Travel in the Earth Kingdom is ridiculously long. Azula supposes it’s the nature of the beast. It hardly matters now, Azula decides as she dainty steps out of her palanquin. Mai, among others are there to greet her, and she initiates a hug between the two. A smile tugs at her lips at Mai’s request to kill her. Oh the boredom. “It’s great to see you Mai.” Quickly Azula steps to the side. She has no intention to be included in a deathly group hug. Ty Lee bounds forwards with the intent. Between gasps of air Mai manages to say, “I thought you ran off to join the circus? You said it was your calling.”
Ty Lee smiles wide, “Well Azula called a little louder.”
Stepping behind the Azula places a hand on their shoulders. “I have a mission and I need you both.”
In a typical Mai response, “Count me in. Anything to get me out of this place.”
Oh how she has missed her friend.
Azula is entirely furious. How could that man be cut from the same cloth as Mai? Imbeciles like him give the Fire Nation a bad reputation. As the trio marches down the halls toward their destination, she reminds herself sins of the father should not be reaped by the child. Doesn’t stop her from antagonizing Mai though.
“You let your father put us in a precarious position.”
“It is not my place to advise nor deter him, Princess,” she blandly reports.
Azula hums in the back of her throat. They arrive at the agreed rendezvous. She evaluates the rag tag group of rebels. A boy who appears the youngest member sets himself a little away from his group, wide brimmed hat casting a shadow over his features.
“You brought my brother?”
"He’s here. We’re ready to trade,” the boy says.
Azula stifles her grin, glances at Mai and ‘King’ Bumi, projects her voice with little effort.
“I’m sorry, but a thought just occurred to me. Do you mind?” She addresses her last sentence to Mai.
“Of course not, Princess Azula.”
“We’re trading a two year old for a king. A powerful earthbending king.”
Bumi nods his head enthusiastically. Azula ignores him. “It just doesn’t feel like a fair trade, does it?”
Mai surveys the group, the boy cradling Tom Tom in his arms. Her eyes briefly flutter over Azula’s face like a paintbrush. “You’re right. The deal's off.” She signals for the king to be swept away in his metal cage. Ty Lee makes a slight squeak at the turn of events, cheeks flushed in excitement. The boy rushes forward, eyes attached to the King, and towards the trio. Azula blasts fire with her left hand down at his feet. He shouts in surprise, leaping up to avoid the flames, at an impossible height. Not even Ty Lee - or herself, without bending could jump that high. The boys staff unfolds, a barbaric contraption - the silly hat the boy donns flies off his head, revealing a spanse of bald and blue blue blue.
“The Avatar!” She is momentarily astonished. But the blue arrow tattoo of a master Airbender leaves little room to doubt the boys identity. Smugness envelopes her. “My lucky day.”
The Avatar attempts to flee, into the sky but Azula holds tight to a winch, propelling her up at a remarkable speed, in pursuit. What an interesting turn of events…
She is flung into the air, time almost slows as her target leaves himself vulnerable. Distracted by the Earth King.
Fire comes dangerously close but the Avatar deflects the worst of it but the chain attached to the King’s coffin snaps. The two plummet. Azula scowls, and hops onto a nearby mail cart. Coasting on a chute above the duo, she rapidly fires at them. The rush of battle sizzles within her veins.
“Who are you?” He shouts in annoyance, just managing to fend off oncoming attacks. Azula doesn’t bother replying. The Avatar growls and makes his first offensive act. A cloud of dust obscures her prey from her line of sight. Azula mutters a few choice words, crouches within the cart. The dust clears but she remains in her position, ears straining for movement - there. He ducks late but only barely. His clothes singes against his skin. He slaps at the fire, yelping. Azula is about to deliver the killing blow -
Her chute coaster is no more. There is expanse of nothing, the ground juts miles below her, and the coaster propels forward off the track. Azula uses her momentum and fire, catapulting her across towards the parallel tracks. Rock wall in her path threatening too close not to hit - her fingers smash, crunching, fire blazing. It gives way. Pain blinding body flailing. But there is no room for error. Wryly she thinks, this is what clotheslining means - as her weight knocks into Aang. Off his Bumi surfboard, and she along with him hurtle down to Earth.
Head over toe, toe over head. Her heart sings. She could be terrified. A thousand foot drop. It can only end in death. If she didn’t have The Last Airbender in a chokehold. The drop is dizzying, leaves her breathless, and her surroundings blur together. He gurgles something. Azula resists tightening her grip around his windpipe just on principle. Instead she secures her left grip around his middle, relaxing her other from around his neck. The disc inside her chest is dangerously close to imploding. If they weren’t nosediving they’d give the illusion of a crocodile piggy back ride - albeit a murderous one. Fire comes from the breath, Azula assumes the same can be said for Air. Obviously.
The Avatar makes another noncommittal sound, perhaps in foolish appreciation - the ground is meters away, it occurs to her they will splat, innards splayed across the ground - a whirling swish. Where crushed bones should be there is a sphere of air. The sensation of a concentrated windstorm envelopes her feet which penetrates the sphere. For a moment there is nothing but a cool buzz of activity. The arm once wrapped around his throat rests heavy across the boys shoulders. Tentative gray sea under heavy set brows, their eyes meet. Azula flattens her hand across his midsection - brows shoot up at her action - increases the temperature to a blatant first degree burn. The boy yelps, air sphere deflates, and the two crash to the ground.
Azula softens her fall with a summersault, rolls into a crouch. Fire daggers at the ready. The Avatar struggles to his feet. Anger and confusion display across his features like a theatrical performance. “Why’d you do that? I saved you!”
She tsk’s. “You saved yourself. I die, you die Avatar.”
He openly gapes at her, fingers splayed across the injury she inflicted. “You… you bet your life on… my pacifism?”
Azula shows him her teeth, caught between a smile and a sneer. As if her thought process was so simple. “Don’t act surprised Avatar. Your reputation precedes you.” She pauses. “Although. I do wonder, what happened in the North Pole? Loophole in your dogma?”
His face contorts, the slight awe wiped away. Fists clench. “Who are you? Why are you following me?”
The daggers crackle in her hands as she idly twirls one, what’s left of leather glove smoking. His attention is drawn to the movement, the contrast of electric blue and violent scar tissue. Azula decides to indulge him. “Just a humble servant of the Firelord,” her lips quirk. “Too bad you’ve been caught in the crosshairs so early in the game -” she fires at his feet with one hand, throwing her dagger, elongates the dagger into a javelin - true to to its mark.
Earth rockets the Avatar into the air. There is a roar, the air bison - the rag tag team. The beast catches him. Azula can only stare. Her prize gone! Atmosphere around her shreds, Yin and Yang split… Azula raises her hand to the sky - “I wouldn’t do that Your Highness!”
Instantly she directs her lightening towards the intruder. Ground erupts into a barrier between the two, showering the area in dirt. Fury envelopes her but she manages to contain in a single displeased sigh. As the dust clears her suspicions are confirmed. The throaty hoarse shout could only have belonged to the notorious Mad King Bumi. Azula wrinkles her nose in disgust, evaluating the damage. The Avatar escaped. King Bumi can bend within a metal coffin. Today had not been a complete waste, she has valuable information on her enemies, (she also notes how she has emulated both of her friends habits - Mai's gruesome sighs and Ty Lee's disastrous need to see the bright side.)
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
He lights up in agreement. “Yes! Someone who understands negative jing! Princess there is far more to you than meets the eye!”
Dark unfathomable plans spin finely before her. The King’s actions and the Governor's reports on Bumi’s behavior are placed as neat as a Pai Sho pieces on the board, laid out for her to read. Azula unceremoniously flops upon the the King’s coffin prison, sits, examining the broken twist of her fingers. “Mad King Bumi. You could not be more correct.”
“I’m turning myself in of course, take me back I am through! An old man such as myself -”
“I’ll see to your accommodations personally.” Her voice is sugar sweet yet direct, businesslike. “Unfortunate you exposed your one trump card. How will your city survive?”
Bumi snorts, “It had to be done.”
Azula understands, the fantastic hope one places on another. A mistake, and always misplaced. They sit together until gaurds arrive to haul Bumi back to his prison.
Azula’s hands clasped behind her back, posture relaxed in militant stance. She faces the setting sun. If Mai didn’t know any better she would have described Azula as serene. Mai joins her, the sun slides out of view, fading rays casting shadows over the land. Mai hates Omashu but in the waning light the city wasn’t half bad.
Her friend doesn’t break the silence so Mai does. “Tom Tom has been returned,” her voice is flat, unconcerned. Detached. “But you know that, don’t you.”
Azula watches Mai from the corner of her eye. She allows her friend to continue.
“He was never in harm's way.” A question as much as a statement. Mai reminds herself of her friend’s M.O., Azula didn’t lie to her friends. Manipulate yes, but Mai found Azula took certain liberties for Ty Lee and herself.
Silence is the most confirmation Mai will receive.
“Father says the contraption you requested is being commissioned,” Mai trails off, sensing an oncoming dismissal. She turns to go inside, formality dismissed between friends alone.
“Mai. I hope your father can be trusted to hold New Ozai more efficiently than Omashu, I will not have my father’s namesake fall.”
“Do you ever miss him?” Ty Lee disrupts the calm drag of brush through hair. The scent of jasmine flutters with each stroke. Azula blinks.
“You’re going to have to clarify,” Mai drones before Azula can process Ty Lee’s question. Mai lazily sprawls across an armchair, calmly disinterested as always. The familiar scene brings a smile to Azula’s lips. If Mai’s room was switched out for her own than this would be exactly as the old days.
“Zuko,” Ty Lee chirps.
In unison Azula and Mai turn, eyes narrowing onto their friend. Silence, thick and quaking stretches like film around the three. A tense sense of deja vu swallows Azula, hadn’t this been Ty Lee days ago? Delicately combing through her friend’s hair, every bit as welcoming as wicked? Her mouth twists. Ghosts over his name. She hasn’t thought of him in years. Not unless provoked, that is, by mother… the oaths sworn on his journey to Agni… that had been the straw to break the ostrich horse’s back. Zuko’s shrine resides in mother’s quarters. That had been reason enough to never visit him. Azula refused to subject herself to that woman’s presence if it could be avoided. Even if it would be the honorable, selfless course.
Zuko. Poor little Zuko. What was there to miss? He was hardly a person before he was snuffed out.
“Yes,” she answers.
If they noticed her lie neither girl call her on it. Azula absentmindedly examines her scarred hand, the worn red of the fingerprints, flayed pink of her hand, and the burgundy mess spanning her arm. She closes her eyes. Grinding bones, the onset terror of being overpowered, trust. What it means to burn.
“Must have been traumatic to lose your first love.”
Mai’s sprawling limbs appearing more like springs than wallowing adolescence. She closes her fist around the idea, wants to run with it. Her incisors seem to elongate, the taste of something deep and raw so close. Admit it, she thinks, you loved him. Her internal goading has no influence over Mai, although Azula notices the shrinkage of Mai’s mask. The carefully blank and impartiality she strives for an uphill battle.
“We can’t save them all,” her voice is a creak, to her ever credit, dull.
A shiver threatens to run down Azula’s spine. Brothers. We can’t save them all . But that would imply Azula wanted to save Zuko at all. If she had the chance would she have? He was useless. Pathetic. A terrible elder sibling. He hardly bothered with her at all, only came around for playdates.... And mother said -
“Appreciate Tom Tom this time around. He was stolen from right under your nose, was he not?” Azula nods to Ty Lee, to continue her brush strokes, “Like Ty Lee said, you would miss him.”