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.