Zuko came back for her when it was all over. If she’s being honest, Azula expected him to. Zuko’s always been too determined to do the honorable thing, and though what he deems honorable had changed, he hadn’t. It wouldn’t have sat right with him to leave her in the hands of someone else. He saw her as his responsibility, and she hates him for it.
He didn’t mention the fight. He barely spoke at all, but he didn’t rub it in—Katara incapacitating her, Azula’s inability to kill him when it actually came down to it, the way she completely fell apart. She hates him for that, too. She knows she lost, and she deserves to be treated as such: a loser, a prisoner. It’s what Father would have done.
He had her admitted, of course—the best doctors in the land and all—and he wrote, but she hasn’t seen him in almost four years. It’s enough to make anyone nervous, even Azula, especially without any of her old steel.
As she waits in her room, she wonders what Zuko will think when he sees her. She doesn’t even know what she looks like anymore; she hasn’t seen her reflection in years. She can imagine her brother well enough. He’s twenty-one now, unless she’s drastically miscalculated. She wonders if he’s let his hair grow out, more like their father’s. She feels herself heating up instinctually at the thought and imagines herself pushing the image of her father out of her head.
He’s twenty-one, which means she’s almost nineteen. Still a child in a lot of ways, her favorite therapist often reminds her, though she chooses not to pay attention to that. She’s been acting like an adult for years, if an awful one. (She’s been acting like her father.)
Without meaning to, she wonders if Zuko’s still with Mai. She tenses so hard at the thought she has to completely shut down, try to force everything out of her mind. Floor under her feet, she reminds herself. Sky out out the window. Sheets clenched in her pale hands. Zuko will be here soon. She wishes they’d let her have a mirror, though she does understand.
There’s a knock on the open door. One of the nurses, a (sort of bad, if she’s being honest) waterbender named Hidi, steps into her room. She’s sure they sent him because she likes him, but she can’t bring herself to be annoyed about it.
“Your brother will be here in a moment,” he says with his usual half-grin on his face. He’s the only one of the nurses who calls Zuko her brother instead of the Fire Lord, and it’s not the only reason she likes him, but it’s definitely a factor. She nods, tries to smile at him. She knows it doesn’t work the way she wants it to, but he smiles back anyway before stepping back out of her room. She waits.
“Hi, Azula,” Zuko says from the doorframe. She turns to face him. The way he’s watching her is different, though she should have expected that. She takes a moment to study him. His hair is longer like she assumed it would be, but not as long as she expected. It falls just past his shoulders, tucked behind both ears so she can fully see that stupid scar. He smiles that awkward smile of his.
“It's almost your birthday,” he says. His voice is deeper and nice to hear. When she doesn’t respond, he moves into the room. He pulls the chair away from the desk in front of the window and turns it toward the bed. When he sits down, he’s facing her, and she stares at him head-on without attacking him for the first time in nearly a decade.
It’s quiet for quite some time. They’ve never been a family for words, and Azula has nothing left with which to attack him. She hasn’t even tried to firebend since they locked her up.
“Azula,” he says, like she didn’t try to kill him every chance she had, “do you want to come home?”
Something about the way he says it lets her know he means the palace. It is, she supposes, the only home she’s ever known. Still, it feels like a stretch to call it that. She shrugs.
“I need an answer,” he says. “I’m not taking you unless you tell me you want to come.” She watches his face, the way he doesn’t smile. He holds her gaze like he believes she won’t hurt him.
“Why are you doing this?” she finally asks. Her voice sounds pathetic to even her own ears, raspy and weak. She watches the muscles in Zuko’s jaw clench like he’s trying not to react.
“You’re my sister,” he says. She still has enough of herself left in her to roll her eyes, at least.
“That’s not what I meant.” Zuko sighs. His gaze stays to the wall behind her.
“Your doctors say you haven’t been improving in a few months. I don’t know what good it is to keep you here. You’ve never done well cooped up. I think you’re due for a change of pace. A change of scenery. Mai and Iroh agree,” Zuko says, then winces like he didn’t think the pitch through. Azula’s stomach churns at the mention of her old friend, but she steels herself against it and shrugs.
“Okay,” she says.
“Okay?” The way Zuko lights up, the way his voice brightens and he straightens his posture, disgusts her. He shouldn’t be that happy to have her coming home.
“Okay. I’ll come back to the palace.”
Zuko’s smiling, now. He looks like a fool. She listens as he explains what will happen, how she’ll keep seeing doctors and they’ll do everything in their power to make the transition painless. How she’ll have no power, how it will be almost the same as being here, though less structured. She doesn’t think she’ll mind that, really. The structure is the only thing keeping her as sane as she is, but what does a little slipping matter anyway?
She leaves with Zuko that day. It’s not like she has much to pack. He carries her bag to his ship, and he stays beside her the whole ride home. It’s a short trip, but it still feels important, that he doesn’t leave his side. She stands on the deck, watching the sun set against the ocean, and Zuko stands beside her.
The palace is quiet when they arrive. Azula wonders if it’s always this way or if Zuko is trying to make her feel as comfortable as possible. She’s not sure which is worse. He leads her to a room on the opposite side of the palace as her childhood bedroom, and she can’t help but think it’s intentional. Her memories of Father mean less here than they would in the western wing, she can see Zuko rationalizing. (The fact that he’s right means nothing. It’s just sentimental bullshit.)
The room is large and largely empty, just like the room she grew up in. The bed, canopied by columns, stands in the middle of the room. She’s grown used to a wall against her back in the past few years and finds herself longing for something to back up against. She thanks her brother, instead, and thankfully he takes the hint and leaves the room.
She sits on the edge of the bed. It feels strange to be back in the palace. She isn’t dressed like a princess, in just loose pants and a loose shirt under her robe. She slips her shoes off her feet and pushes herself back into the pillows. Suddenly, she’s too tired to think about much of anything. She shrugs out of her robe and tosses it to the end of the bed before pulling the blanket over herself. She falls asleep quickly, despite the thoughts of the people she’s failed and the people who have failed her. She falls asleep wondering if there’s even a difference.
When she wakes up, the sun is high in the sky and she has to pee. Badly. The mirror in the bathroom throws her off more than she’s willing to admit.
She’s sure she spends at least an hour standing there, staring at her reflection. She’s gained weight. And, okay, she knew that already, but it’s different when she actually has to face it in the mirror. Her clothing hangs loosely off her body, but she knows that’s by design. When she pulls her shirt away from her body, she can barely see her collarbone. Her face is rounder. She has hips. She’s gotten fat and she hates herself for thinking it. Father would be disappointed.
She looks into her own eyes as if she can glare herself back into the person she was at fourteen, before she lost, before her father lost, before the nurses realized what she was willing to do to herself in the name of success.
She takes a deep breath. Power isn’t everything, she reminds herself. The voice still sounds like her therapist and she’s starting to wonder if it will ever be her own.
There’s clothes in the wardrobe. Azula doesn’t see the point in getting dressed, but she does it anyway. She’s not sure how long it takes her to put on the loose pants and the tight red shirt, but it feels like hours. She secures a skirt-belt around her waist, fastens a pair of sandals on her feet, and lies back on her bed. She’s not sure what it is about being back here that drains her so, but she feels completely empty.
The last time she was here, the last time she was home, she was so angry. She has always been so angry. When Katara iced her, it all left. Even now, she’s not sure what made her scream like that. Terror, maybe. Shame. She’s not sure, but it wasn’t fury. She knows that feeling, because it’s what drove her for most of her life, and she remembers its absence during that stupid Agni Kai.
She’s not sure how much the battle and her breakdown actually changed her. She doesn’t feel like a better person, but she doesn’t feel worse, either. She just feels weaker. More pitiful. She used to treat life as a problem to solve, a game to beat. Now she feels like a machine, and not even one that works right. She has a hard time even finding anything to think about anymore.
Even if she could find the energy and capacity to think, she’s not sure what she would do with her day. She used to spend hours training to bend better, but it’s been years since she’s even tried to firebend. There are no strategy meetings for her to sit in on. She certainly won’t be spending time with Ty Lee and Mai. She pulls the covers back over her body, despite the shoes on her feet.
She’s not sure how long it’s been when she hears voices somewhere outside her room. She’s sure she’s not supposed to be able to hear, but she has a lifetime of eavesdropping experience, both on her father and brother and on the nurses at the asylum. She can hear Zuko speaking to someone clear as day, though she can’t place the other voice.
“You can’t actually trust her,” a woman says. Azula feels no pain at the comment. She can’t help but agree.
“She’s my sister,” Zuko says, like that means anything. “And besides…” He trails off. Azula imagines the scowl on his face, his crossed arms, the way the skin around his left eye pulls tight. “Her doctor doesn’t know what else she can do for her.”
“That’s exactly my point,” the woman exclaims. Zuko must try to interject, because she continues with, “No, shut up. Sorry. That’s exactly my point. If even the best doctors in the nation can’t help her, why do you think you can?”
“Katara,” Zuko sighs, and that does send a pang of something through Azula. Her breath catches in her throat. She sits up in bed. Mattress under her body. The top of a flowering tree through the window. Still air on her face. She takes a deep breath. Katara is doing what she believes is right. She cannot fault her for that.
“I can’t explain it,” Zuko continues. “Azula is… You didn’t know my father, and I’ve never known my sister without him looming over us. She was eight when my mother left and even before that, well, I was my mother’s favorite. Azula was my father’s. I don’t blame her for what she did as a child. It was what Father taught.” Katara must start to say something, because Zuko seems to cut her off. “No, no. I know she is responsible for her actions, but I’m not talking about everything with Aang and my exile. I mean what she would do as a child. I don’t— Katara, I can’t explain it, okay? She’s not— I don’t know how to explain it. She’s not angry, anymore. It’s like nothing matters to her.”
“Okay,” Katara says, but it doesn’t sound like she believes it. “It’s your call, but we need to be prepared for the worst.” It’s quiet for a moment, then Zuko speaks.
“I know,” he says. “I know, but I won’t be able to live with myself if I don’t give her a chance.” Azula thinks she should feel something at that comment, some resolve to do better, to prove to Zuko that she was worth saving. Instead, she just feels tired. She draws her knees up to her chest under the blanket.
Zuko knocks on her door an indeterminate amount of time later. She doesn’t answer and he turns the knob, stepping into the room. He looks disappointed to see her in bed and she can’t make herself care. He closes the door behind him and stands there, arms crossed. He looks like her kid brother still, even in his Fire Lord clothes. She can see him out of the corner of her eye and doesn’t turn to face him.
“I just wanted you to know you’re free to come and go as you please,” he finally says.
“You’ve been in here all day so I wasn’t sure you knew you could leave,” he explains. She sighs, turns toward him. His face is set in something regal, but he still looks like a child to her.
“What time is it?” she asks. She watches as he tries not to change his expression. He’s always been so easy to read.
“It’s mid-afternoon,” he says, and she wonders whether she slept especially late or it just took her hours to get dressed.
“Okay,” she says and makes no move to get out of bed. He stands there a moment longer.
“I’ll send someone to get you before dinner,” he says. She knows it’s a bone he’s extending, an olive branch, so she thanks him. He moves toward the door, pauses a moment.
“Aang and Katara will be there,” he says. He leaves the room immediately, as if he’s scared of her reaction. She only sighs. She has nothing to do before dinner, so she does her best to go back to sleep.
Azula dreams of Mai. It’s not uncommon, really, but usually Ty Lee is there, too.
In the dream, she and Mai are in Azula’s old room. Mai is putting on lipstick in the mirror. She finishes and tosses the tube to Azula. When Azula tries to put it on her own lips, the makeup disintegrates. She wants to hurt Mai and suddenly they are at the beach. Mai tells her they have to complete a scavenger hunt in the water, but when Azula tries to get on the raft it turns into an ornate chair under her feet. Mai is on the shore and Azula is sinking into the surf, pushing against a chair that looks eerily like the one their father sat in at dinners.
She wakes up to someone knocking on her door.
“Enter,” she calls, hoping her voice doesn’t give her away. She realizes it’s pointless as soon as the door opens, though, revealing that she’s been in bed even if her voice didn’t. A female guard steps just into the room. She looks nervous, like she’s worried Azula will hurt her somehow. It’s not funny, but it almost makes Azula laugh, the thought that she could still hurt someone. She’s sure she’s completely powerless. She’s not sure what she’d do if she found herself somewhere needing to bend.
She pushes herself out of bed and follows the guard to the dining room. She hasn’t eaten in over a day, not since lunch in the asylum yesterday, and she realizes only now that she’s hungry. She walks through the high doorway into the banquet hall. Zuko sits at the head of the table, in their father’s seat, with Mai on his right where Azula used to sit. There’s an empty seat to his left, and Katara sits beside Mai with Aang to her left. Azula takes the empty seat on Zuko’s other side and ignores the pounding in her chest. She much prefers the emptiness.
She’s hungry, but the food seems to turn to wood when she starts to chew. She can hardly bring herself to swallow. Her brother and his friends talk around her. She feels someone watching her but doesn’t look up out of fear of meeting Mai’s eyes. She has long since forgiven her, not because she agrees with her but because she understands that there is nothing that matters if not doing what you think is right, but she knows how Mai must feel about her. She put her in prison. She never liked her. Their relationship was built on fear. Azula knows this. She puts her fork down.
She’s only managed to swallow a few forkfuls of rice and one bite of duck. It will have to do. She doesn’t think she can eat anything else. The voices of her former friends and enemies wash over her. Tomorrow she will go outside, she resolves, if only to be truly alone.
After dinner, she goes back to her room without speaking to anyone. She’s not sure what she’s expected to say. She’s not sure why Zuko brought her here. She knows Katara doesn’t trust her. She knows Mai hates her. She doesn’t blame either of them.
Back in her own room, she draws her own bath. It’s the first time she’s ever done it. In the asylum, nurses would do everything that could possibly be considered dangerous, and Before she always had servants to do it for her. The water is lukewarm, and she considers trying to heat it up. In the end, though, she steps into the water as it is. She sits there for longer than she’d like to admit, hair dripping in her face. She doesn’t think about anything and she still manages to feel like a failure.
When she steps out of the bath, she stands naked in front of the mirror. Her hair has grown unreasonably long. She’d like to have it cut, but for now it hangs limp down her back. She takes in the roundness of her cheeks, the softness of her belly, the curve of her hips. She hates how much it makes her feel powerless, looking like a woman. She traces her fingers across the thick scars on her thighs, the pink skin spiderwebbing outward. If Zuko saw this, she starts to think before she stops herself. He must know already, right? What have the doctors told him?
She takes a deep breath, presses against the edges of her ribs hard enough that it hurts. She considers trying to burn herself, but she knows it isn’t worth it. What good will it do? Besides, she’s not angry anymore. She’s not anything. She’s not even a princess. She’s just Azula, son of a hard man, daughter of a woman too loyal for her own good, sister to Zuko.