The Tale of Azula
Azula sat up in her sleeping roll, blinking her eyes at the light that managed to make its way from the cave's opening. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and fought back a wave of nausea. Her insides still felt as though they'd been fried and almost made her pity the people she'd shot lightning at once upon a time. Almost. Despite getting a decent amount of sleep, she still felt a weariness in her bones that she knew would not disappear until she was in a place safe enough for her to truly relax.
Wherever that was.
From the color of the sunlight and the bite in the air, she guessed that it was a few minutes past sunrise, a few minutes later than the time she usually rose. With slow but efficient movements, she put away her bedding. She tucked a strand of loose hair behind her ear, wincing when she felt a twinge of pain under her ribcage from the simple movement.
She went outside, greeted the rising sun with a reverent bow and sat down. She put her hands on her knees, palms up, and two small flames flickered to life there. When she inhaled, the fires grew, moving as one; when she exhaled, they shrank. She closed her ears to the sounds around her, instead focusing her concentration on the thoughts crowding her mind and she went through the daily task of sorting through them.
It had been three weeks since she'd fled the Fire Nation, the only home she'd ever known. The plan she'd been building had fallen apart before her very eyes, but she regretted nothing. She'd moved at the right time and as a result, her brother was probably at his most vulnerable. From what she'd managed to learn, he was having trouble controlling his court and the councilors jostling for power had taken their battles to the populace. The people were divided over who to support and let their voices be heard. Azula imagined that she had left a large hole in the power structure and acolytes were scrambling to fill it. The councilors she'd controlled were now free to challenge the Fire Lord and did so. It gave Azula some measure of satisfaction to know that her brother had his hands full and was learning the hard way what life was like without her help.
But, she had to tell herself, it wasn't personal.
Azula tended to look at situations in the macro view, rather than the micro, and in her opinion, Zuko had done all he could for the Fire Nation. He had done his part for their country, but it was time for someone else to take the helm and steer them along the appropriate course. It was time to make way for a new point of view. While her brother might not be too happy about being deposed, the Fire Nation would benefit under her leadership. Some had to suffer in order for others to succeed. It was the was the way of the world, as difficult as that truth was to understand.
Azula had always understood it and that knowledge gave her the power and strength to do the things she did. Zuko knew that about her which was why he made her his hammer. For a time it had been enough. She'd managed to find small amounts of satisfaction in her work and enjoyed occasionally rattling Zuko's cage by pointing out that he was ill-suited for work that got his hands dirty. For a time, she'd been content.
Yet, all the while, she moved the pieces on her chessboard and waited for the right time. She hadn't been able to ignore the opportunities presented to her, any more than she could ignore her brother's inability to rule the way their family had for generations. Zuko was more a soft-touch than he cared to admit and while Azula recognized the benefits of a peaceful world, she didn't see any reason for the Fire Nation to kowtow to the lesser kingdoms to achieve it.
The Water Tribe peasants didn't need special trade agreements and the Earth Kingdom didn't need to send their scholars to the most prestigious universities in the Fire Nation and vice versa. All they needed to do was co-exist. To Azula, the way Zuko had opened up their borders dishonored the Fire Nation's ancient culture. They'd survived other wars, a long ago invasion by the Earth Kingdom, and retained their beliefs and traditions. By all rights, their culture should remain pure and untouched. It angered her to see new houses being built in the Earth Kingdom style or art nearly a thousand years old being lent to some museum in the North Pole. If people wanted to see Fire Nation artifacts, they could go to the Fire Nation to see it. Peace was well and good but it wasn't necessary to blur the borders between the nations to achieve it.
Her brother's decisions made Azula feel righteous about her own. She'd timed her actions correctly, just after Zuko had accepted the first group of Water Tribe exchange students into the Royal Fire Nation University. The backlash was quick and sharp and Zuko's hands had been tied. She'd heard the murmurs of others who felt the same as she did and with only a few words, gathered them to her. She'd let her opinion be known without actually voicing dissension, but the court had recognized that brother and sister represented two opposing views on how the Fire Nation should be run. What surprised Azula was that Zuko hadn't banished her to the poles or to the desert as he was wont to do with dissenters. He'd known that to do so would make her more influential. She had to give him credit for actually trying to beat her at her own game.
His marriage to the Water Tribe girl had been a shock to her and a clever move—the fact that he'd been capable of uniting the Fire Nation to the Water Tribe at that level told Azula that Zuko heard the clock ticking on their fragile relationship as loudly as she did. As always, she had kept her eyes and ears open for anything she could use to her advantage. There'd been a number of clashes between Zuko and his new wife that had Azula briefly entertaining the notion that perhaps the Waterbender would do her job for her. The last thing she'd expected was for them to find common ground and, worse yet, actually like each other. The moment Azula had sensed something more between them, she'd realized it was time to go forward with her endgame.
Having laid down the groundwork years before, it had been only a matter of sending a message to the man she'd saved long ago. Jet had been broken in body and in soul when she'd found him but he'd resisted her the first few months of his recovery. She could have easily disposed of him, but even back then, her fourteen year old brain had recognized the advantages of having her own dark soldier. She'd appreciated having Mai and Ty Lee as her own personal army but it didn't hurt to have one more failsafe.
Azula knew how to be patient when the situation called for it. She'd shown Jet kindness, nursed him with her own two hands because no one else was to know that he was in her possession. She'd watched the distrust in his eyes slowly fade away until he looked at her with more curiosity than anger. After that point, it hadn't been difficult for her to convince him to play the role she'd set out for him. It had been only a matter of convincing Jet that working with her didn't mean he was working with the Fire Nation.
Of course, that statement had needed a padding of lies about her motivations and nearly epic stories of how her family, especially Zuko, had wronged her. Jet had proved to be just as easy to manipulate as Zuko, his emotions as close to the surface as her brother's. When she'd been satisfied that he understood what she needed of him, she'd set him free, only opening up the lines of communication when she'd needed to make sure he still knew what was expected of him. And when it had been time to call on him, he came.
For someone known for control, Azula had reveled in the chaos she'd created. Watching Zuko struggle to keep the nation together, going from one crisis to the next until his eyes glazed over with exhaustion and frustration had spurred her on. She'd known he'd suspected her, but she'd gone about her business even as she'd fed information to her dark soldier, instructing him to destroy and deface the heart of the Fire Nation. It had pained her to do so, but it had all been necessary to achieve the ends she desired. The damage they'd done was no worse than the damage Zuko himself had done during the decade of his reign.
Now, if only the Waterbender hadn't healed, if only her brother hadn't come upon Jet, Azula would have been sitting in the Fire Lord's throne. It had been sheer will power that got them out of the Fire Nation in one piece. The boat Azula had prepared just in case took them away from the burning fires of her home and towards a future she had been ready for but never wanted to face. Despite thinking of every possible outcome, Azula found that she hadn't been completely prepared to deal with this particular one.
The designations didn't bother her. After all, wasn't the present Fire Lord once known as both? A wider view would forgive her her actions just like it forgave Zuko his. It amused her that she now found herself where he had been years before but without the material advantages with which he'd started off. All she had were the clothes on her back and her bending. She'd had to do things that she never would have imagined herself doing. It was a humbling experience and not one she wanted to experience for much longer. They were three days away from their destination and she was counting down the hours. She didn't like the situation but she knew how to work with it. She'd planned for it. This was far from over and she knew that the next time she would see Zuko, it would be for the last time.
A part of her was saddened by that thought. For all his faults, he was still her older brother and if he'd only step down for her, they could continue their contentious dance. He had his moments and their conversations—some may call them arguments—sometimes gave birth to new ideas and new methods of rule. Together, they could have ushered in a new era for a more powerful Fire Nation at peace. If he'd only step down for her. The thought of Maiko growing up with Katara for a stepmother made Azula's toes curl. She'd actually considered taking the little princess with her, but common sense prevailed as traveling with a three year old was not something she was equipped to handle. There were so many possibilities for a brighter future...if Zuko would only step down for her.
She supposed she couldn't expect anything less from him. She wondered if he would have had she been a more accommodating sister, had they grown up playmates and friends rather than the opposite. But she couldn't change herself or their past any more than he could. They were destined to be at odds, had been since she'd learned that fire did whatever she wanted it to do with little more than a flick of her finger while he had to struggle every step of the way. The lands their father had left them wasn't big enough for the two of them.
Though her face was fixed in a scowl, Azula kept control of the flames. She'd never lost control of her fires and never would. She closed her hands, snuffing them out with a puff of smoke. She moved back to the mouth of the cave where her companion was still fast asleep. The years Jet had spent living like a vagabond had allowed him to find comfort no matter where they set up camp and was the one thing about him that Azula envied. She studied his scarred face, her eyes tracing the wiry form underneath the blanket, and wondered if it was time to let him go.
Jet had not yet forgiven her near betrayal of him in the Water Temple and he had not yet recovered from the shock of learning his erstwhile girlfriend was now the Fire Lord's new Lady. He was wild and unpredictable, and Azula didn't need any more unforeseen complications. The only reason she'd endured his sullen silences and angry glares was because she knew she couldn't complete this alone. She was injured and she needed his resources. She just had to keep an eye on him and make sure he didn't turn on her. Jet was a dangerous pet to keep but she needed him...for now.
With one booted foot, Azula kicked at the bottom of his feet, startling him awake.
"This isn't a vacation," she said by way of greeting. "Get up."
His response was turning his back. Azula rolled her eyes. Every morning it was the same routine and neither of them was willing to back down. To cool her slowly rising temper, she reminded herself that she'd been born a Princess and she would die a Fire Lady; what happened in between would be lost in the pages of history. Pointing two fingers at him, she shot a thin line of fire at the rock underneath him, heating it up until he squirmed uncomfortably.
"Get up," she said again.
"What for?" he muttered. "If you get started now, I'll catch up with you in two hours time with the speed you walk."
Azula gritted her teeth. "If you'd like, I could even things out so that you won't have to walk alone."
He sat up and ran a hand through his shaggy brown hair. His perpetually narrowed gray eyes were appraising as he studied her standing over him. Azula didn't like the shiver that went up and down her spine at his look. It was further indication that the time for them to part was rapidly approaching.
"You look like hell," he observed, standing and pushing past her to grab his canteen.
"Neither of us are going to win any beauty pageants," she said, simmering. "Just get your things and let's go."
He snorted but didn't argue anymore. Not bothering to wait for him, Azula shouldered her sleeping roll, pulled up her hood, and set out into the seemingly endless tundra that her sister-in-law once called home.