Her home was gone. Her family, gone. Her comfortable bed, her five course meals, and all the other privileges of wealth, gone. All she had left was the clothes on her back, a small bag of supplies, and a patch of cold, hard ground to sleep on.
Toph had never felt better.
Within her self-made rock tent she grinned to herself, stretching out lazily like a cat, and the ground gently moulded itself around her body into the most perfectly comfortable shape. Who knew that running away from home would be such a great idea? Toph savoured the unparalleled connection she could feel to her element. She'd never been allowed to sleep in such an undignified way before, and now that she was free to do whatever she wanted she jumped at the opportunity. Through her back she could feel the soft vibrations of the world going to sleep around her: the slow breathing of the weary weasel-mice in the nearby burrow; the sway of the tree branches in the evening wind…
And the almost- silent tap of Blue's feet as he crept back into camp.
She'd only been travelling with them for a day so far, but Toph had picked up from casual conversation that Blue was fairly new to the team too. Before that he'd been wandering alone, fighting the Fire Nation wherever he found them. It explained why every sign she picked up from him through the Earth suggested that he was deeply paranoid: the way his muscles were always tense and ready for action; the way he never failed to look around the second he entered a room; and the way he crept out of camp to scout the area the moment he seemed sure everyone else was asleep. The Blue Spirit had clearly had a difficult life before this, and had learned to watch every shadow for the next misfortune waiting to jump out at him. His nighttime scouting was probably his way of checking that nothing could be a threat to him before he let his guard down by sleeping.
Well, he could rest easy now that she was part of the crew! Nothing escaped her notice!
Speaking of which…
Toph pressed her palm flat against the ground, picking up more of the strange tremors. Something very loud, very heavy and very far away was moving towards them at a worrying pace. It felt a little like an avalanche, but was thinner and ran over flat terrain. Toph had never felt anything like it before, but she was almost certain it was nothing good.
"Guys!" She called out, dropping her rock tent with a thud to wake them up. "We have a problem…"
Tanya was in a foul mood.
It was, in her opinion, quite rightly deserved. Azula was being petty, controlling, and honestly kind of a bitch! How dare she try and use the fact Tanya had been going above and beyond what her duties required against her! She had been working hard and taking the initiative to best ensure the success of their mission, and then Azula turned around and had the gall to claim that she was disobedient! Even if the princess was still just a teenager, such poor leadership was most unbecoming of the Fire Lord's heir!
The cold war between them had been going on for days now, with neither side willing to relent or make any sort of offer for peace. Poor Ty Lee and Mai had been having a rough time tiptoeing between them and trying to play mediators. Tanya felt for them, but had been unable to be the bigger person like she normally was and extend the olive branch. If she backed down here then her plan to seek out the spirit library was off the table for good, and then their best shot at discovering The Avatar's weakness would be gone. All she had to do was wait a little for longer for Azula to finally get over herself.
With time however came the seeds of doubt, and despite knowing that she was in the right, Tanya could not help but consider some of the things Azula had claimed. Could her wariness of Being X be making her leap to conclusions? Maybe spirit interference was not the reason behind her frustrating failures to capture The Avatar so far? Had she actually just been genuinely outsmarted at Omashu?
No. Not that couldn't be the case! She was a general in the finest military in the continent! She had a literal lifetime of military experience! Her decisions had changed the course of a war that enveloped an entire world! It was inconceivable that three plucky children and a demented old man could get the better of her!
A knock on the door broke her out of her thoughts, and a second later Ty Lee poked her head into her room. "Tanya? We've spotted them in the distance. Azula wants you armed and ready for action."
Tanya scowled. "Well, if the princess demands it, I guess I'd better obey." She replied sarcastically.
Let it not be said that Ty Lee did not try to keep up a cheerful smile, but even she couldn't quite hide the awkward wince that grew on her face. "Listen, Tanya, I know things haven't been great between you and Azula recently, but don't you think this fighting between you may cause… you know… tactical problems?"
"Oh, I'm sure it will." Tanya replied shortly. "Azula had better sort herself out quickly then."
"Right. Of course. Sure." Ty Lee was fidgeting nervously. "But shouldn't reconciliation be a two- way road?"
Tanya turned to glare at her, golden eyes narrowed dangerously. "What are you trying to say?"
Ty Lee gulped nervously, but to her credit pressed ahead anyway. "I'm just suggesting that perhaps, if you and Azula want to make up, then you both need to be willing to see where the other is coming from."
Tanya scoffed dismissively. "I do see where she's coming from. I see that she's stuck in her own ridiculous little power trip. Once she realises that, then we can move on." She strode past Ty Lee brusquely. "Now enough of this pointless chatter. We need to make sure the mounts are prepped for combat.
Ty Lee watched her go, and sighed disheartedly. "I really hope Mai's had better luck than me."
Katara was reaching her breaking point.
Toph was being absolutely insufferable! The pointless nicknames and petty remarks were bad enough, but her absolute refusal to help anyone else with even the simplest tasks was just so utterly selfish! She took the attitude that as long as she was fine, it was perfectly acceptable to lay around lazily while everyone else struggled! That wasn't what being a team was about!
And to add insult to injury the bloody land-train-thing had caught up to them for a third time that night, stopping any opportunity they had to catch even a wink of sleep! Katara didn't know how they kept finding them or who was driving it, but she doubted they had good intentions in mind.
"Maybe we should face them. Find out who they are. Who knows, maybe they're friendly." Aang suggested as the train rumbled up the slope towards them and on to level ground.
Katara agreed. She didn't hold out quite the same hope that they were friendly, but clearly trying to evade them wasn't working. Now was the time to stand their ground.
As one they settled into their respective combat stances, preparing themselves as the iron beast lumbered to a stop. With a hiss of steam one of the doors began to rumble open, spreading out a wave of thin mist through which only the faint silhouettes of movement could be seen. Seconds later three creatures began to emerge: beasts with thin, scaly limbs and slender bodies that spread out in wide stances, forked tongues lolling and flickering out of their mouths. And riding atop them…
Katara's eyes locked onto a flash of golden hair. All of her frustrations were absorbed by a sudden well of negative emotions and refined into a sharp, pure hatred as she found a target to focus them on.
"Tanya!" She seethed.
The mist parted to reveal the infamous golden-haired general, flanked on each side by the princess, the knife-thrower and the acrobat they'd encountered at Omashu. Tanya took in the scene before her briefly, and as her gaze locked with Katara's, her expression morphed into a hateful scowl. If looks could kill, the both of them would be glaring swarms of bloody daggers at each other.
"Them again!" Aang whispered. "I can't believe they've followed us all the way from Omashu!"
"I can." Katara replied shortly, never breaking her staring contest with Tanya. With Zuko not having shown his face in a while now, who else but Tanya could they expect to be stalking their footsteps wherever they went? "And I'm glad they did."
Sokka looked at her quizzically. "You are?"
Katara nodded. Her failure to avenge Pakku back at Omashu, close as she'd come, had stung at her pride. This felt like a second chance. "She's going down."
Toph whistled. "Wow! I didn't expect the sugar queen to have such a bite to her!"
Across the way the princess barked out orders, and the lizard mounts shot forwards in a sudden burst of speed. Toph stomped her foot, heaving up four pillars of rock at them, but the lizards bounded over the obstacles with worrying agility. Tanya took the opportunity to leap off her saddle, and fire burst from her hands and feet as she adopted her signature flight technique.
"Well, we wanted to find out who they were and we found out." Sokka stated. "Now let's get out of here!"
"No! We can take them!" Katara argued.
Toph laughed brashly. "Hell yeah we can! That's the spirit!" She stomped her foot again, and this time a huge rock wall rose up in front of the incoming lizards. Tanya simply flew over it, and a second later the wall exploded in a blast of dust and stray bolts of lightning. Azula led the charge through the newly created hole; one hand still crackling with stray bolts of electricity.
Aang shook his head. "This fight doesn't serve us any purpose. Let's run."
Katara whirled around to face him, eyes wide with anger. "What! No purpose! Are you kidding Aang! She killed Master Pakku."
Aang wilted a little at the harsh rebuke, but his expression remained calm and he stood his ground. Calm eyes stared back directly into Katara's. "Revenge won't bring Pakku back. All we're doing is risking letting ourselves get caught."
Behind him Blue nodded silently in support.
But thoughts of escape would have to wait. Mai swung her arms, releasing a volley of thin, dart-like knives. Up above, Tanya coordinated her attack with Mai's, shooting a fireball that curved down towards the group to hit at the same time as the knives connected.
Aang stepped forwards and, with a wide swing of his staff, sent a gust of wind that blew the knives skittering away. He shifted his feet, trying to quickly shift into a new stance to counter the fireball, but there wasn't enough time! The fireball was rocketing towards them like a falling star, and his trained instincts knew that it would hit before he could properly conjure his shield.
Then a whirl of silvery-grey metal and black fabric rushed past. Blue swung his swords together in one fluid motion, catching the fireball on the flat of his blades, and a shower of sparks burst over him as he batted the fireball off to the side. Before anyone could say another word he turned, sheathing his blades as he did, and grabbed Katara and Toph, bodily hauling them back towards Appa. Sokka had already hopped up on the saddle amidst the chaos, and was waiting with an outstretched hand to quickly heave them up.
"Appa! Yip yip!" Aang shouted, still not aboard the bison himself. Appa gave a confused groan but nonetheless complied, taking to the sky the moment Blue and the girls were aboard. Meanwhile Aang began to gather the air around him, compressing it into a tight ball.
Across the clearing, Azula's eyes narrowed. She recognised the movements he was making from the trick he pulled in Omashu, and quickly surmised that something big was coming. She began to circle her arms, gathering power for another bolt of lightning, but was cut off when Aang slammed the air ball into the ground early. A wave of fierce wind raced across the dry ground of the Earth Kingdom, dragging up clouds of dust, dirt and small debris in its wake. The grimy smokescreen washed over the three girls and their mounts, forcing them to stop and close their eyes.
Aang was off a moment later, unfolding his glider with a flick and taking off after Appa. The bison had not gotten far, and since gliders were quicker over short distances he had every confidence that he could catch up.
Or he would have been able to, had a ball of fire streaking at him from behind not forced him to roll to the side to avoid it.
Tanya had been too high above the dust cloud to be affected by it, and was now hot on his heels. Literally hot, as the fireballs she was throwing came closer enough each time for him to feel the heat through his shoes. He ducked and weaved, trying every airbender trick he knew to shake her off, but Tanya's skill at flight was great enough to have even a master airbender reluctantly acknowledge it. She pursued him relentlessly, predicting and matching every twist and turn with her own.
"You're not getting away this time Avatar!" Tanya snarled, throwing an arrow of flames that clipped the wing of his glider and scorched a tiny hole in its side. Even that small wound drastically changed the way the airflow ran over the glider's surface, and Aang yelped as the glider listed to the side.
Tanya barked out a harsh laugh, seeing an opportunity, and boosted towards him: getting close enough that there was no way she could miss. One hand drew back and gathered a ball of flame larger than any she'd used today: one strong enough to sear a hole straight through his chest. "It's over!" She yelled, bringing her hand forwards.
One second she was there, the next a hairy mound of white fur had replaced her. Distracted by their dogfight, neither Aang nor Tanya had noticed Appa circling back towards them. The sky bison had brought the full force of its weight, and some of its instinctive airbending, behind a tail slam that knocked Tanya away like a pinball. With an admitted twinge of satisfaction Aang watched Tanya, who's light frame made her ever so susceptible to being blown away, go whizzing through the air and crash down in a large thicket.
Then Appa gave a pained groan, and Aang looked over in concern to notice a black patch of burnt fur and skin on his tail. It must have been where it had collided with the fireball Tanya had been building. The burn looked quite nasty, with some tufts of fur in the middle entirely incinerated to reveal spots of bubbled, angry red skin.
"Appa's hurt!" He yelled to the others, worry overtaking him. "We need to set him down!"
Sokka made to pull on the reins, but stopped as a hand grasped his shoulder. Blue shook his head, and with his other hand pointed to the clearing they'd just fled, where the tank train could still be seen.
Katara picked up on what he meant. "If we stop now, they'll catch up to us again."
"You can't expect him to keep flying when he's injured!" Aang shouted.
Katara winced at the rebuke. "Not for long. Just until we find a source of water far enough away that they won't find us."
Aang didn't like it. He was tired, scared, and now worried sick about Appa, but logically he knew they were right. Burying the guilt he felt at allowing Appa to keep hurting he shot off ahead on his glider, keen to find a source of water as quickly as he could.
Azula, Ty Lee and Mai, all looking slightly grey from the thin layer of dust and grime coating them, pulled their lizard mounts to a stop at the edge of a large thicket. A thicket which, for the past few minutes, had been belching thick black smoke.
"She is going to be so mad." Ty Lee whispered worriedly.
Azula did not respond, instead continuing to gaze impassionately at the dense mass of hedges. A second later a rustling noise, the sound of something pushing its way through, caught their ears, growing louder and louder as it drew near. Twigs snapped as they were bashed aside, leaves shrivelled and crackled as they burned in the heat, and a few small animals fled in terror of the glowing red demon that stormed through their home.
Finally, Tanya pushed herself free through the undergrowth.
Angry red scratches marred every inch of her skin, her clothes were smudged with dirt, and at some point half a bird's nest had become tangled in her hair. That was all second however to the pure murder in her eyes. Thin wisps of smoke roiled off Tanya's body as her firebending reacted to her barely-controlled temper, raising her body temperature enough to set alight small bits of debris around her.
"I'm going to eat that bison." Tanya declared, the calmness of her tone so obviously forced that its contrast to her rage-filled eyes made it all the scarier. "A nice, juicy sky bison steak, with plenty of spices and honey, seared by my own flames. I always found revenge to be best served hot."
The lizard mounts beneath Ty Lee and Mai stepped back instinctively. Ty didn't blame them. Only Azula's held its ground, with its rider watching the scene with put-upon dispassion.
"Please don't pick another fight right now!" Ty Lee begged in the privacy of her mind.
Azula sneered, looking Tanya up and down, and then opened her mouth. "That was foolish."
Heedless of the sudden spike of tension in the atmosphere, Azula continued. "The plan is to run them down. Pursue them until they exhaust themselves. You shooting off alone was unnecessary."
There was a pause as Azula left an opening for Tanya to reply, yet for a few seconds the golden-haired girl did not take it. She was deathly still and silent for a moment, giving no visible reaction, but Ty Lee could feel the storm of dark aura roiling around her. Tanya was struggling to keep her temper from exploding.
Finally Tanya reacted. With deceptive, almost eerie, slowness a smile spread across her face. Not a happy smile, not superior smirk, or even a wolfish grin; the plainest, most emotionless smile that had ever existed.
"Apologies, princess. I saw the Avatar isolated from his allies and took the opportunity without considering the tactical implications. It won't happen again." She droned out in an almost monotone voice. Almost, because Ty Lee swore she could detect the faintest tinge of sarcasm lacing it. Or perhaps she was imagining it. The contrast between the deadpan calm of Tanya's voice and the seething fury glinting in her eyes was setting her on edge.
Azula frowned, but her thoughts on Tanya's unusual reaction were hard to read. "Good. See that it doesn't." She answered at last. With a tug of the reins her mount began to turn around. "Now hurry up and let's get moving. They can't have gone too far."
With a heavy thud, Appa half-landed, half-crashed down in a clearing beside a river.
The poor bison was exhausted. Tired and in pain, it had been a small miracle that he'd been able to get them even this far. Despite fighting off his own exhaustion, Katara was too stressed with worry to even think of sleeping. The moment her feet touched the ground she summoned water from the lake over to her to sooth Appa's burn.
"Okay, we've put in a lot of distance between us and them. The plan right now is to follow Appa's lead and get some sleep." Sokka said as he threw his sleeping bag onto the floor and flopped down on top of it like a fish. Toph didn't even bother with a sleeping bag, and just lay down on the dirt. A flash of irritation surged through Katara. Here she was, just as tired as them and still a little indignant at having to flee from Tanya yet again, yet they got to take it easy while she had to work on healing!
"Of course, we could've gotten some sleep earlier if Toph didn't have such issues." She hissed acidly, barely even registering the words slipping out of her mouth.
There was a literal boom, a shockwave through the earth, as Toph stood up, her youthful face morphed into an angry scowl. Immediately Aang stepped between them, taking on his usual role as the peacemaker, while Blue stood nearby and watched silently.
"All right, all right, everyone's exhausted! Let's just get some rest-…" Aang began.
"No, I want to hear what Katara has to say!" Toph argued childishly. "You think I have issues?!"
Any other day Katara might have de-escalated the situation. She might have apologised, or tried to explain herself in a calm and considerate manner. Not today though. The fatigue and the irritation it caused needed an outlet, and Toph was the perfect target.
Team Avatar was a mess.
In a way, Zuko found it quite annoying. They'd been a perfect little team when he was the one chasing after them, but the minute Azula picked up their trail they turned into a bickering mess. The bitter part of him cried out that, if he'd had access to the same resources Azula had, he would surely have thought to use a lack of sleep to turn them against each other too; that this was just another example of how unfairly the world seemed to favour his sister over him.
Truthfully though, Zuko recognised that the real issue wasn't fatigue. Watching the two girls descend into a heated argument, it was clear that Toph wasn't meshing as well into the existing team dynamics as he somehow seemed to be, and that Katara didn't know how to handle that. His time at sea had taught him that, in such situations, it was the captain's duty to come down hard on the issue and flex their authority a bit to settle the dispute. Sadly Aang was too passive, and the girls both too stubborn, for such an approach to work here.
Should he step in? If things continued like this the Avatar's friends would collapse in on themselves, leaving Aang alone and vulnerable when Azula caught up. But then again how was he supposed to make an impact without speaking? Trying to convey the complicated words needed to show authority through mime would look ridiculous at best, and only frustrate Katara and Toph even more at worst. What would Uncle do in this situation?
Suddenly Aang was screaming too, and to his horror Zuko realised that the usually peaceful monk had reached the end of his tether. This was bad! With Tanya and Azula working together he needed all the fighters he could get protecting Aang until he finally got his opportunity to snatch him away. If Aang said something he'd regret now they might lose Toph's help forever, and at a time when Azula's tank could come rumbling through the trees at any second. No time to think, he had to act! What would Uncle do?!
Aang was halfway through a rant about the unappreciated work Appa did for the group when a flash of silvery steel shot past him and, with a sharp thud, embedded itself in the ground between him, Toph and Katara. All three of them jumped, and quickly looked over at where it had come from.
Blue's grinning mask stared back at the unapologetically.
Before they could demand to know what he'd done that for, Blue strode forwards to his sword and used it to scrape a few quick words into the ground. Then with a flick he cleaned the dirt off the tip of his blade, grabbed Toph's wrist, and began marching off with her.
"Hey! Get off me!" Toph protested. But despite her tough attitude she was still much younger and shorter than Blue, and dragging her along was easy. "Where are we going?"
Aang watched, baffled by the strange turn of events, until they'd both disappeared into the nearby clearing. Then he looked down at the message carved in the ground.
Be back tomorrow. Don't go far.
"Hey! Would you quit it with the pulling already?!"
Blue's grip wasn't painfully tight, but was vice-like in its stubborn refusal to let her slip away. Half of Toph wanted to fight back against it out of pride, but her other half, the side that recognised that she'd been getting worked up enough to do something she knew she'd regret later, was relieved to have an excuse to get away from the others for a bit. She knew that she could be hot-headed, and had been on the verge of doing something rash.
At last Blue seemed satisfied that they were far enough away for them to do… whatever he had in mind. He let go of her wrist, knelt down, and began to pull a couple of items out of his pack. Blue had very little in the way of personal possessions and money, yet had bought something back in Gaoling that he hadn't shown to anyone else yet. Curious as to what it was, Toph focused a few more vibrations through the earth to get a better sense of the shape of each object as he set them down on the ground.
"Is that… a tea set?" She asked. It was far from the delicately crafted bone china sets she'd had gifted to her at home: his was simple and rough, the bare basic cups and kettle used by the poorest of peasants, yet interestingly Blue set out the items in the exact same layout and order that nobles did when holding pompous tea ceremonies. More importantly there was none of the hesitation to suggest that Blue had to think about what he was doing; instead he moved instinctively, as if he'd seen and mimicked this layout his whole life. Now how would a bandit vigilante be so familiar with court etiquette?
After a good few minutes of silent preparation, Blue had a kettle of tea boiling away. He sat down on the dirty floor and patted the ground: a silent gesture for her to sit as well.
Toph plopped down with a huff, her arms crossed defiantly. The silent waiting while he prepared the tea had taken the edge off her anger, but it still simmered beneath her skin, waiting for any excuse to explode back up again. "So how's this going to work?" She demanded. "'Cause you're mute and I'm blind, so I don't think a heart-to-heart conversation is on the table."
Blue shrugged, then set about pouring the steaming tea into two cups. He offered one to Toph, and she blew on it before taking a sip, then froze.
"This is disgusting." She said bluntly.
Blue sat a little straighter, genuinely surprised by her criticism. How could he be so familiar with the etiquette behind tea ceremonies, yet be so awful at making tea itself? His brew had no delicacy at all: it was strong enough to make her hairs curl up. Whoever he was used to making tea for either had no sense of taste, or had been too polite to tell him that he sucked. He couldn't be from a noble family then: anyone who tried to serve this to guests would have been the laughing stock of the courts for years.
Her feet detected more vibrations as Blue placed something flat and wooden on the floor next to him. It was only when he then brought his cup to his lips and took a deep swig of his own that Toph realised what it was: his mask. Even in the small time she'd been with the Avatar's group, Toph had already learnt that Blue never took off his mask when anyone else could see. It wasn't such an issue here she supposed, being that she couldn't see his face anyway, but she appreciated that it must be fairly significant for him.
Toph bravely tried another sip again, hoping that it might somehow taste better once she got used to it. It didn't. Somehow it got even worse. With an annoyed growl, Toph tipped the horrid concoction into the ground next to her and leaned over to the kettle. "I can't take another sip of this. Move over, I'll do it properly."
As the young lady of the Bei Fong household, Toph had of course learned the proper way to make tea, even if the lessons had bored her stiff. He chucked Blue's poison away and started again from scratch, putting the water onto a gentle boil and measuring out a more careful heap of leaves. Blue moved to assist her, and at this at least he seemed competent enough. As they worked, Toph's curiosity finally overcame her.
"Are you a noble?" She asked.
Blue stiffened up next to her, confirming her suspicions.
Toph snorted. "No offence, but you must have been a weird one."
Blue hesitated for a moment, then held out a hand out and wiggled it in the gesture for 'sort of.'
"It's complicated?" Toph asked. Blue nodded, and Toph let out a mirthless chuckle. "Everything always is with nobility. Don't tell me, did they treat you like you were made of glass because you're disabled too?"
Blue cocked his head to the side in thought, then shook it.
"Then why did you leave?" Toph questioned.
Blue shook his head again.
"You didn't? Then why are you here? I don't know of any noble father who wouldn't be disappointed by their son running off to play bandit."
Blue's heart rate suddenly spiked, and his whole body tensed up like a hedgehog-shrew curling into a ball. Guilty, Toph realised that she'd just strayed into uncomfortable conversation territory.
Slowly Blue nodded his head. Toph wasn't quite sure what he meant. "Yes? Yes to what?" Blue made a spiralling motion with his finger, like he wanted her to think about what she'd said before. "Yes, your father is disappointed that you're running off to play bandit?"
Blue nodded, even as his body language seemed to shrivel in on itself in shame.
"Ah." Toph thought she understood now. "I get it. You couldn't be the person your dad wanted you to be?" Blue nodded, and Toph let out a sigh. "I feel that. But so what? Screw what they think! We're here now, right? Free from all their nonsense expectations!"
Blue was still weirdly tense. Contrary to what she'd intended, her words hadn't encouraged him at all. But why? If he was here, didn't that mean he'd given up on trying to meet his parent's expectations too? Unless…"
"You're doing this for them, aren't you?" She asked softly, everything clicking into place. "You're out here, far from home, helping the Avatar because they told you to."
Blue didn't move to reply. He didn't have to. Toph didn't need to see to feel the potent mix of troubled emotions radiating off of him.
"Oh… damn. I'm-… uh-… sorry." It sucked having parents who didn't believe in you. She could only imagine how much worse it must be to have parents who actively tried to get rid of you.
Blue reached down, and in slow, careful handwriting began to trace letters in the ground. Toph felt the indentations as they were carved, putting them together into her mind's eye to form letters.
He gave me a mission. When I have proven myself worthy, I will be allowed to return to him with honour.
A mission? Toph had heard the way some of her dad's noble guests had talked about the war. To those high enough in society to avoid the frontlines, the war was a noble crusade against the fire nation that the dirty peasants should feel honoured to sacrifice their lives for. She could easily imagine Blue's parents being one of those stuck-up gits who thought it was perfectly acceptable to send a sensitive son off to war until he'd 'proved himself a man.'
"Doesn't that make you angry?" She asked.
Blue's finger moved across the ground again.
All the time.
"Then how do you deal with it?!" Toph demanded, reflexively clenching her fist as the memories of all the times she'd been forced to act like someone she wasn't came flooding back. "How do you not kick, scream, and break the house down!"
Blue was still for a moment. Then his finger traced a message again.
I had someone beside me.
He stilled, hesitating as he tried to find the words for what he wanted to say, then his finger got to work once more, carving the longest message yet into the earth. Toph waited patiently, herself strangely gripped by empathy for Blue's words, until the message was finished.
Looking back, I suppose he is the only friend I've ever had. For many years he was the only one I could say how I truly felt around.
When I was sent on my mission, he came with me. I never asked him to. He didn't have to. But when the time came for me to leave there he was, all packed and waiting for me.
Wherever I travelled, he was always by my side. Whenever I was lost he offered guidance, and whenever I made a decision he respected it. And the many times I got angry, more often at him than I'm proud of, he weathered the storm patiently.
He was always there when I needed him most.
I don't think I realised how much I needed him until he was gone.
Toph shuffled uncomfortably. She'd had hordes of staff at her mansion and hundreds of play-dates with other young noble ladies, but never had she found someone who shared her interest, or would accept her for who she was. Looking back, she'd never really had someone that she could call a real friend. So caught up in the sudden realisation of her own loneliness, Toph didn't realise that Blue had continued writing until he was nearly finished.
Real friends will get on your nerves sometimes. Often, even. They'll do things that make you mad, because you're different people and can't see eye to eye on everything. But I don't think that's a bad thing. I've seen friends who always agreed with one person's definition of what was right, and I don't think they're truly happy.
I think that's what separates a friend from an ally. Many people will flock around you when you're strong, when you're powerful, when you're at your best. But only a true friend will stick with you when you're at your weakest. And even the strongest of us can't be perfect all the time: we all need to sleep, all make bad decisions, all have times where we face something we simply can't do alone.
We don't always need someone else's help, or even want it. But I think that having someone who's willing to help you regardless of whether you need it or not is
Blue paused, trying to find the right word.
A tiny worm of guilt started wiggling somewhere deep within Toph's core. With the benefit of hindsight, she could see that Katara's overbearing attitude hadn't come from a desire to make Toph feel selfish. She'd just wanted everyone in Aang's party to work a part of a team, and while she'd been wrong to demand that Toph immediately just slot into their existing group dynamics without issue, Toph could see that she could have made more of an effort to be helpful to everyone else. It wouldn't have taken her that much more time to make rock-tents for everyone to sleep under.
"What happened to your friend?" She finally asked, already half suspecting what the answer would be.
He held off the Fire Nation so that I could escape.
Toph grimaced. She hadn't been as involved in the war as a bender of her skill perhaps should have been, but she could put together implications. The Fire Nation had a lot to answer for. "I'm sorry. He sounds like he was a good man."
Blue nodded his head. What he meant to say wasn't so obvious, but Toph thought that she understood the gist of it.
With one last heavy gulp she downed her tea, then jumped to her feet. "Okay, okay, you win. Point taken. I'll make an effort to be a bit more helpful around the camp. If sugar queen promises not to get on my case so much."
Blue inclined his head towards her, as if to say that's all I ask.'
Toph grinned, then looked away a little bashfully. "And hey, about what you said before… about him being your only friend."
Blue tilted his head to the side curiously.
"Well, you know, we're both fairly new to Aang's team, and I feel like we've both come from a similar place. So maybe we could be-… you know-…" Toph stomped her foot. "Ah, don't make me say it! You know what I mean!"
Blue, as usual, said nothing. He was still for a moment, then got to his feet and hesitantly held out a hand towards her.
Toph grinned at him, then grabbed his hand enthusiastically and gave it a firm shake. "Hah! Alright! Friends!" A strange little giddy feeling welled up inside her, which she quickly squashed down and pretended had never existed. "Now how about we head back? The others are probably lost without us."
"Wads of wet fur. How delightful."
"Hmmm ... they're not wads, they're more like bundles, or bunches? It's got an "uh" sound."
Most days, Tanya would have been happy to let the back-and-forth banter between Mai and Ty Lee be as it was. Their opposite natures made for the sort of mildly entertaining drama that fuelled good workplace relations. But today was not like most days for Tanya. Today she had been involved in a heated argued with a literal princess, and then only minutes later been outwitted and bodily smacked into a hedge by an overgrown, hairy, stupid fucking fly cow!
And so Tanya had glared at Ty Lee and Mai. It was nothing compared to the glares she'd given to some of her soldiers back in her second life, but it was enough to make the both of them shut up very quickly. Tanya was not in the mood for their comedy routine right now. The only thing that could possibly lighten her mood right now was a serving of delicious pan-fried sky bison.
"The Avatar's trying to give us the slip." Azula announced from ahead of them, pointing to the broken treetops that contradicted the trail of fur left for them to follow. The Avatar had been clever to figure out what method they were using to follow his bison, and even more so to try and use the fur to lead them along a fake trail, but the Fire Nation's elite weren't so easily fooled. "You three head in that direction and keep your eye out for the bison." She looked down at the line of too perfectly spaced out fur. "I'll follow this trail."
Tanya questioned the wisdom of that decision. They already knew that The Avatar was the only one amongst his little fellowship that possessed the ability to fly across such long distances, so he must have been the one spreading the fake trail. As he was the only one in his group that the Fire Nation actively cared about capturing, it would be logical for them all to pursue that trail, gang up on the silly sod and leave his friends wondering what had become of their leader. But alas, Azula was in no mood to hear anybody else's opinion. She wanted the prestige of capturing The Avatar for herself.
"She's no different from Zhao." The treacherous part of Tanya's mind whispered.
No, that wasn't fair. Azula was still young, and didn't have the experience to handle a position of command responsibly. Zhao had had years to learn, but had chosen to allow his ego to rule him. They were not the same, and they did not need to be handled the same way.
With that in mind Tanya said nothing as Azula darted off in pursuit of the Avatar. If she succeeded then great, but if she failed, as Tanya suspected she might, then Azula would be forced to recognise and learn from her mistakes.
"So… what's the plan of attack for us?" Ty Lee asked her, defaulting to Tanya's lead now that Azula was gone.
Tanya considered their options. Assuming that earthbending girl they'd spotted in the last encounter was a new member of The Avatar's team, it would be the three of them against four warriors of mixed abilities and one large beast. Not the most favoured odds, but far from the worse she'd ever worked with.
"We split them apart. Fight individually." Tanya answered. "The Avatar's team are untrained soldiers and held together through sentimental idealism. It is unlikely that they'll flee as long as even just one of them is left behind. We're going to exploit that; put the Avatar in a position where he can't run away without abandoning his companions."
"A capture mission then." Mai inferred. " I'll take the one in the mask."
Ty Lee's hand shot up like a student at school. "I'll take the cute one then!"
Mai raised an eyebrow at her.
"I mean, the one who was throwing the boomerangs about."
"Which leaves me with the new earthbending girl and the water-skank." Tanya cracked her neck. "Fine with me. But don't feel like you have to pull your punches ladies: technically we only need one alive."
They were only minutes away from reaching Appa when Toph felt the thundering vibration of the tank train drawing closer once again.
"The firebenders are back! Hurry!" She yelled, grabbing Blue by the wrist and roughly yanking him along and she broke into a run. It only took Blue a second to catch on and then he was running on ahead, able to sprint faster than her due to his unfairly longer legs. Before long they crashed their way into a clearing beside a river, where Katara had stopped to try and heal Appa's burn.
"Blue! Toph! What's-…" Sokka began.
"No time! Get ready, that tank is about to appear again any second!" Toph commanded. As if heralded by her words, it was at that very moment that the ominous sounds of snapping branches and screeching iron became audible from somewhere in the distance.
Sokka scowled. "Damn it! They didn't fall for Aang's trick!"
Blue tilted his head questioningly at him.
"After we washed the shedding fur off Appa, Aang had the idea to use it to make a fake trail to draw them away. He flew off towards an abandoned town nearby and scattered the fur behind him."
Blue nodded to show that he understood, then nodded towards Appa.
"Katara's been doing her best, but Appa's wound is still too painful, and him too tired, for anything more than a short journey. I think we're going to have to stand our ground this time."
"Good!" Toph declared, a grin spreading across her face as she slammed her foot down into a defensive horse stance. "Let them come! All this running away isn't my style anyway."
Katara didn't comment, but drew a long strip of water out of the river and coiled it around her as she sunk into a stance of her own, showing her own silent support for the idea. Sokka held his boomerang at the ready, and Blue unsheathed his blades and gave them a test swing.
Seconds later, a huge spear of iron burst through the trees.
The tank train quaked and rumbled, spewing thick black smog into the air as its wheels screeched to try and bring it to a halt. Rubber tyres burned under the strain of bringing such a heavy beast to a sliding halt, filling the air with a sharp, acrid smell that made Toph want to cough. Even before the train had come to a complete stop one of the doors hissed open, and three of the lizard mounts leaped out, bearing aloft three riders.
"Hey look! The one that throws around that crazy blue fire isn't with them." Sokka noted. "Tanya's the one leading them this time."
"She must have gone after Aang alone." Katara realised.
Sokka hummed worriedly. "Which means she's confident that she'll be enough to capture Aang on her own. After hearing about their fight back in Omashu, I can't say that confidence is unwarranted. Then her minions are here to keep us occupied and prevent us from joining the fight."
"Big deal." Toph scoffed. "That just means we need to crush them nice and quickly then fly to Aang's rescue. No problem. We outnumber them."
Across the river Tanya gave a hand signal, and Ty Lee and Mai split off from her, taking their mounts to the left and right respectively in slow canters.
"They're going to encircle us." Katara warned.
Sokka frowned at the sight. "Yes, and they're being unusually blatant about it too. Strange; if they make their intentions so obvious they know that we'll counter it by- ..." Suddenly his eyes lit up in realisation. "Separating! They want to split us up!"
Toph frowned. "But we outnumber them! That means one of them has to fight two-on-one! That's a crazy disadvantage! And as soon as they lose, whoever's fighting them can rush to help someone else."
Across the river, Tanya dismounted from the lizard and walked towards them in slow, measured steps. She stopped at the point where the stream water lapped gently at the toes and waited at attention like a soldier, staring unblinking at Katara. The unspoken challenge was clear, and Katara bristled with cold fury in response, her whole body tensing like a snake getting ready to strike.
"Unless one of them is confident that they can win a two-on-one fight." Sokka figured out. "I hate to admit it, but looking at our history we've yet to actually defeat Tanya in a straight fight."
Toph pounded her fists together and grinned. "You didn't have me before."
"You're right, we didn't." Sokka conceded. "And that makes you our best shot against her. Tanya has only seen you in one small skirmish so far. Other than that you're an earthbender, she can't know much about you. We'll need you and Katara to face her together."
Blue pointed his sword off to the right, tracking the slow progress Mai was making.
"You want to take on the gloomy one again?" Sokka interpreted. "Okay, then I'll face the cute- I meant the acrobatic one again!"
Toph internally sighed as she picked up the telltale sign of Sokka heartbeat quickening. Letting a pretty face distract him? What an idiot. One thing she was grateful to her blindness for was the immunity it gave her to swooning over charming appearances.
Blue and Sokka split from the group, and across the river Tanya shot them a smug grin, as if she'd already known exactly how they would react to her move and was watching them play right into her hands. At this point Katara was seething: she hadn't taken her eyes off Tanya from the moment she appeared, and was clearly ready to take any opportunity to lash out with the first blow.
Then Tanya took a step into the river.
It was a ballsy move, stepping into the natural element of someone who wanted very badly to hurt you right in front of them. Toph would have called it arrogant, if not for two things.
First was her reputation. Tanya the Devil was the boogeyman of the Earth Kingdom for a reason. Looking past all the nonsense stories about her eating the hearts of her slain enemies, or being born from the coupling of an evil spirit and a wolf, it was undeniable that she possessed a terrible brilliance for both firebending and military strategy that had allowed her to conquer the capital of the Northern Water Tribe on the night of the full moon. One had to have confidence to achieve both of those things, but arrogance would have hindered her.
And second was her heartbeat. Despite the cocky front she was portraying, Toph could tell from the vibrations she was picking up from inside Tanya that the small girl was every bit as livid as Katara was. The feud between them had long since past the point of getting personal. If the devil was making the effort to disguise her hatred, it was likely that she had a trap in mind.
"I must commend you, water peasant." Tanya called out to Katara haughtily. "It takes a certain amount of maturity to accept your mistakes and learn from them. After how badly I thrashed you last time, I had expected you to try and take me alone again out of some misguided spite. It was wise of you to recognise that you simply aren't good enough, and recruit a child even younger than yourself to help you out."
Oh, so the devil liked to talk trash did she? Well two could play at that game. "I may be young, but I'm still taller than your midget ass." Toph shot back. "Careful in that river, it must be at least knee-deep. We wouldn't want you to drown."
For the first time since she'd arrived Tanya broke eye contact with Katara, turning her head to face Toph. "Oh my, your new little pup has quite the mouth on her." She sneered. "Go home kid. I've buried earthbenders tougher than you by the thousands, but I am not completely without mercy and you have done little to try my patience yet. Your presence here will only be a minor irritation at best."
Rather than let it get to her, Toph laughed the insult off. There had been plenty of smack-talk before earth rumble matches, and those who couldn't let it slide didn't stay popular with the crowd for very long. The tiniest scowl she detected tightening at the corner of Tanya's mouth in response to her reaction proved that she was on the right track. The devil was counting on making them lose their tempers.
Thankfully Katara seemed to be catching on too. Though she remained sharp and ready to spring into action at any moment, her breathing began to settle into a deeper, more even rhythm as she started to reign in her temper. "Those tricks you pulled last time won't work, Tanya."
Tanya's face dropped from a smirk to an outright sneer. She raised her other foot, as if to take another step forward, but right before it touched down on the surface of the water a small but intense flame burst from it, sending a thrumming pattern of ripples across the water.
Then she lifted her other foot off the ground.
Toph waited for it to come back down and touch the earth again, but as the seconds ticked by it never came. Her stomach sunk in horror as she suddenly recalled just which technique Tanya was most infamous for: jet propulsion, a tricky form of firebending that allowed for extended flight. Tanya had the potential to go the entire fight without setting so much as a toe on the ground unless she wanted to.
And unless she did, Toph had no way of seeing her!
Mai readied her knives, and watched as, across the river, The Blue Spirit drew his swords in one fluid motion. They had both wandered far enough to see Tanya in the distance, but to most assuredly be out of earshot. An intentional move on Mai's part.
With a wide sweep of her arm, Mai launched a heavy knife that rocketed across the river with pinpoint accuracy. The Blue Spirit wisely dodged and began to run forwards, wading into the river. As the one without a ranged option, it fell to him to tackle the difficult terrain or else be forced to stay on the defensive the entire time.
Naturally Mai didn't make it easy for him. The moment the water got up to his knees she unleashed a blizzard of sharpened steel, pelting him over and over with practically every scrap of metal she had on her person without reprieve. With the water hindering his agility, The Blue Spirit was forced to try and deflect every single one of them whilst trudging through running water: an exhausting feat. To his credit he did a better job that anyone could have reasonably expected: his whirling blades swatting the knives out of the air with remarkable precision, but the odds were not with him. Every step he took saw another thin blade sink deep into some non-vital part of his body, and by the time he staggered out onto the other side of the river bank he must have had at least two dozen needle-like knives sticking out of him.
Any reasonable person would have been exhausted by such a feat, and the slouch in his body language betrayed that he was, yet The Blue Spirit still somehow found the energy in him to rush forwards at Mai, swinging his blades in wide, aggressive arcs. Mai ducked under the first and hopped back to avoid the second, letting herself be harried backwards toward the tree behind her, and readied herself as The Blue Spirit flowed into a new stance, bringing his blades up to attack again.
The name slipped from her mouth with all the subtle sharpness as one of her knives. The Blue Spirit faltered, surprise causing him to misstep and fumble his next attack. He was open, vulnerable to a critical strike if she was so inclined, but Mai had no interest in that right now. Pressed up against the trees like this, they were finally out of sight of anyone else.
"Zuko. It's you, isn't it." Mai repeated, her tone deceptively neutral.
The Blue Spirit was still, silent for a long stretch of seconds. Then finally a voice, a little deeper and raspier than she remembered but unmistakably his, whispered out from behind the mask.
"How did you know?"
Mai allowed herself just the tiniest of smiles. She'd been almost certain, but having it confirmed was a relief she didn't realise she'd needed until now. "Come on, do you really think a mask and a pair of swords is all it would take to disguise you from me? It's been a while Zuko, but not long enough for me to forget you."
It was hard to tell what Zuko was thinking with his body tensed up like a coil, and a frustrated part of Mai wished he'd take off that stupid mask already, but to her irritation he didn't. "Does Azula know?"
Mai shook her head. "She believes that you're stuck alone and resourceless somewhere halfway across the Earth Kingdom. Knowing how you've pursued The Avatar already, I don't think she's even considered the possibility that you might have joined up with him." The last sentence was delivered with an accusatory tone, which made Zuko recoil uncomfortably.
"It's not-… I haven't really joined him." Zuko sputtered defensively. "But I realised that without a vehicle to follow him and men to subdue him, my options were limited. This way I can stay close to him, and the moment his companions aren't looking I can steal him away."
Mai gave him a searching glare. The awkward hang to his shoulders was the same look he'd had as a boy when he knew his plan was stupid, but was determined to stick to it anyway. What a mess this was becoming.
"Do you realise what will happen if the others find out?" She pressed. "They'll report it to The Firelord for sure. Paint you as the worst traitor the Fire Nation has ever known."
"Well what choice do I have?!" Zuko bit back angrily. "I would love nothing more than to do this the way I was meant to: defeating The Avatar in honourable combat. But I don't have that option anymore, because I don't have a single ally left! Even if I did capture him, I have no ship to hold or transport him in! This is the only path I have left that takes me home, and so I'll take it no matter how steep it gets."
Oh Zuko. Poor, sweet Zuko. It always did seem like fate conspired to rob him of anyone who'd take his side, leaving him to fight the world alone. First his mother, then his nation, and now his uncle.
"… I can help you." Mai declared gently.
"I can arrange for transportation, and an elite guard force to help you keep him subdued." Mai continued. "They wouldn't have to even know it was you under the mask. I could just tell them I'd used dad's wealth to buy a traitor. You wouldn't have to show anyone your face until you and The Avatar were right before The Firelord's throne. Nobody would be able to deny your accomplishment."
"You'd do that? For me?" Zuko asked, doing a remarkable impression of a gaping fish.
"I would." Mai answered as tonelessly as she could. It was too embarrassing to tell him why exactly she was so keen to help him. "I've seen Azula's intel. We have a large military force currently laying siege to the outer wall of Ba Sing Se. I can make the preparations, and all you'd need to do is catch him at just the right moment."
"And then father will restore my honour!" Zuko breathed reverently.
Zuko had more honour in his little finger than his father did in his entire body, in her opinion. But to say that out loud, especially in front of Zuko, would be a foolish decision. So instead Mai did as she had learned to do with Azula long ago: keep her true thoughts to herself. "Yes." She agreed. "Yes he will."
"Take this!" Ty Lee cried theatrically. "Super acrobatic kick!"
"Gah! You fiend" Sokka cried with dramatic pain. "Then you take this! Boomerang of destruction!"
"No! Not boomerangs! My greatest weakness!"
Sokka peered slowly around the corner of a tree at where the others were, and nodded his head when he couldn't see anyone else coming towards the patch of trees they'd ducked into during the mock fight. "Okay, they haven't noticed. I think we're in the clear."
Ty Lee sighed in relief and flopped down on the ground like a deflating balloon. "Thank the spirits. I need a break."
So did Sokka if he was honest. Between the lack of sleep and being stuck between Katara and Toph's arguments, having to fight someone was the last thing on his mind. Thankfully it seemed that the unofficial ceasefire between Ty Lee and he still stood as long as nobody else could see them. "Things are still tense in your team?" He asked curiosity.
Ty Lee whimpered pitifully. "Worse than before actually. Someone's going to snap soon."
"I hear you." Sokka sighed, sitting on a fallen tree trunk. "At least you're getting a good night's sleep."
Ty Lee rolled her head to look at him. "In a giant metal tank that ploughs headfirst through a tree every minute?" She asked sarcastically. "Please. The Fire Nation may be great at making war machines, but we rarely bother to look at how to make them comfortable. No matter how soft the beds are, trying to sleep in that thing is like laying your bedroll out on the back of a charging bull."
Huh. He'd never considered that their relentless pursuit would be tiring for the fire nation girls as well.
"Why are you guys so determined to capture Aang anyway?" Sokka curiously.
Ty Lee peered back at him. "Well, he's a threat to our victory. Public enemy number one."
"I get that." Sokka replied. "But I don't get why it's the job of the nation's princess and her three best friends to do it. Last time I checked, the Fire Nation did have a rather large army."
Ty Lee looked uncomfortable. She rolled over, bringing her legs up in an insanely flexible arc until her toes perched on top of her own head and propper her face up with her elbows, now facing him in what looked like a highly unusual meditative pose. "Truth be told, we weren't actually after The Avatar at first." She began. "We're actually supposed to be after Zuko."
"Angry jerkbender?!" Sokka was surprised. Why would the Fire Nation be hunting their own prince? Come to think of it, did that have something to do with why he hadn't appeared to try and capture Aang recently. "Isn't he on your side?"
Ty Lee shook her head. "Not since the North Pole. Zuko was banished before, but after he and Iroh stopped Tanya from that whole business with the red moon, he was declared a traitor. As his shame was a stain upon the royal family, Azula, Tanya and the royal guard were sent to bring him in. They caught Iroh, but Zuko himself went to ground." She shrugged. "Azula realised she needed a more elite team. Then you guys showed up right as we were recruiting Mai, and Azula realised that Zuko would go wherever The Avatar went. We could capture Zuko and The Avatar."
Zuko had been branded a traitor by his own father?! That was terrible! Sure he'd done a lot to make their lives difficult, but Sokka personally thought that his actions back in the North Pole had been heroic. After all the bad he'd done, it had been somewhat inspiring that he'd put aside his own wants for the good of the entire world. He didn't deserve to be punished for that. "I can't believe that The Firelord would do that to his own son." He muttered.
Ty Lee looked at him curiously, as if trying to work something out. Suddenly something seemed to click, and her eyes widened. "You have no idea, do you?"
"No idea of what?" Sokka asked.
"Why Zuko is chasing you. Why he's so obsessed with capturing The Avatar." Ty Lee seemed a little amazed. "I assumed you must have picked up the story somewhere in your travels, but maybe not. You don't know about Zuko's banishment."
No, he didn't. Zuko had always been too busy throwing fire around to explain his motives, and Sokka had just assumed it was because he was working for the fire nation and was thus evil. Now that Ty Lee was suggesting that there was more to the story however, Sokka couldn't deny that he was a little curious.
Ty Lee flipped herself up in another display of flexibility, shifting smoothly into a cross-legged sitting position. "It all started years ago," she began, her voice taking on the gentle pace of a storyteller. "When Zuko asked to join a general's meeting…"
There was a silence in the air, an unspoken tension, that seemed to permeate the ruined building of the abandoned town. It was as if the universe itself was waiting in anticipation.
Azula had read about a feeling like it in the autobiographies of the firebending masters of old, in the chapters where they told of the hunt for the dragon that earned them their titles. They'd described a sense of importance, of destiny, the moment they entered the place that would serve as the battlefield between them and the legendary wyrms. It had always irked Azula that she'd been born one generation too late to prove her mastery through a dragon hunt of her own, but this hunt for The Avatar she'd undertaken was a fitting substitute. One day, after she'd ascended to the throne and the war was over, she'd pen an autobiography of her own, and this nameless little ruin of a town would be immortalised as the place where The Avatar was finally defeated.
Her tracking skills, like everything else about her, were perfect. From the way the shedded fur that was scattering in his wake had fallen on the ground, she could tell that The Avatar had descended down somewhere in this town. After many days of relentless pursuit The Avatar was finally too tired to flee, and had no choice left but to fight.
Azula dismounted from her lizard and went the rest of the way on foot, her posture upright and confident even as she kept her senses alert for an ambush. She wouldn't put it past an air nomad to resort to trickery now that he was cornered. The trail of fur led her deeper and deeper through the empty streets, until eventually she arrived in an open clearing that had probably once been a market place.
Standing there, waiting for her, was The Avatar.
A satisfied smirk slipped across Azula's lips. The boy was making a good showing of trying to appear strong and confident, but she could read all the weaknesses in him like an open book. The dark rings around his eyes betrayed his exhaustion, the tight grip he held on his staff betrayed his fear, and the way his gaze remained unfaltering fixed on her betrayed that he really did not have any allies hidden nearby for an ambush. He would be an easy victory. She'd have to embellish the story of their fight, otherwise people may doubt that it qualified her as a firebending master.
"So here we are then. You've caught up with me." The Avatar stated neutrally, his tone lacking in emotion. "What now?"
"Now?" Azula grinned wickedly. "Now it's over. You're tired, and you have no place to go. You can run, but I'll catch you."
The Avatar raised his staff, settling deeper into a fighting stance. "I'm not running."
Azula settled into a stance of her own, stoking the inner flames within and feeling the exhilarating rush of hot energy begin pulsing through her body.
This was going to be fun.
This chapter took me quite a while to write. Sorry for the delay. I mentioned already that I have a very busy job, but that's only half the story in this case. After over a year of writing a little bit of this story every morning I started feeling like I needed to try something different. Stretch my wings out a bit.
So I wrote a couple of chapters for a new story. I feel like it's helped. I was able to come back to this chapter with a clear head and finally get it done in a way that I'm happy with. Hope you enjoyed it.
See you next time.