Have you found her?
The Fire Lord stood at the edges of the well-dressed crowd, beside one of many identical gold-plated pillars that lined the torchlit hall, and wished he could disappear. A blue-tinted ice sculpture was positioned atop a short pedestal to his left, perspiring almost as much as Zuko was in his heavy mantle and crimson robes of state. The topknot that bound up half of his long black hair provided only marginal relief, and his flame headpiece had long since begun to sag as it slowly came undone.
The deep and brassy strains of a traditional Fire Nation ballad floated through the smoky air, accompanied by the quiet murmur of polite conversation among the guests … and the distinctive rise and fall of Sokka's voice as he delivered the punchline of a joke. Having sated his appetite for meat courtesy of the many tray-bearing servers roaming the hall, he was apparently launching into sarcasm. Though the upper crust of Zuko's country did not seem to appreciate his humor, he could hear the now-teenaged Toph bark with laughter at the conclusion of Sokka's joke.
Fire Lady Mai was positioned near them along the opposite wall, her raven hair styled in the bun she almost always wore now, to accommodate the same flame headpiece that Zuko's mother bore perpetually in his memories. It looked very different on her, perhaps because of the heavy bangs she still retained and the elegant strands of hair that fell freely on either side of her bun to drape over her angular shoulders. Her back was ramrod straight as she stood listening to the enthusiastic waxings of an Earth Kingdom diplomat, her long, pale face looking neither more nor less bored than was her wont. Her hooded eyes and impassive expression betrayed nothing of what she felt, if in fact she felt anything at all. Two years of marriage were not always sufficient for Zuko to tell.
Have you found her?
But even the comfort of old friends was not enough to ease the weight that had settled in Zuko's stomach, and the Fire Lord thought he might spontaneously combust if he had to spend one more second in the flickering light and quiet buzz of this too familiar hall. When he heard the appreciative oohs and ahhs of the latest spectators to Aang's umpteenth demonstration of his air scooter, Zuko took the opportunity to duck behind a sliding panel and out into the cool night air of the veranda.
The stars shone brightly in the inky sky, clear save for a few wispy indigo clouds. The moon cast the packed dirt of the long courtyard that lay before him into soft relief, very different from the deep shadows that clung to its edges in the dim crimson light of Sozin's Comet. It had been four years and several hours ago that Zuko arrived here uninvited at his sister's lonely coronation, and she challenged him to an Agni Kai. He stood not far from where she'd knelt then at the head of the steps, waiting for the Fire Sages to crown her.
He wondered if Azula knew what day it was. Did she mark it like he did? The day of his triumph and ascent to power had been the day of her defeat and descent into insanity. Of course, the latter had been a long time coming. He saw that now. That was only the day her carefully constructed mask had acquired its last fatal crack, and shattered. He wondered who she was without it.
Have you found her?
Zuko had visited his sister exactly once since she was committed to the asylum on Ember Island. Once was enough. Once was more than he thought he could bear again. She was not herself.
The same image that had been indelibly burned into his memory flashed across his mind at the recollection: Azula kneeling slumped over at the back of her bare, white-padded cell, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. It was perhaps an odd impression, considering she had been chained hand and foot, her wrists bound behind her for his visit. But these chains were more visible than the ones she knew before, and they bothered Zuko for reasons he couldn't articulate.
He had not worn the robes and mantle and the five-point crown of the Fire Lord as when he visited his father, opting instead for a casual tunic. He did not want to provoke her unnecessarily. He entered to find her clad in a simple short-sleeved shirt and pants, both a vibrant shade of Fire Nation red. She had barely lifted her head when he stepped through the reinforced metal door that closed behind him, otherwise evincing no reaction. Her empty brown-gold eyes looked out at him, framed by uneven bangs, and suddenly what he'd meant to say fled from his mind. And so Azula was the first to speak.
"Are you real?" she asked at length, her tone flat and affectless.
Zuko managed a simple "Yes," but no more. He would not have known even to volunteer this if he hadn't questioned the banished servants, now restored to their stations, about her deteriorating mental state in the days preceding her coronation.
She seemed to pause thoughtfully at his reply, an indefinable something stirring behind her vacant gaze. "Is this … the first time you've visited me?"
"I meant to come sooner, but —" Zuko started to apologize, then stopped as the implication sank in. Oh no. No. She was hallucinating him too.
His awful realization did not seem to register with Azula, who carefully drew her shackled feet out from under her to sit with her knees drawn up to her chest, leaning against the padded wall. "How are you?" he asked, after the silence stretched too long for comfort. It was a stupid question. He wanted her to look at him like it was a stupid question, and call him a dumdum for asking it.
Instead, her lips quirked into a bitter smile, and Zuko tensed reflexively. "Mother comes to see me," she replied, leaning slightly toward him, with the air of one confiding a secret. He felt his breath catch in his throat, and stood very still as she continued. "She tells me," Azula gave the barest of pauses, "that she loves me. Can you believe it?"
No, he couldn't. Azula seemed to gather this from his expression. Her smile spread until it looked like it would break, and her face along with it. It was horribly reminiscent of the way she'd screamed when Katara had chained her to the grate. "Neither can I," she confirmed, with a sort of grim satisfaction. "I tell her so every time, but she never listens. I might as well be talking to myself."
Zuko flinched at her unthinking allusion. Oh Agni, this was not his sister. He wished she would curse him, or lie to him, or put him down, or dig her sharp nails into his skin. It would have been better than this. It was what he knew. She was what he knew.
At his reaction, her expression acquired a depth that hadn't been there before. She looked at him as she had stared into the fire that night on Ember Island, as if suddenly the walls had come down to reveal years of accumulated hurt. "Have you found her?" Azula asked, as quietly as she had made her revelation then. My own mother, thought I was a monster.
Her brother stared. It was almost as if she had guessed the reason for his visit. Azula looked away from him, apparently ashamed of having even asked. "I thought you would look for her, now that Father —"
"No," Zuko said darkly, clenching his fists at the memory of his fruitless conversations with the deposed Ozai, "he won't tell me where she is."
"I suspect he doesn't know," Azula reasoned, her head still turned slightly to the side. "He would have made it a point not to know, to distance himself from her as much as possible. She was a traitor, and if her role in his ascent to power were ever discovered…"
"She was our mother," Zuko reproached her. Even knowing what Ursa had probably done or caused to happen that night, especially knowing she had acted for his protection, he felt the need to defend her.
"More of a mother to you than to me," his sister quietly replied, closing her eyes. Her nostrils flared slightly in anger as she took a deep breath, her jaw set in a hard line.
Zuko sighed. It seemed she was determined to remain utterly unreasonable when it came to the subject of their mother. "Did you ever ask Father where she went?" he tried instead. "Azula?" he prompted, when she did not reply.
"Once," she admitted harshly, sounding disgusted with herself. She continued to refuse to look at him, did not even open her eyes.
"And?" Zuko pressed, taking a step toward Azula.
She finally glared sidelong at him. "And I knew after that never to ask again." Zuko felt his hopes of ever learning his mother's whereabouts falter. If Father wouldn't even tell her…
He came to a decision. "Did she … say anything to you, the night she left?" Zuko asked hesitantly. This was a mistake.
Azula's eyes flashed, and she looked quickly up at him. "No, Zuzu," she snapped, her voice wavering, "I suppose she only had time for her favorite before she abandoned us both."
Zuko blinked once in surprise. Azula was breathing hard, clearly fighting a losing battle to hold back the tears that threatened to spill from her swimming eyes. "She never said goodbye to you?" he whispered.
And instantly regretted it.
Her teeth clenched in anguish, Azula squeezed her eyes shut and seemed to fold in on herself, as if to hide her tear-streaked face behind her knees. But with her arms bound behind her back and her knees drawn so closely to her chest, she could not keep her balance, and toppled over in the attempt.
Zuko instinctively rushed to her side. He was bent over her, arms outstretched to help her up, before she screeched, "Get away from me!" A strange, dark green tinge stained her tongue, visible only now that she screamed. He withdrew quickly when she kicked out with her shackled feet, singeing his boots with the edge of an arc of blue flame she carved through the air.
Three of the heavily armored guards standing outside burst through the door at her cry, stun pikes leveled at her. But Zuko halted them with the sharply raised hand that was becoming an increasingly automatic gesture to him as Fire Lord, his eyes riveted on his sister as she climbed to her knees, her trembling shoulders bent, her lank brown hair falling over her face. "I didn't know," he said, fighting to steady his voice as he lowered his hand. "Azula, I'm sorry —"
"Liar!" she shrieked, snapping erect as if stung, her arms twisting in their bonds. "You never loved me!"
Zuko stared for a moment, taken aback, until he realized. She wasn't speaking to him. He followed her line of sight to the empty space to the right of him where she'd hurled her accusation. And he had thought this couldn't get any worse.
"I snuck into his room and stole his knife, I saw you say goodbye to him!" Azula tearfully accused thin air, seemingly oblivious to his continued presence, or that of the guards. "I ran back to my room and sat on my bed and waited for you! And you never opened the door! You never opened the door…" she said, in a voice that seemed too small for her. Her shoulders slumped in a defeated way so unlike her that Zuko was visited with the irrational urge to shake her bodily until she snapped out of it.
He could practically feel the guards staring by this point, and turned his head to see the leftmost one nudge the guard in the middle with his elbow, who then shrugged nonchalantly in response, apparently accustomed to the princess's hallucinations. The remaining guard fingered his stun pike idly, looking bored. Zuko felt rage coil in his stomach, rage such as he had not felt since he chased the Avatar. "Get out," he said poisonously.
The guards stood immediately at attention, evidently surprised. "But, sire —" the middle one began, his voice muffled through the skull facemask they all wore.
"That's an order," Zuko cut him off coldly, glaring daggers at the guards until they withdrew from her cell to the antechamber. He vaguely heard the guard who'd contradicted him order one of those in the outside hall to send for the doctor, before the last guard out of the room closed the door behind him. They would not have much time.
Azula was laughing now. It was not the high, false peal she'd affected at Chan's party, nor even the sweet, bell-like sound he barely remembered from their distant childhood, but the unhinged cackling of a broken mind that he had not heard since their Agni Kai, and hoped never to hear again.
She was still addressing what he could only guess to be the illusion of their mother, though she seemed to have recalled Zuko's presence at last. "He can't hear you, he can't see you!" Azula crowed in a singsong voice. "You only exist for me now, you miserable bitch!" she taunted bitterly, her voice ragged. "If there's a hell, you must be in it! If there's a hell, you must be in it!"
Zuko blinked back tears as he approached her, his hands shook until he clenched them into fists. He finally could not decide if Azula was speaking to their mother or herself. He couldn't listen to this anymore. "Azula!" he said sharply, descending to his knees to be more nearly on her level and seizing her tear-streaked face roughly in his hands.
She froze instantly at his touch and harsh tone, and looked strangely at Zuko — as if she recognized him, but not as himself. He had not held her like this since they were children. He had not been this close to her since the night he confronted her about lying to their father. He felt his mouth go dry and his heart beat faster. "You have to stop this," he said hoarsely, wondering distantly where he had found the presence of mind even to speak. "It isn't real. There's no one there."
And suddenly she was back, looking on him with the old familiar condescension. And in the silky tone he knew so well, Azula said, "There never is."
A single tear drew a track down his cheek, and Zuko released her almost involuntarily at this. How could her words still cut him so deeply, even now? How did she always know just what to say, to make him feel — to make him feel —
The door burst open as a gold-clad doctor hastily entered the cell, backed by two orderlies. "Your Majes—" he began urgently, but faltered when he saw the Fire Lord kneeling opposite the disgraced princess, his fingertips just brushing the line of her jaw. Zuko quickly dropped his hands, and climbed to his feet beside her, while Azula looked away. Conscious of herself and her surroundings again, he guessed she did not want to let them see her tears. It had always been so with his sister.
"You shouldn't get too close, sire!" the balding doctor warned, recovering from his surprise. "She's breathed fire at several of the guards who've tried to subdue her."
Zuko didn't move an inch from his place beside Azula, but frowned. "She can still breathe fire?" He had thought that only a result of Sozin's Comet.
"Yes, she can," Azula said tartly, still kneeling bound at his feet and clearly irritated at being referred to as if she were not even present. Zuko didn't reply, staring expectantly at the doctor.
"We usually keep her muzzled, except at mealtimes," he added, with a nervous glance at the fuming princess, "but as you wanted to speak to her…"
Zuko's frown deepened to a scowl. Muzzled, like an animal? But if she was threatening her caretakers… He sighed, rubbing his forehead briefly with his hand. The doctor, seeing an opening, volunteered, "Visiting hours have ended, my Lord. Perhaps it would be better if you concluded your interview —"
"This ends when I say it ends," Zuko reproved him. "I am the Fire Lord." He felt rather than saw Azula smile to herself. It was that familiar smile that said, You're not doing it right. He just knew that it was.
"But she's due for her medication —"
"Subjects questioning you already, Zuzu?" Azula cut across the doctor, arching a sly brow. "Maybe you shouldn't have left my crown at home." So, she did remember.
"I didn't want to upset you," he said, refraining with some difficulty from reminding her it was his crown now, and would remain so. He resented that she did not appreciate his small kindness, but supposed he should have expected no better from Azula.
"How good of you, o merciful Lord!" she bristled, glaring defiantly up at Zuko. Her tone stripped the acknowledgment of any satisfaction it might have held for him. "You can well afford to be kind, having won at my expense," Azula accused him, "but at least have the decency not to pretend this isn't what you've always wanted!"
His eyes widened, and he took a step back to better look her in the face. Azula, appealing to his sense of decency? It was almost as shocking as the thought that he would wish his own sister insane. "That isn't — I don't —"
"Why do you think I always laughed when you fell?" she demanded, hardly seeming to hear him. "I was better than you at everything, and everyone who mattered loved you more!" She bowed her head so that her loose hair obscured her face, and he almost thought he heard her whisper, "And me, not at all."
Not Father, Zuko thought, and the pang that used to accompany that realization was gone. Seeing what their father's love, if it could even be called that, had done to Azula reminded him how much better off he was without it. He only wished that she could see it too.
Zuko almost voiced this aloud, except that he was uncomfortably aware of the doctor behind them speedily taking notes on a pad he had produced seemingly from nowhere. This was probably more than they'd gotten out of Azula in the entire time she'd stayed here. He knew she was as talented at concealment as she was at misdirection.
Azula brought an end to his musing when she slowly raised her head, her dark hair falling away from her heart-shaped face, and added, "You couldn't do anything right, and I could, and you hated me for it." She spoke so matter-of-factly, without the slightest hint of malice, that he was almost inclined to agree with her. "I think you hate me still."
I never hated you, Zuko thought. But he couldn't say it. Not to her. He could only stare down into her clear amber eyes and feel like he was seeing inside her for the first time. "How ironic," she concluded, holding his gaze with a quiet deliberance, "that each of us should have what the other wanted most. Together, we could almost be a whole person."
The only way we win, is together. Her voice held the same rare admission of need that it had in the catacombs of Ba Sing Se, and Zuko drew a sharp breath. He would never tell her so, but his mind had been made up to join her when he saw her cornered by Aang and Katara. Her arms extended at her sides, her face taut with apprehension, her eyes darting from one opponent to the other, had caused his thoughts to crystallize in that moment.
He would protect her.
Of course, whether he admitted it or not, she probably knew this, perhaps even counted on it. Azula always knew, just as surely as Azula always lied. He would not fall for her manipulations again. "That's not true," he countered, his expression hardening with resolve. "I'm not like you, Azula. I chose right."
She was silent for a long moment, and he had to make a conscious effort not to flinch from her unblinking stare. Finally, her eyes narrowed, a move that made her resemblance to their father even more pronounced. "And how exactly," she demanded, her voice grown quiet with menace, "did you choose right? Chose the right time to turn traitor? The right ragtag band of peasants to ally yourself with? Congratulations, dumdum, on screwing up so fortuitously."
The heavily muscled orderlies exchanged an uneasy glance, perhaps wondering if their new Fire Lord would take offense. Her words might have stung once, back when she could hide the hurt behind them. But even as she tore into him, her eyes said it. You abandoned me, abandoned our country. You betrayed Father, fought against us. Your family. Zuko had not expected her to understand, but he hoped one day she would. That was why she was here, he told himself.
But even as he held her fierce gaze, it grew more distant. "I served my father and my country," she said, in a tone that was equal parts bitterness and resignation, "and this is my reward." A flameproof padded cell. Metal restraints. Armored guards and drugs in her food. Azula somehow managed to indicate all this with a disparaging flick of her eyes from one corner of the room to another.
Zuko couldn't let her think like that. This was not meant to be an end for her, but a beginning. Sensing the import of this moment, he settled into a crouch across from her, sitting on his heels until they were at eye level, and rested his forearms on his knees. "This isn't a punishment, Azula," he insisted firmly. "You're here to get better."
The same twisted smile she'd greeted him with on the day of their Agni Kai spread across her face, and Zuko felt his heart sink. "Why don't you just give me a lobotomy, dear brother?" Azula offered, her words as sharp and polished as a knife-edge. Zuko blinked. "Cut out the part of me that offends you so, and save us all a lot of time and trouble?
"I could be the meek little princess you and Mother always wanted, and everyone would be happy, except for Father, because nothing makes him happy, and except for me, because I would be gone." And her voice, grown rawer with every word, fell disturbingly flat on the last one. "Just think of it," Azula whispered, and her darker eyes held his golden ones transfixed, "a world where you wouldn't always be less."
His mind had ground to such a halt that he did not even notice the insult. Zuko could only crouch frozen across from her, in something closely approaching horror. He finally managed a shaky reply. "You — you can't want that." I don't want that.
Her expression didn't change, but she replied with uncharacteristic patience, as if she were explaining to a small child. "What I want doesn't matter anymore, if it ever did."
"It matters to me," Zuko said, so softly that he almost wondered if she would hear him. The suspicion that drew her arched brows and tugged at the corners of her mouth indicated she had.
"Does it?" Azula snapped. "I know why you're really here. And I can tell you I don't know where she is!" Her slanted eyes looked inward on the memories that were her only world now, filling with tears that killed the fire of her resentment, leaving only ashes in their wake. "She didn't want me — to find her," Azula spoke painfully, as if she were slowly suffocating, "she didn't — want me…"
"That's not true," Zuko said, sounding desperate even to his own ears. He reached for her almost compulsively. "Azula —"
"Don't touch me!" she shrieked, and Zuko snatched back his hand as if burned. "You're just like her, just like Mai and Ty Lee! You're just like Father!" Azula wildly accused him, her narrow shoulders gone rigid with anger again. "Pretend you want me, pretend you care, and then throw me away! You'll never come back!" she said disgustedly, her mouth twisting into an ugly sneer.
"Yes, I will!" he cried indignantly, stung by the comparison to their father. What was worse, he did not think she'd said it just to hurt him. It was really what she thought.
If she noticed his offense, she gave no sign of satisfaction for once, but merely replied, "No, you won't."
"I will come back —" he tried to insist.
"Liar," she flatly denied him.
"Liar!" she spat.
"LiarliarliarliarliarliarLIAR!" Azula drowned him out, until it was like ten of her were yelling it at him at once. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut, and tears drew fresh tracks down her face. If her hands had not been bound behind her, he felt sure she would have held them over her ears. Losing his balance, Zuko fell backward onto his elbows in surprise at her outburst, just in time to avoid the gout of blue flame she loosed from her mouth when she screamed —
The orderlies were on her in an instant, tackling her to the padded floor. One grabbed her bound ankles, while the other pinned her on her stomach with a knee in her back, twisting her shackled arms behind her at a painful angle designed to immobilize her. Zuko sat up again, biting back a cry of outrage only with difficulty. The man pinning her down was as powerfully built as their father, and seeing Azula at his mercy — It didn't seem right.
"Liar — liar — liar —" she half-panted, half-gasped, barely able to draw breath enough to speak with the orderlies restraining her, thrashing against their grip in a futile effort to free herself nonetheless. Zuko wondered for a split second why she didn't use her flames against them, until he remembered. Firebending comes from the breath. If she couldn't breathe, she couldn't bend. But if she kept struggling against the orderly's hold like she was, she would probably break one or both of her arms.
Apparently coming to the same conclusion, the doctor withdrew a small white envelope from the folds of his robe (he had put away his pad and charcoal when Azula started screaming again) and opened it to remove a pinch of a ground, dark green herb. He had informed Zuko before the visit began, perhaps hoping to reassure him, that this envelope contained a crushed herb that when spread on her tongue, would sedate Azula in less than a minute.
At the same time, a guard who'd rushed inside when she breathed fire grabbed Zuko under his arms to remove him from the cell, and the fog of indecision that had gripped him while he watched her fight lifted. A single thought flashed through his mind: He couldn't let it end like this.
"You're my sister, Azula!" he cried suddenly, easily breaking the grip of the startled guard to scramble closer to her on hands and knees. She turned her head to look at him and only breathed shallowly, her wild eyes fixed on him again. And he said plaintively, "I want you back."
"You never had me!" Azula screamed, glaring balefully up at him from the floor. And her voice broke until she half-sobbed, "No one would!"
Stricken by her rejection, Zuko did not resist this time when two guards each seized one of his arms to haul him from the cell. They dragged him through the reinforced metal door while he faced behind, watching Azula thrash more weakly against her captors' hold as she gave way to tears and inarticulate cries of torment. It was an almost inhuman sound, no less frightening than the last time he'd heard it.
They cleared the bare antechamber and the exterior door, and the guards deposited Zuko against the opposite wall of the hallway outside her cell, before standing straight to adjust their shoulder guards. He just saw the doctor kneel carefully beside Azula, envelope clutched firmly in hand, before the interior door closed on her lingering screams.
Zuko jumped at the sound, suddenly aware of some five guards occupying the brightly lit hall staring down at him. At any other time, it might have occurred to him that he did not look very much like a Fire Lord at that moment, sitting slumped against the white painted wall of the asylum hallway and breathing hard, the right side of his face already streaked with tears when he did not even realize he'd been crying.
"She seemed — almost normal," Zuko said helplessly, looking desperately from one identical skull-faced guard to another, unable to stop the tears that stung his uninjured eye. "I thought..."
"She gets like that sometimes," a lanky guard, not one of those Zuko had dismissed, volunteered quietly. He tilted his facemask up to reveal a lean, dark-skinned visage beneath. "You shouldn't let it fool you. She has real problems, and they won't go away that easily."
He stared, already unused to being addressed so forthrightly by his subordinates. But a distant part of his mind, the rational part, knew that this was what he needed right now, so Zuko held the guard's brown-eyed gaze like an anchor while he calmed his breathing and brought his racing heart under control as best he could.
The guard nodded respectfully to him and replaced his facemask just as the doctor emerged from Azula's cell, flanked by his orderlies. Zuko just caught a glimpse of her through the door, lying on her side and facing away from him on the padded floor, before the gold-clad doctor closed it gently behind them. The slight rise and fall of her shoulder had been the only indication that she was still alive.
Zuko was shown in short order to the balding doctor's cluttered study, refusing the offer of a hand up from the orderly who'd pinned Azula to the floor. There, he was questioned for almost half-an-hour on his recollection of their meeting, especially that part the doctor had not directly witnessed. Zuko sat limply in his overstuffed chair and answered mechanically, hardly aware of what he was saying, while the doctor took copious notes.
The same line of thought kept running through his mind over and over again. This man was supposed to be the best. One half-hour debriefing with him, and Zuko already felt worse when he had not thought that was possible. He did not even seem to realize his own Fire Lord was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. How much less could he do for someone like Azula?
She had real problems, and they would not go away that easily. It had been weeks since their Agni Kai, and she had to be sedated after just a few minutes with him. She hallucinated even in the presence of other people, something she had never done before.
Oh Agni. Oh Agni.
She had not gotten better. She would not get better.
She would be here for the rest of her life.