Unlike her brother, Azula travels the world out of a desire to do so. She is finally old enough to be allowed out on her own, finally finished her training in enough skills to be trusted with her own safety. She travels to all the places that her father has dominion over to acquaint herself with them, and to see that they are acquainted with her. She surveys towns and cities, sets buildings alight, introduces herself as their future lord.
The south pole is as pitiable as she expects, knowing what she does of her family's conquests. Azulon left very little; there is nothing here but a small collection of ice huts, hidden behind an attempt at a wall. There are also no soldiers to speak of; all the tribe's grown men and boys are absent, and none of the women and girls seem to have been trained for battle. All of them cower in their furs. A skinny boy with a boomerang and laughable war paint on his face attempts to attack her, but she knocks him aside without a thought.
She strolls between the peasants' hovels and learns them, because although they may be insignificant, they are still hers. In fact, their ongoing insignificance reflects her significance. Azula looks for the largest, most competently built one to melt down into nothing. She finds it but stops before her flames can touch it, distracted by the peculiar craftsmanship of the dwelling. It is smooth and even; sealed seamlessly by a layer of ice. Too perfect to have been cobbled together by any of these tribeswomen's hands.
Azula strides back to where they have all gathered, glares at one of the snivelling children and watches his face crumple and redden even further.
"Which of you is the waterbender?" she demands, and a collective breath is held.
When no one gives her the answer she wants, Azula kicks flames at their dwellings, hut by hut, until a girl pushes through the small crowd. She looks about Azula's age, perhaps a little older. It's hard to make a sure estimate of age when the look of her is so entirely different from what Azula is accustomed to seeing. She is brown and smooth like carved, sanded wood, her features flatter than Azula's and her hair more voluminous.
"Stop!" the girl shouts. "I'm the waterbender—leave them alone!"
They are a heroine's words, spoken by a child—and Azula will call her a child, since she clearly has so much to learn. She is, for a moment, reminded of Zuko; all insistence upon things he isn't prepared for. She looks into the girl's eyes, this peasant of sealskin rags and ice, and sees fire there all the same.
"Guards," she commands, "bring her in."
Azula has read about what waterbenders can do—she would not travel the world without first preparing herself for all the kinds of people she might come up against. This girl, if she is talented, could be Azula's own personal healer. If she is very talented, she could be something much more interesting. In case she is talented, Azula has the girl thrown into a watertight metal container on the warship for the trip home.
Katara has barely enough control over her waterbending to keep a bubble suspended in the air for long. She never got much chance to practice, and she's certainly never been taught. The Fire Nation Princess, on the other hand, has been learning her bending style all her life. She's younger than Katara, it turns out, but she certainly doesn't act like it. Azula acts like she hasn't been a kid in many years.
"Pathetic," she scoffs as Katara once again fails to stretch her water bubble out into a water whip without it breaking, splashing down to the stony ground beneath her feet and drenching her on its way down. She tries her best to bend it out of her hair, her clothes, which match the Princess' although they are cut from plainer, duller fabric. She can't get it all. The slight cold edge leant to the breeze by her wetness is a comfort, anyway. It's so hot here Katara feels like she's dying, like she's breathing too close to a fire and she's going to suffocate from it at any moment.
Katara doesn't talk back to Azula. She bites her tongue, because by now she knows the consequences of letting her anger flow. Azula's lightning is a fierce whip that cracks the air like the splitting of an iceberg, forking out like the blue veins that rise out of Katara's skin in this heat and the ones that are always visible through the translucence of Azula's. The Princess bends lightning with enough finesse to hurt without causing permanent damage, but there is always a razor spark in her eyes that says she might decide not to hold back, that the loss of the pet might be worth the fun of killing it.
It isn't that Katara accepts the label of pet, plaything, hobby to the Princess—it's just that she won't fight it too hard when the alternatives are worse. If she were to be considered a servant or a royal healer or a guard she'd be in the employ of the Fire Lord, and incompetent in her role. Ozai punishes failures even more gleefully than his daughter; he considers the world his own and so he sets the insignificant pieces of it alight with abandon. While Azula is heir to all that, the only thing that she can currently consider hers and hers alone is Katara.
"Let me take her for a lesson and I'll show you how to train her properly," Ozai offers one afternoon, as Katara's spilt water steams off the pavement and she moves through the humid air like a struggling swimmer.
"Thank you, Father," the Princess replies, and for a horrible moment Katara thinks she is going to accept, "but I've already learned so much from you that I feel ready to try this on my own."
Ozai looks at Azula in a way that Katara can't quite place. He clearly likes her better than anyone else he lays eyes on, is proud of her—but not in the way of fatherly love. Ownership, Katara's mind supplies. Perhaps that is what all relationships here are about. She notices the way Azula's shoulders relax just the tiniest amount when her father leaves, and wonders how exactly Azula learned all these lessons she speaks of.
"Try again," the Princess orders, lightning crackling at her fingertips, and Katara gathers up her water and attempts the whip for the hundredth time.
Azula has read about waterbending before, but as she attempts to coach her new project it becomes clear that she'll need to know much more if she's to succeed in training her. She digs through the royal archives for weeks before finding anything that approaches the subject of waterbending in an instructive manner. There are a few illustrations, which help since the girl, Katara, is unfamiliar with the old Fire Nation characters in many of the texts Azula reads. To be fair, most people born and raised in Azula's own country would be. It is not a mode of notation that is seen outside historical writings.
She takes the two scrolls most likely to be helpful to Katara's room. Azula has been keeping her in similar quarters to those the palace servants inhabit, but the water tribe girl has her room to herself. It is guarded, but it is not the jail cell she'd been kept in at first. It has a bed, a closet filled with Fire Nation clothing, and all the equipment necessary for maintaining proper hygiene. Katara has been more cooperative, Azula has noticed, since she was given these quarters. Negative reinforcement had not had the desired effect on the girl; she seems to have a high tolerance for pain. Trying to tame her with rewards, tempt her with kindnesses, is not Azula's way—but then, Azula's way is whatever achieves her goals. And the more she gives Katara now, she more she can take away from her later if and when the need arises.
Azula brings her the most beautiful scrolls—intricate pictures detailing movements Katara's never known but which come naturally to her, which feel right, which flow. She makes fast progress with these texts to instruct her. She's only in the Fire Nation until she can escape—but the more she learns, the sooner she'll be able to make an attempt. She'll only get one chance, though; she will have to be very sure. If that means spending a little extra time preparing, then so be it. Katara doesn't have a waterbending master back home. She figures she might as well take advantage of this knowledge while it's rolled out before her.
In the meantime, success gains her even better treatment from her captor than mere compliance does.
"These are the only materials I have on healing and bloodbending," Azula says as she hands Katara two small scraps of paper. "I think you're ready to attempt these forms of waterbending—but we may need to seek out more instruction from elsewhere. I don't think I'd mind another little trip around the world."
Of all the things Katara's mind could stick on, it chooses the tiniest word: we. Azula, the Princess of the Fire Nation, has either referred to herself using the royal we, or she has included Katara in a collective with herself. Katara feels strange, hearing it. She feels strange about the tea and fire flakes (which she tries to snack on but leaves the majority of; they are too spicy for her to find them enjoyable) that Azula's servants bring to her room shortly after the strange interaction. She feels strangely that when she escapes from this place she will be leaving a hole behind, and she wonders whether it will bleed.
Katara reads the text on bloodbending. Its parchment has darkened with age, its writing faded, and spots of mould have taken root in it despite what she's sure are the best efforts of its keepers—the Fire Sages, as Azula calls them. The page is written half in a common script she recognises, and half in a Fire Nation script she's begun to pick up, though not enough to read it clearly. It varies too much from text to text—the passage of time, Katara supposes, shows itself in this way. Words evolve just like people and things. They diverge or blend or become obsolete.
She reads about what bloodbending is and feels ill—but then she thinks about what she could achieve with it, what a perfect secret weapon it would be if she could coordinate her escape with a full moon. She thinks about power beyond just what is necessary to escape—thinks about being strong enough to stop threats to her village once and for all. She thinks about her mother, who died so that Katara could live, and live as a bender. She thinks about her current location, in the beating heart of the nation that took her mother away from her.
She swallows the sickness and soaks the knowledge in.
The Princess plans her next expedition.
"I want to come with you," Katara tells her, and Azula agrees to it.
Wan Shi Tong's library is a lofty goal, but achieving lofty goals is Azula's specialty. Such a library would surely contain special knowledge of waterbending techniques—knowledge that may well be as lost to the northern tribe as it is to its devastated southern sibling. Katara had accepted the bloodbending scroll without voicing any complaint, and Azula plans to have her attempt the technique on the upcoming full moon.
They travel over land on mongoose dragons, stopping to demand lodgings wherever the villagers have something to offer that actually exceeds the comfort of sleeping in tents. They follow the Nan Shan River up towards the desert, where the library is said to be.
On the night of the full moon, white light shivers off the water, bright as an eerie sun.
"I know what you're going to ask," Katara says as Azula approaches her. "And I don't know if I can do it."
"Because you've never tried before, or because you're not sure you want to?"
"Some of both."
"Well, you'll never master something you don't attempt. As for the second problem, I don't see why bending blood should be so undesirable."
"It's—" Katara splutters. She waves a hand with feeling, and the water of the river ripples behind her as though she's swept the hand through it. Bathing in the moonlight and already possessed of such effortless power, Katara looks less like the peasant girl Azula captured several months ago than ever. She has metamorphosed, like limestone become marble. She is the culmination of a series of correct judgments on Azula's part, but also something more than that.
"It's evil. Bloodbending takes away people's free will! It forces them to do what you want."
"Nonsense," Azula dismisses the protest. Remembering many a hard-learned lesson, she adds, "any kind of bending can do those things."
She can feel Katara studying her. She does this, sometimes; looks at Azula with something like... not pity, but... concern. Like she sees cracks. Azula would tell her she's imagining them, but she does not want to introduce the topic.
"You should try it now," she challenges instead. "Bend my blood, if you can. I bet you can't."
Katara steps towards her, reaches out as though to touch, but stops short, grasping the air instead. Azula thinks she feels some hint of influence. Her pulse is breaking into a sprint.
Azula is right; Katara can't bend her blood. She can feel the bead of sweat sliding down the edge of Azula's hairline, can feel the moistness of her mouth, but she can't delve any deeper. Can't, won't, both at once. To be so acutely conscious of the outside of her is already too much. To go beyond that, to keep going until nothing of her is secret... it's too intimate, too intrusive, to think about inhabiting a body other than her own.
"Good. I think you're close," says Azula.
The Princess stands with her eyes half shut and her arms open. Katara isn't sure what Azula thinks she's feeling, but her strange trust in this moment pulls to mind the thought that this would be the perfect time to make her escape. The moon high and full, lending her all its power. The full, rushing river at her back to be used as ammunition. Azula's guard let down as far as it is ever likely to be.
But it's that last fact that stays Katara's hand. Azula, though she talks about never trusting anyone, seems to trust Katara too much. It can't be underestimation—not when she's seen Katara learning and been quick to label her a prodigy. It's a curious thing, a fragile thing, and to crush it now would feel so... brutal.
"I'm nowhere near close," Katara sighs.
Azula opens her eyes. She looks as confused as she does disappointed, and pauses for a long moment before shrugging, "Well, never mind. By the next full moon perhaps we'll have better information to work with."
And there it is again, that casual joining of the two of them. We. Katara turns the word over in her head. We. She feels a bead of sweat finally fill enough to run down over Azula's chest, aware of it even when she hasn't tried to be. She lies down under the stars and listens to the river while Azula retires to her tent. She thinks long into the pale night about how she could be elsewhere but isn't. About whatever it is that's been sealed between them.
They find trouble before they find the library. They trek through the expanse of desert where it's meant to be, but no grand buildings rise from the sand—none that don't shiver and dissipate as they move towards them.
It's obvious that Katara is struggling here in the Si Wong; it is too hot, too dry. She bends the water from their own sweat to drink when their waterskins run dry too soon. Azula does believe that Katara's bending has filtered it, but it still seems an animal thing to do.
Trouble comes in the form of sandbenders, heads masked with fabric like Katara and Azula's both are, although the sandbenders' garments are better fitting, less makeshift. Even their eyes are covered by goggles. There are a dozen of them, which wouldn't be a challenge if it weren't for the patchy darkness percolating Azula's vision, the dragging of her limbs, tired and dehydrated. She bends her flames anyway, pushes them hotter and hotter even under the already unbearable baking sun.
But they are standing in an endless sea of their attackers' element.
Katara summons water from their sweat and the sandbenders'. She puts to use the last little bit of drinking water she's gathered, reaches skyward and manages to drag down a small wispy cloud that hangs relatively low overhead. It is not enough to combat the relentless whipping of the sand. Azula feels as if she is being eaten alive by buzzard wasps. Then, from inside the sandstorm, something more solid hits her. It feels like raw force as it lodges in her thigh, but even if she's gone half numb and more than half blind, Azula can identify a stab wound when she feels one. She grunts in pain, which only grates at her dry throat. The giant dune beneath her feet shifts fast to the side, like the great walls of water which rise and fall in a stormy ocean. Azula topples.
Katara feels Azula's wound almost as acutely as her own. The sandbender spear that's struck Katara has only sliced the side of her arm, which, while it bleeds, doesn't do so at nearly the rate of Azula's punctured thigh. The new shot of panic sharpens it all, slows it down, makes all the lights and colours flare. Katara ducks, falls deliberately to her knees so as to avoid a second round of weapons being thrown her way. She rolls the short distance to where Azula has keeled over.
There's bright red in the sand, sticking it together in clumps where the thick droplets have fallen. The leg of Azula's silk pants is the wrong red around the hole the spear has punched in it. Katara can see the motion of the blood, see it like the trickle of rivulets down her room's window pane in the Fire Nation's recent wet season. The windows are always barred, unopenable, but with practice she has been able to feel for the rainwater even through the glass, divert it, make it run upwards. Watching the wet flow of the bright blood, Katara realises for the first time just how much like ordinary water it is. No thicker than mud, no more inaccessible than the drips behind the glass.
Katara observes the pulsing of Azula's blood in a way that can't possibly be sight, can't even be touch. Her bending is starved in this landscape—and so it reaches out, finds what liquid it can, holds on to it. The bleeding slows, stops, at the clenching of Katara's fist.
The sandbenders have begun to advance on their two fallen targets, and Katara reaches desperately for the last patches of her bending water that haven't dried out of the sand yet. She's been sweating more, too, as has Azula. She gathers her ammunition from wherever she can sense it, sharpens the liquid into frozen darts and holds them tightly in shape despite the heat. She hears sandbenders grunting in surprise, pain, but it's not enough to stop them closing in. A few of them, wielding swords expertly, deflect her darts with their blades. Katara pulls the water back from where it's landed. There's less and less there to be gathered every time. As the small bubble of it returns to her hands, Katara notices the colour for the first time. It still feels just like water as she controls it with her bending—but the water is a diluted red. She almost drops it in shock.
She processes her shock fast, because there are still twelve sandbenders on their feet. She feels the glare of the sun above her, knows the moon is far from dominating the daytime sky, and still waxing gibbous regardless. But she looks at the bubble of blood suspended between her hands and can't doubt it. She checks the pressure her bending is keeping on Azula's leg wound, and carefully reaches out for her attackers with the same type of touch. One by one, she seizes them by the strings that wind through their bodies, the rivers and streams snaking through and mapping the landscape—first under the thin skin of limbs, then deeper, following them to the source of their pulses. A few of them begin to groan with pain. Their walking turns to laboured wading, as though they are knee-deep in the sand, not treading on top of it. The wading turns to stillness.
Katara counts fourteen heartbeats: the twelve sandbenders, Azula's, and her own. Azula's is weaker than the rest, and it scares Katara.
Like this, she could run away and Azula wouldn't be able to chase her. Azula would never be able to chase her. Azula would die here in the desert, her blood drying into scabs on the sand, her bones picked at by scavengers, like the carcasses of seals back in the south pole (they would stain the muzzles of polar bear dogs so grotesquely, she remembers; once-living matter turned to a layer of ugly paint). Katara could release her hold over Azula's bleeding, stand by and let nature take its course. Defeat the Princess by inaction alone. The blood wouldn't even be on her hands—
—but after crawling over the dampened sand, it already is. Having reached into each of the bodies around her, all the blood is on her hands, in them.
Azula's lips move, but Katara has to lean closer to try and hear what she's saying.
"The library," Azula breathes, looking into the distance, seeing a mirage.
The library. The reason they're here at all. A quest to help Katara learn her element better. The thing for which Azula would be dying if Katara decided not to try and help her. The debt that Katara would owe.
She's quaking with exertion, exhaustion, exhilaration. A few of the sandbenders take faltering steps towards her. Her grip on them feels like it's cramping, a hand clenched so hard that it can't adjust its grip, can't do anything but succumb to the ache. Faintly, she hears the sandbenders groaning. The sound is very secondary to the many pulses pounding through her. They are sound, sight, touch, and metallic taste. Life, hijacked.
She can't hold them still much longer. To suspend a body like this, she's fast realising, it not simply pushing, but a delicate balance of push and pull. Push alone, and the sandbenders' blood could rush so hard it tears their bodies apart. Pull alone, and everything stops. When her bending possesses them she is the moon responsible for their living tides.
The moment Katara sets them free, they'll kill her. She doesn't want to die here in the desert, and for a long moment it's the only thought she's capable of having. She feels the heartbeats, and pulls at them one at a time, no longer straining to push for balance. The hearts tighten, choke, freeze. Masses hit the sand like heavy sacks. She still feels them with her bending, but they are tideless bodies of water now.
There are twelve of them there on the ground, already catching sand blown by the wind in something of an unceremonious burial. Twelve people made corpses to save two. Katara feels her own heart beating and is haunted by the knowledge of how easily she could starve it. She lays herself down on her side, planning just to rest for a minute. She curls in on herself, curls towards Azula, whose leg has finally been able to clot enough to do without Katara's pressure. Azula says something, but Katara doesn't hear it.
She wakes, she can't tell how much later. She stands, gingerly, and finds walking possible again. The sandsailer the sandbenders came in on is within reach, so she rouses Azula and half-drags her towards it. The vehicle isn't much use without a sandbender to power it, but it's also filled with water and food, which they stuff into their packs. They huddle in the sandsailer, Azula quickly falling unconscious again. Now that their expedition has gone awry, Katara feels even more uncomfortable in the desert. She wants to be out of it like one wants to escape a smothering blanket. She craves home—though she does not crave the frozen air of the south pole.
Azula has been right before. She makes a habit of it. One might even say she is always right—but the degree to which she has been right about Katara is higher than any of her other correct judgments. Foggy though her memories are of the encounter with the sandbenders, gritty and weepy as the eyes that saw it were, patched with shadow though her vision was, Azula knows the feat Katara executed was extraordinary. Bending the blood of an animal or a person on a full moon is one thing. Killing twelve attackers with bloodbending at midday in the desert is quite another. She still hasn't picked up healing, but despite the pain in her leg Azula is glad that bloodbending is the art that's come to her. After all, Azula could be dead if not for it. It's... well, not humbling, because the Princess of the Fire Nation cannot be humbled—but Azula feels considerable respect for the waterbender. An untrained peasant, risen to such greatness. Azula has done very well with her.
Power over one's own body is something just anyone can have. Power over another's is reserved for only the greatest. Azula, who commands servants to bow and armies to die and whose hand is a deity's on earth, is one of the few who can make her underlings dance obediently. She does so, more often than not, with her words. Katara's power is different and the same. It is more deeply physical. It does not even have to explain itself to be feared. Between them, they could wield all the power in the world. Between them, they already possess a great deal of it.
They've crossed the Crescent Isle and are moving along the archipelago towards the Fire Nation capital, but still Azula struggles to walk without a limp.
"We're nearly back home," Katara says. She's trying to comfort her, but if Azula arrives at the palace having damaged her body—and in pursuit of what, she doesn't look forward to trying to explain—Father will be displeased. Azula spends all her time trying to ensure she doesn't have to face a displeased Ozai. She has spent her entire life doing so.
"We shouldn't go home yet," Azula decides. "Not until I'm recovered. We should hire a boat to Ember Island."
"Ember Island. It's closer to where we currently are than the Caldera is, and my family has a house there. We should be at Fire Fountain City by nightfall, and there will be plenty of merchants vying for the honour of transporting us. We still have more than enough gold to add a vacation to our trip."
"A vacation?" Katara raises a brow in much the same way as Azula herself does when doubtful. She doesn't reject the idea, though. She has the capacity to understand Azula's reasons. "That could be nice, actually," she says.
Ember Island is beautiful. Katara twists on the balls of her feet in the damp sand so that her toes peel up the otherwise smooth, stiff surface of it. Shaped by water, the shore feels so very different from the desert dunes.
Azula complains about the state of the beach house, its lack of grandeur, but Katara doesn't think she means all of what she says. The Princess keeps up appearances, she knows—with words when she cannot do it more tangibly.
Katara uses water to sculpt the sand into shapes. Her work is sloppy at first, but she soon learns how much sand she can pick up while still keeping tight control over the water carrying it. She smoothes the edges of a small sandy dome, almost the way she once sculpted igloos at the south pole. That action, that entire environment, feels very far away. Katara listens to the lapping of the warm waves, a soothing little hush. She feels the sun on her bare skin, the hot air disrupted by a welcome cool breeze. She freezes some water in her hands but still can't imagine what it would be like to be back surrounded by ice. The south pole has melted out of her, it seems, at least for now. It's funny how quickly some things fade—things that were once everything. It's as if her insides have been siphoned slowly away and replaced with an equal measure of something else, someone else, all while she looks in the mirror and claims to know herself.
She's almost finished her little sand domes when a child races towards her on his way down the beach and stomps on them. She only just manages to snatch her hands out of the way before his foot comes down.
"Hey!" she scolds. "Why would you do something like that?"
The boy's eyes widen in obvious fear, and Katara is surprised that a few stern words could have such an effect. Then she turns to see Azula, flames flaring in her hands, walking very purposefully towards them. She looks at the little boy as though he's killed Katara, not ruined her sand construction.
Katara holds up her hands, a frantic gesture for Azula to stop. She catches Katara's eye, reads her, and a moment later the flames go out.
"You don't need to avenge the deaths of a few sand shapes." Katara throws a glance at the boy, who still looks petrified. "Have you learned your lesson?" she asks him, and he nods and scampers away.
"He showed you great disrespect," says Azula. "And by extension, he disrespected his royal Princess. He could rightfully be challenged to an agni kai for such an offence."
"He knocked down my sandcastle—and he couldn't have been more than seven years old! How could you even think about challenging a child to a fight like that?"
Azula stares on blankly. "I've told you about my brother, haven't I?"
She has, though only in vague terms. It's always seemed that Azula prefers not to talk about him, so Katara's never pushed the issue too hard. She knows he was banished just a couple of years before she came to the Fire Nation.
"Not the whole story, it seems." Katara sees the boy coming back towards them with an adult in tow. He's wiping tears from his snotty face. "Why don't we go back to the house," she suggests. "You can tell me more and we can have some lunch. I'm getting hungry."
Ember Island is more beautiful with Katara around. More complete. Between them they are the blazing sun and the surrounding sea, life force and lifeblood. They are everything and everything is theirs.
Katara makes tea and spicy noodles while Azula talks about Zuko. She tells the official story; Zuko's impertinence in the war room, the agni kai he failed to fight the way a soldier, the way a Prince, should have done. She tells of his disfigurement and banishment, and fills in other details too as Katara asks for them. She traces back in time to briefly explain the death of cousin Lu Ten, Iroh's disgrace at Ba Sing Se. They sit on the decking, high on the sandy cliffs, and eat their meal together. They continue sitting once all the food is gone, more stories spilling themselves out into the air. The sounds of the ocean underneath make a strangely perfect backdrop, peaceful noise to cradle confessions, encircle them in a private place, a little island. She tells Katara not only what Zuko was like, but how she felt about him and the things he did. The mixture of emotions that were always present, not just the disdain she projected. The way Zuko was never really kinder than her, just less able. The way Mother had seen fit to compensate for his lack of talent with more daily love than she offered Azula in a month.
"I didn't need it," she shrugs, but she knows there's bitterness in her voice that belies the statement, knows on some level that it wouldn't be there unless she meant for Katara to hear it.
"Every kid needs love," says Katara, laying a hand on Azula's forearm for emphasis. "Especially from a mother."
Something in Katara's voice as she says that last word hardens, and Azula becomes suddenly conscious of her own softness. It is too much. She straightens her spine, breathes, reinflates and stiffens.
"Mothers are unnecessary," she says.
Katara doesn't reply, just lifts her hand back off Azula's arm. Azula misses the slightly cool touch. She thinks about the possibility of reaching for Katara's hand herself—being the one to ask, risking that rejection—for several fretful minutes before she goes ahead and does it. Katara barely even seems to notice as she allows Azula to lace their fingers together. Her gaze is lost out on the ocean.
The afternoon has passed quickly; while it's relatively warm in these parts it is still winter, and the days are short. The sunset glares a particularly brave red, and illuminates the wispy clouds with such brightness that they burn to look at. Azula sits silently by Katara's side, watching without impatience as the sun gives itself to the sea and the moon takes over the watch.
"You're bleeding," Katara says suddenly, breaking a silence that has hung between them for at least an hour. At first Azula is confused. The bandage on her leg is still perfectly clean, and she can't feel the pinch of cracking scabs anywhere there. She looks down at her hands to check that she hasn't sliced them open on any sharp shells or glass fragments lying in the sand. Then she realises what Katara must be sensing. She watches the look on the waterbender's face as it dawns on her too.
"Nothing to be concerned about," Azula says, but the words come out too clipped, and Katara fixes her with a distinctly disbelieving expression. "Well, perhaps I am a little concerned," she admits, because it isn't like Katara will judge her after all the other chances she's had before. Azula might as well speak her mind. "It's just that now a marriage could be... productive. I'll be expected to marry soon, in light of that fact."
"You don't want to get married?" Katara frowns.
"No. At least, not to any of the people my father would choose for me if I were to be married any time soon. And I certainly don't want to— to bear children." Azula tries to keep that possibility out of her mind, but when she does imagine it, any offspring she can see herself having are not so much her children as her father's grandchildren. She wants to fully unfurl her own magnificence first, not to simply be the joining channel along which power flows down to another. Her ambitions take precedence over ceding any of herself to anyone else, whether through a legal bond or an emotional one. In the latter area at least she has control. She cannot be compelled to love anyone beyond herself, and she vows not to.
"You shouldn't get married if you don't want to."
"Believe it or not, I don't have the power to decide everything and make the entire world how I want it. Not yet, anyway."
"Azula, you don't have to be the Fire Lord just to be in control of your own body." Katara sounds genuinely worried. Fearful for Azula, rather than of her. It is something Azula would not accept from anyone else.
"Well, if I could seize control enough to prevent this unfortunate... leakage, I would certainly try," she mutters. Her abdominal pains have been light since the unwanted visitor's arrival in the morning. Azula has read that they can be severe, but has so far suspected those who reported such suffering were weaklings. Now, however, the cramps flare as though in response to being the focus of attention. Azula has always loved the feeling of fire in her, always been driven and strengthened by it. This feeling is similar but wholly unpleasant. It feels like she is molten at the core, volcanic; victim to a kind of heat that does not answer to a firebender. To bend it away, she would have to be—
"Hm. It might answer to a bloodbender."
Katara turns a look on Azula; the full force of her big round eyes, the silver moon reflected in them. "I know some simple pain remedies that I could make from ingredients in the kitchen cupboards," she says, and gets up immediately to prepare them.
Father finds out, of course. The servants who change Azula's sheets and wash her clothes fear him more than they do her. (She could have had Katara take care of these things, but it doesn't cross her mind until it's too late. The thought feels wrong anyway, not much more acceptable than doing the work herself. Katara tends to Azula's person; she is levels above dirty laundry.)
Azula is sitting in the garden with Katara, attempting to meditate her anxiety away, when a servant tells her that Father has summoned her. She puts off going as long as she can, although that only amounts to a handful of minutes. She watches Katara observing a dried leaf she's found in one of the garden beds. It calms her inexplicably to see Katara so drawn in by so small a thing. The leaf is only as long as Katara's forefinger, and a similar colour. It is dried crunchy and brown, cracked away between its stringy veins leaving something like filigree behind.
"It's death," murmurs Katara, "but it's still beautiful."
"Death can certainly be beautiful. And life can be very ugly."
"Remember who controls your body," Katara says, fiercely. She almost crunches the leaf in her palm as her hand closes, the absentminded beginnings of a fist. "Nobody but you controls your body."
"I won't be some broodmare," Azula says the instant Ozai mentions the arrangement of a marriage. "I am far more useful as a military leader."
"You will still be a soldier," Ozai waves a hand dismissively. "Producing an heir only requires a break from military duties, not retirement."
"I don't want to take any breaks."
Ozai examines her. "You think your desires matter more than your duties?" he asks. "My bloodline must be extended, for the good of the family and the nation. You would shirk that duty because you don't feel like it? A true daughter of mine would never consider such treasonous selfishness! You have been influenced by your pet waterbender, as I feared would happen. You have lost sight of yourself!"
Azula, who has until now been kneeling, stands.
"Respectfully, Father, I have never known myself better."
Ozai's glare is so severe it could almost make a sound—a sound akin to thunder and the crashing of rocks falling from cliffs as hard as the jut of his browbone.
"You've had your fun, training her. Now it's time to prove your loyalty to me. I order you to destroy the peasant, and to reconsider how you speak to your Fire Lord. Fail, and you shall bear the consequences as your brother did. Succeed, and we shall resume our talks about your future in my kingdom."
Azula is not Zuko. Azula knows the need to stand and fight in a battle of honour—but still the thought of being in such a position chills her. Just because she would not lose an agni kai against Father in precisely the same helpless way Zuko did does not mean she would win. Ozai is the one firebender she doubts herself against.
"Yes, Father," she agrees, and stoops into a bow again.
"Now get out of my sight."
Katara finds Azula on the brink of tears.
"I have a headache," the Princess claims, pinching the bridge of her nose and squeezing her eyelids shut. Katara can feel the brimming wells of her tear ducts. She reaches out and very carefully holds them steady.
"What did he say?"
The answer is nothing Katara hasn't been anticipating for some time.
"Thank you for telling me," she tells Azula. "Instead of just... doing it."
"I have no intention of doing it," Azula growls. "Such an action would be, at best, needless destruction, to the detriment of myself and— and the nation as a whole. If I were the Fire Lord I could have him killed for dishonouring me with such a demand—"
"I'll pack a bag," Katara says quickly. "I can be gone by morning."
Azula catches her wrist as she goes to move away.
"No," she says. "Did I ever tell you what happened to my grandfather?"
Despite the story and the connection of circumstances, Katara doesn't think she's actually been asked to do anything, reenact anything. She gets the impression that Azula doesn't want to make this decision. She understands that reluctance—feels it herself, though for opposite reasons.
She remembers the clenching of twelve sandbender hearts, their blood pulsing in her hands, on her hands. She remembers them when she tries to sleep, her own pulse incessant in her ears. She wonders what exactly they'd have done with a dead princess and her companion. Sometimes she wonders whether they were just warding off the kind of danger that had melted igloos at the south pole—even the kind of danger that had killed Katara's mother.
She's never known exactly who to blame for that. At first she'd blamed herself; her father, for not coming quickly enough; the whole tribe for not doing enough to keep the raiders out. But that hadn't been right. It was the Fire Nation that attacked.
The abstract Fire Nation in Katara's imagination had been a place where the streets ran with blood and the eyes of every passerby glinted with violent intent. That, too, she thinks now, can't be right. Even the Princess who'd kidnapped her is not the one on whom all that blame can rightfully be pinned. Responsibility trickles down and drips off the hands of those on the bottom rung while someone high above holds the handle of the knife—and yet still the underlings direct the tip of the blade, some with a grin and others with a grimace. Culpability in war is not quite simple enough for Katara's liking. Cutting up her vengeance and distributing it amongst foot soldiers according to percentages will never satisfy.
"I don't want to leave the Fire Nation right now," she tells Azula. "I don't want to leave you behind with only him for a family."
The tears behind Azula's eyes swell. With her bending, Katara instructs them to recede.
"You're sentimental," Azula scoffs, like she herself isn't at all, like she's not relying on Katara to dam the overflow of her feelings. This fact remains an open secret between them; implicit. "That's no reason to risk your own death."
Katara shakes her head, raises her chin firmly. "It's the best reason," she says. "Protecting someone you care about is the best reason."
At last Azula names a feeling she's been unable to place for some time. She does not want Katara to leave. She fears Katara leaving like she fears losing an arm, a leg, or an eye (or all at once).
Azula does not like to be afraid, does not like her heart beating fast or her palms sweating. She appreciates that Katara does not mention these things, though she is doubtless aware of them. Azula masks the adrenaline of fear with the next thing that comes to her mind. Azula kisses Katara.
Their mouths meet and they merge like confluent rivers, buzz like blue-vein lightning strikes. Azula hasn't forgotten her vow never to love anyone besides herself, but Katara is enough a part of her that she isn't really breaking any promises. Their mouths meet for the first time, but they have known each other longer.
"What was that for?" Katara asks—not because she doesn't know, but because she wants to see if Azula does. If Azula has the words, and if she will say them.
"For resolve," Azula says, sidestepping one issue and landing right in the path of the other.
"You," Ozai says as she enters the throne room. Six guards are frozen to the wall outside. One of them is dragged along by the grand doors as they swing open and shut, Katara sweeping through them in between. "Peasant. Whore. If you are still alive then you deserve to die for making my daughter too weak to slay you."
The Fire Lord's voice booms down from his platform, rising over the flames that line the room. Ozai has stoked this fire in her presence—odd, since he claims to think nothing of her. No one tries to impress or intimidate nothing.
"Well? Have you not got anything to say for yourself?" Ozai asks as Katara holds her tongue, just keeps marching steadily towards him.
"There isn't much point arguing with a dead man."
His blood is foreign and familiar, like a food that shares the aftertaste of another. It is Azula's blood, and it isn't. Katara feels him like that tiny dried leaf; in that moment he is nothing but the pattern of his veins. She holds him in her palm and closes her fist.
Death, in Katara's experience so far, is the most personal of things and the least. Engulfing the whole of a personality, a lifetime, bringing every thread of a human together in order to tie them off once and for all—and at the same time all it is is chemistry, the elements and the human shape that they have taken for a while. For a moment Katara is certain that she could kill Ozai and never feel a thing, if she so chose.
It is not what she chooses.
She leaves Ozai in his place on the throne, slumped, the flush of rage in his cheeks blueing, the flames he lit still burning around the room but bound to run out of fuel soon, never to be replenished by their creator. Someone will find him, the physicians will look over his body and find all the signs of a heart attack. She unfreezes the guards as she passes. All but one of them flop to the floor, unconscious but alive. The last staggers, falls against the nearest wall, cowers there when she looks him in the eye. He will not tell anyone the truth, and neither will his friends—for even if they thought they could be believed, they fear Katara more than they fear Ozai's corpse.
It is when she returns to Azula that the wave in her breaks. It breaks because Azula's heart flutters so quickly it could be the buzzing wings of a dragonfly. It feels halfway to the same state as Ozai's, and it too has been made this way by Katara's acts. The sensitivity of Katara's bending has not yet receded and for a split second it seems to creep forward even further, grasping at Azula's blood too. She doesn't know whether it means to cradle that heart and help it keep its pace, or ruin it too. Each thing is suddenly too much like the next, and if Katara is a destroyer of some then she must be capable of destroying all.
"Whatever you're thinking, stop it," Azula orders, voice thin and sticky-sounding, a performance that disappoints as it reaches her own ears. Azula isn't certain of why she feels so liquid, so molten and mouldless. She has accepted her father's death. Rationally, pragmatically, she has already dealt with and dismissed the entire affair. And yet as she looks at the way Katara's face seems to sink, like she's let go of all control of it, a flesh mask she can't make work, Azula comprehends Ozai's death as she hasn't before. The feeling is as involuntary as Katara's expression, as empty and as overflowing. Water burns up through her eyes, stinging, as it hasn't done in some time. Katara cannot, or will not, hold it back for her this time.
"I'm sorry," Katara says.
"Don't apologise," Azula gasps. "You did exactly what I would have done."
"But it's still hurt you."
Azula has made these calculations: "There was no option that wouldn't have."
It stands to reason that amidst changes as great as continents shifting and tearing beneath them, the small things would escape notice entirely. But it isn't so. The blood, the volcanic melting of Azula's abdomen, returns the wrong number of days later, taking her by surprise and spoiling her enthusiasm for the entire morning's plans the way a single drop pollutes a bucket.
"We're synching up," Katara explains, when Azula asks for the same pain medicine as last time. She could ask the palace servants for something, but she finds that she wants Katara to know that she hurts, to sit with her. That is half the anaesthetic.
It's been some time since Azula was surprised by such ideas as that her body, her blood, would follow Katara's lead.
"Your coronation—" Katara begins, because she knows that preparations have been putting pressure on Azula, but the soon-to-be Fire Lord just groans and rolls over on the bed so that her face is buried in Katara's chest. Katara's ribcage shakes gently with silent laughter but after that she lays a soothing hand on the back of Azula's hair and is blessedly still.
The resting cannot last, and it does not—not for more than half an hour or so. Azula's coronation is imminent and the Fire Sages' preparations require her input at what seems like every turn. Which special robes would she prefer for the occasion? Which Fire Lord's headpiece—the one Ozai had favoured or one worn by a different predecessor? Would she like the ceremony to be conducted in the ancient, dead Fire Nation tongue, or one of the many translations done over the years? How should the courtyard be decorated, and of whom should the audience consist?
Katara hears all these questions being asked, watches the tension in Azula's face pulling her forehead down and her lips into a scowl, ready to be a snarl. She waits to see whether Azula will snap and command that these details be decided upon by the Sages, that they stop bothering her with them, but it doesn't happen. Azula simply grows more and more agitated as she tries to field these questions in addition to dealing with the confusing oil-and-water swirl of grief and celebration she feels after Ozai's death. As well as preparing a vision for her reign that she can present to her people, an offering which must both remind them of her power over them, and appease them just enough to keep them happy with the change in sovereign.
"What do you think?" Azula asks Katara. She is writing a speech about the Fire Nation's conquests, and in what ways they will be sustained under her rule.
She moves her writing arm so that Katara can read from the top of the paper while Azula continues working at the bottom. Katara reads through it slowly—in part because the translation of the characters is still far from lightning-quick in her mind, and in part because every one of them carries heavy implications. The pointed tip of Azula's pen slices along the parchment, black liquid welling in its wake, and all Katara can think of is how these penstrokes will be turned to swordstrokes by her armies.
"Azula," she says.
"Have you found an error somewhere?" Azula does not really believe that she has made a mistake, or that Katara, inexperienced in this script, would pick up on something she had missed, but Katara sounds both concerned and hesitant, and Azula knows that when she gets like this an answer must be coaxed out of her.
"Not... not in the writing itself, but maybe in the meaning of the words. I just feel like all this is no different from what Ozai did. I thought you wanted to make a name for yourself."
"I am different from my father. I listen to me, and I care about you. He never did those things."
"That's not enough," Katara insists, and takes the fact that Azula doesn't kill her for it as leave to continue sharing her thoughts.
"Then tell me what you would have me do."
"Well," Katara begins. Peace is not as simple a thing to ask for as it would seem. How does one ask a burning flame for cool? "Right now you have the resources to help rebuild the entire world, to replace a century-long war with real prosperity. If you did that, the world would never forget you."
"Perhaps not—but perhaps it would remember me as a weakling."
"Any child can knock something down," Katara argues. "It takes real skill and strength to create instead."
"In the game of power one does not destroy or create. One simply gives or takes—yields or earns."
"That isn't true."
There are different kinds of power, Katara says, and not all of them can coexist. It is not something Azula has considered, and not something she is ready to accept. True power is the kind she was born with, born into. Other powers are inferior to that brand of might.
Katara sighs, and Azula wonders whether she plans to continue her argument. Azula feels oddly as though the conversation is not meant to be over yet.
"Okay," Katara begins one last point. "Imagine something for me: imagine you'd killed me at the south pole, instead of taking me with you."
Azula tightens. She can almost see the snow, white against black charring. One small patch of that white turning red, a blot on the tundra.
"If you'd just destroyed me, instead of helping me become a master—tell me your life wouldn't be worse right now, if you'd done it. Tell me you'd have been stronger if you'd stomped on me back then."
It has been a long time since Azula imagined being without Katara.
"When your father ordered you to kill me, you called it needless destruction to yourself and the nation. Because you knew you would be stronger with an ally than a victim."
Two nights before Azula's coronation, the moon sings loudly in the sky. It looms large, almost full, and it calls to Katara until she climbs out of bed and pulls on her cloak.
"Where are you going?" Azula mumbles. Katara can't tell if she's actually awake or not, the words are so muddy with sleep.
"Just going for a walk. The moon's out."
Azula doesn't respond, just rustles the sheets with her shifting, presses her face into her pillow.
Katara slips out the door. She strides past guards who know better than to ask her where she is going. Perhaps the strangest thing about walking with the authority of a Fire Lord is how strange it doesn't feel. Katara is conscious of their rising pulses as she goes.
She goes all the way down to the docks, where she can sit and look out over the ocean, dangle her feet in it from the end of one of the wharves, freeze it and walk out over it if she feels like it. Tonight she is content simply to sit. Her feet slide back and forth across the surface, pulling it with them like it's made of fine silk, rippling and bunching.
She isn't expecting the two men who approach her, but she senses them as they take their quiet steps up the wooden ground of the dock. Just as they reach her, she pushes herself out and off the end, landing on the water and whirling around to face them.
"What do you want?" she asks.
"See, Dad? I told you it was her!" She recognises the voice. The person it issues from is hidden under a dark cloak with a hood, but the hood is soon thrown back.
"Sokka!" she cries out. "What— how?"
The hood of the second figure, a much taller and thicker set man, falls back to his shoulders and Katara sees her father's face for the first time in a long time. There's something dissonant about them suddenly appearing in this landscape. She assumes it's really happening because it's too unlikely a dream.
"That's right," Sokka says, "the rescue mission is here!"
"Well, yeah. The Princess kidnapped you. We're getting you back." Sokka speaks like it's all so obvious, like it's as obvious as Katara herself thought it was many months ago.
"It's kind of... complicated," she begins. "It might actually be best if I stay here for a while longer. Azula is about to be crowned—"
Sokka gapes at her, and Hakoda picks up the dialogue.
"That's the other thing we came for," he says. "Azula's not going to become the new Fire Lord. We've brought a different heir to install in her place—one we can actually reason with."
The way he looks at her makes Katara feel like someone is pulling her skin off. Trying to peel back layers of a living mask, each strip entirely sensate. Searching for something they're not going to find underneath. She pictures Azula dozing, her light snoring noises that no one but Katara will ever dare describe as such. She feels bound back to that space, that bed, the soft skin and sleek hair and sleepy golden eyes of its occupant. The heartbeat that lets her know she's home. But she looks at the two men before her, and her blood knows their blood too well. With one or the other, Katara realises she will only ever be half-home.
"If you're allowed out here then the Princess must trust you," Sokka reasons. "We could definitely use your help. Come back with us and meet the others."
The others are a group made mostly of Southern Water Tribe men. With them is a boy whose head is as round and pale and bare as the moon aside from a small diamond of hair, pulled into a long bunch that sprouts out of the top of his head. The style is curious and unbalanced. So is his half-scorched complexion, though there is far less mystery to that. He can only be Azula's brother.
"I came straight home as soon as I got word of your kidnapping," Katara's father fills her in on what he calls lost time. "On our way we intercepted this kid, Prince Zuko, on his little warship. He said he was looking for the Avatar—crazy, I know, but he seemed really to believe it. We thought we could trade him for you. Then his Uncle—"
A rotund, white-bearded man who sits sharing food with the soldiers burps loudly as if to identify himself.
"—said he'd been banished by his father. The Fire Lord wouldn't even want him back. We thought maybe if we could turn him against Ozai instead—"
"Ozai is dead," Katara points out, though she knows that he knows it.
"He is," Hakoda agrees. He sounds a little in awe at the idea. Katara can't guess how he'd sound if he knew exactly how it had happened. How he'd sound if he knew what she could do and what she had done. "That's why it's the perfect time to strike. We're going to get Zuko on the throne before Azula can officially be crowned, and the ascension will be smooth."
"What does Zuko think about the war?" Katara asks. "I'd like to talk to him about it."
It's possible that Azula's accounts of her brother have been biased, but the air that hangs over of the grumpy boy hunched at the edge of the party doesn't fill Katara with faith in him.
"He thinks whatever we think," her father tells her. A small grin sneaks onto his face. It tries to spread itself over to Katara's, but her face will not house it.
"Azula's just agreed to peace," she says, voice lowered to a harsh whisper.
"Somehow I doubt that."
"Well, you don't know her."
"She's Ozai's favoured child. There's no trusting her."
Katara doesn't think Zuko is any more trustworthy, and she tells him so.
"He's weak, and he's lost," Hakoda shrugs. "And he's desperate to sit on a throne. If we can give him the position he wants, he'll let us guide him in how to use it."
Katara watches Zuko staring into the flames, sullen, brow crinkled with a layer of impotent rage that seems to be permanently in place. She doesn't have to like him in order to feel sorry for him. Ozai's puppet-child, now in the hands of people who have no more honest cares for him than his father did. No one was ever going to give him a chance to be himself, whoever that hypothetical Zuko might be.
But Katara knows her father isn't a man who stands down, except in the face of inevitabilities. He won't do it now.
"What's your plan?" she asks.
The bed feels too empty at dawn when Azula wakes, if not too cold (with a firebender in it, it is never going to). The sleep-muffled conversation from hours before comes slowly back to her. Only Katara's absence suggests it as truth and not some mundane dream. Katara has not returned from her walk. A rush of adrenaline wakes her, then.
"Guards," she shouts, and the two who man her bedroom door barge in. "Where is she?"
The two of them look at each other. Azula despises their uncertainty.
"Go and find out," she orders, and they scurry away.
She's out of bed, vibrating with nervous energy, pulling on the bare minimum of clothing and striding, robe billowing, through the palace in the course of a frenetic half-minute. She encounters her door guards on her way, their direction reversed, their countenances significantly relaxed. She does not wait for them to tell her what they have found, does not slow her pace for a moment. She finds Katara in the drawing room, watching the sunrise through the expansive east-facing window.
Katara knows Azula's presence without turning around. "It's beautiful," she says of the sun, Azula's heavenly body.
Azula looks at Katara, still wrapped in her travelling cloak, hair loose at her back, possibly ruffled by wind. There is a small leaf caught in it, Azula notices. She moves forward to slide it gently out.
"Yes, beautiful," she replies, and lets her hand linger in Katara's hair even as the leaf drifts to the carpet.
The sky is a brilliant red, just a little too pink in its hue to be firelike. There are clouds sprayed across the horizon, textured like beaten sea-foam. There's a grey tinge to them that turns silver as the light increases.
"I have to talk to you," Katara says. "Can we talk in private, please?"
The stroking of Azula's hand pauses. She knows that only a great measure of hesitance can make Katara preface a statement with asking leave to speak. Azula waves all guards and servants out of the room.
"I saw my father tonight."
"Thank you for telling me," Azula says, borrowing words. "Instead of just doing it."
"If I thought you were the person that they think you are then I would have done it." Would have betrayed her. Katara keeps her chin high.
"I suppose that's a compliment," replies Azula, although the reminder that Katara's power could be turned against her is never comfortable.
Katara takes Azula's face in her hands. Azula can feel the pulse in the tip of her thumb where it rests just beneath her eye, over her cheekbone. "It is," Katara assures her.
"So, do you have a plan, or must I come up with one?"
The grip of Katara's hand on her face hardens, infinitesimally. Not enough to cause any kind of pain. Azula feels her pulse rise.
"Of course," Katara tells her. "It'll be simple."
The next night comes. Azula is to be crowned in the morning, at the rising of the sun, so the water tribesmen plan their invasion for the earliest hours of the morning. Facing firebenders at night is far preferable; it's not an eclipse, but it's the next best thing as far as they're concerned. After darkness has fallen and settled in, Katara shrouds herself in her hooded cloak, kisses Azula quickly and sneaks out. The moon is finally full, and although she can bend without it, the power a full moon offers now ripples through her. Her muscles quiver in excitement. Her father hasn't taken the moon into account, she knows; none of the others are waterbenders, and he knows little of her abilities.
She finds her father's crew in one of the secret tunnels up to the Caldera. Iroh and Zuko have already given them all the information they need to infiltrate the Capital, so there's no use in trying to keep them out. What they don't have, however, is an accurate estimation of how many guards await them on the way to the palace; on Katara's intelligence, the usual shifts of two sleepy guards per watchtower have been increased to an army on high alert.
They are not to kill any of the invaders, Katara had stressed as she told Azula how to instruct her soldiers. Or even injure them, if it can be avoided. You have to make that clear. There will be no killing tonight. Once her father and the troops see how outnumbered they are, they'll retreat from an inevitable loss.
Just before they emerge from the tunnels, they stop. Sokka stage-whispers something that Katara figures is supposed to be inspirational, and then Hakoda takes over with some words that make more sense.
"The time has never been more right," he tells them all, "nor will it be again. Tonight, my fellow warriors, we have a chance to change history for the better. To end a century of bloodshed and prevent a century more. The moon overhead is full and bright to light our way along this righteous path; with her spirit to guide us the Water Tribe is strong! We have waited so long, and lost so much, but if we give our all tonight then all that will end. If we give our all tonight, then the next in Sozin's bloodthirsty line will never take the throne. If we give our all tonight then the sun will rise on a peaceful world in the morning!"
Her father's voice is deep and strong and sure, and Katara understands why the fighters are inspired by it. Part of her is almost tempted to believe in his words too—but she can't be sure whether that part is the political mind she has been cultivating or the small child wanting her father's strong hand to guide her. She fears it is the latter.
She hasn't decided what she'll do after tonight—it would have been premature to make plans before crucial events had even begun to unfold. So she has told herself as she has pushed the impossible decision away for her future self to deal with.
Walking with a group of men, torches burning, the tunnels are infested with shadows. Katara misses the moon the moment she heads underground, but the dancing of the flames is somewhat comforting too. They all trudge along in relative silence. Katara listens to Sokka's breathing as it grows more laboured during the steeper sections of the journey.
By the time they reach the mouth of the tunnel, it is clear that more soldiers than they expected await them. The crackling of a fire is audible beneath bouts of laughter or jeering from enough people to sound like a crowd.
Hakoda turns around to face the party he leads, forehead sinking, weighing down his heavy brows.
"It seems out intel wasn't solid," he says.
Iroh raises his hands against the accusation. "Everything I told you was the truth, as I believed it to be."
"Maybe we should go back," Katara suggests. "We can't take out all these guards. That wasn't the plan."
Hakoda shakes his head. "This is our chance," he says, the firmness with which he speaks only increasing across the length of the sentence. "So the odds of us all coming out of this unscathed are less than perfect—they'll still never be higher than they are right now! For every moment that we wait, the Fire Nation unleashes more suffering on the world. We're here, we're ready to fight, and we've waited long enough already."
He draws his bow, and the other men carrying them follow his lead.
Katara's heart skips as she watches him nock a dark-tipped arrow. Poisoned, maybe with shirshu venom. She's only seen Fire Nation soldiers use it like this before—never her own family. If Azula's soldiers obey her commands, they'll be fighting deadly force with fire that's watered down. Another particularly jolly laugh goes up, making Katara as restless as ever. If anyone who's sitting around that fire right now dies because they have to pull their punches, how can the blame not fall on her? She has to stop this. To do whatever it takes to stop blood being spilt—even if her hands don't feel clean enough to handle a white flag.
"Wait," she whispers. "Maybe there's another way. I'll be allowed back into the palace—Sokka can fit into my robe to hide his face, and I can pretend he's just a guard who's gone with me on my nighttime walk, they'll let us through. We can go right to Azula."
"I don't like it," Hakoda says. "Just you two against Ozai's daughter. I can't risk you like that."
Sokka steps up, chest puffed up. "I'm with Katara on this one, Dad," he says. "We're all risking everything by being here in the first place. We all risk our lives if we try and attack all those guards. There's no guarantee more than two of us would even make it through to Azula anyway. This way, we get to make sure we're still in fighting shape when we reach her." He brandishes his boomerang proudly. One purposeful zap from Azula's lightning, Katara thinks, and that metal would become his enemy.
"I suppose you kids are right," her father grudgingly agrees.
"I'm coming too," Prince Zuko announces, swaggering up from the rear of the group. Iroh looks concerned, but he doesn't actually try to stop his nephew. Zuko looks ready for a fight one way or another, and either his sister will bear the brunt of that, or the person who tries to stop him getting to her will.
"I... suppose I can convince the guards that Azula's asked for your banishment to be reversed." It's an argument that would be flimsier if it weren't for the fact that Katara's word is pretty much as good as Azula's around the palace now. No one who knows anything would be surprised to hear that Katara has been entrusted with the incoming Fire Lord's most secret plans. Katara is privy to all things Azula, inside and out.
She strips off her cloak and Sokka takes it, his face contorting into something she's sure is meant to remind everyone that he wouldn't wear a girl's clothes if anything less than the fate of the world was at stake. Katara rolls her eyes.
"It's not even a gender-specific piece of clothing," she snaps, and the hands with which he's dressing himself become suddenly more sure. One of these days someone's going to have to smack some sense into him, Katara thinks.
It's a little chilly, now that she's only wearing her silken day robe. She shivers, and Sokka catches her.
"Are you cold right now?" he asks, aghast. "What's living in this place done to you?"
"I'm just nervous," she deflects.
"I guess that's fair enough, considering you're not a trained warrior. Now, how to do we get in?"
Katara starts walking towards the mouth of the tunnel. As she passes her father she lays a hand on his shoulder, a gesture she can't place the meaning of right now. Reassurance, affection, farewell?
"If you don't come back out soon, we're coming in after you," Hakoda insists.
"Dad," she says. "I can do this."
The soldiers stationed there catch sight of Katara as she steps out of the cave and into the light their fire casts. She holds her hands up to make sure they don't attack. At her right elbow stands Sokka, hood covering his face. At her left is Zuko, and she watches some of the soldiers' eyes widen as they take in his fairly unmistakeable appearance.
"Lady Katara," says one of them. His hand rests at his hip, on the hilt of his sword, but it looks more like a subconscious movement designed for his own comfort than any kind of threat. "Please explain this."
"Lady Katara?" Sokka mutters, very quietly, but Katara still wishes he wouldn't risk saying things like this out loud.
"After her father died, Azula sent out a search party to find her brother. The banishment Ozai imposed has been reversed. My guard and I are escorting him back in secret so that we can be sure he'll be with us in safety as we make the announcement of his return."
"Huh," the soldier says. "I have to say I didn't expect Princess Azula to do much different than her father did. Guess I underestimated her."
"I hope the rest of the world will come to see her the same way," Katara says, with feeling. Sokka and Zuko will assume she's acting, so there's no harm in being honest.
"Between you and me, My Lady," the soldier says, holding a hand up by his mouth conspiratorially, speaking along the back of it, "I think you've been really good for her. I've been 'round the palace for a while and the only way I knew the Princess to be was under Ozai's thumb."
Katara blushes at his earnest words, feeling the rush of blood as heat in her cheeks but also as a movement of her element. Whether it's selfish or not, she likes the implication that Azula needs her. That Katara has helped her, improved her, freed her. The possessive twinge she feels can't even be neutralised by the thought of what might have happened had fate not brought her to the Fire Nation at the right time and in the right capacity to get under Azula's skin.
"I appreciate you saying that," she tells the soldier. "Anyway, we should be going. I hope your shift is uneventful."
"Same here," he says. "It would be better if someone'd smuggled some firewhisky to go around. Uh, please don't tell her highness that I said that."
They stride past the group, but the walk up to the palace isn't as simple as passing one checkpoint. With each group she feels Sokka and Zuko growing more restless. When they round a corner away from any watchful eyes, Katara elbows her brother in the ribs. The blow isn't hard—she can't risk him squawking in indignation—but he still rubs the point of contact gingerly afterwards.
"What was that for?" he hisses.
"There's nothing natural about this!" he protests. "Besides, the way you're acting is kind of freaking me out. Why does the Fire Nation military call you Lady Katara? That doesn't sound like a way they'd address their prisoners!"
"It's not," Zuko agrees darkly.
"Do you want to stand here and question my methods for getting you into the palace, or do you want to actually go inside? For your information, I've managed to gain Azula's trust."
"You're lying. Azula doesn't trust anyone," Zuko retorts.
Katara glares at him. "You're wrong; she trusts me. She's changed in the time you're been away."
"Excuse me if I don't believe that."
Katara seizes him by the wrist as he goes to fold his arms. She has no time for his petulance.
"Don't make me regret bringing you along any more than I already do. I may just change my story and tell the next guard you need to be thrown in the dungeons! Now be quiet and follow me."
Azula has a talent for waiting the way she has a talent for most things, but all the devoted meditation practice in the world couldn't foster an actual love of patience in her. Not even a like. And waiting for Katara to return to her is the heaviest of waits.
The flood of relief that washes over her when Katara does, at last, appear is greater than she had expected. Katara has come. Katara has not absconded with the water tribe troops and left her alone in her palace. Katara has brought her own brother with her, and Azula's, and the time has come for an interesting confrontation indeed.
Zuko breaks the ice, because of course he does.
"Were you expecting me, or do you just sleep in your armour?" he asks.
Azula sighs. "You know, Zuzu, I am a someone it's almost impossible to overestimate—and yet you manage it. Of course I don't sleep dressed for battle." She makes eye contact with Katara and is tempted to break the serious moment with a lewd expression. She bites back a suggestive comment—something like, Sometimes I don't sleep dressed at all. Perhaps she'll be able to share this quip with Katara at some later point. Causing Katara's amusement is a hobby Azula finds fulfilling.
But this is not the time for hobbies, no matter how worthwhile or enjoyable they may be.
"Whatever." Zuko's embarrassment only fuels his anger. It's a vicious cycle, because the angrier he gets the more stupid mistakes he makes and the more his humiliation grows. An entertaining, if somewhat painful, process to watch. "If you knew we were coming and this—" he gestures to her formal armour, the Fire Lord's armour, "—then that means you know why we're here."
"Even you can't take all three of us," Zuko says. He's always accidentally flattering her. In awe even when he purports to hate her.
"You're right about that," Azula agrees. She looks between the three of them; Katara's brother is a non-bender, she has informed Azula, and with only the bent piece of metal he wields she hardly considers him a threat. Zuko, unless he has discovered an entirely new work ethic and a good deal of late-blooming natural talent during his banishment, is a good firebender by most standards, but a mediocre one by Azula's.
But Katara... Katara is something else entirely.
"It's a good thing I don't have to fight you all," Azula continues. She walks towards them, gliding along the smooth ground of the stone courtyard at a pace designed to look leisurely, at ease. In this particular moment that ease is still a lie; it will turn to truth only when Katara cements her allegiance in front of the others.
Katara stands at the edge of their little party, and Azula moves towards her. She doesn't turn her back on the other two, doesn't let her attention wander away from them as much as it wants to. They feel so like spares, so extraneous in this scenario—but, she reminds herself sharply, they are the entire reason that this scene exists. Without them, she and Katara could be lounging in one of the royal chambers, snacking, reading with their legs tangled lazily together, sparring in the yard or working off excess energy through some other pleasurable activity.
She does not want to wait any longer for the moment of confirmation. She extends a hand to Katara. Katara pauses; she doesn't know what she expected from this moment, but apparently part of her had hoped that she wouldn't have to reveal her involvement with Azula so suddenly to her brother. If she'd wanted to make him understand, she supposes, she would've had to have started explaining it to him quite a while ago. All he'll see now is a fickle turncoat.
She's doing it on purpose—making a show of it and making sure your family won't take you back, a voice in Katara's head suggests.
But Azula's hand is poised, empty when it wants to be full of hers, and Katara can't leave it that way. The uncomfortable moment of revelation is of no importance next to the consequences of realigning herself against Azula. Azula who is beginning to feel worried as she waits for her hand to be taken, although her face betrays none of that.
Katara obliges her. Sokka gasps, so loud it would be comical if Katara could brings herself to feel amusement right now. Azula's smirk suggests she has no trouble doing so. Her heart rate has settled out now that she has Katara back in her hand, now that Katara is here to hold her.
"Katara?" Sokka asks. He's gaping, like he's seeing a ghost. Staring like he suddenly doesn't recognise her at all. Logically Katara doesn't think she can blame him, but that doesn't stop her from wanting furiously to do so. "What's going on?"
"Azula's corrupted her," Zuko speaks over her. "It's what she always does."
"Dude," Sokka turns to make a very unimpressed face at Zuko, "Shut up!"
"I'm just saying—"
In their moment of distraction, Azula is able to step close enough to Zuko to kick him squarely between the legs. It's not nearly as artful a strike as Azula typically delivers, but it is just as satisfying. He's only lightly armoured compared to her, and she knows exactly where to direct an attack in order to reach the vulnerable parts. Zuko cries out in shock and pain, and then falls in an undignified heap.
"You offend the rightful Fire Lord when you disrespect Katara," Azula says, full of spite as she looks down at her brother.
"Defending the honour of a water tribe peasant, Azula? Maybe you really have changed."
"I'm surprised you're even able to identify honour when you see it, Zuzu."
Zuko pushes himself up onto his hands and knees. Short of breath, he huffs out: "Besides, the rightful Fire Lord isn't you."
"If only there were some way to settle this once and for all," Azula sets the bait and waits. She doesn't have to wait long.
Zuko gets to his feet, face still contorted with pain. Fire spurts out of his hands, and Azula mirrors him immediately. Her flames are higher, hotter, louder, better in every way. The blue light they cast changes the mood of the whole space around her, marks it as her domain.
"I challenge you to—" Zuko stops for another loud, panting breath, "an agni kai!"
Azula told Katara she had no intention of killing her brother, but her laugh as they face off now crackles as bright and deadly as her lightning, and Katara wonders whether she's changed her mind.
They each drop their cloaks to the ground, a step which Katara recognises as part of the agni kai's performance. She's deciding whether to step in and remind Azula of her resolution against lethal force when a cry goes up. She hears a shouting voice that can only be her father's.
"No," Katara says to herself. "No, no, no."
Across the courtyard, Sokka too has frozen where he stands.
"Azula—" Katara begins, but Azula already knows.
"Go," she says. "I can more than handle little Zuzu on my own."
"I'm not little—"
Azula throws her head back and laughs, uninhibited. "I'll meet you out there soon, dear," she says. "This won't take long at all."
Katara and Sokka both race back towards the sounds, which refuse to stop now that they have begun. Soldiers shouting, metal clanging against metal, and the whooshing of firebending. Cries of pain that rack Katara with guilt as she hears them. Sokka was closer to the exit, but Katara knows the way back out much better than he does, and ends up in the lead.
Blood fills the gaps between cobblestones, turns them to open-air veins dribbling over the ground. Quite aside from feeling it all with her bending, Katara is struck by the smell. There are bodies, she notices as she stops at the edge of the battleground. Sokka presses on through, and by the time she thinks to hold him back he's already reached Hakoda.
Her father pulls his axe from the skull of a Fire Nation guard, swings it back and readies it for another blow. The moonlight winks off the dripping blade. Katara wonders how many other new weapons he's taken up while she's been away.
Katara counts six people lying on the floor. None of them wear blue, she notices; the Fire Nation soldiers have kept to their orders. The water tribesmen grunt and shout encouragement to each other as they press forward. They're still outnumbered, but they fight with twice the energy of those they are up against. They fight with nothing conserved, like none of them expect to leave this battlefield. They're dead men walking and frantically trying to enact every bit of movement they can on their way to falling still.
Katara doesn't know how to stop the chaos. She could shout, but she wouldn't be heard over the din. There's also nothing she could say that her father and his men would want to hear. She catches sight of Iroh at the edge of the fray. His firebending movements are economical, almost calm. He does enough to shield himself from harm and nothing more. The only blood on his shoes has run down the pavement from higher up the hill. Hakoda, leading the climb, has spatters on his face and a red trim on his parka where white should have been. His hands drip, and Katara's stomach turns, and heartbeats begin to echo in her ears. They come to her like lamps illuminating windows across the city below the palace at night, starting close and flowing outwards one street at a time until she can see dwellings all the way to the horizon.
One of the fallen guards rolls over, still alive, and Katara sees her face, sticky with blood on one cheek, eyes staring straight at her like she is the guard's anchor. Katara looks back and feels anchored herself; she still doesn't know how to stop the chaos, but now she has a place to start.
The thick of the fighting has moved beyond where the woman lies, so Katara only needs to dodge a few people on her way out to reach her. The guard has several small cuts across her arms, but it is one on her upper leg that is bleeding profusely, and a knock to the head that has kept her down here on the ground. The leg wound reminds Katara of the sandbenders she and Azula fought back in the Si Wong Desert. Healing Azula had been a watershed moment, a departure from her old self, and such moments have flowed thick and fast her way ever since.
Katara's bloodbending techniques have come a long way since she held the blood from Azula's leg still and waited for it to clot. She takes hold of the guard's blood, gathers it to where it is needed to seal off the wound, and then tears liquid from the solution, leaving behind a patch of something more condensed. Her work is rushed, but the blood flow from the guard's leg is dramatically reduced. With a sharp piece of ice she slices a strip of the woman's trouser leg off to bandage the wound, and then she slides her arm under hers to drag her a few metres to the side, where she has some cover from a loose section of rocky wall and is less likely to be underfoot if those still fighting backtrack. Katara sets her down carefully, feels a little better for having found one way to help, and turns her attention to finding another.
Up ahead, around where Katara can make out the line of those in water tribe blue pressing forward, she sees three more guards lying in a heap. One lies face-down, the cause of his death quite obviously the feathered arrow shaft that protrudes from the back of his neck. The three have fallen, Katara realises, from the watchtower up above. She skirts around another body on her way towards them, giving this soldier a wide berth to avoid the large pool of blood that has drained out of him before it even occurs to her that she should bend the blood out of her way. Something about it doesn't feel right, tampering with the bodies of the dead, taking blood that's stopped flowing and making it move again, just for her purposes.
She hears another chilling shout, a scream, and her father's men gain yet more ground. It occurs to her that they might actually reach the palace. Azula promised not to have them killed if they tried to enter the grounds, but neither she nor Katara had even accounted for the possibility that Hokoda and his party might actually reach their destination. Azula won't just let them in, Katara knows that much for sure. Everything is going so, so wrong.
She hears the whizzing of an arrow coming too close to her and catches sight of it just in time to slap it off course with a water whip. There's no way it could have been deliberately shot at her; neither Azula's people nor her father's would dare. She looks at the wooden shaft on the ground and what she sees unsettles her. The projectile is Fire Nation. It hadn't come from a tower, though. There's someone on the ground trying to fight with a bow in close combat. None of these observations are what unsettles her, though. The arrow is lying in a pool of blood, not water.
Katara looks at the bodies nearby, from which most of the blood underfoot runs. She recognises one of them as the man she spoke to first on her way in with Sokka and Zuko. The collar of his uniform is high, but not high enough to fully disguise the maceration of his neck; thick, but not thick enough that the blood hasn't drenched the fabric. Another man, younger than him, lies a few feet further away. The two dead men whose blood has saved her life. She thinks of the first guard, remembers what little she ever knew of him: he liked his firewhisky, spoke to her like a friend, cared enough about Azula's wellbeing to thank Katara for it. She'll remember him, and she'll do it properly later with a clearer head and less blood squelching and bubbling in her shoes.
He was fighting to protect her, she realises. To protect the person Azula becomes when Katara is with her, and the future she would bring his nation. He gave as much as he could. She can't ask him, but it's possible he'd have given more if he could have, isn't it? Especially now that, for him, there is no more pain to be felt.
She breathes in deeply. She's adjusted to the thick scents of the air now, but that isn't to say they're no longer noticeable. Katara notices the blood around her with every sense she has, bending included. The idea crosses her mind again: less rest for the dead but fewer dead among the rest. Her conscience doesn't like it, but what's one more stain after what she's done already? It's only fair that Katara sacrifices all she can as well.
How does one fight dead men walking?
The wind turns and blows ash and smoke from a fire that's caught nearby into Katara's eyes and lungs in a sudden burst, and she screws her eyes shut, coughs and tries to fan it away. She doesn't like shuttering off the violence with her eyelids, doesn't feel safe that way at all, but even with her eyes closed she does still see each living thing around her and read its movements. Some of the things she sees are no longer living.
The three guards from the watchtower are all still filled with most of their blood, unlike some of the soldiers whose wounds left them bleeding out on the ground. Two of the tower guards have bruising on the backs of their heads as well as the sides where they hit the ground; Katara suspects from their injuries that they were knocked out hard before being tossed off the small cliff they were stationed atop, breaking leg bones and in one's case a spine as they landed. There is more than enough water in these bodies for Katara to take hold of. Even when they're yards ahead of her she finds herself able to lift them from their place on the stones and suspend them in the air just above the ground, rather like spirits. They float just by the edge of where the guards and the invaders clash, giving her perfect access to the fight.
She has to creep closer in order to fine-tune the hand movements of her three soldiers enough to get them armed. She ducks into a crack in the cliffside, hoping it's a good enough place to hide. Two of the bodies have swords at their belts; the other only has a knife, so she stations him at the back of the trio. Katara pulls up, each finger tense with the effort of the delicate movements. At the same time, she lunges forward, the stance kindling a deep burn in the muscles of her legs as she uses it to carry weight well beyond her own.
One of the water tribesmen catches Katara's lead guard's sword with his own and attempts to flick it to the side, but Katara has frozen the weapon fast in his grip, and all the attack achieves is an almost musical grind of metal. The man realises who he is fighting a second later after he makes a quick swing towards the guard's free hand—too quick for Katara to react to—and nearly severs the arm midway between the wrist and elbow. The guard shows no sign of pain because he can no longer feel it, and simply advances as Katara sends him forward, left hand hanging at a sickly angle, suspended by a thin rope of muscle and skin. She could lift it up, maybe even reattach it if she needed it, but the effect of it broken is worth more to her.
The water tribe fighter lets out a shaky shout as he takes in the rather blue complexion of his opponent, as well as the half-severed arm, and the arrowhead protruding from his throat. He stands so still that Katara could probably drive her guard's blade through him even with the limited coordination that exists between his hand and her eye. She does not do this, of course, but it does make her wonder what she might be capable of doing by proxy if the circumstances for training in this art existed.
"Necromancer!" the tribesman yells, once he has taken a moment to locate what he feels is the right word. He backs away from Katara's man, pointing but keeping his hand close to his body lest the fate he has just inflicted on the dead man's arm befall it too.
"Woah, why did nobody ever tell me that necromancy was a real thing?" Katara hears Sokka squeak. She finds him in the crowd now that he's stopped moving to stare. Fire Nation and water tribe alike, they turn to look at Katara's three guards.
Hakoda stands very near Sokka, and Katara watches as realisation dawns on him. Her father is a knowledgeable man, after all. That he turns his face up towards the full moon tells her that he knows; there is only one waterbender among them tonight, after all. Hakoda wants to rule the Fire Nation by proxy, but the truth is that his skills as puppetmaster are nothing next to hers. Katara wonders whether it's fear of a powerful bender or disbelief and disappointment in his daughter that pushes him to call for a retreat. She wonders whether it is really exhaustion that breaks his voice, really smoke that makes his eyes drip.
Azula's guards watch the water tribe invasion fall back. A small cluster send up a cheer but most just breathe ragged sighs of relief. They collect their wounded first, and then their twelve dead as the very first of the dawn light awakens on the horizon.
The sun arrives and stokes Azula's fire, but any additional power it lends her it lends to Zuko also.
She dodges a plume of orange, skating across the ground on her own blue flame, stumbling occasionally upon reconnecting with the stone. The impact of the sudden stop sends splintering pain through her knees and ankles when her landings are anything less than perfect. She is growing tired. Her airways are clogged with the smell of her own burnt hair, her right ear is doing very little to aid her in perceiving the world, her eyes water themselves almost blind, and her right cheek and jaw scream with a pain so ferocious it feels like some dark spirit must have latched on to her face and begun consuming it. Small measures of pain can help with focus, certainly, but what Azula feels now goes far beyond that and scrambles her instead. The one thing she clings to for comfort is the knowledge that the worst burns don't hurt nearly this much. Every nerve that screeches at her now does so because it lives.
She thought this confrontation was over long ago—before it even began. Zuko, staggering on legs widened awkwardly around his bruising groin, had been better fuelled by his desperation than Azula had judged he would be, and the agni kai had been the sloppiest fight she has ever taken part in.
The agni kai is over, now, according to the rules—and yet their battle rages on. Azula has loved fighting on every other day of her life, but this morning she has the strangest craving for peace. Katara would be pleased with her, she thinks.
Katara. She had thought of Katara when she knocked Zuko to his knees, too. Thought of her when she aimed a bolt of lightning at his heart and then let it fly over his shoulder to earth at the last moment. When she lit a flame with one fingertip and pressed it to his shoulder, the winning blow that an agni kai required and nothing more. Her brother's eyes had widened, not so much in pain as in surprise. She wouldn't kill him. Katara would be proud of her. The thought had been pushed aside when Zuko surged to his feet again, summoning all the wild flames he could and throwing them towards her. She had snuffed the fire eating away her hair before it burned the scalp, but what landed directly on the skin of her neck and face had left its mark before she could put it out.
There is one kind of dishonour in refusing to stand and fight an agni kai, refusing to be a worthy opponent as he had done in his agni kai against their father. There is another kind altogether in refusing to respect the fact that one has been beaten fair and square. Azula would tell Zuko all of this but moving her mouth enough for the words right now feels like a risk.
She still does not know how bad the burn is; only that it could be either better or worse. It is not yet debilitating in ways that will lose her this battle, so that is all the lets herself think about it for now. There will be a time for mourning her right to vanity only if she leaves this arena alive.
She wonders whether Katara will still—
Azula sees Zuko's change in direction a split second late and has to throw herself into an uncomfortable roll in order to avoid the centre of his fire blast. Her awareness of her right shoulder dissolves into electric sparks of pain as it hits the ground too hard, but the bones all stay in their right positions, so she ignores it and moves on.
One of Zuko's ankles is twisted, the injury she dealt him before still gives him occasional obvious trouble, his clothing gapes at the shoulder where she singed the fabric away and the skin is scorched red underneath. He walks with a limp and favours one arm for his bending manoeuvres, the end of his ponytail smokes and he has to wipe his eyes even more often than Azula does. His palms both bleed from a rough fall he took earlier, and black dirt and ash sticks in the tacky scrapes. Every shot of heat he pushes out through that broken skin must hurt—but Zuko walks, talks, acts and indeed fights like he has nothing left to lose. She supposes he has been made to believe that this is true.
Were his combat techniques not so slapdash, Azula might find his determination impressive. That she has not put his inferior attacks to rest already bothers her as much as her other injuries do.
Azula may be an expert at pushing all the way to her body's limits, but not even she can exceed them once they are reached. She dodges an attack a little sluggishly, and the injuries begin to pile up. An ankle cracking awkwardly as her foot hits the ground leads to a singed elbow leads to a faceful of thick smoke leads to a strike that knocks her backwards because she cannot see and anticipate it until it's too late. Every time she falls it gets exponentially harder to find her feet again.
Everything burns and spins and her lungs want more fresh air than they're getting, and her racing heart doesn't like the beating she's been taking one bit. There is no exhilaration in this anymore. She doesn't wonder what will happen if she loses here, because that would be unlike her. She only hopes that Katara's fight out at the gates has been more easily won.
She knocks Zuko down once more before she is sent to the ground at an angle so awkward even her deaf ear can almost hear the snapping of bone. She can only mentally amputate so many major sections of her body before she is left with nothing, not even enough working pieces to scramble away on. She tries dragging herself across the ground with one arm and firebending with the other, but with one of her shoulders still aching in protest and causing the arm attached to it to flag, she must choose to compromise on one task or the other. Run or fight—though her options now are no more than the dregs of both words.
Perhaps this was inevitable. Perhaps things would have been easier if she'd done as her father asked. She could have found contentment in his directions if she'd looked hard enough for long enough, couldn't she? At least there was safety there, below his throne.
She sees Zuko's ugly ponytail swishing as a gust of morning wind shifts some of the smoke surrounding them. The bald skin around it is almost black enough with ash that the styling looks normal. He looks, she thinks a touch madly, so much like Ozai. He grimaces as he lights his skinned palms in anticipation of a final blow. Azula does not close her eyes, but they do flutter open and shut reflexively as flecks of dust fly into them.
She hears the telltale wail of discomfort that leaves his mouth before she sees his arms twisting unnaturally back towards himself, being yanked behind his back. He kneels at Katara's command. Azula hears the scraping of a metal chain, and Zuko's shouts turn so indignant that he must have been rendered helpless. Relief is a strange balm and it seems only to sink in halfway. She is still aware that now, now the adrenaline will begin to wear off.
"You're okay, Azula, everything's going to be okay." Katara's voice is distant even as her hands are blessedly cold against Azula's skin, and she is a terrible liar.
So I finally got back to this fic. Thank you so much for your patience, and for caring enough about this story to stick around! Obviously I failed to accurately predict how long it was going to be, so there will be one last instalment to wrap things up.
In the meantime, I've accepted a handful of prompts through my tumblr, and if any of you guys want something fluffy (or, you know, more suffering, because I can certainly do that) I'll keep prompts open for a tiny bit longer just for you. You can prompt Katara/Azula or anything else you feel like, just bear in mind that if you want something sweet and happy you're going to have to give me reasonably specific instructions.
You can also just come by tumblr to chat with me any time about whatever you like. I'm always interested to meet more people who like this pairing.
This is the story of a girl
who decided to jot down a brief something about a pairing she liked on the side of writing her main crazy fic. It wouldn't take long. Not more than 5-7k words. She'd have it done in a week or two, tops.
This is a motherfucking cautionary tale.
Many unexpected words and months later, this thing is finished. I'm not sorry that it turned into what it did, but it's still a relief to tick something off my to-do list. Thanks to all of you who've waited patiently, and those who thought to remind me that they were looking forward to more of this fic; it's good motivation. I've been really happy to hear from other people who like this pairing, and I'll always be happy to hear from you, even if you're reading this a long time after I've posted it. My tumblr is over here.
Two months after Ozai's passing there has still not been a proper coronation.
Azula sees Katara's shadow more often than she does the girl herself; a shadow moving along the hall outside Azula's room, a hint of motion visible through the crack under her door. Sometimes Katara is there when the servants bring Azula her daily supplies, or when the royal physician attends her. Katara has become, in Azula's estimations, a ghost. She stalks around with footsteps too light to be heard; she watches, silent and forlorn and tortured, the perfect smooth skin of her face creasing under the worry.
Azula has seen her in the seconds between her door opening and it shutting again. She does not know what Katara has seen in those moments. She does know that, of the two of them, Katara has not been treated to the better view.
"Is she still here?" Azula asks her servants every morning, if she has not caught sight of Katara herself. Every morning they tell her yes, but even when Azula believes them she knows it is only a matter of time until they're either lying or telling her no; she already can't imagine what is keeping Katara in the Fire Nation given that they haven't even spoken in weeks. Azula, too, has become a ghost.
Zuko rots somewhere in the palace dungeons—so she has been told. She is little better off herself.
All the mirrors in her quarters are gone and so is much of the skin on her knuckles. She doesn't regret that initial outburst of destructive rage. It was deserved. The room is a combination of rich furnishings, dents and scratches, snapped wood and shattered glass, heirlooms and crusted patches of blood scabbed on the priceless woven carpets. Royal blood looks no different than any other kind in a smudge on the wall.
There is, however, no ash around her. Nothing burnt—not aside from herself. Her face feels like the melted wax of the candles she now refuses to light. When the sun sets and the natural light fades, Azula simply goes to sleep. There is nothing to stay up for.
The fire sages send her messages, stressing the need to give the people a new Fire Lord. To announce the nation's new leader to the world—which is still, they remind her, at war. Some of the messages address her as though she has already been crowned. Azula hates the way that this feels both wrong and right—Fire Lord Azula is the person she has always wanted to be. But Fire Lord Azula was meant to be fearless and flawless and strong, not mangled and lost and too afraid to light a fire.
Some nights she finds it particularly hard to breathe. It's almost like there's still smoke in her lungs—or like her lungs have filled up with ashes and dust and there's no room left in them for air. Sometimes she feels the stirring of fire inside her as she inhales, oxygen feeding the heat without her consciously directing it to. Her breaths come short and fast, then, until her eyes water and her fists clench and the wheezing hurts. The servants bring her medicines she never used to take for fear of becoming reliant on them, and she finds it shockingly easy not to care about the potential for addiction; at the height of these panics her body feels like it won't last the night anyway.
And yet it always does last. There is always another day. And sometimes she catches a glimpse of Katara through the door, and sometimes she doesn't.
Katara only reins in her anger after she has torn the corner off a priceless scroll. The scrap of aged paper fills her palm, a triangle with a fresh rough edge and a sharp, perfect corner that speaks of great care on the part of the Fire Sages. She promised them that she'd be careful with it, said there was no need to copy it all out for her to borrow—and they, knowing precisely why Katara wanted so urgently to read about healing, had agreed to entrust her with it.
Katara has been entrusted with so much over the past year. New power, responsibility. For as long as she was able to carry all that was placed upon her, able to chew everything she bit off, she felt strong and important. Until all of a sudden she couldn't do what was needed, couldn't find the answer, couldn't keep her promises. The torn scroll is priceless, but it's still by far the least of the things Katara has managed to ruin.
She thinks of her father's face: fearful, disgusted.
She thinks of Azula's face: skin burnt, expression pained and dazed but trusting. Katara had never failed Azula before, and so when she told her that she'd heal her, Azula believed it. Katara believed it herself—until she realised that not every skill can be acquired just because the circumstances require it, and that not everything comes to her as naturally as bloodbending.
Katara still cannot heal. She's combed through every scroll in every language she can understand, and even attempted to decipher some others based solely on their illustrations. She only notices the days turning to nights and back again because at some hours she needs a lamp to do her reading by.
Zea, one of Azula's servants, also checks in on Katara from time to time. Katara isn't sure whether she does so on Azula's orders, so that she can report back to the Princess—the Fire Lord yet to be crowned. It's possible, but Katara is of the opinion that Zea acts on her own concern these days. Someone has to be keeping the palace running from day to day, and it isn't Azula. Azula has not left her room since the morning after the invasion. Katara only leaves hers to get food, and to mill around outside Azula's door picking up pieces of news from the staff who enter and exit. She has not been invited inside, and with no useful skills or comforts to bring, she is reluctant to try and change that. If she does barge in, she worries, Azula might tell her to leave. Leave not just her room or her palace but her entire nation. Banish her. And Katara doesn't know where she'd go then; her father has seen her turn into something he can't help but hate, and her brother and the rest of their tribe have followed him in leaving her.
Katara has to find a way to help Azula, or she might be left with no-one in the world.
She steals a small knife from the kitchens one night and hides it in her desk drawer, between copied pages of scrolls she's found somewhat useful. She presses and draws its edge along the skin of her arm, wincing at the sharp pinch and watching the beads of red well up from the cut. She tries each subtly different waterbending technique until she's capable of stitching a gash haphazardly back together. The scars left behind are thick and obvious, especially at first, and they remind her of why she needs to improve.
She practices and practices and practices until she can seal her sliced arm back together with such precision that she has to know where the fine silver lines left behind are in order to notice them. She experiences a brief rush of excitement, of hope, and then the sages give her a translation they've been working on, and she reads that healing burns is not at all like healing cuts. It's something she should have realised so much earlier. Katara collapses onto her bed and heaves wet breaths in and out, soaks puddles in her pillow and sleeps off the headache that crying leaves her with.
She wakes up in daylight, but she lights a candle all the same. This time she uses her other forearm.
Zea catches her at it when she accidentally sets a sheet on fire. She's spread the fabric out over her desk so that it lies under her arm as she works and nothing stains the polished wooden surface. Katara holds her wrist too close to the candle flame too soon, and almost bites her tongue off when the pain is greater than she expects. The candle, quite a tall one in a metal stand, tips over and the flame meets the sheet cloth.
Katara bends the water from her wash basin and slops it over the small blaze, and Zea must hear the splash because she rushes in. This is how Katara ends up sitting on the edge of her bed, embarrassed and tired out by the faded adrenaline rush, letting Zea treat her burns and read all her previous efforts on her scarified skin.
"I am no expert on waterbending," Zea says, "but maybe you can't make the burns go back to normal because what used to be there just is not anymore. If you can heal a cut with waterbending, you are just making what the body already does happen faster. But with a scarred burn like Azula's, the body is never going to repair it so that it looks and feels like it used to. If I may speak candidly, my lady," Zea pauses until Katara nods her permission, "waterbending is not going to save Her Royal Highness. Not the way she thinks she wants to be saved, and not the way you are trying to save her. That would take a miracle."
"Magic, intervention from the spirits, time travel," Zea shrugs. "What I am saying is, it's not poss—"
"Intervention from the spirits," Katara exclaims, the idea dawning on her. "That's just it."
Zea says nothing, but she leaves the room looking concerned.
The knocking ripples through the shallow sleep into which Azula has only just managed to sink.
"Not now," she grumbles.
"Then when?" It is Katara's voice. Azula sits upright in her bed, still not quite awake but too flooded with anxious energy now to have any hope of slipping back into unconsciousness.
She doesn't hear footsteps leaving, doesn't see the shadow that's visible under the doorframe move other than to sway gently from side to side; perhaps Katara is tapping her foot in impatience. Azula hastily pulls on a nightgown, even though the thin strips of daylight trimming her closed curtains are indisputable. Her hair is a wreck, tangled from sweaty nightmares. She runs a hand through it and isn't sure which surface adds more grease to the other. Her lips twist in an involuntary expression of disgust, and the lack of proper movement in the right edge of her lips only reminds her that there's little use agonising about a thing like unwashed hair now.
She grabs the polished wooden stick—a walking stick which belonged to her great grandmother much later in her life than it has become Azula's—and uses it to hobble to the door, avoiding her bad ankle as much as she can. At least the physicians are confident the breaks in the bone will heal and her use of the leg will ultimately return to normal. Azula avoids contemplating what she'll do once her mobility returns to her and she can no longer lean on this excuse for hiding away.
"What do you want?" Azula asks as she opens the door to Katara.
Katara stops short and just looks at her, which makes Azula want to shrink back into the shadows.
"I want to know that you're okay, first of all," Katara answers eventually.
"I'm sorry, but I can't help you with that."
"I'm—" Katara trips over her words, "I'm sorry; I haven't been able to help you with..."
Azula waves the hand not leaning on the walking stick to indicate her face.
Katara nods. "Anyway," she says, clearly eager to move on from the ugly subject, "I'm taking a trip to the North Pole."
Azula grips the handle of the walking stick tighter. "If that's what you want," she says. She's been resigning herself to Katara leaving, but anticipation is not the same as having to face the reality. Her eyes burn hot and she wants this interaction to end so that she can retreat before she humiliates herself in front of Katara. At the same time, she wants this conversation to last as long as possible, if it is going to be their last.
"It's just a trip," Katara assures her, sensing her distress. But Azula knows what it looks like when someone isn't telling the whole truth, and she's seeing it now.
"Whatever you say," she says.
"Before I go, is there anything I can help you with?"
If this is the last Azula will see of Katara, then she might as well ask. "Would you..." she begins, capturing Katara's attention, "would you give me a last kiss?"
"Last?" Katara looks genuinely taken aback. "What do you mean last?"
"The last kiss that this face is ever likely to receive. Don't act dense; it doesn't become someone as obviously incisive as you, Katara."
Katara processes the statement, and Azula wonders whether she will now see sickly sympathy in these blue eyes. Pity, which will signal the death of all attraction, and distort the flow of their mutual respect, as well as snuffing the last spark of Azula's dreams of greatness (because she who can be pitied is she in whom supremacy can never abide).
"You're being overdramatic," Katara says, and there's a little hint of telltale softness but none of it seems to trickle down the way pity does. It leaves Katara's lips and enters Azula's ear at the same height. "So you have a scar. So does half the world after a century of war! You're one of the lucky ones, Azula.
"Back in my village there was an old man named Tosras. He was the son of one of our past Chiefs. He went to war when he was sixteen and he came back five years later with injuries that left him needing constant care. For fifty years his family and our village have given him that care. He can't think the way he used to, can't speak very well, and on bad days he hardly knows what's going on at all. And he is one of the lucky ones as well—so many Southern men his age didn't come home at all. So many people never even left the pole and still the war took them away from us. My mother wasn't lucky. If she could be alive today I'd be so glad to have her no matter what scars she had."
Azula isn't sure exactly what Katara means to tell her as these words pour out, but her best guess is Your problems aren't even real problems.
"I take it there'll be no kiss, then."
"I won't do it out of pity. I don't really believe you'd want me to do it out of pity."
She is right about this, at least.
Azula nods. "You should be going, then," she says, shifting backwards with her stick so that she can push the door shut between them. She hobbles back to her bed, sits on the edge of it and wonders whether maybe some measure of pity would have helped.
Azula dreams of a coronation. The doors swing open and there is Zuko, face scarred, hair uneven, the Fire Lord's robes sagging off him. The congregation laughs, a rumbling earthquake that rolls back through the multitudes. Azula laughs along—the false, chiming laugh she always used to taunt her brother.
It comes out wrong. The voice she hears is not her own; it is slightly deeper, less crisp. Zuko's voice has always been unmistakeable. The crowd pushes in front of her and when she struggles her way back to the front she ends up not looking up at the incoming Fire Lord on the steps, but looking down from that position herself. A hot breeze rasps over her face. The heavy shoulder pieces of her cloak list sideways. The congregation keeps laughing. Her hair snakes down over her neck and she shakes it forward to hide her disfigurement, but someone pulls back on it.
"You have to tie it up if you're going to wear a crown." She can't tell whether the voice is Father's or Zuko's; in the dreamscape the two quite different sounds manage to merge into one. "The Fire Lord can't hide," it says.
The voices are silenced when Katara appears in front of her. She faces Azula with her back to the crowd, and Azula can't hear them jeering anymore.
"Thank goodness you're here," she looks up at Katara, who stands over her as she kneels.
"Not for long," Katara says. She smiles a cruel smile that Azula has never seen on her before. "I just wanted to do one thing before I left."
Katara's face is close, now, and Azula is rising off her knees so that they can stand face to face. She leans in, awaiting the kiss.
The laughing of the crowd returns, but this time all of it issues from between Katara's lips.
Something grips Azula tightly, claws at her, stirs and scorches her from within. She sees Katara's fingers curling in her typical bloodbending movements, and with every twitch of a digit a new ache starts inside her body. Her breaths come shallowly because the rise and fall of her torso drags her flesh along the blades that seem to be sitting between all her organs.
Azula wakes up. It is dark and she aches and there is a patch of salty wetness on the pillow under her head, a tackiness between her thighs. She curls in on herself and sobs, just one pitiful sob, before bracing herself with a pained half-breath and trying to sit. The pain pools at her lower back and she can feel it cramping her muscles, blocking her chi. It's a wonder she managed to sleep through it for any amount of time.
The door is such a long way away. The wash basin is such a long way away. Any remedies that might reduce the pain. Anyone who could possibly make her feel better.
She rinses herself off and dresses adequately. It takes a long time, hunched and dizzied and still precariously balanced on her one fully-functional leg, with only moonlight to aid her. She praises luck that the cloth set aside for her washing is red; although this makes little practical difference, it does something to lessen the shame she feels.
How could she have forgotten this time would be coming around again?
Has she really been hiding away in this chamber for so long? (The Fire Lord can't hide—)
Her eyes are forcing out water of their own accord. There's no way she'll get back to sleep unless she takes some kind of sedative, so she makes her painstaking way across the room and out of it. She nods at the guards outside her door and they say nothing of her shuffling out of her room after all this time, and at this strange hour. The rest of the palace is blessedly quiet. There is nobody to gawk at her or ask that she explain how she feels in words.
Before she reaches her destination, however, Azula spies movement out of the corner of her eye—just a hint, the rise and fall of something breathing. A shape, silhouetted against the wall of windows where white moonlight streams in. It picks out dust motes and lights rectangles on the floor a few feet into the room. Katara sits cross-legged there, either looking out through the glass or meditating with shut eyes. Azula watches her from the shadows.
But she has never been able to hide from Katara.
"Hey," is all Katara says, her voice so soft as to be nearly inaudible even in the total silence. Azula doesn't think she'd have heard her at all had her other ear, the one which is burnt and not so well-suited to its purpose now, been turned towards Katara.
"You're still here," she observes. She whispers too. It only feels right.
"I'm leaving in the morning."
"Don't." It's just one syllable and it escapes before Azula can think better of it. Nobody else is here to hear her pleading, anyway. It won't be the first time she's considered Katara the exception to the rule.
Katara turns around, now.
"Why not?" she asks. "It's just a trip."
"A trip for what purpose? I know when I'm not being told the truth."
"I'm not lying!" Katara insists.
"Lying isn't what I accused you of."
Katara's shoulders fall, and only now does Azula see how tense they were. As she gets to her feet, she begins to explain: "It's— if you must know, there's a spirit oasis at the North Pole. Its water is supposed to have special healing properties. I've been trying to figure out how to heal you and I just can't—I've been so ashamed of talking you into that plan and then leaving you to get hurt..."
Hopeful relief glides over Azula like a cool breeze. I don't blame you for that, she is about to say, but the soft stroke of respite is masked as quickly as it arose. Another twisting clench in her abdomen distracts her.
Katara is at her side in a moment. She doesn't have to ask what Azula needs; this is something they've figured out in previous months. A routine, just like a kata committed to muscle memory. Without a word Katara has Azula taking a seat, and then she leaves for a very long few minutes. She returns with medicine and a cup of Azula's favourite spiced tea.
"Thank you," Azula takes the cup. Then, "it's cold."
Katara cocks an eyebrow. It's a look Azula has missed of late, even though it challenges her.
"You're a firebender," Katara points out. "You always seem to enjoy heating your tea in your hands."
She isn't wrong, but tonight Azula's hands just tremble. She watches the ripples in the cup until Katara wraps her own hands around the small cup, palms pressing against the china where Azula's don't cover it, fingers layering over hers. At Katara's gentle instruction, the water warms until steam begins to rise. It doesn't take the kind of raw, open energy that putting a flame under the drink would do; Katara's waterbending is silent and invisible.
Her hands keep shaking and the cup wobbles against her lips. She manages a sip without spilling any, but sets it down on the nearby end table immediately afterward. Her hands vibrate in her lap until Katara takes hold of them. Katara's hands are so much darker than Azula's, smoother especially after the falls Azula took during her fight with Zuko, and larger—just enough that it's noticeable, that it's easier for Azula's hands to be enveloped than to try and do the enveloping. To Azula's surprise, Katara's hands are shaking too.
She sidles in close and leans down until Katara's side is taking much of her weight. Until she can bury her nose in the crook of Katara's neck and feel her soft bushy hair against her cheek.
She asks, "Why didn't you tell me about the oasis earlier?"
"Like I said, I've been so ashamed. I can bend a dead person's blood until the body walks and fights again, but I can't help a living one recover. What kind of person does that make me?"
Azula doesn't know, so in return she simply whispers, "I'm supposed to be the Fire Lord and I won't even sit beside an open flame."
"Is that why you haven't been crowned?"
"My reasons are manifold."
Katara picks Azula's tea back up and holds it to her mouth, prompting her to drink some more. Azula allows herself to be assisted.
"If the spirit water could heal your burn, would you go through with the coronation then?"
Azula does not know.
"Surely it's worth a try. It'll only take me a few weeks to make it there and back—provided I don't hit any terrible weather, and provided the Northern Tribe hasn't heard from my dad lately."
Weeks. Azula groans. She's been without Katara for weeks up until now and she is far from ready to let her go again. It's her own fault, she knows, for shutting her out, but that doesn't change anything now.
"What if I came with you?" she suggests. This way Katara won't reach the water tribe and find that now she sees that familiar icy landscape she is loathe to leave it behind again. (This way Azula won't have to do without her for even a day.)
"I don't think that'd be the greatest idea," replies Katara. "I know you're not just another version of your father or your grandfather, but the Northern Tribe definitely doesn't. It'll be tricky enough to convince them they should trust me. From what I've heard the North is stricter and more old-fashioned than the South. They're also much bigger and more heavily armed. If they recognised us they'd definitely see a female bloodbending exile from the South and the soon-to-be Fire Lord showing up on their doorstep as a threat, and we definitely don't want that."
We. It's been a while since Azula has heard the little word. Katara presses the cup to her lips once more and the next mouthful tastes unusually sweet.
"Then don't go."
"How likely is it that this water will fix me?"
"I think it's your best chance."
"But how good is that best chance?"
Katara falters. "I have hope," she says at last. "But I can't tell you what the odds are."
Hope. Hope is, to Azula's way of thinking, the opposite of certainty. Hope is faith, not knowledge; trust, not a reliance on solid logic. Hope is not enough to get her through losing Katara now, temporarily or otherwise.
"Don't go," she repeats.
"There's no reason we can't try the spirit water sometime in the future—but for now I'd prefer it if you stayed here. Please."
Katara sits with her eyes shut for a minute. Azula can feel her pulse in her throat, the movement of her ribcage as she breathes; all those beautiful signs of life. Absentmindedly, Katara sips the tea which she still holds in her hand. Azula does not mind the sharing, if it is with her.
"Fine. I'll stay. But on one condition."
Azula will not refuse, and Katara knows it.
"You are going to become the Fire Lord, and you're going to do it before anybody else decides the confusion between rulers is the perfect time to strike."
Azula's leg is improving, more quickly than her spirits seem to be. Katara confers with those Fire Sages who are most in the know, and together they plan a ceremony involving minimal movement. Katara has never found Azula's enjoyment of being transported by palanquin very tasteful, but she is grateful for it now. The styling of the Fire Nation throne has a lot in common with the seat of a palanquin, so if they hold the coronation in the throne room Azula will hardly even need to step off her cushion.
The burns on Azula's face as less easily disguised than her limp. Katara understands that an incoming Fire Lord does not want to appear weak by any measure, but scarred tissue is different from an open wound. One amounts to a weakness because it is still tender, vulnerable; the other, as far as Katara can see, speaks more of endurance than it does of anything else. It's unfortunate that Azula prefers her power to look effortless, not hard-earned.
There is also the small issue of the Fire Lord's flame. According to the Sages, it's traditional for a new Fire Lord to light a ceremonial flame, which the Sages then guard for the duration of that Fire Lord's reign.
Azula has agreed to meet Katara out in the yard for training. Katara and Zea lug buckets of water out in preparation. Azula can start slow, and Katara will have water at the ready in case she decides she can't control the flames enough to feel secure. Katara is impatient to begin; if she can succeed in helping Azula this way, it might be the key to unlocking some of the guilt that strangles her.
"Good luck," Zea says quietly as she sets her buckets back down and departs, leaving Katara alone.
She wanders around the gardens for a few minutes, watering plants and wondering whether Azula will keep her promise to show up. Azula's been out of her room more often, sometimes even during the day, but she hasn't been outside under the sun. Katara remembers how she looked in the vivid, hot light of the beach on Ember Island—overzealously defending sandcastles from children, not the nation's palace from invaders—and a small smile creeps over her face. It is strange to look back with such nostalgia on times that had themselves seemed so troubled—times which have no right to feel as far behind her as they do. It is unsettling to think that some kind of future might possess the ability to make her look back on this period with longing.
Azula arrives. Even in the hot sun she is clad in full armour; it's what she'll have to wear to her coronation. Katara is wearing simple clothing—a silk shirt and a light skirt. Her forearms are wrapped, and as she sweats the wrappings begin to itch. She presses against them from the outside, and slides her fingers under the edges to scratch until the fabric threatens to unravel.
Azula spends barely a minute struggling to conjure a flame before her palms are roaring with orange light and she's dunking them in one of the water buckets.
"See!" Katara says excitedly, "you can still firebend. That was great!"
Azula looks up at her, and she does look rattled, but there's a wide grin on her face. It's the best thing Katara's seen in... it's the best. She bends again, and the fire lives longer before she douses it. She still can't do it without the water present as a safety net, but it's quicker progress than Katara dared to hope for.
And Azula's smile is one of old—one that doesn't seem conscious of the burnt skin at one end of it. It's a piece of a scene from those simpler times which may or may not actually have been simpler. It's warm.
When Azula catches her hands Katara realises that she has been scratching again without even thinking about it. Fast fingers are untying the ends of the strapping before she can stop them.
"If your bindings are giving you grief, why don't you just—" Azula asks as she peels back Katara's wrappings and sees the silver lines and mottled marks that remain of each wound Katara made and healed on her own. "What have you done to yourself?"
"Just practice," Katara answers.
"At what, being hurt?"
"I suppose we can't know the second without the first," Azula philosophises.
"It's nothing. You need to firebend again, without the buckets there this time, if you can."
Azula, since she was old enough to dream, has dreamt of a thousand different ways her coronation might unfold. While Zuko was hungering after birthday cakes and Ty Lee was sketching out wedding outfits and Mai was... probably thinking about funerals, although not necessarily her own—Azula was focused on this day. As she saw it, the most important day of her life. The beginning of what would go on to define her.
Today is not like any of the thousand varied versions of the occasion she pictured. One thing Azula never imagined was wanting her coronation to be over before it had even begun.
Her palanquin bearers set her down atop the platform of the throne room, just behind the legs of the arch which crowns it. The room is dark and full of shadows, since the only light flickers in lanterns on the walls, or comes in at the very opposite end of the room. All her life Azula has knelt on the other side of this seat and looked up through a furious line of flame at either her grandfather or her father, the Fire Lord. So many times as a child, Azula walked down the garden paths and set the flower beds on either side of her alight in imitation of this very position.
Today, even in the absence of all that heat, Azula sweats. She does not have to light the stage, she reminds herself (even though no Fire Lord given the opportunity has ever turned it down). She only has to light one small ceremonial torch.
Everyone is watching her. Nobles, courtiers, ministers and all the highest-ranking military officials line the lush red carpet which stretches out to the end of the cavernous hall. The door at the far end opens onto the courtyard, where yet more onlookers and troops have gathered. Most importantly, Katara stands at the edge of the crowd closest to Azula, nestled into the ranks of her royal bodyguards.
The speed with which Azula rekindled her flame made them both overconfident. One day went surprisingly well, a date was set, and then a week passed with no further progress. Azula still cannot firebend without water close at hand. She can start a fire but she cannot trust herself to put one out in time. Now that she wears her knowledge of what an uncontrolled flame feels like, she is reluctant to step up to that sharp edge and risk toppling over it. She can give birth to destruction but she cannot prevent or undo it. She thinks Katara might feel somewhat similarly, but whenever Azula has tried to angle for a discussion of Katara's problems, she has been redirected towards her own.
The Sages drone on about this and that—words Azula made sure she knew by heart as an ambitious five-year-old, and yet which she cannot even force herself to listen to now that they are finally being said about her. The Fire Lord, who lights the way of this proud nation. Whose word is law and whose action is justice... Azula wonders whether she ever actually felt equipped for this role, or whether her confidence was all just optimism that she would be when the time came.
She takes the necessary step forward to kneel on the throne platform without any outwardly noticeable difficulty, though not without pain. She keeps it to herself. It even helps by distracting her from how increasingly visible she is to the crowd, even in the low lighting. How plain to see her face is.
And yet the respectful silence holds.
The lead Sage fits the crown into her topknot and as he moves his hands away Azula feels the weight of it pulling at the uneven hairline to the right of her face. Her scars are on full display.
And still the silence holds. She surveys the shadowy audience and finds every head bowed. Only her personal guard keep their eyes raised, sweeping around the room. Only Katara dares look at Azula herself. Katara sees that Azula is looking her way and gives a brief, hard nod of confidence.
And still the silence holds. Azula can hear breaths. She can hear the crackling of the flames in the lanterns on the walls. The people all still fear her as much as ever. Azula has their reverence, and only now that she's seen it for herself does she remember what she always knew: that just as royalty cannot simply enter a person who is not made for the task, it does not simply leave one who has always been entitled. Royalty is in her blood, and until so much is spilt that her very life leaves her, she will always embody it.
She feels her breaths, and she feels her blood, and she feels her fire without fear. Azula is a dragon. She is the Fire Lord. The flammable gutter along the stage before her erupts and fills the room with noise and light and heat. It is her presence. The flames roar orange, but at their base the hint of blue catches her eye. A colour more beautiful, in her mind, and objectively more dangerous. Heart pounding, Azula feels like she is running. She increases her pace and the whole throne room is thrown into a cooler light. Shadows dance in it like forms underwater.
The Sage touches the ceremonial torch to the wall of fire and it is alight almost before the contact is made.
Past the flames, underneath their cacophony, Azula hears the audience finally breaking into what she assumes is celebration.
If it is not, she thinks, then it is not she who is in danger.
Azula goes to visit Zuko. She wants to show him the crown in her hair. She wants him to dare tell her she doesn't look the part. He is just obtuse enough that he would try to insult her face even though it matches his own.
She expects the rage of a wounded animal. Instead she finds him laid out on the dirty floor as though dead. She doesn't wake him from his slumber, but she does cautiously reach for one of the pieces of parchment he has been allowed. He's been writing, to occupy himself—writing in the clumsiest possible version of the royal calligraphy they were both taught as young children. He's been writing his regrets to their uncle.
Azula doesn't know quite what to do with him, then. There's no satisfaction in holding a prisoner any longer than it takes to break them. After that it's no longer sport; just sad to watch. She looks at him and sees their father's features and their mother's expressions and far, far too much of herself, prior to regaining her confidence.
She returns to her room, pens a hasty decree and assigns guards to escort him to the docks. She gives him the smallest available ship seaworthy enough to make the passage to the Earth Kingdom or the Water Tribes, wherever Zuko may think he wants to go. Azula found the key ingredient to her current strength all the way down at the South Pole. She renews her brother's banishment in the hope that he will find a better self somewhere too. Perhaps once day he will even return to her without contempt in his countenance.
"That was very forgiving of you," Katara judges when Azula tells her what she's done. She doesn't quite know why it bothers her that she's only finding out that Zuko has been set free after it's been done. It was not her decision to make.
She wonders whether he'll end up back with the Southern Water Tribe—
Azula shrugs nonchalantly. "Pragmatism," she explains.
"I'm proud of you," she says. "He hurt you, but you let him live anyway."
"Maybe I'll kill him later," Azula adds, but Katara can barely hear her words past all the defensiveness in her demeanour. "Don't you start thinking I've turned into a pushover. Anyway, I've decided to move my belongings into the Fire Lord's wing. I was wondering whether you might like to join me there. It is a rather expansive section of the palace for just one."
The change in Azula since before her coronation is beyond anything Katara expected. She strides around with all the superiority she used to. She's put all the mirrors back up around the palace and Katara sometimes catches her admiring her new accessories in them. The crown, the high sharp shoulders and thick cloak of the Fire Lord's robes. She does cut an impressive figure. Seeing it, Katara is relieved of some of her guilt—but not all. Seeing Azula back on her feet, as much in her element as ever, forces Katara's attention back to the fact that the rest of her own world is still broken.
Azula awaits her response. Katara has been drowning in her own solitary space, so she tells her she'll gather her things and move before nightfall.
Azula gives Katara a separate room because she does not want to cage her in, not because she wants her on the other side of a door. Katara has been hard to read in the days since Azula was crowned. Prior to the coronation she had been focused on restoring Azula's confidence; now that this goal has been achieved, something else seems to be bothering her instead.
Azula lies awake after helping Katara oversee the setup of her bed in the adjacent room, and wonders whether she should just have asked her to come and sleep beside her. She imagines Katara slipping through the darkness into her room and silently joining Azula under her sheets, curling in close to her despite the grand size of the mattress. For half an hour the fantasy becomes real enough that Azula holds her breath. But Katara does not come and the sleepless night begins to sour, the hope of ever achieving restfulness flying further and further out of reach.
Azula pushes one leg off the side of her bed, then the other, and soon the rest of her is following. She walks through to Katara's room without feeling like she has made any definite decision to do so. She retains just barely more intent than a sleepwalker.
Katara is unconscious. Looking at her seems to remind Azula's body what it is supposed to be doing, and at last she feels drowsy. She climbs onto the unoccupied side of the bed. The sheets are a tangled mess around Katara's form, and Azula doubts she could untangle them without waking her. She hasn't seen Katara looking as peaceful as this in...
Azula buries her face in Katara's spare pillow and the scent of it is enough to relax her at last.
When she wakes up, it is because of a finger pressed hard against her cheek. She can feel the pressure of it against her teeth.
"Stop jabbing m—" when the blurriness of her sleepy eyes subsides and she sees Katara's face clearly, Azula's complaint loses its momentum.
Katara laughs gently. "You're cute when you're sleepy," she teases.
"I am the Fire Lord," Azula mumbles in protest. The pillow under her head is so pleasantly soft, and the temptation to sink back into it is still strong.
"Then the Fire Lord is cute when she's sleepy."
"What time is it?"
"Mid-morning," Katara answers.
"I suppose my sleeping habits aren't back to normal just yet," Azula groans. "Have you eaten?"
Katara shakes her head. "I only woke up a few minutes ago myself. I slept better than I have in ages. Thank you." The finger which had been prodding Azula's face now runs gently down the side of it. At this, and the soft bed, and Katara's smile, and the full feeling of finally being well-slept, Azula shudders lightly in contentment.
"You're welcome," she says, not entirely sure what she is being thanked for.
Katara leans over her and for a split second Azula thinks she is going to kiss her on the lips. Instead, her soft mouth lands just shy of Azula's nose, beneath her eye on her unscarred cheek. Katara moves in again on the other side, and this time the sensation is different. The actual sensations supplied by the scar tissue are secondary to the feeling which swells inside her without any warning at all. Azula blinks tears from her eyes. She does not understand them even as they dribble down towards her ears. She is not upset.
"What's wrong?" Katara's brow furrows.
"Nothing's wrong." Azula's voice is choked. "Nothing," she repeats, for in this moment it is unquestionable truth.
She lifts a hand to cup Katara's face, tangling her fingers in the mass of loose hair that's yet to be tamed for the day. She tugs, asking, and Katara's face is lowered one more time. Azula takes a breath of her before she closes the last inch between them, and she holds it until her lungs burn.
They breakfast in the garden at Katara's suggestion. It's sunny with a lovely breeze outside, and she feels better the more of the soft, flowing air she takes in. Now that Katara has kissed her again, it would appear the floodgates have opened; Azula takes every opportunity she can to press her lips to any part of Katara's face, her neck, the backs of her hands, the top of her head. Katara can't help but laugh at her enthusiasm, and the way she raises her chin, regal and defiant, whenever she is accused of being adorable.
Katara initiates a kiss every so often, because of the way it makes Azula's eyes light up.
For a while, all this distracts her from the melancholia that sweeps along under her, a cold dark current twisting about her feet as she bobs with her head above the surface.
Azula readies herself for sleep in Katara's room as though it is her own. Katara supposes that they were both pleased enough with the arrangement they woke up to in the morning that it's clear neither will complain.
Katara washes up for the night. As she unwraps and scrubs her arms the currents churn sickly in her belly, disorientingly in her head. She can't quite justify the disgust she feels, looking at the landscape of her own skin, the places that shine moon-pearly and stand out like characters in scrolls for the blind. Hasn't she forgiven herself for the failures that brought each one of these marks into being?
She reties her bindings, more loosely than usual in the hope that they'll be comfortable enough for sleeping in.
Azula notices them the moment she reappears. When Katara slides in between the sheets next to her she catches her arm and searches for the end of the strap.
"It isn't good for you to sleep in these," she tuts.
Katara tries to pull her hand away, but Azula's grip is strong. To escape it, Katara would have to start a fight in earnest, and she is too tired to do so. She bites her lip as Azula unwinds the fabric and tosses it over the edge of the bed onto the floor.
"Was that so hard?" Azula asks, and begins shuffling into a sleeping position. Katara remains icy-still.
Azula touches her lips to the lines and mottled silvery patches on Katara's arms and feels her relax a little. She wonders whether it's possible Katara could harbour the paradox of seeming honestly not to mind Azula's marks while being ashamed of her own.
"You're beautiful," Azula murmurs, just in case.
With everything she says and does her denial of sentimentality becomes more obviously a lie. Azula has always been taught to admire power, to love it as much as she loves anything. With Katara, Azula stands on a knife-edge between conflicting certainties—the knowledge that Katara's power is hers, and the knowledge that is isn't. Knowledge that Katara knows her through to the core while Azula sometimes struggles to decipher what lies beneath the waterbender's surface. She continues in her efforts to express how much she wishes to keep Katara with her, because while certain words once seemed unutterable to her, they now come easily compared to the vaguest thought of letting Katara drift away.
Azula thinks of the very first day she met her and wonders which of them, in the end, has captured the other more.
Azula figures there's one thing that's sure to cheer Katara up; to show her that she matters to Azula. It is, after all, the highest display of trust she has to offer.
"Dress for the day and come with me," she tells Katara, who is still lounging around in the pillows on the bed they share.
Katara throws her a curious look.
"I have to issue instructions to the Generals," explains Azula. "Devise a long-term plan to implement. Tell those who are currently active whether and when they'll be returning home. I'll also need to open diplomatic conversations with the various world leaders, to see if an end to the war is even going to be possible. I'm sure you've some suggestions to share."
But Katara is silent. Where she had been draped across the bed, muscles relaxed and liquid, she is now solid and stiff. Azula reviews her words and finds what she assumes was her mistake.
World leaders. "Hakoda," she says the name aloud. "We don't have to deal with him if you'd rather not. In fact, I'll put my every resource into removing him, if it will make you feel any better."
Katara assumes this is a joke. "Assassinating the Chief? Sure, that'd bring about peace."
Azula was not joking.
"You removed my father because he hurt me. I would only be returning the favour. There are always political ramifications, and we will always deal with them. Your father invaded my palace. He slaughtered my guards. He is not an innocent party in this war. He may be your family but I am— I— I won't let anyone hurt you and get away with it."
Katara does not look comforted.
"It's just—" she begins, voice wavering on the edge of overflow, just as a tear builds and trembles before falling. Her eyes are dry, but they may well not stay that way. "It's more complicated than that. My dad... I hurt him too. And I'm not even sure I'm in the right. I don't think either of us are. I don't know what is right anymore." Not knowing what is right feels like being trapped under ice, in freezing water, not knowing which way is up.
Azula was not raised to care about the world in the way Katara cares. She has always had a vested interest in it, certainly, but her focus has always been on how it can exalt her, not the reverse. Azula does not measure goodness in the way Katara does. She has always been her own yardstick, beholden to no higher powers, obligations or morals. Right has always been as the Fire Lord said it was.
That power is not so exclusively vested in her anymore. If her judgment cannot be absolute, then she wonders what can.
"Perhaps there's no such thing after all," she muses.
Katara stares at her. "No such thing as the right thing? That can't be true."
"Maybe there is only the option appearing to have the greatest utility. Maybe it's all only circumstance and improvisation."
They're some of the least Azula words Katara thinks she's ever heard. They bring her up short enough that the dormant tears threatening her sink away, forgotten like hiccups in a moment of shock.
"Maybe it's all just a balancing act," Katara tests the words, recalling stories Gran-Gran told her of the long-lost Avatar, the elements, balance. Give and take, like the tides' push and pull. Hot and cold. Sun and moon. Not stillness, not a solid state of perfection, just a constantly evolving harmony between opposites.
"Then I'll need you with me," Azula answers simply. "Both here and before the world. We are something no one alive has seen before. All will watch out of curiosity."
"Then we'll have to think of something good to show them."
Pale, slender fingers slide in between soft brown ones, filling the gaps there waiting for them. They fasten tight together, two halves.