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|Somewhere In Between|
June 12, 2012
Previously in Air
Sensu's generous hospitality offered Zuko and the mortally wounded Katara a safe haven while they waited for Aang's return. But things became quickly uncomfortable when Zuko realizes that Sensu's kid brother, Lee, not only hates the Fire Nation, but is the same boy he encountered years before. The safe haven soon becomes a death trap when, in the dead of night, Azula attacks. Zuko managed to drive her off, but to ensure the safety of Katara and Sensu's family, he insisted on luring her away.
Chapter Twenty-Two: Somewhere In Between
Zuko drove Silkie hard until the stars began to fade from the night sky. He felt bad forcing the ostrich horse to continue; the poor creature's breath was heavy and rasping, her steps beginning to falter. But he had to lead Azula as far from the farm as possible.
He came to a stream and brought Silkie to a halt. He glanced behind him. There was no sign of Azula. There hadn't been all night. The hills and rocks provided perfect places for her to hide, but Zuko had no guarantee that she had even followed him. He fought an image of his sister cackling over the smoldering remains of the farmhouse and everyone inside.
Zuko looked ahead. The fingers of dawn began to stretch across the sky, poking through the star-studded blackness with pink and red.
Silkie swayed. Zuko pulled back on the reigns, just managing to keep her head up.
Across the stream, still in the distance, but perhaps close enough, he could see a dense tree line. Zuko tried to nudge the ostrich horse forward, but she didn't budge.
He was tired too, but the trees could provide some cover. "Come on," he whispered. "Just a little farther."
Silkie took a step forward and stumbled. Zuko was jolted in the saddle, but managed to stay up as Silkie righted herself.
Zuko sighed. "All right." He slipped off the creature's back, leading her gently across the stream. "Just until we get to the woods," Zuko promised. "Then we can both rest."
Azula threw herself behind a boulder. She panted heavily. Sweat dampened her loose hair, making it cling to her forehead and cheeks.
She was grinning.
She had chased Zuko all night, running after the ostrich horse with an adrenaline-driven, inhuman kind of tirelessness. She watched him now, not far in the distance, walking on foot. He swayed and stumbled, exhausted, as he made for the woods.
Azula leaned against the rock, cackling and choking down great gulps of air.
Zuko would have to rest soon; he couldn't avoid sleep forever.
"Here I come, Zuzu. Ready or not."
"When will we get to see Dad?" she asked, turning her big, innocent brown eyes on their mother.
Their mother stroked the little girl's hair. "Soon," she promised. "Maybe tomorrow."
The little girl frowned. Her brother tensed, his back stiffening.
"You said we'd see Dad today," he cried.
Their mother's eyes saddened. A great weight seemed to settle on her shoulders, pushing her down. "I know, sweetie. But something came up. I'm sorry."
The boy didn't want apologies; he wanted his father. He pulled his legs tight to his chest, squeezing his knees as hard as he could, trying to drown the ache in his heart and the sting in his eyes.
"What came up?" The little girl chimed. "Why can't Dad come?"
Their mother hesitated; they both saw it. Like she wasn't certain how to say it.
"Your father has many duties," their mother explained carefully. "His responsibilities are first to the Firelord."
"Grandfather." The boy nodded. "But wouldn't he let Dad spend time with us? We're family, after all."
Their mother looked at him with such a sweet, sad smile that the boy felt a flush of indignation. Wasn't it true? What didn't he understand?
The little girl huffed in annoyance. "So we probably won't even see him tomorrow. Or the day after. Or after that."
Her brother frowned at her. "Why? What are you talking about?"
But the girl glared accusingly at their mother. "He never makes time, does he?" she demanded. "He'll always be too busy."
Their mother reached out to her daughter. "Azula..." she placated.
The girl ducked away from her mother's comforting embrace. "He's always got something more important to do!" she shouted. Her brown eyes gleamed –almost gold– as the light reflected off her unspilt tears. She closed her eyes tight to keep the stream of sorrow at bay, turned, and raced out of the room.
The boy looked from his sister's fleeting figure to his mother, a sick feeling rising in his stomach. Azula couldn't be right, could she? That couldn't be the reason.
But when he looked into his mother's sad eyes, he knew it was true.
A dagger of betrayal stabbed at his soul.
The boy staggered to his feet and hurtled after his sister.
"Zuko!" their mother cried, but he didn't stop. He didn't want to hear any explanations. He didn't want to be comforted. For a moment, in the wake of this cruel revelation, he just wanted to be miserable.
It didn't take him long to find Azula. He could hear her sniffling behind an elaborate gilded sideboard in the corridor. He slid down to the floor, peering at his little sister from around the corner of the sideboard.
She stiffened suddenly at his presence, quickly wiping at her eyes.
"It'll be okay," he said softly. "Maybe we could get his attention somehow."
Azula snorted. "What could we do that would impress him?" she demanded, sniffing loudly.
Zuko didn't have the answer. He was thinking of their mother, and the pain in her eyes. It wasn't fair to take out their anger on her. Their father's absence wasn't her fault. "I know you're upset," he said quietly. "I am, too. But–"
Azula suddenly whirled on him. "I'm not upset!"
Zuko only looked at her –her usually bright, innocent eyes dull and hurt; her flushed cheeks stained with tracks from her tears. The sight of his confident little sister looking so wretched and vulnerable –it made him feel even more miserable.
"We still see him sometimes," he said, putting more confidence into the words than he felt. "We're his kids, after all. He can't just ignore us forever. Who knows?" He placed a hand on her arm, the big brother in him suddenly compelled to protect. "Maybe we will get his attention somehow, and he'd think we were important enough to spend time with."
Azula scoffed. She shook his hand away, but at least she didn't call him 'dum-dum'. Maybe she liked his idea.
"And until then," Zuko said with a smile, "At lest we've got Mom."
Azula's eyes softened at the thought of their mother. "I guess that's true." She smirked. "Dum-dum."
Zuko scowled, but he was pleased that he'd managed to erase some of the sadness in his little sister's eyes.
The voice was faint, tugging at Zuko's brain.
Zuko frowned. He was lost, adrift in a sea of memory. He struggled to rise, to bring himself to the surface, to open his eyes. But his whole being seemed to hang, suspended, in the midst of his childhood. All around him, he could see that small angelic face –playing hide-and-explode, jumping out at him in a dark corridor, teasing him about his crush on Mai.
A faint light blossomed in the darkness, cutting through the reminiscence. The light wriggled to life, lengthening and shaping itself, and the sweet little girl stood before him.
"Come on, Zuzu!" she cried. "Wake up!"
But Zuko was thinking about another face, one he missed so much... The back of his neck prickled. The dream suddenly faded into the reality around him –the woods, the late morning sun, the exhausted ostrich horse, and the hand stretched out for him, fire curled in its palm. Blue fire.
Azula smiled sweetly at him, though the image was distorted by the remains of her melted make-up. "Good morning, sleepyhead." Her saccharine expression twisted in a feral snarl as she struck.
Instinctively, Zuko rolled aside. As the blast of fire hissed over his shoulder, he kicked, swiping her legs out from under her. Azula toppled, twisting to land on her hands and knees. She didn't bother to rise but –baring her teeth in another ugly snarl– lunged at Zuko. They scrabbled in the dirt and fallen leaves, punching and kicking and clawing.
Zuko didn't have time to think or clear his head, only to fight. He focused on her blows, blocking them when he could, steeling himself when he couldn't. The attack was painful, but frenzied. He tried to throw her off but she came back at him, slamming his shoulder against a protruding root.
Pain exploded in Zuko's shoulder. His head swam, but with the attack Azula had opened herself up. Zuko retaliated, punching at her exposed side. Azula yelped like a wounded raccoon dog and shrank away.
In the brief reprieve, Zuko tried to shake his head clear. Azula was far from calm. Normally, her moves were meticulously planned and executed, her strategies impeccable. But opening herself up like that, that was sloppy. That wasn't her.
It took only a moment for Azula to recover. She leapt at Zuko again, her jagged and broken nails searching him out like the extended claws of some vicious animal. Zuko did not block the blow or try to retaliate. Instead he stepped within her reach. Before the surprise had quite scrawled across her face, Zuko grabbed both of her arms, pinning them to her sides. Azula wriggled furiously, but Zuko kept his hold on her. Screeching in fury, she kicked savagely at him. Zuko had prepared himself for the attack and accepted the blows, all the while keeping his writhing attacker at arm's length.
Already Azula was panting heavily. Her blows began to fall futile. She must have chased him all night. Up close, he saw her eyes were dark and tired; she was teetering on the brink of exhaustion. Where did she find the energy to even stand, let alone attack him?
Azula glared murderously at Zuko. Flames sprang to life beneath his hands and rippled down her arms. The fire stung Zuko's fingers and he was forced to let go.
Triumph gleaming in her eyes, Azula stepped out of reach and struck out with a powerful wave of blue fire.
Zuko seized hold of a branch and swung himself up into a tree before the flame could reach him. Crouched for balance, he drew his dual Dao blades. The gentle scrape of metal and the ominous crackle of fire mixed with the cries of panicked animals.
Azula remained on the ground. She had chased him all night and the last thing she wanted to do was go tramping through the trees. Adrenaline still coursed through her, masking her fatigue. She examined her dirty and broken nails, sighing in disappointment. Here they were again, in the same old cycle: her versus her incompetent brother. Still, things had to go according to the plan, didn't they? If she could get it, an extra hand to help her defeat the Avatar wasn't a bad idea, even if it was Zuzu's. And he did so want to catch the Avatar for their father. And if she couldn't win him over with reason...well, she could always resort to other methods.
"You know, Zuko," she said casually. "Perhaps we're going about this all wrong."
Zuko didn't lower his guard, but he fought hard not to show surprise. In the blink of an eye, Azula's demeanor had completely changed. She was no longer a desperate animal scrabbling in the dirt. She was her old confident self again.
"What do you suggest?" he asked carefully.
"Well, everyone knows the Avatar exists now," she pointed out.
Zuko blinked. "The Avatar?" he repeated, dumbfounded.
"Yes, dum-dum, the Avatar," Azula snapped impatiently, a hint of the savage beast shining in her bared teeth. "Do keep up."
Her lips fell back into place and her apparent calm composure resumed. A shiver shimmied up Zuko's spine.
Azula continued as though nothing had happened. "There are so many people who want to gain the Firelord's favor that I'm afraid you'll have far too much competition."
Zuko managed to hold back a gasp. She thought he was still trying to capture the Avatar, still hunting Aang! How could that be?
"I think Father may have been hasty in banishing you, Zuko," Azula said sincerely. At least, she sounded sincere. She played with a piece of loose hair; it was as easy as playing with her brother's head. "You know, he sent me to look for the Avatar, too," she said absently. "Maybe I could help you. With our combined forces, we could find him. Together, nothing could stop us!"
Zuko stared at her in horror, realization sinking in. Somehow, Azula's sense of time had warped. She was lost, somewhere in the past. In her mind, she was still the ruthless, commanding Princess, and their father the Firelord. It was twisted and sad. A sudden image of the little girl from his dream leapt to mind, and seeing that young vulnerable face compared to the lost creature before him –it made his heart ache.
Azula misunderstood his silence. "Don't you want to restore your honor?" she asked gently. "To come home?"
Home. The word sent a pang through his heart. This time, though, he wasn't thinking of his wife and children. He was thinking about Azula. Whether she knew it or not, she no longer had a true home to return to, and the thought of his little sister lost and so alone suddenly struck him deep.
Zuko gritted his teeth, trying to shake the thought away. But when he looked down at Azula, he saw the little girl's face again, small and vulnerable, streaked with tears at the realization that their father had more important things to do than spend time with his children.
In her mind, where was she? How far back in time had she gone?
What if there was a reason she had fallen back into the past? Was there some regret she wanted to change? Admittedly, regret didn't sound much like Azula. But the last few years, Azula hadn't been much of herself. And there had been that one day...
"Perhaps," he said slowly, "I don't need the Avatar to restore my honor."
Azula barked a cruel laugh. "Don't need the Avatar? I hate to rub it in, brother, but you're wallowing in shame and dishonor. In the Fire Nation your name is synonymous with 'traitor' and 'weakling'. You really think Father will take you back without his prize? No, no, Zuzu; bringing him the Avatar is the only chance you have at restoring your honor."
Zuko shook his head. "Honor isn't something that can be given or taken away. It's something that you earn. I don't need the Avatar to restore something that isn't missing." His determined eyes met her gaze and held it. "What about you, Azula? Why do you want the Avatar?"
Surprise registered in her eyes. For just an instant, Azula was caught off-guard. Then she scoffed. "For the Firelord, of course. With the Avatar out of the way, nothing can stop the Fire Nation!"
"But is that what you really want?" Zuko demanded. "Or are you just following orders like you always do? Think about it, Azula! Think about all the innocent people we hurt every day. Is it really worth it?"
Azula stared at him, as though fascinated by a strange zoo animal. "You really are the dumbest dum-dum." She shrugged indifferently. "But if that's the way you really feel..." She turned to leave. After a few steps she paused, as though she had just remembered something.
Zuko tensed, anticipating an attack.
"Oh yes, I knew there was something I forgot to mention." Her gaze locked on Zuko's, her eyes dancing with a mad delight. "Your honor wasn't the only thing taken from you, was it, Zuzu? You're looking for your little lost Fire Prince, aren't you?"
Zuko's head reeled. "What do you know about Roh-Roh?" he whispered.
Azula giggled; the sound sent goose mite-bumps rippling over Zuko's flesh. "If you help me capture the Avatar, brother, I might tell you about the boy."
Zuko stared at her. She wasn't merely lost in the past, he realized. Azula was trapped somewhere in between it and the present. The two worlds surrounded her at the same time, playing off one another in her mad fancy. She could no longer decipher between what once was and what was happening now.
Azula tapped her foot impatiently. "This is my ace, Zuzu," she said darkly. "Are you in or are you out?" A triumphant smirk twisted her blood-red lips, but her eyes were impassive, dead.
"What have they done with him?" Zuko demanded. His heart pounded in his chest and he could feel his blood beginning to rise.
"Oh really, Zuzu, you don't know how to play this game." She shook her head disparagingly. Her mess of dirty, snarled hair tumbled around her face, revealing once more the animal in the princess. "You help me, then I tell you. And if you don't, well then there's really no need for me to keep the brat alive, is there?"
Something snapped inside Zuko. The carefully constructed defense he'd erected to keep his anger at bay buckled. The rage within leaked out in frenzied tongues of flame. He leapt at her with a furious cry.
The fire flicked across her face. Unfazed, Azula sidestepped as he landed beside her. Her smirk only twisted into a mad smile as Zuko seized her by the arms and forced her back against a tree.
"Where is he?" Zuko yelled, shaking her. "Where's my son?"
The spurts of fire crackled behind him. They danced and wavered, swallowing leaves and branches in their insatiable hunger. They grew.
Azula treated him to a sympathetic smile. "You really should learn to control that temper."
Zuko blinked. He could see the fire –his fire– dancing wildly in his sister's eyes. He faltered.
She took the opportunity to strike him in the gut. Zuko reeled back, caught off-guard. Azula shot fire at him and he barely managed to block. She leapt, pushing all her energy forward in a wall of blue fire. Zuko steadied himself. His Dao blades lined with his own fire, he sliced through the wall of flame. Before the attack had even dissipated, Azula charged him, shooting another powerful burst.
Zuko was quicker than she expected. He whirled his sword, catching the fire on the blade long enough for the blue to fade into red. Spinning, he hurled the flames right back at her.
Azula weaved out of the missile's path as raced at him.
Zuko's heart pounded. Sweat ran down his face but inside he felt cold. If Azula really knew where his son was then she was going to tell him. He'd make sure of it. Gripping his swords tight, he charged her.
Azula anticipated his move. She sprang upward and flipped in the air, steering the energy through her body. She landed in a crouch, bringing a curtain of flame down through her two aiming fingers.
Zuko balked. He wrapped himself in a ball of his own fire as the blue flames rushed to meet him. The blow broadsided him. He dug his feet in, but he staggered under the pressure. Zuko tried to hold the flames at bay, but his efforts were weak against her powerful onslaught.
Slowly, Zuko was driven back. He grunted, pushing with all his might, sweat beading his forehead. His flames began to fade. Some slipped from his control and skittered to join Azula's winning strike.
Azula took a deep breath. She stepped firmly forward, sending another burst of fire into her attack. Zuko couldn't hold it back. As the reinforcing fire shot through the curtain, Zuko's defense dissipated. With nothing to separate them, Azula's fire slammed into him.
Zuko was thrown back with a cry of pain. For a terrifying instant his vision went black, but slowly the trees swam back into focus. Wincing at his new wounds, Zuko struggled to rise.
Blue flames flickered before his eyes.
"Too late for that, Zuzu."
Zuko looked up at his sister. Her cruel smile mocked him as she wriggled her flame-wreathed fingers in his face.
"I'm going to kill you, Zuko." Her face, for once, was serious, full of anger and malice.
Zuko's heart raced. Mai...Ursa...Roh-Roh... He clenched his fists, ready to fight.
"But not today." Azula curled her hand into a fist, snuffing the flames in her palm. "Shall I tell you why?" The firelight shone eerily on the sloppy paint of her lips as she bent down to whisper in his ear. "Because it's not time yet, Zuzu. Because first" –her smile widened– "first, you have to suffer."
Zuko never took his eyes from his sister's. "Where's Roh-Roh?" he demanded.
Azula giggled, skipping back. Without answering, she turned and ran, disappearing between the trees.
Zuko jumped to his feet, ready to give chase. But he stopped. If there was one thing he knew, it was that Azula wouldn't lead him to his son. However she was involved, she would never let him win so easily. Azula was good at getting people to look where she wanted them to. Zuko refused to fall for it. He heard her giggles fading slowly into the forest, and he knew she wouldn't be back.
As he stared at the empty place where she had stood, a chill brushed over Zuko's flesh. There had been something unsettling in her eyes, beyond the madness and the malice.
Had it been doubt?
Zuko knew it was a stupid thought, but still he couldn't shake it. Even as they fought, he had seen, buried deep beneath the warped makeup and the twisted soul, that little girl. Maybe it was just his mind playing tricks, but for the first time he wondered if there was something of her left inside. But even that little girl wasn't entirely without fault. Even if there was a piece of her left in the mad husk, was it something worth saving?
To his surprise, Zuko realized he wasn't sure.
He only knew one thing for certain. Part of his sister remained trapped in that psychotic creature. She wasn't the vulnerable little girl, but she wasn't quite the young woman reigned by malicious intent, either.
She was somewhere in between.
As the sun dipped closer to the horizon, Azula collapsed in the tall grass, exhausted. Her muscles trembled and her strength ebbed. But she couldn't forget that look of complete helplessness on her brother's face. She giggled to herself, burying her face in the dirt.
"You'll pay, Zuko," she whispered. "For everything."
"Don't you remember?" That was what he'd shouted at her back at the farmhouse.
Remember? Of course she remembered.
He had locked her up in that dark, desolate cell. And he wasn't content just to let her rot, either. Oh no. Dear Zuzu decided to take his revenge while she was trapped, alone, confused...helpless. He would come, tantalizingly just out of reach, and whisper lies in her ears, watch her flounder as he twisted and severed every link, every hope connecting her to reality.
She shuddered at what she'd almost become.
It would be different, this time. If she did everything right, if she succeeded now where before she had failed, she would never lose to Zuko. She would never be imprisoned. She would never doubt. And then Zuko would pay.
She giggled. Oh, how he'll pay!
Jomei was surprised to see his friend. Lee was perched on a rock by the road, waiting for him. He didn't look at Jomei, and as he spoke his words were slow and uncertain.
"I think you're right, Jomei. I think this is what I'm meant to do."
Jomei hid a triumphant smile. What Lee needed now was reassurance; victory could be celebrated later. "You're sure? Remember, Lee: there's no turning back."
Lee frowned, mulling it over. He slowly stood and faced Jomei, his determined gaze burning into his friend's eyes. "I want to join the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet. I want to take down the Fire Nation."
This chapter...was intense. Content-wise, too. ;)
Originally, this chapter was chock full of flashback scenes. Upon reflection, however, I realized that these flashbacks really had nothing to do with the current chapter, and so I substituted with just the short trip down memory lane. But rest assured! The cut scenes will be appearing at a later date.
Azula. Azula, Azula, Azula. She really is quite complex. And insane. Thick, psychological textbooks could be written about her, but I shall try to keep it brief. We all know that Azula has pretty much always been her macabre, megalomaniac self -I present Exhibit A, the flashback scenes from Zuko Alone. But I suspect that when she was very young, though her personality was certainly in tact, the malice hadn't quite manifested itself yet. And, let's face it, even macabre, megalomaniac six-year-olds can't go through life without an occasional hug.
As children, Zuko and Azula didn't get along. But even siblings who hate each other have their moments, don't they? They have to grow up together, after all. There are going to be times when they're not at each other's throats -few and far between though they be. The memory that Zuko relives is one of these.
In the flashback, Zuko and Azula are about 8 and 6, respectively. It isn't exactly a tender, bonding sibling moment. Rather, they've simply reached the sudden understanding that their dad has never, or is ever likely to be, around much. And for any kid, that's going to be a hard blow. No one's going to understand that pain -except maybe your dum-dum brother.
As for Zuko, well, he was a much different kid before his mom disappeared. I suspect that, despite Azula's inherent evilness, he was victim to Protective Big Brotherness in moments of weakness. With the same heroic effort with which he charged at Mai to dislodge a burning apple, he might place himself in the danger zone to give his sister a little comfort.
And so, my analysis of their childhood relationship is complete!
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