The Palace became filled with ghosts. Or, it seemed that way to Azula, its youngest inhabitant.
With the permanent exile of her older brother, to only be rescinded upon a miracle, the Palace seemed void of... something. Zuko's presence had been so small, barely touching anyone, and only very lightly at that. And, truthfully, it seemed that only Azula felt the absence the most.
She didn't like it. She didn't like when change went poorly. She was always a firm believer of being the one to instigate the change - the one to orchestrate it, but this time, she hadn't been able to. Watching her brothers fight each other had been the single most agonising moment so far of her life. Well, Kohaku had fought, whereas Zuko himself had pleaded for mercy.
Was that so not like him, to realise his defeat and, instead of fighting it, simply wish it away?
Now, perched on the very edge of the turtle-duck pond, a large chunk of bread clutched between her hands, all she could see was not the antics of the ducks vying for her bread, but the last moments of her brother's normal life, gone in a moment of flame and smoke.
She would never forget that moment, the moment Kohaku pulled away, the moment Zuko fell to the ground and went into shock from the pain. She had stood up, her face feeling numb and bloodless, as Kohaku stood over his twin with a grin and a rolling of his eyes. All while Zuko curled at his feet, keening and holding his hands to his face, the blood from his charred skin staining his fingers...
Azula shuddered, shutting her eyes. In her hands, the bread was in pieces.
No one had stopped it. No one had spoken up.
In that moment, Azula's perfect illusion of justice had shattered.
"You should have let me kill him!"
Kohaku's voice echoed off the chamber walls, the words sounding high-pitched and desperate. He was standing before his father, a perfect image of justified rage.
Ozai sat upon the dais, looking perfectly blank.
"You should have let me kill him instead of just exiling him!" Kohaku insisted. "You know that he'll never find the Avatar, so what's the point of sending him to look? If we don't kill him now, he could end up a problem later! Why didn't you let me kill him?"
Ozai waited for Kohaku to take a breath before responding, his voice icy. "Because if you had killed him, before all of those people, they would never be able to respect you as Crown Prince, let alone future Firelord. If you had killed Zuko, it would be meaningless bloodshed, seen by our people as a brother ruthlessly killing a brother, especially when he didn't fight back. Use your senses."
The last words were a reprimand, as sharp and pointed as any knife ever could be. Kohaku lowered his head in ascent. He knew the logic of his father's words were flawless, but he had a niggling feeling that this wouldn't be enough. He knew that somehow, someday, his brother would be trouble.
But only if he came back, which everyone knew he never would. The Avatar was long dead. Zuko would never find him.
Kohaku lowered himself into a bow, then turned and walked out. Ozai watched him with narrowed eyes.
Ty Lee rubbed Mai's back slowly, holding the older girl in a gentle hug. Mai clung to her, crying in the only way she knew how: with as little sound as possible. She was raised with the knowledge that she could cry as much as she wanted, but only if she made no sound, and now was no exception - except occasionally she was unable to keep a sob or whimper from escaping her throat.
Ty Lee held her, resting her cheek on the top of her head. Unlike Azula, Ty Lee felt that Mai's relationship to Zuko was cute, and only teased out of affection, and not jealousy or malice. It was Ty Lee that Mai trusted now with her broken heart.
Mai had hidden herself in her room for four days following the Agni Kai, speaking to no one. She had not seen what had happened, but the moment she had heard that not only had Zuko lost and been burned, but that he was exiled... she turned and went to her room and didn't come out, not even to eat.
Ty Lee came by on the fifth day. The moment she opened the door, Mai crumpled into her arms.
"He'll come back some day," Ty Lee whispered.
Mai snuggled closer, her nails digging into Ty Lee's back. A small keening noise escaped her throat.
They both knew it was a lie.
Azula kept herself close to the side of the pond most days, especially on her vacation periods away from school. She usually sat there, her legs folded to her chest, her eyes fixed on the water before her. No one thought to interrupt her. No one thought to give her any company or ask her any questions.
When anyone bothered at all, it would usually be Ty Lee or Mai, though Ty Lee was more regular than Mai. Mai seemed skittish, unsure of what to do or say, and avoided sitting by the pond at any time - something that Azula figured was due to Zuko's absence.
Once, though, Kohaku braved a visit. He was puzzled by his sister's lack of enthusiasm, especially now that her attention was no longer divided between the two brothers. When he walked through the gardens, the place empty save for her, she looked up and stared at him, her face pale and blank.
He sat down beside her. She didn't move.
"Hey," he said gently, leaning over and nudging her gently. "You've been very quiet lately. I hardly ever see you. Is this where you hide?"
Azula stared at him for a moment. Then, her face darkened, and she leaned away from him. Kohaku was surprised, but when he opened his mouth to say her name, she suddenly shrieked out, "You burned Zuko!"
Her voice was like a slap, and he flinched - not for what she was saying, but the way she was saying it. "So what?" he snapped back, confused anger flaring up in him. "He deserved it, Azula! He opposed Dad, the entire will of the Fire Nation! He needed to learn a lesson!"
Azula got to her feet, her entire body shaking. "A lesson is shoving him into the fountain. A lesson is putting snake-eels in his bed. A lesson is stealing his clothes and replacing them with girls' clothes. But burning him, almost killing him, your twin, your own brother?"
Kohaku was speechless, genuinely confused. He just couldn't understand her confusion in the matter. To him, everything he had done was right. Zuko had disobeyed their father, and he needed to be punished. While Ozai hadn't quite said to burn him, he had said to teach him a lesson. And while he probably had learned his lesson when he saw it had been Kohaku, Zuko still needed a permanent reminder.
Once again, he felt as if he was the only one who understood the logic of the situation. Of course it had been a harsh measure, but sometimes harsh measures were needed in this time of war.
Am I the only one who understands this?
"No!" She held up her hands and backed away. "No. Leave me alone. You're just... you're just..." She shook her head, then turned on her heel and ran back towards the Palace.
Kohaku watched her retreating back, wondering what it meant. Wondering, above all, what it would cost him. He felt no shame. He felt no sadness. Only... a sense of confused wariness.
The girl in question looked up, her eyes - so yellowish-grey - cold and blank. She stopped in mid-stride, holding several scrolls to her chest, then started back on her way, brushing past him. Ever since Zuko had been banished, Kohaku had made it his habit to meet her outside of the Academy once classes were over, offering to walk her back to her house.
Zuko had never done it. He was much too shy, and had trouble walking her home from the Palace, let alone the Academy. But Kohaku always did it, and no matter how many times Mai tried to get him to take the hint, he was always there, always, day in and day out.
And, like every other day, Kohaku gave chase. "Mai, come on!" he protested, moving to cut her off. She longed to bash his head in with her heaviest scroll. "Zuko's been gone for weeks, now. Can't you just get on with it?"
It was a struggle, keeping her mask in place, especially when she had to hear Zuko's name on such a cold pair of lips. Her lips twitched, and her eyes blazed. "Go buzz around someone else, you buzzard-wasp," she snapped, pushing past him and walking on her way, gritting her teeth.
But he always came back. Every single day, he would be there. Every single day, she longed to be a firebender, if only to exact the same "lesson" that he had exacted on the one twin that she was yearning for.
She had thought about following him, when she was supposed to be paying attention to her classes. She imagined hopping on one of the steam-boats dressed as a soldier and smuggling her way along the various ships until she reached his. It sounded edgy and romantic, but at the same time, she also knew that right now, as she was, she was useless to him. She had no useful skills - her knife-throwing and martial arts were still imperfect - and if she knew Zuko, he would just worry over her being there. Romance, no matter what Ty Lee thought, was never realistic.
But when her heart ached, and her eyes were fixed on the window near her desk and pallet, she often wondered about him. And wondered if he wondered about her, too.
The only time Zuko came out of his rooms was at night, when the air was salty and cold. He couldn't bear the looks of the other sailors, yet, not when bandages still obscured half of his face.
It was night now, and he stood in the darkness, his hands gripping the railing tight. He had insisted that the best way to start would be to visit all of the Air Nomad Temples. There were only for, and one was reasonably close enough to Fire Nation territory to make it a good start.
He reached up to touch his hair, then winced when his hand met both bandage and bare skin. The only way that the physicians could heal him was to shave most of his hair off. They would have shaved him bald, but he fought them on it. He knew he was an exile, but he didn't want to look like one. Finally, they settled on letting him keep a small diamond-shaped lock at the back of his skull. At least that was something.
A sigh escaped him, sounding more like a breathy grunt than anything else. The starry sky did nothing to calm him; ever since he had boarded the ship, a slow burn of desperation had filled him. He wanted to get this done and over with. He wanted to go back home.
Most of all, he didn't want to think about the fact that, more than likely, it was no longer home.
His hand lowered down to touch the familiar bump at his chest, under his armour. With a deep sigh, his eyes closed, and his heart ached a bit less.