Two months after Ozai's passing there has still not been a proper coronation.
Azula sees Katara's shadow more often than she does the girl herself; a shadow moving along the hall outside Azula's room, a hint of motion visible through the crack under her door. Sometimes Katara is there when the servants bring Azula her daily supplies, or when the royal physician attends her. Katara has become, in Azula's estimations, a ghost. She stalks around with footsteps too light to be heard; she watches, silent and forlorn and tortured, the perfect smooth skin of her face creasing under the worry.
Azula has seen her in the seconds between her door opening and it shutting again. She does not know what Katara has seen in those moments. She does know that, of the two of them, Katara has not been treated to the better view.
"Is she still here?" Azula asks her servants every morning, if she has not caught sight of Katara herself. Every morning they tell her yes, but even when Azula believes them she knows it is only a matter of time until they're either lying or telling her no; she already can't imagine what is keeping Katara in the Fire Nation given that they haven't even spoken in weeks. Azula, too, has become a ghost.
Zuko rots somewhere in the palace dungeons—so she has been told. She is little better off herself.
All the mirrors in her quarters are gone and so is much of the skin on her knuckles. She doesn't regret that initial outburst of destructive rage. It was deserved. The room is a combination of rich furnishings, dents and scratches, snapped wood and shattered glass, heirlooms and crusted patches of blood scabbed on the priceless woven carpets. Royal blood looks no different than any other kind in a smudge on the wall.
There is, however, no ash around her. Nothing burnt—not aside from herself. Her face feels like the melted wax of the candles she now refuses to light. When the sun sets and the natural light fades, Azula simply goes to sleep. There is nothing to stay up for.
The fire sages send her messages, stressing the need to give the people a new Fire Lord. To announce the nation's new leader to the world—which is still, they remind her, at war. Some of the messages address her as though she has already been crowned. Azula hates the way that this feels both wrong and right—Fire Lord Azula is the person she has always wanted to be. But Fire Lord Azula was meant to be fearless and flawless and strong, not mangled and lost and too afraid to light a fire.
Some nights she finds it particularly hard to breathe. It's almost like there's still smoke in her lungs—or like her lungs have filled up with ashes and dust and there's no room left in them for air. Sometimes she feels the stirring of fire inside her as she inhales, oxygen feeding the heat without her consciously directing it to. Her breaths come short and fast, then, until her eyes water and her fists clench and the wheezing hurts. The servants bring her medicines she never used to take for fear of becoming reliant on them, and she finds it shockingly easy not to care about the potential for addiction; at the height of these panics her body feels like it won't last the night anyway.
And yet it always does last. There is always another day. And sometimes she catches a glimpse of Katara through the door, and sometimes she doesn't.
Katara only reins in her anger after she has torn the corner off a priceless scroll. The scrap of aged paper fills her palm, a triangle with a fresh rough edge and a sharp, perfect corner that speaks of great care on the part of the Fire Sages. She promised them that she'd be careful with it, said there was no need to copy it all out for her to borrow—and they, knowing precisely why Katara wanted so urgently to read about healing, had agreed to entrust her with it.
Katara has been entrusted with so much over the past year. New power, responsibility. For as long as she was able to carry all that was placed upon her, able to chew everything she bit off, she felt strong and important. Until all of a sudden she couldn't do what was needed, couldn't find the answer, couldn't keep her promises. The torn scroll is priceless, but it's still by far the least of the things Katara has managed to ruin.
She thinks of her father's face: fearful, disgusted.
She thinks of Azula's face: skin burnt, expression pained and dazed but trusting. Katara had never failed Azula before, and so when she told her that she'd heal her, Azula believed it. Katara believed it herself—until she realised that not every skill can be acquired just because the circumstances require it, and that not everything comes to her as naturally as bloodbending.
Katara still cannot heal. She's combed through every scroll in every language she can understand, and even attempted to decipher some others based solely on their illustrations. She only notices the days turning to nights and back again because at some hours she needs a lamp to do her reading by.
Zea, one of Azula's servants, also checks in on Katara from time to time. Katara isn't sure whether she does so on Azula's orders, so that she can report back to the Princess—the Fire Lord yet to be crowned. It's possible, but Katara is of the opinion that Zea acts on her own concern these days. Someone has to be keeping the palace running from day to day, and it isn't Azula. Azula has not left her room since the morning after the invasion. Katara only leaves hers to get food, and to mill around outside Azula's door picking up pieces of news from the staff who enter and exit. She has not been invited inside, and with no useful skills or comforts to bring, she is reluctant to try and change that. If she does barge in, she worries, Azula might tell her to leave. Leave not just her room or her palace but her entire nation. Banish her. And Katara doesn't know where she'd go then; her father has seen her turn into something he can't help but hate, and her brother and the rest of their tribe have followed him in leaving her.
Katara has to find a way to help Azula, or she might be left with no-one in the world.
She steals a small knife from the kitchens one night and hides it in her desk drawer, between copied pages of scrolls she's found somewhat useful. She presses and draws its edge along the skin of her arm, wincing at the sharp pinch and watching the beads of red well up from the cut. She tries each subtly different waterbending technique until she's capable of stitching a gash haphazardly back together. The scars left behind are thick and obvious, especially at first, and they remind her of why she needs to improve.
She practices and practices and practices until she can seal her sliced arm back together with such precision that she has to know where the fine silver lines left behind are in order to notice them. She experiences a brief rush of excitement, of hope, and then the sages give her a translation they've been working on, and she reads that healing burns is not at all like healing cuts. It's something she should have realised so much earlier. Katara collapses onto her bed and heaves wet breaths in and out, soaks puddles in her pillow and sleeps off the headache that crying leaves her with.
She wakes up in daylight, but she lights a candle all the same. This time she uses her other forearm.
Zea catches her at it when she accidentally sets a sheet on fire. She's spread the fabric out over her desk so that it lies under her arm as she works and nothing stains the polished wooden surface. Katara holds her wrist too close to the candle flame too soon, and almost bites her tongue off when the pain is greater than she expects. The candle, quite a tall one in a metal stand, tips over and the flame meets the sheet cloth.
Katara bends the water from her wash basin and slops it over the small blaze, and Zea must hear the splash because she rushes in. This is how Katara ends up sitting on the edge of her bed, embarrassed and tired out by the faded adrenaline rush, letting Zea treat her burns and read all her previous efforts on her scarified skin.
"I am no expert on waterbending," Zea says, "but maybe you can't make the burns go back to normal because what used to be there just is not anymore. If you can heal a cut with waterbending, you are just making what the body already does happen faster. But with a scarred burn like Azula's, the body is never going to repair it so that it looks and feels like it used to. If I may speak candidly, my lady," Zea pauses until Katara nods her permission, "waterbending is not going to save Her Royal Highness. Not the way she thinks she wants to be saved, and not the way you are trying to save her. That would take a miracle."
"Magic, intervention from the spirits, time travel," Zea shrugs. "What I am saying is, it's not poss—"
"Intervention from the spirits," Katara exclaims, the idea dawning on her. "That's just it."
Zea says nothing, but she leaves the room looking concerned.
The knocking ripples through the shallow sleep into which Azula has only just managed to sink.
"Not now," she grumbles.
"Then when?" It is Katara's voice. Azula sits upright in her bed, still not quite awake but too flooded with anxious energy now to have any hope of slipping back into unconsciousness.
She doesn't hear footsteps leaving, doesn't see the shadow that's visible under the doorframe move other than to sway gently from side to side; perhaps Katara is tapping her foot in impatience. Azula hastily pulls on a nightgown, even though the thin strips of daylight trimming her closed curtains are indisputable. Her hair is a wreck, tangled from sweaty nightmares. She runs a hand through it and isn't sure which surface adds more grease to the other. Her lips twist in an involuntary expression of disgust, and the lack of proper movement in the right edge of her lips only reminds her that there's little use agonising about a thing like unwashed hair now.
She grabs the polished wooden stick—a walking stick which belonged to her great grandmother much later in her life than it has become Azula's—and uses it to hobble to the door, avoiding her bad ankle as much as she can. At least the physicians are confident the breaks in the bone will heal and her use of the leg will ultimately return to normal. Azula avoids contemplating what she'll do once her mobility returns to her and she can no longer lean on this excuse for hiding away.
"What do you want?" Azula asks as she opens the door to Katara.
Katara stops short and just looks at her, which makes Azula want to shrink back into the shadows.
"I want to know that you're okay, first of all," Katara answers eventually.
"I'm sorry, but I can't help you with that."
"I'm—" Katara trips over her words, "I'm sorry; I haven't been able to help you with..."
Azula waves the hand not leaning on the walking stick to indicate her face.
Katara nods. "Anyway," she says, clearly eager to move on from the ugly subject, "I'm taking a trip to the North Pole."
Azula grips the handle of the walking stick tighter. "If that's what you want," she says. She's been resigning herself to Katara leaving, but anticipation is not the same as having to face the reality. Her eyes burn hot and she wants this interaction to end so that she can retreat before she humiliates herself in front of Katara. At the same time, she wants this conversation to last as long as possible, if it is going to be their last.
"It's just a trip," Katara assures her, sensing her distress. But Azula knows what it looks like when someone isn't telling the whole truth, and she's seeing it now.
"Whatever you say," she says.
"Before I go, is there anything I can help you with?"
If this is the last Azula will see of Katara, then she might as well ask. "Would you..." she begins, capturing Katara's attention, "would you give me a last kiss?"
"Last?" Katara looks genuinely taken aback. "What do you mean last?"
"The last kiss that this face is ever likely to receive. Don't act dense; it doesn't become someone as obviously incisive as you, Katara."
Katara processes the statement, and Azula wonders whether she will now see sickly sympathy in these blue eyes. Pity, which will signal the death of all attraction, and distort the flow of their mutual respect, as well as snuffing the last spark of Azula's dreams of greatness (because she who can be pitied is she in whom supremacy can never abide).
"You're being overdramatic," Katara says, and there's a little hint of telltale softness but none of it seems to trickle down the way pity does. It leaves Katara's lips and enters Azula's ear at the same height. "So you have a scar. So does half the world after a century of war! You're one of the lucky ones, Azula.
"Back in my village there was an old man named Tosras. He was the son of one of our past Chiefs. He went to war when he was sixteen and he came back five years later with injuries that left him needing constant care. For fifty years his family and our village have given him that care. He can't think the way he used to, can't speak very well, and on bad days he hardly knows what's going on at all. And he is one of the lucky ones as well—so many Southern men his age didn't come home at all. So many people never even left the pole and still the war took them away from us. My mother wasn't lucky. If she could be alive today I'd be so glad to have her no matter what scars she had."
Azula isn't sure exactly what Katara means to tell her as these words pour out, but her best guess is Your problems aren't even real problems.
"I take it there'll be no kiss, then."
"I won't do it out of pity. I don't really believe you'd want me to do it out of pity."
She is right about this, at least.
Azula nods. "You should be going, then," she says, shifting backwards with her stick so that she can push the door shut between them. She hobbles back to her bed, sits on the edge of it and wonders whether maybe some measure of pity would have helped.
Azula dreams of a coronation. The doors swing open and there is Zuko, face scarred, hair uneven, the Fire Lord's robes sagging off him. The congregation laughs, a rumbling earthquake that rolls back through the multitudes. Azula laughs along—the false, chiming laugh she always used to taunt her brother.
It comes out wrong. The voice she hears is not her own; it is slightly deeper, less crisp. Zuko's voice has always been unmistakeable. The crowd pushes in front of her and when she struggles her way back to the front she ends up not looking up at the incoming Fire Lord on the steps, but looking down from that position herself. A hot breeze rasps over her face. The heavy shoulder pieces of her cloak list sideways. The congregation keeps laughing. Her hair snakes down over her neck and she shakes it forward to hide her disfigurement, but someone pulls back on it.
"You have to tie it up if you're going to wear a crown." She can't tell whether the voice is Father's or Zuko's; in the dreamscape the two quite different sounds manage to merge into one. "The Fire Lord can't hide," it says.
The voices are silenced when Katara appears in front of her. She faces Azula with her back to the crowd, and Azula can't hear them jeering anymore.
"Thank goodness you're here," she looks up at Katara, who stands over her as she kneels.
"Not for long," Katara says. She smiles a cruel smile that Azula has never seen on her before. "I just wanted to do one thing before I left."
Katara's face is close, now, and Azula is rising off her knees so that they can stand face to face. She leans in, awaiting the kiss.
The laughing of the crowd returns, but this time all of it issues from between Katara's lips.
Something grips Azula tightly, claws at her, stirs and scorches her from within. She sees Katara's fingers curling in her typical bloodbending movements, and with every twitch of a digit a new ache starts inside her body. Her breaths come shallowly because the rise and fall of her torso drags her flesh along the blades that seem to be sitting between all her organs.
Azula wakes up. It is dark and she aches and there is a patch of salty wetness on the pillow under her head, a tackiness between her thighs. She curls in on herself and sobs, just one pitiful sob, before bracing herself with a pained half-breath and trying to sit. The pain pools at her lower back and she can feel it cramping her muscles, blocking her chi. It's a wonder she managed to sleep through it for any amount of time.
The door is such a long way away. The wash basin is such a long way away. Any remedies that might reduce the pain. Anyone who could possibly make her feel better.
She rinses herself off and dresses adequately. It takes a long time, hunched and dizzied and still precariously balanced on her one fully-functional leg, with only moonlight to aid her. She praises luck that the cloth set aside for her washing is red; although this makes little practical difference, it does something to lessen the shame she feels.
How could she have forgotten this time would be coming around again?
Has she really been hiding away in this chamber for so long? (The Fire Lord can't hide—)
Her eyes are forcing out water of their own accord. There's no way she'll get back to sleep unless she takes some kind of sedative, so she makes her painstaking way across the room and out of it. She nods at the guards outside her door and they say nothing of her shuffling out of her room after all this time, and at this strange hour. The rest of the palace is blessedly quiet. There is nobody to gawk at her or ask that she explain how she feels in words.
Before she reaches her destination, however, Azula spies movement out of the corner of her eye—just a hint, the rise and fall of something breathing. A shape, silhouetted against the wall of windows where white moonlight streams in. It picks out dust motes and lights rectangles on the floor a few feet into the room. Katara sits cross-legged there, either looking out through the glass or meditating with shut eyes. Azula watches her from the shadows.
But she has never been able to hide from Katara.
"Hey," is all Katara says, her voice so soft as to be nearly inaudible even in the total silence. Azula doesn't think she'd have heard her at all had her other ear, the one which is burnt and not so well-suited to its purpose now, been turned towards Katara.
"You're still here," she observes. She whispers too. It only feels right.
"I'm leaving in the morning."
"Don't." It's just one syllable and it escapes before Azula can think better of it. Nobody else is here to hear her pleading, anyway. It won't be the first time she's considered Katara the exception to the rule.
Katara turns around, now.
"Why not?" she asks. "It's just a trip."
"A trip for what purpose? I know when I'm not being told the truth."
"I'm not lying!" Katara insists.
"Lying isn't what I accused you of."
Katara's shoulders fall, and only now does Azula see how tense they were. As she gets to her feet, she begins to explain: "It's— if you must know, there's a spirit oasis at the North Pole. Its water is supposed to have special healing properties. I've been trying to figure out how to heal you and I just can't—I've been so ashamed of talking you into that plan and then leaving you to get hurt..."
Hopeful relief glides over Azula like a cool breeze. I don't blame you for that, she is about to say, but the soft stroke of respite is masked as quickly as it arose. Another twisting clench in her abdomen distracts her.
Katara is at her side in a moment. She doesn't have to ask what Azula needs; this is something they've figured out in previous months. A routine, just like a kata committed to muscle memory. Without a word Katara has Azula taking a seat, and then she leaves for a very long few minutes. She returns with medicine and a cup of Azula's favourite spiced tea.
"Thank you," Azula takes the cup. Then, "it's cold."
Katara cocks an eyebrow. It's a look Azula has missed of late, even though it challenges her.
"You're a firebender," Katara points out. "You always seem to enjoy heating your tea in your hands."
She isn't wrong, but tonight Azula's hands just tremble. She watches the ripples in the cup until Katara wraps her own hands around the small cup, palms pressing against the china where Azula's don't cover it, fingers layering over hers. At Katara's gentle instruction, the water warms until steam begins to rise. It doesn't take the kind of raw, open energy that putting a flame under the drink would do; Katara's waterbending is silent and invisible.
Her hands keep shaking and the cup wobbles against her lips. She manages a sip without spilling any, but sets it down on the nearby end table immediately afterward. Her hands vibrate in her lap until Katara takes hold of them. Katara's hands are so much darker than Azula's, smoother especially after the falls Azula took during her fight with Zuko, and larger—just enough that it's noticeable, that it's easier for Azula's hands to be enveloped than to try and do the enveloping. To Azula's surprise, Katara's hands are shaking too.
She sidles in close and leans down until Katara's side is taking much of her weight. Until she can bury her nose in the crook of Katara's neck and feel her soft bushy hair against her cheek.
She asks, "Why didn't you tell me about the oasis earlier?"
"Like I said, I've been so ashamed. I can bend a dead person's blood until the body walks and fights again, but I can't help a living one recover. What kind of person does that make me?"
Azula doesn't know, so in return she simply whispers, "I'm supposed to be the Fire Lord and I won't even sit beside an open flame."
"Is that why you haven't been crowned?"
"My reasons are manifold."
Katara picks Azula's tea back up and holds it to her mouth, prompting her to drink some more. Azula allows herself to be assisted.
"If the spirit water could heal your burn, would you go through with the coronation then?"
Azula does not know.
"Surely it's worth a try. It'll only take me a few weeks to make it there and back—provided I don't hit any terrible weather, and provided the Northern Tribe hasn't heard from my dad lately."
Weeks. Azula groans. She's been without Katara for weeks up until now and she is far from ready to let her go again. It's her own fault, she knows, for shutting her out, but that doesn't change anything now.
"What if I came with you?" she suggests. This way Katara won't reach the water tribe and find that now she sees that familiar icy landscape she is loathe to leave it behind again. (This way Azula won't have to do without her for even a day.)
"I don't think that'd be the greatest idea," replies Katara. "I know you're not just another version of your father or your grandfather, but the Northern Tribe definitely doesn't. It'll be tricky enough to convince them they should trust me. From what I've heard the North is stricter and more old-fashioned than the South. They're also much bigger and more heavily armed. If they recognised us they'd definitely see a female bloodbending exile from the South and the soon-to-be Fire Lord showing up on their doorstep as a threat, and we definitely don't want that."
We. It's been a while since Azula has heard the little word. Katara presses the cup to her lips once more and the next mouthful tastes unusually sweet.
"Then don't go."
"How likely is it that this water will fix me?"
"I think it's your best chance."
"But how good is that best chance?"
Katara falters. "I have hope," she says at last. "But I can't tell you what the odds are."
Hope. Hope is, to Azula's way of thinking, the opposite of certainty. Hope is faith, not knowledge; trust, not a reliance on solid logic. Hope is not enough to get her through losing Katara now, temporarily or otherwise.
"Don't go," she repeats.
"There's no reason we can't try the spirit water sometime in the future—but for now I'd prefer it if you stayed here. Please."
Katara sits with her eyes shut for a minute. Azula can feel her pulse in her throat, the movement of her ribcage as she breathes; all those beautiful signs of life. Absentmindedly, Katara sips the tea which she still holds in her hand. Azula does not mind the sharing, if it is with her.
"Fine. I'll stay. But on one condition."
Azula will not refuse, and Katara knows it.
"You are going to become the Fire Lord, and you're going to do it before anybody else decides the confusion between rulers is the perfect time to strike."
Azula's leg is improving, more quickly than her spirits seem to be. Katara confers with those Fire Sages who are most in the know, and together they plan a ceremony involving minimal movement. Katara has never found Azula's enjoyment of being transported by palanquin very tasteful, but she is grateful for it now. The styling of the Fire Nation throne has a lot in common with the seat of a palanquin, so if they hold the coronation in the throne room Azula will hardly even need to step off her cushion.
The burns on Azula's face as less easily disguised than her limp. Katara understands that an incoming Fire Lord does not want to appear weak by any measure, but scarred tissue is different from an open wound. One amounts to a weakness because it is still tender, vulnerable; the other, as far as Katara can see, speaks more of endurance than it does of anything else. It's unfortunate that Azula prefers her power to look effortless, not hard-earned.
There is also the small issue of the Fire Lord's flame. According to the Sages, it's traditional for a new Fire Lord to light a ceremonial flame, which the Sages then guard for the duration of that Fire Lord's reign.
Azula has agreed to meet Katara out in the yard for training. Katara and Zea lug buckets of water out in preparation. Azula can start slow, and Katara will have water at the ready in case she decides she can't control the flames enough to feel secure. Katara is impatient to begin; if she can succeed in helping Azula this way, it might be the key to unlocking some of the guilt that strangles her.
"Good luck," Zea says quietly as she sets her buckets back down and departs, leaving Katara alone.
She wanders around the gardens for a few minutes, watering plants and wondering whether Azula will keep her promise to show up. Azula's been out of her room more often, sometimes even during the day, but she hasn't been outside under the sun. Katara remembers how she looked in the vivid, hot light of the beach on Ember Island—overzealously defending sandcastles from children, not the nation's palace from invaders—and a small smile creeps over her face. It is strange to look back with such nostalgia on times that had themselves seemed so troubled—times which have no right to feel as far behind her as they do. It is unsettling to think that some kind of future might possess the ability to make her look back on this period with longing.
Azula arrives. Even in the hot sun she is clad in full armour; it's what she'll have to wear to her coronation. Katara is wearing simple clothing—a silk shirt and a light skirt. Her forearms are wrapped, and as she sweats the wrappings begin to itch. She presses against them from the outside, and slides her fingers under the edges to scratch until the fabric threatens to unravel.
Azula spends barely a minute struggling to conjure a flame before her palms are roaring with orange light and she's dunking them in one of the water buckets.
"See!" Katara says excitedly, "you can still firebend. That was great!"
Azula looks up at her, and she does look rattled, but there's a wide grin on her face. It's the best thing Katara's seen in... it's the best. She bends again, and the fire lives longer before she douses it. She still can't do it without the water present as a safety net, but it's quicker progress than Katara dared to hope for.
And Azula's smile is one of old—one that doesn't seem conscious of the burnt skin at one end of it. It's a piece of a scene from those simpler times which may or may not actually have been simpler. It's warm.
When Azula catches her hands Katara realises that she has been scratching again without even thinking about it. Fast fingers are untying the ends of the strapping before she can stop them.
"If your bindings are giving you grief, why don't you just—" Azula asks as she peels back Katara's wrappings and sees the silver lines and mottled marks that remain of each wound Katara made and healed on her own. "What have you done to yourself?"
"Just practice," Katara answers.
"At what, being hurt?"
"I suppose we can't know the second without the first," Azula philosophises.
"It's nothing. You need to firebend again, without the buckets there this time, if you can."
Azula, since she was old enough to dream, has dreamt of a thousand different ways her coronation might unfold. While Zuko was hungering after birthday cakes and Ty Lee was sketching out wedding outfits and Mai was... probably thinking about funerals, although not necessarily her own—Azula was focused on this day. As she saw it, the most important day of her life. The beginning of what would go on to define her.
Today is not like any of the thousand varied versions of the occasion she pictured. One thing Azula never imagined was wanting her coronation to be over before it had even begun.
Her palanquin bearers set her down atop the platform of the throne room, just behind the legs of the arch which crowns it. The room is dark and full of shadows, since the only light flickers in lanterns on the walls, or comes in at the very opposite end of the room. All her life Azula has knelt on the other side of this seat and looked up through a furious line of flame at either her grandfather or her father, the Fire Lord. So many times as a child, Azula walked down the garden paths and set the flower beds on either side of her alight in imitation of this very position.
Today, even in the absence of all that heat, Azula sweats. She does not have to light the stage, she reminds herself (even though no Fire Lord given the opportunity has ever turned it down). She only has to light one small ceremonial torch.
Everyone is watching her. Nobles, courtiers, ministers and all the highest-ranking military officials line the lush red carpet which stretches out to the end of the cavernous hall. The door at the far end opens onto the courtyard, where yet more onlookers and troops have gathered. Most importantly, Katara stands at the edge of the crowd closest to Azula, nestled into the ranks of her royal bodyguards.
The speed with which Azula rekindled her flame made them both overconfident. One day went surprisingly well, a date was set, and then a week passed with no further progress. Azula still cannot firebend without water close at hand. She can start a fire but she cannot trust herself to put one out in time. Now that she wears her knowledge of what an uncontrolled flame feels like, she is reluctant to step up to that sharp edge and risk toppling over it. She can give birth to destruction but she cannot prevent or undo it. She thinks Katara might feel somewhat similarly, but whenever Azula has tried to angle for a discussion of Katara's problems, she has been redirected towards her own.
The Sages drone on about this and that—words Azula made sure she knew by heart as an ambitious five-year-old, and yet which she cannot even force herself to listen to now that they are finally being said about her. The Fire Lord, who lights the way of this proud nation. Whose word is law and whose action is justice... Azula wonders whether she ever actually felt equipped for this role, or whether her confidence was all just optimism that she would be when the time came.
She takes the necessary step forward to kneel on the throne platform without any outwardly noticeable difficulty, though not without pain. She keeps it to herself. It even helps by distracting her from how increasingly visible she is to the crowd, even in the low lighting. How plain to see her face is.
And yet the respectful silence holds.
The lead Sage fits the crown into her topknot and as he moves his hands away Azula feels the weight of it pulling at the uneven hairline to the right of her face. Her scars are on full display.
And still the silence holds. She surveys the shadowy audience and finds every head bowed. Only her personal guard keep their eyes raised, sweeping around the room. Only Katara dares look at Azula herself. Katara sees that Azula is looking her way and gives a brief, hard nod of confidence.
And still the silence holds. Azula can hear breaths. She can hear the crackling of the flames in the lanterns on the walls. The people all still fear her as much as ever. Azula has their reverence, and only now that she's seen it for herself does she remember what she always knew: that just as royalty cannot simply enter a person who is not made for the task, it does not simply leave one who has always been entitled. Royalty is in her blood, and until so much is spilt that her very life leaves her, she will always embody it.
She feels her breaths, and she feels her blood, and she feels her fire without fear. Azula is a dragon. She is the Fire Lord. The flammable gutter along the stage before her erupts and fills the room with noise and light and heat. It is her presence. The flames roar orange, but at their base the hint of blue catches her eye. A colour more beautiful, in her mind, and objectively more dangerous. Heart pounding, Azula feels like she is running. She increases her pace and the whole throne room is thrown into a cooler light. Shadows dance in it like forms underwater.
The Sage touches the ceremonial torch to the wall of fire and it is alight almost before the contact is made.
Past the flames, underneath their cacophony, Azula hears the audience finally breaking into what she assumes is celebration.
If it is not, she thinks, then it is not she who is in danger.
Azula goes to visit Zuko. She wants to show him the crown in her hair. She wants him to dare tell her she doesn't look the part. He is just obtuse enough that he would try to insult her face even though it matches his own.
She expects the rage of a wounded animal. Instead she finds him laid out on the dirty floor as though dead. She doesn't wake him from his slumber, but she does cautiously reach for one of the pieces of parchment he has been allowed. He's been writing, to occupy himself—writing in the clumsiest possible version of the royal calligraphy they were both taught as young children. He's been writing his regrets to their uncle.
Azula doesn't know quite what to do with him, then. There's no satisfaction in holding a prisoner any longer than it takes to break them. After that it's no longer sport; just sad to watch. She looks at him and sees their father's features and their mother's expressions and far, far too much of herself, prior to regaining her confidence.
She returns to her room, pens a hasty decree and assigns guards to escort him to the docks. She gives him the smallest available ship seaworthy enough to make the passage to the Earth Kingdom or the Water Tribes, wherever Zuko may think he wants to go. Azula found the key ingredient to her current strength all the way down at the South Pole. She renews her brother's banishment in the hope that he will find a better self somewhere too. Perhaps once day he will even return to her without contempt in his countenance.
"That was very forgiving of you," Katara judges when Azula tells her what she's done. She doesn't quite know why it bothers her that she's only finding out that Zuko has been set free after it's been done. It was not her decision to make.
She wonders whether he'll end up back with the Southern Water Tribe—
Azula shrugs nonchalantly. "Pragmatism," she explains.
"I'm proud of you," she says. "He hurt you, but you let him live anyway."
"Maybe I'll kill him later," Azula adds, but Katara can barely hear her words past all the defensiveness in her demeanour. "Don't you start thinking I've turned into a pushover. Anyway, I've decided to move my belongings into the Fire Lord's wing. I was wondering whether you might like to join me there. It is a rather expansive section of the palace for just one."
The change in Azula since before her coronation is beyond anything Katara expected. She strides around with all the superiority she used to. She's put all the mirrors back up around the palace and Katara sometimes catches her admiring her new accessories in them. The crown, the high sharp shoulders and thick cloak of the Fire Lord's robes. She does cut an impressive figure. Seeing it, Katara is relieved of some of her guilt—but not all. Seeing Azula back on her feet, as much in her element as ever, forces Katara's attention back to the fact that the rest of her own world is still broken.
Azula awaits her response. Katara has been drowning in her own solitary space, so she tells her she'll gather her things and move before nightfall.
Azula gives Katara a separate room because she does not want to cage her in, not because she wants her on the other side of a door. Katara has been hard to read in the days since Azula was crowned. Prior to the coronation she had been focused on restoring Azula's confidence; now that this goal has been achieved, something else seems to be bothering her instead.
Azula lies awake after helping Katara oversee the setup of her bed in the adjacent room, and wonders whether she should just have asked her to come and sleep beside her. She imagines Katara slipping through the darkness into her room and silently joining Azula under her sheets, curling in close to her despite the grand size of the mattress. For half an hour the fantasy becomes real enough that Azula holds her breath. But Katara does not come and the sleepless night begins to sour, the hope of ever achieving restfulness flying further and further out of reach.
Azula pushes one leg off the side of her bed, then the other, and soon the rest of her is following. She walks through to Katara's room without feeling like she has made any definite decision to do so. She retains just barely more intent than a sleepwalker.
Katara is unconscious. Looking at her seems to remind Azula's body what it is supposed to be doing, and at last she feels drowsy. She climbs onto the unoccupied side of the bed. The sheets are a tangled mess around Katara's form, and Azula doubts she could untangle them without waking her. She hasn't seen Katara looking as peaceful as this in...
Azula buries her face in Katara's spare pillow and the scent of it is enough to relax her at last.
When she wakes up, it is because of a finger pressed hard against her cheek. She can feel the pressure of it against her teeth.
"Stop jabbing m—" when the blurriness of her sleepy eyes subsides and she sees Katara's face clearly, Azula's complaint loses its momentum.
Katara laughs gently. "You're cute when you're sleepy," she teases.
"I am the Fire Lord," Azula mumbles in protest. The pillow under her head is so pleasantly soft, and the temptation to sink back into it is still strong.
"Then the Fire Lord is cute when she's sleepy."
"What time is it?"
"Mid-morning," Katara answers.
"I suppose my sleeping habits aren't back to normal just yet," Azula groans. "Have you eaten?"
Katara shakes her head. "I only woke up a few minutes ago myself. I slept better than I have in ages. Thank you." The finger which had been prodding Azula's face now runs gently down the side of it. At this, and the soft bed, and Katara's smile, and the full feeling of finally being well-slept, Azula shudders lightly in contentment.
"You're welcome," she says, not entirely sure what she is being thanked for.
Katara leans over her and for a split second Azula thinks she is going to kiss her on the lips. Instead, her soft mouth lands just shy of Azula's nose, beneath her eye on her unscarred cheek. Katara moves in again on the other side, and this time the sensation is different. The actual sensations supplied by the scar tissue are secondary to the feeling which swells inside her without any warning at all. Azula blinks tears from her eyes. She does not understand them even as they dribble down towards her ears. She is not upset.
"What's wrong?" Katara's brow furrows.
"Nothing's wrong." Azula's voice is choked. "Nothing," she repeats, for in this moment it is unquestionable truth.
She lifts a hand to cup Katara's face, tangling her fingers in the mass of loose hair that's yet to be tamed for the day. She tugs, asking, and Katara's face is lowered one more time. Azula takes a breath of her before she closes the last inch between them, and she holds it until her lungs burn.
They breakfast in the garden at Katara's suggestion. It's sunny with a lovely breeze outside, and she feels better the more of the soft, flowing air she takes in. Now that Katara has kissed her again, it would appear the floodgates have opened; Azula takes every opportunity she can to press her lips to any part of Katara's face, her neck, the backs of her hands, the top of her head. Katara can't help but laugh at her enthusiasm, and the way she raises her chin, regal and defiant, whenever she is accused of being adorable.
Katara initiates a kiss every so often, because of the way it makes Azula's eyes light up.
For a while, all this distracts her from the melancholia that sweeps along under her, a cold dark current twisting about her feet as she bobs with her head above the surface.
Azula readies herself for sleep in Katara's room as though it is her own. Katara supposes that they were both pleased enough with the arrangement they woke up to in the morning that it's clear neither will complain.
Katara washes up for the night. As she unwraps and scrubs her arms the currents churn sickly in her belly, disorientingly in her head. She can't quite justify the disgust she feels, looking at the landscape of her own skin, the places that shine moon-pearly and stand out like characters in scrolls for the blind. Hasn't she forgiven herself for the failures that brought each one of these marks into being?
She reties her bindings, more loosely than usual in the hope that they'll be comfortable enough for sleeping in.
Azula notices them the moment she reappears. When Katara slides in between the sheets next to her she catches her arm and searches for the end of the strap.
"It isn't good for you to sleep in these," she tuts.
Katara tries to pull her hand away, but Azula's grip is strong. To escape it, Katara would have to start a fight in earnest, and she is too tired to do so. She bites her lip as Azula unwinds the fabric and tosses it over the edge of the bed onto the floor.
"Was that so hard?" Azula asks, and begins shuffling into a sleeping position. Katara remains icy-still.
Azula touches her lips to the lines and mottled silvery patches on Katara's arms and feels her relax a little. She wonders whether it's possible Katara could harbour the paradox of seeming honestly not to mind Azula's marks while being ashamed of her own.
"You're beautiful," Azula murmurs, just in case.
With everything she says and does her denial of sentimentality becomes more obviously a lie. Azula has always been taught to admire power, to love it as much as she loves anything. With Katara, Azula stands on a knife-edge between conflicting certainties—the knowledge that Katara's power is hers, and the knowledge that is isn't. Knowledge that Katara knows her through to the core while Azula sometimes struggles to decipher what lies beneath the waterbender's surface. She continues in her efforts to express how much she wishes to keep Katara with her, because while certain words once seemed unutterable to her, they now come easily compared to the vaguest thought of letting Katara drift away.
Azula thinks of the very first day she met her and wonders which of them, in the end, has captured the other more.
Azula figures there's one thing that's sure to cheer Katara up; to show her that she matters to Azula. It is, after all, the highest display of trust she has to offer.
"Dress for the day and come with me," she tells Katara, who is still lounging around in the pillows on the bed they share.
Katara throws her a curious look.
"I have to issue instructions to the Generals," explains Azula. "Devise a long-term plan to implement. Tell those who are currently active whether and when they'll be returning home. I'll also need to open diplomatic conversations with the various world leaders, to see if an end to the war is even going to be possible. I'm sure you've some suggestions to share."
But Katara is silent. Where she had been draped across the bed, muscles relaxed and liquid, she is now solid and stiff. Azula reviews her words and finds what she assumes was her mistake.
World leaders. "Hakoda," she says the name aloud. "We don't have to deal with him if you'd rather not. In fact, I'll put my every resource into removing him, if it will make you feel any better."
Katara assumes this is a joke. "Assassinating the Chief? Sure, that'd bring about peace."
Azula was not joking.
"You removed my father because he hurt me. I would only be returning the favour. There are always political ramifications, and we will always deal with them. Your father invaded my palace. He slaughtered my guards. He is not an innocent party in this war. He may be your family but I am— I— I won't let anyone hurt you and get away with it."
Katara does not look comforted.
"It's just—" she begins, voice wavering on the edge of overflow, just as a tear builds and trembles before falling. Her eyes are dry, but they may well not stay that way. "It's more complicated than that. My dad... I hurt him too. And I'm not even sure I'm in the right. I don't think either of us are. I don't know what is right anymore." Not knowing what is right feels like being trapped under ice, in freezing water, not knowing which way is up.
Azula was not raised to care about the world in the way Katara cares. She has always had a vested interest in it, certainly, but her focus has always been on how it can exalt her, not the reverse. Azula does not measure goodness in the way Katara does. She has always been her own yardstick, beholden to no higher powers, obligations or morals. Right has always been as the Fire Lord said it was.
That power is not so exclusively vested in her anymore. If her judgment cannot be absolute, then she wonders what can.
"Perhaps there's no such thing after all," she muses.
Katara stares at her. "No such thing as the right thing? That can't be true."
"Maybe there is only the option appearing to have the greatest utility. Maybe it's all only circumstance and improvisation."
They're some of the least Azula words Katara thinks she's ever heard. They bring her up short enough that the dormant tears threatening her sink away, forgotten like hiccups in a moment of shock.
"Maybe it's all just a balancing act," Katara tests the words, recalling stories Gran-Gran told her of the long-lost Avatar, the elements, balance. Give and take, like the tides' push and pull. Hot and cold. Sun and moon. Not stillness, not a solid state of perfection, just a constantly evolving harmony between opposites.
"Then I'll need you with me," Azula answers simply. "Both here and before the world. We are something no one alive has seen before. All will watch out of curiosity."
"Then we'll have to think of something good to show them."
Pale, slender fingers slide in between soft brown ones, filling the gaps there waiting for them. They fasten tight together, two halves.