Even when fighting the mighty Jarguoa, it is best not to turn your back upon the lowly minksnake.
Azula first felt the flush of victory begin to creep over her limbs after she had ensured the capture of the Water tribe boy and the blind girl. It threatened to burst into flame after she had openly overthrown Long Feng and taken control of the Dai Lee. She sat on the Earth King's throne in a pose of half-meditation, quelling the hot rush of emotion with cold reasoning. The people of the city were of no consequence. They would not know of the coup until their dwellings had burnt to the ground under the attacks from the Fire Nation forces to come. The Dai Lee, and those in the palace, would be easy to control. She would manipulate them until the forces necessary to 'purify' Ba Sing Sae had been gathered and until the once-great city was crushed and re-made. The Earth King and the other prisoners – four now, soon to be joined by two more – would be summarily executed.
The Avatar would certainly come looking for his friends. When he did, she would defeat him as she had been close to doing in the ruins of the Earth Kingdom ghost town. The waterbender would be with him – but it was no matter. The Dai Lee would be with her. The fight would not be long. It almost disappointed her, the prospect of ending such a glorious day with mere housekeeping. She did not understand why her father wanted the Avatar, though she remained faithful to his command. His reputation and title were prestigious, yes, but it had been more than a hundred years since anyone had even witnessed a real demonstration of the Avatar's rumoured powers. Azula did not fear rumour. She had faced the Avatar with her skill, faced him and three of his companions and her foolish uncle and brother, and still she had escaped unscathed. Perhaps it was for the nasty habit of stirring up the people against the Fire Nation that her father wished to capture the Avatar. In any case, though it were lowly work, she would do it thoroughly and with finesse.
Still, something was not right, as if she beheld her face in a mirror and one jet hair was out of place. Azula's brow furrowed. She meditated harder, banishing all thoughts of the glory which she so rightly deserved, the wonderful cunning with which she had won Ba Sing Sae, and of her coming rewards, fruits of the power which she had first grasped as a child and had continued to accumulate and refine. She could walk in a gale and not be deterred from her course. She could dance with lighting and remain unsinged. She could face a Jarguoa and not be moved from her stance upon the earth.
But what of the minksnake round her heels…?
Her eyes widened. Zuko.
He was dangerous, not because he had grown in skill – it would take him decades, and patience he did not have, to reach her level. He was dangerous because many in the Fire Nation still felt sympathy for him, though he had been banished and then branded a traitor. Her father had not yet revoked his birthright. He was still heir apparent, until he failed to capture the Avatar, and it was not possible to fail until someone else performed the office through to the end.
It would not do to kill him. She did not want to seem, neither to her new warriors the Dai Lee nor to the people of the Fire Nation, the kind of princess who cowardly and preemptively eliminated one who might pose a threat. Azula had learned that the best way to meet a threat, however lowly, was to face it, accept it, and convert the energy of the threat into power that could be wielded. She smiled tightly.
If he could be made to do her bidding, then...?
Then she could present Zuko to Ozai as not only his humble servant, but hers. She could beg her father's forgiveness on Zuko's behalf. There was no other way to so clearly shame her brother than to have him serve under her in what would be known as the Great Fall of Ba Sing Sae, to have his little sister curry favour for him to the Firelord. Without Iroh, without Ursa, without his status as banished prince to give him something to fight for, he would again become weak and simpering Zuzu, always a step behind her quick mind and the designs of the Firelord. The time he had spent traveling in search of the Avatar and in the company of Iroh threatened to make him strong and honor-loving, but she would bait him with security and love, the stinking offal of the weak, and he would feed like a starved lizard at her feet. Even if he did take the throne one day, he would be easily manipulated, a puppet only too glad to bow to her suggestions. One captured a fly ever so much easier with a tray of honey than by trying to squash it – though Azula, allowing a tight grin, knew herself capable of both.
The only snake left was Iroh, but she had a feeling that the venom in his fangs had long since gone black with rot. She'd nearly killed him once, and this time she would not fail.
"Princess Azula," a guard of the Dai Lee approached her and bowed. "The cave holding the prisoners has been breached."
"Bring me two of your best men," she replied without pause. She rose and focused for a moment, allowing her features to grow slack, arranging her face to look beseeching, but resolved. She shot a glance at Mai, whose spine straightened briefly and then relaxed again.
"Very nice, Princess," the noble girl admitted. From time to time Azula saw fit to put a little holy fear into Mai, because she so easily grew bored and cynical. Ty Lee watched her too, beaming.
"Maybe you should lower your shoulders a bit?" Ty Lee suggested, critical, of course, about the stance of Azula's body. "You do have such a proud swagger." Though neither of her underlings knew exactly what she intended, they had seen her prepare for moves of such cunning before, and Ty Lee recognised the soft glimmer in her eyes. Azula nodded her thanks for the advice and relaxed her stance.
Down in the caves, Azula watched Iroh exhort Zuko. She stifled a gag at the honesty and badly concealed emotion in the old man's eyes, but preserved a bit of the impression for later, knowing it would come in handy. She studied the struggle on Zuko's face and allowed herself another smile. This would be too easy.
When she approached him, she was stern and angry at first, but quickly allowed her anger to transform into disappointment, flavoured with the irresistible tang of hope. She saw Zuko catch it, almost as if it were a scent on the air, and she saw the way his body responded. She responded to Iroh's desperation with cool reason, and then set back to working on Zuko, seeing the naked hope and need in his face. She told him that she needed him, saw him check his astonishment and gladness. She fought the impulse to tempt him, to remind him of his quarters in the palace, of the comforts there, of the feeling of sitting by his father's side – and instead she spit out the words "honor" and "Father's love". She kept it brief and succinct, knowing full well that the worst weapon she could use against Zuko was his own inner turmoil. If she kept talking, she would lose him within himself, and who knew how he would emerge. But if she planted a seed, it would grow. She purposefully avoided the topic of Iroh.
When the old man began begging him, he looked as though he would soften, but Azula knew that he could not turn his back on what he thought to be pleading in her face, and what he imagined would be acceptance and joy on the face of his father. She sent the guards away and purposefully left him, preparing herself for the last hunt of the Avatar.
The waterbending girl was stronger, Azula noted with satisfaction. She enjoyed keeping her skills honed. She fought down her contempt for the barbaric girl, with her strange dark skin and savage-looking clothes, and concentrated instead on eradicating her.
It was not easy to battle the girl and the Avatar at the same time. He had clearly grown in strength as well. It was difficult for her to disguise her contempt for the earnest and weak child, and even more difficult to suppress her desire to fry him like a fish in a campfire. Yet Azula calmly held herself back, keeping both of them at bay until she heard Zuko enter the room. Knowing which way he would turn, she retreated a bit, taking a defensive stance, allowing him a clear shot at the Avatar, allowing him to think that she needed him. She doubted that her brother would be able to handle him, but she would allow him some time to weaken the Avatar before she moved in for the finishing blow.
Sure enough, Zuko lunged for the Avatar and Azula wheeled, again fighting the feeling of triumph as she finally allowed the waterbender to see her contempt. See your primitive bending skills disappear beneath my onslaught, Azula thought as she whirled and delivered another blow. We'll wipe your people off the face of the earth.
Then an unhappy thought occurred to her. Suppose Zuko did manage to incapacitate or even kill the Avatar? He'd been lucky before, and with the force of his emotion fueling him, he might manage to overpower the boy, who was clearly distressed about his dark friend. In which case, her entire plan would be ruined. He would be rightfully restored to his place as prince, and a semi-dangerous adversary. She bit her tongue as she defended against another attack from the girl, feeling the prickle of the minksnake's fangs about to strike at her heel.
There. A smile began to glow within her, but she replaced it with a look of shock as she permitted an attack from the waterbender to get past her defenses, slice off some of her hair. She purposefully tamped down her attacks, and took a defensive pose as she allowed the waterbending girl to gain the upper hand. Unbalanced, she increased her breathing rate, trying to look desperate. And sure enough –
Silly Zuzu rushed in to save her. Azula could not contain a grin as he began to battle the Water tribe girl. This only confirmed what she knew: that Zuko was still weak and pathetic; that he did not know the way of a true firebender, who risks himself for nothing. Instead, he honored her words as true and her pleading gaze as sincere and fought at her back, so to speak. Azula suppressed a shudder and momentarily longed for the company of someone, anyone less detestable than the three around her. Mai, perhaps. Her father.
Banishing the disgust from her mind, she re-focused herself and faced the Avatar with the full force of her triumph and right glittering on her countenance. She felt her power spread through her body, aching for a way out, aching to meld the world around her as she saw fit. She followed the motions of the stance that the Crones had taught her carefully, felt the pure energy build in her arms and chest.
For a moment, she saw an image of herself standing beside a felled Jarguoa, the anguished head of a dying minksnake crushed beneath her royal heel.