disclaimer: disclaimed.
dedication: to Emily on her birthday.
notes: this is… different, for me. it was sort of an experiment.

title: breathe your smoke into my lungs
summary: A deposed princess, and the sound of her last hope walking away. — Azula, Aang.

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Azula's ward is a silent one.

The days pass by and she never notices, trapped in a quiet dream-world of sunlight and turtleducklings where her mother runs a comb through her hair. If anyone touches her, she doesn't feel it, and she smiles when Zuzu comes into her space looking haggard and empty-eyed because a haggard and empty-eyed Zuzu is a good Zuzu.

He talks, sometimes.

She doesn't register much of it—Zuzu, married? No, not possible—but no one seems to mind.

Once, the little waterbending girl slides in.

Azula remembers her enough to spit fire and hatred in her direction. She saved Zuzu, and no one saves Zuzu unless Azula says it's okay to do so. The Fire Nation's last princess lights up with blue fire and electricity and a twisted sense of judgement; this is her palace, Zuzu is her brother, and who is this little peasant that dares defy her wishes?

"I'LL KILL YOU, I'LL KILL YOU—!" Azula screams and wrestles with the restraints, lightning crackling around her eyes

The girl just looks at her, sighs, and then closes the door behind her.

The scorch marks that follow her exit slough away, and there is nothing in the world to remind either of them that the exchange happened at all.

The nurses rush in.

A pinprick and the slow drip of a sedative in her veins, and she calms under their pale fingers.

Azula drifts.

She dreams of dancing. She dreams of whirling across the floor in red robes trimmed with gold, the Fire Lord's emblem tucked into her hair. She rules this palace, she knows, rules it hand over fist, steel and fired iron and the hiss of steam rising off a newly-forged blade. She dreams of her mother's smile. She dreams.

The world fades in and out.

It's an easy thing, fading.

Azula is better at it than she would like to admit.

Blank-faced nurses touch her face, whisper like ghosts, and then they disappear. Azula thinks they must have withered in the sunlight—Spirits don't like any kind of brightness, she's been told. She grew up knowing that the best exorcism was a burning one. That it was the easiest. That it hurt the most and left the least clean-up.

Her mind burns, too, so she has to agree.

Azula drifts farther, and runs through green fields with her hands folded through Mai and Ty Lee's. They're children again, laughing—

Crack and then shatterglass.

The next thing she knows she's staring into wide grey eyes and she has no idea how they ended up in front of her or who they belong to. She stares him down. The room is empty and white except for this little slip of a boy in burnt yellow-orange and Azula thinks the airbenders burned, we burned them, we burned!

"Hey, Azula," he says. His grin is too wide and a little too bright. She doesn't shy away because that is not what princesses do, and despite everything, she is still a princess.

"Who are you?"

The words come out of her mouth rusty, as though she hasn't spoken in an age. But it hasn't been that long, has it? Zuzu was in just days ago, and, well, she hadn't really spoken to him, per say, but she hasn't been locked away that long, has she?

No, of course not.

"You don't remember me, huh," he says. It is not a question.

"No," she tries for caustic, but it mostly comes out tired. She looks at her hands, folded neatly in her lap—when did they get like that?—and waits for his reply. She feels like she should know him, and maybe she should hate him.

She can't seem to dredge up the enthusiasm for hatred, though.

A silence falls while he looks at her, and it sings impossibly loud in her ears. She strains for him over the buzz in her mind and his lips move, but she doesn't hear anything at all. She thinks of the comet, and remembers the play of light over her skin, the wash of red-gold and the heat, the heat.

The half-remembered echo of power wets her mouth, and Azula smiles wickedly.

"Avatar," she says.

"There you are," he says. There is a twinkle of mirth in his eyes. Azula counts all the ways she could sever his head from his neck, and comes up with only three. They are all messy and tiring, and she misses the ease of lightning and the terrible scent of charred flesh.

"A pleasure," she lies through her teeth. Azula is nothing if not thorough.

"Hey, hey," he chides. "Don't be like that. I'm here to help!"

"No, thank you," she says, and she is polite. Her mother never taught her the things she probably should have, but Azula understands people. Even a deposed princess can wound, given the proper tools.

And Azula had always had the proper tools at her fingertips.

The Avatar is still a child.

She can murder a child.

"I don't want your help," she says, delicate. She finds the killing edge of him, and it is sharp; her fingers crunch like ice breaking up across the ocean and she focuses on the blue of his tattoos to restore her faith in herself. "I don't need your help."

He frowns, and Azula almost shrieks with laughter.

Killing is so easy.

"But—Azula, you're sick—"

"And you are under the delusion that you can help me," she says. She shakes her head imperiously and her hair is everywhere. She needs to cut it again (when was the last time she'd thought that? It seems so long ago), and the dark slick mass slips across the hollow of her collarbone, and she watches him watch her watching him.

"I know I can! You just—you know, need to let me in?" the Avatar says, and he is so eager she is almost sick with it.

"You're disgusting," she tells him. She rocks back and forth, stretching towards him with the yearning to wrap her hands around his throat. The restraints hold her back.

"That's not nice, Azula," he says.

"I'm not nice," she replies, and turns her face into an ugly mask of arrogant amusement.

She remembers this. The meanness. She knows this. The meanness.

"You should be," he frowns again.

Azula throws back her head and cackles. The sound slides out of her lungs on a cough, ripping through half an octave in a screech that would impress most squirrelcrows.

"Oh, Avatar," she sighs and wipes the tears away. "You'd have no idea what to do with me."

He does not belong here, in her silent world with her silent nurses and her silent brother and her silent dreams. She reaches for the fire, and comes up desperately short. She couldn't even singe his hair off, if he had any.

"But Azula—"

"Get out," she says, and her voice rises to screaming. "Get OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!"

He disappears with a sigh.

The only evidence of his presence is the slight depression in her bed, and soft pat of his feet against the floor.

Azula tips her head back to rest against the back of her chair, and she listens until his footsteps sound no longer.

She sinks back into herself, and forgets.

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fin.