"Why are we up so early" the Avatar groused, around a yawn.
Azula stood in the centre of the courtyard, hands clasped behind her back, staring at the orange smear that coloured the edge of the sky.
"We're waiting. You have to feel the sun, before you attempt anything. It's - it's-" Azula couldn't help but yawn herself, and felt her eyelids strain. She should have gotten more sleep last night. "The sun is important. You'll see."
The minutes dragged on, and the two stood, staring, as gingerly the sun poured itself over the horizon. Rays of sunlight punctuated the sky, and Azula felt the comforting warmth settle in her chest, and all throughout her body she felt her limbs warming and blood pumping. Everything felt clearer in the light of day- darkness was cloying, like everything was wrapped in cotton.
The Avatar screwed up his brow in concentration. "I feel... something. It's... I guess I've never stopped to think about it before. This is a firebender thing"
"It is the firebender thing," Azula explained. "If you want to do this-" she swung her arm forward, trailing a streamer of fire ten feet long and three feet wide, lashing out into the air "-you have to start with the sun. There are other ways to fuel your strength, but none so... abundant."
Aang grinned from ear to ear. "So, when do we start doing that"
Azula smirked. "Later. First, you need to learn to breathe."
"...I've been doing it wrong"
Azula wasn't entirely sure where she stood, with the Avatar group. Aang himself appeared to consider the matter a closed book, at least for the moment.
No, that was being uncharitable, but more importantly it didn't seem to be in his nature to bring up something he claimed to have forgiven her for, just to have hanging over her in case of an argument. As far as he was concerned, it was behind them.
The earthbender was surprising. Toph appeared to be of the opinion that she had somehow got one up on Azula, and now that was sorted out, she could go back to making sarcastic comments and otherwise wasting everybody's time. Azula wasn't sure the girl wouldn't have preferred a straight fight, but she seemed content enough.
The waterbender was disappointed in her, which Azula found galling, in a low-key way. Azula supposed that she would go on being disappointed for a very long time. If the girl wanted to hold on to a grudge, that was her business, she supposed.
As for Sokka... she didn't know what to think about Sokka.
Azula wasn't sure why she kept coming back. Maybe it was because, out of the entire group, he was the only one she had actually held a meaningful conversation with. Maybe she just wanted to avoid the waterbender's glares, or Toph's intolerable smugness.
Maybe she was working up the nerve to apologise.
Whatever it was, over the next week she found herself spending at least an hour a day sitting on the uncomfortable stool that was the only other piece of furniture in his room. At first, he had spent most of his time sleeping, it seemed, but as the days progressed and his sister's healing did its work, he became exponentially more animated.
He seemed to be charitably ignoring the fact that they had argued. In fact, he seemed more relaxed around her than she had ever seen him. Privately, she wondered whether this was due to him letting bygones be bygones, or simply due to the fact that he felt he had her measure, now.
One day, she found him poring over several large scrolls. Several of them, for reasons unknown to Azula, had been dyed blue.
"They're from the Northern Air Temple," he'd elaborated. "You remember that the guys who lived there before had made modifications to the Temple" Indoor heating and stuff."
Azula had nodded.
"Yeah, turns out all that stuff had been invented by one guy. And luckily when the Fire Nation had rolled in, they left his office intact. These are all his notes."
Azula had looked politely blank when Sokka had showed them to her, with obvious enthusiasm. Engineering was a closed book to her.
"It looks like gibberish," she'd said.
Sokka had nodded, excitedly. "Yeah. He wrote in code. Backwards writing, left-to-right, crazy things like that."
"So these are all his notes on his various inventions" Why did you take them" Did you think we would have a chance to install heating in every house we stayed at"
"No, no, there's more than just the stuff he did on the Air Temple. Look here, this is a sketch of some kinda... I think it's a siege engine, but it might be a musical instrument" And check this out, it's a... I'm not sure what it is, but I'm ninety percent sure it's for throwing fire at people over great distances. And I recognise some of this stuff- it's ingredients for bombs and stuff. It's fascinating."
Azula studied him carefully.
"So you're saying that you were allowed to simply take plans for innumerable war machines"
He suddenly looked defensive. "Well, How had admitted that none of his guys could figure out how to make them work, since it looks like our mystery inventor never actually finished anything before moving on to something else. So it's not like they were doing anything with them, right"
"You stole them, didn't you."
"Hey, I did not steal them, I liberated them. They weren't doing anything in that dusty old office, and I figured I could do more with them than they could."
Azula raised an eyebrow.
"That sounds spectacularly arrogant, I hope you realise."
He shrugged, but raised an eyebrow in acquiescence.
"So you stole these plans."
"For their own good. But if you don't like it, don't come crying to me next time you need someone to build a... a... a whatever the hell this is."
"Oh yes. They're definitely better off in your capable hands."
One morning, a few days after Sokka had woken up, Azula made her way into his room to find him scowling at her over folded arms. Too late she realised that the waterbender had looked even more pleased with herself than usual earlier.
"So," he said, in a flat tone. "You gave me a martyr complex, huh. That's just great. Do you realise that I just got lectured" By Katara" For being melodramatic" His voice leapt and scrambled into an excited pitch, and his arms snapped free of their fold, gesticulating like a conductor for the Light Frustrated Orchestra. "Don't you get it" This is worse than the time Toph explained etiquette."
There was a story behind that one. Azula raised an eyebrow in an attempt to extract it.
After half an hour of listening to Sokka explain the time that they had been forced to go undercover at an Earth Kingdom society ball, in order to evade a particularly stubborn Fire Nation patrol, she had determined two things: firstly, she was probably too good at getting Sokka to change the subject without him realising it; and secondly, she had absolutely no idea how the four of them had survived before she met them.
Azula had never really had the opportunity to observe the Avatar's band in repose before. Ever since she had been found by them, she had either been too weak to really pay attention, or in the middle of a life-or-death situation- or the horrible, horrible fallout from life-or-death situations.
They were almost completely different when they had nothing in particular to do, she had decided. It was probably something to do with adrenaline.
Apropos of apparently nothing at all, Sokka suddenly came tearing out of one door, screaming at the top of his lungs, covered in dust and sprinting for his life, the lemur, two badger-frogs, and approximately seventeen thousand bat-moths in hot pursuit.
The waterbender blinked, stupidly, and in the time it took her to stand up and shout "why is he up" He shouldn't be up!" he had disappeared back into the bowels of the temple, adding his sister to the list of pursuers.
Perhaps her initial impressions of them had been right after all. Perhaps they were all just a bit simple.
The flames licked around her, curling and billowing under her command as she moved smoothly through the kata.
It was a good feeling. Not a sense of spiritual awe, as the Avatar might have described it. It wasn't the sense of becoming one with anything, it wasn't brushing the edge of eternity or anything the Sages might have wished it would be. Moving smoothly from one form to the next, loosing flame with each strike, it was simply... satisfying. Like putting something back in its proper place.
Sokka was watching her, from a bench on the edge of the courtyard. She knew without looking how he would be sat- leaning back, his left (injured) leg stretched out in front of him, the cane his sister had insisted he use propped up on the stone lip of the seat next to him. His arms folded behind his head, eyes half-lidded, so he could plausibly deny that he was looking at anything at all.
He was often there, when she practiced. Too often for it to be coincidental. Azula wasn't entirely sure why, but she knew that it would be futile to ask him.
Still, she had an audience, and so felt at least a little obligated to impress.
One hand curled upwards, the other traced a semicircle down. Sparks danced in the air and Azula brought her hands together with a crash of thunder.
And abruptly woke up three seconds later with a splitting headache, clear on the other side of the courtyard.
There was a moment of utter silence, as Azula vainly tried to work out what had happened. It was shattered by the sound of Sokka breaking out in laughter.
No. No no no, this was not supposed to happen!
She stood, strode back to the centre of the courtyard, and began again. Left hand up, right hand down, hold the energy inside for a heartbeat, then push-
There was an explosion, and she was flung backwards.
After the fourth attempt, Sokka stopped laughing. Or perhaps the constant explosions were damaging her hearing.
Left hand up, right hand-
Sokka grabbed her wrist, and stepped in front of her. He didn't even pretend to be intimidated by her murderous glare.
"Okay, that was basically the most cathartic thing I've ever seen, but yeah. You have to stop now. Pretty sure you're gonna do yourself a permanent injury."
Azula had to suppress the mad urge to claw his face off. This was humiliating.
"You okay" I'm gonna guess repeatedly blowing yourself up isn't what you were trying to do."
She didn't answer him, and after a while, he gave up, and left her to her own devices.
She didn't try to bend lightning again. Not that day.
Typical. Just typical. After a couple of weeks training, after determining that he had attained the minimum standard necessary to begin, Azula had told the Avatar that he was ready to begin working with fire. And as she had started to explain the actual mechanics behind the process, what was the first thing he had said"
"This is wrong."
Azula tried very hard not to show how offended she was. "I have been taught firebending since I could walk. I am one of the youngest masters of the art in history. I sincerely doubt that I am wrong."
Aang shook his head. "No, I mean it's wrong because- who taught you this"
Father. There were teachers, of course, but Father was always there, in the background, always pointing out flaws, ways to improve, ways to be stronger, faster, always setting a new standard to conquer-
"I had tutors," she said, throat tight.
"No, I mean- where did the style come from" What was the manual you were working from"
Ah. Azula's eyes unfocused slightly, as she recalled her rote history lessons. "Modern firebending forms stem from a unifying codex, compiled during the reign of Fire Lord Azulon, in an attempt to unify and militarise the disparate styles of the time. The driving force behind this unification was the increasing need to manage firebender regiments on a large scale, as fighting with the Earth Kingdom intensified-"
"That's it! That's where the problems start. We need to go earlier than that. We need to go to the source."
Azula stared at the Avatar as though he had lost his mind. "Are you saying," she tried, slowly and cautiously as though she were tiptoeing over a chasm "that we should look for instruction from the dragons"
After comprehensively losing the argument, Azula slunk away to more friendly areas, to lick her wounds. Eventually she found herself back at Sokka's door. Entering without knocking, she walked in on something she had been casually dreading for some time: Sokka and her mother having an animated discussion.
"-so there we were, tiny village in the middle of nowhere, no way out before sundown, and a giant Spirit monster between us and civilisation. And what does Aang do" He decides that the best plan he can come up with is to yell at the thing about how we're trying to help."
"So what did you do"
He tried and failed to look self-deprecating. "I figured he could use my help. So I hit it with my boomerang. Then it dragged me back to the Spirit World kicking and screaming, but I like to think I helped."
"You've been to the Spirit World" What was it like"
"Completely insanitary. There were no bathrooms anywhere."
"...Was that a major problem" Couldn't you have just, I don't know, gone behind a tree" Assuming there were trees."
"...Look, it wasn't so much the lack of proper sanitation, but... you know that feeling you get when you know someone's watching you out of the corner of their eye, but they're pretending not to care so they can get the jump on you" On that note, hi Azula. Everything in the Spirit World was giving off that vibe. And it's really hard to go when you get the feeling that the trees are staring at you."
"I see. So, how did you escape"
Sokka shrugged. "Not really sure. Aang did his thing, I turned a corner, and instead of spooky brown swamp, I was back in the real world. Didn't stick around to get specifics. I had my own problems."
"So I have gathered."
Azula edged further into the room, and slumped into a chair.
"So, what's new in firebender town" Persuaded Aang to breathe again"
"He wants to go chasing dragons," Azula said, dully. "We leave tomorrow. 'We' being myself, him, and Toph."
"Oh. How come"
Azula rolled her eyes. "He wants extra credit. He'll be disappointed, I'm afraid."
Sokka blinked. "Oh"
Ursa explained. "The dragons are all dead. Fire Lord Iroh killed the last."
"Huh. Well, that sucks. I guess these dragons weren't big on writing stuff down"
"No opposable thumbs."
"Right, right. You told him all this"
"It didn't seem to bother him."
"Still, look on the bright side, trip out of the Temple, seeing more of the world, getting out in the fresh air, you might even have fun."
Azula glowered at him.
In two days, it will be midsummer. In two days, the moon will pass in front of the sun. For eight minutes, the sun will be entirely obscured.
Eight minutes. A lot has to be accomplished in those eight minutes.
This is our only weapon against the Fire Lord. Our one concrete advantage. A great deal of thought has gone into this. Some elements have been planned since the beginning; some were still being added up to a month ago. There's no room for improvisation, not for something this big.
Iroh is no fool. He knows something is up. But he doesn't know exactly what, and he doesn't know exactly when. And he knows nothing of the eclipse. And so the advantage remains ours.
Tonight, I am about to strike the first blow. In two minutes, hostilities are, once again, officially open.