Entitled: Combustion Countdown
Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Length: 3000 words
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar and etc.
Notes: For Cass, who I love dearly even though I suspect she has some kind of complex. Here you are, darling. For everyone else, this is pretty twisted. Proceed with caution.
Her hair isn't perfect. Her lipstick is smudged and her hair is all wrong and her mother is in the mirror, calling Azula her little ugly duckling and Azula isn't ugly, Zuko's the one who's ugly, the one with that scar, that—
She will always be better than Zuko. She picks up the scissors and calmly, evenly, begins slicing through the uneven chunk of hair hanging across her cheekbone.
"I will always love you," Ursa's ghost whispers in the mirror, and the scissors jerk up and snap violently closed and Azula hates this mirror, this ugly, ugly mirror, and she should not be expected to use this awful, horrible thing, so she pulls back one foot and cuts out and it isn't until the glass has been ground down to unmelting ice that Ursa disappears.
"You liar," Azula screams at the floor, at the thousands of girls on the floor, screaming back up at her, "You liar."
In a few hours, she tries to kill her brother and can't, because she's tired, not because she held back, and when his ugly little water girl locks her up in the ice, Azula's frozen staring at her brother, lying several feet away, face down to the ground.
She isn't crying. She just doesn't have the words to express this.
Her brother is getting taller. It's a pity about the scar, really, he'd have been a handsome boy without it. With it. A pretty little boy who did nothing but cry for their probably dead mother. Maybe it's best this way.
Yes, yes it's fitting.
The water girl has one hand on Zuko's arm, and her eyes are very blue. Her clothes are shabby and torn around the hem, and her hair is just a mess. She looks every inch the peasant queen, and her hand is still on Zuko's arm, protective or restraining or whatever, it doesn't matter, because Azula is suddenly overcome with giggles. Her stupid brother and his stupid water girl, and she thinks that stupidity is exponential.
"Zuzu," she calls him, just so he'll remember that he's hers, "I could give you back your honor. I could fix it. You belong on this side, you know, my side." Worthless piece of scum. And she'll do it, you know, for no other reason than to watch that stupid girl cry when her Zuzu leaves her.
Azula smiles like lightening.
Azula starts wearing lipstick. It's a good look for her, cutting against her pale skin and dark hair, and her lips have always been full, anyways. She studies herself in mirrors, in water, in windows. She looks much, much older, and her waist has begun to curve.
Her uncle Iroh sends her father letters, letters Azula does not read. She is not interested in Zuzu's failures anymore, now that everyone knows he is as worthless as she has always told them. She laughs at dinner and conducts conversations in her head, sitting at the head of an empty table. Ozai condemns Zuko over and over again, noting his flaws against Azula's perfection until Ursa invariably comes to Zuko's defense, protests his own strength, until Azula grows bored of this, and sends her mother away, and then her father too, when his praise becomes chalky.
She permits Zuko to follow her through her halls, to her rooms, to her bed, where she turns on her side and puts her hands between her legs and thinks that her skin is surely softer, cleaner than Zuko's.
Her brother is a handsome boy. She thinks that, knows that, can tell by all the other girls near enough his age to notice. His bare back is curved and pale and naked against the dark room, and Azula lifts her chin and does not permit herself to look away.
Zuko, she thinks, is a fool. He is too much a boy, and cries and begs forgiveness and when her father burns him, and burns him deep, the kind of burn that doesn't heal, (Azula knows about burns, for she plays with fire, and even prodigies have accidents, they are just expected to deal with them) he screams so loud his voice cracks, and he sounds like a child.
But he does not look away. Azula purses her lips and stands close enough that she can smell his skin burning and smiles mechanically because it is the expression she is most familiar with, because she doesn't quite know how she is supposed to react to this.
Zuzu is leaving.
Zuko is having his ceremony tomorrow, the one where he turns thirteen and is formally recognized as a man. He wakes her up very early in the morning, so early it is still night, and his face is very pale.
"I can't do it," he whispers to her, referring to the technique he had to demonstrate for the ceremony to be complete, the one most children had been drilled since they were eight. Azula sits up in bed on her elbows and squints at him, thinks she could probably make him cry.
"Of course you don't," she says quite smugly, is excited by his obvious failure, "You're Zuzu."
"Help me," he whispers, pleadingly, and she sets her toes to the floor, already curled. Her hair is down and messy, and she waves him to the hall so she might make herself presentable. It's the little things, you know, that cannot be sloppy.
She makes her bed and walks out after him and yells and taunts until he's swaying and she's stretching her face to hide a yawn, but he gets it.
"Thanks, Azula," he says with his soft, pliant face, and kisses her forehead with one hand braced at the back of her neck. She knocks him off and strides to bed, disgruntled.
Mai is revoltingly obvious, and Azula is almost glad when the other girl is gone for some godforsaken earth village. It had been amusing at first, her obvious crush on Zuko, but had rapidly become little more than irritating. No, Mai and Zuko were not a good fit, Azula thought coolly, and found herself moping around when her friend was gone, staring apathetically at the back of Zuko's head.
He turned around after a moment and pulled a face, one of the ones he'd used on her when they were children and she hadn't learned to hate him. "What's wrong, are you sick?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Azula cuts cruelly, as she will never be Mai, "I was just missing my friend, and wondering if you might as well."
Zuko looks at her disbelievingly. "Did you really?"
No, her jaw is tight as she walks away, she didn't miss Mai. But he could have believed her capable of it.
Ty Lee can do hand stands and back flips on ropes now, is so alarmingly acrobatic that people have begun to take notice—and that's when she reels them in, with dimples and braids. They're charmed. They adore her. Her father gives Ty Lee's already wealthy family a considerable amount of money and lets them into nobility, and the girl continues to run after Azula like an eager dog.
"Pet," Azula calls her disdainfully, when the grown ups have gone away after congratulating Ty Lee on a particularly daring no-hand cartwheel. Ty Lee gets her nose scrunched up and rocks onto the balls of her feet. She looks oddly disturbed by this.
"I'm not," she wheedles, her voice grating on Azula's headache, (the doctors insist there's nothing wrong with her, that she just needs to relax) "There's nothing wrong with being cute and getting people to like you, Azula."
Azula begins walking away, hating Ty Lee for her vapidness, her uselessness, and thinks that she's kind of ugly, anyways. "I suppose you mean that I wouldn't know about any of that," she baits, and gets a response she wasn't expecting.
Ty Lee runs after her, round eyes confused, tough palms shredding Azula's fine clothes when she catches her sleeves, "Azula? Don't be mad. I didn't mean it like that. You know you're the most beautiful girl alive, right? That's why you're the princess."
"Zuko must have been adopted," Azula says smugly, and permits Ty Lee to be her friend.
When she leaves, her mother does not tell her goodbye.
Azula knows that her mother hates her, hates the supposed monster that sprung from her womb, but she cannot help but hate her back for it. She could have at least pretended. She could have at least tried to be her mother, and not Zuzu's for just one second.
She doesn't like dolls. It's not fair, that she should be expected to play with only the imitations of people, instead of the real things. She practices on Zuzu. He has a protective streak, she knows, and he'll do almost anything for her if she cries. Or pretends to, at least. He's stupid, Azula's beginning to realize, watching their mother dote on him almost obsessively, smoothing back her boy's hair and taking him on long walks Azula is not invited on.
She sits by her mother at dinner and engages her in a debate about politics. Her mother looks at her a little helplessly and eats fast and does not hold up her end of the bargain, so the debate turns into something more like a rant, and Azula cannot help but feel frustrated when her mother ultimately excuses herself after Zuko leaves the table in tears.
He looks confused when she takes his hand and drags him behind the fire lord's curtains. "Listen," she whispers to him, "This is our job one day. Or, mine. Father says he'll be speaking with grandfather to make me the heir."
She will permit Zuzu to stay in the palace when she rules it, she supposes, so long as he continues to do as she says. Zuko looks down at her, and speaks to the top of her head, he's so much taller. His breath is hot, and his skin is warm, and she imagines that the fire within him might be yellow, just as hers is white and blue. Her fingers are always cold.
"Why do you always lie?" he demands, and she looks back at him, and dares him to tell her the truth.
There is a man in her room one night, one who holds a cloth over her face and swelters her in darkness, and just as she's about to fall under Azula grabs for the fire within her, finds it cold with her own desperate determination, and sends in flying into his chest. It's the first time she has ever used her lightening, and the backlash is brutal. It kills her kidnapper instantly, and the servants find Azula cracked on the floor, shaking with spasms.
She is put in a quiet place as the rest of the palace scrambles to find Zuko, whose own kidnapping was met with greater success. She lies in the dark healing rooms and reaches for her fire, tries to make it cold. Her mother visits once, to rest Zuko on the bed next to hers, and leaves the room crying. Azula turns herself slowly, agonizingly, to stare at her brother's face, to see if he has felt fire like she has.
Her father comes in later and looks at the burn mark on Azula's foot, from where the lightening had left and entered her, and studies her gravely. He smiles at her approvingly, and clasps her knee and says, "You have done very well."
When her father has left Azula is glowing.
She is painting. She paints comets and night and an ocean made of red light, and when her work is finished she sets her red fingers at her side and studies it proudly. She has added her family to one corner, dark haired with globs of yellow paint for eyes, all smiling at their conquered world.
When she looks over at Zuko's work, he is showing it to their mother, and it is nothing more than a tree colored blue. In later years Azula would see how crude the picture was, how simplistic and sloppy, for Zuko was hardly an artist, but when she was five and comparing, his picture seemed to be a thousand times more than her own.
She set her paper afire and watched it burn bitterly, wishing she could control her flames like her brother could, make great sweeping waves of it, instead of little sparks that danced along her skin.
She puts the ashes in the garbage can, just where they belong.
"Zuzu," she looks at him a little pointedly, "This is really off."
"Please?" he whines, and stares at her imploringly. He even sets his lower lip at an exaggerated stutter. Azula crosses her arms and sighes grandly, and scoots over.
He clambers into her bed and scurries underneath the covers, right up against her side. He is so warm she is tempted to kick off the covers. His cheek was against her brow, smooth and soft and full and ripe, just like a baby's, and his breathing evens out almost instantly. "Night, Azula."
"Go to sleep, Zuzu," she orders, and feels warm, and not at all afraid of the nightmare she'd been having, and the one he'd pretended to have.
She can't do anything as well as Zuzu can. Her brother is perfect. Her brother is larger than life, and he holds her hand whenever they go anywhere, and shows her only beauty. He is there when she first makes fire, and shows her his own. It's grander than hers, but wild and hot and a little frightening, like Zuzu is when he has a fit, but more than anything, Azula thinks it's warm. The fire she makes is just a spittle of sparks, more light than heat.
"Don't worry," he tells her, "I couldn't make fire until I was four. You're smart, Azula."
Her mother doesn't think so. Her father doesn't think so. Her own name is another shadow to fill.
She makes sparks in the middle of the night when the darkness hides too many imaginary monsters, and thinks that Zuzu would scare them off for her, if she asked. She doesn't want to ask.
Azula has a secret. One that is not her own.
Zuko cannot win her father's love. Zuko eats with his hands and not with forks and knives, like Azula has been taught to, and Zuko runs when he is supposed to walk, sprawls out when he should sit up straight, and starts crying when their father yells. The secret is that Zuko loves his father more than anyone else and would give anything, anything to please him, just as Azula is with her mother, and yet it is the opposite parent who favors them.
Ursa loves her son because he has heart. Ozai approves of his daughter because she is burning to please and quick with clever, baby fingers, and she does not forget. She is polished, where Zuko is not.
"I love you," Azula tells her brother over and over again while he cries, because this is one thing that she understands, "I love you, Zuzu."
The boy holding her coddles, and his face is a bit like hers, his eyes a shade of gold just a bit lighter. He regards her as seriously as she studies him, blurry at the edges but still mostly there, and he says "Zuko," to her, very firmly, and Azula, the witch-baby that never cried, screams in delight and says "Zuzu, Zuzu," back to him.
It is the first thing she learns to say.