Required reading: One Mistake, and The Consequences That Follow, in that order. Those set up the premise of this story, and give context and background.
Chapter 1: Six in, too many to go
Azula stumbled out of the bathroom, clutching the doorjamb with one hand and her stomach with the other. She paused, leaning against the frame, and just breathed, hoping this wave of nausea was finished. She wiped at the sweat along her hairline, feeling completely drained. Her legs wobbled as she staggered back to her bed. This constant throwing up and the lack of sleep it caused had her feeling more than just physically drained. This whole situation had her mind whirling almost constantly, struggling for answers to questions she hadn't ever imagined she'd be asking. She flopped on her stomach and instantly regretted it. Her stomach rolled, and Azula curled herself into a ball.
Tears tickled the corners of her eyes, and she punched her mattress in frustration. Every time she built up something good, it was torn down again, brick by brick; each accomplishment was rendered pointless and useless, her hard work trod upon and burned to ashes. Azula stuffed the blanket in her mouth to stifle the sob that tried to escape. Sometimes people still called her the Lightning Princess. As she passed, Azula could hear them whispering behind their hands about all the things she had been and all the ways she had been feared and respected. All the ways people would look to her for leadership, and the ways they knew she was destined for greatness, that nothing would stand in her path. They would speak in hushed tones for fear of being overheard, and Azula could imagine that she still commanded some respect in her home.
Then sly smiles would creep onto faces and voices would no longer be lowered. They would laugh and talk loudly about how insane she was. Her presence would be ignored, or worse, people would sneer at her and look her up and down as if sizing up an opponent. They would look at her like they knew they would win any fight with her, and it would be true. What weapons did Azula have left to her after those five years in a mental hospital? She couldn't stomach her bending anymore, having refused to so much as raise her body temperature. If it wasn't for her bending, she wouldn't be scared, alone, and pregnant with Aang's child. Azula let out a slow, measured breath. It was her bending that had forced her down this path, her bending that had built her up, her bending that ultimately deserted her, leaving her nothing. Her bending and her father and her mother. She had never learned to wield a weapon or fight with her hands. All she'd known was firebending; strip that away, and she was nothing.
Azula gagged and quickly pulled the sheet out of her mouth. Princesses of the Fire Nation did not throw up on their beds.
"Azula?" Zuko knocked on her door.
Azula swallowed her tears, and readjusted the front of her robe to ease the chafing. Zuko wasn't going to go away any time soon; she'd learned that the hard way, and at times was equally grateful and annoyed that she'd told him. Slowly, she sat up and ran her hands over her face. She'd done her best to not think about the night of Zuko and Katara's engagement. She was happy for her brother, sure. Katara was nice enough, had come to visit her in the hospital, and was respectful of the boundaries Azula set. She was most certainly not jealous of Zuko, because she hadn't even considered marriage before, had never wanted to be married or have children. Now she was stuck carrying the child of a seventeen year old monk so hung up on her brother's fiancée that he called Katara's name as he finished inside her.
"Who am I to judge?" Azula muttered to herself, deciding to get back under the blankets.
"Azula? You weren't at breakfast."
Azula rolled her eyes. Of course she wasn't at breakfast. She'd gotten halfway down to the dining hall before the smell of food sent her reeling, forcing her to the nearest bathroom for the eighth time that morning. Not that she'd been keeping count. Nothing had ever smelled less appetizing, so Azula hid in her room, knowing Zuko wouldn't be able to come find her until after his morning meetings. She'd never been sick like this before, had rarely been sick at all in her life. Now, it was like the universe was throwing nineteen years of sickness on her all at once. She knew less than nothing about pregnancy, and had no idea how long this was going to last. And it wasn't even like morning sickness was limited to the morning. It should really be called 'all day sickness,' because the nausea was quite fond of hitting her at all times during the day and night.
Zuko let out a frustrated sigh, his voice sharp. "Azula—"
"Come in," she yelled angrily, yanking the blankets over her head. The sooner they got this over with, the sooner she could be left in peace and Zuko could mind his own business for a change.
Zuko sat down on the edge of her bed, not saying anything, and it reminded her so much of their uncle. She peeked over her shoulder, lifting the light blanket a bit, just to be sure it was Zuko and not Iroh. It was her brother, wearing the crown and mantle of the Fire Lord. His posture was still stiff, tension still evident in his muscles, and she could see him trying to relax, to ease out of the posture he assumed during meetings. She gave him a humorless smile. Azula could finally say with certainty that she was glad she hadn't been crowned Fire Lord. It was a headache and a half that she didn't need. She judged that he would see his first gray hair by thirty-eight. Stress would make him completely gray ten years later if he didn't let go of that tension soon, and knowing her brother, he probably wouldn't.
"Hey." Zuko put his hand on her lower back, rubbing gentle circles. "I'm worried about you."
Azula grunted in response, rolling over again, keeping her back to Zuko. The heat from his hand seeped through the thin blankets and soothed her cramping muscles. She bit back that relieved sigh, but not soon enough to catch all of it. A tiny groan escaped, and Azula cursed her dulled reflexes. Everything about her was dulled these days. Zuko said nothing for a few minutes, just rubbing her back, easing the discomfort there, moving from her lower back to her shoulders. She did her best not to think about how Zuko learned to do that, or just who'd taught him, but she was inwardly grateful all the same.
"I'll be honest with you, Azula," Zuko said, finally removing his hands. "I have no idea what I'm doing. I'm probably one of the worst people you could have asked to look after you. Not that I'm upset that you came to me, because I'm not. I'm flattered. I just… I don't know how to help you."
"What else is new?"
Azula waited, expecting Zuko to get annoyed and react as he always had. There was barely a pause in the conversation before he continued. It was the verbal equivalent of stepping over the body of a wounded soldier begging desperately for help. Azula frowned, curled tighter into herself.
"This is freaking me out, too. I guess I finally understand what Sokka's been talking about all this time. I do know that you'll need someone who knows what they're doing, Azula, who can tell you what to expect and make sure you're healthy."
She was miffed that Zuko had ignored the insult. There were fonder days when Zuko was physically incapable of ignoring something like that; it was like an itch he was compelled to scratch. He rose to the bait every single time, and it had been a great source of enjoyment for her. It was something she could count on, like the rise of the sun and its setting every night. It was Zuko. Now, teasing him was fairly hollow. The only person who could consistently get a rise out of him was Toph, and she'd already left to make up her yearly parental visit. Azula alternately liked and was annoyed by this new, more focused, less easily provoked Zuko.
"Please, Azula," he said, "tell Katara—"
"No!" Azula yelled, bolting upright. She punched him in the shoulder as hard as she could, but he didn't even flinch. "It's absolutely impossible for you to do anything without her, isn't it?"
"Katara is a master healer, Azula," Zuko said, sternly. "She's trained as a midwife, and she's delivered babies before. It's either her or the palace doctor, and I thought you might be more comfortable with someone you know."
Zuko's eyes were narrowed slightly, his tone firm and lightly scolding. The tension he'd slowly begun to release returned, but Azula refused to shrink back from him. She met his narrowed gaze with one of her own, willing herself to remain in control of her body long enough to make Zuko see that she wouldn't just roll over and give in to his demands, even if she could see the logic behind his point. Having Katara poking and prodding her would be far more preferable to having some idiotic, loudmouth doctor who'd likely blab everything to everyone. Zuko was doing his best for her, and after all he'd endured—all she'd put him through—she should really trust him. Others had come and gone, but Zuko was always there.
Zuko's gaze was unwavering and solid. He was like a statue, unmoving, and Azula did her best to match that fierceness, but all it did was make her conscious of a hollowness deep inside her. Then her stomach rolled, and she gripped her sheets in her fists. she backed down first, turning away and chewing her lip. There was no denying Katara's skill as a healer, and if asked, she'd keep it quiet. Azula hung her head, letting her hair fall in her face and hiding briefly, not really wanting to concede that he'd won. Again. No matter how hard she tried, she could not turn the tables in her favor again.
"I know she's not your favorite person right now, Azula, but she knows what she's doing," Zuko said, putting his hand on her shoulder.
"Why are you doing this?"
Zuko was quiet for a long while, and Azula studied him. Absently, she readjusted her robe. The discomfort brought on by the chafing was making her irritable, and she frowned, wondering if Zuko planned on answering her any time soon. Finally, he sighed, shaking his head, a slight smile on his face.
"Remember the way we were when we were kids? I miss that. I've…I've liked having you back. As my sister, and not my rival. What Sokka and Katara have? We could have been that way, too, and there's no excuse for us to have been the way we were. I think we still can be like that. And because you need me."
When he looked at her, there was a different clenching in her stomach, and tears were prickling at her eyes again. Azula hated that there were so many conflicting feelings inside her. She scooted closer to Zuko, but that was as far as she was willing to go right then, but Zuko didn't care. She crossed her arms as he pulled her into a hug, refusing to hug him back. Being certifiably insane was nothing compared to these mad hormonal swings. At least Azula had known where those odd mixes of emotions had come from. She had been able to control them, to suppress them if need be, or to dispose of them completely. Now, no matter how hard she tried to push down shame or fear, it always resurfaced with double or triple the force, making it nearly impossible to sleep at night. In the darkness, evil dreams came back to her, dreams she thought she'd left in the asylum. Her shoulders shook, and Zuko hugged her tighter. She did not lean into him more.
"Agni help that kid if he thinks he can fly off and leave you like this," he muttered darkly.
Azula managed to drag herself out of bed sometime close to dinner after a lengthy and mildly refreshing nap. That nap had started fitfully, with her tossing and turning until she finally decided something needed to be done about that damned chafing and the nausea. She very well couldn't go walking around topless, and Azula bet that, even then, the air would find a way to chafe against her sensitive breasts. She resolved that she would go and see Katara; if she had skill enough to heal Zuko after everything that happened during that last battle of the war, she had skill enough to squash a few major annoyances.
Still exhausted, Azula walked down the halls, her hair shielding her from the prying eyes of scurrying servants and curious diplomats. She hugged the walls as she made her way to Zuko's office, having learned that's where Katara had been for the past few hours. Azula grunted and readjusted her shirt as she rounded the final corner, and her steps faltered when she saw Ursa coming toward her. It was too late to turn around and find a different route—Ursa had seen her, and she smiled as she quickened her pace to meet her daughter. Azula bit the inside of her cheek as she stood still and waited for her mother to reach her. If she'd been paying more attention, she would have spotted the other woman immediately and pretended that she didn't see her.
Zuko was, of course, delighted to have their mother back. For Azula, it had been like seeing a ghost. The woman that returned to them wasn't the mother that she had known, and Azula was observant enough to see that Zuko knew this, too. The years had changed them all, and it was like meeting someone for the first time. Azula thought she'd found some measure of calm when it came to thoughts of her mother, but seeing her—seeing the way she was torn and full of remorse for her lack of action in her daughter's favor—had unnerved Azula.
So many nights throughout her childhood, she'd fantasized about a reunion with her mother; she'd probably had that fantasy just as much as Zuko, though the outcomes were decidedly different. She'd always imagined something bloody and painful, something that would leave her with the upper hand, and Ursa would scream and beg for mercy for her wrongs. In the end, Ursa did beg for forgiveness, but this had come without any prompting from Azula, and she found that rage was no longer so ready in her heart. She still had no idea where she stood with her mother, but she did know that she didn't want to complicate things by admitting such a grave failure in behavior and judgment.
"I was just about to come looking for you," Ursa said, stopping a few paces away. "Are you alright, sweetheart? You haven't been looking well for the past few days."
There were too many memories floating around her mind, too many words and scared looks, and Azula wasn't always sure what memories were real, which were distorted by her young age when the events happened, and which were completely fabricated during her madness. She took a few steps away from Ursa, putting more distance between them as she shrugged, not quite making eye contact. To save them from having that awkward conversation where they both realized they were disappointed in the other, Azula had taken to avoiding Ursa. Mostly, it had worked, keeping their interactions to a minimum, even if it was plain that Ursa wanted so much more.
"I'm fine," Azula said, already planning an exit. "I just…haven't… I'm sick. A cold. Or something."
Ursa looked over Azula, and her heart beat faster. She didn't like the way her mother was looking at her, her eyes sharp and probing, as if she knew exactly what was wrong with her daughter. This was most certainly not the woman Azula knew, and she fidgeted under this searching gaze, starting to sidestep Ursa and hurry to Zuko's office.
"If that's all," Ursa said, smiling slightly, "I could—"
"I'm supposed to talk to Katara," Azula said hastily.
Nearly panting, her hands cold and shaking, Azula kept her back to her mother as she hurried down the hall, demanding that her body listen and keep those tremors to a minimum. She was already disappointed in herself for her actions, but if Ursa saw through everything, if Ursa knew what she'd done… Azula ground her teeth as she marched further away from a stunned Ursa. The night she'd returned to the Fire Nation, Ursa had come to her full of tears and apologies, saying she could have fought harder, that she was wrong to give up on her daughter while still fighting for her son. What would her contrite mother say if she knew the truth? Would she take back her words and say that it was good that she'd never wasted her time? Would she go down to the depths of the palace prisons and gloat to Ozai that her child had come out the victor after all? That all he'd managed to do was screw up his child's life?
Taking deep breaths, Azula slowed her pace as she neared Zuko's office, flexing her hands to hopefully make some of the numbness go away. The doctors at the hospital told her there would be days when she'd wish she was still her old self. Real change was not easy, she was told. She would struggle and she would work for it. Before she'd entered that damned hospital, before Zuko had come back to defeat her during Sozin's Comet, Azula knew nothing of struggle. Everything had always come easy to her, and if it didn't come easy, Ozai found a way to dismiss it. She didn't need music lessons, she didn't need to learn stealth or weapons or hand to hand combat. Those did not come easy, and Ozai made them cease to exist.
Tentatively, Azula knocked, fatigue and irritability already setting in.
Katara was sitting at Zuko's desk, sorting papers into three different piles, occasionally making notes. Azula huffed, clenching her fists, comfortable anger coming too quickly to the surface. Katara had transitioned almost seamlessly into this new role, and everyone respected her. If they didn't, Katara could glare and yell, and no one would say she should be locked away. No one would call her a child and treat her like she was stupid. Out in the market, people bowed to Katara, called her princess and my lady. And what did Azula get? Sneers, that's what. Sneers and dirty looks.
"Too important to look at people when they enter her majesty's office? Or was I supposed to bow?"
Katara's head snapped up, and her mouth hung open in complete confusion. Her eyes roamed over Azula, taking in her disheveled hair and rumpled robe. Her mouth closed, and soft blue eyes focused on Azula's face. Azula tried hard to hold Katara's gaze, but the softness and concern only made her feel guilty for being mean in the first place. Then she got angry because she was feeling guilty at all. Everyone had their off days, but she was the only one scolded when she was rude to people. Toph did it all the time, and the most people would do was shake their heads and walk away. 'It's just Toph,' they'd say, as if it was all excusable because being rude and abrasive was just part of who Toph is.
"Are you alright, Azula?" Katara asked, coming around the desk, the papers now forgotten. "You don't look so good."
"So everyone is fond of telling me." Azula slammed the door behind her, taking deep breaths to stop the shaking, avoiding eye contact as much as possible. "I…I've been throwing up for the past few days."
Katara stood facing Azula, a comfortable distance away, her hand raised as if to check Azula's temperature.
The clear concern and the softness in Katara's face made Azula feel even more shame. Katara was proof that Azula didn't have to be in this position. She and Zuko had been messing around for the better part of five years, and those two hardly had any pregnancy scares. And yet, here was Azula, virgin until she'd slept with Aang, and now she was pregnant.
"Don't bother," Azula said.
Her voice was quieter than she would have liked. Her body wasn't listening to her. Nothing listened to her anymore, and Azula took a few steps back. It was desperation that drove her to this moment, and desperation was not something she was used to. Just when she was beginning to feel sure of herself again, this happened, and now nothing made sense. Already, Azula could see the questions in Katara's eyes. Her mouth dried up, and she tried three times to give voice to those words, not sure why she should care so much what Katara thought of her.
"I'm pregnant," she blurted, her tongue sticking to the room of her mouth, making the word almost slurred as it came out.
Azula pulled her hair down until it covered her face, and through the strands, she watched Katara's reaction. She was just standing there, blinking. A few times, she opened her mouth, only to close it. She shuffled from foot to foot, took a deep breath, then continued to blink. Tell Katara, Zuko said. She can help. She's a professional.
"Don't make me say it again," Azula whispered, knowing that it sounded like a plea.
"Who… Who's…?" Katara stopped, and Azula could hear her taking a few calming breaths. "How far along?"
"I can't sleep at night. I…I was never supposed to be a mother," Azula said, everything coming out in a trembling rush. "I don't even like kids. I know you adore children and you probably can't understand since you and Zuko will have something like a thousand of them, but that's not me. I'm not…I can't be a mother."
"It is not ok!" Azula shoved Katara away as she tried to offer comfort. "I don't want his child!"
Azula chewed her lip, shame winning out over anger. "Aang."
"That's not funny," Katara said tersely, crossing her arms and stepping back.
Azula laughed bitterly. "You think I would joke about this? What purpose would that serve?"
"You had sex with Aang? Because he won't even say the word."
Katara narrowed her eyes suspiciously at Azula, her nostrils flared. Like Katara had any reason to get upset. She was the one who'd rejected Aang, so technically it was none of her business who Aang slept with. Azula straightened her back and looked defiantly at Katara.
"Yes. I did. And really, this is all yours and Zuko's fault—"
"Don't you blame your indiscretions on me!"
"If you hadn't been slutting it up with my brother—"
Up until this moment, Azula could have said for certain that she'd never been slapped before. Punched and kicked, had elements thrown at her, been attacked with weapons. But never slapped. She stood, stunned, as Katara headed for the door. It hadn't been her intention to anger Katara. She'd come to her for help, not to blame her.
"Wait," Azula said, softly. She tried to think of something to say, pinching the bridge of her nose, but her mind was largely blank. "Um…When Azula is feeling cornered, insecure, afraid, or threatened, her first reaction is to lash out in anger. She understands anger better than any other emotion."
That didn't sound like she was insane at all.
Katara stared at her. "Are…you…?"
"I read it in my profile at the hospital," Azula explained, tugging at the front of her dress. Second to the throwing up, the chafing was the worst. "I shouldn't have blamed you. Or Zuko. I should blame Jun. She spiked the tea."
"You should blame yourself," Katara said, stepping closer to Azula. "How far along?"
Azula shrugged. "The doctor said six weeks."
Katara nodded as she ran her hands through her hair. "I'll mix up an ointment to help with the tenderness, and make ginger tea for you. That should help settle your stomach enough for you to eat. Have you told Aang?"
Azula fidgeted, unable to meet Katara's disproving gaze, but feeling relieved nonetheless. "No. Only you and Zuko know. I'd like to keep it that way."
Aang flopped back on his bed in Ba Sing Se. The past month and a half had been extremely hectic. It was one meeting after another, political cram sessions for Kuei followed by tests and mediations with disgruntled citizens, struggling with council members, and convincing the public that Kuei could fix his wrongs. The only upside was that it hadn't allowed him much time for thinking. Most nights, he was too exhausted to do anything other than collapse into his bed and fall asleep.
Only tonight, the moon had been up for hours and was nearing its descent, and even though he was exhausted, Aang couldn't sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, he thought about that needy look on her face, and the way he'd willfully replaced her face with Katara's and how that wasn't fair. He thought about untying her dress, and how he hadn't had enough alcohol laced tea to dull his memory, his conscience, or his judgment. Through the entire act, he'd known what he was doing was wrong, and yet he'd done it anyway because seeing them together hurt so much, and because neither one of them had thought to say anything. They'd just let him go on thinking he'd ever had a chance, that Katara had ever loved him. Even when she knew that Zuko was going to propose, and that she was going to accept, they had both avoided telling him because they still thought of him as a child.
Once, Aang thought his biggest mistake was running away when he found out he was the Avatar, but even that had a silver lining; if he hadn't run when he did, he would have been killed when the Fire Nation attacked the Air Temples. There was no silver lining to having sex with Azula. She was damaged and broken, and needed time to heal. They shouldn't have gone and complicated things.
Aang groaned and buried his face in his pillow as guilt gnawed at him anew. He'd never seen Azula look so soft or needy. When he moved to comfort her that night, she'd practically melted into his arms, clutching him so tightly that he was sure he'd bruise. He'd seen Azula cry. Deep sobs that wracked her body and made her nose red and her face blotchy, and at some point, they'd fallen asleep together, limbs tangled like actual lovers.
"I can't believe I did that…"
Thoughts of that night with Azula inevitably led to thoughts about Katara and the way she smiled at Zuko, her head cocked to the side, sometimes blushing or biting her lip. Or the way she let Zuko hold her, pressing her whole body against his, her soft, delicate hand resting on his cheek as she sighed contentedly. Or the way she kissed Zuko like she'd never kissed him, a kiss full of passion, her hand grabbing chunks of his hair, refusing to let him go, her tongue dipping into his mouth. That was not Katara. Not the Katara that he knew. Aang squeezed his eyes shut and hummed, hoping to block out thoughts of the way she'd been so happy that she cried when Zuko gave her that necklace that he probably didn't even carve himself.
Aang yelled in frustration as he pushed himself up from the bed. He paced around his room, stomping out his pain and feeling no better. He'd always believed her when she said she and Zuko were only friends. He was the only one out of all of their family who'd never questioned them. Everyone—and that meant literally everyone—had questioned them, from Jun to Hakoda to Ty Lee, everyone had their own opinion, but Aang trusted them to be truthful. He was the only one who was fool enough to think that they wouldn't lie to him.
"I shouldn't even be thinking about her," he said to Momo, who was curled up on a pillow. "She lied to me so many times. She never cared for me. If she did, she would have told me. I would have let her go, but she didn't even care enough to tell me she didn't love me."
She told him she would have married him if only he'd asked, but he never did.
"I wasn't ready to be married," Aang said to the world outside his window. "Why couldn't you have waited?"
By the time he'd been ready, when he was willing to give it another try, engagement necklace in hand, it was too late. Zuko got there first.
A/N: Whew! Fin-a-lly! I've been promising this story forever, and I didn't realize just how close to completion it was. So, I'm going to go ahead and start with the posting of it. The chapter titles will tell you how far along Azula is, since I couldn't figure out a decent and not-totally-obvious way to weave it into the story. I'm trying to keep the story balanced between Aang and Azula's POVs, but Azula's comes to me more naturally than Aang. And let me tell you, it was a big struggle to write Aang until I hit on a few subtly important points for this story. That led to some scenes I'm really proud of, and I think will surprise some of my regular readers, given how much I love certain characters. Anyway, hope you enjoyed this first chapter, and are eagerly looking forward to what else I have in store!