Something was going on with Zuzu. Azula knew this even at four, watching as he played with a cousin she had only just learnt about and two others. The boy smelled like dirt and grass, but the girl was nice. She was older than them, a whole four years older than Zuzu which meant she could boss him around. Then again, Zuzu was enough of a soft touch to let her boss him around too.
Azula really wanted to join in on their game.
She knew she couldn’t though. In five minuets she had firebending practice with Father, as she had every day since she threw her first sparks, he was so proud of her, but sometimes she just wanted the freedom to run around and play with her stupid Dum-Dum of a brother, always so willing to play Hide-and-Explode with her whenever she wanted. Or be the damsel to her hero in their games of pretend, the tree at the turtle-duck pond the tower and the ducks fearsome beasts out to attack her every time she tried to ‘rescue’ him. Father hated it when she asked to play with him though, said Zuko was pathetic and weak where she was strong and able. Mother continued to look sad.
With the four of them was a man, sword strapped to his side, watching them carefully. The strange girl, not her cousin, had a tiny bow and was firing arrows at a practice butt, while Zuzu and the other boy were throwing knives. Their cousin, silly little thing that she was, only older than Azula by mere months, was doing little more than giggling at the missed throws. She sighed and turned away, desperately pretending she didn’t want to join.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the rare sight of her grandfather in the colonnades, watching the four at their play. The man with them was stiff, pretending not to see.
Azula went to her lessons with Father.
Airi was irritating and kept wanting to join in with her and Ty Lee’s acrobatics. Ever more irritating was the fact that she was better at them than Azula, something only Ty Lee was allowed to be. At six years old, and attending the prestigious Fire Academy for Girls, Azula was used to being the best at everything. Even Zuzu admitted to it: he knew he could never recite history, or calculate maths as quick as her, let alone pick up firebending at the rate she was. A prodigy everyone called her.
Except for acrobatics it seemed.
Mother was watching them today, however, and had been delighted when Airi asked if she could join in with the other girls. Apparently, the archer- Azula heard that her name was Yumi, one of the Yu Yan recruits- was back at Pohuai Stronghold for a while, and so she was all alone and that Zuzu and the other boy, Kaito, had gone off exploring. Since she didn’t want to do that, she had joined them instead and kept trying to insist that they act out some dumb play.
“No, we can’t play Love Amongst Dragons,” Azula snapped at her, annoyed by her continued pleas to do so. “Zuzu is always the Dark Water Spirit, fighting against the Great Dragon Emperor, me!” She smirked at her. Airi looked confused.
“No, Zuko’s the Dragon Emperor,” Airi argued back, all wide-eyed innocence. “Yumi is the Wind Wraith and Kaito is the Dark Water Spirit. But you can be the Dragon Emperor today, since he isn’t here.” Azula gaped at her, as did Ty Lee and Mai. No one had ever spoken to her like that.
“But... I’m always the Dragon Emperor!” Azula cried, unable to think of a better answer. Strange, since she had never had a problem before. “There’s no way Dum-Dum could beat the Dark Water Spirit with his pathetic firebending.” Airi blinked.
“He beats Kaito all the time,” she said, as if that was common knowledge. “And his Gamma is really mean when she teaches him.” Ursa glanced up from her position feeding the turtle-ducks. She hadn’t invited Azula, as she always did, never sat with her there showing her how to feed them properly. That was always Zuko, except her didn’t like it when she burnt the ones who tried to bite her.
Father said it was weakness to show mercy, after all.
“That’s enough arguing, now girls,” Mother said, all gentle disappointment as always. She never was pleased to spend time with Azula or her friends. “Why don’t you play something else?”
“But Love Amongst Dragons is my favourite!” Airi whined. Azula pinched her arm with just a touch of fire. She yelped.
“We should play Hide and Explode,” Azula said, smirking. “I’m the best at it, you’ll never find me.” Ty Lee and Mai gave their assent and Airi shrugged, rubbing her arm. Mother frowned but said nothing.
Airi found her within an hour, far faster than anyone ever had before. Azula wanted to smack the stupid smirk off her face.
When Azula was eight, she caught sight of one of Zuzu’s final lessons with the man she had come to know as Master Piandao. She hadn’t actually been looking for it- she'd never admit to anyone, but she was hiding from Father. Her fireblasts had been sloppy today, so tired as she was from the day before, and he had not been happy. She had fled the moment she could, licking her wounds. Instead, she caught the tail end of a fight between Zuko and the swordmaster, fighting in one of the practice courtyards in a secluded area of the palace. Each were fighting with swords, somehow avoiding the path of arrows shot at buttresses from the archer on the roof, knives flung at a different target by Airi and some kind of shiny translucent blades that Kaito was spinning in his hands from his position in the rafters.
Azula stared some more, mouth agape. Her training lessons were never this intense, nor did they involve the level of fun her brother was having. He was even smiling.
She had never seen her brother smile like that before.
One of the translucent blades landed near her head and, before she could stop it, she let out a surprised squeak. All movement in the courtyard stopped, frozen like ice. For a moment Azula dared not even breathe. Then,
“Kaito!” Zuko shouted, all blustery anger as usual. “You’re supposed to pay attention!” Kaito ducked his head to hide the frown.
“Hey, we don’t all have eyes like a hawk!” he complained, like a baby. Azula thought about teasing him about it, but she didn’t have enough information on this one to know if it would work. Whenever she had seen him in the past, he always seemed like the one doing the teasing. Master Piandao was frowning heavily himself.
“Come out, Princess,” he said sternly. “You should know better than to be around battle practice.” Azula frowned herself, flouncing out of her hiding place as if she wasn’t bothered that she had almost been skewered by those strange shiny blades. If only she had gotten a better look...
“I do. You can hardly fault me for your pupil’s mistake,” she said flippantly. Zuko sent a side-glare at Kaito who shrugged.
“Apologies, Princess,” he said, and Azula realised for the first time just how common he sounded. Did Father really let Zuko play with peasants all this time? Or did Mother just allow it, as always? Most likely the second: she always encouraged Azula to spend more time with Ty Lee than Mai, despite knowing exactly what Ty Lee’s family was trained in.
“I shouldn’t be surprised. Trying to compensate Zuzu?” she teased with a smirk. Her brother rolled his eyes as the archer hopped down into the courtyard and began collecting her arrows.
There was a cough from behind her.
“And what, do you believe you are doing here, Princess Azula?” The courtyard had gone silent, everyone falling to their knees. Slowly, so slowly, she turned and bowed low to her Grandfather.
“I was just... passing by,” she said, cursing herself. She had always been a good liar- for some reason, the talent had fled from her now. Azulon made a disapproving noise.
“I believe you have seen enough. Off with you.” She scampered away to find a new hiding place before she could think twice. But the question remained in her mind: What exactly was Grandfather doing, training Zuzu over her?
Azula didn’t know how to feel about the Agni Kai. Sure, she put on a face showing the world she was pleased, but inside, she was confused. She and Zuko had never been close, not since she had started firebending at least. He was too soft, too pathetic, relying on those swords and knives of his over his bending. Even Father agreed. But there was also some small part of her that still remembered time spent at the turtle-duck pond, or nights she woke from nightmares and crept into his room because Father would see it as weakness.
Uncle Iroh was less conflicted and jumped right on stage, half challenging Father as she sat there in shock. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Airi, eyes wide in shock and hand over her mouth, staring at the prone form sprawled on the floor, still smoking. The room smelt of charred flesh and Azula’s stomach turned. She didn’t show it.
“A fitting punishment,” Commander Zhao murmured behind her. Azula clenched her hands into fists and made no move to acknowledge him.
She still didn’t understand the man’s military significance to Father.
Eventually, hesitant medics came to clear up the mess, shaking under the combined glares of Fire Lord and General. Her brother was stretchered away, limp and unresponsive and Azula resisted the urge to follow, to study each and every piece of damage to his face. He was weak, not standing up for his beliefs, she thought with a sniff, rising with the rest. He deserved to burn, to have all such weakness removed from him. Her Father raised a fist, preventing them from leaving.
“This is an official proclamation,” Fire Lord Ozai declared, right in the face of Prince Iroh’s furious gaze. “Prince Zuko has shown shameful weakness in the face of a challenge. He has shamed the Fire Nation for the last time. From this day he is stripped of all titles and banished.” Iroh twitched, and she noted how her Father flinched, barely perceptible to the fools around her but there, away from him. She blinked. Father... is afraid of His tea loving cookiness? “He may return,” Ozai continued, as if this had been his plan all along, “once he has completed a task to regain his honour. He may return only when... he has captured the Avatar.” Fire Lord Ozai smirked at the breakout of muttering in the room. Azula could do nothing but stare.
Dum-Dum... is never coming back, she thought numbly, leaving with the rest. She didn’t know how to feel.
She found herself at the door to the infirmary, frantic voices coming from inside. Before she could think, she raised a hand and pushed it open.
Inside was chaos. This room, too, smelt of burnt and charred flesh, she could see it sloughing off his face, a Healer doing his best to save what he could. Dark locks of hair, both charred and not, were scattered on the floor, bandages covered in blood, skin and ash surrounded him. It was a scene more akin to the front than the Palace.
Everyone stopped when they saw her, standing at the entrance.
“Princess!” one of the idiots cried, bowing low as several others jumped in front of her brother, obscuring her view of him. “Please, this is not a sight-”
“Step aside,” she snapped. They scuttled away from her in fear as she approached the bed.
A sliver of gold watched her, glazed over in pain.
“La-la?” a voice rasped, much huskier than it had been before. She wondered vaguely if he would always sound like that now.
“Hello Dum-Dum,” she smirked, hiding all her horror at the sight before her. “You’re an idiot.” There was a slow blink.
“You came.” She wasn’t sure what that meant and frowned, irritated that this might be construed as her caring.
“Oh, don’t be sentimental,” she said. The Healers were staring at the pair of them, in awe, horror, fascination. She wondered why. “I only came to tell you, you’re banished. Father says you can only return with the Avatar.” She turned to leave. A hand stopped her. She glared at him until he removed it from her wrist.
“Will you be alright?” He looked the most alert he had since... She stared at him.
“What a silly question,” she sneered. “As if I would be upset. I can finally be an only child.” With that she left.
Lady Airi was waiting for her in the hall, pale.
“Princess Azula,” she greeted her with a bow, proper and formal. Long gone were the days they would play in the gardens under the watchful eye of her pathetic Mother. “How... How is he?” Azula rolled her eyes.
“He’s banished. What does it matter?” She went to leave but found the girl in her way again.
“He cares greatly for you,” she insisted. “Mother and Father have bought us a pleasure barge. If ever you wanted to join us...” Azula sneered, lighting a fire in her hand.
“Do you wish for a scar to match, cousin?” she asked lightly. Airi dipped her head again, bowing low and stepping out of her way.
“I shall send you letters and gifts, cousin,” she said as Azula walked away. Azula pretended not to hear, trying with all her might to feel elated to now be heir to the throne.