Chapter Three: Mother
Confusion... did not become her.
It was a foreign and unwelcome emotion for the young girl to have. She had seen it in others from time to time, of course, whenever it was worth her examining. But she never experienced it herself. Until now.
Everything perfectly fit into place for her up until this morning. She was Azula, Princess of the Fire Nation, blessed by Agni himself with talent seen only once every few generations among the royal bloodline. She was among those chosen to witness the return of Sozin's Comet and harness its legendary power, ending the hundred year struggle once and for all as the dominating element of fire ruled as it should.
Family dynamics had been pathetically easy to decipher as well. Her father adored her for having the prodigious talent he anticipated from his first born son. Azula's mother, Ursa, feared her own daughter and the power she wielded. Of course, not being a firebender, she could never understand. Not that she cared what Ursa thought, Azula told herself. And as for her brother..
Zuko detested her for being so much better at everything. He did his best to make her feel unwelcome in his life. For that, she tormented him. And enjoyed it. She made certain that Zuko would pay attention to her, at the very least. There was a time when Azula adored her older brother... perhaps she still did in her own admittedly twisted way. They had once been rather close when they were younger. But as their father began to tirelessly drill the siblings on firebending, a clear line had divided them.
But just this morning, it seemed that Zuko had overcome his feelings of inadequacy, to a certain point. He had never before openly acknowledged that she was indeed superior in the bending discipline of their people. The resentful glances of jealousy he occasionally sent over his shoulder told her as much. And even though she returned them with smug smiles, on the inside she felt almost ashamed of her firebending prowess, if it made Zuko, her brother, hate her for it. Naturally, that shame soon became anger at the prince for making her feel such a way, when he should be happy for her.
And now... it seemed that he finally was.
She wouldn't call it an apology, exactly. Not for past transgressions. But he had admitted that he was jealous. And more importantly, he had said that he was proud of her. Proud of her! Azula considered that he wasn't speaking the truth, but Zuko was a terrible liar, she knew. It was embarrassing to admit to herself, but Azula found that it elated her to finally have her brother's praise, that she had sought from the beginning of her training, only to be received distastefully.
Oddly enough, she was happier to hear it from Zuko than she had ever felt from her father.
Concerning their mutual father figure, Zuko's words had stunned her. The way he had said their father's name, with such disrespect and loathing that was once directed at her, would be reciprocated by a very harsh scolding at the least, had it been overheard. But he had done so without fear, just as he had spoken at breakfast. When, she wondered, did Zuko cast aside the unspoken competition between them for Ozai's attention? When had Zuko started to see their father as a tool to strengthen himself?
And what he had said about their father's inability to love.. It hurt... to hear those things. Not only because it meant that the one person who could possibly care for her, as she had been raised, actually did not. But also because... deep down... she had always known. Azula just didn't want to admit it to herself. Could not afford to admit it to herself.
She could see the gleam of ambition and pride in Ozai's sharp eyes, whenever she performed flawlessly (which was always). But it was not directed at her. He always looked past and through her, onto bigger things that she could help him attain, someday. Zuko was right. She was just a tool for her father.
But what else could there be for her in life? Nothing, that's what. Ozai did not love her, but praise, no matter how empty, was as close as she would come to receiving such an emotion. Or so she had believed. If her brother.. If Zuko truly cared for her as he said... as he seemed to believe that he did...
What did she need Ozai for?
Azula's very unwelcome confusion only escalated when her mother made an appearance in her room. She successfully fought off an unhappy frown at the woman's presence, and faced her with a neutral expression.
"Yes, Mother? Was there something you needed?" she asked lightly and respectfully. The woman still had a position of authority over her, after all.
Ursa smiled gently. "Must I want something from my daughter? I only wish to spend time you."
Azula blinked apathetically. "While Zuko is at the turtle-duck pond you both fancy, you instead sought out my company? Interesting."
"You and Zuko are both my children. I care for each of you."
"Could have fooled me," the girl muttered. But Ursa had sharp ears. She frowned lightly, choosing her next words carefully.
"I confess, my intention was to join your brother when I saw him at the pond. But he said some things that were... troubling." Ursa said, peering at her daughter. "Things about you."
Azula rolled her eyes. "I should have known. Zuzu is such a tattletale."
"Your brother is only concerned for you, Azula. As am I, for that matter."
"Concerned?" she asked with a raised brow. "Is that what you call it?"
"Of course," Ursa answered. "What else would it be?" she asked in a sincere tone.
Eyes narrowing slightly, Azula could no longer resist the urge to cross her arms defiantly. "I've seen the look in your eyes, Mother, and it certainly is not something I would label as concern."
Ursa titled her head thoughtfully, gazing down at her rather irate looking daughter. "Oh? Then what would you call it?"
The word hung throughout the air, leaving a heavy silence in its wake. The elder of the two showed no other sign of having heard her daughter than a slight narrowing of her eyes. Azula waited impatiently for her mother to string together a web of lies about how that wasn't true. It wasn't until several more moments of tense silence passed that Ursa reacted.
She laughed, loudly yet with refined elegance. Ursa tilted her head back, covering her mouth with a perfectly manicured hand. It was not an unkind laugh, yet for some reason Azula felt vulnerable, ashamed, offended and even humiliated. She felt like such a child with her mother standing over her and laughing at something she had said so very seriously.
Ursa calmed herself, eyes gazing down at her daughter with faint amusement. "I am sorry, my daughter. I am sorry for laughing at your grave claim," she apologized, stroking Azula's hair. "But I have bedded one of the most powerful and ambitious men in all the Fire Nation, in the world for that matter. I fear no one."
Azula blinked again, this time in profound confusion. However she had expected her mother to respond, that was certainly not it. Damn it all, this would require even further reevaluation of her life components.
Ursa placed her hands on Azula's back and guided her to the large mirror without protest. She towered over her daughter, draping her hands over Azula's shoulders from behind. "Do you know what I see here?" she asked gently.
"...No," Azula said in a small voice.
"I see a beautiful, talented young girl who might be confused about some things. I see a proud and dignified princess of the Fire Nation." Ursa bent down and hugged her from behind. "I see my daughter, whom I love very much."
The girl's amber eyes were downcast as she stared at their forms in the large mirror. "...Yes, I'm sure. Hugs, kisses and all of that," she said doubtfully.
"Oh, but I do love you, Azula," Ursa assured in a tone that truly indicated as such. "The bond between a mother and a daughter is an unbreakable one."
"You make it sound like such a burden."
"It is no burden, Daughter. It is a special gift."
Azula's jaw trembled as she roughly pulled away from her mother's embrace and lies. She fixed an angry stare at the woman. "Well you certainly never treated it like something special," Azula said snippily. "In fact, there is no bond between us other than one of blood and mistrust." She turned away, crossing her arms again.
Ursa frowned, but there was no one to blame for her daughter's suspicion other than herself. She always believed that Azula was simply happier and more fulfilled in Ozai's company. She sighed. "Azula... I apologize if I have given the impression that you are somehow unwanted."
Azula did not face her mother, but reluctantly turned her head ever so slightly to look at her.
"Now, at this point," Ursa said, draping her hands over her daughter's shoulders again, "I would expect any other child to pout or sulk. But I know my little girl is an opportunist."
Said girl could not successfully fight off a slight smile. How very underhanded and effective it was of her mother to appeal to her ego; it was a tactic Azula admired. It also made her feel a little warm that Ursa laid claim to her.
"Oh, very well, Mother," Azula allowed as she turned to face Ursa, her smile replaced by an expression every bit as nonchalant as her tone. "If you insist, I shall give this 'bonding' a try." Azula looked thoughtful. "But only if we do something more interesting than feeding animals," she specified.
"More interesting?" Ursa echoed. She then smiled something devious that Azula was familiar with herself. "I believe I have just the thing in mind. But we'll still need to go to the pond..."
Azula quirked an eyebrow, intrigued.
Zuko was working on the basics. He was determined to build himself from the ground up and as new person. So he started properly from the beginning, mastering the basics as Uncle had told him to before.
Back then, he had been too stubborn to listen, too caught up with fighting and capturing the Avatar. But now he was stronger and wiser and freer then ever. He had come to realize that his focus of rushing through the basics had weakened him in the long run, hindering his progress as a firebender. Now he had the time, patience, and experience to know better.
Once he was able to move again without pain jolting through his legs, Zuko started drilling the most basic sequences of firebending and worked his way from there. He repeated them until he had gotten them completely perfect, and if he made a mistake, he would start from the first sequence all over again. And he did so without using flames, so as not to tire himself before the training session. He focused on his breathing, muscle control, and form.
He had finally made it to the end of the last sequence of the basic kata, about to start over, when his mother and sister arrived. He stopped to catch his breath and see what they were up to. Ursa smiled knowingly at him. Azula only glanced at him in a way that said she was reserving judgement. Clearly she knew that he had told their mother... He hoped that didn't come back to bite him.
Ursa approached the tree near the pond, reached up and plucked an apple from it. Seeing her mother do this, the young girl frowned.
"A healthy snack, Mother? This is hardly what I had in mind," Azula complained.
"Oh, I don't intend for you to eat the apple," Ursa said calmly. She placed the fruit on her head, keeping it in place with perfect posture. "I want you to knock it off my head."
Zuko's eyes widened with a stupid expression on his face. How exactly did this come to pass as a result of what he had said?
Azula was also briefly overcome with shock before she schooled her expression into indifference. Truly her mother had caught her off guard with this stunt, but the younger princess was not to be fooled. This was probably some test to see if she would fire, just so that she could be punished for it later. She would call Ursa's buff.
"That certainly does sound more exciting than feeding turtle-ducks," she said with a disparaging glance at her brother. "Of course, you have no way of knowing I won't miss, do you?" she asked disinterestedly, drumming her fingers against her crossed arms.
"I trust you, Azula."
Trust... is for fools, she thought. Swallowing heavily, the young girl, determined to get her mother to back down, said, "Are you sure you want to risk your fabulous good looks on trust? Wouldn't you hate looking in a mirror everyday for the rest of your life to see a burn, because you relied on something so fickle?"
Ursa smiled, unmoving. "True trust is no fickle thing, my dear. It's stronger than any dragon. Go ahead and fire whenever you're ready."
Azula looked into her mother's golden eyes and saw that she was completely serious. She extended her index and middle fingers as she took a stance. Heat began to curl around her hand.
Fine, the girl decided. She would fire. And she aim solely for the apple. But her mother would cower away as soon as she did, showing her true colors, that she truly did fear her daughter.
Zuko flickered his eyes back and forth, wondering if he should intervene. However, given that the current situation arose because of him, maybe it was best he did not.
With the snapping motion of her arm, Azula sent a precise bolt of fire straight through the core of the apple resting on Ursa's skull. The woman did not even flinch as the apple was shot to the ground, her eyes never wavering from the form of her daughter.
Zuko sighed in relief.
Azula straitened, speechless that her mother had not budged. She stared wide-eyed.
Ursa clapped her hands together, smiling pleasantly. "Well now, that was fun."
Short chapter. I really didn't have anything else to add.
The fact that I was inspired around the anniversary of my last update is merely a coincidence, I assure you.
soupcan: I considered that he was being too understanding. But look at how he tried to save Zhao from the ocean spirit, someone who tried to have him killed, and whom he was currently dueling in a fight to the death (possibly). So I think Zuko's compassion is astounding for that feat alone.
Eduard Kassel: I know what you mean about the beginning. To be honest, I didn't want to write this story, because I already had another time travel story in the works, and I guess that shows.
Oh, and the correct pairing that I have planned was guessed. But that's all I'm saying. :)
Expect the next update sooner than a year from now.