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He Kisses Her Windy

Chapter Text

 

 

It isn't fair. Zuko's portrait hangs above the streets - it isn't even his birthday. Azula scowls out through the palanquin, up at her brother. She peers past the royal procession. Citizens align the streets dutifully. She admires their devotion. All of these people for him! If this is the showing for him... she can hardly imagine what it will be for any other member - for father. For her, one day.

It should be raining. Zuko hates the rain.

Father and mother sit side by side, unmoving. Neither speak. Regal and solemn comes to mind but she isn't sure which description belongs to who. Mostly mother is pale under the makeup but beautiful and father, not a thread out of place. Azula resists the urge to spread out - Zuko always takes up so much room. Even now his presence like toxic ooze cripples the atmosphere. She should be thankful, when he's really here mother dotes and blabbers as if she isn't a woman of her station. Without him here there is none of that. Azula basks in silence, alternating between observing each parent.

Father always silent, continuously evaluating and plotting his next move. This silence is no different, she's sure. But mother's silence is a force anchoring her brother besides her. His eyes shining with undiluted emotion, posture poor and unbecoming, barking like a baboon dog.

The steady march up the highest mountain of Caldera leaves no room to dispute his absence.

 

Rumor had it that there had been nothing to ship back - no ashes to spread over their beloved nation, no pyre, nothing to assure Lu Ten would join Agni in his mission to bring life. Azula knows it was only whispers, servant gossip and no more. Beneath her to notice. Besides she knew for a fact Uncle had preformed Lu Ten's final rights in a fit of grief. Her Uncle had not been able to wait. He hadn't been thinking. Lu Ten will never find his way back to Caldera - his ashes will wander, spread across an enemies land, foreign monstrosity that it is. The disgraced general hadn't even afforded her cousin a proper cremation befit royalty. It was disgusting. Even Zuko, an utter failure, is receiving better than Lu Ten. Father had always been more competent than Uncle, her mind whispers. 

She had never participated in Agni's Offering before. Soldiers died and were honored. There was special days that all remains were scattered on this mountain, soldiers families were hosted by the Royal Family... but when one a member of the family died it was different. As descendants of Agni, they would return home, giving back the life gifted to them. The passing of Royalty is sacred. Distantly Azula follows her parents lead. Soon enough they are in front of the pyre. Everything is slow.

Her skin warms under the sun, her core flickering in response, but Azula cannot enjoy it. How can she when she is looking down at Zuko's unmoving body.

His hair is bound in a top knot, hands gently clasped at his waist. She had been expecting a bloated perversion but that had been too much to hope for, now was it? Only two days had passed since that fateful night. Azula can't help but think he'll wake up. Zuko always oversleeps - no true descendant of Agni, they rise with the sun - and it's midday, Zuko should be waking up. Late as always.... No, she reminds herself. He's dead.

Dead as Lu Ten.

Better off than her cousin, at least Zuko could join Agni.

She wants to - to? She doesn't know what. Azula can hardly speak to him, not like this all small and cold, flat on his back in a pyre. Something akin to panic begins to rise up, flapping back and forth like his portraits had in the city and she, she - Her shoulder is squeezed, father's signal to move on. If she recalls correctly the Fire Sages would advise Zuko on his path to Agni then -

 

her mother is crying. The unemotional vortex, folding in on herself, crackling flames in the palm of her hand. Father was supposed to first but mother -

Zuko burns. Father joins, Azula begins after a respectful amount of time after. Orange red flames consume her brother completely. There is a loosening inside her, she can imagines his face melting, Azula winces inwardly at the thought. Her view is obscured by the fire but she can smell and taste his burning body and the heat in the air. She wrinkles her nose. She's determined to burn brighter - he should have fought back if he was stronger he wouldn't be dead this was all his fault, Azula reaches deeper. For more. Her palms are screaming but she can't stop she won't. Steam rises from mother's cheeks. The smell is nauseating...

And then. Zuko is ash, along with his intricate pyre. They cease bending, and watch him begin his journey to Agni.

Chapter Text

 

"Again."

She concentrates with all her might, but only puffs of smoke emit where fire should flourish. Azula inwardly cringes and averts her eyes from her father's piercing glare. 

 

"If you cannot preform basic katas you are no use to me."


Her mouth feels impossibly dry, "I..."
"Of course," he practically purrs, “With the proper motivation," he holds his hand out expectantly. Azula extends her arm out without question. The bones in her wrist are ground by his hold, he offers a small smile, "Anything is possible."

Screams tear from her as sudden as the burst of flames, her skin literally bubbles, popping under the intensity of his flame.

"Bend it," Father commands.

 

 

 

The medic tends to the Princess, rubbing salve carefully onto the burn. She, and others like her, had heard the whispers of a prodigy. A glance at the Princess' progress was a testament to her reputation. But... even prodigies have accidents, the healer thinks. The raw flesh climbing up the child's arm nauseates her. The Princess' eyes are glazed and the healer wonders, at what cost? How much do prodigies pay? The healer thinks, blood, but as she wraps the Princess' arm she knows. The answer is chilling. Because this was no accident.   

 

      

Azula grits her teeth, stifling any outward emotion, failing miserably no doubt. Azula imagines her teeth exploding, gaping gums as bloated as her arm, all that would be left. She will not cry. She wouldn't. She deserves this. This the cocoon encircling her... her arm. And underneath? 

Dark, thick red blisters protrude from where her father's hand had been. His large hand wrapped around easily, wrist to mid forearm. Her knuckles and fingers shiny pink, reminds her of raw fish. No salve will heal this, no clucking medic's assurance would convince her otherwise. This was her lesson. This - is punishment. Pain harpoons through her gut jamming up into her spine and protruding out from the center of her skull. She could feel each heartbeat with every pulse. It was taking everything to lay, to not sob with every ache. She cannot help but wish to be far far away.

 

I should have tried harder

 

Uncle Iroh visits her the first night. He bumbles in, Pai Sho board tucked beneath his armpit. She can't even manage a snide remark, what no tea, because the plea for medication is at the tip of tongue. Surely her weakness will escape. And it can't. She deserves this. Azula reassures herself that she deserves the bare minimum. Suffering will be her penance. 

"Niece," he calls in greeting.

His smile, wide and clueless as always does not falter, not even the awful scent of salve deters his mood. She regards him with hooded eyes, the only acknowledgement she can give - or will ever give. 

"I am sorry to find you in poor health but perhaps now you'll finally have time to learn Pai Sho."

Azula wants to tell him no. That dumb board game is for children, she has no use for it. But she can't spare the energy to complain, can't muster contempt to repel any further filial advances.

She had seen him in the courtyards, playing Pai Sho, alone. The deceased had been his pupils, and they were gone. She was the only one left. The only... He shouldn't have invested in the weak. But what did that say about her? He devoted his soft rounded edges to the dead to those that lacked strength - did she now fall into that category? Was she next? No, she told herself firmly. She was here. Maybe... maybe Uncle was finally losing it. He needed someone to care about, his type always did, and now that all of his favorites were gone he turned to her. That leaves a sour taste in her mouth because of course she is some last resort but she decides he could stay. Besides he would be out of father's hair, especially if Uncle is occupied with her.

Uncle amiably explains the rules, giving necessary demonstrations on the board. He pays no mind to her pain. Azula almost respects him for it, if he wasn't such a slob. If he wasn't such a failure... besides, a general would not get far if he could not stand others suffering. She wonders if his indifference relies solely on the fact it was her, not someone he loves. Hadn't he come undone at the bedside of Lu Ten? - forgetting his duties to mourn the crushed body bones compressed like fine powder - she was lucky. Lucky she wasn't dead father would never (feint layers of ash quivered on her tongue, in her nose with each breath) - fire is not forgiving. Even so it could always be worse.

Sleep eludes her that night. The small movements of her body feel like an earthquake tearing at her arm, lighting it on fire. Was this how he felt? Before he knew nothing before he was truly gone, away to Agni? Azula scowled in the darkness, body curls in pain. He's dead. It doesn't matter. She couldn't remove the misplaced bitterness, the growing sense that this was all his fault. Everything always is, isn't it? Yes. It usually is. 

Weeks pass in the med bay. Uncle continues to visit. She had manages to become a decent player, although Azula suspectes her Uncle was holding back, too soft to teach properly. He brought tea too, unlike the first night. The tea soothes her greatly, making her injury bearable in ways she could not pinpoint. It decidedly is not because "Tea makes everything better" (as Uncle fondly recited when she questioned) but she still drank, hiding her enjoyment from Uncle. Father began to send tutors after the second week to continue her studies. She excelles but was properly wary. A misstep now would be horrendous it would be (but she never lets herself finish the thought.) 

Father himself showed, briefly, eyes cool slants.

He sat at her bedside. His regal posture seemed to warp the med bay demanding all attention and respect. Father mirrors his action from weeks ago. The moment seems to last forever. If her arm had not been so damaged it would have quivered as she placed it into his palm, but she did not hesitate. (Later she grovels to herself thank you thank you). Father places his other hand on top of her heavily bandaged one. His lips twitched into a smile, the one that reoccurs in her dreams. “Fear holds no place in our family.” He squeezes her arm gently before rising. 

This strikes strangely within her but Azula looks on as a good child is apt to do.

 

Not a word comes from her mother, nor a single visit. Azula is not been surprised. Ursa never paid her the time of day, why should this little injury change things? Scorn like fire mangoes blossomed, rich and plentiful. If she died of infection would mother cease mourning Zuko to attend Azula's Agni Offering?

With each passing day the answer is a resounding 'no.' 

 

Uncle clucks his tongue. Azula grins meanly at him over her cup of tea. She had leached the heat out of the teapot after pouring her own cup. Allowing the remaining heat to transfer to her injured arm, Azula tentatively reached across the make shift table. Azula brushed her injured fingertips to across his favorite cup. The temperature seares the new skin at her fingertips but she continues, bringing some of her own fire to cause the cup to faintly glow red. 

"I never had the chance to teach Zuko. But Lu Ten was a master like you."

She considered destroying it, his sentimentality ruining the trick he taught her. Her brow wrinkles at the mention of her brother, and she withdrew her hand. "He was good at many things," Azula agreed, referring to her cousin. Too... too like Uncle though, and that's why he was dead - wandering, lost and scared - 

“I leave tomorrow. Don't deliver any tea to my quarters, Uncle." 

He gave an unconvinced chortle, reminiscent thoughts dashed by amusement in his niece. "As you wish Princess. I trust Pai Sho is off the table?"
"Don't make me laugh. Your frivolous activity will be the least of my priorities."

"A shame," he says, smiling knowingly behind his warmed cup.    

 

Chapter Text

 

Azula can pick the two out of the crowd with ease. The spiffy black and red of standard Fire Nation uniforms do little to shroud their identities. She doesn't blame them entirely - mostly it's mother's fault, but the acid building at the edge of her throat tastes of betrayal.   

When was the last time she saw them? Before? No. Later, at The Final Offering. And even later, she did not have time for childish whims; after. Mother had always tended to trivial manners such as coordinating 'play dates' with children of nobles. But, but dear old mother is wasting away in her private quarters, and father saw no point in irrelevant activities. Azula uncurls her fist, smoothing her face into a blank canvas. 

Azula thinks of Pai Sho, of her next move, and of Uncle. He had warned her about politics at her new school, as if she wasn't The Princess. As if each and every girl are not her subjects to be, as if she is not heir to the throne. She had laughed at him. 

She thinks she understands now, as the familiar ache in her arm flares up, skin palpable as dough. She will rule. But caution and alliances are in order. At least for now. With that thought Azula steps out of her palanquin, stoic. The click of her soles puncture The Headmistress' greetings. The student body continue to bow, Azula makes her way up the stairs. The two are nestled along the staircase. "Rise," she breathes. The two swivel, on their feet at the drop of a pin, following Azula into the school.  

They will make up for the loss of time. No one forgets Princess Azula, not even the noblest of nobles. Certainly not Mai and Ty Lee. 

 

 

School is easy for her. The Royal Fire Academy for Girls is a mere appetizer for Azula. She's top of her classes, social domination is in her blood, and the sheer mobility of her position liberating but nothing she hadn’t expected. Each challenge is met head on with little room to balk. A princess never stutters. 

There had only been one bump in the metaphorical road. Ty Lee's doing of course. 

The Academy had a curriculum unfavorable to nonbenders, allowing them to soften as Fire benders trained at the beginning of Primary Year. Nonbenders were allowed leeway, until their third to last year at the school. Finally they would hone a Physical Art after years of idleness, in Azula's opinion. The school's requirement went undisputed. Until Ty Lee. She had begged and pleaded the instructors that her aerobics counted towards the requirement but the school was adamant. 

"She's throwing a fit," Mai informed her.
"What is it now?"  

Mai led Azula down to the courtyard and sure enough said girl was there. Teary grey eyes peered up at Azula, knees curled tight beneath her chin, sword and armor discarded. "I don't want to hurt anyone." She spoke at a normal volume but passerby and the whole class squeezing in warped her admission into a shout. A proclamation shouted to the world from Caldera. Ridiculous. The absurdity of her friend appalled and infuriated Azula. She was making a scene! She was being weak. Half the school was there and half the Nation would hear of this by noon tomorrow. She couldn't have her good name associated with such a failure. Azula had half a mind to drag Ty Lee by her braid - hurt me now or I'll make sure you're enlisted in the next deployment to Ba Sing Se but she remained, standing cool before the distressed girl. 

Mai awkwardly patted Ty Lee's back, eyes narrowed at the student body but otherwise expressionless, her default.

Fragile women have no place in the Fire Nation. Women hold their own unlike the dependent barbarians across the ocean. A solution was in order. Azula hid her frown, she would've been a despicable fire bender, thank Agni she isn't one - 

"Stand up Ty Lee, we'll make something of you yet."

The girl stood numbly to her feet. "What do you mean?"
"You can be a Chi Bender." As she said so her plan vividly laid itself out like a map inside her brain, and she warmed to it even as Ty Lee expressed her doubt. "I don't know Azula we don't even have a teacher for that here..."

"They do now," she swung her arm around Ty Lee's shoulder, Mai flocking to Azula's left side. "Chi blocking is temporary, not painful in the slightest. You won't be hurting anybody, except maybe their pride. Being bested by a non bender."

"That's actually perfect - you're a genius Azula!" She leaned into her friend. Azula allowed this for a few moments before withdrawing her arm, straightening back into her stride, friends at both sides. She held her head high. What failure could the courtyard report now? (None.)

 

 

 

Azula began her warm up katas, clearing her mind of school and friends. Of her recent graduation and subsequent return home. However lackluster it may have been... home is where the flame lies, isn't it? She begins to fall into a soothing rhythm, each breath purposeful. The sun blazes high above, Agni adding to her flame. Her blood tingling in the carved veins echoing a familiar sentiment, molten gold flowing. Sunshine caressing and strengthening everything it touches. 

Sharply pivoting Azula punches searing flames at imaginary foe. She is on offense, throwing rapid fire balls. She rushes forward, drops to her posterior and spins, kicking out an inferno. She hops seamless back flip, retreating - no, contorts firing and back flipping - lands, fire daggers in each hand, heart beat thrumming in her ears as she asses' for more enemies.

 

 

"Azula?"

 

 

She lobs a fire dagger at the source, lazily turning in time to see Uncle catch her weapon. Orange flame blazes around his hand to protect himself from her's, orange and blue dazzlingly contrasts as he flips the flame dagger. 

"You're home. Should I be insulted this is the first place you visit?"
"Should I be insulted you weren't there to greet me," Azula asks. 
He groans. "Knew you would notice. I was attending to a trade, we shall dine on the most rare tea tonight niece and it will be worth my absence."

Her eyes are hard, speaking volumes in silence, mouth a sharp line. With a pop the blue dagger jerks into a ragged orange before ceasing to exist. 

"I've come to teach you something new."

She cocks her head to the side, falling into standard bending position. 

"Dragon of the East to my West?"

Azula smirks. "You've come to your senses. How ashamed would you have felt if I perfected it on my own? At least now you can claim some credit, Uncle. How uncharacteristically clever."

Uncle circles her without comment and she is reminded of familiar sparring sessions, blood singing with fire.

"Breath deeply. Imagine filling your whole body with air. Begin storing it inside your stomach, ignite the air and -" on his exhale thick blood orange flames shoot out of his mouth. Azula observes his body language, the squat of his legs and the straightness of his posture. She waits until the flames cease before deepening her stance. She breathes shallow until she begins to invite as much air in as she can manage, storing. Azula tilts her head back, Agni shining down on the curve of her face - and ignites. Ragged blue tears through her wide mouth, involuntary almost as if she was sick, an impulse she cannot control - the flames reach several feet above her before she feels emptiness, and she snaps her jaw shut with a click. 

"That could have killed me." Her voice is pinched with accusation.
"I've seen you ill, the breath of fire is a natural affinity."  

Electric blue, tearing through her body. Her whole vision swallowed by her - by her power, by her prowess. Her skill is her pride, but the feral heat did not - it...  

Uncle places his hand on her shoulder. "You did well. With practice you will wield The Breath of Fire in your sleep."

Uncle gently takes her hand. Azula frowns, twinge of pain and Uncle's concern, she had not forgotten but instead pushed aside. The glove smoked pitifully, bits melted into her skin, fraying and coming at the seams. "Let me dress this. Don't be in such a hurry you don't remove your glove, not everything is resilient as children of Agni."

 

Medical attendants flutter about, nervous bees amongst royalty. Uncle kindly deflects their attempts to take over, reassuring them he had it covered. They remain hovering near by despite it. He cuts away at the glove. She thinks sourly of wasted leather. She flexes her hand. Azula is immediately disgusted, the wrinkles the scarred flesh responds in repulse her. Her palm is callused, rough as a peasant's, cracking painfully when exerted. Her regime does not allow for idleness and her hand remains in limbo of hurt and fruitless endeavor of healing. Her knuckles fair best, as she had abandoned that bending technique, opting for precision. Azula does not flinch as he begins to remove bits of leather from her gory bending fingers, Azula hardly recognizes them as her own. Vivid pink stubs - she grows her nails long to hide the damage for when she takes her glove off. It's a flamboyant distraction yet a futile attempt. Uncle massages healing oils into it, but she knows it will do no good. It never does. 

Long sleeves hide the worst of the damage (deep maroon flesh, distorted warped hand print-)

"That's enough." Azula pulls her hand away from Uncle as she barks an order at a servant, "You make another." 
"It needs air-"
"I'm sure it does. Why are you really here Uncle? I could have done this by myself."

Uncle sighs. "I wanted to."
"And?"

"And... your mother wishes to have dinner with you tonight. In her quarters."

Cold filters through her veins, she rises. "You're right it does need air." Azula gives him a decisive nod before stalking out of the room. Don't shoot the messenger, rings in her ears. A dumb phrase Ty Lee always gabbed, but the anger she feels is not misplaced. He hadn't come to greet her because he was too busy meeting her

She turns the title over in her mouth, heavy like a stone; Mother.

 

Chapter Text

She lounges on her bed, long legs sprawling as handmaids massage her feet and hand. What an honor, she had thinks sarcastically, an invitation to see the Fire Lady. Certainly to die for, with how exclusive she is - that's what the courts say, anyway. She smirks, pondering a slight. Will mother even notice or is her brain so addled she actually wants to dine with me? Azula abstentmindly orders her maids to fetch her simple pants, black long sleeved garb, and a white glove. It was after all dinner, no need to cause an... uproar. Her hand did need air but it seemed undignified to expose that monstrosity in mixed company. Although mother does deserve it. She never visited during the initial injury, why not let her take a peek now? Azula basks in the cruel thought as she slides in the mentioned garments, before departing. 

She could count on one hand how many times she visited her mother. This has been the second invitation initiated by mother. Servants greet her at the door, they appear old and faded as mother mind must be.

"How was school?"
As if it matters. "Well. I am Valedictorian."
"That's amazing Azula, I'm proud of you."

I'm proud of you. That's all she has to say? The words ring empty, how can she take this hermit word to be true? She is no fool and won’t bend to this woman's will. Azula manages a frosty smile in thanks. Thank you mother, thank you for noticing. The food does not come soon enough.  

 

How does one proceed? 
Azula blinks down at her plate, plush with fruits and meats - a favorite dish of her's. In her youth that is. She resists leveling her mother, the thought really, resounding so sharp inside she is surprised it has yet to spill forth. The small talk feels like packing coals in the valley of her throat and unlike the breath of fire it is not her's, it burns. How can mother sit just so, a perfect host, prim and proper? The lilt of mother's voice sends unexpected shivers down her spine, unwelcome and disgusting as they are Azula can't seem to stop them. She hates mother's questions. Mother should know the answers. If she ever came out of her quarters or had a servant recite any news about her - Azula closes her eyes against all the alternatives, all of the effort her mother does not make. And she has the gall to sit with her head held high as if they don't see each other on the Fire Lord's orders alone. Even that - school has taken her away for years. Not one visit. 

 

 

Of course everything goes sour. Had it not been the reason why she dined on the fruit offered? To veil the aroma of... of what, exactly Azula is not sure, but it becomes quite clear as their time together draws to an end. Mother rises bends across the table to give her a hug. That. That had been unexpected. Like a fool she leans into mother, sweet perfumes from childhood bathes her if she closes her eyes she can see - but she never gets to finish the memory, she sees black as mother whispers into her ear, nothing and nothing, and then she is burning.

 

"You treasonous cow!"

Azula is just short of frothing at the mouth, lips moving without consequence nor reason. So many years of neglect of estrangement and that is what comes out? If Azula had been in the right mind she would have been astutely ashamed of the lack of elegance she is exhibiting. Mother deserves worse than rambling. Her mother straightens, sad golden eyes wet with tears, staring. The woman reaches out for her daughter. 

"Don't ever swear on him again! I harbor no fondness for you but I respected your station - you're - you insubordinate filth! Spouting lies!"

An erratic gleam blossoms in Azula’s eyes, as if her will to keep all to herself had been punctured. "This war ends in one way. No amount of fantasy will change that."
"The Avatar -"
"Is a child. As incompetent as Zhao is, one of these days he will catch him. A paraplegic can do little to stop a war, Avatar or not."

She sidesteps the table, and into her mother's space. Close, closer than they have been in years. Azula wants to drive this point home, into the sinewy bits of her mother's Agni heel, into the weakest spot she can find. Wants to see the look on her face. "The Fire Nation is unstoppable. Who's side do you want to be on, because I know who's side he would choose." 

Perhaps it's because they are practically embracing, because the approximatetty to her emotional wrought mother is intoxicating; she doesn't see it coming. The room seems to echo with the slap. The princess blinks raising her hand to her face. Beneath her gloved hand her cheek flushes pink, droplets of blood gathering at the material. Vivid red trail stains the glove. The two stand as if hypnotized by the path the blood takes. It shines beneath the flickering lights and her bending is locked down tight she won't lose control she will not. Her head spins, rattled, and it's nothing truly but -

"Oh Azula -"
"Father hits harder than you."

She is missed by the satisfaction, mother's eyes blow saucer wide, but Azula is already spinning on her heel. She is not fleeing - tactical retreat is required in the name of the greater picture.

 

 

Kerosene lamps explode in showers of fine glass, crunching underfoot. She marches through the halls and whatever noise the glass makes she can only hear distantly, heartbeat a thunderous roar. She imagines lifting steel out of fire, placing it on her bare skin. As each plate is placed it forms armor. Find strength amongst all the pain. She slams her door. Azula is immediately confronted by herself. Dining clothes wrinkled, and bloodied. Her cheek is not bruised, the pink is fading already. Besides the feint scratches no one could hardly tell what had occurred. The mirror warps her approach.

 

(mother)

 

Father does hit harder, he was beyond womanly slaps. Sometimes she anticipated the presence of molars as she spat out globs of blood. Only, she would drown in copper before she realizing her teeth were fine, if only a bit loose. At least father didn't have long nails. Abruptly Azula begins to scrub at her bleeding cheek, eyes unreasonably shiny with maniac intent. How despicable. Had never expected mot - Ursa a turn coat. A slanderous cow - hadn't known she grew her nails out, that she would lay hands on her she would never - 

With that traitorous thought, left unfinished but known, her gaze befalls her hand. Perfect slender fingers, elegant fingernails. Just like hers. Slowly Azula raises her index finger to her mouth, reminiscent of a childhood habit she once harbored. The one mother had deemed unladylike. She latches on to the nail, biting down before tearing it off as if she could discard the memory right along with it. The tug stings but she is on to the next one, less careful - what is wrong with that child (gone). Ravenous, I want them gone - why do you burn your dollsyoung ladies listen - none remain on her left hand. Quickly removing her glove she moves on to her right. Pinky, ring, thumb. Gone. She tears too close to her nail bed, blood and puss filters into her mouth. Azula hacks it out, before finishing off her middle finger, equally as pus'n'blood as the other bending finger. Her ten fingers smarten in various levels of hurt. She is not satisfied. The mirror mocks her - fingernails are nothing when you carry the face of your greatest enemy. 

The nails lay at a pile at her feet, bloodied glove crumpled alongside. She sets fire to them. To the memories. 

She will never be like her. Never! She swears it on him, if everyone else is doing so, why can't she? Her nails ooze, throb painfully but she smiles in realization. Her mother wants the war to end? Fine. She will put a stop to it, starting with Ba Sing Se.

 

Chapter Text

 

It was a setup, echos between her ears tangible as the Pai Sho between her fingers. She considers the pieces, her and Uncle’s ongoing game. The rift in their relationship has never been wider and Azula has no way of combating the distrust rising, overflowing her like the streets in monsoon season. Unfortunately, she ponders, it is time to burn their bridge. On one hand she knows he couldn’t have predicted the outcome of that night. On the other hand he willingly delivered her to mother, playing his part. Exposed where his loyalties lie. And it does not lay with her. Azula places her Jasmine tile back in its original position. His Dragon tile is open to attack, careless on Uncle’s part. Of course, an aggressive move now would leave her Jasmine tile vulnerable to his infamous White Lotus. Azula turns, walks away from the game. Occasionally the best action is inaction.

 

The reports are lacking, of course they are. Zhao is not… well, he is not a General because of his observation skills. No wonder he’s a failure. Nevertheless she pours over reports, leeching all that can be known. She’s up to her neck in intel about Ba Sing Se and makes quick work of the paper stuff. Azula resorts to Li and Lo. They have connections. Informants around all Nations. This will be her greatest feat. She waits for the exact moment to strike. Like a spider viper she spins her web, in wait of prey. Her day will come and Azula will be prepared. The day comes sooner than later. 

 

Formalities are not glossed over, she bends in a customary kneel, head bent low.

“Fire Lord Ozai.”
“Daughter,” his tone is just short of warm, pleased by her formality.
Azula rises on cue.

“I have come to you with a proposal.”
Flames flicker in interest, heat drenching the room, veiling his presence.
“As the Fire Nation knows we have failed for a hundred years to take The Earth Kingdom. Not even The Dragon of The West could bring us triumph.” She pauses for effect, allowing her words to be digested. “The walls will never fall… unless we stage a coup. I and two others of my choosing shall infiltrate from within.”

 

Azula stares into the forever shifting sheets of fire, orange hues imprinted on the backs of her eyelids as she blinks. The flames crackle leaving her waiting, as he loved to do, royalty enjoys others to hang on every word.

“A plot worthy of a descendant of Sozin, no doubt.”

She remains silent in turn, waiting.

 

“Yes. You have my approval.”

Razor tilt of lips, "I shall leave tomorrow. I have gathered and prepared the required resources. Ba Sing Se shall fall.” She bows once again, a request to be dismissed as much as her preparing to leave.

“Azula. We will dine together as a family tonight as celebration. Do not fail me. There is always another.”

 

Her steps do not falter against his words. There is always another, she thinks of his bastards, branded though they are. Agni bless them - not one could ever ascend to the throne, by law nor politics. The noble houses would not follow the shadow of a bastard. And the thought of mother bearing another, nearly inspires a cackle worthy of Li and Lo. Mother can hardly stand to dine outside of her quarters, let alone deliver another life into the world. A warning, yes. A threat - be careful heir, and of course - do not fail. Do not fail me . Not even the looming family dinner can dampen the hidden meaning she has derived from father’s words.

Mother is as flighty as Uncle is relaxed. She carries it with a quietness that would have infuriated Azula, but now? Oh she is smug with the taste of success and rush of challenge far outweighing that woman. Uncle makes pleasant conversation with Azula, and she returns in kind, exchanging his philosophy with barbs. Conversation with Uncle comes naturally, her eyes shimmer with knowledge, would she miss this, and he must not know why they are dining together. He better enjoy it, it will not last. Father sits, almost bored before his family. But she can see the internal workings.

 

“Raise your glasses, Azula will be deploying to The Earth Kingdom, and will succeed in a feat none have ever prospered in.”

Their eyes latch onto her, like lizard leeches, and she leans back in her chair, swirling her drink. She peers at the Fire Lord from beneath her widow’s peak. “Thank you father.”

 

 

 

Azula resists turning up her nose in disgust. It would be no way to greet a friend. After weeks at sea she is almost amused by the absurd circus. Peasants mill about in preparation for a show, rowdy commotion brimming forth. How many letters had Ty Lee sent describing her new home? Gushing on and on about how wonderful it is how beautiful how perfect, and so on. It’s no place for royalty and hardly suitable for nobles, but this is Ty Lee. She would love it.

 

“Ty Lee, could that possibly be you?”
“Azula!” Ty Lee shouts, drops into an elaborate bow before rushing the Princess. Azula has no time to prepare for the sentiment. She hugs Azula tightly with no reservation.

“It is so good to see you!”
“Finally decided to take you up on your offer,” Azula grins at her next words, “Your Agni forefathers are frying but I had to see for myself.” She pushes Ty Lee arms length away and the girl separates herself from the Princess, commencing her contortions. “I’m so glad you came - tonight’s show will be spectacular!”

Azula’s voice is tight, “I’m sure. A noble woman with your talent is wasted here.”

Ty Lee bends her legs over here head brushing her ears, unbothered by Azula’s tone, and Azula recognizes the movement as a shrug. Ty Lee starts, “I’m happy here Azula. My aura has never been pinker!”

 

Flexing her gloved hand in thought, Azula watches. Ty Lee beams up at her friend.

“I won’t lie, I was hoping you’d join me on a mission.”

Ty Lee’s ministrations still, face frowning slightly. “I would love to but…”

“I won’t force you. If you’re content on missing out on the glory of aiding your Nation, by all means,” she flicks her hand just so, “Think about it.”

Azula turns to leave, looks over her shoulder. “Ty Lee. Do not disappoint me tonight.”


“Do you think she will fall?”
“Of course not.”
“Then wouldn’t it make it more interesting if we removed the net?”
The Circus Master hesitates. “Uh… the thing is… the performers…”
“You’re right, you’re right. That’s been done.” She pauses, “I know. Set the net on fire.”
“Of - of course Princess.”

 

She watches Ty Lee closely, gold glitzing off the girl’s tiara. Ty Lee would not fall. The routine pleases Azula, the unbridled potential present and ripe for use within her friend. Just beneath the surface. She admires her, performing on the wire.

 

Pushing past the tent flaps, momentarily she is not seeing the circus backdrop or the tiara clad performer, but a young girl. She had allowed Ty Lee to spend the night, the girl had just finished brushing Azula’s lush hair. Instinctively, Azula supposed, Ty Lee had handed her the brush. A brood of sisters had ingrained acts such as these to be recorptated. Azula had yanked her friends hair tie off with unnecessary force, unscrambling the braid. She enjoyed the way Ty Lee squirmed, the messy brown hair -

 

Her braid has grown. Azula is drawn to it, fingers ensnaring the hefty thing. Their eyes connect through the reflection as she mechanically undoes Ty Lee’s braid. “You were very brave.” Her friend winces at Azula’s touch, she ignores the movement, continuing. “I knew you wouldn’t fall.” She indulges in Ty Lee’s uncertainty, “You’re the greatest acrobat the Fire Nation has ever had the pleasure to breed. I should know.”

 

Azula raises her eyes to the mirror, gold and grey meet. “I’ll leave if you want Ty Lee… but after our mission, all will flock here to see the performer who assisted in…” Azula leans in, lips brushing Ty Lee’s ear, “The conquering of Ba Sing Se.”

The girl squeaks, whirling in her chair, mouth wide open. “Wow…” In the distance she can see the crowd before her, crowd chanting her name.

“The universe has given me strong hints that it’s time for a temporary career change. I want to join your mission.” Gently placing her tiara on her vanity Ty Lee’s smile glows, which Azula slowly returns. “I’ll brief you further when we pick up an old friend.”                       

 

Chapter Text

 

Travel in the Earth Kingdom is ridiculously long. Azula supposes it’s the nature of the beast. It hardly matters now, Azula decides as she dainty steps out of her palanquin. Mai, among others are there to greet her, and she initiates a hug between the two. A smile tugs at her lips at Mai’s request to kill her. Oh the boredom. “It’s great to see you Mai.” Quickly Azula steps to the side. She has no intention to be included in a deathly group hug. Ty Lee bounds forwards with the intent. Between gasps of air Mai manages to say, “I thought you ran off to join the circus? You said it was your calling.”

Ty Lee smiles wide, “Well Azula called a little louder.”

Stepping behind the Azula places a hand on their shoulders. “I have a mission and I need you both.”

In a typical Mai response, “Count me in. Anything to get me out of this place.”

Oh how she has missed her friend.


Azula is entirely furious. How could that man be cut from the same cloth as Mai? Imbeciles like him give the Fire Nation a bad reputation. As the trio marches down the halls toward their destination, she reminds herself sins of the father should not be reaped by the child. Doesn’t stop her from antagonizing Mai though.
“You let your father put us in a precarious position.”

“It is not my place to advise nor deter him, Princess,” she blandly reports.

Azula hums in the back of her throat. They arrive at the agreed rendezvous. She evaluates the rag tag group of rebels. A boy who appears the youngest member sets himself a little away from his group, wide brimmed hat casting a shadow over his features.  

 

“You brought my brother?”

"He’s here. We’re ready to trade,” the boy says.

 

Azula stifles her grin, glances at Mai and ‘King’ Bumi, projects her voice with little effort.
“I’m sorry, but a thought just occurred to me. Do you mind?” She addresses her last sentence to Mai.

“Of course not, Princess Azula.”

“We’re trading a two year old for a king. A powerful earthbending king.”

Bumi nods his head enthusiastically. Azula ignores him. “It just doesn’t feel like a fair trade, does it?”

 

Mai surveys the group, the boy cradling Tom Tom in his arms. Her eyes briefly flutter over Azula’s face like a paintbrush. “You’re right. The deal's off.” She signals for the king to be swept away in his metal cage. Ty Lee makes a slight squeak at the turn of events, cheeks flushed in excitement. The boy rushes forward, eyes attached to the King, and towards the trio. Azula blasts fire with her left hand down at his feet. He shouts in surprise, leaping up to avoid the flames, at an impossible height. Not even Ty Lee - or herself, without bending could jump that high. The boys staff unfolds, a barbaric contraption - the silly hat the boy donns flies off his head, revealing a spanse of bald and blue blue blue.

 

“The Avatar!” She is momentarily astonished. But the blue arrow tattoo of a master Airbender leaves little room to doubt the boys identity. Smugness envelopes her. “My lucky day.”

The Avatar attempts to flee, into the sky but Azula holds tight to a winch, propelling her up at a remarkable speed, in pursuit. What an interesting turn of events…

She is flung into the air, time almost slows as her target leaves himself vulnerable. Distracted by the Earth King.

Fire comes dangerously close but the Avatar deflects the worst of it but the chain attached to the King’s coffin snaps. The two plummet. Azula scowls, and hops onto a nearby mail cart. Coasting on a chute above the duo, she rapidly fires at them. The rush of battle sizzles within her veins.

 

“Who are you?” He shouts in annoyance, just managing to fend off oncoming attacks. Azula doesn’t bother replying. The Avatar growls and makes his first offensive act. A cloud of dust obscures her prey from her line of sight. Azula mutters a few choice words, crouches within the cart. The dust clears but she remains in her position, ears straining for movement - there. He ducks late but only barely. His clothes singes against his skin. He slaps at the fire, yelping. Azula is about to deliver the killing blow  -

Her chute coaster is no more. There is expanse of nothing, the ground juts miles below her, and the coaster propels forward off the track. Azula uses her momentum and fire, catapulting her across towards the parallel tracks. Rock wall in her path threatening too close not to hit - her fingers smash, crunching, fire blazing. It gives way. Pain blinding body flailing. But there is no room for error. Wryly she thinks, this is what clotheslining means - as her weight knocks into Aang. Off his Bumi surfboard, and she along with him hurtle down to Earth.

 

Head over toe, toe over head. Her heart sings. She could be terrified. A thousand foot drop. It can only end in death. If she didn’t have The Last Airbender in a chokehold. The drop is dizzying, leaves her breathless, and her surroundings blur together. He gurgles something. Azula resists tightening her grip around his windpipe just on principle. Instead she secures her left grip around his middle, relaxing her other from around his neck. The disc inside her chest is dangerously close to imploding. If they weren’t nosediving they’d give the illusion of a crocodile piggy back ride - albeit a murderous one. Fire comes from the breath, Azula assumes the same can be said for Air. Obviously.

The Avatar makes another noncommittal sound, perhaps in foolish appreciation - the ground is meters away, it occurs to her they will splat, innards splayed across the ground - a whirling swish. Where crushed bones should be there is a sphere of air. The sensation of a concentrated windstorm envelopes her feet which penetrates the sphere. For a moment there is nothing but a cool buzz of activity. The arm once wrapped around his throat rests heavy across the boys shoulders. Tentative gray sea under heavy set brows, their eyes meet. Azula flattens her hand across his midsection - brows shoot up at her action - increases the temperature to a blatant first degree burn. The boy yelps, air sphere deflates, and the two crash to the ground.

Azula softens her fall with a summersault, rolls into a crouch. Fire daggers at the ready. The Avatar struggles to his feet. Anger and confusion display across his features like a theatrical performance. “Why’d you do that? I saved you!”

She tsk’s. “You saved yourself. I die, you die Avatar.”

He openly gapes at her, fingers splayed across the injury she inflicted. “You… you bet your life on… my pacifism?”

Azula shows him her teeth, caught between a smile and a sneer. As if her thought process was so simple. “Don’t act surprised Avatar. Your reputation precedes you.” She pauses. “Although. I do wonder, what happened in the North Pole? Loophole in your dogma?”

His face contorts, the slight awe wiped away. Fists clench. “Who are you? Why are you following me?”

 

The daggers crackle in her hands as she idly twirls one, what’s left of leather glove smoking. His attention is drawn to the movement, the contrast of electric blue and violent scar tissue. Azula decides to indulge him. “Just a humble servant of the Firelord,” her lips quirk. “Too bad you’ve been caught in the crosshairs so early in the game -” she fires at his feet with one hand, throwing her dagger, elongates the dagger into a javelin - true to to its mark.

Earth rockets the Avatar into the air. There is a roar, the air bison - the rag tag team. The beast catches him. Azula can only stare. Her prize gone! Atmosphere around her shreds, Yin and Yang split… Azula raises her hand to the sky - “I wouldn’t do that Your Highness!”

Instantly she directs her lightening towards the intruder. Ground erupts into a barrier between the two, showering the area in dirt. Fury envelopes her but she manages to contain in a single displeased sigh. As the dust clears her suspicions are confirmed. The throaty hoarse shout could only have belonged to the notorious Mad King Bumi. Azula wrinkles her nose in disgust, evaluating the damage. The Avatar escaped. King Bumi can bend within a metal coffin. Today had not been a complete waste, she has valuable information on her enemies, (she also notes how she has emulated both of her friends habits - Mai's gruesome sighs and Ty Lee's disastrous need to see the bright side.)

“You shouldn’t have done that.”
He lights up in agreement. “Yes! Someone who understands negative jing! Princess there is far more to you than meets the eye!”

Dark unfathomable plans spin finely before her. The King’s actions and the Governor's reports on Bumi’s behavior are placed as neat as a Pai Sho pieces on the board, laid out for her to read. Azula unceremoniously flops upon the the King’s coffin prison, sits, examining the broken twist of her fingers. “Mad King Bumi. You could not be more correct.”

“I’m turning myself in of course, take me back I am through! An old man such as myself -”
“I’ll see to your accommodations personally.” Her voice is sugar sweet yet direct, businesslike. “Unfortunate you exposed your one trump card. How will your city survive?”

Bumi snorts, “It had to be done.”

Azula understands, the fantastic hope one places on another. A mistake, and always misplaced. They sit together until gaurds arrive to haul Bumi back to his prison.

 

 

Azula’s hands clasped behind her back, posture relaxed in militant stance. She faces the setting sun. If Mai didn’t know any better she would have described Azula as serene. Mai joins her, the sun slides out of view, fading rays casting shadows over the land. Mai hates Omashu but in the waning light the city wasn’t half bad.

Her friend doesn’t break the silence so Mai does. “Tom Tom has been returned,” her voice is flat, unconcerned. Detached. “But you know that, don’t you.”

Azula watches Mai from the corner of her eye. She allows her friend to continue.

“He was never in harm's way.” A question as much as a statement. Mai reminds herself of her friend’s M.O., Azula didn’t lie to her friends. Manipulate yes, but Mai found Azula took certain liberties for Ty Lee and herself.

 

Silence is the most confirmation Mai will receive.

“Father says the contraption you requested is being commissioned,” Mai trails off, sensing an oncoming dismissal. She turns to go inside, formality dismissed between friends alone.

“Mai. I hope your father can be trusted to hold New Ozai more efficiently than Omashu, I will not have my father’s namesake fall.”



“Do you ever miss him?” Ty Lee disrupts the calm drag of brush through hair. The scent of jasmine flutters with each stroke. Azula blinks.

“You’re going to have to clarify,” Mai drones before Azula can process Ty Lee’s question. Mai lazily sprawls across an armchair, calmly disinterested as always. The familiar scene brings a smile to Azula’s lips. If Mai’s room was switched out for her own than this would be exactly as the old days.

 

“Zuko,” Ty Lee chirps.

 

In unison Azula and Mai turn, eyes narrowing onto their friend. Silence, thick and quaking stretches like film around the three. A tense sense of deja vu swallows Azula, hadn’t this been Ty Lee days ago? Delicately combing through her friend’s hair, every bit as welcoming as wicked? Her mouth twists. Ghosts over his name. She hasn’t thought of him in years. Not unless provoked, that is, by mother… the oaths sworn on his journey to Agni… that had been the straw to break the ostrich horse’s back. Zuko’s shrine resides in mother’s quarters. That had been reason enough to never visit him. Azula refused to subject herself to that woman’s presence if it could be avoided. Even if it would be the honorable, selfless course.

 

Zuko. Poor little Zuko. What was there to miss? He was hardly a person before he was snuffed out.

 

“Yes,” she answers.

 

If they noticed her lie neither girl call her on it. Azula absentmindedly examines her scarred hand, the worn red of the fingerprints, flayed pink of her hand, and the burgundy mess spanning her arm. She closes her eyes. Grinding bones, the onset terror of being overpowered, trust. What it means to burn.

“Must have been traumatic to lose your first love.”

 

Mai’s sprawling limbs appearing more like springs than wallowing adolescence. She closes her fist around the idea, wants to run with it. Her incisors seem to elongate, the taste of something deep and raw so close. Admit it, she thinks, you loved him. Her internal goading has no influence over Mai, although Azula notices the shrinkage of Mai’s mask. The carefully blank and impartiality she strives for an uphill battle.

 

“We can’t save them all,” her voice is a creak, to her ever credit, dull.

A shiver threatens to run down Azula’s spine. Brothers. We can’t save them all . But that would imply Azula wanted to save Zuko at all. If she had the chance would she have? He was useless. Pathetic. A terrible elder sibling. He hardly bothered with her at all, only came around for playdates.... And mother said -

 

No.

 

“Appreciate Tom Tom this time around. He was stolen from right under your nose, was he not?” Azula nods to Ty Lee, to continue her brush strokes, “Like Ty Lee said, you would miss him.”            

 

                     



 

Chapter Text

 

There is no need to comment, it is enough to witness the state Zhao is in - in all his glory; or lack thereof. He isn't pitiful so to speak, as he has had time groom and tend to any wounds since his stint in the Kyoshi warriors custody, but he no longer wears The Armor. His famous garb signifying his station, of the commitment and years that has earned him the title of General. Though his current copy is intricate it is clearly not Fire Nation. Lacking everything that counts if not on the outside.

Perhaps this is far more satisfying than it should be. 

He had been a thorn in her side for as long as she could remember. The infuriating fact was he was neither her equal in blood nor intellect, age had been the only distinction - hadn't truly been worth her time. Yet the council revered the man, blinded by small feats of showmanship. How he played his war efforts up, his manipulations heavy handed, befit a child. Father wasn't fooled of course. "The smallest of men have their purposes," he had told her. Still. Father valued Zhao far more than she cared for. 

Azula observes him now, standing at attention, and she wonders if he regrets his propositions now. She had been against his little expedition, always he and his overexertion that ultimately harmed their country in the long run - but Zhao couldn't leave well enough alone. He had wanted the Water Tribe's spirit. Had stumbled upon the Avatar and proclaimed he would catch him. Now, time as a prisoner of war should have humbled him. Though she wouldn't be surprised if this particular lesson hadn't gotten through his thick skull. "Continue hunting the Avatar. Once you capture him bring him to New Ozai." 

He has enough sense to not object or request permission to speak, not after the North pole failure. Fleets destroyed - and then he had the audacity to be captured - escaped to tail the Avatar, only to fall into the Kyoshi warriors clutches. She couldn't have orchestrated a greater career crippler if she tried. Zhao bows, waits for further instruction. "That's all general. We await your swift return. Rest assured your captors will receive dole punishment for their crimes."

"Yes Princess."

His brow twitches, furrowing at the mention of 'we'. Yes, father is displeased, furious in fact, she smiles at Zhao's retreating figure. 

"You're trusting that failure in capturing the Avatar?" Mai manages to convey disgust despite her apathetic droll. Azula doesn't bother replying, partly because Ty Lee's rich giggle. "No way, don't you remember how much she loathes his guts?"

"Yes," Mai pauses,"You two being here doesn't make being here any less boring. When are we going to do something?" Azula makes a quip about being anxious, though Ty Lee is practically vibrating with anticipation awaiting Azula’s reply. She continues,“We're going to visit Zhao's dear friends. I'd like to personally thank them for their... hospitality." 

 

 

 

Her lightening pierces through his body like a wicked blade, suspends him without mercy. The fruition of weeks without sleep, politics, espionage - pores caked with barbaric paints and the arduous task of defanging Long Feng - endorphins blaze with success. It is not sweet, it tastes of static and frying, as the lightning bursts through him before the Avatar crumples to the floor. 

There, was that so hard, she thinks at Zhao, who is battling the water wench. As the concept and subsequent victory is formed her satisfaction is torn away. 

Azula opens her mouth to shriek but the air tightens within her esophagus, organs rupturing. Her vision pops, fizzing her vision into obscurity. Azula is flung forth like a rag doll - though she cannot see there is a primitive fear, a terrible garbling - she can sense his body rising, his element shifting into razors. her limbs jerk forward one after another no no. the force snatches her. The closer she is brought to the figure, she can feel her body systematically dismantle. Piece by piece - only pain. Her insides scream, there is no rebelling she can't move not even to squirm in agony as her bones crack, snap like brittle sweets. 

There is no beginning, no end. Only terror. She wants to sob, to thrash to fight... but it is continuous, ceasing only as she is lulled into a nest of sensation with the devastating realization the pain had never left.

Has always existed beneath the surface, curdling like rancid milk. To say she has never known such a pain is lie. But all at once? No. If she could curl in a ball, stripped of all time - father, (her skin bubbles, the distinct stench of muscle burning)

Let me die. and she does, in a left handed sort of way. 

.

 

Unseeing eyes stare up into the boiling sky, into the beyond. Lightening tinges amber in their reflection. Slick stone offers him no purchase as he half carries half drags the stranger, fear constricts his throat. Even if he could bypass his involuntary silence the rain and wind would snatch each desperate shout. Tosses it away, unconcerned. 

Strikes are closing in no matter how fast he scrambles - fingers numbed by ice water, the threat of dropping the stranger looms. He won't! They need to get inside now. 

The strangers breathing is frequent, heaving - in deep and far too often. Altitude sickness, violent sheets of rain not helping the wretched gasps. They're close... hairs rise, tongue heavy - vision twists white hot. His body twitches, conducting unabated electricity. He drops the stranger. In the distance there is yelling, his name? He sprawls over the stranger, blank amber eyes and the reflected strikes of lightning is his last thing he sees before succumbing to darkness. 

.

Words ghost, silver quick, against Azula's cheek, unbearably familiar. I swear on Agni's Path.

 

A boy kneels, fingers outstretched, a heel of bread beckoning a turtle duck forth. There is no breeze, hardly a ripple as the turtle duck glides forward. The world is muted, divorced from an essential perception and yet she is drawn to the glittering gleam, the dark gloss of his topknot - there is no movement yet she moves. No indention or shifting of grass as he stands to greet her. "Azula."

Her stride breaks. 

Azula's mind is sludge. She simply cannot process, cannot continue, but she cannot tear her eyes away as he approaches.

Pale and slight. Receding baby fat at his jaw and cheeks, gentle brow. His feet. Small teetering feet. He had always tripped over them, stumbling over katas he never got to master. The thought of this not being real never occurs to her, only undaltered horror, because this is Zuko and she swore on his path and he's here

"You're dead." Her lips wobble, body short of trembling. She cannot pinpoint her lack of control, only how raw and exposed - as if the last five years slip away. That odd emotion welling, as it had when she stared at his clasped hands, before aiding in lighting his pyre. 

"You're taller," Zuko wrinkles his nose, stepping back so he doesn't have to crane his neck to look at her. "Still ugly though." He grins, satisfied at having delivered a barb. 

She isn't that tall, is short for her age in fact. All the more why their height difference rakes at her. 

"You're... you're dead." She hesitates over his name. Dread - if she admits as much he is doomed. There must be a way to fix this, to set him back on the path, this sisterly worry winding like a noose inside her. Panic. 

"I know. Mom says name calling is rude but you're acting really dumb," he practically sings the last word. Here is where her memories and Zuko diverges, because he stopped joking with her - teasing or conversing, she can hardly recall his lilt even before he died. Azula finally considers that maybe this is a trick.

That this isn't real. 

 

“Not very fitting for heir apparent Azula.” His boyish features wrinkle, cuts through absence - jealousy. “Guess you get to be Fire Lord after  all.” His gaze shifts to her shoes, glaring before meeting her eyes. “I’ve always been here. Not because mom swore on my Path, if that’s what you think.”

I’ve always been here.

Years. Five years lost. “Zuko-“ his name spills forth like acid, no she shouldn’t have said his name now this is real... his path (mother decorating the palace each year his Path Day approaches. Portraits, fire black ink... mourners preforming bending rites) her fault, mother’s for keeping him in this world. Or... or he’s protecting her and he has been dragged back, tore from Agni’s Path-

“It’s her fault you’re here.” 

Zuko clenches his fists, though his expression remains open. “No. Mom told you the truth.” “No she didn’t. She’s a liar, a turncoat-“

”Azula always lies,” he crosses his arms impatiently. The phrase prickles sharply.