With Your Bones
Azula blinked awake, and immediately wished she hadn't. Her lips cracked, her tongue raked across the roof of her mouth, dry and rasping, light hurt, really hurt , and when she tried to push her hand up to her brow to wipe the sweat away it felt heavy and imprecise, like weights had been strapped to her wrists.
After a few moments, a figure swam into vague view in front of her.
"hhhh" she rasped. It was agonising.
Katara handed over a cup of water, not unkindly.
"Good morning. It's morning," she clarified, as Azula clutched at the drink, pushing herself up off the -couch, she was lying on a couch, and her back hated that she'd slept on a couch- and delicately marinating her tongue in the water that managed to force its way past her lips.
"Whhpn," she managed, once her mouth was no longer entirely desiccated. Katara, apparently, understood.
"Let's see, Zuko and Mai disappeared pretty early, after your... moment," she recounted, counting off on her fingers, "you drank pretty much a whole bottle after that. Sokka tried to help you with that. Ty Lee went to the bathroom so Sokka thought she'd got lost, so he climbed onto the roof thinking she was there, he then got stuck up there and started singing Lo Wang of Kyoshi, except he couldn't remember anything but the first verse so he got stuck on that for a while, at which point you found him and you are very lucky I didn't just decide to go to bed at that point, you know."
She waited for a while, perhaps hoping for a response, but the fact that Azula couldn't figure out how tongues worked any more was only one reason why she wasn't getting one.
"Eventually you climbed down when Ty Lee started throwing pebbles at you. Well, you climbed down, I think Sokka fell most of the way. He's fine, don't get up. Anyway, we helped you inside and dropped you on the couch, you're welcome."
"Oh good. Don't mention it."
"Not that... I remember..." oh Agni.
It must have showed on her face, because Katara suddenly looked extremely curious. "Go on..."
"A... proposal?" All of a sudden, that thought was overtaken by a rising biological urge. Katara smartly took three steps back.
"Through that hall, first door on your left."
Katara was not completely sure what to make of Princess Azula. On the one hand, if, at any point last night, Katara had been asked who to pinpoint as the source of all Prince Zuko's emotional problems, Azula would have been the first person to blame. And she wasn't sure that wasn't still right.
On the other hand, Sokka seemed happy. On the other hand again, Sokka's judgement had always been kind of suspect.
But up until the palanquin arrived, Katara had been mostly comfortable thinking of Azula as a problem.
Azula had been persuaded to drink some water, and was propped up on a sofa, gnawing gently on a dry biscuit, when there was a sharp knock on the door. The princess had made no move to open it, so Katara had, grudgingly, gone to the door, and pulled it open.
A stocky, grey-haired soldier was at the door, helmet respectfully under one arm. Katara vaguely recognised him as the Lieutenant that had been on Ember Island. Behind him, in the street, four men stood bearing a palanquin.
"We are here to collect Princess Azula," he'd said, by way of introduction, which had immediately put Katara out of sorts. Apparently basic manners were optional in the Fire Nation.
"She's not feeling well," Katara had replied, without thinking much of it. "Come back in the afternoon."
She'd made to close the door again when she suddenly felt a presence at her elbow. Azula, silent as a breath, was standing just behind her.
"I have to go."
This had annoyed Katara. "No, you don't. You have to sit down until you're able to walk in a straight line without falling over."
Azula didn't seem to have heard, stepping over the threshold without even looking at her. Katara had been just about ready to snap when she saw the way Azula's shoulders set.
"I'll just tell Sokka you've gone, then?" she'd finished, weakly, and had hardly been surprised when the Princess had ignored her completely.
Lieutenant Jee marched in front of the palanquin, and tried not to think about anything.
This was proving difficult. He hadn't been a part of Prince Ozai's staff for long, but he'd lived in the capital his whole life, and served in the palace for years. And he had ears, and eyes.
It was not his place to question his Prince. How the man handled his family was his business.
It was a great deal easier to believe that if he just concentrated on walking.
It was worse when they arrived at the palace, and, as instructed, he began to escort the Princess to her father's chambers.
She'd had what he might have delicately referred to as a heavy night, that much was obvious. If it were anyone else, he'd have said she shouldn't be upright, much less moving around in the sunlight. That might have been comforting- after all, he'd caught hell from his parents often enough for sneaking out for an illicit drink or seven- if not for the way she walked. Resigned, heavy, compliant. He would have felt infinitely better if she'd tried to bolt.
He left her at her father's door, and tried not to think about it any more.
Father was talking, but it was hard to pay attention when her every thought was consumed with the mantra don't throw up don't throw up don't throw up. Every bit of her was heavy with leaden agony, and it was taking every scrap of composure just to keep her kneeling position without slumping sideways.
Ozai was no stranger to anger. Anger had been his constant companion for what must have been years. Anger sustained him, made him strong, kept him true to his course. He knew how to leash it, make it a tool.
But not like this. Last night had been a humiliation. Zhao was laughing at him, he knew it. He'd put his trust in his daughter, and she'd betrayed it, and made him look like a fool. After everything he had done for her, every moment invested in her, and she'd proved no better than her brother.
And now- he realised with a sudden start that she wasn't even listening to him, and the last thread of his self-control snapped.
Mai was roused from half-lucid drowsiness by the sudden lack of a presence at her back. Blinking herself awake, she pushed up, and was greeted by the broad expanse of Zuko's back, as he sat perched on the lip of the bed, facing the window. From the slope of his neck, he was staring at his hands, knotted in his lap.
"Hn," Mai said, by way of greeting.
Zuko slowly exhaled, and slumped further forward, hands uncurling and flopping limply by his sides.
"It wasn't an accident," he suddenly said, a breathless murmur, so quiet it was like he didn't want her to hear.
"What?" she asked, urgently, not because she hadn't heard but just to keep him talking, he'd made the step of talking about it, and it had been a long time coming, now she had to convince him to keep going.
"What happened to me. My scar. It wasn't an accident," he repeated, dully, like it had happened to someone else.
Slowly, gently, without even realising it, she began to slump further forward, until her forehead was resting on the cool wood of the floor. With a gentle sigh, she closed her eyes, relaxing just a little into the pressure on her skin.
With a dull, creeping horror, she realised that the room had gone very quiet. Father had stopped talking.
The floorboards shook, and as she suddenly jerked her head up, she caught a glimpse of the hem of his robe, whirling towards her as she quickly averted her eyes.
"Azula," he said, low and quiet, and she almost dared to hope, looking up.
His face was a mask.
"You have disappointed me. You have insulted me. You have embarrassed me beyond imagining. I grant you freedoms, and this is how I am repaid?" His nostrils flared, his neck bulged.
"Father-" this couldn't be right, she had never failed him, she had always done as he asked, this had to be a mistake-
"Enough. You have failed me, Azula." This had to be wrong she didn't even know what she had done wrong if she could just explain-
"You will be silent," he hissed, teeth clenched, the force of it tearing her eyes back down, staring unseeing at the floor.
After a pause, too long to hide her shaking, she heard his voice again, curt and clipped. "You will meet me in the training grounds. Ten minutes."
And with that, he was gone, and Azula was all alone. She forced herself to breathe, fighting the mad urge to run, or hide, or curl up on the floor and never move again. It was only Father. She had done nothing wrong. She had nothing to be afraid of.
Aang stopped short as he came across Prince Ozai, and waved.
Ozai bowed. "Avatar. On your way to meet my brother?"
Aang's forehead creased a little more, wrinkles shifting to get out of the way of his brow. "How in the world did you…"
The prince allowed himself a small chuckle. "He asked a lot of questions about you yesterday evening. Mainly he was interested in what teas you like."
Aang looked slightly befuddled. "…Hot?"
Ozai clapped Aang lightly on the shoulder. "Refrain from saying anything like that, and you should get along well enough. Now, you must excuse me."
"Yes, actually. I was hoping to teach Azula a few things."
"I'm kind of tempted to join you, actually. Maybe I can wrap up this meeting with your brother early, and swing by?"
Ozai's jaw dropped in horror. "You'd make an old man fight the Avatar? In front of his own daughter? You have no respect for my dignity, do you?"
Aang laughed, lightly. "Alright, you get away with it this time. But next time," he cackled, as Ozai paced away, "next time you are going to get it!"
"He had… a plan. I don't know the whole of it, he never told me, but he kept saying I had to be ready. He didn't tell me for what. He had me training for days at a time, but I wasn't- he told me I wasn't- good enough, or strong enough. He kept pushing me, over and over and I couldn't take it any more and I- I told him to stop.
"And he did this to me. He was so angry, and I couldn't- I didn't fight back, I just wanted him to see I couldn't do any more, that I wanted to do something other than learn how to fight- and when I woke up… he'd told everyone I did this to myself, that I'd been in an accident. And then I guess he moved on to Azula."
He stopped short, and slowly breathed in.
"He moved on to Azula," he repeated, voice trailing into nothing. He looked sick.
Mai shifted, uncomfortably. After a while, she cleared her throat.
"So what do you want to do?"
He blinked, helplessly. "I don't know. I don't know if there's anything to do. I just... I don't know."
Mai gripped his shoulder, gently.
"Well, I'm in favour of not moving until the servants get back and tidy this place up."
So it'd been a day. He was pretty sure it'd been a day, right? Time, as he was learning, went kind of funny when you were hung over. Point was, his head barely hurt any more, which meant it was probably dark outside, and he could very nearly think in complete sentences again, which meant time had definitely passed.
Which meant Azula'd been back at the palace all day. No worries there, that was, after all, where she lived, it contained her room and important stuff like that. It absolutely wasn't worrying him that she'd left before he'd even woken up, she'd probably been called away. It happened, probably.
Still, it would have been kind of nice to see her when he'd woken up. If nothing else, he could have laughed at her, because, if Katara was a trustworthy source, hungover people were hilarious.
Tomorrow. Yeah. He'd go up to the palace and visit her tomorrow. That sounded like a good plan. Let her sleep it off for the night.
Maybe in the morning his head wouldn't be hurting quite so much. He could always hope.