It was a long journey back to the palace and Zuko made most of it in silence. Every step of the way, he second-guessed himself. What if they were moving too early? What if Azula had hurt Aang or Toph… okay, she probably couldn't hurt Toph, but Sokka or any of the palace staff still loyal to him? What had she done in the capital in his absence? The only thing he was sure of was her takeover was not public knowledge yet; even Azula knew that overthrowing two firelords in the same month would've caused more chaos than she could handle.
Zuko looked out over the horizon as the group scaled a series of cliffs leading up to the entrance he suspected was their best bet. In preparation for the day of black sun, his father had left an impressive labyrinth of secret tunnels leading in and out of the palace. The man had assumed in his overconfidence that no one could find the tunnels who didn't know about them in the first place.
Well, that'd be his first mistake right there. He looked out over the horizon and at least took comfort in the that fact that everything in the capital seemed normal enough. Maybe even Azula couldn't cause too much damage over a few days.
"We're almost there," he whispered. Katara glared at him for stating the obvious. He ignored her. "I don't think Azula will attack me directly," he went on, pulling himself up the final slope. He almost slipped and fell, with Suki catching him and pulling him to safety. "At least, not in private. I'm pretty sure she wants a crowd."
"So, what exactly do you think she's told all the guards about you?" Katara asked.
"Probably to capture me and bring me to her."
Katara crossed her arms. "Well, here's a novel idea. Have you thought about trying to get yourself captured?"
"Oh, right, get me in that waterless prison again and you in another freezer. No thanks."
He pointed in the direction they needed to walk and motioned for everyone to follow. Katara sighed, but fell into line. Zuko wanted to sigh too. Did she actually think that he'd gotten so much better at bloodbending in this short space of time that he could get himself free if Azula captured him? She had way too much confidence.
"Okay, I don't get it," said Ty Lee. "The way you two have talked, it sounds like your bloodbending has only been getting better each day. So why can't you just bloodbend Azula?"
The other warriors looked at Ty Lee like she'd gone insane. Zuko mostly looked at the ground.
"I… I'm not sure if I can do that," he said. "It takes a lot of concentration just to use it on myself, and--"
"Okay, yeah, but you waterbend at the same time. It can't be that much different, can it?"
He still didn't look up at her. Really, the ground was absolutely fascinating right now. Way easier to look at the pretty leaves than to explain just how uncomfortable he felt about her suggestion.
"Do you know what it feels like to control someone else's body like that?" That was Katara's voice. Strange how she sounded so serious and quiet at the same time.
"I know how it feels to stop someone from moving," Ty Lee retorted.
"That's not the same," Katara replied. Zuko chanced to look up now. Katara was holding her hand out, as if grasping an invisible ball. Rays of warm sunlight danced across her palm. "Imagine trying to walk a tightrope."
"I am pretty good at that."
"Well, imagine you're pretty awful at it and then imagine that one little slip and it's not you that's in danger. It's someone else. Someone who has no way to defend themselves against you." She tightened her hand into a fist. "Bloodbending takes a person's life in your hands. Literally. It's nothing to mess around with."
"Well, you better think about messing around with it," Ty Lee said, walking ahead of them both. "'Cause I can promise you, Azula's got no problem using everything she's got."
Zuko was impressed. The secret entrance that had been built into the palace for the day of black sun had actually been left without guards. He and the others snuck in without encountering any obstacles. It felt really good at first, walking down the corridor, straight for Azula. There weren't even any tributaries along this path to get them lost; it just ended at a large storage room. From there, it would be a simple walk up to--
Then Zuko's stomach dropped. Was he really that clueless? Azula knew the palace as well as he did. This path would only be left clear if she was a complete idiot. And that was one thing she had never been. He was probably walking into her hand and only now realizing it.
"Hang on," he whispered. The small bit of sunlight that had been at the entrance to the tunnel was long behind them now. Still, he heard the girls' footsteps stop. "I think we have to turn back," he said. "Find another way in."
"Zuko," Suki whispered in reply. "We're almost there. Why on earth would we--"
Just then, the area around them was flooded with orange light. The tunnel had ended. Now, lit torches lined the walls of the storage room, just as Zuko remembered it, and no less than two dozen Fire Nation guards were poised to attack.
Katara reacted first. "Get into open space!"
No one had to be told twice. The Kyoshi warriors moved with all the speed and efficiency they were famous for, heading off to the left of the storage room and distracting a good half of the guards. However, it was clear the guards had their orders to keep their focus on Zuko and Katara, because the other half of the group quickly had them surrounded. Katara aimed a fireball at one of them, but he dispersed it easily. Zuko tried throwing a spray of water at another. A wave of heat from her hands turned most of it to useless steam. Zuko gritted his teeth.
"So it's exactly as Azula said," the soldier spat, "You're not our leader. You've betrayed your own nation to join the Water Tribe!"
"No, I… that's not how it happened--" Zuko couldn't find the words. And the guards didn't give him a chance, either. Every one of them had a flame ready.
"Azula wants you in the throne room," another said. "You can come quietly or make this difficult. You decide."