The man was dressed in the garb of a Fire Nation official. From the quality of his garments and the length of his procession, it was easy to see he was of great seniority and experience.
Azula was not impressed. "Are you saying," she said, leaning forward menacingly, "that you let my brother escape during his execution?"
The man winced. "Y--yes, ma'am?"
Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "An execution... of which I was not informed?"
He stammered something inaudible.
"We assumed...that you were busy...with the wedding, miss--miss Azula, ma'am."
She smiled icily. "And when," she returned, "did I give you authority to assume things about me?"
He took a step back. "I--I..."
"You--you didn't, ma'am?"
"Precisely." Azula opened her hand. A small fire flickered up in it.
His eyes widened. "However!" he continued quickly, "--we are--ah--conducting a thorough search into the whereabouts of the fugitive Prince Zuko and--"
Azula's expression was fierce. "Former Prince Zuko," she snarled.
"Precisely, ma'am--my mistake--"
There was a clatter and a crash, as a cup fell to the floor. Katara lay amid the shattered pieces, gasping for breath. "Zuko..."
Azula turned to the general angrily. "What have you done?" she screamed.
"Zuko!" Katara sat up. "Who are you?" she asked. There was a vacant expression on her face. "Have you seen Zuko?" She got to her feet and began to take off--
Azula grabbed her by the dress and pulled Katara against her. "You are mine," she hissed in Katara's ear. "Mine, and no one else's. Zuko is nothing to you." She let go. Katara slumped against her. "Do you understand?"
Azula took a deep breath, bringing one hand to her temple. "Now. Where was I? Oh, yes." She turned back to the official. "You may tell your superiors that I will personally be seeing to the traitor's investigation from now on. I would like a copy of his files by the end of the day."
"Y--yes, ma'am." He scurried out of sight.
She sighed. "Maid!"
"Get someone to clean up this mess."
"Of course, madam."
"And fetch my assistant. Tell him to prepare a royal proclamation. From now on, the Avatar and his entourage are not to be mentioned in the palace."
Azula's mouth was pressed into a thin line. "This crime," she added, "should be punishable by death. Is that clear?"
The maid's gaze flickered from Azula to the girl on her lap. "Crystal, madam. I'll see to that right now, shall I?"
"Why?" she had asked him then. "Why?" they had asked him, a million voices, a million times, and the answer had always come easily to his lips.
For my honor.
For that and that alone had he endured these desolate years. For his honor, he had chased the Avatar. And for his honor, he had joined him.
But where was his honor now?
There was no honor in running for your life, a fugitive in a land where you should have been king. There was no honor in the sweat sticking your shirt to your back, or the sharp feeling in your throat as you struggled to run just a little longer.
There was no honor in being alone.
"Why, hello there, young man..."
Zuko whirled around. "Uncle?" he said, without really thinking about it. Iroh was long dead, of course.
The man inclined his head. "Afraid not. Are you looking for him?"
"No." Zuko's eyes fell on the Pai Sho board. Could it be?
"Oh, do you know Pai Sho?" The man's lips curved into a smile. "Would you like to play a game with me?"
Zuko stood there. He knew, logically, that it was probably a trick, a trap, designed to make him let down his guard.
But what if it isn't?
Keeping his eyes on the man, he sat down and placed the first tile.
The man's smile widened. "Welcome...Prince Zuko."
Zuko swallowed. "I'm not a prince. Not anymore."
"You will be. Now, shall we play?"
Back when they were in the Royal Girls' Academy, Ty Lee had had a habit of making finger- and toeholds on her ceilings. It was a hallmark of Mai's long friendship with her that she still checked her rooms every time she entered. It was a hallmark of their long absence that she jumped back upon actually finding the girl there.
"Hello, Mai!" Ty Lee detached one of her hands from the ceiling and waved.
Mai sighed. "Hi."
"It's nice to see you again!" Ty Lee beamed.
"Same here," Mai said dryly.
"Everyone's in a panic," Ty Lee continued with surprising cheer. "Zuko escaped, did you hear?"
"How could I not?" Mai kept her face carefully blank.
"Don't you think it's interesting?"
"You wouldn't know anything about it, would you, Mai?"
Mai looked at Ty Lee's face: open, honest, unconcealing. "No," she said. "Why would I?"
Ty Lee's shoulders moved slightly; Mai guessed she was trying to shrug. "I thought you might have. Azula does."
Mai froze. "Does she?"
"Yup. Oh, yeah! That reminds me. She wanted me to take you in for questioning."
Mai was silent. "How long can you stay up there?" she asked finally.
"About an hour. Why?"
Mai reached for a knife. "That should be enough time," she said, and threw it. It hit its target, as it always did.
Ty Lee smiled. "Yes, I think so too. Is this goodbye, Mai?"
Mai turned to the window. "Yes."
There was a clatter as the bowl fell to the floor. Toph grabbed ahold of it almost immediately. "You spilled it," she accused.
The girl snorted. "Hell if I care," she snorted. "You can lick it up off the floor, like the dog you are."
Toph laughed derisively. "Are you calling me a dog?"
"Maybe you should look in the mirror, then. Before you start calling other people names."
A hand grabbed her by the collar. Toph could feel heat against the side of her face. "What did you say?"
Toph said nothing.
"Yeah. That's what I thought." The girl threw her to the floor. "Your Earthbending's not good for much here, is it?"
Toph sat up. "Any news?" she ground out. For not the first time, she found herself missing Ty Lee, the way the other girl would spontaneously tell her everything.
She could almost hear the girl's smirk. "Yeah, in fact. A prisoner came in today. One you know."
Toph froze. Not him, not him...
"She's wanted for treason. Goes by Ty Lee. You two'll be sharing a cell from now on." The girl tossed in some bread after her. "I'll see you tomorrow, Blind Bandit."
Toph mapped the path of the prison hall to calm herself as the girl's footsteps--and the world around her--disappeared into nothingness.
Sokka stepped onto the island. "Thank you," he said in the direction of the boat.
A laugh. "No need. I'm always glad to help a friend of the Avatar."
Sokka swallowed. "I'll remember that."
He began to walk. There was a slight breeze in the air. The only sounds were the wind rustling through the trees and the faint yells coming from the training hall. He followed them, hesitating slightly before opening the door.
Every head in the hall turned towards him. Suki dropped her fan. "Welcome," she said hesitantly. "Tell me, warrior, what is your business here?"
He looked her in the eye. "The danger," he said slowly, "that lurks under great sycamore tree."
She relaxed. "So you still remember," she said, smiling slightly. "Welcome back, Sokka."