The inn is a picture of misery. Young men trying to drown their sorrows, too young to know that doesn't work, old men doing the same, too deep in despair to give a damn any more. A young woman- no, a teenage girl- with a child, despondently attempting to feed her infant. She's as thin as a rake, and seems barely conscious, one hand holding her head up, tangled in long black hair. A young man, and you can see the light in his eyes, the fire of absolute desperation. I've seen men like that. Either they do something extraordinary, screaming off into the world in pursuit of glory, or they die in a ditch.
I hate places like this. From the depths of my soul, I hate places like this.
It had been two full days since Omashu. So far Azula could find little to complain about.
Well, if she really tried, she could find a great many things to complain about. But none of them were new any more, and certainly none were unique to the past two days. Master Piandao was gone, at least for the time being, and his replacement seemed less inclined to attempt to manipulate them.
In fact she had yet to hear him offer more than three consecutive words.
Definitely an improvement.
But apart from that, they were now away from Omashu, and this morning the city had slipped out of sight entirely. Azula felt better about that, for some reason.
Zuko had kept looking back. It was like he couldn't get the place out of his head.
I try not to let the place get to me, as I sit down at the table (stiffly, so as not to aggravate my injuries any further) with my meal. Fish.
I like fish.
Think positively, that's the key.
Dusk was starting to fall. In another hour or so they would set up camp for the night, a process Azula casually loathed. Manual labour was simply... ugh.
But that was in the future. For now, Azula was seizing opportunity.
Zuko had taken to walking at the back of the group for the last two days, possibly all the better to contemplate whatever new melodrama he was indulging in. In the last few minutes, though, he had started to catch up with her.
It was about time she began to undo Master Piandao's manipulations.
Azula closed her eyes for the briefest of seconds as Zuko drew level with her, and used the precious moments to review how she would unfold the conversation.
Zuko, however, surprised her, by being the first to speak.
"Zuko." There was something restrained about his voice. A subtle change, but it made him sound... unfamiliar, somehow.
Azula was unsure how best to continue, but shook the feeling off. After all, he had only greeted her. It was no large matter.
Except he was usually very easy to read. The way he stood, held his head, spoke volumes. But today he was closed, shuttered. It was unnerving.
"Zuko..." it seemed as if he had something to say. Best that he get it out of the way first. "Is something troubling you"
He didn't say 'yes', but then he didn't really have to.
"Azula, could I ask you for a favour"
"Of course," she replied, after a breath's deliberation.
"Back at the canyon. Promise me you won't do anything like that again."
It took whole seconds for her to figure out what exactly he was talking about.
"If you're referring to the fight with that animal, I made the only logical decision."
"I don't care. I don't want you to do it again."
Indignation flared, but was swiftly overtaken by confusion.
"You ran off alone. You could have been hurt, Azula, and you told me to stay behind."
"Of course I did. Someone had to stay with Mother."
Zuko shuddered as if struck.
"I know. And that's why I stayed."
Azula was growing impatient.
"Zuko, if you have a point to make, please get to it."
He clenched his eyes shut for a second. "Azula, you scared me. I stayed because it was the right thing to do, and I wanted to make sure Mom was safe, but I don't want you to get hurt, either. Please, don't- try not to put yourself in harm's way like that again."
Oh. Of course.
"Did Father talk to you" she asked, quietly. It was still raw, still painful to even think about. She wondered if it would ever fade.
Zuko looked oddly at her.
"No. What does- no, never mind. Just promise me you won't run off alone again. Please."
"Very well. You have my word."
"Thanks," he said, quietly, and moved onward, overtaking Azula. She barely noticed.
Nothing about that conversation had made sense.
And what was worse was she couldn't define why.
She was looking after Mother and Zuko. That had been Father's last instruction to her. That was simple. It had never occurred to her that Zuko and mother might seek to look after her. In less serious times, the thought might have been ludicrous enough to be amusing. But it was such an alien concept that she could hardly fathom it.
Zuko sought to protect her. And he did so entirely of his own accord.
On one level, that made sense. After all, the three of them had nothing left but each other. But this was beyond that. He was looking to protect her even beyond what was, by his own admission, the right thing to do.
Azula shook her head. Dwelling on this was meaningless.
And she had lost a perfect opportunity to talk to Zuko.
There would be other opportunities.
I wish this bar were less crowded. Just a little.
For example, it would be nice if there were fewer people at the tables, since I am stuck sitting right near the bar, instead of near the back, by the wall, where I would be less obtrusive.
I am wishing this because the door has just been booted open, and about seven firebenders have burst into the building.
They look like trouble, every inch of them.
The entire bar is passively hostile to the soldiers from the second they walk in the door. Everyone, from the bartender to the teenage mother, reacts ever so slightly. Some look like they're preparing to fight. Hopefully, that can be avoided.
It would be a massacre. Seven trained firebenders. They're all grouped together, so they wouldn't have to worry about friendly fire. And not everyone here is a trained combatant.
I am not wearing my sword, but it's in the pack by my feet. I could draw without making myself obvious before the fact.
Could I close the gap between them" Not fast enough. Too many people in their line of fire.
I won't risk it. Just hope they don't recognise me.
And really hope they're off duty.
Darkness had fallen. It was almost time to make camp.
Something hit Azula on the head. A plink.
And then it started to rain.
Wordlessly, Lee raised his hand, and pointed toward the woods.
There would be more shelter beneath the trees, it was true.
They're not off duty.
They're moving with far too much purpose for that. And they're all helmeted.
I'm trying to think of what they could be here for. You know, apart from me.
So far, I'm drawing blanks.
I sip my tea as they move towards me; two behind me, three in front. Yep, I'm the target. But it's no good getting flustered.
The captain stops suddenly in front of my table, and the bar goes quiet. I try not to slurp my tea. That would rather spoil the mood.
Suddenly, he leans heavily upon the table, nearly dislodging my meal.
"Master," he hisses, and for half a second I am terrified that I might know this man. But no, he was just using the honorific.
"Captain," I reply.
"You have to come with us now, Master," he sneers, mock-simpering, parodying what he thinks respect sounds like. I suddenly feel a lot better about what is going to happen next.
"Indeed. But I will finish my meal first."
"Oh, will he now" he asks his men. "Well, Master, that might not be the best of ideas. After all, my boys get a little... antsy... if they have to stand around too long. Accidents might happen, if you take my meaning." He's loud enough that everyone in the bar hears his not-veiled-at-all-threat, and punctuates it with a few raised sparks in the direction of a knot of patrons. A transparent attempt to turn people against me, and a very poorly-judged move.
I can do better than that. I look him in the eye, over my cup of tea, and speak slowly and clearly, for his benefit.
"Captain, if any one person here is harmed by any of your men, no matter how slightly; if they so much a break a glass; if they so much as raise their voices or hands in anger, I will kill you with my bare hands. Bone by broken bone. I'll start with your hands, and work my way to your neck, by way of your legs. And when I am done, I will turn your skull into a commemorative mug, and perhaps something useful will be done with it for the first time in its existence. Now let me finish my meal in peace and I will leave with you, and leave these people to enjoy their evening."
That shut him up.
Honestly, it seems like the army will promote anyone these days. Back when I was in the army, a man like this would never make it above sergeant. And he'd make a poor sergeant, at that.
The hammering rain beneath the trees was intolerably loud, rattling as it knocked the leaves aside.
But it was slightly drier.
Azula exhaled, and concentrated on radiating as much heat as she could. It took a lot of concentration, and she nearly tripped more than once (of course, she caught herself long before anyone could tell), but she soon felt a lot more comfortable.
"Right," the Captain snarls, as I push my plate aside, "you've finished. Now it's time to come with us, Master."
"I don't suppose I could bring my things" I asked.
Oh well, it didn't hurt to ask. But now I'm unarmed. Which means things are going to get rather ugly very quickly.
I didn't let them get a hold on me as I stood up, and walked to the door, making sure there was always something between me and the men behind me, who would have grabbed my arms if there had been the opportunity, but were too nervous to attempt overtly.
Sometimes it's useful to have a dangerous reputation.
The night air was brisk, and I breathed deep as I followed the Captain out into the night. He gestured, and two men flanked me, their fists trained lest I make a move, and I imagined the two behind me were doing the same. The Captain was flanked by the remaining two.
Hardly ideal, at least from my point of view. I shall have to wait for an opportunity.
The Captain looks smug as we head out into the courtyard. He thinks he's got me, and he may be right.
Perhaps I could grab him, and use him as a shield. Does he have a knife or some such on him" No. None of them have any blades at all.
Damnit, they were looking for me. Our security is less than watertight, it seems.
Head in the game, Piandao. Worry about that later.
Human shield. No. He's too far away. Besides, there's no way I can cover myself against all six men.
There's no way I can kill them fast enough.
I miss my sword.
My eyes rove, checking for anything at all that I might be able to use. Too obvious. The Captain notices, and leers at me, halting the procession just as we hit the main track.
"Now, Master, you'd do well to calm down. There's a standing order on you, you know." Of course I know, probably a good deal better than you. "It says you're to be brought in alive, if possible. That gives me what you might call flexibility, so I expect you to behave while you're in my company."
He's gloating. We're a good five miles from the barracks and he's gloating. For the second time, I find myself wondering how this man got promoted.
But still, it might be best to comply, for now. This man might actually follow through on his threat, and that would be good for nobody.
Then something unexpected happens.
The man to his right drops dead with a sigh.
Odd. But I'm not one to spurn opportunity.
I lunge for the Captain as he uncurls his arm (too slow), and snatch his hand as the man to his left is knocked to the ground by something.
I break his wrist. Then I break his nose. And then I break the rest of him.
It takes a good fifteen seconds to put him down properly. By the time I turn around the rest of the men are dead.
And there is someone there who does not wish to be seen.
There's a sigh in the dark, and the figure steps closer, until I can see them properly.
It's the girl from the bar. She's carrying her child in a kind of sling, supporting him with one hand. The other is full of steel.
"Hullo," she says, after a moment. I bow.
"I owe you a debt, miss..."
She ignores my angling for a name.
"Whatever." She surveys the dead with evident, if muted, satisfaction. "Well, that was fun. What did you do, anyway" Knock over a pastry shop"
"I'm afraid I may have annoyed a few people back in the Fire Nation."
"Join the club."
"Nothing important, Miss..."
Still no name. She turns to leave. Not back to the inn.
"Where are you headed" I ask. She shrugs.
"No idea. Anyway, have a nice life, whoever you are."
She walks away, following the road East. Towards Gaoling, actually.
I make room in my memory for her and her child as I make my way back to the inn. I'll have to let the Gaoling cell know about her. They can clandestinely help her in many ways.
One favour deserves another, after all.
The rain was a cacophony. It hammered off her head and lashed her eyes and ricocheted around inside her brain and irritated her no end. That was why she, and presumably everyone else, eschewed conversation in favour of concentrating on walking.
It was also why she failed to notice the men waiting in the undergrowth until it was too late.
There were at least thirty of them, the detached core of Azula's brain told her even as she swung into a fighting stance.
Two stood out from the group. A man, who alone of the soldiers was not wearing a helmet, and a woman with shoulder-length brown hair, in civilian clothes. Azula couldn't be sure in this weather, but she thought the woman looked furious.
To her right, Zuko had already drawn his swords.
"My Lady!" the man shouted. "We have come to bring you home!"
Mother didn't reply.
"No. I have no reason to return. Go. Tell the Fire Lord I have nothing to say to him."
"My Lady..." The man sounded pained. "I cannot disobey my orders. The Fire Lord himself ordered you be brought home."
"Did you not hear me" Mother demanded.
"I did, My Lady." He sounded downright apologetic now. "I am sorry, but my orders are clear."
He raised his hand. The men at his command readied themselves.
Azula breathed in, breathed out.
"If it's a fight you want, it's a fight you'll get!" Zuko snarled.
"So be it!" screeched the woman, and battle was joined.
Blue fire spat and crackled in her hand, fizzing and hissing in defiance of the weather. Had it not been raining, much of the undergrowth would be ablaze by now.
Azula snarled in frustration as she dodged another fireball, and launched her own in return. So far, she was able to do nothing but hold her ground in the centre of the battlefield.
Behind her, Lee was guarding Mother. It had surprised Azula slightly to find out that the man was an earthbender, but she was glad of it now.
To her right, Zuko was leaping, engaged in a moving battle with five men. She had to admit, he was doing better than she had thought he would, although he had yet to-
She jerked her head back, pulling herself out of the path of a plume of flame, but she didn't close her eyes in time, so for valuable seconds she was all but blind-
One of the men was down, and Zuko's blades were slick with a dark liquid.
One down, then-
Block, dissipate their fire, and return with her own-
Two down. She smirked in cold satisfaction as she turned toward Zuko. If they worked in tandem while Lee held the centre, then perhaps they could-
The woman appeared in Azula's field of vision, sparks flying from her fingertips, racing towards-
Stupid, he turned towards Azula, confused by her shout.
The world flashed white.
The bolt caught Zuko in the chest, flinging his body through the air.
He was dead before he hit the ground.
Azula dropped to a halt by his lifeless body, staring transfixed at the burned and twisted wreckage that had been his chest. At his golden eyes, registering no pain, nothing but wide-eyed surprise.
This wasn't supposed to happen.
"Someone stop her!"
This was not meant to happen.
"Take care of your mother while I am gone. Your brother, too."
Azula stood. She might have been crying. But then there might just have been the rain in her eyes.
"Someone stop her!"
Azula turned. The crazed woman was charging straight for her.
Azula took a deep breath.
Well, she had anger to spare.
Sparks cracked on her fingertips, and she locked her eyes unerringly on her target.
And then something exploded, far away and right in front of her.
And then there was nothing but burning.
And the night swallowed Azula whole.