Among many assorted letters Zuko was sifting through one brisk spring day was a small, pamphlet-like notice with a red insignia of a drum on the front. Zuko was curious, curious enough to forsake the current law draft before him to pick up the letter and check it out. It wasn’t uncommon for Lady Yasuzato to send him letters about Azula’s progress, but nothing so official looking before, and that worried him somewhat. Agni, I hope Azula hasn’t been kicked out.
Quite the contrary, apparently, as the letter was inviting him, as Azula’s stated guardian and only remaining family, to a kumi-daiko drum recital she was taking part in.
Zuko, of course, had to cancel all of his meetings and duties on the day of the recital. He wasn’t going to miss it for anything. He had made an effort to visit Azula in the asylum every week after Sozin’s comet. Even though she screamed and hissed and spit and ran away every time, he still came, even just to try and talk to her. He visited once or twice after she emerged from her few months’ disappearance, but those times, she would barely speak. She just glared at Zuko from under her carelessly cut mop of matted hair.
Lately, Zuko had been so caught up in Fire Lord business - pollution problems in the east, negotiations with Yu Dao and the other former colonies, redistribution of resources once used for the war… If being Fire Lord in peacetime was this stressful, he couldn’t imagine how he would deal with another war. (Although, considering his forefathers’ approach, he suspected that he would only have to approve battle plans and occasionally show up in person to burn a city or two to the ground.) He barely had time to visit Azula, but she came off as being better. She exchanged pleasantries, and blessedly kept her fire to herself. She even asked him what that dumb look on his face was once - actually asked him something first, and not the other way around! That had to count for something.
To hear that she was in good enough of a state to participate in a drum concert would have been almost unthinkable to Zuko when he first started his long, long journey to talk to her. Now, he just hoped she would have a kind word to say to him.
The music hall, when he arrived, was small, dim, and not very full. Several rows of taiko drums sat on the stage. The seats were mostly inhabited by old folks on rickety legs, middle aged couples that he assumed were the other ensemble members’ parents, and a whole lot of exhausted-looking single men and women dragging small, whining children around their ankles. An occasional teenager or other was to be spotted lurking in the shadows of the highest stands. The place was quiet and any noise was murmury. After so many days of being around shouting crowds or endlessly rambling advisors and generals, the mellow ambience was soothing, like a balm. Zuko had on plain clothes and refused to be accompanied by any guards or attendants. A simpler flame headpiece was the only piece of the ensemble that he had chosen to keep, and he was not regretting it. As he settled into a seat near the front of the hall, he relished in his anonymity. He had missed the opportunity to simply be a person, another face in the crowd.
“Mommy, look at his face!”
Well, nothing good can last forever.
A woman with shadows under her eyes pulled her child’s pointing hands away from Zuko. “Mito! It’s rude to point!”
“But mommy, his eye - ”
“- Is frankly none of your business. Sit down.”
“Do you think it’s a burn? Was he a soldier? Isn’t that what the Fire Lord looks like? I think it looks cool! Can I -”
The woman forced Mito back into her seat, putting a hand over her mouth and hushing her sharply.
The woman turned to Zuko with a hand combing worriedly through her hair. “You must forgive Mito, she’s awfully forward, she didn’t mean any offense…”
Zuko nodded awkwardly, peering over at Mito. Seemingly defeated, she was sitting slumped in her chair. Her attention was apparently affixed by the pattern carved into the chair’s arm. She sullenly traced over it with her fingers and a pout on her face. Her face, which had a sunken, cloudy eye on one side.
Zuko’s hand drifted to his own face. A sudden spike of shame shot through him, something he hadn’t felt since before the end of the Hundred Years’ War. His injury was a mark of shame, no less because of the partial blindness in his left eye. He had heard many, many stories about children who were born wrong suffering even worse ostracization. How must this girl feel now?
Zuko tapped her shoulder. “Mito, is it?”
Mito perked up. “Yeah!”
Zuko looked at her mother for confirmation to continue. She nodded, though the frown between her brows remained.
Turning back to Mito, Zuko said, “I think your eye looks cool too.”
Mito squealed with joy. “Really?”
“Yes, and I think you’re even more cool and special with it.”
Mito turned to her mother, beaming. “See! He thinks I’m cool!”
The woman’s expression finally eased. She sighed quietly in relief. “I’m very happy, Mito.”
Mito went right back to studying the chair. The woman, however, turned right to Zuko. “Thank you for your kind words.”
“Don’t think of it.” Zuko gestured to his face again. “I know it's not easy living here with eyes like these.”
The woman sighed again. “Don’t I know it. Poor Mito. I do what I can, but children can be cruel, you know, and adults are no better…” She rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Perhaps she’ll make more friends when she’s older. I wish I could do more.”
She looked away. “Oh, never mind, never mind. I shouldn’t bother you with this.”
Zuko shook his head. “It’s alright.” He and her both looked over to where Mito’s attention had been captured by a lightning cicada that had somehow flown into the hall. “You love her, and someday things will get better for you both, but I’m sure for now it's enough.”
I’ll make sure it gets better. I really do need to sign those laws for the blind and deaf soon. So many things to do...
The woman’s lips tilted up in a slight smile.
She then hushed Mito again, more gently, as the lights above the audience dimmed and the stage was lit. Lady Yasuzato entered first, then ushered the ensemble onstage, all in perfect rows. Zuko recognized Azula immediately. She was walking stiffly and quickly, two drumsticks grasped tightly in one fist. Her hair was still fuzzy from when she had tried to cut it off, with a bandage still wrapped around her head, but if it bothered her to be seen like that in public, she didn’t show it. Lady Yasuzato briefly introduced the piece the ensemble was to be performing - “Fertility of the Sea”.
Azula and the other teenagers took their positions between the drums. The piece began.
It started slow and rhythmic, the pauses between beats drawn out and heavy. It soon grew in loudness and in pace, with crescendos, slowing and quickening again and again, punctuated by shouts from the performers. Just before the noise reached its peak, the level of drumming would be brought down to nothing more than a quiet tapping. A quiet tapping grew gradually in volume until the hall roared with the beat of the drums. It did sound like the cresting and falling of waves, one moment gentle and steady, the next unpredictable and lashing out in violence. Agni knew Zuko understood the temperament of the sea after having been banished upon it for three years. He was transfixed. The discipline of the performers and the intensity of the piece was astounding.
The most incredible thing in Zuko’s eyes, however, was Azula.
She moved with controlled furor. Every time she brought her drumsticks down against the drum’s head, it was as if she was striking at a heart - precise, fierce, unflinching. Her brow was furrowed with intense concentration. When the performers cried out, Azula’s was the loudest of all. All of her ferocity and precision in battle translated seamlessly into her performance, and it both stunned Zuko and unsettled him. Too often he had been on the opposite end of her fury. Now, Zuko was witnessing that same fury expressed without violence, presented to him on a platter in a small local hall, with a dozen other parents bearing witness.
He realized, after the performance concluded, that he was also proud.
He wondered if Azula had seen him in the crowd. She certainly seemed to be staring right into his soul the entire time.
Lady Yasuzato invited Zuko to see Azula again a week later. He arrived at the same performance hall, completely alone this time. Lady Yasuzato greeted him as warmly as one of her own students upon his entry.
“Fire Lord, welcome, welcome! It’s been too long!”
Zuko allowed himself a small smile. “It’s been only about a week.”
Lady Yasuzato scoffed and patted his back. “But you didn’t stay to talk after the end of the performance! You know, Azula really wanted to talk to you after it, she kept asking for you, but you had already gone.”
Zuko felt a twinge of (slightly suspicious) endearment at that. “Well, I had duties to attend to.”
It was a common excuse for him, but he did have to finish that letter and sign in those laws. Besides, he needed time to think and reflect.
Azula in the performance. Azula, in all her fire and fury before the drums. Azula’s eyes, no longer bordered with shadows.
Lady Yasuzato smiled cheerily and talked his ear off all the way to the front row of the hall. Zuko didn’t pay the most stringent attention. Azula wants to talk to me. She wants to see me. Last time he had met with her, she refused to even make eye contact. For months after she was institutionalized, she wanted nothing to do with him. Even when she talked to him, she glared and scoffed. She always called his weekly visits gloating, torture.
And now, she wanted to see him.
There were several drums set up on the stage. Azula sat cross-legged in between them, barely looking up when Zuko approached.
Lady Yasuzato jumped onto the stage, airily as always. “Oh, Azula, do you see who’s here?”
“I can see just fine, thank you very much,” She growled. Lady Yasuzato just nodded.
“Of course, but you seem to be in such concentration, I just didn’t know if you had noticed.”
“Well, I did.”
“Excellent! Fire Lord Zuko, Azula here has created a composition that she wanted to show you!”
Azula glared at the floor.
“Do you want to tell Zuko about it, or should I?”
Azula stood. “I will. It’s called Mother. I wrote it myself. It isn’t like there’s anything better to do in that loony bin you keep me holed up in.”
Zuko kept his face still. He nodded.
Azula waved Lady Yasuzato offstage. She took her drumsticks in hand and took a deep breath that echoed through the theatre.
Her performance started with a scream.
If Zuko thought the last taiko composition was intense, this was something unearthly. Azula less moved and more thrashed as she struck the drums. The piece at first glance seemed to have no rhythm, but eventually the beat came around, and around, and around again. Repeated motions slowly increased in volume. A pattern was created, kept for a few rounds, and then disappeared as if it had never existed in the first place. Zuko’s heart caught in his throat as he watched Azula. It leapt in double time whenever she punctuated her movements with a shriek.
The pace picked up even more noticeably, until Azula’s arms were a blur. And then it just stopped. The final few beats of her drumsticks landed and echoed hollowly throughout the hall. Aula stood straight backed, heaving in breaths, sweat running down her forehead.
The silence felt strangely bereft.
Azula’s performance ended with a scream, too.
It was a near animalistic thing, a breaking, breathless howl of pain. It hit Zuko like a wave, and he felt tears come to his eyes. Sure, this was only a performance, but it sounded so much like the way Azula screamed during Sozin’s comet. It reminded him too much of the way she shrieked and wailed, chained to that grate. It sounded despairing.
Azula seemed unfazed. She bowed formally before sitting back down on the stage.
Lady Yasuzato, of course, immediately jumped up and clapped wildly. “Wonderful! Wonderful! I’ve heard this many times before, but isn’t it just breathtaking every time! Fire Lord, your sister is a genius!”
Zuko nodded, and lifted a hand from his mouth and clapped weakly.
Lady Yasuzato shook Azula’s hand and clapped her back, and for once Azula seemed to be in an affable mood, so she didn’t burn her to a crisp. She came down from the stage, taking a seat beside Zuko.
“Still a crybaby, I see?”
Zuko, oddly enough, couldn’t help a smile. Of course Azula would say that. “I suppose I am.”
Even more odd, Azula was smiling back. “Well, I did try to make Mother as upsetting as I could. Yasuzato says I’m the best student she’s ever seen. She even cried when I performed it for the first time! You should have seen the look on her face - on your face!” she threw back her head and laughed.
Zuko could see that happening, yes. Lady Yasuzato shooed them outside the performance hall, apparently because Azula looked like she needed the fresh air. The hall was beginning to feel rather stuffy and claustrophobic.
“I bet you’ve never even touched a taiko drum in your life, Zuko.”
He shook his head. “No, I haven’t.”
Azula smirked. “Of course not. That’s another thing I’m better at than you.”
They wandered off together just down the steps before the hall.
“Though, if you beg me nicely enough, maybe I’d consider telling you my secrets.”
Judging by how the rest of the day had gone, Zuko should not have found that as surprising as he did. Azula, wanting to talk to him, showing him a music piece she composed, and offering to teach him her ways? No, this was too good to be true.
“What have they been giving you at the institution, Azula?”
Azula stiffened. “Oh, nothing. I just realized a lot of things when I ran away from it.”
Right. Her little escapade a few months back. Azula must have experienced a lot then. Despite his weekly visits, this was the first time they’d been together properly since…
I’ll have to ask her what happened. Maybe another time, though… Zuko knew a journey like Azula’s had to be very personal.
They sat down together on the stone steps. The evening was pleasantly cool, one of the last of its kind before summer set in. Azula was leaned back, eyes closed and breathing deeply. She looked serene, at peace.
Zuko didn’t dare disturb her. Such a moment was so rare for her. In those moments, he forgot the cunning conqueror and half-mad warmonger, and only saw his little sister.
Something niggled at the back of his mind still. Zuko didn’t want to wake Azula (he suspected she was sleeping, in any case), but as time passed and she showed no signs of awakening, he decided to just poke her in the side.
Then he remembered how he reacted when someone unexpectedly poked him, so he opted to gently shake her shoulder and ask her to wake up instead. She got up immediately.
“I’m not asleep, dum-dum.” She muttered, rubbing her eyes.
“Can I ask you something?”
Azula shrugged. “Won’t guarantee you I’ll answer.”
That’s as much a “yes” as anything. “Why did you name your song ‘Mother’?”
Azula frowned suddenly and looked away. Zuko winced internally - Oh, damn, I knew mom was a sore subject for her, I should have asked another time, Agni I’m so stupid.
The silence stretched long. With remorse, Zuko reached out his hand, but before he could place it on Azula's shoulder, she spoke.
"I named it after dear old mom. Obviously."
Zuko stopped. He sat back, waiting for her to continue with dread pooling in his gut.
"When I was traveling, you know, I met a nice family. Too nice. Staying with them would have rotted my teeth out of my skull. They had a daughter, too. The mother was so nice to her - and to me. She said that a mother loves her children in the face of anything. That’s what a mother is."
A familiar, painful tightness rose in Zuko's chest. Oh, how he missed mother. If only she had been there all those years ago.
Did Azula miss her, too?
She was still facing away from him, playing idly with a blade of grass sprung up between the cracks in the steps. "But I know why she said that. Her little girl was sweet as sugar. How could she not love her? I bet mother wanted a daughter like Kiyi, and when she got me instead, she hated me." Her voice broke. "I know she did. She said she loved me, but she was lying. I don't want that to be the truth anymore. I don't want to believe it."
Azula brought her knees up to her chest. Spitefully, she spat, "Agni, what’s wrong with me? Why in twenty hells am I telling you? I used to want to believe mother didn't love me, but I don’t - I do want it. I want…"
I want a mother, too, were the words left unsaid. I want what Kiyi has. I want what Mito has. I want what you had.
"Mother did love you, Azula," Zuko said quietly.
Azula shook her head.
"She did," he urged.
"No, and she didn't love you, either."
That hurt like a slap to the face. "What?"
"You heard me."
Zuko felt a confusing mix of anger, betrayal, sadness, and disbelief boil up inside of him. "What do you mean? Of course she loved me! She loved both of us! Wasn't that why you were so jealous of me when we were little?"
Azula turned to face him again and shook her head more insistently. "Yes, but -"
"Then why do you say that?" Zuko shouted. He didn't mean to raise his voice, but so often it just happened.
Zuko was stunned into silence.
Azula had gotten to her feet and was shouting now, too. "She said she loved you, but she left in the middle of the night. She barely even told you goodbye, did she!"
That night. Never forget who you are.
"She had no choice," Zuko stuttered.
"She could have taken us. She could have taken you . You're the one Azulon wanted dead, anyways. And her favorite little turtle duckling,” Azula sneered. “She could have taken you and ran."
"Maybe Ozai threatened her."
"But she hasn't even come back," Azula cried, clearly exasperated. Small tears gathered in her eyes. "It's been years! HE's locked up, the war is over, and everyone knows Fire Lord Zuko's name. Even the snow savages know who you are. But she still hasn't come back for us."
Zuko shook his head. He hated everything about this conversation. He hated how Azula was right.
"She just… left. She left us to HIS mercy. And you know what he did with his mercy. I know she never loved me, even if I told her about the things he did when I was little she wouldn't have cared, but if she loved you, she wouldn't abandon you."
Zuko stared at the hem of his robes. Red and orange. Like the color of the setting sun. A tear traitorously slipped from his eye. Azula always lies. Azula always lies. Azula always lies.
Azula sat next to him. "You didn't leave. You stayed. You’re nothing like her."
He couldn’t hold it back much longer.
She didn't get it, she didn't. Zuko cried anyway. It had been so long. Years. Years since he’d allowed himself to really mourn Ursa. He muffled his tears in the sleeve of his robe while Azula patted his shoulder awkwardly -
"Stupid crybaby Zuzu, why do I always have to deal with you now that she's gone?"
She stayed, though. She stayed until Ms. Yasuzato came out to get her and take her back to the institute. As she left, Zuko saw her hastily wipe at her own eyes, lips pursed and trembling.
He would visit her again tomorrow, he promised himself, even though it wasn’t his normal visiting day. She still didn’t understand, and he didn’t understand her, but he would still visit. Maybe they could begin to fix this after years of being broken apart. Even without her there, maybe they could try again.