Empty. The victory was empty. Completely hollow. Azula ran the brush through her hair for one final stroke and laid it down on the bureau. Her reflection stared back, looking much younger without the usual careful paint and perfectly swept topknot. The curved bow of her lips pouted, and she laid her hands carefully flat along the edge.
She had won the city, but it brought her little satisfaction. It rankled even further to realize that had her plan succeeded perfectly, she would still have had only a hollow shell to claim as her prize. Fagh. She was a commander, not an administrator. She had no patience for the tedious minutiae of municipal- tedium. Casting her eyes once more over the crisp scroll to her right, she let her lip curl. The Army would not be able to assume complete control for nearly a week, and in the meantime she had to baby-sit the Dai Li as she waited for General Xiu to relieve her. Relieve- how appropriate that word seemed now.
She remembered how once, long ago, Zuko had begged and pleaded with their mother to go see an "exciting" play instead of some long romantic sob story. It was one of the few things she could ever support Zuzu for even attempting, but her own enthusiasm had soured as the villain of the piece dissolved into self-pity. And now, for whatever reason, some small teasing part of her brain mocked her with that other's petulant whining.
Must I do everything myself?!
A pathetic sentiment if there ever was one.
She shook her head, rolled her eyes and sighed. Self-reflection was all well and good- one should always strive to improve- but on occasion it bordered on sulking.
She turned her thoughts toward other matters. It wasn't as if she didn't have plenty to concern herself with. Azula's lips quirked in a wry smile as she heard the mental echo of Mai's monotone voice barely tinged with disappointment. Mongrel scarecrow indeed. About damn time Mai grew out of that pathetic crush, anyway. It was embarrassing- the only flaw in her otherwise flawless armor. A useful defect, to be sure, and one Azula had kept track of and turned to her benefit more than once, but she did value perfection and Mai with such a blatant vulnerability seemed- unfinished.
And then there was the problem of Zuko himself.
That leering general had kept him in a lead-lined cage. Of course Azula had used that to her advantage- she wasn't prideful enough to reject the opportunity simply because the weakness was not of her own devising- but she couldn't deny that something about the concept bothered her, and the reason why that might be so itched under her skin.
Her brother had always been…lesser. In another family, in a different generation even, Azula knew he would have been perfectly adequate. Even in the strongest clan line, there must always be one lowest, and that was he. The weak one, the inferior member- of the strongest family in the world. All her brother's many faults aside, she could not ignore the fact that the dirt-mucking General had attempted to break Fire Nation elite. Shameful failure though he might be, her brother was royalty, and Fong had dared to challenge that supremacy.
It was a brilliant tactic, she had to admit. "Fair" was not a concept Azula had much use for, but "objective judgment" was. Objectivity was not enough. It galled her that some upstart Earthbender could inflict such damage. She had much greater concerns during the battle. When exactly had the Water chit gotten so fast anyway? And how the hell did she pull herself together well enough to constitute a credible threat? Yet she had been vaguely shocked by her brother's utter collapse. Tears she expected. Tears, and screaming, and general uselessness- she remembered that well enough. But the utter unresponsiveness, especially following that brittle, too-bright laughter when he gave himself away…
A small part of her wondered if she had pushed just the tiniest bit too hard, had somehow misjudged the situation- but that was impossible. It meant Zuko could hide what he felt and his vulnerability had always been painfully transparent, especially to her. Still, some part of her had wondered if he had snapped irreparably in that moment, and worried at the implication of error on her part. Mistakes were not to be tolerated.
He'd come out of it, whatever it was. Perhaps she should make inquiries among the Dai Li. They had a reputation for doing nasty things to people's minds and had no doubt seen many reactions to those methods. It would keep them occupied at any rate, until she could get on with things and leave the boring details to those inferiors more suited to such mundane activities. The Avatar would be in no shape to fight for some time, and she didn't want to lose that advantage.
Azula stood from her cushioned chair, sweeping the room with hard gold eyes as she padded to her conquered bed, long fingernails sliding across the silk cover. She sank into the cushions, and her eyes closed, though her mind did not still for some time. Perhaps it was some atrophied sense of sibling affection from a time long past, or far more likely a sense of possessiveness that had mutated from that withered sensibility, but she could not forgive the General's slight. He had escaped with the others- for now- but that didn't matter in the least.
Fong would pay for his impertinence.
Of course, so would Zuko. Her lips quirked in satisfaction as she sank into the embrace of well deserved slumber.
Toph serving as a diplomat was not an idea Katara would have come up with on her own, but to her immense shock the little boulder-thrower actually seemed to be holding the group together. It was Toph who had discovered how to keep Zuko with them, and Toph who had broken the awkwardness by grumbling loudly that if everyone was done throwing fits then Sokka ought to go hunt down something big and tasty because she was starving.
Sokka's own stomach had rumbled in response, and everyone had been reminded rather acutely just how long it had been since anyone had eaten. While Sokka set off into the surrounding forest Katara managed to retain her composure well enough to ask how exactly the herb was used. Zuko answered without a hint of rancor, and that lack of hostility made something in her twist unpleasantly. It wasn't that he was ignoring her- obviously you couldn't ignore someone and simultaneously converse with them- but he acted like there wasn't anything there to ignore when there obviously was, and-
Gods, she was hungry. And tired. And irritated. And nursing a splitting headache. Which might be the reason she snapped that if they had to boil the damn plant and mash it into paste in order for it to have any use whatsoever, Zuko might as well have not bothered, because they didn't have any cooking pots now did they?
He had seemed almost bemused by her reaction, and simply pointed toward Toph. Katara had turned bright red in embarrassment when she caught on. Of course a Master Earthbender could make something adequately pot-shaped to cook in. Why hadn't she thought of that?
She started to order- no, request- that Toph make something to bring water back to the cave, and then realized it was probably a better idea to take Aang down to the stream. Except she was exhausted, and Toph probably was too, and Aang could barely move much less walk down the hill, and Sokka had gone hunting… Fortunately she didn't mention any of this out loud beyond the "We should get Aang to the water" part and saved herself further embarrassment when Toph promptly started to shift the raised earthen "bed" down the hill. Why was everybody conspiring to make her look like an idiot today? Gods!
Aang sighed in relief as the water closed over his weary body, and he smiled weakly. Katara smiled back (she had to be strong for him, had to hold it together) but as soon as she looked away the expression fell. She was the one who had grown up in the harshest environment in the world; she was the one who took care of everybody, held them together. Toph was a spoiled runaway rich girl and Zuko was a blasted Prince, so why were they the ones able to deal with this while she was falling to pieces?
If the objects of her scrutiny noticed the attention they gave no sign of it and simply bent to their work. Toph might have mastered a number of things, but making cook-pots was not one of them and the result was comically lopsided. Once filled Zuko set to work heating the contents. Kuei watched the mismatched duo with undisguised fascination.
For his part, Aang seemed perfectly content to simply rest in the cool stream surrounded by Katara's arms, eyes closed to the glare of sunlight on water and one hand on her arm. She wanted to take the pain away, she wanted to so badly, but until more of her own strength returned she couldn't do more than she already had.
"You wanna give us a hand here?" Toph called, and Katara realized she had been zoned out and shook herself before settling Aang against the bank. The Bitterroot had boiled down to a bloated white mess and an oily film slicked the surface of the water. It didn't smell particularly inviting either. She poked at it with her finger and was rewarded by the sting of heat and then tingling numbness that spread all the way to her first knuckle.
"We might have a problem," she murmured to herself, and then noticed the other two had heard and waited expectantly for elaboration. "I won't be able to use my hands to help Aang if this numbs me, too."
"Deal with it later, the water needs to be drained off," Zuko responded, and she bristled.
"At least we know it works, right?" Toph added, and Katara had to nod. That was a relief.
In the end she tore the edge from her skirt and used that to apply the slimy goo around the ragged burn. Aang practically melted under her hands, and the dopy grin he turned to her was suffused with such profound relief she couldn't help feeling her usual wellspring of hope start refilling itself. They may be down, but they were far from out, and things were starting to look up.
The next few hours were spent with Zuko gathering as many of the plants as he could find as Toph and Kuei attempted making bottles to contain the… miraculous slime. The Earth King had never shown any inclination toward bending, but the stream bank held clay and it was a pleasant surprise to all involved that the pampered, scholarly man was experienced with ceramics. Sculpture, after all, was a gentlemanly pursuit even if pottery wasn't.
By the time Sokka returned they had a reasonable supply of Bitterroot paste in stone and bisque-fired containers. There was an awkward moment when Sokka remembered the squirrel-foxes he'd caught counted as meat and were therefore off the menu for Aang, but the exhausted Airbender slept through it all.
They spent three days camped by the stream. It took that long to even think of trying to move on. The unexpected wealth of painkiller, while undeniably beneficial did nothing for Aang's exhaustion or help to heal the burn. Katara had to recover enough of her own strength back to even attempt helping Aang recover enough of his to risk being moved more than a few yards.
Her optimism had dimmed a bit during that time. Sure, Aang was healing, and they had bottles of medicine, and food, and Sokka had managed to rig some kind of harness thing with braided cord to hold Aang on Appa's back, and Kuei had even made her a flat sort of bottle to replace her waterskin, but Zuko…
Zuko was a problem. She couldn't figure him out. It wasn't that he insisted on pretending nothing was wrong- well, it wasn't just that. She had tried apologizing, but he simply brushed her off. He was behaving too eerily sensibly for the situation, and it left her more than a bit unsettled.
Apparently, she wasn't covering that as well as she might have.
For the most part, though, the group skirted any possibly volatile issues rather than confronting them, on the chance it might prompt Zuko to leave. Toph had already used her one and only (if very effective) trump, and even Sokka had to admit that it was preferable to have Zuko in the immediate vicinity.
One, because an extra pair of hands, no matter whose, really helped in the current predicament. Two because he seemed to know random but useful information. And three because it was really in their best interests to keep an eye on him. While the unspoken agreement not to broach the subject held, it was impossible to ignore the fact that Zuko wasn't well. At least if Zuko was with them, they might be able to do something if he flipped out again, either violently as he had that first morning in the cave, or retreating from the world at large as he had in the catacombs.
When Katara finally decided to return Zuko's seeming disinterest, Toph neglected to tell her it made Zuko's heart rate calm considerably. Such an announcement would have the opposite effect on her friend's composure, in all likelihood, and escalated the situation. Katara couldn't remain frosty and aloof for long, however, and soon tried to "reach out" again, to Zuko's apparent annoyance.
While conscious of Zuko's emotional state, Toph was no mind reader, and no one in the party seemed to realize the Firebender's distance stemmed not from anger, but desperation. He didn't have energy to spare on any strong emotion, focused simply on holding himself together. He couldn't afford to fall apart again.
Katara's attitude was not helping. She swung from frigid resentment to overbearing friendliness and Zuko couldn't keep up with the alternating extremes, much less deal with them. Katara, he had decided, did not know when to leave well enough alone. She poked and prodded, fumbling for a reaction, prying inquisitive fingers into healing wounds and tearing them open again. He didn't need her help with that- holding himself together already felt like grasping at shards of glass to avoid falling into the abyss.
Katara's latest attempt prompted something close to a normal reaction, or at least as normal as he got these days.
"Look," he sighed, "It's not like I don't understand what you were trying to do, or why. I would have the same thing in your place. So stop trying to say you're sorry, because you aren't, and I don't really care. Quite frankly, trying to apologize all the time, when you aren't acting like an ice-harpy bothers me more than you acting like you have a brain and trying to use an opportunity to your benefit. Just leave off."
Needless to say, if this was intended to calm down or mollify Katara in any way, it failed spectacularly.
"You're acting unusually dense about all this", Toph had remarked out of nowhere on the morning of the fourth day since they lost the capitol. They had finally made progress towards the rendezvous, but it was slow going, which hardly helped anyone's nerves.
The blind prodigy tore a chunk of jerky in half (Sokka had taken advantage of the delay and built up a store of provisions for traveling) and munched for a while, offering glimpses of the process as she talked and ate simultaneously.
"You keep acting like it's some terrible thing that you failed to manipulate him into trusting you."
"I did not manipulate, Toph. I was just trying to- gently persuade him to change his mind."
Toph shrugged. "Whatever. My point is, wouldn't it be worse if you actually had gained his trust, dishonestly, and then broken it? I mean, this way there's just a stinking pile of disappointment, instead of genuine betrayal." She took another bite. "Besides, at least this way the air's been cleared."
"What exactly does that mean?!"
"Exactly what it sounds like, Princess. Everybody knows where everybody else stands. There's no confusion about intentions or whatever. Zuko is trying to find his Uncle and keep his skin intact. Sokka wants to get everybody to the rendezvous so we can start hitting back already, Aang wants somewhere he can crash until he feels up to taking another stab at this whole "saving the world" gig, Kuei is trying to figure out this novel concept called "life outside the ivory tower" and you're- well, you're sulking things didn't turn out like you thought they would."
Katara folded her arms over her chest and glared. Toph couldn't see her expression, of course, but she'd be sure to feel the displeasure radiating from the irate Waterbender. Toph's word stung more than she wanted to admit. "And what about you, oh great Earthbending Champion?"
"Me? I'm here for the ride, Sweetcheeks. Never claimed otherwise." She grinned wide, exposing an expanse of perfect ivory and a tiny chunk of jerky wedged right in front. Katara hissed in frustration and turned away.
Several yards away, Zuko sank to the ground and folded his knees into a lotus position, eyes closed. If he realized the observation, it did not show. Katara ground her teeth and went to find her brother.
In the grand scheme of things, Mai decided, her offenses against the Earth Kingdom paled in comparison to many of her countrymen, but you wouldn't know it from the reactions to her target practice. It wasn't like she was destroying priceless artifacts or desecrating the throne room. So much fuss over a few notches in a wardrobe. A truly hideous piece of furniture, truth be told. She rolled her eyes at the servant's theatrics, tugged her blade free (ignoring the shriek of wood as it split further) and set off to find another diversion to offset her boredom.
She didn't have to look far. Azula was not coping well with enforced idleness, although it took someone familiar with the Princesses' usual mood and behavior to notice, and it hadn't surprised Mai in the least when frustration shaded to faint paranoia. Not that she had anything better to do than guard Azula's quarters from possible sabotage. Personally, Mai thought Azula ought to worry more about the Dai Li than the Palace staff, but whatever. It wasn't her place to tell Azula what to do.
At least with Azula preoccupied Mai didn't have to worry quite so much about slipping up. There was enough on her mind without having to worry that some tiny detail would give her away. Now if only she could find something to occupy her time until they could finally leave.
She had long ago discovered that the inherent danger in not having anything to do was that eventually you started thinking, and quite frankly Mai's thoughts were rarely happy. She knew quite well what the world was like, and while she appreciated the stark beauty of honesty over florid artifice all too often the world around her simply felt endlessly bleak. It really didn't do to dwell on such matters, but when she had nothing to distract her from them there wasn't much in the way of alternatives. She sighed.
Ty Lee glanced up from the other side of the room. When Mai had entered she had been practicing handstands, and had now progressed to tying herself in knots. Sometimes, Mai knew, people wondered what, besides Azula, kept the two girls friends. Besides the comfort of long familiarity and shared experience Ty did manage to make her life interesting in ways few mortals managed.
"What on earth are you doing?"
Mai was intrigued despite herself. "What on earth is a pretzel?"
"Oh, these twisty snack things they sell at the circus. They're covered with course salt so the patrons get thirsty and buy drinks, too."
"I never realized the circus was so… devious."
Ty Lee grinned. Despite her innocent face and carefree attitude she was hardly as naïve, or ignorant, as appearance suggested. The acrobat unfolded herself and skipped across the room to settle at, or rather nearly on, Mai's feet.
"You aren't really thinking about the entertainment industry, though, are you?"
Mai shrugged. Ty Lee's laughing eyes turned sober, and she pulled herself up to a proper sitting position. Mai stiffened. Ty Lee didn't usually care too much about making eye contact while conversing, or remembering all the proper mannerisms to prove she was paying attention.
"Mai," she started, her usually exuberant voice soft, "I know something's wrong.
You can tell me, really. I swear I'll keep it a secret."
"Why would you think I need you to keep secrets for me?"
Ty Lee smiled sadly. "I noticed you seemed a little weird since we ran into the fan girls. What you said, it just seemed- not like your usual self."
"Look who's talking, Miss I-feel-threatened by weird girls in Kabuki makeup."
"It's not as weird for me to say something stupid and –what's the word?- vacuous, remember? You're supposed to not care. What's going on?"
Mai growled. She knew Ty Lee was far smarter than most people assumed (Azula would hardly consider it worthwhile to cultivate her companionship otherwise) but it still caught her off guard when the seemingly self-centered bubble-brain turned serious and insightful. She took a moment to study her companion.
She'd known Ty Lee for nearly ten years, and it suddenly chilled her to realize she wasn't sure she actually, really, absolutely for certain knew her longtime friend. Azula had a terrifying ability to read people, but Ty had her own way of seeing things that on occasion surpassed the Princess's technique. Mai had never paid much attention to the younger girl's explanation of energy currents and auras, it all seemed like wishy-washy superstition, but whatever the explanation she couldn't refute the results.
Then again, if she couldn't trust Ty Lee, who could she trust? And if Ty had noticed something was off, maybe Azula would too, once her attention had shifted from creepy Dai Li mind-bending practices.
"Mai… is it about Zuko? It is, isn't it?" Ty patted her hand softly. "You wanna talk about it? Promise I won't judge."
She'd never get a better chance. Azula was preoccupied, and her thoughts were beginning to eat her alive, awake and asleep.
"You remember how Azula gave me that stupid chit's diary?"
"The one you told Azula held no significant information?"
"Yeah. Thing is? I lied."
So she took a deep breath and started talking. It got easier as she went, surprisingly enough. It felt so good just to be able to voice her frustrations and fears, the little doubts and suspicions that had been building for so long. To release the dull rage aching inside.
She listed all the things she had realized long ago to be lies, all the contradictions that simply didn't make sense when you actually held them up to examination without the fear that merely daring to think constituted a crime. She confessed wanting to talk with Katara, wanting to leave with Zuko even if he was helping the Avatar, even knowing the threat such a course would level against her family, if it would get her out. She admitted to letting them go, everything that had happened in the corridor…
When she finished, Ty Lee was silent for a while, thoughtful.
"Wow," she said at last. "You've been holding on to this by yourself way too long."
"You aren't mad at me?"
"For what? You can't always help the way you feel about things. And you make some really good points. It's- kind of scary actually. And no, I'm not gonna ask why you didn't share this all sooner."
"Besides the fact it's treason?"
Ty Lee gave her best you're a dummy look. "I ran away to join the circus, remember?" You think I don't understand wanting to be free of the control?
"I remember. Sometimes I think I should have joined you."
"We'd have made a great team!"
Mai smiled faintly at the mental image of Ty Lee, in a fluffy skirt, balanced on a tight rope, with various objects teetering in a stack on her head as Mai hit the targets one by one with her blades.
"Azula still would have found us."
They were quiet for a while.
"She's changed," Ty Lee said finally. "I don't think she'd understand, even if we tried to explain this- hypo whatsis."
"Hypothetically? No, she wouldn't."
"I guess we don't tell her then."
It sounded like such an obvious, simple response it was almost possible to ignore the magnitude of what they were considering.
"So you kissed Zuko, huh?"
Mai blushed. They weren't going to voice the implicit accord, she knew, but the promise was there, tangible, between them. I've got your back. There wasn't any need for further discussion on that score. So now Ty Lee was changing the subject to something totally typical. Mai mumbled something even she couldn't understand.
"Oh, come on, Mai! Give me juicy details here. You kissed Zuko! You've been wanting to do that since we were little. You can't hold out on me now. Was he good?"
"Terrible, if you have to know." Mai blushed even harder at the admission.
"EEEEEEeeeeeh!" Ty Lee squealed, throwing her arms around Mai and latching tight. "That's SO great!"
"Yeah. It means he hasn't had any practice, Mai. He waited for you."
Personally, she wasn't so sure Zuko simply hadn't been given the opportunity to choose whether or not to get any practice, but Ty Lee was so happy about it she didn't have the heart to burst that bubble. It- did- make her a little warm inside to wonder if her friend was right.
She had a brief, fleeting fancy that it ought to be the three of them, and Azula teasing even harder, threatening Mai to be good to her brother or else, but that was a dream meant for a different world. One where Azula wasn't- whatever it was she had become. She brushed the thought away. There were some things she could act on, and others beyond her power to influence. Azula had chosen her path, just as Mai and Ty Lee were now choosing theirs. If the Princess wanted to come back to them, fine. In the meantime, Mai had Ty Lee and Ty Lee had Mai and they were going to be all right.
And Azula never had to know.
When Sokka suggested they keep to the ground rather than take to the skies, there was hardly any argument. They could fly if they had to, but it would be disastrous to unwittingly betray the location of their secret base. Appa was too noticeable, the risk too great.
Several days of using the Bitterroot had revealed not all of Aang's injury lay on the surface. In addition to the exterior burn, the underlying tissue had sustained damage from Azula's attack. The development was acknowledged without much reaction- no one had much energy to spare for that- but it was one more piece of bad news on top of all the rest, and the strain was beginning to show on the entire group. Katara worked on the injury as often as she had the energy to spare, to little discernable effect. Finally she agreed it was best to move on and cover as much distance as possible and track down a fully qualified healer.
Exhausted and drained, they plodded onward. Toph had given up secretly testing Kuei for latent Earthbending ability, although she maintained suspicions regarding his extraordinary touch with clay. The riddle would keep- she was too tired to investigate further.
Suddenly Momo shrieked and launched himself from Katara's hold. The touch-addicted lemur had not reacted well to Aang's convalescence, switching from despondence at his boy's condition to demanding narcissism when Aang couldn't play their usual games or pet him, or any of the usual affections Aang usually provided. This particular display barely prompted a reaction from anyone, and probably would have been ignored completely, had the incident not shaken Toph from her stupor long enough to take a quick survey of the surrounding area.
"Stupid animal," Sokka groused. He knew it would hurt Aang terribly, and Katara would yell at him forever, and the fuzzy troublemaker had grown on him since that day so long ago in the temple, but damn if he didn't want to chase down the screeching nuisance with his boomerang sometimes. Like now.
"Hold it, Meatboy," Toph snapped, her head tilted slightly and turned vaguely north.
Sokka immediately snapped to attention. "What is it?"
"I'm not sure yet. I can't believe I didn't feel anything sooner- must be losing my touch from the sleep deprivation- but I think we've got company headed this way."
"Can't tell. It's a single animal. Ostrich-horse, I think, but- heavy."
By that point she could hear the thundering footsteps. Heavy it might be, but the runner was fast. And headed straight for them. Bosco must have picked up on it too, because the lump shook himself and turned to face the threat. Or greet it. Bosco's instincts had been somewhat confused by life in the palace. It was somewhat questionable whether the beast realized he was a bear and not an oddly shaped very hairy person. The hat and coat probably didn't help his identity issues.
"Toph? Shouldn't we do something? It could be dangerous!"
"It's a little too late to try running, genius!" she retorted. "Stand your ground, it's here!" They could all hear it by then. If Toph hadn't been able to sense the creature's footfalls, the sound of snapping branches and trampled brush would have suggested a whole herd of fox-antelope or possibly a stampede of armadillo-lions.
As their pursuer burst into the clearing, Sokka threw himself out of the way with a cry that sounded suspiciously like "WaAaaaugh!" The creature launched past without the slightest indication of noticing his existence, likewise ignored Appa, Momo's spastic flying and all human reactions as it skidded to a halt a bare foot in front of Zuko.
Dust and rocks spit forward as it jerked short, nearly dislodging the two mounted figures barely discernable through the dust cloud. The ostrich-horse made a sound halfway between irritated snort and contented whicker, and twitched violently just as the taller figure made to dismount, causing the man to land solidly on the rubble below.
"That's it, you feckless no-good flea bag! Mangy, psychotic scab-legs. I'm carving you for dinner and using your mite-infested feathers to stuff myself a nice, fat pillow!"
The words came from Zuko's mouth, but he gave no further response or even seemed to realize he'd made one at all as he stood frozen in shock.
The tall rider beat dust from his pants as he stood and chuckled.
"That's my hello? Thought you had better manners than that, kid."
Zuko's face shifted to incredulity as the dust settled, revealing a familiar face to match the tantalizingly familiar voice.
His gaze flicked to the second rider as he dismounted with far more grace and far less violent language.
In two steps Iroh closed the distance and swept his nephew into a bone-breaking hug. The old man sighed deeply, blunt, calloused hands clamped on the boy's shoulders with a strength that suggested he was reassuring himself of Zuko's solidity even as he sought to prove his own presence. The stunned assembly gradually regrouped from where they had scattered for cover.
"Uncle…" Zuko finally gasped. "Can't…. breathe."
Iroh released his hold immediately but didn't pull away. He was pleasantly gratified that Zuko didn't either.
Before anyone had a chance to attempt explanations, a large beak knocked into Zuko's shoulder and nearly toppled him. His mouth quirked and he ran his hand over Help's ruffled head. There were twigs and leaves stuck all over in the ruffled feathers.
"Yes, yes. I see you," he muttered before turning back to the unexpected arrivals, one arm twined around the beast's thick neck, although it was a toss up whether this was intended to restrain or reassure the thing.
Sokka watched with an eyebrow cocked. "Sooooo," he drawled as the silence lengthened. "How did you find us?" He turned to Kai and pointed with his boomerang. "And who are you, anyway."
"I'm a friend. Bird brain here did the finding." Kai shot Zuko a glance. "I think he missed you. He was trying to break down the stall when we arrived."
Toph grinned. "Sounds like they have something in common. Zuko doesn't like being shut up either."
"Can't say I'm fond of captivity myself. Barely managed to avoid it, what with your Uncle making unexplained side trips to teashops on the way out of town. We got out just in time. Didn't even have the chance to grab another mount. What exactly happened, anyway? I've met a lot of strange folks, and- cautious- sorts, but you really take the cake for cryptic warnings."
Zuko shrugged as well as he could with a giant head draped over his shoulder. "Azula's taken over the Dai Li- and now all of Ba Sing Se. Ask them how she got in."
Sokka winced. Iroh took this all in at a glance and gently rested his hand on Zuko's free shoulder.
"I'm sure there is much to tell, from all (involved)." It had not escaped the old man's attention that while Zuko's exposed arms showed lean muscle, his nephew looked worryingly thin. Iroh himself had lost a few stone during the past few months, but he had the weight to spare and his nephew did not. "I'm just glad you're all right."
All right. Sure. I'm just peachy, Uncle. Picture of health.
Zuko made a non-committal gesture, glancing away from Uncle's concerned gaze. Toph had made herself a seat to observe the proceedings in comfort, content to postpone judgment- for now. Sokka looked uncomfortable and disbelieving, Kuei confused and almost recognizable under a layer of dust, and Katara had instinctively placed herself slightly in front of Aang to defend the group's most valuable, and vulnerable, member. Despite his obvious pain, the Airbender was all but bubbling with suppressed curiosity and excitement, even sprawled on the ground and lacking the strength to stand.
Oh yeah. Remember the injured kid? The one your sister tried to fry?
"Hold that thought, Uncle," he managed and then practically lunged for the closest saddlebag. After several moments rummaging around he stepped back and shot Kai a glare that would have melted steel. Kai merely raised an eyebrow.
"What? I kept things the way you had them."
"You put the bags on the wrong sides." Several moments later Zuko pulled something free from the opposite saddlebag. Kai still looked completely unconcerned by the apparent hostility. Zuko dumped the bundle into Katara's startled grasp, pausing only to pull free a battered tin, which promptly disappeared into his clothes.
"What is all this?"
Zuko began unloading the contents of Hoshi's medical kit, setting aside the most relevant items. Katara stared at the bandages and medicines.
"Zuko, where did you get all this?"
"A friend. You can use it, right?"
Katara opened her mouth and closed it again. Why did she feel so nervous?
"Yeah, I'm sure this will help a lot, I just don't know Earth Kingdom remedies very well."
"I can see that."
"So read the directions."
Katara clenched her jaw, but bit back anything she might regret. Don't lose your temper, she reminded herself forcefully. He's not trying to rile you up on purpose, it's not his fault you feel so damn jittery all the time. It's just a stressful situation for everyone, so stay professional.
Uncle pulled leaves and twigs from his hair and turned to Kai. "I don't suppose you are familiar-" he began in a leading tone, and Kai dropped his indifferent pose and stepped forward.
"With field medicine? I'm no expert, but I've dealt with enough battlefield emergencies to know the basics. Show me what you got, lady."
Whoever Iroh's strange companion was, Katara decided, at least he had manners.
Kuei had recovered enough by this point to regain his voice. He settled his glasses straight and leaned forward, shedding most of the concealing dust. Granted, the past week or so had turned his life so far upside down at this point just about anything was possible but-
"Are you a soldier, then?"
"Was," the mercenary replied without looking up, "who wants to know-?" His head came up as he wound an unrolled bandage around his hand, caught sight of the disheveled monarch, and froze. Zuko stifled a laugh at his gob smacked expression as the man took in the dull hat, stained silk robes and scratched jade necklace of office.
Kuei smiled gently as Kai straightened noticeably and offered a stiffly formal bow, a gesture far more reminiscent of a military salute than a courtly obeisance. "Kuei is fine. Please continue with your work, I'm sure Aang will be greatly relieved by your assistance."
"Nice to meet you!" the boy in question chirped, his never-ending enthusiasm to make new friends undaunted even now. Kai relaxed and shook his head, shooting a glance over his shoulder at Zuko.
"You do realize you're going to have to tell me how the hell you ended up in this situation."
Iroh shifted his hand on his nephew's shoulder. "Come," he said gently, "We should give them space to work." He removed his touch and turned to lead Zuko away, and therefore missed the mild shiver that ran through the boy.
"Welp, guess we're camping here then." Sokka sounded slightly bemused by the rapid turn of events but as always looked for the practical action, and began unpacking the saddlebags as the Firebenders walked a little ways off. "There'd better be food in- oh hey! This is some nice rope."
Before anyone could think of commenting on what exactly made him so excited about that particular discovery Sokka looped the coil around his neck, stuck an arm through so it hung across his chest and continued rooting through Zuko's stuff, occasionally dropping items on the ground. The ostrich horse watched him curiously, and then nudged him so hard Sokka fell on his butt. Toph laughed, and Help leaned forward to investigate the strange blue figure with inquisitive sniffs before signaling his approval with a sneeze. Aang laughed somewhat breathlessly, remembering his friend's first encounter with Appa and a similar sequence of events.
Between Kai's field medicine and Katara's Waterbending training, they still didn't make a fully qualified healer. Fortunately, the supplies were very well labeled, and Katara felt some of her earlier frustration dissipate. She might not be sure what she was doing, but evidently whoever had put together the kit had. Soon they had a campfire blazing, medicinal herbs brewing, salve to clean the wound and bandages to wind around Aang's chest and foot.
Katara followed the directions and didn't let herself stop to wonder why so much of the poppywillow tea had been used up already, or what Zuko might have retrieved from the supplies that he didn't want anyone else to have or use. Humming softly, she let her gaze drift in the direction Iroh had taken Zuko and felt her lips curve in a smile. The old man could deal with Zuko's bizarre issues better than they could anyway.
"So, Kai isn't it?" Toph scooted forward. "How'd you get pulled into this mess?"
"Funny you should ask. See, I was in this town for a job, looking for someone to watch my back…"
Zuko followed his Uncle silently. When Iroh finally stopped by a fallen log, he grasped Zuko's wrist and guided him to sit. Zuko met his eyes, but said nothing. Iroh raised one hand and gently cupped the boy's neck, pulling him close. The boy felt almost frail under Iroh's touch and the old man had seen too much of war not to notice the dark pain in his eyes, the tension rigid through his body and echoed in every movement. Whatever had occurred in his absence had left deeper scars than he had let himself hope. He had found the boy none too soon, and dared not press too hard for pushing Zuko away.
"When you are ready," Iroh said. Zuko twisted his fingers into his sleeves and clung tight, face pressed to the solid comfort of Iroh's shoulder, inhaling the scent of dried tea and faint smoke.
"Can't-" the boy began, words muffled against cloth.
"When you are ready," the old man repeated," I will listen."