He had made his choice, in that split second after the flames had divided his sister and the water tribe girl, knowing what he might face if he lost.
Zuko looked between the warriors, his limbs locked in a fighting stance. After months of training and enduring everything life had thrown at him, he knew his firebending could be the deciding factor in this battle.
In one blinding fast motion, he sent a wall of fire toward Azula. His sister reacted with a counterstrike, her blue flames piercing the orange wall and deflecting the brunt of his attack. Behind her, half a dozen Dai Li agents shifted their attention toward him, each sending a fist made of rock in his direction. He blew the first few apart with a fire blast, then flung himself to the ground to avoid the others. As he went down, he swept his leg across the floor and let a wave of fire race toward his sister.
The waterbender was quick to take advantage of Azula's distraction. With twin canals running through this underground room, she had an ample supply of water to bend. In the split second Zuko looked at her, he noticed the steady, flowing movements unique to waterbending, and saw how she manipulated her element in the same way she manipulated her body. Pulling a torrent of water from the canal, she slid into her own fighting stance and let her arms guide the water toward Azula. Leaping over the wave of fire Zuko had shot at her, Azula was open to attack from any angle.
She's not usually that unprepared, he thought, unease pooling in his stomach. Something about the way Azula twisted as she jumped, the angle at which she turned . . . Oh no . . . he thought.
Brilliant azure flames tore free of her fists as she rolled in midair. The blinding flash reflected in the waterbender's eyes, and she lifted her arms to block the blast.
"No!" Zuko yelled, reaching out to the girl he couldn't touch. It was like the Agni-kai, like watching from the audience as half his face got scorched off, except the face was different.
The fire engulfed the waterbender, even as the clear liquid rushed from the streams to protect her. Steam rose and hissed from wherever the fire and water met, obscuring the battleground. An awful scream tore through the air.
"Katara!" the Avatar yelled, engulfed in his own battle. As he looked toward his burning companion, two of the Dai-Li's rock fists snatched his hands and pinned him down.
Zuko turned back to his sister, just now landing after her flip. Her bending was stronger than his, superior in every way. But maybe he could surprise her.
I made my choice, he thought, feeling the energy flow across his body. His uncle had taught him to redirect lightning when it had seemed like he would need it to face Azula, but to date, he had never been clearheaded enough to produce lightning on his own. The icy precision and focus of his sister had always been above his. Since she felt no shame, no remorse, she was always clearheaded enough to let loose a bolt of lightning.
Uncle taught me to redirect lightning, but no one ever taught Azula.
It flowed rapidly across his body, a great rush of energy-firebending in its purest form. When he lifted his arm up in the air, aiming it like a cannon toward his sister, a brilliant bolt of electricity shot out from his fingers.
Her hawk-like eyes flashed up, meeting his in the brief second before she was struck. And she smiled.
And he knew, before she ever moved, how the battle would end.
Her fingertips caught the bolt with perfect precision. For one second, her Earth Kingdom clothes turned white with the light, and her fierce eyes glimmered with an expression of victory. She moved the energy, still crackling as it followed the line of her arm, down to her stomach, avoiding the energy centers around her heart. When the bolt shot out of her other hand, it struck him so rapidly that he didn't have time to counter.
He felt one split second of agony, then everything went dark.
Katara woke, crumpled into a ball on a metal floor. The first thing she was aware of was the sharp pain all across her forearms. It was a pain she'd only experienced once-a short-lived agony from an honest mistake-but so unforgettable that she recognized it immediately. She'd been burned.
"Water," she murmured, moving her seared hands to the water pouch at her hip. When she found it missing, her eyes flashed open.
The floor tilted beneath her, so when she tried to sit up, she rolled over her burnt arms and had to stifle a scream. Her head listed with the metal floor beneath, and it took her several seconds to realize she was on a ship somewhere. Water. I must be over water. She tried reaching for the distant liquid, but as soon as she tried to move her arms in the patterns Master Pakku had taught her, she realized her wrists were chained together with a pair of Fire Nation handcuffs. A third chain, thinner than the others, connected the handcuffs to a metal collar around her neck. All the bindings restricted her arms. I can't bend like this, she realized, heart pounding.
She looked again at her burned arms, the thought repeating and growing in her head. I can't bend. I can't heal myself. I can't get out of here.
Panicking, she banged on the cold, steel walls with her unburned elbow. The burns were worse on her left side, going as high as her shoulder. On her right side, they weren't as bad. The canal water had come to her aid just in time to spare her a grizzly death, but not quick enough to win the battle. As she thought back to the events leading up to the searing burns, she thought of Aang. Had he escaped? Where would he be if he had? Would he be able to find her here, in this four-by-four cell? What about the others? Were Toph and Sokka okay? And Zuko? Had be been taken captive? Had he really joined their side, or had it all been an elaborate plan to capture the Avatar by feigning good intentions?
She banged on the walls some more, but after a few seconds, she stopped. Maybe it was better if no one knew she was awake. This was a Fire Nation ship, and from personal experience, she knew that most Fire Nation soldiers wouldn't mind leaving her a few more burns. Or just killing me like they killed my mother. I'm not useful to them. If I seem like too much a threat down here, I'll be executed before we land.
It didn't matter that she'd stopped hitting the walls. The distinct clang of metal armor was growing closer, accompanied with the softer sound of footsteps. She shrunk back in her cell, hoping to escape notice. The footsteps drew closer, and a Fire Nation soldier in one of the pointy red masks peered into her cell, his eyes obscured by his helmet. She stared back, trying to mask her terror with a look of defiance. She had always hated the Fire Nation, and that was the emotion she wanted to display now. But she had always feared them, too, and now she worried that some of that fear had leaked into her expression.
The guard made no move to speak to her or open the door. After a moment, he left.
When he was gone, she tried to think of another way to get out of this cell, or at least heal the burns on her arms. It occurred to her to work up a sweat and use the moisture to heal her injuries, but she rejected the idea just as quickly. Her tongue felt like sandpaper against the roof of her mouth, and her whole body was languid with dehydration. She couldn't risk losing any more body fluid when she didn't know when, or if, they'd give her something to drink. Besides, her bending would be almost useless if they didn't first free her hands from these chains-something she doubted they would do.
Nothing changed for the next several hours, and no means of escape occurred to her. There wasn't much to work with in the tiny cell, when she had no water to bend. She wished she'd had the foresight to learn some other means of attack before she'd been captured. Sokka would've been able to think of something. Unable to learn waterbending, Sokka had spent his life learning many other talents. He was a warrior, an inventor, a thinker. But I'm not. I've become too reliant on my bending.
After about six hours of sitting and thinking, she heard footsteps coming down the hall again. These were softer than the last. No rattling armor this time. She wondered who it might be, thinking it was someone from up above coming to visit Aang, wherever he was being held. In her hours of confinement, Katara had concluded that Aang had probably not escaped. The battle had gone sour faster than anyone could've predicted, and the Dai-Li were a fierce bunch of monsters. Even having more-or-less mastered three of the four elements, Aang wouldn't have slipped away without a miracle.
The footsteps were close now, and Katara wondered if Aang's cell was adjacent to hers. They wouldn't be coming down for her, would they?
A pair of eyes peered in through the barred window, and Katara flung herself against the opposite wall, rising to her feet for the first time since waking up. The face outside smirked. "So you are awake," Azula said.
"Aang will stop you. You've got no chance against him."
"Oh, quite the opposite actually. Not that I'm worried about him showing up anytime soon."
The words resonated in her ears, but she couldn't pick apart the deeper meaning in the moment she had to think about it.
"I would be more worried about myself, though, if I were you. A water tribe peasant, and a girl to boot. My soldiers would love you."
Katara almost shuddered. Almost. "Let them try. I'll take them all down."
"With those chains? I think not. But it's your lucky day, I have something special planned for you."
"And what would that be?"
"You've been in a lot of different places, haven't you? Both poles, all over the Earth Kingdom, about a dozen other little villages along the way. I bet there are a lot of people who would demand your safety in captivity."
"If you're planning on using me as a bargaining chip-"
"Oh, don't be silly. I prefer the term 'diplomat.' You could negotiate a peace between the Fire Nation and your piddling little Water Tribes."
"Peace? All this death, all this war, and you would sue for peace? The other nations would never agree to that."
"They would if they thought it would end the war sooner. Let's face it, we're all tired of this battle. If the Fire Nation could find just a few allies in the Northern Water Tribe, we could conquer the Earth Kingdom, and the war would be over."
"You know, when Zuko was little, he would repeat this phrase to himself over and over. It went, "Azula always lies." Or something like that. But the fact was, I wasn't lying to him. I was just telling him things he didn't want to hear. But you'll want to hear this, peasant: the only chance your insignificant little tribe has to survive the comet is to form an alliance now. You'll be saving plenty of people. Isn't that what you've wanted?"
"Zuko was right. You always lie."
She lost her smile. "Well, here's the truth for you. The Avatar is a baby somewhere in the North Pole by now, so I hope you have a better means of escape than waiting around for your boyfriend to rescue you."
The words hit her like a punch to the gut. She's lying. She must be lying. It was impossible. Azula wouldn't have killed the Avatar, knowing he would be reborn into a new body. Unless she intended to slay the newborn before it ever learned to bend.
Azula grinned again at her reaction. "Well, I must be going. Princess stuff, you know. Now that I'm ensured a place as the next Fire Lord, I have duties to attend to."
She must be lying, Katara thought, as the princess left. But somewhere in her gut, doubt had formed, with sharp, clinging bristles.
"Your grace," the guard greeted him when he delivered dumplings and spiced tea to Zuko's door.
"Where are the others?" he demanded. "What did Azula do with them?"
A flash of fear crossed the old man's face. "The princess commanded us not to divulge that information."
"And now the prince is telling you otherwise."
Another spasm of fear flickered in his eyes. "Your Grace, It grieves me to say you've been marked as a traitor among the Fire Nation. A grievous mistake, I'm sure. There was a miscommunication in the battle-Azula must not have guessed your strategy. All this can be straightened out at a later date, but for now, you're forbidden any contact with the outside world."
The old man's eyes had kept flashing back to the door as he'd spoken, as if he feared being heard, even by the other prisoners. Azula's making threats already, Zuko thought, trying to come up with a plan. Miscommunication, he said. But Azula would never believe me if I tried to tell her that. But maybe I could convince my father. He shook his head to clear it. "Tell Azula I'm summoning her to my cell, and tell her there are important matters to discuss."
He hesitated, sweating a little. Zuko was only just realizing that his irritation was raising the temperature of the room. A heat mirage shimmered over the metal door.
"I will tell her, Your Grace," the guard finally said.
"See that you do." It had been three years since he'd been part of the Fire Nation royalty, but that seemed like something a crown prince would say. It sounds like something Azula would say.
The man left, and Zuko heard the workings of the lock being latched on the other side. The prince sunk back into the silk sheets of his bed and stared at the Fire Nation banner hanging on the wall. It was as if Azula had left it there to shame him. Don't you realize the Fire Nation is the winning side, Zu-zu? she would've said. Or has Uncle turned you traitor, too?
At that, he would've thrown something at her, preferably something on fire. His temper ignited as easily as a candle, but it burned with as much control as a wildfire. He glared at the insignia on the wall, then stood up and walked over to it. His fingers coiled around the fabric-silk like his sheets, as befit a prince-and tore the flag off its hooks. The top of it ripped, the stitching unraveling with a hiss. The banner fluttered to the floor, and he kicked it aside.
The dumplings and tea were still sitting beside his door, where the guard had left them. He would've smeared them across the fallen banner, too, if he hadn't been so hungry. Instead, he sat and ate. The dumplings were bland, not as hot as he liked them, and after three years of drinking Iroh's tea, this brew was just atrocious. His raging thoughts didn't make it any easier.
Katara took a direct hit. She's probably dead. But they wouldn't kill the Avatar-he'd just be reincarnated. He's probably imprisoned somewhere on this ship. And the others, the blind girl and the guy with the boomerang . . . That could go either way. Dead, captured, maybe escaped. If they got out in time, there may be a chance. But if not, then I have to get everyone out. And that means taking down Azula.
He considered that. Azula had always been his father's favorite, the family prodigy. Defeating her would be no easy task, but if he could produce lightning one more time, without her redirecting it, he stood a chance. If I took her on in an Agni-Kai. If I wasn't worried about the rest of the battle closing in around me. But even so, that's suicidal.
His uncle had always criticized his tendency not to think things through, but down here, in the largest prison hold, he could do nothing but think. He'd tried firebending, when he'd first woken up, but the steel walls were too thick here to burn through. The metal had glowed red, and the room had warmed until he was covered in sweat, but he couldn't get out. Nothing else he tried worked, either.
Azula was quick to respond to his summons. She flitted through the door, light on her feet with a spark of amusement in her eyes. "You seem upset, Zuko. Are these accommodations not to your liking?"
"Where are the others?"
"Which others? It would help if you were a little more specific."
"The Avatar. The water tribe peasants."
"The Avatar is dead."
He blinked, his fury derailed. "What?"
"The airbender you've spent three years searching for. He's dead."
"You rotten liar."
"Not this time. Shot him with lightning. Tragic, really. I've heard that the Avatar doesn't reincarnate if you kill him in the Avatar State. No way to confirm that, but so the story goes."
"Liar . . ."
She shrugged. "Yes, 'Azula always lies,' you're thinking. There are times when that's been right. But not today. The little kid you pinned all your hopes on is a pile of ash somewhere in the catacombs of Ba Sing Se."
Don't let her see you panic. "It wasn't him I was pinning my hopes on. Actually, I was counting on your Dai-Li agents betraying you."
"That was a lie. Your left foot always pivots a few degrees when you lie."
Damn you. "Sure. I'm the liar."
"We'll take out the Water Tribes, just to be safe. No sense in letting a new Avatar grow up to master the elements. And then the Earth Kingdom will fall, and their Avatar will die. And then, Zu-zu, a new Avatar will be born into the Fire Nation, and taught our way of life. But by then, we will have won.
"As for the rest of them, the boomerang boy and the blind brat slipped away. We found the metal door of one of the transport boxes shredded open. The Dai-Li are investigating. The waterbender is in another of our cells, wearing herself out, and the Earth King is begging for his pet bear to join him in his cell. You and those two will be brought to the Fire Nation as war prisoners."
Wonderful. "And Father? When he finds out you sent the crown prince to the dark cells of the Fire Nation?"
"Zuko, I don't know if you noticed, but he burned off the left side of your face. He doesn't care about you."
"He cares about my position. That's why he sent me after the Avatar in the first place."
"You don't really believe that, do you?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe I do, maybe I don't. You should be able to tell if I'm telling the truth or not."
She grinned. "That was almost clever. I may have use for you after all." She turned and swept out of the room, locking the door behind her. She said nothing of the red banner lying across the floor.
It must have been forty-eight hours since her capture before they gave her something to drink.
As a waterbender, she hadn't expected to receive any liquid at all. She'd done her best to wring some water vapor out of the air, as she and Aang had done a few times with the clouds, but there wasn't much moisture in the air this deep in the ship. In spite of all her bending, she was dehydrated and delirious by the time the guards brought her water. She drank it instead of bending it.
They had taken her out twice each day for bathroom breaks, and the most recent one had disturbed her with the distinct lack of fluid that came out. Once dehydration had begun to set in, her body had started holding in water. It wouldn't be enough to drink from the moisture in the air, and if they were only going to give her this little bit of water every forty-eight hours, things could only get worse.
They did. Another twenty-four hours went by, and she was given a small glass of water just as she began to wonder if they'd go through all the trouble of chaining her up just to let her die of dehydration. It would be too ironic for a waterbender mere meters away from the sea to die of thirst.
At the three day mark, her hunger began to outweigh her need for water.
By day four, she felt so weak that she didn't even try to stand up.
Day five, she alternated between sleeping, going to the bathroom, and staring at the wall.
Day six, Azula came to visit her. In her hands, she held a tray of dumplings and some savory sauce. Katara's mouth might have watered if she'd been a little less thirsty. "Aren't you looking well-rested," Azula said, staring at her through the half-open door.
Katara just glared, too weak to stand.
"We'll be arriving at port in two days. I thought it would be wise to feed you so you wouldn't pass out during the interrogation."
Interrogation? The word struck fear in her, and she felt as if the ship was sinking with her in it.
"Well, do you want the food or not?"
"Did you poison it?"
"Don't be stupid. The Fire Nation needs you alive. You are an ambassador for the Water Tribes now, aren't you?"
"Still playing at that, huh? I bet you're going to try and convince me Aang is really dead, too, aren't you?"
"I don't need to convince you. It's true."
"Zuko was right. You always lie."
Her lips crumpled into a frown. She dropped the tray at her feet and snatched the front of Katara's kimono, yanking her up from the ground. The blood rushed out of her head, and for a moment, she saw spots. "Don't you see, Katara? You can end this war decisively. All you need to do is get the Water Tribes on our side. We would strike in unison on the day of Sozin's Comet. The Earth Kingdom would shatter."
It shattered when you took Ba Sing Se. "Can't keep control of one capital city, Azula?"
"It's not the city, it's the rebellions springing up in the streets. The Fire Nation needs to crush the hopes of the Earth Kingdom. If the Water Tribes switching sides doesn't crush their hope to win the war, it just means we'll have to roast them when the comet comes. It's up to you. Get the Water Tribes to join the Fire Nation, or their ashes will be on your head." She let Katara's kimono slip through her fingers. "Eat. We'll be making you presentable tomorrow, before we land, so you'd best be ready to get up and move." She turned and slammed the metal door.
As soon as she was gone, Katara reached for the spilled dumplings and dipping sauce. Gran-gran would disapprove of her eating off a filthy prison floor, but her stomach had been empty so long that she didn't care. She scooped the saucy residue from the floor with her fingers and swallowed it all, even though the peppers burned her tongue.
Tomorrow. I have to get out then, or I'll be trapped.