The Fire Nation Army had rolled in and unfurled banners everywhere. There was no doubt that the city belonged to Azula now. She'd done quickly and bloodlessly what her uncle couldn't do in a six hundred day siege. She surveyed her conquest impassively.
To think they'd lost their cousin for this crap hole…
Azula tried to push away the thought of Lu Ten. Thinking of him made her feel things. It wasn't an advantage. Yet, for Lu Ten's sake, she would have let her uncle salvage some dignity. But Uncle had annoyed her when she'd gone to see him. She'd had him imprisoned separately from her brother. When he saw her, he'd only asked about Zuko, only cared about Zuko. He didn't seem to care for his own fate. No, it was all about her brother…as usual.
"Zuko is not your concern anymore, Uncle," she had replied, knowing a vague non-answer was the worst thing she could say. The old man was going to twist himself up into worried knots over that.
She commanded the Dai Li to parade her uncle, the famed Dragon of the West, through the city and down to the harbour. She wanted them to take him past all the clear signs of her victory. Let him wallow in the shame of his defeat. Let him know humiliation.
Azula had taken over as regent, thanks to the Earth King's timely disappearance. The Avatar's associates, that Water Tribe boy and the blind girl, had actually done Azula a big favour by making that obsolete puppet vanish. The peasants had no one to look to as a would-be saviour.
Still, she wished Mai had tried a little harder to keep the fool king and his bear. Azula could have made a statement with them, had them bow to her publicly.
Mai had a hard time being bothered about anything, but she had an actual job as a henchwoman. Azula had hoped for a slightly better work ethic from her.
Azula would be regent until General Hanzo arrived. He was coming in a matter of days. He had been hand-picked by her father to assume control of the city. She had told her father about her victory. She had fudged a few of the details. Zuko thought she always lied, but she actually just told a different version of the truth.
Some of the things she said were accurate at least. She said she'd found her brother alive (truth), captured her uncle (truth) and the Avatar was dead (truth). She said Zuko had been the cause of the Avatar's demise (kinda truth – they'd come looking for him) and her brother had been instrumental in helping her take the city. (Eeerrr...well his contagious stupidity and getting other people, notably Uncle, to make foolish choices had helped.)
So the whole thing was mostly true. The best deceptions were. The problem with this deception was that her brother was proving to be even more inconvenient than she had anticipated – and she had anticipated a lot of inconvenience.
She thought she'd let Zuko stew in the dungeon as punishment for trying that idiotic "sick prisoner" schtick with Uncle. Just how stupid did he think she was? The whole thing was an insult to her intelligence.
She had been planning on parading past his cell in Earth Kingdom finery, announcing her new position as Regent. She was now Crown Princess of the Fire Nation and Temporary Queen of the Earth Kingdom, so there! She was going to rub his face in it shamelessly for fun. Then she would have sashayed away while he shouted indignantly.
She'd already tried this, but Zuko was still steadfastly pretending to be unconscious. That was annoying.
She gotten all dressed up and everything.
She commanded the guards to alert her if there was any change in her brother and set about her duties as regent. She quashed unrest in the city, threatened, cajoled and glad-handed various Earth Kingdom nobility into compliance.
These people were so weak. They were just begging to be ruled by someone stronger. They'd sell out their fellow countrymen over anything. A little fear, a sprinkle of gold, and a hint of blackmail and they were putty in her hands. It was too easy.
She had dinner with Mai and Ty Lee. Ty Lee praised her brilliance; Mai was sarcastic about everything related to the Earth Kingdom and how boring it was. Azula wanted to enjoy it and bask in her victory. But there was still one loose thread she hadn't tied off.
Azula was a perfectionist. She wanted everything just so.
She excused herself and went down to the dungeon. The two Dai Li agents saluted her arrival.
"I thought I told you to inform me if there was any change in my brother." Her tone was impatient, clipped.
"Yes, Your Majesty. We know our orders. There hasn't been any change. He's just been lying there. He hasn't moved at all."
The agent sounded scared. He should be.
Didn't they know Zuko had so much restless energy he could barely lie still for a moment, let alone a whole day? There was no way he could keep up the "sick prisoner" routine this long.
They should have told me he wasn't moving at all! Azula thought indignantly.
"Open it up," she commanded.
The earthen door slid back to reveal her brother in exactly the same way he'd landed when she had him thrown in here. He was lying on the floor, legs all akimbo. He hadn't even rolled over to a more comfortable position.
"Enough of this, Dumdum. Get up!" She stomped over and kicked him in the stomach. He didn't even grunt in response.
"Don't hurt him, heartless girl," her foolish uncle had insisted as they dragged him away. "Your brother is sick. You need to get him to a doctor."
Azula had ignored his royal tea-loving kookiness, assuming it was a desperate, last-ditch ploy.
"I'm serious," she said, and kicked Zuko again. "Stop dicking around."
Still no response.
"Zuzu, stop it! You're annoying me now. Don't be stubborn. Get up." She knelt next to him and shook his shoulder very roughly. His hair flopped in his face as his head drooped listlessly.
Nothing. He gave her nothing.
"Zuzu?" Her voice was softer, not demanding. She hated the way it sounded. She wasn't soft, but she was shaking him much more gently now. She moved her palm in front of his nose and felt a flutter of air. He was still breathing.
"Zuzu, stop it. This isn't funny anymore."
He was a cog in her plan, and she needed him to make the whole apparatus work. That was why she reached out to move his hair and touch his forehead gently. "Zuko, get up," she whispered.
She told herself it wasn't because she cared. She wasn't worried. It was just because he was a necessary bit of machinery to be utilised.
She hissed and withdrew her palm. He was ice cold.
A firebender should never be ice cold.
"Send for a doctor!"
Sokka flew them to the bay where the warriors from the southern Water Tribe had been stationed. He ran towards one of the men and gave him a huge hug. So that was Sokka's dad. He was fit. He walked confidently and spoke kindly. He made bad jokes. Toph approved.
Aang had fallen into a deep sleep, like some princess in a spirit tale. Katara had assured Toph that he was alright. His body just needed time to recover. Sokka and Katara's extremely fit and muscular dad carried Aang to the boat as gently as if he was a basket of fresh eggs.
The three of them followed Daddy Muscles. Toph never thought she'd think this, but she was glad that there was an actual real adult around. (Kuei didn't count.) Daddy Muscles seemed to know what they should do and said he would keep them safe.
Toph would never admit it. She was too tough to say something like, "Yay, safety!" But she was glad to hear Daddy Muscles say that after Aang had nearly died from being shot in the back by Gremlin, and they'd lost Zuko. Katara was normally the person who said positive shit like that, but that wasn't happening tonight.
Oh man, Katara…Just dang.
Katara had been real quiet since she realised they had no way of going back to Ba Sing Se to get Zuko.
Toph reckoned that was a bad sign.
The three of them stepped onto the boat, and it started to move. Toph noticed straight away that it was metal, not wood like a Water Tribe boat should be. No matter. She could see better on metal, but it still struck her as strange.
"It's a Fire Nation vessel," Hakoda, Daddy Muscles, told her when she asked. "We captured it a few days ago."
"I helped," Sokka said proudly. "We were all swish and slash and sneak attack. We took over the boat and put all the firebenders in one of the life-rafts.Now we can move about freely. The Fire Nation won't bother us if they think that we're Fire Nation too."
"Won't the lifeboat full of the guys put a stop to that when they eventually get found?" Toph asked.
"Actually, yeah. Dad, I think we should change the ship registration on the prow. It'll help our disguise."
"Don't worry, Sokka," Daddy Muscle's taller friend, Bato, said. "We already go that covered. Those firebenders won't be able to cause us any more trouble."
"You changed it already?" Sokka asked.
Well, Bato was obviously lying.
If Toph had to guess, she thought he was lying because those warriors had probably taken a much simpler approach to the problem of survivors, but Bato didn't want upset Sokka by saying as much. He didn't want Sokka to think he'd had a role in all those deaths.
It was his way of being kind.
The doctor had been useless. She had wanted to know what was wrong with her brother...aside from his annoying personality, general uselessness, and all the other obvious things.
It was a simple question to ask a doctor.
Azula had been quite insistent on answers. She had been told her insistent face could be intimidating. Eventually the man had cried like a baby. "I have never doctored a firebender," he'd confessed. "I think this is something related to his bending, given how diminished his chi is. Maybe some sun would help?"
The man was clearly guessing.
She'd had the useless doctor locked up for that. He shouldn't be allowed to continue to practise medicine if he didn't know what on earth he was doing.
Azula had Zuko moved to one of the royal guest rooms. It was sunlit, warm and opulently furnished. Perhaps it was the sunlight, or perhaps just being in better furnished quarters cured whatever ailed her brother. She received word that he had awoken in the late afternoon of the second day.
She left him waiting. She didn't rush. She didn't want to give the wrong impression. She was very busy and important after all. She didn't want him thinking she cared. And she wanted him to know that, opulent room aside, he was still her prisoner.
The Dai Li were guarding him. They had a very precise malevolent aura of intimidation that was useful. She'd talk to Zuko after dinner, get him onside. It should be easy. Zuko had always been easy to manipulate. She was sure an afternoon being babysat by the Dai Li would put her brother in a more amenable mood.
When she had found Zuko all those months ago and realised that she was one of the only people who knew he was alive, a plan for him started to formulate. It was worth something, that knowledge. Azula finally knew how she was going to spend it now.
The idiotic way he had reacted to his little friend being captured (foolish, reckless, led by his emotions) had gladdened Azula's heart. He was still the same old Zuko, and she could still control him, still manoeuvre him with ease. Knowing that made the rest of her plan possible.
She had a strategy now for dealing with their father. Azula always saw all the angles, covered her bases, protected her flanks. She had back-up plans for her back-up plans. Zuko could be useful to her in a variety of ways, but most predominately he would serve as a human shield.
Father hadn't mourned when they received word of her brother's "death" back in the autumn. Azula knew her father didn't "feel" things the way normal people did – and she tried to be as like him as possible. Ozai hadn't been saddened, so Azula had told herself she wasn't sad either until it became true. Some nobles had muttered about disrespecting the dead, and used words like "disgraceful" and "inhuman" about them (but only very quietly, when they thought no one was listening).
Ozai hadn't been sad, but he had become more erratic. He heard the gossip going around noble circles. An heir and a spare – that was what every strong ruler needed. Ozai was now one child short.
Azula was now the Crown Princess simply because she had outlived her brother and her beautiful, wonderful cousin. Everyone had looked to her as the sole surviving heir of the royal line. She was clever, subtle and brilliant. It became increasingly more difficult to be subtle and engage in subterfuge when everyone was watching her all the time. They were just looking for a fault. She wouldn't give them the satisfaction.
Then there was muttering that she was more talented than her father, because she had mastered lightning at the age of fourteen, a long time before Ozai had even made a static spark. That was the wrong sort of praise. It would make her father angry if he heard. Azula focussed her energies on being perfect for him – but not too perfect, not a threat. Father was seeing threats everywhere lately. She was not entirely sure what would happen if her father caught wind of the new mutterings.
She been strangely relieved when he sent her away to find Uncle.
Azula had always been perfect, even she could admit to herself that the balancing act, the constant and unrelenting pressure had been...undesirable.
She could bring Zuko home and give everyone a big distraction to focus on instead. He was good at making an embarrassing spectacle of himself and Azula would look even better by comparison. If Zuko was around, there would be someone to take the heat off her. Things could go back to the way they were before.
Everything had been easier when Zuko was alive.
He had been a like a lightning rod for their father's anger. Any little disappointment Ozai suffered would be taken out on her brother. Even when he had been banished but still alive, Azula could still blame him for things. (That vase? Zuko broke it when we were children. He never told you because you know how cowardly he is.)
Zuko had been born to be what their father referred to as a suitable target. A fall guy. Father would never admit it, but he had used countless suitable targets over the years. People to absorb the blame and then be discarded. Azula knew the benefit in lining up someone to take the blame. Zuko was ideal for this.
There was also the pesky issue of the Avatar's body.
The waterbender had taken it with her. Azula never counted her pig-chickens before they hatched. A direct hit to the back with one of her lightning bolts would always be fatal, but without a body, she couldn't prove she had really accomplished it – killing the avatar and the world's last hope for peace.
Azula didn't understand much about the Avatar cycle. She had always thought it beneath her to learn about other elements and old spirit tales. She knew a story though (one of mother's favourites), about how Avatar Yangchen had been struck by lightning when she was unifying the Islands, and she had survived through "inner strength". She was an airbending Avatar, just like the boy.
Just a story, Azula told herself. She knew surviving a direct hit lightning shouldn't be possible, but doubt niggled. Every tale had a kernel of truth.
Azula didn't like not knowing things.
So she told Firelord Ozai that Zuko had done it – reasoning that this killed two puffingulls with one fireblast. Sure, it wasn't technically capturing the Avatar, but it would be enough to lift the banishment. She could bring home her suitable target, and if it turned out the Avatar had survived, she could blame Zuko for everything.
If the Avatar was actually dead, then she could make use of Zuko in the interim. She'd always been able to push his buttons and pull his strings. He'd make a good human shield against their father's moods. When the time came, she could cut him loose.
She only needed to give him enough rope, and he would do the hard bit for her.
Hakoda held children close. Their new friend Toph also invited herself into the hug. He could see she also needed a little reassurance, and he opened his arms wider to include her. The kids had narrowly escaped Ba Sing Se with their lives. All three children seemed very shaken after what had happened to their friend.
Hakoda helped Katara settle Aang into their most comfortable room. It had obviously been reserved for the captain. The boy seemed so small in the large bed. He was whimpering softly, but Katara placed her healing water over the hole in his back and tried to heal his pain. This seemed to calm him. The other two crowded around her, holding their breath. Hakoda watched her waterbending in fascination.
When Aang was more stable and resting comfortably, Hakoda led his children up to the mess hall for something to eat. They looked half-starved and exhausted. Amaruk tried lighting a fire to heat up some soup, without much success. The Fire Nation kitchen was a series of inexplicable puzzles and gadgets. Sokka went into the kitchen and fiddled with a few buttons and knobs. A flame burst into life underneath the pot of soup.
"How did you know how to do that?" Hakoda asked.
Both of his children had learned so much while he had been away.
"I know my way around a Fire Nation ship," Sokka said enigmatically.
He'd said something similar when they'd first captured the ship the other day. Sokka said he could show Hakoda how everything worked. Hakoda had questions, but before he could ask them the Avatar had turned up, frantically looking for Sokka.
"How do you know your way around a Fire Nation ship?" Hakoda asked as he watched Sokka potter around the kitchen. As far as he could recall, Sokka had always obeyed his instruction to never go onto the wreck near their village.
"Well, I was taken prisoner on a Fire Nation ship," Sokka said hesitantly.
"But it's okay now, Dad. I escaped….and now I can show you how all these gadgets work."
Hakoda wanted to argue that being taken prisoner was very much not "okay now", but Sokka handed him two bowls and started carrying two out to his sister and friend. The girls were sitting close together. Toph stared sightlessly ahead, trying to look as tough and resolute as a tiny twelve year old could. Katara was running her fingers along a rather fine-looking knife scabbard, but she tucked this away when she saw Hakoda.
Sokka placed the bowls in front of the girls and sat down across from them, tucking into his own meal with gusto. Toph followed, slurping her soup loudly. Katara turned her face away.
"Come on, Katara," Hakoda said, pushing her bowl closer. "You've got to eat something."
"No. We've got to go back to Ba Sing Se."
"Katara, you know we can't," Sokka said sadly, like he'd had this conversation with her a few times already.
"We can't just leave him, Sokka! We have to go back for Zuko!"
Well, that was a surprise!
"You want us to go back to Ba Sing Se for Zuko of the Fire Nation?" Hakoda asked his daughter, eyes wide.
"Wait – isn't that the prince who got eaten by the Ocean Spirit up north?" Amaruk asked curiously. He'd gotten his own bowl and sat down at their table with a few of the other men who were feeling a little hungry.
"No, fool." Nanouk slapped him upside the head. "That's the one Fire Nation think the Northern Water Tribe ate near Pohuai Stronghold."
"The Northern Water Tribe have eaten two people?"
"Nah, just the one. Maybe they saved some leftovers for the Ocean Spirit?"
"I reckon it was probably a platypus bear that actually ate him," Yura offered.
"He wasn't eaten!" Katara yelled, her soup splashing wildly, surprising the warriors and cutting though their squabbling.
"Nobody has eaten Zuko," Sokka backed her up. "He has not become anybody's roast dinner, or baked good, or delectable snack."
"You called Zuko delectable," Toph muttered. "I'm going to tell him."
"Toph, we have to get him back first before you can make your comments," Sokka scolded.
"No, we don't," Hakoda interrupted, trying to inject some sanity into this conversation. "We're not risking our lives for a firebender."
"What?" Katara sounded irate.
"Kids, Ba Sing Se has fallen. It is crawling with the Fire Nation army. It is a long way from the sea and we only have a small force. Even with Aang's remarkable bison, it wouldn't be possible to get in and out of Ba Sing Se safely."
"Dad! We can't just—"
"It's too dangerous, Katara," Hakoda said sternly. "Our fleet can't fight the Fire Nation Army on land, especially not cornered in Ba Sing Se. It would be a suicide mission." He pushed her bowl towards her with a gentle nudge. "Have some soup. You look exhausted."
"I'm not hungry!" She stood up and stomped away.
Zuko woke up in a ridiculously lavish Earth Kingdom room with no recollection of how he had got there. He felt extremely disorientated. The bed was luxurious, but there was no feeling of ice on his neck. No Katara smiling at him and welcoming him back to the waking world.
He lurched forward with a start. That made him woozy. Zuko tried to piece together what had happened, but his memory felt fragmented. Aang had been hurt. Katara had escaped the cavern with Aang. Then Zuko and his uncle had gone down another tunnel. The world had gotten cold and blurry...then dark. He'd woken up here.
Where was Uncle? Zuko had to find Uncle. He moved to get up.
The first thing he noticed was the fact that he was wearing brand new Fire Nation pyjamas. Black silk.
What the fuck?
These pyjamas weren't his!
Had somebody undressed him out of his Earth Kingdom clothes and dressed him in these? What had happened to his stuff? Why would somebody bother re-dressing him? Had this person seen him naked? These unsettling thoughts were made even more unsettling by the presence of the Dai Li. Four stone-faced Dai Li agents stood close to his bed and glared coldly at him.
That was really bad.
But, oddly, it was also much better than Zuko had expected. He'd thought his choices as the Dai Li's prisoner would be nasty torture, brainwashing, and the constant damp – like under Lake Lagoai. A fancy room with fancy pyjamas and the sunlight streaming in across his face was nicer hospitality than he would have thought the Dai Li provided. They were trying to soften him up for something. He just had to figure out what.
They were working for Azula.
But why would Azula want him comfortable?
She never wanted him comfortable.
She made him wait. That was her way of making him uncomfortable. Zuko was feeling pretty terrible and extremely worried for his friends and desperate to know what had happened to his uncle. He was endlessly confused by this whole situation. There was a lot to be confused by between someone undressing him and the Dai Li staring at him and not speaking, except to make it clear that he wasn't allowed to leave. Also, waking up in a fancy room instead of a prison cell, and the inescapable fact that his fire felt so much smaller…again. Even though he was in a comfortable and warm room, he felt cold all the way to his bones.
The Dai Li didn't answer any of his questions. They were being ridiculously creepy. When Zuko had to use the bathroom, one had escorted him in and had actually watched! He hadn't averted his gaze in the slightest. Didn't the Dai Li know that was against the rules!
Don't watch, arsehole!
It was almost a relief to see Azula – that's how creepy the Dai Li were.
"Good evening, brother. Would you like some tea?"
A flurry of servants trailed behind her into the room. They set up a little tea table near the bed. She was resplendent, wearing the Earth Queen's official robes. Zuko wrinkled his nose in distaste. Wearing the Earth Kingdom royalty affectations?
That was tacky.
Then again, she took after their dad. He was the Fire Lord of tacky – re-naming ancient cities after himself levels of tacky.
Azula sat across from him. A servant offered him a cup. Zuko half wanted to refuse out of spite, but he was so, so thirsty. The Dai Li hadn't given him anything to drink since he'd woken up. Still, he waited until her cup had been poured and she took a sip. He raised his eyebrow. Not poisoned then?
Poison wasn't really his sister's style anyway.
"It's good to see you looking much better, brother," Azula remarked conversationally, no hint of a threat, and no hint of her but-face. (The but-face was the face she made when she said something nice and it was immediately followed by a great big but. Like, "Oh, Zuko, you're pretty good with swords, but it is such a shame that your bending is still woeful and pathetic.)
"It is?" Zuko asked, eyebrow raised, completely flummoxed at her casual tone.
What was this? Where were the threats?
They didn't do pleasant conversation.
"Yes. Now that you are more alert, I have something to discuss with you."
She handed him two scrolls. Zuko opened the first one and gasped in shock. It was from his father. It offered a full pardon. His banishment would be lifted on the condition that he agreed to sign and support the enclosed statement. He opened the second scroll. It stated that Zuko, as one of the only other survivors from the Siege of the North, would testify that General Iroh, the Dragon of the West, had been instrumental in the catastrophic failure that occurred there. Zuko narrowed his eyes and handed both scrolls back to Azula.
"No, thank you," he said, borrowing her crisp, clipped tone.
"Excuse me? Did you read these properly?"
"I won't betray Uncle like that."
"This is a way you can save Uncle. Read closely. It says that if you agree, he'll get life imprisonment in the round tower. No execution."
"Dad wants to shame him. I won't do that. Dad can't kill him. It would make a martyr of him."
Azula looked at him closely. It was unsettling. It was like she was sizing him up. He looked away from her probing gaze.
"Where's Uncle now?" he asked. "I'd prefer to be locked up with him, if it is all the same to you."
"I regret to inform you that Uncle was already transported back to the Fire Nation. The ship left yesterday morning," she said, but she didn't seem that regretful. "And just so you know, Dad doesn't care about 'making a martyr of him'. Dad wants Uncle dead! But I talked him into this. This is neater and nicer. It looks better this way. Uncle will live, and you get to come home."
She said this proudly, like she wanted Zuko to give her a medal and a parade. He suddenly thought of Smellerbee and her air trophies. Here's your prize, sister. He snorted in amusement.
"Don't snort like that! I can't help Uncle any more, but I can help you."
"No, thank you. I don't want your help," Zuko said flatly, resigned to his fate and too tired to play whatever new mind game this was. She should just throw him in the round tower with his uncle and be done with it. "I committed just as much treason as Uncle. I should be with him."
Azula struck like a cat, lurching forward with grace and speed. She slapped him hard enough that his head spun, then she covered his mouth with her hand so forcefully that it made his teeth clack together. His vision swam. The sudden violence of it surprised him, but he wasn't sure why. He just had to get used to it again.
"Stop that right now. Never say that again." She squeezed his face so her ridiculously sharp nails dug into his cheek. "You have never had a treasonous thought in your head. Do you understand me?"
He nodded, taken aback by the intensity in her gaze.
She removed her hand and sat back calmly. "No one knows about that nonsense aside from you and me. I won't tell anyone what you said about Father. I've had a goldsmith work out the kinks in the crown. No one will ever need to know." She gave a dismissive pass of her hand, like they were making pleasant conversation again. "You don't have to worry about anyone accusing you of treason. You can come home."
"I don't understand. You could have me executed, like that."He clicked his fingers. "Why are you offering this to me?"
"Why are you being so difficult? I'm offering you everything you've ever wanted! You can return home as a war hero. You can assume your place in line for the throne. You will have your honour back. Uncle will be allowed to live..." She ticked items off on her fingers as she went.
Zuko never trusted Azula as far as he could throw her, but she wasn't wrong. He would be getting a lot of the things he wanted (not everything – never everything). Mostly he just wanted Uncle to be safe. He could feel his uncle, in the back of his head, urging him along.
Think logically, Zuko. This is like Pai Sho. You make a move, then she makes a move. Don't react – think first.
There was no strategic benefit to them both being locked up in the round tower. No, it was better if Zuko could stay on the outside and keep Uncle alive. There was always the chance that he could bust Uncle out of prison and they could both be free.
"Father even thinks you've killed the Avatar. He's proud of you," Azula concluded, like she thought this was the grand prize Zuko had always wanted.
His heart sank and his face darkened.
He knew what Azula was capable of, but it had still shocked him to see her shoot lightning at Aang. She would have killed Aang and thought nothing of it. She would have murdered a twelve-year-old child if it wasn't for him.
Zuko didn't want the credit for such an abominable act.
"You're the one who shot Aang. Not me."
"What? Is that what you're mad about? Because that child was your friend?" Azula laughed dismissively, mockingly. "He was the enemy, Zuko! That's what happens in war. People die. Stop making that judgemental bitchface. I'm giving you all the credit so your banishment can be lifted. You should be thanking me."
He turned away from her. It seemed to make her angry.
"Stop being such a petulant child. Let me put it this way: on the one hand – oh look, there's everything," Azula held out her hands like they were scales. She lifted the "everything" hand up high. "And on the other hand – look, there's nothing." She dropped this hand really low. "Look at this hand, Zuko. There's nothing."
"So everyone thinks the Avatar is dead and I killed him," Zuko said slowly, looking down pensively.
Realistically, it wasn't a bad thing. He was trying to be logical instead of just reacting to his sister's goading and teasing. He knew Aang had survived. Aang had been alive when he handed him to Katara, and Zuko had every faith in her. She would have found a way to save Aang. Zuko didn't believe in much (not anymore), but he believed in her.
Everyone thinking Aang was dead would be a great strategic advantage to Aang and his friends. They could move much more freely if the Fire Nation wasn't hunting the Avatar – and there'd be no reason to hunt a dead Avatar. Zuko could still help them, even if he was a prisoner of the Fire Nation. He could tell everybody Azula's story, make sure there was no shadow of a doubt. Then no one would go hunting the Avatar again. This would be doing exactly what Azula wanted. That had was always bad in Zuko's experience, but at least Katara, Sokka, Toph, and Aang would all be safer.
He didn't realise how long he had been quiet, but it infuriated Azula. She was out of patience with him. She stood up, her friendly veneer vanished. She spoke to him in her abrupt this-is-how-it's-going-to-be voice.
"They didn't come back for you, you know. Your so-called friends left you here to rot. They don't care about you. They were probably glad to be rid of you. They aren't coming back for you …"
It's a good thing, Zuko told himself. They shouldn't come back to the city. It wasn't safe for them.
"The only reason you're still alive is because of me, but if you don't agree, your banishment will stay in place and you can't come home. You'll have to stay here, branded as a traitor, abandoned and alone in a city that has just been acquired by our army. You'll be left here to the mercy of the Dai Li and the General Hanzo."
Zuko stared back at her, shocked. This was a new threat. She normally always threatened to murder him herself.
"They won't kill you. I've heard about what the Dai Li can do to people to make them more useful. I'm sure they'll find a use for you."
A shudder of revulsion and fear washed through his body.
No! Anything but that!
She had won. They both knew it. Still, there was something that had never made sense to him. Something that still bothered him about this whole thing.
"Before I sign this, I want the truth."
"What do you want the truth about?" Azula sighed. This was her patient listen-with-teacher voice.
"Why didn't you tell Dad about me being alive when you first found me?"
She seemed a little taken aback by his question. She fiddled with her cup for a few seconds, then took a long sip. Zuko knew that trick. It bought a few seconds of thinking time.
"When I found you, I wanted to find a way to bring you home. I didn't tell Father until I figured out how to do it."
He snorted in disbelief. "Since fucking when do you want me around?"
There was no way that was the real reason. He wasn't falling for that. He wasn't that stupid.
"Zuko, don't swear. It's undignified," she said primly in a way that reminded him eerily of their mother. "Our father can be an…an unpredictable man. It has been difficult for me on my own with him." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "You know how he is."
She seemed oddly hesitant. She took another long sip, then looked out the window, not meeting his eyes. Azula never seemed hesitant when they were kids. It was jarring to see her like this. It made concern clench in his gut to see his unflappable little sister seem unsure.
She'd been on her own with Ozai for three years. Zuko wouldn't wish that on anyone.
Their father had always been proud of Azula, but that wasn't the same as love. Zuko knew that now. It would have been different for her, he told himself. Perhaps their dad would have just drilled her on training and strategy, the way he used to, and he wouldn't have done anything else to her.
Zuko wanted to think that, but Azula was sitting in front of him, seeming uncertain. She'd never say it outright, but she wanted him to come home so she wouldn't be alone with Ozai anymore.
"You're my big brother. Our mother would have wanted us to be there for each other. Come home with me."
She seemed genuine, or at least as genuine as it was possible for a pathological liar to be.
He took the pen she offered and signed both documents.
He was too easy, Azula chortled to herself as she strode towards the room with the messenger hawks. It had taken her a couple of tries to find the right approach, the right button to push, She'd mentioned mother, and he'd been putty in her hands. In the end, Zuko had always been obvious.
He'd always wanted to be part of a big happy family. She could appeal to that, act like she needed him. He liked to be needed. He liked to be useful. He liked to protect people. The idiot probably still thought he needed to take care of her. Improbable, ridiculous. So soft. So Zuko.
She couldn't believe she'd doubted it for a second. For a few brief moments, he'd seemed to show signs of shrewd thinking, but thankfully she had only been imagining it.
She attached the scrolls to a messenger hawk to send back to her father. All her loose ends were tied off now. They'd leave for home on the next tide.
It was a long way back to the Fire Nation.
This concludes book 2. I hope you've enjoyed the ride. I've certainly enjoyed writing it. Thanks everyone for all your kind words and support through writing this.
Enormous and gigantic and incredible thanks to the fabulous Boogum, who is the most amazing beta I could ask for. She's a legend!
I'm working on Book 3, but it's a tricky one to get the tone right (as a lot of serious drama just went down, but I always try and keep it light-hearted where possible). I also have some real-life news. I'm pregnant with my first child, which is very exciting. Between getting stuff ready for a tiny human and finishing up my course, I won't have as much writing time for the next little while, but I'll work on WP whenever I get the chance.
I have some rambly thoughts about this chapter and Azula's motivations.
Book 1 was all about water and change and how the Gaang and Zuko changed as a result of their much earlier interaction. Book 2's element was Earth. Earth normally represents stability, however book 2 was the most turbulent and drama filled out of all three seasons IMO. (Book 3 has so many great moments, but so much inconsistency and regrettable writing choices and filler episodes. I think Book 2 was actually one of the most tightly written and intricate plots I've seen.) Stability was never going to come from their situation, but from each other. The Gaang have created a steadfast support for each other because I love the found family trope so much.
This chapter focused on Azula and her motivations. Azula is a tricky character because she lies so much, even to herself. She has many justifications for wanting Zuko to come back home. In my head-canon, the heart of it was that she missed him – but being Azula, she's not just about to come out and say that.
I think Azula genuine cared for Zuko and Ty Lee and Mai. She shows it more towards Zuko and Ty Lee because both she and Mai aren't affectionate personality-wise. She tries to keep all three of them close to her even though their mission is finished and the other two girls could have gone back to their normal lives. Because she never learned how to build healthy relationships she does everything she can to control the three of them. Her rapid descent after all three of them leave her shows how crucial control over them was to her self-identity.
Azula thinks control and fear function the same way as love. Control and fear can be used as a substitute for love. It's why she over-reacts when Zuko tiredly talks about committing treason and accepts what he assumes will be his fate. That is not the outcome Azula wanted or expected, so she lashes out violently. But there is a kernel of concern for him at the bottom of it all. Zuko can't go back to the Fire Nation saying things like that, so Azula will make him do things her way. She would also feel much more possessive of him, knowing that some other group of kids wanted to take 'her' brother away, and so she feels a much stronger impulse to control him.
Thinking about it logically, the reason she stated in canon for wanting Zuko home, to use him as a human shield against their dad, doesn't have to change that much in this story even despite Zuko's super-mega-treason habit. If anything, Zuko's habit of making a spectacle of himself could easily play into her hands. Azula is a shrewd thinker and sees the bigger picture. When she's on top of her game, she always had back-up plans and covered all her angles. She feels confident that she killed Aang, but not confident in declaring so... just in case.
I also think she was genuinely loyal to the Fire Nation cause beyond her own self-glorification. Despite her nature, most of Azula's plans are actually bloodless, or require very little bloodshed (until her breakdown). She doesn't waste resources and opportunities and people wily-nily. She wouldn't see the sense in wasting resources looking for the Avatar if she knows he's dead, just to cover her own butt. So she needs a fall-guy, just in case. Zuko is also the perfect lightning rod for their father's erratic behaviour and intensity. Azula, even as the favourite, wouldn't have enjoyed being an only child as much as she thought she would. So bringing Zuko home still serves the same original two functions as it did in canon.
This is the end of book 2. I hope you all enjoyed it and thank you all for reading this crazy adventure. Book three will pick up in the same place as canon: the awakening!