Zuko wanted to scream. He couldn't be here again, helpless, easy to manipulate. He'd left the palace so he could become stronger, so this wouldn't happen again. He listened for the sound of the Kyoshi warriors fighting, but it seemed they too had been cornered. All he could hear was Katara's breathing. She'd moved so her lips were practically at his ears.
"Zuko," she whispered so faintly he could barely make it out. "There's a large beam above our heads. Let's jump for it.'
He glanced up. The beam in question was so far out of jumping range, it was laughable. "Katara, there's no way. I don't even know if Ty Lee could."
"I'm going to go for it first," Katara said. "You're going to use bloodbending to give me a boost."
Zuko stared at her, wondering if she'd gone completely insane. "Are you suggesting I levitate you?"
"You could send a stream of water up there. Why not me?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe because you're not a stream of water."
That last part was loud enough that one of the guards shot a warning flame in his direction. "Hey, enough whispering. Are you coming quietly or not?"
"I'm giving you permission. It's okay. I'm going to jump on three. One…"
Zuko shook his head. What was wrong with her?
She'd just explained to Ty Lee the dangers of this, right? So she knew full well how delicate it was, how difficult to keep the target safe and how easy to hurt them. How could she ask him to--
"…three!" Katara leapt up. Zuko yelled out in frustration. But her feet had already left the ground; the guards were already to attack her. He had no choice. He held out his arms and concentrating everything on lifting her higher. Just like a pool of water. But so much more precious and delicate that that. He concentrated everything on keeping her safe. He'd done it before. He'd never known the sensation of putting his all into bending like that before. Maybe that was why the lightening had never come to him. He'd never been able to put his total focus there before. But this… this was everything.
Suddenly, Zuko realized that he didn't have to concentrate anymore. Katara was staying suspended in the air on her own, gripping the beam far above them. He released his power over her, and she fired down a series of flames onto the guards' heads. The group of them were so bewildered at what had just happened, their reaction time was horrifically slowed. Then, to add to their confusion, Zuko collapsed. He didn't actually mean to; bloodbending Katara up into the air had taken more energy than he thought. But several of them stood back in surprise, and the rest of them scattered to get out of range of Katara's attack.
I have to get up. I have to help her fight. He flexed his fingers. The movement was right, but he could barely lift his arms; they felt so heavy. Just then, he felt Katara helping him to his feet.
"I'm sorry," she said worriedly. "It was a stupid idea. I should have thought about how much that would drain you."
"It's fine," he muttered, even though it was painfully obvious how not fine he was. Behind him, he heard the sound of several people collapsing to the ground. He looked back to see Ty Lee and the others with a group of fallen guards at their feet.
"Sheesh! Couldn't get a hit in to chi block them, waving that fire all over the place," Ty Lee said, blowing a piece of hair out of her face. "Now we've got some room to maneuver." A guard yelled and charged at her, but she easily sidestepped it, nailing him in the back and sending him down on the ground with his fellows.
"We can handle ourselves," Suki said, preparing her fan. "You two go ahead."
Zuko smiled and nodded. Then he took a long slow breath and straightened himself up. Still with Katara's support, he turned and addressed the guards.
"I am not a traitor," he announced. "I'm going to see my sister. But I'm doing it on my terms!" He took a few steps towards the door that led to the heart of the palace. His strength wasn't coming back nearly as fast as he wanted, but it was coming. He would do this. His friends would help him do this. Katara seemed to sense his thoughts and smiled. Then she threw the door open. Zuko wanted nothing more than to go sprinting down the hallway, but the best he could manage was a quick shuffle as Katara continued to support him. Even so, he could feel a bit of strength coming back. The hall was clear, at least. It seemed Azula had concentrated her forces in that single room. Well, the preliminary forces, anyway. No doubt there would be more.
"Why did you tell me to do that? After all that talk with Ty Lee about how dangerous bloodbending is?"
Katara smiled warmly at him. "Because I knew you could do it if you were pushed to. Especially on someone who was a willing target. Focusing on Azula would've been a whole different mess. But, hey, on this," she gave him the most annoying grin, "on this, I trusted you."
He turned a bit red at those words. It wasn't like people told him too often that they trusted him to be able to get anything right. Even his uncle seemed hesitant to trust his judgment at times. Not that he'd earned a whole lot of trust. But it felt good to start getting some back. Especially from Katara.
Zuko realized that his face had grown warmer, and he couldn't figure out why. He didn't… like Katara, did he? And even if he did, there was hardly a worse time to be thinking about it. He breathed deeply and picked up his pace as best he could.
The path to the throne room was short, but not clear. They ran into at least half a dozen guards on the way. Not all of them fought; he noticed at least two running ahead, no doubt to inform Azula they'd entered. Zuko gritted his teeth as he sprayed water at one guard's feet, turning it to ice and freezing the guard in place. He would have rather faced two more people than lose their element of surprise. Against Azula, they needed every advantage they could get. But Katara's words poured a confidence into him that hadn't been there shortly ago. With the four guards down, they continued on. He could see the door to the throne room, so close he could touch it--
The grand double doors swung open before he got to the handle. And there (his stomach turned at the sight), stood Azula. Her arms were crossed, and she had that smug smile that seemed permanently etched onto her face.
"Welcome, dear brother," she said. "I was wondering when you'd show up."
Zuko and Katara hurried into the room. Zuko could feel his energy draining again. He'd done too much in that last fight; he should've conserved his strength. On instinct, he crouched into a firebending stance, even though the logical side of his brain reminded him that it wouldn't do anything. Azula laughed and strode over until she stood only inches from his face. Zuko glanced around them. Azula had planned for his return, all right. He could see the entire palace staff standing around the huge throne room. A safe distance from the fight they expected to erupt, but eagerly watching to see if the rumors Azula had spread were true. Watching to see if Zuko had betrayed his firebending and his country.
"Nice outfit," she said, nodding down at the Water Tribe clothes he still wore. "I guess you wanted to make your confession nice and official, then?"
Zuko gritted his teeth. Some part of his brain wanted to bloodbend her right here and now. If she had a clue what he could do to her, she wouldn't be bragging. She'd be begging for mercy.
And then what would that make me? he thought. If not a monster and a traitor, even moreso than she says I am?
He lowered his hands, not into a waterbending stance, but simply leaving them loose at his sides.
"Zuko, what are you--" Katara started to say, but Azula wouldn't let her finish. With one hand, she shoved Zuko to the ground. With the other, she prepared her fire. Her blue flame hovered within an inch of his neck as she held him pinned. He could feel its heat, ready to burn through his throat as soon as Azula got mad enough to do it.
"You're a waterbender," she said through an ever-maddening smile. "Admit it for everyone to hear."
Zuko held his grip on Azula's arm, trying and still failing to push it away. Then it felt like a fog had melted away from his mind. He did have a way to beat Azula. And it was by doing exactly what she demanded.
"Yes, I'm a waterbender," he said quietly.
Her eyes widened in shock. "What did you say?"
Zuko didn't answer immediately. He focused his mind not just on keeping his own body moving but on hers as well. He rotated his arm and felt Azula's pressure on his shoulder lessen. Then he yanked his arm out from under her and sent a torrent of water cascading at her chest. It hit her full force and she toppled backwards. The blue flame was quickly extinguished.
"I said, I'm a waterbender," Zuko repeated. He stood so everyone could see, spoke loud enough that everyone could hear. All around him, people gasped, pointed, and whispered. There was no backing out of this now.