Title: Mandate of Heaven (3a/3)
Characters/Pairings: Azula/Ty Lee, Katara, Sokka, Aang, Toph
Warnings: violence, Azula, mentions of underage sex
Summary: The night Ozai tries to take the throne goes much differently. With Ozai and Ursa dead, and Azulon mortally wounded, Iroh is forced to take the throne- and to adopt his orphaned niece and nephew. Years later, Zuko is the heir to the throne, and Azula is not happy about it. Short of outright assassination (which she hasn't entirely ruled out), there's only one way to take the throne from Zuko- find and capture the Avatar, to show that she is the worthier heir. Of course, things are never that simple.
Aang vetoed Sokka's idea of capturing a Fire Nation ship almost immediately.
"What would we do with the soldiers onboard?" Aang pointed out in reasonable tones. "We couldn't take them all prisoner. We just don't have enough of our own people to keep watch over them and to invade the Fire Nation."
Sokka and Azula exchanged a look. Both of them knew that such a mission would, for that exact reason, involve taking no prisoners. But Azula wasn't going to point that out, and apparently Sokka wasn't comfortable doing so either, because instead of an explanation there was just awkward silence.
"Everyone will make it to the rendezvous point," Aang said, filling the silence with naïve optimism. "It won't be a big deal."
Azula wasn't so sure that this plan was foolproof. Some of their allies might die in the process of infiltrating Fire Nation waters. Some might be captured.
It would be worth it, if they could take the Fire Nation quickly. The others knew her identity now. She'd given them nothing but reasons to trust her. She was the only logical candidate for Fire Lord once Uncle was dead. Zuko wasn't even in the running. The Avatar would want someone on the throne who had shown her dedication to peace. Zuko had shown no such dedication.
It was good that things were going according to Azula's plans.
Azula and Ty Lee still had their Fire Nation clothing. Ty Lee's looked like it had come straight from the circus, but it was still obviously Fire Nation. Azula's clothing was much more subdued. It was peasant clothing, still, but it would do.
Ty Lee helped Azula put her hair up in a topknot. Azula wished she had an ornament to put around the topknot, but of course any ornament that showed her rank would give them away. They were trying to infiltrate, not to show everyone who Azula was.
Azula still had a little Fire Nation money, since they hadn't been able to spend any of it in the Earth Kingdom or Northern Water Tribe. They exhausted it buying outfits for the rest of the group.
From now on, they were in enemy territory with no money and limited supplies. They had no advantages. If they were caught, the best they could hope for was imprisonment.
Azula had never been to war. She hadn't been trained as a soldier or a spy. She had no preparation for any of this. And yet- it felt so right.
Azula had never had anything she could actually fight before. Uncle had been ignorant about her true self, and Zuko had been the heir when she was the more deserving, but until she had joined the Avatar, there had been nothing she could actually do about her circumstances. Even chasing after Aang had been a fool's errand, something she did because there was nothing else to do, and doing nothing was something she couldn't tolerate. Destiny could take you only so far. The mandate of heaven had to be earned.
And now, while she was in more danger than she'd ever been in in her life- she felt... not at peace, because Azula was never at peace. Peace was stillness, and restfulness, and Azula didn't believe in standing still. That didn't accomplish anything. She couldn't afford to rest when there was so much to be done.
No. Azula didn't feel at peace. But ever since she'd joined up with Aang and the others, she'd felt like she was in the right place, doing things that were right for her, for the first time since Father had died.
The others accepted the clothing without much fuss. Ty Lee helped them all with their hair- although the others, Azula noted sourly, didn't seem to have as much trouble as Azula always did. They consulted Ty Lee, to make sure their disguises were adequate, but they did the actual work themselves.
Well. They had to be good at hair. They'd never had servants to do their hair for them, after all, being peasants. Azula wouldn't need to do her hair on her own ever again, once she was Fire Lord.
The results, when they were finished, were passable. No one would give them a second glance. Azula wasn't certain the effect would last once the others opened their mouths- especially Aang, with his cries of "Flameo, Hotman," which he persisted in even after Azula and Ty Lee both told him that no one in the Fire Nation actually talked like that, and, in fact, no one ever had.
At least they looked the part. And if someone caught them- well, it would make Azula's job harder, but she didn't really mind fighting. She was too good at it to mind.
Almost to her disappointment, no one caught them as they walked into town. There were no cries of "Imposter!" Even Aang's strange slang went unremarked on, though they did get a few curious looks.
They passed through the first town without much trouble. But at the next, Appa caught some kind of illness and they had to stop for a few days.
Well. That meant some quality training time, at least. Aang had been slacking lately. It was time he knuckled down and started to improve his firebending.
Except of course that isn't what actually happened. Spirits forbid they actually be productive. Instead, they goofed off and worried about sick peasants. As if the peasants mattered, in the grand scheme of the war. For every day they stayed here, the war raged on. If the others were truly compassionate, that was what they would worry about. Not whatever or whoever happened to be right in front of them, but the dozens or hundreds of other people that would be harmed by this delay.
Not that Azula cared, or was compassionate. But she didn't understand how those who supposedly were could be so short-sighted.
"We have to stop anyway," Katara said, defensive, when Azula made this point. "We might as well help this village."
"No. What we might as well do is have Aang train, so that he'll be prepared to face the Fire Lord."
"Then train him," Katara said. "You're his firebending master, not me. No one is stopping you."
"He listens better when you tell him things," Azula said, grudgingly. "Every time I try, he ignores me. It's like he doesn't want to learn firebending."
"He's just nervous," Katara said. "He tends to avoid things when he's worried about them. You just need to have a talk with him, and reassure him."
Azula worked very hard not to make a face. Feelings. She hated talking about feelings. Was there any more boring subject to discuss?
But she found Aang anyway, and said: "We need to have a talk."
"Sure!" he said. He sat down on the ground, cross-legged and comfortable. "About what?"
"You aren't taking your training seriously enough," she told him. "You need to master as much firebending as possible before the invasion. The actual eclipse is only eight minutes long, but the invasion will take much longer. You need as much power at hand as possible."
"I know that," Aang said, even more defensive than Katara had been a moment ago. "It's just- now isn't a very good time, alright?"
Azula scowled. "If now isn't a good time, there won't ever be a good time," she said. "Do twenty hot-squats, now."
Scowling right back at her, Aang did.
Well. It was a start.
Appa was still sick the next day, and Aang was just as resentful about being trained. Azula was almost tempted to tell him to find another firebending teacher, if he hated her that much- but he was still her only chance at the throne, so she did her best to be patient.
Azula was not good at patient.
"Stop thinking about the bison," she said, "and work."
"I can't just stop thinking about him," Aang said. "I can't just… turn off caring, like that!"
Azula bit her tongue to keep from shouting but you should be able to.
They found out that Katara was the one making Appa "sick" another day later. Azula was almost glad that her rage finally had a better target.
"You've delayed us," she said. "How many people will die if we miss the invasion? Do you think the Fire Lord will show them mercy?"
"How many will die if we don't help?" Katara shot back. "Have you thought about that? Or have you only thought about- numbers, and probabilities, and statistics?"
"Be rational," Azula said.
"Have a heart," Katara replied.
Azula let out a hiss of frustration. "You aren't even doing any good here. The villagers are just going to get sick again. A week from now, it won't matter that you healed them."
"Then we destroy the factory," Sokka said, from behind her. He yawned.
For a moment, Azula had forgotten anyone else was there.
It was a good plan, she realized after a moment. It meant that they could move on, while simultaneously appeasing Katara's strange idea of morality and weakening the Fire Nation's army.
"Let's do it," Toph said, punching the air.
Destroying the factory was simple enough. Azula was glad for something to burn. Something uncomplicated to do. Something that didn't involve trying to make a reluctant 12-year-old practice his firebending against his will. They ran into trouble, of course. There was a guard in the factory. Azula could have killed him easily enough, but there was no need. She whipped out one foot, tripped him, and caught him in a hold so that he couldn't move. Sokka followed up with rope, tying him up.
"Why are you attacking a military factory?" the guard babbled at them. "Don't you know how much trouble you're going to be in?"
Azula gave him a puzzled look. He didn't recognize her? Surely Uncle would have publicized her betrayal, if only to make sure she would be captured if she set foot in the Fire Nation?
Well- it was dark. And Azula hadn't needed to bend to restrain him. Blue fire would have given away her identity as easily as her face would have. There weren't many people out there who could bend fire that hot for very long.
Azula could have told a lie about why she was there, but she decided it was more unnerving to just remain silent. She dragged the guard outside, dumped him far enough away that the explosion wouldn't hurt him, and went back to help burn things.
The village wasn't safe, yet. There would be soldiers coming soon to investigate things.
It was Sokka's plan that scared off the soldiers, and although Azula was a little miffed that they hadn't needed her, she had to grudgingly admit that it was a good plan. Katara made a good Painted Lady, and of course Aang's airbending and Toph and Sokka's spooky noises had lent the entire thing an air of the supernatural that was needed to keep the soldiers away for good.
Who knew? If news of this made it all the way to Uncle, he would probably believe that spirits were involved. He was superstitious enough.
And then Katara insisted on staying and helping to clean up the river. Honestly. Azula pulled Aang away and trained him for a little while, but after he kept giving her pathetic looks and couldn't seem to maintain a decent flame, she let him go help. There were still weeks until the eclipse. There was still plenty of time for Aang to get the basics, if he picked up firebending as quickly as he had picked up waterbending and was picking up earthbending. And even if he didn't, the actual eclipse would make firebending useless anyway.
Azula didn't need Aang to actually learn firebending, anyway. As long as he won as her ally- as long as she made a good attempt at teaching him- she was going to be Fire Lord.
It was almost pathetic, how simple it had been to gain the trust of the group. Her plan had been so simple, in hindsight. She had expected more resistance. But everything was working out perfectly.
Azula had never had anything go so perfectly right in her life, before now. Not since Father had died, anyway. Her relationship with Uncle had been strained at best, and she and her brother had barely talked after their parent had died. Ty Lee and Mai had left once they were finished with school. Azula had been alone, left to stew impotently in her own ambitions. But now, finally, those ambitions were bearing fruit.
They moved on, after that, to another village. And there, they met a waterbender.
Azula's only reaction to that, at the time, was to grumble with Sokka about how they were never going to reach the capitol of the Fire Nation at this rate. She didn't think anything of Hama's sinister demeanor, because- well, Azula had grown up with Li and Lo, and all old women seemed a little sinister after that. And besides, Hama had good reason to hate the Fire Nation, and Azula by extension. It was only natural that she seemed a little hostile.
And then, on the night of the full moon, Azula realized that her gut instinct had been right all along.
Azula had never thought about what waterbenders could and couldn't do, except for certain moments at the North Pole when she'd wondered fleetingly if she could leave burns so deep that no waterbender would be able to heal them.
She'd never considered that people were mostly water. Mostly blood.
Now, gripped in a power that she couldn't resist, something that reached inside of her and pulled and pushed and twisted, she wondered if she should have considered the possibility before.
Some detached part of her mind, which was somehow immune to the horror of the current situation, noted that bloodbending was an enormously powerful technique. To restrain an enemy like that, to prevent them from bending or moving or breathing without your consent, was more power than Azula was comfortable with in anyone else's hands.
Azula could kill, and had, she could at least say that every death on her hands had served a purpose and had been relatively quick and painless. Hearing the story that Hama told, she was sure that the same could not be said of any of the victims of bloodbending.
Azula was sure, in that moment, that she would be one of them. Her, and Ty Lee, and Aang, and all the others. Her plans were ruined. She would never be Fire Lord. She would never even be fifteen years old. She would be dead. And, worst of all, there was nothing at all she could do to stop it. No amount of cleverness or deceit would give her back control of her body. She had been defeated utterly.
And then Katara moved an inch, and another inch, and was free. The rest of them were still trapped, but Azula knew then that destiny had not abandoned her.
"You're not the only one who draws power from the moon," Katara said.
The battle that followed was fierce but brief. Hama pulled water from the trees nearby and struck before Katara had a chance, but Katara took control of the water as it rushed towards her and turned it back against Hama. Hama pushed the water to the side and froze it as it came near her, and Katara rushed forward, pulling water from her bending pouch as she ran.
At close quarters, Hama was no match for Katara. Katara had youth and power on her side. A water whip later, Hama staggered forward and fell.
Azula was free. She took a breath on her own and shuddered.
Aang and Sokka leapt forward, and Aang said, "Give up, Hama. You're outnumbered."
"You've outnumbered yourselves," Hama said.
And then she took control again. Azula felt herself stepping forward, towards Katara. The movements Hama put her through weren't very elegant, but they didn't have to be, when Katara was trying so hard not to hurt any of them.
"Knock her out!" Sokka shouted. "Quick, Katara, before one of us hurts you."
Aang's hand moved in a clumsy punch, which Katara dodged. Azula's hand followed, actually connecting with Katara's arm, though only lightly.
"Sorry about this," Katara said, and sent Azula flying into a tree with a gush of water, freezing her to it instantly.
Sokka and Aang turned on each other, then. Azula remained stuck to the tree. Perhaps there were too many people here for Hama to effectively control? In any case, Azula remained under Hama's control, unable to move but not directly involved in the fight.
There was only really one way for Katara to win this fight, and it was obvious that Katara knew it, because a moment later, Katara began to bloodbend Hama.
Ty Lee, Toph, and the villagers arrived just a moment later.
"You're going to be locked away forever," the leader of the villagers told Hama.
"My work here is done," Hama said, expression satisfied. "Congratulations, Katara. You're a bloodbender now."
Katara cried for most of the night, quiet little sobs on the edge of hearing. Azula was nearest her, sleeping bag only a little ways away, and she couldn't sleep through it. A while after the rest of the others had drifted off, Azula went over to Katara. If comforting her was the only way to get some sleep, so be it.
"Do you need to talk?" Azula asked. It came out a little flatter than she'd meant it to. She was very tired.
Katara sat up and hastily wiped her tears away.
"I'm fine," she said, trying to keep her tone light and failing.
Ty Lee was better at this than Azula. But Ty Lee hadn't heard Katara's crying, or had chosen for some reason to ignore it. So Azula was stuck with this job.
"You're lying," Azula said, softening her accusation with a faint smile.
Across the clearing they were sleeping in, Sokka rolled over and began to snore. Katara waited until he'd settled down a little before responding.
"How can I live with myself?" she asked, voice low. "I reached inside of Hama. I could do that to anyone, now. It wouldn't even be hard."
Azula frowned. Understanding hovered just out of reach.
"So?" she asked. "It's a technique. It could be deadly. But you choose how to use it."
"It's evil," Katara said.
"Then don't use it at all," Azula said with a shrug.
"It isn't that simple," Katara said. "Hama was right. I'm a bloodbender now. Whenever I'm fighting now, it will be an option. I'll always know that I could."
"I always have the option of using lightning," Azula said. "We both have deadly techniques. I don't see how controlling someone is worse than killing them. Sometimes I wish..."
She stopped. She was getting too sentimental. She'd almost revealed a weakness.
"Sometimes, what?" Katara asked.
Well. Azula had at least gotten Katara curious instead of sad. That was progress.
Katara was Azula's ally. Admitting to one small weakness would cement that relationship.
"Sometimes I wish that I had some way of restraining people, instead of hurting them," Azula finally said. "I love firebending. I love being a firebender. But your deadly technique is a way of stopping people peacefully. Mine is a way of killing them quickly. I'm not... sentimental. I don't have a problem killing people when I have no other options. But that doesn't mean I enjoy it."
Katara seemed a little surprised by this.
"I thought... Never mind," Katara said. "But... that's good to hear."
"You thought I was a monster," Azula said.
It wasn't the first time someone had thought that of her, after all.
"No!" Katara said. "Nothing like that."
"You were wrong," Azula said, cutting her off before she provided some fabricated explanation. "Alright?"
At least Katara had forgotten all about bloodbending for now.
"Someone called you a monster once before," Katara said slowly. "Didn't they? Who was it? Was it Sokka? I can-"
"No one has ever called me that," Azula lied. After all, no one had ever said as much to her face. And even if Mother had thought that of her, Father had been proud of her. He hadn't wanted another weakling like Zuko.
Katara was not appeased. "But the way you said that, it sounded like-"
"You're wrong," Azula said. "Just- drop it."
"Sorry," Katara said.
Azula shrugged. "I'm going to get some sleep now. I'm exhausted."
"Good night," Katara said.
Katara seemed to sleep well that night. Azula didn't hear any more sobbing. But Azula couldn't seem to drift off anyway. There were too many thoughts swirling around in her head.
She wasn't a monster.
Azula had never put much stock in what Mother had thought of her, but somehow she had always accepted without question that that one overheard remark was true. Perhaps it was because when she'd told Father about it, he'd laughed heartily, ruffled her hair, and said, "A monster? Well, then you're my little monster." He'd made a face at her then, and she'd laughed, and she hadn't thought about it more that day.
Azula had always known that Father was cruel. He hadn't hidden himself from her the way he did from others. She hadn't minded. Father had always given her what she wanted, and what more was there? All he asked in exchange was that she be perfect, and perfection had been so effortless that it was no trouble at all.
Father had always wanted her to be cruel, too. He'd wanted her to be merciless, a perfect royal princess, deadly and cunning. He'd wanted her to be a monster, because he'd wanted her to be like him.
But she wasn't a monster.
Yes, she could be cruel, and a killer. But she could also be kind, when it suited her. Often it was an act, but sometimes- around Ty Lee, and sometimes around the others in the group- it wasn't. She didn't always act nice, but she'd come to see the purpose of such behavior.
Father would be so disappointed in her. As for Mother- well, Azula had never had much interest in pleasing her, anyway, so it didn't matter what she would have thought if she were still alive. Mother would probably still be disappointed, because Azula had never been good enough for her.
It didn't matter. Mother was dead. Father was dead, too. Uncle was a fool and Zuko hated her almost as much as she hated him. Azula didn't have any family left to try to please. What she had was Ty Lee, and the others. And they liked her, for the most part. Azula had been sure to be likable. Katara nearly calling her a monster- that was a fluke. Katara had seen her kill those soldiers, all the way back at the Northern Air Temple.
She would work harder at being likable. That was all she needed to do. It wasn't like they had much choice about who should be Fire Lord next, anyway. Of the three remaining members of the royal family, she was the only one who had shown a dedication to their cause. And the Fire Nation had to have a leader. Aang wouldn't want to end one war only to have the Fire Nation rapidly become embroiled in another, civil war.
She hoped he was smart enough to see everything the way she did.
"The Fire Lord wasn't there," Aang said. "The whole city is abandoned."
"They must have known we were coming," Azula said. "Someone warned them."
"Or they could have figured out that the eclipse was today," Sokka said, "and figured they'd better go somewhere safe for the day. Now isn't the time to be accusing anyone."
"This is useless," Azula said. "They'll be long gone by now, then. They won't return until the eclipse is over. We've wasted a golden opportunity."
"No," Sokka said. "I don't think the Fire Lord would go that far. Azula- is there anywhere nearby where he might hide?"
"There's an old underground bunker," Azula said. "But my uncle won't be there. He knows the Avatar is an earthbender. He wouldn't put himself or my brother in danger by hiding underground. Like I said, he's probably far away by now. The Fire Nation is capable of predicting eclipses. They probably figured it was best not to be around today."
"Underground bunker?" Toph said, one hand lightly touching the ground. "I can feel it."
Azula was prepared to swear that this group only listened to half the words that came out of her mouth.
"Any people in it?" Sokka asked.
Toph shook her head. "I can't tell. It's too far away to see clearly."
Aang said: "If I go down there and no one is there, then we'll run out of time. But if I don't at least check, this whole invasion will have been for nothing."
Azula was really going to have to teach Aang about a little thing called "cutting your losses."
"I have to do it," he said. "I have to see if he's there."
Azula sighed. "I suppose I should come with," she said. "Since I am the only one who knows the way."
"No need," Toph said, cracking her knuckles. "We'll take the direct route."
Azula winced as Toph destroyed the centuries-old courtyard. It was going to take serious money from the treasury to fix that, once Azula was Fire Lord.
The tunnel Toph made was dark. Of course it was- Azula could hardly bend a fire to light their way, since the same eclipse that made the invasion possible also rendered all of her skill at firebending absolutely useless.
The underground bunker was empty, and just as dark as the tunnel. Azula had been there a few times before, but didn't remember the way well enough to navigate. She had to rely on Toph, just like the others. It was galling. But Ty Lee took her hand, and Azula remembered that Ty Lee was a little afraid of the dark- and suddenly it didn't gall as much, because she had to take care of Ty Lee.
Sometimes she wondered if Ty Lee planned these moments intentionally- if she carefully manipulated Azula for her own good. But then she remembered that Ty Lee had many good traits- but planning and manipulation were not among them. Ty Lee didn't have the skills to manipulate one did. Not since Father had died.
No. What Ty Lee did- it wasn't manipulation. It was just love.
They didn't find anyone in the bunker. Escaping took most of their energy after that.
Well. Azula's plans didn't rely on this invasion being successful, anyway. They still had time before the comet arrived. She just had to make sure Aang was ready to face Uncle before then. That was all. This was a minor setback, nothing more.
The others waited behind as Azula and Aang climbed the steps, both holding their flames. Aang's flame was nice and controlled, Azula noted with a faint note of pride. No more of the wild uncontrolled flames he'd used when she first started teaching him. She'd been afraid he'd hurt someone for a while, but it had never come to that.
He looked determined.
She didn't understand why he'd wanted to come here. There weren't any dragons alive. And it wasn't like you had to learn from the original source of bending, anyway. Aang hadn't tried to get Appa to teach him airbending, or ignored Toph's teaching to find a badger-mole. So why did he want to go searching for hints of dragons' bending?
She was good enough. She knew she was good enough.
But she wouldn't turn down a chance to be better. So she'd come with him. And she'd laughed at the warnings of the Sun Warriors, because what master could she possibly find here that would be better than her? Master firebenders didn't hide out in the middle of nowhere, and the only living firebender who'd ever stood so much as a chance against her was her uncle.
Aang held his flame steady as the mountains started to rumble.
And then the dragons came out.
"I think they want us to do the dance," Aang said. And Azula noted the dragon's movements, and agreed. There was something familiar in the way the dragons rose and dived.
They did the dance, and the dragons danced with them- and then the dragons suddenly flamed at them.
Azula prepared to take command of the flames as they approached, but she needn't have worried. They weren't aiming to kill, but instead to intimidate them by surrounding them by a mass of multi-colored flames.
Hmph. Azula could do that, too. She was capable of every color they produced. She let fire come to her hands- violet, because she felt like it-
Aang wasn't moving. He was staring at the flames.
"It's not about destruction," he said. "It's life..."
And for once, Azula had no idea what was going on. She peered at the flames again, eyes narrowed. Had she missed something?
The flames stopped. The dragons retreated. And Aang had a serene look on his face that made no sense.
He'd probably just been impressed by the colors. She hadn't bothered showing him how to do those, since they weren't very useful.
That was all, she assured herself.
But somehow Aang's bending had improved dramatically by the next day. The whole experience left her with a sour taste in her mouth.