A/N: I know I should be working on BSSU, I know. But this idea came to me and it felt so…perfect…like 'Pieces' did the first time. Since that's my most popular fic to date, I'm not going to deny it when that feeling comes again, particularly if it's for my favorite couple ever.
The title comes both from Lo and Li's speech "Like waves washing away the footprints on the sand, Ember Island gives everyone a clean slate. Ember Island reveals the true you" and the Sugarland song Fall Into Me that is my theme song for this fic and the lines "when the weight of the world/ breaks down so strong you/ leave footprints on the street". Both are fairly significant to the story.
Further more, Azula's fate prior to this story came from a note on the Official Nickelodeon site.
Disclaimer: Any known characters belong to the powers that be (aka Bryke). The fact that I disagree strongly with the way they ended some things doesn't give me title to their characters. It just gives me motivation to do things my way.
Warnings: Um…this is going to eventually be Sokkla. If you don't like it I don't know why you bothered reading my stuff.
Summary: When a physician recommends that Azula be confined to a place with happy memories to recover, Zuko suddenly finds himself in a sticky situation. Now he's relying on Sokka to look after his sister as she recovers in the only place she still feels safe. But, as every one knows, Ember Island has a way of revealing the true self…
Chapter 1: The Fire Lord's Dilemma
Zuko frowned at the blank wall at the end of the hallway, mentally cursing it for having no answers for him, before he spun on his heel and started walking the other direction. He'd already been to the other end of the hall several times, and he had to admit it wasn't likely that wall would have any clues for him either. Pacing was not something he had often done before he became Fire Lord, but after six months in that position it was almost a nightly habit.
Usually, simply moving helped to clear his head and allowed him to think, but not tonight. No matter how many times he walked the deserted corridor, no solution to his problem was presenting itself. Not that Zuko had expected it to just walk out of the shadows, but it would have been nice if he were even a little closer to an answer than when he started.
Really, it shouldn't have been so complicated. If he'd been born in to any other family in the world it would have been easy, obvious, but because of how many people it would affect he couldn't go with what instinct told him was the correct answer.
Fire Lord Zuko let out a small growl of frustration and annoyance. Was life always this complicated, or was he just blessed with a special one?
"You're up awful late," a familiar voice dead-panned from the shadows, followed by a half-muffled yawn, "or early, depending on how you look at it."
The young monarch managed the tiniest of smiles as his girlfriend melted out of the shadows—Mai could be very ninja-esque when she wanted to. "I couldn't sleep."
"So what else is new? You're a regular insomniac; I'm surprised you don't fall asleep in peace meetings." She walked over and fell in to step beside him as he resumed pacing. "What's bothering you?"
Zuko sighed and pulled his hands a little further inside his flowing robes. Leave it to Mai to get right to the point of something. A little part of him flashbacked to a night on a boat when he'd also confided in her, and how 'sympathetic' she had been then, but he dismissed it. This was different; she was a little more personally involved. "I received a visit from one of Azula's physicians today."
Mai raised an eyebrow, a significant change of expression for her even now, "one of?"
This question was ignored in favor of the more important information the young Fire Lord wanted to share, "he told me that he doesn't think Azula can get better there."
Zuko was referring to the Institution he had had his sister sent to, on an island not far from the capital. At the time it had just been the most humane option he could think of—the Earth Kingdom, who was after her blood, couldn't get her if she was insane—as well as a convenient place to put her until the pressing matters of government had been dealt with. As the months had passed, he'd started to hope that with twenty-four hour care she might be able to recover some semblance of her sanity. It had been reported that her rages had stopped, and he'd dared to hope he'd done the right thing, before this news came.
He paused in his pacing, trying to clear his head of the thoughts that he'd simply abandoned his sister when she needed him most. "She doesn't trust any of her caretakers and is unhappy in that place. Without someone she can trust to watch her, and a place where she is comfortable and feels safe, her recovery has come to a standstill…might even slip backwards."
This was the part that bothered Zuko the most. He'd gone to visit Azula once after his coronation. She'd been in a fire proof room, bound hand and foot so she could not hurt herself or others, as she slipped in and out of screaming rages. She had not recognized him at all. If she had indeed improved from that wretched state, he couldn't stand to be the one responsible for her returning to it.
Mai pursed her lips together, looking away down the deserted corridor that lead away from the one outside Zuko's room they were currently walking up and down, and she didn't look at him again as she muttered without any emotion at all, "she can't come to the palace."
"No," Zuko agreed, following her gaze down the empty corridors. "It's too busy here. She doesn't trust any of the servants; it would be just as bad as the Institution, only with more people." He sighed, running his hand through his loose hair. "I was thinking the house on Ember Island—I actually already hired a crew to clean it up and refurnish it."
And fix the holes he and Aang had caused. Hopefully no one would wonder too much about those, as he had not good story invented for them.
Mai looked at him now, her eyes dark as she actually frowned, "but there's no one there to take care of her. You can't go, you're needed here."
"I know," it sounded harsher than he'd meant it to, but then that was the exact problem he'd been out here trying to solve. If he couldn't think of someone, Azula would have to stay where she was. Zuko wasn't sure if he could deal with that as his sleep was already plagued with nightmares of his sister begging him to help her. Now that he had a chance, if he didn't take it, living with the guilt would be nearly impossible.
If he picked the wrong person, she might get lose, and in her current mental state there was no telling what she might do to innocent citizens. That was the scariest part.
He took Mai's hand as a way of apologizing for his harsh tone, and smiled slightly when she didn't pull away. "I thought of Uncle, but he and Azula never got along, and he's happy in Ba Sing Se. Ty Lee is out, as I doubt I could persuade her to come home. She's always been more afraid of Azula than actually her friend."
Zuko wasn't going to tell Mai this, but the person he wanted most to look after Azula was their mother. Azula's confession on the beach, the one moment he'd ever seen the mask she wore slip away, kept running through his head. She needed to work out whatever issues it was that she had with Ursa. Unfortunately, Ozai had not known—or else had not answered him honestly—when Zuko had demanded to know where his mother was. The former Fire Lord had not even known for sure if his wife was alive. Zuko had some of, as Sokka called them, "the Fire Nations best and brainwashed" looking from clues from her last known location, but so far they had found nothing.
No matter how much he wished otherwise, that route was closed to him.
He stopped walking; Mai pulled up short next to him, and turned to look directly at the girl he loved best in the world. "That leaves just you for people Azula might trust."
"There's one major flaw in your plan, Zuko." She didn't call him Fire Lord, she never did. "I'm not willing to go."
This took him by surprise. He'd expected some protests, but in the end to have her agree that it was the only solution. An out and out refusal took him completely off guard. "What? Why not?"
"Besides the fact that there is no way Azula trusts me anymore," Mai looked at him rather pointedly as she said this, but if she was trying to say something he didn't understand it, "I just think it's a bad idea. There are people in the Fire Nation that really believed in the war, and they would use Azula as a rallying point to their cause. She might even try and seize power herself."
Zuko had thought about this, but found he couldn't focus on it for very long. Mai hadn't seen Azula since Katara had defeated her, she hadn't seen how broken she was. Even if her sanity was restored, and Zuko very much doubted that it could be, she would not be the same person she had been. As for her being the focus points of rebellions…it was possible wherever she was, and he would just have to deal with it if it came up.
He knew this wouldn't be good enough for Mai. She was still angry with Azula for the years she had lived in fear of her, and having her love for Zuko used as a way to keep him occupied. She had not yet, and probably never would, forgive her. The young Fire Lord could not really blame her for this. If Azula had been anyone else he probably wouldn't have thought twice about locking her away forever.
But the Princess wasn't just anyone. She was his little sister, the same girl who had been his greatest rival and best friend in that time almost beyond memory. They had often played together, and when he had fallen she had given him reason to get up again, both positive and negative. Whatever her innumerable crimes, he could not abandon her. It was his job as her older brother to protect her, something he'd always failed to do in the past because he had not recognized the real enemy, their father, for what he was.
He had to make up for that, and even if it was an impossible task he had to try.
Mai would not understand this. Her younger brother was still an infant, and except for him she seemed rather indifferent about people as a whole. As long as he wasn't dead, she didn't seem to care, and there was no reason for her to protect him from the low danger world in which he was kept.
Tom-Tom didn't need Mai the way Azula had always needed him…the way he needed her.
"I really think it's best if Azula stays where she is," Mai's voice was soft now, and she dropped his hand. "I'm sorry you don't agree, and for your sanity I hope you figure it out. Good night."
Zuko shook his head as Mai disappeared into the dark recesses of the palace once again. She always better at reading people than she let you think and she could sense that this was not something he was going to give up on. Since she had no answers for him, she had left him alone to think and he appreciated that.
He just wished she had left him with a little more help and a little less confusion. With Mai's refusal to help, he was out of options. Uncle would only tell him the same things Mai had, maybe with a few more admonishments that he had always tried to see the good in Azula before with often disastrous results.
They were right, really, and as the Fire Lord his best choice was to just leave her there and hope the physician had been wrong…or hope he was right and see it as a way of neutralizing his greatest rival.
But all those reasons seemed to come back to one thing: Zuko wanted to keep the power he'd finally gained. He couldn't let that be what kept him from helping his sister, because it had been his ancestor's desire for power that had torn the world apart—his father's ambition that had ruined his family. He was starting to realize that the world was really made up of those small family units, and the more united those were the better off the world would be.
If he wanted to help fix the damage that his family had done to the world then he was going to have to start by attempting to pull together the shattered remains of a family he had left.
It was Katara and Sokka, and their determination to protect the ones they called family that had made Zuko realize this. He had gone with both of them on quests to, in their own way, unite the pieces of family THEY had had left, and he had seen how much better things were once this task was completed.
Zuko paused in his pacing, allowing an idea that had just wiggled its way into his sleep deprived brain time to sink in. His Uncle had once told him that people of the Water Tribe had a deep sense of community and love, and he himself had witnessed this first hand when he'd joined the Avatar's group. Katara may have resisted him at first, but Sokka…once Aang had given his okay; Sokka had simply accepted him as part of the group. He'd shrugged off Zuko's feeble attempts to apologize for the day he attacked their village, and trusted Zuko enough that he'd allowed him to come with him to rescue his father—in a place where, if Zuko had wanted to betray them, would almost have been ideal.
Sokka of all people would understand his desire to help his sister, no matter what she'd done. He and Katara were close, and so many times as he'd watched them together Zuko had found himself thinking that he and Azula could have been much the same if they hadn't let their father drag them apart.
At the very least, it was worth a shot. Sokka was his best friend, the first he'd ever had, and maybe someone who had never really known Azula—but one that she could grow to trust the way Zuko had learned too—would be perfect for the job.
He sent the message that very night with his fastest hawk, and received the simple reply note, scrawled in surprisingly tidy handwriting, not even a week later: "I'll be there in two week".