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Azula's Redemption

Chapter Text

The coronation of Fire Lord Zuko had been a three day long, blowout affair. An effort in promoting the newfound peace, the event and the subsequent party had been quite a gambit – the Fire Lord’s advisors had never been so on edge. Zuko had pooled practically all of the Fire Nation’s remaining resources in order to make it a success, betting all his chips on the hope that the other Nations would attend.

The invitations had been sent out and the Royal Court had waited with baited breath for the world’s response. At first, it had seemed that Zuko had nearly bankrupted the Nation for no reason. The few responses that had trickled back out of the ocean of invitations had delivered an overwhelming chorus of “No” with only a few of the foreign dignitaries and nobles having the guts to agree.

It had taken Aang publicly promising the world that he would be in attendance and – through very subtly political dialogue that he himself didn’t understand but the visiting dignitaries did – assuring them all that he would keep the Fire Lord in his place. Aang had not been told that was what he was saying, but everyone was happy he had said it. The Avatar had promised them all that this was not an attempt to restart a war that had just ended. It was, instead, the first step towards peace.

The RSVPs had flooded the Royal Palace following the Avatar’s proclamations, all unanimously agreeing to attend and indicating they were staying for the follow up party. Those who had denied attendance sent another missive, claiming for this reason or that, that they were now able to attend. Zuko’s favorite had been the Earth Nation noble who claimed his pet hogmonkey had written the negative response for him. They had all gotten a good laugh from it. Even Toph’s parents had agreed to attend after receiving a personal invitation from Toph herself who, after urging from Aang, wished to see them.

The coronation itself had been quick, dry and boring. There had been a lot of applause for the Fire Lord and for the Avatar – and for their friends after the bald monk had insisted they all stand up to share the credit – but everyone in attendance was more than happy to move inside for the festivities. What followed was a weekend of unabashed celebration the likes of which the world had not seen in over a hundred years. Dishes of all shapes, sizes and origins were laid out, entertainment from all over the world had been brought in – and introduced by Aang and his marbles – and the Palace’s lower levels were free and open for the public to walk through, examine, sleep in and hang out around. Most importantly, the booze flowed freely and neverendingly. At some point on the second day – well into everyone’s third hangover – Aang had offhandedly asked just how much Zuko had spent on the celebration, leading to a pained grimace and another downed drink by the Fire Lord.

Amidst the chaos and fervor of the celebration, Aang had lost track of most of his friends. He knew where Zuko was, usually. The Fire Lord was always front and center of the celebration. But Katara and Sokka had vanished into the ether of alcohol, party guests and bad decisions. The smell of alcohol, the noise of partygoers and the overall atmosphere of the party was enjoyable in the sense of what it represented, but it had long since begun to grate on the last Airbender’s nerves.

In the entirety of the Palace, the only ones not drinking – sans the staff who were, admittedly, indulging themselves a little – were the Kyoshi Warriors who had taken up the role of Zuko’s guards, Aang, who was a monk and Toph, who was simply too young. Toph had vanished somewhere hours into the first day and the Kyoshi Warriors had been sleeping in shifts for the entirety of the party. The ones on duty now – Suki and Ty Lee – were the only ones he knew well enough to talk to. On duty, though, even the flighty Ty Lee became deadly serious and he had no business interfering with their duties.

It was the third day of the party now and Aang had reached his limit. It was midday and last night’s hangover and mistakes were gone, leading everyone to believe it was now perfectly alright to begin today’s mistakes. The smell of booze and bad decisions not withstanding, Aang had been doing alright. Upon spotting an overzealous and over affectionate couple in the middle of the ballroom, however, the monk distanced himself from the crowd and slipped away into the mostly empty corridors. He’d be expected back sometime later – he was the Avatar after all – but for now, he needed a break.

Walking down the hall, Aang was hesitant to try any of the doors, knowing full well they could be occupied by sleeping partygoers or…not sleeping partygoers. Aang wasn’t eager to walk in on either of them. So he kept walking, further and further out towards the edges of the Palace. He knew the upper levels were off limits to him, let alone to party guests, so there was no point going there, but he figured the farther out he went, the less likely it was that a drunk partygoer had stumbled into the bed.

The Palace seemed to go on forever, the hallway interminable. More than once it had widened into a larger room that had several branching points that led upstairs, downstairs, sideways, longways, forwards and backwards. Just when he had begun to think he’d have to use his seismic senses to find his way back to where he had come from, Aang hit a wall.

A literal wall. It seemed he had found the edge of the Palace. To his left and right were hallways that he was sure led interminable distances to the corners of the Palace. Aang wasn’t interested in them. He chose a door at whim – the second on his right – and stepped inside.

“Hey!” a voice cried out indignantly. “Occupied!”

Aang groaned. How was that possible? He had walked so far!

Wait, he knew that voice. “Toph?” he questioned, stepping further into the room. His eyes adjusted to the light and he saw that he was right. Toph Bei Fong was seated in the middle of the room, her knees drawn up under her chin as she sat at the head of a bed so comically large it made her look like a toddler.

She blindly inclined her head towards the sound of his voice. “Twinkletoes?” she responded. From her position on the bed, she had no contact with the Earth and no way to see him.

“Yeah, it’s me,” Aang replied. “Can I come in?”

Toph shifted slightly on the bed in answer. That is to say, she lightly moved her body, clearly afraid she would accidentally slide herself off of it, devoid of her sight as she was. Aang closed the door behind him and stepped further into the room. Shrugging off the heavy, ceremonial robes he’d been wearing for the entire weekend, Aang was left only in his Airbender shawl. Lazily, he lit a ball of fire in his hand and held it to the candelabra beside the bed. Allowing the flame in his hand to die, he sat himself on the bed, opposite Toph.

“What are you doing back here?” he questioned.

“Trying to get some peace and quiet,” she replied. “There’s only so much sober Sokka I can take. I can’t take any drunk Sokka. And Sugar Queen? She gets way too confident in her humor when she’s drunk.”

Aang snorted at her reply. “But why the bed?” he raised an eyebrow. “You hate these things.”

Toph blushed lightly. “The…images I’m getting from the other rooms aren’t exactly nice,” she whispered. “I can’t see them up here.”

Aang remembered the overzealous couple, blushed and didn’t push the issue.

“What about you?” she asked suddenly.

“No, I like beds, they’re soft,” Aang replied cheekily.

Toph rolled her eyes. “Not what I meant, Twinkles.”

Aang chuckled. “Same as you. Zuko’s done really well about not talking about his honor but give him enough scotch and he just gets…too poetic.”

Toph laughed a loud and genuine laugh at that.

“It’s just…too much, you know?” Aang shrugged. “I’m a monk. This kind of excessiveness is…frowned upon.”

“Aang, you’re the last monk,” Toph replied gently. “You’re gonna have to get used to breaking some of the rules, you know.”

Aang rolled his eyes. “That’s what everyone told me about Ozai, too. Look who was right.”

“I still think you should have just brained him,” Toph said snippily.

They were silent for a time, lost in their own thoughts and more than content to let the quiet reign. It was something he had always liked about Toph. Generally speaking, Aang was a bubbly and happy person. But around Toph, he was able to be more laid back. More relaxed.

“Do you ever think about it?” Toph asked quietly.

“About what?”

“The war.”

Aang rubbed the back of his bald head. “I mean it did kinda end like five days ago so…yeah.”

Toph gripped a pillow and threw it in a direction she likely thought was accurate but was, in fact, feet away from the Airbender. Unperturbed, the headstrong girl plowed on. “That’s not what I meant, dummy,” she snapped. “It’s just…we were kids, Aang. You and me, the greatest Earthbender in the world and the Avatar. Two kids who saved the world because no one else would.”

“No one else could,” he corrected her gently, well aware of the how close to the edge of bitterness she was. That was a long, downward spiral if she fell. “And we weren’t the only ones. Katara, Sokka, Zuko, Suki. All of us were kids.”

“Sokka and Suki are only a couple years away from being adults,” she countered. Then she snorted without any humor behind it. “Sugar Queen’s never been a kid in her life and Zuko…Zuko stopped being a kid when his father put that scar on his face. It’s just us, Aang. The scared boy who ran away from his destiny and the scared girl who ran away from home. That’s not right. You know that, right?”

Aang sighed. “I know,” he replied. “But it isn’t our right to complain. We were given a job and we did it. And we came through. Isn’t that what’s important?”

“How much of us came through, though?” Toph replied. “I have nightmares, you know.”

Aang scooted across the bed. Were it anyone else, he would have taken her hand but that wasn’t Toph. He laid a comforting hand on her shoulder and she jumped at the unexpected contact. “That’s why I didn’t kill him, Toph.”

She looked up into his eyes, her clouded gray irises staring sightlessly into his.

“A hundred years of bloodshed and conflict. I spared him because that was the only way for it to be over. A peaceful ending. So that the nightmares could stop.”

Toph didn’t cry. He could count on one hand the number of times he knew she had. But her face tightened and he felt her lean a bit further into his touch. “You promise?”

“I promise,” he smiled and squeezed her shoulder before withdrawing.

Toph rubbed subconsciously at her nose, sniffed once and turned back into the strong woman he knew her to be in an instant.

“Then what are we doing here!?” she demanded. “Honestly a three day party!? That’s dramatic even for Zuko.”

Aang laughed. “It’s over tonight. Then we can…” he trailed off. What did they do? They’d had such a clear path for so long, Aang almost didn’t know what to do with himself now that it was gone.

The world was still out of balance – Aang could feel it even now if he focused – but he no longer had an individual to pin that on. Now it was bigger. It was ideals and opinions and culture. His job had just gotten much more complicated.

“I’m going with my parents,” Toph said suddenly, drawing him from his thoughts.

“What!?” Aang cried, shocked, eliciting a laugh from the girl.

“Not forever, Twinkletoes, relax,” she chided him. “I’ll be back to keep you in line soon enough. Your Earthbending still needs some work.”

“Are you ever going to not think that?” Aang grumbled.

“Nah,” Toph smirked. “What would I do with my time if I didn’t have an Avatar to train?”

Aang rubbed at his chin in thought. “Policework?”

“What?” It was Toph’s turn for shock.

Aang took his chance to laugh. “I mean, no matter how much we may want it, I doubt any of our lives are going to be that peaceful for a while. Sokka and Katara want to rebuild the South Pole, Zuko has to keep the Fire Nation in line, I’m the Avatar. There’s going to be dissenters to deal with. The world needs protecting Toph. Who better to protect it than the greatest Earthbender in the world.”

“And don’t you forget it,” she grumbled. “But I don’t know, who even needs a police force?”

Aang shrugged. “I happen to know an Earth King whose private security force was recently revealed as corrupt.”

A bright smile lit up Toph’s face. “You know, Twinkletoes, that might be the best idea you’ve ever had.”

Aang put on a tone of offense. “You’ve never been penguin sledding have you?”

“What?”

Aang laughed.

They talked for what felt like the rest of the night but was, in fact, just a couple of hours. They discussed plans, possibilities, hopes, dreams, their friends, their enemies and reveled in the company of a best friend. But duty calls as it always does and, reluctantly, Aang stood up from the bed and began to don his robes again.

“Got to go and greet the adoring public?” Toph smirked.

Aang sighed. “I’m the Avatar,” he replied. “Me being seen here was the reason everybody came in the first place, remember?”

“That’s a big ego, you’ve got, Aang.”

“Oh whatever.”

“Well, you know where to find me,” Toph dismissed him flippantly.

“You aren’t coming back?” Aang inquired.

Toph shrugged. “Come get me when the party is over and the guests are leaving. Sugar Queen convinced Zuko to put on a private dinner just for the six of us after everyone is gone. I’ll see you then.”

Aang nodded at her, realized she couldn’t see it and uttered an embarrassed goodbye before leaving the room.

Far from eager to return to the festivities, Aang did not go back the way he came from. He remembered the route decently well and knew it would not take long to get back to the hub of the party. Besides, this way if he was asked, he could truthfully say he did not know the route. People thought being a monk was all about being a good person, but truthfully it was just about finding cleverer loopholes. Setting off to the right of Toph’s room, Aang took the first branch he could find that reasonably led back towards the main room.

Led through a series of hallways and passing by an interminable amount of doors, Aang soon found himself genuinely at a loss for where to go. If he closed his ears he could hear the entertainment playing off to his right, but any attempts to head in that direction seemed only to steer him farther away from it. He certainly wasn’t going to stop and ask directions from any of the occupants of the rooms he had passed. He heard far too many suspect noises coming out of them. It seemed the Royal Palace had turned into a twisting labyrinth that the Avatar was not capable of escaping from. Of course, he could just use his seismic sense to find his way out but where would be the fun in that?

Taking what felt like his hundredth left of the day, Aang found himself wandering into a ballroom. It wasn’t the ballroom, of course. That one was big enough to house an army – Aang tried not to think about the fact that it probably had – and hosted the vast majority of the party. This one was smaller and, though Aang would never stretch to call it cozy, more comfortable. A hundred people, give or take, milled about the room.

This seemed to be, if anything, the recovery room. There was food enough to strain the tables and whole fountains of alcohol trickling on the far side but no entertainment and everyone talked just above a whisper. These people were tired and nursing hangovers, but not tired and hungover enough to crawl into a bed.

None of this interested Aang. His eye was drawn, instead, to the far corner. A large Royal Litter was seated in the corner, taking up such a space that two of the tables had to have been moved to accommodate it. It was veiled in flowing pink curtains that were just thin enough to reveal the silhouette of a distinctly feminine form within. Whoever it was, she was slouched and slow, seated in a position very unbecoming of those with the status to sit in such a vehicle. Aang was intrigued, not the least of which because of the woman standing outside of it and peeking in.

Aang approached as she was leaving and called to her somewhat reluctantly. Buried hatchets or not, Mai was a very intimidating woman. The dark-haired girl turned to look at him with an air of postured formality upon hearing her name. Upon realizing it was him, however, Aang witnessed the very subtle array of changes in her stance. Her posture was as ramrod straight as ever, but Aang could see she was leaning more on her hip than she had been and the angle of her sleeves suggested she had slackened the grip she had hidden beneath them. Her eyes were no different – and Aang could never recall a time they had been soft – but her frown lessened ever so slightly as she approached him.

Aang felt a great swell of pride that he was evidently counted among those she could be familiar with. Or, as familiar as Mai got.

“What can I do for you, Avatar?” she asked in the same monotonous tone as always. He suspected she would have that tone in even the direst of situations.

“Aang, please,” he requested.

She responded with the barest inclination of her head.

“Who is that?” Aang gestured to the palanquin.

Something dark passed over Mai’s eyes as she followed the movement of his hand. Dark and sad but so quick that Aang barely had time to see it, let alone understand it. She turned her attention back to him, her face as inscrutable as ever, and offered him a shrug.

“An old friend,” she replied. “I haven’t seen her in a while, and I probably won’t for a while yet. I wanted to say hello.”

“Do I know her?” he asked.

Another shrug and a flash of something else in her eyes. Amusement? “You’ve met,” was the extent of her response.

Aang furrowed his brow at her, unable to decipher the meaning of her words. He shook himself, knowing he would never know the truths of Mai’s mind. “Can I see her?”

“If you like,” Mai responded in a tone suggesting she thought he shouldn’t – or couldn’t. “Good luck, though. They only let me see her cause I have the Fire Lord wrapped around my finger.”

She gestured to the ornamental hair piece she wore, evidence of her betrothal to Zuko.

Aang quirked a self-assured smile. “Then I think I’ll be fine,” he said. “I had Zuko wrapped up in me way before you did, after all.”

Mai quirked an eyebrow at him, her face unchanging.

Aang deflated. “That…sounded better in my head.”

“Did it?”

He deflated further. “No,” he replied miserably.

The corner of Mai’s mouth twitched, the most outward sign of amusement he was going to get. She turned and began to wander off in the direction of what he thought to be the main party. “It was good talking to you, Aang,” she called over her shoulder. “Good luck.”

Then she turned and disappeared into the crowd, off in the direction of someone else to confuse. Aang shook himself. His friendship with Mai was easily his weirdest and most confusing. Quirking an eyebrow after her, Aang shrugged her odd demeanor off and turned his attention to the sizeable Litter parked in the corner of the room.

Summoning up every ounce of “Avatar Superiority” he could muster, Aang walked up to the palanquin and addressed the guards.

“Excuse me?” he attracted their stone like attention. “What’s your name?”

He inwardly cringed. That had fallen apart fast. He had meant to command them to stand aside and let him see whoever was inside. Aang had never been good at giving orders. He was too friendly.

They were wearing full face masks so Aang couldn’t see their expression, but the tilt of their heads inferred they were looking at him rather incredulously.

There were four all together – one at each corner of the Litter. The one who addressed him was the tallest and stockiest and his armor looked the most weathered. He was clearly the most experienced of them. For a moment, Aang wondered if he had ever fought this man without knowing it but he shook himself of the thought.

“Po,” he replied curtly.

“And your friend?” Aang smiled at the man to his right. His stance was not as firm and his posture not as rigid. Clearly a rookie.

“Private,” Po answered for him.

“Private…?” Aang trailed off, fishing for the answer.

Po fixed him with a firm glare from behind his mask. “Private,” he intoned again.

“Right,” Aang replied. “Uh, I’m Aang.”

“We know,” Po replied, now having returned to his rigid stance and forward field of view.

“Um…yeah. Listen, I was hoping I could say hello to whoever it is you’re guarding?” Aang requested in a much smaller voice than he had hoped to use.

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” Po told him strictly. “We have strict orders from Fire Lord Zuko not to let anyone –,”

“Commander!” the Private interrupted for the first time, breaking stance and adopting a very nervous stance in its stead. “Don’t you know who this is? This is the Avatar!”

“And we have our orders,” Commander Po replied in a voice that brooked no argument.

The Private, however, felt like arguing. “We let the Fire Lady see her!”

“The Fire Lady Elect,” Po corrected, true emotion slithering through the first crack in his façade. “And of course we did. She’s the Fire Lady Elect!”

“This is the Avatar!” the Private responded as if that explained everything.

Emboldened by the young Private’s opinion of him and believing he had at least one supporter here, Aang reentered the conversation.

“The Fire Lord’s a good friend of mine, Commander,” he assured the older man. “I promise, if he gives you any trouble about this, I’ll smooth it over.”

Aang imagined that had come across intensely unimpressive. The Commander was probably wearing a look of disinterest behind his mask. Mai had probably not even bothered actually talking to the men. A snap of her fingers and glance of her disinterested eyes and they had probably parted like a sea. That just wasn’t Aang unfortunately.

Nonetheless, the Commander released a deep sigh and stepped aside. The Private did likewise and Aang was allowed access to the Litter. He really was surprised. He didn’t think he’d manage it.

Aang grasped tightly to the curtain – it was thicker and heavier than he had thought – and pulled it back. Whatever he had been expecting, it had not been this and he couldn’t help the gasp that escaped him.

The Crown Princess Azula had seen better days.

Slouched against one of the posts holding up the roof of the Litter, she was wrapped up in a loose-fitting straitjacket. Her eyes were open, and her mouth was working, her lips mumbling some incoherent string of random syllables. The once vibrant and sharp gold of her eyes were clouded over and dull. Her hair was frayed, unkempt and jaggedly cut at different lengths.

Aang’s eyes roamed over her entire form, soaking in the myriad details that counted towards a very bad whole. This was Azula? The Crown Princess of the Fire Nation who had tracked them across the world and brought them more grief than her honor obsessed older brother had ever dreamed? The Firebending prodigy? The conqueror of Ba Sing Se? The woman who killed the Avatar? How was this possible?

When he had last seen Azula, she had been fire and fury and cold rage. She brought an army to the Western Air Temple in that airship of hers and then not used it, single handedly bringing destruction to the ancestral home of his people and forcing he and his friends to retreat. Every bit the prodigy, every bit the villain, Zuko had nearly lost his life attempting to stall her and even being thrown off an airship and into an abyss hadn’t stopped her.

How had that woman, a woman Aang strangely respected for her skill if nothing else, become this?

“What happened to you?” Aang asked, not realizing he had spoken aloud.

“Life,” the Commander responded.

Chapter Text

It was three weeks after the Coronation Party and finally every member of Team Avatar was gone. In truth, they could have all packed up the day after the celebration and headed out to their respective duties and desires. But they were feeling lazy and selfish. They just saved the world and they deserved some down time. Or so they told themselves. Everyone but Toph had just wanted to sleep on the comfy beds a bit longer.

The Blind Bandit had left first, her parents having long since gotten impatient with waiting. According to her, she was going to spend no more than a year with them, reconnecting with them as her true self. If, after that time had passed, she wasn’t seen or heard from, someone needed to come get her. Aang didn’t think it would come to that, though. He had, had a private discussion with her father before they left, assuring them that he would make a personal visit to kidnap Toph again if she wasn’t allowed to pursue the life she wanted. The man had blustered and harrumphed but, facing down the seldom seen “Confident Aang”, he had conceded.

Toph had offered him a very hard punch on the arm as a show of thanks.

Sokka and Katara had left shortly thereafter, boarding the last Water Tribe boat home to help in overseeing the reconstruction and readmittance of the Southern Water Tribe onto the world stage. Sokka was going to be trained by Hakoda in how to be a Chieftain and Katara was going to work directly under Pakku, training the new Waterbenders and constructing the city. It was unclear how long they’d be away, but Katara had tearily informed them they’d keep in contact and everyone knew Sokka wouldn’t stay away from Suki for very long.

Suki, for her part, was remaining in the Fire Nation Capitol full time. Zuko had offered the Kyoshi Warriors the position as his personal guard, both out of trust of the warriors’ skill and in an effort to promote good will with the Earth Kingdom. Suki had graciously accepted and Aang had to admit it struck a very powerful image to see the Fire Lord flanked by two Earth Nation warriors everywhere he went.

So now only Aang was left – the man who, by all rights, should have left the soonest. It wasn’t necessarily that he wanted to stay, enjoyed the beds or luxuriated in the excellent vegetarian dishes – although he was doing all those things. Aang had a very good reason for staying in the Capitol and it was one that required the rest of his friends to be gone. He didn’t know exactly how they would react, but he knew it wouldn’t be pleasant – particularly Katara. As it was, Suki was a flight risk in regards to this as well, but he would have to take the chance where she was concerned. He trusted her to at least try and be level headed.

“You wanted to see me?”

Zuko’s voice was as rich as it ever was, but there was something different about it these days. Since the end of the war and his father’s incarceration, Zuko had become…calmer. He lacked the edge he once had and much of his ferocity had gone out of him. Except in his Bending of course. Aang knew that all too well.

About a week after the festivities had ended, Toph had suggested a dueling competition between them.

“For old times’ sake. Just to see who’s really the best of us.”

“Aang’s the Avatar,” Zuko had replied dryly. “Not really fair.”

“Twinkletoes’ll stick to Airbending then,” Toph determined.

“I didn’t agree to this,” Aang had commented from his perch in a tree above them.

“Yes, you did,” Toph replied.

So, they had fought, all six of them. Katara, Sokka and Suki were knocked out in the first round by Aang, Zuko and Toph respectively. It was determined that Toph and Zuko would have their bout first and the victor would face Aang. Toph and Zuko had fought a match of epic proportions but Zuko had managed to eek out the victory with a surprise fire blast directed towards her feet. She hadn’t been hurt but she had panicked and Zuko had knocked her out. Aang faced off against Zuko just like the old days with nothing held back and, in the end, his habitual use of Waterbending to keep him from a knockout ended with the Avatar disqualified and the Fire Lord as the victor.

Now though, outside the ring, Zuko was every bit the calm, collected monarch he had always been destined to be.

Aang had been outside for the greater part of the day, brushing and cleaning Appa. The Sky Bison didn’t really need it, but he liked the attention and Aang was more than happy to give it. Zuko walked up to the beast like an old friend and patted him affectionately on the nose, nimbly dodging the Bison’s great tongue. It wouldn’t do to have a cowlick as big as his head in court later that day.

“Yeah,” Aang said, reluctant to delve into the conversation. This was going to be heavy. “Thanks for coming.”

Zuko shrugged. “The Palace is stuffy, and the Throne Room is suffocating. It’s good to get away from my advisors.”

“What are they hounding you about today?”

“Marriage,” the Fire Lord responded dryly.

Aang planted his foot firmly in the ground, commanding to small pillars of stone to rise. The two of them took their seats opposite each other and the facades broke. Two friends grinned wryly at the other.

“They want me to marry Mai. This week.”

“What!?” Aang cried incredulously. “That’s no time at all! Everybody just left!”

Zuko shrugged. “We can’t afford a big blowout celebration like that again, anyway.” Aang was happy about that. The phantom stench of booze was still nauseating. “The Coronation was a gambit and one that paid off. Relations are good. The economy isn’t. My advisors think the marriage will inspire stability in the country. And…”

Zuko trailed off, ducking his head and mumbling something too low for Aang to hear.

“What was that?” Aang pushed.

Zuko sighed. “They want me to start working on an heir,” he blushed.

Aang pulled a smirk very unbecoming of a monk. “I’m sure you’re very upset about that.”

“Oh, shut up,” the Fire Lord growled.

Aang chuckled mirthfully. “Still, Katara will never forgive you if she isn’t at your wedding,” he warned.

“The plan is to marry next week and host an actual celebration on our first anniversary,” he explained.

“You’re still gonna get splashed,” Aang told him, relishing in his groan. “What does Mai think of all this?”

Zuko shrugged. “You know her. It was going to happen anyway. All the staff and guards address her like the Fire Lady already and she’s more than happy to use the authority. Ty Lee is going to be her Maid of Honor. I suppose I’ll have to pull a noble out of the court to stand as my Best Man.”

Aang made a choked noise. “What am I, chopped lettuce!?” he demanded.

Zuko quirked an eyebrow. “That’s not the expression,” he commented.

“I’m a vegetarian,” he defended, prompting the Fire Lord to shake his head.

“Aang, the wedding is sometime next week,” Zuko explained. “You won’t be here to stand.”

“Why not!?”

Zuko adopted a very confused expression. “I thought that’s why you called me out here. To say goodbye. I don’t really know where you’re off to but I’m sure the Avatar has responsibilities outside of the Royal Palace.”

A part of Aang whispered very loudly to him that Zuko was right and that he should just leave. The world needed him and his work to restore balance was far from over. Aang ignored the voice and focused on the now. He felt he had to do this. Like he owed it to her. And to Zuko for that matter.

“I’m not leaving, Zuko,” Aang told him, standing up. “At least, not as long as you’ll have me.”

“Of course,” he replied easily, the confusion leaking into his voice. “You’re welcome as long as you like but…why? You aren’t exactly someone who puts down roots, Aang. Let alone in the Palace of the man you’ve been trying to take down for a year.”

Aang, his back now turned to Zuko, took in a deep breath through his nose and released it very shakily from his mouth. The reactions of his other friends were predictable. Sokka would be red hot furious, Katara would be coldly detached, Toph would shrug and tell him not to get himself killed and Suki would probably accept it despite her feelings on the matter. Zuko though…Zuko was up in the air.

“I want to see Azula,” he said, turning around to face his friend.

A thousand scenarios flitted through his head in that instant, none of which had involved Zuko laughing at him. Yet he did just that, leaning back on his seat and releasing a full bellied laugh like he had never heard the Fire Lord give.

“You should leave the jokes to Sokka, Aang,” Zuko told him, still laughing lightly.

For once, Aang figured the best thing to do in this situation was to say nothing at all and so he simply stared across the divide at his friend with as much seriousness as he could muster. It took the Fire Lord a moment longer than either would like to admit.

“You’re serious?”

Aang nodded.

“Are you out of your mind?”

Aang stood and made a great show of patting himself down, head to toe. “Nope,” he replied cheekily. “I’m in my physical body.”

Zuko glared sharply at the Avatar and Aang was quickly reminded just how much of his life Zuko had dedicated to hunting him down. He should probably tread a little lighter.

“What could you possibly want with Azula? Why do you want to see her!? How do you even –!?” The rest of Zuko’s thought was lost in an articulate scream of frustration.

Aang sighed and sat back down again. “I saw her on the last day of the party.”

Zuko worked his jaw in anger. “I told those men –” he trailed off again.

“Relax,” Aang told him. “I’m the Avatar. What do you expect? Mai saw her too.”

“Mai is my fiancé,” he snapped in reply. “And I already told you everyone acts like she’s the Fire Lady!”

“Zuko,” Aang called to him softly, “have you seen her lately?”

Zuko sighed and ran a hand down his face. “It’s harder to find the time, what with everything going on. But yeah. I visit her at least once a month.”

“What…happened to her?” Aang asked lamely.

Zuko’s gaze grew distant. “The same thing that happened to me,” he whispered. “Except she didn’t have Uncle. Or you. My father focused all of his attention on to her once I was banished. All his expectations – and there were a lot of them. He pushed her until she reached her limit and then handed her a crushing responsibility that she couldn’t handle at the time. It…broke her. By the time Katara and I got here, she was…nothing like herself. Deranged and psychotic. Beating her wasn’t easy…but it was easier than it should have been.”

The truth became clear to Aang immediately and he couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it sooner.

“We were kids, Aang,” Toph had said. “Kids forced to save the world because no one else would.”

Azula hadn’t saved the world. But she was just like he was. Just like Toph was. Just like Sokka and Katara, Zuko and Suki. A child, forced to take part in her father’s war and put into a position she never should have been. A skilled, brilliant, amazing, prodigy of a child, yes, but a child nonetheless.

How had he been so blind to that?

“I can help her,” he said finally.

Zuko scoffed. “She’s beyond your help, Aang.”

“Do you remember when you thought you were beyond my help?” Aang asked him coldly, standing up and stalking forward until he towered over the Firebender. “Beyond anyone’s help?”

“It’s different –” Zuko tried.

“It’s not!” Aang snapped, releasing a gust of wind. Zuko’s robes ruffled and his hair flew, and he was immediately reminded who should have won that duel. “I know you remember what you did, Zuko! The lives you ruined, the lives you took in search of me! The people you hurt! Katara, Sokka and I all gave up on you! We believed you couldn’t change! Do you know who didn’t!?”

Zuko didn’t answer.

“Toph,” he told him. “A girl who had only ever seen one side of you – and not a good one. A girl who had heard stories of how heinous you were and how you chased us to the ends of the Earth, not caring who you hurt along the way. But she believed you because in that instant you were sincere! And look what happened!?”

Aang threw his arms about, gesturing to the Palace, the grounds and the world around him.

“Look what happened because one person had faith in someone she should by all rights despise.”

Zuko was silent for a moment but soon enough he grumbled. “Your allegory isn’t subtle enough,” he commented. “Uncle would be ashamed.”

Aang sighed and ran a hand down his face. “Zuko, you told me once about your heritage. About your mother’s great grandfather.” Zuko looked up into the Avatar’s eyes, a deep and raw set of emotions evident in his own. “You said that your Uncle told you that within you was the power to restore balance to the world. The heritage of the Avatar and the Fire Lord came together in you so that you could play a part in ending the war. Well, Azula has the same heritage. The same power and the same possibility.”

“You know the choice she made,” he sighed.

Aang folded his arms and glared down at his friend. “I know she should be given a chance to make it again.”

Zuko groaned deeply, resting his face in his hands for a moment. “You’re right,” he admitted.

Aang stepped back. That had taken a lot out of him. “So…you’ll let me?” he asked hesitantly, every bit the child again.

Zuko snorted humorlessly at him. “Come with me.”

_(*)_

Zuko led him silently through the Palace, nodding to all the staff they passed along the way but not sparing them a word. Two of the Kyoshi Warriors had attempted to fall in step with them but Zuko had waved them off. The route he took Aang through was long, circuitous and complicated – almost as if he wanted to ensure that no one knew where they were or where they were going. Down they went, level by level with Zuko always ensuring they took the most complicated route they could until, finally, he led them down a flight of stairs so dingy and tiny, Aang felt it was a disgrace to the Fire Lord’s clothes.

At the end of the stairway was a door that had a simple, wrought iron lock on it. Zuko produced a large key from his robes, unlocked the door with a loud click and gestured for Aang to enter.

However dingy the stairs had been, the room was equally luxurious. A large, open space, the walls were decorated with elaborate tapestries and beautiful paintings. A bed bigger than any Aang had ever seen was in the center of the room and all across the space there were luxurious pieces of furniture, ranging from chairs and loveseats to desks and tables. Strangely, Aang noticed that there was no mirror anywhere in the room. No reflective surface of any kind, in fact. But that was the only detracting factor. The only evidence that this was in any way not a luxury suite – other than the odd entrance – was the fact the floors and wall were all padded.

In the center of it all, Azula sat on the floor. She was no longer constrained by the strait jacket and her form was limp and weak, but she was sitting up, staring as listlessly into the void as she had been at the party.

Aang heard the door close and lock behind him. He raised an eyebrow at the Fire Lord as he pocketed the key.

“Precautions,” Zuko explained.

“You really think that’s necessary?”

“No,” Zuko answered honestly. “But this is the woman who killed the Avatar.”

Aang felt queasy all of the sudden and the middle of his back tingled where she had scarred him. “Fair enough. What’s she like? Er…just in general I mean.”

Zuko sighed and rubbed the back of his head. “Completely unresponsive. She doesn’t react to my voice or my touch. She doesn’t respond to fire being used around her or loud noises. I even pricked her once with a needle. Nothing.”

Aang sighed and approached her, but a noise from Zuko made him pause. He stopped a few feet from her and leaned down to stare into her vacant eyes.

“The only thing she responds to is her reflection,” Zuko told him from his place behind him. “And it’s violently.”

Aang turned around to stare at him inquisitively.

Zuko sighed again. “When I first moved her down here, I visited her every day. Eventually, I wanted to try and do something nice for her. Comb out her hair and clean it up. Mai taught me how. But I needed to see what I was doing so I set her up in front of the vanity. She came alive so quickly I almost attacked her, but she just grabbed the hairbrush and shattered the mirror. And she kept doing it. I had to pin her down to keep her from lacerating her hands.”

“That’s the only response she’s given?” Aang asked, turning again to look into the eyes of the Firebending prodigy.

“Beyond incomprehensible whispers? Yeah.” Zuko was silent for a moment. “Do you really think you can help her?”

Aang sighed through his nose and tentatively reached out a hand, pressing two fingers to her forehead. She gave no response. He closed his eyes, breathed in and exhaled, sinking ever so slightly into her head.

Fire. Fire and rage and pain and suffering. Distantly, a scream of anguish.

He withdrew, opening his eyes and staring at her sadly.

“I’m going to try.”

Chapter Text

It was three more days before Zuko allowed Aang to try…whatever it was he was going to try. The Fire Lord insisted on being present when Aang began his treatment. Embroiled in this meeting or that discussion, however, Zuko had not found the time and so had refused to allow Aang back into Azula’s room. Despite the Avatar’s protests, Zuko was confident enough in Aang’s inability to find the room, that he simply ignored his friend’s caterwauling.

Now, though, it was early morning and Zuko had again lead him through the labyrinth of hallways and tunnels – Aang had desperately tried to keep track of the twists and turns but he was convinced Zuko had taken him through a different route. Yet again he produced the overlarge key from his robes and unlocked the door, allowing the Avatar to enter.

Aang didn’t know what Azula did down here in her free time or even if she could do anything but she was seated on the bed this time, leaning against the headboard for support. Aang assumed Zuko had a rotation of servants – or perhaps a single dedicated one – assigned to caring for her. He was sure her muscles needed to be worked regularly or else she’d start to weaken beyond what was healthy.

Aang shrugged off the heavy robes he’d taken to wearing around the Palace – the Fire Nation was not one to shrug off formality – and proceeded to take off the top of his shawl as well. Shrugging off his shoes, he rolled his shoulders and approached the bed.

“Uh,” Zuko said, hesitantly, as if scared to get his question answered, “what are you doing?”

Aang smirked. “I’m going to be here for a while, Zuko. Out of my body and defenseless. I can at least be comfortable.”

“Yeah,” Zuko drawled. “I guess.”

The Fire Lord shrugged off his own outer robes, content in his tunic, and dragged a chair over to sit at the corner of the bed. Aang had settled into a lotus position in front of Azula. Calmly, he reached forward, gripping Azula’s shoulder softly and placing his hand on the small of her back. He set her in an upright position, hesitantly letting her go, unsure of whether or not she could support her own weight. The Princess slouched slightly but did not seem like she was going to fall over. Absently, he brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes.

“So…what exactly are you going to do?” Zuko asked him.

Aang pulled back again and began to breathe deeply and slowly, his eyes closed. “It’s…not unlike how I took Ozai’s bending away. The Lion Turtle called it Energybending. Apparently, it predates the Bending of the Elements. It’s what Spirits do.”

“Okay,” Zuko hesitated, never one to connect all that well with the spiritual side of the world. “But how exactly?”

Still centering his breathing, Aang smiled somewhat. “I’m going to be doing half of what I did to Ozai. When I took his bending, I forcibly melded my spirit with his. I overpowered it, and in doing so accessed who he was at his core. There, I locked his Bending and withdrew. With Azula, I’ll be doing the same. Melding my spirit with hers and finding my way to the core of who she is. I won’t touch her Bending, of course.”

“Melding your spirit…” Zuko trailed off, resting his chin on his fist. “Does that have any…negative side effects?”

Aang shrugged from his meditative position. “I don’t know,” he replied flippantly. “I’ve never done this before. Not like this. I’m just kinda…making it up as I go along.”

Zuko leaned back in his chair. “Great,” he replied dryly. “That fills me with confidence.”

Aang grinned. “It’ll be fine Zuko,” he told him. “But if I start hurling blue fireballs and calling you ‘Zuzu’ after this, you should probably kill me.”

A dark look passed over Zuko’s face. “Mention that name again, and I will.”

Aang grinned all the wider. He breathed in deeply again. His exercises were coming to a close. He needed to be at his peak game before crossing into a mind as dangerous as Azula’s. He wasn’t yet sure whether or not her fractured state would aid or hinder him, but he knew if he wasn’t spiritually centered, himself, then he would have had no chance of helping Azula.

“You can stay if you like,” he told Zuko, the emotion leaving his voice as he drew closer to his center, “but this will probably take a while.”

“I’ll stay,” Zuko responded. “I told Mai to sit in on the advisor meeting in my stead, today.”

Immediately drawn out of his meditation, Aang turned on the spot to stare at Zuko in bewilderment.

Zuko leaned back and shrugged. “I pitched it to the advisors as a way to test her on her political skills for when she’s Fire Lady.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t really concerned with the advisors’ reaction to that,” the Avatar responded.

Zuko rolled his eyes and grumbled. He was tired of everyone assuming Mai wore the pants in their relationship. She did, of course, but that didn’t mean he liked everyone assuming it. “I promised her she didn’t have to wear the gold dress.”

In the Fire Nation, it was tradition for the marrying couple to wear the colors of their Nation. The bride wore gold whilst the groom wore crimson red. For Mai, it was surely much too bright a color.

Aang smirked. “You’re getting pretty good at these political maneuverings, Fire Lord.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Zuko waved him off. “Get on with it.”

Forced to re-center himself, Aang sank back into his meditation and the two friends passed the minutes by with silence. Calm and centered, Aang opened his eyes and took in the sight of his patient. Reaching out, he pressed his right palm against her forehead, centering his thumb just above her eyes. His left hand, he pressed onto her chest, placing his thumb over her heart.

He breathed in, breathed out and lit the room with the bright blue light of the Avatar State as he sank into the mind of Princess Azula.

_(*)_

For a moment that lasted forever, Aang fell. Downwards and upwards at the same time, pulled in a million different directions by both an inescapable force and a lack of any gravity. People’s mindscapes operated on rules foreign and unknowable to the mind on the best of days. Azula’s was very far from its best and what little order there may have been had long since been eroded by the girl’s insanity. Flashes of light and glimpses of half formed rooms flitted through and by his vision, forming and shattering in an instant.

Aang called on his inner self, his true spirit. Briefly, his eyes and tattoos flashed and he asserted control of himself in this strange land. His feet contacted with a ground that was not there and he had stopped falling. Aang cast his vision around him, taking in nothing but darkness and yet somehow seeing. Even now, though he was not falling, he was being pulled, farther and farther into his patient’s mind.

The Avatar walked a fine line. The pull of Azula’s mind was where he needed to be, but if he wasn’t careful, it would consume him. Shattered or not, Azula had more willpower than anyone Aang had ever met. Ozai had nearly destroyed him their confrontation and Aang had no doubt that if he allowed it, Azula would consume him as well. Like the undertow of the ocean, Aang could feel Azula pulling him out to sea, threatening to drown him.

But Aang was a Waterbender. He would not allow her to win.

Images and memories, half formed and fractured, came together at the edge of his vision. Aang could see a hundred different fragments that made up the whole that was Azula. The corner of her childhood bedroom, the face of her first Firebending tutor, the first and only hug she’d ever shared with Zuko. All of it was broken and scattered, the fragments of broken memories laying at his feet.

Yet even as he watched them, they began to strengthen. The closer he was pulled to Azula’s center, the stronger her mindscape became. Still he floated in black ether, but the edges of his vision were filling in, painted in long strokes. Ahead, he could see a fully realized image, solid and firm.

The entrance to Azula’s mind was a heavy curtain, embroidered with the golden sigil of the Fire Nation. The magnetic pull that had drawn him here was gone. He had reached Azula’s center. There was nowhere left to pull him. Idly, Aang wondered for the first time how hard it would be to pull himself out of Azula’s mind. He had always had a problem with planning ahead.

Gripping tightly to the curtain, Aang shook himself and banished the thought. He had more important things to focus on. Drawing back the curtain, Aang stepped into the last stronghold of Azula’s mind.

It was the Throne Room, he recognized, as it must have been during Azula’s brief stint as the Fire Lady. Wide and open, a grid of nine pillars on either side of him held up a high and vaulted roof. A thick carpet lay underneath his feet, leading up the throne itself. Hidden behind a high wall of blue flame, Aang could just make out Azula’s silhouette.

It was as it was meant to be, straight backed and firm. The light of the fire glinted off her crown. She was every bit the woman he remembered her to be.

“Hello, Azula,” he called to her.

There was silence for a moment. Then, with a rush of wind, a great blue fireball swept out from the throne, desperately rushing towards him. Aang’s eyes widened and, unsure of exactly why he was surprised this was happening, Aang bended himself swiftly to the side, allowing the fire to pass harmlessly by his head. The trailing heat of the flames hit him like a truck, causing him to stumble back.

Another plume of fire raced out, followed swiftly by the Crown Princess herself. Leaping outward from her throne foot first, she landed nimbly. Her hand shot up, two fingers arching out into a dagger like tip that produced a thin plume of blue flame directed straight at the Avatar.

Forced to blow the first fireball away, Aang twisted sharply on his hip, barely avoiding the spear of flame and losing his balance in the process. Aang caught himself on his hand and pivoted, coming to stand lightly on his feet in preparation for Azula’s next blow.

Unfortunately, he was at a major disadvantage here. Aang was here to heal, not hurt. Though powerful here, this room represented the last part of Azula that was still the real her. He couldn’t afford to risk damaging her mind any further than it already was. So, he was limited to his reliable “dodge and weave” tactic. He just had no idea how to incorporate mental healing into that strategy.

Now standing tall and firm, Azula leaned back on her right foot and kicked out viciously three times, producing three enormous balls of flame, spread out like a fan. Not allowing Aang the time to recover, she took off, sprinting towards him with an expression so fierce it genuinely scared him.

Aang leapt upwards, rotating in midair and allowing the flames to pass harmlessly under him. He landed firmly, practically running into Azula’s well timed punch. Knowing he couldn’t afford a loss of balance here, Aang conserved his energy, limiting himself to minor dodges. He could feel the wind her blows created pass over his cheek as he continued to dodge her thrusts and kicks.

Aang began to feel uneasy. She had yet to make a sound. Well beyond refusing to speak, she had not even made a noise of exertion. None of the grunts or groans or annoyed grumblings that he remembered her fights to have. It was oddly disconcerting to hear nothing from an opponent.

“Azula, stop!” he demanded, daring to blast the ground between them with an air blast powerful enough to force her back.

In response, the Princess slid silently into a firm fighting stance, clenching her fists together and producing two bright blames at the end of her knuckles. She lashed out viciously, forcing Aang to stumble backwards in a desperate bid to create more range between them. Dodging her blows wasn’t enough now. He needed to contend with the heat and flames as well.

He needed to gain control of this battle. In a feat of unexpected aggressiveness that caught her off guard, Aang rushed forward, closing his grip tightly around her fist. The flame disappeared, followed shortly by its twin as she gripped at his hand in an attempt to throw him off. Aang allowed his momentum to carry him through, forcing her back as his fist connected with her stomach.

For the first time, she made a noise, groaning in pain and doubling over. As if a dam had broken, all manner of sounds began to spew from her. Growling in vicious anger, she leaned into the Avatar’s grip and swung herself around his arm, connecting a vicious kick to his temple and forcing him to release.

Aang stumbled back but recovered just quick enough to catch her next kick. He glared up into her golden eyes and threw her backwards, offsetting the throw with a blast of air. She stumbled backwards, transitioning into a back-flip that saw her land firmly on her feet.

“Enough, Azula!” he cried, sliding into a defensive stance in preparation for her next strike. “I’m not here to fight you!”

She smirked, true expression on her face for the first time. “Then you should have gone somewhere else.”

She slid her weight onto her back foot, bringing her hands up into a series of sharp motions Aang recognized all too well. Already he could see the crackle of lightning on her fingertips. The same lightning that had taken his life not too very long ago. Aang was at a loss. He couldn’t redirect the lightning. Not here. Not in the last stronghold of her mind. But he couldn’t lash out either, too afraid of shattering her psyche.

The lightning was arcing up her arm now and her hand was sliding, ready to release the pent-up energy on the helpless Avatar.

He groaned inwardly. Why did she have to have such a weak mental state? He couldn’t do anything here!

Aang realized it in an instant and wondered how he had been so stupid.

Azula released the energy, the lightning arcing aggressively through the air in a desperate bid to connect with the Avatar’s heart at the same time that Aang pressed his left fist into the open palm of his right hand. Opening his eyes, he let the energy of the Avatar State flow and watched as Azula’s lightning passed harmlessly through his chest, connecting roughly with the back wall of her mindscape.

The glow faded and Aang tried not to relish in the Princess’s dumbfounded look. He should have realized it sooner. Aang couldn’t imagine a weaker mental state and though he couldn’t hurt her, he was also too strong for her to hurt him.

“How?” she whispered. “That’s not possible!”

“This isn’t real, Azula,” he told her, stepping forward as calmly as he could. She stepped back, fear, trepidation and anger on her face. “We’re in your mind. You’re sick and hurt. I’m here to help you.”

Azula took another step back. Aang watched her and shuddered at what he saw. A tremble, not just in her but in the very air. In reality itself. This entire world had just shaken.

“Azula,” he called worryingly.

Aang realized he may have made a mistake. In an instant, the Crown Princess was gone, replaced by a haggard and beaten woman he had never seen. Her stance was nonexistent, weak and frail. Her eyes were distraught with pain and insanity. Her hair was chopped, disheveled and unkempt. She had become Azula as she was when Zuko and Katara had beaten her down. Aang’s heart broke for her. If this is what she had looked like in that confrontation, he couldn’t have brought himself to hurt her.

She stumbled and fell to her knees and Aang groaned as the world gave another terrible tremble. His vision seemed to be cracking, fracturing in tandem with the girl in front of him. Aang rushed forward, skidding to his knees beside the Firebender. He grabbed at her shoulders, shaking her in a desperate bid to grab her attention. He needed to fix this before this mindscape was ripped apart and he lost her forever.

“Azula,” he called to her. He could see the light in her eyes fading. The pain was gone and even the deranged insanity was being clouded over into the same nonresponsive eyes he had looked into in the real world. “Azula! This isn’t real, either! This version of you. It’s a lie! It doesn’t exist except in here. The woman I fought, the woman that beat me! That’s Azula. That’s the Crown Princess. Be her! Don’t give in to this false version of yourself! Don’t give in to the lie! Azula!”

He shook her roughly.

“Get out,” she whispered faintly, barely audible.

“Azula?” he questioned. The world around him was breaking, the pressure of it pressing tightly against all his senses. “Azula, please.”

“Get out,” she said again, louder and she kept going, her voice rising with each utterance. “Get out of my head. Get out of my head. Get out of my head! GET OUT OF MY HEAD!”

Her eyes snapped up, clear, bright and gold and Aang’s vision of the throne room vanished, replaced by the rushing darkness.

_(*)_

The light of the Avatar State seemed to explode outward, the bright blue glow filling the room for a brief second before Aang was thrown backwards off the bed, clear across the room and into the far wall. He contacted loudly with the door while, at the same time, Azula collapsed backwards, the headboard catching her descent. Caught between the two, Zuko hesitated for a moment before running after his injured friend.

“Aang!” he came to a halt beside him, leaning down to be level with the sprawled Avatar. “Aang are you okay!? Are you –!?”

He stopped, cut short by the sound of Aang’s joyous laughter and the sight of his large smile.

“Aang?” he questioned, helping the Avatar up to a sitting position. “What happened?”

Aang explained it all to him as best he could. The inner workings of the mind were hard for him to wrap his head around and nearly impossible to explain, let alone to one as spiritually challenged as Zuko. So Aang focused primarily on their fight, describing in detail how it had gone down, how he had beaten her and, most importantly, how it had ended.

“I don’t get how any of that is good,” Zuko scratched at his head when Aang had finished the story. “You lost.”

Aang chuckled. “It wasn’t about winning. I wasn’t trying to win. This is good news, Zuko.”

“Why, though?” Zuko demanded.

Aang leaned is head back against the cool surface of the metal door he had been thrown into. “This means Azula is in there. The real Azula.” He gazed up into the eyes of his friend. “And she doesn’t want to die.”

Chapter Text

“You can’t be serious.”

Aang was in the Throne Room, poised confidently at the Fire Lord’s feet as Zuko spoke down to him from his perch. The flames were a different color and, of course, the one on the throne wasn’t itching to kill him, but the picture still reminded him far too much of the previous day’s altercation with Azula. Following the events, Azula had remained as unresponsive as ever – much to Zuko’s disappointment. Aang had assured him he just needed more time with her and that he was sure the real Azula was in there. Zuko had thanked him, led him back up to his rooms and went to bed.

The following day, a servant had summoned Aang to the Throne Room – the first time he’d been there since the six of them had, had their private dinner. It was clearly a very formal interaction. Zuko was draped in the ceremonial robes of the Fire Nation monarch and Aang himself had donned the biggest and poofiest robes he could find in an effort to impress a nonexistent crowd. It was just him and Zuko in the room. The advisors, the servants, the guards and even the Kyoshi Warriors had been asked to leave so that the Fire Lord could speak to the Avatar in private. Zuko clearly wanted this matter kept under wraps.

It had been an…interesting discussion thus far.

Perched on his throne, Zuko rested his forehead on the tips of his fingers and sighed. “Aang, it’s too dangerous. I can’t in good conscience let you do this.”

“Good conscience?” Aang echoed. “Conscience in the entire reason I am doing this! The reason we’re doing this!”

“We gave it a good shot,” Zuko replied defeatedly. “I was willing to let you try. But anything more than this is pushing the envelope.”

“Ba Sing Se wasn’t built in a day, Zuko,” Aang chided. “You can’t expect me to heal months of insanity in a few hours. Not without some understanding, anyway. I needed to see what I was working with and now I know!”

“You’re working with a psychopath!” Zuko cried. “A dangerous, unhinged psychopath. It is too dangerous to allow!”

“We’ve had this conversation, Zuko!” Aang shouted in reply. “She’s your sister! Don’t you want her back!?”

“I’ve never had a sister!” Zuko exclaimed, standing up to his full height. His anger beckoned the flames higher. “I had competition. A conniving snake, desperate to take the attention and approval of my father away from me!”

He had begun to pace.

“For as long as I can remember, Azula has never been there for me! Always lying, always plotting, always planning for my downfall so she could take the spot of the perfect child! And she was willing to do anything to get there! Lie, cheat, steal, even kill! I’m sorry, Aang. But that isn’t someone I want back in the world. I mean, we just fought a war to take those kinds of people down!”

“If you really thought all of that about her, you would never have let me go into her mind! You wouldn’t have her set up comfortably in a room in your palace! Pretend all you want, Zuko, but she’s your sister! And you’re her brother! She deserves a second chance as much as anyone else,” Aang maintained firmly. “She suffered under the same abuse and expectations as you. You said it yourself! Why can’t you see that!?”

“I do see it!” Zuko snapped. “But the difference is, when the time came, she chose him. She chose the wrong side!”

“What choice did she have!?”

Zuko had stopped moving now and turned to face him, his arms folded behind his back. He looked every bit the menacing Fire Lord he wanted to be. “I forbid it, Aang.”

Aang’s eyes widened and then narrowed sharply. Sharply, he cut his hands out in either direction, compelling a great gust of wind to sheer through the flames, snuffing them out in an instant. Aang breathed in, carried upwards by a controlled pillar of air until he was eye level with the Fire Lord. To his credit, Zuko didn’t waver.

“I’m the Avatar, Zuko,” Aang told him, the words summoned from the depth of his spirit. “I bow to no King. Or Fire Lord.”

Zuko narrowed his eyes. “Are you defying my command?” he asked dangerously, the wind of Aang’s pillar flapping at his robes.

“Are you actually going to make this an issue?” Aang demanded.

Ugh!” the disgusted groan of a familiar voice echoed through the Throne Room. “Put it away, you two. We get it. You’re both very powerful.”

Mai’s voice was mocking and bored as she trailed into the Throne Room without a care in the world. Silently, she gripped a brazier as she walked and tossed it up onto the platform of the throne, reigniting the great wall of flame that Aang had snuffed out.

Stopping beneath the Avatar, she shouted up to him over the roar of the wind. “Get down here before you mess up my hair!”

Forgetting their argument in an instant, Aang shared an uncertain glance with Zuko who shrugged. Aang lowered himself back to the ground, dispelling the pillar of air as he did. Mai’s hair remained miraculously unaffected as she gazed at him with disinterest.

“Mai, this is supposed to be a closed meeting!” Zuko snapped.

“And I’m the Fire Lady,” Mai shrugged.

“The Fire Lady Elect,” Zuko stressed.

Mai acted as if she hadn’t heard him, turning her attention to Aang. “Really, Aang. Don’t you know to ask me if you want something from him?” she asked coyly.

“Mai,” Zuko snapped warningly, as if it at all meant anything to his fiancé.

Something in Mai’s expression softened. Her eyes lost their sharp edge and her mouth became ever so slightly less sunken. “Can you really help her?”

Aang looked deep into her eyes, connecting with the true woman beneath a lifetime of masks. Mai was as strong a person as Aang had ever met. She kept herself schooled and controlled even in the midst of battle. But, deep down, she was the same as all of them. A woman, fresh out of a war she wanted no memory of. A woman who wanted her friend back.

“I think so,” he told her truthfully.

In an instant, the mask was back in place. “Good enough for me,” she shrugged.

“Mai!” Zuko snapped again.

“Contrary to your belief, Zuko,” Mai told him in her same bored voice, “Azula did have friends. Once upon a time, before your banishment and your father, she was my best friend. And if the Avatar is offering a chance to bring the real Azula back, then I am damn well going to take it.”

“He was injured by her in the very first session!” Zuko cried.

Aang rolled his eyes. “I was a little bruised, Zuko,” he waved him off and then grinned wickedly. “It’s nothing compared to the last scar she gave me.” He gestured to his back.

Zuko ran a tired hand down his face. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” he groaned, sliding back onto his throne.

“Zuko, she deserves another chance,” Mai told him softly. “Think where you and I would be right now if you hadn’t had one.”

Zuko winced. “Fine. I’ll cancel the meetings for today to keep an eye on you.”

“I’ll be there too,” Mai told Aang.

“If this ends badly,” Zuko told them, “I’ll expect an apology.”

“You can expect anything you want, Zuko,” Mai replied flippantly.

_(*)_

The trip into Azula’s mind was much easier the second time. Knowing what to expect and how to go about navigating it did wonders for the smoothness of his landing. Still, he felt the gravitational pull towards her center, pulling him closer to the mockery of the Throne Room he had just been in. It seemed today he would face both the Fire Lord and the former Fire Lady. He only hoped his interactions with the latter would be less explosive than last time.

He felt the pull of her mind release him as he approached the door to the Throne Room. He was pleased to see the curtain in the same condition it had been in yesterday, evidence that this last stronghold remained firm and unbroken. He had, admittedly, been a little worried about any permanent damage he may have done yesterday. That frazzled and fractured version of her that he had seen yesterday had been so weak.

Aang took a deep breath, gripped tightly to the curtain and stepped inside, immediately sliding into a defensive stance in preparation for a blow that did not come. The room was much more brightly lit than it had been the day before, easily allowing him to take in the entire room and all its details. The fire of the Throne’s daze was not lit and Azula was not seated on the platform. Indeed, she was standing beneath it, as immaculate and perfect as she had always been, moving through a series of sharp kicks and vicious punches. Aang smiled at her. She had a more serene expression on her face than any he could ever remember seeing.

He approached her slowly, careful to keep his posture loose and his stance light. The fact that he was not already engaged in another game of cat and mouse with her was a good sign. He didn’t want to ruin it by provoking her. Coming to a halt some ten feet from her, he took in her movements. She was working her way through basic Firebending katas, he recognized, her actions firm and precise.

She had not responded to his presence, nor even looked at him as she continued to work her way through the stances. There was a part of him who admired that kind of disdain.

“No fireballs today?” he asked, perhaps more cheekily than he had intended.

She did not sigh, nor did she make eye contact or at all falter in her work, but he thought he may have seen a light deflation in her shoulders. It was as if she had been hoping he would say nothing at all and remain a passive observer or perhaps just leave. Feeling dumb, Aang realized that was probably exactly what she was hoping for.

“You are not real,” she told him simply. “You’re just another dream, come to torment me.”

Aang scratched at the back of his head. “Well, I don’t know about torment,” he hesitated, “but it’s nice to know you dream about me, anyway.”

A ghost of a smile flitted across her face. She hummed in agreement, transitioning into the next stance as she spoke. “It is nice every so often to have a pleasant dream. And it’s always fun to kill you.” She cut her eyes at him, the golden irises glinting sharply at him from the corner of her eye.

Aang felt a queasy feeling in his stomach then and felt a great urge to pull at his collar. His back was not actually in pain, he reminded himself. It just had a very vivid memory. He dispelled the thought and continued. “I’m not a dream, Azula. I’m real. I’m really here.”

“You aren’t the first to say that,” she told him, viciously cutting the air with a high kick. “Let me guess. You’re here to punish me for my father’s sins? Or perhaps at the behest of my dear big brother? It’s always interesting what you come up with.”

He raised an eyebrow. That she was having nightmares of him – and others apparently – was bad enough. That they were different nightmares and vivid enough to leave a lasting memory was very worrying. “I’m here to help you,” he assured her.

For a fleeting moment, Azula faltered, her stance broke and her face registered true shock. Then it was gone, and she was every bit the firm Princess again. “That is a first, I will admit. Not very original though. Or believable. As if the Avatar would want to help me.”

Aang sighed, taking in her actions. He recognized the movements, of course. Zuko had taught him the very same katas at the Western Air Temple after their trip to the Old Masters. He had said the basics were among the most powerful and reliable Firebending formations one could learn, and he had been right. Aang had used only those stances in his fight on Ozai – some freestyle and Avatar State influence notwithstanding. Of course, that had more to do with his lack of mastery of Firebending than anything else but that was irrelevant.

Aang’s eyes carefully traced the flow of her stances, searching for an opening. Spotting one, Aang took in a deep breath, released it and fell into step with her, easily sliding into the necessary movements. He saw her cut her eyes at him from her position, but she did not falter, nor complain and Aang didn’t force his words onto her.

For several more minutes, the two of them moved in tandem, matching their punches, kicks, swipes and thrusts. They produced no fire and shared no words, sinking into the peace of their actions and allowing the energy of their Bending to pass through them, soothing and calming. Finally, they finished, sliding into an upright stance and laying one palm flat over the other as they exhaled a deep breath of contentment.

Azula opened her eyes, the gold of her irises glinting with something unfamiliar. “Zuzu taught you well,” she complimented. Her tone hadn’t changed, and her voice was still filled with superiority, but Aang wondered if she had ever said something so kind to anyone else. He took it in stride and tried not to feel arrogant about it.

Resisting a smile at her ridiculous nickname for his Firebending master, Aang scratched at the back of his head. “Yeah,” he drawled out, remembering, “we both had some pretty good teachers.”

Azula looked him over, appraising. “The real Avatar, hm?”

Aang opened his arms like he was going to give her a hug, displaying his entire form. “The genuine article,” he grinned.

Azula folded her arms and leaned her weight on left hip. “Say for a moment I believe you – which I don’t!” she told him firmly. “But say that I did. Why are you here?”

“I told you,” he replied. “To help you.”

She scoffed. “I don’t need your help, Avatar. And why would you give it?”

Aang’s brow rose incredulously. “Uh, I beg to differ. You do know where you are, right? You know this isn’t real?”

Azula shuffled her feet. Uncertainty flitted across her eyes. “I…” she began but trailed off. “I don’t…this place is…”

She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and tried again.

“This place is false,” she said in a firmer voice. “I don’t know why or how and even how I know but…this isn’t real. I don’t know why I’m here or what’s happening. I was beginning to think I was in hell, being tormented by those spirits Uncle is always droning on about.”

“You’re not in hell,” he assured her and then backpedaled. “Not in the literal sense, anyway. You’re alive. We’re inside your head. I’m here to try and bring you back.”

“Bring me back?” she echoed, confused. “From what?”

Aang approached, but quickly stopped as she dropped into a defensive stance, her eyes sparking dangerously. “You can’t hurt me, Azula,” he assured her, trying not to sound patronizing. “Not here. Let me show you.”

She didn’t back down, staring at him with the eyes of a caged animal.

“What do you have to lose?” he demanded.

Slowly, hesitantly, she rose, falling out of her defensive stance and staring at him with distrust. She didn’t exactly beckon him, but it was as much of an invitation as he was going to get. He stepped forward, slowly raising his hands towards her head and chest. She pulled back from his touch at first, but then she grimaced and gave up.

Aang pressed his hands to her head and chest in exactly the same formation they were currently in, in the real world. He breathed in, breathed out and glowed blue with the Avatar State, pushing an image of her real-life self into her brain.

Azula broke the connection instantly, stumbling backwards against the wall of the Throne and breathing heavily. Aang groaned as the Throne Room shuddered and his vision tore. He watched, terrified, as locks of Azula’s hair feel from her face. Her skin rapidly grew unhealthily pale and her eyes clouded over. She was clutching at her chest, breathing heavily and what little emotion he could see in her heavy eyes was overwhelming fear.

Aang swept forward, grabbed a firm hold on her arm and hauled her up. He grabbed hold of her face and forced her to look him in the eyes.

“Azula!” he commanded. “Ignore it. That isn’t you! Not really. Don’t give in to that! Remember who you are!”

“That’s me?” she whispered, more to herself than to him, true horror lacing her voice. “How can that be me? How could I become that?”

“You haven’t!” he told her. “Not yet! Not really! Not as long as this you exists! The real you!”

She was sliding down the wall now, becoming limp in his grip and he was forced to grip her with both arms to hold her up.

“That can’t be me. That can’t be real.”

Wincing at what he was about to do, Aang reeled back and slapped her hard across the face. For a moment, the real her returned, righteous anger in her eyes.

“You’re the Crown Princess of the Fire Nation, Azula!” he cried. “The Firebending Prodigy! You’re the woman who killed the Avatar! Don’t you dare give in to that pathetic husk of a woman, Azula! Azula!”

It was slow and gradual, but Aang could sense an immediate change. He felt her strengthen beneath his grip and saw her eyes clear. She began to stand up, shrugging off his hands as she did and, as he watched, thick locks of hair regrew, returning to the luster and perfection it had been. The Crown Princess Azula had returned. Aang breathed a sigh of relief.

What,” she hissed, “was that?”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, stumbling back and breathing deeply. That had been too close. “I wanted to prove I was real, that I was here to help. That was too much.”

“Was that really me?”

The desperation was gone from her voice, but he could still hear the all-consuming fear in her voice. Azula had always been an obsessive person when it came to control and perfection. Be it her appearance, her skills or her actions, anything less than perfect was unacceptable. To be subjected to the reality that she had broken, that she had lost…he wasn’t surprised at the fear he felt radiating off of her.

“What do you remember?” he asked gently.

She narrowed her eyes and furrowed her brow, her eyes flitting back and forth in remembrance. “Zuzu and the Water Tribe peasant came to attack me,” she told him.

Aang’s eyes fluttered in annoyance at her description of Katara but he would let it slide.

“I challenged Zuko to an Agni Kai.” As she spoke, an image formed beside him, hazy and unclear. It was as foggy as her memory of the event, but Aang could see enormous plumes of flame, stretching dozens of feet into the sky. One blue and one orange. Zuko and Azula’s battle. It was beautiful, Aang had to admit. On their best of days, Azula and Zuko were monstrously powerful Benders. Offset by the power of the Comet, their flames had touched the skies. Even Aang’s Firebending had not burned like that on the day of the Comet.

“I cheated. Struck at the Waterbender when she wasn’t expecting it.” The image shifted, showing an image of Katara, battered and burned as a bolt of lightning arced towards her, only to be intercepted at the last moment by the scarred prince. “Zuko took the blast for her. Then that peasant overpowered me and left me in chains.”

“Easy with the peasant talk,” Aang warned her, having reached his limit.

She rolled her eyes at him and he sighed.

“Anything else?” he pressed.

She averted her eyes, desperately racking her brain to try and remember. “No,” she admitted shakily. “That’s my only clear memory of my time in the Capitol. The rest is…fragments. It’s…not good.”

Slowly, she slid down the wall, coming to rest with her knees pulled up close to her chin. Her eyes, though clear and alert, were clearly haunted by whatever it was she was seeing. He had never seen her like this. Never even imagined her to act so…childlike.

Aang sighed and approached, seating himself beside her. “Before the Comet, Ozai made you Fire Lady after he started calling himself ‘The Phoenix King’,” Aang snorted at the name. “For this reason or that – call it stress or fear or anger or all of those things – you couldn’t take it. Your mind fractured and you went insane.”

She breathed out a shaky breath. “That’s,” she hesitated, “not possible.”

Aang gestured to the high walls around them. “This room and you represent the last version of your true self. Outside these walls is…not pleasant. Believe me, I had to go through it to get here.”

“Why are you here?” she demanded, turning to look at him.

“I told you,” he sighed. “I’m here to help you, Azula.”

She scoffed. “Why would you do that? I’ve never done anything remotely…nice to you.” The word felt foreign on her tongue.

“It’s not about what you have done,” he commented. “It’s about what you could do. I believe you can still find a place in the world, Azula. And not as its conqueror. Your brother’s working to restore the balance your family upset. You could do the same.”

She snorted. “I am not my brother.”

“You’re not,” he agreed. “And you never will be. But that doesn’t mean you can’t play your part.”

She didn’t respond for a time and Aang patiently waited for her to admit that he was right. He rolled his eyes when she never did.

“Or I can leave and let you slowly descend into madness until there’s nothing of the real you left,” he suggested.

She bent her head and sighed. “Fine,” she said dryly. “I’ll try and be a good girl.”

Aang shrugged. “Right now, I don’t really care what you do with your life. I’m just concerned with making sure you have one.”

She looked at him oddly. “So, what’s your plan oh great and powerful Avatar?”

He raised his hands, gesturing towards herself as he did. “May I?”

She eyed the appendages hesitantly, as if they were angry vipers, ready to strike. He didn’t blame her. It hadn’t exactly gone well the last time he’d used this technique.

“It’ll be fine. I promise.”

She wrinkled her nose at him. “Fine.”

Aang pressed his hands into their proper place and glowed blue with the power of the Avatar State. No horrible images or great emotions overcame her, nor did any great feeling of health or happiness. It was, all things considered, rather awkward. Here she sat with the Avatar, a boy two years younger than her, with his hands pressed against her head and chest as he glowed with some otherworldly spiritual power. She had no idea what he was doing but she hoped he’d be done soon.

As she thought this, the glow of his power faded, and he pulled back, sighing unhappily. “This is going to be harder than I thought.”

“I didn’t exactly think it was going to be easy,” she commented dryly. “What’s the problem?”

In response, Aang shuffled himself to his left, stopping when he sat directly across from her. He slid his legs into a lotus position and motioned to her to do the same. She narrowed her eyes at him, making her opinion clear on the subject but relented under his heavy gaze, folding her legs into the unfamiliar position.

Now clearly uncomfortable, she demanded, “What is the point of this!?”

Aang cleared his throat. “In order to heal your mind, you’re going to need as strong a spirit as possible.”

“I thought you were healing me here,” she snapped.

Aang shrugged. “I’m more of a guide than anything else. I can give you the tools to get to the door and even help you find the keys, but the real work is up to you.”

She blew a stray hair out of her vision irritably. “Lovely.”

“Anyway,” Aang hesitated. “In order to get out of here, you’re going to need to connect with your true self in a way you probably never have.”

“What does that mean?”

In response, Aang reached across and began poking her in her stomach, her heart, her head and even her throat. She shirked away from his touch, angrily batting away his invasive hand. He withdrew and smiled at her.

“Did Uncle Iroh ever tell you about chakras?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes. “I’m sure the old fool mentioned them once or twice.”

He wrinkled his nose at her choice of words but persisted nonetheless. “Well yours are all blocked,” he explained. “If you want to get out of here, you’ll need to open them. And that’s not an easy process.”

“Why?” she demanded. She began to make wild and mocking gestures as she talked. “What do my Chakras and my spiritual energy have to do with healing me?”

“We’re trying to cure literal insanity here,” Aang deadpanned. “It’s not easy. To do it we have to get to the core of why your mind broke. Opening your Chakras will lead you to that truth. And give you the strength to overcome them.”

She rolled her eyes at his spiritual explanation, not really knowing what she had expected. If there was anything Zuko and she had ever shared, it was disdain for their Uncle’s emphasis on the importance of the spirits. She knew they existed, of course – some even lived here in the physical world – and she had heard stories of Fire Sages making the journey to the Spirit World. She had even paid attention enough to her Uncle’s babbling once or twice to know that she had within her several wells of spiritual energy. She supposed those were the Chakras the Avatar was referring to.

Best to get it over with, she supposed. “So, what does this entail?”

“Truth, mostly,” he replied. “You’ll need to connect more deeply with the truths of your life than you ever have before. And you’ll need to accept that you might not like the answers.”

“You’ve done this before.” It wasn’t a question.

He nodded, “A Guru living in the Eastern Air Temple helped me unlock mine so that I could access the Avatar State at will.”

“Did it work?”

He nodded again and then smirked. “Until a certain Princess killed me.”                                        

Never one to show remorse, Azula met his smirk with a far more wicked one of her own. Aang found himself shaking his head mirthfully. Wickedly evil or not, one had to admire Azula’s confidence.

He sobered. “This isn’t going to be easy, Azula. And once we start, we can’t stop. Believe me on that. But when it’s over, you’ll have the strength to take control of your life again. I promise.”

Azula looked at him pensively for a long moment, a million thoughts flitting through her head. Was she willing to do this? To take help from her most hated enemy? And for what? An uncertain future in a world that she didn’t know anymore? What did she have waiting for her in the world now? What did the world have to offer her? Or, perhaps, that was the wrong question. The Avatar had made it out like she could be some great force of change in the world. That she could, like her dear older brother, help restore the balance her family had upset. Azula would be the first to admit that she didn’t really know what that meant or even if she believed in it. But perhaps that didn’t matter. Perhaps she just ought to be asking what she had to offer the world.

She sighed. “You know how to do this, right?”

Aang scratched at the back of his head sheepishly. “Well, I’ve only done it once, but I remember the basics. I’m sure I’ll be able to help you anyway. As long as you’re completely honest with me. And, more importantly, yourself.”

“Is there a difference?” she deadpanned.

“In this? Not really.”

She rolled her eyes again but nodded. “I’m ready.”

Aang breathed in a deep breath. “We’ll begin with the Earth Chakra. It’s located at the base of the spine and is blocked by fear. So, Azula, what are you afraid of? What terrifies you more than anything else?”

“Platypus Bears,” she responded easily.

“Azula,” he chided her.

“It’s unnatural for a mammal to lay eggs!” she defended so viscerally he almost believed her. Almost.

Aang groaned. “This is going to take long enough without you goofing around.”

“Are you actually admonishing someone on being childish?” she asked incredulously, a hint of a wicked grin on her face.

Azula!”

She sighed, her confidence faltering. She closed her eyes, slumping slightly in her lotus stance. “I’m afraid of that woman,” she whispered.

“What woman?”

“The woman you showed me!” she cried. “That shell of a woman, consumed by madness and insanity. I don’t ever want to be that! I don’t ever want to lose myself like that!”

Aang knew the most important thing he could do during this ordeal was remain calm and ordered. Emotion like Azula had never felt before was going to flow today, fast and uncompromising. He would have to be the rock she could grab hold of in the flow or else this entire exercise would be for not. Being the guru in this exercise was tiring.

“That fear is understandable,” he told her. “But also encouraging.”

She looked up at him questioningly, not understanding. He smiled at her.

“Don’t you see? That all-consuming fear that you will turn into that? That’s proof that you won’t. Proof that you will find the strength within you to defy that woman. Just like you’ve found the strength to defy everything else in your life.”

Her brow furrowed, and she smiled. He was right. She had slipped up, she would admit.She had lost sight of who she truly was and allowed that psychotic shadow of her true self to take control. But never again. That was the very reason she was humoring him in this exercise, after all.

Aang felt a great flow of energy release within her.

“Well done,” he complimented.

She smiled all the wider and sidled deeper into her lotus position. “What’s next?” she demanded, looking across at him eagerly.

He smiled at her energy. Perhaps this wouldn’t be as hard as he thought. But not he needed to be the teacher again. There were many Chakras to go.

He closed his eyes, collected himself and continued. “The Water Chakra,” he told her serenely. “It’s located in the sacrum and is blocked by guilt. What are you guilty of, Azula? In your heart of hearts. In the middle of the night, what guilt keeps you up?”

He sensed a great trepidation from her, as well as frustration and annoyance. Opening his eyes, he could see her face was scrunched up in discomfort. Her lotus position had hunched and shrunken into itself.

“Problems?” he asked her.

She sighed and opened her eyes, re-straightening his back as if ashamed to show such an improper form in front of him. Her golden irises were laced with annoyance. “You have met me, yes? I’m not exactly one to feel guilt, Avatar.”

“I told you, you would have to be honest with yourself, Azula,” he said firmly. “Lying to yourself will accomplish nothing. It’s why your Chakras are as blocked as they are. Frankly, I don’t think you’ve been honest with yourself a day in your life.”

He spread his hands peacefully. “Everyone feels guilt, Azula. However much you may want to be a heartless, emotionless monster, you are human. And that means you’re guilty of something.”

He saw her deflate. The harshness of her face softened, and the annoyance left her eyes, replaced by a distant sadness. He felt a great swell of empathy for her. He had been in her position not too long ago. He knew what facing these kinds of truths could do to a person. And he knew that however hard he had, had it, she would have a more difficult time. His own faults notwithstanding, Azula had committed truly heinous acts in her time. Acts she would have to answer for today.

“I hate my mother,” she told him. Then louder, she said again, “I hate her! Even the memory of her makes me angry and….and sad. I hate the woman who gave me life. Who held me as an infant and rocked me to sleep. I hate her for not loving me like she loved Zuko.”

“And,” she hesitated, her voice shaky for a moment. Then it passed, and she was the same, strong woman she always was. “And I hate that I hate her. I’ve never shied away from my title of monster. But, really. What kind of person hates their own mother?”

Aang felt something brush at the edge of his awareness. It was a memory, laced with pain and suffering, but it wasn’t his. He furrowed his brow as the details of it passed into his knowledge. He wasn’t seeing it per se, as much as remembering it. It was an odd sensation to remember a memory that wasn’t yours. “You’ve been running from this guilt all your life, Azula,” he told her when the inertia of the experience had passed. “Pretending it doesn’t exist and pushing it farther down. It’s no wonder it began to eat at you.”

Aang remembered from his time at school that the best teachers used visual aids, and so he grabbed at the foreign thought and commanded it to materialize. Beside them, the vision of the throne room blurred, smudging and sweeping like a paintbrush had been swabbed over reality itself until it cleared into a crystal image of Azula, haggard and crying, in front of a shattered mirror that still held the image of her mother.

No, Azula. I love you,” Ursa told her daughter softly. “I do.

“Stop this!” Azula demanded, her voice shrill. “How do you even know this happened!? What is this!?”

“I’m in your head, Azula,” he told her, remaining calm. He saw her eyes flare in righteous anger. “I’m not prying, but heavy emotions like this are connected to memories. This is your most recent and vivid memory of your mother. I’m just seeing what you’re remembering.”

“It was a lie!” she hissed angrily.

“It was the truth that you’ve been denying your entire life,” he countered firmly. “Your mother loved you. She still does wherever she is.”

A single tear escaped Azula’s eye, trailing down her cheek and staining her porcelain skin much like the energy that now flowed through her opened chakra. Aang smiled as she angrily wiped at the offensive tear, smearing it away.

“I hope the next one is easier,” she whispered.

Aang chuckled uneasily. “Yeah,” he drawled out, “afraid not.”

She hung her head. “Get on with it,” she commanded.

“Next, we have the Fire Chakra,” Aang explained, pointing to her stomach. “It’s located in the stomach and is blocked by shame.”

Aang saw Azula wince silently. He had suspected this one wouldn’t be easy.

“What are you ashamed of, Azula?” he asked simply.

For the first time, the girl did not bounce around the subject. No angry snipes or quick jokes. Her head was hung low, and her eyes were closed, but he could see them fluttering silently beneath her lids.

Quite suddenly she looked up, opening eyes that reflected true shame. “I failed,” she told him.

For once, the boisterous Avatar didn’t say anything, prompting her with silence.

“I failed my country, my father, my ancestors. I failed myself.” Her voice grew more strained as she spoke. “I failed to beat Zuko and the…and the Waterbender. I failed as Fire Lady. I failed to keep the Capitol safe. I failed to stop you a dozen times. We lost the war because of me. I am ashamed to have failed.”

“That failure is not your fault,” he told her, prompting her to roll her eyes. “You were a Firebending prodigy. The Crown Princess Azula who was, in every way, the best. But you were also a fourteen-year-old control freak with abandonment issues.”

Aang witnessed her almost break position. He saw the tensing of her legs, poised to jump and the slight movement of her arm, eager to blast him with as much fire as possible. He respected that she managed not to break formation.

She settled for a hissed, “Watch it.”

Aang had to smile. “You were put into a position of power you couldn’t handle.” He raised a hand to forestall her outrage. “Don’t you see, Azula? Your father didn’t care about the Capitol. He didn’t care about you – as the Fire Lady or his daughter. He didn’t even care about the Fire Nation. He gave you the position of Fire Lady to placate you and keep you out of the way of his true plan. You were meant to fail, Azula. Because, to Ozai, it didn’t matter if you did or not. By the time Sozin’s Comet arrived, Ozai couldn’t have cared less about power or the war. He wanted destruction and death and pain. It didn’t matter to him if you were included in that.”

Azula swallowed a deep lump in her throat and looked away from him even as her Fire Chakra unlocked. He could feel the flow of its energy, helping to soothe away lifelong pains. Though, she clearly didn’t agree with that assessment. “I thought this was supposed to be a cleansing, healthy experience,” she snapped bitterly. “All I’m feeling now is…pain.”

“The best things in life require sacrifice,” Aang told her sagely. “For now, just accept the pain as proof that you’re still alive and you’re still you.”

For a long moment, she wanted to lash out at him, throw his lesson back in his face and be done with this pointless exercise. His words had brought her only misery so far, drudging up memories of pain and abandonment. Yet, she could not deny what she was feeling deep within herself. A release of long pent up energy that she had never realized was there. It was flowing out of her even now. But, more importantly, it had made her aware of the buildup. She could feel it in the other Chakras, full to burst and clawing at her mind and spirit. He had been right. Once started, this could not be stopped. Azula breathed out a shaky breath, nodded and reaffirmed her posture. Silently, she inclined her head for him to continue.

“The Air Chakra,” he said. “Located in the heart and blocked by grief. Grief is a powerful emotion. It can override all others. It can change who you are as a person. Who do you grieve for Azula?”

Azula scoffed. “No one,” she told him.

“Azula –”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Avatar,” she cut him off, “but my life hasn’t exactly been hard. I’ve never lost anyone except a cousin whom I never met and a mother who…”

Aang narrowed his eyes at her.

She shook herself. “I don’t grieve for her. As for my father…the man was a bastard. I don’t miss him, and I hope he rots well in whatever cell my dear brother locked him in.”

“What about Zuko?” Aang questioned.

Azula raised a sharp eyebrow at him in confusion. What was he getting at?

“Do you grieve for him?” he asked her. “For the brother you never knew?”

She rolled her eyes. Once, she had relished in the assumptions of the simple fools who looked at herself and her brother. Now, she just found them annoying. “I knew him better than anyone. Better than even himself. And besides, Zuzu isn’t dead.”

“Grief doesn’t have to relate to the death of a person,” he explained. “It can be the death of relationship. Or a concept. Or…”

It came to Azula then, suddenly and unexpectedly. She had lost something. Something near and dear to her. “A nation,” she supplied, earning a strange look.

“A nation,” he agreed slowly.

She wrinkled her nose, well aware of his opinions on the matter. Nonetheless, she persisted. “My nation is dead,” she said lowly and bitterly. “That nation I was born into. The nation that raised me, that trained me, that gave me my ideals. The great Fire Nation is gone.”

Aang shifted slightly where he sat. To say that was a dangerous position was an understatement. If nothing else, such a mindset constituted treason under her brother’s rule. And, though dedicated to helping her, Aang would be the first to admit that Azula was dangerous. If she came out of this psychotic stupor only to fall right back into her old ways, it would be for naught. He didn’t want to pull her out of this mental prison only to throw her into a physical one. He had to try and direct her towards a better viewpoint.

“The Fire Nation was great,” he told her slowly, hesitant to continue, “a long time ago.”

Her head shot up dangerously, her eyes narrowed, but he continued, not allowing her to reply.

“In the time of Avatar Roku and before, the Fire Nation was a great country. Peaceful, prosperous, hard working. They held great power but respected it. Their people were fast living but kind. They cherished life – their own and others.” He sighed. “But a hundred years of war and bloodshed and death has perverted what the Fire Nation was. You understand that don’t you?”

She made a noise of disgust. “The war was necessary,” she defended. “We were the greatest nation on the Earth! Not the savage Water Tribes or the stubborn Earth Kingdom. The Fire Nation alone could spread a prosperous and peaceful life to the entire world!”

“Is that what they did to the Air Nomads?” he asked her softly.

For the first time, Aang saw Azula falter, truly at a loss for what to say. “A necessary evil,” she nonetheless maintained. “They would have stood in our way. You would have stood in the war of our righteous war.”

“Do you think the Hundred Year War was the first war of its kind? My people recorded histories from thousands of years ago. Countless wars have been waged across the centuries. Sometimes under the guise of ‘spreading a way of life’ and sometimes for ‘cultural differences’. It doesn’t matter in the end. War is waged for one reason, Azula. And that’s power. The Fire Nation wanted more power. Sozin wanted more power. And he knew I wouldn’t let him upset the balance to get it, so he wiped out an innocent group of nomadic monks. You can’t claim that’s right!”

She growled. “You said yourself the Fire Nation had a rich culture!” she snarled, pointing at him viciously. “A vibrant culture worth sharing!”

“I don’t refute that,” he told her calmly. “The sharing of culture is important. Ideas, innovations and thoughts need to be shared, lest the world stagnate. But the Fire Nation wasn’t sharing its culture, it was forcing it on the world. Shoving it down their throats and wiping out centuries of culture and history in the process. They had no right!”

“We had every right!” she exclaimed. “We were the greatest and most powerful country on the Earth! The strong should rule! That is the way of things!”

“No!” he cut her off firmly, somehow standing taller from his seated position. “Not while I am here. The Fire Nation overstepped, and in doing so upset the balance of the world. They tarnished their great culture and created a blemish on their history that will never be forgotten!”

“Then that is my grief, Avatar!” she cried. “I grieve for the nation I served wholeheartedly and happily!”

Aang took a deep breath. Perhaps he shouldn’t have brought up the Air Nomads. It had been a good argument but one that was close to home. He couldn’t afford to get heated in this debate. These were, after all, long held ideals for her.

“That nation still exists,” he told her, calmer now. “The Fire Nation can be great again. It will be great again. Zuko works tirelessly everyday to bring it about. He is leading the Fire Nation into an era of peace and prosperity that hasn’t been seen for over a hundred years.”

Azula rolled her eyes, blowing lightly at a stray hair that had fallen into her vision. “Zuko,” she scoffed, a lifetime of opinions laced into that one word.

“He’s not as weak as you think he is,” he told her.

She looked at him oddly. “I never thought he was weak,” she responded.

Genuinely taken aback by that, Aang was at a loss for what to say. Deciding it was probably best not to tread into those very complex waters, Aang shook himself of the thought. It took him a moment to remember exactly where he’d been going with this. “Azula, the Fire Nation has a future. It has that future with or without you. But ask yourself: isn’t it better to be a part of that future? To have a hand in shaping the future of your nation. The Fire Nation can still be great, and you can help make it that way! Let go of your grief for a failed nation of warmongers and hatred. Embrace your love for the prosperous country that will take its place.”

She glared at him viciously, even as she desperately tried not to feel the greater flow of energy within herself as another chakra opened. This went against everything she had been taught. It contested with ideologies that were so deeply ingrained within herself, they practically made up her moral code. But then, she thought, hadn’t that self same moral code gotten her into the inescapable predicament she was currently in. She growled, furious at herself.

“I’m tired of this,” she told him. “How many more of these are there?”

“Three,” he told her simply. “And they won’t be easy.”

She scoffed, annoyed. “None of this has been easy.”

Aang cleared his throat. “The Sound Chakra is located in the throat and is blocked by lies. This one will be especially hard for you, Azula. It requires the utmost truth. These aren’t lies you’ve told me or your brother or your friends or your country. These are the deep seeded lies that you have lived with your entire life. The lies you’ve convinced yourself are true, for fear of what they may reveal. Azula, what lies do you tell yourself?”

She grimaced. “This is ridiculous!” she growled. “What purpose is there to this!? This is just a stupid fairytale your wayward monks told you! Everyone lies to themselves! How will acknowledging it bring anything but pain!?”

Aang shrugged, allowing her cruel remark to slide off of him like water. “I would argue this is the most important Chakra of any of them, actually. Lies are dangerous things. They’re like fire in a way. Pay too little attention to them and they can outgrow you and escape your control. None more so than those you tell yourself. They’re like chains, tying you to the past – to the person you used to be. Azula, you cannot truly move on into the next phase of your life until you have broken those chains. Remember, the pain means you’re alive.”

Those words resonated with her, and she sighed shakily. “I’m still me,” she whispered to herself.

She took in a great breath and breathed it out, much firmer. Her back straightened and she looked into his eyes. “My father didn’t love me,” she told him. “And, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t love him.”

Aang blinked at her confession. He really didn’t know what to expect from the girl. but it hadn’t been that. It was funny how the lines of one’s life entwined and twisted. A few Chakras ago he had been reassuring her that her mother did, in fact, love her. And now she was confessing to him – in such a matter-of-fact voice that he did believe her – that her father had never loved her.

Aang sighed inwardly. Being a guru was hard.

“He loved what I was,” she explained in a bored voice, masking pain. “The perfect, prodigy Princess who never failed and always won. He loved my skills, my drive, my…motivations. But me? He never even knew me.”

She wilted into herself.

“I’m starting to think I’ve never known me,” she whispered.

Aang felt he ought to do something, offer a word of comfort or a placating touch, but on a different level he knew she wasn’t done with what she had to say and that she wouldn’t appreciate it, regardless. He let her continue.

“As for me, I never loved him.” She sighed, seemingly irritated with her own words. “Zuko was right. He was a monster. He didn’t have the capacity to love or be loved. He saw people as tools to use and discard as he pleased. I loved the attention he gave me – and the attention he denied Zuko. I loved the power I inherited from him and the skill. But I couldn’t care less for the actual man.”

A great current of energy seemed to overtake her. “And rightly so!” she exclaimed so suddenly she startled the passive Avatar. “I found my strength without him! Real strength that I can rely on! I don’t need him or his false platitudes. I am my own person and I have outgrown him!”

Aang blinked at the overflow of energy he felt from her. He beamed proudly. She had unlocked her fifth Chakra without any assistance from him. She clearly felt it as well, pausing in her tirade to rub lightly at her throat. Her gaze was distant and contemplative.

“You’re getting the hang of this,” he complimented.

“We’re almost done yes?” she asked. “Two more?”

He nodded.

“Then let’s get on with it,” she commanded. “I’m ready to leave this hell.”

He narrowed his eyes at her lightly but shrugged it off. Leaning forward, he pressed two fingers gently to her forehead. Her eyes cut upwards, glaring at his hand, but she remained firm in her lotus position. “The Light Chakra is located in your forehead,” he told her, withdrawing his hand, “and is blocked by illusion.”

“Illusion?” she echoed, confused.

“Very similar to the lies we went over in the previous Chakra,” he explained. “These are issues, events, ideas or notions present in your life…that aren’t actually present. Things you’ve convinced yourself are real but are, in fact, just an illusion.”

“So, what’s the difference between this and the lies I just had to root through?” she complained.

“The lies are deep rooted,” he defended. “They have an affect on who you are, and your relationship with them is completely one sided. It’s up to you, and you alone, to uproot them. These illusions, however, are surface level. They’re issues that affect your life but are, generally speaking, easily rectified.”

Seeing that she was still confused on the subject, Aang continued. “The Guru I studied under used the example of the Four Nations. We see them through a veil of separation because that’s the way the world has told us to see them. But we’re all the same people, the same species. In perfect harmony, just like the elements. Do you see?”

“I think so,” she said slowly.

“So,” he drawled, “what falsehood have you convinced yourself is real?”

Clearly deep in thought, it took her a long moment to reply. “Zuko,” she said.

Aang furrowed his brow. Her answers continued to surprise him. “What about him?”

“All my life, I have acted as if there was this insurmountable divide between us. First it was the love of my mother, then the approval of my father, then it was the challenge of capturing you.” Aang tried not to look offended. Honestly, he wasn’t sure if ought to be pleased or not. “But Zuko is my brother. He always has been. I can remember him reaching out a hundred times. Trying to play with me when we were little, trying to comfort me when I got hurt, trying to teach me his pathetic Firebending basics when he started practicing. I shoved his hand away every time. Zuko is my brother. But I have never been a sister to him.”

A memory that was not his tickled at him. He could see a beach, a party, a fire and…the house he and his team had stayed at in the days before the invasion. Zuko and Azula’s family house.

“That’s not true,” he told her. “Ember Island.”

Evidence of her progress here today, she took his knowledge of that trip in stride. She scoffed. “I was as much a heartless bitch there as I was everywhere else. Zuko was…angstier than usual. All down about not knowing his place in the world and I just…rubbed salt into his wound.”

“Whether you realize it or not, Azula, you helped him,” he said, a dozen more memories tickling at him of Zuko’s time in the Royal Palace before he ran to help the Avatar. “You comforted him in your own way, protected him from himself and, whether you meant to or not, your actions helped him find his way in the world. You helped him find his peace.”

Real tears had welled up in her eyes now, the first he had ever seen her shed. She was crying, really and truly, though it was a silent cry. Aang would bet his bending that Azula had never and would never sob in her life.

“I’m not saying you’ve been a good sister,” he said evenly. “You haven’t been. But you have always been and always will be his blood. There’s a future waiting for you where that relationship can grow and thrive.”

“He’ll never forgive me!” she whispered harshly.

“I am in here because of him,” he told her. She looked up at him in shock. “In the real world, you’re residing in a luxurious room in the palace, watched over and cared for all hours of the day. He visits you as often as he can. He let me try to help you. He’s waiting for you, right now. Out in the real world, ready to welcome you back.”

“He doesn’t trust me.”

“No, he doesn’t,” he agreed. “But he will one day. If you’re willing to close the divide.”

The energy of her sixth Chakra flowed along with her tears and Aang breathed a sigh of relief. There was only one to go now and Aang was nervous about it. He had never fully opened his seventh Chakra. In fact, he’d had it completely locked from him until physical trauma forced it back open. It had been unpleasant and hard, and he still had not found the time to properly repair the damage that had no doubt been done to him.

None of that mattered now, of course. This was about Azula.

“There’s only more Chakra to go. The Thought Chakra. It’s at the crown of the head and is blocked by earthly attachments. For me, this was about letting go of the things that bound me to the world. I’m the Avatar. My first and only duty is to keep the balance of the world. I had to let go of the people I loved in order to protect them. For you, it will be different.”

“How?” she demanded.

“Have you noticed a theme of our exercise here today?”

She looked at him with an annoyed expression, seemingly ready to snap at him. She stopped herself though, aware of the fact that none of his words had been pointless today. Rolling her eyes, she thought on it, and shook her head.

“New life,” he explained. “Today has been about letting go of and putting to rest the old you. The Crown Princess Azula is almost gone, but there’s one more part of her you have to let go of. And it’s a big one.”

He took a deep breath.

“Azula,” he asked her, “what attaches you to your hate?”

“My hate?” she echoed, confused.

“Every time we’ve fought, reflected in your eyes is a pure and dangerous hatred. It’s what fuels you and powers you. I know because it used to power your brother as well. It could be hatred for me, Zuko, the world or even yourself. I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter anymore. You’ve already let go of the things you attached the hate to. Now you need to let go of the hate itself. So, what attaches the hate to you? What is its source?”

She hesitated. “My father –”

He raised a hand to stall her, ignoring her furious glare. “I don’t care about it’s destination. What is its source? What created the hate in the first place? Why are you still holding on to it?”

“I’m the Princess,” she said as if that explained everything. “Crown Princess Azula, the prodigy. I had a world’s worth of expectations put on to me from birth and they tripled when Zuko was banished. I had to be powerful. I had to be the best. I had to be unstoppable. Because if I wasn’t, I was worthless. I would have been cast out. I hated it. The expectation, the conditions. I hated that my place in the world was conditional. And that hate gave me my strength. Strength I used to be the best and stay at the top. Then…then I suppose it just became a cycle. I started to hate because I needed to. Because I was expected to.”

“Those expectations are gone now,” he told her softly. “There’s no one left who wants anything from you other than to come back and be yourself. Your father is in prison, your mother is gone and Zuko is waiting to welcome you back with open arms. You don’t need your hatred anymore.”

He could feel it. The tidal wave of energy locked away behind her Seventh Chakra was battering at the weakening walls. He could feel it, desperate to break free and he knew she could feel it too. Standing, he walked over to her and offered her his hand. The final step in finishing this.

She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. “What kind of life can I expect out there?” she demanded. “After what I’ve done and been.”

“I don’t know,” he answered honestly. “But please…let me give it to you.”

She gazed at him for a long moment and he almost feared she would say no. But then she took her hand and he pulled her up as her Seventh Chakra opened.

Azula had returned.

Chapter Text

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.