It was instinct, she would later try to justify to herself, not love, and certainly not the terrible fear of living in a world without her brother in it. She was sure it had felt good to see him fall before, spinning into the empty sky, before he had risen back to fight her on the other airship. She hadn't done what she had done because she never wanted to feel that way again. That wasn't it. And she didn't miss. She struck right where she wanted to strike, even if she couldn't quite figure out why it was she wanted to strike there, at his feet, just hard enough to make him fall, not hard enough to kill.
And now, there he was, hanging from the metal rib of her airship, his other hand scrambling for purchase on its slippery surface. Azula stopped to watch him twisting and struggling in midair, legs dangling, buffeted by the eddies of air spiraling along the sides of the airship. His nails slid across the metal rib, and his mouth was wide and panting, and Azula felt frozen, just watching him. And then his hand slipped, and closed around air.
And for one split second, she watched him fall, his face flooded with perfect, almost transcendent fear and pain.
She grabbed his arm. "Get back up here, Dumb-Dumb."
Zuko's hand latched onto her wrist, and slowly, he hauled himself up. When he tried to get to his feet, the color drained from his face. He sank back down to the metal skin of the airship and looked up at her blankly, his mouth moving like he was about to speak. Then, something caught his eye and he looked up, away from her. Azula followed his gaze to the Avatar's bison, bobbing just out of reach of her firebenders.
"Go!" Zuko yelled. He waved his free arm and shook his head frantically, making Azula realize, with something unpleasantly like shock, that she was still holding his other arm. "Get out of here! Just go!"
Azula snarled. Letting his arm slip from her hand, she grabbed a handful of his tunic and yanked him up. Fire licked at her fingertips as she brought them in close to his face. If she flicked her finger just so, she could put her flames out in his eye. It was so hard to stop herself from doing it. "What do you think you're doing?"
The Avatar and his companions stopped and hung there in the air, mouths open. That's it, Azula thought. Come closer. And her brother blinked, eyes bluish in the reflected light of her fire. "No!" he yelled to them. "Don't come closer! Get Aang out of here!"
The Water Tribe girl jumped out of the saddle and grabbed the reigns away from the boy Avatar. The bison jerked in response to her touch, and soared away, disappearing into the clouds.
Fury closed in around Azula's vision. She shook her brother, listening to his soft, unwilling whimpers of pain. "Get him below decks," she snapped at her soldiers. "We'll deal with the Avatar later." Then she smiled at her brother, but her face didn't feel quite right as she shaped the expression. Not that it mattered. "I'm sure you'll be very helpful, Zuzu."
"Don't count on it," he gasped as her soldiered grabbed him and dragged him away.
He had struck for her face, she remembered giddily, when she had ducked for his feet. and sent him careening into the airship's rib. For the first time in her life, he had been more ruthless than she had been. She didn't think he had ever really tried to kill her before. It was funny, she thought as the Western Air Temple sank away behind them. It was funny.
Sweat poured down his face, plastering his hair down flat to his head. Azula let herself smile. "I talked to Father. He's going to let me keep you."
Zuko didn't even lift his head. He just lay there on the deck of her airship. "I thought you wanted to celebrate becoming an only child."
"I can do that any time I want to now," she told him, nudging his arms, chained behind his back, with her foot. "Besides, it's not like you're much of a brother."
"Why am I alive?" His eyes glinted up at her behind his hair.
Azula shrugged elaborately. "I don't know, Zuko, you really have to answer that for yourself."
"Why is the Firelord letting me live?" The expression on his face was more tired than irritated.
That was okay. She had enough irritation for both of them. "Why don't you just call him 'Father'?"
He didn't answer. "Why didn't you kill me?"
"You're going to be very useful to us, Zuko." She drew the words out, rolling them around in her mouth, and trying them on for size. Yes, that sounded right. that must be why she didn't strike to kill. "You're going to help me find the Avatar."
Zuko glowered. "I don't know where they went, and if I did, I wouldn't tell you anything."
"Of course not," she echoed. "You're not a traitor, are you?"
He shivered. "That's not going to work, Azula."
"Really? It worked so well on you before," she said, feigning disappointment. "Oh well. I guess that kind of thing only does ever work once." She missed him, she realized. There was nobody else who squirmed for her quite like he did. "Of course, I have to wonder if you would tell me what I want to hear if I told you all the things I would do to Mai if you didn't."
"Mai?" Zuko's head jerked up as if it were on a string and she had pulled it. "Is she okay? She's-"
"Alive?" Azula smirked until it hurt. "I don't know Zuko, would it make you talk?"
His good eye narrowed down to match his other eye, which was the way it should be, the way she as used to it. "I guess it doesn't matter what you say. I'm not going to know unless you show me her."
Or her body, he could see him thinking. Or her body. "She's dead, Zuko. She died because of you. Ty Lee's dead too, but I doubt you ever cared about her."
His eye stayed narrowed, but something changed, a furrowing of the brow, a looseness in his jaw, something, something that changed his expression from heartbroken and distrustful to confused. Azula paused, turning what had just happened over in her mind. Had she let something slip? There was nothing to let slip. She was Azula, and she was perfect. "Well, I'm not going to tell you anything now," he said at last, sounding just a little too worn for it to be amusement hiding at the back of his voice.
"Oh Zuko, all I have to do is wait for you to let something slip. You always do. And there's always the chance the Avatar or his friends will come rescue you. They do that kind of thing, don't they?" She put a finger to her chin idly and pretended to think about it. "Of course you didn't rescue Mai."
He looked up at her. He had the nerve to meet her eyes. "Why do you have to be this way all the time?"
She kicked his legs. In an instant, all expression washed out of his face. With a loud, heaving breath, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he slumped against the airship floor, unconscious. Azula scowled at him. "I don't get what the big deal is, Zuzu. You were so excited about coming home with me before."
"It's my coronation day today," she told him, her voice ringing around his cell. "I'm going to be Firelord."
The lifeless shape at the back of her brother's cell stirred at her words. "What about Father?"
"I knew I could get you to call him that!" she crowed. "He's fine. I'll tell him you asked."
Zuko sat up and shook the straw off his clothes. "Azula."
"Well, now that he's going to be the ruler of the entire world, 'Firelord' just isn't grand enough." She smiled, and there, there on his face was the fear she always wanted to see. "So he's the Phoenix King, and I'm the Firelord, and someday I'm going to be the Phoenix Queen, and you're never going to leave this cell."
Zuko lay back down. "Are you going to kill me after you win?" he asked disinterestedly.
"You aren't going to insist that the Avatar is going to win?" She tilted her head and held a hand out to the bars. Her fingers brushed them, and she yanked her hand back. They burned blue with her own fire. "It isn't any fun when you don't do your part."
"So are you going to kill me, or are you going to leave me here to starve to death?" Zuko stared at the bars and at her unhurt hands like they were so fascinating.
"Don't be ridiculous, Zuko, you'll be fed." Azula reached out for the bars again, and hesitated, but this time, when she touched them, the bars were ice cold. "You act like we're monsters. We're family."
"Yeah well, I was worried." Zuko rubbed the back of his head, knocking free flakes of something disgusting, which floated down to his shoulders. "You kind of dismissed my guards. They're the ones who feed me."
"Yes, I did, didn't I?" Azula wrinkled her nose. "Honestly, Zuko, I don't understand why you don't just walk out of here. There's practically nothing stopping you."
"You broke my legs," he reminded her. "I can't stand up."
"A minor detail." She waved it away. "That's why you were never going to win, Zuzu. You need to learn how to get over things like that."
Her feet pounded so loudly against the stones that she was astonished they didn't crack under her with each fall of her feet. They were too loud. Her heart was too loud. Her breath was too loud. The comet thrumming in her blood was too loud. The sound of the silence all around her was too loud in her ears.
Her mother, following her, was completely silent.
So Azula flew into her brother's cell, heedless of her bathrobe flapping around her ankles or her slipper falling off her foot as she ran. "Why isn't she here with you?" she yelled to drown out the noise.
Zuko's eyes gleamed at the back of his cell like an animal's. "What?"
"Mother!" She hit the bars and grabbed them before she could bounce back. "I know she's dead. That's why she's haunting me, but why is she haunting me? You were her favorite, you should be the one who's stuck with her, not me!"
He reached a hand out to her, but he was so far away from her. "Are you okay?"
"No I'm not okay," she snapped. "Of course I'm not okay! Mom is haunting me, you idiot."
"You should be nicer to your brother, Azula," her mother chided.
"Shut up, shut up, shut up!" Azula picked up the slipper that had fallen off her foot and threw it as hard as she could at her mother's face, but it slid right through her and into the wall. "It was so much better when you were being quiet."
He pulled himself off his pile of rags and straw and heaved himself up on his arms. The comet's reddish glow poured in through the window above his head, falling on his face, making him look like he was made out of fire, which was just stupid. He might as well not be Fire Nation at all. "Who are you yelling at?"
"Mom! She's standing right..." Azula couldn't breathe. "She's standing right there!"
"I don't see her," he said almost inaudibly.
"Of course. Of course you can't. She's haunting me. Of course you can't see her. But why? Why isn't she haunting you?" She could hear herself, hear how fast she was talking, and how strange it sounded, and she wished so she could stop so badly.
"Azula." His face warped and twisted with pain as he pulled himself over the floor with is arms, slowly, slowly, and Azula used to think that cell was so small, but watching him, the distance between them felt so huge. The cell was cavernous, and they were both so small. His good eye widened. "Azula, what happened to your hair?"
"Really, Zuko, sometimes I don't understand you at all." Which was a stupid thing to say. It was Zuko. She always understood him. It was always easy to see how his mind worked. Except right now. "I'm being haunted by our mother's ghost, and all you can talk about is my hair?"
He just kept drawing closer, kept making sounds of pain, until he could reach for her though the bars. Without even realizing it, she held her hand out to him, and he took it. "You don't look good."
She sneered. "I look perfect."
"Yeah, Azula, you look perfect," he grunted with resignation as he grasped her hand and pulled himself closer to the bars.
Azula found herself lowering down to kneel in front of him and look him in the eyes. "Why is she haunting me now?" she whispered, barely keeping herself from crying. "And Mai and Ty Lee, I'm so glad they're alive, I'm so glad I left them alive, if I didn't, they'd be here, and I don't need them!"
"They're alive?" he asked, good eye as wide as it would go. "Mai and Ty Lee are alive?"
"Don't talk about them!" she shouted, and that's when the tears sprang to her eyes and wouldn't stop, there, with her kneeling on the ground with her brother and screaming in his ear.
His arms snaked out through the bars and wrapped around her, trapping her, and she cried harder, hanging off of him, letting him hold her up. "Shh, it's okay," he told her.
"No it isn't," she sobbed. Her breath came in and out of her in great gulps that left her gasping and shaking. Zuko held her tighter.
"I know it's hard," her mother murmured. Out of the corner of her eye, Azula could see her mother, their mother, fold her legs, adjust her robe, and find a place to sit on the filthy floor of the cell. "But sending everyone away, especially Mai and Ty Lee, was probably the best thing you could have done. It's never good to be surrounded by people who fear you."
"But it's always so good to see their fear," she breathed, and let her head rest against the bars.
"Shh, Azula." Zuko's hand rubbed up and down her back and his arms held her tight. "Shh, it's okay. I'm still afraid of you."
She didn't remember cool hands on her arms and chains locking closed around her wrist after her brother had said it was safe. She didn't remember his cell door opening, and she didn't remember screaming and screaming and screaming until she couldn't scream anymore.
She didn't remember it because it didn't happen.
It was just a dream.
She wondered who had given him her crown and robes. He held the hem of the robes tight in one hand to keep them from getting caught on the wheels of the hospital chair they had tried to strap her into before. But he wasn't strapped down. And she could see the splints that held his bones straight under the robe.
She lay on the bed, her arms chained down beside her, her legs chained down in front of her. They told her it was just for a little while, just until her brother left, so that she didn't kill him. "I don't want to kill him," she had told them as if they were stupid, because they were, after all. "I just want to make him hurt."
An attendant wheeled her brother in close to her, then stood away from them with her head bowed. "Hey Azula," her brother said hesitantly.
"Hello brother." Her voice sounded high and broken in her own ears. She blew a whisp of smoke into his face.
"I, uh," he coughed, and waved the smoke out of his face. "I wanted to know how you were doing."
"Why?" Suspicion flickered inside her like a guttering candle flame.
Zuko reached out to her, and when she didn't move her head away, he pushed her mangled bang out of her eyes. "Because you're my sister and I care about you?"
"I'm fine, Zuzu, why wouldn't I be?" She smiled a wide, unpleasant smile, full of teeth. It felt so good to show them off. "You're the one who should be worried."
"About what?" He kept stroking her hair.
She laughed at him. The sound rose, and bubbled out of her and bounced around the room, and bounced, and bounced, and bounced...
He pulled his hand away, alarmed. It was the sweetest sight. It always was when he was afraid of her. "You're going to get the best care, Azula, I swear, you'll be okay. No one will ever hurt you again."
"Nobody hurts me, Zuko," she hissed. "Of course I'm going to be okay. You're the one who lost."
He looked at her. He looked so sad. He wasn't supposed to look sad. He was supposed to look afraid. "Azula..."
She wanted to cover her face, but she couldn't raise her arms. "I don't know why it always surprises you so much. You're always either losing or lost."
"This was a bad idea," he muttered. He raised his hand to signal the attendant.
As the attendant rolled Zuko's chair away, it hit Azula like a lightning bolt that Zuko was trying to leave her. "You can't leave me!" she screamed at him, and her voice echoed around and around her head. "You can't just go away! You're the one who's locked up."
Zuko turned around and signaled his attendant to stop. One of his hands reached out, as if to touch her, but she was too far away. Or he was too far away. Whichever, it didn't matter. "I'll come back soon," he tried to offer her, before his attendant wheeled him out of the room. "I will, Azula, I promise."
She watched him go. As he left her all alone, she spat a mouthful of ashes and blue sparks at his retreating form, and said again softly, "You're the one who's locked up."