AN: And it's ardy1, my brilliant beta, who wins the virtual custard tart!

Ty Lee's willow: like the acrobat, willows are flexible.

Mai's holly tree: like the weapons specialist, holly trees are beautiful to look at but spiky to the touch and very poisonous.

Azula's birch tree: a birch tree is slender, hardy and has a silvery or white peeling bark and a fine-grained wood.Now, what reminded me of Azula was the use birch branches were historically employed for: flogging.To birch someone means to beat them with a bundle of birch twigs.

Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar, if I did Aang would've killed Long Feng by now... or at least let Azula do it.


Grand Theft Bender

As the smoke swirling between the firebender and airbender cleared, Azula voiced the single coherent thought running through her cunning mind. "Avatar."

Aang clambered to his feet somewhat awkwardly, feeling splinters break off the rough wooden post as his back slid against it. He hesitated, glancing about, unsure of what to call the young enemy before him. He settled on a generalization, "Firebender." She had referred to him as 'Avatar' after all.

Having acknowledged one another's identities, the pair sprang into offensive and defensive action respectively.

Azula lunged forward, azure flames dancing around her. Aang drew breath rapidly, his slender chest rising as he gathered momentum. Just as the airbender began to exhale Azula reached her target, her small fist striking the boy's stomach, the effect enhanced by dazzling fire. Aang gasped as the wind was literally knocked out of him, and his knees buckled.

Drawing back, Azula caught him before he fell to the ground, her strong fingers grasping his arms with surprising gentleness. They slowly slid to the ground, Azula clasping the younger bender in a tight embrace. Aang angled his head towards her dazedly as she spoke, her breaths coming in excited pants against his exposed throat. "Not... quite the... challenge I expected, Avatar... Surely you weren't planning on... taking on the Fire Lord, my father, like this..."

Aang felt his face burn with anger. Azula smirked against his cheek as she settled him comfortably on his knees. Certain that the Avatar had yet to recover from the blow, the princess fumbled for something in her bodice. She allowed the wheezing airbender to lean against her, his head resting on her shoulder and his warm breath at her neck.

With a small noise of satisfaction that immediately put the recovering Aang on his guard, Azula drew a damp rag out of the red fabric of her top. Aang tensed as he felt the girl shift, her head turning to regard him.

She tsked as she noticed his arms struggling against the ropes that secured him to the post, "You'll not escape me so easily, Avatar."

Aang had barely registered her words before her hand gripped the back of his neck, her sharp nails digging cruelly into his throat. He choked, attempting to pull away from her, but the post hit his back and she pinned him there, her other hand pressing the drugged rag over his mouth and nose. Sputtering, he kicked wildly out. She avoided the flailing limb before bringing her knee to bear on his thighs, restraining him with ease. Against his will, Aang slumped against her as the drug took effect. Azula held him close, watching as his eyes drooped closed and listening as his breaths became regular.

The Fire Princess distractedly brushed some grime off her armor. Unconscious, finally.

She sat there for a few moments, her ears perked for any sounds. With a sigh she shifted, the Avatar's head lolled on her shoulder and his quiet inhales and exhales put her at ease.

Azula sat up abruptly. Footsteps echoed in the hall beyond the doorway. Pushing Aang back to lean against the post, she stood, sinking into a defensive stance. Her golden eyes focused intently on the doorway and she tensed. No one will take my prize from me.

- - -

Zhao rubbed irritably at his forehead as he ambled away from the bar in search of his troops.

Behind him, a blurry eyed Fong raised his head from where it had rested on his folded arms. "Hey!" The earthbender sat up, leaning heavily on the counter for support. "You!" he slurred as he attempted to stand but only succeeded in tripping over a barstool. The barstool and the man fell to the ground with a clatter and a despairing cry of: "General Haruuuukooooo!"

The bartender rolled his eyes at the drunk man. I should've become a blacksmith instead. But nooo, I wanted to meet new and interesting people! I wanted to socialize...

Zhao sneered at the fallen general, then winced as the motion caused the pounding in his head to increase. Fong shouldn't be interfering with our escape now, he thought smugly as he watched the earthbender attempt to untangle himself from the barstool.

- - -

Ty Lee and Mai backpedaled frantically out of the doorway they had just dashed into, barely avoiding having their eyebrows singed by the searing blue flames of their mistress.

"Whoa, girl!" Ty Lee yelped as the princess herself shot through the fire.

Azula froze at the sight of them and straightened from her attack form, her pretty face twisting into an irritable scowl. "What do you think you are doing?"

Mai raised a finely shaped eyebrow in query. "Coming to get you, of course," she replied tonelessly.

Ty Lee smiled and nodded in agreement.

Azula sighed and whirled around, smothering the flames with a sharp gesture. Ty Lee and Mai exchanged a wary glance before following. Mai inquiring: "So, did you locate the weapon—"

She trailed off as she spied the fourth figure in the room. At her side, Ty Lee gasped and clasped her hands over her mouth, "The Avatar?"

Azula nodded in confirmation, staring down at the aforementioned boy.

Mai crossed her arms, looking skeptical. "He's the weapon?"

Azula threw her a dirty look, feeling oddly insulted by Mai's disbelief. "He is the most powerful bender on the planet, Mai."

"Yeah, but still," Mai shrugged.

"But still?" Azula questioned argumentatively. Ty Lee threw her a quizzical glance, curious as to why her friend was taking this so personally.

Mai gave the airbender an appraising glance. "He's rather young. What danger could he be?"

Azula shook her head, "And I'm sure you ask yourself that question every time you look in the mirror, Mai."

Mai looked mildly insulted for a moment before letting her flaxen gaze wander around the room in disinterest. "Touché."

Ty Lee, however, skipped over to the unconscious Avatar, her bright gray eyes peering at him intensely. "Hey, he's kinda cute!"

"He's only twelve." Mai rolled her eyes.

"Hey, he's kinda cute for a twelve-year old! Like, 'puppy' cute," Ty Lee restated. "Better?" she smiled at Mai.

Mai sighed. "The best I'm going to get from you," she said dully.

Azula frowned, "We don't have time for this. Mai, cut him loose." Her friend hastened to do so. Together the three girls pulled the boy to his feet. Ty Lee and Mai pulled his arms over their shoulders and dragged him out of the room; Azula came behind them, shutting the door softly after her. Then, with Azula leading, her keen eyes alert for any threats, the trio (and their newly acquired prisoner) made their way out of the labyrinthine corridors beneath Fong's citadel.

- - -

Zhao and his men had congregated around one of the various snack buffets strategically positioned around the courtyard. From their vantage point they could clearly see the esteemed General Fong getting his groove on with a noblewoman on the dance floor. Zhao snickered as Fong stumbled over his own feet and fell onto the young woman, his hand groping at her ample bosom as he tried to steady himself. With a shriek of rage, the well-endowed woman slapped the earthbender soundly across the face, effectively unbalancing him. Fong fell to the floor in a heap as the woman stomped away, wailing for her father.

Around him his soldiers snacked on the buffet and leered at any Earth Kingdom citizen that strayed near, occasionally exchanging mocking words about the people around them.

Zhao turned around to reach for a drink, only to reel back hurriedly as he came face to face with Azula's dark attendant. Mai's thin lips twitched as he gaped at her. "It must take an awful lot of grace and balance to sneak up on someone like that, My Lady," he murmured eventually.

The assassin's eyes glittered dangerously. "I wasn't sneaking," she paused. "Father," she added pointedly.

Zhao looked confused for a moment. "Oh, yes, Daughter."

Mai smiled then, and Zhao found he didn't like it when she smiled. "Your other daughter, Jia Li, wants you (and our escort) to meet her outside the gate. She's not feeling well and wishes to return home."

The firebender's eyes narrowed suspiciously, "Most illnesses warrant bed rest. What is the nature of her sickness?"

"Homesickness," Mai replied without missing a beat.

Zhao nodded. "Will you and Ha also be accompanying us home?" Have you found the weapon yet?

"Yes."

Zhao reached around her, grabbing a glass from the table. He drank slowly, savoring the drink. Mai watched him silently. After a moment he finished and leaned towards her, setting the drink down on the table behind her. He paused and smiled at the girl staring up at him. "Good to hear, Kyoko," he turned away from her, and Mai walked away quickly.

The incognito Fire Nation admiral listened to her retreating footsteps with a predatory grin. "Come, my daughter, Jia Li, wishes to return home tonight," he announced to his men.

Zhao led his escort in a brisk walk across the dance floor, parting the crowd as easily as a ray of sunlight parts shadow. His march was slowed, however, as a gathering nobles' conversation floated to his ears over the heads of the dancers. Signaling for his men to proceed without him, Zhao drew closer to the group that had grabbed his attention.

"Yes, yes, the Blue Spirit was spotted in the area just south of here..."

"Good. The Blue Spirit's a Fire Nation renegade; anyone who angers the Fire Lord enough to get himself on a wanted poster is fine by me," interrupted the deep voice of a mammoth earthbender.

A young nobleman with a fair face spoke up. "But he's stealing from us, too. A lord was robbed of a chest of gold pieces. He's a common criminal."

The earthebender smiled cryptically. "True. But do you know why the Fire Lord wants him captured so badly?"

The group shook their heads.

The massive man leaned in conspiratorially. "I hear — now this is just a rumor, so don't get too excited — I hear, that some Fire Nation admiral got his filthy hands on the Avatar..."

The crowd gasped.

"Yes," the earthbender said gleefully, "had him locked up in a Fire Nation fort somewhere."

"How'd he get him?" a woman asked worriedly.

The man shrugged in response. "I don't know."

The handsome nobleman who had called the Blue Spirit a criminal spoke again. "Where does the Blue Spirit come into this?"

The eathbender raised his large hands in placation, "I'm getting there. I'm getting there. Be patient... Now, you see, the Avatar couldn't escape, his friends weren't there — no, I don't know why they weren't there. Spirits, the admiral had a victory speech all planned out — eliminate the Avatar from the war and everything is lost for us, simple as that. But, now, here's where he comes into it."

The group crowded around him excitedly.

"The Blue Spirit broke into that fortress and freed the Avatar."

Zhao rolled his eyes as the crowd gasped and cheered in delight.

The earthbender nodded in satisfaction. "Yep, got in there and they busted out together."

The nobleman's eyes were wide, "Wow, so he really is a hero."

The earthbender crossed his arms, "Most definitely, as heroic as any of the Avatar's companions."

"Sir," said a young girl in a soft voice, "Is it — is it possible that he is one of the companions of the Avatar?"

The earthbender smiled down at her tenderly, "Anything's possible, m' dear, especially when it comes to the Avatar."

The girl blushed and looked away shyly with a small smile.

"Oh, hogmonkeywash, none of that's true!" barked an old, miserly man with a wrinkled face.

The earthbender looked affronted. "Well, I did say it was a rumor. No need to get all defensive, sir."

The old man snorted, "Really, a criminal! Next you'll be claiming the Avatar associates with firebenders!"

Zhao drew away as the one-sided argument escalated. He'd heard all he needed to. So, the Blue Spirit is here. Interesting. He smirked.

- - -

"OPEN THE GATES!"

Mai peered up at the soldier atop the earthen wall blocking their path through a sliver of an opening in the curtain of the ostrich-horse drawn carriage she, Ty Lee, Azula, and Zhao were currently riding in.

The earthbender on the wall that had caught Mai's attention straightened. "WHO GOES THERE?" he called out.

The assassin leaned out the window slightly to observe the mounted incognito firebender leading their small (only two carriages and a small battalion) procession. "GENERAL HARUKO OF THE EARTH ARMY!" the man replied, tightening his grip on the reigns as his ostrich-horse pranced nervously.

The earthbender made no further reply, and disappeared off the wall before them and into the dark. With a loud rumble the earthen construct crumbled away, leaving a dusty passageway through Fong's fortress's outer wall in its place.

Mai shuttered the carriage window and leaned back languidly in the cushy seat, listening indifferently as the carriages rattled and surged forward, the ostrich-horses snorting anxiously.

Across from the assassin, Azula smiled like a panther that had spotted a deer.

- - -

General Fong had long made a habit of visiting the Avatar's cell before retiring for the night. He decided to not stop such a tradition now, no matter that he still slurred his words.

He strutted down the gloomy hallway, two of his earthbenders striding behind him. He tripped over the inert bodies of his security guards without a word, then ignored the fact that his accompanying men had ceased to follow him, choosing instead to attempt to help their injured peers. Fong paid no notice to the telling lack of a door in the doorway of his most prized captive's cell. He did, however, pay attention to the absence of the Avatar. He entered the cell silently and quietly observed the pole.

Fong threw his head back, his headdress slipping askew with the movement, and roared.

The earth shook.

The remaining dancers fell atop and around each other in various comic poses.

- - -

They came to a stop in the forest. Azula stepped out of the carriage, hitching up her green robes to keep them from falling into the muck of the dirt road. Ty Lee and Mai flanked her after disembarking from the carriage in turn.

Zhao eyed them coolly, his men shuffling around him. "We are not out of danger, Princess, Fong has likely found out. I suggest we keep moving."

The ground trembled ominously beneath their feet, the work of an army of earthbenders. In the distance a bright green fire flared to life on the top of the tower of the Earth Kingdom military base.

Azula eyed it appraisingly before turning to Zhao. "Oh, he has most definitely found out, Admiral. And that makes this next move all the more necessary."

Zhao couldn't quite keep the inflection of fear out of his voice when he inquired: "What next move?"

Azula grinned.

- - -

"We could've used his help," Ty Lee stated, for perhaps the fifth time in the last twenty minutes.

The Fire Heiress looked dully at her companion. "We don't need him. He and his troops would only interfere in this part of the process." She turned to face Ty Lee, "Besides, I do not wish for Zhao to find out what the weapon really is."

Ty Lee shrugged and leaned back against the carriage seat, fiddling with her Earth Kingdom robes. Azula looked out the open window at the starry sky hanging suspended in both time and space above the dark forest surrounding the path the small carriage rattled along. On the outside of the carriage, Mai sat sullenly on the bench overlooking the ostrich-horse pair pulling the cart. With a bored sigh, the young assassin cracked the whip over the beasts' feathered backs, urging them to go faster.

The loathsome whip crack renewed Ty Lee's curiosity, to Azula's chagrin.

"Is he okay in there?" inquired the acrobat, with a nod in the direction of the large crate nestled between the carriage seats.

Azula looked worriedly down at the crate before grabbing the crowbar on the cushion beside her. With a wrench, she pulled the top of the crate off and moved it to the side, revealing the Avatar dozing deeply, curled within the interior of the wooden box.

Ty Lee peered at the unconscious boy over her friend's shoulder. "He doesn't look like a weapon."

Azula stared at Aang intently. "That's part of what makes him dangerous," she murmured. She looked back at Ty Lee. "Underestimate him and you may lose your life."

The acrobat eyed her friend for a moment before replying. "Like you, huh?"

Azula just smiled in response.