The Avatar Snare

She was down. She was out.

She was dying.

It had been Iroh that had struck the fatal blow. She could see in his face the regret behind the cold determination. She found it humorous that she'd always thought he was weak and a coward for his failure to capture Ba Sing Se. She had underestimated him, and it had cost her. A laugh bubbled from her chest, turning into a wracking cough before it could be realized.

She was dying.

The realization hit her like a boulder to the chest (a sensations she was, unfortunately, recently acquainted with, from both the Avatar and the little blind girl.). She, the scion of Fire Lord Ozai, the prodigy of the Fire Nation, able to wield both blue flame and lightning, was dying. Somehow, it was neither right nor fair, and she felt tears burning her eyes.

Ty Lee was weeping over her, and she was both angry at her weakness and touched. She could not call many people "friend", but the two on their knees to either side, one gripping her hand in a death grip, the other bawling her eyes out, were less frightened of her than most.

Voices came to her, then, and she strained to hear them, her skin chilling slowly, either from death or the terror of her recent realizations. Then another voice, somehow clear despite it's quiet, reached her ears.

"Katara, can you heal her?"

"WHAT?!"

There were several different voices in that last word, and she turned her head to see her brother, the blind girl, the water tribe warrior, and the water bender staring incredulously at the Avatar. The little boy, who had never seemed so young when he fought her, looked down at her sadly, as if she were a friend and not his worst enemy. She could see the tears shimmering in his eyes as he watched her. It was painful. She longed to send a bolt of fire at him, to melt the pity from his face.

The water bending girl must have seen something in his eyes. "I don't know, Aang. I can try." Her voice was soft, edged with anger, but anger well buried. The Avatar, perhaps, didn't hear the anger, because he looked up with her with smoky eyes full of hope.

"No." The word was firm, but not a shout. It wavered at the end, and her uncle, strong enough to kill her, stared at her, strengthening the determination in his eyes despite the deep regret growing behind it. "She has to go down. She will hunt you all the harder if you have pity."

He is a genius, she thought, swallowing. He knows his enemies well. I should have killed him instead of just using him as a distraction. Well played, Uncle.

"I'm tired of killing," said the Avatar, suddenly sounding and looking rather old. Ancient. Timeless, in a way. "Aren't you tired of killing?"

She could see, one by one, the members of the ragtag little group that had pledged themselves to this boy, give in, not with a nod or a word, but with their shoulders. Iroh was the last, after even Zuko, who had more reason to hate her than any of them, but he did, finally, give in.

The Water Bender strode toward her and knelt next to Ty Lee, pulling the top off of her water skin. Ty Lee reacted like a cornered tigerdillo. A cry tore itself from the acrobat's throat and she lurched toward the water bender with hands like claws. Mai, however, caught her and held the acrobat away, whispering, "She can't possibly make it worse. She'll either heal her or kill her faster. Both are better than this."

Ty Lee stared at Mai before sagging into her arms, sobbing.

"This will hurt," the water bender whispered, not bothering to hide her distaste now. She wasn't wrong. It hurt worse than fire, and she arched gritting her teeth against a strangled cry. Princesses didn't cry out, even when being tortured.

The world went black, briefly, but she did not fall unconscious. She could feel, and could hear past the rushing of blood in her ears. Soon the pain began to, slowly, give way to a cooling sensation, stinging a bit still but better than the numbness of death.

It took time, she knew, but how much was lost to her. Finally there was only the cooling stinging feeling, and she could breathe easily. The water bender, Katara, fell back, pale and trembling, slowly rising to her feet.

Azula reached out and grabbed her wrist. It would be so easy, even in her weakened state, to burn the flesh from her wrist and leave her injured. It would be simple to hurt this water bender as she had been hurt, at least cause the distraction needed to get away. The girl pulled back, but was not frightened.

"Why," she asked, noting the dryness in her throat, but piercing the water bender with her stare nonetheless.

"Because Aang asked me to," came the chilly reply, and she pulled her arm free with hardly any effort.

Azula was not deterred. She looked up at the Avatar and asked the same question. "Why?"

He did not answer, simply looked at her with those eyes that were both ancient and child like, and turned to walk away. The water bender followed, then the blind girl, and finally the warrior and Iroh, together. Only Zuko remained, looking down at her, his own good eye narrowed.

"Staying to gloat, Zuzu," said Azula over the top of Ty Lee's head while the acrobat clung to her and wetted her shirt.

"No," he said, his voice coming from a dry throat. "Believe it or not, I stayed to warn you."

"Nothing changes, Zuzu," Azula replied archly. "The Fire Nation still wants the Avatar. You and Iroh are still traitors. None of that has changed because your new leader showed a stupid sense of compassion."

"That's not it," Zuko said, a half smile on his face. A superior smirk that Azula wanted to wipe off his face so badly she nearly leapt to her feet. Would have, in fact, if not for the girl clinging to her and sobbing. "I had the Avatar in my clutches once. A sword to his throat and everything. I was, unfortunately, knocked out. Instead of leaving me to get caught, he pulled me away from Zhoa's men, even before he knew who actually held him. Then he asked, if not for the war, if we could have been friends."

Azula's eyes narrowed. "Why are you telling me this?"

"The next time I caught him," he continued as if she'd not spoken, "I had him tied up and everything and he still managed to escape. His girlfriend caught me with a lucky shot and... well, they could have left me to die, but they didn't."

"Interesting as this is, Zuzu--"

"The Avatar changes you, Azu. Maybe not right away, and maybe not even a way you would notice. But he changes you a lot. You've got a rough road ahead of you. Try not to trip."

She could have hit him in the back when he walked away. She was too occupied, however, with the realizations that each time she could have done something, she instead waited. She was becoming weak. Like her uncle. Like her brother.

"Get off, Ty Lee," she whispered hoarsely, swallowing a lump in her throat. "We have work to do."

- - - - -

My first fic inspired by someone else's fanfiction. RadiantBeam is a great writer, and I love her interpretation of Sokkula. I always wondered why Azula might turn from her self-centered ways, and decided... why not write about it? This was the result.