Fortunately for Zuko, the next big vexation did not arrive until the day after Katara's confrontation. Also, it came in a smaller and less high-strung package, namely, the friendly international Avatar.
Aang actually didn't know about the fight between the newly betrothed royal couple, but related concerns made him hesitate to bother the Fire Lord. Not for Zuko's sake, mind you. It was more for Aang's own skin, and the danger his maniac fiancé posed to it. Aang had decided before Iroh's series of disastrous pronouncements that the best course of action would be to take Azula's bending away just as he had done to her father, but he was not looking forward to it in the least. As afraid as he had been of Fire Lord Ozai, he still maintained a healthy apprehension of the girl who had managed to kill him, nearly permanently. Anyway, though he knew the best way to neutralize the princess bloodlessly, he wasn't eager to request permission from her brother to perform the action. Aang figured it would be a fight for his identity on a level with his defeat of her father.
Fortunately for everyone involved (except maybe Azula, depending on your point of view), Aang was completely wrong.
Still, it was a good thing he came prepared. Zuko immediately agreed to his proposition and located where his sister was kept (a strange oversight on his part, he admitted. Somehow his coronation, catching up with his uncle and new friends, and checking on his imprisoned father had seemed more pressing matters. Now that he reviewed his actions, he shuddered to think what might have occurred if she hadn't been held securely through his soldiers' initiative. It really seemed like ridiculously poor planning somewhere). They found her glowering behind a sturdy cell door, looking much as she did on the day of her defeat by Katara, hands and feet securely cuffed to prevent her bending with them. Naturally, her mouth couldn't be cuffed, and every breath she took was laced with blue hellfire as she glared at her visitors.
"Wow. That doesn't look like much fun. But weren't you afraid of getting burned when you fed her?" Aang asked, turning to the warden who accompanied them with a small detail of guards.
"Well, yes, especially since she wasn't constrained like this until we found out you were visiting. But we figured out if gave her food and water with this –" here the warden picked up a ladle with three meter long handle, with a ninety degree bend in the middle – "she couldn't spit fire at us through the door."
"That's pretty smart," Aang complimented.
"If you were to just let me out of here, I wouldn't burn you either, and there would be no need to be so clever," Azula finally spoke, each word punctuated by blue flames.
"I think you know why we can't do that," Zuko said quietly, his face drawn at seeing his little sister in such a state.
In a strange role reversal, Aang's face hardened when Zuko's softened. "It's time, Fire Lord Zuko, warden. Please set what I asked for here by the door and move your men away from the cell."
They swiftly complied, dropping off two large jars by the door before inserting the key. "Good luck, sir," encouraged one jar bearer before hastening to rejoin his detail.
"Oh, so you're going to take me on now that I'm finally just a poor girl trapped in chains? Bring it on, then!" Azula snarled at the opening door, a jet of pure fire bursting from her mouth.
However, the Avatar was not standing behind the door. He slipped through just under the lintel on a bed of air, inches above the stream of fire, and used one free hand to propel a blast of water from one of the jars towards Azula. She wasted no time in surprise under the cover of the ensuing fog, but immediately sucked in more oxygen to restart her fire. Her intaken breath was heavy enough to be heard over the circling wind quickly dissipating under Aang.
Before she could rekindle her flame, the hand Aang had used to stir up the wind snatched up a large glob of dirt and rock from the second jar and plastered it over Azula's mouth. She stared at him, her outraged cries muffled by the mud mask, breathing heavily through her nose. Fortunately for Aang, while she was a fire-bending prodigy, she was not yet a Dragon of the West, and no fire came out of her nostrils. With her hands and feet securely bound and a heavy concentration of water in her mouth covered by a protective layer of earth, she watched wide-eyed as the Avatar approached her.
After placing a finger over her head and heart, Aang's head snapped back and emitted a piercing blue glow from his eyes and mouth, soon matched by deeper orange beams from Azula's. They were still surrounded by a mass of fog, as the second-long confrontation had not allowed any time for it to dissipate. Nevertheless, the brightness from the proceedings reflected enough from the solid metal cell to temporarily blind the watchers in the hall. By the time they had regained their vision a scant three seconds later, it was all over.
Though Aang couldn't begin to imagine how Azula felt as she silently slumped in her bonds, her bending gone forever, he didn't think she was as surprised as he was. He had felt a near-indomitable will fight within him as he withdrew the bending of Fire Lord Ozai, and while he would be the first to admit that he didn't particularly know either of the two insane despots that well, he had expected the same if not a stronger will from the princess. And while it had indeed possessed great vehemence and power when he first threw his own against it, the fight didn't last. Almost immediately, he forced her will to submit to his. He just couldn't figure it out. "Maybe I'm getting better with experience," Aang reasoned aloud, as the glow faded from his Airbender tattoos.
"I certainly hope we won't have to find out," Zuko observed, stepping carefully toward the open cell, trailed by a retinue of guards.
"Now that you've made me completely harmless, you shouldn't have any trouble disposing of me. What are you waiting for, Zuko?" Azula snapped, her voice filled with the futile indignation of a straggler surrounded by wolves.
"Actually, we're just here to talk. And maybe let you out too, depending on how you take the news," Aang explained.
"News? What news? Do you mean that my bending is gone? I knew that without you telling me. I rather think you do too, since you're no longer cowering behind the door," Azula sneered at the guards.
"No, I figured you'd already heard about what happened to father, and that you'd know what was happening to you right away. What Aang is talking about is something else." Zuko paused, waiting for Aang to speak. When he didn't, the Fire Lord turned to the Avatar, and was surprised to see the boy waiting for him to continue with the exact same expression on his face. "Come on, Aang, go ahead and tell her," he urged, exasperatedly.
Aang's face fell. "Oh. I was hoping you'd tell her and I wouldn't have to," he said resignedly.
"Just hurry up and spit it out!" Azula snapped.
"Okay." With a deep breath, Aang knelt in front of the Fire princess. "It is with deepest regret I must inform you that I am your fiancé, Princess Azula. Well, for three months, anyway."
Said princess just stared at him. "Is this your idea of a joke?" she asked finally.
Aang scratched his head and laughed nervously. "Er, ha ha, I wish it was. But I was hoping that maybe, since we're supposed to be engaged and all, there'd be some way to get you out soon on good behavior so that you can pick up where you left off. Uh, I mean, where you left off before you tried to kill me and become Fire Lord."
"But why are you engaged to me? Leaving me aside, I thought you were infatuated with that little waterbender peasant."
"How did you know that?" Aang asked suspiciously.
Azula sniffed. "It was obvious."
Aang threw his hands up in exasperation. "Then why didn't Katara see it sooner?"
"Don't ask me about the stupidity of others," Azula reprimanded him sternly. "Anyway, is this some scheme of yours, Zuko? Are you binding me to this incurable pacifist hoping that he'll rub off on me? It won't work, you know. I'm pretty stubborn."
"He just took your bending away by willpower," Zuko reminded her.
"No, it wasn't Zuko's idea. It was a mistake, actually, but it's official for three months at least. There's got to be parties and other fun stuff in the meantime. I thought you might feel better out there rather than in here," Aang trailed off, glancing around the dingy dungeon.
"Hmm, well, I do enjoy parties," Azula answered dryly. "Very well. I accept. I promise good behavior for the duration of my engagement."
A familiar face popped up behind a guard. "Just because you promise doesn't mean that they trust you, Azula. You're going to be watched, you know." The white paint and ceremonial robes and fan of Kiyoshi couldn't disguise the round face, wide eyes, and acrobatic stance of the girl before her.
"I didn't expect to see you here, Ty Lee. Not from this position, anyway." Azula shifted a leg, clinking the chains attached to it. "Doesn't that uniform make your aura greener?"
"Don't worry, it's still perfectly pink," Ty Lee assured her with a smile, secretly securing something hidden in the back of her robe.
"Now that's all settled, how about we head outside?" Zuko suggested, wishing to be away from there.
He observed his sister's face carefully as she ascended the stairs, flanked by the guard detail and trailed by her former schoolfellow. He observed very carefully, but he didn't catch even a flicker of deviousness in her demeanor. It was like it had all been sucked out of her along with her bending.
But Azula had not been lying when she claimed she was a good liar. Behind her poker face there could have been thirty schemes brewing, or none at all, and Zuko could never tell. If he could, he would've definitely had second thoughts about letting her out of the prisons' darkness. But he still probably would have let her go. He's such a softie, that big brother.