Zuko had thought he would hate the caves—he didn’t like cold air, and, more importantly, he would be underground—but there was something almost soothing about the emptiness and the clean smell and the soft drip of water. It reminded him of the place, huddled above a ring of clouds, where his—where the Avatar had learned airbending.
Well, part of her had, at least.
He looked around to make sure no Imperial soldiers had followed him, and lifted the curtain of kudzu hiding a hole barely wide enough for a crouching person. After several yards, the ceiling sloped upwards. He lit a flame in his palm, and put it out when he reached a vast stone cavern. Light trickled in through a small opening far above, careened down an army of stalactites, fell on a lake that smelled of copper and was the colour of dragonfly wings.
‘You’re late,’ his sister said. He stepped closer to where she crouched by the lake; small waves moved back and forth in time with the motions of her hand. ‘And you’re wet.’
‘It was raining.’ The hand stopped its motions, turned towards him. A gust of wind nearly knocked him off his feet.
‘That’s better,’ Azula said in a voice full of thorns, and got to her feet.
When they were—
—little, his sister had been like an ember in his shoe. He was sure little sisters were supposed to be annoyances, but Azula elevated it to an art form, like someone pinning mantis-butterflies to cork. Sometimes he’d be walking down the corridor, hear a bright, malicious titter, and he’d be sure that even though the house was tiny, its walls thin like rice paper, she’d been listening at the door, waiting for his footsteps. What’s so funny?
Oh, nothing. Just something my friends told me.
It was only later that everyone started realising that Azula’s “friends” weren’t going away.
The voices aren’t real, Azula.
But they were. But the Avatar really carried one thousand lives, and sometimes they all babbled at once.
And just because the Avatar had been the Earth Emperor’s right hand, it didn’t mean she couldn’t be reborn to a nobody family in a nobody city in a far-flung colony.
‘I brought you something to eat,’ he said, and began unloading his satchel; the air filled with the smell of roasted picken meat. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Azula’s hair, hanging down like seaweed. When she’d gone away, to the place they all thought was supposed to cure her… problem, he’d told himself he was happy. Maybe she wouldn’t be such a horrible brat when she came back, and now he finally didn’t have to put up with someone who sneaked cockroach-fleas into his bed and pinched him with burning fingers under the table. He’d pushed aside the screen that separated her room from his and picked up the comb lying on her bed, and told himself he was happy, over and over again, as something knotted inside him.
Azula inspected a slightly damp package. ‘Cabbage rolls? You always had terrible taste, Zuzu.’ Then her face turned blank. Her grip on the package didn’t slacken, but her body seemed to be somehow unstrung, a puppet whose strings had been cut and who remained standing due to sheer inertia.
He moved to touch her arm, but her eyes brightened to life again, hardened. He didn’t say anything. It was better if they pretended her episodes didn’t happen. ‘Found anything that will let us get into Ba Sing Se?’ she said as she unwrapped a cabbage roll and wrinkled her nose in disdain.
‘You still have to learn waterbending,’ he said.
She rolled her eyes. ‘Water is everywhere, dumdum. The Earth Emperor, on the other hand, is in Ba Sing Se.’
And once they got to Ba Sing Se, she would—
—depose the Earth Emperor, liberate the colonies, stop the rebellions, and bring harmony to the world.
—be instantly defeated and sent to where they could finish chaining up her mind. If he was lucky, he’d get killed. Maybe she’d even care.
—kill the Earth Emperor and start a great war.
—serve the world by serving the Emperor, her past life finally catching up with her.
—crouch down in one corner and rock back and forth, eyes dull, mouth spilling out words like broken glass. Maybe the earth would shake along with her. Volcanoes erupt. Oceans boil.
‘You are free to leave, you know,’ she said, and picked at a ragged fingernail. ‘If you ask nicely, maybe I’ll draw you a map.’ She focused her attention on the rest of the food, as though his decision didn’t concern her in the slightest.
Maybe I will go, he wanted to shout. You’re just some awful, crazy girl with a weapon inside her. Go off to Ba Sing Se on your own. Or wherever. You don’t care, and I don’t either.
Only when they’d been with that little rag-tag bunch of Air Warriors, one evening he had found her sitting on one of the walls, legs dangling above a drop so impossibly high clouds curdled below her feet, gaze lost where the mountaintops were turning from gold to purple.
Sometimes he thought his sister was three different people. One was willing to spend hours meditating, then train tumbles and spins until the skin on her hands and feet was cracked and bleeding and he was sure her tendons must feel like hot wires of pain—just so she could master some airbending skill and perform it with that superior little smile, as though they were small children again and this was just another game she couldn’t lose and he couldn’t win.
The other one had eyes that glowed with a terrible light and a voice that could pull the fire from the earth and the clouds from the sky, and in the rare occasions that one showed up, Zuko was sure both he and Azula, the frail little shell of skin and bone and sinew, were as inconsequential as spiderflies.
The third one was simply broken.
Right then, on that mountaintop wall, she was just the one who was broken. ‘Why do you come with me?’ she had said, in a voice that had been surprisingly soft and shaky.
For her, at least.
He shrugged. ‘Because after fa—’ No, they never talked about him. ‘Because mother told me to find you,’ he’d said, then, after a while, added, ‘Because you’re my s—’
‘Don’t, dumdum,’ she’d said. Her face had been turned away from his, but he could tell she wasn’t mocking. Just desperate.
So he’d been quiet, and after what had felt like a very long time but had only been long enough for the air to get a fraction colder and the dusting of stars a fraction brighter, she’d reached out for his hand. He had known that if he said something, she’d spit poison at him and hurry away, so he just squeezed her hand and was silent.
Only it hadn’t been raining. He had been wet because, in the city’s market, he hadn’t moved out of the way of a patrol fast enough, and a boulder had rammed him straight into a puddle. And then he had stopped himself from going for the blade strapped to his back—Azula hadn’t been the only one to pick up new skills during their travels—and had hoped his hands weren’t smoking as he wiped mud off his clothes and tightened his cloak around him, the hood pulled down over his face.
He sighed, reached into the satchel again, and unfolded a poorly printed poster. It was soggy and some of the ink had oozed together in a mess of yellows and reds, but most of the characters were still legible. Azula snatched it from his hands. ‘That circus will be here in two days,’ he said, and made no effort to get the poster back. ‘Ba Sing Se is the last stop on their tour. Those were pasted all over the place. It must be a big circus.’ Wanted posters were also pasted all over the place, but there was no need to mention those.
‘Which means they need a lot of acts.’ She turned her face towards him. ‘You’re not completely useless,’ she drawled, but the sharpness in her voice was tucked away. In the powdery light, she looked almost like an ordinary fourteen-year-old girl. ‘Maybe you can be a knife-thrower.’
‘And you could be an acrobat.’
She only let out a snort, and he didn’t laugh, because he never did.
But right then, it was enough.