“I don’t even know why you bother with trying to move it, it’s obviously putting you through more pain than it’s worth.” Azula said derisively, watching as Zuko pulled back his arm from where it’d been trying to snatch a bit of fire flakes, “Dumdum, just use your right arm.”
“I need to use my left arm.” Zuko frowned at her, his normally childish face looking hauntingly fragile in the moonlight as half of it was swathed in bandages, “Otherwise, it’s just going to get weaker.”
“It’s not getting weaker because you aren’t using it, it is weaker because it’s been hurt.” She looked down at the thin blanket covering his legs, his bony knees tenting the fabric as Zuko drew them closer to his chest.
“You don’t get it.” Now Zuko almost looked like he was pouting at her, more life in his expressions now than when she’d first stepped into the room. It still looked weird because she couldn’t see half of it, but she was adjusting to the sight. Just like how Azula was pointedly not looking at the way Zuko’s arm was wrapped up in white cloth, or how his right palm was a brilliant pink and the texture of the skin looked off, like the top layers had been melted.
Azula rolled her eyes in lieu of a response and snatched some fire flakes to eat. She’d spied on the servants who made Zuko’s food, and knew he’d been eating nothing but broth and jok ever since the Agni Kai. It’d been lucky indeed that one of the visiting generals had a fondness for the snack, and she’d been able to swipe a bag from the kitchens. Zuzu appreciated the gesture, she knew that he enjoyed food with strong flavors the most.
It’d been almost like when Azula had tamed her first mongoose lizard, the animal had been so weary of her presence until she’d presented it with food. When she’d first slipped into the room only to find her brother already awake, she didn’t miss how Zuzu had stiffened the minute she set foot on the tile or how he hadn’t said anything at all, choosing instead to watch her intensely and had only responded when she’d started speaking. Strangely enough, Zuko’s obvious fear of her didn’t feel as reassuring as it normally did.
Yes, she thought, watching Zuko munch on the crunchy snack with a pleased grin that Azula hadn’t seen in ages. This feels much better, I’ve done well. Which, of course she had picked the right thing to bring Zuko. It was her after all, she didn’t make mistakes. In fact, only she could probably make Zuzu smile like that. Azula doubted anyone else could, except maybe that fuddy duddy uncle of theirs who hadn’t left her alone after the Agni Kai. It wasn’t like her brother had any friends.
Visiting Zuko at night and making his dreadfully boring days better with her presence was just another thing that she excelled at. It made perfect sense, Azula was the best at everything she did. Tonight had been a resounding success, and she couldn’t believe that she’d been visiting only when he’d been asleep the past few weeks. This was so much more fulfilling.
The pair sat in silence for a bit. There weren’t any open windows or lit lamps in Zuko’s room, there was only the soft blue glow of her fire in the palm that she wasn’t eating with. The shadows on their faces flickered with her flames, both of them stared at the way her fire danced above her skin, perfectly controlled.
“Thank you.” Zuko broke the silence, his voice still rough from sleep. His light gold eyes stared into hers, then he awkwardly glanced at the floor, “For the flakes, I mean.”
“Your welcome.” Azula responded, but her mind was stuck on what he’d meant to thank her for before he’d backtracked. What else had she done that Zuko would feel the need to thank her for? Could he have been thanking her for visiting him?
It surprised both of them, when the cornflower blue flames along her fingers blazed, the tongues lengthening and warping into a soft lavender. Azula stared at her hand dumbfounded, too stunned by the color change to ponder what it meant. The warmth in her chest that had arisen when she considered her brother appreciating her company had yet to die down, but as a Sozin style firebender, Azula lacked the knowledge to understand what it meant.
Zuko reached a hand out towards hers, catching a bit of the purple flames and rolling them around his fingers. She recognized the look of amazement on his face, it had been a very long time since she’d seen it directed at her instead of his usual awe/jealousy combo. Her older brother then smiled at her so brightly that it felt like the sun itself had snuck into the room and embodied him.
“Wow, Lala, you have two types of fire.” Zuko beamed, his one eye crinkling before he winced and toned down his expression before his burn became more irritated, “You’re amazing, what happened?”
Hearing her old nickname made the flames become brighter still, nearing a lavender tinted white. The heat was much less than when it’d been blue, which made sense considering her blue flames were the hottest. Azula shook her head mutely, but she was slowly connecting the dots. The lavender color was from interacting with Zuko, she doubted that she’d be able to make the color change happen on her own.
“You will not tell anyone about this.” Azula ordered, narrowing her eyes at her brother and trying to hide her dismay when the flames wooshed and turned back to blue. Just as she feared, it was a volatile technique. Definitely not something that she could show Father until she got it under control.
“I promise.” Zuko nodded, looking very serious as he let the now blue flame in his hand die out. “We’ll figure it out, Lala.”
“ We will?” Azula raised an eyebrow at that, her brother seemed to have forgotten that he was currently bedridden. There would be no firebending practice for a very long time.
“Yeah.” Zuko stated earnestly, bobbing his head in agreement as much as his bandages would allow, “Together.”
The lessening of heat and switch to violet was still surprising, Azula glanced down at a shade of fire that had never been recorded before. Here was her chance, she could prove to Father that she was too useful to be thrown away
like Zuko with this new fire. And if she got to enjoy Zuko’s honest praise while she puzzled out how the purple flames worked, then it was all the better.
“Alright…” Azula nodded decisively, and raised a lavender flaming fist to clasp around Zuko’s opposite hand in a promise, the soft flames licking over both of their skin yet never even hurting either of them. “Together.”
The soothing smell of jasmine tea floated in the air. The doors to Zuko’s room had been left to stand fully opened, he greatly appreciated the fresh air circulating around him. After 3 years of being at sea and almost half a year of chasing after Aang, he wasn’t used to being inside for this long. He felt cooped up and the stuffy air of his ward room didn’t help. The smell of burn cream lay thick in the air most days. It clung to his skin and it was all he could usually smell. Zuko hated it.
Uncle smiled at him as he scowled, thinking of that terrible scent. The ornate tea set lay precariously on the lumpy surface of Zuko’s sleeping mat, steam delicately wafting up from their cups. The taste of Uncle’s jasmine tea was as comforting as usual.
He’d tried to use his left arm to hold his tea cup, but a glare from Uncle had shut that idea down. Secretly, he was grateful. The numbing creams that the nurses had used on his burns had worked too well, he hadn’t been able to move his fingers properly since the Agni Kai. Zuko knew that training with the dual dao would be hell after this, he could tell that the muscles in his left arm had shrunk.
Their conversations over tea were Zuko’s favorite part of the day, although the nights he’d been spending with Azula came as a close second. Uncle had been mindful enough to keep Zuko updated on current events, though he noticed that his father was never mentioned. He wouldn’t have minded if they’d talked about the Fire Lord. Zuko was no longer the child he once was. He would never lose himself or his honor chasing the affection of a man that threw his son away like trash.
“So the colonies have been restless this past week, the taxes on them were increased.” Uncle remarked, reading over the reports that had come in this weekend.
“Why did they increase?” Zuko asked, this had happened in his original life as well, but they’d left port too quickly after hearing of reports of an airbender in the Shi Wong Desert to ever hear of the cause.
“There has been a new kind of vehicle that has been designed, new funding is needed to create the new fleet.” Uncle replied, his brow furrowing as he set down his tea and showed Zuko plans for the prototype.
“The tank truck.” Zuko read aloud, dread filling his core as he recognized what would one day become Azula’s favorite land vehicle. Unlike traditional tanks, tank trucks had the carriage space for multiple mongoose lizards.
“It will be a great instrument for the Fire Nation.” Uncle stated gravely, lacking any of the nationalistic enthusiasm that one would expect from the ex-Crown Prince.
“Yes, it will be.” Zuko said, a solemn feeling overcoming him. While he’d been resting and drinking tea, the war had been raging on. How many people had died while he’d been living it up in the palace?
HIs pulse began to race as he thought of all the work he had cut out for him. Zuko needed to organize things, recruit new people willing to fight against the Fire Nation a full three years before Aang would crawl out of the ice to give people hope. It felt impossible, there was a harsh, throbbing pain that built up in his head the more Zuko considered how much had to be done. It felt like the worst migraine he’d ever had.
Without him meaning to, Zuko’s face crinkled in pain and slight distress. Emotion showed much more easily on his younger face, and especially around Uncle, where he felt the most comfortable.
“Prince Zuko, are you alright?” Uncle's voice which was normally gentle grated on Zuko’s ears like screeching metal.
“My head just hurts.” Zuko admitted, a little astounded by how quickly his migraine had overtaken his senses. “I think I need to be alone for now.”
Uncle nodded, and packed up his things. It was clear that he was worried for Zuko, and asked if he should send in a nurse but Zuko waved him off. After he left the room, Zuko leaned back into his pillows and tried to escape the ache in his head by falling asleep.
The palace announced that Prince Zuko’s infection had gotten worse, doctors were reporting that they’d been kicked out after failing to find a cure for it. A reward had been promised to any healer that could help the prince, more than a 1000 gold pieces were offered for a cure.
It went unsaid that a waterbender was out of the question, not that there were any left in the Fire Nation anyways. The warden in charge of the Wooden Prison wished the Southern Water Benders had lived for longer, he knew that there had been healers among those who’d been imprisoned. Among the lower ranking military officials, there were proposals of raiding the Earth Kingdom looking for waterbenders. There had to be refugee water benders, everyone knew that it wasn’t spirits that protected the Foggy Swamp from their troops out of its marshes. The weeks dragged by, and every request was denied. The generals said that nothing could be done, the Fire Lord was not ordering any actions to be taken.
Dr. Yako was frustrated, she’d been working day and night as her staff was slowly replaced by doctors and nurses that she’d never met. Women and men that had served the Royal Family for years were being dismissed, and yet she was left alone. Two months after the Agni Kai, she was no closer to the cure than when news of the infection had been broken to the public.
Prince Zuko’s skin was inflamed, there were angry stripes of red criss-crossing his flesh. He no longer stayed conscious for very long, refusing food and water as he complained of feeling weak and nauseous. The Great Dragon of the West himself had pestered her, asking what could be done for his nephew. It stung to admit that she couldn’t find a cause of the infection. Without a cause, she was stuck throwing balms and random remedies at the wound until one worked. Dr. Yako shared her fears with the General that the infection was at risk of spreading to the prince’s blood.
The public worried, anger grew at the mystery opponent who’d challenged their prince to an Agni Kai. Who were they? How dare they put the future of the Fire Nation’s life at risk! There was talk of bribing the palace servants to talk, but even after money had been offered, no information was given. Not even the palace staff knew who Prince Zuko had fought. The nobles who’d attended the Agni Kai kept their mouths shut, and stopped talking to anyone who hadn’t been there. Suddenly lesser nobles found themselves out of the fold, excluded for reasons that weren’t clear to them.
One afternoon, Iroh had heard the trademark sounds of fire blasts coming from the training yard. He’d just spent the whole day with Zuko, mostly watching his nephew sleep and conversing with Zuko when he was awake. It was hard to see his nephew wasting away, he didn’t bother with trying to move his left arm anymore and Iroh privately wondered if Zuko had lost feeling in that limb already.
The new staff that had been hired was full of strange characters, the doctors were from the colonies or from far out islands. The nurses had an interesting bed manner, and by that Iroh meant that they seemed more at home on a battlefield med tent than in a palace medical ward. Eventually Iroh had left to clear his head, trusting that Dr. Yako being on duty would ensure his nephew’s safety.
Curious, he ambled over to the balcony overlooking the training yard. In the middle of the sand covered grounds, there stood his young niece. At only ten years old, Azula was already learning how to propel herself through the air with fire blasts. There were five different instructors nearby, they watched and shouted corrections as she went through the advanced katas. It was odd, he thought, that none of them were demonstrating the technique itself.
Odder still when the whole group exited the training grounds entirely, smoke curling up into the sky being the only sign that they’d been there at all. Iroh leaned over the edge, wondering where they’d gone. It had been a long time since he’d taken the time to watch Azula’s training, most of the time he was busy orchestrating White Lotus missions or reading reports from the members scattered across the world.
Admittedly, Iroh hadn’t felt the need to check in on Azula after he’d returned from his journeys. The young princess had seemed much more comfortable with the state of things in the palace than her brother, and so Iroh had focused on Zuko instead. Looking back, he knew now that that had been a mistake. Left unchecked, Ozai’s influence over his daughter had grown and word of the princess’s cruelty was much more popular among the servants than anything about her prodigal skill in firebending.
Settling into his chair, Iroh crossed his arms and rested them over his belly. He hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep in months. Worry over his nephew had kept him up at night, he kept having nightmares that would have him awakening in the middle of the night in fear.
After the worst of Zuko’s burns had healed, Iroh was instructed by Dr. Yako to return to his own sleeping chambers. It concerned him greatly that he wasn’t able to simply wake up and check on his nephew, but Iroh made do by spending the majority of the day with him. He also made sure to drop by unannounced wherever Azula happened to be, catching her off guard with his presence more than once.
Admittedly, he was curious about his niece. She had watched Zuko be maimed while he’d looked away, but Iroh had seen the tears that she’d refused to let fall. He’d also been sleeping in the adjacent medical rooms the night of the Agni Kai, and had seen her travel in the shadows to check on Zuko in secret. It was odd, the way she refused to openly show her concern for her brother. Iroh wasn’t sure if that behavior had resulted from love or fear of Ozai. It was a wise move either way, Ozai clearly had shown what happened to children that lost his favor.
As he pondered this, the doors to the training yard burst open. The traditional wood carvings were deeply engraved into the wood, but whoever had opened the doors didn’t care about causing dents as a hollow thunk of the doors hitting the wall clearly announced. That only meant one thing. There was only one person who allowed his underlings to treat the palace with such disrespect, Iroh looked down to see his brother below him.
The robes of the Fire Lord are audaciously grand, the specific shades of red that Ozai worre were barred from anyone else in court. Iroh stared at his brother unimpressed, his general disdain for him had transformed into full blown hate after the Agni Kai. Were it not for the inevitable civil war that would break loose if he were to take the throne, Iroh would slay Ozai without hesitation. Before Ba Sing Se, Iroh had made a name for himself as a quick and merciless killer, but he’d make it slow for his brother. It’s what Ozai deserved.
The instructors were scurrying around like rats, one almost daring to shove Azula into the position that he wanted her in. Ozai sat in a luxurious and tacky chair, looking almost bored with the proceedings. Azula stood atop a pile of crates, and before one of her trainers could push her off, the eleven year old jumped into the air. Iroh felt his heart plummet as she fell, even though the blasts of fire were strong, they were not enough to soften the way his niece met the ground.
Ozai’s facial expression noticeably changed, Iroh could hear him berating her for failing all the way from the balcony. It was hypocritical, because Azula at such a young age had already surpassed Ozai’s skills at age twenty. He noticed how Azula kept herself on the ground, not daring to stand until her father was done yelling. It was when Ozai stepped forward quickly, a hand beginning to rise, that Iroh acted.
Looking back at the moment, Iroh would guess that his soul would not allow him to look away as his little brother branded another child on their knees. His feet hit the ground with a resounding THOOM, and glassy sand went flying everywhere from the fire blasts he’d set off as he left the balcony. Iroh readjusted his robes in the ensuing silence, giving a slight bow to his brother before walking up to the entire company. They all bowed, with the exception of Ozai who simply nodded in a disrespectful manner and Azula who mimicked her father from her position on the ground.
“Now, it would be rather foolish to expect such a flawed technique to be used for anything more than slowing a fall.” Iroh stated, holding one arm out to his niece as he helped her up off of the ground, subtly placing his body between her and his brother. “Who decided on such a thing?”
None of the instructors answered, but Iroh knew it had been one of them. All of the people who worked under Ozai were endlessly bidding for his favor, if risking the life of the princess was the cost then so be it. Ozai himself looked angry, but there was nothing that he could do in this situation.
“If you wanted to actually practice this, you’d need to fall into a body of water like the ocean.” Iroh continued, making direct eye contact with Azula which required him to bend down a bit. “How can you succeed if you injure yourself on your first try?”
Iroh turned to the rest of them, his gentle and hapless expression was being contrasted with the heat that he’d been letting out as a warning. He looked every bit like a slightly batty old man, were it not for the fact that he’d just surprised them all by being every bit of the Master Firebender that he’d once been.
“I’d like to commandeer the princess’s training for today.” Iroh’s tone left no room for argument, while Ozai’s face creased in obvious anger, “We’ll take a small unit of guards with us to the harbor and practice it until she gets it right.”
And with that, Iroh walked out the training yard entirely, with Azula trailing after him. After the doors closed, he turned to her and told her that he needed to stop by the medical ward to make sure that she hadn’t hurt herself when she fell. He would not have been so calm as he led Azula away from her training session had he known that it was only his presence that had saved her from being hit by his brother.
“I wonder what would happen if you tried to blast them?” Zuko suggested, watching closely as Azula’s new purple flames lit up his room. She’d helped him gather enough pillows to be propped up so he could sit up and watch her properly. The infection that Dr. Yako had told him about had weakened him greatly, and he had trouble staying awake for too long.
“In an enclosed space?” Azula raised a brow at him, and tilted her head, “They might cause scorch marks on the ceiling.”
“I’ll take the blame for that, I can say that I was trying to kill a bug.” Zuko said, he was genuinely curious about his sister’s new ability. When Ran and Shaw had showed him their fire, he’d seen so many colors in the flames, including violet. He’d been able to make multiple colors appear in his flames as well, but he’d never been able to make his fire be one pure color like Azula could.
“Or you could just say that you were practicing your firebending.” Azula smirked, and that’s when Zuko realized how bad the excuse he’d thought of was. “Dumdum.”
“Oh right, that’s much better than what I said.” Zuko mumbled, embarrassed because he wasn’t actually thirteen and yet he still had the lying ability of a child.
“Of course it is, we both know that I’m much better than you at everything.” Azula responded haughtily, and unlike when Zuko was actually this age, he could see that she was trying to make a joke.
“Yeah, you’re my favorite prodigy.” Zuko said, a slight teasing tone leaking into his voice. It had been so long since he’d been able to talk to Azula like this, he missed the relationship that they used to have. Sometimes he wondered if he hadn’t been banished, would Azula have stayed sane?
Azula tucked her hair behind her ear instead of responding, and seemed to take a deep breath to steady herself. With much less force than Sozin Style typically demanded, she whipped out a hand wreathed in lavender fire.
Like the reflection of the sun in a still pond that’s been disturbed, the flames broke into a mosaic of light. Small balls of fire danced in the air, their purple glow flickering as they moved. Both Azula and Zuko stared at them in wonder as they stayed lit, refusing to go out like most flames did without a source. Zuko couldn’t believe it, Azula had managed to make flames that could burn without being connected to their bender.
“Lala!” Zuko exclaimed, leaning as much as his still healing burns would allow and taking her hand, “Do you realize what this means?”
“Of course I do Zuzu, my flames can still burn without me.” Azula was trying hard to seem unaffected, but Zuko knew his sister better in this timeline than he’d ever known her. His little sister was just as excited by this as he was.
“No one’s ever been able to do that before.” Zuko said, a huge grin overtaking his face. “Not in the entire history of fire bending, not once has anyone ever been able to make flames burn without a source.”
Azula smiled at that, satisfaction and pure happiness shined in her face. The lights glowed brighter, equalling the brightness of the lanterns outside. Zuko felt pride warm his chest, they’d been working on the flames for a week or two and his little sister had finally been able to tap into her inner flame and make her sapphire blue fire turn into brilliant violet every time without fail. She had explained that she didn’t know what the source behind the color change was, but Zuko had his own theory.
The first time Azula had been able to make the violet flames was when she and him had been having a positive conversation. He’d noticed that when she got frustrated, the flames stayed blue but when he encouraged her then the flames were more likely to be violet. Blue fire was the hottest flames that any firebender could make, and it signified extreme power and control. However, because Azula was Sozin-trained, her fire was motivated by rage or ambition. Her purple flames in contrast were comfortably warm, they felt like holding a fresh cup of tea. They never burned Zuko no matter how close he held them to his skin, unlike Azula’s blue flames.
Privately, Zuko thought that Azula’s purple flames were a result of her softer side. The part of his little sister that had rotted away during his banishment, and had died well by the time of their Agni Kai. It was her caring side, the part of her that loved her nation with her entire being, her protective nature that drove her to mutilate a boy at Ty Lee’s school who’d dared to make fun of her friend. The flames gave off light and not much heat, it made sense to him that they were more for protection and comfort than combat like her blue fire was.
He loved them.
They made him feel like the girl he’d fought on the day of Sozin’s Comet would never exist again. It was hard to hold onto all of the anger that he’d felt at her when he was sixteen; this Azula had emotions that peeked through her mask, she laughed and made jokes, and she visited him at night to check on him. She was so young, and Zuko saw through the way that she acted. Right now his little sister needed him more than he’d ever thought possible, and it made him wonder why his Azula had dragged him home after Ba Sing Se. Was it to please Father, or was it because she had a chance to no longer be alone?
They practiced volleying the balls of fire back and forth, sometimes they tossed the flames back so fast that they resembled the tails of comets. Azula showed him a trick that Ty Lee had taught her, juggling the dazzling lavender flames in a circle. Zuko wished he could join in, but his arm was still too damaged to move it. Before the moon had reached its zenith in the sky, Zuko’s eyes were fluttering closed. The last thing he saw before he fell asleep was the comforting periwinkle glow of Lala’s flames.
Dr. Yako stared at her office, the scrolls that she’d been studying were meticulously stacked in piles according to their subject on her desk. There were different blends of burn creams placed on her shelves, all of which she had tried out on the prince’s injuries. The doctor stood in the middle of the room, taking in her messy space and how there wasn’t enough room for more than one person to be in there at a time.
Everything looked exactly as she left it, a disorganized clutter of medical paraphernalia crammed into a room close to where Prince Zuko was staying. So why did she feel like there was frost slowly spreading across her skin? Something felt off, she tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear and glanced over her shoulder at the closed door. Her office had no windows, it was more like a closet really, but no one should be able to see her right now.
Her office was a mess, this is true. Everyone knew that her normally structured space had been upset the day of the Agni Kai, servants weren’t allowed in to clean anymore because she was scared of them reorganizing her things. But there was a method to the madness, and she could tell without being able to put her finger on it that someone else other than her had been in this room.
It bothered her more than she liked to admit, especially since Yako hadn’t been able to see her wife in over a week. She kept falling asleep on her desk, waking up in the morning with the creases of her sleeves imprinted on her cheeks. Tonight was the first night she was going to sleep at home, and she’d told one of the new nurses about how excited she was to spend time with Himari. She’d just popped into her office before she left to grab a box of tea that General Iroh had gifted her, Yako had wanted to share the rare blend with her wife.
She crossed the room and looked over her desk, she’d gotten in a shipment of scrolls about blood poisoning from Summer Island this morning. She’d looked over half of them, and was planning on covering the rest tomorrow. In the unread pile of scrolls lay three from her good friend, Dr, Nata, on the causes and treatment of blood poisoning. Nata had an odd requirement for all of his scrolls to be exactly 23 fire lilies in length, it made them all the same size when one looked at them while they were rolled up. One of the scrolls was noticeably smaller than the other two.
Yako felt her heart slow as she realized what had happened. Someone had come into her office on the night that she was supposed to be absent, and had removed a large amount of the scroll’s length. It was sabotage, Nata’s notes had been changed. She grabbed all three scrolls and stuffed them into her bag, replacing them with random bone map scrolls that looked similar enough from their pile on the floor.
She made sure to leave the Palace slowly, even though she wanted nothing more than to run away. Himari would know what to do, her wife was a midwife for the wealthy, and had plenty of medical experience. It was not the first time that she’d heard of someone attempting to stop the recovery of a child, but it was the first time that it had been Yako’s patient and not Himari’s. Non-benders were often born “weak” and died in their first few months of life from complications, though everyone knew that such things were not as common as prejudiced nobles would have them believe. Her wonderful wife had been able to stop such things before, and hopefully she’d be able to help Yako figure out what was going on before it was too late for Prince Zuko.
A soft hush had fallen over the garden, the only sound was the quiet quacking of the turtleducks. The smell of dragon snaps floated on the wind, and there was a soft blanket underneath her knees. Zuko sat next to Azula, surprisingly he’d felt strong enough to walk all the way to the Royal Gardens.
Dr. Yako had escorted them to where they were having tea herself, watching in obvious pride at her patient’s newfound strength. After months of laying in bed, Zuko had stumbled quite a bit but he’d made it. It seemed as if he was finally getting better. The start of his recovery had been announced to the public, and there had been celebrations in the streets.
From across the low table sat Uncle Iroh, his stunt during her fire flight training had meant that she now received lessons from him twice a week. Constantly plunging into the sea and spending hours in the sun had darkened her skin, much to the horror of her palace aids. Instead of dining in the palace, Uncle insisted on them eating lunch at his favorite seafood restaurant. It’d been bothersome to eat in the same place as commoners, but Azula had to admit that the steamed fish was flaky and the crispy octopus was better than in the palace.
Unbeknownst to Azula, the Fire Nation was incredibly pleased to see their princess more. After the death of Fire Lord Azulon, very little had been known about her or her older brother. The way she braided her hair during training became a new trend. Crowds of people flooded the wharf to catch glimpses of her training. They were so proud of her for being only ten years old and already learning the fire flight technique. Her once light skin was now sunkissed, and her smooth hair had been turned frizzy from the seasalt. All across the nation, little girls stayed out in the sun playing for longer, for it was said that the princess herself had honey tanned skin.
Uncle Iroh had agreed to Zuko’s inane request for them to all have tea together. It wasn’t exactly like Azula could refuse, despite Zuko’s fallen position from Father’s favor and Uncle’s loss of the throne, both of them were above her in the palace pecking order. Zuzu’s lizard-puppy eye at her as he asked her to come did nothing to disguise that this tea party was a summons. These past few weeks had been the least that Azula had seen her father since she started firebending. It would be treasonous for her to think that she preferred it like this, so she didn’t.
Zuko poured tea into their small cups for them. It didn’t escape her notice how his arms shook, even though Uncle had deliberately chosen a very petite teapot for this afternoon. Though Zuko insisted that he was fine, he’d been sweating since the second round of tea and it was even hot. Today they were drinking chrysanthemum tea, because it was her favorite. Zuko had let her bully him into switching cups, after he’d spooned in the honey that she preferred of course. Her older brother knew that she liked light and sweet flavors, including the subtle smokiness of humming-bee honey.
They’d been discussing the different theatre companies’ renditions of Love Amongst Dragons. Zuko had many opinions, all of which he expressed by waving his working arm around and speaking very loudly. Azula had been staunching in favor of the Ember Island Players, just to frustrate him. The playful way that the two of them had been arguing had made Uncle Iroh chuckle. At that Zuko had glared at him, like the hot head he was, and demanded that Uncle join in on the debate.
With a slow sip of his tea, Uncle Iroh had said that he liked the Wish Valley Troupe, as their two leads had the most beautiful singing voices.
“It’s not a musical, Uncle.” Zuko explained slowly, obviously assuming that their uncle had confused one of the most legendary pieces of theatre with something else in his old age.
“It is when the Wish Valley Troupe puts it in.” Uncle replied simply, ignoring the incredulous look that Zuzu sent him.
“That’s insane.” Zuko griped, fulfilling his role as the family drama queen, “Where would they even fit in the songs?”
“They change most of the dialogue actually, it’s very interesting.” Uncle Iroh made eye contact with her, merriment reflected in his eyes.
“Perhaps we should see it for ourselves before we take your word for it.” Azula remarked, before her thoughts caught up with her mouth. It was stupid of her to be lured into feeling comfortable just from a few weeks of late nights with Zuko and training with Uncle. She was foolish to count herself as part of Uncle and Zuzu’s weird little tea-drinking and pathetically emotional
“Definitely.” Zuko nodded in agreement before she could say anything else, “Uncle, where is Wish Valley?”
“The troupe is actually going to be performing at the Caldera Theatre in about a week.” Uncle answered, winking at them both, “I can arrange some tickets for us.”
“Thank you, Uncle.” Zuko eagerly agreed, before turning to her and asking, “Would you want Mai and Ty Lee to come too?”
The tea in Azula’s cup had long gone cold, but she’d never felt more warm.
“You’re not even looking.” Ty Lee pouted at her from upside down, her bangs falling into her eyes and obscuring half of her face.
“You’re right, I’m not.” Mai answered drily, glaring at her nails. She’d chipped the polish on her new butterfly knife and now in a set of scarlet, there was a single patch of white nail.
“Maiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.” Ty Lee whined, persistently trying to get her to look up even though Mai had already discretely looked at her through her bangs and didn’t need to see her friend doing a handstand again. “Even Azula’s looking!”
“No she isn’t.” Mai looked up from her nails to where Azula was laying atop her bed, “She fell asleep over an hour ago.”
“She’s looking at me with her spirit.” Ty Lee insisted, walking over to Mai only on her hands, then balancing on one to poke her with the other, “Unlike you.”
“You’re just doing a handstand, I’ve seen you do them millions of times before.” Mai pointed out, slapping away Ty Lee’s hand from her face.
“But this one is different, I promise!” Ty Lee exclaimed, reaching out to tilt Mai’s chin up to meet her eyes.
Do you think they pushed her too hard in training? Ty Lee mouthed, concern clear in her wide grey irises. She's been falling asleep a lot.
“I doubt it.” Mai answered, careful to keep her voice consistent to how it’d been before, then mouthing I think it has to do with Zuko.
Ty Lee nodded seriously, then she pouted petulantly, “Fine. If you aren’t going to look then I’ll just sit down and be boring.”
“Welcome back to the right-side up.” Mai responded as Ty Lee sat down beside her. Covering one side with her hand and making a thumbs up with the other, she tried to convey that she’d heard Zuko was recovering.
“Glad to be back!” Ty Lee chirped, gripping Mai’s shoulder as she leaned forward and whispered into her hair, “I was worried that she’d be left all alone.”
That made Mai fall quiet, leaning into her friend as she considered how horrible it would be to be stuck in the Palace with a father willing to burn your face off. Being made the Heir would create an even busier schedule for Azula, more than she already had. Zuko had never gone to school, only learning through private tutors, and it would be the same for her friend. It would be very very unlikely that they’d ever see Azula again, it was well known that Fire Lord Ozai did not care for sentiment.
“That will never happen.” Mai replied hoarsely, reaching out to wrap her hand around her friend’s forearm in the universal sign of an Oath of Agni
“ We won’t let it.” Ty Lee agreed, completing the form. A bolt of heat flew down from their hearts and into the other’s, signifying the oath had been made. Azula slept on, unaware that her friends had sworn to protect her.
“Dr. Yako, Head Royal Doctor.” Yako stated, holding out her identification papers at the Palace Gate. The guards that had seen her every day for the past twenty years looked down at her through the slits in their helmets.
“Your permission to enter has been revoked.” The guard manning the gate itself passed the papers back to her, flames already licking at the edges.
Yako dropped them in surprise, watching irreplaceable palace documents curl up into ash on the paved road. She angrily exclaimed, “What is the meaning of this?”
“Your employment here has been terminated, and you are no longer allowed within the walls of the palace.” The guard sneered, anger clear in his eyes, “As it should be, you’ve wasted the Fire Lord’s money for months while failing to find a cure for our prince.”
Before Yako could protest, another guard came up from behind her and rested her hand on Yako’s shoulder. It was uncomfortably warm, hinting at a very painful burn if Yako didn’t stop protesting this farce.
“The prince still needs me, he was getting better and better every day!” Yako insisted, trying to twist out of the guard’s reach and feeling an all too familiar sting on her skin. The guard ignored her and tightened her hold, and Yako stopped resisting once the pain became unbearable. The smell of burnt fabric filled the air.
“Let’s go, Doc.” The guard announced, steering Yako away from the palace gate and out onto the street, “Don’t ever come back here again.”
“But what about my materials? All of my research?” Yako asked bewildered and angry that Agni hadn’t blessed her with fire and thus she could do nothing against these people. Her shoulder throbbed, and she wondered if this was her punishment for failing to protect the prince. He was now all alone in the palace, and she’d been injured in the same shoulder, most people would say such a coincidence is a sign from the spirits.
“They’ll be delivered to you.” The guard said brusquely, “Although I don’t see why a useless fool like you needs them.”
The guard turned away and walked back up the gate. It was early morning, the Sun was barely peeking over the edges of the caldera so she was mostly alone in the street. For the few people who’d seen the interaction, none came to help her. Yako trudged away from the palace, knowing that she would need Himari to help her patch up her shoulder.
Later as her wife carefully smeared burn cream on her shoulder, Yako realized that like every other person she’d been working with before the Agni Kai, she’d been fired. There was now an entirely new team of people working with the Prince, most of whom she’d never even heard of within the medical community. And she’d been allowed to work with him for months, until she’d been able to start curing the infection that had been weakening Prince Zuko.
Yako smelled a rat.
“I don’t know if I can go to the play tomorrow.” Zuko whispered, gazing up at the floating balls of purple fire. His chest felt heavy, and it took effort for him to stay awake for too long now.
Azula scoffed at that and gently flicked him on the forehead, “I’m sure you’ll be able to go. You were able to walk only a week ago, don’t be so dramatic.”
Zuko frowned, but he didn’t disagree with her. The infection took a lot out of him, and he knew that this was the worst that Father had ever burned him. It felt like when he’d gotten sick in Ba Sing Se, but even worse. Even though Azula had only been here for less than an hour, he already felt sleepy. He didn’t try to play with Azula’s new fire anymore, he only cupped it in his palm and let the warmth lovingly lick at at his skin.
They were no closer to figuring out the exact cause of the color change, but his little sister was now able to easily summon her purple flames. They’d even timed to see how fast she could switch them back and forth from blue to violet. Neither of them had been willing to discuss why they kept the new technique a secret, but both siblings knew Azula’s violet flames were not something they’d want Father to find out about until later.
“I just don’t understand why the Head Royal Doctor herself had to investigate the new cure. She has subordinates, what’s the use of her leaving to find something to make you feel better if you’re only going to get worse when she’s gone.” Azula scrowled, a pretty mix of blue and purple illuminated the room. Her fire reflected her mood, which Zuko found to be incredibly interesting.
“She probably didn’t trust anyone else to do it.” Zuko rolled his eyes, the new medical staff spoke the colonial dialect and they didn’t have minds of their own. All they did was follow Dr. Yako’s orders, and oftentimes they messed even the simplest directions up. “I mean, could you imagine any of them being able to understand the research she’s conducting?”
“That’s true.” Azula agreed, leaning back to snatch a few balls of fire from the air and extinguishing them, “They’d probably kill you with their version of a ‘cure’.”
“Yeah.” Zuko chuckled, as drowsiness stole over him, mumbling, “I think you should go, Lala.”
“You’re like a baby tigerseal.” Azula remarked, reaching out to extinguish the fire he was cradling. Zuko knew it was as far as she’d be willing to go with physical affection, the way his little sister had gripped his fingers to kill the violet flames had been unnecessary. “Always hibernating.”
Still, her hand lingered atop of his. Zuko shifted forward and ignored the way his vision temporarily swam with black dots to grip her hand in his. Softly, he bade her good night.
Azula pulled away first, sneaking out of the now dark room without a single look back. He watched the door close quietly behind her, and wondered why he didn’t want her to go. The darkness closed in, and Zuko fell asleep.
When his father had given him a “punishment” Ozai had been all for killing his son, that’s what Azula was born for anyways-- to be a spare heir. Ursa’s frivolous sentimentality had stood in the way of that, and she had offered him an alternative. To be rid of his nagging wife and senile father in one night? What more could an ambitious man such as he ask for?
She’d given him two options: a poison that worked in less than a few hours or a slow acting one, that caused a weakening in the body. Ozai had chosen the fastest option, he’d had enough of being patient. The time to strike had been right then and there. In her haste to flee the palace after, Ursa had left the majority of her things in the palace so she’d had time to say goodbye to their children. As someone fleeing for her life, his wife had no time to bring meaningless items when she could be sentimental instead.
It was ironic indeed that she’d left the slow acting poison behind. Ozai had seen the effect his worthless son had on the public, he knew they preferred the innocent weakling rather than the man who worked to protect them and got his hands dirty in the process. The spoiled people of the Fire Nation didn’t like to acknowledge the costs of their war for greatness, choosing to swallow the obvious bullshit that was their government’s propaganda rather than confront what the Fire Nation had done to the world. Of course, they didn’t mind the extra food or cheaper items that were manufactured by slave labor in the Earth Kingdom. There was always complaining about lost soldiers, but no one ever questioned how many lives on the losing side that had been stolen.
By branding Zuko, Ozai had regrettably placed himself in a position of weakness. He knew that the sight of Zuko’s scars had the potential to rally his citizens against him, which could not be allowed to happen. Sozin’s Comet was only three years away, Ozai had plans to win the war for once and for all and the Fire Nation could not afford to be fighting itself during the preparation. Luckily, he’d been able to keep details of the Agni Kai secret from the public, with only those who’d been there knowing the full truth.
He had waited his whole life to become the Fire Lord, overcoming ridiculous obstacles such as birthright and the morality of patricide. Ozai knew how to play the long game. He replaced every member of the medical staff, kept the details of his son’s injuries minimal, and played the part of a concerned father. Eventually, he had the agents he’d placed under Dr. Yako begin to slip the poison into Zuko’s food.
But that damned doctor wouldn’t just keep her mouth shut. Even though she’d been oblivious enough to look for cures to an infection that she couldn’t even find the source of, somehow Yako had been able to start counteracting the poison. That wouldn’t do, so he’d had her banished from the palace and withheld all of her research. It was easy to claim it was because he was frustrated with her for failing to cure his son, and no one questioned it.
Zuko probably could have been allowed to live for another week or two, just to distance his death from Yako’s firing. But then the news of his idiot brother attending some play with his children had reached his ears, and that could not be allowed to happen. Ozai had done serious damage, it was clear even to him that his son looked pitiful. If the Fire Nation saw what had happened to Zuko, they’d be out for blood.
He’d ordered for the last dose to be administered the night he’d heard, not even bothering to check if the deed had been done before he’d retired to his bedroom. The people he’d found were doctors that had been exiled from the Fire Nation for crimes against humanity, Ozai was sure they’d have no issue with killing his son.
The Avatar is in the Earth Kingdom, Admiral Zhao and an entire fleet of Fire Nation ships lay at the bottom of the ocean. Letting other people do the work has failed, now the Royals themselves have been assigned to the job. General Iroh had been one of the few survivors of the Northern Siege, and now it is time for the Dragon of the West to return to where he once lost everything. The Princess herself has set out to capture the Avatar, with her two right hands that are feared throughout the nation for their combat prowess.
Azula chases the Avatar across the Earth Kingdom, without the constant threat of her father hanging over her, she allows herself to relax. Uncle is handling the new plans for their attack against Ba Sing Se, the drill will hopefully pierce through the Outer Wall. If it succeeds, Uncle will be the only person in the world who has managed to bring the wall down twice.
After losing the Avatar in that backwater town, Azula realizes she’s been carrying extra baggage. She uses her reputation of being cruel and calculating to abandon the crew that Father assigned to her, claiming that just her two companions would travel much faster than a whole tank truck would. It feels so much better to be herself out here, without any prying eyes. Azula still has to follow her Father’s orders, she knows the consequences of that more than anyone on this earth, but for now; she is a teenager with her best friends on what is essentially a vacation.
They travel on foot to Ba Sing Se, where they expect to meet up with Uncle and find the Avatar. There are many people that they meet, some good like the little boy named Lee who achingly reminds all three of them of her brother, but some bad like that boy Jet who wears revenge around him like a cloak. Some towns like Gaoling are rich, with pretty paved streets and other towns are populated by those whose souls seem threadbare, with dust-caked lungs and brittle bones. It’s uncommon to meet a guy their age, it seems that all the boys have been dragged off to war. The women that are left behind are strong like their element, unbreakable and sturdy.
In a tiny town, there is a healer that gives them free dinner and a hot bath. The healer’s daughter stares at her throughout the entire dinner, it makes Azula’s face flush for reasons that she doesn’t understand. The bathtub is small enough that Azula’s elbows are above the surface when the girl bursts into the bathing area, exclaiming some nonsense about hot water. It’s when Azula realizes that Song isn’t staring at her chest, but rather the raised pink hand prints that wrap around her biceps, that Azula demands that she leaves. Looking over the grass after, Azula lets Song sit next to her without protest, it wouldn’t do to upset the girl while her friends were still bathing.
A raised pant leg reveals fire marred flesh, and Azula starts to truly understand that the actions of her Father have hurt more than just her. Song lets her run her fingers over the bumpy skin, and Azula isn’t sure if she cries more for Song or for herself. In this quiet moment, Song becomes the first person to ever touch Azula’s scars since Father gave them to her. When they leave, she commits this place to memory.
One small action can change everything. She'd been searching for something to believe in after Zuko died, locking away her purple flames and only showing her truer emotions to her friends. Perhaps finding the Avatar can bring Azula hope too.
Instead, she finds the Avatar’s bison.
It’s an easy thing, the Kyoshi warriors are not up the standards their legendary founder set. The sky bison flees, and as Azula meets up with the rest of the Fire Nation fleet and watches the captured girls descend into the dark brig of a prison ship, she finds herself questioning if that’s really a bad thing. Surely an animal of the sky would not appreciate being locked up inside of a ship. Uncle, Azula, and her friends discuss strategy with the engineers and captain of the drill. So much money had gone into building this monstrosity of machinery, her people had been bled dry by the taxes that paid for it. It needs to work, for their sake.
The drill fails, she slips and slides on muddy muck as she desperately drags an unconscious Uncle away from the wall. Ty Lee and Mai understand why she abandons the troops inside the drill, the Earth Kingdom would not hesitate to make a public example of the famed General Iroh. They flee to the sea, where the majority of the fleet had stayed. She decides that a more subtle maneuver is better suited to taking down Ba Sing Se, rather than that bull headed tactic that her father had chosen. Before an assembly of troops, she promises them to retrieve those inside the drill who’d been taken prisoner. Her speech is met with cheers, for the people love their Princess.
Wearing the Kyoshi Warriors’ robes feels strange, there’s so much fabric yet she almost feels freer in them than in her own armor. Ty Lee fits the role oddly well, and she’s lucky that the Earth King is such a fool to let strangers know of the planned invasion. Azula wins the power struggle against Long Feng, and the Dai Li are within her grasp. She has them sneak Uncle in. He requests to guard the Waterbender himself, as she’s the first person they imprison and more powerful than the generals. She’s going to need his counsel if she wants Ba Sing Se to surrender without much blood shed. Wasting Agni’s gift of life is not something she’s interested in, even if it belongs to the Earth.
It’s truly a pity that the Avatar’s companions are making that so hard. Ty Lee takes out the Earthbender and Watertribe boy, but the Waterbender and the Avatar present a major challenge in the catacombs. Ty Lee and Mai are guarding the other two, so it’s just her and uncle against them. There’s also the Dai Li and Azula is incredibly grateful that she thought to bring them along. She doesn’t think about the fact that Uncle would have never been defeated by that girl without being completely taken out, Azula has long learned to ignore the part of her that finds whispers of betrayal in every action.
In crystal caves, Azula raises a hand charged with lightning and aims it at the Avatar’s back. She feels her heart stop in her chest when her uncle takes the strike instead. She sobs over his body, feeling all kinds of broken as yet another family member leaves her. She screams “Why?” and it echoes against the catacomb walls in the familiar call of all those who lose someone to war.
It’s heart wrenching enough to make the Avatar walk over to her after he’s done decimating her Dai Li, the Watertribe peasant not far behind him. The girl explains that the pendant she wears has water that has special healing properties, Azula only lets her touch Uncle’s body because there isn’t much else you can inflict on someone that’s already dead. When Uncle’s chest begins to rise, Azula restrains herself from embracing him and instead questions why these two are willing to help her.
Correction: They are helping him. Apparently Uncle had been responsible for Zhao’s death at the North Pole and had led the Avatar to the girl, the whispers in her head turned to screams when Azula learned about the latter. Maybe it’s out of fear, or maybe it’s out of love, but she coldly tells the pair to take her Uncle with them when they flee then. She has no use for traitors.
Azula is checking on the Dai Li, making sure that none of her soldiers are seriously injured as the Avatar flees Ba Sing Se. Before she takes down the wall, she assembles the entire force in front of her. Azula explains that she will do her best to make sure the people of Ba Sing Se are treated decently under the Fire Nation occupation. This is a promise that she manages to keep, up until Father summons her back home.
She tells Ty Lee and Mai about the invasion plan on the boat ride to the Fire Nation, they all agree that giving that information to the Fire Lord will keep her in his good graces. Azula plays a dangerous game back home, it’s harder than it’s ever been to keep up her act. She has her friends, and that’s enough. They go to Ember Island together, and she shows them paintings of her family. Around a campfire, Azula admits that she has doubts. She doesn’t know if the war is just anymore, she knows for a fact that a world where her Father is the supreme ruler would be one she won’t live in. They talk about the poverty in the Earth Kingdom, about how there is pollution and shortages in their own nation. The night ends without Azula knowing what is the right path, but at least she knows she’s not alone.
Elsewhere, Iroh teaches Aang firebending aboard a stolen Fire Nation Vessel as a way of repaying Katara for healing him. Officially, the General is dead and is able to sneak around his own nation and purchase supplies. Throughout their travels, the invasion force manages to stop at multiple Fire Nation islands. It’s during a visit to a place called Wish Valley that Iroh tells them about Zuko. Though interacting with different citizens had shattered several prejudices of theirs, it is the story of the murdered prince that truly hammers it in for Aang how helpless the Fire Nation is when it comes to defying their leader.
“Fire is the element of life.” Iroh teaches, and Aang relearns what flames actually signify. There are colors in his flames, and in his ignorance Aang assumes it was because he learned from the General. When they stop a meteor from hitting a town, Iroh takes Sokka to train under his friend, Master Piandao. The Order of the White Lotus is revealed, and Iroh promises the organization’s full support during the invasion.
At the end of the day, Father forces Azula’s hand. There’s one last war meeting before the eclipse, and his plans for the day of Sozin’s Comet are revealed. The Earth Kingdom will burn. Unbidden, Azula thinks of Song. People just like her will die under her people’s flames, in a catastrophic waste of life the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Air Nomad’s were wiped out. She plots with her friends and the Dai Li, and when the Avatar bursts into her bunker, Azula surrenders. She leads him to the Fire Lord, and has the Dai Li take out her father’s guards. Fire Lord Ozai has finally been beaten, and is thrown into a cell that he will never leave. The Fire Nation itself doesn’t fight, her people are tired of war.
Azula crowns herself as Fire Lord, with Uncle as her regent until she comes of age. The days are long, and it takes months to win over the Avatar’s friends’ trust. Aang himself is quite easy, he and Ty Lee get along swimmingly. As the months pass by, and the world settles into peace talks, Azula slips away from a conference held by the Beifong family and travels south.
Song and her mother are just as welcoming as she was before, and the two keep up a correspondence that spans for months. Azula finds that she enjoys her friend’s perspective on things, in particular: reparations. She writes often, using her messenger hawk more than anyone else in the Palace. One day, Song is brave enough to request a visit to the Fire Nation. Azula says yes, of course.
In the same garden that her brother loved so, Azula sits with Song by the turtleduck pond at night. Violet flames burn for the first time in years, and she tries to show Song that fire can do more than hurt, that it can be beautiful too.