A/N: Well... my first fic. Thanks for reading! And I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender, any characters or settings in this :)
"We have to talk." Ursa muttered sharply in Ozai's ear as she left the dinner table, one child clinging onto each hand – four-year-old Azula, who had just last week discovered she could firebend, and Zuko, five, who was still struggling with the most basic moves despite having been taught for nearly a year. Ozai glowered at his son's small back as they left the room – how could the boy be happy? He should be working, working, working, until he perfected his art.
After Ursa had told the kids to play nicely in the courtyard and sent them off, Ozai came up behind her in the portico. "Azula, don't do that!" Ursa called across the grass to where her daughter was setting light to a twig and teasing her brother with it.
"Good evening," said Ozai loudly, and Ursa spun around with a small cry.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, and then, regaining her composure, "you surprised me. You don't usually come to the… courtyard," she finished, rather lamely.
"You were the one who said you would like to talk." Ozai smiled at Ursa, a smile she did not return. She took a deep breath.
"I didn't say like, Ozai, I said have. We have to talk." Ozai noticed she was twisting her hands together nervously. Since when had she been nervous of speaking to him? He'd argued with her last week; maybe that was the problem.
"Look, if it's about Zuko again –"
"Oh, no, it's not about Zuko. I understand, now, that you are far too busy to spend time with your son." Ursa would have sounded diplomatic to anybody else, but Ozai knew her better than anyone; he could detect the chill in her voice, the slightest hint of sarcasm, and it angered him.
"Yes, that's right – I'm far too busy. So, if it isn't about Zuko, then what can it be about? Because I really can't think of anything else you would think about." Ozai folded his arms and narrowed his eyes at his wife. He expected her to get even angrier, and was already preparing a response to anything she might say, but to his surprise she put one hand over her eyes, bent her head, and took a deep breath.
When she looked up again, she was calmer. "Ozai," she said steadily, "we're both adults. Both responsible adults. You're my husband, and that won't change whatever views we have. I… well, I love you." Silence for a second, and then she blurted out, "I wanted to talk about Azula."
This really did surprise Ozai. "Azula?" He watched her at the other end of the courtyard, where she was practicing her newly-discovered firebending. Such a small child, but so powerful… She was trying to make the flame change its shape, and had succeeded in making it shoot up and then down again.
"Azula!" Ursa called sharply. "Stop that – you could hurt someone!" Azula stopped immediately, folded her arms and shot her parents a disappointed look.
"It's fine, Azula, carry on!" Ozai called out to her, and Azula grinned widely and continued with her practice. Zuko was slumped against a tree, watching his sister with a surly expression on his face. "Boy – why aren't you practicing?"
Zuko stood up and tentatively brought a flame to life between his fingers. He studied Azula as she made the flame shoot up and down, and tried to do it himself. He was so surprised when the flame grew to double its size that he stumbled backwards, tripped over a rock and fell.
"That's wonderful, Zuko!" Ursa smiled bracingly across the courtyard at her son, who didn't return it, but stood up and tried again. When Ursa finally managed to tear her adoring eyes away from her son, she spoke in a much quieter voice, because Azula was trying to listen in to their conversation. "Don't undermine my authority like that. And don't you dare call him 'boy', you'll lower his self esteem, not to mention –"
"So," interrupted Ozai. "Back to Azula. I can see nothing wrong with her."
Ursa took another deep breath. "She's cruel, Ozai."
"She was always horrible to her brother; pulling his hair, scaring him, things like that, and now, with her firebending… Well, she's only had it a week and already her brother refuses to be left alone with her. Any animal she comes across hurries away as fast as they can. And – well – I don't want her to learn firebending." Once she'd said it, Ursa seemed unable to meet her husband's gaze.
Ozai was appalled. "You cannot just stop somebody from mastering their element. You have never been a bender – you do not understand – it's not like something you can turn on and off – it is a part of who you are. And Azula; she's a natural! If anybody should be forbidden from learning, it's Zuko. He has been doing it for a year, and still hasn't advanced to the next level!"
"You know, he only learns firebending to please you," Ursa murmured, casting another glance at her precious son and then looking, almost imploringly, back at Ozai.
That stopped Ozai in his tracks. For a moment, he was unable to reply – he had never even considered that Zuko looked up to him. In his opinion, Zuko had always loved Ursa far more than he did him. Not that he cared; not since Azula had been born, at least, because Azula was ambitious and far fonder of her Fire Prince father than of her mother. He knew it saddened Ursa, but she had Zuko to comfort her. "Nonsense."
Ursa was suddenly irate. "Don't you dare – don't you dare brush off your son's love like that! I don't even know why he loves you – you never liked him, not even when he was a baby –"
"I was busy."
"You were lazy! You couldn't be bothered with him, Ozai, and that's the truth. You left me to comfort him when you ignored him, me to tell him he was doing great when he didn't want me to praise him, he wanted you –"
"So you think you're protecting him? Protecting him from his cruel daddy?" After he had spoken, Ursa stared at her husband, infuriated and appalled in equal measures.
"I don't – I'm not –"
"But you're not protecting him, are you? He's protecting you. He's comforting you. That's why you love him best, and it's got nothing to do with his personality whatsoever."
"I love Zuko," she murmured, softer now, as though she were trying to reason with a wild animal, "because he reminds me of you. He's just as determined as you, Ozai, even if he might not be… too skilled at firebending. That's why I hate it when you make it clear you couldn't care less about him. Azula reminds me more of your father than anybody else, and that's… scary."
"You hate my father. Does that mean you hate Azula, too?"
"Ozai – no –"
"Azula isn't cruel. She is simply ambitious. Her brother could stand to learn a few things from her. I'm handing her over to Lo and Li –"
"So she can learn to use her firebending to be cruel –"
"To be ambitious, Ursa, there's a difference –"
"Looking at you, Ozai, I'm not sure there is!" Ursa clapped her hand over her mouth as soon as she'd said it. "Ozai, I didn't mean – you're not cruel – Ozai, we should keep our voices down –"
"No need," Ozai responded sharply. He would never admit it, but Ursa's words had been a slap in the face. "I'm leaving."
"I must go to the war room," Ozai told her firmly, and turned away, marching inside. Ursa watched him go. What's the difference between the war room and here?
She felt as though a hand was squeezing her throat – her eyes stung – she blinked furiously, sniffing loudly, and turned back to the sunlit courtyard, where Zuko and Azula were still practicing.
She was so busy watching them that she did not realize, for the longest while, that somebody had come to stand beside her. "Ozai…" she began, but when she turned around she realised it was Iroh. "Oh. It's you." The two had never really liked each other, showing at best indifference towards each other, at worst open hatred.
"I passed Ozai in the corridor," muttered Iroh in an undertone, very aware of the young ones' open ears. "He didn't seem too happy. May I assume that you had a hand in it?"
"I might have," Ursa replied irritably. "If you'll excuse me – I have to –" She couldn't think of an excuse, however, so she stayed where she was.
"You should stop trying to understand Ozai," Iroh told her quietly. "I used to try -but it almost cost me my sanity. He might have used to care about you, Ursa – I remember when all he would talk about was you – but he does not any more."
"That's not true," Ursa denied slowly, and she believed it, because there was no choice. "He might be ambitious, and maybe he's got lots on his mind, but once the war is won, I just know everything will turn out fine. My Ozai's still there – he loves me, and Azula, and… and Zuko, you know. I don't need you telling me what he feels like!" She was suddenly very angry.
"I first met my wife in this courtyard," Iroh told her, surprising Ursa into silence by the sudden change of subject. "Ozai was not too happy at having his brother's love directed towards somebody other than him. He hated her, and it never changed, not until she…" Iroh sighed. "After she died, I used to be sure she would come back. I was sure that if I just opened that door suddenly enough, she would be behind it, laughing and saying 'OK, you got me, here I am!' But it never happened." He paused. "I know what it is like to lose your loved one, Ursa."
"You might, but I don't. Ozai's still here."
Iroh looked at Ursa, his eyes infinitely sad, and slowly shook his head. "No, he's not."
There was silence for the longest of times. They both watched Azula and Zuko playing, happily oblivious of what was going on. While Iroh seemed calm, Ursa was feeling worse and worse. She thought of the Ozai she had married, and the one she had now, and tears bubbled up her throat. "I miss him," she managed, before a sob shook her whole body.
"I know." Iroh put his arm round her shuddering shoulders. "I know."
A/N: Finally, something about the Fire Nation Royal Family that I don't feel like burning with my awesome firebending skills!
But the title… must go STRAIGHT to hell in a HANDBASKET.
Then again, the document title on my laptop is 'More Stuff', so it could have been worse.
I feel sorrier for Ursa, sometimes, than I do for Zuko. I mean, if it's bad for the person themselves, it's even worse for the person who had the ability to stop it, but couldn't work out how in time. Things might have turned out very, very different if she'd just managed to get round Ozai… At least, that's my theory, since it's not clear canonically…
Hey, whatever. I'll shut up now. BUT REMEMBER: Reviews are good, constructive criticism even better.