Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender
Author's Note: This story is pretty close to canon so far, but I doubt it will be after 3X10, so keep that in mind as you read.
Princess Azula sat on a golden throne, her legs crossed, as her train cut a path through a raging blizzard. The red troops of the Fire Nation marched fiercely through the icy winds, their hands ablaze as they journeyed to reclaim Ba Sing Se.
The princess's lips curved into a frown as she thought of the former Earth Kingdom Capital. The world had crumpled under her father's hand, submissive to the last. Neither the remaining areas that called themselves the Earth Kingdom nor the Northern Water Tribe could stop the destiny of the Fire Nation. For five years, the conquered people had complied.
It wasn't until autumn that the disturbing reports came in the hands of Governor Chen, a portly man who ruled in Ba Sing Se. The Dai Li, still claiming allegiance to the Fire Nation, had started to engage in some suspicious activities. According to the governor, they had taken to meeting at a restored Lake Laogai rather than the palace, and had made several subtle comments that spoke of dissent. Governor Chen had a reputation for sensationalism and Fire Lord Ozai had simply dismissed the governor.
Governor Chen had, for once, been correct and by the beginning of winter Ba Sing Se was once again under the control of Long Feng. The coup shocked the world--not just because it happened, but also because he had been able to do such a thing in a city swarming with firebenders empowered by Souzen's Comet. Fire Lord Ozai had planned to go to Ba Sing Se himself until his daughter had pleaded that she, having conquered Ba Sing Se once before, should be the one to do it again. On the condition that this time she would not allow Long Feng to live, Fire Lord Ozai had supplied his daughter with a regiment. . . and given both she and Prince Zuko control over it.
Azula recrossed her legs. It was almost an insult that her father had sent Zuko along, as though he didn't trust Azula to do this herself. His reasoning was that Zuko had spent more time in command of troops than she had, and knew how to deal with the men better. Both father and daughter knew she was more than capable of taking care of things herself. Nevertheless, Zuko had a place of leadership in the regiment--at least, until his sister seized it.
"Princess?" came the voice of one of the colonels as he appeared in the doorway, two firebenders flanking him. She nodded her head for him to continue. "I think it wise to make camp for the night."
"I didn't ask you for your wisdom," her sharp nails fingered a lock of black hair. "We keep going."
The colonel, miserable coward that he was, gulped and bowed before leaving the compartment.
Azula got up from her chair and went to look out the small window. The landscape was a blur of white, broken only by the red of her regiment. She smiled slightly, feeling the heat of flame course through her. No longer could weather impede them. Only the moon posed any kind of threat, and its power was weakening over Azula. She had adjusted well to the celestial power of the comet, better than some firebenders--she had watched as a young man burned himself to death, unable to control his bending. She remembered vaguely that Zuko hadn't firebended for several months, though she had never asked why. She had been much more consumed by the new perfection she was at last able to achieve.
With a last look at the sky, she mused that when the new Avatar (whoever he or she may be, the Fire Nation was carefully watching all the waterbending children) gained full abilities, her power as a single firebender would eclipse even his.
Azula left the compartment in which she had been sitting and entered a narrow passageway. No light shone here, and the movement of the train knocked her off balance. She swore as her shoulder slammed into one side, then snarled as she wrestled to unlatch the door into the next compartment.
The door burst open into a room filled with warm light from a lantern fixed to the ceiling. Sheer red curtains divided the compartment in half, so that soldiers could enter without invading the occupants' privacy. Azula could just make out Ty Lee's contorted form and Mai's bored pose on the other side.
Azula said nothing as she pushed aside the curtains and pulled off the red armor that covered her shoulders and forearms. Ty Lee was chattering on about some soldier she found particularly attractive and Mai was sitting in the corner sharpening one of her daggers.
The soldiers would be exhausted when they reached the next Fire Nation fort. Azula felt that they should learn to deal with such hardship if they considered themselves truly competent to be part of the greatest military power in the world. She mused over other minute details that came with directing this regiment, her first since the Fire Nation had won the war.
"You've lost weight." Mai commented. Azula's eyes held a warning as she looked at the girl who still sat in the corner. Mai surveyed her with apparent disinterest, having long ago learned to keep out any flicker of fear when in Azula's presence.
Azula skimmed her hands along her hips. Mai was right, though Azula had hardly noticed. Long days with very little time to practice meant that her muscles were less toned, but that didn't account for the protruding of her hip bones. Something wasn't quite right, not that Azula couldn't fix it when the time came.
"Maybe you're stressed." Ty Lee added, resting her feet on her head. Her smile slipped as Azula glared at her.
"Perhaps." Azula said finally, slipping on a pale red shift. She sat down on one of the three beds that were mounted to the sides of the compartment. None of the girls spoke for a long moment. Azula ran her fingers along the soft fabric of the shift.
Ty Lee fixed a large smile on her face and looked at Mai. "Did I tell you what Seff said after I winked at him?"
"I can't imagine."
"He said, 'You're a cutie! We should spend more time together!'"
"And then I said, 'I'm very flexible.'" Ty Lee laughed at her own innuendo, as though it were the cleverest thing anyone could have said. "And then he winked at me and left. How's Prince Zuko?" Ty Lee seemed to realize the slip of her tongue as soon as she said it and apprehensively watched Mai.
The princess raised her eyebrows at Mai and said nothing.
"I haven't spoken with him recently," Mai said smoothly. "He's probably fine."
Zuko and Mai had become annoyingly secretive as their relationship fell apart, leaving Azula and Ty Lee curiously taking whatever bits of information they were given. The broken engagement was still a raw wound and Mai was testy. Wisely, Ty Lee left the subject alone.
Suddenly, the train jolted into a stop. Ty Lee flipped over backwards and Mai braced herself against the wall. As the compartment grew warmer, both girls stared in fear at the princess.
She said nothing, but her eyebrows creased together and her gold eyes held a look that could mean the death of someone. She turned and grabbed a red overdress and gold belt, looping the latter around her waist. Her eyes flickered over to the girls, the crown resting in her topknot catching the lamplight. "Let's go."
They followed obediently behind. Neither could miss the sparks that sporadically issued from the princess' fingertips.
In a few minutes they had reached the front compartment. Though all that saw Princess Azula bowed, none seemed worried about her presence. Through a window in the front, it could be seen that many soldiers were setting up tents and in the center of this makeshift camp was a large, red, important-looking tent.
"Colonel Sho?" Azula's voice echoed throughout the compartment. The colonel turned to look at her from his seat. "A word."
Sho got up and hurried to the Princess' side, his brow creased with worry. "What's wrong, your highness?" he questioned, taking in her overdress and slippered feet. Only a serious problem would make her appear dressed as she was.
"Who authorized this stop?" she demanded, staring him full in the eye.
He ran a hand along his gray beard worriedly. "Prince Zuko, my lady."
She snarled and turned back around, heading out the door. "Prince Zuko!" She stopped, her body silhouetted in the doorway. She turned her head back to look at Sho. "Inform my brother that I will be dining with him tonight," the princess said calmly.
Sho gulped and nodded, looking to Princess Azula's two friends for moral support. One girl dressed in pink offered a blank smile, the other seemed bored with the whole situation. Sho resumed his seat, wondering if he would live through the night. Princes Azula never hesitated to snuff out what she considered a weakness under her command, and as she couldn't harm her brother, she could easily take out her anger on the poor colonel.
The setting sun cast orange and pink streaks throughout the sky, blending with the dark blues that were taking over. The soldiers remained in purple shadows, their eyes hidden in darkness, as the princess made her way through the camp. They stopped what they were doing to watch her pass, the crunching of the dirty snow beneath her boots the only sound to be heard.
The princess walked alone, her head held high and her gold eyes focused only on the large red tent that was her destination. A good distance behind her followed six trained, armed guards. The soldiers in the camp were naturally attracted to the beautiful princess, and for those attracted to power her cold demeanor and the fear she brought when her lightening struck only increased the infatuation. However, this feeling only existed so long as one felt he was somehow in the princess's favor--should he mess up, only writhing fear of her could survive.
She stopped once, looking in on a general's tent. The tent was unassuming, larger than that of the soldiers but not elaborate, and belonged to a general for whom they all had great respect. Princess Azula came out followed by a man in his fourties who wore the uniform of a high rank.
The soldiers unabashedly watched as the two strode up to the tall sides of Prince Zuko's tent and went inside.
"Princess seems angry," an older soldier commented to a new recruit.
The younger looked up from where he was scraping a razor against his cheek. "At the prince?"
"From what I heard, she's never liked her brother much." a firebender said from where he was tending to supper.
"Princess don't like anyone much." the old soldier laughed, sitting cross-legged by the camp fire.
"I heard she tried to kill Prince Zuko once," the new recruit had a look of fear on his face. It was obvious he held the scarred monarch in high regard; Prince Zuko wasn't much older than he.
"She killed the Avatar, remember." the old soldier took a strip of jerky the firebender held out, "Princess can do most anything if she puts her mind to it."
"What happens if she tries to kill the prince now?" the new recruit looked up with wide eyes.
The firebender looked up with a peculiar look on his face, as though he were contemplating something of great importance. "It wouldn't come as a surprise to a lot of people, I guess. But, she won't. Strange as it seems, she needs him right now."
While the soldiers returned to their meals and talk, Princess Azula sat rigidly across the table from her brother. Her face held no sign of the turmoil of her emotions, and her hands rested comfortably on the low table before her, but her every word held a venom that sliced apart its victim.
Her brother lounged on the other side. It seemed strange that he would be so relaxed in front of his sister, who was so obviously irritated with him. He wore his hair shaggily, now that they were away from the palace, and it annoyed many of the high ranking officers who bristled at being under the command of a formerly exiled prince. Zuko's head was turned so that he looked at Azula through his unscarred eye.
General Chaika sat between them, cross-legged. He was an average looking man, short and rather stocky, and his black hair was pulled into a topknot. He didn't feign relaxation like either of the two young monarchs, but had an air of peace about him that alluded the other two. He was slowly sipping tuna-trout soup.
Prince Zuko sat up, looking his sister in the eyes. "What's going on, Azula?"
"Oh, Zuzu," she smirked, "surely you know by now?"
Azula sighed, placing her hands on either side of her bowl of soup. Soon it began steaming again. "I don't appreciate you undermining my authority, Zuko."
Zuko said nothing for a moment. "The men would have been exhausted by the time we reached Fort Zhao," Zuko paused, grimacing slightly at the fort being named after the late admiral, "we needed to make camp."
"These men serve the Fire Nation Army, Zuzu. They are part of the elite. You're only hindering them when you let them take breaks just because their legs hurt a little." Azula took a long sip of her soup, watching Zuko with glittering eyes.
"You know I'm right, Zuko."
Chaika watched as the prince tried not to explode with fury. "They aren't animals that you can keep pushing them until they fall over--"
"But they aren't babies that we can indulge them." Azula said coldly.
"Listen to reason, Azula."
"Stop ignoring the facts. Rest is unnecessary when there is a rebellion taking place against us. Long Feng is underminingour power, Zuko."
"What does that have to do with the soldiers?"
"We have to reach Ba Sing Se before we loose our foothold--before Long Feng gains any real power."
Zuko let out a groan of frustration. "You're--"
"I'm right, and you know it." Azula snapped. The three sat in uncomfortable silence, the crackling of torches and the slurping of soup as the only sounds heard within the tent.
General Chaika cleared his throat as he prepared to try to relieve the tension. "I was wondering exactly how you two thought Long Feng managed to gain control of the city again--the walls are gone, after all."
Zuko glared at his sister, as if challenging her to respond. She set down her soup, folded her hands in her lap, and looked to the general. "Father has gotten soft."
"Father has not gotten soft."
Azula cocked an eyebrow and didn't reply.
Looking exasperated, Zuko turned to the general. "Walls aren't limited to stone--they're in the people's minds, too."
Chaika stared into his soup, counting the lumps and weighing his chances of survival if he pushed one of the monarchs too far. "It has been five years, though, don't you think something would have been accomplished to revert these people to upstanding Fire Nation citizens?"
"They will never be Fire Nation citizens, General." Azula said with a slight smirk. The prince leaned back on his arms.
"It's been five years of unrest," Zuko began, "the Avatar is dead and they have no hope. If there's one thing refugees search for, it's hope."
The general wondered at the dark tone of the prince's voice, as though a painful memory rested just under the surface of his statement.
Zuko continued. "Five years of trying to adjust to a new command? They're restless and the future looks bleak to them. At least under the Dai Li, as it was with Long Feng, they felt like they had some sort of identity. They were probably happy to restore him to power--happy to have someone deny the war ever existed, too."
"Impressive assessment, Zuzu." Azula said enigmatically. Zuko scowled.
The general, however, was interested in the prince's thoughts--he was apparently much more intelligent than Chaika had ever given him credit for. "It should be easy to regain power, however. The earthbenders just aren't strong enough."
Azula smiled, her face hidden in the shadows. Souzen's Comet had given the firebenders unbelievable strength. After it was harnessed, Zuko had led the campaign that destroyed the Northern Water Tribe once and for all. The Earth Kingdom had crumpled, and fire was proven as the superior element.
Azula and Zuko voiced their agreement. "Of course, all the troops in Ba Sing Se will have to be reassigned." she sipped her soup again.
"Why?" Zuko questioned, his brow furrowed.
The general sighed. "They're getting married, starting new lives, not as Fire Nation soldiers but as men."
"I know that."
"Your previous inferences were so acute, Zuko, it's a shame your sentementality is getting to you on this one. Really, Zuko, which is more important: Happy soldiers or a victorious Fire Nation?" Azula's lips curved into a smile as her brother glared at her.
Azula awoke before dawn the next morning to train. She didn't bother to stay quiet while she dressed; Mai and Ty Lee should be up anyway. Combing her hair, she lit a candle with her index finger and sat down to go over a letter she had just received from her father.
They had slept in a tent set up on the opposite end of camp from her brother's, on a small hill that overlooked the camp. It was a large red tent with divisions for two rooms, a screen dividing the girls' sleeping room in two. Azula shivered slightly as a wind blew against the side of the tent, mentally cursing herself for allowing her temperature to get low enough to shiver. It was often dangerous for a firebender to get too cold.
Azula frowned as she skimmed the letter. The constant reminders of proper protocol were irritating, as though the Fire Lord didn't trust her to do things properly and ensure order within her own regiment. The letter closed abruptly with the statement, Long Feng is brainwashing our men.
"Mai, wake up!" Azula called harshly. The girl appeared from behind the screen, rubbing her eyes with a small cloth.
"What?" she asked, surveying the princess with a bored expression.
"Go find my brother. Tell him I want to see him." Princess Azula commanded, crumpling the letter in her hand and then reducing it to ashes. Mai was already gone when Azula looked back up, and Ty Lee sat on a stool with a mirror in one hand and rouge in the other. Looping her hair in a topknot, Azula tied a belt around her waist and readjusted the armor on her arms, then left the tent.
The sun was casting its pale light all over the camp ground, tinting the snow blue. Azula strode out into a clearing made for firebenders to train, breathing in the cold air and blowing out steam. She stood in the middle, hands pressed together before her, and watched the sun carefully.
Breathe in, breathe out She calmed herself, allowing emotions to escape her and all the worries of the mission before her to dissipate. Nothing could possibly stop her--even if everything she had planned went wrong, there were other ways to achieve success.
Energy moved through her, concentrated in the stomach. It was an unusual, but familiar, feeling. This was the energy that created fire, the energy that flared up with emotions. All around her was the energy that did not belong to her, that she conquered. She forced it apart with her fingertips, breathing calmly as it struggled to return to its natural state. It clashed together, and lightening sprung forth. The drill was all too common to her--step here, then here--and the lightening hit its mark, a tree about a hundred yards away.
The drills became more complex as the sun rose in the sky. Azula could feel the sweat beading on her brow, but didn't pause to wipe it off. She took a deep breath, kicking out her foot--then, a hacking cough stopped her.
She coughed and coughed and coughed, doubled over from the force of it. She still commanded some lightening with her hands, and it went awry, nearly scorching her, but she realized it in time and created a shield of orange flames around her.
She leaned back on her heels while the coughing subsided, trying to understand what had gone wrong. It was impossible, her stance was flawless, her breathing perfectly timed, her emotions without importance. . .
Disturbed, Azula stood and turned her face to the sun. She drew strength from it, breathing calmly again. She would do the drill again, and this time, nothing would stop her. Almost wasn't good enough. She would be perfect.
She was angry with herself, furious, and could feel that rage building up inside her. She waited until her rationality took over again, until she was calm, for a lightening bender had no use for the blindness anger brought. Azula could overcome her previous failure.
The colors she saw behind closed eyes turned red in the light of the sun. Vowing to never again experience that vulnerability, she separated the energy with her foot and leapt into the air, slashing her leg downwards. The whole process was flawless. She landed, planting her feet squarely on the ground.
Breathing heavily, the princess turned to see her brother. He stood awkwardly, watching her with a veiled expression. She wondered just how long he had been watching. He, too, wore Fire Nation armor, though Azula thought it was too large and bulky on him, much the way managing a country could be. Disgusted at the thought that Zuko still remained heir to the throne, she strode over to him.
"Mai said you needed to see me," he said tersely. He ran one hand through his unkempt hair to push it out of his eyes.
"Father sent me a letter," she paused, turning and walking back to the center of the clearing. Zuko followed. "Long Feng is brainwashing Fire Nation troops. If we don't hurry, Ba Sing Se will be lost completely."
Zuko, standing behind her, said nothing. He took in the bitter contempt in her voice and looked at the way her black hair curled against the nape of her neck, all he could see from behind her.
So, his little sister hadn't been perfect, after all. Zuko often wondered why she hadn't had Long Feng killed, but it seemed he had either escaped somehow or she had let him live. She probably admired the man's cruel brainwashing techniques and pitied him for his vain grasping of power. Zuko was sure the man had been Azula's toy, something to entertain her while she took over his kingdom.
"I'm guessing you have a plan."
He watched as she drilled very complex forms. She was truly impressive; it was no wonder that their father and everyone else in the Fire Nation preferred her to him. That affection was only increased with the Avatar's second attempt to stop the Fire Nation--as her father harnessed the power of the comet, Azula stopped the Avatar and fired a deathly shot at him. This time, there was no magic water and no waterbender to heal him. Azula had tried to retrieve the body, but it had been taken by one of the Avatar's friends in their flight from the Fire Nation. Though many of the rebels had been caught, there was still a search going on for some of them.
Zuko remembered waiting, counting the days, expecting Avatar Aang to show himself again. It was unlikely that he could have survived a fight with Azula twice, but nothing about Aang was predictable. Part of the prince had also been hoping that, like her brother's, her glory would fall to ashes--if it hadn't been for his victory in the North Pole, he would have been nothing. But the Avatar never mounted another attack.
Five years was a long time.
Finally the prince had settled into an uneasy silence, waiting in the shadow of his sister for the shame that would never come to her.
He was brought out of his reverie by the sight of a colonel rushing towards them.
"I'm terribly sorry," he took a deep breath, "terribly sorry to interrupt, your highness."
"You weren't interrupting anything, colonel." Azula had stopped her practice and was watching the out-of-breath colonel.
"You two said. . . You said that any more cases of the fire-sickness should be. . . be immediately reported to you."
Zuko caught his sister's eyes. The fire-sickness took the benders with the least control over their flame as it's victims--it was the worst, scariest side-effect of Souzen's comet. The bender would simply go up in flames, screaming as their own power destroyed them. . .
"What happened, colonel?" Azula asked.
"Lieutenant Jin-Ho is dead, princess." he waited.
Her eyes flickered between the two men before resting on the horizon. "More drills." the princess's voice cracked--even perfection feared the ravages of the disease. The colonel bowed to both of them and left to carry out the order.
Azula turned to the scrolls opened on a large table in her red tent, looking at General Kun's detailed reports on Ba Sing Se from before Long Feng's recent takeover. Improvements had been made such as the train system powered by fire and coal rather than earthbending. Azula was proud of what she had single-handedly conquered. She felt the greatness of it all the way through her, and often held the notion that unlike the rest of her family she was destined for true greatness. While others aspired, Azula achieved.
Still, it had unnerved when she realized after her coup of Ba Sing Se that it wasn't enough. She had begun to make plans on how to conquer the Water Tribes, and then how to open the Air Temples to the Fire Nation, when her father had called her home. The monotony of palace life had grated on Zuko but Azula had never had a problem with it--then again, she had been there for two years when he was gone. Fire Lord Ozai liked having his daughter around because she had a knack for manipulation and military planning. Azula relished in doing both, and when she was younger she took great pleasure in her father's favor. However, when she and Zuko had returned, she had realized that her father's favor really meant nothing to her. He could accept her and reject Zuko all he wanted, but in the end Azula could only gain the country (and later, the world) from it. It didn't do anything for her otherwise.
Azula opened a scroll and coughed, creating a stinging pain in her ribcage. She decided it was from the dust on the scrolls and began reading carefully.
"Princess Azula?" called the guard again.
"What is it?"
"Your brother, Prince Zuko, is here to see you."
Wondering what Zuko could want, Azula turned back to the stack of papers on her table. A letter caught her eye and the plan she had been working on ever since she was yoked with her brother for the command of the regiment finally took shape. "Tell him I'm not presentable and that I need a few minutes." She waved her hand in dismissal.
The guard happened to be quite intelligent and, after surveying the princess and seeing that she looked exactly as she had an hour ago when she spoke with the officers, went back outside and asked Prince Zuko to wait.
When she was sure the guard was gone and Zuko wasn't going to barge in on her, Azula picked up the letter and studied it carefully. The characters had a unique style and even the most untrained eye would see such a difference between a scribe's hand and hers. She found a blank sheet of paper and a writing brush and methodically set to work.
Zuko knew the guard was lying. The apologetic way he spoke, the way he stared at the dingy snow covering the ground, his posture, everything about the man confirmed it. Not that the prince was really surprised; in his time serving the princess he would have discovered that no notion of morality should prevent one from following Princess Azula's orders, unless he had a deathwish.
The prince walked a short way away from Azula's tent, uncomfortable standing with the guard. The silence between the two men was too thick and awkward for Zuko to endure. He was only alone for a few minutes before the guard gestured to him again, and he returned, lifting the tent flap and waiting for his eyes to adjust.
Azula had a fire going to warm the tent in the frigid winter weather. Several candles burned, and she sat behind a large table covered in scrolls. The firelight flickered over her face, and Zuko found himself wishing he hadn't found a need to come. Little did he know, that wish would grow even more the longer he was there.
"You needed me, Zuzu?" Azula asked, cocking an eyebrow. Her hair was perfectly combed and she ran one long nail through one of the pieces that hung around her face.
"I needed to talk to you about transferring our ground troops to the ships once we reach Ba Sing Se." Zuko's voice hung in the warm air. He was trying to be diplomatic, but really was restraining the anger that burst out of him every time he was around the suffocating person of his sister.
"I'm afraid that won't be necessary." Azula's lilting voice was enigmatic.
"Azula, we're supposed to work toge--"
"Not any more." Azula cut him off and handed him a scroll. "This just arrived."
Zuko tentatively reached for the scroll. It bore his father's seal, and when he opened it, the long rows of characters were unmistakably the hand of a scribe. However, the words on the page pointed towards a different monarch than his father. Certainly his father wouldn't strip him of his authority of the regiment? He had given it to him and Azula, to work together.
The silence in the tent was deafening. Zuko just stared at the scroll, trying not to let Azula's careful watch see any hint of emotion. However, his emotions were turbulent inside of him.
Azula always lies. He repeated his mantra in his head, knowing that this had to be her own manuever for complete authority once they reached Ba Sing Se. Azula always lies. The scroll was perfect, flawless in its construction. The seal was obviously from the palace. There would be no doubt in the mind of a third party. Azula always lies.
Zuko felt like his insides had disappeared, leaving only a ringing in his ears. If his father had really sent this, then all Zuko had worked for, hoped for, in the last five years had disentigrated. He hadn't seen his uncle in nearly five years, though he knew he was still alive; if this was how his father felt about him, what would keep him from leaving his son to rot in jail just as he had his brohter? If Azula had written it, it didn't matter. He was still being stripped of his seniority, and when they returned, their father would be pleased at Azula's ingenuity at getting what she wanted. There was no way out.
Wordlessly, Zuko dropped the scroll back onto the table and stalked out of the tent, feeling Azula's triumphant smile on his back and knowing that she would waste no time in instructing the colonels to look at him, their prince, as their equal, and she, their princess, as their Fire Lord.