The murmurs at her door didn't wake her this time, for which she was grateful. In fact, she had started when she heard the whispers and quickly put away the scrolls she had been consulting. It might have been relaxing for her to look at troop reports and strategies, but she doubted that Katara would agree. And, of late, whatever Katara had said, Mai and Ty Lee had taken it upon themselves to enforce. Within reason.
Azula was certain it was only for the thrill of bossing her around for a change.
Instead of the storming entrance of the Water Bending healer, the whispered conversation turned into a whispered argument. Just as Azula was about to call out, a voice cried out, "coward!" and another "ow!".
Toph appeared from the doorway, pulling Aang along by his ear, each step punctuated by a spoken and still pained, "ow" from the Avatar. It was everything and more for Azula not to laugh out loud.
Aang stood at the foot of her bed, still looking down even though Toph had released him. She stood next to, and slightly behind, him, her arms crossed and a look that was both funny and fearsome. Finally, when Aang didn't speak, she smacked him in the back of the head.
Aang looked as if he wanted to run, and Azula's heart went out to him.
"Aang, come here."
His eyes widened, and he swallowed, but he did approach her. His head was bowed like a naughty poodle-monkey, and Azula had trouble stifling a laugh. By the time he stopped, she felt she might be under control.
The words triggered such an alarmed reaction from the Avatar that Azula did laugh, and Aang's puzzled look only fueled her mirth. When she finally calmed down, a voice from the edge of the bed rang out.
"I told you she wouldn't be mad, Twinkle-toes." Toph had a smirk on her face, staring, or so it seemed, at a point between Azula and Aang. "You wouldn't believe what an ostrich-horse he was being about coming to see you."
"Oh, I believe it," Azula said with a smile. Aang said nothing, seeming to be fall back into his state of fear. Azula reached out and grabbed his chin, forcing him to look into her eyes.
"You did what you had to do. You stopped a tyrant from subjugating the entire planet before he became unstoppable. No one in this palace, or even in the Capital, believes otherwise." Aang swallowed and nodded, but said nothing. Azula sighed. "Besides, you're the Avatar. It doesn't exactly raise people's confidence in the world's peacekeeper if he is sulking around like a guilty little boy..." She smiled, hoping that it would take some of the sting from her words, and was happy to find that such a gesture came more easily than it had in the past.
"I keep trying to tell him that," Toph snorted, "but he doesn't listen."
"I was angry." It was the first thing he'd said at all, and now that he had, it was if the words gushed from him. "I was so angry that he attacked Katara, and... then, when it turned out he hit you, he said it was what traitors deserved..."
"Aang!" Toph shouted, but Azula merely shook her head.
"I came to grips with Ozai a long time ago, Toph." Azula said, shaking her head. "I would have been surprised if he'd felt anything less."
Aang swallowed. "I k—"
"You did what you had to do, Aang. As the Avatar, and as a person. There was no redemption in him." Azula could tell that Aang didn't believe her, or accept her opinion of her father, and she found that she couldn't blame him, even if it was inconvenient. "At least know that neither Zuko, Iroh, nor I will seek any retribution."
After a long time, Aang nodded, and then backed away. A smile, very slight but also very real, flitted across his face. He reached the door, looked back once, and dashed away as if released from school. Azula chuckled.
"So," Azula said when she was certain Aang was finally gone, "I heard that the Kyoshi Warrior left Sokka behind..." Her eyebrows rose, and she glanced toward Toph, who was blushing furiously.
"He's still an idiot," Toph mumbled, but couldn't seem to hide her smile. She turned her face toward Azula, a wolfish grin on her face. "I'll have to get rid of your acrobat friend, too. Is that going to be a problem?"
Azula shrugged. "She knows the risks, I'm sure."
Toph laughed and sat on the bed, leaning back and facing the ceiling, and sat there for a few hours, just chatting with Azula about everything and nothing.
* * * * *
She recognized her surroundings. It was the same as the first time she'd come here, but how she'd come to arrive, she had no idea. She was, unlike the other times, more than content, and she definitely wasn't dying. This was a plus in her mind.
The clearing was as warm as when she first visited, but seemed less clear somehow, as if she'd just woken up and there was still a haze of sleep in her eyes. She was enjoying the warmth when a small hand on her back caused her to turn.
There, looking up at her, smiling happily, was Warau, and Azula found herself laughing as the little girl wrapped her arms around the Princess' waist.
"No," Warau said, her eyes sparkling as she looked up at Azula, "you're not dead." They both laughed, and Warau started pulling her to a small pond that seemed to have a hazy glow around it. "In fact," continued Warau, "You're getting farther and farther from it. So I wanted to show you this while I could!" She knelt at the pond, and gestured for Azula to do the same. "I found this pond before your momma found me. I touched it, and I saw what might have happened if I hadn't..." She paused, and Azula felt her throat tightening. "So I thought," Warau continued, glossing over her slip, "what could it show Shagua?" She winked, and Azula sneered a little and tweaked her nose.
"You know my name now," she said, surprised when it came out as a whisper, and Warau giggled.
"I liked the name Shagua!" Warau lightly took Azula's wrist and pulled it toward the water. A sudden pang of fear tore through the princess, and she yanked her hand back as if the water was scalding hot. Warau's brow furrowed.
"What is it?"
"I..." Azula swallowed against a lump in her throat. Her voice was dry and scratchy. "I don't think I want to know. Or need to know. Or should know." She was making excuses, she knew, but somehow, she knew that touching the water wasn't going to be pleasant.
Warau took her hand, holding it between two tiny hands, and looked up into Azula's eyes. Azula's breath caught, and she felt compelled to stare into the deep eyes of her newest friend.
"Trust me, Azula. Please?"
Azula nodded, and allowed Warau to pull her hand to the water, skimming it over the top. The disturbed surface made ripples, and as they slowed and stopped, the image on the water changed from a reflection of the hazy sky to her. Events seemed to go by all too quickly, snippets of a life, like a play rather than a memory. It became evident that the water bourn Azula was not the same as the one who watched.
In the water, Azula did not fight the Avatar and nearly die. Instead, she told her father that Zuko had killed him and let her brother deal with the consequences. He defected, and his father made her his advisor.
Eventually he was caught (or, it seemed at times, he'd snuck into Boiling Rock like a fool) and, when Azula came to deal with him, Ty Lee and Mai came to a point where they had to choose. Mai choose against her, and was very nearly killed, without Ty Lee's intervention.
Her friends had betrayed her, and, watching, Azula didn't blame them.
The betrayal led to a spiral of madness and paranoia, and though she was crowned Fire Lord, it was a pyrrhic victory. The day of her coronation, the day of the comet, Zuko and Katara came and fought her. Zuko took her place as Katara's savior, and Katara, single-handedly defeated her, leaving her a raving, screaming mess chained to a grate.
There but for the grace of the gods, she thought, and smiled in relief. That wasn't her. It wouldn't be her. She would be better.
Warau clung to her again, and spoke, softly, tinged with sadness, but also, now, hope. "I don't think I'll be able to draw you back again, Azula. I don't think I should, not until it's your time." Azula nodded, but Warau continued. "It won't seem like long. It'll be sooner than you know, I think." She looked up, her child like smile belying the wisdom of her words. "I love you."
"I love you, too," Azula whispered, and kissed the girl's forehead. They looked into each other's eyes, and Warau spoke again.
"Azula? Wake up... Azula, wake up, are you OK?"
She opened her eyes, somehow startled to see, not the deep brown of Warau's eyes, but the dark blue of Katara's. The Waterbender looked concerned.
"You were crying. Are you hurt?"
"No," Azula said, straining a little to sit up. "No, it... it's OK." She smiled, happy for reasons that all memories of were fading fast. "Just a little dream."
Katara looked at her for a short time, and then nodded. "OK, then, want to get out of bed for a while?" She grinned. "Ty Lee wants to go shopping."
Azula laughed and allowed Katara to help her out of bed.
* * * * *
Time moves, and in time even the deepest wounds fade, leaving a scar or disappearing for good. The lightning bolt burn in her hand never truly faded, but she was able to forget, when she didn't see it.
Zuko married Mai, of course, and was crowned Fire Lord, and soon Azula's titles increased by one when she found herself being called "Auntie". The first time she held little Kaiya, she'd had to sit down or she'd have fallen over from her wobbly legged pride.
On a mission to the Earth Kingdom, She, Ty Lee, and Mai found Warau's grave. On it was a stone, which was engraved. "Warau - She laughed, and changed the world." Azula closed her eyes and smiled, and they spent the rest of that day remembering the little girl who'd begun Azula's change of heart.
Toph went home, suffered her loss, and came back. Ty Lee drifted away after some missions to the Earth Kingdom. Uncle Iroh, too content with living, didn't seem to change. Aang and Katara went to the South Pole, never really cementing their relationship, and never really needing to. Sokka went with them.
And life went on. Jet attacked, friends were called, favors were called, and people were reunited. Nothing, it seemed, worked out the way they'd thought it would, and still everything worked out. And before long, Kaiya was on tenterhooks waiting for her cousin to arrive.
When presented with her daughter, Azula smiled up at her husband, who nodded with understanding. She looked at the tiny bundle with the shock of black hair, and gasped when the little one opened her eyes. Despite their different color, there was a familiarity in the eyes that Azula felt drawn to. The baby's mouth moved, widening in a near smile, and Azula found herself answering the smile on her own.
"Warau," she whispered, looking up at Sokka. "Her name will be Warau."
* * * * *
I have to apologize. I had so much to do before the end of the year that stories took a back seat. And then plot bunnies bit, but the bunny for this story reused to. I think she's afraid of ending. But end she must. I hope this ending met with everyone's expectations. It's more of an epilogue than an ending, but I'm happy with it.
This is it. It's over now. I'm going to bed ;)
Eternal thanks to:
Invaderk, for pulling out all the barbs and stickers and making this story flow much better.
RadiantBeam, who's Web of Lies was the inspiration behind this fic, and whose encouragement knows no bounds.
BenRG, talonlee, Forlorn Maiden, Sapphire Wolf Master, Fire Lord Azula, and Wolfen Dreams, who have given me in depth commentary and support through the long, involved process of this writing.
BenRG again for giving me the idea of having Azula and company visit Warau's gravesite.
The rest of the reviewers, whose reviews I still read when I need a pick me up or inspiration.
If you is confused by the pairings implied at the end, you absolutely need to go read RadiantBeams "Web of Lies". Then you will understand. :D