Azula's grip on her mother's arm was relentless as she all but dragged her to the ruined window. It was all about time- Sokka had bought them as much as he could, but he was spent now (he would live. Probably. For now, focus on the task at hand. She had a plan, after all.)- they had to be clear of the house before anyone saw her. It would be... inconvenient if the Fire Lord were to discover that she was still alive.
Mother, as expected, was a problem (but not as much as she had feared- it turned out that Ursa had already packed, just in case)- she was taller, and had a longer reach than her daughter, but she was no trained combatant. So jumping out the window was out of the question.
It seemed to Azula, as she watched her mother gingerly climbing down the ornamentation on the wall, that any guard that happened upon them would almost as likely start laughing at their awkward and tentative attempt at escape as actually attempt to apprehend them.
Fortunately, all was quiet (Azula couldn't even hear anything happening inside the house any more. She didn't know what to make of that, so she tried not to make anything.), and before she knew it, they were both safely on the ground. So far, all more or less according to plan.
Azula spared her mother a nod, and turned towards the undergrowth, where she promptly ran head-first into a low-hanging branch.
"Azula!" Ursa hissed, but her daughter waved her away distractedly. With her other hand, she felt at her face, where she had been struck. A few scratches, yes, and what felt like the beginnings of a black eye, perfect...
She took off at a trot, nimbly avoiding any further foliage, while Ursa followed, confused. Azula ran her fingers through her hair, letting small sparks rattle off her hands- just enough to char, no need to damage her hair too much, after all she was still fond of it- and slapped burning palms to her clothes for the briefest of seconds, applying strategic burn marks to her suit. And her disguise was completed just moments before she, with a thoroughly baffled Ursa in tow, burst into the clearing where Katara was waiting.
The waterbender looked up abruptly. "Alright, let's-" her eyes flicked from Azula to her mother and back again and widened "-where's Sokka"
Azula made a point of bending almost double, and pointing vaguely to the house, just visible through the treeline.
"We were... we had to... he said to run."
For a moment, the air froze.
Suddenly, all the humidity of the jungle clearing was gone. At their feet, the grass turned brown and died, crackling and dry as though there'd been a drought. And then Katara screamed- a keening howl of a war-cry that (although of course she was never going to acknowledge it) sent a momentary chill dancing up and down Azula's spine- and then the waterbender was barrelling up the hill, trailing a vast plume of water behind her, fluttering like a cloak.
Azula had always thought of water as, well, soft. Weak; yielding. Of exceptionally limited use as a weapon of war.
That was before she saw Katara with something to fight for. Katara wielded her element like the fist of some forgotten god. One horizontal brush of her arm, and a section of wall was simply gone, and a scything plume of ice split the roof in two like an eggshell. Thus satisfied that she had sufficient room to enter, Katara strode inside. Then, shortly after, screams echoed from the stricken building, loud enough for Azula to clearly hear, even down on the edge of the jungle. And, shortly afterwards, they abruptly stopped again.
"Well," said Ursa, brightly, "it's nice to see you making some more friends your own age, dear. I've always said you needed to get out of the Palace a little more."
The figure Katara half-carried, half-dragged out of the remains of the house was so mangled it actually took Azula a second to recognise him. Eyelids swollen shut- or was he just unconscious"- blood smeared across his face and stained his throat (teeth missing"), and a long scorch mark across his arm- the armour was torn and dented where it wasn't blackened.
And then she saw his leg, and just caught a gasp before she vocalised it.
Knees were supposed to bend, it was true, but definitely not in that direction.
She tore her eyes upwards, ignoring the niggling little thought that said nothing more eloquent than your fault, and locked eyes with Katara.
Stick to the plan. Anything else can wait. Reunions, recriminations, taking the time to work out exactly what she had done, they could wait. Survival came first.
"Will there be more" she asked the waterbender, curtly.
Katara considered this for a moment, then nodded.
"Then we move."
The earthbender was angry, that much was plain.
Everyone had reacted differently to the (as far as anyone else knew) collapse of the plan- the waterbender's desperate, frantic competence, the Avatar's simple confusion and worry, Mother's detached bewilderment- but the earthbender had blinked from horrified shock to silent anger in the time it had taken to load Sokka's prone form onto the sky bison and take to the air.
The question, however, was why.
The girl's body language was strange. It was her blindness, certainly, that caused it-she of course never attempted to make eye contact, and if she moved her head it was for the benefit of her ears, not her eyes- but, remarkably, her facial expressions were a perfect mask of bottled fury. But where was it directed"
It might be at the soldiers, for hurting him. It might be at herself, for not being close enough to help.
It might be at her.
But Azula couldn't read the girl, not like this, and so she remained a dangerous enigma.
Azula had perhaps directed twelve words in total towards the earthbender, and now she was sorely regretting it. She had observed Bei Fong for long enough to ascertain that she was neither a leader nor a planner, long enough to learn where her loyalties lay, then put her out of mind. Hubris, it was simple hubris. And now she was paying for it.
"Azula," Mother said, abruptly, breaking the long silence of the flight. Azula inclined her head slightly, indicating that she had heard, but said nothing.
Ursa inhaled, slowly, and didn't quite meet her daughter's eyes.
"Azula, I have to ask. Is Zuko..."
"Dead," Azula snapped. "In the woods. The Avatar burned him well enough." Azula noted the way Aang's shoulders set at the mention of his name, but didn't turn around.
Azula swung her head over the side, watching the sea curl away beneath them. Anything was preferable to watching the faces arrayed before her.
It was a long time before Ursa spoke again.
"I... had to ask, Azula. You understand," she said, her voice tinged with a distant ring of steel.
"Of course." She had to be sure.
The silence that fell remained unbroken until they arrived at the Western Air Temple.
The Western Air Temple was everything Azula had been told, and nothing she had believed.
Nestled under the lip of a gigantic cliff edge, hanging above a yawning chasm, it had to be the single most overawing architectural specimen in the entire world, and Azula stared in muted wonder at the inverted tower, trying to reconcile this impossible ruin with the fact that it had been a place where people once lived.
She was jolted out of this reverie as the bison touched down in a large courtyard, and the Avatar and waterbender gingerly picked up Sokka.
He hadn't woken up the entire trip- two days and two nights in the air, almost dead silent the entire time, and he hadn't so much as moved.
He'd been hit in the head, his sister had said. No more elaboration than that. Azula was no doctor, but she knew enough to recognise that a head injury sent everything spinning into uncertainty- and every possible scenario she couldn't help but imagine was worse than the last. It wasn't helpful, it wasn't necessary, but her brain couldn't help but dwell on just how bad everything had turned, and how much worse it could still become.
"Come on," Ursa said, arms full of blankets and other supplies. "Let's get him somewhere warmer than out here." Azula thought that Mother was just glad to have something to do, finally. Azula dismounted, sliding down the flank of the bison, removed from the rest of the group, who disembarked from the tail.
As the waterbender and the Avatar moved away in Mother's wake, Azula tentatively made to follow.
But her foot wouldn't move. She looked down, and saw the bands of stone pinning her foot to the floor.
And, as her eyes trained on the tail end of the waterbender's dress as it disappeared into the darkness of the temple (leaving her alone (not quite alone) in the courtyard) some sixth sense felt the earthbender rising behind her.
Without thinking, she half-turned on her trapped heel and lashed out, a plume of flame that never even came close to making contact. In response, the earth bucked and kicked beneath her, knocking her to the ground.
Before she could even move to stand, the flagstones had leapt upwards, and Azula was trapped. Like a rat in a cage.
And the earthbender advanced, four-foot-nothing of condensed fury.
Azula backed away, instinctively, and hit stone. Nowhere to turn, nowhere to run. No way to fight back.
She fought to keep her breathing level. There was a way. A way to fight back. A way to escape. A surprise attack, once the earthbender was in range" No. She could barely extend her arms fully in this stone cage, let alone attempt effective firebending. And besides, even if she could then what" Could she undo her prison" No.
She was trapped. No escape, not this time.
Her heart rattled in her chest as the diminutive figure approached, even as Azula fought to bring herself under control. Then, quite abruptly, bare feet away, the earthbender stopped short, and cocked her head in confusion, or... curiosity.
Azula's breath caught in her throat as the realisation tore through her like shards of ice.
She can feel it. She can feel every breath you take, every beat of your heart. She knows. She knows.
NO. She suspects, at worst. She cannot know, Azula reasoned, frantically, because Azula barely knew what she had done herself.
Unfortunately, flimsy logical fallacies were no defence against Toph Bei Fong, possibly because she didn't know what those words meant.
"Alright," the earthbender snarled, low and dangerous. "What did you do"
"What are you talking about" Azula asked. "I didn't do-"
"Don't you lie to me!" the diminutive girl fairly screamed, and Azula flinched inwardly as the walls of her cage shrank by a handful of inches. "You go off into the woods following your plan and Sokka comes back all- all" there was a moment of terrified introspection on the girl's part, but before Azula could capitalise on it it was gone "-mangled, and you, you're walking along like you don't even care but inside" You reek of guilt. The whole way here, every time anyone so much as breathed too loud you were jumping outta your skin. So spill, before I do it for you."
Azula fought to remain calm. This could ruin everything. She had to find a way to avoid telling the earthbender anything. And, preferably, do so without giving the earthbender further excuse to crush her to death. The seconds dragged as Azula forced herself to concentrate, to ignore the fact that she was standing in a dead city hanging in the sky, ignore the gnawing dread that intensified with every second that Mother was out of her sight, and simply think.
Her only weapon was words. What could she say that could save her life"
And the answer was before her, simple and crisp. She almost gasped in relief.
"What are you going to do" Azula asked, as quietly as she could- sound sneering, or sure of herself, and all she would do was fuel the earthbender's suspicions.
She could hardly suppress a grin as she watched the wheels begin to turn in Bei Fong's head. As long as the earthbender was actually attempting to outthink her, Azula was confident that she had a clear advantage. The earthbender may (may) have stumbled upon the truth, but she had stumbled over it blindly- she had no evidence, nothing but gut feeling and the wobbly and completely incidental evidence that Azula's heartbeat was behaving erratically- and Azula had a thousand excuses for that on hand, all more plausible-sounding than 'feeling guilty because she nearly killed Sokka'. And Azula was reasonably sure that the earthbender couldn't go to the Avatar with just that.
Azula stood perfectly still, barely daring to breathe, as she watched the earthbender realise what a castle made of sand her accusations really were.
Doubt. Doubt was the most subtle of poisons.
"I," Bei Fong snarled, nostrils flaring (anger was an excellent way to avoid looking like you were backing down) "will be watching you."
And with that, Azula's prison crumbled, and the earthbender was gone, following the rest of the group into the bowels of the air temple.
Azula felt it might be best if she stayed in the courtyard. Just for a little while.
It felt like she spent days propped up against a pillar, leaning as nonchalantly as she didn't feel, staring out at the orange sky. The sun was setting, turning the mist that squatted stubbornly in the canyon into spun gold.
After a long while, she heard the sounds of footsteps behind her. Turning, she saw the waterbender, shuffling out into the courtyard like a sleepwalker.
She looked... wrung out. Azula wasn't sure if that was a good sign. Judging from the girl's hunched and shuttered posture, the news wasn't positive.
Azula sidled, the very picture of nonchalance, over to the fountain, where the waterbender was sitting, staring at the flagstones.
The way she failed to glare daggers at Azula as she approached was a positive sign, perhaps.
Then Azula noticed the way that Katara was staring blankly at her own shaking hands, and a spike of dread lanced through her.
"It was too close. I wasn't- I didn't even think about what I was doing, and they- they almost killed him. They had a knife to his throat and I didn't even slow down. If I'd been just a breath slower, they would have- and it would've been my fault."
Would've. Was. Past tense. Not dead. Not dead. Azula clung to the idea like flotsam in a storm. She could still make this right. She still had a chance.
"He'll be okay. He should be okay. But what was he thinking" He can't start thinking he can throw his life away like that. He knows we can't do this without him. He knows." Katara stared deeper into nothing, and appeared to come to a decision. "I am going to have a word with him when he wakes up."
Azula blinked. "He is still unconscious" This was potentially very good.
"Yeah." For the first time, Katara looked up into Azula's face, and managed a wobbly smile. "Your mom just kicked me out of there as soon as it looked like he was just sleeping. She said I needed to get some rest."
Azula nodded, only half listening.
"Yes, you probably should. So, do you have any idea how long he'll be sleeping"
Katara gave her an appraising look. Azula was careful to ensure that she radiated nothing but honest concern for the wellbeing of a fellow lackey of the Avatar.
Eventually, she shrugged.
"No idea. Hopefully not too long."
Azula blinked. "I thought you were supposed to be the expert," she said, before she realised that that probably came out as an insult. Katara, however, simply rolled her eyes.
"Why does everyone assume that" I sat in on two weeks' worth of healing lessons, and I spent the entire time wishing I was anywhere else instead. I'm doing the best I can, and that's all."
Well. There didn't appear to be anything Azula could really say to that. So she departed, looking for a quiet corner to lurk in for an hour or two, before she went to check on Sokka.
After all, the earthbender would probably get angry if she found Azula hanging about outside his door, and that wasn't something Azula wanted to deal with at the moment.
In spite of her urgency, in spite of the need to speak to Sokka before he had a chance to talk to any of the others, Azula slowed on her way to his room.
This was her only chance. When the earthbender finally went to the Avatar with her suspicions- and Azula was certain she would, in time- Azula could only see two possible outcomes: either she would have Sokka on her side, or she would be forcibly exiled from the Avatar's company.
She was painfully aware of how little use she had proved to the Avatar so far. She had taught him no firebending. She had demanded he abandon his allies in the Earth Kingdom. She had dragged his friends into danger and injury. If it came to light that she had (indirectly, completely indirectly) had a hand in causing said injuries, it seemed almost impossible that he would decide that she was worth the trouble.
And then where would she be" Exiled again at best, this time with nothing. No, she would not let it come to that. That was why she was moving to see Sokka now, before he saw anybody else. She was getting on top of the situation before it got out of hand.
She was confident he would see things her way eventually. Reasonably confident.
Her buoyed mood lasted until she turned the corner to Sokka's room and ran straight into the diminutive earthbender.