Well this chapter was one of the very first scenes I thought up when I started on this story. I hope you enjoy it.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
"Ow, ow, ow!"
"Stop struggling and settle down so I can heal you properly, Toph." Katara didn't look up as she continued to treat the girl's wounds. "Honestly! I'm surprised you got away with as few burns as you did after an all-out brawl like that."
"Oh, I was holding back," Azula said with a smile. Or at least she would have smiled but there was a bruise on her cheek that ached everything time she moved her cheek muscles so she settled for a look of studied insouciance. "So it's no surprise she's not that badly wounded."
"Sure you were, princess." Toph leaned back and folded her hands behind her head, only wincing slightly as she aggravated the burn wound on her left palm. Azula landing that strike had been the impetus for Katara to step in and declare the match over, she recalled. "That's why you were doubled over and gasping like a piranha-goat on land once it was called, right? Ooh, yeah, how's that knee of yours? Still hurt?"
"My knee is fine, thank you very much," she said as she leaned back against the cool stone slab. "It was barely a glancing blow."
"Not what I remember. In fact, what I do remember is-"
"Both of you be quiet!" Katara snapped. "I'm trying to concentrate here!" She turned and faced Azula with a narrow-eyed glare. "I haven't even started with healing you yet, so you can just sit there and wait patiently!"
"... You'd be okay with healing me?" Azula said with a raised eyebrow after a moment of hesitation. Not that she truly cared, but she had to admit that was a surprising admission coming from someone as hostile as the waterbender.
The waterbender's lips drew together in a thin, angry line. "You're a part of our team now, so that means I take care of you like I would the others." she stood up from Toph, a glimmering wrap of water still flowing around her hands. "You can lie back and get some rest first, Toph. I'll deal with your more minor wounds later."
She walked over and crouched beside Azula. "I may not like it, but unlike some people, I understand the meaning of duty."
"Duty...?" Azula snorted as she raised her arm to let the waterbender take a look at the bruise that had formed near the shoulder. "What would a peasant living in an ice hut in the southern wastes know of duty?"
The water that had been placed on her arm suddenly turned cold. Very cold.
The waterbender looked up at Azula, her face eerily impassive. "And what," she said in a voice devoid of emotion, "would a spoiled royal princess who has spent her life growing fat on the spoils of the people you enslaved and oppressed, know of duty either?"
Silence descended upon the both of them. After a long moment, the water that was freezing her arm slowly returned to its usual warmth and Katara continued her work.
After she had finished looking after both Azula and Toph, Katara stood, turned, and walked away without a word.
"Y'know," Toph said, a lazy drawl in a voice. "I get that you're not keen on being buddy-buddy with us and all, but did they ever teach you any tact in Fire Nation playschool?"
Azula rolled her eyes and wondered if Toph's mysterious earthsense was good enough to sense that tiny motion. "Toph, you are the last person of this group who has the right to lecture me on tact."
"Princess, I'm not gonna say I've got sugar on my tongue but I don't go out of my way to insult other people's hometowns and culture with every breath I take."
"Does it matter if I do?" Azula pulled herself upright. "She hates me. And she's not been willing to trust me ever since I ended up with you all, and she makes no attempt to hide it. I'm not going to say not trusting me isn't the wise choice," a smirk graced her lips, "but in that case, why should I treat her civilly?"
Toph merely shook her head and leaned back. "Works both ways, princess. Maybe if you tried first she'd accept the gesture and open up a little too."
And why should I be the one who has to make the first move? Azula kept that thought to herself as her gaze flitted to the waterbender walking away.
Well, that wasn't a priority right now. Instead she turned to look at Toph.
"So, Toph. I won't deny you gave me a pretty good workout-"
"Heh. Darn right I did."
"- but unfortunately I don't think I got to witness any of your metalbending?"
"...Well, not much metal to bend up here, after all." Toph sat up and the metal band around her wrist began to wriggle.
"How does it work, anyway? I was always thought that the earthbenders' inability to control metal was always a major roadblock for them."
"Not sure you'd understand it..." Toph frowned and tapped her chin. "I mean, I got no idea how to explain it to someone who can't bend earth in the first place. But, well, I guess I sense the earth that's still there in the metal? And then I bend that, and that makes the metal move too."
"Interesting," Azula nodded thoughtfully. "So, one could say it's a higher-level application of basic earthbending principles?"
"I guess, about the higher-level thing anyway. You'd probably need to be a really good earthbender before you could try to work with metal at all," Toph said. "Come to think of it, I guess it'd be pretty similar to what you do with that lightning of yours?"
"True." Azula cocked her head to one side. "Being able to generate lightning is an extreme rarity amongst Firebenders. Right now, only members of the royal family are known Lightningbenders."
"Well, mastery is never a done deal, in the end." Toph shrugged and leaned her head back. "Everyone's gonna keep raising the bar for techniques and skills... in all sorts of ways. Even ones you may not like."
Azula raised an eyebrow. "They way you say that makes it sound like there's more to it than just idle talk."
Toph heaved a sigh. "Okay, so... Katara's also figured out a new level in waterbending. Or, more like she was kinda taught it by someone who already knows."
"It's called bloodbending. The idea is you bend the blood in someone's body so you can basically control them like a puppet. From what I understand, it's difficult enough that you can only do it during a full moon, when the waterbending is at its peak. But still. Kinda creepy as far as bending powers go. Even Katara seemed kinda scared of her own power."
Azula found herself silent as she absorbed this new information. Then, she looked once more at the direction that Katara had walked off in. And one hand moved to begin massaging her bruised wrist.
And then, as if from far away, she heard the shout from Aang that he had caught sight of Appa. Zuko had returned.
"Azula! Help me!"
Her eyes flew open and she jerked upright again. One hand was instinctively thrust out, a moment away from summoning a ball of flame to ward away the darkness.
There was nothing there. No one, no enemies, and definitely no Ty Lee crying out for help.
She was in a bed, in a room of the Western Air Temple. Alone.
She steadied her breathing, closed her eyes, and was on the verge of lying back down and going back to sleep when she heard the soft pad of footfalls.
"Three nights in a row?" A sleepy voice, broken halfway through with a yawn as Toph appeared in the doorway of her room. "I've been debating keeping quiet about this, but seriously. You sure you're all right, princess?"
"It's none of your concern. Go back to bed."
Toph's response was to settle herself down onto the wooden chair and Azula silently reflected that Toph referring to earthbenders as 'stubborn' may have been more accurate than she had surmised at first.
"Maybe you're right. Maybe it's none of my business. But I'm not doing this for poor old me, you know. You could use the talk. Get some of the weight off your chest. Trust me, it helps."
Azula remained silent and looked away. She could admit that she felt more at ease in Toph's presence than most anyone else in the Temple, but that was still a long way away from letting her – or anyone – into her thoughts.
But the earthbender remained sitting there, arms folded, and apparently not taking Azula's silence as a sign that the conversation was over. Or maybe she realized it but simply didn't care and wasn't going to budge until Azula said something.
She suddenly realized she missed having the ability to simply order people out of her room.
"Still nothing? Sheesh. Y'know, I figured the Fire Nation people would be more, what's the word? Fiery. Once you get to know them and all. But you're all so broody! Like Zuko! When he came back he just stormed off to his room with barely a word. And Mai doesn't ever speak except to complain about something."
"You're being extremely annoying, you know that?"
Even in the gloomy darkness, she could see a flash of pale white as Toph grinned.
"Turns out I'm not so good with tact either, princess."
Azula sighed. Maybe if she just said a little, she'd be able to get Toph out of her room.
"It was at the Boiling Rock. We were making our getaway, and I miscalculated. The Fire Nation had brought reinforcements when I wasn't expecting any. We were still able to get away because one of my... because Ty Lee stayed back and bought time for the rest of us to go."
"... And you have nightmares because you're worried about her?"
Because it means I failed. And someone else paid the price for my failure. Azula shook her head. "That's all you're getting out of me. Now let me rest."
Without waiting for a reply, Azula rolled over and closed her eyes. Despite that, she could tell that Toph was still sitting there silently.
Finally, after a long moment, there was a frustrated sigh and the sound of Toph standing.
"So maybe I read you all wrong, but I figured if you're that upset and worried about someone, you'd be the sort of person to go do something about it. Anyway, sweet dreams."
The soft pad of feet as Toph walked out of the room.
Alone once more, Azula squeezed her eyes shut and tried to get to sleep as Toph's parting words rolled about in her mind.
"You need to borrow Appa for a few days?" Aang repeated surprise written all over his face. "What do you need him for?"
"There are several communication bases to the south that coordinate troop activity," Azula explained. "I want to infiltrate them and see what information I can find on what they've been doing with the prisoners ever since the Boiling Rock became compromised. And keep your eye on the fire! Don't lose focus!"
Aang winced and looked up at the orb of flame suspended over his head. He was standing with both arms stretching up, trying to hold the fire steady and not letting it drift away.
"Sorry," he said. "And I'm guessing this has to do with that Ty Lee person, right?"
"Yes. I'm not sure if her status as a noble will still afford her any privileges, given that she was captured while helping me escape." She felt her own jaw clench harder at the thought. "But it's still likely she won't be send to any old random prison. We've more specialized cells all over our territory that would be more suited for keeping her. If I can find out which one, then we can start making plans to free her."
"More specialized cells?" The male water peasant had been observing their lesson silently until now spoke up. "Like what?"
"Oh, all sorts. Some people the Fire Nation just want disappeared permanently, for example, but don't want to execute just yet. And of course there are the earthbenders and waterbenders we captured during raids-"
"What?" The startled cry had come from the waterbender who had been doing her own exercises off to the side. But at the mention of 'raids' the water she had been bending fell and spattered to the floor as she whirled to face Azula. "What raids are you talking about?"
Azula frowned, and casting a quick glance to ensure that Aang was still keeping his fireball stable, she turned to regard the waterbender. "The raids we carried out on the Southern Water Tribes, of course. Mostly aimed at getting rid of any waterbenders they might have happened to produce. Surely you've experienced some before?"
"Oh, I experienced them all right," Katara said as she advanced on Azula, jaw tight and eyes blazing with fury. "Your raids took away everything from us! Our homes, our livelihoods! My mother!"
Azula blinked at the unexpected outburst, but then shook her head. "And what do you want me to do, then? Apologize on their behalf?"
"No," she snorted. "You wouldn't mean it anyway."
She ignored Aang as she continued walking closer to Azula. "But you can help me with one thing."
Azula remained silent, waiting.
"You're going to find those communication bases? Then I'm coming with you. If they have the information you say they have I'll be able to find the group, and the person who killed my mother."
"Find the-" Aang looked down at her as the fireball dissipated, his lesson forgotten for now. "Katara, what would doing that accomplish?"
Azula noted how the waterbender's eyes narrowed and her fists clenched. "You don't understand, Aang. It's okay. I knew you wouldn't."
"What?" Aang stood straighter. "Katara, of course I understand! Everyone feels anger and pain when someone they care about gets taken away from them! How do you think I felt when," he gestured wildly to the temple that stood all around them, "I found out what the Fire Nation did to my people?"
"And now we're working to punish the Fire Nation for what they did to the your people, aren't we?" She demanded. "So what's wrong with me hunting those men down and getting justice for what they did to my mother?"
The Avatar's grey eyes were steady as he took one step closer. "I don't think this is about justice, Katara. For you, this is revenge, plain and simple."
"And what's wrong with that?" her voice was cracking now. "What's wrong with taking revenge on the people who deserve it?"
"Katara, please, calm down," the water peasant walked over and lay a hand on her shoulder, which was just as quickly thrown off with a violent shrug. "I know how you feel about our mother, but I agree with Aang on this."
"Then you didn't love mom the way I did!" Her yell was raw and brimming with pain.
A shocked silence fell upon the entire group and for a long moment, no one moved.
"I'll be leaving at noon," Azula said, speaking calmly as if describing the weather. She turned to fix Katara with a cool gaze. "If you want to come along, feel free. Just be ready by then."
And without waiting for a response, she turned and headed further into the temple.
"Wow, that was some spat out there, huh?"
"I'm sorry, what did I say that sounded like 'Please, Toph, come in and bother me while I'm busy?'" Azula didn't look up as she continued packing for the journey. She was travelling light, of course, so nothing but essentials...
"Love you too, princess," Toph said as she flopped down on Azula's bed. "Just wanted to ask how long you think this trip is going to take."
"Well, a rough estimate of two days out, and another two days coming back," she paused and tugged at her bangs once, "not counting time spent searching for the information we're both after. And I'll have to make allowances in case the waterbender gets any fancy ideas about hunting down the Southern Raiders."
"The Southern-" Toph sighed and slumped further down on the bed. "You already knew which group it was that hunted down Katara's mom. Of course you did."
"Of course I know they're the group responsible. The waterbenders could have posed a serious threat to us if we let them grow in number, so we needed to keep updated on such activities." Azula rubbed her forehead. "And if I were still on the side of the Fire Nation military sooner or later I'd have to go down and ask how they managed to miss such a talented waterbender like her for so long."
"... Want me to come with?" Toph said after a moment of silence. "I mean, couldn't hurt to have some extra muscle, right?"
"Are you worried about me, Toph? How unlike you."
"More worried the two of you don't last an hour before you start trying to kill each other."
"I'll be fine. But thanks for the offer."
Toph gave a small smile and a wave of her hand before leaving the room. And a moment later, another set of footsteps heading her way.
"... Azula?" A new voice from the doorway, sounding hesitant. Azula straightened and turned to face the newcomer.
"Avatar," she nodded in acknowledgement. "I'll leave the Firebending training to my brother for at least the next few days. He's already demonstrated that his Firebending is back and more potent than ever, so there shouldn't be any real trouble."
"Okay, that should be fine, but..." he stepped into the room and took a deep breath. "Look, I'm not sure how to say this."
"You don't need to worry about offending me." She had already turned back to packing her things.
"I... uh, I guess you're not exactly... against the idea of Katara taking revenge?"
"Her choices are her own," Azula said as she straightened and turned to face Aang. "If she wishes to go down that path, who am I to stop her?"
He looked upset for a moment. "Revenge is like a two-headed ratviper. If you want to hurt your enemy with it, you'll end up poisoning yourself too."
"I don't know what you you're talking about." Azula shook her head once. "I've taken revenge for plenty of things in my life, from small slights to people threatening my brother. And I'm no worse off for it."
The Avatar grew quiet for a long moment as he looked at her, and his expression was not that of a boy who was not even a teen, but one of ageless, ancient wisdom that had seen far, far too much already. "Do you really think so?"
She frowned, and for a moment she felt uncertain. "What do you mean?"
"Sorry, I'm just... look, I know you don't really disagree with what Katara wants to do, but... could you please try to keep her from going too far?"
Her laughter was harsh. "Avatar, I am the last person on this planet you should ask to act as a moderating influence."
"... Still, can I ask this favour? Please?"
She was silent for a long moment before heaving a sigh. "I'll keep an eye on her. But I make no promises. And in the same vein, I'd like to ask for some help with my brother."
"Zuko?" Aang quirked an eyebrow. "What about him?"
"He's been even more withdrawn and moody than normal ever since he came back from his excursion to the Sun Warrior temple. I don't know what happened and he's been avoiding me about it as well. He'll be training you the next few days, so if it's possible, see what you can find that's got him in a bad mood."
"All right, got it," he nodded, and something like a smile appeared on his face. "Good luck! I hope you find what it is you're looking for."
Azula nodded back in response and turned her gaze to the window. Outside, the sky shone a brilliant blue.
"So do I," she murmured, mostly to herself.
"You're on time," Azula said as she walked towards the waterbender. "That's good. Well then, let's be on our way."
She gave no response as she began to climb up Appa's back.
"Katara, wait!" she heard the Avatar's call and spared a glance back.
"Don't try to stop me, Aang." The waterbender's face was set in an expression of angry determination. Silently, Azula stepped aside to let Katara settle down and grab the reins. After all, the beast would be more used to having her control him.
"I wasn't going to," he took a deep breath as he looked up at her. "It's just... I think you need to really look deep inside yourself. Is this what you really want? And please, don't act rashly until you find your answer."
Katara's expression softened. Slightly, ever so slightly. And then, "Yip yip, Appa!" And Azula found herself being lifted into the air by the bison.
In seconds, the temple behind them had shrunk away into a small dot, barely distinguishable from the rest of the rocky cliffs around it.
"All right," Katara said without looking back. "Where to?"
"Due south for a day at least," Azula pulled out the maps she had packed and passed a spare one to the waterbender, who accepted it with a nod. "Once we're past the southern coast of the Fire Nation, that'll be the next step."
After that, they both grew quiet, each wrapped up in their own thoughts. Azula shook her head once and leaned back in the wooden seat, closing her eyes. Might as well take the time to rest until it was her turn to guide the bison.
The journey was overall uneventful, and soon enough, they were at the communications base Azula had decided would be their first port of call. The sun was just setting as the installation came into view and they landed on a nearby cliff to scout the area and keep Appa hidden.
The base itself was on an island – more of a rock, really – in the middle of the ocean, isolated from the rest of the world.
"So, we just bust in and get the info we need?"
"And alert every other base in the region that their network is compromised?" Azula sighed and shook her head. "No. For this one, we need to make sure we don't get spotted."
"All right, I'm on it."
The two of them made their way down to the sea level, where the waterbender quickly froze a raft of ice, and Azula had to acknowledge that waterbending did come in handy for situations like these.
"Hang on," a smirk had appeared on the waterbender's face. "This could be a bumpy ride."
Several minutes later Azula stumbled off the raft and shook her head. She didn't get seasick easily, but the way the waterbender had handled the raft was something else.
"Sorry about the rough ride. It's not as easy to stabilize a raft like you would a boat."
Azula simply shook her head once more before pointing at the tower. "I'll be searching for movement records of airships and ships transporting prisoners from the Boiling Rock. As for you..."
"I need to find out which group it was that raided my village first."
Azula sighed. "No need. The only naval group in the region that's dedicated to controlling the waterbender population is the Southern Raiders. They fly the emblem of the black sea raven, so it'll be easy for us to discover their location once we find the mapping station."
She had taken several steps before she realized that the waterbender had halted and was staring at her.
"What is it?"
"'Controlling the waterbender population'," she said softly. "Sounds really neat when you put it that way, doesn't it. Really nice and clinical."
"Are you here to argue semantics or are you here to find out information on the people you want to take revenge on?"
Katara didn't reply, instead walking up the dirt trail and pushing past Azula as she did so.
Most Fire Nation military installation were designed to be similar, and it didn't take long for Azula to locate the records room where important information was being kept.
"The messenger hawks keep a record of all important troop movements," she explained to Katara. To her credit, the waterbender was at least helping Azula with scanning dispatch information from the day that they had broken out of the Boiling Rock. "So we should be able to find the information I need here."
"And then what?'
The question gave Azula paused, but only for a moment. "I won't be able to act on it tonight, if that's what you're asking. After this business is finished here, we'll head back to our base of operations and I can make a plan for how to free Ty Lee."
There was no response save the rustling of paper. And then-
"I think this might be it. Or related to it," the waterbender handed her a sheaf of dispatch notes.
"Two steamships, carrying prisoners away from the Boiling Rock, the day after our breakout." Azula nodded, and suddenly her heart felt a bit lighter. "Good work. Now let's find the paper trail for where the two ships ended up."
Silence fell upon the two of them once more until Azula coughed.
"Hm? What is it?" Katara was distracted, flipping through another stack of notes.
"Thanks. For your help."
The waterbender placed the stack down and sighed. "You really care about this friend of yours, don't you?"
I suppose I do. Azula nodded once and left it at that.
"So maybe that's why I'm helping you. You caring about this person... you seem more human when you're like this."
She couldn't help herself – she let out a snort of laughter. "So that's how you see me? Some inhuman monster?"
The brief moment of understanding and levity was gone from the waterbender's face. "Can you honestly tell me you've given me a single reason to see you in any other way?"
Azula decided not to reply, instead pulling out another set of dispatches. And then a smile crossed her face.
"This should be it," she said as the waterbender craned her neck over to look. "Wana Island is located near the north-east shores. Most people think it's deserted. But we've been using it as place to keep political detainees we don't want the rest of the world to remember. And one of the ships was headed there..." she trailed off.
Do they consider Ty Lee dangerous because of her relations to me?
"All right, so you've found what you came for."
"Indeed," Azula said as she turned to the doorway. "And I know where to get the information you want, so follow me."
Azula left the room, and Katara fell in behind her like a shadow.
"Yip yip, Appa."
As the air bison took to the skies, Katara couldn't help the feeling of hot pressure building in her chest. She was so close!
"Whale Tail Island," Azula said as she pointed down at the map. There was a triangular flag marked where she was pointing, one that bore the emblem of a sea raven.
"The Southern Raiders, yes." Azula was already turning away from the map. "It's about a day's travel from here, at least at the speed the air bison can travel at."
"All right, then we-"
"Hey!" A new voice, gruff and heavy. "Which of you idiots left the lights on?"
"Time to go," Azula said as she popped open the nearby window and vanished through it.
"Wha – hey! Wait for me!"
"Waterbender." The voice interrupted her thoughts.
"I have a name."
"Go get some rest," Azula continued talking as if she hadn't heard her. "I'll take over for now. You need to be ready for when we reach them around nightfall."
Katara shook her head. "I'll be fine. I'm more than strong enough now." Almost unconsciously, her grip on the reins tightened. "I'm not a helpless little girl anymore. And I won't run away."
The Fire Nation princess was silent for a long moment. And then, a sigh. "How old were you?"
"When they killed your mother. How old were you?"
"... Seven. Why do you ask?"
Azula didn't reply, but when Katara looked back, she saw an odd expression her face. As if she had just realized something unpleasant. She shrugged it off and shook her head.
Just focus. Focus on the task ahead, and everything else could be sorted out later.
The black ship of the Southern Raiders loomed in the distance, vast and silent.
"Just wait here, okay, Appa? We'll be back soon." As the waterbender calmed the beast down and told him to wait, Azula paced about, thinking hard about the information she had received earlier in the day.
Seven years ago... Azula cupped her chin. The man in charge back then would have been...
Well, this could get interesting. Now, how to play this?
"Are you ready?"
She turned to face Katara and nodded once.
Once more, another ice raft. This time, her glide forward was slower. More deliberate.
This time, the waterbender was hunting. Stalking her prey, slowly but surely.
Azula had to hide a smile.
Soon enough, they were in the shadow of the huge ship. Katara flexed her fingers, and rivulets of water traced themselves upwards along the vessel's cavernous side. Another gesture, and the water droplets bunched themselves up and froze into handholds that would allow for climbing up the side of the ship.
Azula raised her eyes and marvelled at the waterbender's dexterity and control. She might have made a fine Firebender, at that.
"I'll send a rope down," Katara said as she began climbing.
"You don't want me using this?" Azula gestured to the icy lumps dotting the side of the ship.
Katara gave her an odd look. "I figured a Firebender wouldn't want to be grabbing onto ice."
Azula was stuck watching as Katara quickly vanished over the edge of the ship. Idly, she wondered how long the ice raft would last without its creator being there to maintain it, and decided she preferred not to find out.
And in the distance, a splash. Then two more.
And then, dark and snakelike, the rope was lowered so Azula could grab onto it.
In a moment, she was on the empty deck as well.
"I see you got rid of the guards already. Not bad."
"Where are the captain's quarters?"
"Going there directly?"
"I remember," Katara said through gritted teeth. "That day. The person who killed my mother... he had the captain's insignia on his uniform. So, find the captain, and I find my target."
… Just as I thought. "It's this way," Azula gestured and began walking. "Follow me."
They ran into one or two more patrols on the way, and left the soldiers lying where they fell, soaked and singed. In a matter of minutes, they were standing before a heavy steel door.
"Want any help?" Azula asked tonelessly. From the look in Katara's eyes she knew what the answer was going to be.
"No," her voice was low, dark. Seething with barely restrained fury. "He's mine."
A gush of water slammed into the door and froze. The door, made brittle by the sudden and extreme change in temperature, crumpled as the waterbender flicked her fingers to send another blast of water into the doorway. Without a moment's hesitation, she leapt through the ruined doorway, leaving Azula to follow at a more leisurely pace.
As she entered the room, she could see that the captain was now defending himself – and he was a moderately skilled Firebender. Enough so that Katara hadn't been able to immediately take him down, at any rate.
As she watched, the man dodged another tentacle of water that lashed at him, and retaliated with another fireblast of his own.
Or, tried to retaliate.
Azula's eyes narrowed as the man's body froze mid gesture. His entire body was now trembling from some unseen strain. And then his arms jerked behind him, folding into each other behind his back.
"Wha – what's happening?" he gasped out. "My body – it's -"
"..." Azula shifted her gaze to stare out the window
Up in the night sky, a full moon was shining.
A loud thump alerted her to the fact that the waterbender had used her control over the man to slam him onto the floor. And then she was already leaping forward, water swirling around one hand and sharpening into a knife of gleaming ice.
Taking a deep breath, Azula took a single step forward. Silently, her fingers parted, and she felt the energy in the air, sharpening. Stabilizing.
"Now," the waterbender's voice was a low growl, "before I end you, I want you to remember. I want you to know exactly who I am, and why I'm doing this to you."
"Wh – what are you talking about? I don't know anything!"
"Seven years ago, the southern water tribes. Do you remember your raids? We were already on the brink of destruction, forced to flee into the wastes and scrape together what we could to survive. And then you came. And you killed her. You killed my mother!"
The last words were almost an incoherent shriek. Azula's eyes narrowed and she shifted her arm in preparation. To fire, if it became necessary.
"No! I never! I didn't kill your mother, I swear!"
"No, it's the truth! I – I wasn't even captain seven years ago!"
The waterbender froze. "What...?"
"It's true! I only took this post four years ago! I know nothing about the raid! I swear!"
If Azula hadn't known any better she could have sworn Katara had turned to stone. For a long moment, there was no movement, no sound.
And then -
A scream of rage and frustration, as the sharpened ice in Katara's hand became water again. The water that she had used to freeze open the door flowed to her and before the terrified captain could say anything else she had formed a tentacle of water, picked him up and thrown him across the room.
He slammed into the far wall with a clang and then crumpled to the floor and lay still.
Shaking her head, Azula silently released the lightning bolt she had been holding. It wouldn't have been enough to kill Katara by any means, just stun her while she was distracted with her interrogation, but, well, better that she hadn't had to use it at all.
Breathing heavily, Katara turned and all but dashed out the doorway.
Silently, Azula followed her.
And once she reached the deck, the scream that had been building within Katara was released and she howled her anguish to the night sky.
"Nothing!" She screamed. "I came all this way out here – I was so close! – and nothing! I thought I'd finally had him! I thought I could find my mother's killer and at last I could..." she broke off, panting heavily. "But no! No, I find out it's been four years since he left, and I don't know anything! I have no leads to go on."
"The captain seven years ago was a man named Yon Rha. He retired four years ago, with full military honours," Azula said as she stepped out onto the deck as well. "And if memory serves, he decided to go become a vegetable farmer."
"What?" Katara was now staring at Azula, an unreadable expression on her face.
"As I told you earlier, the Southern Raiders are responsible for keeping the entirety of the southern region's waterbenders in check. As far as Fire Nation Navy goes, they're a pretty big deal." She shrugged and took another step forward. "So, of course, something like a transfer of power from one leader to another would be something to pay attention to." Just one of hundreds upon hundreds of details about the military that she had found important enough to be noted down for future reference.
"You... knew..." she was speaking slowly, as if she was having trouble forcing the words out of her mouth. "The... entire time... you knew! The man I was looking for wasn't on this ship at all!"
"Consider it a test. I wanted to see how you acted in front of the current captain before I made my decision regarding the real culprit." Her expression hardened. "Congratulations. You failed. I'm not telling you where Yon Rha is."
A long moment of silence. And then-
"Aang. It's Aang. He set you up for this." Her fists were clenched now, and trembling.
"What a surprise. The twelve-year old boy who happens to be the Spirit of Balance thinks revenge is bad. Now, don't get me wrong," Azula shrugged her shoulders, "We both know I don't give an owl-rat's feather for what you want to do to the man. But the Avatar asked this of me, and right now I care a lot more about staying in his favour than yours."
The two of them stared, eyes filled with hatred, at each other for a long moment. And Azula took a deep breath and forced a smile onto her face.
"And, if it's any consolation, you've actually made me rather glad tonight."
"Well, for one thing, it allowed me to confirm what I always suspected," Azula dropped the smile, "that deep down inside, you're just as ugly as I am."
There was a fractional widening of the waterbender's eye, a twitch of her arm, almost too fast to follow – and then there was a wave of water rushing at Azula.
Azula dodged to the side as fast as she could, feeling the wind part around her from the force of the strike.
"Don't you dare. Claim that I'm anything like you!"
"Oh, really," Azula took a casual step backwards, closer to the centre of the ship. If Katara was going to summon more water, it would come from the sides. "Then what do you call what you did back there?"
"What I did?"
"You didn't do it cleanly or quickly. Oh no, you taunted him. You tormented him. You wanted him to suffer. You wanted him to be afraid. To know that his life was in your hands. That's why you bloodbent him instead of just freezing him to the wall." She smiled, knowing that she'd struck a nerve. "Quite the rush isn't it? To feel so big, looking down on someone so powerless, so... small."
"No! No, that's nothing like what you do! He deserved it!"
"Did he?" Azula raised an eyebrow. "Did you even bother to confirm who he was before you attacked? Do you know what this man has done to warrant such treatment? Because he's not the one who killed your mother, in case you forgot."
"Shut up." Katara was trembling now, a dark rage festering in her eyes.
"But maybe it's because he's Fire Nation military. So obviously he's an evil, evil man who probably kicks puppy-doves and steals sweets from children. I mean, that's what we all do, isn't it? The big, bad Fire Nation?"
"And really, don't think I don't see it. What you were doing to that man, you don't wish it was him lying crumpled and helpless under you. You wish it was me-"
Suddenly Azula felt her legs twisting away under her, and then her knees slammed hard against the cold steel of the ship deck.
Her arms were wrenched with incredible force behind her as well, and then her head was twisted upwards so she had to look Katara in the eye as the waterbender advanced on her, one hand stretched out and curled into a claw.
"Tell me where Yon Rha is. Right. Now." Her voice was trembling with pent up emotion.
Azula took in the situation as calmly as she could, tried moving her arms – no, they wouldn't budge. Not an inch.
"Or else?" she said. Her own voice was calm. Soft.
Katara's face curled back into a snarl, and Azula saw a globe of water floating up to hover behind her shoulder.
Water that could instantly be turned into a hail of razor sharp icicles and sent flying at Azula.
There was a long, long moment of complete silence, the two women – the two girls – locked in a battle of wills as they stared at each other. One helpless under the other's power.
Neither moved. Neither could move. One was held in place by the other, and the other was held in place by her own inner turmoil.
And then, as if a string had been cut, Azula felt the pressure on her limbs vanish and she collapsed to the deck in a boneless heap.
In front of her, Katara lowered her hand. The water that had been hovering nearby splashed to the ground harmlessly. She stood completely still, save for her shoulders shaking with what must have been silent sobs.
"Well, look at that," Azula said as she kept her gaze fixed steadily upwards, at the vast blackness of the night sky. "You're not nearly as bad as me, after all."
Katara merely sank to her knees, one hand reaching up to cover her face.
The two of them remained that way for a long, timeless moment. And then Azula closed her eyes.
"When I was eight years old, my mother was banished from the palace."
Katara did not say anything, but Azula could tell she was listening.
"She assassinated someone. She did it to protect her son. To protect Zuko. I never saw her again after that night. I spent weeks, months, wondering where in the world she could have gone off to.
"After a while, I decided the best way to deal with it was to silence it. So I took all the resentment, all the anger and grief I felt at losing my mother. I crushed it all into a tiny, tiny little ball of pain and rage. And then I stuffed it deep into a corner of my heart and then I never let anyone see it ever again.
"And you know something?" She laughed, the sound harsh against what had been the quiet night. "They called me a monster for it. The girl who didn't care that her own mother had disappeared. The girl who continued training and lessons as if nothing had happened. The girl so perfect she became broken instead. A monster. Worse than an animal because after all, animals still care about their kin."
Katara exhaled now, a long low breath.
"You're not a monster. You're a person. For better or for worse, you get to choose how to act. And then we all have to live with the choices we made. Or didn't make, in this case."
She stood now, and her gaze travelled to the horizon.
"Come on... Azula." A hand was extended towards her. "Let's go home."
Home wasn't a temple high in the cliffs that belonged to a long-dead race.
But it was close enough for now.
Reaching out, she grasped onto Katara's hand and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet.
Thanks for reading. Reviews and commentary would be very much appreciated.