Author's note: Though this fic centers on Azula, the pairing is Zutara. I believe that if Zuko could be redeemed, then so can Azula. Also, that her life hadn't been as easy as it was portrayed in the show, and that her breakdown wasn't as sudden as it was on the show.
The first year, she yelled and screamed at the doctors when they came into her cell. When they tried to feed her, she spit the food in their faces, demanded to be let out, threatened to behead them. Worse than refusing, they ignored her, even though she could smell the fear rolling off their weak bodies, and she lunged at them, struggling against the chain that attached her to the wall. Like a beast. A monster in a cage. She laughed at them, her head rolling to one side.
"Oh, don't worry, filth," she said to one nurse, her voice low like she was sharing a secret. "If I firebend, I'll set myself on fire, too."
The nurse ran from the cell screaming when Azula actually did set the straightjacket on fire, still laughing and eyes wild with mania. They were all too afraid to come closer when she started screaming that he should love her because she was the one—her, not Zuko—who had followed him, had stood by him, had supported him. The others, Iroh and Ursa and Zuko, had abandoned him, but she remained his faithful servant and daughter.
"I'm a monster just like you, father," she screamed.
So why had he turned on her at the end?
Zuko made them stop chaining her. He didn't care if they were afraid of her.
She lost her voice in the second year. At first, it was terrible for those poor fools because they never knew what she was thinking. Then they started to smirk when she would try to talk, and nothing came out. She could hear Ozai laughing at her, pathetic weakling, and Zuko, in front of her with his breath of fire and techniques she'd never learned, had never even seen before. She was The Prodigy. She had outshone every teacher given to her. She had worked for every title, for every bit of fear they showed her.
And now they weren't even afraid of her, and Ozai laughed at her. Laughs at her still. Pathetic. Disgrace. Weakling. Failure. He taunted her from the battlefield, and it seems they let him out of his cell just to continue teasing. Waste of seed, he'd called her.
When Zuko showed up for his weekly meeting, she had no time for him. Ozai needed to understand how hard she worked. She was his prize, great and greater than the man for whom she was named.
"I bled for you," she told him, pleading into golden eyes from her knees. "I practiced so I would be even better. I wanted to be your tool." She hated that she sounded so pathetic. So needy. Nothing in her body wanted to work together. She blamed it on the drugs they gave her.
Finally, they said she'd made a breakthrough. She didn't believe them. Everything just hurt. With two words, he had easily defeated her. Again.
When he held his arms open, she didn't go to him. She sat in the corner and hugged herself. She was the only one who ever did it, anyway.
Zuko made them give her a better room.
She didn't want to talk or be touched in her third year. Ozai had abandoned her. Ursa had abandoned her. She was only left with her thoughts and dreams. They drugged her at night because she refused to sleep, and she cried silently after they force-fed her that tea with all the sickly sweet herbs. They took away dignity and control in that place, but she'd be damned if she admitted that she wanted to go home.
When he noticed she was losing weight, he yelled at the staff. She smiled. He could try to be different all he wanted, but in those moments, she saw their father. He could be a monster, just like her. But when he slammed the door, shut out all the nurses and doctors and attendants, when it was just the two of them, his face would soften, and it would be their mother's or their uncle's. He would wait for her. When she felt like talking, it was always to him.
"Because you didn't deserve any of this."
She hated that he made her cry. She hadn't cried for 13 years, but she'd cried a lot that year. He never judged her, held her only if she wanted him to. This was her room, and when it was the two of them, she was completely in control.
Sometimes three of them.
He started bringing the older girl, Katara. The healer.
"Why wouldn't you let him die. He should be dead."
Katara smiled, her head tilted to one side. Azula was noticing details again. Katara's eyes flicked to Zuko, sitting at the tiny table and looking out the window. He was pretending not to listen to them. Azula watched the muscles in his cheek strain against a smile.
"We needed him alive in order to win the battle."
"There were six of you. One wouldn't make a difference."
They both turned to her, and Azula wasn't sure they were seeing her. They were silent. It was weeks before she realized they were damaged just like she was. Already, she liked them better.
Zuko made them give her garden privileges.
By watching them in her fourth year, she learned love and friendship. Ty Lee came as often as she could, now that she was done training with the Kiyoshi warriors. Azula still liked Ty Lee, and when Zuko was busy "wrangling diplomats," as Katara said, she and Ty Lee still came to visit. Ty Lee called it a 'girls day,' and Katara and Ty Lee took turns doing her hair. Ty Lee wanted to go to a spa, but the nurse on duty said they couldn't take Azula out.
It was Katara who changed the nurse's mind. That's when Azula decided something was going on.
"How long have you been fucking my brother?" Not that she minded. Katara came to visit her. Mai never did. She didn't even write. Ty Lee had avoided all questions about Mai, and Azula had called her a coward.
"I wish you hadn't picked up his language."
It wasn't confirmation or denial. It was a complete change of subject, which, to Azula, was the same as a confirmation. She smiled, satisfied with herself. She would ask Zuko when he came back.
Zuko was sitting on her bed when she'd asked him. He'd only had time to laugh—deep and like Ozai, but only friendlier—before Katara eclipsed Azula's view, no doubt giving him the same glare she'd given the nurses and doctors when they told her it was too early, or that visiting hours were over.
"Get your tits out his face, Sugar Queen. I want him to answer."
Katara had been shocked, and Azula was pleased with herself. She wouldn't admit to herself that she was anxious to see how Zuko would respond, or that she was elated when he shrugged and pulled Katara into his lap.
Sometimes Zuko brought the sassy one with him. Toph. She liked Toph a lot. Toph had nicknames for everyone.
Sometimes he'd bring his other friends. The insufferably cheery Avatar Aang whose visits she hated the most. Sometimes she just wanted to be mad. He never let her stay that way for long.
Then there was Katara's brother, Sokka, and his girlfriend Suki. Next to Katara, Zuko seemed to like Sokka the best. Azula and Katara were the same age, and Sokka managed to understand in a way the others didn't. Azula asked for Katara to come with Sokka and Suki. It made both her and Zuko feel less awkward around those two. They touched too much. They would all sit out in the garden, and Azula, Katara, and Suki would shake their heads and say boys, as if this explained everything in the universe.
Zuko made them let her walk around the city as long as she had supervision.
In her fifth year, she learned jealousy all over again. The doctor told her it was normal to desire meaningful personal relationships. She wanted friends, but more than that, she wanted what Zuko had. She had (almost) always wanted what Zuko had.
It was a relief to them that they didn't have to pretend all the time. Azula never told them she knew this. She tried to siphon their happiness, and on some days, it worked. The three of them would sit out in the garden, and she would know peace. She could close her eyes, and everything that came before would seem like a bad dream. Then they would go back in her room, and Katara would kiss Zuko, and he would smile like an idiot, and she would hate them both all over again. The doctor said this, too, was normal: jealousy of successful friendships. She picked a good model. Fire Lord Zuko and Ambassador Katara were good friends who respected each other. They knew how to have a healthy disagreement without setting things on fire.
Fat lot that doctor knew. They were just as damaged, fought like territorial platypus bears in heat, and Katara was forever scolding him for losing his temper.
Still, they gave her hope that someday, she'd find someone who didn't mind how damaged she was. She'd find someone who'd kiss her and make her grin like an idiot, too. If Zuko could find someone, then surely she could, too.
Damn it. Toph had warned her that Katara's hope-bending was infectious. Azula tried to be pissed, but she couldn't stop smiling.
Zuko made them release Azula into his custody by the end of the year. Azula made him pinky swear that, this time, her life would be her own.