The poison is stored in a small panel set into the back of Iroh's wardrobe. He's never had use for it before, although he can hardly claim he's never considered it. The poison is in a single vial, hidden amongst mementoes of his wife and of the war. Possessing it is surely treason, because while it is swift and effective the chi blocking chemicals make it highly prized for use against firebenders. Ursa called it the kingkiller, and she knew well of such things.
He slips it to Ozai at dinner and thanks the spirits for the opportunity. His brother rarely attends dinner with the family.
The effect is already apparent the next day. Ozai's eyes are glazed, his stance unbalanced. He is probably not yet aware that his firebending is blocked; it is so lucky that the Agni Kai is scheduled for early in the morning, before Ozai would take the Dragon Throne and pitch the room wildly with shadows and flame. Iroh forces a smile, bowing out of the room while attendants fit Ozai with the ceremonial arm bands. He needs to hurry, but he doesn't dare run. He cannot risk being stopped before he reaches Zuko.
Iroh breathes a sigh of relief when he finds the boy. Zuko is in his bedroom, kicking his legs childishly against his bed, but he straightens immediately when Iroh comes in, thrusting his skinny chest out and going into a battle stance. He looks proud and, despite some uncertainty, eager. He's happy to face his first Agni Kai.
"Uncle!" he exclaims in surprise. "What are you doing here?"
"I thought this old war horse could give you some advice – if they still fight Agni Kai with fire, that is!"
The humor is weak and strained. Zuko senses it, his wide golden eyes lighting with confusion.
Iroh reaches out to place a hand on Zuko's shoulder. Even now, his nephew is taller than him. He would grow up to be as broad and strong as Ozai – if Iroh's brother actually let him. The thought firms Iroh's resolve and he clears his throat, trying again.
"Your opponent is not who you think he is, my young nephew. An insult to one of the Fire Lord's generals, in his own throne room, is an insult to the Fire Lord. You see, it is not General Yuben you face. It is your father."
Zuko's face pales. He stumbles backward, falling heavily back onto his bed. When he looks up, tears shine in his eyes and Iroh nearly has to look away.
"But… how can I fight Father?"
The words have an edge of building terror. How can he be expected to fight his family? How can he be expected to win?
For the first time of what Iroh knows will be many, many occasions, he feels guilt for Zuko's sake. He wishes he had a choice in the matter. He wishes he had been a better man, years ago, and taken his nephew far away from this place.
"It is not necessary for you to fight, Prince Zuko," Iroh says softly. Zuko watches him avidly, clinging to the lies. "It is ceremonial, nothing more. All you must do is throw one fire blast at him before surrendering peaceably and with honor."
"One blast," Zuko repeats. He sounds like he is memorizing it, like he knows he will be too frightened to think properly when the time comes. Iroh hates himself, but he can only hope desperately that Zuko does remember.
He does, in fact, remember. It's little comfort to Zuko as he stands with shoulders slumped and boneless, staring in shock at his father's crumpled form. The poison has worked well. Murmuring rises up from the stands in the arena and Iroh can feel more than one courtier give him a sidelong glance. Azula is near tears beside him, tiny fists clenched as she urges her father to get up.
Zuko is crowned the next dawn, as the Fire Sages burn his father behind him. The shocked expression has never left his face.
After the third time Azula comes, she knees Zuko in the face. As far as signals go, that's just about the only one he actually gets. Grunting in annoyance, he backs off, licking one last time at her cunt before resting his head on her thigh. It's still too fucking close for Azula's comfort, but she's feeling rather magnanimous at the moment. Orgasms have that effect on her, which is the exact reason she and her brother have this arrangement. While he can't trust her, he trusts everyone else even less, and she's only equipped to deal with his whining if he's spent a good long time eating her out beforehand.
Groaning slightly at the effort, she reaches down to thread her fingers through his hair. He grows it out long, both to accommodate the weight of the Fire Crown and in imitation of their late father. Thankfully, he hasn't gotten it into his head to try for the beard yet – or if he has, the result was so shameful he couldn't even show it to her. Twisting her fingers, she pulls at the root of his hair, nudging him until he moves off of her.
Zuko swears under his breath and glowers up at her, but he does not crawl up the bed to her side. These conversations are easier if they are not face to face.
"What was it you wanted to talk to me about?" she asks pleasantly.
Azula rolls her eyes. Of course.
"The Avatar is a child. He's been holed up at the North Pole for half a year like a coward – I doubt he's even mastered water, let alone earth or fire," she says, snorting at the thought. She has a strict policy of burning traitors alive; Master Jeong Jeong's execution had been particularly effective in quelling dissenters. There is no one at all to teach the Avatar now. "He's no threat to us."
"But Uncle said..."
Azula scowls instantly at the mention of their uncle. She cannot comprehend Zuko's continuing soft spot for the conniving old bastard. They've had ample evidence for years that he was responsible for Father's death, and much though she'd thought Zuko would embrace the opportunity to be rid of Uncle Iroh, he instead mired himself further into guilt and anger at the news. Zuko is forever the child king, unworthy and beset by doubts, and he continues to hope that Iroh's patronage will somehow help.
"Uncle Fatso," Azula starts, cutting through Zuko's blather, "is just trying to delay the wedding. You know he doesn't approve."
Zuko lifts his head from the mattress, eyes gleaming with firelight.
"He thinks the Avatar will come to stop us."
Azula smirks, reaching down to cup his cheek. Her beautiful brother. She does love him like this – ambitious and sick with anger and determination in equal measure.
"No one can stop us," she says.
Not the Avatar and most certainly not Iroh. Not with the great comet itself to herald their wedding.
Their plans for that day make Azula feel positively giddy inside – finally they will crush the Earth Kingdom, razing it to dust. It is the best possible wedding gift anyone could give. She would know, of course, since she planned it herself. The only flaw in the strategy is that it is incomplete. The Water Tribes still survive. Not for long, true. They are dying out all on their own. But it would be incredibly satisfying to melt their pathetic icebergs into puddles. The Avatar has held them at bay for the moment, protecting the Northern City, and Azula only wishes they had the resources to strike both at him and the Earth Kingdom at the same time.
It would be nice to put that threat to bed forever. And even better to recall Ty Lee from her mission, putting her to bed as well.
Zuko's hands slide over her hips, pulling her nearer to him, and Azula jerks away from him. She glowers down the bed. Thoughts of Ty Lee may have made her horny again, but they also bring back the memories of precisely what happened. Her fire crackles temptingly within reach, and she seriously considers it for a moment. She could kill him right now, take the throne for herself, and be rid of her brother forever.
Azula's breath shortens at the thought, jaw clenching. She moves her hand, wrapping it around the poster of the bed, and smoke curls from under her fingers as she resists the urge.
Instead, she levers a leg up and puts her foot against Zuko's cheek – shoving him to the floor.
The throne room flickers and roars with Zuko's flame. He stares across the cresting wall of fire, rippling in front of him, biting the inside of his cheek as he concentrates. He is aware that he is not particularly talented at firebending, but he is Fire Lord and he must command the respect of his subjects. He is not a child, not anymore, and there is no one to guide his hand.
He is not that foolish boy anymore.
Azula lounges at his side. Her hair is bound up tightly, but for two locks falling to the side, and she wears their mother's crown in her hair. The crown of a princess, yes, but the point is made. She wiggles her fingers through his fire, stealing bits away, turning them into bright blue wisps that burn out, vanishing into thin air. She thinks he doesn't notice how she undermines him. Zuko's bones creak, fists in his lap made tight as he thinks of her.
The war council is meager today. Uncle and the swordmaster he procured for Zuko, Piandao, are the only one there to bear witness to Ty Lee's testimony. He is sure Uncle engineered it that way. He engineers so many little things, things he doesn't realize Zuko notices. He notices more than anyone thinks.
Ty Lee prostrates herself before the throne, pressing her forehead to the wooden floor. Azula shifts beside him, and Zuko smirks openly at her.
Their arrangement, their upcoming marriage, is hardly anything he ever would have chosen. The political cards he has been dealt, however, require a consolidation of power and of enemies. He needs Azula where he can see her just as much as he needs her firepower. Zuko actually hopes that Uncle is right, that the Avatar will come to ruin the wedding, because he would most definitely enjoy having Ty Lee around the palace again. All those lovely, vicious scars marring her body; proof to Azula of just how much he hates her.
"Mai sends her greetings and wishes for your marriage to be long and fruitful," Ty Lee says into the floor boards. Her voice is flat, as flat as Mai's own beloved, missed voice, although it is with tension and anger rather than apathy. The ritual words should carry hostility with them – perhaps wistfulness, remembering what of their childhood had been lost – but instead they fall leaden upon Zuko's ears, heavy with irony. Mai wishes nothing of the sort. Ty Lee seems only to think they deserve the hell they will bring each other. Zuko lowers the flame, allowing her to see his smile, and Ty Lee's breath hisses loudly in the throne room as she exhales her hatred. Gritting her teeth, she continues, "Lady Mai is still looking for the Avatar, as you commanded, Fire Lord."
Zuko rolls his eyes. Like he didn't know that.
Ty Lee straightens abruptly, throwing her shoulders back. Her braid sways behind her as she flicks her head, glowering up at him through her one good eye.
"And we found him!"
"He's here?" Zuko asks eagerly. He tries not to lean forward, but finds himself nearly sliding off his cushion nonetheless. "In the capitol?"
"That's where we tracked him. The crew is tired, though. They could really use a rest and some new equipment," she hints.
Zuko waves the concern away.
"You'll be resupplied."
Ty Lee almost seems annoyed at how quickly her request is fulfilled. Her eyes shift over to Azula as she continues, "Thank you, Your Majesty. We appreciate your generosity and your trust. You know Mai – she's the smartest, bravest, most beautiful girl in the world. If anyone can find the Avatar, she can."
Azula shifts next to Zuko, growling, "She's what now?"
But she's quiet. It's under her breath. Some of the lanterns in the throne room shine with an eerie blue light, but it is only for a moment; Zuko represses a smirk. Even Ty Lee doesn't want Azula now.
It's not really a shock, of course. Azula's hands are not any cleaner than Zuko's in the whole affair. If she had only left Mai alone – let their engagement stand, let Mai's father live – then Zuko wouldn't have been forced to banish Mai, nor to strike back at Azula through Ty Lee. And while Azula's part occurred in back rooms, in hushed whispers and with spies trading secrets in the night, everyone in the room is aware of how both siblings, equally, fought this battle through their lovers. If they are taking bets on how the battle will continue, or who will win, they are sure to be disappointed.
Zuko and Azula decided long ago that they could both win. It is better than the alternative.
Uncle Iroh steps up to Ty Lee; standing in the presence of the Fire Lord is tolerated at best, and Zuko feels anger swell within him.
"She speaks the truth, Fire Lord Zuko. It is time you heed her warnings. Your wedding is ill fated and ill timed. You hardly want to go into battle on your wedding day, do you? Wait. Wait for the comet to pass and the Avatar to be defeated, and then we can celebrate the happy day," Uncle Iroh says pleasantly. He gestures to Ty Lee, one hand resting on her head with all the avuncular kindness he can summon.
Zuko's flames pop and crack at the sight, shivering as he loses his concentration. Why does Uncle have to be this way? Why does he always have to do this?
He can feel Azula's sidelong glance, and he's actually grateful when she takes over for him, her voice smooth and hard as she dismisses the concern.
"We will wed under the comet's light, with the Avatar dead at our feet. Celebrate that."
Iroh catches Piandao's eye through the deep bows they both give to the Fire Lord before they turn and leave, walking Ty Lee out. She will return to her ship in the harbor; Mai has been given amnesty so long as she can prove the Avatar is here. She could walk freely down the streets of the capitol, even venture up to the palace if she wished, but Piandao knows her well enough to realize she will remain on her ship, watchful as she waits for the day she can end her mission and leave the Fire Lord's memory behind entirely. Ty Lee nods stiffly to both men as they exit onto the palace grounds, her lips forming a rueful half smile. Iroh claims she was once a bright, cheerful girl. Exile has hardened her. The scars that pull on her cheek when she smiles do not help either. There is a sadness to her as she mouths quick, formal words of thanks, leaving the palace once more to rejoin her partner.
"That did not go well," Piandao says quietly. He walks at a moderate pace, knowing it is quicker for Iroh's short legs, as they navigate their way out to the garden. It is a fine place for conspiracy; few spies can truly hide in the wide open spaces of the palace grounds.
"I did not truly expect to convince them," Iroh says. His voice is a soft, pleasant rumble. Congenial enough to hide the lie of his words, although the strain around his eyes gives it away. He did not expect, but he hoped. He has hoped for many long years, staying the hand of the White Lotus while they grew frustrated and impatient. And now the White Lotus is moving ahead without Iroh's consent – with barely even the courtesy to keep Piandao himself informed – while Iroh scrambles to control the damage. He does not want his nephew to meet the Avatar on the field of war, but now that is what it has come to. Iroh's years of protecting the boy have come to a final, decisive end. "Perhaps if Mai herself could come to the palace…"
Or not, Piandao thinks with a sigh. Iroh will continue trying to protect Fire Lord Zuko until it gets him killed – a day that seems to be approaching ever faster, unfortunately.
"How do you presume to get a message to her?"
"You could talk to her directly," Iroh claims. His eyes brighten and he looks eagerly up at Piandao.
"When?" he asks in return, trying to keep his voice neutral. It's unrealistic to say he could leave the palace without the Fire Lord noticing, anymore than Iroh could. The boy studies the sword religiously and Piandao is expected to be at his side nearly at all times, equally for training and protection. Piandao watches as the schedule flicks through Iroh's mind, as he tries to find a time Piandao could possibly get away. There is none. He offers a raised eyebrow in Iroh's direction. "Ah. I see."
"There is still time. If we can intercept the Avatar," Here Piandao's expression grows alarmed. He waves an arm at Iroh, trying to hush him, but Iroh's desperation has taken over, "I could end all this! There doesn't need to be bloodshed."
"An interesting claim, coming from you," Piandao snaps. A muscle flexes in Iroh's jaw, and Piandao can see he understands the jibe. It's best not to say more out loud. It is one thing to talk of the Avatar and how to prevent him from hurting the Fire Lord. Yes, the Fire Lord is the undying fracture of Heaven, anointed by Agni, bathed in the power of the sun et cetera et cetera, but even courtiers would find nothing particularly scandalous in this kind of gossip.
However, if Piandao were to say his thoughts aloud – to tell Iroh that he bought Zuko's years as Fire Lord with the blood of the Earth Kingdom and the Northern Water Tribe, that the White Lotus urged a peaceful solution for years, that it is Iroh himself who should have seized the throne, Agni Kai be damned – they would both be dead. Much sooner than they will be regardless, Piandao thinks with a chuckle. He has every faith that Mai has done her duty well, both to her Fire Lord and to the White Lotus. She has found the Avatar, and brought him bodily to the capitol. A few others, too, if Master Pakku's letters are to be believed.
"What is it that you want?" Iroh asks angrily. "You can't possibly expect me to watch the Avatar…"
Piandao stops him with a hand on his arm.
"I don't, my friend," he says. He hopes that Pakku will come with the Avatar. Together, perhaps they can restrain Iroh, lead him away. Someone will need to take the crown, and it cannot possibly fall to Princess Azula – or, he thinks with a deep churning in his stomach, Fire Lady Azula if she is allowed to wed. Iroh will need allies and his own sanity if he is to be Fire Lord.
So no, Piandao does not expect Iroh to watch when the Avatar kills Fire Lord Zuko. That will surely break him.
Mai stands at the prow of her ship, staring up toward the royal caldera. She ignores the quiet click of a pai sho tile onto the playing board behind her as she watches the ceremonial smoke rise up from the temple beyond the rim of the volcano. The comet comes soon; the Sages are reading the auguries ahead of the royal wedding. Hopefully, it is all bad news.
It has been a long, arduous year of exile for Mai. Her father's treason ended in execution, and nearly her own as well. It was only the Fire Lord's grace and enduring love for her that let her escape to the sea. Maybe it was luck that the Avatar returned so soon after her engagement to the Fire Lord was broken. It gave an easy solution to a difficult political situation. She could pursue the Avatar and be granted a chance at redemption while Zuko fought to regain the support of suddenly wary courtiers.
Ty Lee mounts the gangplank, returning at last from the palace. Mai's heart leaps in her chest at the sight of her only friend, but her face remains implacably calm. She's the only one who never stares at the burns pressed on Ty Lee's arms, the wicked knife slashes across her face that mar her cheek and eye. The sight of her is a reminder – as if Mai could ever really forget. The Fire Lord's grace is a crock a shit.
"Did he bite?" she asks mildly.
Ty Lee strolls past, just out of Mai's line of sight so that she must turn her head to see her expression. Flipping her practical braid over her shoulder, Ty Lee snorts.
"He didn't even notice it was bait. I taunted Azula for you, though. That was funny. You should have seen her aura."
Mai's hands clench at her sides. She can feel the weight of all her knives and she sorts them mentally. Darts in their sleeve sheaths, shuriken around her ankles, stiletto blades high on her thighs. She would be glad to wield any of them against Azula, even to her own death. Her father's honor cannot be restored – Azula was too thorough, her lies too pervasive – but it could be avenged.
"It was a stupid plan, anyway," Mai says flatly. Getting Zuko and Azula to come aboard the ship relied on too many assumptions, too many implicit understandings. They could never ask him directly, only try to plant the idea of doing a personal inspection. But leave it to Zuko to miss the point.
"Perhaps it was," Pakku says. Mai doesn't turn; doesn't look; doesn't kick him off her ship like she has wanted to since the moment they met. She doesn't like his conniving, nor his plans – even when they do dovetail with her own. "The next one will not suffer from its subtlety. We must go to the palace ourselves."
"So much for secrets," Ty Lee mumbles.
"They haven't served us so far," Mai replies. She can feel Pakku's penetrating glare at her back for that. It was his idea to continue the charade about pursuing the Avatar after the boy's death at the North Pole. He is the one misleading the White Lotus members in the palace, trying to enlist their help to draw the Fire Lord into his trap. Just to rib him further, she adds, "Pakku might be right."
"Master Pakku," he corrects stiffly.
Mai gives Ty Lee a sidelong glance, and the other girl nods.
"Yes, Master Pakku. So how did you plan to get us past all the palace guards?" she asks sweetly.
It is not Pakku who answers, however, but their other guest. The one they picked up in the Earth Kingdom.
"I can help there," Princess Ursa assures them.
Ursa is all too aware of the tension amidst the group as she leads them through the volcanic tunnels she used to escape the capitol all those years ago. She cradles a small, weak yellow flame in her palm, lighting the way for the others. They are unlikely allies – if even that word is not stretched too far to be used – and the air sizzles with the friction of their different intentions. Ursa is quite aware that Pakku would see her son dead; that Azula might die at Mai's hand; that Ty Lee has no intention of leaving Zuko's face unmarked. She will stand for none of it. Their charade regarding the Avatar brought them this far, allowing them access to the capitol, but she has no intention of fulfilling the dead Avatar's quest for him.
End the war? Perhaps. Ursa has lived in the Earth Kingdom. She was not blind to their suffering. But Fire Nation rule would end that as quickly as anything else. She never shied from the military ambitions of the royal family and she sees little reason to start now. The war is of little consequence.
Her children are not. She will save them – from the White Lotus and from themselves.
There is little talking as she guides them through the tunnel. The air is heavy and tainted with a sulfurous smell. It won't do any lasting damage, at least not to anyone of Fire Nation heritage, but wading through the thick air makes conversation spare and uncommon throughout the journey. A time or two someone trips, the light too far from the path for them to navigate, and Ursa doubles back to guide her companions forward.
The ground takes on a slope and they begin to ascend. The ascent does not take long because the tunnels do not exit into daylight. Instead, they lead to a hidden alcove in the palace archives. The Fire Sages are absent and Ursa finds a first, bitterly ironic reason to be grateful for the wedding.
Pakku looks avidly around the archives, the gleam in his eyes telling Ursa he will make a trip back if he survives the day. Mai feigns disinterest, while Ty Lee impatiently searches for the exit. Raising her hand slightly, Ursa calls their attention back to her. She offers a silent nod – her last acknowledgment of them as allies – and pulls the release to the secret ceiling door, snuffing her flame in a clenched hand as daylight floods in. Her hand rests on her sword as she climbs the stairs, all too aware of the people at her back.
The palace is unchanged. That is the first thought that strikes her as she walks from the archives into the main halls of the palace. The ceilings are high and lined with great, decorative, red lanterns. Sun shines in from the vast, open shutters. The tiles echo underneath her feet just as they did when she walked to her own wedding on the palace grounds, all those years ago. But then she wore slippers; it was excitement that made her feet fall heavily on the fine tiles. Now she wears cobbled together Earth Kingdom armor and boots, and her walk is loud with determination. She should hush it, she knows, but like her final walk from this palace she cannot find the self control to temper her fear and anger. She can only hope that the rush and noise of the celebration will protect her.
"How much time do you think we have?" she hears Ty Lee ask Mai in an undertone. The other girl doesn't acknowledge the question.
Ursa knows. She is not much of a firebender, but even she can feel the comet coming.
"We have time," she tells the girls.
It might just be enough.
Iroh looks to the horizon. With every beat of his heart, with every breath, he can feel the comet come nearer. Soon he'll be able to tap its power; what for, he doesn't know. To the east, airships are already rising. They will burn the Earth Kingdom to cinders, and Iroh does not know what will be done about that. The White Lotus has been eerily silent. The best he can hope is that they did not trust him to know their plan. While that is likely, it is likelier still that they simply had no defense prepared against that insanity. They will watch aghast, with the rest of the world, as the Earth Kingdom dies.
Their mission now is only to depose Zuko from the throne and to prevent Azula's ascension. Iroh keeps his eyes fixed toward where the comet will rise. It is the opposite direction from the wedding preparations and hurts far less to think of. Piandao is at his side, a urging him to leave, that he doesn't need to watch this.
"Where did we go wrong?" a new voice asks.
Iroh shivers, his eyes going wide in recognition and he turns, joyfully hugging the robed figure that has sidled up beside him. The last time he heard her voice, he was still in the spirit world – or so he believed.
"I thought you were dead," Iroh says into Ursa's shoulder. He feels her shake her head minutely, and hastily they pull apart, Ursa being sure to fix her hood.
Her face is careworn, although still lovely. The lines around her eyes match Iroh's own, he's sure, although she wears them better. She is too young to look as aged and dignified as him – he tells her so, just to hear her ringing laugh one more time. But it doesn't come.
"Iroh," Ursa says with a frown. "We must be decisive and quick. The others will surely act before the comet comes. We must find a way to delay them."
"The Avatar…" he breathes out. But Ursa shakes her head.
"He's dead. It's the waterbender, Pakku, who I'm worried about."
Iroh's mind works rapidly, trying to process the changes to the plan – such that his plan was, anyway. He cranes his neck, trying to see over the taller courtiers and toward the dais where Zuko and Azula will wed, following a tradition that he had hoped long buried. And yes, slinking up from the side he can see the distinctive movements of a waterbender. Indecision strangles him for a brief moment, but then just as quickly his wits are with him once more.
Catching Piandao's eye, he tells the other man, "You must go protect my nephew."
"Pakku is a member of the White Lotus," Piandao argues, although he is looking uncertain.
For the Fire Lord to be defeated in battle would cow the entire Fire Nation. Only the Avatar has the ability to balance the elements and the world. Without his influence, Iroh fears this will simply be another assassination, and one that will do nothing to encourage mercy on the part of the conquering Fire Nation. Piandao sighs, closing his eyes in silent assent as his mind too follows that line of thought.
Piandao turns, signaling to the nearest guards.
Three of them fall before Pakku is subdued, and a sheet of ice sparkles over the flagstones, melting slowly in the summer heat. The audience claps appreciatively.
"How will we stop the wedding?" Iroh asks Ursa, desperate in way he has rarely admitted. They can't allow these attacks to proceed; they can't stop them if they want to save the children.
"I will have to come forward," Ursa says. She looks resolute and sad as she observes her children. Azula toes Pakku's body in disgust, red robes replaced with scarlet trimmed white for the occasion. Her crown is missing for the moment. It will be replaced with that of the Fire Lady.
"You think they can be reasoned with?" Piandao asks.
"They don't even want this," Iroh says, following her gaze. Zuko looks discomfited in his wedding finery. He keeps pulling at his high collar, throwing irritated looks over his shoulders at the Sages who fuss over him. "They don't want this wedding, or the throne. I forced it on them."
His cowardice saved Zuko's life all those years ago and his cowardice condemned him to the throne. Iroh knows he should have protected him more. He tried so hard to quell dissent and keep those that would manipulate Zuko far from the child in his first years of rule. But then Zuko grew resentful and Iroh realized he was sheltering the boy, not protecting him. He would need to face the wolves of court and to learn their games. He succeeded at that, all too well. Zuko has put the wolves at bay, his sister in particular.
Ursa rests a reassuring hand on Iroh's arm.
"You did your best. Now it is my turn."
And she turns, striding through the crowd. Two figures – Mai and Ty Lee, Iroh realizes with some surprise – try to stop her, but she brushes them back.
"Stop this!" Ursa shouts. "Stop it before it is too late!"
The crowd's susurration of curious gabble is growing louder and louder as they gawk at Pakku's body. They press in closer, and Ursa has to fight to make her way through. No one hears her words.
And then, with a ringing clang, she draws her sword. The attention of the entire gathering falls on her.
"Stop this!" she shouts to Azula and Zuko.
They both fall into defensive stances, guards trying to form a circle around them. Iroh can only catch glimpses of Zuko's face. He looks confused and angry, but he reaches out to push Piandao's protection aside, mouth forming a word that Iroh can't hear, even if he can place it on sight. Beside him, Azula's eyes have narrowed. She too pushes her guards aside, allowing her better range to firebend.
There is a sharp crack and a blinding blur of light as electricity sizzles through the air.
Iroh pushes through courtiers and guards, sounds coming at him in a rush, but he is too late.
"I told you it would be glorious," Azula says through a smirk. She's holding it together now; it's easier now that mother's body has been cleared away. Her fingers still burn from the electricity. It's weird, that's never happened before. They sting and they hurt, so she just curls them toward her palm, balling her hands as tightly as she can. It'll go away. She's sure of it.
"You knew it was her," Zuko hisses in accusation.
She laughs because that's pretty sure that's what she would do. It sounds fairly similar to how Zuko laughed when they hauled him out of the Agni Kai arena. Except he was actually crying then.
"Of course I did, dum-dum."
Who would mistake her own mother for the Avatar, anyway? Not a prodigy. Not a monster. It had to be deliberate.
"I'll never forgive you," Zuko continues.
Azula can feel the power of the comet cresting within her. She almost feels mad with it.
"Well, I'll never forgive you either," she sneers back.
For some reason, the Fire Sage seems to take that as an avowal of devotion. He pronounces them husband and wife. Azula kneels next to her brother as the crown is slid into her hair. She can smile at him and tease and later she hopes she can burn him – maybe he'll burn her back, for once.
When she rises, it is for the kiss, but it is easier to fall into Zuko's arms crying.
And somewhere, an ocean away, the Earth Kingdom burns.