Hello, all. I'm back.
Here's another chapter.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
She cracked open one eye as she heard the knocking in the doorway. "What is it?"
Zuko stepped into the room, a hesitant look on his face. "How are you feeling?"
She reached up and rubbed her forehead wearily. "Fine. I told you I could just sleep it off. We didn't need to come to a doctor after all."
He shrugged. "Well, the doctor doesn't agree with you. He says you're not to leave for at least another three days."
She glowered at him. "Three days? Zuko, I have been here for a week! Doing nothing! He won't even allow me to train! Meanwhile, who knows what the Avatar and his gang are up to right now! They could be in Ba Sing Se right now for all we know! We're wasting time here," she finished sourly.
Zuko sighed and looked out the window. "Actually, I wanted to ask you about Oisha."
"The doctor's wife."
Her eyes narrowed. "What about her?"
"Have you gotten the feeling that she's, uh, she's avoiding you?"
"So what if she is? It's not my job to care what random" -traitorous- "peasants think of me." Azula dismissed the question with a wave. 'More importantly, what have Mai and Ty Lee been doing? Have they been able to figure out anything?"
"Well, a group of merchants mentioned seeing the boy with arrow tattoos going into the Si Wong desert," Zuko paused. "I guess that means we'll head for the desert next."
"The desert is a vast, seemingly endless expanse of land with absolutely no landmarks whatsoever. I am not wandering around that place on the off-chance that we run into him." Azula rubbed her forehead. "If he's entered the desert, he'll need to come out again. All we need to do is determine where."
"All right So I guess a trip to that oasis is in order. Maybe we could find out what he wanted to do there."
Azula was silent.
"Zuko," she sighed. "I've been thinking, and I've come to the conclusion… when we find the Avatar, we're going to have to kill him."
"What? But we – Father wanted me to capture him!"
"Yes," Azula acknowledged with a nod. "And that would be because we thought we could figure out a way to contain him. But," she stared out the window, the memory fresh in her mind. "When we fought him in that town, when he… powered up and went into his super mode-"
"I don't think that's the correct name for it, Az."
"We can figure out the correct technical term later. The point is that when he's in that form, his power is too much for me to handle, and I'm not too proud to admit that," the lightning he'd created had been so far above her own that the very idea of comparing them was laughable. She took a deep breath. "I don't think even Father could handle something like that."
"But he can't control it! I've seen him do that a few times before – he doesn't seem to know how to activate it by choice."
"That just makes him even more dangerous. If such an ability can't be controlled, even by the wielder, then we have no way of predicting or properly countering it," she clenched her fists. "If that uses that form again, I don't think any jail or cell in the world could hold him. We'd always be worrying about whether he'd escape.
"By contrast, if we actually do kill him, he'll reincarnate into the Water Tribes. We can hunt him or her down as a baby-"
"And then kill him again?"
She shrugged. "If we need to. Then it'll be the Earth Kingdom's turn. Admittedly it'll be trickier, but if we can gain jurisdiction of the Earth Kingdom before the Avatar reincarnates into it, we should be able to locate him again. After that, the Avatar gets reborn into the Fire Nation. We could raise him to be on our side, and if that doesn't pan out, we'll just kill him again."
"But that would mean he just reincarnates into…" Zuko trailed off, realization striking him.
"Into a race that no longer exists," Azula said briefly. "Thereby ridding us of the Avatar forever. It's going to be a long and tedious process, but this is the first step. Besides," she smiled. "Father didn't ask you to kill all incarnations of the Avatar before you return home, so after that you can just leave it to our soldiers."
Zuko looked away, conflicted. "But… killing the Avatar?" He shook his head. "I mean… I always thought that I'd just have to bring him home."
"Plans do change."
Zuko was silent for a few moments longer. She raised an eyebrow. "Zuko? Anything the matter?"
"I just… never thought about actually having to kill him," Zuko swallowed. "Az, he's a twelve year old boy…" he trailed off into an uneasy silence
"Please don't tell me you're going soft," she said wearily. "If it galls you that much, I'm more than willing to be the one to put a lightning bolt through his back. The point is that we're going to need to remove him as a threat," she paused and added, almost as an afterthought, "besides, death is probably more merciful than what we were planning to do anyway."
"Huh?" Zuko looked at her, confusion on his face.
She sighed. "Zuzu, please don't tell me that in the past three years you've never once stopped to think about what would happen if you'd actually succeeded in capturing the Avatar."
"Well, I – I just assumed that we'd throw him in prison or – or something."
"Or something," she repeated with a snort. Sighing, she glanced upwards and dug into her memory. "Hands and feet are to be amputated in order to prevent any controlled bending. A single ten-by-ten cube cell constructed entirely out of metal to prevent earthbending. Dry air to be pumped into the room constantly and just enough water as rations that would keep him alive in order to prevent waterbending. An airlock system with a pump that can be disabled at a moment's notice in order to prevent Firebending or airbending. Also we'll drop his daily rations through a hole in the ceiling to prevent him from coming into contact with anyone and possibly arousing their sympathy. There was also talk of putting out his eyes, which admittedly wouldn't be really useful in terms of nullifying his bending, but hey, why not?" she finished and looked over to Zuko, who now looked rather green.
"All that for one kid?"
"All that for the Avatar," she corrected. "Potentially the most powerful bender on the planet."
Zuko still didn't look entirely satisfied, so Azula sighed and tried again. "Zuko, this is what you've been looking forward to for the past three years. Don't tell me you're getting cold feet now, okay?"
Zuko's chuckle was grim and without levity. "Don't I know it. Even Uncle –" and then suddenly he clammed, as if realizing that he was going down a path he really shouldn't.
"Even Uncle what?" she raised an eyebrow.
"Nothing. It's not important."
She shook her head and let the matter slide. Zuko, Zuko, Zuko. When are you going to realize that you are a terrible liar? She kept her face impassive as she reached over and seized the cup of water at her bedside to take a drink from it. I don't know what Uncle's been talking to Zuko about, but if it's making him doubt himself, then it can't be anything good.
She sighed as she set the cup back on the bedside table, and took a look outside her window at the sun shining outside. Time to take matters into my own hands, then.
"You're sure you want to leave now?" Yi questioned as he followed her to the door. "Your case of the flu was a rather bad one – you really shouldn't be up for another couple of days."
"Yes, I know about your misgivings," Azula cut him off with a wave of her hand. "But I need to leave urgently. Thank you for your help, doctor."
Yi was clearly unconvinced. "And what of your, ah, your uncle? You're leaving him here?"
"Yes, we've already said our goodbyes," she lied. "His injuries are rather severe, aren't they? I'd have preferred to bring him along with us, but until he's fully fit to travel, I believe leaving him in your care will be best for everyone involved." I never thought knowing Uncle's napping schedules would come in handy. Just more evidence that it pays to be prepared, I suppose.
"Azula!" Ty Lee called from the doorway. "Everything's been packed onto the mongoose-dragons. We're ready to go!"
"All right," she called back and turned to the doctor. "So that's two gold pieces for our stay here so far, and another two pieces to cover my uncle's stay for another two weeks or so, as well as all the medicines." She pressed the coins into the healer's palm. "Take good care of my uncle, please."
"Of course," he nodded and bowed slightly. "Safe travels."
With a nod, she turned and stepped out into the sunlight, ready to head for her mount – until a soft cough at her side drew her attention.
Oisha gave her a smile that held the faint traces of hesitation as she held out a tightly wrapped bundle from which the faint smell of warm food could be detected. "For your journey," she said softly. "It… it should help you keep your strength up… milady."
Azula paused, glanced over to where Zuko, Mai, and Ty Lee were looking at her expectantly, and then back again at the bundle being offered to her. With a deep sigh, she reached out and plucked it from Oisha's hands.
"Thank you," she said curtly as she turned away from Oisha and towards her companions. "Everyone ready?"
Zuko glanced up at the clinic. "I hope Uncle will be okay."
"He'll be better off staying in here than following us halfway across the Earth Kingdom with those wounds on his body," she pointed out as she stashed the bundle she'd received onto the back of her mount. "You've had a week to see how the doctor works – you know Uncle is in good hands."
Zuko nodded. "I guess," he acknowledged, although he couldn't shake the reluctant look from his face.
Azula shrugged it off – he'd get over it soon enough. "Everyone ready? Than let's head out." Next stop, the oasis.
"Ah, Yi." Iroh smiled at the doctor as the door creaked open and he stepped into the room again. "Thank you once again on the prompt delivery of your tea."
"Of course," the doctor smiled back. "It helps to soothe your lungs and body – it is important for your speedy recovery."
"And it tastes heavenly!" He smiled as he picked the cup up and took a long sniff of the fragrance. "I've heard that the ingredients for this particular blend are hard to come by in this region, though. Will that be a problem?"
'Not at all," Yi replied. "I keep a ready supply of it on hand at all times due to its medicinal properties – and your niece was kind enough to pay me for any possible expenses before she left."
Very slowly, Iroh set the tea cup down and looked at the doctor. "I'm sorry, but could you repeat that last line?"
"So this is the Misty Palms Oasis," Azula said tiredly. "I can't say I'm impressed."
It had been a week since they'd set out from the doctor's clinic, and now they were staring down at a dry, dusty town, surrounded by people milling about all over the place. Exactly the sort of environ Azula hated with a passion.
"Hey!" Ty Lee's voice cut through her musings. "There's an ice block there! Right in the middle of the oasis!" Her voice dropped to conspiratorial levels, as if she was imparting a great secret. "I bet it's cold."
Azula ignored her.
"Whose turn is it to guard the mounts?" She questioned as she stepped down from her own mongoose dragon.
"I don't really think anyone will try anything," Mai said. "Not with so many other people about."
"Yeah, this is as close to a commerce hub that you're going to find in this area," Zuko said. "I don't think they'll care too much if we bring them into town." Silently, Azula noted how quickly Zuko had spoken up in defence of Mai's opinions. Had they somehow patched things up? Well, she wasn't going to press the issue unless she could foresee it becoming a problem, so she simply shrugged.
"Have it your way."
After tying down the mongoose-dragons, they entered the town, splitting up quickly to find see what they could find. Or at least, that was what Azula did. After a few questions, she had determined that people had seen a massive, white-furred beast flying in several days ago – and that it had entered the Si Wong desert after that. Well, Azula already knew that fact, and so she tried to see if she could figure out anything more.
Another piece of the puzzle had been a man – apparently a professor from a university in Ba Sing Se. He'd been to the oasis before on several occasions already, apparently, and after several trawls through the desert, always searching for something. And after his latest appearance, he'd departed with the Avatar.
That gave Azula some food for though. What would a professor want with the Avatar? More to the point, why would the Avatar follow the man into the desert, or alternatively, allow the man to tag along on their journey?
According to the local populace, whenever the professor came back from the desert he would always be dejected for a period of time – the obvious answer, then, would be that he had been looking for something, and had been unable to find it. But why would the Avatar now venture into the desert alongside the man?
Unless he thinks whatever he's looking for would be of mutual benefit to the both of them. Some forgotten knowledge of bending arts, perhaps? She knew the sandbenders of the region were technically earthbenders, but the style they practised was really closer to airbending. Maybe there were other skills like that – and the Avatar would be just the person who'd want to seek them out.
Well, that was a possibility. The second was what to do about it. After buying a drink from the local canteen and finding a quiet corner near the back, Azula closed her eyes and pondered the possibilities as she drank.
The first was that the professor and the Avatar did not find anything and once more came out empty-handed. That would mean that they would leave the desert again, and the professor would likely come back to the oasis to rest, recuperate, and find the next group willing to allow him along for the ride. But more importantly, would the Avatar follow him? Or would he simply drop the professor off somewhere and be on his merry way?
She hesitated, and then shook her head. No.. If the Avatar had a modicum of common sense, he wouldn't be staying in any single place for too long in case the Fire Nation got wind of it and came after him again. She knew from Zuko that he apparently didn't like villagers and civilians getting caught in the crossfire, so he would seek not to make himself a target – at least, not in any populated area.
So that meant that staying in the oasis and waiting wouldn't work. Now, where would the Avatar go to instead? She suspected that whatever his destination may be, it wouldn't change much even if he found what he was looking for in the desert, so at least that was somewhat easier to anticipate.
She opened her eyes into a frustrated glare. If only she knew what the Avatar was looking for, she might be able to get the drop on him! Think, Azula. What would an Avatar and a professor from Ba Sing Se want to fi- Azula paused and blinked. A professor from… Ba Sing Se.
Ba Sing Se. The last great bastion of the Earth Kingdom. If the Avatar wanted a safe haven to hide in, what better place than there? At least until he had mastered earthbending and needed to venture out again to find a Firebender teacher – and good luck with that, she thought sourly. In fact, this trip might all be for the sake of currying favour with the professor so he could pull the strings necessary to get them into the city itself!
She pursed her lips. Ba Sing Se had withstood a hundred years of assaults from the Fire Nation, and the Fire Nation had decided to leave it alone for the time being – although she'd heard rumours shortly before she departed the capital that War Minister Qin had put some sort of scheme (and contraption) into motion for breaking through the wall. But even if that were the case, Azula knew she couldn't involve outside Fire Nation troops in this endeavour – it had to be a quiet affair so Zuko could receive the credit without too many questions.
Azula blew a sigh out and stood. She was now convinced that the Avatar was indeed headed for Ba Sing Se – and equally convinced that she had to – had to – intercept him before he got there. She would need to procure transportation across the desert-
Abruptly, the room exploded into a hubbub of excited yells and shouts. After blinking once, Azula quickly sprang into action, trying to discern the source of the disturbance.
Five minutes earlier…
"So, where's Zuko?" Ty lee questioned Mai brightly as the two of them entered the welcome shade of the watering hole.
Mai gave Ty Lee an odd look. "How should I know?"
"Well, the two of you have been spending more time together lately." She shrugged. "So I just thought you'd know."
"'Spending more time together' is not the same as 'joined at the hip'. He left earlier – something about some fruit the merchants were selling having caught his eye," Mai shrugged and settled herself onto the nearby table. "Anyway, you brought me here because you said you wanted a drink and you'd misplaced your coin pouch, so hurry up."
"Okay!" Ty Lee quickly made her way to the bar. "Wow! There are so many fruits to choose from, here! I'm not sure which to pick!"
Mai tried to rein in a sigh of impatience while the bartender shrugged. "Why not go for the fruit punch special? A mix of our best flavours!"
"Really? Okay! What do you want, Mai?"
"Whatever. Mango." She pointed to the first fruit she saw and turned away, already bored. A moment later, she brought out two coins and dropped them on the counter.
Several seconds later, they were seated, and Ty Lee was happily slurping away.
"This stuff is delicious!"
Mai took a short sip. "Too sweet."
Ty Lee rearranged her face into a pout. "You should learn to enjoy more things, Mai. You're always so gloomy, you know that?"
"I don't have many things to not be gloomy about," she replied. "Just hurry up and finish your drink, okay?"
"Hey! Fire Nation Wanted posters!" Came a rather rough voice from behind the two of them. Instantly, Mai tensed and looked over her shoulder. Two people were conversing silently, and as first glance they looked so far apart from each other in terms of personality and temperament that she wondered how those two could ever deign to work together.
Then again… she snuck a glance at Ty Lee before returning to eavesdropping.
"So?" The neater and more refined looking (not that that was saying much) of the two said. "We're looking for their daughter, not some random Fire Nation exile."
Exile? Mai blinked and slid a knife out from her shirt sleeve, trying to remain inconspicuous. By now Ty Lee had cottoned on to the fact that something was up.
"Yes, but I'm telling you – I've seen the guy! Just outside a couple minutes ago, in fact! There's no way to mistake that scar on his face!"
Well, this wouldn't do at all. Silently, Mai considered her options. She could simply stand up, turn around, and pin them to the wall with knives, and she was certain Ty Lee wouldn't terribly mind helping her out in this endeavour. But this would draw attention to her and why she had attacked the men seemingly without provocation. Mai suspected that neither Azula nor Zuko would be overjoyed to learn about what happened here.
So, they'd need a way to slow the two bounty hunters down, and without drawing attention to herself. Sitting upright in her chair, Mai snuck a glance to the other patrons of the area. Mostly the rowdy type that hung out here because they couldn't make a decent living elsewhere. And a couple of sandbenders, but those hardly counted.
Should I act drunk? Does this place even serve alcohol? Standing and turning, Mai regarded the two men curiously before stumbling over to them.
"What's that you have?" She said in what she hoped was a friendly tone as she peered over their shoulders. The two men started and half-turned, the taller of the two of them attempting to stuff the poster he'd torn from the wall into his pouch.
"Hey!" She continued in an unnaturally bright and chipper voice. How does Ty Lee do this so naturally? "I think I know that guy! I just saw him a couple minutes ago!"
"Be quiet, you fool!" The rougher-looking one hissed. "Do you want to-"
"I bet we'd get a lot of GOLD for apprehending him!" Ugh, even she could tell how unnaturally shrill her voice was sounding now.
Reactions did not disappoint. Instantly, heads whipped around to stare at the two men still clutching onto the wanted poster. Quickly, Mai backed up a couple of steps, hoping that it would distract them long enough.
As an all-out brawl to get their hands on the wanted poster (or at least to catch a glimpse of what the person on it looked like) ensued, Mai quickly backed up to the table where Ty Lee had been calmly finishing her drink all this while. Somewhere in the corner of her mind, she noted that the bounty hunters were apparently earthbenders.
She was just turning to leave when she felt a strong grasp on her arm. Instinctively, she started to twist away from her captor until she realized it was Azula, and that she had seized Ty Lee too. Quickly, the princess of the Fire Nation dragged the both of them out of the cantina, away from the commotion.
It wasn't until they were safely away from the brawl that Mai noticed Azula had been looking at her with a funny look on her face. "What?" She asked, somewhat self-consciously.
"I didn't know you had something like that in you," her friend replied bluntly.
Mai simply shrugged noncommittally.
"Were you in there as well, Azula?" Ty Lee questioned as they began walking away from the place. "I didn't see you."
"That would because I didn't want to be seen. Now go find Zuko. We're leaving as soon as I can secure transportation through the desert."
Mai didn't bother to ask why exactly Azula felt the need to head through the desert; with a nod of acknowledgement, she turned through the rather small town, keeping an eye out for him.
They spotted him shortly after, gazing somewhat forlornly at what Mai took to be a souvenir shop. Ty Lee bounded ahead. "Hey, Zuko! Azula says we need to get going!"
"You've become rather popular here." Mai followed up dryly.
To his credit, he was able to catch the underlying meaning and hastily fell in step with them. As they walked down the street, Mai lay her hand on his shoulder.
"And by the way, you owe me one."
At Zuko's puzzled glance, she merely smiled serenely and continued walking.
Several hours later, Azula was starting to wonder if this was really the preferred method of transportation through the Si Wong desert. Sure, they were moving along at a decent enough pace, but the glider was rocking so much that she was currently suffering from a rather bad bout of nausea.
"Sorry," one of the sandbenders who'd noticed her discomfort turned to her. "It's usually not so bad as this, but the desert winds have been pretty bad recently."
She didn't bother to reply, and after a moment, the sandbender returned to his work of pushing the craft along.
At her side sat Zuko, who looked noticeably more at ease than she did – and she couldn't keep a scowl from her face at this revelation.
"Are you feeling all right, Az?" At least he'd noticed her discomfort.
"Never better," she mumbled. Zuko seemed to take it as a sign that she didn't really want to talk about it, because he turned his gaze to the second, noticeably larger craft, trailing behind them.
"I hope Mai's okay…" he muttered, low enough that he apparently thought Azula wouldn't be able to hear him. The princess rolled her eyes. Her two friends were riding in the larger craft behind them, mostly because Azula trusted the sandbenders to not disappear over the horizon with their supplies and mounts about as far as she could throw them.
Of course it would probably be a bit more uncomfortable with the mongoose-dragons being kept in the hold and presumably being terrified out of their wits, but that, she felt, was a small enough price to pay.
"She'll be fine, Zuko," Azula said in a bored tone. "And even if she isn't, she's not really going to let anyone know it." She's as stoic as they come. A 'well-trained' Fire Nation noble girl. Azula rolled her eyes as the thought flitted through her head. "By the way, I heard from Ty Lee that you went shopping around the town?"
"Well, yeah. But I made sure I got the info I needed first!"
"That's nice," Azula nodded. "But why did you go shopping in the first place?"
Zuko remained silent, prompting Azula to look over at him. "Zuzu?" She questioned with a raised eyebrow.
"I wanted… I wanted to find something to buy for Mai," Zuko finally admitted as he crossed his arms.
"Is that so?" Azula let out a brief chuckle as she looked away to the endless hills of sand. "You could probably do a lot better than a random watering hole in the middle of the Earth Kingdom."
"Yeah, but they still had some stuff on sale. The real problem was… well, what does Mai like?" He looked over to Azula. "You know how she is, Az. Almost nothing catches her eye at all."
She rolled her eyes again. "If whatever the gift is comes from you, I'm sure she'll coo and bat her eyes and claim how wonderful it is because you gave it to her."
"I hope not."
"Huh?" Now she was legitimately confused.
"Az, one of the things I like… no, one of the things I admire about her is that she always give it to me straight. She doesn't lie to me to make me feel better – it's sorta the same with you, actually. So if I give her something she doesn't like, she'll tell me," he gazed off into the distance. "At least, I hope she would."
The two were silent for several minutes until Azula leaned over slightly. "Well," she began in a conspiratorial voice. "I happen to know that Mai loves a good fruit tart…"
"Never. Again," Azula stated flatly as she hastily dismounted the glider.
"It wasn't that bad," Zuko glanced at her.
"Maybe in comparison to being trapped in an earthquake or something," she grumbled and folded her arms. "Anyway, hurry up and get our stuff unloaded."
"You should be able to find a populated town about an hour's walk that way," one of the sandbenders pointed. "Now, if you don't mind, my pay, please. Five silver pieces, as promised."
"What?" She laughed humourlessly. "Afraid I'll just run off without giving your money or something?" She dropped the coins into the man's hands. "Now, you and yours can be on your merry way after we finish unloading."
Several minutes later, Azula watched as the sandbenders floated away in their craft.
"All right, we've managed to get through the desert. Now we just need to move to intercept the Avatar."
"You really think he'll be headed to Ba Sing Se?"
"Yes, and there's every reason to believe that he's making his way to Ba Sing Se with all speed, so we absolutely cannot afford to waste any time."
"Cactus juice! It's the quenchiest!"
"But, doesn't he have that flying Bison of his?"
"He's not going to simply fly straight into Ba Sing Se," Azula pointed out. "Whenever the Avatar's entered a town or settlement, he always leaves his bison outside and calls it when he needs it. And if he doesn't fly in, he can only either enter through the main gates or the refugee ferries."
"He's not a refugee…"
"No, and neither is the professor," clambering onto her mongoose-dragon, Azula drew out a map. "So they'll probably fly near the main gate, get off the bison there, and then proceed in on foot. He'll also probably take a straight line to Ba Sing Se once he leaves the desert, so that means we have to intercept him somewhere round here," she pointed.
"We're going to have to cross the Serpent's Pass to do that," Mai noted. "That's supposed to be extremely dangerous."
"And we'll be camping near Ba Sing Se itself," Zuko mused.
"Plus, there's a Fire Nation detachment near the river here, right? We're trying to avoid those too."
"I'm open to suggestions," Azula replied dryly. "Otherwise, this is the best shot we have. The next thing would be infiltrating Ba Sing Se itself, but we can keep that on standby in case this plan doesn't work out."
And with that, the discussion ended.
Azula sighed and concentrated, increasing the strength of the campfire by just the tiniest bit. Just her luck to have drawn first watch of the night.
She was distracted by a rustling sound and she looked up.
"Ty Lee?" She questioned as she saw her friend making her way to the campfire. "Why are you still up? Your turn at watch isn't up yet." And you're usually the first one to fall asleep. And snore. She was tactful enough not to say the last part out loud.
"I had trouble sleeping," her friend admitted as she settled herself down by the campfire. "I… had some things to think about."
Ty Lee? Thinking about things? That's a first. Out loud, all she said was, "What about?"
Ty Lee remained silent for a few more minutes as she fiddled with her braid – a clear sign that she was nervous. Just as Azula was about to write it off as a lost cause, Ty lee abruptly blurted out, "Azula?"
"Are… are we the bad guys?"
With a grunt of satisfaction, Iroh slid the last Pai-Sho piece into place. Across the table, his 'opponent' smiled.
"Welcome, brother. The White Lotus opens wide for those who know its secrets."
"Yes, thank you. Now, I heard that there was quite a commotion in this place just a couple of days ago?"
"Yes, a rather bad one, as a matter of fact. Why?"
"Would you happen to know," he slid a folded up piece of paper across the table. "If any of these four were involved?"
Thanks for reading. Please review.