Title: Mandate of Heaven (2b/3)
(Book 1) (Book 2a) (Book 2b) (Book 3a) (Book 3b)
The trip to Ba Sing Se wouldn't take long. A few days at most. And while it was pressing that they get there soon, they didn't have to get there before Azula had her chance to go on a field trip of her own.
Ever since seeing the Northern Air Temple, Azula had been intrigued by the idea that the airbenders had had universal or near-universal bending. No other nation came close. Azula didn't have the data close on hand, obviously, but she remembered that far less than half of the fire nation citizens were benders. Among the nobility the percentage was higher- the royal family had not produced a nonbender in five generations, and even the lesser nobles usually managed to produce mostly benders, Mai and Ty Lee being notable exceptions- but the percentage was far less than 100%.
Azula had considered alternatives to her theory. But the sticking point was that all the Air Nomads had lived in the temples, when they weren't wandering the world. They had to be all benders, or they wouldn't be able to live there. The temple she'd seen just hadn't been set up for nonbenders. No railings, no easy walkways, and if you fell- well, a nonbender wouldn't survive, that was certain.
But perhaps that temple had been a temple for the elite. Perhaps the monks who lived there had been selected precisely because they were benders. If Azula saw another temple, she could see if their bending had truly been universal, or if the northern temple was an anomaly.
She'd asked Aang some small questions, when they were at the Northern Water Tribe, but more pressing matters had always interfered. There was the sexism that had prevented Katara from learning bending, and the drama that had resulted from Azula and Ty Lee's relationship, and then the attack on the Northern Water Tribe by Zhao, and when none of that had been going on, Aang had always been tired from training.
And then it had been too long since the Northern Air Temple, and Azula was sure it would look suspicious if she started asking questions. At least, Azula would have been suspicious, if someone had started asking her questions.
Azula was always suspicious.
In any case, she wanted to see another air temple. And it just so happened that the Eastern Air Temple wasn't too far out of their way.
"You want to see an air temple," Sokka repeated, when Azula told them her idea for a field trip.
"Yes," Azula said. And then, pulling out a really good lie, she added: "I need to see with my own eyes what my people have done."
Aang nodded at her respectfully. "It's on the way," he pointed out to the others.
It took the better part of a day to get there, but Azula was patient. It was on the way, after all; she would have had to wait this long no matter what.
When they finally got there, Azula was intrigued. There were many similarities to the Northern Air Temple- there were distinctly fewer railings than Azula would have expected, for one thing, especially on the steep winding paths that led up to the temple- but the differences were also intriguing. Once they had landed, it was clear that some of the areas did have some short railings, but there were large areas that offered no protection to nonbenders at all.
"What were the railings for?" Azula asked. "In school, we learned that all the air nomads were benders. Why would you need protection against a fall if you could bend air?"
"For the little kids," Aang said, not correcting her guess. Good. She'd guessed right, then. "There were lots of kids at the Eastern temple."
He frowned. Azula could see why. Killing children- where was the honor in that? But then, any of those children could have been the Avatar. From a tactical perspective, it made sense.
Azula didn't voice that fact. It would do far more harm than good.
"Why did the Air Nomads have so many benders?" Azula asked, trying to sound innocent- but not too innocent. "No other nation has more than a third benders."
Aang looked confused. "Because we were the most spiritual," he said, as thought it should have been obvious.
Azula frowned. That didn't make any sense. If spirituality were a prerequiset for bending, the royal family would produce nothing but nonbenders. The only reasonably spiritual one among them was Uncle, who had been trying to go on a journey to the spirit world when he'd been interrupted by his new duties as Fire Lord. Zuko might be a little spiritual these days, too, if Uncle had been getting to him even more than usual. But the other Fire Lords, before him? They had tried to find and kill the Avatar. Great-grandfather Sozin had succeeded in killing the last Avatar. You didn't get much less spiritual than that.
They finally touched down on a wide balcony, obviously intended for sky bison.
Waiting there calmly was a tanned old man, meditating peacefully. As the group got off of Appa and approached him, he opened his eyes. "Avatar Aang," he said. "I've been waiting for you." Then he seemed to take in the whole group. "And I see you brought friends," he said.
None of them bothered bowing.
"Who are you?" Aang asked.
"I am Guru Pathik," the man said. "A spiritual brother of your people. I had a vision of you coming here. I have been waiting a long time for your arrival."
"You have?" Aang asked. "Why?"
"I am here to teach you to master the Avatar State," the guru said.
Not this again, Azula thought.
"Er," Aang said. "Last time someone tried to do that, it didn't work out so well."
"You've tried to master the Avatar state before?" the guru asked. "How?"
"Well," Aang said, "We met up with this crazy general, and he threatened Katara, and-"
"That," the guru said, "is not mastering the Avatar state. It is merely giving in to your emotions."
Aang looked puzzled. Azula, on the other hand, understood. This wasn't about triggering the Avatar state- it was about controlling it.
This guru was far more dangerous to her plans than General Fong.
Still- she remembered her destiny. This would not interfere, any more than General Fong's ambitions to end the war early had interfered. All Azula had to do was figure out, once again, how destiny intended her to succeed.
Aang and the guru went off to meditate. Azula and the others were left to wonder when they would make it to Ba Sing Se.
"Do you think Aang can do it?" Sokka asked, doubtfully.
"Not a chance," Toph said. "I've barely started teaching him earthbending."
"His firebending isn't so hot either," Sokka said, and then looked far too pleased with himself for the joke.
Azula nodded. Maybe she wouldn't have to interfere at all. Maybe Aang wouldn't be able to master the Avatar state.
Azula didn't like maybes.
Still, her optimism paid off. Aang came back looking utterly dejected. Azula had to hold her face impassive. It wouldn't do to smile at his failure. The others couldn't know that she was counting on his failure. It would reflect poorly on her.
"I couldn't do it," Aang said, as though his face didn't already tell the whole story.
"It doesn't matter," Azula said. "We have a plan. You'll master the Avatar State on your own time."
His own time, Azula hoped, would be slow enough that Azula could establish herself as the best candidate for Fire Lord. The time to tell them her true identity was coming soon, she thought. She just had to wait for the right moment.
Katara and Sokka nodded in agreement with Azula. Toph just blew her bangs out of her face and shrugged. Ty Lee, oblivious to the mood of the moment, said: "Why not? Was it hard?"
Aang looked deeply uncomfortable. "Yeah," he said. "It was just- something I couldn't do."
Katara hugged Aang. "It's okay. Like Azula said, you have to do things at your own pace. Once you've mastered the four elements, I'm sure the Avatar State will come more easily."
"He wanted me to give up you," Aang said abruptly. "I couldn't do it, Katara."
Ah. Well, Azula had seen that romance coming a million miles away.
"I don't see why you'd have to give up Katara," Azula said sweetly. "I mean, Avatars are allowed romance."
Katara blushed even more deeply. Aang turned pink, too. Oh, this was comedy gold. Azula would be enjoying their incompetent relationship for weeks.
"I don't understand, either," Aang said, when he'd regained his composure a bit. "Maybe I should talk to Roku. He might understand."
"I wouldn't give up Ty Lee no matter what. Even if by giving it up I became... Fire Lord," Azula said. Best to plant a seed now. "Even if it ended this war right now. People need a little romance. It keeps you connected to the world. And as the Avatar, you need that connection more than most people. After all, Katara is the one who can bring you out of the Avatar State."
Every word of that little speech was true. It might be a record, for Azula.
Aang looked troubled. "The monks always told me that to master my bending, I needed to be detached from the world."
"Maybe the monks were wrong," Azula said.
This seemed to trouble Aang even more. "I need to think about this," he said.
They got back on Appa, and rode towards Ba Sing Se, all utterly silent.
It was going to be a long ride.
If Azula had still been working for the Fire Nation, she could have taken Ba Sing Se in a day.
She was still tempted. Bring back the Avatar, and bring the city Uncle could never conquer to its knees? If Uncle had a modicum of sense, he'd make her the heir right then and there.
She didn't trust that Uncle had a modicum of sense. She could bring the entire Earth Kingdom down, and he still wouldn't make her the heir. She could bring the entire universe under Fire Nation control, and it wouldn't make one whit of difference. Because Zuko was Uncle's favorite, and Azula never would be.
So, with a sigh, she went about trying to restructure the government.
"Your Dai Li aren't loyal to you," she explained to the Earth King for the twelfth time. "They're loyal to Long Feng. If you want to make sure your city is safe, you need to weed out the bad ones and banish them before they have a chance to turn on you. Otherwise, your city could be taken out from under you."
The Earth King sort of blinked at her. "That seems so far-fetched. The Dai Li are sworn to me. They would never betray me."
"They may be sworn to you," Azula said, "but they aren't loyal to you. Most of them have never even met you. If Long Feng were to escape, they would support him."
But no matter how she pressed, he wouldn't admit that there was even a problem.
Sometimes, the obvious, "moral" method didn't work. But Azula wasn't dumb, and she knew of several herbs that, individually, were completely harmless. She had, after all, grown up in the Fire Nation court, and she kept her ears open.
Just as importantly, she knew how to shake the Dai Li agent that was following her around the city, and how to seem like an inconspicuous Earth Kingdom peasant buying herbs for health reasons.
Long Feng could have died in his sleep that night, of apparent heart failure. But the herbs stayed at the bottom of Azula pack. She couldn't quite bring herself to use them.
It was stupid. It wasn't like she hadn't killed people before. Those three soldiers during the battle of the Northern Air Temple. Zhao. Now, some of those were by necessity, and one was sort of an accident. But she'd still done it, and Azula wasn't some fool who tried to pretend her motivations mattered more than her actions.
But there was still something in her that balked at outright murder, outside a battle. Maybe it was the part of her that remembered when her father had been murdered. He'd died during the night, too.
She thought: If Long Feng turns against us, I will kill him. But not until then.
Of course, things never went that smoothly, because it wasn't like traitors gave warning before they attempted a coup. They killed the generals in their sleep, and they would have killed Azula too, if Ty Lee hadn't been such a light sleeper. They hadn't expected her, in Azula's room.
The two of them took out three Dai Li before they went to warn the others.
Azula was pretty sure she'd killed one of them, though she wasn't willing to think about that yet. She couldn't afford regret just now. She couldn't afford to think about the number of deaths on her hands steadily rising.
It would be worth it when she was Fire Lord. It had to be.
Toph had taken care of the agents that tried to capture her with relative ease. By the time Azula got to her rooms, she was dusting her clothes off and walking off to check on Aang.
Aang wasn't there.
And Katara had been taken, too. Sokka had hit the Dai Li who'd come for him over the head with his boomerang, but he was injured. His right arm had been broken. Ty Lee, who had seen a number of injuries in the circus, was able to splint his arm with strips of ripped sheet and the leg of the delicate chair in Sokka's room, and Azula was sure that Katara would be able to heal it once they found her, but it meant that Sokka was less useful until they did.
Worst of all, Appa was gone. Which meant that they had three rescues to attend to, and where the hell had the Dai Li taken them?
Azula had never met Jet before, but she knew a fellow liar when she saw one. He was a smooth one, but not really on the same level as her. No one was, since Father had died.
"You haven't seen Appa," she said. "This is all too convenient."
Toph said: "He isn't lying."
"Come again?" Azula said.
"There are physical changes that occur when someone lies," Toph said. "I can feel them with my earthbending."
For a brief moment, Azula's heart felt like it was dropping to the bottom of her stomach. That... was something she hadn't anticipated.
Her worry was intensified when Toph turned blind eyes in her direction, staring just past Azula's shoulder, as though to say: I know you. And then Azula realized that was silly. If Toph had noticed all of Azula's lies, she would have called all of them out long ago. Toph wasn't one to let secrets fester.
Azula was just that good of a liar.
And even if Toph did notice- that wasn't a problem. The lies Azula had told were temporary. She was going to reveal them, anyway, at a more convenient date. She had to let them know that she was the princess. She had to plant the idea that she was a good ruler. She had to set herself up as the best alternative to Uncle.
No. There was no problem.
Except, of course, that Jet was still there.
"So if he isn't lying," Azula said, still doubtful of Toph's abilities, "then he has seen Appa. And we should follow him."
"Well," Sokka said, "lead the way. But don't think that we trust you."
"I know I don't deserve your trust," Jet said, "but I'm really trying to earn it back. I've done some horrible things. But I've made a clean start here. It's just me, Smellerbee, and Longshot, and we've been working hard to make a living here."
Sokka still looked suspicious.
"Whatever our differences," Ty Lee said, "we know he's telling the truth now, right? So we'll just trust him exactly as much as Toph says to. No problem!"
Sokka nodded grudgingly. "I guess you're right."
So they followed Jet as he walked to the location he remembered.
"I've been spying on the Dai Li," he said, conversationally. "They're pretty sneaky, but they weren't expecting me to be following them."
He leaned towards Ty Lee with a grin, obviously intending to impress her.
Ty Lee shot Azula a quick glance, and Azula gave a barely perceptible nod. Ty Lee's flirting would come in handy here, especially because Jet was obviously interested to start with.
Ty Lee leaned in. "You must be so sneaky! Much better than those Dai Li!"
The place Appa had apparently been taken was a lake called Laogai, and it looked pleasant enough. But Toph bent down and felt the ground with her hand, and said "There's a secret base under here."
Well, clearly Toph's earthbending was as useful as it was potentially dangerous. Azula would have to keep an eye on her, but she was a useful addition to the group beyond her teaching skills.
Underneath the lake, there was a whole facility that Azula hadn't expected. There were Joo Dees being trained, and brainwashing going on left and right.
It was enough to make Azula think that the Fire Nation's war against the Earth Kingdom was just. Except that of course Ba Sing Se was just part of the Earth Kingdom, not the whole thing. But still- to abuse one's one subjects... there was no honor in that. It was as nearly as dishonorable as the Fire Nation's killing of the Air Nomad children.
So far, it seemed as though the only nation that Azula hadn't learned something despicable about was the Air Nomads. And she suspected that the only reason for that was that they were all dead. It was difficult to dig up dirt on people when they were a hundred years gone.
It was about what Azula had suspected. She'd always thought that most people were basically selfish and uninterested in others' well being, when you got right down to it. After all, she was. But she'd also expected them to hide it better.
Most people were stupid. They didn't realize that pretending to be nice was the best way to manipulate others. The Earth Kingdom was impressive only in that they had gotten so far without being stopped.
Appa wasn't hard to find. The Dai Li weren't expecting their group to arrive so quickly, and there were only a few places large enough to hide an air bison. And once they had a 2-ton bison at their side again, it wasn't hard to beat back the rest of the Dai Li.
Katara was nearby, in a jail cell. They freed her, found her a bit of water, and she immediately healed Sokka.
That still left Aang. And unfortunately, there was only one place that they hadn't checked yet.
The brainwashing rooms.
Azula and Sokka glanced at each other, apparently having reached that conclusion at the same time. But neither of them said anything. It would just upset Katara.
They made their way back to the brainwashing rooms carefully, checking each one as they went along. Of course, this plan backfired almost immediately, as they were spotted by a Dai Lee brainwasher.
"Hey!" he said. "The waterbender is escaping!"
Dai Li from all down the hallway rushed out. Azula noted the few rooms where they didn't. One of those was bound to hold Aang.
The next few moments were a blur of fighting. Azula wasn't gentle with them. Ty Lee could afford to poke at the Dai Li and take away their bending. Azula was more deadly. She had to be. She'd never trained for anything less.
She was starting to regret that, a little. Couldn't she have had one plan, back when she'd done the bulk of her training, where she'd captured the Avatar instead of just killing him?
In any case, she burned several of the Dai Li agents badly enough that they didn't get back up. The ones down here were relatively skilled, but they weren't the combat elite. They were the ones with other skills. Like brainwashing.
It took a good twenty minutes to beat off all the attackers. Azula noticed that Katara wasn't being exactly gentle, either. Some of the injuries left by her water whip were going to leave scars.
Once they were alone again, they searched the remaining rooms. In the last one, they found Aang. He seemed slightly dazed, but Azula was pretty sure they'd gotten to him in time. Surely it took more than a couple of hours to brainwash someone.
"Did they hurt you?" Katara asked, untying his hands from their bindings behind his back.
"I'm fine," he said, shaking his head slightly. "My head kind of hurts, but I'm okay."
"Good," Katara said.
Azula nodded. It wouldn't do for the Avatar to be under Earth Kingdom control. Not when she needed him as much under her own control as possible.
"Let's get out of here," Aang said. "This place is creepy."
As they walked with Appa and the group to the surface again, Azula asked, "What were they trying to brainwash you to believe, anyway?"
Aang frowned. "They kept saying that there was no war here. It was really weird. I mean, where do they think the refugees come from?"
Azula's remaining concerns about Aang's mental health were assuaged. If he could still question the Dai Li's line of questioning, then he wasn't brainwashed.
Their luck was unbelievable. They were escaping with a minimum of fuss. They had encountered slight resistance, it was true, but they had overcome with without much trouble.
Azula was deeply suspicious of the whole thing.
They made it nearly all the way to the exit before their luck ran out. The walls of the corridor exploded inward, blocking the way out. Azula turned, along with the rest of the group, and saw Long Feng standing with a new contingent of Dai Li.
"You thought it would be that easy to escape?" he said.
"It might have been," Azula said, with a smile that was designed to put him off-balance. It didn't work, though. Pity.
"Let's end this right here," Long Feng said. "Avatar Aang- the Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai."
Azula froze, and turned to look at Aang.
Aang's expression was confused. One of his hands rose to cradle his head.
Meanwhile, a rock glove hit Azula straight in the stomach. She was knocked out of combat, and it took her several moments to regain her breath and stand up. By that point, Toph had defeated three of the Dai Li. Long Feng still remained, and they were still outnumbered, but the odds were a bit better now.
"The Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai," Long Feng repeated to Aang.
Aang didn't even bother holding his head this time. "Why do you keep saying that?"
Long Feng just shook his head. "I see you were rescued too early. A pity. You could have been a great asset to us."
Azula shot flames at him. He blocked easily with an earth wall, but Azula maneuvered herself near Toph in the meantime.
"Can you get us an exit?" she hissed.
Toph grinned. "Sure thing, Princess Fussy. Just- distract them for a minute, okay?"
A distraction. Azula could manage that.
She bent purple flames at the Dai Li agent nearest her, who was too gobsmacked to raise a wall in defense. Purple wasn't the hottest color, but it was startling if you weren't used to it. And a flame was a flame- they all injured, even if they were relatively cool.
That was one Dai Li down, a dozen more to go.
She sent out a wild volley of fireballs next, of various colors.
This wasn't a fight, not really. She'd made a it a circus.
Toph didn't take long to come through for them. And the Dai Li, apart from Long Feng, seemed pretty terrified of Azula's fireballs. It was a simple matter to back up and escape on Appa.
"What now?" Sokka asked. "We can't go back to the city. The Dai Li will be all over the place. We can't count on the Earth King now."
"We come up with a new plan," Azula said, but she was distracted.
The city was fallen to the Dai Li, and Azula could have stopped it all if she'd just been less squeamish- if she'd killed Long Feng when she'd had the chance.
How many deaths did that add to her count? Who knew how many were dead because of the coup? The generals of the city, for certain. The guards who had tried to capture Azula and Ty Lee. There were probably dozens more that Azula wasn't even thinking of.
Azula was going to have to stop counting. She wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer. And part of her hated herself for that. It shouldn't bother her, to kill for victory. It wouldn't have bothered Father, and Azula had always been his faithful daughter in all things.
But Father had been dead for years, and it occurred to Azula that she would be a disappointment to him now in many ways. Ty Lee. Joining the Avatar. Joining the circus. Her bastard fighting style. Her inability to get Uncle to love her more than stupid Zuko.
Father hated failure. And Azula had done little but fail since he had died. The one who had succeeded was Zuko.
It wasn't Azula's fault. She'd been a child, and all the rules had abruptly shifted. It wasn't her fault that Uncle had liked Zuko better, had lavished him with attention and extra lessons and whatever he needed, while Azula had coldly refused all of it, because it came from someone she hated.
Father would not have cared whose fault it was.
Azula shook her head. Now was not the time to think of such things. She didn't need a revelation. It didn't matter what Father would have thought of her, anyway. He was long dead.
It was time to stop thinking about him.
Azula readied herself to fight whoever came from the strange machine. She'd wanted to fight from the beginning. But the others had insisted on running, even after they had been caught up with again and again and again.
And now they were tired, and ill-prepared for a battle, and they had no choice.
She calmed her mind. Even exhausted, she was a great firebender. Only a master Firebender stood a chance of beating her- someone like Jeong Jeong, who was far away and on their side anyway. She moved her hands, focused on creating an imbalance-
The door opened. Azula let her lighting loose. And only then did she notice the short stature of the figure before her- the gray hair, the gold ornament that sat upon it-
The one person she knew at whom it would be unwise to shoot lightning.
"Duck," she told the others, but they were too slow. So she grabbed Aang's arm, and Ty Lee's, and pulled them to the ground.
The returning lightning was aimed a little high, and it crashed over the group's heads like a deadly wave.
"We can't win this," Azula said. "Run."
Katara pulled from her water skin. Sokka pulled out his boomerang. Toph sank into a more grounded stance.
"What are you talking about?"
"That's the Fire Lord," Azula said. "We can't beat him like this. Get back on Appa, and I'll hold him off."
If Aang died, so did her last shot at the throne. He had to escape. And the others would just get in the way. Uncle wouldn't kill her. The worst that would happen is that she would be imprisoned. Aang's firebending wasn't master-level yet, but he might be able to beat Uncle soon even without firebending. They could last without her, and then they would come rescue her. And then she would take the throne.
It wasn't a sacrifice. It was strategy. She was the one who could survive this.
"We're all leaving here together," Aang said.
Uncle was approaching. There was no time to convince the others. So Azula readied her flames.
He stopped, not far from them. And then the lightning gathering in his hands died.
"Azula," he said.
"You know each other?" Sokka said.
Uncle batted the fire that Azula shot at him away like it was nothing, blocked a swift, wild punch, broke through her defenses- and embraced her.
"I thought you were dead," he said. "For so long, I thought travelling with the Avatar had killed you."
Was he blind? Didn't he see that she had shot lightning at him only a moment ago? Did he think they weren't enemies? He shouldn't sound so- so relieved.
The battle had stopped. Everyone was staring.
"I think I'm missing something," Sokka added, since no one had replied.
Uncle was weeping, and Azula would have killed him if her arms were not pinned to her sides, whether the others were watching or not.
"Let go of me," she said.
Reluctantly, he did. She back-stepped and nearly tripped over Ty Lee.
"Get on the bison," she told the others.
Uncle looked from her to Aang and back. "Why are you traveling with the Avatar?"
She wanted to tell him everything. How she was going to be Fire Lord one day despite him. How Zuko would make a mess of everything if he got the chance, and she had always deserved the throne more than he had. How the mandate of heaven was hers.
But she had a lie to keep up. And even if she wanted to scream the truth for once in her life, she couldn't afford any slip-ups.
"You're destroying the balance," she said, instead, the words sounding hollow to her even as she made sure they were convincing to everyone else. "You're ruining the world, killing innocent people- Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, everyone- and I couldn't stand by and watch. I had to choose. So I did. And I chose to fight you."
There was a strange look on Uncle's face. Surprise, maybe? Regret? She couldn't read him, and so she just backed up until she was touching Appa, and then scrambled up his back as quickly as she could.
This wasn't the first time she'd seen pity on Uncle's face. There had been a night, years ago, after Grandfather and Father and Mother had all passed away suddenly- Uncle Iroh had come home, then, and taken the throne. He'd held up well throughout the coronation. Azula had revised her opinion of him slightly- he had been a general of some renown, after all, before his son died- but she knew he still wasn't as good as Father would have been. If Father had ever had the chance.
After the coronation, he had taken Zuko and Azula aside.
"I will care for you as if you were my own children," he said.
"Your child died when he was under your watch," Azula said. "What assurances do we have that the same fate won't befall us?"
Not because she was worried for her safety- Uncle was a soft, weak man, and he would protect them like they were little turtle-ducks, she was sure- but because she could hurt him, and she wanted to.
If she had to live with him, he was going to be just as miserable as she was.
He'd given her that look then, until her glare had melted it from his face.
"No harm will come to you," he had said. "The assassins are all dead. Everything is safe now."
He'd embraced the both of them, and Azula wondered why there had been no public execution, no announcement about the assassins who had killed her father being gone. The death of the assassins was a victory after a tragedy, and a victory that should have been celebrated.
No public announcement was ever made.
Zuko and Azula's lessons were suspended, to give them time to mourn. Azula suddenly had more time than she knew what to do with, and she spent it pacing, wondering how long it would be before she would be able to resume her practicing. She'd been getting better. But every day without practice made her worry that her skills would slip away. Muscles that were not used soon withered, after all.
Zuko had sobbed for their mother for a week straight, and Uncle had comforted him as much as he was able. The advisers to the Fire Lord had made sure that the country continued running smoothly. Uncle was free to cry, and to comfort Zuko.
Azula hadn't needed comforting. She hadn't needed time to mourn. She hadn't cried, not even once. Crying was for weak, tea-brained fools. Father was dead, and that was bad. It meant no one to tell her when her firebending skills were satisfactory. It meant no one who would instruct her in strategy, no one who would let her know when she was being strong and when she was being weak.
But crying wouldn't bring back the dead. She didn't see the point.
"Crying is a way of releasing emotions," Uncle told her, a few days after the deaths. "Sadness is like lightning. You can channel it, but if you try to trap it within yourself, you risk injuring yourself."
He hugged her again, and she tolerated it, because for once he'd said something useful. Even if it hadn't been what he meant to tell her.
The next day, she accidentally killed a turtle-duck practicing lightning. But she let the lightning flow through her, and she herself remained uninjured.
Zuko's lessons resumed a few weeks later. Uncle took over the lessons personally, guiding Zuko in his movements until he was actually a reasonably good bender.
Uncle didn't offer Azula the chance, just then. She wasn't sure she even wanted him to, anyway.
It was weeks more before Uncle offered to give her lessons.
"Your brother is doing very well with my help," he said, lowering himself so that their eyes were on the same level. "I know you have not really given yourself time to grieve. But perhaps it is time to resume your lessons. I know you have been practicing on your own. Would you care to show me what you have been doing?"
But Azula didn't need Uncle. She didn't need anyone. She was doing fine on her own.
"No," Azula said. "I don't need anyone's help. Especially not yours."
Uncle looked at her sadly, but didn't argue.
She practiced alone from then on.
It wasn't like she had anyone to impress but herself anymore, after all.
"He won't follow," she told the others when they were up in the sky, safe. "Not right now. He'll be on our trail again in a day or two, though, once the shock wears off."
"What just happened?" Sokka asked. "How do you know the Fire Lord?"
This could go very badly if not handled absolutely perfectly. Unfortunately, Azula was still rattled from the confrontation with His Royal Tea-Loving Highness.
"He's my uncle," Azula said, shortly.
"Then that makes you-"
"Princess Azula," she finished. "Sister to the crown prince. I told you I'd betrayed everything to help you, didn't I?" She let a little anger seep into her voice. "Next time, when I say run, run."
She turned away from them, just enough that she could still see their reactions out of the corner of her eye. Sokka's jaw had actually dropped, something she'd thought was a figure of speech. The others just looked stunned, except for Toph, who was smirking.
"I guess I'm really good at picking nicknames," Toph said. She leaned back and started picking her toes, apparently uninterested in the rest of the conversation, but Azula could tell that she was still listening.
At that, the others seemed to recover slightly. Toph had broken the awkwardness.
"You could have told us," Aang said.
"And risk losing your trust?" Azula said. "No, it was too soon. I couldn't risk all of you hating me, just because of who I'm related to."
Aang frowned. "It might have taken longer for us to trust you," he acknowledged. "But you didn't have to lie. We would have learned that you were a good person eventually, if you were just honest."
Azula sincerely doubted that.
"It doesn't matter," she said. "I made my choices. What matters now is if you can forgive me."
There was silence for a moment, and then Ty Lee said, more anger in her voice than Azula expected, "This doesn't change anything. Azula is still the same person. She lies. She lies a lot, I know that. But she's good, underneath that. I've known her longer than any of you, and I know that. It isn't her fault, where she was born. It isn't her fault that she's the princess. The Fire Nation has done bad things, but Azula didn't do any of that. She's good."
Azula squeezed Ty Lee's hand. She hadn't expected that. Hadn't deserved it, really. Not when she'd done nothing but ask Ty Lee for help, the entire time they were at the circus. She'd been dead weight. And Ty Lee had loved her anyway, had found her a place. And now she kept doing it, kept making space for Azula in the group, even though the group had changed and the rules were different.
Azula would have hated anyone else, for making her so... dependent. But it was okay, when it was Ty Lee. Ty Lee could be trusted.
"You don't get to pick your family," Katara said softly, apparently having made up her mind.
Azula didn't want sympathy. She didn't have any use for it. But she had a charade to keep up.
"You do get to pick your friends," she said, because it was sappy and the others would like it. It startled her, how she barely had to fake it. She had become accustomed to the others.
They were useful, she reminded herself. They furthered her goals, was all. And if they counted her as a friend, so much the better.
Still- Ty Lee squeezed Azula's hand back, so Azula knew it had been the right thing to say. Sokka still looked mildly suspicious, but with some work on Azula's part, that could change.
"Let's find somewhere to get some sleep," Katara said, warmly.
Azula tried not to gag on the saccharine sweetness of it all.