Zuko sits on the tatami, pouring over his ministers’ notes. It’s about upcoming crop yields. Or something. Azula had stopped reading over his shoulder when she realised it wouldn’t be advantageous.
She sprawls over the lounge. Agni’s rays creep across the study until sunlight falls directly on her, and without meaning to, she falls into a light doze.
Some time later, the door slams open, colliding with the wall like a crack of thunder. Azula bolts upright.
It’s the tiny earthbender. Toph. The guards draw their swords, hovering behind her as though she couldn’t bend the iron from their blood if she wanted to.
“Sparky,” Toph announces, “it’s field-trip time. Pack your bags.” She pauses and considers Azula. “You want to come, Princess?”
Azula eyes her up and down. “With you?”
Toph’s grin is full of teeth. “You know I’m more fun than anyone else at the palace, don’t try and pretend otherwise.”
Unfortunately, she has a point.
“Where are we going?” Zuko asks.
Toph shrugs. “Who cares? I just want to go somewhere.”
“Your parents again?” Toph’s smile drops, and for a moment, she looks fragile, like she couldn’t reduce the palace to dust if she wanted to. Very gently, Zuko says, “Okay. Field trip time.”
Azula narrows her eyes. “How do you know this isn’t a trap?”
“I trust Toph. She’s my friend.”
Azula stares. Zuko blinks guilelessly up at her. It’s like looking into the eyes of one of the small animals Zuko owned as a child. Small, and trusting, and so easily scorched.
Toph grins at her like a challenge. Azula sneers right back.
“Fine,” Azula decides. “I’m coming.”
Toph throws her hands into the air. “Family field-trip!”
“Family?” Azula says.
“Zuko’s my big brother,” Toph says, and oh, how Azula wishes she could melt that smug little smirk off her face.
“He,” Azula says through her teeth, “is not. Zuzu, tell her.”
Zuko glances from her to Toph and back again. He suddenly looks like he wishes he were anywhere else. “Uh.”
“I’m excited for some family bonding time.” Toph ducks past the guards before Azula can set her on fire. “Pack your shit! We leave tonight.”
Azula has never been to the shrunken villages rotting along the South coast. When she docked in colonies and Earth Kingdom ports, it was always a pit-stop. The people, the impoverished background—none of it mattered.
Villages that were once thriving fishing towns, long before war brought majesty to the Fire Nation, are now just poverty-ridden extensions of Naval bases. Hamlets filled with veterans and widows have sprung up. People, Zuko says, bent over a pile of ever-growing letters, whose lives have been ruined by the war, but who don’t know how to live without it.
That makes her laugh until her ribs hurt. That’s just the Fire Nation way, isn’t it? You fight until someone or something overcomes you. The hungry machine of war, burning through Agni’s children one generation at a time.
Zuko doesn’t think it’s funny. He’s tired and serious, and the dark scowl on his face only grows when they land at one of the larger towns in the region. The mayor bows and scrapes when they meet, fluttering around Zuko like a pygmy-moth scared of being eaten. It’s hilarious.
“Has he always been so bad at receiving positive attention?” Toph asks. They’re watching Zuko twitch under every compliment the mayor gives him.
“I don’t know,” Azula says, admiring her nails. “It’s not like he received any as a child. I suppose Mother was soft on him, but Father took care of her soon enough.”
“Huh,” Toph says. “Forgot you two were on opposite ends of the child abuse scale.”
Azula narrows her eyes. “Pardon?”
“Hey, don’t take it personally. I’m somewhere on that scale too, except my parents tried to turn me into a delicate little doll with no thoughts of my own, instead of a child soldier.”
Azula snorts. She examines Toph out of the corner of her eye. Nothing about the earthbender can be called delicate.
“Yup.” Toph smiles, razor-sharp and full of ugly spite, and Azula decides that for an earthbender, she’s not so bad.
They visit an orphanage one morning. There are no government officials to threaten or impress, no troops to win over. Just several dozen little faces staring up at them with big eyes.
Azula bats away their sticky fingers. She’s a princess. Even a disgraced princess shouldn’t have to deal with grabby orphans.
But then, Zuko is the Fire Lord now, and he crouches down to their level, getting his fine robes dusty. He laughs when they try and climb onto him, and gently moves their hands whenever one of the little ones reaches for his crown, glittering in the early sun.
He’s gentle, but he’s not good with the kids. He falters and tells the kids to eat their vegetables twice, desperate to impart a lesson. The kids pull faces. Zuko flushes pink.
But no matter how uncomfortable he seems, no matter what thoughtless thing the kids say to him, flames never lick at Zuko’s fingers. He doesn’t yell. Zuko—impatient and tackless Zuko—never loses his patience.
If he wasn’t her brother, she never would have guessed he was Ozai’s son.
The inn isn’t fit for the Fire Lord. The building smells of briny salt and cinnamon. They must have been airing it out as soon as they heard royalty was coming. Azula finds bags of cinnamon sticks stuffed under the furniture, and wonders idly what other smells they’re trying to cover up.
The rooms are clean, but bare. The thin mattress and water-stained ceiling reminds her of the asylum.
She slips out of bed when the walls start closing in. There’s one guard posted outside the opposite door, where Zuko is probably still awake and working. Azula ignores him and heads outside.
Flames lick up her wrist. She bundles sticks together and watches the wood burn. It would be so easy to start a forest fire, she thinks. So temptingly easy.
A few minutes later, she hears footsteps.
“Go back to sleep, Zuko,” she says, not looking away from the crackling fire. “I’m not going to run off. We’re in the middle of nowhere, where would I even go?”
Zuko settles beside her. His hair is a mess. He looks younger without the crown. More like her brother. “Can’t sleep?”
She scoffs. “Do all earthbenders make such horrible noises?”
Zuko knows her well enough to know that Toph’s snoring through the thin walls isn't the only thing keeping her up.
“I have nightmares sometimes,” he says. “Have for a while.”
“Did I ask?”
His voice drops to a bare rasp. “I dreamt of Mum last night. About her leaving. Do you ever think about her?”
“You’re the Fire Lord. You don’t have time to be missing Mummy.”
“Tonight,” he says, ignoring her, “I dreamt of the eclipse. When I confronted Ozai. When I left.”
Just like Mum, he doesn’t say.
Azula stays silent. The urge to raze the forest to the ground rises within her like a fever.
“I didn’t say goodbye to you,” he goes on.
“We both know I wouldn’t have let you leave.”
“I know. I didn’t leave by choice the first time, and I had to leave the second time to stop Ozai, but...”
He doesn’t say that he wishes she could have come with him. That would be too big of a lie for Zuko.
“I wish our Father wasn’t the man he was,” he finally says. “I wish you hadn’t been left alone with him for so long.”
“He would have killed you if he hadn’t banished you first.” She intends for it to sting, but Zuko just sighs. He knows this. He’s come to terms with it.
“I know. But I guess...”
“You’re the Fire Lord,” she says. “You’ve won. Don’t linger on the past. It’s embarrassing.”
“You’re my sister.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Why can’t it be?” He leaves her with that, returning to the inn. Azula stays by the fire. She doesn’t burn the forest down, and she doesn’t sleep.
Azula wakes choking on a scream. Her heart thumps against her ribs like it's trying to escape. She scrambles upright, clutching at her chest, breathing hard.
Her dream dissolves into half-remembered wisps. The clack of boots on polished marble floors. Sizzling flesh. Father, looming above her like a statute. And at the end, as if waiting for her, the fire-rimmed throne, a pedestal and guillotine all at once.
There’s not enough air in this disgusting little room.
The guard on the other side of the hallway, in front of Zuko’s room, stares back at her. This is the fourth night she’s snuck out. Azula descends the stairs, feeling his gaze on her neck.
The sky outside is cloudless. Azula glares up at the moon.
I saw you bleed and die, she thinks. I could make it happen again if I wanted to.
It’s an old comfort, one she held close as a child: no one could hurt her if she knew she could hurt them worse. For some reason, that thought isn’t soothing anymore.
She turns. A serving girl is standing over her, bowed slightly. When she sees Azula’s face, her eyes widen.
Azula touches her cheek. It’s wet.
She stands, scrubbing harshly at her face. “What do you want?”
“I-I heard you come out this way. I wanted to check if you were alright.” She glances up at Azula, biting her lip. “You could talk to me about what’s bothering you, if you’d like. I’m an excellent listener.”
The serving girl smiles, a little dimple in her cheek. The gesture is so sweet. It curdles in Azula’s stomach.
Servants at the palace aren’t like this. Or, well, that’s not true. They had always done their best to be opinionless shadows, flinching away from their better’s gaze, until Zuko had taken the throne and coaxed them out of their shells.
The servants in the palace were always careful around Azula. Many of them had known her before Zuko became Fire Lord, and knew better than to smile at her like this imbecile.
“What,” Azula says, “makes you think I need your help?”
The serving girl blushes. “W-Well. I just thought you seemed lonely—”
Azula shoves her. She’s never hit the servants before, not like Father, and this isn’t that, the swift and sudden slap of his fist against their faces. She pushed Zuko around like this sometimes when they were kids.
The serving girl lands on the wet grass with a cry. “I’m a Princess,” Azula hisses, fire licking at her fingers. “Don’t presume you have the right to speak to me.”
Azula wrenches her gaze away from the muddied serving girl. Zuko stares back at her. He’s in his sleeping clothes, a robe hastily tied over the top, a guard at his back.
She hates how this—the shivering girl, the heavy weight of Zuko’s eyes—makes shame rise in her throat.
She shoves bodily past Zuko and into the inn, and races back up the stairs.
A few minutes later, there’s a knock at her door.
“You’re the Fire Lord, Zuzu,” she calls. “You don’t need to knock.”
“It’s polite,” Zuko says, shutting the door behind him. Azula relaxes against the headboard and tries not to feel caged.
Zuko sighs, running a hand through his hair. “Can we not do this again tonight? I heard you having another nightmare. You don’t need to pretend.”
“Up later again?” She has to fight to keep her voice steady. “You’re going to work yourself to an early grave, and then what is the nation going to do?”
“You and Uncle would look after it,” Zuko says.
“You’re an idiot.”
“You really have no idea what you’re doing, do you? You’re going to get yourself killed within a few years. This won’t stick.”
Kindness doesn’t last in the Fire Nation. Azula remembers the few servants from her childhood that made small talk, and touched her gently, and tried to reprimand her when she played too rough with other children. They never lasted more than a week at the palace.
She remembers what happened to Mother, too. What happened to Zuko. What became of Lu Ten and Iroh. It’s not a coincidence that the few family members that dared to truly love were struck down.
Zuko throws his hands up. “Why are you acting like this? You’ve been fine so far. You’ve been good.”
Azula laughs, a raw sound that hurts coming up her throat. “You really think that?”
A flash of hurt crosses Zuko’s face, there and then gone just as fast, replaced by anger. “Well, maybe if you told me what was going on with you, I wouldn’t be forced to guess. You have to talk to me, Azula.”
“Why don’t you just order me, Zuzu? You can do that now. You have complete and total control over me.”
She leans against the bedpost. The clawing helplessness is beginning to retreat, making way for the apathy. It’s numbing. Is her own brain pumping out the same chemicals the orderlies used to drug her?
“Is that what this is about?” Zuko asks. “I don’t want to control you.” She laughs again. “I don’t! I just...”
She waits for him to finish. He doesn’t.
“I’m a princess,” she tells him. “Daughter and heir to Fire Lord Ozai. Descendent of Agni. You might have forgotten just who you are while you were out playing house with the Avatar, but I never did.”
She pushes off the bed. Her fire prickles under her skin, cold and almost-painful. “I don’t need to be pitied by you or any street trash in these rotting coastal villages. I’m above all of this.”
“They’re our people, Azula. They’re not trash. There’s nothing shameful about helping them.”
Why should she help them? These people never did anything for her. She never wanted or needed anyone to help her. Except, maybe, for the people she trusted to be her friends, and then they almost destroyed her.
But that’s not quite true. When she was very little, before Father molded her into who she is today, she had relied on Zuko. Her brother.
Is she relying on him now? That thought makes her feel crazy again, makes her want to claw up her bedsheets and bellow fire and scratch up anyone that tries to touch her.
“You say you’re here to help people,” Azula says, looking into Zuko’s eyes, waiting for the flinch. “You tell yourself you’re being selfless. But really, you’re trying to clear your conscience. You already abandoned these people—how many times, was it?”
“I did,” Zuko admits. “I had no idea our people were suffering as much as they are. The whole world was hurting and I had no idea. But now I’m in a position to change things.”
Azula switches tactics.
“Zuzu, so noble.” She stalks closer, hands behind her back. Her nails dig into her palm. “How many towns do we need to go through before you give up on finding Mother crouched in one of these filthy alleyways, waiting for you to rescue her?”
There it is: the flinch.
“Yes, you are.”
“You don’t miss her either?” Zuko demands. “She was our Mother and suddenly she vanished, and we never knew what happened to her.”
“She abandoned us.”
“She left to save us!”
“No,” Azula says coldly, “she left to save you. And look how well that turned out. She left, and you were burned and cast out, and then Father almost burned down the rest of the world.”
Mother left, and Zuko was thrown out, taking Uncle Fatso with him, and then it was just Azula and Father in the too-big palace, and Zuko will never know what that was like.
“She didn’t want to leave us.”
“She was probably happy to be gone. If she wasn’t, then why hasn’t she come back?”
Zuko stops. “What?”
Azula smiles. She knows how pitying it must look. “It’s been over a year since you took the throne. Everyone knows Father is powerless and locked away, and you’re Fire Lord. So why hasn’t she come back to the palace now that it’s safe?”
Maybe he should have left her in the asylum. Maybe then Mother would have come back and reunited with her favourite child.
Azula turns away. She’s had enough of this.
“I’m tired,” she says. “Get out. Let me sleep.”
Zuko goes. She doubts he’ll be sleeping tonight, but at least he won’t come to check on her until the sun has risen. That gives her several hours to put as much space between them as she can.
Azula climbs out the window, stolen coins stuffed in her breast pocket, and disappears into the black night.
Azula walks until she finds another village. It comes into view just before midday, a shabby mid-sized town in worse condition than the last one had been. People beg on the streets. Children, too.
There isn’t an orphanage here, she realises. Nothing for Zuko to visit. No grubby children to crawl over him and look up at her with shiny eyes and laugh at the earth structures Toph made for them to play in.
The town hall gleams in the middle of the city. It’s been refurbished recently. The newly-built spires and polished marble stairs stand out against the backdrop of poverty.
No matter how hard Zuko works, cruel men will always rise to the top.
She pauses, staring up at the gilded rooftop. The wood would burn like kindling. It’s an attractive thought.
She forces herself to move on before she can storm into the town hall and track down the mayor herself.
She spots him as soon as he enters the crowded square. It’s not particularly hard to recognise him. He’s wearing a hood that does more to draw attention to him than hide him, and he’s glancing conspicuously around the square. Looking for her, no doubt.
She’s been keeping an ear out, but she hasn’t seen any rumours of her escape. No guards ransacking inns, even though she stole his money when she left, more than enough to stay wherever she pleased. No increased security in and out of the town. Just the lone Fire Lord stumbling through the public square, barely hidden by a plain cloak.
Not for the first time since Sozin’s Comet, she thinks somewhat hysterically, How was she beaten by this?
She could slip back into the restaurant and disappear out the back door before Zuko spotted her. She could be halfway to the next major town before he even realised.
Azula flags down a passing waiter and orders a fresh pot of tea.
A few minutes later, he spots her and collapses into the opposite seat. Not bad. Much slower than Azula, but quicker than she assumed.
“The tea here is dreadful,” she says with a sniff.
“Azula.” His eyes are intense. It’s hilarious. Is he going to start an argument here, in the middle of the midday rush? The poor disguise and lack of back-up was bad enough, but if he draws even more attention to himself by shouting about their shared trauma, she might just give up all hope for him entirely. “Where were you going to go?”
She swirls the cooling tea in her cup. “Hm. I hadn’t decided. Perhaps East. We still have that family villa on Ember Islands, don’t we?” Her stomach flips. She puts down the tea. “But then, everything that happened on that island was a lie, wasn’t it?”
Zuko steals the mug. He takes a sip and makes a face. When it comes to tea, he’s more of a snob than her. Uncle’s bad influence.
“Where’s the earthbender?”
“Toph stayed behind to cover for me,” Zuko says.
She snorts. “With your entire reitany of guards and servants.”
“This is a family matter. You’re my sister.”
“I could kill you,” she offers.
“You could try.” He takes another sip of tea. She should slip a sedative into his drink one day, just to remind him to be cautious of poison. He could do with the rest.
“Azula,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
She steals the mug back and pours fresh tea. “Don’t.”
“I should have paid more attention to—”
She stands. “I said don’t. We’ve had enough family spats in public, haven’t we?”
She throws down a handful of coins and marches in the direction of a semi-decent inn. Zuko scrambles after her.
When they arrive, Zuko orders two rooms. He’s still in that terrible hood, and she knows she isn’t as neat as she’d like after walking for hours. The innkeeper eyes them skeptically, until Zuko pulls out an outrageously large coin purse. The innkeeper’s manner changes abruptly.
“You were a fugitive to the Fire Nation twice,” she hisses under her breath. “How are you so bad at being inconspicuous?”
Zuko flushes and quickly pockets his coin purse, but the damage has been done. The innkeeper floats after him as they climb the stairs, asking loudly if there’s anything they might need, anything he can do for them, until Azula spins on her heels and snaps at him to get lost.
“Azula,” Zuko admonishes.
“Don’t,” she says, and shoves past him into her room.
There’s not even a lock on the door. She thought maybe he’d insist on them sharing a twin room to make sure she didn’t disappear during the night again, but he doesn’t. Just gives her space. The fool.
They have dinner brought up. They eat in silence in Zuko’s room. It’s not comfortable, but they’ve shared worse meals. Before Zuko was banished, the dinner-table was a battleground.
Azula sleeps easily that night. It’s because this mattress is better than the one at the other inn; it is definitely not because she can hear Zuko’s faint snores through the thin walls, lulling her to sleep.
She’s woken by a crash in the neighbouring room.
She’s on her feet immediately. She can hear the sound of a fight coming from Zuko’s room. She runs in without stopping to think about whether or not she wants to intervene.
There are four attackers. Zuko is backed against the window, surrounded, and his movements are clumsy like he’s a child and still learning the forms again. His hair is undone, tangled around his face.
One of the attackers sweeps Zuko’s legs out from under him. He goes down hard, but manages to turn the fall into a roll at the last minute, coming back up with a swirl of rainbow fire. The flames illuminate his face.
He’s bleeding. A gash at his temple, dripping into his good eye. A split lip. Bloodied fingerprints around his throat, as though he’s been choked.
Azula’s vision whites out.
The burning cold of her fire and the solid, comforting thud of her fists against skin—she loses herself in it. All she can see is her brother backed against the open window, bloodied and overwhelmed, so close to being tipped into the dark night where he would never be seen again.
Azula has lost enough people. She’s not going to lose stupid, naive Zuzu too. Not again.
A hand claps down on her shoulder, and she startles, whirling around with a strike. She catches Zuko in the throat. He goes down hard.
“Azula,” he rasps, trying to breathe evenly. “It’s okay.”
He can barely breathe because she hit him so hard and he’s trying to reassure her. She hates him.
She glances around the room. The attackers are splayed out, unmoving. She doesn’t know whether they’re dead or unconscious. She doesn’t care.
Surprisingly, she does care about Zuko, curled around his middle, still bleeding all over his silk nightclothes. She crouches next to him and roughly searches him for injuries.
He tries to bat her hands away, but she doesn’t move away until she’s sure he isn’t hiding a knife-wound somewhere.
“Are you okay?” Zuko asks.
Azula laughs. It’s not a steady sound. “Am I okay? You idiot.”
Heavy footsteps thunder up the stairs. Several people. All of them wearing armour. Azula positions herself in front of Zuko. She’s been expecting an attempted coup since Zuko’s coronation; although she hadn’t realised that, when the time finally came, she would be on his side of the fight.
The doors burst open. Zuko grabs her wrist before she can shoot a fireball at the huddle of guards.
“It’s okay,” Zuko says. “It’s okay, Azula.”
The guards draw their weapons, but don’t attack. It only takes a quick glance over to tell they’re too stupid to be a part of a coup.
Azula stands to her full height, glowering at the bewildered guards. “Do you have any idea who we are? You should recognise your Princess and Fire Lord when you see them.”
Their eyes go wide. Zuko staggers to his feet, placing a hand on her shoulder. She doesn’t shake him off.
“I was attacked,” Zuko says in that smooth, projected voice he uses as Fire Lord. He reaches into his cloak, thrown over the desk, and pulls out his crown. “Assassins, most likely. I don’t know how they found us.” Azula stares flatly at him. He winces. “Okay, yeah. My bad.”
The guards edge into the room. Azula tenses in front of Zuko. Her eyes tell her that these bumbling idiots aren’t would-be assassins, but something in her chest still clenches whenever they get too close to her and Zuko. She wants to bundle him down the stairs and slip away into the black forest, where no one can hurt them.
A guard flinches when she catches sight of Zuko’s face. “My Lord, you’re injured. We can send for a medic—”
She reaches for Zuko. Azula’s hand clamps down on her wrist.
“Azula,” Zuko murmurs, quiet like they’re the only two people in the room. “It’s okay. You can let go.”
Azula drops the guard’s wrist and turns away. Her hands are shaking. It makes her want to set something on fire—set herself on fire.
“Call for the earthbender,” she says, eyes flicking over the room. Too many entry-points. Not enough space to firebend. “Let’s go somewhere else, Zuko. This hovel isn’t fit for royalty.”
It doesn’t take long for Toph to reach them. She bursts into their shared room and cocks her head as if to assess the boarded-up windows, the tense way Azula and Zuko are holding themselves, sitting on the same chaise but not touching.
Toph flops down on the other side of Zuko, half-splayed out on his lap, filthy feet propped up on the low table.
“Let’s go to the beach tomorrow,” she says loudly. “I want to work on my sandbending.”
“Sandbending,” Azula repeats.
“Hey, do you think if you used lightning on the sand, we could make glass?”
Azula considers this. “Hm. Perhaps.”
Toph starts talking about how she had spent the day by herself intimidating all the local officials and drinking with the locals, despite being obviously underage. She sticks to Zuko’s side and doesn’t ask about the attempted assassination. Against her will, Azula finds herself relaxing into the conversation.
Tomorrow there will be the salt water and lightning crashing against the shore. There will be Zuko and Azula, struggling to relax, and Toph laughing and teasing them until Azula snaps and they fight like two alleycats scuffling in the street.
The day after that, Azula will tell Zuko about the gilded town hall, and watch as he descends upon the town officials like a servant of Agni. She’ll help him tear through their fraudulent financial records. It will feel good to stand by his side. It will sit easier in her chest than anything she had ever done for Ozai.
But for now, there is this dusty inn. There is Zuko wedged between her and Toph, his bruises muddied in the dim light, like paint, like fresh scars in the shape of their father’s fists. And it is all Azula can do to know she belongs here, sniping back and forth with the cocky little earthbender. Keeping him safe.