Aang vetoed Sokka's idea of capturing a Fire Nation ship almost immediately.
"What would we do with the soldiers onboard?" Aang pointed out in reasonable tones. "We couldn't take them all prisoner. We just don't have enough of our own people to keep watch over them and to invade the Fire Nation."
Sokka and Azula exchanged a look. Both of them knew that such a mission would, for that exact reason, involve taking no prisoners. But Azula wasn't going to point that out, and apparently Sokka wasn't comfortable doing so either, because instead of an explanation there was just awkward silence.
"Everyone will make it to the rendezvous point," Aang said, filling the silence with naïve optimism. "It won't be a big deal."
Azula wasn't so sure that this plan was foolproof. Some of their allies might die in the process of infiltrating Fire Nation waters. Some might be captured.
It would be worth it, if they could take the Fire Nation quickly. The others knew her identity now. She'd given them nothing but reasons to trust her. She was the only logical candidate for Fire Lord once Uncle was dead. Zuko wasn't even in the running. The Avatar would want someone on the throne who had shown her dedication to peace. Zuko had shown no such dedication.
It was good that things were going according to Azula's plans.
Azula and Ty Lee still had their Fire Nation clothing. Ty Lee's looked like it had come straight from the circus, but it was still obviously Fire Nation. Azula's clothing was much more subdued. It was peasant clothing, still, but it would do.
Ty Lee helped Azula put her hair up in a topknot. Azula wished she had an ornament to put around the topknot, but of course any ornament that showed her rank would give them away. They were trying to infiltrate, not to show everyone who Azula was.
Azula still had a little Fire Nation money, since they hadn't been able to spend any of it in the Earth Kingdom or Northern Water Tribe. They exhausted it buying outfits for the rest of the group.
From now on, they were in enemy territory with no money and limited supplies. They had no advantages. If they were caught, the best they could hope for was imprisonment.
Azula had never been to war. She hadn't been trained as a soldier or a spy. She had no preparation for any of this. And yet- it felt so right.
Azula had never had anything she could actually fight before. Uncle had been ignorant about her true self, and Zuko had been the heir when she was the more deserving, but until she had joined the Avatar, there had been nothing she could actually do about her circumstances. Even chasing after Aang had been a fool's errand, something she did because there was nothing else to do, and doing nothing was something she couldn't tolerate. Destiny could take you only so far. The mandate of heaven had to be earned.
And now, while she was in more danger than she'd ever been in in her life- she felt... not at peace, because Azula was never at peace. Peace was stillness, and restfulness, and Azula didn't believe in standing still. That didn't accomplish anything. She couldn't afford to rest when there was so much to be done.
No. Azula didn't feel at peace. But ever since she'd joined up with Aang and the others, she'd felt like she was in the right place, doing things that were right for her, for the first time since Father had died.
The others accepted the clothing without much fuss. Ty Lee helped them all with their hair- although the others, Azula noted sourly, didn't seem to have as much trouble as Azula always did. They consulted Ty Lee, to make sure their disguises were adequate, but they did the actual work themselves.
Well. They had to be good at hair. They'd never had servants to do their hair for them, after all, being peasants. Azula wouldn't need to do her hair on her own ever again, once she was Fire Lord.
The results, when they were finished, were passable. No one would give them a second glance. Azula wasn't certain the effect would last once the others opened their mouths- especially Aang, with his cries of "Flameo, Hotman," which he persisted in even after Azula and Ty Lee both told him that no one in the Fire Nation actually talked like that, and, in fact, no one ever had.
At least they looked the part. And if someone caught them- well, it would make Azula's job harder, but she didn't really mind fighting. She was too good at it to mind.
Almost to her disappointment, no one caught them as they walked into town. There were no cries of "Imposter!" Even Aang's strange slang went unremarked on, though they did get a few curious looks.
They passed through the first town without much trouble. But at the next, Appa caught some kind of illness and they had to stop for a few days.
Well. That meant some quality training time, at least. Aang had been slacking lately. It was time he knuckled down and started to improve his firebending.
Except of course that isn't what actually happened. Spirits forbid they actually be productive. Instead, they goofed off and worried about sick peasants. As if the peasants mattered, in the grand scheme of the war. For every day they stayed here, the war raged on. If the others were truly compassionate, that was what they would worry about. Not whatever or whoever happened to be right in front of them, but the dozens or hundreds of other people that would be harmed by this delay.
Not that Azula cared, or was compassionate. But she didn't understand how those who supposedly were could be so short-sighted.
"We have to stop anyway," Katara said, defensive, when Azula made this point. "We might as well help this village."
"No. What we might as well do is have Aang train, so that he'll be prepared to face the Fire Lord."
"Then train him," Katara said. "You're his firebending master, not me. No one is stopping you."
"He listens better when you tell him things," Azula said, grudgingly. "Every time I try, he ignores me. It's like he doesn't want to learn firebending."
"He's just nervous," Katara said. "He tends to avoid things when he's worried about them. You just need to have a talk with him, and reassure him."
Azula worked very hard not to make a face. Feelings. She hated talking about feelings. Was there any more boring subject to discuss?
But she found Aang anyway, and said: "We need to have a talk."
"Sure!" he said. He sat down on the ground, cross-legged and comfortable. "About what?"
"You aren't taking your training seriously enough," she told him. "You need to master as much firebending as possible before the invasion. The actual eclipse is only eight minutes long, but the invasion will take much longer. You need as much power at hand as possible."
"I know that," Aang said, even more defensive than Katara had been a moment ago. "It's just- now isn't a very good time, alright?"
Azula scowled. "If now isn't a good time, there won't ever be a good time," she said. "Do twenty hot-squats, now."
Scowling right back at her, Aang did.
Well. It was a start.
Appa was still sick the next day, and Aang was just as resentful about being trained. Azula was almost tempted to tell him to find another firebending teacher, if he hated her that much- but he was still her only chance at the throne, so she did her best to be patient.
Azula was not good at patient.
"Stop thinking about the bison," she said, "and work."
"I can't just stop thinking about him," Aang said. "I can't just… turn off caring, like that!"
Azula bit her tongue to keep from shouting but you should be able to.
They found out that Katara was the one making Appa "sick" another day later. Azula was almost glad that her rage finally had a better target.
"You've delayed us," she said. "How many people will die if we miss the invasion? Do you think the Fire Lord will show them mercy?"
"How many will die if we don't help?" Katara shot back. "Have you thought about that? Or have you only thought about- numbers, and probabilities, and statistics?"
"Be rational," Azula said.
"Have a heart," Katara replied.
Azula let out a hiss of frustration. "You aren't even doing any good here. The villagers are just going to get sick again. A week from now, it won't matter that you healed them."
"Then we destroy the factory," Sokka said, from behind her. He yawned.
For a moment, Azula had forgotten anyone else was there.
It was a good plan, she realized after a moment. It meant that they could move on, while simultaneously appeasing Katara's strange idea of morality and weakening the Fire Nation's army.
"Let's do it," Toph said, punching the air.
Destroying the factory was simple enough. Azula was glad for something to burn. Something uncomplicated to do. Something that didn't involve trying to make a reluctant 12-year-old practice his firebending against his will. They ran into trouble, of course. There was a guard in the factory. Azula could have killed him easily enough, but there was no need. She whipped out one foot, tripped him, and caught him in a hold so that he couldn't move. Sokka followed up with rope, tying him up.
"Why are you attacking a military factory?" the guard babbled at them. "Don't you know how much trouble you're going to be in?"
Azula gave him a puzzled look. He didn't recognize her? Surely Uncle would have publicized her betrayal, if only to make sure she would be captured if she set foot in the Fire Nation?
Well- it was dark. And Azula hadn't needed to bend to restrain him. Blue fire would have given away her identity as easily as her face would have. There weren't many people out there who could bend fire that hot for very long.
Azula could have told a lie about why she was there, but she decided it was more unnerving to just remain silent. She dragged the guard outside, dumped him far enough away that the explosion wouldn't hurt him, and went back to help burn things.
The village wasn't safe, yet. There would be soldiers coming soon to investigate things.
It was Sokka's plan that scared off the soldiers, and although Azula was a little miffed that they hadn't needed her, she had to grudgingly admit that it was a good plan. Katara made a good Painted Lady, and of course Aang's airbending and Toph and Sokka's spooky noises had lent the entire thing an air of the supernatural that was needed to keep the soldiers away for good.
Who knew? If news of this made it all the way to Uncle, he would probably believe that spirits were involved. He was superstitious enough.
And then Katara insisted on staying and helping to clean up the river. Honestly. Azula pulled Aang away and trained him for a little while, but after he kept giving her pathetic looks and couldn't seem to maintain a decent flame, she let him go help. There were still weeks until the eclipse. There was still plenty of time for Aang to get the basics, if he picked up firebending as quickly as he had picked up waterbending and was picking up earthbending. And even if he didn't, the actual eclipse would make firebending useless anyway.
Azula didn't need Aang to actually learn firebending, anyway. As long as he won as her ally- as long as she made a good attempt at teaching him- she was going to be Fire Lord.
It was almost pathetic, how simple it had been to gain the trust of the group. Her plan had been so simple, in hindsight. She had expected more resistance. But everything was working out perfectly.
Azula had never had anything go so perfectly right in her life, before now. Not since Father had died, anyway. Her relationship with Uncle had been strained at best, and she and her brother had barely talked after their parent had died. Ty Lee and Mai had left once they were finished with school. Azula had been alone, left to stew impotently in her own ambitions. But now, finally, those ambitions were bearing fruit.
They moved on, after that, to another village. And there, they met a waterbender.
Azula's only reaction to that, at the time, was to grumble with Sokka about how they were never going to reach the capitol of the Fire Nation at this rate. She didn't think anything of Hama's sinister demeanor, because- well, Azula had grown up with Li and Lo, and all old women seemed a little sinister after that. And besides, Hama had good reason to hate the Fire Nation, and Azula by extension. It was only natural that she seemed a little hostile.
And then, on the night of the full moon, Azula realized that her gut instinct had been right all along.
Azula had never thought about what waterbenders could and couldn't do, except for certain moments at the North Pole when she'd wondered fleetingly if she could leave burns so deep that no waterbender would be able to heal them.
She'd never considered that people were mostly water. Mostly blood.
Now, gripped in a power that she couldn't resist, something that reached inside of her and pulled and pushed and twisted, she wondered if she should have considered the possibility before.
Some detached part of her mind, which was somehow immune to the horror of the current situation, noted that bloodbending was an enormously powerful technique. To restrain an enemy like that, to prevent them from bending or moving or breathing without your consent, was more power than Azula was comfortable with in anyone else's hands.
Azula could kill, and had, she could at least say that every death on her hands had served a purpose and had been relatively quick and painless. Hearing the story that Hama told, she was sure that the same could not be said of any of the victims of bloodbending.
Azula was sure, in that moment, that she would be one of them. Her, and Ty Lee, and Aang, and all the others. Her plans were ruined. She would never be Fire Lord. She would never even be fifteen years old. She would be dead. And, worst of all, there was nothing at all she could do to stop it. No amount of cleverness or deceit would give her back control of her body. She had been defeated utterly.
And then Katara moved an inch, and another inch, and was free. The rest of them were still trapped, but Azula knew then that destiny had not abandoned her.
"You're not the only one who draws power from the moon," Katara said.
The battle that followed was fierce but brief. Hama pulled water from the trees nearby and struck before Katara had a chance, but Katara took control of the water as it rushed towards her and turned it back against Hama. Hama pushed the water to the side and froze it as it came near her, and Katara rushed forward, pulling water from her bending pouch as she ran.
At close quarters, Hama was no match for Katara. Katara had youth and power on her side. A water whip later, Hama staggered forward and fell.
Azula was free. She took a breath on her own and shuddered.
Aang and Sokka leapt forward, and Aang said, "Give up, Hama. You're outnumbered."
"You've outnumbered yourselves," Hama said.
And then she took control again. Azula felt herself stepping forward, towards Katara. The movements Hama put her through weren't very elegant, but they didn't have to be, when Katara was trying so hard not to hurt any of them.
"Knock her out!" Sokka shouted. "Quick, Katara, before one of us hurts you."
Aang's hand moved in a clumsy punch, which Katara dodged. Azula's hand followed, actually connecting with Katara's arm, though only lightly.
"Sorry about this," Katara said, and sent Azula flying into a tree with a gush of water, freezing her to it instantly.
Sokka and Aang turned on each other, then. Azula remained stuck to the tree. Perhaps there were too many people here for Hama to effectively control? In any case, Azula remained under Hama's control, unable to move but not directly involved in the fight.
There was only really one way for Katara to win this fight, and it was obvious that Katara knew it, because a moment later, Katara began to bloodbend Hama.
Ty Lee, Toph, and the villagers arrived just a moment later.
"You're going to be locked away forever," the leader of the villagers told Hama.
"My work here is done," Hama said, expression satisfied. "Congratulations, Katara. You're a bloodbender now."
Katara cried for most of the night, quiet little sobs on the edge of hearing. Azula was nearest her, sleeping bag only a little ways away, and she couldn't sleep through it. A while after the rest of the others had drifted off, Azula went over to Katara. If comforting her was the only way to get some sleep, so be it.
"Do you need to talk?" Azula asked. It came out a little flatter than she'd meant it to. She was very tired.
Katara sat up and hastily wiped her tears away.
"I'm fine," she said, trying to keep her tone light and failing.
Ty Lee was better at this than Azula. But Ty Lee hadn't heard Katara's crying, or had chosen for some reason to ignore it. So Azula was stuck with this job.
"You're lying," Azula said, softening her accusation with a faint smile.
Across the clearing they were sleeping in, Sokka rolled over and began to snore. Katara waited until he'd settled down a little before responding.
"How can I live with myself?" she asked, voice low. "I reached inside of Hama. I could do that to anyone, now. It wouldn't even be hard."
Azula frowned. Understanding hovered just out of reach.
"So?" she asked. "It's a technique. It could be deadly. But you choose how to use it."
"It's evil," Katara said.
"Then don't use it at all," Azula said with a shrug.
"It isn't that simple," Katara said. "Hama was right. I'm a bloodbender now. Whenever I'm fighting now, it will be an option. I'll always know that I could."
"I always have the option of using lightning," Azula said. "We both have deadly techniques. I don't see how controlling someone is worse than killing them. Sometimes I wish..."
She stopped. She was getting too sentimental. She'd almost revealed a weakness.
"Sometimes, what?" Katara asked.
Well. Azula had at least gotten Katara curious instead of sad. That was progress.
Katara was Azula's ally. Admitting to one small weakness would cement that relationship.
"Sometimes I wish that I had some way of restraining people, instead of hurting them," Azula finally said. "I love firebending. I love being a firebender. But your deadly technique is a way of stopping people peacefully. Mine is a way of killing them quickly. I'm not... sentimental. I don't have a problem killing people when I have no other options. But that doesn't mean I enjoy it."
Katara seemed a little surprised by this.
"I thought... Never mind," Katara said. "But... that's good to hear."
"You thought I was a monster," Azula said.
It wasn't the first time someone had thought that of her, after all.
"No!" Katara said. "Nothing like that."
"You were wrong," Azula said, cutting her off before she provided some fabricated explanation. "Alright?"
At least Katara had forgotten all about bloodbending for now.
"Someone called you a monster once before," Katara said slowly. "Didn't they? Who was it? Was it Sokka? I can-"
"No one has ever called me that," Azula lied. After all, no one had ever said as much to her face. And even if Mother had thought that of her, Father had been proud of her. He hadn't wanted another weakling like Zuko.
Katara was not appeased. "But the way you said that, it sounded like-"
"You're wrong," Azula said. "Just- drop it."
"Sorry," Katara said.
Azula shrugged. "I'm going to get some sleep now. I'm exhausted."
"Good night," Katara said.
Katara seemed to sleep well that night. Azula didn't hear any more sobbing. But Azula couldn't seem to drift off anyway. There were too many thoughts swirling around in her head.
She wasn't a monster.
Azula had never put much stock in what Mother had thought of her, but somehow she had always accepted without question that that one overheard remark was true. Perhaps it was because when she'd told Father about it, he'd laughed heartily, ruffled her hair, and said, "A monster? Well, then you're my little monster." He'd made a face at her then, and she'd laughed, and she hadn't thought about it more that day.
Azula had always known that Father was cruel. He hadn't hidden himself from her the way he did from others. She hadn't minded. Father had always given her what she wanted, and what more was there? All he asked in exchange was that she be perfect, and perfection had been so effortless that it was no trouble at all.
Father had always wanted her to be cruel, too. He'd wanted her to be merciless, a perfect royal princess, deadly and cunning. He'd wanted her to be a monster, because he'd wanted her to be like him.
But she wasn't a monster.
Yes, she could be cruel, and a killer. But she could also be kind, when it suited her. Often it was an act, but sometimes- around Ty Lee, and sometimes around the others in the group- it wasn't. She didn't always act nice, but she'd come to see the purpose of such behavior.
Father would be so disappointed in her. As for Mother- well, Azula had never had much interest in pleasing her, anyway, so it didn't matter what she would have thought if she were still alive. Mother would probably still be disappointed, because Azula had never been good enough for her.
It didn't matter. Mother was dead. Father was dead, too. Uncle was a fool and Zuko hated her almost as much as she hated him. Azula didn't have any family left to try to please. What she had was Ty Lee, and the others. And they liked her, for the most part. Azula had been sure to be likable. Katara nearly calling her a monster- that was a fluke. Katara had seen her kill those soldiers, all the way back at the Northern Air Temple.
She would work harder at being likable. That was all she needed to do. It wasn't like they had much choice about who should be Fire Lord next, anyway. Of the three remaining members of the royal family, she was the only one who had shown a dedication to their cause. And the Fire Nation had to have a leader. Aang wouldn't want to end one war only to have the Fire Nation rapidly become embroiled in another, civil war.
She hoped he was smart enough to see everything the way she did.
"The Fire Lord wasn't there," Aang said. "The whole city is abandoned."
"They must have known we were coming," Azula said. "Someone warned them."
"Or they could have figured out that the eclipse was today," Sokka said, "and figured they'd better go somewhere safe for the day. Now isn't the time to be accusing anyone."
"This is useless," Azula said. "They'll be long gone by now, then. They won't return until the eclipse is over. We've wasted a golden opportunity."
"No," Sokka said. "I don't think the Fire Lord would go that far. Azula- is there anywhere nearby where he might hide?"
"There's an old underground bunker," Azula said. "But my uncle won't be there. He knows the Avatar is an earthbender. He wouldn't put himself or my brother in danger by hiding underground. Like I said, he's probably far away by now. The Fire Nation is capable of predicting eclipses. They probably figured it was best not to be around today."
"Underground bunker?" Toph said, one hand lightly touching the ground. "I can feel it."
Azula was prepared to swear that this group only listened to half the words that came out of her mouth.
"Any people in it?" Sokka asked.
Toph shook her head. "I can't tell. It's too far away to see clearly."
Aang said: "If I go down there and no one is there, then we'll run out of time. But if I don't at least check, this whole invasion will have been for nothing."
Azula was really going to have to teach Aang about a little thing called "cutting your losses."
"I have to do it," he said. "I have to see if he's there."
Azula sighed. "I suppose I should come with," she said. "Since I am the only one who knows the way."
"No need," Toph said, cracking her knuckles. "We'll take the direct route."
Azula winced as Toph destroyed the centuries-old courtyard. It was going to take serious money from the treasury to fix that, once Azula was Fire Lord.
The tunnel Toph made was dark. Of course it was- Azula could hardly bend a fire to light their way, since the same eclipse that made the invasion possible also rendered all of her skill at firebending absolutely useless.
The underground bunker was empty, and just as dark as the tunnel. Azula had been there a few times before, but didn't remember the way well enough to navigate. She had to rely on Toph, just like the others. It was galling. But Ty Lee took her hand, and Azula remembered that Ty Lee was a little afraid of the dark- and suddenly it didn't gall as much, because she had to take care of Ty Lee.
Sometimes she wondered if Ty Lee planned these moments intentionally- if she carefully manipulated Azula for her own good. But then she remembered that Ty Lee had many good traits- but planning and manipulation were not among them. Ty Lee didn't have the skills to manipulate one did. Not since Father had died.
No. What Ty Lee did- it wasn't manipulation. It was just love.
They didn't find anyone in the bunker. Escaping took most of their energy after that.
Well. Azula's plans didn't rely on this invasion being successful, anyway. They still had time before the comet arrived. She just had to make sure Aang was ready to face Uncle before then. That was all. This was a minor setback, nothing more.
The others waited behind as Azula and Aang climbed the steps, both holding their flames. Aang's flame was nice and controlled, Azula noted with a faint note of pride. No more of the wild uncontrolled flames he'd used when she first started teaching him. She'd been afraid he'd hurt someone for a while, but it had never come to that.
He looked determined.
She didn't understand why he'd wanted to come here. There weren't any dragons alive. And it wasn't like you had to learn from the original source of bending, anyway. Aang hadn't tried to get Appa to teach him airbending, or ignored Toph's teaching to find a badger-mole. So why did he want to go searching for hints of dragons' bending?
She was good enough. She knew she was good enough.
But she wouldn't turn down a chance to be better. So she'd come with him. And she'd laughed at the warnings of the Sun Warriors, because what master could she possibly find here that would be better than her? Master firebenders didn't hide out in the middle of nowhere, and the only living firebender who'd ever stood so much as a chance against her was her uncle.
Aang held his flame steady as the mountains started to rumble.
And then the dragons came out.
"I think they want us to do the dance," Aang said. And Azula noted the dragon's movements, and agreed. There was something familiar in the way the dragons rose and dived.
They did the dance, and the dragons danced with them- and then the dragons suddenly flamed at them.
Azula prepared to take command of the flames as they approached, but she needn't have worried. They weren't aiming to kill, but instead to intimidate them by surrounding them by a mass of multi-colored flames.
Hmph. Azula could do that, too. She was capable of every color they produced. She let fire come to her hands- violet, because she felt like it-
Aang wasn't moving. He was staring at the flames.
"It's not about destruction," he said. "It's life..."
And for once, Azula had no idea what was going on. She peered at the flames again, eyes narrowed. Had she missed something?
The flames stopped. The dragons retreated. And Aang had a serene look on his face that made no sense.
He'd probably just been impressed by the colors. She hadn't bothered showing him how to do those, since they weren't very useful.
That was all, she assured herself.
But somehow Aang's bending had improved dramatically by the next day. The whole experience left her with a sour taste in her mouth.
Azula wasn't sure how she let Sokka rope her into going along to the Boiling Rock, except that it was that or let him go alone- and stay behind with Aang when all Aang needed to do now was practice the basic forms over and over until the memory of them was fixed in his muscles. Azula was bored here, and Azula hated being bored.
Plus he was bound to get himself killed if she didn't come with, and that would be terrible for the morale of the group.
Besides, Sokka was useful. He was pragmatic. Azula liked him. He tended to agree with her about practical matters, and even though the others had some measure of respect for Azula now, Sokka's opinion still carried more weight with them.
Getting into the Boiling Rock was easy. They just took Appa and had him drop them off on the lip of the volcano. But Sokka's father was nowhere to be found. Only his girlfriend- his first girlfriend, from before the North Pole. Who he didn't seem to have actually ever broken up with.
Azula vaguely disapproved of his unfaithful ways. But she helped him rescue her anyway, and his dad, too, once he showed up.
At least, that was the plan, until Sokka managed to get Azula captured, the idiot. She spent the time in her cell trying to think up a really good escape plan- one which probably wouldn't get Sokka killed- when an unexpected visitor arrived.
"Azula." There was the sound of a key in the lock, and then Zuko stood in front of her, accompanied by two guards.
"Zuzu," she said, letting no trace of surprise cross her features. "How nice of you to visit."
"How could you join the Avatar?" he asked.
Well. Zuko never had been one for subtleties.
"Generally I like to start conversations on a more upbeat tone," she said. "A 'hello' would have been nice. Maybe even a 'how have you been.'"
"Don't try to play games with me," he said. He was angry. Good. Zuko was stupid when he was angry. Azula tried to undo the bindings holding her hands to the chair, but without much success.
"Fine," she said. "No games. I suppose Uncle sent you, didn't he? Am I to be locked up, then? Imprisoned for life?"
"He wants to talk to you," Zuko said. "He'll be here tomorrow. But I wanted to come first. To see for myself that it was really you."
"Well, now you've seen me," Azula said. "Is it everything you hoped for?"
"You betrayed your country," Zuko said. "You've sided against the entire Fire Nation. And for what?"
"For honor," Azula said, trying to speak a language Zuko would understand. "The Fire Nation has none. We've done terrible things, killed innocent people. Other nations'. Our own. The war hurts everyone. The Fire Nation has to be stopped."
Zuko didn't look convinced. "And I suppose overthrowing Uncle and me, and setting yourself up as the only heir, didn't hurt at all, did it?"
Sokka was nowhere nearby. Not that she could see, anyway. But anyone could be listening. Who knew if the guards with Zuko would talk, later. Azula couldn't afford to let her lies slip, even for a moment.
"If you were truly committed to peace," she said, "I wouldn't stand in your way."
"Right," Zuko said, clearly not believing her. "Well. Uncle will see you tomorrow. You can tell him all of this. Like you should have done to start with, instead of going rogue and helping the Avatar."
"I'm sure he'll listen," Azula said, mockingly. "After all, the war has only been going on for a hundred years. I'm sure he's just looking for an excuse to end it."
Zuko gave her a strange look.
"You have no idea what Uncle wants to do," he said, huffily. And then he left her alone, tied up and unable to come up with a plan.
Suki captured the warden early the next day, much to Azula's annoyance. And then they were away, off on the gondola, the first prisoners to ever escape the Boiling Rock.
They were over the boiling water, half-escaped, when the warden managed to get his gag off.
"Cut the line!" he shouted.
Azula's blood went cold. There was no way they would survive, if the rope holding the gondola up was cut. They would fall in boiling water and die horribly. She looked for an escape route, but found nothing.
The guards started to cut the rope, sawing through it far too fast.
They weren't going to make it.
Azula thought, maybe, that she could skate along the top of the rope, propelled by her own fire. She could make it back.
Suki, Hakoda and Sokka wouldn't be so lucky, though. And Azula would still be captured.
And then, a miracle happened. Zuko walked up to the guards and started shouting at them.
They stopped cutting the rope.
Azula didn't understand. Zuko had had the perfect opportunity to become an only child. Why had he thrown it away?
The last thing Azula saw, before they were able to get off the gondola, was his face, staring at her, expression utterly unreadable from so far away, the gulf between them growing as she backed away, and away, and was gone.
"He didn't seem half bad," Sokka said, once they were gone.
Azula said nothing in reply.
In hindsight, Azula should have expected that they would be followed back from the Boiling Rock. Zuko was stupidly persistent, and she should have known better than to expect him to just give up on finding and capturing her.
He came in the night, a day and a half after Azula and Sokka had come back. Azula didn't figure out, just then, how he'd found them. She woke to up with a metal net thrown over her, and immediately struggled, trying to free herself.
"What-" she called out, and woke the others.
Aang and Ty Lee were fast enough to avoid being caught at all, but disoriented from being woken up so fast. Katara barely worked her way out of her sleeping roll before her net caught her, but Sokka, Toph, and Suki weren't so lucky.
Azula could do nothing for a moment. She was too busy trying to get free. By the time she'd worked herself out of the net, Ty Lee, Katara, and Aang had dispatched most of the soldiers Zuko had brought with him, and Toph had ripped her way through her net with her bare hands, and looked pissed off.
"That net was solid metal," Zuko said, backing off.
Toph grinned. She looked pretty frightening, Azula had to admit. Toph had a bright future in intimidation. But she didn't bother to explain, instead flinging the net back at Zuko, who was forced to rapidly sidestep to avoid it.
Zuko regained his standing and blasted fire towards Toph, in perfect firebending form. He'd improved since the last time Azula fought him, which made sense since it had been several years. Even when neither of them had been off chasing the Avatar, they hadn't exactly been friendly enough with each other to spar.
Zuko had improved. But Azula had improved more, and Toph was no pushover, either.
Toph bent the stone in front of her into a shield, and Azula took advantage of Zuko's distraction to shoot a jet of fire at him, forcing him to relent in his attack on Toph in order to deflect.
"You escaped me once," Zuko said. "But you won't get away this time!"
"Oh, please," Azula said. "Like you've ever been able to beat me before."
By this point, Aang and Ty Lee had finished taking out all of the soldiers. It was just Zuko versus the entire group- all of whom had freed themselves by now.
Zuko looked around at the seven people ready to attack him, and at his soldiers, every one of them knocked out, and carefully lowered his hands.
"I surrender," he said, not looking happy about it. "You've beaten me."
Azula waited for it to be a trick, for Zuko to pull something out of his sleeve and attack them once their guards were down. But he did nothing of the sort. Instead, he let them tie him up, Azula binding his hands so that he couldn't bend and gagging him so that he couldn't use the breath of fire that Uncle was always so adamant they always remember.
One of the soldiers would untie him, once they woke up.
And then they fled.
Azula was sick of running. She wanted to end this. But at the same time, fighting like this- never knowing when the next attack would come or how she would defeat the next threat- was the most fun she'd ever had. Azula loved fighting. She loved challenges. True, there were a lot of parts about this that she didn't like as much. She liked regular baths, and servants to wait on her hand and foot.
Being Fire Lord would give her those things back. But it wouldn't be a challenge the way this was. It would be almost boring.
Azula would cross that bridge when she came to it. Being Fire Lord would give her awesome amounts of power. She was sure she'd find something to do with it, some challenge to face, once she had it.
The group needed a place to stay after the whole mess at the Western Air Temple, and Azula knew just the place.
"The Fire Lord will never expect us to be hiding in the royal beach house," Azula said. "It's the perfect spot."
"What if he decides to take a vacation?" Aang asked.
Azula gave him a look. "In the middle of a war? With the Avatar running loose ready to bring down the whole Fire Nation around his ears? He'd be a fool."
Then again, Azula had to admit- if anyone was going to take such a poorly-timed vacation, it would be her tea-brained uncle.
"It's unlikely," she decided. "But we'll check carefully before we go in."
They flew in to Ember Island at dusk, and spent an embarrassing amount of time peering at the house from behind a clump of bushes before deciding the going was safe.
A light coating of dust covered the floor and furniture. Azula kicked at it with distaste, and then caught sight of something she hadn't seen in years. The family portrait, just barely visible in the dusk light.
Azula had forgotten how depressing this place was.
"Are those your parents?" Katara asked.
Azula nodded, too busy considering whether it was worth her time to burn the stupid painting to give a proper response.
"You look... almost happy," Katara said. As though Azula never looked happy now.
Azula frowned. "Father... made sense to me," she said. "Uncle never did."
"You never really said what happened to them," Katara said. "Did your uncle..."
It took a few seconds for Azula to put together her image of tea-loving Uncle with the implications of Katara's question.
"No," Azula said. "At least- I don't think so. Uncle was the crown prince. He had no reason to get rid of Father. I was told it was Earth Kingdom assassins, after all the royal family they could get their hands on. But I don't think that was true, because no one tried to hurt me or my brother."
"Then what do you think happened?" Toph asked.
Azula looked away from the painting to find everyone staring at her. Or in her general direction, in Toph's case.
"I don't know," she said, after a moment. "It's always been a mystery to me. I thought for a long time that Father might have made a play for the throne. He was very ambitious. And Grandfather was a strong firebender. But I don't know what Mother was doing there. She didn't care much for politics."
Apparently that had been the wrong thing to say, because Katara and Aang both looked completely horrified, Sokka and Suki looked grim, and Toph and Ty Lee both looked shocked.
Azula wasn't sure what the big deal was. It wasn't like it was their father who had died. She didn't see the point in getting all worked up about it.
"His own father?" Ty Lee said. "Azula, I'm so sorry. I never knew."
Azula shrugged, uncomfortable with all the attention. "It was a long time ago," she said. "Nearly eight years ago." She added, less truthfully, "I didn't really know what was going on. I was only six."
This did not serve to lessen their shock. If anything, Katara seemed even more horrified.
Apparently Azula's annoyance at this looked something like grief, because Katara pulled her into a hug. Azula stiffened, unwilling to outright reject the hug- she needed to be a part of this group- and yet unable to fully accept it. Katara reminded her of her mother sometimes, and it was not a welcome comparison.
They couldn't find any oil for lamps or any candles, so they went to bed once it got dark. Azula gravitated towards what had been her room, once, and Ty Lee followed her. The bed was dusty and Ty Lee was too hot against Azula's side, so she slept poorly.
The next morning, Azula took the group to a secluded part of the beach to train. Toph worked on her sandbending, Katara splashed around in the water, and Sokka made horrible sand sculptures for Suki. Meanwhile, Azula drilled Aang on his firebending.
He was getting better. Nowhere near total mastery yet, of course, but better.
Then again, maybe Azula expected too much. She couldn't reasonably expect Aang to be on the same level as Uncle, or herself. Not now. But there were master firebenders with less skill than Azula, and perhaps that level of mastery was what she should be hoping for, right now.
In any case, by that evening they had all had a little too much sun and were ready for a break.
"There's a play just down the beach," Aang said. "Look, I found this poster! It's about us! We should disguise ourselves and go see it!"
Azula was intrigued in spite of herself.
The play was informative, though a bit over-dramatized. Azula had heard bits and pieces of the group's journey before she joined them, but they'd never really explained the whole story. The events on the stage were caricatures of the actual events, but it was possible to see through the caricatures to the truth of the matter, if you paid attention. Like, Katara really was extremely sentimental and prone to making speeches about hope, though she wasn't prone to "tearbending." And Sokka did make bad jokes.
She watched, eyes not leaving the stage, as Aang was freed from the iceberg (laughed too loudly when Aang's character was played by a girl, and was subsequently shushed by the others), as they travelled to Omashu, and as they chanced across a circus in the Fire Nation colonies.
Azula sat forward in her seat. This was the part where she came in.
They got her defeat at the hands of Aang's Avatar State embarrassingly right, down to the concussion afterwards. For some reason, though, they played up her attack on Katara.
"Tell me where the Avatar is!" stage-Azula said. "Or I'll kill your girlfriend!"
"She's not my girlfriend, yip-yip!"
The audience laughed.
Azula made sure not to look at the others. She didn't want to be reminded of her initial meeting with them. How bloodthirsty she'd been. It had been a poor strategy. She'd been so obsessed with finding the Avatar that she'd forgotten all about the political side of her agenda. How had she expected to become Fire Lord with no allies?
The next meeting with them went better, of course. And then there was the meeting with Jeong-Jeong. They played up her attack on Zhao even more than her attack on Katara, having her knock him unconscious and then continue kicking him until stage-Aang physically dragged stage-Azula away from him.
The audience booed stage-Azula, and the real Azula crossed her arms, trying to suppress her anger. It hadn't happened that way. They were lying.
Azula had no problem with lies, when they came out of her mouth. But it was different, when the lies were about her. And when the audience was stupid enough to believe them.
She looked over at the others out of the corner of her eye, but no one, not even Ty Lee, seemed shocked or surprised at all.
They utterly missed her motivations at the Northern Air Temple, too. She had only killed those soldiers because they were endangering Ty Lee. She hadn't been gleeful about it, the way they showed her.
They made her look like a monster. And no one was objecting.
At least she hadn't done anything that could be interpreted as horrible after that. They'd have to cut her some slack.
Except that there was a scene in the Northern Water Tribe, during the time that the moon had been red. And smiling grimly, the actress playing Azula killed Zhao.
No one had known about that. There had been no one around.
"It didn't happen like that," Azula told them, doing her best to sound irritated. "I didn't even fight Zhao at the North Pole."
"We know that," Sokka said. "You don't need to tell us." But he sounded suddenly unsure. "Hey- do you know what did happen to Zhao?"
"How would I know?" Azula asked. "It's not like I was there. He probably drowned when the ocean spirit killed all the soldiers. I'm going to go get some refreshments. I'll be right back."
By the time she came back, she had missed a lot. Ba Sing Se had fallen, and they were being chased by Uncle through the Earth Kingdom. Stage-Azula looked crazed from lack of sleep Makeup could do a lot, Azula supposed. Though she wished it didn't.
She could already see where this was going. Uncle came out of the machine he'd been using to chase them, and she shot lightning at him- while knowing who was coming out, which was just stupid. Plus it made her look evil yet again, which was unfair. She'd been trying hard this whole time not to be horrible, and now this play was pointing out that her best still wasn't good enough.
Then came the invasion on the day of black sun, and their subsequent failure.
"That's it, right?" Sokka said. "We're all caught up to the present."
"They'll probably tack on some sort of ending," Azula said. "They usually do."
Sure enough, a paper comet rolled across the paper sky.
"I'm here to defeat you, Fire Lord Iroh!" stage-Aang said.
Uncle was depicted as much skinnier than in real life, Azula noted. They'd made him look more like his days as a general than how he actually looked now. His hair wasn't even fully white.
"It is you who will be defeated, Avatar," stage-Uncle said.
The battle that followed was one-sided, with the comet lending its power to Uncle. He and Zuko easily killed the group. Soon, only Azula and Aang were left.
"Azula," stage-Zuko said. "Sister."
They wouldn't kill Azula onstage, Azula decided. They couldn't. She was a member of the royal family.
But Uncle had always been very lax about enforcing rules about how the royal family was depicted. Maybe the playwrights thought they could get away with more.
"Brother," stage-Azula said. "I've waited for the day I could kill you for far too long!"
"You don't have to do this," Zuko said. "There's still a way for you to redeem yourself!"
Stage-Azula looked intrigued. "What is it?" she asked.
"The Avatar has led you astray," Uncle said. "It isn't like you, to kill loyal Fire Nation soldiers. Leave the Avatar to us, and we will spare you your life."
Stage-Azula laughed. "And miss the fun of killing you both myself? Never!"
She shot lightning at Zuko, who dodged.
"Very well," Uncle said.
The death of stage-Aang was next, though stage-Azula fought to defend him. And then stage-Uncle fought back Azula's comet-fueled fire and chained her up.
"We will put you somewhere where you can do no more harm," Uncle said.
The audience cheered.
Azula felt sick. She'd known from the beginning that this play was pure propaganda, but she'd thought her character would be killed, not... this.
"Well, that sucked," Sokka said, once they got out of the play.
"Totally," Toph agreed.
"But the effects were good!"
They made a campfire on the beach after the show, and sat around it, mostly in silence.
"Do you all... like me?" Azula asked them, suddenly unsure. "I mean- we're friends, right?"
"Of course we are," Ty Lee said, looking concerned. "Why?"
Azula shook her head. "That play- it wasn't very... nice. To me. And no one said anything."
Ty Lee's look softened. "Oh, silly. That play was mean about everyone. Did you see what an airhead they made me?"
"And how they made me all preachy?" Katara said.
"And how they made my jokes lame?" Sokka said.
"You can be a little violent," Aang said, uncertainly. "But you're really improved, lately!"
Azula felt a little better, then. They didn't think she was a monster. But now that they'd reassured her, she was embarrassed that she'd had to ask. She usually prided herself on her ability to read people. She was losing her touch.
"I'm really tired," she said. "I think I'll go to bed now. I'll see you all in the morning."
"Sure," Ty Lee said. "I'll join you in a bit, okay?"
Azula nodded, and walked towards the beach house. The night air was a little chilly tonight, for all that it was the height of summer.
Her plans were almost completed. Aang just had to defeat Uncle and make her Fire Lord.
Things were almost over, and Azula didn't understand why she wished that they weren't.
"Fire Lord Iroh," Aang said, as they marched up to the palace, "your days of tyranny are over!"
Azula cringed. Clearly, Aang had decided that that line sounded cool. He was so, so wrong.
Aang fought Iroh. But even as he did, Azula could see that Uncle's heart wasn't in it- he wasn't aggressive enough, even with all the power of the comet behind him.
Of course, neither was Aang.
Instead, the fire washed between Aang and Iroh like water. Or, sometimes, it came in percussive blasts or gusts. Uncle's moves echoed Aang's, for all that he could only bend fire, and there was no killing intent in either of them.
They stayed within the bounds of the arena set aside for palace Agni Kais. Once or twice, Azula had to fend off flames that strayed a little far, but for the most part everything was contained.
And then, suddenly, it was over. Uncle was pinned beneath rock, Aang above him and posed as if for a killing blow. (Azula knew it would never come)
And then, Uncle said: "I surrender."
That, Azula hadn't expected.
"You'll stop the war?" Aang asked, face brightening.
Uncle bowed his head, as much as he could while still pinned to the ground. "Yes," he said. "I have done many terrible things. It is time a new Fire Lord took over. One fully committed to peace and the preservation of the balance between the nations. Someone whose honor is unquestionably pure."
Yes, Azula thought, and she was filled with triumph- she had worked so hard for this moment, and finally, it was here. She would be Fire Lord. Her plan had succeeded. Oh, there had been missteps along the way, but they weren't important now, because she had finally won.
"My nephew Zuko will take the throne," he continued, as Aang released him from the rock that pinned him.
Azula almost didn't hear him. And then her spirits abruptly fell, as she saw thoughtful- even relieved- looks come across the faces of her companions.
"You've been grooming Zuko to be your heir for years," she said, marching onto the field. "How is he going to change things? It will just be business as usual."
"He will be a wise leader," Iroh said, his tone one of gentle correction. "I have no doubt that his compassion and his heart will lead him on the correct path."
He turned to an official near him, who was staring unmoving, utterly stunned.
"The war is over, General," Iroh told him, brushing dust from his robes. "Issue orders for all of our troops to withdraw."
Azula wanted to scream. This wasn't how it was supposed to happen.
But it continued happening. Uncle stepped down that evening. Zuko's coronation was the next morning, after Aang had a long conversation with him and decided that he actually was committed to restoring balance to the world and honor to his nation.
Azula was present for that conversation, but couldn't find a moment where it seemed right to interject and tell them that they were making a mistake, that it was supposed to be her coronation they were planning out, not Zuko's.
The whole thing had a nightmarish feel to it. It was like her words and her plans and all the work she had put in to becoming Fire Lord meant nothing. Like destiny had abandoned her, when she was so close to winning.
That night, she frantically came up with other plans. She could kill Zuko. But then Aang would know she wasn't as peaceful as she seemed, and he'd stop her from ever becoming Fire Lord. She could kill Uncle- but that wouldn't do any good. It would just make her feel better. And it probably wouldn't even do that.
She could kill Aang. She could kill Aang and Zuko and Uncle, and take the throne by force. She could restart the war, and conquer the whole world.
It was an appealing thought in some ways, but she knew, even as she thought up the plan, that she didn't have the stomach for outright assassination. Killing someone when she had to was one thing. Killing them in cold blood, though, when there were other options- she knew from experience that that would bother her.
And besides- she'd worked too hard to stop this war. She wasn't going to just start it up again. Even if defeating the Fire Nation had been the means to an end, she'd be damned if she let it all fall apart now.
So, in the end, Azula stood in the front row during Zuko's coronation, and cheered.
They had to show unity now. The transition was going to be rough enough as it was.
And then, when the cheering was over and they were all trying to decide what to do next, she went to have a talk with Uncle.
"You picked Zuko," she said. "Why? You've been committed to peace for some time, haven't you? The dragons are alive. The inventions the Mechanist invented have been unused. All you were waiting for was an excuse. So why not pick the heir who has shown nothing but dedication to your goals? Why, instead, did you pick him?"
Uncle looked up at her from his cup of tea. He wasn't exactly imprisoned. He had been sitting in his chambers since he'd lost the Agni Kai. No one was quite sure what to do with him. "Would you care for a cup of tea?" he asked. "It's jasmine. I know you have always been partial to jasmine tea."
She scowled at him. "I don't want tea, Uncle. I want answers."
He sighed. "I'm afraid answers are a bit more difficult than tea."
She sat. "Well?"
"Your brother is well-prepared. He has the right temperament for peace talks and tedium, and he is committed. He doesn't have your brilliance, but he is straightforward and honest, which will serve him well."
"Are you saying I'm not honest?" Azula asked.
"That," Uncle said, "is a conversation for another time. But I do know that you are brilliant, and you have a life of adventure ahead of you. Why would you want to tie yourself down? Do you really want to live in the palace for the rest of your life? To sit through hours of meetings every day- boring meetings, with people who are not as smart as you?"
Azula said nothing.
"You would hate being Fire Lord," he said. "You would be bored, and you have never dealt well with boredom. Is that not why you ran away?"
Azula had run away because there was nothing for her in the palace- not when Zuko was the heir. Not when her highest aspiration could only be to be a princess.
She supposed that was a sort of boredom.
"What you need," Uncle continued, "is a continual challenge. And I have no doubts about your abilities to find challenges."
"I hate you," Azula said, because she could now. There was no one to listen, no one to judge. Her last hopes had all been dashed against the ground and shattered like shards of pottery. So now, finally, she could be honest. There was no destiny to worry about, no cause to march towards. There was just her, and Uncle, and the pot of tea gently releasing its steam in the air between them.
"I know," Uncle said, and for a moment he looked unbearably sad. Azula wanted to hit him. "And I would make you Fire Lord if I thought it would do you any good. But it won't, and I couldn't bear to see you make yourself miserable. Not when there's so much else you could do with your life."
Azula glared, at a loss for any words that would bring Uncle over to her side of the argument.
"For what it's worth," Uncle said, "I love you. Even though you have never let me see who you really are, I love you like you were my own daughter. And I hope that one day you will come to trust me enough to show me your true self." Gently, he added, "The girl you pretended to be to me would not have wanted to be Fire Lord at all."
Azula had always pretended to be a girl that Uncle would like, a girl who had once liked dolls and who was satisfied with what she had been given in life. It had seemed smart at the time. Azula's lies had always gotten her what she wanted before. The only person she'd ever been totally honest with had been Father, and with him gone, it seemed safest to lie to everyone.
Honesty would have served her no better. Uncle was like mother; he'd have hated her for her cruelty.
There had never been any way for her to win this, right from the start.
She stormed out then, and went to find Ty Lee. They weren't going to stay here. Not now. There was no point. They could go somewhere else. The circus again, maybe. At least Ty Lee would be happy, if they went back. Or they could move to Ember Island and live the rest of their lives in luxury. She was still the princess. She could still demand enough money for that.
Her life stretched out in front of her, bleak and gray and boring, and she tried to remember what it had felt like to believe in destiny, in the days before she had run out of desperate million-to-one chances.
Azula walked into the center ring, dressed in another stupid silk robe, as impractical as the one she had worn in the last circus (it hindered her movements, and it looked awful on her, and it had obviously been designed by someone with his mind in the bedroom and not on the field of war). She took a bow, and the ringmaster went on and on about how she was a rare beauty, but deadly, There were two boys at the front eating fire flakes. There were always two boys at the front eating fire flakes. And usually staring at her breasts, because this outfit was not made for combat.
She breathed in. She pretended the audience wasn't there.
She punched the air and let a jet of flame shoot out. She wished Zuko was standing in front of her, because he would have been fried to a crisp. She wanted nothing more.
A shield to block enemies coming at her- all of them Fire Nation, guards that were keeping Zuko from being assassinated. Well, too late. The first punch had taken care of him. Well, maybe some of them were benders, and they'd shot flames at her. She let her shield grow as it absorbed the flames. She made it bigger and bigger, until it wasn't a shield anymore, but a whirling vortex of flames, orange and violet and white and green.
It was what the dragons had done. And then Aang had looked up, and there had been something in his eyes- he'd seen something that Azula hadn't, and he'd never been able to explain what.
Well, Azula could make those flames too. And there was still nothing in them but fire.
She let the flames die. The tent was dark for a moment, save for the torches by that entrance and the dim sunlight that came through the flap by the door. The audience was dead silent. They stared at her like she'd showed them something amazing, instead of just more circus tricks, and she hated them for it.
She let out a standard barrage of fireballs, not focused on an imaginary battle anymore. Just on color, and making every flame ball different. This was a show, after all.
And, as a show, her battle just now had been poorly done. She'd already let loose her most impressive-looking moves. Everything from here on out would be an anticlimax. She could see that the audience was becoming bored.
She'd been good at this, once. She'd hated it, but she'd been good at it.
She hated the circus. She hated Zuko. She hated everything. Why had she come back? She should have killed Zuko and taken the throne. Except- Aang would have stopped her. That was the problem with helping the Avatar to restore balance. He'd get mad if she screwed it up again. And Ty Lee would look at her sadly and never say a word, which was even worse than her being mad.
She stopped the flames. She walked out. It wasn't really time yet, but she didn't care. Let the ringmaster fire her. Shocked, hesitant applause followed her out of the ring. She caught a look of concern from Ty Lee from backstage as she stormed out, but Ty Lee didn't follow her. Her part in the show was soon, after all, and Ty Lee actually liked the circus.
She didn't even have to pack her bags. She was only walking to the capital city, and the tent was pitched just outside it. After all, thousands of people were flocking to the capital, and some of them might be interested in a day at the circus while the new Fire Lord avoided giving an audience to them for as long as possible.
She walked up to the palace, and the guards let her in. After all, they knew her. She'd been in here a lot, helping with peace negotiations. And she was the princess. That counted for something, even now.
The palace was quiet. Zuko was not on the throne, or in the war room, or anywhere else she looked. And then she checked the pond with the turtle-ducks, and he was there, in full royal regalia, sitting next to the pond and throwing little pieces of bread to them.
"I challenge you to an Agni Kai," she said.
He turned. "Azula. I thought you'd gone back with Ty Lee."
"You thought wrong. Agni Kai. Now."
He looked genuinely surprised. "Why?"
"I'm challenging you for the right to rule the country."
He laughed, and Azula almost struck him with lightning on the spot.
"You'd be bored sick in a week," he told her. "And you'd scare away all the ambassadors."
"It's my right to challenge you," Azula said. "Are you afraid you'll lose? That I might be better at ruling the nation than you are?"
He stood up. He was slightly more intimidating than usual in the heavy robes of the Fire Lord. But Azula was not easily intimidated. Certainly not by her brother. He hadn't posed much of a threat since she was three, even with the best firebending teachers in the nation helping to train him.
"Is that what all of this was about?" he asked. "Betraying Uncle? Joining the Avatar? I should have known you just wanted to be Fire Lord. All you ever do is lie."
She walked up to him and slapped him. He stood there, stunned, which was a perfect opportunity to keep talking. "I told everyone my true motives," she lied. "But let me ask you. What do you plan to do about the colonies? About Ba Sing Se? About the soldiers who committed war crimes in the name of the Fire Nation? Do you even have a plan? You haven't made a single proclamation since you took the throne. It's been two weeks. No one knows what to do."
"I've been meeting with the ambassadors," Zuko said sullenly. "We're working things out."
"You're moving too slowly," she said. "People are losing faith in you. It looks like you're bending over backwards to accommodate the other nations. Sacrificing the Fire Nation's best interests. Is that the message you want to send?"
"If Uncle hadn't left," Azula said, "he'd probably have taken the crown back from you a week ago."
That, apparently, was the last straw. Zuko moved to attack, and she blocked his opening fire blast easily.
This wasn't right. She needed to beat him in an Agni Kai. In front of witnesses. That was the way she'd take the throne. He was spoiling it. She wanted a victory, not an empty fight.
This had been her last chance. It couldn't be another failure in a string of failures.
And yet he kept coming, and Azula didn't just want to beat him. She wanted to kill him for spoiling her plans. But there was no way she could get away with that.
In the end, it wasn't even much of a fight. Her opening volley of fireballs knocked him backwards into a wall. His head connected with stone, making a satisfying noise as it did so.
He didn't get up. His eyes were still open, but they weren't focusing quite right, and his clumsy attempts to stand were wasted.
She'd beaten him.
Azula thought of last chances, and how they never seemed to work for her. This wasn't a legal Agni Kai. She hadn't won the crown. She hadn't accomplished anything. It had just been a fight, over anger and stupidity.
It had been wonderful, even so.
She thought of ruling the nation. Of sitting in meetings with ambassadors and trying to make everyone happy. Of documents to sign and treaties to ratify- all the delicate tasks of creating peace out of thin air and words.
Azula was good with words, provided no one expected her to mean what she said. She would be a fine peace-time leader. She could get good trading rights, and make sure that the Fire Nation stayed a major power economically even as they disarmed. It would be like conquering, only with numbers and money instead of soldiers and fire. (So not much like conquering at all, some treacherous part of her mind noted.)
She could be in charge. But she didn't want to be. If the Fire Nation were still at war, being Fire Lord would be exciting. An adventure. But it wasn't. She'd made sure the Fire Nation was crushed, and she'd done it as utterly and irrevocably as she did everything.
And how could anything ever compare to the thrill of actually conquering the most powerful nation in the world, when she'd already done that?
So Uncle was right. She would be bored. She would hate being Fire Lord.
Then what was supposed to do?
It took her a moment to think of what to do next. But not more than a moment.
"Make me a general," she said.
"The war is over," Zuko said, voice a little slurred, and Azula noted absently that she would have to call a healer soon. He was probably concussed. Maybe she shouldn't have smashed him into that wall quite so hard.
"There's still fighting," she said. "Not all of the islands and the colonies will give up just because you say so. There will be rebellions. Real peace is a long way off. This is just... a ceasefire, while the world figures out what's going on. We'll be lucky to avoid a civil war."
Zuko looked ill at the thought. Or maybe it was just the concussion. "That's awful."
Was it? Azula didn't think so. Because when she thought of a world with no one left to fight, no cause to march towards, she didn't know what to do. When your enemies were defeated and your armies had taken up farming- what was left?
"Make me a general," she said, "and I'll make sure you keep your peace."
She left unspoken the threat behind her words: deny me, and I'll make sure it never comes.
He groaned. She took that as a yes.
General Azula walked away from the Fire Lord, and went to find a healer.
First, to fix her brother. Then, to utterly crush any forces that opposed peace.
She whistled a little as she walked.