Sokka hated to admit it, but Azula was a good tactician. Her timing was impeccable. She knew exactly how to divide forces and create openings in defences. Or maybe it was just because Ba Sing Se had been so underprepared to be attacked from the outside and within. The Outer Wall soldiers were still scrambling to keep the rest of the Fire Nation army out while the tanks loaded with foot soldiers that did slip through had split into three groups: one to attack the Outer Wall from the other side, another to attack the Inner Wall, and the last slipped into the earth in barely noticed tunnels. It was only because Sokka and the others were flying directly overhead on Appa that they spotted what was going on.
"We have to block those tunnels!" Sokka exclaimed. "They'll get right into the city at this rate." He turned to Toph. "Can you do it? You'll be able to sense the tunnels and where the tanks are, right?"
She looked pale. Too pale, if he was to be honest. It made him remember what Zuko had said before they'd gone their separate ways.
"Keep an eye on her. She won't tell you if she's struggling. If something goes wrong, you get her out."
"Toph," Sokka prompted.
She turned her face to him. Her expression was determined. "Get me to the ground."
Sokka pulled on the reins and guided Appa towards the battlefield. Though calling it a battlefield was maybe a bit optimistic. The king's reinforcements were still on their way. Ju Long and Enlai were trying to hold back the tanks with the fighters they had scrounged together—quite literally. Earthbenders combined their bending to construct massive walls and pushed and pushed and pushed until the walls were smashed apart. Others used the quicksand technique to sink the tanks into the ground and get them stuck. Unfortunately, since the Fire Nation army had their own team of earthbenders, it was a bit like holding back an infestation of viper-rats with only a small stick. Right now, Toph was their biggest chance of containing this mess.
She jumped off Appa when they got closer, landing amidst the tanks and spreading her arms wide. A rock shield flew up around her. Streams of flames hit uselessly against her wall. So far so good.
"C'mon," he murmured.
Appa rumbled in agitation and swerved to the left as blasts of fire were shot up at them.
"We can't hold this position for long," Mai warned.
Sokka tightened his grip on the reins. He glanced down and saw the shield stutter. Rock collapsed around Toph and sent up a plume of dust and debris. His heart twisted and seemed to sink several inches. Toph was just standing there. She was just standing there with her legs still spread in a bending pose, her hands outstretched. Her expression was a mask of panic.
"She won't tell you if she's struggling. If something goes wrong, you get her out."
Sokka cursed. "Appa, go!"
Appa shot into action, dodging flames as he sped down for Toph, who stood frozen and as vulnerable as a porcelain cup amid a stampede. All around her were tanks and foot soldiers. Faster. They had to be faster.
"Toph!" he yelled. "Hold on!"
Appa thumped down on his six legs with a huge gust of air. Tanks and soldiers alike were shoved back. Sokka seized his chance and jumped down, snatching Toph into his arms and passing her up to Mai before he scrambled back onto his perch on Appa's head.
"Yip, yip!" he cried, grabbing the reins.
Fire chased them as they soared back into the air. It was only when they brushed cloud that they got a reprieve.
Sokka twisted to look at Toph. She was hunched over and gripping her knees tight, her fringe falling down to hide her expression. Faint tremors shook her frame. The sight made his heart sink even more so that it felt like it had settled somewhere in his knot-filled stomach. He knew what he was supposed to do: tell her it would be okay, offer words of comfort. If he were to be honest, though, what he really felt in that moment was disappointment. So much had been depending on her. She was the strongest of them all, the key to his perfect plan. Now she was just a liability.
Mai met his gaze and raised her eyebrow as if to ask what they were supposed to do now. Sokka exhaled. Well, he had been warned that this might happen. It was his fault for ignoring the signs—too desperate, too determined to beat Azula. He had wanted to believe Toph was as ready as she had claimed. He had been selfish. Now, he had to be a proper friend.
He shifted to join the girls in the saddle and placed his hand on Toph's shoulder. "You tried. That's all that matters. Don't worry, we'll take it from here."
Her knuckles flared white. "I can still do this. I just have to—"
"No." He squeezed her shoulder. "No, Toph. We all know how strong you are, but you're not ready. I can't let you put yourself in danger like that again."
She hunched even more into herself. "How will you stop the tanks?"
"We'll just use Plan B. And if that doesn't work, we'll use Plan C or Plan D or whatever else it is we have to do."
Ba Sing Se could not be allowed to fall. Not to Azula, not to the Fire Nation, and definitely not on his watch. Though even he could admit their prospects looked pretty hopeless.
Sokka released her shoulder and moved back to grasp the reins. "I'm getting you out of here."
For now, he would get her somewhere safe. Tank busting would just have to wait.
"This could be it for Ba Sing Se."
Zuko glanced at the guard who had spoken. The words had been said softly enough that it might have been an accident they'd been voiced at all. Still, it was clear by the grim look on everyone's faces that it was what they were all wondering. A report had come through that the first of the tanks had reached the Middle Ring. The rebels, now led by Shizue, were helping the king's soldiers to fight them off; however, the fact the tanks had even got past the Inner Wall meant that Sokka had been unable to put his plan into motion fast enough. As usual, they were a step behind Azula.
Katara stood up from where she'd been sitting on the steps. "My brother and the others are still fighting out there. Sokka would have come back to warn us if he really thought there was no hope."
"What if he can't?" Gan said.
Her eyes were too bright, almost burning. "I know my brother. He won't fail."
There was a weighted pause. Iroh placed his hand on her shoulder. He was about to speak when the doors to the throne room were thrust open. Everyone turned to see a group of Dai Li agents enter and swiftly head for the throne.
Gan's brow furrowed. "What are you doing here? You were all supposed to go defend the Inner Wall."
The agents paused and parted to reveal the smallest member of their group, who had been standing shielded behind the other six. Zuko's spine tingled. The agent had one hand outstretched, two fingers poised like a knife. Red-painted lips curved beneath the brim of the conical hat.
His heartbeat stuttered.
Zuko moved just as lightning burst forth in hair-raising streaks. He grounded himself like his uncle had taught him. No room for mistakes. No room for second-guessing.
The bolt crashed into his palm. It sparked all through his chi, filling him with energy. So much energy. He had never felt so alive. He had never felt so close to death. One wrong move would leave him crumpled on the ground, heart seized by shocks. But he did not falter. He kept his hold on the lightning and guided it to flow where he willed.
Exhale and release.
The bolt shot forth from his own fingers, striking the wall to the right of Azula. Stone shattered from the impact to leave a smoking hole. No one moved at first, too stunned by what had just happened. His own limbs hummed from the aftereffects of channelling so much power through his body. It was exhilarating and terrifying.
Azula removed the hat from her head. "I see you learnt Uncle's little trick." She bared her teeth in a smile. "Tell me, Brother, how did you know I would aim for the puppet king?"
Zuko narrowed his eyes. He still stood before the throne with his back to Kuei and two fingers extended. That was when everyone rushed into action. A rock barrier formed between him and Azula's group. Gan grabbed the king and started to pull him away from the dais. The barrier smashed apart.
"You won't escape me that easily," Azula taunted.
Her earthbenders stomped forward in unison. Slabs of stone ruptured from the floor, striking one of the guards in the chest and knocking him off his feet. Gan and the other guard managed to block the rest, including those that came for Iroh, Katara and Zuko. Not that Zuko was content to stay protected. He vaulted over the wall that had been raised, fire shadowing his kick as he brought his foot down. Flames blasted out in powerful waves of heat. The fake Dai Li agents cried out in pain and were thrown back, fragments of half-formed shields falling around them.
"Get the king out of here!" Zuko yelled. "I'll hold them off!"
"Not alone you won't." Katara was suddenly at his side. "I'll be right here with you."
"As will I," Iroh said, coming to stand on his left.
Azula laughed and stepped forward, blue fire trailing from her fingers. "Fools. Nothing will stand in the way of my victory today!"
She shot a massive ball of fire straight at Iroh. He defended with a flame shield, but the force had him stumbling back a few steps. Too many steps.
A vicious smile curved her lips. "Why, Uncle, you look like you're having some trouble. Did something happen since the last time we fought?" Her voice rose with dark intent. "Allow me to give you rest!"
She swung out in a flaming punch. Zuko stepped in front of the attack and split the flames with a downward slice of his hands. Her lip curled in irritation, but then she flashed that unnerving smile again. Behind her, the fake Dai Li agents were back on their feet and moving to attack the king, who was being ushered towards an opening in the wall behind the throne. Katara and two of the guards blocked the men in a combined strike of earth and water. Azula didn't so much as bat an eyelash; she still had her gaze fixed on Zuko.
"Well, this is a reverse," she observed. "Normally it's Uncle protecting you."
Zuko ignored her taunt. He maintained his stance, not once taking his eyes off his sister. It was fortunate that Biyu had long since left with Bosco and a large number of guards to watch over Aang in a different part of the palace. This situation would be ten times worse if the bear and the comatose Avatar were here. Once Azula found a weakness, she put her all into exploiting it. Zuko knew that he had to draw her away from Iroh. It was a fact that Iroh was not at full power thanks to the chi he'd allowed to be drained from his body. Azula would not hesitate to crush or use Iroh against Zuko if she got the chance.
"I notice Ty Lee isn't with you," Zuko said, holding his sister's gaze. "What's the matter? Worried she'll turn on you like Mai?"
Something fractured in her eyes. "You talk too much, Brother!"
More flames came for him. He met them blow for blow, shifting closer to her all the while so that his uncle was no longer in her direct range of fire. Heat licked at Zuko's skin, but that was fine. His plan was working. Just as he had thought, his sister was only pretending to be in control. Even her flames were wilder.
"The king is getting away!" one of the fake Dai Li agents shouted.
Azula made a frustrated sound. She turned and moved her hand wicked-fast in that now familiar motion. Sparks crackled from her fingers as she aimed at Kuei's retreating back.
"No!" Zuko yelled.
He threw himself forward and tackled her around the middle, wrenching her arm up so the lightning careened off and cracked a hole in the ornate wall. Azula and Zuko hit the floor in a tangle of limbs. They rolled together on broken shards of rock, desperate to restrain the other. It was like trying to contain a thrashing, hissing animal. Even so, his greater size and strength gave him the advantage. He flipped them both and pinned her onto her back.
A chunk of stone connected with Zuko's shoulder. He cried out and was flung away from her. She leapt to her feet and swung around to confront the earthbender who'd assisted her. Everyone else had followed the battle out of the throne room. Only Katara and another of the fake agents remained locked in combat.
"Did I ask for your help?" Azula snarled.
"I, I just thought—"
"Idiot! I'll deal with my brother myself!" She turned back to Zuko, who clutched his aching shoulder and staggered to his feet. Something manic glinted in her eyes. "I don't need anyone's help to defeat this weakling."
Zuko gritted his teeth.
"You can heal yourself, can't you?" She gestured at his injury. "Go ahead. I'm guessing that blow dislocated your shoulder."
He narrowed his eyes. "Why would you give me time to heal myself?"
"Because I'm such a nice sister."
"As if I'd believe that."
She bared her teeth in a smile. "I told you. I don't need anyone's help to defeat you. I don't want you impeded by some injury either." Her voice was cold and sharp like the caress of a blade. "I want you at your peak so you can feel the despair of how utterly outclassed you are compared to me."
Zuko didn't trust her. It wasn't like her to get sidetracked from her main goal, not even to satisfy her ego, but then she also wasn't quite herself right now. Just like when he'd faced her on the drill, something seemed … off. Plus, he couldn't deny that he would have no chance of beating her with one of his arms useless.
"Then you'll fight me one on one?" he questioned. "Like an Agni Kai?"
"Like an Agni Kai," she agreed. "It's only fitting, isn't it? This is the showdown we were always destined to have, Brother. Just you and me, no interruptions."
He nodded. "Fine."
"Wait!" Katara ran to his side. Her opponent was now a block of ice. "You can't fight her alone!"
"Stay out of this, peasant!" Azula snapped.
Zuko glared at his sister warningly before shifting his attention to Katara. "Look," he said in an undertone so only she could hear. "I know what I'm doing."
"I sensed it when we were fighting just before. Azula is off her game today. I can handle her."
Katara met his gaze. "She's dangerous."
"I know, but trust me. I can do this."
Azula let out a very loud and forced sigh. "Are you two finished?" She glanced at her nails. "I don't have all day, you know."
"You want him at his peak?" Katara said, turning to her. "Then let me heal him. He'll only weaken himself if he heals his shoulder on his own."
"I don't care how it's healed." Azula made a show of rolling her eyes. "Just hurry it up."
That was good enough for Katara. She cut his sleeve off with razor-sharp ice so that the cloth wasn't getting in the way, then gloved her hand in water and examined the injury. "It's dislocated," she confirmed. "I can't heal it until the bone is back in place. It's better to take this kind of thing slow and gentle, but I don't think your sister is in a patient mood." Her gaze flickered to his. "This is going to hurt a lot."
"Do what you have to do."
Katara nodded and took his shoulder and arm in a firm grip. He gritted his teeth and braced himself for the pain. There was a sickening sound, almost a pop. A strangled groan hissed through his teeth. Spirits, that really had hurt.
"Sorry, sorry," she murmured.
Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. Then it was like the pain began to melt away. Her hand glided over his skin, glowing with power and nudging his chi in a water-tinted touch to heal the damage. Except it wasn't a small bit of water; it was like an entire ocean was moving at her command. He could feel how much energy she was expending to speed up the healing process—too much, too quick.
"Hey," he said in alarm, placing his free hand over hers. "Just because you're not a fire healer doesn't mean you have endless energy to spare."
Her lips curved. "I can't fight beside you this time. Consider this my way of having your back." She pulled her hand away and looked up into his face. "See? Now it's like you were never injured."
He rotated his arm and found that she was right. The colour suddenly drained from her cheeks. She swayed and he caught her by the waist, holding her against him. The water she'd used to heal him splashed to the ground.
"Told you," he said, though his tone was more affectionate than scolding. "You put too much of yourself into the healing."
"What matters is you can face her at your full strength." She pulled back, already finding her feet again. "Besides, I'm not that weak."
She did seem okay now. No paleness, no unsteadiness. Zuko opened his mouth to respond, but Azula interrupted to demand if he was ready. The other earthbender had freed his companion from the ice prison and the two were now standing off to the side near the row of pillars. Right. Best to get this over with before Azula changed her mind.
Zuko said a soft thanks to Katara and turned to face his sister. "I'm ready, though you're going to regret letting her heal me."
"I highly doubt that." Azula shifted into a bending stance. "I'll be celebrating becoming an only child by the time I'm through with you."
He took up position near the dais, meeting her gaze from across the hall. The space between them was standard for an Agni Kai. Zuko kept waiting for the nerves to kick in: all the knots in his gut, the quickened heartbeat and fluttering pulse. But there was only a strange sense of calm. He didn't even feel the need to respond to her taunt.
Blue fire surrounded Azula's fists. "Ready, Zuzu?"
Zuko conjured his own orange-gold flames. Then the duel began.
They were losing. Toph knew it even without being able to see. It was in the panicked shouts of the benders defending the wall. It was in the tanks that rumbled in an endless drone and made the ground tremor, in all the flames that were spat out and painted the world in blasts of heat. Plan B had not worked. Neither was Plan C doing much from the sound of things.
"They just keep coming!" someone yelled. "There's no way we can stop this!"
"Reinforcements! We need reinforcements!"
She clenched her hands into fists. There were crescent shapes permanently etched into her palms. The shouts were getting louder. Someone was crying not far from her. That man had been brought back from the front lines with burns all over his body and his legs crushed. There were others like him as well. Wounded. Broken. They should have been taken to a healer, or at least far from here, but there wasn't time. All anyone still capable of moving could do was put their all into stopping any more tanks from getting beyond the Inner Wall. Sometimes she heard Appa rumbling from overhead and knew that Sokka was trying to locate the last of the enemy earthbenders and also assess where they needed to fortify the wall's defence.
Everyone was fighting so hard. Yet here she was tucked in this dwindling pocket of safety with the wounded.
"If she fights with us, we have a better chance of stopping those tanks with fewer casualties. You saw what she did to the drill and the tanks during the last battle. Think what she could do this time."
"She isn't the same now!"
The memory replayed in her mind. It damned her for the way she had frozen when victory had still seemed within reach. For every burn and mangled limb, every lifeless body that now scattered the charred fields reaching all the way to the Outer Wall. People had depended on her, and she had let them down. She had been no better than a scared child.
"Just don't rush yourself, okay? If it's too much right now, then stay here. The others will manage without you."
Toph gritted her teeth. No. Zuko had been wrong. The Fire Nation army was winning. The proof was all around her. What the people defending Ba Sing Se needed was a way to turn the tide of battle. They needed a metalbender.
Stand up! she ordered herself.
Her body trembled. Nothing wanted to move, not even to uncurl from the wall. It was like her bones were becoming a cage, wrapping around her and squeezing and squeezing and squeezing. She could taste fear. It didn't matter that there was no physical restraints or suffocating box, no thirst to wither her strength. Her body remembered. It remembered panic, hopelessness.
It remembered almost dying.
Slowly, she raised her head. Her legs wobbled as she got to her feet. One small step, then another. Her chest tightened. It was so hard to breathe. She wasn't even in the thick of battle now—not even in a position to feel threatened—but it still felt like she was trapped back in that little box. Every step was a push against wood. Endless resistance. Just to move felt like scratching her fingers raw and bloody all over again.
Move. You can be strong.
Toph inhaled deeply. Then she thrust her hands down and propelled her body up with a pillar of stone. She was flying, falling, letting go of everything before her element called to her from below. Her feet struck dirt—soft and reassuring. She dug her toes in and felt the ripples of seismic sense spread, tracing outlines of a thousand things before her mind's eye: people, tanks, every blade of grass, the tunnels half caved in and gaping like maws. She saw it all.
Control it. Own it.
Toph exhaled and stepped forward. Fresh ripples surged forth. She weaved through the earthbenders frantically putting up blockades to hold back the tanks while others tried to trap the hulking beasts in shifting quicksand. None of them took notice of a small girl. They were too desperate, too terrified that one wrong move would see their bodies burned or crushed like those who had come before them. Fight or be killed; that was the way of war. She had lived that mantra. She had killed those men when they'd tried to contain her, to snatch her life from her weakened body.
Flesh puncturing. Bones snapping. A lone survivor sobbing.
Her chest tightened even more, but she did not falter and created a pillar to lift her over the blockade. Lines of tanks roared towards her.
"The hell?" one of the earthbenders yelled. "What's that little girl doing? She's going to get herself killed!"
Someone else made a choked sound. "That's no little girl," he said, and she could tell by the shape of his hat and the stone moulded to his palms that he was Dai Li. "That's the Avatar's earthbender."
It was like clarity struck. That's right. That's why those men had tried so hard to keep her locked away in a box, to kill her when she didn't cooperate. They had been scared.
I'm the greatest earthbender in the world.
Toph's expression hardened. She stamped her foot and sent massive waves of earth rolling outwards. Every single one of the tanks within her bending radius was flipped over, though she knew they'd right themselves soon. That was fine. A few seconds without flames coming at her was all she needed.
"Get ready," she told the men behind her.
"Ready for what?"
Toph dashed forward, using her bending to move faster. She latched onto the side of the closest tank and wrenched a huge chunk of the metal right off. Cries of alarm started up from inside. Heat rushed her—a barrage of flames—but it was all blocked by the metal she was still holding. That gave her an idea. She quickly moulded the metal to her body like armour. Now she had better protection.
Without pausing, she grabbed hold of the tank and used her bending to lend her strength, swinging it right into the tank next to it, even as the people inside screamed and tumbled out from the hole she had created. Some of the earthbenders behind her scrambled into action and supported her so she wouldn't get overwhelmed. About time they helped. She was still one person, even if she did have the power to take the tanks apart piece by piece.
That was Sokka's voice, more joyful than she'd heard it in a long time. A gust of wind ruffled her hair. He had to be flying above her on Appa. Someone jumped down to land next to her, lithe and graceful. All the pointy metal bits attached to the tall frame said enough. Of course it was Knife Girl.
"See you found your feet, brat," Mai observed.
A prickling sensation stung Toph's eyes. Some of the lingering tightness in her chest eased. Here was the real difference from her nightmare. In that box, she had been all alone. She had only been able to rely on herself. But that wasn't how it was going to be now. Her friends and allies were right here with her.
"Guess I did," she said. "Sorry I kept you all waiting."
"No apology needed. Let's just end this. We finally got rid of the enemy earthbenders. Sokka is going to use Appa to take reinforcements and reclaim the Outer Wall so they can seal the last gap. I'll have your back here."
"Sounds like a plan."
"You know Sokka. He always has his plans." Mai rimmed her knuckles with fresh knives. "I think you'll especially like the name of this one."
"It's called Toph Smashes Everything."
Toph laughed, and though the sound was rusty and had to claw its way out of her mouth, it was also oddly freeing. She felt lighter. Stronger. "Well, I'd better get cracking. Gotta live up to that name."
Mai didn't respond at first, but for once Toph didn't need to see in the "normal way" to understand what expression Mai was wearing. She was pretty sure Mai was smiling.
"Then get cracking, brat."
Toph grinned and shot into action. The Fire Nation army was about to get Toph Smashed.
Azula staggered back to her feet, trying to catch her breath. Her hair was loose and kept getting in her eyes. At some point she'd lost her ribbon. Zuko stood near one of the gaping wounds in the wall, right hand pulled back in a fist and his left hand stretched forward as if to block or attack at any second. The thing that made her grit her teeth, however, was the fact he still seemed calm. He wasn't even breathing as heavily as her.
"You're going to regret letting her heal me."
She snarled and propelled herself forward on flame boosters, quickly spinning into a kick that unleashed blue fire in massive spurts. One of the earthbenders lingering on the side lines cried out, caught up in the sparks. Azula didn't care. They could all burn. The only thing that mattered was bringing her brother down.
I'm the prodigy.
She punched forth flame after flame, even as Zuko shielded and countered.
I'm the one who earned Father's praise.
Almost bird-like, she launched herself into the air with flames trailing from her in fiery wings before surging down in an unleashing of fire. Zuko sliced through the waves so it all gushed harmlessly to either side of him. His expression remained composed. Azula's nostrils flared, but a second later she forced a smile to her lips.
"You've improved, Brother." Her smile widened to bare her teeth. "But you'll still never catch up."
Faster than the lightning she wielded, she came at him in a vicious onslaught. The stone all around them was steadily becoming discoloured from her attacks: the pillars, the floor, the throne. The hall would not burn since it had been crafted with earthbending, but it blackened with her rage. It should have incinerated him as well.
Her eyes narrowed as she cut through his flames with her own punch of sapphire. How did he keep avoiding and countering her attacks? He couldn't even hope to pull off some of the moves she had performed, yet she couldn't help but feel like he was mirroring her.
Almost reading her.
Frustration licked at her insides. It hissed and spat like the ugly thing she kept locked up deep where no one could see. No, no, no, no! This was not her brother! This was all wrong! He was the foolish one who always let his emotions rule him. The weak one. The one who needed to be babied and petted and protected. The one she could always read without fail.
There was no way that he could actually be matching her.
She lashed out with a scream. He charged at the same time. Orange-gold clashed with blue in a violent merge of colour. Zuko and Azula were thrown back from the force, hitting opposite ends of the throne room. Her head struck the wall with a sickening crack. She blinked back dizzy splotches. The water peasant made to move towards Zuko, but he waved her off with his hand and got to his feet. No one came to check on Azula. No one ever had.
"You don't have to hide from me. We're the same."
Her throat seized up.
Somehow, he'd joined Mother's voice in her head. Any time she let her guard down, he was there whispering that things could have been different, that she had got it wrong and needn't have burned him to death. Except that was obviously a lie. He'd looked at her like she was a monster the moment he'd learned she was a firebender. He would have never stood down and let her continue on her path to victory.
You could have stood down, Jet's voice pointed out. You had a choice as well.
Azula resisted the urge to clutch at her head and scream for him to shut up. Mother would join in soon if she wasn't careful. Mother would tell her that she was only turning herself even more into a monster by trying to please Father.
But then wasn't that what pleased Azula as well? To be strong. To let go of all the useless emotions that could be used against her, including her attachment to Jet.
Then why did you let your brother be healed?
Brightness flickered into her vision. Her heartbeat skittered and she deflected the fireball with a pulsing shield of blue. Zuko was going on the offensive now. Azula found herself forced to move, to block, to use every ounce of focus to keep pace. No time to argue with the voices in her head. No time to question her motives. Anyway, the truth was right there looking at her from her brother's eyes.
She'd wanted him healed because that interfering little worm had stepped in when Zuko had got her pinned down.
She'd wanted him healed because her idiot of a brother had actually got better with his bending and this was the only way to prove once and for all her superiority. Hers was the path of strength, his of weakness. That was how it had always been. How it was meant to be.
But her breathing came short and fast now. Sweat tickled her temples. She boosted herself with flames to increase her speed, trying to escape the deadlock in which they were trapped. Zuko planted his hand on the floor and was suddenly spinning and kicking out flames in swift, unpredictable blasts. No time to react. Pain lanced through her side and she was thrown through the air, hitting the floor with a bruising thud and rolling a few times from the momentum until her back struck a pillar.
Winded. So winded. Her body, aching and sure to come out blue all over, curled into itself as she struggled to breathe. This wasn't right. This couldn't be right. Was she actually losing? Was this where it all ended? All her ambitions, her destiny? Had it all been for nothing?
A cage broke.
Azula staggered to her feet, teeth bared like an animal and her eyes a fractured manifestation of all the splinters in her mind. Sparks flickered from her fingers. "No!" she screamed. "Nothing will stand in my way today!"
She attacked without thinking. The lightning crackled with white-hot intensity through the air. Her eyes widened. A mistake. She'd made a mistake. Just as she knew he would, Zuko caught the bolt and aimed at her.
Azula exhaled shakily.
Something shifted in his expression. He wrenched his hand to the left. The lightning blasted into one of the pillars not far from her, though all the hairs stood up on her arms. Azula stared at the smoking, charred mess of stone. Then she laughed. She laughed and laughed and laughed until her eyes stung.
"You fool!" she said with a smile that felt like it might split her face. "You're going to regret that!"
She charged. There was a distinct thunk. Pain shot through her chest, gouging deep. She stumbled and made a choked sound. A glance down revealed an arrow sticking out of her chest. Zuko looked just as stunned.
A faint whistling noise caught her attention. Azula latched onto the sound and punched a blast of fire at the new arrow that came for her face. Fresh ripples of agony shot through her from the movement, but she only bared her teeth in that animal grin. Ash fluttered to the floor from where she had incinerated the arrow to nothing. Through the gap in the wall, a familiar boy stood holding a longbow. Smellerbee was beside him.
"I see you, little pests!" Azula hissed. Blue fire swelled around her. "Didn't you get the memo? You're no longer needed!"
She blasted flames at them through the hole, which they barely managed to dodge. The two earthbenders had run off somewhere during the commotion. Cowards. Azula couldn't expect any help now. That was typical. Her tools were always letting her down in the end.
Smellerbee darted inside the hall, daggers glinting and her face screwed up in rage and grief. "You killed him!" she screamed. "You killed Jet, you monster!"
Azula laughed, too high-pitched. "Don't worry. You'll be joining him soon enough."
She got her lightning ready. It hurt. It hurt just to move, but at least this pest couldn't catch it.
Another thunk. This time to her neck. More pain. So much worse this time.
"No!" Zuko's voice broke on the word.
Azula slumped to her knees in shock. Blood splattered the floor. She was only dimly aware that there were flames being blasted in the hall again—not at her. Other people had arrived as well. One of them moved in a blur of brown fabric, long plait swinging, but there were many more splotchy things of black crowding Azula's vision. She blinked and swayed. It was difficult to focus, difficult to even breathe.
"Azula!" Zuko was suddenly at her side.
Her eyelashes fluttered. Zuko's face was swimming before her blurred gaze. His unscarred cheek was too pale and his eyes wide with panic.
Panic for her?
She blinked and found herself staring at the empty throne half smeared with black. That throne should have been hers. It was meant to be hers.
"Father," she mumbled through a glob of blood. "It seems I miscalculated."
Pain stole her senses. The throne vanished and with it everyone else. Then she drifted. She drifted for so long, tumbling through darkness and ice. Her body was cold. So, so cold. She watched visions of her past float around her: all the things she had achieved, all the things she could have done differently.
Do you regret it? her mother asked.
Azula wanted to laugh. Even now, the voices never left her alone.
She kept drifting. That was when warmth found her. It cradled her in golden flames.
It felt like him. His warmth. It was a memory of little embraces from a time when thunder had still frightened. It chased away all the cold and made the pain in her neck and chest ease. She breathed.
Azula opened her eyes. Zuko was leaning over her, vestiges of warmth slipping from his hand as he removed it from her chest. No more arrows, no more wounds. A lump formed in her throat.
"Why?" she whispered.
His mouth twisted in a curious mixture of bitterness and sadness. "You're my sister."
It was like she'd been struck with an arrow all over again. Once, he'd said those words to her while she'd pinned him down and prepared to deliver the finishing blow. He'd asked why she'd shot lightning at him, why she'd never hesitated to hurt him. But he didn't understand. It was precisely because she cared that she had to crush him. He was a thorn in her heart, a shackle holding her back.
The only thing Azula regretted was underestimating him.
"You should have just let me die!" she hissed, and blasted him back with blue flames.
That was the water peasant. Azula blocked her water whip and got to her feet. Zuko groaned but stayed down. The waterbender had said it, after all: healing weakened him. He couldn't hope to beat Azula now. The idiot had even helped Ty Lee to take down those who would have stopped her.
Azula laughed and split the energy in the air, letting lightning take shape. This was her second chance and she wasn't going to waste it. Victory was still hers to grasp.
Ty Lee landed in front of her. There was no smile on her face. "No more," she said simply.
The energy thrumming in Azula's fingers vanished as her pressure points were struck. Her limbs turned limp. Useless. She collapsed to the floor.
"You would betray me as well?" Azula demanded.
"I'm doing this for you." Ty Lee shook her head and her eyes pained. "You need to stop. If you keep on this path, you're going to destroy yourself."
Azula snarled in frustration. "You don't know anything! Now fix my chi! I can still—"
"It's over, Azula! The tanks are finished. The rebels you got on your side have been beaten. We lost. You lost."
"No." Azula's fingers trembled, itching to unleash fire that would not come. "No! My plan was perfect! There's no way I—"
"It's over," Ty Lee repeated. "Just stop. Let's just stop. Haven't enough people been hurt?"
Azula inhaled and looked around the hall: at the charred throne, the broken shards, the enemies struggling back to their feet and preparing to surround her. Even Zuko was standing again, helped up by the water peasant. There was no plan that could turn this situation back in her favour. Not this time.
"I surrender," Azula said softly.
It was all she could do now. But this wasn't over. Not at all.
So ends Book 3. This one got pretty dark and angsty at points, but I hope you enjoyed!