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Azula is nine years old when her mother disappears. 

Her door creaks open in the middle of the night. Azula is always supposed to go to bed on time, especially on school nights, so she snaps her eyes shut and pretends to sleep.

She can tell it's her mother. Ursa's footsteps are quiet and comforting, unlike her father's. His thunder through the house, rattling the doors in their frames and the vases on their tables. She and Zuko used to duck behind walls and try to keep from giggling until he passed. Zuko's eleven, now, and "doesn't have time to play anymore," according to her father. 

The mattress shifts next to her as Ursa sits on the bed. She strokes Azula's hair, and Azula can't stop herself from leaning into it. Her mother loves her, even if Ursa doesn't say it very often. She tells Zuko she loves him all the time, always with the same look on her face.

Azula knows her mother loves her because her mother looks at her like that, too. She sees it in the mirror when Ursa brushes her hair before school. It's there in family pictures, the way her mother stares down at Zuko and Azula instead of the camera. 

Ursa leans over Azula and kisses her head. It's so soft Azula can barely feel it.

"Take care of each other, ok?" Her mother whispers before kissing her forehead one more time. 

Azula's always taken care of Zuko. If it weren’t for her, he’d be constantly embarrassing himself, and saying the wrong thing and never going anywhere when he gets nervous. He really should appreciate her more.

It's an easy promise to make, even if her mother doesn't hear her say it. She is supposed to be asleep, after all. 

Ursa gets up off the bed, leaving her hand on Azula's hair for a split second longer. She stands in the doorway for a beat, and it's silent except for her voice when she says, "I love you, darling."

Ursa closes the door all the way behind her, plunging the room into darkness. Azula doesn't mind. She's never been scared of the dark. 

The next morning, her mother isn't there at breakfast. Zuko notices too, she can tell from the way his eyes dart between their father and their mother's empty seat at the table. 

Ozai doesn't say a word until he finishes his coffee and leaves the room, saying, "You're both excused." 

Zuko leans across the table as soon as the door closes, "Do you know where Mom is?" 

"No," she whispers back, "I haven't seen her since she visited me last night." 

"She came to your room, too?" he sits back in his chair properly. Zuko frowns a bit, "Do you think she went anywhere?" 

Azula shrugs and pushes her chair in as she stands up, "We could go look for her. School bus doesn't come by for another hour."

Zuko nods, and then they're opening every door in every hallway, peeking in, before shutting them. It's quick and silent. Their father doesn't like it when they're noisy. Azula ducks into the closet by the front door. Her mother's coat, the nice one with the cinched waist, is gone. 

They're double-checking every room again when Zuko comes up behind her. "I don't think she's here. Her shoes aren't by the door."

"Then there is she?" Azula asks, not really expecting an answer.

Zuko furrows his brow, thinking, "We could ask Father, I suppose."

Both look down the hallway at the door to their father's office. It's closed, as always, and there's some light peeking through at the bottom. It's not a very good idea, they both know, but Azula's been everywhere in the house at least twice, and her mom isn't there. Ozai doesn't like it when they bother him. It's a lesson they both learned the hard way. 

Zuko is the one that knocks.

"Come in," Ozai says, though it's muffled through the door. Zuko leans against it to hold it open, and Azula stands next to him. Ozai eyes them up and down, his question clear on his face. "What do you want? The bus gets here soon."

The office is as dark as it always is, even with the fireplace in one corner. It's lit, but its fire doesn't do much to combat the spring chill outside. It casts funny shadows across the room, hiding the left side of Zuko's face. Ozai's face is blank.

"Where's Mom?" Zuko sounds very small, though he always does when speaking to their father. "We can't find her." 

"We looked everywhere, too," Azula chimes in. 

Ozai folds his hands on the desk, "Your grandfather died last night. The funeral is next week."

Zuko seems confused, but Azula knows a dismissal when she hears one. She doesn’t feel particularly sad about her grandfather. He was never very nice to her.

"I-" he stammers, "That's awful. But where is our mother?" 

Ozai makes eye contact with Azula. Something in his face answers her question. Mother isn't coming back. She tugs on Zuko's sleeve, but he doesn't notice.

"Do not irritate me, Zuko," Ozai deadpans. Zuko freezes next to Azula. It's not fair. Why won't he just tell them? Zuko's not the one who did anything wrong.

Azula takes another step in front of her brother, "We just asked a question, you don't need to be rude." 

Zuko is grabbing her sleeve now, as their father's eyes narrow. Ozai stands up from his chair. His arms are behind his back as he walks toward them. His hand lands on Azula's shoulder, and it hurts .

"I do not appreciate disrespect," he says, "the bus comes soon enough, anyway. Leave." 

They do leave, quickly, too, Azula rubbing her shoulder where her father's hand had been. Zuko pulls the door shut behind them before dropping to his knees in the hallway. He's crying, she realizes, and Azula suddenly remembers her promise. 

Azula wants to cry, too. But Zuko needs her.

Zuko wipes under his eyes and sniffles. "She's not coming back."

It isn't a question. Azula bends down next to Zuko and hugs him when he buries his head in her shoulder. "No. I don't think so." 

They sit there for a long time. Azula watches the clock on the opposite wall. They have to go to school soon.

"She loves us," Azula says, and even though Zuko hears her, she's not speaking to him. She loves us. 

Zuko stands up and hauls Azula to her feet. The bus ride to school is quiet. Zuko holds Azula's hand until they have to go to their classes. 

She loves us.

___



Azula and Zuko learn morse code when she’s ten. Father expects them to be quiet. He’d gotten more strict, after their mother left.

It’s useful for talking when they aren’t supposed to. Telling each other things that they don’t want others to know. For comforting someone in the room next door if they wake up from a nightmare.

___



Azula is twelve years old when she fails her first test. 

Ozai calls her into his office in the middle of the afternoon. It's hot out, even in September, and her skirt sticks to her legs. Her father's office is always warm, but it's even worse in the summer. 

He's looking at some papers on his desk when she opens the door. Her father doesn't look up until she clears her throat.

"Is something wrong, father?" Azula asks, her hands folded neatly in front of her.

Ozai pushes the paper he was looking at to her end of the desk. "This is not a passing grade, Azula." 

She'd nearly forgotten. It was a difficult test, and she'd even studied for a week prior. Most people in her class didn't pass it, either. Her teacher had written a note next to her report card explaining such. 

"I did my best. My grade was still better than most of my classmates," Azula says, trying to sound calmer than she feels. She hasn't failed before. 

"Your grade is worse than Zuko's. He passed this test when he was your age." 

Azula twitches. Zuko did better than her? She always had better grades than her brother. It was a fact. She was smarter and better than her brother, and Father liked her more because of it.

Azula takes a deep, shaky breath, "I was studying for days. Everyone else failed it, too. Zuko had a different teacher than me, and I bet my test was harder, and-" 

She doesn't notice Ozai standing up from his chair and walking toward her.

"- I know it's disappointing, but Zuko's got worse grades than me all the time," She's talking a mile a minute, "I'm still smarter, and I keep my room cleaner, and I don't make a mess of my clothes-" 

That's when Ozai backhands her. Azula stumbles backward, holding the left side of her face. She can taste blood in her mouth from where she'd bitten her tongue. 

Her father's expression is blank. He turns, facing away from the door. "Do not let it happen again, understand? You’re not stupid, are you?" 

"I-" Azula chokes out before Ozai slams the door with her on the other side. 

Azula walks upstairs to the bathroom she shares with Zuko, almost dreaming. She looks at herself in the mirror, her left cheek is red where her father had hit her. Her father had hit her . It's only when her tears fall into the sink that Azula realizes she's crying. In one swipe, she knocks everything off of the counter, letting it all crash to the ground. 

The sound snaps her back to reality. The crystal soap dish shattered on the floor, among toothbrushes and hairpins. Her mother's hairbrush is next to the bathtub, bristles bent every which way. 

Azula picks it up, carefully avoiding the pieces of soap dish that litter the floor. It's fancier than the one Azula uses, with a silver backing and a pretty pattern on the handle. When she was younger, Azula told herself her mother left it on purpose. So Azula would have something to remember her by.

It's a foolish thought. Ursa left everything. Her prettiest dresses were still in the closet, and her perfumes were still in her bathroom, her most expensive necklaces left sitting in the jewelry box.

Mother left something for Zuko, though. Uncle Iroh had given her a carved pocket knife at her wedding. She never went anywhere without it tucked in her purse. They found it on Zuko's nightstand.

Azula tried to pretend it didn't mean anything, but as she got older, she learned. Her mother didn't love her. She never did. But that doesn't stop Azula from hugging the hairbrush close to her chest as she sobs.

She can't be worse than Zuko. She can't. 

Zuko doesn’t say anything when he opens the door ten minutes later, and he doesn’t say anything as he helps her pick up the pieces of soap dish.

___



Azula is fourteen when she sees her brother with another boy. 

Zuko doesn't come to lunch that day, and when Azula asks Mai and Ty Lee where he is, they say they don't know. It's a lie, Azula knows it, but it's fine. They hadn't been her friends since they were little. 

She needs to find her brother, though, without or without their help. If Zuko gets in trouble, so does Azula. She already lost a tennis match this week. She can't get in trouble for this, too. 

Azula doesn't even sit down at a table before she leaves the lunchroom. Freshmen aren't supposed to wander around during their lunch period, but the staff doesn't bother her.

Azula knows her brother and his friends. There are usually four people at Zuko's lunch table. He must be sneaking off with that other boy, probably to smoke behind the school. Zuko doesn't smoke, aside from maybe one cigarette Mai gave him, but she knows Jet does. She's met him only once, but she could smell it on him.

The door past the locker rooms doesn't have a teacher in front of it, as suspected. She pushes it open with her shoulder, scanning for her brother. The alley has some dumpsters to the left, and some overgrown bushes on the right. Azula makes sure the door is quiet when it closes before she walks around the bushes. Cigarette butts are littering the ground, and Azula's flats crunch in the gravel. She stops dead when she hears her brother's laugh. He's around the corner.

Azula peeks her head out, just enough to see him. Sure enough, he's standing in front of Jet, who's leaning against the brick wall behind him. Jet has a cigarette in one hand, and the other is entwined with Zuko's. Jet's on the football team, and for some reason, Zuko is wearing his varsity jacket. That's... weird. 

Jet is Ty Lee's boyfriend. They'd been going out since November. Around when Zuko and Mai started dating, actually. 

Zuko is shorter than Jet, though not by much, and it gets even weirder when Zuko cranes his neck up to kiss Jet on the mouth. Azula ducks back behind the wall once Jet lifts his hand to the back of Zuko's head.

Zuko and Jet both have girlfriends. It's not like anybody forgot. Azula is about to pull her brother off the other boy and demand he come back to class when she stops herself. 

Zuko is skipping class. If she can tell that to her father before anything else happens, she may be able to avoid getting into trouble. She’d lost that tennis match, and avoided telling her father for as long as possible. Zuko skipping will distract him, so he won’t get mad at her.

Ozai hasn't hit her since she failed that first test. She doesn't intend to repeat her mistakes. 

So she goes back inside, leaving her brother with Jet and his cigarette. She doesn't say a word to him on the bus ride home and doesn't say goodbye when he leaves to go hang out with Mai. 

Azula knocks on the door to her father's office after dinner. It's Friday night. She's going to a party with the tennis team later, whether she wants to or not. 

Her father grunts wordlessly on the other side and, as usual, doesn't acknowledge her when she enters.

Azula grins, but it’s uneasy. "Father, I have something to tell you." 

"What is it?" He continues to flip through papers on his desk. The fireplace is lit, though Azula can hardly feel the heat.

"It's Zuko. I saw him hanging around with Ty Lee's boyfriend today at school," Azula says, lowering her head with her hands folded behind her back. 

Her father looks up, almost shocked. One eyebrow is raised. 

"He was skipping class," she explains, "I thought you may want to know." Her grin falters when her father doesn't say anything.

Ozai looks to the ceiling, taking deep breaths. Something's wrong. "With another boy?" 

That wasn't the point. Sure, it was kind of weird, but Zuko was skipping. "Yes. It was during class. He probably missed something important. Shouldn't he get in trouble?" 

"Azula," Ozai barks, and she freezes. Azula shuffles a little closer to the door. She can't see the clock from where she's pressed up against the door, holding the handle a little desperately. Her skirt is probably getting wrinkled.

Her mother always said that was unladylike. 

"Go, Azula," Ozai says, waving his hand in her direction. Azula practically runs out of the office. 

She locks herself in her bedroom. Her father was acting strange, and something about his expression scared her. Azula does not cry, and does not think about it when she leaves the house. It’s not her problem. She saved herself from getting into trouble. That’s all that matters.

___



Three days later, Azula is at her brother's funeral. She's fourteen years old. Zuko is (was) sixteen. 

She'll be older than him, someday. 

She was never supposed to be older than him.

Her uncle is there, along with her cousin. Father is standing behind her. Mai and Ty Lee are with Jet, standing on the other side of the casket. Azula's family is wearing white like they're back in Caldera. Everyone else is in black.

Mai won't look at her, staring resolutely at the coffin in front of her. Azula catches Ty Lee's eye and nearly flinches. The other girl's hair is down, and something about her gaze is so desperate that Azula has to look away.

Someone's talking, Azula isn't sure who, and it's easy to let their voice fade into the background. 

Zuko had been fine the last time she saw him. Maybe he's at home, waiting for her, and he'll laugh and tell her it was all a joke.

Azula isn't stupid. 

Her mother left her when she was nine. At least she'd said goodbye. At least she'd told Azula she loved her.

Azula and Zuko hadn't said they loved each other for a long time. She can't even remember when. Something about that makes her throat feel tight. 

People start moving, and suddenly her father is talking to one of the people who work at the funeral home. She feels a hand on her shoulder and has to resist the instinct to run. 

"Azula," her uncle's voice is soft, but it still makes Azula nervous. 

She can't say anything back, even though she tries. Azula is supposed to be polite. She can't be polite if she can't speak, and if she can't speak, her father will be upset with her. 

Iroh gives her a very sad smile. "It's alright. I know." He hugs her, and Azula isn't sure what to do. She hugs back, though she'll be the first to admit it is a little hesitant. He's still smiling when he looks at her again, but she can see the tears in his eyes. "Take care of yourself, Azula. Can you promise me that?"

Azula isn't sure if she can. She promised her mother she'd take care of Zuko, and look how that ended up. Azula swallows and says, even though she doesn't mean it, "Ok."

She turns back around as he walks away. Ty Lee is whispering something to Mai and while normally Azula would try to eavesdrop, she can’t find it in herself to care. They haven’t been friends for a long time. 

There’s someone behind them, though. The woman is far enough away that Azula can’t see her face, or anything else, really. She could be there for a different funeral, or a different person, but something about her gives Azula the idea that the woman is staring straight at her.

She’s got on a long jacket with a cinched waist. Azula would know that coat anywhere. Her heart skips a beat. 

Her father says something loudly behind her, and when she turns all she can see is her father and uncle talking. 

When Azula looks back, her mother isn’t there. The woman disappeared. 

(She was stupid for thinking it was her mother, anyway. Why would she have stayed all the way over there?)

___

 

 

It’s three days before her fifteenth birthday when she starts seeing her mother behind her in the mirror. 

At first it’s just for a split second, a flash of dark hair longer than her own, that makes her look at it twice. Then it’s a hand on her shoulder, a familiar pattern on a dress. Sometimes she can smell her mother’s perfume.

For a moment, she thinks she should go and tell Zuko. Then she remembers.

Azula shuts the bathroom door, and closes her eyes. When she opens them, there’s someone standing behind her.

“Oh,” Azula breathes. She never thought of herself as crazy, though she supposes crazy people never do. 

She can’t tell her father, and she can’t tell Zuko because he’s gone and it’s her fault because she had one job and she couldn’t even do that right, and now she can’t tell Mai or Ty Lee, either, because now she’s all the way in Ba Sing Se and they’re off doing who knows what and-

Azula is alone. More alone than she thought.

She doesn’t want to think about it.

“You should go,” Azula says to the mirror. “You’re not real. I made you up, and I’m going crazy. You should leave.”

Her mother doesn’t say anything. She just keeps smiling sadly. 

Azula’s chest hurts. She doesn’t miss her mother. She doesn’t. Her mother left her when she was nine and didn’t even leave her anything, and Azula had decided a very long time ago that she wasn’t going to waste time missing someone who didn’t love her.

“Mother,” Azula says, trying to ignore how her own voice cracks. “You aren’t real.

It’s unlikely that the reflection doesn’t already know that, if it knows anything at all. 

Azula turns away from the mirror to see nothing but the wall behind her. When she turns back, Ursa is still looking down at her, and Azula realizes that she’s not much shorter than her mother.

She feels around the wall for the lightswitch, not looking away from the reflection. She flicks out the lights, but once she turns them back on, her mother is still there.

“What do you want? ” Azula asks, sounding rough. 

“Nothing, darling,” her mother says, and Azula isn’t sure if she’s actually hearing anything but something about her mother’s voice after five years makes her ears hurt. 

Her mother has to want something. There has to be a way to make her leave. “What is it? I’m not stupid, ok? There has to be something,” Azula knows she sounds sort of like she’s begging, and it’s almost embarrassing because the reflection isn’t real, and here she is pleading with it, when she gets an idea. “Is it about Zuko?”

Her mother’s face changes, barely. 

“I know what I told you. I know I promised, but I don’t even know what happened, and it’s not like I was home, I couldn’t have done anything and-”

“No, sweetheart,” Mother says, and Azula hates the way her breathing hitches from the pet name. “I love you.”

Azula freezes for just a second before dropping to the ground with a sob. She’s not sure how long she sits there on the rug crying, but when she finally stands back up, her reflection is alone staring back at her.

___



It doesn’t stop after that. Once school starts, Azula doesn’t use the restroom there. She doesn’t need her classmates to think she’s crazy. 

(It’s not like she’s friends with any of them anyway.)

She doesn’t look in the mirror anymore, not for anything. If she goes into the bathroom at home, it’s with the lights off, not that it makes a difference. If her father notices she’s acting strange, he doesn’t say anything. Azula thinks it’s probably better that way. 

The only parental figure Azula has is a hallucination of her mother that disappeared. Azula might be crazy enough to have the hallucination in the first place, but even she knows that’s bleak .

“The one time I want you to talk to me, you won’t open your mouth,” Azula sneers at her mother in the mirror. “Stop staring and say something .”

Ursa keeps giving Azula the same sad smile she always does. 

Some part of Azula finds the whole situation funny. The only version of her mother she has is a figment of her imagination, and still Azula argues with her as though she’s a normal teenager.

The rest of Azula would like that part of her to very kindly shut the fuck up. 

“Please,” Azula tries, hoping she doesn’t sound too desperate. “I just want to talk to someone. You’re all I have.”

“You did your best,” Ursa says. “You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I- huh?” Azula blanks. That’s not what she was expecting. 

“I’m sorry I made it your job, darling.”

Oh. Right. Her brother. Her dead brother and that promise she made to her mother when she was nine and half asleep. It feels like more often than not, Azula forgets that Zuko is gone, and not just on some extended vacation to a friend’s house, and every time it sinks in it hurts more.

“I don’t want to talk about him,” Azula says with not much conviction. She hadn’t even said Zuko’s name out loud in weeks. Father never talked about him, and nobody at school talks to her at all, let alone enough to know about her brother. 

“You did your best,” she says again, and Azula thinks she might mean it. “I love you, ok?”

Azula whirls around without thinking. She wants to hug her mother so badly it hurts, and it hurts even worse when she remembers that she’s hallucinating.

It’s not real.

None of it’s real. Her mother doesn’t love her.

___



Azula is fifteen and a half when she finds out what happened to her brother.

She can’t believe she didn’t realize before. It took snooping through his diary to figure it out, and it took snooping through her father’s room to even find that in the first place. 

It was so obvious the entire time.

Of course Zuko was… like that . Suddenly some things about her brother make a lot more sense. 

Most people would be bothered, Azula knows. But most people have their brothers there to be upset with. Even if Azula had a problem, Zuko’s gone. There’s nothing to do about it. Azula suddenly feels a whole lot worse for Jet. 

(She can’t remember what Zuko sounds like. She forgot what he looked like a long time ago. Father hadn’t brought any pictures when they moved.)

Her father was bothered, though. Bothered enough to kill him. 

Azula isn’t stupid. 

There’s a reason Zuko is gone. Her father killed Zuko. 

(Father wouldn’t have done it if she’d kept her mouth shut.)

Azula gets the feeling that she should be crying. She found out her father murdered her brother. He hurt Zuko. 

But he’d always been doing that, hadn’t he? Even before Mother left. 

Azula never really liked her father much. That’s probably why it doesn’t take her very long to decide that she’s going to kill him. He deserves it. He deserves it more than Zuko ever did. 

Azula had made a promise to her mother. She’d failed to keep it. But she’ll make it up to them, and then her father won’t be able to hurt anybody else. 

She thinks about doing it subtly- something she can pin on something or someone else- but eventually decides that those won’t hurt enough.

It’s really only a coincidence that there’s two and a half containers of gasoline in the basement. 

Azula locks herself in the bathroom. There’s a note in her pocket. She’d written it over three times before deciding it was good enough. First it went on too long, then her hand started shaking. 

She turns the bathroom light on. Her mother stares back at her with the same sad smile.

“I’m sorry,” is the first thing Azula says. “I made a promise and then I broke it and I’m sorry.

Ursa just keeps staring.

“Zuko’s dead and it’s my fault,” she pauses, and for the first time since putting it together, she feels like crying. “It’s my fault, but don’t worry. I’m gonna make it up to you.” 

Her hands are still shaking and her hair is a mess and the front door opens downstairs, which means her father is home and that it’s time. 

“I’m going to hurt him like he hurt Zuko,” Azula tells her mother’s reflection. “I’m going to do it even if it means I die, too. I'm going to make you proud."

Azula is meticulous. There were at least four versions of the plan before she even decided on the gasoline. Then three versions after that, and then finally one after that. Azula is meticulous. Not one plan ever included the fact that Azula might survive, too.

It’s only fair.

“I love you,” her mother says, and something about it makes Azula’s chest hurt. The reflection only ever said what Azula wanted to hear.

But her mother did love her. It was easier to pretend that she didn’t, to pretend that Azula didn’t really lose anything when her mother left. She knew her mother loved her when she was little. Why is it so hard for her to understand now?

Her mother didn’t say it very often, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t feel it.

Zuko never said it very often, either. Azula thinks that he probably did love her, even when they were opponents more than siblings.

Azula picks up her mother’s hairbrush from the counter, holding the handle so hard her knuckles turn white. 

“I love you too, Mother,” Azula says, and she only realizes after it’s come out of her mouth that she means it

And then Azula throws the hairbrush as hard as she can and watches her mother shatter into a million tiny pieces. A shard of it hits her cheek.

She finds him in his office twenty minutes later. The carpet and walls are soaked with as much gasoline as she could get her hands on. The box with Zuko’s things is on the lawn, her note sitting nicely on top. Uncle will get it somehow. He’ll know.

She pushes the office door open and takes a deep breath. "I know what happened to my brother," Azula says when her father doesn’t move.

"Then you also know it was your fault," her father says without looking up.

Azula doesn't deny it. She's not stupid, as much as her father would like her to be, so she says, "Mother made me promise to take care of him."

"Your mother is gone, Azula." Then, he adds, maybe just to upset her, "She didn't love you, so she left."

Azula thinks of the shattered mirror upstairs and the cut on her cheek from the glass. "She loved me," she grips the doorway so hard her knuckles turn white. "You never did. You hurt Zuko. You hurt me."

Ozai is still flipping through papers on his desk.

He won't even fucking look at her, so Azula pulls the box of matches from her sleeve.

She takes a deep breath.

She wonders if Zuko was scared. If her mother regretted leaving.

If her father, a very long time ago, looked at his children and thought they were good enough.

Azula drags the match along the outside of the box and drops it onto the carpet.

I spilled some, is her last thought before all she knows is heat and shouting and crackling and gasoline and finally, finally, nothing.

___

 

 

Azula doesn’t know how long it’s been when she sees her brother again. 

She’s in her house, or at least what’s left of it, staring down at a girl her age dressed in blue, when there’s yelling somewhere above her and then footsteps on the stairs. 

Teenagers aren’t uncommon. They come and play their music and drink things that they probably shouldn’t have and smoke their cigarettes until Azula gets sick of them and starts slamming doors.

These ones are different, though. 

These ones know her name. “Azula,” says the girl in front of her, as though she can’t quite believe it.

Azula doesn’t have time to contemplate how this girl possibly knows who she is before more people are barreling down the steps. 

She doesn’t know most of them, but that’s not really important, because Mai is there. She’s old. Older than Azula thought she would be. 

(There’s something off about the boy in blue.)

Then the blue boy is saying, “Azula? it’s me,” as though that would answer her question, because she’s never seen this kid before in her life.

(And he makes the same face Zuko did, when he was nervous.)

She moves in front of him, and he’s still stammering out things that don’t make any sense, and honestly Azula’s stopped listening until he says that name.  

“It’s me, Zuko?” He takes a step back. “Your brother?”

It’s some sort of sick joke. Azula still imagines her mother, after all this time. It’s no stretch that she’s imagining this, too. 

“Azula,” the boy says again, and this time it’s in a voice that Azula recognizes, and she would recognize it anywhere, too, because she thought she’d never hear it again and-

It’s him.

He looks funny, sure. But it’s him.

She moves to grab his face, to touch him or something, because her brother is right in front of her and it’s been so long, but then she sees her own hand, all burned and bloody, and thinks twice.

It’s been what feels like forever, and it all still hurts.

And then he’s apologizing for leaving, as though it wasn’t Azula’s fault, and then he’s dumb enough to ask, “Are you alright?”

Azula wants to answer him, she does, but all she can manage is some horrific sounding noise that makes her throat burn. She wouldn’t have used fire, if she knew it meant she’d end up like this.

“Oh, Azula,” Mai whispers, and Azula whirls around to look at her.

There’s a lot of things Azula wants to tell Mai, and she thinks she’s correct in guessing that Mai has some things she’d like to say, too, but the two of them were never like that. Not even when they were friends.

Zuko’s crying, so Azula gives Mai a nod and hopes that’s enough.

Azula moves to one of the walls, wishing with everything that Zuko remembers when they were younger. Remembers when they’d knock on each other’s walls at night when the other had a nightmare. 

Her hand hurts while she does it, but she knocks. 

He looks confused for a split second until he’s asking her to start over.

Azula rolls her eyes, suddenly feeling very much as though none of this ever happened, and that Zuko was just her stupid older brother. Her hand hurts, but she starts again anyway.

One of the others asks what she said, but it doesn’t matter, because Zuko is saying, “Yeah. I am. I’m safe,” and Azula feels like a massive weight has been taken off her.

There is still the issue of Zuko not looking like himself, though, so she points back at her brother, hoping that her expression asks her question well enough.

Zuko turns red. “Shut up,” Zuko says, and something about it makes Azula feel much better. “It’s none of your business.”

And she wants to laugh at him, because her brother is back after who knows how long, and everything she did was worth it because it means she got to see him again, even if he looks weird. He’s not alive, sure, but neither is she, and there are some things that even angry teenage girls with matches can’t undo, so this will have to be good enough. It is good enough, she thinks.

Azula gets a sudden sense of urgency. Like she’s running out of time. Even if she can’t explain it, she knows what it means. She knocks on the wall again, ignoring the pain in her fingers, and goes to hug her brother, and whoever else this kid is. He’s important to Zuko. She doesn’t really mind.

Zuko whispers, “I love you, too,” before Azula finally gets to go.