She is five years old.
It is her first memory.
Now, she remembers small things from the years before. She remembers being lifted up by Lu Ten when she hit her head in the gardens while he was visiting and she remembers the soft song he sang to her as he kissed her temple. She can remember the first time Father took her through the secret tunnels of the palace, showing her all the hiding places he'd used as a child and all the shortcuts to avoid being seen sneaking to the kitchens. She has them all memorized and filed away and she does not use the secret-tunnels-she-doesn't-know-exist to make ghostly noises while Zuko's trying to sleep.
She remembers the day when she met Ty Lee and set her braid on fire because she thought that the doe-eyed girl was prettier than she. She remembers the first time she had to speak to Grandfather Azulon and how proud she was that she didn't hide her face in Mom's skirt. She remembers the first time she firebended and how Zuko got so mad at her he shoved her down onto the ground—and she remembers father yelling at him immediately after, even if she doesn't remember his words anymore.
She has handfuls of memories and at night she likes to shuffle through them as though she is playing a game, sorting them first alphabetically and then chronologically. Sometimes she sorts through them by the smell, sound, colour, or feeling that comes with them—though usually not because she thinks that is silly and she isn't a silly little girl.
But this, she decides, is the one she wants to remember as her first memory.
She hates storms, she decides right then. She hates everything about them from the loud, booming thunder to the quick blinding lighting that shoots itself to earth like a giant, webbed scar in the night sky. She thinks it's ugly and she hates it for taking away the stars.
Mostly, though, Azula hates that it scares her.
Her father had once explained to her, with his quiet and calm voice that he used when he read her stories, that it was silly to be afraid of the weather. After all, the rain was outside, not in the palace, and she was a princess of fire—so the lightning shouldn't scare her. She hadn't understand what being a princess had to do with the lightning, so he'd had to explain to her what lightning was and how it was an advanced form of firebending that one day she would master.
None of that had comforted her, though.
Not like the way Zuko is comforting her now.
His arms are wrapped tightly around her small shoulders and she ducks her head against his chest as she shakes. He smells like incense, the kind Mom burns in his room to help his headaches so he can sleep and his hair is messy so she knows her crying woke him up. His heartbeat is soft and it patters in her ear like the tiny wings of a sparrowkeet. She thinks it sounds nice—like Mom's—and his hug is warm and that's nice too because the wall they're sitting against was really cold before he came into her room.
Zuko runs a hand through her silky hair and sings softly. She recognizes the tune and knows all the words because Mom always sings it to her while she brushes her hair in the morning and now she wonders if she sings it to Zuko, too. She prefers Zuko's voice, to be completely honest. It's softer than Mom's gravely singing and she thinks he sounds like a spirit hovering above the surface of the sea in the moonlight. It's pretty.
Azula peeks up at her brother with stinging, watery eyes. His face is lit by the small candle he brought with him and every so often, a bright flash of lightning from the window. She flinches every time but he doesn't pull away and instead continues to run his hand through her hair and sing.
"You don't have to cry, Azula. If you want to, that's okay," he whispers to her as quietly as he can as though it's a secret between them that no one else should hear, "but you don't have to. I've got you and I won't let you get hurt."
She believes him because Zuko never lies; not to her. If he said he'd protect her, then he would.
Azula decides that she doesn't need to be so afraid of storms when he's there and when she is older (maybe even four-hundred like Zuko told her Grandfather is!)no matter what happens, she'll always know that because it will be her very first memory.
She is eight years old.
Father and Mother's bedroom door is cracked open, so it doesn't count as eavesdropping. After all, anyone could walk by and hear them—even the cross-eyed kitchen boy who sometimes shadows his mother as she tidies up or Captain Tsu who is visiting to give his report from the Earth Kingdom or Agni-forbid even Zuko.
If stupid Zuzu is allowed to hear them then she is, too.
Besides, Dad doesn't keep secrets from her. He teaches her the truth and he teaches her how their nation is run because one day, she will be Fire Lord. She's only eight, but he's taught her how to work a room and appease the nobles and their wives at dinner. She's allowed to talk to Grandfather because he likes her and thinks she's intelligent and her knowledge of the war (especially tactics) impresses him enough that he is willing to talk to her for an entire five minutes without sending her away with Mother.
"—care how your father treated you. This is not about you. You cannot take out your anger on my son!"
Azula doesn't think she's ever heard Mother raise her voice at Dad. She's snapped at him and they've spent hours arguing behind their locked door, but this is the first time she ever really heard it.
Mother yells at Azula, sure, and once or twice she can remember Mother yelling at Zuzu. She can't believe that Mother would dare yell at Dad.
The small girl moves closer to the door and presses her cheek gently against the wood as she tries to see in through the small gap. She can't see any more of them than the hem of Dad's robes, but that doesn't mean she's going to give up trying.
Dad says something in a low voice that she can't catch so she moves closer, wedging her hand between the doors to widen the gap just enough that she can see them but they won't see her.
"If you won't act like a father to him then I won't call him your son."
In a quick blur of red, Mother rushes across her line of sight, her hands tugging the hair at the crown of her head like she always does when she's frustrated. Father follows close after her, stopping just where Azula can see him. He spins Mother around by the forearm and pulls her close, stooping down to growl something directly into her face; something that makes Mother glare at him like she did that time Dad asked if she had put on weight. She rips her arm away from him and rises up on her toes—she knows that's Mother's 'scary' face, but Dad's too brave to be scared.
"You wouldn't dare. You are many things, Ozai, but even you would never—"
"Wouldn't I?" Dad's voice is a harsh bellow that causes Mother to fall silent—still fuming, but silent. Azula sees his fists by his side clench and the air around them wavering with invisible, boiling heat. "Do not presume that you know what I'm capable of."
"There was a time I didn't have to presume."
Dad takes in a deep breath and exhales through his nose. His golden eyes are sharp like a blade as he towers over Mother and hisses out words like they're dripping off the tongue of a viper.
Mother's eyes remain hard but she steps away, lowering down to the balls of her feet which makes Azula realize, not for the first time, that Dad must be the tallest man in the world. Mother crosses her arms.
"I won't stay. If this is how things will be, I'll leave."
At that, Dad steps in quickly and his hand slides to Mother's neck, forcing her to look up at him. What he says then, Azula can't hear (Dad is just so quiet sometimes) but whatever it was makes Mother turn away, her head whipping sharply to the side in a spray of ebony hair.
"Yes," she grits out. "Because I do not trust you."
Father's laugh is loud and Azula thinks it sounds almost mean—and if his laugh wasn't, then the curl of his lips is, and it startles her because Dad is supposed to look at Mother and smile like he always does when they're at the beach.
But Dad doesn't smile and Mother won't look him in the eye—
But her eyes do meet Azula's.
"Azula!" Mother's hand snaps up to Dad's chest and she pushes him back a few steps. Azula doesn't have time to hide before Mother's red robe all but blocks anything from view and before she can turn to run, Mother's long hand is on her shoulder keeping her in place. She tries to pull away. "What do you think you're doing out of bed, young lady?"
"I was just going to get a glass of water." The kitchens are in the opposite direction.
Mother glares down her nose. "You're lying, young lady." Mother's hand feels like iron clamping round her wrist and her skin is cold to the touch. Azula flinches, looking back at her father just as Mother starts to pull, but Father isn't looking at her—he looks like a statue, staring at Mother's head as she storms down the hall and away from him.
She thinks she's never seen a statue look so angry.
Mother yanks a bit and Azula whines and picks up her pace to keep up with Mother's stomping. "Princesses do not lie, Azula, and I will not tolerate lying in my home. You know better—and eavesdropping? Just what did you think you were doing? You know—"
Azula stops listening. Her cheeks are burning like the pit of her stomach and Azula wonders if her angry-look is as scary as Dad's.
Mother can't treat her like this.
She won't be treated like Zuko.
She is eleven years old.
The first lash breaks against the skin of her back with a sharp hiss. It stings—oh Agni, it stings—but she does not flinch. She does not cry out; she does not blink. She grits her teeth and her muscles tense as a second hot strike hits her flesh.
"Do you understand?"
The third lash cuts through the air, the flame as thin as a single strand of hair and as hot as an inferno. This time, the whip slashes against the soft skin between her neck and shoulder, drawing down along to her shoulder blade. On instinct, her tongue presses up against the soft roof of her mouth, biting back the groan that threatens to burst from her throat. Her eyes burn and she knows that they are red with unshed tears—and she hates herself for showing that weakness. She is a princess—she is the heir—and such weakness will not be tolerated, her father told her.
Since she could walk, since she could talk, that had been his creed. You will not show weakness.
Her father steps back and his hands lower to his sides. Azula remains bowed, forehead to the cold marble floor.
"Good," Ozai says. "Now do it again."
Nothing less than perfection is acceptable. She knows that.
Without the smallest flinch, grimace, or whimper, she rises to her feet and takes her stance. She punches with her right fist and follows with a spinning kick. The fire that bursts from her is a bright shade of orange.
Ozai's arms are crossed.
It's supposed to be blue.
She is twelve years old.
A crumpled letter is between her hands and her fingers are so tight against the parchment she wonders if the fibres will tear apart. They don't, so she digs her pointed nails more aggressively until eight satisfying punctures are created and the skin of her palms burn with pain. She thinks, somewhat irrationally, that the script should have changed and become something sinister to look at—or at the very least bear the obvious presence of that of a traitor. But her uncle's writing looks as unchanged as ever, not even the slightest deviation in the smooth lines that mar the perfect, pale paper underneath.
'Zuko sends his regards'.
He has some nerve sending her a letter to begin with (why in Agni's great name had Father let it go through to her?) but to add insult to injury and relay a message from Zuko…
A loud pop sounds as the letter becomes engulfed entirely in her blue flames. A muscle in her jaw ripples and Lo and Li's voice echoes in her head, telling her a princess should not strain her face, but she never did listen to them for anything other than bending (and then only barely; they may know what they're talking about—in theory—but they aren't benders so they can't know).
Uncle is a traitor. She's always known he was a coward—after all, what sort of General abandons his mission because of the loss of one soldier? Now, though, he'd reached a new level of shame. He walked away from his cushy, vapid life to sail about the globe babysitting her traitorous brother (she gags on the word) while he wastes the rest of his life chasing after a fairy tale.
He is a stupid, fat, despicable traitor and Azula can't wait to see the day that the old gasbag is brought to justice for his treachery.
She wants to pray for the same for Zuko—but with him, it is more personal. He was her brother and he was a dum-dum and finally, her Father had seen that. Her whole life she'd tried and tried to be good like Zuko; be honest like Zuko; be a damn pansy like Zuko—because that was the kind of pathetic daughter her evil waste of a mother had always wanted.
But Mother is gone now; so gone that it was like she didn't even exist. Hadn't ever existed. She is like a ghost and Azula is too smart to believe in ghosts. That woman had no name in their home, no face—nothing.
Nothing but two children that she left behind to rot and starve and die for-all-she-cares.
And now, it is only Azula because Zuko had left as well. Left her to rot and starve and die and burn.
He didn't care.
If he cared, he wouldn't have gotten himself banished. He wouldn't have had half his face disfigured into a revolting, burning, oozing sore. He should have held his tongue just like he never had before in his life because couldn't he see that she needs him there?
Zuko deserves to be banished.
Just like mother.
She doesn't need either of them.
Azula holds the paper taught between her fingers and watches it burn.
She is fourteen years old.
Her hands are bound behind her back. The chain holding her down is tighter than she'd like to admit and cold and it cuts into her skin with her every move. She's thrashing against the binds, bucking like a wild animal and her throat hurts from screaming but she just can't stop.
Zuko is in a pathetic pile—he deserves it for what he did to you—and that damn water tribe whore is cowering over him like a stupid baby bird trying to change the fact that its mother's neck is limp and snapped. He's as good as dead and that's just what she wanted—
So why can't she stop screaming?
She's the fucking Fire Lord!
A sharp needle slides into her arm. Seven clammy, sticky hands hold her down and her teeth lash out at whatever arm is closest.
She's soaked from head to toe from the bitch's dirty trick and her hair is imperfect and sticking to her face.
An immense wave of blue flames tears from her throat as she wails. Her tongue is dry and her lips are cracking, bleeding, but she keeps screaming, lashing against the chain holding her down.
She's soaked from head to toe in vile sweat and the loose white clothes stick to her like a second skin. Her hair is marring her perfect face and sticking places it shouldn't which is wrong-so-wrong because she is the Fire Lord and she must look perfect.
She's screaming and screaming and screaming some more when she realizes the hands on her arms aren't moving or being blasted away by flames. They did something to her! No one fears her; no one respects her. Her face drips with tears and her screams change until they sound unrecognizable and ghastly like a wounded animal calling out for mercy but that mercy never comes.
The girl is doing something to Zuzu—touching his chest, as though she can feel his heart—something that's making her hands glow white. She shouldn't touch him. She's not worthy to be anywhere near him. Azula's screams have warped to sobs (Please don't touch him, you can't touch him, get away from him, he's hurt—Zuzu!) and her body feels like suddenly she has no bone, no muscle, no blood and she falls limply onto the grate before her. The metal bites against her face and she's rolling onto it because at least the pain makes sense. Her wrists feel like they're being ripped out but it makes sense because she failed and this is her punishment.
Her hands are bound at her sides with thick bands that feel like leather and she's kicking and screaming and lashing and writhing. It hurts, but it doesn't hurt as much as losing. They strap her feet down too and then suddenly there's a needle being held to her arm and her shrieks start to sound loud like murder.
Zuko lets out a loud groan (she's quieter now and so limp she can't even move enough to sob) and Azula's blurry eyes are watching him as he strains to sit. The waterbender throws her arms around him as tenderly as a butterfly's wings and she's kissing his hair—that's her brother; how dare she—but Azula's too numb to move. Time stretches on forever.
Her legs won't move and her arms don't exist. Her head must be spinning as she stares up at the cold stone ceiling because her stomach is churning and flipping over on itself. She can't move an inch, though, and soon, even her eyes can't move—though she knows she won't remember it happening.
The witch struggles to her feet and slides her arm under his to help him stand. His chest is stained with old blood but the point where her lightning impacted is a dry, puckering red blemish. The pair stagger off out of her limited view and Azula can't move.
Azula never dreams. Dreams are lies and she wants no part of them.
After what seems like eons, two pairs of burning rough hands pull her to her feet (does she still have feet?) and the chain holding her back is somehow gone—not gone. They replaced it. Manacles hang heavily at her hands and it seems as though she cannot support the weight of her own thoughts because all she can see is floor and feet, feet and floor and water and ash and floor. Her wet hair swings in and out of view and she is queasy.
The hands around her arms tighten as she starts to sway.
The hands around her arms tighten as she starts to struggle. Before long, the hands are doubled and she feels her feet leave the floor and her body swing hovering over the ground.
Azula cries because she is a failure.
She cries because she lost.
She is flawed.
(The flames slash against her back, against her arms; her fists burn with tension and her ears pound, tuning out the words behind her—telling her to do better or else; telling her this kind of failure makes her unfit to bear the Flame of Kings. She is unfit to rule.)
And that just won't do.