She should be dead. She had failed, betrayed her family through sheer incompetence, and yet she had not been the one to pay the price. Her lack of initiative, her willingness to sit and watch had sealed their doom. Death was the only thing that could redeem her, and even that had been denied her.
Father had vanished into the night to die, and all she had offered him were empty promises and a cold embrace.
Her brother had fallen to the hunting dogs of a traitor King, and she had done nothing but stand and stare.
Was gone. She knew as intrinsically as knowledge of how to take her first breath that her mother was gone.
She had splintered her family forever.
Her head ached- a sharp, throbbing repetition of pain, a knife jabbed methodically and repeatedly into her forehead. It pulsed, colouring everything with the rhythm of her pain as she slowly dragged herself into consciousness by her fingernails.
Some detached, unchangeable, unconquerable centre of Azula was dimly aware that she was somewhere dark.
She couldn't hear a thing over the blinding roar of her headache, so that was no help.
Then she tried to move, ever so slightly, a prelude to the thought of entertaining the notion of possibly moving some time soon. And so she made a rather important discovery.
She was bound, hand and foot.
She came so close to giving in, then. To losing herself to blind panic. For half an instant, she touched hysteria. But no. She would not be Azula if she were to be so easily intimidated.
Instead, she got angry.
Who had imprisoned her" Who dared presume that they could prevent her going where she wished"
She would find them, and they would be freed from their delusions.
She savoured the feeling, tasting it, drinking it deep and feeling its warmth bring strength to her frozen limbs. Anger was simple, strong. Undeniable. Self-assured. Free of guilt, of self-recrimination, of all thought.
With a tremendous flash of power, her hands ignited, tearing upwards, ripping through her bonds with horrific ease, and Azula kicked the useless remains away. All but spent, her head flopped backwards, landing heavily on some soft material that she couldn't identify, and her eyes drifted closed.
Just for a second. One instant of rest, and she would be able to move onward.
She had to leave now. If she was fast enough, strong enough...
Maybe things could still be put right.
The delusion all but propelled her upright, sending her staggering up onto her feet in tenths of a second. Too fast. She staggered forward three steps, slipped, stumbled, and her hand shot out into the darkness, feeling for something to stabilise her.
Her fingernails scraped rock, and her palm slapped onto the stone wall, worn smooth by countless generations.
Or ten minutes with a reasonably competent earthbender.
The thought spurred her onwards, her hand trained on the wall, a crutch serving in place of her vision, which remained blurry and indistinct, little but a mass of swirling grey swimming in front of her eyes, and all she could do was stagger unsteadily towards the light.
She got maybe three steps before she heard it.
A rumbling, rushing low and quiet, rippling through the air, tearing through the haze of pain that was muffling her hearing. It seemed to come from every direction at once, echoing and reverberating and slowly fading back into nothing.
She froze, hardly daring to breathe, not trusting herself to breathe, while she counted the silence.
Then the sound came again, and now she couldn't fail to hear a revoltingly organic undercurrent to it, almost like a giant clearing its throat at the bottom of a well, a smacking and a hacking and it rippled down her spine and she ran. Direction was a distant second in consideration, as long as she was heading away from whatever was making that terrible noise.
She headed toward to the light, gone far beyond a conscious decision, drawn by a base, primal urge to flee, to escape, and to what she thought might be relief, the hideous echoing rumbling began to fade, slowly but surely, as she fled through the cavern, footsteps echoing through the stone, always facing toward the light, imagined horrors snapping at her from every shadow.
She could not say how long she ran, her vision blurring and her feet slipping and every step agony delayed by nothing more substantial than raw adrenaline. It could have been days for all she knew, the only indication of time she had being the number of times she slipped and fell onto the stone floor.
As long as it was one fewer than the number of times she got up again, it hardly seemed to matter.
And there, there was the way out, the cave mouth, and she slipped and stumbled and there was blood on her palms and her knees ached but it didn't matter because she was nearly out and that was all that mattered.
A shadow stepped into the light, blocking it, blotting it out, standing between her and freedom.
There was someone there.
She could not fight, not like this- even now, enough of her faculties remained for her to realise that. Nor could she escape him- she would be hard-pressed to outrun a sloth-hog at this point. She would have to knock them, whoever they were, down, and flee.
It never even crossed her mind to turn back, to disappear into the shadows.
It was a man who stood in her way, and as she ran, his shadow twisted, turning to look at her.
"Hey! Aren't you-"
Azula swung wildly, fingers stretched, all technique forgotten buried under a built-in instinct that screamed at her to go for the throat, fingernails raking sparks against the air and she felt herself scream as she dived for him.
Her blow raked the side of his face, and he stumbled backwards, one hand clutching at his shredded and bloodied cheek.
"...You're a firebender"
No no no he wasn't going down and she didn't know if she even had the strength for another five seconds of standing upright, let alone another strike.
She was strong enough. She must be strong enough.
She dived for his throat, all pretence of strategy forgotten, all thought long fled from her leaving nothing but the idea that she had to kill this man if she wanted to be free. So she lunged, arms outstretched preparing to throttle the life out of her opponent.
He had other ideas.
The blow came out of nowhere, slamming into her face with the force of a hammer strike, rearranging her thoughts even as she crumpled around it, the terrible drive silenced by the ringing pain, and as she tumbled to the ground she felt what could only be described as peace.
Then he spoke again, delaying blessed unconsciousness.
"Hey, I didn't hit you that hard, you know. …Are you... are you okay" I mean apart from the fact that I just punched you."
Azula blinked as she watched the sky swirl and boil above her, something she found very strange as she thought she had been in a cave a second ago.
"Are you- …oh, shit. Oh, shit."
Something heavy landed on the ground next to her with a thump, and all of a sudden a rough and calloused- but pleasingly warm- surface was draped across her forehead.
She suddenly felt uncomfortably hot.
"Oh shit. Oh shit oh shit oh shit."
Who kept saying that"
Suddenly the voice shouted, a single word Azula didn't recognise echoing up through the cave.
What the hell was a katara"
Smoke rose, bloomed. Like a flower in the dark. A deep crimson one instant, then it would swirl and flow into a powerful blue and then back again and then again, back and forth, warring and dancing, never mixing but constantly touching against one another.
Then there came a breeze, blowing in from some distant corner, and the smoke writhed and shook, wings beating for an instant as an ethereal head reared in the smoke before being subsumed, and then the red tore upwards, forsaking and fleeing from the blue, twisting into the shape of Agni's servant and coiling upwards into the night.
And then there was nothing left at all.