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where the stars do not take sides

Chapter Text

 

We raise our voices,

And let our hearts take flight.

Get higher than those planes can fly - 

Where the stars do not take sides.



Azula has always been lucky. Winds turn in her direction. Secrets are revealed to her in the nick of time. Spirits, she found her long dead brother when searching for an entirely different legend. 

But there is a difference between luck and loyalty. Luck is important in the tides of war. But loyalty is more important.

Fortunately, the tides of war turn with Azula’s will. Her Dai Li block the exits on time; this means the few allies who knew the true timing for the beginning of the siege have not betrayed her. Scenario Two - following the Fire Lord into the bunker - would have been such a terrible bother. 

They make their way through the city, and fight their way into the palace. 

Sokka suffers a slice to the thigh that will seriously hurt once the adrenaline dies down. But Sokka isn’t going to bleed out from it, so he keeps fighting by her side. He’s a little slower, but it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Katara wants to stop to heal him, but there is no time for stupid ideas. The group splits, and Katara and Aang peel off, flocked by Mai and Ty Lee. 

Azula is starting to feel that Scenario One will hold them all the way through, up until the realisation that Mai’s father has fed the Fire Lord information. Because Azula is distrusting and Sokka is a genius, Ukano has only been able to give Ozai very incomplete information. And it appears that Ukano is trying to play both sides, because he has given Ozai less information than he actually holds. 

This is unexpected. Azula looks to Sokka in the brief moments between fights, and sees her own hesitant puzzlement mirrored back at her. 

If Fire Lord Ozai knew that they were entering the palace, but had the timing of her Dai Li and the direction of entry wrong, that means...

Azula feels her heart drop. She wasn’t aware that her heart was capable of doing this until now. She turns wide eyes on her brother, and she’s hoping that he hasn’t realised, because there might be time to salvage this if--

But Zuko has already launched himself further up the hall, ready to fight his way, fire free, through the oncoming sweep of guards. 

Azula watches him, and Zuko looks back for just a moment. 

She should never have agreed to this. She should call for him to come back, but Azula knows he won’t listen, because there’s no other plan for this modified version of Scenario Five. But at this rate, Azula doesn’t know how long it will be before they manage to catch up. 

She feels her lips going slightly numb.

“Look after the next Fire Lord,” Zuko calls back - not even to Azula, to Toph and Sokka. And then Zuko is gone, and if the idiot dies, those are going to be the last words Azula ever hears from him.

Azula is furious.

She also gets a hold on herself, because trouble is coming, and she needs to work her way through it to the throne room.

 


 

(Azula is the best liar that Toph has ever met. She regularly overstates, understates, and spins sarcastic diatribes, and her heart rate never suffers for it. 

Being a good liar, however, doesn’t mean that Azula’s heart rate never picks up. Her heart doesn’t ever go wild like Zuko’s does, and it only picks up when Azula is fighting in a way that is natural for the physical response. But her heart does beat a little faster when Zuko is in danger. 

Toph doesn’t really notice this until she’s standing in the planning tent with Azula and Sokka, having unveiled her incredible rock city creation. Toph mostly sticks around for the praise. She is the greatest earthbender in the world, and once they are outside of this war, she will beat King Bumi into dust to prove it! 

But then Sokka questions whether Zuko should be a part of the palace team, and Azula’s heart starts knocking at her ribcage, and Toph thinks: huh. That’s a thing. And she doesn’t fight Azula on the Zuko front, because if Sparky is the thing that might throw Fire Hazard off her game, then, hey. Maybe Zuko should stay away from the main play.)

Toph feels Zuko disappear around the corner as the battle strategy starts to crumble a little around them. And she feels Azula’s heart react to this, even though it has been a calm and steady presence through the whole battle so far.

This might be bad. 

 


 

When Zuko makes his way into the throne room, he takes down four guards before Ozai rises from the throne.

“You,” Ozai says, his voice deep and filled with spite.

The guards have backed up now, presumably to give the Fire Lord what he wants: an opportunity to finally slay his son. 

The plan is a little sideways. Zuko doesn’t know exactly how long they have until the firebending is back, and he doesn’t know how long until either team gets here. He keeps his swords raised, ready for a blow, and responds: “Hello, Father.”

Fire Lord Ozai huffs. “You’re here to attempt to steal my crown, I presume?” he asks with an air of curiosity, as if Zuko is simply an interesting artefact to cast his eyes over before moving on. 

Zuko’s hearing is excellent, so he knows that one of Ozai’s guards is creeping behind him. The guard will attempt to attack him from behind, lacking any honour at all. But Zuko is ready.

“I would be happy to steal the crown,” Zuko says. This is good: Ozai thinks that he’s stalling Zuko, waiting for the guard to strike or the firebending to come back. But Zuko’s only aim here is to keep Ozai in the room. This is a game that he doesn’t mind playing. He knows Ozai’s hand, but Ozai doesn’t know Zuko’s, which is just how Zuko likes it. “For my sister.”

Ozai laughs. “Really? You’re not even strong enough to attempt to usurp me for yourself?”

“I’m just an Earth Kingdom runaway,” Zuko responds. “What interest would I have in the crown?”

The guard goes to strike. Zuko ducks and rolls, comes up to a clash with another guard, and twists in a complicated manoeuvre that knocks both of them out. 

The other guards hesitate. They haven’t been told to strike, and presumably at this point, they’re interested in seeing how this plays out. Zuko looks up at Ozai and raises his eyebrow. 

“You don’t want to fight me yourself?” he goads. “You managed to beat me before. Admittedly, I was a child, and you had grandfather hold me down.” 

Ozai’s eyes flash. “Why don’t you come here, if you are so brave?”

Just in front of the throne is the stretch of dark, beautiful stone on which Zuko was held down and burned as a child. Zuko puts this from his mind, because he’s going to need to be as calm as possible for what’s to come. And he’s certainly, suddenly, that they only have seconds. 

“Azula is going to be the best Fire Lord that the world has ever seen,” Zuko states. “She is going to bring your war to an end and restore the honour of the Fire Nation. And it will be my privilege to serve beside her,” Zuko feels the sun coming back, and strikes the final blow, “as the Phoenix Prince.”

Agni is with them again. 

Zuko’s father’s hands fill with flame. He braces himself, swords before him in a blocking gesture which is an attempt at provocation and not at defense. 

Fire rushes towards him.

Zuko draws it in, makes it his, and accepts it.

 


 

(It’s kind of impossible for Katara to be angry with Zuko nowadays. 

It came easily to her before, when she felt betrayed and hurt and anxious about how he’d almost died because of his own dishonesty. But the way Zuko responds to anger is with acceptance, as if he just… thinks he deserves it. 

So when he almost gives her a heart attack, Katara reminds herself that shouting at him - well, more than she shouted on pure instinct - is not going to be helpful. Instead, she gathers water to her palms and insists on checking him over for injuries.

“I’m fine,” Zuko insists, eyeing her as if he’s waiting for the fallout.

Katara looks over to Dad, seeking adult intervention. But honestly, Dad kind of looks like he’s hoping for adult intervention, too. So Katara looks to Sokka instead, who is standing by Zuko’s side. Sokka has one hand on Zuko’s back, like he can’t bear the idea of not touching him, but he’s also staring wide-eyed into the distance in a way that tells Katara that he’s not going to be helpful.

Katara sighs. “We’re not actually doing that, are we? We can’t actually do that.”

Azula catches her eye from across the tent. Her mouth is still set in a smirk, as if she hasn’t quite settled from her previous burst of laughter. “Do you have a better idea, waterbender?”

Katara sighs again, returning her bending water to her pouch. It’s only one unlikely scenario, after all.)

A gong sounds. The firebending is back.

Katara looks to Mai, who’s poised with a knife between her index and middle finger, eyes sharp as she looks for movement around them. Katara thinks they’re safe now - or as safe as they can be, briefly, in the midst of battle - when she realises where the pieces have fallen in battle.

Mai looks up at her. Her mouth pulls downwards. 

“Is this Scenario Five?” Katara asks, hoping she's wrong. Mai hesitates, and then nods. Oh no. “Zuko.”

 


 

Zuko is knocked to the floor by the force of the fire. 

But he gathers and gathers and gathers, accepts it, makes it his own. Zuko is his skin and he is his sword and he is the flames. His heart beats jackalope-fast in his chest, because the truth is that Zuko hasn’t practiced using someone else’s fire to do this. But he gathers and he owns, and eventually his Father stops the stream of fire, presumably assuming he has won.

Zuko is the fire. The fire is Zuko. 

Slowly, Zuko unfolds his arms, stretching out his swords. The flames lick at him, steady and controlled, and his. Zuko can feel the heat of the warmed air close to his skin, but the fire doesn’t burn him. 

Zuko stands, ablaze. 

The Phoenix Prince, he hears, but it feels far away, distant in the rush of fire at his ears.

Zuko looks toward his father. He can barely see through the fire that surrounds him, swirling and delighted, licking even at the eyelashes of his right eye. 

Zuko lifts his chin, staring. Fire Lord Ozai stares back, paused with surprise. 

The shock won’t last long. This scenario has gone slightly sideways, as far as Zuko understands; he doesn’t know how long he needs to keep Ozai in this room.

And it would be really useful to get rid of some of those guards. 

When Ozai’s face draws down in anger, Zuko acts. 

He lifts his arms, raising his swords slowly.

Zuko is the stone floor.

The fire spreads.

Zuko is the pillars. 

The fire catches and climbs. 

Zuko is each individual thread of the Fire Nation banners, each fiber of rope, Zuko is the ceiling, Zuko is the throne itself. 

There’s screaming. The guards are escaping out the doors, and they won’t get far before they are caught in battle, but importantly: they are leaving. And Zuko is every dancing flame, so he knows when he catches on a trouser leg and when he melts a boot, and nobody is dying but nobody knows that will last.

Zuko is a circle around his father, trapping him before the throne. He feels as Fire Lord Ozai blocks flames, trying to create a path for himself, but Zuko’s fire laughs and stays fast to its place.

But Zuko knows that he cannot hold this for long. He is spread too thin, his flames are too many, he is starting to feel too warm. 

(Where is Azula?)

“You are an abomination!” the Fire Lord spits, vicious. “And you will die in this room, boy!”

Loud roars the fire.

Ozai throws more toward him, and Zuko catches it, integrates it.

Zuko breathes deeply and evenly, and the air is starting to feel too hot.

(Where is Aang?)

Zuko cannot be the ceiling anymore. He pulls back his flames, hoping that Father will not notice that he has faltered. 

Fire Lord Ozai is sweating and snarling.

Azula isn’t here. Aang isn’t here. Zuko is alone. 

Some of the guards have remained. They are loyal and true, and Zuko does not blame them for it. But they must also realise by now that Zuko does not wish for anyone to be swallowed by his fire. 

Father notices. He looks to his guards, looks around him, and says: “All of this power, and still, you are a coward.”

If neither Azula nor Aang show up soon, Zuko has two options: kill or be killed. 

But the war ends with the Avatar, Zuko thinks. The Avatar restores balance. It isn’t Zuko’s destiny to kill his father, and if he does - who is to say that the war can end as it is supposed to?

Fire Lord Ozai’s hands flash white. Lightning.

What did Uncle Iroh say about redirecting lightning? He didn’t want them to practice, and Zuko doesn’t know that he can hold his fire and handle Ozai’s lightning at the same time. He’s not supposed to become the lightning, is he? Zuko’s self is so spread out that he can’t remember, but Uncle Iroh said...

Zuko’s arms tremble. Zuko cannot be the banners anymore. He pulls back from them, detaching himself from every stitch.

Fire Lord Ozai smiles. 

 


 

(Aang has three firebending masters, and it’s so cool. Zuko is his original master, of course. Zuko is the one who got him to the point that he’s no longer afraid of his own fire. And Zuko is patient and kind, which Aang loves about him, but his firebending technique is pretty unique - and so far, Aang hasn’t been able to copy him.

So it’s amazing when Azula joins them and takes up a post as his teacher, even if she won’t admit that she’s his teacher. Azula is precise as a blade - and sharp as one too, sometimes - and Aang grows with her. It’s going to be amazing, once the war is over and the princess and prince take over the Fire Nation. 

And then comes Uncle Iroh, who insists that Aang calls him Uncle Iroh. Uncle Iroh has been a master for decades, and has met actual dragons, and as far as Aang can tell, he knows everything there is to know about firebending. And he gives amazing hugs. Aang loves Zuko and Azula - like honestly, truly loves them - but neither of them seem to appreciate physical contact unless it is purposefully telegraphed and has an obvious intention. They’re both getting better at it, but Aang is pretty sure that he isn’t getting a hug from either of them anytime soon.

Plus, Uncle Iroh tells stories! And teaches them forms so dangerous that they can’t even practice them!

“If you let the energy in your own body flow,” Uncle Iroh explains, repeating the motion, “the lightning will follow it. You must create a pathway from your fingertips up your arm to the shoulder, then down into the stomach.” He continues to explain about the chi, and Aang thinks that he has the technique.

Azula apparently disagrees, because she corrects his form. 

“Oh, I think I get it,” Zuko says, copying Uncle Iroh’s motion. “When I bend with my swords, it’s like… it’s like my swords are a part of me, and the fire is a part of me, so they work together. So redirecting lightning is making the lightning part of you too, right? Taking control of it?”

Uncle Iroh pauses, and then looks at Zuko with a very serious expression. Aang backs off a little, still practicing. Azula sighs, impatient, and corrects Aang’s form again. He beams at her.

“No,” Uncle Iroh says. “Nephew, this form is about letting the lightning go through you. You must never attempt to take control of someone else’s lightning. You absorb it, but only allow it to follow a particular path.”

Zuko is frowning. “But if you absorb and control its path, how is that different to making it part of you?”

Uncle Iroh continues to explain, and Azula eventually seems to approve of Aang’s form. Eventually, Uncle Iroh calls for a break for tea - which Aang’s other teachers never do - and Aang follows him happily.)

Aang finally reaches the throne room. Mai and Ty Lee are dealing with the guards, and Aang and Katara slip by with the aid of an ice wall and a bit of flying. 

When they get inside, everything is on fire. Aang coughs and tries to sweep some of it away, and it’s… like the fire hesitates, unsure of if it should let Aang through, before it relents. 

Fire Lord Ozai’s hands are crackling, and then lightning strikes. 

 


 

Azula bursts into the throne room in time to see it happen.

The fire draws back in the moment before lightning strikes, only sparse flames left licking at the floor, and Zuko is visible just for a moment. His eyes flash gold, and Azula strikes out at Father, but it’s too late.

Lightning strikes. Zuko backs up and falls into the correct form, and Azula’s heart is in her throat, and Azula’s blue flames fly to Father, and--

The lightning stops, Father is forced to block Azula’s flames--

The lightning flashes back out from Zuko, he has redirected it, thank Agni, Azula can breathe.

And Zuko goes down, hard. 

For a moment, time freezes still. 

She knew that he would go down in this throne room. Nobody survives three attempts on their life in one cursed room, nobody, let alone her unlucky brother. She should never have allowed this to happen. This is on Azula. Azula let Zuko be taken away from her that first time, knew it was going to happen and did nothing but mock him for it. Azula accepted that he must be dead without any true evidence, and left Zuko to rot in the Earth Kingdom. Azula led Zuko to his death a second time, dragged him in chains to kneel before the father who had already attempted to murder him. And Zuko has followed her here, too, to finally die in a blaze of fire and lightning at the hand of Ozai.

Azula thinks that she screams. 

She finds herself on the floor, hands on Zuko’s chest. She finds herself here, doesn’t remember moving, has no memory of abandoning her own battle. 

“He’s alive,” Katara insists, her voice low and steady. “Azula, he’s alive. I have him. There isn’t anything you can do for him, you need to go.” 

Azula snarls. Something inside her has come loose, and if Katara thinks that she is leaving her brother to die alone again, then she is utterly and completely mistaken.

Another pair of knees hit the floor beside her. 

Azula looks up. It’s Sokka, blood dripping down his face from a blow he’s taken to the head. His eyes are wide and haunted as he stares at Zuko. 

“He’s alive,” Katara insists again, and Sokka all but sobs. “Azula. You have to go back to fight.”

Katara gathers water to her hands. A guard rushes behind her, and Sokka strikes out to protect them.

“Azula,” Sokka says, voice sharp. “I’ll guard them. Katara will heal him. You need to help Aang and Toph.” 

Zuko won’t die alone, Azula insists. He won’t die alone. 

Zuko’s eyes flutter open, and he looks first to Katara’s healing water and then up to Azula. He coughs, shakes his head, and then takes in the room.

“What’s happening?” he asks. 

“You redirected lightning,” Katara snaps, pushing his shoulders back when he tries to sit up. “You didn’t get all of it, I think. You’re going to be okay. Tell Azula to go back to the battle!”

Zuko coughs again, and then looks up at Azula with a hint of a smile. There’s blood on his lips. “Azula,” he says, “don’t you have something you’re supposed to be doing?”

Zuko won’t die alone. Because he isn’t dying today. 

Azula stands and calls fire to her hands.

 


 

(Sokka can’t come up with a better alternative for Scenario Five. He continues to spend hours on it, even more feverishly after Zuko’s very bad idea, but Zuko really is the best option. If they can shave off even a minute of the fighting on the way there, they’ll get there just after the firebending comes back, and then Zuko can stay not-on-fire. That seems to be their best shot. 

On the night before the battle, Sokka and Azula look over each scenario again. Azula is very calm, which honestly makes Sokka feel less calm. 

They run through the scenarios like clockwork. At this point, Sokka thinks that he and Azula might be reciting these plans in their sleep - so it’s a good thing they sleep in a tent with the people they trust most in the world. 

Eventually, it becomes time to retire. Azula looks up at Sokka, and her eyes narrow.

“There’s one scenario we haven’t planned for,” she admits.

Sokka looks back to the rock city. “There is?”

“Yes.” Azula stands, brushes her hands down her clothing, and then looks Sokka square in the eyes. “What happens if we lose.”

Up until this moment, Azula has not entertained the notion of losing. Sokka stares up at her, surprised by this turn. “Well. I mean, I guess…” 

“Yes,” Azula interrupts. “We almost certainly die.”

The air hangs heavy between them. 

“In which case,” Azula continues, “I wish to say one thing. You will not repeat this.” 

Sokka nods. “Yeah, okay,” he agrees, feeling off-balance.

Azula falls into a shallow bow, making the sign of the flame.

“It has been an honour working with you,” she says. Her voice is firm and steady, as are her hands. She rises again, the perfect picture of the future Fire Lord. And then half of her mouth curls into a smile, and she adds: “And being your friend.”

Sokka releases the breath he didn’t know he was holding, and then stands. “Okay, I’m hugging you now,” he says, and then gathers Azula in his arms. She goes stiff for a moment, because Azula barely knows how to be a person, but then she relaxes. 

When Sokka pulls back, he makes sure to look her in the eyes and say: “But we’re not going to lose.”

When they get back to the tent, everyone is gathered in what is almost but not quite a pile. Sokka slides in next to Zuko, and Zuko doesn’t even flinch when he fits an arm around him anymore. Instead, Zuko just turns to smile at him, tense and nervous, and so painfully beautiful. Sokka uses the moment to lean in and rub noses with him.

It startles a half-laugh from Zuko, who pulls back and asks: “What was that?”

Sokka explains, because it’s a distraction, and Zuko leans into his side. Sokka looks around at all of their friends, each finding their own distraction from the tension building in the air, and he smiles. 

They’re going to be okay. He knows it.)

Sokka stands guard over Zuko and Katara, sword raised. 

The guards are mostly down, and Mai and Ty Lee are taking care of the rest. Toph is blocking a swarm from entering the room. Azula is approaching her father, determined and furious, hands brimming with blue.

Zuko is down, but he’s talking - that has to mean that he’s okay. Sokka can’t entertain the thought that he isn’t okay.

Aang and Azula fight together, fast and forceful. 

The Fire Lord pushes back and back, and there is lightning again. 

Sokka blinks and waits for the light to clear.

 


 

(When Azula and Zuko are children, Azula pushes Zuko off a roof near the hanging gardens. It goes like this:

Zuzu has been paying Azula inadequate attention for days. He’s starting sword lessons, because his firebending is pathetic and he’s never going to catch up with Azula. But where Zuzu should find this shameful and embarrassing, he’s instead having fun playing with his stupid swords. 

So Azula lures him up to the rooftops where they like to climb. Azula is faster, obviously, and she stretches her arms out in the sunshine. Zuzu joins her, and when Azula points out that she won, he crosses his arms and says that it wasn’t a race. 

Zuzu doesn’t even look put out about it. Suddenly furious, Azula pushes him. 

Zuzu falls off the roof, and Azula goes to laugh, but then she hears the thump as he hits the ground. He cries out loudly upon landing, and then falls abruptly silent. Azula steps to peer over the edge, checking to see if he’s still alive, but she overshoots in her haste and finds herself overbalancing. 

Azula turns her fall into a jump, and lands hard on her feet. 

“Are you okay?” Zuzu asks, and Azula looks over at him. He’s lying on the ground, paler than Azula has ever seen him. He looks like a ghost. And oh, gross, his wrist is twisted all wrong. Tears are streaming down his face, but he hasn’t made a sound. “Azula! Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, dummy,” she replies, and that’s when the adults arrive.

Azula tries to follow when Zuzu is whisked off, but Mother stands in her way. And Azula has seen Mother upset before, but now she looks at Azula with more than a little horror. 

“What did you do? ” Mother asks, accusatory. Azula glowers, because it’s hardly her fault that Zuzu has bad enough balance that one little shove made him fall off the roof. But then Mother adds: “Do you not care at all? Sometimes, Azula, I think that you just don’t have a heart.”

And with that, Mother turns and rushes after her favourite child. 

Azula waits there for a long time, staring.)

 


 

Azula takes her Father’s lightning, draws it from her fingertips and through her stomach, never touching her heart.

She flings it back, and the Fire Lord blocks it.

But it takes all of his concentration to block her lightning, and the Avatar attacks. 

When Father is bound at her feet, Azula seriously considers killing him. It would be easy, and it would calm the raging storm inside her. It would be revenge. It would be justice.

But Azula gave her word to Aang, so she relents.

“The war is over,” she declares.

 


 

The war is over.

 


 

Zuko is flocked by the Southern Water Tribe. Katara only leaves him for brief breaks, usually either to collect her strength or to heal someone else. Sokka slipped under the covers with him in the first hour of his forced bed-rest, and has been tucked up against him ever since. Hakoda has apparently taken up position as their guard.

Zuko slips in and out of consciousness for what feels like hours, before Azula finally joins him. 

“I think,” she says, sitting down on the edge of the bed, “that being the Fire Lord is going to be very busy.”

Zuko laughs at that, and it hurts a little.

“Don’t laugh,” Katara insists. 

“How is he doing?” Azula asks, and Zuko glares.

“He’s right here,” he reminds Azula. “I’m doing fine.”

Katara smiles at him, exhaustion pulling at her features, and then looks to Azula. “He’ll be fine,” she insists. “I think I can work on him once every hour or so now, and he’ll be back to normal by tomorrow, maybe the next day. Do you have anything that needs healing?”

“Barely bruised,” Azula insists. Zuko knows it isn’t quite true - she’s favouring her left side - but he’ll leave Katara to wheedle the information from her later. “Naturally, Zuzu had to be dramatic.” 

Sokka slips his arms around Zuko’s middle, and Zuko curls into him. Sleep would be nice. 

“When’s the coronation?” Zuko makes himself ask.

Azula hesitates. “We can wait until you’re healed,” she says. “It will give us time to clear up the palace, anyway. Battles are so messy.” 

Aang joins them then, looking just as harried as Azula, and immediately plants himself face-down on Zuko’s bed. “Okay,” Zuko accepts, and reaches over to pat the Avatar’s head. 

“How is post-battle just as tiring as actual battle?” Aang asks into the pillow.

Toph isn’t far behind him, and someone must have forced her to bathe, because she was coated in a thick layer of dust last he saw her. Mai and Ty Lee come to take Azula away, but instead, somehow everyone ends up on Zuko’s bed. 

“Let’s just sleep for a while,” Katara suggests. “Sleep is good for healing.” 

“Mm hm,” the new Fire Lord responds, and that’s the last thing Zuko knows for a while.

 


 

Fire Lord Azula smiles politely, and tries to figure out how to extricate herself from this incredibly boring conversation. Luckily, Sokka apparently knows what this face means, because he sweeps in as if he has something important to tell her. When Councilman Boring has left, he says: “Maybe it’s time to slow down on the parties.”

“I wish,” Azula replies. “But we’ll be gearing up for another week of them as of tomorrow. On that note, where is my dear brother?”

Azula is trying to get used to the fact that Zuko isn’t always in grabbing distance nowadays. It’s a process. 

“I’m going to give you three guesses as to what he’s found,” Sokka says, smiling over Azula’s shoulder.

Azula turns. Completely on form, Zuko is cradling what appears to be a rather new infant against his chest. His face is lit up, and the smile on his face is easier than it tends to be.

“Wow,” Azula drawls. “How long until he starts giving you doe-eyes about this?”

Sokka goes red. “Azula,” he says, low and warning. Azula rolls her eyes. Yes, yes, they’re too young, whatever. As if Sokka hasn’t already had a whole conversation with Katara about when would be an appropriate time to talk about the possibility of maybe proposing. As if Katara wouldn’t have immediately told her this. 

Zuko spots them and heads over, apparently having just stolen this very small child. Azula gives him an unimpressed look.

“Fire Lord,” Zuko greets. He’s walking tall, now. You would never guess that he’d been shot full of lightning less than a month ago. “Do we really have to do this again tomorrow night?”

“Of course not, Zuzu,” Azula responds. “It’s going to be much worse tomorrow night.”

The parties have slowly calmed down since Azula’s ascension to the throne. They now only consist of the most important figures in the Fire Nation. And anyone Azula sees fit to invite, of course. 

Tomorrow is Zuko’s coronation as Crown Prince. He’s still awkward about it, because Zuzu would rather run around like a feral street child than wear a crown, but it’s better for the nation this way. Zuko knows it, and he’s willing to accept it for the greater good. 

Tomorrow’s party will be much worse. It will be the celebration of a new era, sure, but it will also be the celebration of the rebirth of the Phoenix Prince.

Azula glances around, checking on her friends. Ty Lee is clinging to Mai’s arm, beaming at the Avatar, who’s apparently partaking in some kind of convoluted, high-energy storytelling. Whatever it is has Katara planting her face into her own palm and Toph snorting with laughter. 

“Go see your sister,” Azula suggests to Sokka. “I’m going to take my brother for a stroll.” 

“Oh, maybe you should take Faiza,” Zuko suggests, lifting the quiet bundle of joy from his chest. “Isn’t she adorable? She’s the daughter of… um.” 

Zuko continues to arrange the infant against Sokka’s chest as if he didn’t just trail off. Sokka looks a little lost, but he accepts the load with careful hands, and then Zuko stares at Sokka holding a baby with big, stupid eyes, like it’s the best thing he’s ever seen. 

“Zuko, did you forget the names of the parents of the baby you stole?” Azula asks, amused. “The parents who are important enough to attend this palace function?”

Zuko glances at her, a little guilty. “I guess,” he admits, and then he looks back at Sokka and Faiza. 

“Completely hopeless,” Azula mutters, and she’s not even sure if she’s referring to Zuzu’s behaviour in the royal court or the way that the boys are looking at one another with stars in their eyes. She nudges Zuko with her elbow and nods to the doors, and Zuko accepts a brief kiss from Sokka before walking away. 

(Azula has only just managed to push that change of law through, because it proved trickier than expected, even for a Fire Lord. Where she would normally roll her eyes at the display of affection, right now Azula is pleased that those who didn’t support the change have to see it and can’t do anything about it.)

Azula and Zuko leave the noise of the party behind them and walk down the hallway toward the royal paintings. 

Azula is allowing the royal portraits of Sozin, Azulon, and Ozai to remain here. They are, after all, her predecessors. But the paintings glorifying the war have been taken from this spot to a room close to the library, where they will be viewed as a part of historical context, and not a point of pride.

The only painting remaining here of Father, aside from his royal portrait, is of their family united. 

Azula remembers this being painted. She was eight at the time, and Zuko was ten. Azula had stayed very still, the perfect child, while Zuko tried desperately not to fidget. 

Azula also remembers her eyes catching on this painting through the years, because it was the only public portrait of her dead brother. She remembers growing older than Zuko was in the painting, and telling herself that she felt nothing about it.

“Azula?” Zuko asks. Azula looks over to him, but Zuko’s eyes are still on the painting. He probably hasn’t spent as much time looking at it as she has. “What are we doing here?”

Azula turns her head forward again, looking to the two of them as children. Zuko’s face is whole in the painting, and he looks eerily similar to Azula. 

They aren’t children anymore. 

“That night,” Azula says, her voice quiet enough that it won’t carry if they’re followed, “did you fight back?”

“Which night?” Zuko asks. 

Azula pauses. “The night you were to die.”

Zuko hesitates, and when Azula looks toward him, he’s frowning. “I don’t remember much of it,” Zuko admits. “I don’t know if that’s because of the injury, or if I just… don’t want to. But I remember being told to kneel. I didn’t fight then.”

“You didn’t know what was happening,” Azula extrapolates.

“Yes,” Zuko agrees. 

“And when you did?” Azula asks.

Zuko looks over at her. “Of course I fought back,” he says. “Grandfather had to hold me down. He burned me too, in the end - my shoulders and arms - but those healed. But I was a child, I wasn’t going to be able to escape.”

Something in Azula relaxes. She looks up at her brother, and then nods once, decisively. 

“Good.”

“Why?” Zuko asks. “What does it matter?”

Azula glances at the painting again. “I wondered,” she says, looking at herself in a more innocent time. “I remember hoping that you fought to the end.” 

When Azula looks back to Zuko, he’s still wearing a puzzled expression. Instead of clarifying, Azula reaches to her belt and pulls off the sheath for the pearl-handled dagger. She slides the blade out, and holds it up so that Zuko can see it.

“Never give up without a fight,” Zuko reads, and smiles a little.

Azula smiles, too. “This was what convinced me you were really dead,” she explains. “I knew you would never leave it behind. So I hoped that you didn’t give up without a fight.” 

Zuko hums, and Azula lowers the blade. She slides it back into its sheath, and then holds it out. 

“It’s yours,” Azula states. “I suppose I didn’t know, but I was just holding it on for you until you came home.”

Zuko looks at her for a long moment, and then takes the dagger. “Thank you,” he says, awkward and rough, and places the dagger in a pocket of his robe. And then he moves closer to her, and to Azula’s horror, she realises that he looks like he might cry. “I’m happy to be home.” 

Zuko reaches out, and it’s so unlike Zuko to do that Azula barely realises what’s happening until he’s embracing her. 

Azula hesitates, and then folds her arms around him, and she breathes very deeply. 

 


 

When Azula is fourteen, she discovers that she was never an only child. 

When Azula is fourteen, she plucks the crown from her Father’s head and stops a century-old war.

When Azula is fourteen, she welcomes her brother home.