I've been working on this one for a bit.
In the end, Zuko is merciful.
Azula smirks at the pronouncement of her release. The so-called healers don't agree but the Fire Lord must be obeyed. She's not completely free though. There are of course restrictions placed upon her but it's a start.
Stepping foot on palace grounds brings with it a sense of tension. The guards eye her warily and the people keep their distance. It's just as well really because Azula has scores to settle with several of them when the time is right. For now, she ignores them and is escorted to the near-empty throne room.
The orange flames are reminiscent of Ozai and Azulon. The room looked better in blue.
Zuko sits on his throne staring down at her. The familiar scowl graces his face.
"Fire Lord Zuko." She greets as she kneels. Her trademark smirk graces her own face and, if possible, his scowl deepens.
"Welcome back, Azula." He says through clenched teeth and it makes her wonder just why he was so lenient.
"Is this the part where I swear my allegiance to you?" She's mocking him.
He doesn't rise to her challenge. "Later we will speak but for now you are to remain in your rooms."
She bows her head as her smile widens. "As the Fire Lord commands."
Azula takes her leave knowing his golden eyes watch her every step out.
As she is escorted through the halls of the palace, various familiar faces turn to look at her. Some gape at her, others look away. The few that smile in greeting are what draw her attention the most. Azula sees potential around every corner.
Her rooms are just as they were years before. Once the door shuts and she is all alone, she walks to her dresser and looks at the things she possessed in her youth. Many of the clothes will no longer fit as she is not the skinny 15 year old prodigy anymore but a woman with curves. In her head she makes a list of what she will need and she wonders just how generous Zuko is prepared to be. A princess must be properly attired, especially at court.
The hour is late when the summons arrives but Azula has been waiting for it. Zuko looks like the weight of the Fire Nation is bearing down upon him and a part of her nearly feels sympathy for her brother. The rest of her finds it vastly amusing.
Dinner is laid out and it is just the two of them in his private dining room.
He barely acknowledges her but she can play the silence game better than he can.
"The healers tell me you are making excellent progress." He folds his hands in front of him, trying to appear regal.
She daintily dabs at her lips with her napkin before turning her attention to him. "The healers are lying to you."
He raises an eyebrow. "So you're still insane?"
Azula smirks. "Still insane would imply I was once insane which is simply not true."
Zuko leans back in chair and looks at her carefully. "You could have fooled me."
"Oh Zuzu, I did fool you and that Water Tribe wench of yours but I assure you that I am perfectly sane and always have been." Her eyes glitter in the low light of the dining room.
Zuko sighs. "Azula always lies." He picks up his glass of wine and downs it in one gulp.
Azula raises her own glass. "Not always, dear brother, just most of the time." She empties her glass the same way.
He leans forward to refill both of their glasses. "Reassuring."
A clink of their glasses and they both down their drinks. "Really, I never lied when it wasn't necessary."
She refills their glasses again. Another clink and they polish off another.
"Was it ever not necessary?" Zuko pins her with a stare.
Azula pretends to think about it. "The night I told you Father was going to kill you. I wasn't lying then."
Zuko laughs bitterly and refills their glasses again. "I can always trust you to look out for me can't I, little sister?"
"You could say that." Azula looks down at her glass as she swirls the red wine around. "Think of it as I was only following the Fire Lord's orders. It wasn't personal."
He laughs louder. "It wasn't personal?"
She takes a sip. "Of course not. Why would I hate my own brother?" Informing Zuko of Azulon's plans had a delicious edge to it and even now she smirks at the spark of fear that was in his eyes that night.
A warm feeling comes over her. After not having had much beyond water during her imprisonment, the wine is hitting hard.
It's hitting Zuko too. "Was there anyone you actually did like in your life?" His voice is hushed in the large dining room.
Azula frowns and looks away. "No, I can't say there was."
"Fair enough," Zuko says as he stands.
She looks at him expectantly as he picks up his glass and the decanter. He nods towards the outside doors.
"Are we going somewhere?" She rises and follows him into the courtyard.
"Ears are everywhere." His voice drops low as he moves closer to her.
His golden eyes glow in the night light as does hers. It's a special Fire Bender trick to see better in the dark. Azula can make out the sharp edges of the shrubbery and trees around them.
They make their way albeit slowly to the turtle-duck pond. The Fire Lord sits and she feels compelled to follow. He has the wine after all. She finishes off her glass and holds it out for another.
"Are you sure?" He eyes her curiously. "You're not walking too steady, Zula."
She hums. "I'm not walking at all, ZuZu."
The Fire Lord shrugs and pours her another.
Azula drinks this one slower as she carefully looks him over. Zuko must really be stressed as he never imbibes like this. At least not from what she remembers. It may not be wise for the Fire Lord to get drunk but she's rather sure he could still easily defend himself. A drunken Zuzu may be fun to spar with.
"You didn't get me out of prison to get me inebriated and look at turtle-ducks. What's going on?" Her words are not slurring together; her tongue just won't cooperate.
Zuko sighs. "I'm in over my head." He announces like it's a surprise.
"And?" She's bored already.
"And," He says more forcefully, "It's not as easy as I thought it would be. There have been five assassination attempts on me. FIVE!"
Azula rolls her eyes. "You're the Fire Lord. Of course there will be assassination attempts. Did you not pay attention when Father was on the throne? Or Azulon?"
She laughs at the last. According to history, Azulon died in his sleep. Fire Lord's do not die in their sleep, at least not without help.
Zuko leans back on one hand. "No, I must have missed that." He's working hard to keep his eyes open.
She pours herself another glass. "I personally thwarted twelve attempts on Ozai and countless ones on myself."
"People tried to kill you?" Zuko stares at her in that way he does when he isn't sure if she is being honest or not.
"What? You don't think I'm worth assassinating?" She gives him a look of mock offense. "The prison was perhaps the one time I didn't have to be concerned about it."
"The asylum is high security." He says dryly. "But I can't say the same. I've taken to sleeping in one of the towers because of it."
Azula laughs harder than she feels like she should. "I think I'm drunk."
Zuko sighs a heavy, sad sound. "Me too."
She pushes herself up to stand on wobbly legs. "What would Father say to see us like this?"
He stares at the offered hand before taking it and letting her pull him up. "He would tell us what disappointments we are for losing control like this and how we are miserable failures." Zuko leans heavily against the tree.
Azula stands with her hands on her hips and stares at him. "We are, Zuko."
For a moment he looks like he will argue but he relents and nods. "Yes, but I don't really mind disappointing him. Do you?"
Azula drops her hands. "I don't know anymore."
He stands and holds his hand out. She raises her eyebrows at him but he stares her down so she takes it.
"I need your help, Zula. It's driving me crazy not knowing who is after me or what is going on. You're the only one that I know who can beat them at their own game." His voice is low in her ear as they walk back inside.
She pulls him to stop. "You want me to beat them at their own game? Their game is to kill you so you want me to kill you before they do?" She can't help herself and giggles at the idea.
Zuko glowers at her. "You know what I mean."
They move inside the dining room again.
"Having me out of prison will go a long way to keep that from happening you realize." She slumps in her chair and picks at the food.
He copies her action. "How will having you out of the asylum do that?"
Smiling, she leans towards him, ignoring his correction. "I'm your only heir." She breaks into a wide grin at the idea.
Zuko smiles too and laughs. "That alone should keep them from trying anything. I can't imagine what you would do as Fire Lord."
Azula picks up her glass of wine again, suddenly serious. "The world would kneel at my feet, Zuko."
He raises his glass too. "Or die resisting?"
She clinks his glass. "I wouldn't have it any other way, dear brother."
The siblings drink well into the night.
The next morning is anything but welcoming.
She opens her eyes to an adviser standing over her looking quite concerned.
"Oh good, you're awake." The man smiles pleasantly at her.
Lifting her head, she looks around. She's lying on the couch in Zuko's room. Regretting the action she closes her eyes. "You woke me for a reason?" Her voice has the gravelly quality of having been up much too late.
"Yes, Fire Lord Zuko, requests your presence in court this morning." The man's timid voice is grating on her ears.
She opens her eyes again. "Zuzu managed to make it to court?"
The man nods eagerly, smiling at her.
Pushing herself up, she looks around. The wine decanter is empty and on its side. The glasses litter the floor and tables.
"I haven't a thing to wear to court."
The man smiles and claps his hands, drawing a glare from her. "The ladies will see to your needs, Princess."
Two women, that she doesn't recognize, approach and curtsy.
Azula stands. "Wonderful. Now I have ladies in waiting."
Pulling herself together with all the regal bearing of her youth, she focuses on putting one foot in front of the other and making it to her rooms with the ladies in tow.
Amazingly, the women are able to find her something passable for court and she enters the room to the stares and whispers of those in attendance.
On the dais, Zuko looks worse for wear but highly alert.
She kneels before him, feeling all eyes on her.
"You requested my presence, Fire Lord Zuko." Her smirk lets him know she is playing the part he gives her, for now at least.
"Princess Azula, I am glad to see you return to court." It's a stiff greeting but pompously necessary.
"I am happy to serve the Fire Lord." She replies evenly. Her eyes dance with laughter.
A brief smile flits across his face before he schools it back into the blank façade of Fire Lord.
"Princess Azula has been released and has served her time. She is returned to court with her full title and all the privileges that go with it to serve as my Right Hand." Zuko announces.
Gasps move through the crowd and some shuffle nervously.
She bows her head again. "You humble me, Fire Lord Zuko."
The curtain of flames drops in front of her and Zuko waves her to his side.
Mounting the steps of the dais, she takes her seat at his right-hand.
When the flames flare back into place, Azula looks over the nervous audience and smiles.
The hunt will be fun.