AN: I apologize for the extremely long wait, but I know it's unforgivable. I only hope this chapter satisfies, I'll likely take it down and repost it once I've contacted my beta, but I decided to let you read it unedited because of how long it's taken me. Writer's block stings. More to come, don't worry.
Oh, more quiz: The medic with Mai and Ty Lee in this chapter was named after another far more competent female doctor. Name what she's from and I'll give you a cyber cookie. It'll also give you a clue of where I've been sulking lately in fandom.
In other news, this chapter is dedicated to my dear Superlazygirl in honor of her being my hundreth review a century ago. Love ya, Supie, and I hope you regain interest in old fics, too.
Learning to Play with Fire
Chapter 12: Rolly Polly
Zuko was certain that this was one of the most miserable times of his life. It wasn't the most miserable, as his scar can testify. No. Don't think about that.
With a despondent sigh, he pulled away from his musings to return his attention to the physical world. Almost immediately, he winced.
Beside him a young boy in lively orange skipped down the overgrown and ancient jungle path they had found themselves on. The Fire Prince found the path's existence curious, it was obvious that the island was currently empty of sentient life save themselves and their lost companions, but this path was an undeniable mark of a past culture that was now extinct. He glanced sideways at the child that was prancing and leaping at his side, the power behind his movements causing cool breezes to dance around the pair.
If only another culture would die out so easily, he thought with a vague annoyance he concealed when Aang met his gaze. Some of his feelings must've shown on his face, however, because Aang slowed and ceased his frolicking.
After a few moments, the boy spoke, his voice soft, "That girl, the one who attacked us, you know her, don't you?"
Zuko stiffened. He had hoped that his prisoner hadn't overheard his and Ty Lee's verbal exchange. He shook his head, "That is none of your concern, Avatar," he snapped.
To his immense surprise, Aang drew himself up to his full height, which — admittedly — wasn't all that impressive, but there was something about his narrowed eyes and the intense light within them that unnerved Zuko. This kept happening lately and Zuko found himself morbidly wondering if this was a sign of the Avatar snapping and killing him in the near future. "She was after me," the Avatar said, "and I deserve to know why."
Zuko blinked at him, his pale face carefully blank. Abruptly, he looked away and sidestepped the shorter boy.
"We need to keep moving."
The Firebender didn't look back and after a silence that caused the back of his neck to prickle he heard the extraordinarily light steps that signalled that the Avatar was following him.
Unnamed Island, Southern Sea
The soldiers carefully avoided looking at the young women who lead them. They all winced simultaneously when a loud smack was heard.
"Stay still," Mai snapped irritably. At the dark assassin's side a small man in the clinical uniform of a medic fidgeted as he watched the noblewoman he was supposed to be doctoring rub her cheek.
Ty Lee threw Mai a sour look as she massaged her stinging jaw. Partially hidden by her slender fingers a red hand print marred her fair skin. She whined, "But it hurts."
The medic half stood, his face showing his obvious distress. "I can fetch her some anesthetic."
Mai snorted softly. "That won't be necessary, Kadowaki; she's fine, it's just a pulled muscle."
Ty Lee sniffled, her hand rubbing her left shoulder where a large, purple bruise had formed underneath the pink fabric. Her eyes were wide and bright with unshed tears. "It's bruised, too, Mai!" she cried. "I landed on this side when the Avatar threw me."
Mai rolled her pale eyes. "A bruise is no matter, it's the pulled muscle I'm worried about. Fix it," she said.
The medic flinched. "But, My Lady—"
"Not you!" snapped the young woman. "Ty Lee."
The man stuttered, "H-how?"
The girls shared a sly smile that nearly caused the frazzled medic to wet himself. Ty Lee raised her hand to her injured shoulder.
"Shh!" Mai hissed at him.
Gingerly, the acrobat touched her index and middle finger to her shoulder and applied pressure to a specific spot. Ty Lee sighed in relief and Mai's teeth flashed in a pleased grin before her expression became stoic as was usual. Ty Lee winked at the astounded medic as she rotated her left arm carefully.
Mai suddenly stood and turned to the soldiers. "Make camp here! Captain!"
The aforementioned man quickly darted forward to come into a stiff salute before the girl and her prone friend.
"Ready the basilisks and alert two men of your choice that they are to accompany us in our search for the fugitives."
"Would you not like more, My Lady?" the captain inquired cautiously.
Mai's response was cool. "We only have four basilisks in the troop. This expedition requires speed, Captain."
"I like speed," Ty Lee murmured suggestively, nudging the captain's boot with her foot and staring at him provocatively.
The captain gulped, trying to avoid losing eye contact with Mai in the face of the gymnast's flirting.
Inwardly, Mai smirked.
Unnamed Island, Southern Sea
Aang was too busy glaring at the back of his (former) captor to see the deep depression in the jungle path.
Zuko spun around when the Avatar yelped. He snickered when he saw Aang sprawled on the ground, his face in the dirt. "For an Airbender, you're surprisingly clumsy." The teenager frowned when the boy didn't respond.
"Hey, get up. We need to get moving," he ordered, stomping over to the boy. "I command you to—"
The words died in his throat as he saw what had silenced the Avatar (for once in the child's life) so effectively.
Inches from Aang's nose was a massive paw print, one comparable in size to a Komodo rhino bull's claw. Along this section of the path were more tracks, one of which had tripped Aang. The Airbender looked up at him with wide eyes. "These are tiger-dillo paw prints," he murmured in awe, "the one who made these must've been gigantic."
Zuko bent down and pulled Aang up by the collar. "We need to find the others. Quickly." His golden eyes were anxious.
Aang nodded mutely.
Together, they proceeded down the path, their senses on high alert. With their extra caution, it was cake to hear the screeches of approaching basilisks. Zuko reacted first, dragging a flailing Aang into the bushes just as four people — two of which were very familiar to Zuko — mounted on the sleek reptiles rounded the bend at the odd swaggering, speedy walk of the basilisks.
Aang chose that moment to state the painfully obvious, "Hey! It's that gi—" Zuko covered his mouth hurriedly, grimacing when the basilisks flicked their tongues and slowed their pace. "Mrph!" Aang said with a glare as Zuko tightened his hold on the boy unconsciously.
Ty Lee was speaking. "Do you think they came this way, Mai?" She looked thoughtful for a moment, "Hey, that rhymed! Mai, way... day, say, bay, slay, jay, okay..." The gymnast beamed at her friend who only sighed in response.
"You are hopeless."
Ty Lee's smile didn't waver. "No, I'm optimistic!"
"Do you see any trace of them?" Mai asked a guard.
The man shook his head. "No, My Lady. Perhaps it would've been easier to pursue General Iroh and his men."
Mai sniffed, her expression one of disinterest. "Iroh and his men will not escape Princess Azula and Zhao's notice, but the Avatar and Prince Z-zuko," she tripped over the name awkwardly, "are far more stealthy. Since we are in charge of scouring this part of the island hunting down the Avatar and the Prince is our responsibility."
Zuko's eyes widened at the mention of his sister and his temper flared along with a tree branch above his head. With a shriek, Aang darted out of the bush, desperate to escape the shower of burning leaves. Zuko followed his lead, hands scrambling at his hair to check if it was burning.
After hopping around in panic, the boys froze only to see Mai, Ty Lee, and their two escorts staring at them from the basilisks' saddles.
"Oh, hey," Aang waved.
The staring commenced. Mai's eyes focused on Zuko who stared back, their indifferent, but oddly intrigued, expressions mirroring each other. Ty Lee smiled in what seemed to be a sort of bloodthirsty glee. The guards and basilisks looked about uncertainly.
Abruptly, Mai tore her eyes away from Zuko and spurred her basilisk forward. Zuko blinked as he was buffeted by a gust of wind as the Avatar took flight with Mai urging her basilisk past him in pursuit of Aang.
Ty Lee winked at the Prince before springing from the saddle and landing toe to toe with him, her hands snapping forward towards his ribs. Zuko deflected her strikes with his gauntlets and stepped back, giving himself room to maneuver. The guards dismounted and circled them, spears gripped tightly. It was through a light fall of ash and burning debris from the lit tree that Zuko engaged Ty Lee in combat.
Unnamed Island, Southern Sea
Aang sprinted through the jungle, darting nimbly through brush and tree trunks. He panted and threw a sour look back at his pursuer.
With a snarl, the basilisk leapt forward, its massive jaws just missing Aang's neck.
The Avatar smirked and slowed his pace. He swept around a grove, executing a wide turn. The basilisk's claws scrambled for grip, but the loose soil and smooth rock tumbled through its toes. Mai shrieked as her mount slipped out from under her and fell down into a ditch.
Grumbling, the girl stood, brushing dirt form her dark robes. She straightened and glared. The Avatar was watching her, just a scant few yards separating him from her. The boy's look was one of bemusement and his lips quirked slightly at the corners as he observed her.
"Are you Zuko's girlfriend?"
Mai flushed and stared at him in disbelief. "What? What makes you think that?"
Aang smiled slowly. "You were staring and he was looking back."
Mai couldn't help but grin a little when he nodded.
"Thank you for telling me," she said, genuinely grateful, and threw a knife aimed at the boy's heart.
She wasn't surprised when her shot missed, in fact, she was counting on it. Her next knife caught his sleeve as he jumped up. Aang grunted in pain when the force behind the knife dragged him backward and slammed him against a tree, the knife pinning his sleeve to the trunk.
The assassin walked towards him, throwing a few more knives as she did so. Aang flipped about and tore his sleeve loose just in time to evade getting impaled in the neck and chest.
Mai stared up at him balefully as he crouched in the tree, using its boughs for cover. The Avatar looked down and something by Mai's foot caught his eye, a paw print. Aang flicked his eyes back up to the girl's face and smiled mischievously.
With a mocking gesture signalling for Mai to follow, Aang sprang away to the next tree. Mai hissed and gave chase.
Unnamed Island, Southern Sea
Ty Lee darted in for the umpteenth time and felt her aura blacken when Zuko spun and caught her hand in his fist. His leg came up to kick her away and Ty Lee was forced to dance back, wrenching her hand away. She rubbed it as she eased back; his grip had been strong and hot. She gave a frustrated sigh and wiped sweat and ash out of her eyes. She very nearly missed Zuko launching a fireball at her and felt it singe the back of her shirt as she flipped over it.
Zuko followed up his attack with a series of unlit strikes. Ty Lee waved the soldiers away angrily when they attempted to stop the Prince's advance with their spears. The acrobat didn't like weaponry, particularly when it was used on an old friend.
Seeing this, Zuko made a small gesture and the fire that blazed in the tree above them shrunk and disappeared as if the teenager had drawn the flames created by his inner fire back into himself. But he didn't smile back when Ty Lee smiled at him gratefully.
Everyone's attention was pulled from the fight when the Avatar burst through the bushes like a humanoid whirlwind, sending one of the soldiers flying and startling the basilisks into bolting. Ty Lee winced in sympathy when the man landed in the weeds with a crash.
"Hey, Zuko!" the Avatar called, grinning brightly. Ty Lee was amazed at how blinding his aura was when he smiled like that. She felt rather bad for trying to catch someone with such a beautiful spirit. It was like taking the sun from the sky almost. She dearly hoped the Fire Lord wouldn't try to destroy that gorgeous light if he caught the boy, but she knew it was a silly thing to wish for.
Aang's beam turned sheepish. "Hey, just keep fighting, okay. I'm gonna get help, just hang on a sec. Alright?"
Ty Lee glanced at Zuko. The Prince was gaping, dumfounded.
With a wink, Aang soared into a tree and disappeared in the leaves.
Ty Lee coolly blocked the anticipated blow and somersaulted out of Zuko's reach. It was at that moment that a loud roar sounded from behind the Prince's back.
Time seemed to slow as Zuko's flaxen eyes widened. From seemingly out of nowhere Aang appeared, swinging down from the trees, his legs hooking around a bough and suspending him upside down above the Prince. His hands slipped under Zuko's arms and with a whoosh of air, Aang flipped them both back into the trees.
Once Zuko was out of the way, it all became clear to Ty Lee. The soldier that had not been thrown when Aang had reappeared lay on the ground, his torso torn to shreds and blood pooling around him. And he was cute, too, Ty Lee thought numbly. Crouched above the corpse was the second biggest tiger-dillo she had seen, the first having been a performer in the circus. But while Niabi had been as gentle as a deer and as tame as a puppy, this particular tiger-dillo was wild and vicious, a true maneater. Ty Lee could only stare as the beast raised its massive head from its kill and stared at her with hungry, green eyes, blood dripping from its parted jaws.
With a grimace, the girl sunk into a fighting stance and met the predator glare for glare. The tiger-dillo growled lowly and lumbered forward, its paws sinking in the blood soaked ground. Ty Lee watched it draw closer, bracing herself.
There was a sudden flash of steel and the tiger dillo howled and shook its head, clawing angrily at the ninja star embedded in its muzzle. Mai landed smoothly next to her friend, flicking a few knives into her hands with a flex of her forearms.
The girls shared a grin and launched forward simultaneously.
A flurry of blades hit the tiger-dillo in the face and chest. With an angry bellow, the cat curled in on itself and several blades glanced off its thick armor. When its keen hearing picked up the footsteps of the girls nearby it uncurled rapidly and slashed out with its claws. Mai swerved away, sending a bolt to pierce the tiger-dillo's exposed foreleg as she passed. Ty Lee ducked the swing aimed at her and ran in close to the cat's side, her nimble fingers seeking out any vulnerability in its musclebound frame. She pulled back when the beast flinched and rolled up, her fingers nearly getting caught between the thick plates of its armor.
After a scant few moments the tiger-dillo reemerged from its protective covering and charged after Ty Lee only to spin back around when a rain of arrows glanced off its back. It sprang at Mai and missed Ty Lee running into its path at the last moment. The tiger-dillo attempted to twist around in midair futilely, but Ty Lee's quick hands locked up the muscles lining its underbelly. The tiger-dillo landed heavily, several feet short of its target.
Mai and Ty Lee stood together, facing down a beast that weighed over twice their combined weight and had fangs as long and sharp as one of Mai's throwing knives.
With a casual snap of her wrist, Mai fired an arrow at the tiger-dillo. The cat shrunk away with a pained howl, its sides convulsing as it attempted to curl up and only half succeeded, its stomach muscles partially paralyzed by its encounter with Ty Lee. Recognizing its defeat, the tiger-dillo whimpered and loped back into the jungle.