There seemed to be a voice. Or was it two voices" It was getting hard to tell, with the way the world seemed to be sliding backwards and forwards like the waves on a beach.
"Whoa, what- is that"- …Sokka, what did you do"
"What did I do" Do you not see... oh. Sorry. Look, just go get Katara, I'll need to move her back into the cave."
Feebly, she tried to lift her head, to protest this course of action- anywhere but back into the darkness- but the most she could do was flutter her eyelids open to be blinded by the daylight.
"You need a hand there"
Something warm and strong was pressed against her back, and before she could register what was happening-
"Nah, she's not heavy."
-she was being lifted skyward into a world where warmth cushioned her, surrounded her on all sides, enveloped her. It was oddly comfortable in a way she couldn't put her finger on, but there was a niggling thought worming into the remains of her brain that insisted that she should be disgusted right now. She didn't listen to it. She didn't have the strength.
"Wow. She's really not heavy."
"What do you need me to do"
Voices. Damnable voices disrupting her, hurting her head, making the world spin. The worst part was she couldn't understand a word.
"I told you. Go get Katara."
Katara. Cah. Taar. Ah. What was it" A vegetable" Cartaarah. A kind of shellfish" Tarka Rah. Something more abstract, perhaps" Kah rah rah.
Maybe the slightly deeper voice had finally decided to be the one to name that feeling one gets when all the hairs on the back of your neck stand up at once. She had wondered for a long time what exactly that feeling should be called, and she supposed "khataraagh" was as good a name as any. It was certainly ominous enough, even if it did sound more like an exotic skin disease.
She couldn't escape the sneaking suspicion that she might not be of entirely sound mind just at this second. There didn't seem to be anything to do about it at this juncture, though, and slightly more oddly she didn't seem to want to do anything at this moment. The immediacies were crowding out any possibility of thought.
And then there was shouting.
"What the- …WHAT DID YOU DO TO MY SLEEPING BAG"
"…What did she do to your sleeping bag"
"She killed it! It's shredded, ruined! Gran-Gran made that for me! And she killed it!"
She thought the two words as loudly and as angrily as she could in the general direction of the voice above her, but she couldn't seem to connect her brain to her vocal chords, and the wish went unvoiced.
"Sokka. Stop being such a drama queen."
"Oh, it's okay for you, Toph. Your sleeping bag isn't lying in shreds."
"I don't have a sleeping bag."
"Not. The. Point. Look, just go get Katara, okay."
One set of footsteps retreated. And whoever was carrying Azula moved forward again, only a few steps, and then she was fumbled and thudded and bumped as she was awkwardly set down on something soft. The warmth retreated, and she reflexively curled into herself.
"Alright," the voice said, irritation plain. "There. Now you just stay there this time, and no funny stuff. We've already got too many comedians around here anyway."
She did wish whoever it was would stop talking. She was so tired, but he was stopping her rest with his incessant noise-making. Her head lolled to the side, eyes closed as she made a futile effort to turn away from the source of the irritation, before giving it up as a hopeless endeavour.
"Yeah. That's what I thought. So now you just stay still until Katara gets here, and you'd better not make trouble for her, okay" I'll be watching you."
If there was more, Azula heard none of it, slipping down into long-overdue oblivion.
She woke again. Blinking into the grey light, a dim scene played out before her eyes, the grey stone of the ceiling wavering and blurring and another blink and the world slowly faded into focus.
Her first instinct was to move.
"Don't try to sit up."
And already she was being ordered around.
"Here. Drink this," a voice said, and before she could so much as blink a water-skin was being thrust into her limited field of vision. A hand tried to coax it toward her lips, but Azula shook her head fiercely at the indignity. Someone had tied lead to her hands, but she dragged one arm up from her side, and snatched drunkenly at the neck of the water-skin.
It wasn't until the water brushed her lips that she realised how parched her throat was.
"Hey, slow down, you don't want to choke." Feminine voice. Young, but motherly. Azula hated it already.
Slowly, haltingly, Azula exhaled, and with a short bark of exertion, jerked her head forwards, the momentum dragging her inch by inch, her spine curling until she flopped upwards into a sitting position. Her hair dangled raggedly before her eyes, tangled and matted with aged sweat, and beyond that curtain she thought she could see a vaguely blue shape.
It turned out to be a person. Blue clothes. Brown skin.
Water Tribe. She had been captured by the Water Tribe.
Azula was just coherent enough to recognise this as trouble.
Escape" No. Out of the question. She could barely sit up as she was.
What could she do"
Pray. Pray they didn't know who she was. Pray that she remained undiscovered until she was strong enough to run.
Run. The thought was ridiculous. Run where"
Secondary concern. Escape was her priority, but she couldn't be premature. Sit and wait and hope these people just assumed she was some Earth Kingdom peasant, then steal anything she could carry and run as fast as she could.
Suddenly, a voice cut across her thoughts, shattering them.
"Hey, Katara. Our guest up"
And then everything changed. Because Azula recognised the speaker.
It was the last airbender.
Azula has not been taken by the Water Tribe after all.
She was alone now. The Avatar had been keen to interrogate her, but Azula had demanded a while to gather her thoughts, and the Avatar had acquiesced. She had been left in her antechamber of the cave with a small bowl of broth and time to think.
Azula had been handed to the Avatar. This was... a surprising development, to say the least.
Her first reaction was horror- because the Avatar was the sworn enemy of the Fire Nation- then confusion- why would the Avatar keep her, after she had displayed firebending (she remembered that much, although not clearly)- then realisation. The Avatar needed a teacher. He needed to learn firebending.
And he would expect her to teach him.
Suddenly, it seemed she had a bargaining chip.
Then suddenly she realised something else.
The Avatar was not the sworn enemy of the Fire Nation. He was the sworn enemy of the Fire Lord.
In fact, Azula had not been handed to the Avatar. The Avatar had been handed to her.
Provided she was very, very careful.
Eventually, she finished her broth, taking comfort in the heat of the meal, and staggered out into the main chamber, where the Avatar was waiting for her, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room.
He was not alone. Azula's first thought was that the Water Tribes girl was with him, slouched up against a wall, but no, this was a boy. Unless the one from before had been a boy all along.
No, no water-skin. Machete instead. Also a club. And a boomerang. And something that could only be called a knife because he didn't seem the type to be carrying around a meat cleaver.
Probably not a bender then. Or at least not a good one.
"Hey," the Avatar said, and, to Azula's vague confusion, gave a small wave.
She blinked, apparently in response, as the Avatar took this as an opportunity to continue speaking.
"My name's Aang, this is Sokka," he said, waving his hand at the Water Tribe boy against the wall, who didn't move, or say anything at all. "What's your name"
And Azula froze.
Her first instinct was to lie. She quashed the feeling instantly, and thought instead.
Lying provided immediate anonymity. That would be good if she planned to string these people along until she was strong again, and then escape. She would have lied in any other situation.
But this was the Avatar. The most powerful figure in the world. And and unparalleled opportunity. She should make an ally of him, if she could.
Besides, he seemed as guileless as a newborn, she thought, observing his wide grin and wider eyes. He wouldn't know Princess Azula, which meant she got to control when she revealed that.
"Azula," she answered.
The Water Tribes boy pushed himself off the wall, raising an eyebrow.
"Really," he drawled.
"Really," she responded, blankly.
The Avatar seemed a little lost.
"Right, well, Azula, why don't you sit down" I figure we should probably have a talk, you know, straighten a few things out."
Azula should have refused. Should have remained standing, as a matter of pride. But her legs, upon hearing the word 'sit', decided that they had done quite enough work for one day, and dropped Azula on the floor gratefully.
The Water Tribes boy shifted again, restless.
"I've got a question, actually, 'Azula', if you don't mind."
Azula couldn't help but smirk. It wasn't up to her, after all, whether or not this idiot believed her when she told the truth.
"Yeah, thanks for the smirking, very ominous, but seriously. What happened to you"
"What... happened to... when" What are you talking about"
The Avatar coughed.
"Well, when we found you, you were-"
"Surrounded by bodies. Fire Nation soldiers, actually. Mind explaining what's up with that"
Raindrops plastering her hair down her face, irritating her eyes. Feet tangled in the undergrowth. Water pattering on the leaves. Thunder rolls.
Thunder rolls. Lightning highlights armour among the trees. Voices raised. "Nothing to say"-"cannot disobey my orders"-"If it's a fight you want"-"So be it!"
Duck-dodge-strike one-two bust of fire -hold the middle!- one down two down Zuko on the flanks- screaming-charging-lightning-dancing-on-her-fingertips-ZUKO!-don't-look-up-NO. Body jerked backwards tumbling into the undergrowth dead before he hits the ground no no no. Chest twisted mass of charred flesh gold eyes looking at nothing.
"Azula" Are you-"
"I think she broke."
"Sokka, don't you think you shouldn't-"
No not meant to happen PROTECT YOUR BROTHER turn stand failure angry-
"Hey, it'll get her attention if nothing ow ow please let go that's my finger you're breaking ow please don't do that that really hurts you know please stop bending it like that fingers aren't supposed to go that way ow that hurts really quite a lot you know"
"-poke her in the head."
-Lightning fizzing in the rain bring arm up down up can't focus PAIN black.
"seriously that's still my finger and if you could see your way to giving it back I'd really be grateful especially if you stop trying to break it thanks a bunch in advance that's great please let go now."
Azula shook her head, and released the boy's finger.
The Avatar shook his head.
"Look, Azula, would it help if we told you where we found you"
"Yes," she replied, looking up. "That would help."
It was the wood, Azula understood, where she had been found. At the scene of the fight- the dead had been left where they had fallen, and they had assumed her dead. The one who had taken Zuko's life was counted among the dead, from the Water Tribe boy's description. Azula didn't know what to think about that. Azula had been unconscious, badly burnt, and bleeding, they said. She would have died in a matter of hours.
And then the unlikeliest of things had happened. The Avatar had arrived on the scene. Purely by accident, stumbling over the battlefield like a blind man. And then one of the party- Toph, they called her, as though the name meant anything to Azula- had found her. And another, Katara, had healed her.
The words were unreal, floating around her like clouds. It was as though she was hearing the fate of some distant stranger.
"What did you do with the dead"' she asked, dully.
The Avatar looked sad, and small, but he answered.
"We cremated them. I mean- that is what you're supposed to do, isn't it" I didn't know all the prayers, but we did what we could."
A cremation. That was acceptable. Yes, that was-
She couldn't stick with one thought for long. It was all so unreal.
"Did you save anything" Any trinkets" she tried to mask the sudden desperation in her voice- but the thought that there was nothing, nothing but the painful memories left of him-
The Water Tribe boy gave her a long, cool look.
"There was something. One of the bodies- he was different. Wasn't dressed like a soldier. We guessed you might've been connected, so we saved these for you." Walking over to the corner, where some bags were kept, he picked up something and turned, handing it to Azula.
Zuko's broadswords, sitting in their scabbard. She snatched at them, turning them over in her hands, fingers brushing every contour of the sheath. And then she saw the burned patch, blackened and charred, a scar on the leather.
There was only one way that the scabbard could have been burnt like that- when the bolt of lightning had passed through Zuko's... back...
She dropped the swords like they burned her. Setting them aside, she tried not to look at them.
There was something she should ask. A question she needed the answer to.
Where is my mother"
She tried, and the words died on her lips. She couldn't. She couldn't even ask. Couldn't bear the thought of knowing, knowing that she was the only one left. That would kill her.
She couldn't take the risk of knowing, so she didn't ask.
"You wish to know," she said, instead. "You wish to know why" That seems acceptable.
"I am the daughter of a prominent noble, who until recently was a member of the War Council." She closed her eyes just for the briefest of seconds, banishing the image of a tall man slipping out the library door. "Apparently, he was for some time involved in a plot to depose the Fire Lord and end the war."
The Avatar brightened up, but the Water Tribe boy snorted under his breath. Azula understood. Her account sounded like the exact thing someone would think the Avatar would want to hear.
"He was caught, and murdered. Not executed." Keep talking, don't think about it, just keep talking. "No trial, he wasn't even placed under arrest. Murdered.
"We fled the city that night. Some of Father's associates" the word conjured up the swordsmaster in a flash of anger "attempted to help our escape, and got us as far as the Earth Kingdom, before abandoning us. The Fire Lord had sent soldiers after us. They caught us.
"They killed my brother. They tried to kill me. I know what you want from me, Avatar, and the answer is yes. I will teach you firebending, as soon as I am strong again. In return, you will stand aside when the time comes, and I will kill Fire Lord Iroh."
It was the evening. She was resting, alone, in the antechamber.
She had been excused any formal introductions to the other members of the Avatar's party. The interrogation had been the limit of what her weakened body could bear, and the Avatar was worried she could catch a sickness if too much stress was put on her body. So she was given food and water, and told to rest.
She was so tired. The day had been rushed and confusing and full of too much information to take in all at once.
So she lay down and closed her eyes, hoping that for one night at least she might be allowed to get some rest.