Of course, with Korra in full swing I might end up losing some readers. My own fault for taking forever to update this, I guess!
Hope you enjoy the rest of the ride.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
It was dark in the carriage.
Of course, it was dark outside too, but at least outside there was the light from the moon and stars. Not that Azula had ever particularly cared for the moon. To her it was merely a pale reflection of the shining radiance and power that the sun – the far more prominent and powerful celestial body – possessed. The long and dull poems penned in dedication to the moon's supposed beauty had mystified her.
But now, at least, she would have preferred even the moon's pale light. The curtains covering the windows of the carriage had been tightly drawn, leaving the interior extremely dark.
Briefly, she considered simply lighting a fire in her palm but ultimately decided against it. Her father wouldn't have cared, but her mother was sitting next to her and she tended to get annoyed at what she deemed 'careless' Firebending.
With a grumpy sigh, she leaned over, yanking aside the heavy curtain that obscured the window and stuck her head outside.
"Azula!" her mother's tone of voice was sharp.
"I just want to see the surroundings," Azula replied, more for the sake of disagreeing with her mother than anything else. The surroundings were, frankly, rather dull. All around her was the quiet landscape of the Fire Nation – endless and unchanging.
"Not with your head sticking out the window like that! Show some sense of propriety!"
Begrudgingly, Azula flopped back onto her seat, "At least leave the window open," she mumbled.
Her mother apparently conceded to her request, for she made no further action as the carriage continued to trundle along. Behind and ahead of them were the bodyguard units, and truth be told, Azula half-wished that someone would try attacking them, just to alleviate the boredom of the journey.
Opposite her on the carriage, Zuko's head bobbed downwards. Her brother had been fighting a losing battle against sleep for the better part of the hour, and frankly it had only been the fear that in his slumber he would end up slumping against his father that kept him awake. Watching him nod off and on again had been amusing for a few minutes, but now it bored her just as much as everything else.
Slumping even further down in her seat, she let out a long heartfelt sigh.
Her mother glanced at her, and in the gloomy darkness, Azula thought she had caught a hint of a smile on her face. "Don't worry, Azula," she said softly. "We'll be home soon."
"Someone's in a good mood," Mai said as Azula appeared in the doorway. "Now, let me just see if I can't guess why."
Azula smiled and nodded. "We're almost ready to begin the journey home. Oh, this place is rather luxurious as far as the Earth Kingdom goes, but I can't deny that their taste is sorely lacking against Fire Nation culture," she glanced at Mai. "I suppose you're happy to be heading back too?"
"Why would I?" Mai shrugged. "Same old boring house, same old boring customs and routines."
"I could arrange to send you back to your parents, if you'd like."
"Don't you dare," Mai fixed a glare on Azula.
"Yes, Agni forbid I do anything that might separate you from Zuko," Azula muttered. She didn't need to look at Mai to know that her friend's glare had sharpened.
Well, she still had other matters to take care off before they could set off for home, and so, pausing briefly for the attendants to push open the doors for her, she entered the throne room of Ba Sing Se once more.
She let her gaze briefly sweep over the assembled attendants before she slowly ascended the throne. Power plays were nothing new to her, and this simple gesture of acknowledging their presence but granting them minimal significance in her eyes was just another one in a very long list of them.
Slowly, she ascended the throne as Mai took her customary place down by its side. Those present already knew what the princess wanted of them, and so the closest of them scurried towards her, making a deep bow.
"Have all the posts for the occupational government been properly set up?" Azula asked without preamble as she picked up the scroll offered her by an attendant.
"Almost, your highness," one of the ministers said as he bowed.
"'Almost' isn't 'yes'," Azula turned her gaze on him, silently enjoying the way he squirmed under her gaze. "What's the matter? I gave you ample time."
"It appears that… well, we have a bit of a hard time untangling the social infrastructure of Ba Sing Se. The Societal duties are far more complicated than we anticipated. As well… our men are not used to dealing with infrastructure of such scope. More men are needed than we had originally anticipated. So we are still… adapting."
For a brief moment, Azula pondered. On one hand, she certainly understood the difficulties that would be involved in such a task. Looking through the endless paperwork had given her firsthand knowledge of that. On the other hand, what had these incompetent clods been doing the entire time they hadn't overthrown the city yet? Wasn't their entire job to prepare themselves for this day?
Of course they probably hadn't expected the conquest to come quite so soon. She sighed.
"Have this sorted out by the time I am ready to leave this country. Or else," she left the specifics of what she would do to them up to their imaginations. That tended to result in fanciful horrors completely detached from any sort of reality, and when they realized what she actually planned to do was even worse, well. It had a positive effect on productivity, and that was all that needed to be said.
As the man scurried away to continue with his thankless task, Azula kept her gaze steady as the next person in line came and bowed before her.
Just a little more.
Just a little more and she would finally be heading home.
"You look troubled."
Zuko didn't bother to look up. "I thought you were helping Azula."
"Sure. Helping." Mai slid into the seat opposite Zuko's. "She's got everything figured out. At least, as far as wrapping up any administrative loose ends goes."
Zuko remained silent. He was under no illusion that the victory over Ba Sing Se's had been his sister's alone. It had been her plan, and she had been the primary one to execute it. She had made use of his abilities, of course, but they both knew that didn't count.
Silently, she wondered. Azula had already sent off messages towards the Capital telling them about her capture of Ba Sing Se – and of Zuko's defeat of the Avatar. As far as Azula was concerned, that had left the two of them at roughly the same level, and having fulfilled the conditions of hisfFather's demand.
It was what he'd wanted, after all.
So why this creeping feeling of dissatisfaction? Did he feel jealous of his sister? Resisting the impulse to immediately shove that question away, Zuko took a deep, calming breath. Well, yes, it would have been nice to have received some credit for the capture of Ba Sing Se, but he knew he didn't really deserve it. And he couldn't complain – especially after Azula had reduced the role of anyone else other than Zuko in the Avatar's defeat. Fair was fair, after all.
But his heart was still heavy.
Maybe it had less to do with the matter of Ba Sing Se and the Avatar's defeat, and more to do with the people who had suffered it in the process. It would be made right in the long run, once the war ended and the Fire Nation could start properly handling the territories with the intent of spreading the power and prestige of the Fire Nation. But that wasn't much comfort right now.
Heaving a sigh, he stood from the table.
"Zuko?" Mai's look was curious.
"Just… tying up some loose ends," he smiled at her as he showed her the scroll he had been writing in earlier. At the same time, he called for a servant.
"Yes, my lord?" the man said as he bowed before Zuko. It still felt strange, having people treat him like that.
"Have you found her yet?" he asked without preamble.
"You mean the Earth Kingdom girl called Jin? Yes, we have located her home in the Outer Ring," the man bowed lower. "Would you have us bring her to you?"
"What? No," Zuko shook his head hastily. "No, it's just… her mother's sick. Get the physicians from the palace to go to her and look after her mother. This letter should smooth up any issues.
"Of course, my lord," the servant bowed one last time before leaving the room.
"You seem to care a lot about the girl," Mai's tone was studiously neutral, but Zuko wasn't that dumb. He knew the implications behind her statement.
"I can't say she treated me badly during our time in the Earth Kingdom," he shrugged. "It's no skin off our back to pay back the favour."
"No, I suppose not," Mai's tone belied her posture. She didn't seem jealous. More… puzzled. As if what Zuko was telling her fit, but didn't seem like the whole story.
Truth be told, Zuko wasn't sure himself either. All he knew was that whenever he had an idle moment, he would remember the look of shocked betrayal etched on Jin's face when she had realized that he was Fire Nation.
In some ways, it made him… angry. It was as if the fact that his country of ancestry had somehow negated the times they had spent together. Sure, it had been under false pretences under Zuko's part, but the acts themselves were still real.
In any case, this act was somewhat petty on his part. A silent way of saying 'See, just because I came from the Fire Nation doesn't mean that I'm a bad person.' He didn't know why he felt it important to prove himself to her, but it did.
He shook his head wearily. What was done was done.
"How are your preparations for returning going?" he asked instead, a not-so-subtle indication that he wanted the subject to be changed.
"About as well as can be expected," Mai shrugged. "They're still sorting out the logistics of transporting the prisoners, but other than that it's just a matter of getting on the ship and setting sail.
"The prisoners?" Zuko repeated.
"Political dissidents, some prominent military figures. Mostly people Azula wants to be able to take her time with interrogating in the Capital," there was a brief pause. "And… well, Iroh, of course."
Zuko grit his teeth. "Uncle…"
"We could leave him in the care of Ba Sing Se's gaols," a new voice came from the doorway, and the two of them turned to regard Azula. "But given that he stands accused of treason, anything less than a trial in our high court seems inappropriate."
"Stop," she said without looking him in the eye. "I know what you're going to say, so save your breath. Whatever possessed him to act the way he did, those actions were unmistakeable, and inexcusable."
"I know!" Zuko countered. "So I want to know why! Why would Uncle do something like…" he trailed off into silence.
"Well, have you tried asking him yourself?"
Silence. Slowly, Zuko shook his head.
"Then maybe you don't want to know that badly. Or maybe you have a guess at the answer and you're afraid to find out it's true," Azula closed her eyes. "The question's academic at this point, anyway."
"…Az,tell me. What's going to happen to Uncle in the end?"
Azula let out a snort. "Fire Nation law hasn't changed that much in the three years you've been gone, Zuzu. If –" when, " – he's found guilty he'll be sentenced to death. Since he's nobility it'll be by beheading."
Zuko swallowed hard.
"Well, maybe you could sway the trial in his favour?" Mai suggested.
"With Father present? No chance," Azula's laugh was humourless as she turned away. "And now, if you'll excuse me…"
"Az. Tell me something."
Azula paused for a long moment before turning back to Zuko, "What is it?"
He took a deep breath, "Do you want Uncle to die?"
She stood still, not meeting his gaze. "I want all enemies of the Fire Nation to be properly dealt with," she said levelly.
"And is that why you're bringing him back to be tried? When you know the only realistic outcome is him being executed? Is that why?" his voice was rising, but Zuko couldn't find it in himself to calm down. Something else like this – something else to stoke the burning intensity he felt in the pit of his heart. "Answer me!"
A long moment of silence, and then Azula shook her head.
"No, it's not. I'm bringing Uncle back to the homeland because that's what he requested. Maybe he wants to die where he was born or some other sentimental nonsense. Like I said, if you want to know, ask him."
And with that, she turned and left the room.
The day they were to depart was marked by perfect weather. The sun shone bright in the stunningly clear blue sky.
"No delays," Azula nodded. "That's good."
Zuko, meanwhile, was distracted by the sight of Uncle being marched up the gangplank of the ship, his arms firmly bound by chains around his back.
"… Under ordinary circumstances transports of a Firebender prisoner should be done by keeping him in a cooled chamber, but this time I think we can dispense with that," Azula said as she followed Zuko's gaze. "It probably wouldn't be good for the disposition of someone of Uncle's age anyway."
"You're bringing him on board the flagship?"
Azula flashed Zuko a quick smile. "Let's just say there are a few things I want to ask him while we're away from the ears of either country's governments."
Zuko sighed and shook his head. Leave it to Azula to never miss a chance for more information on others. Keeping a close eye on Uncle, Zuko strode for the gangplank himself, pausing only when he caught sight of Mai talking with a Dai Li agent.
He drew to a halt. He knew Azula had insisted on bringing a fair number of the Earth Kingdom operatives back to the Fire Nation with her, although he still wasn't too sure why.
He waited, silently, for Mai to finish her conversation before walking up to her. As he neared, he could hear the ending snatches of the discussion.
"… And I want a full implementation within a two month period. I've already arranged for a steady flow of reports to be sent back to the Capital, so don't think you're going to weasel your way out of paying the piper on this one."
"Of course not, my lady," the Dai Li agent replied as he bowed. "I would never dream of it."
As Zuko approached, she waved her hand to dismiss the Dai Li man and turned to face him. "Zuko? Anything the matter?"
"What was that about?"
"Hm? Oh…" Mai glanced off to the side, an expression he couldn't really read on her face. "Let's just say that I was tying up a couple of loose ends."
Zuko didn't really get what she meant, but he could tell Mai didn't really want this conversation to continue, and so he shrugged and let it slide.
"Hey, everyone!" Ty Lee's bubbly voice from behind them. "We're getting ready to leave! You ready to board?"
"Ty Lee?" Mai's voice held a questioning note. "I thought… don't you want to rejoin the circus? After all, the reason that Azula asked you to come along is already over and done with. You don't need to go back to the Capital."
"Yeah, well…" Ty Lee glanced at the ground, looking oddly guilty. "I mean, I thought about it a little, and I decided it couldn't hurt to stay by Azu – I mean, go back to the capital. At least for a while," her expression brightened. "And I get to spend more time with you guys too! Isn't that great?"
"Wonderful," Zuko replied as he strode up the gangplank of the ship.
Later, he sat on the deck of the ship watching the waves splash against the cold steel of the vessel, thinking. It had been about an hour since they'd left port, and the Earth Kingdom had long since vanished from view. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Azula talking with the captain of the ship. About what, he hadn't the slightest idea.
The view didn't really interest him. It wasn't like he hadn't seen more than enough of the ocean over the past three years.
Almost without knowing why, he stood and began walking into the hold of the ship.
The interior was wider and less stuffy than he had expected. After a moment's reflection, he realized that a flagship intended for use by the crown princess (and prince) of the Fire Nation would have more comfortable furnishings than the obsolete troopship he had been sailing the world in the past three years.
He heaved a sigh. So many things had changed.
So many things. Even things he had subconsciously always taken for granted.
Eventually, he found his way to another unremarkable steel door. Beyond it lay the area reserved for the holding of prisoners.
Well, prisoner. If not for Azula specifically requesting it, they wouldn't have put prisoners on the same ship transporting Fire Nation royalty.
For a moment, he almost just reached out to shove the door open, marching into the room and sitting down in front of his Uncle, glaring at him for a long moment before saying, "We need to talk."
Because they had to. They needed to talk. Zuko needed to ask Uncle just what he had been thinking.
But he didn't. Zuko continued staring at the door for several long seconds before shaking his head and walking away again, a snarl on his lips.
They had to talk. But Zuko still wasn't sure what to say. He knew what he wanted to ask, but would he actually receive an answer? And if he did, would it be the answer he was looking for? What would he do with the knowledge once he knew? Would it be something that he could use to get Father to
Then maybe you don't want to know that badly. Or maybe you have a guess at the answer and you're afraid to find out it's true. Azula's voice sounded in his mind.
"Damn it, Uncle…"
"You're too soft, Zuko…" Azula murmured to herself as she walked through the corridor towards the holding cell. It hadn't been hard to see that Zuko had been in a bad mood for most of the day, and given that she had caught sight of him drifting in the general direction of this room several times before shaking his head and walking away, it wasn't particularly difficult to simply connect the dots.
Still, she supposed the three years spent alone with Zuko would always have rendered this a complex emotional issue for Zuko. Her brother had always thought too much with his heart.
A scowl deepened on her face. Her Uncle had to have known that, but he had still turned against them with no word of explanation.
"Of all the lies and deceit that I have seen you engage in over the years, I never thought you would lie about your own brother to invoke my aid."
"Who's the one who really betrayed Zuko in the end, Uncle?" she muttered to herself as she pushed open the door to his room.
Iroh sat cross-legged in the centre of his cell, eyes closed in apparent meditation. The guard on duty jerked up in surprise at Azula's sudden appearance, throwing up a hasty and sloppy salute.
"Wait outside," she said without looking at him. "I'll call you when I'm done here."
"As you command, your highness."
As the man left the room, Azula pulled up a chair and settled down on it, arms folded as she stared at her uncle. Even though he hadn't budged an inch since Azula had entered the room, she knew he was fully aware of every detail.
A long silence stretched out between the two of them. Finally, Azula was the one to break it.
"Well," she said without preamble. "What do you have to say for yourself?"
Another long silence.
"Come now, Uncle. Playing coy? I might have expected such childish antics from Zuko, but I thought the Dragon of the West would be more mature than that."
There was a long, slow exhalation from Iroh before he opened his eyes, looking into Azula's face, "And what is it that you want me to say, then? There are many things we could talk about."
"You're right," Azula's laugh was mirthless. "Let's start with something simple, then. Why did you do it? And don't give me some philosophical nonsense line. Are you on the side of the Avatar?"
He gazed up at her, his eyes dark. "I desire peace for this world."
She frowned, "And you think helping the Avatar would help achieve that? After we've already conquered Ba Sing Se? At this point it's just a matter of subjugating the Water Tribes and the war is –"
"A peace earned only through force," Iroh cut her off. "A peace formed only by us forcing our way on others. That is no true peace."
"So that's what it is," Azula glared at Iroh. "You're a traitor to the Fire Nation."
"Call me what you want," Iroh closed his eyes again. "It is my choice whether I accept such judgments."
"Really? Then what else am I supposed to call you? It's been laid in stone for a century. The Avatar is the enemy of the Fire Nation and –"
"The Avatar is the enemy of Sozin and all who would follow his path," Iroh snapped with a vehemence that honestly surprised Azula. "Before this war few Fire Nation rulers would have butted heads with the Avatar, let alone ordering his destruction based entirely on his existence. But now the Fire Nation has become so set in its way that it cannot allow a being that is literally the embodiment of Balance to exist. Tell me, do you still think this is a proper state of affairs?"
Azula didn't reply to her uncle's question, glaring silently at him instead. Finally she let out a deep breath, "Well, that's that, then. So much for trying to get you off lightly or anything like that."
Iroh's own snort was disbelieving, "You'll forgive me for being dubious about any supposed mercy you have to offer me, niece."
She bared her teeth. "Don't think for one second that I actually care about what happens to traitors like you, Uncle. But we both know how Zuko would feel if you…" she trailed off. "You know what, forget it."
At the mention of Zuko, Iroh had shifted his gaze, staring down at the corrugated metal of the floor. Shaking her head, Azula stood to leave, "I guess continuing this conversation is pointless. It's not like you actually care about how Zuko feels anyway."
"You have no right to say something like that," Iroh's voice was calm, but it still caused Azula to draw to a halt.
"Don't I," her voice was soft as she half-turned back to face him. "You've been nothing but cruel to Zuko, Uncle. How am I supposed to interpret that?"
Iroh's eye narrowed, "Cruel?" his voice was soft, but with an edge of steel in it.
Azula wasn't deterred. "Oh? What else am I supposed to call it when you've been stringing him along for three years, Uncle! You never had any intention of letting him capture the Avatar! He trusted you, Uncle!" her voice was rising in volume and intensity, and she didn't really care to stop. "He trusted you, and relied on you, and now you've taken all that trust and thrown it back in his face!"
"Those three years were meant to guide him-"
"And even assuming your nonsense holds any water, you 'guided' him so well that no one was more surprised than Zuko when you turned on us! Excellent work, Uncle. You were so incompetent you couldn't even corrupt him properly," a sad bitter laugh came from Azula as she shook her head and turned away from Iroh. "You know what, Uncle? As far as I'm concerned, you're no better towards Zuko than Father ever was. At least he was straightforward about things."
She didn't wait for his reply, quickly stepping out of the room and indicating that the guard should re-enter the room. As the door clanged shut behind her, Azula let out a long sigh.
"You know, you shouldn't eavesdrop. You might hear things you don't like to hear."
From the shadows, Zuko emerged, looking sullen.
"… I'm sorry," Azula said after a moment of silence. "I don't think you should have heard that."
"It's fine," Zuko closed his eyes, doing a miserable job of trying to act nonchalant. "It doesn't matter anymore anyway."
"Does it?" Azula shook her head and began walking away from the holding room. "That conversation told me something very important."
"… It did?"
"I referred to the Avatar in the present tense when I started to talk about him. But Uncle didn't consider it odd, and in fact he did the same," Azula's frown deepened. "But he knows as well as I do that he took a lightning bolt to the back."
"But, wait, that means…"
"That means Uncle might have expected the Avatar to be able survive that wound. How, I don't know, but no one ever accused Uncle of being too forthcoming with information," she turned back to face Zuko. "Given what he might know, and what we don't, we might have to assume the Avatar somehow survived after all."
Zuko's eyes widened. "But that's… But I…"
Azula smiled at him. "Don't worry your pretty little head about it, Zuzu. There's nothing concrete yet. I'll just need to get our intelligence network to do more digging. For now, we're returning to the Capital. You've earned this much, Zuko."
Not waiting for Zuko to respond, Azula strode up to the deck of the ship.
Several weeks later, Ty Lee stood on the lookout post.
Well, 'stood' would have been pushing it. She was currently in a handstand, maintaining her balance against the gentle rocking of the ship on the ocean waves.
She didn't really mind getting assigned lookout duty like this. It gave her something to do. Mai had been spending more and more time with Zuko lately, and given how mopey Zuko had been near the start of the journey, Ty Lee hoped that the time spent was paying off, instead of having the net effect of making the both of them even grumpier.
Azula had been… Azula, except even moreso. Constantly vanishing into her private room to figure out plans and devices that only she knew about. Ty Lee had been so bored she had even considered asking Azula about those, but had ultimately decided against it. Even assuming Azula would deign to answer her, the explanation would probably make her head spin anyway.
So that left tasks like these. Which was fun in its own way. After all, it let her keep a good look out for –
She blinked. Was that…?
Hastily she flipped upright, bringing up one hand to shield against the glare of the sun. It looked like… It was!
"Everyone!" Ty Lee hollered. "Land ahoy!"
They had returned. At long last, they were back in the Fire Nation.
Azula sighed as the carriage ground to a stop. Finally. The trip to the Lotus Gardens had been enjoyable enough in its own way, but the actual travelling had been nothing but unbearable tedium.
Well, at least that was over and done with. Time to hop into a hot bath, and then a soft, comfortable bed.
At that moment, she noticed her mother's wry gaze. Following it herself, she let out a tiny snort.
"Let me, Mother," she said, a smirk on her face.
"All right, but gently now."
Reaching over, Azula seized Zuko by the shoulder, shaking him once and waking him up from his slumber.
"Huh? Whuzzat?" he sputtered, bolting upright.
"Wake up, Dum-dum," she said primly as she opened the door to the carriage ahead of the footmen coming up to her and jumping onto the ground below. "We've arrived home."
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