The Court of the Fire Lord was intimidating.
Aang had never been in the Throne Room when Court was in session. He had entered when it was empty during the Day of Black Sun and spoken to Zuko one on one. To him, the room had always seemed so pointlessly large and empty. He now understood why. With all of Court in session, the room was packed to the gills with men and women from all walks of life.
There was the Fire Lord, of course and – today – the Fire Lady Elect, seated upon their thrones on the platform above them. Beneath them, stone like and statuesque, the whole troupe of the Kyoshi Warriors were arrayed in full regalia, ready to protect. To either side of the Warriors were the Fire Lord’s eight advisors. Besides them were a number of noble men and women, experts on various topics of the day’s discussion and, tucked away in a corner, even a number of chained prisoners, patiently awaiting the Fire Lord’s sentencing. On top of all of this, Zuko had instituted an open-door policy, allowing a set number of regular citizens to attend Court Sessions whenever they liked, provided nothing sensitive was being discussed. His advisors hadn’t liked it, but Zuko insisted on transparency.
It was all very overwhelming for the young Avatar who had never attended such a formal and serious event. His inner, skittish, childlike self wanted to run and jump and joke and play, but the serious visage of the Avatar had to be present today.
Of course, for once, none of the people’s attention was on the last Airbender. He couldn’t blame them. There was a much more interesting person present today. The Crown Princess Azula – though that title was currently up in the air – was bowed low, her forehead touching the floor as she prostrated herself before the Fire Lord. The Avatar stood over her, her guardian and defender in the discussion that had to be had today. More personally, he was also keeping a close eye on her, periodically sending out a wave of seismic sense to keep track of the subtlest of movements.
Aang was here for her defense and as her advocate, but he wasn’t stupid.
The return of Azula had gone public very quickly, despite both his advisors and Mai both begging Zuko to keep it secret. Zuko, feeling he couldn’t dare keep this secret for fear of the public reprisal, announced it the very next day. The reaction had been loud, divisive and confusing. The vast, overwhelming majority, demanded punishment for her actions. They wanted her dead or, at the least, imprisoned permanently. There were those – loyal to her, Ozai or the Royal Family in general – who requested leniency and rehabilitation.
They knew that the decision could not be done in a backroom and left to lie. The public wouldn’t allow it. A public ‘trial’ would be held so that the public could see the fair justice of the Fire Lord. Of course, that wasn’t really what was happening. The decision had already been made. They had it all scripted out, right down to where each of them would be standing – or kneeling in Azula’s case – and the tone of voice they would use. Aang had never been so nervous.
“Avatar Aang,” Zuko addressed in his most formal. “Allow me to be the first to thank you for your efforts in healing my sister. I know it was done at great personal risk to yourself and, after everything you’ve done for my family and for the world, it was well beyond what was necessary.”
Despite the formal tone, Aang could hear the genuine warmth of thanks creep into his friend’s voice. Normally, he’d be quite happy about that, but he was too busy hoping that Zuko would shore it up before it was his turn to speak again.
For now, Aang inclined his head as a gesture of respect. “I graciously accept, Fire Lord Zuko. It was a privilege.” Aang desperately tried to put on a voice of formality, carefully flitting his eyes across the faces of the practiced politicians in the room. None of them gave any indication that he was doing badly, so he soldiered on. “Only, I have a question if I may.”
From his throne, Zuko inclined his head.
“What is to happen to her?” he inquired as innocently as he could. A great murmur swept through the room as advisors and civilians alike traded whispers at the audacious questions. Even Zuko and Mai pretended to confer on the Avatar’s boldness.
“She will be tried fairly and quickly by the Fire Nation courts for her crimes. The outcome of that trial, I cannot say.”
It was Aang’s turn to speak now and if he didn’t do it soon, his stance would be called into question. But he was shaky and nervous. He had never done something like this. But he couldn’t afford to take a breath, for fear of appearing weak.
“If I may,” Aang said again, his voice reassuringly firm, “I would like to suggest another option.”
Aang had to give Zuko credit for his acting abilities. The look of polite offense on the Fire Lord’s face was incredibly believable.
“This is highly irregular, Avatar Aang,” he told him, a harsh bite to his words. “What is your suggestion?”
This time, Aang did take a deep and visible breath, careful to make sure people saw it. Hesitation when speaking to the leader of a great nation was good in some cases. “I would like to suggest she come with me.”
If a murmur had swept over the crowd before, then a fervor had taken control of them now. So great was the swell of whispered words, shocked gasps and angry outcries, that the Fire Nation soldiers flanking the room had to call for silence. Finally, when the crowd had settled, Zuko addressed the Avatar again.
“That is…gracious of you, Avatar,” Zuko said with a voice of one who did not think it was gracious at all. “But, I confess that I don’t see where this is coming from. My sister was an enemy to you. One who tried on countless occasions to kill you and came very close to succeeding.”
The knowledge that Azula had, in fact, succeeded in killing him was not public knowledge. Nor would it ever be.
“With the utmost respect, Fire Lord,” Aang began hesitantly, terrified of what he was about to say despite having practiced it with Zuko only earlier that morning, “you were once my enemy as well.”
Aang had a feeling that if he had not been very close friends with two of them, the Kyoshi Warriors would have been eyeing him with distaste at the moment. As it was, he could see a great swell of contempt rise within the Fire Lord’s advisors.
“That is true,” Zuko said lowly. “But it doesn’t answer my question.”
Aang sighed. “I healed her, Fire Lord. I feel I am…responsible for her. As it is, there is still more I could do to help her, and I would feel…dishonored to not see that through.”
It had been Mai’s idea to include the jab at honor. She and Aang had not told Zuko and the irritation was evident in his eyes.
“You understand, Avatar, that Princess Azula is a war prisoner. She has committed crimes against her people and must face justice for that.”
“I do not mean to infer that she would be without punishment,” Aang placated the growing agitation within the Court. “I will be the first to admit she deserves to be punished. With me she would be a prisoner, under constant watch and guard. She would go with me wherever my duties may take me. She would be a prisoner, Fire Lord. She’d just be one with a sky above her and a changing view.”
“That doesn’t sound much like a prison sentence,” Zuko commented dryly.
“Think of it more as community service,” Aang supplied. “There is still much work to be done in the world. For me most of all. The Princess could assist me in restoring the balance her forefathers upset.”
Zuko looked poised to respond, to continue this staged battle of words, but he was interrupted by the outraged cry of a young advisor from beneath him.
“This is an outrage!” the young man cried, full of righteous fury. “It is unacceptable. My Lord, the Avatar stands here in your court and seeks to bastardize it! This is a miscarriage of justice!”
Zuko and Aang stared at the man dumbfounded. Had he really just said that? Even Mai arched an eyebrow at the man – whether in contempt or bemusement, Aang couldn’t say.
Zuko recovered quick enough. “Are you seriously trying to imply that the Avatar would participate in a miscarriage of justice, Advisor?”
Sufficiently cowed, the advisor backed down, only to be replaced by an older, more experienced colleague. Aang groaned inwardly. Clearly there was more than just one advisor here with strong opinions.
“Forgive him, my Lord,” the older advisor simpered. “He is young and hotblooded. Though misplaced, we surely cannot fault the boy’s passion. He is simply trying to say, my Lord – and I do happen to support him – that we as a people are leery to allow such an…ardent supporter of Fire Lord Ozai to walk free.”
“Then you are not listening,” the Fire Lord hissed. “The Avatar has explained the terms of this arrangement.”
“Ah, but you yourself said that it was a…lackluster prison sentence,” the advisor countered, as if he had read their script. “Your sister is a known prodigy, my Lord. A master of hand to hand combat and Firebending. She is known to have bested the Avatar in combat before. And yet he would suggest that he can simply…keep an eye on her? All the time? You must forgive us, my Lord, but it is our opinion that this matter requires more…decisive action. Perhaps…if the Avatar were to take her Bending…”
The advisor trailed off, allowing the varied reactions to seize their victims. Aang and Zuko tried very hard not to share frantic looks. This had not been part of their script. Mai, showing true emotion for the first time that Aang could remember, looked outraged. For her part, Azula – who had not moved a muscle during the proceedings – stiffened in true fear. She had been part of the discussion leading up to this trial, and this had never been on the table.
Quick to recover, Zuko smoothed out his robes, not afraid to display his shock at the outrageous proposal. “What say you, Avatar Aang?” Zuko asked, clearly trying to push the decision off on his friend.
If he could, Aang would have glared at him. But he’d settle for out maneuvering him. “She’s your sister, Fire Lord,” he replied simply. “The choice is yours.”
He could sense that, that had not allayed Azula’s fears.
Zuko and Aang stared deep into the other’s eyes for a long moment as Mai, the advisors and the whole of the Court waited with baited breath to hear his answer. Aang truly didn’t know what was about to happen. Zuko had been pleased that Aang had succeeded and had even shared a few private, heartfelt moments with his sister since her return. But she was still Azula and the scars she’d left behind still remained. Aang didn’t know what Zuko would decide, but he did know he wasn’t willing to take another person’s Bending without good cause. What he’d do if he was commanded to, Aang didn’t know. Finally, after what seemed like a life time, Zuko broke eye contact.
“No,” the Fire Lord said decisively.
The old advisor, clearly having a different answer, looked shocked. “But, my Lord –” he tried, only to be cut off.
“I will not allow another member of my family to be violated in such a way,” Zuko said heatedly. “It is a disgusting, frightening ability that, frankly, shouldn’t exist. My decision on this is final.”
Harsh words but Aang didn’t blame him. It had been a desperate plan, employed to prevent him from having to take a life, but he had found no joy in doing it.
“However,” Zuko continued, grateful to be back on script, “he is correct on one count, Avatar. My sister is a skilled combatant who has bested you before. How do you presume to keep her in line?”
Aang put on a great show of looking stumped. He averted his eyes and rubbed at his chin, seemingly at a loss for what to say. He continued to act clueless for a while more, beginning to grow agitated with how long Ty Lee was waiting to respond to her cue.
Finally, the upbeat martial artist stepped forward from her place beside her fellow Warriors, eliciting confused expressions from the lot of them. With her trademark happiness, she front flipped to a position more in front of the Fire Lord and smiled up at him.
“Fire Lord Zuko,” she called to him, “may I suggest something?”
Aang stifled his laughter at the expressions on the advisors’ faces. They looked ready to explode at the perceived slights directed at their Fire Lord today. How amused they’d be to know it had all been expected.
“Yes?” Zuko asked in an exasperated tone of voice.
“I would like to offer my services to the Avatar,” she told him happily. “As children, Azula and I were close friends. And, during the war, I was one of her most trusted advisors. I know her aura as well as I know my own! I could help the Avatar keep an eye on her better than anyone.”
“You are a Kyoshi Warrior,” one of her colleagues admonished her. “Your place is here, serving as a protector to the Fire Lord.”
Ty Lee shrugged happily. “I serve at the pleasure of the Fire Lord,” she replied, undercutting her colleague’s response. “And, technically, our mandate is to protect members of the Royal Family. Azula is the Fire Lord’s sister.”
As the Warrior steamed, Suki interjected herself into the conversation to head off an argument in such a public venue. Masking her own opinions of the subject behind a monotonous mask, she acted every bit like the impartial guard she was meant to be. “She’s right. Ultimately, this decision is up to the Fire Lord.”
All eyes turned again to Zuko, seated on his Throne. The Fire Lord had been conferring silently with Mai throughout the conversation. The Fire Lady Elect, noticing the return of attention, subtly gestured to her fiancé that he needed to respond. For his part, the Fire Lord straightened his robes and stared down hard at the Kyoshi Warrior.
“You understand that this will not be a temporary post,” he informed her. “The Avatar will have custody of Azula for life. He will always be watching her, and if he takes you up on your offer, you will be locked into this position for life.”
This was not true, of course. Aang and Ty Lee had discussed privately how long the arrangement might last. Azula would need a guard for some time, but Aang was hopeful that, eventually, she would be trusted enough to not need such constant watch. In addition, Ty Lee was not glued to their side and was free to do her own traveling and spend her time how she liked. With the public in the dark, however, this looked every bit like the perfect solution. Azula would be punished with lifelong imprisonment with the Avatar – who most of them thought was more than capable of keeping her in line – and she would have a trustworthy guard on top of that to keep an eye on her when the Avatar’s were elsewhere.
For her part, Ty Lee shrugged. “Traveling the world with the Avatar and keeping one of my best friends out of trouble? I don’t see how that’s so bad.”
“My Lord,” the same, aged advisor cut in, his voice simpering. “I must protest that –”
“Silence,” Zuko cut him off firmly. “I have made my decision and it will stand.”
The Throne Room held its breath as they stared at him, eager to know what he had decided. The fate of the former Crown Princes hung on this one man’s words. There were those among them that were desperate for the Fire Lord to deny the Avatar’s request. They wanted Azula dead or genuinely imprisoned. But most were simply eager to close the book on another dark chapter of the Fire Nation’s history, no matter the outcome of it.
“Azula,” Zuko spoke commandingly. “Rise.”
Let it never be said that Azula lacked dignity. She rose with grace and power, devoid of any signs that she had just spent almost half an hour, prone on the floor in a position of fealty. She met the eyes of her brother firmly and without flinching, ready to hear what he had decided. Of course, the fact that she knew what he would say helped her in that respect.
“Henceforth, you will be a ward of the Avatar,” he informed her, prompting the Throne Room to release a breath they had unconsciously been holding. “You will follow him wherever he goes, assist him in whatever he needs and help him in his protection of the world. You will not leave his side for as long as you live and your ultimate fate lies in his hands. Additionally, the Kyoshi Warrior Ty Lee will accompany you all your days and is authorized by me to take whatever measures are necessary to ensure you do not stray onto old paths. Do you understand and accept this?”
“I do,” she bowed in acknowledgement, giving no outward sign of irritation or annoyance.
“Furthermore,” Zuko continued, “you are henceforth stripped of the title of Crown Princess. Neither you, nor your children will hold any right to this Throne. If you are ever found on Fire Nation lands outside the company of the Avatar, you will be imprisoned immediately. You are commanded to turn over all Royal Family artifacts before your departure and for the next ten years, you are not permitted to enter this Palace for any reason. Do you understand and accept this?”
Slower this time and weighed down with more emotion, Azula once more bowed. “I do.”
Zuko breathed out a deep sigh through his nose, commanding the flames higher as he did in a show of grandiose drama. Azula and Aang resisted a snort at his antics.
“So be it,” was the last thing the Fire Lord had to say on the subject.
Per the terms of Azula’s pseudo-banishment, both she and the Avatar left the Royal Palace the very next day with Ty Lee in toe. There was a great discussion between them as to where they should go and what they should do. Aang had responsibilities as Avatar, they all knew, but they were also all aware that Aang was very far from a fully recognized Avatar. He needed more training to master not just the elements, but the Avatar State as well.
Ultimately, Aang put his training first and the three of them traveled to Ember Island to stay at Azula and Zuko’s old family home. There, they repaired and redid the ancestral manor, restoring it to its former glory within a few months of hard work and dedication.
By that time, letters had arrived, addressed to Aang, Azula and Ty Lee from a variety of their friends. Zuko’s letter arrived first as Aang had urgently informed him that they were in Fire Nation territory and would remain there for some time. Zuko gave his blessing for them to stay and said that he’d be dropping by every so often to speak with his sister. Toph’s letters arrived next – addressed to Aang and Azula. In Aang’s she berated him for not sharing with her what he had planned and told him to keep a close eye on her. She informed him that she’d be joining him within a few months to continue his Earthbending training and help watch his back. As to what she wrote to Azula, neither of them would tell him. Sokka and Katara sent a joint letter to Aang and Ty Lee. To Aang, they expressed their deep concern and anger at his actions. Katara refused to trust her on principle and Sokka was unwilling to forgive her for her torture of Suki at the Boiling Rock. They told him they would speak again but it would take time and urged him to be safe. To Ty Lee, they demanded she keep as close an eye on Azula as she possibly could. Suki wrote letters both to Azula and to Ty Lee. To Azula, she was concerningly bipolar. She began the letter with a long series of threats regarding what she’d do if anything happened to Aang but finished it by expressing her willingness to forgive her for what she had done. To Ty Lee, she thanked her for offering her services to Aang, chided her on not sharing with her, her plans and wished her the best of luck. Finally, Mai sent a joint letter to both Aang and Azula. She expressed her great gratitude to Aang for bringing her friend back and told the both of them to expect many visits in the coming days.
A few months after their immigration to Ember Island, Toph arrived, having left her parents a few months early. She claimed their relationship had gotten much better but that they still had a problem with smothering her. She also confided to Ty Lee their insistence she get married, which she was not willing to contemplate at the moment.
So Aang, Azula, Ty Lee and Toph made up the new ‘Team Avatar’ of sorts. Having already suitably mastered Air and Water, Aang focused most of his efforts in perfecting his mastery of Fire and Earth. Azula happily took over position as his Firebending Master, eager to teach him tricks she assured him her brother couldn’t learn in a million years. She taught him forms and stances that Zuko had never touched on in their lessons and instructed him on how to tap into the necessary ferocity to truly power his Bending. She taught him how to hold blue flames – she assured him it would strike an imposing image for the Avatar to have – and later even managed to teach him how to wield lightning – a trick he seldom used. All in all, Azula turned out to be an even better teach than Zuko, demanding the same perfection and skill out of him that she expected out of herself. On top of this, Toph refocused her efforts as his Earthbending master, having grown lax in the waning days of the war. The amount of times they reshaped the courtyard of the manor couldn’t be counted but by the end of it, Aang was as formidable with his Earthbending as he was with his Airbending. She had even attempted to teach him Metalbending for a time, but a case study with several other students led her to believe some Earthbenders simply weren’t capable of the feat and so they gave up.
The four of them ended up residing at Ember Island for seven years. For the most part it was in service of Aang’s training, giving him a quiet and secluded space to master the different facets of being the Avatar. There was a secondary reason, of course. Aang was proud to have given Azula a new life, but that didn’t mean he fully trusted her. Aside from the very rare occurrence of a problem only the Avatar could deal with, they did not leave Ember Island at all. In the early years, Aang was wary of bringing her out in the open – both for fear of what she would do and for fear of what others would do. As the years progressed, however, a friendship blossomed, and he grew to trust her as implicitly as he trusted Toph or Katara or Zuko. When they finally left Ember Island to police the world as the Avatar should, it was without any doubts or worries.
At that point, Toph and Ty Lee left them. Ty Lee requested permission to leave the Kyoshi Warriors and, after conferring with Suki and Aang, Zuko allowed her to. She returned to the circus, where she fell in love with a trapeze artist who she happily gave the rest of her life to. She visited Azula whenever she and Aang came close enough but had happily withdrawn from the conflicts of the world. Toph followed Aang’s advice and traveled to Ba Sing Se to rebuild the Dai Le into the organization they had been when Kyoshi founded them so long ago. She headed that police force for two decades before Aang approached her with a new, better opportunity.
As for Aang and Azula, they continued to travel the world, never settling in one spot for too long – though they did occasionally take a few months for themselves on Ember Island to get away from all the responsibility – and generally acting to make the world a better place. Even so many years later, it was hard for the world to forgive Azula for her crimes. Aang faced many hardships in his defense of her, constantly having to reassure everyone that he didn’t need to keep an eye on her anymore and that he trusted her implicitly. It took time, but eventually her presence at his side became accepted and commonplace. She was his closest advisor, often mediating on his behalf in more politically based conflicts – an area he had little expertise in. It helped that since her ‘incarceration’ into the Avatar’s custody, she had not been publicly seen using Firebending. Most of the world believed that the Avatar had taken her Bending despite Fire Lord Zuko’s words. This wasn’t true, of course, but the two of them were more than happy to let the rumor persist.
It is a known fact that when one spends every day with someone else, they grow to either hate them viscerally or love them unconditionally. For the two of them, it was the latter. When asked later, neither of them could point to a true moment the relationship began. Seeds had been planted on Ember Island in the early years of childhood but they had not truly blossomed until they were years into their travels. In hindsight, they could say only that they had been very good friends and had realized all at once that they were suddenly more. For the sake of privacy and the prevention of public uproar, they had kept their relationship a secret, sans from their closest friends.
When Aang had the idea for Republic City, it was Azula that helped him curb his enthusiasm into calculated effect. She sheared off the unrealistic expectations he had for the project and presented him a workable idea that they could be proud of. It was her that made the presentation to the various nations, explaining to them the benefits of what a unified society could be. She and Aang together did most of the planning for the city’s major buildings – the seat of government, the police headquarters, the hospital and, most importantly, Air Temple Island. It was thanks to Azula’s political acumen that the Earth King was convinced to give up a portion of land for Republic City to have and she sat as the Fire Nation’s first representative on the City Council. Aang’s dream could never have been realized without her.
With the city under construction, Aang approached Sokka to serve as the Water Tribe’s representative on the Council. There, working so closely with her, Sokka came to forgive Azula and accept her not only as a good friend but as a good partner for Aang. Toph was poached by Aang to serve as the city’s Chief of Police and it was her that approached Katara to offer her the position of the city’s Chief Healer – Aang had still been to frightened to speak to her after the divide his relationship with Azula had caused. Katara had accepted and over the next few years, she rekindled her relationship with Aang. To her dying day, she never fully forgave Azula or accepted her position at Aang’s side but she had agreed to tolerate her when enough pressure had been put on her.
With Republic City finished, Aang and Azula settled for the last time on Air Temple Island, in an effort to draw more people into the city. It worked and, within a few years, Republic City was a thriving community.
When twins were born, the world cried out in shock and anger. They tried everything to deny it as true, refusing to believe the Avatar had, had a relationship – let alone children – with the infamous Princess Azula. For their part, the two of them weathered the attention with cool indifference. Aang became a master of diverting questions regarding his relationship into discussions on the best way to create ancient Air Nomad pastries and Azula gleefully bankrupted several newspapers on slander charges with her carefully pinpointed lawsuits.
Aang and Azula lived out the rest of their days in relative peace, enjoying the balance they had restored to the world and weathering what little conflicts came their way with ease. When Aang passed, he willed his custody of her to Toph who promptly granted her, her legal freedom, delivering a very detailed drawing of her middle finger to the Fire Lord when he voiced his annoyance.
Azula never left Air Temple Island, happy to live with her son until she quietly passed away in her sleep.
Not before forming a close friendship with Avatar Korra first, however.