"So," Zuko said, setting down a mug of steaming tea as a servant poured Sokka a cup of the same. Zuko waited for the server to leave the room before speaking further. "I never did get the lowdown on what happened to you and my sister in the South Pole."
Sokka was in the Fire Lord's private chamber by appointment. The snowflakes that had landed on his head and shoulders during his walk were now tiny beads of water. In his short time as ambassador to the Fire Nation, he had learned Zuko was not prone to idle social visits and so he wondered what made him so curious about that old incident now, given everything else that was happening with the colonies in the Earth Kingdom.
"Well, we heard about the airship being tested over the pole, so I decided I was going to blow it up, kinda pay you guys back for what happened to Aang in Ba Sing Se, only I told everybody I was just going to scout..."
Zuko waived his hand impatiently. "I know all that, I'm just wondering how you two survived with hardly any food and in the freezing cold. Azula's leg got banged up pretty bad, too."
"Yeah, it was broke pretty good," Sokka said, wondering what Azula had told her brother about the ordeal. "We stayed in the crashed ship for a few days, tended her wound, then loaded up on supplies. We got worried there might be a Deep Cold, that's when it gets so cold no amount of furs will save you, so we decided to make for some nearby mountains rather than try and wait for rescue."
"Because you thought it was warmer near the mountains," said Zuko, smiling.
"Yeah," said Sokka, remembering how Azula had dreamed about the mountain and was convinced there was fire of some kind under it. There had been heat, but no fire. Something else had been calling to her as it turned out.
"So, it was warm in the caves under the mountain," Sokka continued. "We lived off mushrooms for a while and followed the cave tunnels to the other side where I built a balloon, and the rest is history."
"Where did you find the stuff to build the balloon?" asked Zuko.
-Monkey feathers...- Sokka thought, adopting an Aang-ism. -How much had Azula told him?-
He would just have to hope it was not everything. Sokka had assumed Azula thought the same as he did on the matter, that what lived under the mountains of the south pole was best left forgotten and ignored. Giving the journal he had found on the body of the dead explorer to scholars in the Northern Water Tribe had been a risk, but he thought he had done it in such a way that would not arouse any interest in the little book. He could have burned the thing, but that seemed foolish, and keeping the loathsome object with him was equally unbearable, so he sent it back to the homeland of its long-dead owner and hoped it would be forgotten.
"I used scrap from the airship. Built a sled for it, and somehow hauled it through the caves. I was afraid of building the balloon on the one side because I thought the wind would slam us into the mountain," he said. The lie was easy to keep straight, as it had been his original plan before finding the remains of the ancient explorers' expedition.
"Azula wasn't the same after she came back," Zuko said. "Most people think she snapped when she was about to become Fire Lord, and even people close to her think it was when she lost Mai and Ty Lee's support at the Boiling Rock where she tried to kill us, remember? But I noticed something was off with her when she first came back from the south pole."
Sokka was nodding, furrowing his brow in what he hoped looked like interest and concern. "What was different about her?" he asked.
"The same thing I suspect was different about you," Zuko said, making gooseflesh on Sokka's neck. "Granted, I didn't know you so well at the time to notice, but I see it now. You have a tendency to stare off into space when you're not talking, like you're not here. Old soldiers who've seen a lot of action get it, I'm told. It's called a Thousand Yard Stare. Azula was always sharp, like a cat about to pounce even when she was bored or lost in thought, but this new look she'd get was different. What happened to you guys down there?"
Sokka took a few moments to collect himself, trying to think of when he had been staring at nothing like Zuko described. He wanted to groan. He had been a fool to think he had escaped that place under the mountain clean, as though his simple outlook on life had offered any real protection. He remembered being glib at the time, putting the horrible revelations of Hoplo's journal and all they had seen into context for Azula, whose mind had come closer to the horror than his and cracked.
"It was...really hard," Sokka finally said. "Everyone else on the airship died. It was so cold...we had to look hard for the food, and the mountain was farther away than it looked. We didn't think anyone who came to rescue us would even be able to find us...we really thought we were going to die. I mean, we were sure of it at one point, but we kept going through the motions because there was nothing else to do. Even when things were looking up, it was all long shots, you know?"
All of this was true, and even with the weirdness left out of his tale the ordeal had been the worst of his life. He gripped his mug of tea to steady his hands and for the first time realized he had never truly talked to anyone about that time of cold and dark. Everyone seemed to think it was just another harrowing adventure, something Sokka was used to by then, and they assumed the worst part had been all that time alone with Azula.
They could never know how her face, being the only other human face within a thousand miles, had been like the rising sun. They could never understand how her voice, being the only voice aside from his own to be heard for days upon days, had been a buffer against howling madness. No one would ever comprehend the life-giving force that had been her fist pounding on his back, urging him to crawl forward when his body had quit on him and left him to freeze and die in a snowy wasteland.
He could never explain this to anyone, least of all to people Azula had subsequently tried to kill. As for the rest of it, they were better off not knowing, and by now it was too late to tell them. He would be called a liar and a crazy person by those who did not know him, and a betrayer by those who did.
"I guess anybody would come back from that changed," said Zuko. "I always thought she was kind of untouchable; I've been trying to get to the bottom of what's wrong with her."
"How is she by the way?" Sokka asked. He had heard rumors of all sorts, the kind people told about tyrants no longer in power.
"This stays between you and me," Zuko said, leaning over his tea. "Aside from the weird staring, she would wake up in the middle of the night screaming about things that live under the ground. The healers had to give her sleeping potions. They still do. During the day she's normal, sort of, but sometimes she says weird things or talks like our mother is in the room. I'm kind of ashamed of this, but they have to keep her in a special jacket where the sleeves tie behind her back."
Zuko was the one to look away now and Sokka, thoroughly depressed, sought to end the conversation. "Maybe...I don't know, Zuko, I wish I had some advice."
"No, it's fine. I won't say she deserves what's happened to her, but a lot of it has been from choices she made. Say, listen, the real reason I had you come here was to ask a favor."
Sokka's eyebrow went up. Zuko was not a demanding man, but neither was he the sort to ask favors of just anybody. "Uh, sure. What is it?"
"I'll understand if you don't want to do it, but like I was saying, Azula's in rough shape. Mentally, I mean. Physically she's stronger than ever, and dangerous."
Zuko was not looking at him, and Sokka was already familiar with Fire Lord Zuko's new royal habit of looking at people as though trying to beam a hole in their head with his gaze. "Okay, shoot," Sokka said.
"I was thinking maybe you could go see her? Just, I don't know, say hi or something. She has no friends, is convinced everyone around her is out to get her, and she's getting worse. I asked Mai to go but she refused and told me Ty Lee would be the same way. I don't think Azula wants to see them, anyway."
-And she'll want to see me?- he almost asked, but instead nodded and looked concerned. His chest had become tight and he felt like he had been sighted by a saber-toothed moose lion. His hands would not stop shaking, so he set his mug down. "I guess," he said, feeling his cheek and neck burn.
"Thanks, Sokka. I won't forget this."
The asylum was a stone fortress not far from the sea. It was heavily guarded both from without and within and Sokka felt oddly relieved to see some people walking about the grounds and halls wearing robes and tunics rather than armor. These people were healers, according to a tall, thin woman who insisted on being called Chief Healer Bin. She was head of the asylum and received Sokka with disdainful interest, making constant references to "tribals" and tribal behaviors she found fascinating.
"I've only met one waterbender in my time here," Bin said, leading Sokka down a long hallway lined with tapestries. It was dryer and smelled much nicer than the other parts of the facility. "She was an old woman. Quite mad, actually. She'd learned to bend blood if you can believe it."
Sokka decided he had enough problems without wondering what had become of the bloodbender and so he did not ask. He also did not wish to hear Bin speak if he did not have to. "Aside from Fire Lord Zuko, Princess Azula gets no visitors," said Bin. "I've been led to believe you played a key role in some traumatic event the princess experienced, yes?"
"Yep, that's me," Sokka said.
"I must say I was against you seeing her as you're far more apt to trigger an episode rather than sooth her fevered mind, but it is the Fire Lord's will."
"Yeah, that's great," Sokka said. "Zuko, er, the Fire Lord mentioned she sometimes screams about things that live under the ground? What's that about?"
"Well, from what we've pieced together, after the airship incident she spent some time in a cave system beneath the ground...with you. Take the trauma of that entire incident and throw in a strange, er, person, who likely has different mannerism and customs than what she's used to, and you get rants about 'the crawling chaos' and the 'movers underground.'"
"Ah. My fault, then. Gotchya," said Sokka, thinking he would not mind taking this woman on a tour of the place he and Azula had been.
They came to Azula's cell, which was dark save for some light near the ceiling, reflected in through mirrors. The walls were stone, and the bed she had was piled high with flame-resistant leathers rather than cotton or straw. Azula herself was the last thing he noticed, for she seemed quite small sitting cross-legged on the floor in a white coat fitted with straps and with long sleeves that tied around her back. "Princess, you have a visitor," said Bin.
"Zuzu, back so soon?" Azula said, her voice sharp and cruel.
"Hi, Azula," said Sokka.
There was a long moment of silence, then Azula turned just enough to fix one amber eye on Sokka, as though she were afraid of what she might see. Her eye flickered between him and Bin, and he could see she was trembling. "Can, uh, you give us a minute?" asked Sokka. "Fire Lord's orders," he added after she scowled.
"Be sure to scream if she breathes fire onto you," said Bin, curtly. "I'll be nearby."
"You," she said when Bin was gone. "Have you come to silence me?"
"No," Sokka said. "Zuko said you were having a rough time and he thought seeing me might help. If he was wrong, say so and I'll go."
She stood and let her hair fall away from her sunken eyes like curtains. Her bare feet made soft padding sounds on the stone while the manacles she wore rattled and clinked. Her hair, once beetle black and shining, was bedraggled and hung in front of her face. She came to the bars and he paid special attention to her shallow breathing, for any deep intake of breath would herald a fire attack.
"Are you real?" she asked.
He tapped the bars with his hand above her head, stopping short of touching her. "Yeah. I didn't tell anyone about what happened under the mountain. I should have, I'm sorry. I'll tell Zuko when I leave and something can get done about all this. I mean, you're nuts, but not nuts like they think you are..." his voice trailed off as her face twisted into a scowl.
"Keep your mouth shut," she hissed. "The worst thing that can happen is if people found out about Them."
"What do you mean?"
"Fool, haven't you been dreaming?"
"No. I mean, yeah, but not about any of that stuff. Not lately."
"Of course, your mind is denser, mine is more advanced, closer to their level. That's why they've singled me out above all others for destruction."
"You're thousands of miles away from them," he said. "Anything you've got bothering you is just thoughts you carried over. They can't hurt you or anybody else."
She cackled and staggered back from him, making his body tense and prepare to dodge a jet of flames but none came. "You fool! You complete, utter fool!" she nearly shrieked. "In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu lies dreaming! Do you know what that means!?"
He shook his head, and repeated the words she had spoken, knowing her encounter with one of the monsters at the south pole had left her knowing things she should not. She staggered back to the bars, hunched over like a cripple. Despite the sallow, sunken face she sported not all of her beauty had departed her and it stirred pity in his heart.
"Neither do I," she said, her face collapsing and eyes growing watery. "I hear it when I sleep. I thought it was coming up from the ground, but it's not, it's coming up from the sea, over the waves. I can hear it at night. Tell me you can hear it, too, Sokka, tell me it's not just me."
She sunk to her knees, and Sokka regretted coming here. He knelt, too, wary of her. "You said it's better no one knows. Why?" he asked.
"Because people would go looking," she said. "I know how people are, I know. People would go looking and things would be stirred up, more than they've been stirred already, by us. Those dabbling dead fools we found, those were the beginning, but none made it back alive and so they did not get curious. Now they're curious, Sokka, and as much as I'd like to see the world pay for what's it's done to me...I just want Them to forget about me and leave me alone."
She had called him by his name more times than ever before, he noted. "Okay, I'll keep quiet," he said. "But I can't leave you like this."
Azula picked her head up slowly to look up at him. She laughed, then got to her feet. "It doesn't matter," she said. "Like I told you, dead Cthulhu waits and he'll either stop calling to me or he'll rise up from the sea and call to everyone! One way or another, my suffering ends. It was good to see you again, Water Tribe boy, now away with you before I set you ablaze."
He cocked his head to the side and stood his ground, not wanting to leave without further explanation, given that he knew what she was saying was not entirely madness. The words did not come, however, and he left her with her back turned to him in her gloomy cell.
"Well, were you able to cure her?" asked Bin who had been standing in the hall outside. She was looking down her nose at him with a sour smirk on her lips.
"I don't think she likes being so close to the sea," Sokka said, doubting anything he said was registering. He walked ahead of Bin, who he could feel smirking at his back, and showed himself out.
To be continued...