Till We Have Faces
That Azula had come unhinged surprised no one, and terrified everyone. Even in madness she was an impervious force, and who dared to oppose her?
So it came to pass that it was Katara, the waterbender girl from the other side of the world, who bested the Fire Nation princess, and Zuko, her own brother, who untied his sister from the grate, who bound her hands and held her while the family guard assembled. (It was not the victory he had imagined. Anger and fear he knew well; bitter resentment and confusion had been his constant companions. He had never thought to pity Azula before, not until that moment.)
That she was dangerous went without saying, but it was Zuko who first voiced the concern that she was a threat to herself. (Zuko, who had some experience with the bite of a double-edged blade.)
The (recently reinstated) Royal Firebenders would not go near her. There was not a man among them (or a woman) who did not know Azula, who did not feel the same shudder of admiration and warmth of fear at just her name. And so Zuko thought to hire the (recently unemployed) Dai Li agents to watch over her. They could not easily go back to the Earth Kingdom after their betrayal, even if they had wanted to return, which they did not. And they could not easily stay in the Fire Nation capital on their own, after their unpopular work as Azula's agents. But the two dozen of them were ideally suited to be her guards. They were canny, subtle, powerful benders-- and loyal to the princess, only too relieved to be allowed to stay in her service, albeit in a somewhat less violent capacity. And just as surely as they outnumbered Azula, should she snap and turn against them again, were they themselves outnumbered by the royal firebenders, who would no doubt deal with them if they proved troublesome.
The swiftness with which the new Firelord thus solved the problem of his sister and her favorites (and compassionately, no less) impressed even the most reluctant old senators, making supporters out of those elderly gentlemen who had only a fortnight before been praising the scope and vision of the previous Firelord's plan for conquest. As for Ozai, he would be imprisoned (in the same ancient gaol where he'd tried to keep his own older brother), stripped of his bending and his title and his power. Azula would be escorted to a special holding facility on Ember Island, where she could rest, and not further complicate matters.
None of them needed to have worried. Fighting her brother with the last of her strength, Azula slipped into unconsciousness, and did not wake for nearly two months.
It was Mai who found it, Mai who had taken on the task of gathering Azula's possessions. Presumably she would wake eventually, and she would need clothes, comb, hair ornaments. Zuko had been careful to revoke everything but his sister's title; though she was a mental patient and prisoner, she was still very much a princess.
No one had asked Mai to do it, but it needed to be done, and she wanted to be useful. So she found herself going through her boyfriend's sister's things-- no, she corrected herself, through her friend's things. There was no denying that Azula had gone too far, but she might yet return. It was up to her.
In a drawer, underneath a carefully folded pile of clothing, Mai found the doll, or what was left of it. Still wearing Earth Kingdom greens, for all that they were charred and blackened; still recognizably female and fashionable. She wondered briefly why Azula had kept the thing, but then decided she wasn't all that surprised. Calculating and cruel she may have been, but Azula was still a girl.
Mai lay the little doll in the trunk she was packing, her fingertips lingering along its pitiful shape. Not for the first time, she was grateful that she hadn't been born a firebender. Life was damaging enough on its own.
Mai whirled, hands instinctively going for the knives hidden in her sleeves-- but it was only Zuko standing in the doorway of his sister's room, hands held above his head and a look on his face that would have been almost comical in its alarm, if he hadn't made everything look so serious. She lowered her hands, but not before letting a knifeblade twinkle in the torchlight. Zuko swallowed visibly. She smiled, then, and said, "Sorry."
"You'd think I'd know better by now," he said, and she thought she might never get tired of the sound of his voice, something beyond the anger and the sheepishness, something indefinably Zuko.
"Yeah," she said, still smiling. "You'd think." But then she held up the doll for him to see, like Ba Sing Se all those years ago, battered and yet still inexplicably alive. "Look what I found."
It took him a moment to understand what he was looking at, but, to his credit, it didn't take as long as she might have suspected. His good eye widened with frank surprise. "She… kept that thing?"
"And not shoved back into a closet somewhere, either. Tucked in with her linens," Mai said, not adding that it had been with Azula's favored underthings, as she figured that, being her brother, he wouldn't want to know. When she held it out to him, he took it as though it might still be hot to the touch.
"Maybe she kept it as a reminder," Zuko mused, sounding uncertain. "But of what, though?"
"Only Azula can answer that question," said Mai. She lifted a shoulder. "I was going to pack it in the trunk. Do you think I should leave it alone?"
Several things warred with each other across the battlefield of Zuko's face: confusion, compassion. Eventually he relinquished the doll to her outstretched hand. "No, bring it. I want to know why she kept it. I'll ask her when she wakes up."
Mai didn't say, "If she wakes up," but she couldn't help but think it. A month and a half, and the princess still burned with inexplicable fever, tossing and turning, crying out but never opening her eyes. She was tended daily by her physicians, only swallowing in her sleep if water, or broth, or medicine was brought to her lips.
Zuko saw the unspoken words in Mai's eyes, anyway. He shook his head, keeping his voice steady with an effort. "She will! She-- I mean, I know what she's going through." He sat down abruptly on Azula's bed, rustling the contents of the half-packed trunk. "That happened to me, too, you know."
"You screamed in your sleep for a month?" Mai asked dryly, but if he heard the sarcasm in her voice, Zuko ignored it utterly.
"Yes," he said, simply, to his hands. "Well maybe it wasn't a full month. But I was awfully sick, and I'm sure it was the same sort of thing. A… fever of the mind. Or worse. Of the soul, somehow."
She guessed she believed him; plenty of strange things had happened to Zuko, after all. Probably when he'd been a fugitive, eating God-knows-what out of bushes and streams. She tried to gauge if he wanted her to ask him about it, or not. Sometimes with Zuko it was hard to tell. "I never knew you had soul fever," she said at last, sitting down next to him. She gave him a smile. "I'm glad you got better."
He was still staring at his hands, and his next words were not what she expected. "…She was trying her best to kill me."
It was a Firelord question, Mai knew. Is a Firelord supposed to punish an enemy, or protect his family? What should he do when someone is both? There was no easy answer, but that wasn't really the point. She was his girlfriend, not his adviser. So she answered the girlfriend question.
"I don't think less of you, for wanting her to recover. I miss her, too."
He noticed her beside him, then; maybe her frank expression of emotion had startled him. His scarred eye was unreadable as ever, but his good eye was too bright. "You do?"
Her heart went out to him all over again. "Of course I do. How do you get through the day, being so overwrought all the time?" She elbowed him gently. "C'mon, help me get this thing packed. We can leave in the morning."
Hands, where there should not have been hands. Gripping too tightly; no one had ever been able to reach her before. Never touched, never touchable. She cried out--tried to cry out-- but the words turned into flame: inarticulate, scorching, useless. Furious tears, hot as fire. And now it was over. Everything was over. She knew only darkness, and for a long while, she wandered in that darkness, aimless and afraid that if she admitted her defeat to herself, something indefinable would end.
The unthinkable. She was losing; she had lost.
She was lost.
"Why, could that be Azula?"
With a cold clenching feeling in her belly, she recognized that face: one she had never thought to see again. Of all the people she had thought she might find in this eerie swampland, she never imagined cousin Lu Ten. Older than she had seen him last, and defeated, and the voice from his lips was not the voice she knew. But it was unmistakeably his face. Her thoughts raced, flickering possibilities drifting to the surface of her mind. "Is that you, cousin? Do you mean to tell me that I'm dead?"
The monster appeared then, crawling out of a crevice dark as volcanic depths, and as toxic. He wore Lu Ten's face as easily as Azula might have tied on a festival mask, and just as obviously false. Lu Ten's mouth said: "Oh, I haven't told you anything. You, however, have told me quite a bit. I do so love collecting the faces of princesses."
"This is a waste of my time," she said, but kept her voice level. If she were startled to find the horrific spirit from a mostly-forgotten childhood tale alive and writhing in front of her, she must be careful not to show it. (After all, she had been the one to dig up the old stories and re-tell them to her brother, to her friends. Bunch of babies, all of them; even Zuko, who was older, couldn't sleep that night. Azula had laughed at him.) The rising horror in her belly helped, actually; grounded her, centered her. Antagonism she could handle. "Probably I'm just dreaming."
The spirit's whole sinuous self seemed to shrug, supremely indifferent, and Lu Ten's lips curved into an awful semblance of a smile. "Why don't we find out?"
She looked her not-cousin in the eye and told him flatly, "I'm sorry to disappoint you. If you were looking for a reaction, you should have sought out my brother. He wears his heart on his sleeve."
"Ah, but if you know who I am, then you know it's not hearts that I fancy," said the monster, and a hundred uncountable faces flashed in front of her: old and young; women and men; Air Nomads, Water Tribe, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation. A kaleidoscope of the world in miniature-- none of them immune to his insatiable hunger. He ended not as Lu Ten again, but as an unfamiliar middle-aged Fire Nation woman. Unfamiliar, and yet something about her face made Azula feel vaguely ill.
"You'd be out of luck then, too," she told this new face, lifting a shoulder when she dared not lift an eyebrow. "They tell me I haven't got one."
"Everything has a heart," said the woman with the monster's voice, the monster with the woman's face. "And every heart will open… to just the right key."
Azula's stomach lurched; her skin crawled. Abruptly she had recognized the visage before her: impossibly, it was her own face, aged and drawn, silvering at the temples. Had she already lost this battle? Had the spirit already claimed her face? How could it be?
He was just trying to bait her, she thought. She drew a long breath, felt what should have been the fire beneath her breastbone, if this strange and forsaken place hadn't taken her bending from her. She could hold her own in a fight without it, she knew, but she'd made a rule never to rush an untried opponent, not without measuring him first. And she had to admit to herself that she honestly did not know how an ancient, malevolent spirit would fight.
Probably, she thought, he wasn't used to fighting at all; he didn't have to. That, and the half-remembered story from her childhood, gave her an idea. (Much later, she realized that she ought to have been afraid at that moment. In another minute, though, it wouldn't matter, and she had always known that whatever was the key to her own heart, it was not fear.)
She clasped her hands behind her back, tilted her head as though she were thinking very hard on something. "Look, I have something that you want, right?" Langurously he spiraled around her as she spoke, leg after leg clicking as he wound a tight coil with her at its center. Poised and perfect princesses did not stutter, but he was so close she could feel his breath against her neck. "And you have something that I-- I might want."
Inwardly she cursed her slip, her inability, for that fraction of a second, to maintain a feigned indifference. But a word was better than a frown, and her opponent sounded pleased. "Are you proposing a… trade?" Charmed, perhaps, as a child with a toy that makes unexpected music. (She did not think of gifted dolls, or blades, or disappointment; or at least, she tried not to.) "Your face for another face in my collection? You should be aware that I do not part lightly with my treasures."
"I would not have expected otherwise," she conceded, politely. "But really, neither do I. So that should be fair."
A low chuckle, that was nearly as much a sensation as a sound, shuddering along her skin. "Fair!" He was still speaking with her own future face and sending waves of sick dizziness over her. "You have a lot to learn, little princess, if you still believe that life is fair."
Azula suppressed a smile with no little difficulty; she could feel the effort in the muscles behind her ears, in her jaw. He hovered hungrily before her, but she mastered herself, with a ferocious self-satisfaction. "No, you have a lot to learn, if you still believe you can take me down without a fight."
"No, be careful, Azula-- I dreamed you got into a fight with your mirror," said Ty Lee, very seriously. "And you lost."
Azula, twelve years old and eager to see her own reflection with each new morning, only laughed. "You mean I won, don't you? If it's myself in the mirror, the victor will still be me, after all."
Mai (none too eager to meet her own eyes over her hairbrush these days, eleven and already too tall) rolled her eyes. "Wouldn't the loser always be you, too, then?"
She never told anyone how she did it. Certainly not her brother, had he had the cleverness to ask her the right questions-- or insufficient self-preservation to bring up old memories. And not even Irah (Zuko's first grandchild and Azula's favorite of the lot, the only one who showed signs of learning blue flame) could get the story out of her, though Irah said she often dreamed of her first cousin twice removed (and Lu Ten, being Lu Ten, had told the child it wasn't his story to tell, and to ask her great-aunt).
The closest she ever came to talking about it, and it was only once, was to Ty Lee in the middle of the night. Waking in a shivery sweat, still hearing the echoes of that hollow laughter, she had both hands pressed to her face before she realized she'd been dreaming. Ty Lee didn't ask, but the words would have come anyway, if it hadn't been simpler just to lean on her and cry. Azula had never been the sort for weeping, but tears of relief spilled down her face and over her fingers, sweet and shameful. Her face was still her own.
She didn't weep, there in the spirit world when it was done; she was too exhausted. Floating on her back in a mire of endless yellow, she wondered if she had lost her face after all; if she would ever be able to smile, or frown, or laugh again.
Someone said her name, and she remembered what she'd bought with her gamble, remembered that she was not alone. She stood upright with an effort, and found Lu Ten smiling at her.
"Don't thank me," she said tightly, urgently, before he could say another word. "Please. I-- I acted only out of selfishness." For the second time she stuttered, cursed herself. When had she grown incapable of lying?
He rolled his shoulders back, as though he were a creature of bone and blood, and not a figment out of time, a spirit passed. As he stretched, his every movement was familiar; he was her cousin in every way, save his absent heartbeat. "Fair enough," he said. As good-natured as he ever had been. "Doesn't change my gratitude, of course. But I won't burden you with my thanks."
Azula bit her lip, feeling-- well, feeling spent. Feeling short. And young, and angry. She had won his freedom with her own sacrifice; how could he be so infuriating? She opened her mouth but he spoke first, saying, "Can I say, 'Well done'?"
All the fire within her disappated into steam, scalding and useless. She felt her shoulders fall, and belatedly realized that she'd been scowling. It was an honest expression, at least, and her own. "What?"
Lu Ten grinned. "You think that people steal faces back from the Face Stealer every day? That was a pretty neat trick; with the mirror. You're really something."
It may just have been the first genuine compliment that she'd ever been paid by a member of her family; praise that expected nothing in return. She was appalled to find she was blushing. Hotly she said, "Of course I am! I--" And then she ran out of words. What was she going to say? She was the daughter of the finest Firelord the Fire Nation had ever seen? She was nearly Firelord herself, but for-- but for--
Azula jumped when Lu Ten put his hand on her shoulder; she hadn't realized she was trembling. His skin felt warm, real. He was chuckling, but there was neither mockery nor pity in his eyes. "You'll have to tell me, when you figure it out."
Her next words were ridiculous, even under the circumstances, but they marched like traitors right out of her mouth in spite of herself. "You mean I'll see you again?"
He shrugged. "Who knows? Hey, when you get back, give everyone my love." She started to scoff, but his words were in earnest so she didn't interrupt. Maybe he had forgotten who he was talking to; an Azula delivering a message of love was likely to be taken for an imposter. "Tell them I'm sorry I can't come home. Not yet, anyway. And tell my dad--"
Azula swallowed, listened to his voice breaking (but not his heart). For the first time she admired his strength; thought of courage and tests beyond the flesh, beyond death. His request was a simple one, and then he said, "Will you promise me that?"
Could you lie to a ghost? She couldn't think of any relevant stories on that score, but she suspected it wasn't a good idea, just the same. "I'm not sure when I'll see him again," she said evasively (though it was at least the truth).
"You'll see him before I do," he said, and though his voice was light his eyes were very grave.
She shivered and said, "I promise."
He bowed formally from the waist, palm over fist, but when he brought his head up he winked at her.
And then she was standing alone in the swamp, the slant of light turning the water's still surface to burnished gold.
The burned doll and the blade; the spirit world, the fever.
The blackout sensation of a narrowing world.
How long she wandered, she could not say.
Leaves from the vine
falling so slow
like fragile, tiny shells
drifting on the foam
little soldier boy
come marching home
brave soldier boy
comes marching home
Zuko shouldn't have been surprised to see the familiar face waiting for him at the Jasmine Dragon, but it caught him off guard anyway. "You!" he managed to say, by way of greeting (words had never been his strong suit, but to his credit he was smiling and she was happy to see him, anyway).
Jin had never been shy, but there was a hint of color on her cheeks this morning when she waved at him. "Hey, Zuko."
"It's good to see you again," he said. "Give me just a minute to let my uncle know I'm--" He was almost all the way to the back of the shop when it hit him. He spun around to see her grinning and shaking her head. "…How did you-- you knew?"
"No big mystery," she said, shrugging. "I asked your uncle. I figured there was something up with you."
He glanced around, sheepishly. Even in Earth Kingdom green, even with his hair worn loose, he didn't look much like a local anymore, though maybe he didn't yet realize that three months of being Firelord (three months of being himself) had done wonders for his posture. "Sorry about that," he said eventually. "It was… necessary. I guess it's a long story."
"Oh, I know," she said cheerily. "It was a great story. Took nearly two full pots of jasmine to get to the end of it!"
Zuko groaned. "Uncle made you listen to--"
"I asked him, remember?" She talked over him so easily, she could make him forget that he was supposed to command uninterrupted attention. His attendants back home would have flinched, to see her interacting so casually with the Firelord-- but then, Zuko had left them in the capital for a reason. "Does this mean you forgive me?"
"Not quite," she said, and winked. "How about another date? And no running out this time."
He blushed, but did not stammer as he thought he was going to. "I'm actually already seeing someone," he said.
Jin's laugh was like a flock of pigeons taking to flight all at once. "I know that already, Zuko. I got the whole story from Uncle Mushi, remember? It's okay, I'm only a little heartbroken." She winked again. "But it's sweet to see you turn that shade of pink--"
His turn to interrupt, even if it wasn't the most relevant of objections. "His name's not Mushi, you know."
"Of course not. But half the customers here still call him that, and he told me he doesn't mind. Anyway, I know I don't stand a chance with The Great Fire Lord" (he could hear her capitalize each word), "but I thought I could at least take you out to dinner. You know, as a friend. As a thank you, for lighting all those lanterns."
Her voice turned a little soft, and reflected in her eyes he thought he could see the plaza, the carefully-burning lights, her smile and an image of his younger self, only a few months ago, but impossibly distant from the present. It hadn't yet occurred to him that he had the rest of his life in front of him, to spend with friends of his own making.
"I'm afraid there is no way," he said slowly, "that the Firelord would… make a friend pay for his meal." He found a simple satisfaction in watching her disbelief turn to understanding, and delight. "Dinner's on me," he said. "But first I really do need to let Uncle--"
"Zuko! You have grown a sense of humor when I wasn't looking!" This from Iroh, who was emerging from the tea shop's back room, wiping his hands on his apron and grinning broadly.
"Um," Zuko said, less than eloquent, but Iroh ignored him.
"Is my nephew giving you a hard time, miss?"
"Oh yes, sir," she said sweetly, and then all three of them were laughing.
Zuko found himself hugged soundly, as though he'd been gone for years instead of just a handful of months, and the familiar smells of his tea and smoke (and more tea) made his heart constrict. Jasmine and tarragon, ginseng and ginger. He'd learned all their names (after something of a struggle) when he was working in this shop, in that other lifetime; measured his days as he measured quantities of leaves into pots. He knew he still had much to learn, but already he could look on those days for the gift that they had been, and not just the trial.
"So where is your lady friend?" Iroh said, when he'd let him go, with a pointed look over Zuko's shoulder where his girlfriend ought to have been standing. "I have not seen her since she was a girl. I look forward to meeting her as a young lady."
"Mai should be here by the end of the day tomorrow," he said, trying to sound casual. "She's traveling with her family, since her father's leaving Omashu for good. They didn't want to move too fast, what with the baby."
"The baby!" Across the shop, Jin nearly dropped her teacup, staring at him with a look that was half-shocked and half-impressed.
"No! No no no." Zuko thought he might never get a chance to make a good impression on anyone, if he couldn't stop blushing. "Mai's little brother, Tom-Tom. He's just a toddler-- Uncle, will you stop laughing?-- a surprise addition to the family, really." He managed to finish with some semblance of his dignity intact, though he was wildly grateful that they were the only ones in the Jasmine Dragon at this early hour.
Jin was giggling; Iroh clapped him on the shoulder. "I admit, that would have been something of a surprise. But when you do have little ones, you'll invite me to the naming ceremonies, won't you?"
Three patrons walked in the front door at that moment, catching the end of Iroh's sentence and eager to know if congratulations were in order. Zuko amended his earlier thought, wishing he could flee into the back room to hide behind a cupboard (or possibly jump out the window, whichever proved easier).
But instead he managed to stand his ground, shaking his head as Jin started up conversation with the newcomers. "No little ones, Uncle, though I do have news."
Something in his nephew's tone caught Iroh's attention; his eyes were still smiling but his face had grown still. "So you do," he said thoughtfully. "I can see it in your face."
"My sister has woken," he said, more quietly. "And she--" He faltered, failing for words. He wasn't sure how he should feel on the subject-- of family, of fault, of forgiveness-- much less how anyone else should feel about it. His uncle waited, listening. "Ty Lee says Azula wants to speak to me. To us. ...To you. And you know Ty Lee; she'll give anyone the benefit of the doubt, but I can't help but believe her. Maybe Mai even believes her, too."
Iroh made a noncommittal noise, as if considering this. "I wonder what your sister has to say to me," he said, though he did not sound entirely disbelieving. "The Azula I knew was... not much interested in an old man like me."
For the whole trip, Zuko had wondered how he was going to say this, but here in the moment things proved oddly simple. "She says she has a message for you from Lu Ten."
Iroh's face was utterly unreadable, but his voice was rich with emotion. "Ah. Perhaps things have changed, after all."
The beach has not changed; everything else in the world is different but the sea sweeps up the sand just the same, and Ember Island still smells like home.
It is perhaps not so difficult a thing, to begin again.
It was Ty Lee who brought her the mirror, about a week after Azula regained consciousness. The Dai Li agents steeled themselves when they saw the reflective surface flash between her hands, as she walked lightly between them. Azula had asked for it, said the sometime circus performer (now marked as one of Kyoshi's holy warriors). She had specifically asked for the hand mirror that had been in her room in the palace, the one that Mai had packed with her clothing; she had specifically asked that it be Ty Lee to bring it.
But the Dai Li knew there was something more, for they had heard the princess ranting in her delirium; more than once she had cursed an invisible mirror, screaming at something (someone?) none but she could see.
Azula was quiet now as she looked at herself now, as quiet as the mirror itself, latent in her hands.
Ty Lee watched her watching herself. Azula had seen many things, but she hadn't yet seen her sixteenth birthday, though you might not know it by looking at her face. Already there were hints of silver at the edges of her hair, something of age in the way her eyelids creased. The crooked line of her hair did nothing to dispel the illusion of age, though it was slowly growing back to its former, elegant length. How many lifetimes had she lived, unconscious in her fever, wandering inside herself? She was thin with illness, but growing more vibrant by the day. Ty Lee blinked hard, her eyes stinging with tears unshed. How close had she come to the edge, to the point of no return?
Inscrutably, Azula said, "Well, I suppose I don't miss my other face." She lifted her chin and gave Ty Lee a look that she had never seen before: piercing and arrogant as ever, and as beautiful, but different, somehow. She read Ty Lee's thoughts on her face, and said softly, "Oh, Ty Lee, did you really think I wouldn't come back?"
Ty Lee shook her head, braid bobbing. "Mai might have thought that. But I always believed in you. I knew you were too stubborn to give up."
Azula glanced again at her reflection in the mirror, and Ty Lee thought it was less hauteur and more an inability to meet her eyes. "Did you know that… I missed you?"
There weren't really any words for that, as Ty Lee had made up her mind two months ago that she wasn't going to apologize for something that hadn't been her fault. (It had been Azula herself who had taught her, years and years ago, never to explain herself: "It's a waste of time. You'll never change the mind of your enemies, and you'll only annoy your friends, who already know what they need to know.")
So she held her tongue, though it was hard, watching the pain flickering under Azula's eyes and remembering her own horrible gut-wrenching feeling, watching Mai and Azula facing off-- to fight one another, in earnest-- and being forced to choose.
After an awful moment of silence, it was Azula who spoke first, though her voice was faint as though it came from far away. "I am sorry."
At last the tears fell, unchecked, as Ty Lee caught her breath. Of all the things she ever thought Azula might give to her, her own apology was never one of them. A pet purple pygmy platypus bear would have been more likely.
Azula saw the disbelief on her friend's face, and smiled ruefully. Her voice, still just an echo of its former self, held more strength this time. "I guess I don't blame you for not believing me. What would you have me say?"
"But I do believe you, Azula," Ty Lee whispered. "You-- you don't have to explain. I already know… what I need to know."
Recognizing the words as her own, the princess felt her smile evaporating, replaced by something like wonder. Surely it could not be humility. Because she could not think of anything else to say, she said, "Thank you."
And she put the mirror face-down on the bed and did not look at it again.