Normal disclaimer about not owning any part of Avatar

The sky was just beginning to grey with the first of the morning light. Zuko stirred, knowing only himself and Sokka, who had night watch, would be awake. The rest would remain asleep for at least three hours more hours. In the past Azula would have woken up long before him, been out practicing or scheming, but she had begun to complain about waking up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep again. For everyone's sake Katara had prepared a sedative for such occasions. Bitter tasting they purchased chocolate to mix with the medication. Sometimes Azula would ask Sokka to take a cup with her "she just wants to feel normal" Sokka had explained. It made everyone happier to know she was out. Everyone but him; not only was he concerned with her insomnia – that he knew was real enough – but he sensed she had something planned. But what? Sokka knew not to take a drink from her hand, not to turn his back on his own drink. "I'm not stupid" he had said testily when they had cautioned him. "I know not to trust your sister." Still, Zuko sensed something wasn't right.

"Sokka, I'll take over now…" he called, without opening his eyes. Nothing was working out right. All clues to where his mother could be led to dead ends, every lead turned to ash, and Azula...his sister was by turns, sullen, cold, weepy, sarcastic, viciously polite – when she wasn't hallucinating. He had hoped for… "What was I hoping for mother?" he asked himself. A family. A brother-sister relationship, like Katara and Sokka had.Something he only vaguely remembered being there when they were quite young - an image of him with a big book on his lap, reading to her. But that couldn't have been. She had begun to read before he did. "Did she give you much trouble last night?"

But snores were the only answer. Zuko chuckled. Sokka could fall asleep in a snap. "Night watch over, sir!" he'd declare and then he'd lie down and was out. "Night watch over sir…." There had been no such call. Zuko shot up, a chill rushing through him. "Sokka?" He turned to where Sokka should be… he was there alright, leaning back on the wall of the cave, a cup still clasped his hand, asleep; and Azula was gone.

"SOKKA!" he yelled loudly, waking the others, but not Sokka, he slept on. Azula must have switched cups on him. He jumped up and rushed over to the sleeping man, shook him hard, but no luck, he was dead to the world.

"Zuko?" Katara looked up at him in concern.

"Azula's gone." He explained glumly, indicating the cup in Sokka's hand. "She switched cups on Sokka, and took off."

Katara came to his side, concern for her brother written over her face, took up the cup and dipped her finger in for a taste. "Not switched." She said coldly, her concern deepening. Her hands moved gently across his body. "He is okay, just asleep." She sighed in relief. "I'm…I'm sorry Zuko…" she added.

"It isn't your fault." Zuko dragged his fingers through his hair, brushing it back from his forehead. Her stuff was gone. Every last bit of it; "her cup's gone." he noted to himself, the drink dumped onto the ground where she had been sleeping. Whatever he wanted was gone as well. He pressed his hands hard against his eyes. He'd have to find her, bring her in, put her…somewhere; hospital, prison, under lock and key somewhere. Unless she had made that choice. "Please don't have made that choice Azula". No coming back from that choice. Zuko looked over at Aang, caught his eye, Aang nodded slightly in return. He was the only one among his friends who knew what the real deal had been between him and his sister.

Aang crossed over to him, resting his hand gently on his shoulder. "She couldn't have gone far…" he assured him quietly. She'll be on foot."

Zuko shook his head. "Would it matter?" She wouldn't need much time or space. Just enough distance that they couldn't stop her. He looked up at Aang. "I messed up. I shouldn't have made the deal."

"This wasn't part of the deal Zuko."

"Does that matter?" He had thought he had out-manipulated the manipulator by making a promise he would keep in act but not fact.

"I should have left her in the hospital. She wasn't ready. I should have known she had something planned. She didn't trust me and she had never cared about Mother leaving, why would she care about getting her back? She must have been planning this all along." She had probably figured out that Aang was in on the secret and would stop her.

Unless maybe she was just hiding somewhere, gone underground, live her life as a fugitive, but he doubted that. Not his sister. "It's probably already too late."

"We'll find her."Aang said again, as he headed to the mouth of the cave. "We'll do a circular search…we've got…" He stopped, and his shoulders slumped. "I don't understand! He would have cried out!"

Katara joined Aang at the mouth of the cave. Appa was gone. "I don't understand…" he repeated dejectedly. He wouldn't have let her take him without crying out." Katara dropped a comforting arm about Aang. "We'll get him back." She assured him, "And Azula will pay." She added darkly, her hands curling into fists.

Zuko stared at the ground. "She's already paid," he thought to himself.

"I'm sorry Aang…I don't think she'd hurt him…" Zuko called to them. "She'll probably just release him somewhere…" Or leave him as a sign… His stomach turned at the thought.

"APPA!" Aang shouted.

"I'm sorry." Zuko stood up to go to his friend. "I'll see that…."

But Aang wasn't listening to him, he shouted again and started running down the slope to the meadow below. "Appa!"

Appa had broken free, or Azula had simply released him when he was of no more use. "Thank you for that, at least that." But then he saw her, guiding Appa in. She started Appa's descent on the far end of the meadow, then headed up onto his back. Within seconds of landing she dropped three men to the ground, sliding them down Appa's side.

Three very bedraggled looking men - very scared, bedraggled looking men, bound hand and foot. Azula tossed down her bag, nearly hitting one of the men, then jumped down after it. Landing she turned quickly to the men and sat them up so they were leaning back against Appa. She smirked as they approached.

Aang reached Appa first, paying not the slightest heed to Azula. "Appa's fine" he announced, rubbing Aappa's nose and making little cooing noises at him in a reassuring way.

"Azula!" both he and Katara shouted at the same time. He raced ahead to reach her before Katara did. She did come back, whatever else Azula did come back. "Why?" was the question he asked himself. He glanced back at Katara; her face was one of fury. Before either girl could attack he interjected his body between them. "Katara, I'll handle my sister, you go back to your brother."

"But Zuko…"

"NOW!" he softened his tone, "Please." Katara looked at him a moment, then at Aang who nodded in agreement. "Make sure Sokka is alright. I'll be here in case Zuko needs me."

Azula sneered at Katara "A milder sedative than you were drugging me with." she told her. Katara didn't bother to respond, just turned and stormed off.

"As for you Azula," he turned back to his sister "tell me why I shouldn't ship you off to prison this minute?" He stared down curiously at the men in front of him. They were from the village they had gone through yesterday, those he had questioned about his mother's whereabouts. "You know the rules…" his voice trailed off. He had spoken to these men personally, and they had assured him they knew nothing, had wished him success. "You are to behave…" He cocked his head at his sister. She smiled and shrugged, then kicked the man nearest her, a middle age man with a forked beard, with the side of her foot.

"Tell Fire Lord DumDum here what you told me and about our mother" and she warned, holding out her hand and bring up a flame of blue "your memory better be good…"

They had held out on him.

"I…we…" began the man "that is my friends and I…" Azula grabbed the man by his hair.

"Address my brother correctly!" She commanded.

"Fire Lord Dum…." The words were hardly out of his mouth before Azula jerked his head up hard and brought her hand down close to his face. "Fire Lord DumDum to me, you speak to him with respect!" Zuko jerked his eyes at Azula then back to the man. "Speak to me with respect?" That was coming from his sister?

The man Azula went white and his eyes rolled up in his head. "Argh" she groaned, dropping the man. He fell forward and came to rest with his forehead on the ground. Zuko stole another glance at his sister; he was beginning to learn how to read her expressions – not if they were face to face. Then there'd be a mask. But a covert glance and he would get a hint. She had meant what she said.

"You…" she turned to the man farthest from her. Zuko stared down at the man; his tunic was torn and there was a burn mark on the man's shoulder, the character for a maggot. "Good girl" He didn't mind that rumor getting out; there should be consequences to lying to the Fire Lord. "hope you marked the rest." But how'd she get that burn so perfect?

"Tell my brother what you know about our mother…" she commanded him, leaning over the man in the middle, her blue flame close to his face. "And you'd better not faint on me!"

"Ah…Zuko…" Aang interjected.

"Zuko shifted his body, this time to place himself between Azula and Aang.

"Azula perhaps you had better let me." She turned to him, and for a brief moment he feared he would feel her anger. Instead she merely nodded, stood upright, and leaned back against Appa.

"Well?" He said to the man. The man looked visibly relieved. With a quick glance at Azula he began. Azula's reputation, as well as his own much more benign disposition, was known far and wide.

"Respectfully… " Azula reminded the man as he opened his mouth to speak.

"Fire Lord Zuko… " he eyed Azula apprehensively. "We, that is to say the three of us… My colleagues and I" Azula chortled. "That is to say we…"

"YES?" Zuko' felt his own anger rise.

"We saw your mother, about 6 years ago…" The man who had fainted revived and sat back groggily against Appa's side.

"You did more than see her…" Azula's voice was tense.

"We…we were sent for her. By your father. To get her."

"Sent for her? What do you mean sent for her?" Zuko demanded, his voice edged with anger. "What do you mean 'get her'?" Flames erupted from his own hand and he leaned in close to the Burn-Mark.

Forked-beard fainted again. The one who was speaking went mute…staring at the flames that had erupted from Zuko's hand. Azula yawned as if bored and pointed at the man in the middle. He began to speak, rapidly firing off what he knew.

"Bounty hunters… we are bounty hunters… Fire Lord" he added when Azula growled at him. "We are. Bounty hunters and were sent to find her and we did and we took her captive but our maid helped her escape…"

"YOU HELD MY MOTHER CAPTIVE?" Zuko's face went as red as the flame in his hand. "YOU HELD MY MOTHER CAPTIVE?"

Azula smiled.

"It was a nice cellar…" the man began to cry.

"IN A CELLAR?"

"ayyyyyyiiiiiii…." The man cried. "aaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyiiiiiiiiiii iiiiii"

"Date. Time." Azula spit out. "Tell my brother when and where you held her captive."

The man kept crying.

"I think I'll let you play with these men some more…" Zuko said to Azula in a conversational tone. He reached for the man in the middle and dragged him forward, away from Appa."Don't want Appa to get hurt…"

"Six years ago, Tushin village…" the man gasped out, scooting backward at the same time. "Please, please, please, that's all we know. We had to leave quickly after your mother left. If the Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii..." Zuko's glare stifled the man's words. "If your father had found us he would have had us killed for our failure." The man gasped, winded from his speech.

Azula stood back, folding her arms in front of her once again. She smirked at him. "Well brother. Can we kill them now?"

"No. " he told her firmly.

"Torture them?"

"No Azula."

"They bound mother with ropes and locked her in a cellar." She said in a sing song manner, staring at her fingernails once more.

Zuko's forehead puckered in thought.

"Zuko!" Aang said anxiously.

"A little torture? A bit of lightening? Maybe another scar or two? On the face this time. " she suggested. Zuko bit his lip, pondering the thought. "Right on the cheek."

"ZUKO!" Aang called more urgently, coming around Appa.

"They bound my mother and flung her into a cold dark cellar with bugs and rats!" Zuko shouted back.

"It wasn't so cold and there were no rats." Torn-tunic shouted out. Fainter nearly collapsed again, and Man in the Middle nodded in agreement. "No rats, no rats!"

"Mother. Bound. Cellar. Cold." ." Azula laid her hand on his shoulder. "A character or two, so everyone will know who they are and what they did to Mother."

The men stared up at them, pleading with their eyes.

"ZU- KO!"

Zuko sighed, his shoulders dropping. "No Azula. No killing, no torture. No more scarring. You did mark each of them?"

She nodded as she swung around him and held her feet out for the men to kiss. "Maggot, worm, cockroach." She pointed at each man in turn, then held out her other foot to the men.

Maybe he'd put her in charge of the prisons. There would probably be a distinct drop in recidivism with Azula in charge.

"Aang" he said, turning to his friend. "can you escort these …"

"Insects? Rodents?" Azula suggested.

"to prison?" Zuko concluded.

Aang nodded and came forward, clearly relieved.

"Now thank the Fire Lord for sparing your lives." Azula commanded moving away slightly, "because I would not have!"

"Thank you Fire Lord. Thank you!" And the men bent over to kiss his feet as eagerly as they had kissed Azula's.

Aang grabbed the first man mid kiss and dragged him up onto Appa's back, then went back for the other two.

"Your sister is very persuasive…" Forked-beard, the last to go, told him as Aang dragged him up onto Appa's back.

"Yes she is…" Zuko agreed, staring at his sister, trying to catch her eye, but she just had gone back to examining her nails, indifferent to the scare she had caused him.

"Appa is fine Azula, " Aang called down once he had settled himself into the riders seat. "so I'll forgive you this time. But you had better never take him anywhere on your own again."

"She won't…" Zuko assured him."

"Now move away please so we can take off." Azula reached down for her bag but Zuko grabbed it first and flung it over his shoulder and the siblings moved back a few spaces.

"My bag?" she asked, holding out her hand. Zuko ignored her request.

"You won't take him off again, will you?" He asked her as Aang took to the air. Azula stared down at the ground. "Azula?" he took her firmly by the arms and shook her. "Look at me. Will you?" She tensed, her arms becoming hard, her face cold and withdrawn.

"I won't do it again. I'd promise but you wouldn't believe me so why try. Now please give me my bag so may I go, if you please, Fire Lord?"

"No! Azula, We need to talk."

"I'm sorry. Is admitting I was a bad little girl and promising not to do it again not good enough? Should I kneel and cry and beg the Fire Lords forgiveness?"

He ignored her sarcasm. "How long have you been planning this?"

"Well let's see…" she tapped her finger to her cheek and puckered her forehead "We arrived at the village.."

Zuko released her arms and fished his hand into her bag. "Cup!" he said, displaying the item.

"Oh silly me, I've been calling that a salt shaker."

"You weren't coming back Azula, I figured that much out." He returned the cup to the bag.

"Maybe I just don't trust the cleanliness of the village tea shop."

"Maybe you weren't planning on coming back. Maybe you've been planning this for quite some time. Maybe you would like to tell me the truth or I'll reconsider sending you off to prison. Look at me." He placed his hands on her shoulders, but she refused to look up, her eyes everywhere but on him. "I'm not going to hurt you. I don't want to know your secrets; how you managed to trick Sokka, how you got Appa off without protest. I am not asking where you were going or any other details. I just want to know, have you been planning this the whole time? Azula?" She had settled on staring at a point in space to the right of him. Mother. He sighed. She was talking to their mother. Stress, exhaustion, hunger, all exacerbated the hallucinations; though in her case he wasn't certain whether to categorize her little torture session as stress or stress relief. He studied her face. Her mouth twitched; she had regained enough control not to answer back loudly, at least most of the time, but there were still these little hints that she was responding. Actually it might benefit him. She found it harder to lie when Mother appeared to her. He let the conversation continue, the back and forth evident in the small movements of her eyes and mouth.

Mother must have been pushing, because Azula's mouth twisted up in anger "No. Liar!" she hissed in an undertone, and then she turned toward him, her eyes to the ground. "Yes. Ember Island." Well now he knew where. He could have people placed there if she managed to escape Aang. "You promised me." She added, glaring up at him.

"I promised after we found mother. And I will keep my word. You haven't kept yours."

"You would really let me go?"

"I promised I wouldn't stop you." Aang will though. "I'm hoping you'll change your mind." he added, drawing small circles with his thumb at a point just below her shoulder bones. It calmed her a bit he had discovered.

"Why would I? You'll just throw me in a dark-hole somewhere."

"I told you I would not. Not if you behave." She trusted him to let her take her own life, but not enough that he would let her live her life. He wondered if she'd ever care how much that hurt him.

"Why did you break our deal? You didn't think we had a chance, did you?

She shook her head. "You spent a year looking for Mother and Father spent a year." She jerked her head in the direction where Aang had been. "I didn't know about them. Father didn't tell me much. I just… I just found out about him sending searches. It was after you left."

"After I was banished." Zuko corrected her.

"Yes. He wanted her back for some reason." she said bitterly.

"And you didn't?"

"No. She would have…she would have…interfered."

"Interfered with what?"

"Everything."

Zuko frowned. She was hiding something. "Everything?"

Her eyes went wide; she was staring at something just over his shoulder. She shook her head violently from side to side.

Father. "Everything what Azula? Look at me, not him. I'm Fire Lord now. Look at me…"

"Everything, just everything." She said eyes on him once again. "Just everything alright?" Mother must have said something to her, countering Father no doubt, because she giggled and glared at a point to his side. "Oh, I am certain of that," she sneered.

Zuko touched her cheek, gently pulling her face back to his direction. She started at him a moment in confusion, then her eyes cleared. "She didn't love me Zuko. No one did. I know that. I know that. Mai played with me because of you and Ty Lee..." her voice trailed off. "She'd hug me. I thought…but no she didn't, not really and Father…Father I knew. I knew he didn't. I could pretend though, Father loved me and Mother loved you…I could pretend that and I thought if I did everything right, everything right… whatever the Fire Lord asks is right" her voice changed slightly, her tone sounding as if she were repeating a lesson…"and I tried to do everything right…and sometimes he'd give me a hug and kiss after.."

"After what?" Zuko wondered, but he didn't want to interrupt the flow of her thoughts.

" and then I'd pretend the best. I'd take the hug and kiss back with me. But if mother returned… She would have hated me Zuko. She would have looked at me and hated me and it was my fault. She didn't understand. The Fire Lord is always right." There it was again. "So hated me already she would have hated me more, and she would have taken even the pretending away so I wouldn't have even that so I didn't want her back and I'm glad she didn't come back. She's hates me. She hates me! And when we find her she's going to hug you and tell you how proud she is of you and how much she loves you and she's going to look at me and tell me how wrong I am...and what a monster I am…YES YOU ARE!" That last bit was to Mother obviously. Her breath was ragged now; her chest heaved hard, her hands balled into fists, her whole body shook as she worked to keep the tears in, to regain control.

"Let go, let go. Don't you know I'm here now? Let go!" he begged her silently, but her body went hard beneath his hands and he knew if he tried to hug her now she'd scream and have a fit.

"I hate her Zuko," she was with him again, her voice tight with pain and rage. "I hate her. She hates me. But no one loves me. No one came to visit me. No one wrote me. Not a word from anyone. Not a word from anyone. I was going to go, but when I passed over the village on Appa I thought how you would never find her and how you would never know, and I realized I would never know."

"Never know what?"

"Whether she ever loved me, whether she ever wanted me, whether she ever cared at all, even for a minute; or was I always her monster. I just want a minute of her love, real love, that's all I want, to take with me to the grave. Just a minute of love is that too much to ask for? JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!" She screamed at him, not giving him a chance to respond, and placing the heels of palms on his chest gave him one solid push, unbalancing him so he fell back.

"Leave me alone." She turned, and strode off to the edge of the shore. She sank down onto the sand, knees clasped with her arms, head on her knees, rocking back and forth.

For awhile he lay there in the dust, just watching her, but as he started to rise he felt two arms grabbing him, helping him up; Sokka and Katara.

"How long…"

"Long enough,." Katara answered him. "Take her back to the hospital. Today. As soon as Aang gets back."

"No." he shook his head. "She'll never be well then." His eyes were still on Azula. "It was easier when I could hate her, when she was simply evil." He turned to them, "but I can't. I've had enough lies in my life not to add more. She needs me. She needs to know there is another way, that she does have another chance."

"And what if she doesn't take that chance? What if she's too…" Katara waved at her, unable to find the right words.

"Damaged?" Not everything was fixable, not everything repairable. But she was a human being; not a thing, not an animal. Not refuge, fit only for the trash. "I'll take care of her in the way that is best." He turned back to his sister, alone on the shore, indifferent to the water which washed over her feet. "But I refuse to leave her alone," and as he said the words he knew that was the key. He crossed the distance to her, knelt beside her in the sand, resting his arm gently across her back.

"Leave me alone Zuko." She told her, her voice muffled her tears evident.

"No. I'm not leaving you alone. I'm the Fire Lord and your big brother, those are facts you just have to accept, and as Fire Lord and your big brother, I'm not leaving you alone, ever again."

They stayed a long time, the tides ebbing further and further away until the sand beneath them was dry, and the sun was high up in the sky; midmorning. Eventually she rested her head on his shoulder.

"I know you lied to me about letting me go," she said after a few minutes had passed.

"I said I wouldn't stop you."

"Who will then? Aang?"

"I'm hoping you stop yourself Azula." He brushed his lips gently against her forehead. "It's time for breakfast," he stood and offered her his hand.

She hesitated a moment, but then clasped his hand, allowing him to help her up, and together they went back to camp.