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"Zuzu, what are you doing?"
Zuko started visibly and looked up as Azula approached him. Seeing that it was someone he could trust, he relaxed his stance and gave her a sheepish smile.
"I was just looking around."
"Down a passage we haven't been before?" Azula lit a flame and stared down the dusty, cobwebbed tunnel. It looked identical to the rest of the secret passages crossing throughout the entire palace. "Why this one?"
Zuko shrugged. "It's just... you never know what we might find down there!"
Azula folded her arms. "You're lying, Zuzu."
"What? No I'm not!"
"Yes, you are. You're always scared of entering the passages on your own – I always need to persuade you into coming along with me when I go exploring. And now you want to venture down a new path just because?" Her eyes narrowed. "What aren't you telling me, Zuko?"
There was a momentary pause, and then Zuko sighed and slumped. "I wanted to a find a way to reach the summer gardens. The gates are barred right now, so I figured maybe the hidden paths might help."
"The summer gardens? Why?" The place was pleasant enough, but it wasn't anything special that Azula would specifically seek that place out under ordinary circumstances.
Zuko mumbled something under his breath, too low for Azula to properly make out.
"What was that?"
"I left some of my stuff there from when we visited last time, all right?" Zuko snapped. "The carved turtle-duck that Mai gave me and the big picture book. You know the one."
"Oh. That's it?" Azula wasn't sure whether to sigh or snicker at her brother. "I thought you were up to something sneaky."
"That's your area, not mine."
Azula didn't bother to deny it. "Okay. Well then, see you Zuzu. And good luck."
Zuko raised an eyebrow. "You're not coming?"
"For something boring like this?" A short laugh. "Call me when you want to explore the royal catacombs or something more fun."
"Ew. No way."
"So tell me, why did you get it into your head that you wanted to visit the royal catacombs?" Azula asked rounded the corridor behind her brother. "In the middle of the night, no less."
Zuko was silent for a moment; the kind of silence that communicated that it wasn't something he wanted to reveal but he knew he didn't really have much choice in the matter. "I got a scroll."
"It told me that if I wanted to know more about my own destiny, I need to know more about my great-grandfather's demise."
Uncle. He wasn't even trying to be subtle about it, was he? Azula frowned, but Zuko was focused on the path ahead and didn't catch her expression. Haven't you done enough damage already?
"He died full of years and in his sleep, beloved by all the peoples of the Fire Nation," Azula recited the relevant text that she had been made to memorize as a child. "Surely even you learned that during our lessons?"
"I know. So I really didn't see what – the person who sent me this scroll was trying to say," Azula noted the brief catch in his voice. Did he think that it was going to fool her about the sender's identity? No, more than likely it was the sort of simple politeness to not mention things that shouldn't be mentioned. "Then I found out there was a secret message on the scroll when you heat it."
"Which led you here," Azula concluded as they rounded the final corner and faced the courtyard. She glanced over the seemingly empty expanses. If she remembered correctly, the secret door should be right about there. "The Dragon Bone Catacombs."
The carving in the centre of the courtyard would have looked ornate and decorative to most visitors, but the Fire Nation had many secrets and many ways to hide them. Good thing Azula knew just about all of those.
As brother and sister watched, one of the Fire Sages stepped towards the design. Taking a deep breath, he Firebended several small blasts of fire into the symbol engraved on it – enough for there to be a reaction. With a grinding sound, a stone slab slid away to reveal stairs that led deep into the underground.
Azula stepped forward to follow after him, and after a long moment she noticed that Zuko was still staying behind in the shadows.
"What are you waiting for?"
"We'll be spotted!"
"So what? You're Crown Prince, Zuko. Act like it."
At this he acquiesced and came forward as well, although he still looked sullen about it.
"Weren't you the one telling me not to do anything that might draw attention to me?"
"Yes, about things Father would care about. I seriously doubt he cares if we decide to pay the catacombs a visit to go read a bunch of old scrolls."
They descended underground, Azula noted that the Fire Sage that had passed ahead of them had opted to light all the torches as he had walked through. Well, that made it easier for her. Pausing briefly to take a look at what appeared to be the skeletons of dragons placed on display, Azula began to walk down the corridor.
"So, tell me," she said. "Why did you decide to tell me about this message you received and why did you ask me to come with you?"
Once again, Zuko didn't reply immediately. Then, after an awkward silence.
"Az... we both know this letter came from Uncle. He's the only one who would do something like this."
Azula nodded once.
"And..." there was the sound of swallowing. "And I'm not sure if I can trust it. I mean, I'm sure that there's something here he's trying to tell me. But that's just it. After... well, you know. I don't know what he's trying to say. I don't know if I can believe it."
"And you thought having me along would help with figuring all this out?" Silently, Azula cursed her Uncle's name once again. "Zuko, I don't know Uncle the way you do. Did."
"That's just it! I thought I knew Uncle. Well, enough, anyway. Evidently I didn't."
"And maybe you think this will help you figure out a bit more about him?"
"Maybe. At least I'll get to see what it was he found so important to try and contact me about."
The two of them halted in front of a door. "This should be it," she said.
"It's locked. Can only be opened by Firebending."
"Of course it is," Azula said as Zuko reached up and placed a palm on the carved effigy. "It's not like anyone can just wander in here. The Fire Sages all have to be Firebenders to a man. And the Royal Family too, of course."
Several seconds later, they were in the middle of a dusty, cobwebbed room.
"Disgraceful," Azula muttered as she strode towards the room's far wall. "You'd think that the Fire Sages would keep Fire Lord Sozin's reliquary in immaculate condition."
Zuko appeared less interested in that, searching through the stored records for whatever he was supposed to be looking for. A moment later, he turned to face her, a scroll clutched in his hand.
"The Final Testament of Fire Lord Sozin."
As Zuko slowly unrolled the scroll, taking care not to damage the old parchment, Azula let her thoughts shift to why Uncle would have directed Zuko to this scroll in the first place. Apparently it would help reveal Zuko's destiny to him... whatever that was.
Fire Lord Sozin had been known for two things. Well, he'd been known for a lot, but the two most prominent ones was that he had begun the work of bringing the Fire Nation's greatness to the rest of the world and also destroying the Air Nomads in search of the Avatar. Both of these were a credit to his name, of course, but Azula couldn't really see how either was supposed to help Zuko with his own destiny.
Nor would how he died, for that matter.
With a mental shrug, she retook her place at Zuko's side, peering over his shoulder to read what Sozin had written during the twilight of his life.
"What, that's it?" Zuko lifted the scroll, glancing at the underside as if he were hoping that there was something else written there. It remained blank, mocking the siblings' efforts at finding out more.
"So he abandons the old Avatar to his death, and used that as a springboard for conquest. Admirable," Azula shrugged. "But what's the point of telling us this? What does that have to do with your destiny?"
"I don't know. It's nothing people don't already know," Zuko flung the scroll to the ground and turned away. "This was just a huge waste of time!"
An uncomfortable silence spread across the room as Zuko slumped against the wall. Azula supposed she couldn't fault her brother for that – here he was thinking that he would get a bit more insight into what their Uncle had been thinking and now he was stuck at yet another incomprehensible dead end. But...
She narrowed her eyes. Something about the story they had read... didn't seem right.
"He didn't die."
She blinked as he spoke those words a second before she could. A quick glance confirmed they were both on the same wavelength.
"The scroll said that I had to learn about the demise of great-grandfather. But this doesn't tell me anything about how he died."
Azula opened her mouth to respond, but slowly shut it again. The beginning of the testament almost sounds like Fire Lord Sozin... regretted what he did. Is that what Uncle was trying to tell Zuko? That he'd regret things if this went on? Azula shook her head. No, that's stupid. There's no way Fire Lord Sozin would have turned his back on the Fire Nation like that. And anyway that still doesn't directly concern how he died.
Another brief silence before Zuko stood up. "I need to go see him."
"Zuko," Azula's voice was sharp.
"I have to," he repeated, his face tight. "I need to know what this is about. Azula. You know how to move around the palace without people spotting you, right? Tell me how to go see Uncle without Father finding out."
"No. No need for that."
"If you're going to see Uncle, then I'm coming with you."
Azula stepped into the jail, feeling a chilly breeze waft through the air. Comfort had not been high on the list of priorities when building the dungeon for obvious reasons, and Azula wondered if the drafty nature of the place was a subtle way of further tormenting Firebenders that had been incarcerated inside here.
Well, no matter. Zuko was already ahead of her, both excited and afraid of meeting his Uncle again. Truth be told, Azula was worried. To the best of her knowledge Zuko had not talked directly to Uncle ever since Ba Sing Se. Not alone, at any rate. And now he was storming in to confront him.
As they neared the cell he was being held in, she waged a silent debate with herself about whether it would be better if she went in beside Zuko or waited outside to give the appearance of Zuko coming alone. Both had potential benefits – and potential dangers.
Finally, they were outside Iroh's cell – and the guard started in surprise as two shapes appeared seemingly out of nowhere in front of her.
Distantly, Azula noted that the guard appeared to be female. She drew her sword – and let out a gasp of surprise as Azula brought a tiny ball of blue fire up, illuminating the room enough for the guard to see her face.
"Leave us," she said. "We will call you when we are done speaking to the prisoner. And don't tell anyone we were here."
The girl bowed hastily and scurried away. Zuko took a step towards the door.
".. I'll wait here," Azula said. Zuko turned to her, the question in his eyes and already forming on his lips. "I think this is something you and him need to discuss alone."
A brief moment of hesitation before Zuko nodded.
Azula sighed and leaned against the wall, bowing her head, an expression of contemplation on her face as Zuko pushed open the door to the cell.
Pushing the door open, Zuko stepped forward and looked on his Uncle for the first time in... well, it felt like forever.
Iroh sat hunched over on the floor of the cell, wearing a thin, dirty shirt that seemed far bigger than he was. His hair hung down the side of his face in tangled, matted clumpss. Splotches of dirt and – was that blood? – were all over his body. In the darkness, Zuko thought he could hear the sound of a rat nibbling away at something. He seemed small – even in the cramped confines of the cell, as if he were about to be swallowed up by the gloom.
For a long moment, Zuko just stood there, transfixed by the awful state of his Uncle. Then, gathering himself, he stepped forward.
"I got your message," he said. There was a brief moment of silence, and then Uncle half-turned and raised his eyes to meet him. "And I found the secret history, which should be called 'the history that's already public record.' What was that supposed to tell me? What could Sozin's death possibly have to do with my own destiny?"
Uncle took a deep breath. "I was not speaking about Sozin, Prince Zuko."
Zuko frowned. "That makes no sense."
"Yes it does. You have more than one great-grandfather. You are descended from Sozin from your father's side. But you have a great-grandfather from your mother's side as well."
Zuko paused. Mention of his mother had struck a chord in him, and as Uncle straightened up to look him in the eye, he suspected that the old man had known it would.
"His name was Roku. Avatar Roku."
It took all of Azula's self-control not to give away her shock. Her Uncle's proclamation, delivered without great fanfare or pomp, had seared its way straight into her mind with the intensity of a lightning bolt.
Avatar Roku? Their ancestor? The man who had tried to stop Sozin so many years ago? Why? How? Why would he and Roku's descendants have married?
And Avatar Roku was the ancestor of... her mother. A memory of her mother's gentle face, staring down at her as she was tucked into bed, suddenly surfaced in her mind. Her mother... the Avatar's descendant. It seemed so... absurd, so unreal. She had never, in Azula's mind, been associated with strength or power. Yet her blood had come from one of the most powerful benders to have lived.
She pressed a hand to her forehead, her eyes sharpening into a glare. If what Uncle had just told them was true, then this would have been incredibly significant information. Yet... she had never known of this. Her mother had to have known, as well as her father... of course. Something like this would have been concealed from as many people as possible. Azula certainly could never remember her mother ever discussing her life before becoming Father's wife. Had they thought that information too dangerous to reveal? Or was it because -
She suddenly became aware that her thoughts were drifting, and that Zuko and her Uncle were continuing their conversation.
"Why are you telling me this, Uncle?"
"Prince Zuko, you stand at a crossroads. The legacy of your ancestors have come together in you. Sozin's path of subjugation and conquest, and the Avatar's duty towards balance. In you alone, they can be reconciled, and balance can be restored."
Azula bit her lip. Was her Uncle trying to waylay Zuko again? She almost turned and marched in there, but forced herself to remain still. Zuko wasn't going to fall for such a transparent plea.
A sharp exhalation of breath. "That's the destiny you were talking about Uncle?"
"Yes," the sound of rock scraping against rock, and Azula could here Zuko gasp in surprise. "This royal artefact was a gift from Sozin to Roku. It was meant to be worn by the crown prince, and it served as a symbol of the friendship between the two. Let it serve as a reminder of what was lost... and what can, perhaps, be reclaimed."
There was another long silence, and finally Zuko stepped out of the cell, his head low.
"Azula," Uncle's voice was weary. "I know you are there."
She remained silent as Zuko lifted his gaze to look at her. She shook her head once, indicating that it would be fine; he didn't need to stay.
"Come in," a brief pause. "Please. I want to talk to you."
She snorted once and turned to enter the room. Uncle was sitting cross-legged, his gaze steady as she approached.
"Has Zuko left already?"
"I suppose you think you've given him a lot to think about," Azula folded her arms. "But tell me, Uncle. What does this change?"
Uncle made no reply.
"Grandfather managed to add the power of the Avatar's bloodline to our illustrious family. Clever. And great-grandfather knew to strike when the Avatar was at his weakest and unable to fight back. How does any of this change anything? What game are you playing, Uncle?"
"No games, Azula." Uncle spread his hands in a placating gesture. "And no tricks."
"No?" Her eyes narrowed. "Then I want a straight answer. What was with you telling him that this would help him with discovering his destiny, Uncle?"
A silence for a long moment. "Do you believe in destiny, Azula?"
Azula didn't reply, merely focused her glare.
"I believe that one's destiny exists. But it is up to the individual to accept or reject it. Fate and choice make a delicate combination in many ways."
"Get to the point, Uncle," she could feel her temper beginning to fray.
"A century ago, Sozin made a choice. He chose to sacrifice his friend for the sake of ambition and power. You would have read the testament along with Zuko, I imagine. Then you know that he regretted that choice at the end of his life."
Azula jaw clenched.
"A decade ago, more choices were made. I stood over the body of my son and decided that I would never again support the war. Ozai decided that the throne was his to take and made his bid for it. And a woman weighed her future in the Fire Nation against the life of her son and decided -"
A bolt of blue flame seared past his cheek, just close enough to turn the hairs on his cheek black with the heat. It smashed into the far wall of the cell, dislodging pebbles and small chunks of stone that clattered noisily to the floor.
Uncle hadn't even flinched.
"This conversation is over," Azula said very softly.
She turned to leave, and she could hear the shuffling around her as Uncle shifted into a marginally more comfortable position in the narrow confines of his cell.
"Zuko will be called to make a decision soon," Uncle's voice followed after her as she stepped through the doorway of the room. "Soon he will reach the crossroads and there cannot be any more compromise or vacillations. What will happen then?"
She paused, knowing that her Uncle was trying to get a response out of her and yet unable to resist the temptation. Finally, she twisted her neck to look at him, jaw tight and her eyes blazing.
"Zuko has already made his choice, Uncle. I thought you would have realized that by now."
"Indeed. And what about you, Azula?" Uncle closed his eyes. "What happens when it is your time to choose?"
She slammed the cell door shut behind her as hard as she could.
It had been a week since the message and their night-time meeting with Uncle. Azula couldn't shake the feeling that despite her best efforts Father had known about their visit to the prison, but he gave no outward sign about it one way or the other.
Azula sighed and rubbed her forehead. Zuko had obviously been thinking a lot about what Uncle had said to him, and she silently cursed herself for not being able to influence Zuko away from Uncle's nonsense.
She'd gotten him to show the 'royal artefact' Uncle had given him. It was a crown of some kind, old but ornate and well made. Sozin and Roku had to have been close for the former to give this to the latter, she decided. Ultimately though, she didn't see why Uncle thought it was a big deal.
She settled back into her chair. Zuko had been brooding lately – she had chalked it up to their meeting with Uncle at first, but as she paid closer attention, it seemed it had something to do with something he had ordered or commissioned. In any case he appeared to be paying a lot more attention to incoming messenger-hawk postings.
Azula had been busy herself – the day of the eclipse drew ever nearer and last minute preparations were becoming more fervent as they tried to discover and account for every possibility.
"Azula, you're going to kill yourself like this," Ty Lee murmured as she stared at the mountain of papers on the desk.
"Nonsense," Azula said without looking up. "I'm perfectly fine."
"But still. You have to take a few breaks, don't you?"
"There's one coming up soon. Father's having a war meeting and I'll be attending."
"Azula!" Ty Lee's voice now had a petulant note in it. "A war meeting isn't a break! It's just a different kind of work and-"
Azula placed one strong hand on her shoulder and looked up into her friend's face. "Ty Lee. I appreciate your concern for me. Really, I do. But this work has to be done. So please stop disturbing like this. All right?"
And that was enough. Ty Lee backed down, although she still looked worried.
At that moment, there was a knock on door.
"Princess Azula, Fire Lord Ozai has sent me to inform you that the meeting is about to begin."
"Understood. Dismissed," standing, Azula paused briefly to rub at her eyes. "Well, I guess I'll be going now."
As she approached the war room, a smile came across her face as she saw Zuko – obviously not used to the ornate ceremonial armour – heading for the entrance as well.
"You got invited, then?"
He nodded, clearly grumpy at having to wear the uncomfortable armour. "What's this meeting about anyway?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "We've already hammered out most of the plans for the day of the eclipse, so this should be about dealing with the remaining rebellions in the Earth Kingdom."
"I wonder what plan they'll come up with."
"Who knows," Azula shrugged. "Most likely this meeting will be as routine as they come."
The doors were opened to the royal siblings, and as one they strode into the war room.
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