Azula woke late the next morning. A deplorable habit, but one she was having trouble resisting.
She had spent some time musing on the meaning behind the events of last night, and had arrived at what she believed was a satisfactory theory. Father, who had clearly grasped the fact that he would make a far superior Fire Lord- an opinion Azula had held for some time now- was in fact preparing to make this a reality, and was planning to leverage the recent defeat in the North as an excuse to challenge his brother to an Agni-Kai. However, his deceitful brother had got wind of this, and since there was no legal way he could prevent the challenge being issued, he sought to eliminate his brother before he could be deposed. Father, being of course aware of this, was simply retreating, to prepare for the duel in safety. And he had entrusted her to hold the fort here.
Azula couldn't repress a small smile. Finally, things were starting to go her way.
Her good humour didn't last long.
Some people, like one of the absent friends she hardly thought about at all, claimed that if enough people were in a particular mood in the same building, then it would hover around in the air and pass itself on, like some kind of disease, or something. Azula would readily confess that she had never listened to such people, and as such might have gotten a couple of the fine details of their insane fantasies wrong.
So she ignored the creeping feeling along the back of her spine, writing it off as a result of sleeping for too long.
“Where is everyone"”
To her disgust, it had transpired that she had woken up well after noon. It was now late afternoon.
She had not seen another person in all that time. Oh, there had been the occasional servant, unobtrusively scurrying away, but no one she could talk to.
She was starting to get concerned. And angry.
Once she started to look, she was certain the servants were avoiding her. In fact, more than one had outright fled. Why"
Certainly, she had never particularly endeared herself to any of them- they were servants, for crying out loud- but they had a duty to, well, serve. And she was certain she would have remembered any instructions she had issued that could be interpreted as 'avoid me as much as you possibly can.'
So the only possibility that remained was that someone else had issued such an order.
Unlikely. She couldn't see the point.
Yes, it must be Zuko.
She was going to find him- wherever he was hiding- and make him stop this nonsense.
She found him in his room.
He was sitting on his bed, staring at the wall.
If Azula had been in the mood to notice fine details, she might have done things rather differently. She wasn't, and she didn't, so she didn't.
“Zuko, what in the name of Agni and all his servants is happening around here"”
He turned, slowly, mechanically, towards her and she saw his eyes were raw.
“Zuko, what on-”
He slammed into her, knocking the wind clean out of her, and locked his arms behind her back. She struggled, but it was no use.
He started shaking. It took Azula valuable seconds to realise he was crying.
“Zuko. What. Is. Happening"”
He told her.
His answer tore the world into shreds.
Time had passed, like sand through a clenched fist. The sun was setting.
Azula did not cry.
The timid creature, lost and alone, huddled on her bed, eyes clenched shut, was not Azula. Azula was strong, self assured, in control. Azula was a poised and balanced figure, and her head ruled her heart. Azula did not bend, did not break. Azula did not cry.
The girl, her jaw forced into a silent sob, clutching at her forehead as if to plunge her fingers into her brain and tear out the hurt, was not Azula.
She was not the wretched thing, howling in the dark like a dragon in a trap. How could she be" After all, she was Azula, and Azula was strong, self-assured, brilliant. She never let her emotions rule her. She was untouchable, and she was everything her father wished for in a daughter.
She was Azula.
But she cried anyway.
Night had fallen.
Azula was drifting, lost on a sea of exhaustion. She had long since lost track of what time it was.
She was feeling... calm. Like she was floating, somehow. And although she knew in the back of her mind that the storm clouds were circling her, she ignored them, and focused on the immediacies. It helped.
She was dehydrated.
Perhaps she would ring the bell, and summon a servant to get her some water.
Or she could go and get some herself.
That sounded novel.
The palace kitchens.
She was not sure she had ever been here before.
Her new surroundings kept her occupied. It was oddly dingy, when compared to the rest of the palace.
She spent ten minutes finding a cup, and another twelve trying to figure out which of the enormous barrels was the water butt. None of them were labelled in any way she could recognise, and she was unwilling to take a chance.
She was swinging before she knew it, her fist clenched and arm pumping entirely on reflex, the storm clouds crashing down as blind formless rage
She stopped herself just in time.
She had been crying, that much was obvious. But she still held herself tall. Her composure was cracked and crumbling, but it had been propped up again.
This was lost on Azula. Her mother had not been a factor in anything for a long time. She was out of practice, could no longer read her as well as she aught.
“So, Azula, what are you doing up"” Mother asked.
Azula lifted her cup, before realising that was hardly an adequate response.
“I was getting some water,” she explained. She was startled by how much her voice croaked.
“Oh. I see. Well, that sounds like a good idea. Perhaps I shall have one.” Mother busied herself with finding the cups.
Azula turned back around, and didn't respond until she heard the sound of shattered glass.
Azula had expected crying. She hadn't expected Mother to give a strangled cry of anger, pick up the stool she had bumped in to, and violently smash it to pieces on the floor.
“Azula. Forgive me, I am... not myself,” she said, visibly winding down.
Azula couldn't help but nod.
“I- I understand, Mother.”
And with those words, Ursa sagged, closing her eyes softly as she slumped against the counter.
She looked utterly, completely defeated.
Protect your mother while I am gone. Your brother, too.
This looked like a good place to start.
Azula paused for a few moments, then picked up the largest fragments of broken glass off the floor and placed them on the counter. Not much, but it was the best she could think of at the moment.
“Azula" What are you doing" Are you... tidying"”
“Is there something wrong with that, Mother"”
Ursa had a faint smile on her face.
“You haven't tidied up after anyone since you were six years old.”
“Thank you, Mother. I shall bear that in mind.”
“Oh, Azula,” Mother said, before standing up.
Another hug, this one desperate, and possessive. Azula found herself clutching back, out of some desperate fear she couldn't define.
“I love you, Azula. Never forget that.”
Azula didn't know quite what to say. So she stayed quiet.
It was easier than thinking, anyway.
Suddenly, there was an indistinct noise from outside the kitchen. Ursa whirled, snatching up a kitchen knife, and brandishing it inexpertly but earnestly at the door.
The shuffling of footsteps moved on. But it had been enough to force Ursa to a decision.
Azula was surprised by the sudden change in her Mother. Ursa stood straighter, and her eyes held the spark of purpose.
“Azula, pack whatever you can't part with. I'll get your brother. We are leaving. Now.”
This was insane. Truly and utterly insane.
Except... it wasn't at all. They weren't safe here.
Azula grabbed a bag and hurled a few sets of clothes into it.
If she had been given a few hours more, she might have begun to process what had happened. Perhaps then she would have been harder to persuade that retreat was the best choice. But she was off-balance.
She changed quickly, into plainer clothes.
The palace wasn't home any more- it had been stained black. She had to keep what remained of her family safe. She had made a promise, and she would keep it, not matter the cost. Those were the thoughts rattling disjointedly through her brain as she packed.
She pulled the headpiece out of her hair, letting it flow free.
She looked at the ornament for a long while.
It had been a present from Father, last year.
She blinked hard, and violently threw the headpiece into her bag, before slinging it over her shoulder and slipping out the door.
There wasn't any talking as they left the palace, through the tradesman's entrance. All of them avoided eye contact with each other. None of them wanted to think they were doing this alone, but none of them wanted to see who was missing.
Azula reckoned it to be about three in the morning.
There were guards, but not many, in the palace grounds, and they were easy enough to avoid. Until they got to one of the outer gates.
Two men were stationed there at all times.
Certainly, they could simply walk out- after all, they were not prisoners (yet, at any rate). But they would remember. Nor could they simply attack the guards. Stealth was out of the question, and they were fast running out of time to go and find another route.
This could prove problematic.
She was just about to suggest they try another route- anything to get out of this shadow the three were lurking in- when there was the low rumble of a sliding door being pulled back, and a figure stepped out into the night.
They held their breath as the figure- fairly tall, well built, stout- walked purposefully over to the gate that was their exit.
“State your business,” one of the guards challenged, disinterestedly. “Oh, it's you, Lee. Well, I guess I can-”
Azula was surprised when the man responded by hitting the guard over the head with some kind of weapon.
The servant appeared to be wielding a stick of some kind, perhaps two feet long. He certainly knew that he was doing- his first blow stunned the guard, and while the second hurried up to restrain him, he caught him in a swing that, even from her vantage point several metres away, Azula could see had loosened teeth.
The fight was surprisingly one-sided. It appeared that neither of the guards were really prepared to use lethal force on a man who was known to at least one of them, and the man knew it. By the time either of them was in a position to seriously firebend, the fight was over.
The man stood still for a while, rolling his shoulder.
“My Lady, you can come out now.”
Azula, Ursa and Zuko all exchanged confused glances. With a shrug, Ursa stepped out of the shadows. Her children followed.
Azula, now she had a better look at the man, thought she might have recognised him as someone's under-butler. He was carrying a poker, now severely bent out of shape.
“Who are you"” Zuko demanded.
“My name is Fat, young Master. I understand you are in need of transportation. I took the liberty of preparing a carriage, and parking it outside, should you wish to make use of it.”
“Why should we trust you"” Zuko asked.
“Why, no reason at all.” He seemed to pause. “No, actually that is incorrect. There are several good reasons why you should trust me, but none of them can be related in the detail they deserve here and now. I suggest we retire to the carriage, and I shall explain everything once we are clear of the city.”
Ursa looked up.
“Very well, Fat. And thank you.”
The man shook his head sadly.
“You may wish to reserve thanks, my Lady. At least until everything has been explained.”
Azula was too tired to make sense of this man and his cryptic statements. She was too tired to protest that they were putting their lives in the hands of a man whose only interaction with them had been on the serving end of a cool drink, and she was too tired to do anything but follow.
The carriage was nice, but not nice enough to draw attention. Two ostrich-horses pulled it, and Fat climbed heavily into the driver's seat. Azula was first into the carriage, checking it for threats.
Once she had determined that there were no assassins hiding under the seat cushions, she collapsed onto the seat and let the darkness claim her.