A/N: Adapted from a flashback in Baptism that I realized could stand alone as a worthy story in it's own right. Also standard disclaimer that Avatar is the property of it's respective owner/creators, none of whom happen to be me.
Compass of Fire
Mother and daughter sat together on the dark hillside, waiting. The young girl had been so excited at the invitation that she'd hardly slept last night. But now, cuddled up in the crook of her Mother's arm, her head resting against her Mother's side, she was starting to feel sleep catching up with her. Blinking her eyes to try and shrug off their sudden heaviness, the little girl mentally chastised herself for not resting properly the night before. After all, this was a special occasion. She would only get one chance, and it wouldn't do to ruin it because she hadn't properly prepared.
"How much longer until he arrives?" asked the girl as she stirred a little restlessly in her Mother's arms, worried that if it was much longer she might shame her self by being found fast asleep.
"Not long love," replied her Mother as she gently stroked her daughter's hair. "Just be patient a little more. We haven't spent much time together like this since you started your "secret training" you know. And we probably won't have as many opportunities now that your Father's decided to personally train you. Is being with me that boring?" asked the Mother.
She tried to make the question teasing, but her daughter noticed a slight pensive flash in her Mother's eyes, which wouldn't meet hers. Very little slipped past the daughter's sharp notice.
She felt a little guilty that her attempts to rouse herself had been mistaken for impatience. Truth be told, she'd missed spending time with her Mother like this as well. Her "secret" training had been worth it though; it had more than won back her Father's attention, and the look on Zuzu's face had been priceless when she'd flawlessly performed the kata he was still bumbling his way through. Still, there had been some nights after hard training, when she'd lain alone with only her aching muscles for company, that she'd found herself wishing for the softer comforts of her mother.
She wanted to assure her Mother of this, but when she tried to find the words, they seemed too childish, her ego strangling them unspoken in her throat. She wasn't a little girl anymore after all. She was a Bender! It would be an unbefitting show of weakness to admit to something so immature as being too excited to get proper sleep. She had to be more grown up than that now.
The little girl's internal struggle was interrupted by a sudden shift in her Mother. She perked up, looking out over the sea's horizon as if she could hear some invisible call. "It's going to start," announced her Mother, shifting to sitting on her ankles and placing her hands together in prayer position as she closed her eyes and bowed her head. "Can you feel it daughter?"
"I… I think so," lied the girl as she mimicked her Mother's pose. A little frustrated, she opened one eye a crack to peek at her Mother and asked sweetly, "What's it supposed to feel like again?"
"You don't need to force yourself daughter," sighed her Mother with a sad smile, her daughter's insincerity not escaping her. "This is a case where trying will only make it harder. Only when you let go of your ego and clear your mind will there be enough space to feel another's soul." It was a lesson her daughter needed to learn.
Her daughter clenched her eyes shut tighter, trying to figure out how to force her mind clear. It wasn't working though, her mind only getting more agitated as she tried to will it to stop willing. Which was impossible! Frustrated, and knowing that there was a time limit to get it right slipping away with each second, the daughter gritted her teeth as she redoubled her efforts. Absorbed in said efforts, she startled as a hand was gently placed on her shoulder.
"Relax you silly busy head," teased her Mother as she rapped her fist against her daughter's overheating skull. "Not everything can be solved with that brainy head of yours you know. Didn't I tell you this was something you can't accomplish by trying?"
"Then how am I supposed to do it!" exploded the daughter, losing control to her temper.
"You can start…" ordered the Mother as she moved both her arms down and began massaging her daughter's tense shoulders, "…by relaxing."
"But we're running out of ti-" the daughter's whining was shushed by her mother placing one finger against her lips.
"Hush little kola lamb, that doesn't sound like relaxing. I knew this would be difficult for you and allowed for it. We'll still have time if you stop ignoring what your Mother says."
"You don't have to treat me like a little child," muttered the daughter, though she let her shoulders slump down. And now that she wasn't fighting it, she had to admit her mother's ministrations felt pretty good against her knotted muscles.
"You're what, four years old? Practically an infant. It seems like just yesterday you were crawling around in diapers," reminisced the Mother as she worked deeper along her daughter's shoulder blades.
"Mother! I turned five over a month ago, and you know it!" accused the daughter.
"Sorry, sorry," laughed the Mother as she watched her daughter's face turn red in embarrassment.
"You're not sorry at all…" huffed the daughter. "…oh, a little bit to the left, that's the spot."
"Well, when you take yourself so seriously it's hard for others to resist cutting you down to your pint size," offered up her Mother with a chuckle as she felt her daughters knots finally start to melt underneath her fingers. "You certainly don't relax as well as your brother did. Zuko was already well attuned by this point. And he didn't need a shoulder rub to do it." The Mother felt her daughter stiffen at the unfavorable comparison to her brother.
"That's,,, that's because you treat him better! How am I supposed to focus when you keep making fun of me! I'm sure if I was teasing Zuko I could keep him from… from whatever it is we're supposed to be doing!"
"What you're supposed to be not doing is focusing. Needs the compass focus to find the Moon Spirit's sea?"
"…No. The Moon Spirit left part of herself at the North Pole so that her children might always find their way back home to her no matter how far they ventured out on the waters," recited the daughter, remembering well her bedtime stories. " It's just the nature of the moonstone in the compass to be pulled toward the larger portion of the moon hidden at the top of the world,"
"Very good Azula. I'm going to share a secret with you now," whispered the mother as she started massaging her way up her daughter's neck. Her daughter's ears perked up at this, for she was very fond of secrets. "The Moon wasn't the only spirit who left her people with a compass to guide them to her. The compass our people were given is far greater, as befits its giver and his people. It needs no lowly physical form, for it is infused into the soul of every Fire Bender, pulling them toward the source of all Fire."
"Agni!" the daughter exclaimed the name of the Sun Spirit in excitement, comprehension beginning to dawn. "So I can use my Firebending as a compass to sense east now?"
"That's one way to put it I suppose…" acknowledged the Mother ambivalently. The daughter felt cheated that her Mother was showing no pride in her insight this time. "You shouldn't think of it so banally though. What's important is not finding the east, but the One who dwells there."
"I knew that!" claimed the daughter (another part of her mind filing away "banal" to look up later). "You're the one who brought up compasses, so I was just…"
The daughter was cut off by her mother. "That's enough Azula. You're whining like a little child. We don't have time to waste with your back talk. Understand?"
"Yes Mother," sighed the daughter resentfully, her Mother's tone making it clear that such submission was expected.
"That's a good girl," said the Mother, reinforcing the statement by resuming the neck rub she'd halted. The daughter sighed again, but this time it was with pleasure. "Now it's time to sense for Agni. Start by slowly breathing in." The daughter obeyed, breathing in sharply. "… and just relax as you slowly breath out. Good," encouraged the mother as her daughter let out her breathe. "Now allow your breathe to smooth out and slow even more with your next inhalation."
The daughter finally felt herself beginning to relax as her breathe slowly evened out. "That's the idea," said the Mother. "Notice how your body relaxes with each exhalation, noticing how your shoulders move in rhythm with your breathe, becoming even more relaxed as they drop back down in time with your exhalation," thumbs stroking down to assist her daughter's shoulders as they fell, the Mother's gentle voice was becoming quite entrancing, everything else beginning to fade away.
"Your attention focused on your breathing, allow that focus to flow out with it." Finally letting go, the daughter felt her self consciousness dissipating with her breathe. "That's perfect. You're form is good enough now that you can continue breathing correctly without even needing to pay attention to it, allowing yourself to relax completely, letting the last of your thought and effort drain out with this breathe, creating space inside yourself for Agni." Letting out that breath, it felt to the daughter as if even her awareness of her body was fading, as if it were turning into a steam which mixed and dissipated with her breath, leaving only a vague sense of heat, reinforced by her mothers now warmed hands working between the shoulder blades.
Her mother's voice came to her as if from far away, "Remember, you do not need to try; the soul of a fire bender is like a compass, it is it's nature to be pulled toward The Lord of the Heavens. All you need do is let go and relax, and your fire bending will begin to naturally resonate with it's source. Can you feel the fire of your bending inside you Azula?"
"Yes, it feels warm," replied the daughter in a trance like voice.
"Good, let your awareness be drawn to that warmth, like a moth to the flame. Let it be drawn to the flame until nothing else exists except that heat and fire, burning everything else away, including the moth of your awareness, becoming part of the flame as it burns."
The heat inside the daughter wasn't that large, only like a candle really, but even a candle could burn a moth. The daughter felt herself becoming one with that candle. Burning steadily and contentedly in a dark void. Or not so steadily. It would be imperceptible to any outside observer, but the candle flame could feel itself growing incrementally stronger, the wax and wick melting away until it was alone in the void. And yet somehow it managed to continue burning, growing stronger still despite the lack of fuel.
The flame idly wondered how it could burn under such circumstances. The void must not be so empty after all. In fact, the flame had a vague notion that it was here to find that something. Its light illuminating the darkness, the flame was surprised when it instead felt what it was looking for at its own center. A steady stream of chi was flowing from it's own lifeforce, ignited by its bending.
It wasn't the flames soul or bending that was growing stronger though. It was something else rising, carrying the flames bending power along with it. And then the flame could feel it, the sense of a distant and unfathomably powerful presence connected to her. As it rose, it warmed the void, separating the heat from the cold and causing a wind to stir the excited flame. This was what she had been searching for!
The daughter's eyes snapped open. "I did it! I did it Mother! I found Agni!" exclaimed the daughter excitedly as she pointed toward the eastern horizon, dawns light beginning to lighten the sky. "I can feel him beyond the sea!"
"That you can," said the Mother, forcing a half smile. "If you'd hadn't been in such a rush to show it off and maintained your trance a little longer you might have even seen His face." She hadn't actually expected her daughter to reach such a deep trance (though she supposed she should stop being so surprised by what her little prodigy was capable of). Once she'd gone under however, the mother had allowed the hope that her little fire bender might actually attain a spiritual epiphany, experiencing some much needed humility in the face of a vastly greater being.
The daughter could sense that she'd somehow once again disappointed her Mother. It was always like this thought the daughter; outwardly she'll pretend to smile, but in her heart she's unhappy with me. It was unfair! It'd been so difficult, and she'd tried so hard, and she'd been so excited to have more than pulled it off what she considered perfectly in the end, yet her Mother wouldn't share in the excitement and praise her. "But I did exactly what you asked me to," protested the daughter. "You didn't say anything about "Agni's fa-""
"I'm sorry love," apologized the Mother, realizing too late the effect she was having on her perfectionist daughter. "It was unfair of me to expect of you something the Fire Sages often go their whole lives hoping to attain. It's just… when I performed my first bending at sunrise, during the attunement I managed catch a glimpse of the Sun Spirit Himself, and I guess a part of me was hoping you'd have the same life changing experience. We have such a hard time relating to each other as is, I thought it might…"
"By "life changing" you mean you wish Azula would cease to exist and I'd become a different person, don't you? You don't like who I am," interrupted the daughter coldly as she locked her sharp golden eyes on her mother.
"That's not what I meant!" the mother claimed.
"You wish I was more girly like Ty Lee. Or more compliant like Mai. That I didn't set the doll you gave me for my last birthday on fire," pressed the daughter accusingly, refusing to let it go.
"Azula, you shouldn't think such horrible things. Listen to me," said the Mother as she put both her hands firmly on her daughter's shoulders and tried to find the right words. "It's true you're not the typical daughter a Mother would expect, but that's because you are your own special and unique person, and I love you for that. I really admire how talented you are and how hard you strive. I would never want to lose my ambitious daughter who burns with the desire to be the best in the whole world at everything she does," assured the Mother as she cupped her daughter's face in her hands to keep her from turning away.
"I worry though that sometimes you let your desire to be the best get the better of you, and it causes you to look down on and hurt others. You're a Fire Bender now, and a Fire Bender needs to always control themselves, otherwise the power bestowed by Agni can end up consuming them and those they're close to. You might seriously injure Ty Lee one of these days now that you can bring forth your inner fire. Your ambition is like your bending Azula, it can allow you to do amazing things, but if you don't learn to control and channel it properly you could hurt yourself and others."
"So you see, it's not that I want you to stop being my beloved ambitious Azula, it's just that I worry how it might cause you to hurt yourself or others. And I worry because I love you. You do know that I love you very much, don't you Azula?" asked the Mother as he looked plaintively in her daughter's eyes.
The daughter looked away blushing, "You don't need to get so sentimental Mother, it's embarrassing. And you worry too much. I can take care of myself."
"Then hopefully you'll stop scaring me by saying such horrible things," teased the Mother as she released her daughter and gave her forehead a reprimanding flick. "And Mother's can't help but worry about their children. It's what we do best." Giving her protesting daughter an assuring one armed hug toward her side, the Mother then sat back down in prayer. "Let's not fight anymore, Agni is about to rise, and it would be rude of us to greet Him with our petty quarrels."
"…what was it like?"
"What was what like dear?"
"When you saw Agni."
"It's not something that can really be put into words. It's something that has to be directly experienced. If you're interested in perfecting your meditation we could go on a pilgrimage to the Solstice Temple this summer; there's no better place or time to seek Agni."
"I… what I did sense of Agni was pretty amazing," offered up the daughter, deciding against the lie, as she knew her Mother was good at seeing through them. "I know he's the greatest of the spirits, but I never expected him to be so… so…" the normally articulate four year threw her arms wide, words for once seeming inadequate to capture what she'd felt.
The Mother watched her daughter's flailing gesticulation in amusement. "Perhaps there are no words for it daughter. The spirits are often beyond the limits of our mortal understanding."
The daughter gleefully took up the challenge. "Even only sensing a fraction of his power, it was vast beyond belief. It was so vast that… that even if only a millionth of his power was brought here, it would easily be more than enough to instantly burn this world to ash more than a million times over. I want power like that. It was incredible!" finished the daughter breathlessly.
The gleam in her daughter's eye as she described power enough to incinerate all living things many a time over was more than a little disturbing. The Mother tried to steady herself as she replied, "Yes, that would be horrible wouldn't it? For our sake Agni seals His full power and dwells far apart from us in the heavens, apart from even the other spirits, because His power is so great that the world could not survive contact with its might. That's also why He blesses us with a fragment of His power and merged His blood with our divine imperial ancestors; since He is no longer directly in this world He needs us to fulfill His will of taming both His own ferocious power and the world."
"Too bad no one ever seems to agree on what exactly his will is," muttered the daughter, whom loved to read war stories and was familiar with the role differing interpretations of "Agni's Will" had played in many of the civil conflicts that plagued the Fire Isle's bloody history before Sozin defeated and made official his power over the Fire Sages. The daughter was cynical enough to know however that such interpretations were just excuses for the pursuit of power, and that even without religion's cloak the pursuit would always remain under one guise or another. While she generally found doctrinal interpretation dull, a charade engaged in by those too weak to seek power on their own terms, she had to admit the idea of being descended from a God was pretty cool.
"Hush child, Agni arrives." Both of them let their fist slide down below their other palm in the traditional greeting of respect, bowing as a golden glow spread along the oceanic horizon. "Can you feel it daughter?" whispered the Mother.
"Yes Mother," whispered the daughter excitedly, "My bending is getting stronger!"
"Good. Just let that sensation sink in, allowing the connection between you and the Sun Spirit to deepen as you feel your flame burning brighter."
Trying to keep her excitement in check, the daughter breathed the dawn in, the breath stirring her inner flame and warming her from the inside. The mother watched, pleased as her daughter exhaled with a contented sigh. The daughter looked toward her Mother to make sure she was doing it right, and the Mother wordlessly nodded with a smile. Seeing her Mother's approval, the daughter broke out in a spontaneous genuine grin of her own before taking in her next breathe.
Things may have been difficult in places, thought the Mother as she watched her daughter, but in the end this was worth it. Her dark worries dispelled by the bright optimism day break encourages, the Mother began to sing. A cheerful morning hymn, of Agni calling the world to awaken to the beautiful new day.
At first the daughter was thrown off by the unexpected interruption, but she quickly took it in stride, imaging that her soul was resonating at the same harmonic as her Mother's pitch. It struck the daughter that this moment was so perfect that she almost wished time itself would stop. Her Mother's beautiful singing, the rare closeness she could feel between them, the warm sense of rising power inside her soul, all before the beauty of the dawn painted ocean and sky. If only this moment could last forever.
Reaching the end of her verse, the Mother stopped singing. "You know Azula, Agni's light transcends mortal time. Even after this world fades away, this moment will always be here for us inside His eternal light."
The daughter was surprised that her Mother had seemed to read her mind. "R-really?"
"Of course. Agni is the greatest of the Spirits after all. Even time can not bind His awesome power. And you can always hold onto this moment in your own memories as well." Azula took another breathe in, trying to take the entire moment in. Just then the top of the sun broke through the waves, illuminating Mother and daughter as they looked at each other. "It's time."
"Right," nodded the daughter as she stood up. She'd been feeling her inner fire steadily increasing, and now it was time to let it out. This would be it, her first time Firebending at sun rise, and she wanted it to be perfect. Exhaling, she released arcs of flame around both her hands, moving them in a broad circular movement to gather more breathe to herself as she shifted into ready stance.
"…Are they Young? Yet the Devil has been with them already… They go astray as soon as they are born. They no sooner step than they stray, they no sooner lisp than they ly. Satan gets them to be proud, profane, reviling and revengeful as young as they are… Why should you not be afore-hand with him?"
-Cotton Mather, Small Offers Towards the Service of the Tabernacle in this Wilderness
Letting her breathe out again in a short explosive exhalation, the daughter began to bend, shifting into a horse stance as she unleashed a fiery punch. The space before her soon was filled with her execution of the blazing basics. Punches, kicks, blocks. Tens sets of each, in the proper order.
Laying back on her side, the mother let out a little sigh as she propped her head up with one hand to watch her daughter's predictable routine. Right as she began her fourth round house, her Mother let out a slight yawn. Caught off guard by the unexpected interruption, the daughter nearly lost her balance. Wincing, she was forced to wobble out both arms so she could bring her foot back with out falling. "Mother! You almost made me mess up!" protested the indignant daughter.
"You mean I did make you mess up," corrected the Mother. "And don't stop bending young lady, you're supposed to experience the continuous increase of your power," she added as she stood up, towering over her daughter. Caught off guard once again, this time by her Mother's surprisingly direct reproach, the daughter closed her mouth and continued her kicks. "If you let your hands leave their proper guard like that in a real fight you'll leave yourself wide open. And you can be sure an enemy will have far more devious tricks than a mere yawn to throw you off guard," warned the Mother as she circled around her daughter, arms crossed behind her back. Then with a teasing smile she added, "That's twelve kicks by the way,"
An awkward choking noise in the back of her throat, the daughter tried to hastily switch feet. Being that she was still in the middle of kicking with the foot she needed to switch to, this didn't work out so well. Determined not to give her Mother an opportunity to scold her once again for dropping her guard, the proud daughter hesitated a fraction of a second too long to try and regain her balance by extending her arms. Leading to the even more humiliating result of having to futilely flail her arms as she toppled gracelessly to the ground.
Anger flaring, the daughter slammed a fist into the ground. "Mother-! *gulp*" Her petulant outburst was brought to a halt by her Mother's displeased icy gaze, and for a moment the daughter cringed with fear. Had she finally gone too far with her whining? Or was her mother disgusted by her poor form? She knew her strict Father would have already punished her for both offenses, but Mother was usually more indulgent. Her Mother however wasn't usually instructing her in the life and death art of combat.
"I said keep bending!" barked the Mother, sending a surprise flame punch at her frozen daughter. Panicking at the unexpected attack, the daughter clenched her eyes shut and crossed her arms in front of her. Feeling the rapidly approaching heat with the back of her arms, the daughter desperately thought "Go away!" instinctively flinging her right arm into an outward block. To her surprise, the flame obeyed, dissipating with her block.
There was no time however to catch her breath. "If you won't bend your own fire, I'll force you to bend mine!" Stepping forward, the Mother launched a second flame punch with her other hand. Leaning back to put more distance between herself and her Mother, and to support herself with the arm that had blocked the previous attack, the daughter's left arm moved in the opposite direction, sweeping the onrushing flame to the side. As she did so, the daughter noticed the blaze wasn't as big as it'd first seemed. Sh-she's not trying to kill me, realized the daughter. She's pulling her punches.
Regaining control of herself, the daughter extended her left arm back beside the right, allowing her to push off the ground. Sweeping her legs in front of herself, she got off a sweep flame kick before jumping back to her feet.
"Finally," said the Mother with satisfaction as she leapt straight up, high over her daughter's attack. "Your Father will have far less patience if you ignore what he tells you during training Azula," warned the Mother, once again seeming to read her daughter's mind.
"I know that," acknowledged the daughter, managing this time to keep herself from whining. Perhaps she needed to start taking her Mother a little more seriously. In that case, lets see if you're really as weak as Father says… thought the calculating daughter as the corner of her mouth turned up in a wicked grin. Keeping up her bending, she swept her right hand that was still behind her in a forward arc over her head, the left hand helping it channel a large pillar of fire with which to catch her airborne Mother.
"Cocky child," thought the Mother as she observed the mass of flames her daughter was building up. "I was going to let up on you, however…" Kicking at a downward angle, she launched a blast of flame toward her daughter.
The daughter watched the incoming blaze with alarm. Now that was a lot of fire! And it was far quicker than her own attack! Abandoning her strike, the daughter quickly crossed her arms above her, using both forearms as she struck up and outward to dissipate the blaze with her X block. While she managed to avoid being burnt, the attack was stronger than she expected, its force knocking her off her feet and sending her skidding ignominiously several feet on her back.
Looking up, the daughter saw this was fortunate, the pillar of flame she'd been forced to let go of collapsing directly from its apex on top of where moments before she'd stood. It only took one knowing look from her Mother, her landing as graceful as her daughter's wasn't, for the daughter to realize that this had been intentional; had this been a real fight her Mother would have allowed her to hold her now flaming ground. Checkmate by her own power.
Like a not quite housebroken puppy caught making its mess, the embarrassed daughter quickly set about trying to put out the grass fire her lack of control had started, rushing from flame to flame as she bent them inward and upward, narrowing them away from their fuel. As she attempted to subdue the blaze, the daughter snuck a few glances toward her Mother to see if she was angry. She was worried that she was already "bending on dry tinder" as was (the Fire Nation equivalent of the Water Tribe expression "skating on thin ice"). Her Mother's arms were crossed below her chest, but the expression on her face was one of smug amusement. Quickly looking away lest her Mother see the flush spreading across her cheeks, the daughter almost wished her Mother would get angry instead. The lash would sting less than these humiliations.
Placing one hand on her hip, the Mother couldn't help but chuckle as she watched her daughter's frenetic rushing about, stomping on the smaller flames as she tried to herd the larger ones toward the center where the grass had already burnt away. "As you can see daughter, increased power is only a liability if you can't control it." The daughter glared at her Mother, clearly irritated. Apparently Mother thought making a fool of her during her rite of passage was hilarious. But this time she held her tongue, realizing she'd only dig herself in deeper if she let her Mother rile her up further.
"Well well, it looks like you're at least learning to control that tongue of yours daughter," observed the Mother wryly as she crossed her arms behind her and turned back toward where she'd risen. "That's a start I suppose."
That did it! Fists shaking, the daughter grabbed the bonfire she'd gathered together with her bending. It took every ounce of self control she had to keep from striking at her Mother's back. How dare she insult her so! "Don't take me so lightly Mother!" hissed the daughter, the flame hissing too as it angled threateningly toward her Mother " You shouldn't turn your back on me," warned the daughter chillingly.
Her Mother stopped and paused, the heat from the crackling flame seeming to breathe down her neck like an angry beast. "That almost sounded like a threat daughter," replied the Mother finally, her tone equally glacial. Turning around slowly, she caught her daughter with her glare, the angry flames reflecting off it. "You shouldn't show your back to an enemy or when fighting. So daughter, the question is; are you my enemy… or is this a fight?
"I suggest you consider your answer carefully. I do not play child's games in a real battle," warned the Mother as she slowly raised one arm, grabbing the bonfire with her own formidable bending as she suddenly extended her hand. The daughter gasped as the blaze flared threatening toward her. "Well daughter, are we enemies? Sometimes you make me wonder."
"N-no," gasped the daughter as she was forced sweating back onto one knee. It was straining all the bending power she had to simply keep the blaze in check. The blaze being pushed toward her by her Mother's one casually outstretched hand.
"Do you want this to be a fight then daughter?" asked the Mother, her voice growing angrier. "Do you honestly believe you can challenge me?!"
"N-no! Of course not!" gasped the daughter, the flames inching closer and closer despite her best efforts to repel them, her entire body shaking from the overexertion. "I'm loyal to you and Father!" she claimed desperately, the heat becoming unbearable.
"I should hope so," replied the Mother. Suddenly striking up and inward with her arms, she lifted the bonfire off the ground and flared it out horizontally, the blaze going out like a supernova. The fire she'd been pushing against suddenly gone, the daughter collapsed forward on all fours, panting.
"When the royal family sticks together, no power on earth can oppose us, and the nation prospers. However, too often have your ancestors given in to selfish short sighed ambition, and once the plotting and infighting begins, the country starts down the dark and bloody volcano's slope of immolation. Agni turns his back on us, unable to bear watching his children shed each other and His blood, while the country and her people suffer for it. Seeing our internal weakness, the ever envious barbarians begin to prey upon us, raiding by sea and swarming like locust over the land. The future of the Empire and her people depends on our filial loyalty to each other. Do not forget that Azula, or give me another occasion to believe you have. I promise you won't get off so lightly."
"Un-understood," whispered the chastened daughter as she got back to her feet, resuming her bending before her Mother could scold her again. Rattled, she mainly focused on her breathe, moving in a slow improvised kata, simply letting her movements flow which ever direction they seemed to want to go, letting the tension drain out with her exhalation and fire as she allowed her nerves to settle.
"Good," acknowledged the Mother tersely, folding her arms as she reclined back against a rock to watch her daughter, maintaining perfect outer composure. Inside however her nerves were just as much in need of settling. She'd seen that expression on her daughter's face as she'd swept the flame pillar toward her. And that tone when she'd warned her that she shouldn't show her back… the memory sent a shiver down her spine.
Dealing with Azula often left her with this unsettled feeling that something wasn't quite right with her daughter. Ozai always told her that she worried too much, that it was all in her head, and she wanted to believe him. But she couldn't shake her dark suspicions, especially now.
"It's nice to see you trying something original Azula. Very graceful and pleasing movements. Real battles often require such unscripted improvisation. To this point you've only copied what you spied your brother doing, and you'll have plenty of tedious opportunity to drill the basics over and over in your formal training," advised the Mother, uncrossing her arms as she forced an encouraging smile for her daughter.
The dark thoughts would not go away however. Mother had been opposed to her marrying a descendant of Grandfather's killer, calling her a traitor (and much worse). She had tried to tell her Mother that marrying into the royal family would finally restore their dishonored house to it's former glory, but her Mother would have none of it, warning that any children of such a union would be cursed by the conflicting mixture of the infernal Sozin's and holy Roku's bloodlines, always at war within themselves. That the royal family was a scheming nest of weasel-vipers, constantly plotting how to remove their enemies and put themselves on the throne. That she and her children would become no more than disposable pawns in such treacherous power plays, and by Agni, that was no fit environment to bring children up in, and she was a selfish woman for condemning her children to it as she grasped for power.
She hadn't listened of course, telling her Mother that she was an ungrateful superstitious old woman, out of touch with the new ways of the nobility since the war had refocused it's aggressive ambitions outward (not that either of them would have really known, considering their family was pointedly not invited to noble functions). And of course, time seemed to be conspiring to prove that her Mother had actually known a thing or two.
Trying to banish the unpleasant haunting memories, the Mother brought her focus back to her little bender. Encouraged by her Mother's approval, the daughter had loosened up a bit, experimentally playing with different bending combos. Good thought the Mother, children should be playing and having fun. It was one of the ways they learned best.
Realizing her Mother wasn't going to be particularly critical of form, the daughter grew more bold, throwing off her timidity as she threw herself into her free from attacks and counterattacks. Imagining herself leading an assault on Ba Sing Se, the daughter let out a laugh as the walls crumbled and she led her men in a charge through the breach.
That's more like it, thought the Mother, smiling genuinely this time as she watched her child once again acting like one; whooping with laughter, a large devilish grin plastered across her face as she gave free play to the boundless energy Agni graced upon the young.
The daughter was glad her Father wasn't here now. She'd be far too self conscious of her form and dignity to play around like this under his stern judging gaze. But she really could feel the flow of her power increasing with the sunrise much better now that she was giving full play to it. At this rate the Earth Kingdom Capital would be hers in no time!
Whack! She deflected the incoming boulder with a firm block, then set the impertinent earthbender alight with her lunging counter attack! Ha! The ground opened up beneath her feet to try and swallow her, but she was to quick for those lumbering earth sloths, leaping to safety, and then gracefully rolling along the ground to avoid the stone blocks flying overhead. Coming back up on her hands, she twirled around in a three hundred and sixty degree flame kick low to the ground, striking the guards who had her surrounded and incinerating their lower legs. The earthbenders collapsed screaming to their charred knees. Hahahaha! That's where you belong lowly peons! As if you're pathetic attacks stood a chance against the greatest general in the Fire Nation. Onward to the Royal Palace soldiers! Burn everything in our way!
How cute, she must be playing make believe, thought the Mother as she watched her little prodigies increasingly aggressive display of bending. I wonder what she's imagining now?
General, a platoon of water benders has ambushed our left flank! Regroup and lay down suppressing fire, make them take cover! Under the ferocious counterassault the foolish water benders dove into the lake, right where she wanted them.
Deliberately setting the grass ahead of her on fire, the daughter raised both hands palm up as she intensified the blaze into a rising pillar. "Heat the lake! We'll boil them alive like lobsters-clams! Shoot any who try to surface like fish in a barrel!" ordered the pint sized general as she gleefully picked off a water bender trying to make a break for the opposite shore.
Bubbling, the lake boiled over, the daughter grinning as the facedown corpses of the water benders floated to the surface. Her hands fully extended upward with the pillar of fire, she copied the move she'd envied her mother using, flaring the blaze out like a nova.
Amazing. It's an advanced technique, but she was able to copy it after only seeing it once. She truly is gifted. Maybe she even has what it takes for the dangerous burden our Lord intends for her…
The daughter felt a heady rush of power as she watched the blaze successfully flare out. And her power was only getting intoxicatingly stronger as Agni continued to rise. "So who's next!" challenged the general as she surveyed with satisfaction the city burning before her. Just then she saw a flash of winged movement in the sky. An airbender glider perhaps? At last, this was the moment she'd been training her entire life for!
Striking immediately with two extended fingers, she released a flame bolt at her target. It was small, and flying incredibly fast, but for the little prodigy it might as well have been in slow motion. As often happened for her, everything fell naturally into place, the thrust of her attack moving in perfect harmony with the bobbing trajectory of the target's flight path. The flame bolt struck home, and her target fell burning from the sky.
Grinning in triumph, the daughter turned excitedly toward her Mother. "Did you see that Mother! I hit it! I hit…" the daughter's grin faded abruptly as she caught sight of her Mother's face. The slow motion reel continued for the daughter, this time with a feeling of sick dread rather than eager anticipation. She watched as her Mother's expression, which had been watching her with pleased amusement, slowly changed to one of wide eyed horror, as if her daughter had been suddenly replaced by some monster. The two of them froze, the only movement on the hillside being that of the burning song bird falling from the sky.
"How little a fire it takes to set so great a woodland ablaze! Every species of wild beast has been tamed by man. But the tongue, not one of man can get it tamed. It is full of unruly evil and poison."
The mother jumped to her feet, shooting her daughter a narrow eyed look before she rushed over toward the unfortunate bird. It had managed to survive the fall, but it was making a horrible desperate squawking sound as it flailed it's now useless wings in a futile attempt to put out the flame. Her view obscured by her Mother's back, the daughter only saw a booted leg raise, and then quickly come down. The pitiful squawking abruptly ceased.
The daughter resumed bending very quietly, nervously watching her Mother, who was just staring at the ground, whispering something under her breath in disbelief. Sensing her daughter's continuation behind her, she straightened herself back up. "Stop bending Azula. You're done."
There was a dangerous undercurrent to her Mother's tone, but the daughter ignored the little voice warning her not to push it. She didn't feel like being bossed around by her Mother again, especially over something so trivial. "What?! But I was just getting started! You're the one who said I was supposed to keep.." protested the daughter as she doodled a little burning figure eight in the air.
*SLAP* "I said stop bending!!" The daughter held her throbbing cheek in disbelief. This was the first time she'd seen her gentle Mother strike anyone! Even when a clumsy serving girl had broken that priceless vase, Mother hadn't lost her temper, instead reassuring the distraught girl and dismissing her before Father or the Chief of Palace Staff could find out (and the daughter had been planning to tattle; it was always fun to see someone else get in trouble).
She'd even given the unworthy girl enough gold to cover a carriage ride and ship fare to the colonies! So why is she getting so upset now, wondered the bewildered daughter, the stinging in her cheek starting to spread to her eyes. I'm her daughter, not some lowly servant! And compared to that Imperial heirloom, a common songbird is nothing. Yet she treats me worse!
Her Mother wasn't done berating her either. The daughter had never seen her so upset. "What part of "stop bending, you're done" is so hard for a supposed genius like you to understand?! What is wrong with you child?! Why don't you ever listen to what I tell you?! Didn't I say now that you were a firebender you needed to always be in control? Didn't' I?!"
The daughter could feel her own anger flaring to match her Mothers. "Okay, so maybe I got a little carried away, but that's no reason to try and ruin my Agni Kotan!" shouted back the daughter. "It was just a stupid bird, it's no reason to-!" *KASLAP* The second strike landed sharply on the daughter's other cheek, forceful enough to knock her off balance, causing the daughter to stumble to the side a bit.
"Maybe you got a "little carried away"?! Is that the extent of your penitence? What you did isn't something that can just be brushed aside or fixed. Do you even feel the least bit guilty daughter?" demanded the Mother.
"What would be the point?!" retorted the daughter as she looked away in frustration. "You've said it yourself that Fire bending is the most pure of the martial arts, closest to the pure energy bending practiced by the Lion-Turtle gods in the age before man. Why do you think that is?" demanded the daughter as she fiercely looked back at her Mother, digging in her heels and becoming more convinced with each heated word that she was the one in the right.
"You know as well as I do what the true purpose of bending is. To kill. Fire, and especially it's highest form as the pure energy of lightning are the most direct about it. That's why it's the greatest of the bending arts! It's no coincidence that the first of the debased bendings to be purged from this world was the least suited for killing. Or that the next least suited is teetering on the edge of extinction as well, a handful of backwater savages desperately clinging for survival on their miserable icebergs. Only the strong who can kill get to survive and rule; weakling losers becoming their food and tribute, forced to live in the barren mountains and frozen wastes no one else wants!"
"What do you think all my training is going to be for anyway?! To heat the Earthbenders some tea while we whittle away the afternoon watching the cherry blossoms, prattling on about palace frivolities perhaps? Most gifted nobles don't have the luxury of letting our talent's languish so leisurely," remarked the daughter with cutting sarcasm, unable to keep the edge of contempt from tainting her words and glare.
Unable to keep her fist from clenching, the mother fought to keep her cool as she replied, "Our duty is determined by our circumstances, and my primary duty is as a Mother. Which I can now see, by your insolent and unrepentant attitude, that I've been far too negligent in."
"Well, at least we can agree on one thing then," declared the daughter as she crossed her arms. "You're a failure as a Mother."
The mother was taken aback by her daughter's words, both blunt and sharp at once, stabbing her in the heart. Her fist trembling, her first instinct was to strike her daughter again, this time with fire. Taken aback that she was capable of such violent impulses, she forced herself to pause. How had things spiraled out of control so quickly? She didn't want it to be like this between them. She couldn't just ignore her daughter's unacceptable behavior though.
"Perhaps you're right daughter," sighed the Mother as she took a deep breath, trying to deescalate, "but this isn't about me. It's about you. Just this once I'll overlook your inappropriate lack of respect for your parent. However, your callous lack of respect for the lives of others is unacceptable. Don't try and confuse the issue. Killing outside of battle and those who are no threat lacks honor and disgraces your power. Now if you'll just admit that what you did was wrong, I'll be willing to let it go for now and we can return to the palace without further incident," offered up the Mother.
The daughter recognized that her Mother was offering them a way out from the volcano rim they were tumbling down. A part of her wanted to swallow her pride and take the diplomatic route. To go back to the affectionate teasing and comforting closeness. Such sentiments were surely a sign of weakness though. A cowardly desire to run away and avoid getting hurt.
She couldn't give up now that she was finally winning! It felt to the competitive daughter like her Mother was backing off in the face of her offense. Her last barb had really hit home; it'd been pushing it, but she'd seen the hurt look when she'd called her Mother a failure. For once she had actually been able to find a weak point on her seemingly invincible Mother. She was trying to retreat because she was afraid. That's right, she fears me now that she knows I can hurt her. Look at that disgusting pleading in her eyes, it reeks of weakness. I'll show you who's the stronger Mother!
"Why don't you admit that you committed the greater wrong in ruining my Agni Kotan? This was supposed to be my special day," countered the daughter with defiant resentment. "I wish it had been my Father here today and not you; he wouldn't have thrown such a fit. He'd have been impressed by my aim."
The Mother could scarcely believe the sheer brazen chutzpah on display before her. Here she was offering forgiveness, and the little brat was throwing it back in her face, demanding that she be the one to show throat. What nerve! "You're Father would have punished you long ago for your whining disobedience and back talk," hissed the incensed Mother. "When he hears of this-"
"Why don't you just do it yourself and finish what you've started?" challenged the daughter as she rubbed at her swollen cheek. "You're a coward, always making Father play the disciplinarian because you're too weak to punish me yourself!"
The backhand struck across her face forcefully enough to knock the daughter off her feet, her body making one half turn as she fell face down to the ground. "What did you call me daughter? Say it again and I'll grant your wish," threatened the Mother as she took a menacing step toward her prone daughter.
"I said," repeated the daughter defiantly as she turned and propped herself up with one hand, the other clutching at her ringing head, "that you're a weakling, a coward who avoided her duty to- AHHHHGGGG!"
The Mother was still a few paces away from her, yet the daughter could feel the pain in her head and face flaring as her Mother held up one hand. "I know how much you desire power and secret techniques daughter. Very well then, I'll show you one of my clan's forbidden bendings, developed back in the time of Agni's First Inquisition. If you wish to learn then watch well and learn with your body's pain, for I'd sooner take this to the grave than teach it to a sadistic little monster like you. And don't think you'll be able to learn it from your Father either, this is one thing I am capable of that he lacks the fine tuned power for. Maybe now you'll at least learn some respect."
"Who do you think it was that taught me you were a weakling?" screamed the daughter through the increasingly inflamed pain. "Who do you think it is who has less respect for you than anyone else?!"
"What are you saying daughter? Do you expect me to believe-"
"Don't let her coddle you too much Azula," parroted the daughter, teeth gritted against the pain burning at her from the inside. "She'll make you weak like herself, like she's made your brother. She indulges him too much and it's spoiled him. Be careful that you don't let that happen to you, you don't want to disappoint your Father like your brother and mother have, do you?"
As soon as she said the word "Father" the pain abruptly ceased, her Mother collapsing to her knees in disbelief. "You're lying," whispered the Mother desperately. "You always lie… he wouldn't… wouldn't…"
"She could have been one of the greats Azula, but she was raised poorly by a weak disgraceful family," continued the daughter as she forced herself back to her feet. She was a little surprised just how strong an effect her revelation was having on her Mother. Then again, the most powerful weapon was always secret information, something you knew that the enemy didn't, the trump card which could turn a losing battle in your favor.
A part of the daughter whispered that maybe she should stop now. That her Mother wasn't really an enemy who she needed to try and utterly crush. That if she kept going like this she was going to cross a point of no return very soon. The calculating part of her shrugged it off, as long as she had Father's backing the support of a weakling like her Mother was of no consequence. That's right, Father had been preparing her for this day, when she'd need to be strong enough to defeat her Mother's attempts to weaken her.
"They corrupted her with their pacifist ideals. While she may have outwardly repudiated them to gain political power, her heart is still tainted with her families old fashioned notions that keep her from her true potential. Do you know what's even more contemptible than being weak like your brother? Having the talent to become one of the strong, but failing to achieve it."
The daughter paused as her Mother looked up at her, her tear filled eyes seeming to beg her to stop. Seeing the hurt on her Mother's face, the daughter felt a twinge of guilt. Maybe she really should let up. There was some dark and twisted place inside herself that compelled her to keep mercilessly pushing though. She had been hurt too, and she wanted to see just how much she could hurt back. Continuing to repeat her Father's words, she went for the kill:
"You've been blessed with both mine and your Mother's talent Azula. With it you'll be able to become the greatest Fire Bender the world has seen, capable of defeating even a god like your Great Grandfather did, as long as you don't let your Mother infect you with the weakness that makes her so tiresome."
The daughter could feel her Father's presence, as if he were standing behind her. Watching with approval as she emotionally eviscerated her Mother. That's right, this wasn't just a battle between her and her Mother. She was fighting father's battle as well, avenging not only her Agni Kotan, but also all the disappointments she now understood this woman had inflicted on him. She would be the instrument of his revenge then, as she was beginning to suspect he may have intended all along when he made her privy to his domestic displeasures.
Looking up with her tear stained face, the Mother could sense her husband as well. The way her daughter had her arms crossed, that triumphant smirk on her face, they were the same as her Father's. With each cruel word uttered, the Mother heard her husbands sinister voice echoing in her head. As her daughter looked down on her, it was her husbands contemptuous eyes that she saw. Yet she could also see her own features mirrored in her daughter's face. It was horrible, like something out of a nightmare, looking at that dark reflection of everything that was worst in her husband and herself.
"It's not just Father who feels that way either," insinuated the daughter. "They won't say it to your face, but I'm sure you know that behind your back everyone at court says it's scandalous that a woman like you from a traitorous house was allowed to marry into the royal family. That the presence of a "noble" bender who selfishly avoided serving her country in the military dishonors and is an affront to the rest of the nobility who placed their house's talent in the service of the nation."
"That's not fair Azula," protested the Mother. "I wanted to enlist! It was Mother who forbade me!"
"Didn't she also forbid you from marrying Father?" asked the daughter with false innocence. "How convenient that you only betrayed her when it served your own interests. Has she written back any of the letters you always send her?"
The daughter's smirk was wiped off her face as her Mother glared at her. There was an expression in her eyes that the daughter never would have imagined she'd see from her mother; hate. And just as quickly it was replaced by something even worse; cold distance. "She's not the only Mother who can withdraw her affection," warned the Mother as she rose back to her feet, straightening herself back into a stiff dignity as she wiped her eyes dry.
A wave of panic rushed over the daughter as the space between her and her Mother suddenly felt like it was widening into an uncrossable chasm. This wasn't supposed to happen. Her Mother wasn't allowed to retaliate like this was she?! "Don't stop loving me!" she wanted to cry out, to beg her Mother to forgive her, to take her back into her embrace and assure her that even after all the awful things they'd said to each other she was still and would always be her beloved daughter. But it was not in her proud nature to beg.
"Where do you think you're going young lady?" asked her Mother icily as her daughter turned her back on her.
"I've wasted enough time here, I'm going to start my training with Father, at least he'll teach me something worth learning," replied the daughter over her shoulder, hoping for any reaction from her Mother, anything besides this horrible cold distance.
If her Mother felt any sting from her daughter's words, she gave no sign of it. "Don't get your hopes up. You'll have to wait for me to finish giving my report on your failed Agni Kotan to your Father, and we're going to be having a bit of a discussion regarding your training, among other "tiresome" topics."
"I didn't fail! You-"
"You failed to obey numerous instructions, you lied to try and make your self look better, you whined incessantly in a manner unbecoming of royal dignity, you continually back talked like an unmannered brat, you're too slow to enter a meditative state, your form is sloppy, you're easily tricked into lowering your guard, you lose your balance and even fall during simple basic kicks, you freeze up under pressure, you fail to think ahead about how you're leaving yourself open to enemy counterattacks, you lose control of your flames, you threatened and showed disrespect toward a parent and instructor, and you have a disturbing lack of self restraint," summarized the Mother tersely.
"Your Father won't be pleased to hear all of that, but as your instructor he needs to be aware of your dismal performance. I doubt when he gets through with you that you'll be in any shape to train today. Also daughter, as of now you are hereby forbidden from using your bending outside of training until you've demonstrated more self restraint and respect for the right of others to not be arbitrarily torched."
The daughter felt a lump rise in her throat as her Mother walked past her without a glance. She could remember numerous times her Mother had intervened on her behalf so that Father would go easier on her. But now… "T-that's not fair Mother! You wouldn't be doing this if it weren't for that stupid bird! You know that you were pushing me really hard! Considering the difficulty I more than rose to your challenge! I achieved a deep trance. I counter bended fire, something that benders usually train for years before they even dare attempt! I put out a grass fire all at once! How many years did it take you to learn that?! Those are the things you should be telling Father!" Her Mother merely continued slowly walking away in cold silence.
"Aren't you going to even scold me for back talking. Aren't you going to tell me to stop whining?! Isn't that part of your duty as a Mother? Are you- are you just giving up on being my Mother?!" asked the daughter, sniffling. She tried to suppress the undignified noise, it's sad tones failing to reach her Mother.
"That's what you want, isn't it daughter?" replied the vexed Mother, neither halting nor looking back. "Apparently it's a waste of your time to be with a contemptible "tiresome" woman like me, who you've decided has nothing worth teaching you. What's the point of trying to correct you when you obviously don't listen to anything I say. Very well, I'll try not to waste too much of your or my time in the future."
"But- but that's not-" whispered the daughter, her view of her Mother's back suddenly becoming blurred. "Fine! You're right!" yelled the daughter. "Why would I want to spend time with a tiresome relic that's outlived her usefulness?! Go jump in a volcano for all I care! In fact, it'd be better for everyone if you just disappeared!"
"Are you listening to me?! Father only married you because Grandfather ordered it to get the power in your blood! Since he's planning to give the throne to Iroh, he decided to use Father's line to create the perfect warrior and general, capable of defeating even the Avatar!"
" That's not all though! Grandfather's crafty, and he knows how ambitious Father is, so he decided what better way to weaken Father's standing than saddling him with a disgraceful wife with no wealth or useful political connections!" screamed the daughter, putting one hand to the side of her mouth to better project her rant at her Mother's retreating back.
"You're just a weight around Father's and all our necks! Even Zuko is being dragged down by your excessive indulging of him! Now that you given birth to the future greatest Fire Bender, there's no reason for your continued disgraceful presence at the royal court! You should just disappear!!"
"So, is that how you both really feel about me?" whispered the Mother to herself, blinking back the tears, determined not to shame herself by breaking down in front of her daughter again. Once she got back to the privacy of her own bedchamber though…
Panting, her throat hoarse and hurting from her screaming fit and the lump she was trying to force down, the daughter collapsed to her knees as her Mother disappeared from view. She'd won right? The enemy had been injured enough that she'd left the field to her. So why did this victory feel so hollow? Listlessly surveying the territory ceded to her, eyes passing over the burnt out grass and the grisly remains of a dead bird, the little girl suddenly felt very very alone. The sun shone down coldly, the only witness to the solitary huddled figure sobbing on the hillside.