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For a long moment, there was silence, the two of them staring at each other with hard, angry eyes.
Then Azula paused, taking a deep breath. "So, that's how it is. I have to buy in to your way of thinking, your way of looking at the world, before anything else. Otherwise you won't ever accept me or the Fire Nation. Is that it?"
"See, that's part of the problem," the waterbender – Katara – swept her hand out in a wide arc, as if to encompass the rest of the town around them. "You keep acting as if caring about others in general is some weird, fringe thing. As if that's not how most people think. As if that's not how most people in the Fire Nation think. We've been through there, you know. Most of them are kind and caring and – normal."
"And you keep acting like I want to be ordinary." She raised an eyebrow. "You were right about one thing, at least. I don't care what the masses want to behave like. And I certainly don't want to emulate them."
Katara took and released a deep breath of her own too, and Azula could see some of that anger draining away, to be replaced with a sort of weary sadness. "Well maybe if you did care, you wouldn't keep making people hate you so much."
"Maybe if I did care, I wouldn't be here to have this conversation with you in the first place!"
That did seem to bring Katara up short for a moment, but after a second she shook her head. "I always did wonder."
"What it must be like," the waterbender shrugged, raising and lowering one shoulder, "to be you. To see the world the way you do. But I guess I still don't understand it because no matter how much keep turning it over in my head, it always just seems so... sad."
Azula opened her mouth to make a reply of her own, but then she frowned – and closed it again.
The faint droning sound that had been hovering on the edge of her awareness had now risen in volume and intensity, enough so that it was no longer possible to ignore. She blinked, looked up at the sky – and her gaze hardened.
In the skies above them were two airships, moving in low.
"Those are Fire Nation." What the waterbender stated was the obvious, but it was just as likely that she was simply following that particular train of thought to its logical end.
She pursed her lips and drew the only conclusion available.
"They know we're here."
The onset of dusk threw deep shadows through the streets and alleys of Yu Dao.
That was something to be grateful for, Suki supposed. Visibility was poor all around – but then, the Fire Nation soldiers manning the streets weren't actively trying not to be spotted like she was.
She clambered onto a nearby rooftop, making sure that she remained in the shadows all the while, and stilled as she heard the familiar tramp of boots on the ground. Cautiously, she peered over the edge of the wall just in time to see a patrol vanish around the corner. Right on schedule.
Good thing they kept such regular schedules, then. On that note, she glanced up to see the dark shadow of the airships circling overhead, and she found a frown crossing her face before she continued sneaking through the alleyways of the city.
Finally, she approached one house, the exterior of it indistinguishable from any other in Yu Dao. Pausing one last time to ascertain that nobody had followed her, she slipped in through a window, landing inside with barely a whisper of noise.
The others looked up from where they were sitting together, and in a moment they were up around Suki.
"So, how's it look?" Aang was the first to break the silence.
Suki shook her head. "Bad. The airships are obvious, but I was able to spot several tanks on the town outskirts as well. And catapults, too, like the ones we saw on Wana Island. All the gates that lead in and out of the city are sealed and guarded, and I hear they've started searching houses."
"That doesn't sound worse than anything you've faced before," Azula raised an eyebrow. "You honestly think you'll have trouble breaking out of this lockdown?"
"It's not about us, Azula." Suki shook her head once. "The way their forces are arrayed – well, it's basically a siege. They're treating the entire town as hostile territory."
"So the instant they get wind of fighting," Sokka was pacing now, arms folded and head bowed in thought, "they're gonna hit us with everything they've got. And even if we can make it through without that much trouble, the city's still going to get wrecked in the process."
Amidst the contemplative silence that had fallen on the group, Suki noticed that Zuko had walked over to the window and was now peering out of it.
"Hey, keep your head down. You don't want them spotting you, do you?"
A slight grunt and Zuko had stepped away, leaning against the wall, although he kept a disgruntled expression on his face.
"Appa's out there too," Aang was pacing around the room now, refusing to raise his gaze to meet anyone. "I've left him alone for a while before, but if there are airships they could spot him at any moment. Who knows what would happen if he gave himself away."
"Well, in any case, we know they'll be thorough about searching for us." Azula had reached up one hand to tug at the locks framing her face. "Do you have any estimates on how many of the siege machines they've brought to bear against us?"
"For the tanks? I think something like two dozen. I'm not sure about the catapults, though. I was only able to catch a glimpse of one they set up in the valley further away from the town."
"We need more information." That statement came from two different voices, and both Katara and Azula glanced at each other in surprise for a brief moment before Azula leaned back and waved Katara ahead with a gesture of elaborate indifference.
Katara pursed her lips but let it go before turning to face the rest of the party. "It's like Sokka said. Just trying to smash our way out of here would most likely work; but it'll result in the rest of the city becoming collateral damage. We need to avoid that if it's at all possible." Her expression hardened, becoming more resolute. "These people aren't part of the war. We can't be the ones to bring it to them."
Martial law in Yu Dao had brought with it a strict daily curfew, along with checkpoints all over the place to prevent anyone from walking much further than down the street without carrying identification with them.
And to most, it would have appeared that the duo of Toph and Azula were simply taking a morning stroll heading out to buy groceries for the day.
Which was, of course, the entire point.
"I count five catapults," Toph frowned for a moment, before heaving a sigh. "And lemme tell you, Princess. Expanding my senses enough to be able to tell what's going on outside of city limits is pretty exhausting. Even for someone as good as me."
"It's a useful skill regardless," Azula murmured as she quickly glanced over the area, "especially considering we can't use any other methods for long distance scouting right now."
"So, what's next then?" The earthbender folded her hands behind her head. "They're apparently doing sweeps of the city, but that'll take time. Who knows how long they wanna play this game of mongoose-cat and viper-mouse."
"Wanted posters, apparently." She raised an eyebrow as she caught sight of the pictures spread on the wall – a credible recreation of the Avatar's face, she supposed. "No amount of soldiers are ever going to do as thorough a search of the place as the residents themselves."
"You think that'll work? With the city under curfew and all, I'd have figured most people here wouldn't be too fond of the soldiers acting like they own the place."
"Well they might see providing information as their own way to getting the curfew – and martial law – lifted in the first place." Azula was only half-paying attention to the conversation as she studied the posters proclaiming a reward for any information that would lead to the capture of the Avatar's gang.
I'm not included in the list... and neither is Zuko. A frown crossed her face. Odd. Why would that be? If nothing else, the Boiling Rock should have made them believe the two of them were together.
Well, she supposed they might not want word to come out that the prince and princess of the Fire Nation were suspected of joining forces with the Avatar.
"So, we just gotta hope no one decides to try to rat us out?" Toph blew out a breath of air. "Gotta say that getting out of here is sounding like a better and better idea."
"The reason we're doing this intel gathering in the first place is because you all-" for a moment she broke off, wondering if she should have said 'we' instead. She shook it off. It wasn't her decision. She was just playing along for now, "-decided that the straightforward approach wasn't worth Yu Dao getting caught in the crossfire."
"Give me a little credit." A shrug of her shoulders. "Nobody said anything about violent. Make a tunnel starting under the house – go under it for a couple of miles, and we're out of the city, and nobody the wiser."
"They're not idiots." Azula resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She didn't know if Toph was capable of catching that motion with her earthsense, after all. "They know Yu Dao is filled with earthbenders. The Fire Nation does have ways to tell when someone is trying to sneak underground with earthbending, you know – or our armies would have spent the entire war falling into pit traps. It might not be as effective in a chaotic battlefield, but with the time to set up a siege you can be sure they've already laid detection in place all over the city and beyond."
"Hrmph." Toph grunted in annoyance as she folded her arms. "So what then?"
"Back to planning, of course." Azula shifted her gaze to the walls of the city – even at this distance, she could see Fire Nation soldiers manning it, looking down on the few people willing to venture outside their homes. "We'll have to see if there's some way for a scheduled disruption."
"Like what, a distraction?"
"It'd have to be a pretty big distraction to let us slip out unnoticed," she folded her arms behind her back, shifting her gaze away from the soldiers. "And I believe in making my own luck."
It was a little surprising, Suki thought, at how quickly what had been a bustling town square could become almost deserted.
Surprising, and more than a little depressing.
But then, she supposed she should have expected this. Under martial law and the curfew, leaving homes was hassle enough so people weren't going to venture outside more than was absolutely necessary.
And on that note, she decided, it was probably best they didn't spend too long out here, lest they garner unwanted attention from the soldiers.
"So I've been out scouting for long enough that I think I've more or less memorized where all the checkpoints are set up," Suki put one hand under her chin thoughtfully as she stood in the centre of the town square, "so with a bit of work Sokka and I could probably map out the route we could take that would run into the least resistance on the way out. Of course that still relies on Toph being able to give us an accurate view of what the forces outside the city walls are like."
There was no immediate response from Katara.
Suki looked over, saw the tenseness in her hunched shoulders and expression of being lost in deep thought, and sighed.
"I take it your talk with Azula didn't exactly go well."
"We were interrupted before we finished." One hand waved upwards to gesture in the vague direction of the airships.
"That's not a 'no'."
"Well how do you think it went?" Her statement was just shy of an actual snap, and after a moment Katara sighed and turned away to rub at her head. "Sorry, it's just – speaking to her can be really frustrating, sometimes."
"I can guess." Suki managed a rueful smile of her own.
"The way she views the world – sometimes I find it difficult to call her an ally. How she sees the Fire Nation's invasions is one thing, but it's just – everything else as well." Katara's snort of laughter was mirthless. "Well, she's right about one thing. Think about trying to negotiate with her after the war is over and she's no longer on our side."
"Well, more reason not to make her our enemy now," Suki shrugged her shoulders. "I know winning her over to seeing things our way is a long shot, but... I think pushing her too hard might not be the winning strategy here."
"Really." Katara raised an eyebrow. "Because it sounds to me like that might be what she needs. One or two really solid knocks to shake that tower of self-absorption she's built for herself. Maybe she'd learn how to see things other people's way then. Or maybe she'd learn to try."
"... Maybe." For her own part, Suki could foresee an attempt like that going horribly, horribly wrong, but she had to concede that Katara tended to be more insightful about that sort of thing. "The middle of an occupied city probably isn't the time or place for it, though."
"Right." Katara blew out a breath of air in a huff as she conceded the point." All right, then. Maybe we should go back. Sokka was saying he'd try to see if he could find the schedule for their watch rotations. If we pair this up with our own info, we can probably come up with something."
"What, like causing a distraction that would allow us to slip out?"
"Maybe," Katara made a face. "But the problem with a distraction is that one of us would need to be there to make it. I don't want to worry about meeting up later so it'd be best if we all left together."
Suki couldn't resist. "Even Azula?" she said with a teasing smile.
Katara rolled her eyes. "Maybe especially Azula. Who knows what she could get up to if we let her out of our sight."
A chuckle now. "Well, maybe we'll be lucky and someone will make a distraction for us."
"I don't want to rely on happenstance any more than we have to," a shake of her head. "At the end of the day, we should do what we can with our strength."
"Nothing." The general's voice was even as he looked up from the table. On it, a map of Yu Dao was spread out, with a series of angry red crosses across the outer regions of the city. Silently, an aide leaned forward to mark down one more cross on yet another house. "No information. No real leads. It's as if the Avatar and his little band have effectively vanished."
Behind him, Morishita raised his hand to his mouth and coughed once. "In that case, General. I was wondering... if you can't find the Avatar here or it turns out he's already escaped... well, what will your next course of action be?"
"You are suggesting, Mayor," the general stood, but did not bother to look behind him as he began to pace around the table, "that our methods are somehow insufficient? That we would ultimately fail in our goals and objectives?"
"No, of course not. But I do need to ask what the plan will be for the future. After all... it's already been ten days of the lockdown."
"I see." a moment of silence, of contemplation, almost. "So if we were to extend the lockdown for, let us say, another ten days, you would be opposed to that?"
Morishita blew out a breath of air and found a frown on his face. "Honestly, yes! General, our town's livelihood depends on our trade. With the roads in this town all sealed, we haven't been able to buy or sell anything. If this lasts another ten days like you just said, our stockpiles of materials and foodstuffs will drop to dangerous levels! I have the wellbeing of Yu Dao to think of, here!"
"Yu Dao's wellbeing?" And at that, Aikoku finally did turn to face him, his face still a mask of stone. "You speak of a single colony as if its importance was tantamount. We are here on behalf of something greater, mayor. We are here to hunt down the Avatar, the Fire Nation's enemy. It is our country's wellbeing that we are concerned with. You would do well to remember that."
He took another step closer, and it took all of Morishita's self control not to back up as the general now loomed over him. "Lest we forget, the reason we have not seized the Avatar yet is that your populace is refusing to cooperate and expedite our search. And so, in the spirit of the Sozin the Great himself, you really should be helping us to help you.
"But then, perhaps I am being too harsh, expecting so much from you," he continued as he now took a step away, "a mere paper pusher out here in the colonies, taking an Earth Kingdom girl for a wife. What would you understand of patriotism, or devotion to one's fatherland?"
Morishita swallowed back the remark that was on the tip of his tongue, but before he could respond, there came an enraged shout from behind him.
"How dare you speak to my father that way! He's served the Fire Nation for his entire life! And how dare you insult my mother like that!"
He saw Kori throwing open the door and dashing into the room, face tight with anger and flanked by two guards who were trying to usher her back out of the room.
"Kori! Be quiet!" He walked forward to lay a hand on her shoulder, and she glared up at him.
"NO! I will not be quiet! Not when someone else is talking about my family like th-"
"Now is neither the time nor the place, Kori."He tightened his grip on her shoulder.
"Yes, you'd do well to heed your father's words. Not to mention you're listening in on what's supposed to be a private briefing." The general had turned away with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Then again, as I said earlier. Perhaps I expected too much. After all, a mongrel like you probably doesn't have anything better to do than wait at the door for scraps-"
The stone that had wrenched itself from the ground struck the side of General Aikoku's head with a dull thudding noise. Morishita had a split second to note Kori's now outstretched arm, and her eyes that now blazed with a murderous intent.
She leaped forward – but the general's guards moved faster. He felt an impact on his chest as he was roughly shoved to the ground, and his next clear sight was of Kori – his daughter! - being wrestled to the ground.
Slowly, the general picked himself up from the ground. With deliberate motions, he reached up to brush his hand against the spot where the rock had struck him, and the fingers came away bloody.
For a moment, the room was silent save for the sounds of Kori's furious struggling. And then the general nodded once.
"Yes... I think I have overestimated you, after all, Mayor. You, and your daughter." He turned, to fix a cold gaze on Kori. "It is time I reminded you what it means for a city to be under martial law."
"Okay, so timing is really important for this. I'm leaving in a 'we-get-discovered' buffer because, let's face it, we always get discovered in the end. But the goal, the real goal, is to get as far as possible before we hit that part."
"Sokka..." There was an amused note in Suki's voice, which caused the Water Tribe boy to raise his hands.
"I'm being serious here! Something happens and we get spotted and need to fight our way out! Stealth doesn't work when the universe has it in for you!"
Azula was only half-listening to his prattling as she looked over the escape plan he had devised for them. She had to admit that he had the beginnings of a solid strategy for getting them out of there – at least when he wasn't getting distracted by pointless minutiae and making a bunch of a scratchings that she could only surmise was his crude attempt at sketching a map of the city layout.
Still, it could work. Especially with the caveat that yes, if it came down to, Azula was entirely confident in her – their? – ability to fight their way out anyway if things went south.
After a moment, she realized that Zuko had come to her, and was looking at her the way the he did when he was troubled about something.
"What is it?"
"You want to talk?"
Azula paused for a moment. "Not particularly. But I get the feeling that you do."
They shared a glance at each other and then the rest of the Avatar's team before stepping away to a corner of the room for a tiny bit of extra privacy. That said, she still didn't miss Toph raising her head briefly.
"Well, go on."
"Okay, so-" he ran a hand through his hair, "-this is probably not the best time to talk about something like this, but what you said about the colonies... well. Are you sure?"
"About keeping them Fire Nation?" She raised an eyebrow. "Well, of course I am. Why wouldn't I be?"
"It's just-" A quick, frustrated sigh. "Making demands of the other nations about non-negotiable positions before we ever get to bargaining table is gonna cause the other side to dig in as well. I mean, tweak the wording a little and they could argue we're not speaking in good faith when we talk about surrender and stopping the fighting."
"Yes, it's true. I've accepted that 'ending the war' also means saying that we lose. And we're withdrawing. But if we do it unconditionally, we're just inviting them to walk all over us instead." She paused for a moment, and shook her head. "What, I shouldn't make our position clear first and hope the Earth King is going to be nice enough to let us keep Yu Dao, and Gang Chuan, and all the other First Colonies?"
Zuko didn't respond immediately, instead folding his arms and looking away, as if trying to gather his thoughts. And then he took a deep breath. "You think we absolutely can't give up these colonies, don't you?"
"Large chunks of our production and economy are all tied up in those places, yes." She knew there was a frown on her face as she looked out the window, at the now-silent factories just barely visible beyond the roofs of the houses. "Letting go of them will hurt the Fire Nation. I'm thinking of the country's wellbeing, Zuko. We have to fight for this."
Again, no immediate response. And she looked back to see Zuko gazing out at the same horizon she'd been looking at a moment ago. And for once, Azula found the expression on his face to be inscrutable.
"I guess I'm really not like you, Az. I sometimes have trouble with seeing the bigger picture. Yeah, I guess it's true that keeping the colonies would be best for the nation. But I guess I'm looking at it more from the point of what would be best for the colonies? For Yu Dao?"
"... Well, most likely they'd want stability and minimal changes to their way of life."
"We're going to bring an end to a hundred years of war. Somehow I don't think stability is really going to be on the table afterwards." Zuko's smile at that was rueful, but it was still enough for her to return a smirk of her own.
Any further conversation was cut off by a dark shape dropping down from the roof above them, resolving into the crouching figure of Mai. Azula raised an eyebrow as she straightened.
"Mai? You're back from patrol early. Did something happen?'
A single nod as she straightened up. "It's the army. They're holding a public execution."
Instantly the room erupted into a flurry of confused outrage.
"What happened? Who is it?"
Mai shook her head once. "I don't have all the information, just the part they want to announce to the public. It's K... The mayor's daughter. The charge is assault against a member of the Fire Nation military. The execution's at sundown, in the town square. And they're making a spectacle out of it."
"They want the locals to watch," Azula said with a nod. "Well, it makes sense. If it's someone like the mayor's daughter they're killing, they want everyone to know that connections and status aren't going to protect you under martial law. A good way to demand compliance through fear."
An uneasy silence fell on the room, and she could see the rest of the team trading uneasy looks at each other.
"Well, in any case, this gives us our chance."
"Our chance?" She could see Katara gave her a pointed look as she spoke.
"To leave while everyone is distracted. The decision for the execution was clearly made on short notice. The schedules are all going to be affected, and they're definitely going to focus security at the execution site. So this is our chance."
Another quick trading of glances, and Azula's frown deepened. "What is it?"
"We should help her," the Avatar said as he stood.
"Yeah, I was about to say," a chiming in of agreement in from the Water Trive boy at the table where he had been looking over the city map.
"I mean, they're going to execute her. And like you said, it's mainly to prove a point to the populace." A shake of his head once. "So yeah, that doesn't fly. Not with me."
"This is ridiculous! You're ignoring an opportunity that's just fallen into our lap for the sake of saving someone you know nothing about? For all we know, this girl deserves it! If you save her and you turn out to be wrong, what then?"
"... Mai. What's wrong?" At Zuko's voice, Azula turned to face Mai.
Something's wrong? And Zuko noticed? Why hadn't she?
Mai was looking down at the stone floor of the building, her expression hard.
"I met Kori... once, before. My father and mother were always trying to build their network of connections with anyone that might be helpful to know, so we attended social gatherings and meetings a lot. I didn't speak to her, really, but..."
Azula remained silent, giving Mai the time needed to process her thoughts.
"She was... impulsive. Thought with her heart, not her head. And she was fiercely loyal to the Fire Nation... despite being an earthbender."
Instantly, another flurry of surprised voices.
"What? An earthbender?"
"I thought you said she was the mayor's daughter?"
"Yes, Mayor Morishita has a wife with Earth Kingdom ancestry." Mai's lips were pursed as she dug into her memory. "It's not unheard of. But still rare enough that many drew attention to it. Well, I think it left her feeling she had a lot to prove."
"But that doesn't make sense." Zuko shook his head. "You just said she was loyal to the Fire Nation, but now she's being marked for execution? For attacking the Fire Nation military?"
"I know. It was bothering me all on the way back. And assuming they're not lying, she's likely..." Mai paused and took a deep breath. "Well, we know how people in the capital look on those who married Earth Kingdom folk. If there's something that would make her snap and attack Fire Nation troops... it'd be that."
"That's just conjecture, Mai."
"That doesn't matter," and Azula looked back to see the Avatar shaking his head. "Life is sacred. I can't – an execution like this is just wrong." A deep breath. "We have to stop it."
"Count me in," Katara was already standing and tightening the strap of her water pouch. "The people of Yu Dao aren't my enemy – but the Fire Nation army is."
"So that's it then," Azula said as she folded her arms. "You're going to squander this chance to escape, not to mention end up blowing our cover, because you want to go out of your way to help a complete stranger."
"I agree with them." The voice came from behind her and Azula turned.
"We were just talking about it, weren't we? What's to the nation's benefit... and what's to the colonies'. If Mai's guess is correct... then this is something we need to change about the Fire Nation. So. So, I need to at least see this for myself. With my own eyes. And if need be, to put a stop to it."
"... I see," Azula heaved a sigh. "Well, feel free to go ahead, then. I won't stop you."
"You're not coming?" She could see the disappointment and confusion written on the Avatar's face. Did he not know her by now?
Or did he know she would respond that way, and had simply hoped against hope, otherwise?
"I don't know this 'Kori', and doing this goes against our actual goals." Azula leaned back against the wall and folded her arms. "This isn't my fight."
Her statement was met with silence. Almost.
"You know, this was your chance to prove to everyone you're not actually as selfish as I thought you were. So much for that." Katara shook her head once, her eyes as cold as ice. "I'll be downstairs once everyone else is ready to go."
Without another word she stood, stalking out of the room.
"Az..." Zuko opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something but then thought the better of it.
"You're really sure you're not coming, princess?" Toph meanwhile, had her arms folded as well, not even inclining her head in her direction as she leaned herself against the adjacent wall of the room.
"Why would I not be? Why should I, or any of you for that matter, go out of your way for this?"
"I dunno. 'Cuz it's the right thing to do?"
"The right thing to do would be to leave!" Despite her best efforts, Azula could feel her anger boiling over, and getting the better of her as she continued to rant and turn to face Aang. "You're the Avatar! Given the goal of stopping the Fire Nation and the war, your safety and wellbeing should be our first priority, not every random civilian you meet that needs your help!
"Do you think you're going to get their praise for this? Or their adoration? I promise you that every last person in Yu Dao thinks the Avatar's group is their enemy, even if you don't consider Yu Dao yours. Or if you're really so selfless and noble as to just want to help people, you're simply going to be putting out one fire after another, until your dying day!
"So give me one reason, just one, as to why I should put myself in the line of fire for someone none of us even knows existed ten minutes ago!"
Toph's face might as well have been carved from stone as she lifted her foot and stomped the ground once. Azula tensed instinctively, but the only reaction to the earthbending was the jewellery box on the table flipping open and-
Azula's headpiece flying out of the spot she hidden it in to land on the floor between the two of them.
"Right. Here." Toph pointed down at it. "What does being the Fire Nation Princess even mean to you? Have you ever once thought about the duty of being in charge?
"You keep talking about wanting to keep Yu Dao in the Fire Nation after the war. Well, right here, right now, do you consider the city to be part of your country, or not? And if you do, then what responsibility do you have, as Princess of the Fire Nation, towards your people?"
Silence, broken by the sound of Toph's angry breathing. And then she shook her head once.
"You know, even when we were still enemies and all, I kinda liked the idea you represented. Princess of the Fire Nation – also its biggest buttkicker. Nobles don't have be prissy and just – sit on fancy chairs and do nothing but spend hours learning which spoon to use at dinnertime.
"But if you're gonna fold right when it counts?" She rolled her neck once. "Well, suit yourself. Feel free to sit back and be as useless as every other high-born stuck-up brat I've ever met. C'mon Aang. We've got a rescue to make."
It took a long moment for Azula to realize that she was biting her lip so hard she was surprised she wasn't drawing blood. All around her, people were grabbing weapons and tools and whatever else they usually brought when they were anticipating combat. A couple of them glanced her way, but otherwise they continued to go about their business.
And Azula simply continued to stand there, feeling her heart hammer in her chest, feeling the nail of his fingers dig into her palm as she unconsciously balled her hands into fists.
She didn't know why those words had struck a chord with her – she only knew that they did. And now Toph was in the doorway, half an instant away from stepping out-
Her voice was soft, but everyone in the room still paused at the sound of it. She saw Toph pause and turn back to face her, the question plain on her face.
She released a breath in a long sigh. "All of us going as one group is counterproductive. They'll have forces arrayed all over the area, so it's in our best interests to split ourselves up as well, to handle the different challenges there."
She could see what looked like relief on Zuko and the Avatar's face, and she could see he smile that Mai wasn't trying very hard at all to hide. And she could definitely see the smirk on Toph's face.
"All right, princess," if anything, the smirk only grew wider, "I'm taking it that you have some ideas."
The setting sun splashed the land in fiery red as Zuko stood in the shadows, looking at the raised platform in the centre of the town square.
The others were further in, mingling in with the midst of the crowd, but it was accepted that his scar would have drawn too much attention if he were out in the open. Hence why he was here, in the alley, waiting for his cue.
"How's it look?" at his side, Toph's voice was conversational. Zuko supposed it made sense, her being selected to be his partner to wait in the alleyways. After all, she didn't have to worry about her view being impeded by the bustling crowds.
"Tense," he reported as he scanned the crowds once more. There was the low murmur of voices, but muted, as if everyone were afraid to speak up too loudly. "The soldiers are cordoning off the centre of the square, and everyone's just... waiting."
"Well, I suppose they'd be." She blew out a breath of air and leaned back on the crate. "It's a lousy feeling, being helpless to do anything when you see something like this happening."
"... I guess."
They trailed off into silence for a moment. Toph's head was cocked to one side, as if she were waiting for something.
"So..." Toph spoke up again after a moment had passed. "Azula."
Zuko released a sigh he hadn't realized he'd been holding and didn't turn to look Toph in the eye.
"Y'know, I get that she's abrasive and more than a little bit of a jerk... but sometimes I get to wondering, what really makes her tick? What does she care about, most of all?"
"I don't know. I know, she's my sister and all, and I know we've always got each other's backs but... well, she's never cared all that much about the opinions of those she considers beneath her."
"Meaning... most of the world?"
A humourless snort. "Well, we could put it that way. Plus... there's also..." He shook his head. "She's out of her element here, so she's focusing on a goal to keep herself on track. Guess she doesn't see this as productive for that goal."
"Well! We're prodding her along to help anyway, so that's good!"
Is it really? Zuko resisted the urge to sigh yet again as he once again recalled his old worries about the reason Azula had left the Fire Nation in the first place. Before he could say anything more though, he saw Toph tensing and getting into a ready position.
Sokka and Azula had quickly agreed on when would be the best time to strike. If the Fire Nation wanted to make a public spectacle of the execution, then it only made sense that they should disrupt the execution in as showy a manner.
Plus, it was important, vitally important, that for one moment as many eyes were on the town square instead of anything else around them.
"Citizens of Yu Dao!" He could hear a booming voice now. "You see before you, a traitorous wretch who has dared raise her hands against the brave men who serve the Fire Nation!"
He shook his head, tuned it out.
"You ready, Hotman?"
"Stop calling me that. And yes, I am."
He closed his eyes and focused as he felt energy gathering within him.
The moment it splits and comes together again...
The ground under him shifted, the precursor to Toph preparing to launch Zuko, and fleetingly he found himself wondering how many of the soldiers would react in time to seeing him coming at them.
"- and how did she repay the security and safety we have provided for her, at our own personal cost? Not only did she insult and denigrate us for our efforts, she even dared to raise arms against us!"
Well, that was why he had to trust the others. For a moment he had the image of Mai, lurking in the crowd, ready to hurl her knives with the twitch of a finger, and he smiled. Just slightly.
The earth around him surged, a small stone platform jutting out of the ground with enough force to hurl him up and forward, above the heads of the people. And he could see the execution platform, four soldiers flanking a girl who was currently in chains.
"And so, in accordance with the ancient law of the Fire Nation, I hereby sentence Kori Morishita of Yu Dao to – what!?"
One one second, two two seconds... now!
He swept both hands out, and a bolt of lightning lanced forth, crashing into the centre of the raised dais. A moment later, he hit the ground as well, tucking himself into a crouching roll to absorb the worst of the impact, before springing to his feet.
Lightning crackled along the platform, wreathing Zuko in a cold blue light as he glared down at the soldiers who had been holding the girl a moment ago.
And suddenly, all eyes were upon him.
Just as they had planned.
"Is this what the Fire Nation has become?" He yelled, trying to put as much volume as he could into his voice. "Trampling others because you know they can't fight back?"
For a moment, he remembered that Earth Kingdom village they had chanced upon so long ago. The Earth Kingdom soldiers who had been little more than armed thugs and what they had tried to do with Lee, and his mouth drew back into a thinner line.
"You!" The man who had been speaking a moment ago – a general by the looks of his uniform – stumbled back, as much from shock as it was to get himself into a Firebending stance. "You're – Prince Zuko!"
"I will not accept this!" The nearest soldier charged him – Zuko drew back and hurled a blast of fire at him, sending him crashing to the ground. Without pausing, he drew his swords, preparing to fight off the three others who were now advancing on him as well. "I will not accept a land where our own people live in fear of those with authority!"
Behind him, he could hear shouts and cries of battle, and he resisted the urge to smile. It looked like the others were successfully holding the rest of the soldiers off.
Still, it was only a matter of time before the tanks in the city outskirts moved in – and the catapults were given the order to fire.
They had to wrap this up quick.
"Your nation?" The general had stepped forward as well. "Quite the swollen head you have, traitor. But you're alone and isolated now. There's nowhere to run."
"Oh, believe me." Zuko tightened the grip on his swords as the first of the Fire Nation soldiers charged him. "I'm not running away. Not today."
His blades flashed, knocked down one soldier with a pommel strike to the head, and then a second with a well-timed kick. Still, there were reinforcements rushing in. He had to fight his way to the girl, get her out of there, and-
A loud shriek of metal on metal sounded from above him, and Zuko allowed himself a tiny smile of triumph.
Right on time.
Azula narrowed her eyes as she saw Zuko fire off a bolt of lightning into the centre of the square, catching the attention of absolutely everyone there.
"And that's our cue." She turned to the Avatar standing beside her. "Let's do this."
"You're sure about this? I mean, I could make it up there myself-"
"You haven't received training on how to handle Fire Nation vehicles." She shook her head once. "And Mai wanted the job where she gets to keep Zuko safe and snipe anyone who tries to sneak up on him, so it's just me. Unless you're unhappy with the idea?"
He chuckled and shook his head. "No, but – well, it's not going to be the most comfortable trip up there."
As if to prove his point, he flexed his fingers, tightening the stone harness around Azula while she resisted the urge to wince in discomfort.
"I'll survive," was all she said instead.
"Okay then! Let's go!" And then they were launched through the air as the Avatar took to the skies on his glider, Azula being brought along by the harness wrapped around both of their torsos. As they flew up towards the nearer of the two Fire Nation airships, as Azula tried not to wince at the air buffeting them.
Finally, they were on the deck, and she allowed herself a sigh of relief as she was released and could find purchase on her own two feet now. The first part of their plan had worked, at least. Zuko's display in the town square had been arresting enough that they had been able to get near to the airship before they were spotted.
"Is flying with your glider always that turbulent?"
"Not usually," he gave her a nonchalent shrug and a smile, "but this time I was carrying a passenger so... well, I wanted to be on the safer side.
She had time for a non-committal grunt before the first of the guards reached them and the two of them busied themselves with getting rid of the soldiers. Once it was quieter again, she gave a quick nod to the Avatar.
"The bridge is this way."
The interior of the ship was cramped – as was expected – but they were still able to make good time. As Azula rounded the corner, she caught a flash of movement and threw herself to the floor.
And just in time, as the stone projectiles thudded harmlessly into the wall above her.
"Dai Li." She gave a frustrated sigh as she pulled herself to her feet and saw three of her former subordinates standing guard at the doorway of the control room. "I'm starting to think bringing you back to the Fire Nation was a mistake after all."
"Azula, I can handle them!" the Avatar moved to cover her, his glider now changed back to a staff as he held it at the ready. "Go!"
She didn't bother to ask if he was sure about that. They both knew every second counted.
She charged forward, a distant corner of her mind noting that there were open bags of coal on the ground around the Dai Li agents. Well, she supposed they needed a supply of bending material from somewhere.
She ducked under a strike from the first one, gathering her strength and hurling a blast at the door to the control room as she evaded another stone shot. It buckled under the force of her blow, and she was in.
"P- princess Azula!" the soldier who had been manning the steering wheel had time for that squawk of surprise before she kicked him into the wall. At the wheel now, she paused for half a second the mentally judge where the other airship would be before grabbing it and swinging the wheel as hard as she could.
"What are you-" Shouts of outrage from around her as Azula turned and prepared to defend herself from the rest of the bridge crew.
"It – it's a collison course! We're going to crash against the other ship!"
"Well, if you know about that, then best you evacuate while there's still time." Azula took a deep breath.
She dashed out of the doorway, to be met with the Avatar standing over the unconscious bodies of the Dai Li.
Their part to play wasn't over yet. Not by a long shot.
They had just reached the deck again when the screech of metal crashing against metal sounded in her ears, and the entire ship pitched and shuddered. Barely managing to stay on her feet, Azula looked up to see where the two ships had collided.
Soon they were at the railings, and Azula peered over the edge. From their vantage point, they could see the catapults, still arrayed in formation over the valley of Yu Dao. Distantly, she noted that the airship was losing altitude. Hardly surprising.
"All right, Avatar. Let's do this."
His glider was unfurled with a snapping motion, but as he took to the skies, Azula could see him placing the silver whistle in his mouth and blowing.
From the forested woods, Appa emerged, flying towards the source of the sound. Towards the airship.
All right, jump to the bison, slow my descent with Firebending. It should work. In theory.
Taking a deep breath, Azula stepped onto the shuddering railing to boost her height, and leapt into the air.
Toph grinned as she heard the sound, way above her, of a heavy collision. Sounds like Azula's having fun up there.
Two soldiers were running up to her. Not benders, by the looks of it. She raised her arms, creating stone pillars that slammed into their faces and sent them sprawling.
Well, hope this doesn't take too much longer. The longer we fight in the town square, the greater the chances someone becomes collateral damage. True, most of the residents were currently fleeing, but still, it was best not to take chances.
Just then, she felt the tremor of several people huddling up behind her. Clearly not soldiers or town guards. And to the side... Firebenders, if their stances were any indication.
"Gh!" Gritting her teeth, she jumped to put herself in between the fire and the civilians, raising a rock wall to protect them from the surging flames.
"What are you idiots doing!" She yelled over her shoulder.
"We're under attack! We're doomed!"
"I hate doom."
Eh? Did my wristband just- Toph shook her head and redoubled her efforts at keeping the wall up as more enemies soldiers continued to pelt attacks at it, seeking to break through. As long as she was protecting those guys, her offensive options were limited. So-
"Then get out of here! Scram!" That appeared to have done the trick – or maybe it was knowing that the way was clear as long as she was protecting them, and the trio of people quickly scrambled off.
Once freed, Toph stomped the ground once, feeling a wave of earth burst out from under her to knock the closest of the soldiers off their feet. Before she could continue though, she heard Zuko's voice, clear amidst the confusion.
"All right! I've got her! Pull back! Let's get out of here."
Blowing out a breath of air, Toph paused to hurl a stone at a soldier who was too close for comfort, before moving to retreat.
Once they were deep enough in the forest that Zuko felt safe to say they hadn't been tracked, he let out his breath and gave a weary shake of his head before he drew his sword.
"Hold still," he said to the girl – Kori – as he moved to cut through her bindings. Once she had been freed, to took a step back to take stock of the situation.
Everyone had made it out, which was a good thing – including who he presumed Kori's parents, who were now being shepherded into the clearing by Mai and Katara.
"You..." Kori's voice was soft, as if she wasn't quite sure what was going on. Zuko supposed that made sense. After all she had been moments away from dying before the rescue happened.
"Don't worry. You're safe now. Are you hurt anywhere?"
"No, I'm not, but – I mean..." her glance flickered back in the direction of the town. "That general, you..."
Zuko pursed his lips as he recalled the fight. "He'll live," was his only response.
"I mean... Prince Zuko. Why did you save me?"
"... The reason Yu Dao came under lockdown was because of us. I didn't want anyone else to suffer because of the decisions we made."
"So it's true then." And he turned to face the mayor, whose expression was stern. "The rumours about you joining the Avatar and becoming the Fire Nation's enemy."
"No. The Fire Nation is not my enemy." Zuko kept his voice and expression calm as he turned to face the mayor. "My enemy is Fire Lord Ozai, and any one else who would use the Fire Nation's strength to trample on others. But the Fire Nation remains my home. Now, and always."
"Lord Zuko." Kori's voice was hesitant. "You saved my life. You had no obligation to do so, but you risked yourself for me anyway."
"Well, I-" but he was cut off as she bowed her head.
"I swear," She continued as she got down on one knee in a gesture of supplication. "I swear my service and my fealty to you, Lord Zuko, for as long as I live. You, and none other."
"Kori! What are you doing!"
But Kori remained kneeling, her head bowed, and after a moment Zuko found himself letting out a breath.
"Please, raise your head and stand. And – all of you. You should go into hiding for now."
"What?" Kori blinked and looked up
"Regardless of who you wish to serve," he glanced over at the mayor, "the army will see what we've done here as you being on our side. It's probably for the best you lay low... at least until the war is over."
"Over?" The mayor's wife shook her head. "The war's been going on longer than any of us has been alive. You may be travelling with the Avatar, but do you think you can end it just like that?"
"Well. We won't know until we try."
Just then, a shadow fell over them and Zuko looked up to see Appa coming down for a landing. A smile crossed his face as he saw Azula peering out over the edge.
"The catapults are handled. Only one of them got to fire and it was a misaimed shot. Yu Dao is safe, at least for now. So we should leave before more trouble finds us."
"Got it." In moments, the rest of the gang had clambered onto Appa, who gave a grunt of satisfaction as he took to the skies once more.
"So... where to now?" Aang asked after a moment. "I think hiding out in another colony would end up carrying the same risks as what happened in Yu Dao."
"That's right, we can't be dragging more civilians into this."
"So, we'll need someplace private where Aang can keep training. A good hideout no one else goes to."
Zuko glanced up, catching Azula's gaze. And the both of them nodded.
"Ember Island," they said, in perfect unison.
The Fire Lord's personal beach house had long been unused, almost to the point of being seemingly abandoned. Which of course made it the perfect spot for the gang to lay low in. The fact that they could reach most points of the Fire Nation from the island only added to the list of positives as a hiding place.
At this point, Mai had moved around enough that she could carry out the routine of unpacking her personal belongings and getting ready for bed near blindfolded. She was just in the process of keeping away her spare set of knives when a knock sounded on the door.
"It's not locked."
The door swung open, and Mai raised an eyebrow as she saw Katara enter the room.
"Well, this is a surprise." Mai blinked, cocked her head to one side. "Not a particularly pleasant one, I mean. I was just getting ready for bed."
"Sorry, but I – I have something to ask you."
Mai gave an elaborate shrug and settled back on her bed to store the knives away, which Katara apparently took as a sign to continue because she took a deep breath and clasped her arms behind her back.
"Would you mind telling me more about what Azula was like? Growing up, I mean?"
Mai's eyes flickered up from her work and came to rest on Katara's face.
Thanks very much for reading. As always, reviews and criticisms are very much appreciated.