Warnings: character death, mild femslash, implied torture, implied rape, implied incest.
AN: This was edited on 5/18/15 to make a few corrections, format changes and a few changes of syntax.

So We'd Both Be Free

are you, are you
coming to the tree
wear a necklace of rope
side by side with me
strange things did happen here, no stranger would it be
if we met at midnight in the hanging tree
"Hanging Tree" - Suzanne Collins

Four Days Post Comet

Zuko wakes, gasping for breath.

The first sense that comes to him is not sight or hearing; it is the agonizing pain from the lightning strike. When at last his vision becomes clear and he looks around, he sees that he is in his childhood bedroom, which makes little sense. His childhood bedroom? He blinks several times and examines every inch of the room, unsure what has led him here.

And then he looks to see someone waiting for him to wake. His father. His father.

"They're all dead," growls Ozai, and Zuko chokes on his own saliva. "If you're looking for them. The comet was four days ago and you've been sleeping so soundly... How nice you've decided to join us." Pause. "Your uncle lived though, the bastard. I guess it's a war that doesn't feel like ending yet."

Zuko does not understand his words at first. They are simply incomprehensible. Then, his mind and body so delayed, he at last notices that his wrists are bound to his bed tight. Zuko tugs against them in a sudden panic, gnashing his teeth. His father wears a slight amused expression as he watches his son struggle.

"It doesn't matter if you break free. I won." Ozai articulates it so plainly, so clearly. And Zuko wants him to die at that moment more than he ever has in his life.

"What do you mean? You're lying!" is all Zuko can manage. He is pretending, and he knows that he is pretending.

Phoenix King Ozai is unimpressed by the pathetic response of his floundering son. "I mean, that you've been unconscious from a lightning strike for four days, and you only just woke up."

Zuko hesitates. "Why did you save me?"

That makes his father laugh, and Zuko's fingers smoke.

"You really don't belong in this family, do you? I saved you so I could have the honor of deciding how you die. I brought you into this world, and I will take you out of it," Ozai replies calmly without a second of hesitation.

"Where's Katara?" Zuko asks first, hoping he can at least get these answers out of his father. If Ozai claims to be so honorable, he must at least offer Zuko the benefit of information.

"Dead. She took a whole legion of men out with her. I'm impressed. She was good for you," Ozai says and Zuko does not bother correcting his father that Katara was not his girlfriend. "Care to hear about your other friends?"

Zuko hesitates. "Your answer is going to be the same for all of them, huh?"

"No. The peasant boy, blind girl and Azula's little toy met up with your uncle and they've barricaded themselves in Ba Sing Se." Pause. "But the Avatar won't be showing up again." Ozai takes one last look at Zuko's pained expression and says, "I think we're done here."

Zuko thinks he falls asleep again, because the next time he is conscious, it is dark out, save for the moonlight trickling through the window, and someone slender is sitting beside him on his bed. She looks like a ghost, a phantom, a demonic spirit, but Zuko does not have the energy to fight her off.

"You're an asshole," says the familiar, purring voice of the figure. "If you hadn't left, none of this would've happened."

"For the love of Agni, Azula, I'm about to be executed. Please let my last hours be peaceful," Zuko snarls ferociously, glaring at her. But something is off, as he noted during the comet. She looks weakened.

Azula rubs her hands together and examines her long nails. "I just... before you... before he does this to you, I wanted to say I was sorry."

"What?" Zuko's eyes flash wide. He has never heard an apology from Azula's lips. The only person who ever demanded one of her was mother, and she refused to the point where Ursa simply gave up.

"I'm sorry." Silence. She must be playing something. She has to be playing something. "Don't make this cute, okay? But I never... ugh, never mind."

But Azula does not give up. She looks like she is fighting herself to remain beside him, and he loosens slightly. Maybe she means it. Stranger things have happened.

"Why are you sorry?" Zuko rasps, studying her closely. She looks disheveled and hollowed out.

"Look, I just want you to know that Ba Sing Se wasn't a trap. I would be a lunatic to risk myself for a trap that likely wouldn't work. It was a moment of weakness, and I brought you home. When I lied to father about the Avatar, it was to save myself because I had no excuse for bringing you home. I never hated you as much as I..." Azula trails off and starts picking viciously at her lower lip. It is already bloodied, her chin stained with blackish dried blood.

"It's not you. It's always been father," Zuko says sharply and Azula tears off a disgustingly large chunk of skin from her lip with her sharp fingernails. "It's hard for us to turn against him when he's turning us against each other."

"I don't forgive you for leaving. And I don't expect you to forgive me." Azula sighs. "I just want to set the record straight."

"Is this a trick?" Zuko whispers weakly, unsure what has caused this.

"If you want it to be." Azula wrings her hands for a heartbeat's time, and then flees the room, startled at herself, and Zuko startled at her.

He closes his eyes and tries to make the time pass faster.


Eight Days Post Comet

Azula is woken by a scream in the night that is not her own. She leaps up to investigate, keeping herself in a strict fighting stance, before thinking she may be hallucinating again. They have only been getting progressively worse, until she has gradually reverted into herself.

She pushes open her door and walks through the halls, trying to find the source. Her search leads her past Zuko's room and to her father's, where she knows better than to push open the door and invite herself inside.

Another scream, and then a crash. Azula pushes open the doors and hopes this is not a hallucination, or her father will probably hurt her.

"Mai?" escapes Azula's lips and amber eyes meet hers.

"Get out," father says, his words at Azula enraged, but, regardless of his words, Azula takes two more steps inside.

"What are you doing to her?" Azula demands hoarsely and he steps away from the mess he has made of Azula's best friend. The one who betrayed her, yes. The one she has cursed and raged about and throttled mentally. But her father has no right to leave her such a bloody mess.

No right to be doing... this. Naked, beautiful, Mai is naked and beautiful and Azula hates her and her stoic amber eyes and the crimson blood on her stark white skin. Azula looks past the purplish bruises and the hands clenched on her like metal cuffs.

Mai slowly gets to her feet, eyeing the situation around her. Azula looks to her father, then to his victim.

Azula hesitates. Mai murmurs, "Azula..."

"Did you really think I would help you?" Azula says as assuredly as she can manage, and from the corner of her eye she sees her father smirk.

"Azula..." Mai repeats.

"I guess you miscalculated." Azula turns and walks away, although her hand twitches and her ankle tries to twist to take her back and save Mai from whatever fate she is about to face.

Azula cries herself to sleep and she does not know why. She hates Mai. She hates Mai more than she hates mother or Zuko. So why does she wrap a pillow around her head to drown out the screaming? Azula is not weak. She has killed and felt nothing. She has tortured people for no good reason. But Mai's screams... they make Azula feel like vomiting.


Nine Days Post Comet

The next morning, Mai decides to free Zuko. It is not a hard choice. It is about halfway through the splinting of her arm when she decides she is not resigning herself to the fate her parents decided for her as soon as they birthed a daughter.

Fuck Azula. Fuck the Fire Nation. Mai will not live a life of torment and abuse. She is quiet but she is strong and she will take what she wants. And she wants freedom, freedom with Zuko.

She sneaks out of the guest room after the doctors are all gone. It is difficult to walk, but she forces herself. The journey through the palace corridors is long, but no one seems to notice her.

Meanwhile, Azula tosses and turns, kicking her blankets and tearing off sheets from the bed and burning them. She does not know why she is so conflicted, why she keeps hearing Mai screaming even when it is perfectly silent.

She gets up and grabs a knife, walking to Zuko's room. When she gets there, she finds Mai sitting on the bed, trying to untie the bonds.

"Shit!" Zuko yelps as he sees his sister in the shadow of the door frame.

Azula walks in, shuts the door and presses the knife into Mai's hand. Mai looks at her, confused.

"Go," Azula says, although she hates herself for it. She does not understand. She does not know anything anymore, she just knows she is long gone and beyond hope and maybe...

"What do you get out of this?" Mai demands, although she sets the blade on Zuko's bonds and starts to cut.

Azula just shakes her head. She does not know or understand.

Zuko jumps in front of the lightning. It courses through his body. Azula can see his pain, can see that he would take the pain from that water slut.

No one would do that for Azula.

Not even Ty Lee.

Mai liberates Zuko and stands up as he rubs his sore wrists and ankles. "Azula..."

"Go before I change my mind," Azula snarls and Mai nods once, before grabbing Zuko's hand and leaving. Azula sits down on her brother's bed and stares at her feet.

Zuko and Mai stop in an alleyway in the shadiest part of Caldera, gasping for breath. They sit down in the shadows and try to keep hidden. The night is so dark, and their small bodies cast long shadows as they try to find a place to hide.

"Why did she do that?" Mai demands, looking at Zuko closely. "Why did she help us?"

Zuko swallows, his brow knit and his lips pursed tightly before he can manage to speak. "Why did you betray her at the Boiling Rock? I wasn't expecting it."

Mai looks at her scraped and bruised knees for a moment. She knows that her next decision is risky, foolish and based on nothing but her sentimentality. But she makes it all the same. "We should go back for her."

"What?" Zuko's eyebrows shoot up. "Okay, Azula may have had a moment of weakness but..."

He trails off, suddenly remembering the words she said when he woke up to her sitting beside him. A moment of weakness in Ba Sing Se. She wanted him to come home.

Zuko hesitates. "She did it because she's a person, you know? A terrible, cruel person... but a person and she loves us and we just left her. I don't mean tonight, I mean..."

Mai kisses Zuko on the lips, mostly so she does not have to hear the rest of his statement.

As Mai and Zuko debate the merits of saving Azula, despite her crimes, the princess paces in her room, trying to figure out why she did that. She picked up the knife to slice herself to bits, then she used it to free her brother and the girl who ruined her life.

Azula is not generous. Azula is not kind. Azula does not love.

Azula does not know why she just did something so weak.

Azula does not know why she wishes so terribly that someone would take a bolt of lightning for her. Ty Lee for Mai, Zuko for Katara. Azula is completely and utterly alone in the cold palace, staring at the ceiling, wondering when and how she lost her way.

She closes her eyes and sees herself by the beach. Azula can smell the sand, the rot, the ocean spray. And she has never been happier than when Mai and Zuko and Ty Lee were clinging to her, and for the first time, she felt like she belonged somewhere.

They deserve to be condemned to Ozai for what they did to her.

But Azula could not bring herself to let it happen.


Ten Days Post Comet

In the morning, Azula faces her father at breakfast.

The food laid out in front of them is copious and expensive, but Azula cannot bring herself to eat any of it. It is hollow, empty, poisoned even. Azula struggles to keep her eyes open and struggles even harder to fend off the obsessive images that play out in her head behind them.

"Mai and Zuko ran away together," she says, knowing it is the right thing. Father does not betray her, father loves her. Mai and Zuko would let her die or live a life of pain. "I probably know where they are."

Father smiles at her.

It is not worth it.

It is not worth it.

It is not worth it.


Two Weeks Post Comet

Azula visits Mai in her holding cell before the execution. She does not know why her body and soul are so haunted by the woman in front of her. Why most of the hallucinations seem to involve Mai now instead of mother. They are even in their small war now; Mai betrayed Azula, Azula betrayed Mai and sold her out to Ozai.

"I don't care," Mai says sharply to Azula. The princess is silent. "I would rather die with Zuko than live as your father's whore."

Azula wraps her fingers around the bars, still silent. She just wants to let the happy memories live again, to free Mai and twist back time.

"You know that you deserve this, don't you?" Azula purrs, feeling more herself. When she woke from her nightmares, there was no reprieve of realizing she was in reality. And so she tries to visit Mai and justify having a hand in her death. Surely she can remind herself why she hates this woman.

"I don't want to talk to you," Mai snarls and Azula leans against the bars, trying to put herself into a power position. Trying to feel the rush of domination. Trying to feel anything.

"Hm, shame," Azula purrs with a shrug. No rush. Usually she would feel a high. "I could get you out of this."

Mai then looks incredibly serious. "I don't want out of this, Azula. I'm going to get up there next to Zuko, and that's how I choose to go. I've lived my entire life being told what to do and what to think and how to feel. Especially by you. So now I'm choosing."

Azula closes her eyes for a moment. "I'm sorry that you feel that way." She walks to the caged room directly beside Mai's. Zuko had clearly been listening to Azula and Mai's conversation, but the heir apparent does not care.

Zuko looks up at Azula. "I'm sorry too."

She is stunned by that and steps back slightly.

Zuko continues with, "I'm sorry for leaving you. And I'm sorry for blaming you for things that were father. Azula, I've always loved you."

The princess purses her lips and shoves her emotions aside.

And Zuko finishes with, "Can you promise me something?"

Azula crosses her arms.

He finishes, "Promise me that, when you're Fire Lord, you'll end the war."

Azula leaves without saying a word.


Two Weeks Post Comet

"I got you something," Ozai says shortly before the execution. He sounds proud of himself; it is less the tone of a father who got his daughter a gift, and more that of a cat that has caught a mouse.

Azula is in a daze, and he wants to see her shine again. He wants to see pleasure in her eyes when her brother dies in front of her. That is all Ozai desires after a long day of fighting a literal war against his own older brother.

"Yes, father?" Azula asks hoarsely and then a person is thrown at her feet.

Azula does not know how she did not notice the soldiers, or Ty Lee. The acrobat his her jaw clenched and tears are blossoming in her protuberant eyes. Azula looks down at her and suppresses the bile rising in her throat.

"Are you hurt?" Azula kneels to help Ty Lee to her feet and the acrobat spits in her face. The princess throws a fist of fire, stopping just short of Ty Lee's face. It falters, to Ozai's evident displeasure.

"Fuck you, Azula!" Ty Lee screams and Azula is stunned. "I know what Mai did was wrong but you're executing her? I can never forgive that so don't even ask!"

Azula hesitates, not knowing what to say.

"She can accompany you to the event today," Ozai says, looking at Azula as if she should be thankful. But the princess does not know what to make of it.

Azula tries to get Ty Lee to drink tea, but all the acrobat does is cry and curse at Azula. The princess stares at the ornate teacups and can see herself drowning in them, swirling to her descent, inhaling the hot, fragrant liquid until her lungs are heavy and full.

Ty Lee snaps her out of her vision by saying softly, "Stop him. Stop him from killing her."

"No." Azula is firm about it. She tosses the teacup aside, trying to forget the feeling of drowning, and she stands up. "Mai betrayed me and so she will die. You best learn from that example."

Ty Lee averts her eyes.

And still, Azula feels as numb as a corpse.


Two Weeks Post Comet

The execution is lauded as a fantastic event. There is a carnival and people in spirit masks, enjoying themselves. It is partially a celebration of the Comet, a celebration of what amounted to a petty victory. General Iroh still fights the war, far better than the original Earth Kingdom.

Azula sits in a mock throne beside her father, looking over the festivities. Ty Lee is beside her, still looking angry, but silent now. Azula stares forward blankly as the party quiets and she sees two people brought onto the stage.

The last image is burned into Azula's retinas.

As necklaces of rope are draped over Mai and Zuko, Azula's best friend and the brother she tried to love... they turn to each other with a strange look of satisfaction in their eyes.

They pull against the bonds ever so slightly, and their lips touch. The kiss becomes more passionate and Ozai clenches his hand around Azula's wrist so tightly that she winces. Finally, Zuko and Mai slowly break apart and hold each other's hands.

Azula grabs Ty Lee and pulls her to her, shielding her eyes forcefully. There is a snap that Azula is not sure if she just imagined or not, and their bodies dangle, lifelessly. Ty Lee vomits all over Azula's shoes, but Azula does not even notice as she stares, stares at how they are still intertwined slightly at the fingers.

Mai has a slight smile on her lips, and Azula knows it is because she is finally free.


Two Weeks Post Comet

Azula sits on her bed after the execution, rocking back and forth with her knees on her chin. Ty Lee sits on the floor and stares at her friend, unsure what to do. The image burned into Azula's retinas also dances in front of Ty Lee's eyes.

The passionate kiss Zuko and Mai shared before they died. The way their fingers lingered together.

"I love you, Azula," Ty Lee says abruptly and the princess stops shaking and sits very still. "I have always loved you."

That seems to hurt Azula and Ty Lee cannot tell why.

"Well, I just want to fuck you," Azula snarls, lying, burnt out, pained and Ty Lee's lip trembles slightly. Ty Lee hates what Azula has become and what the world has become around them.

Azula's anger surges, her desire to feel intensifies, and she seizes Ty Lee's arm.

At some point, Ty Lee's cries of pain become cries of pleasure.


One Month Post Comet

Things are rebuilt at a spider-snail's pace for Ty Lee and Azula. The princess is the opposite of mentally stable, and Ty Lee has found she is the absolute only person who can calm her when she just screams and screams and doesn't stop screaming.

The first time Azula tells her slave that she loves her is when she is half drugged with a sleeping concoction and drifting off. Ty Lee is stroking her hair, trying to keep her calm after she went off the rails mere hours ago.

"I love you... please don't ever leave me," Azula whispers, and the tears glittering in her eyes make Ty Lee's heart sore and her chest tight.

"I will never leave you. We're all that's left, anyway," Ty Lee says, adding the last part with fervor. Her main justification for allowing herself to fall back in love with a monster was that Azula is all that's left of her old life, and all there is in her future.

Azula will never say it, but Ty Lee is all that is left for her as well.

"I keep seeing their faces," Azula whispers, squeezing Ty Lee's hand, affirming if she is real or not. "All the time."

"Mai and Zuko," Ty Lee replies, knowing she also sees them right before she falls asleep.

"I can't do this anymore. I can't... this war... has stolen everything from me, Ty," Azula breathes, using a long dead nickname. "I don't know why I support it."

Ty Lee cups the side of Azula's face and kisses her, hoping she will go to sleep before her talk develops into treason.

Azula is silent, but she remembers what Zuko asked her to promise.

The next morning, Azula seems not to have forgotten she and Ty Lee's conversation.

"Ty Lee," Azula whispers and the acrobat nods. "Ty Lee, if I could turn back time, I would."

"There's no going back to then," Ty Lee whispers before planting a kiss on Azula's cold cheek.

"It's like the sun and moon have just frozen... and if I... if I did something different..." Silence.

"You can't raise the sun and moon or hold up the sky, Azula." Pause. "But you do have the power to end the war. You have the power to set everybody free. And, honestly, I think that would be a more incredible and breathtaking feat."

"I think I'll wait for the dawn instead," Azula says before turning away.

Ty Lee closes her eyes and hides the tears that threaten to soak her pretty face.


Two Months Post Comet

Azula takes Ty Lee out of the palace as soon as she has secured her father's permission. They go to a beautiful meadow in Sozin Memorial and Azula examines the statue of Ozai that has been erected since last time she visited the park.

Ty Lee rests her head on Azula's lap as they gaze at the birch trees and how they billow.

"I heard this story in the Earth Kingdom about how this couple, the woman Fire Nation and the man Earth Kingdom, were going to be tortured and killed for being together ─ the man at least ─ but when they came to kill him, instead they found both of them hanging from a tree," Ty Lee says softly, not aware of how Mai and Zuko's faces are ever present behind Azula's eyes.

Azula strokes Ty Lee's hair and the acrobat closes her eyes, enjoying the delicate touch.

"Maybe we'll do that someday," Azula says softly and Ty Lee does not dislike the idea.

She imagines Ozai coming across their bodies, dangling. But there is nothing he can do at that point. There is no part of them that he can hurt.

"I wanna go climb it!" Ty Lee suggests, her eyes lighting up. Azula wonders what it would be like to still have enough emotions to have eyes that sparkle like that. But she gets up and follows her girlfriend.

They climb the tree and sit at the top. Azula unties her hair and lets the wind billow through her hair, pressing against her face. Ty Lee's lips touch hers and they sink into a kiss.

"When he dies," Azula breathes, tucking the crown into Ty Lee's braid, "I'm going to make you my Fire Lady."

"When he dies is the name of the game," Ty Lee whispers and Azula averts her eyes. Ty Lee just leans on her shoulder and they stay up in that tree as if life does not know how to climb.

Azula remembers that once upon a time she knew what it was like to be alive, to burn like the sun that she longs to move in the sky. And when she is with Ty Lee, and only when she is with Ty Lee, she can let those memories live again, if only for a moment.

Time does seem to slow while they are up in the branches, and it is the happiest Azula has been in a long time.


Seven Months Post Comet

Azula goes to visit her father upon his request. She has barely seen him, engrossing herself in Ty Lee and reinventing their relationship. He gestures to the seat across from him and she sits down, trying to keep her posture straight and her body less hollow.

"I want to discuss the continuation of my divine bloodline," Ozai says calmly and Azula feels like she has just been shot by ten arrows. He wants her to marry.

"I'm not ready for marriage, father," Azula says, although she knows it is foolish. He will get his way.

"I wasn't suggesting that," Ozai says and Azula studies him closely for a moment. She does not understand and he has no desire to explain to her. "Take off your shirt."

Azula's face is ashen. "That's... absurd... If you're trying to make me agree to some arranged marriage, I do."

"Do as I say," Ozai orders, with something behind his eyes that Azula cannot properly identify. She just knows that he radiates fear and suffering.

Silence. Azula weighs her odds. She briefly imagines herself striking him down with lightning, and how satisfying that would be. Perhaps he would see Zuko and Mai as he died like she does in her every waking moment. But instead, she takes off her shirt.

Things progress quickly. The rending of her virginity burns like fire, but she is so empty, so numb, that it barely registers.

She lies there silently when it is over. He is still catching his breath as she stares at the ceiling still, still wondering how she got trapped like this.

It was not supposed to end like this. It was not supposed to end in this muted existence.

She was to be Fire Lord. The Earth Kingdom was to burn. Ty Lee was to be her bride whether she liked it or not. And Ozai would be Phoenix King, far, far away from where he could claim her in the night.

Instead, she is here.

What Azula would give to be free.


One Year Post Comet

Azula watches a protest unfold in the streets and does nothing but continue eating her small bowl of noodles. It intrigues her, actually. Her hollow existence is growing tiring, and she has just found out she is not pregnant, which was a relief to her but seemed to anger everyone else, save Ty Lee.

It takes a brief examination to realize that the protest is themed around Mai and Zuko. Azula is not just imagining that.

Mai and Zuko's defiant kiss before they were hanged produced a spark that, left unattended, could consume the Fire Nation in a fiery blaze. And Azula thinks she would like to watch it burn.

The world around her becomes ashes for a moment, spinning around her in blinding white, the sky blacked out. She feels utter and complete peace in the midst of the hallucination.

But she is torn from her ashen dream by a soldier taking her shoulder and pulling her away as the protest becomes violent.

Azula could almost taste the ash.


Two Years Post Comet

Azula and Ty Lee become closer and closer. They are all they have. Their kisses burn like fire and their touches are the sole solace and comfort. Ty Lee is the only person who makes Azula feel alive, and Azula is the only person keeping Ty Lee alive.

That angers Ozai.

And though Azula thought the day would never come, Azula is informed that her father is giving Ty Lee to a man who reclaimed Omashu with his command. She does not respond at first, her expression vacant. He wanted her to be angry, he wanted her to scream or shriek or tear at her skin or sob. But she just sits there, frozen, devoid of anything.

That night, Ty Lee comes to her laughing. Laughing hysterically and Azula does not understand it. She looks up and sees Ty Lee clutching a half empty bottle of clear liquid.

"Azula, let's be like Mai and Zuko. Let's be free. Please," Ty Lee begs and Azula easily guesses with the bottle is filled with. "It doesn't even hurt."

She clutches Azula's hands and holds them, looking hopefully into her eyes.

Ty Lee notices Azula's silence and continues. "I don't want to be sold," Ty Lee breathes. "Let's be free. Just the two of us. Let's be free."

Her eyes sparkle like they used to, with an old luster that went away long ago.

Azula wants to. She wants to liberate herself from the bonds of her life more than anything. But she slowly shakes her head.

"We can't," Azula answers, squeezing Ty Lee's hands. "We have a duty to our nation, to our people."

"Don't you understand," Ty Lee says, breathless and giddy and her words slightly slurred. "I already drank it! Now you just have to."

Azula's heart stops. She lunges forward, pulling Ty Lee into her arms. She wraps her fingers gently in her lover's hair and presses her against her beating heart.

"Tell me you're lying," Azula whispers, and Ty Lee laughs, and then sobs, and then sinks into Azula's arms. "Stay awake. Don't... don't do this..."

"Azula, you asked me if we could do it too. If we could both be free," Ty Lee whispers into Azula's ear, her hot breath smelling of the clear liquid in the open bottle. "Join me. It's so much better than a life tortured by him. Join me."

"Okay," Azula lies, kissing Ty Lee on the neck gently, carefully avoiding her poisonous lips.

What she would give to kiss her lips...

"Good." Ty Lee squeezes Azula's hand tightly and sits down on her lap. Azula can feel her fading and it is making her heart beat out of control. She bites her lip to keep back the tears. "Azula, I want to be free, I want to be free so bad..."

"Don't," Azula murmurs, stroking her neck. She holds her for most of the night before it is over.

Azula touches her knees to her chest and cries beside the corpse. She looks at the bottle and holds it for a long time, glaring into it, wanting to drink it more than anything else. But she throws it away and returns to the hollow, broken life.

She will fulfill her promise.

And then she can be free.

Then she can be free.

Azula goes to the tree they climbed years ago and climbs it again. She sits up there for hours as the sun sinks and the moon rises. Her arms are wrapped around the thick trunk, clinging as the leaves get stuck in her hair.

I couldn't kill myself. I have duties to my Nation, to my people. When those are fulfilled...

When I end the war like Zuko asked...

Then I can be with you...

But it is not as if the dead can hear thoughts.

Azula hopes she can, though, even if it is foolish.


Four Years Post Comet

Two years later, a gaunt and empty Azula is walking, heavily guarded, through the streets, when she comes across a boy in a fight with a soldier, much bigger than him. The boy turns when his face is slapped and Azula sees a scar on his face. A burn. Not quite Zuko's, but coupled with his dark hair, it is enough.

She lunges forward and grabs the boy's arm, and he yelps at the sight of the Crown Princess of the Fire Nation clutching him.

"What do you gain from this?" Azula snaps, and the soldier is surprised that she is talking to him and not the vagrant boy. "This is brutality."

"This is justice," the soldier attempts to explain, moving to bow.

"Why are you fighting?" Azula asks the boy and his lips open and close without any sound coming out at first.

"My girlfriend... my girlfriend... she's..." He nods towards the center of the square that Azula has not reached yet.

She hears the scream of a girl and tugs on the boy, her guards struggling to keep up with her as she drags him to the square where the girl is forced on her knees, the lashes of a whip against her bare back.

Azula walks forward and with two fingers pressed together, burns the whip to ashes in a blast of blue. The crowd gathered around the girl is wide eyed as Azula approaches the man, who is staring at his hand, suddenly without a whip.

"Don't you dare," she snarls and he is utterly confused.

"Princess Azula," murmurs the man before he just shakes his head and tries to look small.

"No more of this. You hear me?" she says sharply, digging her sharp fingernails into his arms.

She looks at the girl running to the boy, their kiss. And she sees Mai and Zuko behind her eyes. The image burned in her retinas that has never left, and never will leave.

"Of course, your highness." The man bows so low that his lips touch the filthy pavement.

Someone watches and slips away, and Azula narrows her eyes, swiftly following him. The civilians go about their days, although they now have an interesting story of the princess herself sparing a peasant girl and her boyfriend.

Azula trails the man, losing her guard, and finds him inside of a small flower shop. He ducks behind a counter and Azula follows, finding herself in a room alone with him.

"Who are you?" Azula demands and he presses something into her hand.

Azula opens her palm to see a small white lotus tile. It means nothing to her. It gives no purpose to the images of Zuko and Mai kissing, or Ty Lee dying in her arms.

She looks up. "I don't need you. Go."

It feels weak. She should grab him by the neck and interrogate him. But she just goes to find the soldiers that protect her.

She surrenders to the life she is forced in, until the day she can make the images go away.


Six Years Post Comet

Azula discovers she is pregnant the same day she discovers the Order of the White Lotus.

And her life continues. Empty. So empty. These men and women say they understand her plight, that she could find solace in healing the world after scarring it. But how can Azula heal the world when she cannot heal herself?

How can she heal the world when there is nothing left in it for her?

She goes home and sits down across from her father and she can only whisper the news, "I'm pregnant," and he smiles at her and it is as hollow and unfulfilling as ever.

"It took you long enough," is his response.

Azula stares intently at her shoes. She contemplates picking one off of her foot and smashing it down his throat, choking him to death. But she cannot, no matter how hard she wills herself to. No matter how satisfying it would be to watch him gasp for air like a fish flopping on a dock.

She waits. Azula waits.

Keeping out of everyone's way until power is handed to her on a plate.


Six Years, Eight Months Post Comet

The reign of Fire Lord Ozai ends not with a bang, but with a whimper.

He dies of illness, eight months into Azula's pregnancy. Azula is by his side the entire time, and he hallucinates her mother, hallucinates that she is her mother. And the princess does not care, her eyes haunted by Ty Lee dying in her arms, like her father is now.

Once the crown is passed to her, she calls for a meeting with General Iroh of the Earth Kingdom. On mutual ground, at sea, a neutral merchant ship as their meeting place.

Azula walks to the table and sits down, Iroh across from her.

He notices something hanging from her neck and squints for a moment. A white lotus tile. He does not know of her being involved in their order, but she wears it. And then he notices what is below her neck.

"You are pregnant," he says, before feeling foolish.

"Yes," Azula replies dryly, examining the glossy table and trying not to make eye contact with her uncle. She is going to fulfill her promise to Zuko and Mai. Their spark will now become ashes, and new things will be born from the dead things.

"What is it you want to negotiate?" Iroh inquires cautiously. The Fire Nation never tried to negotiate before.

"I want to end the war," Azula says and it was the last thing Iroh expected to come out of her mouth. "I want you all to be free."

"Azula, you asked me if we could do it too. If we could both be free," Ty Lee whispers into Azula's ear, her hot breath smelling of the clear liquid in the open bottle. "Join me. It's so much better than a life tortured by him. Join me."

"Okay," Azula lies, kissing Ty Lee on the neck gently, carefully avoiding her poisonous lips.

What she would give to kiss her lips again, after so long...

"I... we can negotiate terms," Iroh says, trying to fathom what is happening.

"Good." Azula is sharp after that, doing the last of her duties as Fire Lord and securing the prosperity of her people while ending the war. When they are over, she lies down on her own ship and closes her eyes.

She breaks into a fever that night, and General Iroh is called to her ship. He helps care for her, thinking to himself how he did so much for Zuko, but nothing for her.

The war is over, Fire Lord Azula is on her deathbed, and Iroh does not know where to go next, save for ordering the baby to be cut out of her before she dies, and saying soft apologies to a girl who cannot hear him.

Azula wakes and sees her uncle. He is pacing about, wringing his hands. He looks even older, if such a thing is possible. His wrinkles are more pronounced, his lips drier.

It only takes a moment for Azula to recall a series of images. The Boiling Rock and betrayal, Zuko begging Azula for her promise, Mai kissing Zuko before her neck snapped, Ty Lee dying in her arms, Ozai dying of illness instead of Azula murdering him as she wished, and then the war ending. She touches her abdomen and finds it vacant.

"Did it die?" Azula whispers and Iroh jumps in shock, surprised to see her awake.

"No," Iroh admits. She closes her eyes and breathes a sigh of relief. "It is a girl. We have not named her yet."

He speaks so casually, as if a century long war has not ended. Azula feels slightly hazy.

"Name her Mai," Azula breathes and Iroh does not protest that the name is not royal. He understands the choice, and he understands it well. "It's over? He's dead. He's dead?"

"It is over," Iroh says warmly and Azula closes her eyes again. She sees the image she always sees, Mai and Zuko's hands intertwined, their limp corpses dangling. "The world is free, the treaties are signed and announced. Thank you, Azula. I did not expect this from you. I expected to be fighting the war until I died of old age."

"It wouldn't have happened without Zuko," Azula whispers, struggling to keep her eyes open. She is suddenly very tired.

Iroh purses his lips to keep from shedding tears. "I know."

"I'm done," Azula murmurs and Iroh inhales deeply. "I fulfilled my promise. I just want to be with her again."

Iroh closes his eyes.

"I understand," he says and it is Azula's turn to be surprised.

She closes her eyes and drifts into dreamless sleep.

Iroh turns to see the distorted, pale, hollow body of his niece empty. He walks to her slowly, feeling slightly nauseous, and he touches her wrist. He waits for a pulse, and waits, and waits. None.

He stares at her for a moment.

She has lost the illness on her body, or the way she had seemed to have given up.

Azula has a faint smile on her lips, because it is her turn to be free.