A/N: Thanks for being very, very patient. If it's been awhile, I recommend re-reading Duels of Honor (Part One) before you start, because there's no recap.
Duels of Honor
let the only sound be the overflow
Florence + The Machine, "What the Water Gave Me"
The first flaw in their plan comes to light when Appa will not fly into the Capital. "What's wrong with him?" Zuko demands as the sky bison roars and tries his hardest to buck against Katara's hold on the reins.
"Appa doesn't like fire," she says.
There is indeed fire everywhere. Even from a distance - and they are still a long way from the island, from here the harbor appears no larger than the Spirit Oasis - the flames shoot into the air in dancing orange colors, clear against the darkened sky.
Anxiety makes Katara's hands shake, but only just. "Are they fighting?" she asks nervously. There should not be a battle here.
Zuko narrows his eyes in the direction of the city, and, after a moment of contemplation, lets out a rusty chuckle. "No," he says, sounding strangely amused. "They're playing."
"It's the comet. I think everyone is having fun with their bending powers."
Katara opens her mouth, then closes it. "They're going to destroy the city," she says finally, watching as blaze after blaze rises above the buildings.
"This is the Fire Nation, Katara. We don't build our houses with things that burn."
Nothing will encourage Appa to edge closer. He simply circles at what he must consider to be a safe distance from the conflagration, whining piteously whenever Katara tries to coax him into compliance. Zuko comments on her driving abilities, and she offers to throw him from the saddle and let him swim to shore.
Eventually there is nothing for it; the sky bison is at least willing to settle on the south side of the island, so close to the cliffs Katara nearly stumbles a hundred feet into the ocean. She changes into her Fire Nation clothes, out of Zuko's view; being naked in the light is different, somehow, and even the memory of pleasure in Katara's body doesn't make the idea comfortable.
Zuko straps his broadswords to his back and pulls a hooded cloak over his head to hide his scar; Katara ties on her waterskin and tucks his ebony-handled dagger into her robes. That is all they take.
They begin the long run towards the city.
The second flaw in the plan comes when they get lost.
"I can't believe you don't know how to get there," Katara hisses as they slink along the rooftops of the harbor. Here there is less celebration; sailors are busy unloading ships, farmers are hauling baskets of cabbage, merchants with singed hair are being none-too-gentle with enormous fireworks. "How can you get lost in your own capital?"
Zuko glares at her. "We're going that way," he says testily. He points up towards the basin of the volcano, which seemed very close when they landed but now just climbs higher and higher in front of their eyes.
"I figured out that much. Which street are we supposed to take?"
If she could let go of the shingles she would smack her forehead. "I thought you grew up here!"
A burst of flame rockets past their heads, and Zuko subtly deflects it before it singes Katara's robes. "I was brought on a covered palanquin whenever I had to come to the docks. I didn't need to know my way around."
They leap to the next building. The shadows brought on by the red sky protect them from prying eyes, though no one below cares enough to look. "What a stupid way of doing things," Katara grumbles. "How are you supposed to be a good Fire Lord if they never took you out to see the people?"
"It won't matter one way or another if we don't get to the Palace." Zuko sounds flatly peevish now. "Azula will be Fire Lord and she can worry about the people."
There has to be a faster way to manage this. Katara glances at the passing carts below. "Okay. I'll get us a ride."
She climbs down from the rooftop, joining unnoticed the workers streaming to the west, and moves closer to where wagon after wagon progresses up the road. Most are heaps of fresh, bright-eyed fish, some still helplessly flapping their tails.
Katara meanders along and whistles a fishing song as she does, flashing girlish smiles at the men in the carts. She learned the tune while traveling. It is not so different from the songs the men sang in her village - new notes, but a rhythm tied to the beat of a paddle. The Water Tribe icebergs and the Fire Nation islands both rose from the sea.
She slips away from Katara of the South and slides effortlessly into Ling of the Colonies.
The fifth passing driver offers her a lift.
The progress is slow up the zagging road of the mountainside, but it's faster than walking, and they receive no curious glances from the passersby. They're just two more citizens on their way to the coronation festivals.
"Your brother's not much of a talker," the old man remarks, glancing back to where Zuko sits. Unagi intended for the celebration spills into the Prince's lap with every jostle of the cart.
"He's mute," says Katara. "Never says a word. It's very sad." She calls: "I said it's very sad, isn't it, Appa?"
Zuko nods curtly, his face still hidden.
Katara's expression is sorrowful as she turns back to the fisherman. "Tragic. So what were the tides like this morning?"
When they reach the city proper they are nearly crushed by the wildly energized crowds.
There will never be another celebration like this. Sozin's Comet; the end of a war; the crowning of a new Fire Lord, without an accompanying funeral and white mourning. No matter how an individual might feel about the details of the world's new era, it's impossible not to be swept up in the carnival atmosphere: the smell of roast duck from the street vendors, the sound of music from tsungi horns, the shouts and laughs and the bright waving banners of both Fire Nation tradition and the Phoenix King's proud new insignias.
It's beautiful, and were Katara not about to overthrow the government, she thinks she might even enjoy it. If she could find food that didn't burn her tongue from her mouth.
The mob provides better camouflage than the shadows; even as the bustling people bump into them, even when they smile at them with the camaraderie of national pride, they are not noticed, not really. Katara's skin and eyes are probably excused as the sign of a colonist; Zuko pulls his hood lower. "They're all having so much fun," she murmurs to the Prince, somewhat disturbed at how much regret she suddenly feels. She's about to ruin their day. A year ago this wouldn't have bothered her, but that time is long past. These people aren't monsters. They're just people.
Cheers erupt as someone accidentally sets off a round of fireworks. Sparks rain down; most of the crowd ducks, but Katara, used to far more dramatic displays of flame, doesn't even flinch. It's this mistake - standing a head above everyone else - that exhibits the third flaw in their plan.
"Hey, Ling!" calls a vaguely familiar voice. Katara looks down the street to see a short, good-looking girl with delicate spectacles perched on her nose. The girl waves.
Chiya, from Ember Island.
Katara curses under her breath.
Zuko glances at Katara. "Who's Ling?"
"Long story." She waves back to Chi-Chi with a smile, gestures to the crush between them - I can't come over, too busy! - then grabs Zuko's hand and drags him into an alley way. "Come on, we have to get out of here."
To her surprise, Zuko manages to swallow his questions until they're several blocks away - but when he speaks it's in exactly the stiff tone she's anticipated. "Who was that?"
"A friend." The houses are growing steadily taller, with larger windows and brighter paint on their walls; the opulence is obvious, even from the back.
"You have friends in the Fire Nation?"
They start picking their way through the trash cans. "Yes. Lots of them, actually." The noise is still deafening, but now they're out of sight, which is where they have to stay. They've been careful about Zuko. It never occurred to Katara that she might be the one recognized.
Another set of fireworks explodes overhead, dripping and golden.
"How did that happen?"
"How did what happen?"
"You. Making friends."
She gives him a look. "I talked to them," she says. "It's really not that hard." That puts a dark expression on his face, so she adds, "A lot of them are hoping you'll rule, you know."
"Yeah. There's people who don't like the war, and who don't like your sister or your father. They're mostly further away from the capital, and they don't have a lot of power, but... still, isn't that kind of thing important?"
Zuko says: "You seem to know more about my country than I do." It's a miserable statement, and a true one in some ways, which makes it worse.
Katara stops to face him. "You can learn all this stuff too," she insists. "I mean, I picked it up just traveling for a month. And everyone will like you if you give them a chance."
"It don't care if they like me."
It is by far the least believable lie Zuko has ever told.
There's no point in arguing with him when he's in this sort of mood - at least not when they're short on time. Better to change the subject. "How much longer?" The cobblestones don't give way like grass or sand or snow; her feet are killing her.
"Not far." He points to their right, where a slender lane will force them to edge sideways. "We're right by the Palace. The Coronation Plaza's to the northwest-"
A hand comes from nowhere and grabs her collar; both she and Zuko are yanked into the house at their backs. Before she can think to bend she's shoved against a wall and feels the keen edge of a blade at her throat.
Mai looks at Zuko. Her nose wrinkles. "You smell like a dead eel," she complains.
The windows of Mai's home look out over the Fire Palace, a gold monolith that stabs at the burning sky. This severity of the structure is softened by a thousand waving red and yellow flags, the parade passing from the gates, the laudation of the rank and file as they prepare to crown their new queen.
Katara fights down the fear. She keeps the blood in her veins cold.
"Why aren't you two at the ceremony?" asks Zuko, having sheathed his swords after Ty Lee squealed with joy at their arrival.
"Are you kidding?" Mai says. "The formal coronation rituals take hours. You couldn't pay me to go."
"Plus, we can't be out in that." Ty Lee cringes, which makes the petals of her skirt flutter. "They told the non-benders to stay home till the comet's gone. But Zuko! Azula is going to be so happy you came!" She bites her lip as she glances at Katara, and apologetically adds, "She won't be so happy about you. You should probably hang out with us today." Taking Katara's stare of disbelief for approval, she brightens instantly and says, "But maybe later we can all get together and - and take a big trip to Ember Island, or something. I know after that we'll be friends."
"Yes," says Mai witheringly to the pink-clad optimist. "I'm sure building sandcastles will stop Azula from wanting to kill Zuko's girlfriend." A startled look from Zuko, and she elaborates, "Haven't you heard? She wants your Waterbender's charbroiled head on a spear."
"I'd like to see her try," says Katara.
"What does Katara have to do with anything?" Zuko demands.
Mai stares at him, then sighs. "If you really don't know, I'm not going to waste my time trying to explain." Katara watches as the sour-faced girl critically scans Zuko head-to-toe. "The procession is already on the way to the Plaza," she says out of nowhere, pointing out the window. "Are you really planning to show up dressed - and smelling - like that?"
"I'm not going there to make a social call." Zuko shrugs. His thoughts are clearly a thousand miles away - no, Katara corrects herself, just one mile, traveling with the parade. "It doesn't really matter how I look."
"Don't be ridiculous," Mai snaps. "Of course it matters how you look. And what you say, and how you say it- haven't you thought this through at all?"
"What difference will it make?" asks Katara. They're going to storm the place and take the Princess down before she becomes Fire Lord. It's difficult, but not complicated. Besides, their clothes will probably be ruined in the process anyway.
Though it would be nice if Zuko didn't stink. But maybe he'll make Azula nauseous.
Mai makes a noise of utter disgust. "Come on," she says to Zuko. "Some of my father's old robes might work. Ty Lee..." She trails off, narrows her eyes at Katara, and shakes her head. "Never mind. It's not like they won't know what she is." And she leads a protesting Fire Prince from the room.
Katara really doesn't like that the best knife specialist in the world is taking Zuko out of her sight, but he can take care of himself, especially on the day of Sozin's Comet. Probably. "I don't get it," she says. "What's the big deal?"
Ty Lee doesn't answer; instead she sits down on the back of the couch, the open window behind her providing a grand view of the festivities. Another circle of fireworks explodes overhead. "Can I do your hair?" she asks excitedly.
Katara is still creeped out by Ty Lee - the girl can take away bending - but she bemusedly submits to the request, and allows the girl to undo her braid and pull her hair up, Fire Nation-style.
Twenty minutes later Zuko is clean, dressed in ceremonial robes that are a little too big for him, and, Katara has to admit, looking a lot more like royalty than an infiltrator about to stage a coup.
"Oh, Mai," breathes Ty Lee, "you were right. Azula's going to like that so much better."
Mai ignores the statement. Katara harbors no doubts that she knows exactly what Zuko is about to do. "Leave your swords here," she tells Zuko; he nods, and hands them over without a word. Mai gingerly places them on a side table.
That is a terrible idea. "But what if you need them?" Katara protests.
"Do you want everyone to think he can't bend?" Mai shoots back.
"Wait! Wait wait wait!" Suddenly Ty Lee is searching all over the room, making squeaks of distress. "Your hair! Mai, how could you forget?"
Zuko groans. "Don't be ridiculous-"
"No, she's right," Mai says, interrupting him. "You look like you've been camping for months with a bunch of peasants."
Both Zuko and Katara bristle at that, but he capitulates with a scowl as Ty Lee jerks him down to the couch and starts tying a formal top knot.
Mai catches Katara's eye and they step to the side. "He's the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation," says the other girl. Her hair reflects the crimson light shining through the windows. "But he won't seem like it if you're there."
"I'm not letting him go alone." It's not even a question.
"Just because political games bore me doesn't mean I don't understand them. Azula is already at the Plaza. Everyone who matters will be watching, and you're going to make him look weak." Katara doesn't reply; after a moment, Mai shrugs. "Fine. Don't say I didn't warn you."
She is warning them. Even though she's one of Azula's best friends. Katara has to ask: "What are you doing?"
Mai watches as Zuko stands and smoothes out his robes. "Saving the jerk who never noticed me," she answers.
Ty Lee embraces Katara enthusiastically as the challengers to the throne depart. "Try not to get murdered!" she advises.
Mai does not hug.
They could sneak to the Coronation Plaza. Katara thinks they should sneak. Katara would feel a lot better if they were sneaking, which she tells Zuko repeatedly.
But it seems Zuko has decided to take Mai's advice. His borrowed clothes don't have a hood; he doesn't even hide his scar as they walk through the thoroughfare, and there is a steely expression on his face that Katara recognizes from the days he chased her - no, Aang - no, maybe her - around the world.
They're attracting attention.
Some people stop in their tracks, nudge the friends at their sides, and point. Some people whisper behind their hands. Once their Prince is identified their focus turns to the girl at his side, the one whose Fire Nation silks don't make her look Fire Nation.
The whispers grow louder, but the crowd parts for them, and soon the would-be Fire Lord and his mysterious companion are being followed by an entourage of the curious who were not important enough to warrant an invitation to the ceremonies. Something is obviously about to happen, and no one intends to miss it.
There's five hundred things she wants to say, but Katara goes with: "I've got your back."
His lips twitch into a faint smile.
The gates that cut the Coronation Plaza from the street are enormous gold slabs carved with clawed dragons; statues of ancient Fire Lords loom overhead, casting everyone into shadow, and the enormity of what they're about to do strikes Katara once more. She wishes she were back in her igloo, eating Gran-Gran's seal steaks and waiting for the sun to return. She wishes she'd never heard of the Avatar.
But Zuko, if anything, looks more confident. She can talk to people in the marketplace and the little towns the world over, but this is the Crown Prince's element. It looks like his home.
A single imperious glance is enough to make the guards bow respectfully and open the way. Their manner towards Katara is more uncertain, but she raises her chin as she passes, judging it best to follow Zuko's lead - for the time being, at least. It works. Their nods to her are just as deferential.
The guards can't close the doors against the rabble following behind. They follow Zuko and Katara, not out of support, but eager interest. Katara hopes it will be mistaken for something else, because when they cross through a marble-columned pavilion and take in the sight beyond, she realizes they're going to need every bit of reinforcement they can get.
As always, the first thing she notices is the water - she always knows where water is. Here it runs in long rectangular reservoirs up and down the parade ground, surrounded by tiny flames that lick at the edges without burning the wood. There is water beneath her feet, too. She can feel it in her fingertips.
But there is so much more than water. As they enter they go unnoticed by the hundred hooded men and women standing with a hundred tall banners, silently facing the enormous temple at the other side of the plaza. On the high steps kneels a red figure before an old man, whose voice carries effortlessly through the air.
"By decree of the Phoenix King, I now crown you Fire Lord-"
"My name is Zuko, son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai, Prince of the Fire Nation, and heir to the throne."
Well, everyone's noticing them now.
Azula rises, and as her face comes into focus, Katara can see something like a edged delight. Her body looks bigger for being weighed down in ancestral armor. "Zuko," she says in a mockingly affectionate way, "You've come home to swear fealty, I see."
They make their way through the staggered onlookers, all nobility and military present to pay homage to their new ruler. Zuko stops at the bottom of the stone stairs; Katara lingers two steps behind. "You aren't going to become Fire Lord today," he says. "I am."
She starts to laugh. "You're hilarious."
"I am the first born of the Fire Lord, Azula-" his tone holds more steel than his swords "-and still the Crown Prince."
"The Phoenix King chose me to rule the Fire Nation, Zuzu; that outweighs such a trifle as accident of birth order. Grandfather did the same for Father and Uncle, after all."
Mai's directives have done their job; Zuko looks every bit as royal as his sister as he responds: "Uncle conceded to our father with honor, Azula - but I'm not Uncle. I'm not conceding anything to you. This is my country, and I won't let you destroy it."
"Are you questioning my love of the Fire Nation?"
"Your love would burn the Fire Nation to the ground."
The siblings are holding each others' full attention, but Katara is free to take in the flabbergasted stares of the people around them: the soldiers, the rich, the rabble who followed them in. Most of those present must be firebenders, and Sozin's Comet shines overhead; if the crowd starts to take sides it will be ugly in a hurry. Though that assumes anyone would take their side.
"All right. You want to be Fire Lord? Fine." Azula's half-smile is mocking as she steps away from the Sages. "Let's settle this. Just you and me, brother: Agni Kai."
Zuko's smirk mirrors his sister's. "I don't think so. You had your chance in Ba Sing Se."
Mutters through the Plaza. To refuse an Agni Kai is apparently worthy of note.
"Did I? But I thought you wanted to do this the honorable way." She turns to the hooded man at her side, the one still holding the crown in wrinkled hands. "Challenges of succession are settled by duels - I'm sure I read that somewhere."
The Sage nods.
In the Fire Nation, Zuko said to Aang, there are duels of honor called Agni Kai. You fight until one side yields. And sometimes that's it and it's over. But for the really big things, the person who loses dies.
A battle for the throne is a really big thing.
"You threw him into the Catacombs rather than fight him!" Katara shouts, sudden dread uncurling in her stomach. "You can't just change your mind now!"
Azula seems to notice the Waterbender for the first time, and her expression turns twisted and ugly. "Zuzu, are you letting your pet speak for your honor?"
"She has more honor than either of us," Zuko snaps.
"Does she really. Is that why you brought her with you?" Azula gestures to the assembly with her pointed nails. "Are you planning to introduce everyone to their new Fire Lady?"
Katara freezes. The murmuring on the parade ground grows louder; dozens of glares are aimed in her direction. "Deny it," she says beneath her breath. "Quick." She gets Mai's warning now: they can defeat Azula, but that won't matter if the leaders of the nation won't accept the Crown Prince in her place.
"Yes, Zuzu, deny it. Tell them they won't be asked to bow to a South Pole peasant. Tell them all she's just your whore."
His hands clench. He doesn't respond.
"Do it!" It isn't as though he's ever hidden his wishes from her - when she didn't know it was because she didn't understand - but it is a very different thing to hear them spelled out in his silence. But what he wants doesn't matter, because if ever there was a time to lie, this is it...
...but it's Zuko. He can't lie. He isn't even trying.
That is the fourth flaw in their plan.
"Still don't want to keep her hidden, do you?" The Princess clicks her tongue sadly. "Oh, Zuzu. Just look at what you've become: a Royal Prince of the Fire Nation who can't rule unless a Waterbender holds his hand. The country will be so impressed."
The rumbles of the crowd turn darker, the pale skin around Zuko's scar reddens, and fear turns Katara's body cold. She suddenly recognizes what Iroh meant when he said bending isn't the edge Azula holds over her brother. "She's playing you," Katara says in an urgent undertone. "She knows she can't take us both on, so she's trying to separate us."
Azula doesn't miss a beat. "If you can't defeat your baby sister by yourself, what kind of Fire Lord would you be?"
"Don't listen to her."
"I'll tell you: a weak Fire Lord."
The grumbles grow louder.
"Zuko, Azula always lies."
"A dishonorable Fire Lord."
"Azula always lies."
"A Fire Lord who was lucky to be born."
"Azula always lies-"
"Or," the Princess taunts sweetly, "we could skip the Agni Kai, and settle it with an apple on your peasant's head."
It's the fatal blow.
"You're on," Zuko says.
"This is one of the duels where people die, isn't it."
He doesn't answer. Azula's on the other side of the arena, standing at the bottom of the stone stairs with her head held high; two elderly, stooped women remove her armor and dress her for formal battle. Katara is the only one with Zuko, and she doesn't know the ritual. She watches as he takes off his shirt; he hesitates, then hands it to her.
Katara throws the shirt to the ground.
There's a pause before Zuko turns away and ties bands about his biceps. "Fine," he says. "Don't help."
"I'm trying to help! Even you admitted to your uncle that you would need help facing Azula - you don't need to fight her alone!"
"I really do."
"Because she's right." One of the Sages approaches, holding a cloak; Zuko takes it with a nod while Katara turns away to keep from whipping the old man off his feet. Once he's gone Zuko continues, "If I'm too weak to win an Agni Kai, then I'll never be able to lead the Fire Nation."
This has nothing to do with the Fire Nation. He's about to get himself killed because he's too proud to back down and too ashamed to let his own actions speak for themselves and Katara wants to drag him out of here and spend the rest of their lives beating it into his thick skull that he isn't what Azula says he is. "You're not weak, Zuko," she says, "and you're not dishonorable. You don't have to prove anything!"
He arranges the rust-shaded silk over his shoulders. "You think I'm going to lose." His voice is either angry or sad.
"I think you're being stupid," Katara retorts. It's not really an answer, but she doesn't know how to say You'll lose because you'll beat yourself. "There's no reason we can't both take her down. We're better together!"
He looks at her for such a long moment that she wonders if maybe, maybe she got through - but all he does is give her a strange half-smile. "It's okay, you know."
"That you don't love me. It's okay. I don't mind."
It's hard to breathe, and the fissures that have been inside Katara's chest since the day she escaped crack apart like breaking bones as she admits, "I don't know what I feel."
A long beat. "Well," Zuko says finally, "that's okay too."
He steps forward and kisses her. It's quick, almost violent, and before Katara can respond he has already pulled away. They are in full view of the crowd. The arena has gone silent.
"Everyone saw that," she whispers.
"I don't care." And he leaves her, walking out from under the protection of the tiled roof to kneel on the sanded clay ground. In Agni Kai even bending a knee is done with pride.
If Zuko lives through this, Katara is going to murder him herself.
The people disperse to the pavilions on either side of the Plaza, with a few even climbing the rooftops to get a better view. Bearing witness to Agni Kai is an ancient custom, but over half the throng has left; a battle to the death between two of the most powerful firebenders in the world on the day of Sozin's Comet will not be a spectator-safe event. Those who remain are held by the lure of the first duel for the throne in over two hundred years. Their grandchildren will tell their grandchildren about this day.
And of course the Fire Sages remain, expressions forever impassive.
The combatants stand. Azula removes her cape; the insignia looks like a real flame as it flutters to the ground. She is dressed identically to Zuko, aside from the tight swath of red that binds her chest. "I'm sorry it has to end this way, brother," she says, and if Katara didn't know the girl had devoted a lifetime to learning what buttons to press, she'd think Azula meant it.
"No," says Zuko. "You're not."
Everyone ducks when the first blasts explode into the air.
Over the roar she hears the cries of the bystanders. The benders present fight to block collateral damage, but ricocheting flares spiral in every direction, shooting across rafters, diving between pillars, shaking the ground. One does not fight fire with fire.
Katara reaches into the wooden reservoirs. The flames surrounding them wink out, and clear barriers of ice, twenty feet high, protect the people from the Agni Kai.
Azula is stronger. There is more blue than orange, towering infernos that shoot far beyond the Plaza and out into the city streets, blinding to the eyes and blistering to the skin. She has discipline, focus, and sheer, raw power that wells up from some endless blaze of malice inside her heart.
It would already be over, Katara realizes, if the Fire Princess had the slightest idea what her brother was doing.
There are no lashes or arcs. He stops the attacks with stable walls that lick and snap through the air; he calls flames that crash down from above in wave after conflagrating wave, until Azula has no choice but to pause her assault to disperse them. Stone-melting heat races along the ground, leaving cloudy glass in its wake, and she jumps only just in time to save her feet from being burned off at the ankle.
He wanted to learn new moves to use against Azula, and he has. Zuko is waterbending with fire.
But she catches on as Zuko conjures a tornado of sparks and sends it roaring in her direction. The redirection scorches the shingles of the pagoda. "You can't even bend like a Fire Lord!" she shouts, rage distorting her features into something feral.
"What's the matter?" he calls back. "Too much for you?"
She answers by jetting towards him faster than Katara's eye can follow; when he blocks with a careening wheel of flame the force knocks them both off their feet. Zuko lands on his back; Azula rolls for nearly twenty feet.
She rises first, hair loose and blowing dangled in the breeze. Blood drips from dozen scrapes across her shoulders and stomach; she pants for breath as Zuko struggles to all fours. "Don't get up," she commands. "Kneel to me, and I'll let you live."
There is no one present, including Katara, who doesn't understand the depth of the insult the Fire Prince has just been offered.
"Come home, Zuzu." Dark rivulets flow from her abdomen and drip to the broken clay beneath them. "Kneel, say you're sorry, and we'll forget about all of this. I'll even make you a general, just like Father did for Uncle. Come home. I'll restore your honor. It will be like it was."
Katara steps out from under the shelter of the pagoda, because she is Water Tribe and will kill Azula herself if she has to - but Zuko doesn't need her help to refuse. "I begged once at an Agni Kai," he says, getting to his feet. "I won't ever beg again." His back straightens as he resumes his grounded stance. "And I don't need you to tell me I'm honorable."
Azula's golden eyes widen, narrow, and flick to Katara; hatred all but shimmers in the atmosphere. "You'd rather have your pet than your family."
"You're the one who decided I can't have both," replies Zuko.
Once, many years ago, one of the bearwolves that roamed the local fishing grounds suddenly charged the village, frothing at the mouth, trying to scale the ice walls. It had taken eight men to slay the rabid beast. Its crazed howling haunted Katara's dreams for months.
Something snaps in Azula, and Katara only has a brief moment to think of the bearwolf before electricity begins to crackle through the air. The bright blue flashes stand out against the clouded crimson sky. "You should have feared me more than you loved her, brother!" she screams.
Zuko takes a slow breath and moves into position. Katara remembers, In one arm. Through the stomach. Out the other arm.
Not at her opponent.
Zuko dives in front of Katara and takes the lightning right in the chest.
Attacking a spectator of Agni Kai is the ultimate dishonor.
Katara feels the name in her throat and sees it on Azula's lips. Ignoring tradition, custom, and whatever stupid rules the Fire Nation sees fit by which to kill each other, she runs for the fallen combatant-
-and is blasted back by an explosion of flame. "Get away from us!"
"Azula, I can help!" Katara feels as though she's repeating words from a past life, even though it was only six months ago that Iroh struck the ground in an abandoned Earth Kingdom town. If someone had told her then that she'd be standing here she would have accused them of midnight sun madness.
Azula prods Zuko with her foot. He groans, and she exhales with what Katara would swear is relief. "Zuzu," she says, the mocking tone back in her voice, "you don't look so good."
Katara tries to get around Azula and finds herself forced backward again. "I can heal him!" she cries. She has to heal him, she has to- "Get out of my way!"
But the Fire Princess bleeds insane triumph, deaf to the shouts of the people still watching from behind walls of ice, and steps very deliberately in front of her brother. "I'd really rather our family physician look after Little Zuzu, if you don't mind."
The Crown Prince of the Fire Nation thinks in grand, symbolic concepts, like Honor, and War, and Family.
The last Waterbender of the Southern Tribe is not driven by the abstract. When making a decision of a moment she does not care about the country's future, or the traditions of honorable dueling, or whether an absent parent will love or hate her for her actions. She thinks in the immediate.
The immediate is that Azula stands between her and Zuko.
There are channels beneath grates on both sides of the Plaza. "Get out of my way," she repeats, "or I'll go through you."
Azula almost looks as though she will laugh, her skin pale beneath the sheen of sweat and blood, but she moves into a shaky fighting stance. She says softly, "It was always you and me, wasn't it."
Katara raises her arms. "I think so."
The ice walls shatter and the iron grates rocket through the pavilion rooftops as Katara bends everything she can feel straight into the air.
Anyone who doubts the power of water has never seen a tsunami. Water is a force of its own, and it does not give - it smothers flames, wears away stone, gains strength from wind.
The only remaining spectators run for their lives.
Sozin's Comet was meant for the Fire Nation, not the Water Tribe. Even injured Azula has a precision Katara can't manage right now; the waves, which crush everything in their paths, do not touch her. Flying debris reduces to cinders in mid-air. When Katara uses her leg to bring down a twenty foot sword of ice it explodes into snow before it can strike.
Azula recognizes the move. "You want to firebend, Sparrowkeet?" Katara spins away, barely missing a blast of flame. "I'll show you firebending!"
It's no different from fighting Zuko in the ship: a slipstream of elements crashing together, ten times bigger, but no different. Katara does not need to reform steam because the channels beneath the city are deep and long, connected to the distant ocean, pumped to the volcano by mechanized metal. The high pressure of the water rushing from underground forces ruptures that cave streets and crumble buildings. She spent months and months dueling Zuko. She knows her own strength.
The pavilions collapse entirely. Stone and shingles and broken pillars speed along airborne tides and punch holes through the walls of the Coronation Temple.
Still her feet slide backwards, because the entire world is burning.
In the end the bombardments slam her off balance and into the wreckage. When she hits the edge of a fallen support beam there is a loud snap in her side. Pain shoots through her body, and she has to retreat.
A current of ice carries her around the edge of the ravaged parade ground; Azula's blue fire follows her heels and burns the ends of her hair as she tries to keep ahead. The only structure still standing is the temple, and that is where the floe carries her. She ducks through the curtains just ahead of a fireball the size of Appa; the fabric bursts into flame behind her.
The rice paper windows are ash; the hall is littered with rubble. Katara ducks behind one of the posts and fights for air, her throat raw with smoke.
"Come out, peasant," calls the charmingly insane voice.
There's puddles everywhere, soaked in the rugs, running through holes in the ceiling. It wouldn't take much to bring down the roof and crush them both, but then who would heal Zuko? Someone has to heal Zuko.
A blast of turquoise lights the room. "I should have killed you in Ba Sing Se. This is what comes of being too nice."
The gold of the columns is cool against her hands. Sozin's Comet pulls her in all the wrong directions.
"I see what you are, you know. You think you'll use my brother to rule the Fire Nation. You've been twisting him around your filthy little finger from the beginning, but I won't let you get away with it."
The footsteps are getting closer. Katara coughs up a mouthful of blood; something inside her is broken. She fought Azula. It's a hazard.
But she can sense what's dripping from her chin as clearly as she can sense what's dripping through the roof.
"What are you waiting for? If you want Zuko so badly, then face me!"
She steps from behind the pillar to meet Azula's deranged grin. "There you are, Sparrowkeet," she says, and electricity arcs between her fingers, cracking the air with ozone-
-Katara reaches out, feels for the scrapes covering her adversary's stomach, and bends forth a dozen wet ruby ribbons that wind and twist between them.
Azula makes a horrible noise and loses control of her lightning.
The Coronation Temple falls with a crash.
It takes too much time to claw her way out from the rubble. Katara doesn't know, or particularly care, what has become of Azula, because her ears are ringing and she has to heal Zuko.
She drags herself free and staggers along the parade ground. The moment she drops to his side she knows there is no life inside him. She's back beneath Ba Sing Se, come full circle, and she doesn't have water from the Oasis to help her this time.
She lays her hands on the Firebender and puts every ounce of strength into the most important thing she's ever done.
But there is no life inside Zuko.
She thinks she says his name, she knows her mouth forms it, but she can't hear the word aloud. Her vision goes blurry and she remembers that stupid play and thinks Tearbending. It isn't supposed to end like this for them. It's not. He can't give up without a fight.
Her head spins as she pulls a knife from her robes and slices a shallow line along the Fire Prince's shoulder; Made in Earth Kingdom is the inscription that faces her as she does. The moon is not full - she would never have been able to find his blood if she could not feel it directly; it only barely oozes forth, but when Katara presses her palm to the incision and allows fluid to seep through her fingers, it responds to her call. It is like following the pipes in the ship. Zuko is a million pathways of water.
She bends it through his veins.
It's sluggish. Whatever is damaged inside stabs with every attempt to inhale, and her vision is darkening around the edges, there is iron in her mouth but she has never given up on the people she loves and she is not starting with him.
"Wake up," she mumbles. She forces his lungs to expand. She squeezes - too hard - on his heart. Tearbending. "Please wake up-"
-the cut starts to flow the way it should, the way it does if there is a muscle pumping in his chest.
Zuko's eyes snap open. "Katara?"
She has time for one weak smile before she passes out.
A/N: Only the epilogue(s) left, guys. Also, I still haven't watched Legend of Korra, and remain committed to not doing so until this is finished.