For five long years princess Azula hadn't set foot in the royal palace. Not since her imprisonment on the Cherry Islands, anyway. The Cherry Islands, her "prison", so to speak, was a group of three islands littered with cherry blossom trees, the trees that gave the small archipelago its name.
Azula had only just discovered that her brother was the one paying for her treatments – she couldn't believe she had thought otherwise all those years – on the Islands. And now, with the small bunch of leftover hate towards her brother wanting to take over control, she truly believed that she only was to return home for him to see her progress. And of course, if it was worth it to continue the strict, therapy sessions filled life on the Islands.
And now she was back in the capital of the Fire Nation, being brought there on a flying bison, walking through the long halls of the palace.
The soldiers accompanying her were wearing an updated uniform: they started to look less like warriors, and more like the Fire Nation's officials. The interior of the palace itself had not changed much, except that the atmosphere was more homely.
The soldiers brought her to the dining room. Quite a strange place to meet her brother again for the first time in years, but she kept her mouth shut. She was taken to the dining room. A strange place to meet her brother again, but she kept her mouth shut.
"The Fire Lord will accompany you in a small while, my princess," one of the soldiers said. Azula did not answer.
It wasn't long before her brother walked in. Zuko had changed since their last meeting. He had grown longer, his shoulders broader, and his hair was longer. It now hung at least five inches below his shoulder blades – royal hair grew rapidly – and the crown was shining in the light of the lamps. He really has become older, she thought. And it was true – five years had taken their toll on the young man, but Azula did not know that.
When he came closer and sat down opposite of her, a wave of fear washed through her body. He looked like their father.
Azula had always assumed that she was the one who looked like their father, but Zuko and Ozai seemed to almost be like mirrored versions of each other. He had the same stern, almost tired look, the same shape of the head, and his nose…
"Azula." She noticed that even his voice had aged a little, although he spoke softly. "It's good to see you again."
She didn't say anything. She only stared at her brother and prayed to Agni that she wouldn't find any other things in which he resembled their father. It may have been his fault that the entire nation saw her as crazy, and it may have been him who took the throne away from her, but he was still her brother. Her temperamental, annoying, and caring big brother who possessed far more power than she ever imagined him to have. And looking like their father in more ways than one, almost seemed like a death sentence.
"Did you have a nice trip?"
Silence. She kept looking for more things that made him resemble their father – but she still found none.
His eyes reminded her of their mother.
"I have to say," he began, frowning slightly, "I'm assuming you hate me. Especially after that "No, I'm the Fire Lord" stuff, and then that with helping the Fire Nation's greatest enemy-" he was starting to ramble, but he caught himself in time, swallowed, and began to chew his lip. "I wanted to say, 'Zula, I don't hate you."
She still didn't utter a word. He took that as a sign to continue his story.
"There has happened a lot in five years, you know. The Gaang and I have constructed a city. It's called Republic City, and it's a place where benders and non-benders live together in peace. There are still some flaws, and there have been a few setbacks, but Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph and I have a feeling that everything is going to work out. Mai and I are married, by the way," he continued, "And Ty-Lee has joined the Kyoshi Warriors. She is really enjoying herself."
Azula was still silent. She wanted to say how happy she was for him, for everyone, that everything was going so well – but she knew it would sound like a lie. She had heard him, at night, after she had teased him again. "Azula always lies," she had heard him repeat hundreds of times. She would listen to it, basically using it as a song to lull her to sleep, and imagine him squeezing his eyes shut – his then, still perfect pair of golden eyes – and clutching his blanket. Zuko was weak, she then would repeat in her head, and she was strong.
Oh, how empty she would feel, those nights, fooling herself to believe that that emptiness wasn't emptiness – but a different kind of satisfaction.
She noticed Zuko hadn't said anything in a while either. When she looked at him questioningly, he gave her a small smile.
"You know, I always was a little jealous of you."
She stared, a little startled, and he laughed a friendly, warm laugh that she had never heard from their father, but that matched her brother perfectly. "Of course, you've known for ages-" not exactly true, "-but I just felt like it had to be said. You're so talented, Azula, way more talented than I am and – this may sound a little harsh – you could've utilised that talent not as a fighting machine, as our pathetic waste of oxygen we call our father wanted you to be, but as a true master."
"Lord," she whispered.
"What did you say?"
"Lord." She said. "That's who I saw him as. As someone for who I had to bow to. Not as a father."
Zuko didn't seem to know what to say. "I-" he started.
She cut him off with a roll of her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I know." She wrinkled her nose. "I seemed like his favourite, it seemed like I did not see him that way, blah blah blah." She looked at her brother. "But you know, Zuzu, theatre remains a very important skill of a royal family member. And I" she said, "played my part the whole time,"
Zuko smiled. "I know."
The door opened and two servants entered, with food on service carts.
"What time is it?" Azula questioned softly.
Zuko was still smiling. "Time for dinner."
She hadn't realised how hungry she was until the food had been placed in front of her. The servant was shaking as she was placing different types of cutlery next to the plates. Azula looked her straight in the eyes when the girl was done and gave her a grateful nod and a small smile. The servant almost fainted.
"You're going to give them a heart attack," the Fire Lord said with a small smile, as he fished a piece of meat from his soup. Azula didn't respond to that.
"Is this what I think it is?" she asked as, she too, put a piece of meat in her mouth.
Zuko grinned. "Yes. Chicken soup with platypus bear-egg noodles. Your favourite."
Azula didn't answer, as she was too busy with trying not to scarf down the meal.
Zuko kept on chatting. He talked about how their uncle had opened another tea shop, this time in the Fire Nation, and how he had, as expected, thrust it into the care of his nephew("As if I don't have anything else to do," he said, although Azula saw at his twinkling eyes that he enjoyed selling tea), the fact that Aang and Katara finally had become engaged, and that even Toph had seemed to have found someone.
But when the dessert had been put down before them(mango ice-cream with fireballs) the most important news had been delivered to her.
"I found mum."
That sentence alone almost made her burst into tears.
"That's one of the reasons I've let you be brought here – that, and your progress is unbelievable. I've decided that you can stay here if you want. Therapists will help you at your wish."
"Is she here?" she whispered.
Zuko nodded and shot her a small smile. "We even have a half-sister, 'Zula."
Azula bit her lip. "So… she's with another man?" She asked, her voice but a whisper.
"The man she would marry before she was shipped off to marry our father, yes."
Azula drummed her fingers on the table. "Father won't like that."
A ghost of a smile crossed Zuko's face. "He doesn't." He said. "She visited him yesterday. According to the guards, he threw a tantrum for the rest of the day – and cried like a wounded wolf the whole night."
Azula felt a twinge of jealousy. The sad monster who was their father had seen their mother earlier than she had – but during that time, she had been high up in the air, flying.
"I tried to get you off those islands as soon as she was back in the palace, about a week ago. But you had to finish your weekly programme, and you had to finish it before you could leave."
He wasn't lying.
"Do you want to see her?"
She nodded. Zuko stood up and offered her his hand – she declined.
"She's in her bedroom." He said when they were standing in the hall. "Do I have to go with you?"
Even though her nod was almost indistinguishable, Zuko's observant eyes spotted it. As the two of them walked through the halls, they encountered Mai. The tall girl gave her a hug, quite spontaneously, and it gave her a warm feeling inside.
"Nice to see you well again, 'Zula," Mai whispered in her ear.
But was she well?
"This way," Zuko said. Knots formed in her stomach, and in her nervousness she unconsciously grabbed her brother's hand. His hand was warm and dry and felt safe and she didn't understand why the simple action gave her so much support, while she had never done something like that.
"Everything okay?" he whispered to her as they stood in front of the door. She nodded. He let go of her hand, said "knock when you're ready, she's expecting you", and disappeared. As soon as the warmth of his presence vanished the knots in her stomach jumped back into position.
She took a deep breath to steady her herself. Knocked twice.
The door opened.