It had been a very long day. Aang had flown all night trying to get back to Katara, and hadn’t slept a wink.
Then he’d had to force himself underground when his Earthbending wasn’t quite up to that yet, with only Mushi to help him if something went wrong (and don’t get him wrong, Mushi is lovely and quite possibly a powerful bender, but he was also possibly Iroh, and possibly a very un-powerful bender), then Azula had shown up with her entire coup on the Earth King that he now had to deal with, apparently.
Add that to the fact this he may have permanently locked his chakras, and the fact that he hadn’t eaten since yesterday, and…
And no one could find Li.
Well, with all of that to deal with and Aang not seeing a break in sight, an underground battle with Azula, even one with Katara by his side, wasn’t going to be fun.
(He wondered what it would have been like had Li been there. Would he have been able to talk her down, or at least distract her long enough for them to regroup, like he had last time? Maybe Azula would hesitate to fight him, and they could get in a shot and deal with her faster – Aang didn’t want to fight dirty, but he really didn’t have the energy for honour at that exact moment.)
Aang swirled his staff to cut through a wave of fire, sparing a glance to see Katara slashing through it herself, making an attack out of her defence as she pushed her wave further. Azula dodged, ever quick, and released her own counterattack, moving to avoid being flanked by the two of them.
One out of a dozen quick darts of fire managed to catch Aang’s shoulder alight, putting him out of commission as he paused to put out the flame. He had to be careful not to let his own will to fight, his own fear, into the flame as he took a hold of it. He didn’t dare try to do anything with it; Li had already warned him against practising on his own and he couldn’t afford any mistakes right then.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Katara take a step back, losing ground as she tried to both fight off Azula and keep her from pushing her advantage against Aang at the same time.
Aang gulped. He was sure that between the two of them, they could handle Azula, but he knew that if they took too long they’d have to contend with the Dai Li as well. Azula only had to stall.
“Well, well, well,” Aang’s heart leapt strangely at the familiar voice, dropped into a differently familiar drawl. “Is this a private party, or can anyone join?”
Aang twisted around to see… well, he had to be Li. The fire in his hands, coupled with his presence in the city, ruled out Kuzon. Bobbatha and Zuko both had their scars on the other side and that was… Aang was certain that the scar in front of him was the right side. (Well, the left side, but…) Besides, Zuko was dead and Bobbatha was still in the Fire Nation.
He was Li, but he didn’t look like Li. His normally loose hair was in a topknot; his clothes were a rich red rather than his normal soft brown; his swords were missing, replaced with flames. There was something different about his smile.
He approached Aang, gently twining fire between his fingers. Maybe… he must have lost his swords at some point, and maybe he had grown more comfortable with his fire since he started to teach Aang. He was a lot better than he thought he was.
(Aang was very good at being encouraging. He must have been able to help his friend. He smiled slightly wider.)
Aang turned his back on him to face Azula. He grinned. “This will be a lot easier if you just surrender now, Azula.”
“Funny,” she smiled, “I was just about to say the same thing.”
A flood of water pushed him just fast enough to avoid the jet of fire at his back. Aang fell awkwardly, just barely avoiding hitting his head on the ground. The back of his robes was singed black.
Aang leapt to his feet. “Li! What are you doing?” Maybe Azula had captured Mushi and was using him as leverage (but no, Aang had only seen him half an hour before); or it could be the Dai Li’s manipulations (but he hadn’t thought they’d have had enough time to change him this much). Whatever was going on here, it couldn’t be Li’s decision.
Aang dodged a whip of fire, sending a rush of air towards Li-Who-Didn’t-Want-To-Be-Here, and watched his attack barely ruffle his hair. He couldn’t fight Li – not until he knew what was going on.
Li smirked at him, looking nothing like Li. Between the flames and the red and the hair pulled back to bare his scar he almost looked like…
Aang’s breath dropped out of his body. He looked between Azula and her brother, forced himself to move through the oncoming blows even as his mind whirred.
There were some powerful firebenders in the Royal family – he had seen Azula and Zuko in action personally; had been taught the spirituality by Mushi and Li; had heard tales of Firelord Ozai, of Princes and Iroh and Bobbatha and Princess Ozaila. He’d seen how quickly Kuzon managed to adapt to his natural opposite, when given the opportunity to learn.
Li had told him, when they had been forced by nightmares to camp in the garden and pretend it was still the good old days of fighting Zuko and Zhao, of his oldest brother’s ferocity; of his tenacity and anger and ruthlessness. Of his utter mastery of the flame.
Aang knew he was not ready to fight Bobbatha.
Beside him, he heard Katara call out, “Li! Whatever she did, however she’s forcing you, we can help you! We can fix this! You don’t have to-”
“Don’t bother, Katara,” Aang sighed and dodged a fireball. “That’s not Li,” he unleashed a wind tunnel, baring his teeth in a growl when he dodged it easily, smirk firmly in place. “He’s Bobbatha.”
Bobbatha gave a smirk, unleashing another wave of flames with an unnecessary showy flourish. “In the flesh.”
Aang and Katara launched a counter, both wielding the same water to take him out, before their concentration was shot by a wheezing cough behind them.
Azula had collapsed to her knees, clutching her sides and shaking. She wasn’t breathing properly.
Bobbatha paused, his smirk overtaken, just for a second, by a look of concern. He covered it so quickly Aang almost wasn’t certain he’d seen it.
With a sigh full of sparks, Bobbatha, called out to his sister, “Would you mind dying after we’ve finished putting these idiots in the dirt?”
Azula let out a series of hiccupping coughs, her mouth twisted up into a manic grin. She scrabbled at the ground. “Are you so sure you need my help-” she wheezed- “Bobbatha?”
“Come on, Ozaila-” (spirits, no - Li had told him how dangerous Ozaila was)- “you're supposed to be a professional.”
She choked instead of getting back up to fight.
Katara caught Aang’s eye, gesturing with her head towards Bobbatha. Aang stomped, pulling out gravel to fling in a wide arc, but Katara shook her head, holding out one stalling hand.
She turned towards Bobbatha, an arc of water gently floating around her head. “Where’s Li?”
Bobbatha smiled. It could almost be sweet, if it weren’t so sharp. “Maybe I’m Li.”
Aang snarled. “We know you’re Bobbatha! Li told us all about you-”
“How sweet. Has he missed me? He always was a-”
“Shut up!” Katara yelled. “Tell us where he is. Now.”
Bobbatha examined his nails. “Mm. I don’t know his exact location… but he should be halfway to the Fire Nation by now.”
Aang’s stomach dropped. Despite the fires that raged around him, the world turned grey. “No.”
Darkness called at the edges of his vision; within his hollow lungs.
Bobbatha smugged at him, uncaring of his brother’s predicament. “I’m sure his trial will be well publicised. Or you could join him in prison, if you like.” He offered Aang his hand. “I’ll escort you there myself.”
Li couldn’t be going back there. Aang wouldn’t allow him to go anywhere near his father ever again.
He dropped into the lotus position, pulled a protective layer of spikes over his head, and meditated.
It was usually more fun when Zuko made Aang cry.
That was a horrible thing to think, but this was a horrible thing to do.
Azula’s choking laughter on the floor – he must have forgotten to tell her about ‘Bobbatha’ – was the closest thing he had to a resolution to all of this. Everything they were about to do was risky, and he relished in seeing her so happy.
In the few minutes he had until Aang came bursting out of the ground, arrows aglow, he would have to tie up his lies. All part of his daily routine.
(Thank fuck Toph isn’t here.)
“I suppose I should apologise for my sister’s behaviour,” he said to Katara, in as conversational a tone as he could manage when she looked at him like that.
“I think you should apologise for what you’ve done to your brother.”
Zuko scrunched up his nose. “…Nah. I don’t think so. He was the traitor first there.
“Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. Or rather,” he smiled at her, looking at her in the corner of his good eye, “it’s more there than here but I’m not sure where the there is so-”
“Will you get to the point?”
“I’m not,” a laugh forced itself out of his throat, a smile tugging his mouth out of place. “I’m not Bobbatha.”
She blinked. “Yes, you are. There’s no one else you could be.”
“I could be Li-”
“So you’d rather your friend be in danger than be a traitor?”
“He would still be in danger if he were a traitor. From us as well as you.”
He was careful not to gulp; hoped his forced smile kept the colour in his skin. He’d seen Katara in action.
“I’ll be sure to let him know. Still, you’re not wondering who I am, if I’m not Bobbatha?”
“What does that have to do with Ozaila?”
He coughed. He’d forgotten about that one for a minute. “She likes a good joke as much as anyone else.”
Katara glowered at the non-answer. (Never mind how she pretended not to be interested.)
“Well,” Zuko continued, “you already know how close Li and I are, I’m sure. We have a lot of inside jokes actually. My personal favourites are ‘the scar is on the other side’, and ‘father would probably believe us if we started pretending we had more brothers’. ‘Bobbatha’ is a new name though. Absolutely inspired.”
He smiled slightly too widely, emanating smugness.
(He’d just told her he was lying about having twin brothers. This was where it started getting dangerous.)
Her eyes widened. “He lied? No, he wouldn’t do that.”
He raised his eyebrow. “You’re finding it far too easy to ignore his upbringing. At the end of the day, he’s still a Prince of the Fire Nation, and he still missed his favourite-and-only brother enough to keep up our favourite jokes, keeping me alive even after my oh-so-tragic death.”
“Z-zuko?” She looked too surprised, even at seeing the obvious.
(Draw it back to their guilt, make it their fault. Li only did it because you told him I was dead.)
He shrugged, dropped in the killing blow, “As far as revenge goes, it’s far too tame for me, but I’ll allow it, seeing as I wasn’t actually dead.”
He paused, spotting the start of Aang’s tell-tale glow. “It looks like we’re running out of time.”
“Yes,” Katara snarled. “It’s time for you to tell me where to find Li!”
He swallowed. She really was upset, and he might have to reveal himself as Li-in-disguise-as-Zuko (Dear Sweet Agni, this was getting ridiculous) at some point. Even if he didn’t, it would probably be best to make Zuko seem like a bit less of an asshole, for future proceedings.
He stepped a bit closer, lowering his voice a fraction to convey an air of secrecy. She narrowed her eyes but did not attack. “I genuinely don’t know where he is. Ozaila took care of those proceedings before I could get involved-”
(“Her name actually is Ozaila?”
“I’d rather leave you guessing about that.”)
“-If it were up to me, he’d be… elsewhere. Not somewhere where he could get me into trouble, but somewhere further from our father.”
She crossed her arms. “Those are empty words. I have no reason to believe you, and it doesn’t matter even if you are telling the truth. Either help him or shut up.”
“That’s fair,” he nodded. “How about this then: I’ll try to keep him alive. On my honour,” his smile turned wry. “I can’t promise any more than that.”
“Wouldn’t want to risk falling out with your daddy,” she sneered. “I understand.”
“I don’t think you do,” he replied, quieter than he’d meant to. He turned his head away, carefully not looking at how her eyes widened as they tracked his scar.
“Are you two done?” came Azula behind him, thankfully cutting the conversation short.
He arched his eyebrow, “Are you?”
Her gritted teeth looked almost sharp. “That. Wasn’t. My fault.”
“No,” Zuko agreed. “It was Li’s.”
Azula glowered, but couldn’t explain why that was actually his fault.
It was at that point that Aang burst out of the ground, glowing, and then there was lightning and screaming and Azula’s iron grip on his arm as they fled the city.
A coup on father. Really. They’d had Ba Sing Se in the palms of their hands, and they fled like cowards after a measly fake-Avatar-murder.
(“Promise me you’ll weaken your lightning strike.”
“You said the water girl can heal him.”
“Do you want the Avatar to die?”
“It doesn’t change my plans much either way, to be honest.”
Zuko and his damned puppy-kitten eyes.)
The things Azula did for her brother, it truly was embarrassing.
He’d made a few good points, she would admit (the war was ruining their Nation; this was the easiest way to deal with father; Azula would look glorious in a Firelord’s robes) but he had spent most of the time talking nonsense (it was the right thing to do; he doesn’t want to fight his friends; “I love you, Lala.”).
She would have to train that out of him.
Still, she couldn’t deny it was… tactically sound to keep Zuko – strong, loyal, entertaining – by her side, especially when he had control over the Avatar and he had sworn to deal with the more irritating and bothersome aspects of their joint rule.
After learning about all of his new lies, she couldn’t help but get excited about getting to work with him for a long-term basis.
(“Bobbatha,” the Avatar hissed in her mind, horror warring with rage in his tone. She did not giggle.)
This was going to be fun.