CHAPTER 43 - The Pursuers

"So your sister actually has friends?"

"...shut up, Sokka," Katara growled.

"You're right, Katara. It's not his fault that his sister is nuts. Older brothers cannot be held responsible for crazy little sisters."

"...seriously Sokka, shut up before I make you."

Sokka went silent.

"Talk about a lucky coincidence, right?" Toph said brightly, apparently cheered by the knowledge that her parents had sent dangerous, creepy men to pursue her. "They completely ignored us to beat on each other."

"Oh, Aang!" Katara cried suddenly, reaching into a pocket to fish something out. "Something strange happened in the town today. A man gave me a pai sho tile and-"

"Pai sho? I love pai sho! I used to play with the monks all the time! You should see the huge pai sho tables at the air temples, they're-"

"Aang," she cut him off gently. "Focus. He also said that we'll find what we're looking for in Ba Sing Se."

"Never heard of it," he answered promptly.

"It's a great Earth Kingdom city, one of the few to resist Fire Nation invasion," Zuko supplemented helpfully. "It should be easy to find. Do we have a map?"

"Yes, but not with any city names," Katara answered, pulling a scroll out of a bag and handing it to Zuko.

Zuko unrolled the scross and pointed with his finger. "Here," he said. "This is Ba Sing Se."

"You're sure?" Toph asked skeptically.

"Yes. Well... yes."

"Well, he's got my vote of confidence," Toph muttered sarcastically.

"'We'll find what we're looking for in Ba Sing Se?'" Sokka repeated. "What are we looking for?"

"Not a clue," Katara shrugged. "A plan, maybe. Who knows? I think we should go."

"Ba Sing Se would probably be safe from Azula, too," Zuko added. "It'll take about a week to get there."

"Then to Ba Sing Se it is," Aang cheered. "Appa, yip yip!"

It took only two days for Azula to catch up to them. All things considered, Zuko was amazed it had taken her that long. Unfortunately, she didn't appear to be in the best of moods.

"Where is the Avatar?" She demanded, surveying the scene. The waterbending wench was there, along with her useless brother. Azula's own traitor brother was there too. The little earthbender girl and the Avatar were missing.

"Not here," Katara answered nonchalantly. Aang and Toph were practicing earthbending nearby, but she wasn't about to volunteer any information.

"What do you mean he's not here?" Azula screeched, her face red with rage and her eyes literally radiating hatred.

"Did I stutter?" Katara stood in front of the remainder of the group, with arms akimbo and a fierce stance.

Azula looked stunned, as if this single departure from her plan was ruining her entire scheme to capture the Avatar. Her eyebrows were scrunched in frustration and she was blinking rapidly, flustered and unsure of what to do. "Well... I guess we'll just have to capture you and use you as bait for the Avatar!" She cried triumphantly, apparently thrilled with her new plan.

Behind her, Mai and Ty Lee exchanged glances. Neither looked particularly happy to be there.

"Y'know, Azula, we could always come back later," Ty Lee suggested cheerfully, smiling sweetly. She just barely managed to dodge Azula's furious flames

"We are not leaving without the Avatar!"

"What's going on?"

"The Avatar!"

Katara facepalmed. "Aang, the idea is for you to stay hidden when people come looking for you."

"What, and miss a good fight?" Challenged Toph, cracking her knuckles. "I don't think so."

Zuko stepped in front of Aang just in time to deflect Azula's attack. "Give it up, Azula," he admonished. "Go home. We've got a firebender, a master waterbender, a master earthbender, and the Avatar on our side."

"Hey! What about me?"

"...and Sokka," Zuko amended. Sokka nodded in approval. "You're outnumbered and outmatched, Azula."

"Oh Zuzu," Azula simpered, "are you forgetting that I am a firebending prodigy?"

In one swift, fluid movement Azula channeled the blue lightning towards them, felling trees with an explosion of wood wherever the lightning struck. Splinters and chips of wood flew through the air. Shrieking, Katara dove to the ground, grabing Zuko and Sokka's hand to drag them down with her. Toph shielded herself and Aang with a wall of stone.

"See, Zuko? I don't need even numbers. I-"

"Mai?" Ty Lee cried suddenly, desperately. "Mai, are you okay? Mai!"

Just as Azula turned look, Aang jumped over Toph's wall and knocked Azula off her feet with strong gust of wind. Behind her, he could see Mai underneath a fallen tree, Ty Lee trying futilely to lift it off her. He leaped over Azula and used another burst of windpower to move the tree off the unconscious girl.

"Azula, she's not moving!" Ty Lee was sobbing, her ear on Mai's chest. "I can't hear her breathing, Azula! Azula!"

Azula was frozen in place, her eyes shifting between Aang and her friends. Making a split-second move, she attacked Aang with a ferocity he hadn't seen in her before, a furious desperation. He could hear Ty Lee crying, calling Mai's name over and over, and he could see the effect on Azula.

"Azula, we have to get Mai to a doctor!" Ty Lee yelled over the noise of combat. "Stop fighting! We have to get Mai to a doctor! Azula!"

Azula made no indication that she had heard Ty Lee, and kept attacking Aang with fire. Determined, Ty Lee sprung into action and, unexpectedly, hit the pressure points in Azula's arms—the firebending points. Azula wouldn't be able to firebend for a few hours, and as far as Ty Lee was concerned that was enough time for Mai.

"We have to get Mai to a doctor," she enunciated, her hands firm on Azula's shoulders and tears streaming from her eyes. Aang took advantage of the distraction to flee the scene and hop on Appa, where the rest of the gang was already waiting for him. Sokka, already holding the reigns, cried "Yip yip," and within seconds they were gone.

Sokka was in a good mood as he headed down to the river to bathe. The weather was nice, they were camping just outside of a decent city with cheap food, and it had been two whole days since they'd seen Azula and company. He was just grabbing at the bottom of his shirt to lift it over his head when he noticed something on the other side of the river, something that looked vaguely like a person. Frowning, he waded through the shallow water and gasped when he got to the other side.

Lying against a tree was a girl, badly burnt and obviously in pain. He poked the girl in the arm in an unburnt spot and asked, "Hey, are you okay?" She moaned incoherently, painfully, and didn't open her eyes. Gingerly, he picked her up and carried her carefully across the river and back to the camp.

"You sure didn't take long, Sokka. Did you—" Katara stopped mid-sentence, stunned. She rushed to her brother, who was laying the girl down on his sleeping bag. "Isn't that one of Azula's friends?"

"I think her name is Ty Lee," Sokka answered. "Can you help her?"

"I don't know, Sokka. Burns are hard to heal. And they're not fresh," she said worriedly, inspecting the girl's charred skin. "But I'll do the best I can."