Azula lowered her head; her whole body twitching. Aang could see it even as he approached the doorway. He remembered Zuko saying that his sister was slipping, but he didn’t realize just how bad it had gotten.
“Where’s the Avatar?” she demanded of the terrified servants around her. “I summoned him half a minute ago! He should be here by now!”
“I’m right here,” Aang announced, stepping into the room. The relief on the servants’ faces was anything but subtle. They quickly stepped back to let him approach Azula. Half a dozen palace guards flanked him on either side, of course, all wearing heavy armor in case he decided to try airbending at them. He’d gotten so used to them following him everywhere that he could mentally block out their existence. Well, almost. “I’m not your slave,” he said to Azula.
She grinned. “Oh, you’re not, are you? Funny, I thought you wanted your girlfriend and that dirt girl to stay alive.”
“You haven’t let me see Katara in three days!” Aang yelled. “You keep threatening that you’ll kill her if I don’t do what you say, but I don’t even know if she’s still alive!”
The words felt like acid in his throat as he said them. Every day that went by that he went along with Azula’s plans, looking for someway to get in and free his friends, was another day that a seed of doubt grew in his mind. By now, with Azula’s coronation less than a day away, he felt like his mind was half-consumed by it.
“You’re right,” Azula said with a smile. “You don’t know she’s alive. But you’ll keep obeying me because you’re too scared of what’ll happen if she is.”
Aang breathed deeply. There was truth to Azula’s words. He’d been biding his time, but he knew what all the past Avatars had told him. If Azula did try to go through with her coronation, it was his duty to stop her. Even if it meant–
“What about Zuko?” Aang asked, trying to get his mind on something, anything, else. “You haven’t let me see him either.”
“Demands, demands,” Azula said, waving dismissively. “I let you see the Water Tribe boy yesterday. We even fed him and everything. Surely that lifted your spirits.”
“Is Zuko alive?” Aang demanded.
Azula straightened and narrowed her eyes at him. “My brother is somewhere that he will be sure not to bother me during my coronation. And if I hear one more word out of you about it, he and the rest of your friends are all dead. Are we clear, Avatar?”
Aang felt his heart sinking. “Yes.”
“Good,” Azula said. “Now, go over the speech you’re going to make tomorrow. I want to make sure there’s not a word out of place.”
Aang bowed and began reciting the words she’d given him to say. Words about how the Firelord had to be a strong firebender. How her father was not fit for the position. How her brother had renounced his claim to the throne. And how the Avatar believed that she, and only she, could lead the nation into the new era that Zuko had promised.
They were all words that Aang didn’t stand behind for a second. Yet he’d said them so many times now, he could let his mind wander as he spoke. No matter what, no matter who it hurt, Azula had to be taken down tomorrow. That was his duty.
He had just reached the final paragraph of his recital when a chunk of flaming rock crashed into the floor right behind him.
Breaking into the palace via the roof seemed like such a great idea when Zuko had first suggested it. Now Katara was having her doubts. The dragon certainly didn’t seem to have any objections, though. He flapped his wings gleefully and smashed his powerful tail into the roof again and again, spraying debris everywhere. Katara and Zuko dismounted, then followed up with some well-placed water whips and fire blasts. The structure wasn’t going down easily, and they were running out of time.
We’ll have those crazy archers on us in a few seconds if we can’t move faster, Katara thought. She hoped that the archers would at least hold their fire before shooting at the only dragon to be seen in decades. Then again, they were under Azula’s control. They were capable of anything.
Katara gave the most damaged section of roof another blast. Relief poured into her as she watched a singed beam crack, a hunk of rock spilling from underneath it. At last, they could see the inside of the building. The falling rock nearly hit Aang and several soldiers near him had to step away. Next to the group, Azula stared up with a blaze of mad fury in her face. She was a good distance away; the room they were breaking into was insanely tall, but that didn’t make her any less terrifying.
Katara gritted her teeth. They could continue smashing the roof, but it would only send down more debris. Maybe Aang was good at avoiding falling chunks of rocks, but the others, not so much.
Then, as if it had heard her worried thoughts earlier, an arrow flew through the air, sliced through a lock of Katara’s hair, and nicked Druk on his left wing. The dragon roared with fury. He rose up, away from the roof.
From a section of roof nearby, a tattooed archer stood up into view, his arrow pointed straight at them.
“Out of respect for the dragon, I gave a warning shot,” he announced. “I won’t miss again.”
“We believe you!” Katara said quickly, holding up her hands in surrender.
Zuko did the same. “Druk, stay back!” he said.
Druk whimpered at the suggestion, but didn’t seem to anxious about putting his bad wing in harm’s way a second time. He pointed his snout towards the hole they had created and let out a questioning growl.
“No, Druk, it’s too narrow!” Zuko called. “You can’t get in there! Just get somewhere safe.”
Katara looked at the hole in the roof again and inched closer to it. Zuko was right; no way even the young dragon could fit in there. A couple of people, though? Very possible.
“If it’s too narrow, then we jump,” she whispered.
Zuko’s eyes widened. “Are you insane? It’s too far! The fall will kill us!”
“Then you better get really good at bloodbending really fast, because I’m jumping.” She lifted one foot over the gap, just to make clear that she was 100% serious on this. She glanced back to see the panic in Zuko eyes.
“Katara, I don’t think I’m that strong!” he hissed. “If I get it wrong, the bloodbending is going to hurt you worse than the fall would.”
“Quit moving around and stay still!” the archer ordered. “I’m warning you!”
Katara bent her knees, the wind whipping around her. She could still see the figures of Aang and Azula staring up at them. For now, the shock of seeing a dragon blasting a hole in the roof held Azula back from attacking. The effect wouldn’t last long. “I’m jumping on three,” she announced. “One…”
“Are you even listening to me? I said I can’t–”
“You’re insane, you know that? You’re completely insane!”
“Three!” She jumped forward. Behind her, she could hear Zuko let out a furious yell. But from the corner of her eye, she could see the movement of his arms. He had jumped alongside her. And she felt a strange pull on her body, like an invisible hand lifting her up, stopping her from falling too fast.
She wouldn’t exactly say she floated to the ground. It was far less graceful than that. But she landed safely. And there was a certain satisfaction in seeing Azula’s look of glee (when they jumped) transform to a look of bewilderment (when they landed without a scratch).
Unfortunately, the excitement was short-lived. Aang was flanked by six heavily armored guards who immediately drew daggers of fire. One of them shoved Aang backwards. Zuko leaned over gasping for breath, and Katara felt instantly guilty. She had pushed him too hard. After all that healing, she shouldn’t have forced him to use that much bloodbending right away.
“Katara!” she heard Aang exclaim, sounding on the verge of tears. “You’re alive! You’re okay!”
“Not for long!” Azula shouted. She readied a bolt of lightning, but Katara quickly countered with her own. The two bolts connected, creating a explosion every bit as loud as Druk’s attack on the roof. The sound of dozens of approaching footsteps echoed in the hallway. But seeing Katara alive (had Azula said she was dead? She was seriously going to pay for that) seemed to give Aang a renewed energy he hadn’t had seconds earlier. He blew a blast of air at the guards blocking his way. Nobody fell over, but one man stumbled, and Aang slipped in between the gap he left.
“Stop right there!” Azula snapped. She aimed her next lightning bolt at Zuko’s head. “Hmm, I wonder…” she mused. “If one bolt stops you from moving, maybe I’ll get lucky and a second will stop you from breathing.” She glared at Aang. “We had a deal, Avatar. It’s like you want to see your friends dead. I can give the order now, you know.”
Aang froze. Almost as if on instinct. She’d been using this tactic on him constantly, Katara realized. I am so going to wipe that smug smile off her face, she promised herself. Unfortunately, she also found herself in the same position as Aang. Zuko seemed to have regained enough of his energy to try standing, but Azula stabbed her two readied fingers at the back of his neck.
“Stay. Down,” she warned. He stayed. By now the footsteps had reached the door and it burst open as a flood of guards, and several of the Fire Sages rushed into the room.
“Your highness!” one of the guards yelled. “Sentries have spotted a… a dragon on the roof!”
“That thing was… a dragon?” For a brief moment, Katara hoped Azula might be disoriented enough by the news to lose her guard of Zuko. She didn’t. But there was a fierce determination in Zuko’s eyes that hadn’t been there a second ago.
“Yeah,” he said with a grin. “I brought a friend back with me.” He flicked his wrists. It was a small movement; not enough for Azula to even take notice of. But Katara knew what it meant. Azula’s hand flew backwards against her will. She let out a cry of surprise, and the guards all raised their weapons, though with no clue as where the attack had come from, they were lost on where to aim.
“What… is this?” Azula said in scratchy whisper. Then she screamed at the top of her lungs, “What in flames is this?”
“It’s called bloodbending.” Zuko got to his feet now, hands in a much firmer bending stance. “You give the order to hurt Toph or Sokka, and it’s the last order you give. Am I clear?”
Azula didn’t seemed to hear him. She simply kept staring at him as if seeing a ghost. “You… weren’t healed?” she gasped.
Zuko gave no answer, but he hardly needed to. There was rage building in his eyes. Rage at the struggles and humiliation she’d put him through. Rage that all his worst pain came from his own family. “I said, am I clear?” he shouted. He pushed one hand forward, forcing Azula onto her knees. Her eyes widened with fear. Her breathing sped up, and there was almost a whine to it, like she could break down at any moment. She’s never truly feared for her life before, Katara realized. But she does now.
Aang stepped forward. “Zuko, don’t do it,” he begged. “It’s enough. You’ve won.”
“Kill the traitor!” someone in the crowd shouted. A line of flame headed for Zuko, and Katara quickly had to step in and disperse it. Aang got himself in a firebending stance as well, but it was all too clear from the look on his face that his heart wasn’t in this fight.
One of the Fire Sages in the group stepped forward, but rather than shouting, she wrung her hands in deep worry. “Please, Avatar,” she said, locking eyes with Aang. “You must stop this. Stand down and we will let you go in peace. We have no quarrel with you.”
Aang lowered his hands by a fraction. “Stand down? Don’t you people see? Azula is just going to drag your country into another war. The world will be filled with pain and suffering all over again.”
The sage shook her head sadly. “That may be true, but we follow the will of the rightful Firelord above all else. And if our Firelord wants war, we go to war.” There were murmurs of agreement from those around her. Her expression hardened a bit. “It may be much different from the Air Nomad way of life, but as the Avatar, you have a duty to respect all cultures. If you force a traitor onto the throne, you go against everything the Avatar represents.”
Some of the murmurs now became shouts. Katara had a hard time hearing herself think. “But Zuko’s not a traitor!” she cried.
“Yes, I am, ” Zuko said. Not shouting this time, but powerful enough to make himself heard over the building noise. The crowd of guards that had been ready to break into an all out brawl became strangely silent. Azula’s rapid breathing became the only sound.
“Wait, you’re agreeing with them?” Aang asked, voice quieter as if to match the quietness of the room. “What did you come here for, if not to take back the throne?”
“I still aim to take back the throne,” Zuko said. He wasn’t speaking to Aang, Katara noted, but to the crowd. To his people. “But not until I prove myself the rightful Firelord. If I fail, then I will personally hand the crown to Azula at the coronation tomorrow. No more violence. Our nation has had enough of that.”
He dropped his hands. Azula leaned forward onto the floor, holding her hand to her chest as her breathing finally slowed. Once again, a grin appeared on her face. “Should have known… you were making an empty threat…” she said. “You never had a heart for killing.”
“Trust me,” Zuko replied. “You didn’t want to test it.” He gave a slight bow to the Fire Sage, then, strangely enough, to Azula. “Do my terms suit everyone?”
The crowd broke into scattered hushed conversation, but all eyes, including the Fire Sage’s, fell to Azula.
With her life no longer in immediate danger, she seemed to have regained some of her sanity. Her eyes darted around the room, calculating, planning. Katara could almost see her working out every angle in her mind. She could attempt to strike Zuko down, kill him and end the threat right here. But a part of her still feared him, feared this new power of his and what it could do. Another part of her feared the crowd. She still hadn’t been crowned. She needed them to believe she was the rightful Firelord. She needed their support.
“And how exactly are you going to prove yourself, Zuzu?” she said in a mocking voice as she smoothed out the sleeve of the Water Tribe outfit he still wore. “Going to fight me in an Agni Kai? Waterbending isn’t allowed, you know.”
He smiled. Actually smiled. Maybe he was going just as insane as his sister. “First,” he said calmly. “I’m going to beg everyone’s forgiveness for becoming a waterbender. It was unfit for a Firelord. And I… I’m going to ask the Avatar to switch our powers back.”
Aang’s eyes widened in surprise, and Azula barked out a laugh.
Zuko continued speaking, looking at Azula now. “Our ancestors consulted with the first firebenders to determine who the first Firelord should be. When the switch is complete, it seems only fitting that we ask a dragon which of us should rule.”
Far above them, Druk roared in approval at this suggestion, even as he kept trying to sneak a peek at everything through the hole in the roof.
“If you actually have the nerve to do that,” Azula sneered. “And if the dragon confirms you as Firelord, then I’ll gladly renounce any claim to the throne.”
“It… did fly him here,” one of the guards pointed out. Azula sent a small bolt of lightning into the floor at his feet. He cried out and jumped back.
“Obviously my brother used this… this bloodbending to control the dragon,” she said. “Once he doesn’t have that ability anymore, I wouldn’t be surprised if the dragon turns around and decides to have him for lunch.”
Druk grunted like this was the most disgusting idea he’d ever heard, but Azula didn’t seem to notice.
“Then let’s not waste any time,” Zuko said with a smile. “I believe the dragon is waiting for us outside.”