There is no need to comment, it is enough to witness the state Zhao is in - in all his glory; or lack thereof. He isn't pitiful so to speak, as he has had time groom and tend to any wounds since his stint in the Kyoshi warriors custody, but he no longer wears The Armor. His famous garb signifying his station, of the commitment and years that has earned him the title of General. Though his current copy is intricate it is clearly not Fire Nation. Lacking everything that counts if not on the outside.
Perhaps this is far more satisfying than it should be.
He had been a thorn in her side for as long as she could remember. The infuriating fact was he was neither her equal in blood nor intellect, age had been the only distinction - hadn't truly been worth her time. Yet the council revered the man, blinded by small feats of showmanship. How he played his war efforts up, his manipulations heavy handed, befit a child. Father wasn't fooled of course. "The smallest of men have their purposes," he had told her. Still. Father valued Zhao far more than she cared for.
Azula observes him now, standing at attention, and she wonders if he regrets his propositions now. She had been against his little expedition, always he and his overexertion that ultimately harmed their country in the long run - but Zhao couldn't leave well enough alone. He had wanted the Water Tribe's spirit. Had stumbled upon the Avatar and proclaimed he would catch him. Now, time as a prisoner of war should have humbled him. Though she wouldn't be surprised if this particular lesson hadn't gotten through his thick skull. "Continue hunting the Avatar. Once you capture him bring him to New Ozai."
He has enough sense to not object or request permission to speak, not after the North pole failure. Fleets destroyed - and then he had the audacity to be captured - escaped to tail the Avatar, only to fall into the Kyoshi warriors clutches. She couldn't have orchestrated a greater career crippler if she tried. Zhao bows, waits for further instruction. "That's all general. We await your swift return. Rest assured your captors will receive dole punishment for their crimes."
His brow twitches, furrowing at the mention of 'we'. Yes, father is displeased, furious in fact, she smiles at Zhao's retreating figure.
"You're trusting that failure in capturing the Avatar?" Mai manages to convey disgust despite her apathetic droll. Azula doesn't bother replying, partly because Ty Lee's rich giggle. "No way, don't you remember how much she loathes his guts?"
"Yes," Mai pauses,"You two being here doesn't make being here any less boring. When are we going to do something?" Azula makes a quip about being anxious, though Ty Lee is practically vibrating with anticipation awaiting Azula’s reply. She continues,“We're going to visit Zhao's dear friends. I'd like to personally thank them for their... hospitality."
Her lightening pierces through his body like a wicked blade, suspends him without mercy. The fruition of weeks without sleep, politics, espionage - pores caked with barbaric paints and the arduous task of defanging Long Feng - endorphins blaze with success. It is not sweet, it tastes of static and frying, as the lightning bursts through him before the Avatar crumples to the floor.
There, was that so hard, she thinks at Zhao, who is battling the water wench. As the concept and subsequent victory is formed her satisfaction is torn away.
Azula opens her mouth to shriek but the air tightens within her esophagus, organs rupturing. Her vision pops, fizzing her vision into obscurity. Azula is flung forth like a rag doll - though she cannot see there is a primitive fear, a terrible garbling - she can sense his body rising, his element shifting into razors. her limbs jerk forward one after another no no. the force snatches her. The closer she is brought to the figure, she can feel her body systematically dismantle. Piece by piece - only pain. Her insides scream, there is no rebelling she can't move not even to squirm in agony as her bones crack, snap like brittle sweets.
There is no beginning, no end. Only terror. She wants to sob, to thrash to fight... but it is continuous, ceasing only as she is lulled into a nest of sensation with the devastating realization the pain had never left.
Has always existed beneath the surface, curdling like rancid milk. To say she has never known such a pain is lie. But all at once? No. If she could curl in a ball, stripped of all time - father, (her skin bubbles, the distinct stench of muscle burning)
Let me die. and she does, in a left handed sort of way.
Unseeing eyes stare up into the boiling sky, into the beyond. Lightening tinges amber in their reflection. Slick stone offers him no purchase as he half carries half drags the stranger, fear constricts his throat. Even if he could bypass his involuntary silence the rain and wind would snatch each desperate shout. Tosses it away, unconcerned.
Strikes are closing in no matter how fast he scrambles - fingers numbed by ice water, the threat of dropping the stranger looms. He won't! They need to get inside now.
The strangers breathing is frequent, heaving - in deep and far too often. Altitude sickness, violent sheets of rain not helping the wretched gasps. They're close... hairs rise, tongue heavy - vision twists white hot. His body twitches, conducting unabated electricity. He drops the stranger. In the distance there is yelling, his name? He sprawls over the stranger, blank amber eyes and the reflected strikes of lightning is his last thing he sees before succumbing to darkness.
Words ghost, silver quick, against Azula's cheek, unbearably familiar. I swear on Agni's Path.
A boy kneels, fingers outstretched, a heel of bread beckoning a turtle duck forth. There is no breeze, hardly a ripple as the turtle duck glides forward. The world is muted, divorced from an essential perception and yet she is drawn to the glittering gleam, the dark gloss of his topknot - there is no movement yet she moves. No indention or shifting of grass as he stands to greet her. "Azula."
Her stride breaks.
Azula's mind is sludge. She simply cannot process, cannot continue, but she cannot tear her eyes away as he approaches.
Pale and slight. Receding baby fat at his jaw and cheeks, gentle brow. His feet. Small teetering feet. He had always tripped over them, stumbling over katas he never got to master. The thought of this not being real never occurs to her, only undaltered horror, because this is Zuko and she swore on his path and he's here.
"You're dead." Her lips wobble, body short of trembling. She cannot pinpoint her lack of control, only how raw and exposed - as if the last five years slip away. That odd emotion welling, as it had when she stared at his clasped hands, before aiding in lighting his pyre.
"You're taller," Zuko wrinkles his nose, stepping back so he doesn't have to crane his neck to look at her. "Still ugly though." He grins, satisfied at having delivered a barb.
She isn't that tall, is short for her age in fact. All the more why their height difference rakes at her.
"You're... you're dead." She hesitates over his name. Dread - if she admits as much he is doomed. There must be a way to fix this, to set him back on the path, this sisterly worry winding like a noose inside her. Panic.
"I know. Mom says name calling is rude but you're acting really dumb," he practically sings the last word. Here is where her memories and Zuko diverges, because he stopped joking with her - teasing or conversing, she can hardly recall his lilt even before he died. Azula finally considers that maybe this is a trick.
That this isn't real.
“Not very fitting for heir apparent Azula.” His boyish features wrinkle, cuts through absence - jealousy. “Guess you get to be Fire Lord after all.” His gaze shifts to her shoes, glaring before meeting her eyes. “I’ve always been here. Not because mom swore on my Path, if that’s what you think.”
I’ve always been here.
Years. Five years lost. “Zuko-“ his name spills forth like acid, no she shouldn’t have said his name now this is real... his path (mother decorating the palace each year his Path Day approaches. Portraits, fire black ink... mourners preforming bending rites) her fault, mother’s for keeping him in this world. Or... or he’s protecting her and he has been dragged back, tore from Agni’s Path-
“It’s her fault you’re here.”
Zuko clenches his fists, though his expression remains open. “No. Mom told you the truth.” “No she didn’t. She’s a liar, a turncoat-“
”Azula always lies,” he crosses his arms impatiently. The phrase prickles sharply.