BOOK ONE: FIRE
The sunlight seeped between the bars of the window, landing just on Azula’s bare feet. She didn’t know how long she had been awake for; time became blurry inside those cell walls. She was sitting with her back up against the stone wall, watching the door.
She was expecting a visitor.
The sound of metal gliding against metal caught Azula’s attention and she peered up. A guard walked in, tray of food in hand. Nothing out of the ordinary.
The guard set the tray down and slid it through the bottom of the bars to the cell. Azula had long been freed of her restraints, having been deemed “fit” by the physicians. So she simply reached over and grabbed a steamed bun from the tray, biting into it gently.
Food was precious here.
“My Lady.” The guard murmured, kneeling before her, “I have news.”
Azula smirked as she swallowed down her food. She had been waiting for this and she had the faintest idea of what he was going to tell her.
Azula gestured for him to continue and he spoke, “There is news — rumours — about you being released from this asylum. The noblemen have been rather, er, vocal about a trial on your behalf. A trial for the position of Fire Lord. It’s highly possible that you will be released in order to undergo this trial.”
Suddenly, the steamed bun tasted as if it was made of honey and milk.
“Tell me, guard.” Azula said, her voice level, “Do I still have the support of the people?”
“Of course, my Lady.” The guard says with conviction in his voice, “The nobleman have sworn their loyalty to you, and many of the military leaders are willing to rally behind you.”
Azula smirked. She dismissed the guard with the wave of her wrist, and then she was alone again. The steamed bun was gone. Azula sighed and leaned her head against the wall.
She was no fool: Azula knew that the guard wasn’t spinning some tale in order to win her favour. Her two years in the asylum had made her mind sharper; it had given her the opportunity to… reflect on things. She had many allies both inside and outside the asylum, including that guard who acted as a messenger.
Two years. Two long years had Zuko allowed her to rot in this place. She knew about what was happening to her country, what had happened in those two years. The Fire Nation had fallen at the hands of the Avatar and his gang of children, and her people were not happy with this.
Azula knew there was dissent among the people. The day of Sozin’s Comet had left them leaderless and vulnerable. With Azula restrained and unstable, she was thrown in a padded cell to be forgotten. She knew her father would probably be rotting in some maximum security prison cell, lamenting on his defeat.
But Azula was not her father. She had spent this time scheming, as she had always done. Her mind had been broken, yes, but solitude and therapy were excellent medications for her ailment. She waited. She recovered… mostly. She convinced the guards to make connections outside the asylum for her.
Over the course of those two years, Azula had gained a loyal following. She also gained valuable information, including the news that the Fire Nation rejected Zuko.
It brought a smile to her face every time she thought about it. She imagined how excited Zuko would’ve been to be crowned Fire Lord, only to have his joys turn to dust in his mouth when his own people rejected him.
Served him right: you don’t get to choose the Avatar over your nation and expect them to bow to you.
Azula had seen this trial coming long ago. She just needed the right angle to play to win that trial, the right light to paint herself in order to claim the throne — her birthright.
For now, it was simply a waiting game. And if two years of confinement taught Azula anything, it was how to wait.
It happened at dawn. The metal door to her cell creaked open and a group of royal guards came marching in. Azula jumped to her feet, excitement and adrenaline coursing through her body. The time had come.
The knelt before her and Azula smirked; it felt right.
“Crown Princess Azula.” The leader said, his voice muffled through his helmet. “You have been summoned to the Royal Palace. Please come with us.”
The Capital City had been rebuilt over the course of two years, since Azula had personally levelled it. The red and black architecture was a breath of fresh air to Azula. Her people roamed the city streets, unaware that their Crown Princess was watching them.
The royal guards had been efficient at their duty; Azula was escorted swiftly and discreetly to the Royal Palace. They were instructed to avoid garnering the attention of the citizens, clearly.
Azula didn’t care. She was more focused on what was coming. Trials for the title of Fire Lord were never a long event; the outcome of the trial was already determined outside the trial itself. It was time for Azula to win the votes needed to win the trial.
The backing of the nobility and military personal would be vital, but that needed to be confirmed first. That would be arranged. Beyond that, she needed something else to get the edge over her brother. Something concrete. Something that would sway the council in her favour.
It was a good thing that she was always good at getting what she wanted.
The guard came to a stop. As did Azula. She looked up and breathed a sigh of relief. The Royal Palace was just as grand as she remembered. The scorch marks were gone and the staff she had banished were clearly back.
It was almost like she had never left.
The royal guard kneeled where they stood and Azula was suddenly looking in the eyes of her brother. Zuko. His scar was just as ugly as she remembered, but he seemed… softer. Lighter than what she remembered.
Weaker, she decided.
“Crown Prince Zuko.” The lead guardsmen announced.
Zuko stepped forward. He was wearing Fire Nation clothes: the red, black and gold attire they wore as children. Zuko was a man now, and he looked so much like Ozai that Azula had to catch her breath for a moment.
“Azula…” Zuko said breathlessly, “You look…”
She knew how she looked: unkempt hair, dressed in an asylum gown and severely lacking in hygiene. She was a mess.
Zuko was always terrible at handling delicate situations. For a moment, Azula’s heart hammered in her chest as she gazed at her big brother. She remembered her childhood, how inseparable and competitive they were. She hated him like she hated everyone that betrayed her, but he was still her brother.
She missed him.
But she’d be damned if she let him know that. He left her to rot and that wouldn’t — couldn’t — be forgotten. She was his sister, dammit, and he betrayed her. He was just like everyone else in her life.
Instead of greeting him warmly, Azula smirked. She would play dumb for now; can’t let her brother catch onto her plans just yet.
“Crown Prince?” Azula asked with a raised eyebrow, “Not Fire Lord?”
Zuko squared his shoulders and breathed in deeply. He said, “There have been some… issues.”
“When are there never issues with our family?” Azula asked, wearing a smile that she told herself wasn’t genuine.
Zuko grinned as well. The guards moved out of the way, making room for the siblings to reach each other. Zuko made his way over to her, his steps filled with anxiety. Azula could still read him like a book: this meeting was far out of his comfort zone.
They didn’t hug, or clasp arms, or even smile at each other. Zuko simply turned and the two of them headed inside the palace, side by side. It wasn’t a warm reunion but it was familiar and Azula was content. There would be time for revenge later.
“The physicians, they…” Zuko began anxiously, “I made them update me about your condition every day. They told me you were better — a lot better. I-I was the one who requested they remove your restraints. And—”
Azula turned to look at him. He flinched. Azula could tell this was his way of trying to smooth things over. To apologise, even, for never visiting. For not sparing a second of his time to come and visit the sister he stole the throne from and who he imprisoned.
She bit her tongue. This was no time to blow up and have Zuko shove her back into a hole, never to see the sun again.
“Thank you.” Azula said simply, “Life was much easier with those removed.”
Zuko blinked. The two of them continued walking as he said, “You’re welcome.”
He had always been an awkward boy. She blamed their mother for coddling him so much.
They continued to walk through the palace. Servants saw Azula and dropped to their knees, once the shock wore off and they weren’t frozen in place. Azula, conquerer of Ba Sing Se, the insane daughter of Ozai, was currently walking through the palace as if she never left.
She was enjoying this thoroughly.
“You must be wondering why you were released.” Zuko said.
Azula took a moment to look at him. His scar was just as bad as she remembered, but he had his father’s good looks. Bright gold eyes, strong jawline, sharp features. His hair was longer now, reaching his mid-back. He even had a top-knot. Not to mention the dual swords and new outfit he was sporting.
Under her gaze, however, Azula knew he felt underdressed.
Azula grinned and said “And here I was, thinking my dearest Zuzu just missed me.”
Zuko scowled at her and Azula let out a small chuckle. She couldn’t remember the last time she had laughed.
“There is a trial.” Zuko said, his shoulders sagging, “The Fire Sages have arranged for a trial to be held to determine which one of Ozai’s children will assume the throne and become the Fire Lord. You will have to defend yourself, as will I.”
So her informant had been correct. Azula bit the inside of her cheek to stop herself from smiling; the last thing she needed was for Zuko to suspect she was anything but an empty shell of herself.
“I see.” Azula said, pretending to be at a loss for words.
“I know, it’s…” Zuko trailed off. “I’ve arranged for some handmaidens to, uh, clean you up. I mean, not that you need to be cleaned up! It’s not like you’re filthy or anything! I mean—”
“So this is my bedchamber?” Azula cut him off, glancing at the door they stood in front of.
Zuko coughed into his hand and nodded.
“If it’s alright with you, brother, I’d like to get freshened up.” Azula said, adding, “A warm bath would do wonders after that trip.”
Zuko quickly said, “Yeah, sure. I need to finish writing that letter to Katara anyway, so…”
The man raced off. Azula made a point to remember that name — Katara — and walked in.
The handmaidens had scrubbed away every layer of filth on Azula’s body. She felt a few pounds lighter when she climbed out of the bath tub. They had rubbed lavender scented oils into her skin, and she felt like a new woman.
More importantly, Azula had learned that those handmaidens had very loose lips. It didn’t take much to get answers out of them.
“Tell me, ladies.” Azula said, “What do you know about tomorrow’s trial?”
She was getting her hair and nails trimmed, which had grown wild during her confinement. One of the handmaidens, the daughter of a nobleman that supported Azula, spoke up.
“Nobody wants your brother to be the Fire Lord.” She said haughtily. “My father says that he’s a disgrace to the Fire Nation. A traitor. The only reason he’s even a contender to the throne is because of the Avatar.”
“Apparently the Avatar demanded that Zuko be made Fire Lord but the Fire Sages denied his request.” Another added, “They’re probably doing what’s best for the nation.”
Azula hummed to herself. It was hard for one to concentrate when their scalp was being massaged by the soft hands of a handmaiden. Still, this was valuable information.
“So, the people have rejected my brother?” Azula mused.
“Well, he chose the Avatar over his nation.” One handmaiden said, “We lost the war because of him.”
Azula smirked to herself. The cards were falling right where she needed them to.
That’s when one girl said, “Besides, we all know he’s courting that water tribe girl. Gross.”
Azula’s eyebrows rose. She turned to look at the girl who froze under her gaze. Azula enjoyed knowing that she could still intimidate people with a simple look, even if it was only a simple handmaiden.
“Is he now?” Azula said, adding, “Tell me more.”
“It might just be a rumour.” The handmaiden admitted, “But they say that he’s courting a water tribe girl, one of the Avatar’s friends. Her name is Katana, I think…”
“Katara.” Azula said simply, looking back up at the ceiling.
“Yeah!” She said, “That’s it!”
“It’s so gross. How could you date a water tribe girl?” Another handmaiden said and scrunched her face up at the idea.
Azula couldn’t care less, either way. Who Zuko chose to plant his seed into was his business; it didn’t effect the Fire Nation because she would make sure he never assumed the throne. His part-water nation offsprings wouldn’t taint the bloodline.
What she said, however, was, “My brother has always had strange tastes. Especially in people.”
The girls giggled and Azula knew she had planted the seed well. These girls were the daughters of noble families; they would return home and tell their parents of Azula, the candidate who is disgusted by Zuko’s non-fire nation courtship and would never do so. Yet another reason for those supremacist families to vote in favour of Azula.
Beyond that, Azula now had something to hold over Zuko. Something he wouldn’t be expecting. Not to mention the other trick she had up her sleeve.
“Princess.” One handmaiden said, “Will you be wearing a gown or your armour to the banquet tonight?”
Azula opened her eyes and looked at the girl, asking, “What banquet?”
“Prince Zuko is holding a banquet tonight in the palace.” She said, “In honour of your return. Many noble families and military leaders will be there, I believe.”
Azula leaned her head back and smiled. Everything was going according to plan. She chose the armour; tonight she was walking onto a battlefield and she intended to win.
The food was delicious; Azula didn’t have the luxury of such extravagant meals during her stay at the asylum. She had nearly forgotten what fire flakes tasted like. Noodles, meat, fish, rice, fire cakes and more were laid out before her to choose from.
Still, she only ate a skewer of pork slices. Tonight was not going to be spent feasting, but socialising.
The introductions had already concluded and Zuko had told Azula that he wouldn’t be able to speak with her much tonight. Apparently he was needed elsewhere. He would return later during the night, however.
Azula didn’t mind; in fact, that made things easier.
When Zuko left the banquet hall, a nobleman approached her. Lo Huang, an admiral if Azula remembered correctly. They bowed to each other, his much deeper than hers.
“It is my honour to welcome you back, Princess Azula.” He said in a voice deeper than what Azula expected.
“Thank you, Admiral Lo.” Azula said, “The city appears the same as I remember it.”
A dark look passed over his face as he said, “But it’s not the same city, Your Highness. The situation here, in the entire country, is unstable. We are without a permanent leader. General Touma is acting as the temporary Fire Lord but it is not enough. The people need an answer.”
“To what question, admiral?” Azula asked before sipping her wine.
“Which child of Fire Lord Ozai will assume the throne?” He answered, adding, “The disgraced traitor son or the insane prodigy of a daughter?”
Azula grit her teeth at that last part. The word “insane” didn’t sit well with her. She was better now (sort of), so she was able to refrain from snapping the admiral’s neck where he stood.
“Tell me, admiral,” Azula said, “who do you favour?”
He didn’t miss a beat, answering, “You fought for the Fire Nation many times, Princess. You were the Fire Lord’s right hand, you’re a bending prodigy — you conquered Ba Sing Se. As far as I’m concerned, you are the only Fire Lord who would put our nation first.”
Azula had to agree with that: she would put the Fire Nation first. Her loyalties have always laid with her country. The same cannot be said with Zuko.
She glanced around the room. The festivities were still going on but she caught the eyes of many people watching her. Military leaders, noblemen, even retired generals. Those glances were silent vows of allegiance; Azula heard them loud and clear.
“Azula — Princess Azula.” The admiral corrected himself. “There are many who feel as I do. We have pledged our allegiance to you, the true Fire Lord. Your brother is not fit to rule this nation.”
Now that was what Azula liked to hear.
As he promised, Zuko returned to the banquet hall later that night. Azula had already tied up all the loose ends by that point; it was time to go in for the kill.
The two siblings found themselves standing on the balcony together, gazing down at the city streets as the warm wind blew around them.
“Azula…” Zuko said, unable to look her in the eyes, “I’m sorry for not visiting you. I wanted to — believe me, I did. But I could never build up the courage to face you. I’m sorry.”
An apology. Azula had expected this. She told herself that the burning in her chest and the pricking of her eyes were caused by the pork skewer, probably meat gone bad. She turned to him, waving her wrist dismissively.
“Don’t beat yourself up, big brother.” She said airily, “Spending a few years in a cell really gives you some perspective.”
Zuko glanced at her and asked, “How so?”
Azula leaned against the stone ledge and said, “It gave me time to reflect. To think about people and my life. You wouldn’t believe the people who came to visit me.”
“I know Ty Lee did.”
Azula sucked in a sharp breath. That name alone made her blood boil. She let out a deep breath before saying, “Yes, well, she didn’t stay for long. The smoke might’ve been too overwhelming for her.”
Funnily enough, Ty Lee was the only visitor she had over the years. No one else came. Not Zuko, not Uncle Iroh, not Mai. Only Ty Lee, the circus freak who betrayed her. And Azula had chased her away, hands covered in smoke and trembling.
“So, Zuzu,” Azula began, shoving those memories back, “how’s life been since I was gone?”
Zuko leaned against the ledge and said, “Peaceful. The Avatar has been rebuilding the world, removing Fire Nation colonies and just fixing the world, basically.”
Of course he was. The young Avatar was probably a young man by now, likely fifteen. She wondered about how he had changed. About others who must’ve grown up in her absence.
He continued, “I’ve been doing my best to improve relations with the other kingdoms. Uncle Iroh lives in Ba Sing Se now. He reopened that tea shop; the Jasmine Dragon. Mai… we aren’t together anymore. We fought too much and, well, it just didn’t work. She’ll be going university soon, somewhere outside the capital city.”
Azula hummed: life went on. The world would still turn, even in her absence.
“Ty Lee,” Azula said, the name bitter in her mouth, “is a Kyoshi Warrior now, I’m told. So much for not wanting to be a part of a matched set.”
“She says she’s sorry. About you getting put in the asylum.” Zuko said gently, “She writes to me sometimes, asking if you’ve gotten any better.”
Azula didn’t want to hear that. She didn’t want to hear Ty Lee’s sob story about how sad it was that Azula was locked in an asylum when it was Ty Lee who betrayed her, who allowed her to be captured in the first place.
The silence between them answered for her.
Instead of dwelling on her, she asked him, “Nervous about the trial tomorrow?”
“No?” Zuko said with a frown, adding, “Why would I be?”
Azula examined her nails; pristine. She said, “That’s to be expected. It was never your ambition to become Fire Lord anyway.”
Zuko paused and asked, “Wait. You don’t think you’re going to win, do you?”
“Oh, Zuzu.” Azula said haughtily, “I know I’m going to win.”
She backed away from the ledge and circled her brother, like a predator closing in on a cornered prey. Zuko eyed her warily, noticing the shift in the atmosphere. She could finally stop pretending like a frail, damaged patient from the asylum.
“Look around you, brother.” Azula said, “Do you think any of those people support you? You, a traitor to the Fire Nation. The man who caused the Fire Nation to lose the war because you aided the Avatar instead of your country.”
Zuko scrunched up his face and said, “I did what was right—”
“What’s right and wrong doesn’t matter in politics. That’s something you’ve never understood.” Azula said simply, “Those men in uniforms, Zuko, are military leaders. They served this nation; to them, you’re nothing more than a disgraced traitor who made them lose the war. And the nobility? They know you will never put the Fire Nation first as long as the Avatar is alive.”
“That’s—” Zuko began but cut himself off, “The throne is my birthright! It doesn’t matter what a few old men think of me!”
“See, that’s the reason why you can never be the Fire Lord.” Azula continued, thoroughly enjoying this monologue, “Their opinion matters the most because the second you assume the throne, I guarantee you they will organise a coup against you.”
To rub salt into the wound, Azula added, “Especially when they learn that you’re planning to wed a water tribe girl. I mean, really, Zuko? You know they would never accept that.”
“How did you…” Zuko trailed off, eyes wide.
“I have my sources.” Azula said, “Did you think I would just spend my time staring at a wall during my time in the asylum? Give me some credit.”
Zuko let out a huff and scowled at his sister. Azula thrived off of this. His anger meant that she was winning.
“Do you really think that they will allow an insane asylum-patient become the Fire Lord?” Zuko asked.
“I think they will.” Azula said, ignoring that word, “What they won’t allow is for a bastard to become the Fire Lord.”
“I’m not a bastard, Ozai is my father!” Zuko snarled.
“Yes, yes, we both know this.” Azula said, “But we also know that I can spin a pretty tale. One about an arranged marriage and a runaway mother. Our mother fled the palace the same night our grandfather was murdered — the same night our father was planning on murdering you. It all adds up against you, even if it’s only a lie.”
Inside, the party was still raging on. Outside, Azula could only hear the wind and the sound of her own heart beating in her ears. It felt good to win again.
“You’ve really thought of everything, haven’t you?” Zuko said bitterly.
Azula shrugged and said, “Well, I had time on my hands.”
A silence settled between them. Azula was winning this battle and he knew it. Now all she had to do was wait for his next words.
When Zuko finally spoke up, he said, “Well, since you’re a brilliant strategist, you must have a bargain planned as well. There’s always something more with you.”
“You’re right: I do have a proposition for you.” Azula said, “Abdicate the throne and become an ambassador for the Avatar. I know Uncle Iroh’s gotten to you with his idealistic ramblings about unity between kingdoms. You’ll be able to make sure I don’t go back to our colonising days and you can spread peace, love and positivity. Since that’s apparently your niche these days.”
“An ambassador for the Avatar.” Zuko said slowly, “So a glorified supervisor?”
Azula narrowed her eyes and said, “You’re going to be the bridge between our nations. The Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes will never trust me but you? They know you fought for the Avatar and them. They’ll listen to you. You will be vital for negotiations between our three nations.”
Zuko scowled back and said, “So I’ll be included during war councils? You won’t just let me roam the palace for the rest of my life.”
“You may be my competition but you’re still my brother.” Azula said, “You will be my right hand, I swear it.”
The two siblings stared at each other for some time, both assessing the other. Azula was sure that she had sealed the deal with that “right hand” nonsense — she meant it, but it was still a manipulation tactic. But Zuko was unpredictable.
“Fine.” Zuko said, “I’ll abdicate the throne.”
Zuko quickly said, “But if you ever start expanding outside of the Fire Nation—”
“Yes, yes, you’ll blow me to smithereens. I got the message.” Azula said, a faint smile on her face.
Zuko sighed, clearly unhappy with his defeat. Azula slapped him on the back and said, “Don’t look so down, Zuzu. At least now you’ll be able to marry that water peasant now.”
“How did you even find out about that?” Zuko said with a huff.
“Handmaidens have loose lips,” Azula said simply.
Zuko smacked his hand to his forehead and Azula let out a snort. She was in a much better mood tonight. It felt good to be on top again.
“It’s been a long night.” Azula said, dusting off her uniform, “I’ll retire to my bedchamber; I have a big day tomorrow.”
Zuko grunted in response. As Azula stood by the doorway, she turned back for a moment to look at her brother. He noticed and held her gaze.
She wanted to say something, tell him that she missed him and that she was happy to be home. She wanted to scream at him and cry and demand an answer — why didn’t he come back for her? She wanted to say so much.
Instead, she clenched her jaw and went back inside.
The last time Azula had stood in the throne room, she was the Fire Lord. Granted, she had banished all of her staff and guards but that was semantics — the actions of a broken mind. Now, however, her mind was clear and focused on the task at hand.
General Touma sat in the Fire Lord’s throne, looking as old as time itself. He was still dressed in his military uniform — he wouldn’t dare put on the Fire Lord’s attire. He was flanked by a group of fire sages, all of which were looking directly at Azula.
She and Zuko were seated in front of the throne, while distinguished Fire Nation citizens sat on either side of the throne room, acting as witnesses and the jury. The majority were going to vote for Azula; she had no fear, only the shiver of anticipation.
“Zuko, firstborn of Fire Lord Ozai. Azula, secondborn of Fire Lord Ozai. Rise.” General Touma said, his voice echoing throughout the room.
The trial had begun.
“Whoever is ready to present their case for the throne, step forward.” He called, glancing between the siblings.
Azula stepped forward. Behind her, Zuko knelt on the floor and waited, as was the custom. She had already ensured her victory, but convincing the fire sages of her worth was required. She knew what she had to say.
“Before Fire Lord Ozai was imprisoned by the Avatar,” Azula began, hiding a smirk at the grumbling that name invoked, “he already named me as his successor. On the day of Sozin’s Comet, I reigned as Fire Lord and sat where General Touma now sits. My brother challenged me to an agni kai on this day, as well, for my throne.”
There were murmurs among the jury. Agni kais were a solemn topic in the Fire Nation and Azula knew exactly how to twist her words against them.
“And what was the outcome of this agni kai?” General Touma asked.
Azula smirked and said, “You may ask my brother to expose his chest and reveal the scar where my lightning struck him.”
There was immediate rumbling and shouting; they knew what a burn mark meant. Azula had clearly won the agni kai by burning Zuko and therefore the title of Fire Lord still belonged to her.
“That won’t be necessary.” General Touma said gruffly.
“That is all.” Azula said simply, adding, “I have nothing else to say.”
Nothing else was needed. The outcome of the agni kai was final and sacred; to ignore it was to go against everything the Fire Nation believed in.
“Crown Prince Zuko.” General Touma called, “Please step forward and state your defence.”
Azula knelt down as Zuko rose to his feet. He walked to the front and Azula noticed the lack of anxiety in his steps. He was clear on what he was going to do.
“I wish to withdraw my claim to the throne.”
The room erupted into whispers as Zuko returned to his seat. He knelt beside Azula and she turned to look at him. He looked at her and nodded solemnly. She mirrored him. This was not the time to gloat; the two of them had come to an agreement and she would respect that. She wasn’t a child who had beaten her brother at a game, she was a sister whom her brother put his trust in.
To mock him would be disrespectful and unbecoming of the future Fire Lord.
Once the fire sages had silenced the throne room, the siblings were asked to rise to their feet. They did so, and waited for the inevitable to occur.
“In light of this trial and Crown Prince Zuko’s abdication,” General Touma boomed, “a vote will not be taking place tonight. The future of the Fire Nation has been decided. Crown Princess Azula will assume the throne on her eighteenth birthday, as was the wish of Fire Lord Ozai.”
There was no cheering; this was a trial that determined the fate of the country, not a circus. Instead, the audience looked on and nodded to Azula when she caught their eye. A silent gesture of congratulations.
Two days ago, Azula was sitting in an asylum and hadn’t bathed for a week. Today, she was being named heir to the throne. Life was funny like that.
Azula glanced over at her brother, only to find Zuko with his head bowed low. This was her victory, but at the expense of her brother. Silently, she reached over and placed a hand on his shoulder. He looked at her but she was looking straight ahead.
He squared his shoulders, easily towering over her at his full height. Azula understood; she would keep her promise.
Life changed after that. Azula had returned home to the palace and was settled permanently. Suddenly, Azula was no longer a patient in an asylum but one of the most important people in the Fire Nation.
She believed she was settling in well.
“Your technique is sloppy.” Zuko said before thrusting another jet of fire at her.
Azula snarled out, “I’m just getting warmed up, brother.”
The two siblings were sparring in the courtyard and it wasn’t going well for Azula. She could no longer produce her signature blue flames; agni, she could barely produce any flames. So far, she had been doing her best to evade Zuko’s attacks.
Azula growled and furiously punched the air; tiny flames escaped her fist and smoke landed on her knuckles.
Zuko came to a stop in front of her. He gave her a sharp look and said, “What’s wrong with your bending?”
She let him come a step closer and then grabbed his arm before swinging him over her shoulder. He soared over her back and she pinned him to the ground.
If she couldn’t beat him at bending, she could at least remind him who was the better hand-to-hand fighter. That sparring match had bruised her ego.
He groaned as he laid on the floor, the wind knocked out of him. Azula huffed and plopped down next to him, staring at her smoke covered fists.
“I don’t know!” Azula snarled out, trying to produce flames in the palm of her hand.
A candlelight flame appeared for a moment before being blown away by a gentle breeze, as if to taunt her. Was this some sort of joke? Had those years of not bending at the asylum really affected her bending so greatly?
Zuko sat up, rubbing his back and grumbling. He said, “Maybe you’ve just lost practice. The doctors told me you were forbidden from bending.”
Azula scoffed, saying, “That didn’t stop me. At first, anyway. They must be washing the smoke out of that cell as we speak.”
The two of them sat in silence for a moment, the words Azula hadn’t said were loud and clear as it hung in the air: But, of course, you wouldn’t know about that.
“C’mon, we’ll go through a few forms together. Let’s see if we can jog your muscle memory.” Zuko said as he slapped her on the back. It was harder than necessary but Azula knew it was simply payback for being thrown earlier.
“Forms.” Azula scrunched her face up in disgust. “I mastered forms when I was five years old, am I no more competent than a child?”
“Yeah, pretty much.” Zuko said, the smug grin stretching across his face.
Azula punched him in the arm and he yelped. She tried to hold a straight face but the moment Zuko snorted, the two broke out into laughter. It felt like old times for a moment. Just Zuko and Azula, the two siblings sparring together before mother called them inside for dinner.
Her heart bled for simpler times. They could never return to that time, but Azula longed for them anyway. She couldn’t erase the bad blood between her and her brother but she could pretend if she shut her eyes tight enough.
Zuko helped her to her feet and Azula ignored the smile on her face. She was afraid of what that smile meant — she was afraid to open up to Zuko and put her trust in him.
She had trusted people before and all it got her was a padded cell.
later that day.
It had been many years since Azula sat down with Zuko for a meal. When they were children, they would eat on the pergola by the gardens. Their mother would tell them stories about legendary heroes and beasts who could breathe fire. She taught them how to eat the broth-filled dumplings without burning their mouths.
Zuko always burned his mouth; Azula simply knew better than to shove the entire thing in her just because she was hungry.
“Guess what this is.” Zuko said, holding up a bag of tea leaves.
Azula only looked at it for a moment before saying, “Dark leaves. It’s from the Earth Kingdom.”
Zuko grinned and said, “From Uncle Iroh. He sent a bag of his special brew when he heard about the trial. I’m guessing it was for stress but…”
Azula and Iroh had never been close. Like their mother, Iroh favoured Zuko over Azula and doted on him throughout their childhood. He could say it was because Ozai neglected Zuko in favour of her, but Azula knew the truth:
Iroh was protecting Zuko from a monster, just as her mother did.
“I’ve never cared for tea.” Azula said simply. “It’s just leaf juice.”
Zuko chuckled and said, “I was never a fan either. But Uncle made me like it.”
Azula didn’t say anything. She watched Zuko brew the tea, his technique perfect and sure.
“I see he taught you how to brew tea as well.” Azula said, watching his hands.
Zuko glanced up at her and said, “While we were on the run, Uncle and I worked at a tea shop in Ba Sing Se. I did it for so long that I guess it’s kinda like second nature to me.”
He poured her a cup of tea. She took it and held it to her nose. Jasmine. Iroh’s favourite. It tasted just as strong as Azula remembered.
“He asked about you, y’know.” Zuko said.
Azula tried not to flinch.
“He asked about your recovery every month.” Zuko said, “He sent you some things while you were… Jasmine rice was one of them. I think jook, too. He worried that the wardens weren’t feeding you properly and—”
“Then why didn’t he come and visit?” Azula asked.
The room grew quiet. Zuko glanced at Azula but she was looking towards the pond, watching the turtle-ducks swim around. A family of them. For a moment, Azula envied an animal for the family bond it shared.
At best, her family was in tatters.
“His life is in Ba Sing Se now. He won’t set foot into the Fire Nation.” Zuko said simply.
Azula smiled mirthlessly and said, “If it had been you locked up in that asylum, brother, our uncle would’ve swam across the ocean to see you. Don’t feed me lies, there’s plenty of food here.”
“Enough.” She said, “I’m not going to sit here and cry because Uncle doesn’t wuv me. I’m hungry and I want to eat in peace.”
Zuko looked like he was going to say more but Azula shot him a pointed look. He sighed and turned back to his meal. Azula grabbed the pork bun and the soy sauce, her mouth salivating in anticipation — she hadn’t eaten one in months.
The two siblings ate in silence for a few minutes. It was nice, if Azula was being truthful. Too bad the silence was broken by Zuko dropping his chopsticks.
“Is that…” Zuko narrowed his eyes at the sky, “Aang?”
Azula glanced at the sky and, sure enough, the boy was soaring through the skies. He was riding on his sky bison, which seemed even bigger than Azula remember.
Did that boy really fly across the world to come here? She had an inkling about why he was here.
The boy jumped off of the sky bison and flew down on his glider. The contraption had an upgrade, now donning the air nation symbols on the wings.
Zuko jumped to his feet and raced over to the middle of the gardens, abandoning his food. Azula took the opportunity to steal his pork bun. She nibbled on it as Zuko and Aang argued back and forth. She couldn’t hear what they were saying but she could guess.
The Avatar boy was taller now. He wasn’t the pipsqueak that Azula remembered, he was only a head shorter than Zuko. He still had baby fat on his cheeks but he seemed older now, burdened by the world. Had Azula really been gone for that long?
Zuko tried to pull Aang back but the boy escaped and soared over to Azula. She had no fear; Zuko wouldn’t let any harm come to her. It wasn’t that she trusted him, it would just be politically stupid to allow the Avatar to kill her.
So she stared at the boy with a bored expression when he soared towards her. He landed onto the pergola and stepped on her food, staff ready to strike her. She glanced at his foot covered in noodles and then glanced back up at him.
This was the boy who defeated her father?
“I don’t know what game you’re playing, Azula,” The boy snarled, “but it ends here. I won’t let you become the Fire Lord.”
Azula rolled her eyes and said, “Unfortunately, Avatar, you don’t have a say in this. Your role as Avatar doesn’t extend to appointing the leaders of nations.”
“Aang! Don’t do this!” Zuko said as he caught up to them. “Azula isn’t going to follow our father, she won’t start a war!”
Aang snapped his head around to look at him and said, “And how do you know that?”
Azula was growing tired of this. The Avatar had interrupted a lovely dinner and Azula was still hungry. She decided to stop aggravating the little hero and defend herself.
“The Fire Nation is not what it was two years ago, Avatar. We no longer possess the men, territory or upper hand to expand our empire. So even if I wanted to follow in my father’s legacy, I can’t. Now will you please get your foot out of my soup bowl?”
It was probably the ‘please’ that got through to him. Azula never said please — at least, not when she wasn’t mocking someone. But she was serious: she was hungry and tired and just wanted to eat dinner.
She wasn’t lying either. She had already assessed the Fire Nation’s capabilities and they weren’t the same nation she served. They had taken a blow after the war ended and it would take generations to recover from them. War was no longer an option. Only recovery.
“Zuko, are you sure about this?” The boy asked, turning to his friend.
Azula summoned one of her handmaidens who had been standing outside, waiting patiently. While the Avatar and her brother bickered back and forth about Azula’s evil tendencies, she would make some arrangements.
“Inform General Touma that the Avatar is here. I don’t need that old fart accusing me of treason for withholding that information.” Azula said, adding, “Arrange a room for the Avatar to stay in indefinitely. And have that sky bison taken care of. It must be hungry after that journey.”
The handmaiden rushed off quickly, grabbing a few more handmaidens to help her.
“See!” Zuko said, gesturing at Azula. “She’s even feeding Appa. She’s changed!”
“No I haven’t.” Azula said, “The only thing that’s changed is that I’m the future Fire Lord and need to act appropriately. Which means accomodating the Avatar, now that he isn’t an enemy of the Fire Nation. I’m still the same bitch who shot lightning at you.”
Aang gave her a scowl before looking at Zuko, who slapped a palm to his forehead. Azula glanced behind them and shook her head at the handmaidens struggling to take the sky bison to the stables.
“Is that supposed to make me feel reassured?” Aang asked her, scowling.
“I don’t care what it makes you feel.” Azula said plainly. “Take a seat. Grab a bowl. I’ll tell you all about my nefarious plans to colonise that fire cake I’ve been eyeing all night.”
They did as she ordered and sat on the pergola. Zuko filled Aang in about the trial, about Azula’s bargain, even about Azula’s inability to bend. Azula thought he could’ve left that part out. In the end, Aang conceded begrudgingly. He told Zuko that he would hold him accountable for Azula’s actions as his ambassador; Zuko said it was duly noted.
And that’s how the Avatar and the Fire Lord’s children spent dinner together, sharing a fire cake.
The nightmares never left Azula. She would still wake up screaming in the middle of the night, cold sweat clinging to her skin. She couldn’t keep mirrors in her room either — she was afraid of who she’d find staring back at her.
She didn’t sleep most nights. The nightmares were tiresome and she had many things to catch up on. Instead of retiring to her bedchamber, she would take a detour around the palace. She found herself staring up at the tapestry sometimes. The generations of Fire Lords stood tall and proud before her and she shivered when she thought about it.
She was descended from generations of royalty; being the Fire Lord had always been her destiny.
Sometimes she’d find herself in the Dragonbone Catacombs. The fire sages were pleased that the future Fire Lord was concerned with the sacred history of their nation. Ever since she was a child, she knew the value of books and reading. You learned valuable information which could save your life one day.
The catacombs held a vast collection information that Azula could distract herself with. The history of the Fire Nation, how the fire tribes were unified under one great leader and he was crowned Fire Lord. He led his people to wealth and prosperity.
That’s what a Fire Lord is meant to do. Their role is to preserve the values of the nation while striving for wealth and progress.
The catacombs held the personal diaries of many Fire Lords. For a week, Azula spent her time reading through those diaries under the lamplight. She would only return to the palace when the third lamp burned out.
She also discovered tomes describing what the Fire Nation believed to be legends. Writings about the dragons, and the Sun Warriors who worshipped them. Tales of legendary heroes and firebending masters who could swallow and breathe fire, just as the dragons did.
Reading kept her sane. She fought off sleep just to read the next sentence, knowing that sleep only offered her nightmares now. She was worried she’d run out of reading material soon.
When she did return to the palace, she’d sleep for a few hours if the nightmares didn’t come. Then the sun would rise and so would Azula. The future Fire Lord was always busy.
“You haven’t been sleeping properly.” Zuko would tell her, pointing at the bags under her eyes.
She’d reply with: “I can sleep when I’m dead. Things to do, Zuzu.”
The nightmares were her secret to keep. She knew if she told him about them, he’d ask what they were about. She can’t tell him. She won’t.
There’s a reason why she won’t keep mirrors in her room.
Azula knew something was off when Zuko was the one to wake her up.
Her handmaidens were getting her dressed for the day and Zuko walked in. He wasn’t wearing his uniform anymore, just a simple tunic and pants. That wasn’t what was off, though. It was the way he was fiddling with his hands.
“Hey Azula,” Zuko said, “I just wanted to walk you to the dining hall today.”
Azula narrowed her eyes at him. She glanced down at his hands. They were still fiddly.
When they were children, Ozai was relentless when he scolded Zuko. He wasn’t loud, but his words cut through Zuko like a hot knife through butter. Whenever he had done something wrong, Zuko fiddled with his hands.
Just like he was doing right now.
“Any reason?” Azula asked. It was too early for his shenanigans.
Zuko swallowed and said, “No! Of course not. I’m just being a good big brother.”
Now she knew he was lying; Zuko never called himself her ‘big brother’ unless he had done something wrong. Azula just didn’t know what it was.
“Dismissed.” Azula barked, watching the handmaidens scatter to the wind.
She didn’t have to do much snooping around to find out why Zuko was so anxious. He told her himself.
“I kinda lied before.” He said, “There is a reason why I’m taking you.”
“Which is…” Azula drawled.
“We have a visitor.”
Many faces came to Azula’s mind. She grabbed Zuko and pinned him to the wall, snarling, “If you brought Mother here—”
“No, no!” Zuko said, “It’s not her!”
“Then who?” Azula asked, eyes blazing.
He was quiet for a moment before saying, “I can’t tell you. Just see for yourself.”
Azula had half a mind to punch him; how dare he bring someone into their home without her consent? But she also knew that Zuko was allowing her to keep him pinned here and he could fight back but isn’t. She wouldn’t push him.
She let go of his shirt and stepped back, collecting herself. She refused to admit to herself that she was scared and taking it out on Zuko. Who knows who he brought?
“Agni, what did they feed you in that place?” Zuko grumbled as he rubbed his chest.
Azula ignored him and walked towards the dining hall, a fire in her stomach. She killed the Avatar and conquered Ba Sing Se: she could handle whoever was behind that door.
The guards bowed to Azula as she approached them and opened the doors. When they opened and Azula could see inside, she stopped dead in her tracks.
There, munching on a lychee, was Ty Lee.
The acrobat caught Azula’s gaze and froze. Immediately, she rose to her feet. She was so much older now. She wasn’t the same bubbly girl that Azula could bully into submission anymore, she could tell. This was a Kyoshi Warrior and Azula knew better than to underestimate Ty Lee again.
Azula clenched her jaw. How dare she show her face here? After everything she had done.
She barely heard Zuko tell the guards to lock the doors behind them — her attention was solely on Ty Lee. When the doors slammed shut, Azula felt her hands tremble and her eyes prick.
No, no, no. She would not cry in front of this traitor! She was stronger than that, dammit.
“Azula.” Ty Lee said.
There was a certain steel to her tone that Azula had never heard below, let alone be directed at her.
“Customarily, my subjects bow before greeting me.” Azula said, her voice as cold as ice.
Ty Lee swallowed and Azula felt faint. Why was she reacting like this? It was just Ty Lee, why did she feel so weak?
“Zuko mentioned that you were still angry.” Ty Lee said, a frown growing on her face.
Azula scoffed and said, “Angry? Why would I be angry? It’s not as if my closest friend betrayed me and is now standing in my home. And I noticed that you still have yet to bow.”
Ty Lee stepped forward. Azula took a step back. Even if she still had her bending, Ty Lee was a skilled fighter. She could easily defeat Azula in her current state.
“Even when we were kids, I never bowed to you.” Ty Lee said, adding, “I’m not about to start now.”
“What else can I expect from a traitor?” Azula snarled.
Ty Lee took another step forward, “Can you blame me, Azula? You coerced me into joining you, you threatened my life, you were going to kill Mai. I had every right to betray you.”
If Azula’s bending had been working, she might’ve struck Ty Lee down where she stood. She could feel the electricity coursing through her, just under the surface.
“How dare you!” Azula snapped, “I made you who you are today—”
“No you didn’t!” Ty Lee roared back.
Azula flinched. When did the circus freak grow a backbone?
“I am who I am today in spite of you!” Ty Lee said, her eyes growing wet, “I was terrified of you and you used that against me. You took me away from the one place where I was happy because you wanted a friend. I didn’t realise how horrible of a friend you were until I joined the Kyoshi Warriors and realised friends don’t hurt friends.”
Azula was trembling. She had been a terrible friend and she had coerced Ty Lee into joining her, she wouldn’t deny this. She just never expected to be called out for it.
“So why are you here? If I’m such a terrible person and your life is so much better with those painted harpies, why are you here?” Azula snarled.
Ty Lee took another step forward. They were only a few feet away from each other now, and Azula felt like she couldn’t breathe.
She said, “I wish I knew. I should’ve just stayed away but I can’t. You used to be my whole world — not by choice, mind you. I cared about you. Agni, I loved you.”
“Lies! All you traitors do is lie!” She spat, backing away from the advancing girl.
Ty Lee looked so damn sad and it tugged on Azula’s heartstrings. How dare she manipulate Azula like this, when she was vulnerable and malleable?
She sighed and said, “Azula, I loved you. I love you. As much as I hate the hold you still have over me, I know you need me just as much as I need you.”
Azula shook her head. If she believed that traitor for even a moment, she’d find herself paralysed with her face in the dirt. She cannot repeat past mistakes.
“What do you want, Ty Lee?” Azula asked.
“I want to forgive you.” Ty Lee said, adding, “I want you to give me a reason to forgive you.”
Azula let out a cackle and Ty Lee’s scowl deepened. That girl had a lot of nerve, she’d give her that.
“Who says I want your forgiveness?” Azula argued.
Ty Lee smirked and walked forward. Azula kept walking back and yelped when her back hit the wall. There’s nowhere for her to run, to escape this traitor. Her heart hammered in her throat and she prayed to whatever spirits were listening that she could just disappear.
Ty Lee stood in front of her now. Azula could see the specks of gold in her brown eyes. She had grown up in the last two years: she was only a bit shorter than Azula, and she lost her childish face. She looked like a young woman now. The only thing that remained the same was her eyes.
They still made Azula weak at the knees.
“You do. You’ve always needed me.” Ty Lee said simply.
Azula hated her. She hated that she was right. Agni, she regretted the day that she chased Ty Lee away from the asylum. She had a chance to fix what she had with Ty Lee but the wounds of rejection were still fresh and she wouldn’t listen to reason.
“So what now?” Azula asked, pressing up against the wall, “Is this how you’ll get your revenge? By tormenting me in a vulnerable state? My, Ty Lee, you really learned from the best.”
Ty Lee shoved her up against the wall, saying, “For once in your life, shut up!”
“You used to tell me things, Azula. Things you couldn’t tell Mai. You trusted me with what you said.” Ty Lee said, “You said you wanted to become a better Fire Lord than your father. Do you remember that?”
Of course she did. Azula didn’t say anything, however. She wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of a response.
Ty Lee continued, “I’m giving you the chance to be better than him. Your father was a friendless tyrant because he had too much pride to admit when he was wrong. Are you just like your father, Azula? Or can you admit what you did to me was wrong? Can you ask for forgiveness?”
Azula cursed under her breath. She knew Ty Lee was goading her into this and it was working. Ty Lee had always been a clever girl and she knew people even better than Azula did.
She knew she had a choice to make: apologise or become just like her father. Become the monster she was raised to be.
Ty Lee still held her up against the wall, her hands coiled around her shirt. Azula could practically taste the lychee on her lips. This was the same girl who used to praise and adore her when they were children. Now, after everything Azula had done, she could see the conflict raging inside Ty Lee. A conflict between her hate for her abuser and her love for that same person.
It was sickening. Azula wanted to fix that. She missed being adored but she knew Ty Lee would make her earn it again.
“I’m sorry.” She murmured.
Ty Lee’s mouth twitched upwards as she said, “What was that? I didn’t quite catch that.”
“Don’t mock me.” Azula snarled and thrashed against Ty Lee’s grip.
She hated that Ty Lee was so much stronger than her now.
“I’m sorry for what I did to you.” Azula said, louder this time, “Coercion, deceit, threats — I did them all and it was wrong. I was wrong. Forgive me.”
Ty Lee bowed her head and let out a sigh. Azula took that moment to say, “Don’t ever compare me to my father again. I just showed you that I’m superior to that shell of a man.”
“I never said you were forgiven.”
Azula froze. Ty Lee looked back up at her with a malicious smile. Somehow, it suited her just as much as a sweet smile did.
She narrowed her eyes and said, “You’re just toying with me now.”
“I’m not.” Ty Lee said firmly, “If you think years of manipulation is just going to be forgiven with a few forced words, then the asylum really did get to you. No, I’m gonna stick around. I’m going to make you earn my forgiveness.”
Azula shoved her off. This was going too far. She said, “I’m not going to play this game with you, Ty Lee.”
Ty Lee took a few steps back and said, “Yes you will.”
She looked so confident, so sure about her words. Azula narrowed her eyes at the warrior, asking, “And why is that?”
“Because you want to prove yourself to me. I know you better than anyone Azula. You miss me. Just as much as I miss you. This is going to be a second chance for the both of us.” Ty Lee said.
Azula huffed. She hated that Ty Lee was right. She did miss her. She missed the moments she shared with Ty Lee that weren’t tainted with manipulation and threats. She missed having Ty Lee around. She knew that proving herself to Ty Lee would be difficult but she was born to achieve feats that others couldn’t.
And she did love a challenge.
“So that’s it?” Azula asked, crossing her arms, “You’re just going to hang around like some parasite?”
“Bingo.” Ty Lee said, grinning.
For a moment, Azula looked at Ty Lee and saw her childhood friend. The one that would hide in the bushes with her to spy on her brother trying to flirt with Mai. For a moment, she could pretend like she hadn’t ruined the friendship she held most dear.
Azula blinked and she was dragged back to reality.
They weren’t children anymore. Azula ruined things and now she needed to fix them.
“What happened to not wanting to be part of a matched set?” Azula asked.
Ty Lee shrugged and said, “I realised it wasn’t the lookalike part that was the problem. It was the lack of attention. I get plenty of that as a Kyoshi Warrior.”
The two of them were walking around the palace gardens. The cherry blossoms were in full-blossom and the path was littered with pink petals. Ty Lee had been pleased with this fact: it was rare to come across cherry blossoms in the Earth Kingdom.
Ty Lee told her everything. She had joined the Kyoshi Warriors during Azula’s absence and taught them about chi-blocking. She told Azula that Zuko had contacted her before the trial, asking her to meet Azula.
Because of course Zuko was to blame for this.
“Won’t your friends on Kyoshi Island miss you?” Azula asked, tilting her head.
Ty Lee shrugged and said, “I don’t like staying in one place for too long. You know this.”
“Then I suppose I should just send you home now, then.” Azula teased, “Before you grow tired of this place.”
That’s when Ty Lee slipped her hand into Azula’s and said, “You’re not getting rid of me that easily.”
It’s was too much, too fast. Azula yanked her hand away like it had been burned. That gesture hurt Ty Lee, she knew that. But she just wasn’t ready to go that far yet. It was too much.
As she continued walking, she said, “I’m sure he told you that I will be crowned Fire Lord on my eighteenth birthday.”
Ty Lee hummed behind her, saying, “I knew you would be. He didn’t have to tell me.”
“Is that so?” Azula asked, looking back over her shoulder at her… friend. Yes, her friend.
Ty Lee smiled mirthlessly at her and said, “You were born to be the Fire Lord. You wouldn’t let a pesky cell stop you from becoming that. One way or the other, Azula, you get your way. I learnt that the hard way.”
Azula clenched her jaw, understanding the implication. She wanted to apologise again but she stopped herself. Ty Lee told her to let her actions speak louder than her words and she intended to do just that.
“Those warriors… you suit them.” Azula said.
She glanced over at Ty Lee, who looked genuinely surprised. She was wearing the Earth Kingdom green and brown but she still looked beautiful. Azula thought that red always suited her more, however.
Happiness, Azula realised. Happiness looked good in Ty Lee.
“Thanks,” Ty Lee said, a little breathlessly.
That was… nice. It was nice being nice. What an odd discovery. Maybe she could do this whole friendship thing.
“Have you visited your family at all?” Azula asked.
Ty Lee said, “I’ve visited a few times. My sisters are still the same and not. It’s hard to explain. Mum and Dad were happy to see me, though. They asked about you.”
Azula stumbled. She turned back and looked at Ty Lee with wide eyes, asking, “Me?”
“Of course,” she said, “You were my best friend when we were in school. When they heard about the asylum, they were heartbroken. We all were.”
Azula turned away from Ty Lee as she built up the nerve to ask her next question.
“Did you really write to Zuko about me?” She asked.
It grew quiet for a moment. Azula was too afraid to turn back and look at Ty Lee’s face. As it turned out, she didn’t have to: Ty Lee leaped in front of her and stopped her in her tracks.
“Every week.” Ty Lee said solemnly, “You couldn’t handle me visiting you at the asylum, I understood that. But I still wanted to know if you were getting better.”
That was the moment that Azula realised something about Ty Lee. No matter how badly Azula treated her, she would still have a special place in her heart. Ty Lee never stopped caring about her. It may just be her downfall if Azula couldn’t learn to be a good person.
She realised she would never deserve the patience and love Ty Lee had for her.
“Well?” Azula said, holding her hands out, “What do you think?”
Ty Lee gave her a once-over and Azula didn’t know why it made her feel so embarrassed.
Finally, she said, “You’re taller. Can’t say much else.”
Azula’s mouth hung open in offence. Ty Lee giggled and her eyes formed into half moons. It was beautiful.
Azula said, “Oh, I’ll give you something to laugh about.”
In the blink of an eye, she swung at Ty Lee who only narrowly dodged. The two broke out into a sparring match, testing each other’s fighting prowess after so many years. Azula hadn’t let herself get sloppy while confined but Ty Lee clearly had the advantage over her.
The nonbender jumped up into a nearby tree to catch her breath. She heaved out, “You’re not using your bending.”
Azula’s face darkened. She had forgotten to tell Ty Lee about that particular ordeal. She looked down at her palms before clenching them into fists.
“I can’t bend.” Azula admitted bitterly, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Zuko thinks it might be because I hadn’t bent while I was locked up but…”
Ty Lee slipped down from the tree and made her way over to Azula. The latter clenched her jaw and squared her shoulders, rising to her full height. She refused to receive any pity from her friend.
“What do you think?” Ty Lee asked. Azula had to admit that she concealed the pity in her voice well.
She looked down and focused on the palm of her hand. A small flame appeared, barely enough to feel any warmth from.
She scowled as she said, “It feels wrong. Fake. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with my bending: my forms are perfect. I think… I think there’s something wrong with me.”
Ty Lee asked, “What do you mean?”
Azula clenched her fist, extinguishing the flame. She encouraged Ty Lee to walk with her again.
“Some of the previous Fire Lords,” Azula began, “many of them struggled to maintain their bending. Something happened to them, changed them, and they suddenly couldn’t bend anymore. Some of them were able to get back their bending but most…”
Ty Lee put her hand on Azula’s shoulder and said, “You think you’ve lost your bending forever.”
“It’s definitely a possibility.” Azula murmured.
The thought of losing her bending made Azula feel empty and terrified. She couldn’t imagine what her father felt like as he rotted in that prison cell. To lose one’s bending was akin to losing a part of their soul.
“Why don’t we ask Zuko about this?” Ty Lee asked, “Or the Avatar. They might know something—”
“Absolutely not.” Azula said sharply.
She heard Ty Lee sigh behind her. She knew talking to Zuko or the Avatar would be a smart decision; surely they would have some answer that Azula doesn’t. But her pride held her still, kept her from seeking out anybody else’s help. Seeking help was for the weak who weren’t strong enough to help themselves.
Her father had taught her that.
later that day.
“If you’ve called me here to have a sleepover with the three of you, I’m seriously considering banishing all of you.” Azula said as she stood in the doorway of Zuko’s bedchamber.
“Why would I—” Zuko cut himself off with a sigh, “That’s not why I called for you.”
Azula crossed her arms and asked, “Then why am I here?”
In front of her, three people were staring at her: Ty Lee, the Avatar, and her brother. Azula felt like they were about to pull an intervention and she was vaguely sure this was Ty Lee’s doing, judging by the way she was shifting her eyes around guiltily.
Zuko said, “Ty Lee told me you were worried about your bending—”
She threw a sharp look at Ty Lee who flinched. The latter stood up and said, “You’re too stubborn to ask for help so I did it for you! Don’t look at me like that!”
Azula huffed and pinched the bridge of her nose, saying, “Continue, Zuko. I’ll deal with Ty Lee later.”
“As I was saying,” Zuko said gruffly, “she told me that you’re worried about your bending. I am too. If this was just you being out of practice, you would’ve regained your bending weeks ago.”
“Gee, thanks for the words of reassurance, Zuzu.” Azula drawled.
“I have an idea.” Zuko said.
“The last time you had an idea, I was thrown in a padded cell for two years and the Fire Nation lost the war,” Azula said, “so forgive me if I’m not exactly excited.”
From where he was leaning on the wall, the Avatar asked, “Is she always like this?”
Zuko sighed and said, “Always.”
“That’s rough, buddy.”
“If you two are done, I’d like to hear this idea soon.” Azula said, adding, “I have a council meeting in ten minutes and the fire sages tend to yap on about tardiness.”
“Right, well,” Zuko began awkwardly, “you don’t know this but I lost my bending, too. It was when I was teaching Aang how to firebend.”
“And betraying your nation in the process.” Azula added, examining her nails.
She was met with silence. When she glanced up, she found everyone staring at her with a frustrated expression. Maybe it was best if she stopped interrupting.
“Continue.” She said.
Zuko huffed and said, “Anyway, when we realised I needed to regain my firebending to teach Aang, we travelled to find the original masters of firebending.”
“The dragons.” Azula said slowly, “You went dragon hunting.”
The Avatar jumped off the wall and said, “Not hunting! We went to learn from them.”
Azula was tired of these games. She said, “That’s nice and all, except for the fact that dragons are extinct. Sozin made sure of that.”
“They aren’t.” Zuko said firmly.
She turned to look at him. There was not a trace of deception or doubt in his eyes. She narrowed her eyes and said, “Explain yourself.”
“You remember the Sun Warriors.” Zuko said.
Azula nodded, saying, “Precursors to the tribes that became the Fire Nation a thousand years ago. Myths.”
“They aren’t myths.” Zuko said, “They’re real.”
Azula had enough. She turned to leave, saying, “Right, OK, well I have a meeting to get to.”
“Azula!” Ty Lee called.
She stopped in her tracks. She turned to look back at Ty Lee and found her looking at Azula with a stern expression. Oh agni.
“Just hear them out.” She said.
Azula stared at her for a moment longer, before sighing and waving her wrist at Zuko.
“They’re real. Me and Aang met them. They introduced us to the masters, Ran and Shaw. The masters were dragons, two of the last Great Dragons.” Zuko said.
“Our uncle slew the last Great Dragon so are you calling him a fraud?” Azula asked, smiling at this turn of events.
Zuko shook his head and said, “He lied to protect them. He was deemed worthy by Ran and Shaw and they taught him the true meaning of firebending. They taught this to us as well.”
“So let me get this straight.”
The three of them looked up at her, blinking.
Azula said slowly, “The Sun Warriors are real. Dragons aren’t extinct. There’s possibly more of them still alive and breeding.”
“Right.” The Avatar said, nodding.
She turned to Zuko and asked, “Did you not think that this was vital information for our country?”
“You can’t tell anyone about this.” Aang said firmly.
Zuko jumped in, “The Sun Warriors made us promise not to tell anyone about their existence. They didn’t want anyone else hunting the dragons again.”
“Zuko, I don’t want to hunt the dragons.” Azula said, growing impatient, “Sozin was a fool for what he did. Dragons are a symbol of raw power; having them as our companions would’ve made us unstoppable during the war.”
“So you are thinking about war!” Aang pointed an accusatory finger at her.
“I’m thinking about protecting the last line the Fire Nation has to our ancestors. We could build sanctuaries to protect them!” Azula gestured firmly.
Zuko simply shook his head and said, “That’s not up to us to decide. You’ll have to get through to Ran and Shaw first and believe me, they’re terrifying.”
Oh. So that was Zuko’s brilliant idea.
Azula said, “…I see. You’re suggesting that I travel to Ran and Shaw’s home and learn from them. To bring back my bending.”
“You got it.” Zuko said with a shrug.
She looked at each of their faces: Aang looked suspicious, Ty Lee had that twinkle of hope in her eyes and Zuko looked exhausted. The idea sounded far-fetched at best and like a suicide mission at worst. Perhaps this was Zuko’s attempt to eliminate her before she could assume the throne.
Then again, Azula didn’t really have a better idea. Praying for her bending to come back clearly wasn’t working. What other option did she have?
“I’ll sleep on it.” Azula said finally.
She didn’t stay around long. She had a meeting to attend and she was definitely late; if the dragons didn’t kill her, the fire sages would.
The nightmares kept her awake at night. It gave her plenty of time to ruminate on her situation. She had been ruminating for the past week.
She needed her bending back; the Fire Lord cannot be a nonbender and they cannot lose their firebending. It would be shameful.
But could she really travel to some ancient city just for the chance that she could get her bending back? Could she really trust Zuko’s advice? The idea that he was planning to have her assassinated or even eaten by dragons so that he could become Fire Lord sounded pretty believable.
Maybe she should put more trust in her brother. But she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t trust anyone, not yet. She wasn’t ready.
She could only trust herself. Could she handle this trip? Would the Great Dragons deem her worthy to be their pupil? Could she take the initiative and fight to win her bending back?
Just before dawn, Azula made her decision. She yanked the blankets off of her body and left her bedchamber in search of Zuko’s. She didn’t bother knocking; her brother had the habit of waking up before sunrise. A habit he picked up from those months as a fugitive.
She tried not to think of those days.
When she barged inside, she found Zuko polishing his swords on his bed. They were made of steel and embossed with the national emblem. Swords fitting for the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation.
“This city,” Azula said, “where is it exactly?”
The city itself was north from the palace and a two-day trip on a tank-train. Azula wasn’t sure how long she would be staying at this city, so she packed for the long-term. The fire sages were reluctant to let her go on this journey but after reminding them about the consequences of never regaining her bending, they conceded.
“Nervous?” Zuko asked, leaning against the door to her bedchamber.
Azula sighed and stopped fiddling with her suitcase. She turned to look at him, hoping she didn’t radiate anxiety.
“Perhaps.” Azula said, adding, “I could possibly die, y’know.”
“You won’t.” Zuko said firmly.
She wanted to believe him.
“What if…” Azula could barely find the words, “What if I’ve lost my bending permanently?”
Zuko walked towards her and she sighed. She hated this emotional nonsense but she couldn’t help it. She was scared, dammit, and she wanted her big brother. Was that so hard to believe?
“Hey, listen,” Zuko said, his voice growing soft, “you’ll get your bending back. You’re Azula. You can do anything, remember?”
He put his hand on her upper arm, circling around the bicep. Azula breathed in a big gulp of air and straightened her back. His words sounded sincere and she wanted to believe them. She put her hand over his for a moment, before pulling away and shaking him off.
It wasn’t much but it was something.
“Let’s get you on that tank.” Zuko said.
Azula held her hand up to stop him, saying, “I need to make a detour first.”
Zuko smiled like he already knew what she was talking about. She hated that. When did she become so transparent?
“Ty Lee, are you in there?”
Azula heard some scuffling and then the door opened. Ty Lee was beaming at her, her eyes shining with joy. It was nearly infectious.
“You came to say goodbye,” Ty Lee said, the happiness oozing from her voice.
Azula coughed into her hand and said, “Well, actually, I came to ask you something.”
Ty Lee only smiled in encouragement.
“Would you accompany me on this journey?” Azula asked stiffly.
The smile on Ty Lee’s face grew impossibly wider and Azula was sure her knees buckled at the sight. She had to admit that the girl, while she had been pretty when they were younger, she was stunning now. Azula felt the fluttering of something in her chest that she wasn’t sure was envy.
“I would’ve snuck into the tank anyway.” Ty Lee said, “You didn’t think I was just gonna let you run off again, did you? Besides, I miss travelling with you. It will be just like old times.”
Azula turned away and said, “Of course, I simply needed an extra person to tag along. There is the possibility that I could die on this trip and I need someone to report back home if such an event occurs—”
Ty Lee’s hand slipped into hers and the words died in her mouth. Azula glanced at her and was once more blinded by her smile. This time, it was so much softer.
“Whatever you say,” she said simply, giving Azula a knowing smile.
Azula let out a shaky breath. She squeezed Ty Lee’s hand before pulling away. It was only a small gesture, but it was progress and she knew it meant the world to Ty Lee.
There was nothing more to say.
The first day of the journey, Ty Lee taught Azula how to play pai sho. She never learnt to spite her uncle; why would she learn his favourite game if he clearly favoured her brother?
“So it’s a tactical game?” Azula said, examining the tile in her hand.
Ty Lee hummed and said, “Sure. But I see it as more of a game of chance.”
Azula glanced over at Ty Lee. That kind of thinking had Earth Kingdom written all over it; the Kyoshi Warriors had definitely left their mark on her.
She would just have to demonstrate the superior Fire Nation way of thinking.
They played for hours. While Azula made careful, calculated moves, Ty Lee was letting the spirits decide her fate and placed tiles randomly. It frustrated Azula at first but soon proved to become a challenge for her.
In the end, it was a draw. Azula won as many times as Ty Lee did. She wasn’t sure what to make of that. She supposed a little luck never hurt.
After that, the two simply… talked. It was odd. One moment they were putting the pai sho parts away, the next they were laying in their seperate beds and talking. Ty Lee told her stories about the Kyoshi Warriors. All the places they travelled, the people they saved.
Azula had no stories to tell.
“Why don’t you simply eat the unagi?” Azula asked.
Ty Lee snorted and said, “We can’t! It’s a giant sea dragon thing!”
Azula shrugged and said, “That’s what a quitter would say.”
Ty Lee threw a pillow at her from across the bunker. Azula laughed when she caught it, the laughter bubbling out of her. Instead of throwing it back, she simply hugged it to her chest.
Once the laughter died down, a silence settled between them. Azula could tell that Ty Lee wanted to say something, judging by the way she chewed on her lip.
It was sort of… cute.
“You’re going to make your lips bleed.” Azula drawled, “Whatever it is you have to say, just say it.”
Ty Lee let out a breath and turned to look at her. Azula continued to stare up at the ceiling.
“What was the asylum like?”
Azula wished she had never said anything. She hugged the pillow closer to her chest as if it would protect her. Make her feel less vulnerable. She could feel Ty Lee’s eyes on her, burning into her skull.
“When I visited, the place seemed clean.” Ty Lee said, “The patients were all in their cells and the guards were walking around. It’s seemed like a decent place.”
Azula squeezed her eyes shut. So many memories flashed through her mind — memories that kept her awake at night and fuelled her nightmares. She didn’t want to remember, she couldn’t.
“Don’t ever ask me about that again.” Azula snarled, although it came out more like a whimper.
She turned over and faced the metal wall of the tank. She heard Ty Lee sigh and she curled up into a ball. She knew she had disappointed her, that she had hurt again by pushing her away. But she couldn’t open up. She couldn’t talk about what she went through.
Azula couldn’t be weak. She must forget those memories, bury them so deep that she can never find them again. She had to be strong for her nation.
Weakness wasn’t an option.
Azula had the tank stop at town that was situated a few miles away from the city. She had a feeling that the Sun Warriors wouldn’t be too pleased with that kind of technology in their city.
It’s a small town and while they only had so much room, Azula only needed to hand them a sack of gold for them to take in Ty Lee.
“You’re really going in alone?” Ty Lee asked, looking like a kicked puppy.
Azula nodded, saying, “This is something I need to do alone. If I don’t come back after a week—”
“You are not going to be eaten.”
“Look, I don’t know how hungry those overgrown lizards must be.” Azula said, trying to mask the anxiety she felt.
Ty Lee rolled her eyes but the smile remained. She took one last look at Azula. She looked like she wanted to hug Azula but thought better of it.
“Be careful in there.” Ty Lee said, adding, “If you die, I’ll get Aang to kick your butt in the Spirit World.”
Azula couldn’t help the smile that grew on her face.
“So this is the great city of the Sun Warriors?” Azula drawled to herself, “What a dump.”
The city was in ruins — actually, scratch that, the city was a ruin. Structures were either collapsed or cracked, the city was filled with overgrown vegetation and Azula was sure she had seen a skeleton lying around. The only way she knew that this place was being lived in was the booby traps: they were newly laid, not ancient.
Azula had to escape a few close calls with death just getting through the city.
She knew where she was going: the peak of that temple that stood in the middle of the city. She would need to coax these people out of their hiding place and sitting on their temple should do the trick.
It was annoying getting from point A to point B without her firebending. She would’ve just used her fire to fly her over to the temple. Instead, she has to walk the whole way. It would’ve been fine if it wasn’t for all the damn booby traps.
By the time she got to the temple, the sun was settling just above the mountains. She was glad she remembered to pack water and food because there was no sign of either anywhere.
On the way, she found many mosaics that depicted the Sun Warriors and the dragons they worshipped. She made a mental note to close this city off from the public, in order to preserve the history here.
When Azula finally climbed up all those stairs, she was surprised to find the Sun Warriors already waiting for her. She should’ve expected this.
“You are not welcome in this city.” The chief (presumably) said, “Why are you here?”
“I’m here for the dragons.”
Immediately, firebenders stepped forward and blazed their flames at her in warning. She rolled her eyes and said, “Relax, I’m not in the mood for lizard kebab.”
“Who told you about the dragons?” The chief asked, scowling at her.
“My brother,” Azula said, adding, “Ran and Shaw taught him and his friend how to firebend again.”
The chief sighed and held up his hand. His warriors extinguished their fires and stepped back, allowing him to speak without the roar of their fire.
“We should’ve known better than to trust outsiders.” He lamented.
“Don’t take it out on my brother,” Azula said, “He only told me because I can’t bend anymore. As the next Fire Lord—”
The flames were back, this time flanked by spears. Azula realised she was talking herself into an early grave at this point.
“Fire Lord?” The chief snarled, “You and your family are the reason why the masters had to go into hiding! Why they lost their family! Why they are the last Great Dragons alive!”
Azula was growing tired of this: she didn’t come all this way for this old geezer to give her a lecture.
“Listen, savages!” Azula snarled back, “My bloodline is connected to the first Fire Lord, who learned how to bend fire from your masters’ ancestors! Firebending is my birthright! You will bring me to Ran and Shaw and they will teach me how to firebend again!”
Fire and smoke. That’s all Azula could see as she was chased out of the city. The Sun Warriors chased after her, hurling balls of fire at her as she ran. She couldn’t fight them, there were too many of them and she was powerless.
She ran until her lungs burned and she couldn’t see the city anymore. When she was sure that she had escaped them, she collapsed onto the earth and caught her breath.
Azula was angry. Beyond angry, she was livid. How dare those filthy savages do that to her? She was the Crown Princess! She ought to have that entire city destroyed!
She marched off in the direction of the town, prepared to tell Ty Lee everything that happened. To garner her support after this affront against her.
When she got there, however, she didn’t get the support she expected.
“You did what?” Ty Lee said, face twisted in anger.
Azula snarled, “Those filthy savages refused me! How dare they? They should’ve bowed in my presence and they have the audacity to chase me away, to attack me? I’ll show them—”
“What are you going to do, Azula?” Ty Lee said, shaking with anger, “Are you going to destroy their city because they offended you? Just like your father, and his father, and his father?”
“Watch your words, circus freak!” Azula snapped.
Ty Lee laughed and said, “And here I was thinking you were starting to change! I was such an idiot. I told myself you weren’t the same arrogant, selfish girl that I knew. I told myself that you were getting better — that apologising to me would’ve humbled you! I see now that I was wrong. You have always been Ozai’s daughter and that will never change.”
Azula was shaking where she stood — she didn’t know if it was out of anger, fear or shock. Maybe all three. She watched Ty Lee make her way to the door before turning back to look at Azula.
“The world is better off with you not being able to firebend.” She spat, “Maybe it was better off when you were stuck in that cell.”
She slammed the door shut behind her and Azula jumped at the sound. She felt so… hollow inside.
What was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she do anything right? Why was it impossible for her to do the right thing?
Azula felt the rage bubbling up inside her. Self-hatred coiled around her heart and dropped it into her stomach. The room was spinning and the voices in her head were screaming again. Failure, failure, failure—
She ran. She doesn’t remember most of it, only hazy memories of her racing through the jungle and her feet slapping against the ground. She didn’t stop running until she stood outside the city gates again.
She had to make things right. The Sun Warriors might just kill her when they see her but she had nothing to lose. Without her bending, she can’t become the Fire Lord anyway. More than that, she needed to prove to herself that she could do the right thing. That she wasn’t a fuck-up. That the voices were wrong.
It was well into the night now and the city streets were even harder to navigate. Still, Azula kept running. The heart hammering in her chest didn’t matter; the ache in her legs didn’t matter; the burn in her lungs didn’t matter.
She had to make this right — nothing else mattered.
She climbed the temple stairs, her legs growing heavier with each step. They seemed endless, stretching all the way to the heavens. She pressed on. There was no turning back now.
When she got to the top, she was not greeted with flames or spears. No one was there.
Azula collapsed onto her knees on the stone floor, exhausted. She didn’t know how long she had been running for. All knew was that she needed to get their attention.
“I know you’re out there!” Azula shouted into the night, “I know you’re hiding in the shadows!”
At first, nothing happened. All Azula could hear was the blood roaring in her ears. Then, people started to leave the shadows. She was suddenly surrounded by Sun Warriors, all of which were watching her with malice.
The chief stepped forward and said, “Give me one reason why we shouldn’t kill you right now.”
Azula leaned forward and pressed her forehead against the floor. The tears spilled down her cheeks and wet the stone floor beneath her.
“Forgive me.” Azula sobbed, “What I did — my arrogance and actions were enough to condemn me. I demanded something from you that I had no right to. I tried to bully you into obeying and I’m sorry.”
The chief asked, “Why should we forgive you?”
Azula was quiet for a moment. She had no answer for him.
“Well?” He asked again.
“You shouldn’t.” Azula whimpered. “I don’t deserve forgiveness. I was cruel, and arrogant, and you have no reason to forgive me. But I still beg for it anyway.”
The chief was quiet for a moment. Finally, he asked, “Why does your bending matter so much to you that you would grovel in the dirt to get it back?”
Azula rose up and sat on her folded legs, looking up at the chief. She said, “Losing my bending… I feel like I have lost a part of my soul. There’s this emptiness inside of me that I can’t shake. I’ve lost so much in my life: my father, my mother… and now my only friend. My own brother threw me in a cell and I lost my mind. My bending… I can’t lose this.”
“What do you think the masters can provide for you?” The chief asked, a sharp glint in his eyes.
Azula bowed her head and said, “The chance to be whole again.”
The silence that followed was unbearable. She knew it was a selfish reason. She just hoped the Sun Warriors would show her the kindness she hadn’t shown them.
Finally, the chief said, “We will take you to Ran and Shaw. They will decide if your reasons are worthy enough to—”
Azula didn’t hear the rest. The darkness consumed her before she hit the ground.
When Azula woke up, there was a vial of something that smelled awful shoved up her nose. Was that ammonia? She bolted upright, only to have a shooting pain spread throughout her entire body. She groaned and felt the bile rise in her throat.
“Lie back down, idiot.” A croaky voice said.
Azula looked over, finding an old woman scowling at her. She looked like she was as old as Sozin, and her earlobes were stretched down to her chest.
“You must be the healer.” Azula said, wincing, “Thank you for taking care of me.”
She supposed if it was ever time to turn over a new leaf and be good, it was now.
“All I’ve done so far is let you rest. Now that you’re awake, I can start.” The healer said.
Azula gulped. She didn’t know if she could trust the medicine these savages — people — had to offer. Still, she laid back down and winced at the dull pain.
The healer glanced at her and said, “Take your shirt off and lay on your back.”
This just got worse and worse, didn’t it.
It was difficult: Azula’s entire body hurt from sprinting to the city last night. Served her right for such irrational behaviour. Still, her actions got her a second chance and that was priceless. She could bare a bit of pain.
She heard the sound of glass clinking together and turned to look over at the old woman. She was pouring oil into her hands as she walked towards Azula. A massage?
The oil burned. It was a strange kind of burn, however. It was almost cold but burned like a dull flame against her skin. Strange, indeed. The old woman kneaded out the knots in Azula’s back and she felt all her worries disappear.
It didn’t last for too long. The old woman took her hands away from Azula’s back and returned them to her shelf of medicines. The clinking sound returned and Azula looked over just in time to see the old woman holding… jars?
The old woman formed a small fireball in her hand and held it inside the jar. When it was heated, she placed the jar on Azula’s back and allow it to suck in her skin. It felt… oddly relaxing.
“This is called fire cupping.” The woman explained, “It’s meant to target your pressure points and relieve any pain in your body. Right now, you’re in no shape to meet the masters.”
Azula’s back was covered in those little jars now. She wondered if this kind of therapy actually worked or if it was more primitive nonsense. Still, the woman was being kind to her by doing this and Azula needed to start being grateful.
“Thank you.” Azula forced out.
“Don’t thank me.” The healer said, “The chief told me to do this: nothing more, nothing less. If it was up to me, you’d be chewed up in Ran and Shaw’s bellies by now.”
That’s what Azula got for being grateful.
She didn’t bother replying. The healer removed the jars and rubbed circles into Azula’s back. It felt so nice that Azula simply drifted off to sleep. The last thing she thought of was the face of a dragon.
When Azula was back to full health, she was dragged off to begin the ritual. The first thing Azula thought when she saw the fire was that the Sun Warriors were about to give those dragons a roast-Azula for dinner.
“This is the Eternal Flame.” The chief said with reverence, “When dragons first taught humans the art of firebending, they gave them this flame. It has burned for over a thousand years and will continue to be kept going by us for a thousand more.”
Try as she might, Azula couldn’t find it in herself to mock the situation. This fire was something sacred. Holy. She had been blessed to even view it.
“Before you meet Ran and Shaw, you will take a piece of fire from the Eternal Flame. You will climb that mountain,” he pointed to the mountain to the west of them, “and maintain a constant heat before presenting it to them. This is will be your way of showing your commitment to learning the sacred art of firebending.”
Azula nodded. The chief took a piece from the Eternal Flame and held it in his hands. Azula’s body buzzed with anticipation.
“Before I give you this sacred flame…” The chief said.
Azula looked up at him.
He continued, “I must ask you again. Why do you want to regain your firebending?”
Azula swallowed and looked down at her hands. She knew her answer; she just needed to courage to say it aloud.
“I come from a long line of Fire Lords.” Azula began softly, “Each one had their faults and virtues. The role of the Fire Lord is to make sure their people are happy and prosperous. But how can I be that kind of Fire Lord when all I’ve known is destruction? Fire is wild, uncontrollable, an instrument for destruction.”
She continued after a shaky breath, “But you tell me that Ran and Shaw know the true meaning of firebending. That firebending isn’t a tool for destruction. Maybe, if they teach that to me, I can share that knowledge with my people and be the kind of Fire Lord that preserves life, rather than takes it. Maybe… maybe I can be the Fire Lord my people need.”
When she was certain she was done, she looked up at the chief. For a moment, she swore she saw the corners of his mouth twitch upwards.
He presented her with the flame and said, “Take it. Ran and Shaw are waiting for you.”
Letting out a deep breath, Azula steeled herself and took the flame into her hands. She felt it the moment the flames licked at her palms: this was no ordinary fire. She was suddenly filled with energy, as if holding the sun itself in her hands.
She turned her gaze to the west. There was no time to waste: she had a mountain to climb.
It took hours for Azula to climb the mountain. She was afraid of messing with the flame, making it too big or too small. She couldn’t mess up now — she was so close to victory, she could almost taste it.
The sun beamed down on Azula as she marched up the mountain. She could feel the sweat dripping down her skin and how heavy her body was growing. But she could only focus on maintaining the fire in her hands.
She made it to the peak of the mountain and gasped. Ran and Shaw’s lair was beautiful: it was a temple carved on the middle of a mountain that was split down the middle. She could see where the last flight of stairs ended and knew she was close.
Azula sucked in a deep breath and pressed forward. There was no turning back.
The Sun Warriors were waiting for her at the bottom of the lair. They had brought musical instruments — drums, strings, horns — probably for yet another ritual. The chief was standing in the middle of all this, flanked by his men.
She walked over to him, careful to maintain a constant heat.
“You have made it this far.” The chief said once she stood in front of him, “When you are ready, stand on the platform and present your flame to Ran and Shaw. They will decide whether you are worthy.”
Azula asked, “What if they decide I’m not?”
“Then they’ll have a princess to snack on.” One of the chief’s men said with a grin.
Azula swallowed. She looked up at the stairs, steeling herself. She had nothing to lose and everything to gain. She began the climb.
The Sun Warriors played music as she climbed. It seemed to invigorate her and she climbed faster. She was ready to meet the masters.
When she stood on the platform, the Sun Warriors stopped playing their music. She noticed there were two tunnels on either side of her. One for Ran and one for Shaw, she presumed. Since she had to present the flame to both of them, Azula made the decision to seperate the flame into two.
Facing the sun, Azula held a piece of flame in each hand and presented them to the face of each tunnel.
A loud horn was blown and Azula felt the mountain tremble beneath her. The beasts were awake. The music resumed once more and Azula could feel her heart beating in her ears.
The rumbling continued, growing more violent with each passing second. Finally, Azula watched in awe as two dragons flew out of each tunnel. They soared through the air with their long bodies twisting around the platform. She was frozen, watching them fly like a child watching the sunrise for the first time.
The dragons settled on either side of Azula and she suddenly felt like a speck of dirt. Under their gaze, she wasn’t the Crown Princess — she was nothing compared to them.
It was humbling, to say the least.
She looked at them, taking in their appearance. Shiny scales, tufts of hair, giant horns, razor sharp teeth — not to mention those eyes. She felt like they could see straight into her soul with those eyes.
Azula realised, after a moment, that they weren’t doing anything. They were just watching her. What did they want from her? Were the flames not enough?
She thought for a moment, racking her brain for an idea. One came, but it was stupid and could get her killed. But it was also the only thing she could come up with.
She brought her hands together and combined the flames. Sucking in a deep breath, Azula tilted her head up and brought her hands to her mouth. She exhaled and the flames became her breath. She was literally breathing fire, just as the dragons beside her could.
Ran and Shaw seemed to have made their decision because they too began breathing fire. Only, Azula’s flame paled in comparison to what she saw. Their roars were deafening but her eyes could see just fine and she was in awe.
It was like she was standing in the eye of a hurricane, only surrounded by flames of every colour. Colours she didn’t even know fire could be. And by watching this display, Azula understood.
Fire wasn’t a tool for destruction. Fire is what kept mankind warm at night, a source of home where they sat and shared meals around. Civilisations were formed around fire. The sun, the original source of fire, gave life to everything on the earth.
Fire was not destruction; fire was life itself.
But there was something else. The dragons were telling her something. Telling her to let go of her anger. She shook her head. She couldn’t let go. Anything but that. Her anger was all she had; it’s what kept her alive in that asylum.
They insisted but she refused. Why? they asked.
Azula fell to her knees as she shouted, “Anger made me strong! Anger is what makes me me!”
She felt it. The shift.
Then hold onto your anger. Let it power you. But let go of that hatred within you. We have seen firsthand the destruction your people can inflict when you hang onto hatred.
At this, Azula turned to look at the red dragon. Along its’ throat was a long and deep scar. It marred the scales around it and Azula’s stomach dropped when she realised where that scar came from.
The Fire Nation — the country that Azula dedicated her whole life to — had done that. For glory. For honour. There was no glory and no honour in attacking these creatures. She realised this now but if the war had continued on, she would’ve continued the dragon hunting tradition if told to. If it was for the Fire Nation.
Azula cried. For the first time, the hatred and the destruction the Fire Nation caused was presented in its’ rawest form. Her people did that. They did that because they hung onto their hatred.
She knew she couldn’t allow this to go on. This destruction could not continue. If she was going to become the Fire Lord, she needed to let go of her own hatred. Hatred for Zuko, for her mother, for her father, for Mai, for Ty Lee, for herself. She was tired. She was angry, yes, but she was tired.
She let the hate go.
Ran and Shaw stopped. The flames disappeared and the two followed suit, disappearing into their tunnels. Azula’s eyes settled on the sun. The source of all firebending was bathing her in light and energy and she suddenly felt reborn.
The power built up in her stomach and when Azula opened her palms, balls of fire appeared. With a wide smile, Azula punched the air. Plumes of fire shot out. She kept them going so that she could change the flames from orange to blue. It worked.
Azula was so relieved that tears spilled down her cheeks. Her firebending was back. She was whole again.
When she made it back down the stairs, the Sun Warriors were rising to their feet. The chief was looking right at her, the whispers of a smile on his face. When she stood in front of them, she bowed deeply.
“Thank you,” Azula said, “for giving me a second chance. And for allowing me to find out the truth about firebending.”
The chief nodded and said, “So long as you don’t start hunting dragons again, you’re welcome. I don’t think I have to tell you not to tell anyone about what you saw here.”
Azula nodded. She wanted to ask about the dragons and offer them a sanctuary where they would be cared for. But it wasn’t the time for her to start poking around. Their kindness only extended so far. It was time for her to leave.
Just as Azula took her first step, the mountain rumbled again. Azula flinched at the feeling before turning around to look at the platform. What was happening now?
In the blink of an eye, the blue dragon had escape the tunnel and was spiralling into the air. The Sun Warriors fell to their knees and pressed their heads to the floor. Azula simply kneeled but continued to look at the dragon.
What was it doing?
It soared into the clouds, disappearing for a moment before diving straight for the earth. Azula watched as it landed gracefully on the flight of stairs, needing to coil around it in order to fit.
The chief looked up and murmured, “Shaw.”
The dragon, Shaw, was looking straight at Azula. Part of Azula thought that Shaw changed his mind and was hungry for some Fire Nation flesh. Still, she could tell he was beckoning her forward.
No one ignored the requests of a dragon.
Azula walked forward until she was in arm’s length of Shaw’s snout. She felt scared to even breathe, afraid he’d snatch her up into his mouth.
Instead of doing that, Shaw opened his mouth and exposed his teeth. Azula gulped. The next thing she knew, there was a loud thud and Shaw had disappeared back into the mountain.
Azula was beyond confused. What was that about? Then she looked down at her feet and nearly passed out.
There, laying at her feet, was a dragon egg.
“So you’re just going to let me take this?” Azula said, gesturing to the giant egg pressed against her chest.
The chief huffed and said, “We don’t have much of a choice. Shaw has decided that you will have one of his offspring; his word is law.”
Azula was standing at the edge of the city with the Sun Warriors in front of her. They had made a makeshift sling for the egg to rest against Azula’s chest. They had given her a list of things to remember: tips to care for a baby dragon.
“Remember to keep that egg warm at all times.” The chief warned her, “They’re used to the extreme temperatures inside of mountains. Use that blue fire of yours to keep it warm.”
“I understand. It’s an honour to take care of this egg.” Azula said, but the words felt hollow.
The chief must’ve noticed her uneasiness because he asked, “Why do you seem conflicted?”
Azula huffed and asked, “Why me? I’ve never been kind, or loving. Agni, I never had a parent to learn that from. So why did they choose me to look after their child?”
“The dragons are never mistaken. They must see something in you that you can’t see in yourself. A worth not even you have seen.” Was his simple answer.
After Azula bowed and turned to leave, she told herself that her eyes were wet with tears because of the smoke coming up from her hands.
The trek back to the town is long and Azula did her best to keep the egg warm. She could feel its’ tiny heart beat flutter inside the egg and it motivated her to keep going. She had to get it to someplace warm. And with night quickly approaching, she had to make a decision.
Continue walking through the jungle to get back to town and risk allowing the egg to grow too cold, or; stay for one night and allow the egg to heat up inside a fire, risking Ty Lee believing she was dead.
Her answer was already decided. She set up a fireplace, placed the egg in the centre and stoked the flames. Shaw entrusted her with his offspring. She refused to betray that trust.
The night was long and Azula wondered if it had an end. Most of the night was spent gathering firewood and making sure the egg was safe. It was stressful but necessary. She stayed up the whole night, stoking the flames and giving small bursts of blue flames every once in a while.
At one point, Azula simply stared at the egg. It look like a normal turtle-duck egg, it was just the gigantic size that was different.
“You’re a lot of work, you know that?” Azula said, glaring at the egg.
There was no response.
Azula huffed and laid on her back, saying, “And now I’m talking to a giant egg. Excellent.”
She gazed up, enjoying the sight of a clear night sky. Every star shone brightly and Azula knew she would miss that the most. She was so engrossed with stargazing, in fact, that she didn’t hear the initial cracking sounds.
Azula sat up quickly, making sure the egg was alright. It looked fine, except for the giant crack in it. Azula’s heart dropped. Was it…
Another crack appeared. The impact was coming from inside the egg.
The egg was hatching!
Azula scrambled closer to the fireplace — she could not miss this. She watched with bated breath as the egg continued to hatch.
The baby dragon inside was fighting hard. She could see it was using all its’ might to get out and it was working.
“C’mon, just a little more,” Azula coaxed softly, “you can do this.”
Maybe it heard her. Maybe it was the sound of her voice that made it ram its skull through the egg shell. Azula gasped when she saw its’ head peak out. She wanted desperately to smash the egg and help it out but she held herself back — if she interfered now, it would never become strong. It needed to do this own its’ own.
The baby continued its’ assault on the shell, using the tiny horns on its’ head to ram his way through. Azula kept talking to it because the sound of her voice seemed to encourage it.
Finally, it created a big enough hole for it to climb through. It stepped onto the burning wood but it didn’t seem to notice. It was busy trying to finger out how to use its’ legs.
It moved clumsily and ended up falling from the fireplace into Azula’s lap. She quickly warmed her hands and coated them with fire before holding it up. It was only a little bigger than Azula’s two hands but Azula had seen just how big it could get.
She held it up to her eye level, trying to get a better look.
“You’re a lot furrier than your parents.” Azula said, looking at all the wet, blue fur that covered the baby dragon.
It was just as long as its’ parents and had the same wing shape; it was just really furry. Azula thought it was kind of cute.
It was then that the baby dragon opened it’s eyes. It had the same piercing yellow eyes as its’ parents. They also had the ability to make Azula feel like it could see right to her soul.
The baby dragon suddenly walked forward in order to get closer to Azula. It tripped but Azula quickly caught it. She let it snuggle into the sling.
It was then what Azula realised it had imprinted on her.
“You’re lucky you’re cute.” Azula said, looking down at it inside her sling, “I don’t usually let people freeload off of me like this.”
It’s only response was to curl up and sigh.
Azula rose to her feet. She shrugged on her robe to cover the sling and give the baby some extra heat. Now that she didn’t have to maintain a fireplace, she could get back to the town.
And let Ty Lee know that she wasn’t dead.
The sun was beginning to rise by the time Azula arrived at the town. The dragon is still curled up inside her sling, concealed from any eyes. She simply asked one of the townsfolk where Ty Lee was and he pointed her in the direction of a tea shop.
Azula let out a shaky breath. It was time to face Ty Lee — couldn’t she just go back and hop into Shaw’s mouth?
When Azula walked into the tea shop, Ty Lee noticed her immediately. Her eyes grew wide and she stopped fiddling with the cup in her hands. Azula smiled at her.
It was time to grovel.
She walked over to Ty Lee, pointed at the chair opposite her and asked, “Can I sit here?”
Ty Lee nodded, dumbfounded. Azula didn’t know if she was surprised because she was actually alive or because she asked that question. Probably that last part, to be honest.
Azula took her seat and sighed when she sat down. She said, “About the other night. You were right. I haven’t change. I’m still that horrible, arrogant girl that you remember. But I’m trying. I went back to the city and begged them for forgiveness. I grovelled, actually. I met Ran and Shaw.”
She held out her palm and a ball of blue fire appeared. She extinguished it with a smile.
“They taught me what firebending really is.” Azula said, “It’s life, Ty Lee. The Fire Lords have forgotten the true meaning of fire. I want to be different. No more destruction, not under my rule.”
Ty Lee stared down at her hands in her lap. Azula waited with her heart hammering in her chest. She hoped it was enough for Ty Lee to forgive her, to believe in her.
She wanted to be good.
“I want to believe you.” Ty Lee said.
Azula smiled, the weight of the world slipping off her shoulders.
“That’s all I can ask for.” Azula said.
“I…” Ty Lee said, at a loss for words, “I’m sorry for the things I said. They were cruel and—”
“True.” Azula said with a pained smile.
“No.” Ty Lee said firmly.
Azula looked away, praying that the tears would stay at bay. She wasn’t about to cry in front of Ty Lee and have her comfort her. That was too much.
“What I said about you being Ozai’s daughter,” Ty Lee said, “what I said was wrong. You are his daughter but you aren’t him. You’ve proved that today.”
Azula clenched her jaw, allowing the words to sink in. Someone believed in her — Ty Lee believed in her. That was enough.
She could feel the baby dragon growing restless inside the sling. It was ready to make its’ grand entrance.
Instead of responding, she pointed at the tea and asked, “Mind sharing?”
Ty Lee looked surprised as she handed her the tea. She said, “I thought you weren’t a fan of tea.”
“I’m not,” Azula said, pulling off her robe, “but I think the baby is hungry.”
Sure enough, the baby peaked it’s long neck out of the sling. Ty Lee gasped at the sight, asking, “Is that a…”
Ty Lee cooed and helped the dragon onto the table, pushing the tea closer to him. Azula knew that Ty Lee liked her tea with a lot of milk so the baby was happy to drink it.
She still had yet to name the damn thing. Traditionally, Fire Lords would name their dragon companions after legendary Fire Nation heroes or family members.
Still focused on the dragon, Ty Lee asked, “Hm?”
“The dragon,” Azula said, “his name is Zuzu.”
Ty Lee looked at her before bursting out into laughter, saying, “Zuko isn’t gonna like that.”
During the journey back, Azula and Ty Lee get into an argument about Zuzu’s gender. Azula argued that the list the Sun Warriors gave her clearly stated that dragons with horns tended to be male; Ty Lee argued that Zuzu’s aura was “clearly feminine”.
Azula wasn’t about to argue about auras.
“Enough with the cabbage leafs,” Azula said, waving off Ty Lee’s hands, “You’re going to overfeed him.”
Ty Lee pouted but did as she was told.
She and Azula were sitting on one bed: Ty Lee at the end while Azula was stretched out, allowing Zuzu to wander across her chest. He was still learning how to walk but he was great at hanging onto Azula’s body.
“I’m worried I might crush him in my sleep.” Azula admitted, stroking his fur.
Ty Lee asked, “Why don’t you just keep him in the sling?”
“He might get claustrophobic.” Azula said, adding, “I’d rather not make him go through that.”
Silence filled the inside of the tank. Ty Lee must’ve understood the implication. She reached over and placed her hand on Azula’s, only briefly.
“You don’t have to talk about it.” She said, “I understand.”
“It’s fine.” Azula said, continuing to stroke Zuzu’s fur. “The asylum… there’s not much to say. The physicians that worked there had a hard time with me, I know that. I never spoke. Sometimes I’d throw fire at them. Mostly, they just spoke to me. Told me about my father, about Zuko.”
“They told me that, because of how my father raised me, I didn’t understand how to function like other kids.” Azula said, “They told me that he messed me up, but that everything I did — the lying, hurting people — that was all me. And that I had no one else to blame but myself.”
Azula clenched her fists, saying, “I hated them. I hated what they were telling me, I didn’t want to believe it. But two years is a long time. After a while, their words started to wear me down and I actually listened.”
“They said asking for forgiveness isn’t just apologising. It’s asking someone to let go of their anger and hatred for you and that was scary. Before, I never cared what people thought about me — as long as they obeyed and feared me, I didn’t care. But after they said that, I was scared because I know I’ve done a lot of unforgivable things.”
“Mai,” Azula said, the name awkward in her mouth, “is someone who will never forgive me. I know this. I don’t blame her.”
There was a beat of silence. She shook her head, saying, “After the physicians told me all of this, I was left alone with my thoughts. You’re not always kind to yourself. When I left the asylum, I wanted to ignore what they told me. I focused on winning back the throne, proving that I was better than everyone else. That I didn’t need forgiveness. I didn’t want to feel scared anymore and I thought that if I got my throne back, then the fear would go away. It didn’t.”
“It took a while for me to realise that… I did need forgiveness. I wanted to be forgiven. First from you, then from the Sun Warriors… ” Azula trailed off, “Ran and Shaw told me to let go of all of my hatred. I think I have but I need to do more. I need to be a better person, a better Fire Lord, just… better. But I’m scared. Being good terrifies me.”
A heavy sigh left her mouth. Admitting all of those things, actually saying them out loud to someone, was surreal. They had been bottled up inside her for so long and now someone else knew it.
It was terrifying.
Another bout of silence followed. This time, however, it was a peaceful one. Because Ty Lee had her hand curled into hers. It’s warm and Azula felt safe. She didn’t pull away this time. She knew that meant the world to Ty Lee.
It was progress.
When Azula returned home, no one asked her if she got her bending back. They were too busy staring at Zuzu to remember how to speak. She knew how it must’ve looked: Azula, Crown Princess of the Fire Nation, returning to her country with the symbol of her nation coiled around her body.
The people bowed when they saw her, and couldn’t keep their eyes off of her dragon. Zuzu simply blew smoke through his nostrils. She noticed he was a bit of a spoiled brat.
Like mother, like son.
Still, Azula informed the fire sages of her recovery. They didn’t ask how she got it back; they knew better. Instead, they breathed a sigh of relief: that was one less problem to worry about.
It had been almost two weeks away from her home but Azula was in no hurry to return to bedchamber. Instead, she sat on the ledge of one of the balconies, watching the sunset. The sunlight warmed Azula’s skin where it touched and Zuzu purred against her breast.
The sun, just like fire, could be healing.
In the distance, she heard Zuko yelling at one of the guards or maybe at Aang or Ty Lee.
“She named her dragon Zuzu?” Zuko yelled, adding, “Wait, who gave her a dragon?”