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She didn't look up from the map she was drawing. "What is it, Zuzu?"
"You ever wonder what it's gonna be like when the war ends?"
She paused for a brief moment, halfway through inking the norhtern coast. "No, not really," she shrugged. "I don't think there'll be that much difference, anyway."
"Really?You think thnigs will just stay the same even after everything ends?"
"Well, for me at any rate," she raised an eyebrow. "I mean, if it ended before I got the chance to show how good I am out on the field, that'd be too bad, of course. But otherwise, life will go on the same. Living in the palace, learning from dad, and annoying you."
"What, you think anything will change for you when the war ends?"
"Well, Lu Ten and Uncle will get to come home!"
"Oh yes. Wonderful," Azula resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "We can expect the common rooms to start stinking of tea again." She didn't bother to add that it would also mean that Zuko would have less time to spend with her.
"Azula, that's not nice! It's not like drinking tea is the only thing Uncle does!"
"It's not? You could've fooled me."
"Oh, come on! He taught us lots of things the last time he came back! Like how to live balanced life and all that!"
You mean he taught YOU lots of thing. She shook her head, "Zuko, the day I start taking life lessons from Uncle is the day I renounce being a princess."
As she mounted the steps and took her place at her father's side, Azula let her gaze roam over the people who were assembled in the conference room. Most of them generals of course, and base don her memory, those whose responsibilities included the pacification of the Earth Kingdom.
Well, she'd had an idea of what this meeting would entail before it started, but it was still nice to get some confirmation for herself. She settled gracefully into her seat, hearing the tiny grunt from Zuko as he found his own place.
"If we are all gathered," her father said without preamble. "Then we may begin. General Shinu?"
"Yes, my lord," a man at the far end of the table stood, a sheaf of paper in his hands. "We have successfully subjugated Ba Sing Se, and it remains under our control. Unfortunately, rebellions still continue within the city walls. The nature of the city makes it difficult to properly locate and stamp out resistance; they have many places to seek refuge in."
I don't doubt most of our Firebenders don't actually know the city that well. Keeping her gaze focused on the map in the centre of the room, Azula let her thoughts wander for a brief moment. Even the brief areas I stayed in would have plenty of places for people to run and hide. And any competent rebellion leader is going to decentralize movements as much as possible so even if a single group is found and eradicated it won't damage the rebellion as a whole.
Well, it's not my problem. Not for now anyway.
"Well, I expect some progress on that front the next time the issue is brought up," Ozai said smoothly.
"I shall convey that at the earliest opportunity," Shinu bowed slightly before continuing his report. "That said, there are still significant pockets of Earth Kingdom resistance all over the continent."
At a gesture from the general, an aide stepped forward, placing markers on the map to indicate hotbeds of rebellion. After doing some quick mental calculations, Azula frowned. Based on the map, it would mean that over half the Earth Kingdom was still awash in rebellious activity to one extent or another.
Of course not all rebellions were created equal, and she supposed a fair number of those could be quickly erased. But hunting all of them down would take time and effort, and it wasn't really the sort of thing they could solve simply by waiting for the Comet to arrive either...
Before Azula could pursue that train of thought any further, the General cleared his throat to continue.
"I recommend that once the eclipse has passed and the invasion thwarted, we divert more forces over to the Earth Kingdom to secure the area."
Throw more men at the problem, Azula thought irritably. Of course that's how someone like him would want to do things. That won't work. What we need is either smaller teams of specialists to root out their leaders, or maybe -
"Prince Zuko," and at this, Azula stiffened ever so slightly. "You have spent much time in the Earth Kingdom amongst its people. What do you think of the General's suggestion?"
Was this some sort of test? Risking a glance to her father, Azula saw that he was looking at Zuko in turn, his expression kept carefully neutral. Did he truly want Zuko's advice as someone who spent three years wandering around the Earth King.
Azula took a controlled breath, hoping that her brother would not say anything that would embarrass himself.
"The people of the Earth Kingdom are... proud. Proud and strong," Zuko said after a moment's thought. "They will not yield easily. Not as long as they think they have something to fight for."
"Something to fight for?" Ozai repeated those words in a low, silky tone. Azula had learned over the long years to become wary whenever that tone was used. "Yes, indeed. I like the way you think, Prince Zuko."
"Father?" Zuko said as Ozai stood.
"If it's having something to fight for that gives them strength, then we simply need take it away from them," Ozai took another step forward, staring down at the map of the Earth Kingdom with undisguised malice, and all of a sudden Azula knew exactly what it was her father intended to do.
"A single crushing blow," she spoke out suddenly. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Zuko turning to her, a expression she didn't quite recognize on his face. But that could be saved for later. "One that will destroy their hope, and any reason to keep fighting. That will stop the rebellions for good."
"Exactly, Azula," Ozai nodded once in approval. "You took the words right out of my mouth."
"What do you suggest, my lord?"
"The Comet fast approaches," Ozai took a single step, beginning a long circle around the room. Fire Lord that he was, he knew how to be theatrical when the situation called for it. "One hundred years ago, my grandfather used the Comet's power to clear the way for our path to war. Now I shall use it to bring the war to an end. Permanently. From our airships, we shall rain hellfire down upon the stubborn fools. They will learn the price of their resistance when their villages, cities and fields are reduced to ashes. And from those ashes a new world will rise. One that belongs to the Fire Nation, and the Fire Nation alone," completing the circle around the room, he raised his arms in a symbol of triumph. "And then our victory shall be complete!"
As the room erupted into applause, Azula shook her head ever so slightly and glanced at Zuko, aiming a tiny smirk at him. It wasn't often their father got to overact like that, and she suspected he quite enjoyed doing it.
When she gazed across the raised stage at Zuko, she found that for some reason he didn't smile back.
As Azula stepped into the comfort of her own room, she heaved a sigh and gestured for the maidservants accompanying her to begin removing her heavy ceremonial garments that she had been required to wear to the conference. Raising one hand to rub at her neck, she idly wondered where Ty Lee had disappeared off to.
Well, no matter. That could be left for later. The eclipse was two days away and there was still so much work to be done...
There was a knock on the door.
"This had better be important."
The door opened and Zuko stepped into the room, "Azula, we need to talk."
"What about?" she raised an eyebrow and turned back to her desk. "This won't take long, will it? I still need to go over some of the plans for the eclipse-"
"This is important." There was something in the tone of his voice that gave her pause.
After a moment, she gave a weary nodded and gestured for her handmaidens to leave the room. Once they were gone, she folded her arms and nodded once.
"Well, what is it?"
There was a long pause as Zuko stared at the ground, apparently refusing to meet her gaze. Then he swallowed hard.
"Do you agree? With father, I mean?"
"Father?" Azula blinked. "About what?"
"About his plan! To raze the Earth Kingdom!"
"Oh, that," Azula shook her head. "Grandiose, and a massive drain on resources. Probably not the most efficient way to go about things, but it'll get the job done."
Zuko swallowed hard, "And so if it gets the job done, you're okay with destroying the whole Earth Kingdom?"
She blinked, "Oh, that's what you're worried about? Well, don't be."
"Even with the factories working at maximum capacity we won't have enough airships by the day of Comet to cover the entirety of the Earth Kingdom," Azula shrugged. "Off the top of my head I'd say we'll be able to do... about a third of it, at most. Good thing too. It's one thing to send a message, but the Earth Kingdom is filled with valuable farmland and resources we really shouldn't waste-"
"That's not the POINT!" In the enclosed room, Zuko's sudden yell was all the more jarring and Azula winced.
"Well then, get to the 'point,'" She was becoming annoyed now.
Zuko was taking several deep breaths, obviously fighting to keep himself calm. Azula frowned. He was obviously deeply anxious about something.
"Azula," he said, his voice low and curiously pitched, as if he was fighting to keep it even. "I just sat in conference room, and listened to my father propose a plan to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent, defenceless people, and to destroy the livelihoods of any survivors. And everyone cheered him."
"If it's what we need to win the war-"
"The war," Zuko laughed, a rough, harsh sound. "The war that was supposed to be about sharing our glory with the rest of the world. And it's going to end in us slaughtering them like cattle."
"You went there, Azula! You saw them! People! Sure, they might not be as advanced as us and their living standards terrible and – and lots of things! But they're people! How can you – how could anyone possibly think it's okay to just kill them like that?
"And not just them! You heard what father said. One hundred years ago, Fire Lord Sozin committed genocide! The Air Nomads were pacifists, and he killed all of them so we could have this war. That's what one hundred years of effort have brought us."
"Zuko, stop it!"
"No! I will speak! I will speak, and you will listen. That's what you promised, didn't you? That you'd at least 'hear me out?'"
"That's different and you know it. That was during our journey-"
"Yes, our journey through the Earth Kingdom. Hey, Azula, you know something? Throughout the Earth Kingdom, we had to keep our identities hidden, at least at first. I met some people who didn't know I was from the Fire Nation.
"And you know what? The instant they learned where I came from, they hated me. Jin, Jet, that kid from that random Earth Kingdom village. All of them. That's what other people associate with the Fire Nation. Hatred and fear. And given that we're planning to kill them, I can't really blame them. Can you?'
The two siblings stared at each other, and for once, Azula found herself at a loss for words.
Why, of all times? Why did Zuko have to end up like this now?
"Stop it, Zuko. It's always the same. You're just too soft -"
"Maybe it's not me that's soft. Maybe it's you that's too hard. And father too. And – and everyone else that would support something like this. Well, I'm not going to."
"You didn't say anything during the meeting," she shot back. "Why bring this up now?"
"Oh, of course," and now there was acid in his voice. "Who's always telling me not to rock the boat and to make sure that I don't do anything that might upset father? If I'd spoken up against that plan during the meeting, what would have happened?"
Azula bit her lip. They both knew the answer to that.
"This is what father wants out of me. To be the perfect prince he wants, I need to go along with this plan. And... I can't do this. I won't do this."
"Zuko, stop talking!"
"This is Evil. Plain, baldfaced evil and I am not going to go along with it!"
"Zuko, don't you dare!" Don't you dare DO THIS to me!
For a moment, there was silence. Absolute silence.
But that could only last so long.
"I'm leaving," Zuko's voice was soft. "I'm leaving the Fire Nation. I'm leaving this place behind and I'm going to find my own way."
Azula clenched her hands into fists. She could feel them trembling, and somehow she couldn't force them to stop.
She wanted to reach out, beat Zuko, knock sense into him. To force him to stay.
But in an instant of blinding clarity, she knew it was pointless.
Soon he will reach the crossroads and there cannot be any more compromises or vacillations.
Zuko had chosen.
"Three years in exile. Everything we did to bring you home... and now you're throwing it all away?"
"I know. I... the whole time I was out there, I thought that what I wanted more than anything was to come back home. I thought I could give up everything if only I could have father look upon me with approval again. But I was wrong. That's not what I wanted."
"Why...?" Azula finally whispered, and Agni, she hated herself for how pathetic she sounded right now.
But Zuko would be leaving again. After three years, he had come back, and now he would be leaving again. Just like before.
No, not like before. This time, he didn't intend to come back.
Fear, anger, desperation, and muted despair mingled together into a thick black lump in the middle
"Why?" she asked again, the familiar – innate? – desire to take charge of a situation reasserting itself. "Why now? Why tell me this now? You're asking me to go with you, is that it?"
"No," there was an absolute conviction in his voice. "I'm not going to ask you to follow me, Azula. This is my choice, and I'll bear the consequences of it alone," his expression changed, taking a softer bent. "But I came here because... well, I was wondering if you thought about the plan the same way I did."
"Ha," her laugh was bitter. "Come on, Zuko. You know me. I'm a monster. Did you think I'd have a problem with that plan? On moral grounds?"
"No, I guess not," he didn't meet her gaze, staring at the ground instead. "I was kind of hoping you would, though."
She closed her eyes. She felt sick. Tired. Sick and tired. Of this conversation, of her work, of everything.
"Get out of my room," she finally said, her voice small and miserable. "I want to be alone."
Wordlessly, he opened the door, and shut it behind him.
The lightning bolt slammed into the dead centre of the wall, blasting out a chunk of it and scattering dust over the area. The wall, specially reinforced to withstand her lightning bolts, still stood strong.
From the far end of the training hall, Azula took a deep breath and swung her arms again, feeling energy flow through her limbs, feeling the chi separate and come together again.
Another lightning bolt was fired from her fingertips.
She knew now that Zuko planned on leaving during the day of the eclipse. It made sense, after all. The invasion would be ongoing, and it would be easier to leave in the confusion, especially since he planned on taking an airship.
Oh yes, he would need an airship. To put enough distance between him and any pursuers, and to bring Uncle along with him.
Azula knew, even without having to ask, that Zuko wasn't going to leave Uncle behind. And on some level, it made sense. If he was going to run away anyway, what was an extra jailbreak to him?
So that was the plan. Zuko was predictable to a fault, and she was certain that she had read him perfectly.
So why couldn't she decide what to do about it?
Tell her father about it? Zuko would end up in jail, or worse.
Just leave it be? That was as good an option as any. He was now a traitor, after all. And she despised traitors.
If she despised traitors, then the other way would be to stop him herself. Wound him, just severely enough that he wouldn't be able to go through with his plans.
Even as that thought flowered in her mind, it withered away.
She wasn't going to harm her brother.
After she was supposed to protect him.
Hadn't she promised?
But how could she protect him if he was going away?
Another thought that she tried to quash as soon as it sprang up.
How could she possibly follow him? She was Azula, princess of the Fire Nation!
But... also Zuko's sister.
If she followed one path, she would now have to abandon the other.
Why couldn't things just be simple? Azula raged silently at the absurdity of it all. They captured Ba Sing Se and Uncle had to prove himself a traitor. They were on the cusp of ending the war for good and now Zuko would be running away.
Why did she have to choose?
She lowered her limbs, feeling her muscles burn and her breath come in raspy gasps.
She had always believed both paths would go together. After all, why wouldn't it? He was Prince of the Fire Nation and her brother. And so she could be Princess and his sister.
Another swift burst of movement and yet another lighting bolt slammed into the wall.
With a groan, it finally gave way, crumbling into so much rubble.
And as the dust settled and silence reigned once more in the hall, Azula could almost hear an old, wizened voice speaking to her.
"And what about you, Azula? What happens when it is your time to choose?"
She ground her teeth together, and closed her eyes.
One more day to the eclipse.
There was so much work to be done.
"The eclipse will be coming soon, my lord."
Ozai nodded, once and raised his tea to his lips. "Very well. I trust all the necessary preparations have been made."
"Of course. You need not fear. The princess has already prepared the perfect ambush for the Avatar and his companions."
"Mm," setting the mug down, Ozai set back and prepared to wait.
It did not take long. All of a sudden, there was a change.
Nothing visible, of course, but it was something no Firebender could overlook. The deep, unbreakable connection with the power and life of the sun was, all of a sudden, broken.
Lesser men might have described as feeling vulnerable in a situation like this.
Ozai was not a lesser man.
All of a sudden, the door at the far end of the hall creaked open, and it took all of Ozai's self-control not to let his surprise show on his face.
Standing in the doorway was Azula.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded. "You were supposed to oversee the ambush at the decoy throne room!"
"That's already been taken care of," she said as she stepped forward. "Honestly, father. Don't you trust my capabilities?"
Ozai paused. For some reason, he had assumed his daughter would be there in person to confront the Avatar and whoever he had brought along for the assault. Of course, given that it would be in the middle of the eclipse, she would be stripped of her Firebending too...
So he nodded, "Of course I do. But that still does not tell me your purpose for being here."
Azula did not reply for a long moment as she met his gaze with her own, and suddenly, Ozai could detect a sense of unease in the air.
It was not fear, of course. He was Fire Lord Ozai and he did not become afraid. But something was not right, and he had yet to figure out what.
"I wanted to give you a chance to convince me to stay," Azula said.
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