Alexander and Augustus
She had a penchant for violence and a gift for torture. She could run riddles (rivers of polluting thought) through him without blinking twice. She liked to lie, liked killing even more. But that was messy, and Azula hated any unnecessary ugliness.
Zuko was there when she was born, when she was two, then five, and ten. He remembered the fear that chewed and sucked his marrow, shredding him into sinuous threads. From the second she opened her eyes (scarlet like the tip of a dragon's tongue) Azula knew how to bruise him at the core. Azula didn't cry. She learned to breathe fire instead.
"You should play with her," his mother would say.
And always, he would hesitate. Stop. You're ridiculous. She's just a child. She's your sister, she's…
And then Azula would look up at him, smiling (tiny incisors, all white and sharpened). And he would start shaking, retracting his hand.
She liked to bite.
Once, she crept up on him late at night. Shifting toe-to-toe and pulling at the hem of her robes, Azula begged him to let her into the covers.
"I had a nightmare," she said.
Her face was streaked and rubbed raw.
"Go away, Azula. It was just a dream."
"No! A nightmare, there's a difference. Don't you know that?"
Zuko sighed and reluctantly allowed her to slip in. "Okay. I'll let you stay. But no talking."
She curled up against him and sighed deeply. He felt tickles of fire and smoke skirting up his neck. She nestled in closer, tucking her head under the crook of his arm. She was so small, doll-like.
"I'm scared," she said, gritting the admission out. "Sing me something, like Mom does."
"I don't sing—and I'm not Mom. So shut up and go to sleep."
For a moment (Zuko glanced down) she almost looked like a normal child. And maybe (he closed his eyes) she really was his little sister.
Zuko visits her in prison on days when he needs to clear his head. He has a pattern: enter through the eastern gates and promptly, curtly dismiss the guards.
He thinks of her often, thinking each time that she was getting better, that her sanity was returning, that—
Azula snarls at him to leave.
He doesn't. He can't.
She returned home from the Academy for the first time in over a year. She had grown taller, leaner, and somehow, more familiar. He traced the crisp edges of her clothes, the perfectly brushed strands of hair, and the perpetual smirk she stitched over her mouth.
Arms out and spine erect (he was prepared), Zuko waited for her to embrace him. Counted to three and still the embers didn't appear. She laughed and shoved him aside, darting toward Ozai to whisper her dirty, little plots.
"Father, I burned someone today. It was horrible," she recounted happily.
Their father looked pleased and affectionately patted her head.
Azula taught him jealousy and disgust all in one.
That night, when she thought he was asleep, Azula crawled into Zuko's bed and wrapped her arms securely around his torso. Hugging him tight, she mumbled something into his back. He wondered if electrocution would be a swift death, like he always imagined it.
"Zuko, maybe it's better if Aang just removes her bending."
"But why?" Mai hisses. "Are you going to leave her there forever?"
He does not answer.
Because…because it's all she has left.
(It is—was and always—the only thing she can love.)
She's already infected him with the venom, the dynastic, blood-leeching myth he can never evade. It's ingrained. It's seared to the char-decayed root he called heart.
Ozai never mentioned Ursa. When confronted with the monumental question (where's my mother?) his features slithered into a high, blank wall. And Zuko knew: no matter how frequet, how ferociously he confronted Ozai, he would never tell.
Her memory became imprisoned, a living ghost whimpering in the hollowed gardens consecrating their lineage. She wandered freely in the night. Sometimes (the rumor went) Ozai would wake screaming.
Haunted, he said.
Shhh…not so loudly. The halls are carved with ears.
When the gossip unfolded, he started running.
"Tattletale!" Azula shrieked behind him.
Zuko ran faster, fled farther. But she was quick and nimble like the silvery susurration of barren trees in winter. She was gaining momentum. She was catching up.
"Got you! Why did you do it, Zu-Zu?" she asked, hurt and fury shining through wet lashes. "Why'd you tell Father that I went into her rooms?"
"I didn't! It must've been a maid who saw you."
"No. It was you, Zuko. No servant is allowed near Mother's rooms. You betrayed me. And now—and now Father will hate me. He will hate me like he hates you."
Fear flashed through him, jolting his innards. No, he wouldn't. Ozai would never. Azula was his prize. She was—
Azula straightened and grinned. Her cheeks were dry and smooth. In the drowning, dusky light, she looked almost like Ursa.
"I lied. Father isn't going to punish me. You're his target, Zuko. You always were."
His visits dwindle as he becomes accustomed to statesmanship, to diplomacy. To warfare. She knows he's been soliciting Ozai for advice. Fool. He should be asking her instead.
"I'm glad you came, darling brother. I'm glad you came to your senses. You see, I inherited the abilities of a master tactician from Grandfather—skipped over Father. Inheritance, it's a tricky, naughty dilemma, isn't it?"
"I don't need your assistance, Azula."
She shrugs. "Suit yourself."
Grovel, Zuko. I want to see you cower.
He watches her lean back against the cushion. She lazily stretches out her long, sinewy limbs. She is thin and gaunt, boned angles and spiked shadows. Her eyes are sharp and tilted upward like a feline victory. She licks her lips.
Zuko moves towards her. He can't stop it, the movement. One step, two. Creep and crawl, he teeters closer to her elaborate trap. Her tongue sneaks out and glides over her teeth. Snap—she's caught him at last. She bites down hard. A bead of blood rises from the edge of her lip and trickles off, down, snaking past her chin and seeps into her breast.
He sucks in a deep breath. She laughs, rising spryly to her feet. He slides into automatic defense. This time, he is ready. He strikes first.
Her mouth is icy and tastes vinegary and metallic, newly burnished.
She is ferric, the fraud-child of unirenic irony.
He shudders as her fingers dance along his ribs. She kisses his neck, tracing her hot tongue over his pulse. (how, what?—so, and that…
antagonistic, a cabalistic, fatalistic—)
He shuts his eyes and dreams of an honored demise. Azula sneers. She is amused.
Through half slits he sees their silhouettes looming tall and hungry on the wall. His shadow-head is obscured, is snapped clean off. It is a magnificent study in decapitation. She must've planned for this.
Azula adores her little lessons.
He learned to hate her young.
Full of dignity and conceit, she nimbly jumps aside before the blast could land. Her tiny, nymph-feet scorch the earth as she dashes away.
She was always one step quicker, one lifetime beyond.
Leaving him alone to attend to fresh scars.
She is released from the facility (prison, she reminds herself). She knows he issued the order out of guilt (out of spite). But for now, she smiles graciously at her dear, sweet brother and keeps her head held high. She tells herself that she is still a princess. She kisses his cheek to show her gratitude.
Zuko flinches and she is satisfied. She knows every one of his slighted pains and paling shames. A thousand and one of them.
In chains, the guards lead her to a house. Remote and secluded, here, she will remain. Cloistered, quarantined.
—Like a sickness.
Azula smirks and starts humming a tune.