So close. She had been so close. And now it was all for nothing, because the earthbender had talked to Sokka first. And he didn't look happy.
What had he told her" How long had they been talking" Had it been long enough to bring up the... discrepancies between her version of events back on the Island and his"
His expression said yes. Yes it had.
His nostrils flared as he looked at her, and it seemed as though he was about to speak. Azula cut him off with a raised hand.
"This was always the plan. There was simply no other way to get Mother out safely. If it had been possible to rescue her without getting you injured, I would have done it." She took a breath, and moved on, in a business-like tone. "Still, it appears that you will make a full recovery, relatively quickly, so no permanent harm done. However, we have to decide what we are going to tell the Avatar."
Sokka blinked, shocked out of his anger. "What" he asked; utterly bewildered.
"You said it yourself. We must maintain group cohesion. Now-"
"What" he snapped, anger resurging, rising up off his elbows, barely flinching at the effort. "What"
Sokka blinked, slowly. His adam's apple danced, swallowing whatever he was about to say.
The next words out of his mouth were a pantomime of reasonability.
"So hold up. Let me see if I've got this right. After you lied to me, after you set it up so I'd get discovered, beaten up, and maybe killed -and if you say 'I knew they wouldn't kill you' then I will throw something at you- and I wake up three days later and discover that you've told everyone that this was my idea... you want my help covering it up" You want me to lie to Aang on your behalf"
Azula swallowed, deliberately.
Azula felt her own temper mounting in the face of his petulant attitude. "I have told you, there was simply no other safe way to get Mother out. You were injured, which was regrettable, but you will make a full recovery in less than a week, and this attitude does not help-"
She could see the way he flushed from clear across the room, and for one terrible second, she thought he might actually try to get up.
"Don't you get it" I'm not mad because I got my leg broken, I'm- you lied to me!"
She had utterly mishandled this. From beginning to end, she had mishandled it.
Her lack of reaction cut the fight from Sokka, and he slumped back into his bed, spent.
"I'm just- I just- leave. Get out. Now."
Azula felt her throat constrict. "How far would you like me to go"
"Just... leave me alone, okay" Can you do that" He sounded tired.
So, she was not banished yet. That, at least, was something.
She turned to leave.
"I'm not- I'm not saying anything, not yet. I'm angry, Azula, I'm really angry. And also, if I'm completely honest, a little worried that apparently you need to be told that" And I really don't think you should be asking me to lie to Aang for you. But I'm not gonna say anything. At least until I stop seeing these red spots in front of my eyes."
It was, she supposed, as she beat a tactful retreat, the best outcome she should have reasonably hoped for.
She did not return to the courtyard. She needed time; time to think, and to clear her head.
So she disappeared into the guts of the temple, twisting and turning until she found a disused storeroom, near the top (bottom" Near the roof of the cave, in any case) of the temple. Not the most dingy room, nor the most inaccessible, but close. And it had the advantage of having two doors. Just in case.
After maybe half an hour, someone spoke her name.
She looked up to see her mother, standing in the doorway.
"How did you find me"
"I at least know you well enough to know where you will hide, Azula," she chided, gently. "And I want to make sure that you are alright."
Azula's back slid down the wall, her legs folding automatically beneath her.
"I made too many mistakes," she confessed, more to herself than anyone else, amazed at how difficult it was to admit that she had been wrong. "I misjudged how they would react, I didn't think about what would happen, and now..." and now they were in jeopardy again, and this time it was she who had put them there.
Ursa smiled, slightly, and moved a little into the room. "You did rescue me, and I, at least, am grateful for that."
There was that. In all the fallout, Azula had almost forgotten that, technically, the operation on Ember Island had been a total success.
That was worth hanging onto, she thought.
Wordlessly, Ursa slumped down the wall opposite Azula. Now they were both at rest, Azula could see her mother properly.
It was a grim picture. Past the hollow cheeks, past the limp and sagging stance, there was something terrible in her eyes. Something defeated.
"There were nights I hated your father," Ursa confessed, abruptly. "For getting mixed up in conspiracies and leaving us like that. For making me believe in him so... utterly. He always seemed so strong, so untouchable." She glanced up, and gave Azula a broken smile. "You never truly saw him fight, did you" You saw him spar, saw him practice, but you never saw him in Agni Kai, did you" He was..." Ursa's eyes unfocused, as she drifted back into memory "glorious. Even Iroh in his prime could never have touched him. But in the end, he was just a man. I don't know if I can forgive him for that."
"Iroh has to pay," Azula ground out.
"Yes, he does. And he will," Ursa agreed. "But know this, Azula. If you die in pursuit of revenge, you will kill me."
Azula felt her heart thud. "Mother-"
"I am serious, Azula. You are all I have left. If you throw your life away..." For an awful moment, Azula thought that her mother was about to cry. "Don't. Azula, don't you dare leave me."
Ursa was shaking, her voice quavering, and Azula didn't know what to do. She sat in the gloom, and watched for seven endless seconds as her mother collapsed in front of her. And without any kind of plan, any kind of rationale, Azula shifted forwards and wrapped her arms around Ursa, burying her face in her shoulder.
She heard a damp breath hitch in her mother's throat, and in that second it was the worst sound in the entire world.
The night was spent in silent isolation, perched at the edge of the Avatar's camp, unresponsive and as small as she could bear to make herself.
The next day, she made her way to Sokka's room, and entered without knocking.
She found him staring at the ceiling.
"In a few minutes, the Avatar will be here. To bring you lunch."
That got his attention. He blinked, in a heavy, confused way, and his eyes dropped down to meet hers. One eyebrow arched, delicately.
"O...kay" That's awesome, I guess" I do approve of lunch. Not sure why you figured I needed to be prepared for that, but-"
"I assume that this will prove to a natural time for you and he to... talk."
"Oh. Huh." His eyes curled back to the ceiling, brows furrowed and jaw set. "Yeah, now you mention it."
Then there was just one thing left to say. One more demand to make.
"Whatever happens, my mother had nothing to do with it. I need you to keep her out of this." In the circumstances, her presumption was beyond audacious, but she didn't care. She had a job to do, and she would see it done no matter what she had to do.
Sokka gave her a bland look. "Azula. You're being kinda melodramatic. Look, I can tell you exactly what's gonna-"
"...Okay, fine, if it makes you happy."
She left it at that.
Azula could think of only one place that she could be while the Avatar was having his little meeting. Given the Avatar's talkative nature, and Sokka's own assertion that everyone in his group would be informed of the true version of events on Ember Island, it seemed likely that the earthbender would have her suspicions confirmed.
Azula definitely wanted to be out of view when that happened. And the only way to do that with the earthbender would be...
Azula judged the gulf carefully.
The Western Air Temple was built with airbenders in mind. It was impossible to get anywhere outside of the main structure by foot. Therefore, one of the small buildings (and Azula was still having trouble using that word to describe anything in the Temple, if only because the place seemed like one unfathomably gigantic house) that hung independent of the main structure would (theoretically) be perfect for putting some space between herself and... well, everyone.
If only she could reach any of them by herself.
One seemed close enough- from her vantage point, at the top (bottom) of a tower (for want of a better term) it was only twice as far away as she could jump. Approximately.
Well, if her theory worked as well as she hoped it would, that shouldn't be a problem.
Of course, if she was wrong, then she was dead. But she wasn't wrong.
She was about to bet her life on it.
She took twelve strides back from the abyss, spun on her heel, facing out towards her objective, and started to sprint. Half a second before she tumbled off the ledge into oblivion, she sprang off from her left foot, and her right curled down, kicking downwards with a sharp blast of fire.
And for the briefest of seconds, Azula flew.
She missed the landing, overshooting by several feet, and almost collided head-first with the central pillar, but still. No harm done. And the earthbender was unlikely to find her here.
So she sat, legs hanging off the edge, and waited.
He had not reacted badly because he had been hurt. He had been angry because he felt he had been betrayed. She understood that, now it was too late to do anything.
And that was that. There was nothing else to think about. No puzzle to solve, no riddle to crack. No plan would help her here. Nothing to do but wait.
So she waited. It was preferable to thinking.
Her eyes unfocused, her senses broadened, and all around her the world turned. Glittering insects bobbed and weaved on the cooling air, and birds swung lazily after them, snapping at them as they drifted through the swarms. On the opposite ridge of the canyon, the vibrant green of the jungle was a coloured smear, encroaching on and occasionally even reaching over the lip of the cliff edge, throwing trailing creepers off, to hang in space. If she had peered over the lip of her balcony, she would have seen the river, snaking through the canyon a hundred feet below.
And the sun went down, throwing streaks of orange haze across the sky, and Azula felt the familiar chill settle in her chest at the sight of the moon.
And all of a sudden there was a rush of air, and the sound of someone landing lightly on the stone, somewhere to her left.
"Azula" The Avatar. She made no move to stand.
"Azula" Are you..." he said, as he carefully shifted his weight, moving ever so slightly with the breeze, "... are you hiding"
Azula didn't deign to dignify that with a response.
"You are, aren't you" It's okay." His tone was ridiculously non-confrontational. She might as well have been a shying komodo-rhino. "I, uh, talked to your mom," he said, uncertainly, one hand scratching at the back of his neck. "She's nice."
Azula turned to look at him better, but still said nothing, waiting to see where this was going.
"I talked to Sokka, too."
Well, she would not cower, at least. Holding her pride close to her chest, she rose to her full height, clearing him by almost a foot, and looked him in the eye.
"And what did you talk about"
He didn't react as she expected. No glowering, no attempt to browbeat her, no anger. Not even any real disappointment. Just a sigh and -in a moment of unspeakable audacity- a commiserating pat on the shoulder.
"Come on. Let's get back to the others."
Azula blinked, and he must have seen something in her expression, from the way he smiled.
"Not gonna lie, everyone's pretty mad- actually, Toph's pretty mad, Katara's really mad- but we understand. You wanted to make sure your Mom was safe, and you made a mistake. We've all made mistakes. Nobody's gonna toss you into the canyon, trust me."
Trust me. She supposed she had to. "Not even th- Katara" She supposed that it would be best to start making a point of using their actual names.
The way Aang looked like he was seriously considering her question worried her, but after a moment, he laughed at her, and she realised it had been a show for her benefit. "Sokka talked her down pretty quick, don't worry. Now come on, dinner's getting cold."
As he extended a bridge of stone, connecting them with the main temple complex, a thought crossed his face, and he turned back to her.
"How did you get across here, anyway"
Azula smirked. "Trade secret." A thought occurred to her. "And on that note, I think we have delayed long enough. Your training begins tomorrow. Meet me at the fountain. Before sunrise."