Chapter 1: Children of Ursa
Ursa stops withdrawing from her daughter after her daughter pushes her son out of a tree. It’s perhaps not the expected response, especially when she was already wary of her daughter’s tendencies. But it’s the result of an epiphany.
The epiphany is this: this is partly Ursa’s fault.
She takes a good, hard look at her daughter’s life. Azula showed her sparks practically upon birth, and has been favoured by Ozai ever since. Ursa turned her attention to Zuko, because Zuko was more like Ursa and he needed the love, but… but Azula needs a mother’s love, too, even if she has her father’s approval. (Though she doesn’t have his love. Not really. Ursa isn’t convinced that Ozai is capable of that, which makes her concerned that Azula might not be capable, either.)
The children used to spend time together. But since Zuko has started showing that he is also a bender, just a late bloomer, Azula has turned the cruelty she’s learned from Ozai onto her brother.
Well, Ursa thinks. She has a lot to make up for as a mother.
She tries to talk to Azula about the tree incident, but Azula insists that it was an accident, and that it isn’t her fault that Zuzu has naturally bad balance.
It’s not an ideal response by any stretch of the imagination, but it prompts Ursa to shift her balance. She doesn’t spend less time with Zuko, who needs her, but she starts spending more time with Azula, too. She teaches Azula how to braid her hair, a style that is distinctly not Fire Nation, because the idea of using a private hairstyle as a form of rebellion makes Azula snicker. She invites Azula to sit with Zuko when she tells the stories of the Fire Nation’s greatest plays. And while Azula always rolls her eyes, while she seems to root for the villain in every story, she also stays and listens.
It’s slow progress. It’s so very slow, especially with Zuko’s flames being called up more and more easily. But Ursa can see the change happening.
Within a year, Azula seeks out her brother without a plan to terrorise him. Within two, when Azula gets into a surprisingly (worryingly) violent clash with a visiting dignitary’s son, Zuko quietly tells Ursa that it was because the boy made fun of him. Ursa gently brings this up with Azula, and her daughter glares and claims that only she is allowed to make fun of Zuzu, which is… not perfect, but it’s progress.
And so Ursa finds herself in a battle of sorts with her husband. Ozai tries to tear the two of them apart, tries to make Azula stronger by giving her an enemy, tries to make Zuko weaker by placing him as the second best. Ursa tries to undo the damage, all through sessions of gossiping by the turtleducks, through story time in a shared bed that Azula claims she’s too tired to leave, through ganging up on Zuko with his sister until he lets the pair of them tie messy braids into his hair.
Azula isn’t… she isn’t normal. She’s too much her father’s daughter. And she still clearly sees Zuko as a potential threat to her favour with Ozai, but it gets better, because Ursa slowly impresses upon her that they will never need to compete for her love.
Then Azulon forces her hand, and Ursa can stay no longer. She hurries to Zuko’s rooms, hoping that Azula has fallen asleep there again so that she doesn’t need to make two trips--
Only to find them both there, packing haphazardly. They look up at her and freeze.
“What are you doing?” Ursa asks, breathless and perplexed.
Azula’s face is stonier than any nine-year-old child’s should be. “I heard,” she states. “He said that Father has to lose his firstborn child. Well, then, he’s losing both of us.” She holds her head high, glaring at Ursa.
(And to think that Ursa had questioned Azula’s ability to love. Azula’s love is strange and sideways, but here she is: the favoured princess, ready to toss her life to one side for her brother's safety.)
Ursa looks to Zuko, who seems frightened and harried, but also like it hasn’t occurred to him to question Azula’s account.
(Ursa manages to be both glad for this, and also worried that his loyalty to Azula might backfire on him someday.)
“Oh, my children,” Ursa says, kneeling and opening her arms. “It will be fine. Zuko will be fine. I’ve… I’ve taken care of it.” Zuko comes to her easily. Azula waits at a distance, scowling, but follows once Zuko beckons her. “Thank you for taking care of your brother, Azula. You’re both going to need to take care of each other once I’m gone.”
Her children pull back, alarmed. “Once you’re gone? Where are you going?” Zuko asks, tears in his voice.
Ursa presses a kiss to his temple, and then to his sister’s.
“I’m going away so that you don’t have to,” she explains. “I’m sorry. I love you. I’ll always love you. Both of you. Completely, and with my whole heart.”
Ursa leaves her children behind. She hopes that they will be more loyal to one another than to the new Fire Lord. She hopes that they will both survive the reign of their father.
When Father grasps Zuko’s hair in one fist and calls fire to the other, Azula looks away.
Zuzu writes to her every month for three years.
It would be quite impressive, if Azula was inclined to be impressed by other people. Zuko never gives up hunting for a myth, and he never stops writing, even though Azula hasn’t replied to a single letter.
(This isn’t precisely true. Azula reads every letter and pens a response, and then burns them both. Who knows who is reading her correspondence, after all. She won’t be seen as weak, by her father or the servants or anyone else.
But she still does the writing, while she’s alone. She writes things like I wonder if you swear like a sailor now and I never saw you after the burning, so I don’t even know how to picture you and how is your firebending training with Uncle going, I've surpassed all of my teachers and don’t think I didn’t notice that you mentioned asking about the Avatar rumours in ‘massage parlours’, brother - I do know what ‘massage parlours' are.
She writes them, and burns them before the ink is even dry.)
Azula is the perfect Fire Princess. She knows what the punishment is for imperfection, and it won’t happen to her. And if she reads those letters when they arrive, if breathes a little easier because they are hard proof that Zuko is still whole, if she writes her own responses like a child with a penpal… nobody else will ever know.
Back when things had been simpler, Azula and Zuko had crafted codes.
They were stupid codes, born of being royal children who were never allowed to say what they wanted unless they were in private, but they were also helpful. They were twists of language that nobody else would understand that would make a ‘yes’ sound like a ‘no’ to the other. They were the slightest facial movements (an eyebrow twitched upwards for is that true or are you okay; one blink for ‘yes’, two for ‘no’). Hair-touching meant get me out of this situation and a stretching roll of a wrist or an ankle said wait for your cue.
(Zuko hadn’t communicated anything to her before the Agni Kai. Not even when he was burning. Azula doesn’t know whether or not she would have done anything, had Zuko touched his hair. She’s glad that she doesn’t have to know.)
Father sends Azula to bring the banished prince and his useless escort home. They’ve been branded traitors after their betrayal during the Siege of the North. Azula smiles when Father tells her that she’s going to bring them back to face justice, and sees her own cruel smile directed back at her on his face.
Zuko and Uncle Iroh are about to join her on the ship, ostensibly to return home. In the middle of her impromptu speech about Father’s forgiveness, Azula uses a contraction where she usually wouldn’t. It means nothing to everyone else. She isn’t sure if it will mean anything to Zuko, but if he ends up a prisoner because of his own stupidity and forgetfulness, Azula will not lose any sleep over it.
Zuko has trusted her this far. Poor, ignorant, stupid Zuko. How he has survived three years without her, Azula will never know.
Zuko picks up on the contraction. He meets Azula’s eyes as Uncle Iroh asks his questions, and the skin where his left eyebrow should be twitches. Is that true?
Azula maintains eye contact and blinks twice.
Zuko and the useless old man escape. Oops. Well, Azula can hardly be held responsible for Uncle Iroh’s mistrust of his dearest brother, can she?
Zuzu follows her as she tracks the Avatar. Zuko fights against her, which reminds Azula of the days that they had found abandoned areas to train together (in secret, because Father would not approve; but since Zuko was never going to catch up with her bending anyway, Azula thought that he could stand to be a little less useless).
(Zuzu has clearly been training in their years apart. He’s still no match for Azula - nobody is a match for Azula - but she would be impressed if she was the kind of person who was ever impressed.)
Azula hits Uncle Iroh with lightning to distract them. It’s not so bad that it will harm him long term. Azula doesn’t care, because Uncle Iroh has always preferred Zuko and had been useless at the Agni Kai (Azula had been useless, too, but she doesn’t dwell on that). But Azula knows that Zuko cares for the stupid, fat old man, so she withholds herself from hurting him seriously.
It’s a distraction, but not quite enough. The Avatar and his friends corner her. Zuko is with them. They’re a perfectly matched set, Azula realises: air, earth, water, fire. She sees forward, then, always ten steps ahead of her opponents. If Zuko is banished much longer, he might be convinced to join them. He’s weak like that, Azula’s brother.
She holds her own, but there needs to be some give somewhere. She can’t touch her hair while protecting herself, so she meets Zuko’s eyes and blows a puff of dark hair away from her face.
Zuko understands. Azula can see it in his eyes. For a moment, she thinks that he won’t respond; after all, she did just hurt his favourite toy. But then Zuko frowns and twists his wrist, I have your back; wait for your cue, and then he breaks formation and turns against the others.
It takes some time, but Azula convinces Father to let Zuko come home for real. He won’t be a prisoner; he’ll be restored to his rightful place by Azula’s side.
It’s perfect for long days that turn into long weeks. Zuko starts dating Mai, which Azula had tried to manipulate into happening when they were children, before she had started to question whether it would actually be good for Zuko for reasons that she won’t put into words. But whether they’re dating or not, Mai and Ty Lee adore Zuko as much as they had as children, and they fear Azula enough to ensure that nothing will happen to him.
Zuko spends time with Azula, spends most of his time with Azula, but he also stares off into the distance in a way that he’s never done before.
Azula takes to regularly raising her right eyebrow in his direction, are you okay, and Zuko nods at her but never blinks a response.
Zuko leaves again. He doesn’t say anything to Azula, through words or through actions. He just betrays them and leaves. Father says that he has committed treason and joined the Avatar against them.
Azula had seen that coming, but she thought that getting Zuko back home would change things. She doesn’t tell Father this, of course; nobody needs to know that she had foreseen her brother’s treason.
Azula directs fire and lightning at all of Zuko’s belongings, but Zuko doesn’t seem to care for things the way that he used to. The truth is this: Azula doesn’t know him that well anymore. He had been torn from her for three whole years, spent his time travelling and hunting while Azula was home. They don’t know each other anymore. The old Zuzu would have told her before leaving. He would have asked if Azula wanted to come with him.
(She doesn’t, of course. She would have said no and would have restrained him, told their Father, and then found some coincidental way to let him escape if the punishment was too severe. Prison would have been acceptable, at least for a while. But Azula would have saved him from death.
Azula hadn’t saved him from Father before. Maybe that’s why Zuko doesn’t trust her now.)
Zuko is gone again. He doesn’t write this time.
When Azula next sees Zuko, she shoots fire before asking any questions.
She’s incensed. All the loyalty Azula has shown him (preparing to run away with him at nine years old, telling him that the end of his banishment was a trap, getting him actually un-banished), and he’s thrown it all away. For what? The Avatar?
They fight in silence atop the gondola. Sword peasant tries to get in the way.
The guards start cutting the line.
Azula looks to her brother as Ty Lee shouts that they need to retreat. Her stupid brother, who was loyal to a fault when it did him no favours, and then abandoned his loyalty once it was rewarded. Abandoned her.
Azula is furious. But she’s also not stupid.
“Go,” she says to Ty Lee, who doesn’t need to be told twice. Her brother saves sword peasant from falling to his death, and then looks back at Azula instead of ducking down into the metal container that’s about to be submerged in boiling water. “Come back with me,” she finds herself saying.
“They’ll kill me,” Zuko points out.
“Maybe,” Azula shrugs. “But you’ll definitely die if you stay here.”
Zuko’s mouth pulls down. The gondola shakes.
Azula thinks about what this looks like to the guards on the platform. She twists her wrist - wait for your cue - and then shoots fire. Zuko dodges and shoots back.
“Am I going to have to knock you out to take you back with me?” Azula snarls, and shoots fire with intent, because they are running out of time.
The gondola stops shaking, shudders once, and then keeps moving.
They both look back.
“Mai,” Azula says.
“Which one of us is she protecting?” Zuko asks, confused.
Mai’s eyes flash up at them, and then she goes back to fighting the guards.
Azula can’t be sure of Mai's loyalties, but she also can’t be sure that it matters right now. Mai knows good and well that fearing Azula also means protecting Zuko, after all.
Zuko twists his wrist and shoots fire. Azula follows suit, putting on a show for her allies on the platform and his allies below them.
“Father won’t be merciful,” Zuko says. “There’s no going back now. Not for me.”
He’s right. Father won’t be merciful. Zuko has allied himself with the Avatar, the man he was sent on an impossible mission to capture. There’s a great irony here, which Azula will have to remember to laugh at later.
Azula turns into a spin and kicks out blue fire. Zuko blocks, turns, shoots.
Azula thinks that they might be recreating a training session from their childhood. It’s almost like dancing.
There’s no going back for Zuko. If they win this war, Zuko will have to die or be imprisoned or disappear. Even if Zuko manages to disappear and miraculously evade being hunted, there will be no monthly letters to assure Azula that Zuko is alive and whole. If he is captured, Father won’t pull back like he did in the Agni Kai. Death will be a mercy. Imprisonment will mean regular torture.
Azula sees a hundred possibilities, and none of them look good for Zuko if Father wins. If Father doesn’t win, none of the possibilities look good for Azula. One of them has to die or be imprisoned or disappear.
No. Azula will not accept that. She’s very in touch, suddenly, with the nine-year-old girl who had packed her things and told her brother they were running away.
“You should go back,” Zuko says, turn, block, shoot, turn. “But I want you to know - Father said - Father said when I was leaving--” Block, shoot. “Mother is alive.”
Azula thinks about being nine, and their mother kissing them and saying you’re going to need to take care of each other once I’m gone.
Azula has been loyal to Father for years, has been the perfect picture of a loyal Fire Princess. What has she gotten from it? She’s watched her brother burn and had him taken away from her - her brother, hers. She’s been afraid to even reply to his letters, lest she be burned and cast aside like he was.
Azula sees blue.
There’s no big time limit now that the line isn’t in danger of being cut. She keeps fighting (dancing) with her brother, enjoying the heat of his flames. (They’ve changed recently, in some foundational sense that Azula doesn’t understand. They’re almost golden.) Her mind ticks through the future and the past.
They end up tumbling onto the ground, followed by a confused group. Azula leads them far enough away from the idiot they captured that he won’t be able to hear them talking.
“Father said you redirected his lightning,” she says, and then blocks his fire and sends her own. They must be putting on such a pretty show for the Boiling Rock. Zuko’s new friends have seemed unsure of whether or not to interrupt them on a moving gondola, but now that they’re on solid ground, sword peasant and her Kyoshi prisoner start to draw nearer again. She shoots a warning blast in their direction. They’ll only get one warning.
Zuko does a move that Azula has never seen, probably because it’s made up, but she makes mental notes about it anyway.
“I did,” he says. “Why?”
“Do it again,” she says. “Aim next to my foot. Make it look like you got me.”
Zuko doesn’t look like he understands why, but Azula will have to trust him to follow directions. If he isn’t ready, well, that’s hardly her fault.
She calls lightning and blasts it at her brother.
Zuzu takes it and smoothly redirects it, hitting the ground beside her.
Azula drops to the ground. Zuzu catches her like a hero in one of Mother's plays, and then heaves her inelegantly over his shoulder. “Am I kidnapping you?” he asks, and she chuckles and directs him to their transport.
Zuko puts her down on her feet once they’re inside, and the whole group looks at her in shock.
“So who knows how to pilot one of these things?” Azula asks, smirking.
Zuko smiles at her.
Note about the massage parlours - this is very much a reference to Salvage by MuffinLance. I have no excuse, I just really like the idea of Zuko gossiping with the local sex workers about the spirit myths.
Chapter 3: Parley (1)
The psychotic princess is placed on her feet. And she is very much awake.
Sokka tries not to panic.
“So who knows how to pilot one of these things?” she asks, moving toward the controls, and Zuko smiles at her like this is normal and okay when it clearly is neither of those things.
Sokka makes a noise. It’s a primal noise originating somewhere in his soul. It’s definitely at least 50% a question.
“Fine, then I’m piloting, but I don’t know where I’m going,” Psycho Sister says in a sing-song voice, and their airship takes off.
“That way,” her brother says, leaning over the wheel to point in the direction they need to be going.
Sokka makes the noise again.
“Relax, peasant,” Psycho Sister insists. “I’m clearly not here to endanger your worthless life.”
Dad clears his throat, and Sokka looks toward him with a sense of hope. If anyone can make sense of this situation, it’s Dad.
“You’ll have to excuse us, Princess, but we were led to believe that Zuko was… taking you against your will.”
The scary siblings share a glance, and then Azula goes back to flying.
Zuko turns to face them more fully. “Azula and I need to talk about a few things,” he explains. “It seemed that the easiest way to do that was to make it looked like she... didn't intentionally join us. That way, she can return home without facing questions of treason.”
“Treason is really Zuzu’s thing,” Psycho Sister adds, cheerfully.
Zuko slants a glance at her. “It wasn’t personal.”
Azula slams a hand against the wheel. Blue fire dances out and licks across it, which is worrying .
“You left Mai a letter.”
Zuko does that very-careful-breathing thing that he does sometimes, which always makes Sokka think that he’s either on the edge of a panic attack or a furious tantrum.
“I knew what to say to Mai,” he says eventually. “I-- I didn’t know what to say to you.”
“How about wow, Azula, thanks for convincing Father to take me back and restore my crown, thanks for fixing everything for me! Something along those lines would have done nicely.”
Zuko nods. “I am grateful,” he says. “But what Fa-- What Fire Lord Ozai is doing isn’t right. I shouldn’t have come back with you in the first place. I betrayed Uncle.”
“The fat old man betrayed you,” Psycho Sister snarls. Thankfully, there are no flames this time. “And then you betrayed me.”
“Never,” Zuko disagrees. “Never that.”
They seem to share some kind of silent communication again, and Psycho Sister turns back to navigating. Zuko carefully corrects her course, and Sokka, who cannot take it anymore, points out: “Why are we taking her to our hideout?”
“Is sword peasant always this chatty?”
“Is-- sword peasant? ” Sokka splutters.
“We can just go and make camp somewhere in the middle of nowhere,” Zuko suggests. “We just need…” he looks to his sister thoughtfully, and then says: “A day?”
Zuko’s sister snorts. “A day and a half,” she corrects. “You’re teaching me how to redirect lightning, and I want to know about those weird new forms you’ve picked up.”
“Lightning, new forms,” Zuko lists, the corner of his mouth lifting into a smile, “and treason.”
“Talking about treason,” Psycho Sister amends. “Talking about the possibility of talking about treason.” She glances over her shoulder at the rest of the group. “If any of you say anything about this, nobody will believe you and I’ll make your pathetic lives very miserable.”
Dad looks almost amused. Suki looks very annoyed.
“Oh, right,” Psych Sister says, turning completely away from the wheel. Zuko takes over, as if he had been waiting for his sister to get bored with that power play. “Kyoshi. It was so nice spending time together before. I’m glad we got to meet again.”
Sokka refrains from stepping protectively in front of Suki, because a) Suki can take care of herself, and b) Suki would kick his ass for trying.
Suki folds her arms. “I’ll admit that I find the whole ‘let’s talk about treason’ thing surprising. I thought you were so loyal to your dear, evil father.”
“Let’s not goad the scary princess into being loyal to her evil father,” Sokka suggests, and is surprised when Zuko snorts.
Honestly, Sokka is so not done being surprised by everything with Zuko. Every time he thinks he’s got the guy figured out, he turns on his heel. Not that bad a guy? Betrays them in Ba Sing Se. Totally evil and returned to his father? Breaks out to teach Aang firebending, and then breaks into a prison to help Sokka rescue his father. Actually pretty cool and badass? Buddying up with his psychotic sister again.
“Look, I know this is confusing,” he says, and then Dad raises a hand to stop him.
“It’s family,” Hakoda says firmly, as if this explains everything. “I get it. But we don’t know that we can trust your sister.”
“Oh, you definitely can’t,” the scary siblings say in unison, and then look at each other with twin smirks. It’s terrifying and not kind of funny at all. Sokka relaxes his hand from the grip on his sword that he hadn’t even been conscious of.
“Then,” Hakoda goes on, “we should not return to the others.”
That’s smart, Sokka thinks, even though he realises that it means that they’re going to have to camp somewhere with the prince and princess of the Fire Nation. His heart sinks at the thought. But at least he has Dad and Suki, and also Chit Sang, he guesses.
“Well that’s just fine,” Psycho Sister insists, her voice too high for her normal pitch. “I’m sure that you can convince me to commit treason against my dear father without the Avatar’s help. And if you can’t, it’s not like I would be a significant ally or anything.”
Zuko leans forward until his forehead is pressed against the steering wheel. Sokka is pretty sure that isn’t a proper steering technique.
“We can always move as soon as she goes,” he suggests.
“No,” Hakoda replies, voice firm. “We will not endanger the Avatar and everyone else.”
If Sokka hadn’t been watching Psycho Sister’s face, he wouldn’t have seen it happen.
Psycho Sister is very carefully watching Zuko’s back, which draws Sokka’s gaze there, and-- Zuko has stood up from where he was leaning against the steering wheel. His hands are now perfectly placed, and his back is so tense that it looks painful.
Psycho Sister screws up her nose and looks over at Dad.
“Yeah, you don’t get to tell us what to do when Zuzu and I could probably take everyone here down in moments,” she says.
Sokka watches Hakoda’s frown deepen.
“How nice of you to include me,” Zuko replies, “but you could probably do that by yourself.”
“Oh dear brother, it would take me at least a degree of the sun alone.” Psycho Sister smiles. It looks predatory.
“So your plan, just to-- just to get this straight - your plan is to threaten us to take you to the Avatar? The two of you, who’ve both hunted the Avatar before? And we’re supposed to just let you do it?” Sokka massages his temples.
They must have communicated somehow, because Psycho Sister takes the wheel and Zuko turns to face the group.
“I know how it must look,” he says, “but you saw what happened back there. Azula wants everyone to think that she’s been kidnapped to give us time to… come to an agreement. It will be easier to do that if Aang is with us. And whether or not we come to an agreement, Azula has to play this like she was kidnapped or it will look like treason.”
“You can all relax,” Psycho Sister insists. “You have my word, on my honour as a daughter of Fire Lord Ozai and Lady Ursa, I will not harm the Avatar as long as I am a guest. We’ll all just play this as a friendly kidnapping. And then once I’m gone, you’ll move on and I’ll lead my people to your conveniently abandoned camp.”
Sokka doesn’t like this at all. And Sokka doesn’t understand Zuko at all, but he does kind of trust the guy. It’s hard not to trust someone who came with you to break into and then out of the scariest prison imaginable, and does so for no personal benefit.
“Do you vouch for her?” Sokka asks.
Zuko turns to his sister and meets her eyes. Then he smiles. He’s probably smiled more in this hour than in their entire enemy-turned-friendship. “On my honour as a son of Lady Ursa and brother of Crown Princess Azula of the Blue Fire, I swear that my sister will not harm the Avatar - or the Avatar’s friends - as long as she is with us by invitation.”
Sokka doesn’t miss the changes in language, and apparently neither does Psycho Sister. She shrugs and then nods.
“Then we’re going back to camp with one more royal than intended,” Sokka says, decisively.
Hakoda and Suki do not look impressed.
Chit Sang does not look like he’s been paying attention.
Several things happen in quick succession when they arrive at camp.
Sokka and Hakoda leave the airship, and Katara sobs out a laugh as she embraces their father.
Suki is met with delighted laughter.
Sokka tries to warn them about who’s coming out next, but he doesn’t get very far. “Okay, so don’t panic, but remember Zuko’s psychotic sister?”
“I shall defeat you and regain my honour, Avatar!” Psycho Sister shrieks as she exits the airship, and then she laughs.
Zuko has one hand over his face. “She’s kidding,” he says. “She’s-- She’s kidding. Azula is here to parley.”
“Ew, don’t call it ‘parley’, brother,” Psycho Sister insists. “Call it casually discussing treason over swapping lightning bending techniques.”
“Swapping?” Zuko asks.
Psycho Sister rolls her eyes. “Yes, Zuzu, swapping. It’s long past time that you learn to bend lightning.”
Something complicated happens on Zuko’s face, something that’s half-almost-a-smile and half-almost-a-frown.
“You brought her here?” Katara shouts, pulling water up in preparation for a fight. “After what she did to Aang? After what you let her do to Aang? She almost killed him!”
Aang, who has been decidedly silent thus far, clears his throat. “Hi,” he says to Princess Psycho.
“By my honour and Zuzu’s, blah blah,” Psycho Sister states, “not here to hurt you. Really not the most important thing right now.”
“I’m new,” Chit Sang introduces himself, and Sokka really thinks that he hasn’t noticed what’s happening around here.
Katara turns on Sokka. “How could you bring her here?”
Psycho Sister also turns to her brother. “You’re their friend, you convince them.”
“He is not our friend!” Katara shouts.
Psycho Sister raises an unimpressed eyebrow. “Really? Because he and sword peasant seemed pretty buddy-buddy over there.”
“My name is Sokka. I know you know my name is Sokka.”
“Why would I know that?” Psycho Sister asks, and Sokka carefully resolves to refer to her by her actual name, because it makes him the Bigger Man. Bigger Person. “Who are you, again?”
Sokka squeaks in indignation. Zuko has his face in his palm again.
“Look, this… isn’t going well. Can we just? Azula and I need to talk about a few things, away from everything else, where she won’t be accused of treason,” he explains. “It’s just talking. Terms, possibilities. No fighting while we’re here, aside from training. Once we know how we’re going forward, Azula will leave.”
Azula smirks. “I’m your house guest,” she says, holding out her arms. “Or, well, your whatever-this-is guest.”
“Why?” Aang asks, sounding genuinely curious instead of furious and/or terrified, which are the only two appropriate responses. “I thought it was kind of obvious that you were with the Fire Lord and Zuko was with us?”
Azula looks down her nose at him. “It’s worth revising,” she says.
Aang blinks and tilts his head. “Why?”
Azula frowns. “Because at this rate, either we win and Zuko dies or is tortured or hunted, or you win and I die or am tortured or hunted,” she explains, like he’s a particularly slow child. (Aang is actually a particularly fast child, in a great variety of ways.) “We’re going to put our heads together and figure out if there’s an option where we both survive.”
Zuko’s face is doing that complicated thing again. Sokka is a little grossed out when he realises that it’s something like love for his sister and gratitude that she’s here. Barf. I mean, sure, Sokka would be pretty delighted in his circumstances, but Katara is only an annoying little sister in a normal way, not a destroy-the-world-just-to-watch-it-burn way.
“So you’re here to convince Zuko to join you again?” Toph asks, arms crossed and shoulders up. Sokka softens. Toph likes Zuko more than the rest of them, including Sokka, who thinks that it’s really cool and also really unfair that Zuko is a master firebender and a master swordsman.
Azula sighs, and this also sounds like they’re particularly slow children.
Zuko takes over. “I couldn’t do that, even if I wanted to - which I don’t,” he explains. “Father would just kill me or imprison me until he’s bored enough to kill me. Azula is… considering other options.”
“She is considering joining our cause,” Hakoda says, though he sounds unsure about it.
“Ugh,” Azula says. “Don’t say it like that. Say it like this: Azula is considering usurping her father.”
“Have you thought about running away?” Zuko asks. “I don’t want to, but… I want to know what you think is on the table.”
Azula glares. “Father burned half your face off, Zuzu, you’re hardly going to fit in. Plus, me? Keeping a low profile?” She laughs, high-pitched and a little psychotic. “No, it’s treason or nothing, I’m afraid.”
Zuko nods. He looks around the group, seemingly unsure of himself.
It's somehow never occurred to Sokka to wonder how Zuko got that scar. Azula throws around that it was seriously messed up child abuse in such a casual manner. And Zuko doesn't even flinch.
“I will vouch for her, and stay with her,” he says. “Azula won’t harm anyone while she’s here. On my honour.”
Sokka is still watching Psycho-- Azula, so he sees her anglershark grin widen and her eyes brighten. Sokka’s stomach drops.
“I did swear not to hurt the Avatar or any of the Avatar’s friends, and I intend to stick to that,” she says. Zuko isn’t looking at his sister, but Azula is looking at him. “Which reminds me, Zuzu. Catch!”
That’s when she flings lightning at Zuko.
Things happen in quick succession again.
Zuko does the same move as before, apparently just absorbing the lightning and flinging it away. It goes over the edge of a cliff.
Katara brings up water and knocks Azula backwards, almost off her feet.
And then Zuko is in front of Azula, protecting her with a fire wall.
And Katara and Zuko shout almost the same words at almost the same time:
“Leave him alone! ”
“Leave her alone! ”
Everyone takes a breath. Zuko’s wall flickers away. Katara’s water drops.
“What,” Katara says, her voice filled with pure rage, “was that? ”
Azula laughs, sharp and dangerous.
“I promised not to hurt any of the Avatar’s friends,” she points out, gleeful. “You told me that Zuzu isn’t a friend.”
She seems to think this is hilarious. Judging by the not-quite-tic at Zuko’s mouth, he also thinks it’s kind of funny.
Sokka. Doesn’t understand Zuko at all.
“Did you get a good look at the move?” he asks, stepping away from his protective stance. “I would prefer some warning next time.”
Katara still looks furious.
“And miss out on an opportunity to have the waterbender prove that she was lying about not liking you? Come now, Zuzu, I wouldn’t leave your pride in tatters like that,” she says. And then she holds up a hand. “Hand.” Zuko doesn’t move. “Now, or more lightning.”
Zuko holds up his left hand and lets Azula inspect it.
“I thought so,” Azula says. “You’re hurting yourself every time you redirect lightning. You need a better handle on the form. Luckily you now have me to hit you with lightning regularly.”
Katara looks furious. “Do NOT do that,” she orders. “Lightning can be very damaging to the heart and basically all of the internal organs. You shouldn’t be playing with it.”
Azula’s grin is now less anglershark and more told-you-so. “Aw, you do care.”
Katara glowers. Azula practically preens.
“Um,” Aang pipes up. “So can you… get on with the parley? So that Princess Azula can leave?”
Chapter 4: Parley (2)
For all the waterbender insists that Zuzu isn’t her friend, she sure does fuss over the effects of the lightning. She also shoves a bowl of food at him, glaring like the facial expression will somehow counteract the action. After a moment, she holds out a second bowl to Zuko, who then passes it to Azula.
Azula looks down her nose at it. “Chances it’s poisoned?” she asks Zuko.
Zuko shrugs. “They haven’t tried to poison me yet,” he says, and swaps their bowls.
The waterbender looks furious. Azula kind of loves it.
They all move to sit around the place that the campfire would be if it was later in the day. It’s wonderfully awkward, and the rest of the group give her and Zuko a wide berth. Azula wonders if they always do this to Zuko. Did her brother abandon family only to be considered an outcast here?
The dirt gremlin sighs wearily and sits on Zuko’s other side. “So,” she says, loud enough to be a little obnoxious. “Treason, huh?”
“We’re hardly discussing it with you,” Azula replies, affronted. “You’re nobody.”
“She’s not nobody,” Zuko disagrees. Ooh. Zuko likes this one - that’s interesting. “But I think it might be a conversation best left to the two of us, Toph.”
Toph scoffs. “What is there to converse about? She’s either with us or she isn’t. It’s not that complicated.”
“Actually, it’s very complicated. See, if you really wanted to convince me you have a chance of winning, you’d need to tell me your plan. But you can’t, because if I don’t join you, your plan won’t work.” Azula laughs at the delightfully terrible situation they’re in. “Isn’t that a fun paradox?”
Zuko chews on his rice for a moment, and then points his chopsticks at her. His manners are atrocious. Azula wonders whether it’s time with these peasant children, or three years with sailors. “So how do we have this conversation without endangering ourselves?”
“Start from ‘why’,” the non-idiot adult suggests. Azula slants a glance over to him. He’s a Water Tribe chief, and he makes Zuko very nervous, and Azula isn’t sure if he has a history with this man or if he’s just nervous around fathers now.
Both options make her fire crackle at her skin.
“You already know why,” Zuko replies, and Azula is so correct about this; he’s tensed up again. “She already said. We’re looking for a way to both survive.”
Azula raises her chin. “Zuko’s life and freedom is second only to mine,” she says, and it’s probably the kindest thing she’s ever said. She’s honestly a little grossed out that she made that declaration in front of Zuko’s peasant friends.
She is definitely a little confused by how unimpressed they seem. The waterbender is looking at her like she said something insulting.
Zuko, at least, has the good sense to look stunned. “That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me,” he tells her, and Azula rolls her eyes for an excuse to look away.
“That’s the nicest thing she’s ever said to you?” the sword peasant exclaims. He waves his hands at her, and Azula lazily thinks that he should pull them back before he loses them. “Your loyalties are confusing!”
Zuko and Azula meet eyes and shrug.
“That’s not exactly what I meant,” the Water Tribe chief interjects. “I meant to start with Zuko’s ‘why’. Maybe it will help if you understand why he is here.”
Azula glances to the chief, and then back to her brother. “I don’t need that. First of all, it doesn’t matter why. What matters is that you can’t come home while Father is on the Dragon Throne. Secondly, I already know why. Turns out you can’t burn half your son’s face off for speaking out of turn and expect loyalty from him.” Hush falls across the group. “Father always did understand being a Fire Lord more than being a father.”
It might be the most insulting thing that Azula has ever said about her father, on the heels of the kindest thing she’s ever said about her brother. Oops. Is this what shifting loyalties feel like? She’ll have to consult with Zuzu, whose loyalties seem to shift like the sand.
“That’s not why,” Zuko says, quietly. Azula raises her eyebrows. (Both of them. Surprise, not code.) “I stayed loyal to Father for three years after the Agni Kai.”
“It did seem that way from your letters,” Azula admits, “but I figured you knew they were being intercepted.”
Zuko suddenly looks intently at her. “You read my letters?”
Azula blinks, surprised by his confusion. “You sent a letter every month. Why did you continue if you thought I wasn’t reading them?”
“You never replied, not once,” Zuko accuses.
“Because I didn’t want anyone to read my intercepted letters,” Azula points out. “Did you really think I wasn’t even reading them?”
(Azula thinks of herself at eleven years old, carefully replying to the first letter, and then standing with it in her hand as she tried to figure out what to do with it. She thinks of herself resolving to burn it, and how every letter after that had felt so natural. Of course she had to burn them. Azula knew the price of weakness, and she knew that Zuko had the potential to be her greatest weakness.)
Zuko looks away with a frown, and then freezes.
Azula glances to see what’s caused the reaction, to find that they’re being stared at with many sets of very wide eyes, including two anonymous peasant children that Azula hadn’t even noticed were there, one of whom is in a wheelchair. Only the useless adult looks like he’s paying more attention to his food than the conversation.
“What?” Azula snaps. “Does Zuzu have something on his face?”
She hadn’t meant to refer to the scar, but considering the previous conversation, she finds herself smirking at her own wording.
“Three years,” the blind dirt child says. “That would’ve made you my age.”
“Thirteen,” Zuko corrects immediately.
The dirt child nods. “I think we all assumed it was a training accident,” she explains. “Not… for speaking out of turn.”
“Why wasn’t that what turned you against Fire Lord Worst-Dad-Ever?” the sword peasant asks, incredulous. “I mean, if that didn’t turn you, what did?”
Zuko blinks, and then frowns. “I realised what he was doing was wrong,” he says eventually, slowly and carefully, while maintaining very specific breaths. He doesn’t like this conversation at all, Azula realises. He likes this less than talking about the Agni Kai. “It took me a long time. Too long.”
“All right, I’m bored now.” Azula to the rescue. Agni, but is she a sap, saving Zuko like this. She places her half-eaten bowl to one side. “Come on. We’re fighting and talking about more interesting things.”
The water bender is glaring at her. Azula doesn’t know how she has earned this particular glare, but she decides that she doesn’t care.
Zuko shovels a few more bites into his mouth, graceless and without manners, and then stands to lead her to an appropriate space.
“Are we going to have an audience?” she asks, glancing over her shoulder to be sure of exactly how far they are.
Zuko sighs, weary.
“Is this what teaching the Avatar is like?” Azula asks, genuinely curious.
“Only sometimes,” Zuko replies. They’ve reached an indoor space, a huge stone floor with pillars at the edges. It’s more than enough space. Zuko walks to the edge and strips his tunic off.
Azula walks to the middle of the floor. “That’s new,” she says. “You used to be able to fight clothed.”
Zuko huffs something that might have been a laugh on someone less uptight. “I figured out how to stop them from criticising,” he says, and nods over to the edge of the room with the small gathering of not-exactly-fans.
Azula looks over. The Water Tribe siblings and the Kyoshi girl are staring at Zuko. There might be blushing involved.
Azula is delighted. “How did you even know the Kyoshi Warrior would react like that?” she asks. “Didn’t you just meet?”
“What do you--” Zuko starts, and then looks around. The three teenagers look away completely conspicuously. Azula thinks that the sword peasant might even be whistling. “Not her, too.”
Zuko looks toward the ceiling, and then decidedly faces away from their on-lookers. Azula doesn’t, so she’s treated to the moment that they start staring again, and also the moment that Chief Dad notices what’s happening and looks distinctly bewildered and unimpressed.
“Teenagers,” she hears him grumble.
Azula’s laughter bubbles up from somewhere deep when she remembers how Zuzu had stripped his tunic off before their game on the beach. He’s become tactical.
“So now you’ve resorted to using your body to distract your opponents?” she asks.
Zuko scowls. “It stops them from commenting on every technique I use with the Avatar,” he explains. “And Aang doesn’t even notice what’s happening, he’s a kid. Though I think Toph notices and just thinks it’s funny.”
Azula fakes a thoughtful expression. “Should I also take my--”
“Sokka might actually have a heart attack,” Zuko warns, and then falls into a battle position.
Azula doesn’t know which one Sokka is, but she hopes that it’s Water Chief Dad. He seems flustered enough by his children being real life teenagers that she probably could push him over the edge.
They begin to fight.
In the safety of this hideout, it becomes obvious to Azula that Zuzu was holding out on her on the gondola. He’d only been trying to hold her back. Now, he’s training with her, and she can see all of the smoothed out areas.
He’s gotten a lot better. Better even than the other times she’s seen him bending this year.
Azula blocks and doesn’t fire back. Zuko raises his right eyebrow, are you okay, and Azula blinks. “Do that again,” she says, and Zuko fires. Azula steps aside instead of blocking and watches his fire. “One more time.” Zuzu obeys.
“What?” Zuko asks, and Azula scowls at him.
It’s a good thing that Father despises Zuko and would kill him upon sight. Otherwise, Azula might have to start getting worried. He isn’t better than her by a long shot, but in a real fight, they would be more evenly matched than Azula is comfortable with.
“Your fire is different,” she explains. “I thought so before, but we were kind of busy. But now I can see it. There’s a golden undertone that didn’t used to be there.”
Zuko rolls his shoulders. “Yeah, I went through a whole thing,” he says, like that’s an explanation. “I had to find an inner source for my fire that wasn’t rage. Aang and I-- Never mind. The point is, the flame isn’t from the same emotional source as before.”
Azula tilts her head. “Your little lightning problem. Was that the result of an inner issue?” Zuzu nods. “Have you tried again seriously since your big golden epiphany?”
Of course he hasn’t. Zuzu is hopeless without her.
“We’re going to practice lightning,” she says, and gets him into the proper position.
Lightning takes a long while to perfect. While she has him in stance, she says: “Treason. What would happen afterwards?”
“You would be Fire Lord,” Zuko states. “We would end the war.”
Azula hums. “Name your terms.” She shifts his posture.
“Drawing back from all the front lines. The Fire Nation doesn’t need to destroy the world to show our worth. If we are worthy, the other kingdoms will want to be in relationship with us.” She makes him stretch, and he does so, and then closes his eyes. Lightning crackles around his knuckles, but it makes him wince. She shifts him back into the first stance. “We’ll have to think about the colonies.”
“Fire Lord Azula and an end to the war,” Azula summarises, even though an idea is niggling at the back of her mind. “And we find Mother?”
Zuko’s eyes open. “We find Mother.”
The lightning around his knuckles isn’t the right colour. It was white-blue before, when it hurt him. Now, it’s white-gold.
Azula steps back. “Shoot,” she says.
Zuko thrusts his hand forward, and lightning follows. It isn’t strong yet, but it’s there. And it’s white-gold.
“I did it,” Zuko says, surprised.
“I have a counter-proposal,” Azula states. She walks around Zuko, checking his stance from all angles. “I’m well feared.”
“You are,” Zuko agrees without hesitation.
Azula smiles. “People would bow down to me in fear. The nations of the world would, if I told them to.”
Zuko’s shoulders tighten a little. She coaxes them down.
“Which is why,” Azula explains, “I have a different proposal. Shoot.”
Zuko shoots again. The lightning is stronger this time. And Azula was right; it’s golden.
His fire will be golden one day, too. That will be a good symbol. The people will adore that.
Azula thinks back to the last Fire Lord who was loved instead of feared. It might not have occurred since the Fire Lord was also the head of the Fire Sages. Those had been peaceful times.
“Fire Lord Zuko,” Azula proposes.
Zuko moves out of his stance and turns to her. “You’re the Crown Princess.”
“And as such, it is my right to name an heir and abdicate,” Azula points out.
“Why would you do that?” Zuko frowns. “Don’t you want to be Fire Lord?”
Azula smirks. “Absolutely,” she says. “But think about it, Zuzu. Grandfather ruled from fear, and it got him killed.” Zuko blinks, because he’s innocent and hasn’t yet internalised what Mother did for them. This is why Fire Lord Zuko will need Princess Azula. She will see the dark truth, and he will draw them toward the light. “Father rules from fear. And nobody fears him more than us.”
Zuko nods his head, understanding dawning. “And yet here we are, planning to usurp him.”
“Ruling from fear doesn’t work,” Azula says, and she feels very enlightened. “The last Fire Lords I can recall who ruled over eras of peace were the ones who were loved. The people will fear me, but they won’t love me. They will love you.”
“Why would they love me?” Zuko asks, honestly flummoxed.
Azula gestures to him. “You have the perfect story, brother,” she explains. “The banished prince - banished for standing up to his evil father. Redeems himself and sees the light. Fire Lord Zuko of the Golden Flames. And if anyone does dare to use love as weakness?” Azula flashes a dangerous smile. “Then they know who is there by your side, keeping them in line.”
This might work. This might actually work.
Zuko draws a calming breath. Azula thinks that he might be on the edge of panicking.
“What if I don’t want to be Fire Lord?” he asks.
“Tough luck,” Azula replies. “I want the throne. I want you to have never left me. I want Mother to have never disappeared. But we don’t get what we want, do we?”
Her little speech seems to have calmed the peasant children. They’re less tense through the rest of the show, though that might be because they’ve gotten used to seeing poor Zuzu without his shirt on.
Zuko turns to teaching her to redirect lightning. She wonders if the lightning she’ll redirect will glow golden or blue.
“We haven’t discussed how,” Zuko points out.
Azula stands in place. “Easy,” she says, “we murder Father. Now, lightning.”
Later, over a dinner that Azula can hardly taste, the whole group discusses the colonies.
“We might be able to pull back from a lot of the colonies, but some of them are a hundred years old. We can’t just withdraw completely,” Zuko says. “People live there. They have families there. The culture is integrated.”
Azula wants to snarl and we won it fair and square, but that’s not her job. Zuko knows her opinion. If she is going to be his trusted advisor, she also needs to trust him.
“But they’re not yours,” the water bender snaps. “They belong to the Earth Kingdom.”
The Avatar sits up very straight, very suddenly. Azula thinks that he might have propelled himself into the air just a little. “Wait, what if it belongs to nobody?”
“That’s not a thing,” Azula points out.
“But why not? Why not take places that have been all mixed up for a century and make them independent?”
There’s a pause. Azula looks at Zuko, who looks back at her.
“That could work,” Zuko says, slowly. “That could be a really good place for peace talks, too. Centres of trade. Nobody has a stronghold.”
Azula frowns. “Is the Avatar secretly a genius?” she asks, and sees the Avatar beam in the corner of her vision.
Zuko holds her gaze. “I cannot express to you how much that is not the case.”
The peasant children laugh. The not-useless-adult joins in. The Avatar pouts, but it seems good-natured.
“I’ll have children,” Azula says, when Agni’s face is leaving them.
Zuko turns to her with a curious expression. “What?”
“You can marry if you want, but you won’t have to. I’ll marry someone politically convenient who’ll be a good father. Who’ll spend time with the children. And they’ll spend time with you, learning, and be your heirs.”
“Where is this coming from?”
Azula looks into the campfire instead of meeting his eyes. The campfire came from Zuko, and it’s a little golden, too. It looks like their eyes, and it shifts with her brother’s breath.
“And we’ll revoke the laws against relationships between men and between women,” she says, careful to sound casual.
The fire jumps at Zuko’s sharp breath.
“You’ll marry for love, if you ever do marry, and not for politics.”
“Azula,” Zuzu says, and it’s far too soft. “Why just me? We’d be in charge. You could marry for love, too.”
Azula laughs. “What use do I have for that?”
She finally meets Zuko’s eyes. Zuzu’s expression is almost too much to handle.
“Are we really doing this?” he asks. “Committing treason, instead of just talking about it?”
The rest of the campsite has fallen quiet. They’ve been listening all along, Azula realises. Oops. She might have just told them more about Zuzu than she had been intending.
They’re waiting for Azula’s response.
“Let’s talk about how,” she relents.
Chapter 5: Zuko Sees Gold
They stay up late into the night. Katara keeps herself awake because she doesn’t trust either of the royal siblings, and while Aang is amazing and going to save the world, he’s also sometimes overly trusting. He’s lying in a pile of blankets by the fire, eyes drooping as if he isn’t literally lying belly-up in front of a predator. A predator who’s attacked and almost killed him before. Dad seems to understand the threat, because he stays up too, making carvings by the campfire and clearly eavesdropping.
Katara is wide awake, largely because the evil twins recently dropped the information that their evil father is planning to destroy everything on the day of Sozin’s Comet.
“It has to be before the comet,” Zuko agrees, staring intently into the campfire. “The question is just how long before. When is he actually expecting us.”
The princess sighs as if her brother is particularly stupid. “Dummy, he’s always expecting us. You, I mean. You’re not going to catch him unaware. There’s no element of surprise to be had.”
“Well,” Dad interrupts, as if he’s less ‘eavesdropping in case of danger’ and more ‘helping with the plan’. “I think you’re the element of surprise, Princess Azula.”
Zuko’s sister taps her index finger against her bottom lip, and then looks over to Aang. “Are you really set on being the one who kills him?” she asks.
Aang is very suddenly very awake. “What? No! I don’t want to kill anyone.”
“It’s war,” the princess states. “People die in war.”
“But we don’t have to kill them,” Aang points out. He looks up at Katara, troubled, and Katara softens. “I don’t have to kill anyone, do I?”
“I can kill him for you,” the princess suggests.
Aang looks hopelessly sad. “But he’s your father!”
“Yeah,” Zuko interjects, “he’s not a very good father. We’ve been over this.”
“Why don’t we just incapacitate him?” Katara suggests. She’s annoyed that she’s now a part of the planning conversation instead of simply observing and guarding, but she’s also desperate to wipe that expression from Aang’s face.
Zuko’s sister scoffs and rolls her eyes, and Katara really, really wants to slam water into her again. It wasn’t nearly satisfying enough earlier, because she had been too worried about stupid Zuko’s stupid life. And Katara has been on the edge of her seat for multiple reasons today, including (but not limited to) the fact that the Fire Siblings have made a hobby out of tossing lightning back and forth like they’re playing catch. Katara is very much ready to have either a fight or a heart attack.
“If you do that, he’ll have supporters waiting for his return,” Zuko’s sister points out. “There’s no way they don’t make an attempt at a coup at some point.”
“That might not be the worst thing,” Dad says. “As long as you’re strong enough to hold power, coups just draw out the poison. You learn who you can’t trust.”
“But if we don’t hold onto power…” Zuko points out, and then looks into the distance and shudders.
Katara is watching the siblings carefully, because she doesn’t trust either of them as far as Momo could throw them, so she sees Zuko’s sister watching Zuko’s reaction, and the way that her mouth pulls down slightly. The pair meet eyes for a moment, and then go back to casually discussing whether or not they should continue the family tradition of patricide.
Well, Katara thinks, watching them. They’re nothing like her and Sokka, that’s for sure. They aren’t physical at all with one another (Katara thinks that the only time they’ve even touched was when correcting each other’s katas, or that one moment in which Zuko’s sister was inspecting the damage she had done to his hand when she had attacked him). They don’t use kind words (and even when he’s being his most annoying, Sokka and Katara manage to occasionally say nice things to each other!). They seem more comfortable fighting one another than anything else. But that very small expression on the princess’s face at least tells Katara that she cares about Zuko, in her own very messed up way.
They start to sketch out a very vague plan. Katara ends up falling asleep on her father’s shoulder, because she knows that he’ll be keeping an eye on the evil twins.
Katara wakes to screaming.
Aang. Katara sits up abruptly, expecting to see the evil princess over Aang, but instead he’s pointing toward the sky.
They’ve been found. The Western Air Temple is under attack.
In a rush of movement, the team takes cover. Toph and Haru work on earthbending a tunnel to get them out of there, and the princess turns to Zuko.
“You need to leave me behind,” she insists.
“What?” Zuko asks. “No, I wouldn’t do that.”
Bombs are still falling, and they have to shout to be heard. The others grab Appa and try to lead him toward the tunnels, but Appa doesn’t want to go.
“You need to leave her behind,” Dad agrees, shouting over the sound. “They’re here for her!”
Zuko looks lost. “But I wouldn’t leave her if I had the chance,” he insists. “She needs to break free herself, or they won’t believe that she was really kidnapped.”
Zuko’s sister nods. “You’re right. Dirt child, make me some handcuffs,” she says, holding out her wrists.
Katara growls. How dare she call Toph that? Sure, Toph is a child and she is usually pretty dirty, but Toph has been nothing but helpful! And Princess Better-Than-Everyone has been nothing but a giant, dangerous pain the whole time she’s been here!
(This might not technically be true, the back of Katara’s mind reminds her. She’s probably going to betray them all, but she has helped Zuko to master lightning, so as long as Zuko doesn’t betray them all - which is about half-and-half on probability - she has been kind of helpful.)
While Aang continues to try to convince Appa to escape, Toph turns and stamps her foot. Rock clasps around the princess’s wrists and ankles.
The princess laughs, high pitched and slightly psychotic sounding. “Great, now attack me. I need to look hurt.”
Oh, that Katara can do.
The princess was technically speaking to her brother, so she isn’t even properly braced for the wall of water that knocks her over. She doesn’t fight back, allowing Katara to give her some impressive bruises.
“Enough!” Zuko shouts, moving to protect his sister. “That’s enough, she’s hurt.”
The princess coughs out water. “Perfect. Now follow me, Zuzu. We’re going on a merry chase.”
She runs and Zuko follows. Streams of blue and yellow-gold fade in their wake.
Appa really isn’t going into the tunnel.
“We’re going to need to split up,” Sokka points out, already looking filthy and exhausted.
“No!” Katara objects. “We all just found each other, we can’t split up now!”
Dad looks over at her, and he has that expression on his face again - the one he had when he first left them for the war. “We’ll find each other again, Katara,” he promises, folding her into his arms. “We will.”
Katara is furious in so many directions. This is so unfair.
She watches her father lead the children through the tunnel, and then turns back to her team.
“Let’s get out of here,” Aang insists, pulling Appa from the tunnel to the doors.
Outside, the royal siblings are fighting.
They’re doing a pretty good job of making it look real. The princess looks crazed, hair loose and wild, but Katara has seen them fight. She sees that they’re both being careful, that they’re somehow telegraphing their moves even if she can’t figure out how. She steps forward to block the princess’s blue flames with water, and then drags Zuko backwards onto Appa.
To their audience, it will look like the princess has fought her way to freedom, and the team were too distracted with survival to subdue her again. It will have to do.
They fly away from the danger. Katara glares at Zuko. If it hadn’t been for him deciding to bring his awful sister along, she might still have her father.
Katara cannot bring herself to forgive Zuko for anything. And then, in one fell swoop, she can.
She learns a lot in her days alone with Zuko, even though they barely talk about anything but the mission. She learns that Zuko is quieter without his sister, or perhaps subdued because he’s concerned about her. She learns that Zuko’s loyalty and allyship is a very valuable thing to have. And she learns that Aang was right: revenge isn’t a solution.
Katara isn’t sure what’s going to happen to Zuko’s father. (Will the Fire Princess kill him? Will Zuko?) But more than that, she worries about what will happen to Zuko if his sister betrays them. And when she asks about it, she doesn’t exactly receive a comforting answer.
It’s their first night on Ember Island, hiding in plain sight at one of Zuko’s family homes, when she asks: “Are you not worried that your sister was lying about helping us?”
“Not really,” Zuko replies, lighting their campfire. They don’t really need one anymore, not like they used to; they have an actual indoor space to sleep, and it’s warm on Ember Island. But it seems like the group enjoys gathering around a fire. Zuko frowns into his own flames. “Does this look a little golden to you? Azula seemed to think that my fire was changing colour, but I couldn’t see it. I think I can now?”
Katara glances. It’s definitely shining golden. “Yes,” she answers. “Does she not lie?”
Zuko breathes a half-laugh. “Azula always lies.”
“Then how can you trust her? Does she not lie to you?” It’s not exactly comforting, but at least if the princess has a track record of honesty with her brother, that’s something to rely on.
Zuko looks up at the sky. “No, she lies to me a lot,” he admits. “But she usually tells me that she’s lying. If I ask.”
That is not comforting at all.
They don’t have a timeline. Which means that if Zuko’s sister is on their side (which is still very much up in the air), she won’t know when to expect them. The only decision that was made was ‘before Sozin’s Comet’, but it’s not much to go on.
Katara’s feelings of dread and anxiety start to become an ever-present undertone. Aang looks conflicted whenever he spends a moment with his own thoughts. Zuko’s temper is bright and biting, but that might just be his baseline personality.
Sokka and Toph seem to be on distraction duty. They insist on an equal amount of training and bonding time, and Katara is both grateful and annoyed by this.
Eventually, however, Sokka sobers and reminds them: “We need to make a move soon.”
They’re sitting around a fire again, after a long day of training. They’re comfortable in a way that they have somehow naturally become around one another. Toph is upside down on a rock, her hair brushing the ground and her feet in the air, as if it doesn’t matter that she’s rendered herself blind. Sokka has wedged himself between Suki and Katara and draped an arm around each of them.
Across from them, Aang and Zuko have been playing with the fire, creating shapes and patterns. Momo is wrapped around Zuko’s neck, his head snuggled into Zuko’s collarbone. It would be pretty adorable if Katara wasn’t constantly confused by the way that animals act around Zuko, who’s prone to spurts of anger that should surely frighten them off. Instead, animals seem weirdly attracted to Zuko. She will never ever admit this, but sometimes, Zuko kind of reminds her of the princesses in the stories that her mother would tell them.
“Are we strong enough?” Suki asks. “We’re a good team. And if Azula is with us, we’re even stronger. But…” She glances around, and Katara notices that she doesn’t quite make eye contact with Zuko. “But if she isn’t with us. Or if we get overwhelmed by the guards. We’re just not enough people.”
“Azula won’t betray us,” Zuko insists, which is honestly unhelpful. “But you’re not wrong. We could use all the manpower we can get.” He sits up a little straighter, looking surprisingly regal over the golden fire, even with a flying lemur acting as a scarf. “I have an idea.”
They find the Dragon of the West. And a lot more support with him.
(Katara doesn’t cry when she sees Uncle Iroh embracing Zuko, but it’s close. Zuko has definitely been crying - he’s too pale to disguise it in the slightest - and it reminds Katara of just how young they all are. This war should be fought and won by adults, not children.
It’s also good to see someone touch Zuko without him flinching away.
Much later, when the plans are set and it’s time for action, Katara holds out her arms in an invitation. It’s one of the most awkward hugs of Katara’s life. Zuko is as tense as a bowstring and doesn’t seem to know how to hug her back properly. But Katara just holds him more firmly, because Zuko is about to risk his life, and if he’s wrong about the princess then it’s going to hurt him in a great variety of ways.
“Stay safe,” Katara suggests, pulling away.
Zuko half-smiles at her. “I’ll try. You try, too.”
There are no promises. War is not a place for promises.)
The plan is simple in theory, and complicated in practice.
They infiltrate the palace precisely, up until the moment that the guards figure out what is happening. Then it is a battle outside the throne room. Zuko was intended to be captured first, and when Aang gets to the throne room with Katara and Sokka as his backup, Zuko is already on his knees. There is a guard behind him, half-kneeling, with a blade pressed to Zuko’s pale throat.
They’re on time, and Toph and Suki will keep any other guards from entering. Katara holds herself back from sighing in relief.
The other guards in the room raise their swords, ready to strike when prompted. Fire Lord Ozai looks up at them with an almost bored expression.
“This is the army you have behind you?” he asks his son. “A group of ill-trained children?”
Zuko may be on his knees, but his head isn’t down. Many guards in the room are knocked out, scattered across the room. Zuko’s swords are lying haphazardly just out of his reach, as if they’ve been knocked from his hands and kicked away. He’s looking a little charred around the edges, too. Katara’s heartbeat picks up, but her heart also swells with pride; he’s done well to get this far. They all have.
The Fire Princess stands behind the Fire Lord and to one side, her back straight and her head held as high as Zuko’s.
Zuko is silent.
“Speak!” the Fire Lord snarls. “Speak for yourself, boy. They might be your last words.”
“I brought you the Avatar,” Zuko says, voice slow and careful. “Though I suppose not quite the way you asked me to.”
Fire Lord Ozai looks over at Aang, and Katara holds out her hands in a defensive posture. Nobody is attacking. The air is almost stiflingly still.
“You’re no match for us,” Fire Lord Ozai tells his son. “Even with your little team of children. We put you on your knees in moments. How long will it take for the rest of these children?”
Katara almost wants to argue, because it’s clear that Zuko took out most of his father’s personal guards before he was subdued. But ultimately, she knows what she’s waiting for, and she forces herself to be patient. Zuko is the one with a blade to his throat. They need to allow him to be in control.
“Even if you did manage to beat us, your reign will always be in danger,” Zuko snarls. “It will-- You reign through fear. Ruling through fear never works.”
Katara keeps her eye on the Fire Princess, because that is her cue. The moment that Azula strikes, Katara needs to take care of the guards. She waits.
Unfortunately, Fire Lord Ozai also turns to Azula in that moment, causing the princess to remain still. “Your brother tries to speak to me of politics,” he scoffs. “As if he knows anything of ruling. You and I, daughter, shall rule the entire world through fear.”
Princess Azula seems frozen. So does Zuko. Where they usually look on the verge of being twins, they currently couldn’t look more different: Zuko on his knees, clothing disheveled, blood smeared across the unburnt half of his face; Azula on her feet at the Fire Lord’s side, clean and pristine, not a hair out of place.
“You shall rule the world, Father,” Azula replies. “I am but your loyal servant.”
Katara watches the Fire Lord smile. “But you are mistaken, daughter,” he says. “When I rise to power over the world as the Phoenix King, you shall take my place at the head of the Fire Nation.”
Katara’s heart sinks as she watches the Fire Princess’s face. “I’m going to be Fire Lord?” she asks, sounding as stunned as Katara has ever heard her.
Fire Lord Ozai’s smile widens. “A deserved reward for your loyalty, Fire Lord Azula.”
Katara watches as the princess’s face shifts to match her father’s, smile wide and cruel. She also watches as the princess’s eyes shift to her brother, just for a moment, before she looks away pointedly.
Katara has never felt more foolish in her life. How had she ever started to trust that Zuko’s sister would be loyal to them? How had she let Zuko’s blind faith in his evil sister bleed into her own perspective?
“Yes, Father,” says the Fire Princess, soon to be the Fire Lord.
Katara accepts that they’re on their own.
Azula misses her cue.
Also, while Father and the guards have been forcibly reminded that Zuzu is a much more talented swordsman than a firebender (and boy was that fun to watch), they seem to be forgetting where his other well of talent lies.
This is going to get very interesting, very quickly.
“Where did I go wrong with that one?” Father asks, looking down his nose at Zuko. Zuko is holding himself very still. Father looks to the guard pressing the blade against his throat. “Kill the boy. Guards, take down the peasants. The Avatar is mine.”
Azula’s eyes snap to her brother as soon as Father says kill the boy , because while there are no cues anymore, there is no more obvious time for Zuzu to remind them all of his other talent.
Zuko twists, grips, and tosses the guard over his shoulder. The guard slams to the floor, blade falling to clatter on the stone.
Azula smirks. There’s a reason that she never allows Zuko to be in reach when they spar.
She blasts fire in her brother’s direction, leading him steadily from the group of guards who are closing in on the water peasants. The waterbender is surprisingly talented for such a young and ill-educated girl, and the sword peasant isn’t completely hopeless, either.
The Avatar faces off with Father. Azula would quite like to watch and wait for an opening, but she’s busy dodging surprisingly golden flames. They’re brighter now. How sweet.
“How could you?” Zuko shouts, his voice hoarse and loud over the clashes of swords and fighting.
Azula ducks and rolls, pulling them to a better area of the room. They have a better view from here.
They fight, hard and fast, blue and gold. Duck, block, shoot, turn, jump--
At one point, the Avatar shouts in pain, and Zuko looks over at the wrong moment.
Azula’s fire slices by his arm, partially blocked but not enough. Zuko flinches and almost loses his balance.
Azula frowns and throws fire toward the waterbender, just to give herself something to do while Zuko regains his balance. She raises her right eyebrow, are you okay, and Zuko blinks once in response.
The Water Tribe peasants take down the remainder of the guards. Azula won’t give them too much credit; Zuko had taken down the majority of them upon entering the room, quick and precise with his swords in a way that he isn’t (yet) in his firebending. He’s softened the ground for them.
(If she were inclined to be impressed, Azula might admit that two children versus a half dozen trained palace guards is significant, especially since they’re working very hard to incapacitate and strike down without killing anyone.)
“Is your fire sparkling?” Azula asks eventually, incredulous, when the breath has been knocked from her chest by a particularly powerful blast.
Zuko hesitates, either because he hasn’t yet noticed that his fire in still in the process of changing colour and it is very funny, or because he’s giving Azula a moment to catch her breath.
“No!” Zuko insists, and then pushes golden fire in her direction, which definitely has a sparkling undertone. “Shut up,” he adds.
Azula laughs, and then does her best to turn it into a cruel sound, because they are not out of the woods anytime soon.
Father throws the Avatar across the room. The Avatar lands with a pained noise and then pushes himself up, airbending out of Father’s stream of fire. The Avatar rains rock down on Father, and Azula sees her opening.
Father isn’t letting anyone behind him, because he is too intelligent to do that.
Azula steps in and blasts at the waterbender, knocking her back from aiding the Avatar. She stands by her Father’s side, issuing him a layer of protection as the other children attempt to help.
The Avatar keeps getting up again. Azula isn’t sure if this is physical strength or purely hubris.
Azula blocks attacks from the Water Tribe siblings, which gives her brother room to enter the fight, shooting fire at their Father. Father knocks him back like the petulant child he is, and then turns back to the Avatar.
Azula focuses on the Water Tribe siblings. The waterbender looks completely furious, which is all kinds of wonderful.
Zuko gets up and keeps going. Like the Avatar, it might be more about hubris than strength.
His blast at Father is stronger this time, and Father has to turn his focus to his son, blocking the golden flames and shooting back.
The Avatar knocks water in Father’s direction and freezes it around his feet. Father melts the ice easily, but it’s another opening for Zuko, who takes it without question.
Golden lightning crackles around Zuko, starting at his hands and then extending to his whole body, and he shifts his stance for an attack.
Father moves into a defensive posture.
Zuko twists his ankle as he prepares to throw the lightning.
Beside Father, just slightly behind him, Azula pushes the Water Tribe siblings down for long enough to ready herself.
Lightning is flung. Father defends against it, but the lightning doesn’t come to him.
It comes to Azula.
Azula catches it and swiftly redirects.
Blue lightning hits Ozai in the back, and he falls.
The Avatar follows with his own attack, and Father isn’t getting up anytime soon. Cuffs of rock encase his wrists, forcing his palms against one another. He tries to fling fire with his feet, only to find them encased, too.
Father looks up at Azula, eyes bright with pure fury.
“You,” he snarls, lightning still zapping through his body, causing him to twitch.
“Me,” Azula agrees. She looks down her nose at their Father. “If you’re wondering where you went wrong with this one,” she says, “it was around about the time that you burnt my brother.”
The previous Fire Lord glowers at her. “I would have made you Fire Lord,” he growls. “You didn’t need to usurp me for the crown.”
“I won’t be Fire Lord, Father,” Azula informs him. She glances over at her brother, who is looking a little worse for wear, but very much alive. “Zuko will.”
Father practically screams at that, which is delightful.
“Over my dead body,” he snaps, and Azula is about to say well yes, that’s the plan before Ozai turns to his son and blasts fire from his mouth.
Father stops moving. The lightning continues to crackle over his body, but it’s nothing but a body anymore.
Azula hesitates, and then looks to Zuko, who is still in a blocking position.
Father is dead.
“Oops,” Azula says, and then looks to the Avatar. “I really did intend to leave him alive for you.”
The Avatar looks spooked. The Water Tribe siblings join them around the body.
“You were defending Zuko,” the Avatar says eventually. “I understand.”
You don’t have to make me sound like such a sap, Azula almost says, but then her eyes catch on her brother. He raises his right eyebrow, and she blinks.
“Are you all right?” Azula asks out loud, because she sees no reason for this to be hidden anymore.
Zuko almost smiles. “In one piece,” he replies. “We need to stop the fighting out there. They’ll listen to you.”
Azula nods and goes to leave the room, only to be all but tackled by the Avatar. She stands with both hands up as he hugs her around the waist.
“Zuzu,” Azula bites out, “please get your pet Avatar off of me.”
The Avatar laughs and lets her go. “I knew you were on our side,” he insists. “I mean, it looked a bit… questionable for a moment there, but I knew you loved Zuko too much to let anything happen to him!”
Azula glares. The Avatar moves onto hugging Zuko, as if exchanging embraces is normal post-battle etiquette.
The waterbender approaches. “I’m going to hug you now,” she informs Azula, who assumes a battle posture.
“Touch me and lose a hand,” she snaps, and the waterbender stops. She shrugs, and then dips into the most sloppy bow that Azula has ever seen. Azula rolls her eyes, and then bows back at what might be a slightly deeper angle than is technically appropriate for royalty to show a peasant.
Since she’s here now, Azula also bows to the waterbender’s brother. “That wasn’t the worst swordfighting I’ve ever seen,” she allows.
The sword peasant laughs and bows back. It’s even worse than his sister’s attempt. “That wasn’t the worst bait-and-switch I’ve ever seen,” he replies. “But next time, maybe don’t give us all a heart attack?”
Zuko finally extracts himself from the Avatar’s hold, and is almost knocked over by the Water Tribe siblings. He looks a little dazed.
“Let’s stop the war,” Azula suggests.
Much later, the children insist on building a campfire. They’re inside, and there’s an actual fireplace in the room, but they stack wood onto the stone floor and all but demand that Zuko share his flame.
They’re all tired and filthy. The waterbender - Katara - is determined to heal everyone’s wounds with her waterbending powers. At first, Azula refuses, but it eventually seems like her resistance is inevitably futile.
Azula and Zuko keep turning to talk about politics (take advice from the White Lotus, but remember that they’re not in charge of the Fire Nation; the guards will need to be replaced, but we need to do this with good will; let the peasants into the grounds for the coronation). The rest of the group apparently don’t like this, and the dirt child has resorted to throwing pebbles at them whenever they start.
It’s strange, seeing Zuko with friends. In their childhood, Azula had been the one with friends, and though Ty Lee and Mai are dedicated to Zuko, he’s never been fully comfortable around them. It’s different with this group. He lets them make fun of him, and assumes the best of it; he laughs more openly; he allows them to touch him, even if he can’t quite relax into it.
Azula decides that they can stay.
The coronation is the next day.
Azula has barely slept, and neither have the rest of the children who won the war. The dirt child, Toph, looks dead on her feet, but Avatar Aang is bouncing with energy, airbending gifting him with bounding steps as they wait for Zuko to reappear. Mai and Ty Lee join them, and Ty Lee expertly draws Aang’s nervous energy into teaching him to walk on his hands.
When Zuko enters, he’s dressed in the clothing of a Fire Lord, his topknot bare as he waits to be crowned.
“So, are you ready to become the Fire Lord?” Ty Lee asks, cheerful.
Zuko lets out a shaking breath. “Does it make a difference?”
Azula asks are you okay and receives a yes, then a no, and then another yes.
“What’s going on with your face?” Sokka asks.
Zuko shakes his head. “A lot has changed this year,” he says, his voice wondering as he looks around at the group.
“A year ago, I was still in the ice,” Aang points out.
“We had never left the South Pole,” Katara says.
Azula thinks this game is ridiculous, but she still adds: “I hadn’t seen you since you were banished.”
“And now we’re all together,” Zuko finishes, and he looks something approaching happy as he glances around at their friends.
Mai sighs. “Are we really going to have a sappy friendship moment instead of getting this all over with?”
“Yeah, sappy friendship moment,” Sokka agrees, and then throws himself into a hug with Zuko. Azula glares, because she remembers how the Water Tribe siblings were when Zuko was shirtless, but it doesn’t last long...
Because the rest of the group seem to decide that this is an appropriate time for some kind of ridiculous hugging pile.
“Ugh, get off of me,” Azula insists. “You’re going to mess up my robes. You’re going to mess up the Fire Lord’s robes!”
“Come on, Azula, live a little!” Ty Lee insists, and Azula rolls her eyes but, just for a moment, relents.
(They have to fix Zuko’s hair before the coronation.)
When they’re outside, looking out to the sea of people, Zuko looks tall and regal and put together. (Azula knows how nervous he is, but everyone else is too far away to notice his hands trembling.)
Zuko gives a speech about restoring honour, age of peace and love, blah blah blah. Azula barely pays attention, because she’s too busy watching him and the crowd. Azula is usually correct, so it’s hardly a surprise that they seem to eat up this whole narrative. The people aren’t just going to adore Fire Lord Zuko; they do already.
When Zuko kneels to receive his crown, Azula steps forward. It isn’t exactly traditional, but this is the part she’s been waiting for.
Azula calls out: “All hail Fire Lord Zuko of the Golden Flames!”
The Fire Lord stands, and the crowd bursts into cheers.
Azula looks to her brother, and smiles, and doesn’t look away.
This has been a complete blast. I have very much enjoyed falling face-first into this fandom. Thank you all for joining me on this adventure!
Edited weeks later to add: The moment that I realised I missed the opportunity to have Toph refer to Zuko as 'Sparkly' was the moment I realised I have lost my honour.