Chapter 18:

"Everyone get on Appa," Zuko hissed. "We're going to continue our search...now!" He clambered onto Appa's saddle and looked down expectantly at Aang and Toph. They stared back, not moving.

"Zuko, listen to me," Aang reasoned. "It's dark. We wouldn't be able to find them even if they were two feet from us."

Zuko let out a sharp breath, his fingers tightening around the edge of the saddle. "But..."

"Twinkletoes is right," Toph stated. "It's a hopeless search. We should get rest and then look for them tomorrow."

"I-I just...need to find Azula...right now," Zuko muttered.

Aang jumped, using a burst of air to propel him into the saddle next to his scowling friend.

"Listen," Aang said softly. "I know you're upset about what happened to Azula..."

"Upset?" Zuko spat. "That doesn't even cut it! I...I just can't believe it," Zuko gripped his head with both hands. "My father...no, Ozai is a filthy bastard that deserves to die!" he growled.

Aang placed a gentle hand on Zuko's shoulder, unsure of how to comfort him.

"What I don't understand is...why?" Zuko was talking more to himself than to Aang. "Why would Ozai ever challenge Azula to an Agni Kai? It doesn't make any sense. In the Day of the Black Sun, she covered for him, protected his location, took the hits for him...what could have driven him to challenge her to a duel?"

Aang sighed. "I don't know, Zuko. When we find Azula tomorrow, maybe we can ask her."

Zuko glanced up. "I doubt she'll speak about it. Knowing Azula, she will probably deny it." He stood up, pacing around Appa's back. "Azula is Ozai's angel. He needs her in this war...why would he incapacitate her? She must have done something absolutely ridiculous in order for Ozai to do such a thing."

"Knowing Ozai, cruelty toward his children shouldn't come as a surprise," Toph mumbled.

"No," Zuko corrected bitterly. "Ozai's cruelty to me shouldn't come as a surprise. Cruelty to Azula, on the other hand, seems unspeakable."

OoOoOoOoOo

Azula awoke when rays of blazing sunlight shone into her eyes. Her body creaked as consciousness gradually filled her aching joints and muscles. She felt hot and cold at the same time. Her torso still burned, although the pain had subsided much over the past several days.

Her groggy eyes glanced around and saw a heap of orange flames emitting from a fire in the clearing that she was laying in. A brief look around told her that the two water tribe peasants were present as well, but they were too involved in their conversation to notice her.

"We're not moving anywhere fast with that she-devil," the boy was babbling. Sokka, was it? "I say we kill her, ditch her, and then go off to find Aang and the others."

The girl, Katara, scoffed, knowing that her brother's wishes were over exaggerated. "I wish we could do that. Unfortunately, that would just turn us into people that are just like her."

Azula felt her lips curl into a weak smirk. "And that right there...is your weakness," she hissed. "You should kill me while you have the chance."

Instantly, the two peasants whirled around to send her a scathing glare. Azula nearly chuckled with delight at their annoyance.

"If you want to keep what little health you still have, it would be a good idea not to anger us," Katara snapped.

"Humph," Azula turned her head away. "I will not be dictated by the likes of you."

"I'm guessing you don't want any of this delicious MEAT!" Sokka jeered in a singsong voice that made Azula want to smack him upside the head, if she had the strength to at the moment.

"Keep your meat," Azula muttered. "I have no need for it." And she wasn't lying. At the moment, Azula's stomach was churning, even though she could not remember the last time she had eaten. Her head was spinning, which she attributed to the high fever that was raging through her skull.

"Well, that's fine with us, isn't it Sokka?" Katara scoffed.

"Yep, more food for us!"

Azula rolled her eyes. She then committed to the difficult task of rolling onto her side so that her back was facing the two offending vermin. In turn, they ignored her.

"Where should we go next, Sokka?" Katara asked, facing her brother.

"I saw a village somewhere up ahead," Sokka pointed to the path in front of them. "We should go there and try to find some supplies and food. Maybe someone will be nice and give us a hot meal and a bed to sleep in."

"Well, what are we going to do with her?" Katara's voice dropped to a whisper and she nudged her head toward where Azula was laying. "We can just saunter into a Fire Nation village with their princess. Who knows what people will do? They might think we kidnapped her or something."

"But we didn't kidnap her," Sokka protested. "She came to us."

"Yes, but the villagers aren't going to know that," Katara insisted. "In fact, we're already too close to that village for comfort. What if a stray villager happens to find us? They might report us, some guards might swarm us, and before you know it, we're trapped in a Fire Nation cell, rotting, and Azula wins again." Her voice gradually flooded with distaste.

"Okay, okay," Sokka conceded. "You're right...but what if we don't bring Azula with us? What if one of us stays to keep track of her, and another one of us goes to the village on an errand?"

Katara mentally smacked herself upside the head. "Gosh, why didn't I think of that? Fine. If you want to go shopping so badly, you can go ahead. I'll stay and watch over the wench."

"If you say so," Sokka stood up, brushed himself off, and gathered whatever money they had managed to hang on to during the kidnapping and escape. "I won't be gone for long. Just make sure Azula doesn't do anything funny," he said loud enough for the aggravated princess to hear. Not waiting for a snark reply, Sokka strolled off toward the village, leaving Katara alone with Azula.

The two remained tense as Katara pulled water from a nearby stream to fill up the sacks.

"So," Katara muttered. "What do you intend to do? You do realize that the only reason you haven't been killed by us yet is because we have more humanity than you will ever have. But when you get healthier, things will change. What do you think will happen when you regain your strength? When you try to kill us again?" Katara rose and walked toward Azula. The princess returned Katara's glare. "I'll tell you what will happen," Katara hissed. "I won't hesitate to kill you. Not even your dear brother or Aang will be able to stop me."

Azula made a slight shrug. "If you say so." She was definitely not in the mood to deal with Katara's rambling and hate.

Just then, a sharp blade whisked by Katara's head, grazing her on the temple before slamming into a tree. Katara whirled around, her adrenaline spiking. Were the thieves back, hoping to regain their captives? In an instant, a large orb of water was floating in front of her, ready to strike.

More knives came shooting out of the trees, and Katara deflected them with a barrier of ice.

Azula's eyes narrowed at the intricate designs on the handles of the throwing knives...it couldn't be.