Chapter 1: Book 1: Water
Step forward. Punch. Let a jet of hot blue flames burn the air in front of her. Turn to block an imaginary opponent, making a shield of flames at the same time, because who knew what kind of attack might come? This shield could vaporize water or ice, and deflect air. Earth was still a problem, but she laughed at the thought of anyone trying to use fire against her.
She'd invented the shield herself. As soon as she figured out the earth problem, it would be a suitable defense against any element. Even the Avatar wouldn't be able to stand against her.
Enemy blocked, she dropped into a low kick, unleashing a fan of flames that was not just blue but violet and white as well. Blue wasn't the hottest flame she could muster, after all. Just the hottest that she could constantly maintain- so far. And it was important that her bending look impressive. This was more than just practice.
Was she good enough? Her imaginary opponent was burnt to a crisp. But perhaps there were others. After all, she could hardly expect the Avatar to travel alone. If it were her, she'd have companions, if only to keep watch while she slept, or to act as shields.
Well. That was easy enough to take care of. A volley of multicolored fireballs would kill any survivors easily.
With dozens of imaginary corpses around her, Azula let herself relax. She was good enough. She'd defeat the Avatar. All she had to do was find him, and that was only a matter of time.
She inhaled, and then took a deep bow.
The applause was a little delayed to come, and it wasn't as loud or as much as she deserved, but it was there. A couple of boys in the front row whistled at her, and she ignored them.
The spotlight moved away from her, as the ringmaster made his announcement. “And now, watch as our acrobats defy death itself, high in the air, performing stunts more dangerous than you have ever seen before!”
Azula didn't listen to the rest. She'd heard it all before, dozens of times. It was time to get out of this stupid robe, and back into her usual clothes. Her part of the show was over. She had three hours before she had to be back for the next show, and she hadn't been to this corner of the colonies before.
It was time to look for the Avatar.
Four and a half hours and one more show later, she was no closer to her goal than she had been that morning. There was no Avatar here. No powerful benders. No mysterious old men. Not even any rumors. And it had started raining.
Azula sat on a rock under an overhang of the main tent, eating fire flakes from the food booth and trying to decide it if was worth her effort to find somewhere that sold more substantial fare.
It was, she decided. She had to keep up her strength. She might find the Avatar any day now.
She stood up, and was reaching for her umbrella when Ty Lee leaped on her from behind, grabbing her in an overly friendly hug and somehow managing not to drop the two bowls of hot dumplings she was holding.
“I've never seen you do green fire before!” Ty Lee said, so cheerful so was practically chirping. “You were amazing!”
Azula allowed herself a small smile of pride. It was a small accomplishment, totally unsuited to combat- but as long as she was traveling with the circus, additional impressive-looking firebending moves had a place.
And it had looked very impressive.
Ty Lee released her, and handed her a bowl of dumplings. They both sat, Azula on the rock and Ty Lee on the ground beside her, leaning back against Azula's legs as she ate her food.
The dumplings were a little greasy, filled with vegetables and even a little meat. The heat of them was perfect for this chilly rainy evening.
“So how did your search go today?” Ty Lee asked. And just like that, the perfect moment was gone.
“Another failure,” Azula said. Her mouth twisted into something angry, entirely against her will, and Ty Lee got a concerned look on her face.
“You'll find him!” she said. “If anyone can do it, you can!”
“This is a fool's errand,” Azula said. “The sages could be wrong about the Avatar. He's probably as dead as the rest of the Air Nomads.”
“Don't be like that,” Ty Lee told her. “Don't give up. Your uncle wouldn't have sent you if he didn't think you could do it.”
Which might have been reassuring, if Uncle Iroh actually had sent her out to find the Avatar.
The thing was, Azula had lied to Ty Lee. Her uncle hadn't actually sent her on this mission. He had sent Zuko, because it had become a sort of tradition for princes to go looking to the Avatar.
He hadn't sent Azula, because Azula was a princess, and Azula wasn't the heir. All she was expected to do was to marry a suitable husband and have children- backup heirs, in case Zuko didn't manage to produce any, or in case Zuko's children died. Azula didn't need to go on quests. She wasn't expected to. No journeys. No adventures. No chances to prove herself, and no chance at command beyond planning out royal banquets, which she hated. Uncle hadn't even allowed her to join the army. Something about safety, and how he couldn't bear to lose another child, and after that she'd stopped listening.
Azula didn't want a husband, and she didn't want children, and she didn't want to be the princess if that was all it meant. That wasn't enough. Not when she was the better firebender, and the better leader, and better at planning. But His Royal Kookiness liked Zuko better, and Zuko was older, and Zuko was a boy. So he got to be Fire Lord one day, while Azula was nothing.
And then Zuko had come back without the Avatar. No one had expected anything else. Uncle had welcomed him home with a feast to celebrate his failure, and Azula had sat and watched.
No one expected Zuko to capture the Avatar, because it was impossible. No matter what the sages said, the Avatar had probably died a long time ago.
It was impossible to Azula to become Fire Lord.
And somehow, at the intersection of these two impossibilities, she saw a glimmer of a chance. Even if she managed to capture the Avatar, it might not make a difference. She might still end up as a princess forever, doomed to a life of banality, her talents wasted.
But maybe, just maybe, she could force Uncle to see that she was the more fit. That she was the better leader for the nation. That she was the one who could do the impossible, the one who was the prodigy, the one who had born with the royal right to rule.
So she'd written a letter, and she'd left. And now she'd been traveling with this spirits-forsaken circus for nearly a year, stopping in any town that could possibly pay enough to be worth their while. She'd been to every part of the Fire Nation, and quite a bit of the Earth Kingdom. The bits of it near the colonies, anyway. But she was missing the smaller islands, and the tiniest villages. The circus couldn't afford to stop at them. And Azula had the sinking feeling that she was looking in the wrong places.
One step at a time, she reminded herself. Look everywhere you can. Someone must know where he is. Keep listening to rumors. There seem to be a lot of them, lately. Someone's been stirring up rebellion. Maybe, just maybe-
Some of her frustration must have shown on her face, because Ty Lee still looked concerned.
“Close your eyes,” she said with a little smile.
Azula did, and waited expectantly as Ty Lee slowly moved closer. But Ty Lee's lips had barely touched her own when they heard voices.
“...telling you, this is a bad idea.”
Ty Lee pulled away with an apologetic look. The performers in the circus didn’t care much who was sleeping with who, but the circus-goers were usually a lot more conservative.
Three strangely-dressed children came around one of the smaller tents, obviously late to see the show.
“The show is almost over,” Azula told them, putting down her dumplings with a sigh. “We don't allow admission this late. You should go home now.”
The child wearing a giant hat and bizarre orange clothes made a revolting face. She suspected it was meant to look sad.
“I wanted to see the circus,” he said.
The girl turned to him. “We'll see another circus. We shouldn't stay here too long anyway. Right?” She turned to the other boy, for confirmation, and there was worry in her eyes.
The girl and the older boy were wearing blue, Azula noted, by the light of the fading sun and the flickering torches nearby. Which was strange. The dye was hard to get. It wasn't a common color, this far-
And then she knew why they were dressed so strangely. And why the two older ones had blue eyes.
“You're water tribe,” she said.
She had never seen anyone's eyes grow so wide so fast. Really, had they expected that no one would figure it out? They were wearing tribal clothing. Were they stupid?
“We're not water tribe,” the older boy said. “We don't know anything about the water tribes. We're fire nation. We like... fire.”
He gave Azula an unconvincing grin. The other two joined suit.
What was the water tribe doing here? This was practically the equator, as far from either pole as it was possible to get. Were they mobilizing forces? She tried to remember what she knew about the water tribes. Not much. They were barely mentioned in the history books, and they hadn't been a threat since nearly the beginning of the war. Eighty years, if she remembered correctly.
Long enough, perhaps, to recover. Enough to send out scouts.
She grabbed the younger boy. “Why is the water tribe here? Are you scouts?”
“We're not anything,” he said with a squeak.
Why would they pick this moment? Why now, when the Fire Nation was nearing victory? Even if they were fully recovered from the battles eighty years ago, there was no way they had the numbers to pose a serious threat.
Unless they had an advantage.
An advantage like the Avatar.
She didn't waste time asking more questions. There would be plenty of time for that once they were securely in chains, and ready to tell her where the Avatar was hidden away.
The boy managed to squirm out of her grasp. Too bad. She'd though she could use him to make the others cooperate. Now this confrontation would be a little longer.
Behind her, Ty Lee was standing at the ready.
“You're making a mistake,” the girl said. “We're not from the Water Tribes. We're Fire Nation, just like you.”
“Really,” Azula said. “Then tell me the names of the royal family.”
The girl's hand moved to her water flask. A waterbender, perhaps. Azula would have Ty Lee neutralize her bending. The boys didn't seem to be much of a threat.
“Ty Lee,” Azula said. But before she had a chance to issue a command, the waterbender's other hand- the one Azula hadn't been watching- swept forward.
With it came a rush of water.
Azula let out a burst of flames which turned the water to steam, and frowned. Of all the days for a waterbender to cross her path- of course it had to be raining.
Ty Lee had engaged the older boy. By the time the first blast of steam had cleared, he was laying prone on the ground.
“Run, guys,” he said. “I'll be okay.”
Azula vaporized another blast of water, and moved in.
The waterbender screamed as Azula pinned her arms and held a flame at her throat, ready to kill her if the others protested.
“I need to know where the Avatar is,” she said. “I suspect you know.”
The girl managed to twist enough to spit on her before Azula could regain her grip. Azula recoiled and was about to move in for a finishing strike when the world exploded.
The younger boy was glowing. His eyes as well as a strange arrow on his head that had been covered by his hat until a moment ago.
Azula hadn't calculated for this. She had expected to search long and hard before she confronted the Avatar, and to plan her attack for when the Avatar wasn't expecting her. She hadn't expected to actually find him right now. She hadn't planned for a head-on confrontation. She hadn't expected to lose so easily.
But lose was what she did, as a gust of wind blew her away and her head connected painfully with a rock, sending her into darkness.
Azula didn't wake up until much later. Several hours. The healer that Ty Lee had brought told her a lot of things about not straining herself and concussions, but Azula ignored her.
She'd found the Avatar. She'd lost, but she hadn't been expecting him. Now she knew his face. She would find him again, and she would beat him, and Uncle would finally have to acknowledge that she was the worthier heir.
It was just a matter of effort, now. And of sneaking past Ty Lee, who was remarkably insistent that Azula actually follow the healer's orders and rest. It took a whole day before Ty Lee would let her get out of bed for more than a moment, and another day before Azula could go anywhere without Ty Lee following her. On the third day, when the trail had gone utterly and completely cold, Azula received a hastily-scrawled letter from her Uncle.
She was to return home. She was not to seek the Avatar. It was dangerous, it was unfitting, and if she continued to chase him, he would be deeply disappointed.
He shouldn't have known where she was, to send the letter. He shouldn't have known enough to chastise her for running away and joining the circus. She'd meant for everything to be secret, until she came back with the Avatar. But he'd known where she was all along. Known, and said nothing. She could almost hear him speaking with Zuko- talking about how she needed to get the adventure out of her system, or something.
Her last hope for the throne was extinguished. If Uncle had expressly forbidden her from pursuing the Avatar, bringing him back in chains was hardly going to win any approval. And he didn't even want to allow her to stay with the circus.
That shouldn't have bothered her so much. Azula hated the circus. She hated the stinking animals, and the greasy food, and the stupid boys and old men leering at her. She hated the cheap gaudy clothing and the way the old mothers and crones looked down on her. She hated everything.
But Ty Lee loved the circus.
And- well, there were worse places to be. There were days when Azula could almost forget about the nation she would probably never rule. Days when the applause was almost satisfying, because it meant that someone else appreciated the hard work she did. Days when she was almost happy here. They were rare days, but they existed.
She thought of a life back in the palace. Of wearing beautiful robes, and having servants to care for her hair and to dress her and to cater to her whims. She thought of never leaving the palace except by palanquin. Of being dutiful.
The circus was better. Not much better. But a little.
There was nothing else to do. Uncle would never make her the heir. That was the crux of the matter, the point which she kept circling endlessly with no solution.
Uncle would never make her the heir.
And then one last idea kindled into life.
Ty Lee stopped her as she was leaving. “I'm coming with you,” she said.
“You'll get in the way,” Azula told her, which was only partly a lie. Ty Lee was useful. But she would be miserable away from the circus, and she would mope, so it was better if she stayed behind.
Besides, she would be a distraction, even if she didn't mope. And Azula couldn't afford distractions, now. Not when she was finally in sight of her goal.
“You'll get lonely.” Ty Lee said. “Your aura will go all gray. And you won't be able to do your hair on your own. I'm coming.”
All of which was nonsense, of course. Azula wasn't so weak that hair or feelings could defeat her, especially in the short time it would take to find the Avatar.
Still- if Azula was careful to keep herself from being distracted, Ty Lee would be an asset. And there might be moments when a little distraction was not unwelcome. Azula deserved that much, didn't she?
“Fine,” she said. “Are you packed?”
Ty Lee nodded. “I’ve been packed since before you woke up from you concussion. But... I don’t understand why we’re doing this. Why are we going after the Avatar when your uncle doesn’t want you to?”
“It doesn’t matter what Uncle wants, anymore,” Azula said.
She considered, briefly, that her plan might be beyond Ty Lee’s acting skills. Better to tell her only what she needed to know. So she did.
Finding the Avatar was as easy as Azula expected. She took her hair out of her topknot and let Ty Lee pull it back into a simple braid. Then she bought some clothing for the two of them from the nearest Earth Kingdom village, and suddenly everyone was much more willing to answer any questions she asked.
It was easy. People actually volunteered information about the bison that had flown over yesterday, or the strange children who had come to town the other day and bought food with water tribe money, or the troublemakers who had angered the fire nation soldiers in the next town over. And if anyone started asking why she was so interested, all she had to do was look surprised and say: “Well, who wouldn't be interested? Aren't you?”
It didn't take much brainpower to tell that the Avatar was heading north. And he was ahead of her. He had his air bison, and she only had her feet. But she also had some money, and quite a lot of cunning, and Ty Lee knew how to look helpless and cute so that people would help her. So they ended up getting rides on carts, and stays at inns that were cheaper than normal, and once a boat ride up a long river.
It helped that the Avatar was easily distracted. Help a town here, stay for a festival there- when he traveled, he traveled fast, but he never went far. Within a week of following him, she had almost caught up. She even caught sight of the bison soaring though the sky away from a village she was approaching. She stayed in the same inn that the Avatar had stayed in, and asked as many questions as she could without drawing attention to herself.
Almost two weeks after leaving the circus, Azula finally caught up to him.
He was in a small village- more of a temple, really- filled with the scent of perfume and the nuns who made it.
She didn't give him a chance to run, or fight, or even talk.
“Avatar,” she said.
She gave him a deep bow.
Ty Lee followed suit.
There was a moment of complete confusion and blank looks. Either they hadn't gotten a clear look at her face before, or they didn't expect an enemy to wear green. In either case, they didn't immediately recognize her, and it was obvious that they weren't expecting any trouble.
They were naïve, unprepared children. She was going to have her work cut out for her. As last-ditch chances went, this was really a terrible idea. But she didn't have any better ones. It really would look too suspicious if she outright poisoned Zuko, after all. Especially considering the fiasco of the last succession crisis, when Grandfather, Mother, and Father had all died in one night.
“I want to join your group,” she told the Avatar. “You need a firebending teacher, correct?”
She looked up, and, before the looks of dawning comprehension could quite solidify, she added: “I'm sorry about attacking you that day. I was acting out of desperation. I have been searching for the Avatar for quite some time now, and the thought that you might know his whereabouts clouded my mind.”
The display of remorse looked good, she decided.
“Why should we trust you?” the older boy asked, pointing his boomerang at her accusingly. “You probably just want to spy on us so that someone like that jerk Zhao can find us.”
The look of disgust at Zhao's name was unfeigned. “Zhao? Even if I weren’t on your side, I wouldn't do anything to help him.”
Zhao was uncontrolled and poorly trained, totally unsuited to his position. Azula had always disliked him. If there was one good thing about switching sides, it was that she finally had an excuse to beat him half to death.
“That’s not very compelling,” the waterbender pointed out.
“You’re Fire Nation,” boomerang guy said. “There’s just no way we can trust you.”
The Avatar frowned. “Hold on. Not everyone from the Fire Nation is bad. I used to hang out in the Fire Nation all the time with my friend Kuzon.”
“That was before the war,” Boomerang pointed out.
“She deserves a second chance,” the Avatar said. He took a step forward and bowed to Azula. “My name is Aang. These are my friends Katara and Sokka.”
“Azula,” Azula said, giving a bow in return. “And this is Ty Lee.”
“I knew not everyone in the Fire Nation was bad,” The Ava- Aang said.
Azula gave them a pleasant smile. Ty Lee beamed. “I’m sure we’re all going to be great friends!” she said.
Later, sleeping in the quarters the nuns had provided them- Ty Lee in Azula’s room instead of her own- Ty Lee asked, “Are we doing the right thing?”
“Are we doing the right thing by helping the Avatar? I mean, his whole mission is to defeat your uncle. Aren’t you worried about what might happen?”
“I don’t need Uncle,” Azula said.
In the darkness, Azula could just barely see that Ty Lee was biting her bottom lip. Azula leaned over and kissed her.
“It’s going to be fine,” Azula murmured. “You’ll see. This is a perfect plan.”
Ty Lee didn’t seem reassured. “But... do you think Aang can win? He’s so young.”
“He’s the Avatar,” Azula said, trying to put more confidence in her words than she felt. “You saw how he beat me. He only looks like a child. Once he’s fully trained, he’ll be more of a match for Uncle.”
“And the war will be over,” Ty Lee said. “We could take the circus to the Earth Kingdom! Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Azula made a noncommittal noise. She wouldn’t be part of the circus once she was Fire Lord, of course. And she hoped Ty Lee would want to be Fire Lady, once Azula was Fire Lord. It would be unusual, but not unprecedented. Several Fire Lords had had same-sex lovers in the past, and one or two of them had even been given titles. As long as Azula produced heirs for the throne, no one would care too much what titles she gave her lovers.
Besides, she could always banish anyone who disagreed.
But it was still too soon to think about such things. Now it was time to get a good night’s sleep so that tomorrow she would be ready to train the Avatar.
The morning sun woke Azula up before any of the others. Even Ty Lee, who was also an early riser, wasn’t awake yet.
Well. This would give her a few minutes of quiet to plan out her next move.
Aang’s airbending was completely ungrounded. If he learned the elements in order, he would learn to be controlled. There was a reason that the order of the elements was the way it was, after all.
Well, if they waited to start training until Aang had mastered water and earth, Azula would be travelling with these brats for years.
That was not an option. Azula could be patient. But she couldn’t be that patient.
She’d start by correcting his stance. Then teaching him a few basic katas- ones that didn’t actually involve bending, to start with. It wouldn’t do for her pupil to injure himself on the first day of training.
Yes, this would work.
Aang seemed less than pleased with her instruction. He was too impulsive, and kept whining about wanting to make fireballs.
Azula had her work cut out for her.
“You should learn firebending from Master Jeong-Jeong!” the deserter they met told them.
Aang’s face lit up.
“Am I not satisfactory as a teacher?” Azula asked, not bothering to hide her irritation.
“You’re great,” Aang said, “but he's a master firebender. Maybe he knows some awesome techniques!”
Azula sighed, and tried to remember if she'd ever met a Jeong-Jeong. No, she decided. She hadn't. But that didn't mean that he hadn't heard of her. Azula was not a common name, and anyone might connect it with the princess of the Fire Nation.
Still. It would look suspicious if she tried to hide her name, and just as suspicious if she tried to dissuade Aang from learning firebending any way he could. Better to come along and deflect as much attention from herself as she could.
The camp was small, and a river ran by it. Jeong-Jeong was there, but he took one look at Aang and said: “No. I will not teach you.”
Aang opened his mouth to protest, but Azula was quicker. “I've already started teaching him,” she said. “But- I have had no lessons since I was nine, when my father died. Since then, I have taught myself.” (Part of that was a lie. After all, her father had died when she was seven.) “If you won't teach him, please show me what you know, so that I can pass it on to him when he is ready.”
The bow she gave him was calculated to be respectful, but not too respectful. The sort of bow the daughter of noblemen might give- someone like Mai. If Azula weren’t hiding, she wouldn’t have bowed at all.
“You are the Avatar's firebending teacher?” he said. “You, an untrained child?”
“Yes,” she said. She steeled her shoulders. “My name is Azula.”
“Azula,” he repeated, face a stone wall. “I have heard of an Azula, before.”
“I was named for the Fire Lord Azulon,” she said. “Fifteen years ago. My parents were minor nobles, who wished to give me luck. They didn't anticipate the princess.”
She should have gone by a fake name. But she needed the trust of the Avatar's group- and that was more easily gained if she at least appeared to be as honest as possible. Later, she could say: “I lied as little as I could.”
Jeong-Jeong gave her a long, long look. But finally, he said: “Fine.”
He took her aside, and said, “Keep this leaf from burning.”
It was a child's task, one her father had never even bothered setting her to. She'd never had problems with control.
In her hands, the leaf blazed hot and white for a moment, before she tamped the fire down. She could keep this up all day.
Luckily, before she had to, there was a sound of shouting from further down the river.
“I will go investigate,” Jeong-Jeong said. “You, wait here.”
Azula didn’t bother following directions. If something was wrong, she needed to protect the Avatar. She had too much invested in him to let him die easily. She didn’t worry about the others; Ty Lee could take care of herself, and Katara and Sokka were disposable.
There were soldiers in a boat on the river. And one of them was Zhao. The Avatar was under attack, but Ty Lee was handling the situation well; she’d already disabled the other firebenders and was just waiting for an opening to use her chi-blocking skills on Zhao. The situation was well in hand. The Avatar was fighting, too, but Azula was not impressed. Air was such a weak element; he would fight better once he knew fire as well.
Then Zhao shot flames at Ty Lee, and nearly burnt her, and Azula saw red. She rushed into the fray, shooting flame after flame at Zhao, aiming to kill. She knocked him to the ground, and readied herself for the final blow-
“STOP!” Aang shouted, grabbing her arm. “Azula, you don't have to do that! He's down! We can leave.”
“He'll just keep following,” Azula said.
Zhao grinned. “Oh, I will, Prin-”
Azula stepped on his stomach before he could finish that word.
“Fine,” she said.
They left. And Azula decided she would just have to be ruthless when no one was looking next time.
They were getting closer to the North Pole. And Aang still didn't seem to be taking things as seriously as she expected him to.
“We can't afford to stop,” she said. “We only have until summer for you to master all the elements. Every day we waste is one less to prepare.”
“I'll be quick,” Aang said. “It's on the way.”
Azula wondered why she even bothered to object.
Azula wasn't sure what to expect from an air temple. She'd never been to one before. She'd wanted to go to them, of course, when she was looking for the- for Aang. But she'd had limited resources, and she couldn't imagine anyone that powerful spending all their time in what was essentially a grave.
And she'd been right. Keeping track of rumors had served her much better.
But it meant she had no idea what to expect. Would it be like the Fire Sages' temples?
Such thoughts were cut short, as a boy with a glider swooped past them.
Airbenders? she thought. It wasn't possible. Great-grandfather Sozin had killed all of the airbenders, all of them except Aang. No others had survived. Every year, the Fire Sages ventured into the spirit temple to ask about the Avatar. Every year, the spirits said that only one airbender remained. The Avatar.
Either the spirits lied, or these were not airbenders.
“Look, Aang,” Katara said. “They're airbenders!”
Aang crossed his arms. “They're not. They're just gliding on currents.”
So of course, they had to stop and see why people were living in Aang's sacred temple.
It didn't look anything at all like a Fire Nation temple. It certainly didn't look like a place people ought to live. The steps were steep and didn't offer the best grip even though they were dry, and there were no railings. People must fall to their deaths every time it rained. This place was meant for airbenders and only airbenders. Which meant- since all airbenders had lived in the temples- that all of the Air Nomads had been benders.
Interesting. She could only imagine how powerful the Fire Nation's army would be, if every one of the soldiers were a bender. She would have to question Aang and figure out what the secret to their universal bending was.
Azula hated gliders.
She was never getting on one again.
The air whooshed by under her, and she felt sick to her stomach. She held on the glider's handles, knuckles white. The ground was too far away. Somehow she'd never noticed that, on Appa. She'd felt safe.
She didn't feel safe now.
Worst of all, she had no idea how to land this thing.
Ty Lee, on the other hand, swooped around like a bird, clearly made for the air. Azula felt a pang of jealousy which she dismissed after a moment. Being jealous of Ty Lee was irrational. Any strength that Ty Lee possessed was useful to Azula. They were allies. More than allies.
The wall loomed close in front of her, and Azula wasn't sure how to stop herself.
“Stupid wall,” she said. “Prepare to meet your doom.”
A few well-aimed bursts of fire were enough to change her course, although she inadvertently shot them in the direction of other gliders, making it so that they had to dodge them. Well, no one was injured.
The landing area ended up a bit scorched when she finally came in for a landing.
Azula vowed never to leave the ground without Appa, ever again.
“You’re working for the Fire Nation!” Sokka said, pointing at the machines scattered around the room.
“Yes,” the Mechanist admitted. “I am. They said they would leave us alone if I cooperated.”
The others focused on telling off the Mechanist. Azula was focused on something else entirely.
There was dust on some of the machines. A thick layer of it. Some of these were not new designs- but Azula had never seen any of them put into action. There were drafts here of better designs for engines, and machines she had no names for- giant drills larger than small houses, and balloons filled with hot air that would soar through the sky like Appa if they only worked, and “tanks” that could protect soldiers while still allowing them to attack. But although Uncle must have known about the designs, he had never used them.
If he’d been using this new technology all along- if he hadn’t been afraid of it like an age-addled fool- they might have won the war by now.
If Uncle had been this lax about the war- about the machines that protected and transported their soldiers- who knew what else he had managed to ruin? If anything, this cemented Azula’s conviction that she was the rightful ruler of the Fire Nation. Forget being the worthier heir- she was going to have to become Fire Lord as soon as possible.
Still- it was lucky for Azula’s plans, at least, that Uncle had been so incompetent. It made it that much easier to fight against him.
“You have to stop designing weapons for them,” Aang said. “Don’t you see? You’re helping them take over the world.”
“He’s not,” Azula pointed out. “The Fire Nation has never used any of his designs.”
“That doesn’t mean they won’t,” Sokka said. “It’s only a matter of time.”
Azula nodded slightly in agreement. It was possible that Uncle would resort to more extreme measures, now that the Avatar was known to be alive and actively opposing them.
But still, she eyed the dust, and wondered why her uncle, usually such a good strategist, had let such an important advantage lay unused.
There was a low-pitched boom in the distance.
“What was that?” Sokka asked, staring straight at the Mechanist. “Did one of your inventions blow up again?”
“No,” the Mechanist said. “That came from far away.” He looked worried, and rushed outside. The rest of them followed.
The temple was being invaded by Fire Nation soldiers. There were a few of them right outside the doors they had come out of.
Aang was too timid to attack while their backs were turned. Azula had no such reservations. A swift kick brought down the first- she had to be ruthless without leaving any permanent damage, or else her companions would be shocked at her behavior. This made things more difficult, but it also made them more of a challenge, and Azula liked challenges.
Ty Lee brought down the next firebender with a few swift pokes between plates of armor. Azula noted that she would have to get someone to redesign the armor for the soldiers, once she was Fire Lord. There weren’t very many people with chi-blocking skills out there, but there were a few, and Azula wanted her army to be as well-protected as possible.
They also needed to be better-trained, she decided, as Katara took out the third with her water whip. A few children should not be able to defeat the Fire Nation’s forces. Katara didn’t even have a master, for spirits’ sake. All she had was one scroll with a few waterbending forms, and the Fire Nation’s forces couldn’t beat her. It was pathetic.
Yes. She’d defeat her own nation, and then make it rise from the ashes, better than before.
But that would come later.
Now, there was the press of battle to attend to.
They moved past the soldiers, and continued outside.
Azula looked at the attack critically. There were a number of soldiers, but not as many as she would have sent, if she’d planned this attack.
“They’re after the Avatar,” she said. “We should leave.”
“We can’t just leave the temple unprotected,” Aang said. “This temple is all that’s left of my people. And the people that live here need our protection, too. It’s our fault they’re being attacked.”
“Fine,” she said. “We’ll drive off the majority of this invasion, and then we’ll leave. Any remaining forces will follow us away from your precious temple.”
It was the first time she’d ever seen him look serious.
Aang opened up his glider, and swooped down the mountain, knocking soldiers down near-lethal falls. Katara rushed forward, too, sweeping down several soldiers with a wave of water. Sokka’s boomerang followed them close behind, hitting one soldier on the head and disorienting him long enough for Sokka to make a good attempt at an attack.
Azula tried to determine where her efforts would best be spent. Ty Lee hovered near her, clearly not willing to leave Azula alone.
“Go help them,” Azula said. “I’m going to see if I can block the route up, so that no more soldiers can follow these.”
Ty Lee nodded, and darted off into the fray. Azula stepped near the edge of the ground, overlooking the twisting route to the top of the mountain.
There were more soldiers on the way up. They would make this battle take longer, and Azula didn’t want to waste any more time in this place than she already had.
She breathed in, and out, and aimed a destructive wave of fire at the path below her. She could probably shatter the stone below her, enough to impede the soldiers’ path if not to completely stop them.
In that split second, she was not completely aware of her surroundings. She didn’t notice someone coming up behind her. She didn’t notice anything was amiss at all, until suddenly a shove came, and she lost her balance.
If falling with the aid of a glider was bad, it was nothing compared to falling without one. Her stomach did an annoying flip-flop as she slipped over the edge of the temple floor, towards a drop that would surely kill her.
A lesser person might have felt fear. But Azula knew that she couldn’t die here. She was destined to be Fire Lord. Even if no one else seemed to notice her destiny, she had no doubts about it. All that remained was to find out how, exactly, she was meant to survive.
Remembering her failure of a landing earlier, Azula shot fire downwards, slowing herself down slightly. Then she shot another burst sideways, propelling herself sideways onto a small ledge on the side of the mountain.
It wasn’t a good landing. It knocked the breath out of her, and she could do nothing for a moment but lie there, unprotected and alone. But she was alive.
“Is she dead?” a voice said, from high above her.
Azula wasn’t visible from above. Her ledge was under another, larger ledge. They couldn’t see her.
“Yeah,” another voice said, echoing down between the sounds of fire blasts.
“Stupid,” the first voice said. Whatever he said next was lost in the sounds of battle. But she did catch the last words- “...wanted her alive.”
Azula’s fists clenched, but she still had no breath to shout at them, to chastise them for thinking a member of the royal family could be defeated so easily.
She didn’t hear them again. By the time she had recovered her breath, they must have gone elsewhere. She didn’t even know their faces.
She sat up, made sure nothing was sprained or broken. There wasn’t really enough head room on this ledge to stand, but she was able to sit on her knees, and observe the part of the battle that was going on below her.
The people of the air temple were using their gliders to their full advantage, dropping smoke and stink bombs on the invaders. Azula would have used more deadly weapons, but perhaps they didn’t have any on hand.
In the distance, Azula saw a flash of pink on a blue glider. Ty Lee. Azula watched her for a moment. While Ty Lee’s skills as a chi-blocker were her most valuable assets in battle, her glider skills were also impressive. Azula smirked a little. Ty Lee made a good ally.
Then she turned her attention to the soldiers below her, who were trekking on despite all the nonlethal weaponry being deployed against them.
One of the foot soldiers below her seemed intent on shooting down the gliders.
Ty Lee was on one of those gliders, and the wings were flammable.
Azula was trapped on this ledge, and was too far from them to accurately attack them with fire.
Lightning was still an option, though.
She picked off three of them by the end of the battle. And Ty Lee came back safe.
She was pretty sure no one had seen.
That didn't stop the sick feeling in her stomach, as the smoke from the battle wafted towards her.
She'd shot them with lightning. That smoke wasn't from their remains.
She vomited anyway, over the edge of her little vantage point.
Azula had never killed anyone before. She'd always been willing- she was a member of the royal family, destined for greatness. She was the one destined to rule the Fire Nation, and perhaps even the world, if she chose to continue the war. It had never crossed her mind that killing would make her feel this ill. She'd always thought that people exaggerated, that the horrors of war were something made up by her tea-loving uncle.
It took three hours before she stopped shaking, even once the rest of her group had found her and brought Appa to get her back to the temple.
After that, she decided it had just been nerves. She was fine.
She just wasn't looking forward to having to do that again. Ever.
It was later, when they were nearly at the North Pole, when Katara pulled Azula aside.
“I need to talk to you,” she said.
Azula gave her a mildly curious look, and followed her to the edge of camp.
“I don't doubt your commitment to defeating the Fire Nation,” Katara said. (Anymore, Azula mentally added.) “But I'm worried about your methods.”
Azula raised one eyebrow. “What about my methods concerns you?”
“You outright killed three soldiers with lightning, back at the Northern Air Temple” Katara said.
“They were trying to kill T- all of you. What was I supposed to do? Try to talk them out of it?”
“There is such a thing as nonlethal force,” Katara said. “Didn't you say you wanted the war and the killing to end? They're your own people. Any one of them could be like your brother, drafted into this war.”
“If I didn't kill them,” Azula said, “they would have come back and fought us again. This is war. I want it to end, but I'm not going to pretend that it already has when it hasn't. That's a good way to get killed.”
There was understanding in Katara's eyes, but she said, more quietly, “Aang is a pacifist. He's already uncomfortable around you after that fight with Zhao. Even if he didn't see you kill those men- you can't do things like that, if you want to be part of this group.”
Azula blinked. “Does he think he can win this war without any deaths?”
“I don't think he's thought that far ahead,” Katara admitted. “He's a long way from being ready to defeat the Fire Lord. He is only twelve years old.”
“He'll have to learn to be more ruthless,” Azula warned. “The Fire Lord won't just surrender.”
“I know,” Katara said. But for now- try to tone it down.”
“Fire,” Azula said, grudgingly. “No more lightning. For now.”
“Thank you,” Katara said.
Azula hated conceding the point. But she couldn't afford to alienate the group. Couldn't afford to alienate the Avatar. She was walking a fine line. It was hard enough to teach Aang bending. If she didn't show herself to be a good leader- strong, wise, and, she thought with humor, compassionate- then her final plan would never work.
She might have had an easier time trying to covertly assassinate Uncle and Zuko. But making it look like an accident would have been difficult. In any case, it would have damaged her legitimacy as Fire Lord, to take the throne under such circumstances.
It wasn't enough to win. She had to win in such a way that no one could ever question her motives.
She would win this, and she would win it, from now on, with her hands clean.
And if there was a small feeling of relief about that- about never having to kill again- buried under her resolve to do whatever it took to get her throne... well, she would just ignore that.
As it turned out, it was more difficult to find the Northern Water Tribe than they had anticipated. Sokka spent his time searching the horizon for smoke, and Aang went even higher in the air to see if he could spot something.
Azula and Ty Lee huddled under every blanket the group possessed, utterly miserable.
When they'd said it would be cold, Azula had imagined it would be like the southernmost islands of the Fire Nation during winter. She'd packed a coat. She'd brought an extra blanket.
It wasn't nearly enough. She hadn't known cold could burn. But it did, and the warmth of Ty Lee by her side did little to help.
How could any human being survive in this weather?
And yet Katara and Sokka looked perfectly comfortable in their parkas, and Aang was happy to fly around in his normal clothing. Clearly airbending was useful for something after all.
Azula would have to acquire suitable clothing at the earliest opportunity.
For now, she considered whether it was a good idea to bend a small fire under the blankets. Common sense said no. Her hands were numb. She was tired. She could easily set the blankets on fire, and then where would they be?
She was so cold, though, that common sense was starting to lose its sway over her.
“We'll find them soon,” Ty Lee said, and snuggled closer. But considering how long they had been looking, Azula wasn't so sure. Still, the lie was almost comforting.
“We will,” Azula lied in return.
She dozed lightly for a little while, and woke to an attack.
Azula was fully awake in a second, and throwing fireballs at the attackers- a group of waterbenders.
Really, why would waterbenders be attacking them? They were on an air bison. It was fairly clear that they weren't Fire Nation attackers.
Or, well, it had been, until Azula attacked them back.
Maybe she hadn't been as awake as she thought she had been.
She stopped attacking.
“Stop!” Aang said to the waterbenders. “She's with me!”
“Who are you?” the lead waterbender asked.
There was an abrupt cease in hostilities. One of the benders eyed Azula warily, then unfroze her. She collapsed into an undignified heap, too cold to even move.
The next few minutes were a blur as they gave Azula and Ty Lee spare parkas and piled them under more blankets, muttering about idiots and hypothermia. Azula started to feel warmer immediately, so she forgave the insult for the moment.
“Why is the Avatar traveling with a firebender?” the lead waterbender said, turning to Aang.
“He needs to master all four elements,” Katara said for him. “Azula has agreed to be his firebending teacher.”
They continued to look suspicious, and Azula was sure that she would be followed for the entire time she was at the north pole.
Which was fine. She had nothing to hide. Nothing that they could find by watching her, in any case.
“What evidence do you have that she's trustworthy?”
“She's been nothing but helpful,” Katara said. “She helped us fight against a Fire Nation attack, just days ago. She's fought against the admiral who's been tracking us from the South Pole. And she's been teaching Aang.”
Azula smiled to herself, since the lower half of her face was hidden beneath her blankets. She couldn't have planned this all out better. Every attack on the group helped cement her place with them.
“We want to stop this war,” Ty Lee said, popping her head out from under the blanket. Her teeth were chattering, and her lips were almost blue. But there was a kind of resolve on her face that Azula hadn't realized Ty Lee actually felt.
The waterbenders seemed swayed by Ty Lee's sincerity.
The spirits really were smiling on her.
She just wished she could shake the feeling that it was an evil grin, instead.
As honored guests, they were each given their own rooms. Someone moved all of their things in while they ate.
Azula moved her things into Ty Lee's room at the first opportunity, leaving everything else untouched.
There was a woman who came to tidy the rooms. When Azula passed her in the hall, she could feel a disapproving look follow her. It might have been for being from the Fire Nation, but it might have been because the woman noticed that Azula was sleeping with Ty Lee. She suspected it was the latter. No one else seemed to be angry at her for being Fire Nation. Or at least, they hid it better, because they were glad that the Avatar had a firebending teacher.
She made it a point to be rude to that woman from then on. It wasn't helpful, of course. But it made her feel better.
And when one of the Water Tribe boys started flirting with her, she told him, flatly: “I have a girlfriend.”
He blinked at her. “What?”
His stare was still blank.
“I'm not interested in boys,” she told him.
“I'm not a boy. I'm a man.”
“Still not interested,” she said.
“Maybe a kiss will change your mind,” he said, and he tried to pin her against the wall and press his mouth against hers.
What followed couldn't even really be called a fight. He wasn't a bender. He wasn't even a warrior. He was just an idiot. And she'd burned his arm badly enough that he couldn't really use it for a few days, even with healers to help.
He spread rumors. Of course he did. She knew they were whispering about her, when they thought she couldn't hear. About how she was a lesbian- a “deviant,” they said. Which shouldn't have been an issue. And about how she had burned him, and wasn't to be trusted. People gave her a wide berth as she walked down hallways.
Katara had obviously heard the rumors. She looked very uncomfortable when Ty Lee and Azula sat too close together, or when they very obviously went in to the same room together at night. Sokka was better at hiding his reaction, and Aang didn't seem to mind. But everyone else at the Northern Water Tribe seemed to be staring, all the time.
So Azula did the only thing she could think of. She pulled Ty Lee into a deep kiss during a lavish public breakfast.
“There,” she said, after breaking the kiss. Everyone was staring, but they had been for days. “Now you have something to talk about.”
And she'd marched out of breakfast with Ty Lee close behind and in near tears.
She apologized to Ty Lee for that, later. She'd forgotten for that moment that Ty Lee was getting almost as much attention as she was.
It was later that day when Aang sat next to her and said: “I think the two of you are a cute couple.”
“Thank you,” Azula said, taking the peace offering for what it was.
“The monks always told me that loving someone was never wrong,” he continued. “Everyone else will come around in a while.”
“It doesn't bother me,” Azula lied. “You should be reassuring Ty Lee, not me. But thank you.”
It took another month for them to leave the Northern Water Tribe after that. Azula hated every minute.
Azula couldn't believe her uncle had authorized an invasion of the Northern Water Tribe. Ever since cousin Lu Ten's death and the following murders of Father, Mother, and Grandfather, Uncle had been extremely cautious, both in his everyday life and in the war. Azula couldn't remember the last time he'd made a real push for victory- and she’d actually been paying attention, unlike stupid Zuzu, who seemed more concerned about making stupid love-sick faces at Mai than he was about his future position as Fire Lord (which was one of the many reasons he didn’t deserve that position).
Uncle had more or less stopped trying to expand the Fire Nation years ago, instead merely maintaining the boundaries they had previously established. Azula had never understood it. He was the Dragon of the West, once one of the most aggressive generals in the Fire Nation. He’d broken the siege of Ba Sing Se. And now he was just a shell of himself. Afraid. Weak. Spineless.
Apparently something had changed since she left, though. It was irksome- she’d thought that he’d be easily defeated, that she would be virtually unchallenged as she took down her own nation from the outside. What in all the spirits’ names had finally gotten him off his fat royal bottom and made him plan something like this?
The invasion wasn’t that large- the Navy had decreased in size since Uncle had taken the throne. But it was still too large to take out each ship one by one. The Water Tribe was outnumbered and overpowered.
It was only later, chasing down Zhao while the spirit of the ocean raged and destroyed a good percentage of the Fire Nation Navy, that Azula figured it out.
They were standing on a bridge of ice across one of the canals. Zhao had escaped during the confusion after he’d killed the moon, but Azula hadn’t taken long to catch up. The others had been preoccupied with the dead moon spirit, but Azula had decided to focus on making sure that her cover wasn’t blown. Zhao could easily let someone know she was the princess, if she didn’t stop him in time.
“You’re supposed to be dead,” Zhao said, eyes narrowing when he caught sight of her.
Azula raised one eyebrow. “Oh, please.”
There had never been any chance of that fall at the Northern Air Temple killing her. She was destined to be Fire Lord, after all, and destiny would not let her fail. But she supposed that destiny was not always so obvious to those who were its pawns, and it was unsurprising that the soldiers who had knocked her off the side of the temple would report her dead.
Zhao gave her an ugly smile, and said, “Your poor Uncle was so grieved to hear about your death. It’s why he let me lead this little invasion, you know. You may be a traitor, but you were the princess of the Fire Nation before that. Revenge was in order, and the Avatar was supposed to pay that price, for stealing you away and putting you in so much danger.”
Azula hated his mocking tone of voice. She lashed out, punching him with a white burst of fire that he barely managed to block.
It made sense. Uncle did love her. Or at least, he loved who he thought she was. She’d never let him get close enough to know anything real about her. He only knew the lie of a self that she’d fed him ever since she realized that Mother and Father were never coming back.
Another burst of white fire, and another, and then she was exhausted enough that she couldn’t fire any more. She switched to blue fire, which was cooler but easier to maintain.
“You’re pathetic,” Zhao said, although sweat was beading on his brow. “You think you’re going to win this war? You’re up against your entire nation. More than that- you’re up against the Dragon of the West, and he’s not in retirement anymore. And what are you? You know a few tricks, but you’re no match for a real firebending master in a fair fight.”
Azula’s rage went abruptly cold. She reached for the last reserves of her strength, and shot one last blast of fire. This time, she didn’t aim for him. She aimed for the bridge below him.
The ice beneath his feet was vaporized. The look on his face was almost- almost- comical. He clung to the edge of the ice for a moment, and then he fell, splashing into the frigid water below.
Azula knelt down near the hole, peered through it, and waited for him to surface. But a moment passed, and then another, and there was still no sign of him.
He’d been wearing heavy armor. Maybe he wasn’t going to come up at all. And then another moment passed, and yet another, and Azula realized that Zhao was dead.
Fair enough. She was pretty certain he had intended to kill her. There was a sick feeling in her stomach, but she ignored it. This wasn’t her fault. She hadn’t had time to think through what would happen to him. Unlike the soldiers she’d shot with lightning, this had been unintentional.
There’s was no such thing as a fair fight, Azula thought, finally standing up again. There were just people too stupid to see their advantages.
And then, shivering a little in the cold, she began the walk back to the spirit oasis.
Yue looked up at the sky, where there was no moon. “I have some of its life in me,” she said, after a long moment of staring. “Maybe I can give it back.”
Well, Azula thought. That’s one thing taken care of. Except she found herself irrationally upset, belying her own thoughts.
“You can't do this,” Sokka said.
“It's my duty,” Yue replied, and she stepped towards the pond. There was sadness in her face.
“Wait,” Azula said, angry for no reason at all, at this princess who was willing to give up everything she wanted.
Yue shook her head. “We don't have time to think of another way.” She knelt, and picked up the fish.
It wasn't fair, Azula thought, as Yue died, and her body faded. As she turned into the moon and gave Sokka one last kiss.
She pushed the feeling down. Yue was a spirit now. She was powerful, and she was immortal, and... there was no reason to be sad for her. No reason to be angry, either- not at her, and certainly not for her.
She didn't care. She didn't care at all. But she moved closer to Ty Lee. It seemed cold out, suddenly- colder than a moment ago- and she wanted warm arms around her.
Chapter 2: Book 2: Earth
Getting away from the Northern Water Tribe was a relief. Azula had hated every moment of the hostility there. It had worn on her. So had the cold; firebenders as a rule didn't do well in cold. Azula had known that; in the Fire Nation, it was one of the ways they kept prisoners in jail from bending, when it was necessary to do so. But it was one thing to know that cold might hinder her bending, and other to experience that cold day after day, parka or no parka. It had sapped at her strength slowly but surely. But now they were further south, and it was wonderful to be able to take off the layers she had been wearing for the past month. They had felt heavier than they really were.
They were all a little quiet during the boat ride back to the Earth Kingdom. It had been less than a week since the battle of the North Pole, after all. Since Yue's death. Sokka was still pretty upset, and Azula was upset as well- though for different reasons, of course.
She was still a little mad that she'd killed Zhao. Not guilty- she was above those sorts of emotions, of course- but angry that she'd done so unintentionally. The other deaths didn't bother her as much. She'd had time to weigh the options then, and had chosen to kill them. It had been necessary, and she didn't regret it. Those soldiers had been in a position to hurt Ty Lee, and there had been precious few other choices. Zhao had been different. She hadn't really needed to kill him. True, he had been a major source of irritation throughout her time trying to teach Aang firebending, always showing up at inopportune times. His death would save her a lot of annoyance, but she'd had other methods of dealing with him, if she'd thought of it.
Look at her, obsessing over the death of an enemy. Aang and Katara's pacifist ways were really starting to rub off on her. This wouldn't do. A ruler had to be ruthless. A ruler had to be able to justify any decision, even ones they had decided poorly, in hindsight. A ruler did not admit to mistakes.
Azula would just put this out of her mind, for now.
If most of them were in a bad mood, at least Ty Lee seemed cheerful enough. Azula was almost jealous of her ability to shrug off bad emotions like water off of the oiled cloth of the circus tents she loved so much. Ty Lee was doing her usual stretches. Azula sat near her and watched, hoping that Ty Lee's energy and good mood would wear off on her.
"You should join me," Ty Lee said, when she caught sight of Azula. "A little extra flexibility is a big advantage in a fight!"
Azula considered this, and could find no flaw in Ty Lee's logic. Azula was already reasonably flexible- she couldn't allow herself to stiffen up, when she might face danger at any time- but it was true that there was always room for improvement. Azula had become as good at fighting as she was by taking every single opportunity to better herself that she had come across. (All save one, which she wasn't going to think about now.) She wasn't about to stop now.
Ty Lee led her through a series of increasingly difficult stretches. Azula hadn't realized that she was so stiff. She hadn't been stretching nearly as much as usual at the North Pole, partly because the clothing she'd been forced to wear had been so burdensome.
When they were done, Azula was tired all the way to her bones. Good. That meant the session had been worth it.
"See?" Ty Lee said. "I knew you were a little too stiff! I could see it in your aura. You're way too tense." With that said, she circled around behind Azula and gently rubbed her shoulders.
Azula had long ago learned not to argue with Ty Lee about auras. The only possible result was to make Ty Lee angry or sad, which Azula generally tried not to do. It might be nonsense, but it was Ty Lee's nonsense, so Azula tolerated it. Azula would tolerate a lot, for Ty Lee's sake.
Besides, she was right. Azula had been tense. And now she felt a little better.
There was a knock on trapdoor that led down to their cabin. "Azula? Ty Lee?"
"Yes?" Azula said.
Katara opened the trapdoor and looked down at them. "It's time to get going. We're taking Appa the rest of the way. Are you guys packed up?"
"Yep! Ty Lee said, still massaging Azula's shoulders. "We'll be up in a minute."
Katara gave them a smile. It seemed a little forced, but Azula noted it all the same. Katara still seemed a bit uncomfortable with Azula and Ty Lee's relationship, but at least she was making an effort. Azula needed everyone entirely on her side, if she wanted them to help her take her throne. She had somewhere between a few more months and a year to do that, depending on how quickly Aang was able to master the various elements. His firebending was not progressing as fast as she had hoped, but maybe finding an earthbending teacher for him would make his firebending progress faster as well. After all, there had to be a reason that the elements were learned in a traditional order.
At least his waterbending was going smoothly, though she wouldn't yet call him a master- he'd spent too much time playing when he should have been training, at the North Pole.
Surely a year was enough time to win them over?
Reluctantly, Ty Lee pulled away from Azula. "We should grab our bags and go up," she said.
"Right," Azula said. She grabbed her pack and headed to the deck.
After a few pleasantries, Pakku sent them off. They were heading to an Earth Kingdom military base. Azula was looking forward to it- so far, they had yet to see a major Earth Kingdom military installment. This would be a perfect chance to gather intelligence on the Earth Kingdom's military- a chance she might not get again. Any such information would be extremely useful when she became Fire Lord.
The flight to the base took a couple of hours. The time seemed to pass quickly, after so many days on the ship.
The base, once they saw it, was much as Azula expected. The high walls, the mountainous terrain- all of it designed to be advantageous to earthbenders. That wasn't the interesting part. The interesting thing would be information on troop movements, supply lines- the things that really made an army tick. Azula hadn't had any formal schooling in the ways of war since she was a child, but the palace library had remained open to her. She hadn't needed a teacher to educate her. She had learned it all on her own. And she had done it well.
Still, she couldn't be too obvious about this. Not only would it arouse suspicion as to her motives if she seemed too interested in learning the Earth Kingdom's weaknesses, but it would draw attention to her cover story- she was meant to be a minor noble, not the princess. Someone like that would not have the background required to understand the sorts of things Azula was actually interested in.
Azula wasn't ready to reveal who she was, yet. Not until everyone in their group trusted her implicitly.
As it turned out, she didn't have much of a chance to look around. They were immediately greeted by General Fong, as well as a round of fireworks.
"Welcome, great heroes," he said. "Avatar Aang, Appa, Momo, brave Sokka, mighty Katara. And, of course, our courageous Fire Nation defectors, Azula and Ty Lee." He bowed.
Azula gave him a polite smile.
They went inside the fortress to talk. Azula assumed they would be given a place to stay for the night and then they would be on their way in the morning. She was busy paying close attention to the maps she saw on the walls, trying to determine from them how well they knew the Fire Nation, and she only half-paid attention to the discussion between Aang and General Fong.
"...you're ready to face the Fire Lord now."
"What?" Aang said.
"What?" Azula said, almost at the same time. "With all due respect, General, Aang is still far from a master at firebending, and he hasn't even started learning earthbending. He isn't nearly ready yet."
"He doesn't need to master the elements," Fong said. "With the sort of power he possesses- the power that won the battle of the North Pole- we could wipe out the entire Fire Nation now."
"You've got it wrong," Sokka said. "Aang can only do those things in the Avatar state."
Azula's heart dropped down to her stomach. Of course. The Avatar state. She'd only seen it in action twice, but it hadn't even occurred to her to use it to defeat the Fire Nation.
They could win in a matter of weeks- just as long as it took to get to the Fire Nation. All they had to do was trigger the Avatar State.
But it was too soon- the others didn't trust her enough yet. Worse, they didn't even know who she was. How could she expect them to give her the throne when they didn't yet know she was the princess? If they went through with this plan, Azula would have to reveal her identity within a matter of days. Her play for power would be obvious and clumsy. She would never get the throne this way.
"With all due respect," Azula said, "the Avatar state is wild and uncontrollable. Using it as a weapon could just as easily destroy our own troops as the Fire Nation's."
"Besides," Aang added, "I don't know how to get in or out of the Avatar state. So, you see, it wouldn't work as well as you're thinking."
Fong frowned. "Certainly the plan needs to be refined. But if we can find a way to trigger the Avatar State, wouldn't it be worth it?"
Katara shook her head. "It's too risky. Aang needs to pursue his destiny his way."
General Fong took Aang aside, presumably to try to influence him. Azula stood and followed. This was far too important to leave to chance.
Fong went on a spiel about the injured soldiers and how Aang should try to reduce casualties by ending the war as fast as possible. Azula tuned out a little, eyeing the injured men.
"Where were they stationed?" she asked, interrupting him mid-sentence.
"Excuse me?" Fong said.
"Those soldiers. They were in a battle. The Fire Nation hasn't made a major offensive move in the war in over five years. I haven't heard any news of battles, so where were they stationed?"
"They were trying to take back the colonies, of course," Fong said. "The Fire Nation has occupied our land for far too long."
"So you've been putting the men's lives in danger," Azula said. This was good. For once, Aang's pacifism would work to her advantage. "You're the aggressor, this time."
Aang looked back and forth between Azula and General Fong, clearly uncertain about what to do.
"We're trying to take back our homes," Fong said. "How is that aggression?"
"You could wait until we defeat the Fire Nation," Azula said. "Unless you don't believe the Avatar can defeat the Fire Lord?"
"What if I can't?" Aang said.
Azula resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "That's why we're training, Aang. Once you master all the elements, you'll have no problems defeating the Fire Lord."
Aang still looked unsure.
"If you master the Avatar state," Fong said, "you'll be able to defeat him immediately."
"I need to think about this," Aang said. "I will take your advice into consideration, Azula, General Fong."
He gave them a polite little bow before ducking out of the conversation.
Well. That was progress, at least. Azula was sure Aang would see it her way, once he'd thought about it some more. He had to. Her destiny depended on it.
But by the next morning, Aang had decided that mastering the Avatar state was the right thing to do. And Azula wasn't sure how to convince him otherwise. She spent the day in indecision- if General Fong succeeded in triggering the Avatar state at will, she would be better off telling the group her identity as soon as possible. But if they were unsuccessful, it was better to keep it a secret. The lack of a definite plan irked her.
Katara seemed saddened by Aang's attempts. Azula couldn't imagine why. Katara had no stake in keeping this journey going longer.
Luckily, the first day's efforts were all in vain. Azula went to bed with a nagging feeling that this good luck couldn't last, and had difficulty falling asleep.
She dreamed in fragments, about her early days searching for the Avatar, when she'd still thought that capturing him would make Uncle appreciate her.
She'd showed up in the rain, with a bag of clothing and enough money to last for a few weeks. It had taken half that time just to find the circus. She'd found Ty Lee, after asking around for a good half an hour, and said: "I need to join you in the circus."
Azula's hair had been a mess. She'd never had to go without servants before. Wet strands clung to her face, and her wet clothes weighed her down, but she didn't care. She had a mission, and she was going to complete it. She wasn't going to let Zuzu become Fire Lord. And if Uncle wouldn't give her a ship to use in her search, this was what she had to do.
Ty Lee just looked at her like she wasn't sure what to think, and said, "Okay. I can talk to the others. We'll find a place for you." She hadn't asked why Azula was there. Not then. She'd just smiled, and offered Azula a dry change of clothing and a hairbrush. And things had been okay, for a little while. Ty Lee was kind and easily manipulated. Azula could trust that Ty Lee would do as she wanted.
(She hadn't trusted Ty Lee as a person. Not then. She hadn't trusted anyone.)
"What can you do?" the leader of the circus asked, when Ty Lee introduced Azula.
"I can bend," Azula said, head held high. She was an amazing bender. She was a prodigy.
"Show me," he said.
The firebending form came easily, fire burning blue and hot.
"Not good enough," he said, and he sighed. "You're a good fighter. But fighting is one thing, and the circus is another."
He'd given her work anyway. Hard work- cleaning up, helping to put the tents up, taking them down again. Azula was strong, but her muscles still ached at the end of the day. And then she went back to the small tent that Ty Lee had offered to share with her, and Ty Lee braided her hair. A topknot wasn't appropriate for undercover work, Ty Lee had said soothingly, the first time she'd done Azula's hair. This was better. More stealthy.
Azula had agreed. It was better this way.
Azula hated the circus. She'd hated having to work. She'd hated that the Avatar was so difficult to find. She hated the circus-goers and their laughter, even though it wasn't directed at her.
But those moments, when Ty Lee's fingers were in her hair, and they were comfortable inside their tent- she hadn't minded those. Everything else had been a cold blur of uncertainty and anger, but Ty Lee had been something warm and solid to hold on to.
When Azula woke up, Ty Lee and Katara had left the girls' quarters. Azula quickly got dressed and left as well. She had to see if Aang would master the Avatar state. She had to know what to do next.
She wandered the halls slowly, taking in every sight.
Aang couldn't master the Avatar state. It wasn't in Azula's plans. Her destiny depended on him taking longer. So it couldn't happen.
Azula didn't trust many people or things. But she trusted in destiny, inescapable and perfect. Everything in her life had just made her stronger. Everything in her life had prepared her to be Fire Lord. Destiny, she trusted, would not prepare a leader such as her only to let her fail so suddenly. Not when she was worthy. Not when no one else was. Not when the Fire Nation had been in a decline ever since Uncle had taken the throne and refused to make the last push in the war efforts, the push that would have won them the war.
No. Aang would not master the Avatar state. Not today. Not until Azula was ready for him to.
With that reassurance to herself, Azula continued looking for the others.
There were no words to express her frustration when she found them in the large courtyard outside, Aang in the Avatar state and wreaking havoc on the Earth Kingdom soldiers around him.
This wasn't supposed to happen. Not yet.
But then she took in the full scene- the terrified guards, the way General Fong had Katara in an arm lock and was shouting desperate reassurances that she was really safe-
Azula's mouth twisted into a smirk. Luckily no one was paying attention to her to see it.
Regardless of what else happened today, Aang wouldn't be trying to master the Avatar state this way again. And maybe, just maybe, her advice would penetrate his thick skull the next time she felt like giving it.
And then Sokka came up behind Fong, let his boomerang fly, and knocked him out. Katara rushed forward, pushed though against the wind the Avatar was bending, and gently, quietly, grabbed hold of him in a hug.
The glowing of Aang's tattoos dissipated. And Azula realized that Katara was a valuable ally, useful for far more than her waterbending training. She was the key to the Avatar state. Threatening her brought it on. Releasing her ended it. She was a key that probably wouldn't need to be used, but Azula was not in the habit of throwing away valuable weapons.
But if there were an emergency- if the Dragon of the West finally came back to himself, and needed to be stopped before Azula was ready- well, if that day ever came, Azula knew of one way to easily defeat him, now. She was a good firebender, and she had good allies, but her Uncle had several techniques that Azula had no way to counter, other than by dodging them. Until now. Because, amazing firebender or not, Uncle would not be able to stand against the Avatar and Azula. Not to mention the not-insignificant contributions of Katara. Even Sokka might be somewhat of a threat, if they found him a master. Azula knew better than to underestimate someone just because they weren't a bender. Ty Lee had no bending, after all.
Azula's grin was too wide, and she quickly wiped it from her face in favor of rushing forward and asking concerned questions at Aang and Katara.
This day had worked out to her advantage. She had been wrong, to doubt her destiny, even for an instant.
Everything was working out perfectly.
The flight to Omashu was uneventful. This part of the Earth Kingdom was unoccupied by Fire Nation troops. They did meet a tribe of Earth Kingdom nomads while taking a pit stop for a moment, and Ty Lee joined in their terrible singing with far too much enthusiasm, and once she'd started, Aang joined in, too. Katara hadn't seemed very annoyed, but Azula and Sokka had exchanged weary glances and then worked together to convince the others that they should get going again and get to Omashu as quickly as possible.
Azula had never met King Bumi, but she knew of him. He was a powerful earthbender, ruler Omashu and the surrounding area, and, according to Aang as they flew over the mountains, he was the one remaining friend that Aang had found who was still alive after his 100-year nap.
Azula was prepared to make a good impression. She'd tidied up her hair- or, more accurately, let Ty Lee tidy it up- and she'd washed her nicer set of clothes when they'd stopped at the small lake to talk to the nomads. They were still a little damp, but Azula would much rather wear damp clothing than listen to another moment of that horrible singing.
She looked presentable. If she were a peasant. Still- attitude mattered more than dress. And she only had to get along with Bumi long enough for him to teach Aang earthbending.
They were met by a guard, who bowed to the five of them.
"Avatar," he said. And then, with a slight sideways smile, added, "Or would you still prefer to be called Mister Pippinpaddle-Oppsokopolis?"
"Aang is fine," Aang said, with a sheepish laugh.
Azula and Ty Lee exchanged confused looks, but neither of them said anything. Azula would ask for an explanation later, if it seemed like she needed one.
They were shown to the throne room.
Bumi was not as Azula expected. He was ugly and crazed-looking. He was also badly dressed. Still- if he were an excellent earthbender, then it didn't matter how he dressed. After all, Azula herself was only barely presentable right now.
"It's so good to see you, Bumi!" Aang said."You'd never believe all the adventures we've had since we last saw you!"
"I see you've made some new friends," King Bumi said. "Who is this?" He pointed one liver-spotted old hand at Ty Lee.
"I'm Ty Lee," Ty Lee said, bowing politely. "Pleased to meet you."
"And I am Azula," Azula said, with a slightly shallower bow. "It's an honor to meet you, King Bumi."
King Bumi eyed her dubiously. "What's a firebender like you doing in Omashu?"
The guards at the periphery of the room all stood up straighter at that, clearly wary.
"I am Aang's firebending teacher," Azula explained. He must have been able to tell she was a firebender by her stance, she decided. Azula herself could usually tell by the way somone moved if they had been trained as a bender or not. And firebending was distinctive, she supposed. Then again, perhaps he had merely guessed based on her eye color. Gold eyes were uncommon in the Earth Kingdom, though they were not unheard of.
"Firebending teacher, eh?" Bumi said. He let out a laugh that was more of a snort. "We don't see many firebenders burning to turn traitor. Get it, burning?"
Azula remained passive. From behind her, she could hear Sokka's palm hit his forehead. This was going to be even worse than those nomads, she was sure now.
"I merely wish to help restore the balance," she said calmly.
At this, Bumi let out another snort-laugh, and beckoned them to sit down on cushions that were scattered on the floor. Before long, servants came with food.
This was more like it. Azula hadn't been treated to a royal feast in far too long- since before she'd left for the circus. She ate a little more than she should have, but that was alright. She'd become a little too thin during the past few weeks. It wouldn't do to be fragile right now. Or ever.
In the meantime, she did her best to ignore King Bumi's jokes. It was going to be a trial putting up with him for the next few weeks or months or- spirits, it had been not take years for Aang to master earthbending.
She tuned in again long enough to hear the punchline of a joke.
"... and then it said, 'leaf me alone, I'm bushed!'"
At this, Azula started. She'd only ever heard that joke from her uncle. Perhaps he'd picked it up when he'd been campaigning in the Earth Kingdom? But no, that didn't make sense. He hadn't exactly been talking with the natives when he was invading. It must just be a joke that transcended national boundaries. Who would have guessed?
"That's my uncle's favorite joke," Azula mentioned casually. It was best not to appear too disinterested, if she wanted to get along with Bumi. "He tells it every chance he gets."
Bumi suddenly looked far too interested. "Your uncle, you say? What is his name?"
"Yang," Azula lied easily. "Why?"
Bumi looked far less interested after that. "It was a friend's favorite joke, once."
"It might still be," Bumi said, voice growing more serious than Azula had yet heard. "But he stopped speaking to me years ago, when he was suddenly called back home to the Fire Nation. But his name was not Yang, so I suppose it couldn't have been the same person."
Since there was no chance that he was talking about Uncle, Azula merely made a sympathetic face. She did wonder who in the Fire Nation had been this mad king's friend, and when- it could have been nearly a century ago, for all she knew- but she didn't concern herself overmuch with it.
"I hope you find your friend again some day," she merely said, politely.
"I hope so, too," Aang said. "But we really have to talk to you about something, Bumi."
Apparently Aang's patience had run out.
King Bumi turned to Aang. "What is it?"
"I need an earthbending teacher," Aang said. "I was thinking it should be you."
"No," Bumi said without much of a pause to think.
Azula hid her relief.
"But you're the best earthbender I know!" Aang said. "Why not?"
"I may be the best earthbender in the world," Bumi said, "but that doesn't mean I'm the best teacher for you."
Aang slumped where he sat. "But who else am I going to find to teach me?"
"You need someone who waits and listens to the earth," Bumi said.
Aang just looked confused at that.
They finished up the feast without much more talking, and went on their way, moods low.
The swamp smelled. Azula hated it, and she hated that she was separated from Ty Lee, and she hated that they were here at all.
Azula had never liked being dirty. She hated mud. She hated bad smells. She was a princess; she deserved better than being stuck here, covered in swamp water. She deserved to be carried through messes like this. The circus had been bad enough, but she had adapted. This was unbearable. This wasn't something that could be adapted to. There wasn't even the promise of a warm bath later to look forward to.
"Ty Lee?" she called out. But there was no reply. "Sokka? Aang? Katara?"
Still, all that she could hear were mosquito-flies and the occasional bird.
Well, this was just perfect. She could be stuck here for hours before she found them. She'd be covered in bug bites and even more irritated than she already was.
This wouldn't do. She'd better start searching immediately.
She had been walking for about ten minutes when she saw a flash of red out of the corner of her eye. She whipped around, thinking that a Fire Nation soldier must have somehow followed them into the swamp.
There wasn't a soldier there. Instead there was Mom.
"Azula," Mom said, in the tone she had always used when Azula had done something wrong. "What are you doing? You should go home."
"It's too late for that," Azula said. As if replying to this ghost was the rational thing to do. She shook her head, trying to clear it. This couldn't be real. It just couldn't. Mother was dead. Azula had seen the body.
"Your uncle and brother miss you. They love you," Mom said. "So do I." But her tone was the same disappointed one that she always used, the same one Uncle had adopted when mother was gone.
Azula lunged at her, shouting, "Shut up!" She landed in more swamp muck, mother gone. She was alone.
"Are you okay?"
Azula jumped. But it wasn't mother come back to haunt her again. It was just Sokka. She stood.
"I'm fine," Azula said, shaking her head again. She stood.
"Come on, let's find the others," he said. The look on his face was grim.
"Did you..." Azula said. "Did you see anyone near me?"
Sokka shook his head. "You, too? It's the swamp gas. Has to be."
At this rational explanation, Azula felt steadier.
Ty Lee wasn't too far away. They found her sitting on a fallen tree, shaking.
"They all looked just like me," she said, when Azula put an arm around her and managed to get her to stop shaking.
Aang and Katara found them soon after, but none of them ever got another word out of Ty Lee about what she had seen.
Even after they escaped the swamp and resumed their search for an earthbending teacher for Aang, Azula remained troubled. Though she agreed with Sokka that the visions they'd all seen had been due to swamp gas- Azula was not a fool enough that she didn't believe in spirits, but she found it extremely unlikely that the dead would come back, even as visions- she kept replaying her vision in her mind.
Azula had never cared much for her mother. It had been somewhat of a relief, honestly, when she'd died. Father was the one Azula had cared about. Mother had thought Azula was a monster. Mother had always been so disappointed. And nothing Azula had done, no amount of polishing her firebending or improving her calligraphy or being her sweetest when mother was looking, none of that had mattered. Because Mother had never been looking for any of that. She'd been looking for something inside Azula, something that Azula lacked and was always going to lack.
There was no question in Azula's mind that Mother would have been disappointed in her right now. The vision was just a projection of that certainty. That was all.
And yet something still nagged at her. Maybe it was the way the hallucination had said that Uncle and Zuko missed her, which she should have dismissed out of hand. No one would miss Azula. She'd never been kind or sweet to them, except when it served her ends. She'd gone out of her way to lie to them and to be pointlessly cruel on many occasions. If anything, they were probably relieved that she was gone, though perhaps they would be upset that she had turned traitor on them. After all, she was helping the Fire Nation's greatest enemy.
No, no one missed her. No one was waiting. Azula had cut ties with them utterly. She was completely free of them. The hallucination had been just that, a hallucination. There was no truth in it.
Reassured, Azula settled back against the bags strapped to the back of Appa's saddle.
There was something strange about the way the Blind Bandit fought. Well, of course there was. She was blind. So she didn't react to visual stimuli. What Azula couldn't figure out was what she was responding to. Sound, of course- but no more than Azula would respond to sound. And yet, the girl was about to tell where people were. She didn't fight like she was blind. She fought better than most seeing people.
She had a harder time against Aang that against the earthbenders she had fought. To be fair, though, airbenders were strange to fight if you'd never done it before- all twisting movements and circles, nothing at all like any of the other styles. Azula had been trying to incorporate a little of it into her own fighting, to make herself less predictable. Her circus moves were already good for that, a little- bend some green fire, and suddenly other firebenders were confused and off-guard- but she wasn't one to discard advantages when she could grasp at them, even if fire was supposed to be the superior element. She would be the first to admit that her bending was already a bastard mix of what she'd learned as a child, what she'd learned on her own, and what she'd learned to look impressive. She couldn't say that she followed any particular style anyway, so incorporating a few airbending-style moves wouldn't make it any less pure.
Clearly the Blind Bandit had a similar philosophy. She didn't fight like other earthbenders. Her style was completely different. More efficient. Even more grounded than usual, for an earthbender. Azula wondered where she'd picked it up- had she invented it, the way Azula had invented her own bending? Azula hadn't seen a single earthbender fight like that in all of her travels so far, so she doubted the style had been taught to the her by any official tutors.
In any case, she wasn't surprised when the Blind Bandit was knocked out of the ring. Her style was interesting, but she'd clearly honed her skills fighting against other earthbenders. And nothing was more different from earthbending than airbending.
She was surprised when Aang was given the prize money and belt for winning the championship. Had they really missed the fact that he wasn't earthbending? Azula had thought it was pretty obvious. But then, most people were stupid and only saw what they expected.
She frowned when the Blind Bandit stormed out. If Aang was really set on having her as a teacher, Azula was going to make that happen. He needed a teacher to master earthbending, after all. But Aang certainly hadn't made it easy. He'd humiliated the Blind Bandit in public. Azula would never join anyone who had embarrassed her in front of so many people. Not unless she had an extremely compelling reason to. And what reason might the Blind Bandit have?
Azula could see several strategies for dealing with this. She could try to play on the girl's altruism or patriotism to try to get her to stop the war. Or she could offer adventure. Or, perhaps, money- the Blind Bandit fought for prize money, so perhaps she was motivated by gold. Their group didn't have a lot of money right now, but surely the Avatar would be rewarded generously once he had stopped the war. The mere promise of money might be enough to entice the girl.
But first, of course, they had to find her. Asking around yielded no results; they found out that the flying boar Aang had seen in the swamp was the sign of a wealthy family in the area, but also learned that the Bei Fong family had no daughter.
Azula was pretty sure that the easiest way to find the Blind Bandit would be to intimidate Xin Fu. He was the most likely to know her identity.
But when she suggested this to the group, Aang frowned. "Violence is never the answer. Let's go talk to the Bei Fong family. Even if the Blind Bandit isn't their daughter, maybe she's a niece or a cousin or something."
Azula sighed. This was going to be a huge waste of time. But if Azula separated from the group and went to him on her own it was likely to turn out badly. He'd have a dozen earthbenders around him. Azula was more than a match for any of them individually- probably good enough to beat all of them together- but she wouldn't be able to get any good information about the Blind Bandit if she got into a fight.
So, grudgingly, she followed the others to the Bei Fongs' house.
At the very least, she was able to stop them from invading the grounds. They knocked on the front door like civilized people, and of course they were invited in. It was a little early for dinner, so they sat in the living room, politely discussing matters.
"The Avatar had a vision of a girl about his age," Azula explained, after Aang started babbling about crazy kings and swamps. "We believe the vision may have been of the one destined to be his earthbending teacher. In the vision, she was accompanied by a flying boar, so we thought you might have information about her whereabouts. I understand you have no children of your own, but perhaps a cousin, or a niece?"
Poppy and Lao Bei Fong turned to one another. "We don't advertise her presence," Lao said, after a moment, "but we do have a daughter. But she couldn't be the one you're looking for. She is tiny and defenseless and blind."
Azula saw the rest of the group exchange hopeful glances.
"May we meet her?" Azula asked, carefully. "I should have mentioned- we know the one destined to be the Avatar's earthbending teacher is also blind. It could be that it isn't your daughter, but please understand that we need to meet her, just in case."
"It won't be her," Lao said, with a great amount of certainty. But he gestured to one of the servants to fetch his daughter.
The girl that came through the doorway was, without a doubt, the Blind Bandit. She was dressed better, but that was about the only difference.
"Toph," Lao said. "The Avatar and his companions have come to visit."
"Hello," Toph said, in a timid voice. Azula could tell it was effected immediately.
Toph's parents gave Aang a questioning look. He nodded, and Lao's face clouded. Clearly, the Bei Fongs did not want Toph to be Aang's earthbending teacher.
Aang took a step forward, and Toph's smile faded. Interesting.
"Are you one of the Avatar's companions?" Toph asked, turning towards the sound of his footsteps and still using her annoyingly fake innocent voice.
"I'm the Avatar," Aang said. There was something resigned about the way he said that, which Azula couldn't understand. If Azula had been the Avatar... but that was beside the point.
"Oh," Toph said, but she didn't sound that surprised.
"As you can see, Toph is far too weak and timid to be anyone's earthbending teacher. She is blind and helpless. Besides, her teacher is keeping her at the beginner's level. Unless the Avatar needs someone to teach him breathing exercises, I'm afraid you are looking in the wrong place."
Azula would not have let anyone stand there and say such things about her. But Toph just stood there, and Azula wondered how often this happened. How often Toph's parents acted as thought she were deaf as well as blind.
"With all due respect," Azula said, "We believe there is more to your daughter than there seems to be. We've seen her fight, you see."
Whatever Toph had been expecting, it wasn't a sudden revelation. She froze, and it was too late to be at all convincing when she said: "Whatever do you mean? I've never fought anyone in my life."
"Don't try to play innocent," Azula said. "I've played that game far too often to be fooled by it."
Toph was clearly nervous. "I'm not playing at anything," she said. The extra high-pitched cute voice she'd been using was stretched thin. Azula wondered how long she would try to keep it up.
"We didn't want to say anything right away," Azula said, "But this isn't the first time we've met Toph. The first time was at a pro-Earthbending competition. Toph was the rightful winner, you see. She's the best earthbender I've seen so far. And we've been travelling for quite some time."
"Our Toph?" Poppy said, sounding faint at the thought. "At one of those places?"
Lao frowned deeply. "That's impossible. My daughter is tiny, and blind, and helpless-"
From the corner of her eye, Azula watched Toph. Toph breathed in. Toph breathed out. Azula could see it was taking visible effort for her not to earthbend at them. She knew the feeling. When Uncle had tried to coddle her-
But this wasn't the time for thinking about that..
Before Toph could deny anything- as Azula was sure she would do- Azula twisted around. She swept into a low fire kick- made the flames cool enough that they would hurt but not damage-
A wall of earth met her flames, and when the wall crumbled, Toph had dropped the act.
"What was that for?"
Azula smirked. Lao and Poppy looked horrified.
"Breathing exercises," Azula said, throwing Lao's words back at him. "Really."
"You're a firebender," Toph said. It sounded like an accusation, which it probably was.
"The Avatar's firebending teacher," Azula said. "I fled my family and my nation to join him and help him save the world."
Why don't you do the same, Azula didn't add.
"You bent fire at our daughter," Lao said, standing up finally from his throne-like chair.
"I've had worse bent at me," Toph said, and Azula smirked again, not even bothering to hide it this time.
Toph was theirs.
"That is beside the point," Lao said to his daughter. "Go to your room. We will talk about that later." He turned back to Azula and the rest of the group. "As for the rest of you- you are no longer welcome in my home."
"But-" Aang said.
"That's fine," Azula said. "Come on. Lets go. There are other earthbending teachers out there. Better ones."
She could tell Toph was bristling behind her as they walked out.
"What was all that about?" Sokka asked, once they were out the door. "You just ruined our chances to get her as Aang's earthbending teacher!"
"No," Azula said. "I just cemented those chances. All we have to do now is wait."
They found a place for dinner, and sure enough, Toph came up to them halfway through the meal.
"I don't know what your problem is," she said, eyes focused just over Azula's left shoulder. "But if Twinkletoes needs me- well, it's a good excuse to let my parents cool off for a while."
Aang's face got very, very bright.
"Great!" Katara said.
Sokka gave Azula a strange look, as though he wasn't sure whether to be glad or not. But of all of the others, Sokka mattered the least.
Yes. Things were still going according to plan.
Toph didn't have a nickname for Azula. Everyone else had one. Aang was Twinkletoes, Ty Lee was Dancy-pants, and Katara was Sweetness. Sokka seemed to get a new nickname every other day, though none of them stuck.
But Azula didn't have one. Not within the week they met, the way the others did, and not a month later.
At first, Azula took it as a mark of respect. But as she got to know Toph a little better, she realized that Toph didn't respect anyone. No- this was a mark of distance.
Azula resolved to get closer to Toph. It was important, for the dynamic of the group. She needed them all to trust her. She needed to be the perfect choice for Fire Lord, when the time came to appoint one. There could be no disagreement.
So she attempted to make conversation. But it seemed like every time she did, Toph brushed her off. It was galling, to think she didn't even have the charisma to make a 12 year old girl like her.
But then, maybe subtle wasn't the right way to approach this. Maybe she needed to be blunt.
"You don't seem to like me much," Azula said, settling herself down on a rock near Toph one day.
Toph blew her bangs out of her face with an irritated huff. "What was your first clue?"
"Why?" Azula said, ignoring her attitude.
"Because you're a fake," Toph said, as though it were obvious. "I know you have to stay with us to teach Twinkletoes firebending, but that doesn't mean I have to like you."
"What do you mean, I'm a 'fake'?" Azula asked.
"I mean, you aren't telling us everything. Everyone else may have bought your story about wanting to stop the war, and your humanitarian impulses, but I don't. You're not as good a liar as you think you are."
"I've been part of this group longer than you have," Azula said, trying not to get angry. She wanted Toph as a friend, not as an enemy. "Maybe humanitarian reasons aren't your motivation, but that doesn't give you the right to-"
"Just shut up," Toph said. "And stop trying to sound like Sweetness. I'm not questioning you, alright? I'm calling you out. I have guesses about why you're here. None of them are really nice."
"I'm not a spy," Azula said.
"No, I don't think so," Toph said. "I think you're angling for something, though."
"Angling to get as far as possible from my family," Azula said, deciding it was time to pull out her second layer of lies.
Toph looked surprised. "What?"
"I ran away to join the circus," Azula said. "There was a reason for that, you know."
"You're a spoiled rich kid," Toph said. "Did mommy and daddy decide to cut off your funds?"
Azula didn't ask how Toph knew that she'd been wealthy. She was too good at picking up on little details. It was a dangerous trait.
It was a shame Aang still needed an Earthbending teacher.
"I'd have to have a mother and father for that to happen," Azula said, letting some anger seep into her voice. "Which I don't."
"Oh," Toph said, suddenly sheepish.
"They just disappeared one day," Azula said. "And no one ever talked about them anymore. I was eight. I think they were assassinated. Fire Nation politics are like that."
She watched Toph, who was obviously paying attention to key words- politics, assassination. Good. It was about time Azula started planting clues about her identity. She'd have to tell them eventually.
"My uncle raised me," she said, after a moment. "Me, and my older brother. Uncle loves my brother. Gives him anything he asks for, and a lot that he doesn't. My brother is the replacement for the son he lost, you know? And... Uncle loves his dear niece. The one who played with pretty dolls when she was young, who's kind, and who'll be the perfect match for when he tries to marry her off. It's a pity that that girl doesn't exist."
She gave Toph a bitter smile even though the blind girl couldn't see it. "So I guess I am a fake."
"That sucks," Toph said. The hostility was gone from her voice, though she still didn't sound exactly warm.
It was a start.
A few days later, the group was sitting near a fire, staring at a pot of soup. If you could even call it soup. It was a few pathetic vegetables in water. And the dried meat they were having with it was even more disgusting-looking. It was the worst meal they'd had since leaving the North Pole.
"We aren't eating that," Azula said, looking at it with distaste.
"Do you have a better idea?" Sokka asked, poking at the watery broth with a spoon.
"We're in the Earth Kingdom. We find a village of sufficient size, and we reveal Aang's identity. They'll fall over themselves to help us. We could even stay there and train in relative luxury for a while."
"Last time we stayed somewhere for longer than a few days, Zhao followed us and burnt down the whole village," Aang pointed out.
"We haven't seen Zhao since the North Pole," Azula pointed out, carefully not mentioning what had happened to him. "I think we'd be safe stopping for the night."
"We aren't bringing danger to anyone else," Aang said.
Azula looked at the soup. "But we're trying to save the world. We need proper nourishment."
"Whatever, Princess Fussy," Toph said.
Azula shot her a glance. Ty Lee was staring, too. And then, at the same time, they realized it was just a nickname.
Azula scowled. Ty Lee looked away.
Azula's secret was still safe. For now.
"Field trips?" Azula repeated. "We're trying to end a one-hundred-year war before the comet comes, and you want to stop to take field trips?"
"Mini field trips," Ty Lee corrected Azula helpfully.
"We can still train," Aang said, almost pleading. "But we can have fun at the same time!"
Azula sighed. If it hadn't been for her, she was sure they wouldn't have made it to the Northern Water tribe by now- never mind finding Toph. They'd have been sidetracked by every village on the way.
So they pointed Appa towards the natural ice spring, which was even more of a dump than she had predicted. And then Sokka heard about the library hidden in the desert, and started his field trip, and Azula just wanted to hit someone. Or burn them to a crisp. But she didn't. She just took a breath, and smiled, and said, "Fine. But let's hurry."
"Azula, look at this!"
Azula hurried over to the shelf Ty Lee was searching. "Is it important information?"
Ty Lee held the book up. There were... pictures. Azula was certain they weren't anatomically possible. People didn't bend like that.
Well. Most people, she amended, remembering who she was talking to.
Azula blushed. "That's not the sort of thing we're looking for."
"Why not? We have all the time in the world! It's a spirit library. It's not like it has closing hours."
There were times when Azula felt that Ty Lee didn't appreciate the gravity of the situation. This was definitely one of them.
"I wonder if there are more around here!" Ty Lee said, practically chirping. "Come on, let's go ask!"
Azula resisted the urge to hit her head against a wall repeatedly. "We are not asking a spirit owl where you can find pornography."
"Why not? He seemed really friendly!"
That was not at all the description Azula would have used.
She followed Ty Lee unwillingly to the owl. Clearly, her girlfriend had no shame.
"Is there a section with more books like this?" Ty Lee asked. "I think it's really interesting!"
He leaned in to look at the pictures. "Hmm. This doesn't seem anatomically accurate."
Ty Lee kept beaming at him.
He took the book from her. "I believe there is a small section upstairs."
"This library is so big, though," Ty Lee said. "I'm afraid we might get lost. Could you show us where?"
As they walked, Ty Lee kept up a constant stream of chatter. "So, are the books shelved by subject, then?"
"For the most part," Wei Shi Tong said.
"But what if you read something, like a play, and you really want to read something else by the same author? It wouldn't be in the same section. How would you find it? "
"You would ask me," the owl said. "And I would tell you."
"So you know where every book in here is? Every single one?"
"Wow! That's amazing. You must have a great memory!"
Okay, even Ty Lee wasn't usually this ditzy.
Was she flirting with the knowledge spirit?
Azula watched Ty Lee for a moment. She was smiling brightly, and leaning slightly towards Wei Shi Tong as she spoke.
She was flirting.
Azula felt a spike of sudden irrational jealousy before she made sense of the situation. Of course- Ty Lee was providing a distraction so that the others wouldn't get caught looking for the Fire Nation's weaknesses.
And Ty Lee was great at creating distractions. Azula knew that for a fact.
They reached what Azula had mentally dubbed the Pornography Section, and the knowledge spirit turned away, probably to go check on the others-
"Would you be able to point out the most anatomically correct volumes?" Azula said, blurting out the first distracting thing she could think of, and most definitely not blushing bright red.
Wei Shi Tong stopped, turned around, and stared at her for what felt like eternity without a word.
As an owl, this was a task he was especially well-suited for.
"I believe that is a matter which you are more than capable of determining on your own," he said. He walked away.
Well, she'd tried.
"There's no reason to be embarrassed, Azula," Ty Lee said, turning her attention to one of the suspiciously-stained books on the shelf. "It's just pornography. He's a knowledge spirit. Porn is knowledge!"
"It's unseemly," Azula said, wishing that she could stop the blush.
Ty Lee had been with the circus longer than she had, Azula reminded herself. Obviously she'd picked up some strange ideas while she was there.
"No one needs to say it," Azula said. "It just is."
Ty Lee ignored her, and held up the book, revealing the current page. "Look at this! We should try it sometime."
Azula blushed even more deeply. But she was intrigued.
And it wasn't like there was anyone else around to watch her reading unseemly material, after all.
They left the library much later. Azula was willing to swear that Wei Shi Tong gave her a strange look as they left.
Toph was sitting outside, bored to tears and sunburned bright red.
"What took you guys so long? The only excitement I've had all day was beating up a couple of sandbenders."
"Sorry, Toph," Sokka said. "But we found a lot of important information."
"Wait till we get farther away, Sokka," Katara said, with a nervous glance at the library.
Once they were on Appa and had put some distance between themselves and the library, Aang turned to Azula and Ty Lee. "So did you guys find anything interesting?"
Azula flushed again.
"No," she said. "Nothing at all."
The rest of the group stared quizzically, and she wished that someone would attack them, or Appa would fall asleep and drop a short distance out of the sky, or anything at all would happen to distract them.
"We found a really interesting section. I stole one of the books," Ty Lee said cheerfully.
Azula briefly considered jumping off the bison, and settled for throwing the book off the side before Ty Lee managed to show it to anyone.
"Whoops," she said. "It's too dark to find it. I guess we'll have to continue without it. I'm just so terribly clumsy."
"That might have contained information vital to conquering the Fire Nation!" Sokka said, voice cracking slightly.
Ty Lee let out a giggle.
"There are much better ways to conquer the Fire Nation," Ty Lee said, after the giggles had subsided.
And that was the end of that.
The trip to Ba Sing Se wouldn't take long. A few days at most. And while it was pressing that they get there soon, they didn't have to get there before Azula had her chance to go on a field trip of her own.
Ever since seeing the Northern Air Temple, Azula had been intrigued by the idea that the airbenders had had universal or near-universal bending. No other nation came close. Azula didn't have the data close on hand, obviously, but she remembered that far less than half of the fire nation citizens were benders. Among the nobility the percentage was higher- the royal family had not produced a nonbender in five generations, and even the lesser nobles usually managed to produce mostly benders, Mai and Ty Lee being notable exceptions- but the percentage was far less than 100%.
Azula had considered alternatives to her theory. But the sticking point was that all the Air Nomads had lived in the temples, when they weren't wandering the world. They had to be all benders, or they wouldn't be able to live there. The temple she'd seen just hadn't been set up for nonbenders. No railings, no easy walkways, and if you fell- well, a nonbender wouldn't survive, that was certain.
But perhaps that temple had been a temple for the elite. Perhaps the monks who lived there had been selected precisely because they were benders. If Azula saw another temple, she could see if their bending had truly been universal, or if the northern temple was an anomaly.
She'd asked Aang some small questions, when they were at the Northern Water Tribe, but more pressing matters had always interfered. There was the sexism that had prevented Katara from learning bending, and the drama that had resulted from Azula and Ty Lee's relationship, and then the attack on the Northern Water Tribe by Zhao, and when none of that had been going on, Aang had always been tired from training.
And then it had been too long since the Northern Air Temple, and Azula was sure it would look suspicious if she started asking questions. At least, Azula would have been suspicious, if someone had started asking her questions.
Azula was always suspicious.
In any case, she wanted to see another air temple. And it just so happened that the Eastern Air Temple wasn't too far out of their way.
"You want to see an air temple," Sokka repeated, when Azula told them her idea for a field trip.
"Yes," Azula said. And then, pulling out a really good lie, she added: "I need to see with my own eyes what my people have done."
Aang nodded at her respectfully. "It's on the way," he pointed out to the others.
It took the better part of a day to get there, but Azula was patient. It was on the way, after all; she would have had to wait this long no matter what.
When they finally got there, Azula was intrigued. There were many similarities to the Northern Air Temple- there were distinctly fewer railings than Azula would have expected, for one thing, especially on the steep winding paths that led up to the temple- but the differences were also intriguing. Once they had landed, it was clear that some of the areas did have some short railings, but there were large areas that offered no protection to nonbenders at all.
"What were the railings for?" Azula asked. "In school, we learned that all the air nomads were benders. Why would you need protection against a fall if you could bend air?"
"For the little kids," Aang said, not correcting her guess. Good. She'd guessed right, then. "There were lots of kids at the Eastern temple."
He frowned. Azula could see why. Killing children- where was the honor in that? But then, any of those children could have been the Avatar. From a tactical perspective, it made sense.
Azula didn't voice that fact. It would do far more harm than good.
"Why did the Air Nomads have so many benders?" Azula asked, trying to sound innocent- but not too innocent. "No other nation has more than a third benders."
Aang looked confused. "Because we were the most spiritual," he said, as thought it should have been obvious.
Azula frowned. That didn't make any sense. If spirituality were a prerequiset for bending, the royal family would produce nothing but nonbenders. The only reasonably spiritual one among them was Uncle, who had been trying to go on a journey to the spirit world when he'd been interrupted by his new duties as Fire Lord. Zuko might be a little spiritual these days, too, if Uncle had been getting to him even more than usual. But the other Fire Lords, before him? They had tried to find and kill the Avatar. Great-grandfather Sozin had succeeded in killing the last Avatar. You didn't get much less spiritual than that.
They finally touched down on a wide balcony, obviously intended for sky bison.
Waiting there calmly was a tanned old man, meditating peacefully. As the group got off of Appa and approached him, he opened his eyes. "Avatar Aang," he said. "I've been waiting for you." Then he seemed to take in the whole group. "And I see you brought friends," he said.
None of them bothered bowing.
"Who are you?" Aang asked.
"I am Guru Pathik," the man said. "A spiritual brother of your people. I had a vision of you coming here. I have been waiting a long time for your arrival."
"You have?" Aang asked. "Why?"
"I am here to teach you to master the Avatar State," the guru said.
Not this again, Azula thought.
"Er," Aang said. "Last time someone tried to do that, it didn't work out so well."
"You've tried to master the Avatar state before?" the guru asked. "How?"
"Well," Aang said, "We met up with this crazy general, and he threatened Katara, and-"
"That," the guru said, "is not mastering the Avatar state. It is merely giving in to your emotions."
Aang looked puzzled. Azula, on the other hand, understood. This wasn't about triggering the Avatar state- it was about controlling it.
This guru was far more dangerous to her plans than General Fong.
Still- she remembered her destiny. This would not interfere, any more than General Fong's ambitions to end the war early had interfered. All Azula had to do was figure out, once again, how destiny intended her to succeed.
Aang and the guru went off to meditate. Azula and the others were left to wonder when they would make it to Ba Sing Se.
"Do you think Aang can do it?" Sokka asked, doubtfully.
"Not a chance," Toph said. "I've barely started teaching him earthbending."
"His firebending isn't so hot either," Sokka said, and then looked far too pleased with himself for the joke.
Azula nodded. Maybe she wouldn't have to interfere at all. Maybe Aang wouldn't be able to master the Avatar state.
Azula didn't like maybes.
Still, her optimism paid off. Aang came back looking utterly dejected. Azula had to hold her face impassive. It wouldn't do to smile at his failure. The others couldn't know that she was counting on his failure. It would reflect poorly on her.
"I couldn't do it," Aang said, as though his face didn't already tell the whole story.
"It doesn't matter," Azula said. "We have a plan. You'll master the Avatar State on your own time."
His own time, Azula hoped, would be slow enough that Azula could establish herself as the best candidate for Fire Lord. The time to tell them her true identity was coming soon, she thought. She just had to wait for the right moment.
Katara and Sokka nodded in agreement with Azula. Toph just blew her bangs out of her face and shrugged. Ty Lee, oblivious to the mood of the moment, said: "Why not? Was it hard?"
Aang looked deeply uncomfortable. "Yeah," he said. "It was just- something I couldn't do."
Katara hugged Aang. "It's okay. Like Azula said, you have to do things at your own pace. Once you've mastered the four elements, I'm sure the Avatar State will come more easily."
"He wanted me to give up you," Aang said abruptly. "I couldn't do it, Katara."
Ah. Well, Azula had seen that romance coming a million miles away.
"I don't see why you'd have to give up Katara," Azula said sweetly. "I mean, Avatars are allowed romance."
Katara blushed even more deeply. Aang turned pink, too. Oh, this was comedy gold. Azula would be enjoying their incompetent relationship for weeks.
"I don't understand, either," Aang said, when he'd regained his composure a bit. "Maybe I should talk to Roku. He might understand."
"I wouldn't give up Ty Lee no matter what. Even if by giving it up I became... Fire Lord," Azula said. Best to plant a seed now. "Even if it ended this war right now. People need a little romance. It keeps you connected to the world. And as the Avatar, you need that connection more than most people. After all, Katara is the one who can bring you out of the Avatar State."
Every word of that little speech was true. It might be a record, for Azula.
Aang looked troubled. "The monks always told me that to master my bending, I needed to be detached from the world."
"Maybe the monks were wrong," Azula said.
This seemed to trouble Aang even more. "I need to think about this," he said.
They got back on Appa, and rode towards Ba Sing Se, all utterly silent.
It was going to be a long ride.
If Azula had still been working for the Fire Nation, she could have taken Ba Sing Se in a day.
She was still tempted. Bring back the Avatar, and bring the city Uncle could never conquer to its knees? If Uncle had a modicum of sense, he'd make her the heir right then and there.
She didn't trust that Uncle had a modicum of sense. She could bring the entire Earth Kingdom down, and he still wouldn't make her the heir. She could bring the entire universe under Fire Nation control, and it wouldn't make one whit of difference. Because Zuko was Uncle's favorite, and Azula never would be.
So, with a sigh, she went about trying to restructure the government.
"Your Dai Li aren't loyal to you," she explained to the Earth King for the twelfth time. "They're loyal to Long Feng. If you want to make sure your city is safe, you need to weed out the bad ones and banish them before they have a chance to turn on you. Otherwise, your city could be taken out from under you."
The Earth King sort of blinked at her. "That seems so far-fetched. The Dai Li are sworn to me. They would never betray me."
"They may be sworn to you," Azula said, "but they aren't loyal to you. Most of them have never even met you. If Long Feng were to escape, they would support him."
But no matter how she pressed, he wouldn't admit that there was even a problem.
Sometimes, the obvious, "moral" method didn't work. But Azula wasn't dumb, and she knew of several herbs that, individually, were completely harmless. She had, after all, grown up in the Fire Nation court, and she kept her ears open.
Just as importantly, she knew how to shake the Dai Li agent that was following her around the city, and how to seem like an inconspicuous Earth Kingdom peasant buying herbs for health reasons.
Long Feng could have died in his sleep that night, of apparent heart failure. But the herbs stayed at the bottom of Azula pack. She couldn't quite bring herself to use them.
It was stupid. It wasn't like she hadn't killed people before. Those three soldiers during the battle of the Northern Air Temple. Zhao. Now, some of those were by necessity, and one was sort of an accident. But she'd still done it, and Azula wasn't some fool who tried to pretend her motivations mattered more than her actions.
But there was still something in her that balked at outright murder, outside a battle. Maybe it was the part of her that remembered when her father had been murdered. He'd died during the night, too.
She thought: If Long Feng turns against us, I will kill him. But not until then.
Of course, things never went that smoothly, because it wasn't like traitors gave warning before they attempted a coup. They killed the generals in their sleep, and they would have killed Azula too, if Ty Lee hadn't been such a light sleeper. They hadn't expected her, in Azula's room.
The two of them took out three Dai Li before they went to warn the others.
Azula was pretty sure she'd killed one of them, though she wasn't willing to think about that yet. She couldn't afford regret just now. She couldn't afford to think about the number of deaths on her hands steadily rising.
It would be worth it when she was Fire Lord. It had to be.
Toph had taken care of the agents that tried to capture her with relative ease. By the time Azula got to her rooms, she was dusting her clothes off and walking off to check on Aang.
Aang wasn't there.
And Katara had been taken, too. Sokka had hit the Dai Li who'd come for him over the head with his boomerang, but he was injured. His right arm had been broken. Ty Lee, who had seen a number of injuries in the circus, was able to splint his arm with strips of ripped sheet and the leg of the delicate chair in Sokka's room, and Azula was sure that Katara would be able to heal it once they found her, but it meant that Sokka was less useful until they did.
Worst of all, Appa was gone. Which meant that they had three rescues to attend to, and where the hell had the Dai Li taken them?
Azula had never met Jet before, but she knew a fellow liar when she saw one. He was a smooth one, but not really on the same level as her. No one was, since Father had died.
"You haven't seen Appa," she said. "This is all too convenient."
Toph said: "He isn't lying."
"Come again?" Azula said.
"There are physical changes that occur when someone lies," Toph said. "I can feel them with my earthbending."
For a brief moment, Azula's heart felt like it was dropping to the bottom of her stomach. That... was something she hadn't anticipated.
Her worry was intensified when Toph turned blind eyes in her direction, staring just past Azula's shoulder, as though to say: I know you. And then Azula realized that was silly. If Toph had noticed all of Azula's lies, she would have called all of them out long ago. Toph wasn't one to let secrets fester.
Azula was just that good of a liar.
And even if Toph did notice- that wasn't a problem. The lies Azula had told were temporary. She was going to reveal them, anyway, at a more convenient date. She had to let them know that she was the princess. She had to plant the idea that she was a good ruler. She had to set herself up as the best alternative to Uncle.
No. There was no problem.
Except, of course, that Jet was still there.
"So if he isn't lying," Azula said, still doubtful of Toph's abilities, "then he has seen Appa. And we should follow him."
"Well," Sokka said, "lead the way. But don't think that we trust you."
"I know I don't deserve your trust," Jet said, "but I'm really trying to earn it back. I've done some horrible things. But I've made a clean start here. It's just me, Smellerbee, and Longshot, and we've been working hard to make a living here."
Sokka still looked suspicious.
"Whatever our differences," Ty Lee said, "we know he's telling the truth now, right? So we'll just trust him exactly as much as Toph says to. No problem!"
Sokka nodded grudgingly. "I guess you're right."
So they followed Jet as he walked to the location he remembered.
"I've been spying on the Dai Li," he said, conversationally. "They're pretty sneaky, but they weren't expecting me to be following them."
He leaned towards Ty Lee with a grin, obviously intending to impress her.
Ty Lee shot Azula a quick glance, and Azula gave a barely perceptible nod. Ty Lee's flirting would come in handy here, especially because Jet was obviously interested to start with.
Ty Lee leaned in. "You must be so sneaky! Much better than those Dai Li!"
The place Appa had apparently been taken was a lake called Laogai, and it looked pleasant enough. But Toph bent down and felt the ground with her hand, and said "There's a secret base under here."
Well, clearly Toph's earthbending was as useful as it was potentially dangerous. Azula would have to keep an eye on her, but she was a useful addition to the group beyond her teaching skills.
Underneath the lake, there was a whole facility that Azula hadn't expected. There were Joo Dees being trained, and brainwashing going on left and right.
It was enough to make Azula think that the Fire Nation's war against the Earth Kingdom was just. Except that of course Ba Sing Se was just part of the Earth Kingdom, not the whole thing. But still- to abuse one's one subjects... there was no honor in that. It was as nearly as dishonorable as the Fire Nation's killing of the Air Nomad children.
So far, it seemed as though the only nation that Azula hadn't learned something despicable about was the Air Nomads. And she suspected that the only reason for that was that they were all dead. It was difficult to dig up dirt on people when they were a hundred years gone.
It was about what Azula had suspected. She'd always thought that most people were basically selfish and uninterested in others' well being, when you got right down to it. After all, she was. But she'd also expected them to hide it better.
Most people were stupid. They didn't realize that pretending to be nice was the best way to manipulate others. The Earth Kingdom was impressive only in that they had gotten so far without being stopped.
Appa wasn't hard to find. The Dai Li weren't expecting their group to arrive so quickly, and there were only a few places large enough to hide an air bison. And once they had a 2-ton bison at their side again, it wasn't hard to beat back the rest of the Dai Li.
Katara was nearby, in a jail cell. They freed her, found her a bit of water, and she immediately healed Sokka.
That still left Aang. And unfortunately, there was only one place that they hadn't checked yet.
The brainwashing rooms.
Azula and Sokka glanced at each other, apparently having reached that conclusion at the same time. But neither of them said anything. It would just upset Katara.
They made their way back to the brainwashing rooms carefully, checking each one as they went along. Of course, this plan backfired almost immediately, as they were spotted by a Dai Lee brainwasher.
"Hey!" he said. "The waterbender is escaping!"
Dai Li from all down the hallway rushed out. Azula noted the few rooms where they didn't. One of those was bound to hold Aang.
The next few moments were a blur of fighting. Azula wasn't gentle with them. Ty Lee could afford to poke at the Dai Li and take away their bending. Azula was more deadly. She had to be. She'd never trained for anything less.
She was starting to regret that, a little. Couldn't she have had one plan, back when she'd done the bulk of her training, where she'd captured the Avatar instead of just killing him?
In any case, she burned several of the Dai Li agents badly enough that they didn't get back up. The ones down here were relatively skilled, but they weren't the combat elite. They were the ones with other skills. Like brainwashing.
It took a good twenty minutes to beat off all the attackers. Azula noticed that Katara wasn't being exactly gentle, either. Some of the injuries left by her water whip were going to leave scars.
Once they were alone again, they searched the remaining rooms. In the last one, they found Aang. He seemed slightly dazed, but Azula was pretty sure they'd gotten to him in time. Surely it took more than a couple of hours to brainwash someone.
"Did they hurt you?" Katara asked, untying his hands from their bindings behind his back.
"I'm fine," he said, shaking his head slightly. "My head kind of hurts, but I'm okay."
"Good," Katara said.
Azula nodded. It wouldn't do for the Avatar to be under Earth Kingdom control. Not when she needed him as much under her own control as possible.
"Let's get out of here," Aang said. "This place is creepy."
As they walked with Appa and the group to the surface again, Azula asked, "What were they trying to brainwash you to believe, anyway?"
Aang frowned. "They kept saying that there was no war here. It was really weird. I mean, where do they think the refugees come from?"
Azula's remaining concerns about Aang's mental health were assuaged. If he could still question the Dai Li's line of questioning, then he wasn't brainwashed.
Their luck was unbelievable. They were escaping with a minimum of fuss. They had encountered slight resistance, it was true, but they had overcome with without much trouble.
Azula was deeply suspicious of the whole thing.
They made it nearly all the way to the exit before their luck ran out. The walls of the corridor exploded inward, blocking the way out. Azula turned, along with the rest of the group, and saw Long Feng standing with a new contingent of Dai Li.
"You thought it would be that easy to escape?" he said.
"It might have been," Azula said, with a smile that was designed to put him off-balance. It didn't work, though. Pity.
"Let's end this right here," Long Feng said. "Avatar Aang- the Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai."
Azula froze, and turned to look at Aang.
Aang's expression was confused. One of his hands rose to cradle his head.
Meanwhile, a rock glove hit Azula straight in the stomach. She was knocked out of combat, and it took her several moments to regain her breath and stand up. By that point, Toph had defeated three of the Dai Li. Long Feng still remained, and they were still outnumbered, but the odds were a bit better now.
"The Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai," Long Feng repeated to Aang.
Aang didn't even bother holding his head this time. "Why do you keep saying that?"
Long Feng just shook his head. "I see you were rescued too early. A pity. You could have been a great asset to us."
Azula shot flames at him. He blocked easily with an earth wall, but Azula maneuvered herself near Toph in the meantime.
"Can you get us an exit?" she hissed.
Toph grinned. "Sure thing, Princess Fussy. Just- distract them for a minute, okay?"
A distraction. Azula could manage that.
She bent purple flames at the Dai Li agent nearest her, who was too gobsmacked to raise a wall in defense. Purple wasn't the hottest color, but it was startling if you weren't used to it. And a flame was a flame- they all injured, even if they were relatively cool.
That was one Dai Li down, a dozen more to go.
She sent out a wild volley of fireballs next, of various colors.
This wasn't a fight, not really. She'd made a it a circus.
Toph didn't take long to come through for them. And the Dai Li, apart from Long Feng, seemed pretty terrified of Azula's fireballs. It was a simple matter to back up and escape on Appa.
"What now?" Sokka asked. "We can't go back to the city. The Dai Li will be all over the place. We can't count on the Earth King now."
"We come up with a new plan," Azula said, but she was distracted.
The city was fallen to the Dai Li, and Azula could have stopped it all if she'd just been less squeamish- if she'd killed Long Feng when she'd had the chance.
How many deaths did that add to her count? Who knew how many were dead because of the coup? The generals of the city, for certain. The guards who had tried to capture Azula and Ty Lee. There were probably dozens more that Azula wasn't even thinking of.
Azula was going to have to stop counting. She wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer. And part of her hated herself for that. It shouldn't bother her, to kill for victory. It wouldn't have bothered Father, and Azula had always been his faithful daughter in all things.
But Father had been dead for years, and it occurred to Azula that she would be a disappointment to him now in many ways. Ty Lee. Joining the Avatar. Joining the circus. Her bastard fighting style. Her inability to get Uncle to love her more than stupid Zuko.
Father hated failure. And Azula had done little but fail since he had died. The one who had succeeded was Zuko.
It wasn't Azula's fault. She'd been a child, and all the rules had abruptly shifted. It wasn't her fault that Uncle had liked Zuko better, had lavished him with attention and extra lessons and whatever he needed, while Azula had coldly refused all of it, because it came from someone she hated.
Father would not have cared whose fault it was.
Azula shook her head. Now was not the time to think of such things. She didn't need a revelation. It didn't matter what Father would have thought of her, anyway. He was long dead.
It was time to stop thinking about him.
Azula readied herself to fight whoever came from the strange machine. She'd wanted to fight from the beginning. But the others had insisted on running, even after they had been caught up with again and again and again.
And now they were tired, and ill-prepared for a battle, and they had no choice.
She calmed her mind. Even exhausted, she was a great firebender. Only a master Firebender stood a chance of beating her- someone like Jeong Jeong, who was far away and on their side anyway. She moved her hands, focused on creating an imbalance-
The door opened. Azula let her lighting loose. And only then did she notice the short stature of the figure before her- the gray hair, the gold ornament that sat upon it-
The one person she knew at whom it would be unwise to shoot lightning.
"Duck," she told the others, but they were too slow. So she grabbed Aang's arm, and Ty Lee's, and pulled them to the ground.
The returning lightning was aimed a little high, and it crashed over the group's heads like a deadly wave.
"We can't win this," Azula said. "Run."
Katara pulled from her water skin. Sokka pulled out his boomerang. Toph sank into a more grounded stance.
"What are you talking about?"
"That's the Fire Lord," Azula said. "We can't beat him like this. Get back on Appa, and I'll hold him off."
If Aang died, so did her last shot at the throne. He had to escape. And the others would just get in the way. Uncle wouldn't kill her. The worst that would happen is that she would be imprisoned. Aang's firebending wasn't master-level yet, but he might be able to beat Uncle soon even without firebending. They could last without her, and then they would come rescue her. And then she would take the throne.
It wasn't a sacrifice. It was strategy. She was the one who could survive this.
"We're all leaving here together," Aang said.
Uncle was approaching. There was no time to convince the others. So Azula readied her flames.
He stopped, not far from them. And then the lightning gathering in his hands died.
"Azula," he said.
"You know each other?" Sokka said.
Uncle batted the fire that Azula shot at him away like it was nothing, blocked a swift, wild punch, broke through her defenses- and embraced her.
"I thought you were dead," he said. "For so long, I thought travelling with the Avatar had killed you."
Was he blind? Didn't he see that she had shot lightning at him only a moment ago? Did he think they weren't enemies? He shouldn't sound so- so relieved.
The battle had stopped. Everyone was staring.
"I think I'm missing something," Sokka added, since no one had replied.
Uncle was weeping, and Azula would have killed him if her arms were not pinned to her sides, whether the others were watching or not.
"Let go of me," she said.
Reluctantly, he did. She back-stepped and nearly tripped over Ty Lee.
"Get on the bison," she told the others.
Uncle looked from her to Aang and back. "Why are you traveling with the Avatar?"
She wanted to tell him everything. How she was going to be Fire Lord one day despite him. How Zuko would make a mess of everything if he got the chance, and she had always deserved the throne more than he had. How the mandate of heaven was hers.
But she had a lie to keep up. And even if she wanted to scream the truth for once in her life, she couldn't afford any slip-ups.
"You're destroying the balance," she said, instead, the words sounding hollow to her even as she made sure they were convincing to everyone else. "You're ruining the world, killing innocent people- Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, everyone- and I couldn't stand by and watch. I had to choose. So I did. And I chose to fight you."
There was a strange look on Uncle's face. Surprise, maybe? Regret? She couldn't read him, and so she just backed up until she was touching Appa, and then scrambled up his back as quickly as she could.
This wasn't the first time she'd seen pity on Uncle's face. There had been a night, years ago, after Grandfather and Father and Mother had all passed away suddenly- Uncle Iroh had come home, then, and taken the throne. He'd held up well throughout the coronation. Azula had revised her opinion of him slightly- he had been a general of some renown, after all, before his son died- but she knew he still wasn't as good as Father would have been. If Father had ever had the chance.
After the coronation, he had taken Zuko and Azula aside.
"I will care for you as if you were my own children," he said.
"Your child died when he was under your watch," Azula said. "What assurances do we have that the same fate won't befall us?"
Not because she was worried for her safety- Uncle was a soft, weak man, and he would protect them like they were little turtle-ducks, she was sure- but because she could hurt him, and she wanted to.
If she had to live with him, he was going to be just as miserable as she was.
He'd given her that look then, until her glare had melted it from his face.
"No harm will come to you," he had said. "The assassins are all dead. Everything is safe now."
He'd embraced the both of them, and Azula wondered why there had been no public execution, no announcement about the assassins who had killed her father being gone. The death of the assassins was a victory after a tragedy, and a victory that should have been celebrated.
No public announcement was ever made.
Zuko and Azula's lessons were suspended, to give them time to mourn. Azula suddenly had more time than she knew what to do with, and she spent it pacing, wondering how long it would be before she would be able to resume her practicing. She'd been getting better. But every day without practice made her worry that her skills would slip away. Muscles that were not used soon withered, after all.
Zuko had sobbed for their mother for a week straight, and Uncle had comforted him as much as he was able. The advisers to the Fire Lord had made sure that the country continued running smoothly. Uncle was free to cry, and to comfort Zuko.
Azula hadn't needed comforting. She hadn't needed time to mourn. She hadn't cried, not even once. Crying was for weak, tea-brained fools. Father was dead, and that was bad. It meant no one to tell her when her firebending skills were satisfactory. It meant no one who would instruct her in strategy, no one who would let her know when she was being strong and when she was being weak.
But crying wouldn't bring back the dead. She didn't see the point.
"Crying is a way of releasing emotions," Uncle told her, a few days after the deaths. "Sadness is like lightning. You can channel it, but if you try to trap it within yourself, you risk injuring yourself."
He hugged her again, and she tolerated it, because for once he'd said something useful. Even if it hadn't been what he meant to tell her.
The next day, she accidentally killed a turtle-duck practicing lightning. But she let the lightning flow through her, and she herself remained uninjured.
Zuko's lessons resumed a few weeks later. Uncle took over the lessons personally, guiding Zuko in his movements until he was actually a reasonably good bender.
Uncle didn't offer Azula the chance, just then. She wasn't sure she even wanted him to, anyway.
It was weeks more before Uncle offered to give her lessons.
"Your brother is doing very well with my help," he said, lowering himself so that their eyes were on the same level. "I know you have not really given yourself time to grieve. But perhaps it is time to resume your lessons. I know you have been practicing on your own. Would you care to show me what you have been doing?"
But Azula didn't need Uncle. She didn't need anyone. She was doing fine on her own.
"No," Azula said. "I don't need anyone's help. Especially not yours."
Uncle looked at her sadly, but didn't argue.
She practiced alone from then on.
It wasn't like she had anyone to impress but herself anymore, after all.
"He won't follow," she told the others when they were up in the sky, safe. "Not right now. He'll be on our trail again in a day or two, though, once the shock wears off."
"What just happened?" Sokka asked. "How do you know the Fire Lord?"
This could go very badly if not handled absolutely perfectly. Unfortunately, Azula was still rattled from the confrontation with His Royal Tea-Loving Highness.
"He's my uncle," Azula said, shortly.
"Then that makes you-"
"Princess Azula," she finished. "Sister to the crown prince. I told you I'd betrayed everything to help you, didn't I?" She let a little anger seep into her voice. "Next time, when I say run, run."
She turned away from them, just enough that she could still see their reactions out of the corner of her eye. Sokka's jaw had actually dropped, something she'd thought was a figure of speech. The others just looked stunned, except for Toph, who was smirking.
"I guess I'm really good at picking nicknames," Toph said. She leaned back and started picking her toes, apparently uninterested in the rest of the conversation, but Azula could tell that she was still listening.
At that, the others seemed to recover slightly. Toph had broken the awkwardness.
"You could have told us," Aang said.
"And risk losing your trust?" Azula said. "No, it was too soon. I couldn't risk all of you hating me, just because of who I'm related to."
Aang frowned. "It might have taken longer for us to trust you," he acknowledged. "But you didn't have to lie. We would have learned that you were a good person eventually, if you were just honest."
Azula sincerely doubted that.
"It doesn't matter," she said. "I made my choices. What matters now is if you can forgive me."
There was silence for a moment, and then Ty Lee said, more anger in her voice than Azula expected, "This doesn't change anything. Azula is still the same person. She lies. She lies a lot, I know that. But she's good, underneath that. I've known her longer than any of you, and I know that. It isn't her fault, where she was born. It isn't her fault that she's the princess. The Fire Nation has done bad things, but Azula didn't do any of that. She's good."
Azula squeezed Ty Lee's hand. She hadn't expected that. Hadn't deserved it, really. Not when she'd done nothing but ask Ty Lee for help, the entire time they were at the circus. She'd been dead weight. And Ty Lee had loved her anyway, had found her a place. And now she kept doing it, kept making space for Azula in the group, even though the group had changed and the rules were different.
Azula would have hated anyone else, for making her so... dependent. But it was okay, when it was Ty Lee. Ty Lee could be trusted.
"You don't get to pick your family," Katara said softly, apparently having made up her mind.
Azula didn't want sympathy. She didn't have any use for it. But she had a charade to keep up.
"You do get to pick your friends," she said, because it was sappy and the others would like it. It startled her, how she barely had to fake it. She had become accustomed to the others.
They were useful, she reminded herself. They furthered her was all. And if they counted her as a friend, so much the better.
Still- Ty Lee squeezed Azula's hand back, so Azula knew it had been the right thing to say. Sokka still looked mildly suspicious, but with some work on Azula's part, that could change.
"Let's find somewhere to get some sleep," Katara said, warmly.
Azula tried not to gag on the saccharine sweetness of it all.
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.
Thank you all for your support and comments while I was writing this fic! I especially want to thank my betas, Zephyras and British Spy, for their help. Without them, most of this fic wouldn't exist.