Finally, an update!
Once inside the temple, away from the prying eyes of peasants and princes, Aang's back hits the stone wall hard.
"I am not your prize!" Azula threatens in a deadly calm. The flat of her hand presses into his bare chest, chilling against the heat of his skin.
He laughs as he brushes her off with a swipe of his wrist. "I only said that to get a rise out of Zuko and it worked."
Her eyes narrow at him. "Zuko is your friend."
Aang gives her an unimpressed look. "Friend? Zuko and I have a common enemy. He's not my friend. "He pauses with a smirk. "It's not like I need him to teach me Fire Bending, now is it?"
The blatant boast visibly shocks Azula but she recovers. "You should take the time to learn it properly." She says in a chiding tone just simmering with anger.
"You forget, Azula: I've mastered fire thousands of times already and I'll master it at least a thousand more." A smile tugs at his lips as his voice drops low. "I think I can take a pass this time."
"Will you ever give it back?" She forces the tremble from her voice.
His demeanor shifts from mocking to serious and he stands tall. "So you can try to kill me again? I'd rather not. I'm starting to prefer you this way." One hand twines in a loose lock of her hair where it lies over her breasts.
The flirtatious lilt in his voice twists the knife in her heart and Azula reacts faster than he expects as her nails dig into his chest shoving him back again. Aang is quick to counter and traps her wrists turning her until she is pinned against the wall. She struggles against him even as his hands close around her forearms, digging into the delicate skin there. When he pulls up stretching her arms above her head, she instinctively rises onto her tiptoes to lessen the strain.
"That's exactly what I'm talking about." He growls at her. "You are too dangerous. I won't give you your bending back just so you can turn on me again."
His eyes are burning with a fire Azula has rarely seen outside her own bloodline and it hitches her breath.
"What about after the war? After you stop Ozai?" She whispers. "Will you give it back then?"
His anger is momentarily forgotten at hearing her words and a sort of regret takes its place. "No, I'm sorry but I can't risk it."
His answer only enrages her and her struggles renew against him. "You can't do this."
He only presses closer holding her body in place with his own. "Stop it!" Her eyes snap open at the harsh order. "The sooner you learn you can't control me the better. I won't be controlled by you, "He emphasizes his words with a flick of his eyes downward indicating her stomach, "and I won't be controlled by this."
His words stun her into silence. Her eyes are wide and watery but she refuses to let the tears fall. The strain in her arms begins to burn. "You're hurting me."
There's a flicker of something on his face.
"Avatar Aang, is something wrong?" A calm steady voice says from beside them but Azula doesn't dare break Aang's stare.
"Everything's fine, Chief Hakoda."Aang responds tersely as he releases his hold on her wrists and steps back.
The suddenness causes Azula's arms to tingle with returned blood flow and she cradles her wrists against herself, staring at the Avatar with wide eyes. The cold press of the stone behind her is almost comforting.
"I was just leaving." Aang turns away, quick angry steps taking him deeper into the ancient temple.
So intent is Azula on following his path that she doesn't notice Hakoda has stepped near until his hand is at her shoulder. "Azula, are you okay?"
She tears her eyes away from the broken blue lines and meets the deep ocean of Hakoda's stare. Fatherly concern swims in them and something about it makes her lashes wet with tears.
Understanding creases his brow and he gently takes her hand pulling her in the opposite direction, away from the shadows of the Air Temple. "A good cup of tea then."
Azula nods in agreement and ignores the way Hakoda eyes the dark tunnel behind them as he guides her towards the sun.
Azula cradles the steaming cup of tea in her hands as if savoring the heat. Hakoda waits for her to speak.
"I miscalculated." She says at last.
"Miscalculated?" He parrots in surprise.
Sharply she glances up. The look on his face is a familiar one. It's one Zuko often wears. Hakoda wants to talk about the Avatar but Aang is the last thing she wants to discuss. Looking back down at the steaming cup of tea in her hands, she lets the edge of her thumb trace the engraved design.
"I cost us Ba Sing Se. I cost us the war." The last comes out with a slow exhale of breath.
Saying it was a miscalculation downplays the severity of the situation but Azula hasn't any energy to spare for it right now. All their careful plans were laid to waste when she let her anger get the better of her and she lashed out at both the Avatar and the Fire Lord. If she had only had the presence of mind to take Ozai down instead…
"Azula," Hakoda begins haltingly as his eyes fall on the faint marks on her wrists. "Are you being treated well?"
He knows it is a loaded question. Even without his prior knowledge of the relationship, he is not blind to the undercurrent between them. The display in the hall has caused concern.
Azula regards him with a tilt of her head and a voice heavy with regret. "He's angry at me but he's not Ozai."
"Azula," Hakoda begins.
"We need him, Hakoda." Azula cuts him off. "The Avatar must defeat the Fire Lord. He must end the war."
Hakoda blinks at her words. "Do you think he can?"
Her penetrating eyes hold his for a moment before she glances away. "Yes."
The question before had been Aang's willingness to deal the final blow, to kill the Fire Lord. Given the way he has been acting recently, there is little doubt that he would end the war once and for all.
"If he doesn't.."
Azula's interjection is pure ice. "He will." Her face softens. "He has to. There is too much at stake for him not to."
Her words ring with an unfortunate truth and Hakoda is forced to concede with a nod.
"I all but handed Ozai Ba Sing Se." She skillfully redirects the focus away from her stilted relationship.
Hakoda sees it so he doesn't press the issue but takes the opening as something about the way she says it draws another question to mind.
"Why?" It's been the question on the tip of everyone's tongue since the fall of the Earth Kingdom's greatest city. Why did Azula attack her own father?
Azula looks down at the cup in her hand. The liquid in the cup vibrates with the beat of her heart. "Not all fathers are like you, Hakoda. Some men don't deserve to be called father."
The aversion in her gaze and the implication in her words, strikes at something inside of him. Gently Hakoda reaches out laying gentle fingers on her wrist.
Patiently he waits her out, until she looks up meeting his gaze at last.
The meditation chamber in the center of the temple is quiet and Aang welcomes the silence. He forces his eyes close and wills the anger to fade.
"She forgets her place."
Aang ignores the too familiar voice.
"She may be a princess but you are the Avatar."
Aang breathes deeper, focusing his energy.
"Really, did I not teach you better than this? Let go of attachments and here you are weighed down with a psychotic brat and your supposed offspring."
This does get a reaction. His eyes snap open and he glares into the wrinkled face of his mentor. "You aren't real."
Gyatso smirks. "Of course I am, Aang. The spirit world is lonely. I wanted to see my favorite student." Aang silently curses himself for engaging with the specter. He has done his best to ignore it for days but the ghost is wearing on him more and more. "You are like a son to me but I am terribly disappointed in you. The choices you make are…unsettling."
Aang rubs a hand across his forehead where the beginnings of a headache throb. "What are you really?"
Gyatso laughs. "I'm whatever I need to be. Some call me a guide. Sometimes the voice of reason. For you, I could be your conscience. I am here to help."
Aang glares at the phantom. "You are anything but helpful."
Gyatso smiles again. "For an Air Bender you are rather cynical. I thought we bred that out of your lot ages ago. "The ghost tilts his head in thought. "I guess we have to start over that little experiment again." Aang doesn't rise to the mention of genocide. "Do you really think it's your child she carries? Azula is not exactly known for her loyalty."
"Not real." He breathes out between clenched teeth. Somehow the spirit is drawing on his emotions and breaking down some of the walls of control around them. It is making him more volatile and the feeling is unpleasant.
Another laugh. "Of course I am. You are the bridge to the spirit world. You of all people can't say spirits aren't real." Gyatso leans closer. "Eventually you will realize I am just trying to help you."
Zuko isn't brooding. At least that is what the Prince insists. Iroh disagrees but is wise enough to not voice his opinion. Toph has no such qualms.
"Suck it up, Sparky. You're killing the tea party!" She emphasizes with a lift of her cup. Iroh hides a smirk behind his own cup. The young Earth Bender is a refreshing contrast to his sullen nephew. Beside him Katara sighs as she cups her own drink in her hands. The gentle swirl of the water shows her confusion strongly. "Next time you two aren't invited." Toph declares playfully.
A soft knock at the door cuts off Zuko's retort. "General Iroh?"
Toph nods her head and the metal latch opens and the door pulls open.
A surprised Hakoda steps in looking first at the door then at the small group gathered on the floor of Iroh's room.
"Chief Hakoda, would you like to join us for a cup of tea?" Iroh greets him cheerfully.
Hakoda smiles in thanks but shakes his head. "No, thank you but I was hoping we could speak." He eyes the others. "In private."
Iroh has been expecting this and gives a gentle nod. "Of course, I am sure the young ones don't mind leaving us old men to our chats."
Toph shrugs and tosses back what remains of her tea. "Sure thing, Gramps. I got some rocks left upturned anyway." Bouncing to her feet, she leaps across the table landing beside Katara. "Come on, Sweetness. We can chuck rocks at Snoozles." The small hand closes around the Water Tribe girl's wrist and she is pulled up.
Zuko ignores Katara's protesting words as she is dragged from the room and the door closes behind them. Instead, he fixes Hakoda with his steady gaze. "If it's about Azula, I would rather stay."
Hakoda knew the Prince would be stubborn and perhaps he has a right to be. "I have just spoken with her and I am concerned." Iroh thoughtfully takes another sip of his tea. Zuko has already filled him in on the incident with the Avatar in the courtyard. "We must come up with a plan to defeat the Fire Lord and do it quickly."
Iroh nods in agreement but doesn't speak.
Zuko snaps. "We know that."
Iroh raises an eyebrow at this and warns "Nephew."
Ignoring the warning, Zuko opens his mouth again but Hakoda cuts him off. "If we don't, I fear what will happen to Azula."
Zuko's eyes widen. "What do you mean?"
The expression of Hakoda's face is pained. "What sort of father is Ozai?"
The question takes both men off guard. Iroh frowns at the hidden meaning of Hakoda's question while Zuko gapes in shock.
The young Fire Bender recovers first, hand jerking to his face."What sort of father do you think he is?"
Hakoda's quiet stare takes in the scarred flesh. The horrors the Fire Lord commits upon his own flesh is chilling. It would seem Azula isn't safe from either side. "Ozai cannot get his hands on Azula again and she isn't exactly safe with the Avatar either."
The two Fire Benders contemplate this. Iroh had suspected Ozai would not spare his favorite child for long and the Avatar's unsettling change of behavior has sparked concern as well.
They can stay a step ahead of the Fire Nation for now but they can't run forever. The concern is more immediate.
"Even if," Zuko starts but hesitates with a scowl. "Even if we could get Azula away from here, do you really think Aang would let her go?"
Zuko knows it is more than that. Azula wouldn't want to go. Despite the imbalance in their relationship, Azula is not one to give up on power that easy and power is all Aang radiates these days. She will be patient and wait for the right time to work her leverage but Aang is becoming increasingly volatile.
"Something's wrong with the Avatar." Hakoda says carefully. He feels bad for speaking ill of another but his concern outweighs his sense of propriety. "I don't feel Azula is safe with him any longer."
He doesn't want to talk about what he seen in the temple hall but he has a feeling that Zuko has seen enough for both of them.
"She won't go." Zuko says solemnly. "She thinks she can control him."
"One can only be controlled if he allows it." Iroh weighs in wisely. "Control is an illusion."
They need Aang. They need the Avatar to stop the Fire Lord and restore balance.
"We do what we can. Make our plan to defeat Ozai and end the war then perhaps we can help Azula." Hakoda states. "The sooner the better."
The other two men nod in agreement but have little more to offer. Zuko's anger burns while Iroh simply is. It is an interesting contrast, Hakoda notes. Fire has so many different facets and not all Fire Benders are what he once thought them to be.
The morning dawns crisp and fresh. Aang focuses on deep even breaths, striving to find that harmony inside. It is elusive as it has been for some time.
"I slept alone last night." Azula's voice slices through the silence of the small meditation courtyard. "I don't like sleeping alone."
Drawing another deep breath, he wills his eyes to stay closed. "I thought it best to leave you alone and let you rest."
He hears her light footsteps stop beside him. The skirt of her robe brushing across his arm. "I don't sleep well alone."
He frowns at this. "I just keep you up at night."
Aang knows he has been demanding of her time and attention. It was beginning to wear thin on her in her condition.
"I don't like sleeping alone." She repeats firmly.
Giving up the pretense of meditating, he stands and opens his eyes, carefully keeping it on the rising sun and not on the woman next to him.
"I'm sorry about what I said yesterday. I don't consider you payment for what the Fire Nation did." He had felt guilty about his high handedness with both Zuko and Azula.
Her laugh surprises him. "It wasn't unheard of to give a daughter to an enemy as a sort of reparation and for what happened to your people even a princess wouldn't be enough."
"That doesn't make it right." He snaps at her in irritation.
Her smile falls. "No, I suppose not. Payment, reparation. We both know what I really am. I'm your duty, your responsibility."
She must just be saying this to try to get to him, like some sort of revenge, unless she really thinks that is how he sees her.
"You aren't that either." He denies quietly but hesitates to reveal more.
Azula lets it drop and instead focuses on the orange burn of the sun casting pinks and reds over the sky. This is a powerful time for Fire Benders and Aang can feel the heat rushing through his veins. Once he discovered his Fire bending, he didn't know how he could ever have done without it. It must be doubly worse for Azula who has only ever known it and now she is bereft of it. He watches her carefully for any crack in her calm mask. There is nothing, not even a hint of sadness in her eyes; only contentment and peace.
His eyes drop to the straining red leather over the swell of stomach. Slowly as if wary of startling her he reaches over and places his hand over it. Her eyes flicker to him in question but she stays silent.
"How long had your mother's ghost been with you?"
From the corner of his eye he sees her turn towards him, a question on her lips, but she stops herself. "Long enough. I know it wasn't really her though. At first maybe I thought it was, but it turned hateful and spiteful. Ursa was never like that."
That is just about what he expected her to say. "Some spirits are angry and want to cause chaos. They latch onto people who have powerful chis and feed off of the energy."
Azula nods, having already considered this. "I haven't seen her since you took my bending. That was at least something good about it." She bites her tongue at the other things she would say about his actions involving said bending. A thought occurs to her though. "Are you seeing something?"
"Yes." He doesn't bother to deny it. He casts a sideways glance at the weathered face of Gyatso smiling in mockery at him.
He feels her warm hand covers his where it lies across her stomach and she turns towards him. "Who are you seeing?"
He shakes his head. Overall, it isn't important what visage the spirit takes.
"You shouldn't be alone, especially not with me right now." He sighs. "Zuko or Toph should be with you wherever you go."
Azula chokes on a laugh. "Yes, I am sure they will just be delighted to babysit." Zuko may not mind but the Earth Bender is bound to give Azula a headache and more. "I'm not afraid of you." She adds.
Gyatso snickers at this and Aang throws a glare the spirits way. Silently he reprimands himself for acknowledging the specter in any way. The more he does, the more power it gains.
"We saw what it drove you to, Azula. You nearly killed me and your father."
Azula makes a small noise in the back of her throat. It sounds suspiciously like a growl. "Focus on the positives; I did kill Long Feng."
Aang turns to look at her more fully. "I don't want to hurt anyone, especially you."
She glances his way before looking back towards the rising sun. "You took away the most precious thing to me. How much more hurt do you think I could be?"
He doesn't answer.
A/N: I hate not updating more often but this fic requires a more delicate touch and I aim for a more lyrical prose with it. This chapter is shorter than I would have liked but I knew there was impatience brewing.