumptuousness, but did not shift her gaze.
"Don't play dumb," the General said, his voice a frightening kind of calm, like the glassy stillness of the sea before a murderous storm. "Your guard heard you mention it in your cell, so explain." He bit out each individual word as he repeated the question, "What is a vortex?"
Yuhan, Kaddo, and Ling remained silent, at a loss for words. Did they tell these people the outlandish story they had kept from the Captain? Their heads swiveled toward Yun, looking for an answer, but his eyes were fixed on the woman.
The words slipped uncertain from Yun's tongue when he asked, "Fire Lord...Ursa?"
"What can we do?" someone cried.
"To end it?" Jinto shook his head. "Nothing. Only the withdrawal from Republic City will sew the world whole, and only our monarchs –the Fire Lord or acting Fire Lord– can make that decision."
Cries of despair, heart-wrenching wails took those near him. Their fates rested in the hands of others. The hopelessness of their own futility lodged deep.
"Perhaps," Jinto amended. "Perhaps the spirits will have mercy on those who attempt to appease them."
Downcast heads turned upward, sunlight gleaming on their tears. Hope reentered their hearts. Jinto felt a stab of guilt, but squashed it. Did he believe they could appease the spirits? No. But the sorrow of their hopelessness was too much to bear. So much worse than his little white lie.
Holding high a towering flame on either raised palm, Eris addressed the stunned crowd. "I would suggest no one else decide to get in my way."
Bystanders pedaled back, jostling and pressing into others as tried to get as far from the terrifying woman as possible.
Eris beamed at them. "Good. We understand each other."
A soldier raised his sword. "Extinguish your flames and surrender!"
Eris turned on him, her gaze turned playful. "Looks like some of you need a lesson after all."
She flung one of the flames toward him, but he sliced his blade through it. Each half skittered to the cobbles, losing power as its center of heat broke.
The crowd screamed. They rushed away, pushing one another aside as their thoughts turned only to their own survival.
Eris only had time to brace herself as Ursa's foot slammed into her jaw. The energybender staggered back, knees wobbling. It wasn't a particularly powerful blow; obviously the Princess's intention was to distract her from fighting anyone else. Very well then. She would treat the sweet girl to something special
A thrill shot through Eris as she moved her hands through an almost forgotten pattern. How could she have forgotten this? The ferocious power of the fire? The victory one felt when taming the wild beast? Even as fatigue threatened her muscles and crept through her chest, Eris could not deny the surge of satisfaction as lightning flashed between her hands.
A cold smile twisted Eris's lips even as the memories bombarded her once more. Two jolts of lightning. Seared flesh. Wails in the beautiful night. The images tore through her like knives. Still, the raw energy built in the air around her. After all these years, she hadn't forgotten.
"It's time for you to die, fool," she hissed, feeling the lightning as it traveled over her bared teeth.
She hurled the ball of lightning toward Ursa's chest.
Ursa recognized the form instantly. Lightning. So Eris is not only a firebender, but an accomplished one. The small taste of triumph Ursa had earned with her first attacks turned bitter, even as she shifted her footing. She remembered her father's instructions, following them to the letter as she stretched out her fingers to meet the lightning. Redirection was one of the hardest and most dangerous forms of any bending. It relied not on your own power, but your ability to channel and contain the power of another. Despite her rigorous practice with redirection since her early years of training, Ursa had yet to perform it in real life. It was too perilous. If Eris was half as powerful in firebending as energybending...
Lightning slammed into her hand, racing through her blood, spiking her chi. It danced a vicious jig up her arm, forcing her back several steps. Ursa gasped, fighting to contain the power, to guide it through her chi. It quelled and bucked inside her, sending uncontrollable jolts lurching through her body. Lightning skipped closer to her heart. She cried out. Drawing her arms in, she forced downward, pushed it toward her stomach.
If the lightning reaches your heart, her father's grave voice reminded, It will overwhelm you. It will kill you.
Sound rent again from Ursa's throat, a wordless cry of panic, desperation, and determination.
The lightning relented.
Reluctant but defeated, the searing power retreated from her heart, sinking down to the belly of her chi. Once there, the sweet taste of triumph returned. Held within her, subdued, the lightning was now hers to command.
Ursa turned, lowering her pointed fingers to aim at her opponent. Eris stumbled back. Her eyes were wide with disbelief. Perhaps in the energybender's world, no one had discovered how to redirect lightning. Her Uncle Iroh alone had invented the trick, and her Uncle Iroh was unique. Perhaps Eris's world did not have one. If that were the case, Eris would get a taste of it now.
Past the energybender, a flicker of movement caught Ursa's attention. The crowd. How could she forget about the crowd of bystanders, so close?
Ursa thrust her aim skyward, trying to pull back the uncontrollable surge of energy. The contrasting efforts, push and pull, rankled through her chi. The power of the lightning prickled, spiking in all directions. Her firm grip on the lightning slipped. It shuddered, racing back up her arm, toward her heart. Ursa screamed. Her fingers aimed high, she sucked in a deep breath and pushed the lightning away from her body with all her strength. A scream from the pain and the effort burst from her.
The lightning kicked and bucked in her chi. It careened through her, sending jolts of unimaginable pain through every inch of her body. Even through tightly closed lids, she saw its flicker as it pierced the clear sky. But whether all of it would leave without first reaching her heart, she couldn't know. Nor would she find out. Consciousness left her completely before the lightning did.
Lightning flashed down the street. It crackled, searing a black scar into the top corner of a building before shooting up to the sky.
"What was that?" the second lieutenant demanded.
No one had an answer. The mood of the crowd shifted then, a surge of panic turning the angry protestors to angry rioters.
Someone swung a punch at the second lieutenant and he dodged it. "Maintain your positions!" he ordered his ranks. "Send word to the Palace!"
Eris stared at the girl as she collapsed, as the last of the lightning fled from her body. Impossible.
Anyone who had direct contact with the force of that much lightning should not have even had time to scream. But this girl had absorbed it, controlled it, and used it as her own. "How?" Eris whispered, her voice choked by exhaustion.
A firm hand clasped on her shoulder. Eris jerked away, and only then did the extent of her fatigue set in. As she tried to free herself, the world spun. Her sight grew foggy and her head unclear. One hand was more than enough for her oppressor to keep her down.
"Enough of that," he ordered gruffly. "I think you've caused enough trouble for one day."
Eris thrust a handful of flame toward him, and with it surrendered the last of her strength. The fire was weak and the soldier brushed it easily aside.
Fire was such a fickle element, Eris recalled. It demanded you become its master, but it betrayed you when it sapped your strength.
"What's your name?" the soldier demanded. "What's your purpose?"
Eris only smiled.
"This is no time to be coy. What's your—"
"Enough, corporal. Take her to the brig."
"Fire Lord...Ursa?" Yun couldn't believe their luck. Of all the worlds and all the times they could have found themselves, it would be hers.
She frowned at him, confused. Her gaze flickered to the Captain beyond.
Their captor heaved a hefty sigh, as though embarrassed by his ignorant prisoners. "As I said, your majesty. Amazingly ill-informed."
"Ursa—" Yun tried to stand, to move closer so she could clearly see him, but the Captain forced him back down to his knees. "It's us."
Kaddo glanced back from the still-frowning woman to Yun. "Fire Lord?"
"I'm afraid you're mistaken," Ursa said, sitting straighter in the throne. "I am not the Fire Lord. I sit here only because my father's duties fall to me while he is away."
The general shifted. "Perhaps we should exercise some caution, Princess."
"My father's presence in Republic City and mine in his place is openly known throughout the world," Ursa said. "I don't see how it matters that they know."
"Xi's right," the Prince said. "Considering they thought you were the Fire Lord, there's no telling what else they're unaware of."
Grudgingly, Ursa nodded. "How did you get into the Palace?"
"You're kidding, right?" Kaddo chuckled. "I think you already know that, Ursa. Riiight?" He leaned forward, winking conspiratorially at her.
The Princess frowned at him. Beside her, the general's gaze hardened.
Mirth faded from Kaddo's eyes. He wrinkled his nose. "You do, don't you? I mean—"
"Hush," Yuhan said, his voice sharp in the uncertain silence.
The general's hand lowered to his weapon, that dangerous gleam Yuhan had noticed growing stronger. "You act far too familiar with the Princess. Who are you?"
The four exchanged uncertain glances. How much should they tell? Yuhan shrugged. Ling and Kaddo turned to Yun.
Yun straightened. "I am Yun Zhen. My companions are Ling, Yuhan, and Kaddo." He tried to catch Ursa's eye then, to assure her they were really here, that she wasn't crazy. Not a flicker of recognition entered her eyes. Yun's heart sank.
"What is your business here?" the general demanded.
"Hold on," Kaddo cried. He peered up at Ursa. "Don't you recognize us?"
Ursa raised her eyebrow. "Should I?"
The full weight of those two words crashed down on the foursome. So much for luck, Yun thought.
General Xi glanced at the Princess, the confusion crinkling her pretty face, before glaring down at them. "Explain yourselves."
Noting the tightening grip of the general's hand on his sword, Yun's heart began to hammer.
"We're travelers," Yun said, choosing each word with care. "It wasn't our intention to travel to your...country, nor to cause you any inconvenience. Arriving as we did was an event beyond our control."
The Captain chuckled; a dry, heartless sound that set four pairs of palms sweating. "See what I mean about cheek?"
"How did you get past the gates?" Xi demanded. "They are heavily guarded today, so how did you get through? Force? Blackmail? Bribery?"
Behind him, Yun felt the Captain stiffen at the implication. "We..." Yun hesitated. He glanced to Yuhan for suggestions, but the Dai Li agent seemed as uncertain as he. "We didn't come in through the gates."
The general snorted.
"It's true!" Kaddo protested. "Just ask the tsunami samurai back there; all your guards are on patrol and nobody ever saw us coming through any gate. We didn't."
"Kaddo," Ling warned.
"Tsunami samurai?" The Captain grinned. "I kind of like that."
"Perhaps we can add it to your title," the general said dryly. "After we've dealt with this pesky impending crisis."
The Captain pressed his lips together, choking back any other witticisms he might be tempted to share.
"What then?" The Prince demanded. "Did you burrow your way in? We know at least one of you is an earthbender."
Before the friends could form a believable answer, a man raced into the room. Armored and breathing heavily, he dropped to one knee before even noticing the prisoners. "Your majesty, report from the gates."
Ursa nodded, biting her lip. "Proceed."
"The riot has turned violent," the messenger said. "Citizens are attacking the gates and the guards."
Ursa closed her eyes, pained.
"They need reinforcements to install order once more. Things are even worse at the docks. People have broken through the barrier around it."
"Are they mad?" the Prince cried.
The messenger shook his head. "They're trying to appease the spirits with gifts." He shifted, dipping his head farther.
"What else?" Ursa asked.
"There are some whispers. Not many. But some are beginning to wonder if the spirits demand nothing less than someone responsible for the voyages."
Ursa straightened in the throne, horror in her eyes.
"You can't honestly think they'd throw someone in there?" the Prince cried.
"I don't know, your majesty. Their spokesman says only that a representative should try to...negotiate with the spirits on the other side."
General Xi stepped closer to Ursa, as if to fend off a coming attack. "We don't even know that these are spirits on the other side."
"The other side of what?" Yun asked.
Every head swiveled his way. The captives entirely forgotten, were reexamined under the scrutiny of the unpleasant news.
General Xi narrowed his eyes. "I think it's time they were taken back to their cells. We have more urgent business to attend."
The Captain nodded, but as the guards pulled them to their feet, Yun resisted.
"The other side of what?"
Ursa and Xi exchanged glances.
The Captain shook his head. "You really don't know when to shut up, do you?"
But the Prince watched Yun carefully. Eyes twinkling, he cocked his head. "Why not?" he said, to no one in particular. "It's not like it's a big secret."
Xi grunted, but said nothing.
Prince Iroh addressed all four captives. "It's a hole," he said. "A hole of nothing and a whole lot of nothing." He snickered. "Get it?"
Ursa closed her eyes. "Roh-Roh..."
"Okay, okay." The Prince turned back to the captives. "It opened right in the middle of the market about an hour ago."
"It has nearly destroyed the marketplace by the docks," the Princess explained. Her face remained painfully neutral, but Yun saw the flicker of emotion in her eyes and understood. Princesses did not show fear, but Ursa was scared. She was scared of this hole, and she was scared of what it could mean for her people. "And every moment, it seems to grow bigger, churning through brick and mortar, almost as if it were feeding off it."
"Spirits," Yun breathed, and the others reacted likewise.
The Prince blinked.
"You...you know it?" Ursa asked.
"Know it?" Kaddo scoffed. "What do you think brought—" The words died in his throat under Yun's warning glare. What?
"Yes, your majesty," Yun said, turning his attention back to the Princess who did not recognize them. "We know what it is."
"Even better," Yuhan added. "We know how to stop it."
At a nod from the general, the prisoners were released, though the soldiers remained close.
"How?" Xi demanded.
Yun glanced from one face to the other. "It doesn't work that way. First, you have to do something for us."
Xi's jaw tightened and Ursa's hands clenched the arms of the throne.
"Um, Yun?" Ling sidled over to him, wary of their guards. "What are you doing?"
"Negotiating," Yun said.
"Do you really think that's necessary?" Ling's gaze flickered to Ursa. "With her?"
Yuhan nodded slowly. "I believe Yun knows what he's doing."
"What do you want in return?" Ursa asked, her voice tight.
Ursa frowned. "Only the four of you were apprehended."
"I know. But there's another one, and we need to find her as soon as possible."
"We've played this game already," the Captain said. "My men scoured every inch of the Palace. We found some young lovebirds and a hive of mosquito-wasps, but no other intruders."
"Then she's not in the Palace," Kaddo retorted.
"What he means," Yuhan said, "is that she must be elsewhere on the island."
Xi's temple pulsed. "Did you miss the part about violent riots? We can't send soldiers out looking for your friend when we have to settle things here."
"You don't understand," Yun said. "She's in danger. The last we saw her, she was fighting a very powerful enemy. This woman, she's... It could already be too late."
"I'm sorry, Yun," Ursa said quietly, "but the General is right. We can't afford to spare that kind of man power right now, no matter how I wish I could help."
Yun met her gaze and he saw the genuine sympathy there in those familiar eyes. It only made this harder. Jaw tight, Yun said, "I'm sorry, too, Princess. Because we won't help you close the portal until we have our friend."
The atmosphere –already tight– grew suddenly taut. Xi glared down at Yun as his own friends stared at him uneasily. But Yun didn't see them. His gaze was locked on Ursa's.
The messenger coughed. A dozen gazes turned on him. "Your majesty, it could be nothing, but two women were arrested for instigating the violence."
"Who are they?" Ursa asked.
"They're being held in a brig by the marina," he replied. "They were barely conscious when they were taken in. A girl with dark hair, and a woman with pale skin." An involuntary chill shuddered through him. "She was partially conscious when they took her, but refused to identify herself." Evidently, it was not the only thing she had done.
"Was she creepy beyond all reason?" Kaddo asked.
"With gray skin?" Ling added. "And blue lips?"
"And ridiculous high heels?" Kaddo said, not to be outdone.
The messenger nodded wordlessly.
"That's them!" Kaddo grinned.
"Did you say they're being held together?" Yuhan said.
The messenger shook his head. "Not in the same cell, not with how hard they were trying to kill each other."
"The same building is bad enough," Yun said, mind beginning to whirl. "And if the marina brig is the same as mine, there's barely room for two cells."
Xi scowled at him. "Only a moment ago, you were threatening us. Your friend and her enemy are in custody, so she is no longer in any danger. Now you will tell us how to get rid of the hole."
Yun ignored him. "Your majesty, you have to release our friend immediately. Bars won't stop this woman once she regains consciousness. You need to get everyone away from her. She's an energybender, and she doesn't care who gets in her way."
"Aang is the only energybender there is," Iroh said.
"Your story grows more elaborate every minute," Xi said.
"To be fair," the Captain put in, "they did mention that before."
"It doesn't change the fact that we have no reason to trust you." Xi's gaze bored into Yun. "You are trespassers and imposters. How do we know you were not merely sent to lure us into the void yourselves?"
Yun glanced at Ursa, and the general's suspicions were reflected there.
"You want us to release your friend, who seems to have spiraled a protest into a blood bath, and offer only an empty and precarious promise in return. What reason could you possibly give us to trust you?" Xi asked. "Why should we let her go?"
Looking right into Ursa's unrecognizing eyes, Yun sighed. "Because if our friend dies, you will too."
The general loosened his sword in its sheath. "Is that a threat?"
"What? No! I just mean—"
The Prince stepped in front of his sister, all sign of mirth or reason disappearing from his eyes. "You'll get nowhere near her."
The Captain of the guard clapped down on Yun's shoulders. "I think they've officially worn out their welcome, boys. Let's get them back to their cells."
Yun kicked and struggled against the Captain. "She is Ursa!" He shouted above the scuffling of his friends resisting the soldiers. "If our friend dies, your Ursa will die. Not now, but when she was fifteen, because our friend is Ursa, and if she dies, your Ursa won't exist!"
No one moved. Stunned silence hung thick in the air, holding everyone in place.
Ursa finally broke the spell, blinking the shock away. "Excuse me?"
"So much for not looking crazy," Kaddo muttered.
"I don't know how," Yun explained. "We still don't completely understand it ourselves, but you must have a part to play in all this. We know you, Ursa, in the past. And you know us."
"But I don't know you," Ursa said.
"We noticed," Ling piped up.
"Maybe that means you're not actually the same Ursa that we know," Yun said, without bothering to explain. It was too much, too complicated, and they didn't have the time. "But if that woman kills her, do you really want to take that chance?"
"This is ridiculous," Xi said. He nodded to the Captain, who seized Yun again.
"What about your bracelet?" Ling asked, as two more guards grabbed him. "You never take it off."
"And you're always spouting proverbs!" Kaddo cried. "See? We do know you!"
The Captain rolled his eyes. "Everyone knows that, brainiac."
"The vortexes aren't just holes," Yuhan said, "they're portals. That's what brought us here. That's how we got into the Palace without being seen."
Ursa raised a hand, and the guards paused. "But nothing came out of this...'vortex'."
"That's because it's our exit," Yun said. "It will keep getting bigger until we go through it. All of us. The four of us, and your younger self."
Ursa stood. Despite the warnings of the general and her brother, she stepped from the dais and approached Yun. For a long moment, the older version of their friend gazed deep into his eyes. "I don't know you." She stepped away. Yun's shoulders slumped in defeat.
"But..." Ursa shook her head in disbelief. "Somehow I do trust you."
Scraping. Shuffling. The uneven clack of hobbling footsteps. Ursa frowned, unable to place the sound. Her eyes weighed heavy with fatigue and she loathed yet to force them open. Her back ached, twinging to catch her attention now that she was conscious. She lay on a hard, uncomfortable surface. The pacing nearby continued, closer and then fading. Ursa's mind raced. The last thing she remembered seeing was Eris turning her fury on the crowd in the street. Then there had been lightning aimed straight for her.
The weight in her limbs made sense now. She had redirected the lightning, something she had never done before, let alone with so little energy. She had exhausted herself. And Eris—
Ursa forced her eyes open, jolting upright.
Not five paces away, dress charred, hair unruly, fingers curled to brandish the long nails like daggers, Eris stood.
Any weariness or pain Ursa felt fled in a rush of adrenaline. She scrambled back, colliding with a wall.
The sound of impact was dull, but resounded in Ursa's ears. Eris turned, nailing the Princess with her cold gaze. Her fingers clenched. Ursa swallowed hard, heart thumping.
For a moment, Eris glared down at her. Then, with a whoosh of spent breath that flared her nostrils, she swept away, her steps scuffling along the hard floor.
Ursa blinked, breathing hard. She watched Eris walk away, her eerie gray skin shimmering against the dimness. Ursa blinked again and noticed for the first time the bars separating Eris from her.
A sigh of relief rushed from Ursa. She relaxed as the tension slipped from her body, sinking against the wall. The unforgiving stone seemed to find every bruise Ursa had yet accumulated. It struck her then. Eris was imprisoned, but what was Ursa doing here?
A second set of bars cleared her vision, hidden before in her panic and relief, now in plain sight.
Ursa's first reaction was indignation. She, in a cage? Not only had she helped save them all from Eris, but she was...
She reached up to touch her face as the thought died away. She was what, after all? In her time and her place, she was a Princess, but here she would be nothing more than an unruly teen caught in a violent and dangerous duel. Her fingers rubbed a raw scrape on her cheek and she grunted. Of course they had arrested her.
Across the narrow corridor, the scraping continued as Eris paced within her cell. Never taking her eyes from the woman, Ursa called out. "Guard!"
There was no answer, but Ursa knew this was a small building. She could still smell the closeness of the sea and only one place with actual cells close to the open market was a brig down by the docks, used mostly to hold drunk sailors or confined navy men. Ursa called again.
This time there came a groan in response. Soon, the door to the cramped, two-cell area opened and a displeased and disheveled guard peered inside. "What?"
Ursa drew herself to her full height, eyes locked with her enemy. "Why am I being detained?"
When no answer was forthcoming, Ursa tore her gaze from Eris long enough to glare back at the staring guard. "Well?"
The guard shook his head in disbelief, lip curling, though whether in disgust or amusement Ursa was uncertain.
"You're being held on a number of charges, my lady. Dueling an Agni Kai in a public area, reckless endangerment of lives, destruction of property, willfully starting a fire, resisting arrest—"
Ursa closed her eyes against the on-going list. "Very well. I would like to speak in my defense. Please take me to the magistrate, warden."
"It's lieutenant," the guard replied, "and you're going to have to wait."
Ursa's head rose high. "I have the right to present my defense to the overseeing magistrate, and I will use it. Do not attempt to stonewall me."
"Nobody's stonewalling you," the lieutenant snapped. "Don't quote regulations at me, missy. I know my job. You're not getting out of there because everyone's a little tied up with settling down the riot."
"Skies above." He rolled his eyes heavenward as if begging the spirits for patience. "The one you two geniuses started! What do you expect to happen when you take an Agni Kai into a crowd of protestors? That's the problem with rich kids who have nothing better to do." The lieutenant shared his scathing disgust between the two prisoners, though Eris took no notice. "They don't recognize effects and consequences."
Ursa blinked, the blood draining from her face. So that explained why there was an army lieutenant guarding them, instead of a city warden. And why he was in such a bad mood. "Oh." She swallowed hard. "Is anyone hurt?"
The lieutenant fought back a growl. An image sprang to the lieutenant's mind, of his friend's face seared by fire. He had been there, during their fight and watching as it spiraled into uncontrollable violence. And she asked if anyone had been hurt? "Lots."
The fight wasn't all he'd seen. He'd watched the girl convulse, struggling to contain the immense power of the lighting. Watched as she redirected it upward, away from the crowd. As she collapsed under the strain, the last vestiges of lightning bleeding out over the nearby cobbles. The lieutenant's grizzled face softened a touch. "But nobody killed."
Ursa breathed a sigh of relief. "Very well then." She gathered her composure once more before meeting his eye. "What's your name, Lieutenant?"
The soldier regarded her warily. "Takeshi."
"I need you to do me a favor, Lieutenant Takeshi."
Any sympathy in his hard face fled. "Do you now? And who exactly do you think you are?"
Ursa opened her mouth to say –what? Laying claim to a name that may not even exist in this Fire Nation didn't seem a good idea. Even if this was her Fire Nation, her time even, she didn't like the idea of drawing the attention of her other self. Who knew what would happen then.
"It's important," she insisted. "That woman is dangerous!"
The man followed her pointing finger to Eris's cell, where the woman had begun pacing again. Step, step, scrape. Step, step, scrape. "Looks a bit out of it, if you ask me."
"She needs to be made secure," Ursa said.
"More secure than a cell?" He laughed.
Ursa gripped the bars. "Did you see her fight with me?"
Some of the joviality fled from his face. He nodded.
"You haven't seen anything."
The severity in her dark eyes sent a chill of uncertainty down his back. He looked again at Eris. The woman stood still, glaring back at him. He left without another word, but Ursa saw fear in his eyes. She only hoped he would do something constructive with it.
Reassured by the double layer of bars between them, Ursa leaned back. For the first time, Ursa studied the woman. Not only her movements or her bearing, not distracted by attempting to foretell the energybender's next move. Studied as a whole. As a person, not as an opponent only.
Eris roamed the length of her cell like a caged beast. Restless and panicked. Her broken heel, attached by a few stubborn stitches, dragged along behind her. It scraped across the floor, impeding her pacing, but ignored. Or perhaps unnoticed. Eris's eyes danced madly, her gaze never resting, seeking a means of escape.
She was helpless.
The realization caught Ursa by surprise. Eris was fierce, powerful, merciless. She never would have pictured the woman as helpless. Why did the cage bother her so much? She didn't seem the kind of villain to fear being caught or even to let it set her plans back. Ursa's mind raced with different possibilities. Perhaps Eris had that irrational fear of small spaces. Or maybe she had been imprisoned before, somewhere unpleasant.
"What are you staring at?"
Ursa started. Venom dripped from Eris' snarled words. In her musings, Ursa had not heard the pacing stop, had not seen Eris round on her. The woman pressed against the bars now, clutching them between her fingers. Her face twisted with such anger and hatred that Ursa's heart lurched. She remember the bars and eased her breath.
"I was just wondering," Ursa said, voice cool.
Eris's knuckled whitened. Her eyes blazed.
"About you," Ursa continued. "About who you are or who you were."
Eris laughed, sharp and scathing. "The only wondering that you should concern yourself with is what I'll do to you if you continue to get in my way."
Memory of their first meeting flashed in Ursa's mind, of the broken and dying man at Eris's feet. Perhaps he had gotten in her way. A chill shuddered down her spine, but she forced herself to remain composed.
"It's not as if we have a choice." Ursa hoped the pounding of her heart didn't affect her voice. "We're only trying to get home." And if they happened to spoil Eris's plans along the way, they wouldn't complain. "It's not as if we jumped into your vortexes," Ursa went on, a fire of indignation building. "They pulled us in."
A sharp hiss escaped between Eris's teeth, telling Ursa exactly what she had suspected. However she and her friends had been pulled here, it wasn't part of Eris's plan. She hadn't meant to do it.
Ursa didn't know whether to be relieved or frightened.
Eris swept away from the bars. Her back turned, Ursa noticed the stubborn, tense set of her rigid shoulders. Eris brushed at her bare arms, as if warding off a chill.
"I don't suppose you'd tell us how to stop the vortexes and get home," Ursa murmured, watching Eris as she braced her hand against the wall.
There came not even a hiss in response. Ursa leaned her head back and the did only thing she could.
Hurry, Yun. Wherever you are.
"Deploy the reserve guards," Ursa said. The words shattered the shock in the room and broke many stares. "And bring me Yuki."
Xi bounded to her side. "This is insane, Princess. You can't listen to them. Even if you did, you can't go off gallivanting. You're acting Fire Lord!"
Ursa smiled fondly at him. "That's exactly why I have to go, Xi. This vortex poses a serious threat to my people. I have to ensure it's taken care of."
Xi snorted. "And I suppose this preposterous notion of meeting your younger self has nothing to do with it?"
Eyes sparkling, she shrugged. "Added bonus."
"And what if the crowd decides to sacrifice you to the spirits?" the Prince asked softly.
Sorrow touched the Princess's eyes. "I like to think my people would never wish to harm me, but I know the horrors a mob can commit without thought. Don't worry, Roh-Roh. I'll do what I have to do." She smiled at him, but her lips pulled tight and concern glistened in her eyes. "They won't even know I'm there. I'll be careful. Besides, I'll have Yuki with me."
The Prince crossed his arms, his face already set stubborn. "What am I? Chopped hippo cow liver? If you insist on going, then I'm going with you."
"Roh-Roh, someone has to stay here."
"Emi is here," Roh-Roh protested.
"You know she isn't ready for that. Someone has to stay with her."
The Prince's fingers clenched. "Then you stay. You're better at the politics than me or Emi, anyway. I'll go with them to the vortex. I may not be acting Fire Lord, but I'm still the Prince, and I'm the commander of the army. It's just as much my place to protect our people as yours."
"Your brother is right," Xi said. "You should remain here, where it's safe."
"It's sweet of you to protect me, but..." Ursa shook her head, her gaze straying to Yun. "This is something I have to see for myself."
As the men turned dark scowls his way, Yun coughed. "Actually, Princess, I think they're right."
"You've piqued my curiosity." She grinned, managing equal parts innocence and mischief. "You can't get rid of me now."
"We don't know what will happen if the two of you see each other," Yuhan said. "We've never...confronted ourselves before."
Roh-Roh's eyebrow shot up. "This happens often?"
The four friends chuckled nervously.
"Yuhan is right," Yun said. "If you interact with yourself –her – our Ursa, it could be very bad."
The Princess smiled. "You're only making me more curious, you know."
Xi hefted a sigh. When he lost an argument with the Princess, he always knew it. "What do you want me to do?"
Ursa sat straighter, her amusement slipping as she resumed her role of acting Fire Lord. "Take some soldiers ahead. I want the marketplace cleared before our new friends close this hole."
Xi shot the foursome a dark look, clearly not thinking of them as 'friends'.
The Prince grumbled.
"How do you plan to get past the gates?" Kaddo asked. "Or did everyone else forget about the bloodthirsty mob outside?"
"We'll bypass them, of course," Ursa said.
"An airship would work," Yun mused. "But it's not exactly inconspicuous."
The Prince chuckled, evidently unable to maintain a dark mood for long. "We've got something even better." He shared a smile with the Princess.
The friends raised their eyebrows in question. The trio on the dias stepped back, toward the wall providing such a dramatic backdrop to the throne. A single flame sputtered to life in Ursa's palm. Xi drew back a tapestry and Ursa pressed her hand into it. The fire lit an indented insignia Yun had not noticed before. The design blazed to life and a latch clicked within the wall. A crack appeared, widening into a doorway before them.
Kaddo gave a low whistle. "Secret tunnels."
Lantern held aloft, Ursa led the way into the darkness. Behind her marched Yun, then Kaddo, the Princess's bodyguard Yuki close behind keeping an eye on them, Ling, and Yuhan. The Captain of the Guard had been bringing up the rear before he took an unspoken order from the Princess and went to 'scout ahead'. He had also, much to Kaddo's annoyance, skirted around his own introduction. The Captain had only grinned at the young waterbender, saying, "You can just call me the tsunami samurai."
Running his hand along one smooth wall, Yun couldn't help marveling. "I wonder if these are in my Fire Nation," he murmured.
Ursa shot him a strange look. "They'd have to be, wouldn't they? These tunnels are more than a hundred years old and you said you know me in my past. I've known about this place since I was eight."
Yun grimaced. "It's a little more complicated than that."
"If these are such a big secret," Ling said, "aren't you worried about showing us?"
"Why?" Yuki's glare bored into him. "Do you plan to betray us?"
"No, no." The hairs on Ling's neck prickled. "It just seems like a safety issue."
"Not that it really is," Kaddo cut in, "considering we'll probably never come back to this world."
Ursa glanced back at them, the lantern light glittering in her mischievous eyes. "It's the only sure path we have right now. There's an exit fairly close to the marina and it's a short walk to the brig from there. The rioters will be so busy with the reinforcements, they probably won't even notice us. Besides," Ursa chuckled, "these tunnels aren't unprotected."
Kaddo's shoulders hunched. He glanced about as if expecting a troop of Yu Yuan archers to pop out of the stones. "But I thought you said no one knew about them?"
"No one else that's still alive, anyway," Yuki growled. "Doesn't mean we're stupid."
Yun nodded. "They lead right into the heart of the Palace. That could cripple you in any fight."
"Yes." Ursa's voice tightened and Yun realized he'd struck a nerve. "Someone else discovered them before I did, and we learned that first hand. But–" Her voice brightened. "They've proved invaluable to us as well. We contemplated destroying them, but we realized they could be used as an emergency escape route and a defense point."
Yun examined the enclosure with new interest. "You booby-trapped them."
Surprised, Ursa glanced back at him. Behind, he felt Yuki tense, ready to spring.
"It makes sense," he said. "You would need to protect them, but assigning soldiers to it would defeat the idea of keeping it secret. The only was to ensure its security and its secrecy would be to booby trap it. Plus..." Yun shrugged, smiling sheepishly. "You sent the Captain ahead to clear the path. Since no one knows about these, I'm guessing he's disarming the traps in our way."
Yuki snorted. "Clever rotter, aren't you? Too bad he really isn't one of your captains, Princess. He might do that uniform some good."
Yuhan cocked his head at the bodyguard's back. "I'm pretty sure he already has."
"In you own world, you mean?" Ursa asked, trying too hard to sound casual. "What is it like, your world?"
Yun shrugged. "A lot of it's the same."
"And you know me there? How?"
Yun fell silent, and the silence fell heavy on them all. "I'll be honest, Princess. I don't know how much I should tell you about all this."
"You said yourself I had a part to play."
Yun frowned. "I'm beginning to wonder if you do."
"What are you talking about?" Ling asked. "She's Ursa. She's got just as much to do with it as we do."
Yun shook his head with a heavy sigh. "I don't know," he muttered. "Maybe she's not our Ursa."
Ursa paused to study Yun for a moment.
"You told me once that coincidence is just the universe trying to tell us something," Yun said. "But I'm having trouble figuring out what that is."
"It is strange that you don't know who we are, Princess," Yuhan said. "After all, we should be a part of your past; the four of us, Eris, and the vortexes."
"It is a little fishy," Kaddo agreed.
Ling shook his head. "But she's definitely Ursa."
"Perhaps," the Princess said, "time does not operate as you think it does."
They frowned at her.
"You seem to be under the impression that time is a set line, but my Uncle always taught me that the universe and everything in it is always flowing, always changing. Why should time be any different? You said these vortexes have been appearing in your own past. Do you remember those events occurring, in your former memory?"
Their frowns darkened. "Come to think of it...no."
"Perhaps you are poking holes in a history that hasn't yet been set in stone within the universe." Ursa shrugged and continued on. "You could even be creating an entire new future and don't even realize it. Maybe you just haven't caught up with it, yet."
At a nudge from Yuki, Ling and Yun stumbled after the Princess. From behind, Kaddo grumbled. "That is definitely our Ursa."
A sob woke Ursa. She bolted upright, unaware that she had dozed off. It had not been for long; the sun still sat high in the sky. The sob came a second time and Ursa leapt to her feet, surveying the room in search of the sound, heart pounding, wondering who Eris had in her grasp and how she had gotten out.
But there was no one in sight. No sign that Eris had worn a hole in her prison.
The sob came again –strangled, desperate– accompanied by a scratching on the stone. It came from the shadows of Eris's cell.
As her eyes focused in, Ursa could do nothing but watch. Watch, as another sob fought loose of Eris's chest, as she clawed at the stones with broken, bloodied nails.
Words caught Ursa's ear, whispered and choked almost masked beyond recognition by sobs. "...my fault." Eris clawed at the wall, leaving a faint smear of blood from her scratched tips. "...my fault. It wasn't..."
A shriek, shrill, furious, primal, tore from the woman and she raked at the unforgiving stone with both hands. "How could you?! Don't leave me here!"
Someone pounded on the corridor door. "Keep it down in there!"
Eris cried out again, this time a whimper of fear. "Don't leave me. It wasn't my fault." Panic caught the woman and she hurled herself at her prison, kicking at the wall with her bare toes, slamming her fist into the walls, yanking at the barred windows.
Ursa swallowed. Eris tore at the prison like a mad beast, but flesh made no dent in the stone. Hairs rose up on the Princess's neck. She'd seen the ravings of a lunatic before, and wondered if Eris weren't completely mad.
Eris threw herself against the stone, her entire body slamming against it.
"Eris!" Ursa cried, but the woman paid her no heed. "Calm down, or you'll break your neck!" In the back of her mind, she could almost hear the voices of her companions assuring her that would be no great loss. But Ursa could not watch this. Eris was on her knees now, scratching at the mortar along the edge of the wall in a vain attempt to make a hole. Her already burned skirt tore along the rough ground, her gray skin –coated in dust and grime– showcased dramatic red from freshly smeared blood, and her face... Ursa's hear flopped into her chest. That face.
No more was self-assurance and cruel calculation featured there, but terror and desperation. Tears streaked through the dirt on her cheeks from wide, startling golden eyes. Innocence shone in those eyes. Innocence and pain and helplessness. Betraying, perhaps, her former self?
"Eris, calm down!" Moved by her own panic, Ursa lashed a burst of flame against the opposite bars.
Eris started. She cried out, but instead of cowering away from the fire she reacted. Her lips twisted. The innocence vanished from her eyes as she returned fire.
Ursa dodged the flame, wrapping its central warmth in her chi and suppressing the flames until only smoke remained.
Eris stood, alert, panting. Her eyes flickered about the cell, re-familiarizing herself with it.
"What wasn't your fault?"
Eris's gaze struck like daggers. Ursa knew she should keep her mouth shut, but the startling image of this woman weeping and scrabbling in the dirt blazed fresh in her mind.
"Something did happen to you." Ursa's voice cracked, and it was like a fissure in the emotional barrier. Her words tumbled out, unstoppable. "You were different once. You had to be. But, whatever it was, it must have been horrible. I mean, I-I know it must have been, but what was it? You don't have to tell me, I don't need to know, but if it wasn't your fault, it wasn't your fault. You don't have to let it corrupt you. Whatever it was, Eris, it doesn't have to make you a killer or a villain. You can still fix this. You can—"
"Shut. Up." Eris flicked her hand at the babbling Princess, but no fire issued forth.
The words dried in Ursa's throat, stolen from her tongue, sucked back down by a painful surge through her gut. She lurched forward, her energy answering Eris's beckoning like a magnet, pressing into the bars. Ursa tried to speak, but Eris curled her fingers. The Princess's throat closed around the words, choking them down and shutting out air.
The twisted fury from Eris's face. A smile –cold, confident– curled her lips. "Look at that." She waved her free hand before the bars of her cell and they disintegrated. Dust and chunks of metal rained down with the sound of a short-lived tropical storm. "Just in time."
Ursa gasped for breath, but no air could come. She clawed at her throat, the bars.
Eris smiled at her, stepping out of her former prison with exaggerated care. Dust particles swam through the air as her single in-tact heel clicked decisively to the stone, slicing through the curtain of floating particles. She curled her fingers again, pulling tighter at Ursa's energy. The Princess's body lurched again, into the bars to answer. Ursa cried out [she can't breathe] as her body pressed against the unforgiving bars.
"Little Princesses should mind their own business, don't you think?"
Ursa's gut twisted sideways, lurched up, jerked down. The world spun as dots exploded in her vision. A gurgled choke broke from her mouth.
"What was that, Princess?" Eris asked, her words dripping false concern and saccharine sweetness. She loosened her hold on Ursa's throat.
Ursa gasped, sweet air rushing into her starving lungs at the same instant Eris jerked again at her life energy. Ursa screamed. She didn't know how loud, or for how long, only that her limbs jerked, spasming, as if strung up by a demented puppeteer while her core writhed in unspeakable cold. All the while, Eris smiled.
"You –you don't have to—" Ursa choked, her throat tightening once more around the words.
"I don't have to?" Eris seethed. She sprang forward, enclosing her fingers around Ursa's delicate chin. Her fragile throat. "Don't pretend to be so noble, Princess. You know nothing about what I 'have' to do." Her fingers locked around Ursa's neck. Her smile widened. "And you never will."
"Are we almost there?" Yun demanded.
"We're getting closer," the Captain of the Guard replied, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. "Closer than we were the last time you asked. And the time before that. And the time—"
"It's been almost two hours," Yun snapped. "Don't you understand that our friend could already be dead."
"And did you forget this is nothing more than a secret tunnel?" The Captain retorted. "It doesn't get us across the island faster, just unseen."
"And bickering about it won't move us along any quicker," Yuhan cut in smoothly.
The two captains huffed, but they broke their locked gazes. The Princess had gone ahead this time to disable the traps and Yun's impatience had surfaced in the presence of their initial captor. Whether Ursa herself had to disarm the traps because not even the Captain of the Guard knew of them all, or because it required firebending, Yuhan was uncertain. The Dai Li agent was grudgingly impressed by the tunnels, built by Fire Nation or no. He had detected a number of traps through the earth, but he knew there were more than that, undetectable by his sensor feel. An impressive feat.
"How long have you worked in the Palace?" Ling asked the Captain.
The Captain did not even spare him a glance. "Years."
An appropriately vague reply. Ling flushed. "I mean, long enough to have seen Ursa when she was younger?"
Eyebrow arched, this time the Captain did meet his gaze. "What's that got to do with anything?"
"I was just wondering what Ursa was like as a child."
The Captain blinked. He considered, shrugged. "Not much different. More serious, though. Everything she said or did had to be treated with the utmost sincerity, or she would think you were laughing at her." His lips twitched. "She was also ridiculously adorable, which made keeping a straight face really hard."
Ling grinned. Even Yuhan smiled. "That sounds about right."
"What sounds about right?" Ursa asked, emerging around the corner. Dirt and grime and soot streaked her pale flesh and soiled her colorful garments.
"Nothing, your majesty," the Captain said absently.
Ursa raised an eyebrow, the barely suppressed grins of the three more than suspicious. Yuki, however, seemed to understand the gleam in their eyes.
"The way's clear," the bodyguard barked. "Best get a move on."
Yun didn't need to be told twice.
Cries of mercy and chanted prayers filled the market. People pushed against the barriers, crowding as close to the void as possible. Gifts of sweets, jewelry, and trinkets sailed through the air. Some flew true, straight into the unfathomable darkness and vanishing to the other side, while more still fell short or wide. Crushed pastries painted the street with their cream and frosting. Heirlooms shattered against the cobble. The crowd returned with more offerings.
Merchants winced to see their goods treated so, but with the weight of money to replace their dwindling stock, who were they to complain?
Jinto watched the people in their rush for redemption. He wondered whether these fevered sacrifices truly were a better alternative to the hopelessness. At least it kept them clear of the riot.
Someone tugged at his sleeve. "Excuse me, sir?"
Jinto turned. A young boy, perhaps nine, gazed up with wide eyes. His bare, dirty toes twiddled in his pigeon-toed stance, hands clamped behind his back.
"What is it, boy?'
"Is that thing really connected to the Spirit World?"
The urchin gulped. "Sir...I've seen another one."
Startled by the panic in his voice the youth said, "It's gone now but it was over by Jhi's."
"But it's gone? How?"
The urchin shrugged. "It just vanished. After the two women came out."
Jinto's heart thundered. "Someone came out of it?"
The boy's toes pressed together. "Do you think that's bad, sir?"
Spirits. What else could they be? Two spirits roamed the city no guised as humans. And the boy asked if it was bad? There was no telling the chaos they would wreak. "What did they look like, lad? Did you see which way they went? Quick now!"
Wordlessly, the boy lifted his arm toward the void. No, beyond it. To the marina brig. Even as Jinto watched, the menacing figure of a broad-shouldered general stepped into his view, directing the host of soldiers he'd brought into the square with him.
"They've been captured?" He had wondered why reinforcements had been sent to secure the market when violence ran rampant in the streets.
"They had a hand in the riot," the urchin explained. "I didn't see it myself, but Bai said they started attacking bystanders and even melted a soldier's face off!"
"Did they know?" Jinto scrabbled in his pocket for a few spare copper pieces and ruffled the boy's hair. "Good work. Now get yourself someplace safe for now."
The urchin scoffed. "I haven't seen people this scared before. Is anywhere safe?"
Jinto's heart turned to lead as he watched the boy scamper off because, after all, he had a point.
Lieutenant Takeshi sat rigid in the warden's chair, waiting for the riot to end, for peace to be restored. For a change of orders.
Two more soldiers –corporals– stood guard at the barred door, just in case someone decided to forego the riot in favor of the cursed market place where it all started, just in case they managed to fight past the two dozen soldiers sent to guard it and decided to brave close proximity to the unexplained hole of nothing –still growing, still churning through the earth– and had enough strength left to burst past the barricaded brig entrance. Just in case every precaution they had instigated wasn't enough.
At first, Takeshi resented the babysitting job, high priority prisoners or not. He should be out there, restoring balance. But after seeing the mad blaze of the woman's eyes, the deadly sincerity of the younger's warning—
A chill raced up his spine, encouraging mite-gooseflesh along his bare arms. The walls creaked. Takeshi rubbed at his skin, cursing the rickety old building and it's drafts.
Another creak, longer, louder. Hinges, not walls. Takeshi surged to his feet, whirling round with fire in his palms. Had the prisoners managed to free themselves?
The barred door leading to the holding cells remained shut, but Takeshi wasn't convinced. He stepped to peer through the window.
Someone coughed behind him. The hair on his neck rose like hackles. That was a woman's cough.
Takeshi turned on the sound the same moment his corporals did. They barely registered the gaping doorway in what had moments ago been a blank wall when a figure stepped through it.
She coughed again, waving away at the billows of dust that followed her from the darkened passage. "I guess it's been awhile since anyone's used this door."
Another figure emerged. Then another, and another.
"Maybe we should air them out every once and awhile," the woman mused.
Takeshi swung his hands round, adjusting his aim. "Halt! You're trespassing in a judicial building. In the name of the Fire Lord, relinquish your arms and surrender."
"That won't be necessary." A fourth figure emerged. Even in the haze of the dust, Takeshi recognized instantly the uniform of the Imperial Firebender, the royal family's personal guard.
Takeshi's hands faltered, but he did not relent. "How –what are you doing here?" Two more figures stepped into the cramped warden's office. The flames in his palms intensified. "Has the Palace been compromised?"
"Nothing so dramatic. Yuki is merely accompanying me, Lieutenant."
Takeshi swallowed. That voice... He turned back to the first woman. It can't be.
But it was. Even distracted as she was prying a cobweb from her hair, coated in grime and soot, Princess Ursa was unmistakable in her royal attire and regal bearing. The ** of the future Fire Lord shone in her hair, and her ever-present bodyguard shifted to stand at her side.
"I thought you said this didn't lead into the brig, Princess," Yuki chided.
Ursa glanced around, rubbing her head. "Hmm. My memory must be getting rusty. I'll have to consult my maps again."
The flames died in Takeshi's palm. "Your –your majesty!" He fell to his knees, his corporals mirroring the action with a loud cacophony of armor. Swallowing back his surprise, his disbelief, and his questions, Takeshi said only, "How many I serve you?"
"I have come to interview the prisoners."
"Now, your majesty?" Takeshi cried before he could choke down the words.
One of the man rushed to the barred door leading to the cells, cape swishing behind him. "Is she down here?"
"It is a matter of utmost importance," the Princess assured. "Please unbar the door."
Takeshi rose. Barely had he lifted the bar, then the caped man flung the door open.
Three other men –boys, nearly– shoved past Takeshi and into the corridor. Despite their cries of despair, Takeshi stood frozen the spot.
The room was demolished. The bars of one cell had completely vanished. The younger girl –the one who had warned him– lay in a crumpled heap before the bars of her own prison. A gaping hole yawned in the stone wall, looking out at the water below. On the ledge, breathing in the open salt air, stood the eerily gray-skinned woman. She smiled at Takeshi, locking her raging eyes with his own.
One of the men rushed at her with a furious cry. Her smile widened and, with a suggestive farewell wave, Eris broke her gaze, stepped into mid-air, and vanished.
Yun charged at the bars. "Ling!" He reached through, fingers searching Ursa's clammy skin for a pulse.
Hands gripped him, pulled him away as Ling caught the bars in his hands and pulled. The hole was large enough in an instant. Yun fought free of Yuhan's now limp grasp and crouched at Ursa's side. Before he could find her pulse, Yun saw her chest rise and fall with a steady breath. The others piled in around him.
"Is she okay?"
"Is she alive?"
Yun sighed in relief. "She's breathing."
Kaddo rejoined the others on the far side of the bars, panting. "Eris is gone."
"What do you mean 'gone'?" the Tsunami Samurai demanded.
Kaddo snorted, crossing his arms. "I mean the witch used her energybending to create a vortex."
Takeshi looked to the Princess. "Should we follow her?" he asked, wondering what a 'vortex' even was.
Before the Princess could answer, the boy snorted again. "No point now. It's gone, and so is she."
Yuki's neck tightened. "I thought you said you couldn't close the vortex on you own."
"We can't," Yuhan said, his voice calm and serene despite the throbbing vein in his temple. "But Eris can."
Yun ignored them, gently shaking Ursa. "Hey, wake up. It's us."
Ling knelt beside him. "How is she?"
Her eyelids fluttered and Yun beckoned again. "I think she's coming around."
"Is she?" They both glanced up to see Ursa –the older Ursa– staring down at their friend. "This should be interesting."
The Captain of the guard glanced down. He gasped. Moving closer to his Princess, he lowered his voice. "Are you certain this is a good idea?"
"My thought exactly," Yuhan and Yuki echoed at nearly the same moment, followed by identical glares of suspicion in one other's direction.
The older Ursa smiled. "And miss this opportunity? Hardly."
The younger Ursa moaned, her eyes fluttering open.
"Hey," Yun said.
The girl blinked. She grinned when she saw him leaning over her. "Yun?"
He nodded. "We're all here. We—"
She grabbed at his arm. "Where's Eris?"
"Gone," Ling said.
"Jumped out the window," Kaddo chimed in. "After she made herself a freaking huge window."
"It adds nice lighting," the Captain of the Guard mused.
Kaddo shot him a scathing glance.
Ursa winced, wrapping her hands around her head.
"I think we're overwhelming her," the older Ursa said. She inserted the key, ignoring the gaping hole Ling had made in the bars, and swung the cell door open. She gestured the boys out, saying, "Let's give her some space."
Reluctant, Ling and Yun stepped away, but not too far. The Tsunami Samurai clapped his hand on Takeshi's shoulder, congratulating him on not getting himself killed, leading the lieutenant and his corporals back into the warden's office and out of earshot.
Eyes closed tight against the spinning world around her, Ursa's hands strayed to her throat. "I thought she was going to kill me."
Gentle hands pulled her fingers away. "There'll be some nasty bruising."
Ursa frowned. Something about the woman's voice sounded familiar, and yet she knew she'd never heard it before. She opened her eyes, trying to focus her gaze. "Who are—" Her eyes widened. "Oh."
Ursa stared up at herself, and Ursa stared back.
"You're me," the younger girl said in a small voice.
"I guess so," replied the older woman.
The elder Ursa shook her head in disbelief. "I didn't believe them at first. It was too ridiculous. But then I realized that a story that ridiculous—"
"–could never pass as a lie," the younger Ursa finished.
They grinned at each other.
"Uncle always did have a proverb for every occasion."
"Does," Ursa corrected softly, ignoring the painful lurch in her heart.
"Oh." The older Ursa's smile warned. "I'm glad."
Someone coughed gently. "Not to ruin the moment, but we still have a riot and a hole of nothing to take care of."
Both Ursas turned simultaneously. While the older nodded, expression suddenly serious, the younger grinned at her bodyguard. Unfamiliar gray hairs and all, Yuki was still Yuki.
"Always to the point, Yuki."
The bodyguard stared down at the young Ursa. Though her stance remained firm and her attention revealed nothing but calm, Ursa saw something like panic or terror in her eyes. The expression was foreign in her bodyguard and Ursa realized Yuki was not happy to see her. She was a person of simple truths and beliefs. Certainly there were inexplicable mysteries and spirits in the world but they had nothing and no part with her.
Yuki turned to her own Ursa for instructions, ignoring the younger version lying on the hard stone.
Ursa tried to pretend it didn't rip her heart in two.
The older Ursa turned to Yun. "You said you could all close the vortex. Can you?"
The elder Princess nodded. "Good. While Xi is clearing out the market, we should–"
"Princess." The Captain of the guard poked his head back into the corridor. "You may want to hear this. Things seem to be heating up outside."
"Move away," the soldiers ordered, ushering the crowd, but the crowd cried out and pushed back.
General Xi sidestepped a final pastry lobbed from the crowd by a desperate arm, falling far from its mark. What would they think of next?
"How far back do you want them, sir?" asked Lieutenant Gin.
"Out of sight," the General replied.
Gin nodded and moved off.
Struggling against the direction of the soldiers, a lone figure succeeded in ducking under them. He darted back into the market, dodging as the lieutenant made a lunge at him.
"Hey, you there!" the man called out, deftly defying Gin's second attempt to grab him. "That's right; you, General! What are you trying to hide all of a sudden?"
Xi ground his back teeth. He was not accustomed to having his actions questioned. But the Princess wanted the market emptied as quickly and quietly as possible, so he strode toward the individual, waving off the lieutenant. Xi was perfectly aware that the remaining crowd now held their breath as the General approached.
"We're trying to curb the panic. Chaos and violence is the last thing we need." Xi gestured around the disastrous square to make his point. "Wouldn't you agree?"
"At least we're trying to do something about it!" Jinto cried. "The spirits won't appease themselves. And what is our acting Fire Lord doing? She sends out the General who wouldn't dream of contradicting her and stays locked up safe and secure in her Palace while we're at the mercy of the Spirit World. I thought the royal family was meant to protect us."
"Curb your tongue," Xi snapped. "The Princess will, as she always has, protect her people, but she does not have to endanger herself among them. Or have you not heard—" He kicked away a discarded pasty with extreme prejudice— "Of the newest gift they want to send as an appeal to the spirits?"
"Or perhaps you would also have her step into the void?" Xi growled.
A faceless voice called from the anonymity of the crowd. "Would it end this madness?"
Jinto winced. He knew, as much as the General, that they were the wrong words. Giving credence to the idea would only fuel the desire to see it accomplished. More voices joined, more questions, a cacophony of berating, anger, and demands.
"On guard!" Xi bellowed. "Get them back, men. Now."
The crowd struggled harder now, but the soldiers had taken the kid gloves off. They fought, but it was as useless as a feather battling a boulder.
Hands clapped on Jinto's shoulders. He knew resistance was futile, but it didn't stop him from digging his heels in. "We're under attack, General," he shouted, "Whether you like it or not. The spirits are calling for the end of Republic City and a return to balanced harmony. Already they have set upon us!"
Veins in the General's thick neck pulsed. He gnashed his teeth. "Forget spirits. You are the only one calling for that, scum." He cracked his knuckles. "Perhaps I should—"
The General whirled as he felt the gentle touch on his arm. "Princess! You shouldn't be out here."
The majority of the crowd was far beyond earshot now, and pressed into an adjoining street out of sight. "It's alright." Ursa forced a smile. "I wanted to address some of these concerns myself."
The Princess ignored the General, instead turning to Jinto. "Hello. I believe you've had some issues with the way I've dealt with this crisis."
Jinto stood speechless.
"The truth is, we know very little about this thing. You think it is the United Republic project that has caused the disturbance? I doubt it. Avatar Aang is rarely discordant with the Spirit World. I think he would have recognized if it would be problematic. You claim it's a portal to the Spirit World, but we have no proof that it is. What would you have me do, then? Force someone through to see what's on the other side?"
"But we have proof, don't we? The spirits have made their stand clear. They have sent minions to bring us down! Look around you, Princess. What else will you wait for? The city lies in ruin at their behest, and it will only grow worse the longer you refuse to act!"
"What madness is this?" Xi demanded.
"Two spirits were seen entering from yet another portal," Jinto cried in exasperation. "You have them locked up yourself in your own prison. It was they who caused this riot, or would you continue to deny it?"
Gin grunted. "And here I thought you had something to do with that."
Jinto thrust his chin high. "I will be heard! No matter what you think of me, I don't want to see this city torn apart any more than you do."
"What a relief." Gin rolled his eyes.
"But there is only one way to call off this attack, and that is to assuage the spirits, to assure them we will heed their warning and abandon this weakening of nations." He gestured to the hole. "By emissary into their world."
"This is ludicrous," Xi said. "What makes you so certain that thing even leads to the Spirit World?"
Jinto snorted. "Where else would it lead?"
A chill rushed through Ursa. Where else indeed.
"So are you volunteering as ambassador then?" Gin asked.
Paling at the thought, Jinto shook his head. "What power do I have? What assurances can I give them that their wisdom will be acted upon?"
Ursa's lip curled in disgust. "You–"
"Your Majesty." Yun stepped into the market and, with a dramatic flourish of his cape, bowed to the Princess. "I would like to volunteer for this escapade."
Silence reigned as the familiar faces stared at Yun, dumbfounded, and the unfamiliar features of the protestor twisted between success and befuddlement.
"What are you doing?" Ursa hissed. She hurried toward him, pulling Yun to his feet and away from Jinto but before she could push him back into the brig and out of sight, Yun ducked around her.
His back to the onlookers, Yun dipped his voice. "Don't worry," he said. "This is what has to happen anyway. The only way we can close the portal is by stepping through it."
Ursa stared at him in horror. "Through that thing?"
"It's not so bad once you get used to it. For the most part."
Ursa shook her head. "You can't. Not like this. If you go through acting as emissaries, the people will think I believe the spirits are punishing us, that Republic City is...unnatural."
The younger Ursa cleared her throat, announcing her presence in the doorway. "Not if you say we are only going to inquire after the cause of the disturbance."
"The important thing right now is to calm the people, right?" Yun pressed. "The best way to do that is to get rid of the vortex. We can do that."
Ursa sighed. "And if it sets the Republic City project in disrepute? I can't have that. My father has worked for years to see it's completion and success."
"You're the Princess," Kaddo piped up from somewhere behind. "Can't you just tell them to deal with it?"
"What choice do you have?" the younger Ursa asked.
Ursa glanced over her shoulder at Jinto. Sighed. "I don't like this. There has been great opposition to the United Republic; this will further their cause."
"It doesn't have to," Yun said. "Tell them that the blending of nations is not a weakness, it's a strength. The nations and the elements balance each other, whether they dwell together or no. The Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes still need the sun to live by and fire for heat, just as the Fire Nation needs earth for their metal and water to cool it. No matter how separate the nations may claim to be, they have and always will be fundamentally intermingled."
"As for the vortexes," younger Ursa said, her eyes steady. "Tell them the truth."
The older Ursa appraised her. "And what is that?"
"That we came through them," Ursa said, "and that the only way to get rid of them is to return by them."
"And of their origins?"
Ursa shrugged. "The universe is filled with mysteries. Tell them this is one we're working to unravel."
"Let me see if I understand you, correctly," Xi said, his words stressed and clearly punctuated through the atmosphere of the corridor. "You claim you can stop this 'vortex', but only if you and your friends vanish into it."
Yun knew where this was headed. He heaved a heavy breath through his nostrils, but nodded.
Xi turned to the Princess. "This is foolish, Ursa! How do we know he's telling the truth? He could very well be using it to escape, and leave us in the same predicament as before."
"He wasn't lying about traipsing around with a younger version of me," Ursa pointed out.
"Besides," Ursa's voice softened. "What choice do we have?"
Xi did not look convinced. "If you're lying," he growled, his glare murderous as his fists clenched, "I swear..."
Ursa laid a hand on his arm. "Xi."
With a shuddering breath, the General swept away.
"I'm not lying," Yun said.
Ursa smiled, but whether even his friend's future self believed him was unclear. "We'll see soon enough." Her gaze followed Xi, who stood glaring into the heart of the vortex. "Yun, what will happen? To us, after the final vortex closes?"
"You say that the vortexes are popping up everywhere," Ursa said, her voice barely a whisper. "That you're trying to stop them. What I said, about time being a living, changing thing; history not set in stone... If – when you do end this, will my world be the same?"
"I –I don't know, Princess."
Ursa's gaze drifted to her younger self, seated upon a bench, surrounded by her three friends. "How can it be?" Ursa murmured, as if she had forgotten Yun. "Look at her. She's different. She has seen and experienced things that I have never known." Ursa's frown darkened. "We are the same, but she is not me. She stopped being me the instant the vortexes appeared."
She heaved a trembling breath. Her hand clutched at her stomach. Alarmed by her sudden palor, Yun asked, "Are you all right, Princess?" He reached out for her, but she did not sway.
Her gaze returned to the General and her grip tightened on her midsection. Not in pain, Yun realized, but protection. "My present is no longer her future," she said, voice sad. "Everything I know, everything I love –none of it is a guarantee."
"Princess..." He didn't know what else to say.
Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes, but she managed to smile at him. "At least I won't remember, if anything changes."
Yun's stomach flopped. He wondered whether he was changing his own future. Whether Ty Lee would really be waiting for him when he finally came home, or whether his actions could change anything of the future he had imagined for them. And beneath the flurry of panic and the cold fear nestled the blazing ember that represented his love for her. Ty Lee would always be his one true love and nothing would stop him from returning to her, to ask her to wait. To ask her to be his.
"I know you, Ursa," Yun said, "and you are strong. What's happening now, what's happening to your past self, it might change pieces of you, but it won't change who you are. It won't make you any less Ursa. You're determined and you're not the settling type." He glanced at Xi, recognizing now in the general's rigid shoulders despair, the uncertainty haunting his thoughts. Yun turned back to Ursa, taking her hand. "You found where you belong. She will too."
The older Ursa hesitated, looking down at her clasped hands. She glanced over Yun's shoulder, to where her younger self watched them with a careful gaze. "I hope you're right, Yun," she said. But she couldn't quite hide her misgivings.
So it was arranged. The marketplace was cleared of all onlookers save the handful of people who knew the stakes and Jinto. Both Princesses agreed that if the protestor could be satisfied, it would only be by witnessing the event himself. He sat cross-legged on the cobbles, looking rather cross, while the Captain of the Guard and Lieutenants Gin and Takeshi kept an eye on him.
From within the warden's office, the younger Ursa watched through the doorway as Yun and her elder self explained the next step to an increasingly angered general who eventually stormed off. She wondered who he was, but she knew better than to ask. Knowing too much about her future seemed as unwise as her future knowing too much about this escapade. So she remained out of sight, with the rest of her friends, under the watchful eye of an uneasy Yuki, feeling like a spying child as she watched Yun and her older self in conference. Her heart skipped when he reached out to her, and she dropped her gaze. What had they been talking of so fervently? Why had Yun taken her hand? She blushed, squeezing her hands together. She could still feel the tingle of the imagined touch.
"How did you guys find me, anyway?" Ursa asked, turning quickly to her friends.
"We were in the right place at the right time," Ling replied. "We were in audience with your older self when she heard two women were responsible for causing the riot. We're just glad you're okay."
"I can't believe you're still alive!" Kaddo burst out. "Back at the library, Eris took all four of us out without breaking a sweat." The young waterbender eyed Ursa with skepticism. "How come you're not armadillo-tiger food?"
"Perhaps she's a better match for Eris than the rest of us," Yuhan suggested with the ghost of a smile.
Kaddo snorted; Ursa flashed the Dai Li agent an appreciative grin.
"Actually, Yuhan, I think I was," Ursa said with a small frown. "At least, for a little while."
"What do you mean?" Ling asked. "We haven't been able to fight her energybending." His eyes sparked with a sudden idea. "Did you find a way to deflect it?"
Ursa winced as a surge of hope shot through her friends. "No," she said. "Sorry. That was how she got away. But before that... It was strange. It was like she couldn't energybend."
"Couldn't?" Kaddo repeated, brow knit in confusion. "That doesn't make any sense. What could get in the way of her bending?"
Ling frowned. "It's not unheard of. Every element is affected by nature in some way or another. An eclipse can completely drain a firebender of his ability to wield fire."
Yuhan's gaze snapped toward him. "What?"
Kaddo elbowed Ling's side. "Spoiler! Remember, we're in mixed company?"
"Oh. Sorry." Ling flushed. "My point is, something could have rendered Eris's energybending inert, and if we figure out what, that could be the answer to defeating her."
"He's right," Yuhan said. "Can you think of anything it could have been?"
Ursa's brow furrowed as she played back through every moment of their battle. She sighed. "No. There didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary. I don't really understand it. Nothing seemed to change, either. We were locked in the cells for an hour or more, and she was just as trapped as I was. Then, just like that, she could energybend again. There's something else, guys." She looked around at her friends. "Eris isn't just an energybender. She's a firebender, too."
The others rocked back in contemplation.
"Two kinds of bending?" Kaddo cried, skeptical. "That's impossible! Only the Avatar has the power to bend more than one element, and she's no Avatar."
Ursa shrugged. "The Avatar is supposed to be the only person who can bend energy, too."
Ling rubbed at his face in frustration. "It seems like every time we learn something new, it brings up more questions rather than answering any."
As the others slumped in dejection, Yuhan studied Ursa carefully. "The two of you fought with firebending, didn't you?" He smiled. "And you were better than her."
Ursa nodded. "She was sloppy. Almost like...almost like she'd forgotten how to firebend."
"Well, she's got energybending," Kaddo said, as if that answered everything.
The others turned to him for an explanation and he rolled his eyes. "If you could do something as awesome as bend energy, would you bother with fire or water or earth?"
"Hmm," Yuhan mused. "The kid's actually got a point."
Kaddo scowled at him. "That's because this 'kid' is smart."
"Whether she's a firebender or not, it doesn't change the fact that she's still out there, and we've got to stop her," Yun said suddenly from the doorway. Ursa jumped in surprise. "And now we've learned something knew about the vortexes."
Ling nodded. "They won't close unless we all go through."
"Oh, that too," Yun said.
"What were you thinking of?" Ling asked, surprised.
"If we don't go through at roughly the same time, we could pop up anywhere."
"That's right!" Kaddo cried. All mirth dropped from his face. "Let's not go through separately anymore."
Yun nodded. "Speaking of which. It's time."
Taking a steadying breath, Ursa rose. Her head still throbbed and her legs still trembled, but she was feeling much better. "Alright. Let's go."
As her friends filed out into the market, her older self stepped into her path. "One thing."
Ursa's heart raced. She looked up at the older woman. Her face was red –had she been crying? Chewing the inside of her cheek, heart thundering, Ursa wondered what she would say. Would she impart some wisdom, some obscure clue that could help her in the future? Would she tell her what she and Yun had been talking about? What if–
The elder Princess reached out, gently unpinning the crown from atop Ursa's head. With a swift rustle of her fingers, she persuaded the younger's thick dark hair to tumble down over her shoulders, around her face. "There." Holding out the crown identical to her own on the flat of her palm, the woman smiled. "Keep this tucked away for now and keep your head down. It wouldn't due to have someone spotting the similarities between you and I."
Ursa stared at the crown, her heart sinking a little in her chest. "Oh. Right." She shook the feeling away, shoving the royal crest into an inner pocket. "Of course."
Her older self caught her chin, gently raised her face to meet her gaze. The expression there was guarded, uncertain. Worried. A chill crept through Ursa. What did this woman know that she didn't? The older Princess opened her mouth to speak, and Ursa was certain she was going to answer the unspoken question, but the woman's eyes darkened and she shook her head.
"Safe passage, Ursa," the woman whispered, her voice choked by sudden tears. She hurried away before Ursa could reply.
The five friends stood before the vortex, silent and still, feeling its presence prickle at their backs. This Fire Nation's Princess took the stage, looking from the soldiers to Jinto in turn. She took the strangers' words to heart, even as her doubts and fears weighed her down; she told those around her of the mystery that was the vortex, that these individual's had come through it, allowed Yun to speak on their behalf to assert they had nothing to do with the spirits, whether or not Jinto would believe it. The Princess declared that the only way the vortex would close was if they would return through it. She glanced down the line of the incredible visitors then, at the girl with the bowed head a dark hair.
"Now," she told her subjects, "We shall see if they speak truth." The Princess stepped away, easing beside her general. Out of sight of the onlookers, her hand found his and their fingers clutched tight.
Jinto blinked. "This...this is insane! You can't possibly–"
"Silence," General Xi barked. "You're lucky the Princess has decided to let you stay instead of locking you up for inciting unrest."
Jinto wisely fell quiet, though his face reddened in anger.
"All right," Yun whispered to the others. "Let's make it look good."
As the five friends approached the hole, Yun fell in step beside Ursa. "We should all be more careful in the future, Princess," he said quietly. "Thank the spirits you were lucky this time, but we all know we're no match for Eris individually. Don't ever do that again. You could have been killed." He shook his head. "What were you even thinking?"
Yuhan coughed hard, trying to catch Yun's eye, but the captain did not notice.
Ursa should have felt relief, even joy, that Yun had been so worried about her. But in that moment, hiding her face as if in shame before her elder self and her own people, tired and terrified of what her future might mean, only anger rose at his concern. Her voice sharp and hot, she snapped, "It was the only way to save you."
She winced. Us. She'd meant to say us. The anger drained from her as suddenly as it had risen. She dropped her gaze as fire lit her cheeks. Maybe he wouldn't notice. 'You' didn't have to mean that, not if Yun didn't realize.
"Wait a minute," Kaddo hissed, popping his head over their shoulders at exactly the wrong moment. "Do you mean 'you' as in all four of us, or 'you' as in Yun?"
Yun scoffed. "Don't be ridicu–"
Heart pounding, Ursa hurried forward. "We should leave," she croaked. Even as the words left, she knew she should have remained silent. Should have ignored Kaddo, pretended it was nothing. She looped arms with Yuhan casually, though she feared it was far too late to appear casual, and dragged him along. "Come on."
Yuhan followed easily, and she wondered if he knew. Somehow it wouldn't surprise her. His strong arm steadied her trembling one and he allowed her to lead him into the darkness, and for a moment Ursa let herself forget everything as they were swept away by the vortex.
Her respite was brief. She and Yuhan tumbled through on the other side, silently picking themselves up from the assortment of foods and glittering goods littered on the hilltop as the other three followed after.
No one spoke for a moment, but Ursa felt the unease weighing them all down.
"This, uh, this place looks pretty normal," Ling said finally. His words, instead of breaking the tension, only added to it.
They stood atop a green hill, overlooking a valley. They could just make out the rooftops of a thriving village in the blinding sunlight.
The awkward silence dragged by. Kaddo frowned. He glanced from the stiff-backed Ursa to the tight-lipped Yun, and back again, lips pursed as his brain churned. Realization hit and his eyes sparked.
"Wait a minute," he cried before Yuhan or Ling could silence him. "Does Ursa like Yun? Like, like like?"
Yuhan clamped his hand around the waterbender's mouth, but too late. Flames of embarrassment lit Ursa's cheeks, answering the unanswerable question.
Kaddo burst into laughter, shoving away Yuhan's arm. "No wonder she pushed Eris through the vortex. She was crazy on cooties!" He laughed again and began to chant, "Cuddled up together in an old canoe. Ursa and Yu-un, smoochy-smoochy-smoo."
Cheeks burning so hot they ached, Ursa wanted nothing more than to flee. Anger flickered in her chest as Kaddo's taunts filled the air. Even Eris hadn't made her this angry.
"Shut up, Kaddo," Yun snapped.
Her heart fluttered. His words made her blush harder, but they also made her wonder. Even dared her to meet his eyes. Was he really blushing too?
"Come on, Yun! This is hilarious–"
"I said shut up."
Ursa dropped her gaze again. The Captain was definitely flushed, but his eyes sparked in anger. And why wouldn't he be? She was stupid, to even think for a minute... He already had a girlfriend. She bit back a laugh. And that wasn't even the biggest issue, was it? They came from different worlds. What a foolish, stupid girl.
Fools of the heart are often the happiest of men, rang her Uncle's voice in her head. But for the first time in her life, proverbs gave her no comfort, no strength. No answer. That, almost as much as the pain in her chest and the burning of her face, broke her heart. Tears welled in her eyes.
Ursa didn't run. Instead, she squared her shoulders, raised her head in defiance. "If you'll excuse me, gentlemen," she said, her voice tight. Without waiting for a response, she spun on her heel and marched away.
Yuhan and Ling turned their glares on Kaddo, who flinched. "What?" he protested.
Ling's disapproving eyes only narrowed, but the Dai Li agent turned his attention to Yun. "You really didn't know?"
The Captain shook his head. His frown deepened. "Is that really why she did it? Because of me?"
Pressing his index fingers together, Yuhan nodded.
Yun heaved a sigh. "This officially sucks."
The Dai Li agent's eyebrow arched high. "For who?"
"For–" Yun hesitated. His shoulders slumped as he replied, "For both of us."
With Ling's glare still boring into his back, Kaddo sidled over toward them. "What do you mean, both of you?" He snorted. "Girls always complicate things with their silly emotions. It's to be expected!" The waterbender narrowed his eyes at the Captain. "Oh, no," he groaned, "Don't tell me you like her too."
"Of course I like her," Yun said, and Yuhan's other eyebrow shot up to join its partner. "She's smart and strong and somehow she managed to convince me to trust a Dai Li agent."
"Ursa has kept her head through all of this, better than any of us sometimes. She's kind and she always keeps us on the right track. Haven't you guys noticed that? Whenever we start bickering, she sets us straight." Yun looked Kaddo straight in the eye. "What's not to like about her?"
Kaddo dropped his gaze, scuffing a shoe along the ground.
The Captain heaved another sigh. "But I don't like her the way she likes me. I'm in love with Ty Lee, and that's not going to change. That's why this sucks so much. I don't..." Yun rubbed the back of his neck in frustration. "I don't want to be the jerk that doesn't have those kinds of feelings."
"Then don't be," Ling said, stepping forward. "You just said it yourself, Yun; Ursa's smart. She knows you don't like her, not like that. That's why she never said anything. But sometimes...sometimes you just can't help who you like."
"It's probably because of your chivalrous qualities," Yuhan added, his face deadpan.
The others glanced at him, eyebrows quirked.
Yuhan shrugged. "Girls like that kind of stuff."
"So...any ideas?" Yun asked.
"Just prove you're the man she thinks you are," Ling said, "and make it easy for her." He glanced sidelong at Kaddo. "We should all make it easy for her."
Guilt pressed against the young waterbender's chest, but he refused to acknowledge it. Instead he muttered, "Oh brother."
He expected a rebuke, but instead he heard Yun chuckle. The Captain ruffled the boy's hair, which Kaddo hated. Did they have to treat him like such a kid? Hadn't he proved himself already? Wasn't he as good a fighter as them?
"Someday, you'll understand. Trust me."
A rebellious grin lit Kaddo's face. "Never!"
The others exchanged knowing smiles.
"I won't!" Kaddo insisted.
Yun shook his head, starting off in the direction Ursa had taken. "Wish me luck."
Halfway down the hill, Ursa had taken a seat in the lush grass, clasping her knees to her chest. Yun slowed his steps as he drew closer, fiddling for exactly the right words in his head, praying that she wasn't crying. He wasn't sure what to do about tears. He froze. Spirits! What would he do if she was crying!?
"I know what you're going to say," Ursa said softly, "so just don't. Pretend it never happened."
Yun thought about it. He almost did. It would be easier, wouldn't it? But before he took a step away, he wondered, Easier for who? Him, that's who. He'd only just learned how Ursa felt. It would almost be easy to forget the last five minutes ever happened. Ursa, however, had been struggling with it a lot longer than five minutes. He might be able to ignore it, but she wouldn't be able to, not really, and there would always be an ache there on top of everything else because she would know that he was ignoring it.
He sat next to her. She stiffened, her arms pulling her knees closer. She wasn't crying, which was a relief, but she held onto her legs so hard that her knuckles were white and her fingers trembled. Her jaw flexed tight, and Yun knew it was only pure power of will that kept Ursa's tears at bay.
The Princess took a shuddering breath. "I-I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—"
Ursa blinked. That certainly wasn't the answer she was expecting.
"Ling's right," Yun continued, "Sometimes you can't help who you like. It's not your fault, Ursa. It's not like you've done something wrong. It's just...not meant to be."
Tight-lipped, Ursa nodded. In the awkward moment that dragged by, Ursa wondered. Wondered if there would have been a chance, no matter how slim, if only they were from the same world, the same time. She opened her mouth to ask –then closed it again. It was an unfair and unanswerable question, after all. She remembered the look on his face whenever he mentioned Ty Lee. He loved her, and no one else. He would be as hurt and uncomfortable answering such a questions as she would be in hearing it.
"I tried not to," Ursa blurted out. Her cheeks flushed bright. "I mean, with everything going on, and I knew there was never any chance, but I just... I couldn't help it."
Yun sighed. "I'm sorry."
For the first time, Ursa faced him. "You're sorry? For what?"
"I don't want you to feel hurt," Yun said, lamely. "I feel like it's my fault, like I should be able to say something that will make it all better."
Ursa smiled tightly. "I don't think it works like that."
He glanced at her and flush deepened, but her smile did to, morphing into something more genuine, more Ursa. In that instant, Yun suddenly knew what to say.
"You remember what you said about coincidences, when we first met?"
Ursa nodded. "It's the universe's way of trying to tell us something."
"Exactly. That's why I knew there had to be a reason that we met your future self. There had to be. I thought it was because she had some part to play in helping us closing or understanding the vortexes, but we would have found a way to do it without her." He remembered the older Ursa, her gaze locked on Xi, her hands wrapped protectively around her stomach. "No, her purpose wasn't to help us; it was to help you. To help me help you. I'm not the right person for you, Ursa. Not because I don't like you, but because you're not the other half of me. Ty Lee is. She completes me."
Ursa winced, but Yun hurried on, reaching out to grasp her hand.
"There's someone like that for everyone, and I know, Ursa, I know for a fact, that you will find your other half someday, and he will be the right man for you."
He held her gaze, his eyes dark and serious, and Ursa's heart trembled. He did know; he had seen her future. Something shifted insider her then. The flush of infatuation and the pain of rejection were still bold and raw on her heart, but in the back of her mind Ursa somehow knew that it was a tiny point in what would be the rest of her life. For now, it hurt. It made her uneasy. Someday, though, she may be able to forget it.
"Do you believe me, Ursa?"
She did. Even though it pained her to admit it, she knew he was right. Whatever had brought her and Yun together, it never would have lasted, even if he did like her. "Yeah. I do. And..." She frowned. And what? She didn't want to apologize again, and saying thank you seemed inadequate. "It's okay," she said finally.
Yun nodded. He remained beside her and they sat in silence, watching the grass ripple in the gentle breeze, feeling the comfortable warmth of the sun on their faces. Each second the passed eased the tension between them. Understanding settled down; it wasn't perfect or without embarrassment, but in a matter of moments Ursa's flush began to fade and Yun's shoulders relaxed.
She was right. It would be okay.
"Now what?" Ursa asked.
"Now," Yun said, "We do what we always do. Figure out where we are and where the vortex is hiding." He stood. "I'll get the others."
Ursa nodded. "Yun, I...I just need a minute."
"We'll wait until you're ready."