The twins are born on the Autumn Equinox.
All Fire Sages agree that it is a good omen. Children born on such momentous days are surely meant for greatness. Such is the case with the nation's beloved Crown Prince, General Iroh, honourable and resourceful man. His son, Prince Lu Ten, on the other hand, while blessed with Agni's light, wasn't as fortunate as his newborn cousins; some people speculate good-naturally that when the time will come for the young Prince to become a Fire Lord, he'll be unstoppable with the help of two exeptional Generals by his side.
(Azula summons her own fire before she turns four. She masters lightning by the time she is fifteen, and her flames burn the hottest blue. Zuko, at the same age as his sister, finds the Avatar, rediscovers Sun Warriors and the last dragons, and masters the dragon's colourful flames. Lu Ten dies before he can see them both shine in full.)
The Prince's name is Zuko, and the Princess' is Azula.
Prince Ozai presents his children to Agni, and the moment the royal family is no longer on the raised dais, leaving their subjects with bright eyes and raised spirits, the talks start.
They are both healthy, beautiful children, as one of the tired-looking maids proudly proclaims for all to hear.
The twins are a blessing for the Fire Nation, loudly preaches one of the more sophisticated Generals. And those born on such a special day even more so.
All too soon, other talks are coming up; hushed and careful.
How the Prince was born when the Agni's light was dying. How his eyes are not the eyes of a bender, too light, too bright, without a spark, shining and not burning. How he was weak but stubborn, and what a miracle that is that he hasn't endangered his mother's and sister's lives.
How the Princess was born when the first Agni's rays stretched across the horizon to paint the skies in red. How she was nearly silent, but very attentive. How she was born second, and her mother hasn't had the strength to embrace her properly before falling asleep, too tired to do more than kiss her forehead.
(Several years later, those same people will wonder whether the Prince, born in the dark, has soaked up all the day's light, and whether the Princess, coming into the world with the sun, has instead soaked in the nighttime's darkness.)
"We cannot have two heirs at the same time!" bursts out one of the younger Fire Sages. Again.
Fire Sage Shyu sights. Again.
They are having the very same discussion with the very same arguments for the third time in an hour. Namely, the discussion about who should be named Prince Ozai's heir in the sacred scripts and the royal genealogy. They don't have time for this, objectively, ostensibly because Fire Lord can ask for their word of counsel at any moment, but more importantly because, in accordance with the old tradition, they only have until the next day to update the royal scrolls and not that much time left before the sunrise.
"Prince Zuko is older, is he not?" asks another sage, clearly as fed up with this discussion as Shyu is. "He was born first, and that is what we should mark in the scroll. We are here to oversee a centuries old tradition, no more, no less."
"Old tradition it may be," argues another one of his peers. "Were it some centuries ago, we would not even be having this discussion. The Princess has as much rights to be named an heir as her brother does. We cannot ignore the fact that they were born on the very same day."
"This is not about her rights. This is about the order of their birth," reminds him mildly the tired one. "We are not discussing their accession to the throne. These children are too far in line for that. We need only to determine which one of them we should consider the older sibling. And that, I believe, should be obvious."
"But can we really make that division?" wonders aloud the High Sage and all other talks quiet instantly. "They are, after all, born of the same breath and under the same light. How can we separate them so?"
"What are you suggesting, elder?" asks Shyu warily when it becomes apparent that no one is willing to do it first.
"Leave that decision to Agni," the old man answer with the same thoughtful air. "He will reveal his will in time."
"But," startles another elder. "We cannot leave the scrolls empty!"
"And we shall not," High Sage agrees. He raises, and all sages hastens to follow. "We will mark today as the day Princess Ursa gave birth to Prince Zuko and Princess Azula, heirs to Prince Ozai of the noble line of Sozin."
All around him, Fire Sages gathered for the occasion are doing their level best to mask their disbelief and shock at such a decision. They bow respectfully and quietly, and begin the necessary preparations in silence.
Shyu wonders whether life in the capital is really worth it, and whether he should ask to be stationed somewhere less pompous instead, like the Crescent Island. That is a good idea, he feels. He'll give it some time and all due consideration.
(He will not leave the Caldera for several years, serving the royal family until he no longer can. And when he does leave, he'll become the youngest Fire Sage on the Crescent Island. And even later, when the Avatar comes to speak with his last incarnation, when the child with the weight of the world on his shoulders needs help and those who swore themselves to the Avatar refuse him, Shyu know what he has to do.)
I'm thinking about changing the order of the chapters as I post them and going about it hronologically, but there's high chance I'll go back to write some childhood scenes again, some of them happening between the pieces of the existing chapters. and then I'll have to rearrange it again, and... well, honestly, I wanted to keep it all in one chapter at first, but that's really hard to update, so. I'm not really sure what to do. what do you think? :D
"Mm?" Azula lifts her head from the scroll she's reading.
Zuzu stands near the door to her room, not really entering but looking around as if about to tell her a secret. Or to ask something he's too embarrassed to ask Mom. Her twin is such an idiot that it's hard to tell with him.
Azula waves at him to enter. He does, and closes the door.
"Do you... know what they're saying?" he starts haltingly.
Azula goes to roll her eyes, but remembers Mom's admonishments and stops. Then remembers that her brother definitely doesn't count as a polite company, and rolls her eyes anyway.
"Who?" she asks in a bored voice just to get him talking. Maybe he'll go away then.
Azula doesn't even have to pretend to be annoyed. So her brother finally figured out that maids are people. Maybe he'll start feeding them like turtleducks now and give her and entire palace another reason to mock him.
"Dum-Dum, they're saying a lot of things. They so love to talk, you know." And so are you, she doesn't add.
Zuzu scrambles up some courage, and suddenly Azula has a very bad feeling about that talk. Seems like her bad day is going to become a lot worse.
"... They say you're a monster."
He doesn't say this like they do. They say it quietly where she can hear, whisper it behind her back, like they want her to know but are too afraid to tell her.
Zuzu just says it like it is sad.
Azula honestly doesn't know what's worse. She sights, ignoring another one of Mom's rules.
"... Yeah. Like I said—"
But he doesn't even let her finish. Azula briefly contemplates, how good it'll feel to punch her own face.
"Does that mean... Azula, does that mean that I am a monster too?" her stupid, naïve brother asks. Azula loses her thoughts and just blinks at him for a moment. " 'Cause, uh, 'cause we're the same, and if you're a monster then, then so am—"
"No, Zuzu," that's so stupid that Azula wants to shut him up. So she does. "It doesn't work like that," she says and picks up her scroll, hoping that now he'll leave her alone.
"Uh." but he won't, 'cause Zuzu's the stubborn one. And also stupid. " ...Why? I mean..."
He sounds so worried about that, too. As if those maids that called her a monster had never called him a sweet child. Not to his face, maybe, he's a prince, after all, but he's almost as good as Azula at sneaking around. Almost.
"Monsters can't be kind, Zuzu," Azula finds herself answering. "Be kind's to be weak, and monsters are strong," she explains gently, because Dum-Dum was always slow and never got it when Dad explained to him how that works, but maybe he'll get it this time. She doesn't like her twin, but she doesn't hate him either. And he's too weak now. Dad says so. Zuzu's too kind; like Mom, but Mom doesn't need to be strong. Her brother does. He's her twin, after all. If he's weak, who's to say she isn't?
Zuzu goes quiet, and Azula risks a glance at him. He has a face like he's trying to figure something out, so she leaves him to it. Maybe now he'll finally get Dad's lessons.
"Well..." he starts like he has something to tell that Azula won't like.
She didn't like anything he'd said so far, so she just asks, eyes staying on her scroll: "What is it?"
"I don't think you're a monster, 'Zula," he says earnestly. A hand just like hers touches her elbow, making her look up at him again. "You're kind too." His face suddenly falls and he adds hurriedly: "...Not to say that you're not strong, 'cause, you know, you are! I just—"
Azula lowers her head, but finds her scroll too hard to concentrate on. Characters are all blurry, and the text doesn't make sense.
"... Thanks, Zuzu," she whispers into their hands, still pretending to be very interested in reading.
"Uh." her stupid brother sounds like he doesn't know what to say. Not that he usually does. Just more than usual. He settles on "...Sure? Yeah."
They stay like that for a while. Zuzu's holding her hand, and Azula doesn't even want to fling flames at him. He's funny when he tries to dodge, but now he's just warm and there.
"So... We're not monsters, then?" asks Zuzu, because he's a Dum-Dum who can't be quiet even if it kills him, and ruins the moment.
"Oh, be quiet already, will you?" retorts Azula, pulling her hand away.
But she's smiling when Zuzu leaves her room, and her day doesn't seem so bad anymore.
"Dad's going to kill us," says Azula. She sounds like she's tried to singsong it, but her voice is a little off, so it doesn't really come out cheerful, just practiced.
"Really, he is," she repeats when Zuko just stares at her, uncomprehending. "Well, one of us," she amends, and, yeah, that still doesn't make sense.
"Ha-ha, Azula. Nice try," says Zuko, because Azula always lies, he kind of knows it, but that's a stupid lie, and also it doesn't sound like Azula at all.
"He is! He said so himself," she almost pouts, and Zuko's startled enough by that to miss her forcefully relaxed posture, but not her trembling lips.
Not like Azula at all.
"If that's about my bad performance—"
"No, Dum-Dum," Azula rolls her eyes and starts to resemble his normal sister again. "Well, maybe that, too, but not really. Grandfather ordered him to."
"Liar! Why would he—"
That's starting to sound more and more like one of the ghost stories Azula likes to scare him with, not something real, but Azula doesn't give him the chance to call her out on it.
"Dad said that now that Lu Ten is dead he should be the Crown Prince. I believe you can imagine how Grandfather liked it," she says hauntingly, as if Zuko should have known what Dad was talking about in his private audience with the Fire Lord (which, okay, he does know that, so maybe she has a point), when she herself knows only because she's stayed behind the curtains longer than him, long enough to overhear the rest. "Grandfather said Dad's punishment should fit his crime. "You must know the pain of losing a first-born." " she pauses for dramatic effect. Zuko won't admit that it works, ever. " "By sacrificing your own!" So you see, now Dad has to kill us."
"You're lying! Dad would never do that," now Zuko's sure that's just one of her plots to scare him. She has lots of them, and that one is just like others, scary enough to make him run to Mom. "Dad's firstborn is us, and we're twins. He'll never kill us both."
"Weren't you listening?" snips Azula. "Uncle lost one child. Dad can kill only one, too."
That... actually makes sense. Not the whole 'Dad's-going-to-kill-us' thing, but the 'only one' thing. And Zuko really doesn't understand all those court politics (not that he'll ever admit it to Azula), but he knows you should never speak badly about Crown Prince or about Fire Lord. And Dad did. He did both, actually. And Grandfather is a Fire Lord, and he's strict, so he won't let Dad go without punishing him. And if he ordered Dad to do something as a punishment, that means it's going to happen, because that was a Fire Lord's order. And he and Azula overhead them when they weren't supposed to, so he knows as much as her about their talk; except for that one bit because he ran away earlier. And she has no reason to lie about that. Probably. None that Zuko can see, at least. That concerns her too, after all, and she wouldn't be here if she wasn't worried.
"Alright?" Azula actually sounds startled for once.
"Yeah," Zuko shrugs.
"Dad's going to kill us, and once you stop calling me a liar all you have to say is 'alright'?" Azula asks in bemusement, and it's not every day that Zuko manages to dumbfound his unflappable, perfect, always composed sister. He's going to cherish this moment.
"Well, he has to kill only one of us, right? You said so yourself," He waits for Azula to nod. "That means he can choose. And we both know Dad'll never kill you."
Azula looks like she hasn't really considered it, so Zuko counts one more sorely needed point to himself in their neverending contest to one-up each other. Not that he's very far behind. Not by much. Only by a hundred or so.
"Then he's going to kill you," she concludes. She's starting to sound like her smug self again.
"And you're okay with that?" Azula has that tone of voice that she likes to call 'politely scandalized', and she's using it now, along with a raised eyebrow, and, really, must she do that? Zuko's well aware he's not the brightest flame here, that one has always been his sister's, but he thinks he's getting this one right, at least.
"Well... Not so much okay as— Uh. Listen, he's going to choose me, and. And. Well, if he does, that means he won't kill you, yeah?"
"We've already established that, yes. What of it?" And now Azula sounds like she's bored, which, hey, not fair. It's not Zuko's fault he's bad with words.
"Well, Father likes you more than me," he tries again, but even he can tell that doesn't explain much.
"And Mother likes you more. Now get to the point," Azula parries, rolling her eyes again. She always gets away with it somehow, never mind that Mother always scolds them for such impolite gestures.
"And if he can choose to kill me, then he won't have to kill you," Zuko hopes she gets it now, because Azula always gets what he means, even when nobody does. If there's one person who can understand him when he himself doesn't, that's his twin, and it's as annoying as it's useful.
"And?" prompts Azula. She sounds like she's waiting for him to say something, and she's never liked waiting. She's not very patient, not like Mom. But still more patient than Dad and Zuko himself. Oh well.
Zuko doesn't even know what he wanted to say in the first place; so he just shrugs.
"You mean, you're fine with Dad killing you as long as he doesn't kill me as well?" asks Azula slowly, like he's stupid or younger than her, which he isn't, thank you very much; they're twins, they're exactly the same age.
"Well, I'm not fine with that, 'cause Dad would never do that," Zuko really, really hopes so. Grandfather's a Fire Lord, but he's reasonable; he just wanted to scare Dad, and scared Azula because she's noisy, and Azula scared him because that's what she does. Grandfather can't really want either of them killed. "But if he has to, someday, then, uh, yeah, I guess."
"He will! He'll kill you, Dum-Dum," insists Azula, and Zuko can't say if she's desperate because she's happy or angry or sad. He always had troubles telling her emotions apart. She doesn't show enough of them for him to learn, so he doesn't understand what does it mean that she's raising her voice at him, but he definitely doesn't like it. "I know! Maybe you could find a nice Earth Kingdom family to adopt you!"
"Stop it!" yells Zuko. He can't stand her when she's like that. She must've been lying all along just to see him frightened. She likes being the smartest in the room at his expense, and she likes seeing him fall for her lies. "You're lying! Dad would never do that to me!!"
"Your father would never do what to you?" sounds Mom's voice from the doorway. She steps into the room, looking between them. Zuko hopes his eyes aren't red yet. "What is going on here?"
"I don't know..." starts Azula, but Mom cuts her off and drags her away. Zuko doesn't know what they're going to talk about.
But what he does know...
"Azula always lies. Azula always lies," he repeats quietly to himself, again and again until it becomes a chant.
Zuko curls tightly under the blanket and for the first time desperately wish it to be true.
Father burned Zuko. Zuko deserved it, of course, because he was being stupid. Azula would never have gotten herself in such a mess. He should have just stayed where he was, or backed down quietly, or asked her to let him in her spying place. Or asked her anything at all, really, does he even think before doing something? Of course, he doesn't. Getting himself into the war room by way of Uncle Fatso was almost clever, but speaking against Father? Stupid. She would have told him that, if he bothered to talk with her that day. But he hadn't; so he got was he deserved.
Father burned Zuko's face. Now Zuko has a scar under his bandages, red ugly thing marring his features, making it tainted, different, no longer her mirror image. He wasn't one for a long time, really, with his too-real smile and too-soft eyes, but they were still reasonably alike. Maybe no more than any other pair of twins could be, after all, Ty Lee was always fairly distinctive among her sisters, but still.
Father burned Zuko's face, but they share the same face. Shared one since they were born. They are one and the same, except for when they're not, and so are their faces. Hers was always perfect, and Zuko's just... was. She was always better at presenting herself, at donning a perfect mask, at making her face express whatever she wanted. They had the same face, but she was always better at using it, just like she was always better at using the blood and flames they shared.
Father burned Zuko's face, but they share the same face, only, now they don't, because Zuzu just had to be stupid and ruined it all, and now she can't be better than him, because with that scar on his face it isn't even a competition. She used to be better while having everything he had. Now that he has even less — is that a victory for her, or a loss? Can she even claim to be perfect now, now that he's so obviously a failure? Does the absence of a competitor make her the best one, or the only one there is?
Father burned Zuko's face, but they share the same face, so Father burned her face as well. Father burned her as well. Father burned them, branded their shared face because of that stupid Dum-Dum who couldn't keep his stupid mouth shut, who never learned to be quiet, not like her. He was quiet when they were sneaking around the palace, but not when Father was scolding him, and, really, can't he tell which one was more important? Apparently not. Stupid.
Father burned their face. He wasn't aiming at her, Father meant to teach Zuko a lesson, he said so himself, and Zuzu better learn that one, because there won't be another. Father never meant to burn her face, but in burning Zuko's face, their face, he did. Now their face will never be perfect again, because one of them is branded, and the other is not, and the longer she's staring at his bandaged face, the harder it's getting to tell which one is which.
Father burned them. Father may love them, but he burned them. It was meant to teach a lesson, and while Zuzu has always been a slow learner, Azula sure learned one. Father wants a perfect heir, and he's willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. Father wants a perfect heir, but he doesn't give a damn about what his heir want. Because his perfect heir is Azula, had always been Azula, they had always had equal rights as twins, but it was clear from the start whom Father favoured more. She'd always been his heir, and all she ever wanted was to be better than her brother, and now she can't, because her brother is a broken mess with a burnt scar who'll never be a challenge for her again. And that's not what she wanted. A burn on their perfect face is not what she wanted.
Azula picks herself up with her usual dignity and rises to stand near the window. The sun is going down, Agni's light colouring the skies in bright crimson and amber. Besides her, her brother is sleeping fitfully on the infirmary bed, his frowning face covered with sweat.
"You'd better not die from this, Dum-Dum."
Azula leaves the infirmary quietly, head held high, sun and wind her only witnesses. No one on staff will ever remember her being there, but Zuko's sleep that night was a bit calmer, with a light lilting voice chasing away his Father's.
Azula closes her eyes and counts to ten.
That's how many breaths she's willing to let her captain try and make a bigger fool of himself than he already is, and also, coincidentally, how many times she called her brother prisoner in front of him. She really hopes he got the hint. Or, if not, that he's at least stupid enough to make the mistake she herself cannot afford to make.
As it happens, he does. Or he is indeed that stupid, but ah well, not like it really matters.
"You lied to me!" Zuko shouts. Which, rude. Of course she did. Haven't he been listening?
"Like I've never done that before," answers Azula smugly. Let that be a reminder, though she doubts he'll figure it out right now. He was always far too emotional for that.
What matters is that if Dum-Dum hasn't had the sense to take her warning for what it was, he at least has enough sense to catch her deception, and enough flame to fight his way out... Or not, because now he's attacking her when she hasn't even moved a finger to stop him from leaving. Has his brain also suffered from that burn? It hasn't seemed to be the case, judging by his letters, but she wouldn't put it past him to lose whatever he had left since she last deigned to write him. Just look how well he remembers her speech patterns and special phrases — meaning, not at all. Not if he's rushing at her with his flame daggers. He seems even more out of it than usual for some reason.
She doesn't even need to use the flames to fend him off. How embarrassing. Uncle Fatso has always been a disappointment, but she was reasonably sure he'll at least try to train her brother, considering how gladly he'd tugged along with him in his banishment. No such luck for poor Zuzu, it seems. More's the pity.
But enough of that. She's spent enough time on him already.
Azula makes sure to use the next pause to her full advantage.
"You know, Father blames Uncle for the loss of the North Pole," maybe that'll make him leave. He was always overly fond of that old man. No? Well, let's try another one. She'll get him eventually. She's had all her childhood to practice. "And he considers you a miserable failure for not finding the Avatar!"
Azula gives him a bit, but he stays silent, panting and glaring at her. Oh, the magic word's not working anymore? How strange, it was so useful to rill him up. Perhaps this legend is not living up to his expectations. Not that there was ever any chance of that; not if he sounded so frustrated in his last letter. But if not the Avatar, then what shall she use? Oh well, tried and true methods it is.
"Why would he want you back home, except to lock you up," Azula doesn't even have to lie for that one. It's almost sad how naïve Zuko is about their Father's motivations. Clearly, she is the smart twin here. And the beautiful one. And the talented. Huh, seems like Zuko got only kindness and goodness of a heart out of it. Not like Azula's complaining, but she'd like the embodiment of all their weaknesses to have at least one strong suit, because keeping him alive without his help is becoming more and more tiresome. And he doesn't even thank her for that! Sometimes she seriously wonders whether he really doesn't see it or just that ungrateful. For a boy so obsessed with honour, not very honourable at all, brother. Speaking of... "Where you can no longer embarrass him?"
Azula dodges again, feeling her irritation rise. How long will it take for this Dum-Dum to finally leave? Uncle Fatso seems to be doing reasonably well, so the only problem is, once again, Zuzu's habit of leaping before thinking.
She scraps his temple with her fingernails on the next clash. Azula doesn't want to burn him, but she can't be expected to let him go without a scratch. That would be utterly ridiculous and unbelievable, considering their respective skills and fighting prowess.
Zuko keeps chasing her across the deck, and keeping up the appearance of a fight without really harming and subduing him is getting harder. To save her brother from his own stupidity is a tall order even for Azula. She needs to work harder on that one. Maybe start sending him scripts for their confrontations? If he can't keep up, he could at least follow the script. He'd never made mistakes at the palace ceremonies, after all. Or maybe she should just ask Ty Lee how do they train animals at their circus. It is time to pay her a royal visit.
Azula grabs Zuko's arm when they reach the top of the stairway. She holds him still just enough for him to recognize what she's about to do and defend himself appropriately. Which he, being Dum-Dum that he is, promptly fails to do, and her fire blast knocks him away. He lands just before the stairs, underneath her, and Azula takes a moment to appreciate the poetics of the situation. Zuzu always makes stupid mistakes, and falls where she stands on top. Such is his life. Oh well, who cares. He should've seen this coming. It's not like she's never done the exact same maneuver to him before.
Honestly, thinks Azula, watching Zuko try to find his bearings, he tires her. How can he be such a failure and still survive, despite that being two mutually exclusive things? Azula can't and won't be there every time her stupid twin gets himself in trouble, and neither will Uncle Fatso. Oh right, he should still be there, shouldn't he? Maybe if she threatens Zuko enough, he'll intervene and drag him away already. He always preferred Zuko to her, after all.
(Just like Mother. And not like Zuko.)
She prepares her stance and starts the kata, summoning cold fire in her hands, holding it on her fingertips. Lightning cracks and rolls and burns, and she sends it to Zuko, far enough to miss, near enough to stun. If he won't dodge out of the way, Iroh may have to drag him away unconscious, and Azula have never sparred with Uncle, so she can't be sure if he'll manage—
And suddenly he's there, right before her, between her and Zuzu, and he's grabbing her hand, her right hand, the one directing that lightning, what is he doing—
And her lightning is flying away, away from her hand, away from her brother, away from the ship, and into a far-away cliff side.
Azula won't admit it, but she doesn't even register falling overboard at first. She notes that Uncle Iroh hasn't let her go, but feels too relived at the moment to do something about it. A lesson for her as well — never let your relief dull your reaction. It's fortunate that Iroh is such a lenient teacher; Father wouldn't just throw her in the water, knowing full well she can swim.
She resurfaces and listens to them running away, their steps echoing down the ramp. She really has to find better ways to communicate with her stupid brother, or Dum-Dum will just keep ruining her attire.
So, I'm still figuring out how to post that right and where to put my thoughts about some character's motives in this AU, but I guess notes is a good a place as any, so have a bit of my headcanons. :'D
The funny thing about Zuko's talk with Azula is that when he says "Dad'll never kill us both" what he really means is "Dad loves us both"; but Azula, once she takes this in, hears it as "he cant kill us both 'cause he still needs an heir" and backs it up with hers "besides, to suffer like Uncle he needs to lose one (1) child".
That calms her down, because Father clearly values her more, so she's not at risk; which Zuko says himself, because he sees his sister unsettled and even afraid for the firs time and needs to make her feel better. He doesn't really think about the implications of "Dad has to kill one child, and he won't kill Azula"; he's focused on Azula now, and hasn't came to the logical conclusion that Ozai's going to kill him.
So when Azula incredulously points that out he's still too focused on her to process that, which Azula doesn't get. She makes connections quickly, and she's already moved past initial "I might die"-stupor, so she's waiting for her brother to start arguing with her about whom Dad values more, as he always does, in an attempt to defend himself. But he doesn't; he's still stuck on the whole "calm down, he won't kill you" thing, so she has to verify – is he really okay with being killed if it means she lives??
Zuko's a bit blindsided by her question, because how could he be okay with dying, and why would he if that's not going to happen anyway; but he really is the kind to pull a martyr if that means protecting his people, and he's thrown off balance enough to answer her exactly that.
And now Azula is the one who's blindsided, and to her growing horror she can see that he's sincere, and he doesn't even understand what he just said, who even thinks like that, puts any other person befor themselves, her stupid brother that's who; so she tries to get it into his thick skull that he's in danger, because clearly he doesn't get it, why else would he say things like that?
But Zuko sees her getting agitated and throwing wild suggestions at him, and he really doesn't want to believe Father capable of killing either of them, so he doesn't understand on the emotional level why Azula is acting like that. He thinks she just pranks him again, and says all this just because she wants to be rid of him.
And then Ursa comes to stop the shouting, and they doesn't talk about that anymore.
Zuko doesn't figure out what happened until years later, so he stays convinced that Azula was lying, while Azula does, and also comes to the (correct) conclusions that a) Ozai will not hesitate to off them should they prove to be a problem for him, and b) Zuko has no self-preservation instinct whatsoever.
Also, about Zuko's thoughts that Azula understand him even when no one else does – he's actually right. When he fumbles with words and tries to explain something complicated, Azula is the only one who can immediately grasp his meaning and finish the thought for him, which comes in handy when he needs help to not offend the nobles or to answer his teachers. Azula is always better with words, and they're twins here, so they've spent even more time together.
But what Zuko fails to notice is that while Azula understands what he is saying, she doesn't GET him. He operates on absolutely different set of parameters, and she doesn't see them; she can predict him, but his set of rules still confuses her enough to be a nasty surprises when it backfires.
So essentially: she knows exactly what to say to him to rill hem up, but she doesn't get why those things rill him up in the first place, because she herself doesn't see them as important.
And Azula really frustrates Zuko here. She wounds him with words, but stays at his side. He knows she can understand him better than anyone, and yet she often acts as if she doesn't understand him at all. Zuko speaks with actions, and fails with words; so he gets that Azula helps him but can't see past her carefully constructed lies about her reasons to do so and buys her excuses and doublespeak as her finally revealing her motives.
And, well... Zuko wants to believe it. That's, like, his defining quality. He needs something to believe in; he needs a goal; he needs to believe in people who are by his side. He wants to believe in Azula, because he sees the good in her, sees his little twin sister and all the ways she cares; and he wants to believe her lies, because they make resenting her easier. It's a careful balance, really; Zuko can't see past Azula's lies, but can peer directly into her soul.
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.
Again, not sure where to put it, but I realized the twins' inner voices might sound too different, with Zuko' being childish and Azula' more mature. That is partially because I still have troubles getting them right, but mostly because the pieces are a from different ages. So, to clear it up a bit: in the one where Zuko comes to Azula they are both around 6, the next one is their fight in the gardens right before the beginning of the Siege of Ba Sing Se and they are around 9, following that are "kill your firstborn"-talk with Zuko's rooftop musings in about a week or two and they're 10 (with 9 and 11 in the original show), then in Azula's in a year or so they are 11, then at Agni Kai they are 12, and the latest one is set during the show itself, when they are both 15. I feel like that should be somewhere in the text and not in the notes, but, well, for now it'll stay here. :"D