This isn't really meant to be much of anything beyond a 'suppose if' story – certainly nothing as ambitious as some other fics I could mention (like, say, 'The Last Firebender' or 'Distorted Reality'). Azula as we see her in the show is almost physically incapable of relating to anyone on an entirely social level, and in the end is shown to be deeply insecure about anyone loving her.
Well, what if one little detail (well, not that little) of her life had been different? What if she had had one person that she had truly believed she could trust and confide in? What if there was one person that she could show herself to care for?
What if Zuko and Azula had genuinely loved each other? (Not that way…)
In crafting this story I've tried to keep Azula's personality as close to the show as possible (Zuko, I noticed, is considerably easier to write for – I needed to change him less, anyway), based on my interpretation of what went on throughout the series. Whether or not I've done a good job in this, and other areas, I leave to the judgments of my readers.
With that said, let us begin.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
Five-year old Azula stared. And blinked.
Her brother was currently standing in front of her, arms spread out in a manner vaguely reminiscent of him attempting to protect something. That was unusual enough, given the relative lack of danger that presented itself within the grounds of the imperial palace – or at least, danger of the overt kind. Stranger still was that he was facing away from her – the last time she'd seen him in this pose, he'd been attempting to protect some of the rice balls mother had made for him from falling into her grasp.
She'd gotten them anyway. She always got her way in the end.
Now, though… She sighed with impatience and confusion.
"Zuzu, what are you doing?"
He didn't look at her, shifting slightly to the right instead. Driven by curiosity, she leant to the side, catching sight of a snarling pile of fur and feathers. Wet strings of drool hung from snarling jaws, the creature's eyes alight with a feral rage.
"Oh. A hawkhound." She murmured. "I've never seen one in real life."
"Az, what are you doing?" Zuko demanded. "Go and find somewhere safe! Don't worry, I'll-"
Dropping into a standard firebending pose – breathe in, draw arm back, right leg forward to absorb the shock – Azula launched a burst of fire at the hawkhound. It wasn't much, really, but enough to singe the beast's fur. The creature gave a yelp and pain and anger before turning tail and running off.
With a smirk, Azula straightened herself up again. A tiny part of her had wondered if she'd really gotten the movements down perfectly, but that was absurd. She was Princess Azula, firebending prodigy. Of course she had gotten it right.
It was only then that she noticed Zuko was staring dumbly at the spot where the hawkhound had been a moment ago. She raised an eyebrow. "What is it?"
He turned around, a grumpy expression on her face. "What was that for?"
"What was what for?"
"You, with the fireball, and the dog-"
"It's called firebending, Zuzu." Her father had told her before – firebending was a sacred and mystical art, the purest of all the bending schools, and it had to be treated with respect, always.
"Whatever! You weren't supposed to scare it off!"
"You'd have preferred it bit you?" She stared at her brother like he had grown a second head. In the few years that she had known her brother, she'd pegged him as a poor learner, and far too soft-hearted for his own good, but never crazy.
"No!" He snapped. "But I'm the big brother! I'm supposed to be the one protecting you!"
Silence descended upon them for several long seconds, until little Azula, princess of the fire nation, fell over laughing. Several more seconds later, when she had managed to stem the flow of laughter enough to speak again, she squeaks out, "You? Protect me?" And the sheer absurdity of the idea sent her into fits again.
Suddenly she remembered her station, remembered that she's supposed to present a dignified face to everyone she meets, remembered that she was face of the Fire Nation and could not afford to indulge in such frivolity, and she pulled herself together.
"Zuzu, I've beat you in our last five arm-wrestling matches. My firebending is just as powerful as yours, and only a little less accurate – and it's not like I could have missed at that range anyway. I think I can take care of myself."
Defeated by her flow of words and the logic in them, Zuko slumped. "That's not the point." He mumbled softly before he turned away, heading back into the building proper.
Azula watched him go, a smirk still planted firmly on her face. Honestly, to think of Zuko trying to protect her… It was just pathetic.
Pathetic, and yet strangely endearing.
She cracked open the door, staring at the two figures in the room illuminated by the cold moonlight. One was lying down on the embroidered silk sheets of the bed, one arm wrapped tightly around a stuffed turtle-duck. She had to suppress the urge to giggle as she stared at him. Was he still playing with stuffed toys? How… childish. She'd given up her own parrotmonkey a full year ago.
The urge to giggle was strangled off remarkably quickly as she noted the other figure in the room. Their mother – his mother – was sitting on the bedside, singing a soft lullaby as she slowly stroked Zuko's hair. After a moment, Azula became aware that she was chewing her own lip. A familiar burning sensation rose in the back of her throat, one that she resolutely ignored.
Well. There was nothing to be done about it. Let pathetic little Zuzu get his mother's attention for now. If her mother wanted to fuss and fawn over him and not her, who was Azula to say otherwise?
She was just about to close the door withdraw when she heard her brother's voice. "Az?"
She suppressed the urge to use the word she'd heard their father say before. A moment later, her mother's voice floated through the doorway. "Azula? What are you doing out so late?"
"I was just getting some water." The lie slipped out of her mouth easily. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she noticed how much easier it'd been getting to tell lies with a straight face lately. "When I was coming back, I heard some… noise." Yes. Noise. That was easy and noncommittal. Could have been her mother's singing, could have been the chirping of the cricket-bats, could have been one of the servants working the night shift knocking over a vase.
There was silence for a moment, and then Azula lowered her head, enough for it to pass as a nod. "Goodnight, mother. Goodnight, brother."
She didn't acknowledge their replies as she trotted – fairly dashed – to her own room. Once there, she buried herself under her sheets (never mind that it was the height of summer), and kept her head in her pillow, eyes squeezed shut, willing away the pain in her chest.
So focused was she on trying to get to sleep that she didn't notice her mother until she had sat herself on the side of her bed. "Azula."
She nearly bolted straight out of the bed. "Mommy?" She said as she stared up at her.
Her mother only raised an eyebrow. "You are a very good liar, my child," she says softly. "But not that good."
Azula wasn't sure whether to take her words as a compliment or an insult, and so after a barest moment of hesitation she settled on studied indifference as the proper response as she sank back into her bed.
"If I ask why you were spying on Zuko as I tucked him into bed, would you answer?"
Azula's mind whirled. Mother was perceptive, she had to admit. Perceptive enough to tell when she was lying (she was going to have to work on that). And somehow she doubted that an honest answer would cut the ice. A part of her wanted to lash out with a fierce barb about how her mother had more time for Zuko than her, but she knew on an instinctual level that it really, really wasn't the time for that sort of thing.
And so she said nothing, only turning her head off to the side and keeping silent. After a moment, she felt her mother's hand moving gently across her hair, and she couldn't help but stiffen slightly at the touch. And then she willed her own body to relax, cursing her own lack of self.
Fine, she thought to herself as she began to drift off to slumber, aided by the melody her mother was singing. Her mother felt guilty for abandoning her in favour of Zuko and was trying to make up for it with this single act of affection. Fine.
It was fine.
Because, as she drifted off to sleep, she could pretend that her mother was doing this because she really loved her after all.
Firebending practice. It was a daily activity now that Father had learnt both of his children were skilled in the art. For Zuko, it was two hours of boring drudgery, a mindless repetition of tasks he had never cared for in the first place. Only fear of his father's displeasure kept him diligent.
For Azula, it was perhaps the only time she truly felt alive. Each jab of the fist, each sweep of the leg brought about a fresh blast of brilliant flame that illuminated the darkened room. The thought of being able summon and dismiss such power at will thrilled her. Her surprising proficiency at it was only icing on the cake.
For some time now, she'd been suspecting that her skill at firebending was greater than Zuko's. It couldn't simply be a trick of the light that each time she summoned the flames, there was more of it than her brother's, burning brighter and with greater intensity.
And then, she swept her leg back, striking forward, generating a thin whip of fire – a move used to destabilize opponents. A standard movement, one she'd practiced a hundred times already and would practice a hundred times again.
Except this time the flames flared blue.
She let out an involuntary gasp of surprise, her shock knocking her out of the flow of her kata, and she wavered, unbalanced. Quickly, she regained her balance, her mind trying to figure out what had just happened. To her side, Zuko had also halted his own firebending practice to stare at her in unabashed shock.
She was dimly aware of several of their instructors dropping their scrolls and brushes and whatnot, and of several of them backing away and finally running from the room. Confusion and fear arose in her mind. Had she just done something wrong?
It quickly became apparent that she had not. Indeed, as one of the tutors haltingly told her, what she had accomplished was both incredibly rare and unusually powerful – the generation of blue fire, far stronger than the red and orange flames normally wielded by the spiritually attuned of the nation.
Pride surged through her. She was the best at something! Not just good, not just better than the others around her, but the best! Even her father had never used blue fire before! (Although, to be honest, she had never really seen him do very much firebending at all.) In her glee, she turned to Zuko, who was staring sullenly at her.
"Zuzu! Zuzu! I made blue fire! That's great, isn't it?"
The words hit her like a mallet. She stared at him for a long moment, trying to figure out the reasoning behind his disapproval. Sure, all the instructors had told her that it was great, but coming from her brother… Then realization dawned.
'You're jealous, aren't you." She said. It wasn't a question. "Just because I can make blue fire and you can't! Honestly, Zuko, of all the petty-"
"You can keep your stupid blue fire!" He had snapped suddenly, and with an anger that surprised her. He was obviously deeply upset about something. "If it's so special and rare, don't you think someone might start paying more attention to our practice classes?"
At that exact moment, she wavered in her conviction, trying to decide if the blue fire she'd just created was a good thing or not. The feeling persisted to the next session where, true to Zuko's prediction, her father sat in to observe them, the force of his presence enough to flood the room with a stifling sensation, even though he did and said absolutely nothing throughout.
And that day, no matter how hard she tried, only orange and red sprouted from her hand. No blue. No matter how hard she tried.
Thank you for reading. Please review.