Summary: The war is over. Zuko is Fire Lord, Ozai is in jail, and Azula has been quietly sent away. But no one's at peace. Tensions in the Fire Nation reveal a darker scheme to topple Zuko's government. Memories of the absent Ursa seem to whisper that some old business is unfinished. And it involves all four of them.
A/N: This is an Avatar fanfiction I came up with over a year ago. I've been agonizing over this chapter pretty much since day one, and I think it's about time I posted it! To elaborate on the summary, this is a story about the four members of the royal family: Azula, Ozai, Zuko, and Ursa, and what happened to them after the end of the show.
I did read the Search, Promise, and Smoke and Shadow comics, but I wasn't completely satisfied with what they did with these characters and their backstories. Still, I think the comics had something good going on, though they ended up taking it in a direction I wouldn't have gone. So in this story, I included the elements that inspired me and used them in the ways I thought were better. But as for the plot itself, this story does something different from the comics. Mainly, it will be a continuation of the show, but focusing on these four and the time after Sozin's Comet. All the other characters we know and love will also be there, like Aang, Sokka, Katara, etc., and some OCs to color things as well. I hope it'll be something you'll enjoy!
- THE REAL SUBJECT -
1. Waking Up
It was the end of her world. The blazing trail of Sozin's Comet had faded from the sky, and down below, the last of the flames that remained from the battle were turning into a cloud of smoke that drifted up from the silent plaza. It should have been the site of her coronation, the place where she would have begun her reign as Fire Lord for a long and prosperous lifetime. Now, the wooden columns that surrounded the square were scorched black, and the red pavilion roofs had gaping holes from where her fire blasts had hit. And she was lying on the floor, hands chained to a metal drain, her face turned awkwardly towards the blank wall behind her. She had broken down there just moments before in front of her enemies, in a strange combination of fire and tears.
("We can't leave her like this. We have to get her inside.")
("I know. I'll get the Fire Sages. They'll take her back to the palace.")
She had finally been defeated.
("Let it be known that the Fire Prince has won the throne from his sister, the princess. By trial of Agni Kai, he is now the lawful Fire Lord.")
Finally, the thing she had feared above everything else had come true. She was nothing. Her sea of strength was a withering pond, and her stronghold of calm was a fragile mask, one that had shattered the minute she had put it to the test. Her composure had dissolved into a flurry of raging flames, and her perfection had been knocked out by a sequence of falls and fumbles, letting the disease that had lurked inside of her soul slowly seep out and spread through her body. The thing left behind in the aftermath was a shadow, a ravaged shell of hatred and torment.
The monster they had always known her to be.
Now, blinking her wet and reddened eyes, she looked up.
("Wait, what is she doing…?")
Heat radiated from her hands and began to simmer the chains. The metal lit up with an orange glow, then with a tug, she snapped her wrists free. The sense of destiny and purpose with which she had set out to fight was gone. Stumbling to her feet, she turned away from the ruined plaza and ran.
("She's getting away!")
("Stay here, Zuko. We'll pin her down." )
She ran and ran, bursting out into the quiet city, tearing through the network of empty streets. She heard the sounds of people rushing after her, but her own breath and footsteps soon drowned them out. The only thing she wanted was to get away, to scramble out of the pit of hell that had engulfed her and get back to sanity. She would run to the end of the continent if she had to. She would plunge to the bottom of the sea. She would do anything if it would only undo everything that had happened, and bring her back to the person she had been before.
The footsteps grew louder from behind. Someone blasted a jet of water at her feet and tripped her, but she stumbled back into balance and slipped away. She no longer cared whether or not they were gaining on her. Her surroundings were blurring, and her thoughts were spinning into a panicked craze. She was in another world.
All they would find from her back in the real one was a broken mirror and a fallen brush. But as for what had happened there, they would never know.
Like a flame, she had ended in a whisper.
("Wait, where did she go? I just lost her!")
("There! On the roof!")
("She's about to jump!")
And then she was falling.
("Katara! What happened?")
("She tried to jump from one roof to another and she fell. The Fire Sages put her to sleep before she could run away, but she's still hurt." )
("We cannot be certain about her condition, my prince. The run was more dangerous for her than the duel. We will keep her in this trance for as long as we can, but it won't last forever. You must make a choice…")
The voices lingered for a little while longer, growing fainter and slower. Then they slipped away.
* * *
For a long time afterward, there was nothing. Not pain, or sounds, or movement. The storm of emotions that had churned inside her mind began to subside, the memories of battle slowly dwindling until they vanished like a forgotten thought.
Her mind sailed through a progression of dreams. She saw vast forests and rushing rivers, her vision skimming over miles of treetops and sparkling water. She saw tanks chugging through open fields, and groups of faceless soldiers marching beside them, holding up her veiled palanquin. There was the enormous metal drill she had driven to the edge of a city wall, its interior lined with pipes and rivets, constantly humming as it moved on towards its goal. But she was starting to forget what that goal had been. Names and conversations tumbled through her memory — people to chase, plans to finish — but all of them spun into the same conglomeration of nothingness.
Instead, she felt a sense of exhaustion wash over her, and she imagined how glad she would be to go back to her room and sleep. Take off her rigid shoulder plates and boots, slip on a comfortable robe, and ease into her bed, like at the end of a day that had stretched for too long. Her room would be sunny and quiet, for once devoid of servants who always worked so hard to please her, but truthfully took away from the time she wanted to spent by herself. She'd pour her own water for a change, close her own curtains, and sleep for as long as she wanted to. Then she'd wake up, and without telling anyone, slip out of her room and go walking around the palace, alone. She'd withdraw somewhere deep inside it, where the halls were empty and still, losing herself in the maze of columns and carpets. How often she had done that as a child… peering through open doors, snooping around dusty furniture that stood so patiently awaiting its former users. But now she never did anymore. Because she knew that the people who had occupied those rooms were gone. The years had whisked them all away, and as she grew up she had gravitated towards the frontal wings, the ones that glimmered with life and activity. The old places gave her a nervous, musty feeling that she didn't like.
Still, the push from within her mind was inevitable. She soon found herself in a shadowy corridor, standing alone, surrounded by looming walls and streaks of moonlight on the floor. She hadn't been in this place for years. It was the inside of a separate house that stood by the palace, where she had lived as a young girl. She began walking down the corridor, moving slowly, feeling a somber recognition stir within her at the sight of familiar spaces. Finally, she reached the end of the hallway and turned, coming to a shorter path that led to a closed door. Her old room. The wall to her left was lined with tall windows, with white curtains that billowed out from a breeze she couldn't feel. They were like ghosts, gracefully undulating, completely silent.
Something about those curtains unsettled her. She stood in place for a long time, watching them move, and right then she got the feeling that something was approaching her. She turned around, scanning her surroundings, but didn't see anyone else. And yet, before long, the presence seemed to reach her. It grew so tangible that she could feel it hanging in the air like mist, almost see a watchful gaze reflected in the shine of the decorative vases. And she recognized it… it was the same thing that had been tugging at her mind when she was lying in the rubble, something that had followed her even as her pursuers had fallen behind. And now it was here.
She stood in place for a long time, watching the curtains, feeling around the rim of a recognition that she couldn't fully grasp. But before long, her concentration began to slip. The hallway began to dim, the walls and floor fading into the shadows, which seeped in further to swallow the tables and vases. Finally, the entire room vanished, and in its place, a reddish-black expanse spread across her vision. Her closed eyelids tightened.
She was lying on her back now, her body spread out over a soft, dense surface. Her arms lay loosely at her sides. She wasn't moving, but it seemed that something beneath her was, producing a smooth, constant whir that sounded like wheels.
"… Everything is ready. You can bring her in…"
"… loosen the cords…?"
"… no, not yet… have to wait a little longer…"
The voices drifted in and out of earshot, accompanied by distant footsteps. But even as she began to distinguish their words, she couldn't recognize the people they belonged to.
She waited for a few more moments, but the sensations didn't change. Instead, they grew clearer, to the point where she could hear a number of bodies shifting around her, and could almost feel the rubber wheels gliding along the floor.
At last, she gathered her focus and opened her eyes. The darkness cracked to reveal a slip of white light, followed by some hazy shapes. She started to pull herself up. But instead of a body, she felt a foreign, ten-ton weight budge from its place, triggering flares of dull pain in her joints and muscles. The feeling was so shocking that she immediately let herself go, letting her head sink back into the mold it had made in the pillow. Fear prickled inside of her like an electric spark. That couldn't be hers. It couldn't be her.
Swelling with defiance, she moved again, convinced that something was holding her down and confusing her perception. She tried to kick her legs, but all they could manage was a quiver, like the limbs of a stone sculpture that was crumbling to pieces.
The pang of fear came again, spreading and blossoming into painful sparks.
A quiet rasp rose in her throat.
The coats and boots marched on.
She felt her face contort. A warm, bitter wave welled up inside of her, blurring the voices and sounds, then it washed over the world and pulled her under.
* * *
The next thing she knew, she was sitting alone in the darkness, face buried in her hands.
"No, no, no, no!"
She repeated the word senselessly, like a child, cringing as hot tears spilled down her face. There was no one there to hear her now, so she let them fall freely, pouring out all her rage and anguish and listening to their wobbly tones resound through the silence.
Then, unexpectedly, another voice emerged from the darkness.
It sounded like it belonged to a young boy. She couldn't see him, but he sounded strangely close, only an arm's length away.
The girl gave a sniff. "I'm dead. I know I am! I was fighting someone back in the city and I lost. They're taking my body away now. They're going to put me in a tomb and burn it!" She covered her eyes again and let out another wail.
But moments later, she heard the boy laugh. "Open your eyes, silly!"
The girl paused through her tears, mouth trembling. She didn't want to believe him, didn't want to respond to the gentle touch of hope his voice was giving her. And yet, she couldn't push his presence away. The more time that passed, the more tangible it became, until she could sense him standing over her shoulder. Finally, she did as she was told. She began to blink rapidly, adding to the effort by rubbing her eyes. Gradually, patches of sunlight began to slip through her fingers, and when she lowered her hands from her face, she saw her a watery blue surface shimmering in front of her. It was a small pond. She was sitting at the edge of it, on a bank of ashy black sand, and all around her was a meadow of tall green grass.
The girl blinked in amazement. After a moment, she rose to her feet.
The wheels were gone, the bed was gone, and so was the strange, broken thing that lay on top of it. There weren't any rips or burns in her clothing, and her hair was pulled back neatly from her face, leaving just two front tresses to stir with the breeze. She turned around, and wherever she looked, she saw the same picture — miles and miles of hilly land stretching all the way to the horizon.
Someone grasped her shoulder. "There you go!"
The girl spun around. Two amber eyes met her gaze, and she jumped back in surprise, letting her companion finally appear before her in full height. He was boy about seven or eight years of age, though for some reason she was as small as he was. He was dressed in dark red and maroon, his black hair pulled into a topknot. He smiled at her in relief. "I was getting worried about you. You've been sitting there for hours. I tried waking you up, but it didn't seem like you noticed me."
The girl blinked in confusion. "What happened to me? Where am I?"
"Where does it look like?" the boy replied. "You're back where you were before. That must have been one crazy dream you were having, though. I found you sitting here this morning and you were mumbling about all sorts of stuff… something about a phoenix king and the end of the world. Sometimes you'd move a bit, like lift your arms and wave them around funny. Other times you just looked up, like there was someone standing in front of you, but then you turned around to talk to them. You didn't look like you were having a good time."
The girl felt her heartbeat quicken. "So… none of that stuff happened? I was just dreaming?"
"Well, it seemed more like a nightmare, from my end." The boy gave a nervous chuckle. "But there's never been a Sozin's Comet here, and I've been here forever!"
The girl looked at him blankly. After a moment of silence, she pressed her hands to her temples and shook her head. "No… that's impossible. It can't have been a dream. Everything was so real! Something was chasing me. I felt it watching me in the palace!"
"I was watching you," the boy offered.
But the girl shook her head harder. "No, it was someone else! I'm serious! It was after me, and it was about to get me!"
The boy gave a pause. "Well, whatever it was, it can't catch you now. You're officially in the clear." He looked around the empty hills, then cracked a smile. "Heh. In the clear. Get it?"
The girl lowered her hands from her face. She started out at the landscape in frustration, but the emotion began to fade as the silence of the meadow replaced it. Had she been fighting? Now that she thought about it, all she could remember were a few blasts and some flurries of color. Then it all blended in with the rivers and the countryside from her dreams, and those were starting to become hazy too. The only things she could feel distinctly now were the warmth of the sun and the subtle sink of the soil as she shifted her weight.
The girl looked back at boy, who was watching her with his arms crossed, looking more humored than concerned. "What is this place?" she asked.
"It's my meadow," the boy replied. "I live here. I like it because I can do whatever I want, with no one to command me." He found a rock on the ground and nudged it around with his shoe.
"Yes, but where is this? Are we in the Fire Nation?"
The boy frowned. "What's that?"
The girl lifted her eyebrows. "The Earth Kingdom?"
"Never heard of it."
"What do you mean?" said the girl. "Don't you know the four nations? The people fighting the war?"
Now the boy's puzzled expression became streaked with disbelief. "What war?"
"The war between the nations! It lasted for a hundred years!"
The boy began to chuckle. "That really must have been some dream!"
The girl stood with her mouth hanging open, and when she finally managed to collect herself, she shook her head. "You're weird!"
The boy shrugged. "Well, I'm not the one who was talking to myself."
The girl gave a hmph and turned away. But a few seconds later, she looked back over her shoulder to study him again, while he knelt down and began to draw in the sand with a pointy edge of the rock. For what little he knew of the Fire Nation, the boy looked just like a royal child, with arm cuffs over his sleeves and a golden trim on his collar. She turned back to him all the way, finally deciding to speak. "Who are you?"
« Last Edit: Jan 11, 2017 10:11 am by DynaDratina »
The boy drew himself up proudly, laying a hand on his chest. "I'm Quin the Quester," he replied.
"Quin the Quester?" A small smile tugged at the girl's lips, and she lifted a hand to cover it. "Why would you call yourself Quin the Quester?"
"Because that's who I am," the boy said. "I quest for treasure and save kingdoms and unlock mysteries!" He leaned forward into a warrior's lunge and punched forward an arm, almost as if to shoot a flame. Then he straightened, concluding the form by pressing a fist into his palm. "I tried Wen of the Wilds for a bit, but that made me sound like some kind of jungle man who haunts villages." He raised his arms and let his mouth loll open. "Wooooooo!"
The girl gave a full-blown laugh, clutching her stomach.
"So who are you?" the boy asked.
The girl's face fell, and after a moment of silence, she found herself looking away from his eager gaze. "Well, if it was a dream like you said… then I guess it doesn't matter."
Quin considered this. "Oh. Well, that's okay. You don't have to think of a name if you don't want to. I just keep mine because I like to narrate what I do." He brushed some sand from his knees and stepped away from the pond. "But now that you're here, we can be a double team! There's lots to do around here. We can go rock-skimming and rope-jumping and fishing… Then when it's nighttime, we can play Scavenger Hunt. That's when we go around and look for an object. I've always wanted to play Hide and Explode too, but I could never get another person."
The girl frowned. "So there's really no one here but you?"
Quin nodded. "Yep." But then he paused, and tilted his head to the side. "Well, there is the old man. But he's never around for long, so he doesn't count."
"Who's the old man?"
"I don't know," Quin said. "But he likes to take walks around here sometimes. I always see him carrying flowers." He squinted and looked out into the distance. "You actually missed him by a couple minutes. He left when I was still sitting with you. I wanted to follow him that time to see where he'd go, but you seemed more important."
The girl lowered her gaze, feeling both heartened and guilty. "Oh. Well... maybe we'll see him again."
"We should. He always comes about every other day." Quin turned back to her. "But in the meantime, I gotta show you around. This can be your place too now. We'll share it together." He paused. "If you're not going anywhere else, I mean."
The girl shrugged, turning out her palms. "I don't think I am."
Quin brightened. "Then come on!"
He reached for her hand, and after a brief hesitation, the girl took it. Almost immediately, she felt a sharp tug and laughed as the boy began to pull her down the hill. The sensations were firm and real, much more real than the broken, disconnected memories of the palace, and as she continued to follow Quin, the girl felt those things evaporate and vanish. Instead, her perception took in the meadow, which seemed to have no bounds and was completely empty except for them. But occasionally, Quin revealed to her what she thought were signs of human presence. First, there was a Pi Sho set at the top of one of the hills, which the boy said he had found there a long time ago. It was set for two on a flat boulder, but since the boy could never find a playmate, he played a game he called Solo-Sho, which involved moving the pieces in complex sequences to make patterns. The girl sat with him while he explained the game, staring in astonishment at the colorful checkerboard, at the stone slab that was perfectly round, perfectly sized for the game.
The next thing Quin took her to was a group of large stone disks standing on their sides, and showed her how he climbed on top of them and tested his balance. Then he leaned over the edge, peering upside-down through the square hole in the center. "Hey there!" he said.
The girl laughed in response, but when Quin sat up and began to try hopping from one stone to another, she stared for a while longer at the square holes, swearing to herself that they reminded her of something.
Quin continued to lead her through the meadow, following what seemed to be a mental compass. The low-lying hills didn't reveal much else, only more rocks and occasionally some lone clumps of flowers. But then, they reached another pond. This one was larger than the one where she had been sitting, but had the same black sand forming its banks. Quin meandered over to it and sat down, as if it were a habitual resting point. The girl followed suit, kneeling down by the water. The surface was still as ever, providing a mirror-like reflection of her face.
"Funny I saw you by a pond," Quin murmured, after a while. He had sat up and was looking at the water as well. "Sometimes, when I look at them long enough, I see things too. Almost like visions of different places. One that I saw a lot was this swamp-forest. It has all these weird black trees and sandy mounds coming out of the water."
The girl's eyebrows climbed. "How's that possible?"
"It's the water." Quin smiled. "It's got this power of some sort. It keeps a connection." He reached into the pond and began to skim his fingers through the water, making little waves.
The girl continued to sit still, carefully studying her reflection, but beyond it all she saw was the empty bed. She sighed in resignation, then began to tap her chin with her finger. "So, could you actually go to the places you were seeing?"
"I don't know. I've never tried." Quin reclined into the grass and looked up into the sky, squinting slightly. "But even if I could, I wouldn't. This is the only place I want to be."
The girl sank into thought, hugging her knees to her chest. "I remember being somewhere else."
"Where's home for you?"
The girl thought for a moment, but for some reason she couldn't place her finger on it. "I don't know. It's definitely in the regular world, though."
Quin cracked a smile. "The Fire Nation?"
He frowned. "So, what other nations are there?"
"The Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes and the Air Nomads," said the girl. "Each group of people lives together."
"And why were they fighting?"
The girl paused. For a minute, she pictured a red comet streaking across a sky, but then her mind went blank. "I don't remember."
Quin looked at her with a lifted eyebrow, but settled back into the grass. After a moment, the girl followed suit, lowering herself down onto her back. The sky was bright and dotted with clouds. But right then, another image came to her mind - a red haze, white smoke, and fire. Comet fire.
"... How bad is it?"
"… not sure… need to start the procedure immediately…"
Fear panged inside of her. The voices had sounded from the back of her mind, almost like they were tapping through from another world. And yet, the meadow was still there. She still felt the grass shifting around her, and the soil beneath her. The girl sat up slowly, looking around. Maybe it had been her imagination…
Beside her, Quin sat up as well. He seemed as content as ever, and had found a twig to play with. But the girl was uneasy. Once again, she felt the peculiar sense of disorientation, as if half of her mind were somewhere else. She hardly noticed that she had begun to stare at the pond again, until suddenly, a flash of red appeared on the surface. It was brief, as if a kite had flown overhead. But moments later, it came again, this time slow enough so that she could make out a shape. It was a long red sleeve, rimmed with a gold cuff.
She wanted to call Quin over, but she found herself unable to move. She peered into the reflection her own eyes, round and wide, and right then, she saw the hazy outline of another face appear. But before it could materialize clearly, she heard a shout.
The girl jumped, tearing her gaze away from the water, and looked at Quin. The boy was on his feet, eagerly pointing out. "It's him! It's the old man!"
The girl rushed to his side, scanning the hills in the direction he was pointing. "Where is he?"
Quin let out a sound of frustration. "You just missed him. He went behind that hill. Come on!" He grabbed her hand and pulled her after him. The girl ran to keep up, frantically scanning her surroundings, but couldn't see anyone else. Quin, however, seemed to be following a surefire path. He quickly slipped away from her, getting ahead of her by several yards. But finally, after a minute of running, he stopped. He stood in place for a while, looking around with a hand shielding his eyes from the sunlight, then turned around and came back to her.
"Nah. We're too late. He's gone." Quin shoulders were drooped in resignation, clearly one he had felt many times before.
The girl looked at him quizzically. "But you just saw him. How can you tell?"
"He disappeared. He was just walking, then he went behind a hill and never came out." The boy sighed. "I guess there's always next time."
The girl frowned. "Why do you want to talk to him so badly?"
"I don't know. I have a feeling that he can tell me something. Or at least hold a decent conversation... I haven't had one in a long time."
"Then why don't you go to a city or something? Someplace with more people?"
Quin smiled. "I haven't had much luck with that." His eyes drifted up to the clouds. "See, I wasn't always here. I tried living in a lot of other places, just plain towns and villages. But for some reason, I never felt like I belonged there. People would always sort of pass by me, and they'd never look at me, even when I talked to them. Then, one day, I was standing by a crate of apples watching a merchant with a customer. And one of the apples fell, so the merchant reached out to get it. His hand went right through me. Like I didn't even exist."
The girl lifted her eyebrows. "Wow."
Quin gave a somber smile. "You can imagine that made me angry over time. So one day I just gave up and left town. I told myself I wouldn't stop until I got somewhere where I'd never see another person again. I just kept walking and walking, and at one point, I started feeling like my feet were climbing up something. And when I looked down, I saw that I was going up a really high slope. And when I got to the top, I saw this place." He brushed his hand across some grass, letting them bend beneath his palm. "And here, it's different. I think about everything that happened and it doesn't seem so bad anymore. I don't want to go anywhere else, because I don't need to."
The girl frowned. "It can't always have been like that, though. Don't you remember anything that happened to you before?"
"Not really." Quin paused. "I mean, I guess I must have lived somewhere, but I don't remember where. And I don't remember anybody I might have known. Or could have known, even." He looked off into the distance. "For as long as I've been here, I've never seen another person come around. The old man's the only one who does. That means this place is real to him, just like it is for me. And that has to count for something."
After a moment, the girl set her eyebrows together. "Come on. If he was going in that direction, then he wouldn't just suddenly change his mind. He probably just found a faster way to go." She started forward, then looked over her shoulder to get the boy to follow. After a moment, he did.
The sky began to grow cloudy in the distance. The children kept going, rounding the top of another hill, and when the girl saw what was on the other side of the mount, she gasped.
Laid out at the basin of the hill was an enormous flat field filled with bulbous white flowers. It stretched ahead of them for a great distance, before ceasing abruptly at the foot of an enormous wall made of white stone. The wall seemed like it had been a part of a larger structure before, with a sturdy shell and a square-toothed rim, but ended in a sagging, crumbling ruin on both ends.
The boy's eyes widened. "Whoa."
The girl stared at it in silent shock, speechless.
They carefully descended the hill and waded through the field. The flowers were all identical, bobbing indifferently as the children passed through them. The boy continued to turn his head as he walked, looking back to where they had come from, then back to the wall again.
"Wow. I've never seen this before..." The boy kept going until he was standing right next to the wall, peering up at the rim. The girl followed him, and towards the nearby crumbled edge, she noticed a square plot of soil that somebody had evidently been tending to. There were several pots standing together, holding various other leafy plants, and garden tools laid out neatly to the side.
"That must be where the old man goes," she said.
"Must be…" Quin agreed.
They went over to the garden together, and Quin knelt down. He picked up one of the pots, which held a purple flowering plant, and turned it around. His face grew somber. "It's not like I don't wonder what it would have been like if I had stayed," he said suddenly. "I know that if I lived in the regular world before, I must have had a family. And I'd go looking for them now if I could, but I don't even remember who they are. And it feels like it's been so long that they won't recognize me either." He dropped his voice. "I don't even know if they'd want me back... I mean, I must be the one who left them. And they've probably moved on from me already."
The girl stared into the boy's eyes as he said this. They were a light amber, and seemed older than he was.
It took a good deal of effort to pull away from his gaze, but nevertheless she did, and turned back to face the wall. As her gaze ran over the cracks in the stone face, something in them triggered a disquiet. It started out as a small pang, but soon it swelled into a sharp desperation, like a wave advancing over the shoreline.
"… check complete, condition stable."
"Loosen the cords and we'll begin."
The colors of the world sharpened, and outlines blurred. The girl felt her throat close up, and she turned back to the boy, breathless. "What's happening to me?"
The boy's expression clouded. "I don't know." His gaze went to the wall again. "Sometimes I wonder what I'm missing out on, though. I get this feeling that it's something important. And I know I probably didn't even appreciate it while I was there. I just kept obsessing over stupid little things instead of thinking about what really mattered. Because if I had, I'd probably still be there."
The girl looked at him, her voice hardly a whisper. "What matters?"
The boy thought for a moment. "I don't know. Just life, I guess. Being with people, talking to them." He looked at her. "I think it's good that you remember other places. Maybe that means you can still go back to them."
The girl stared at him blankly. She didn't want to go back. She didn't want to remember. All she wanted was to stay in the meadow, but for some reason she kept getting the feeling that something from outside was pulling her away.
She started to lift her hands to her head, but stopped midway and clenched them into fists. She felt a rush of dizziness, then the strange sensation of opening her eyes, though she was perfectly sure they had been open before. The horizon blurred into a hazy stripe. The wall faded behind a bright white light, and when she blinked again, the rest of the meadow was blotted out by shadows. She found herself looking up at a dark ceiling, where a large white lamp hung over her head.
The motion had stopped. The clanks had stopped. The bed was standing still, and she was lying on top of it, wearing what felt like a thin, long curtain. She shuddered, and in response, she felt a strip of tightness around her wrists and ankles.
She wasn't in a sarcophagus. She wasn't in a burning room. That might have been comforting before, but now she had no doubt she was somewhere she shouldn't be.
The girl squinted and turned her head to the side. This time, she saw a little more — white coats and arms shifting nearby.
"Get the water ready."
"Disinfecting the other side…"
Hands placed something wet and cold over her stomach. Without a moment's notice, a sharp, brilliant pain erupted from the spot, like a burn from molten magma. She tried to scream, but what came out instead was a low, hoarse moan.
"... waking, she's waking!"
"We can't… her wake up … injuries too severe…"
"… give her more of it…"
A moment later there came a puff of air, and a sweet, heavy scent washed over her. The white light blurred, and she felt a sickening drop as her head lolled to the side.
She fell back into the grass, her back striking a bumpy hill. When she opened her eyes, she found Quin kneeling beside her, eyes wide in concern.
"Hey! Are you okay?" He clasped a hand around her arm and pulled her up. The girl got to her feet, skin still prickling from the memory of pain.
Quin helped her brush some dirt from her clothes, then backed up to let her collect herself. "That was really strange," he said. "You sort of… froze." He did an imitation of a person seizing up.
The girl shook her head. "Something's wrong. I keep seeing this room…" She rubbed her temples. "They're doing something to me. I think they're trying to…" But she paused, unable to finish. She just looked at the boy, who after a moment, offered a smile.
"Hey. It's okay. If anything, you'll just end up back here again."
The girl looked at him. "Do you promise?"
Quin nodded. "Promise."
She did not respond. Quin held out his hand again. "Come on. Let's keep going."
She followed him through the grass, limbs heavy and shaky. The meadow looked different now. In the distance, the sky was a sheet of storm clouds, though beyond the wall, it was still sunny. The wind had picked up, and was stirring the grass.
"Looks like there's going to be a storm soon," Quin said. "We better keep going. We might find a place to wait it out."
The girl nodded and began to follow him. They passed by the wall, coming to the top of a large hill. And as they rounded the top, the girl saw the meadow plunge down until it became a charred, rocky valley, which lay carved out of the ground like an open wound. The grass there was thin and withered, dotted with gnarled trees.
In the distance was a small, wrecked plaza. Red pavilion roofs stood against the stormy sky, charred and chipped. The walls that surrounded the square were dirty and crumbling, and the points on some of the roofs had been broken off.
The girl stopped for a moment, her breath catching. "This is the place… this is where I was fighting."
Quin's eyes widened, but he didn't say anything.
They walked up to the entrance of the plaza and passed under the roof of one of the buildings. Here, they went in separate directions without being aware of it. The girl saw a storm drain on the ground and trailed off towards it, but when she knelt down to look, she saw that it was dry. She went to a door nearby and tried to open it, but it wouldn't budge. She stepped back out into the open air, examining the two long channels at the center of the arena, which had water splashed around their rims. She approached one of them and peered inside, but instead of a shallow pit, she saw a bottomless black hole.
Before the girl could ponder the situation, something sliced into her mind, arresting her thoughts and tainting the images around her with red. The hands were back again, dabbing her with something cold that sent painful heat ripping through her skin. The girl doubled over, gritting her teeth. Maybe it would stop. Maybe if she kept still, they would think she died, and go away. Maybe, maybe…
Several more pain flashes followed, each like a jab of fire that scorched her insides. The girl clenched her fists, and when the pain faded, she relaxed with a heavy breath, hanging her head. What had they done to her? What had they reduced her to?
She stifled her breath again, feeling her eyes well with tears. But a moment later, she blinked them away.
"No," she muttered. "No. You're not through with me. I'll show you." She straightened and looked up at the sky. "All of you!"
* * *
Another scream split the silence. Hands recoiled away from her.
"Did she just talk?"
"She's supposed to be unconscious. Give her more mist."
"Maybe we should do the bones first?"
"No. These burns are too severe. Some of them have been infected already, and if they aren't healed now, it might become systemic."
"What did she break, again?"
"Wrist, arm, collarbone, ankle… nothing we can't fix. But she must have been pushing herself to the limit. She's overworked, physically and mentally."
"Poor thing. So young…"
STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT!
"Hold her down! She's convulsing!"
"Get the mist, quickly!"
"She already has too much in her, if we just keep going it'll end sooner—"
"No! We have to treat her like she can wake up at any moment. There's no telling how long the serum will hold out."
Hazy noises in the background. Her eyelids pulled open at different degrees, and she saw a bright lamp floating overhead. She began to fidget, and felt the mattress crinkle beneath her. But before she could do anything else, she felt another puff of scented air, and something swooped down to strap her arms and legs to the bed. Simultaneously, her hands and feet were covered with what felt like heavy leather bags.
She fought unconsciousness as long as she could, feeling the water travel up to her shoulders and neck. The bursts of pain were duller now, but she clenched her fists against them, snarling senseless words. At last, she slackened with exhaustion, and sank back as the world faded away.
"She said something again!"
"What was it?"
"Revenge? I don't understand..."
"But you know. She almost killed them."
* * *
In the back of her mind, the girl spat. How dare those voices talk about her without even referring to her.
She slammed her eyes closed and waited for the plaza to return. Moments later, she saw herself stepping through a tunnel, emerging into full sunlight at the center of the arena. She looked around for the boy, but he was nowhere to be found.
"Quin?" She turned around, scanning the buildings. "Quin! Where are you?"
But the plaza was silent. She stood alone at the center of the arena, beneath the gray sky. Any minute now, the rain would come. Not knowing what else to do, the girl sat down and began to ponder the situation. The people had her captive somehow, and now they were doing something to make her submit to them. But she wouldn't let them. She would stay in the plaza as long as she could, even if it meant being destroyed along with it.
Slowly, she took a breath. "Okay, voices," she said. "It's going to be either you or me."
She sat down and crossed her legs, anchoring herself to the landscape as much as she could. But before long, she felt something slice into her mind again. She grabbed her head in preparation for the pain, but the pain didn't come. What came instead was a presence, one that she recognized, one she became so acutely aware of that it momentarily drowned out the rest of her thoughts.
A long shadow rose up on the ground in front of her, and the girl felt herself freeze. She turned around, feeling the sink of dread, and there it was. Standing behind her, like an apparition, was the presence she had felt in her dream, in the rubble after the battle, in the real palace she had left minutes before it. It was the woman from the mirror. She was wearing a red robe, with long golden cuffs that draped down from the sleeves.
The girl stared at the woman in horror. Then a second later, she snarled and shot a blast of blue fire at the apparition. But the flames dissipated as soon as they reached the woman's body, revealing her in the same state as before.
The woman looked at her with tired, saddened eyes. "It's me."
"Go away!" the girl shouted. She shot another blast of fire, then got up without a second thought and ran away. She zipped across the arena, passing the storm drain and hopping from the pavement onto the barren land. Somewhere in the realm beyond, the sounds from the voices and machines began to escalate.
Her surroundings blurred and danced. The girl bit her lip and ran faster.
"Coming along well…"
Stumbling and sputtering, the girl reached the ravaged valley. She looked up and saw the massive slope looming in the distance, a slide of rocks and gravel that lead up to the meadow. There, atop the ledge, she could still see a stripe of sunny green land, and found herself filled with a sudden desperation to reach it. She had to. Maybe, if she did, everything would go back to normal.
Eyes set on her target, the girl quickened her pace. But the slope was too far away. The energy was draining out of her, her body slowing like a failing machine, and the faster she tried to run, the more sluggish her motions became. Soon, she was reduced to a lumbering walk. Then she came to a stop, and stood in place at the center of the valley, teetering. Finally, she collapsed, hands and knees falling into the dirt.
She had lost.
Somewhere far away, a finger brushed her shoulder.
"It's almost over, darling," a woman's voice whispered.
The girl gritted her teeth. Darling. How dare they.
She lifted her head, looking up at the meadow with exhausted eyes. Her mouth trembled. But seconds later, she heard a whisper of wind as someone approached from behind. The girl turned back, and saw the woman from the mirror standing over her, the hem of her robe brushing over the gravel. Her face was somber and worn, like the scorched, diseased land she had come from.
The girl rose to her feet, meeting the woman's gaze with a snarl. "You think I don't know what you're doing!" she said. "You think you've trapped me here. You think you have me pinned. But you're wrong. You can chase me and hunt me all you want, but I'll always get away. I'll fight you to the end."
She lifted her arms out in front of her, bending one at the elbow.
At the same time, the woman reached out with her hand. "Azula…"
The girl smiled at the sound of her name. "Azula!" She bent her arms, sweeping two arcs in the air with her hands, and blasted two jets of blue flames from her fingertips. The fires combined into a single blast that swallowed Ursa whole, then rose and spread into a flat screen that obliterated her view of the plaza. Before the fire could fade, Azula turned around and lowered her fists to her sides, preparing to rocket herself away, but right then she felt the mysterious force from outside begin to tug her upwards. She stole a glance at the sky, sensing the people that were moving around her body. And in a moment's notice, she made her decision.
Azula lifted her arms, bending a tongue of blue flame in the air, and began to spin herself around in a circle. She kept the flames going, letting them gather in strength and volume, until the ring of fire that was forming around her nearly encased her body. At last, Azula stopped herself on her toe, pulling the mass of fire beneath her, and blasted off from the ground with a resounding boom. The force of it sent her rocketing upwards into the air, where she continued to fire flames from her fists and feet, looking up in anticipation as she got closer and closer to the clouds.
Her eyes flew open.
She lifted her head from the pillow, and the first thing she did was open her mouth and shoot a jet of blue flames at the ceiling. But a moment later, the fire was pushed down and spun into a ball, then with a single clap, a pair of hands dissipated them into the air. Simultaneously, several other arms pinned her down to the bed, and moments later, something heavy was wrapped around her like a cocoon, preventing her from moving.
"There. All set and ready to go."
Azula looked down at herself and glimpsed a bed, where the rest of her body was wrapped in a thick, heavy blanket. Someone gripped the bars of the bed and rolled it speedily down a hallway, turning her into another room. It was filled with hazy shapes, who were scurrying around, adjusting equipment and folding sheets. In the middle of a side wall, there was a large empty space. Her bed was wheeled into it and parked.
Overhead, the face of a different woman swam into view, and smiled.
"Well, honey, you gave us quite a fright back there. But fortunately it's all over now. Welcome to your new home."
(End of Chapter 1)
2. Nira, Mira, and Kira
Sometime later, Azula blacked out. She didn't know exactly when; the faces and voices simply began to blur in her mind, turning into some strange conglomeration of image and sound, before finally fading for the darkness of sleep - sleep of the heavy and fuzzy kind, where there were no dreams, and no movement for sheer exhaustion.
She woke up a few times in short bursts, gasping and blinking, her mind surging with scenes of rainstorms and clapping thunder. But she always found herself in the same room, lying on her back, with a blanket pulled up to her neck. The dimmed ceiling lamp gave off a murky orange light, which cast most of her surroundings into shadow, revealing only the silhouettes of cabinets and shelves. Her body seemed ten times heavier than before; where at one point, she remembered struggling to move her legs, now, she could hardly lift a single arm from the bed. But as she continued to fidget around, she discovered a tangible reason - her body was strapped down to the mattress by what felt like dozens of elastic bands, which reached horizontally from one side of the bed to the other, more or less trapping her in a single position.
As her waking periods grew longer, and the room around her clearer, Azula became aware that something was very, very wrong.
She was definitely someplace else. It wasn't in a dream, and it certainly wasn't anywhere in the palace. The bed she was lying in looked more like a metal fruit cart with a mattress tied on top. It had smooth metal bars running along all four sides, and wasn't much wider than she was.
To her right, there was a large stone countertop, which ran along the wall, stopped for the door, then continued a little past the corner. The surface was a smooth and sterile wasteland, with not a stray object in sight. Directly across from her stood an empty bookshelf, pushed against the wall like a white building block. But the worst came when Azula looked to her left and saw the window - a ghastly, gaping, metal sheet stretching almost from floor to ceiling, lined with the vertical grooves of tightly-closed shutters. A pair of curtains hung from a metal bar above it, but though they were currently drawn, the shutters didn't let any light shine through. On the whole, the room looked like an abandoned construction project, or some sort of torture chamber.
It was also astoundingly quiet.
Azula lay still for a long time, pondering the situation. Her head felt tired and clear, as if some powerful gale had blown through and swept away all of her former thoughts. Fragmented memories of a meadow and a boy still drifted up in her mind, but they were already so faded and distant that she had no way of piecing them back together. Meanwhile, her gaze ran across the room's every curve and corner, studying the shelves, the faucet, and the cabinet doors beneath the counter. But nothing came out of her investigation except for more silence.
After a minute, Azula narrowed her eyes. "Guards! Servants!"
No one replied.
Suddenly, a host of memories marched into her mind, and she slammed her eyes closed. She had banished them all. Then she had lost an Agni Kai to - no, no, there was no point in dwelling on that now.
Azula opened her eyes again. She turned her attention to the blanket, and after some thought, she gripped the edge with her teeth and tossed it aside. The sheets folded back to expose the sleeve of a nightgown, and the thick black bands that held her down. She tried to heat them up with firebending, channeling warmth to her skin to make them stretch, but for some reason the heat didn't come. She tried to break free through sheer force of pulling, but the elastic held firm and pulled her back.
With a sigh, Azula let her head plop down on the pillow. After a moment, she sucked in a breath and turned herself as far to the right as she could, craning her neck down to see over the edge of the bed. She was about a leg's height from the floor. She swept her gaze more carefully over the bookshelf, hoping to find something sharp or pointy in its depths, but it was empty.
Azula settled onto her back again and took a breath. There was still one part of her they hadn't covered.
She inhaled through her nose, preparing to blow fire on the blanket, but when she pushed her breath out through her mouth, nothing came out. Just regular air. Azula took another breath and repeated the cycle, but got the same result. With a groan, she clenched her fists and tried to make fire through her hands, but felt nothing, not even the slightest rise in temperature. She felt a flash of panic.
Abandoning all composure, she began to writhe and flail, pulling against the bands with all the strength she had.
"No, no, NO!"
The mattress creaked under her fidgets, and the bed began to slide back and forth on its wheels. Before long, she heard a rush of approaching footsteps, and moments later, the door to her room burst open.
The lamp on the ceiling flashed and brightened, flooding the entire room with white light. Azula looked up to see three women bunched up in the doorway, one who had her hand on a switch on the wall and the other two who were peering over her shoulders. They were dressed in white kimono shirts and long skirts, all spotless and matching. Azula gritted her teeth at them. "What did you do to me?"
The woman by the light switch stepped forward, clapping a hand over her chest. "I don't believe it! And there don't seem to be any adverse effects from the procedure."
"We'll have to wait for the test results, though," said another, walking in after her.
"I asked you, what did you clunking buffoons do to me?" Azula shouted. "What happened to my firebending?"
"Nothing happened to your firebending," the first woman answered. She came closer to the bed, and with a jolt of surprise, Azula recognized her. She had been the one who had appeared after the dream, smiling and saying that it was all over. The woman's hair was short and wavy, and she had an annoying, dimpled face. Once she had looked Azula over, she pulled the blanket off and began to fold it. Azula jerked upwards, straining against the bands, and managed to lift herself a few inches from the mattress.
"Don't lie to me! I heard you all when you were talking! You did some sort of operation on me, didn't you? You took my firebending away!" Azula exhaled sharply, taking her aim at the woman's face, but no flames came out.
The second woman stepped into view. "Honey, we didn't do anything to you. You have to calm down."
"You call tying me down and locking me up in this filthy shack doing nothing?"
The first woman draped the folded blanket over her arm and placed a hand on the bed. "Listen, sweetheart, just relax. You've been through a lot. We don't want to make the transition too sudden."
"What transition?" Azula shouted. "Tell me where I am!"
"Sssh. It's okay." The woman stroked Azula's arm. "You're in a hospital. The operation you remember was three days ago. You were hurt really bad, and we decided it would be best to keep you asleep while your body healed. Technically, you weren't supposed to wake up this early... we were expecting you to regain awareness by the end of tomorrow. But it's like I say, the body has a mind of its own sometimes!" She chuckled.
Azula looked around. She couldn't think of any place that reminded her less of a hospital. It was more like a bare room with equipment shoved in. The nurses looked out-of-place with their tidy attire, and the light cast a bland, waxy glow over their faces.
"I want to leave," she said at last.
"Honey, you're not going anywhere right now. Conscious or not, you still have to stay in bed for the prescribed time to let your body recover from the procedure."
"What procedure? What did you do to me?"
"We healed you," said the third nurse. She approached from her place by the door, arms crossed. "You were covered in burns and scrapes that got infected, so the first thing the doctor did was clean them and dose you with antibiotics. Then he stabilized your joints and gave you special serums to relax your muscles. Then we cleaned you up and put you to sleep."
The second nurse gave an emphatic nod. "You have to stay in bed until the effects of all the medications wear off," she added.
Azula stared at the women in dumb fury. What made the situation even more frustrating was that her memory was still drawing up a blank. From the time after the Fire Sages captured her, she could remember nothing. Absolutely nothing.
The wavy-haired nurse must have taken Azula's silence for submission, for she smiled. "Just relax for now. We'll give you a few days' rest, then we'll remove the bandages, and when you're completely healed, we'll bring the doctor in and he'll have a word with you."
Azula gritted her teeth. "I'm not going to see your stupid doctor! You're not going to heal me! I am going HOME!" She began to rock back and forth again, but the nurse steadied the bed and pushed Azula down by the shoulders.
"You are home, Azula. Now lie still. We're going to get you cleaned up." She turned away from the bed and walked off.
Azula watched the three women rush in and out of the door, her eyes leering behind jagged strands of hair. She fixed the appearances of the last two, noting the fire-insignia clips adorning their topknots. That meant they were definitely in the Fire Nation. They wouldn't have dared to wear those if they were outside the kingdom.
One of the topknot-nurses went to help Annoying Dimples, wetting a towel in the sink. Meanwhile, the other bent down to open a cabinet, taking out a candle. Humming, she placed it into a shallow plate and lifted a finger to the wick. Azula watched as the nurse lit a small flame with her finger, and right then, a realization flashed in her mind.
Of course. Sozin's Comet.
Azula's heartbeat quickened.
The comet had passed, and everyone's firebending was back to normal. That meant that something had to have happened. The Earth Kingdom should be in ashes. She would hear word from her father any minute.
Annoying Dimples came over to the bed and dabbed Azula's face with a warm towel. After she finished, she handed it off to Topknot One, who washed it out by the sink, then gave it back. Meanwhile, Topknot Two waltzed over and placed her candle on the nightstand to Azula's right.
"Here. I thought you'd enjoy a little aromatherapy." The nurse artfully wafted the air around the candle, pushing a strange, grassy scent into Azula's nose.
Azula flinched away with a scowl. "Why don't you clean this place instead?"
Topknot Two began to laugh. "Oh, you silly!"
Azula began to twist at her binds, but Annoying Dimples held her down and pressed the washcloth to her neck. "Hold still, honey. I'm almost done."
Azula flinched away from the nurse's hand. "I'm not your dear, or your honey, or your darling, you stupid pig! I am the Fire Lord! Daughter of the Phoenix King!"
"Let's not get too ahead of ourselves here," Annoying Dimples said. "You can't work yourself up - you're not allowed. Take it as a mandatory spa-relaxation session. We want you to heal up a bit more before we introduce you to the doctor."
"What doctor?!" Azula shouted. "Where am I? Why aren't you people telling me anything?"
Topknot One winced, and Annoying Dimples braced Azula by the shoulder. "It's all right, honey, it's fine! Everything's fine. You'll find out everything soon enough. For now, we'll start with something simple. I'll tell you my name. Do you want to know that?"
The nurse answered anyway, pressing her hand to her chest. "I'm Kira." She pointed to Topknot One. "That's Mira."
Topknot Two poked her head into Azula's field of vision, tossing a towel over her shoulder. "And I'm Nira!"
"We're your nurses," Kira said. "We're medical professionals, so you can rest assured that you're in good hands."
Mira offered a smile. "And we're from the Fire Nation, just like you."
Azula's growl became a snarl. "WHAT HAPPENED TO MY FATHER?"
Panic flashed in Mira's eyes. "This isn't working. Why don't we just have her sleep for the rest of the period and start everything like we planned?" She looked at Kira, but the other woman shook her head.
"No. She's just a little disoriented. The more time she spends awake, I think, the better. It'll make things much easier on her." Kira looked down at Azula. "Now lie still. We're going to test your blood."
Kira went to the counter to get a metal tray and rolled a stool over to Azula's left. She sat down and carefully pulled Azula's arm out of the bands, lying it on top of them. "Clench your fist, dear… that's it." She took an elastic rope and tied it around the top of Azula's arm, pulling it so tight that it dug into the muscle. Azula watched in horror as the nurse felt her arm with her fingers, finally isolating a small, bulging vein. She wiped the spot with a pad of gauze and took a syringe from the tray. "This won't hurt."
Kira poked the needle through Azula's skin, and Azula felt her entire arm constrict as ruby red liquid spurted into the syringe. Her arm went cold and numb, but at the same time she felt like something was being wrung out from inside of it, and as she watched the blood rise in the container, her heart began to pound.
"You're taking too much!" she shouted. "You're taking too much, you snake!" Azula started to shake her arm in an attempt to dislodge the needle, but Kira held her down.
"No! Goodness, dear, haven't you ever seen blood before? This is how much I'm supposed to be taking. It just looks like a lot, but really it's only a small percentage of your total volume. You have over a gallon more." Kira smiled.
Azula stared back at her, speechless. Once the container had filled to its full capacity, Kira took the needle out and pressed another cotton wad to the spot. She held the syringe out to Mira. "Take this to Isla," she said.
Mira nodded and left the room.
In the meantime, Kira took a wad of sticky tape and tied it around the gauze to hold it down. She looked at Azula, who was pale in the face. "There. Feel better?"
"No!" Azula shrieked. "I'm dizzy! I'm dying, you stupid wood-brain, you took too much blood!"
"Relax." Kira stroked Azula's arm. "A bit of dizziness is normal. It'll go away in a few minutes. Besides, we have to know how much medicine from the operation is still in your body."
"The operation where you took my bending away, you mean?"
Kira sighed. "All right. If you have to know, the reason you can't firebend is because we gave you a chi-suppressant while we were working on you. We didn't want you blasting us with flames while we tried to heal you, after all, so we dosed you with a serum that slowed your energy flow."
Nira, who was wiping the counter with her towel, turned around and nodded. "We couldn't give you too much, because you already had a lot of drugs in you, like the anesthetic and the antibiotics. They were already straining your chi flow as it was, so giving you too much of the serum would have caused a bad reaction."
Azula's breathing grew ragged. In all her life, she had never used more than herbal steam to cure a stuffy nose. "You've poisoned me," she said. "You didn't just strain my chi, you killed it. You killed my firebending!"
Nira laughed. "Don't be silly! We just dosed you a second time, twelve hours after we finished. Besides, you can't kill a person's chi. I mean, it's technically possible, with enough concentrations, but then you'd be dead!"
The nurse's kooky smile was met with silence. Azula looked at her a moment longer, then she grabbed the tray from Kira's lap and flung it at Nira's head. The corner bounced off the nurse's forehead, and she stumbled back with a "Yow!"
"I'll show you dead!" Azula pulled against the elastic bands, clawing at the air with her free arm. But Kira caught her wrist in mid-swipe.
"Relax! Honey, relax! That was some bad phrasing on Nira's part. Of course we don't want you dead!"
Nira, who had stumbled back against the cabinets, failed to keep her balance and slid to the floor. She sat up, blinking comically, then crawled over to the tray and began to pick up the fallen utensils. Azula settled back, but continued to glare at Nira, till the door opened again and another woman poked her head inside.
"The antibiotics have cleared, and there's no infection," the woman said. "There's a little anesthetic left, but since she's awake anyway, I'd say it's fine to do the physical examination."
Kira looked up at the new arrival and smiled. "Thank you, Isla!" She rose from her chair and went somewhere behind Azula's head, rustling wires and clinking locks. A moment later, Kira pushed the bed away from the wall and steered it towards the exit.
On their way to the door, Nira fell into step with them, rubbing her head. "Ouch!" she remarked, glancing at Kira. "Maybe we should get plastic trays instead?"
Azula lay still, looking up at the ceiling. The doorframe slid past, and they entered a narrow gray hallway. After coasting straight for a few seconds, the bed turned again, and they passed into another room, this one much smaller than the first. The only furnishings were a counter and some cabinets that hung on the walls. The window was another steel-clad sheet above the sink.
Mira was already inside, as was the fourth nurse who had appeared moments before. She had lank black hair that hung plain, past her shoulders. She turned around as Azula's bed came to a stop, and the other three nurses gathered around the sides.
Isla took a bottle of purple liquid from the counter and poured it into a syringe. "The serum's ready in case you need it."
"That's okay." Kira looked down at Azula. "We'll be well-behaved, won't we?"
Azula was too listless to respond. The dizziness had passed, but it still felt like a sheet of gauze was wrapped around her mind, making reality seem fuzzy and distant. She watched as Kira unstrapped her right arm and held it up in the air. The nurse bent the elbow and rotated the wrist, then spent a moment feeling the bones. With a nod, she laid it back down and strapped it in. "All clear here."
From the other side of the bed, Nira removed Azula's left arm from the straps and did the same check.
Meanwhile, Isla had turned back to the counter, where she had an assortment of bottles, pipets, and boxes. She took spoons of liquid and pinches of powder and mixed them all in some container that Azula couldn't see. Whenever she opened one of the wall cabinets, Azula would see shelves and shelves of glass bottles, their bellies filled with a rainbow of colors.
"What are you doing?" Azula moaned out. "What's all that for?"
"For you," said Nira. "Now relax your leg. We've gotta make sure your knee's in one piece. It took a pretty hefty bump when you fell from the roof, so we had to put it back together." She unlocked the straps from Azula's left leg and began to lift it.
Azula gritted her teeth. "I'm… not… sick!" She shook away from Nira's grip and kicked at the air. Nira ducked smartly, leaving Mira to get the full force of Azula's foot, which knocked her upside the mouth. Mira fell back, bumping into the counter and sending a rattle through Isla's workstation. Isla braced the surface with her arms. "Careful!"
« Last Edit: Jan 24, 2017 01:00 pm by DynaDratina »
With a grumble, Mira brushed her hair away from her face and pushed herself off. She lifted Azula's leg and continued the check, but this time her grip was harsher and her mouth curled downwards.
Nira moved on to Azula's ribs in the meantime, prodding each bone with her fingers like a professional excavator. Kira stepped over to Azula's other leg and began to test it. Midway, she looked over to Mira. "Mira, don't forget the reflex test."
Mira bobbed her head in a surly nod, then opened a drawer and took out a small wooden mallet. She turned back to Azula, who had begun to retract her leg, and grabbed onto her shin. "Hold still!" She attempted to pull Azula's leg back, and by accident her fingers dug into a large bruise on Azula's calf. Snarling, Azula kicked her heel into Mira's stomach, and the nurse doubled over, staggering back. But before she could collide with the counter, Isla caught her by the shoulders and set her upright.
"Yep. She's definitely recovered…" With a sigh, Isla nudged Mira forward, then turned to slide her mixing bowl into a far corner.
Meanwhile, Kira tapped Azula's right knee with the mallet, then did the same for the left. Once she was done, she and Mira strapped both legs down again.
"Great!" Kira said. "Everything's healed properly. Your bones and muscles are in perfect working condition."
"Does that mean we should take her?" asked Nira.
Mira nodded briskly, arms crossed. "Yes. I think we should. The sooner the better."
But Isla shook her head. "Not a good idea. She should sleep off the anesthetic first, so she'll have a clear mind."
Kira considered this for a moment, then nodded. "All right. I agree with Isla. We'll meet the doctor with fresh heads." She smiled down at Azula. "Okay?"
Azula was silent.
The nurses wheeled her back to the first room and parked her into her former spot. Then they broke apart and began to go about a series of tasks, like soldiers from a cavalry. Mira scrubbed the floor, while Kira stocked the counter with syringes, jars, and boxes. Nira placed a clock on the counter and wound it to read 10:30. A smaller arrow beneath the face pointed to a moon, indicating it was evening. Meanwhile, Isla migrated the contents of the other room, bringing trays of bottles and arranging them in the lower cabinets. She also brought an armful of plastic packets and began to fill them with liquid.
Azula watched it all, dumbfounded. With every bit of the room they brought into order, something inside of her shifted out of place, bringing the tower of her patience closer and closer to collapsing. Where was her father? Where was the Avatar?
Where was anyone?
Her eyes followed the nurses as they gradually finished their jobs, dimming the ceiling lamp to plunge the room into an orange murk. Mira made a few final swipes with her washcloth and slinked away. Nira slid a round wooden table and chair into the corner by the window, then went to catch up with Mira. A ghostly Isla came to insert a needle into Azula's left arm, hanging one of the plastic bags on the hook of a tall pole. Purple liquid began to drip into the tube. Finally, Kira approached and covered Azula with a blanket, pulling the covers up to her neck. The nurse's shadowy face spread into a smile. Right before she left, she paused by the door with her hand over the light switch.
Her mind tossed and turned through darkness. She dreamed of her father's airship fleet, taking off from the Royal Plaza into a reddening sky. Herself, standing on a tall observatory and watching, as the zeppelins sailed off into the distance where the sea met the horizon. She should have been with them. She should have gone with her father, but he had left her behind. And now, she was certain that something bad was going to happen.
Hours later, Azula woke up. The hospital room was utterly black, and from the space beneath the closed door, she saw that the hallway was too.
She lay still for a long time, staring up at the ceiling. After a while, she started to take deep breaths, trying to produce a flame, searching for even the smallest stir of heat inside of her. But nothing happened. She might as well have tried to strike a burnt-out match.
Giving a groan, Azula began to pull against the bands again, trying to twist herself into another position as best as she could. She intensified her efforts, and finally managed to heave herself over onto her right side, squashing her right arm beneath her. Her left one was clamped flat against her body, jutting out into the bands, making movement impossible. Azula was stuck looking at the counter, blinking in the darkness, where she could make out the outlines of the lower cabinets. She breathed a sigh.
Maybe her father really had recreated the world, and she was stuck in some residual fragment of the old one, sentenced to eternal purgatory. Was it punishment for her loss? She didn't think so. Ozai had no way of knowing about her duel with Zuko. It had to be something else. Some external force that was alien to them both. Azula thought of the waterbender girl who had been with Zuko, the one who had always traveled with her older brother and the Avatar. She and Zuko had both come on the Avatar's sky bison. That had to mean that the Avatar was somewhere else, possibly fulfilling a second half of a divide-and-conquer strategy.
And that could only mean one thing. If Zuko had gone after her, then the Avatar had to have gone after her father.
Azula blinked a few more times, feeling shock settle in.
Perhaps that was why it was taking so long. Perhaps the battle was already happening, some ten thousand feet above the ground, the Avatar's four elements against her father's solitary mastery. Technically, there was no reason for her father to lose - after all, he had twelve airships full of firebenders backing him up. But some part of her knew that he wouldn't have let them help. If the Avatar confronted him, Ozai would make sure it was a one-on-one match.
Azula shifted her gaze back to the edge of the mattress, feeling a wave of resolve rise up within her. She had faced the Avatar dozens of times. Granted, his bending had improved after each encounter, but even so, a good part of his victories had still been the result of luck. And Ozai was the most powerful person she knew. If there was anyone who could finally put the Avatar in his place, it was him.
It had to be.
What felt like an eternity later, Azula woke up and saw a stripe of light from the crack beneath the door. Minutes later, she heard the sound of hushed footsteps and whispers from the hallway, then the door to her room creaked open.
"Ssh. Come quietly."
The light flickered on to its dimmest setting, revealing the shadowy figures of the three nurses. One of them approached and nudged Azula's shoulder. It was Kira.
"Honey. Are you awake?"
Azula flinched away, and Kira smiled. "Great! We'll turn the lights on, okay?"
Nira slid up the adjustor, and the light went on to full brightness. Kira lifted the blanket away and unstrapped the upper half of Azula's body, allowing her to sit up. At the same time, Mira approached from the right, pushing a strange wheeled chair up to the bed. The contraption was made mostly of metal, with a cushioned seat, armrests, footrests, and two giant rubber wheels on the sides. It also had a strap system of its own, with several thin, black bands for the legs, arms, torso, and neck.
"We'll have you sit here while I make your bed," Kira said. "Isla's going to test your blood again."
She fiddled with some locks on the bottom side of Azula's bed, and one by one, unclasped the straps the held her down. She lifted Azula up from the bed, supporting her beneath the back and knees, and lowered her down into a seated position into the wheelchair. Almost immediately, Mira began to put on the chair's straps, withholding only the arms and the one for Azula's neck. When she was done, she tied a white elastic band around Azula's right arm and felt around for another vein. Finding one, she stuck the needle in and drew a bit of blood.
In the meantime, Isla walked in with a microscope in her arms and set it onto the counter by the sink. She unlocked an overhead cabinet and took out a large mixing bowl, along with several bottles.
Once Mira had gotten the blood and cleaned up the wound, she approached Azula with a comb and began to brush her hair. She tugged through the tangles that had built up over the days and managed to return Azula's hair some of its former sheen. But she couldn't get rid of the jagged fringe, the remnant of the self-haircut Azula had done before the coronation. Mira looked at it in unease, but was forced to let it hang in front of Azula's eyes, partially neat, partially chaotic.
Mira was about to step away, but before she could, Azula reached out and clasped the nurse's wrist.
"This is your last chance," she said. "Tell me where I am and how I got here, or I'll end you."
"No, sweetie, this is your last chance." Mira smiled. "Let go of me, or I'll sedate you!"
Azula lowered her chin and returned the expression. "Try me."
In a sudden motion, Azula yanked Mira forward and butted her head into her stomach, sending the nurse stumbling back. Mira grabbed onto the counter before she could fall, her arm toppling several of Isla's bottles before finally gaining a grip.
Isla dropped her pestle and rushed to sweep the bottles out of the way. "No bumping!"
Mira, who had ended up in a partial squat, primly rose to her full height. Still with her eyes on Azula, she opened one of the nearby drawers and took out a syringe of clear liquid. She put her thumb on the back end, and for a moment, she and Azula looked at each other silently.
Azula began to fumble with the clasps of the leg straps, but couldn't figure out how to unlock them. Sitting up, she grabbed the side wheels of her chair and tried to turn herself away from the counter, but succeeded only in moving forward a few inches. Mira stepped to the side a little, still holding the syringe, but before either of them could make another move, Kira stepped between them.
"All right, that's enough. This is no way to start a new day. Let's just calm down and get on with things. We might even be able to see the doctor soon."
Mira looked at Azula through narrowed eyes, but put the syringe down. Azula smiled.
Kira knelt down beside the wheelchair and began to undo the clasps. "All right. Now we're going to have you change into some new clothes." She turned her head towards Nira, who closed one of the overhead cabinets and came forward with a red garment in her hands. She unfolded it to reveal a jumpsuit, with short sleeves and long pants, and placed a pair of brown shoes onto the floor.
"Cute, aren't they?" said Nira. "And we had everything custom-made, so you won't have to worry about the fit."
Kira removed the rest of the leg straps and lifted Azula to her feet. Immediately, Azula pushed Kira away and dove behind the wheelchair, grasping it by the back handles. She kicked it forward while Kira was still staggering for balance, but the nurse managed to push it away, accidentally sending it rolling in Isla's direction. The chair bumped into Isla's leg, and she teetered over the counter. "Watch out!"
Azula spun around towards the bed and jumped onto it, gripping the bars to swing her legs over to the other side. Nira and Kira raced after her, while Mira hung back, picking up the syringe. In a matter of seconds, Azula reached the shuttered wall, and as Kira drew close, she swung out her leg and kicked the nurse in the chest. But right then, Nira's hand knocked into Azula's back, causing her fall to her hands and knees. Before Azula could get up, Nira grabbed her arms and pulled them behind her back. Mira rushed over with the syringe, but Kira held up an arm to block her.
Mira pushed Kira's hand away. "Don't tell me what to do! Move!" She started to move towards Azula, but Kira pulled her back.
"I said, no!" Kira repeated. "Tranquilizer is for emergencies only!"
"And this isn't one?"
Kira sighed, but this time her face noticeably flushed. "No, Mira, believe it or not, it isn't. Maybe you didn't get the message, but we're here to heal her, not-"
But she was cut off at that moment by Azula's loud yell, as she broke away from Nira and lunged at them both. Azula got down on the floor and swung her legs out in an arc, kicking Mira's feet out from beneath her. The nurse fell, the syringe clattering to the floor, and Azula snatched it up.
Gasping, Mira scrambled away towards the shelves, grabbing a tray to shield herself. Nira and Kira froze. Over by the opposite wall, Isla wrapped her arms around her equipment and retreated farther into the corner.
Slowly, Azula began to back away towards the window, holding the syringe out in front of her like a dagger. Nira and Kira approached tentatively, unsure how to best proceed. Finally, Kira made a rapid lunge and snatched the syringe from Azula's hand. She grabbed onto Azula's wrist, and at the same time, Nira grabbed both of Azula's legs and lifted them from the ground, stretching Azula horizontally out between them.
Azula lunged towards Kira, punching the nurse with her free arm, causing her to fling the syringe away instinctively.
There was a loud clatter as the syringe fell onto the counter, and Isla whirled around, slapping her knee. "Are you all insane?"
"No!" Mira pushed herself closer against the cabinets and pointed to Azula. "She is!"
Nira gasped. "Mira!"
But while Nira's head was turned, Azula kicked her feet from the woman's grip and sank to the floor. Then she jerked her other arm free from Kira, but before Azula could stumble away, Kira caught her again and linked both of her hands behind her back. At the same time, Nira slid over on her knees and wrapped her arms around Azula's legs, locking them together in a standing position.
Mira approached with a fresh syringe in hand, smiling. "You want to know why you're here, sweetie? Do you really want to know?"
Azula gritted her teeth and knocked her head back as hard as she could, hitting it into Kira's. Kira's grip loosened, and Azula tore her arms free, grabbing Mira by the hair and shoving her away. As Mira fell back, Azula grabbed the syringe from her hand and jabbed it into Nira's shoulder. Nira flinched away with a yelp and began to wipe away the puddle of tranquilizer that had leaked out from the needle. Behind her, Mira dove back for the open drawer and began to fumble around for another syringe.
From the other side of the room, Isla turned on them. "If you three don't cut it out, I'm going to spray this whole room with sedative!"
But no one listened. Kira rushed towards Azula from behind, and Azula spun around to meet her, delivering a flying kick to her head. As Kira swiveled to the side, Azula bent her knees and sprang into a backwards arc, her body bending in the air as she touched off the floor with her hands and landed on her feet. When she straightened, Azula spun around and swiped her leg at Mira, who leaned out of the way and aimed a punch at Azula's head. Azula blocked the blow and retaliated with her own, and the two entered a rally of jabs and swipes.
From behind, Azula heard footsteps. "That's it." Isla appeared beside them with a spray bottle. Azula swung her fist at her, but Isla ducked away. Mira lunged forward to attack again, but Azula dove past her and slid to the floor, crawling up to the cabinets beneath the counter. Bating her breath, she flung open the doors and began to snatch the bottles from the shelves, flinging them behind her in every direction. Glass shattered off the floor and furniture, and the four nurses hopped around the puddles, trying to shield themselves and catch the flying bottles at the same time.
Azula had just emptied the middle shelf when a pair of hands grabbed her waist and pulled her away. She turned around and saw Nira, who tried to lift her up, but Azula punched her and pushed her away. Mira and Kira's feet pounded over the floor as they rushed to surround Azula in a tide of sweeping skirts. Isla scampered away to shield her workstation. Azula tried to stand, but the three nurses closed around her before she could, piling their heads and arms on top of her and cornering her against the cabinets.
Azula took several breaths, squinting as she tried to see through the mess of legs, shoulders, and hair. They had squished her against the side of the counter, forcing her to sit down on the floor with her arms and legs folded up in front of her. Azula began to writhe around in place, trying to find an opening which she could squeeze herself through, but the nurses adjusted their positions every time, keeping her trapped. But finally, one of them took a slightly wider stance, opening up a large triangle of space near the floor. Azula lowered herself to her hands and knees and quickly crawled through, scrambling away towards the bed, and just as the three nurses turned around in search of her, she whirled around to face them and lunged off the ground with her foot. She gave them the most forceful push she could muster, ramming Nira into Mira into Kira, who fell against each other like dominos, finally crashing with the full force of their momentum into Isla.
There was a peal of breaking glass as Isla fell face-first into her test-tube set, breaking through the rickety metal frame and collapsing with it over the counter. The mixing bowl toppled and slid upturned on her head, spilling herbs and blood all over her shoulders, which dribbled down her uniform as she slid to the floor. Then the bowl slipped off of her head and fell down, followed by several displaced bottles that rolled over the edge of the counter, falling beside her and shattering.
The other nurses froze on their feet and knees, gasping.
Isla sat motionless in the colorful mess for a while, drops of red, green, and blue dripping down her shirt. Her eyes pulled open, sticky from the mask of liquids splattered on her face, and blinked up at the ceiling for a few moments. Then her gaze went down, trailing across the room to find Azula. The girl was doubled over in an awkward fighting stance, arms spread out in the air.
Isla narrowed her eyes. "I think she's ready to see the doctor now."
(End of Chapter 2)
3. Captor On Call
One by one, the nurses rose to their feet. Nira and Kira went to Azula and bound her arms behind her back, forcibly lowering her down into the wheelchair. While they held her in place, Mira strapped her in, this time adding the bands that went around Azula's arms and neck. Isla left the room in the meantime and brought back a mop, and began to sweep away the broken glass.
Once the floor and counter were clean again, Kira opened a top cabinet and took out a long wooden box. She opened the lid, revealing a neat row of syringes, which contained more of the mysterious purple liquid. She dabbed the inner crease of Azula's elbow with disinfectant, then poked one of the needles into her vein, pressing on it with her thumb to push the liquid out. Moments later, Azula began to feel heavy, as if the strength were beginning to drain from her muscles. Within a minute she grew weak to such an extent that she had to droop her chin down to her chest.
The voices and motions around her became hazy. Long skirts and rapid feet shuffled in and out of the room, causing a constant buzz of noise that suddenly seemed loud and irritating. One of the nurses made the bed, while another went around with a wastebasket to clear the drawers of old needles and empty bottles. Over time, Azula noticed other faces appear apart from the original four, all of them dressed in the same white uniform, exchanging rapid jargon. At one point, someone took her wheelchair and rolled her into the empty space between the foot of the bed and the bookshelf, turning her to face the window. At the same time, another pair of hands pushed the round wooden table out from its place in the far corner and set it in front of her. It was followed moments later by the sole wooden chair.
Azula leaned her elbow on the table and put up a hand to support her head, but as time wore on, she unknowingly slouched over and became lost in the pattern of her place mat. She wanted to not exist, to disappear, to plunge through a hole in the ground and take as many of the idiot nurses with her as she could. She heard clinks and shuffles as they continued to rush around nearby, like roaches. But she didn't look up, not until she heard the door open, and a male voice enter the verbal exchange.
Azula lifted her head and blinked. There was a series of heavy, unfamiliar footfalls, then seconds later, two feet in boots stepped over to the chair, and a large, maroon-colored shape sat down in front of her.
She found herself looking at a middle-aged man, dressed in a military uniform of moderate rank. His hair was in a typical Fire Nation style - brown, with sideburns and a topknot - though it had started to recede a little at the sides. He looked tired, but nevertheless, he smiled.
"Well, good morning to you."
Azula narrowed her eyes. Morning or evening, it wouldn't have made a difference. The lamplight was as white and stark as ever, and the window shutters were closed with an iron resolve, not letting even the slightest ray of light to slip through.
A nurse approached and placed two steaming cups of tea onto the table, one for Azula, and one for the man, who calmly took his and sipped from it. But before the nurse could leave, he pointed to Azula.
"Unstrap her, please."
Azula tensed her arms. The nurse unclasped the bands on her arms, neck, and stomach, and Azula, thinking this would be her chance to break free, immediately reached for the edge of the table to overturn it. But her arms moved like leaden blocks, and far from lifting the table up, she found she could hardly tighten her grip around it. She couldn't do anything but hunch over her tea, and peer up at the man through her jagged fringe of hair.
The man met her gaze in casual greeting. "I am Doctor Low. You must be Azula."
"Fire Lord Azula!"
"I prefer names," he said. "I find it gives my patients a chance to free themselves from mental constructs and focus on defining who they are as individuals."
Azula narrowed her eyes. "Defining?"
"You are currently in a holistic rehabilitation facility. I am the head doctor. I spent twelve years on the warfront as a healer, but here I also practice my other specialty, which is healing the mind."
Azula felt her heart thump faster. "So that's what this place is…" Her gaze darted across several points in the room, from the cabinets to the curtains, and when she looked back at the doctor, she kindled with rage. "But what do I have to be rehabilitated for? Who put me here? Tell me, and I'll teach them a lesson! I'll teach all of you a lesson you won't forget!"
Dr. Low took another drink from his teacup, then lowered it. "Listen carefully, Azula. I will tell you everything that's happened and why you are here. The world as you know it has ceased to exist. The war is over, and the Avatar has triumphed over Fire Lord Ozai. Fortunately, your father only had time to burn a few miles of uninhabited land, and his fleet of airships didn't reach any major Earth Kingdom settlement. The Avatar's quick intervention spared many innocent lives."
Azula's eyes widened.
"Ozai was passing over the western shore of the Earth Kingdom when the Avatar confronted him. They entered a one-on-one battle, which ended with Avatar Aang taking away Ozai's firebending. Your father now resides in prison under careful watch, much like you, where he will spend the rest of his life indebted to society. You have also been shown mercy, but even though you're not in jail, your situation has changed drastically. You've been placed in a specialized facility that is equipped to return you to a balanced state, both physical and emotional. You were brought here the day after the new Fire Lord was crowned. He has provided for your safety and well-being here for as long as needed, on the grounds that you take your treatment seriously. I am also officially obligated to inform you that by Fire Nation law, you remain a lawful resident of the palace, and retain your royal title, as well as additional dignities accorded to you as the Fire Lord's sister."
Azula's heartbeat quickened further, and she felt herself keel over to the side. A nurse immediately grabbed onto her arm, but Dr. Low waved it away.
"Let her be. It'll take a few days, but she'll adapt."
The hand was withdrawn. Azula was left to set herself straight, gripping the edge of the table for support. She glared at the doctor through narrowed eyes. "That's impossible. What about the armies? We had soldiers all over the Earth Kingdom and in Ba Sing Se! You can't tell me Zuko just got rid of them all!"
"They were ordered to desist, and are on their way home," said Dr. Low. "As for Ba Sing Se, that city was freed by a guerilla army during the comet's passing. After his coronation, Zuko ordered all his remaining divisions to leave the city, and as we speak, the Earth Kingdom government is reassuming control over its territory."
Azula crinkled her nose. "And how do I know you're not lying? Perhaps I've been captured and you're feeding me false information to weaken my morale!"
"A valid point," the doctor replied. "Frankly, I hardly expected you to believe me the first time, so I brought along some evidence." He placed a large linen sack onto the table.
Azula looked at it without touching it. The doctor tapped a finger against the table. "Do you need a nurse to help you open it?"
Azula's face fell into a scowl. She swung her arm out and snatched the package by the strings, pulling it closer. The first thing she took out of it was a scroll, which she unrolled to reveal an ink sketch, stamped by the seal of a palace secretary. It depicted Zuko in royal robes, kneeling in front of the Fire Sages before a crowd of onlookers. The second item was an official poster from the Royal Palace, announcing the crowning of Fire Lord Zuko. The third object was Ozai's Phoenix King headpiece. It was the one he had put on right in front of her before he had departed with his airship fleet. The bronze plates had lost some of their luster, and one of the bird's outspread wings was dented. But it was intact.
Azula turned the helmet over in her hands, too stunned to speak. The doctor inclined his head. "A group of workers picked that up when they were moving the fallen airships. They brought it back with them, probably for a celebration, but I made sure it was saved for you."
After a moment of thought, Azula lifted her gaze. "Hmm. Very persuasive… but I still don't quite feel like you're telling me the truth. If I really am in the Fire Nation like you say, then maybe you could take me to a proper window so I could see for myself. If they've just crowned a new Fire Lord, surely everyone would be celebrating."
Dr. Low gave a laugh. "Don't think I don't know where this is headed. I've raised five children. I know every trick under the sun."
Azula scowled. "I'm not a child! I am Princess Azula, the heir to the throne! Just a few weeks ago you'd have been on your knees before me!"
"And you would not have been hospitalized, nor would you have even guessed that you eventually would be, or that fate would place you under my care. But such is life." The doctor leaned back in his chair.
"But I'm in perfect health!" Azula cried. "Your nurses said so themselves! All my bones are healed! So why am I still here?"
"Your body may be healed, but the general conjecture is that your true wounds lie within."
"The general conjecture?"
"Yes. Mine, my staff's, and your brother's."
Azula paused in puzzlement.
"After your Agni Kai match, Zuko said you lapsed into a state of delirium and began to cry uncontrollably. The Fire Sages were about to come untie you, but you broke the chains yourself and tried to run away. You ended up jumping from the roof of a building and falling almost thirty feet, then when the Fire Sages surrounded you, you made a wheel of fire. If they hadn't suppressed your flames, you would have cremated everything around you. Including yourself."
Azula blew a loose strand of hair away from her face. "Well, why didn't they let me? I'm their enemy, aren't I?"
The doctor's face remained grave. "Your brother does not believe you to be his enemy."
"So? We fought an Agni Kai! He gained the throne while I lost it, and therefore I would have honored his victory by eliminating myself! If he spared me, then he's a coward! Too proud to let himself lose, too weak to finish me off!"
"Your brother is far from weak. You, however, have a long road to recovery ahead of you."
Azula settled back with a grumble. She looked into the doctor's eyes, transmitting as much hatred and coldness through her stare as she could, but his face remained as calm and tired as before.
"Do you have anything to add?"
Azula did not reply.
"In that case, please put away the poison daggers and conserve your energy for something useful. Today and every day hereafter, you will follow a strict regimen consisting of physical therapy and psychological counseling. Meals will be provided three times a day with no exceptions. Be advised that this is not a resort. You are not on vacation; you are here to recover, and we intend on taking you through the course of healing we've planned for you. Whether it's a good or bad experience will be entirely up to you. But I can assure you, you will finish it one way or another." He rose. "I'll stop by every other day to check up on you, and will naturally be there if you should ever call. For now, you'll go with Nira."
Dr. Low lifted his hand, and the nurse reappeared at Azula's side to put the missing straps back into place. Once it was done, Nira grabbed the handles and pushed her out of the room.
Nira turned the wheelchair left, and they traveled down the barren gray hallway, passing several closed doors on either end, until they finally stopped before one that stood open, to Azula's left. Unlike her new bedroom, this room lacked the medical equipment and had some comforting touches — bookcases, potted plants, and a Fire Nation tapestry. Near the left wall was a large writing desk, where a woman sat working over a journal. She wore a long white smock, but the clothes underneath were black, signifying that she was a doctor. Her hair was tied back into a functional bun. Behind her, the shutters of her window were slightly open, letting in strips of daylight.
Nira rolled the wheelchair up to the desk, and the woman looked up. "Ah, good. Let's get her out, then."
She motioned to a long examination table that stood along the right wall, with its own set of straps that dangled from the side like tendrils. Nira began to undo the straps on Azula's wheelchair, and as soon as all of them were off, Azula shoved the nurse away and sprang out of the chair. Nira lunged after her, hugging Azula's arms to her sides and pulled her back. Azula fought against her grip, twisting from side to side, trying to use her ankle to knock Nira off-balance. Their cries attracted a rush of footsteps from the hallway, and just as Azula began to succeed in elbowing Nira away, she found herself being overpowered by Mira, Kira, and two others, who grabbed at her arms and legs from various directions. Abandoning all form, Azula began to smack and kick blindly at her surroundings, which actually managed to keep the nurses at bay for a while, before the therapist stepped in and captured her wrists. She clamped Azula's arms to her sides, and with the help of Nira, managed to lay Azula down on the examination table and hook the straps about her body.
Once Azula lay writhing and groaning on her back, the therapist looked down at her and sighed. "You're going to be a tough one, aren't you?"
She reached out to accept a tray of equipment from Nira and rolled a chair over to Azula's side. The therapist shone a small flashlight into Azula's eyes, then opened Azula's mouth to check her tongue. Azula tried to breathe fire again, but once again nothing came out. Furious she began to breathe harder, pushing out the air till she was practically wheezing. The therapist waited patiently for her to finish, and when Azula had exhausted herself, the woman shook her head with a smile.
"We're not as dumb as you think we are, girlie. That serum subdues your firebending completely. Just think of it as us taking a dangerous object out of your possession. You will have it back once you've shown enough progress that will warrant Dr. Low to believe you can wield it properly."
Azula sneered. "I can firebend better than any of you have ever dreamed."
The woman lifted her eyebrows. "A young prodigy? Yes, I can see the signs... Overly-abrasive gestures, obsession with perfection, ignorance of physical limits… Whoever taught you firebending clearly didn't teach you how to take care of the body you produce it with. Many of your muscles are overstretched and your joints overall are unstable, likely because you've been trying to push yourself beyond your natural level of flexibility. You were lucky you didn't dislocate or break anything up until now, what with all the fighting you've been doing. It seems that your training routine at least partially focused on building up your resilience, so I'll admit, things aren't as bad as I thought they were. But even so, your body needs rest. Physical therapy will teach you techniques for relaxation, as well as the proper way to train without injuring yourself. Now I am going to unstrap you and we will begin your preliminary examination."
Nira unclipped the straps, and Azula found that she was once again too weak to lash out. After her brief moment of physical exertion, her body felt even heavier than before. Nira hoisted Azula to her feet without a struggle, like setting a statue upright, while the therapist went to her desk for a clipboard and pen.
The hour passed by in a blur. Azula was prodded and poked, bent and turned, weighed and measured. Each time she tried to pull away, Nira or the therapist would catch her and force her back onto a scale, or beneath a tape measure, or back into an asana. The therapist made Azula go through a series of poses from simple to hard, measuring the angles she could lift each leg in the air and testing the rotation of her shoulders. Nira stood at Azula's side while she did the asanas, supporting her and making adjustments, while the therapist surveyed her with a calculating frown, scribbling neat notes and numbers onto her paper. Unlike everybody who had admired and praised Azula's acrobat-like abilities in the past, the therapist did not seem particularly impressed with the way Azula could twist herself into knots on the floor or hold her entire body aloft with a single hand. Finally, Azula did a handstand scorpion, which was one of the moves she had always prided herself on most, standing on her hands and bending her legs in the air so that her feet rested on the top of her head. The therapist's eyes widened in surprise, but it was less of the awed kind and more of the concerned kind.
After the check-up was over, Azula was strapped back into the wheelchair and rolled on through the hallway. She spun her head around in different directions, glimpsing door after door, all of them opening and closing as nurses rushed back and forth, carrying boxes, towels, and hospital tools. The doors were unevenly spaced, which gave the impression that some rooms were much larger than others, though Azula could never catch a proper glimpse inside of them. Looking behind her, she saw the hallway end in the far distance at a single door, where no one came in or out. Up ahead was the same thing, another dead end, a few doors down from her room. She was quite literally boxed in.
Nira stopped the chair every once in a while to chat with a passing nurse or put on a serious face and exchange serious-sounding information. All the while, Azula sat back in silence, watching everything with a frozen expression of uncertainty.
She had never heard of psychological healing. Sure, she had a concept of mental instability, and had even heard people bring it up, often in conjunction with her grandfather, Azulon. But there were no hard-and-fast theories about what that term really meant. Any medical field that didn't have the funding of the Imperial Medical Society was doomed to consist of a few scattered practitioners in shady parts of town, and was usually associated with spiritualism and quackery, which were definitely not things that were commonly discussed by the nobles. Very rarely did she hear stories of people who were sent off somewhere, specifically to heal something wrong with their minds. Heal a battle injury, yes. Recover from a stressful campaign, yes. But heal a mental illness? The concept was utterly alien to her.
Azula fixed her gaze on the faraway door and gritted her teeth. Where are you, Father?
Moments later, she felt Nira take the handles of the wheelchair again and push her on. Azula was bought back to her bedroom and wheeled up to the round wooden table, where Kira was seated with a scroll and ink pen.
"All right. We're going to examine some scenarios," she said. "I'll read you the situation and you tell me how you would respond." She smiled at Azula. "Ready? Let's start!"
Azula glanced over to the clock on the counter. It was half past noon.
"Let's say you're walking down the street and see a sack of money on the ground," Kira began. "You don't know who it belongs to, and no one else notices it…"
Option one, option two, option three. Azula made her decision without putting too much care into it, and Kira wrote it down. Then she moved on to the next one, telling another small story then reciting another list of actions. The clock ticked through the minutes. Pretty soon, the minutes became hours. Nurses came in and out, and Azula frequently shifted her gaze towards them, lingering on their focused faces and purposeful motions. After thirty or so moral conundrums, Kira finally rolled up the scroll, but instead of leaving, she went to the bookshelf and brought back another one. Now she began to recite puzzles. They ranged from children's riddles to complex mind games, involving logic, numbers, and language. At first, Azula tried to draw out her pauses before answers for as long as possible, to waste as much time thinking as she could, but when that tactic failed, she switched to blurting things out as rapidly as possible, hoping to exhaust Kira's supply of questions. But midway, Kira set the scroll down with a sigh.
"Azula, you're not giving this enough thought," she said. "Here. I'll read it again, and you just think one more time about it."
Azula gritted her teeth. "No!"
"Azula, this isn't an option. I won't move on to the next one until you give me a good answer."
Azula clenched her teeth harder, curling her hands into fists. She began to growl and retaliate, but everything she said was instantly dissipated by a kind smile or patient sigh. Azula's gaze began to grow blank, and the motions of the white-clothed nurses around her seemed to grow more rapid and rhythmic, almost as if they were dancing, spinning around her a web that would ensnare her completely.
Azula's breathing grew rapid. She looked down at the latest card Kira had set down before her, some kind of shape-matching puzzle, and in a burst of rage, she tore the entire deck from the nurse's hands and threw the cards in her face. "Go away!" Azula screamed. "All of you!"
Kira's smile froze and her mouth fell agape. With all the strength she had, Azula pushed her wheelchair away from the table and bumped back against the counter, then turned around and began to fling away every object within her reach - pens, scroll tubes, bottles. The nurses ducked and scampered around, trying to catch the flying objects. Finally, Kira pulled Azula away from the counter and rolled her towards the bed.
"All right, all right, I understand! You're tired. Let's have a rest." She leaned down to Azula, who had grabbed the sides of her head, twisting her fingers through the mass of wiry dark hair. Her breath began to shake, and with a final, feeble snap, Azula's composure broke and she began to wail. Her voice rose up above those of the other nurse's, and she let her chin droop, tears rushing down her face.
Through the blur, she saw Kira back away and usher the other nurses out of the room. "Give her some space, girls. Quickly."
The nurses left, and Azula continued to cry, slamming her hands to her face and succumbing to the quakes of her gasps. She didn't even notice it when they left her alone. She looked at the Phoenix King helmet on top of the bookshelf, at the red blankets and golden articles that were scattered around the white wasteland, and wailed. In hatred, in anger, in helplessness.
Time passed, blurred behind the rush of her tears, then after a while the bitter river once again ran dry. Azula felt her breathing return to normal, though now she had a stuffy nose and a throbbing headache. She sat in silence for a while, then gradually regained enough of her calm to look up and brush her hair away from her face. She turned to look at the clock on the shelf. It was eight in the evening.
Minutes later, the door opened, and Kira silently walked in to place a tray of dinner onto Azula's lap. Azula accepted it without a word or move of the head, and once the nurse was gone, she took the chopsticks and began to eat. The food consisted of rice, vegetables, and meat, all of which tasted unusually bland, but was edible. Once she was done, Azula was left staring down at the empty bowl, dully tapping her fingers against the metal tray. She looked up to the iron shutters on the opposite wall. Kira had drawn the curtains over them, as her way of marking the evening, but Azula could still see the steel peeking out from the bottom hem.
Visited by curiosity, she set the tray onto the counter and pushed on the wheels of her chair, rolling herself over to the window. Azula leaned as far forward as her waistband would allow, drawing her nose up to the narrow crack between the steel board and the wall. She couldn't see anything in that tiny slip of darkness, and all she could hear was the faint sound of rushing wind.
Azula turned around sourly and rolled herself back towards the bed.
Part of her still didn't want to believe Dr. Low's words, but another part of her, however small or reluctant, knew that they were true. She didn't even need his souvenir bag to prove it. There had just been something about that day… something in the dim, red glow of the comet-stricken sky that had signaled a dying world. Even the royal palace, for all its former splendor, seemed to have decayed during the brief time she had occupied it.
Yes, it had been the day of her coronation. But there had been something dreadfully wrong about it - something dreadfully wrong with her - that she had been trying to pinpoint that whole day, but couldn't.
It hadn't been that lady with the cherry bowl. Azula had found that out a few minutes after banishing her, leaving a bowl of cherries on the floor that she couldn't eat, because she couldn't reach. To be sure, that woman's actions could've had morbid consequences given a malicious intent. In fact, any of her servants could have easily taken her down due to their sheer daily proximity to her, so having one fewer of them would do her no harm. But even with that lady gone, Azula's uneasiness hadn't been.
It hadn't been the Dai Li either. Though for a minute there, too, she had thought she'd pinned it. Her elite, prized warriors, whom she had fought for and won in Ba Sing Se, had practically been treated like royal guards during their time in the Fire Nation, even earning recognition from her father. But they were traitors too, for they had betrayed Long Feng, hadn't they? All it would take was for someone more eloquent than her to give them a better offer, and they'd turn against her the same way. But banishing the Dai Li hadn't make her feel any better. Her restlessness only grew, and the more people she shunned from her presence, it felt like she wasn't getting any closer to eliminating the problem, but rather cutting away its extraneous parts, which made the real source stand out in greater prominence. The palace had just been so quiet, and the emptier it got, the quieter it became, and soon Azula felt as if a presence had been lurking somewhere inside of it, hiding in the shadows. Whispering to her.
She had been alone.
And somehow, listening to that silence, Azula had known it was her day to fall.
In the past, she had always been able to stifle the tiny, anxious speculations that occasionally arose in her mind: What if my strategic brilliance vanished this very moment but I still had to act like I knew what I was doing? What if I suddenly forgot how to do a flame-wheel in battle and became unable to fight?
Early on, she had treated these musings as entertainment, and could detach herself from them simply by remembering that they could never correspond to reality. But soon, her fantasized scenarios escalated to dangerous situations: What if the Boiling Rock workers cut the line this very moment and my gondola fell into the water? (Never mind, there's another one on the way, I can still go on as planned.) What if I'm losing control of my friends? (She drew her arms back to shoot lightning at Mai, just as the other girl took out a razor blade, her resoluteness for the first time directed against Azula.) What if I can't save myself from falling this time? (She pulled out her hair clip as a last resort and dug it into the wall of the cliff, fighting to keep her hold.)
What if, this time, Zuko's stronger?
(His burst of fire came inches away from her face, the red flare reflected in her eyes, before she snapped to her senses and propelled herself away. Using her own blue flames, flimsy and faltering.)
But at last, one of those scenarios had come true. Zuko was strong, and she was weak. He had come to take his proper place above her, riding the pet of his best friend, with another friend at his side, ready to assist. And now, in the back of her mind, Azula felt strangely envious of the Katara girl for the fact that he had been defending her.
But why? a louder part of her screamed. Why was I so weak?
Azula pressed her hands to the sides of her head, focusing her gaze on the floor. It didn't matter. She couldn't slip up again. She had to get back in form before someone found a hole in her defense. She was the princess. She was the Fire Lord. She was the one who would carry victory.
But no matter how hard she repeated those mantras to herself, the words felt weak and lifeless. Some old part of her mind was crippled, and the best she could do now was brace herself for a few seconds before her focus slipped from her grasp. It was as if a faucet had been turned on in her brain, and was leaking out something she had kept pent up before.
Her power. Her control.
It was streaming away like a river.
Azula sat in place for what felt like forever, listening to her breath, feeling it rise and fall. She glanced over to the bed again, which stood there like an alien contraption, so unlike everything she was used to. Her gaze ran over the straps attached to the mattress, at the metal legs to which the wheels were attached, and she felt a morbid dread mixed with disgust wash over her.
Perhaps, in a way, she really was sick. She was tired and burnt-out, but also, on the inside, shifted. Shifted to some strange new mode, just like the bed, and the nurses, and the room. Shifted the minute Zuko's fire-blast had knocked her off her feet and thrown her across the floor of the arena. Shifted the minute she had looked into the mirror and seen her mother standing behind her.
But what had happened? Why had Ursa come?
Azula thought it over and over, but couldn't get an answer. She pondered the expressions she had seen on Ursa's face, on her tone of voice, and was met again with the strange flood of emotions that had risen so suddenly inside of her at that moment. But now, as she pondered those feelings, something else arose from them. She began to see images of sunlight again, of a green field, with lots of hills and long, swaying grass, like snippets of something that might have once formed a coherent whole. And at last, the memory snapped together. She had been in a meadow. She had woken up there right after her Agni Kai match, finding herself sitting by a pond, with a young boy who called himself Quin the Quester. He had been funny and familiar. But the strangest part was, she had been happy there. For the first time in her life, she had felt utterly at peace, completely relieved of everything her mind had been burdened with. Something about the grass and the sky had seemed to soak it all up, leaving her a clean slate. Just like it had done for the boy.
Azula smiled faintly as she thought of him now. He was probably still there, reclining in the grass, waiting for the old man to appear from behind the hill. How easy it would have been for her to stay with him, to sit by the pond forever instead of going into that plaza. But now, she knew it had been meant that way. She had been destined to visit the boy's realm, then leave. For him, the meadow was home, but for her, it had just been a temporary haven.
And now, it was one she'd never see again.
(End of Chapter 3)