As Zuko rose to his feet, he wasn't surprised that Iroh rushed up to hug him, or that Katara rushed to hug Aang. He probably shouldn't have been surprised that Cadence rushed up to smack him upside the head. "Idiot!" she snapped. "I thought you had a plan!"
"I do," Zuko replied. "So far, it's working."
"...you planned to get captured?" Iroh asked, shocked.
"I planned to make sure Azula has no idea how I'm going to jump next," Zuko replied. "Her greatest strength comes from her ability to plan things out to take everything she can expect into account. The best way to put her off her game is to be completely stupid while acting like I know what I'm doing."
"Be a bit more careful next time," Iroh scolded through his chuckles.
With the warm reunions at an end, Zuko found himself face to face with the Avatar once again. Both stared at each other, uncertain what to do.
"Go help your other friends," Iroh instructed Aang and Katara. "We'll catch up."
As they left, Zuko turned to Iroh. "What are you planning?"
"Nothing," Iroh replied. "But you're right about one thing, Zuko. It has come down to you and Azula. All Cadence and I can do now is step back, and let you choose your future."
"And support you every step of the way, whatever you choose," Cadence added. Turning, she flared outward with her wings strongly, causing the wall of crystals the two Dai Li agents accompanying Azula into the chamber tried to imprison them with to part around them.
"Iroh's right about one thing, Zuko," Azula commented softly. "He's doing nothing at all. That's all he's ever done since the death of his son." Iroh tensed at that, but took no action. "But there's more to you than that, isn't there, Zuko? Prince Zuko?"
Zuko raised an eyebrow, deciding to hear what all Azula had to say.
"You're right about one thing, Zuko," she continued. "I have planned out everything this day. That is one of my greatest strengths, the shaping of events with careful consideration. And I have looked over these events, and know every way in which they can end. And there's one other thing I know: it's not too late for you, Zuko. You can still redeem yourself as Prince of the Fire Nation...as my brother."
Zuko let his stance relax, letting Azula think she was swaying his opinion as he gave her words careful consideration.
"Events are coming to a climax," Azula continued. "Whatever happens, today is the day Ba Sing Se falls to the Fire Nation...but without you there by my side, it won't be a true victory. Will you truly turn your back on your whole life? On Father? On Mai?"
Cadence couldn't help but admire Azula's tactics. Had Zuko not had his great conflict after freeing Appa, these were the buttons to push that would tear him apart and make him question everything. Even now, with his spirit still reassembling itself, the effect would be intense. She wondered what choice he would make.
Zuko stared at Azula for a time...and then smirked. "My choice has already been made," he replied softly, shifting into a Fire Bending stance. "Now it's your turn to make a choice. Surrender or fall."
"What?" Azula demanded angrily.
"You said it yourself, if I'm not with you, you have no true victory today," Zuko stated softly. "You may take the city, but you won't keep it. You've overplayed your hand. I stand against you, Azula...with the Avatar. Father is wrong about what the world needs, and so are you. I will bring this war to its end...starting with you. But you're still my sister...and as my last act as your brother, I offer you the chance to yield, to change sides."
Snarling in fury, Azula unleashed a wave of blue fire at Zuko, which he casually parted. "You think you can beat me?" she roared out. "You're pathetic! You can't even stand up for yourself without falling back on others! You're nothing compared to me, nothing!" She continued launching her flames at him from fists and feet.
Zuko calmly deflected each and every blast, feeling his spirit starting to come together, feeling himself grow more and more complete. "And yet here I stand against you," he replied, no true emotion in his voice.
"Mai will never forgive you for this!" she roared, drawing out lightning and hurling it at him.
Zuko shifted into a strong horse stance. Catching the lightning in one arm, he sent it down his stomach and leg, grounding it out in the earth, leaving Iroh and Cadence gasping in shock. "Then when I'm through with you, she can kill me if she wants," Zuko replied, his voice still mellow.
"You think you're better than me?!" Azula shrieked, charging forward to attack physically, only for Zuko to block or evade each strike as he shifted to a Water Bending stance. "After how hard you've had to work just to survive, to learn any technique, you think you can best me? I was born lucky! You? You were lucky to be born!"
Spinning, Zuko focused his fire into his arm, superheating the air around it as he swung the limb like a blade. Azula leapt back, stunned as her clothes and skin split from the strike. "I'm not the only one who was lucky that I was born," Zuko replied softly. "The whole world was lucky...because I'm going to bring the peace the world needs." Once more he shifted into a Fire Bending stance. "I'm done with you Azula. It's over between us."
As his spirit found peace, he raised his right arm, two fingers extended...and traced the arc of lightning.
Azula shot to her feet, trying to bend her own lightning to counter, but the slash to her shoulder prevented her from completing the arc. She could only watch as Zuko completed the circle, drawing the lightning into his two hands.
Zuko thrust forward, sending the lightning straight at Azula. But as it moved, he came to an unexpected realization. As much as he had hated her for so long, as much grief as she had brought him...he didn't want her dead. He didn't want her blood on his hands.
Iroh had told him that once the lightning was summoned, it could only be guided. Desperately, he sought one last guide, giving his hand a twist.
The lightning parted, blasting through Azula in five small points instead of one large one, knocking her onto her back as she struggled to breathe, her eyes wide and unseeing. The Dai Li agents moved forward, but were knocked aside as Cadence brought two large chunks of crystal hard against their skulls.
Iroh rushed up to Azula's side, checking on her. "How is she?" Zuko asked.
"She will live," Iroh replied. "But the lightning penetrated her Earth, Water, and Fire Chakras, as well as both upper arms. I do not know how much she will recover...but I doubt if her inner energy will ever be repaired enough to Fire Bend."
Zuko nodded. "Then we need to-"
"Go," Cadence instructed. "Help the Avatar. You've made your choice, now carry it out. I'll look after her."
Zuko nodded, leaning down to stroke her mane. "Thank you," he whispered softly. Turning, he raced off after Aang, Iroh close behind him.
Cadence sat calmly, keeping an eye on the cousin who hated her. She wasn't certain she agreed with Zuko's decision to not kill Azula. She couldn't help but feel that this would somehow turn into a huge mess someday. At the same time, she knew it was the right decision for Zuko to make.
As Zuko made his way up to the palace after Aang and the others, he was rather surprised to see Jong and Zhin fall in beside him. "Where have you two been?" he demanded angrily.
"Cadence let me know that Azula and the other two were in the city," Zhin replied. "After a little thing Cadence needed me for, we decided it would be best if we got you some backup."
"What sort of-"
Before Zuko could continue speaking, Jong pointed behind him...where all of Zuko's troops were gathered, fully armed but still dressed in their Earth Kingdom clothes, marching double time to keep up. "Oh," Zuko replied. "How'd you get them all past the Dai Li?"
"Private Grin," Jong replied. "...well, that's what everyone calls him anyway."
"Private Chin," Zhin clarified. "The one with the huge chin and the giant smile that never leaves his face? He...apparently has a way with animals."
"He got the Dai Li's attention when he cleared us a path to the Upper Ring," Jong explained.
At the Inner Wall separating the Upper Ring from the Lower, Earth Kingdom Soldiers stared, making sure not to get too close to the scene.
Huge numbers of Dai Li agents were being bounced around like toys by a massive Giant Honey-Badgermole, which roared and salivated as it devoured part of the wall. Sitting atop the beast's back was a grinning middle-aged man. He was skinny as a rail, his chin seemed to stick out too far, and his grin was physics defyingly wide. His hair had obviously once been crimson, but long hours in the sun had lightened it.
Between that, the blue eyes, and the grin...the soldiers weren't sure which was more terrifying: the beast or its rider.