First Things First
Azula considered the bound man before her. His eyes were narrowed and his expression twisted with hate. No surprises there. Long Feng was used to being in control, and all of that had been snatched away from him thanks to her brother and his companions. It amused her to see Long Feng de-clawed and de-fanged. His current helplessness was also exactly what she needed to put the rest of her plan into motion. She was good at using up every last drop of usefulness from a person.
"You saw what we're planning," she observed. "It's time you consider whether your refusal to cooperate is worth your life."
His lips curled into a sneer. "Your little rebellion will be crushed just like every other rebel group that has come before you."
Azula shrugged. "Probably."
His brow furrowed. It was a moment before he spoke. "You don't seem concerned."
She examined her nails, hiding the hint of satisfaction in her eyes. As expected, he had taken the bait. "Well, that's because I don't need them to win."
The words lingered between them, soft and tantalising for the treachery interlaced in every syllable. His eyes widened a fraction, and she noted the way he sat up straighter. There was no hatred in his expression now. He was curious. Searching.
"Who are you?" he asked. "You're not an ordinary refugee."
Azula's mouth curved into a sharp smile. "No."
Long Feng's frown deepened as he waited for her to elaborate. She did not. Instead, she let him squirm for a bit, let him wonder upon whose mercy he now relied. The unknown was far more intimidating, and she wanted to keep him guessing.
"I don't need you to succeed," she said smoothly—this was something she wanted to make very clear. "The power I wield is far greater than you or any of these peasants realise. However, lucky for you, there is something you have that I want."
He eyed her with intrigue. "And what is that?"
"Information." She leaned forward. "I can have these bonds removed; it makes no difference to me whether you're imprisoned here or not. You just have to tell me what I want to know."
Long Feng stared at her for a moment. She could tell that he was trying to calculate just what kind of benefits he could gain from allying himself with her and whether it would be worth the risk. This was a man who wasn't satisfied with simply existing. He wanted power, and he had to believe that he could regain control of his power if he was to accept her offer. So she decided to give him a little encouragement.
"Perhaps I can even find a use for you once I have control of Ba Sing Se," she said lightly. "I have better things to do than sit around here governing a city. If you cooperate, I can guarantee a leadership position for you." A pause. "Of course, I'll expect you to prove your worth to me."
He was quiet. Calculating. Azula went back to examining her nails.
"All I have to go on is your word," he said finally—even a bit grudgingly, as if he didn't want to admit she had caught his interest. "Why should I believe anything you say?"
She didn't even glance at him as she allowed blue flames to dance above her fingers. "My word should be enough, don't you think?"
Long Feng went very still. Foolish, power-grubbing peasant that he was, even he couldn't mistake the significance of a young female who could bend blue flames. He would have been informed that it was the princess of the Fire Nation who had led the attack on the Outer Wall, just as it was her blue fire that had been witnessed during the fight on the drill. Now, he knew she had the most powerful army in the world backing her; the question was whether he was self-serving enough to ally himself with an enemy.
"Well?" she prompted, snuffing out the flames and meeting his gaze. "Will you give me the information I want?"
His brow furrowed. "What do you want to know?"
Azula kept her expression composed, though she was purring like a smug wolf-tiger inside. "The woman, Shizue. You had her captured and brainwashed into working for you. I wish to know if there was another woman with her."
"Yes." Azula's tone turned a bit icy. "Think hard. I will not be impressed if you claim you can't remember."
He shook his head. "There was no other woman. Fifty Three was on her own when we caught her."
"Did she tell you anything? Anything about herself or a woman who was with her?"
Again, he shook his head. "She did not break under interrogation. Even maintaining mind control was difficult when it came to her."
Azula pursed her lips. She fished for more information, but all she managed to get was that Shizue had been caught sneaking around in the university archives, and that the Dai Li had decided to make use of her because of her chi blocking skills. If anyone else had been in Ba Sing Se with Shizue, Long Feng did not know anything about it.
Azula accepted that she would get nothing further from that line of questioning and asked him if there was any way to correct the damage on Shizue's mind. Long Feng admitted that he did not know. Memories sometimes resurfaced in the Joo Dees, but the Dai Li had always been quick to fix that. As for the women who kept on resisting the brainwashing, their minds ended up so broken and useless that there was nothing left but to dispose of the women entirely.
"I see," Azula said, sounding anything but pleased.
He eyed her shrewdly. "You are not the first to show interest in that woman. The young firebender who travelled with the Avatar also sought information about her." A glint entered his eyes. "That boy is your brother, is he not?"
She didn't bother to answer. They both knew he was right.
"Why that woman?" Long Feng asked. "What makes her so special?"
"I don't think you deserve to know. If you couldn't get it out of Shizue while you had her under your power, that's really your own problem."
His lips pursed. He didn't like having information withheld from him. Azula was unmoved. Instead, she smoothed a loose strand of hair from her face and got to her feet.
"Well, this is a pity," she said, picking up the wad of cloth that had been resting next to her. "I had thought you would prove more useful."
"I told you everything I know," he pointed out. "Our bargain was that you would let me go if I answered your questions."
"Was it?" She stuffed the cloth in his mouth, then clamped her hand down so he couldn't spit it out. "I'm sure I said you had to tell me what I want to know. I'm afraid your information is worthless. In fact, thanks to your meddling, I now have to find a new way to fix Shizue's memories."
Alarm flickered in his expression. He tried to say something, but the gag got in his way and muffled any sound he could make.
"It really is a pity," she continued, eerily calm. "I was planning to work with you and the Dai Li; it would have saved so much time, but you have disappointed me today. I have to confess, I'm even a little angry."
His eyes widened and his breath came short and fast.
Azula unsheathed the dagger she always kept with her. "You picked the wrong person to use as your tool." Her calm expression cracked like a spider web splintering into madness. "Shizue was my ticket to finding my mother. I won't forgive you or the Dai Li for getting in the way." She pressed the tip of the dagger to his throat. "My dear mother has a lot to answer for, you see, and I was so looking forward to seeing her again."
Long Feng said something too distorted and muffled to make out any words.
"I'm sorry," she said with a little laugh. "I'm afraid I don't understand. But don't worry. It'll all be over soon enough."
He tried to shout, but with one quick swipe the sound became a gurgling mess. Azula watched the life slowly vanish from his eyes. Once he was silent and had stopped flailing against his bonds, she removed her hand from his mouth and straightened to her full height. She cleaned her dagger on his robes and wiped the specks of blood from her cheek. Drops had splattered on her clothes. That was annoying.
The door to the room slid open and Jet poked his head inside. "Is everything alright? I heard…" He trailed off when he noticed Long Feng's body. Blood still spilled from the deep cut to the earthbender's neck.
Azula sheathed her dagger. "Shizue was right," she said without emotion. "This man is useless to us. We'll have to get rid of the body so it doesn't stink up the place."
Jet stopped her before she could walk past him. "Hey, wait."
Azula raised her eyebrow in question.
"Are you okay?"
Her brow furrowed. Out of all the questions, that was not the one she had been expecting. He noticed her confusion and rubbed the base of his neck.
"I just … was that the first time you killed someone?"
A soft laugh escaped her lips. "You don't need to worry. I'm not going to fall apart. Long Feng only got what was coming for him."
"I know, but—"
Azula pressed her finger to his lips. "It's fine. I'm fine. Just leave it at that."
He exhaled. She felt the warmth of his breath and lips brush against her finger. A tiny shiver passed through her. Something seemed to shift between them, subtle and indescribable. Jet captured her wrist in his hand and lowered her hand from his mouth. Their faces were very close.
Azula's heart thudded faster. Too fast. She cleared her throat and pulled away from him. "Anyway, we should just focus on getting rid of the body."
The words were said in a rush. She didn't even look at him as she slipped past him and exited the room. Her heart was still pounding in her chest. It was unnerving—more so than killing a man for the first time. She'd felt nothing but vicious satisfaction upon watching Long Feng's life slip away with the blood she had spilt. But Jet always snuck under her guard. He made her feel things she didn't understand.
She brushed her finger against her lips. Lips Jet would have touched with his own had she let him.
Azula let out a breath. She really needed to get a grip. Now was not the time to become distracted by silly teenage hormones. Jet was just a peasant. A tool she was using. So she forced all the flutters and blood-tingling aside. Time to begin phase two of her plan. She'd need to write a letter first to prepare, but the earthbenders from the Lower Ring she'd singled out as being easily manipulated would be her main players for now. Granted, more lives would be lost without the Dai Li's support, but that was okay. She did not need the Dai Li to conquer Ba Sing Se, and bringing them all down to their knees was going to be so very, very satisfying.
Her mouth twisted as she remembered there was no way to heal Shizue's mind. The frustration was like a poison spreading through her blood. That woman was out there somewhere. Azula could sense how close she was to finally getting the answers she wanted, but those little earth-burrowing insects had dared to get in the way.
Her eyes narrowed. She was going to crush them all.
The nothingness didn't want to end. Aang sighed and flopped onto his back, arms and legs spread like a starfish. "Wonder how everyone's doing," he murmured.
Time had slipped away from him. He no longer comprehended how many minutes, hours or even days had passed. Grey mist and silence followed him everywhere. It made him feel like a kite trying to fly on a windless day. He was grounded, trapped. He really hated it.
Aang touched his chest. The thread that connected him to Zuko was still humming with warmth. He would have given anything to be able to talk to the prince in that moment—just to have someone there to remind him that there was more to the world than this nothingness. Loneliness wasn't something he liked much. The thread flared warmer in response. His breath caught.
"Did you, did you just answer me?" he asked in a tone of wonder.
The connection hummed in a soothing way. Aang bit his lip and tried to focus more on the thread. He knew it connected him to the prince, so maybe if he just tugged on it a little with his own energy …
"Woah!" he exclaimed.
Zuko stood before him, blinking in confusion and staring around at the nothingness. "What the—"
Aang threw himself at the older boy. Zuko hadn't been prepared for the tackle hug, so they both fell against the ground in a tangle of limbs. Aang wrapped his arms tight around the boy's middle and just clung.
"It's you," he murmured over and over. "It's really, really you."
Zuko tried to pull back. "Aang, what—"
Aang clung even tighter. "I don't like it here," he admitted. "It's so lonely and empty."
Zuko paused and then he just exhaled in a resigned way. His hand patted Aang awkwardly on the back. That seemed to be a signal that it was okay to indulge in snuggles. Aang closed his eyes and nestled closer. Slowly, he felt the fear and doubt that had been gnawing at him begin to melt away. One thing had to be said about Zuko hugs: rare as they were, they always made him feel better.
"Don't suppose you know what's going on?" Zuko asked after a moment. "What even is this place?"
Aang tightened his grip. "I'm not really sure. You're the only one I can sense now, but I think they all used to be here—all the connections to my past lives, I mean."
Zuko grabbed his shoulders and held him back. "Wait, then it's true?" he demanded. "You really lost your connection to your past lives?"
Aang lowered his gaze. "Yeah."
The prince cursed and released his shoulders. "This is a problem."
Aang was well aware he was letting the world down. All this time he'd been trying to find any trace of his past lives: Roku, Kyoshi, anyone. No one had responded. The nothingness was just a reminder that they were all gone. Now, he was just an ordinary kid. He couldn't even wake up to be with his friends.
"You're not allowed to give up, alright?" Zuko said firmly. "We'll figure out something."
"How? Even if I do get out of here, my past lives are gone. I can't be the Avatar anymore. I can't go into the Avatar State, and—"
"There has to be a way!"
Aang bit his lip. "I really hope you're right, but what if—"
"Don't even think it!" Zuko held his gaze. "Listen, you're still alive, aren't you? That means there's a chance."
"Aang, you are the Avatar. Nothing is going to change that."
A lump formed in his throat. "Then why are they gone? Why won't they answer me?"
"I don't know." Zuko shook his head. "I really don't understand what's going on, but the power you hold as the Avatar, I can still feel all of that through our bond. You haven't been weakened. Maybe it's more like a wall is in place."
Hope fluttered in his chest. "So then I just have to find a way to tear down the wall?"
Zuko nodded. "Just like when opening the chakras. It might seem impossible now, but I know you can do this. You just have to keep trying."
Aang's mouth curved into a tremulous smile. "Okay."
Zuko gripped his shoulder in a reassuring gesture and then got back to his feet. He opened his mouth to say something else, but his form flickered and he even turned a little transparent. Aang was standing in an instant and reaching for the prince's hands.
"Wait!" he cried. "Don't leave me!"
"I …" The prince blinked and tilted his head, as if listening to something only he could hear. "I think someone is trying to wake me."
"I was dreaming." His form flickered again. "Sorry, I can't—"
Zuko vanished before he could finish his sentence. Aang stood there grasping at air before he slowly lowered his hands. His chest ached in a wave of loneliness and distress, but he pushed the feelings aside. He couldn't fall apart just because his friend had gone. Zuko had told him he had to keep trying. Aang had to be strong.
"I won't give up," Aang said with a strained smile. "Promise."
Zuko woke with a start and almost head butted Katara in the face. He made a choked sound and backed up quickly.
"Sorry," she said, and her cheeks went a bit pink. "I didn't mean to startle you."
He shook his head. "It's fine."
Admittedly, he was confused about why she had been so close, but asking her was too awkward. It would feel like he was accusing her of something. Zuko was sure there was a perfectly rational reason for why she'd been all up in his personal bubble and watching him sleep like a creeper. Not that he had found her creepy per se, but her proximity had still been unexpected. His heart struggled to slow to its natural rhythm.
"Did you need me for something?" he asked.
Katara tucked her legs under her so she was sitting next to him on the bed. She lowered her gaze and fiddled with a loose thread on her Earth Kingdom robe. He noticed that Toph was no longer curled up between them or even appeared to be in the room. Sunlight streamed in from the window. Wait, it was this late in the morning already? How long had he been out?
"Sorry," Katara said again, drawing his attention back to her. "I just panicked."
He furrowed his brow in question.
"You didn't wake up," she explained. "I just … I mean, normally you're up before everyone else, but then you just kept sleeping, and you didn't wake when I called to you, and"—she took in a breath—"I was worried. It was only a few days ago you were in a coma." Her cheeks dusted with colour and she averted her face. "Must seem so stupid to you."
Her gaze darted to his in surprise.
"I understand," he said softly. "We've been fighting for our lives almost nonstop. We've seen the people we care about get hurt."
And it was terrifying. The thought of something else going wrong—of losing any of them—was terrifying. He was sure he would have done the same in her position.
The tips of his fingers brushed hers. Touch had comforted her last night, and he wanted to comfort her now. It didn't feel right when she was upset. Katara was quick to accept the contact and let their palms meet as she held his hand.
"I don't think it's stupid," he assured her. "I really don't."
She let out a breath and raised their intertwined hands, pressing the back of his hand to her cheek. Her skin was warm and smooth. "Thanks," she said with the beginnings of a smile. "I think I needed to hear that."
It felt like there was something stuck in his throat. He coughed to clear it. "Oh, uh, anytime."
Her smile widened and she released his hand. "Well, I'm glad you're okay anyway. Guess you were just tired. Can't blame you after everything that happened yesterday."
"Actually, I think Aang might have had something to do with that."
"Aang?" Her eyes widened. "What do you mean?"
Zuko explained how he'd been having a pretty ordinary dream until he'd found himself in some weird place with Aang. He'd thought his dream had just changed at first, but the whole thing had felt too real. There was a chance his consciousness had actually been summoned to Aang through their bond.
"Is that possible?" Katara asked.
"I don't know. I don't think it would have been possible before, but I sort of, uh, pushed the bond too far when I was trying to keep him alive. This might just be some weird side-effect."
"Do you think it's safe?"
He shrugged. "Can't say. I didn't feel like I was in any danger—not like last time. But if you found it hard to wake me, then …"
He trailed off, not liking where that thought led. She frowned and recommended he speak to his uncle about it. Maybe Iroh would have a better understanding of what was going on. Zuko agreed that was a good idea. Still, now that he'd started thinking about his conversation with Aang, another, much more pressing, urge seized him.
"We need to get him back," he said more to himself.
"Aang. He's all alone, and he's miserable."
Not to mention that the kid could no longer connect with his past lives.
Katara's eyes filled with concern. She had always cared deeply for Aang, and Zuko knew it was difficult for her to be apart from the younger boy. It therefore came as no surprise when she said she wanted to help Aang, too. The problem was how. Her healing powers had been useless in waking Aang up from his coma, and Zuko wasn't sure if he would fare any better. Still, they had to try. Aang had looked so crushed; it was an image that wouldn't leave Zuko.
"At least we should have no problem getting back to the farm now," she mused.
He frowned at her in question.
"Iroh got the news this morning," she explained. "The royal guards investigated the Old City prisons and saw what the Dai Li have been doing." She shook her head bitterly. "The agents claimed they were just following Shirong and Long Feng's orders. I don't know if I can believe that, but the Earth King decided to pardon them and allow them to continue protecting the city."
"Just like that?" Zuko demanded.
She spread her hands in a helpless gesture. "What can we do? He's the Earth King; he gets the final say."
Zuko gritted his teeth. "I don't like it. How can we even trust them? After what they did to Toph—"
"I know. I don't like it either, and I hate to think how Toph feels. She still hasn't said a word. But the Dai Li must realise they'll only cause problems for themselves if they try anything again. I don't think we have to worry too much."
"What about the Joo Dees?" He balled his hands into fists, thinking about all those women who'd had their minds rewritten. "What happened to all of them?"
She shook her head. "It sounds like they're being contained inside the palace for now. The Dai Li don't have a way to reverse the brainwashing, so no one is really sure what to do with them. I offered to help with my bending, but I haven't had a chance to see them yet." Her shoulders slumped. "I'm not sure how much help I'll be anyway."
Zuko's frown deepened. He knew that he could at least remove the taint that caused the women to become sleeper agents and filled their minds with fake memories, but just trying to heal Biyu had taken so much out of him. It would be a long, painful process unless he figured out a more energy-conserving way to use the purifying technique. He wasn't even sure if he should try.
"What are you thinking?"
He blinked and looked up to see Katara watching him closely.
"I don't know what to do," he admitted. "I want to help the Joo Dees as well, but Aang needs us now, and we still need to find Shizue and the others." He lowered his head. "I just, if we try to heal them all, there's no saying how long it'll take and—"
"You don't want to stay here," she said, catching on.
Zuko nodded, albeit reluctantly. "I know it's selfish, but I think Ba Sing Se might be beyond any of us. This place is a mess and"—his voice took on a wistful tone—"and my mother might be out there somewhere. If I can restore Shizue's memories at least, maybe I can find her. Maybe I can get all the answers I've been looking for. They both knew about my healing abilities. Shizue has to be able to tell me something."
Katara placed her hand on his. "I don't think it's selfish. It's only natural you'd want to find your mother and learn more about your abilities."
He slipped free of her touch. "But that's the thing. If I do what I want and leave, then what will happen to all those women? I know you couldn't really sense it, but I could feel what had been done to Biyu when I linked with her energy. It was sickening. Her mind wasn't her own anymore." He swallowed. "And I, I think I might be the only one who can actually remove the taint from the Joo Dees' minds. Doesn't that make it my duty to try? I mean, if I don't do anything, then who's to say they won't be used again? Who's to say they can ever fully recover or—"
She took his face in her hands and met his gaze. "Listen, I'm going to tell you the same thing I told Aang when he started fretting like this."
"You're just one kid." She gave his head a little shake. "Cut yourself some slack. There's no way you can do everything, so just focus on what you can do for now."
Zuko's mouth twitched at the fact she had called him a kid—he was older than her—but he understood what she was trying to say. It was the kind of thing he would have said to her had their situations been reversed.
"Thanks, Katara." His expression softened into the smile of one sharing an inside joke. "I think I needed to hear that."
She grinned back at him, realising he'd repeated her own words to her. "Come on," she said, shifting her grip to his hands and tugging him with her off the bed. "First things first. You said we need to get Aang back, right?"
With that settled, the teens went in pursuit of the others. They found Iroh serving tea to Toph and Biyu in the garden while a few guards watched from their posts. Toph still looked very weak: dark circles shadowed her eyes and her hand trembled as she lifted her cup to her lips, but at least some of the colouring had returned to her face. Katara's efforts had not been in vain. Physically, Toph was going to keep improving at a rapid rate. It was the mental scarring that wouldn't be healed so easily. The younger girl had closed herself off in silence, though she seemed to have latched onto him. Katara confided to him in a whisper that Toph had wanted to stick with him that morning, but Iroh had tempted her away to the garden so she could get some sunshine and fresh air. Zuko was grateful for his uncle's assistance; he still had no idea how he was supposed to help the younger girl.
"Ah, Nephew, I see you're finally awake," Iroh greeted, catching sight of them.
Zuko ignored the pleasantry, along with the twisting knots in his stomach that reminded him Toph was in just as much need of his attention. As Katara had said: first things first. So he wasted no time in explaining the situation with Aang. First, he told them of how he'd been able to communicate with the younger boy through their bond. Toph perked up a little at the mention of Aang, but she didn't say anything. Iroh wanted to know all about what had happened. After a few more questions, the older man came to the conclusion that Zuko's defences must have been lowered when he was asleep and that was what had let the communication happen.
"There's no saying if it's safe to allow such a close connection or not," Iroh warned, "so you should be careful if it happens again."
Zuko nodded, but admitted he didn't regret having the experience. Aang's consciousness appeared to be trapped in some kind of limbo existence. They needed to get the boy back as soon as possible so they could try to wake him. Katara chipped in to say that she was in full agreement.
Iroh gave his nephew an unnervingly shrewd glance. "There's something else, isn't there?"
Zuko lowered his gaze. Trust his uncle to notice he was withholding information.
"Yes," he admitted. "Aang, he … he's lost his connection to his past lives."
Dead silence. Biyu's brow was furrowed in confusion and Toph's only reaction was a small intake of breath, but Katara and Iroh looked as if they'd been slapped.
"Isn't that what lets him go into the Avatar State?" Katara asked.
Zuko nodded. "It's the source of his power as the Avatar. Without his past lives, he's just an ordinary kid."
Iroh closed his eyes in a pained manner. "This is unfortunate indeed."
Zuko was quick to explain that he still thought there was a chance to fix the problem. That was why he wanted to get Aang back now. He could sense the boy's power was the same as always, which made him think it was more of a block than that the connection to his past lives was properly severed. Iroh hoped that Zuko's hunch was correct. It was Aang's destiny to restore balance to the world, and the airbender wouldn't be able to do that without his full Avatar powers.
Katara grabbed Zuko's arm. "We should go now. There's no time to lose!"
Zuko nodded and turned to leave with her, but a chuckle made both teens pause.
"I understand your urgency," Iroh said with a twinkle in his eyes, "but aren't you forgetting something?"
Zuko and Katara gave him identical frowns. "What?" they said in unison.
"You're going to need the Earth King's permission if you want to leave the palace, let alone get outside the Inner Wall. We're still under investigation ourselves, remember?"
Zuko groaned and smacked his palm to his forehead. "Right."
Biyu stood up from the table. "Allow me to help with that. This is my area of expertise, after all."
True to her word, the group were able to get an audience with the Earth King in no time. King Kuei admitted that he didn't mind letting them move freely around the city again. He believed that they were no threat to Ba Sing Se, and he was grateful to them for helping him see what Long Feng and Shirong had been doing with the Dai Li. Still, he had one condition.
"Er, what's that?" Zuko asked.
"I want to join you." Kuei's eyes brightened with excitement. "I've never left the palace before, and—"
"Your Majesty, you can't be serious!" Gan, the same guard from last night, exclaimed in horror. "Think of your position!"
Kuei frowned over the rims of his glasses. "It's because I allowed myself to be shut up in the palace that Long Feng was able to deceive me for so long. If I am to become a better king, I need to first understand my people. What better way than to see them with my own eyes?"
Gan opened and closed his mouth like a fish. He had no response to that.
Kuei turned back to the teens. "Well? What do you say?"
Zuko bowed respectfully. "If that is what Your Majesty wishes."
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Katara whispered from out the corner of her mouth, leaning closer so only he could hear. "I mean, this is the king."
"What choice do we have?"
She frowned but had to admit defeat.
"Then it's settled!" King Kuei said, clapping his hands and stepping down from his throne. "Come along, Bosco."
The bear made a rumbly sound and uncurled itself from the ground.
Zuko raised his eyebrow. "You don't plan to bring the bear, do you?"
"What's wrong with bringing Bosco?"
Zuko facepalmed. He got the feeling that he and Katara had just been handed what was going to be a very frustrating babysitting job. His suspicion was proven correct when they finally left the palace—with Gan and another guard in tow—and made their way into the city. Thankfully, Kuei had been forced to realise, after much debating, that it was not practical to let Bosco come with them. They were also able to ride in an ostrich-horse drawn carriage to get through the different Rings. So far so good. What Zuko hadn't been prepared for was King Kuei's fascination with mundane things. In vain, the guards told the king that it was too dangerous for him to wander around the streets; in vain, Zuko reminded him that they were in a hurry and needed to get to the Avatar as soon as possible.
"What is that strange food those people are eating?" King Kuei asked with all the deaf blissfulness of one enraptured by his first adventure; it was obvious he hadn't heard any of them. "Can we try some?"
Zuko groaned and muttered that he gave up. Katara patted his knee in a sympathetic manner, though her smile said she was amused by how frustrated he was getting. Eventually, they made it to the Lower Ring and began heading for the Inner Wall, which led to the surrounding farmlands. Zuko propped his chin on his palm and glanced out the window. It was then that he caught sight of the girl with black hair walking through the market. Their eyes met.
The cry left his mouth and he was vaulting out the window before the carriage halted or he even realised what he was doing. His heart pounded as he ran, shoving people out of the way in his haste. The girl had been swallowed up into the crowd a blink after he had seen her, but the image of her was like a searing mark in his mind. It was what kept him running. That black hair, the features as fine and angular as his own, though hers were unmarred by a scar.
"Zuko, wait!" Katara grabbed his arm and tugged him to a halt. "What's got into you?"
"It was her," Zuko babbled. "It was her, and she was right there, and—"
Katara grabbed his face, forcing him to meet her gaze. "Calm down," she ordered.
He gulped in a breath. Dimly, he was aware of Gan, King Kuei and the other guard coming to join them.
"Is everything okay?" Kuei asked a bit nervously.
Zuko closed his eyes. Now that he was able to reflect a bit more, he realised the improbability of what he'd seen. Azula would not be wandering around dressed as a peasant in the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se. She and her army had been stopped at the Outer Wall. Maybe he had just imagined things. Maybe it was just a girl who looked like his sister.
Katara released his face. "Hey," she prompted. "What's going on?"
He shook his head. "I … nothing. It's nothing. I just thought I saw someone I know."
She frowned at him in question, but he murmured he would tell her about it later. Katara nodded and they all headed back to the carriage. Zuko's stomach wriggled uncomfortably, even as he kept reminding himself that he had to have got it wrong. Azula couldn't be in Ba Sing Se. They would have learnt about it long before had this been the case. His sister didn't like to keep her claws retracted for too long, and she had been seething with rage the last time he had seen her.
"There's no way," he muttered under his breath.
But the uneasiness wouldn't leave him, and the amber-eyed girl he had glimpsed in the market continued to trouble his mind long after.
"I saw my brother."
Ty Lee straightened from the stretch she had been doing. She'd just finished a routine with the street performance troupe. Azula, as usual, had come to meet her so they could head back to the apartment together. It was the only time they got some privacy.
"Really?" Ty Lee asked. "Where?"
"In the market. He tried to pursue me." Azula laughed. "You should have seen his face; he looked so horrified."
Something cold and unpleasant stabbed through Ty Lee, but there was a note of sadness as well. Azula was so determined to strangle all the good feelings out of herself. "What will you do?"
"Nothing. Zuzu is too late. Everything is already in place."
"We're not going to wait any longer," Azula confirmed. "You know what they say: better to strike while the iron is hot."
Ty Lee bit her lip and lowered her gaze. "Don't you think this is moving a bit too quickly? What if—"
"Relax. I have calculated and planned for everything."
Ty Lee couldn't bring herself to say that it wasn't the idea of failing that worried her. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Azula was a brilliant tactician; there was little doubt in Ty Lee's mind that everything would work out as planned. The princess wouldn't let failure be an option this time—not after what happened with the drill. Ty Lee just worried that the cost of success would be too high. She worried that Azula had got too emotionally involved with Jet, that anger and feelings of betrayal would make the princess do something she would later come to regret. It was difficult to look at Mai's scarred face every day. It scared Ty Lee to think what the princess might do next.
But then that was why Ty Lee stayed. She loved her friends. This was the only way she could protect them.
"Guess we won't have to live in that cramped apartment for much longer then, huh?" Ty Lee said with all her usual cheerfulness. She giggled. "You must be relieved you won't have to keep pretending with Jet. Looks like he's pretty hot for you. It must be awkward."
Something flickered in Azula's eyes—too fast to be readable. "That peasant will probably try to get in the way. We'll have to keep an eye on him and his Freedom Fighters once we make our move."
Ty Lee hesitated only a moment. "What about Mai, Sokka and Shizue?"
"They will definitely interfere if they can." Azula's lips curved a fraction. "Don't worry, I've already planned for that."
That wasn't reassuring, but Ty Lee didn't argue. Instead, she smiled and praised Azula for always thinking of everything. To protect her friends, she would keep playing this game. She would perform her role as expertly as she performed acrobatics, always hoping that the time to act would never come. Always hoping that the friend she loved and who had helped her to have an identity all of her own would not keep on this path of pain and self-destruction.
I see you, Ty Lee wanted to say. I know you're more than this.
Azula wasn't lost yet. Ty Lee had to believe in that hope.
"I can't believe the Earth King is here," Changpu said with wide eyes. Then he pressed his palm to his forehead. "On my family's pig-chicken farm."
Katara smiled. "He seems to like it."
She wasn't wrong. Kuei was fascinated by the pig-chickens—he'd never actually seen one alive—and was wandering around with his two guards and marvelling at all the "quaint" things. It was so obvious that he had been shut up inside the palace his entire life that even Zuko found himself feeling sorry for the guy again. Fortunately, Changpu's family took it in their stride and seemed quite happy to accommodate the king and his questions. It wasn't often the farm was visited by Earth Kingdom royalty. Dongmei and Shuchun, in particular, seemed intrigued by the king and his fancy robes just as much as he was intrigued by their simpler way of life.
Zuko and Katara—along with Momo, who had taken up residence on the prince's shoulder—left them to it and went inside the barn to retrieve Aang. Appa rumbled happily upon seeing them. Soon, both teens were covered in bison slobber. Zuko scrunched his nose.
"Thanks, Appa," he said dryly. "It's nice to know you missed us so much."
Katara let out a tiny snort of laughter and told him his hair was sticking up everywhere. Zuko proceeded to flatten it, but Appa just gave him another lick. The prince sighed and gave up. Instead, he moved to where Aang was lying down on a make-shift bed. Something twisted in his stomach. The Avatar wasn't supposed to be helpless like this; he really was the world's hope. But, more than that, Zuko just didn't like the idea of the kid being unconscious and trapped in that lonely, silent place. They needed to do something.
"I can try again," Katara murmured, coming to stand behind him.
He nodded and made room for her. Katara knelt and gloved her hands in water. The soft glow of her healing illuminated Aang's face, making him appear somehow younger. She kept at it for a while, but it was no good. Her shoulders slumped in resignation. Zuko frowned but wasn't much surprised; they had both been prepared for this outcome.
"Let's just get him back to the others for now," he said, helping her to her feet.
He was still a bit on edge after seeing the girl who looked like Azula in the Lower Ring. It was a reminder that his sister wasn't the type to give up. If she had made them her target, she would find a way to get to them. Zuko didn't like the thought of their group being separated; they were too vulnerable that way. Katara was of the same mind. She wanted to find her brother, Mai and Shizue as soon as possible.
"We can start searching once we get Aang back to the palace," Zuko suggested.
Katara had no fault with this plan. Instead, she asked him if he could watch the door for a second to make sure no one entered. She'd stashed her Water Tribe clothes and belongings in the barn and wanted to get changed back into them. Green just didn't feel the same.
He turned to face the door without a word. Silence settled around them. Soon, all he could hear was the rustling of fabric.
"Hey," Katara said after a moment.
"Um, about you and Mai."
His brow furrowed. "Mai?"
"Yeah. Mai." Katara sucked in a breath. "Look, I know this is a random thing to be asking you, especially with everything going on. But I just, um … I just wondered if you guys were, you know, a thing."
His frown deepened. "A thing?"
"Yeah. Like boyfriend and girlfriend."
Warmth spread all over his face. "What? Why would you ask—"
"You just seemed kind of close. It made me curious."
Zuko went quiet. "We've known each other since we were children."
A sigh escaped his lips. "And that's it. Mai was always there with my sister and Ty Lee, but we were never anything more to each other." He rubbed the base of his neck. "To be honest, I've never really cared about being with a girl in that way."
Something dropped to the floor with a soft thwack. Suddenly, hands were grabbing his arms and he was forced to turn around. His cheeks heated and he didn't know where to direct his gaze. Katara didn't seem to care that she was only wearing what looked like her undergarments—not to mention showing far too much skin. Her eyes were wide and her hands moved up to grip his shoulders.
"Zuko," she said in a low voice. "You don't … prefer boys, do you?"
If his face had felt warm before, it was burning now. His jaw dropped. There was a pathetic sort of irony in how the girl who had forced him to experience more than one moral dilemma because of his hormones was now asking him if he was attracted to males. Maybe that was why he could only groan and cover his face with his hand.
"I'm not," he mumbled.
"I'm not gay."
He peeped at her through his fingers and got another eyeful of a tanned midriff and feminine curves. His blood stirred as it only could. Yeah, he was not gay. If anything, he'd just never let himself notice a girl for long—not in the proper sense. Girls were distractions he had not needed. Even Fei, the cute healer's daughter he'd almost kissed, had only got his attention through a lot of persistence on her part and a rare moment of weakness on his. Sadly, Katara was making it much more difficult for him now. Those white wrappings were evil things of temptation.
"Can we not talk about this anymore?" he begged, even as he slipped out of her grasp and turned the other way. "You should hurry and get dressed. We need to get back to the others."
"Oh, right. Sorry."
He heard her footsteps retreat and the rustling of fabric start up again. Only then did he allow the tension to ease from his body. That had been awkward. Fortunately, Katara didn't take long to put on her clothes. It was strangely comforting to see her back in her blue tunic and leggings; she looked more like herself. Plus, he could finally look at her again without feeling like his collar was too tight and his cheeks too warm.
She finished by tying her necklace around her throat and then confirmed that she was ready. Zuko picked up Aang and together they walked with Appa and Momo out of the barn. Now that they no longer had to hide from the Dai Li, there was no need to keep Appa shut away. King Kuei got very excited when he saw the bison and wanted to know if the creature could indeed fly. A million more questions followed, including a request to ride on the bison. Zuko's temple twitched.
"Be nice," Katara murmured, nudging him in the ribs with her elbow.
"I didn't say anything," he pointed out.
Her lips curved. "Your expression said enough."
Zuko just sighed. He could sympathise with King Kuei to a point; it wasn't like he hadn't received shocks of his own when he'd first been banished from the Fire Nation or when he had later been forced to journey the Earth Kingdom as a peasant. But Kuei's obliviousness and total lack of focus was getting on his nerves. Heck, even Katara's questions about his sexuality and whether he was dating Mai had bothered him a little. Just yesterday, Ba Sing Se had been in the hands of the Dai Li and Kuei himself nothing more than a puppet. They'd almost lost Toph and Biyu, Aang was in a coma, they had no idea where Sokka, Mai and Shizue were, and all the while Zuko knew that his sister was out there somewhere plotting her next move. This wasn't the time to be talking about love or having joy rides on a flying bison.
"Hey," Katara said, softening her tone. "What's wrong?"
"We need to leave," was all Zuko said.
And since he was a prince and had spent three years being the captain of an unruly crew, it also wasn't very hard for him to get everyone back on task. It helped that the guards were just as eager to get the king back to the palace. They decided they would ride on Appa—it would be faster, and it was the only thing that would appease Kuei—though it wasn't going to be easy since there was no saddle. Changpu's father gave the teens some rope so they could at least fashion some new reins. Zuko offered to steer so he could hold Aang and keep the kid from falling off; the rest would just have to ride bare back and not let go.
Changpu came to stand next to Zuko while the others helped King Kuei on top of Appa. "What will you do?" Changpu asked. "After this, I mean."
"Find the others," Zuko responded. "Sokka, Mai and Shizue have to be in Ba Sing Se somewhere."
The soldier lowered his gaze. "I guess this might be the last time we'll see each other then."
Zuko made a noncommittal sound. It was probably true. Ba Sing Se was not his home, and he had no desire to linger. It was only the plight of the Joo Dees that made him hesitate.
"Well, try not to do anything reckless," Changpu advised. "You get yourself into danger way too much."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "You're starting to sound like my uncle."
"I'm just worried. Sharing this energy bond with you is pretty unnerving sometimes, especially when you decide to go and almost get yourself killed."
"I know." Zuko met his gaze. "I'll be careful."
Changpu smiled and gripped his shoulder. "Then good luck, Lee. I hope you can find your friends."
Zuko nodded and finished saying his goodbyes to the rest of Changpu's family with Katara. Dongmei reminded him that he was her "future husband" and she would expect him to come propose to her once she was older. Zuko wasn't sure how to respond to that, so it was a relief when Katara claimed her attention. Dealing with a kid's crush was awkward.
Soon, he was seated on Appa with Aang tucked against him, one arm looped around the boy to hold him secure while his free hand clutched the reins. The rest lay flat against Appa's back and held on tight. Zuko urged Appa into flight, and then they were soaring through the sky and leaving the farm far behind.
"Guess it'll take a while to clean up all that damage," Katara observed.
Zuko followed the direction of her gaze and saw the scarred remnants of the battle for the Outer Wall: bits of the drill were still scattered everywhere, damaged tanks had been abandoned, and in the very far distance he could see what looked like Fire Nation ships. The army had not left. He frowned and clutched Aang more securely to his chest.
"I can't believe there really is a war going on," Kuei said in wonder.
"You'd better believe it," Zuko said bluntly. "That war is right on your doorstep, and it isn't going to go away."
Azula would strike again. It wasn't even an "if"; it was just a matter of when. His stomach twisted a little, as if to ask him if he would really just run from the city and leave the inhabitants to their fates if given the chance. Changpu and his family, Biyu and the Joo Dees, even the idiot king and his bear—they would all suffer if Azula got her way.
Zuko gritted his teeth. First things first. It was becoming a bit of a mantra in his mind, but it was helping him to stay calm. Worrying about his sister and her plans could wait. For now, he just had to get Aang back to the palace.
Azula folded up the letter she had received and tucked it inside her robe. She needed to find a place where she could burn it in private. A hand suddenly shot out and grabbed her arm, pressing her back up against the wall. The knife was already in her hand and going for the throat—only to pause when she found herself meeting intense brown eyes.
"Jet," she said in a voice of forced calm. "What do you think you're doing?"
Her heart was thudding uncomfortably against her ribs. He had managed to catch her off guard, that sneaky little peasant.
"What's that letter?" he demanded.
"You've been following me?"
His grip tightened on her arms. "You've been acting strange all day. I was worried." His tone took on a hint of suspicion. "Now I find you're off sending and receiving letters on your own. What's going on, Ruolan? Don't you trust me? Aren't we a team?"
Her stomach fluttered despite the stern lecture she gave herself that he was just a stupid peasant who was now being quite inconvenient. They had never been a team; he was her tool. But her heart continued to pound and pound, and she hadn't even realised she had lowered the knife. He was so close. She could almost feel his breath on her lips.
"We all have our pasts, Jet," she reminded him softly. "This letter is a part of mine. I need you to respect that."
"Maybe I don't want to anymore. Maybe I'm tired of being kept in the dark."
"Then this isn't going to work."
Her tone was clipped and precise, but her stomach twisted in a way she couldn't even comprehend. If he kept pushing her, she would have to act. She could not let him see the letter.
"Do you really not trust me?" he asked, releasing one of her arms so he could brush his hand against her cheek. "Not even just a little?"
She raised her chin. "Isn't it you who doesn't trust me?"
His brow creased. "You have to admit you haven't given me much reason to of late. I'm not an idiot, Ruolan. I know you're hiding something from me."
"Yet you still want me."
The words slipped free before she could stop them. Jet's breath caught. She saw the way his throat bobbed, felt the faint tremor that passed through his body. Only a fool would have thought the reaction arose from fear. His gaze flickered from her eyes to her mouth.
"Yes," he murmured, leaning even closer. "Yes, I do."
Her eyelashes fluttered shut. Their lips met at last—a caress of the forbidden that sent shivers down her spine and made her body come alive. She pressed into him and curled her arm around his neck. One taste wasn't enough. They kissed again and again, letting their lips slant and part, tongues caressing and hearts pounding. It was a loss of control that had never felt so terrifying, so exhilarating. She didn't know how to stop.
His hands gripped her thighs and lifted her up, helping her to wrap her legs around his waist. Azula was conscious of the heat building between them, hotter than the blue flames she wielded. It made her want to roll her hips against his and indulge in the friction, to revel in the sensations that pulsed and flared all through her, ignited by his lips and touch. She was burning. The fire was going to consume her, and for once she didn't care. It felt good. Better than good, if she were to be honest.
"Maybe we should take this somewhere more private," he suggested with a little laugh.
He sounded reckless. Just as reckless as she was feeling.
Azula kissed him hard, tugging on his lower lip with her teeth before she pulled back to meet his gaze. "Do you have a place in mind?"
"I'm sure I can find something."
Her heart thudded with anticipation. She unhooked her legs from his waist and slid back to her feet. He grabbed her hand and led her with him through the streets, sneaking kisses whenever they could. They ended up getting a room at a seedy looking inn—not that either of them paid much attention to the décor. What mattered was the chance to be alone: the chance to touch and explore without fear of being disturbed. Privacy was so hard to come by these days.
Later, she lay beside him on the bed. Her clothes were strewn all over the floor with his, and there was a foreign ache between her legs, though it wasn't exactly unpleasant. Just different. Azula traced her finger along his chest, skimming over the spot where she could feel his heartbeat.
"You're going to regret this, you know," she said softly.
"What makes you say that?"
He sounded sleepy. Satiated.
She pulled her hand away and rolled onto her back. "You just will. I suppose if I was a nice person, I would have never let you get this close."
"Then lucky for me you're not a nice person." He looped his arm around her waist and tugged her against him so that they were spooning. "I much prefer you like this."
Her lips curved into a reluctant smile. "I'm a monster, Jet. Can't you see that? You asked me earlier if I was okay when I killed Long Feng. The truth is I was happy. I enjoyed it."
"You wanna know something?" He kissed her neck, her shoulder. "I enjoy it too. That's why it's okay. You don't have to hide from me. We're the same, Ruolan."
Azula didn't know why a lump formed in her throat. All she knew was that the hissing voices in her head had finally shut up. In that moment, there was only a liberating, blissful silence. Not that it lasted. How could it? Years of hearing those hisses told her she could not believe in his words. That was why, once he fell asleep, she searched his clothes until she found the letter tucked inside his tunic.
"Idiot," she murmured, though not without affection.
She could appreciate what he had tried to do. Too bad for him she was always one step ahead.
Azula dressed and left the hotel without writing him a note. She did not risk using her firebending to burn the letter—not after Jet had revealed he was sneakier than anticipated—so she waited until she found some peasants sitting around a communal cooking pot. They blinked at her in surprise as she let the letter catch alight in the flames heating the pot. In seconds, the paper had turned to ash, taking the Fire Nation general's words with it.
Not bothering to acknowledge the peasants, she continued walking and eventually arrived back at the apartment building. Jet would no doubt be upset when he awoke to find her not in the hotel room with him, but this was a much kinder form of punishment than the one logic dictated he deserved. If he was smart, he would stay out of her way from now on. If he was smart, he would not bring up the matter of the letter again. He would accept his defeat.
Azula's lips curved into wry smile. "You really will regret this."
What she didn't want to acknowledge was the much quieter thought: maybe she would too.