Chapter 1: The Day of Black Sun
"Betrayal is the only truth that sticks" - Arthur Miller
The metal door with its flame motif stood in front of them. Sokka pulled out the device the Mechanist had given him. "Thirty seconds until the eclipse."
"I'm ready," replied Aang. "I'm ready to face the Fire Lord."
He spun his staff up and forward, and the resulting gust of air blew the door into the room. They ran inside and leapt into fighting stances.
The chair on the dais at the far end of the room was empty.
Aang clenched his fists in frustration. "Where is he?"
Before any of the others could answer him, movement above their heads made them look up. Dai Li agents were descending from the ceiling on ropes, green robes fluttering, hurling their trademark rock gloves down at them. The rock gloves formed into bonds pinning them to the floor by their wrists, but almost immediately Toph and Aang broke their bonds and Toph took care of Sokka's with a flick of her wrist.
Trying to trap the agents in turn, however, proved extremely difficult. They dodged each blast of air, each jab of the sword, and were able to counter or escape all of Toph's earthbending moves.
Several precious seconds into the fight, Sokka called out. "They're just trying to slow us down! We need to leave and find the Fire Lord!"
"Right!" shouted Aang, and they darted for the opening in the door. But the Dai Li were doggedly persistent, slowing them down with stone grab after stone grab despite Sokka's valiant swordplay and all the air gusts and rock walls Aang and Toph threw their way. Whenever they tried a more direct attack, the agents danced out of the way, not allowing any contact.
As the minutes ticked by they ran up and down corridors, trying to lose the Dai Li and find the chamber where the Fire Lord might be hiding, but to no avail. Had Toph been able to use her earth sense they might have succeeded, but the Dai Li never allowed her the chance. Another glance at his device told Sokka that they had run out of time. "Aang! We lost our chance. We have to go!"
His shoulders slumping in defeat, Aang nodded, and the three of them fled.
Strangely, the Dai Li did not follow them.
Chapter 2: The Western Air Temple
Aang and his friends descended by rope or on Appa's back to the main building of the Western Air Temple. Upon landing, they found themselves inside a courtyard built into the cliff, open to the air and held up with pillars. A huge fountain stood in its center, its waters cooling the summer air. Aang would have spent some time marveling over how it was still working and how the mosaic of flying bison was still intact despite the temple being abandoned for a century, except that his attention immediately focused on the girl sitting on the fountain's rim. His entire body went rigid, and the scar on his back began to ache. Everyone else seemed frozen where they stood, their mouths open in shock.
Azula uncrossed her legs, stood up and stretched. "Took you long enough."
Her words jarred them into action. They all took stance and began to attack, but Katara was the fastest by a split second. Following the motions of her arms, water rose out of the fountain, wrapped itself around Azula like a giant arm, slammed her to the ground and froze solid, leaving only a small opening around Azula's face. Not to be outdone, Toph brought up slabs of stone and formed them around Azula in a giant box open on one end.
"I'll give you one chance to explain why you're here before I drown you," Katara snarled, "so make it good."
Despite being trapped by both ice and rock, Azula maintained the same even smile. "I'm here to teach the Avatar firebending, of course. Unless he knows it already, in which case, I'll be on my way." She glanced up at her prison. "As soon as you let me out of here, that is."
"This is some trick, isn't it?" Sokka spat, putting on his best threatening expression and waving his sword at her.
"No tricks. I teach him firebending, he defeats my father, brings balance to the world, everybody's happy."
"You expect us to believe that?" Katara asked, aghast. "You tried to kill him! You almost succeeded!"
Azula shrugged. "I had a change of heart."
Another bewildered look from them made her sigh and roll her eyes. "I'm clearly your prisoner. You could keep me under guard at all times when I'm teaching him."
"She's lying," said Sokka to the others. "She has to be. I bet you anything she is here to distract us long enough for her father to send his troops here."
"Aww, that means we have to leave again," The Duke grumbled.
"No," Azula said. "I betrayed my nation and my own father to come here and I told no one where I was going. If you believe nothing else, believe that."
Face scrunched up, Toph strode across the room and placed her hand on the floor next to the princess. Her expression changed to one of surprise. "Guys, I think she's telling the truth."
Everyone looked to Aang then, who had instinctively reached around to the scar on his back. He turned his head away and shook it.
Katara gave a quick, firm nod. "It doesn't matter. She's not welcome here."
She flicked her wrists and the water instantly melted. Toph bent the stone slabs back into the ground, and a very wet Azula got to her feet. "We'll let you go this time, Azula," Katara continued, "but if you value your life, don't come back."
"Yeah!" Sokka added. "We'll be merciful this time, but if we see you again..." He made a cutting motion over his throat with his sword, which then nicked him. "Ow!"
"You'll change your mind," she told them, her eyes focused on Aang. "You'll have to, if you want to defeat my father before the comet comes. Believe me, you want to defeat him before the comet comes."
She walked out of the temple, ascended a rope back up to the top of the cliff and disappeared from sight.
What would have been a discussion about a new plan for facing the Fire Lord became instead a lengthy debate on what to do about Azula. Sokka favored taking her prisoner, but Katara pointed out that they had just let her go. "Right," he said, "she'll never see it coming."
Dismissing this idea, Katara advised that they pack up and find somewhere new to camp. This was met by a collective groan from the Earth Kingdom boys and a staunch refusal from Aang. "Appa is tired. He has to rest and eat. He needs to regain his strength."
"But Aang, she's almost certainly given away our location by now..."
While the debate raged on, Toph stood off to the side, flexing her feet on the stone. Through the earth, at the very periphery of her seismic sense, she could 'see' Azula running through a series of motions that was likely bending practice. Upon finishing, the princess wandered beyond her earthvision and Toph began to pace, scared of what she might be up to. Then Azula returned holding something, a thing that Toph finally figured out was some kind of animal she had caught for her dinner when she sat down and began slicing it up and putting pieces of it in her mouth. Pretty self-sufficient for a princess, although it probably helped that she could catch and cook her dinner in one blast.
"What do you think, Toph?"
"Huh?" She focused on the vibrations that told her where her friends were and realized that they all were facing towards her.
"What do you think we should do about Azula?" Katara repeated.
"I think we have bigger problems to worry about," she snapped. "Like how the comet's coming in less than a month, Aang still doesn't know firebending and we have no idea how we're going to take down the Fire Lord."
Sokka laughed curtly. "So, what, you think maybe we should ask Azula for help after all?"
"No," Katara interjected. "That's not even on the table for consideration. That's such a bad idea that we're not even going to think about thinking about it."
"Yeah, I know," Toph muttered. "I just don't know what to do."
In the silence that followed, Aang stood up, snatched up his glider, stormed over to the edge and took off. Katara shot to her feet and ran after him. "Aang! Aang! Come back! It's not safe! Ooooh!" Toph felt the slam of her foot on the stones. "Why does he have to be so dramatic all the time!"
Sokka heaved a big sigh and turned to the others. "We should get started on dinner. I'm going to go dig through our bags, see what we have."
"Why don't we go exploring, see what the temple has to offer," Toph heard Teo say, and she 'saw' Haru and the Duke nod in response.
"While you're doing that," Sokka said, "see where all the entrances are to this place, any points where we might be especially vulnerable to attack."
As they took off he turned to Toph. "Help me get some firewood?" She nodded and they headed off, leaving Katara to watch for Aang's return.
She was still in the same spot when they got back with armfuls of wood, her head tilted up toward the sky. As Toph created a pit for Sokka to build the fire in, she wondered how Aang could stand all that motherly attention Katara showered on him. Spirits knew it made Toph want to tunnel into the ground and stay there--though truth be told, Katara hadn't been so bad since that stunt they pulled in that Fire Nation town. She seemed to be focusing it all on Aang now, and he just ate it up. Blech.
As Sokka mumbled curses under his breath over the difficulty of getting the wood to light with the sparks from fire rocks -- seriously, the people of the Water Tribe must sit in their igloos thinking up creative swears all day long -- Toph thought idly that if Azula were part of their team, the fire would be lit and the cooking pot already in place over it. Then she mentally smacked herself.
Just as they were all sitting down to eat, two light footfalls and the bang of a glider closing signaled that Aang had come back. Katara fussed over him and he mumbled an apology. After dinner, exhaustion from the events of the eclipse and the long walk across the plateau finally sunk in, making everyone pass out except for Toph. Her body ached, feeling much heavier than normal, but her racing brain would not let her join the others in sleep.
Once she was sure no one was awake, she slipped away from the camp and bent herself up to the top of the cliff, where Azula's camp sat in the middle of a grove of trees. When she crept up to the slowly dying fire, Azula rolled over and said, sleepily, "Hello."
"Hi," Toph replied, soft and guarded. "I bet you know why I'm here."
"Mmm, let me guess. You want to know why, after all the trouble I went through to capture the greatest city in the Earth Kingdom for my father and convince my brother to come back home, I decided to throw it all away and come here. Is that it?"
"Yeah, that pretty much sums it up."
Azula propped her head up on one arm. "You have to understand what it was like, growing up as princess of the Fire Nation. All my life I've been told that my father, and his father and grandfather before him, were trying to unite all people under one banner so that everyone could share equally in the prosperity and glory of the Fire Nation. I've been conditioned to believe that the Avatar was the enemy of that illustrious goal and that the true agent of peace in the world was the Fire Lord. If only people would stop resisting him, we could have utopia."
She stretched and sat up. "Then my father held a war meeting the day before the eclipse. After we finalized the details of how we would handle your invasion, we moved onto the plans for the day of Sozin's comet. My father decided to use the comet's power to wipe out the Earth Kingdom. Burn the forests and towns, slaughter the people, destroy it utterly. Including the colonists."
Azula leaned forward and her voice took on a passion Toph had never heard in it before. "That's not what this war was supposed to be about. We were supposed to be fulfilling my great-grandfather's vision of a prosperous, united world. Instead my father wanted to perpetuate another genocide. At that moment I realized that he was not trying to benefit people, but simply exercise his power for his own selfish pleasure. I could no longer support him. I had to leave."
Toph was silent for a long time. Azula didn't move, and even the forest seemed still.
"I want to believe you," she finally said. "I really do."
"It doesn't matter if you do or not, does it?" Azula replied. "What's important is that the Avatar--"
"Aang," Toph interjected.
"--Aang defeats my father. As I understand it, he must learn firebending to do this, right?"
"And does he have any other possible teachers?"
Toph hawked up a glob of thick mucus and spat it with precise aim at a small stone some paces off. "No."
She couldn't tell if the princess was bothered by that or not, for her reply was in the same even tone. "When he's ready, I'll be here." She lay back down on her pallet, and Toph crept away.
Katara looked up at Sokka's question. "She's not in her room?"
He shook his head, then addressed Teo, Haru and the Duke as they came out of the temple, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes. "Any of you seen Toph?" They replied in the negative.
Aang, who had been sitting quietly in the corner, stood up, grabbed his glider, and started toward the canyon. "I'll go look for her."
Suddenly a hole broke open in the cliffside just to the right of the covered courtyard. "No need, Twinkletoes," came Toph's voice from inside the hole. It widened until it was large enough for her to crawl out, dirt and bits of rock falling from her hair and clothes.
"What were you doing in there?" Sokka asked with a bemused expression.
"Couldn't sleep." She turned her face away. "I went to see Azula."
A collective gasp arose from the group, and Katara exploded. "What did you do that for? She's dangerous!"
"Yeah, she is. But..." Toph rubbed her face. "She really wants to help us. She's realized that her father is just a power-hungry jerk-face and she wants to defeat him as much as we do. "
"Oh, she's realized that now," said Sokka. "She couldn't have come to that conclusion two months ago before she shot Aang with lightning and drove us all out of Ba Sing Se?"
"Why are we even talking about this?" Katara shouted. "She's evil. She hurt Aang. Nothing will make me forgive her. Nothing!"
"But the Fire Lord is going to burn down the Earth Kingdom, Katara! My home. Our home." She indicated the three Earth Kingdom boys with her arm.
Katara's eyes went wide, then she scrunched up her face. "How do you know Azula's not lying about that?"
"She's not," Toph replied, her expression hard. "Even if she is lying about everything else, I believe that part. The Fire Nation does have a history of killing entire groups of people."
The heavy silence that followed was finally broken by Sokka. "Look, despite what we all might think, Aang's the Avatar and this is his deal. Aang, we'll do whatever you want."
Aang looked at all of them. Weariness made him seem much older than his twelve years. He opened his mouth to speak...
...and was cut of by a blast ripping up the ground behind him. The force of it sent him flying, but he caught himself with a gust of wind and landed on his feet.
Sokka peeked around the pillars and his mouth fell open. "It's Combustion Man!" His exclamation was met with another blast hitting the pillar he hid behind. He ducked and ran before it could collapse on him.
"How did he find us?" shouted Toph, firing boulders at the assassin, all of which he exploded mid air with his blasts.
"Azula led him here," said Katara darkly. "I'm sure of it."
"It doesn't matter!" Aang popped open his glider. "All that matters is stopping him."
He made to take off, but Katara grabbed him. "No, Aang. He'll get you before you even reach him."
"Oh, great. You want me to take on the Fire Lord, but you don't even trust me to handle this?"
Her face fell. "Aang...that's not..."
"Guys," Toph interrupted. "Did you notice something?"
They all froze. Sokka caught on first. "He's not attacking us anymore."
They dared to peer up at the path along the sheer rock face where Combustion Man had been standing, and saw Azula on the path between him and them, shooting her distinctive blue flames at him. He blocked each gout of fire with his metal arm, but each one forced him to walk backwards along the narrow path, barely avoiding falling off at several points.
Suddenly she stopped, though she maintained a bending stance. They waited for him to attack her, but he just stood there, studying her.
"You know who I am," she said. "The Avatar is under my protection. Leave now."
He stared at her for another moment, then broke into low chuckles.
"Well," she said as he stopped laughing and started inhaling, "it was worth a shot."
As the explosive blast shot out from his tattoo she leapt up above it, flipped backward...and missed the edge completely. All except Toph watched in horror, even Katara, as Azula plummeted out of sight.
Combustion Man turned toward them, readying another blast. They barely got out of the way and each started preparing their counter attacks when Azula's voice stopped them. "Hit his head!"
They whirled to their right and saw her levitating in the gorge, held up by flames shooting from her fists. "Hit him in the tattoo!" she shouted.
Sokka looked down at his boomerang, closed his eyes for a brief moment as if praying, then threw. The boomerang hit the assassin square in the center of the inked eye on his forehead just as he was about to fire. His face contorted, grew red and swollen, then...
"Ew," said the Duke as little bits of Combustion Man splattered against the cliff face and rained down into the canyon.
Azula calmly flew over and landed on the courtyard edge. She regarded Aang without speaking. He did not meet her gaze. Everyone else was silent.
"I don't like you," he finally said, "and I don't trust you. But I'm running out of time and I need a teacher."
"Good," she said. "We'll start first thing tomorrow morning. Let me go get my things."
"No, I'll get them," Sokka said. "You're to be kept under guard at all times. Have to make sure you're not sending any messages back to the Fire Nation. All right with you, Aang?"
Aang nodded, and Sokka set off. Just before leaving the courtyard, he halted. "Uh, Toph? Where is Azula's camp?" Toph snorted and headed off, grabbing his arm on the way and dragging him along.
Katara turned to Azula and broke into a wide, superficial smile. "How about Haru and I show you to your room?"
She led the way. Azula walked behind her with her head held high, and Haru took up the rear. At one of the empty rooms Katara made a grand sweeping gesture with her arms. "Here you are, Princess."
Her nose turned up slightly, Azula strode past her. She stopped in the middle of the room and slowly pivoted, taking in the stark windows, the simple bed, the plain stone walls. "I know it's not what you're accustomed to," Katara said behind her in that same high pitched, fake-nice tone. "but I do hope you'll be comfortable."
"It will be fine," said Azula.
Gritting her teeth, Katara turned to Haru. "Can you go check on everyone?"
"Are you sure?" he asked, looking from her to Azula and back. The princess had sat down on the edge of the narrow bed and was running her hand over the thin cover.
"I can take care of myself," she said with a gentle smile.
"That you can," he said, smiling back, but he shot one more look at Azula before turning and heading back out.
Katara stepped into the room and put her hands on her hips. "Who sent Combustion Man?"
Azula burst into laughter. "That's what you called him?" Her laughs broke off. "That's actually quite appropriate." At Katara's dirty look she shrugged. "I'm pretty sure it was my brother. It's the kind of thing he would do. You probably remember how paranoid he could get. He must have had reason to suspect that the Avatar survived and didn't want our father to find out, else he'd be upset. My father can be a bit cruel when he is upset. He is the one who gave Zuko his scar, after all."
Katara flashed back to the catacombs under Ba Sing Se, remembering how she had shown Zuko the spirit water, how she had offered to heal his scar. He got it from his own father? She never would have imagined...
She stopped that line of thought. She would not feel sorry for him. No matter how abusive the Fire Lord was, Zuko still chose to go back to him.
"Wait," said Azula, breaking into Katara's thoughts. "You think I sent the assassin?"
Katara shook off the memories and refocused on her. "I think it's awfully convenient that he showed up right after you did. Then you could fight him and pretend to be some kind of hero just to trick us into bringing you into the group, all so you can stab Aang in the back at the first opportunity. That is something you would do."
Azula was regarding her thoughtfully. "You're right. That is something I would do. But I didn't send him."
"It doesn't matter. I'm going to be watching you every second of every day. One false move, and I'll make sure you don't leave this temple alive."
Katara backed slowly out of the room, glaring. Azula leaned back on her hands and watched her go, not even a trace of fear on her face.
Chapter 3: The Heart of Firebending
Takes the place of "The Firebending Masters"
"How much firebending have you done?"
Aang looked up from the crumbling column base he was sitting on. "A little."
"On your own?"
"I was learning from...uh, a guy. But we didn't get far before Zhao attacked us."
Azula folded her arms, ignoring the breeze playing with her hair. "Show me what he showed you."
Aang rubbed the back of his head. "It was mostly just breathing." He hopped down, spread his legs, bent his knees and began inhaling and exhaling.
Azula waved a dismissive hand. "All right, I get it. You can stop." As Aang straightened, she said, "What that guy" - the way she said the words 'that guy' made Aang feel like she knew something that she wasn't saying - "showed you is great for little baby firebenders with years to master the art, but you don't have years. So we're going to expedite the process. Moves today, add fire tomorrow, competency by the end of the week. I'm not promising mastery; there just isn't time, but you will be able to firebend as well as the average bender."
"Okay, I guess.
"Start with this stance." She spread her legs, bent her knees , and held her fists at her waist, turned upwards.
Aang imitated her, and she frowned. "No. You're too weak and floppy. Suck in your stomach, straighten your back, hold up your head, and act like a firebender!"
"I don't know what a firebender acts like!"
"Not like a beaverhog afraid of its own shadow!" Azula squeezed her eyes shut, took a deep breath, then said more calmly. "Again."
When she was satisfied, she showed him another basic stance, then more. After several hours, he was able to slide into each on command. Katara showed up as Azula was running him through the series a second time. "Lunch is ready."
Aang turned to her with a grateful smile, but Azula snapped, "He'll eat later. We can't stop now."
"He can take a break!" Katara shot back.
Aang really wanted to go with her, but at Azula's fierce look he sighed. "I should keep at it for a while longer, Katara."
"Okay," she said, her voice gentle, but he saw her give Azula one final glare before she left.
If Azula noticed, she ignored it. "Alright. Now we're going to take the stances you learned and put them in a sequence, adding in the appropriate blocks and kicks, flowing from one move to the next. Like so."
She demonstrated a short series of moves, which Aang did his best to copy, only to earn scathing criticism. Azula berated him through each subsequent series until he finally exploded. "I need a break!"
"Fine! But when you come back, you better come back ready to do it right!" she shouted after his retreating form. "Or else you might as well surrender to my father now!"
Aang stomped down the path to the main courtyard where the others were lounging, lazy in the midday heat. Katara sat on the fountain’s rim, combing out the snarls of her wet hair. “Aang?”
He growled, made a beeline for the water, and submerged his head in it. When he brought it back out, he heard Sokka say “Sounds like Aang’s having a lot of fun with the princess.”
“She’s so frustrating! Nothing I do makes her happy!”
He slumped on the rim next to Katara and she put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s hot, and you’ve been working all morning. You’ll probably feel better once you eat.”
She was right, but then she often was. As Aang sipped on some water after his meal, he looked back up to where Azula had begun a practice set of her own, more advanced than what she had been teaching him. Did she ever quit? He could respect her drive, he supposed.
“Be back later, guys,” he said, grabbing a second cup of water.
Azula paused as he approached, and he held the cup out to her. “Yo u haven't had anything to drink today e ither,”
She smoothed away her surprised look and took it from him. “Thank you.”
He took a seat on the column base and she perched on a fallen bit of pillar beside him. A passing breeze provided welcome relief from the heat of the day, the water was refreshingly cool and clear, and Aang felt the tension in his back and neck ease a little.
He glanced sideways at his enemy-turned-teacher. Azula had set her cup aside and was staring off into the distance. Aang thought briefly about asking her what she was thinking about, but opted to instead say, "What if I can't do it?"
Azula snapped out of her thoughts and turned to him. "What, firebending? Why wouldn't you be able to do it?"
"I..." Aang hesitated. He wasn't ready to share his feelings about burning Katara with Azula. Just because he had accepted her as his teacher didn't mean he was ready to become friends. As if echoing his feelings, the scar on his back twinged.
Fortunately, Azula didn't wait for his answer. "Look, the way I see it, bending isn't an art or a skill. It's a piece of your soul that you pull out of yourself and put into what you're bending, to make it succumb to your will. The moves, the training, that's all so that you can channel it without losing yourself completely. There's a part of you that is a firebender, that has always been a firebender. I'm not so much trying to teach you something as I am trying to find the key that will unlock what's already there."
Aang blinked. "You really think so?"
"I don't think. I know."
He regarded her. "You are really inspirational when you want to be."
"Of course I am." Azula jumped to her feet. "We have a few more hours before dusk. Let's try to get some more training in."
After dinner, the Duke and Haru agreed to guard Azula in her room, and Toph, Teo and Sokka wandered off to another part of the temple, leaving Aang and Katara alone for the first time since the kiss on the top of the submarine. She took a seat beside him underneath the large mural of air bison flying among the clouds.
"You really seem to be getting the hang of those moves."
Aang shrugged. "I haven't actually tried firebending yet."
"You'll get it, I know you will." Katara fell silent for a minute, then said, "If someone had said three months ago that Azula would be teaching you firebending, I would have thought they were drinking Sokka's cactus juice." He laughed, but she didn't smile. "I still don't like it, Aang. Her being here. I know she's got some secret agenda and I'm terrified you're going to get hurt again. Or worse."
He didn't answer right away. Her hair tumbled over one shoulder and she began twisting a lock of it in her hands. He wondered how it would feel if he ran his fingers through it. Had he ever told her how much he liked it down? Was she ever going to say anything about the kiss? She was acting the same as she had before, like it never happened, and...
"What do you mean, what? I just said, I'm worried you're going to get hurt."
"I have to learn firebending, don't I? What choice do I have? Besides, Azula's a good teacher."
"So you're defending her now?"
"No! I mean, I dunno. I think she was confused."
"Right. You nearly died because she was confused. Let's all forgive her now." Katara stood up, brushed off her clothes and stalked off before he could reply. He groaned and buried his face in his arms.
The sun shone down as bright and pleasant as the day before, but Aang barely noticed. He couldn't make himself relax. Doing firebending moves was one thing, actually bending fire was quite another. And he kept thinking about Katara's furious face as she walked off the previous evening. She hadn't talked to him since, and...
Azula cut into his thoughts. "Today will be fairly simple. Just go through the same sequence you did yesterday, but this time see if you can generate a little bit of flame when you do it."
Aang obediently went through the moves, but not so much as a curl of smoke came from either his fists or his feet.
"Again," Azula ordered. The thin line of her lips became thinner as he did the sequence again with no results. "What is the matter with you? Where is your focus? You almost had it yesterday and now it's completely gone."
"I can't focus! I can't do it!" He threw up his hands. "I'll never master all the elements, your father will kill me and then kill everyone I love and everyone they love. I'd be better off trying to find everyone somewhere to hide on the day of the comet."
Azula folded her arms. "What about that thing you do with the glowing eyes?"
Aang turned his back on her. "I haven't gone into the Avatar State since you tried to kill me. I don't know if I can anymore. So, thanks for taking my one good shot at beating the Fire Lord away from me."
She mused on this information for a moment, then said, "If you don't mind me asking, how did you survive?"
"Katara healed me." Better not to explain how, he decided. Best to let her think Katara was naturally capable of miracles, just in case she was planning anything.
"You also came running for her when she was captured. How did you even know she was in trouble?"
Saying 'a vision told me' seemed like a bad idea. Azula didn't seem like the type to put much stock in visions. Aang shrugged, still looking away from her. "I just knew."
"She means a lot to you, doesn't she?" Azula's voice had grown softer, almost sad. The sound of it made him turn around. Her head was bent and her hair covered her face. "I've never felt that way about anyone, and no one has ever felt that way for me." She lifted her head and met his eyes. "What's it like?"
In spite of himself, Aang felt the words spilling out of him. "It's the best thing in the world, and the worst."
"What would you do for her?"
"What wouldn't I do?" He spread his arms. "I'd fly across the world to find her. I'd make an island for her if she wanted. I'd...I'd bring her mother back from the dead, if it were possible."
"You'd stop the Fire Lord?"
Azula strode forward, a strange light in her eyes. "Tell me how you're feeling now."
"Huh? I don't know."
"Yes, you do. Describe it."
"Yes." She drew closer. "Like you're on fire from the inside out, right?"
Aang backed up. "Um..."
"That's the fuel. Use that, take it and push it through your body. Make what you're feeling inside visible on the outside. Bend. Now!"
He took a stance and punched out, just as she had taught him. A curl of smoke and a bit of heat wavered through the air in front of his fist.
Azula let out a big breath, like she had been holding it. "I was so sure that would work." She turned away from him and headed down the path toward the main temple. "Training's over for today. Go be in unrequited love somewhere else."
Feeling more useless than he had since waking up in the Fire Nation ship, Aang went down to where Appa was sunning himself.
"Aang?" Katara's voice. It always seemed more gentle when she was talking to him, but maybe he was just imagining it. She came toward him with a smile. "Where are you off to?"
He couldn't look at her. "I'm just going for a ride. I'll be back later."
Appa lumbered to his feet and Aang hopped onto his head. "Yip yip," he said, and they rushed up toward the dome of cloudless blue.
"So how's the jerkbending going?" asked Sokka at dinner.
Aang gave him a shrug and a weak smile. "It's slow."
"It's non-existent," snapped Azula from her spot against the wall, some paces away from the group.
Toph leaned back on her hands, a pensive look on her face. "Maybe Aang needs a new tactic. A new way of looking at firebending. Maybe he needs to go to the original source."
"Should he go jump into a volcano?" Sokka joked.
"I don't know. For earthbending, the original benders are the badgermoles. One day, when I was little, I ran away and hid in a cave. That's where I met them. They were blind, just like me, so we understood each other. I was able to learn earthbending, not just as a martial art, but as an extension of my senses. For them, the original earthbenders, it wasn't just about fighting. It was their way of interacting with the world."
That's amazing, Toph," said Aang. "I learned from the monks, but the original airbenders were the Sky Bisons." He gestured toward the mural on the back wall that Azula was sitting against, and everyone, including her, craned their necks up to look. Aang turned and shouted to Appa, "Maybe you can give me a lesson sometime, buddy!"
Azula sniffed. "The original firebenders were the dragons, and they're extinct. My uncle killed the last of them about forty years ago."
"That's awful," said Katara.
Aang's face fell. "Iroh seemed like such a nice guy."
"The Fire Nation Royal family is a complicated bunch." Azula got to her feet. "I'm ready for bed."
"Who's got guard duty tonight?" Sokka asked the others.
Toph raised her hand. "I'll do it." She got up and followed Azula down the hall. Though she didn't go into the room, with her earth sense she 'watched' Azula rummage around in her bag, take out a brush and begin running it through her hair.
A moment later, she paused in her strokes. "Toph?"
"Come here for a second."
Toph ambled in, projecting casual calm, but secretly ready to encase Azula in stone if she tried anything. But the princess just sat upon the bed and put her brush down. "What do you know about Aang and Katara?"
"Other than the fact that his heart jumps around like a rabbiroo whenever she goes near him?"
"Ah, yes. Must be fairly obvious to you."
"I try to ignore it."
Azula chuckled. "How does she feel about him?"
Toph frowned, trying to find a good way to explain it. "Her pulse speeds up too, but not in the same way. Not exactly. It's more like fear."
"She's afraid of him?" Azula sounded incredulous.
"No, no. It's more like she's afraid for him, and afraid of herself if she thinks too much about him."
Now Azula sounded skeptical. "You can see all that?"
"Not exactly. I'm just trying to make sense of what's going on inside them with how they act with each other."
Azula leaned forward slightly. "I think if I can get Aang to overcome his hangups about her, he'll firebend."
Toph contemplated this. "You might be right. He burned her, you know, the first time he tried to firebend. That's what Sokka told me, anyway."
Azula's eyes lit up. "Yes. It makes perfect sense. Okay, this is what I need you to do..."
When Aang awoke, he rolled over to see Katara sitting up on her bedroll and stretching. Her hair was mussed and she was still rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. No matter how many times he saw her like this, it never got old. He couldn't imagine waking up any other way.
Katara's attention, however, was focused on the other side of the courtyard. "What is going on?"
Aang sat up to see what she was looking at. A low stone table had been covered with a red cloth and set with china that looked way out of place in the ruins of the temple. There were even stubs of candles burning in a shallow bowl filled with water and late summer flower petals. Teo was busy at the fire stirring something in the cooking pot, while the Duke strolled over to the table and set a bowl of seasoned vegetables down. "Breakfast is ready!" he said with a big grin.
"Wow, guys," Aang said as he and Katara knelt at opposite sides of the table. "This looks great. Smells great too."
"Where are the others?" Katara asked.
"Haru and Sokka are out hunting," the Duke answered, setting down another dish filled with saffron rice--where did they find saffron around here-- "and Toph and Azula went somewhere to spar."
"And we already ate," said Teo, "and since we cooked, you guys gotta do the dishes. So...bye!" The Duke jumped on the back of his chair and they rolled out of the courtyard and inside the temple.
They exchanged curious looks, then Katara shrugged. "Let's eat."
Neither of them spoke much during the meal. Yesterday's conversation with Azula was still on Aang's mind, but he didn't know how to approach the subject with Katara.
After breakfast, she bent some water out of the fountain and began swishing out the cooking pot. Aang stacked the other dishes and brought them over, opened his mouth to speak, then decided he should finish cleaning off the table. As he began folding the cloth covering the table, he wondered who had set all this up. This stone looked like it had been bent out of the ground recently, and the red fabric was a very fine, soft weave...
"Aang, I'm finished." Katara appeared at his side, took the folded cloth from him and set it down. "What do you want to do? Practice waterbending?"
"Sure." A small voice in the back of Aang's mind whispered that no amount of practice on an element he already could bend was going to help if he couldn't even do simple firebending, but he pushed that voice away.
Katara clapped. "I know. How about a real challenge?" She walked to the edge of the courtyard and peered down into the gorge. "I think there's a river down there. How about we each try and bend some of it up?"
Aang looked down, where a strip of silver that looked no wider than a hair meandered along the distant bottom of the canyon. "Long-distance waterbending?"
`"I think I can do it." Katara furrowed her brows in concentration and moved through a fluid waterbending form. At first it seemed like nothing happened, but then a thin ribbon of water came winding out of the canyon until it was level with them, wiggling back and forth like a sea serpent. She released it and it fell back down as a shower, the drops glinting diamond-bright in the sun. The smile she offered him was more than a bit smug.
Aang flexed his hands, then did the same form with flawless technique. Nice to do some bending without the anticipation of nasty comments. The thin rope of water came up like before, but didn't quite make it as high before he lost his focus and it broke apart. He shrugged with a happy smile. "I'm never going to be as good as you, I guess."
"It's just because I specialize. You're still amazing." As soon as the words were out, Katara's cheeks turned pink. Aang felt himself blushing too.
"I've always wondered how much bending depends on me, you know?" she went on. "Not just how far away I can get water from, but other things too. If there's water nearby, but I can't see it, can I still bend it? Do I have to know it's there? If I go back to the desert and try bending, would water just come out of the ground?"
"I dunno," Aang answered with a shrug and a smile.
Katara's own smile disappeared. "Oh. Nevermind, I'm just being silly. I guess it's just Sokka's sciencey-thinking rubbing off on me."
"No, no," he said in a rush. "You're not being silly. Those are really good questions. We should go find out sometime. I mean, if you want me to help."
That was apparently the wrong thing to say. Katara's face was stricken with sudden sorrow, which she quickly covered up by turning away and walking back toward the interior of the courtyard. As Aang watched her go in consternation, his argument with Azula surfaced vividly in his mind.
"Suck in your stomach, straighten your back, hold up your head, and act like a firebender!"
"I don't know what a firebender acts like!"
"Not like a beaverhog afraid of its own shadow!"
Screwing up his face in determination, he marched after her. "Katara, wait."
She slowly turned back to face him. His heart felt like it was about to leap into his throat and his stomach seemed to be making a scorpion bee-line for his knees, but he forced himself to speak.
"I love you."
She bent her head and said in a very small voice, "I know."
"Were you going to say anything?"
She sank down onto the fountain rim. "Do we have to talk about this now?"
"Yes. I want to know. If you don't love me, just tell me and I'll never bring it up again."
Katara stared down into the water. Moments passed, each eons long. Finally, she spoke.
"In the catacombs, I watched you go into the Avatar State, and somehow I knew that even though you were still in there, in some ways you were also leaving me. And then Azula shot you with that lightning bolt and you fell, and it was like my mother's death all over again." She buried her face in her hands. "Now, you're going to go off to face the Fire Lord and I just can't go there...I can't...it hurts too much."
Now Aang felt like his stomach was in his throat and his heart was sinking towards his feet. "You don't think I can defeat him, do you?"
She dropped her hands, but kept her gaze on the ground. "It's not that. I believe in you; I wouldn't have come all this way with you if I didn't. I'm just scared. I can't help it.
Aang recalled their long trek through the desert, when all he could think about was missing Appa, Sokka had drowned rational thought in cactus juice and Toph was an unwanted silent presence. Instead of erupting in anger like she sometimes did, or giving up and letting them all die out there, Katara kept them together and moving.
How many times had she saved him?
How could he let her down now?
"I'm going to defeat the Fire Lord, Katara."
Though that had been the goal all along, this time Aang truly believed that he could do it. Not by taking advantage of a momentary weakness, but through his own ability.
He knelt by Katara and took her hand. "I'm going to defeat him, and when I do...will you...be with me?"
She looked up at him, tears at the corners of her eyes. With her other hand she wiped at them, then took a deep breath. "Yes."
Aang jumped to his feet, overcome by the feeling of energy pulsing through his body. Almost without thought he slid into a firebending stance and punched his fist out. Flame burst from his knuckles, bright and powerful.
"I did it," he murmured, then shouted, "I did it!" He spun around, then remembered no one else was there. "Aw, I wish Azula were back."
"I'm here," her voice called out, and a hole opened in the nearby cliff to show Toph and Azula casually lounging in an earthbent cave.
Katara shot to her feet, her face red. "Were you guys spying on us?"
"It was necessary," Azula replied, waving a dismissive hand. "I had to be sure my student would break through his mental block."
Aang broke into a grin. Okay, it was sneaky of Toph and Azula to set them up, but Katara had promised to be his girlfriend, and he could firebend! How could he be upset about anything right now? "Did you see me?"
"Yes. You're still very sloppy and you need much more work, but...we may make a decent firebender out of you yet. Now hurry up, I want to get in a hundred sets of hot squats and five bending sequences before lunch. Then after lunch, I'm stepping things up even further."
With that, Azula strode off. Aang squeezed Toph's hand and said, "Thanks," then threw a soft smile at Katara before trotting after his teacher.
As soon as he was out of range, Katara turned on Toph. "So, you're all buddy-buddy with Azula now."
Toph threw up her hands. "Hey, I just wanted to help Aang. It worked, didn't it?"
"That doesn't make it okay!" She rubbed her forehead. "Was everyone in on this?"
"Not exactly. Haru and Sokka really are out hunting. I just asked Teo and The Duke to help out with breakfast and then me and Azula did the rest." Toph sounded more and more defensive with each word. "Sorry for hooking you up with Aang. Didn't know it was so awful."
Katara sighed. "I'm sorry. I just don't trust her."
Toph sniffed and spat onto the stones. "Think of it this way. Once Aang defeats the Fire Lord, she'll go back to the Fire Nation and you'll never have to see her again."
Katara stared after her as she walked off, then looked up to the space where Azula was running Aang through the firebending exercises. A question bubbled up in her mind, clear as the fountain water.
Once the Fire Lord was gone, who would take over?
Chapter 4: The Boiling Rock, Part 1
"You know what I want right now?" Toph announced loudly to the group around the campfire.
Sokka looked up from polishing his sword. "You're going to tell us whether we want to know or not, right?"
"I want tea," continued Toph as if he hadn't spoken. "I miss going into a town and getting a good cup of tea."
"Since when did you become a tea snob?" asked Katara.
"I'm not a snob. I'm just sick of plain water. Hey Azula!"
The princess, who was sitting way back in the corner inspecting her nails--which she seemed to do anytime she wasn't drilling Aang like an army sergeant--looked up.
"Do you know how to make tea?" Toph asked.
Azula arched an eyebrow. "Why would I have any need for that skill?"
"Well, Mr. Tea Man Iroh is your uncle too. Thought something might have rubbed off."
"Not if I could help it," she muttered. Louder, she said, "It's not like making tea is hard. Pour boiling water over leaves and drink."
"I think there's a little more to it than that." Teo said, helping himself to another bowl of rice.
"Zuko and Iroh were big shot tea makers when they were playing refugee in Ba Sing Se," Toph went on, a smile dancing on her lips. "I guess that's one thing Prince Pouty was better at."
Narrowing her eyes, Azula jumped to her feet, stalked over to her bag, dug around in the interior, and withdrew a small pouch, a lovely stoneware teakettle carved with dragons, and a porcelain tea set with a flame motif. Filling the kettle at the fountain, she put it on the stand over the fire and shot a burst of flame underneath it. The fire blazed up almost to her height, causing everyone else to yell and back away. Azula sat down, crossed her arms and legs and stared at the kettle as if she could make it boil faster by her will.
When steam began to curl from the spout, she opened the pouch and emptied some of the contents into the small teapot, then poured some of the water from the kettle into it. Placing the lid on, she made to pour the liquid into the cups.
"You're supposed to pour the water out and refill the pot." Katara's smile could have cut steel. Sokka knew that smile all too well.
Her eyes fixed on Katara, Azula lifted the pot and and poured the water out onto the stones. Then she refilled it and made to pour again.
"Shouldn't you let it steep for a while?" Katara asked.
Azula set the little pot down and folded her arms again. "How about you pour yourself a cup when you think it's good enough?"
"It's good enough for me," said Toph.
With a single regal nod Azula began to pour the tea into the tiny cups, then she handed them out. Sokka took a sip, and immediately turned and spat it out. Toph followed suit; the others managed to swallow but couldn't help making disgusted faces.
"What was that?" Sokka choked out.
Azula peered inside her little pouch. "Oh. It seems I...grabbed one of my spice bags by mistake."
Toph was the first to laugh, and the others joined in. After a minute, Azula allowed a small smile to appear on her lips. The only one who didn't laugh was Katara.
As everyone began heading in the direction of their beds, Sokka caught up to Azula. "Hey, can I talk to you for a second?"
Azula didn't stop her stride. "What is it?"
"If someone was captured by the Fire Nation, where would they be taken?"
That did make her pause. "It depends on who it is and where they were captured. There are prisons in each colony and major city for ordinary criminals and army deserters. However, a particularly important prisoner, or one that the Fire Nation has deemed a significant threat, would be taken to the Boiling Rock."
"The Boiling Rock?"
"A prison built on an island in the middle of a lake inside a caldera. The heat from the caldera makes the water so hot that it boils. No one has ever escaped it."
Sokka's face fell. "Oh." As she started towards her room again, he asked, "Just out of curiosity, where is it?"
"You passed it on the way here, actually." She turned to face him, one hand on her hip. "And if you're planning to break in, you're dumber than I thought."
"What? I wasn't planning anything." Sokka's tone was less than convincing.
Azula sighed. "Who is so important that you'd risk capture and blowing the Avatar's cover for?"
They regarded each other in silence.
"If you had help," she finally said, "someone who knows Fire Nation prisons, and more specifically, Fire Nation wardens, you might be able to pull off an escape attempt."
"Are you offering to help?"
"Maybe, on one condition. You do everything I say, exactly as I say. No matter how it might look, you don't ask questions."
Sokka took a deep breath. "All right. We'll leave in the morning, tell the others we're going hunting. I just have to prepare Appa's saddle..."
"The bison? Just where do you think you're going to put a bison on a boiling lake? We'll take my air balloon. Now, is there anything else, or can I finally get some sleep?"
She entered her room and shut the door before he could answer.
In the semi-darkness of early morning, lit by the first few faint rays of dawn, the air balloon descended into the gorge. Azula guided it to the edge of the temple courtyard and tossed a rope to Sokka, who was standing there. He climbed up it and into the basket, and she immediately fired into the furnace, lifting the balloon far up above the island and into the clouds.
"Didn't wake anyone up," he said.
She gave him an absent nod, sat down in the single seat in the back and stared out at the sky.
"So what's your plan?" he continued. "You do have a plan, right?"
"Of course I do."
"So...what is it?"
Azula turned to him, her amber gaze steady. "You promised to do exactly as I say, to obey without question, no matter what it might look like or what you might hear. Do you still promise?"
"You didn't exactly put it like that," he began, but sighed when her eyes narrowed. "Yeah, fine. I agree to all that. What is your plan?"
"I'm going to take you prisoner and deliver you to the Warden."
"What!" Sokka spluttered, flailing his arms. "I knew it! I knew you were going to betray us."
"Oh, shut up and use your brain. You asked me to come on this foolish quest of yours, remember? And if I was really intending to trick someone into becoming my prisoner, it would be Aang, not his comedy relief."
"Comedy is good for bonding," he muttered, crossing his arms and leaning back against the side of the basket.
"I made sure no one knew that I was following you," Azula went on. "As far as anyone back home knows, I've simply disappeared. I plan to tell the warden that you all kidnapped me for ransom, but I managed to escape by taking you as a hostage. He'll believe anything I tell him to believe. You will be in for a rough time, being the Avatar's friend, but I'll try not to let things get out of control."
"I can handle some rough treatment." Sokka tried to sound tough, but the princess did not seem impressed as she went back to watching the clouds again. After a moment of turning over her plan in his mind, he said, "Just one question. How are we going to get out again?"
Azula sighed as if it was the dumbest question she had ever heard. "Once you find your father, I will insist on personally escorting the two of you back to the capital for further questioning. The warden might make some noise about it but ultimately he'll agree. We'll get back in my balloon, I'll swing south long enough to fool them, then we'll head north again."
She glanced at him. "They will send a message to the palace to expect my arrival. If I don't show up after a few days, my father will surely divert some of his armada to look for us, and the Air temple is the first place they will look. We will have to find a new place to hide. I really hope this is worth it, Sokka."
That was, he realized, the first time she had ever addressed him by name.
"It is," he said. "Katara, Aang and Toph will understand. Especially Katara."
"If you say so." Azula stood up and moved closer to him. He tensed, and she raised an eyebrow. "I need to get to the furnace."
Feeling silly, he slid over enough for her to open the furnace door. As she fired into the little metal chamber, he took in the fall of inky hair down her back, her slim waist, the curve of her buttocks underneath her thin pants..
No. No, no, no. It was one thing to ask Azula for help, but he was not going to start thinking of her as a girl.
Thinking of girls made him wonder what Suki was doing, if she had ever made it home to Kyoshi island. He hoped she had. Imagining her as a Fire Nation prisoner caused a twinge of sorrow and guilt in his chest. It's not like she would have abandoned her team to go with them, or that he could prevent her being taken prisoner if he had stayed with her, but still...
Wait a minute. Azula and those two other girls had entered Ba Sing Se and gotten close to the Earth King because they were dressed as...
Sokka stalked over to Azula, who blinked at seeing the fury on his face. "What?"
"Who?" She furrowed her brow.
"Suki. About yay high,"--he held his hand at the level of his cheek--"brown hair, you were wearing her armor when you took over Ba Sing Se?"
Azula blinked a few more times, then touched her temple with an 'aha' expression. "Oh, her. I forgot about her. A lot's happened to me since then."
Sokka clenched his fists and narrowed his eyes, causing her to sigh. "I had the Kyoshi warriors shipped to the Capital City prison. I don't know what happened to them after that. This Suki was their leader, though?"
"Yes," he said through gritted teeth.
"It's entirely possible she will be at Boiling Rock."
"She better be." He jabbed a finger in her face. "And she better be safe and unharmed. We're going to get her out of there."
"Yes, fine, whatever." She pushed his finger away. "It wouldn't hurt you to be a little more polite to the person who's trying to help you."
"I wouldn't need help if you and your people hadn't messed up the world for the past one hundred years!"
"And I'm trying to make amends!"
They glared at each other. Finally Sokka muttered, "Let's just get through this," and went to the other end of the basket.
The balloon was a lot slower than Appa, so dusk had fallen by the time they saw the caldera crest the horizon, steam billowing from its peak.
"We'll land at that dock there," she said, pointing to the small harbor built into one side of the caldera. "The steam will provide plenty of cover to get closer," Sokka observed.
"I want them to see us, remember? Besides, I don't want to go anywhere near that steam. It's heating up the air, which means it will be the same temperature as the air inside the balloon. Thus, the balloon would sink and we'd risk a crash."
Sokka couldn't help but be a little impressed. "I didn't know you knew so much about the physics of air and heat."
"Of course," said Azula. "What kind of firebender doesn't have a good understanding of thermodynamics? Now turn around, I need to tie you up."
"Right," he grumbled, and put his hands behind his back. From the bag they had brought she withdrew a rope and began to wind it around his wrists. When it was tied good and tight, she opened the furnace and tamped down the flame. As the balloon began to sink, she grabbed the rudder and steered it toward the one dock that was empty. It landed almost perfectly in the center and they scrambled out, Sokka managing not to fall despite lacking the use of his arms.
The road to the top was not that steep, so it wouldn't normally be a hard climb, but without the use of his arms for balance he had to be extra careful. Azula didn't even spare him a glance as she clambered up in front of him. If he weren't so irritated with the whole situation, he might have appreciated the view.
Once he reached the top he found her in an open air building, standing between two large boxy things that seemed to be some type of air car. On the roof of each car was a mechanism attached to steel cables that ran down to the prison across the boiling lake. Azula peered inside one, then inspected the space around it. "I can't make them move from here. I'll have to signal the prison."
Sokka's wrists already felt rubbed raw--she had wrapped that rope really tight--and his shoulders were beginning to ache. "Just hurry up."
She stood on the edge of the platform and shot several bursts of flame into the air. For what seemed like forever, nothing happened.
"What's going on?"
Azula gave another one of her little annoyed sighs. "First, they're probably trying to get a good look at us, but it's dark and the steam is heavy so their spyglasses are likely useless. Then they're probably arguing over who's going to leave their post to come up here. So if you wouldn't mind just trying to be a little patient, someone will be here shortly." She eyed him. "In a little while, sore arms will be the least of your problems."
He huffed in irritation and leaned back against one of the cars, which immediately started to move, causing him to yell and stumble away.
Several minutes later it came back with two guards inside, who took offensive stances as soon as they stepped out. "Who are you and what do you want?" one of them demanded.
Azula gathered up her hair and piled it on top of her head in a loose attempt at a knot. "Recognize me now?"
Their jaws dropped and so did they, prostrating themselves on the stone. "Forgive us, Princess. We had no idea..."
"Yes, yes, enough. Take me to the Warden. I have a new prisoner for him."
They glanced at Sokka as they got to their feet. "We can take him for you," said the one who had not yet spoken. He sounded younger than the first.
"No," snapped Azula. "This is a very important prisoner. I must deliver him to the Warden personally."
The older guard spoke again. "Forgive us, Princess, but the Warden will not be back until the morning."
"Then you will find me suitable sleeping arrangements so that I may await his return. Meanwhile, put this prisoner in maximum security. He's not a bender, but he's still dangerous."
"Yes, Princess," they chorused. The younger one grabbed Sokka and shoved him into the car. From the front window, the older one sent a rapid series of flame bursts into the sky. Seconds later the car jolted, swayed and began to move. As they descended the huge prison came into view, dominating the entirety of the tiny island in the center of the boiling lake. Sokka wasn't given much time to take it all in, though, as the car settled to a stop and he was hustled into the prison, down numerous stairs, into a dark, dank hall, and shoved into a cell.
As the door slammed shut, Sokka surveyed his new accomodations. A tiny window shone a thin crack of moonlight onto a worn pallet barely thick enough to ward off the chill from the stone floor. It smelled faintly of mold. Sokka sat on it, leaned his head back against the hard wall, and waited.
A sharp kick to his side startled Sokka out of a restless sleep. Over him towered a man with glittering eyes and a fierce smile.
"Wake up, savage."
"I'm awake," he grumbled. "You must be the Warden."
His words earned him another kick, this time to his shin. "You don't speak to me," the Warden said. "You're not fit to clean my boots with your tongue."
Sokka dragged himself up to a standing position and kept his mouth shut, but he didn't look away from the Warden's glare.
The Warden's mouth went from a smirk to a frown, but his voice stayed calm and low when he spoke. "Here's what's going to happen. A ship will be coming for you in a matter of days, probably sooner, given what you've done. You'll be taken to the capital to give a full confession of your crime; I hear it will be witnessed by the Firelord himself. In the meantime," he bared his teeth, "we'll be having a chat about where your friend the Avatar is."
"I'll tell you nothing," Sokka spat.
"That's what they all say." The Warden's mean smile was back. "It's not the guards you have to worry about, it's the other prisoners. Criminals or not, they're still loyal to the Fire Nation. They'd love to get their hands on you."
"I can take anything they or you dish out."
The Warden scoffed and turned to go. "Sure, you can. It doesn't matter. You're facing execution for what you've done."
Sokka felt his confidence drain away. "We didn't hurt the Princess."
"While kidnapping Fire Nation royalty would be a serious enough crime, that isn't what I'm talking about."
"What are you talking about, then?"
The Warden turned back to him, incredulous. When he spoke it was slowly, as if to a child. "I'm talking about the murder of Prince Zuko."
Chapter 5: The Boiling Rock, Part 2
The guard slugged Sokka in the jaw and his vision blurred. He shook it off and offered him a big, bloody grin.
"Where is the Avatar?" the other guard asked in a bored tone.
"In the Spirit World drinking tea with the Moon," Sokka replied, and the first guard punched him again. His head started to pound.
"That's enough," said a sharp female voice, and the two guards backed away. Through the haze of his vision Sokka could make out the form of someone in the doorway, but the voice didn't match Azula's. It was familiar though. "I want to speak to him."
"Lady Mai," said the guard who had been asking the questions. "Are you sure that's wise?"
"Do you remember who my uncle is? Leave."
The first guard nodded to the second, and they left. The girl shut the door behind them and leaned back against it. Her bangs hid her eyes. It took Sokka a moment, but he finally recognized her. "Hey, you're one of the girls who was with Azula a few months back."
She didn't answer. The ache in Sokka's head had dulled to a low throb. He shifted his weight on the chair and wiggled his wrists in their bindings, but found no give.
"Why'd you do it?" she finally asked, her voice low and flat.
He let out a tired sigh. "I didn't. I don't know who did."
"How can you expect me to believe that?"
"I don't. But it's the truth. Aang, Toph and I tried to find the Fire Lord but we got into a fight with Dai Li agents. By the time we shook them off, the eclipse was over and we had to get out of there. We never even saw Zuko."
For what seemed like forever Mai stood there with her head down.
"I believe you," she finally said.
Sokka felt a twinge of hope. "Great. Could you speak to your uncle, then? Maybe get my sentence changed to lifetime imprisonment or something?"
"You're still the Avatar's friend. Still an enemy." Mai raised her head to look at him, her pale gold eyes flashing. "Even if you didn't kill Zuko, the Fire Nation is better off without you."
The Warden opened the door of his office and stood aside, allowing Ty Lee to enter first. Once inside they both dropped to the floor and prostrated themselves. Azula, exuding a royal air despite her plain outfit and lack of flame hairpiece, acknowledged them with a nod and resumed scanning the parchments and scrolls spread out on the desk in front of her. Ty Lee was not about to stop at bowing, though. She bounced up, hurried over to Azula and threw her arms around her. "I've been so worried about you! Did the Avatar hurt you?"
Azula patted her arm and cleared her throat. Taking that as a sign to back off, Ty Lee withdrew to a more respectful distance. Only then did Azula answer, "I'm fine, Ty Lee. There's no need to get dramatic."
How could Azula be so calm? "The whole capital has been in an uproar since the eclipse. The bounty on the Avatar's head has tripled and they've speeded up the construction of the super war balloons so that they can go to the Western Air Temple and destroy it. If the Avatar's not there, then they're going to raze the Earth Kingdom to the ground looking for him."
Azula's face hardened. "I'm glad. I want them to pay for what they did to my brother. But that means I need to get back to the capital as quickly as possible. Warden, I'm not going to wait for a ship. I will be taking the prisoner in the balloon I came in."
The Warden, who had risen by this point, looked concerned. "Princess, is that wise? You told me he was dangerous..."
Azula's voice rose a little. "Are you daring to question me?"
The Warden's expression turned fearful and he bowed low. "No, Princess."
"Besides," she continued, "Ty Lee will come with me, won't you, Ty Lee?"
"Of course!" Azula may not have been the nicest friend to Ty Lee in the years they had known each other, but after all she had been through, and being the last remaining direct heir to the throne, she needed all the support she could get.
"Very well. I shall make the arrangements. My niece is already with the prisoner, shall I have her go with you as well?"
"Mai's here?" Azula asked sharply.
"She came with me," said Ty Lee, feeling a little confused. Was that wrong?
"I didn't think there was any harm in letting her go to the savage's cell," the Warden added. "She was very upset following the death of your brother the prince and she absolutely insisted..."
Azula cut him off. "It's fine. See to getting me some supplies for the trip. Ty Lee, go with him."
"Yes, Azula," she said. With another bow she and the Warden left.
It occured to Ty Lee as she followed the Warden to the storerooms that she had forgotten to mention what happened to General Iroh. She could tell Azula later on the balloon. Besides, in all honesty-and Ty Lee prided herself on being honest-Azula probably wouldn't care that much.
The guards didn't come back after Mai left. Alone in the dark interrogation room, Sokka tried one more time to loosen his bonds, but got nowhere. He probed at his teeth with his tongue and noticed a couple loose on one side. Katara might be able to heal that, if Azula was still on their side and would get him out of here.
The more time he spent in this chair, the more certain he became that she had duped him after all.
The door opened and he stiffened involuntarily.
"You look like hell," whispered Azula, shutting it behind her. Her voice held no trace of sympathy. "I did warn you. Is it bad?"
"Few loose teeth, massive headache, I can't feel my hands. No, it's not bad at all." He lifted his chin. "I didn't tell them where the rest of the group is though."
Azula shrugged. "Oh, they already know."
"What?" he shouted and she waved a frantic hand at him.
"Shut up! Do you want everyone to know that I'm trying to help you? If they find out I'm on your side, we'll both end up locked in here." Azula took a quick peek out the tiny window in the door. "I had to tell the Warden something, so I said that you all camped in some ruins on an island to the north of here. There are some other islands with ruins on them but they'll probably assume I meant the Western Air Temple and send their forces there first. Or they'll do something like send ships and balloons to all of them at once. Either way, Aang and the others are in danger."
"Because they think we killed your brother."
The lack of grief or anger in her tone and posture made him regard her curiously. "Do you know who did it?"
Azula frowned. "No. Why? Do you think I had something to do with it?"
"You don't seem too upset."
"Of course I'm upset!" she snarled, then sighed. "Look, Zuko and I weren't really close. He always felt that he had to one up me all the time, since I was the stronger firebender and did better in school."
Sokka had to admit he could sympathize with the dead prince a teeny bit. Not an easy thing, having a prodigy for a younger sister.
"I have a good idea who might have done it, though. One of the late Admiral Zhao's relatives, out for revenge. During Zuko's banishment many in his family hinted that they thought I was the more worthy heir, then when Zhao died at the North Pole they blamed him for it. I never thought any of them would have the guts to act on it, though."
"Okay, that's great and all, but your father is still going to execute me for his death."
"No, we are going ahead with the plan. But we have to hurry. Everyone at the temple is in danger. My father is sending his fleet of war balloons to lay waste to it and they won't stop until there's nothing left but rubble."
"What about my father and Suki?"
Azula lowered her gaze. "I checked the lists of prisoners. Your father isn't here. But you have to understand, the whole Fire Nation thinks that one of you killed my brother. The Crown Prince. Anyone involved with the invasion would be considered an accomplice and would face execution as well."
Sokka's whole body went slack, deflating like one of the war balloons. For a moment he couldn't breathe.
"I found Suki, though. She's in another wing of the prison. I'll figure out some excuse for her to come with us."
Under any other circumstance he would be grateful, but he was too numb to do more than nod. In the painful silence that ensued, Azula departed, but Sokka barely noticed.
Finding no one in her uncle's office, Mai asked a nearby guard where he had gone.
"To the storerooms with the Lady Ty Lee."
"And the Princess?"
"She went to the hawk tower. "
Mai nodded once. She stood in the doorway and waited until the hallway cleared, then went behind the desk and started looking through the papers and scrolls there. The scrolls were just lists of prisoners: which ones were in the coolers, which ones were given extra privileges for good behavior, who was to be transferred out, and who was coming in.
Seeing nothing of interest, Mai moved on to the wanted posters for the Avatar and his friends stacked in a corner of the desk. Flipping through them, she recognized the Water Tribe boy; his sister, the waterbender; and the earthbender they traveled with, but the others-a young man with goggles in a wheeled chair, a little boy with a helmet, and another earthbender who she could only tell was male because of his mustache-were unfamiliar to her. All the islands north of the capital had been notified to be on the lookout for them, to capture them alive if possible but to kill them if it wasn't.
Mai closed her eyes, remembering. She had not been allowed to see Zuko's body until the cremation. Embalmed, perfumed and dressed in a special robe, he had looked like a doll laid out on the bier. As the sages were lighting the fire she had entertained the notion that they were just burning his effigy, he was really out at sea again, and any day now he would come home...
But she had not allowed herself to drown in fantasy for long. The break-up letter from Zuko was her first clue that something about his demise was suspicious. It took days of hunting and cost her several months of allowance, but she had discovered that he was found a short distance away from the room his father stayed in, stabbed multiple times. Only the Avatar, the little female earthbender, and the Water Tribe boy had been spotted in the bunker; the others had been with the rest of the invasion force. Of those three, only one carried a weapon.
That made that Water Tribe boy the prime suspect.
Yet she had believed him when he denied it. Partly because of the way the fight had gone out of him at her question and the quiet frustration in his voice. Partly because every time they had fought the Avatar and his groupies, their tactics had always been to distract or immobilize, then run. Perhaps, if pushed, one of them could kill in self defense, but she didn't believe that any of them were capable of cold-blooded murder.
Mai knew that Zuko had been murdered, not stabbed in self defense. According to her sources, when he was found, his dao had been sheathed.
"Do you usually go snooping in your uncle's office or is this a special occasion?"
Azula stood in the doorway, back straight and feet together like a soldier, but her arms were folded and her gaze suspicious and disapproving.
Not that Mai cared what she thought, of course. She stepped away from the desk and forced herself to relax. "You're looking well, for someone who was kidnapped."
Azula narrowed her eyes just a little, but spoke in the same level tone. "I will be even better when the Avatar is brought to justice, and when his friend in the cell downstairs faces the executioner's flame. You, on the other hand, look like you haven't slept in days."
"That's because I haven't."
Azula dropped her hands and came around to sit behind the desk. "Losing Zuko has deeply affected us all. But I will make sure everyone involved will get what they deserve."
Mai fingered a blade deep within her sleeve. "Did you see Ty Lee?"
"Did she tell you your uncle also died?"
Azula lifted the wanted poster with the Avatar on it and held it up to the light. "No, how did it happen?"
"He burst out of his cage using nothing but his own strength, walked about five paces, and dropped dead."
"How awful," the princess said. "But I suppose it's a blessing that he died before finding out what happened to Zuko."
She put the poster down and turned to stare out the window. Beyond the lake and over the ridge of the caldera they had a view of the harbor, where tiny figures moved around Azula's small balloon and the single ship docked beside it. "If you have no other business here, you could go make yourself useful and help Ty Lee. She's down at the dock getting our balloon ready."
"Our balloon? Did you want me to go with you on that thing?"
"Of course not, it will be far too crowded. I expect that you will follow us on your ship and we'll meet back at the capital."
"I may leave before you do."
Azula waved a hand at her without turning around. "Whatever suits you."
Her tone indicated a dismissal, and Mai headed for the door. Before leaving, she turned. "You will be named heir, won't you?"
Azula looked over her shoulder. "Probably, but there are more important things to worry about right now."
"I've just been thinking that, on a list of people who might benefit from Zuko's death, you're at the top."
The princess spun slowly around and her look grew colder. "Are you implying something?"
"No, of course not. In my grief I'm obviously not thinking clearly."
"Obviously." Azula turned away. "Shut the door on your way out."
Ty Lee watched the guards push the cute Water Tribe boy and the Kyoshi Warrior girl onto the air car that would take them across the steaming lake. She didn't understand why the girl was coming too, but Azula said she had helped the Avatar and his friends before the invasion and that made her just as guilty as those that were actually there.
"Are you ready to go, Ty Lee?" asked Azula, coming up to her. She answered the princess's question with an eager nod. The heat was getting to be more than she could stand, and she wasn't too fond of the constant ogling from the male prisoners, either.
Azula led the way toward the car, but just as they were about to board, a voice stopped them.
They turned around to see Mai, standing with her head bent and her hands buried in her long sleeves.
"Mai." Azula sounded bored. "I thought you had left."
"I have some more information for you."
"It can't wait until we get to the capital?"
"Save it. We both know you're not going back to the Fire Nation."
Ty Lee furrowed her brow in puzzlement, and Azula scoffed. "Oh, really? And how do 'we' know this?"
Mai lifted her head and extended one hand. In her tight grip was a thin scroll. "When I returned to my house after the eclipse, this letter was waiting for me. It's from Zuko. It says that he was leaving to join the Avatar."
Azula gave a faint shrug. "You should probably pass that information on to whoever is investigating Zuko's death. Now, if you'll excuse us..."
"I'm not finished." Mai took a few steps closer. "It's funny how he was planning to leave, but it's you who ends up joining the Avatar's group."
"I didn't join them!" Azula's eyes flashed. "They kidnapped me!"
"Right. They kill Zuko but take you alive, even though he was about to join them and you're the one who nearly killed the Avatar. That makes so much sense."
"I didn't spend time wondering why they captured me; I was too busy trying to escape." The princess's voice dropped to a sinister level. "And if you value your life, Mai, you'll stop talking. Right. Now."
"I don't care about my life anymore," Mai said. Knives flashed in the air before Ty Lee could blink. Azula swiped them away with a wave of flame, but one slipped by and sliced off the locks of hair framing her face.
The guards by the doors started running towards Mai, but Ty Lee was closer and faster. Several quick jabs to her pressure points made Mai crumple to the ground at her feet.
As Ty Lee gazed down at her former friend, Mai began to laugh, a low chuckle rusty from disuse. "You're such a fool, Ty Lee. You've always been a fool."
She was still laughing when the guards dragged her away.
In the balloon, watching as the prison disappeared over the horizon, Sokka asked. "Are we out of sight yet? Can we get these shackles off now?"
Azula huffed. "Yes, fine. Must you whine so much?" Her friend watch in growing shock as she unlocked first Sokka's cuffs, then Suki's.
Eh, they'd explain it to her later. Sokka was more interested in what happened with that girl with the knives, Mai or whatever her name was. "Why did the gloomy girl attack you?"
"She thinks I killed Zuko," answered Azula with a shrug. "Because I left to join you I'm apparently guilty of everything. She's just upset and looking for a convenient scapegoat."
"You did what?" the acrobat girl finally squeaked. She was backed up against the railing, her eyes huge.
Azula looked nonplussed. "I joined the Avatar and am teaching him firebending."
"But...you tried to kill him. I thought you had killed him, until the invasion happened."
"We haven't forgotten that part," Sokka said, "but...I'd say she's started making up for that a little." He smiled at Suki, who snuggled up against him, then he returned his attention to Azula. "You got a long way to go though."
"Perhaps this will help. When I sent the letter saying that I had escaped and had taken you hostage, I got a reply saying that they would execute you along with the others just before the comet comes."
"And how does that help?" Sokka asked, and then his eyes lit up. "Wait, that means my dad is still alive!"
A satisfied smile played on Azula's mouth for a brief moment, but It fell away when her friend jumped in. "Azula, I don't want to become a traitor."
Azula narrowed her eyes and Sokka was sure she was about to tell her friend off, but then she gave her head a slight shake and offered up a smile. "Listen, Ty Lee. I know it's hard to see this now, but the way my father has acted during his time as Firelord is leading our nation into ruin. We will only achieve true prosperity and glory by bringing about peace."
Even now Sokka had a hard time believing this was the same person who had hunted them so relentlessly mere months before. By the look on her face Ty Lee was having a hard time believing it too. "I guess."
"Ty Lee." Azula's voice softened. "I asked you to come with me because I need you. I need your skills, and...I need a friend. I know I am asking a lot, but will you do this for me?"
Ty Lee brightened and threw herself at the princess-ex-princess, now. "Of course I will. If you believe you're doing the right thing, then I believe in you!"
"How sweet," muttered Suki into his shoulder, and Sokka glanced down at her. Actually he thought it was kind of sweet, not that he'd ever say so.
Azula gently pushed Ty Lee off and turned to address them as a group. "We need to get this balloon turned around. My father's fleet is sure to be on its way soon and we must get Aang and the others out before then."
As they struggled to make the balloon circle northward, Ty Lee said, "What will happen back in the Fire Nation when we don't show up?"
"There's a slim chance they'll think we were overpowered and taken hostage."
"No. It's more likely they'll realize we switched sides. Which not only makes us traitors in the Fire Nation's eyes, but accomplices in Zuko's death too."
"Even though we didn't do it?"
"Even so." Azula smirked. "Mai will feel vindicated, at least."
Ty Lee frowned. "And I thought I was in trouble when I ran away to join the circus." She sighed. "I hope there's cute guys in the Avatar's group."
"Hey!" Sokka shot her a mock hurt look.
"You don't count. You're taken."
Chapter 6: The Southern Raiders
The thump of something on the stone floor of the courtyard woke Toph from her slumber. She blinked and spread a hand on the stone to make sense of the vibrations. Oh, it was the basket of Azula's balloon. That meant she and Sokka had returned. But the basket seemed too heavy for just the two of them.
"Guys," she hissed, listening and feeling for the movement and the faint grunts that indicated her friends were waking up. As she waited, four sets of footfalls rang out on the stone. Who were the other two people?
Toph leapt up, simultaneously bending the earth under the others to force them to sit up. "Guys! We have company!" The rock she bent up under Aang also poked into Appa, who grumbled loudly.
"Will you relax?" Sokka called from across the courtyard. "It's just Azula and me, and we brought Suki and Ty Lee."
"What? How? And who's Ty Lee?" Before he could answer Toph focused on the vibrations coming from the second girl, outlining a lithe body with a long braid of hair and an acrobat's light gait. Wait a second... "That's the girl who does that thing that makes our bodies stop working! Why is she here?"
Sokka's reply had an amused tone. "She's joining our group, Toph."
"Honestly." Azula sounded miffed. "Would I have brought her if I thought she was a danger to Aang?"
That's just it, Toph wasn't sure. She let herself get swept up in the whole matchmaking deal because Azula had this...presence that just drew a person in and got them going along even when they should be suspicious. When her plan actually worked, Toph felt reassured that she hadn't done anything wrong in helping Azula. But that was not the same as trusting her.
Appa's weight suddenly disappeared from the stone, likely because he decided to fly off and forage instead of going back to sleep. Aang stretched out in the spot he vacated. Meanwhile, Ty Lee somersaulted across the courtyard and plopped down between Haru and Teo's sleeping mats. "Hi there," she purred.
Haru cleared his throat and ran a hand over his hair. "Uh, hi. Ty Lee, was it?"
"Nice to meet you," said a bemused Teo.
"All right." That was Katara, still in her bag, her voice hoarse with sleep. "Now that everyone's been introduced, let's get a few more hours of sleep and in the morning Sokka and Azula can tell us how they found Suki and Ty Lee when they were supposed to be out hunting."
"There's no time." Azula strode across the courtyard until she was in the center of the group. "My father's airships are on their way. We have to leave now."
"What!" Now Katara was wide awake, shooting to her feet and getting up in Azula's face. "What do you mean, your 'father's airships are on their way'? What did you do?"
Aang scrambled to his feet and reached out to her, but Sokka got there first, putting an arm between his sister and the ex-princess. "Katara, it was my fault. I wanted to go to the Boiling Rock prison to save Dad and she came along to help. I would have never gotten out without her..."
"Prison! Is that where you got those bruises? Oh yeah, she was a big help."
"Katara, they did get back safe..." Aang sounded like a weak breeze in the face of Katara's thunderstorm, but he must have had some effect because she did back off.
When Azula spoke, her voice was low and controlled. "If you're done screaming at me for no good reason, we need to figure out how we're getting off this island and where we're going to go. Aang, how many people can Appa carry?"
"We came here with seven plus everyone's stuff, but Appa got tired out and we had to walk part of the way."
Azula shook her head. "We need speed. We'll stick to five; you, me and...let's go with Toph, Katara and Ty Lee. The rest of you can take the balloon and we'll meet in a couple of days." Toph 'saw' her tap her lips in thought. "We just need to figure out a safe place to meet."
"How about Ember Island?" piped up Ty Lee, still seated comfortably between the boys. Azula turned to her, and though fine details like facial expressions were still a little difficult for Toph to parse out with her earth sense, something in the ex-princess's look must have made Ty Lee nervous. "Um, I just thought that...since it's the end of the season, it wouldn't be too crowded, and the part of it with your old house is practically deserted."
A pause, and then Azula replied, "That's...actually a good idea, Ty Lee. Hiding under Fire Nation noses, where they'd least expect us." She sounded like a master praising her pet.
"Hold on." Katara crossed her arms. Her pulse was racing so hard, Toph could feel it where she stood. "No one put you in charge, Azula. You have no right to split us up. Sokka, Aang and I have been together since the beginning."
Azula remained calm, though her voice betrayed irritation. "We need the best fighters protecting Aang at all times. Your brother's not on that list. Maybe you need to reassess your priorities, Katara."
"She's right," Sokka said, surprising Toph. She expected him to be insulted. "I'm not the best fighter in the group. Besides, it's only temporary....We'll take Azula's balloon and meet you in a few days."
If Katara was going to reply, she never got the chance. A deafening boom echoed through the courtyard, followed by a rush of searing heat. Smoke stung Toph's eyes and filled her lungs. She fell to her knees, coughing and hacking, too distracted to make sense of all the different vibrations coming to her through the stone floor.
Another explosion, closer this time, knocked her back against the wall. Her head slammed against the mural with a loud crack, and then she felt and heard nothing.
The first explosion knocked Katara off her feet and took out most of the outer courtyard floor beyond the fountain. The second one was much closer, shrapnel ripping gashes in her clothes and skin. Blinded by the light and heat, wheezing from the smoke, her throat sore and her ears ringing, Katara crawled to where she thought was the back of the courtyard.
Her hand came down on something solid and fleshy. She blinked her watery eyes and squinted. Eventually the blurry image resolved into the still form of Toph, laying motionless at the base of the mural with blood pooling under her hair.
"Toph!" she screamed.
Sokka appeared out of the smoke, also on his hands and knees. Other than the scrape on his cheek and the injuries from the prison he appeared to be okay. "What...oh no. Toph!"
Katara bent over her friend with her face near Toph's mouth. Faint air on her cheek and the slight rise and fall of the earthbender's chest made her nearly cry with relief. "She's alive."
"But none of us will be for long if we don't get out of here," Sokka said.
"Get me something for the wound."
Sokka felt around the dusty floor for a blanket, which Katara folded and pressed to the back of Toph's head. By this point she realized she hadn't heard any more explosions and she looked up. The smoke was clearing, allowing her to see Aang airbending away another of those strange explosive canisters. His scalp and arms were slashed in several places and blood flowed in rivulets down his neck, but he kept fighting. To his left was Haru, unharmed as far as she could tell, bending rock after rock at the source of the canisters. Katara's mouth gaped at seeing what it...or rather, they were.
Three huge airships with Fire Nation flags dominated the sky. Dozens of solders stood on the metal slats that jutted out from the base and more were posted at the dragon shaped cannons on each side. A bellow drew Katara's attention upward and she saw Appa far above the ships, weaving around blasts of orange and red fire.
"We need to get out of here!" Sokka shouted.
Katara gave him a look as she pointed up to the bison. "How?"
"I have a plan. Help me gather everyone."
They called for Aang and Haru, then Katara looked around for the others. Only the Duke was visible, pressed against the wall in the other corner, his face contorted in terror under his dented helmet. She beckoned to him and he stumbled over. Aang threw up a rock wall to protect them.
"Where's the others?" Sokka asked.
Haru coughed. "Lost sight of Azula and those other two girls. Teo...didn't get out of the way in time."
Katara bit her lip, forcing the tears back. Sorrow crossed Aang and Sokka's faces, but there wasn't time to grieve.
"We'll try to find Suki and the others once we're airborne." Sokka said. He pointed to the terrace where Aang and Azula had trained. "Aang, your training area is out of range of the airships. If we can make it there you can whistle for Appa to come pick us up."
"Okay," Aang said, sounding faint. "Let's go."
"You can't carry us all," Haru grasped the Duke's hand. "We'll head for the sea and figure out what to do when the coast is clear."
"Be safe," Katara said, touching his arm. He nodded.
"Okay, move on my signal," Sokka said. "One, two...go!"
They darted out from behind the wall and ran for the path that would take them up to the terrace, Sokka carrying Toph. Seconds later they heard another explosion behind them, followed by several loud cracks. They turned to see the ceiling of the courtyard collapse, taking a huge chunk of the cliff down with it and turning the whole area into a mountain of rubble. Haru and the Duke were nowhere to be seen. Katara felt her stomach drop and a lump form in her throat.
Aang started back, but Sokka stopped him. "We don't have time. We'll just have to hope they made it. Haru is an earthbender, remember?"
Aang squeezed his eyes shut and nodded. They took off again and as they reached the terrace, Aang pulled out his bison whistle and blew. From above them came Appa's answering bellow, and moments later they were climbing onto his back.
Once they were airborne, Katara began healing the wound on Toph's head while Sokka peered over the saddle. "I think I see Azula! And that's Suki!"
Aang wiped blood and sweat out of his eyes and squinted. "Where?"
Sokka pointed, and Katara spared a quick glance to where he was pointing. On the top of the middle airship, two figures in dark red stood on the little crow's nest, a soldier prone at their feet. Aang guided Appa alongside it and Sokka helped them aboard. They took off, rising above the flames from the soldiers on the other ships.
"Where's Ty Lee?" Katara asked.
Azula met her gaze and pointed to the ships. "Watch."
Katara turned to look. Suddenly the ship Azula and Suki had been on canted to the right, advancing on the ship next to it. The sharp prow on the front pressed into the balloon of the other ship; for a long, tense moment it seemed that the fabric would hold, then a hole ripped open and the airship plummeted. As it went, it fired a canister that landed on the ship Ty Lee was still on. The resulting explosion tore a hole in its balloon and it plunged into the gorge after the first.
Horrified, Katara looked back to Azula. Her face was expressionless.
"No," Aang slurred. "No more...dying..." Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he went limp, tumbling off of Appa's neck.
Terror stabbed Katara in the chest. She lunged after him, leaning out so far she would have fallen off too had Sokka not grabbed her. Her hands grasped empty air. She would have screamed his name, but she couldn't breathe.
Appa roared and went after Aang, but Azula was a split second faster. Katara whipped around to see her dive off the saddle after him, straight as an arrow. She caught him, but they continued to fall. It dawned on Katara that Azula needed both hands to power her flame jets; what use was her little heroic action if they would both die?
Appa flew down faster, all off them gripping the saddle for dear life with one hand and grasping Toph with the other so she wouldn't fall out. Still, the bison could not catch up to them. Azula held Aang to her with one arm and used the other to fire out a blast of blue flame. This pushed her and Aang toward the side of the canyon. She scrabbled at the rocks with her free hand until she found a niche to grab, where she clung until Appa could pull up beside them.
Katara took Aang from Azula and cradled him in her arms. "Wake up! Speak to me."
His eyelids fluttered and he gave her a small smile. "M'okay."
Katara let out a shuddering sigh of relief.
As Sokka took Aang's place and grabbed the reins, Suki and Azula slumped against the saddle rim, exhaustion written all over their faces. Katara ran her water-covered hands over Aang's cuts, willing them to knit together. She spared one last glance back at the ruins of the temple. The last airship had begun to rise out of the canyon after them, but it was too slow.
Higher and higher they climbed until the men were dots on a toy ship, until the ship was a speck rising out of the long ribbon of the gorge, until the gorge itself was just a winding line on a field of yellow. Then they went through a cloud and all was hidden in white.
Late that night they finally reached Ember Island. Toph had not woken up yet, but her head injury was healed and her breathing was even. Having slept most of the day, Aang had the strength to help her form a cloud around them. Thus disguised, they landed upon a stretch of beach on the northeastern side of the island.
A breeze from Aang blew the cloud over the water, and Katara craned her neck up to see the silhouette of a large beach house on top of the cliff that loomed over the sand. A little ways down the sheer face of the cliff gave way to the soft slope of a hill. Light from the waxing moon allowed her to see a path that led from the beach to the house.
Azula jumped down and headed toward the path. Katara helped Suki lower Toph down to Sokka and he followed Azula with the little earthbender in his arms. Suki caught up to him and Aang and Katara brought up the rear. In the semi-darkness she felt his hand slip into her own and a quiet warmth filled her.
"I'm hungry," Sokka said. "I haven't eaten since the crud they call lunch at that prison."
"So you said at least a half dozen times on the way here," Azula retorted.
Katara's stomach had been growling for hours, but she had done her best to ignore it. "We couldn't save the food, but we still have our Fire Nation clothes and a little bit of money. If you can wait until the morning, we can go to the market."
Azula halted and spun around, bringing the others up short. "Do you really think you can just walk around freely in the market?"
"It worked before," Katara snapped.
"That was before my brother was murdered in your invasion."
She froze. "...What?" Beside her, Aang gasped and dropped her hand.
"Didn't have the chance to tell you," said Sokka, "what with running for our lives and all. But yeah, Prince Angry's dead."
Once again Katara's mind went back to the catacombs, to the image of Zuko's brooding face and the memory of his words.
The Fire Nation took my mother away from me.
I'm sorry. That's something we have in common.
...Whenever I would imagine the face of the enemy, it was your face.
My face. I see.
No, no, that's not what I meant.
It's okay. I used to think this scar marked me. The mark of the banished prince, cursed to chase the Avatar forever. But lately I've realized I'm free to determine my own destiny, even if I'll never be free of my mark.
Free to determine his destiny, and he chose his own death.
Sokka broke into her thoughts. "Azula knows we didn't do it. But the rest of the Fire Nation blames us."
"All of our pictures have been given to every town authority from here to Ba Sing Se," Azula said. "Someone will realize you're a companion of the Avatar, disguise or no disguise."
This statement of Azula's wasn't more snotty than any of the others, but something in Katara snapped. "Okay then, Princess. You tell me how Aang's supposed to eat since you seem to have forgotten that he's a vegetarian and can't eat anything we fish or hunt."
"Katara..." murmured Aang.
"I'm not sticking around for this," Sokka grumbled. He turned and headed up the path again, picking his way carefully so as not to trip on something in the dark and drop Toph. After one last glance Suki followed.
"I will take care of our food problem in the morning," said Azula with a haughty air. "Now, if you don't mind..."
"But I do mind!" Katara snarled, and bent up a wave of water from the ocean behind them. The dark rush of water leapt over her and Aang and landed full force on Azula. "I am so sick of you, the way you boss people around, the way you sat back and let your friend die and you didn't even care!"
Coughing and sputtering, Azula turned around. One moment she was dripping, the next moment the water was rising off of her as steam. Blue flames sprang to life in her hands and their azure light made her face look skull-like. "Ty Lee sacrificed herself to let us get away. To let Aang escape. And you treat that noble act as an excuse to attack me! Fine, you savage. You want a fight? You have it."
From somewhere on the periphery of Katara's awareness came Aang's shout of "No!" as she tumbled away from Azula's fireblasts. The hem of her tunic caught on fire, blue bleeding into orange. She ran for the ocean and dived into the waves. Surfacing, she only had time for a breath before another blue fireball hurtled her way and she had to dive under again.
The second time Katara came up, two tentacles of water came up with her, glittering in the moonlight. She swept her left hand down and the left tentacle smacked Azula to the ground and froze solid, pinning her there. She pushed out with her right and the right one plunged down onto Azula's face. The firebender kicked and flailed as Katara bent a continuous stream of seawater into her mouth and nose. Aang was yelling and a voice inside Katara was pleading with her to stop.
Before she could, the ice started to melt. Within seconds Azula was free. She rolled out of the way of the water, struggled to her feet, and vomited. Aang ran to Azula and offered her a hand. The way she leaned on his shoulder as he helped her up to the house was like a dagger stabbing Katara's gut.
Underneath this, though, was a truth, swimming in the depths of her soul like the unagi in the dark waters off of Kyoshi Island. If Azula hadn't freed herself, Katara might have kept bending water into her face until she drowned.
Feeling sick, she waded out of the ocean, bent the water off of herself, and trudged up the hill. By the time she reached the stairs to the house Aang and Azula were already inside. When a voice said, "Katara," she jumped.
"Yeah." The Kyoshi warrior appeared around the corner of the house, frowning.
The last thing Katara needed was someone else being mad at her. "I don't feel like talking right now."
"That's okay. I just wanted to tell you that I'm sure Azula's up to no good."
Katara went slack with relief and gratitude. "Really? This whole time I felt like I was the only one."
Suki clenched her fists. "She threw my girls into prison. She sent me to that rock in the middle of nowhere. She stole our sacred uniforms to trick the Earth King. Suddenly we're supposed to believe she's turned traitor to the Fire Nation? That's she's suddenly redeemed? I don't buy it for a minute."
"Me either." Katara shot a hard look up at the door. "But I can't figure out what she's after."
Suki scoffed. "It's obvious, isn't it. She wants to be Fire Lord and she thinks Aang will get it for her. And it's awfully convenient that her older brother, who was in her way, is now dead."
Katara shook her head. "No. That's the one thing I believe she didn't do. Not because I think she has some streak of goodness in her," she quickly added at seeing Suki's doubtful expression, "but because she had us both trapped back in Ba Sing Se. If she wanted to kill Zuko, why wouldn't she do it then? But I worry about what will happen after Aang defeats the Fire Lord and Azula takes over."
"What can we do? Aang has to defeat the Fire Lord, or he'll burn down the Earth Kingdom."
"I know." Katara sighed. "We should go in. Maybe in the morning we'll figure out what to do."
The smell of cooking fish and spice woke Katara from a restless sleep. Rubbing her eyes, she wandered out of the musty bedroom she had collapsed in the night before. The smells led her to the kitchen, where two old ladies tended a cookfire over which pots simmered and fish roasted.
Two old ladies? In shock, Katara stumbled backward and bashed her elbow on the door frame. Her cry of pain made them turn around.
"Good morning," said one, followed by the other asking with concern, "Are you hurt?"
Ignoring her smarting elbow, Katara ran. She had to find Aang. Had to protect him. She flew down the hall, throwing doors open as she passed, until she found one that opened to a covered walkway in the back of the house.
There Aang was, sitting on a step and biting into a sweet bean roll with a contented smile. Beside him Sokka was devouring most of a large fish, taking it apart with his fingers and shoving the tender meat into his mouth. Nearby Suki nibbled at a roll of her own, and Azula perched on an old dry fountain, lifting grains of rice to her mouth with meticulous motions of her chopsticks.
"There are strange women in the kitchen!" Katara blurted.
Out of the corner of her eye she caught Suki's grim nod, but Azula just shrugged. "I told you I would take care of the food problem."
"But...how do I know they won't betray us?"
Azula's nonchalance disappeared, replaced by an offended look. "Li and Lo are loyal to me above all. I trust them with my life. Why are you always questioning everything I do? I have been nothing but helpful and you do nothing but cut me down!"
"It's true, Katara." Sokka said. "I know she was our enemy before, but without her we'd be in a really bad spot right now."
Aang gazed at her with pleading eyes. "Can't you guys try to find a way to get along?"
"How about she brings my mother back to me?" A small part of Katara realized she was being irrational, but she couldn't hold back. "She's so wonderful, with the firebending and the food, why doesn't she do that too?"
Azula leaned forward, looking interested. "What happened to your mother?"
"I..." She felt tears forming and scrunched up her face with the effort of holding them back. "I can't talk about it."
"But it was because of Fire Nation raids on your homeland?"
"What do you think?"
Azula lifted a hand and examined her split and peeling nails with a frown. "You could always get revenge, instead of taking it all out on me."
"Revenge?" The idea had never crossed Katara's mind. It had been enough to know that they were fighting the Fire Nation...
...No, that was a lie. She just hadn't thought of her mother's killer as anything but another facet of the monolith that was the Fire Nation. In a way, every soldier they had encountered had been her killer. Yet he was a man, a single person whose face she could remember as clearly as if she had seen it the day before. She just couldn't let herself think about facing him because the knowledge that it wasn't possible hurt too much.
Was it possible?
"But I don't know how to find him."
Azula set aside her bowl and stood up. "Command of the Southern Raiders changed hands a couple years back and I was present at the retirement ceremony of the former commander as a proxy for my father. His name is Yon Rha and I remember what village he lives in. If he isn't the man who killed your mother--I'm assuming that's what this is all about--then we'll check the ships."
"Wait a minute..." Aang stood up. "When I said I wanted you guys to get along, this is not what I meant."
"What happens if you guys are seen?" Sokka asked. "You were the one telling us not to go out in public, Azula, and now you're just going to show up in a Fire Nation village?"
"I can't focus on getting Aang ready to confront my father if his girlfriend is attacking me all the time."
"But..." Sokka blinked. "Wait...girlfriend? What?"
Katara was already following Azula back into the house and didn't answer him.
In the hallway she halted. "I should check on Toph before we go."
"Make it quick. I'll go get supplies for the trip."
Katara nodded and headed in the opposite direction, then realized she didn't know which one of these rooms Toph was in. She spun around to ask Azula, but the firebender was already gone. After several minutes of searching, she found Toph in a bedroom on the second floor. The window shutters were closed, keeping the room dim and cool. Someone had placed a basin of water on a low table at the foot of the bed and Katara did a quick healing session.
"How is she?"
Aang's voice made her jump a little--she seemed to be on edge all the time. "She seems physically fine. There's a knot of energy around the injury site like you have around your scar and that might be why she hasn't woken up yet, but I think she'll pull through."
He came up beside her. "Sokka was not happy about the whole 'girlfriend' thing."
She wanted to say that it wasn't his decision or his business. That he had a girlfriend, why was it different for him? But what came out of her mouth was, "I'm not your girlfriend yet."
Aang looked like she had slapped him.
Katara stumbled over her next words. "I mean...we said...after you faced the Firelord, then..."
"Right." Aang turned away, but in the doorway he paused. "Violence can't be solved with more violence. It only leads to this." He gestured to Toph's still form.
"I have to face him, Aang."
"I know. I get it. But I'm hoping that when you do, you'll forgive him."
Katara let out a shrill, shaky laugh. "Is that what you'll do? Forgive Firelord Ozai into stopping the war?"
Aang bent his head. "I'll see you later, Katara." And he was gone.
"This is it." Azula pointed down at the village, a small circle of buildings in an otherwise desolate part of the island they flew over. A dusty road wound through it and down past some other small dwellings to the sea. Everything seemed dull and washed out, from the gray clouds above to the weatherworn wood of the huts below.
Katara guided Appa to a secluded spot out of sight of the village. "Will you see to Appa?" she asked, her eyes on the road.
Azula slid off the bison. "Don't you want me to come with you?"
"No. I think I want to do this by myself."
"What's your plan, wait by the road until he shows? Will you even know him when you see him?"
"Oh yes," Katara answered darkly.
Azula took a seat on a nearby rock. "All right then. Be quick."
Katara nodded once and strode off. Azula noticed her hands were clenched into trembling fists. Anger? Nervousness? Both?
She glanced at the bison, who snorted and began ruffling around in the grass. "Yeah, I'm not waiting here with you."
In the distance the waterbender was a tiny figure on the road. With light steps Azula crept after her, crossing from tree to rock outcropping, staying off the road and out of sight. Katara halted, and Azula got as close as she dared before hiding behind a tall tree. From the other direction an old man appeared, hunched over and walking slowly with a basket in his hands. How lucky that Yon Rha was coming home from market at that exact moment, though this pathetic creature was a far cry from the man who had stood proud and straight backed through a ceremony that had bored Azula to tears. He began to pass Katara without even looking at her, but she said something that made him stop and turn to her. Azula couldn't quite make out the conversation that followed, but whatever Katara said made him angry enough to take a firebending stance.
At that moment, the collecting gray clouds erupted in rain as if some spirit agreed that this was Yon Rha's day to die. Fire left his fist and soared toward her, but Katara just laughed. Almost too fast for Azula to follow, she extinguished the flame, knocked the man to the ground, and pinned him there with ice. Then she lifted her arms and all the rain around them turned to icy spikes that hovered in the air, their points aimed at his head.
Azula's breath caught and her heart sped up. Soon the ice spikes would enter his skull. She felt her body thrum with anticipation.
Then Katara dropped her arms and the spikes melted, falling to the ground as harmless water. She said something else Azula couldn't hear, melted the ice holding him down, and turned away.
No, no, no! They couldn't leave a witness! Azula had only gone along with this because she had been positive Katara was going to kill him!
She'd just have to take care of it herself.
She waited behind the rock, staying hidden, until Katara was nearly out of sight in the opposite direction. The man crouched on the road trying to stuff his produce back into his basket, but his shaking hands kept dropping things. When everything was finally in the basket, he got to his feet and shambled off. His mouth worked but Azula unable to hear what he was saying. Not that she cared.
He made a left, heading up a track off of the main road. With his back to her this was all too easy.
Delving into what she thought of as her cold spot, Azula summoned up all her energy. Her palms itched, the hair on her arms stood on end, and she heard the crackle of potential in the air around her fingers. She drew a circle in the air and lighting sprang into existence, begging for an outlet. So she gave it one.
It shot across the road and burned itself into Yon Rha's back. He let out a scream and fell, the basket spilling out of his arms.
Azula gazed at the body. Striking people with lightning had once been so satisfying, but this had done nothing for her. It just wasn't the same as killing someone up close.
Without another thought for the fallen man she ran back to Appa, taking a roundabout route so that she'd be returning from a different direction. She slowed down once the bison was in sight, affecting a casual air as she ambled up.
Katara gave her an odd look. "Where were you?"
"Oh, you know. Nature called."
Once Azula was settled in the saddle she asked, "So how did it go?"
The waterbender grabbed the reins, staring straight ahead. "I don't want to talk about it."
"No." She exhaled, her shoulders slumping. "There's just nothing to say. He was...just a pathetic old man. An empty, shallow, pathetic old man." For a moment longer Katara gripped the reins, staring out at nothing, then she looked over her shoulder. "Thanks for helping me."
Azula deserved thanks for making sure the old man didn't tell the authorities that a Water Tribe girl was in the area. But she merely said, "You're welcome," and gestured toward the horizon. "We really must be going."
"Right." Katara straightened her back. "Appa, yip yip."
The rain ended and the sky cleared as they traveled northward. The sun continued on its downward journey; as it crested the horizon, the swollen body of the moon began its ascent in the east. Ember Island appeared in the sea in front of them, strangely bright. Katara leaned forward, squinting, then waved a panicked hand at Azula. Her eyes were wide with terror.
Azula shaded her eyes with a hand and leaned over the saddle. What she saw made her stomach churn and her throat go dry.
The old beach house was burning.
Chapter 7: Interlude: The Message
Ever since the coup by the Fire Nation Princess, the throne room in the Earth Palace had been left empty, untouched save for the hands of servants keeping it clean for whomever might eventually come to sit in it. Administration of Ba Sing Se continued as it always had, from here in the dimly lit office of the former Grand Secretariat.
Joo Dee had once been so afraid of this room, afraid of facing the man that once sat in the very chair she sat in now. Now that the dark chambers of smiling, empty women and spinning lights were gone, she no longer lay awake nights wondering how much more of her mind was going to be taken away. For that alone, she was grateful to the Fire Nation. Though she had not found any clues to her former identity, she was content being Supreme Bureaucratic Administrator Joo Dee--provided she and the citizens in her care remembered who was really in charge.
Yesterday morning a woman's body was found in a gutter just beyond the wall dividing the Middle Ring from the Upper. The burns that covered her body made identification difficult, but the Dai Li agents heading the investigation tracked down her family. They learned that she was a refugee who had caught the eye of a lieutenant in the Fire Nation Army, and he was occupying a house not far from where the body was discovered.
Last night his commanding officer invited her to dinner, during which he hinted that it would be very easy to replace her if she didn't make the right call about the investigation. So Joo Dee made sure that another refugee took the blame, concocting a story that the young man tried to frame the soldiers for the deed and having the Dai Li plant evidence to support it. The young man would be executed in a few days, and then it would be forgotten.
This was no worse than anything Long Feng did, she told herself. Besides, events like that were few and far between. Most days the citizens of Ba Sing Se lived like they always did, and the Fire Nation had brought technology with them that was actually improving many things in the city, like better plumbing and heating and steam powered alternatives to the monorail. All in all, occupation wasn't that bad.
A knock at the door startled Joo Dee out of her thoughts. "Yes?"
The door opened and a Dai Li agent slipped inside. "A message for you, Administrator."
She peered at the face under the conical hat. He was one of the Dai Li agents that had departed with the princess at the beginning of the summer. A week ago he and his partner had shown up at the palace in civilian clothes, weary from travel, offering no explanation for why the princess had sent them back. The most she could get out of them was the cryptic phrase, 'Be ready'.
Her gaze traveled to the scroll in his hand, tied with a red silk ribbon. "Where did it come from?"
"One of the Fire Nation's trained dragonhawks brought it. It avoided the hawk tower and came straight to us."
"Did it, now?" Slowly Joo Dee undid the ribbon and unrolled the scroll to read. The characters were executed in a precise hand, almost mechanically perfect, as if the writer had no concept of the beauty in the calligraphy. When she looked up again the agent's face was impassive, but the light in his eyes made her think he had some idea of the contents.
She set the scroll down on the desk and folded her hands. "I could take this message over to the Fire Nation general right now. I'd probably be richly rewarded for it."
The agent said nothing, but Joo Dee thought she saw his gaze harden.
Sighing, she picked up the scroll and tossed it into the fireplace. The flames flew up for a moment, shining green light on both their faces, then retreated.
The agent bowed, spun on a heel and headed toward the door. Just before he opened it, she said, "Are you ever tired of being the tiles on someone else's board?"
He met her eyes, the mask of stoicism slipping just a little bit. "Not if they win."
Chapter 8: The Burning of Ember Island
Against the darkening sky the flames rose like bright arms, drowning out the pale light of the moon's disc and staining the silver sand orange.
"Do you see anyone?" Katara shouted over her shoulder.
"No!" Azula yelled back.
Panic rose like bile in Katara's throat. Her heart thrummed in her chest. Where is my brother? Where are my friends? Where is Aang? "We'll land on the beach and I'll try to put the fire out."
No sooner did Appa touch down than Katara slid off and ran, a long arm of water reaching out of the sea and twining after her up the hill. She fed it into the flames, her arms going back and forth, directing more and more water. The more she managed to put out, the hotter and brighter the remaining fire seemed to grow. A sweat broke out on her skin.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Azula watching her with her hands on her hips. "You could help!" she shouted to her.
"I make fire, I don't extinguish it!" At Katara's glare she sniffed. "Maybe I can contain it , though." She began a series of moves that were less aggressive and punchy than usual. They actually reminded Katara of airbending, a little bit. Whatever Azula was doing, the fire was not spreading anymore and Katara was able to eliminate the rest.
They hurried into the charred and crumbling house, calling out to Aang, Sokka and Toph, picking their way over fallen walls and blackened chunks of the ceiling supports, searching for any sign of where they had gone. In what had been the sitting room Katara stopped cold. Two bodies so burned as to be unrecognizable lay as if they had been trying crawl away. The stench of roasting flesh was overwhelming.
Katara turned and threw up into a corner. She rose and rinsed her mouth with some of the fresh water in her pouch, only to suppress another wave of nausea as Azula lifted one of the smoking arms.
"It's Li and Lo," Azula said. "I recognize their gold bracelets and the insignia on their belts."
She dropped the arm and stood. "There will be time to grieve later. We must find Aang."
"And the others," Katara said, an edge to her voice.
They searched the other rooms, then went outside to the back. The courtyard, being stone, was untouched by the fire, as was the cliff that rose up along the back and formed a natural wall. The porch to their left was also unburnt, as was the grove of trees to the right. Still no sign of the others.
At hearing the husky feminine voice, they turned to see Mai emerging from behind one of the porch columns. Azula smirked. "Mai. Out of prison so soon?"
"Well, once they found out I was right about everything, they sent word to my uncle to release me right away. Have you told your new friends yet, Azula? Have you told them how you murdered your brother in cold blood?"
Katara gasped and looked to Azula, but the ex-princess remained impassive. "That's not true."
Mai's placid expression dissolved into fury. "Stop lying!"
"I'm not lying." Azula turned to Katara. "Here is the truth, Katara. I did kill Zuko..."
Katara put a hand to her mouth and backed away a step.
"...but it was in self-defense." Azula held out her arms in a pleading gesture. "You have to understand. He took the credit for killing the Avatar back in Ba Sing Se and that's how he got back into Father's good graces. When Aang showed up at the head of your invasion force, Zuko realized that everyone would see him as a fool and a liar and he would lose the honor Father had granted back to him."
At Katara's puzzled look she nodded. "Yes, I know, that's stupid, but that's the way Zuko saw things. So on the day of the eclipse he went after Aang to kill him. I tried to stop him and he attacked me. I didn't want to kill him but he gave me no choice."
Mai made a pained noise and Katara could see that she didn't believe it. Yet what Azula said made perfect sense. "That does sound like the Zuko I know. Knew."
"You didn't know him like I knew him," Mai snarled. "But it doesn't matter now. It's over, Azula. Soon the Avatar will be found and all of you will be brought to the capital in chains. The only reason I haven't killed you yet is that the Firelord insisted you be brought back alive."
Azula turned on her, tensing, ready to strike. "You miscalculated, Mai. You may need me alive, but I have no problem killing you if I have to."
"No, you miscalculated, Azula. I have to bring you back alive. Your friends, however, are optional."
Quick as a blink knives soared from her hands toward Katara, flashing in the light as they flew.
Azula spun around, her eyes following the blades trajectory. She saw Katara duck, saw her hand go for her pouch, but all too slow, too slow. The knives tore into her flesh and she screamed.
The cold analytical part of Azula, the part from which she drew her lightning, weighed her options. They didn't have the bison whistle to call for Appa. Aang was nowhere in sight and he might be either captured or...no, Azula refused to admit the possibility that he was dead. He just couldn't be. Not Aang.
Wherever the soldiers were, it would take them time to get back here. Why Mai thought she could stand alone against two benders baffled Azula. Regardless, if they took her down quickly they could possibly get out of there. Once they were on Appa, they might be able to find Aang and get away.
Possibly. Might. Azula hated those words. She preferred to act when she was sure the odds were in her favor. She knew going into this that she was taking a huge risk, but how could she fail to anticipate how badly things could go wrong?
I don't make mistakes!
All this flitted through her mind in the time it took for Katara to fall to her knees and clutch at the gashes in her arms. Azula grimaced. If it only took a few cuts to disable the waterbender, then Azula would take Mai out and leave without her. She couldn't afford any more weaknesses.
Just then the dark strip of foliage beyond the porch rustled, revealing even darker metal that was only detectable by where the moonlight gleamed on its shiny surface. The soldiers were back. Could this get any worse?
If she aimed lightning at the columns, she might be able to collapse the porch, preventing them from getting through. Azula took a deep breath, delved into the cold, empty place inside...
...and stopped when Mai's strangled cry drew her attention. Her former friend hovered in the air as if lifted by invisible arms, unnaturally rigid, her stilettos falling out of her hands and clattering to the ground. A spirit? Azula thought, disbelieving the idea even as it popped into her head.
"What are you doing to me?" Mai asked in a trembling voice. Azula followed her gaze to Katara. The waterbender had gotten to her feet and had her arms in a strange variation of her usual bending stance, her face set in concentration.
She's doing that, Azula realized. She's holding Mai like...like a puppet.
She could do that to me.
"Back off!" Katara was yelling. The soldiers had halted, their postures radiating uncertainty. "Back off or I'll twist her neck. I mean it!"
"No!" Mai shouted. "Forget me! Get the traitor!"
The charge inside Azula was still there, vibrating her soul, begging to be released. She let go and lightning flew from column to column, snapping them. The roof of the porch collapsed with a loud crunch. Dust blew everywhere and she heard coughing and yelling. Knowing that this only halted them for a few seconds, she released a huge ball of fire, setting the roof ablaze. This would buy them a little more time, but she had to act fast.
"Where's the Avatar, Mai?"
Her former companion pressed her lips together and looked away, but Katara made a motion that caused her to cry out. "I don't know, okay? Nobody was here when we arrived."
Almost before the words were out of her mouth, a spout of dirt and pebbles flew up out of the top of the cliff, followed by the sound of Toph's voice. "It's them, I'm sure of it."
"Toph?" Katara called up to the cliff top. But the first face to peer over the edge was Aang's, face and tattooed head streaked with dirt. Toph's soon followed, then Sokka and Suki, also smeared with soil.
"Aang! Sokka! Suki!" In her evident relief, Katara dropped her hands losing her control of Mai. As Mai fell, she tucked and rolled, reaching into her sleeves at the same time. Azula moved a bit faster, calling up one more bolt of lightning and shooting it into Mai's chest just before her knives could fly. Mai didn't make a sound as she crumpled to the ground.
"Azula!" Aang cried, his tone carrying shock and reproach.
She refused to look at his face, or meet Katara's horror-stricken eyes. "We need to go."
The soldiers were breaking through the wall of flame where the porch used to be, advancing with fire and sword. While Aang was putting his bison whistle to his lips, Toph stomped down, and a slab of stone rose up out of the ground at the foot of the cliff. "Get on!"
Katara and Azula jumped onto the stone slab and Toph bent them up to the top of the cliff just as a roaring Appa swooped down and landed beside the group. They all scrambled into Appa's saddle, with Aang taking the reins, and the bison lifted into the air.
Azula spared one glance behind her. The fire had resumed burning what was left of the house and was spreading to the bushes and ferns around it. Even with the best containment efforts, that entire side of the island would be nothing but blackened ruins by morning, along with all the trinkets and paintings of her childhood, and Li and Lo.
Sacrifices, she reminded herself, and turned away.