Zuko had several reasons to be irritated. First and foremost, against all his experience and arguments, Aang had decided to leave Azula with some of her firebending. Not much, he assured everyone, barely anything at all. Even the slightest sliver, Zuko thought, and she was just as dangerous as when she was at her full power.
The second reason was that Mai had really been giving him the cold shoulder lately. Not that he’d expected anything else, the way he’d avoided her and yet let Katara follow him everywhere. But he couldn’t send her home, either. Her parents were fighting like crazy (mostly over whether Zuko was the rightful Firelord or not), and he couldn’t ask her to go back into that, much less drag Tom-Tom into it. (The little guy had been staying with her in one of the palace guest rooms, and he caused impressively little destruction to the palace furniture.)
Mai assured him everything was fine, that she understood why he needed Katara and not her. Somehow that made the whole situation even more awkward.
And now, to top everything off, Iroh had been acting strange. There was no doubt about that. In his mind, Zuko liked to imagine that it was just his uncle being his usual oddball self, but somehow, he knew better. Iroh could tell he was hiding something and was going to be determined to find out what. Zuko just never imagined exactly how conniving his uncle could be when he put his mind to it.
“Ow!” There was a loud clang as something fell over. Iroh generally came in several times a week to let everyone try his latest recipes before he tried them on customers. (Zuko’s attendants had mixed feelings about that.) Lately, it seemed, he’d been coming in every day.
Zuko turned to see what the crash was. His uncle knelt down on the ground, his teapot turned over with a dull green liquid spilled out over the carpet. The metal pot’s base was bright red with heat, and Iroh grasped his hand, wincing as he bent over.
“Oo, my hand! My hand! That really hurts!”
Zuko grasped the throne’s arm to steady himself for a moment before kneeling down next to his uncle.
“Let me see,” he said with a sigh.
Iroh relinquished his grip and allowed Zuko to examine the injury. It wasn’t pretty, already the skin was peeling away under the burn. It would probably get infected and scar if not dealt with quickly.
“Come on, Uncle Iroh, since when are you this clumsy?” Zuko muttered. He glanced over at the few attendants in the room and ordered them out. They bowed and slipped away silently. Except for one that Zuko ordered to bring him a bowl of cold water. The attendant obeyed, and then she too slipped out of sight.
“It must be my hands getting all old and shaky,” Iroh theorized as he dipped his injured hands in the cold water, wincing again.
“Yeah right,” Zuko muttered. He looked at the injury again. It wasn’t going to get any better with just some cold water. It needed some serious healing. It needed…
Zuko scowled. He could’ve cared less that his attendants thought he was odd for keeping his distance from them. He could even tolerate Mai thinking he was a complete jerk. But to let his uncle, who’d always defended him, sustain an injury that he knew perfectly well how to heal? It wasn’t an option.
“Uncle, hold still for a moment,” he said, holding up Iroh’s hand.
“What?” Iroh asked. “What are you planning to do?”
“Just be quiet for a minute,” Zuko snapped. He raised his hand over the water. It felt much more familiar now than it did a few weeks ago when he’d first become a waterbender. It still wasn’t as comfortable as the fire, it was harder to deal with, but nevertheless, he could manipulate it.
A blob of water rested over Iroh’s burned hands. It emitted a soft blue glow, and the skin that had begun to blister became smooth and uninjured.
Iroh’s eyes widened, but somehow the surprise in his voice sounded less than genuine. “Zuko! Where did you pick up this little trick?” he asked with a smug smile.
“Oh, don’t start,” Zuko muttered. “You knew something was up right from the beginning.”
The smile on Iroh’s face grew into a grin. “Well, the change in your eye color did give a bit of a hint. But you haven’t explained what happened exactly.”
Zuko pulled the water back into the dish. “It’s a long story. Maybe I’ll have time for it later.”
The next voice that spoke was neither Iroh’s nor his own, but it drove fear through his spine. “Oh, but come now, brother, we’ve got plenty of time now for you to explain.”
Zuko whirled around. Apparently the attendants had not left him as alone as he thought. And now, standing in their midst, surrounded by a pack of guards, was Azula. Her face sneered in triumph as she turned to face the same crowd of palace staff.
“How did you get out on the dungeon?” Zuko demanded and he and Iroh quickly got to their feet. Azula ignored him.
“You see? It’s just like I said. Zuko has betrayed the Fire Nation by taking on the powers of a waterbender!”
A murmur went over the group. Clearly some of them were more skeptical than others. This was good, Zuko thought. It meant that Azula had lured many of them here out of curiosity, and they might not be traitors if steered in the right direction.
“But how is that even possible?” one of the guards asked. “I’ve never heard of any bender changing powers.”
Azula looked annoyed, but kept her cool. “The Avatar, of course. Don’t you see? If he has the power to take away my father’s bending, couldn’t he have the power to change Zuko’s?”
Iroh stood to speak. “May I ask you, Azula, even if what you say is possible, what reason you think the Avatar could possibly have for doing such a thing?”
Azula hesitated. Clearly, this wasn’t going in the direction she’d hoped. Before she could come up with a good answer, Zuko heard a voice calling out from behind the crowd.
“That was me!”
The guards turned and made a path for the person who had spoken. Katara walked past them and into the room, standing next to Iroh.
“The waterbending you just saw wasn’t Zuko. It was me. I’ve been… practicing an advanced technique that allows me to bend water from another room. I can see how this would cause some confusion.” She made a polite bow to show her apology. Some impressive quick thinking on her part, Zuko observed. Katara had been present at the coronation. Everyone in the palace knew of her waterbending skills. She must’ve heard just enough to know she had to cover for him.
Even better, the crowd was now starting to turn on Azula, anger and shame written all over their faces. Zuko prepared to give a forgiving speech about how clever Azula’s trickery could be, planning to be particularly harsh on whoever had been manipulated into letting Azula out of her cell. However, he had little time to compose. A line of fire flew straight toward himself, Katara, and Iroh.
At first, Zuko was unconcerned. His uncle could defend them perfectly fine. However, Katara reacted first. As the flames headed straight for her, she held out her arm, catching the fire and changing its course to slam its harmlessly into the wall. It didn’t cause nearly so much damage as Zuko expected. A reflection perhaps, of Azula’s weaker powers, though clearly, they weren’t weakened enough.
Azula stood surprised at first, but then returned to her gleeful state. “A waterbender manipulating flames?” she asked. “That looks more like firebending to me. Also,” she tossed her hair to the side, “I thought the benders of the Water Tribe had blue eyes, not the golden eyes of the Fire Nation?”
A flurry of murmurs arose from the group. Katara lowered her gaze, but given the fury with which she’d been staring at Azula only moments before, she didn’t expect it to do any good. The damage was done.
“Clearly my brother has asked the Avatar to swap his powers with those of the Water Tribe girl,” Azula went on. “An act of open defiance against our country. How can we trust someone like that to rule us?”
Zuko felt fear course through his veins as echoing voices floated through the crowd:
“We can’t trust him.”
“How could he do this?”
Zuko felt the shame of banishment creeping, surrounding him again, at the time when he should’ve been most able to stop it. Several of the guards quickly advanced. He motioned for the water he’d used to heal his uncle to come up next to him, while Katara and Iroh’s hands glowed with orange flames.
Before anybody could act, however, a low vibration sounded throughout the room. Suddenly, several of the guards blocking the entrance way were thrown backwards as the ground beneath them jolted and curved.
“Thought it sounded like a scuffle up here,” Toph’s voice called out. She rushed into the room, followed by Aang, Mai, and Sokka. Then she turned to face Azula. “Didn’t someone lock you up or something? You’re really annoying.” Even three more enemies in the room, however, did not throw off Azula’s piercing grin. She flicked her fingers, just slightly, barely noticeable. The guards closest to Katara and Zuko moved in and made a grab for them. The guard aiming at Zuko quickly found himself knocked unconscious by a block of ice (previously Zuko’s healing water) smacking him upside the head. The other guard did manage to get hold of Katara’s arms, but it didn’t last long.
“Use your feet!” Zuko called out to her. She reacted almost instantly. Straightening her constrained arms, Katara pushed her feet down as hard as she could, slamming onto the man’s toes. She then twisted herself enough to create a small flame at the man’s feet. He jumped back in surprise, loosening his grip enough for her to break free. With full use of her body, she sent a much larger flame in his direction and he staggered away, heading for the safety of the crowd. The floor rose up to block his escape.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” called out Toph. “You guys want to fight against your Firelord? Then you stand there and finish it.”
The man staggered away from the jagged hunks of rock, stuttering, “H-he’s an traitor! A true Firelord is a firebender!” Another hunk of rock burst from the floor and smacked his knees.
Azula was under attack now, too, with a blast of wind from Aang knocking her off her feet. Zuko readied himself to close in on her, even contemplating how capable he might be of bloodbending both her and himself at the same time.
Just then, he heard another whistle of wind. Only this didn’t come from Aang – it came from a passing arrow. The point of the arrow pierced Zuko’s robe, pulling his arm backward. At the same time, a second arrow came at him from the opposite side. He fell back against the wall that Toph had created as four more arrows flew. Each one pierced through his clothes, missing his limbs by a finger’s width, and pinning him solidly to the makeshift wall.
Yuyan archers! Zuko realized. He could barely make out their forms in the shadows of the balcony above, but their handiwork was more than clear.
“Everyone freeze!” Azula ordered. “Unless you want to see the next arrow going through Zuzu’s throat!”
All movement from Team Avatar ceased. Zuko gritted his teeth. No, this couldn’t be happening. He was supposed to be able to hold his own, not be the weakling that Azula used to manipulate everyone. How could he let this happen?
Aang held up his hands. Toph scowled, refusing to display her surrender so openly, but she didn’t earthbend, either. The guard she had terrified earlier regained his confidence, stepping forward and holding a dagger to Zuko’s throat. Zuko gasped and tried to move, but the blade pressed stronger against his skin, and his arms were too weak to put up any resistance beyond that.
Katara, Mai, and Iroh now followed Aang’s leave, and this time two guards came up to restrain each of them instead of one. Toph growled under her breath before following suit.
Azula, now back on her feet, scanned the room with a mad fury dancing in her eyes. “Where’s the last one?” she demanded. The guards looked at each other in confusion.
“The boy from the Water Tribe! Where is he?” Azula demanded. Again, more blank stares. Somehow, with everyone focused on the benders, Sokka had managed to sneak out. Not bad.
“Find him! Search the palace!” Azula yelled. Three guards ran obediently off. Azula scoffed as they left. She knew better than to let a loose string like Sokka go, but she wasn’t going to let it ruin her moment of victory either. She walked first up to Toph.
“I hear you made quite a mess of a Fire Nation airship. A metal Fire Nation airship. That’s a pretty neat trick. But don’t worry. I’m making sure your prison is especially tailored.”
She barely glanced at Katara. “Unfortunately for you, I know very well how to deal with firebenders. You’ll be getting your own… private room.” Katara scowled.
Next, Azula spoke to the guard restraining Zuko, who’d now been surrounded by several of his comrades. “Take my brother to the dungeon, and I want twice as many guards around him as everyone else. Keep anything away from him that has water, especially plants. He eats and drinks only when someone’s restraining him, am I clear?”
“Yes, princess!” came the reply. Her eyes widened for a moment, hinting at the madness she was struggling to suppress.
“My brother has renounced his claim to the throne by giving up his firebending,” she said with a frightening, forced smile. “My father also has no firebending. So how should you be addressing me right now?”
The guards glanced at each other, and the first one quickly corrected himself, “Yes, Firelord! Our humblest apologies!”
Azula lowered her head and for a moment, she seemed to be muttering to herself. “So the throne isn’t my destiny, mother? What do you think of me now?” She then jerked up and faced Aang.
“Now, you’ve got a bit of a dilemma. If you want any hope of keeping your friends breathing, you need to keep me happy. Do you know what keeps me happy, Avatar?”
Aang said nothing. He only glared at her, breaking her gaze once or twice to see if there was any weakness in the guard holding Zuko. But the blade was so close that even the slightest movement could mean a slice through Zuko’s throat. Never mind the Yuyan archers still waiting above. Aang clearly wasn’t willing to take that kind of risk.
“Look at me when I’m talking!” Azula yelled. She raised her hand and slapped Aang across the face. He winced, refusing to strike back, but didn’t break his gaze with her again.
“I like control,” Azula said. “And even I know that two usurpations so close to each other might cause some… unrest. Your job is going to be making my coronation a smooth one. Dealing with any… disturbances. Am I clear?”
Aang still remained silent at first, which only flared up Azula’s temper again. “I said, am I clear?” she shouted.
“Yes,” Aang said through gritted teeth. “You’re perfectly clear.” Grinning in victory, Azula motioned for the guard holding Zuko to carry out her orders and take him to the dungeon. Zuko hung his head in humiliation. His weakness had gotten them into this situation — emotionally, he had not stood up to Aang and demanded to have all Azula’s powers removed. Physically, he couldn’t defend himself. He didn’t need his father telling him how much of a failure he was now. That was clear all on its own.