(Book 1) (Book 2a) (Book 2b) (Book 3a) (Book 3b)
Getting away from the Northern Water Tribe was a relief. Azula had hated every moment of the hostility there. It had worn on her. So had the cold; firebenders as a rule didn't do well in cold. Azula had known that; in the Fire Nation, it was one of the ways they kept prisoners in jail from bending, when it was necessary to do so. But it was one thing to know that cold might hinder her bending, and other to experience that cold day after day, parka or no parka. It had sapped at her strength slowly but surely. But now they were further south, and it was wonderful to be able to take off the layers she had been wearing for the past month. They had felt heavier than they really were.
They were all a little quiet during the boat ride back to the Earth Kingdom. It had been less than a week since the battle of the North Pole, after all. Since Yue's death. Sokka was still pretty upset, and Azula was upset as well- though for different reasons, of course.
She was still a little mad that she'd killed Zhao. Not guilty- she was above those sorts of emotions, of course- but angry that she'd done so unintentionally. The other deaths didn't bother her as much. She'd had time to weigh the options then, and had chosen to kill them. It had been necessary, and she didn't regret it. Those soldiers had been in a position to hurt Ty Lee, and there had been precious few other choices. Zhao had been different. She hadn't really needed to kill him. True, he had been a major source of irritation throughout her time trying to teach Aang firebending, always showing up at inopportune times. His death would save her a lot of annoyance, but she'd had other methods of dealing with him, if she'd thought of it.
Look at her, obsessing over the death of an enemy. Aang and Katara's pacifist ways were really starting to rub off on her. This wouldn't do. A ruler had to be ruthless. A ruler had to be able to justify any decision, even ones they had decided poorly, in hindsight. A ruler did not admit to mistakes.
Azula would just put this out of her mind, for now.
If most of them were in a bad mood, at least Ty Lee seemed cheerful enough. Azula was almost jealous of her ability to shrug off bad emotions like water off of the oiled cloth of the circus tents she loved so much. Ty Lee was doing her usual stretches. Azula sat near her and watched, hoping that Ty Lee's energy and good mood would wear off on her.
"You should join me," Ty Lee said, when she caught sight of Azula. "A little extra flexibility is a big advantage in a fight!"
Azula considered this, and could find no flaw in Ty Lee's logic. Azula was already reasonably flexible- she couldn't allow herself to stiffen up, when she might face danger at any time- but it was true that there was always room for improvement. Azula had become as good at fighting as she was by taking every single opportunity to better herself that she had come across. (All save one, which she wasn't going to think about now.) She wasn't about to stop now.
Ty Lee led her through a series of increasingly difficult stretches. Azula hadn't realized that she was so stiff. She hadn't been stretching nearly as much as usual at the North Pole, partly because the clothing she'd been forced to wear had been so burdensome.
When they were done, Azula was tired all the way to her bones. Good. That meant the session had been worth it.
"See?" Ty Lee said. "I knew you were a little too stiff! I could see it in your aura. You're way too tense." With that said, she circled around behind Azula and gently rubbed her shoulders.
Azula had long ago learned not to argue with Ty Lee about auras. The only possible result was to make Ty Lee angry or sad, which Azula generally tried not to do. It might be nonsense, but it was Ty Lee's nonsense, so Azula tolerated it. Azula would tolerate a lot, for Ty Lee's sake.
Besides, she was right. Azula had been tense. And now she felt a little better.
There was a knock on trapdoor that led down to their cabin. "Azula? Ty Lee?"
"Yes?" Azula said.
Katara opened the trapdoor and looked down at them. "It's time to get going. We're taking Appa the rest of the way. Are you guys packed up?"
"Yep! Ty Lee said, still massaging Azula's shoulders. "We'll be up in a minute."
Katara gave them a smile. It seemed a little forced, but Azula noted it all the same. Katara still seemed a bit uncomfortable with Azula and Ty Lee's relationship, but at least she was making an effort. Azula needed everyone entirely on her side, if she wanted them to help her take her throne. She had somewhere between a few more months and a year to do that, depending on how quickly Aang was able to master the various elements. His firebending was not progressing as fast as she had hoped, but maybe finding an earthbending teacher for him would make his firebending progress faster as well. After all, there had to be a reason that the elements were learned in a traditional order.
At least his waterbending was going smoothly, though she wouldn't yet call him a master- he'd spent too much time playing when he should have been training, at the North Pole.
Surely a year was enough time to win them over?
Reluctantly, Ty Lee pulled away from Azula. "We should grab our bags and go up," she said.
"Right," Azula said. She grabbed her pack and headed to the deck.
After a few pleasantries, Pakku sent them off. They were heading to an Earth Kingdom military base. Azula was looking forward to it- so far, they had yet to see a major Earth Kingdom military installment. This would be a perfect chance to gather intelligence on the Earth Kingdom's military- a chance she might not get again. Any such information would be extremely useful when she became Fire Lord.
The flight to the base took a couple of hours. The time seemed to pass quickly, after so many days on the ship.
The base, once they saw it, was much as Azula expected. The high walls, the mountainous terrain- all of it designed to be advantageous to earthbenders. That wasn't the interesting part. The interesting thing would be information on troop movements, supply lines- the things that really made an army tick. Azula hadn't had any formal schooling in the ways of war since she was a child, but the palace library had remained open to her. She hadn't needed a teacher to educate her. She had learned it all on her own. And she had done it well.
Still, she couldn't be too obvious about this. Not only would it arouse suspicion as to her motives if she seemed too interested in learning the Earth Kingdom's weaknesses, but it would draw attention to her cover story- she was meant to be a minor noble, not the princess. Someone like that would not have the background required to understand the sorts of things Azula was actually interested in.
Azula wasn't ready to reveal who she was, yet. Not until everyone in their group trusted her implicitly.
As it turned out, she didn't have much of a chance to look around. They were immediately greeted by General Fong, as well as a round of fireworks.
"Welcome, great heroes," he said. "Avatar Aang, Appa, Momo, brave Sokka, mighty Katara. And, of course, our courageous Fire Nation defectors, Azula and Ty Lee." He bowed.
Azula gave him a polite smile.
They went inside the fortress to talk. Azula assumed they would be given a place to stay for the night and then they would be on their way in the morning. She was busy paying close attention to the maps she saw on the walls, trying to determine from them how well they knew the Fire Nation, and she only half-paid attention to the discussion between Aang and General Fong.
"...you're ready to face the Fire Lord now."
"What?" Aang said.
"What?" Azula said, almost at the same time. "With all due respect, General, Aang is still far from a master at firebending, and he hasn't even started learning earthbending. He isn't nearly ready yet."
"He doesn't need to master the elements," Fong said. "With the sort of power he possesses- the power that won the battle of the North Pole- we could wipe out the entire Fire Nation now."
"You've got it wrong," Sokka said. "Aang can only do those things in the Avatar state."
Azula's heart dropped down to her stomach. Of course. The Avatar state. She'd only seen it in action twice, but it hadn't even occurred to her to use it to defeat the Fire Nation.
They could win in a matter of weeks- just as long as it took to get to the Fire Nation. All they had to do was trigger the Avatar State.
But it was too soon- the others didn't trust her enough yet. Worse, they didn't even know who she was. How could she expect them to give her the throne when they didn't yet know she was the princess? If they went through with this plan, Azula would have to reveal her identity within a matter of days. Her play for power would be obvious and clumsy. She would never get the throne this way.
"With all due respect," Azula said, "the Avatar state is wild and uncontrollable. Using it as a weapon could just as easily destroy our own troops as the Fire Nation's."
"Besides," Aang added, "I don't know how to get in or out of the Avatar state. So, you see, it wouldn't work as well as you're thinking."
Fong frowned. "Certainly the plan needs to be refined. But if we can find a way to trigger the Avatar State, wouldn't it be worth it?"
Katara shook her head. "It's too risky. Aang needs to pursue his destiny his way."
General Fong took Aang aside, presumably to try to influence him. Azula stood and followed. This was far too important to leave to chance.
Fong went on a spiel about the injured soldiers and how Aang should try to reduce casualties by ending the war as fast as possible. Azula tuned out a little, eyeing the injured men.
"Where were they stationed?" she asked, interrupting him mid-sentence.
"Excuse me?" Fong said.
"Those soldiers. They were in a battle. The Fire Nation hasn't made a major offensive move in the war in over five years. I haven't heard any news of battles, so where were they stationed?"
"They were trying to take back the colonies, of course," Fong said. "The Fire Nation has occupied our land for far too long."
"So you've been putting the men's lives in danger," Azula said. This was good. For once, Aang's pacifism would work to her advantage. "You're the aggressor, this time."
Aang looked back and forth between Azula and General Fong, clearly uncertain about what to do.
"We're trying to take back our homes," Fong said. "How is that aggression?"
"You could wait until we defeat the Fire Nation," Azula said. "Unless you don't believe the Avatar can defeat the Fire Lord?"
"What if I can't?" Aang said.
Azula resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "That's why we're training, Aang. Once you master all the elements, you'll have no problems defeating the Fire Lord."
Aang still looked unsure.
"If you master the Avatar state," Fong said, "you'll be able to defeat him immediately."
"I need to think about this," Aang said. "I will take your advice into consideration, Azula, General Fong."
He gave them a polite little bow before ducking out of the conversation.
Well. That was progress, at least. Azula was sure Aang would see it her way, once he'd thought about it some more. He had to. Her destiny depended on it.
But by the next morning, Aang had decided that mastering the Avatar state was the right thing to do. And Azula wasn't sure how to convince him otherwise. She spent the day in indecision- if General Fong succeeded in triggering the Avatar state at will, she would be better off telling the group her identity as soon as possible. But if they were unsuccessful, it was better to keep it a secret. The lack of a definite plan irked her.
Katara seemed saddened by Aang's attempts. Azula couldn't imagine why. Katara had no stake in keeping this journey going longer.
Luckily, the first day's efforts were all in vain. Azula went to bed with a nagging feeling that this good luck couldn't last, and had difficulty falling asleep.
She dreamed in fragments, about her early days searching for the Avatar, when she'd still thought that capturing him would make Uncle appreciate her.
She'd showed up in the rain, with a bag of clothing and enough money to last for a few weeks. It had taken half that time just to find the circus. She'd found Ty Lee, after asking around for a good half an hour, and said: "I need to join you in the circus."
Azula's hair had been a mess. She'd never had to go without servants before. Wet strands clung to her face, and her wet clothes weighed her down, but she didn't care. She had a mission, and she was going to complete it. She wasn't going to let Zuzu become Fire Lord. And if Uncle wouldn't give her a ship to use in her search, this was what she had to do.
Ty Lee just looked at her like she wasn't sure what to think, and said, "Okay. I can talk to the others. We'll find a place for you." She hadn't asked why Azula was there. Not then. She'd just smiled, and offered Azula a dry change of clothing and a hairbrush. And things had been okay, for a little while. Ty Lee was kind and easily manipulated. Azula could trust that Ty Lee would do as she wanted.
(She hadn't trusted Ty Lee as a person. Not then. She hadn't trusted anyone.)
"What can you do?" the leader of the circus asked, when Ty Lee introduced Azula.
"I can bend," Azula said, head held high. She was an amazing bender. She was a prodigy.
"Show me," he said.
The firebending form came easily, fire burning blue and hot.
"Not good enough," he said, and he sighed. "You're a good fighter. But fighting is one thing, and the circus is another."
He'd given her work anyway. Hard work- cleaning up, helping to put the tents up, taking them down again. Azula was strong, but her muscles still ached at the end of the day. And then she went back to the small tent that Ty Lee had offered to share with her, and Ty Lee braided her hair. A topknot wasn't appropriate for undercover work, Ty Lee had said soothingly, the first time she'd done Azula's hair. This was better. More stealthy.
Azula had agreed. It was better this way.
Azula hated the circus. She'd hated having to work. She'd hated that the Avatar was so difficult to find. She hated the circus-goers and their laughter, even though it wasn't directed at her.
But those moments, when Ty Lee's fingers were in her hair, and they were comfortable inside their tent- she hadn't minded those. Everything else had been a cold blur of uncertainty and anger, but Ty Lee had been something warm and solid to hold on to.
When Azula woke up, Ty Lee and Katara had left the girls' quarters. Azula quickly got dressed and left as well. She had to see if Aang would master the Avatar state. She had to know what to do next.
She wandered the halls slowly, taking in every sight.
Aang couldn't master the Avatar state. It wasn't in Azula's plans. Her destiny depended on him taking longer. So it couldn't happen.
Azula didn't trust many people or things. But she trusted in destiny, inescapable and perfect. Everything in her life had just made her stronger. Everything in her life had prepared her to be Fire Lord. Destiny, she trusted, would not prepare a leader such as her only to let her fail so suddenly. Not when she was worthy. Not when no one else was. Not when the Fire Nation had been in a decline ever since Uncle had taken the throne and refused to make the last push in the war efforts, the push that would have won them the war.
No. Aang would not master the Avatar state. Not today. Not until Azula was ready for him to.
With that reassurance to herself, Azula continued looking for the others.
There were no words to express her frustration when she found them in the large courtyard outside, Aang in the Avatar state and wreaking havoc on the Earth Kingdom soldiers around him.
This wasn't supposed to happen. Not yet.
But then she took in the full scene- the terrified guards, the way General Fong had Katara in an arm lock and was shouting desperate reassurances that she was really safe-
Azula's mouth twisted into a smirk. Luckily no one was paying attention to her to see it.
Regardless of what else happened today, Aang wouldn't be trying to master the Avatar state this way again. And maybe, just maybe, her advice would penetrate his thick skull the next time she felt like giving it.
And then Sokka came up behind Fong, let his boomerang fly, and knocked him out. Katara rushed forward, pushed though against the wind the Avatar was bending, and gently, quietly, grabbed hold of him in a hug.
The glowing of Aang's tattoos dissipated. And Azula realized that Katara was a valuable ally, useful for far more than her waterbending training. She was the key to the Avatar state. Threatening her brought it on. Releasing her ended it. She was a key that probably wouldn't need to be used, but Azula was not in the habit of throwing away valuable weapons.
But if there were an emergency- if the Dragon of the West finally came back to himself, and needed to be stopped before Azula was ready- well, if that day ever came, Azula knew of one way to easily defeat him, now. She was a good firebender, and she had good allies, but her Uncle had several techniques that Azula had no way to counter, other than by dodging them. Until now. Because, amazing firebender or not, Uncle would not be able to stand against the Avatar and Azula. Not to mention the not-insignificant contributions of Katara. Even Sokka might be somewhat of a threat, if they found him a master. Azula knew better than to underestimate someone just because they weren't a bender. Ty Lee had no bending, after all.
Azula's grin was too wide, and she quickly wiped it from her face in favor of rushing forward and asking concerned questions at Aang and Katara.
This day had worked out to her advantage. She had been wrong, to doubt her destiny, even for an instant.
Everything was working out perfectly.
The flight to Omashu was uneventful. This part of the Earth Kingdom was unoccupied by Fire Nation troops. They did meet a tribe of Earth Kingdom nomads while taking a pit stop for a moment, and Ty Lee joined in their terrible singing with far too much enthusiasm, and once she'd started, Aang joined in, too. Katara hadn't seemed very annoyed, but Azula and Sokka had exchanged weary glances and then worked together to convince the others that they should get going again and get to Omashu as quickly as possible.
Azula had never met King Bumi, but she knew of him. He was a powerful earthbender, ruler Omashu and the surrounding area, and, according to Aang as they flew over the mountains, he was the one remaining friend that Aang had found who was still alive after his 100-year nap.
Azula was prepared to make a good impression. She'd tidied up her hair- or, more accurately, let Ty Lee tidy it up- and she'd washed her nicer set of clothes when they'd stopped at the small lake to talk to the nomads. They were still a little damp, but Azula would much rather wear damp clothing than listen to another moment of that horrible singing.
She looked presentable. If she were a peasant. Still- attitude mattered more than dress. And she only had to get along with Bumi long enough for him to teach Aang earthbending.
They were met by a guard, who bowed to the five of them.
"Avatar," he said. And then, with a slight sideways smile, added, "Or would you still prefer to be called Mister Pippinpaddle-Oppsokopolis?"
"Aang is fine," Aang said, with a sheepish laugh.
Azula and Ty Lee exchanged confused looks, but neither of them said anything. Azula would ask for an explanation later, if it seemed like she needed one.
They were shown to the throne room.
Bumi was not as Azula expected. He was ugly and crazed-looking. He was also badly dressed. Still- if he were an excellent earthbender, then it didn't matter how he dressed. After all, Azula herself was only barely presentable right now.
"It's so good to see you, Bumi!" Aang said."You'd never believe all the adventures we've had since we last saw you!"
"I see you've made some new friends," King Bumi said. "Who is this?" He pointed one liver-spotted old hand at Ty Lee.
"I'm Ty Lee," Ty Lee said, bowing politely. "Pleased to meet you."
"And I am Azula," Azula said, with a slightly shallower bow. "It's an honor to meet you, King Bumi."
King Bumi eyed her dubiously. "What's a firebender like you doing in Omashu?"
The guards at the periphery of the room all stood up straighter at that, clearly wary.
"I am Aang's firebending teacher," Azula explained. He must have been able to tell she was a firebender by her stance, she decided. Azula herself could usually tell by the way somone moved if they had been trained as a bender or not. And firebending was distinctive, she supposed. Then again, perhaps he had merely guessed based on her eye color. Gold eyes were uncommon in the Earth Kingdom, though they were not unheard of.
"Firebending teacher, eh?" Bumi said. He let out a laugh that was more of a snort. "We don't see many firebenders burning to turn traitor. Get it, burning?"
Azula remained passive. From behind her, she could hear Sokka's palm hit his forehead. This was going to be even worse than those nomads, she was sure now.
"I merely wish to help restore the balance," she said calmly.
At this, Bumi let out another snort-laugh, and beckoned them to sit down on cushions that were scattered on the floor. Before long, servants came with food.
This was more like it. Azula hadn't been treated to a royal feast in far too long- since before she'd left for the circus. She ate a little more than she should have, but that was alright. She'd become a little too thin during the past few weeks. It wouldn't do to be fragile right now. Or ever.
In the meantime, she did her best to ignore King Bumi's jokes. It was going to be a trial putting up with him for the next few weeks or months or- spirits, it had been not take years for Aang to master earthbending.
She tuned in again long enough to hear the punchline of a joke.
"... and then it said, 'leaf me alone, I'm bushed!'"
At this, Azula started. She'd only ever heard that joke from her uncle. Perhaps he'd picked it up when he'd been campaigning in the Earth Kingdom? But no, that didn't make sense. He hadn't exactly been talking with the natives when he was invading. It must just be a joke that transcended national boundaries. Who would have guessed?
"That's my uncle's favorite joke," Azula mentioned casually. It was best not to appear too disinterested, if she wanted to get along with Bumi. "He tells it every chance he gets."
Bumi suddenly looked far too interested. "Your uncle, you say? What is his name?"
"Yang," Azula lied easily. "Why?"
Bumi looked far less interested after that. "It was a friend's favorite joke, once."
"It might still be," Bumi said, voice growing more serious than Azula had yet heard. "But he stopped speaking to me years ago, when he was suddenly called back home to the Fire Nation. But his name was not Yang, so I suppose it couldn't have been the same person."
Since there was no chance that he was talking about Uncle, Azula merely made a sympathetic face. She did wonder who in the Fire Nation had been this mad king's friend, and when- it could have been nearly a century ago, for all she knew- but she didn't concern herself overmuch with it.
"I hope you find your friend again some day," she merely said, politely.
"I hope so, too," Aang said. "But we really have to talk to you about something, Bumi."
Apparently Aang's patience had run out.
King Bumi turned to Aang. "What is it?"
"I need an earthbending teacher," Aang said. "I was thinking it should be you."
"No," Bumi said without much of a pause to think.
Azula hid her relief.
"But you're the best earthbender I know!" Aang said. "Why not?"
"I may be the best earthbender in the world," Bumi said, "but that doesn't mean I'm the best teacher for you."
Aang slumped where he sat. "But who else am I going to find to teach me?"
"You need someone who waits and listens to the earth," Bumi said.
Aang just looked confused at that.
They finished up the feast without much more talking, and went on their way, moods low.
The swamp smelled. Azula hated it, and she hated that she was separated from Ty Lee, and she hated that they were here at all.
Azula had never liked being dirty. She hated mud. She hated bad smells. She was a princess; she deserved better than being stuck here, covered in swamp water. She deserved to be carried through messes like this. The circus had been bad enough, but she had adapted. This was unbearable. This wasn't something that could be adapted to. There wasn't even the promise of a warm bath later to look forward to.
"Ty Lee?" she called out. But there was no reply. "Sokka? Aang? Katara?"
Still, all that she could hear were mosquito-flies and the occasional bird.
Well, this was just perfect. She could be stuck here for hours before she found them. She'd be covered in bug bites and even more irritated than she already was.
This wouldn't do. She'd better start searching immediately.
She had been walking for about ten minutes when she saw a flash of red out of the corner of her eye. She whipped around, thinking that a Fire Nation soldier must have somehow followed them into the swamp.
There wasn't a soldier there. Instead there was Mom.
"Azula," Mom said, in the tone she had always used when Azula had done something wrong. "What are you doing? You should go home."
"It's too late for that," Azula said. As if replying to this ghost was the rational thing to do. She shook her head, trying to clear it. This couldn't be real. It just couldn't. Mother was dead. Azula had seen the body.
"Your uncle and brother miss you. They love you," Mom said. "So do I." But her tone was the same disappointed one that she always used, the same one Uncle had adopted when mother was gone.
Azula lunged at her, shouting, "Shut up!" She landed in more swamp muck, mother gone. She was alone.
"Are you okay?"
Azula jumped. But it wasn't mother come back to haunt her again. It was just Sokka. She stood.
"I'm fine," Azula said, shaking her head again. She stood.
"Come on, let's find the others," he said. The look on his face was grim.
"Did you..." Azula said. "Did you see anyone near me?"
Sokka shook his head. "You, too? It's the swamp gas. Has to be."
At this rational explanation, Azula felt steadier.
Ty Lee wasn't too far away. They found her sitting on a fallen tree, shaking.
"They all looked just like me," she said, when Azula put an arm around her and managed to get her to stop shaking.
Aang and Katara found them soon after, but none of them ever got another word out of Ty Lee about what she had seen.
Even after they escaped the swamp and resumed their search for an earthbending teacher for Aang, Azula remained troubled. Though she agreed with Sokka that the visions they'd all seen had been due to swamp gas- Azula was not a fool enough that she didn't believe in spirits, but she found it extremely unlikely that the dead would come back, even as visions- she kept replaying her vision in her mind.
Azula had never cared much for her mother. It had been somewhat of a relief, honestly, when she'd died. Father was the one Azula had cared about. Mother had thought Azula was a monster. Mother had always been so disappointed. And nothing Azula had done, no amount of polishing her firebending or improving her calligraphy or being her sweetest when mother was looking, none of that had mattered. Because Mother had never been looking for any of that. She'd been looking for something inside Azula, something that Azula lacked and was always going to lack.
There was no question in Azula's mind that Mother would have been disappointed in her right now. The vision was just a projection of that certainty. That was all.
And yet something still nagged at her. Maybe it was the way the hallucination had said that Uncle and Zuko missed her, which she should have dismissed out of hand. No one would miss Azula. She'd never been kind or sweet to them, except when it served her ends. She'd gone out of her way to lie to them and to be pointlessly cruel on many occasions. If anything, they were probably relieved that she was gone, though perhaps they would be upset that she had turned traitor on them. After all, she was helping the Fire Nation's greatest enemy.
No, no one missed her. No one was waiting. Azula had cut ties with them utterly. She was completely free of them. The hallucination had been just that, a hallucination. There was no truth in it.
Reassured, Azula settled back against the bags strapped to the back of Appa's saddle.
There was something strange about the way the Blind Bandit fought. Well, of course there was. She was blind. So she didn't react to visual stimuli. What Azula couldn't figure out was what she was responding to. Sound, of course- but no more than Azula would respond to sound. And yet, the girl was about to tell where people were. She didn't fight like she was blind. She fought better than most seeing people.
She had a harder time against Aang that against the earthbenders she had fought. To be fair, though, airbenders were strange to fight if you'd never done it before- all twisting movements and circles, nothing at all like any of the other styles. Azula had been trying to incorporate a little of it into her own fighting, to make herself less predictable. Her circus moves were already good for that, a little- bend some green fire, and suddenly other firebenders were confused and off-guard- but she wasn't one to discard advantages when she could grasp at them, even if fire was supposed to be the superior element. She would be the first to admit that her bending was already a bastard mix of what she'd learned as a child, what she'd learned on her own, and what she'd learned to look impressive. She couldn't say that she followed any particular style anyway, so incorporating a few airbending-style moves wouldn't make it any less pure.
Clearly the Blind Bandit had a similar philosophy. She didn't fight like other earthbenders. Her style was completely different. More efficient. Even more grounded than usual, for an earthbender. Azula wondered where she'd picked it up- had she invented it, the way Azula had invented her own bending? Azula hadn't seen a single earthbender fight like that in all of her travels so far, so she doubted the style had been taught to the her by any official tutors.
In any case, she wasn't surprised when the Blind Bandit was knocked out of the ring. Her style was interesting, but she'd clearly honed her skills fighting against other earthbenders. And nothing was more different from earthbending than airbending.
She was surprised when Aang was given the prize money and belt for winning the championship. Had they really missed the fact that he wasn't earthbending? Azula had thought it was pretty obvious. But then, most people were stupid and only saw what they expected.
She frowned when the Blind Bandit stormed out. If Aang was really set on having her as a teacher, Azula was going to make that happen. He needed a teacher to master earthbending, after all. But Aang certainly hadn't made it easy. He'd humiliated the Blind Bandit in public. Azula would never join anyone who had embarrassed her in front of so many people. Not unless she had an extremely compelling reason to. And what reason might the Blind Bandit have?
Azula could see several strategies for dealing with this. She could try to play on the girl's altruism or patriotism to try to get her to stop the war. Or she could offer adventure. Or, perhaps, money- the Blind Bandit fought for prize money, so perhaps she was motivated by gold. Their group didn't have a lot of money right now, but surely the Avatar would be rewarded generously once he had stopped the war. The mere promise of money might be enough to entice the girl.
But first, of course, they had to find her. Asking around yielded no results; they found out that the flying boar Aang had seen in the swamp was the sign of a wealthy family in the area, but also learned that the Bei Fong family had no daughter.
Azula was pretty sure that the easiest way to find the Blind Bandit would be to intimidate Xin Fu. He was the most likely to know her identity.
But when she suggested this to the group, Aang frowned. "Violence is never the answer. Let's go talk to the Bei Fong family. Even if the Blind Bandit isn't their daughter, maybe she's a niece or a cousin or something."
Azula sighed. This was going to be a huge waste of time. But if Azula separated from the group and went to him on her own it was likely to turn out badly. He'd have a dozen earthbenders around him. Azula was more than a match for any of them individually- probably good enough to beat all of them together- but she wouldn't be able to get any good information about the Blind Bandit if she got into a fight.
So, grudgingly, she followed the others to the Bei Fongs' house.
At the very least, she was able to stop them from invading the grounds. They knocked on the front door like civilized people, and of course they were invited in. It was a little early for dinner, so they sat in the living room, politely discussing matters.
"The Avatar had a vision of a girl about his age," Azula explained, after Aang started babbling about crazy kings and swamps. "We believe the vision may have been of the one destined to be his earthbending teacher. In the vision, she was accompanied by a flying boar, so we thought you might have information about her whereabouts. I understand you have no children of your own, but perhaps a cousin, or a niece?"
Poppy and Lao Bei Fong turned to one another. "We don't advertise her presence," Lao said, after a moment, "but we do have a daughter. But she couldn't be the one you're looking for. She is tiny and defenseless and blind."
Azula saw the rest of the group exchange hopeful glances.
"May we meet her?" Azula asked, carefully. "I should have mentioned- we know the one destined to be the Avatar's earthbending teacher is also blind. It could be that it isn't your daughter, but please understand that we need to meet her, just in case."
"It won't be her," Lao said, with a great amount of certainty. But he gestured to one of the servants to fetch his daughter.
The girl that came through the doorway was, without a doubt, the Blind Bandit. She was dressed better, but that was about the only difference.
"Toph," Lao said. "The Avatar and his companions have come to visit."
"Hello," Toph said, in a timid voice. Azula could tell it was effected immediately.
Toph's parents gave Aang a questioning look. He nodded, and Lao's face clouded. Clearly, the Bei Fongs did not want Toph to be Aang's earthbending teacher.
Aang took a step forward, and Toph's smile faded. Interesting.
"Are you one of the Avatar's companions?" Toph asked, turning towards the sound of his footsteps and still using her annoyingly fake innocent voice.
"I'm the Avatar," Aang said. There was something resigned about the way he said that, which Azula couldn't understand. If Azula had been the Avatar... but that was beside the point.
"Oh," Toph said, but she didn't sound that surprised.
"As you can see, Toph is far too weak and timid to be anyone's earthbending teacher. She is blind and helpless. Besides, her teacher is keeping her at the beginner's level. Unless the Avatar needs someone to teach him breathing exercises, I'm afraid you are looking in the wrong place."
Azula would not have let anyone stand there and say such things about her. But Toph just stood there, and Azula wondered how often this happened. How often Toph's parents acted as thought she were deaf as well as blind.
"With all due respect," Azula said, "We believe there is more to your daughter than there seems to be. We've seen her fight, you see."
Whatever Toph had been expecting, it wasn't a sudden revelation. She froze, and it was too late to be at all convincing when she said: "Whatever do you mean? I've never fought anyone in my life."
"Don't try to play innocent," Azula said. "I've played that game far too often to be fooled by it."
Toph was clearly nervous. "I'm not playing at anything," she said. The extra high-pitched cute voice she'd been using was stretched thin. Azula wondered how long she would try to keep it up.
"We didn't want to say anything right away," Azula said, "But this isn't the first time we've met Toph. The first time was at a pro-Earthbending competition. Toph was the rightful winner, you see. She's the best earthbender I've seen so far. And we've been travelling for quite some time."
"Our Toph?" Poppy said, sounding faint at the thought. "At one of those places?"
Lao frowned deeply. "That's impossible. My daughter is tiny, and blind, and helpless-"
From the corner of her eye, Azula watched Toph. Toph breathed in. Toph breathed out. Azula could see it was taking visible effort for her not to earthbend at them. She knew the feeling. When Uncle had tried to coddle her-
But this wasn't the time for thinking about that..
Before Toph could deny anything- as Azula was sure she would do- Azula twisted around. She swept into a low fire kick- made the flames cool enough that they would hurt but not damage-
A wall of earth met her flames, and when the wall crumbled, Toph had dropped the act.
"What was that for?"
Azula smirked. Lao and Poppy looked horrified.
"Breathing exercises," Azula said, throwing Lao's words back at him. "Really."
"You're a firebender," Toph said. It sounded like an accusation, which it probably was.
"The Avatar's firebending teacher," Azula said. "I fled my family and my nation to join him and help him save the world."
Why don't you do the same, Azula didn't add.
"You bent fire at our daughter," Lao said, standing up finally from his throne-like chair.
"I've had worse bent at me," Toph said, and Azula smirked again, not even bothering to hide it this time.
Toph was theirs.
"That is beside the point," Lao said to his daughter. "Go to your room. We will talk about that later." He turned back to Azula and the rest of the group. "As for the rest of you- you are no longer welcome in my home."
"But-" Aang said.
"That's fine," Azula said. "Come on. Lets go. There are other earthbending teachers out there. Better ones."
She could tell Toph was bristling behind her as they walked out.
"What was all that about?" Sokka asked, once they were out the door. "You just ruined our chances to get her as Aang's earthbending teacher!"
"No," Azula said. "I just cemented those chances. All we have to do now is wait."
They found a place for dinner, and sure enough, Toph came up to them halfway through the meal.
"I don't know what your problem is," she said, eyes focused just over Azula's left shoulder. "But if Twinkletoes needs me- well, it's a good excuse to let my parents cool off for a while."
Aang's face got very, very bright.
"Great!" Katara said.
Sokka gave Azula a strange look, as though he wasn't sure whether to be glad or not. But of all of the others, Sokka mattered the least.
Yes. Things were still going according to plan.
Toph didn't have a nickname for Azula. Everyone else had one. Aang was Twinkletoes, Ty Lee was Dancy-pants, and Katara was Sweetness. Sokka seemed to get a new nickname every other day, though none of them stuck.
But Azula didn't have one. Not within the week they met, the way the others did, and not a month later.
At first, Azula took it as a mark of respect. But as she got to know Toph a little better, she realized that Toph didn't respect anyone. No- this was a mark of distance.
Azula resolved to get closer to Toph. It was important, for the dynamic of the group. She needed them all to trust her. She needed to be the perfect choice for Fire Lord, when the time came to appoint one. There could be no disagreement.
So she attempted to make conversation. But it seemed like every time she did, Toph brushed her off. It was galling, to think she didn't even have the charisma to make a 12 year old girl like her.
But then, maybe subtle wasn't the right way to approach this. Maybe she needed to be blunt.
"You don't seem to like me much," Azula said, settling herself down on a rock near Toph one day.
Toph blew her bangs out of her face with an irritated huff. "What was your first clue?"
"Why?" Azula said, ignoring her attitude.
"Because you're a fake," Toph said, as though it were obvious. "I know you have to stay with us to teach Twinkletoes firebending, but that doesn't mean I have to like you."
"What do you mean, I'm a 'fake'?" Azula asked.
"I mean, you aren't telling us everything. Everyone else may have bought your story about wanting to stop the war, and your humanitarian impulses, but I don't. You're not as good a liar as you think you are."
"I've been part of this group longer than you have," Azula said, trying not to get angry. She wanted Toph as a friend, not as an enemy. "Maybe humanitarian reasons aren't your motivation, but that doesn't give you the right to-"
"Just shut up," Toph said. "And stop trying to sound like Sweetness. I'm not questioning you, alright? I'm calling you out. I have guesses about why you're here. None of them are really nice."
"I'm not a spy," Azula said.
"No, I don't think so," Toph said. "I think you're angling for something, though."
"Angling to get as far as possible from my family," Azula said, deciding it was time to pull out her second layer of lies.
Toph looked surprised. "What?"
"I ran away to join the circus," Azula said. "There was a reason for that, you know."
"You're a spoiled rich kid," Toph said. "Did mommy and daddy decide to cut off your funds?"
Azula didn't ask how Toph knew that she'd been wealthy. She was too good at picking up on little details. It was a dangerous trait.
It was a shame Aang still needed an Earthbending teacher.
"I'd have to have a mother and father for that to happen," Azula said, letting some anger seep into her voice. "Which I don't."
"Oh," Toph said, suddenly sheepish.
"They just disappeared one day," Azula said. "And no one ever talked about them anymore. I was eight. I think they were assassinated. Fire Nation politics are like that."
She watched Toph, who was obviously paying attention to key words- politics, assassination. Good. It was about time Azula started planting clues about her identity. She'd have to tell them eventually.
"My uncle raised me," she said, after a moment. "Me, and my older brother. Uncle loves my brother. Gives him anything he asks for, and a lot that he doesn't. My brother is the replacement for the son he lost, you know? And... Uncle loves his dear niece. The one who played with pretty dolls when she was young, who's kind, and who'll be the perfect match for when he tries to marry her off. It's a pity that that girl doesn't exist."
She gave Toph a bitter smile even though the blind girl couldn't see it. "So I guess I am a fake."
"That sucks," Toph said. The hostility was gone from her voice, though she still didn't sound exactly warm.
It was a start.
A few days later, the group was sitting near a fire, staring at a pot of soup. If you could even call it soup. It was a few pathetic vegetables in water. And the dried meat they were having with it was even more disgusting-looking. It was the worst meal they'd had since leaving the North Pole.
"We aren't eating that," Azula said, looking at it with distaste.
"Do you have a better idea?" Sokka asked, poking at the watery broth with a spoon.
"We're in the Earth Kingdom. We find a village of sufficient size, and we reveal Aang's identity. They'll fall over themselves to help us. We could even stay there and train in relative luxury for a while."
"Last time we stayed somewhere for longer than a few days, Zhao followed us and burnt down the whole village," Aang pointed out.
"We haven't seen Zhao since the North Pole," Azula pointed out, carefully not mentioning what had happened to him. "I think we'd be safe stopping for the night."
"We aren't bringing danger to anyone else," Aang said.
Azula looked at the soup. "But we're trying to save the world. We need proper nourishment."
"Whatever, Princess Fussy," Toph said.
Azula shot her a glance. Ty Lee was staring, too. And then, at the same time, they realized it was just a nickname.
Azula scowled. Ty Lee looked away.
Azula's secret was still safe. For now.
"Field trips?" Azula repeated. "We're trying to end a one-hundred-year war before the comet comes, and you want to stop to take field trips?"
"Mini field trips," Ty Lee corrected Azula helpfully.
"We can still train," Aang said, almost pleading. "But we can have fun at the same time!"
Azula sighed. If it hadn't been for her, she was sure they wouldn't have made it to the Northern Water tribe by now- never mind finding Toph. They'd have been sidetracked by every village on the way.
So they pointed Appa towards the natural ice spring, which was even more of a dump than she had predicted. And then Sokka heard about the library hidden in the desert, and started his field trip, and Azula just wanted to hit someone. Or burn them to a crisp. But she didn't. She just took a breath, and smiled, and said, "Fine. But let's hurry."
"Azula, look at this!"
Azula hurried over to the shelf Ty Lee was searching. "Is it important information?"
Ty Lee held the book up. There were... pictures. Azula was certain they weren't anatomically possible. People didn't bend like that.
Well. Most people, she amended, remembering who she was talking to.
Azula blushed. "That's not the sort of thing we're looking for."
"Why not? We have all the time in the world! It's a spirit library. It's not like it has closing hours."
There were times when Azula felt that Ty Lee didn't appreciate the gravity of the situation. This was definitely one of them.
"I wonder if there are more around here!" Ty Lee said, practically chirping. "Come on, let's go ask!"
Azula resisted the urge to hit her head against a wall repeatedly. "We are not asking a spirit owl where you can find pornography."
"Why not? He seemed really friendly!"
That was not at all the description Azula would have used.
She followed Ty Lee unwillingly to the owl. Clearly, her girlfriend had no shame.
"Is there a section with more books like this?" Ty Lee asked. "I think it's really interesting!"
He leaned in to look at the pictures. "Hmm. This doesn't seem anatomically accurate."
Ty Lee kept beaming at him.
He took the book from her. "I believe there is a small section upstairs."
"This library is so big, though," Ty Lee said. "I'm afraid we might get lost. Could you show us where?"
As they walked, Ty Lee kept up a constant stream of chatter. "So, are the books shelved by subject, then?"
"For the most part," Wei Shi Tong said.
"But what if you read something, like a play, and you really want to read something else by the same author? It wouldn't be in the same section. How would you find it? "
"You would ask me," the owl said. "And I would tell you."
"So you know where every book in here is? Every single one?"
"Wow! That's amazing. You must have a great memory!"
Okay, even Ty Lee wasn't usually this ditzy.
Was she flirting with the knowledge spirit?
Azula watched Ty Lee for a moment. She was smiling brightly, and leaning slightly towards Wei Shi Tong as she spoke.
She was flirting.
Azula felt a spike of sudden irrational jealousy before she made sense of the situation. Of course- Ty Lee was providing a distraction so that the others wouldn't get caught looking for the Fire Nation's weaknesses.
And Ty Lee was great at creating distractions. Azula knew that for a fact.
They reached what Azula had mentally dubbed the Pornography Section, and the knowledge spirit turned away, probably to go check on the others-
"Would you be able to point out the most anatomically correct volumes?" Azula said, blurting out the first distracting thing she could think of, and most definitely not blushing bright red.
Wei Shi Tong stopped, turned around, and stared at her for what felt like eternity without a word.
As an owl, this was a task he was especially well-suited for.
"I believe that is a matter which you are more than capable of determining on your own," he said. He walked away.
Well, she'd tried.
"There's no reason to be embarrassed, Azula," Ty Lee said, turning her attention to one of the suspiciously-stained books on the shelf. "It's just pornography. He's a knowledge spirit. Porn is knowledge!"
"It's unseemly," Azula said, wishing that she could stop the blush.
Ty Lee had been with the circus longer than she had, Azula reminded herself. Obviously she'd picked up some strange ideas while she was there.
"No one needs to say it," Azula said. "It just is."
Ty Lee ignored her, and held up the book, revealing the current page. "Look at this! We should try it sometime."
Azula blushed even more deeply. But she was intrigued.
And it wasn't like there was anyone else around to watch her reading unseemly material, after all.
They left the library much later. Azula was willing to swear that Wei Shi Tong gave her a strange look as they left.
Toph was sitting outside, bored to tears and sunburned bright red.
"What took you guys so long? The only excitement I've had all day was beating up a couple of sandbenders."
"Sorry, Toph," Sokka said. "But we found a lot of important information."
"Wait till we get farther away, Sokka," Katara said, with a nervous glance at the library.
Once they were on Appa and had put some distance between themselves and the library, Aang turned to Azula and Ty Lee. "So did you guys find anything interesting?"
Azula flushed again.
"No," she said. "Nothing at all."
The rest of the group stared quizzically, and she wished that someone would attack them, or Appa would fall asleep and drop a short distance out of the sky, or anything at all would happen to distract them.
"We found a really interesting section. I stole one of the books," Ty Lee said cheerfully.
Azula briefly considered jumping off the bison, and settled for throwing the book off the side before Ty Lee managed to show it to anyone.
"Whoops," she said. "It's too dark to find it. I guess we'll have to continue without it. I'm just so terribly clumsy."
"That might have contained information vital to conquering the Fire Nation!" Sokka said, voice cracking slightly.
Ty Lee let out a giggle.
"There are much better ways to conquer the Fire Nation," Ty Lee said, after the giggles had subsided.
And that was the end of that.