She wore her black ceremonial armor, edged with gold. Azula stood amid the frozen waste and ran perfectly manicured hands the length of her torso, to discover her youthful body bore no trace of either the starvation attempt or her unwanted pregnancy.
She was fourteen again, proud and invulnerable. Beloved of her father and her nation. Ascendant.
The joy that bloomed in her chest was so unspeakable, she forgot for a moment where she was. Azula thrust a hand out to bend fire, the purest form of expression — before she remembered she couldn't bend in the Spirit World.
She snatched the hand back to her chestplate, grasping her wrist against a sudden swell of disappointment. That you got here at all is its own kind of victory, she reminded herself and squeezed her eyes shut. A meaningless gesture, she didn't stop seeing. More will follow.
Snow crunched somewhere to her right, and Azula's head snapped around, bangs swaying, to identify the source. Despite the nearness of the sound, the tiny figure clothed in red stood so distant on the moonlit plain that she could not make out its features… Watching her, of that much she was certain.
The speck of color was like a dying ember flung from a fire into the snow. Maybe that was why Azula felt compelled to follow it, when the figure turned and ran into the distance. "Wait!" she cried, starting after it. "Who are you?" What are you? Why were you watching me?
Azula chased the only other extant being in sight away from the mountains and nearer to land's end, a sheer drop to the waves that crashed below. Her steel-toed boots kicked up the powdery snow, but left no footprints in her wake when she spared a glance behind.
The snow lay undisturbed by any sign of her passage, but little imprints marked the path of her quarry. That was how Azula knew it was a child, before it even stopped briefly to wave her on. Her arms pumping though no breath misted the air, she drew closer and caught the flash of that white hand, small and delicate as a snowflake at her distance, against the Fire Nation red of tailored pants and a belted tunic. The same sort of clothes she used to wear as a little girl —
Azula stopped when she made out the shoulder spikes though, the pale glint of gold in its topknot. "Who are you?" she whispered this time, drawing her arms close in a defensive gesture, visited by a sudden, nameless fear.
The child must have heard her despite the distance. Her answering giggle — for Azula felt sure now it was a girl — reached the princess as clearly as if it came from right next to her, and not the edges of her sight. Azula was reminded bizarrely of a child Ty Lee.
It shouldn't be possible to hallucinate in the Spirit World, should it? she considered for the first time. This was no vision she'd seen before, but — New world, new visitations? That would be about her luck, she had to acknowledge.
The girl child was off and running again, and Azula, with no better idea where to go and nothing else approaching a landmark to make for, warily followed. The small figure vanished over a shallow rise that, when Azula climbed it, looked down upon a tiered city carved into the frozen cliffs.
The Northern Water Tribe. She recognized the multitude of neat canals, ice fountains, shadowed dwellings bent from hard-packed snow and illuminated by a full moon, just as in every illustration she'd ever seen of it. But the valley hidden in a narrower cleft behind the chief's temple was new to her.
She thought she would remember an island of verdant green at the foot of a half-frozen waterfall.
In the moment it took this strange sight to register, the child scampered down a hidden path below her line of sight. But when Azula jogged to the edge of the secret vale, she found the switchback trail down the cliffside deserted, the girl gone from her view. The figure who stepped out from behind the crudely carved torii gate below as if materializing from empty air was an old man, tall and thin and clad in Fire Nation robes. He wore a full white beard and the traditional crown prince's headpiece in his topknot.
Azula knew his face before he even looked up, and anger burned in the pit of a stomach she left behind with the rest of her body, at the temple of the Earth Avatars. So now he decided to show up?
She stared coldly down at the spirit of her ancestor, before descending the path to the valley floor. Azula picked her way carefully down, though she doubted she would suffer any injury if she fell here. If Roku could make her wait days on days for the first thing she ever asked of him, Azula was quite capable of doing the same.
She supposed she underestimated the patience of incorporeal beings though, when the old Avatar merely watched her descent without comment, pale hands clasped serenely before him. Azula crossed the footbridge to the green grass island where he stood, mildly surprised when she drew closer to realize his old eyes were the same color as her mother's, as hers.
She met him beneath the shadow of the torii gate, barely visible by the feeble light of the Moon. "Avatar Roku," she greeted him grudgingly, crossing her arms.
"Princess Azula." He eyed her critically. "You've made a grave mistake."
Contempt turned the corners of her mouth. So that would be the way of it? "Not as grave as yours, I'd say," she shot back. "Considering I'm only here on a visitor's pass, and you're here to stay."
Having anticipated an argument or empty threat, she was surprised enough when he actually smiled at this to demand, "What?"
"You remind me of someone I knew, that's all," he quietly replied, and Azula arched a brow to volunteer, smirking, "She must have been a great woman."
"He was great," Roku acknowledged a little sadly. "And terrible."
Azula drew the connection he clearly meant her to make. "Is that why you denied me access to the Spirit World until now, because you think I'm like Sozin?" She gestured to herself before demanding, "What changed your mind?"
"Nothing," Roku simply replied, and seeing her incomprehension, added, "It is not for me to admit or deny you. If you were the Avatar, perhaps I could bring you here at will. As you are not, I cannot." He spread his hands.
"Then how did I get here?" Azula asked, and Roku considered her carefully before he replied, "I'm not sure you're ready to know."
She glared at him in challenge. "Let me be the judge of that." For a long moment, the only sound was the rushing of the waterfall behind them, half-hidden by the moonlit copse of bamboo and flowering shrubs at their backs.
Roku closed his eyes briefly in assent. "No amount of meditation would have gained you access to the Spirit World. There is a reason accounts of the Spirit World are so rare. For any mortal besides an Avatar, it is impossible to enter the Spirit World without the direct intervention of a spirit."
Azula felt her heart sink, even disembodied as she was. If that was true, the chances of Ursa being here were vanishingly small. Then she remembered what prompted his explanation. "You're telling me," she clarified, suspicious, "a spirit brought me here? I saw no spirit," Azula insisted, but stopped in the midst of propping hands on her hips at a sudden misgiving, the same feeling she got when someone hidden watched her, waiting…
The unblinking gaze of her dead great-grandfather seemed to see all this and more, when he contradicted, "I think you did."
"The little girl," Azula remembered. And that uncanny feeling grew until she looked around the tiny island, her eyes finally settling on the foliage. Her brow creased. "She — that was no spirit I've ever known or heard of." While most spirits were fantastical creatures, she knew some bore human form. But Azula thought she would recall hearing about a spirit that looked like a young Fire Nation princess. Gods knew that was the sort of story she would've wanted from Ursa, if her mother had ever been inclined to tell her.
Roku raised his eyebrows mildly, but seemed to decide on a different approach. His caution grated, reminding Azula of the therapists at the asylum. But the feeling of being watched outweighed her annoyance, when a silent swaying of the bamboo stalks behind them made her take a step away, closer to the pond shaped like a fat crescent where two black and white koi fish circled each other.
"You tried for some time to get into the Spirit World, didn't you?" the old Avatar prompted, and Azula dropped the stance she reflexively (and uselessly) took to glare at him instead. "What changed?" he urged her. "What is the last thing you remember before coming here?"
Azula scowled, reminded annoyingly of her uncle and his circuitous attempts at imparting wisdom, not that he ever bothered with her. "I was talking — to —" She stopped, an unconscious hand laid on her now-flat stomach. The baby, Roku hardly needed her to finish, if he had really been watching this entire time. If she were still in her body, if she still breathed, Azula thought she might start hyperventilating.
A head of dark hair emerged from the flowering shrubs, when the child she chased through the snow stepped out from concealment. Azula's first, absurd impression was that someone had stuck her, Mai, and Zuko in a crucible, and melted them into one somehow smaller person, perhaps four or five years old.
It was the bangs, she realized, cut straight across her brow like Mai's, though they feathered in a way Mai's thick hair never would. Her hair was the same ashy black as Zuko's, as Father's, bound up in a topknot ornamented with the three-point flame headpiece of a blood princess. Her eyes were a gold as pure as her crown, but wider, rounder than Zuko's and hers, shaped like — my mother's, Azula thought numbly.
But she could see some of herself in the girl too, the same upturned nose her uncle Iroh would tweak before she was old enough to communicate how much she hated that, the same pointed chin and arch to her brows. Though she was paler than either of the royal siblings, as if she had spent all of her short life locked away indoors —
Her short life, when she hadn't even been born yet… The child studied her back without fear, eager even. She stopped beside the torii gate, half-hugging one of the trunk-like pillars, an uncertain smile playing at the edges of her mouth. How like Zuko she looked, when she smiled that way.
If she were still in her body, Azula thought she would start crying. "This —" She glanced to Roku who watched them impassively, her fists clenched and frozen in place. "This is not okay," she squeaked out. Her eyes strayed back to her — to the girl, she couldn't seem to stop looking. "You don't — just get to show me her —"
The child watched her curiously but stayed silent, still hugging the torii gate. "I didn't bring you here," the spirit of her ancestor reminded patiently. "You did." She looked to him in irritation, when he distinctly said — "She did." And Azula stopped, stared.
"Your spirit was in the physical world, hers is in the Spirit World. Still, you share one life, one body, so long as she is in you. That is a more powerful connection than you share with me, whom you have never met, or with any other spirit. When you opened yourself to her, the combination of that openness and your will to enter accomplished your entry to the Spirit World.
"Your bloodlines and placement at the temple might also have something to do with it," he added, frowning, though Azula barely heard him when her — when the child detached itself from the torii gate to approach her. "I don't know that this has ever happened before, certainly not as long as I have been here."
But he stopped when the girl child stopped beside Azula, reaching up to pluck the three-point flame headpiece from her topknot and hold this wordlessly out to her. Azula took it from her hands on reflex, and said in answer to her unspoken question, "This is the crown of a princess of the Fire Nation." Her manicured hands shook when she replaced the golden flame in her daughter's hair, only to withdraw them and whisper, "You are a princess of the Fire Nation." Like me.
The child glanced to the identical flame in Azula's topknot then back to her face. "It —" Azula looked to Roku again, lips pressed tightly together and too scared to ask the most pressing question on her mind. "It's a girl?"
"That much seems likely," he cautiously replied, looking on the child as if he expected her to spontaneously combust. But all Azula heard was what he didn't say.
The question flew from her mouth before she could stop it, "Will she look like this?" Azula was painfully aware that her own image here did not reflect her reality. She pulled her nearer hand away instinctively when the child made to hold it, then remembered her own mother doing the same, and assented. I don't like to be touched, she thought helplessly. If she could get accustomed to it, like with Ty Lee — But would she have that chance? Would her d— Would the girl?
"Will —" Azula tried, while the child prised her fingers apart, comparing them to hers. With her dark head bent over Azula's hand, she seemed fascinated by the contrast of her long, sharp nails to the girl's own, trimmed short. Azula had to look back at Roku, who stood unmoving in the silver light of the Moon, before she could ask it.
"Will she be born — whole, and healthy?"
His aspect grew harsher, eyes narrowed. "I may be able to look into the world, but I cannot look into your womb," Roku coldly denied. "No one can know what she will do or be, until you bring her forth."
But Azula glared at a sudden realization, when she had been too angry to question or care what he meant before. "When you said, I made a grave mistake…" she whispered harshly, while her daughter fisted small fingers experimentally in the flare of Azula's sleeve above her red leather bracer. "You meant —"
His level gaze, his silence, were all the answer Azula needed. "How dare you?" she spoke low and deadly. The child seemed to pick up on her sentiment, frowning at Roku with the same crease between her brows that Azula saw when her father yelled. "You just said no one can know what she'll do or be!
"Her being my daughter — the way she was made — none of it means she'll be — she'll be —" A monster, "— like me!" Azula spoke in anger, the grip of the girl on her arm her only restraint from showing Roku exactly how she felt about his presumption, divorced from her body or not.
"And I made a mistake?" She gestured sharply to herself with her free hand, when the implication insulted her all over again. "I made? If you've really been watching, you know who her father is! You know what he did!"
Her dead ancestor grimaced and turned his face away, confirming her suspicion. Azula wasn't pacified. His silence wasn't enough, it would never be enough. "This is just as much his fault as mine!" she insisted. "But no one blames him, no one ever blames him! All he ever gets are chances, and never any left for me!"
The child tugged at her shoulder guard at that moment, and Azula slapped her hand away to snap, "Stop that!" She darted back behind the torii gate to glare daggers at Azula, but not before her tongue darted from her mouth.
"Did she just stick her tongue out at me?" Azula demanded, incensed. "Who taught her that?"
Roku held up his hands in a placating gesture, but she could see him fighting the urge to — "No one gave you permission to laugh!" she chided, and the old Avatar sobered accordingly.
The girl kicked at a dark tuft of grass, sullenly with hands clasped behind her back, before she sneaked a glance up at Azula. Watching her, the pang of recognition was yet one more thing Azula felt in the absence of more familiar sensations. She would have sighed if she still breathed, but asked Roku instead, "Will she remember any of this?"
"No," her dead ancestor readily replied, hands tucked into his flowing sleeves. "She is a new spirit. She will have no memory of the time before she lived, just as reincarnated spirits have no memory of their time between lives." His brow creased at the skeptical look she shot him, but Roku continued, "I know what you seek, but I have no more knowledge of your mother's whereabouts than you do.
"Besides your brother and yourself, Ursa was my last living descendant," he sadly disclosed. "I tried to watch over her, especially in her banishment. Though there was little I could do, with my current incarnation gone from the world. And my attention was … divided, when she vanished from the Earth Kingdom village where she had lived for some years in obscurity. I could not tell you what happened to her or even if she is here."
Azula crossed arms and considered this, while the child looked back and forth between them. "You're a pretty shitty ancestor, you know that?" she spoke glibly at last, tilting her head with a quick glance at her daughter. "And if anyone's qualified to make that judgment, it's me."
His long face curdled like spilt milk, and seeing his upset, the child smirked so broadly dimples dotted her cheeks. Azula felt like a mother for perhaps the first time.
"You know now who I am," Roku said severely, brows furrowed. "Would you still have slain the Avatar under Ba Sing Se, if you knew it meant my end?"
"Of course." Azula shrugged disdainfully. "He was an immediate threat, needing decisive action. Your afterlife weighed against my continued existence and the success of our campaign? That would be no choice at all."
The old Avatar looked on her in disappointment, but appeared unsurprised. "And do you suppose that makes you —" he paused, scowling as he searched for a politer term, "— a bad descendant?"
"Only if I assumed some obligation to you," Azula pointed out, and arched a brow in impatience at his game. "I don't think it works that way."
"No, I suppose you wouldn't," Roku said. "But will you admit obligation to anyone? Even her?" He nodded to the small girl who stood holding her own elbow on the other side of the torii gate from Azula, and the princess glared hatred at him. This blowhard could beat her uncle for a pointless lecture.
"You seek power but deny obligation to anyone besides yourself," Roku admonished, clearly expert on her motives when they had never spoken… "Power not checked by responsibility brings only destruction. Responsibility without power to act leads to stagnation. Both are needed to achieve balance. Push and pull." He glanced to the koi fish circling in the pond behind her. "Yin and yang. You … and Zuko."
Azula clenched fists, fuming at the suggestion, but Roku ignored her. "I do not have to guess what you intend for him," the old Avatar hinted darkly. "But do not let your intentions or this sordid history blind you to fact. You are both necessary to each other, to your family, and to your nation.
"The same conflict that was born in him, lives in you." He pointed to Azula. "With or without him, it would still live in you. To deny this part of yourself brings imbalance, the source of your madness. You must accept that good and evil are at war inside you," he urged. "It is your nature, your legacy —"
"No," Azula denied, "it's your legacy." She glanced to the girl, still watching, silent, and lifted her chin. "My legacy, is mine to make."
She knew a moment's satisfaction at his stricken look, before it gave way to outright alarm and Roku barreled past her to the koi pond. Azula stepped quickly out of his way, her objection forgotten when the white orb of the Moon was plunged in red and the vault of the sky and earth below with it. Stars winked out above them and fell as ash amid the dying light, too quickly even to track, and where they fell, the black spots spread. Holes eaten in painted silk, thrown on a fire that burned without light —
But it's a painting of your family, Ty Lee spoke in her memory, and her brother demanded, You think I care?
Roku splashed to his knees in the pond in the falling dark, to lift the white koi fish from where it floated lifeless. The water dripping from it fell without ripple back into the pond, its surface black and still as a pane of glass. He turned toward her, his eyes lit from within and his mouth — His mouth formed a question but it died with the light before it could reach her.
And all Azula knew was the same bone-deep terror she saw in the child's face when they ran to each other, drawn by an instinct as old as the world. Her daughter screamed a word, a name, that cut her to the core across the silence neither one could bridge.
Azula almost reached her, the fingers of their outstretched hands just touched beneath the arch of the torii gate, before darkness swallowed them both.
A shrill animal screech was their only warning, when imperial firebenders burst in the door to Aang's and her chambers. Katara leapt out of bed and snatched up her waterskin on reflex. Momo jumped off Aang's chest, when her husband took to his feet across the wide expanse of their silk-hung canopy bed.
"Avatar Aang, Master Katara!" the lead guard greeted them hastily, his smooth face the only one of a half-dozen left exposed by his helmet. "The Fire Lord needs your help, please come with us!"
Aang nodded worriedly, grabbing his glider staff to follow them through the richly appointed antechamber. "What happened?" he found the presence of mind to ask, despite Momo climbing up his shoulders to tug on his ears and chatter urgently, the fur on his back standing up.
"Rioters have forced their way into the palace," another one of the guards spoke over the first, his voice muffled by the three-eyed helm he wore. "We must hurry," another urged them out into the hall. But a vague doubt lurked half-formed at the back of her mind, before Katara remembered meeting Zuko in the garden, their talk interrupted by —
"Where's your captain?" she demanded, slinging the waterskin over her shoulder and bringing up the rear. You never saw their faces, she remembered, except for the captain of his household guards…
"With His Majesty," the lead guard dismissed tersely, waving them forward down the hall, lined on both sides with slender pillars of black marble, veined with gold that caught the lamplight. "As you should be."
Katara was about to take issue with his tone, when a desperate firefight spilled into an intersection of two halls near them. "What —" she started, but the fire blasts and shouts exchanged nearly drowned out Aang, when he ran for the combatants down the hall, yelling and waving his arms. "Stop! What are you doing?"
And she realized. They all wore the uniform of imperial firebenders.
"Aang!" she shouted a warning, whipping the water from her waterskin to knock back a guard beside her who moved to bend fire at Katara. Her husband whirled and spun his glider staff to disperse another blast aimed at his back, while Momo jumped on the guard with the open-faced helm, pulling it down over his eyes to glide away.
Katara split the stream with a swift parting of her arms, one elbow locked over her head, the other leading to spin another guard off his feet with a muffled cry of alarm. The flames he bent at her hit the stumbling "captain" instead. He collapsed screaming and clutching his face, while Aang's demand for explanation was cut short, when he had to duck a concussive burst of fire one guard kicked at him.
Aang swiped a low arc of bent air with the staff to break his root, and the guard fell with a crack to the head that said he wouldn't get up soon, helmet or not, thanks to a timely sheet of ice Katara bent under him —
The moment's distraction cost her, when the stocky firebender she first repelled grabbed her from behind, twisting her arms behind her back and planting a foot between both of hers to prevent her breaking free. She cursed her lapse of attention, the enclosed space where they were forced to fight. The arched ceiling may be high, but the paneled hall was narrow by comparison and offered little in the way of cover. And with no ready source of water besides her meager skin, she could not bring her element fully to bear.
"Katara!" Aang set his feet and earthbent the tiled floor from under her captor while she tried to twist free, but not before the guard head-butted her so hard Katara saw double. He yelled his shock a split second later when Aang pinned him to the ceiling with a column of rock bent up from the floor — and dropped a short rod with pronged end that he had produced from concealment.
Katara dropped to hands and knees with her head splitting and arms singed through her cloth bracers, but still managed to call the water to her. When Aang ran to help her up, it was he who had to drop flat to avoid the water arms she bent at a guard who tried to ambush Aang, dousing the flames. She compacted the water to sweep that imperial firebender into another just climbing to his feet, and they collided in a tangle of armored limbs and muffled cries.
Aang pulled her up amid the weak moans of their burned opponent, before the hissing of an angry lemur grabbed their attention. Momo harassed the last guard standing, biting futilely at the gloved hand that snatched up the glider staff from where Aang had dropped it.
"Momo!" Aang cried in alarm, running to him while Momo had to dodge a fire blast from the guard, screeching. The lemur tugged at his spiked heel to trip him instead, and Aang trapped his feet in earthen shackles before the guard could deliver the kick he aimed at Momo. But the water whip Katara bent at the same time only broke Aang's glider to splintered halves, when the firebender used it to block her attack. He still toppled with an audible snap of his trapped legs, and an agonized scream cut short when he passed out from the pain.
"To me!" Aang yelled with hand outstretched, looking sickened at the turn their fight had taken. But Momo darted aside the airbender, screeching a warning too late to guard Aang against the twin thrusts of the last two imperial firebenders, who regained their feet to strike at him from behind.
Katara screamed, convinced for a second they had speared him. Until Aang jolted, his muscles locked, he fell to one knee with a sharp cry of pain — and she saw the guards wielded the same sort of rod their companion dropped earlier, double-pronged at one end and sparking with electricity. Cattle-prods, she realized quickly. Katara had seen these used at some of the better-off ranches in the Fire Nation countryside when they traveled in disguise, but never to such devastating effect.
She yelled her outrage when one of the guards stuck Aang again, whipping the implement from his hand but forced to dodge his retaliatory blast of fire, until she could bend the water into a hasty shield. Aang collapsed on his side with tears in his eyes from the pain of the blow, and a cry on his lips that tore at her heart.
It was Momo who attacked the guard that moved to finish Aang with daggers of flame, while Katara was occupied blocking fire from the guard she disarmed. The lemur flapped up into his face, latching onto his helmet to dart deft fingers into his eyeholes. But his protective hiss turned to a screech of pain, when the flailing guard clipped Momo's tail with one of his fire daggers.
"No!" Aang choked out, struggling up. Aang managed to knock the guard away from a fleeing Momo with a hastily bent blast of air — but not before his gout of flame engulfed the lemur, too quickly even for Momo to scream.
"NO!" Aang pushed to his feet. His eyes and tattoos flashed white when he spun with elbows locked, bringing his arm overhead in a sharp chop. His hurt and anger unleashed an arc of flame, with an airbending slice that dented the guard's armor through his fire shield, throwing him back into a pillar so hard that it buckled on impact, where he fell to lie unmoving.
Katara moved to cover a trembling Aang, her arms encased in bent water though her eyes blurred with tears. But the last imperial firebender hardly spared a moment to retrieve his weapon, before he turned and ran away from the firefight that sparked this ambush, just winding down across the long stretch of hall. Most of the combatants lay injured or unconscious or worse, but a few of those remaining jogged their way, gloved hands lifted as if to hail them. Katara bent the water back into the skin at her hip.
"Momo…" Aang whispered, his voice thick with grief when he bent to lift the small body, heartbreakingly still and burnt beyond recognition, and cradle it against his chest.
"Aang," Katara spoke urgently and touched his shoulder, nodding to the imperial firebenders who approached them. Aang scowled and tucked Momo inside his shirt. He dropped quickly into a horse stance and thrust his hand palm-out to push them back down the hall on a rolling slab of tiled floor, bending the rock wall to the practical limits of his range, despite shouts of pain and surprise from the dogpiled firebenders.
"They all look alike!" Aang burst out in frustration at her shocked glance. "We can't even tell whose side they're on! If they would do this —" He stopped in cradling the lump buried under his shirt, blanching at the same moment as Katara.
"Appa!" Aang cried desperately, turning to make for the stables where they left him. "We have to find —"
"Zuko," Katara insisted, grabbing his arm to detain him, her heart in her throat. "If his guards turned on each other —"
His eyes went round with shock. "They turned on him first!" Aang bit his lip for the briefest of moments, probably weighing the risks. But Appa was possessed of superhuman strength and near-human intelligence, and he could fly besides. If he could escape the royal stables, he should be fine, but Zuko — They both knew Zuko hadn't been at his best lately.
Aang grabbed her hand, holding Momo under his shirt with the other and sprinting the length of hall he tore up with his inexpert earthbending. They encountered only one more tangle of imperial firebenders down a side hall, too absorbed in their fighting to notice when Aang and Katara passed them. It was a mark of how serious the situation was that Aang didn't stop to intervene but kept on toward the royal apartments, shoving past some palace servants fleeing the other way down the hall, ignoring others peering scared out of doorways as they ran past.
They had just turned the corner on a peristyle, hung with curtains of diaphanous crimson like long streaks of blood and opening onto a flowering courtyard, when the lights cut out without warning. The frightened screams from nearer and more distant wings of the palace alike chilled Katara. But not half so much as the sight that greeted them in the light of the half-moon.
Mai stumbled under the weight of the body she had hoisted by an arm over her shoulders. Her knees hit the carpet, a despairing cry burst from her lips when she dropped Zuko beside her. Mai jumped to her feet with desperate energy, dragging him by his arms instead, crying, panicking when she couldn't move fast enough and pulled too hard to fall again, on her bottom this time. She only spotted Aang and Katara when they were nearly upon her, her crown missing and shining hair in disarray, her narrow eyes bloodshot and half-crazed.
Zuko lay on his back, arms thrown over his head where Mai dropped them. His lips were bluer than they should look even in moonlight, his face gray. Katara realized with a jolt that he wasn't breathing.
"Help him," Mai begged, low voice cracking. Aang dropped to his knees beside Zuko, more out of shock than anything, while Katara bent the water from her skin, eyes burning, head splitting, heart racing. Oh Spirits no, not him —
"Oh no," Aang echoed her thoughts, horrified. His looked quickly to Mai, sat opposite him. "What happened?"
"Poison," she gasped, couldn't seem to catch her breath between the exertion of dragging him and threatened tears. "In his tea — he drinks to sleep. He doesn't have a taster for the tea —" Mai clapped a hand over her mouth, too late to catch the sob that spilled from it.
But Katara couldn't spare more than a glance for her, when she dropped down beside Aang, beside Zuko to heal him. The water that encased her hands lit a bright cerulean blue, fed by her chi when Katara pressed it quickly to his bare chest. She didn't know where to start, didn't know what poisoned him or even what it did, but if she could locate the damage, maybe —
The glow died, and her water splashed uselessly over his chest and loose sleeping vest at the frantic glance she exchanged with Aang. He was taking Zuko's pulse, and one look at his face told her he had reached the same awful conclusion.
"What is it?" Mai demanded with knees hugged to her chest. She sat up, hands braced against the crimson carpet. "Why isn't it working?"
"Waterbending uses a person's own chi to heal them," Aang spoke haltingly, while in desperation, Katara called the water back to her hands and infused it with her own energy again. But he was right, when she tried to reach inside — There was nothing, no response. She bent the water back into her skin out of habit, to whisper tearfully, "His chi is gone."
Mai blinked incomprehension and looked quickly between them before Katara even remembered she wasn't a bender, and likely didn't know the significance. "Then — revive him!" Mai thrust a hand at Zuko in mounting frustration. "You're an airbender!" she pressed Aang. "Make him breathe!"
"Mai," Aang spoke painfully, voice catching and tears in his eyes, "his heart stopped."
Katara couldn't help shrinking from the wild look Mai fixed on her, when she sat forward on her knees to demand, "You're a bloodbender. Make it beat!"
Katara didn't ask how she knew, when Zuko hadn't even joined them then. She didn't voice her unspoken promise never to bloodbend again, when she knew she would do it and worse, to save his life. It might even have worked, if —
"It's not a full moon," Katara choked out, her heart breaking all over again when Aang slumped, recalling the same limitation. "I can't —"
"He'll die if you don't!"
"He's already dead!" her voice broke.
"Only if you don't help him!" Mai argued, back bent as if she were crushed beneath the same immeasurable weight. "It's not too late, it can't be too late! It can't — I can't —" She hid her face in white hands, and a low whine issued from behind them, like the sound of a wounded animal.
"He saved both our lives," Aang took Katara's hand to implore her. "We have to try."
She sucked in a shaky breath while Aang jumped to his feet at her tacit agreement. Katara bent her wrists and splayed her fingers just over his chest, the way she remembered seeing Hama do, the way she did four years ago to stop a madwoman from killing her friends. The stakes were just as high now as then, but it wasn't a full moon. His chest began a slow rise and fall at the repetitive movements and controlled breathing of Aang just behind her, but Katara sensed more than saw this, every ounce of concentration on the blood in his veins, willing it to flow. On his kind heart, willing it to beat…
His limbs didn't so much as twitch. The effects of bloodbending were so violent, Katara didn't know if such fine control was possible even with a full moon it wasn't a full moon and Aang breathing for him wouldn't help if she couldn't get his heart to start —
She couldn't get his heart to start. Her own breath grew quicker, sweat beaded her brow the harder she worked her fingers and hands, trying what little she had seen and everything she could think of, growing more desperate with every breath she drew and Zuko didn't. She couldn't bend his blood and her eyes kept returning to the starburst scar just below his chest that began to blur from focus, from the lightning bolt he took for her and all she could think was, Where were you when he needed you? Useless, helpless, weak…
She couldn't get his heart to start.
Her shoulders slumped and hands dropped to his chest on his next exhalation. Her fingers curled as if to hold him there, her eyes fixed on his still face to commit it to memory. Seeing her failure, even Aang stopped and Mai just cried harder. Her failure, her fault, she couldn't get his heart to start…
Zuko, who chased them half-way around the world, who helped chase down her mother's killer. Zuko, who made dumb jokes that no one got and served them tea at his uncle's shop, who taught his son to feed turtleducks.
Katara dredged the words up from some dark part of her, deeper than the light of hope could reach. It was the hardest thing she ever had to do to admit, "He's gone."
He woke to the golden light of afternoon, spring grass at his fingertips, his head laid in his mother's lap.
"Mom?" Zuko questioned, his voice emerging higher, younger than he seemed to remember it. Ursa watched him, softly smiling, her face framed by the boughs of their favorite tree, below which they would sit to feed the turtleducks. "What happened?"
She brushed a lock of hair from his forehead, with eyes shining. "My sweet prince," her voice was somehow richer, with love, with regret, than he had ever heard it. "You fell asleep."
He blinked at this, made anxious for no reason he could say, and sat up to ask her, "How long'd I sleep?" Ursa opened her mouth to reply, still smiling, when a harsh rebuke interrupted her, "Again."
His stomach clenched reflexively, and Zuko knew who spoke before he even looked up across the turtleduck pond. Its surface was a series of continuously overlapping circles, rippling as if struck by invisible raindrops. On a higher bend of rocky shore beside the willow tree, his eight year old sister picked herself up off the grass, jumping hastily to her feet when their dad bent fire at her in impatience. He struck an imposing figure in the robes and mantle of the Fire Lord.
Azula deflected the flames without complaint, then stepped back from Ozai and dropped her arms. She ducked into a shallow crouch to sweep her hands first right, then to either side, and bring them in to her core. Her hands parted when she lunged right, legs trembling with the awkward stance before she kicked left, blue flames bent from her foot and outstretched hand, still blooming when she hopped right again to land on bent knee. Her outstretched arm shook with the strain of the otherwise steady stream of fire she blasted across the stones and into the water.
Azula spun on one heel and almost lost her footing before she recovered, trailing fire that she lobbed at the grass around her. Somehow the fireballs didn't catch, proving only a prelude to the arc of flame she whirled overhead and bent in a circle. She ran to their father, the blue spiral of her fire following her outstretched left hand like a brilliant streamer, coalescing when she stooped to draw the flames together into a fireball bigger than her head, dissipating harmlessly when she jumped to kick fire at their dad instead —
Ozai grabbed her foot, plucking her out of the air to drop Azula on her back with a pained oof! when the wind was knocked out of her. "Mom…" Zuko said uncomfortably, standing though he hardly knew what he could do about it.
Ursa watched them, frowning delicately, but turned a reassuring smile on Zuko. There was something hard about it that made him uneasy. "Don't mind her, darling," she dismissed, while Dad shouted down at a cringing Azula, "How have you gotten worse?" Even Zuko could tell she'd just been training too long…
"One day she'll learn, her place as your sister is to support you in everything," his mother soothed, smoothing a wrinkle from his pantsleg. "Not to upstage you in front of your father."
Azula half-sat up to gasp in protest, "I didn—" but Ozai slammed her back into the ground with an elbow to the chest. "Silence! Your breath is for bending, not making excuses," he hissed poisonously, bent over her. "If you don't know how to use a thing, it will be denied to you. Do you understand?" Azula nodded mutely, tears springing to her eyes before he shoved her down to climb to his feet, and she scrambled to do the same.
"Ozai indulges her habits now, but she can never succeed him." His mother stood to hug Zuko to her side. "Just wait," Ursa whispered, and glanced to them again with eyes narrowed, intent. "The world will curb her soon enough, even if he doesn't."
Zuko blinked up at her in astonishment. Did she even see what just hap—
"What are you looking at?" Ozai demanded, and Zuko only realized when Azula jumped guiltily that she had been looking to him. Mom moved as if to hold him back when Zuko walked to the edge of the pond, her name on the tip of his tongue. But Dad gripped the back of her neck, and Azula seemed almost to freeze in place.
"Do you think to show your mother what you've learned?" their father asked Azula softly. "Do you think that she would praise and pet you, like her precious son?"
"No, Father," Azula answered with shoulders slumped. "I know she wouldn't."
Ozai knelt on one knee beside her. He took her chin in his hand and turned her face away and kissed her cheek. "Why wouldn't she?"
"Because —" Azula spoke almost too low to make out, "She doesn't love me."
"No…" Zuko whispered, horrified, unremarked by either of them. "That's not true! Mom, tell her it's not —" he turned to entreat her.
But Ursa was gone. Gone from beneath their tree, from the garden, from the palace, as if she'd never been.
"Why doesn't she love you?" Dad pressed a kiss to her forehead, and Azula answered readily, with growing heat, "Because she's weak. She fears me. She fears what I can do."
Father turned her face back to Zuko. "Why does she love your brother?" he breathed the question into her ear, and sealed it with another kiss. His cruel eyes fixed on Zuko though, taunting, daring him to interfere.
"Because he's weak like her!" his little sister bit out, glaring hatred at Zuko when moments ago, her eyes drew him in. "Because he's a boy, she thinks he'll inherit. She trusts him to protect her, but trust is for fools!"
"Who loves you, Azula?" Dad lightly demanded, steering her chin back to him, and with it, her full attention. She laid both hands on the black mantle of his shoulders, her words rang with an awful intentness, "Only you."
Ozai thumbed her lips, his gaze fixed on hers. "Who do you love?" She pressed her forehead to his, her eyes squeezed shut as if in physical pain. Her voice sounded a thousand years old, "Only you."
He kissed her on the mouth then, long and deeply, in a way no father should ever kiss his daughter. "Stop it!" Zuko burst out, angry and scared and disgusted all at once. He broke into a stumbling run around the turtleduck pond, though what he would do when he reached them, he didn't know. "Don't touch her!"
His lip curled with contempt before Ozai even broke from her. Zuko took a swing at him, half-blinded by tears, but his dad stood quickly to avoid it, grabbing Zuko's phoenix tail to prevent him landing a blow. "Wait your turn, boy," Ozai wrenched his neck back, and bent his own head to sneer, "Didn't your mother teach you any manners?"
Azula snickered off to the side, and Zuko shot her a glance in reproach wasn't she going to help him? But his hands stilled in prying loose his father's grip, when Zuko caught blood on her mouth —
A second glance dispelled his first horrifying impression. She was wearing makeup, her lips painted and eyes lined with kohl and older than the last time he looked — She grew up while he wasn't looking…
"'Zula, don't!" he yelled, his own voice telling Zuko this same revelation aged him too. Ozai pushed his head down, forcing Zuko to his knees, but his eyes fixed on the sister looking down on him. "Don't let him change you! You don't have to be what he wants!"
"Why?" Azula stepped closer, head tilted in question. "Should I be what you want? Would you use me more kindly?"
"How can you defend him?" Zuko raged, when she crouched calmly opposite him in the late sun, to watch him struggle. "What he did to you — You shouldn't even love him!"
"I should love you."
"Exac—" He stopped himself and glared at the cold smile that flashed across her face, too cruel, too knowing, for a girl of eleven years. "Why?" she demanded a second time. "What have you ever done for me?"
"I was your brother!" Zuko cried in disbelief, pulling in vain against his father's grip, cast in his shadow while Ozai sneered at him, and Azula just replied, "When it suited you.
"When I used to follow you around like a little lost turtleduck, aping your every petty achievement — I suppose you were my brother. And when I surpassed you," she spoke low, poisonously, standing from her crouch, "were you my brother then? When I lost everything, were you my brother then?
"When I asked you for my freedom," his sister bit out, teeth bared and eyes snapping like flames and altogether more accusing than he could stand, "were you my brother then?"
"I know I made some mistakes!" Zuko choked out, even if he couldn't grasp exactly what those were right now. Even if his chest grew tight with panic when he tried. "I just want to set things right! I w— I want us to be a family again."
"You're too late," she flatly dismissed him, arms crossed over her chest. "I don't."
"No," Zuko spoke quickly, cut by her rejection. He could practically feel Ozai smirking over his shoulder. "You said that before, when really — you needed me.
"I left you alone once when you needed me," he remembered with regret. "I'll never leave you alone again!"
She pressed lips tightly together, considering him, brows drawn and more vulnerable than she had ever looked at that age. But it was Ozai who bent to hiss, "That choice doesn't belong to you anymore. Go now, Azula!" he glanced up to urge her. "Take what is yours!"
She lifted her head at his harsh directive, and with the briefest of glances at Zuko, turned and ran from the garden, back into the palace. "'Zula, Azula!" Zuko yelled after her to no effect.
"Let me go!" He swung blindly at his father, who laughing, released Zuko to fall on his face.
"You will never find her," Ozai taunted, his voice like the roll of distant thunder when Zuko pushed to his feet. "I killed her by inches and scattered her ashes to the wind. There's nothing left of what she was," he whispered, eyes glinting madly. "Only what I made."
"Liar!" He rushed the larger man, but Ozai bent to grapple with him, the brief exchange ending with Zuko tossed back to the pond's edge. "You're wrong," he rejected with a sweep of his hand, "and I'll prove you wrong!"
"You think to save her," Ozai laughed at his advance. "You couldn't even save yourself."
Zuko stopped and stared, horrorstruck, and the world stopped with him. Clouds halted their progress across the sky, the breeze died and let fall the branches of the willow tree. A multitude of ripples stilled in place on the turtleduck pond, like a moment captured in an old portrait, yellowed with time. "No…"
"It finally occurs to you," his father rasped, startling Zuko with the festering burns that had bloomed across his chest and arms, laid bare while Zuko wasn't looking. "That this is no dream."
A manic grin lit his wasted face, all the more terrifying for the fact Zuko had never seen him so happy in life. "Not going to wake up from this one, are you?"
"No, no, no!" Zuko gripped his head, as the awful reality came clear to him. His father dying in prison of burns he inflicted, if he was here, and Zuko — was —
"Mom!" he realized, eyes darting to where he saw her last. "Azula! No, not —" Not her too…
Ozai didn't even try to stop him when Zuko ran from the garden, laughing so hard he dropped to one knee, coughing blood. "That's right! Run, boy —" he yelled hoarsely after him, swiping the blood from his mouth with the back of one hand. "Run! You can't run from the truth forever!"
No, it couldn't be true. There was so much, so much he still had to do, to die now unforgiven when Mai and Lu Ten still counted on him — It couldn't be true! Think! Zuko plunged into the labyrinth of passageways within the vast palace. What's the last thing you remember? How did you get here?
He didn't know how he got here. But he knew who would.
"Azula!" Zuko shouted again, rounding a bend on a corridor he had never seen. She didn't appear, but his own voice sounded from an open doorway to his right, one of countless many that ran the length of this paneled hall, bare of decoration but for a line of ceiling lamps that stretched like signal fires beyond the edges of his sight:
"AZULA!" Zuko caught a glimpse of himself from the outside, rounding on her doctor in the antechamber of her cell at the asylum, eyes wide and furious when he realized her escape. "That isn't her!"
The door slammed shut to another shout of "Azula!" behind him. That door opened too on his sister's padded cell, where another Zuko dropped down beside a chained and kneeling Azula, seizing her face in his hands. "It isn't real. There's no one there."
She smirked at that Zuko, a flicker of life behind her broken exterior. "There never is."
"Azula!" Zuko had no sooner started for her than the door swung shut in his face, without even a latch for him to try. It didn't budge when he put his shoulder into it, but the lamp over his head went out.
Zuko couldn't see the way he came, and terrified to try the dark behind him, he raced for the doors still open to the light of the hall, from which spilled a whole chorus of his sister's name: "You're a monster Azula I'm not like you Azula it's time I faced Azula I get it I screwed up what do you want AZULA what do you want?!"
Behind one door and sturdy bars sat a bearded Ozai on his prisoner's pallet, cautious in the face of his demand, "What did you do to Azula?" Behind another, Ty Lee turned on him at the edge of the woods outside the Kyoshi shrine. Her painted eyebrows spelled out her reproach. "Azula's in a lot of trouble! And you could've maybe prevented all this —" Zuko caught another glimpse of himself in Mai's old bedroom, retreating from her harsh insistence, "Because I know Azula, I know how she thinks —"
"— you didn't learn that lesson with Azula?" took up that same voice from across the hall, and Zuko's heart seized. "Mai!" he barely had time to gasp, before both doors slammed shut just as he reached them. The light died overhead when his own voice issued from a farther door, "You're my sister, Azula! I want you back."
"You never had me!" her reproach was sealed away behind the asylum door, and still Zuko fled the gaining dark. "Uncle! Aang! Katara!" he shouted desperately, not even stopping to try the doors anymore, behind which he caught snatches of a dozen, half a hundred, so many moments shared with them…
Uncle's hand on his shoulder when freshly banished, Zuko stood on a balcony overlooking the canyon at the Western Air Temple. Their door opened on that precipitous drop. Azula plummeted spinning through the mists behind the one opposite, receding even while they watched her fall.
Uncle's hand on his shoulder when visiting their house on Ember Island, a child Zuko stood upon a grassy rise. Both smiling, contented, they watched his friends play on the beach behind another door, just days before Sozin's Comet set the sky on fire.
Aang in the robes of an airbending Master, standing on tiptoes to hug Zuko before he walked out to be crowned Fire Lord. Mai watched them from across the hall, worn but faintly smirking where she sat up in bed holding a newborn Lu Ten in the light from the windows. Their raven heads framed by a golden glow.
Aang perched on a tree root in the dappled sunlight, hugging knees to his chest and looking down on an unmasked Blue Spirit with worried eyes. "Do you think we —" "— should be thanking you," Katara spoke fiercely over him from behind another door. She pressed healing water to his wound, where Zuko lay lightning-struck in the dirt.
He saw people and places and moments he hadn't thought of in years: Music night with the crew. The song his mom would sing to him when he was sick in bed. The pearl dagger hid under his pillow 'til Uncle came home from the siege. Dad falling asleep in the royal box to Love Amongst The Dragons. The look on Azula's face the first time he bent fire. Mai curled up in a palace alcove, reading a book while they played Hide and Explode. Lu Ten's last visit home on leave —
No sooner did each door swing shut, than he couldn't recall what he saw behind it. His mind grew emptier, yet acceptance wouldn't come. The buzz of panic did not abate, even devoid of context. Grief still welled in his chest like a bottomless gulf. He never knew how much there was to lose, until he lost it.
The hall continued farther than he could see, but the doors ahead were closed. The lamps that way went out in rapid succession, black racing toward him from both sides now. Soon there would be nowhere left to run.
Only one door was left open to him, and he skid to a halt before it, not even winded. He could not have said if he ran for a year or a minute anyway. The gold-inlaid door opened on a sunlit nursery, where a tall woman with brown hair swept up in an elegant half-topknot held the hand of a little boy. He gazed curiously through the carved bars of the crib at a baby girl, who slept with her thumb stuck in her mouth and a purple stuffed animal clutched to her side.
The woman's mouth moved as if speaking, but it wasn't her words that registered. The baby girl — his sister — breathed low, steadily, and he could feel her breathe, with the weight of hours spent watching over her. He used to match his breaths to hers, he remembered suddenly, and feel a warmth kindle inside that he wouldn't realize until years later was his own inner flame. Long before he ever bent fire, she gave that to him…
He just reached for them when the door closed on what was probably his first conscious memory. Another corner of his mind went dark with the last light of the hall. It was only when the last lamp was extinguished that he caught the faint illumination spilling through an open viewing panel in the door behind him.
Eyes watched him from the narrow gap. Eyes gray-gold and narrow shone with unshed tears, beneath forked brows and heavy black bangs. He stepped forward without thinking, reaching for the unseen latch, but the rough steel of the prison door was bare as any in this black black hall. "Mai," he dragged her name back from the dimming recesses of memory. "I'm so sorry."
He wasn't sure what he was sorry for, but he knew — he knew — that he was.
"I knew you'd chase her to the utmost end," Mai spoke tightly. "Hers," her tears finally fell when she whispered, "or yours."
The words struck and embedded like one of her hidden knives. "My end?" he repeated in panic. "Mai, what happened? What happened?"
But Mai squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head once in denial, before her gaze fixed on something to his right. He just caught a glimpse of the white hand that slid the panel closed, plunging him in darkness. Cutting him off from Mai.
"Azula!" He recognized that hand, sharp nails he felt the bite of more than once. "Where are you?"
"Where I always am, Zuzu," she teased from the impenetrable dark. He sensed her move behind him, beside him, her fingers ran along the line of his shoulders, perceptible more for their motion than contact through the stiff leather of his ceremonial armor. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, when Azula whispered in his ear, "One step ahead."
The lamps hung from the high ceiling — the electric lamps, he dimly recalled — lit her signature blue when she encircled him. One hand slid along his shoulder guard, while her right reached into his hair to pull the clasp that held his topknot in place. The shaggy mop fell loose around his ears.
"I like it down," she practically purred. Her nose brushed his chin when she slinked close, dressed in nothing but her sleeping robe while he wore full armor, her feet and face both left bare. How much younger she looked, without her makeup on. The harsh blue light cast her skin and dark hair in stunning contrast. When she pressed a kiss to the ridges of his scar, he could almost feel her smirking. "You look like a peasant."
Dazed by her closeness, it took him a second to react. But Azula ducked his grip, dancing just out of reach before he could decide whether to push her away or trap her against him. "I told you," she laughed when he started forward, "you'll never catch up."
"Stop screwing around!" he snapped, unsettled by her teasing on top of everything else. They were in the hall of Fire Lord portraits now, without explanation. Deep shadows clung to the dragons that wound up the pillars in the eerie blue light of her flames. "And tell me what happened!"
"Well, since you ask so nicely," she sighed insincerely, and walked away in utter unconcern. "You got caught up navel gazing and forgot we had a race."
"I meant — wait, what race?" he followed her in consternation.
"The only one that counts," she replied to thin air, and cast a sharp glance over her left shoulder at him. "You should know, I'm winning."
"The throne," he realized, before a creeping suspicion made him grab for her arm. Azula side-stepped him, slippery as always, and elbowed him in the ribs instead. "What did you do?" he demanded, clutching his side in reproach. "Azula, what did you do?"
His sister flashed him a vicious grin in answer, before she broke and ran from him. He knew where she was headed.
"AZULA!" He barely gave chase before more screams split the air, and Zuko turned too late to stop divided imperial firebenders whose fight spilled into the portrait hall, when some of these fired on his fleeing servants. "No, stop! I command you!" he shouted uselessly, when these same guards turned on his defenders and struck them down.
Their flames burned orange, his people perished in full color, and Zuko realized too late he was the only person or fixture left standing in the hall that still shone blue. They couldn't see or hear him. But somehow, Azula could.
"My family lives here!" Zuko roared, when he caught her silhouette watching from a curtained archway at the near end of the hall. He wanted to cry. "Katara and Aang —"
"Then they should take a lesson from Mother." She retreated, unhurried at his angry approach. "This is what it costs to love you."
"Shut up!" Zuko made another grab for her, but she ducked into the adjoining hall and tangled him in the curtain when he gave chase. He tore the crimson cloth free and cast it at his feet. It pooled like old blood, almost black in the light of her flames, burning from great torches fixed high on the paneled walls and glass lamps hung from the vault ceiling.
"You don't get to blame this on me! You did this, how could you do it?" he shouted, overtaking Azula beside his own royal portrait, hung opposite the flame-edged arch to the throne room. When his attempt to catch her was repulsed, Zuko blocked her instead.
"I haven't had a full night's sleep since you escaped!" He indicated himself with an angry thrust of his hand. He felt confident of that much, with her near. She was like an anchor for his memories. "I risked everything to look for you!" Zuko recalled his flight with June. "I fought for you, I bled for you!"
"And when did I ask for any of it?" his sister demanded, losing patience so close to her goal. "I never wanted you!
"You served my purpose once," she sneered at Zuko when his hands dropped, wounded despite himself and her and everything she did… "You were a source of some amusement," Azula was saying. "Now you're just in my way." She pushed past him in contempt. "But not for long."
It was the opening he needed. Zuko sidestepped her heel to the chest, grabbing her wrist to twist her arm behind her. When she rolled with the torque, he blocked the kick Azula aimed at him to sweep her off her feet. Thus entangled, they both tumbled to the gray stone mosaic carved in concentric circles on the floor. But he was on top, that was what mattered.
She laughed at him, her long hair pooling on the tiles. "If this was what you wanted, I can think —"
"Be quiet!" The steel cuff of his boot dug into her stomach to no effect, he pinned her by her slim neck to snarl, "You're going to fix this, undo everything you did, or so help me —"
"You'll what?" Azula called his bluff, and thrust two fingers of her left hand into the hollow of his jaw. "You're dead."
"No…" he denied it brokenly. His tears fell on her face, in substitute for tears that she would never shed for him. Azula always lies. Except when the truth was crueler.
Because it was true. It happened. It happened. And no promise she made would ever take it back.
Azula condescended to pat his cheek, before she pushed Zuko off to sit up beside him. He hunched inward, gripping his head against the awful weight of it. He knelt there wanting to vomit, wanting to scream, wanting to set something on fire, until her muttered, "Where is it?" registered the fact of her searching his pockets, the gaps in his armor…
"What —" he spoke, but hardly knew what he was saying.
"The crown, dumdum." She shifted closer to reach behind Zuko, her gaze turned provocatively up at him. "Why else would I be here?"
"You —" His voice choked with rage, but his sister was distracted when she withdrew something tucked unknowingly into his belt.
"Zuzu," she tsked with fond contempt. "Trust you to bring a knife to an Agni Kai." She sat back to examine the pearl dagger Uncle sent him all those years ago, her glance dismissive when she turned it over in her hands.
"This should have been mine," she judged coolly, and lifted hard eyes to his. "I would know what to do with it."
Her surprise when he tore the dagger from her grip was gratifying. But not so much as when he thrust it into her belly, and Azula bent with a swift cry that might be anguish or ecstasy or that heady combination of the two he only ever knew at her hands —
He struck again and again like a heat-maddened viper. But the awful triumph turned to ashes in his mouth, when every blow was her fingers dug into his back, legs wrapped around his waist, heart beating frantically behind her ribs. When every cry was blood on her lips, the salt tang of her tears. Her silent pleas naming him Father…
He knew how he got here.
When Zuko dropped the dagger to the blood-smeared stone, it wasn't a dagger anymore but the flame crest of his office, stained red. He barely heard it hit the floor before Azula struck back with a swift series of chi-blocking punches, and he fell paralyzed almost on top of her.
Zuko cried with remorse while she struggled out from under him to scramble free, and snatch the crown pointlessly out of his reach. She staggered to her feet, almost fell and righted herself before she turned on him, stumbling. He could see the stains spreading on the rich crimson of her robe, even if her lifeblood weren't dripping to her feet.
Her face was paper-white and her eyes were two bruises, hollow with lack of sleep — or sickness. Her makeup ran with tears he never saw her shed. Her painted mouth twisted into what might be a ragged smirk but looked equally like a grimace, when she swept her hair up into a clumsy topknot and perched the flame headpiece there. Defensive wounds scored her arms, laid bare to the elbow.
She swayed on her feet and bent to hug herself around the middle before Zuko could choke out, "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Why should I have to?" she demanded in kind, reduced to a harsh whisper. "I'm done proving anything to you. And you have nothing left that I want." She lifted her head and stood painfully straight. "Except to die knowing you brought this on yourself."
He couldn't speak her a word in reply, when she told him, "Goodbye, Zuko."
Don't go, he thought at her, when she ran stumbling for the throne room and left a trail of blood in her wake. The harsh blue light of her flames settled to a warm orange. You're hurt. You need help. How could he say it, knowing he was the one who hurt her? It didn't make it any less true.
I miss you, he thought, before the curtain even fell closed behind her. I love you. I'm sorry…
So overwhelming was his grief that Zuko barely registered the presence of another person, before the old man was yanking him up by the armpits, chiding, "You fool boy! As if you could be chi-blocked in the Spirit World, any more than she could bend?"
Zuko realized it was true, when he pushed away to stand unassisted. "Who —" he started in astonishment, and stopped. "Avatar Roku?" The crown prince's headpiece registered dimly to his fading memory. "What are you doing here?"
"A better question is, what were you thinking?" His white-bearded ancestor thrust an angry hand at the bloodslick tiles behind them, and Zuko cringed despite himself. "You saw that?"
Roku hardly seemed to hear him, barely checked in his rebuke. "When I first learned of that child," he hissed with a vehemence that shocked Zuko, "and its connection to you, I thought — she must have seduced or entrapped you. This was some plot to discredit you or gain the throne.
"Never once did I guess you were a willing party to this abomination!" Roku dropped his voice to add, "Until I saw the look on your face."
He recalled what he felt that first time he stabbed her, and wondered uncomfortably how it looked from the outside. "You never met either of us!" Zuko protested, his accusations too much to bear. "What makes you think you know anything about me, or her?"
"I know enough," Roku grimly insisted, tucking hands in his voluminous sleeves. "From Aang, and from observing you at sites of spiritual power, where my connection to your world is strongest.
"From a young age, you showed such promise," the old Avatar lectured, his stern glare reminiscent of Ursa, "a restraint and native compassion absent from the royal family for too long. I thought that you would be the one to break the cycle of violence in your family. Instead you have perpetuated it, with her."
Zuko glanced down in shame, knowing he betrayed Ir— his fa— his uncle's hopes no less by his crime. He would never get to explain now even if he could, his last words to the man — he loved — he loved like a father wasted on misplaced blame…
"Azula was made to be your complement, as you are hers," Roku was saying. "A necessary evil, perhaps, but necessary. Your talents and perspectives combined might have brought balance to the Fire Nation," the old Avatar exhorted, grabbing his elbow to fix his attention.
"Instead you breed corruption, give yourselves over to unnatural lusts!" Roku spat, with such disgust that Zuko first flinched and then glared at him. "I expected her unrepentance, but you —"
"Wait, what? You talked to her?" Zuko demanded, woken from his despair. "Does —"
The long, low wail that issued from the throne room at that moment erased every other thought from his dying mind. "No," he whispered, starting for the curtained entry. "Azula!"
"You're going the wrong way!" Roku moved to block him, but Zuko pushed him aside, her every halting sob cutting him like a knife. "She needs help!"
"That isn't your sister," Roku insisted, grabbing his arm to detain him. "Only your image of —"
"I can save her!" A dim crimson light bled into the hall, when Azula screamed as she had done chained to the grate beneath Sozin's Comet. He could hear the rush of fire she breathed, but Roku blocked his way again.
"It's not even her —"
"I don't care!" the anguished cry tore from his throat like a torrent of flame, while creeping dark sapped the light from every torch and lamp that lit the hall. "Whatever she is, she's what I have left and —"
"Listen to me!" The old Avatar gripped his spiked shoulders, lines etched deeply on his face when he warned, "Better men than you have followed visions to their doom, and the peril of your world! Remember how you got h—"
Azula made a sound so frightening it stopped even Roku talking, half a low groan and half a bellow. A sound Zuko thought — he almost remembered — he only heard from a woman one time before. And for once, he knew what she needed.
"MOVE!" Zuko threw his hands off and ran for the flame-edged archway. Roku muttered something vaguely deprecating behind him, his old eyes lighting through the dark, but finally gave no pursuit.
Zuko was beyond listening, when he pushed past the curtain to find her kneeling on the throne, reduced to silhouette behind a wall of blue flames. Across the expanse of black tile floor that separated them, he could see how she bent gripping her middle, her chin down and knees spread apart while she screamed. She breathed fire with every cry, and the dais and the ancient canopy burned unchecked around her. If she heard him shout her name, she gave no indication of it, lost to her pain.
He pushed the fear down deep in his stomach and ran to her, when the last thing he wanted was to face the awful consequence of what they did. He remembered with shocking clarity the muted alarm on her doctors' faces, when he told them she was pregnant. Their outrage when they demanded how her caretakers could let this happen. Didn't they know she could die, it could kill her? Her body wasn't fit for bearing children.
Her body wasn't here, any more than their — their baby, he stumbled over the word and its new immediacy. Her every wail still punched through him like a shot to the chest. None of this was real in that sense, but it wasn't a dream either. Everything that happened in the Spirit World held some significance, didn't it? If he could reach her here, maybe —
But the harder he ran, the more the distance stretched between them. She was close enough for him to see and hear her suffering, obscured behind a wall of flame, but there was nothing, nothing he could do for her, and Zuko grew increasingly desperate when he began to wonder if this was some private hell…
By the time Azula fell on her side, the noises she made were … appalling. She choked on her screams, her helpless crying punctuated by animal moans and half-conscious grunts jerked from her as from an injured person being dragged to her death. She didn't sound like a woman in labor anymore. She sounded like — like someone being eaten.
He screamed her name once more, brokenly; he should be hoarse with how many times he screamed it. This time the flames answered him. They spoke his name with her voice, but all Zuko heard was loss.
"NO!" his despairing cry matched the last scream that pealed from his sister, with a gout of flame. He finally closed the distance to the stone trough, bringing his hands up only to part them swiftly. When the wall of blue fire was snuffed, it took him a second to realize the flames did not obey him, after all. It took the sight that greeted Zuko for him to realize why…
She was dead.
He didn't know how it was possible in the Spirit World, any more than her bending. He only knew the dim orange light of the burning throne reflected in her glassy eyes wasn't her fire. Her fire went out.
She lay curled on her left side with legs parted, the curve of her hip sharply upthrust. The whole lower half of her body was burnt and bloodied almost beyond recognition. The tatters of her silk sleeping robe had melted into her flesh, and he couldn't distinguish one from the other.
It should have smelled awful, but nothing smelled or tasted or registered to touch here. He wondered when he would stop seeing and hearing. Oblivion would be better than this.
Her face and even her lacerated arms were untouched by comparison. Her eyes stared lifeless, fixed on nothing, her lips parted. One arm was trapped under her and the other draped over the edge of the throne seat, as if she died reaching for —
A loud crack split the canopy burning over their heads the moment he saw it, and he made the only decision he could, lunging over the edge of the stone trough to grab the bundle laid before the throne. He barely snatched the newborn to safety and turned to run before the whole structure collapsed with a force that knocked him off his feet. It was like a punch to the chest, and he barely managed to twist and take the impact in his back and elbows.
He didn't feel the fall through his armor or the deadening effects of this place. He didn't know if the baby would feel it either, if it could even be harmed, but acted simply on instinct. He sat up with it cradled to his chestplate to see the great canopy reduced to a burning heap, the gilded timbers and splintered pillars that buried his sister…
Her throne became her funeral pyre. She was dead.
Or she would die or was dying — He didn't know what any of it meant, even if he could guess…
He didn't want to guess. It was beyond his power to help any of it, now. He turned his attention to the little weight in his arms, still slick with her blood.
It was blue.
It stayed blue even when he frantically swiped the blood away, its skin hard to the touch and covered all over with raised bumps. Had it been stillborn and deformed, after everything?
His heart throbbed painfully in his chest, and tears burned his eyes. It felt so warm against him, but he just snatched it from the fire. He had thought he saw it move in the shifting light that split-second before —
It took him a moment to register. It felt warm. He could feel its heat, the ridges of what he realized with a shock were scales beneath his fingertips. Its jaw was long and narrow, bearded with a soft tuft of hair. The ridges of its eyebrows were two horns with points curved wickedly forward, above delicate orbital fins. Its eyes were his own gold, its pupils two black slits grown wide in the low light when it studied him back.
Long whiskers twined the length of its sinuous body, when it uncurled the tufted tail tucked up against its pale underbelly. Each sturdy limb ended in four digits tipped with claws, and its shoulders were broad and powerful. He only realized when they shifted that the bony structures trapped in the crook of his arm were wings. It yawned to reveal a mouthful of sharp teeth, its long tongue flicked up as if to taste the air, and he could have cried.
It was — "A dragon," he whispered wonderingly. She gave birth to a dragon…
Born of their hatred, their shared past, their pain. It was inhuman, and beautiful. A beautiful monster.
Just like her.
His heart ached when it closed his finger in a delicate grip. There was something so familiar about — But the farther he reached for that hint of a memory, the more it slipped from his grasp. Its claws didn't pierce his skin, and seeing his distress, it made a low, trilling sound. He thought he knew what it asked.
His mouth twisted with grief when he hugged it close. The fires of the throne room burned so low by this time that he could barely see. He spoke tightly, "I wish I could have known you."
It blinked what he could only guess was a third eyelid, a reaction he couldn't begin to read, and reached one of its whiskers up to his face. It just touched his forehead when the ruined throne exploded without warning. The compressed air hit him like a punch to the chest, and suddenly, he couldn't breathe he couldn't breathe he couldn't — he —
She was sure no one breathed, in the wake of her awful pronouncement. Mai's strangled sobs just expressed what they each felt, the only break in the silence until Aang spoke quietly beside her, "No.
"I won't lose another friend." Katara looked quickly up at him, eyes widening at the depth and timbre she had only heard in his voice a very few times. The arrows on his hands lit where they held Momo against him, tucked under his shirt. "NOT NOW. NOT EVER."
His eyes and tattoos glowed bright in the moonlit hall when he entered the Avatar State. Aang set his feet and bent his hands with fingers splayed as expertly as Hama did, as if he had bloodbent a hundred times before when Katara never taught him, when her gentle love would never ask —
Of course. Katara sucked in a quick breath. Why didn't she think of it? If waterbending existed before the Avatar, the ability to bend blood must be older than Hama's discovery. Any of Aang's past lives might have learned to bloodbend, if only to suppress or fight against it.
It wasn't a full moon, but Aang was the Avatar. The same rules didn't apply to him…
At first it was horrifying. More like watching someone reanimate a corpse than revive an injured person. Zuko's back arched and limbs jerked where he lay, as if he were hit by an electric shock. A rosy flush suffused his skin only to retreat and reappear with every beat Aang forced from his still heart. When Aang clenched fingers and he thrashed a second time, his face tensed, the first indication Zuko felt anything at all.
His low, rasping gurgle drew a gasp from Mai, and Katara realized with a swift surge of hope that he was trying to breathe. She looked quickly to Aang, but he was too absorbed in the delicate work to notice. Katara feared to interrupt him, if he could even be expected to bloodbend and airbend at the same time.
It hit Katara with a shock that she could breathe for him. Every member of her tribe learned from a young age how to force air into the lungs of a drowned person. If Zuko had fluid in his lungs or something like —
She sprang into action, the memory writ deeply in her muscles as any waterbending kata. She pinched his nose to tilt his head back, grabbed his chin and sealed her mouth to his. Mai startled where she knelt clutching the folds of her dress in white-knuckled hands. But Katara just glimpsed the flash of recognition on her face, when his chest rose with each strong breath she blew into his mouth.
She turned her head and bent her ear to listen — "Come on," Katara pushed on his chest to urge him, when Zuko barely managed a shallow wheeze cut short, cringing. Tears streamed from his good eye, and sweat stood out on his face from the pain of their efforts to revive him. "Breathe!"
She forced two more breaths into Zuko before his chi flooded back in a sudden bloom of heat, and Katara sat back quickly when he choked. Then a moment came when Zuko began to breathe on his own, wracked with violent coughing that made him fold sideways and draw stiff limbs in to himself, as if he swallowed seawater instead of poison. He shivered uncontrollably, but his skin had lost the awful gray cast, and his lips were only colorless, not blue.
He collapsed on his back again, weak as a kitten. When he cracked both eyes open, the whole and the ruined one, bloodshot and startling gold even in moonlight, Katara could have cheered.
"You did it!" She jumped up to catch Aang when he stumbled, coming down from the Avatar State. "Oh, Aang…"
"We did it," he corrected, managing a weak smile and a one-armed hug before they looked to Zuko again.
He turned his head, straining, eyes searching for — "Mai?" he croaked to find her sat beside him, and whatever spell that held her paralyzed was broken.
"You idiot!" Mai choked out tearfully, smacking his shoulder. "You didn't have a taster for the tea!"
Zuko winced but didn't answer her, his taut face white with pain and brow furrowed anxiously. His good eye filled with tears when he gasped, "Lu Ten."
Mai looked like Zuko had slapped her. More emotions than Katara had ever seen in her consecutively let alone at one time drained from her face. "No."
"We're getting him, and getting out of here," Aang spoke harshly, cradling the lump buried under his shirt, and Katara silently agreed. Zuko wouldn't be safe here, couldn't get the help he still needed. They didn't even know who did this, if the palace had fallen, how many of his own people could be trusted —
"I'm afraid not," a man's voice spoke mildly behind them and she and Aang turned quickly to face him, while fires blazed to life in every sconce that lined the paneled wall.
Zuko's court chamberlain stood flanked by upwards of a dozen imperial firebenders, glasses glinting in the firelight and shockingly close. He could have ordered their attack at any time while she and Aang helped Zuko. They wouldn't have stood a chance…
A quick glance behind her brought the sobering reality that guards had closed on them in their distraction from that side too. They were surrounded, confined with an injured teammate to defend, outnumbered… Mai climbed slowly to her feet, while Zuko struggled to push himself up on his elbows, cringing with chest pains, probably hurt worse by the same bloodbending that revived him.
"The prince is safe in our custody," the old man — Master Han — was saying, his lined face grim. "So will you be, if you surrender peacefully."
"Safe?" Katara thrust a finger at him accusation. "You're the one who poisoned him!" The chamberlain frowned as if offended, but made no attempt to deny it. "When I caught you arguing with that noble — You tried to pass it off as nothing, but all that time you were conspiring against Zuko!"
"It was never my wish that he should be harmed," Han denied, tucking hands in his voluminous sleeves. "Unfortunately, I was overruled. But now —" He looked intently to Mai, standing white-faced and rigid beside the injured Fire Lord. "Now all is changed.
"My Lady, with your influence on the regency council, I know we could convince them to let your husband live under house arrest," he appealed to Mai, who looked on the chamberlain in shock. "He can get the care he needs, live out the rest of his days in comfort, be a father to your son…
"Your opinion and political acumen are well-respected, even among those who disagree with you," Han pressed. "Yours could be the hand that guides our nation to a brighter future! If you saw fit to join us, you would be well-positioned to protect your son and his legacy."
"You w— you want to — crown Lu Ten?" Mai spoke numbly, her eyes wide with disbelief. Aang just stared, stunned by the turn their confrontation took, while Zuko looked up at Mai in mute appeal, his mouth forming a silent plea.
Katara realized with a shock that he thought she would accept. What kind of woman joins her husband's killers? she wondered, before her heart and her face both hardened. The kind who would willingly fight for Azula, Katara reminded herself, and uncorked her waterskin in readiness.
But Mai wasn't looking at any of them, seemingly frozen, her narrow eyes fixed unblinking on the court chamberlain. "Please accept our friendship, and the hand of peace," Han urged her, holding out his own hand so gravely it was clear this offer would not be made twice. "For the sake of your son and our people both."
Even watching Mai so closely, Katara almost missed the blade that appeared in her hand as if conjured from air, her still face contorted with fury — "Traitor!" her shriek rang the length of the peristyle, when she let fly at the chamberlain.
He stepped quickly back, but was only saved from a knife to the heart by the quick intervention of one of the guards, who knocked the blade aside with a deft spin of his halberd. Han straightened his robes and looked to her without resentment, only regret. "I was afraid you'd say that."
Mai threw off Aang when he moved to stop her loosing a second knife, but only clutched the blade so tightly Katara thought she might have a scar to match her recent one — if they lived that long. The airbender glanced anxiously between them and the guards. Katara could tell he didn't like their odds any better than she did.
"Why?" Zuko spoke up forlornly from their feet, still propped on his elbows with knees bent and in obvious pain. "Why did — you do this?"
"I think you are a good man, Prince Zuko," the chamberlain spoke slowly, deliberately, "but not a good Fire Lord. In these critical times, greatness is needed. And one who has been raised to the task."
"Azula…" Zuko laughed and cried at once, sounding for a moment every bit as unhinged as his maniac sister. Han looked on him in undisguised pity, before his broken laughter turned to wracking coughs and Zuko folded, arms tucked against the pain in his chest.
"You would give my baby," Mai spoke low, knife glinting in hand, "to that scheming bitch?"
"No, my Lady," Han answered almost sadly, his spectacled gaze fixed significantly on Mai. "You would."
Mai jerked as if physically struck when she caught his meaning. The rebels needed a capable royal to replace Zuko, someone to rule as regent until his son grew up. When Mai refused to play that part —
"Take them into custody," the chamberlain ordered, before she could form any reply.
Katara and Aang just took defensive stances against the advance of his guards, when a low bellow announced Appa landing in the moonlit courtyard at their backs. The thump of his flat tail knocked their nearest assailants back with a great gust, but Aang shielded his companions from it with airbending. "Let's go!" he shouted to Katara over the wind, but she was one step ahead of him.
Every shrub, tree, and flower in the courtyard outside their peristyle withered as one, when she bent the water from them to join with her meager supply. She was just in time to shield them from the fire of his traitor guards with a wall of water that doused the blasts. Flinging one arm down, she diverted part of the standing wave beneath them and swept herself and Zuko through the high curtain-hung arches and into the courtyard.
Aang jumped the wave that propelled them toward Appa, moving to retrieve Mai instead, who recovered from her shock only to fling curses and what looked like every blade on her person at Han and the imperial firebenders. To Katara's outrage, these aimed their return fire not at Mai, but Aang. The winds he bent to deflect their blasts caught and flung her knives off-target too, while Katara hauled a groaning Zuko up into the saddle, his eyes dull with pain. His face grew tenser and more worried with every shout from Mai —
"Sorry!" she heard Aang yell, when upon fighting his way over to Mai, he simply flung her over his shoulder in preference to arguing. She had apparently run out of knives and was reduced to pounding fists against his back and screeching her protest, when Aang sprinted with her to the waiting howdah.
Katara just had time to wonder at Appa being saddled before she caught scorch marks and the glint of fresh blood dark in the moonlight, on their supplies bundled and tied down in back of the howdah, on the curved edge of the saddle — And her eyes stung when she realized some loyal servants of Zuko probably paid with their lives just to help them escape.
"Yip yip!" Aang yelled urgently upon boosting himself and Mai into the howdah with his airbending. Appa charged a few running imperial firebenders to knock them down with a headbutt, growling, and swept more out of the way with his tail before he took to the air. He flew quickly to escape the range of the fireballs they threw after him, singing his coat.
Mai didn't speak or move from where Aang dumped her unceremoniously to one side of the howdah, just looped her arm through the saddle rim and watched the courtyard and then the palace recede below them, fires burning unchecked in the caldera. The coup had spread beyond the palace.
She didn't look once at Zuko, laid on his back and clutching his chest while he shivered, his breaths ragged and uneven. It took Katara a moment to realize he was crying.
"Just hold still," she urged Zuko, remembering she hadn't had a chance to heal him yet, and he was still in pain. She eased his shaking hands away and bent water from her skin to press it to his chest, infusing the water with her chi. "I'll do what I can for you."
That turned out not to be much. She knew his heart was damaged somehow, that much was obvious just from his pulse, weak and irregular beneath her fingertips when she held them to his neck. Probably also his lungs, maybe his liver and other organs, from metabolizing whatever poisoned him…
But her waterbending would tell her no more of hidden injuries she couldn't see or sense. This wasn't like the cuts and bruises and burns she healed before. She had little idea of the structures she was working with or even how they were damaged, let alone how to go about fixing it. Even simply directing his chi there yielded little improvement.
Zuko watched her face anxiously in the blue light of her healing water, eyes bruised and so pale. And all Katara could think of was her angry insistence, I don't want to heal, I want to fight! She would never regret training under Pakku, but it had been four years since the war ended, and she never went back. She never took the time to learn more. Now Zuko was paying for her oversight, when he already lost so much…
She bent the water back into her pouch with a sinking heart. "I'm sorry, but — there's not much I can do to heal injuries this severe, under the surface." Katara drew a deep breath. "We're going to have to take you to the North Pole —"
"The North —" Zuko started with alarm before he fell back, cringing. "No! You can't —" He looked quickly to Mai, still sat rigid at the saddle's edge with her face turned away, watching the dark waters of the bay pass beneath them.
"It's okay, everything'll be okay," Katara rushed to reassure him, her hands on his shoulders holding him down. "They have the best healers in the world. They'll get you back to full strength. And I think — I can keep you stable 'til we get there."
"That's — not —" Zuko spoke painfully, then seemed to give up, biting his lip to look away from Mai and her both. Her heart ached for him all over again, and Katara laid a cool hand on his forehead.
"I'm going to tell Aang." She glanced to where he had taken his seat steering Appa, without a word to any of them. "Just try to get some rest. Don't overtax yourself," she warned Zuko, who barely seemed to hear her. She had spoken loud enough to be heard over the wind from their passage. She glanced to Mai, still ignoring him, and felt something close to hatred.
Aang seemed unsurprised by her plan, he had been thinking the same thing. He was a lot more subdued than normal, even considering the awful events of the past night. He didn't shrug off the hand Katara laid on his shoulder, but just glanced down at the lump of charred flesh that had been Momo, still tucked under his shirt, before he scratched the back of Appa's head. The bison answered with a mournful groan.
"Are you okay?" She rubbed his back, and Aang shook his head. "No. But I will be," he said softly.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"I just — need to be alone right now," Aang spoke low. Tears started to his eyes, and Katara moved to hug him. "Aang —"
He shook his head emphatically. "Zuko needs you more," he pointed out, her selfless husband. It didn't make his denial sting any less. "I'll be okay. You should help him now."
Katara nodded with lips pursed. Her hand slipped from his back and she climbed back into the howdah to find Mai unmoved and unmoving, except for her forehead laid against the rim of the saddle. Katara wondered if having no soul made it easy to sleep.
She dared to hope Zuko had managed too, when she saw him lying on his side, hunched inward and facing away from Mai. Until she caught his shoulders shake with quiet sobs.
Katara found a more willing target for her comfort in Zuko, when she draped him in one of the blankets not stained with blood and knelt to ease him on his back again, laying his head in her lap. She stroked his hair, still damp with sweat, and gently shushed his tears while he gazed despairing up at her.
She had never seen him look like this before. Katara would do anything to fix this hurt but didn't know if she could —
She wasn't sure when she glanced to Mai again, but her thoughts must have shown for Zuko to speak up hoarsely, startling her, "She lost — her son too." His mouth bent with grief when he looked to his wife, impossibly distant. "Because — of me. Because I couldn't — protect them. My son…" he wept, voice breaking.
Katara blinked back tears when she realized what she should have done the first time, that this was why Zuko didn't want to fly north. That every second he spent in the air or being healed was another second Lu Ten spent in the hands of his enemies.
It was still strange to her, to think of Zuko as a father when he had been her friend first. But he was a good father, he had to know that, no matter what happened… Zuko spoke almost too low to make out, his face drawn, talking to himself, "This — is what it — costs — to love y—"
"They won't hurt him," Katara said swiftly and turned his head, before he could get more worked up. It was obvious every word caused him pain. "They have to keep him safe, if they want to rule in your name. They have to keep him safe until they find your sister —"
"My sist—" Zuko barked out what might have been a bitter laugh or a choked sob. "We don't — even know — if she's still — alive. I might — never see her — again. The last thing — I said — what I did — Oh gods, 'Zula — I'm so sorry…"
Then he could say no more, hiding his face in his hands while he cried. Mai lifted her head and looked at Zuko as if she didn't recognize him, her eyes hollow and rimmed with red. Katara realized she hadn't been sleeping, at the dried tears that streaked her thin face and made her makeup run.
The rim of the saddle left an imprint on her forehead, just visible behind her tousled bangs. Mai blinked once slowly, without expression. She got up and walked to the front of the howdah and curled up with her back to them, head tucked and hands braced behind her neck.
The half moon obscured behind clouds at that moment couldn't match the darkness in her heart, when Katara glared ice daggers at that turned back and cradled the head of her hurting friend.
She would have said she woke, if Azula had any sense of time having passed or rest gained. Instead, she ran through a rustic torii gate at the center of a dying world one moment only to emerge in the shadow of a five-tiered temple the next. She tripped on the inclined walkway that climbed an ashy slope and bridged streams of lava which flowed hissing into the sea below.
She would have said she woke, but only the disorientation was the same.
Besides the torii gate, everything was changed. Everything was gone. Even — "Baby?" She looked around frantically for the little girl, shifting on her knees in the ashes. "Baby!"
Her throat grew tight when Azula remembered running to her, those last dire moments united in fear. How the stars went out and the Moon turned red. "Blood moon," she realized like a punch to the chest. Did it mean —
Did she lose the baby?
But she was still in the Spirit World, to judge by Roku's temple standing intact upon the arc of Crescent Island, when it was destroyed by the Avatar's own hand. The cloud-filled sky had not lost the peach hues of sunset, nor the sun sunk any closer to the horizon since she arrived.
Wouldn't something so traumatic as a miscarriage kick her out of the Spirit World, back into her body? Unless it killed you too, came the unwelcome thought. You knew it could happen and still took that chance. It wasn't much of a choice, but you made it…
That was how the red dragon found her, knelt shaking with head bent and fingers gripping the ashes that blanketed this volcanic island. He must have flown out of the sun for Azula not to see him coming, if this place obeyed any rule of logic, and it didn't.
Roku's dragon encircled her and the torii gate both. He landed on his scaled belly to form a perfect circle, like a serpent eating its own tail. Azula stood and turned to face the dragon, and he lifted his blunt head to look appraisingly at her.
She spoke his name, her voice curiously hollow, "Fang." He answered with a low rumble, deep in his throat. "Why are you here?"
The dragon laid his head down again, a clear invitation to mount, but something was holding Azula back…
Not something, she knew what. "Where is she?" Azula demanded of him, voice tight as her clenched hands. Fang blinked a third eyelid at her. She didn't know what answer she was expecting, but pressed, "Where is — my —"
She couldn't say it, but the dragon seemed to understand. He looped his head closer on the sinuous neck, and reached out with one of his whiskers to touch first her abdomen, then her forehead, then her chestplate. With each touch, a new image assaulted her, plucked from her own memories, brought freshly to life —
lying on Ty Lee's bed hugging her frilly pillow and crying until she felt wrung dry her best friend rubbing circles on her back and her hand laid on her bump while strange voices talked around her about her but she could only count the weeks her second trimester it should bother her more than a head of dark hair emerging from concealment her hands shaking when she replaced the golden flame in her topknot a princess of the Fire Nation like me —
Azula dropped to her knees with a stifled cry. She could almost see the girl run from behind the torii gate again, white-faced with terror flushed red in the light of a dying moon — Then the moment was gone.
"She c-called me —" Her mouth formed the word, one syllable, so easy it was the first that many ever spoke. But she couldn't speak it.
To Azula, that word meant only pain, rejection. Longing for something never known and half-imagined. It meant the same thing it had always meant. Why should it hurt so much more?
Again, the dragon seemed to understand better what she didn't say. He touched a whisker to her forehead —
blue Roku urged his ghostly mount down toward the baked dirt of a tiny village some dozen houses and town hall enclosed by low walls and encroaching trees and rounded peaks of ancient mountain ranges do you think she'll be safe here Fang when they rounded the watchtower she came into sight eased a bucket of water out on the well-ledge wiped sweat from her brow looked into the sun it was —
Ursa. In her banishment.
Azula would know that face anywhere, so many times she'd seen it. Even older, tired, tanned by the sun, hair pulled tightly back in a low bun and dressed in peasant rags she knew that face. It was her. Her mother and —
The Earth Kingdom village where she had lived for some years in obscurity, was Roku's unhelpful description. Azula had never laid eyes on the pitiful backwater, even if its rounded rooftops, vaguely bell-shaped, touched a cord in her memory. She had traveled too much in recent months to pin it down, but Azula didn't need to. Not when answers were nearer at hand…
Fang lowered his head, and Azula climbed on behind his white horns without hesitation this time. The baby and all her other problems would still be waiting for her when she returned to her body. Or not, but —
That couldn't happen until she met her objective. Priorities. She sat astride the white ridge of his back and gripped the horns that arced like points of a crescent and told herself, Focus on something you can fix.
Then the dragon took flight. And her heart soared to leave every doubt and care in the dust.
With everything Azula read and learned about the mythic beasts, somehow she never guessed that the wings were almost irrelevant. The dragon did not flap or even glide so much as coil through the air. Neither did he propel himself with fire like she sometimes did.
He was fire, given form. Unchecked, expansive. Ever changing, yet timeless, inviolable. Matter into energy, light and heat unlocked from lesser elements. It was not one of them, of another nature altogether yet connected inextricably.
It changed the substance of everything it touched. Even her.
If this was what it was like to ride a dead dragon — Azula realized she had leaned forward to hug the bend of his horns, so badly she wanted to feel the heat of him between her legs, the wind in her face, the swooping of her own stomach when he climbed and plunged and rolled —
But there was nothing to feel in the Spirit World. Except the fresh regret of being born too late.
"He was a fool," she whispered, clearly audible in the absence of wind. "In this. In other things…"
She could almost swear Fang glanced back at her. With a flick of his red-tufted tail, the dragon banked east along the outside edge of Crescent Island.
They flew with the setting sun at their backs, into a full moon rising.
Three month update is due to, besides the usual suspects, the difficulty of writing the Spirit World, an Empathic Environment full of symbolism bordering on Mind Screw. To defray any accusations of such, a few points that might help orient you in regard to a certain section: Zuko WAS in the Spirit World because he was actually clinically dead. His perceptions and experience there were shaped by events and revelations Zuko could not consciously remember, in full or in part. At first as his awareness was catching up to his new state, and then increasingly later as he was losing his identity. Zuko was being stripped of his old life and identity in preparation to be reincarnated, since that seems to be an idea in ATLA, and with the exception of the Avatar, people don't have access to memories from their past lives.
If you have any questions or speculations about that section (or any part of the chapter) please don't hesitate to share them in review or via PM, and I will shed what light I can.
Promised myself I would never do this, but ... I also wanted to share my own "soundtrack" of sorts for the chapter, considering the atmosphere of the Spirit World and how difficult that can be to wrap your head around: Radiohead's Pyramid Song and, for Zuko's section particularly, Brian McFadden's Demons. Listened to both songs a lot while I was writing, and I thought it might enhance your reading to do the same. Plus, they are both great songs, so you should give them a listen if you haven't already.
So much insightful feedback last chapter, thank you all! This installment probably answered some of your questions and speculations; for those having to do with the situation between Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom, we will see it progress more in subsequent chapters. With some interesting repercussions from the coup...
The tale Azula spun for the bully novices was indeed dangerously close to the truth. And she might (MIGHT) be seeing some consequences sooner than you think. Azula was spotted en route to the Avatar Temple and probably too distracted to notice, maybe by the Ursa hallucination or some physical complaint. Specifically, she would have been spotted by one of Bumi's people with ties to Mai's family, from her father's governorship of Omashu. Perhaps hoping to take care of the problem without implicating their king, they passed on Azula's whereabouts to Tan's mistress, who passed it on to Tan and him to Mai.
Thanks as always to my dedicated beta reader, Meneldur, who had to endure Zuko's section without the benefit of helpful hints. For which hints, you can and should thank him. Also for chapter-improving input generally.
I think that was all; if I missed anything, expect to see it in the next few days. Getting tired and have an early start tomorrow (oh crap, TODAY) so think I'll publish and finally go to bed.
I hope you enjoyed, and hope equally much that you will leave a review. Please ;)