Morality Chain


Disclaimer: I own nothing.


"The colonies were first established during the fifteenth year of the reign of Fire Lord Sozin. Wise, compassionate ruler that he was, he deemed that the backwards and downtrodden peoples of the Earth Kingdom would fare better under the enlightened rule of the Fire Nation than the distant and disconnected command of Ba Sing Se's Earth King." The instructor's droning continued on and on in the background, and Azula continued to pay him all the attention he deserved.

It was far more fun to pay attention to the sights around her, after all. It wasn't everyday that she got to visit one of the colonies, but her parents had apparently decided this would be a good learning opportunity for the two of them.

Well, it wasn't so bad, she supposed. A couple of weeks out to see new sites and to enjoy herself while 'learning' things anyone who had read a history scroll would already know. It would have been nice if Father could have come along too, but business had demanded he remain in the capital and so it was Mother who was now in charge. Which meant that Azula wasn't going to be allowed to act out.

On that note, she looked over to see her brother, whose gaze was transfixed on the factory that they were supposed to be visiting today. After a moment, Azula shifted her position slightly, so she could look at the factory too.

The massive building stood in front of her, belching steam and smoke into the air. From her vantage point on the city wall, Azula could see a steady stream of people walking in and out of the cavernous main entrance.

Well, she'd seen sights like this before in the capital. The main difference here was that the she could see green uniforms of Earth Kingdom workers alongside the brilliant red of the Fire Nation.

Yes, she'd read about that. Part of the reason why factories in the colonies had such good output was because they were able to make use of the earthbenders' powers and knowledge of minerals.

Well, that was natural. They did have their talents and strengths to offer, even if it was a meagre amount. It was good that the Fire Nation could recognize and make use of such skills.

"This factory makes our war machines, isn't it?" She said as she pointed towards one of the open courtyards. There, the outline of what looked like a battleship was slowly taking shape.

"Indeed. Very observant of you, your highness." The instructor said. He blinked owlishly for a moment, and deciding that since this was a topic that the children seemed interested in, it would be okay to change the subject of his talk for the moment. "The Gang Chuan factory boasts an average construction rate of 1 new warship every two weeks. That's nearly twice as fast as even the best armaments factories in the mainland. All made possible by the contributions of the loyal earthbenders who live in the province!"

"That's amazing!" Zuko sounded genuinely impressed, but Azula found a frown coming onto her face.

Hearing about how great their production here was... well, that was nice, of course. But something about how it outpaced the best the Fire Nation homeland could offer rankled. Acknowledging that they needed the earthbenders to accomplish this wasn't something she felt comfortable with.

"But they couldn't have managed this on their own, of course." She shifted her gaze to the banner draped over the front of the factory, emblazoned with the crest of the Fire Nation. "Not without our guidance and teaching those poor peasants how to make proper use of their skills."

"But of course." A satisfied nod. "Indeed, this is precisely what Fire Lord Sozin had envisioned – the ability to share our knowledge and expertise with the world, and to help them help us, for the betterment of all."

Azula smirked a little at that, mollified by the reassurance of the Fire Nation's superiority over the Earth Kingdom dwellers. At that moment, she felt a hand on her shoulder, and she looked up.

"Mother?"

Her mother's gaze was not on her, but rather on the factory that stood ahead of them. Her expression was inscrutable, but then, finding it difficult to read her mother was something Azula was quickly, if grudgingly, getting used to.

After a long moment, her mother nodded. "The Fire Nation has done great things, Azula."

"Well, yeah." She nodded, pasting a self-satisfied smirk on her face. "Of course it has!"

She looked back down at the people walking, far below her. At this range, they looked like little more than spider-flies. She picked out one person at random, tracking his path as he stepped up to and vanished through the doorway of the factory.

"Of course it has," she repeated, in a softer voice.

(X)

"Up and at 'em, princess!" As Toph's voice sounded through the room, Azula blinked once, then twice, before sitting up in bed.

"What do you want?"

"Thought Fire Nation types were supposed to 'rise with the sun', and all that?" The earthbender shrugged as raised her hand. "Well, sun's up and about, if the heat on my skin is any indication."

"I've been awake." And she had, almost ever since the sun had risen over the horizon. But she hadn't found it in her to actually leave the bed, and so she'd remained there, staring up at the ceiling as the room had slowly become brighter.

Mostly she had been preoccupied with her own thoughts. Thoughts about failure. Failure to get Ty Lee to safety at the Boiling Rock. Failure to rescue her. Failure to discover her current location.

Not that she really needed to bring the earthbender into her confidence about this, and so she sighed.

"I repeat, what do you want?"

"Me? Not much." She shrugged and spread her hands. "But the gang decided that since they ended up here pretty late last night, they wanted to look around the place. You know, get a feel for the city and all that."

"And you came to ask if I'd come along."

"Figured it couldn't hurt to ask, yeah." The earthbender now had an easy smile on her face. "So, you coming?"

Socializing, is it?

Azula let out a breath and gazed out the window of the room. She couldn't say she was particularly interested in walking the streets of Yu Dao – she'd already studied the city before as one of the First Colonies of the Fire Nation, and she knew enough about it.

But then there probably wasn't going to be much benefit to staying cooped in her room either. She needed to make more plans, both for before and after the Comet. And maybe walking around and getting some food in her stomach would help with that.

So she managed a nod as she pulled herself out of bed. "All right. Give me a moment, I'll meet you all downstairs."

(X)

The afternoon saw them walking down the streets of Yu Dao, travelling as a group. Azula found herself watching the others as they looked around, taking in the sights.

"The houses around here really look different!" Azula looked over her shoulder to see the Avatar looking every which way as they walked down the main street. As usual, he had donned a hat that covered his distinctive tattoos, allowing him to travel incognito. Azula thought he looked ridiculous, but it wasn't her place to talk.

"Yeah, they really do." Zuko nodded as he looked around himself. "I remember stopping here back during my search for... er, you. The look of the place really surprised me at first. Nothing like the more traditional Earth designs."

"The Earth Kingdom's a big place after all," Suki had her arms folded as she looked around, drinking in the sights herself, "so no surprise building styles would differ all across the land. I know Kyoshi's Island's houses don't look anything like these."

"It's not just the location," Azula found herself speaking almost before she realized it, "it's the history, too."

"History?" And now she had piqued the Avatar's interest with just that word. Sometimes that boy had a thirst for knowledge that bordered on the indefatigable.

"... Well, you know Yu Dao is a Fire Nation colony. What you may not know was that it was one of the very first." Whether or not it was actually the first ones, Azula couldn't say. Sozin had made his move to seize several towns at almost the same time, gambling that he would not be met with organized resistance from the Earth King or his armies. A wise move, as it turned out.

"Really?" The Avatar's expression had changed, as he now looked at the assembled buildings with a deepening frown on his face.

"Indeed. It's been nearly a hundred years since this place was first established. What's more," she gestured vaguely to the outskirts of the city walls, "it wasn't like Yu Dao was particularly prosperous before the Fire Nation took over, so a lot of the buildings you see was built after that fact. And I suppose it's only natural they adopted Fire Nation designs in the process."

As she spoke, she glanced over at the houses, noting the roofs, the colours, the tiles. The designs gave her a nagging sense of familiarity, yet they were still different enough that she could tell they had incorporated more traditional Earth Kingdom designs into them too.

And as she looked back at the rest of the gang, she could see that they had grown quieter as they absorbed this new information, looking out over the houses, and the crowds of both Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom civilians.

"So I guess you could say this was one of the first blows of the war." Sokka cupped his chin as he spoke. "Even before the attack on the Air Nomads."

"Yes, you could. Sozin saw a backwater that no one would fight very hard to defend, and decided it was the perfect place to start his expansion plans. He had it all planned out, really."

As she spoke, Azula became aware that the mood of the group had become more somber, and that though they were surrounded by people walking, talking and laughter, it seems like a shroud had fallen upon the party, muffling the other voices and making them distant as they continued in silence.

"The takeover itself wasn't violent, at least." Zuko sighed as he ran a hand through his hair. "The people of Yu Dao didn't exactly welcome the Fire Nation with open arms like they say in the textbooks, but it's not like the Earth Kingdom had any standing armies in the area to fight the Fire Nation for it. More like they just came in and said they were in charge now."

"Well, if my lands going to be subjugated and brought under by the Fire Nation, it's nice to see that we might have a chance they won't do it violently." The statement from Katara held less venom in it than she would have expected, even as she folded her arms and raked the rows of stores and people peddling wares and service with a tight-lipped glare.

"Yu Dao is often held up as one of the great success stories of our colonization efforts." Azula continued her explanation as she walked down the main road. "There's been no large-scale rebellions since we took over, Yu Dao's economy saw a massive leap forward from a backwater into one of the world's most foremost producers of metalwork..."

"And the two populations have integrated a lot better than in other colonies too," Azula followed Zuko's gaze and saw a bunch of kids running around the square, kicking a ball back and forth. Their clothes were shabby, but there were the greens of the Earth Kingdom and the reds of the Fire Nation on their clothes – and indeed, some bore a mix of both.

"Well, let's not get carried away in praising the egalitarian nature of the place," Mai shrugged. "Earth Kingdom residents of Yu Dao are still taxed at a higher rate than Fire Nation residents, and there's a lot more red tape involved when a member of the Earth Kingdom wants to start a business or workshop."

They had stopped in the middle of the main square by now, forming a loose circle as they looked at each other and the city around them.

"Of course," Mai mused as one hand went to her chin, "the only reason I know about all this was because there was a huge furore amongst the colonies when the Yu Dao mayor floated the idea of relaxing some of those restrictions a couple of years ago. It was a big fight about whether letting Earth Kingdom residents in other colonies get more representation overall would erode the Fire Nation culture and way of life. In the end, Yu Dao backed down and things stayed at the same."

"So at the end of the day, they're still under the Fire Nation's thumb," the Avatar concluded. "It's just not pressing down quite as hard as in the other colonies."

"Yeah..." the Water peasant shrugged. "Well, once the war is over, we can see to changing things and making sure everyone gets their land back."

Azula folded her arms, and felt a frown on her face.

...Once the war is over, huh?

As the conversation changed to seeing if they should find a place to settle down and get something to eat, Azula found herself moving to the back of the group, head bowed, and a frown on her face.

(X)

"You call that a kick?! Higher!"

At this, Azula caught a faint sign of frustration on the Avatar's face, before it was replaced with a look of steely determination, and he moved to replicate the strike Zuko had demonstrated for him a moment ago.

He was having trouble properly copying the move. Of course, Azula mused, the issue had nothing to do with the Avatar's agility or how limber he was; as an airbender, he was easily any Firebender's equal. Rather his strikes still lacked the hard, direct edge to them that characterized a Firebender's assault.

Well, he was still improving at a steady pace, so she could let it slide. On that note, her gaze drifted to where Toph was practicing her own earthbending as well.

One week after their arrival, the group had quickly settled into a routine, trying to keep up the pace of training and preparing the Avatar for his confrontation with Fath – with the Fire Lord.

Yu Dao was one of the few colonies that allowed for earthbenders to live and exercises their powers freely. So having a group of people training in an open courtyard did not receive any undue attention – save for perhaps a few passersby stopping to gawk at the strength and potency of the bending on display. As long as Aang kept his tattoos hidden, and stuck to Firebending training, odds of them being discovered were slim.

Well, that also meant that Azula couldn't train in public either; her blue flames were too much of a giveaway. At least not with direct Firebending anyway. She could still work on her agility, her strength, and her breathing.

Right now though... Azula lowered her head, unfurled the scroll and lay it on the table.

The sound of someone settling heavily in the chair next to her. Someones, actually. Azula glanced up to see both Suki and Katara settling down by her side. Katara looked vaguely grumpy, and most probably it had to do with not being able to practice her waterbending as freely as before.

Azula supposed she could relate.

"Good evening," Suki said to her and Azula replied with a polite nod before continuing to pore over the map.

"What's that you got there?" Katara asked as she peered over. "Huh. Looks like a map."

"It is. A map of the Earth Kingdom and the colonies. Most detailed one I could find on short notice." Her gaze briefly flickered over where Yu Dao was located.

"Still making plans to find Ty Lee?" Suki was looking at her with something like sympathy (or empathy?) in her eyes, and Azula found herself disliking it.

"...I've got nothing to go on right now." The admission galled her, but it was the unhappy truth. "Wana Island made it clear that they're willing to falsify prisoner records if it means being able to lure us out, so any information I get from outposts or troop dispatches has no guarantee of being reliable. I'll need to go to the highest echelons to get trustworthy information."

"Meaning winning the war."

"More or less," Azula heaved a sigh. "As for what I am doing, well... mostly I'm trying to see how we'll handle the negotiations after that."

"Negotiations?" The way she said it made it clear that this was something that hadn't crossed Suki's mind, and Katara had a similarly confused expression on her face.

Well, not unexpected.

Still a bit disappointing.

"Of course. Once the Fire Nation loses-" Ugh. Those words sounded bitter in her mouth. But she had to accept that overthrowing the Fire Lord would also mean ceasing hostilities and withdrawing from all the contested regions. And reparations. Those were definitely going to be an issue sooner or later, "-we'll have to start planning for how much we'll be willing to give up to maintain goodwill."

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Suki and Katara trading glances, although neither replied immediately.

"When Zuko is Fire Lord, and when the war is over, the vultures are going to come out," Azula continued her explanation. "Kuei, or whoever the Earth King is at that time, is definitely going to demand all of the colonies back, for a start, and of course that's not going to happen-"

"No?" There was a pointed edge in Katara's voice, and Azula lowered her pen before turning to face her.

"No." She affirmed. "Most of the newer colonies can be returned with minimal issue, of course. But some of the colonies have been established for over a hundred years. They're functionally part of the Fire Nation by now. Not to mention that we'll have reparations to handle as it is, and they're going to want it to be as crippling as possible, so we really can't afford the extra hit to our economy. So no, I can't simply hand it back to the Earth King."

"You realize you're here to help us beat the Fire Nation, don't you?" Suki's expression was – well, not a glare exactly, but her look was pointed, and her brow was definitely furrowed.

"No, I'm not." When it came to pointed looks Azula could give as good as she got, and she stared back at Suki, her expression hard. "I'm in this because I'm willing to help you take down the Fire Lord."

Ozai. Father.

"But once that's over and done with, I'm still the princess of the Fire Nation. And I'm not going to let everyone else walk over us just because we agreed to stop fighting."

"Walk over you?" Katara was glaring, and with her finger, she pointed – almost stabbed – down at the map, at the symbols that indicated Fire Nation territory. "That's what you've been doing to these lands for a century! So what if you've had it for a hundred years already? Just because your country's crimes are old doesn't mean they didn't happen – or that you shouldn't need to make up for what you did wrong!"

"And we can," Azula lay her hands on the table, willing her fists not to clench. "But not simply by turning these colonies over. They mean too much to us. We've invested too much in them. Look at Yu Dao. The Fire Nation built this city up, not the Earth Kingdom. This is a matter of our pride as a nation."

"And you think it's not the same for the Earth King?"

"No! Because when we first seized this city, they didn't care. And I'd be surprised if King Kuei could even point out Yu Dao on a map. And if he wants the colony back, it'll be as part of the entire lot. Tit for tat."

"Hey guys, what's going on?" The Avatar's voice came from behind them, and Azula shifted in her seat to see him, Zuko and Toph all approaching, having apparently finished their training for the day. "You arguing about something?"

"Azula thinks some of the colonies should remain with the Fire Nation after the war," Katara said with folded arms, and Azula saw the Avatar's eyes widen.

"Wait, what?"

"Is this really the time to be discussing this, Azula?" Zuko raised an eyebrow, and Azula fixed him with her glare. "Shouldn't this be saved for after the fighting is done?"

"Winning the battle is straightforward. Dealing with the aftermath is the part that takes up all your time and effort, so it's best to start early." She paused and let a weary smile flash across her features. "Trust me. Take it from someone who took over Ba Sing Se."

Reminding them of that fact was probably not the wisest of ideas, but the thought had flashed through Azula's mind – about how much the Avatar and his friends really trusted her, and how much they were willing to hear her out on her arguments and disagreements. Needling them a little might help with showing just where she stood.

"The nations are supposed to be four, Azula." The Avatar's face was set, and his mouth was in a thin line. "Each one has their own ways of doings things, their own thinking. That allows each nation to flourish and grow. That's how things are supposed to be."

"I don't know about that." Azula shook her head. "If you want to talk about flourishing, then look ar Yu Dao. It wasn't anything but a small town in the middle of nowhere until the Fire Nation took over. Now it's one of the richest cities in the Fire Nation – with metal production unrivalled anywhere else. And it's because of what we did here."

"Whoa there, Princess." Toph shook her head. "The way you're saying it it's like you guys did Yu Dao a favour by taking them over."

"If the shoes fits-"

"Yeah, it's for their own good. You want to spread the Fire Nation's prosperity. It's a matter of national pride." Katara's laugh was bitter as she spoke over Azula. "You're pretty good at saying reasonable things to justify your taking over and subjugating other lands. Then again, you've had a hundred years to practice, haven't you? Or is it something that royals just have to learn how to do?"

The statement cut deeper than Azula had expected it to, and fleetingly she wondered if Katara knew it would. She glanced over the assembled faces – some confused, some angry. Zuko looked at ground, his expression apologetic.

Azula clenched her fist and grabbed at the scroll she had laid on the desk. As she rolled it up, from somewhere within herself came a chuckle, derisive and bitter.

"You see?" She shook her head once as she stood. "This is why I wanted to be prepared for negotiations after the fighting is done."

Nobody moved to stop her as she walked away. But as she stepped out of the courtyard, she could hear Katara's distinctive light footfalls following her.

(X)

"Well that was... something," Sokka shook his head as leaned back against the wall. "I mean, yeah, we all knew that argument was coming, but I figured it'd end up being for after the war."

Zuko didn't reply immediately. Instead he sat, looking down at the table, feeling his uneasy squirming in his chest and belly.

"It's funny," Suki's own voice sounded distant as she lifted her teacup, pausing to take a sip, "sometimes it's easy to forget that she's the princess. But then something like that comes along and reminds you."

"You're not surprised, are you?" Toph was lying on the floor, hands tucked behind her head as she stared sightlessly at the ceiling. "Azula's willing to work with us, and I'm not gonna pretend I don't enjoy her company... but when you get down to brass tacks, she doesn't think she's wrong. Make sure the Fire Nation – and by extension herself – gets the largest piece of the pie. Save some for her family and friends... anyone she cares about. The rest can go hang. That's how she thinks."

"I guess so..." Suki mumbled before lowering her head. "But maybe I hoped for more. Maybe I thought she was..."

"Starting to see things our way," Toph finished to Suki's nod. And Zuko found himself wondering if Toph could sense that gesture from Suki though the stone bench she was sitting on.

She probably could.

He sighed.

That got Sokka's attention, and he turned to face Zuko.

"So what about you? Azula seems to accept that you'll be Fire Lord after this, meaning you'll get the final say, right? What are your plans for the colony?"

"I..." Zuko shook his head once. "What the Fire Nation has done is wrong. I definitely believe that. And just stopping the fighting isn't enough. We're going to have to make up for what we did to the rest of the world. I believe that too."

"There's a 'but', isn't there?"

"But... I'm not sure how. If the price we pay in reparations is too high, especially in the short term, then that's going to make the recovery process even harder."

"Yeah, we've seen the Fire Nation. Lots of people just... being normal. Sure, they're benefiting from the war, but that doesn't mean they're bad people."

A silence fell on the room for a long moment before Sokka broke it with a sigh.

"Straight up refusing to discuss returning some of the colonies is definitely not going to help negotiations, though."

"Yeah," Toph shook her head as she elected to sit up on the floor. "So, Hotman. If you're going to be the big bad Fire Lord after the war, you might wanna tell her not to do that."

Zuko's snort was humourless. "Azula's always been way better at diplomacy than I am." Usually by intimidating the opposing side into doing whatever she asks them to.

I guess that method won't quite fly after the war.

"Maybe it could be a joint command thing? Like, hey, we get an Earth Kingdom leader and a Fire Nation leader together and nobody does anything until they can both agree to it?"

"In the aftermath of the war? They'd never agree on anything." He shook his head again. "Besides, you heard Azula's complaint. She doesn't want to acknowledge the Earth Kingdom has any real claim to the land – or the profits they'd get from places like Yu Dao."

"So what do you think should happen to this colony, Zuko?" Suki was looking at him now, one eyebrow raised as she returned to the central issue. "After the war, who do you think it should it belong to?"

"... I don't know." Zuko sighed and ran a hand over the back of his neck. "I guess... it'd be best to hear from all sides. Including the mayor of Yu Dao. Maybe the people who've actually lived here for generations. I think immediately declaring the Fire Nation has to keep it no matter what would be as rash as the Earth King saying we have to return everything immediately."

"Kicking the problem down the road." Toph smirked. "I like that."

Zuko rolled his eyes, and again wondered if Toph was able to catch that movement. Meanwhile Sokka lifted his hands in the air, a gesture of frustration.

"Well if you think that, maybe you should have mentioned it to Azula. Because the way she stormed off, I doubt she's gonna change her mind any time soon."

"You think I should have called her out?" He shook his head once. "I doubt I'd have been able to change her mind."

Sokka didn't reply immediately. Instead he folded his arms and gazed out the window, in the vague direction that Azula had walked off when she'd left the courtyard.

"Well if you can't, who could?"

(X)

"Why are you still following me?" Azula paused halfway through her walk and lifted her head slightly. They were currently in the middle of the local park, in a small grove of trees that had an isolating effect between them and the rest of the world.

"Because we need to talk."

"About what? You want all the colonies to be given to the Earth King after the war. I don't. What else is there to say?"

"This isn't about the colonies." She could hear the frustration in Katara's voice, and she turned to face her. "This is about you."

A moment of silence.

"I still don't like you, you know." Katara shook her head once. "I guess we're really just too different. But after a while, I could see that you really cared about your brother. About Mai. And... that friend who was captured. Sometimes I could see... something human in there. Like when you told me about your mother. That's why. I decided to back off on talking to you so much. If we couldn't be real friends, we could at least not be enemies."

Azula bit back the retort she wanted to make. Instead she shrugged. "And yet, here you are."

"Yes, here I am. Because just when I start to think better of you, you come back and remind me of everything I hate about the Fire Nation and what it's done."

Azula took a deep breath and let it out in a loud sigh. "What? You're surprised I don't want the Fire Nation to lose everything after the war ends?"

"No, I'm not." The waterbender pursed her lips and took a step closer. "Because you still don't think the Fire Nation did anything wrong at all, do you?"

Azula took a deep breath and looked to the side, pointedly avoiding her gaze. "And? I don't try to convince you that the way you think or what you believe is wrong. You can't do the same for me?"

"NO!" And her voice came with a vehemence that momentarily startled Azula out of the shell of scorn and dismissal she'd been building up. "Because the way you think is wrong! People don't think like that! Zuko doesn't think like that! You still don't understand?"

"Leave him out of this!" Azula snapped, but Katara continued speaking over her as if she hadn't spoken.

"You know what really got me?" She raised her hands, as if to gesture with them, but apparently thought better of it after a moment. "When you were discussing all the reasons for why the colony should stay with the Fire Nation, you know what would have been an argument that might have convinced us?"

Azula didn't reply, merely staring at her with a hard gaze.

"The people," Katara said, her voice tight. "The people who've lived here for generations. Families that would have to be uprooted and sent straight home if we just declared the colony be returned to the earth king. Actually, not even home. Because they don't know the Fire Nation at all. They've never lived there.

"And that's not all!" Katara was becoming more impassioned now, gesturing for emphasis as she took another step towards Azula. "Don't think I didn't see that there were families that had married across nation lines. If the Earth Kingdom took the colony back, what would happen to them? Would they remain, except this time the Fire Nation gets to be the second-class citizens? Maybe they'd be deported instead. An entire city of families, torn apart.

"You want to convince us? Convince Aang? That would have done it, way better than talking about the Fire Nation's pride or economy or any such nonsense. After all, aren't you supposed to be good at manipulating people?" Katara pursed her lips. "But that never occurred to you, did it? Because the people here don't matter to you. Not one bit."

Another long silence passed between the two of them.

"Why do you care so much?" Azula asked, trying not to act as if she had just found her voice after a moment of being stunned. "Toph or Suki, I could understand. They're Earth Kingdom, for whatever it counts when living in such a chaotic, disconnected state. The Avatar too. Embodiment of balance and all that. But you? Why would a waterbender from the south care what happens to these people after the war?"

"Yeah, that's it. That's exactly what I'm talking about." Katara's voice was tired now. A hint of resignation in it. "You don't even understand why I'd care for the wellbeing of people in general?"

"And why should I? I can't afford to care about so many people. And neither can you, Katara. Once push comes to shove, at the end of the day there are only so many people you can rely on. Those are the ones you help. Those are the ones you care about. Because otherwise, you're just going to waste energy on people who won't have the means or the desire to help you in return."

"You're a princess! Your entire job is to care! I mean, in between being pampered and being treated like you're a divine gift to the world just for being born!"

"No it wasn't." Her jaw and fists tightened. "My job was to be perfect. Because weakness in the Fire Nation court means you get trampled upon and cast aside. Smile and put on a charming face for someone you're plotting to destroy. Shake hands with someone while keeping an eye out for the dagger he might be hiding behind his back. Know every nook and cranny and secret path in the palace, because you never know when you might need to escape an assassination. Otherwise it's not good enough. Know the history and background of every noble you meet, because you never know when you might need to exploit them for a favour. Otherwise it's not good enough. Know everything there is to know about Firebending, and become the youngest person to learn Lightningbending in the history of the Fire Nation, because when you boil it all down the truth is that your strength is all you can rely on, and either you can protect yourself and impose your will on others or you can't! And that means you're not! Good! Enough!"

For the third time, another moment of silence, neither speaking, just staring at the other.

Finally, Katara let out a long breath of air, and shook her head once.

"You know, at the South Pole, there's no such thing as 'going it alone.' People don't hunt individually, or even for their families. The tribe goes out together, and brings back their kills together to be divided for everyone. Those who stay at home work together to make clothes and blankets, and keep the fires going for when the hunters return. We do this because southern wastes and the ocean don't care about you. They can provide game and fish and life, one instant, and bring death the next. You learn to trust the person next to you with your life, even if you barely know each other, because that's how you make it home alive." Another sigh. "I guess that's where we learned to care. Something you never did."

Azula couldn't help herself. She laughed once, and replied with a shake of her own head as well. "So you're saying it's just down to the environments we were raised in?" Her smile was sardonic.

"No, I'm saying the way you grew up was awful and wrong, and I don't think that's the whole story, but it definitely played a part in you becoming who you are now." Katara raised a hand to her head before gesturing at her. "I know you genuinely care about Zuko, about Mai and Ty Lee. And you know what, at this point I'm willing to bet you really do care about Toph too.

"But if that's as far as you're willing to go... if you're not going to even bother to try caring about anyone beyond that, and if you just see everything else as a means to an end... then I'm sorry to tell you this, but," Katara shook her head once, "that's just not good enough."

(X)

"Mayor Morishita. Thank you for agreeing to this meeting on such short notice."

"General Aikoku. Welcome. Such a delight to have you with us." Morishita did his best not to let his annoyance show as he welcomed the general into the drawing room. An unscheduled visit was problematic enough, but when the visit was from a general, it was almost certainly a messy issue that would take a while to solve, and would have repercussions for Yu Dao down the line. Oh well. He would have to at least hear him out. "Please, have a seat."

"A nice house you have here, Mayor. And good taste in decorations too." The general stroked his beard thoughtfully as he admired the decorations on the wall. "It truly reminds me of our dear homeland."

"Thank you. I appreciate it." He'd never actually seen the Fire Nation mainland before, but of course the general had. Well, if it kept him in a good mood...

"Indeed, indeed. It's nice to know that taking an Earth Kingdom woman for a wife hasn't eroded your sense of aesthetics any!" He gave a hearty laugh at his own wit before slumping himself heavily onto the chair Morishita had offered him.

Morishita took a deep breath, and paused before letting it out again. "So," he said as he rested his arms on the desk, "to what do I owe the honour of your visit? Surely not a simple courtesy call?"

"Hm. Very well." The general nodded once. "On to business, Mayor.

"We've received reports on a group displaying suspicious activity within Yu Dao. "He tossed a scroll onto the desk. "We've reason to believe that group to be the Avatar, as well as his motley band of allies."

Morishita's eyes widened, and he fought to keep his face calm. "The... Avatar? He's alive?"

"Indeed. And that information is not to leave this room." The general steepled his hands together in a contemplative gesture. "I don't need to tell you how high priority a target he is for the Fire Nation right now – especially with the recent chaos in the capital during the day of the eclipse.

"And so, effective immediately, the city of Yu Dao is to be placed under a state of martial law, as well as a complete lockdown." All geniality had left the man's face, and he stared at Morishita with eyes of cold steel. "Nobody except my men leave or enter this city, until the Avatar is either captured or dead."


Chapter End


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