It's like time is slowing down as I try to write more quickly.
"I can't believe you all know each other!"
"What? All old people know each other, doncha know?"
As Katara and Sokka continued what appeared to Azula to be good natured bickering with King Bumi and the aged Waterbender who was apparently escorting them to a camp somewhere, Azula tried to mentally take stock of the situation.
The fact that the Water Tribe siblings seemed comfortable enough around these newcomers most likely meant they weren't enemies. And Bumi's offhand remark about 'Old People Camp', coupled with the fact that they had come here in search of Uncle…
Well, it wasn't much a logical leap to assume Uncle was here with them.
Now, why that was the case…
Suddenly she became aware of King Bumi keeping pace alongside her. She kept her face placid, not letting any of her surprise show as she looked up and noticed that Katara and Sokka had apparently broken off to chat with the elder waterbender.
How did someone so big come up to me without me noticing?
There was a brief moment of silence and the two of them mentally sized up the other. And then a misshapen grin split the King's face.
"I must say, I never thought I'd see you with the Avatar's group. Nice to know the world still has surprises in store even after a hundred years, eh?"
Briefly Azula considered brushing him off, or even responding with stony silence, but that thought melted away.
They were trekking through the darkness towards a yet-unknown destination. At the very least, talk provided the chance of getting more information.
"I can't say I was expecting you either," she frowned as she lifted her gaze up to him. "After all, last we met, you were still locked up in Omashu."
"Ah yes, that. Quite the unpleasant episode, really."
"And? How did you get out? Did you bribe some of the guards to unlock you and then look the other way while you made your escape?"
"Oh, you flatter me! I didn't escape!" He hunched over, as if he wanted to whisper some conspiratorial secret in her ear. "Everyone else did."
"Oh yes. Turns out it's a natural instinct to want to turn tail and run when someone's about to chuck a boulder twice the size of your body as you. And on that note, since you've probably been out of the loop ever since joining the Avatar, you might as well know Omashu is Earth Kingdom territory again."
She didn't reply for a moment, silently evaluating what it would have looked like for Bumi to attempt – and apparently succeed at – retaking an entire city by himself.
"And how did you even get into a position to do that? The guards were given strict orders to report anything if you so much as breathed wrong."
"Oh yes, watched around the clock, I was! Now, if only there had been some strange event that took away all of the Firebenders' powers, then I might've stood a chance at breaking out!" The grin on his face only grew wider. "But what were the odds of that happening?"
She resisted the urge to let her frown deepen – she didn't want to give him the satisfaction – and shook her head instead.
"But that still doesn't make sense. I ordered you sealed inside a veritable tomb of metal! You couldn't break out anyway unless…" her voice trailed off into silence as the possibilities all shifted into place.
"No way!" Toph had apparently come to the same conclusion, if her disbelieving yell and finger stabbing at Bumi was any indication. "You're… you're a Metalbender, aren't you?"
The satisfied smirk on the king's face was answer enough – at least to Azula.
And before they could say anything else, Azula realized they were now approaching the outskirts of a campsite – and Azula's eyes narrowed.
Even backlit by the modest fire blazing in the middle of the camp, the Fire Nation's most esteemed swordmaster was still someone she recognized on sight.
"Welcome, friends of the Avatar, to the Order of the White Lotus," Piandao said as stepped forward and made a sweeping gesture of welcome with his hands. "We are honoured to have you here with us as guests."
Notwithstanding the familiarity the other members of their little group had with the elders that apparently comprised the camp, Zuko at first found himself feeling like he didn't quite fit in.
He recognized Master Piandao of course. Even if it had been many years, you didn't forget the face of the person who'd taught you everything you knew about sword-fighting. But it wasn't as if the two of them really had a lot to catch up on.
At least, not like the others did.
Katara and Sokka had walked off with the aged Waterbender – Pakku, was it? - while Toph had trailed after King Bumi, firing off a string of excited questions.
Even his sister had singled out Jeong Jeong once she'd spotted him, and though the man's expression seemed perpetually stuck in a sour frown, he hadn't moved away when he'd noticed her approach.
Which left him, well, not stranded. Not exactly. But at somewhat of a loss all the same.
Of course, given the gathering of veteran members of all the major countries, not to mention the person who they'd run over here to find in the first place, it wasn't as if there wasn't someone he was looking for.
But despite how much he craned his neck and looked around, he couldn't spot Uncle anywhere amongst the scattered groups of people.
"Looking for someone, Prince Zuko?" Piandao's voice cut through his musings and he turned to see his old teacher fixing him with an even gaze.
A brief moment of hesitation, and then Zuko nodded. It'd do no one any good if he continued to be taciturn now.
"Is Unc- Is Iroh around?"
Even in the light of the campfire he could see the growing smile on Piandao's face.
"Your Uncle," and it probably wasn't Zuko's imagination that he heard Piandao placing emphasis on the word. "Is currently resting in that tent over there."
Zuko turned, spotting for the first time a large tent with a covered flap, near the very edge of the campsite.
"A society," Jeong Jeong nodded as he lifted the teacup to his lips. "A group that believed in sharing the philosophies, beauties and truths in all peoples. A group that transcends the boundaries of the four nations."
"Truly a noble pursuit," Azula's voice was sardonic as she looked around the encampment. "But given that everyone here is clearly preparing for combat, I do think there's a bit more to this 'Order of the White Lotus' than a tea club swapping art and stories."
The elder Firebender didn't reply for a long moment as he continued to drink. Finally, he set the teacup down and looked at Azula with something just short of a glare.
"When one party seeks to despoil the beauty and wonder present in others, is it not natural that others would seek to restore the balance?"
"I'd have thought that was the Avatar's job," Azula ran a finger along the edge of the wooden bench she was sitting on. "Then again he's really only become active again recently, hasn't he?"
A silence descended on the two of them, not comfortable, but not entirely filled with tension either.
And then she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
"My Uncle's one of the leaders of this little group, isn't he."
It wasn't a question.
With this new knowledge, suddenly everything had fallen into place. Uncle's inclusiveness and insistence that they could learn from the other cultures. His insistence that the Fire Nation had lost its way. His knowledge of techniques that were based on other schools of bending. His ability to keep tabs on everything in the Fire Nation and to sneak messages in and out during his exile. His stupid collection of music instruments from all over the world that he had always been so proud of.
"A Grand Lotus of the Order," Jeong Jeong confirmed.
"… How long?" She opened her eyes and turned her gaze to the walls in the distance, tall, and proud, and as unassailable as ever. "If he was of the White Lotus, then was he ever serious about sieging Ba Sing Se?"
"I would strongly advise against second-guessing the campaign that cost Iroh his son," she heard the clink of a teacup being set on the table. "Iroh's own journey has been longer and darker than you know, Princess Azula, though it is not my place to speak of it."
"Meaning I should find Uncle myself if I want answers, I suppose."
In the distance, she could see Zuko striding purposefully towards one tent near the edge of the campsite.
With a slight grunt, Azula pushed herself to her feet and turned to face the opposite direction.
"...If you're not going to go find Iroh, then best you try to get some rest. The Comet's on its way."
She settled on a slight nod as she walked away, letting the darkness of night swallow her.
At the entrance to the tent, Zuko found himself hesitating.
He lifted his hand up to the tent flap. Paused.
Lowered it again.
This is stupid.
Why was he so hesitant on seeing Uncle again, anyway? It wasn't as if their last meeting in the prison tower had been on particularly bad terms.
No, it wasn't like that.
But it was as if Uncle had had his own goals and agenda that Zuko hadn't ever known about, and now Zuko was once more left pondering about the man amd how much he'd really known about him.
What did those three years mean?
"What are you doing, Zuko?"
He didn't need to turn around to know that Mai was standing behind him.
He turned around anyway.
Mai stood there, arms folded, head tilted to the side just the slightest bit.
For a brief moment, Zuko when he'd started being able to read Mai well enough to tell how worried she was right then.
"What am I supposed to say?" he asked, one hand gesturing vaguely in the direction of the tent flap. "There's just – so much. I half want to apologize to Uncle, and the other half wants an apology, and I'm not even sure how to greet him! What, do I just say 'Hello, Zuko here!' and act like the past three months didn't happen?"
A moment of silence in the cool night air. Mai closed her eyes, nodded once.
"Do you want to see him?"
"Of course I do." More than anything in this world right now.
"Then you should," one shoulder raised and lowered. "You may not know what to say. Maybe your uncle doesn't know either. But if you're family, then you don't need prepared speeches. Being able to see each other again after so long – that'll be enough. I know it will."
"… You seem more invested than you usually do."
Mai's smile was slight. "I never had someone like Fire Lord Ozai in my life. But I never had Uncle Iroh either. And I wouldn't want you to lose what you do have."
With a final grateful nod in Mai's direction, Zuko stepped forward and lifted the tent flap.
He hadn't been entirely certain what he would see when entering the room. Would Uncle be asleep? Or would he be relaxing and enjoying a cup of tea? Or maybe meeting with some of the other members of the White Lotus for a last minute meeting?
None of those, as it turned out.
A lit candlestand filled the room with a warm orange flow. Uncle was standing in front of a table, pen in hand as he pored over a map. At the sound of the tent's flap being lifted, Iroh lifted his head – and smiled.
Zuko didn't make a move for a long time, and then his gaze lowered slightly, as if in acknowledgement.
"I suppose you've some mixed feelings about seeing me again like this," he stepped around the table, no longer letting it block the way between him and Zuko. But he didn't come closer either – giving Zuko the space he needed to approach. Or not.
"I'd wanted to break you out," it's almost as if Zuko were recounting a memory as he says it. "The day of the eclipse, I mean. But you'd already left by the time I'd gotten there."
A warm, throaty chuckle escaped Uncle's lips and Zuko found his own smile growing wider still. Being able to see it for himself, that Uncle was safe and well… perhaps that was enough, after all.
Just as that thought crossed his mind, he couldn't help but notice that Uncle seemed to sag, his expression gaining a touch of melancholy.
"Before anything else, I owe you an apology."
"… What do you mean, Uncle?"
Another pause; this one smaller, barely noticeable unless you knew Uncle well. "I have been lying to you, Zuko, for many years now. Even from before you were banished."
"You're talking about this?" Zuko glanced around the interior of the tent. The furnishings were spartan, but even then he could see the symbol of the White Lotus on a banner that had been left hanging near the back. "About you being part of the White Lotus and everything?"
"After Lu Ten's death, I did… well, one might call it soul searching. And I found that I no longer wanted any part in the war."
"All the way back then?" and now Zuko was digging through his memory too, recaling the times Uncle had sat andwatched their military parades, never saying much, always observing with inscrutable expressions. "I don't – I never realized."
"Well, it's good that you didn't," a slight shake of his head. "Having a member of the royal family – especially a disgraced one – being openly against the war would have been very dangerous. For me, and anyone it looked like I was getting close to."
"And that's what you're apologizing about?" Zuko found himself shaking his head as he stepped closer. "Uncle, if you were keeping secrets, it was to protect me. You don't need to say sorry for that."
"If only it were so simple," a hand was raised to forestall the protest that was coming. "Please, hear me out.
"One of the reasons I went with you on your journey was to teach you. Not just Firebending, of course. I wanted you to see the world the way I did. How other countries viewed the Fire Nation. How the war had brought ruin not only to others, but also ourselves."
Uncle's gaze was distant now as he sifted through his memory.
"Well, circumstances were less than ideal, of course. And it was the first time trying to impart all those ideas that would have been new and foreign to you..." A sigh, and then his faced seemed old, creased and timeworn. "I was worried about pushing them onto you too quickly, but I fear I made the opposite mistake. When I made my own allegiance clear, you were shocked. In the end, I confused or upset you more than anything else.
"Whatever my intentions, I failed as a teacher and as a guide. I am sorry."
He trailed off, and for a moment there was only the soft crackling of the candle in the room. His smile was sad.
And then Zuko shook his head.
"I wouldn't say it was all your fault, Uncle. I can be pretty stubborn, after all," he could feel a rueful smile across his own face. "All those years, and I never even realized you were trying to show me a new path."
"No," Uncle shook his head, and if anything, his own smile grew warmer – gentler. "No, you found the path, all on your own, instead. And I could not be happier for you."
Zuko stepped forward, drawing his Uncle into a tight embrace. A moment later, he felt Uncle's arms come up around him as well.
"I'm glad I got to see you again, Uncle," his voice was muffled.
"So am I, Zuko," his grip tightened. "So am I."
Azula staggered out of her tent, wincing ever so slightly against the glare of the morning sun.
Sleep had proven as elusive as ever.
She could definitely feel it now. A burning sensation, almost akin to something crawling under her skin, a sharp hum or buzz that she couldn't quite focus on.
One more day to the Comet.
She kept her gaze passive as she walked out of the tent, observing the controlled chaos around her.
In the light of day their preparations for battle were even more obvious, and Azula found herself unreasonably annoyed that the Fire Nation garrisons apparently hadn't picked up on an army practically under their noses.
Then again, who would expect anything less than a massive army if it came down to an assault? After all it's not like the ancient, impregnable fortress of Ba Sing Se could be brought low by a mere handful of highly trained agents.
She knew her expression was sardonic. Perhaps she couldn't quite help herself.
A quick scan of the camp revealed no sign of most of the group she had travelled her with.
"If you're looking for your friends," Piandao's voice came from behind her. "I believe I saw Bumi bringing them towards a quarry towards the West. Something about settling a bet, I believe."
She could have sworn she'd heard a faint note of amusement in his voice, but when she turned back to face him, his expression appeared serious and inscrutable.
She wasn't quite sure if he was expecting any thanks for the info, so she settled for a studied grunt of indifference before turning and heading in that direction.
So now what?
Would they be sticking with the White Lotus during the day of the Comet itself? She supposed working to retake Ba Sing Se was as valid a military operation as any, but that effort would pale in light of the Earth Kingdom itself being set ablaze.
So, what was the plan here?
Well it wasn't like she couldn't just ask. But there was a wariness between her and the member of he White Lotus whenever they interacted.
She wasn't quite sure if the wariness stemmed from herself or them.
He would be the one to ask, if anyone. Azula resisted the urge to groan and rub at her eyes. Of course it would come back to him.
She was so caught up in her musings she barely realized that she could hear the cracking sounds of rock breaking. But she did and a frown crossed her face as her pace quickened.
She'd fought against enough Earthbenders to recognize the sounds of battle.
In a moment, she was there as they ground dipped away under her, and she was watching as what appeared to a veritable wave of rock surged across the ground as Toph stamped her foot.
Of course her opponent was happy to retaliate, and a swing of his hands sent a pillar of rock jutting out, breaking apart the oncoming wave to pass harmlessly on either side.
The pillar was then hurled at Toph, who didn't dodge exactly; more like the ground around her picked up and shifted itself to the left, letting the stone whistle harmlessly past her.
"Oh hey, you're up!" she heard Suki's greeting and gave a nod of acknowledgement as she walked closer to the group who was standing at a respectable observation distance.
"What's going on?"
"Apparently so Toph was at first interested to talk more with King Bumi, especially since he's also a Metalbender," Suki begin with a gesture towards the two of them.
"But then as they talked there came to be a friendly disagreement over the exact identity of, and I quote, 'The Greatest Earthbender of all Time'," Sokka's shrug was careless. "Which hey, I guess there are worse things to argue about."
"And so they're settling it with a duel?"
"I am surrounded by meatheads," was Katara's offhanded response from her other side.
She continued to watch closely, observing and evaluating as there came another boom of rock crumbling against rock.
"The way she fights against me isn't quite the same as the way she fights against other Earthbenders."
She had been speaking mostly to herself, but Katara shrugged and responded anyway.
"Well, of course. The kind of attacks and defences someone like you and King Bumi use would be completely different. Of course everyone fights differently when fighting different opponents."
Another boom sounded through the quarry and then both of the contestants had jumped away, standing still and waiting for another attack to come their way.
"What do you think you're doing?" came Zuko's panicked yell as he appeared over the lip of the quarry as well. "Cut it out! Have you forgotten we're supposed to be hidden?!"
The shout seemed to work well enough at breaking up the fight as Toph dropped her combat stance, although Azula could see the frustration in the sag of her shoulders.
For his part King Bumi straightened up and gave a hearty chuckle as he walked over to clap Toph on the shoulder.
"Lighten up, Zuzu," she shot a sideways glance over at him. "In case you didn't notice, we haven't seen a single Fire Nation patrol in the area since that bison brought us here. Probably don't have near enough manpower to deal with the city interior, never mind the farmlands outside it."
"An accurate assessment," came the gravelly voice of Jeong Jeong from beside her, and Azula barely managed to avoid letting her annoyance show at yet another member of the White Lotus being able to approach her unnoticed. "I suppose it's no surprise you're as well-versed as ever on Fire Nation military doctine."
"Don't give me that!" Sokka snapped his fingers and gave Jeong Jeong an enthusiastic thumbs up. "You were just as excited to watch that Eartbending Rumble as the rest of us!"
"If there had been any danger of discovery you can be assured I would have shut this match down immediately."
Azula arched an eyebrow. "That's wasn't a 'no'."
"Sure wasn't!" Toph's enthusiastic voice broke through as she clambered to where they were standing. "I came off pretty good there, didn't I!"
"I'm afraid I arrived a bit too late to offer any sort of accurate assessment."
"Eh, I'd say it was a draw," Sokka shrugged both hands. "Didn't have the chance to really get started, you know what I mean?"
"Heh heh," Bumi folded his arms and leaned backward, an outcropping of rock raising itself to meet him as he did so. "Well, I guess we'll just have to settle this with a rematch."
Somehow, she could feel the smile on Toph's face rather than seeing it.
"Ok, if it's a rematch then I want a second."
"A second for what? To catch your breath?"
"Not that, Snoozles. A second fighter! Earth Rumble has two-versus-two formats, you know?"
"A tag-team!" if anything, Bumi's own smile had grown even wider as he looked over at Jeong Jeong. "What do you say, old buddy?"
There was a snort from the aged firebender, although Azula thought he could detect a slight glint in his eye.
"If you really need to get it out of your system, I can humour you for one round."
"All right, then I'm volunteering Princess here!" Toph called as she grabbed ahold of Azula's wrist.
"I don't get a say in this?" she asked as she shook off Toph's grasp.
"Sure you do!" and there was now a smirk on Toph's face. "And you'll say 'yes' since I know you that well, so I figured we could just save everyone the time."
Suddenly everyone else present was looking at her, waiting for a response.
She reined in a sigh.
"That is a terrible idea that will likely end with all of us injured, our positions given away to the enemy, the Seven Relics lost for good, the spirit world forever thrown out of balance. And bruised fruit."
Toph's smirk grew wider. "That wasn't a 'no'."
Azula rolled her shoulders for a moment, limbering them up. She flexed her fingers, letting a flicker of blue flame dance across them.
"No, it wasn't."
Night had fallen. The land was quiet. Even the incessant chirping of the chicken-crickets had faded away into silence by now.
As tranquil and peaceful a scene as you could hope for.
Which made it more upsetting that Azula was wretchedly unable to get to sleep.
Her shoulders and knees ached slightly. Not enough to deter her. Katara had gone over the minor wounds suffered during their bout and assured everyone they'd be fine come morning.
Well, she supposed she would be able to. Eventually. After a lot of fitful tossing and turning.
Which was probably why she had foregone that option in favour of taking a walk.
She drew in a deep breath, trying to calm herself down.
The buzzing of her nerves pointedly refused to cease or diminish in any appreciable capacity.
It was probably this slight distraction that kept her from fully realizing where she was going until realized she'd been walking uphill for several seconds.
And it was only when she paused to look around that she saw it.
Lu Ten's stone marker was just by her feet, illuminated by the moon's soft glow. She had almost trod on it by accident.
For a long moment she stood there, looking down at it.
And it was because she herself was silent that she was able to discern the sound of rustling grass and soft footfalls behind her.
She stood and waited, keeping her gaze pointedly fixed on the night sky and the stars silently twinkling above as Uncle approached and settled himself on the grass with a soft grunt of effort.
The sound of a satchel being opened and when she did look down, she had to fight the urge to smile.
"Ginseng," her Uncle's smile was knowing. "It helps to soothe the nerves. Which, I imagine, will be particularly helpful tonight."
"Thank you," her nod was slight as she accepted the cup. Removing the cover, she drank deeply, silently enjoying the rush of warmth down the back of her throat.
They continued this way for a few minutes, both sitting and taking slow drinks of the tea.
After she finished, Azula closed her eyes and waited.
Uncle was the one who had sought her out. He could start the conversation when he was ready.
A few moments later, there was the sound of a breath of air being let out, and she could hear Uncle's body slumping over slightly.
"I am sorry."
She didn't respond immediately, choosing instead to open her eyes and turn the teacup over in her hands as she stared at the delicate engravings on it that glimmered in the moonlight.
"I'm curious, Uncle. Is this a general apology for poor treatment or for some incident in particular?"
"Not for a specific incident, no," out of the corner of her eye, she saw her uncle shaking his head. "And yet, not just something in general either."
"You know I hate it when you speak in riddles."
"Forgive me," there was a soft chuckle. "But this time, at least, I am trying to be straightforward."
Uncle's gaze was distant.
"For a very long time, almost as long as I can remember… I was afraid."
"Of me?" the idea seemed odd – she wasn't too proud to admit Uncle would beat her in a straight fight nine times out of ten – but there weren't many alternatives for this subject of discussion.
"Of what you were becoming," Uncle was gazing at his teacup now, swirling what remained of the drink around slowly. "Of what Ozai was turning you into.
"Ruthless ambition. Seeking power for power's sake. Using cruelty as a tool to seize what you desired. More than Ozai seeking to teach you this, I was worried about how easily you took to them."
"Well, I'm sorry I coudn't be as meek and unassuming as Zuzu was as a kid," she didn't bother trying to keep the snide tone out of her voice.
"I'll admit I was happy to see you and your brother so close when you were younger. What Uncle would not be happy to see their niece and nephew sharing a strong bond? And yet… and yet," a shake of his head. "I was afraid."
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath in, holding it for several seconds before letting it out again.
"You were afraid of Zuko becoming more like me."
A quick nod as he brought his teacup to his lips and drained the last of the brew.
Well, she wasn't sure how she felt just then. Muted, almost resigned anger mixed with a bone-tired weariness seemed to be the closest approximation.
Of course he would think that of me. Was I expecting any different?
No, but having it confirmed directly by him still hurts more than I thought it would.
"Well! I'm glad we can now put that silly matter to rest, can't we? Zuko's still Zuko; kindhearted and caring and..." her voice lapsed into silence before she shook her head, regaining her bearing. "And everything that I'm not. I guess all those years on a boat with you really did do him good, huh? Uncle?"
Another long pause with no response before Uncle finally took a deep breath.
"I wanted to guide him. Help him grow into his own. I didn't do the same for you. I left you to Ozai even though I knew it would simply be poison for you. For that… I am sorry."
"… I didn't need or want your guidance," she doesn't really know if what she's saying is true.
But right here, right now, she needs to believe that it is.
"I would have been fine never seeing you again, if not for the fact that the Avatar decided to run away on us. But Zuko thinks you can help us fight Father."
That's right. Focus on the task at hand.
Emotions and regrets were messy.
They could be dealt with later.
Uncle seemed to take the hint, or he had also been pondering the war on his own, because his posture had straightened at the mention of facing her father.
"It is the Avatar's destiny to face the Fire Lord. The world needs to see the symbol of Balance restoring order after so many years. It cannot be anyone else."
"You were the one who told me that someone can choose to accept their destiny or reject it. And guess what? He ran away. If that's not a rejection, what is?"
"Did he leave because of his conviction, or his lack of it?"
"… What do you mean?"
"Zuko filled me in about the argument you all had. The Avatar's refusal to kill Ozai comes from his Airbender heritage. Their culture holds that all life is sacred."
"If all life is sacred to them, then Father presents a far greater threat to their sacred life if he's allowed to live!" why was she even discussing Airbender philosophy with Uncle, anyway? "Is there any way you can look at this and not think killing Ozai is the right thing to do?"
"Indeed," Uncle's nod was slow. "That's the heart of the matter, isn't it? What is 'good' is not always the same as what is 'right'."
"Well, I'm glad we're back to the issue of what we're supposed to do then."
"No, let me get back to my question. Or rather, let me rephrase it."
She raised an eyebrow.
"Did the Avatar leave because he didn't want to kill Ozai, or was it because he wanted to not kill Ozai? Those are not the same thing."
"I don't have time for your semantic games, Uncle-"
"No, listen, Azula. The Avatar is not a fool. He is young – younger than he should be for all the burdens he carries – but he knows what his duty is. He wants to fulfil it. But the way presented to him requires sacrificing part of the convictions he has carried all his life.
"I'll acknowledge time is short, but he needs to find his own path. One that can answer all the questions he has for himself and his role in the world," a smile crossed his face. "I've had experiences with people taking long and windy paths to find where they needed to be."
"Well I'm glad you can put your trust so readily in destiny and a boy you barely know," Azula snorted as she leaned back slightly, enough to fix her gaze on the night sky instead. "But you'll forgive me if I don't have quite the same confidence you do."
"Yes, Zuko told me that too. You're unsure if you should even join in the assault, are you?"
"I prefer to be pragmatic about it."
"Well, which is more pragmatic: to leave your friends without helping them, further risking their defeat, or to join them in a bad situation to make the odds that much better?"
"Ah yes. Now I see the wisdom in Father's teaching about how friendships are a chain that tie you down."
… Friendships, huh?
The thought had come so naturally.
"Chains can be used to pull others up as well, you know," amusement crinkled Uncle's eyes, and then it faded as quickly as it had come. "I can't make you participate. All I can do is offer my advice.
"Tomorrow, your friends will be heading for the site of the airships. Their goal will be to disable them, before or after they take flight, and to protect the Earth Kingdom."
"Father will be there."
"Indeed. He won't allow himself to sit out what will be the great triumph of the Fire Nation."
"And you want me to go with them."
"A comet-empowered Firebender will be invaluable for that fight."
Azula narrowed her eyes.
"There's something you're not telling me."
Uncle nodded and reached into his robes. A moment later, he had retrieved a small bundle of paper that he carefully placed on the ground between the two of them.
"The White Lotus runs a rather thorough information network. That's how I was able to gather everyone here for the assault on Ba Sing Se… and it's how I was able to get information on Ty Lee's imprisonment."
Azula didn't remember reaching for the bundle of paper, but it was suddenly in her hands, and she was unfolding it, lighting a flame with her free hand to read the contents-
"They decided to keep her on a prison ship that's on the move. As far as I can tell, Ozai planned to use her as a bargaining chip with you, and didn't want the risk of you discovering her exact location."
She barely heard the words as she skimmed the paper, looking through schedules and hastily drawn maps. Information. Knowledge.
"However, tomorrow. The ship will dock at a Fire Nation colony south of here to refuel and resupply, as shown on the map. There, for almost a day, it will be stationary."
She let loose a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding and turned to face Uncle.
"And you're telling me this now? After speaking about how valuable an asset I'd be for the airship raid?"
He shook his head.
"It would not be fair to you if I simply let you leave without letting you know about this. I believe I am quite done with using lies and omissions to guide others."
"And what's to stop me from leaving the others to go off on their suicide mission and heading there to rescue Ty Lee instead?" she kept her gaze focused on Uncle, daring him.
Waiting for his answer.
In response, he plucked the empty teacups from the ground, carefully stowing them back in his satchel.
"Why, nothing at all," he stood and made to leave before pausing as if a new thought had just occurred to him. "Except yourself."
And then he continued to walk, at a slow and leisurely pace, back towards the camp.
Zuko sat, picking at his breakfast as he tried to sort through what to do next.
Uncle had refused his request to fight father. Well, he'd half-suspected as much once he had seen the preparations they had been making all around camp. Of course they would have their own plans for the day of the Comet.
"Doesn't change our job, though," Sokka shook his head. "If you're sure Aang's gonna show up again to stop Ozai, we should be there for him when he is. And try to stop the airships in the meantime."
"And after all the fighting is done, will you come back and take the throne? It's your right, after all."
Uncle looked at him with a smile and shook his head 'no'.
"I come from the era of Sozin and Azulon. I am a man of war. The Fire Nation needs new blood, Zuko. A young idealist, willing to do what's right."
For a fleeting moment he thought about thrusting that responsibility onto Azula and simply absconding somewhere but that thought vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
It was his birthright. His duty.
"I… don't think I'm ready."
"It won't be an easy task. But you'll have people to help you. People to guide you."
Uncle paused and turned to Zuko, perhaps for the first time noticing how nervous he was. "I'm sorry, Zuko. I told you, I was a man of war. For so long, I held forth on the battlefields. Courtly intrigue was never my specialty."
"But you still had to grow up around it, didn't you? You still learned about it?"
"I learnt enough to survive," a shake of his head, as if Iroh was trying to clear away bad memories. "But I never liked it. I didn't thrive in the competition like others did."
"'Others' meaning me, I take it?" Azula's voice came from behind Zuko and he twisted in his seat.
"Az! There you are! Where were you? You almost missed breakfast."
Something like discomfort flashed across her features for an instant and then she was grabbing and bowl and filling it with whatever leftover food there was
"Last minute preparations," her gaze shifted to Uncle and there was a slight smirk. "And I suppose Uncle's made his choice? To think he would go so far as to conquer Ba Sing Se just so he can reopen his tea shop and play Pai Sho again all day."
"I am a man of specific interests," Uncle's returned smile was warm. "Are you all ready? If you set off now, you'll reach the airship site by evening."
A nod from everyone present.
"Then farewell. I'll see you after this is all over," Uncle closed his eyes and nodded. "Today, destiny is our friend."
Soon after, they were astride the eel-hounds (and Azula had finished gobbling up her late meal). With a tug of the reins, their mounts turned and began their long dash across the land.
Appa's cry sounded above them, and Zuko looked up to see the bison.
Flying away towards the South.
He looked over his shoulder at Azula, staring at the bison with an unreadable expression on her face.
"They'll be okay," he said. Then, pursing his lips, he blew out a sigh. "She'll be okay."
Something akin to vulnerability flitted across his sister's face, before it was replaced by her expression of focused intensity.
And then she was hunched over now, eyes staring at the grasslands ahead of them.
High, high overhead, Sozin's Comet approached.
Thanks for reading! Reviews are much appreciated!