Shūrin's laughter spilled over the deck even as she held herself up by her hands and knees, sweat dripping from her chin and down her forehead. Her laughter was pitchy and off, an unnerving thing like the tingling pad of spider legs down the spine. She brushed the grey-threaded hairs from her face. Strands got caught on her fingers and broke off in clumps. It didn't even faze her. It did faze Hina.
"How can you laugh?" Hina hissed. "You got shut out. You failed!"
"He is perfect." Shūrin closed her eyes, letting her head fall back as she embraced the sun. "I can't even be disappointed. Of course he shut me out. Of course he succeeded. He is my perfect vessel."
Hina's hands balled into fists. "And what of Shen?"
"What about him?"
"You know exactly what! His body is falling apart!"
Shūrin flicked the clumps of hair off her fingers. "Some sacrifices must be made."
"Sacrifices?" Hina took a hasty step forward, hands itching to grab the monstrous thing that had taken over her friend and shake her right out of his body. "This was not part of our agreement! You swore that Shen would be returned to me!"
"And so he shall."
"In what condition? When he can barely stand? When he can barely even move?"
"Believe me, I have done my best to protect Shen from corruption. I even let Atsuo go in order to lessen the strain on your dear friend's body."
"Your best?" An angry, swollen thing clawed at Hina's throat. "You call this your best?"
"Like I said, some sacrifices must be made. I can only work with what I have."
Hina wanted to scream. For so long she had followed this monster, obeying orders, pretending that she wasn't sickened by the body-snatching thing. Silencers were trained to put their emotions aside. It was just part of the job to do what others could not. But working for Shūrin was like being trapped in an eternal nightmare. Hina hated it. All she'd been able to do was cling to the deal they'd made, to the belief that one day it would all be over and she would have Shen back at her side.
The end had to justify the means. That was what she had told herself every day.
But now all she saw were bruising shadows and clumps of grey-streaked hair falling out. She saw stooped shoulders and far too sallow skin. She saw her best friend broken. Withering.
"He doesn't care about you any more than he does me."
Princess Azula had been right. Hina had always known it as well. She had just wanted to believe that the deal actually meant something. She had wanted to believe there was hope.
"How much longer?" she demanded, voice low and gravelled with emotion. "How much longer will Shen last if you keep abusing his body like this? How much more are you planning to push him?"
Shūrin stood up, all wobble and sways. Her eyes were deadened calm sheathed in the otherworldly—the stare of a person who has lived for hundreds of years and has forgotten what it means to be human. "As much as it takes."
Invisible fingers closed around Hina's heart, squeezing and squeezing.
"My purpose will not be denied. Not by you, not by this weakening vessel, nor by Prince Zuko." Shūrin spread her hands, and for the first time her voice took on a hint of passion. "All these years I have watched over my kind, keeping us hidden from a world that didn't deserve us, keeping us secret so that history would not repeat. I waited for the right moment, for the world to change so that fire healers could have a place in it again." Her expression once more took on that look of deadened calm. "But the world didn't change. It will never change. That is why I must act now while I have the chance. I will finish what I started all those centuries ago."
"You're going to get Shen killed!"
"Hina, Hina, we are talking about the fate of all fire healers. A life or two lost is nothing compared to what can be gained."
Hina's fists trembled. "You made a deal. You said you never break your promises!"
"I promised that Shen would be returned to you after I got my new vessel. I never said what condition he would be in."
The invisible fingers around Hina's heart squeezed even more. Everything seemed to burn—her chest, her throat, her eyes. "I won't let you," she gritted out. "I won't let you hurt him anymore!"
"And what are you going to do? Fight me?" Shūrin moved closer, gaze as cold and empty as a void. "Even if you block my chi, Shen and I are one. You cannot physically remove me from him."
Tears wormed free in bitter prickles. Hina's jaw locked and her nails dug into her palms.
"You are helpless, Hina. You have always been helpless." Shūrin closed the last bit of space between them. Her face was dear and familiar, but there was nothing of Shen in that expression, nor in the voice. "But don't worry, I can still make you useful. I'm going to need more power if I am to subdue Prince Zuko."
Hina closed her eyes. She knew what was coming, and though everything in her screamed to fight back, to do something, her heart was too crushed. Everything had been for nothing. Everything. All she was left with was a painful awareness of her own despicability: of every life she had snatched, every torture inflicted, of the fact she had been willing to sacrifice a sixteen-year-old boy to a creature she knew was nothing better than a monster. So many justifications, so many lies.
She had been such a fool.
A thumb pressed to her forehead and a hand came over her heart. Again, self-preservation kicked in like a jerking nerve, demanding she fight back. But resisting would only put more strain on Shen's body. Hina couldn't do it. She just couldn't.
The thumb shifted to a caress and the hand on her heart pulled away. "Run."
Hina froze. Every bit of her stilled—heart, blood, pulse. She couldn't breathe.
"Run, Hina. Or end me now."
Her eyelashes fluttered open and she gazed down into Shen's face. His features had always been on the generic side, but for once they lacked the doll-like blandness she had seen for so many years. His teeth were gritted and his eyes blazed in a mixture of affection and pain.
The name fell from her lips in a whisper. He winced, body juddering as if an earthquake were happening inside him. A hiss escaped through his teeth.
"Shen!" She gripped his shoulders, tears splashing down her cheeks. "It is you! Tell me how to help you! Tell me how to—"
"You can't help me, Hina. Not in the way you want."
"But you're right here! You broke through! That has to mean—"
"The boy did something to loosen Shūrin's hold when he pushed back against her energy, but I don't know how much longer I can keep her at bay. She's too strong. Any second I'm going to be overwhelmed."
"Then I'll find Prince Zuko again! I'll—"
"I'm telling you there's no point! Either run or kill me now, because I won't be able to stop her once she gets control again."
"No!" She tightened her grip and looked down into his eyes. "There has to be a way. I can't—I won't let you—"
"I'm going to die anyway." He cupped her cheek. "I'd rather it be by your hand than hers."
Tears blurred her vision. "You can't ask this of me."
"You're the only one I can ask. My partner, my friend, I know you have stayed by my side for all these years, but please just end this. End it for your sake. End it for mine." He lowered his gaze. "But if this request is too much, then run. Run so I at least won't have to watch her use me to make you suffer more. Run and save yourself."
Hina could only shake her head, the lump in her throat choking all words.
He groaned and staggered to his knees. Control was slipping from him like cupped water. She knew there wasn't much time. The void flickered in his eyes, threatening to drag him deep into the abyss that was Shūrin.
"End it for your sake. End it for mine."
Trembling, tears wetting her face, she unsheathed the knife she kept at her hip. A deep exhale stilled her hands. "I'll make it quick. I promise."
His smile shattered before it even fully formed. Her heart lurched. Too late, too late! Fire slammed into her stomach, knocking her clean off her feet. A crack of her skull against the deck, a dizzying splash of flashes and blurs. The knife was gone. Pain sizzled her flesh in a scream of hurt, hurt, hurt. She blinked and the world formed again, giving shape to the face of a monster.
"Oh, Hina," Shūrin said in that tone of deadened calm. "You really shouldn't have done that."
Zuko stared up at the ceiling of his small cabin. For all his body ached with exhaustion, sleep eluded like scattered dandelion seeds in the wind. He was still trying to process everything that had happened: learning the truth about Shen, escaping with Ty Lee, breaking the bond. Azula had even helped in the end, though she'd later played it off as just wanting to get one-up over Shūrin. Still, Ty Lee had seemed happy before Mai had taken her off to get some proper rest.
There had been quieter moments as well. Talking with Shizue, visiting his mum, though the latter had been bittersweet. His mum still hadn't woken. It was hard to look at her emaciated face and see how much she had changed, but at least she was safe. At least they were together and she was no longer possessed by a spirit.
He sighed and closed his eyes. There was a light tap on the door. His brows pinched. Who would be coming to visit him at this time of night? He'd told everyone in the mess hall at least an hour ago that he was going to bed.
The tap came again, this time louder. Frowning, he stood up and crossed to the door, opening it a crack. Katara stood on the other side. She fidgeted with her tunic, and though it may have been a trick of the fire glow, her cheeks looked a bit pink.
"Can I come in?" she asked.
He held the door open, closing it softly behind her and pressing his back to the cool metal. "What's up?"
"I couldn't sleep."
Her hair was loose tonight and fell in brown waves to her waist. She tucked a lock behind her ear, not quite meeting his gaze. "Is it okay if I stay with you for a while?"
Something stirred in his chest like a flutter of wings, soft and ephemeral. He nodded.
They sat together on his bed, close enough for him to feel the warmth of her leg pressing against his. It was only a few heartbeats before she moved even closer. Zuko blinked but didn't resist, moving his arm so she could curl up more against his side. Her hair tickled his jaw and a hint of soap teased his senses. She must have bathed not that long ago.
"Your hair," he murmured, hand hovering near the cascading strands, resisting the urge to touch. "I don't normally see you wearing it down."
"Water Tribe girls don't, that's why. I only leave it loose when I go to sleep, and even then I don't bother most of the time."
She emerged from the little nook she'd created against his chest and reached up to play with the tips of his own dark strands. "What about you? Is it normal to wear your hair down like this in the Fire Nation? You always wore it partly shaved and pulled back in that silly ponytail when we first met you."
Heat touched his cheeks. "That was called a phoenix plume, and the only reason I shaved part of my hair is because …"
Her fingers, which had still been playing with a lock of his hair, stilled and the smile on her lips faded. "What?"
"Nothing. Don't worry about it."
She stared at him for a moment, then her gaze shifted to the left. To his scar. "Was it because of …"
He bit his lip and looked the other way, grateful when his fringe fell forward to hide the ugly mass of scarred tissue. "I didn't have much choice at the beginning," he admitted. "The burn was bad. When I was finally able to remove all the bandages, I just … I didn't feel it was right to grow my hair out. It felt shameful somehow to hide the scar."
"My father meant it to be a brand of dishonour. I'm sure he wanted me to—"
She jerked upright. "Your father gave you your scar?"
Zuko blinked. "You didn't know?"
Her horrified expression told him no. He swallowed and explained in a halting voice what had happened when he was thirteen: the war meeting, the Agni Kai, the branding and the banishment. She asked a few questions to clarify things, but otherwise did not interrupt. Once he had finished, she was quick to wrap her arms fiercely around him.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry he did that to you. You didn't deserve to be hurt like that."
Zuko could have told her not to worry—that he was over it now and it was fine—but that would be a lie. He didn't want to lie to her. So he just relaxed into her embrace, practically melting into her softness and warmth. She clutched him harder in response.
He wasn't sure how long they stayed like that, but when she did pull back, there was a determined glint in her eyes. She brushed some of his hair from his face, then leaned forward and placed a kiss on his scar. He went very still. The kiss itself was dulled, for he couldn't feel much on that part of his face anymore, but the act itself left him speechless. It also made heat spill over his unscarred cheek.
"Um," he said intelligently.
Her lips curved up at the corners, though her own cheeks looked a bit flushed. "For the record, I much prefer your hair like this, but not because it hides your scar." She pushed more of the thick strands from his face and her eyes were soft as she met his gaze. "You'd look just as good with your hair pulled back."
His blush darkened and spread. Even the tips of his ears felt hot. It sounded like she was saying she found him attractive. The thought made his pulse stutter a little. Still, there was another part of him that refused to believe her. His scar was big and disfiguring. He'd spent three years pretending to ignore the repulsion, morbid fascination, and pity that his face inspired in people. Sure, Ty Lee had called him "hot", but she was a compulsive flirt who called everyone cutie or whatever else came to her head. He hadn't taken her seriously.
But Katara was not a compulsive flirt. He didn't know what to make of her words or the kiss she'd given him. He certainly didn't know how to accept her compliment gracefully.
"You don't have to say that to make me feel better," he muttered, pulling away so that his hair slipped free of her fingers and once more veiled his scar.
He frowned. "Katara, I get you want to be nice, but we both know my scar is ugly."
"I don't think it is."
Frustration prickled under his skin. "Of course it is. Just look at it!" He pointed at the ruined flesh. "How can anyone look at that and not be put off?"
She took his hand and lowered it, then traced her fingers along the scarred ridges and planes of his face. His breath caught in his throat. Of course the sensation of her touch was dulled, but he knew how gentle she was being. It was in the warmth of her expression, in the gaze that whispered of affection and something else—something he'd only ever caught from her in shy snatches.
Her fingertips brushed near his twisted eye, and he closed both eyes in surrender, letting her explore up to his hairless eyebrow and farther into his hair. He'd allowed Toph to do something similar once, but this was different. Katara wasn't trying to figure out how his scar looked through touch. She knew what he looked like and she was telling him it was okay. No repulsion, no pity, just acceptance.
His eyes opened and met hers. So blue. So, so close.
"Don't be ashamed of how you look," she said softly. "There's nothing wrong with you. And the scar? I don't see it as a mark of dishonour. I see it as a mark of bravery. You were thirteen, yet you were willing to risk everything to protect your countrymen. There's no shame in that."
He could only stare at her, words lost somewhere in his throat. Fortunately, she didn't expect a response and just snuggled back up against him. The little flutters stirred in his chest again. He glanced at the top of her head, then simply relaxed into her and brought his arm around her waist.
They spoke of lighter topics after that. Simple, easy things that wouldn't disturb the quietness of the moment. Still, something had changed between them. It was a new awareness, a new layer. Holding her still felt natural, but it also made him that much more conscious of every place where they touched. When he finally dared to run his fingers through her hair, his heart beat faster. When she got sleepier and slumped more against him, practically falling into his lap, he stopped breathing altogether.
"Maybe you should head back to your own cabin," he murmured, shifting her off him so that she was lying on the futon instead. "It's late."
"Just a bit longer."
She made a sleepy sound and tugged at his tunic as if to pull him down to join her. His pulse thrummed, but it was a frown he directed at her.
"Katara, you can't sleep here."
Her eyes opened and she looked up at him with a slight pout. "Don't want to move."
"You know you have to."
She just slow blinked at him for a moment before closing her eyes again. When there was no other response, he gave her arm a light prod. Still no response.
He sighed and rubbed a hand over his face, letting out a huge yawn. He was too tired to deal with this. Short of carrying her back to her cabin, it seemed there would be no moving her.
"Fine," he muttered.
He pulled the blanket over her, then flopped down beside her and closed his eyes. It wasn't like they hadn't shared a bed before. It wasn't like anything was going to happen. Yet the fact he had to reassure himself of this at all told him that everything was different about this situation.
Everything was different between them.
The next day, everyone gathered around the tables in the mess hall to discuss what they would do next. The eclipse was looming, but since a big part of the plan to stop the Fire Lord relied on Aang being able to go into the Avatar State, no one was quite sure how to proceed. There was also the issue of Shūrin.
"Shen—I mean Shūrin did say that you could get your power back if you went to the Spirit World," Katara reminded Aang. "I know she's awful, but she did keep her word. Maybe she was telling the truth about that."
Aang chewed on his fingernail. "I guess, but how am I supposed to get into the Spirit World? It's not like there's a door I can just walk inside. Every time I've crossed into it, it's 'cause I've gone into the Avatar State."
"Hei Bai took me there once," Sokka said. "Maybe you could hitch a ride with him."
Aang shook his head. "I don't think it works that way."
There was a lull in conversation as they all frowned over this problem.
Iroh stroked his beard. "There are ways to enter the Spirit World without being the Avatar, but it is dangerous. I did it myself once many years ago."
Zuko sat up straighter, glancing at his uncle in interest. He'd heard that his uncle had gone on a spirit journey not long after Lu Ten's death, but he'd always felt like he couldn't broach the subject. It was just something they didn't talk about.
"How did you do it?" Hakoda asked.
"There are places where the veil is thinner in this world, places of high spiritual energy. The oasis in the Northern Water Tribe is one, as is the Foggy Swamp."
"Our tribe is also like that," Yuzo added.
Iroh nodded to show he remembered. As Zuko recalled, some members of the tribe were able to tap into the energy there to locate other fire healers.
"These places can work like a portal if you perform a certain ritual," Iroh explained. "But, as I said, it's very dangerous."
"What kind of danger are we talking here, Gramps?" Toph asked.
"The deadly kind. There's a high risk Aang will die if he goes through with this."
Aang audibly gulped. "Dying doesn't sound good."
"No," Iroh agreed. "I wouldn't have even mentioned it, but …"
He didn't need to finish his sentence. The world needed the Avatar, not just to end the Hundred Year War in a way that didn't include mass, comet-charged death and destruction, but also to help maintain the balance between human and spirits. That was the whole point of being the bridge between worlds.
Katara gave Aang a small hug of reassurance, saying that he didn't have to do the ritual. She was sure they could find another way.
"Those bonds of Prince Zuko's are pretty powerful," Tomoki observed. "Maybe he can take the Avatar's place during the eclipse and—"
Everyone blinked at Zuko. Heat rose to his cheeks as he realised he'd been a bit too forceful. He cleared his throat, rubbing the base of his neck.
"I just … I don't think it's a good idea to use the bonds for battle," he said. "I'm just an ordinary bender unless I drain others' chi, and I really don't want to mess around with that."
Sokka placed a hand on his arm. "I get why you'd be reluctant, man, but what you did for Ty Lee was pretty intense. You had some serious power going on there. We could feel it coming off you and everything. I mean, you actually shut Shūrin out and cut the bond."
Ty Lee nodded, smiling from where she sat next to Mai and on Aang's other side. (Mai and Aang were on unofficial Ty Lee Watching Duty. It wasn't that people thought she was going to do anything bad, but it made the more paranoid types feel better considering she had fought at Azula's side right up to the end during the struggle for Ba Sing Se.)
"Yeah, I was stronger," Zuko said, "but we're talking about draining people of their chi. Uncle, Aang, Katara and Azula were all hugely weakened from that. I had to give chi back to them in the end."
That was one of the small blessings about being a fire healer. He bounced back much faster after chi loss.
Atsuo began to sign something, leaving Yuzo to verbalise his words so everyone could understand.
"Zuko is right that it's not a good idea to rely on the bonds. We get taught in the tribe to limit our bonds to one person if we can. We're even taught how to reduce the chances of forming one when we heal. It's because the bonds are dangerous. The more you have and the more power you draw from them, the easier it is to be corrupted. Even those bonded to a fire healer can get corrupted."
"Corrupted?" Hakoda questioned. "What do you mean?"
"It's what happened to Shūrin and her followers during the civil war. Their bodies wasted away. Apparently, that's not even the worst of the effects." Yuzo lowered his gaze. "Well, I guess that's obvious now since we all know what happened to Shen."
"But Zuko is bonded to heaps of people," Sokka pointed out. "He seems fine. So does everyone bonded to him."
"Why do you think Shūrin wants him so much? Most of us can barely handle one bond. That's why your friend here is special. He hasn't got weaker; he just keeps getting stronger. It's like he doesn't feel the strain at all."
Zuko frowned. That was true. He hadn't felt any backlash from drawing upon the others' chi. It was only when he gave up his own energy that he struggled, but even that had got easier since he'd figured out more efficient ways to heal.
Ty Lee pressed her finger to her chin in a pensive gesture. "I think Shūrin is experiencing this corruption thingy. When she broke the seal on my bending, she looked really fragile and had all these new grey hairs all of a sudden. It was scary."
A small hiss escaped Yuzo. "That's definitely corruption. Shen is more gifted than most, but Shūrin doesn't care about limits. She must have been pushing him too hard."
There was another moment of silence as everyone dwelled on what that would mean for Shen.
"Well," Hakoda said, daring to break the tense pause, "I guess we'll just have to—"
The doors to the mess hall were thrust open. Zuko turned on instinct, only for his heart to boom through him in a sudden pulse. His mother was standing there, awake and head darting this way and that as if she were searching for someone.
He was on his feet in an instant. She smiled—her smile—and closed the distance between them, pulling him into her arms. Zuko didn't even try to stop the tears that slipped from his eyes. He clutched her hard, burrowing his face into her shoulder.
"Let's give them some privacy."
He thought it might have been his uncle who said the words. Either way, there was soon the sound of benches scraping against metal and many footsteps as everyone cleared from the mess hall so only the two of them were left.
"I'm so glad you're okay," Zuko managed to choke out.
She rubbed his back soothingly and murmured soft things: how she loved him, how she had missed him. "I never wanted to leave you," she breathed into his hair. "I so desperately wanted to take you and Azula with me."
"Why didn't you?"
She explained how Ozai had threatened her. He'd made it very clear that she was to leave without her children or none of them would live. With no other choice, she had departed with Shizue and accepted her banishment. But she had never given up on getting Zuko and Azula back. She had plotted ways to enter the Fire Nation palace to spirit them both off or at least stay to watch over them. In fact, Shizue had ended up having to forcibly stop her on multiple occasions.
"Shizue was right not to let me go," Ursa said ruefully. "I was being reckless, and it would have only put you and Azula in danger had I made it to the palace."
Zuko pulled back to meet her gaze, his face wet with tears.
Sadness tinged her eyes and she cupped his scarred cheek. "But it seems I failed you anyway. I'm sorry, Zuko. I should not have trusted your father to keep his promise."
"It's not your fault."
And he knew that now. His mother had really tried her best. She had done everything she could to keep him safe, to reunite with him again.
Her lips curved slightly. "Look at you. You've grown so much. Are you the same height as me now?" She raised her hand above their heads to measure, and a small laugh escaped her. "You are. Looks like you finally caught up."
Zuko wanted to cry again. How many times had he measured his height against her when he was a child, determined to one day look her straight in the eyes, no tiptoes? How many times had she laughingly told him to be patient and eat all his greens if he wanted to get bigger than her?
"Mum." He crashed into her again, holding her thin frame close.
Ursa stroked his hair and allowed him to cry and hug her as much as he wanted. Maybe he had grown up a lot, but in that moment he was just a boy who had missed his mother. He was allowed to be emotional.
The hold was quiet except for the sound of the sea lapping against the sides of the ship. Azula sat stiffly on her cushion and stared at her mother. "You actually bothered to visit me?" she said in a cool voice. "I thought you'd still be with Zu—"
Ursa swiftly closed the distance between them and knelt, yanking her into her arms. Azula went very still. The hug was tight, almost painful. She could feel every rib and bony point on her mother's wasted frame. But the hug was also warm. It whispered for her to relax and sink into the embrace. Azula remained rigid, arms slack at her sides.
"Azula," Ursa murmured.
"You don't have to pretend to be happy to see me."
The words were clipped, cold.
"Why would I pretend?" Ursa pulled back to meet her gaze. "I am happy to see you."
A little lump clawed its way into Azula's throat. She swallowed it back down. "Oh please, Mother. I know you always thought me a monster."
"That's not true."
"Isn't it? Then look me in the eyes and tell me that I'm not a disappointment to you. Tell me that you didn't wish I was more like Zuko. Tell me that you didn't wonder what was wrong with me or why I just couldn't be normal." She raised her chin, jaw tight. "Well?"
Ursa frowned. "Is that what you thought?"
"It's the truth, isn't it?"
Amber eyes, identical to her own, tinged with sadness. "Oh, my love. I have failed you."
Azula could only blink as she was pulled into her mother's arms again. This wasn't how the confrontation was meant to go.
"That I should have made you feel such things." Ursa tightened her hold. "You are my daughter. You are my brave, clever daughter. Of course you're not a monster."
No. Azula wriggled and squirmed, refusing to be part of this lie. She didn't want to hear these words. They were all fake, fake, fake.
"I love you, Azula. I have always loved you. Just because I scolded you sometimes or encouraged you to follow your brother's example in being kind to others doesn't change that. That's just what mums do."
Something hot stung Azula's eyes. She squeezed them shut so no moisture could escape. "You're lying."
"I'm not. I promise you I'm not."
"Then why did you give all your attention to Zuko? Why was it always about him? Why did you never care when I got lonely or scared?"
The words slipped out before Azula could stop them. She bit her lip, frustrated at her inability to stay in control of her mouth. Weakness wasn't something to be exposed.
"That was my mistake. You were too good at putting on a brave face, my love. But I shouldn't have assumed you were okay. I'm sorry."
Azula bit her lip harder. The lump was back in her throat, and though a part of her kept screaming "Liar", another part of her yearned to just accept. She had been denying what her heart wanted for so long.
Ursa placed a soft kiss on her forehead. "Do you remember what I told you on the night I left?"
"You told me to be kind to others."
"Yes, but what else?"
A small pause. "You said you would think of me every day."
"And so I did. Every day we were separated, I dreamed of you and wondered what you were doing, how much you had grown, whether you still remembered me."
"I'm not exactly going senile, Mother. Of course I didn't forget you."
Ursa laughed lightly. "No, you wouldn't. You've always had such a good memory."
Azula took no pleasure in the compliment. It always felt like there was a "but" attached to anything her mother said to her. Even now.
Ursa let out a breath and just held her close for a moment. Azula still had not returned the embrace.
"Will you let me try again?" Ursa said softly. "Will you let me try to be a better mother to you?"
"Why? You must know the reason I'm being kept in here."
"I was told, yes."
The lump got tighter in her throat. "Then you know that I really am a monster. I've hurt people. I tortured Mai. I even tried to kill Zuko."
A slight pause. "Do you feel bad for those things?"
"I don't know …"
It was the simple truth. She didn't know what she felt. Father had taught her that things like compassion and remorse were for the weak, but the truth was she'd just never quite understood such feelings. It had been easy to follow the pragmatic path. It had been easy to be what others perceived as cruel.
"Well, ask yourself this," Ursa said in a surprisingly gentle tone, pulling back to meet her gaze. "Do you still wish to hurt Mai?"
"Not now, but if she crossed me again I might."
Better to be honest. Better to test how far her mother was willing to be around her monster of a child.
"What about Zuko? Do you wish he was dead?"
This time Azula was not so quick to respond. Eventually, she just gave a small shake of her head.
"Then I think we can work with that."
Her eyes widened. "What are you talking about?"
"Why don't you let me help you this time and then maybe you'll understand?" Ursa offered her hand.
Azula stared at her mother for a long moment. With every second that passed, it felt like a war was going on inside her. One half wanted to take her mother's hand and just surrender, just let it all go. The other half clung to Father's mantras. Caring was for the weak. Wanting to be loved was for the weak. If she took Mother's hand, she'd be disappointing Father. She'd prove she was no better than Zuko.
But she was so, so tired.
She was so tired and maybe, just maybe, she actually did want to be loved. Maybe she didn't want to just rely on fear to keep people around her.
She swallowed and clasped her mother's hand. It was such a small gesture, but it brought the warmest of smiles to Ursa's face. Azula was soon pulled into another hug. This time, she returned the embrace.
So we come to the end of The Silencers. Hope you liked it!