It still aches. It has been five years since Azula shot him with lightening and the pain is still there just under the surface. The skin is tight and scarred. He avoids taking off his robes so he can avoid the questions and looks that accompany it.
Iroh's tea shop is quiet for the afternoon. The old man sits across from him contemplating his cup of jasmine tea.
"You look too troubled for one so young."
He supposes he does but there is such an awesome weight of responsibility on his shoulders. The burden should be too much to carry as these things are not to be handled lightly. He looks down at his own cup of tea tracing the wisps of steam with his eyes. They flow gently like the currents in the wind.
He has given up so much to take up the mantle of his position. His childhood was cut short by the weight of the world's problems. His own wants and needs are pushed to the side for that of others. He is not his own man but rather he belongs to the world. It is odd considering he never has felt that he belonged anywhere.
He looks out the open doorway of the shop to the darkened skies beyond the rise of the city walls.
There was a storm coming. He could feel it in the unhealed flesh. The scar tissue serves as a reminder of mistakes and that some mistakes will always be with him. By all rights he should have been dead but her healing touch saved him and brought him back from the brink of death.
He tries to not think about her though. Over the years of war and peace he has become accustomed to dealing with a certain amount of physical pain but the emotional devastation she left in her wake still has the power to make him weak. He is the most powerful being in the world and he is brought to his knees by a girl. He corrects himself..a woman.
"Uncle," he has come to consider Iroh family.
Iroh raises his hand to stop him. "Some things are best discussed after a filling meal and a night of rest. You will stay at my house tonight."
He opens his mouth to protest but Iroh cuts him off again. "You need rest, young Avatar."
The exhaustion he feels washes over him and he nods in agreement very much feeling all 118 years of his age.
Dreams of ocean blue eyes haunt him at night but the momentary disorientation he feels upon waking in a different place pushes the feelings away. He takes advantage of the stillness in Iroh's house to meditate and center himself.
When he makes his way downstairs to the kitchen, Iroh is waiting for him at a table filled with various dishes and Aang wastes no time filling his plate.
"Thank you, Uncle." Aang says as he finishes the rather large breakfast.
The older man eyes the table, smiling at the now empty dishes. The appetite of a teenage boy is its own force of nature.
"Perhaps now you would like to speak your mind, Aang." He gently encourages.
The Avatar nods solemnly. This was the reason he sought Iroh out in the first place. He was in need of the man's wisdom.
"It's time to rebuild the Air nation." He does not look up from the table and Iroh does not feel the need to comment.
"There are people who are eager to follow the Air nomad way of life and learn the culture." He continues. "One of the temples is already populated and I have been teaching them the customs."
Some of the Earth Kingdom refugees had taken to the idea of the Air Nomad life after they settled in the Northern Air Temple. "But they aren't Airbenders." Aang adds quietly. While the Air Nation is slowly being rebuilt, he is still the last of his kind; a living relic. He is still the last Airbender.
Iroh contemplates his words. "This is a serious endeavor as it will require more of you than anything else."
"The Sages are suggesting I marry and soon." Aang lets out a long sigh. "But there is only one woman I have ever seen myself with." The old feeling of anger at her rejection bubbles up inside of him but he shakes his head to push it away. He can't dwell on the past.
"Is she not open to the idea of being mother to a nation?" Iroh asks partly out of curiosity. He was not privy to what occurred between the two that caused such a rift.
Aang crosses his arms over his chest and stares down moodily at the table. The unspoken answer hangs in the air.
Iroh sighs and for a moment is tempted to point out that Aang reminds him of another moody teenage boy looking to him for advice. He does not think it would be appreciated though so he opts for a decisive answer.
"You are not over her." He states firmly. "And until you are, this will hang over your head. You must decide if you will pursue this woman or if you will lay your feelings to rest to make way for another to take her place in your heart."
He is met with stormy gray eyes. "No one can ever take her place." The words hang heavy in the air. "But she didn't want the same thing." Aang adds in a quieter tone as he looks out the window. He simply does not have the will to fight anymore.
Iroh remains still while Aang thinks it through.
Eventually the younger man's words break the silence, "It's time to put her in the past."
The words don't hold the same sting they use to for him; just an empty space in his heart where she use to be.
"How much longer is this going to take?" Mai complains.
Katara smiles at the bored tone in the Firelady's voice. "It may go fast; it may go slow." She replies cryptically.
Mai blows out a puff of air moving her bangs out of the way. "Wonderful." She deadpans sarcastically.
"Are you in much pain?" Katara asks seriously.
Mai lies back on the bed. "Do you have something for boredom?"
She lets out a small laugh at her friend's request. "No, but let me know if it gets worse. Do you want me to send your mother back in?"
The look in Mai's eyes is reminiscent of the times it was more than dirty looks that she was throwing Katara's way. "No, thank you."
"I'll just go check in with Zuko." Katara says as she closes the door behind her, leaving Mai with the nurses.
Zuko is in his office and his eyes light up expectantly at her when she walks in.
She holds up her hand to slow him down. "Still in the early stages but she is suffering from extreme boredom."
The Firelord sits back in his chair and lets out an exasperated groan. "How long does it usually take?"
Katara almost laughs at the impatience of the royal couple. "Babies come when they want to, Zuko. She could be in labor for several more hours." The seats in front of his desk are large and comfortable and she sinks into one of them thankfully.
He lets out a small growl as he stands and walks to the window to look at the courtyard below. "Is Mai in much pain?" He asks with his back to her.
"No complaints." Katara doubts Mai would let anyone know she was hurting anyway.
Zuko and Mai asked her to be the midwife for their first born. Her reputation as a healer over the last five years had grown in leaps and bounds and she was now the foremost respected healer in the world. Sometimes she resented it as it seemed people overlooked her fighting abilities but that was her legacy from the war. It was widely known that she saved both the Firelord's life, as well as, the Avatar's life.
The silence in the room stretches between them until she can't take it anymore and moves to join him by the window.
"Are you nervous?" She doesn't look at him but focuses on the courtyard below. Parenthood is such a life changing event.
"Terrified." He replies in a near whisper.
"It'll be okay. Mai's strong." Assurances are all she can offer.
"Azula's escaped." Zuko replies matter of fact.
Katara turns to him in surprise but he doesn't look at her.
His face hardens. "Within the last week."
She closes her gaping mouth and turns back to the courtyard. The serene scene seems eerie in light of this news.
"I've ordered extra guards and neither Mai nor the baby will go anywhere without them."
"You think she will try to do something to them?" The thought twists in her stomach.
"Having an heir assures my line." Zuko's voice takes on a bitter edge.
They have all heard the story of how Ozai took the throne from Iroh following the death of his only child Lu Ten. With the birth of the Firelord's child, Azula will have another competitor for the throne.
"Does Mai know?" Her voice is barely a whisper over the sound of her heart hammering in her chest.
"Not many people do. " He shakes his head. "I didn't want to upset her right now."
"I see." She doesn't really. Mai may have his head when she finds out he kept this from her.
"I need the Avatar." Zuko has been slow to voice this part of the plan to his friend. He knows things quickly soured between them but he is at a loss about what his next step should be. With a family now, he fears Azula even more.
Katara closes her eyes at the mention of his title. It only makes sense to turn to Aang for help but the thought of seeing him again fills her with dread. They have not spoken for two years.
"I've sent messengers out to all the Air Temples and most of the major cities." Realistically, on a flying bison he could be anywhere in the world so Zuko has cast a wide net in his search.
"I better go check on Mai." Katara turns her mind back to the matter at hand. "You should stop in and see her soon." She gently orders him.
He turns his golden eyes to her and nods. She leaves the room with a heavy weight.
During the years after he defeated Ozai the fires of the war still raged. It was never ending as one obscure general after another would gather an army of stragglers and stage a rebellion that Aang and Zuko had to deal with. Once one fire was put out three more took its place. In the last two years it had quieted considerably as Zuko solidified his rule. Aang had finally been able to leave the Fire Nation and focus on the rest of the world.
Right now, he just wants to hide so after leaving Ba Sing Se he takes a lazy path towards the Fire Nation. Appa sets down on Ember Island. If it was good enough to hide them during the war, then it is good enough for him to hide at now. He runs a hand through his short hair. There is a serious downside to having a full body tattoo that is recognized the world over so he has opted to grow his hair out to try to conceal what he can of it.
It has been years since he has been here but it is secluded and right now he just wants to disappear. The house is still the Firelord's but Zuko has not been back since before the war ended. Those were simpler days, he thinks wryly.
The house is eerie and something about it sets his nerves on edge. He walks through it carefully checking the rooms but it seems like there is just something at the edge of his senses. On the second floor he pauses to use his Earth bending like Toph taught him to. It is faint but he picks up a heartbeat at the end of the hallway.
He knocks lightly on the door. "Hello?"
There a slight rustle of sound but no response. He waits a beat before easing the door open. The room is empty but he can feel the heartbeat at a faster pace.
"I'm Aang." He says to the empty room. "I'm a friend of the Firelord's." No answer.
Carefully, he makes his way to the closet and slides the door back.
Golden eyes stare up at him.
"Avatar." The all too familiar voice whispers.
She is crouched on the floor of the closet, staring up at him.
"Azula" her name feels foreign on his tongue after so many years. He steps back into a defensive stance, waiting for her attack.
The golden eyes are unwavering as they stare him down. Her lip is crimson with blood.
He relaxes his stance but doesn't step closer to her. "Are you okay?"
A small shake of her head is the only answer she gives.
He should help her even though she is someone that has done her best to hurt him as much as she could.
"I don't want to go back." She whispers to him. He can hear the edge of panic in it.
"I'm not here to take you back. You're hurt. I can help you." She weighs her options. "If you're hungry, I have food." A light shines in her eyes at the mention of food and he holds out his hand to her.
Slowly, she reaches out with her own and takes it, allowing him to gently lead her from the closet. He is unprepared for what he sees though.
Her other arm hangs at an odd angle, clearly broken and bruised, and her clothes, prison issue, are torn and bloodied. Her hand feels frail in his own so he slowly leads her down the stairs to the kitchen.
Once she is seated at the table, he retrieves the food from Appa's saddle. Before he reenters the room he peers around the door. Gone is the regal bearing she always carried herself with; she sits hunched over the table like a broken child. He reprimands himself for thinking badly of her. Everyone deserves a chance, even Azula.
She does not turn to him when he returns but stares absently at the table in front of her.
"All I have is some fruit but tomorrow I can go into the city and get something better."
She quickly grabs up an apple with her good arm and begins to eat. It must have been sometime since she has had food. He retrieves a cup and bends some water into it from the water barrel before placing it in front of her. He takes the seat opposite from her and waits.
Once most of the food is gone and the water emptied she looks up at him.
"Thank you." He realizes the whisper is actually a raspy injured voice. Azula pushes her long black hair away from her neck revealing the bruising on her throat. The imprints look to be the fingers of a man.
"I can heal your injuries." He offers cautiously. Even injured, Azula makes him nervous. The princess always had a cold, methodical way about her that left Aang feeling she was plotting the many different ways to kill him.
She narrows her eyes at him suspiciously.
"The Waterbender's are able to heal and I learned from one of the best." It feels strange referring to Katara when faced with Azula; like it is something sacred that could be tainted by this woman that has been an enemy for so long.
Azula considers his offer before nodding to him. The pain has been nearly blinding and she is ready to be done with it.
He moves closer to her and draws water from the barrel to him. It spins and glows blue in his hands. She has extensive injuries so he starts on what seems to be the worst of them. Gently he places his hands over her broken arm and focuses on mending the bone.
She lets out a hiss of pain as the bone begins to move back in place but soon the sharp ache fades. Azula lets out a small gasp as the arm straightens. The bruising and swelling have faded some. Katara could have done better but it's a start.
"See, it's not that bad." He draws more water to him as he moves to her throat. Aang tries to not consider who could have hurt Azula like this. For so long she has been a figment of his nightmares and he was utterly amazed that it was Katara that defeated her. If anything it had made him love the Water Bender more.
When he removes his hands, she clears her throat and grins when it doesn't hurt.
"Thank you, Avatar." Her voice is stronger than it was before but lacks the edge it had years before.
He can't help but return the smile. "Just call me Aang."
The bloodied lip makes him cringe but he does his best to not show emotion as he does what he can to heal her.
"There. It may be a bit sore still but it will heal faster now."
"I am grateful for your kindness, Aang." His name sounds so strange coming from her.
He gives a small laugh which draws a confused look from her. "I don't think I have ever heard you say my name."
A small smile graces her lips. "I don't think I ever have either."
"Are there more injuries?" He hates asking but he knows that from what he has seen that that won't be the end of it.
"Yes." Azula looks away from him.
Aang nods knowingly. "If they are as bad as what I seen already, then they need to be dealt with right away."
She is resistant to the idea of it but it is the logical course of action.
"It's not like I can go to another healer," She says dryly.
For a moment Aang considers pointing out where she could get top medical care but resists. He really does not feel like dodging lightening right now.
"Come on." He urges her to stand up.
"How does Azula escape from a prison that is built just for her?" Sokka's voice is laced with irritation.
Zuko grits his teeth. "I wish I knew." The situation is becoming desperate. It has been two weeks since Azula's escape and they are no closer to finding her.
"Obviously, she had help." Mai chimes in from her position on the bed. The baby rests on her chest sleeping contentedly.
They had opted to meet in her room so she could be involved without having to move. Mai had made it clear that she would be included in every step as she had not taken being kept out of the loop well at all.
"Mai's right." Katara agrees. "This isn't something she could do on her own and to even get off that island she would have needed someone else.
"We've been over this." The Firelord's frustration is threatening to boil over. "There aren't any witnesses." The entire staff of the prison had been killed, leaving him uncertain where to start. "By now, Azula could have an army marching towards us."
It had become a common theme over the last several years that rebellion after rebellion had started with the goal of unseating Zuko. Recently it has quieted down and he thought he was just about past that point in his reign.
"What about Aang?" Sokka asks mindful of the looks Katara throws his way, but they are running out of options.
Zuko shakes his head. "Nothing. I've sent messengers to all the Air Temples. Uncle Iroh said he was in Ba Sing Se a few weeks ago."
The room falls silent as they consider the situation.
"Well it seems we can either sit and wait or go out and have a look ourselves." Toph chimes in from her place by the window.
"I think she's right." Sokka agrees. "How about Toph and I take a look around the island and see what we find?"
"Fine." Zuko replies irritability. "If you can find something my people didn't then I would be glad to hear it." He crosses the room to his wife and leans over to kiss her softly. "I'll get things set up for them and come back later."
"I'll be here." Mai replies flippantly. "Not like I can go anywhere else." Mai and the baby have been restricted to her suite which aggravates her to no end as Zuko is concerned about their safety.
He smiles at the bitter edge in her voice as he moves out the doors.
In all his years Aang never thought he would be sitting on the edge of a bed in which Azula is laying naked. Her back is bare to him with the sheet at her waist.
Slowly he moves his hands over the skin healing the bruises and cuts that mar its surface. He can see her clenching the sheet in her hand from the pain but she doesn't make a noise.
When he removes his hands from her back, the skin is pink and mending.
"How's that feel?"
"Much better." She replies in a quiet voice.
He pauses. "I know there's more."
Azula opens her eyes to look up at him. "It's okay. The worst of it is healed." She gives him a small smile to reassure him.
He knows better.
"Azula, you didn't get these injuries escaping prison. What happened?" The series of fresh wounds over older ones were intentionally inflicted over a period of time by someone trained in the art of torture. It's an all too familiar sight.
She pulls the sheet up to cover her back. "I really don't want to talk about it, Avatar." There is a note of dismissal in the use of his title in her voice as she turns her head away from him.
Part of him wants to argue but he also isn't quite sure he wants the whole story yet. "Okay," he says simply. "If you need anything, I'll be across the hall." He can't shake the feeling that something is just off about her but he can't make her talk. He has to wait her out.
When she doesn't reply, he leaves the room softly closing the door behind him.
He retreats to the room he stayed in before. The large balcony was perfect for his morning meditation sessions. He settles on the familiar bed and stares up at the ceiling. When he came up with the idea to hide at Zuko's house on Ember Island, he never expected that he would have company and never would have dreamed it would be his archenemy of all people.
The easy thing to do would be to take her back to Zuko and let him deal with her but there is something about the situation that doesn't feel right. Azula seems broken and part of him wants to try to fix her. He hopes it isn't the last in a long line of mistakes he has already made over this lifetime.
While Azula may have mellowed over the years, there are times she has the same predatory air about her that puts him on edge
Author's Note: This was actually my first Avatar fanfiction story. I got distracted one day and churned out 'Of Gods and Men' instead. If you feel that either Aang or Azula are out of character, then I urge you to keep reading and hopefully it will make sense to you and seem rather organic in how it came about.