It wasn't until I was on the ship north, stowing away among sacks of grain, that I realised I'd done it again.
I'd bloody well gone and done it again. You'd think I would have learned after Kyoshi.
Piandao, you fool, are you ever going to learn how to delegate"
No. I don't think I am. I think it's just something I'm going to have to live with- that my automatic method of problem-solving is to run at it as fast as possible, and maybe hit things with a sword once I get there.
I have a very specific skill-set to work with here. I like to think I'm doing the best I can with what I've got.
A few days after the escapade to the city of the Sun, Azula woke to sunlight streaming in through the window.
Instead of either rising instantly, or grumbling to herself and rolling back into sleep, Azula opened her eyes, and propped her hands behind her head, looking up at the ceiling.
Her lessons with the Avatar had proceeded at an almost alarming pace, once he had been placated, and she couldn't help but approve of the weapon he was shaping up to be. He wouldn't have liked to hear it, but it was true. That boy was going to set the sky on fire, Azula would make sure of it.
All things considered, things were finally starting to go her way. Somewhere, it felt as though the tide had started to turn.
She had even managed to sleep last night.
Languidly, she rolled out of her (still disconcertingly narrow) bed, and dressed. The clothes weren't hers, of course- they were in the Earth Kingdom style, and had been graciously supplied by the waterbender. She was learning to tolerate them.
Suddenly, the mood was shattered by a frantic hammering on the door.
"Azula! Azula talk to me!"
She blinked. Something was very wrong. Sokka sounded close to hysterical.
"I'm here," she replied, and opened the door.
"Thank you," he muttered, under his breath. Azula was fairly certain she wasn't supposed to have heard that.
"What's going on," she snapped.
He swallowed, heavily, and leaned on the doorframe, gesturing for her to follow him. "We gotta go. Now. Iroh's here."
Azula swallowed, throat suddenly dry as bone.
"The Fire Lord. Fire Lord Iroh. Is here."
"That's what I said," he clarified, still gasping for breath. "Now come on, we gotta get-"
"Where's my mother" she snapped.
"Toph's getting her, and Aang. They're gonna load onto Appa and get us outta here. Now come on, Katara's waiting for us and we've got to get to the main courtyard before his goons get there!"
They were too late. Azula tried to be dispassionate. Someone, after all, had to be level-headed.
The waterbender had made her stand at the fountain, of course. Judging by the bodies- at least twelve- dead, or unconscious, Azula couldn't tell from this distance- she had given a good account of herself, but, inevitably, she had been overwhelmed. Now she was held, hands behind her back, by two of the Royal Guard that had filled the courtyard.
Unconsciously, Azula placed a hand on Sokka's shoulder. It would do nobody any good if he were to go charging in now. But, although by the rise and fall of his shoulders he seemed to be growing increasingly agitated, he made no move. Instead, he glanced back at her, and nodded, curtly. Katara was in no immediate danger- if they had meant to kill her, they would already have done so.
But why would they take a hostage" And why had they remained here, clustered in the courtyard" What were they-
There was a stir among the assembled soldiers- a shift as they all moved, covering all entrances, as a figure slid down one of the long ropes hanging from the top of the cliff, and before Azula could so much as blink, Fire Lord Iroh was among them.
This time it was Sokka that held Azula back. When she felt his hand on her arm she nearly tore it off, but her attention had been diverted, and it seemed her faculties returned.
He was right. Iroh was still too far from their hiding place to risk a strike. Patience.
Even Katara's struggle against her captors stilled as Iroh's gaze swept the courtyard. The only sound in the breathless air was the measured clack of the Fire Lord's stride across the flagstones.
He was getting closer.
He stopped, just before the fountain. Katara he spared the briefest of glances, before turning his gaze to the walls.
"Avatar," he intoned. "Where are you"
Close enough. She vaulted, leaping from the balcony, fire streaming from her fingertips, an incoherent scream forced from her throat as she descended on her enemy.
He twisted even as she fell, punching forward, and a column of fire streamed towards her before she even hit the ground. She deflected the strike, barely, and hit the floor in a graceless heap.
She stood, and saw Iroh's eyes widen.
She barely noticed a curt arm motion calling the soldiers off. It didn't matter what he said, or did. She was going to kill him. Here and now.
"Azula …how is it that you yet live" he asked, as he easily rebutted her wild strikes.
Azula laughed, mirthlessly.
He shook his head, and manufactured an expression that on anyone else she might have called regret.
"Azula... I know I have never had your regard, but I never meant for this. Not for an instant."
Azula gave her response, which was again deflected easily.
"You killed Father. You killed Zuko. Do you think for one instant it matters what you intended"
She cut him off with a scream.
"You dare" You dare speak his name" Murderer, I will kill you!"
"Enough," he said, and Azula crumpled around his fist, the air knocked from her lungs in one crushing blow. Spots danced in front of her eyes as she was thrown to the floor. Although she could hardly breathe, still she fought to stand, but an armoured boot slammed down onto the back of her neck, pinning her to the stone.
"The Princess is clearly unwell," Iroh said, from somewhere in front of her. She shifted her head, resting her cheek on the stone, still cool from the night. She could breathe this way, at least. "Azula, we shall talk later, when we return to the Palace, but for now, child, you shall stay there. I did not come here for you."
She fumed, silently, as she heard his footsteps move silently away from her.
She could still do this. Even now. She was close enough, and he was distracted. All she needed was a chance.
"Avatar! I know you can hear me," Iroh boomed, proclaiming to the walls of the courtyard. "I know you are listening. I will not insult you, Avatar, I shall not lie. I am here to kill you, Avatar. If you face me now, we can settle this with honour. My men will not interfere."
Azula silently prayed that Aang, for once, would remember to think before acting.
As the silent seconds dragged on, it seemed her prayer had been answered.
"Avatar. You disappoint me." A shift of feet on stone indicated that Iroh had half-turned, back towards her. "Kill her."
Azula's blood froze as she heard the unmistakable shk of a knife being drawn, and with a titanic effort, pushed down with her arms and raised her head a few inches from the flagstones.
Just enough to see one of the soldiers run Katara through.
And the world exploded.
The next few seconds were chaos. The wind howled, the fire roared, the earth cracked.
But somehow, in the maelstrom of sound, Azula heard the distinct whip of a rapidly approaching boomerang.
And the clang as it collided with a helmeted head, accompanied by the sudden cessation of pressure on the back of her neck.
She had been given her chance. Rising drunkenly on the bucking and splitting floor, she stared around, wide-eyed.
The courtyard was barely recognisable. The wind was screaming, light was blaring, every sense was simultaneously inexorably drawn to and painfully repelled from the huge swirling mass of glowing shadow that dominated the far end of the courtyard. Rising within, Azula almost thought she could make out the figure of a boy-
"Now! Kill him now! Kill him now, and it all ends!"
The Fire Lord. Screaming like a demagogue, sparks trailing from his fingers.
Unthinking, she tackled him to the ground.
He was strong. So much stronger than her- he may have been short, but every inch of him seemed to be made out of knuckle. He didn't even bother to fight back against her- just stood, as though she weren't desperately trying to keep him down, wasn't scratching and clawing at him like a wild saber-moose, and with one hard shove, sent her crashing backwards.
He turned back towards the Avatar as she leapt up again, dismissing her. She was having none of it, and hurled a blast of flame at the back of his head.
It never made it close, but it did get his attention. Too late, it occurred to her that this was not a good thing.
"Azula," he hissed, turning towards her, lightning dancing in his eyes as the world collapsed around him, "you have been indulged, because I cannot find it in me to be angry with you. I know you will not believe me if I tell you I am sorry. I know you will not believe me if I tell you that I regret nothing in the world as I regret what happened to your brother. I know you believe I am incapable of remorse. So perhaps instead you will believe me when I say this: if your actions today cause me to fail, if you thwart this one chance we have to end this war, now and forever, you will not be forgiven. You have done no great wrong, not yet. Now stand aside."
Azula spat her response in his face, and swung her fist, aiming for nothing less than taking his head from his shoulders.
It was blocked with the merest effort, and his counterattack sent the world spinning out of orbit.
And Azula rose again, the maelstrom whipping about her, and as she watched the Fire Lord take a stance, she realised, with blistering clarity, that she was about to die.
And then something entirely unexpected happened.
A high and desperate war-cry broke out, and out of the swirling mass of bodies around them burst Sokka, eyes screaming, and before Azula could quite process what was going on, he did something that had never in the history of warfare ever been attempted, and charged full-pelt at the Fire Lord, nothing in hand but a whalebone club.
The sheer audacity of the attack was what saved him. Iroh had been preparing for an Agni-Kai, his head full of fire and lightning, and it had been many years since anyone had tried to kill him with anything as crude as a club. So Sokka managed three whole strides towards him before he gathered his thoughts enough to strike back.
Azula saw fire blossom around Iroh's fist, and darted forward. Sokka was lost, too far deep in rage and fear to even see his enemy coming. She was his only chance.
But her efforts were utterly in vain. As she moved to intercept the strike, in the distance the Avatar bellowed and slammed his fist. And the ground beneath their feet fractured and snapped, and the three of them were sent plunging into the abyss.
They fell, spinning, hurtling down. Against the current, buffeted by wind, Azula forced her eyes to open. Sokka was mere feet in front of her, flailing as he plummeted. Unthinking, she forced her hand out, in defiance of the horrific speed, and though her arms had turned to lead and her eyes were seared, she forced herself to grab at his arm.
Snatching at his forearm, she felt a pointless stab of relief as he grabbed back.
And suddenly everything stopped as she felt a sudden pressure on her ankle, abruptly followed by an abrupt cessation of speed as she slammed into the cliff wall with her back, pain blossoming along her shoulder blades. From below her, there was a sharp oof as Sokka hit the wall too.
It took a moment to realise that she was dangling by her foot. Blood rushing to her head, she blearily looked up. Iroh had grabbed her by the ankle, and with the other snatched at a sturdy root that protruded from the cliff wall.
Unthinking, she lashed out at him with her other leg, thrashing and kicking wildly. Iroh ignored her, muscles in his neck bunching with the effort of holding two people in one hand. After a moment, he grunted, and looked down at her, eyes watering with exertion.
"Let him go," he ordered "or we all die."
Sokka's grip on her wrist tightened. Azula closed her eyes.
After a long second, she opened them again.
"No," she breathed. "Just you." And with her free leg, she lashed at him with a plume of fire. Startled, he let go of her ankle.
And together they fell.
Her grip on Sokka's wrist could have moored ships. Twirling crazily in the air, she pulled him towards her, and wrapped her arms around his torso. "Hold on" she ordered, the wind whipping her words away the second she spat them out. He obeyed, whether he heard her or not, clutching her close, his eyes, wide and terrified, inches from her own.
She kicked down, an explosion of fire beneath her feet. Then another. And another, each plume of flame slowing their fall by a tiny fraction of a moment, until finally it was safe to simply tumble down the last ten feet, onto a pile of rubble and shattered corpses, where they rolled, still entwined together, and finally came to a rest in the mud. There they stayed, arms locked around each other, unable to even summon the power to move. Sokka was shaking like a leaf, and Azula dimly wondered if she seemed any more composed. It wasn't likely.
Sokka spoke first, some minutes later, still shaking. "That was… that was… we're still alive."
"Oh good," Azula managed, and then passed out.