The World Will Always Break Your Heart
by Phoenyx Lyssa
People come into your life like lightning. Azula knows this as surely as she knew she was destined for greatness ever since the first licks of bright flame spurted from chubby eight-year-old fingers. Lightning illuminates your surroundings, throwing the world around you into sharp white-hot relief for a few blessed seconds, flashing and then fading all too soon, leaving behind only despair and a ghostly memory of sight.
People are like that. They stay long enough to matter, to make a difference, before disappearing into the night. This has personally never happened to Azula (although she refuses to talk about the mother that went away), but she relishes other people's heartaches, watches in smug triumph as the carefully structured expressions crumble, false words of comfort sarcastically dripping from her lips like poisoned honey.
She can't help it. She's the poster girl for schadenfreude. All those petty little miseries emanating from all those petty little hearts only serve to make her stronger and prouder, to make her blood-red lips curve in a hard, pitiless smile because that's never going to happen to me. And it never will, because Ursa can be rotting in a grave for all Azula cares, and Ty Lee is a vapid idiot and Mai is a bore, and the soon-to-be-crowned Fire Lord has no need for any of them.
Zuko, on the other hand... Now there's someone who always lets his heart get in the way.
Azula knows her brother inside-out, knows that, for him, the world has always been cloaked in perpetual night. She'd noticed the tendrils of despair that had wrapped around him when their mother left, the ones he was never able to successfully keep at bay, like the whispered insults that clung like pesky shadows--- weak, imperfect, lucky to be born--- and she'd noticed the dark, whirling cloud of emotions that often seemed to shade his golden eyes after Ba Sing Se.
So it's with a glimmer of cruel pleasure and amusement that she realizes he's found his lightning, when he and the Waterbender make their dramatic entrance at the palace courtyard. They could be just any ordinary pair on a mission, but there's something there when they look into each other's eyes and speak--- the tension that crackles in the air, rising at the height of their emotions and then settling, softening into something gentler, falling like ashes on the harsh, protective lines of her brother's face. And Azula knows--- because sisters always know--- that Zuko's darkness holds no more monsters.
She wants to cackle with glee. A Water Tribe peasant! How could a Fire Nation royal fall so low? But she decides she'll save the joy for later, when the girl is dead and Zuko has once more sunk into despair and Azula will get to say I told you so.
"I'm sorry it has to end this way, brother," says Azula, shedding the ceremonial cloak the Fire Sages placed over her shoulders.
"No," replies Zuko solemnly, "you're not."
Azula smirks because it's true.
The duel is rushed and heated, a collision of blue and gold flames that roar and intertwine, causing brilliant sparks and waves of intense warmth to fly through the air. Azula thinks of dragons, how they would have looked like this, as rivers of fire stream around her and crash against the courtyard walls, singeing hair and flesh. The Agni Kai is a dance of evasion and offense, feet sidestepping, arms punching forward, painted in smoke and coloured heat. And Azula grits her teeth because she's the prodigy, always has been, but it looks like Zu-zu's learned a thing or two.
"I'll show you lightning!" Azula screams, telltale sapphire crackles of electricity pulsing from her fingertips.
Taking a deep breath, Zuko assumes the redirecting position, his narrowed eyes deadly and resigned. They know--- because siblings always know--- that he's not strong enough, that she'll always be stronger, but right now the future is split into two different paths, and only one of them will come out of this alive.
"La-la, don't hurt the turtle-ducks," Zuko warns her in his childish lisp as leaves fall like gentle whispers all around them and the reflection of their young faces ripple in the crystal-clear pond, suffused with golden light.
At the last possible second, Azula's gaze shifts to the girl standing on the sidelines. Here is a chance to prolong Zuko's agony, and she'll be damned if she doesn't seize it, the way she seizes that memory of water and summer afternoon, from the time when they were too young to pronounce each other's full names.
The next few minutes happen in a blur of slow motion, stretching into hours. Azula shrieks with laughter at the strangled cry that rips itself from Zuko's throat, at the way he moves faster than lightning and throws himself in front of its path, cupping it in his hands, the practiced stance and motion disrupted in such a way that he's no longer able to properly redirect it, sending it blazing into the dark red sky as he crumples to the ground.
Oh, Zu-zu, you never learn. Love always gets the best of you.
Confident in her triumph, Azula watches from above, propelling herself into the air, perching on the rooftops, letting loose with her element, foiling the Waterbender's desperate attempts to reach Zuko, who is only barely alive, who tries to reach out with a trembling hand. This is delicious. She'll kill the girl right in front of her brother's eyes, reduce that pretty face and those lovely limbs to charred, black soot, and then savour Zuko's hopeless misery before eliminating him once and for all.
Azula likes hearts and how easily they can be broken, but she hates surprises, so she hates the way the peasant battles with startling ferocity and skill worthy of the most legendary Firebenders, hates the way her attacks are deftly countered and evaded.
Most of all, she hates the way she steps over the grills and is suddenly frozen in place, by the water she did not see. She stares in shocked, silent rage into calm and determined eyes the colour of a blue storm-tipped ocean, and in this moment she can spot a glimmer of why Zuko turned his back on the Fire Nation--- underneath the crystal sheen of ice, the Water Tribe girl's hair fans out like a dark cloud, her chestnut skin wreathed in silver mist.
Azula is chained and dragged down, screaming wordlessly. The ice melts and she chokes on the liquid that floods into her lungs, heart heaving and shoulders shaking, the sensation of defeat crashing into her like a tidal wave. She glares as cold iron tightens around her wrists, rendering her hands immobile, glares as the peasant rushes to the fallen prince's side and heals him. From afar, Azula fancies she can spot the flicker of Zuko's eyelids, the way his face lights up when he sees the Waterbender looking down at him, the weak, tender smile curving his lips.
For the first time in her life, Azula truly does not know what to do or where to go from here. Mai and Ty Lee have left, slithered away like the snakes that they are, and all her dreams have crumbled to ashes, and she is cold and dripping wet and a failure under Sozin's burning deep red eye. Blue fire--- the fire that has been a testament to her prowess, the fire she's been praised and honoured for all her life, you are a prodigy, you are destined for greatness--- escapes from her lips in desperate bursts, like the breath of a dying dragon, and hot, angry tears stream down her cheeks. Through the haze she sees her mother once more, slender and beautiful and jasmine-scented, reaching out with hands that curve gracefully like lily-white swans.
You again? Go away! Azula wants to shout, but the words don't come; they end up stuck somewhere at the back of her throat and disappear into that place inside her where it's always a slow and endless drizzle, that place of loud silence and open, unblinking eyes, where the leaves curl and the worms crawl. Her ragged sobs echo throughout the courtyard, startling her because she's never been the type to cry. That was always more up Zuko's alley.
And speaking of Zuko...
The peasant girl helps him to his feet, and, despite her current state of mind, Azula relishes the dim twist of pleasure at how absolutely pissed Mai is going to be, even as she writhes under the scorching pain of their pitying stares. The wind's picked up, it's pushing Zuko's hair into his sombre golden eyes, and the distant part of Azula that's not yet completely dissolved into shadow wonders if he too is remembering sunlight and water and summer afternoon.
In those final heat-addled moments, Azula sees a lot of things that blur into a wild frenzy of distant memories and tangled senses. Her mother and father, happy and smiling under the blue sky of Ember Island. Ozai, his handsome features twisted with power and ambition, distorted by flickering firelight. Ursa, in the mirror before it breaks. You thought I was a monster. Ty Lee, lithe body contorted into those silly cartwheels, surrounded by the circus and the musky scent of animals. Mai, who, underneath that apathetic and impassive facade, had a heart after all. I love Zuko more than I fear you. An ocean of silent Dai Li agents, hers to command. The buildings that crumble and the people that fall to the ground under her might. Iroh, ridiculous, tea-stained fingers and pai sho tiles, and Iroh, resolute, a great fountain of angry fire roaring from his mouth. Do you know why they call me the Dragon of the West? The Avatar, the ethereal glow that fades from his eyes, the way his back arches under the onslaught of lightning, amidst the rocks and crystals under Ba Sing Se.
And she sees Zuko, in the days before the scar, always resentful and at best mildly tolerant, and she sees him now with the ugly burn, red as Sozin's sky, the mark of a father's rage, drawing strength and quiet comfort from the Waterbender's hand on his back, and Azula can only scream mindlessly, sobbing and shuddering, because she's miscalculated again.
People do come into your life like lightning, but every once in a while, there's someone who catches and spreads like a forest fire.