Azula has never really seen the ocean in all its awesome, uninterrupted acreage. There were trips to Ember Island as a child, and scattered jaunts around the Fire Nation in her schooldays, but always safely within sight of land. Here, en route to the Southern Air Temple, there is nothing but water, cold and merciless, seemingly benign but capable of raging sky-high in a sudden tempest, just like her father.
It is not so hard to believe that demons like him exist far down in the depths of the uncharted sea, speeding by fifty feet below the deck. In one hand, she holds a tribute to just such a demon: the evil Water Spirit of legend, a harlequin blue mask with garish lips and eyes staring emptily up at her. She'd picked it up in the ragged village of Jang Hui after hearing of the devastation the Avatar had caused there.
"Not content to play the Blue Spirit anymore, Zuko?" she murmurs to herself.
"Princess." The captain of the crew salutes her. "We are nearing the Southern Air Temple. We should be able to glimpse its spires by sunset and arrive on its shores in the morning."
"Very good." She lowers the mask to her side. "Let the crew turn in early tonight. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow."
The slightly unhinged man working the docks back in Jang Hui had told her in no uncertain terms that their newly reanointed guardian spirit would have some beef with Azula if she so much as breathed the wrong way at the village (false bravado, charming but misplaced). She did manage to get some useful information from him. It seems Zuko, having fulfilled his goal of learning waterbending, has decided to move on to the next element: air.
He's a traditionalist and a romantic, she thinks, descending the steps from the deck to her quarters. He'll want to learn airbending where the old masters walked (or flew, or floated, however airbenders got around). Secluded, divorced from worldly desires like the sages—what nonsense. If he is traveling with an airbender, as per the final reports from Meikuang and Zhao's doomed fleet, he will want to revisit their haunts.
Sentiment. Back in her room, the lit candles on her dressing table stretch a little taller as she huffs out a sigh of disdain. Sentiment is such a crippling thing. Azula's strength comes from within; Zuko's comes from without. How could externalizing one's strength and motivation lead to anything but pain and weakness when those sources fade from the world of the living?
On the table next to her polished mirror rest two objects: a pearl-handled dagger and a framed picture of Zuko's cousin, Lu Ten. She laughs aloud at Lu Ten's picture staring up at her, realizing what she has just called him: Zuko's cousin.
Zuko had always envied her in their childhood, but what he doesn’t know is how blessed he was to have others to rely on. Azula has never had anyone but herself. Well, and…
"God, I thought you were never going to get me out of there!" He follows Azula along the darkened pathways of the ship's lowest deck. "This one guy has been talking my ear off about his wife and kids the entire time. It's been what, three weeks at sea? He hasn't. Shut. Up. Once. And he never repeats himself either! He always has some new story to share every time I see him. Couldn’t you have sneaked me into a nice cushy above-deck position? Then I could've avoided him."
"Stop complaining," she says shortly as they reach the deployment bay. "Your eyes stand out too much; you had to be someplace no one would notice you. Besides, I thought you'd be better suited as an engineer, what with all the… coal."
She raises the latch, and they enter. "Wow, that's a lot of motorboats," Haru remarks rather unnecessarily. "Very nice."
"Twenty-five, to be precise. Two crew members apiece, should they need to abandon ship." With a briefly charged fireball in hand, she approaches one motorboat and holds the flame to the control panel, slowly melting it.
"Hey, what are you doing?"
"We only need one boat to escape in," she says in a non-answer.
"Okay… so? Oh! You're destroying the other ones so they can't pursue us."
She smiles tightly, moving down the rows of boats and destroying each one's circuitry in brisk order. Behind her, Haru continues to puzzle out their dilemma.
"Everyone's sleeping now, so they probably won't notice we're missing and raise the alarm until hours after we've gone. But… they're in a big ship, and we're in a small boat. They can easily catch up to us," he points out.
"Your familiarity with basic physical principles astounds me," she says, dry as the desert. "This is the last one. Get in."
He does. "What aren't you telling me now? You always insult me when you want to avoid a lengthy, probably amoral explanation."
She ignores him in favor of starting up the engine. The hatch creaks open, and the ship's automatic deploying mechanism gently deposits them in the depthless ocean. Azula turns to look back at the ship. "Take us out about a hundred yards."
"Uh…" He frowns at the multilevel control panel in trepidation, but it appears to be more intuitive than he thought. They zoom away, the engine a magnified growl in the empty night. "Won't someone hear us?"
He looks back at Azula, who has suddenly stood up, tense and grim as she begins to draw lightning between her fingers. "Azula?"
She aims for the radio tower first: take out the distress signal. Then the hull of the ship: more time for it to fill with water and capsize. Then at the command room on deck, then at point after point along the body, lightning crackling until Haru's hair stands on end, until the ship is a fiery blaze falling to pieces before their eyes.
They continue to speed away, leaving the lonely ship to capsize, steel beams and towers sinking with surprising solemnity. Azula turns back to face their course, pretending she does not hear the shouts of men struggling to find something to hold onto to keep from plunging into the sea's cold embrace.
Haru clears his throat. "So, that was what you weren't telling me."
"What I don't tell you would fill several books," she says waspishly. "Consider that perhaps there's a reason for that."
"Gee, thanks." He pauses, undeterred. "That man, Qin Lee."
"The one I was telling you about, my fellow chatty engineer."
"He had a wife and children," Azula anticipates his words with a dull riposte. "Yes, who doesn’t? Even Fire Lord Ozai does."
"Really? Still?" Haru asks exaggeratedly. He's not wrong to ask—he's always assumed Ozai's wife was dead, and since his children are as good as dead to him now, he's technically a free man.
She shoots him down. "Children can't legally disown their parents, and I hardly think my father signed any official divorce papers before banishing my mother for killing Grandfather Azulon, or whatever crime she likely committed."
Haru makes a face. "I was joking." That's a much bigger can of worms than he'd like to open presently. Who knew the Fire Nation royal family was even more dysfunctional than he'd thought?
"Ha. Ha." She focuses on the sea before them, adjusting a number of switches and dials until she's satisfied with their progress. "The Fire Lord isn't expecting to hear from me for a few weeks at least. He knows that even I can't locate the Avatar without some serious digging. Taking out our escort buys us time to search without the navy on the lookout for us. It was the only option."
They fall into silence after that. The boat, though narrow and lightweight, is some twenty feet long, enough for him to stretch out away from Azula and properly watch her, sitting ramrod straight, unburdened by the weight of fifty lives lost. The compass needle points due south, and he assumes she knows where they're going.
Her moral compass, though? Who knows where that's pointing.
"Just out of curiosity, why the Southern Air Temple? There are four in total, right? How could you possibly know which one he's at?"
They pick their way up the shore, still far from the peak of the mountain where the temple is located. The weak morning sun glances off patches of snow on the ground, the spring melt not yet underway.
"Well, put yourself in Zuko's place for a moment," Azula reasons. "The Western Air Temple is too close to the Fire Nation for comfort; the Fire Lord's airship base is just miles away on the western coast of the Earth Kingdom. The Eastern Air Temple is safer but much too far; he doesn’t have time to spare. The Northern and Southern Air Temples are almost equidistant from the Fire Nation, so it would seem like a tossup between the two, except for the fact that the Southern Air Temple was home to the previous Avatar. Knowing Zuko, he'd definitely find some sentimental meaning in that and want to set foot in the place where his predecessor once lived."
"Yeah, speaking of that…" Haru points at the bleak landscape before them. "How are we planning to set foot in the Air Temple? These mountains are miles high and nearly vertical; there's no way we can get over them without flying."
"Airbenders aren't born knowing how to fly." Azula unrolls a map, one of many she'd pilfered from the royal library before they left. "And not every airbender had a sky bison. There are hidden footpaths somewhere in these mountains. We just have to find them."
They trek over mile after mile of unforgiving rocky peaks, the air growing thinner as they climb. Even with the map, the going is slow and cumbersome, some parts of the path nearly obliterated by time and erosion, necessitating their utmost care to avoid a treacherous fall.
"I'm amazed the Fire Nation managed to take the Air Temples by force, considering how naturally well-defended they are," Haru says, just to break the cloying silence of their climb. His own voice sounds distant and puny to his ears. "It's hard enough just getting the two of us up this far. Imagine dragging a whole host of armed soldiers and weaponry while simultaneously trying to fend off defensive attacks from above."
Azula hmph's, not bothering to dignify her response with a glance over her shoulder. "We didn’t take them by force. Why waste resources, like throwing eggs at a stone? If we had had Sozin's Comet on our side at the time, we could have attacked directly. But at that time, hot air balloons hadn't even been invented, not to mention war-worthy airships like we have now. No, we attacked by not attacking."
Haru watches the line of Azula's shoulders grow tense. Unlike the armor she always used to wear, it's a lot easier to see through the thin, off-red fabric of her new travel outfit. Somehow, he feels that she's become even more guarded, the closer they get to finding her brother.
"So how do you attack by not attacking?" he prompts.
"I'm sure you noticed while we were coming up here, but the Fire Nation burned down all the vegetation in the hills surrounding the Air Temple." She kicks a fist-sized rock over the side of the path; Haru listens for the sound of it plummeting to the ground below, but it never comes—they're too high up.
"The Air Nomads liked to think of themselves as above all worldly needs, but even they had to eat, and barren spires of rock like these mountains aren't exactly great for sustaining agriculture. Fire Lord Azulon gave the order to strategically raze all the crops at the foot of the mountains."
Well, shit. That's even worse than I'd imagined. "Strategically raze their crops? Did you mean to say, 'starve them into surrendering?'"
"Don’t be naïve, Haru," she admonishes. "The only terms of surrender we would have accepted were the unequivocal and complete wiping out of any Air Nomad life from these islands. We shot down anyone trying to escape on sky bison. It took months, but finally, we managed to defeat them for good."
"Your grandfather Azulon really had no soul, didn’t he?"
"It's fitting, considering that I'm his namesake."
It takes them the better part of the day to even get to the base of the mountain that houses the Southern Air Temple. Azula lights them a fire under a sheltered overhang just off the path and settles herself down on the ground.
"It seems more like an Earth Kingdom strategy: wait it out instead of going in for the kill," Haru says, continuing their conversation from earlier.
"Well, it didn’t work at Ba Sing Se." Azula picks up a dried twig and lights it in the blue fire. The flame flickers and spreads along the bough. "Not surprising, considering that the city is huge and has its own agrarian zone, and an organized military to defend it."
"Maybe we earthbenders are just made of stronger stuff," Haru suggests, trying to get her to agree, or at least to coax a smile from her.
"Hardly," she says, partly just to be contrary, but partly because it's true. In the end, everyone and everything burns out. "Some airbenders escaped, despite our efforts. Most fled towards the Earth Kingdom, where they could blend in the most easily, and that was the work of another several years, hunting them all down. That was how Zhao got his reputation for being ruthless and stealthy, sailing up and down the coasts of the Earth Kingdom in search of airbenders in hiding. He was always better suited to manhunts than melees."
The burning twig between her fingers has almost exhausted its fuel, and she drops it to the ground, where the blue flame fades to yellow and then extinguishes itself completely.
"Yes, I do know a little something about that." Haru frowns at the memory of the cruel Commander Zhao. "So, there could still be some airbenders out there. He can't have caught every single one of them."
"Of course not. There's still Zuko's airbender, and there may be more besides. Zhao captured as many as he could, and when his yield ran low, he offered generous bounties for anyone turning in an Air Nomad to him." She watches as Haru's expression morphs to shock, garish and desaturated behind the blue flames. A weary sort of malice creeps into her expression. "You'd be surprised at how low your countrymen were willing to sink to earn a few sacks of gold. Zhao enjoyed boasting to me in great detail of his exploits. A hundred gold coins for a live airbender, fifty for a dead one. Five for a tip-off leading to a capture; really, he knew how to make people do his dirty work for him."
"Okay, I get it," Haru cuts across her flatly, not wanting to hear any more. "But you're talking about pirates and bounty hunters and other lawless sorts. No honest man among all the realms of the kingdom would sell out Air Nomad refugees to the Fire Nation."
The fire flares as she sits up straighter and glares at him. "No, no, you don’t get to choose who counts as Earth Kingdom and who doesn't," she hisses, infuriated. "Just like I don’t get to choose who's Fire Nation and who isn't. As far as your average fellow peasant is concerned, everyone from the Fire Nation is like my father: murderous and unwelcome. There's no home for me in either place, not anymore."
Now he knows why she's grown more tense and withdrawn with every step: not because each step takes her closer to Zuko, but because each step takes her farther away from home. He watches as she stomps away to shake out her sleeping bag and burrow inside, content to banish herself from the conversation under the pretext of sleep.
You have a home with me, he wants to say, but does not dare. You don’t have to choose either place. Just stay with me.
By noon the next day, they finally make it up all the way up the mountain. As they step out of the cloud cover at last, Haru stifles a gasp at the view before them.
The path widens and flattens into a zigzag that wends its way up the side of a cliff, leading to the temple that's practically carved out of the very rock of the mountain. Wedged at the pinnacle is a central tower, several stories tall, its peak ending in a sharp blue spire that seems almost continuous with the sky itself. Scads of smaller towers surround the lower levels of the mountain, many of them interconnected by smooth stone arches that span dizzying heights. There's a flat plateau occupied by a field of wooden pillars, for what purpose who knows, and a wide grove of trees that must have once borne blossoms and fruit, but now their branches hang broken and barren. Much of the panorama before them is still covered in the last vestiges of winter's snow, and they step under an arched entryway, passing a tiered fountain that would have been frozen over if it weren't empty from years of neglect.
They come to a broad courtyard, its sweeping staircase and delicate balustrades all shallow curves and circles, like all the Air Nomad architecture they've seen so far. The balconies open wide to the mountains surrounding them, welcoming all who arrived by air to alight. A statue of a monk greets them, his carven expression regal but also full of a quiet mirth, hands folded serenely over his knees. He wears a pendant with a broad circular bead flanked by two red tassels. Three swirls are carved into the large round bead: the symbol of air. The inscription on the base of his pedestal identifies him as Avatar Tenzin.
"Wow," Haru says softly, overcome by the vastness of it all, situated in such an improbable place. "I feel like I can hear the echoes of the monks who lived here, and children playing, and sky bison… mooing, I guess. Is that the right sound? Or do they neigh like ostrich-horses?"
"I'm surprised you don’t hear the sound of battle and killing." Azula points to the level above them, past the gentle curve of the staircase. It is littered with bodies dressed in dark red armor, helmets gaping with nothing to fill their hollows. "It is much more proximate."
A chill runs down his spine as they ascend and step between the soldiers where they fell. He knew they would find something like this, but it's still jarring to actually see the remnants of the last battle that wiped out the Air Nomads.
"This place is too big," Azula says. "Let's split up. I'll search the towers; you stay on the lower levels. If you see them, stay hidden and don’t engage; come find me first. Stay on your guard and meet me back here by sundown."
He'd nearly forgotten that they're here to find the Avatar. Looking around, though, it seems like they're the only ones here. Maybe he's hiding from us?
Hours later, his search remains fruitless, and he's heard nothing from Azula. Empty rooms, hallways scattered with bodies here and there, more rusted red armor than orange robes, and he is ready to call it quits. There is one place he hasn't explored yet, though: a shaded pavilion on the lower levels near the path where they first entered. It’s a miracle that it's still standing when some of the stone structures around it are beginning to crumble, but like everything else, it'll probably yield no answers.
Brushing aside the tattered canvas walls, he blinks at the scene before him: yet again, a gruesome expanse of fallen soldiers, and against the far wall, one solitary figure in yellow robes. His eyes are drawn to the beaded necklace slung around the calcified remains of a once great airbender, the same as the statue in the courtyard: Avatar Tenzin.
Obviously, they had to have killed the previous one for Zuko to have carried on his mantle, but the reality sinks into him slowly. The Avatar, the greatest bender in the world, was killed here in his own home, like a rabbit trapped in a forest fire. Walled in by enemy forces without any hope of rescue, he must have expired alone, yielding the Avatar spirit against his will.
He approaches almost timidly, which is ridiculous: these decrepit bones are helpless to harm him anymore. The entire tableau is remarkably well-preserved, perhaps because of the altitude and the cold, or the lack of any living fauna to disturb the dead. A morbid curiosity envelops him, and he crouches down by the brittle skeleton, stretching out a hand towards it, as if there is some strange blessing to be found in touching the bones of the past Avatar.
"There you are."
He whirls to see Azula standing in the doorway, her entry silent and muted as befits a mausoleum.
"I wondered what was taking you so long. I've already finished scouring the towers and the upper levels of the temple."
"Did you find…"
"Nothing," she answers crisply. She nudges a discarded helmet with one idle toe, its hollow clank rattling over stone, her mind already jumping to her next move. "That's him, isn't it?"
"Avatar Tenzin." He edges away from the body, feeling oddly guilty, though Azula wouldn’t judge. "He must have killed all these soldiers in his last moments."
"That's it, then." She sighs, her shoulders sagging, resignation and disappointment exiting her in one long breath. "I was wrong. Zuko can't have come here. If he had, he wouldn't have left the Avatar's bones here to rot in an open grave. He would have laid them to rest properly like the filial son he never was to our father."
"Maybe we should do something for him then, or say a few words or something," Haru suggests.
Azula is already on her way out; she pauses in the doorway, silhouette dark against the fading evening sky. "I'm not my brother. I don’t have a ledger I need to fill with good deeds," she says, cold and detached, her poise regathered in a moment's sally. "Say whatever you want, Haru. I am content to let the dead lie." The canvas walls rustle drily behind her as she steps out.
He wishes she wouldn’t so bitterly deify her brother. Good and bad are not as distinct as she considers them to be: compassion versus pragmatism, Zuko versus Azula. He looks back at the smooth skull yawning emptily at him, a thing devoid of thought and feeling. Perhaps any words he has for Tenzin might be better said to the current Avatar.
As he rises to leave, he notices something: a folded piece of paper poking out from one ragged sleeve, as if the Avatar had held onto it even in his dying moments. He tugs the paper free and opens it to read the first line of a long letter:
To my dearest wife and son…