It was quite strange and somewhat sad that he would learn this lesson now and not then. For when Zuko took on the responsibility for ruling so very much, only then did he begin to see the importance of the very small things, the singular things, that his uncle had spent so much time showing him.
In the Earth Kingdom when he stopped to look at a flower he did not think of that flower. He thought of his destiny and the road that lay before him, in which the flower only occupied a space.
In the Fire Nation when he stopped to look back on his life he did not think of each moment. He thought of his greatest failures, his deepest dreams, and not the time in between. He forgot the small kindnesses and imperfections that were all insignificant except when gathered and measured together.
So when he gazed out upon the faces that came to his coronation, he tried to look at each of them. Zuko knew he could not memorize each face and soon they would be like the hundred thousands of other faces his subjects wore. He knew he could never understand them each as a person, but he could remember. Then he could remind himself, in comparison to the world, they were all so small.
And the most surprising, the strangest thing of all, was in learning this Zuko saw Azula for the first time.
When he could only notice the bigger things, his little sister took great delight in eclipsing his vision. They stood with elbows and knees brushed side by side, each in the other’s shadows. Each trying to outdistance the other and affording only a glance out of the corner of their eyes, because it was all they could spare with sights set on greater goals. But the first time he stood with the world finally set right before him she was small, not even equal to his size. And smaller still when he turned away from her crying huddled form.
The scar on his stomach finally stopped hurting when he decided to visit her. It was the only answer he found comforting when he made his decision and everyone else watched him go. He could not explain to them why he needed to see her, only that he needed to do something.
But when he visited there was nothing to do. She would not even look at him, no matter what he said. So his demands and pleas went nowhere. And he could only wait until his time had finished and he had to leave.
“We are sorry,” said the ones attending to her. “Do not be discouraged, she sees us all the same way. It was good that you tried.”
“I am coming back,” said Zuko, undeterred. If he could save something as great as the world, a little sister would not be impossible.
“If you’re sure,” they said quietly, hesitantly, “then come back.”
“What should I do then?” Zuko asked the physicians.
“You must be patient,” they said, “Above all, be patient. Come next week at the same time of the same day. So she will know when to see you.”
“What if she doesn’t want to see me?”
“If you come at the same time she will anticipate it, whether she chooses to speak with you or not. It’s when she remembers. She needs to remember.”
Zuko nodded, although he did not need to nod, he was the Fire Lord after all. But it was a small thing and he was grateful. And he came back the next week on the appointed day and hour.
Azula said nothing and acted if he was not there at all. In that time Zuko started and stopped short of a thousand things to say to her, but none of them were right. If there were any happy memories of their childhood, they had been burnt beyond recognition. His triumphs would only serve to wound her more. His failures would only bolster her resentment of their positions. He could not lie or make up stories.
He left again. And returned. He left and returned. He waited, and she did not speak a word.
He was the Fire Lord. He had a hundred thousand important things to do, more tasks than he had subjects, but he was sure. And one day when he wondered aloud in the state of his affairs, Azula turned to look at him.
“You’re an idiot,” she said plainly.
Zuko, who had not given up hope, but the expectation of conversation, stared back. “What?”
“You’re an idiot to waste your time on so many little things. A clerk would know where to send your letters if you used the right seal. An admiral would not need an announced personal inspection when he sees you in council more often than you would see him. And I am tired of listening to you.”
She turned away and acted as if nothing was different, even when Zuko thanked her before leaving.
It was dangerous, he knew. He could not tell her anything important, or anything meaningful, but he remembered when she brought him back from Ba Sing Se and he was three years out of step. He asked her everything. And it was such a small trifle that she answered him.
With his knees on a stone floor and his hands in his lap, Zuko began to talk. He asked her for her opinion on the skilled court painters, which peach tree bloomed earliest in the northern gardens, which of the captains knew about Earth Kingdom customs, and who knew the fastest route from the palace gates to the ports.
Azula did not respond to more than a few. Whether or not she could answer him, she never let on. More often than not lips pursed as if to hold something back, hesitating between a truth or a lie. For Azula did lie to him at times, sometimes outrageous ones and sometimes quiet ones that took him many weeks to later uncover. But each time he returned at the same day and same hour to ask more questions. And each time he saw a little thing she would do, tuck a stray bang behind her ear, a shift when she could not hide her restlessness.
Then one day, when the answers he had gathered started to balance out the many questions he had yet to ask, Ozai escaped.
It was a crisis. The first great upheaval in Zuko’s young reign. But without his firebending the old Fire Lord had no real power. And with each year of peace the old supporters forgot Ozai’s ways a little more. Until Zuko had him subdued and returned to prison again.
When he came back to visit his sister, he had not seen her for three months. The physicians told him she had not said anything about his absence. Nor had she said anything about their father. All she murmured was nonsense, the color of wax seals and the taste of peaches. Snatches of Earth Kingdom songs and her eyes looking far away beyond them where they could not reach her.
He kneeled in front of her cell, his mouth once again groping for something, anything to say to her again.
Azula spoke first. “You’re beyond late.”
“I’m sorry,” Zuko said, not knowing what else to say.
She didn’t cry, but he could see the shame on her face. Not for speaking, not for listening to him to speak. Not for wanting anything that wasn’t the endless silence of her imprisonment. But that somewhere along the line she stopped expecting her father each time Zuko came to see her. And now she could not stop the feeling that tried to fill up what the emptiness left in her with this realization. When she saw her brother kneeling in front of her once again she couldn’t deny it.
She had been waiting—hoping—for him.