Detour Sign

(a missing scene from Crossroads of Destiny)

By Kimberly T. (email: kimbertow AT yahoo etc)

Usual disclaimers and acknowledgements apply; I don't own 'em, and I'm not making a dime off this, it's purely to get the plot bunnies out of my head!

It was the finest work Azula had ever done. In less than three days, she'd done what her fat old uncle hadn't been able to do in six hundred days; take over the city of Ba Sing Se! That old fool Long Feng thought he was still in charge even behind bars, but Azula knew better. The Dai Li were hers now, hers to command, and with them she had the entire vast city of Ba Sing Se all gift-wrapped for the Fire Nation.

It was true that the Avatar, the single greatest threat to the Fire Nation's plans of conquest, was still at large. And there were still a few stubborn courtiers at home who found quiet ways to remind others that Prince Zuko, the firstborn, was still hunting the Avatar as per his terms of banishment; if her brother did capture the Avatar, that would end his exile and he'd be able to return home as a hero of the Fire Nation.

But Azula didn't have to hunt the Avatar. Not with the Avatar's girlfriend and waterbending teacher now imprisoned below the palace! No, with the girl imprisoned, the Avatar would come to her. He'd come, and Azula would be ready for him… Capturing Ba Sing Se with such ease and killing the Avatar! Not only would Father be bursting with pride in her; that would remove all doubt in everyone's minds as to who deserved to be heir to the Fire Lord throne!

And as an added bonus just for Azula alone, Zuko was imprisoned in a secret chamber below the palace! Stuck down there just waiting there for her to decide exactly how to kill him and make herself the sole and undisputed heir to the throne!

There was a good chance that the waterbender in the cell with him would kill him for her; the Dai Li had said that when they'd dumped him down into the cell with her, the girl's scream of fury had echoed back up the tunnel to them. If she did kill the crown prince, that would be all the excuse that the Fire Nation needed to step up from just raiding the Southern Water Tribe to mounting a full invasion and wiping them out for good! …After they built more ships to replace the ones lost at the North Pole, that is. But the Southern tribe was already weakened by all the raids that had taken their waterbenders; destroying them would be relatively easy and the victory would improve the Navy's morale.

And if the waterbender girl didn't kill Zuko, there were lots of other ways. She could order the Dai Li to arrange for an 'accident' to befall him… Oooh, killed while escaping! There was a fine idea! After all, officially she was just holding him for questioning, to learn where their uncle might have gone into hiding. Her brother was just an utter failure, but Iroh had proven himself a traitor to the throne, and had escaped capture by the Dai Li; as they'd been living in this city for a while, Zuko would know where their uncle was most likely to go to ground. Suppose Zuko tried to escape his held-for-questioning-only custody and rejoin his uncle, but caused a deadly rockslide in the process? It would be easy to make the people back home believe it; everyone knew that poor Zu-zu was never lucky…

Her happy musings were interrupted by a Dai Li agent, one holding a captured hawk in his rock-gloved hands. A messenger hawk from the Fire Nation, one that had been caught soaring right over the palace… Azula frowned and gestured for the hawk to be brought to her.

The paper in the hawk's message tube appeared to be blank, but Azula knew better. She created a tiny flame on one fingertip, passed it under the paper, and read the message that was written in heat-sensitive ink. The revealed message was still encrypted, but she knew the key; knew it as well as she knew the two who had taught it to her. She frowned again, and summoned more Dai Li. "Assemble an escort, fast and discreet," she told them. "You'll find two old women waiting for you outside the Outer Wall…"

The Dai Li were indeed both fast and discreet. Less than two hours later, the family retainers Lo and Li were standing in front of her, utterly calm and unfazed by their Dai Li escort. In fact, Li (or was it Lo?) seemed to be trying to flirt with one of them, winking at the young agent on her left! Impassive Dai Li agent or not, the young man shuddered in response, and for just that one moment Azula actually felt a tiny bit of sympathy for someone else.

It passed quickly, of course. She ordered the Dai Li out of the throne room, and when she and the two elders were alone, she demanded, "Why are you taking such risks? If I weren't already in control of the Dai Li, that messenger hawk could have broken my cover and ruined the entire plan!"

"Because you will need to alter your plans, to some degree," Li told her.

Lo added, looking solemn, "Your plans must now include… your brother."

Azula stared at her two elderly advisors. There was no way they could know that Zuko was currently her captive. The Dai Li would have said nothing about it to them, even when asked directly; Azula had ordered the agents to stay silent about Zuko. And after what had happened between Li, Lo and Iroh fifteen years ago (something that supposedly no one knew about, but probably half the home island had heard the whispers by now), her uncle would be more apt to jump naked into an active volcano than approach them for help in freeing Zuko from captivity

Nor did she feel it necessary to tell them now about Zuko's whereabouts. Oh, she had no doubt they favored her over her brother; when Lady Ursa had disappeared seven years ago, Lo and Li had stepped in to take care of her (in as motherly a fashion as Azula herself would allow, which wasn't much), but left Zuko to his own devices until Uncle Iroh could come back from Ba Sing Se to have his nephew dumped on him. But favoring Azula over Zuko didn't mean they would approve of how she intended to make herself sole and undisputed heir to the throne. Azula had learned long ago that most people were just too weak in spirit to eliminate their competition in the most effective and permanent way.

So she simply asked, "Include him in the plan how, exactly? By taking him prisoner, along with our traitorous uncle?"

Lo shook her head. "No… by helping him return home with honor. By allying with him to capture the Avatar."

Li added, "And perhaps by giving him at least a minor role in the causing the downfall of Ba Sing Se. That, too, would be helpful in making him look heroic."

"Wh-WHAT?"

It was a good thing that the Earth King's throne was made of solid rock. If it had been made of wood or some other flammable material, the fire that involuntarily shot out of her hands would have burned it to cinders.

Angry at her momentary loss of control, she extinguished the flames as quickly as they'd appeared. Then she leaped out of the seat to land in front of her advisors, still smoldering with barely-suppressed rage. "You know how I feel about Zuko. You know that if he fulfills the terms of banishment, he'll return home to be the heir again. You know that I'm more like Father than he has ever been, and that I'm the one best suited to be Fire Lord when the time comes. You know all that, and you dare ask me to help him? Worse, to arrange it so he'll be welcomed home as a hero? Have you both gone completely senile? You have ten seconds to explain your reasoning, before I have the Dai Li toss you back over the wall!"

"We bring you news from the Fire Sages," Li answered calmly.

"Their best seer has had a vision of ill portent," Lo added.

"There will be a fierce battle on the home island …"

"And one of the royal family will lose the ability to firebend."

"Yes, yes, during an eclipse; I know already," Azula said with a wave of her hand. "The Earth King was so helpful in telling me their plans to invade the Fire Nation during the upcoming eclipse! But we can turn that invasion into a trap for the invaders, once the eight minutes of total eclipse are up." When she returned home, she'd talk with Father and the generals about how best to lay that trap.

But both elders shook their heads, and Li said, "No, not a temporary loss of ability."

Lo added, "The sage was quite sure of his vision…"

They chorused together, "One of royal blood will lose firebending forever."

Azula paused for an instant, then waved a hand dismissively. "Pfft, visions. Most of them are caused by cactus juice. Or deliberately breathing in forge fumes, like that idiot in the play. How can you even--"

"This same sage foretold sixteen months ago, that the Avatar would soon return."

Azula paused longer, this time to consider. The Avatar had been missing for nearly a hundred years by that time; longer than most common folk lived, though not as long as a truly great bender could hope to live. Nearly everyone had lost all hope (or dread) that the Avatar would return. The entire Fire Nation had assumed that the terms for ending Prince Zuko's banishment, that he capture the Avatar, would never be fulfilled and the prince's exile would be lifelong. But this seer had said otherwise, and less than a year later… "…What exactly was in this vision?"

Li pulled a scroll out of her robes and peered at it. "It was several scattered glimpses, pieced together… A great fire, so hot it destroys solid rock. An Agni Kai arena set ablaze. A royal headpiece falling to the ground. A hand that tries to bend fire, and tries again, and fails… and a lone voice saying grimly, 'Forever'."

Azula frowned again. "So… if this vision is indeed a glimpse of the future, and not just an old man's nightmare… what does this have to do with my helping Zuko fulfill the terms of his banishment?"

"Is it not obvious?" Lo said, spreading her hands. "If one of the royal family is destined to fall, we would prefer it not be you, princess, or your father. That leaves your uncle—who has been declared traitor, and cast out of the royal family by your father—and your brother."

"Your brother, who has never been favored by luck," Li reminded her.

That was an undeniable truth. Her father often said that Azula had been born lucky, but Zuko had been lucky to be born. And that's where his luck had ended; since then, he'd had to struggle for nearly everything that had come so easily to his younger sister.

"We have considered this carefully," Lo declared, "and come to the conclusion that if disaster is to befall any member of the royal family, it will have the least impact on the Fire Nation if the victim is Prince Zuko."

Li nodded. "He has been banished for over three years now, and for most of that time, until the Avatar reappeared, the entire court had accepted you as the new heir. And even now that the Avatar is returned and Zuko's quest is no longer utterly impossible, certainly all your father's generals still favor you as the heir."

"True," Azula said with a pleased smile. "And really, if Zuko lost his firebending ability, it's not as if he was ever a master at it. It would just make it plain to the entire Fire Nation that he's utterly unsuitable to be the heir."

Li and Lo both nodded in agreement. Then Li said, "But the seer recognized the Agni Kai arena in his vision; it is the one on the royal palace grounds. To ensure this prophecy is centered on Zuko, instead of on you or your father, he must come home to the Fire Nation and become part of the royal family again."

"And that will not happen without your assistance," Lo added. "Zuko has already shown himself as incapable of achieving his goal unaided. But if he tries once more to capture the Avatar with the help of his uncle, now declared a traitor to the throne…" She shook her head slowly but emphatically. "No. You must be the one to aid Zuko, as a… as a loving sister would help."

Azula scowled, then said curtly, "I will consider your words. In the meantime, the Dai Li will show you to suitable guest quarters."

They left, and she paced. Paced back and forth in the throne room, thinking hard.

An elegant vase stood on a pedestal at one end of the throne room, filled with fragrant rose-lilies. On her second pass while pacing, she extended a finger and a thin blade of blue fire scythed through the white blooms, instantly turning petals to ashes. On her third pass, she aimed lower and made the ancient vase her idle target; it exploded into ceramic fragments.

She'd rather it had been Zuko's head.

Prophecy. Pfagh! Next she'd have to listen to tales of the spirits. Azula had never been a believer in either…

But then the greater part of the Fire Nation Navy had been destroyed, wiped out in just one night by a monster out of an island nation's worst nightmares. Two hundred fifty ships had been sent for the invasion of the Northern Water Tribe. They'd gotten back only seventy-eight; the ships that had been furthest from the action, and whose commanders had ordered full retreat as soon as…

As soon as the Spirit of Ocean itself had merged with the Avatar and risen up against the fleet, enraged by the attempted murder of the Moon Spirit by Admiral Zhao.

Very few people in the Fire Nation knew what Admiral Zhao had tried to do; why the Ocean had turned quite literally into a raging monster that had destroyed over nearly two hundred ships and thousands of men. But the royal family knew, because the entire Northern Water Tribe knew, and the informant that had been planted in that nation years ago had snuck the news out as soon as possible. Zhao had been an overambitious idiot, daring to take on the spirits of Moon and Ocean… Though if he'd succeeded in killing the moon without unleashing Ocean's fury, his name would have been as famous as Sozin's, and possibly remembered even longer in their history scrolls. Instead, his name had been systematically erased or blotted out of all the Fire Nation's official records, by her father's decree; in a few decades, no one would remember he'd ever existed. Since they couldn't kill him again, it was the best way to punish a man who'd been too devoted to personal glory, and hadn't thought things through.

Unlike her idiot brother, Azula prided herself on always thinking things through. Considering every possible action and what would have the most devastating effect on her opponents, and how they'd react (assuming they were still alive) afterwards. So she paced, and considered…

And decided.

And smiled.

It was not a nice smile. A Dai Li agent entering the hall at that moment saw the smile, turned pale and tried to literally blend into the nearest wall.

She summoned him forward with a flick of her finger, then ordered him to fetch a messenger hawk. Fire Lord Ozai would need to be made aware of her decision, and what she had planned. She was sure her father already knew of the prophecy, or he wouldn't have sent Li and Lo after her; now they would need to coordinate the story she was about to feed Zuko.

Pathetic Zuko, always eager to please their father, even though they all knew he would never be good enough. He knew too well that she lied with ease, but he always fell for her lies anyway, if they offered him even a scrap of hope for family affection. And she'd tell him a pretty little story indeed; one about Father becoming concerned over assassination attempts, and wanting near him all the family he could trust. Which excluded Iroh, of course; after taking a stand against Zhao at the North Pole, Iroh had been declared a traitor to the Fire Nation. But Azula knew that it would take only a few words of concern about their father, to make Zuko abandon His Tea-Drinking Kookiness for the first ship home. After they slew the Avatar together, that is. With Zuko working for her instead of against her this time, the airbending kid wouldn't stand a chance.

And once the mission was accomplished and they were home, Zuko would be given a warm welcome indeed, for at least the first few weeks. Yes, let him have a taste of home, and start forming attachments there again; Mai would be useful for ensuring that. And while he was making himself at home in the palace again, Azula would be quietly consulting with the palace physicians and the Fire Sages; consulting with the people who would be most apt to know how to destroy someone's bending ability without killing them outright.

Azula had a strong hunch that a controlled bolt of lightning could do it. People who survived lighting strikes often had lasting physical mental problems; seizures, weakness in limbs, memory loss, et cetera. If she could control the lightning enough to make a small bolt striking precisely in the spot recommended by the sages or physicians…

She'd need to practice on a few people first, before unleashing lightning on her brother. But that would be easy to arrange; there were firebenders aplenty in the various prisons back home. Mai had an uncle who was warden of the Boiling Rock prison; she'd arrange a visit, and select a few prisoners for target practice.

And after she had succeeded in destroying a few prisoners' bending ability, she'd find reason to challenge her brother to an Agni Kai. Or provoke him into challenging her; she knew all his buttons and just how hard she could push them. Azula would personally make sure that Fire Sage's prophecy came true, Agni Kai and all.

Destroying Zuko's bending ability as per the prophecy, instead of just killing him here in Ba Sing Se, would take longer to accomplish her goal of making herself the undisputed heir to the Fire Throne. But she always got what she wanted, sooner or later.

An hour later she finished the encrypted message to her father, then loosed the messenger hawk. Once it was winging its way south towards the Fire Nation, she beckoned to the waiting Dai Li agents. "Make me a tunnel to the prison chamber. It's time we had a chat with my dear, dear brother…"

THE END