LIGHTNING & FLAME
Summary: Zuko wants to give Azula a second chance, but only after taking certain precautions. He's compassionate, not stupid. Aang realizes that he still has a long way to go to master the four elements. Team Avatar struggles to find their place in the new world. Post-series.
I recently finished watched Avatar: The Last Airbender and I knew that I had to become part of the fandom. After reading some great fanfictions dealing with this series, I knew that I had to write one as well. But which characters should I focus on and what did I want to write about?
To my surprise, I found that I wanted to write about Azula. How would she fit into the new post-war world? The last we heard of the Fire Princess she was shipped off to a mental institution on an island somewhere. Hardly a suitable ending to such a great adversary.
And Azula is an interesting villain. She's much wittier and more nuanced than her father Ozai who is the standard 'madman who wants to take over the world and become a god' type. Yawn.
But what made me think Azula had more potential than just 'dangerous bad girl' was the episode The Beach. I came to realization that Azula is not only a deadly warrior but she's also a huge dork! I finally had reason to believe that she and Zuko were related. They're the two most socially awkward teens in the whole series! Azula is a melodramatic, overly serious teenager. Much like Zuko but far less angsty. I thought it would be interesting to explore that sibling relationship.
I knew that I also wanted Azula interacting with the Gaang because that would be entertaining. But I didn't want her becoming a 'goody two-shoes' either. She's not the type to admit that she's wrong. What I wanted was a dynamic similar to the one Spike (another dorky villain) had with Buffy Summers and her friends starting in the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer after his ability to harm humans was neutralized. The 'good guys' and the 'bad guy' could hate and verbally attack each other all they wanted, but there would be no significant risk of physical injuries to either side.
And thus a story was born...
-Chapter 1: Zuko's Decision-
It had been about three months since Zuko placed his sister in a mental institution.
And this was the first time that he had come to visit.
As he looked down on his sister's sleeping face he wondered what he was doing here. It had been easy to forget about Azula in the first few weeks after he became Fire Lord as he struggled to bring the war to a close and maintain order. He hadn't had time for family matters.
No, that wasn't quite true. He had visited his father in prison a few times in the hope that the man would tell him what he knew about where his mother was. So lack of time wasn't the reason that prevented him from looking in on his sister. And despite what some people might think, the reason wasn't because he hated Azula or didn't care about her. The two of them had never been close, but he took family ties very seriously. One only had to look at the last three years of him tracking down the Avatar on his father's orders to know that.
The truth was that he couldn't bear to face Azula. He felt guilty about contributing to her breakdown. His friends would tell him that he was being ridiculous if they knew, but they weren't the ones who constantly relived the day that Sozin's Comet passed in their nightmares. They didn't have to remember the sight of his normally composed and austere sister dissolving into a wreck with mad laughter and wild eyes.
"Traitor! Traitor! You're a traitor, Zuko!"
These were the words Azula had screamed at him as she was dragged away by five members of the Imperial Guard. Mai had told him to ignore the ravings of a madwoman, but the problem was that, mad or not, Azula wasn't wrong. Zuko had betrayed his uncle then his father and now his sister. It didn't matter that Ozai and Azula had betrayed him first. It didn't change the fact that he was a traitor to his own family. It was a wonder that the Avatar and his friends trusted him at all.
Zuko looked around the room Azula was staying in. The walls were made of the same metal that was used at the Boiling Rock, but unlike the cells of that prison this room was better lit, more spacious, and it even had a few pieces of furniture (all made of non-flammable, unbreakable materials). The bed that Azula lied on was made of white marble and couldn't have been very comfortable, but according to the reports he had received she had rarely gotten up from it.
That behavior wasn't very surprising in the first month of her stay. For the first few weeks, the Fire Princess had been kept under heavy sedation, both for her safety and that of the staff's. Once her injuries had healed and the proper protocols for dealing with a potentially violent inmate who was also royalty were established, the doctors had gradually reduced the dosage of Azula's sleeping medication. Then they waited.
Zuko hadn't been able to get away from the palace the day that the drugs were to be completely flushed from his sister's system, but he was so worried about what might happen that he didn't get anything done that day. Azula may have been weak from weeks of being bedridden, but it wouldn't have surprised him to hear that upon becoming fully lucid she had immediately started attacking everyone around her.
The staff had been prepared for such a reaction. They were well-trained in dealing with unruly patients. After all, they worked at an institution for insane firebenders! Three employees with hoses had been standing by ready to instantly soak the princess if she so much as created a spark.
Yet despite all this preparation, the result was rather anti-climatic. Azula had simply opened her eyes, looked around at her surroundings, gave a heavy sigh and closed her eyes again. She had barely moved and had hardly spoken since then.
Zuko had expected many things, but he never would have expected his sister to become so listless and passive. He couldn't imagine her ever giving up on anything, but that appeared to be what she had done. He supposed that he shouldn't have been so surprised. In all the time he had known her Azula never reacted to anything like he predicted she would. Why would she start now?
"This reaction wasn't completely unexpected," the doctor informed Zuko. Azula's treating physician, Doctor Kuzon, had personally arrived to the palace to tell Zuko of his patient's condition. Zuko had idly wondered if the elderly man was a descendant of Aang's old friend of the same name, but this wasn't the best time to ask.
"What do you mean?"
Kuzon replied, "There are two possible reactions to losing everything one considers important and taking a battering to one's self-image. Either you lash out at everyone and everything or you withdraw into yourself."
"Are you saying my sister is catatonic?" Zuko asked, half-rising from his throne. His voice had also risen even though he had not intended that.
"No, no, nothing like that. But Princess Azula is deeply depressed. Your sister has always had a strong, perfectionistic personality. It's only natural that her current circumstances has evoked within her feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. She has taken to sleeping the day away and ignoring all our attempts to help her."
"You do not believe that she is faking this?" Zuko asked. He hated to ask such a question, but he had to be certain about what he was hearing.
The doctor shook his head. "I have seen many patients in my career who have become like this. They lose all interest in doing anything. They have internalized the belief that nothing will ever get better and there's nothing they can do to improve their situation. If they weren't such failures, then they wouldn't have dropped so low in the first place. In that case, why bother to try and just fail all over again?
"Your sister has been under incredible pressure for probably most of her life. The shock of her recent losses has left her feeling lost and disoriented. And before you ask, I do not believe that she is suicidal. Regardless, we are keeping an eye on her in case things get worse."
Zuko didn't see how things could get much worse. The thought of his sister ever giving up on anything was profoundly disturbing. But there was nothing he could do about it, so he had to trust that the doctors knew what they were doing.
He hesitated on asking on his next question. "And has Azula shown any signs of... Do you remember the day that Sozin's Comet passed? Of course you do. That's a stupid question. What I meant to say was that... my sister was a little... off... that day and I was wondering..."
If the doctor was in any way surprised by the sight of the Fire Lord stumbling over his words and looking embarrassed, then he did an admirable job of covering it up. He said in a reassuring manner, "There have been no signs of the madness that afflicted her when she was taken to our facility. My colleagues and I believe that the princess suffered a temporary fit of insanity, a nervous breakdown, triggered by her friends' betrayal and exacerbated by her father naming her Fire Lord and leaving her to fend for herself."
Doctor Kuzon adjusted his glasses before he continued, "From what I gathered through various interviews with Princess Azula's servants and classmates, I had to conclude that your sister has some trust issues."
Zuko couldn't help but snort at such a massive understatement. He shifted guiltily in his seat when the older man patiently looked at him, clearly wondering if he could continue.
"Ahem. As I was saying, the progression of events in that span of time only served to deepen her natural paranoia and fear. She had lost her friends and her family. Worst of all, she had been unable to predict that any of these things would happen. Her sense that she was rapidly losing control - a trait she had always prided herself on having - only increased when she realized that she had no allies left to protect her from the inevitable threats to the throne. In my opinion, the final straw was..."
The doctor broke off, looking extremely uncomfortable.
"What were you going to say?" Zuko demanded. When the doctor flinched at his tone, Zuko realized what the problem was. He lowered his voice and said calmly, "Doctor, I am not my father. I am not afraid of nor am I angered by people speaking their minds. I will never punish someone for having an opinion."
Zuko couldn't help but finger his scar as he said this.
Kuzon cleared his throat then he said, "This is only speculation, but as I said, Princess Azula's psyche was already unraveling from the strain she was under. Your arrival at her coronation ceremony confirmed her worst fears and... unbalanced her mind."
That was not what he wanted to hear.
While it was good news that his sister was no longer a raving lunatic, he still felt awful about contributing to her breakdown. Mai tried reassuring him that Azula had brought her troubles upon herself, but his guilt was not so easily soothed. His sister may have been vicious and cruel, but even she didn't deserve to lose her mind. She had always been so proud about her self-control. To see her breaking down before his eyes the day he defeated her had hurt him more than he thought it would.
Azula may not have known it, but her lucidity had saved her from sharing the same horrible fate as their father's. It would have pained him, but he would have asked Aang to remove her firebending if necessary. The last thing the world needed was a crazed warrior of Azula's caliber on the loose. But the last time he had brought up the subject the young monk had gotten uncharacteristically somber and refused to even entertain the notion.
"I am not removing Azula's firebending," the Avatar said softly but firmly.
"I don't want that either, but I can't keep Azula sedated forever either! What if she has gone irreversibly insane? The people at the institution may be well-trained but my sister's a genius! She could really hurt them or herself with her madness!"
Aang looked like he was in physical pain. He said, "If it reaches that point then I will have to make a decision. But, Zuko, I'm asking you as a friend to not ask me this again unless it's truly necessary."
Zuko decided to relent on that point. Aang was right. There was little point in worrying about this now. But he couldn't help asking, "Are you planning on never using this... energybending again? There are many dangerous benders in the world. People that won't back down because of your words. If you want to avoid taking their lives then you're going to have to-"
Aang glared at him with blazing eyes. "Don't you think I know that? I know that there may be times where I might have to... But I can't think like that! Energybending is a tool that's only to be used as a last resort. I can't use it for the same reason that I can't go around wiping out everyone I don't like!"
The young monk began pacing the room. He said, "The Avatar Spirit is the closest thing to absolute power there is. People love the Avatar but many fear its power. It's already hard enough to beat me as it is, and I'm only going to get stronger. How do you think people are going to react when they find out that I now have the power to take someone's bending away? It's better than killing, but it's still not something I want to make a habit of doing. I have to show restraint. Otherwise, I risk becoming what I'm supposed to fight."
"The Avatar has to remain neutral. That means I can't step into what is essentially a family affair. I will only act when there is an immediate threat. And in facing those threats I will take every possible option to avoid doing anything... irreversible. The temptation to take the easier path will always be there, and I have to be on guard against it. If I just went around energybending all potential threats then I'd have to start with most of the Fire Nation!"
Zuko had dropped the matter after that. When Aang got that upset, it was best not to antagonize him. Personally, he thought his father had gotten off lightly by only losing his bending after facing the Avatar, but Aang had a good point when it came to the bigger picture. Oddly enough, Zuko had felt relieved about Aang refusing to neutralize his sister.
For all of her many faults, Azula truly was a prodigy. She spent hours every day perfecting every form and move. She was the only one in the family who had ever taken such joy and delight in firebending, unlike him or their father who had seen the fighting style merely as a means to an end. There was an artistry to her use of flame that many firebenders lacked.
Taking away her bending may very well drive her over the edge completely. Aang was right. Zuko couldn't depend on the Avatar to solve all his problems. If he wanted to deal with Azula, then he'd have to make the tough decisions and handle the consequences.
What he wanted to do was help his sister. He knew his friends probably wouldn't understand why he had to do this. To them, Azula had always been the ruthless villain who would do anything to achieve her aims. And they weren't wrong about that. Even as a child, Azula had been creepy and strange. He still felt quite a bit of resentment at how she always treated him like a joke.
But Zuko also remembered the little girl who insisted on dragging him around the palace to explore and play with her. He remembered their recent trip to Ember Island with Mai and Ty Lee and how much he enjoyed actually having fun with his sister for once. Sitting around that campfire that night, they hadn't been a bunch of nobles worrying about war but just a group of teenagers enjoying a trip to the beach.
He had to give his sister the second chance that Aang and Uncle had given him. Because the line that separated him from Azula was not as wide as he would like. Maybe he could never have been as heartless and cold as she was, but when it came to blindly following his father's orders, his hands were hardly clean. He had done things that he was not very proud of looking back on the last three years. How much worse would he have been if Father had never banished him? And if he hadn't turned against his father on the Day of Black Sun, would he have eventually ended up in a prison cell next to him?
That was why he needed to do something. He couldn't just sit back and allow Azula to simply waste away. To assuage his guilt and convince himself that he had tried everything he could to help Azula, he had to give her another chance. But while he was a compassionate man he wasn't an idiot. Uncle always scolded him for not thinking things true. This time he would.
No number of chances would help Azula if she couldn't accept that she could not continue as she had before. She would have to adjust to the world that he and the Avatar were trying to create. He had no idea if she could do that, and he had no way of verifying if she did.
Azula always lied. That had been his mantra for many years. The angelic face slumbering peacefully before him could turn demonic in the blink of an eye. No, he couldn't trust her. Fortunately, with his plan he wouldn't have to.
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