She was woken up by the sounds of movement outside her door. Her breath froze for a full minute, until she was assured that there was no immediate threat. Probably Father getting up in the middle of the night again. Nothing unusual.
She had been tense for a very long time. Her paranoia, she felt, was entirely justified.
She hadn't been wary until her thirteenth birthday. That year had held three very important events for her. The first had been her official naming as a Master, the youngest girl to achieve that status in years. Her brother, of course, had been incensed. She had replied to his jealousy with a few amusing comments, which of course he had to take personally. She sometimes despaired of her brother's thinness of skin.
The second had been her father's abrupt decision that she no longer needed to attend the Royal Fire Academy for Girls. At the time, she had haughtily assumed that now she was a firebending Master, she no longer needed any further education.
The third had been the betrothal and subsequent disappearance of one of her closest friends. That had been unexpected, and unpleasant. She had always known the girl was flighty, but for her to just up and vanish with no more than a hurried 'goodbye' had been startling.
Something had not sat right about her friend's disappearance, but she had not done anything about it until almost two years later.
Her (only) other best friend was the daughter of a retired Colonel turned politician. Things had been going well for him in court, and he was next in line to become Lord of the Southern Colonies.
Of course, that was before he had been arrested as a traitor, put on a trial so one sided even her brother could tell that it was just for show, and executed. His wife, fearful for what she knew was only a matter of time, begged her daughter take her baby brother and run, far away, as far as she could. And she had always been a dutiful daughter.
And so, just at an age where Azula had begun to be a political entity of note, she found herself alone, bereft of any potential allies, and cut off from anywhere she could garner more. Living in the Palace, the only people she encountered were ones the Fire Lord had vetted as suitable.
This was no coincidence, but Azula did not know how to deal with it.
The sun was on the lip of the horizon, and Azula basked in it, breathing deep as she felt her strength renewed. Sleep eluded her most nights, so she took whatever energy she could get.
“I don't see how this is supposed to help.”
Azula sighed. Zuko never had the patience for meditation, and she supposed it was a hopeless endeavour to try and teach him any more.
The two of them were alone in the courtyard. Azula had, correctly, assumed that Zuko would better stand the humiliation (in his eyes, anyway) of being taught anything by his little sister if there were no witnesses.
Six months ago, the Fire Lord had begun spending more time with her brother. At first, she had assumed that it was because he was the only direct heir to the throne. But when he came back from these long talks they had more wary of her than when he left, Azula understood.
And she began to fight back. It had been almost reflexive- a sudden, snap decision, taken without any real knowledge of what she was fighting for as much as what she was fighting against. A small and secret war was fought over her brother's favour. Azula would not let the Fire Lord take her last ally.
It started with a scaling back of the (from her point of view) harmless torments that she inflicted, mostly to amuse herself. It had occurred to her that her brother lacked a sense of humour, and as such might not appreciate her constant barbs. This had proved effective enough, but it still wasn't enough. Her opponent was intelligent and powerfully charismatic. She needed an edge.
So she began to talk to her brother more often. Little things, such as how he was feeling, what her day had been like. Just building up a rapport (and she didn't notice how it was slowly filling a hole in her chest), a carefully orchestrated campaign with one goal in mind- she needed her brother to trust her. (She never realised that trust works both ways.)
Then, two weeks ago, she initiated the coup de grace, the final victory. She offered to teach her brother how to generate lightning.
And just like that, the battle for Zuko's soul was won. Too easy.
Now, however, she actually had to follow through on her generous offer, and she was starting to wonder if it was really worth it. It was no secret that the instructors that had taught the siblings firebending had determined early on that Zuko showed little promise, but Azula had never believed that. After all, his father was widely renowned as one of the greatest firebenders in the world, and of course, her talents were far from modest, so if there was anything he should have it would be natural aptitude. However, she was starting to see that Zuko just wasn't a natural. He would only ever really improve through rigorous practice, and that wasn't something he was about to commit to.
“I told you, Zuko. If you're going to generate lightning, you need to be calm. Meditation should help you achieve the right balance.”
Zuko said nothing in response, only closing his eyes and exhaling deeply. He was sitting, cross-legged, in the centre of the grass, while Azula reclined on a stone seat on the path.
She gave him five minutes. Earlier, she might have given him longer, but she had learned that if he was going to manage meditation, it would be almost immediately or not at all.
She picked up a small stone, and tossed it towards his head. He leant slightly to his left, causing the stone to miss him.
...Today was the latter.
“You aren't concentrating,” Azula chided.
“I'm just that good,” Zuko, eyes still closed, replied, in his low voice, with just a hint of a smile.
“You aren't good at anything, Zuko.”
“You wound me,” he riposted. “I'll have you know I make an exceptional fruit flan.”
Azula blinked, somewhat nonplussed by that, unsure whether or not he was being serious and boasting (in which case some serious questions would have to be asked later) or was exercising his underused sense of humour. Either way, it was too early for this, power of the sun or no.
Still, a reply was expected of her.
“You make an exceptional target, that's what you make,” she grumbled, her head lying back against the stone armrest, her feet propped up against the other end.
“What's that" Is Azula's fabled wit failing her at long last"” Zuko asked, gloating.
“Oh, shut up.”
Zuko smirked, but Azula resisted the temptation to rise to his challenge. After all, she didn't want to alienate Zuko. Better to let him think that he had got one over on her, in the long run. Even if it was galling to let him go on thinking that he had won. She hated it when people went around with misconceptions.
Of course, Zuko held a great many misconceptions, most far more important than that one. Soon, she would have to find some way to free him from them.
A few more minutes passed in silence, while Zuko presumably meditated and Azula tried to prevent herself from dozing off. Eventually, she decided that enough was enough, as people would be moving about soon.
“I believe that is enough for today,” Azula announced, and Zuko opened his eyes.
“I want to give it a try,” he insisted. Azula shook her head.
“Not today. Perhaps tomorrow.”
“I'm going to try,” he said, like Azula hadn't spoken at all, and stood. Azula bit back her reply in response to his rudeness- how dare he act as if she was inconsequential"- instead retreating to a safe distance as he stretched.
He was going to blow himself up again. Then he would find some way of proving that it wasn't his fault, and sulk for the rest of the day. Azula despaired of her older and ostensibly more mature brother, sometimes. Perhaps Mother had dropped him on his head as a child, and her doting now was an attempt to make it up to him.
It was an attractive explanation, actually. But, on reflection, altogether too neat to be true, unfortunately.
Azula watched with lidded disinterest as Zuko began to go through the motions, his arms swinging in close circles. Sparks were raised, but he had managed that before, and the only result had been an explosion that had catapulted him clean across the courtyard.
It might have seemed amusing, to watch Zuko's failure after failure, and it was, the first few times. But, as the days wore on, and he responded to each miserable failure with a growing delusion that the next time would be the one that he managed it, that if he tried just one more time, he would pull it off, Azula had to fight down a feeling of almost revulsion. It was pathetic.
A flash of light shattered her thoughts. The sky split. The air roared.
And beneath it was Zuko, staring at his hands with a disbelieving half-grin on his face.
That... was unexpected. But good.
She should really say something. Ensure that he remembered exactly who had helped him achieve adequacy.
Before she could think of anything appropriately congratulatory that didn't contradict her stated need to tear Zuko down at every chance she got, she was interrupted.
Clapping filled the air, warm and genuine, and a shadow peeled away from one of the walls.
“Most impressive, Prince Zuko.”
Azula froze, as if caught in the middle of some heinous act. Slowly, she forced her muscles to relax, and turned around.
Oh Spirits, Zuko actually sounded pleased to see him. She turned to be sure, and yes, he was sporting a big, stupid smile. She imagined that small beasts sported similar looks, following the head-light of the angler-leopard.
“I was just preparing for a morning stroll, when I heard talking,”, he elaborated. “I have to compliment your form, Prince Zuko,” he continued, stepping oh so subtly forward, beginning to position himself between the siblings.
Azula was having none of it.
“Well, he has been practising. It would be a bad sign if he couldn't at least get the part where he had to stand still correct,” she said, forcing her Uncle to acknowledge her, at least.
“So your sister has been helping you"” he asked Zuko, who nodded, seemingly oblivious of the way his sister was being snubbed. “Ah, such harmony is a wonderful thing to behold, and the fruits are obvious to all.”
Azula bit her tongue. It was hard to bear when he acted this way, but bear it she would.
He smiled at her, indulgently, his golden eyes glaring, and she felt she almost preferred being ignored. “You will have to forgive me, Niece, but I am old, and my mind wanders, and my tongue follows at times.”
Old" He barely had twenty years on his brother. Everything about this man was a sham, a façade, a man in his late fifties miming senility.
“But, I find my props. Tea stimulates the mind, and calms the senses. In fact, I am on my way to have some at this moment. Would you both care to join me"”
The world slowed. Azula's eyes flicked to the right, past the stocky figure, to where her brother looked to be about to speak.
He was going to accept.
“Some other day, perhaps,” she snapped, cutting across her brother. “We have many things to attend to.” A transparent lie, at the very best. Their lessons would not begin until the afternoon, and they had no other duties. But she was banking on the fact that it would be rude to point out how rude she was being, and moved towards her brother, brushing past her adversary in an attempt to show how flustered she wasn't.
“We beg your leave,” she said, following such protocol as she had to. “Come, Zuko.” Baffled, the boy followed, leaving their uncle alone in the garden with the flowers.
“Azula-” Zuko began, as soon as the two were safely away, back in their wing of the palace. She cut him off. It was time to explain a few things, for his- and her- own safety.
“Zuko, I think this has gone on long enough. You don't seem to understand that he's dangerous. Ever since-”
“I've heard this before, Azula, and I don't believe it. He's family. He wouldn't do anything that would hurt us.”
“Stop being so naïve, Zuko,” Azula hissed, angry. “He's not interested in family, not since Ba Sing Se, and you know it. He's out for what he can get, and if we get in the way...” she let the sentence hang, but Zuko violently shook his head, ponytail thrashing.
“No. I don't believe you, Azula. You're jumping at shadows, seeing plots where there aren't any.” He stepped away, frustrated almost to anger by the paranoia of his sister. “I'll see you later.”
And just like that, Azula was left alone.
The rest of the day was quiet for Azula. It had been Zuko's day, and he was still not entirely prepared to talk to her, but she was prepared to give him a day. Mother had been ecstatic when Zuko had demonstrated his new ability, but the one thing that really hit home for him was Father. Father had seemed proud of Zuko's abilities, for possibly the first time.
Zuko had never shown aptitude in any of the subjects Father considered important. His firebending was average. His enthusiasm for military history was non-existent. His diplomatic abilities were a joke. All this displeased Father, naturally, and Zuko had struggled with the weight of failed expectations for a long time.
So Azula let him have his day, content to lurk in the background. She was only glad Uncle had been called away by urgent business, and wasn't here to spoil things.
Later, she had been able to talk with Father. She relished their conversations, all the more these days for their rarity. He always brought interesting news of the war, or of what was happening in the Fire Nation at large. But their conversation today had troubled her. He had seemed... distant. Almost distracted. When she had inquired whether or not there was some news that was troubling him, he had almost certainly lied.
Strange. He was usually up front with her.
No matter. Either it was unimportant, or he would deal with it himself, or tell her in due time. Father was one of the few people she was able to trust completely.
People called her Uncle charming, charismatic. She couldn't understand it. He was an actor, and a fine one, but surely people had to know that he was acting" He was convincing, it was true, but surely people had to know that he wasn't sincere.
He drew people in, that was what he did. Physically, he didn't seem to be very imposing, a short man with a wide, smiling face, he wore spacious robes to conceal his physique. He portrayed a man unwilling to make enemies, a man ready to listen and to talk. And when you were drawn in, if you turned against him, tried to struggle against your imprisonment, the jaws closed. And then he had the audacity to act betrayed.
It frustrated Azula no end. Why, why were people drawn in by this man" His mask was ill-fitting, and it confused her to the point of anger trying to understand why he still wore it at all. Because behind it all, behind the façade of the jolly uncle, the tea-drinking, wise old man, were his eyes. He couldn't hide his eyes.
Azula looked into the eyes of the Fire Lord, and saw nothing but blood.