A/N: … absence makes the heart grow fonder? Maybe? ... So, it's been about a year since I've even looked at this story. I'm happy to say that in the meantime, Avatar did actually manager to finish out the series. I'm less happy to say that it didn't end like I wanted it to – not even close. For the sake of my story that I've long had planned out, I'm going to diverge from the TV Series at Episode 53: "The Firebending Masters". Enjoy it if you can.
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender, or any of its characters.
Chapter 4 – A Conquered Princess
The constant breeze gliding off the sea was gentle and soothing in the final moments before dawn. The sky was a soft mix of blue and green as the stars and moon hung in the sky, inviting the sun to join them. quiet waves left fragile bubbles along the sands surrounding the Fire Nation palace. From the distant palace gardens, the most dedicated of song birds could already be heard commencing their morning prayers. By all accounts, this should have been a perfect moment. However, by all accounts, Katara should not have been here.
The Master Waterbender lay floating in the tepid waters of the palace's cove. The tears had ceased to fall from her bright eyes, but the pain in her heart had not yet dulled to survivable levels. Immersed by the waters of a true paradise, Katara was drowning in a sea of regret. I should have never come, she lamented to herself. I can't heal him anyways. He'll die and he'll do it hating me.
Katara had been alone in the cove for several hours now. She was physically exhausted from her long journey from the South, mentally exhausted from trying to determine what ailed Zuko, and spiritually exhausted from her blatant rejection. Submerging herself in the cove waters helped to diminish the ache in her back and shoulders, but could not touch the pain in her soul. Sooner or later Katara would have to return to the palace and face her comrades; she owed it to Iroh to try to heal his nephew. But for now, Katara wanted nothing more than to sink below the dark waters and disappear forever…
A sharp gust of air followed by a series of water ripples awoke Katara from her thoughts. She gazed up to see Aang floating on a freshly made ice-block before her, a look of concern upon his face.
"We've all been looking for you," the Avatar said in a soft voice.
Katara did not respond.
"Sokka has searched every pool, fountain and bath chamber in the palace for you…twice," Aang continued slowly.
Still, Katara did not answer.
"Look," Aang began more directly. "Zuko's delusional; he's been in a fevered sleep for half a moon. He had no idea what he was saying. I'm sure when he's all better, he'll feel like a complete jerk and apologize. No big deal."
"No," Katara whispered. "It's always been like this."
Aang let out a strangled choke. "'Always been like this?'" he questioned. "Zuko used to follow you around with googly eyes when we were chasing Azula."
"No," Katara denied. "He rejected me straight out. I offered him my heart and he walked away."
Aang wrinkled his smooth forehead. Katara's voice was so hollow it truly frightened him. He had wondered why Katara had fled back to the Southern tribe so suddenly those years ago. Perhaps this was the root of the problem.
"He was so cold," Katara continued. "He said that we shared a common goal, but that he never had any feelings for me. He said we weren't even friends really. He said that since the war was over, we should go our separate ways forever. And I still came running back here after all that. I guess I just let myself forget how much hurts."
"I don't understand," said Aang.
"You don't need to, really," she answered. "He has no reason to like me. He's Fire. I'm Ice. I couldn't save his mother, and then I killed his sister right before his eyes. I nearly killed Mai too. I shouldn't have expected different from him."
"Ursa wasn't your fault –"
"I could have done more; you know it."
"No! Ursa was too far gone. Besides, she would have never wanted … that…" Aang trailed off.
"Azula then," Katara stated simply. "I killed her. Monster. Deranged. It doesn't matter. She was still his sister."
Aang sighed. All he knew of that event was what had been told to him third-hand. He knew it had been necessary to stop Azula, no matter the cost, in order to truly end the war; however, he also knew that Katara abhorred the thought of ever taking a life. Aang shook his head. It had been necessary, and if what he had been told was true, it had been an accident.
That fateful day was nearly two years ago. It had been everything that an epic battle should be. It had essentially ended the war, and nearly cost Katara, Zuko and Mai their lives in the process.
Zuko, Katara and the reformed Mai had been investigating a report of a rebel camp along the sharp cliffs of the northern Fire Island at Ember Demon Point. Aang and the rest of the gang had split off eastwards to respond to a village fire, leaving the trio alone and unprepared for what would follow.
Although it was mid-afternoon, a thick storm had marched off the ocean, leaving the sky sunless and grey. Lightning and rain pelted the landscape in thick sheets as the party scouted along the coast. Below the high cliffs, a dark sea raged against rocky spires.
The darkness of the weather could not dampen the light in Katara's heart. She and Zuko had been growing ever closer with each passing day. Although he mostly remained guarded in his actions, there were the briefest of moments when Katara could see something more when she met his golden eyes: a warmth that was not fire. Beyond that, there were kind words and simple gestures that made the young Waterbender certain that her feelings could one day be returned. But, for now, such feelings would have to wait as duty called upon them both.
Katara and her companions had been drudging along in the storm as best they could when a bolt of blue lightning shot out and landed directly before them. The trio stumbled backwards, falling onto the wet ground. As they blinked their stinging eyes, an apparition of fire and horrible glory emerged before them: Azula.
"Hmm… the traitor, the witch, and dearest Zuzu," Azula jeered with mock curiosity. "Have you missed me, brother?"
The gang shot to their feet ready in defensive stances. Instinctively, Katara prepared to lash out with her Waterwhip, but a glimpse upwards froze her in place. Azula had become more deranged than Katara could have ever imagined. Perhaps it was the distress at the death of her father. Perhaps it was the constant strain of being hunted like a wounded animal. Perhaps it was the months hiding in caves, living on vermin. Or perhaps it was simply her true nature finally freeing itself from its shell of civility. Regardless of origin, Azula had truly gone mad. No more was she the spotless soldier Ozai had groomed. With hair matted and armor shredded, the princess was skeletal, pale and soiled from head to foot.
"Give it up, Azula," yelled Zuko at his estranged sibling. "It's over."
"Oh? It's over now, Zuzu? What's over? The war? Hmmm…? I don't think it is, Zuzu" mocked Azula. "And neither do they," she said, gesturing behind the trio.
Katara hazarded a quick look over her shoulder. Behind her companions, a dozen grim rebels had appeared. They were surrounded.
"Just because you killed Daddy doesn't mean you get to call the shots, Zuzu," said Azula as she began to advance. "I'm the Firelord now…"
The trio shifted quickly to stand back-to-back with one another. Using the abundance of falling rain, Katara deftly bent an ice-dome around them. "This won't last long," she whispered.
Outside their shelter, Azula cackled madly. With deadly intent, she shot bolts of boiling blue lightning at the dome with each of her arched kicks. At her side, the rebels – undoubtedly once palace guards – moved in.
To the three companions sheltered within the icy refuge, it became clear that this could be the final moment of the war; yet, it could just as easily be their final moment. Azula was the last hurdle to be overcome before true harmony could reign within the Four Kingdoms. It would be their honour and their burden to clear a path to peace.
Flames of crimson and blue swirled around the ice dome with stunning, horrifying symmetry. There was no where to run for either party. This would be the end.
"You two handle the guards. I'll hold off Azula," Zuko ordered.
With grim faces, Katara and Mai gave a sharp nod. Katara raised her arms, preparing to drop their icy shield when Zuko's hand shot out and grabbed her wrist.
"Wait," he whispered, and shifted around to meet Katara face to face. Placing a gentle hand upon her cheek, he looked imploring into her eyes.
"Be careful," he said simply, but with such vulnerability that it nearly broke Katara in two. There it was. That…something. That warmth.
At that moment, Katara knew everything would be alright. She would make it alright. They would defeat Azula. They would return triumphant. If for nothing else than so that she might see that warmth again. And yet, in this moment, all Katara could do was nod dumbly at her prince.
Zuko nodded carefully in return, and turned back into formation. Forgotten, Mai let out a slight groan of disgust.
"Alright," said Zuko, breaking the moment. "Let's go."
Katara rose her arms slowly into the air and took in one last breath of moist, cool air. She swallowed hard, and dropped the ice shield.
Fire consumed them instantly.
Azula grinned wildly as the collective flames of her guards incinerated the spot where her brother stood. Twelve streams of rolling flame converged into a massive inferno. The sharp hiss of steam as the rain and the fire clashed together further heightened Azula's euphoria. Although she could not actually see the traitors burn through the smoke, mist and rain, Azula reveled in the moment. Foolish, foolish little witch-peasant to think she could save her friends from the indomitable power of Fire.
Azula barely missed dodging the streak of flames barreling towards her from behind. When she felt the vast wave of heat approaching, she instinctively dove sideways, rolling hard as she landed. Azula shot once more to feet. Before her, her brother approached through the storm. Far above them, the clouds continued to rumble and let loose their fury. White shots of lightning illuminated Zuko's unwavering face as he took long determined strides towards his sister.
At the other side of the formation, Katara and Mai sprung forth from their hiding positions in the mist. Together they pounced on the unsuspecting guards. Katara bent ice blocks around the first group of unsuspecting guards, and shifted quickly to encase rest. The next group was harder as they countered her ice streams with fire, but she soon overtook them as well.
Katara paused to survey her counterpart; Mai swiftly knocked one guard to the ground and pinned him there with her flashing daggers. She artfully dodged the streaks of flames rolling towards her and leapt onto her next victim. Only a single pair of guards remained for Mai as Katara moved to aid Zuko.
A shot from behind surprised Katara and sent her tumbling far across the ground. The guards had managed to melt themselves free from their ice prisons. Katara had not expected them to be so skilled as to produce such vast heat without the use of their hands.
Katara managed to look up from her position sprawled painfully across the soaking ground. Behind her, Mai was being overwhelmed by the sheer number of guards. Before her, Zuko was succumbing to the superior power of his sister. Even in with the dark clouds blocking out the sun's powering rays, Azula seemed as strong as ever. The lightning. It had to be the lightning feeding her bending and making her stronger and more resilient than any of the other benders present.
Katara watched in horror as Zuko ducked and dodged as best he could from Azula's lightning shards. Suddenly, Azula shot a hand towards the sky in a movement Katara had never witnessed a Firebender perform. Curling her fingers upwards, Azula formed a claw towards the heavens. Across the sky, bolts of blue lightning burst forth from the clouds and converged into a savage point in Azula's palm.
Azula began to glow as she siphoned in more and more of the lightning's power. Zuko's blasts of crimson fire deflected off this sister with no discernable effect. When at last Azula shone like a malevolent star, she brought her glowing hands before her in a mocking prayer. Then, turning her palms out towards Zuko, the former princess of the Fire Nation let forth a raging bolt of azure lightning at her brother.
Zuko countered with his own stream of flame, but it could not match the sheer power of Azula's rage. The red and orange flames of Zuko clashed with the blue lightning of Azula and collided together with a deafening roar. For the briefest moment the two streams held in balance, twisting and weaving among one another. And then everything went white.
When Katara's eye's cleared once more, she looked up and could not see Zuko; Azula, however, still stood before her, sooty streaks crisscrossing her cheeks. The princess' mad cackle pieced through Katara's ringing ears as Azula rose her clawed hand into the sky once more.
Forgotten by her companions, Mai had succumbed to the strength and resilience of Azula's guards. The final rebels had freed themselves from Katara's ice-prisons and surrounded the vastly outnumbered Mai. She now knelt with hands clasped behind her head. Around her, the guards stood ready to bend hot flames about her should she so much as flinch.
Katara frantically scanned the landscape for Zuko. At last she found him, crumpled on the ground. He was barely conscious as he tried slowly – too slowly – to raise himself to his feet. Azula had nearly finished pulling in the lightning's power. Soon she should let loose a final torrent of fury and Zuko would be nothing more than ash.
No. Katara commanded herself. No. Zuko would live. Zuko must live.
It was midday above the storm, and a full moon was not due for at least a fortnight. Katara's bending powers where weak without her lunar source of energy, but she reached deep within herself for every drop of strength that she possessed. Her head and body ached as Katara searched for just one more ounce of strength. She need more.
As the lightning began to die out in the sky, Azula began to bring her hands together in prayer once more. She was glowing with the ruthless energy and the joy of her brother's imminent defeat.
Katara's lungs began to burn and her heart strained with every beat. She was feverish for her exertion and eyes began to lose focus as her body threatened to black out. Just a little more. The Waterbender strained to find that bit of energy buried deep within herself. Suddenly, her eyes flashed clear – she found it.
With a final euphoric laugh, Azula turned out her palms towards Zuko and began to release the lightning. Katara's hand shot out with a final burst of vigor, and with shaking fingers she Bloodbent Azula's movements by the slightest hair. It was enough.
The lightning swirled about Azula as she lost control of its treacherous power. She screamed as she burned, and frantically attempted to gain control of the fire. It was futile. Azula took step after step backwards until she lost her footing and went tumbling over the cliff's sharp edge.
Katara cringed as Azula's frantic screams seem to go on forever. Finally, the disgraced princess of the Fire Nation hit the raging waters with a back-breaking splash. Calmed at last, Azula was pulled deep beneath the surface by the crashing waves.
There was a moment of silence and disbelief by all present. The rebel guards, seeing their leader fall so suddenly, fled in shock and fear, leaving Mai kneeling in the mud. Katara rose shakily to her feet. Unsure of what to do, she stood silently.
Out of the trio, Zuko seemed to be the first to recover. As soon as he reached his feet, he ran as best he could to the cliff's edge. "Azula…" he whispered. Katara and Mai joined him in staring at the furious waves below. A scent of burned flesh still hung in the stormy air.
"I could have died while you were napping there," growled Mai to Katara. She was ignored by all present.
"Zuko," Katara began. Her heart froze when she noticed there were tears in his eyes.
"I always thought I could save her," Zuko whispered. "My mother begged me to save her."
Mai and Katara could think of no response.
"She wasn't always like this," Zuko continued. "It's just the Fire. It corrupts you if you get power-hungry. It got my father, my grandfather... and Azula too. I always thought I could save her from the Fire."
"Zuko, we need to go," Katara urged. "You're injured - there could be more rebels coming. We need to go."
Zuko turned suddenly and grasped Katara by the shoulders. He dug into her with his teary gaze. "She deserved better than this."
The warmth had vanished from his eyes.
The first rays of sunlight had finally stretched forth to stroke at Katara's cheek. Aang had seated himself floating upon the gentle cove waters next to her, and together the pair had regarded the sunrise in silence. Aang knew there was nothing he could say that would truly break Katara's despondency, so instead he offered his quiet support and love in presence alone.
"Well," Katara finally spoke in a small voice. "I guess we should go."
Aang only nodded.
Lady Mai sat dozing, hands neatly folded in her lap. She was alone, save for the sleeping form of Zuko. The intruders had left hour ago, practically running after the prissy Waterbender, leaving Mai and her beloved alone once more. If the usual routine was to be continued, in a few more hours Mai would rise, whisper gently into Zuko's ear, and then depart to bathe and perhaps even eat. She would return before the first servants arrived with Zuko's morning broth, and resume her vigil from the corner of the prince's room. Silent. Stony. Ever devoted.
Near the lavish balcony doors, a nearly inaudible creak emanated from the floor boards. Mai remained motionless. The creak was followed quickly by another and another and then finally a dull thump. With lightning speed, Mai unfroze and hurled a hidden dagger at the noise's origin. Thud. The dagger lodged itself into the wall.
Mai shot to her feet and sped silently to the balcony. With a flourishing kick, she parted the doors and landed with silver daggers in both hands. The terrace was empty. She dashed to the railing and looked over the edge. Nothing. Mai was alone.
Bewildered, the Lady wandered back into Zuko's chambers. She stopped to regard her dagger still gently vibrating in the wall. Dreams. She had had few until lately. Too many hours overflowing with boredom had brought her to this. Simple shadows and the groans of an ancient palace were beginning to wreak havoc on her nerves.
Still perturbed, Mai strode to kneel at Zuko's side. The prince was sleeping more peacefully than he had in weeks. With perfect grace, Mai leaned in to whisper into Zuko's waiting ear.
When she had finished her secret conference, Mai rose, folded her hands in front of her, and moved to depart for her morning errands.
"Mai…" a harsh whisper came from behind her. Zuko was awake.
She was at his side in an instant. Zuko rose a weak and shaky hand towards her. Mai enclosed it in her own while she fought to keep her face free from emotion.
"Mai," Zuko began once more. "Mai… so …so glad it's you."
Unnoticed, Katara and Aang stood silently in the entry way. Katara lowered her head and walked away. The warmth was gone forever.
Hmm… that was rough. I'm having a really problem dealing with the cheese. As much as I love Avatar, there is a huge cheese factor – especially in their conversations. To get rid of it would be unfaithful to the story, but to keep it is…just so very, very cheesy. So, I have Chapter 5 mapped out in my head, but no idea when/if it will be coming out. I'm not proud of this chapter at all, so my motivation is at an all time low.
As always, thanks for reading. Anyone who reviews gets a gold star. Anyone who reviews that also reviewed for me a year ago gets cake.
Also, I am looking for an expert on Warcraft lore, including Warcraft I – III and expansions, World of Warcraft, the books, the graphic novels and everything else. I am looking to write something as a gift in the near future, so some expertise would be appreciated.
I am also considering acquiring a Beta reader for this story, if I do decide to continue. Send me an email if you're interested.