Morality Chain


Disclaimer: I own nothing.


"Ten sets of hot squats! Starting now!"

As she watched the Avatar choke back a groan of complaint at Zuko's latest instruction, Azula kept her arms folded and her gaze impassive.

"Hotman's really been putting Twinkletoes through the wringer?" At her side, Toph popped a couple of nuts into her mouth, chewing away for a moment before she continued. "Not that either of us were soft on him, I mean, but it's practically been Firebending training sunrise to sunset while you were gone."

"Well, being a good Firebender does require your body to be in peak physical condition. So a regimen like this does make sense." She sighed. "I take it the Avatar has been able to cope?"

"'Bout as well as you could expect. I mean, he's not Avatar for nothing. So far he's been taking it in stride." A pause, and then a laugh. "There are times you can tell he really wants to complain, but he's not doing it."

"Hm," she nodded and turned away. "Well, if there are no issues, then I suppose I can leave the two of them to it."

"... You're gonna go work on that plan to spring that friend of yours, I take it?" Toph nodded for a moment. "Well, good luck with that. Hope you come up with something soon."

So do I. She had to admit that her knowledge of the island was nowhere near complete, and she had never seen the installation for herself. Still, she knew the location of the island, and she knew what would probably be standard of Fire Nation installations. So that was something to work off.

Heading into the temple interior, she settled herself down in her room and pulled out the notes she had jotted down during the trip with Katara.

I've a basic idea of what I'm going to do. I should...

Azula frowned, derailed in the middle of her train of thought.

I?

She sighed and rubbed her temples. Security on that island's prison would likely be extremely tight. And they would know that Ty Lee being there would make it more likely that Azula would seek to find them.

She wasn't too proud to admit that she would most likely need help for this particular mission. If asked several days ago she would have automatically thought of Mai and Zuko. They all had a personal stake in this particular mission, after all, and she was already well familiar with their performance in combat.

But now... she reached up to massage one temple.

"What are you doing, Az?"

"Zuko?" She lifted her head from her notes and frowned. "Weren't you training the Avatar?"

"He's taking a break," her brother said with a shrug. "Honestly, he's a lot less sturdy than I'd have expected."

"Hm." Azula took a glance outside the window. It was almost midday. "How's he getting along?"

"His stamina's fine. Guess that's to be expected from someone who's already trained in airbending and earthbending. Still pretty sloppy with his control, though."

"I suppose that's to be expected," She said as her mind drifted back to the current task at hand. If there weren't any major issues that demanded her attention then it was in her best interests to leave such things to her brother, at least for now.

"And what are you up to, anyway?"

"I know where Ty Lee is probably being held. And I'm planning what I need to do to get her out."

"You're planning that already? Why didn't you tell me about it?"

"Because you already have a job to do. You're the one in charge of training the Avatar, so you don't need the distractions."

"Oh sure," there was an edge of bitterness in Zuko's voice that hadn't been there before, "that's fine. Just I'll just get my information on a need-to-know basis."

She frowned at that, and turned to look at him. "You knew right after the Boiling Rock that I wanted to rescue Ty Lee. And it's not like I wouldn't have told you about it before I left anyway."

He remained silent, face set in an angry frown, and Azula resisted the urge to sigh.

"What's the matter with you, Zuko? You've been upset about something ever since visiting the Sun Warriors' temple. I can tell. Well, I'm pretty sure everybody can."

He didn't reply for a long moment, and the frown on Azula's face deepened.

"It can't be about your Firebending. It's back and more potent than ever since your visit. Then-"

"I don't want to talk about it," Zuko snapped. "And it's not like you'd be able to help. You don't understand how Uncle thinks any more than I do!"

Uncle? Keeping the expression on her face neutral, Azula shook her head once. "You're right. I don't know. And just as importantly, I don't care."

"What?"

"That old man broke out of jail on his own and is now out there there somewhere. Good enough. I don't need to do any more than that."

"How can you say something like that?"

She took a deep breath before turning back around to face Zuko. "I can say that because it's the truth. Let's hear your view then, Zuko? Why should I, or you, waste time and energy worrying about him?"

"Because he's our Uncle!"

"Yes, and?" She stood now, and gestured with a wide sweep of her hand. "And the Fire Lord is our father. But the only time we're thinking about him now is when we're planning on how to depose him and end the war. Do I owe Uncle any more familial affection than that?"

"Of course you do! I can't believe you're actually comparing father to Uncle!" Zuko took a step forward, fists clenched.

"Why not? Both of them don't care about me," – anymore Azula had to remind herself. Father doesn't care about me anymore, "why should I care about them? Even if I'm going to accept the value of bonds and fellowship, it needs to go both ways! You know as well as I do Uncle doesn't actually care one bit about what happens to me-"

"That's not true!"

"He did a terrible job of showing it, if that was the case! And you, Zuko! Has Uncle ever been straightforward with you over these past years? Just because you ended up wanting to end the war like he does, doesn't mean he didn't lie to you about it for years!" Suddenly she realized she was practically shouting and she clamped her mouth shut, taking a deep, calming breath as she did so.

"... You of all people, complaining about someone else using manipulation to do what they want?" Zuko's shook his head, and his voice was bitter.

Azula swallowed once, and nodded. "Yes. I'm good at getting others to do what I want and see things my way. And I do it a lot. I'm not going to apologize for it. But I don't string along the people I actually care about. I know how to press your buttons, Zuko. But I don't – I have never lied to you about my motives and about why I want to stay with you. You know that, right?"

There was a long moment. And then Zuko's shoulders slumped and he nodded. "Yeah. I know. I mean – you followed me all the way here." A slight smile came across his face. "So if I needed proof that you're not lying about your motives... there's that."

Azula snorted and settled back onto her seat. "You're still hung up about Uncle, though."

"Of course I am. He does care about me. And you as well, Az. Even if he lied to me – to us about his real plans. No matter what, I still believe he cares. That won't change." A deep breath, and then it was released in an explosive sigh. "But... you're right. He did lie to us. Nothing will change that either."

"So you're going to keep yourself in limbo about how you feel about Uncle?" Azula was certain her own opinion of the man was set in stone by now. "Well, maybe it's better than thinking both of our living relatives don't care about us at all."

"Yeah, maybe." A short chuckle. "But still. I need to see him again, Az. Not right now. Maybe not until the war is over. But I need to ask him what those three years meant."

"... You'll have your chance." She nodded and turned back to her work. "But there's no rush in his case. Meanwhile, Ty Lee needs our help now."

"All right," he nodded once, "I'll leave you to it, then. Aang's break should be just about over as well, so I'd better head back. Good luck, Az."

Azula's smile was thin as she picked up her pen and continued writing. "I make my own luck, Zuzu."

(X)

"So you need to borrow Appa again?" The Avatar smiled up at her as he wiped the sweat from his forehead.

"Yes. Although I doubt I'll take quite so long this time," Azula said as she folded her arms. "I should be able to get to Wana Island, find Ty Lee, and be back in a couple of days."

"... You're not planning on going alone, are you?" He blinked as he looked up at her.

"No, I don't plan on taking chances." She shook her head and took a deep breath. "I don't really know what sort of security measures they'll have on the island, so I'd be foolish to go alone."

"Well, if it's that big a deal, we could all go-"

"That said," Azula cut him off smoothly, "too big a group will make it hard to move with stealth too, so bringing along too many people would be counterproductive. You, in particular, would be better served staying here and contining your training. As for me, I believe two of three people should prove sufficient."

"Yeah well, if you're making a team for this, then I'm coming with you, princess." Toph piped up from where she had been sitting. "This seems like the sort of trip where you could use the firepower."

"Well, I certainly won't say no to that." Azula smiled. "And truth be told, I was thinking of asking you in the first place."

"Well, good." A grin split the earthbender's face. "Just so long as we're all on the same page."

"Well then... Mai? You've no objections to helping us with this."

"Of course not. Ty Lee helped me escape from the Boiling Rock. What sort of friend would I be if I didn't help her escape?" Her friend nodded once. "And truth be told, anything would be better than sitting here with nothing to do."

"You don't need me coming along?" Zuko questioned. He was currently moving through his series of cool down stretches after the exercises he and the Avatar had just went through, and Azula shook her head in response.

"No, it's fine. The Avatar isn't good enough yet that he can train on his own. So it's better that you stay here for now and keep training him. I won't be gone long."

Zuko nodded once. "Don't worry about it. I'll be sure to get him into shape!"

"Heh heh, yeah..." The Avatar sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "You know, Azula? Compared to Zuko, your teaching wasn't quite so... physically demanding."

"That would be because I was just starting with you. If you came back under my tutelage now you'd be begging to return to Zuko's regimen within a day."

A nervous chuckle in response.

"In any case, the three of us should be able to handle anything-"

"Wait. I'm coming too." A new voice came from behind them and Azula turned to see-

"Suki?" Toph scratched at her chin. "You're signing up for this?"

The Kyoshi Warrior nodded, her face set. "I was at the Boiling Rock too. And... well, I can't just stay behind and wait. And anyway... none of you really know how to command Appa, do you? I'll do it, in that case."

"Very well. I won't turn you down. I'm sure your skills would be prove useful." She saw the girl smile in response.

"All right then," the Avatar nodded and have her an encouraging smile. "Take care! We'll see you soon."

That's right... Azula turned away and began walking in the direction of her room. As soon as they were packed, they could be on their way.

Hang on, Ty Lee. I'll see you soon.

(X)

"And then when I was nine, I ran away again."

Toph was leaning against the seat of Appa's saddle, hands tucked behind her head and gazing sightlessly up at the sky as she recounted the memory of her childhood.

"They never found out?" Azula's voice from her side, and she shrugged.

"I mean, from what I understand they panicked a little when I wasn't found in my room. But then when I made my way back to the gardens they figured I had been playing in there since I was covered in dirt. Probably never crossed their minds I'd left the grounds altogether and ended up playing with the badgermoles."

A snort of laughter. "I can see why they didn't come to that particular conclusion."

Toph laughed too, before it faded away into a sigh. "I dunno... I don't want to sound ungrateful. They always made sure I was cared for and everything, but I just – they kept treating me like I was a porcelain doll. And I... well..."

"You couldn't be the daughter they wanted you to be."

"..." Toph blew out a sigh. "Yeah, I guess that's one way of putting it. You know what I'm talking about, princess?"

"I never had any trouble making my father happy." She heard and felt Azula shifting in the seat next to her. "My mother though... I could never figure out what she wanted from me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't please her. On some days I thought she saw me as a..." she broke off and sighed. "Never mind. When I finally started to figure it out, it came a little too late to matter."

"Well... sounds rough." Toph blew out a sigh. "And with your dad being Fire Lord and all, I guess being here means you blew your chance of keeping daddy dearest pleased, huh?"

"It doesn't matter anymore." Azula's voice was calm. Almost too calm, Toph thought as she frowned. On the air and sitting on a wooden bench, Toph couldn't make use of her earthsense. But even then she knew by now that Azula usually kept a tighter lid on her feelings than that. "I'm not defined by what parents wanted me to be. No more than you were, Toph."

"...Yeah. You got that right." Guess I should leave it at that. For all that Toph took pride in her lack of tact, she could still sense that poking any deeper would probably be a bad idea. The princess had already been uncharacteristically forthcoming about her past – and she couldn't help but wonder if it was her worry about her friend that was loosening her tongue. She sighed and cricked her neck. She wasn't sure how long they had been flying, but she knew that Azula had estimated they would reach just around sunset. And if the cooler temperatures was any indication-

"Island spotted!" Suki's voice from in front of her. "There's a large compound in the centre of it too!"

Yup. They had arrived.

(X)

The stone wall of the compound was sheer and smooth, and the designers had probably thought it would be impossible for a normal human to scale it.

That had probably led to them being a bit more lax on the patrols along the walls, for which Suki was grateful.

As she pulled herself up over the edge of the wall, the secured the rope and then let it down the side while she crouched low and observed the interior of the compound. In many ways it resembled the Boiling Rock's interior – several large buildings that were probably holding cells, a central courtyard with no cover, and the guard towers. But the entire area was smaller and less spread out – and there were the other buildings.

Suki frowned. One looked like it might be the mess hall, but the design of the others were unfamiliar to her.

"Good work," Azula's voice came from behind her as she finished scaling the wall herself and crouched down at Suki's side. "I'll be honest – I didn't expect you to be able to move that quickly and quietly through the area."

"My island had forests too. We were all trained in stealth," Suki said and left it at that. She pointed to the buildings in the distance. "Any idea what these are used for? I don't think they had these sort off buildings in the Boiling Rock."

"No, I'd suppose not." Azula narrowed her eyes as she looked out at the structures Suki had pointed out. "The Boiling Rock was just designed to hold inmates and ensure they never escaped. They're not involved in slave labour like this facility is."

Behind her, Toph clambered over the edge of the wall, grumbling about how it would have been so much easier to just use her Earthbending to scale it, but Suki barely heard her. "Slave labour?" she repeated.

"Yes, Wana Island is one of the places where we use prisoners of war to help with the construction of war machines." Azula indicated one of the buildings that had chimneys belching smoke into the horizon. "If we've captured them and don't plan to execute them just yet, then we might as well make sure they're useful to us."

Suki grit her teeth and wondered how the princess would react to the suggestion that they tear the entire compound to the ground. Probably not too well, since it might put Ty Lee in needless danger.

"I know what you're thinking." Azula said without looking at Suki. Mai was the last one up, gracefully cutting the rope behind her as she did so. "And I'm not saying I'm entirely opposed to the idea, but finding Ty Lee takes priority."

"... Got it." They couldn't hunt down and destroy every single building anyway. It would take way too much time. And she wasn't going to put it beyond the Fire Nation to see the prisoners as expendable once the factories they were working in were destroyed.

Focus on ending the entire war. That's the important part.

On the face of it, the plan was simple. First, find a guard. There were regular patrols through the area, usually in trios.

The first group they ran into was apparently not taking things very seriously, if the way they were standing around and chatting with each other was any indication. Suki snorted and shook her head. She'd never have tolerated such lax standards amongst the Kyoshi Warriors.

The second step was to disable said guards. Suki paused to share a glance with Mai, who nodded, her hands already grasping several knives.

A moment of silence, hesitation – and then the three of them burst into action.

Toph stomped her foot once, and a pebble burst from the ground, slamming into the helmeted head of the rightmost guard with a noise like a bell. He fell like his legs had been cut out from him.

The second guard had half-turned when Suki reached him, both hands swinging up and shoving him into the wall of the compound. He looked dazed, and then her elbow buried itself in his gut. The guard crumpled to the ground and did not rise again as Suki stood over him.

The third had started to fumble for his weapon when metal dart slammed into his hand, drawing a cry of pain as he dropped his sword to the floor with a clang. And then two, three move knives zipped through the air, pinning him to the wall.

"Now," Azula advanced on the man, eyes hard, "I'm giving you one chance. I advise you not to waste it. Tell me, soldier. Do you know where Ty Lee is being kept?"

"W – who?" the soldier gasped out. Azula sighed.

"No? Then take us to the Records Room," Azula leaned closer, and blue flames flickered along her fingers. "And if you try to call for help, it'll be very easy for me to make sure you can't. After all, you don't need a tongue to point directions, do you?"

The guard's face widened in panic and Suki found herself looking away. Even if Azula was on their side, she still wasn't going to get used to how casually the princess could threaten bodily harm on people who looked like they could defy her.

"Hey," Toph laid her foot on the ground, eyes furrowed in concentration. "People are on the way. Not a large group – movement isn't hurried. I don't think they've figured out something's wrong. Not yet, anyway."

"All right," quickly, Azula dug the knives out of the wall they had been stuck in while Toph swept her foot – both the incapacitated soldiers were suddenly encased in stone up to their necks and rolled over into a slightly more sheltered corner where they would be harder to spot.

Movement through the halls of the complex was slower than they would have liked. They ran into more than one patrol along the way, but the soldiers were quickly dealt with before they could raise the general alarm – and then they were at the records room. While Toph occupied herself with wrapping the guard in rock and stuffing a clod of hardened mud into his mouth, the rest busied themselves with searching for recent prisoner transfers from the Boiling Rock.

"Here," Azula finally said as she held out a book. "The northern block, room C-17."

"INTRUDER ALERT!"

A shout from the distance, and the piercing wail of a siren. Mai sidled over to the doorway, knives drawn, and she peered out.

"No one's approaching. Yet."

"Well, we lasted longer than I thought we would have," Azula sighed and waved her hands. "We know our target. Let's move."

The route was well-marked, and before long they had found to the cell in question. Azula had rushed ahead of the group, and a bolt of lightning lanced from her fingers, blasting into the metal lock.

Not bothering with subtelty, I see. Suki bit her lip. She could hear the thumping of footsteps off in the distance.

"No, wait," Toph frowned. "The room's-"

Grabbing the ruined handle, Azula wrenched the door open-

To reveal a bare room. With nobody in it.

"Empty." Toph finished as she folded her arms. "I sensed it just as you were opening the door."

Azula stood still for a long moment, fists clenched.

"The room doesn't look like it's been used for a while," Mai's voice was mild as she surveyed the interior. "The bed especially. Ty Lee's as messy a sleeper as they come."

"...Either this was a trap or they moved Ty Lee and forgot to record it." Azula clenched her fists and whirled around to face the group. "In any case, there's no point in staying here any longer. The guards are on the way."

"Azula..." Mai turned to face her friend, whose face remained a stony mask.

"Did you hear me? Move!" she snapped.

"No need to be so hasty, Princess. Or, would former princess be more accurate?" A voice came from above them, and suddenly Suki realized that there was an interior balcony – and a man standing on it, bearing a calm smile.

"War Minister Qin." Suki heard Azula's voice, but her attention was caught by the group of soldiers rounding the corner. Quickly, she settled into a combat stance – and she was aware of Mai moving as well beside her – but none of the soldiers made to attack. "If you were waiting for me, then I suppose it was a trap after all."

"To be honest, I'm a little disappointed, your highness. Everyone knows of your reptuation for subtlety and cunning – but dangle the possibility of your friend being here as a bait and here you come charging in. Ah well. I suppose every one has their weaknesses." The man stroked his beard smugly, and Suki decided she didn't like him one bit.

"And what now?" Azula glanced over the assembled guards with an expression of studied indifference. "You think you're going to capture me with just these motley pack of fools?"

"Oh my, no." The man shook his head. "I'm certainly not going to be the one to underestimate your skills in combat. To be honest, drawing so many of you away from the Temple is already good enough."

A moment of silence. "...What?"

"We already discovered where the Avatar and his friends are hiding. And they're the greater prize than you by far. As we speak, our warships are en route to capture the motley group and put his end to his resistance. No, your highness. This little distraction was meant to split your forces and make you both easier to subdue-"

A blast of blue flame lanced upwards at the man – and he barely ducked out of the way in time. As he stumbled back, eyes wide, Suki thought she could see his beard smouldering with tiny flames.

"You – you!" the man sputtered. "Fire! Fire everything! Kill her now!"

Fire? Suki glanced around the room. Nothing in there looked like it was a weapon that could be fired, but then -

A whistling sound, and suddenly the wall behind them exploded inwards. Suki somersaulted away – just in time, as a flaming rock slammed into the ground where they had been standing. Landing on her feet, Suki gaped at the rock and glanced out the window-

Three catapult-like machines stood in the courtyard, two of them still carrying a payload of boulders. As Suki watched, a Firebender set another one alight, and then the men were preparing to launch it as well.

"W – War Minister!" she heard one of the soldiers from behind her sputter. "We're still down here! They weren't supposed to start firing until we're out of the danger zone-"

"Silence, you fools! I don't care! Fire everything! Kill her now!"

A cracking noise in the distance, and then the second boulder was being launched at them. Suki's eyes narrowed as she calculated the trajectory. She could evade it again, but-

"Toph! Move!" Azula shoved the earthbender to the side, and fleetingly Suki remembered that she wouldn't be able to tell the trajectory or landing spots of the boulders.

The second missile slammed into the wall with a loud thud, tearing apart more of the cell block, and Suki was forced to evade the shattered fragments of flaming rock once more.

"The war is entering its twilight days. This facility is obsolete anyway! So what do I care if it's all destroyed? Just so long as you're under it when the whole place collapses!" She could hear the War Minister's ranting from somewhere, but the smoke and dust thrown off by the debris made it impossible to pinpoint its location. She grimaced and turned away. He wasn't important. Figure it all out later.

The guards had scattered, Suki realized. Obviously they weren't interested in sticking around to be pulped by flaming boulders. Well, at least one thing was going their way.

"Azula!" she called. "The way is clear. We should go."

"I know," the princess' voice was... tired. Resigned. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Azula taking a long look at the empty room that Ty Lee was supposed to be in. Then a shake of her head and her face was a glare of ferocious concentration once more. "Come on, let's move."

In the distance, the sound of third catapult firing.

(X)

As they made their way back through the complex, it became increasingly clear that the War Minister's claim that they planned to bring down the entire place if need be was not an idle boast. The siege weapons in the courtyard had apparently only been the prelude. Another volley fired, this loaded with explosives, and it was only by Toph putting up a stone wall in the nick of time and Azula shunting the fire away that they had managed to escape.

That's Qin for you, I suppose. Azula grimaced as she ran. The only thing he knows how to do is to rely on brute force and big machines.

Still, that strategy was working a lot better than she would have liked. And as much as it galled her to retreat here – there was nothing to be gained by staying. If Qin was smart he wouldn't have bothered to learn Ty Lee's actual location – so that it couldn't be forced out of him even if they could get their hands on him.

And anyway, trying to do so now, with the entire complex present and hostile to them, would be too reckless.

'Dangle the possibility of your friend being here as a bait and here you come charging in.'

Azula pursed her lips and snarled. She didn't want to admit it, but she had been acting more rashly of late. Not a good sign at all.

They were near the exit they had come from as well – down the corridor, two more rooms, and then-

The wall to the left crumbled away, revealing a Fire Nation tank – except this one had a drill affixed to its chassis. With a grinding noise, the machine charged them, and Azula jumped back, hands already forming a lightning bolt. At her side, Toph slammed the ground with her fist, and a stone pillar rammed up from the ground, tearing into the tank treads. With a shriek of tortured metal the treads gave way, and the tank veered straight into the wall, crashing into it and bring part of the corridor down around them. At the same time, Azula's lightning bolt crashed into the tank's engine, and she was rewarded with a small explosion.

As the smoke cleared, Azula found herself frowning. The tank was large enough that it took up mosst of the corridor from the sheer bulk, and what little space had been there was now covered in broken rubble. She and Toph had been separated from Suki and Mai.

"Hang on," Toph said as she stepped forward, arms outstretched. "Give me a sec and I'll clear-"

"There they are! Get them!"

A group of soldiers rounded the corridor, and Azula instinctively shot a wave of flame at them. One of them failed to avoid it and was sent flying, but two, three more came up behind him. One launched a blast of flame at Toph, who grimaced and moved to block it – and in the process, losing her concentration on moving the tank out of the way.

Azula pursed her lips, and made a decision as she turned back to face Suki and Mai, both just barely visible on the other side of the tank's wreck.

"You two, head back first. Tell them to evacuate the temple."

"What?" Suki's eyes were wide. "You can't mean."

"Qin spoke about warships finding and bombarding the place. They can't be launched from this island – it's not big enough for warships. So there's still time to get there on Appa and leave the place before they show up."

"But what about you?"

"Here." Reaching into her pocket, Azula drew out a scroll and tossed it at Suki, who deftly snatched it out of the air. The first of the soldiers was almost on them – Azula dodged, and exploded a fireball in his face. "Tell them to head for the location marked on this map – and that we'll meet them there!"

"Azula..." Azula could read her friend well enough to tell that she was worried.

"I'm not getting captured here. I'll meet you there." She took a deep breath. "I promise."

She didn't pause to look as the two of them reluctantly began to run off. She did, however, shoot a glance at Toph.

"Upset you got stuck with me?"

"Nah. If hanging with you keeps being as fun as right now, then I've got no complaints, princess." She avoided a soldier throwing a blast of flame at her, and a disc made of rock slammed into him, throwing him to the floor and leaving him there.

"Fair enough." Azula nodded as she kicked, catching the next guard in the chin and sending him to join the growing pile of people lying on the floor.

"That said, you got a plan to get off this island? Because I know you're proud of being a fancy-pants liar and all but I'm really hoping that bit about meeting with the others was telling the truth for once." A soldier charged Toph, slashing wildly with his sword. She simply stamped the ground once, and a pillar of earth jutted out right in the man's path. He ran face first into it, then staggered back before toppling.

"Qin came to this island somehow. He has a way off it too."

A smirk crossed Toph's features. "I take it we're not picky about him being on board when we leave."

"I am getting easier to read, aren't I." Pausing to ascertain that they had properly dealt with the latest batch of soldiers, Azula began running down a corridor, Toph following closely behind her.

She didn't know the place personally, but she did know Fire Nation design styles, and so in her mind she quickly formed a mental map of wide open spots – places big enough for an airship to land. Qin would have had to move quickly to set up this trap, and an airship would be the best way to do it.

In moment, she was out in the open, and she saw the airship – already in the air with Qin on board. But they weren't very high up and with her Firebending it would be easy enough to vault straight onto it.

But Toph...

"It's already in the air!" she said as she glanced at the earthbender. "How are you-"

"Point at it!"

Azula blinked. "What?"

"I said, point at it!"

Hesitantly, she stretched out her finger, pondering the odd request. She could see the ground crew already rushing at them-

And suddenly the ground lurched and Azula found herself sailing through the air. She had half a moment to realize that the metal deck of the ship was looming extremely large in her vision, and then she crashed into it with a dull thud, and she saw stars.

As she shook her head to clear her vision, she aimed a glare at Toph. "I could have jumped up myself, you know."

"Aw, but I saved you the effort!" Contrary to Azula, Toph had managed to land perfectly on her feet. "No need to thank m- oof!"

Suddenly a heavy weight pressed down on her and Azula instinctively tried to struggle against it before realizing that it was a weighted metal net.

"What the-" Toph's voice was an indignant shout. "The heck is this?"

"A new special invention for capturing rogue Firebenders." The War Minister's smug voice caught Azula's attention, and she saw him standing near the ship's steering well, flanked on both sides by Royal Firebenders. They were both carrying some kind of tube-shaped launchers, and Azula quickly surmised that it was what had fired the metal nets. "But I suppose it works just as well against barbarian earthbenders such as your ilk."

"I get it," Azula said as she pushed against the metal. No, too heavy for her to lift, at least without good leverage. "If a Firebender tried to burn their way out, the metal ensures they'll be burning themselves before any of it gives way."

"You always were a Firebending prodigy, your highness. Not that it'll avail you this time."

I could fry him with lightning right here and figure out how to deal with the net later. The thought crossed her mind. But...

She glanced to her side. "Toph?"

"Yeah, yeah, I got it."

She grabbed her net with both hands and pulled – and the netting was ripped apart like it was made of wet paper.

Azula didn't think it was humanly possible for a man to turn as pale as Qin did at the moment, but he managed somehow. "B – but how?" he sputtered. "That net – solid metal! You're – you're just an earthbender, so how-"

"I'm not just an earthbender," stepping over, Toph grabbed Azula's own net, and the metal rope parted easily, falling in broken coils around her as she sat up. "I am the greatest!" The coils she grasped in her hand shaped themselves into a metal disc.

"Earthbender!"

She hurled it at the nearest Royal Firebender, and it slammed into him with a loud clanging noise, bringing him down.

"Of all time!"

The second tried to charge her and Toph brought her hand up – the remains of her own net writhed and surged forward, entangling the man's legs and sending him crashing onto the deck.

"And don't you forget it!"

At the same time, Azula rolled her neck once and marched up to the quivering War Minister.

"S – stay back! Or else I'll-!"

"War Minister Qin," Azula said smoothly. "In light of your sterling contributions to the Fire Nation, I've a mind to be merciful to you."

He paused and blinked. "You – you do?"

She nodded once. "You will most probably survive the drop from this height."

He had half a second to process the statement before her boot caught him in the chest, sending him over the railing.

"He'll be fine," Azula said to Toph as she turned and started to handle the ship's steering. "See? I can still hear him screaming in pain."

(X)

The journey to their destination was largely a silent one, as both girls spent time quietly recuperating from the effort their failed venture had cost them.

"So this trip was a bust." Toph shrugged. "It happens. We can try again."

"We may not have the time," Azula muttered, half to herself. "If they falsified the records to lure me here, there's no telling how deep I'll have to dig in order to find the correct information. And if they find I'm getting too close, they may decide... well, they may decide keeping the prisoner isn't worth the effort."

"... Well, I guess the other way is to bring Ozai down as soon as possible, and then we'll be able to find what we need for real."

That method brought its own set of complications, but that was still in the future and Azula settled for a nod and a grunt of affirmation.

Later, when they were in sight of the city, Azula narrowed her eyes. It was faint, but she could see the Avatar's bison – and the small group hanging about there.

The ship was landed none too gently in the forest at the city's outskirts – with any luck they wouldn't need to worry about getting that particular ship to fly any more, and a few minutes of hiking led to them reuniting with the rest of the gang.

"Told you we'd meet back here," Azula managed a weary smile at Mai, who smiled back.

"We managed to avoid the attack. Just barely, though. We could hear the drone of the warships just as we were leaving the temple."

"Most of the Water Tribe and the other kids took their own escape route through the land," Sokka piped up. "Dad said there wasn't enough room on Appa. I mean, that's true, but we're still stuck here and separated from them for now."

"Why here, though?" the Avatar was looking through the gates at the city beyond it. "I mean, it looks nice enough, but..."

"Because we're a group consisting of four different cultures." Azula shrugged. "So I figured one of the colonies where people are used to seeing Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation mingling would help us not draw attention."

"I guess that makes sense." the Avatar didn't look too convinced – Azula suspected he didn't like the idea of the Fire Nation colonies in the first place, but he had accepted her logic for now.

"Well then," Azula said with a humourless smirk and the slightest of bows, "on behalf of the Fire Nation, allow me to welcome you to the humble colony of Yu Dao."


Chapter End


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