Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender.


I remember, in the time before the war scarred us all, a time when things were right. In that sepia-tinged corner of my memory, I can recall that false security, that quiet, yet artificial peace that the world tried to force on us. I remember when the full extent of a girl's craziness was measured by how she forced girls and boys to push each other into fountains. I remember the faint twinge in my heart when I saw a young lady sitting under the shade of the apple tree and the quiet admiration I had for my older cousin, Lu Ten. I remember my mother, her eyes, her voice when she told me that everything was going to be fine. I remember everything, and that's what makes it hardest of all.

But when I reach into my memories and reflect on my childhood, reflect on our childhood, there's an inescapable truth that makes itself evident in every recollection that I can muster.

Because I can remember when I used to have a little sister. A little sister, not a monster. Not a rival.

My little sister.

Azula.

--

I used to be my father's pride. My father's joy. When I shot weak flames from an extended fist, he and my mother would exchange knowing looks and I would see the pride in his eyes. I used to be the prodigy. I used to be the favorite. And yet, as I went through my lessons and my Firebending improved, I always saw, in the corner of my eye, my sister sitting on the stone steps. Watching longingly. Jealous.

Azula hadn't been proclaimed a Firebender. My father had asked the instructors to take her through the basic breathing exercises, but when she sat on the cold morning ground, feet crossed, hands outstretched, no flames danced on the palms of her hands. My mother had tried to console her, but Azula had carried the weight of our father's disappointment with her all through her early childhood. I had been eight; she had been six. And despite it all, my little sister had been my best friend.

I remember, vividly, her footsteps in the hallway outside and the quiet knock on my door as I lay awake in bed. I remember the creak of the doorknob as my little sister, hair done in a messy bun, pattered into my bedroom and crawled onto the crimson sheets at night. And we would talk, talk of our parents. I would do tricks with my Firebending, watching as her lips curled into a delighted smile. And she would ask, occasionally, why she couldn't Firebend. Why I had the gift and she didn't. I felt so sorry for her.

"Maybe you're not old enough yet," I told her, and she hung on to my every word. She gave a little sigh, then, as I crawled into the blankets and attempted to fall asleep. "Get to sleep, 'Zula."

"Okay. 'Night, Zuko."

She would then climb off the bed and patter back outside, shutting the door with a little bang, and I would pray, pray to Agni, that my little sister would be a Firebender someday. That my father would love her and admire her just as much as he praised me. That Azula would be happy.

I never thought that she would ever be better than me. Never thought she'd use my childhood prayers to hurt me.

--

"Stupid girl! When they tell you to Firebend, you Firebend! Impudent, stupid girl!"

My father was yelling at Azula. Yelling at her for not trying hard enough; for not being able to Firebend. And although my mother had taken me away, taken me out of the courtyard and told me to play in the nursery, I lingered by the door as my mother walked away and heard my sister cry as Prince Ozai's words cut through her like knives.

When the door burst open and Azula ran out, tears in her eyes, I took her hand and told her that it would be alright. We went to the nursery, attempted to play. At last, she faced me, a young girl of six, and stated that she hated my father.

"I know he expects a lot outta you. It's okay! You'll show 'em one day."

"He hates me too. It's all my fault."

"You know it isn't, 'Zula. It's not right of him to say those things."

"It's easy for you to say. You can 'bend and I can't. And I'll never be as good as you."

"Yeah, right." I studied her as she sighed deploringly. "Look, I'll teach you! I'll teach you everything I know. So when Dad tells you that you can't Firebend, you'll let him know just how well you can."

"But I'm not a 'bender, Zuko. I'll never be a 'bender."

"Sure you can." I reached out to position her hands so that they stretched outwards, palms up, and told her to cross her legs. I mirrored her pose as she studied me with inquisitive hazel eyes.

"Now breathe in and out, real slow. Imagine that you're a fireplace, and the smoke is coming outta your nose."

"That's... weird."

"Yeah, but it's what my teacher always said to do. And it worked."

"Okay..." She closed her eyes, breathed in and out, and nothing happened. No warmth, no smoke, just silence and the emptiness in the air. Her eyes flickered open, and I could see that she was on the verge of tears again.

"It's alright, Azula. That's a start! Watch me." I closed my eyes and breathed in an out, a picture of serenity. The flames danced on my hands, flickering in the morning light, and my sister watched with desperate envy.

"You see that? All you need to do is concentrate. You're supposed to relax and calm down when you Firebend, otherwise you'll make the fire go out of control."

"But I did relax and cons'trate. Nothing happened."

"You need to sit down and feel the energy run through your body." I was getting too involved with repeating what my masters had instructed me and was practically raving about my Firebending, much to Azula's evident displeasure and discontent. "You need to find your inner fire and drive it through everything in your body. You need to-"

"But I can't do those things!" She jumped to her feet abruptly, startling me. "I'll never be able to Firebend and Dad'll never love me like you!"

"That's not true, Azula, you-"

"You're always better than me! It's not fair!" She shouted at me with childish indignity, but the rage and hurt and jealousy was evident in her eyes. I stood up and held her shoulders in an attempt to quell the anger before it got out of hand, but she wrestled free and sent a foot flying in my direction.

I ducked.

"Azula, calm down! Mom and Dad'll get mad, and-"

"They don't care! I can do what I want! And I hate you too!" She stomped at my foot again, but this time, I wasn't able to move in time. Her small but heavy foot connected with mine, and I yelped in pain.

"Stop that! It's not my fault that you can't 'bend!"

"Mom and Dad still like you better. It's 'cause I'm weak and you're not." She bit her lip in an attempt to stop the tears from coming. "It's all your fault for being better!"

"It's not like I want to be weak! Not like you!"

"Be quiet!" This time, she made no effort to stop the tears, and they started flowing down her cheeks as she slumped to the floor, a pathetic little girl then. "You're just like Dad. You think that I'm weak just 'cause I'm younger... and 'cause I can't 'bend!"

She flung her fists to the ground in a show of fury, and my eyes widened as trails of flame followed the path where her hands had followed. She looked up, a barely audible gasp escaping her mouth, as the smoke and warmth faded into nothing in the nursery.

"But I... I..."

"You're a Firebender!"

I didn't try to hide my excitement, because it was so overwhelming. All those times that I had felt bad for her, all those times that I had felt alone with my skills... they were going to come to an end. My little sister was a Firebender.

I ran over and hugged her, and she laughed in pure excitement. I was so happy.

--

We decided to keep Azula's secret until my next Firebending lesson. Then she would jump off the stone steps at the end of the lesson, show off her stuff, and my parents would be so proud of her. I couldn't wait to see the look on their faces when my little sister practiced for them. I thought I would be the proudest older brother in the world.

I woke her up in the early mornings, and we went into the courtyard to practice. We went through breathing exercises again, but they didn't work, as usual. I stuck with the belief that Azula had too much self-doubt and was having trouble finding her inner drive. She couldn't calm down and sort through her inner turmoil.

"There's something you need to focus on," I told her in the dew-dropped summer morning. "Something to keep you going. You know how I told you about that inner energy that you're supposed to let flow through your body?"

She nodded, and I continued. "It's that inner fire you need to find. Maybe you need a goal or something. I think that my Firebending's always better when I'm angry, and I think that makes sense 'cause there's tons of inner fire then. You should think of something that makes you angry, then force it outta your body."

She sat down and tried again. This time, a faint flame flickered on the center of her right palm. Azula broke into a grin, and I shared her excitement, only inwardly.

"What did you think of? What made you angry?"

"I can't tell you. It's a secret." She smiled wryly, and I smiled back. It felt good to have a friend.

Our rudimentary Firebending lessons continued on in secret. We practiced together anytime we could- in the mornings, late at night- anytime we could be free from our parents. Once Azula had mastered the breathing exercises, I taught her how to keep a flame going, how to shoot fire from her fist, anything that I had learned. Finally, I decided that it was time for her to show off her skills. Time for Azula to make my parents proud.

It was the night before, and she sat on my bed, a picture of uncertainty. "Zuko, you sure 'bout this?"

"Of course I am! You're really good for a six-year-old. Mom and Dad'll be proud of you no matter what."

"You really think so?"

"Yeah, definitely!" I gave her a light punch on the shoulder, and she gave me a slight frown.

"You'll help me, right?"

"Nope. It's all you." I watched as she sighed, and I rolled my eyes. "Okay, fine, fine. I'll help only if things get outta hand."

"Thanks, Zuko. You're the best brother ever."

She jumped off the bed, her light little footsteps pattering around my room again, and fading into the night as the door closed with a thud.

--

"She's amazing! A true prodigy!"

"Oh, Azula! Did you learn this all by yourself?"

"Yes, Mom, I did!"

The proud glint in my father's eyes. The loving smile that graced my mother's lips.

"Ozai, we'll need to start her on Firebending lessons, quick. I have a feeling that Azula's going to go far."

"Yes." It was as if all the yelling he had directed at her had been forgotten, and was replaced by pride and love. "Yes, Azula will be magnificent."

My sister stood in the middle of the courtyard in a moment of glory, and I was so, so proud.

But there was something else. Something that nagged at me and refused to relent.

"Oh, Azula! Did you learn this all by yourself?"

I watched as my parents fawned over my little sister, and saw the ecstasy in her large, round eyes. It warmed me all over, and I all but forgot her reponse to my mother's question as I joined in at praising Azula and we exchanged grins.

"Yes, Mom, I did!"

I didn't identify that nagging feeling until I lay awake at night again, after the door had slammed shut and Azula had gone off to bed.

Jealousy, and exclusion, and the feeling that Azula was going to leave me behind one day.

I was foolish to think that it would never happen.

--

Two years passed. I was ten, Azula was eight. We were still best friends.

We had both graduated from beginning Firebending exercises on the same day. Lessons were far more fun with Azula in them, and pretty soon, we were swapping techiques at night, helping each other with our forms, and exchanging grimaces when our Firebending master made a bad joke. We kept up our Firebending lessons, but why we still kept it a secret, I had no idea. All I knew was that Azula was going at a pace abnormal for young Firebenders like her. It seemed as if she was, as my father never ceased to mention, a true prodigy.

The mix of emotions in my heart were pounding at me stronger than ever, but I ignored them because Azula was my dear little sister and deserved to be happy. It was what I had wanted for her all along, and I should've been excited for her like an older brother should be. When she demonstrated a difficult move to my parents flawlessly, I applauded along with them, even though I still had yet to master that technique. When I made a stupid mistake and my teacher reprimanded me, I laughed and asked Azula for help. When my father once more complimented Azula in the highest way possible, I nodded and grinned at her with pride in my eyes.

Although it was what I had wished for her, I felt hollow. My parents' praise for Azula nearly overshadowed the praise they gave me. It was an unusual feeling.

"Zuko?"

The door had creaked open, and Azula's inquisitive hazel eyes peered into my bedroom. I motioned her inside, and she sat on my bed, just like old times. She had all but stopped her nightly visits, coming only to ask for the dates of our next Firebending lessons or to comment on some event that she found particularly interesting. I was actually looking forwards to talking with her privately, like we had done two years ago.

"Mom and Dad are talking about sending me to the Royal Fire Nation Academy for Girls," she stated quietly. I crawled over to where she was and sat down, our feet dangling over the edge of my bed.

"You should go for it! You know you're really smart."

"I'd like to, but it's a boarding school." She pursed her lips, then gave a small sigh. "I'd barely know anyone."

"How 'bout that nobleman's daughter that lives outside the palace? You guys know each other, right? I think she goes to the Academy for Girls too."

"She's a year older than me. Besides, I'll be alone." She turned to me, a quiet sadness in her voice. "We won't have Firebending lessons together anymore."

"I guess it won't be too bad." I shrugged, and she studied me thoughtfully. "I mean, you're really good at Firebending. I bet that you'll be the best student at the Academy, and when you come back home next year, you can teach me everything you've learned."

"I won't be as good as you, though."

"I don't know about that." I managed a small smile, and she returned it. We sat in silence for a few minutes before she jumped from the bed and stood in front of me, her eyes suddenly betraying a sliver of fear.

"I'd miss you, though. And I bet that all the girls would probably want to be my friend just because I'm the Fire Lord's granddaughter."

"No, you're a great person. You'll make lots of friends." I grinned at her, although I was somewhat lying. "I think that you'll be fine."

"Okay, then. If you say so." She rolled her eyes and sighed again. "I guess I'd better get to sleep. Dad and Mom are probably going to make their decision soon."

"Let's hope you stay."

"Yeah. Hope I do." She walked over to the door, and pulled it open. I smiled, and she raised an eyebrow at me, grinning. It was at these times that I thought that Azula and I would be close forever.

She was about to leave, but then stopped and turned around. "Oh, yeah. Good night, Zuko."

"'Night, 'Zula."

--

When Azula arrived home after a year of boarding school, the first thing she brought into the palace with her were two girls. One was the nobleman's daughter I had mentioned a year ago to Azula, and another one was unfamiliar, but probably prominent as well. Azula had a smug grin on her face, as if those girls were priceless material possessions than actual human beings, and I found myself standing in the middle of the garden uncertainly as Azula discussed something with the girls and they nodded quickly.

"Hi, Azula! I'm glad that you're finally home."

She eyed me for a moment, then spoke in a calm, cool voice that I barely recognized as hers. "Hello, Zuko."

"Hi, Zuko!" The unfamiliar girl waved at me, and Azula shot her a look that made her retreat into silence. I was pretty confused; Azula had never really had a prescence that made girls listen to her. Maybe boarding school had changed that.

"Mai, Ty Lee, this is Zuko. My older brother." Azula motioned to me with a small flick of the hand, and I found myself being stared at by two sets of eyes. The nobleman's daughter was unusually shy, and her hazel eyes studied me for only a moment before she averted them onto something else. The other girl, which I assumed was Ty Lee, waved again, a broad grin on her face. I didn't know why Azula had let her hang around if she was so... cheerful. Although Azula had never really been cruel or antisocial, she had never really expressed interest in the things that most girls found to be "cute" or "fun". She felt that they were annoying, and it was one of the things we agreed on.

"Zuko, Mai and Ty Lee are my friends from the Academy for Girls. I was in their class this year."

"But I thought that you were older than Azula," I asked her companions. Neither one replied, and my little sister answered for them after a moment's pause.

"I skipped a year. Didn't Mom and Dad tell you?"

She walked on, the two girls flanking her, and I found myself bemused. I had imagined that Azula would've been ecstatic to see me again, but she had made friends and was apparently content with them. I didn't mind; I knew that Azula would eventually find girls to hang out with. But we had been close.

But Azula was nine now, after all. People changed, and she was older. Maybe we could talk when her friends went home.

I walked into the palace then, and told my parents about Azula's homecoming and friends. They went out to greet her, and I spent the rest of the afternoon in my room, thinking about the nobleman's daughter with the shy hazel eyes.

--

Boarding school had changed Azula.

Gone were the helpful tips we used to exchange before Firebending lessons. Gone were the hidden smiles we used to direct at each other. Gone were the nighttime visits and the quiet thud as the door shut and her footsteps retreated into the hallways.

Gone was my little sister.

When we demonstrated our skills to our parents, Azula held nothing back. When they praised her, she absorbed their attention, a smug grin on her face. She took it all in, and one time, I saw her smirk at me when my father told her how wonderfully she had improved. She didn't have to attend the Academy for Girls anymore; instead, she was given harder lessons and a new Firebending instructor. When I attended her lesson the next day, I found that the exercises were far more intricate and technical than the ones I was working on.

"Nice job, 'Zula," I told her, and she crossed her arms and turned her nose up primly.

"Don't call me 'Zula'. I am not a six-year-old. Or, since you seem to like nicknames so much, how 'bout I call you 'Zuzu'?"

"I just wanted to say that you're doing really well on your lessons. I didn't call you a six-year-old."

"You might as well have." She scoffed and turned away, her voice taking on a proud and bossy tone. "Besides, I already passed these lessons at the Academy. Their training was a lot more sophisticated. It turns out that inner focus and energy does help after all."

"Really?"

"Yeah. It was a way better technique than the one you taught me a few years ago." She put a finger to her chin in mock contemplation. "Hmm, wasn't it letting anger fuel your Firebending? How elementary."

"Well, it did help! Didn't it?"

"Yeah, if you want to be the weakest Firebender around. I told all the other Firebending students at the Academy, and they laughed." She shrugged then, walking briskly with her head held high. "But you're already past that, right, Zuzu? You must be way beyond my Firebending level."

"Well-"

"Yes, that's it! I've been waiting to see your Firebending ever since they told me that I was coming home!" A broad smile crossed her face, one that would've been encouraging to me had I not known her spiteful intentions. "Will you show me something you've learned? I need all the help I can get."

I paused. Hesitation to do as Azula said would mean automatic failure, but if I showed her what I had been learning... I sighed, then, and took the stance that I had seen some of the Imperial Firebenders strike when my father had taken me down to see the soldiers in training. I had been in awe of their power and Firebending prowess, and if I could pull this off, Azula would be impressed. I took a deep breath, then lashed out with all my strength and energy as I exhaled, feeling the energy course through me.

Nothing happened. It was just silence, save for Azula's calm, all-too-mocking applause at my failure.

--

Playdates with Mai and Ty Lee became numerous as the summer dragged on. Mai would arrive first, naturally, being only a few minutes away from the palace gardens. I had always tried to hang by the gate and intercept her as she came as if by accident, but Azula had always been a step ahead and waited outside the palace for her friends to arrive. When they did play, though, it was in the gardens and in a secluded area, where Azula and Ty Lee giggled and tried to think of ways to upset either Mai or me.

This was a fairly entertaining way to pass the time for them. Azula and I had played harmless little pranks on each other when we had been closer, but they were usually forgiven in the span of five minutes and resulted in high-fives and laughter. With Ty Lee, though, the danger factor of Azula's "experiments" had intensified. I found out the hard way that Ty Lee could block a Firebender's chi, and had to go through a Firebending lesson with my bending taken away. It felt even worse when Azula invited both her friends to come watch, and all I could do was stand there and endure my master's harsh, biting remarks about my laziness and lack of strength.

Azula and Ty Lee also had guessed my motives for waiting at the gate whenever there was a playdate scheduled for the afternoon. They would constantly torment Mai as she sat under the apple tree, gushing about how she and I would make a charming couple and be a lovely pair. It didn't embarrass me as much as it embarrassed her, because these things were probably what girls talked about all the time. I didn't take it seriously. In fact, Ty Lee and Azula talked about this so much that it was more annoying than anything.

But I soon began to realize that Azula was closer to Ty Lee than Mai, and that I could possibly find out what had caused my little sister to change over the duration of a year by asking her. We had formed a secret alliance, it seemed; an unspoken but felt bond. It held us together, and was constituted of grimacing at each other every time Ty Lee or Azula decided to pull pranks on us or pair us together. It wasn't as if we were friends, but we were both victims of their persecution. It was a bit disappointing to me that this girl, who I hadn't known even for a year yet, was turning out to be even nicer than my own sister at that point.

We were playing hide and seek one day. Naturally, Ty Lee was on Azula's team, and they were counting this time. Mai was about to escape into the refuge of a bush when, on impulse, I took her hand and dragged her into the palace.

"What are you-"

"Shh!" I pressed my finger to my lips and dragged her into the hallway, where there was silence save for the muted sound of giggles and counting in the garden outside. "I need to ask you something."

We were pressed against the wall, Mai and I, and I could see a tinge of red on her cheeks. Unsure of what this meant, I dropped her hand and told her to sit down.

"Why are we here? Azula's going to get mad at us." She spoke in a whisper, but it was the most that I had ever heard from her. I peeked around the corner, hearing Ty Lee's laughter and Azula's faint "there, check the bushes" and sat down against the wall alongside her.

"They won't find us here," I told her. "But I need to ask you about the Academy for Girls."

Mai said nothing, so I pressed on. "Can you tell me how Azula was at school?"

"She was the smartest girl." She murmured, and I could see that she had lowered her eyes to the floor. "Everyone liked her."

"Why?"

Her eyes darted up to meet mine, and I bit my lip as Azula and Ty Lee's footsteps came closer. "Tell me the truth. I promise that I won't tell her anything."

"She-" Her voice broke off as she heard Ty Lee call her name. "I don't know-"

"Tell me!" I hissed, and she glanced back at me with a hint of uncertainty in her eyes. I must have been pretty convincing, because she bit her lip slightly and settled back down next to me, out of sight from the others.

"Lots of girls liked her because they thought she'd be Princess soon." She whispered, her quiet voice barely audible in the silence of the hallway. I could hear the doubt in her voice, as if she were committing to a crime, and I squeezed her hand encouragingly.

"And? How does she act around them?"

My hand was on hers, and I could see the faint tinge of red returning. At least it gave her confidence, and she spoke the rest quickly, quietly:

"She was really quiet at first, but then the teachers started favoring her. Then she became kind of bossy and-"

Her voice trailed off and she glanced up quickly, snatching her hand away from under mine. There, standing above us, were Ty Lee and Azula, their shadows covering us in the dim of the hallway.

"Aww, look, Azula! They ran away and hid together! Isn't that just sweet?"

My little sister just rolled her eyes and motioned at Mai with her foot. "Let's go, Mai. I don't even know why you're bothering to hide with my brother." She spoke this with contempt, with the slightest hint of satisfaction, and with a last glance back at me, the shy nobleman's daughter gave in, stood up, and walked away with her friends.

And I just sat there, in the dark and silence of the hallway, wondering what I had done to make my sister hate me so.

--

The years after that passed in a blur. Azula and Ty Lee grew more vicious. Mai and I started to become friends. My cousin died and my uncle failed to seize Ba Sing Se and Fire Lord Azulon passed, much to the excitement of my little sister. I was sad, almost heartbroken, when news of Lu Ten's death came, but instead of sharing my sorrow, Azula told me that it wasn't right to grieve for weak men. It sounded as if she were happy that he was gone.

Azula was so different now. My confusion at her turned to overwhelming guilt and sadness when she started to ignore and hurt me, anger when she turned Mai and Ty Lee against me just as soon as I was sure that they were tolerable, and hate when she started to hate me altogether.

My father became Fire Lord. My mother, my protector from the monster my sister had become, disappeared. And Azula, just like the girls at the Academy had predicted, became Princess of the Fire Nation.

I turned thirteen. I was scarred, banished, cast away. Azula was eleven, and she watched with relish over my bed in the infirmary as I groaned in pain. She stood over me, a shadow of Death, and told me that I was weak.

"Do you know what I was angry about? Back when you were teaching me Firebending and you told me that it was fueled by anger and rage? That I had to think of something that made me angry?"

I said nothing. She took my silence as a signal to continue.

"I was angry that everyone thought you were special, Zuko. That just because you were older and the next in line for the throne, that you could be stronger than me. But when I went to the Academy, I realized that so many other people were better than you. And now, I'm better than all of them.

"I was jealous, but I didn't have to be. I don't need anger to fuel my bending, because I don't need to be angry anymore. I had a goal, and that was to convince Dad that I was better. And I am. Everybody knows it.

Thank you, Brother, for everything. For the Firebending lessons. You made me perfect."

I was too injured and too pained to really take her words to heart, but at night, they burned into my heart like flames. And when I sailed away with my defeated and outcast Uncle, when the young lady with faded hair ribbons and hidden knives in her robes faded into the horizon with the rest of the Fire Nation harbor, I finally realized that my little sister, the little sister that used to be my best friend, was truly and utterly gone.

Yet I couldn't bring myself to believe that she never really existed, because I knew that those tears she had shed were real and the smiles she had shot at me were real and the nightly visits when we were young were real. But time went on, and the waves rolled under my shadow of a ship, and those childhood days began to fade into nothingness. Fade until all was left was Azula's voice that night, when she thanked me for making her perfect.

The waves rolled on underneath my ship, and I struggled to go to sleep. I was thirteen, and banished, and scarred. And my sister was a liar.

"I was better. And I am. Everybody knows it."

Azula always lies. Azula always lies.

"I realized that so many people were better than you. And now, I'm better than all of them."

Azula always lies. Azula always lies.

"Thank you, Brother, for everything. For the Firebending lessons. You made me perfect."

It was truth. It was the hardest thing to accept.

--

The days after my banishment were the hardest in my life. Yet, they passed quickly, and they were journeys. Journeys that took me to the Water Tribes, then to the Earth Kingdom, and back to the Fire Nation. I was forced back into that artificial life.

Azula was strong, powerful, and confident. She was not a little girl; she was a full-grown woman. She was dangerous. And she had gone so far in her Firebending... so far. I felt powerless, and weak, and stupid in her prescence. It was what she had wanted all along, but I refused to accept that it was what she would've wanted as a child. She tormented me, she chided me for taking Uncle's side, she ridiculed me for having an affair with Mai. It was like the post-academy days, only this time, there was more than the risk of humiliation on the line.

What I used to seek in Azula as a friend I now sought in Mai. She was beautiful now, older and more elegant. My banishment hadn't changed her quiet and nonchalant nature, but I found that she had her doubts about Azula as well. We became confidants, lovers. We formed a bond that was constituted of quiet talks at night and palanquin rides. And time passed in the Fire Nation, pleasant, wasted time, and it wasn't long until destiny picked me up and sent me onto the Avatar's path as a friend.

Mai saved my life, then, and was imprisoned with Ty Lee. I was surprised, shocked. Never would've imagined, after I hurt Mai so badly, that she would've given herself up to save me. But most of all, I never would've thought... never would've thought that Azula's best friend, Ty Lee, would turn against her.

"I love Zuko... more than I fear you..."

I know that it haunted her. It was what my father had once thought of me. He loved me more than he loved Azula, back when I was eight and she was six, back when Azula was young and human and my little sister. It was this that made her resent me. This that fueled her inner fire. And she had lied, pretended to love me.

That was when I told myself that Azula wasn't my sister. She was an enemy, someone to be stopped. So when I faced her then, as the comet raged overhead and Katara stood there, feet planted, and the enemy held her hands out up ahead, I lashed out with all my strength and didn't hold back. I knew that Azula didn't love me, had never loved me. I wanted her to die.

Imagine striking through your opponent's heart-

I had fallen, then. Struck down by my little sister's- no, my enemy's- lightning. But when Katara defeated her, defeated her and tied her down and took away what had made her superior to me in the first place, I saw Azula. My sister, my little sister, who used to be my best friend, chained and defeated and human.

She looked at me, and she wasn't about to apologize, but I could see all the sorrows and injustices and the reflections of a damaged childhood in her eyes. The tears streamed down, and I was instantly brought back to the day when I took her hands in the nursery and told her to breathe in and out, slowly. Like a fireplace, letting the smoke come out of your nose. And she cried, and said that she was weak... weak. Back when she was six and I was eight.

Despite everything, I couldn't bring myself to say it. I couldn't tell her that she brought it on herself. Because, in a way, I brought it on her too.

--

What was left of the war faded away, and I was brought back to the peace. I was brought back to midnight talks with Mai and visits with the Avatar and his friends and quiet evenings spent sipping tea at Uncle's shop. But then, something tugged at my heart. There was something I needed to resolve, something urgent and critical. My father had refused to tell me where my mother was. Perhaps Azula knew.

It was an excuse, really. I needed to see my sister, needed to see her and tell her everything. To ask her why she had done this to herself, to me, to everybody.

Why?

Mai had asked to come with me, but I refused, telling her that the mental institute she had been sent to was perfectly safe. It was strangely fitting, yet somewhat tragic. Because I had remembered a time before, when she was just as human as the rest of us.

Mai was in a state of half-grieving. Her father, mother, and younger brother had died in the liberation of Omashu, but the pain was either well-concealed or not felt at all. I asked my betrothed why she wasn't sad, why no grief marred the quiet expression in her eyes. And she looked at me, calmly, and said:

"They didn't care about me, Zuko."

I didn't think that was the case, but she continued. "I was a young girl, and the only heir to my family's fortune. I was weak to them, because I lacked the power and strength and prescence that a male would've had in a household. So they tried to make me perfect, to make up for my lack of power."

"They didn't know how strong you were. You can take out an entire troop of soldiers now!"

"It didn't matter," she stated nonchantly, the black ribbon she had tied around her neck fluttering in the autumn breeze. "When Tom-Tom was born, all that training and perfection and obedience was discarded. They didn't need to expect anything from me. I was everything they had wanted me to be before. They didn't care in the end."

"Look where that's gotten you, Mai." I took her hands quietly, and she glanced up. "Look how all that obedience and perfection and whatever they tried to force on you did... it's gotten you tangled up with Azula! You should've taken a stand. You should've been yourself anyways."

She turned away, an unusual look in her eyes. "You don't understand. They wouldn't have cared either way. The least I could do was to be the obedient daughter they had always wanted." A hardness back in her voice, she then stated, "I wish they understood. Like you."

On the way to visit Azula, I realized that it was what she had felt all along. Mai, the girl, the "weak" one- shunned. Azula hadn't been loved like I had; I had taken all my father's pride before. So Azula had to make herself known. She had needed that power, that perfection, that drive to earn my father's love. And the one person she had needed to get past was me.

I realized, then, with a pang in my heart, that I was the only one who had loved my little sister for who she had been.

--

"Zuko."

What was left of a person lay crumpled on the floor, defeated and battered and broken, hazel eyes dull and dead. My little sister sat up and faced me, surrender in her voice, and talked to me. Talked to me like a human.

I forgot about my mother. Forgot about her. I listened to my sister. She didn't apologize, didn't want to tell me that she was sorry for wanting to be acknowledged. She wasn't sorry that my mother called her a monster; that my father called her stupid and impudent for being unable to Firebend and that I hated her so, wanted her to die. She lay there, broken, her voice calm and contemplative, and then she stared at me, a calm suffering in her eyes.

"I had always wanted to be Fire Lord. Of being better. I idolized the ones I couldn't emulate and strove to beat the ones I could. But I hated you, Zuko. Because I couldn't emulate you, couldn't be the person you were. You saw the good in others, weak fool that you were. I knew nothing but the bad. And yet, I beat you in everything... and it got me nowhere."

She sat there, then, waiting for a reply. I said nothing, just looked at her from behind the bars that separated her.

"I can't see the good in others, because I knew that I could never be better in that way. I can never do what you can or bring peace to the world. I was young when my father hated me, and I was born and raised to the highest expectations. I wanted perfection, power. It worked for me. It brought me higher, until you had to crush me and take everything away. To bring peace, you said. It was only for your own selfish intentions."

"Perfection and power are overrated." I found myself saying to her, remembering what my Uncle had taught me so long ago. "It... never matters. Not in the end."

"No." She scowled, although it looked more like a grimace. "You always had love. Everybody loved you. And... they hated me. They admired my power and feared me, but without that, they wouldn't have noticed. They wouldn't have cared about me without the power and the perfection. And I hated you, because you didn't need those things. No matter what, even if you were weak in Firebending or weak physically, they would've still loved you in the end. You're weaker than I am, no matter what. But they don't care anymore."

"'...Zula."

She glanced up at me, and I stared back at her, feeling pity for this fallen girl. No matter what, she had still been human to me. I had seen her, I had held her when she cried and had been her confidant. If anybody had ever loved her for who she was or what she had been, it had been me. I was the closest thing to love that she had.

She hated me for it.

"You had me." I said quietly. "And you didn't care."

"We're both to blame for that," she replied faintly, and then turned away. "You're to blame for being my older brother. My rival. You... hated me. Just like all the others."

"No. I didn't hate you. I hated what you had become, not who you used to be. Before the power and perfection took over you."

She lay then, slumped against the wall. "They all lied. Mother, Father. Mai, Ty Lee, the girls who adored me at the Academy. Liars, all of them." She glanced at me once more, a strange look in her lifeless eyes. "You're a liar, too."

"You lied to yourself," I found myself saying. "Ozai might have expected a lot from you. My mother might have favored me. But you didn't have to change to be loved, you know."

"It doesn't matter," my little sister managed, turning away. "Because I can't be that person anymore. Weak, unfavored. Unworthy." She bowed her head then, in a surprising show of surrender. "What had always made me angry, had made me hate you, was that you could be all those things, and you still are. Yet, you're Fire Lord." A crooked grin crossed her face, and she looked up at me one last time. "Destiny seems to favor the weak."

"No. It favors the people who are strong enough to know their weaknesses. You don't need power or fear to be loved by people. You just need to love others."

"Love is such a useless emotion." She caught sight of the engagement band that lay on my finger. "You pretend to yourself that it'll last forever. In the end, it's power and force that drives it apart, breaks it. It's an illusion. False happiness. You won't be with Mai forever."

"It isn't power that drives love apart. It's hate. It's what made you the enemy in my eyes."

"But if you hate me so much now, why are you here? Why are you bothering? Are you trying to knock me down lower than I am? Are you trying to reduce me to that pathetic little girl that I was then, struggling with my Firebending and being weak in my father's eyes?" A glint of what she had been before shone in her eyes, and I could see the surpressed rage in her. She was trying to remain calm and perfect again, but I could sense that she was struggling.

"No," I told my little sister, defeated and dead on the floor of the mental institute. "You're still my sister. We have the same blood. The person you used to be didn't deserve to be here."

The pride was gone. The monster that Azula had used to be was gone. And I looked, and watched, as the harsh of Azula's eyes faded and in its stay was the weak little girl she had always said she was, lying on the floor.

My little sister. Azula, defeated.

Nothing in the world was right anymore.

--

Mai and I were married happily, and we were just that. Happy and peaceful and content. Nothing in the world would be a threat to anybody. There were a few rebel uprisings, but other than that, the four nations, as I had promised to everybody, had entered an era of peace.

It wasn't until I went into the bedroom, saw my wife sitting quietly on the edge of the crimson bedsheets with an unusual expression in her eyes, that I knew something had happened. Something I wasn't going to like.

I walked over, sat next to her. She placed a hand on my shoulder and explained quietly that my little sister was gone.

Gone.

I was furious at first. Furious. I asked why they would let her escape like that. Why they didn't keep a closer eye on her. Mai listened for a while, waiting until I was calmed down for a while before stating, in a solemn sort of voice:

"Zuko, she's... she passed away."

I said nothing. There was really nothing to be said. I turned to her, then, and saw that she was keeping her composure.

"You don't care, do you?" I ventured quietly, to break the silence a little. Maybe talk would erase that fact, erase the fact that Azula was dead. That I had locked her away and killed her. I searched Mai's hazel eyes for something that would dispute that fact.

There was nothing, because the truth was undeniable.

"I would've cared if she hadn't hurt you like that," she replied then, her hand never leaving my shoulder. "She can't hurt anybody anymore. It was for the best, and... it's not such a tragedy, Zuko."

I let my head drop then, and Mai quietly removed her hand from my shoulder to give me some room.

"All her life, she had been convinced that she had to be perfect to be loved. She had to make people fear her, otherwise they wouldn't take her seriously. They all thought that she was weak." I shook my head, trying to erase that truth. "She thought that fear was the root of all emotions- love, anger, everything. She used fear to control everything that a person was. But... it got her nowhere."

"I know it didn't." Her eyes found mine, and I could see that her voice had softened a little; that her eyes had taken on a faraway expression. "Back at the Academy, and everywhere else. I hated that about her, but I couldn't help but follow her. She had always been like that. Manipulative, and fearless..."

"No, she hadn't." I stood up then, turned towards the window. "Azula turned into somebody terrible, but she wasn't always like that. Back when we were kids, before I met you..."

She stood up and walked towards me then, eyes lowered. "She was different."

"Yeah. Different."

I let her arms drape over my shoulders, let myself hold her, and tried to drown the realization that my sister was gone in the quiet security of Mai's arms.


Author's Note: There is no possible way in the world that I did Zuko and Azula's relationship justice. But... I needed to write this down.

First of all, I murdered Maiko in TDATD. It was written before I started to ship it, and looking back, I realize that I've written Mai as a heartless soul and Zuko as some sort of relentless cheater. And I don't know... I just feel as if I've done them a great and extremely embarrassing injustice. So I tried to make amends here.

Second of all, that Agni Kai in the finale was a tragic, beautiful work of art. Oh, gosh, did anybody realize how heartwrenching and completely wrong that was? Azula was Zuko's little sister, and they're trying to kill each other there. It was the most stunning thing in the finale, next to the Kataang kiss of epic proportions. And I thought, even if Azula and Zuko hated each other now, they were once siblings- best friends, maybe. And that's heartbreakingly... sorrowful.

Oh, geez. The way of the world is cruel.

This is what I've been working on for a while, so I'm SO SORRY for not updating the next chapter of TDATD. Because the finale bogged me down, and I'm trying to sort through my emotional and creative turmoil in this fandom. So please... excuse me.

Constructive criticism is appreciated and welcomed.