Here's an idea that's been bugging me ever since I first saw the finale: resolving Azula and Zuko's sibling rivalry once and for all. Hopefully I do alright...I'm still pretty new to deep fics...
"I told you, my father hasn't come here since our family was actually happy. And that was a long time ago..." Zuko in"The Ember Island Players"
Zuko sighed as he tossed bits of bread into the pond. He was sitting alone in the courtyard; it was just him and the turtleducks now. He had been Firelord for all of eight months and he was already questioning why he ever desired the position in the first place. It was stressful, frustrating, and most of all: exhausting. One request after another, and more people wanted to speak to him everyday. He saw Mai every other day or so, and someone from the gaang would come to visit him every three or four weeks to make sure he never drove himself insane with the pressure of leading an entire nation.
Katara had promised to come by sometime this week; he was interested to find out how the rebuilding of the Southern Water Tribe was coming along. He was personally funding the project now, considering that he had attacked it several months ago and he felt he needed to give something back as his apology.
Suddenly, he heard footsteps behind him. Thinking it was Mai or Katara, he eagerly leaped to his feet and faced the new arrival. Much to his surprise and disappointment, it was just one of the Fire Sages.
"Firelord Zuko," he bowed respectfully, ignoring Zuko's growing annoyance for any intruders who weren't his close friends.
"What is it now?" Zuko grumbled as he turned his back on the man and returned to feeding the turtleducks.
"Sir, we have orders that we need you to finalize."
"Orders? Like what? Earth Kingdom city reconstructions? Arrest warrants? Or is it just the usual…"
"Execution orders," the man interrupted quietly.
"What?" Zuko jumped to his feet and whirled around to face the man. "Execution orders?! We…we don't do that anymore. Not even for…"
Zuko's heart plummeted as the Sage handed him the document. It outlined the prisoner's profile and punishment in dark black ink, with the seal of the Fire Nation stamped onto the top right-hand corner. He forced himself to blink a couple times, just to make sure this wasn't just a bad dream.
"Azula," Zuko whispered in a barely audible tone. He looked up at the Fire Sage in horror.
"She had been resisting every sort of treatment the mental health ward has to offer. Now, of course you realize this is the best facility in the entire Fire Nation, if not the whole world…"
"So you're suggesting we just…end her life?" Zuko's heart pounded ferociously against his chest. Swarms of memories from his last encounter with his younger sister flooded into his mind. The Agni Kai…the lightning…her first defeat…
Azula had nearly killed him countless times in the past, so why was he feeling so conflicted about this decision?
"All of the Fire Sages have agreed upon this. We see no other choice left for the girl."
"But…" Zuko threw the paper at the Sage as though it was burning his hand. He couldn't bear to have Azula killed on his orders. "She could change! Violence can't be the answer for this," he added firmly as he remembered what Aang had told him in the past.
"You have not seen what the elders have. She has fallen too far to have a chance at recovery now. It's best to simply…let her go."
Zuko glared at the man for his insensitive words. However, try as he might, he could think of no rebuttal. Murdering Azula was unimaginable to him, though. But really, what options did she have left? A life in prison? Somehow that seemed crueler than death for a spirited firebending prodigy such as her.
Noticing Zuko's indecision, the Fire Sage spoke softly. "I can see you need time to think about it. I'll return tomorrow to review your decision."
With another bow, the old man shuffled off. Head throbbing and chest pounding with dread, Zuko collapsed onto the ground and looked up into the sky.
Aang had learned to take away Ozai's bending from a giant lion turtle. Spiritbending was always a possibility for Azula, but even then, Zuko worried for her sanity. Stripped of her dignity, her pride, and then her very bending abilities? She would lose it completely; either with suicide or some other form of self-torture. It hurt Zuko just to see Azula crying when she had been defeated for the first time in her entire life by a Water Tribe "peasant."
He was too enraged to care at the time, but fast-forward eight months and add the prospect of her possible execution…Zuko was now feeling rather sympathetic for the monster that had tortured and taunted him nearly his entire life.
So this was how Aang felt when everyone was pressuring him to kill Ozai.
"You'll have to take the Firelord's life…before he takes yours."
Zuko shuddered, not quite believing how easy it was to just tell someone that it was perfectly okay to kill their enemy. Had he really encouraged Aang to kill his father? That sort of murder seemed so simple and acceptable at the time…now that Zuko was the murderer-to-be; things were really put into perspective.
Zuko's head was still hammering inside his skull painfully. Every beat of his heart reminded him that Azula, evil as she was, actually had a heart as well, somewhere deep inside of her. It was alive and beating at this very moment as well; with a quick signature on the execution paper, Zuko could stop it.
That was a horrifying thought, in and of itself.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes softly, hoping for a glimmer of peace somewhere in the world of dreams and memories…
"Zuko come on! We need more sand!"
"I'm trying, just hang on a second!"
Six year-old Zuko lifted the sand into the ceramic bowl and stumbled over to where Ursa and four year-old Azula where building a sand palace. Always the perfectionist, Azula was trying to make it look just like home.
"Now we just need more shells for the courtyard…"
It was a nice summer day on Ember Island. It was Azula's first time there, and she was having a blast. There was none of this fun sand stuff back at home, and Zuko didn't have to go to school while on vacation, so she had someone to play with. The weather was perfect; only a few pure white clouds were scattered in the sky and the water was bluer than ever. There was a soft breeze blowing around them, but nothing like Zuko's first visit to the island; there had been a hurricane two years ago when Ursa first took him there.
Ozai was off on Prince-related business around the island, but he had promised to come back and spend time with his family on the beach later that evening. Zuko was thrilled by this, for Ozai had also told him that he would walk with him and Azula down to Coconut Cove, which was off-limits to them unless their father came along. In school, Zuko had heard a tale about a spirit that lived down there, and ever since then, he'd been very curious to see if it really existed.
For now, however, he would have to have patience and spend his day helping Azula with her sand creations. On his way over to the girls, Zuko tripped over a rock hidden in the sand, tossing the sand in every direction. Some of it flew into his mom and sister's hair and onto their beach clothes.
"What was that for?" Azula barked at him grumpily as she tried swatting the sand off of her with her chubby little fingers.
Ursa laughed as she reached over to help her daughter. "Zuko didn't mean to, Azula. He just tripped."
Azula's frown shifted into a sly smile. "Fine, now I just need…"
She trailed off; her attention was now directed at something in the water. It was a young boy gliding around in the water; it almost looked as though he was a waterbender, until they noticed something else…
"That's an otter weasel!" Azula squealed excitedly. "I didn't know you could ride them!"
Zuko sat onto the sand next to her and Ursa as the threesome watched the kid soar over the waves while gripping the shoulder of the animal. Noticing that he had an audience, the boy directed the animal towards shore and jumped off once he could feel the sand between his toes under the water.
Azula leaped up, completely forgetting her sandy masterpiece in her rush to the otter weasel-rider. Zuko followed after her protectively, not wanting to let his little sister to get in any trouble with this guy. He looked about Zuko's age, and his black hair was pulled back in the traditional Fire Nation topknot.
"Hey," he said as he waved to the young royal children.
"Where did you learn to ride otter weasels?" Azula asked him breathlessly. Her boundless, youthful energy and enthusiasm for adventure was quite obvious by now. Her young body was bouncing up and down, and she was beaming with excitement.
The kid laughed. "Those old guys? Anyone can ride them as long as you're small enough. The penguins are more fun, though."
"Penguins?" Zuko asked skeptically, crossing his arms. Azula, on the other hand, just seemed more and more thrilled about this new game.
"My dad went on a 'mission' to the Southern Water Tribe. I met this boy and girl who are about your ages and they taught me penguin sledding. Dad said I wasn't allowed to tell them I'm Fire Nation though," he added disgustedly with a shake of his head.
Zuko was still doubtful, however; riding across the water on otter weasels sure looked fun.
"Zuko?" Ursa was calling him from the house. "I'll be in here for ten minutes, watch your sister, okay?"
Zuko nodded from the distance and turned around to face the newcomer.
"Zuko, can we please try riding the otter weasels?" Azula begged her older brother with an innocent look on her face.
"I can show you how, there's an entire pack of them in Coconut Cove," the boy nodded in the opposite direction.
Zuko's eyes widened as Azula nodded and began following her new friend to find the otter weasels.
"Azula!" he caught up to her and reached for her shoulder. "Father told us not to go there without him, remember? And Mom said…"
Azula glared at him resentfully. "If you don't want to come, you don't have to."
She spun on her heel and ran after the retreating figure, leaving Zuko no other choice but to follow as well.
"And that's how you turn them. Think you can do it on your own now?"
Azula was grinning ear to ear as she sat on top of a smaller otter weasel. Zuko was riding a bigger one that could accommodate his slightly larger build; at least he was finally beginning to have fun.
"Let's do this!" the kid punched the air and sped out of the cove on his animal.
"Okay so let's see…" Azula gave her animal a tiny kick and it burst forward. The sudden movement took her by surprise, and her golden bracelet fell off into the water as she took off.
"Oh no!" she cried as she leaped off of the animal and raced back to shore, desperately looking for her favorite piece of jewelry.
Zuko rolled his eyes as he got off his otter weasel; leave it to a girl to mess things up.
He searched halfheartedly for a while; his mind was more on finding the spirit that supposedly haunted this cove.
"Found it!" Azula shouted happily as she turned back to Zuko. She was chest-deep in the water, obviously getting her top soaked, but at least she found her stupid bracelet. He grinned for a moment, but then he noticed the otter weasels jumping into the water and swimming away frantically. Something had spooked them…and that something was in the water…right by his little sister…
"Azula! Get out of the water! Now!"
Her innocent look of joy turned into one of fear and panic as she noticed the dark creature swimming behind her. She kicked as hard as her small legs would let her, but the thing was advancing. Azula hopped as fast as she could after realizing that trying to run when her legs were mostly submerged wasn't the best idea. This must have been why Ozai didn't want them down here.
"Zuko! Help me!" she cried in terror as the dark figure emerged from the water. It was a small, but terrifying hippo-shark. It was probably a baby shark, but nonetheless deadly against a young human.
"Zuko!" she shrieked as she saw its giant black head move right next to her leg. It was getting closer...
"Watch out!" Zuko yelled, his body pumping with adrenaline now. With a well-aimed punch, orange fire erupted out of his fist, straight at the hippo shark, and just left of his panicking sister. The animal balked at the fiery explosion it made, giving Azula just enough time to run to shore.
Once the fire disappeared, the shark realized that it had lost its prey, and turned around to leave the cove disappointedly.
Zuko ran over to where Azula was huddling by a boulder in the sand. She shivered violently; not because of the water's temperature, but she was still petrified from her near-death experience.
"Are you okay?" Zuko asked her, his voice full of brotherly concern.
She huddled closer to him to the point where they were now hugging. "I think so," she whispered as Zuko helped her up to leave. "Thanks for saving me…I sure hope I'll be a good firebender like young some day."
Zuko smiled earnestly. "I'm sure you'll be a great firebender, don't worry."
As they were exiting, Azula gave the otter weasels one last longing glance. Zuko knew that she was sad that they didn't get to try riding them, but he thought that they had been in enough trouble for one day.
"Come on," he urged her forward with his arm around her shoulder. But she wouldn't budge. Instead, she was still looking at one of the baby otter weasels that was walking towards her. It had deserted its mother so that it could follow Azula.
"See? It likes me," she giggled as she picked it up and it licked her face happily. "I'm keeping it."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "Father will never let you bring that thing into the palace…"
"Well, we'll just have to see then, okay?"
They trudged home and within thirty minutes, they had reached their family's beach home. Ursa was waiting for them outside with a panicked expression on her face.
"Where were you?" she asked as she ran up to her children, hugging them as though she thought that she'd never see them again.
"We were going to ride the otter weasels but we ran out of time," Azula lied easily. She brought her hands out from behind her back, showing her mom the baby otter weasel.
"I'm keeping it," she said firmly, rather than asking Ursa for permission to keep the animal.
Ursa frowned. "Azula you know we can't have pets…"
Azula pouted. "But Mom! It likes me and I need a pet to play with me when Zuko's gone…"
"No animals, Azula," a colder voice replied from behind Ursa.
Azula's head immediately dropped, acknowledging her father's command at once.
"Let it into the water," Ozai continued as Ursa glanced between him and Azula fretfully. Zuko frowned; he knew this would happen, but it was kind of sad to see Azula's hopes of owning her own baby otter weasel crushed so easily. She did as she was told and miserably said goodbye to the little animal as it eagerly swam off in search of its mother in Coconut Cove.
Back in the present, Zuko walked down the musty grey halls of the small mental care facility. Eight months since he had seen his sister…eight months since her breakdown and defeat back at the Royal Palace…Zuko wondered if she'd changed at all.
The Fire Sages had repeated over and over that her physicians' attempts at returning her to at least semi-normal had failed. But only Zuko would be the judge of that. He knew Azula better than anyone else, even better than Ozai. His father and the Sages had never seen the hint of Azula's possible humane side back when they visited Ember Island together as teenagers. Ozai was never at the mercy of Azula's cruel taunting and teasing; but Zuko had seen what Azula was and could be. And it was now his personal responsibility to help her achieve her potential.
The medical staff bowed respectfully as he walked past; everyone knew exactly whom he had come to see, so they cleared the path for him.
Room #2939. Occupant: Princess Azula.
Zuko bit his lip and closed his eyes as he heaved one last sigh. His shaky hand reached for the handle, slowly unlocking the rusty door and dreading what his eyes would find. He hadn't felt this nervous since the day he faced his father during the eclipse…
Azula was sitting in a corner, her head resting against the wall almost tranquilly. She looked just like Ozai had the first time Zuko had visited him in prison. Zuko wasn't sure if she saw him, for she made no movement to recognize his entrance.
Without thinking, Zuko shut the door; for some reason he was choosing to trust her not to attack him. Even if she did, his firebending was undoubtedly more powerful than hers now anyways.
Her rich black hair had mostly grown back from her crazed hair-snipping episode, but the color had faded into a dull brownish color from her time in this windowless prison. Her long, claw-like nails were no more; she had apparently taken up nail biting to keep herself entertained here. Her body overall was frail and boney. She had lost a lot of weight and looked as though she hadn't eaten once since Zuko had last seen her.
It truly pained him to see Azula in such a poor state. As cruel and hurtful as she was…Zuko still cared about her. She was his sister after all, and he couldn't stay mad at her forever; even if she had tried to kill him.
"What are you doing here?" her icy voice cut through the terrible silence in the cell. There was no noise from the outside; this small metal room was soundproof, as well as fire and escape-proof. There was no sounds in here either, except for each sibling's steady breathing.
Her distrustful golden eyes flickered in Zuko's direction, making him look away immediately.
"Can't even look at me anymore," Azula hissed softly. She sounded like her soul had been ripped to shreds and there was no emotion or true life left in her. If she was mad or hurt by Zuko, she sure wasn't showing it yet.
"Come to gloat perhaps? Look everyone, it's Firelord Zuko," her empty words were bitter, and her voice was flooding with an undeniable sense of failure. Zuko unwillingly opened his eyes and held up a medium-sized brown box.
"I brought you something," he told her quietly as he sat onto the dirty ground of the prison-cell. He was not wearing the usual Firelord garb; that would have been like a punch in the gut to Azula. Instead, he wore everyday Fire Nation peasant attire, and his hair was completely down.
Her eyes flicked once more in his direction. They no longer had the proud glow that Zuko used to see in them; they were more like vacant pools of yellow hatred now. Perhaps the lack of direct sunlight had harmed her vision in the last several months…
But she was curious. She appeared hopeless and destroyed, but Azula showing curiosity for something, however mild her reaction was, was a good sign for Zuko.
"Close your eyes," he commanded her gently. A flash of the enraged monster within emerged over her face, but surprisingly, it disappeared and she did as she was told. Every action such as this, even something as simple as her obeying a tiny order, gave Zuko hope.
He opened the box slowly. He did not smile, for this moment would make or break his decision regarding the Fire Sages' orders. He lifted the thing out of the box and set it carefully into her arms. She shuddered at the weight, but did not open her eyes. It was almost as though she didn't want to ever open them again.
"Okay, you can open now."
It was a baby otter weasel.
She said nothing and didn't look up at Zuko for a long time. She was in shock for several minutes; she just stared down at the snoozing animal as though she were pondering whether she should set it on fire or not. Eventually she began petting the tiny creature as it looked at her fondly with its trusting amber eyes and cuddled up against her ribcage. That's exactly what Zuko needed to see.
Most people would say that eight months of therapy for Azula hadn't done anything at all for her. However, this small action, just petting the animal rather than killing it on the spot or throwing it back in Zuko's face…this gave Zuko tremendous hope for Azula's future.
The animal fell asleep in her arms, so she stopped petting it. Her head rose slowly as she looked at Zuko. He waited patiently for her to say something; he was in no rush to leave this miraculous scene.
Looking into her eyes once more, Zuko could see a glimpse of the old Azula he knew: the girl who was obsessed with the otter weasels that summer on Ember Island; his little sister, whom he had saved from the hippo shark all those years ago.
Zuko already knew he would never sign the execution papers now. Everyone else may have given up on Azula, but not him. Not after seeing how far she had come.
Her weary eyes opened wider and her lips twitched into what may have been a small smile.
"I'm keeping it."
For the record, I stole the otter-weasel idea from the "Jak & Daxter" games (Daxter is an ottsel...LOL). I hope you guys liked it, any comments you have on it are welcomed. Love it? Hate it? Tell me what you think, and any constructive criticism is fine, too. Thanks! :D