A strange noise, something between a scrap and a stomp, echoes through the corridor.
Zuko stops walking and raises his head.
The noise was coming from behind and a bit to the left, where the curtains aren't quite covering the window properly. The garden is already in sight. Dad never comes to this one, small and tucked away as it is, and Mom was too busy to come with him today. That leaves only one person who could be following him, especially with all the sneaking and hiding.
Zuko pretends he just stopped to watch the garden through the window and moves on. His movements are unhurried when he continues on his way, hiding his grin the best he can.
He traces his gaze along the walls as he walks, more slowly than before, tries to follow the noise by sight without turning and completely giving himself away. There's not many windows ahead, so he needs to be ready. Nothing, nothing, nothing, and... There!
Zuko darts sideways as a flaming little ball comes straight for his head. He whips a weak defence, not bothering to make it solid, just knocking the ball away from himself while he gathers his own attack. His fireball is much slower, and it's less hot than the one he just deflected, but that means he has more time to close the distance between himself and the garden.
Mom'd be disappointing if they burned all the curtains again.
He bursts into the sunlight and gets into the beginning stance, several fist-sized fireballs trailing after him as a sure sign that he is being followed. They've been learning that move together for a week now, he's almost got it, now he just needs her to—
Azula comes running after him, her grin matching his own. She sees his pose, smirks, and takes a more advanced one.
Well, that's just like his sister – to teach him something he can use, and then proceed to beat him at it all the same. It's not like he ever had a chance, of course, not in a firefight, but she's already lost the sneaking round, so maybe he could win this one too.
And besides, he's not going to admit defeat just because she knows more firebending forms than him. If that was the case, he'd given up ages ago.
Zuko takes a deep breath and throws the first punch.
Several tense minutes later, when Zuko'd been soundly defeated, – to exactly no one's surprise, because he's not that good at advanced forms yet and Azula's mastered a few already, – Azula takes pity on him and lets him get out of her hold, slowing her attacks a bit so that he has a chance to fight back.
She always says that he's too boring otherwise, but that doesn't stop her from beating him in the first place. Maybe she just likes feeling her super... superiory... Feeling like she's better than him. Uh, come to think of it, scratch that "maybe", she definitely likes feeling like she's better than him. Better than anyone, period. His twin is so annoying sometimes. Most of the time. But she's nice sometimes, too; so Zuko just have to live with that. It's not like he has another sister.
They trade blows, going back and forth, but the fight loses its heat eventually. Zuko even starts to enjoy it now. He doesn't have to think about beating her, because they both know he can't, and there's no one to tell him to stop fooling around when he sends sparks her way instead of real flames. Sparks are great tickling weapon, and Azula's ticklish even if she'll deny it, so it works, and that's all that matters.
If only their real sparrings were like that.
The little garden is filled with fire and laughter which none of the twins will ever admit to, because Azula copies his sparks, and she's good at that, too, so now they're more trying to out-tickle each other than anything else.
Zuko feels lighter than he had all day. Even forgets for the moment that Uncle Iroh and Cousin Lu Ten are going away to fight in the Earth Kingdom soon, which has been driving him up the walls. Literally. He wanted to be as far away from their preparations as possible, so he spent all morning on the roof of Mom's palace wing. Not that anyone noticed. And even Azula haven't found his favourite spot yet.
She must've found him just when he got down and followed him to the gardens, thought. Otherwise they'll be chasing each other over the many palace rooftops. And scaring servants. Zuko doesn't know what's so scary about that; they've done it so many times already, shouldn't people be used to this by now? They've scouted those tiles up and down, they aren't going to fall.
Zuko falls to the ground now, shaking and laughing and trying to get his sister's looming form to stop looming and fall on the grass near him already. He's breathless and tired, so fire's not coming to his hands even for a tiny tickling spark, but he feels so happy, and he can tell that Azula's happy too. He hopes they'll always be like that.
But, well, why not? They're twins, after all; it's not like they're ever going to be apart for long.
The first time a noble address him as "Crown Prince", it takes Zuko a good few heartbeats to recognise that the noble really is speaking to him, and not to anyone else. And even then he asks, pretends he hadn't heard the question, just to verify.
That evening Zuko spends in his favourite spot on the roof, the one Azula never found, and stares at the city, the Caldera streets slowing, quieting, falling asleep.
Mom is gone; Cousin Lu Ten is dead, as is Grandfather; Uncle Iroh is far away; and maybe none of them is ever coming back, but he still has Father and Azula, even though Father is now Fire Lord, and Azula...
The court is calling him Crown Prince. Zuko wonders why. He wonders whether Azula would hate him now. He wonders whether she's hated him all along.
Father is Fire Lord now; and Zuko is his oldest child. So he is next in line for the throne, even though they're twins, even though Azula always was Father's favourite, always was better at firebending, at court, at being Princess. She was always the first at everything — except at birth.
What a pity it must have been, to have a perfect heir being born second, to have him as the firstborn instead.
Zuko wonders whether Father ever thought about killing him before.
(Azula always lies. Except when the truth hurts more.)
Zuko sights and leans forward, dangling his feet above the ground. He's barefoot; he can almost feel the night breeze blowing by, and the rooftiles are warm beneath his hands.
The gardens look deserted. Darkness is slowly spreading, creeping around, shrouding in shadows the pond and the trees and the flowers. Their colours are almost indistinguishable from up high. Blue looks like silver, green like grey, and red like brown, almost black. Yellow is the only one untouched by the change, some golden flowers shining like sparks in the dark.
Zuko wants to be angry, even though he has no reason to, because being angry is easier; but he's just so... confused, that he can't even make some sparks of his own to match those flowery ones glinting in the garden. He doesn't understand what's going on anymore, and he doesn't know what to think. The world stopped making sense the moment Azula showed up in his room after their attempt to eavesdrop on Father's talk with Grandfather. Or maybe even before that, when the letter came about Lu Ten.
Zuko never really thought whether he wanted to be a Crown Prince or not before, never had a reason to; but he sure as Agni's light doesn't want it now. He wants it all to go back to how it was, when Mom was there and Azula's smile wasn't so mean.
It feels like those two years before he produced his own first flame, when they were around six and he constantly got burned trying to duck out of the way of her flames, only this time Mom's not around to scold Azula and make her stop. And Lu Ten is not here to cheer him up with stories of awesome non-benders he met under his father's command. And no one even talks of them, like they stopped existing, or even like they never existed at all; at least, it feels that way.
Zuko really misses them.
And he misses Azula; because, even though she's right there, it feels like she's far away from him.
Azula stopped letting him win in their fights now. Her score in their improvised competition must be higher than ever, but Zuko doesn't feel like keeping count. What's the point, if she beats him every time? She even burned his hand yesterday. She'd never let her flames burn that hot during their sparrings before.
She said he should've been better if he was going to be a Crown Prince.
Zuko, cradling the burned hand closer to his chest, shouted that he wasn't planning to.
Today, some noble addressed him as such.
Zuko tries to be angry at those nobles, and it was so easy when he was inside, running away from them at the first opportunity; but here, on this quiet roof, with the cloudy sky and gardens so dark they're almost the same, blurred together, he somehow can't bring himself to rage.
So he sits quietly, listening to the leaves rustling in the wind, and wonders whether he'll ever stop feeling so empty as he does now, ever since Mom disappeared. It's not a good feeling. And he can't pretend that all is well, unlike Azula.
She doesn't seem affected at all.
Zuko sometimes wished to be like his twin before, more of a copy than he is. She's so perfect, and she's like him, and that might just mean that he can be perfect too. But now he wishes it and fears it at the same time. Does being perfect mean not feeling anything? Or is it that Azula really doesn't care?
Zuko was never able to tell with her.
But even that has gotten worse somehow; he doesn't understand her at all now. Does her being meaner than ever means she hates him? Does it mean she doesn't want him around? Or that she cares for him, like Father does, and tries to make him stronger? That sounds like something she would say.
She says a lot of things, but nothing about her feelings; it might be best to just ask her outright, yet Zuko can't find it in himself to. What if she'd lie?
(Azula always lies.)
What if she wouldn't?
Zuko forcibly stops himself from thinking – he never really was good at thinking, he always got even more confused when he tried, why was he trying in the first place... – and jumps off the roof.
He lands in a roll softly, skids through the grass coming to his feet. Time to get back to his room before someone finds him.
No one ever heard him sneaking around the palace before, but that was when he wasn't the Crown Prince, so he takes extra care to mask his passage through the corridors. He thinks about using servants' passages, but realizes quickly they won't be empty at this time.
He found it the hard way, too; they nearly caught him that one time when Azula got him to chase after her at around midnight. She thought it was fun, but Zuko still fears Mom's disappointed look if she ever finds out.
...Which she never will, because she's gone, and Zuko really, really needs to stop thinking.
If he doesn't, he'd just burn something at this rate, and that'll definitely get him noticed. Fire generally does that, even in the Fire Lord's palace; so no fire while being sneaky.
That was one of the first things he learnt, and one of the few things he ever taught Azula when she decided she wanted to be better not only at finding him, but at sneaking around too. He regretted it later, of course, because that'd been the only thing he could do better than her that she ever found interesting, but that's just how things work with Azula. She has to be perfect even in things Zuko thought of as his; not to mention everything else.
Maybe he'll find some other thing he could beat her at.
Zuko enters his room quietly, his steps light and sure, closes the door slowly to prevent it from making noise, and pads to the bed. His gaze slides around the room, lingers on the wall where two blades are hanging as decoration — present from Cousin Lu Ten for their nineth birthday, too big for hands still; Azula got some trowing knives, and Mom looked worried; Uncle Iroh looked surprised at first but then laughed and said he'll grow... — and stops.
He'd never seen Azula play with those knives after Father saw them bickering over the dagger Uncle Iroh sent Zuko from Ba Sing Se (Azula got a doll, and it was her fault she burned it, Zuko wasn't going to share when the presents were named, they shared enough already!), and explained that it is beneath a decent firebender to waste their time on some lower steel.
But, well, he's not a decent firebender yet, even though he'll be someday. And he already has a good dagger and two awesome blades. It'd be a pity to let them rust while he's still training to be decent.
Azula thinks she should be angry at Zuko.
She hides that thought like she hides everything, looks at him like she doesn't care, smiles at him like he's nothing.
She hides it, but the thought is still there.
That Dum-Dum was named Crown Prince.
Got a fancy ceremony with cheering crowd and Fire Sages making speeches, and a new hairpiece.
Azula looks at him, and doesn't understand.
She's better. Everyone knows that.
He's a failure who never succeeded at anything.
(Other than pleasing Mommy dearest, she can't help but remember.)
(But she was useless in the end, Azula tells herself once again. She was too weak to defend what was hers.)
So yes, he's a failure and she's a prodigy, the court's darling, the precious princess gifted at everything...
(She was never the palace's darling. Nobles treat her like she is the Agni's chosen, like they ought to, and scoff at Zuzu's awkwardness. Servants bow down to her with due respect and fear, going out of their way to clear the way, and fulfill her every demand. But they always slip Zuko his favourite treats when he fails to look cheerful, and smile at him when he asks instead of demanding, and try to encourage him with kind words when he fail at practice, and surprise him with court's rumours masked as tales which she has to work to even find out about... And they call her a monster still.
That doesn't matter, that never should have mattered, they're only palace's mice, worth noting and as good as her brother at understanding anything about how this world works, but...
They never called him a monster, even when he tried to explain that they are twins and so really are the same. Even when he shouted at them and threw flames at them and made everyone's lifes harder, they never stopped.)
The servants just pitied him, that's all. Zuzu's too dumb to see it yet; but he's getting better now. And Azula doesn't need their pity; she's not a poor helpless child, she's Agni's chosen, and she will never let anyone pity her.
Azula thinks she should hate Zuko.
After all, Father does love her more, everybody knows that, so she should've been named his heir, not her stupid brother who can't even firebend right.
So what if he's older? He's still a failure! He'll never be better than her, never be good enough. Father reminds him that every day and he still hasn't learnt, that's how stupid he is.
Zuzu still tries to please Father, but he clearly has no idea what Father wants. How he failed to figure it out when Father'd been telling them since they were four, Azula isn't sure. But Dum-Dum always had a talent for saying exactly the wrong things.
He also had no talent for anything worth being good at, but that was beside the point.
Zuko was so bad at bending that her teachers were appealed to work with him and had Father's permission to correct him when necessary, which was every lesson. But he sneaked around with swords and daggers, and even Azula has to admit that he wasn't half-bad with them. He also has Mai's rare smiles to encourage him, so even Father's lecture about Princes lowering themselves to wielding some steel instead of noble fire never stuck.
He was also good at making people feeling things, but Azula knew he hasn't figured that out, and likely never will. He always ended up feeling those things too, and her twin was so bad at thinking that he always made a fool of himself when he could've used it.
It's almost like all her talents, but backwards. Like he's the same as her and her exact opposite at the same time; her mirror.
Azula thinks she should hate Zuko, but, strangely, Azula... isn't sure.
She doesn't yet know what she feels, but she doesn't hate him, somehow.
He's still the same Dum-Dum, even though he now has the same classes and teachers as her.
She still beats him in everything they do, the only difference being that now they do it together, side by side. But it was like that when they were small, wasn't it? When they were too little to see the differences between them. Azula doesn't remember it, but it must have been so. She can recall some prank they've pulled by switching places; it wasn't too hard to imagine. Not like anyone will ever mistake them for one another now, of course. She's clearly better, and Zuzu is a bit hopeless. And for those dumb enough to miss that, they wear different headpieces now.
He's still loud, and he's still naïve; still can't lie or even keep his mouth shut. He's still so easy to manipulate that Azula doesn't know whether she should be gleeful or disappointed.
And he still miss Mom.
He doesn't talk about it, not like he did when she just disappeared, but everyone with eyes can see. He feeds those stupid turtleducks nearly every day.
Mom left them, and he still miss her. Azula wants to laugh, to call him stupid for being so trusting, to tell him all the rumours she's heard and all the things she figured herself, to make him see...
But then he'll look at her like a kicked liondog puppy, like she murdered one of his precious turtleducks or burned another servant. And that look is awful and should never appear on their face; Zuzu's forbidden to look like that while wearing the same face as Azula. So, no shocking revelations for her stupid twin, even if that means watching him sight for a woman who wasn't strong enough to stay. He'll grow out of it some day. Hopefully.
In the end, Azula decides, she doesn't much care who gets the throne. It's not like it matters, anyway.
What matters is that Father clearly loves her more. He spends time with her, overseeing her training, and he never founds her lacking, unlike Zuzu. She's a prodigy, a genius firebender; and she's clever and cunning, clearly a superior twin. She knows what to say and to whom, and when it's better to smile sweetly rather than shout. The court loves its Princess; they fear her almost as much as they fear Father, and that never fails to make Azula feel proud of herself. They're so amusing when they try to please her, falling over each other in the process.
Azula has talent and skill, and everyone knows this. Zuko, meanwhile, is still useless as ever; so even if he will indeed get the throne somehow, he'll still need her to tell him how to rule properly, just like he does now. He looked so trapped and helpless at the last feast, cornered by some noble ladies, that Azula was almost sure he'd throw fire at them as a distraction and run away. He didn't, of course, because Zuzu always tries to play nice even though he's terrible at it, but it was a near thing. Azula had to intervene to save him from embarrassing the royal family by sheer ineptitude. He had no idea what they wanted, and what's more, he even had the gall to admit it to Azula! He looked horrified right after, so maybe there is a chance for her stupid brother to learn some court manners yet, but he clearly won't last long as a Fire Lord without her. And because he knows this as well as Azula does, he'll always turn to her for advice, even if it pains him to do so. Which is a whole other reason why helping him is so much fun — he always looks like he'd prefer to die and not have to deal with that, shouts about honour and dignity, but accepts her help anyway.
So, Zuko being a Crown Prince? A win-win position for Azula no matter what. If he gets passed over — Azula is crowned as the Fire Lord and has Zuzu as her loyal General, because one thing her brother excels at is being loyal. If he doesn't — Azula gets more free time and has Zuzu as a Fire Lord who needs her just to survive and listens to her suggestions. And also fewer assassinations and public outrage for her to deal with; she'll get to play at opposition and have the entire nation support them both while believing they're supporting one twin or the other.
She still gets reminded, sometimes, of those maids calling her a monster, and Zuko's halting question whether that makes him a monster too. They are one and the same, he'd said.
Strange how people tend to forget that little fact. It should be harder than that, they even have the same face. Azula uses it better, yes, but it's still the same one. Are they too blinded by her talent to notice? Too deafened by his shouts? Or simply too stupid to recognise it?
Well, no matter. They are of the same light, same royal spark, blessed by the same rays of Agni. It is only natural for ordinary people to be blinded by the sun when it shines at double force.
A fitting analogy for our impending rule.