Zuko wakes up from a nightmare like, he thinks, the spirit of a dead man surfacing from a very low hell, only to find that he's simply ascended a level or two. That's the way his life works. He's still far enough away from Earth, let alone enlightenment. But he's ahead of the game in one way: he has a mantra.

"Azula always lies," he chants to himself. "Azula always lies."

Azula doesn't much care for lies. Oh, they're charming things, to be sure, and perhaps good for a bit of fun. But they're fun the way soap bubbles are fun--shiny one moment, gone the next. Lies can pop, and with every one that does, your truth means less. Besides, Azula has never much liked shiny things, except when they're knives.

She thinks that lying is like bringing a paper crane to a knife fight. You might give someone a paper cut, and those sting; but it's nothing like really stabbing. Knives, now: those are the way to go. They're beautiful and they can slit someone open any which way you like. Just like the truth.

Another metaphor occasionally occurs to her: it's like the difference between waterbending and firebending. A waterbender can slap you in the face with their element or slice at you with shards of ice. But the pain subsides. The cuts heal clean.

Firebending, though: that's another story. Its flames come at you like a warm kiss, and then they sear away your flesh and leave you forever bitterly scarred. It's harsh and hurtful and wonderfully real.

Azula loves firebending.

She loves the truth, too. She doesn't particularly care about the concept itself, although she's heard some people do. To her it's not about true things themselves, but about the way you can use them to play with people. And some people are more fun to play with this way than others.

Take Ty Lee, for instance (and why not?). She's too clever, knows Azula too well for either of their own good. She can see right through the lies. She's immune to them. In that way, she was even the one who taught Azula that the truth was more fun than lies in the first place.

Azula draws the ropes tight. She knows that it chafes; that's the point. "You're never going to get away," she tells Ty Lee, smiling.

"What, this time?" Ty Lee says. "I can get out of--" She bites down on her lip as Azula pulls harder on the bindings. They must be hurting her by now.

"No," Azula says. "I don't mean this time. I mean from me."

She can see it in Ty Lee's eyes, then. The lightning connection of having torn someone open and planted a painful truth in them. It's beautiful.

"Oh," Ty Lee says, not quite happy, not quite unhappy. "Oh."

Azula pats her on one bound wrist and walks away, warmth blossoming inside her.

Ty Lee can brush aside the lies by now, but she is not quite immune to the truth. Azula is glad of it. She thinks that if there is ever a day when the truth can no longer hurt Ty Lee, Azula will have to kill her. What a shame that would be.

And then there is Zuko.

The wonderful thing about her brother is that sometimes it seems like on the inside, he's still a little child, somehow littler than she ever was, and always will be. Nearly anything she does to him can hurt him. His exposed heart has soft spots everywhere, and it's so easy to find one for the knife.

"Good night, big brother," Azula says. "I have to tuck you in now that Mother's gone."

"You didn't come here to tuck me in," Zuko says, his voice haughty and his eyes narrowed as if he has just unraveled some secret plan and discovered, at the bottom of it, a tattered note advising him, Do not listen to Azula's lies. He is always like that around her, and it makes him so much more amusing.

She doesn't deny this revelation of his. Instead, she leans in close and says, "Our mother can never come back, Zuzu."

His eyes widen in pain and fear, and her heart sings like a rare electric current as the strike hits. "You're lying!" he snaps. "Stop it!"

"Never," she says. "Ever ever." Perhaps a little gratuitous, but something about Zuko brings out that sort of immaturity in her. Maybe that's just how brothers and sisters are.

He leaps to his feet, punching ineffectually at her. "Liar! Get out!"

It's enough. She's laughing as she goes, knowing what she'll hear as she leaves him alone:

"Azula always lies. Azula always lies. Azula always lies!"

Zuko is special. Of course she can't admit it, but Azula hopes he never changes.

Zuko can't get back to sleep. He curls up in his sparse blankets, drawing them about him as a substitute for the real warmth he's lacked for so long. It's no help. His thoughts and his hurts won't leave him alone.

And he mutters to himself.

His world is disjointed and wrong, cracked at the corners. None of the pieces seem to fit anymore--they're the wrong size and shape, or perhaps he is. Sometimes, like now, he can't help but think it's the latter. Something in him is broken and wrong in a way he can never fix, and he can't ever be what he should.

But he has these words. If he repeats them enough, they'll be true, and then everything will be right again--or maybe right like it never was before.

"Azula always lies. Azula always lies. Azula always lies."