I'm alive! I could sit here and list all the reasons for why I have been unable to update for so long, but suffice it to say that I'm back. Huzzah!
June tossed her head back as she drowned the last of her drink. She sighed in satisfaction and slammed the empty mug down on the table. "So you lost Prince Pouty," she observed, then gave a careless shrug. "I don't see what that has got to do with me."
Iroh pushed aside his untouched drink. "I have a proposition for you. Well, it's more of a request, actually."
Her eyebrow lifted a fraction. "I'm listening."
"I'd like you to help me find my nephew."
June leaned back in her chair, smiling a little as if she considered him an amusing child that needed to be humoured. "Show me the colour of your money and maybe I'll consider it."
Iroh shook his head. "I don't have that kind of money."
"As I thought," she responded, though without malice. She stood up from the table. "Sorry, old man. No money, no deal. I don't do charity cases."
June paused. "What is it now?"
"I don't have money to pay you," Iroh admitted, "but there is payment that you owe me."
"Really?" Her voice dripped with scepticism. "Do enlighten me."
A sly gleam entered Iroh's eyes, though his expression was innocent. "The abbey."
June's mouth tightened as if she had just swallowed something sour. They both remembered what had happened at the abbey. She had been hired to help Zuko capture the Avatar by tracking the scent of that young waterbender. They had cornered the children at the abbey, but everything had gone wrong when the shirshu, Nyla, went wild, blinded from too many scents. Nyla had attacked Zuko and June, but Iroh had managed to escape unscathed. As it turned out, this was the only thing that had saved them from being shipped off to an Earth Kingdom prison. Iroh's quick-thinking had allowed him to escape the Earth Kingdom soldiers who had appeared, along with his paralysed charges. He had even been nice enough to put June up for the night at an inn and help her find her shirshu (with a grumbling Zuko in tow, of course). On top of that, once they had got back to the ship, he had made Zuko pay her the full sum that they owed for her tracking services, despite the fact that Zuko had been unable to obtain the Avatar.
She owed him, alright, and they both knew it.
June let out a resigned sigh. "Fine. I'll help, but just this once."
Iroh smiled. "Thank you. Your assistance is much appreciated."
"Yeah, yeah." She waved her hand impatiently, brushing off his genial words. "Let's just get this over with. I have bounties to catch and money to earn."
"Of course," he said.
He stood up and followed her outside the tavern. Most of the crowd that he had seen milling about the street earlier had gone. The little town was shutting down for the day, gathering in pockets inside the shabby homes that dotted the pot-hole ridden lanes or places like the tavern. Iroh glanced towards the hill where he knew the stone that marked Kan's grave would be standing, just like the one he had made for his own son. He hoped his incense and prayers would be enough to guide Kan's spirit to the Otherworld. It was always harder when someone died on foreign soil …
"What are you just standing there for?" June snapped, bringing him back to the present. "Hurry it up, would you?"
Iroh said a final goodbye to Kan and then caught up to June. She still looked like she had swallowed something sour (apparently, helping people for free went against every bone in her body), but there was a business-like air in the way she untethered the large, mole-like creature that was her partner. She stroked Nyla's nose, murmuring something soothing, and then turned to face Iroh.
"Well?" she said brusquely. "Where is the item with Prince Pouty's scent?"
Iroh reached inside his tunic and brought out a small case made of metal. He released the latch, brushing aside the folded portrait of Lu Ten that was nestled within, and pulled out a single lock of black hair. "Will this work?" he asked, holding up the silky strands.
June wordlessly took the lock of hair from him and then held it up to Nyla's nose. The shirshu sniffed at the strands, then started sniffing even more frantically at the air, moving in different directions as it tried to pick out traces of Zuko's scent and the path for them to follow. It seemed to take much longer than when the shirshu had been tracking the waterbender girl. Iroh started to feel worried. What if his plan didn't work?
Suddenly, Nyla made a keening sound and strained towards the plains in the distance, as if she were barely resisting the urge to bolt and leave her master behind.
"She's got the scent," June observed, handing him back the lock of hair. "It's faint, but she's definitely found him. Come on!"
Iroh didn't need telling twice and clambered up behind June on the shirshu. They were off with a flick of a whip, darting past open-mouthed townsfolk and pounding along the road in a blur of dust. A heavy weight seemed to lift from Iroh's shoulders. It seemed the spirit of luck was on his side. Impulse had made him cut that small lock of hair the night the ship had exploded and Iroh had found his nephew struggling for life. Now, he could only be grateful that he had listened to that need to carry a reminder of Zuko close to his heart.
Hold on, Nephew, he prayed. Just hold on. I'm on my way.
Night had fallen. Zuko knelt beside a shrub, holding a clump of white fur in his hand while the other cradled a ball of fire for light. The soft glow of the flames distorted the paint on his mask, giving him a ghoulish appearance. His ostrich horse made a nervous sound. He cast an impatient glance at the creature.
"What's the matter with you?" he asked.
The ostrich horse made another muffled squawk and scratched at the earth with its talons, clearly uneasy. Zuko frowned and stood up, extinguishing his flames so that only the moon lit the forest path. His senses, normally so alert, suddenly prickled to life. Something was out there.
Quietly, he moved to the ostrich horse and stroked its muzzle in a soothing caress, calming the beast so that it would not make a sound. Once he was satisfied, he unsheathed his blades and started heading deeper into the forest, letting his instincts guide him rather than his eyes. As the Blue Spirit, he had learnt to see with his ears, his nose—even the quickening beat of his heart. He surrendered himself to his senses and slowly, bit by bit, a map of the forest began to form in his mind. A snap of a branch, a rustle of leaves. He spun around on panther-fox's feet and moved stealthily towards the noise.
"I can't believe I'm spending my night looking for bits of white fur," a gruff voice grumbled. "It's nearly midnight, for spirit's sake. We should be sleeping right now."
"Nothing is more important than capturing the Avatar," a second male responded. "Now shut up and keeping searching."
"What, you're really taking this mission to heart?"
"It's not about what I think; it's about what the princess thinks, and she'll have both our heads if we don't do our job properly. Now keep searching."
Zuko tightened his grip on the clump of fur balled in his fist. His sister must be closer than he'd thought if her soldiers were stationed in the area. A part of him was frustrated. He had not wanted to follow the Avatar; in fact, as soon as he had recognised the fur, he had decided to head in the opposite direction (because he could still see that stupid kid's smile when he closed his eyes, and he could still hear the pain in the airbender's voice, begging Zuko not to hate him). Confusion and more confusion—that was all the Avatar had ever brought him, and right now Zuko wanted none of that. He didn't want to see that bald kid's face ever again.
But Azula was hunting Aang, and Zuko could not—would not—forgive Azula for trying to kill him. He needed to know. He needed to know why she had deemed him as worthless; why she thought she could just dispose of him at will, as if he were not her brother but a pawn that had lost its use. Mostly, he just wanted to make her suffer. Echoes of feelings and images still swirled inside him like a storm, tangling and crashing and chipping away at his heart. The cold truth was that regaining his identity hadn't made him feel whole; he just felt poisoned, like little bits of him had been eaten away and all he was left with was this consuming rage.
This need to wound as he had been wounded.
Zuko gritted his teeth and headed back towards his ostrich horse. It would be stupid to attack her now. He was just one bender and she had a whole troop of soldiers at her command. Zuko knew that he would be overwhelmed in seconds. No, he needed to be smart about this and come up with a plan. Azula was cunning and precise, always one step ahead of her prey. One sniff of his presence and he would lose his chance to bring her down.
But then right now he wasn't her target.
Zuko paused and stared at the clump of fur in his hand. It would be risky. So many things could go wrong if he made even one miscalculation, but what choice did he have? Zuko was a luckless, banished prince who had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Besides, if there was one thing he was good at, it was tracking without being seen until he wanted to make his presence known. He just had to wait until Azula isolated herself from the others, and he knew she would. There was no way she would let anyone but herself bring down the Avatar. She would want that glory for herself—her one and only weakness. Zuko's eyes narrowed behind the slits of his mask. That would be his chance to strike.
He got on the ostrich horse and slinked off into the night, blending into the darkness as if he were made of nothing but shadow. Not far from him, a huge tank rumbled to life and charged towards the mountains with demon-like speed. The clumps of white fur had been found and the hunt started anew, but this time there was another figure following.
This time, the hunter would become the prey.
"That thing is back!"
Toph's cry had them all sitting up with a snap, glancing blearily around the clearing. Katara clutched at her water flask, her mouth dry and her heart pounding. She had still been brooding over Aang's confession when Sokka had come to find her, telling her that they needed to go because something big was heading their way. It was the last thing she had wanted to do at the time, for she had no desire to be near Aang, but she had seen the urgency in her brother's eyes and had put aside her bitterness for the sake of self-preservation. Hours had passed since that conversation and the weird tank thing was still chasing them. It was unnerving, to say the least.
"How far away is it?" Sokka asked, then pulled the sleeping back up over his head. "Maybe we can still get some sleep."
"I don't think so, Sokka," Aang stated, pointing to the forest below.
Katara followed the direction of his finger and saw smoke rising from the trees, too controlled and moving far too fast to belong to anything but a Fire Nation machine. It was the tank, alright.
"What is that thing?" she mused aloud.
"And how does it keep finding us?" Toph chimed in, tapping her foot with a frown.
Aang shook his head. "I don't know, but this time I'm going to make sure we lose them." He leapt on top of Appa's head, gathering the reins in his hand. "Everyone, get on!"
They didn't need to be told twice, and soon they were flying over a range of forest-coated mountains and plains. Katara watched the curl of smoke fade from view and let out a breath of relief. There was no way the tank should be able to find them now; however, once they had all settled into sleep again (now on top of a cliff), Momo started chirping in an erratic way, refusing to be quiet.
"Aw, you've got to be kidding me," Sokka groaned, hiding his face under his blanket.
"That's impossible!" Aang cried, moving over to where Momo was still chittering nervously. "There's no way they could have tracked us here."
"I can feel it with my own two feet," Toph responded, and stamped one bare foot for emphasis.
Katara watched the tank gaining on them with alarming speed. "Let's get out of here," she urged, not taking her eyes off the rumbling machine.
She didn't like this one bit. Not the tank, not the way it was following them so determinedly, and especially not how it managed to keep up with a flying bison. Unfortunately, her companions had other ideas. They wanted to see who was causing them so much trouble. So they waited and watched as the tank got ever closer—watched as three figures riding lizard-like creatures emerged from its metal depths. The three girls from Omashu.
The battle was over before it had even begun. Despite that only one of the three "dangerous ladies" could bend, all of the girls were fresh and ready to fight. Katara and the others had no choice but to flee, though Toph tried to put up a fight—until she almost got struck with lightning and a dozen knives. Katara knew that their only hope was to keep flying, but even Appa had his limits. The bison dozed off mid-air and those aboard just barely managed to keep from being thrown off or crushed as a crash-landing commenced.
Katara gritted her teeth as she picked herself up from the ground, bruised and exhausted. She'd had enough. "This is all your fault!" she snapped, glaring at Aang.
"My fault?" he said in surprise.
"You were the one who insisted on going into Omashu to find King Bumi, even though we told you it was dangerous." Her eyes hardened. "Those girls wouldn't be chasing us right now if you had just listened!"
"Woah, woah!" Sokka put a hand on her shoulder. "Calm down, sis. You know that's not fair on Aang. He didn't know this would happen. Besides, we were able to help the residents escape from the control of the Fire Nation. That has to be a good thing, right?"
She bit her lip and looked the other way, frustrated and feeling the mad urge to scream. Maybe Sokka was right. Maybe she was being too hard on Aang, but it just made her so angry. He had lied to her. He had lied to her about so much, and then there were all the times he had got them into dangerous situations with his reckless, carefree behaviour. It was true that in her heart she knew that Aang had never meant for anyone to get hurt, but then that was the problem. He didn't think. He didn't listen. He just acted and they were the ones who always got burnt for it. Sometimes literally.
Aang's small voice pierced her heart. She closed her eyes, refusing to look at the wounded expression she knew she would see on his face, just like a kicked polar bear-dog puppy.
"I'm sorry," he continued, still in that subdued voice. "I—I didn't know those girls would chase us this far. I—"
"It shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise," Katara interjected waspishly, "considering their ringleader is Zuko's sister. That whole family seems determined to capture you."
Aang flinched at the sound of the scarred teen's name. Good. So he should feel bad. Yet even as the thought popped into her mind, another prodded at her conscience, twisting her insides with guilt for making him look so downcast. It wasn't fair that she was taking her frustration out on Aang—an unbiased part of her knew that—but the words kept spilling from her mouth and that horrible waspish tone would not leave her voice.
"Why don't you go befriend the princess as well?" Katara suggested, and gave a cold laugh. "That's what you do, right? Befriend the people who want to hurt you and lie to those who actually care about you."
Aang opened and closed his mouth a few times, but no words came out. Instead, he just stared hard at the ground, his hands trembling.
"Oh, put a rock in it, Sugar Queen," Toph said bluntly. "He doesn't need a lecture from you, and from what I've seen you're not so perfect yourself."
Katara turned on Toph, her eyes flashing. "What would you know? You've barely been with us for two days, and if anyone here has no right to judge, it's you. This whole night you haven't lifted a finger to help us set up camp or help with any of the chores! You're just a selfish little brat!"
Toph's milky green eyes narrowed. "Hey, I carry my own weight!" she retorted, thumping a hand against her chest. "And if we're to talk of brats, I'm looking at one right now."
Katara took a step forward. "Why you—"
"Bring it on!" Toph responded, matching step for step so that the two girls were inches apart, eyes locked in an intense glare.
Sokka's hands suddenly came up between them, breaking the stand-off. "Ladies, ladies, let's just calm down, okay?"
"I'm perfectly calm!" Katara screeched.
But then that wasn't true. She was on edge and her insides were bubbling with frustration. She didn't know what was wrong with her. Why was she being so horrible? Why couldn't she just stop the awful words from spilling out of her mouth? Aang still looked like he had been kicked in the chest, and now Toph and Sokka were turning against her. Suddenly, all the aggressiveness seemed to vanish from her body, leaving her drained and riddled with guilt.
"Just leave me alone!" she yelled, and then ran off in the opposite direction.
She could hear her brother calling, but she just quickened her pace. She couldn't face them right now. Not like this. Not when she felt so guilty and bitter and confused. So instead she kept running until the sun had established itself in the sky and she could hear the birds calling to each other from the leafy boughs above. It wasn't until much later that she realised she was lost and had no idea how to get back to the camp.
Katara cursed under her breath and sat down on the ground, hugging her knees to her chest. She felt miserable and alone, and she knew she only had herself to blame. After all, no one had told her to run away or say those horrible things to her friends. Her bottom lip trembled and a few tears splashed down her cheeks, but she didn't bother to wipe them away.
"I'm such an idiot," she muttered.
Because the problem was not that Aang had lied or that Toph wasn't helping out with the chores. It was her. She didn't know how to forgive. She wished that she knew how to forget. If she could just be the better person, she wouldn't have to feel so wretched. She wouldn't have to feel so betrayed by a truth that was never hers to dictate, as if Aang's confession was a poisoned dart designed specifically to hurt her. The Blue Spirit was actually Zuko. The masked boy she had thought her friend was a firebender.
Just like that man.
Her fingers closed around the blue pendant that hung from her throat. She could feel the grooves of the carved Water Tribe patterns pressing into her palm, whispering of a woman with dark hair and blue eyes; of snow and ash, and blood splattered on a hut floor. A faint tremor travelled down Katara's spine, and more tears slipped free from the veil of her lashes. Somehow, it always came back to her mother.
"Mum, I'm scared."
"Go find your dad, sweetie. I'll handle this."
Katara squeezed her eyes shut and tried to block everything out—the memories, the confusion, the bitterness. She didn't know how long she sat like that, huddled on the ground like a little child, but then a shadow passed over her, shifting the light that danced in blurry shades of orange behind her closed eyelids. Her lashes fluttered open and she found herself confronting Appa's big furry face.
"Mrghhh," the bison rumbled in greeting, and gave her a wet, slobbery lick to her cheek.
"Found her!" Sokka exclaimed from his perch on Appa's head.
She blinked, absently rubbing her cheek and wondering who her brother was talking to (since there was no sight of Aang or even Momo). This puzzle was answered as Toph suddenly appeared from within the trees, blowing her fringe out of her face and carrying Momo on her shoulder.
"Told you she'd be here," Toph said smugly, then pointed a finger in Katara's general direction. "Do me a favour, Sweetness: next time you decide to go running off, do it when we're not being hunted by a bunch of freaks on lizards."
Katara ignored the insult underlying this speech and instead asked the question that had been bothering her. "How did you find me?"
Toph stamped one foot by way of explanation and then smiled. Ah. Earthbending sensing, or whatever it was that Toph did with her grubby feet.
"Hey, can we talk about this later?" Sokka interjected. "We need to get out of here. Now."
"What's going on?" Katara asked, standing up.
So Sokka told her about how they discovered, thanks to Toph, that the reason the girls had been able to chase them for so long was because Appa's fur was shedding and leaving a trail. They had washed Appa to get rid of the most of the moulting white clumps, which Aang had then collected and was going to use to lead their pursuers off in a different path. Meanwhile, Sokka, Toph, and Katara would make their escape and wait for Aang to join them later.
"But there's no way he can take on all three of those girls in his current state!" Katara exclaimed, conscious of the way her stomach plummeted at just the thought.
Sokka sighed. "It is a risk, but this is the best plan we've got. Appa has had it. He needs to rest, and the only way he's going to get that is if we shake those crazy girls off our trail."
Katara chewed on her bottom lip. She supposed Sokka was right (in fact, judging by the snuffling sounds coming from the bison, Appa had just fallen asleep), but still. What was Aang thinking going off alone? He might be the Avatar (not to mention currently in her black books), but he was still just a kid who needed sleep to function like anyone else. He was still her friend.
"We have to help him!" Katara insisted, looking pleadingly up at her brother.
"I think we might need to focus on helping ourselves first," Toph said, tensing and pointing towards the trees. "Something is coming—and coming fast."
Katara and Sokka exchanged a wary glance, but there was no time to speculate. A rustling came from within the bushes, getting louder and louder. Katara uncorked her water-flask and took up a fighting stance, breathing slowly to focus her bending. Beside her, Sokka jumped off Appa and pulled out his boomerang and club. Toph just grinned, blank eyes gazing unseeingly at the trees. All of them were ready. All of them waited. A soft inhale, a fluttered heartbeat, and then two dark shapes emerged from the wall of trees, getting larger and more defined as the creatures—no, the girls—got closer. Momo took off with a screech, flying to safety up in the branches above.
"Miss me?" the girl in pink said, leaping off the lizard-like creature she had been riding.
"Unlikely!" Sokka retorted, and rushed ahead to meet her in combat.
Katara had no time to be worried for her brother, as just then a flurry of knives came speeding towards her. She gasped and swung her hand out to form a wall of ice, but a giant upheaval of rock got there first, stopping the sharp projectiles in their tracks.
"Thanks," she muttered, casting a brief look of gratitude at Toph.
"Don't mention it."
It was a small offering—an unspoken apology from both—but their bonding moment was cut short as Knife Girl released the mechanisms hidden beneath her sleeves, firing darts at them like tiny storms of metal. Toph stamped her foot into the ground, creating another wall to block the attack, while Katara moved her arms in sharp, fluid motions, responding with her own projectiles of ice. Time for some payback.
Knife Girl's eyes narrowed a fraction and she threw herself forward, sliding on her side beneath the flurry, then sprung up to her feet with two shurikens in hand. Katara and Toph both dodged the star-pointed weapons, and Katara just barely missed having her cheek grazed with the kiss of metal. Damn, this girl was good. The Fire Nation warrior was like a splash of red silk that could move with unnerving speed, all hidden sharpness and razor blade. It was impossible to get in a hit—especially when combined with the pink-clad acrobat who kept somersaulting close, threatening to incapacitate anyone who got near with her lightning-fast punches. Dimly, Katara heard Sokka gasp in pain, but she didn't have time to check if he was okay. It was all she could do to keep Knife Girl from sticking her with one of those pointy weapons.
"That's it!" Toph exclaimed, digging her feet into the ground. "I'm bringing you down!"
Or, at least, she would have had the circus girl not chose that moment to somersault behind Toph and punch her along both arms and down her spine with calculated precision.
"No!" Katara yelled.
The earthbender went limp, milky eyes widening in horror, then collapsed to the ground not far from Sokka's prostrate form. Katara growled in frustration and got her water whips ready, determined to throw everything she had at her enemies, but it was too late. A series of stiletto knives suddenly pierced through her clothes, pinning her against one of the thick, tree trunks.
"Well, that was disappointing," Knife Girl observed dryly, lowering her arm. "Oh well, victory is boring."
"What should we do with them, Mai?" the girl in pink asked, coming to stand beside her friend. "It doesn't look like the Avatar is here."
Mai stared at the captives through her cat-like eyes, meeting Katara's glare for a moment. There was no interest in those golden-brown irises—only the bored resignation of a girl who has done her part and doesn't care what happens next. "Azula won't want us to let them go," she said flatly.
"Are you sure about that?" Sokka questioned in a muffled voice (his face was mushed into the ground from where he had fallen paralysed). "I mean, if Crazy Blue Flames is only after Aang, then what good are we?"
Mai ignored his comment and turned the other way, facing her back to them. "You brought the rope, right?"
Ty Lee tapped a finger to her chin. "Um, yip."
"Then tie them up," Mai responded in that same, expressionless voice. "We'll take them back to camp for questioning."
"Right!" Ty Lee said, clapping her hands together as if this was all a fun game.
She wandered over to the lizard creature and started rummaging in the saddle pack, no doubt looking for rope. Katara just glared at the girl in red, who was now collecting her weapons from the ground and slotting them back into the contraptions fastened to her forearms. Not to mention ignoring her "captives" completely. Anger bubbled within Katara. Just who did this girl think she was? Didn't she care about anything at all?
"Hey!" Katara called, narrowing her eyes at the non-bender. "You know, we were the ones who took care of your little brother back in Omashu. Aang even made sure he got back to your parents safely after you and your friends tried to kill us."
Mai stiffened and her hands balled into fists, then quickly flexed. The action was so imperceptible that Katara might have missed it had she not been watching the other girl so closely, but there had definitely been a reaction. It seemed that Katara had touched a nerve.
"What's your point?" Mai said blandly, turning to face the waterbender.
Katara lifted her chin. "You should be thanking us, not trying to capture us."
"That's right!" Sokka chimed in, still with his face pressed against the dirt. "We helped your family out! It's only fair you let us go in return."
Mai tucked a shuriken inside her robe. "Fair?" she repeated, almost pityingly. "I hate to break it to you, but the world isn't fair. It's just a farce that follows the whims of the powerful, regardless of what's right or wrong, let alone your own feelings." Her eyes hardened. "There's no such thing as fairness. Better just accept it now."
Ty Lee paused in her rummaging and stared at her friend in wonder, even a little sadness. "Mai—"
Mai's lips tightened into a thin line, and she turned the other way. "Just tie them up, Ty Lee. Oh, and make sure they don't go anywhere," she added with all the bored apathy only she could pull off. "I don't feel like being in Azula's bad books again."
"Where are you going?" Ty Lee asked, tilting her head to the side like a confused bird.
"Back to camp." Mai climbed gracefully on top of her lizard-like mount. "I'll organise the tank to come pick you up, along with our—" she cast a distasteful look at the incapacitated group "—new additions."
Ty Lee pouted. "Leave me with guard duty." Her expression suddenly brightened, and she leaned forward, pointing her finger at her friend. "Fine, but make sure you save me some custard buns, okay?"
"I won't make any promises," Mai responded in a flat voice, though the corners of her mouth had twitched into the faintest smile.
"Mai!" Ty Lee whined, pouting even more.
The taller girl heaved a sigh. "I'm kidding. I'll save you a custard bun, now stop whingeing and go tie them up before the paralysis wears off."
Ty Lee jumped, as if she had just remembered the presence of her immobile audience. "Oh, right."
Katara just frowned as she watched the girl named Mai race off into the trees. That was one weird friendship. Soon, it was just the four of them left (Appa didn't count, since he was still snoring by the tree; she had no idea where Momo had gone). Ty Lee beamed as she approached the trio, clutching a long coil of rope in her hand.
"I'm really sorry to do this," she began, and she actually sounded sincere, "but orders are—"
Ty Lee flinched, spinning around to face the source of the roar. Appa let out another bellowing rumble and thumped his tail on the ground, sending a giant gust of wind at the girl. She gasped in a choked sort of way and was carried up into the air, flailing helplessly as she was knocked back into the trees like a ragdoll tossed by a tantrum-throwing child. There wasn't even a twitch from her crumpled form. The brunette had passed out cold.
Katara blinked in surprise, then started struggling in earnest, trying to break free of the tiny dart-like weapons that held her trapped against the trunk. "Sokka, I'm stuck!"
"Keep trying," Sokka urged. "Creepy Pinky got me with her weird punching mojo. I can't move a muscle."
"Your mouth still appears to be working."
Katara just rolled her eyes and continued trying to free herself from being trapped as a human dart board. It occurred to her that Toph had been awfully quiet since she'd been struck. "Hey, Toph," she called, grunting with effort and wincing as a part of her robe ripped, "you alright?"
At first there was silence and then—
"I can't see."
The voice was so small it barely seemed to belong to the brazen earthbender.
Sokka let out a snort. "Um, Toph, you're blind. You always see nothing."
Katara groaned. Why did her brother have to be so dense sometimes?
"She sees with her bending, you tactless idiot!" Katara snapped. "Ty Lee has the power to take away someone's bending, so when Toph got hit—"
"Everything vanished," Toph finished.
There was a long pause.
"Sorry," Sokka said a bit sheepishly. "I forgot."
Toph exhaled in a loud breath. "Whatever. Someone just hurry up and fix this."
"Hold on," Katara said, struggling even more until she felt another piece of her robe tear. "My bending is still intact, so I should be—Momo!"
The lemur made a chittering sound and scrabbled down from the branches to remove the darts that kept Katara bound to the tree. She thanked him with a rub to his head, promising him a moonpeach, and then hurried to heal Toph and Sokka with her bending. Soon, all three of them were back on Appa and following the trail of white clumps. It wasn't long before a collection of rundown buildings and dusty roads came into view.
"There," Katara murmured, pointing at the abandoned settlement. "That's where the trail stops."
"Then let's go!" Toph said, punching her fist into her palm. "Aang needs our help."
Katara nodded. "Right."
It was time to let go of her bitterness. Aang needed her, and she would never abandon a person in need. She just hoped they would get there in time.
A dry breeze swirled through the street, ruffling clothes and kicking up dust with careless fingers. Zuko's heart pounded and he urged the ostrich horse to run faster. He was running out of time. At the end of the alleyway, he could see Azula facing the Avatar in the middle of the road as if in a stand-off, her posture relaxed and with a wicked smile curling her lips. The younger boy, on the other hand, had dark circles shadowing his eyes and seemed to be half-leaning on his staff. It was obvious that he was exhausted.
"Do you really want to fight me?" Azula asked, examining one pointed nail.
Zuko burst onto the street and jumped off his ostrich horse, fluidly landing in a half-crouch. "Yes," he gritted out, throwing off his mask and shifting into a bending stance. "I really do."
All the colour drained from Azula's face. It only lasted for a second, but it was enough. Her calm had been shaken. "You're meant to be dead," she said coldly.
This had been the wrong thing to say. Zuko's eyes narrowed and fire blossomed from his clenched fists. "Sorry to disappoint you," he spat, and then he unleashed a torrent of flames at his sister.
Azula dodged the attack with the whip-like speed that had always categorised her fighting, then countered with one of her own blue fireballs. A gust of wind rushed between them, blowing the sapphire flames out of Zuko's path and into the building opposite. Suddenly, the Avatar was moving to flank Azula, but Zuko threw his hand out in a burst of fire, which flared up in front of Aang like a wall of orange.
"Stay out of this!" Zuko growled, not even sparing a glance for the younger boy.
"But I can help," Aang argued, taking a step forward. "If we fight together, we can—"
"I said stay back!" Zuko turned his head to glare at the airbender. "This is my fight."
A cold laugh escaped Azula's lips. "Oh, Zuzu, you really are dense. Surely you must see that you can't win." She shook her head in mock despair. "You'd think you would have learned your lesson from the last time."
"I won't be making the same mistake again," he said grimly. "This time, I will make you pay!"
Her mouth curved into a cruel smile. "We shall see."
Suddenly, she was running, launching a volley of flames at him with a calculated kick and two quick punches that shadowed her movements in arcs of blue. He blocked the first attack and dodged the others, using his momentum to counter with a blast of flames. She just laughed and side-stepped his attack as if it was nothing, then elbowed him in the chin. He reeled back, quickly bringing up a shield of fire to deflect her next blow. She was so fast. He tried to match her step for step, but she was always that fraction quicker, always that fraction more accurate. It was as if she knew exactly what he was going to do before he even did it, and the sharp little smile playing on her lips did nothing to assuage his anger.
Zuko growled in frustration and charged her with flames trailing from his fists. Red mist burned behind his eyes as they clashed in a collision of sapphire and orange, so hot he could feel the heat licking at his skin. Duck, parry, attack. His mind chanted the movements, urging him to move, to dodge, to do anything in his power to survive and bring his sister down. He couldn't lose to her! Not again!
"What's the matter, Zuzu?" she taunted, flashing her teeth in a vicious smile. "Getting tired already?"
His forearm collided with hers in a double-block, flames sparking between them in a hiss of heat. He grunted and pushed hard with his elbow, trying to use his greater strength to his advantage. She stumbled back and he quickly followed with an uppercut, but this time she was ready for him. One step to the left, a quick adjustment, and then her foot looped around his and tugged him off balance. He tried to use the momentum of falling to shift into a counter stance, but she rammed the heel of her palm hard into his face. Something cracked and blood spurted from his nose. His head collided with the ground from the impact, and he sucked in a sharp breath, blinking away the black spots that danced in front of his eyes.
Azula leaned over him, a ball of blue fire glowing in her palm. "You lose," she said calmly.
His eyes widened as he realised what was coming, even as another part of him screamed at his body to move. He didn't even think; he just acted, touching the ground with his fingers and sweeping his legs out in a circular motion that morphed into flames. She hadn't expected that; her eyes widened and she fell back onto one knee, gasping. A few strands of hair had fallen out of place. For the first time, she didn't look so perfect.
"I won't lose to you," Zuko panted, getting back to his feet and wiping the blood from his face. "I don't care how good you think you are; I don't care if the whole world thinks I have no chance. This time I won't lose!"
Azula laughed and stood up, smoothing her hair back into place. "Oh, stop being so dramatic. You're not going to beat me. You're simply not good enough." She smiled her sharp little smile. "But don't worry, I'll put you out of your misery soon enough."
Zuko made an inhuman sound of fury and lashed out at her with everything he had. She matched him blow for blow, smiling as if this was all an amusing game. It was infuriating. She was infuriating. He knew his attacks were getting sloppier, more reckless, leaving him open to attack, but he couldn't help it. This monster was his sister; this girl who didn't seem to care at all that she had almost killed him with lightning or that he had been suffering for so long. He wanted to hurt her. He wanted to make her bleed and bruise and feel some—any—kind of pain.
But in the end it was Zuko who ended up on the ground, bruised and trembling with emotions that refused to be contained. "Why?" he rasped, staring up at Azula's blurred figure; she kept flickering in and out of focus. "Why did you do it? You're my sister."
His voice broke on the last word, as if it was physically painful to speak. Azula just appraised him through her cold, calculating eyes. They both knew he was referring to the fact that she had struck him with lightning—tried to kill him in what had looked to be cold blood. She pressed her boot against his chest, pushing him down against the dusty earth.
"You signed your own death sentence when you went against me," she said coolly. "You should have known your place. A pathetic firebender like you has no chance against me. You're just a weak little boy who is not fit to be the heir. Even Father agrees with me. That's why he sent me to bring you back to the Fire Nation, because you'd failed one too many times and he was tired of you embarrassing him."
Zuko blinked as black dots swarmed before his eyes. She was lying. She was always lying, but then hadn't he seen the memories? Fire and tears and a cold arena floor pressing against his knees; screams and blood and the smell of burning flesh. It was all there in his mind, but he was just so confused and he didn't know what was right anymore. He just didn't know.
Azula dug her heel into his chest, grinding into the bone. "Face it, Zuzu. Mother might have loved you the most, but she's not around anymore. No one is here to protect you. It's just you and me, and—"
"And me," Aang finished, and sent her flying down the street with a blast of wind.
Zuko blinked and stared dazedly at the airbender, watching the arrow on the kid's forehead shift and move in a blue swirl. He opened his mouth to tell the boy off for interfering—because, damn it, he didn't need the brat's help—but no words came out. Instead, Zuko's vision swarmed even more with black dots until all he could see was an endless expanse of inky darkness. Thoughts trickled through his mind like cupped sand: anger at his sister, anger at the Avatar, confusion and despair and loneliness and longing and—
His eyes fluttered open, presenting him with a view of a sky bathed in the colours of fire. He could smell smoke and, as his senses adjusted to being awake again, could hear the distinct grunts and clashes of a bending fight.
Zuko was on his feet in an instant, following the noises as he sprinted down the maze-like streets and alleys. The sound of pounding feet and bending was getting louder. Zuko quickened his pace and rounded a corner to see Azula dash past him. He shot a fireball at her, which she dodged, and then found himself running side-by-side with a familiar girl clad in blue. Their eyes met for a fraction, and he could see in her wide gaze a myriad of emotions that were too convoluted to make any sense to him. He focussed on the street ahead; there was no time to get distracted, only to run.
The hunt was on, and the predator in him could sense that they were closing in on their prey. More were joining him, closing in around Azula from all sides. There was the Avatar and the Water Tribe boy, Sokka. Katara was on Zuko's left, and a little girl in green whom he didn't recognise had taken up the far left flank. A larger figure moved to take up the position on his right …
Zuko's breath came short and fast. He would recognise that beard anywhere. His uncle was here. His uncle was here, and—
"Well, look at this," Azula said calmly, turning to face them all, "enemies and traitors working together." She raised her hands, holding them palm-up. "I'm done. You got me. A princess knows when to surrender with honour."
No one moved. Zuko didn't think he could; his mind was a jumble, staggered by the fact that his uncle was right there. He chanced a glance at the old man from the corner of his eye, but Iroh wasn't looking at him. Those reddish-brown eyes were fixed on Aang, as if Iroh had just realised who else was forming the circle, and then shifted to Zuko in wide-eyed wonder. That was when Azula's mouth curved into a sharp little smile.
Her hands moved faster than seemed possible, releasing a streak of lightning that lashed out like a whip. Zuko's heart stuttered in his chest, but the energy was crackling past his face, heading more to the right, and—
The cry was wrenched from him, raw and primal. He retaliated with a surge of fire, even as he saw his uncle's body fall from out the corner of his eye. Wind, water, earth and even a boomerang clashed with his flames in a collision of elements, all heading straight for Azula. She moved her arms in a swift motion and he caught a glimpse of blue—a fire shield—and then everything seemed to explode in a cloud of smoke and dust. It was impossible to see, but he already knew she would be gone by the time the debris and smoke cleared. She was much too clever not to make use of the commotion. Not that it mattered now.
Zuko swallowed against the hard lump forming in his throat and let his fire die out. He slumped to his knees beside his uncle and clutched at the old man's tunic, conscious of the stuttering heartbeat that he could feel beneath his palm. It felt so weak.
"Uncle," he said in a choked voice, curling his fingers into the rough fabric. "Please, no. This can't be happening. Not now. I've only just found you again."
Iroh groaned but his eyes remained shut. Zuko didn't know what to do. It hadn't looked as if Azula had struck Iroh with a full-powered lightning bolt (not like the one she had fired at him on the ship, in any case), but then Iroh was an old man and did not have Zuko's weird ability to heal faster than normal.
Wait, he could heal! Hadn't Zuko done the same for the Avatar when the boy had been on the brink of death?
Zuko didn't pause to think; he just placed his hands over the smoking, charred spot where Azula had struck Iroh and willed the wound to fix itself. This time the sharp tug on his gut was almost instant, as if the tiny sun he could feel burning inside him had already been reaching out to Iroh, urged by Zuko's own desperation.
Heal! he inwardly screamed. Heal, heal, heal!
The connection sharpened. Dimly, he was aware of Aang standing near him and Katara trying to tell him something, but they were just pebbles of insignificance to him in that moment. All that mattered was that he needed to help his uncle, because though he was confused and uncertain of who to trust now, if anyone at all, he knew that he couldn't do this alone. He needed Iroh.
Zuko closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He felt smouldering embers mixed in with charred flesh and ripples of pain; he could feel his uncle—every wounded inch of the man, right down to the heartbeat that fluttered in his grasp like a sparrowkeet with broken wings. More energy was needed to fill this damage, and Zuko let it all flow in a rush of pale gold, surging through his palms to the anchor that joined him and his uncle as one. Desperate to mend what needed to be mended.
He sucked in a sharp breath, wincing as the tugging on his own inner flame became too insistent, too demanding. It hurt.
Zuko blinked at the sound of Aang's voice, almost sluggishly, as if he were waking from a long sleep. His body felt heavy and weak, and it was then he realised that he was shaking. He also felt cold. Really, really cold.
"Are you trying to get yourself killed?" the airbender demanded, releasing Zuko's wrists.
Zuko just blinked in a daze, too weak and disorientated to really make sense of what was happening. His vision blurred in a swarm of dizzying splotches and lights and he swayed, eyes rolling back into his head. By the time his body hit the ground, he had passed out cold.