Author's Notes: This story is incomplete as is and will no longer be updated.
"How did they find us?"
Somehow, Zuko was able to hear Katara's words over the din of screamed orders, smashing rocks, and fire blasts that echoed around the Western Air Temple. Somehow, he was also able to hear the bitter suspicion in her voice, and feel the heated prickle of her angry gaze on his back.
His bad eye caught a flash of orange, just to the side of his vision. Instinctively, he ducked, and felt the flame whoosh harmlessly by overhead. He sent a quick volley of fire blasts back, causing the advancing Fire Nation soldiers to scramble for their own cover.
"I don't know!" Zuko snapped, risking a glance over his shoulder in time to see Katara snap her water-whip at two other soldiers. The bended water struck the men's legs with a sickening crunch. They fell over, crying out in pain, kneecaps dislocated.
Another volley of fire blasts caused Zuko and Katara ducked behind the stone fountain, once again using it for cover. Zuko looked around, hoping to find something to improvise as a weapon. No suck luck. He and Katara and been on breakfast duty when they had been ambushed. Pots and pans would do no good against swords and bending.
They were outnumbered… but perhaps not outmatched. Zuko smiled grimly. Katara was a Master waterbender, and he — well he wasn't so bad himself. If they worked together, they might be able to hold them off…
Katara's brow was furrowed, and she glanced around, taking stock of the situation. Predictably her thoughts weren't focused on her own personal well being, but the safety of her friends. "I hope that the others are okay."
"The Avatar is with them. They'll be fine." He and Katara were the early risers in the group. Sokka, Toph, Aang and the others were in their rooms in the more sheltered area of the Air Temple, probably asleep – at least until a small army of Fire Nation soldiers decided to make their welcome.
Katara shot him a look. "His name is Aang, not 'the Avatar', and you —"
Later on, Zuko couldn't exactly pinpoint what exactly alerted him to the danger, or even what really made react the way he did. After all, Katara had been nothing but hostile since he had come to the Western Air Temple and joined the Avatar to teach him firebending. But something, some unconscious sense triggered in his mind, and he acted without thinking. He grabbed the waterbender, shoving her to the ground – just in time to avoid a trio of daggers aimed right for her heart.
He wasn't quick enough. Searing pain arced from his side. Zuko gasped and rolled, fingers finding the hilt of the sharp knife embedded an inch into his flesh, right below his ribcage.
Katara was screaming something at him — Zuko didn't quite catch the words, but her strong hands wrapped around his forearm, pulling him up, and tugged him to the fair corner of the inverted building.
Pain lanced through his body with every step until he thought to pull the dagger free. It came out with a sickening lurch and burning agony, but Zuko was able to find his stride again, and run with Katara.
He caught only a glimpse of dark black eyes set above an impassive pale face. She stood there, calm and melancholy among a scene of chaos. Mai could have thrown more, could have taken both him and Katara out, but she remained still. Zuko felt his heart both sink and lift at the same time, but firmly shoved it out of his mind. Later. Escape now, think about his ex-girlfriend later.
They ducked behind a stone column to avoid another fireblast. Zuko turned, ready to send an answering spiral of flame, when he felt Katara's grip tighten on his arm. "It's Appa!" she yelled, pointing to the nearby edge. Zuko didn't have time to reply before he was jerked into a run. A wall of white seemed to erupt before them, and, ignoring the pain in his side, he leapt for the safety of the bison's saddle.
Sokka was the only one aboard, at Appa's head. He scarcely waited until Katara and Zuko had climbed on before snapping the reigns with a tense, "Yip yip!"
The bison roared and swung around, smashing his thick tail against the stone and sending the advancing soldiers flying backwards, crashing into one another.
"Sokka, where's everyone else?" Katara demanded.
"We all got ambushed, Aang tried to hold them off, but he got hurt. It's bad, Katara." As he spoke, Sokka angled the flying bison in to a low dive, aiming for the upside-down temple close to the one they had just escaped from. A whole platoon of red robed fighters were sending cascades of fire blasts at the walls, trying to blast their way in.
Zuko could clearly hear his sister's voice over the din, snapping out orders.
"You there! Go get the Dai Li. If we can't blast them out we will dig them out!" Azula's order was cut short by Appa's powerful roar. The bison slapped his wide tail along the unseen air currents and propelled forward, straight on a collision course with the invading army.
Katara screamed, and Zuko had to admit he did too. Sokka was using Appa and them as a battering ram!
Several of the soldiers shouted warnings, and a couple of quick blasts were sent their way, but there was nothing that could stop the bulk of a ten-ton bison. Zuko wanted to shut his eyes, but found he couldn't… he just hoped that the collision wouldn't be painful…
Then, at the last second, when Appa's nose was nearly at the far wall of the temple, the stone dropped right before them. Appa executed a maneuver that should have been impossible for an animal his size, turning and landing with a mighty groan into the suddenly exposed cavern. As soon as they were in, the wall slammed back upwards, sealing them inside.
"Took you long enough!" Toph snapped, from her position at the wall. She and Haru had their hands out, feet rooted and were focusing on throwing up more and more layers of stone protection between themselves and the army outside.
Teo and the Duke were knelt on the opposite side of the small cavern, a small crumpled form lying between them.
"Aang!" In her haste to get down and attend to her friend, Katara shouldered Zuko out of the way. Another flare of pain hit him, and he gasped, clutching at his side. It felt wet with blood.
There was no time for his wounds. Zuko knew Aang was the most important. They all did.
So he watched anxiously from his perch as Katara summoned her water over her hands and bent down to attend to the fallen monk. Only when the silence went on, and he saw her bite her lip anxiously did Zuko call out, "How is he?"
Katara didn't answer, so focused on her healing. A small shiver ran up Zuko's spine that had nothing to do with his blood loss. Wincing, he forced himself to dismount the bison and walk over to Sokka.
The other boy was looking around the room, brow furrowed in thought. Although Zuko hadn't been in the group for very long, he had quickly come to learn that the rest usually looked to Sokka for ideas — and for good reason.
"Toph and Haru won't be able to hold off the Dai Li once Azula get's them here." Zuko said, lowly, casting a glance at Katara. She was directing Teo and the Duke to grab some blankets from Appa, keeping the younger kids busy.
Sokka followed his glance and then shook his head, probably dispelling some inner thought. "We can't move Aang while he's hurt. Katara is going to need time to heal him."
"So we need to buy ourselves some time. Any ideas?"
Again Sokka shook his head, but his blue eyes darted around the room, perhaps looking for inspiration from the old bits and bobs stashed around. It looked as if this cavern was used primarily for storage. Old artifacts and bits of broken down furniture littered the area, abandoned by their long dead owners. Zuko looked as well, hoping for a weapon… or something. It was more to hope for, really. The Air Nomads were pacifists by nature, and old chairs and pai shao tables were nothing—
Then he saw it.
"Hey Sparky, you don't look so good." Toph was facing away from Zuko, of course, and not even "looking" his direction.
He ignored her in favor of going over and placing his hands on the all too familiar object. The wood was different than the one in his old playroom, a sort of mellow amber from some unknown tree. But the intricate carvings that swished across the door, the ornate handle… it was all the same.
The Air Nomads had a Vanishing Cabinet.
"Sokka!" Zuko could feel his heart pounding in his chest. It wasn't a way out – he knew that Aang would never leave without the bison, but maybe he could find something or someone who could help. But it wouldn't do any good to be trapped in the same room as before. He would have to go in first, to make sure the coast was clear.
Sokka had come at his call and was studying the cabinet with a mix of confusion and frustration. "Zuko, this isn't the time for appreciating antiques."
Zuko turned and grabbed the warrior's shoulders. "I know this is going to sound crazy, but I don't have the time to explain. I'm going to go into the cabinet, but I'll return as soon as I can—"
Sokka jerked back in surprise and did the thing that he was nearly infamous for. He started talking before his brain had quite caught up with his mouth. "What? Why would you—WHAT?"
"Listen to me! I need you to count to thirty and then open up the door." Zuko tightened his grip on Sokka's shoulders, trying to drive that point in. "If you don't, I won't be able to come back."
Zuko nearly smiled, but as he said before, he didn't have time to explain. Releasing his grip, he took one more look around the room to sear it in his mind; Toph and Haru standing guard like trained earthbenders, Katara pouring all of her energy and concentration on healing Aang, Sokka's confused and frustrated look… but he wasn't trying to stop him.
He opened the cabinet door and crawled inside, shutting it behind him.
There was a beat as everyone glanced at one another. Even Katara pulled her head up from her intense focus on Aang. "Did he do what I think he just did?"
Zuko had told Sokka to wait to count to thirty, but he had only gotten to ten in his head before he sighed. "Okay, Zuko, time to stop the crazy and come out…" Sokka rapped his knuckles sharply on the top of the wooden cabinet, but received no answer.
With a roll of his eyes, he jerked open the door. His jaw dropped.