Azula thrashes, but the chains hold. She'll need to be... calmed somehow, removed to somewhere she can be cared for - but not right now.
Zuko takes a deep breath and pivots away. His spine prickles with the wrongness of turning his back on an enemy, but she is contained. She is not the threat right now.
He scans around the courtyard. Still empty. Hard to believe that no one in the precarious hierarchy of the Palace was willing to risk watching, for whatever edge it might get them. But then he looks around again and sees the scorch marks, the char. Perhaps not so hard to believe then. Still, he must have at most a few minutes before someone decides that the duel is over and it's safe to see who's left.
Katara is still watching Azula. "I almost can't believe it's over," she says, and it hits Zuko again that she's just a kid, from a tiny village.
"It isn't over," he says.
I. The Strange Stone
It wasn't that Zuko had never discovered his hidden talents, it was that they were inevitably useless. No one had cared, when he'd strung the zipline between his window and the pavilion in the garden below, that he'd been able to guess exactly the right amount of string he'd need just by looking. The vase of chrysanthemums he'd arranged for his mother had been cleared away and replaced with a palace bouquet before she ever saw how he'd gotten them balanced. Azula got extra sweets when she lit the dinner-table candles by blowing fire-kisses; Zuko got sent to bed hungry when he showed how he could spray saliva from under his tongue if he yawned right. (He had thought it made him look dangerous, like a cobra weasel.) Zuko's tutors noted his diligence, while Azula's praised her brilliance, and everyone knew which one of those was worth something. So he had good penmanship, so what? There were palace scribes on hand at any hour if someone wanted something written.
Katara frowns at Zuko. "But you won," she says.
"Technically I didn't," Zuko says.
Katara looks back and forth dubiously between him and Azula, who is lying on her side, muttering to herself and chewing on her hair.
"She burned me first," he says, shrugging. "That's how it works."
"That's stupid," she says, with the bluntness he's come to appreciate, "Who would look at her and think, hey, she won, let's make her Fire Lord?"
"Lots of people," Zuko says, "Anyone who doesn't want a strong Fire Lord. Someone looking for a puppet to hide behind."
Katara shudders; she's still twitchy about puppets.
"Anyone who brings it up was going to be trouble anyways," Zuko continues. "But that's not nobody."
As if on cue, the first of the Fire Sages slinks back into the courtyard.
II. The Jade Table
The first time Zuko read something about fire writing, he thought they meant something like the secret ink his uncle had recently shown him, that only appeared when the paper was heated. (They'd passed messages back and forth with sillier and sillier riddles until Azula figured out something was going on and started burning any scrap of paper she saw Zuko holding. He'd had to hide in a storeroom to do his assignments from his tutors.) But when he'd asked one of his tutors, hesitantly, why fire-writing was a mark of distinction, he had laughed at him.
"It's not a kids' game," the tutor had said, "It's a scholarly art. Writing without ink, by firebending. Old-fashioned, of course, and nothing a young warrior needs to worry about, but," he had sighed, "Sometimes quite pretty."
Zuko has no illusions that he's cutting an inspiring figure of leadership right now, but he's lucid and upright, which is more than can be said for the competition.
The returned Fire Sages are bunched nervously in the courtyard, darting glances between him and his chained sister.
"Honored - " Zuko starts, and chokes. This is it, this is the moment when he becomes the Fire Lord, forever.
In the corner of his eye, he sees Katara step infinitesimally closer.
"Honored Sages," he tries again, gesturing to Azula, "You see my sister is unfit to rule."
"So you want us to crown you?" one of the Sages asks. He sounds cynical but resigned, like he's very weary of Zuko, of crownings, maybe of Fire Lords in general.
"No," Zuko says.
III. The Iron Pillar
He was fascinated by the idea of writing without ink, and laid out a piece of paper to try it as soon as he was back in his room. He would write yong, he thought, the same way he would practice with the brush. With the first stroke, making the Dot (what his tutor had called the Strange Stone), the paper ignited, and he hurriedly swept it off his desk onto the floor.
"Hmm, fire calligraphy," his uncle said from the doorway. "Very good practice for control. But you need a frame to hold the paper up, like a screen, instead of laying it flat like for ink."
Zuko had jumped guiltily and tried to hide the smouldering remains of the paper behind his foot.
"Never be ashamed of beautiful writing," his uncle had said.
"That wasn't beautiful," Zuko had muttered.
"Everyone starts somewhere," Iroh had told him, patting him on the shoulder and quietly extinguishing the last sparks of the paper.
"No?" the Fire Sages and Katara all squawk in unison.
"Not in an empty courtyard in the middle of the night," Zuko clarifies. "I'm sure you can help me choose a more appropriate time."
"The Fire Sages have prestige without influence," his uncle had told him. "They have no great love for your father. Show them that you take them seriously, and they will be the easiest of your conquests."
The Fire Sages are nodding, already looking a little livelier.
"And I will wait until the Avatar arrives," Zuko adds.
He'd agreed with Iroh: if Ozai won, the title wouldn't help him. Either Aang would turn up, and carry the day, or else he wouldn't, and it wouldn't matter whether Zuko's brief tenure as Fire Lord was ever official.
"Now," Zuko says, "I must speak with my generals."
IV. The Pincer of Crab Coral
It had turned out that there were as many styles of fire calligraphy as normal inked scripts. While the regular script used separate short slashes of fire to mark the paper, the running script required a tiny continuous jet of flame, and the glow-worm script embedded a tiny ember in the surface of the paper itself, which, when induced to "crawl" in the shape of a character, left a charred trail.
Zuko could never get his glow-worm to crawl at anything close to the right speed, and he wasn't much for cursive anyways. But regular script was fun. The first time he had written a legible yong, he'd had to stop and stare at it for a minute. He wrote that! It was lopsided, and none of the strokes were what he could call elegant, but they were in more or less the right places in the right order.
Three hours later, he's pacing, fists clenched. It's not going well. The commander of the Imperial Firebenders has sent a lieutenant to report to him, but is stalling on appearing in person himself, or providing guards, with the excuse that it will take time to re-muster after Azula's banishment. Zuko is positive that there's a full complement of trained palace guards sitting around in full armor in their barracks right now, but he can't go over there and collect them himself, as tempting as it is.
The High General of Domestic Forces isn't even talking to him. Refusing his messengers is clear-cut enough: Zuko will have him arrested for treason, as soon as he has someone to send to arrest him. Imperial Firebenders, say, or Domestic Forces. The general in charge of the Capital has indicated readiness to support Zuko, but he's third-tier; Zuko can't directly command him without alienating the second-tier generals, who are hanging back, waiting to see how things play out. It's a relief to have at least one person in the general staff unambiguously on his side, and he has to hold the Capital, but losing Domestic Forces for the rest of the islands would be a high cost. He's asked one of the Fire Sages to go talk to one of the generals who he knows is pious, and he has Katara in the air, looking for signs of anyone assembling a force to come into the Palace after him.
He has messages prepared to go out to the infantry, the fleet, the colonial guard, the special forces, and every commander and garrison captain he has ever personally met, all of which say the same thing: STAND DOWN. FALL BACK. DO NOT ENGAGE. AWAIT FURTHER ORDERS.
"They should say 'surrender'!" Sokka had objected indignantly, when they'd made the plan. But Zuko knows no loyal Fire Nation officer would follow that order, not from him, out of nowhere. He's hoping they'll be confused enough to be willing to pause, to wait for more information. He'd like to have hawks in the air already, but they're afraid of the Comet and won't fly, or at least that's what the Master of Hawk is telling him. If he can be believed.
"This is why the ascension of a Fire Lord is traditionally followed by executions!" he growls to himself, and hears a little gasp behind him.
V. The Tiger Wolf's Tooth
His father's first birthday after becoming Fire Lord was going to be a grand event, and Zuko's tutors pushed him to prepare: protocol to learn, poems to recite, new bending skills to demonstrate. On his own, Zuko had decided to fire-write his father a scroll. Something simple, just one phrase, "may he be honored forever". He'd practiced the characters over and over until he could write them nearly as smoothly as yong. He'd used the finest paper he could obtain. When he finished, his characters were a perfect crisp-edged deep black. He'd blown away the soot and tied it with a red silk ribbon.
He had presented it to his father after dinner, during the family celebration, after his uncle had given his father a new tea set, before Azula could pull out whatever impressive thing she inevitably had. His father had untied the ribbon with raised eyebrows and unrolled the scroll. He'd looked at for a moment, and then laughed.
"A scroll?" he'd scoffed, crumpling it up and tossing it aside, "This is what they write for me in the schools, by the thousands, and that's what I get from my son?" He'd shaken his head, and turned to Azula.
Zuko had wanted to crumple too, but he'd held his head high like a prince and just nodded. He'd snuck back during the night to see if he could find his scroll to save it, but it was gone, tidied up with the rest of the dinner scraps.
That was it, he thought. He was done with fire calligraphy, it was pointless, and it was time he stop playing around and focus on battle katas.
A few nights later, when it was time for the evening entertainment, instead of the usual singers or acrobats, a stranger pushed out a large blank screen.
"Fire printing in the seal style," he announced, bowing deeply. Without further ado he began tracing characters in the air. Zuko had never read about anything like it - stroke after stroke until the entire character hung there, burning, and then with a little push the calligrapher wafted it onto the paper, where it instantly extinguished, leaving its mark. The text was nothing special, a traditional poem, but the precision involved in building and sustaining each character was amazing. When the calligrapher finished, Zuko had clapped eagerly, until he realized his father was silent. He had stopped, embarrassed, but his uncle had come to his rescue, clapping even louder and calling out praise, catching Zuko's eye with an encouraging smile.
Katara, back from scouting, is staring at him wide-eyed and appalled.
"I'm not really going to kill anyone," Zuko tells her, forcing himself to ungrit his teeth. He's pretty sure he's not lying. He can still feel the power of the Comet surging inside him, and he feels like he could burn people, he could let the fire loose and have the Capital cleared of opposition by morning, but that's not how he wants to do this. He is going to rule over an era of peace. He can't start by eliminating everyone causing him trouble, as convenient as that would be.
Katara nods, then shakes her head. "You might have to," she says. "I mean, your style isn't really... reliably non-lethal. There are firebenders in uniform gathering at the edge of the caldera, and a mob forming down by the harbor."
Zuko sinks into a chair, rubbing his forehead at the edge of his scar. He needs to act. He can try to buy time - he can challenge his recalcitrant generals to Agni Kai one by one, and their honor won't let them refuse. They would probably even defend the Palace grounds while the duels were in progress. But if he's honest with himself, he knows he's in no shape to fight and win. Katara's healing has him back on his feet, but he's still badly hurt from Azula's lightning; his bending is greatly amplified by the Comet, but so is everyone else's. He might as well just abdicate as initiate a contest he can't help but lose.
"I wish the Comet could help us," he mutters. "I wish Firebending power didn't mean everyone's looking for a fight."
"A big flaming comet of peace?" Katara says, rolling her eyes. "Right." She sits down next to him. "Seriously, Zuko, what are we going to do?"
"You can leave on Appa," he points out.
"Leave you behind? Aang would never forgive me," Katara says. "I would never forgive myself."
She puts her hand over his. It might be another hugging moment - Zuko's still not good at spotting those - but something she said is nagging at him.
Slowly, like a character written stroke by stroke, he's starting to get an idea.
VI. The Horn of Komodo Rhinoceros
Zuko couldn't reliably get paper on the ship, but he could practice building seal characters, everything but the final push that would print them. (And if he occasionally printed one onto the walls of his cabin, well, those walls had plenty of scorch marks.) It was a ridiculous waste of time, like pai sho, or playing the tsungi horn, but there wasn't really much to do when they were at sea for days or weeks at a time, and at least he could practice alone in his cabin where there was no one staring at him.
So he had written yong in the air, over and over again, until the afterimage glowed behind his eyelids, and written other things too. Honor. Glory. Vindication.
Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Love.
He'd given it up after losing his ship, not wanting to draw attention, too busy just surviving. Later, in their new apartment in Ba Sing Se, he'd thought he would take it up again, and had tentatively sketched a little golden yong in the privacy of his room.
For a few days while working in the Jasmine Dragon, Zuko had even toyed with the idea that someday when the tea shop was well-established, his uncle might hire someone else to help him, and Zuko might look into doing calligraphy professionally. Not fire calligraphy, of course, not in Ba Sing Se, but he'd thought the basic skills could translate back into ink.
"I need a show of power," he tells Katara. "A mob is just a bunch of people looking for someone to tell them what to do. Even a strike force - who knows what they've been told. The fleet won't attack our own people, if I can get the Capital behind me, I'll have the Nation."
Katara frowns. "So what do you want to do... stage a fight in front of the Palace or something? Show off your bending?" She reaches a hand towards him. "I did the best I could, but... you need time to really heal."
Zuko smiles. "I don't want to show off my bending," he says, "I want to show off my handwriting."
VII. The Mouse Bird Pecking
His letter to Mai had been written in ink. Fire calligraphy was for when you knew what you wanted to say. His letter to Mai was blotted, badly composed, and failed, in the end, to include any of the things he wanted to tell her, except what it absolutely had to. Goodbye.
When he formally proposes he will make her a scroll, written in flames. It will take him four tries to get it right - his hands will be just a little bit shaky - but in the end his characters will be as sharp as her knives, as black as her hair. She will take the scroll and read it and frown and tell him she never had any idea he could do that, and he'll be tempted to snatch it back, but he'll be still, trusting her, until she tells him that of course she will marry him. But that will be later.
Now Zuko is riding a sky bison, a thousand feet above his home; he could probably fly, with the power of the Comet, but Appa is a steadier base, and leaves all his bending free for other purposes.
"Do you really think this will work?" Katara asks.
Zuko breathes, in, out, feeling the energy of the Comet still lingering. It's a few hours before dawn, and the sky is still dark beyond the red glow of the comet. Perfect for his plan.
"Yes," he tells Katara. "The Fire Nation needs a strong leader. Someone who stands for something other than war. For honor. Traditional values." He laughs a little. "Something pretty."
He stands, planting his feet on Appa's wide back, and reaches his awareness out, up to the Comet, unfathomably high, down to the city, where tiny flickering embers are factions beginning to clash in the streets.
He lets the first flames erupt from his hands.
VIII. The Golden Sword
He's never tried anything this big before, but he's never had the Comet before either. He'd made a banner, once, although he'd never been brave enough to raise it, his name fire-printed onto silk in letters as high as a man.
This is just like that. Only a hundred times larger.
He starts with Reconciliation, something he's practiced writing hundreds of times. Down, across, over, until the characters hang in the air like a firework. We will settle our quarrels, he tells his people, and gives it a push, lets it dissipate.
Down below, the little bursts of fire in the streets are going out; he imagines that he can see faces turning up to the sky, and eyes widening.
He gathers heat again for his next word. Unity, something he's written more than once, bitterly, when Fire Nation officers had thwarted him, when Fire Nation soldiers had hunted him. This is a different unity now, a broader one. Unity of all peoples, he tells his nation.
He's up above the rim of the caldera, although the bottoms of his strokes dip below it; he's guessing that his writing can be seen from the Great Gates. Maybe beyond; maybe all the way to the eastern islands. He'll have to ask someone, if they win this.
Unity fades from orange to black in the air. The fire is thin, for lack of a better word, as much light as he can manage, as little heat, but he still feels the coolness when it goes.
His last choice is something he's never written. With a brush, sure, but never in fire calligraphy. It's never been what he thought he was looking for. Strange how it's now the most important thing.
He thinks through the strokes carefully, making sure he knows where they curve, where they touch. And then he writes it, in grand sweeps of his arms, biggest and brightest of all. Peace.
He pours fire into it like he's trying to fill the sky, sustaining it longer than he's ever held the smallest yong, until his arms shake and he has to let it go. He falls back onto Appa, breathing hard, and watches as it lingers for a last moment, the same red as the Comet.
"Wow," Katara says. "I think you're right; if they won't listen to that, they won't listen to anything."
Zuko closes his eyes and lets her steer them back down to the Palace. He's done the best he can; he couldn't make his intentions as Fire Lord any clearer if he wrote them in giant letters of fire (because he did write them in giant letters of fire). If his people insist on war, now they know to depose him, but if anyone holds a secret hope for peace, now they know they should back him.
Plus either way, he'll be remembered forever; Azula never did anything nearly that cool.
He wishes for a moment he could stay flying, and play with the last dregs of cometary energy. Maybe write yong, for old time's sake. But, no, it's time to go find out what the people think.
Appa spirals lower, and Zuko hears something.
"Peace. Peace. Peace."
He sits up and leans over the edge of the saddle to look down. The mob of commoners has spilled into the caldera, and they're swarming around the Palace, chanting. As Appa moves to land, Zuko can see that the crowd is dotted with soldiers, too; he thinks he even spots a few Imperial Firebender uniforms.
About half of his generals have assembled in the courtyard, waiting for him. They bow as Zuko jumps down from Appa.
"Lord Zuko?" one asks, and Zuko says, "Yes."