Call me cheesy but this was one of my favorite chapters.
Avoid and evade, it was a gross oversimplification of the style and strategy embodied in the art of airbending. However, the myopia of the phrase would often cast large, looming shadows of truth. The underlying philosophy of the Air Nomad culture stressed the importance of the freedom from attachment. The world at large witnessed it through the Air Nomad's bending, migratory habits, and seemingly carefree attitudes. Yet, there was a depth that foreign eyes were not able to fully comprehend. The renowned freedom of the Air Nomads was a hard fought and constant individualistic struggle to divorce oneself from the bonds of the world.
Aang wrestled with his journey of freedom in what appeared to be an exercise in futility. For as much as he sought enlightenment of the spirit, he would always remain a permanent fixture of the world. That was his duty, his destiny as the Avatar.
When all was said and done, the role of Air Nomad was merely his current part in the Avatar's cycle of reincarnation. The context and perspective it provided aided to save the world from tyranny, and for that, he was thankful. Unfortunately, despite his dedication to the Air Nomad ideal, strict adherence to its tenants were all but impossible. He knew this, but the teachings ran deep, instructing his actions and guiding his thoughts.
Staring into Azula's eyes, unable to say what his heart sang in chorus, brought the irony of his existence to the forefront of his mind. His first inclination was to appreciate the moment, and distance himself from the Princess.
The Avatar was bound, frozen by the instinctual devotion to a philosophy of freedom that presented him with a journey wholly lacking of a destination. Never before had he been made more aware of his innate tendency to avoid and evade than the current moment where he stood helplessly before the golden eyes of the woman he would have given the world to see again.
"You're getting better at the silent game," Azula mused while tapping a finger nail against the wooden table in an arhythmic fashion. "It's a bit unnerving, believe it or not. Especially coming from you."
Her signature smirk broke across her face, and just like that, Aang was given life. His body moved absent any self-inspired command, willed forward by a cadence feared lost. Though his mind failed to properly interpret her words, his heart was given pause by their sound. He made his way closer, unsure if he could find his voice in time. But, it didn't matter, not anymore. His words would come the moment he needed them, and not a second sooner. For the moment, his sole focus was to get close enough to ensure that all of it wasn't a dream.
The day had taken too many shifts for him to be sure if any of it was real. He could have never imagined what lie beyond the gates of the one-time colony he protected from the outskirts. A family born of earth and fire, a unified culture of nations, and the rebirth of ghosts laid to rest made themselves home within the city's walls. And now, something precious that he had taken for granted one time too many sat before him, as a second chance.
He stood just a few paces from where she sat and chose to simply stare. He couldn't help it, not now. She was like something out of the spirit world, a memory, a phantom returned for one final conversation. And yet, he couldn't find the words to speak. He knew they would come, but he wanted them now. He sighed, and cycled his breathing. He accepted it as what he could manage. The words would come. For now, he chose to appreciate what he failed to appreciate so many times before.
"Okay, now you're actually starting to scare me," Azula snorted, covering her mouth with her hand mid chuckle. "You're really going for it aren't you? This whole brooding Avatar thing doesn't work with you. Even if you are a bit taller than you were a couple of years ago."
Aang continued to stare, almost afraid that if he moved his gaze she would disappear. "I'd never known you to be scared of anything," he said, almost startled by the steadiness of his voice.
"I never said I was scared," Azula scoffed with a hasty shake of her head. "And if you tell anyone I said I was, we're going to have a problem."
A joy crept from the depths of his stomach and rushed through his body. It was real for him now. However, a smile did not follow. It was happening all too quickly. "That's a relief. It's good to have you back."
Azula rolled her eyes. She focused her gaze out into the courtyard again. The tapping of her finger against the table slowed, easing into an idle pace. A wide familiar smile forced its way onto her face.
"Really, I mean it," Aang continued, with a desire to speak truths that remained just beyond his grasp. "More than you know. I was just, I don't know, shocked. I didn't know what to say. I…I'm rambling." The Avatar rubbed his shoulder.
Azula sucked her teeth. "Well, that's certainly encouraging," She said. "Please, if you manage to remember one thing from today, let it be this. Keep your cards close to your chest. The frightening notion of a pensive all powerful Avatar was just thrown out the window the second you told me you were tongue tied rather than carefully exercising discretion."
"It really is you," he whispered to himself while the back of his forearm rubbed his eyes.
"And please don't do that either," Azula scolded, glancing back at the Avatar to catch him in his attempt to hide his tears. "You know how I feel about waterbending."
"Can't help it," Aang admitted as he finished drying his eyes. "I was worried. You worry me, you know that? But, you did it. Somehow you managed to come out of all of this okay."
Azula's smile faded. The Avatar's assumptions could remain his truth, if she allowed. The princess resolved to take her own advice. She directed her attention back to the flowers swaying in the breeze. Their red petals danced in a flowing, whipping motion, almost as if they were preparing to spread and consume the area around them.
"That's me," Azula conceded while pushing a bang out of her line of sight. "Always coming out on top. We both know I can do just about anything I set my mind to. Really, I can't believe you actually doubted me. If I didn't know any better I would have taken that misplaced concern as an insult. Of course I'm okay. I'm me after all. What else would I be?"
"Of course you are," Aang said as he approached the princess. He gestured to the seat opposite of her. "May I?"
Azula's lips twitched before she allowed her attention to drift out of the window again. "We're both guests here."
Aang nodded and accepted the invitation for what it was. He sat across the princess and opened his mouth to speak. However, he had neither her eye contact nor explicit attention. He resigned himself to silence.
The calmness of the room guided his attention to the princess. He took the time to study the hints of trauma and abrasive scarring that lay just beneath the surface of her light application of foundation. A part of him felt itself reaching out to her to gently caress the side of her face. The better part of him declined, staying his hand.
It was clear, Azula was hurt, badly. The physical injuries were significant, but healing. That much he knew. However, there was still the question of the wounds that eluded the eye. She was undoubtedly one of the strongest people he knew, but everyone had their individual limits. He had a good idea of the pain residing in her heart, and wanted nothing more than to ease it for her.
"Don't look at me like that," Her voice demanded without her attention shifting from her long stare into the courtyard.
Aang blinked, catching himself before he willed his eyes away. He gave in to his urges and went right back to staring. His mouth parted in protest. "Like what?"
"Like that," Azula said, refusing to look at him directly.
"I don't know what you mean," Aang argued.
Azula didn't react, at least not at first. She was lost in whatever contemplative state she immersed herself within. Aang chose to let her be, respecting the silence between them. Eventually, her finger stopped with one final tap.
"Like you're looking at something that's broken. That's how," Azula explained with a distinct bitterness in her voice that not even she expected to emerge. "I won, remember? That means you did, too. The least you could do is smile like you're happy about it."
Aang lied, he had a good idea of the exact look that made itself home on his face. He was at a loss as to why he gave it. It was a look reserved for the fallen, for that which was irretrievably lost. However, she was here. Besides, she was right. She won, and to a certain degree they all did. But that truth, or whatever the sentiment chose to masquerade as, did little to ease the feelings stirring within him.
The princess returned her attention to the Avatar. If he didn't hear it before, it was now on full display. The agony was subtle, but apparent enough for him to notice. From the way her wide lips pursed ever so slightly, to how her eyes narrowed just enough to battle any stray signs of expressiveness, the truth was etched carefully into her features. The remains of her shattered mask did more to highlight her lack of sincerity than obscure it. Her smile did little to restrain the emotions beneath it. She was alive, but Aang wasn't sure if she was okay.
The Avatar winced, aping the expression that Azula struggled to conceal. "I thought you hated my stupid grin."
Her smile relented. "That's where you're wrong, Aang. I never called it stupid. Childish, maybe. But, never stupid."
"I'll take the compliment," Aang stated without a hint of humor.
Azula noticed that his expressions were less animated, stoic even. His voice lacked its natural cheer. Anger bubbled, joining the host of sensations fizzling in her core.
"You know," Azula started. "If anyone has the right to be pouty, it's me. I've been through a lot recently, if you haven't noticed."
He noticed. He couldn't help but to notice. Despite the allure of her golden eyes, he repeatedly traced the bruising around her cheekbone and split lines across her lip. And triumphant tone or not, her attempts to wall off her emotions were made feckless by the blatant inability to face him for more than a few moments at a time.
"I thought I just told you that I don't want you looking at me like that," Azula warned with folded arms.
"I," Aang hesitated. He looked away from Azula, out into the courtyard, and back again. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and sighed. He was tired, and in no mood to argue. Seeing her again, alive, it was almost too much to handle. He steeled himself against the possibility of losing her not even a day before and now, now she was here. He focused on the golden glare just opposite of him, and made it an anchor. "I don't think there's any other way to look at you right now."
Azula's lip quivered. Her disposition bent and twisted, gradually devolving into a scowl. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Azula," Aang whispered while kneading the sides of his temples and leaning his elbows onto the table.
"I'm serious," Azula demanded, unfolding her arms and tapping her finger against the table twice. "Now, answer my question. It doesn't bear repeating, does it?"
"Fine," Aang said, sitting up straighter. "It's been less than a week since I found the capital in chaos, since-."
"Don't be overdramatic," Azula sneered. "There was a bit of fire damage, and a few people were forced to return state property. Don't blow it out of proportion."
Aang's jaw clenched. "You just said you've been through a lot. I don't think I'm being overdramatic."
"I said 'I've' been through a lot. Me as in not the capital, but the beautiful princess of the Fire Nation," Azula clarified.
Aang opened his mouth to reply, but chose to ignore it. He had a point to make, and for better or worse, Azula was still Azula. She remained just as married to misdirection as the day he met her. "It's been less than a week since I found out that Ozai plotted a coup. Since I -"
"An unsuccessful coup," Azula interjected with a heavy tap of her fingernail against the wooden tabletop.
Aang took note of a number of razor thin scabs accentuated by the scarlet aura of irritated skin on her fingers and the back of her hand.
Azula shrugged. "Details make the difference in the long run."
Aang doubted she realized the irony of her statement. He pressed on, raising his voice louder than he would have preferred, "Since I found you nearly dead in that cell. Do you realize I had to draw on everything to even get you breathing again?"
"The way I heard it says the Avatar glowed brilliantly that day," Azula acknowledged with a disingenuous, creeping smirk. "You were the sole star burning in the sun lit sky as you rushed me back to the palace. Or at least that's what all the slack jawed onlookers are spreading about. Too many rumors are swirling around, don't you think? Zuko's going to have quite the time getting it all under control."
Aang paused. Thoughts evaded him, but the question flowed on its own. "Do you think this is a game?" She knew better, and he knew. Venting was easier than taking her jabs. Much easier.
The princess's smile widened in excitement for the first time in their encounter. "That's the third time I've heard that question in the past few days, and I always have the same answer. Of cour-"
"You know what, forget it. I'll just say it." Aang began, rubbing his face in small deliberate circles. The words began to flow, rushing forth past his filters. They were direct and focused. "You almost died, and I had no clue if you were going to make it or not. Do you understand what I'm trying to say? Do you even have any idea on how crazy that was? I don't even know what you were thinking. Why?"
Azula cut her eyes form the Avatar to the courtyard. The rolling petals of the lilies waved in the wind. She drew her hand from the table and folded her arms, clutching each elbow in turn. She wouldn't admit it, not openly at least, but she was a bit taken aback. She never expected him to be so frank. It was, to some degree, unnerving.
"A question for a question, Aang," Azula offered, breaking the Avatar's train of thought.
Aang gave a single nod.
"When is it ever going to be enough?" Azula all but whispered, keeping her attention away from the young man in front of her. "I take Ba Sing Se for the Fire Nation and ZuZu has a little breakdown. I cover for him, giving him credit for taking down the Avatar, and then father's attention is on me when the prince can't hold his water. I try to serve my empire in what was supposed to be our greatest hour, and then I'm forcefully dethroned. I try to serve my time in the asylum, but then it's 'get better as soon as possible.' I try to be a good quiet sister, and all of a sudden I'm forced to clean up the mess that you and Zuko couldn't be bothered to clean up."
"Azula," Aang coaxed, raising a palm to his chest.
The princess sighed and shook her head, denying him the opportunity. She had to keep him off balance, or else he'd keep pushing. "Somehow I manage to stave off what would have been the catalyst to a civil war and possibly the beginning of a new world conflict and here you are looking at me like that, like I haven't done enough. What else do you need me to do? Hold your hand while we go have a chat with that fool king outside the city's gates?"
Aang's silence lasted for a moment too long for the princess's liking. She lost track of when, but somewhere along the line she had grown accustomed to his clever rebuttals. However, when his voice didn't come, she was the one who found herself unbalanced.
Her head snapped in his direction. "Well?" Azula demanded in a harsh, caustic tone.
Aang had been staring at her, taking in every abrasion and scar hiding along her delicate jawline. Each expression that she failed to hide behind the makeup and false bravado brought truth closer to his tongue.
"Believe it or not, I'm glad you said all of that," Aang confessed, looking down at the table and then back up at Azula.
"Right," Azula grumbled, leaning back into her chair. "I'm sure you are."
"I wanted to apologize, and I didn't know if I'd ever get a chance," Aang explained.
Azula kept her attention on the flowers swaying almost violently in the mid summer's breeze below. "For what, exactly?" Her stomach twisted in knots. The Avatar wasn't deterred, not in the slightest.
"For using you just like Ozai did," Aang admitted. Azula didn't budge, save for the furrowing of her brow. Aang pressed on. "I never meant to use you as a measuring stick for my success as the Avatar, but I did. I was supposed to be helping you, not shaping you. You're not some tool, you're a person."
Azula glowered, souring her features further. Any pretense of stoicism had lost its foothold in the face of the Avatar's open apology. He had freely given the one of two things she hoped would remain understood. She didn't know if the second would follow on its own, let alone if she wanted to hear it aloud.
"A person I care about, a lot," Aang continued while fidgeting with his thumbs, eyes re-focused on the table. "Maybe that's what caused all of this, and maybe it's more my fault than yours, but there were so many lives put in danger. That's not okay. None of this was okay."
Aang heard a sigh. He tilted his head and gazed at the princess. She leaned further into the back of her chair, her face to the ceiling covered by her hands.
"Just, stop," She groaned.
Aang twisted his face, "Stop what?"
"You have a bad habit of droning on and on. I get it. You think you're partially at fault. You think you used me. Whatever, I don't really care. Really, I don't," Azula lied, despite both of them knowing the truth. The Princess folded her hands on the table, leaning in to focus on the grey eyes before her. "But, I need you to know that as much as I'd like to take the victim card and run with it, I'm going to have decline."
"Just like that?" Aang asked, unintentionally recoiling from the princess.
"Yes," Azula stated plainly, maintaining eye contact.
"Why?" Aang asked.
Azula wrinkled her nose, "Because there were bigger things at play than you understood at the time. I'm sure by now you've come to realize just what was going on under the Fire Lord's roof."
Aang nodded grimly, acknowledging the unpleasant truth of the matter.
"You all were hopelessly out of your depth. I wasn't. Therefore, I made a choice. I did what I thought was right. Now, you're all alive and my home remains unified. If a few people had to be removed to make it happen, then that's fine by me. It always was, but you knew this already," Azula explained with a wave of her hand. "So, I don't need you to apologize for my choices. Nor do I want you to refuse that they were all my own."
"I get that, and I know we're going to disagree over how everything was handled. But," Aang argued.
"But what?" Azula spat in protest. "What else do you have to say other than 'thank you, Azula'?"
Aang's tongue moved faster than his inhibitions. "Why did you-"
"I told you to stop looking at me like that," Azula snapped, slamming her hands on the table.
Aang seized the opportunity. The jumbled noise of past decisions and uncertain visions of consequence faded into the background. Only one thing mattered, and despite every aspect of his training that instructed otherwise, he reached out. Azula's eyes widened, shifting attention to the table below. The Avatar's movement was so natural, so calm that Azula failed to react on reflex. Before she realized, the princess found a pair of hands resting over hers. The sky blue arrows pointed toward her in a vague, almost accusatory gesture.
"Let go," Azula barked with a forceful tug of her arm. Despite her best efforts, her arm didn't budge. The Avatar's grip remained tight around her wrist and hands.
"I don't want to do this anymore, not again," Aang whispered, keeping his hold on the princess.
"I said," Azula growled as she stood, "Let go!"
The princess's chair clattered and bounced against the rock tiled floor in her attempts to pull against the Avatar's vice like bind. The table's legs scrapped the stone, producing a shrill noise that echoed throughout the room.
"No," Aang responded with a shout of his own.
Azula was taken aback by the emotion in the Avatar's voice, a voice that nearly failed him mid outburst as he stood to pull the princess closer.
"You don't just get to do what you did and try to leave," Aang explained, "not like that."
Azula's scowl warped her face into a portrait of rage manifest. "If you didn't notice, I wasn't going anywhere until you lost your mind," Azula pointed out as she continued to struggle. "Now I'm going to tell you one more time before you're wearing your mistake on your face. Let me go."
"No, you don't get to take all that responsibility, put everyone in danger, and just die. That's not how this works." Aang huffed, eyes locked on Azula.
For a moment, she stopped wrestling against him. His words said enough, but his eyes whispered the rest. He knew.
"Why?" Aang asked, voice breaking along with his grip around her wrist. "I care about you, so I need to know why."
She snatched her arm away from him, rubbing it idly as she turned her back to him.
"I know you do," She blurted out over her shoulder, "But I'm not interested in having you repeat it again and again or mix it up in how you feel about being the Avatar. Work that out on your own."
"So, I'm not allowed to care?" Aang pleaded.
"You're allowed to care, but don't look at me like that," Azula said.
"You can't keep pushing me away like this, not anymore," Aang argued as he approached her again.
Azula blew air through her nostrils and lifted an arm out to her side. She snapped her fingers in succession. Aang stopped and focused upon the snapping fingers, glancing from her back to the shrill popping tempo. Suddenly, in one smooth and flowing motion, her palm and fingers spread and gave light to flawless sphere of sapphire flame.
There she was, fantastic and headstrong, forever defying the odds. She stood beautiful in her power, shining in the afterglow of her dazzling display as one of the greatest benders to ever live. He stood in awe of the results of her pure power of will. She was like nothing he'd ever seen before. Yet, Aang's stomach sank while his eyes stared on, reflecting the brilliant cerulean light. Somehow, each demonstration of wellness that should have brought relief seemed to only welcome a deeper sense of dread.
He began to understand. Every loss he'd experienced, every life unable to be saved, it was all the result of his inaction, not actions. The negative liberty enforced by the dogma of his culture was merely one side of a greater philosophy. The state of being bound, trapped by secular desire, it was only one angle, one perspective. If he allowed such a single minded approach to rule is actions, he would without a doubt, allow the brilliant flame before him to flicker and die.
Azula closed her hand in a rolling motion from pinky to index, extinguishing the flame. She placed her free hand back to her side.
"See," she stated, "better than ever. So, if you have something to say, don't use me as a crutch to beat around the bush."
Self-restraint became a foreign concept for the Avatar. The wind demanded to blow, and so, it did. His voice cracked, "I thought I lost you."
"And why in the world would that matter," Azula shot back, turning to face the Avatar. Her expression lacked the anger she attempted to don just moments prior. Her eyes glistened. The edges of her wide painted lips twitched.
The glowing embers that were her eyes appeared to glow with an intensity that Aang was sure he'd never seen before. In them lie a will and passion whose name he simply had to speak. His mouth moved, and the whites of her eyes grew.
"What?" Azula stammered, taking a step back with a shake of her head. "I.."
Aang repeated himself, louder and louder again. The words that were needed, the words that begged, and the words that were promised came in succession and abundance. The wind blew freely, igniting the flames within.
The Princess attempted to steal away, hoping that the distance would wake her from whatever cruel delusion afflicted her mind. The words were, as she had come to believe, never meant for her ears. Sound failed her and her imagination set in, or so she was forced to assume. The words she never received from her mother, the words she promised Ozai she'd never give to the Avatar, those words were now provided to her in bounty.
Aang willed himself forward and embraced her. She stood in his arms, stiff and unresponsive.
Crooked trails of dark speckled tears meandered down her face, given color by her heavy kohl eyelashes. Azula was a statute, frozen while Aang's cheek nestled against her hair. The weight of his body became apparent as he gradually leaned into her. His arms wrapped around her body, embracing her closer to his own.
"That's everything," Aang whispered. "I know you feel the same way, so please just tell me why. I need to know."
Azula deliberately guided her arms from his lower back and up the bony ridges of his spine. Her fingers traced the subtle changes in texture that shaped the scar she had given him in the crystal catacombs. For every horror she delivered to the Avatar, he returned tenfold to her in kindness. She reciprocated his embrace, arms tight around his midsection.
"I need to know so I never let it happen again," Aang continued with a subdued urgency.
"Where did you find the time to grow up so much?" Azula whispered, allowing her forehead to rest against his chest. She could feel the nervous racing of his beating heart. The rhythm penetrated his skin, traveling through her head and down her body. It matched her own. A weak, wavering smile was all she could manage to fight back the sobs. It would be enough, for the moment. "Besides, that's a big promise."
"I'll keep it," Aang hummed near her ear. Her body relaxed, melting closer into his arms.
"Okay," Azula sighed. She doubted she could explain, but she would try. She owed him that much. "For the longest time I was alone. That entire year after losing the throne to Zuko, I was alone. I'd lost everything, and begged for death to come. But I was too scared or weak to welcome it myself. So, I wallowed in my loss and lost myself."
Aang squeezed her tighter.
"Then you came," Azula added. "And everything got worse, I had to listen to you prattle on every day."
Aang laughed to himself. There was no doubt that he held the same Azula that he knew and cherished in his arms. He wasn't too late, not this time.
"It's not funny, you've never had to listen to yourself," Azula stated.
"True," Aang agreed.
"But, after a while, I don't know. I came to…" Azula trailed off.
"That's okay, I know," Aang said.
"No," Azula protested, "I'm not good at this, but I'm going to do this right. Besides, it was almost the death of me, so I might as well." Azula paused. "I began to look forward to it. It helped me so much, you being there."
"Thank you," Aang said as he began gently rocking their bodies from side to side.
"But another year passed and I found myself so caught up in the outside world through your eyes. I could finally see past myself and any duty to the nation that I lost. I hated that at first, but I began to understand what you and my brother did. You broke tradition with such blatant disregard that it took the world by storm. It was inspiring, it reminded me of myself and what I lost. Just the prospect of seeing where it would all lead gave me something to hold onto," Azula explained.
"Was that all?" Aang asked, eyes closed as he continued to cradle Azula in his arms.
"Of course not, don't be stupid," Azula chided. She could feel his skin radiate warmth like only a firebender could. She leaned into his chest more as she continued. "I found the whole thing so bizarre and twisted that I couldn't help but to see it all the way through. What would this Avatar and the newly risen Fire Lord make of the world?"
"Harmony," Aang answered.
"Chaos," Azula insisted. "You two were throwing everything into the air and wishing that it all worked out. There wasn't even a plan for what to do after defeating Ozai. Defeat the Fire Lord and save the day, right? Naïve."
"We were trying our best." Aang responded, pulling her closer in to him. "We still are."
"Sometimes your best isn't enough, trust me. I learned it the hard way. I knew the moment I came back to the Fire Nation that you two were destined to fail. You would have dragged the world down with you," Azula said as she carefully pushed away from Aang.
The princess took a few steps back, allowing her fingers to brush lightly against his arms, forearms, and palms. His grey eyes rested upon her with a patience that could have been described as bottomless. She found herself smiling before she gazed out the window again. Another light breeze jostled the delicate petals of the fire lilies in the garden below.
"You and all your friends came in as a force of hope for many, and destruction for others. And for some, you were just a wild wind of change. That alone gave too many people the opportunity they needed to exercise power in the open," Azula explained.
"And from there, my father and his supporters took cover in the shadows. But, they made the same mistake everyone I know eventually makes," Azula said.
"What's that?" Aang asked.
Azula focused her attention back on him. Her cheeks were streaked with dried trails of speckled kohl. She laughed quietly to herself, "Relying on me, of course."
"You don't mean that," Aang said.
"Just let me finish," Azula interrupted with a raised hand. "I promise, I'm going somewhere with this."
Aang nodded. Azula smiled in return.
"I think I caused my brother quite a bit of grief throughout his life by giving him the chance to trust me when I had plans of my own. Not to say he didn't deserve it half the time. He was just a mark, an easy one at that. Same with Long Feng and the Dai Li. And to a certain extent, you," Azula admitted.
"Me?" Aang blinked rapidly and pointed to himself. "How?"
She shrugged. "Isn't it obvious? I used you as much as you were using me. You gave me a new lease on life, and a new reason to live. I gave you measurable progress and a renewed sense of faith in your ability to be the Avatar. I needed a way off of that island, and you needed a way out of your doubt."
His expression darkened, but not in anger. A distinct shadow crossed his face. His gaze was downcast, away from the princess. Azula could feel the sadness as if it were her own. It urged her to continue, to soldier on.
"But, not everything goes according to plan," Azula admitted while approaching the Avatar. She placed a hand on the side of his face and guided his eyes to her own. "I told you I'm not good with this, but, I never expected to get this close. It's sick, really. All my life I've been fine being a monster who only wanted to stand on top of the world. Then out of nowhere I find out what it means to care for someone, to miss them, to be afraid for them. And all it took was losing my mind. Isn't that funny?"
Aang placed his hand over her own. He didn't speak. Now, it was her words that held the most importance.
"Before I knew it, I couldn't see myself doing any of this without you. And I hated it, because I knew from what I heard, what I knew, and from what I could piece together that I could have it all again. But, only at the cost of the dumbdumb Fire Lord and the blockheaded Avatar. Problem is, I really did care about at least one of them," Azula said.
"And, I couldn't have that," Azula whispered, shaking her head. "Not anymore. I didn't just want to see where your path would take you, I wanted to walk with you for as long as I could. So, I let my father do the one thing he shouldn't have done. Trust in me."
Aang's thumb rubbed against the back of Azula's hand, running over the newly formed scars and bruises decorating her skin.
"So, is that what's going to happen to me, too? Should I not trust you?" Aang asked.
"Go ahead and joke," Azula scoffed with a yank of her hand away from his face. "But for a moment I had the ability to remove three pieces from the board. You, Zuko, and my Father could have all been handled in the chaos and I could have taken back what I lost. That's why I realized I couldn't be around if you two were to succeed at whatever ideal world you set out to create. I would always be there, searching for angles to exploit."
"Azula, that's crazy," Aang blurted out with open arms. "You wouldn't do that. I know you."
"And how appropriate. Thank goodness for nepotism and the confidence of the Avatar," Azula pointed out.
Aang frowned but held his tongue.
"Exactly. I'm not going to pretend that I'm well," She stated in a matter of fact tone as she wiped a finger across her cheek. She took notice of the black residue that coated her fingertips with a curled lip. "At least not by any reliable standards. I know myself better than anyone, and I knew that I was another loose end from a world that you and Zuko changed in half measures. You left Ozai alive, allowed him the time to plot. You allowed Kuei stew in his embarrassment and anger, gave him leeway to act out. And worst of all, you left me to my own devices. Can't say that was a winning strategy at all, Aang. You were going to die, you and all your little friends."
Aang's brow pinched together. He held her gaze. She smiled, sniffled, and looked away.
"I couldn't have that happening. And I couldn't be the one to do it. For the first time in my life, I was so scared that I didn't know what to do. So, I fixed it. Ozai's coup would be thwarted, the colonies would become their own independent state, and Katara could put down the mad princess once and for all. It would have been perfect, and you and Zuko would have been safe, and hopefully a bit wiser in the future." Azula explained.
Aang could only stare on, eyes wide and jaw clenched.
"It was the least I could do for you after all I put you through. After all the kindness you gave. It was the only thing I could do to make any of it mean anything," Azula added while she flicked the black specs off of her fingers.
Aang rubbed his chin and sighed. Azula glanced at him and shrugged. She was serious, he had no doubt. He had no clue what to say or how to say it, but he allowed the words to follow.
"And now?" The Avatar asked.
"Hm?' Azula responded, focusing on him again.
"I mean," Aang began, "What about now? You're alive now, how are you going to live? What are you going to do?
Azula rubbed her thumb on the opposite cheek, inspecting her hand for the dingy debris left by her running makeup. "I was hoping you'd have an answer for that one. I didn't plan this far and panicked a bit."
"You?" Aang raised an eyebrow. "You panicked."
"Aang, I'm not perfect all the time, you know," Azula teased with a sniff.
"Only sometimes," Aang added with a nervous chuckle.
"Only mostly," the princess corrected.
"Only mostly," Aang parroted with a smile, indulging Azula.
"So, what did you have in mind? Am I going back to the asylum or are you dragging me back to the Fire Nation?" Azula asked. "Because if we're both just being honest today, I'll tell you that I don't think it would work out too well for ZuZu. There are people who know what really happened who would have me sitting on the throne in his stead."
"You really think I'm going to take you back to that island?" Aang asked while approaching the firebender. He placed his hands on her waist and pulled her in close.
"Well, not after you decided to be so honest about it all," Azula said, blushing despite herself.
"And I do, a million times over. I'm almost sure that I'll never stop," Aang added.
The Avatar felt a stinging on the center of his forehead after Azula's finger bounced off his skull with considerable force.
"Spirits help me, you're just too much," Azula laughed. Aang rubbed the center of his arrow as he sucked in air through clenched teeth. She placed her index fingers over her forehead to create a crude arrow. " 'a million times over. I'm almost sure that I'll never stop'." Azula mocked.
"You didn't have to hit me so hard," Aang lamented as the pain subsided.
"You whine worse that Zuko, I swear." Azula sighed. She curled her finger toward him in a beckoning motion. "Come here."
He obeyed. The princess placed her hands on either side of his face and gently guided his head lower to her. Her lips met his forehead and rested there for quite some time. Eventually she removed them and smiled.
"There," she said, now holding his face in her hands. "All better."
"I guess that means you mean it two million times," Aang said.
"You know what," Azula's eyes narrowed, "…I do."
The Avatar's reddening cheeks grew warm in her palms until she let go.
"So, what are you going to do with me now," Azula asked. "Considering I'm no longer your prisoner."
"You were never my prisoner, Azula. But, that doesn't mean I don't want to keep you" Aang said as Azula rolled her eyes and strolled away from him. "But I want to know, what do you want?"
Azula moved closer to the window and invited the Avatar over with a tilt of her head. He approached her side and followed her gaze onto the garden littered with fire lilies.
"Those flowers, you know why they're called fire lilies, right?" Azula asked.
Aang shook his head and glanced over to the princess. Her sharp profile remained directed toward the garden. The injuries and map of her struggles were painted on her face, scars and bruises alike.
"It's only noticeable when the wind blows, but when it does, the lily's petals fan out and wave like fire. Fitting, really. Fire only burns when there's air to give it life," Azula whispered.
Aang could only smile as he began to reconcile his actions and choices up to this point. There was so much about his culture that he loved, so much that he missed. However, there was so much that he didn't understand, some of which he had come to resent. Though, in recent days he began to acknowledge that he knew less about his society than he would have openly admit. He was only twelve when he ran away, definitely not the age of blossoming wisdom and understanding. Maybe, just maybe, what he knew about the physical detachment from the world was incomplete and lacking in proper context. He was, to some extent, just as narrow minded as those outside eyes from the past who used the label 'avoid and evade' as a catch all for his philosophy. Maybe there was more to explore, more to meditate on. He glanced at Azula. It would be a journey he would be glad to take with her.
"Now who's being too much?" Aang asked, taking her hand into his own.
Azula smiled to herself. "I want to walk with you for as long as I can. If you'll have me."
"Of course," Aang chimed in. "And I'll keep my promise. I'm always going to be there because - "
"You love me," Azula finished.
While this would be a great spot to end, I still have a little bit more to go. The relationship now exists, but what of the consequences? There's a little bit more, and I hope it has a happy end. Anyway, like I said above, cheesy or not, I really did enjoy this chapter. Let me know what you think with a review, critique, or random comment. Be honest, tell me what you thought of this chapter (and tell me why I need to stop being so cheesy lol). Okay, see you guys a little later.