It was with some surprise that Katara returned to camp to find only her brother present. Well, Momo never flew far from camp, and Appa more or less was camp, so they were there too. Sokka, sitting on his sleeping mat and sharpening his boomerang, was nevertheless the only other human in the small clearing. Upon hearing her approach through the leafy undergrowth, he looked up from his task. "Fill the water skins?"
Katara hefted four bulging containers off of her shoulders. "There's a little stream not far through the trees that I used. It seemed to be pretty clean, but I bent the water around a little, just in case." She'd discovered that waterbending could cleanse the impurities from water in a desperate gamble very early in their travels, when inaccuracies on their maps from home had them running out of drinking water with nothing but ocean for miles in every direction. At the time, Katara had just barely been enough of a waterbender to strip the ocean water of its salt, and incompletely at that. Thinking what would have happened had they been any further off course still caused her to shudder.
"That's good," Sokka acknowledged. He turned back to his boomerang for a moment and brought the bladed edge of the weapon close to his face. Peering intently at it, he slid it into the sheath on his back with practiced speed and grace, apparently satisfied with the job he'd done.
Katara looked around again, scanning the edge of their camp in the middle of the great forest, and looking out into the endless tree trunks beyond. This was a place of elms, oaks, beeches- temperate trees, yet far lusher and greener than the hardy plants that grew on the flat, sun-baked plains of the Earth Kingdom. They were going south, and had in fact left the Earth Kingdom proper. Tonight, for the first time since their initial journey to the North Pole, they were making camp in what the Fire Nation called the 'Conquered Territories': a few provinces in the southeastern corner of the Earth Kingdom that had been controlled by the Fire Nation for over fifty years now. The trees were far more like what she'd first seen of forests on the way north, huge leafy things like the hanging camp of the Freedom Fighters-
Jet… Katara was broken harshly from her surveying by the memory of the young rebel. He'd died helping their group rescue Appa, mortally wounded by the treacherous minister Long Feng just days before the fall of Ba Sing Se. She hadn't forgiven him for the extreme tactics she'd watched him use in his private war with the Fire Nation, but it didn't make his killing any more justified. Jet had… touched her as well, in a way that no person, no young man before him had done.
Not to say, of course, that she hadn't been similarly touched since. "So, where's Aang?"
Sokka's face suddenly twisted into a scowl. "Training," he answered curtly, taking his boomerang out of its sheath and beginning to sharpen it again.
"Really?" Katara asked, surprised in spite of herself. She supposed Aang had to keep working toward mastery in all of the bending disciplines. Still… "Is it really a good idea for him and Toph to be earthbending in the middle of a forest?"
Sokka gave his weapon a particularly rough scrape with the whetstone, sending the faintest of sparks off the edge. His teeth were gritted tightly. "He's not training earthbending…"
Which meant that… oh, yes. It hadn't occurred to Katara when she'd first thought of Aang training. She was still getting… used to it. Looking down at Sokka, she could tell she wasn't the only one. She was doing quite a bit better than him in that regard: her older brother was practically trembling with frustration, which she knew he took out on his weapons- hence the excessive attention paid to the boomerang. Sighing, Katara flopped onto the ground next to him.
She took a deep breath. At the very least, she could get him talking. "It's still bothering you, isn't it?"
Katara stifled an urge to grumble at the rough tone he'd used to answer. "It's never going to stop bothering you, is it?"
He stopped the overzealous sharpening, realizing the pressure did the boomerang more harm than good. Flicking the weapon back into its sheath, he swiveled in his seat to face her. "Look, Katara, I know I should be trying to deal with this. I know having Spoiled Fire Brat around to teach Aang is more than we could have possibly hoped for. I keep telling myself that it puts us another step closer to defeating the Fire Nation." His face twisted up into some mixture of a growl and a pout. "But… couldn't it have been anyone else?!"
Katara breathed angrily at him, her own anxieties shortening her temper. "Who? Who else?! I could lose some fingers and still count the number of firebending masters we know on one hand! Iroh is out of our reach, unless you'd like to try storming back into Ba Sing Se, and that's assuming he hasn't already been moved somewhere else. Or we could look for Jeong Jeong again, except he doesn't want to be found! It would take us weeks just to pick up his trail!" Katara bit back the rest of her remarks; the last thing she needed to do right now was explode at her brother. She clenched her hands into fists and pressed her knuckles hard into the soft earth. Taking a few deep breaths, she opened her closed eyes and spoke more quietly: "I don't like it either. I really don't. But we're desperate, Sokka. Aang needs to master firebending. We… we have to try to make this work."
Sokka was looking at the ground. She wondered if he was even listening, but then he wrapped a hand around her elbow and gave it a gentle squeeze. "I know," he replied softly. "And I am trying… really, Katara." He looked up, and her anger melted at the sadness in his eyes. "It's just… hard, you know? It's hard for me not to hate any of them."
Katara nodded silently. Sokka was old enough to have clearer memories of their mother's death; she was blessed to have only vague nightmares of screaming and swirling flames. Sokka let go of her arm and got to his feet, then bent down to pick up the water skins. Carrying them in his arms, he walked to Appa and gave a great heave, throwing all four containers up to the broad saddle of the napping sky bison. Looking up, Katara saw Toph emerging from the woods at the right edge of the clearing, her short, stocky arms laden with the evening's firewood. At least we don't have to carry flint with us anymore, Katara reflected sourly.
Sokka also clung to his foul mood. "It's just… NGGHH!!" he roared through his teeth, sitting down with a force that made Toph stop her approach. He held his scalp in his hands. "I mean, I could even take it if it had been some random firebender! Someone new, someone I hadn't already learned to be terrified of!" He flung his hands back to the ground and threw back his head, staring up into the tree-framed sky. "Why did it have to be her?!"
Aang breathed in.
Aang breathed out.
"Remember, firebending comes from the breath."
Aang breathed in and drew back his fist. He breathed out, letting his breath flow not just out his mouth, but through his chest and up his arm to the fist he threw forward. He let the breath move even beyond his fist- and a burst of brilliant orange flame erupted from his closed fingers, bathing the darkening forest around him in the warm light.
"The breath is the source of heat in the body. The lungs are closest to the stomach, the source of energy, so they receive the most energy the fastest. This is why firebending has the greatest raw power of all the bending arts."
Aang breathed in and then out. "I've seen really powerful attacks from benders of all the elements."
"True, but earthbending, waterbending, and airbending wax and wane according to the environment in which they are used. Firebending comes from within. A firebender needs nothing outside them to prop them up, and they will begin a fight with greater strength because of this self-sufficiency."
Aang wanted to point out that the air was everywhere, but he thought better of it- and then he remembered the time when Zhao had caught him and chained his arms and legs. For all its omnipresence, Air's effectiveness was limited in certain places. Earth and Water could be completely kept from their respective benders. By contrast, nothing short of a total solar eclipse could stop a firebender from using their element. His teacher had a point.
"Breathe in, breathe out." Aang did so, punching with his other arm and releasing a blast of fire from this fist as well. Continuing to breathe, he pivoted on his heel and brought his right arm around in a blocking arc, a thin curve of flames splashing through the air to bring a greater danger to anyone attacking him. Firebending had little in the way of true defense; at best, it applied offensive moves in a way that discouraged an opponent from further attack. Aang brought yet another fist forward, over his forearm; the flames from his other arm were caught by the forward motion of the attack and swirled around his closed hand, joining with the newfound flames to form a focused cone of fire that blazed a considerable distance into the dusk.
His firebending sifu circled around him at a distance, watching his progression through the moves he had already learned, and deciding what he needed to hear next as he practiced. "Continuity is important, as you've perhaps already surmised. While firebending is, again, the most powerful bending discipline from its outset, its results are the most transient; Fire must have something to burn for it to linger, and if no such tinder is present, your own willpower, which began the blaze, must maintain the blaze. Earth, Water, and Air can all rely on the world to supply them. Fire must stand alone. Breathe in, breathe out."
Aang was careful to keep himself focused as he brought his arms back around him, briefly chambering them at his sides and causing his fire to settle in the air like a pair of burning wings. Letting his arms splay from his sides, he dropped low, feet sliding through the dirt as he widened his stance. Drawing strength from his breathing- always from his breathing, just the way he was taught- he swept his toe around in front of him, creating a line of fire that drew in the other flames he'd produced. Then he rose and moved with his foot, dragging the now impressive torrent of flames around his body with him. He rose, and the swirling fire spiraled upward lazily. He shifted forward with his entire body, pressing the fire forward even as it began to fall back down. Then he twisted to the left, pulling the flames. It was surprisingly like airbending.
"More control," his master said, putting one foot around the other, stepping sideways, reviewing his movements from every angle.
Aang had always been wary of the final element on his list of mastery. Not without reason: it was the element of the nation trying to conquer the world, the element of the benders who had hunted him every day since he'd emerged into the world after a century of frozen slumber. When he'd hurt Katara… when he'd burned her, the unease had turned to outright dread. He'd brought pain on the last person he'd ever wanted to hurt, the most important person in his life, with Fire. So for the longest time, he'd sworn never to firebend- ever. It would just cause others pain. Like the Fire Nation did. Like he had done.
Now that he had fire curling and blazing through his hands, however, he was excited, and he remembered how it had always been exciting, deep down, on some level he couldn't verbalize. Perhaps it was because his most immediate previous incarnation had been a firebender; since starting his training, he'd felt his wrists and ankles itching to move in ways that must have come from Roku. It might, though, have been the very thing Jeong Jeong had told him as a warning: Fire was alive, like no other element. It was warm and strong, so powerful-
"More control," his master said.
Aang was now stepping forward at a brisk pace, and each foot or arm he extended was flooded with breath and muscle to fuel the flames. Sweat began to dampen his shirt and forehead. Keeping his palms in perfect symmetry, he thrust and chopped at the air. A tower of flames rose high over his head. The forest shone with the flickering orange blaze, swirling and roaring. Aang was so happy, he began to smile. Learning earthbending had literally been pounding on hard stone; waterbending, though better, was still an affair of slow, heavy motion, however graceful. Compared to these firebending was so light! So much like airbending in this way, however different they were otherwise, and it felt so good! He swept his arms around and opened them wide, sending a burst of flames out and up to join the skyward-reaching inferno-
"Control!" his master snapped, her voice a razor through his mind. Coming back to full awareness of his surroundings, Aang gazed up in awe at the huge flames he had summoned, hanging over the forest clearing like a low cloud. He could still feel them in all their power. Something had changed, however: their power was no longer really his. The fire's strength was its own- and with a snapping sensation in his head, so was its will, as it broke away from the guidance of his bending. Now he could not feel it at all, not as its master; he could only feel the searing heat, and a mounting terror as the ceiling of flames compressed itself, and with a tumbling roar, began to fall.
Mind sluggish, Aang tried to step back into form. He breathed in and out regularly, stretching his hands to the sky in swooping motions to bring the blaze back under control. No matter how he flailed, the fire remained obstinate, bearing down on him faster and faster, making his eyes tear with the brightness. When it was twice his own height from the forest floor, he screamed in hopeless fear, at that moment losing his balance and stumbling backwards.
Before his rump could hit the ground, swift, sharp footsteps passed right behind him. Delicate fingers took his wrist in a strong grip, long, filed nails digging into his skin. He was pulled back to his feet, and a human shape stepped in front of him, stretching its free hand up toward the crashing blaze. For a heartbeat, the flames changed from orange and gold to chilling blue. Then, the extended arm waved across his line of sight in an almost dismissive gesture- and with no sound at all, the huge fire vanished.
The rest of the forest hadn't noticed the impending fire, apparently- birds sang, crickets chirped, and frogs croaked in an entirely regular way for the next few minutes, in which he and his firebending master were silent and frozen. She seemed to be listening for something, or concentrating; Aang, for his part, was too terrified to move or speak. When she was apparently satisfied with whatever held her attention, she let her shoulders loosen slightly; they never really fully loosened. Aang held back a gasp as her nails bit even harder into his wrist. Turning on her heel to face him, she pushed him away and released him in one motion, nearly making him fall again with the force. He barely kept his feet under him, and regained his balance.
"Sorry," he mumbled, rubbing his sore wrist with his other hand. He stared down at it, avoiding her gaze.
"Don't apologize," Azula snarled. "Tell me what you did wrong."
He'd been afraid of this- it was a staple of her teaching style. When he messed up, she did not immediately lecture him on it. Instead, she made him criticize himself, before adding her scorn to his own. It was not the most heartening kind of education, though it did ensure he rarely made the same mistake twice. He forced himself to look at her, knowing she would demand it of him if he did not. It was still strange to see her in the dark brown pants and black tunic, so far removed from the rich reds of the Fire Nation garb she'd chased him and his friends across the Earth Kingdom in. She still kept her hair in its topknot, though now it was held by a black band; she removed it when they had to go into towns, but only then. He had to look up into the golden eyes, brilliant and hard to read.
Before he was the Avatar, however, Aang had been a monk, and he was a monk still. He took his shame and rethought it, made it into meekness, and a readiness to learn. "I… made the fire too big?" he suggested. He suspected there was a better answer- and when Azula's lips curled into a remarkable blend of smirk and sneer, he was certain of it.
"That was your immediate error, yes," she conceded, clasping her hands behind her back. Her voice grew light and gentle, as if she were speaking to a slow child. "It was not your true mistake, however- merely a consequence of it. Why did your fire grow unwieldy?"
Aang moved slowly through the events leading to her rescue of him, trying to find where he had gone wrong. He thought he'd started off well: he'd made great improvements in his basic movements, at least to the point where Azula no longer berated his sloppiness. He tried to recall the patterns of his muscles, and how they corresponded to the fire blasting through the air. Then he remembered her voice at the moment he realized something was very wrong. "I lost control, didn't I?"
Azula gave him a sickening smile. "Very good- yes, you lost control. You lost control from nearly the instant you started your more intricate movements. What's more… this has been a persistent problem." She took one step forward, into his personal space, and glared at him. "You have a tendency to let the fire get away from you. This was merely the most dramatic example of it so far."
Aang blinked in surprise. Did that mean that she'd been letting him waste time for at least the past week, waiting for him to make a particularly spectacular mistake? Suddenly he was angry. "So were you just going to wait until I burned myself before telling me I was wrong? Did you think getting hurt would teach me a lesson you couldn't?"
"'The burned hand teaches best,' as we say in the Fire Nation," she remarked, speaking slowly and lightly. Sokka liked to call her voice 'poisoned honey,' claiming he'd read it somewhere and that it fit her way and sound of speaking better than anything he could think of on his own. To Aang, though, it wasn't exactly right. Azula spoke in a way that was darker than what he thought about honey; also stickier, but more sugary as well. It was more like… syrup. That was it- her voice was like syrup. "It wouldn't do to have the Avatar crippled before his decisive battle with the Fire Lord, however. So I wouldn't have let you get hurt; just frightened into paying more attention. Now, start over from the beginning."
Aang walked away from her, feet crunching on the leaves and moss under his light boots. She had to mention the Fire Lord, didn't she? The prospect of fighting him had been frightening enough before, and in spite of clearing his Earth Chakra, thus releasing fear's crippling power over him, he still did not look forward to the fight. Now, in addition, there was the separate but very much related problem of the Fire Lord's daughter, whom he'd allowed into his company. Azula had come to them claiming that she had been cast out. When pressed, she had revealed that her father had discovered her plans to overthrow him, and that she'd had to flee the Fire Nation almost immediately after returning to it from her conquest of Ba Sing Se. It was hard to believe that anyone so young could have any plans to betray their parent and their ruler; if there could be such a person, though, it would most certainly be Azula. The first time their larger group had run across Fire Nation soldiers, they'd attacked Azula without hesitation, which at least seemed to prove she was out of her father's favor.
She did not appear to have changed much as a person, however, which made Aang uneasy. She said she wanted revenge on her father- revenge for doing the same thing to her that she'd been planning to do to him. She wanted him to be overthrown for throwing her out for trying to overthrow him. That is why she'd come to them, and why she was teaching him firebending now: according to her, only the Avatar could do what she wanted. So he would defeat Fire Lord Ozai to save the world and give Azula her revenge, and then…? The aftermath was where things got very murky. Azula had not changed much as a person- so she certainly still wanted the throne for herself. While she had been against them, she had shown great support for the idea of the Fire Nation ruling the whole world. Would anything change if Ozai were deposed and Azula enthroned?
"You may begin, Avatar," she called from her place several feet away.
Aang nodded, though inwardly he grimaced. She never calls me by my name. Does she even know it? Stepping into his stance, he began to run through the basic movements, careful to keep his breathing controlled and in harmony with his limbs. Fire emerged around him and in front of him in ways he was now familiar with. Within a few minutes, he reached the end of the elementary techniques, pausing only briefly to see if Azula wanted him to stop. When he heard nothing, he forged ahead, swirling flames into a wheel around him, then cutting it into two streams that attached themselves to his wrists and whirled in the air as he moved his arms in circles and spun around on his heels-
"Stop!" his teacher called out. Her voice brooked no challenge, so Aang breathed out hard and chambered his arms, extinguishing the burning trails. Striding over to him, Azula stopped when she was by his side. "It happened right there. You lost control."
"No I didn't," Aang protested. She raised an eyebrow and looked at him sidelong, but he continued. "I just figured that if the fire was getting stronger, it might be better to let up a little…"
"That's where you made your mistake then!" Azula snapped. "This whole concept of 'letting up' must be something you're pulling from airbending, or waterbending. It is alien to firebending."
"But," Aang was slightly flustered, "the fire seemed to be resisting me-"
"Of course it was resisting you; that's its nature." Azula raised her left hand in front of her, and a waggle of her fingers brought blue flames snapping to life. "Fire will strain against any attempt to control it. When that happens, you cannot let up- you must press down even harder, forcing your will on the flames."
"That doesn't seem right," Aang said. "How can it be a good thing to make an element do something it doesn't want? The monks always taught us that everything has a path it's meant to follow, and that to try and divert it only winds up diverting you from your path too, which leads both of you-"
"Avatar," Azula interrupted him. Her voice had grown low and dangerous. "Are you presuming to tell me, your master, how to control my own element?"
"No…" Aang said- but he was struck abruptly by the urge to continue. "But I mean… are you sure that's the only way to firebend? The whole point of bending is to make the elements move in harmony with your movements- not to control them like some kind of machine." His frustration at his teacher, at her methods, and at the whole war began to pour into his voice, driving him to say what he'd been thinking since the start of his study with Azula. "Have you ever thought that maybe it's that way of thinking about bending that got the Fire Nation on its stupid power trip in the first place?! You know what I hear when you talk about controlling the fire and forcing my will on the flames? I hear Zhao, rallying his men by calling Fire the superior element! I hear you, explaining your 'right to rule'! So okay, maybe I am trying to tell you how to firebend, because maybe the way you firebend right now is messed up! Maybe the way you've been taught to firebend is the reason the whole world is suffering from the war you started!"
Azula's face had been like stone until the final statement, which made her golden eyes flash as her eyebrows lowered. She had a disgusted look on her face, a chilling show of displeasure that made Aang instantly regret what he'd said. He thought it was true, but he didn't want to be incinerated for it; besides, Azula was still his teacher, and challenging her expertise while she was trying to instruct him was, he realized, extremely disrespectful. Ashamed, he put his hands together and bowed as low as he could. "Forgive me, sifu Azula. I… spoke out of turn."
Azula's lips curled into a sneer. "Come with me!" she snapped. Turning hard on her heel, she stalked out of the open space into the gloom of the forest. Aang realized as he ran after her that she was headed for their campsite. Was she going to take her anger out on someone less vital to her revenge? Frightened for Katara and the others, he quickened his pace through the twilight.
Toph, to no one's surprise, was sprawled out on the ground in front of her earthen tent, black bangs fanning around her forehead as her fingers and toes wiggled through the dark earth. She was content to relax, having done her share of the camp duties that day, while Katara and Sokka prepared dinner. She was also acting as lookout: her ability to use earthbending to 'see' meant that every sound and movement through the dirt combined to make an accurate picture of her surroundings in her head. Because of this, she felt them coming first: an unfamiliar pulse ran through the regular vibrations of the forest floor, filling her mind with familiar shapes. One shape in particular she wished she was less familiar with. Opening her pale, sightless eyes, she raised her head in the general direction of the campfire. "Bitchbender incoming, guys!" she called, not caring if Azula was close enough to hear. "Twinkle Toes is hot on her heels." She put her ear back to the ground. "Oooo, she's stompin'. Somethin's got her pissy."
"Great," Sokka snarled with a roll of his eyes. "She's bad enough when she's in a good mood."
"I actually think she's worse when she's in a good mood," Katara hissed. The siblings nevertheless stood up, and tried to put on friendly faces as Azula stomped out of the trees into camp.
"Yo!" Toph called, raising her head again. Stopping only briefly, Azula let out a snort- which produced just enough vibrations for Toph to feel the sour curve of her mouth and nose, proving that she had heard the blind girl's new nickname for her. This, of course, only put Toph in a better mood. Aang's near-weightless footsteps reached her a few seconds later, and her smile grew broader when he waved at her and greeted her.
Katara, despising every movement of her muscles, stepped away from the fire pit and gave Azula a kind smile. "You're earlier than we expected- dinner's not quite ready, so if you'll oof!" she grunted as the firebender, never veering from her straight course, collided with the waterbender's shoulder and shoved her aside.
"Hey!" Sokka yelled. Standing up, his machete was halfway out of its sheath when his sister clamped a hand on his shoulder. "Katara-"
"It's okay!" she whispered, though her teeth were gritted. "Just chill out and remember what I said!" Sokka glared at her like she was crazy for a few seconds, but finally loosened his tense muscles. Sighing tiredly, she was relieved as Aang stopped right beside her. The airbender could always calm her down, even with his mere presence. "So how was training today?"
Aang gazed at her reassuringly, sensing her tension. "It was-"
"Training's not over yet!" Azula's voice carried through the whole camp. Sokka, Katara, and Aang looked out to the unused portion of the clearing; Toph bounced to her feet, and even Appa lifted his huge head with a rumble. Just beyond Sokka's tent, farthest from the fire, Azula stood still, her face strangely pale in the growing darkness of the night. "I've decided to take another approach for today's lesson." She flicked her right arm, and something from inside her sleeve flew out into her waiting hand.
Katara gasped; it was- no, but it couldn't be. It couldn't be because it was tied securely around her neck, which she was feeling just now, except she couldn't feel anything "MY NECKLACE!!" she screamed, because her necklace, the only physical link she had to her mother in the whole world, was clutched in the sharp-nailed fingers of Azula's hand.
Sokka's machete came entirely out of its sheath this time, and his other hand went to his boomerang as he took two steps toward Azula. "Give it back!" he growled.
"In a moment; I'm using it right now."
Katara stepped forward beside Sokka, in one fluid motion slinging her waterbending skin across her shoulders. Aang, Toph, Azula, and even Sokka recognized her feet moving into bending stance. "Azula," she said with chilling calmness, "give my necklace back to me."
Azula did not move into stance, not that it mattered: she could attack from nearly any position. "The Avatar is having trouble with his firebending at the conceptual level. Finding myself unable to merely instruct him to an adequate capacity, I have elected to demonstrate the principles I am trying to explain. Your necklace will serve as the example. When I'm done with it, you may have it back." She smiled sweetly at Katara, though her eyes glittered. "That is what we all want, isn't it? The Avatar must master firebending."
"Use something besides Katara's necklace, then!" Sokka said. Drawing his boomerang over his head, he hunkered into a fighting stance. Azula continued to stand still, but through the ground Toph felt her tense.
Katara, her eyes softening, broke her stance. "Promise you'll give it back?" Beside her, Sokka's eyes bulged.
Azula's smile only grew wider, and smugger. Then Aang stepped to Katara's side. "Promise you'll give it back," he demanded.
Azula's face finally turned serious. "Can you learn what I'm tying to teach you?"
Aang met her stare with his own. "Yes."
"Then when you have learned, I will give the necklace back."
The airbender glanced sidelong at his friends. Katara, though clearly still worried, nodded her assent. Sokka was expectedly unhappy with this arrangement, and he gave no sign of his approval; nevertheless, he sheathed his weapons and backed away three paces. Aang turned his head back to his firebending master. "All right."
Azula nodded. "Pay attention, Avatar." She held the necklace up by one of the ends of the straps, letting it dangle from her hand. "This is a simple necklace; its construction is durable and uncomplicated." She raised her arm, and the necklace was elevated just past Aang's eye level. "Suppose I were on tall mountain range, or above a high canyon. Or," her golden eyes twinkled, "say I was at one of your Air Nomad Temples." She got no reaction from him, so she continued. "Let's say I am standing at the edge of the complex, where rock and stone meet the sky. The winds are howling around me and beneath me. I hold the necklace out and drop it. Its light weight allows the air to carry it away." She fixed him with a piercing stare. "What happens to the necklace?"
Aang was puzzled. Hadn't she just described what would happen? "The wind carries it away, like you said."
"I was inquiring about the state of the necklace, not its movement. I want to know what being carried away on the air would do to the necklace's construction- its intactness. How would the necklace be harmed or damaged?"
This clarification made Aang pause and think. Examining as many angles as he could with Azula staring so intently, he could think of only one response to the question: "It wouldn't be… nothing would happen."
He was afraid that he'd answered wrongly, for Katara's sake- but he was somewhat surprised when Azula nodded. "Very good. Now, say I am standing on a new precipice: in this case, a cliff overlooking the ocean. Below me, the water smashes against the rocks, and the waves are tall." She lowered the necklace back to her shoulder height. "Again, I hold the necklace over the edge and release it, sending it plunging into the surf. What happens to the necklace?"
He kept in mind what Azula had said before and thought. To his left, Sokka and Katara stood expectantly, their eyes alternating between Azula and himself. On his right side, Toph had wandered toward the congregation and was now standing just behind him, feet spread wide to give her earthbending senses a larger radius. Were any of them also thinking about Azula's questions, or were they just waiting for this 'lesson' to end? It wouldn't have mattered if they were thinking. This was his problem to solve, and after half a minute, he found he could only answer it the same way he'd answered the previous one. "Nothing would happen. I mean, the necklace would sink, but it would still be okay if you could dive down and get it."
"Correct," his firebending master acknowledged. "This time, let us say that I am standing at the base of a high peak- at the foot of a mountain, or a short distance up its slope. In front of me, there is a massive landslide taking place. Large boulders and stones are tumbling down from above in a cloud of dust along with millions of other, smaller rocks." Azula lowered her arm again, and the necklace was now level with the middle of her stomach. "I toss the necklace into the falling mountainside. What happens to it?"
Aang had to think harder about this question. He had, of course, seen the pattern in her questions, and the answer she wanted seemed similarly predictable. He couldn't be sure about such a thing with Azula, though; besides, falling earth was quite different from howling air or even crashing water. Still… "If you're just talking about the necklace… I don't think anything would happen to it. It would probably be okay."
"Indeed it would." Azula's full lips curved into a small smile. Then her arms moved swiftly. She raised the necklace back to her shoulder level, then slightly above it. She moved her other hand just beneath the dangling strap. Aang's eyes bulged, but he was unable to cry out before Azula snapped her wrist left, then right- and blue flames erupted in her palm.
"NO!!!" Katara screamed, forgetting about everything as she leapt to rescue her mother's necklace from the flames.
Azula took a step back. "Restrain your waterbending master, Avatar!"
Aang grabbed Katara by her upper arm before she could move any further. She stared at him with such a terrified, betrayed look that it made him sick. He squeezed her bicep and looked her hard in the eyes. I won't let it burn. I promise. He wished part of his powers as the Avatar included some kind of thought projection. Still, she seemed to catch his meaning. She relaxed slightly, and straightened up from where she'd been leaning to rush forward. She was breathing very hard, though, and seemed on the verge of tears. Glancing around revealed that Sokka, thankfully, was still in the same place, though each hand was around the hilt of a weapon; Toph hadn't moved at all. Biting his lip, Aang looked back to Azula.
"Thank you. Now, suppose I were holding the necklace… well, as I am now. The necklace is suspended above an open fire." She moved her fingers ever so slightly, causing Katara's necklace to sway back and forth. Beneath it, the blue fire rustled quietly. "Let us say that I place the necklace in the fire. Not even all the way in- suppose I merely tease the end of the necklace against the top of the flames." Azula's gaze rose back to him, and her eyes seemed to be sparkling in the night. "What happens?"
The answer was obvious. So obvious, Aang realized he should have seen it long before now- long before Azula had resorted to this cruel style of teaching. Long before he'd put something so precious to Katara in danger. "The necklace would burn no matter how far into the fire you put it."
"It would be destroyed," he said. He looked down at the ground, dejected.
"Do you see now, Avatar, why strict control is necessary in firebending?" Azula began to move her fingers as she spoke, swirling the flames in her hand. "All of the elements have a capacity for destruction. Air, Water, and Earth, however, can all show restraint. They can move and act without causing harm, and when they do destroy, it can be in a limited way." The fugitive princess narrowed her eyes. "There is no limit or restraint to Fire. Its only desire to consume, and everything it touches in any way will be totally destroyed. As a firebender, you must dominate the will of the flames with your own, because the fire will engulf you as eagerly as everything else. Do you understand?"
Nobody spoke or moved. Aang's eyes were fixed on Azula's feet, gray pupils churning like clouds. When he raised his head, there was a hardened resolve on his face. "I understand, sifu Azula."
Azula nodded. "Then your training is done for today." The fire still crackled in her hand.
Aang let go of Katara's arm and quickly spread his feet. Bringing his hands close together, but not touching, he rolled an invisible ball through his palms and across his chest from left to right; when he reached his right side, he flattened his hands and let the left hand slide past the right. The air came alive with his maneuver, a blast of wind whistling from empty space- behind Azula. It hit her near her side, sweeping her off her feet and extinguishing the fire in her hand. She fell to the ground in a yelp as something rattled in the moving air. Breaking form, Aang stretched out a hand and snatched the necklace as it flew by him. Extending the arm all the way, he turned and offered it to Katara, who grabbed it desperately and clutched it with both hands. She was fighting back sobs.
As Sokka approached to console his sister, Aang walked forward to where Azula was sprawled on her bottom. She glared up at him, her expression furious. "What did you do that for?!" she snarled.
"You were going to burn it, weren't you?" he asked. He didn't sound angry, and surprisingly, he wasn't. It was a rhetorical question- a statement of fact. He held out a hand, though he knew she would knock it aside. "No restraint to Fire, right?"
They stared right into each others' eyes for an instant, molten gold against stormy gray. Then, to Aang's surprise, she reached out with her hand and grasped his own, allowing him to help her to her feet. When she stood again, she looked appraisingly at him, and her lips curved into a satisfied smile. "I'll make a firebender of you yet, Aang."