Unlike her brother, Azula travels the world out of a desire to do so. She is finally old enough to be allowed out on her own, finally finished her training in enough skills to be trusted with her own safety. She travels to all the places that her father has dominion over to acquaint herself with them, and to see that they are acquainted with her. She surveys towns and cities, sets buildings alight, introduces herself as their future lord.
The south pole is as pitiable as she expects, knowing what she does of her family's conquests. Azulon left very little; there is nothing here but a small collection of ice huts, hidden behind an attempt at a wall. There are also no soldiers to speak of; all the tribe's grown men and boys are absent, and none of the women and girls seem to have been trained for battle. All of them cower in their furs. A skinny boy with a boomerang and laughable war paint on his face attempts to attack her, but she knocks him aside without a thought.
She strolls between the peasants' hovels and learns them, because although they may be insignificant, they are still hers. In fact, their ongoing insignificance reflects her significance. Azula looks for the largest, most competently built one to melt down into nothing. She finds it but stops before her flames can touch it, distracted by the peculiar craftsmanship of the dwelling. It is smooth and even; sealed seamlessly by a layer of ice. Too perfect to have been cobbled together by any of these tribeswomen's hands.
Azula strides back to where they have all gathered, glares at one of the snivelling children and watches his face crumple and redden even further.
"Which of you is the waterbender?" she demands, and a collective breath is held.
When no one gives her the answer she wants, Azula kicks flames at their dwellings, hut by hut, until a girl pushes through the small crowd. She looks about Azula's age, perhaps a little older. It's hard to make a sure estimate of age when the look of her is so entirely different from what Azula is accustomed to seeing. She is brown and smooth like carved, sanded wood, her features flatter than Azula's and her hair more voluminous.
"Stop!" the girl shouts. "I'm the waterbender—leave them alone!"
They are a heroine's words, spoken by a child—and Azula will call her a child, since she clearly has so much to learn. She is, for a moment, reminded of Zuko; all insistence upon things he isn't prepared for. She looks into the girl's eyes, this peasant of sealskin rags and ice, and sees fire there all the same.
"Guards," she commands, "bring her in."
Azula has read about what waterbenders can do—she would not travel the world without first preparing herself for all the kinds of people she might come up against. This girl, if she is talented, could be Azula's own personal healer. If she is very talented, she could be something much more interesting. In case she is talented, Azula has the girl thrown into a watertight metal container on the warship for the trip home.
Katara has barely enough control over her waterbending to keep a bubble suspended in the air for long. She never got much chance to practice, and she's certainly never been taught. The Fire Nation Princess, on the other hand, has been learning her bending style all her life. She's younger than Katara, it turns out, but she certainly doesn't act like it. Azula acts like she hasn't been a kid in many years.
"Pathetic," she scoffs as Katara once again fails to stretch her water bubble out into a water whip without it breaking, splashing down to the stony ground beneath her feet and drenching her on its way down. She tries her best to bend it out of her hair, her clothes, which match the Princess' although they are cut from plainer, duller fabric. She can't get it all. The slight cold edge leant to the breeze by her wetness is a comfort, anyway. It's so hot here Katara feels like she's dying, like she's breathing too close to a fire and she's going to suffocate from it at any moment.
Katara doesn't talk back to Azula. She bites her tongue, because by now she knows the consequences of letting her anger flow. Azula's lightning is a fierce whip that cracks the air like the splitting of an iceberg, forking out like the blue veins that rise out of Katara's skin in this heat and the ones that are always visible through the translucence of Azula's. The Princess bends lightning with enough finesse to hurt without causing permanent damage, but there is always a razor spark in her eyes that says she might decide not to hold back, that the loss of the pet might be worth the fun of killing it.
It isn't that Katara accepts the label of pet, plaything, hobby to the Princess—it's just that she won't fight it too hard when the alternatives are worse. If she were to be considered a servant or a royal healer or a guard she'd be in the employ of the Fire Lord, and incompetent in her role. Ozai punishes failures even more gleefully than his daughter; he considers the world his own and so he sets the insignificant pieces of it alight with abandon. While Azula is heir to all that, the only thing that she can currently consider hers and hers alone is Katara.
"Let me take her for a lesson and I'll show you how to train her properly," Ozai offers one afternoon, as Katara's spilt water steams off the pavement and she moves through the humid air like a struggling swimmer.
"Thank you, Father," the Princess replies, and for a horrible moment Katara thinks she is going to accept, "but I've already learned so much from you that I feel ready to try this on my own."
Ozai looks at Azula in a way that Katara can't quite place. He clearly likes her better than anyone else he lays eyes on, is proud of her—but not in the way of fatherly love. Ownership, Katara's mind supplies. Perhaps that is what all relationships here are about. She notices the way Azula's shoulders relax just the tiniest amount when her father leaves, and wonders how exactly Azula learned all these lessons she speaks of.
"Try again," the Princess orders, lightning crackling at her fingertips, and Katara gathers up her water and attempts the whip for the hundredth time.
Azula has read about waterbending before, but as she attempts to coach her new project it becomes clear that she'll need to know much more if she's to succeed in training her. She digs through the royal archives for weeks before finding anything that approaches the subject of waterbending in an instructive manner. There are a few illustrations, which help since the girl, Katara, is unfamiliar with the old Fire Nation characters in many of the texts Azula reads. To be fair, most people born and raised in Azula's own country would be. It is not a mode of notation that is seen outside historical writings.
She takes the two scrolls most likely to be helpful to Katara's room. Azula has been keeping her in similar quarters to those the palace servants inhabit, but the water tribe girl has her room to herself. It is guarded, but it is not the jail cell she'd been kept in at first. It has a bed, a closet filled with Fire Nation clothing, and all the equipment necessary for maintaining proper hygiene. Katara has been more cooperative, Azula has noticed, since she was given these quarters. Negative reinforcement had not had the desired effect on the girl; she seems to have a high tolerance for pain. Trying to tame her with rewards, tempt her with kindnesses, is not Azula's way—but then, Azula's way is whatever achieves her goals. And the more she gives Katara now, she more she can take away from her later if and when the need arises.
Azula brings her the most beautiful scrolls—intricate pictures detailing movements Katara's never known but which come naturally to her, which feel right, which flow. She makes fast progress with these texts to instruct her. She's only in the Fire Nation until she can escape—but the more she learns, the sooner she'll be able to make an attempt. She'll only get one chance, though; she will have to be very sure. If that means spending a little extra time preparing, then so be it. Katara doesn't have a waterbending master back home. She figures she might as well take advantage of this knowledge while it's rolled out before her.
In the meantime, success gains her even better treatment from her captor than mere compliance does.
"These are the only materials I have on healing and bloodbending," Azula says as she hands Katara two small scraps of paper. "I think you're ready to attempt these forms of waterbending—but we may need to seek out more instruction from elsewhere. I don't think I'd mind another little trip around the world."
Of all the things Katara's mind could stick on, it chooses the tiniest word: we. Azula, the Princess of the Fire Nation, has either referred to herself using the royal we, or she has included Katara in a collective with herself. Katara feels strange, hearing it. She feels strange about the tea and fire flakes (which she tries to snack on but leaves the majority of; they are too spicy for her to find them enjoyable) that Azula's servants bring to her room shortly after the strange interaction. She feels strangely that when she escapes from this place she will be leaving a hole behind, and she wonders whether it will bleed.
Katara reads the text on bloodbending. Its parchment has darkened with age, its writing faded, and spots of mould have taken root in it despite what she's sure are the best efforts of its keepers—the Fire Sages, as Azula calls them. The page is written half in a common script she recognises, and half in a Fire Nation script she's begun to pick up, though not enough to read it clearly. It varies too much from text to text—the passage of time, Katara supposes, shows itself in this way. Words evolve just like people and things. They diverge or blend or become obsolete.
She reads about what bloodbending is and feels ill—but then she thinks about what she could achieve with it, what a perfect secret weapon it would be if she could coordinate her escape with a full moon. She thinks about power beyond just what is necessary to escape—thinks about being strong enough to stop threats to her village once and for all. She thinks about her mother, who died so that Katara could live, and live as a bender. She thinks about her current location, in the beating heart of the nation that took her mother away from her.
She swallows the sickness and soaks the knowledge in.
The Princess plans her next expedition.
"I want to come with you," Katara tells her, and Azula agrees to it.
Wan Shi Tong's library is a lofty goal, but achieving lofty goals is Azula's specialty. Such a library would surely contain special knowledge of waterbending techniques—knowledge that may well be as lost to the northern tribe as it is to its devastated southern sibling. Katara had accepted the bloodbending scroll without voicing any complaint, and Azula plans to have her attempt the technique on the upcoming full moon.
They travel over land on mongoose dragons, stopping to demand lodgings wherever the villagers have something to offer that actually exceeds the comfort of sleeping in tents. They follow the Nan Shan River up towards the desert, where the library is said to be.
On the night of the full moon, white light shivers off the water, bright as an eerie sun.
"I know what you're going to ask," Katara says as Azula approaches her. "And I don't know if I can do it."
"Because you've never tried before, or because you're not sure you want to?"
"Some of both."
"Well, you'll never master something you don't attempt. As for the second problem, I don't see why bending blood should be so undesirable."
"It's—" Katara splutters. She waves a hand with feeling, and the water of the river ripples behind her as though she's swept the hand through it. Bathing in the moonlight and already possessed of such effortless power, Katara looks less like the peasant girl Azula captured several months ago than ever. She has metamorphosed, like limestone become marble. She is the culmination of a series of correct judgments on Azula's part, but also something more than that.
"It's evil. Bloodbending takes away people's free will! It forces them to do what you want."
"Nonsense," Azula dismisses the protest. Remembering many a hard-learned lesson, she adds, "any kind of bending can do those things."
She can feel Katara studying her. She does this, sometimes; looks at Azula with something like... not pity, but... concern. Like she sees cracks. Azula would tell her she's imagining them, but she does not want to introduce the topic.
"You should try it now," she challenges instead. "Bend my blood, if you can. I bet you can't."
Katara steps towards her, reaches out as though to touch, but stops short, grasping the air instead. Azula thinks she feels some hint of influence. Her pulse is breaking into a sprint.
Azula is right; Katara can't bend her blood. She can feel the bead of sweat sliding down the edge of Azula's hairline, can feel the moistness of her mouth, but she can't delve any deeper. Can't, won't, both at once. To be so acutely conscious of the outside of her is already too much. To go beyond that, to keep going until nothing of her is secret... it's too intimate, too intrusive, to think about inhabiting a body other than her own.
"Good. I think you're close," says Azula.
The Princess stands with her eyes half shut and her arms open. Katara isn't sure what Azula thinks she's feeling, but her strange trust in this moment pulls to mind the thought that this would be the perfect time to make her escape. The moon high and full, lending her all its power. The full, rushing river at her back to be used as ammunition. Azula's guard let down as far as it is ever likely to be.
But it's that last fact that stays Katara's hand. Azula, though she talks about never trusting anyone, seems to trust Katara too much. It can't be underestimation—not when she's seen Katara learning and been quick to label her a prodigy. It's a curious thing, a fragile thing, and to crush it now would feel so... brutal.
"I'm nowhere near close," Katara sighs.
Azula opens her eyes. She looks as confused as she does disappointed, and pauses for a long moment before shrugging, "Well, never mind. By the next full moon perhaps we'll have better information to work with."
And there it is again, that casual joining of the two of them. We. Katara turns the word over in her head. We. She feels a bead of sweat finally fill enough to run down over Azula's chest, aware of it even when she hasn't tried to be. She lies down under the stars and listens to the river while Azula retires to her tent. She thinks long into the pale night about how she could be elsewhere but isn't. About whatever it is that's been sealed between them.
They find trouble before they find the library. They trek through the expanse of desert where it's meant to be, but no grand buildings rise from the sand—none that don't shiver and dissipate as they move towards them.
It's obvious that Katara is struggling here in the Si Wong; it is too hot, too dry. She bends the water from their own sweat to drink when their waterskins run dry too soon. Azula does believe that Katara's bending has filtered it, but it still seems an animal thing to do.
Trouble comes in the form of sandbenders, heads masked with fabric like Katara and Azula's both are, although the sandbenders' garments are better fitting, less makeshift. Even their eyes are covered by goggles. There are a dozen of them, which wouldn't be a challenge if it weren't for the patchy darkness percolating Azula's vision, the dragging of her limbs, tired and dehydrated. She bends her flames anyway, pushes them hotter and hotter even under the already unbearable baking sun.
But they are standing in an endless sea of their attackers' element.
Katara summons water from their sweat and the sandbenders'. She puts to use the last little bit of drinking water she's gathered, reaches skyward and manages to drag down a small wispy cloud that hangs relatively low overhead. It is not enough to combat the relentless whipping of the sand. Azula feels as if she is being eaten alive by buzzard wasps. Then, from inside the sandstorm, something more solid hits her. It feels like raw force as it lodges in her thigh, but even if she's gone half numb and more than half blind, Azula can identify a stab wound when she feels one. She grunts in pain, which only grates at her dry throat. The giant dune beneath her feet shifts fast to the side, like the great walls of water which rise and fall in a stormy ocean. Azula topples.
Katara feels Azula's wound almost as acutely as her own. The sandbender spear that's struck Katara has only sliced the side of her arm, which, while it bleeds, doesn't do so at nearly the rate of Azula's punctured thigh. The new shot of panic sharpens it all, slows it down, makes all the lights and colours flare. Katara ducks, falls deliberately to her knees so as to avoid a second round of weapons being thrown her way. She rolls the short distance to where Azula has keeled over.
There's bright red in the sand, sticking it together in clumps where the thick droplets have fallen. The leg of Azula's silk pants is the wrong red around the hole the spear has punched in it. Katara can see the motion of the blood, see it like the trickle of rivulets down her room's window pane in the Fire Nation's recent wet season. The windows are always barred, unopenable, but with practice she has been able to feel for the rainwater even through the glass, divert it, make it run upwards. Watching the wet flow of the bright blood, Katara realises for the first time just how much like ordinary water it is. No thicker than mud, no more inaccessible than the drips behind the glass.
Katara observes the pulsing of Azula's blood in a way that can't possibly be sight, can't even be touch. Her bending is starved in this landscape—and so it reaches out, finds what liquid it can, holds on to it. The bleeding slows, stops, at the clenching of Katara's fist.
The sandbenders have begun to advance on their two fallen targets, and Katara reaches desperately for the last patches of her bending water that haven't dried out of the sand yet. She's been sweating more, too, as has Azula. She gathers her ammunition from wherever she can sense it, sharpens the liquid into frozen darts and holds them tightly in shape despite the heat. She hears sandbenders grunting in surprise, pain, but it's not enough to stop them closing in. A few of them, wielding swords expertly, deflect her darts with their blades. Katara pulls the water back from where it's landed. There's less and less there to be gathered every time. As the small bubble of it returns to her hands, Katara notices the colour for the first time. It still feels just like water as she controls it with her bending—but the water is a diluted red. She almost drops it in shock.
She processes her shock fast, because there are still twelve sandbenders on their feet. She feels the glare of the sun above her, knows the moon is far from dominating the daytime sky, and still waxing gibbous regardless. But she looks at the bubble of blood suspended between her hands and can't doubt it. She checks the pressure her bending is keeping on Azula's leg wound, and carefully reaches out for her attackers with the same type of touch. One by one, she seizes them by the strings that wind through their bodies, the rivers and streams snaking through and mapping the landscape—first under the thin skin of limbs, then deeper, following them to the source of their pulses. A few of them begin to groan with pain. Their walking turns to laboured wading, as though they are knee-deep in the sand, not treading on top of it. The wading turns to stillness.
Katara counts fourteen heartbeats: the twelve sandbenders, Azula's, and her own. Azula's is weaker than the rest, and it scares Katara.
Like this, she could run away and Azula wouldn't be able to chase her. Azula would never be able to chase her. Azula would die here in the desert, her blood drying into scabs on the sand, her bones picked at by scavengers, like the carcasses of seals back in the south pole (they would stain the muzzles of polar bear dogs so grotesquely, she remembers; once-living matter turned to a layer of ugly paint). Katara could release her hold over Azula's bleeding, stand by and let nature take its course. Defeat the Princess by inaction alone. The blood wouldn't even be on her hands—
—but after crawling over the dampened sand, it already is. Having reached into each of the bodies around her, all the blood is on her hands, in them.
Azula's lips move, but Katara has to lean closer to try and hear what she's saying.
"The library," Azula breathes, looking into the distance, seeing a mirage.
The library. The reason they're here at all. A quest to help Katara learn her element better. The thing for which Azula would be dying if Katara decided not to try and help her. The debt that Katara would owe.
She's quaking with exertion, exhaustion, exhilaration. A few of the sandbenders take faltering steps towards her. Her grip on them feels like it's cramping, a hand clenched so hard that it can't adjust its grip, can't do anything but succumb to the ache. Faintly, she hears the sandbenders groaning. The sound is very secondary to the many pulses pounding through her. They are sound, sight, touch, and metallic taste. Life, hijacked.
She can't hold them still much longer. To suspend a body like this, she's fast realising, it not simply pushing, but a delicate balance of push and pull. Push alone, and the sandbenders' blood could rush so hard it tears their bodies apart. Pull alone, and everything stops. When her bending possesses them she is the moon responsible for their living tides.
The moment Katara sets them free, they'll kill her. She doesn't want to die here in the desert, and for a long moment it's the only thought she's capable of having. She feels the heartbeats, and pulls at them one at a time, no longer straining to push for balance. The hearts tighten, choke, freeze. Masses hit the sand like heavy sacks. She still feels them with her bending, but they are tideless bodies of water now.
There are twelve of them there on the ground, already catching sand blown by the wind in something of an unceremonious burial. Twelve people made corpses to save two. Katara feels her own heart beating and is haunted by the knowledge of how easily she could starve it. She lays herself down on her side, planning just to rest for a minute. She curls in on herself, curls towards Azula, whose leg has finally been able to clot enough to do without Katara's pressure. Azula says something, but Katara doesn't hear it.
She wakes, she can't tell how much later. She stands, gingerly, and finds walking possible again. The sandsailer the sandbenders came in on is within reach, so she rouses Azula and half-drags her towards it. The vehicle isn't much use without a sandbender to power it, but it's also filled with water and food, which they stuff into their packs. They huddle in the sandsailer, Azula quickly falling unconscious again. Now that their expedition has gone awry, Katara feels even more uncomfortable in the desert. She wants to be out of it like one wants to escape a smothering blanket. She craves home—though she does not crave the frozen air of the south pole.
Azula has been right before. She makes a habit of it. One might even say she is always right—but the degree to which she has been right about Katara is higher than any of her other correct judgments. Foggy though her memories are of the encounter with the sandbenders, gritty and weepy as the eyes that saw it were, patched with shadow though her vision was, Azula knows the feat Katara executed was extraordinary. Bending the blood of an animal or a person on a full moon is one thing. Killing twelve attackers with bloodbending at midday in the desert is quite another. She still hasn't picked up healing, but despite the pain in her leg Azula is glad that bloodbending is the art that's come to her. After all, Azula could be dead if not for it. It's... well, not humbling, because the Princess of the Fire Nation cannot be humbled—but Azula feels considerable respect for the waterbender. An untrained peasant, risen to such greatness. Azula has done very well with her.
Power over one's own body is something just anyone can have. Power over another's is reserved for only the greatest. Azula, who commands servants to bow and armies to die and whose hand is a deity's on earth, is one of the few who can make her underlings dance obediently. She does so, more often than not, with her words. Katara's power is different and the same. It is more deeply physical. It does not even have to explain itself to be feared. Between them, they could wield all the power in the world. Between them, they already possess a great deal of it.
They've crossed the Crescent Isle and are moving along the archipelago towards the Fire Nation capital, but still Azula struggles to walk without a limp.
"We're nearly back home," Katara says. She's trying to comfort her, but if Azula arrives at the palace having damaged her body—and in pursuit of what, she doesn't look forward to trying to explain—Father will be displeased. Azula spends all her time trying to ensure she doesn't have to face a displeased Ozai. She has spent her entire life doing so.
"We shouldn't go home yet," Azula decides. "Not until I'm recovered. We should hire a boat to Ember Island."
"Ember Island. It's closer to where we currently are than the Caldera is, and my family has a house there. We should be at Fire Fountain City by nightfall, and there will be plenty of merchants vying for the honour of transporting us. We still have more than enough gold to add a vacation to our trip."
"A vacation?" Katara raises a brow in much the same way as Azula herself does when doubtful. She doesn't reject the idea, though. She has the capacity to understand Azula's reasons. "That could be nice, actually," she says.