I've been twisting the ideas around in my head for a while about what direction I want to take this story in. There's a bunch of ways this could go, I'm still not sure what I'd consider to be the best for the story.
Oh well, that's a question for another time. Right now the path I'm plotting is still pretty clear. Here's the next chapter, and I hope you all enjoy what I have to offer.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
"Azula, you shouldn't say things like that." Zuko's voice was hesitant, as if wondering whether or not he should have spoken up at all.
The young princess glared back at her brother, anger and disappointment in her eyes. "But I'm right, Zuko. He quit. He left the field of battle when he was about to win. What else am I supposed to call him?"
"Uncle just lost his son, Az. How do you think dad would react if he lost one of us?"
The eight year-old girl paused. "Hm. He'd probably say something like what a disappointment it was that we weren't strong enough to survive or something." She noted Zuko's pained expression and rolled her eyes. "Maybe you'd like to use Mother as an example next time." She helpfully supplied.
An uneasy silence descended upon the two siblings until Azula sighed. "It's such a waste."
"Hm?" Roused from his brooding, Zuko glanced over to his sister. "What is?"
"Uncle. He's one of the best Firebenders in the nation – almost as good as Father, really." It was true, too. While Uncle Iroh never firebended much – well, outside of warming his tea, anyway – the few times she could remember him doing so made her own abilities look about as threatening as a sparkler. "And he's supposed to be one of our best generals, but one little mistake in the field and he completely falls apart."
"I don't get it. If the enemy really took something from him, he should be angry, He should be looking for revenge. It's like…" She cast around for examples. "Like the two of us were fighting in a battle, and one of the enemy earthbenders launched you a hundred feet into the air, and when you came back down they brought up two walls of stone to smash them together on you like BAM! and…" She noticed Zuko's expression and trailed off. "It was only an example." She offered.
"Right," he raised an eyebrow.
"Anyway, if something happened to you, I'd be angry! I'd hunt down the people who did that to you and burn them to the ground! I wouldn't… I wouldn't quit and leave!" She slumped back again in a huff, folding her arms. She didn't know how to express herself properly, she lacked the words to give shape to her feelings, and that just irritated her more.
"What?" She snapped, annoyed.
"Is what you said true?"
"Is what true? What did I say?"
"If something happened to me, would you get mad?"
Azula sighed and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "Well… yeah." She mumbled.
The beginnings of a smile found its way onto his face. "Thanks."
Azula slumped down onto the stone steps, her expression gloomy. Although the garden stretched out in front of her in an arresting vista, her thoughts were far away, ranging instead to the overheard conversation between her mother and one of her friends from the minor houses.
"And then she burned the doll! Just because she didn't like it! Honestly, I don't know what's wrong with that child…"
That last line ran its merry way through her mind again and again no matter how much she tried to push it away. No matter how much she tried to deny it, the simple truth of the words were unmistakeable.
Mother thinks there's something wrong with me.
She bared her teeth in frustration. Why was her mother so difficult to please?
For all that their father was a harsh and unyielding man, his demands were simple to puzzle out – excel in areas directly related to becoming a true royal of the Fire Nation. Firebending, political intrigue, military strategy, the works. Do those well, and you would earn his approval. Such things came easily to Azula, and every time she made a new breakthrough in her practice, she could look forward to words of praise and acknowledgement from him. It was a simple system, and it worked.
But no matter how much she tried, no matter how well she answered her questions, completed her training regimens, her mother barely ever acknowledged it with anything more than a simple "That's nice, dear." Worse yet, to the perceptive girl, was that she could sense a growing unease from her mother every time she burst in to announce that she had accomplished some new task theoretically far beyond someone her age, almost as if she were being pushed further from her mother every time she succeeded in something.
Why? What did her mother want from her? And why did she disapprove of so many things that Azula considered inconsequential? Like the stupid earth kingdom doll – she hadn't liked it, and so she had burnt it away. So what? What was the big deal? And when Ty Lee had completed the cartwheel when she couldn't – well, that had been a threat, hadn't it? Someone had challenged her claim – however indirectly – to being the best at anything. And so she had taken steps to prevent that from happening again. Her mother should have been proud of her, she knew her father would have been proud of her in the same situation. But mother hadn't. She had chastised Azula.
Worse, far worse, was that Zuko seemed able to win her mother's affections so readily. Her brother couldn't do anything right! Okay, she acknowledged, that was being a bit too harsh – her brother exhibited a solid core of competency in most areas, but she had far outstripped him in almost every relevant field. And yet that didn't seem to matter to mother. Whenever he scraped his knee or messed up an exercise or took time off from his studies, Azula knew that she could find him later curled up by his mother's lap, and they would be playing a game with each other or feeding the turtle-ducks or simply doing nothing at all and enjoying each other's company.
Why? Why? What did Zuko have that she lacked? Azula simply couldn't understand it. And to the young prodigy for whom mastery in so many fields came so readily, the inability to understand anything was a rare and very unpleasant situation.
So intense was her contemplation that it took her several long seconds to realize that her brother had somehow found his way to the stone steps as well and was sitting there, chin resting on his knuckles. After a moment he let out a long sigh.
"What is it, Zuzu?" She questioned after a long moment. In response, his brother closed his eyes.
"I messed up one of my katas again."
"Oh." Ever since the first time she'd created blue fire all those years ago, she'd gradually been shunted into a different class from Zuko – apparently they felt she deserved more specialized teachings, ones that Zuko was simply not ready for. The blue fire seemed to come and go as it pleased, something that displeased Azula greatly. Her instructors had assured her that it was normal (how would he know, wasn't blue fire supposed to be practically unheard of?) and that in time she would master it completely – an answer that left Azula feeling dissatisfied. But that was really beside the point.
After a moment, Zuko offered up his next statement. "Father was there today."
"Oh. Ouch." She retained enough sympathy to wince, although another part of her mind wondered why their father even bothered any more. Surely he knew Zuko wasn't the powerful Firebender he'd wanted for a son by now?
Not for the first time, it struck Azula that their situations weren't all that dissimilar. Both had one parent they could please, and one they could not. Of course, the sticking point was that Zuko's question was of simple ability – he knew what his father wanted but simply couldn't rise to the challenge – whereas Azula's problem was of knowledge – she felt absolutely certain that she'd be able to accomplish whatever it was her mother desired of her, if only she could figure out what it was.
She let out a frustrated sigh herself, which caught Zuko's attention. "What about you? What are you upset about?"
"…Mother thinks there's something wrong with me."
"What, like a fever? Maybe you should go lie down –"
"No, not like a fever!" Azula glared at her brother, although in the back of her mind she pondered the validity of Zuko's words. Did her mother think of Azula as ill, somehow? "It's like… it's like…" She sighed, back at the same roadblock she always encountered whenever she contemplated her mother. "I don't know what it's like." She confessed miserably. "But she didn't like me burning the doll."
"You mean the one uncle sent you?"
"Uh huh. It's so stupid. It's just a doll. It's not like it was a puppy or something-"
"You've burnt puppies too, you know."
"That was different. I just singed their fur a bit until they ran away." Azula grumbled. If she recalled correctly, her mother had been upset then too. "Mother never tells me what she wants, but she keeps telling me what she doesn't want me to do. I don't get it."
The two of them continued to sit in silence for a while, until Zuko scratched his forehead and spoke up again. "I think mom loves you."
"Oh, sure you do." Azula rolled her eyes. "She's not doing a very good job of showing it if that's the case. Besides, what makes you think that mother loves me? As far as I can tell, I've never done anything that's really made her proud."
"Maybe, but…" Zuko paused. "Being proud of someone and loving someone are two different things. I think."
Azula made no reply to that.
After a moment, and apparently still trying to be helpful, Zuko spoke again. "Maybe you could just ask."
"Why should I have to ask?" She countered hotly. "Mother loves you, and she shows it, too. Did you have to ask her to do that?"
"Well, no, but…" The prince shrugged. "You're different from me, Azula. You've knocked that into my head enough times." He managed a brief smile.
"Hmph." She crossed her arms and turned away, annoyed. To ask appeared to her too much like an admission of defeat, letting the world at large know that she had failed to earn her mother's love the normal way. And yet…
Later, she resolved to herself. If there's really nothing else I can think of, then I'll ask mother. But not yet.
As the family bowed and made the standard gestures of obeisance to Grandfath – to Fire Lord Azulon, Azula wondered about why they were meeting. As far as she could gather, her father was the one who had asked for an audience with the monarch, but the reasons for why were sealed from her. Her naturally inquisitive mind had immediately sifted through a dozen possibilities, but none appeared particularly more likely than the others.
Apparently Gran – Fire Lord Azulon was curious too. "Come, Ozai." He said in that ancient yet powerful voice of his. "Tell me the reason you have sought an audience with me."
"In due time, father." Her father spoke, his voice slow and measured. He gives every word meaning, Azula noted. "But first, I would like to present my children to you. Both of them have grown much since the last time you've seen them."
"Indeed." Azulon's voice was non-committal. 'Very well. Come forth, Zuko and Azula. I would test you on your knowledge and skill."
The questions were fairly basic – anyone who paid attention to the history books could have answered them easily. The young princess didn't really pay any of that much attention, although she noted that Zuko stammered and slipped up on a couple of the questions – a date wrong here, a moment's too long of hesitation there. Wreathed in the undying flames that surrounded his throne, Azulon's silence gave little indication about what he was thinking, but she could note her father's expression, the tightening of the lips and narrowing of the eyes that signified his displeasure.
Finally, Ozai spoke up again. "My daughter's prodigious skills with Firebending have surely not escaped your notice, father. With your leave, I would have her do a demonstration for you."
Well, that was unexpected. Still, nothing too difficult for her at all, and she'd certainly never minded being the centre of attention. Standing and bowing, she slipped herself into a ready stance, took a deep breath… and began.
Punch, kick, jab, block. It was a basic series of movements, executed competently enough, but nothing special. Out of the corner of her eye, she noted her father, and he could read the subtle signs that communicated his disappointment. She almost grinned at the thought of pleasantly surprising her father.
Don't worry – I know just what to do. As she landed on a single foot, she was expected to throw her weight forward, moving into one of the finishing phase of this particular set. Instead, she focused for a brief moment, launching herself backwards in a perfect somersault.
How about that – all those afternoons with Ty Lee paid off after all! As she landed again, she immediately shifted gears into one of the most physically demanding of all the katas – one that should have been out of her reach for at least another five years. Whirlwind sweeps, spinning bursts of flames, whips and tongues of fire that flowed through the air, and for brief, eternal moment there was no Fire Lord watching, no father to please, no brother and mother to watch. There was just her, and the fire, and the harmony of the dance.
And then her feet rested once more on the polished wood and the world swirled back into focus as she slowly bowed to the Fire Lord, breathing heavily and feeling sweat run down her cheeks. A tiny part of her was unhappy – she'd hoped for at least one of the strikes to create the blue fire she longed to claim for her own so much, but mostly she was ecstatic – she could see the faint traces of a smile on her father's face. She had made him happy again.
Fire Lord Azulon, however, was silent, and after a moment Azula realized he fully intended to remain silent, at least for the time being. Feeling a tad miffed, she silently reclaimed her seat. Would a 'well done' have been too much to ask? Mother's face did not reveal anything, as usual. This was enough to offset most of Azula's good mood by the time she had settled herself down again.
Scarcely had she begun pondering the issue, however, when her brother shot up from his seat. "I, too, would like to demonstrate what I have learned."
Involuntarily, she glanced to her father. The smile on is face had vanished. She bit her lip. If anyone else had been the audience, she had no doubt her father would have spoken up and expressly forbidden Zuko to perform. But to refuse his son's request in front of the Fire Lord would have been a gross breach of protocol.
As Zuko took his place in front of the throne, Azula's eyes widened in alarm. What was – his stance was all wrong! How had his instructors allowed him to get away with such sloppiness for so long? In fact, the way he was moving, she'd be surprised if he didn't fall over by the third moveme-
Yup. There he went. Quickly the princess glanced over to her parents. His father's face currently looked as if it had been carved from stone, so still it was. Then her mother – she looked worried for Zuko.
No surprise there, Azula thought irritably. I give the best performance of my life and she doesn't turn a hair. Zuzu falls on his bum and she looks like she wants to rush over and hug him. Before she could stew any longer, though, Azulon spoke up again.
"Enough. I tire of these sideshows. Ozai, have your family leave us, and we shall discuss in private."
As they stepped through the darkened entrance to the throne room (why was it that the palace dedicated to the Fire Nation was always shrouded in shadows?), she hesitated for a moment, and ducked behind a pillar. Her father had always taught her to keep one ear to the ground, for information was power, and what information could be more valuable or powerful than that which was shared between the Fire Lord and his son?
Briefly she considered dragging Zuzu along too, to help teach him about the ways of politics – Agni knew he needed all the help he could get. But looking at his disappointed face, Azula suspected that he wouldn't have appreciated the generosity of her gesture right at that moment.
Well, that was fine. Anything really important could be passed on to him later, after all. And with that, Azula snuck up as close as she felt she safely could, leaned her back against the pillar, and listened.
She dashed through the hallways of the palace, heedless of anything in her path. Panting, taking great gulps of air, she tried not to pay attention to how loud her thudding footfalls sounded in the dead of the night. Finally, she skidded herself to a stop in front of Zuzu's room. Briefly, her eyes fell upon the handles. No sign of forced entry. Good.
Her relief died along with discovery that he apparently slept with his door unlocked. She ground her teeth together. That trusting idiot!
Yanking the door open, she charged into his room, and upon spying the still form lying on the bed, she marched over, grabbed his shoulder and shook as hard as she could.
"Wake up, stupid!" She snapped, and as soon as she saw blurry eyes begin to come into focus, she leaned over. "Daddy's going to kill you!" She hissed urgently
That got him awake. He bolted upright, and if Azula hadn't ducked back at the last second, their heads would have collided. "What?" He sputtered. "But I – what –"
"Calm down!" Azula wasn't feeling particularly calm herself, but she needed a coherent Zuko for this.
Now that Zuko had gotten a moment to focus and think through her words, his expression was hardening. "You're lying." He said after a moment. "You have to be. Daddy wouldn't…"
"Daddy wouldn't? Get real," she demanded. "You know what he's capable of." She shook her head. "You know what daddy wants more than anything, don't you?"
Zuko wasn't an idiot – after a moment's deliberation, his eyes narrowed. "To be Fire Lord."
"Exactly." Quickly passing a hand through her hair, she continued. "After Grandfather sent us out of the room, I snuck back in to listen to what they were saying."
"You're not supposed to-"
"That's not IMPORTANT!" Frustration, anger and fear boiled over for a brief moment, but Azula prided herself on her control, and after a few seconds of deep breathing she was reasonably calm again. "Anyway, I heard daddy explain that since Uncle didn't have an heir any more, he was far more suited to be Fire Lord than Uncle despite Uncle being he crown prince. After all, he has two children."
"What? But Grandpa loves Uncle. He'd never agree-"
"He didn't. In fact, he blew up. He demanded that if daddy wanted to even dream of having the crown for his own, he had to know the same kind of pain that Uncle had been through." She swallowed. "Zuzu, do you understand? Grandfather ordered daddy to murder you!"
That appeared to stun Zuko into complete silence for a moment, and he collapsed back onto the bed. "Daddy's… daddy's going to…" He was babbling softly to himself now, and for a moment Azula despaired. How were they supposed to get out of this one?
The sound of the door being closed snapped Azula to full attention, and she whirled, already bringing her hands up and generating a tiny ball of fire in her palms. On any other occasion, she'd have been overjoyed to note the azure hue of the flames. Now she barely noticed.
No one was in the room. Azula blinked. Wait. She'd left the door open when she'd come in… Someone had been eavesdropping! Cursing her own carelessness, she swept her gaze around the room. She'd been in here dozens of times already, and gotten to know every nook and cranny. Now all the shadowed alcoves looked like they concealed assassins and spies just waiting to leap out at them.
This wasn't working. She couldn't stand guard all night. A plan. They needed… a plan…
"All right." She said softly. "Here's what we'll do. First, we'll go to my room.'
"Shut up and listen. Daddy's not going to move immediately." Her father wasn't one for impulsive acts – she was absolutely certain that if push came to shove he wouldn't terribly mind offing Zuko, but he would do so in a manner that would leave his name beyond suspicion, and with the scapegoat being one of his personal enemies as well. And that required planning. "So you'll be safe for tonight. But just in case, we'll go to my room."
"Quit snivelling!" A part of her knew better, knew that Zuko was still holding up remarkably well for someone who just learned that their father was going to kill him, but she was afraid, and fear made her impatient. "In the morning we can go to… to mother. She'll know what to do." Hopefully. The last part she kept to herself. But their mother loved Zuko, and so she would try to protect him. That only made sense. With any luck Uncle would be back soon, too. She felt no great love for the man, but he was still the Dragon of the West – surely he'd have some idea of what to do. Maybe they could appeal to the sense of loss he felt over his son…
A few minutes later, Zuko was under her blankets, still shivering silently, and Azula was rubbing the ache out of her neck. Now that they were in a relatively safer position, she was suddenly aware of how tired she felt. The Firebending demonstration from earlier had already taxed her more than she'd realized.
She couldn't go to sleep, though. Nuh-uh. Pulling up a chair, she settled herself by the bed, keeping a close eye on the door. Zuko was depending on her.
She absolutely could not afford to fall asleep.
Azula jerked awake. After a second, memories of what had happened rushed back to her and she cursed under her breath.
She had fallen asleep! Of all the stupid- Her self-berating was cut off as she noticed a dark figure hunched over her bed. Her bed, currently containing Zuko.
She leapt into action, blue fire streaming from her fists. "Get away from him!" She cried. At that single moment she didn't care if that person was her father or Fire Lord Azulon himself, she was not going to back down from –
"Mother?" Astonishment barely described what Azula was feeling. "What are – what are you doing…"
Her mother was dressed as Azula had never seen her dressed before. A rough, hooded robe was draped over her body, a tiny satchel hung at her side, and… her eyes. There was something in her eyes that made Azula pause.
"Azula. My daughter." Ursa walked over and grasped Azula's shoulders. The young princess's mind was a convoluted storm as she tried to sort out what exactly was going on. "You were the one who brought him to your room, weren't you?" There was a quality in her voice that Azula didn't understand, couldn't understand, and it both infuriated and frightened her. "You were the one who tried to protect your brother."
Azula hesitated. There didn't appear to be much to say, at least on her part. But she could tell that there was indeed a lot that her mother wanted to say. She took a quick glance over to the bed – Zuko was lying on the bed, wavering on the edge between sleep and wakefulness.
"Azula," her mother continued. "Soon, I will be forced to leave this place for… for a long time. I… I won't be able to look after you or Zuko any longer. I know you overheard what your father and grandfather were talking about back in the throne room. You know that Zuko was in danger." Her mother paused, obviously unaccustomed to such bare honesty, at least to her own daughter.
"Azula, before I leave, would you promise me something? You know your brother isn't the best at a lot of things. You know he's sometimes too gentle for his own good. You also know your father has no time for those who aren't the best or are too gentle," her mother swallowed once and her voice came out oddly thick. "Azula, please, promise me that no matter what happens, you'll always look after Zuko, that you'll always protect your brother."
Instantly a part of her arose in cold fury. Her mother was leaving, and even then her last words to her daughter were about Zuko? Another part silently chided her – reminding her that it wasn't her life that had been threatened tonight. Both parts were rapidly swallowed up by the stunning realization that for the first time, she knew, clearly and unambiguously, what her mother wanted from her and that she could finally make her mother happy.
"If I…" she swallowed, trying to steady her voice. "If I do that, would I make you proud?" For once, in my entire life, could I make you proud?
A moment later, she felt arms wrapping around her back, one hand reaching up to caress the back of her head. "Oh, Azula," There was an odd catch in her voice. "I am already so very proud of you. No matter your faults, no matter how many things you've done that I disapprove of, and no matter how poorly I may have shown it, I love you. I will always love you. Remember that."
Liar! LIAR! A part of Azula's mind screamed at her. She ignored it, her hands reaching up to grasp her mother as well, and for the first time in her life, Azula cried into her mother's shoulder.
Pale sunlight streamed in through the balcony. Azula stood, hands resting by her sides, as she stared over the vast capital of the Fire Nation.
Somewhere in the bustling masses that were beginning their day, their mother was walking resolutely towards the ships bound for the Earth Kingdom.
She swallowed. From behind her, she heard Zuko's voice, sleepy at first, and then panicked.
"Mom? MOM?" With a sigh, she turned and entered the room.
"Mother isn't here any more." She said quietly.
Zuko stared at her, uncomprehending.
"Also, Grandfather's dead. And he named daddy as the next Fire Lord." The words seemed so hazy and unreal, she could barely believe them even as she spoke.
Zuko glanced around the room, eyes roaming wildly. "But, what about-"
"You're safe." Walking over, she sat on the edge on her bed. "Before mother left, she asked me to promise her something."
Her brother was silent.
"She asked me to protect you, no matter what." She set her jaw defiantly. "I promised her, and so that's what I'm going to do."
Leaning over, she placed one hand on her brother's shoulder and offered him what she hoped was an encouraging smile, "So don't worry, Zuzu. No matter what happens, I'm going to take care of you. Okay?"
And the two of them remained there until the servants came to knock on the door, and to tell them that breakfast was ready.
Thank you for reading. Please review.