She was home. And she knew where she was going.
The black marble tiles of the royal palace seemed to warm her feet through her slippers with the sunlight they’d absorbed during the day. You could check your reflection in them, if you didn’t already look perfect. Red and gold tapestries cloaked the panelled walls, plush crimson cushions lay fluffed on the couches flanking the hall, gauzy curtains fluttered in a gentle evening breeze. The sharpness of unyielding stone dressed up in velvet and silk. Elegant. Refined. Like the red satin nightgown she smoothed over, the texture a comfort under her hands. She raised a finger to a pot on the nearest windowsill and lit the sticks nestled in it with a spark of flame. The Fire Nation’s finest incense brought a pleasant spice to the air. Every breath invigorated her, as though imbued with the sun’s energy and fire. Nothing here was a ‘normal’ level of size or grandeur, but that suited her fine, she thought, taking in the familiar sight as she traced the edge of a column; after all, Princess Azula had never been normal. She never could be.
Finally she came to the place she’d been heading for, her childhood’s lodestone. No matter what had happened that day in the palace, she would always come back here, was always welcome. Her bedroom. A child’s ultimate sanctuary. Not that she was a child anymore, but still. Azula touched the gilded flame engraved on the hardwood door. In the candlelight it had a glow all its own. She’d missed this. Hello, embroidered sheets. Hello, goose-chinchilla feather mattress. She opened the door with a firm push...
Her heart shuddered in her chest and her arm slowly dropped to her side. Azula stared. Smoke hung in the air, thick and suffocating. The quick inhale she’d taken in shock only made her throat burn. Soot stained the walls up to the ceiling. The floor was a bed of white ashes, the powder clinging to the hem of her dress. Between that and her artisan furniture being reduced to the most primitive charred husks, it almost resembled what she’d imagine a squalid Water Tribe hut would look like. No, worse. A homeless Water Tribe beggar wouldn’t want it. Her clothes were blackened rags strewn amidst splintered mahogany boards, the remains of her wardrobe. All that was left of her bed was a few cindery planks. Everything was gone.
She bit her tongue before she could scream. Princesses don’t scream. Soldiers don’t scream. Instead she knelt down where her dressing table used to be, carefully picked up a deformed lump of gold - princesses don’t tremble - that was once her favourite bracelet, cradled it and tried to scrape the ash off. It had been forged into an intricate twisting dragon. Father had given it to her (among other beautiful things) for her twelth birthday, her first without -
“Azula! Thank goodness you’re alright!”
Azula snapped upright and spun around, the ruined bracelet dropping into the mess. She knew that voice. Why, why, did all her thoughts come back to her? She thought she was past this!
“I saw the smoke and blue fire and couldn’t find you, and I feared the worst,” Ursa continued, wringing her hands. Her eyes were soft. She walked from the doorway toward Azula, who held her head high and shot her a searing glare. “I’m so sorry. It wasn’t your fault you lost control.”
“I think you’re confusing me with your dear Zuko,” she scoffed. “I have perfect command over my firebending - no flame ever goes where I don’t want it to.”
“So you wanted this?” asked Ursa. Her eyebrow curved, unconvinced, yet not accusatory either. Just... sad. And weary.
Azula’s fists (when did she make those?) tightened. Her mother had used to be the easiest person in the world to predict, possibly after Zuko and Ty Lee, but suddenly Azula couldn’t seem to read her. What did she want from her? Whatever it was, she wasn’t going to get it - soldiers do not yield. So she looked Ursa in the eye.
Ursa sighed. “You can be honest with me, Azula. I’m your mother.”
A new noise cut the conversation short: a wet, thick trickle, a gurgle. In a slow, simultaneous motion of equal dread, they turned. Blood was leaking steadily into the room. It dampened the ashes, which floated around in its swirls and joined together in clumps. Despite Azula’s efforts to shuffle to higher ground, it rose up to her ankles and began to add to the ruination of her nightgown. She didn’t have a weak stomach, but this unnerved her. She peered beyond the doorframe to see the hallway flooded with it. Ursa, meanwhile, appeared utterly resigned.
“Where is it coming from?” Azula asked, more to any higher powers that might hear.
Ursa sighed deeper, her posture crumpling like a core support pillar had been knocked out. “Where it always has.” Her voice sounded like the rattle of a chain.
Azula cracked her eyes open. To a pang of embarrassment she felt the sting of salt in them and the crustiness of dry tears on her cheeks. It was a most humiliating new habit, her susceptibility to crying. Then again, the last two years or so had been nothing but humiliating.
Her brother had abandoned his family and country to its worst enemies out of some abstract concept of honour. He’d interrupted her coronation, robbed her of all the talents that proved her worth over him - bending mastery; leadership; strategy; rationality; discipline - and thrown them back in her face. Her... allies, teammates, minions, whatever you would call their relationship, because it clearly wasn’t friendship... had betrayed her and were now much happier for it. Her mother, who she hadn’t actually seen since she was nine, had appeared to taunt her with the words she’d been longing to hear but never actually heard and wouldn’t leave her alone even in sleep. Her father, the man she’d sacrificed everything for, had cast her aside and rendered her entire existence till then worthless. A Water Tribe peasant girl had outsmarted her, literally chained her to a sewage grate like a rabid animal. She now lived poked and prodded at, watched endlessly, a specimen, a broken thing to be fixed. She was confined to a drab, minimalist cell, barring time outside for exercise. And even there, the garden was walled.
So, she’d been better.
Azula stretched and slid off her bed of cotton blankets. She shook the fuzzy ache from her inadequate night’s sleep out of her head. She put on her crisp white shirt and trousers and set about brushing her somewhat annoyingly long hair (no blades allowed) and fixing it into a topknot. It was the least she could do to recapture her dignity. A warmth bloomed in her chest, and she smiled. Somewhere, the sun was rising. It wasn’t visible through her cell’s tiny window, but somewhere, light was spilling across the land. One of the constant joys of being a firebender, one of the few reminders time was passing in the rest of the world. That there was a rest of the world. The royal family always rose with the sun, as was the national custom - in a few hours, Zuko would be here.
She’d been a lot worse, too.
Azula was pragmatic, methodical. Her mind was rearranged into a machine. (Don’t wonder whether you did that or -). Produce output, analyze result, replicate, repeat the output that got the most favourable result. She was also irrevocably, fundamentally selfish. Two qualities that stunted her ‘social emotional development’ ended up playing a major role in motivating her to heal. The mental hospital was... you could stay alive there, and that was it. Her imprisonment here was a direct consequence of hurting many, many people, including people no sane person would contemplate hurting. If she stopped doing that - wanting to, enjoying it - she could eventually leave. Go home, be free. Be a princess again, the kind that wasn’t really a soldier. In the short term, if obeying the rules she earned privileges, or at least less surveillance and restraints.
Slowly, slowly, it worked. She’d come quite far from the straitjacket she’d been admitted in. Therapy was still infuriating and excruciating, but in a way that was starting to make sense. The hallucinations of Ursa had become less and less frequent. It was easier to trust: Zuko, by virtue of his typical foolish persistence and sentimentality; wise, enduring Uncle Iroh; sincere, spiritual Aang; Toph, who’d first made her laugh; some of the nurses. This rehabilitation idea. That maybe, maybe she didn’t have to a monster any longer. She could resist the urge to give her soul a sharp slap when she felt fear or remorse, and no longer seethed with hatred upon seeing the monarchial headpiece in her brother’s hair. She played Pai Sho. Drank the tea they brought.
If Zuko could become well adjusted, she certainly could. Otherwise winter would follow spring and finch-mice would start eating cat-owls.
Four hours later, the Fire Lord was conspicuously absent. Azula was bored. Bored bored bored bored. The feeling was familar, and that meant boredom was itself boring. She practiced the motions of firebending katas (no bending allowed either) that her body remembered like walking as footsteps echoed down the hallway. Her brow creased with disappointment. They weren’t Zuko’s, his were heavier and slower.
She was right, of course. Avatar Aang bowed in greeting, a luminous smile on his ridiculously young face. His yellow and orange Air Nomad robe rustled with the movement. However often he visited, it was hard to believe this child saved the planet. Could command all four elements. Defeated the Phoenix King under Sozin’s Comet. He seemed the same flinching, wide-eyed boy who dodged her attacks in Omashu.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
Aang’s smile turned apologetic. “I thought I should tell you Zuko’s been delayed until the afternoon, probably late. And I wanted to see you.”
“What’s the delay? Did he say something stupid to Chief Arnook?”
Aang looked pleased to hear that she paid attention to Zuko’s political vents. Once again, it felt good to be connected to the outside world. Aang opened his mouth to defend his friend, closed it and breathed a half-swallowed laugh. He learned forward conspiratorially.
“Kind of. He casually mentioned that a firebender who knew the breath of fire technique could penetrate the Northern Water Tribe’s environmental defences, at the last minute of the last meeting. Arnook wasn’t happy. You should have seen the look on Zuko’s face when Arnook asked him how he learned that. It opened a can of ant-worms he’d been avoiding addressing.”
Azula smirked wryly. “Ah, yes,” she said in exaggerated awe, nodding, “the implacable Blue Spirit. Zuzu does have quite the breaking and entering streak. The Boiling Rock, Pohuai Stronghold...”
“Lake Laogai,” supplied Aang. “It’s like he does the impossible. After he resuced me from Pohuai, in the most terrifying feat of nonbending skill I’d ever seen, he got knocked out and the mask slipped off. I couldn’t believe it was Zuko. I’d thought he was physically incapable of going five minutes without shouting.”
Azula didn’t bother holding back her snort of laughter. Aang’s wit was a rare treat, especially directed at such a deeply respected friend.
“It’s ironic. All those years, Ozai thought Zuko was talentless. If he’d bothered to pay attention to something besides firebending, I imagine Zuko would have made a fine assassin.”
Aang’s smile dimmed. Sorrow flashed in his eyes and the air stilled and grew heavy, a storm cloud thundering above their heads. Azula’s posture became rigid and she clamped her thinning lips together. In the next moment the pressure was gone. But the faux pas was duly noted - Ozai’s name had no place in an amicable chat. She didn’t mean it as a good thing, anyway. Her father’s attention was never a good thing.
“So, what about you? No cosmic spirit doomsday to prevent?” she said.
“Not yet,” Aang replied with a shrug that didn’t stop her noticing the bags under his eyes. “Let’s hope it stays that way.”
They continued to chitchat - Azula could chitchat now! Well, she was a fast learner - while her thoughts wandered. She remembered being nine years old, a precocious brat but nine years old nonetheless. She remembered waking up with the ghost of a kiss on her cheek and a sense of anticipation thrumming in her bones that only intensified as she found Ozai in the gardens. He explained that everything was going to change: Fire Lord Azulon was ‘mysteriously’ dead and Ozai would be coronated that night. And her mother was “gone”. She asked for clarification, surprised that he hadn’t said “dead” or whatever the truth was. He wasn’t one to mince words. She didn’t need sugarcoating, he knew that. He refused to give it, brushed over the loss of his wife with a callousness that even shocked her, and she told herself she was glad. Told herself it was good riddance so fervently and often she soon believed it. Drilled it into her mind like the katas. No more Ursa meant no more scolding and confusing lessons about right and wrong that didn’t match what Father said. It wasn’t like Ursa had ever loved her, after all. In the present though the full weight of that day crashed onto Azula, the fact that Ozai, Ozai who she watched the night before nonchalantly agree to kill his own son, had been her and Zuko’s only parent, the sole and absolute authority on their thoughts and and values and desires. Then Zuko had been banished, given the chance to see the world behind the endless lies. And for three more years she’d been trapped there to carry everything. Alone. Iroh joining Zuko, Ty Lee fleeing to her circus, Mai sent to Omashu. Alone in the palm of Ozai’s hand. Oh, no. No, no, no. That wasn’t good news at all, little ‘Zula.
She knew where the blood was coming from.
They were strolling through the hospital grounds, the midday sun high in the sky. The bushes were delicately manicured, the flowers arranged by colour and form, the fine, crumbly soil brushed thoroughly off the clipped grass. She could appreciate that. She dared call it the poor man’s royal gardens. Ugh, what had this place done to her standards? Everything was bright and honeyed, reminding her of squinting through the pieces of amber she’d collected as a girl.
“You flew straight into,” she was saying, “a giant Antarctic hurricane? I’d have thought living in the mountains and bending air, you’d be a little more attuned to the weather. You could have at least brought a coat.” Her teasing tone was familiar to any who knew her during the war, but different. Lighter, lacking a low chord of malice.
“Well, I wasn’t thinking properly! The ‘running away with no supplies or plan’ thing should have given that away!” Aang protested. “It crept up on me.”
“An Antarctic hurricane... crept up on you.” At this point she knew it was unfair to joke, but her dramatic pause made Aang’s face erupt into comical defensive fury, also lacking a darkness underneath.
“They’re fast! Have you ever flown through a storm?”
Azula rolled her eyes. “I haven’t even ridden a sky bison. You’re making them out to be dismayingly slow.” Aang turned a lovely Fire Nation red.
“Appa is -” - all traces of his anger vanished like a boy into a storm - “hey, that’s a great idea! When you get out of here, we should take you bison riding. I know Appa doesn’t much like you, but we can work on that. He warmed up to Zuko.”
He went on nattering the six-legged beast’s praises. Azula didn’t have many herself, having both smelled Appa and seen his power in battle. One vengeful swish of his tail and he could hurl her into a wall with sufficient force to break every bone in her body. She supposed that was praise. But distinctly not the kind Aang spoke, cuddles and licks and a dozen other things that apparently meant love.
“You were running away, badly?”
He nodded, deflating but not completely. “I was afraid. Of failing, of not being able to be who they told me I had to. They were talking about war! Protecting the whole world! It sounded insane.”
“That old monk was right, though. You did need to train, and now you can somehow ‘balance the world’, and playing games with Gyatso didn’t do it,” she said with an air of finality. Goodness, look at her, agreeing with a long-dead Air Nomad authority.
“Yes. But I think he was wrong too, to separate me and Gyatso. You learn best when you’re happy, confident and emotionally stable - and being isolated from your loved ones doesn’t do that,” he countered, quietly proud of himself. “I needed trained, but I needed family and friends too.”
Azula hummed. “I had family, friends and training. And I was still afraid.” Her voice came out smaller than she expected. The last word was a scratchy whisper. The summer sun beat down and she swiped sweat off her forehead.
“There’s no shame in fearing you won’t be enough, especially under such great expectations. Everyone feels like that from time to time. But I get that it can make you feel alone.” He didn’t point out that with Ozai as patriarch, her family back then had hardly got a chance to count as one, and after that the friends he allowed her to have would never be enough. He didn’t need to.
“No wonder you act so nice,” said Azula. “You never want to be alone again. You found yourself in a world teeming with danger and enemies and to avoid them, and by extension the rest of your problems, you’ve learned to pacify and ingratiate, to retreat. You know how to advance now, but that’s still your habit.” Aang blinked. She hastily remembered that friends don’t unusually psychoanalyse each other.
“I don’t act nice, I am.”
“You do both.”
He reached out and squeezed her hand. “You are good enough, Azula. You always have been. Worth isn’t something you need to earn, everyone has it.”
She snatched her hand away and glowered bitterly at a plot of vibrant dahlias. They grew upward, toward the sun. The warmth in her chest flared. This ex-enemy, ex-prey, ex-kill, was telling her words her parents had neglected, one out of assumption it was obvious, the other deliberately, had shown her a kindness she’d always craved the way drowning lungs crave air. What could she say to that?
Sorry, duh. But the word burned as it rose in her throat and fell, leaving acrid smoke in its wake.
“They might... but the world doesn’t care. Most people don’t care until you do something for them.”
“That’s their problem,” Aang declared, “a problem that needs fixing. And I’m really proud of you.”
Unseen to him, her eyes slid up from the flowerbed to the hospital wall.
She said solemnly, “Then I hate to let you down.”
Azula hadn’t bent fire in two years. By enforcement, more recently by choice. But she was made for it. You don’t forget how to walk. Flames - orange, fading in a second to her signature brilliant azure - ripped out of her palms and pummelled the stone tile path, spraying in ravenous tongues. Her fingers automatically curled around them, turned them into thin jets and wavered in their shimmering heat. Aang sprang back. The joy on his face vanished like a boy into the sea. She ran for the wall. Five guards were chasing her already. Air, both fragrant and smoky from the flowers, rushed against her skin and stems whacked her legs. What the flames weren’t burning, her legs trampled. Close close close. She glanced behind her.
Aang swept his arms out in a wide circle and with a whoosh it seemed he cut a tear in the air itself. The flames eagerly consuming the flowerbed shrunk and died faster than she’d thought possible, racing too slow to Aang’s end, and even her jets dwindled slightly. A new trick. Clever, Avatar - remove the oxygen. But her inner fire’s fuel was limitless and he would never catch up.
Aang’s next stance was low and stiff. His leg snapped out. The ground in front of her compressed and a ridge rose up, becoming a wall to trap her. Azula jumped on it while it was still a ridge, leapt off and used the momentum in a swift spinning kick. Four whips of fire lashed the squad of guards of their feet. More earth formations blocked and crushed them, but not before the guards had been scattered and forced to retreat. A few hairs slipped out of her topknot. They tickled her neck and she twitched her head in irritation. Closer closer closer.
“What are you doing?” cried Aang. Wind pressed her toward him, rolling pebbles by her feet, nipping her arms and tugging her hair. A column of whirling air encapsulated her. She braced her stance to hold firm.
“Oh, I just have some unfinished business to clear up. It doesn’t concern you.”
“Stay out of this! This is a family matter!” Should not have said that. What had this place done to her control? Ah well. At least now she could take advantage of Aang tightening in confusion and burgeoning horror, processing what those words could mean. She breathed, in, out, in, for the strength of firebending lay in the breath. She blew fiercely. Crackling blue streamed from her mouth and eagerly set upon the fresh oxygen. In seconds Azula was in the heart of a miniature fire tornado. She could stop the heat so much as singeing her and pushed the dazzling column wider, even while Aang tried his air-siphoning move. When the fire receded, Azula was gone.
Azula had hit enough different types of matter with lightning to know what would happen to them. Wood would break and burn. Water would evaporate. Flesh would scar (Aang must have a scar. She could almost picture it). Near the top of the wall was a weak spot where the bricks had cracked and crumbled. She aimed two fingers at it, felt the white-hot energy build...
Stone would melt and fracture. The bricks exploded. Dust rained down, mixing with her smokescreen, and her rising form dodged the falling fragments of rock. Aang paused pursuing her to levitate the shrapnel, to protect the innocent. Twist of the century there. That pause was all she needed to restart her jets and clear the wall.
Glancing over her shoulder mid-leap, she saw that she hadn’t destroyed as many plants as she had thought. It surprised her that the sight comforted her so much. The grounds and hospital looked big up here, but the capital city was endlessly bigger and the labyrinth of streets beckoned her. She rolled to a stop and plucked her hair tie off the street. Her loose hair rippled as she fled.
Aang jumped the wall in a single bound and was on her heels like, well, the wind. They wove through the capital’s streets, pedestrians and traffic alike halting in shock, awe, and alarm. It was the Avatar! And the psycho princess! Azula didn’t have time to dwell on her disgust.
She darted into an alleyway. No matter which way Aang craned his neck to see, no matter how high he flew, no teenage firebender in hospital garb could be spotted. He sighed. The guards assembling around him immediately realized they’d lost her.
“We need to move fast before the trail goes cold,” he said. “She mentioned it being a ‘family matter’. If she wanted Zuko, she’d wait for him to come to her and she’s never reacted anything like this to her imaginings of Ursa.” His eyes narrowed grimly. “Most likely, she’s after Ozai.” The guards straightened. Some gulped, some hung their heads, the leader stood broader. There it was again, the tension in the air just at his name. “We’ll go to Caldera City Prison to intercept her, but I want the chance to talk her down first.”
The leader stepped forward. “With all due respect, Avatar, I’m tired of living in fear of that girl. She’s one of the most dangerous criminals in the country.”
“She was,” Aang cut in. The guard pointed at the hole in the wall.
“She clearly remains a threat! Volatile, unpredictable. I still think you should remove her bending and be done with it, so this disaster can’t be repeated.”
“We’ve been over this, sir. Azula was fourteen when she committed her crimes. She has her whole life ahead of her, a life full of potential opportunities to change. We know she wants to change. She’s been trying. A relapse -”
“Several she’s worked past! Look, they don’t make that effort meaningless. She was a victim of Ozai. I am not robbing her of a part of herself when it isn’t absolutely necessary.”
Azula was touched, really. She listened to the guard leader assign positions and give tactical instructions. Just before the search party left her field of vision, she slunk out of her hiding place; years of training in stealth barely let her stifle a laugh. It was very considerate of them to show her to the prison.
Prison guard qualifications must have dropped during Zuko’s reign, watching those at the window all flock to check on the smouldering baby fire she’d lit. She would have to inform him of that. Or maybe they’d always been poor. The steel grid melted to wax under her hands. The Blue Spirit would be proud of her, she mused.
The cell block was the most unlike the palace Azula imagined anywhere could be.
Even the bitter barren poles had an element of natural beauty. Here there was nothing but darkness and dirt, clinging to the corners and recesses of the corridor, shadows creeping around her as disconcertingly as the scuttling pests that darted in every direction. Her measured, deliberate footsteps echoed in the stillness. Occasionally a rough voice or metallic clang jutted out of the rows of cages. The prison tower had a series of subterranean floors, she was on the lowest. She couldn’t feel the sun. The air was stagnant with a terrible congestion of smells so profound she mourned needing to relinquish the fresh air from her lungs. She smiled despite it; finally, his surroundings matched his soul.
She froze abruptly, a predator sensing the apex. There he was. Just around the corner. Waiting. Her fingers nimbly redid her topknot and she ran over her plan. A few taunts, then it would all be over forever. She didn’t have to listen a word he said. In the flawless regal pose he’d always loved so much - chin up, back straight, arms clasped gracefully - she rounded the corner.
“Hello, Father,” she spat. “Did you miss me?”
Ozai would have been unrecognizable, were it not for the sneer of hatred. His black hair was matted and wild, his hands calloused and bruised. She remembered her shackles after the last Agni Kai and hoped his were ten times tighter. He kneeled in a shapeless heap. His sunken eyes locked onto her with a contempt that sent heat prickling the back of her skull. They scanned her clothes. His face twisted into a ghastly smile.
“You’re still in the madhouse, aren’t you?” The words fell softly, the way a poisoned knife could be inserted softly.
Her blood scalded her veins. How dare he treat her like a... a thing of amusement?
“And you’re rotting in your own filth!” she snapped.
He wheezed a laugh. “At least I know who I am, what I believe. I had such hopes for you, such plans! I taught you to be great! Now you’re even worse than Zuko, unable to commit to anything, even your own sanity. Zuko I expected to be a total disgrace. He didn’t disappoint me, he proved me right. You’re the disappointment.”
Azula held two fingers to his head. Her heart was pounding, but her mind she could clear. Every shred of focus on one goal.
“You let us believe you loved us,” she snarled. “You burned a third of my brother’s face off and banished him when he was thirteen.” Her fingers began to steam. “You raised him to think he deserved it.” Electricity crackled to life around them, casting a harsh, cold light on her and Ozai. She was grinning too, now. “And you raised me... to smile as I watched.”
The lightning surged, ready to be released -
Aang’s voice was loud and commanding in a way she’d never heard before, but completely composed. She turned to him.
He stood tall. His face was still round and soft, but there was a churning, fathomless ocean in his eyes. The resilience of a mountain in his spine. A fire roaring beneath the taut skin covering his muscles. The threat of a hurricane in every calm exhale. Suddenly it wasn’t so hard to believe he was the Avatar, the vanquisher of a hundred years of war and tyranny. Suddenly it struck Azula that he was truly the only airbender in existence: one day there were Air Temples buzzing with life and love and culture, the next day he woke up they were full of skeletons and dust, and the day after that he got up and decided to make the world better. And did. In nine months, with the unsuppressed might of the Fire Nation and more opposing him. Azula shivered.
Nonetheless, she squared her shoulders and hissed, “Spare me your moral lecture. I know your reasons for sparing him and none of them apply to me.”
“He’s harmless. He isn’t worth it,” Aang said, taking a step toward her.
“Not worth it?” shrieked Azula. “You know he deserves to die! You’ve seen what he’s done to the world, to your friends! He tried to kill Zuko twice. This is justice.”
Aang showed her his palms placatingly. “I don’t deny he’s a heinous waste of human life, and I’m not asking you to forgive him. Considering his life’s purpose and ideology revolved around power, living with none might easily be worse than death. Struck down in his prime, reduced to that.” He gestured to the heap of a man.
Her outstretched hand dipped slightly. He had a point. She did want Ozai to experience the maximum amount of suffering possible; losing his firebending was his personal hell. She blinked and frowned.
“You are an Air Nomad? Merciful, loving?”
“Blame Toph and Katara, they’re ruthless,” Aang quipped. What a revelatory day. His serious expression returned instantly. “You risk making him a martyr, and murdering a prisoner won’t reflect well on you. Think of your rehabilitation.”
“You don’t know what’s best for me! I’m not letting other people tell what to do - ever again!” Bluish-white sparks sprayed out, narrowly missing her skin. Her chest heaved with irregular breaths. Her eyes were stinging once more.
Aang stopped walking. He was near enough to lower Azula’s arm himself.
“You’re right, Azula. You need to make your own choices. But I think you aren’t, even now, because the fifteen-year-old you really are isn’t a murderer. That’s what Ozai crafted you into. His perfect solider, his sharpest, shiniest weapon. But a weapon is just another type of tool. You don’t have to be that anymore, you can be human.” There was deep weariness in his eyes, and she caught a pubescent crack in his voice. He shouldn’t be this wise. He shouldn’t be able to say these things when her mother couldn’t and her father wouldn’t. (Her words alone once toppled a nation.)
She looked back at Ozai, who’d bowed his head like he were praying this intrusive, melodramatic performance would end. Her fingers had slipped below his forehead. Trying to refocus her aim, her hand shook. She felt dizzy. It was too hot in here. Why did the smell have to be so awful?
Azula opened her mouth, not sure what she was going to say. No words came out, just ragged gasps; hot salty wetness rolled down her cheeks.
Aang pleaded, “What you need to ask yourself is, did Ozai succeed with you? Will you let him have any more of a say in who you are? Or do you choose not to be a weapon?”
The lightning blasted the bar just next to Ozai’s head. Azula collapsed. She hugged her knees as if to pull herself out of existence; her body was trembling feverishly; desperate sobs slammed into the walls.
“Take me back to my room. I want to go back to my room!” she whimpered. Aang crouched to her level.
“It’s okay, it’s okay, I’m here,” he said, placing a hand gently on her shoulder and letting her lean into the touch. “It’s over.”
Azula could rationalize her choice all day and night long. For she was still pragmatic, and she was still selfish. She surrendered to avoid the legal repercussions. To keep what privileges, or rights, she hadn’t already lost. To make Aang shut up and get off her case.
But that wasn’t it. None of those had even crossed her mind (except the third, distantly). She surrended because she was so, so tired of being a soldier, a weapon, a tool. She surrended because she wanted to be human while she had the chance. Be a teenager. She was so sick of hurting.
The guards scowled at her as Aang escorted her past them. Their eyes lingered warily on her new handcuffs. After the Agni Kai, one of her few memories from that red haze was straining against her chains until her wrists were raw and bleeding. The bruises had lasted weeks. She hoped she could earn their removal soon.
She only realized when she stepped back into it - in her head, she now called her cell her room. This was the room she’d been speaking of. Maybe it wasn’t a luxurious royal chamber fit for a Fire Princess, but her actions had forfeited that. Maybe it was... good enough. Maybe it was fit for Azula. Hello, cotton sheets. Hello, wool mattress.
“Do you want me to stay?” Aang asked. She nodded mutely and sniffed. He sat down, legs crossed. His shoulders relaxed. The ocean had drained from his eyes. He was clearly as exhausted as she felt. She wondered how someone could have such a powerful presence, yet be so humble. How you could be both a lost, broken child and the Avatar. But then, how could you be both a lost, broken child and Azula, usurper of the Earth Kingdom throne? She didn’t know. Perhaps they could work it out together.
“I’m sorry for killing you,” she said quietly. Aang gasped. Had she really never said sorry until today? Not in living memory, it would appear. He beamed.
Then he spent a moment thinking, examining the floor. She got the feeling he’d been mulling this over long before today. Good. He should have to think. The shame that ultimately crossed his features was expected. She couldn’t forgive herself, why should Aang? He didn’t have to be a saint. He looked up at last. There was lightning in his eyes and a scar on his back.
With a Fire Nation bow, he said, “I accept your apology. I forgive you.”
It was her turn to bear a flicker of a smile. The cuffs felt a little looser, her breaths came a little easier. Her chi-blocked limbs were limp, but she lowered her torso in the best bow she could manage.
The world didn’t deserve Aang, or Zuko, or Iroh. She definitely didn’t. She would keep trying to.
These steps were small and unsteady, but they went in the right direction.