As Zuko, Jong, and Zhin continued their journey, they nearly got run over by a large fire nation vehicle. Managing to hide before they were seen, they were able to witness that it was a high-speed pursuit craft, designed for chasing fugitives. Six metal cars were linked tightly together. The front one had the powerful engine and a metal wedge to knock aside anything in the path. The four in the middle were armored carriers, designed to hold anything from soldiers to pursuit animals to weapons and armor. The rear car was the heavily armored supply car, carrying food and extra fuel for the engine.
After it zoomed by, Zuko raised his head. "Who do you think they're chasing?" he asked.
Zhin lifted up his bow and stared down the length of his arm, as though aiming a particularly long shot. "...a sky bison," he said simply.
"That means the Avatar," Jong concluded.
"Which means that's Azula," Zuko added. "She wants to catch him personally. We need to pursue. She won't hesitate to kill the Avatar, and that won't solve the problem. He needs to be captured alive."
"And how exactly do you expect us to keep up with that?" Jong asked. "I mean, Zhin's training with the Yuyang will let him run that fast, and he's in shape enough to run for days, but what about us? We don't exactly have mounts."
Zuko furrowed his brow. "I think I have an idea about that," he said carefully, taking a strange stance. "Our fire can give us a boost in speed."
"Won't that give away our position to everyone for miles?" Zhin asked.
"Not if we take a page out of the Avatar's book," Zuko stated calmly. "I watched closely whenever he made that sphere of air he rides, and..." Releasing just a little bit of his fire, he spun his arms rapidly.
Two small spheres of fire sat over his hands. The two spheres were spinning too quickly for any fire to escape, and the constant rolling movement gave a feeling of speed.
He carefully handed the spheres over to Jong. "Can you maintain them?"
Jong nodded. "Until I learn to make them myself," he agreed. "But what do we do with them?"
Making another set of his own, Zuko hopped into the air. Reaching down, he placed each sphere under one of his feet. When he landed, he pushed forward. The flames kept him above the ground, allowing all the thrust to push him forwards as though he were skating on ice. Getting the idea, Jong quickly mirrored his actions, while Zhin took off on his own two feet, matching their speeds.
Toph continued her slow march away from the group of jerks she'd left behind. To think, she thought she'd found more friends, and was even thinking of telling them about Cadence. Huh, fat chance of that now! Not that she was heading back home. She still wanted to see the world her own way, and she'd see more walking on her own two feet than she would on the back of that flying hairball.
Admittedly, she wasn't entirely happy with leaving. Travelling alone didn't seem like such a fun idea. Not because she couldn't take care of herself, mind, but because so many people would assume she couldn't.
She froze as she felt the presence of someone nearby. She turned towards a large boulder, getting a sense of the figures beyond. An ostrich-horse, an old man, and...
She let out an audible gasp at the shape of the last figure as it brushed the ground with hooves. Only one person could have that distinct shape. Hearing another familiar gasp as she raced towards the boulder, she knew she was recognized, too.
Iroh was startled from setting up the tea for himself and his daughter when said daughter turned to leap around a large boulder. Curious, he stood and followed her.
Seeing Cadence running up to a young girl dressed in green and yellow - and wearing what he recognized as the Championship Belt from Earth Rumble 6 - he wondered if perhaps this was Cadence's first Earthbending teacher, the friend she'd mentioned from Gaoling. As they reached each other, they both began to dance and chant.
Clap your hooves
And do a little shake!"
While most of it Iroh was able to accept as adorable, the fact that they turned their backs to him during 'do a little shake' made him a little uncomfortable. After all, the girl wasn't that much below what was considered marriageable age in some parts of the Earth Kingdoms.
"Toph!" Cadence shouted happily, leaping into the girls arms.
"Cadence!" the girl shouted back, catching the pony and swinging her around. "I was just thinking about you!"
"Won't you invite your friend to join us for tea, Cadence?" Iroh suggested calmly.
"Right!" Cadence agreed. "Won't you join Dad and I for tea?"
"Sure," Toph agreed. "Just as long as he didn't bring a retinue."
"No retinue," Cadence assured the girl. "We're fugitives!"
Toph grinned widely. "That...is so cool!"
Iroh shrugged as he sat down to make the tea, deciding to let the two girls catch up. If Cadence was sharing so much with Toph, he was certain she had good reason. Besides, it was nice hearing them chat away like that.
"-and she was just constantly trying to tell me what to do!" Toph snapped out over her third cup of tea. "Like none of us could take care of ourselves and someone had put her in charge! Can you believe that, Cadence?"
Cadence tilted her head in thought. "Huh. I'd always wondered about that..."
"About what?" Toph demanded.
"About what it's like to have a Mom."
Toph blew her bangs from in front of her eyes. "Well, I guess. She was certainly trying to control me like mine always was. Don't do this, don't do that-"
"Work together, take care of everyone," Iroh added.
Toph blinked. "No, my mom never did anything like that. To her, I was a 'precious flower' to be protected, same as to my dad."
"But this Katara asked you to help the group, involving you in group tasks," Iroh countered. "That does not sound so bad."
Toph paused, her cup halfway to her mouth. "I...I never thought about it like that..."
"So are you going to go back to them?" Cadence asked. "If not, you could travel with us. I've learned a lot more Earthbending, and I'd love to see how I stack up against you now!"
Toph smirked, but set her cup down. "No...I think I'm going to go back. If I let one big argument stay between us, I'd be no better than my parents. I...think we can work through it-"
A massive explosion from a nearby abandoned town drew all their attention. Spinning, they saw that the explosion was a mix of blue and red fire.
"Zuko's fighting Azula!" Cadence gasped out.
"Zuko?" Toph asked. "Isn't that the guy Aang and the others said was chasing them?"
"They're my cousins," Cadence explained. "Zuko's nice enough once you get to know him, but Azula's...empty inside."
"Then we should go help him," Iroh offered. "If they are fighting, then the Avatar is likely to be there. Can I offer you a lift, young lady?"
Grinning, Toph slung herself up onto the back of the ostrich-horse.
Azula found herself cursing internally as the fight went on. Had it been just the Avatar and her brother, she was certain she'd have been able to take them on her own. Even the other Firebender wouldn't have been a problem, just an extra challenge.
But that archer! Every time she sent an attack Zuko's way, one or more arrows sought her. Even burning them out of the air didn't work, since they had metal slivers embedded in their shafts. The metal would either not melt in her flames and embed their sharp points in her flesh painfully, or they would melt in her flames and she'd be spattered by bits of molten metal. She was lucky most of that had hit her clothes so far, but she had decided to instead dodge the arrows incoming. Having an obstacle that she had to dodge instead of block or counter threw off her fighting style a bit.
And then to top it off, the Waterbender had shown up, throwing her off even further. She'd been forced to go on thedefensive! Her! Even the damn boomerang kid had managed to get in one unblocked strike. Even if it was only one, the nerve of him!
And then she found herself pulled off her feet without warning. The Earthbender had shown up as well!
Glancing around, she found herself surrounded. The Avatar, his three compatriots, Iroh, Zuko, Zuko's two men...and Cadence! That blasted pony had arranged all this, she was certain! Of course that lovey-dovey traitor could make friends of enemies! Having been forced to run from the group, she'd found herself cornered! Where were Mai and Ty Lee? Why weren't they backing her up?
Oh, right, she'd sent them after the sky bison. They probably got themselves beaten. Definitely a good idea to not split up in the future, if they were going to face this sort of united front. Still, she decided to do something about that unity. "Well, look at this," she commented calmly. "Enemies and traitors all working together." She raised her hands. "I'm done. I know when I'm beaten."
Inwardly, she smirked. She knew how Zuko thought. With her 'surrender', he'd start thinking about capturing the Avatar again, making an opening in their united front for her to strike. She just had to watch carefully.
And there it was. Cadence took a brief glance towards Zuko, checking on him. With a sudden move, Azula launched a streak of fire straight at her...and Iroh leapt into the path of the blast, taking the hit for her.
Everyone spun to see it, before spinning back towards Azula herself. Seeing how quickly they reacted, Azula knew her only chance was escape. She surrounded herself with a sphere of blue fire to deflect the incoming attacks.
Feeling a sudden searing pain in her shoulder, she glanced at it as she raced away. The archer! He'd slipped a capsule of some sort into that last arrow, and the liquid had passed through the thin sphere of flame that was protecting her unaffected. It burned against the skin of her shoulder as that part of her clothes dissolved. Thankfully, very little actually made contact...but she'd have to plan much more carefully if she was going to deal with him helping Zuko again.
As the mixed energies exploded, she fled in the smoke.
Zuko could feel his rage, barely controlled, bubbling up inside of him as he sat over his injured Uncle. He didn't know if Iroh was even still alive, and Cadence was wilted alongside him, plainly blaming herself for his injury. As he heard the Avatar and his group approaching, he shouted out, "Get away from us!" The last thing he wanted to do now was let his rage out.
"Zuko, I can help," Katara began, stepping forward.
Zuko started to round on her, only to find himself held fast by a blue aura. "...how?" Cadence asked, her voice broken.
"I can heal," she explained, pulling water from her pouch to surround her hands. Her hands started to glow blue.
Cadence nodded, letting her approach. Zuko relaxed. He knew when he was overruled. It may have been his Uncle lying there, but it was her Father.
Katara placed her hands against the wound, and Zuko watched as it slowly began to close. It wasn't completely healed - he could see Katara didn't have the energy for that - but it was a sight better than it had been.
As Zuko and Cadence knelt around Iroh, Aang and his group took their leave, Toph and Aang helping Katara along, as she'd exhausted herself. Jong and Zhin moved into place, watching over their charges, ready to attack any who approached.