The day Azula's powers were removed was not a day that Zuko had any intention to miss, no matter how lousy he was feeling. Toph, Katara, and Sokka joined in his excitement, practically counting the minutes as they waited for Aang to arrive in the dungeon. Mai had refused to come herself. Although Azula deserved what she was getting, she agreed with that much, she had a difficult time watching her former friend suffer like she undoubtedly would. Zuko didn't blame her for sitting out. If he had ever gotten along with his sister at any point in his life, he might've felt some sympathy for her now. As it was, however, she drained out all of his sympathy a long, long time ago.
Aang's avatar garb was similar to his usual monk robes, but finer material, embroidered with the symbols of all the four nations. He said it looked ridiculous and he liked his old clothes better.
"It makes the people feel united," Zuko had explained. "Just wear it. It's not hurting you or anything."
The group covered their faces to avoid breathing in the potent fumes that kept Azula subdued along with her chains. Her wild hair was matted up hopelessly as she leaned over, arms bound behind her back, sobbing and wailing. At least two days worth of food sat off to the side untouched.
"Azula," Zuko said in his most commanding voice. "Look up at me."
She did so. At first, her eyes were bloodshot, insane with despair. Yet when they fell upon Zuko, he saw a bit of the old Azula again. That conniving, plotting expression that always told him she was one step ahead flooded onto her face.
"How…?" she asked. "How are you walking?"
"By putting one foot in front of the other. I picked it up in toddlerhood. You know, that wonderful time of my life before you were born."
Toph and Sokka snorted behind him at this, but Katara elbowed him in the side and Aang gave him a condescending, "That's not what we're here for," sort of look. Azula didn't react to his mocking at all. Instead, she continued her intense stare, first at his feet, then on his face.
"I saw that Water Tribe brat try to heal you and fail. The girl who healed the avatar from my lightning strike couldn't help you. So how…?"
Now her gaze fell to Katara. Zuko felt a bead of sweat crawling down his face. For once in his life, he had been relieved to have his scar - unless someone stood reasonably close, spotting his blue eyes wasn't easy. Especially when he'd been going out of his way to avoid eye contact with anyone who didn't know his secret. Katara, on the other hand…
Zuko's hand flexed as he stepped between Azula and Katara. This didn't ease his nerves one bit. Azula examined his hand as much as she had his face.
"This conversation is over," he said, trying to sound as authoritative as possible. "We've got other business here."
Azula smiled her usual cat-like grin. "Of course we do. So, Zuzu, what do you want with me?"
"You know very well what I want," he replied. "For crimes against the other three nations, your punishment has been decided. The avatar will remove your firebending powers. After your time in prison is complete, you will be released and confined to a restricted area of the palace." He gritted his teeth. "It's more than you deserve, you should know that."
Azula laughed. "Why not execute me? Isn't that what you normally do with war prisoners?"
"Avatar Aang is in charge of keeping the peace between the Fire Nation and the other nations. Your punishment is his decision."
Another hideous laugh. "You're a coward, brother! You always were! You're too scared to get a little blood on your hands, so you're blaming the decision on the pacifist avatar. I knew you were weak! I always knew it!"
Zuko held himself back from attacking her. His temptation was to fire blast her, but that wasn't going to end well, even if he could do it. He'd already decided how to deal with this. Best to let Aang go forward and not think about it anymore.
He unlocked the door to her cell. Aang stepped cautiously in, clearly ready to counter if she tried to breathe a blast of fire in his direction. She did no such thing, however, merely lowered her head back down and started sobbing.
"Please don't do this to me!" she begged. "I'd rather be executed than humiliated like this! Stop being so cowardly and just kill me!"
"You know I can't do that," Aang said calmly. "You'll find a way to live without your firebending. Start over-"
She sobbed louder. "Don't you understand? My firebending is all I have! If you take that away, what reason do I have to go on living?"
Zuko saw the hesitation in Aang first, he was sure of it, but Sokka got the words out before he did.
"Aang! Don't listen to her. She's just trying to mess with you! Take her bending away now!"
Aang's hand was shaking. Not a good sign. What was it he had said? That if he didn't have complete concentration, the energybending could go awry? He could injure both people involved. He'd been able to take the powers of Ozai against his will because of his own determination and strength. If Azula made him falter on those, then this could be a much more dangerous act than defeating her father.
Aang knelt down next to her. "Listen," he said calmly. "I'll do what I can, all right? I have to make sure you're not a threat to this nation anymore. If I can do that without removing your powers completely-"
"Aang, that's not what we discussed," Zuko said sharply. "Azula's dangerous. You have to remove them completely. "
"I had to do that for your father because of his authority," Aang said. "Azula doesn't have any authority here anymore. She's just a helpless prisoner."
Azula put on the most pathetic face she could, an act that irritated Zuko to no end.
"I was an exiled prince and look where I've gotten," Zuko argued. "If she even has an ounce of power, she's-"
"Your highness," Aang said, in a tone more serious and formal than Zuko could ever remember. "You said you were putting this decision on my shoulders. If you're taking that authority away from me, please tell me now. Otherwise, I have to act the way I feel is right."
Dang it, stupid Aang putting the ball in his court like that. He'd told his people he'd be trusting the avatar. This was pretty early on in the game to go against that.
"Fine," he said. "Do what you think is best, Aang. But please remember what I told you."
Aang smiled childishly now, like a kid who'd just won a clean victory at Pai Shō.
"Thanks, Zuko." He walked up to Azula's side. She still crouched over, whimpering as tears streamed down her face. Aang closed his eyes, slipping into the avatar state. Only this time, not only his tattoos glowed. His entire body gave off a soft bluish-white aura. Zuko remembered it vaguely. The state in which Aang would energybend.
Slowly, Aang reached down and touched Azula's forehead.