Well, no wonder she thinks we're a little insane, Zuko thought. We are leaving in the middle of the night. Still, Noriko let them go their way and didn't offer any more arguments. She even gave them some more traveling supplies. She seemed like a nice enough lady, Zuko decided after he'd been speaking with her throughout the afternoon as he waited for the sun to finally set. Apparently she had a husband and daughter living not far from here, in a town called Hira'a. But, she'd told them, sometimes she felt drawn to the Fire Nation capital and liked to come out here to visit on occasion. Zuko had said he understood, but the truth was, it'd sounded odd to him. Then again, he hadn't really grown up with the option of traveling alone, whether he felt drawn to a place or not.
Maybe I'll see her again someday, he thought. And somehow, the idea pleased him.
Of course, the downside about traveling at night was that it was hard to tell which of the many things that moved around in the dark might actually be a threat. More than once, Zuko shot out a stream of water at a passing owl-mole or something else equally harmless.
"We just need to get back on the main road," he muttered, pulling the water back into his water skin for the third time. "We're far enough from the capital, and we need to find transport to-- gah!"
This time, it was Katara who overreacted. But instead of smacking whatever had just slithered by Zuko's leg (a turtle-snake, as it had turned out) with a couple good flame blasts, she pointed two fingers at the ground. A line of light jumped from her fingertips to the creature, and it rolled over on its back, extremely dead. Zuko could hear the crackle of electricity around its burned body. He looked up and although the light might've been terrible, he could see how wide Katara's eyes were, could hear her rapid breathing.
"Did you just… shoot lightning? " he asked.
Katara's breathing slowed and he watched her silhouette straighten as she relit the flame they'd been walking with for light. "Um, yes. That is a firebending thing, as I recall. Your sister seems to do it a lot."
He rolled his eyes. "Yes, but you've got my firebending. I could never use lightning."
"Zuko, first you think a stranger looks like your mom, then you think she doesn't, now you don't remember your own techniques? I saw you controlling lightning when Azula fired it at me."
"I was re-directing it. I can't create it."
"Oh." Katara flexed her fingers, staring at them like she'd never noticed they were there before. "Well, I guess you can look forward to having that skill when Aang switches our bending back." She turned a bit red in the face and kept walking. "So, elaborate a bit more on this brilliant plan of yours. What exactly is on our way to Kyoshi Island? I mean, besides the Kyoshi warriors, of course?"
Zuko lowered his head and began to act like walking around the next tree was a lot harder than it actually was. Katara stopped short. "Wait, don't tell me that was your whole plan?"
Now it was Zuko's turn to go red in the face. "Well, we clearly can't come at the palace with brute force," he said. "Suki told me once that she sometimes comes up to this area for training. We need someone on our side who can be--" There was another snap of twigs, only this time it sounded like it came from something much heavier than a forest animal. Katara's flame was snuffed out. Before Zuko could make any reaction, he felt something jab him in the back of the neck. Not a blade, he quickly realized, but someone's hand. It stung, but nothing more. Had his attacker mis-landed the blow somehow? It didn't matter. Zuko whirled around, pulling out the water from his waterskin again. He made a motion as if yanking back on a rope and the water obeyed, shooting over his shoulder and straight into whoever had snuck up behind him. A girl's voice yelled in surprise and Zuko could see several silhouettes emerging from the trees.
"Ty Lee?" he called out. That was sure who the girl had sounded like. At first, he got no response. Then there was a flicker of light as Katara's flames returned. She held one in each hand this time, moving them around so that everyone in the group could see each other. Suki was standing there, with two more warriors besides her that Zuko had not met before. Ty Lee had moved from standing behind him to standing in front, her eyes wide.
"Zuko?" she asked. "But how-- that's impossible!"
"What's impossible?" Suki asked, stepping closer. She looked over his clothes with a bit of confusion, but otherwise couldn't seem to tell what Ty Lee was going on about. "I mean, it's weird you guys are out here, and I'm not sure why you're dressed like that, but--"
"That's not what's impossible," Ty Lee said, stamping her foot. Then she pointed a very accusatory finger at Zuko's chest.
"I landed a perfect chi block on you, and you didn't even react! You shouldn't even be able to stand right now, and yet you were able to--" she narrowed her eyes at him. "Wait, did you waterbend at me a second ago?"
Zuko exchanged a nervous glance with a Katara. She nodded him on, but that wasn't the reaction he was hoping for. His first instinct was the same as it had been at the palace -- lie. Don't let them see weakness. That was what a firelord had to do. But, no, he had come here to ask for help. And that started with admitting everything.
"There's… a good reason. For both those things, actually."
Ty Lee crossed her arms. "Go ahead. We've got time."
"Um, we could at least get them back to camp first," one of the other girls said. "It's getting cold out here." Suki nodded her agreement.
Half an hour later, the six of them sat on some fallen trees in an open glen. Katara started a campfire easily enough, which Ty Lee said was a major improvement from the past few nights they'd camped out here. Zuko told every detail of their journey so far, starting with the agni kai. As Zuko he spoke, he tossed a small globe of water between his hands. It calmed him, oddly enough. Or at least, it gave him something to focus on besides the gut-wrenching guilt that seized him when he described how Azula had ambushed him and how he'd run away. Like a complete coward. Not to mention how he, the leader of the Fire Nation, had given up firebendng in an effort to hide his own weaknesses.
"Well, I think you did the right thing," said Suki, after he'd finished. After way too long a block of silence. "Azula had the upper hand. You couldn't beat her. There's nothing shameful about retreating and re-grouping."
"There is when it leaves Azula in charge of the Fire Nation!" Zuko was getting insanely frustrated, and he pounded the fallen tree to emphasize it. They weren't supposed to support his decision. They were supposed to explain to him in exact detail how he'd been an idiot. He certainly felt like one.
"Explain how you would have done it differently, then," Suki said, voice low and firm. "You just told us your bloodbending wasn't strong enough yet to let you put up a fight against Azula. What else was there to do but retreat until you could re-challenge her?"
Zuko said nothing. Suki's words were so stupid, they weren't even worth answering. Ty Lee coughed loudly. "Hey, anyone hungry? We've all been talking a while. I bet everyone's hungry."
"We ate dinner an hour ago," one of the Kyoshi warriors pointed out.
"So did we," said Katara.
Ty Lee was unfazed. "Details, details. I'll go bring some veggies to roast on the fire."