Azula Alone

Azula had always risen with the sun. For as long as she could remember, she'd felt it rising over the horizon, the heat racing through her veins before she even opened her eyes. That first surge of power was intoxicating and she reveled in it. She welcomed each new day with a smile and she welcomed this particular day with a big one.

Throwing back her covers—formerly the Earth King's covers—she padded to the wash basin and splashed some water on her face. Even as she went through her morning routine, her mind was racing with what had to be done that day. The Fire Nation ships were arriving later that morning, unless the pesky Water Tribe peasants held them up longer than expected, and she had to secure the city before their arrival. The last thing they needed was a riot within the walls and a battle ruining a perfectly good city for her to rule.

With the same efficiency she used in everything else, Azula dressed herself and fastened her armor. She hated having maids help her dress because they took too long with their fussing and straightening. Smirking, she remembered that Zuko took the opposing view, using up an almost obscene amount of time to put his on. It was a good thing she hadn't offered any for him to wear. He wasn't quite ready for it yet anyway and she made a mental note to tell him that he looked great in Earth Kingdom colors.

Her brother was just as malleable and temperamental as she remembered. He would be even easier to control now that their Uncle was out of the way. It was a shame she wasn't the firstborn child because then, she doubted he would have been this much of an annoyance. Zuko would fall in line, as he always did, but with less pomp and circumstance, and everyone would be happy. At least this whole episode got her out of the Fire Nation for a little while and away from her handlers and so-called councilors. And she managed to take down the Earth Kingdom while she was at it.

Azula was sure her father would be more than a little pleased that she managed to capture the two traitors and Ba Sing Se in a day. If that wasn't enough to convince him that she was the Fire Nation's rightful heir...well he would find out the hard way if she didn't get what she deserved. She enjoyed being alone at the top and she was good at it. It only took her a few days to convince the Dai Li to switch loyalties and it will take her less than a day to bring Ba Sing Se under her absolute rule.

There would be no one outranking her, no one to give her orders, and the thought made her grin. Even her father had to listen to his councilors and his generals, but she alone would be making the decisions here. All she needed to do was make sure Zuko didn't step out of line but she knew how to play her brother. She'd been doing it for years.

Zuko was already in the Earth King's personal study when she entered, sitting behind the desk and in a direct shaft of sunlight. He would have made a dramatic picture if he didn't look so...scruffy. His shaggy hair was in disarray and he sat slouched on the desk chair, one elbow propped up on the arm and his chin resting in his hand. His breakfast sat in front of him, the plate still full, though she could see by the way the food had been worried, he'd given it a try. He hadn't even touched the now cold cup of tea sitting near his left hand.

Although the reason for that may have been more than a loss of appetite.

Azula studied his worn face and deduced that he barely got any sleep the night before. That was to be expected. She was sure he was fraught with guilt and worry about their uncle. She never did understand his attachment to the old man, but then again, no one else had volunteered to join him in exile. She supposed she would have been a little fond of Iroh as well...if she'd been the one stupid enough to get exiled in the first place. She started to ask what was wrong—more out of curiosity than any real concern for his health—but he beat her to the punch.

"Uncle escaped," he said without looking at her.

"And how did he manage that, Zuko?"

Azula's eyes gleamed dangerously and her hands curled into fists when he didn't answer. With measured strides, she went to stand in front of her brother and she glowered down at him. Zuko avoided her gaze but didn't seem the least bit concerned that he was close to getting a bolt of lightning shot at his head.

"You tell me, Azula," he replied idly, his tone slightly mocking. "You're the brains here so why don't you figure it out and let me know."

His eyes flickered up at her and she was startled to find steel in his gaze. He was looking up at her and she looking down, but Azula got the impression that it was really the other way around. One side of his mouth curved upward, his expression was arrogant as he challenged her. She saw then that his demeanor had been an act. He hadn't been lost in his thoughts when she'd entered the study, hadn't been sulking or wallowing in guilt—he'd been waiting. For her.

"While you puzzle it out, I think I'm going to get started securing Ba Sing Se," he said. "There are too many Earthbenders walking around in this city who can make things a little difficult for us."

"As impressive as your army of one is, I don't think you'll be able to lockdown an entire city on your own."

"I had a little talk with the Dai Li this morning," he said, rising from his seat with a lazy grace. "Some will be accompanying me to the lower rings while a few will stay here to ensure the security of the palace."

"The Dai Li don't answer to you."

"Fear and intimidation are your weapons, but I've got a few of my own."

Zuko swept past her, his poorly made Earth Kingdom robes making a racket but his footsteps were silent. There was no mistaking the determination in his face and seeing it there irritated Azula to no end. She sucked in a breath through her teeth and closed her eyes. She thought she'd planned it all out, but this side of Zuko was one she hadn't expected. She'd been able to handle his temper tantrums and his clumsy attempts at political strategy, because underneath it all had been a yawning chasm where his confidence should have been. Apparently, he'd managed to fill it since the last time they'd met. False bravado or not, she didn't have time to pander to his delusions.

There was no room at the top for two leaders. Adjustments would have to be made. Azula worked best alone and if she had to dispose of her brother, then she was willing to make those sacrifices.