this is not what the girl was made for
where are her bowed subjects with fearful eyes and upturned palms and her nation wavering at her fingertips and her throne to sit cross legged behind a wall of blue flame
here there is no crackling cackling blue
no blistering red
someone is screaming oh the screams how they cacophonously echo around her and whisper into her ear and flow into her veins like fire and poison
the man with fierce golden eyes and the boy with wounded golden eyes and the woman with soft golden eyes
oh yes she remembers them the girl can never forget them
how she loves the man and hate hate hates the boy and the woman the girl rocks back and forth back and forth forth and back someone is screaming who is screaming
fist her fingers through her hair and clutches her head squeezes her eyes shut but no the girl feels nothing nothing at all feels no pain because a princess doesn’t know pain
she wasn’t made for pain
she was made to inflict it
and the girl did it well
the only people who come are the chi blockers who take her fire
and her brother who has taken everything else
he doesn’t look quite like a boy anymore no not the boy she could taunt and play with not the boy who wore father’s new lesson on his face no he is wearing his red robes and the flame crown that was supposed to be hers she looks at him and there is anger and fire burning inside of her hate hate hate
the boy says
his eyes soft as her mother’s eyes the person she remembers to hate but her mother is not here there is only the brother and the sister who was made for what he stole from her and then locked her away he should’ve died along with the waterbender and the avatar and everyone else she hates him hate hate hates
the boy takes a step forward
where is father the girl speaks with the authority and power she remembers and remembers her father with fierce eyes and fierce love the person she knows to love what did you do to him I need him I need father why do you take everyone away from me
the boy shakes his head
I didn’t take anyone from you azula
he is weak and pathetic and lying he says he didn’t take anyone from her it’s a lie the only one he’s fooling is himself
first you took mother then you took uncle then you took mai and ty lee and then you took father you can’t seriously see it zuzu? It’s all because of you look at you now wearing your firelord robes and your firelord crown so fine and well well congratulations zuko you have everything and left me with nothing now where is our father? give him back to me
she expects him to breathe fire and curl his shaking hands and show her some of his famous temper oh she loves making him lose control she's waiting for it now here it comes
there is no fire no fists
I’m so sorry azula I know how you're feeling you're in so much pain it hurts it hurts more than anyone else can understand but I do azula I understand
she laughs and snarls in the same breath
just leave like you always do you coward
zuko turns around and opens the door but before he leaves he says
okay I’ll wait for you azula and it’s okay that you can’t see that right now uncle never gave up on me and I will never give up on you
azula doesn’t answer
he doesn’t wait to respond
see you tomorrow
and then he’s gone
it never matters what she says
what she does
zuko always comes back
this is new
now there is someone else who’s come
the kyoshi warrior stands with fire in her eyes and fans in her fists and says nothing nothing at all well azula can change that this is what she does best she’s a people person after all
the warrior narrows her eyes
you do! I must know who did you miss more me or that daft water tribe boy who's in love with you?
the warrior named suki grits her teeth
I will not be baited by you azula
oh but you make it so easy azula purrs you and your friends and your special boyfriend it is so easy to make you lose control it’s why I always win
not when it mattered the most zuko and katara beat you or did you forget?
azula snarls and the warrior laughs
oh but azula it’s so easy to make you lose control
azula screams and screams and screams until suki leaves
she better not come back
the avatar’s gray eyes are soft and full of sympathy and it makes her angry. a princess is not pathetic. not made to be pitied
when I get out of here and my father comes to get me you will rue the day you crossed the fire nation you will die in fear little boy and so will all your friends and my traitorous brother they will die calling out your name but you won’t be there to save them you will be dead like the rest of your people
she smiles how does that make you feel avatar?
it makes me feel sad for you the avatar answers
the boy’s eyes are too kind and now the girl sees not pity but weakness her father would burn away if he was here but where is he? she’s been waiting for him doesn’t he know that she’s been waiting for him?
It makes me feel sad for you the avatar had said
azula decides that she hate hate hates the avatar the most
father banishing me was the best thing he’s ever done for me I got to get away you didn’t have that chance azula I’m here for you now
forgive me for not jumping for joy zuzu
it's the blind girl
azula never cared to learn her name why would she? this girl means nothing to her they all mean nothing to her
listen azula we all love sparky and he loves you so that’s why suki and aang came and now I’m here we’re hoping that you change but we can’t change you not even sparky the only one who can change you is yourself
azula knows who sparky is she just wants to play a game with this little blind girl it’s been so long since she’s played with someone
you know! sparky! your brother?
azula smiles and repeats.
The girl groans you really are the worst I just wanted to tell you that I know what it's like to have Expectations to have parents that expect certain things of you. It sucks. but you suck too. no wonder everyone hates you.
azula doesn’t care azula doesn’t care azula doesn’t care
the stupid water tribe peasant has ice in his eyes crossing his arms and glaring at azula she lifts her chin and meets his stare she’s taken back to the time when she taunted him and made him burn hot fire she can taste it on her tongue
azula you’ve hurt so many people people I love and care about zuko is important to me and that’s why I’m here but
the boy points a finger to her chest and snarls
you won't ever apologize for what you’ve done or bear responsibility for your actions and we both know it
he slams the door shut.
azula remembers how zuko whispered the waterbender’s name it’s katara the one who bested her and helped zuko take away everything she was made for and now katara is standing in front of azula with ice in her eyes crossing her arms and looking just like her brother
you killed aang
don’t insult me katara snarls and oh she and her brother are so much more alike than azula first thought. you know who I’m talking about you killed aang in ba sing se and then you tried to kill me and zuko. your own brother. you’re disgusting. you’re a monster.
azula laughs and it echoes and echoes in the room and in her ears even after katara leaves
I’ve never pretended to be anything else.
there is good in you azula
father should’ve burned off more than just half your face
for the first time
uncle comes to see her
azula scoffs and turns over on her mattress
uncle she mutters bitterly and pulls the blanket tightly over her body why won’t they just leave her alone to rot? instead they all come here zuzu and his friends telling her there is good in her and then telling her she’s a monster she’s so tired of it. so so tired.
Yes azula. I thought you would like some tea?
so you can poison me? azula laughs I am not a fool
It’s sweet. You have always loved sweet tea, my niece. A fascinating contrast.
Well, uncle is right she has always loved the sweet tea but no azula isn’t a fool and uncle can leave with his poison she won’t fall for it
don’t bother with your lies, uncle. I don’t need you. Tell zuzu not to visit either or any of his little friends.
he doesn’t come back
you told uncle to go away
unlike you, he listens
azula’s at the walls of ba sing se
she’s a soldier
but there’s more to it then that
before her are the walls they loom over her she swallows before she moves forward she marches with the others and when the earthbenders attack her fire isn’t blue but red and before she has a second to wonder why that is the rocks crush her body and she takes her last breath and she dies
but there’s still more to it than that
she’s dead but she’s awake in her body not moving not breathing not doing anything but lying there for what feels like forever and ever and ever
and she’s afraid
father, she cries. father father where are you? I need you father don’t leave me please
there are shouts
there are hands pulling away the rocks that lie on top of her and soon enough she sees the bright blue sky above
suddenly, there is a face
father, she sighs. you came for me.
but it is Uncle
and he screams
azula wakes gasping for breath heart pounding
A guard knocks on her door asking her if she’s alright
she asks for Uncle.
He comes quickly, and he brings back the tea.
You have been asking for me?
she doesn’t answer
For whatever the reason, Uncle saves her from the silence.
I am glad, he says, giving her a smile.
all she can think about is how he looked in her dream, screaming and wailing over her body as if he had the life ripped out of him it is unsettling.
Uncle reaches out with a cup of tea. I brought sweet tea for you, if you want.
she pauses before she reaches out and lets him place it in her hands. the cup is plain, nothing like the intricate, delicate cups that she grew up using. but as azula lifts it to her mouth and takes a sip, the tea inside is sweet and it tastes like before she hated Uncle and his sweet tea
it tastes like when she played with zuko in the garden as mother watched before mother left and zuko left and Uncle left and mai and ty lee and father left when she was just made to be a princess and that’s all she had to know
azula closes her eyes and swallows.
more more more more more more
she finishes the cup and he chuckles as he pours her another. as she drinks the tea he patiently waits until she asks for more. when the pot is done, he stands up and promises to return.
She’ll allow this.
Uncle continues to bring her sweet tea. He talks to her. He sits next to her as she leans against the wall and speaks many tales of spirits and beautiful women. azula almost looks forward to his visits. Almost.
azula I have failed you. I knew that man was dangerous. I saw how much he was a danger to his other child. And— and I thought because that man loved you that you would be safe. I was wrong. I hope that one day you can find it within your heart to forgive me. I love you, azula.
but I am a monster, azula whispers
There are tears on his cheeks. He reaches out to touch her and then pulls back.
“Oh, my dear. My beautiful niece. I don’t believe that.”
“It’s time to resume your training, Princess Azula.”
Azula narrows her eyes suspiciously. “What training?”
Uncle holds up the teapot and a couple of sparkrocks, grinning. “How to make tea, of course!”
Uncle leaves with a cracked teapot, pieces of sparkrocks, and continuing the promise to return tomorrow.
If Azula agrees to this, and she’s not saying she is, but if— then she wants to learn how to make the sweet tea.
Uncle insists on jasmine.
“Niece, to make jasmine tea you have to maintain a constant temperature. Heat it up too quickly, and the leaves burn. Heat it too slow, and the water does not retain the tea. It must be the perfect balance.”
“I’m not stupid, Uncle. I know what game you’re playing.”
But she lets him hand her the teapot, the sparkrocks, and the tea leaves. She’s always been perfect in everything she’s ever done. She was made to be perfect, to be flawless. She will make his jasmine tea, and she will make it precisely the way it is expected to be.
Uncle is a terrible liar.
Azula is not.
“It’s horrible. Disgusting. And you hate it.”
“I did not say that, niece.”
“You don’t have to! I see it in your face!”
She was not made to fail. Not made to disappoint. Azula hugs her knees to her chest and squeezes her eyes shut. Tries to remember how to breathe.
She doesn’t know what she expected to happen, but it is not this:
A hand on her shoulder, a calm voice in her ear. “It is a fine first attempt, Princess Azula,” Uncle says. “Let’s try it again.”
And they do.
It’s not perfect.
Azula tells him so as she gives him the cup, and when he accepts it from her she clenches her hands to stop them from trembling.
“Rarely anything is perfect, Azula. It may not be perfect, and that’s okay.” Uncle smiles. “I am just an old man looking forward to trying his niece’s cup of tea, which she has worked hard on.”
Uncle takes a sip. He closes his eyes and inhales. “Now, I believe this is one of the best teas I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing in my life.”
Azula can’t help but laugh, lifting her hand to cover her mouth. Uncle has always been dramatic, and such a terrible liar.
But she likes to believe him sometimes.
This time, Uncle does not come to see her. The traitor.
Brother and sister stare at each other. It feels that for forever, neither of them dare to break the silence.
Zuko clears his throat. “Uncle told me that he’s been teaching you how to make tea.”
“You know, once I told him that tea was just hot leaf juice.”
Azula blinks. “But it is just hot leaf juice.”
“I have something to tell you.”
“When Father burned you, I smiled.”
“Do you… hate me for that?”
“No. We were just children, Azula.”
Maybe, Azula thinks later that night. But that doesn’t change a thing.
This time, Uncle and Zuko come together to see her. She makes the tea, gives them their cups.
And thinks very hard what she wants to say.
Azula cradles her own cup in her hands and breathes in the steam, letting it cling to her face. She will only do this once.
“Zuko, I want you to tell the avatar that I apologize for killing him.”
Uncle and Zuko’s eyes widen, and they glance at each other before back at her.
“Are you serious?” Zuko asks the same time Uncle says, “Azula, why wouldn’t you like to tell him yourself?”
She ignores both of them.
“And, I apologize for trying to kill you both. Multiple times.” Azula takes a sip of her tea. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”
“Uncle’s been teaching me Pai Sho for a while, now. Prepare to lose.” Zuko picks up the Wheel tile and moves it to the center of the board.
She rests her head on her hand and furrows her brow. In her other hand, she twirls the Cherry Blossom tile. “Interesting move.”
Azula goes to set down her piece just as Uncle clears his throat. She steals a glance at him, and he shakes his head. Lets her hands waver over the tiles before he coughs, and they both smile as she sets down the White Dragon next to Zuko’s Wheel.
Zuko narrows his eyes. “Hey. That’s cheating.”
Uncle laughs, deep from his belly.
She isn’t looking at the door when it creaks open.
“Ah, back for yet another game, brother? Soon I won’t need Uncle’s help to beat you.” Except, when Azula turns around expecting to see Zuko, it is the avatar instead.
And then he says, “I got your message.”
And she doesn’t know how else to respond so she says, “good.”
And then, he’s gone. Just like that.
“Would you like to come live in the palace?”
On the right of Zuko is Suki, who glares at her. Azula focuses her gaze on Zuko. The words ring in her mind, and there is a pit growing in her stomach. She blinks.
“Are you serious?”
“Completely.” He steps forward and takes her hand. “Uncle and I have talked about it for quite some time. We think you’re ready.”
That palace was made for her. Made for her to walk down its hallways in red robes and flame perched on her head. Made for her to sit crossed legged on the throne, blue fire separating her from the rest of the world. And now Zuko wants to give it back.
Zuko says something else, but Azula isn’t listening.
“I am ready.”
She lets him lead her out the door, holding her hand.
“And, I want to show you something.”
That something turns out to be in the garden.
She inhales the sweet scent of fresh grass and follows Zuko. He kneels down by the edge of the pond, and reaches up to grasp her hand, softly pulling her down beside him.
Zuko tears off a piece of bread, and places it on her palm. She looks down at it, her hand without crackling cackling blue fire.
The only blue is the water, beautiful and clear.
“Okay, you’re gonna be gentle, right?”
“I’m not stupid, Zuko.”
“Don’t be nervous,” he says, “watch me.”
He leans forward and dips a finger into the water, and as the ripples fade away, the turtleducks appear from a mass of reeds. It’s a mother, and her babies.
“They’re only a couple of weeks old. Hold out the bread like this, just above the water. Yes, that’s it. They’ll come to you.”
Azula fights the impulse to snatch her hand away as a small turtleduck comes closer. It quacks before it takes her small piece of bread. It nibbles at her fingertips.
“Nice.” Zuko praises. “Do you want another piece?”
She looks back at the palace and then back at her brother. And then she nods.
It is a good day.
Azula is back in her four poster bed with her red sheets and red drapes that used to block out the sun when it rises every morning.
If she closes her eyes tightly enough, she can almost believe that this is Before, and not After.
Every morning, when she wakes up, there is a knock on the door. She’ll sit up, pull on her robe, and walk over to let the chi blocker in. She’ll stand there, silent and unmoving, as her fire is taken away.
This is expected.
Zuko tries to spend as much time with her as he can, but he’s the Firelord.
When he’s pulled away for a meeting or kissing babies’ heads and blessing marriages or whatever it is that he does without a war, he gives her an apologetic look and promises to come back as fast as possible.
Uncle tries to spend as much time with her as he can, but he’s the Firelord’s advisor. He’s usually pulled away alongside Zuko.
“Are you going to be okay on your own?”
Azula rolls her eyes. “I’ll be fine, Uncle. Besides, I doubt that I’ll be completely on my own.”
She is right, of course.
The eyes of the Kyoshi Warriors follow her wherever she goes.
She’s lying on the grass beside the pond, basking in Agni’s light before a shadow draped across her face. Azula waves her hand for the figure to move, but it doesn’t. She groans.
“Zuko thinks you’re lonely,” the blind girl says.
“So he’s Zuko now and not Sparky?” Azula replies.
“I knew you knew.”
Azula sighs. “Whatever.” She closes her eyes and doesn’t say anything, hoping the girl goes away.
“I’m annoyed. Now, can you leave me alone?”
“Nah. I think Zuko’s right. You look like you could use a little fun!”
“Fun?” Azula leans back on her elbows and peers at the girl, who has on the biggest grin she’s ever seen in her life.
“Usually I’m all for breaking the rules, but I don’t think that would be a very good idea… Oh I know!”
Toph stomps her feet and creates three cups, and a tiny pebble flies into her hand. She sits down across from Azula, crossing her legs and rubbing her hands together. “I’ll teach you my favorite scam— I mean, game!”
Azula pauses, and then decides to play this little blind girl’s “game”.
Toph wins every time.
Before she leaves, she punches Azula’s arm. “Same time tomorrow?”
Azula almost wants to say no.
She can’t say she hasn’t thought of them. Of where they are, of what they’re doing. Since they betrayed her and left her at Boiling Rock, she’s been thinking about them. And now that she’s back in the palace, all she knows is that Mai and Ty Lee are not here.
She asks Zuko.
He speaks slowly, like any word could set her off and she thinks that once, they could’ve.
“Mai is dividing her time between Omashu and Boiling Rock, helping to deescalate the situation there. And Ty Lee is with the other Kyoshi Warriors on the island, training.”
“Yeah, she joined them.”
Azula swallows. “Oh.” And pauses. “Have they asked about me?” She hates how small her voice sounds. A princess was not made to be small. Father would burn this weakness out of her, if he was here.
“Yeah, but Azula… there’s a reason they haven’t come back yet.”
“What should I do?” The question surprises her just as much as it does him.
“I wouldn’t do anything. You can’t force forgiveness. Maybe one day they’ll forgive you, maybe they won’t. It’s up to them.”
“So I should just wait for them to make that decision?”
Zuko walks over to his desk and pulls out his chair. He gestures for her to sit, and she does. Then, Zuko unravels a scroll and holds out to her the ink brush.
“I think you should write to them, actually.”
Azula was never very patient, but she’s trying to learn how to be.
She suspects that Ty Lee has told the Kyoshi Warrior about the letter.
“Whatever Mai decides to do, whatever Ty Lee decides to do, I will never forgive you.” War paint flashes in the light, eyes burning with fire. “You put me and my girls in prison. You separated us. You tortured me. I will never forgive and I will never forget.”
Suki snarls. “You’re a monster.”
Yes, Azula knows. But she’s trying not to be.
Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the right thing to say. And it’s not like Azula doesn’t know the waterbender’s name, either. She’s been waiting for Toph in the garden for their daily game when the girl marched right up to her placing her hands on her hips, frown plastered on her face.
So, maybe she’s just feeling a bit defensive. Maybe she knows that Ty Lee’s told everyone. Maybe she can’t forget how Suki’s eyes burned with anger, and know that she deserves it.
The waterbender ignores the jab and says, “Aang’s forgiven you.”
Aang? The avatar. At least, it must be because she doesn’t know another Aang.
Azula’s hurt so, so many people. More than she could ever know. Maybe she doesn’t know who Aang is. He’s one of thousands.
Katara sighs. Her frown fades away and her hands fall to her sides. “Listen. It took me a long time to forgive Zuko, but I did. And now he’s one of my best friends, and he loves you very, very much. So, maybe, I’ll forgive you. But you have to earn my forgiveness. I have to see that you’re trying. And it’s not going to be right now, and it’s not going to be anytime soon.”
I never asked you to , Azula thinks and watches Katara disappear into the palace.
But this time, Azula keeps her mouth shut.
“You make a good Firelord, Zuko.” Azula says.
And she realizes that she means it.
Either he knows that she knows that he’s watching her, or he doesn’t care. When the Kyoshi Warriors or palace guards aren’t on her, the water tribe boy is. She doesn’t mind it, so much. He’s always been smarter than he looked.
She’s walking down the hallway, servants parting before her with heads down, as they did Before. But this is not Before, this is After, and Azula keeps her gaze forward as Sokka steps out in front of her.
“You apologized.” He places his hands on his hips and frowns, looking a lot like his sister. “Why?”
Because I am a monster, and I don’t want to be.
Azula shrugs. “Why not?”
Sokka blinks. “Huh?”
She steps around him and continues on.
Azula times it perfectly.
The Kyoshi Warriors are with Zuko and Iroh in the war room, as the rest of his friends. The peace negotiations are still lingering on, and sometimes they’re in there for hours. She always promises Zuko to stay in her room during the meetings, and he always finds her in her room afterwards. He has slowly begun to trust her.
Always the fool, that boy.
Azula has already picked his lock, snuck into his office, found the paperwork and has figured out where to go.
It’s too easy to maneuver through the hallways, hiding in the shadows as people walk past. Never forget that this palace was made for her. She tightens the hood over her head, looks over her shoulder, and then leaves it all behind.
Azula brings herself out of the palace, and back into the prison.
There were guards outside of the door, but she’d planned for that, of course. She’s already created a diversion and they went scurrying away, all clanking armor and no skill. Azula scoffs. Idiots. Zuko should banish them. She would, if she was Firelord.
She takes a deep breath, and moves toward him . He’s in there, she knows. All this time she’s been waiting for him, but now he’s waiting for her. She’s missed him.
Her fingers grasp the handle.
And, then, Azula pauses.
Because she’s right. The whole time she’s been waiting for him, he has been waiting for her . Behind this door Ozai waits for her to find him and set him free. How does she know this? Well, how does he? Because it is expected.
Because he has made Azula into Azula, and he has done it well.
She can see where this ends, if she turns the handle and breaks down the bars that imprison him. If she takes off his restraints and begs his forgiveness for her defeat, pledging her loyalty forever. It ends with her chained with Father’s chains in Father’s cell screaming for Father as he stands over her with a smile. He’ll thank her, and tell her that she’s made him proud.
He would walk away and he wouldn’t look back.
Azula understands this.
And so, Azula walks away.
Let him rot, alone, waiting for someone who will never come.
This is not what she was made for. This is not something she knows how to do, what to say.
But Azula is learning, and unlearning. The only person who can unmake a monster is the monster herself.
And Zuko… Zuko’s smiling at her— his eyes not wounded and sad but fierce and soft and she knows what he’s saying isn’t a lie. Zuko’s a terrible liar, anyway. He means it, as he holds her hand and looks into her eyes.
He means it even after everything she’s ever done. He really means it.
“I love you, Azula,” he says.
She swallows. And finds it within herself to say, “I love you too.”
It’s not a lie.