Setting is late season three and post series. More specifically for the time jumps - after Boiling Rock, after Southern Raiders, and few weeks after Zuko's coronation.
This fic is based with permission on two drabbles by Kimberly T. from her Book 4 and Beyond series – Chapter 33: Nor Iron Bars and Chapter 29: So Bad at Being Good so make sure you read Kim's original fic too! Thank you so much Kimberly for allowing me to do this and being my unoffical beta! I'd say this one is rated PG.
Suki's Field Trip
The nightmare always ended the same. A hand, full of fire coming closer and closer. No mercy to be found. Fire touched skin. Burning! I will not scream I will not scream!
Suki awoke with a gasp. She put a hand to the skin under her prison garb. Her shoulder and her side bore burns that were still pink and tender from Azula's "interrogations." She was glad she could hide them for now. She was also glad she hadn't cried out enough to wake the others, especially Sokka. But here at the Western Air Temple she told herself she was safe. She had finally been rescued.
It was still dark. Suki wondered away from the others. She heard the sound of snorting and munching in the distance. Drawn towards it, Suki decided to visit Appa who couldn't sleep either. It wasn't until she got closer that she noticed someone else was there too feeding Appa a nightime snack under the faint glow of a handfire by which to see. Her first instinct was that it was Aang, but the silhouette was taller. Zuko then. Was he there to take another "field trip" as Sokka and Toph had called them? The light was too dim to tell if Appa was saddled yet or not. Suki wasn't going to risk getting any closer though as Zuko's head suddenly snapped in her direction. Suki froze.
"Who's there?" Zuko demanded.
"Me. Suki," she said quickly, having heard Toph's lesson of why it's bad to sneak up on a firebender in the dark.
Zuko's handfire flared brighter to confirm it was her. Suki blinked at the flash as eyes tried to adjust. A memory assaulted her. A hand of fire coming towards her, Azula burning her skin. She threw her hands up in front of her face as a shield and cried out, starling the prince.
Appa let out his own growl of protest at the growing flame that was a little too near for his liking as well.
"Sorry! Sorry, Suki! Appa, I'm sorry!" Zuko hurriedly turned down the light of his handfire again. "Better?" he asked after a moment.
Suki tried to breath deeply and calm down her racing heart. She finally nodded. "I'm okay."
"I can make it even lower -"
"I said, I'm okay." She tried not to snap at him, slightly embarassed now by her overreaction, but still wary. The prince gave his own hesitant nod of acknowledgement. His free hand stroked Appa's fur with a comforting gesture which calmed the bison. Suki knew of Appa's fear of fire so she found it odd he responded to Zuko so favorably. Despite Zuko's part in her rescue, she knew fire from his hand had once burned down her village. She had to keep reminding herself that Zuko was their ally now.
"So…" Zuko said and trailed into awkward silence.
"I couldn't sleep."
"Same. Bad dream."
"How did you know?"
"Um. You too?"
It was then Suki realized his words had been a statement about why he was up, not a question to her.
"More like nightmare," she confessed.
"Yeah," Zuko said in sympathy.
Suki had no idea what his might be about until she saw a hand flicker to his scar out of habit, the gesture not quite hidden despite the low light. Then it seemed obvious. Her burns could be hidden and might eventually heal, but his…had Azula done that to her own brother? Suki wasn't going to ask him though.
"Appa seems to like you," she said instead.
"I like him too. He was the first one to welcome me to the team, weren't you Appa?"
Suki heard rather than saw the smile in Zuko voice. Appa gave a low happy answer that sounded like a yes.
"Why?" The word was out of Suki's mouth before she could stop it, but it wasn't accusing, only curious. The prince must have realized she simply didn't know the story yet for he then told her how he'd rescued Appa in Ba Sing Se.
"He seems to like you too," Zuko said. Maybe it was just because Appa currently enjoyed Suki's brushing his soft fur as much as Zuko. Maybe Zuko didn't know the part Suki had played in Appa's journey back to Aang. She told her tale while the prince listened.
"So that's how you got captured."
Rhetorical. There was no need for Suki to give the obvious answer.
"You were brave. I'm sorry for what my sister did to you."
There was something in Zuko's tone that made Suki pause and study the prince. She still wasn't sure what to make of him. Was this some sort of royal apology on Azula's behalf? No, she remembered his scar. He wasn't excusing her actions. Rather, he sounded ashamed to be related to such a terrible sibling like he carried the burden of family guilt in addition to his own deeds he was atoning for.
"You really are nothing like your sister," Suki said, coming to her own conclusion about the prince. Zuko paused to look at her in the dim light, uncertain. "I...just thought you should know."
After a moment, he accepted her kind words with a small bow of his head. "Thank you."
Even without seeing much, Suki could tell it meant a lot to him. It felt like both of them wanted to say more, but things remained awkward and after a while of just petting Appa, the dawn sun started to show and they went their separate ways – Zuko to meditate and Suki hoping to catch another half hour of sleep.
"ARRGH! I'm going to kill her! I'm going to cut off her head and stick it on a pike! And then I'm going to -"
"Who are you talking about?" Katara asked, still rubbing sleep out of her eyes as she sat down on the hard ground. Beside her Toph yawned loudly.
"And why do you want to kill them?' Aang said. His eyes narrowed. He hated this kind of talk even in jest and after what had recently happened with Katara…
Sokka was quite serious. His eyes blazed in the light of the campfire and he swung his sword in an emphasizing gesture.
"Azula! And don't you dare try to talk me out of it, Aang! Do you have any idea what she did to Suki?"
Aang shook his head.
"Well, given what her nightmares are about -" Zuko began.
"How do you know what -" Sokka rounded on Suki. "How could you tell him this before me? Him of all people!"
"I didn't tell him anything Sokka!" Suki folded her arms across her chest. She knew Sokka would be angry when she told him about Azula, especially when she'd been unable to prevent screaming when she woke up in their tent and tried to dismiss it as nothing. She knew Sokka was only worried but given his tendency to overreact she'd tried to keep it hidden, which only made it worse when after the fifth nightmare that week she finally confessed to him. He held and comforted her until she fell back asleep. But when she woke up screaming again, three times that same night eventually waking up the others as well, something had to be done. While waiting for the others as they groggily gathered around a campfire, Sokka paced. His anger at Azula burned anew as he ranted all the horrible things he wanted to do to her in that moment. Slowly, the others got what he was going on about and why, since Suki was unwilling to talk herself.
Sokka turned on Zuko. "Is it then because Azula told you all about was she was doing to Suki at the time?" Sokka gritted his teeth. He balled and unballed his fists.
"NO! I had no idea she even had Suki! Suki said once she had bad dreams. That's all." Zuko met Sokka with narrow eyes, his voice low and even. "But I know Azula's m.o. And it doesn't take a genius to see how Suki reacts to fire now. You want a go at my sister? Get in line!"
"Suki's my girlfriend! I have a right to -"
"Exactly! Your girlfriend is safe! Mine isn't! Mai and Ty Lee are still Azula's prisoners! And you know what she's capable of so that's my nightmare!" The campfire started flickering eratically in reponse to Zuko's anger, the flames wanted to grow, but he still held them in check for the moment.
"Um, Zuko..." Aang warned, a hand ready to monitor the fire if necessary.
Suki placed a hand on her boyfriend's shoulder. "I can fight my own battles Sokka."
"But you said that she -"
"Zuko's right. I'm safe now." Suki said more reassured than she felt. But they were just bad dreams. She held Sokka's eyes for a long moment, her hand held his chin. He eventually relented.
"I know. I just – I worry. Ever since I knew Azula had you I…"
Suki kissed Sokka to ease that pain and for a moment all her horrible memories vanished too.
"I'm sorry, Zuko." Sokka turned to the prince. "I haven't forgotten what your friends risked to save us."
"We all owe them," Suki said. "If there's a way to free them, we will."
There was a chorus of agreement from Aang, Toph, and Katara. Zuko's gratitude was reflected by a humble "thank you" and the campfire stabilizing back to normal, much to Suki's relief.
"We'll deal with Azula," Aang said, "but it's helping her victims we should focus on. There's no need to kill anybody." His attempt to diffuse the mood was only half successful. As the comet drew nearer, Aang's refusal to discuss anything regarding how to "deal with" Ozai's fate was increasingly frustrating since Zuko had first asked the question.
"What did Azula do?" Katara asked Suki in the lull of silence.
Suki turned away from Katara and hugged herself saying she didn't want to discuss it and said she was strong enough to deal with it, shutting down the subject. Sokka placed an arm around her shoulders. But she wasn't okay. Why couldn't she escape Azula whenever she closed her eyes? Why was she still a prisoner to her nightmares? She didn't want Sokka's protection. She didn't acknowledge Zuko's "right to first blood" either. And she couldn't guarantee to Aang that she wouldn't hold back like Katara had with Yon Rha. If Suki saw the fire princess first, Azula was hers and she would suffer!
After the war ended, Suki thought the nightmares would end too. But they persisted, defying all logic.
It was Katara who came up with a solution. Suki had yet to have her "life changing field trip with Zuko" and the new Firelord was willing to grant the request, provided Sokka stayed behind. The threats Sokka kept making if he ever found himself in the same room with Azula ever again might have had something to do with it. But Suki felt it was because Zuko understood her need to do this on her own (more or less). Zuko and Katara would come with her.
In a private moment Zuko confessed to her, "I spend most of my life living in my sister's shadow, being afraid of her. I'm not afraid of Azula anymore. Now it's your turn."
Suki had already heard all about Azula's defeat. But simply hearing about how the princess had lost her mind hadn't been enough. Seeing it for herself really was different and it's what Katara had been banking on.
The princess looked nothing like her former glory. Suki almost didn't recognize her. Azula sat in a corner of her hospital room, sparsely furnished wearing a simple red tunic and pants. Her long hair had been cropped short. At first, Suki thought it to be a standard practice of the institution to make caring for patients easier. As Suki looked at Zuko's topknotted crown again though, she wondered if the haircut didn't also serve a more symbolic purpose as well.
The other thing that caught Suki's attention was a lack of heavy restraints. Beyong simple hand manacles, Azula was surprisingly free to roam about her small room. At first this concerned Suki, but she learned there were two reasons for this.
"She's mostly lost her bending power," Zuko said.
"Like what Aang did to your father?" Suki asked. While she would consider such punishment justice, she hadn't heard anything of Aang energybending Azula too.
Zuko shook his head. "No, it's like what happened to me when I first joined Aang. Firebending ability is connected to passion and willpower. After she lost the Agni Ki, my sister's will was broken." The Firelord's voice grew soft with those last words and Suki saw his eyes lingered momentarily like those of a big brother. "Her food is drugged as a precaution. But any flame she can produce now is a minimal threat the staff is equipped to deal with."
Suki nodded. She could easily see how defeat could have snapped the last thread of Azula's so-called sanity which led to the other reason. Azula spent half her days now living out a fantasy in which she was Firelord. She ordered around the hospital staff like they were still palace servants. The staff was often able to avoid the worst of her wrath by playing along.
Today was one of Azula's bad days according to the nurse on duty. This was evidenced in the way the princess currently chatted away in their general direction, yet addressed not them, but someone else. A consort from the language she used, a "firelady" to her "firelord." Suki found it hard to suppress a giggle as her former torturer talked so pathetically to the empty air she named Chan.
"Who's Chan?" Suki asked, wondering if he was as made up as the rest of Azula's delusion.
"Just...someone she knew once," Zuko said with a hint of not quite sadness, but regret perhaps as he cast his glance down and away from his sister.
Suki continued to stare at Azula. Perhaps it was a bit cruel, but the urge to laugh at the creature now before her was only growing the longer she observed what Azula had become. She let it come out in a smile and a satisfied, "Hmph."
Katara saw her expression. "Azula is trapped in a prison of her own mind and no one can free her."
Azula couldn't hurt anyone anymore. Katara had been right to bring her here, Suki thought. That evening, Suki had her first good night's sleep in months. It still took some time for the nightmare to stop completely. But at last, Suki was truly free.
Notes: Finally, Suki gets her bonding chapter! Thanks to Kimberly T. again for the perfect inspiration, because I had no idea what I might have done otherwise. One thing that I couldn't fit into this fic was a sparring scene between Zuko and Suki as additional "getting to know you" material, but it disrupted the flow. I will show Zuko and Suki sparring sometime though. I tried to keep the details as close to Kimberly's fics as possible such as Azula shorn hair and having delusions. Whether these turn out to be cannon or not, I don't care, for this fic anyway I'm completely playing in Kimberly's universe. I felt I owed her than much. I did slightly adjust the timeline of Suki's nightmares though. I got the feeling "Nor Iron Bars" took place post series though Suki has multiple nightmares and it was ambiguous enough that Sokka outburst had more impact if I moved it to just after Southern Raiders. I'm glad you liked it Kimberly.
Update: I've also revised a little based on some comments Lunatique made about Sokka.