Before You Read and Disclaimer: This chapter of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book 4: Air, will be from the third-person point of view of Zuko and Azula respectively. Whenever you see a line through the page, please know that there is a point of view switch! If you see this: 8-8, this means we're in the same POV. Also, I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender – it belongs solely to Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, and Nickelodeon.
Behind the Witch's Eyes
In a half-forgotten dream, he remembered his mother telling him to "never forget who he was, no matter how things seemed to change." At the time, it seemed like nothing more than a statement, which he promised to immediately. He never realized then how hard it would be to keep that promise. At many points in his life, the promise escaped him completely and he forgot who he was. He lived at the whim of what others told him: weak, dishonored, banished, stupid, naïve. It took him years to find himself again, but he did. And he realized, on more than one occasion, that he probably would have been lost if it weren't for someone in particular…
Zuko stood on the porch to his Uncle Iroh's apartment in Ba Sing Se, watching the Avatar disappear into the horizon on his flying bison. He was smirking; the irony was not lost to him. After dedicating three years to finding the Avatar, seeing him fly away from him without so much as a twinge of frustration made him smile. How irritated his old self would have been to see himself hugging the Avatar! The thought made him laugh silently, shaking his head. For whatever it was worth, Aang would be a great Avatar, he thought, even if he was goofy and a wise-guy at times.
He heard the door creak open behind him. He twisted around to see his Uncle standing there, blinking into the first rays of dawn, his hair and beard ruffled from the night's sleep. Yawning and stretching, he turned to Zuko.
"So he's left." It was not so much a question as it was a statement.
"Yeah, he's gone. He told me to say 'bye' to you and that he liked your tea," Zuko said.
"Such a nice boy," Iroh said, smiling. "But, nephew, isn't it a little early for you to be up? Why not go in and sleep some more – soon you'll be home again and sleep might not be a luxury you can afford."
Zuko's eyes narrowed as he stared at the squashed azalea bush in front of the porch. "I couldn't sleep."
His Uncle rubbed his beard, scrutinizing his nephew. "Something troubles you."
"Uncle, can't you come back to Capital City with me? Somebody could take over your shop temporarily while you're gone," Zuko said quickly, spinning to look at his Uncle.
Iroh sighed heavily and placed a hand on Zuko's shoulder. "No, Zuko, I cannot come with you."
"But why, Uncle?" Zuko shouted, his face screwed up in an attempt to keep himself from crying. "You're the only one I trust at home, and I'm going to need your advice. You're not going to want to stay in the Earth Kingdom forever are you?"
Smiling sadly, Iroh said, "Zuko, my time is over. I'm too old for politics and the strenuous lifestyle of the court. My place is here, doing what I love with the last of my years. I have done all I can by you, but it is now your time to rise and rule, not as how your Uncle would rule, but how Fire Lord Zuko would. Remember everything that I have told you, and whenever you are in doubt, trust who you are. What does your heart say is the right thing? As long as you wait and listen Zuko, everything will be revealed to you."
Zuko bit his lip and then said, in a strained voice, "Uncle, you've been more of a father to me than my own. What am I going to do without you?"
"Zuko, if you ever need me, know that I am already with you, in spirit." Iroh pointed to Zuko's heart. "Just as all the elements rely and connect together, so, too, do we all connect to each other. And, just as the spirits themselves work in mysterious ways, so does the spirit of the human soul. Zuko, remember that we are connected in more ways than just blood." Iroh patted Zuko on the shoulder and grinned broadly. "And, if you're ever in the mood for some great tea, and the spiritual me isn't doing it for you, you could always come and see me in the flesh – I'll be here waiting for you…," Iroh paused to wipe a tear from his eye, before continuing, "… my son."
And the two embraced, hugging each other closely for what they felt like would be the last in ages. As they withdrew, smiling and wiping tears from their eyes, the door banged open.
Mai stood in the doorway, in nothing but a burgundy silk robe. "Is there anything in the kitchen besides tea leaves, chocolate, peanut butter, sizzle-crisps, and fried dumplings?" she accused, holding the containers up in her hands.
"Well, I lost all this weight in prison, and I have to put it back on somehow," Iroh said, chortling.
Smiling, Zuko said, turning to his Uncle, "Maybe we should go shopping today – Mai and I do need some provisions before we return home."
Iroh nodded, also smiling, "I'd love that."
The five of them, Zuko, Mai, Sokka, Katara, and Toph, took the route through the Serpent's Pass. It would have been a difficult, long journey through the pass if it wasn't for Zuko's own Firebending, Katara's Waterbending, Mai's knives, and the pieces of metal that Toph kept throwing around the vicinity when the Serpent began attacking the ship. Toph was frustrated that she was unable to make contact with the Serpent once, so she retreated, held onto a ship pole, and began complaining about the group's last two encounters with the Serpent, while the others fought. But, after about only five minutes, the Serpent left the ship, realizing that maybe facing any ingoing or outgoing ships was more effort than it was worth. And so, the group made it through the pass and out the channel to the western side of the Earth Kingdom. It would take another day until they hit Omashu on the coast, where Katara and Sokka planned to wait for a Southern Water Tribe ship to take them home, while Toph preferred to travel by land the rest of the way south to her home in Gaoling. From Omashu, the ship would head back north to the Fire Nation – to his future in Capital City.
Zuko sat leaning against a stack of crates at the bow of the boat. His head hurt after playing Pai Sho with Sokka for nearly half the day. Despite the fact that his Uncle played it nearly every day while he accompanied Zuko across the world tracking the Avatar, none of his Uncle's skills rubbed off on him. Sick of staring at the colored tiles, he left Sokka, Katara, and Toph to their own devices, deciding instead to watch the drifting landscape.
"You weren't just going to leave me alone with them were you?"
Zuko looked up to see Mai leaning against the same stack of crates as he was. Her arms were crossed, her expression bored, but there was a light in her amber eyes that indicated something else.
"If you're bored Mai, you won't find any respite here," Zuko said sardonically. "I don't think staring at the landscape is your kind of thing."
"Maybe not," Mai said, drifting closer and sitting next to him. "But, then again, I must be crazy, since I'd rather be here with you, watching the landscape, than playing dress up with your friends."
Zuko and Mai peeked around the stack of crates to the middle of the ship, where Katara, Sokka, and Toph were… in an array of different outfits. Sokka was in his fire nation ensemble, outfitted with a beard and moustache, while Katara was wearing the new blue skirt she bought in Ba Sing Se and elaborate makeup, her hair parted to the side and swept up into a loose bun. Zuko watched as Katara forced Toph into a little dark green dress and slippers, which Toph immediately bellowed, "I can't see in these things!" when they were on her feet. Now, Katara was undoing Toph's hair from her bun and attempting to twist and braid the knotted mess into the traditional hair of the water tribe. Toph was hissing and moaning the entire time while Sokka laughed in the corner. Toph silenced him quickly as she pounded the ground with her feet and moved the metal flooring underneath Sokka so that he fell on his face.
"To believe you were with them for awhile…" Mai said, shaking her head. "How did you stand it?"
"Actually it wasn't so bad – except when they decided to go see that play by the Ember Island Players… oh, and when they had a beach party a couple days before Sozin's Comet…"
"Zuko," Mai said, leaning on his shoulder. "You'll come to my father's party, won't you? I'm sure my father will be honored to host the Fire Lord."
"Of course I'll come. I wouldn't let you hate the world by yourself," he said with a small smile.
Mai moved in closer and said, "Zuko, why are you really up here?"
Zuko sighed, staring into the waning hours of daylight. "My mother once told me that I should never forget who I am, but, now that I know who I am, I feel like I'm starting to forget who she was."
"You'll find her Zuko," Mai said softly.
"If my father will tell me." Zuko leaned forward, hands clenching his forehead. "And that's a big if. And now, I have an entire country to run and what if I screw that up like –"
Mai grasped Zuko on the shoulder and placed a finger to his lips. "You know, I kind of miss the Zuko who didn't think things through."
Zuko stared at her uncomprehendingly.
She made an exasperated noise and said, "It's nice to have plans for some things, but don't dwell on things that you have no control over. Your thing with your father, mother, and sister will work itself out. And you're already a great Fire Lord, so stop stressing out about it."
Zuko turned to look at her. She only had a slight smile on her lips, but her eyes were alight, revealing more about her mood than her outer expression. He placed a hand on her smooth cheek, tracing circles into her skin with his thumb before pulling her in for a…
"STOP THE BOAT!" Sokka screamed.
Zuko dropped his hand from Mai's face, her lips already parted and ready to invite him in, and jumped up from behind the crates in a rage. Mai toppled over and then stood up too, her face annoyed and her mouth full of her hair, which she spat out.
"Sokka! What's wrong?" Zuko yelled back, staring around the ship for pirates, strange animal boardings, or environment-related hindrances.
"Stop the boat! STOP THE BOAT!" Sokka continued to shout as he pointed eagerly out the port side of the ship. "It's there! Katara, do you see it? It's right there!"
"What's there? What are you guys talking about?" Zuko demanded, walking over to where Sokka was standing and straining his eyes to see over to the distant shoreline. He realized with a mild shock that they were passing the Wulong Forest, where Aang had fought his father in one of the last battles of the war. Tall rock formations towered over the land, with scarce vegetation among its crevasses. Black and brown scorch marks scraped the forest here and there where he could only imagine the battle that took place within.
"Sokka thinks that that thing over there is his sword that he lost when he was bringing down some airships with Suki and Toph," Katara explained from behind Zuko.
Zuko squinted and saw a long object protruding from a rock near the shoreline. From this distance though, he couldn't tell if it was a sword or not.
"Sokka," he began. "That can't be your sword… the battle took place a month ago. This place was scoured afterwards for survivors and remaining equipment, you can't really be sure –"
But as if to prove to Zuko how sure he was, Sokka pulled off his fake beard, his shoes, his shirt, and flung himself off the ship.
"Sokka!" Katara screamed after her brother. "You idiot! Get your butt back on this ship right now or so help me, I will Waterbend you back!"
"Relax, Sugar Queen," Toph said, striding up behind her in her green dress and hair that reminded Zuko of Katara's back when he first met her. "Just let him see if that's his sword first and then you can Waterbend him back to safety."
About three minutes later, Sokka reached the coastline and pulled himself up onto shore. He raced to the rock with the protruding object and shouted with glee, "It is my sword! Space Sword has returned to me! Almost like Boomerang, except slower!"
"More like he returned to it," Katara muttered.
Sokka grabbed onto the hilt sticking up from the rock and heaved. It didn't budge.
"Sokka, just to let you know, we don't pick up deserters!" Zuko shouted.
"Sokka, the ships leaving without you! Hurry up!" Katara added.
"It-won't-move!" Sokka huffed, placing a foot on the rock face and trying to tug it out that way.
Zuko smacked himself in the forehead and raced towards the control room, yelling, "Slow the ship down! Slow it down now!"
"Oh for crying out loud!" Toph exclaimed, exasperated. She kicked off her shoes and tugged on her green dress, trying to pull it off over her head.
"Toph! What are you doing? You'll rip it!" Katara raced to her side and pulled her out of the dress until she was in nothing but white undershorts and an undershirt.
"Katara, I want you to Waterbend me to Sokka. I can get his sword out of that rock for him," said Toph, bracing herself by the railing of the ship.
Mai laughed. "Oh, this I have to see."
"Toph, are you really sure you want me to –"
"Just hurry up and do it already before I change my mind!" Toph shouted.
Shrugging, Katara said, "Brace yourself Toph, I'm going to slide you to Sokka."
Toph seemed to pale somewhat. "You're going to what?"
But before Toph could protest, Katara was sweeping a giant wave over the side of the deck and freezing it before Toph. Then, she extended the wave outward, freezing it into a spiraling path straight to shore. Finally, Katara and Mai hoisted a struggling Toph onto the slide and pushed her over, saying, "Happy trails!"
Toph screamed like a dying animal. Zuko ran to the edge and looked over, only to see Toph sliding down and about the frozen slide, her legs and arms flaying, onwards to shore. Sokka stopped trying to pull his sword from the rock to watch Toph's descent with huge eyes.
Katara flicked her wrist up slightly and the end of the slide moved upwards so that when Toph hit it, she flew wildly into the air and then fell, butt-first into the dirt on shore.
"Toph!" Sokka yelled as he ran towards Toph, offering her a hand. "Are you okay?"
"Okay? Okay? I, a blind girl, just went spinning down a frozen death trap, and you ask me if I'm okay?" Toph screeched irritably, shaking as Sokka pulled her to her feet. "Just show me where your dumb sword is before I pummel you into a rock!"
"Hey, I wasn't the one who sent you here!" Sokka protested.
Toph snorted and marched over to the rock with the sword sticking out of it. "Is this it?" she asked.
"I'm guessing the silence means your nodding yes," she said, a sour look to her face. She turned, leveled her stance, and thrust her fists into the rock, which broke apart and dropped Sokka's sword with a clang to the ground. Sokka grabbed the sword and then Toph, clutching both on either side of him and rushing partway into the water.
"Okay Katara, could you bring us back?" he shouted towards the ship.
Katara raised her hands above her, conjuring a wave that rose behind Toph and Sokka, picking them both up in its swell. Then, opposite the rest of the small waves moving toward shore, this wave moved toward the boat, taking with it a screaming Sokka and Toph.
"Um, Katara," Zuko said, as he watched the wave near the ship without slowing.
She didn't listen, her concentration on controlling the wave. Zuko grabbed Mai and together they dove away from the incoming wave just as it crashed into the ship.
Dripping wet, Toph and Sokka sat in the middle of the ship, looking like two malnourished cats. Sokka looked around, found his sword next to him, picked it up, and cradled it lovingly in his arms.
"Space Sword! I'm so glad I found you!"
Toph spit out a minnow from her mouth along with a stream of water. "'Oh thanks Toph,'" she said in a mocking tone. "'Thanks for getting my sword back for me!' 'Oh, no problem Sokka, it's not like I risked my life, to get it back for you. It was nothing!'"
Before she could say more, Sokka reached over and swept Toph into a hug, saying, "Thanks Toph. You got my Space Sword back for me! And I'll never forget it!"
Toph turned bright red, for once at a loss for what to say.
"Hey, what about me?" Katara asked. "Don't I deserve some gratitude?"
"You almost killed us," Sokka said matter-of-factly.
"Ugh! See what I'll do next time you're in peril and you need my assistance!" she cried, storming off. Zuko couldn't help but grin as he helped Mai back to her feet.
Mai wiped the ocean spray from her face and squeezed the water from her ponytails.
"I think you're friends are a little more trouble than they're worth," she said indignantly.
"Maybe, but I wouldn't have it any other way."
Mai gazed at him and broke into an unexpected grin. "So much excitement over a sword? I haven't been this entertained in ages!"
She laughed and, realizing what she was doing, stopped abruptly.
"No Mai," Zuko said, tilting her face up towards him. "I love it when you laugh."
Leaning in, he kissed her and pulled her closer, so that he could hear her heartbeat drumming through her chest. He loved that too.
King Bumi stood at the dock of Omashu, waiting for them to dock. Once ported, Katara, Sokka, and Toph debarked, staring up at Zuko and Mai, who remained standing at the top of the plank to the ship.
"Well, I guess this is goodbye," Sokka said, somewhat ruefully as he scratched his head. "Thanks for helping me rescue my dad and my girlfriend, Zuko. I wouldn't have been able to do it without you, really."
"Yeah, and Zuko, again, I'm sorry for the way I treated you before. It was… wrong of me. Without your help, I would never have faced my mother's murderer. And, because of that meeting, I might finally be able to move on from that… so, thanks," Katara said with a small smile.
"And it's also nice to know that someone else besides me had a sucky childhood," Toph added, grinning. "Even if you didn't really listen, it was still nice to get it off my chest. Thanks."
"Thank you guys," Zuko said. "It was nice to be included in your group – you guys taught me so much about another side of the world that I never got a chance to see when I was by myself… one of hope and happiness. I won't ever forget that. Thanks, and good luck on your journeys home."
In the back of his head, he knew it would eventually come, but he was still unprepared for it when it did. First it was Katara, then Sokka, and finally Toph who ran up the plank to the boat to hug him. Apparently, the whole hugging business was a kind of tradition with the Avatar's group, before a long separation or when they needed group support. He was still new to it – the first time it happened, he wasn't sure if he was invited into the group embrace, until they dragged him into it. And now, despite his first awkward surprise and tentative pats on the back, he returned the hug, realizing that, although he'd only been one of their group for a short while, he was going to miss them.
They parted, the three of them running down the plank back to a crooked-grinning King Bumi. Zuko had met the White Lotus member back in Ba Sing Se, before they had taken back the giant city. At the time, he thought King Bumi was a little odd, but not as odd as he presented himself now. His grin was punctured with missing teeth, his green robe intertwined with patches of red, blue, and yellow stripes, and his feet were bare. Silver jeweled rings decorated his fingers and atop his head was an elaborate feather hat that seemed to shine different colors as the wind whipped at it. When he noticed Zuko staring at him, he chortled and snorted, before reaching up to thumb one of the feathers of his hat.
"I see you looking at my hat, Fire Lord," he said, cocking his head so that it seemed one of his eyes got bigger while the other shrinked. "These feathers come from the incredibly rare panda-seal-phoenix. They're supposed to be able to bend all the elements, just like the Avatar. Perhaps they were even the Avatar itself before it took on human form!"
Everyone stared at King Bumi as if he'd just sprouted six heads.
"Um, I've never seen a 'panda-seal-phoenix' before," Sokka said, his eyebrows furrowed.
"Nor do I recall them from legend," Zuko added. "Are you sure you didn't make it up?"
"Oh no – they're extremely dangerous! If you were ever to have crossed one, they would have certainly gobbled you up! Nobody's escaped from a panda-seal-phoenix attack before!"
"Then, how is it that you know about them and have panda-seal-phoenix feathers?" Toph asked, crossing her arms.
King Bumi frowned and, after a long pause, said, "I could've made it up."
"Well, then, bye Zuko!" Katara said, waving her arms.
"Bye!" Toph, Sokka, and Bumi chanted together in unison.
"Bye guys!" Zuko said, waving back as the crew from the ship reeled in the plank.
Just as the four of them turned and walked up the dock toward the tall, walled city of Omashu, Zuko heard King Bumi say to Toph, "So, I hear you're a Metalbender."
"Sure am!" Toph said, punching her chest for affect.
"But I bet you aren't the most powerful Earthbender ever."
"Says who?" Toph challenged.
"Oh yeah? Well, I'll fight you right here, right now you old pushover!"
"Tonight then, and Flopsie will be the judge!"
"Flopsie? Who's Flopsie?"
"Don't ask," Katara said.
"Don't you want to go home to your family as soon as possible Toph?" Sokka asked.
"It can wait – I'm gonna prove that –" Toph began, but the rest was cut off by the wind as the ship moved further out to sea. Zuko headed back to the bow of the ship and stared off into the horizon. The ship turned itself back in a northwest direction, toward… his home? Or was it just the Fire Nation? He didn't know, but he kept his head up and his face stern, ready to face his destiny at last.
In the distance, clouds coalesced into a dense dark void. A storm was raging.
Azula was not happy.
It had taken her servants 20 minutes – 20 interminable minutes – to bring her dinner after she had asked for it. And worse, it wasn't even what she asked for! Miso, seaweed salad, and tea? Where were her roast duck and dumplings? It was intolerable – she had banished her servants on several occasions, but none seemed to be listening to her – they continued to show up the next day despite her explicit orders that she never wanted to see their retched excuse for a face again. She should have them executed, she thought sourly; perhaps then they would learn their lesson. But, somewhere inside her, something told her that, even then, her orders would not be obeyed.
Being the Fire Lord gave Azula much time for relaxation. In fact, she couldn't remember the last time she had left her room. She supposed it was okay – her father must have been dealing with all the problems associated with the end of the war. It was her responsibility to watch over the Fire Nation – make sure the farmers, artisans, merchants, and civilians were all satisfied in their varied professions. These tasks she decided, however, were better given to other officials specializing in those areas. She, herself, was only concerned with those matters of the war on her home front. But no one seemed to come asking for her counsel. She supposed she should be concerned, but she let it pass, giving herself a much needed reprieve. After all, it was her time to shine – her meddling, traitorous brother was no longer a problem. Finishing him in that agni kai was, probably, the best day of her life.
As Fire Lord, she was given a new room, decorated in rich red, green, and gold velvet. The green, she decided, was a tribute to her victorious seize of Ba Sing Se. A massive cherry-wood bed with silk blankets was in one corner of the room, next to a tall standing cherry-wood dresser. Across the room was a low table with a china tea set. The set was painted jet black, with deep red accents and the swirling designs of the Fire Nation insignia. A vanity set was next to the table, ladened with golden-rimmed hand mirrors, combs, brushes, brooches, and clips. She used to have a golden pair of scissors, but they mysteriously disappeared. At least, she thought optimistically, her hair was growing back to normal. Her little episode on her coronation day was a thing of the past – she knew people would learn to respect her like they did her father. She was the Fire Lord.
Finished with her meal, she left it by her door. Someone always came by later to pick up her tray. Bored, she went over to her vanity table and sat looking at herself in the mirror. She had banished her traitorous beauticians, so she had learned to do her hair and makeup herself. She was becoming adept at pulling her waist length hair back into a bun and her rather lopsided bangs gave her a distinctively wild look. But she didn't care. She figured the look would be intimidating enough to let everyone know not to cross her path.
After brushing her bangs to the side and staring at her spotless reflection in the mirror, she looked about her room for something to do. Sighing, she thought it was times like this where she missed Mai and Ty Lee. She remembered during their down time in Ba Sing Se, when they were not pretending to be Kyoshi warriors, Ty Lee would brush her hair and say things like, "Azula, you're the smartest, prettiest, most powerful person in the whole wide world!" Of course, she knew that already, but she liked to be reminded of it once in awhile. Then there was Mai and her comic relief. Her infatuation with her brother Zu-Zu was hilarious, and the way she always seemed bored with everything and everyone around her made her an interesting character. The three of them, they were the elite team – the perfect weapon. And then Mai had to go and mess it all up. Her words still echoed in her head – "You miscalculated. I love Zuko more than I fear you." She did not miscalculate! In the end, it was her, no, both of them that miscalculated! You don't just turn on the Fire Lord and expect to be forgiven!
"They'll pay for what they did and maybe in the future they'll learn never to betray me again!" Azula said to her reflection in the mirror.
"Can't you hear yourself Azula?"
"What? Who said that?"
Azula turned wildly in her chair, eyes wide, her mouth in a grimace. She stared around her room with its dim light from a tiny window that she wasn't even tall enough to look out of. She supposed she should have thought that as odd, but, then again, she didn't mind the dark. If she ever needed it, she would always have light.
"Who dares enter the Fire Lord's room without her permission?" Azula shouted, rising from her chair and gazing into her dark room.
No one answered. Straining her eyes and ears, Azula readied herself for an attack. It was obviously an assassin – nobody could be trusted! She would have to execute her idiot guards for this.
"We'll see who thinks it's funny to enter the Fire Lord's room and not expect punishment! Show yourself!"
Azula raised her hands and bursts of blue fire erupted into being. She felt the light and warmth of the flames lick her face as she narrowed her eyes into the surrounding darkness. Squinting, she saw the silhouette of someone approaching her. As the figure moved closer, its features became more distinct. Feminine. A red cloak. Gold eyes.
When she realized who it was, Azula stumbled back, her face paling and her eyes widened in fear. Her flames sparked and extinguished, but it didn't matter. She could still see the figure in front of her as clear as daylight.
"Azula, can't you see yourself?" her mother, Ursa, said.
Azula backed up slowly, toward her vanity. She attempted to shoot a fire blast at her mother, but nothing but a small orange flame escaped her unclasped hand. What was wrong with her? She was shaking – this was not her! She was fear – she did not show fear herself!
"You rely on your anger to fuel your power. But you do not feel anger or cunning now – you are afraid," said her mother, her face concerned. "But you need not be afraid, darling."
Azula had made it to her vanity and began pawing the table blindly behind her. When she grabbed something solid, she hurled it at her mother.
The golden brooch she had thrown passed through her mother as if it was nothing but air.
"Oh Azula," her mother said sadly, shaking her head.
Azula grabbed something else, a comb, and clutched it against her chest. "Get away! Get away you, you, witch!" she shouted, raising the comb above her head like a sword.
"Am I really the 'witch', Azula?" her mother asked.
She was no more than a foot or so away from Azula now, close enough that, if she wanted to, she could reach out and touch her…
"You're not real!" Azula screeched. "I'm just making you up! You're gone! Get out of my head! I command you to get out of my head!" She pointed a tremulous finger in front of her.
"Azula, of course I'm real. I'm right here. But if you look closely, you'll see the things that aren't."
"What are you talking about?" Azula snarled.
"I've been here before, we've talked about it. Can't you see where you are? Can't you see who you are?"
Azula flicked her gaze around her dark room. All she saw was her table, bureau, and bed. The high window. The tray by the door with her dishes. The velvet curtains. And her mother.
"I see nothing. Now, leave me alone! I have a nation to run!"
"If you have a nation to run, why have you not left your room?" her mother asked, cocking her head to the side and then turning toward the door to her room.
"I can leave whenever I want!" Azula shouted, marching past her mother towards the door. When she clasped the handle to the door, nothing moved. She jiggled it every which way and pushed, but, again, the door remained firm.
"Guards!" Azula bellowed. "Guards! There's something wrong with the door! I'm stuck in here – open up now!"
Nobody answered. Not a single movement on the other side of the door.
"Guards?" her voice quavered ever so slightly.
Azula wheeled to face her mother, who had crossed the room and was standing in front of her. Azula raised the comb in her hand again, her face crazed.
"What did you do to the door?" Azula hissed.
"I did nothing," she replied. "Everything here you did to yourself."
"What are you talking about?"
"Azula, remember. Remember what really happened – what happened at the agni kai with your brother."
"The agni kai?" Azula thought, but the image of her brother and her fighting that cloudy day felt like eons ago. It was so blurry…
"I won, of course. Zuko didn't stand a chance… and then I was crowned Fire Lord."
"No Azula – you did not win," said her mother, shaking her head.
Something seemed to ring her head, like a loud, high-pitched buzz. She clasped her head and fell to her knees, the sound too strong to bear.
It was as if the sound unlocked something in her mind. She remembered things – visions of things that had happened before. She was there again on that cloudy day, and Zuko was taunting her to shoot him with lightning. But Azula was smarter than that. The Water Tribe girl stood behind him, her hands clasped in front of her, eyes wide as she watched Zuko. She wasn't even watching her! Azula could feel herself smiling, her arms circling up and around her as she built the electric charge within herself. Zuko spread his legs wide, readying his stance for her lightning bolt. But it wasn't himself he should be worrying about – oh no. Laughing, Azula shot the bolt straight for the blue-eyed girl.
Everything seemed to slow down. The girl's eyes became huge as the bolt made its way toward her. Zuko watched the bolt in horror, as he catapulted himself in front of the girl, arms still at the ready to redirect the bolt. But he could not do it in mid-air and he fell, his body smoking on the ground. The Waterbender girl ran to him, to see if he was okay – but Azula knew he wasn't. She had won. She had done it. Cackling, she knew she would be the most powerful Fire Lord in her nation's history.
But that was not the end. That was the only part she was able to recall before. The next part revealed itself like a curtain peels back to reveal the sun.
The girl came charging towards Zuko, her hand outstretched and wrapped with water. She was going to heal him? Azula would take care of that. She let out a blue fire blast in front of the girl and she skidded to a stop. She was going to get that Water Tribe girl and then her victory would be complete. Blasting more fire in her direction, Azula flipped herself up and over so that she was on the roof of the pavilion surrounding the arena. She circled her arms again, and with reckless abandon, shot another lightning bolt at the girl. But the girl blocked it – a wall of water rose from grates around the arena, shielding the girl from the blast. Jumping down, Azula raced after the girl, using streams of fire to propel herself forward. Shifting the water and freezing it, the girl surfed around the field until she was under an overhang across the field. The girl paused briefly before turning to face Azula head on. Azula stopped a few feet from her – perhaps the girl was ready to admit defeat.
But she wasn't. With a fierce, determined expression, the girl stepped forward, extending her hands before her and sending multiple whips of water after her, which Azula dodged just in time. Rolling to her feet, Azula wheeled, manipulating her arms to send another bolt of lightning right into the girls face when…
Azula couldn't move, her hand rooted to the spot not two inches from the girl's face. The Waterbender had her hands extended above her and was also frozen in place, eyes wide and staring at Azula's fingertips. Until she exhaled.
The water began to flow around her and the girl brought down a chain that was held in her hands and began tying it around Azula's wrists. When she was done, she twisted the chain around the grate below her feet, where the water had sprung up and frozen them in place. Flattening her hands and pushing down, the frozen water around Azula and the girl receded back into the grate below and Azula was left bound and helpless.
The girl rushed to Zuko's side, water revolving around her hand. She rolled Zuko's lifeless body over and held her hand to his scarred chest. Azula smiled. There was no way Zuko could have survived her blast.
But, no, no! He was rising up! He was on his feet and staring at her! No – it couldn't be!
And the memory faded, with her screaming and yelling, fire blasting from her nose and mouth in frustration. She was twisting and turning in her bound chains, flipping onto her back and wailing, tears like rivers flowing down her face.
"No," Azula said, coming back to reality, and pulling at her matted hair. "No – it can't be!"
"But it is," said her mother softly. "You knew before, but you chose to deny it."
Azula dropped her comb and clutched her chest, tears shaking her body. "You're lying!"
Ursa bent down and placed a hand on Azula.
"Don't touch me!" Azula cried, turning away from her.
Ursa sighed. "Azula – look around your room. Look around and see."
Azula lifted her head tentatively and looked. At the corners of her vision, her elaborate Fire Lord room dissolved into itself, starting from the edges and working its way to the middle. And, in its place, was a bare, earthen room, with a metal cot in the corner where once stood her giant bed. And, across from it, was a low table, made of shoddy planks. There was no tea set on top of it. The tiny, narrow window at the top of the room remained the same, as well as the tray with her food next to the door. But the tray was rusting, and the dishes were stained from years of use. Moving her gaze around the floor, she saw no comb or brooch. Only dirt. She lifted her hands to examine them – ghostly reflections of what they once were, crusted over with dirt and grime, while blisters bubbled over bright red burn marks on her palms. Looking down, her legs were bare and pale, splayed with red blotches and scratches. She wore only a torn and patched red tunic. Her hands made their way urgently to her face – and she saw, with her fingers, her loose, knotted hair, her makeup-less face, the filth that streaked across her cheeks and forehead… She was not the Azula she had seen in the mirror but a few minutes ago.
"What-what's happened to me?" Azula stammered, pulling her hands away from her face and staring at them, almost as though, in doing so, everything would make sense again.
"Azula, you lost," her mother said gently. "You're brother is the Fire Lord, and the war is over. For the past month, you've been here, with us. Do you remember now?"
She looked around her room again and saw scorch marks on the walls and the ceiling – saw the metal door peeling away where it had melted. Suddenly, she saw herself, blasting the walls with her fire, sobbing while lying in the cot in the corner, digging through the dirt with her nails, and pushing her hands to the metal door, trying to melt it away and escape. And she would have done it, if it weren't for someone peeling her burnt, blacken hands away from the door.
Her mother saw her staring at the door and nodded. "We had to bind your hands for a week after that little incident."
"Wha-why?" Azula asked quietly, shaking.
"You have always been a good liar, Azula. Good enough to even lie to yourself. You created the world as you wanted it to be. You did it before and we brought you back to reality… until you fell into your delusions again."
"So you've been here? You've been here, all this time, mother?"
"Mother? Oh no, Azula. You're not seeing her again are you? Look again. Who am I?"
Azula concentrated, staring at her mother until there seemed to be two images superimposed on one another – one of her mother, and another of a woman with kind tawny eyes and short, straight bangs and long black hair. As Azula focused more, her mother disappeared completely, and the strange woman in the burgundy and gold tunic and leather boots remained, smiling and extending her hand for Azula to take.
"Who-who are you?" Azula asked.
"I'm a friend – I'm here to help you," she said. "But you could call me Ming, if you like."
"Ha – So, Ming, I must be in prison – hum? Serving time for my crimes against the Fire Nation?" Azula pushed Ming's hand away, instead rising shakily to her feet by herself. Ming watched her with such pity that was so funny that Azula couldn't control her sudden burst of laughter. "Hahaha! 'Crimes against the Fire Nation'? Why limit my sins to one arena? What about what I've done to the Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribe, or the Avatar? But nobody seems to understand…" Her laughter stopped abruptly as she frowned and took a quivering step toward Ming. "What I did, I did for the Fire Nation! For us to be the greatest nation on this Earth – I should be rewarded – worshipped!"
"Azula, you're not in prison… you're…." Ming looked around and bit her lip, before finishing, "… somewhere else."
"What? Then, where am I?" Azula could feel her rage boiling inside of her and the familiar heat beneath her fingertips. This Ming was going to tell her everything, even if that meant she would have to use other methods.
"Aren't you interested in where your brother is?" Ming said, switching the subject. "You've been asking for him for days."
"What? My brother?" Azula exploded into another peel of laughter. "Excuse me, I mean, 'Fire Lord Zuko'! Haha – little Zu-Zu Fire Lord? There are few things, if any, that he's good at… least of all running a kingdom. That oaf King Kuei and his bear could run the nation better than Zuko!"
"Your brother is doing just fine. In fact, despite his little experience, I've heard he's caught on rather quickly," Ming said matter-of-factly. "But, you have been asking for him. Why? I don't quite know, but if I were to take a guess, I would say that it's because of your mother. Since you've come here, you've seen her on many occasions."
"Why would I see her?" Azula said, crossing her arms and looking sideways. "Mother never loved me – it was always Zuko."
Ming shrugged. "In any case, your brother has returned from a journey not two days ago. And he's coming to see you tonight. I came here to see if you were…"
"What – sane?" Azula smiled crookedly, raising an eyebrow.
"To see if you were able to remember why you wanted to see him," Ming finished.
Azula thought, closing her eyes and trying to picture her brother's scarred face, but she couldn't see him. The only image beneath her lids was her mother's… and she could hear herself saying, "Even you fear me," and her mother responding, "No, I love you Azula, I do." Pressing her hands to her eyes, Azula remembered. Remembered, in the dark of the night, alone and tossing and turning in her cot, remembered why.
"I do," Azula said, grinning and turning to the sympathetic Ming. "Get the Fire Lord for me. Bring little Zu-Zu to me immediately."
The island was off the coast of Capital City. It was small, only big enough for the institution and a high wire fence surrounding the coastline. The facility itself was known by many names, although its official one was "Sacred Fire". Most just call it "the Site" or "Fireland". When the facility was built about a few decades ago, the staff believed, that no matter who was sent to the mental institution, all the patients were "sacred", despite their instabilities. They just needed help to rekindle their "inner life fire". Zuko didn't believe a word of it. Since his father began ruling, the place was less of a hospital than it was a second prison. He ignored the place and from what Zuko heard, the Site was falling apart – underfunded, misrepresented, and mistrusted.
This would be Zuko's first trip to see his sister at the Site. He hated the fact that he had to go see her at all… but, in a weird way, he pitied his abusive, psychopathic sister. As a child, the only thing that he remembered about her was her Firebending prowess and her manipulative attitude. He was always trying to improve his skills to match hers – always trying to impress his father. What he didn't realize was, while he was being encouraged by his mother to keep doing the best he could do, his father was concentrating all his efforts on Azula. She was the child he had placed all his hopes in for the nation, since Zuko was a "miserable, caring failure". Perhaps, he thought, having the complete attention of their father was not so much great as it must have been terrifying. Showing any sort of weakness or humility in front of him was not met with smiles and encouragement, but with resentment and displeasure. Azula had to be nothing less than perfect, and, because of this pressure, Zuko could only imagine the kind of trials she was put through. No wonder she was the way she was now.
Zuko stepped off the small ferry and onto the rocky surface that served as steps leading up to the tall, black metal fence surrounding the island of Fireland. A contingent of no less than five guards encircled Zuko as the patrols at the fence gate approached.
"I'm here to see my sister," Zuko said brusquely.
The patrols, three of them dressed in red and black tunics, bracers, gloves, and helmets, glanced at each other until the tallest of them opened his mouth to say something before he was interrupted.
"Fire Lord Zuko! So happy to see you!"
Beyond the gate, a short man with a bulging gut and a bald head appeared. He wore huge glasses than made his amber eyes look three times too big for his face. Despite the lack of hair on his head, his jaw and gullet was framed in a salt and pepper bread so massive that his face seemed to droop forward because of it. He clasped one of the bars with a pudgy hand and shook it.
"Guards! What are you doing? Open this gate and let the Fire Lord in immediately!" he said, in a voice so high-pitched that it took a Zuko a moment to match the voice with the body.
The patrols scratched their heads and turned to unlock the gate doors with a huge brass key. Then, together, they moved the heavy door open, allowing the pacing man behind the gates outside.
"Ah, it's a pleasure Your Honor," the man said, dashing through the gate and bowing before Zuko. After a few moments, he rose and said, in that small, girl-like voice that was so different from his body that Zuko's mouth twitched as he tried to hide a smile, "I'm the Warden and Doctor of Sacred Fire, Lingwei! It's the first time a Fire Lord has been here since Azulon in, oh my, it must've been decades!"
"When it first opened," Zuko said, frowning.
"I suppose so! I suppose so! You know, I've been here since the opening," Lingwei explained as he shepherded Zuko and his guards through the gate and up to the entrance of Sacred Fire, a large metal door set into a huge cube-like red building scattered with tiny windows. It was the simplest of layouts, but the mere simplicity of it intimidated Zuko for reasons he couldn't explain. Lingwei continued to babble excitedly as Zuko stared at the building looming ahead of them. "We used to be the first of our kind until Ba Sing Se introduced their own mental institution – 'Roots' or 'Earthy' or something silly of that sort… but we were the first I tell you!"
When the group reached the door, Lingwei took out another huge brass key and unlocked the metal door. It swung inward as two more patrols pulled the door open. With a tentative step, Zuko was inside.
It was the weirdest sensation. Suddenly Zuko felt like he was both the center of attention and also as insignificant as a flea. Despite the bare ordinariness of the building outside, Sacred Fire was a marvel inside. It seemed twice as long as it did wide, probably because the walls on either side of Zuko pressed in so close he felt like all he had to do was spread his arms and he could touch the sides of the earthen walls. But the road before him stretched on into the distance, to the point where he could barely make out the wall on the opposite side. Hundreds of doors lined both walls on either side of him, ascending about eight stories high. Balconies outlined the stories above him until you reached the ceiling, which was not flat, but curved upward, almost to a point. But where the point would've been was the oddest part of the building.
"Magnificent, isn't it?" Lingwei said proudly. "It is 'Sun's Light'."
Indeed it was. Sunlight streamed through a line of windows above them, giving the hallway both a magical and haunting feeling simultaneously. The ground sparkled as the rays of sun danced off of the minerals in the earth and gleamed on the doors of the cells.
"Much cheaper to have Sun's Light than line this corridor with torches and lanterns!" Lingwei said quickly, seeming to understand the unasked question on Zuko's face. "This area is also a great place for our patients to meet and interact with each other. As you can see, at the end of the hall is our dining and social gathering area. And then that door at the end? Yes, that leads to administrative rooms – haha, silly me," he laughed than chattered onward, "Of course, not all of them are administrative, per se, I mean, the kitchen is in there too. But we have testing rooms, housing for the staff, that sort of thing. The layout is quite fascinating! Sure, the Boiling Rock is known for being 'inescapable' – Bah! You and your friends, Your Honor, were actually the first ones to make it out alive from that place. But, little do people know that Sacred Fire here is known for our most stopped escapes! All doors lead to 'Sun's Light', and, you see that enormous window on the north wall there? We have a patrol and an assistant posted behind there at all times and they can see everything that is going on! Amazing isn't it? And, our patients never really want to leave in the first place – they're happy here. Also, under all this earth you see here? Solid, reinforced metal – the earth is just to protect our more 'rambunctious' patients from hurting themselves… but, of course, this layout would never work in the Earth Kingdom, right?" Lingwei laughed again, the sound like a hog-monkey who had drunk too much cactus juice. "They'd just bend it, get it? Oh, and over there is –"
"My sister?" Zuko said, pressing his palms to his forehead, trying to stifle a sudden headache.
"Oh, oh! Yes, yes, of course! I'll show you to your sister right away! I tend to get ahead of myself, you know – one topic leads into another, but, would you believe it, I'm a great listener. Patients love me," Lingwei said, waving his arms in what was supposed to be a bashful, modest gesture. "But I got to say, despite my enormity, there simply isn't enough of me to go around. We are seriously understaffed, underfunded… I mean, our patients are just not getting enough…"
Zuko thought idly, as Lingwei led them up a staircase in the middle of the hallway, that Lingwei was certainly getting enough.
"And we have this dreadful leak – it's a waterfall, I tell you, right in the middle of the dining hall. If we don't get that fixed soon we're going to have mold and other problems… This whole place is in need of major renovations… Not to mention the little mishap that you sister caused…"
"What?" Zuko stopped, one foot in front of the other on two different steps. "What did she do?"
"Well, I check on your sister's progress about twice a week. She's of very particular interest to us – well, not only because she's your sister, but because her mental stability is rather, precarious."
"She goes in and out of delusions and, out of all our patients here, she is probably the most persistent in trying to escape. She tried to melt the door to her room with that fancy blue fire of hers – the result, probably melting her own hands more than the door itself."
Zuko's eyes widened. He supposed he shouldn't be surprised, but he never would have guessed that Azula would resort to intentionally hurting herself just to escape.
"What do you know about her progress?" Zuko asked as they began to ascend the steps again.
"Oh, well, I think she's getting better, though she refuses to talk during sessions with me and I believe she goes into delusions where she thinks she's the Fire Lord. Did you know she tried to banish me?" Lingwei giggled as he pushed the metal door at the top of the staircase open. "Here we are, the eighth floor: the extreme cases, or, as we sometimes call them, our hopeless ones."
The group walked onto the balcony and was abruptly greeted with screaming. Zuko covered his ears as shouts, crying, door banging, and whistles echoed out into Sun's Light. The smell, compared with the previous floors, was atrocious… the smell of rot, decay, refuse… neglect. He was only here for about ten minutes and he already despised the Site and distrusted Lingwei's chatty, positive personality.
"We have our serial murderers, connivers, and reality-lost patients here. Unfortunately, these cases are not allowed access outside and all their meals must be brought to them. A pity your sister must be one of them… but I am doing my best to save her, truly I am, but she is, indeed, one of our hopeless…"
Zuko stopped, his guards freezing behind him as well. He was gritting his teeth, trying not to let his sudden emotions take over him. His Uncle was right – this place couldn't be trusted. When his father ignored its existence, the place was left to run itself – with staff that maybe should not have gotten the positions they're in the first place.
"Where's Ming?" Zuko said between clenched teeth.
"Ming? Oh, the newcomer? She's unavailable, probably working on –"
"I don't care – bring her to me now!" Zuko said, his patience spread thin.
"Right away, Fire Lord Zuko! Right away!" Lingwei said hastily, turning around and about to bolt past Zuko, when a voice from ahead of him stopped him in his tracks.
"No need, Doctor Lingwei. I'm right here."
The group turned their heads to a tall woman with straight-cut bangs and kind, golden eyes walking down the balcony toward them. She bowed briefly to Zuko and then rose, flattening her long red and gold robe. "I'm at your service, Fire Lord."
"Splendid, splendid!" Lingwei chanted excitedly. "Now, off to see your sister and –"
"Lingwei, I am fine here with Ming. You're excused. Please go attend to the other patients who you told me 'are not getting enough of you'. As we all know, you're services must be in dire need around here," Zuko said, trying not to sound too bitingly sarcastic, but, despite the amount of patience he'd garnered during the years of his banishment, certain people still ticked him off more than others. Liars and manipulators were just some of them.
Lingwei stiffened, affronted. Then, with what must have taken the last of his pride to do so, he stammered, "Y-yes F-Fire Lord. I shall return to my duties at once." Lingwei turned once to Ming, exchanged a brief, but altogether dark glance, and sauntered off down the balcony back towards the stairwell.
Zuko watched him go, his eyes narrowed, and then swiveled his attention back to Ming. Ming, however, was not looking at him; instead, she watched Lingwei waddle his pudgy self down the hallway, much like a penguin on solid ground, her face contorted into an irritated grimace. It was so unlike her previous pleasant and soft expression that Zuko's eyes widened.
After a few more seconds, when the stairwell door closed behind Lingwei with a bang, Ming said, none too kindly, "I hate that man." She crossed her eyes, sighed, and finally looked over Zuko. "And I'm still unsure about you."
"Me?" Zuko said, baffled that she was talking to him so directly.
"After a month, and this is the first time you visit your sister? And, have you seen this place? I'm not sure whether to feel honored or damned for my position change."
Zuko's eyes followed Ming as she gestured around them, and Zuko saw things he may never have noticed before. Cobwebs as large as tables draping from the ceiling, flies dancing in and out of Sun's Light, ants crawling underneath the cell doors, scratches and dents on the doors, and that awful smell that almost made Zuko gag.
Then Ming sighed, dropping her arms. "You know, if you had stayed with him, he would have tried to keep you away from your sister for as long as possible."
"He doesn't want you to see what she's become. This place may have a few things right, but he is not one of them. He has no idea how to handle his patients. The other day, he came up here on one of his routine check-ups and, instead of helping Kenji, in that room behind you, he sat in front of his door and ate Fire-Crisps, while Kenji cowered in the back corner. You see, he's deathly afraid of crunching sounds, to the point where he sometimes refuses to eat for days on end. Lingwei believes he was helping Kenji overcome his fear, but I think he was just hungry and in the mood for amusement. The sounds Kenji was making… you would think he was being tortured." Ming shook her head as if that would rid the memory. "Does Lingwei know that crunching sounds remind Kenji of his father, who was more than cruel to him? A big man, his father's boots cracked the ground he walked on and more than a few heads… but Lingwei would know that if he bothered to listen…"
Zuko eyed Ming as she turned sympathetic eyes toward the door to Kenji's room. Suddenly, Zuko knew that his Uncle was right. Asking Ming to join Sacred Fire, with the explicit assignment of watching Azula, was the right decision. Iroh had met Ming during his time in the Capital City prison. Iroh told Zuko that she had been kind to him, bringing him extra rations and talking to him on occasion. His Uncle did not trust the staff at Sacred Fire and had told Zuko that perhaps asking someone trustworthy to look after his sister would be wise. And although Zuko had never met Ming, he trusted his Uncle implicitly. And from what Zuko had learned about Ming so far, he liked her. She was soft and compassionate but, he could tell, there was a fire and strength to her behind her reserved face. The fact that she was ranting about her idiotic superior to the Fire Lord was not something to be ignored either.
"I'm sorry," Zuko said. "I didn't know what kind I position I was giving you."
Ming moved her heavy gaze to him, before grinning. "No, I was joking. I do appreciate the change… I actually feel like I can help the people here."
Zuko thought about it, making a mental note of the comment for later. "And my sister?"
Ming sighed, slouching forward. She looked genuinely exhausted, as if an elephant camel was on her shoulders. Then she stood up straight again and said, "Your sister… is doing better. Twice she fell prey to her delusions – that she was actually crowned Fire Lord and that the war is still going on. In between those hallucinations, she's been trying to escape. She's not been sleeping well. Sometimes I come and check on her at night and she tosses and turns, like she's having a bad dream. But, Fire Lord Zuko, there has been one constant since she's come here."
"Your mother. On more than one occasion, I've caught Azula talking to her – well, thinking that she's talking to her. Is there something about your mother that has her worried?"
"Our family… is complicated," Zuko said, frowning. Truth be told, he didn't think Azula ever cared much about their mother. At Ember Island, he remembered when Azula, fleetingly shared her emotions, before hiding them behind her supercilious mask. Was what she had said true? Could she have possibly been jealous of Zuko and their mother's relationship?
"Well, about a week or so ago, she started asking for you – demanding it more like it. But, of course, you were gone then. Just now, I went to check to see if she remembers why she wants to see you. Nonetheless, if she hadn't asked for you, I probably would have. I think having some sort of family support through this might be good for her. I've been keeping my eye on her… I know the two of you have had problems in the past, but believe me when I say, there are parts to her that you've probably never seen before." Ming's voice became low and serious as she said, "Your sister is confused, scared, and lonely. She feels betrayed by her friends, her father, her mother, and her nation. Please understand this as you talk to her, Fire Lord." Abruptly, her features became hostile as she said threateningly, "Don't say anything to upset her – it is not a time for arguing! I will pull you out of there if the discussion becomes too heated – you understand? Just because you're the 'Fire Lord' doesn't exclude you from the same common courtesies as everyone else!" She pushed her face right up into Zuko's until their noses almost touched. One of Zuko's guards rustled behind him, preparing to fight, until Zuko waved a hand no in his direction.
"I get it," Zuko said, eyebrows lowering. "Now, for the hundredth time, can I see my sister so that I could get this over with?"
Ming raised her eyebrows and then spun on her heels so that she was marching back up the hallway. Zuko and his guards followed until she halted in front of the metal door at the end of the hallway and knocked.
"Azula, your brother Fire Lord Zuko is here to see you."
The voice that responded back was what Zuko had come to recognize in his years of growing up with his sister – arrogant, contemptuous, and somehow false, as if there was no real emotion in her voice at all. And now, there was a new lilt to her voice – like it was strained and she was walking on a paper thin edge.
"Well hurry up then and show him in. I've waited long enough!"
Ming slid back the bar locking the door in place, pushed it open, and gestured for Zuko to enter. Nodding discreetly in Ming's direction, he walked into Azula's room and gaped.
It all came at him at once – the scorch marks on the walls, the holes dug into the ground and dirt piled in random areas around the room, and the back of the door, blackened and disfigured. But it was not the room that caught him off guard, oh no, but the figure standing with her back turned before him.
She was thinner than before, her head titled upward toward the one miniscule window in the room and her blistered, roughened hands clasped behind her back. The simple red tunic she wore was patched and dirty, nothing like her old regal Princess attire she used to wear. Her legs were layered in red splotch marks and bruise marks the size of melons. Her tangled hair was nearly all the way down her back, but the luster it once possessed was gone, replaced with what looked like straw. Yet, despite Azula's outward appearance, the way she held herself, rigid and contemplating, paid tribute to her old self. And when she turned, although makeup-less and gritty, her mouth was still contorted into a sneer and her eyes seemed to know already what you would say before you said it. It was still Azula – no matter what people said about her, she was still the same. And the moment of pity that had temporarily clutched at his heart when he first saw her, disappeared like the last loll of thunder in a storm.
"Azula," Zuko said.
"Zuko," she said, raising an eyebrow.
They stood staring at each other for what felt like hours. Azula's mouth twitched at the corners as she took in Zuko's new grandeur, and, without disguising his smirk, he thought how much it must irritate Azula to have to endure this role-reversal: Zuko, nobility and commander of the nation, and Azula, the excommunicated prisoner.
Eventually, the staring contest ended with Azula jerking her chin towards Zuko's feet, saying, "Now, if I were in more suitable accommodations, I might've offered you a place of honor on a comfortable chair. But, because of where I am, you are now stepping on my chair."
Zuko stepped back and looked down. It was nothing but a small pile of dirt.
"You call that a seat?"
Azula narrowed her eyes at him. "Thanks to you, I have nothing better. But, O Fire Lord, sit down. We have much to talk about."
Zuko crossed his arms and remained standing.
"Still don't trust me big brother?" Azula mocked. "Smart, but foolish. You're going to get tired. I suppose you don't mind if I sit?" And Azula lowered herself so that she was sitting on her heels before him.
"Azula, I don't have all day. What is it that you want to talk to me about?"
"What's that? I'm sorry, I don't seem to be able to hear you from way up there. I think your ego's too big for me. Why don't you sit?" Azula said, looking up towards him.
Zuko clenched his hands, infuriated that he could still be infuriated by his sister. Wasn't he Fire Lord? Shouldn't he be past this now? Azula continued to stare up at him, sneering, until Zuko relented and sat down across from her, seething.
"Okay Azula, enough of this. What is it you want?" Zuko demanded.
"Oh, a little of this, a little of that. For a start, you could get me out of this place, give me a seat on your council of advisors, restart the war while there's still time…"
"Forget it. I've had enough of this." Zuko began to stand, before Azula said, "You'd really leave your only sibling to rot in prison? You really dislike me that much?"
Zuko wheeled on her. "When did you ever care about me? How many times have you tried to save me from father's rage? Or, better yet, how many times have you tried to kill me yourself?"
Azula began counting, then stopped and looked seriously at Zuko, "Oh darn, I ran out of fingers."
"I'm leaving." Zuko stood and was about to bang on the door for Ming when, again, Azula stopped him.
"I suppose you haven't found mother yet," she said smoothly.
Zuko froze, his fist in midair above the door, before he dropped it back to his side. Slowly, he rotated back to Azula, who was examining her fingernails and sighing. "Oh, I shouldn't have banished those beauticians. Look how much I've ruined my hands!"
"Why? Why do you care?" Zuko asked suspiciously.
"Why anybody would care, Zuko – because, when they see an opportunity, they take it. Now, sit down. I have a proposition for you." She gestured to the dirt in front of her, raising an eyebrow toward him.
Zuko sat back down, but farther from the area where she had motioned to, eyeing her apprehensively. "Anything that interests you, Azula, is usually something better left alone."
"And you would be right – usually. But I'm curious, how far have you gotten interrogating father?"
"Nowhere. He refuses to talk to me."
"And have your tried… other methods?"
Zuko's face hardened. "I will not resort to torture, if that's what you're asking."
"Of course not Zu-Zu. You've changed your ways – you're better than all that." Then, Azula's voice became low and her eyes gleamed as she looked up at him. "But what if I tell you that you could get the information you need without harming a single hair on father?"
"How?" Zuko asked suspiciously.
Azula smiled. "Ah, but before I tell you, I'd like something in return from you."
"I knew it!" Zuko rose to his feet, outraged. "You're still scheming and conniving just like you always have! Don't you get it Azula? You've lost – you're done! You have no more cards to play! I'm the only one with moves left!"
"Yes, Zuko, yes. You are the only one who has moves left," Azula said coolly. "And therefore, you're the only one who can save mother. You don't know what father did with her. Perhaps she's a peasant somewhere, scrounging for bits of food. Perhaps she was sold and is a slave to some rich family. Or, perhaps worst of all, she's married to someone else, a rich man. And together, they've had children of their own and have forgotten about us."
"That's a lie! I don't need to know any of that!" Zuko bellowed defiantly, when inside his heart felt like it was being gnawed at.
Azula shrugged. "Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you've changed so much as Fire Lord that you don't care about mother anymore. After all, you have other duties to attend to now, so you could very well throw away my offer. But if you do, I know that, in time, you'll regret the decision." Azula stood and walked slowly toward Zuko, who was rooted to the ground, until she was at his side, her lips close to his ear, her voice soft. "Not knowing what happened to mother will eat away at your heart until you can't do anything and focusing on simple things becomes nearly impossible. And you'll begin to imagine what would have happened if you made that second choice." Azula rotated around Zuko, stopping at his opposite side. "'What would she say to me if she saw me? What does her voice sound like? What does she look like now? Will she smile at me when she sees that I'm the Fire Lord? Or will she just be disappointed?' you'll think." Azula turned and walked away from a wide-eyed Zuko, waving her hand flippantly at her side. "Of course, why bother? You're probably right not to trust me. Moreover, mother could be dead for all we know. But that's exactly it, isn't it." Azula turned, grinning. "We don't know."
Zuko watched her performance dumbstruck. It was surprising how well she could still get inside his head and manipulate every one of his emotions so that he was at war with himself and not Azula! Grappling with her was like taking on a two-headed rat viper. While you focus on one head, the other comes around the side while you're not watching. Already, Zuko could feel her venom take hold of his senses.
"What is it that you want?" Zuko asked eventually, hating himself for it.
"Simple," Azula said lightly. "When father tells you where mother is and you go off to find her, I want you to bring me with you."
"WHAT?" Zuko yelled in disbelief.
The door to the room smacked open with Ming standing in the doorway, her arms folded. Glaring at Zuko, who had his arms frozen in midair above a very calm Azula, Ming said, "What did I say about heated discussion?"
"Ming, I'm fine, don't worry," Azula reassured. "Zuko and I are just having – a lively debate."
Ming gave Azula a once over, nodded, and left.
"Look, you made Ming all worried," Azula said, shaking her head.
Zuko ignored that. "Azula, there's no way you're coming with me."
"Then you'll never get the information from father," Azula countered.
Zuko gritted his teeth, refusing to relent.
"Zuko, this is all I'm asking from you. Notice I'm not asking you to 'release' me from this place, nor am I asking you to banish me somewhere, nor am I asking you to make me Fire Lord. It's just one trip with me and then you could put me right back here. You can even bring as many guards as you want to watch me and to make sure that I don't run." Azula grinned. "Like I said, 'simple.'"
Zuko, on the other hand, did not find it the least bit "simple". In fact, he found it too good to be true.
"What's the catch?" he said.
"No catch. Just this one trip to see mother and straight back here. That's it."
"Why do you want to see mother anyway?"
Azula narrowed her eyes at him and said, "Maybe I cared for mother too."
"No you didn't."
"It doesn't matter why Zu-Zu. Me giving a reason is not part of the deal."
"Give me a good reason or else I won't even consider this," Zuko said.
For a brief moment, Azula looked like she wasn't going to say anything. She glowered at Zuko. But then something happened that Zuko did not expect. The shell that Azula wore seemed to crack and split at the edges until she was exposed raw. Her glower diminished, only to be replaced by a face both very confused and very… scared.
"I don't know why… but she's been in practically every dream I've had since I've come here. And sometimes, I see her standing in front of me like I see you now. Maybe… maybe seeing her in real life will make it go away – will… cure me."
Zuko was dumbfounded. The change was not only instantaneous, but dramatic. For maybe the second time in her life, Azula made herself vulnerable. Of course, she could be lying, Zuko thought. But then, he recalled what Ming had said earlier: Believe me when I say, there are parts to her that you've probably never seen before. Was this one of them?
Azula stood, watching, waiting for a response. What was he supposed to say? Could he believe her? Frankly, could he afford not to?
Sighing, Zuko said, "What do you have in mind?"
"What's wrong Zuko? You've been like this all day."
Zuko was pacing the entire width of the Imperial Suite while Mai lounged on an embroidered burgundy sofa near a panel of tall windows that looked out into the garden Zuko, Azula, Ty Lee, and Mai used to play at when they were younger. It was a fine evening – the sun was setting in the distance, lighting the sky in a fiery orange glow. Turtle ducks swam in the pond outside and cricket flies filled the night air with the serene sound of faint buzzing. And, despite how much he wanted to be with Mai and spend the night outside eating fruit tarts and reminiscing, Zuko had other duties that he needed to attend to that night. Duties that he wished he did not have to do.
"I have some things I need to take care of tonight," Zuko said by way of explanation.
"Uh-huh," Mai said, rolling over from her position on the couch so that she could see him better. Her eyebrows rose as she watched Zuko's endless pacing. "So you have enough time before your 'dinner date' tonight with the council to pace around your room, but not enough time to sit and relax awhile with your girlfriend?"
"I'm not meeting with the council tonight," Zuko objected.
"Then where are you going?"
"Mai, for now, just don't ask. I promise I'll tell you all about it afterword… if it works."
"Okay," Mai jumped up from the couch. "I can tell when I'm not wanted, when it's not just my parents telling me to keep quiet."
"Mai," Zuko said, catching her by the arm. "I'm sorry."
Mai looked at Zuko's hand clutching her arm and shrugged it off. She eyed him shrewdly and said, "What did Azula say to you the other day? You've been jumpy ever since."
It's hard to keep anything from Mai, Zuko thought sighing. "Mai, promise when I tell you that you won't tell anyone else."
"I promise," she said.
Zuko nodded. "Tonight I –"
There was a knock on the door and a voice said, "Your Honor?"
Zuko recognized it and said, "You may enter."
The door opened to an unusually tall and gangly man with a pair of large spectacles on his crooked nose. Half of his hair was piled into a bun at the top of his head and decorated with a small clip carved with a dragon tooth. The rest of his black hair flowed down until about his shoulders, where it met the collar of the gold and red robe of the Fire Nation council. Looking up from the unrolled scroll in his hand, he flicked his amber eyes to Zuko.
"Fire Lord Zuko, your 'guests' have arrived."
"Thank you Kazan," Zuko said. "I'll be right there."
He bowed at the waist and exited.
"I promise I'll tell you about it later," Zuko said, turning to Mai.
"You better, because I tend to hold grudges," Mai replied.
Zuko grinned. "I know."
Mai clasped his cheek and pulled him in for a brief, but passionate kiss. Releasing him, their noses still touching, she whispered, "Don't forget. And whatever you're doing, don't die because, even beyond the grave, my spirit is vicious."
"Okay," he said softly. His lips tugged gently on hers, before he turned and walked out the door.
Kazan was waiting for him outside. Zuko strode past him so that Kazan had to jog to catch up.
"Are you sure you're doing the right thing?" Kazan said quietly so that the guards patrolling either side of the hallway couldn't hear them.
"No," Zuko replied bluntly. "But I don't see any other options. I doubt he'll talk any other way."
"Your Honor, if I could suggest, I know ways of getting a man to talk, without jeopardizing your reputation!"
"What you're suggesting, a return to the old ways, will jeopardize my reputation. I will not resort to that. This is the only way, without harming him."
"Do you really trust your sister? Because I don't."
"What choice do I have?"
Zuko stopped and turned to Kazan, whose long fingers were drumming a frantic beat on the now rolled up scroll. "Kazan, you don't have to come. You can stay home tonight if you like."
Kazan shook his head vigorously. "No, Your Honor. I plan to see this through with you until the end, although I have a bad feeling about it."
Zuko nodded, smiling somewhat. Kazan could be a little panicky at times, but Zuko thought he made a good Dragon's Tooth, or the Fire Lord's chief advisor. It was said that whatever the dragon, or the Fire Lord decided, it would be the Dragon's Tooth who would make it happen. Sometimes it was said that the Tooth's doing was sharper than the Fire Lord himself and that it was the Tooth and not the Fire Lord who actually ruled the Fire Nation. But Zuko trusted Kazan. He was quick-witted, knowledgeable of the nation, and also way too hesitant in decision making. This was where Zuko would come in.
"I hoped you would," Zuko said to Kazan. "Have you sent our guests to –"
"Yes. We shall meet them there."
"Then let's go."
Together, they exited the palace just as the sun dipped below the horizon. Quickly and quietly, the two made their way through the deserted streets until they reached the tall, gray circular building on the outskirts of the city. The prison.
As the two entered and started up a series of stone steps to the correct floor, Zuko recalled the few times he had come here to visit his Uncle. They were dark memories – days when he was confused and lost and missed his Uncle's stupid proverbs. Zuko shook his head, trying to focus himself on the here and now.
Kazan and Zuko counted the torches on the wall as they made their way around the corridor so that they were sure to stop by the right cell. As it turned out, it wasn't needed. A party waited for them outside the metal cell door.
"What is she doing here?" Kazan hissed at Zuko.
"It's part of the deal. Don't worry, she won't get out of control," Zuko said, not so much as to reassure Kazan, but himself.
Azula looked up from where she was leaning against the wall. Zuko noticed that her arms were chained together behind her back and that Ming was close by her side looking irritated.
"This is not part of my duties," Ming said as soon as she saw Zuko approach.
"It is now," was all Zuko said. He was not in the mood for bickering. Gazing about him, all he saw was Azula, Ming, Kazan, and a few guards by the cell door – but not the people he was waiting for.
"Oh they'll be here Zu-Zu," Azula said with a smirk when she saw Zuko's confused face. "They went to go get prepared. Why don't you go inside and warm him up a bit and they'll be back when you need them."
Zuko glared at her, trying to decide whether she was planning something or not, before saying, "Ming, Kazan, I want you watching her at all times. Make sure she doesn't plan anything funny."
Ming and Kazan responded by edging closer to either side of Azula, who's smirk widened.
"Open the door," Zuko ordered to the guards on either side of the cell.
Obediently, they drew the metal door open so that Zuko was allowed into the first half of the cell that was split in the middle by metal bars. Scrunched into a ball at the corner on the opposite side of the bars was Zuko's father, Ozai.
He was a mess. He was thinner, his hair and beard longer and tangled. His face was hidden within the unruly mess of his hair and his brown, patchy robe, but there was no mistaking his voice beneath the rags.
"Come to try again, have you?" his father asked. There was no denying the sneer in his voice.
"Don't you have enough dignity left to turn around and face me?" Zuko asked gruffly.
Ozai laughed hoarsely. "I do have enough dignity – enough dignity to remain as I am and refuse to acknowledge the succession of a weak Fire Lord such as yourself."
Zuko crossed his legs and sat in front of the immobile sack that was once his father. "I've always been the 'weak one', haven't I? But now, who is the weak one, you or me? You've lost your Firebending thanks to Aang, and your prodigy has lost her mind in a mental institution. You would never admit defeat, because to show any sort of humility is beneath you. I, on the other hand, admit my mistakes, and those of the Fire Nation, in order to admit an era of peace that the world has not known for over a century." Zuko shook his head. "No, father, you have always been the weak one, not me."
Ozai rose slowly from his position in the back corner of the cell. His eyes wild, he turned toward Zuko with a grimace. "If you're so strong then, do what you know must be done – torture me – lash the truth from me. Because otherwise, you'll never find out where you're mother is – and even then, I'm not sure I'll be so kind as to divulge the information for you."
Zuko's mouth twitched, but he said, "I would never sink so low as to torture you, like you once did your prisoners and your family. But, there are other ways to get what I want."
Ozai's eyes widened slightly, but his mouth remained rigid. "What are you talking about?"
"Father, please just tell me where mother is. Where did you banish her? Is she even still alive? Tell me and I won't have to do this!"
"What is 'this'?" he asked, his eyebrows furrowed.
"Please! Tell me where she is! This is your last chance!"
"No," Ozai said in a low voice. "Find her yourself – but I wouldn't bother. By now, she's probably already dead and gone!" Ozai laughed, as Zuko stood abruptly and walked backwards toward the closed metal door.
"Then you leave me no choice," he murmured.
Zuko knocked on the metal door behind him and said, "We're ready."
The door slid open behind him. In entered a tan man in a floor-length, long-sleeved green and beige robe with a circle-like design on the front. His brown hair was tied back behind him in a braid and he wore a conical green hat on his head. In his left hand dangled a strange sort of glass lantern.
"How long will this take?" Zuko asked the man quietly.
"As long as it takes," the man replied, as he approached the bars in the center of the room.
"Who are you?" Ozai said it a voice tinged with apprehension.
"I'm your friend," the man replied. And then he leaned forward, placed his lantern on the ground, straightened, and moved his arms.
The stone floor shifted beneath Ozai so that he was pushed up close to the bars. Then, the ground rose above him so that he was upright and sitting, with his legs and hands bound in stone bracers, in a chair that looked almost like a throne.
"What are you doing? Get me out of here!" Ozai bellowed, struggling within the iron grip of the throne.
The man made no response, instead just outstretching his hand and slowly clasping his fingers together. From the corner of Ozais's cheek, a stone band appeared and wrapped around to the other side of his face, effectively shutting his mouth. With another whip of the man's arms, stone erupted from the floor in a perfect circle around Ozai. Zuko watched in awe as the man created spokes in the floor for the circular band of stone to rest on and then indent the stone inward along the band so that it represented some sort of track. In fact, the whole contraption looked like a strange sort of bridge.
Ozai continued to struggle futilely in his throne, eyeing the strange contraption around him like in might strangle him.
The man retrieved his lantern and Zuko noticed for the first time that the bottom of the lantern was shaped so that it would sit within the groove that the man had made in the bridge. Once he secured it to the track, the man lit the lantern and took a step back with his hands clasped behind him.
"Fire Lord Zuko," the man said, without turning to look at him.
"You may want to leave, in case you are affected by what I'm about to do."
"He will not be harmed?"
"No. You should leave now."
The man moved his hands once in a circle-like motion in front of him, before returning them to their original position behind his back. Slowly, the lantern started moving around the track he had created. It moved once, twice, three times around Ozai and it didn't stop, like Earth's revolutions around the sun. Ozai's eyes widened, his eyebrows straining up into his forehead so that they were lost in his ruffled hair. But despite his protestations, Ozai's eyes never left the revolving lantern around him.
Zuko knocked on the door behind him and it opened. He slipped through the crack in the door just as he heard the man say, "You will tell us where your wife is."
"Effective, aren't they?"
Zuko turned to see Azula, still leaning against the wall, the leer still clear across her face. "You can see why they made such effective allies during my days in Ba Sing Se," she said.
Zuko didn't reply, just looked around to see three other former Dai Li agents standing with their arms clasped behind them, much like the man in the room behind him. At Zuko's wish, King Kuei of the Earth Kingdom had sent a few of the disbanded Dai Li agents, ones who were known for their hypnotism, to help Zuko. Although in the letter Zuko received back from Kuei assured Zuko that the group had been dissolved and that many of their key figures, like their former leader Long Feng, were imprisoned, Zuko still couldn't trust the men before him now. Their fighting skills were formidable and the things that they did under the direction of Azula were hard to look past. His stomach rolled at the mere fact that it was under his orders that the Dai Li were here tonight, orders that his manipulative sister Azula fed him. In fact, it was hard to look at anyone here now. He wanted to be anywhere else but here.
"Kazan," Zuko said.
The man turned from his position next to Azula and said, "Yes, Your Honor?"
"As soon as they get any information from my father, anything at all, I want you to come to me immediately and tell me. I don't care if it's in the middle of the night. Do you understand?"
Kazan bowed and said, "Of course, Fire Lord."
"Ming, take Azula back when this is over," Zuko said, rounding on her.
"Yes Fire Lord," Ming said, and she too bowed.
With that, Zuko stalked past them all, a few guards following him in his wake. He rubbed his temples, wishing very much that he could be alone for once without the required entourage around him at all times. He needed space. He needed to think. He needed his Uncle.
What have I done?, he thought.
Azula lounged back against the wall, staring at the torch on the wall of the prison in front of her. She amused herself by squinting her eyes and concentrating on the flame so that it rose and diminished at her will. Smiling, she blew a piece of hair away from her face and thought that soon she would be able to control fire about her without the use of her arms. That soon, she would once again be the greatest Firebender on the planet.
She stopped her thoughts and glanced about her, paranoid that someone could have guessed what she was thinking. Kazan was talking to one of the guards, occasionally eyeing Azula to make sure that she wasn't up to anything. Ming had decided to take up residence on the floor, sitting with her hands on her knees and her eyes half-closed. Azula suspected that she had learned the trick to catch some sleep but still be vigilant while she was a guard here. To Azula's relief, no one had noticed her playing with the torch fire or seemed to be paying close attention to her at all. She liked it this way.
It had been nearly a half an hour since Zuko left, and already twice, new Dai Li agents had exchanged places with the man in the room. They were taking ten minute shifts to see which one of them would have the greatest affect on her father. But it didn't matter. In time, even the once great Phoenix King would break, Azula thought idly. And then, Zuko and her would be off. The thought made her smile.
"It's strange to see you like this."
Azula twisted her head to see the man who had decided to lean on the wall next to her. She recognized him as one of the Dai Li agents from Ba Sing Se, and the first one to try hypnotizing the information out of her father. She didn't know his name, nor did she very much care. Instead, she shrugged and said, "I know it won't be forever. I'll find a way out."
"You don't seem to be afraid of your future."
"I'm not – as soon as one of you extracts the information from my father, my brother and I will be off looking for my mother."
"In Ba Sing Se, I got the impression that you don't care about anyone – only your lust for power."
"I don't care about anyone – least of all my mother. She wasn't much of anything, she never cared for me… she was just there."
"Then why go with your brother to find her?"
"Because as much as she ignored me while I was a child, that much and more she now haunts me as an adult. And I won't rest soundly again, or think straight again, or see properly again until she's gone."
"Yes gone. Although this little trip will provide plenty of opportunities for escape, for now, escape is not my objective. Because, when I get there, when I see my mother's pretty sympathetic face again, I'm not going to smile and run up and hug her like Zuko." Azula shook her head. The Dai Li agent next to her turned to look at her with a flat face, except for the tinge of a smile at the corners of his lips. A fierce smile spread across Azula's features as she turned to look at him, still shaking her head.
"No," she said slowly. "I'm going to see her…"
And her manic grin grew…
"And then I'm going to kill her."
Author's Note: OMFGOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD. THIS IS SO LONG. !*$*(#%&)^%! THIS TOOK FOREEEVVVVER. UGH. –headdesk, headdesk, headdesk-
Phew, now that I got that out of my system… time for a real author's comment! -sweatdrop- So the last part of this chapter might sound a little rushed – not all of it is exactly to my perfection, but whatever. I wanted to get this done before I left for this trip I'm going on and before college crap starts getting in the way. Sorry for the wait for this particular chapter update, but you might have to learn to expect that from me because, one, I'm a slow writer, and two, I write a TON. Plus, with college coming up soon, updates are going to become slower, unfortunately. I'll try my best though. But I promise you, the story is a pretty solid one, if I do say so myself, and I think that will keep me going on, unlike my previous fanfiction.
About this chapter in particular, it was supposed to be much shorter… but look how that turned out? Not only is it longer than the last chapter, but I had to take out a scene I had been planning to include from the beginning because I decided that it was unnecessary for this chapter. Plus, I decided that I wanted to write some in Azula's POV. Dude, it's so FUN to be in her head! I really hope that I was able to stay true to her character – she, like Zuko, is a very complex one. Originally, the part with Sokka getting his sword back was supposed to be in a different chapter altogether, but I added it to this one because, like the cheese I am, I had to have a goodbye scene with Zuko and co! -sniff- Unfortunately, that's the last lighthearted scene in the entire chapter practically… then you get to a lot of seriousness. This chapter's full of it, sorry. = But I imagine Zuko's new life as Fire Lord must be full of schedules and order and not a lot of fun things. Poor boy. I bet he's really missing the Gaang now. XD
The Site, or "Sacred Fire" was, in part, influenced by Shutter Island, but based off of the "Avatar Wikia" site, Azula was indeed taken to a mental institution on a small island outside the Capital City. Furthermore, when you walk into the Site, it's supposed to look and feel like the high walls of a cathedral, but I didn't describe it like that because I'm pretty sure there are no churches in the world of Avatar! Haha.
Well, that's all I have to say for now! I really hope you like the update! Comments really make my day and really help me with my writing! Thank you guys!