Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender
Against the Wind
The chill wind eddied and swirled down the slopes of the mountain, moaning softly as it swept the barren rock clear of the last vestiges of snow clinging tenaciously to the higher elevations. It followed the contours of the land, always down, past tall evergreen trees and short, scrubby bushes, blowing unremittingly as it doggedly descended, until it finally rushed out into the sparse river valley below. The wind, as if propelled by a conscious will, galloped across the land, leaving frolicking zephyrs of billowing dust in it's wake, rustling the bare tree branches that clawed against the sky, rippling the smooth water of the river, and making the fire flicker wildly.
It was a small fire, built low and tiny near the river, tucked protectively in the tenuous shelter offered by the lee of a boulder. The bitter winter wind struggled with the fire, striving to extinguish it, alternately coaxing it with small puffs and railing at it in angry gusts, as though the tiny fire had perpetrated some deep personal wrong, as if the fire were the last remaining hindrance to the new season finally breaking, the Spring that would soften the chill, biting wind, allowing it to finally rest as it whispered through newly budding trees in warm, languid breezes. But the tiny fire was stubborn, unwilling to die no matter how low it guttered, standing strong in the face of the implacable air current...
Azula crouched low before her tiny fire, hands held out for what warmth could be provided by the feeble glow. She pulled her raggedy cloak more tightly around her body, her breath visible in the air, shivering at the cold wind that slipped easily past the boulder she was huddled against and cut through her tattered clothing. Every few minutes she would point two fingers at the tiny fire and, with a subtle motion of the wrist, reinforce the smoldering pile of wood with a small jet of flame.
Night had long since fallen, but, despite her overwhelming exhaustion, Azula could not sleep. Must not sleep. She knew that if she were to give in to the peaceful oblivion of slumber, it was highly likely that she would not wake again. Firebender prodigy or not, princess or not, she would still freeze to death before morning. So she fought her own body, willing herself awake, occupying her mind by staring unblinking into the fire and pondering her current circumstance. Sometimes it seemed unbelievable, nothing more than a cloudy, unclear dream from which she would soon wake.
It was not long ago that she had been waited on hand and foot, never lacking for anything, her slightest whim fulfilled. She had commanded, wielding ultimate power over her subordinates as they cowered in fear. Now she barely had food to eat, struggling for command over her own weary body. She had been favored child of the single most powerful man in the world. Now she was dirty and hungry and cold and tired and lonely, hunkered down beside a boulder with a fire that had to be kept small to avoid detection, camped along an obscure river in a minor province of the Fire Nation.
Her jaded reverie was broken by the sharp sound of a twig snapping, coming from the trees beyond her campsite. She quickly stood, stepping around the fire. Falling easily into a firebending stance, she peered warily into the gloomy, oppressive dark of the moonless, overcast night. She bit back a curse at her own foolishness, at allowing her desire for warmth to override the necessity of maintaining decent night vision. Now her eyes could make out nothing in the benighted valley, only orange spots dancing on a field of inky black. She remained still and silent, body taught as a bowstring, ears straining desperately for the barest whisper of sound. She heard nothing. Slowly, ever so dreadfully slowly, her eyes began to adjust and she was finally able to make out shapes in the darkness. She scanned the area, moving only her eyes, searching carefully. There! A figure, a barely seen shadowy silhouette, leaned casually against the dim outline of a tree. She didn't move as the figure stepped away from the tree, strolling towards her and the light. A few steps brought him into the wan glow of her little fire.
Azula relaxed slightly, recognizing him immediately. "Nice of you to come all the way out here to visit. How did you find me?"
Zuko stopped several feet away, his eyes alert and wary, but without the slightest trace of fear. He was dressed in practical traveling clothes, slightly worn, but obviously expensive. And very warm looking. He had a light pack slung across one shoulder. His hair was once again in a pony tail, though not quite it's former length yet. "It's not exactly a social call. And I've had plenty of practice tracking people."
"But not much luck with the capturing part, right, Zuzu?
"I'm not here to capture you. And it's Prince Zuzu."
She raised an eyebrow at that. Where was the irritation, the blustering insistence that she not call him that? Instead of barely contained rage and wounded pride, he seemed to exude a quiet confidence, a serenity that she had never seen before from him. Azula dropped her stance, crossing her arms as she replied, "Well, someone's certainly lightened up."
He only shrugged. "Winning can do that."
She gave an inelegant snort as she answered mockingly, "Winning? Don't you mean betrayal? You turned on your own people, on your own Father. And for what? So Iroh could take the Throne, so you could be named his heir? It's a disgrace."
"A disgrace?" Zuko's voice was tight through a grim smile. "And here I thought it was merely a family tradition."
Azula was once again caught off guard. It seemed he had lost some of his naivety as well. To cover her surprise, she slowly tapped her chin with one finger, as if she were thinking. "Hmm... I guess you're right. Does that mean you won't be taken by surprise when I do the same to you and Uncle?"
He shrugged again, an immensely unconcerned gesture that was quickly beginning to irritate Azula, as he answered, "If that's your plan, you should have joined up with General Leng when he rebelled. I hear he offered you an alliance."
"An alliance? The old goat just wanted to marry me so he could claim the Throne for himself."
Zuko shuddered in disgust, the first visible flaw in his otherwise peaceful composure. "Well, it seems to me that that was your best chance. The rebellion is over now, Uncle is the Fire Lord, and you are without an army."
Azula stepped back around the fire, never taking her eyes off of him, and crouched gracefully next to it, seeking warmth once more. "I can wait. Unlike you, dear brother, I have never lacked in patience. When the time is right, I will make my move." Her voice gained in speed and volume as she spoke. "The army will come to me. All the warriors of the Fire Nation who are disgusted by Iroh's betrayal, by his cowardice, by his willingness to abandon the war on the verge of victory, just as he did at Ba Sing Se, they will all join me to restore the glory of the Fire Nation! And we will have the support of the people. Father is gone. You are a traitor. That leaves me. I am the rightful heir, the rightful ruler, and the people will rally to my cause!"
"You're wrong, Azula." Zuko shook his head slowly, disturbed by the manic gleam in her eye. "The people are tired of war. It's all they've known for over a hundred years, and they're sick of it. They're sick of sending their husbands and sons and fathers and brothers to die. They don't care who the 'rightful ruler' is. They're too busy trying to survive, trying to scrape out a living. They're too worried about where their next meal is coming from, or if they will have enough money for this month's rent, or if they have enough food for winter, or if they will have to dig another little grave next to all the others when they hear their child coughing. They don't care who rules them. They just want to live their lives."
A chill ran up Azula's spine, and she didn't think it had anything to do with the cold. This wasn't the Zuko she knew. This wasn't the needy little boy always clamoring for attention because he lived in the shadow of his little sister. This was someone else entirely, someone she had never met. She watched him closely across the fire as she asked, "Why are you here, Zuko?"
"For information. And to pay a debt."
"A debt? What do you mean?"
Zuko edged closer to the fire, dropping his pack to the ground and settling on his haunches. "First the information. On the day the Avatar defeated Father, where were you? I kept expecting you to burst in to fight the Avatar yourself, but you never did. Even afterwards, I never saw you."
Azula's brow furrowed at the odd line of questioning. Why would he possibly need to know that? "You were there. You know that the Avatar sent his friends to fight me."
"And they were able to stop you?"
Azula scowled deeply, insulted at the very idea, her voice turning bitter. "No. They only delayed me. Surely you discovered the... outcome... of that little skirmish."
Zuko nodded once, watching her closely. "We eventually found the watertribe warrior and the earthbender girl." He paused, as if carefully deciding what to say. "That was your doing? Both of them?"
"Of course." Azula smiled, a cruel and terrible smile. "Tell me, Zuzu, did either of them survive?"
Zuko ignored the question and the sadistic delight in her voice as he continued. "What about the waterbender? What happened to her?"
Azula narrowed her eyes suspiciously at her brother. Zuko had always been easy for her, or anyone, to read. The way he was acting now, though, the questions he was asking, didn't make sense. "Why do you care?"
The prince only shrugged again. "Call it curiosity. I didn't expect you to be defeated by the Avatar's friends."
Azula bristled, her voice raising slightly. "No one defeated me, I just ran out of time. I had already taken down the first two. It was just me and the waterbender fighting on the steps of the palace. And I was winning that fight, too. But we were interrupted." She paused for a moment, her eyes staring unfocused on the flames as she remembered, her voice dropping to a low whisper. "There was a bright light. It was almost blinding. It was shining out of every window, out of every doorway. Everyone started running out of the palace, saying it was the end of the world. And I knew. The waterbender did, too. We both knew that Father had lost. The greatest firebender, the greatest warrior in the world, and he had lost." Azula gave her head a quick shake, speaking again at a normal volume. "She was still watching the palace, not paying any attention to me. I was able to knock her out and take her when I left."
"Why would you take her prisoner? And where is she now?"
Azula's monstrous smile returned, deeper and colder and more horrifying than before. "Why? I thought that would be obvious. If it hadn't been for the waterbender peasant and her friends, then I could have helped Father. Things would have turned out differently, but she delayed me. I was too late, and because of that, because of her, I lost everything; my father, my position, my power, my throne, all of them gone. She had to pay, for herself and her friends and the Avatar."
"So you took her prisoner." It was no longer a question.
"She actually lasted much longer than I thought she would. Almost four full days."
"Surprising, isn't it? I wouldn't have expected more than two."
Zuko's eyes widened in sudden understanding. "You had her tortured?"
"No, of course not." The cruel, twisted mockery of a smile grew larger. "Where would be the fun in that? I did it myself."
The Fire Nation Prince stared at her, open-mouthed in shock. After a moment, he blinked a few times and rapidly shook his head before nervously looking behind himself as if he were searching for something.
Azula followed his gaze, seeing nothing but the trees. Unless... was the sky starting to lighten already? That didn't make sense. Dawn was still hours away. "She didn't go quietly, either. The whole time she kept going on and on about the Avatar." Azula wrapped her cloak more tightly around herself as the wind started to pick up again. "I thought she would give it up after a day or two, but she didn't. She was still talking about him on the last day." Azula pitched her voice into a high, whiny moan, speaking loudly to be heard above the ever increasing wind. "Aang will save me. He will find me and save me. Please hurry, Aang!" The wind was now whipping furiously around the camp, tearing at her cloak and wildly flinging their hair about as the trees swayed erratically.
Zuko stood, taking a few careful steps away from the fire, fighting against the raging wind. Azula struggled to her feet as well, one hand trying to shield her eyes from the flying dirt, suddenly realizing that the fierce wind did not seem natural. She was about to ask him what was going on and where he was going, when she saw it. She finally caught sight of it, and all thoughts of speech fled her mind. The sky was lighter. In fact, it was glowing very brightly now. Glowing with a light she had seen before. And the wind, the savage, deafening gale, was not natural. Not at all.
Zuko, his back still to a stunned Azula, placed one fist against an open palm and bowed, obviously fighting for balance in the hammering wind, as he raised his voice to be heard above the earsplitting shriek. "You restored my honor and the honor of the Fire Nation. I led you to my si... to this person," the amended phrase practically dripped with loathing, "and discovered the truth. I leave her to you. My debt is paid." Shouldering his pack, Zuko trudged away, hunched low against the ferocious battering of air, quickly disappearing from sight into the trees, leaving her alone. Alone with him.
For perhaps the first time in her entire life, Azula was truly afraid.
...but eventually, in that lonesome river valley, surrounded by nothing but the rocks and trees and water, the tiny fire gave one last helpless, ineffectual flicker as it was finally extinguished by the vicious gusts of the bitter, icy wind.
A/N: A little one-shot just to get my feet wet. This was my first attempt at writing an Avatar story (I've only done Teen Titans stuff before now), so I am still trying to get a feel for it, especially the characters. My apologies if anyone was too OOC.
As far as the story itself, well, it turned out significantly different than what I originally envisioned. Once I started writing, it just seemed to fly off in it's own direction, and any attempts to reign it in resulted in convoluted, contrived, and, ultimately, bad writing. I eventually just gave up and let it have it's own way. I can only hope that you enjoyed it.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, especially to everyone who leaves a review. Feedback is always greatly appreciated. I will be sure to reply to all signed reviews.