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|Azula State of Mind|
May 21, 2013
Previously in Air
Sent to spy on her brother's movements, Azula barely escaped the farm, injuring her arm in her flight. Captain Jee and Corporal Si Yung have been captured by the enemy and Zuko is determined to negotiate their freedom.
Chapter Sixty-Eight: Azula State of Mind
She sat, waiting. Waiting for her father's convenience. When did I become one to be push aside until convenient? Was she not the Phoenix King's loyal servant? Had she not always been by his side, his to command? Had he not entrusted her with the most important mission?
The memory snapped clear. The dust floating in the stifled air of her cell. Lying on the dingy straw. The unfamiliar creak of her cage door opening. She sat up. In the doorway stood a soldier, his face severe.
"Princess," he'd said, stepping aside. "The Phoenix King says it's time. He has a very important task for you." The soldier held out a parchment to the prisoner.
Cocking her head to one side, Azula's cracked lips parted in an unsettling grin. As she took the message, the soldier turned and marched back up the corridor without looking back, leaving the cage door hanging ajar.
Azula, the note had read. The time for hiding is over. Now is our era to rise and claim power. There is something you must do for me, an alliance you must arrange. This is no mortal man. He is a spirit, a spirit with such power. With him on our side, even the Avatar will not stand a chance against us. To convince him, we must use our best persuasion. You must be my negotiator. There are men waiting to take you to the meeting place Min has arranged...
Fear racked up Azula's spine. A spirit with power, indeed.
The letter had closed, You're the only one I trust with this delicate matter.
She scoffed. Trust. Where was that trust now?
"He's only using you, Azula. Can't you see that?"
Azula squeezed her eyes closed, not wanting to see who she knew wasn't there. "Shut up, Zuzu," she hissed.
But his words persisted. "Do you think you'll ever be more than a tool to him?"
"Get out of my head!"
"Do you think you are more important to him than power?"
She clapped her hands over her ears, shaking her head to dislodge his poisonous words. Jealous. He was only jealous!
"Do you think Father will really come with us to Ember Island this summer?"
A grassy knoll took shape in her mind's eye. Two children lay among the soft blades, imagining fluffy white creatures soaring through the sky.
"Don't be such a dum-dum. He doesn't have time." The boy's sister was younger, but she always seemed to have the answers.
The Fire Prince and Princess rarely saw their father. All Prince Ozai's time and thoughts were consumed by the war councils. But a summer at Ember Island would fix that. At least, that was what Zuko told himself.
"But he promised." Tears stung at Zuko's eyes, but he fought them. He wasn't a baby after all. He hoped Azula was too busy gazing at the clouds to notice.
"He only said that so you'd stop asking every five minutes," Azula snapped. Her tone became suddenly aloof. "I don't blame him. Ember Island's a stupid place anyway. I wouldn't want to go either."
Zuko glanced at his little sister. She was staring up at the sky, her face virtually impassive. But he saw the clouds in her eyes. Azula was just as disappointed as he.
"You're lying," he said, turning his face skyward.
Azula scowled, her lips protruding in a stubborn pout. "Someday I'll lie so good even you won't be able to tell, dum-dum."
'"Don't call me that!"
"Fine." She smiled. "Zuzu."
"Don't call me that, either!"
Azula gasped. Startled out of her reverie, she swung out with her good arm. The soldier staggered back, just ducking the blow.
"What?" Her eyes burned as she spat the words out. She sat coiled, ready to spring.
To be on the safe side, the soldier eased back a step more. "His Majesty is ready for you."
The princess snorted. Now he's ready.
The dangerous spark in her golden irises made the soldier hesitate. When he approached, those eyes had been calm, almost surreal, transfixed by a time of yesteryear. Where had they been? "Shall I announce you?"
Her lips pressed into a thin smile as she remembered the news she brought to her father, the news that his new pet had failed him and betrayed their position. "Oh, yes, lieutenant. Announce me to my father."
Chills racing up his spine, the soldier did not spare a moment to do so.
With languid movements, Azula uncoiled herself like a viper cat lowering its guard before following him down the ship's corridor to the makeshift throne room. Once the soldier's back was turned, her smile melted into a frown.
That memory... Why had it come? Triggered, perhaps, by the vision of her mother? A pang shot through Azula's heart and she squeezed her eyes shut. Her mother, taunting her once more, just beyond her grasp. Azula had always remembered her as a gentle woman with a brilliant smile, but over the years she had learned the truth. Her mother was nothing more than a fickle pretender, her kind words and warm hugs only veiling a desperate, insatiable need to be loved and wanted. Well, Azula would entertain her no longer. The ghost of her mother would haunt her no more, because she refused to see it.
In life, her mother had chosen Zuko and then abandoned them both. In death, she could not mend that bond, and Azula would no longer play the witless audience to her macabre attempts.
"What did you learn, Azula?"
Lying prostrate before him, Azula smiled at the cold floor. "They have found the Faceless and Zuzu has decided it is his duty to protect them. He's set up a fortress around the farm. They are his priority for now."
She could hear the slick smile in her father's voice. "Excellent. And the Avatar?"
"He is not here. From what I overheard, it appears the Avatar is trapped in the Spirit World."
"Hmm," Ozai mused, his tone darkening. "That could be dangerous. From within the Spirit World, he still may be able to unravel the plan. What of Zuko? Does he know anything?"
Her smile broadened beyond sanity. Azula dipped her head low so her father would not see her glee. "Regrettably, he has been given another clue. A few of his companions encountered Min on the beach. She not only failed to subdue them, but demonstrated her...skills." A shiver raced through her at a memory of Min's unearthly abilities, but she suppressed it. Nothing could ruin her pleasure in this moment. "They now suspect something much larger at play."
She waited. Waited for his tirade as the words sank in, waited for his sharp words. Waited for him to denounce Min as the fool. But he said nothing more.
Azula's grin slipped. One word? That was all? Where was his rage? His cries of fool and failure?
Her head rose. "Unfortunate?"
Ozai's eyes narrowed. A frown pulled at his features. "Yes."
"That's it? She has ruined our chance at secrecy and probably betrayed the location of her precious anchor! She not only failed to incapacitate Zuko's spies, the fool even revealed her strengths, so we have lost any remaining element of surprise as well. And you say it's merely unfortunate?"
His golden irises flashed. "Azula."
She flinched, quickly bowing her head back down.
"There is doubtless an explanation for Min's failure to remain unseen, one which I will certainly require. But you must see that it does not matter. Secrecy was a sweet prize, but unnecessary. It is almost time. We are too close now to our goal. There is nothing anyone can do to stop us, Azula. Zuko and his pack of wolf dogs are no match for the power that we wield, now or in the near future."
Azula gritted her teeth, refusing to raise her eyes as she listened. The words of Ozai came in through one ear, and escaped through the other properly translated. I trust Min. Her judgment is sound. She will not fail me. Unlike you.
What Azula hated most about being the youngest was hearing herself introduced last. When they entered a room in the Palace, someone would always announce it like a grand proclamation. And they always slapped her name at the end of the list, like an afterthought.
"Lady Ursa. Prince Zuko." The crier declared, straightening to attention. "...and Princess Azula," he would add, almost carelessly.
Azula scowled. "I don't see why they always have to do that. It's not as though anybody's here."
And no one was. It was a comfortable sitting room where Mother had arranged for them to meet with Father that afternoon.
Mother put a hand on her shoulder and smiled. "It's just something that's done, Azula." She smiled encouragement down at her daughter. "You'll get used to it."
Azula doubted it. And she wouldn't let herself, she decided. Not until her name came before Zuko's. Not until she was as important as her brother. What made him so special, after all? He was older; that was true. Apparently in this world being older automatically made you better. Wasn't that why the eldest always succeeded to the throne? It wasn't fair. She could be just as good as Zuko. Better, even. One day, she would prove it to them.
As they waited for Father, Zuko began regaling their mother with a dramatic telling of some mundane story about his firebending training. But Mother didn't care if it was dull or silly. She laughed with him, a broad smile on her face, her eyes shimmering with pride.
Azula did not laugh. Why would she? It was a stupid story. She plopped onto the floor and crossed her arms, doing her best to ignore them both.
"You should have seen it, Azula!" Zuko cried at his conclusion. "It was amazing! It was real firebending!"
"Hmmph." The little girl stuck her nose up, just trying to imagine her brother actually firebending. It was no secret her brother was struggling with his lessons.
"Azula," Mother admonished gently, "You should be proud of your brother. I know I am. Producing fire is no small feat. And don't worry, Azula. Soon it will be your turn to learn. Then you and your brother can practice together. Won't that be fun?"
Her only reply was another unimpressed grunt. She refused to give in. The crier's habit of lauding Zuko and dismissing her had put the girl in a sour mood. No matter how her mother tried to cheer her up, Azula wouldn't explain the real reason she was upset. She didn't tell her, 'You do the same thing'.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, her mother took Azula's hand, pulling the child into her lap. "Come on," she said, with a brilliant smile. "Let's watch your brother practice."
Azula couldn't help but relent. Her mother had such a disarming smile; kind and warm, it always eased the troubles from her shoulders. Frustration drifting away, banned by her mother's embrace, the girl allowed herself to rest in her arms.
Firebending training had only begun for Zuko, and the Crown Prince talked of nothing else. He practiced every inch of every form diligently, for hours on end.
This was another thing about her brother that Azula resented. She wanted to begin her own training, but the masters insisted she was too young. If only she could plead it with her father –if he thought she could start now, he could make the masters teach her! But every time she tried to convince him, he brushed her off.
It was obvious that Zuko loved firebending. He talked so much about the feel of it, that someday he could dance with it, use it to fight. But for now, he struggled with his skills. It amused Azula sometimes; he was so proud of his accomplishments, but they were so small. He insisted they would get bigger and better. Most of the time, Azula hated his enthusiasm. Often so excited, he would flaunt his abilities and training before Azula and it stung. She knew this was probably unintentional. Zuko wasn't the type to boast and tease his sister to tears. He didn't have the spine for it, of course, but she knew the real reason. It would disappoint Mother. And Zuko hated to disappoint Mom.
Zuko moved slowly through the forms, and if he ever messed one up, he would start over. He finished the first basic forms with only some minor mistakes. He swallowed back a grin as he executed a more complicated pattern, feeling the eyes of his mother and sister, glad to show off for an audience.
Distracted by this thought, Zuko missed a step. Grumbling, he went back to the beginning. He missed the step again.
"Practice," his teachers always said with a smile. "Keep practicing, and you'll get better."
Zuko frowned, and started over. He moved through the form at a painstakingly slow pace, careful to execute each and every step to perfection. With a satisfied grin, he tried it again more quickly.
This time, he missed a different step. He scowled. When he duplicated the mistake, he grumbled, and pushed through the rest of the form anyway. But the missed step threw his leg position off, and when he moved to complete the form, he tripped on his foot. With a yelp of dismay, Zuko fell flat on his face.
"Azula..." Mother admonished.
Zuko glared at his sister, face flushed. "It's not funny!"
She shrugged airily, as if that were a matter of opinion.
Zuko clenched his fists and growled at her.
"Zuko," Mother said sharply. "Both of you stop it!" She sighed, turning her stern gaze on her daughter. "Azula, you know we don't laugh at other's mistakes, especially when they're learning something new." Concern flashed in her eyes as she frowned at her children. "Siblings shouldn't fight as often as you do. You should both be more thoughtful of each other's feelings."
Zuko turned away, kicking out in frustration. "Why can't I do this?"
Their mother beckoned him softly. Belligerent and grumbling, he came to kneel by her side.
"You'll get it. I know you will." Mother flashed her disarming smile and his anger faded away, leaving only a sweet face smiling back. "I believe in you, Zuko."
Azula watched, not without envy. There always seemed to be something different in their mother's lips when she smiled at Zuko, something more...
Mother hugged both her children tight, tickling their sides. "And so long as you believe you can, and practice, you both can accomplish anything!"
Peals of laughter burst from the children. Even Azula couldn't hold onto her bad mood for long when her Mother wanted her to smile.
"And you should always be able to trust and count on each other, right?" Their mother poked at them playfully, making them giggle.
Zuko grinned. "Right!"
A messenger had entered the room unnoticed by the trio. Now he cleared his throat. "Princess Ursa?"
Their mother looked up.
"I bring a message from Prince Ozai." He glanced at the children, looking uncomfortable. "He sends his regrets, but something has come up. He fears he will not be able to meet with you."
Mother frowned. "Did he mention what could be so important to take him away from his family?" Her voice was polite, but her words were clipped and cold.
Azula knew how angry she was. And not just by reading her expression, or the messenger's flinch as the ice of her tone shot back at him. She had overheard her parents arguing about it before.
The messenger averted his gaze, shifting his feet. "He didn't say, Princess, but..." He glanced around, as if expecting Ozai to hear. "The generals are currently sharing tea to discuss the events of the war council."
Azula expected her mother to shout in rage, like her father would, but she only looked sad.
Mother sighed. She stood, taking their hands in hers. "All right, children. We'll find something else to amuse ourselves."
A sharp rap at the door echoed through the metal cabin.
"Enter," Ozai called. The Phoenix King did not raise his voice, yet it managed to boom.
The door creaked open, and a soldier stepped through. He advanced only a few feet into the chamber, pausing some distance behind Azula to bend in a sweeping bow. "Your Majesty. The so-called Firelord Zuko has sent a messenger under the golden flag of truce."
A bark of laughter broke from Ozai, startling both messenger and princess. "And what does my wayward son say?"
"He wishes to meet, my lord, for negotiations. In exchange for the two men he suspects you hold captive, he offers invaluable information concerning your new venture."
Ozai laughed again, but this time it sounded vicious. "And what could he possibly know of this venture?"
The soldier balked, shrinking under those hot piercing eyes. "He did not say, Your Majesty, only that the Avatar has knowledge of which you may wish to be aware."
The throne knocked back against the wall as Ozai surged to his feet. Its heavy clunk against the metal joined his furious cry. "The Avatar?" He whirled on Azula. "You said he was not here!"
The crook of Azula's lips hitched up. "I said he appeared to be trapped in the Spirit World. Apparently he found a way out."
Ozai swept away, brows kneaded, temple pulsing. He turned from them, turning his scowl to the blank wall as his brain churned.
Azula's smile widened. She rose slowly, voice oozing like honey. "Is it such a chink in your armor, Father? After all, you have said yourself that the time has come. Isn't it too late for them to stop you?"
As he listened to his daughter's silken words, Ozai's shoulders began to relax. He turned back to them, the confident curve of his lips returned. "You're right, Azula. Once the passage is fixed in place, it will be too late for anyone –even the Avatar– to stop it."
A moment's pause settled over the room. The soldier glanced carefully from one to the other, ensuring their good mood, before speaking.
"Shall I send a reply, Your Majesty?"
Ozai turned his cold eyes on the soldier. "Oh, yes, lieutenant. I will indulge the Firelord. The meeting shall be in the forest, and he will come alone, just as I will."
"Alone?" Azula repeated.
The twisted smile on her father's face broadened. "Nearly, anyway."
The soldier dipped his head again. "Of course, Your Majesty." He rose to go, but Ozai called to him once more.
"Also send a message to Min. Tell her to open the passage as soon as possible. It is time we put an end to this."
Azula watched Zuko practice. He wasn't very good, she realized. Sure, he insisted that he would get better, and the teachers all heaped glowing admirations on him. But he'd been trying to master that form for two whole days. She could have done it by now.
Azula knew she was mostly just jealous. But she also knew what her brother was doing wrong. All afternoon, she watched Zuko practice the form in the courtyard. His reflection matched him step for step, dancing across the top of the pond. She watched, and studied his movements.
When Zuko tripped himself for the hundredth time, she heaved an exasperated sigh. "You've got it all wrong."
"I'd like to see you do better!" he snapped.
She perked up. The dum-dum actually had a good idea.
Zuko threw himself onto the grass. "Just leave me alone."
Azula tapped her chin, brain churning. How exactly should she go about this? "Zuzu–"
"Don't call me that!"
The little girl scowled. When she was annoyed or frustrated, she tended to get mean. But she held it back, because she figured starting off with 'Listen, dum-dum!' wouldn't get her what she wanted.
"If I could tell you what you're doing wrong," she said slowly, "Would you teach me some of the forms?"
Zuko frowned. "How would you know what I'm doing wrong?"
"Oh, I've been watching." Azula waved an airy hand. "I notice that you overstep."
Zuko sat up. "When?"
Azula pursed her lips. She ran through the moves in her head, and attempted to copy the one that gave him so much trouble. "Right here, you step too far." With an exaggerated step forward, she demonstrated the mistake. "It throws off your balance," she explained, completing the form in slow motion to demonstrate how he always tripped.
"Now watch," Azula ordered. Resuming the beginning stance, she took a smaller step, sliding easily into the next position, and finishing off the form as best she could remember with a final flourish. "Now you do it."
Watching his little sister, Zuko copied her movements. This time, he didn't fall. "You were right!" Starting again, he executed the entire form. It wasn't perfect, but he didn't trip. He stood in the finished position, grinning triumphantly.
Azula tried not to roll her eyes. After all, it was thanks to her he managed it at all. "Now will you teach me some other moves?"
The smile faded from his face. "I don't know, Azula..."
"But...but I helped you!"
"I know," he said. "But the masters say this is sacred. And you know you're not old enough yet."
Azula's eyes brimmed with tears. "You're just jealous! You're jealous because I figured out what you were doing wrong and you couldn't! Because I can do it and you can't!"
"No, I'm not," Zuko insisted, panicked by her shouts. "I'm glad you helped me. It's just...There must be a reason they won't let you start firebending yet."
Azula sat down hard, tears spilling down her cheeks. She began to sob.
Zuko knelt beside her. "Azula, please don't cry," he begged. "Please? I hate it when you cry."
Fat tears continued to trickle. She sniffed loudly. "But I was counting on you. Mother said we should always be able to count on each other." She looked up at him with big, watery eyes. Those would definitely sell it if Mom's words couldn't. "Didn't she?"
"Yes." Zuko's voice was small. He tugged at his tunic, confusion and guilt fighting for room in his expression.
"...I was counting on you," Azula repeated, with another hearty sniff.
Zuko sighed. "All right."
Eyes shimmering with hope, Azula gazed at him. "Really?"
Zuko nodded. "Come on, stand up."
Slowly she rose, wiping tears from her cheeks.
"Okay. Stand with your feet together like this..."
"What happened to your arm?" Ozai asked.
Azula scowled. He hadn't asked before now, and it had irritated her. Now, she didn't want to answer. They stood alone in the Forest, awaiting Zuko, only the sounds of afternoon to keep them company. She couldn't shake the feeling it was only his way of killing time.
She shot a sharp look at her father, but his back was turned. His expression hidden, she couldn't tell what he was thinking.
Tossing her head, she waved a dismissive hand. "It happened during my escape."
"Your brother struck you?" His tone was not harsh, but easy. Mocking? She wasn't sure.
"No! Zuko could never lay a finger on me." She smiled in satisfaction. "I did it myself."
Exasperation –perhaps a tinge of discomfort– clouded Ozai's brow. Another fit of her madness, then.
With her good arm, Azula held the golden cloth of truce even as she felt the eyes of her father's most skilled Loyal lying in wait among the foliage. Zuko would come, but he would not leave. The thought made her giggle.
"I thought you were coming alone."
She snapped her gaze up, the laughter falling from her throat. Firelord Zuko stood, several dozen paces off, flanked by Avatar Aang and Admiral Jeong Jeong. Azula grit her teeth at the sight of his comrades.
"You were to do the same," Ozai countered, his voice cold, devoid of emotion.
Zuko shrugged. "I don't trust you."
A dark chuckle slipped past Ozai's lips as they curved in a bitter smirk. "So you've learned some common sense." He spared a glance for Zuko's companions, a momentary flash of anger sparking in his eyes as they settled on the former deserter. "I would have caution against your admiral, Zuko; his loyalties are so fickle."
The Firelord ignored him, though Jeong Jeong met Ozai's glare with defiance. Instead, Zuko took in their surroundings. His eyes darkened. He turned his cold face on his father.
"Where are my men?"
Ozai chuckled. "Did you really think I would bring them here, Zuko? There was no guarantee you would not betray the vow of truce. You have already brought men with you when I said to come alone."
"So did you, Ozai," Aang retorted.
"The Phoenix King," Azula snapped, "Was given the right to arrange the meeting place and conditions the moment Zuzu sent his messenger." She bared her teeth at Aang in a triumphant grin. "It's proper war etiquette, Avatar."
"Your men are close by, Zuko," Ozai assured him. "First, I wish to know what you have to trade for them. This is, after all, a negotiation, and your message was less than explicit. I won't release them in return for nonsense."
He won't release them for anything. The thought popped into her head, and Azula couldn't suppress a giggle. Heads swiveled toward her, uncertain, scrutinizing. Her father alone did not look at her. She cursed herself, even as she clamped her lips over the laughter.
No one questioned her. As the mad sound petered out, their attention diverted back to Ozai. Poor Zuzu, noble and clueless as ever.
"What is this information you suppose could possibly interest me?" Ozai asked.
Zuko did not reply. Instead, dark eyes scowling, he turned to Aang.
"It's about Koh, Ozai," the Avatar said, stepping forward. "He can't give you what you want."
Azula's fists tightened. Her heart skipped a beat at the sound of his name, triggering a wave of panic in her chest. But how did the Avatar know? How much did he know?
The Phoenix King, however, betrayed nothing. "And what is it that I should want?" he asked, as though humoring a small child's imaginary game.
The natural buzz of forest activity seemed to die as the words touched the air, sinking the enormity of the simple statement into the consciousness of the earth itself.
Ozai only chuckled. "If you recall, Avatar, I attempted such a feat once before." His jaw tightened at the memory of his final showdown with the airbender child. "It proved impossible. Why would I be fool enough to undertake it again, when I have no power, no army?"
"Because you found a power stronger than your own," Zuko answered, stepping forward. "You knew about this place, about the Faceless, long before the Avatar ever returned. You realized that a creature of great power must be responsible. I know you; you have contingencies for every plan. When you found that first letter from Kaori about the Faceless, you probably did some digging around and when you learned that a spirit was responsible, you hid the evidence."
"For what purpose?" Ozai asked. "You speak of the workings of a lunatic."
This time, Aang answered. "Just in case. You already had some knowledge of dark arts exploiting the realms of the Spirit World, thanks to that woman Min. With the knowledge of at least one spirit, you hoped to keep a Pai Sho tile up your sleeve. If something went wrong, if all else failed, you thought there might be some way to reign in the power of the spirits to ensure your victory. That was why you had your own people secretly exploring the dark arts, isn't it? To gain greater power than the mortal world had ever seen? But you fell too far, too fast. You couldn't follow through with your backup plan, not immediately. It probably wasn't even ready. Did you even think you'd ever need it?"
Ozai snorted. "Obviously the lives of your men mean little to you, Zuko. This is nonsense."
"Perhaps you should tell that to Azula," Zuko replied. "Because the truth of it is written all over her face."
Ozai whirled on Azula. One look at her expression and rage seethed from between his teeth.
Her hands flew to her face. She couldn't have betrayed him. Her face was a mask of composure! Zuko spoke lies. Don't listen to him, Father. He's trying to corrupt your mind with nonsense. He wants to turn you against me, just as he tried to do with me. But her father turned from her in disgust.
"You shouldn't have brought her," Zuko said, locking eyes with his father. "She's slipping. Soon, she won't be any good to you."
Azula hissed. Her brother wouldn't even look at her. He tore her from their father's favor, and he would not even spare her a glance.
"Liar!" She lunged at him, fingers extended like claws, grappling for his neck.
Ozai anticipated the move. He extended an arm to catch her and, as she lay struggling against his strength, his glare met Zuko's. "You are a fool, Zuko. Azula is the only precious thing I have left."
The words startled Azula. She instantly stilled. Her hands clutched at her father's arm like an infant whose only trust in the wide, overwhelming world lay in its parent.
"My only remaining child," Ozai went on. "She alone has stood by me, and she alone receives my love." Their father caressed his daughter's cheek with a gentleness that surprised them all.
"Ignore him, my dear," Ozai urged, nudging her back. "You and I know he speaks blasphemy."
"Blasphemy..." Azula stared at her father, her eyes glazed and confused. She could not comprehend his words or actions. Had he not called her a fool? Had he not allowed the usurper to ascend her place at his ear? And yet...he loved her?
Her gaze snapped into focus. Instant calm regained control of her features and she stepped back, rage forgotten. "Of course, Father."
Ozai turned back to the Avatar. The smirk on his lips had faded, and his expression now was grave. No more toying, no more derision. "Very well, Avatar. Perhaps I have been pushing the limits of our knowledge. What of it? What information do you have that could possibly gain you the return of the Firelord's spies?"
"No," Zuko said. "I want to see them first. I want proof that they are alive."
"I am here for curiosity's sake only, Firelord Zuko," Ozai thundered. "But my curiosity will only serve you so far. I shall be content to leave now without ever knowing what your precious Avatar claims to have discovered, but I doubt you hold the same indifference as to the fate of your men. The upper hand belongs to me, Zuko, and so you shall play by my rules." The Phoenix King turned to Aang, his eyes blazing in righteous fury. "You will speak, and if I deem your information worthy, I shall release my prisoners."
Uncertain, Aang glanced toward Zuko. His friend's face twisted in an angry scowl. Jaw clenched, he gave a curt nod.
Aang took a deep breath. "A deal with Koh will bring you nothing, Ozai, nothing but chaos and destruction. Even if he promises to give you power, or to act on your orders, he won't. Joining the worlds together won't make you stronger, it will only disrupt the Balance, the very fabric of the universe. You need to stop this now, before it's too late."
A chill settled into the atmosphere. More than one person shivered. Azula even sensed the shudder of their soldiers, hidden out of sight.
But not Ozai. He laughed. "One cannot disrupt the Balance if there is no Balance, Avatar Aang."
Aang frowned. No Balance? Impossible. Maybe Azula's fall from sanity was a family trait.
"I know the truth, Avatar. By merging the worlds together, the Balance becomes useless. Unnecessary. It will cease to exist."
"That's not true!" Aang cried. "The Balance would be destroyed, there's a difference. Without the Balance, Chaos will reign and the worlds will shatter."
"And in the midst of chaos, people clamor for a strong ruler. In a time of terror and war, who better than a man such as myself? Who better than the Phoenix King to raise a broken world from the ashes into a glory it has never even dared to imagine?"
That was his plan? To raise the world from the ashes of Chaos? Aang reeled back. "You're insane! The Chaos won't just break the world. It will destroy it, and I guarantee it doesn't care about your big plans. Chaos will not be ruled."
Ozai shrugged. "I tire of this." He swept away from them. "Azula?"
Grinning, Azula cracked her knuckles. As the joints popped, lightning sparks sprang from her fingers, as though released from her very bones.
Rage boiled in Zuko's gut. So much for a truce. He watched his father retreat, and the rage burst out. "Coward! What about my soldiers?"
White flashed, cracking through the shadows of the forest. Ozai raised a dismissive hand. "Don't worry, Zuko. They'll die knowing how utterly you failed them."
Zuko lunged forward.
"Stop!" Aang tried to hold him back, but Zuko shook him away.
Azula's grin widened. Lightning roiled within her. Leveling her fingers at her dum-dum of a brother, she unfurled a streak of raw power. "Goodbye, Zuzu."
The lightning flashed from her fingertips. The atmosphere crackled with the current of intoxicating electricity. It tore through the air toward its target, and impaled Jeong Jeong as he thrust his own body as a shield between them.
Azula shrieked in fury as the lightning burned into his chest. Sparks spilled off the old man's fingertips, traveling across his teeth as he screamed.
"No!" Zuko sprang forward, pumping a torrent of flame through his fist.
The column of fire charged at Azula. She cut the last strands of lightning from her fingers as the heat of the flames bit at her knuckles. Her hands blistered. Azula pulled back, twisting out of reach with a somersault.
Feeling the heat recede, Azula caught herself, stumbling to one knee. She panted hard, surprised by the exertion. After this, she would have to treat herself to a little beauty rest.
Zuko paid her no attention now. He had caught the wounded Admiral in his arms as he fell and now spoke in his heedless ears, shook him, desperate for a response that wouldn't come.
Behind her echoed the sound of shifting armor. The hidden soldiers charged forward at the first sign of attack.
"Too easy," Azula muttered, frowning.
As the line of soldiers drew close, Aang leapt forward, summoning a maelstrom with his staff.
"Told you so." The Princess smirked even as the gale plowed into her. Unsuspecting soldiers flew through the air. A few, like Azula herself, scrabbled for a handhold, but even they were thrown back by the torrent. It grabbed at her hair, her clothes. Pain exploded in her wounded arm as the wind kicked and bruised her. Branches, brambles and dust pelted and blinded her as the deafening roar numbed her ears. She was tossed like a doll over the forest floor, bouncing down, picked back up, and thrust again until she finally rolled out of reach.
Somewhere past the shriek and whistle of the wind, she heard the Avatar's muffled cry. "Come on!"
Zuko taught Azula for nearly an hour. In that time, she managed to master every one of the beginning forms Zuko learned in his first two weeks of bending lessons.
"Wow, Azula, you're really good at this."
She heard the tinge of envy in his voice. If he got jealous, he might not be willing to teach her again. "Well, I have been watching you practice for a long time," she oozed, batting her eyelashes.
That made him smile.
"Okay," he said, "I'll show you this one harder move, and then we'd better stop. You can practice it by yourself, and then I'll try to teach you some more tomorrow."
Azula didn't want to stop. After all, Zuko spent hours every day learning his forms. But she knew she couldn't push him. If she tried, he might decide it wasn't worth teaching her anymore.
Zuko first demonstrated the form, then she followed his movements one by one to get the feel of it. She tried it on her own, but the timing was off. On her second try, she tried to remember every minor fault of her previous attempt and consciously compensated for them. Her execution was nearly perfect.
"Wow!" Zuko cried. "That was–"
They both whirled in surprise.
"Dad!" Zuko broke into a grin. "What are you doing here?"
"I noticed you practicing." Though Ozai's words were directed at his son, he never took his eyes from Azula. "I came to watch."
It occurred to Zuko that he might be in trouble. "I – I know Azula's not old enough to learn yet, Dad, but she felt–"
Ozai waved him away. "Do it again, Azula."
Azula swallowed back her nervousness. Her father's voice was soft, encouraging. He wanted her to learn. She repeated the form, and again her execution was almost perfect.
"Very impressive," Ozai said. His eyes ran over her, calculating. "Make a flame."
"But Dad," Zuko protested, stepping forward. He hadn't been able to actually produce a flame on his own until after several weeks of intense training, and that was after a month of learning theory and exercises. "She can't do that. I only just showed her those forms. She doesn't know how to–"
Again, Ozai waved his hand to silence his son. His eyes gleamed as they gazed into Azula's. "Do you know the concept behind firebending?"
Uncertain, Azula only nodded her head.
"Do you think you could make a flame?"
Azula considered. All through executing the forms, she had felt the fire there, tugging at her gut, begging to be released. Again, she nodded.
"Then do it."
Any novice firebender could not summon a flame at will. Because she had not yet learned how to navigate her chi paths, Azula decided to combine three of the easy forms to build up her energy. Her movement from one to the other was flawless. She didn't plan out where one form would end and another begin, she simply flowed with the rhythm of the steps. She felt where they could mesh, so she meshed them. Energy rose up within her, powerful but unreleased. How did she bring it out? She focused on it, the power in her gut filling her mind with thoughts of heat and flames, her feet dancing from one stance to the next. As she completed the last step, she punched out, forcing the energy to bend to her will.
A spurt of flame sparked from her fist. It was small –but it was fire.
Azula stood for a moment, staring. Even after it had faded, she could not avert her gaze. Panting heavily, fatigue clawing through her insides, only one thought bounced through her head. I did it. I controlled the fire. I'm a firebender!
"Amazing," Ozai breathed.
Zuko glanced from one to the other. "Wh-what does that mean, Dad?"
For the first time, Ozai looked at him, a genuine smile on his face. "It means your sister will begin her bending lessons soon."
Bent double and breathing hard, Azula jumped upright at his words. "Really?"
Ozai turned his smile to her. And Azula noticed that there was something different about it. There was something in that smile that hadn't been there when he looked at Zuko. Something more.
"Yes, child." Their father held out a hand to her. "Come with me. We'll speak to the bending masters now."
Jealousy sparked in Zuko's eyes even as tears welled in them. He bit his lip, fighting them back, but that did not keep Azula from noticing. This was the first time in a long time they had spoken with their father and he'd barely noticed Zuko.
A smirk twisted Azula's lips. Now you know how I feel, dum-dum.
Smiling back at her father, she took his hand and followed him out of the courtyard, leaving Zuko alone with his tears.
Azula tucked her head under her arm, lying as close to the ground as possible. The wind whipped over her, and she did not rise until it had completely died.
When she finally lifted her head, her brother and his friends were gone.
She giggled. It didn't matter. Soon, they would either be dead or so helpless they might as well be.
And besides. She was her father's prize.
- This is an 'Azula Alone'-type chapter but, since she isn't technically 'alone', I decided to go with a different title.
- These flashbacks are set a few years after the one seen in chapter 22, , when Zuko and Azula had grown a little more into their personalities.
- Oddly enough, these flashbacks were those originally intended for , but then I realized this Azula-centric chapter was in Air's future, and I knew it was a better place for them.
- I've always been compelled by Azula's back story. What makes her the way she is? Obviously she's got some mental instabilities, but even when Ursa –a truly loving mother– was around, Azula was far from an angel. I decided to explore a little more into what exactly made Azula the way she is, and I think this is a pretty decent representation of it, if I do say so myself.
For the collective works of the author, go here.