The trees were burning.
Fire snapped and spat, belching thick black smoke into the canopy, withering the leaves and sending them spiralling into the air as hazy red flames spanned the space between the branches. In the distance, something was screaming, something was crying, just at the edge of her hearing, just at the point where the skull met the spine.
She had never been afraid of fire but she couldn't stop herself taking three halting steps backwards and suddenly her back hit something solid and she turned around.
Zuko was in front of her, smiling, holding out his hand and something was terribly wrong with her throat but she couldn't stop herself stretching out her arm.
Above, carving through the smoke and fire and burning woods, a roll of thunder rattled across the sky, and lightning split the world in two.
And Zuko's face changed so suddenly.
And her fingers curled.
And lightning punched through his heart and fire curled around him and ripped him and peeled the skin from his bones and somehow his eyes were the last to burn but by the end it didn't look like Zuko any more.
Azula woke, choking down a scream.
Her eyes opened into darkness, and for an awful second she registered nothing but darkness and heat and stale air and sweat, and she thought she was back in the cave, that everything after had been a long dream that she had finally woken from.
A series of deep, shuddering breaths brought her heart back under control, and she noticed the soft red glow of the walls. Walls that proved to be two large cloaks inexpertly tied together and draped over a low branch to make a rough parody of a tent. Outside, the sun was just beginning to rise.
The jungle. The cliff. She hadn't dreamt any of it after all. She didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed.
She flopped back, running a hand through tangled and greasy hair. There didn't seem to be much point either way. If she was going to start wishing away portions of her life, she should probably go back a lot further than the cave.
The dawn broke, nudging me through the curtains.
The benefits of staying in an inn. I actually got a bed to sleep in last night.
Upon entering the main hall, I am struck by the sudden revelation that I was probably the only person to actually properly sleep last night. The earthbender is picking listlessly at a plate of eggs. The Avatar is nowhere to be seen. And the Lady Ursa...
"Master Piandao," a voice cuts across my thoughts from somewhere behind me, just a harmonic shy of murder. "A word."
The morning was still and warm and, above everything, quiet. Not silent- overhead birds chittered, insects buzzed, and things scuttled in the undergrowth- but it all seemed far away and somehow false, as though a heavy curtain had been dropped between her and the world.
She was standing in a small clearing, in sight of a river- the river, she remembered, belatedly, the river that had been their destination yesterday. A few casual steps forward, and her foot knocked against a stone- a ring of stones. A firepit she didn't remember lighting.
There was only one tent. Something about that seemed odd, somehow.
-There. A small patch of flattened grass. Something (someone) had laid there. Probably most, or all, of the night. Well that explained that then.
Someone was missing.
I followed the Lady Ursa out into the garden in as respectful a silence as I could manage. She clearly had something in mind, and I didn't want to break her concentration.
She was agitated, that much was clear. I took up a place near the door (hovering near the most convenient exit, although in a pinch I could probably clear the garden walls. Just in case.) I wondered, vaguely, just how long she had been stewing.
She twitched as though she wanted to start to pace, but her head flicked around, and she stared me in the eyes.
"So. Master. What, if I may be permitted to ask, were you going to have us do next?" Sarcasm masquerading as politeness. Not a good sign.
I could feel my hackles rising, but I did my best to quell the rising irritation I was feeling. It would achieve nothing to start a fight.
Unfortunately, the Lady Ursa didn't seem to agree. "You are, after all, clearly in charge. Who would you have us abandon next?"
I took a moment to breathe, and to allow her to do the same. I tried for diplomacy. "My Lady, I understand-"
"You understand nothing!" she snaps, eyes shining and fury propelling her towards me, teeth bared and hands balling into fists. "You stand there, offering nothing but apologies and lies and false promises, and you dare tell me you understand? I watched her fall! Do you understand that, Master? I watched my children die!"
"And what would you have had us do?" I can't help but retort. "Iroh's men were combing the woods, another life was hanging in the balance, and what would you have done?" Would you have looked for a corpse? almost forces it's way out of my throat, and I barely stop myself from saying it. For a moment, I am surprised once again by my own capacity for cruelty.
"Iroh lived!" she snaps. "Iroh fell with her!" In her eyes I can see desperation, clutching at anything that might give her some kind of hope. I can feel the brief stab of fury in my head drain away, and even as she gets angrier I feel my shame at provoking her growing. She takes a step in my direction and -she's armed.
The observation tears through my brain before I can blink. A knife, large, Water Tribe make, probably whalebone, hangs not-quite-casually at her hip, her hand too close to it to have fallen naturally.
That changes everything. She looks in half a mind to use it and I don't know how good she is with a blade but I know enough not to underestimate anyone like this. She's gripped by the kind of anger that overrides everything up to and including death.
My hand twitches towards my sword entirely on reflex as I feel the wind stir the hairs on the back of my neck. My heartbeat is loud in my ears, and the Lady Ursa's hand nudges the hilt of the knife.
All of a sudden the door behind me exploded outwards, and the wind roared as the Avatar sprang between us, interrupting our frank exchange of ideas. His brow furrowed as he glared at us both in turn, four-foot-two of compressed diplomatic anger.
"You," he snapped, settling on me first and pointing a finger so severely it almost went up my nose, "need to back off. What do you think you're doing? You put that sword down right now or I will take it off you."
His tone was so strangely reminiscent of my old Drill Sergeant's that my hand was unbuckling my sword from my back without consulting my brain first. Before the scabbard hit the floor, he was spinning on his heel, and he turned on Ursa, glaring upward up at her.
"And you! Put that knife down! Put it down right this minute!" Shock is one way to dispel anger, and here it seemed to work. She blinked heavily, and relaxed her hands, deliberately.
"Right," he said, with a sigh. "It's... it's been a rough couple of days," he said, voice tightening slightly, and I finally found the time to remember that the boy in front of me had just lost two friends. "But this isn't the answer. We can't start tearing into each other or we've already lost, okay. Besides," and for the first time in the conversation he looked small, "if you're gonna blame anyone, you should blame me."
I didn't understand what he was referring to, but it looked as though Ursa did. She shook her head sadly, though, and a small part of me was pleased that she was at least discerning with her anger, and not about to take it out on the Avatar.
"Look," he finishes, small and out of breath. "I'll be around. Katara's gonna need a couple of days rest anyway. We'll talk later. Just... don't fight, okay? Please? Good. Right now there's someone I need to see."
He weaved off, until he almost tripped over the diminutive earthbender, who had presumably followed to see what all the fuss was about.
"Toph!" he exclaimed, sleepily. "You gotta help me! I haven't slept in days."
She considered him thoughtfully for a few seconds, before extending one finger and pushing him hard right in the centre of his forehead. He toppled like a felled pine. I'm half convinced he was asleep before he hit the ground.
Well, it would probably do him good.
Before I turn to leave, the Lady Ursa lays a hand on my shoulder.
"The Avatar is right," she murmurs, low enough that the earthbender cannot overhear. "This is no time for us to stand divided. But if I find out that there was a chance my daughter lived, and your actions took that chance away? I will find you. When everything is over, I will find you."
I let her make her threats.
The chances that I was going to live to see the end of this were never good, anyway.
"Okay," Sokka's voice burst from over her shoulder, and she turned around to see him marching back into view, drawn sword in hand and dozens of tiny cuts all over his face, apparently talking to the clearing at large, "so it turns out that a sword is not exactly like a machete. It's way, way harder to shave with."
Ah. There he was.
It's a fine summer's morning, and ideally I would like to spend it in the town. I do not know this place, and it would be sensible to scout the area. If we are where I think we are, there should be a White Lotus outpost in town somewhere. It would be useful to touch base.
However the... altercation with the Lady Ursa, no matter how bloodlessly it ended, has convinced me it might be sensible to stay out of sight, just for a little while. To allow everyone to cool down. And, if I'm honest, to allow the Avatar time to wake up again. Just in case.
I spend the rest of the day in fitful meditation. I'm not sure what it is- perhaps it's the fight with the Lady Ursa, perhaps it's Hama and her heritage, but something about this place is dredging up old memories, and the more I try to push them aside the more insistently they intrude, like picking at a scab.
The snow crunched under every footstep, packed down by the men in front. Above, the sky spilt and spilled a thousand unnatural colours, the mile-high curtains of light flowing and flickering above us.
Some of the old men thought it was a sign. This is not our land, and the Spirits do not want us here. I'm not such a fool, though, and paid little attention to the muttering of cowards, shying at imagined warnings from the Spirits. We had more pressing concerns.
Our column became separated from the Expeditionary Force five days ago. We were ambushed on open ground- even with as few waterbenders as they had, the barbarians were still a threat, hiding under the snow until we were almost on top of them, scattering the van and sending the rear into full retreat. We had been a company of one hundred foot soldiers, near the front of the column. We numbered twenty-five, now.
And the wolves were shadowing us, waiting for the night to fall.
They wouldn't be waiting for long. It was summer back home. Perhaps they thought this would help us in the assault. If so, they were wrong. The night falls quickly in this Agni-forsaken land, and lasts a long, long time.
Most of the men had scavenged furs from the few tribesmen that had fallen to us, blending in to the landscape a little better. I went without.
My palms itched.
They followed the river, where they could. There was no path, so more than once they were forced into the undergrowth, where roots and tangled bushes snapped at her feet, conspiring to trip her.
She almost fell more than once.
My temperament worsened as the shadows grew longer. They were out there, our craven hunters, but they wouldn't dare fight us, even at a fourth of our full strength, until they had all advantages on their side.
We made camp, burning what detritus we could, creating a ring of small fires guarding a central pit. We didn't even bother with the pretence of setting up tents. Snow makes for a poor barrier, but we set up a stockade as best we could. And then there was nothing to do but wait.
And wait. As the sun went down, a few men passed around the evening meal- dried hunks of penguin-otter. It was possibly the most vile thing I had ever eaten, and did little to allay my mood.
Finally, night fell.
He talked almost constantly, a high-speed muttering that she wasn't sure was directed at her, or anyone more close at hand than the Spirits themselves.
She couldn't work up the energy to follow what he was saying, so she didn't try.
My sword was in my hand the second I heard it.
The night was cold, but clear, free of wind or snow, the sky above as placid and smooth as a mirror. A good night. The moon was with us, picking out every detail in sharp relief, and I couldn't hold back a smile. Everything was perfect.
If you weren't listening for it, you'd have missed it. A soft whistling noise, almost indistinguishable from the cry of a bird. Almost.
We were ready for them.
A flurry of javelins burst from the dark, but we had been watching for them (the savages hadn't learned any new tricks, it seemed). Mere yards away, a cluster of dark shapes burst from the snowline, a ragged line that charged our makeshift fortifications.
I closed my eyes just as our few firebenders went to work, and the ring of fires jumped and blazed, suddenly may times the height of a man. Even through closed lids, the fire burnt a glowing orange. But when I opened them, I could still see. Our opponents were blinded and confused, their charge stalled.
With a roar, we were upon them.
The sun dipped below the horizon- early in the day, for summer, but then they were at the bottom of a canyon, so the horizon was higher than it would otherwise have been.
The dark grew cloying, and it was hard to see where to put her feet, so he relented, and made to set up camp at the first clear spot.
The mêlée was chaotic, all noise and heat and blades lunging out of the darkness and the stench of burning hair. The south breeds hardy men, large and brutish, and their weapons are of the same mould- spear and knife, club and machete. Tools for hacking and breaking.
The dance of the sword is an alien art to them. I did my best to instruct.
They didn't have a plan for retreat. Arrogant of them. It cost them- they lacked discipline, each warrior hunting for glory, in competition against his fellows almost as much as at war with us, and we punished them for it.
But that fight was the first time I saw a man truly blood-drunk. He was a giant, even among the barbarians- a great tiger-ox of a man, neck as thick as a man's waist. He tore through our line, a whirlwind of blood and bone and steel and fire. Three times I saw him take a mortal wound, and three times he shrugged it off, momentum carrying him forward, lightning in his eyes and foam on his lips.
I placed myself between his charge and my brothers. I don't know if he accepted the challenge, or if he just saw another target. Or if he even saw me at all.
I will bear the scar he gave me for the rest of my life, but even a berserker has to take notice when he is relieved of his head.
She picked listlessly at a fish until it grew cold, staring into the fire until he announced that he would take the first watch. He nodded at her as she stumbled towards the tent, and, perhaps, sleep.
Our victory over the warband was a turning-point. We retained control of the area long enough for the rest of the Expeditionary Force to inflict significant casualties on the Southern Water Tribes. It was also the tipping point that persuaded the War Council that land invasion of the Southern Water Tribe was not feasible, leading to the formation of the Southern Raiders.
For my small part in the battle, I received a medal, a promotion, and a posting to the Southern Earth Kingdom. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
The trees were burning.