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"Azula, do you want to go see a play?"
At her mother's question, Azula looked up from her calligraphy practice. There was a brief pause as she attempted to unpack the meaning behind her mother's words.
"Did Grandfather hire another troupe to come perform?" That was what 'watching a play usually' entailed, after all. One of the gardens or courtyards would be rendered off limits for the day as a stage appeared as if by magic. The actors, musicians and stagehands worked frantically to ensure that their performance would be one that pleased the Fire Lord.
But of course those sessions were usually arranged several months in advance and little Azula had gotten good at keeping one ear to the ground to find out about upcoming events. It made it easier for her to know when to be all dressed and ready, and when to come down with mysterious fevers the day before.
But she hadn't heard anything about any upcoming performances lately.
"No, not one of those big affairs," her mother smiled and settled herself by Azula's bedside as she drew out a small leaflet that Azula recognized as an advertisement. "There's a theatre near the eastern end of the capital that's performing one of my favourite plays, and I thought I'd bring you and Zuko out to make a day of it."
"The capital?" Azula said as she tried to digest this information. She'd been to the capital before, of course, but only two times so far, and both had been part of a large procession with guards and servants stretching out ahead and behind them. Those occasions had been big, bombastic affairs, when Grandfather – flanked on both sides by father and uncle – would proceed to the centre of the city, to perform the ceremonial lightings. There would be lights and music and a large feast at the end of the celebrations.
This didn't seem like one of those occasions.
"That's right," her mother nodded and smiled. "Just a small, simple affair. You, me, Zuko, and maybe Ty Lee or Mai."
Azula fell silent as she pondered her mother's offer. On one hand, this sounded dreadfully... low-class. Why should she have to head out to the city to watch something? If they wanted the privilege of performing before royalty, they could jolly well come before her.
And yet, on the other hand... Azula took a sideways glance at her mother. It was a chance to spend more time with her. Something she hadn't had much time to do lately, what with father pressing her to start reading those introductory texts on military doctrine.
And so she hopped to her feet and gave her mother what she hoped was an eager smile.
"All right, mother. Just let me go get changed and see if Ty Lee or Mai are free."
As her mother smiled, nodded and headed off to make her own preparations, Azula paused and picked up the flyer that she had left behind on the table. As expected, it was an advertisement for the play that her mother was so excited to watch.
Azula furrowed her brow.
"Love Amongst the Dragons?"
Azula was awake before the sun rose that day. In some ways, it was simply common sense that she do that.
She was still in an unfamiliar situation, surrounded by people she couldn't trust.
The less time she spent alone and vulnerable, the better.
As she stepped out into the courtyard of the temple, it still took her a brief moment to realize that she had not been the earliest to rise after all.
"Oh... hey," the Avatar looked over at her direction and gave a tiny wave. "You're up early."
"It's an unfamiliar environment for me," Azula said, and let him draw the wrong conclusion on his own.
"Really? Yeah, I guess it would be for you," standing on one of the stone slabs that had been destroyed by the last battle, Aang gazed up at the rest of the structure. "But for me... it's the first place I've been in a really long while that reminds me of home."
"And you came out here to reminisce?" As long as the Avatar was feeling chatty, there was no reason not to get as much information about his mindset and worldview. If he was going to be her ally for the foreseeable future, then she might as well be as prepared as she could be to make proper use of him.
"Haha, not really. I mean, we've already spent a lot more time here than you," the Avatar folded his arms and glanced over in the direction of the doorway. "I'm actually waiting for Zuko. He's supposed to start giving me Firebending lessons today."
"Ah," she glanced out towards the horizon. Of course, it made sense that Zuko would want to schedule an introduction to Firebending for sunrise.
Thoughts on that matter led to another issue popping up in her mind, and she turned back to face the Avatar.
"By the way, Avatar," she kept her tone conversational. "Any particular reason you decided to have my brother as your teacher instead of me? I'm sure if you asked him, he'd readily tell you I'm the better Firebender than he is."
"Yeah, I thought a lot about that," the Avatar looked sheepish as he rubbed the back of his head. "And I don't mean and real offence, but-"
Anything the Avatar was about to say was interrupted by the appearance of Zuko in one of the nearby doorways.
"First time in a long while I've seen you awake so early," she said.
"Indeed," ignoring her brother's scowl, Azula smiled as she turned to face the Avatar. "I don't expect you to know this, but Zuzu was always one to rise late. Now, I'm not saying a Firebender can't wake up late, but you know, we're supposed to rise with the sun and all that."
"Yeah, yeah, that's enough," Zuko said as he began physically pushing the Avatar away. "Anyway, Firebending training. Now."
Azula watched the two of them walk off to a slightly more secluded spot and shook her head. It appeared the Avatar was willing to trust her – at least, enough to make some small talk with her.
Well, that was a good thing, she supposed. And probably for the better. If his guard was up all the time around her, it would be harder for her to get him – and by extension the rest of the Avatar's group – to cooperate.
Cooperate with what, exactly?
She knew Zuko had decided to bring down the Fire Nation – no, that wasn't accurate. He wanted the war to be brought to an end.
Of course, large portions of the Fire Nation would have to be brought down regardless before that could happen. So it stood to reason that if Zuko continued down the path they were on, they'd end up fighting the Fire Nation.
She suspected that he had come to terms with it – especially if he was now the Avatar's Firebending teacher. Out of the corner of her eye, she noted him enter the basic Firebending stance and indicating that the Avatar should imitate him.
And lest she forget, she herself had brought down Fire Nation men back at the Boiling Rock.
Thoughts of the Boiling Rock brought back thoughts of Ty Lee, and suddenly Azula felt an uncomfortable tightness in her chest. She did her best to shake it off for now, although it was a reminder that at first opportunity she'd have to do more to figure out about where Ty Lee was taken.
Refocusing her attention on Zuko and the Avatar, her brow furrowed. The expression on her brother's face told her that something was clearly very wrong.
As she watched, he pulled his arm back and thrust it out again in a standard Firebending move – but what should have produced a blast of red-orange flame instead created a tiny lick of fire that instantly faded away into nothingness.
Azula suddenly felt a headache coming on.
"We've called this meeting," Azula said as she stepped forward to the centre of the loose circle. "Because we have a problem."
The sun had set by now. Azula wasn't very happy with having what was essentially an entire day wasted, but in between Zuko wanting to take the time needed to confirm that yes, he had indeed lost most of his Firebending skills, and finding some of the people who had scattered all over the compound, it couldn't be helped.
And for that matter, they were currently still missing most of the older Water Tribespeople, including their chieftain Hakoda. Oh well.
"My Firebending is gone," Zuko said from his position outside the circle, arms folded in contemplation. "Or at least, it's a lot weaker than it used to be."
"Oh, that's why you looked so angry earlier today. I thought it was just – you know, you being you."
Zuko paused for a moment to glare at Sokka.
"Anyway, that means I can't teach Aang Firebending like this."
"Um, yeah," the earthbender noded once. "So I understand that's a problem for you and all, but we still have princess here if we need a backup teacher, don't we?"
"I'm not anybody's 'backup'," Azula said without looking in her direction. "And yes, I'm more than capable of teaching the Avatar Firebending. But my brother is a capable Firebender and he's never experienced such a loss of ability before. We still need to figure out what's happened."
"Oh that's just peachy," the waterbender snorted. "He chases us halfway across the world and his Firebending is fine, but the instant he's supposed to be on our side the Firebending stops too."
"Well, as far as I can tell," her brother said as he sat up a little bit straighter. "The only thing that's really changed about you is that, yeah, you're on our side now. And... uh. I'm not a bender, but I also don't see how that's supposed to change anything about your bending."
"No, maybe that's it," the Avatar now, leaning forward with the excitement of discovery. "Think about it. Back when you were chasing us, you had a real drive and purpose. I mean, not that it was a good purpose, but it was something spurring you on! And now..."
"That's ridiculous," Azula said as she settled herself down on a rock that had been worn smooth enough to be used as a bench. "People can Firebend for all sorts of reasons. You don't need a clear goal in mind to achieve that."
After all, I still don't really know what I'm doing here.
Keeping that thought to herself, she kept a steely mask on her face. "But I'll say this much. You need something to fuel your Firebending. It's the nature of fire. It needs to consume to live."
With a gesture, she sent a dart of blue flame into the campfire, making it flare up slightly bigger to demonstrate – and to silently confirm for herself that her Firebending was as potent as ever. Her point proven, she turned back to Zuko, who was looking at her.
"What's been fueling your Firebending until now, Zuzu?"
Zuko was silent for a very long while. At his side, Mai placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, but then likewise turned to face the assembled gang.
"Anger," Mai repeated. "And don't give me that look, Zuko. You know as well as I do that you've always used that resentment and rage about what happened to you to push yourself. Now you've let go of that all – mostly, anyway. If that's what you used to fuel your Firebending, then it actually makes sense that you can't do it properly anymore."
"So you're saying we just need to make Hotman here angry?" the earthbender jumped to her feet. "Easy enough! Lemme find some pebbles!"
"No, stop it," Zuko had stood up as well. "If I have been relying on my anger to fuel my Firebending, then I don't want to anymore. It's not healthy anyway. That's got to be some other way."
Another brief silence, this time broken by the Avatar.
"So, Azula. What do you use? Maybe Zuko can use it too?"
Azula almost smiled. "I doubt it. I fuel it with myself. I can't allow myself to ever flag or fail, so I have to keep pushing myself harder. It's that drive that I use to refine and improve my Firebending. It has to be perfect, and I as well."
"Speaking of unhealthy things..."
"I'll thank you not to comment on things you've no personal understanding of," Azula didn't bother to look at the water peasant. "The point is, this is something that's been a part of me for years now. That sort of drive has to be nurtured" – imposed on you – "over a long time. Zuko won't be able to pick it up in any reasonable timeframe to help with the war."
"So we're back where we started," the Avatar cast a forlorn look at the ground.
"Nah, not really," the earthbender had a gleam in her blind eyes. "If you need another source for Firebending, why not go back to the origin?"
"Yeah, the original Firebenders that the humans first mastered their arts from. For instance, the first earthbenders were the badgermoles. The reason I can use my earthbending as an extension of my senses is because I learned from them."
"Oh yeah," the Avatar had perked up too. "The monks used to tell me that the sky bisons were the first airbenders, and we first learned the art from them."
"Well, that won't work," Zuko said as he folded his arms.
"What? Why not?"
"The first Firebenders were the dragons – they don't exist anymore."
"What, really? I mean, they were around when I was a kid."
"That was a hundred years ago, Aang."
"The dragons are extinct," Azula said with no intonation in her voice, "because Fire Lord Sozin ordered them to be hunted down."
The earthbender sneezed.
And then silence.
"Well," Zuko cleared his throat in an attempt to change the subject. "Maybe there's another way. The dragons are gone, but the first Firebending civilization was the Sun Warriors."
"The what? I never heard of that even as a kid."
"You wouldn't have, Avatar. They've been gone for thousands of years. And I don't see how the dead and gone would make for good teachers."
"You don't know that! The monks used to tell me that the echoes of the past can always still be heard in the present."
And I suppose you can still hear them now, Avatar? Azula bit back her retort and remained silent.
"You never know. We might find something by poking around the ruins. The original civilization isn't too far from here."
"And you think going there will, what, help you pick up mystical Sun Warrior energy from a thousand years ago?"
"Maybe, maybe not," Zuko simply looked at the ground. "Either way, I need to find another way to Firebend, and fast."
Azula stood silently, watching the tiny speck of the Avatar's sky bison vanish into the distance.
At the end of the meeting, it had been decided – Zuko would leave to go find the Sun Warriors' civilization and Mai would accompany him, while the Avatar would stay here with Azula teaching him Firebending at least until Zuko returned.
She supposed it was a rather large gesture of trust that the Avatar would be willing to loan the sky bison to Zuko, and it was also probably a good sign that the bison seemed friendly enough to the two of them – Mai in particular, for some strange reason.
But right at that moment, she mostly thought of how she was currently the only member of the Fire Nation left at the air temple.
And she had to admit she wasn't very used to how this group discussed things. Everything speaking over each other, joining and leaving the conversations as they got distracted, coming to agreements usually through a weak consensus of no one disagreeing very much.
It was nothing like when she was a princess.
She folded her arms, willing herself not to sigh.
This was stupid. She was Princess Azula of the Fire Nation.
She was not lonely.
With a shake of her head, she turned and began walking through the temple's corridors. She had scheduled her own lesson with the Avatar for when the sun was at its highest point in the sky, and there was still some time left before that. So she might as well get started on preparations.
And then she slowed to a halt, her eyes narrowing. Standing in the hallway ahead of her, her arms folded, was the waterbender.
As soon as she caught sight of Azula, the waterbender started walking up to her.
"What do you want, waterbender?" it hadn't been hard to discern that of all the people in the Avatar's gang, she was the one who was the most openly hostile to them. Azula had decided that simply avoiding her would be the easiest option for the both of them, but evidently the waterbender disagreed.
"Everyone else here is willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. They think since you helped them take out Combustion Man and helped spring Suki and my brother from that prison, they're willing to at least let you be allies."
"And I take it you disagree."
The waterbender's eyes were cold as the ice that was her birthright. "Jet told me, you know. Back in Ba Sing Se. Your little sob story about how Zuko was an exile and everything. You wormed your way in and appealed to what goodness you could find in his heart, just so you could spit on it later."
Azula remained silent.
"So, you give me one tiny little, insignificant reason to think that you might want to harm Aang, and I promise you, I will end you. Right then and there."
Azula let a smile she did not feel at all come onto her face.
"I notice how you waited until I didn't have anyone else to back me up before you decided to confront me all on my own. If this is how you make threats, waterbender, consider me unimpressed."
The waterbender's face flushed darker and her jaw tightened. The two of them remained for a very long moment, staring at each other before the waterbender spun on her heel and stalked away.
Azula stood there, arms clasped behind her back for a moment, and then she let out a sigh.
"You can come out now."
From behind a nearby pillar, the earthbender stepped out, at least having the good grace to look sheepish.
"And just what were you waiting there for?" Azula asked as she began walking again. "Afraid the two of us would come to blows?"
"Eh, not really," the earthbender shrugged in an elaborate gesture. "But, well... you saw how Katara can be. Not to mince words, but she still doesn't like you. At all."
"She can think what she wants," Azula paused midstep, as if a thought had just struck her. "And you? You appear to be at ease with me."
"Well, Sokka and Suki vouched for you, and you did seem to work hard enough at taking down Combustion Man, so... well I'd say you've earned yourself a bit of slack."
Azula didn't reply immediately.
It did appear true that she'd been able to win the – well, not trust, but at least a grudging acceptance of many of the people here. It was a foothold, if nothing else. If she really wanted to, it probably wouldn't take much for her to work her way into them considering her a genuine ally and friend.
Was that even something she wanted, though?
Not for the first time, she grappled with the strange and unwelcome feeling of not really knowing what she was even doing here with these people.
"And also," the earthbender spoke up again, bringing Azula's focus back to the present. "There's also the fact it's pretty obvious that you don't want to be here. That makes it more likely you aren't actually doing this as part of some big plot to have us all captured or something."
It's that easy to tell, is it? Once again, Azula resisted the urge to sigh. "You noticed?"
"Well, you aren't doing a very good job of keeping it hidden, if that's what you're asking."
"Really. I'm normally a pretty good liar, too."
"That so? Well, you couldn't fool me anyway, princess. I can tell when people are lying."
"That's interesting," Azula glanced at the earthbender's blind eyes out of corner of her own. Did she do that by picking up people's speech patterns? Or was it linked to that ability of hers to tell people's positions through the earth? "I'm sure it's an ability you've had plenty of chances to put to good use here, earthbender."
"... I have a name, you know. It's Toph."
"I didn't ask."
The earthbender let out an amused harrumph. "And I thought I was bad at making friends."
They were almost at the room that had been assigned to Azula when the earthbender spoke up again.
"Ok, you know what. You're not asking? Well, I am. Call me by my name, ok, princess? Because, and I'm gonna be level with you here, you always referring to me as 'earthbender' just comes across as really weird."
Azula paused as she looked back at Toph. On one level, it was true that having the earthbender be uncomfortable about how Azula referred to her was a tiny bit of power she had over the younger girl.
Yet on the other hand, was that power going to be good for much here? Given the earthbender had been the first to really make an effort...
Well, if nothing else, there was no real reason to antagonise anyone in her current situation.
And so she smiled slightly, although she was aware that the earthbender most likely would not realize it.
"All right then... Toph. And you'll do me the courtesy of referring to me by name as well, then?"
She wasn't too surprised to see a devious grin come across the earthbender's face.
"Maybe... but don't count on it, princess.'
For some reason, Azula simply felt her own smile grow wider.
"You are three minutes late," Azula did not bother to look up from the candle she had just lit as the Avatar rushed in noisily.
"Sorry, sorry. Momo got a scrape and I needed to bring him to Katara to get healed."
"I was not asking for an explanation. I was making an observation," at this she did look up, making sure to keep her gaze even. "And a request that it do not happen again."
The Avatar settled himself onto the ground, although he still had a small smile on his face.
"You know, all of my teachers have been really uptight about me being punctual."
"It demonstrates respect, and acknowledgement to your teacher that they are worthy of your time," Azula was well-versed in the reasoning behind many acts of politeness, and this was one of the reason why she had made it a point of showing up late for her lessons that had subpar instructors. "Regardless, are you ready to begin?"
A quick nod from the boy.
"Good. I've written off your first lesson with Zuko as a non-starter, given that most of it was spent trying to get him to produce a flame. And that being said, I've also given a lot of thought to how I should structure your introduction to the principles of Firebending."
She had quickly realized that approaching it like a standard lesson that the Fire Nation's own Firebenders had given would be counterproductive – they had grown up in an environment where the basic principles of Firebending had been foundational in shaping the whole of society, and therefore there were common elements that could be understood by most anyone from the Fire Nation.
Not so here. The boy was an airbender first, everything else second.
"So," she continued. "Before we go any further. Tell me what you know about fire."
There was a pause and she could see the hesitation in the boy's eyes.
He was incredibly easy to read.
"This is not a trick question. Just tell me what you think of when the word 'fire' is mentioned."
"True," this neutral answer appeared to encourage him more.
"It's also bright. And, uh... it needs a fuel source to keep going. We talked about that last night, right?"
"All true. Good enough, next question." picking up one of the countless pebbles strewn across the courtyard, Azula tossed it to the ground next to the candle. "What is the difference, the fundamental difference, between this rock and this fire I've lit?"
The Avatar stared at the pebble for a very long moment before turning his attention back to the candle.
Even in the short time since he'd arrived, the candle had grown a bit shorter.
Azula could see the understanding begin to dawn in the boy's eyes.
"It's like we talked about earlier. A fire can't exist on its own."
"Correct," Azula nodded once. "A pebble, a drop of water, even the air around you can simply be. A fire cannot. For it to live, it must consume and destroy something else. That is what separates fire from all other types of bending."
The Avatar nodded, and a haunted look appeared in his eyes. 'Jeong Jeong said something like that once. How the essence of fire is destructive and harmful."
"You met the deserter?" Azula said in surprise. But then she shook her head. She was hardly in a position to criticize right now. "What he says is true. Yet what he says is only half of the equation.
"Fire must consume. But why do you want to create a fire? Why do you want to feed it in the first place? That is the meaningful part."
She opened her ball, letting a tiny blue flame dart out and dance about in her hands. "Right now, this fire feeds on both the air around us, as well as my own energy."
"Let's say I were to throw it at you," and she resisted the urge to smirk at the expression on his face. "And set your clothes on fire. Do you think that would be a good use of the energy I'm spending to create this fire?"
The Avatar shook his head very quickly.
"No, probably not." She acknowledged. "But I can also use this fire to cook a meal. Light a campfire. Or if it's cold, simply keep me warm. The great furnaces in our factories consume uncountable tonnes of coal and other fuels every single day – but from this we can shape and forge metal as we wish, and we can build greater things than any of the other nations on this planet. Do you understand?"
"I think I do," the Avatar was now looking thoughtfully at the flame. "A fire consumes – but then, so do we. We eat food and turn that into energy for our bodies too. And then what's important is what we do with the power that we're given."
"Pretty close," Azula nodded and dismissed the flame. "And that's the basics behind the philosophy of Firebending. Honestly I think Jeong Jeong must have gotten jaded from all the fighting if he thinks Firebending can be used only to destroy.
"That being said, he's right about an unchecked fire being nothing but destructive. You mentioned we eat food as well. But we can stop when we're full, or if you want to stretch it to an extreme, we can reject it and starve to death.
"A fire cannot. A fire will grow and consume whatever it can, heedless of what is lost. Unless, of course, someone checks it. Someone controls it."
"And that's why patience is always emphasized when learning Firebending," the Avatar concluded for her.
"I'm not a spiritualist or a philosopher," Azula said as she sat upright. "So, this is entirely conjecture. But I understand that the Avatar is meant to learn the elements in a specific order, and I think there's a reason for that. Given your personality back when I first met you, you would have been the absolute worst kind of Firebender. The ones who are very good at starting fires, but terrible at stopping them."
The Avatar did not reply to her, but she could see in his eyes that she'd struck a nerve, even if she hadn't been intending to.
"From what I observed yesterday, you've a fear of some kind holding you back from being an effective Firebender. That's why we're not going to start with you creating fire yet. Merely with controlling it." She gestured towards the candle. "This candle is designed to burn out within two minutes. It's been about one minute since I lit it earlier, so we're down to one.
"Can you feel the flame, Avatar?"
A nod in response.
"Good. Use your breathing to regulate the fire. Don't let it go out, but don't make it flare any bigger than it currently is. Try to make the candle last as long as you possibly can."
The Avatar took a deep breath and focused intently on the candle.
As the minute ticked on, Azula silently noted down the mistakes the Avatar was making. Breathing wasn't nearly deep and regular enough. His control was lacking – mostly because he appeared to be trying too hard to clamp down on any perceived irregularities. And he was undeniably nervous about Firebending at all, which was affecting his performance badly.
Finally, the candle was nothing more than melted wax, and Azula nodded.
"One minute and twelve seconds."
The Avatar slumped further down in his seat, "That's barely anything. Maybe I'm just not cut out for being a good Firebender."
"I wouldn't say that," Azula shook her head. "You were able to delay the melting a little – for a completely untrained Firebender, that's still impressive. It shows you can demonstrate the control needed to wield fire without letting it get away from you. What we need to work on now is making that control more reliable."
She nodded once as the Avatar looked up at her, a faint look of hope and resolve now in his eyes.
"We'll make a Firebender of you yet, Avatar."
Azula didn't really understand her mother. She didn't understand how her mother got upset over the smallest things while her father didn't mind. She didn't understand why her mother always seemed to be more comfortable with Zuko than with her. She didn't understand why her mother would sometimes stand at windows in the Fire Nation palace and look out wistfully at the horizon.
And she certainly didn't understand her mother's taste in plays.
Love Amongst the Dragons was probably not the most boring play Azula had ever seen, but given that she had actually fallen asleep at another one before, that was probably damning with faint praise.
She couldn't believe what was clearly supposed to be a simple love story could be so dreadfully overwrought with ridiculous obstacles and complications seemingly popping out of nowhere, all transparently designed to drag out the drama for a little longer.
And she hadn't been paying much attention, but she thought they had mentioned something about dragon skin sparkling in the sunlight, which would elicited a snort of derisive laughter had she not been feeling extraordinarily grumpy at that point.
Not to mention neither Mai nor Ty Lee had been able to come for this particularly outing. Azula hadn't had time to suss out the specifics, but Ty Lee had to celebrate the birthday of one of her sisters and Mai was being dragged to another dinner to welcome visiting dignitaries. And her mother had refused to allow Azula to pull rank and order them to come with her anyway. Typical.
And so, all in all, she felt entirely justified in her decision to sneak out of the theatre while her mother had been distracted by Zuko saying something that she had apparently found very funny.
Once outside of the theatre, Azula had to admit she felt somewhat lost. The streets around her were swamped with people milling about. People yelled in unpleasantly loud voices, trying to peddle wares she had never seen before. Others huddled together in small groups, drinking, chatting, and playing games of one kind or another. The centre of the road was clogged up with carts being hauled back at the end of the day's work.
None of them paid any attention whatsoever to the little girl now standing in the entranceway of the performance hall.
She wrinkled her nose. Logic dictated that it would be best to stick close to the area. She knew her way back to the palace, of course, but it would take far more time and effort to make her own way than simply taking the carriage with her mother at the end of the play.
So best not to get lost, then. That thought in mind, Azula took a deep breath and set off towards the alleyway just down to the left of the theatre.
She had just reached the corner and caught a glimpse of what was lurking in the shadows of the alleyway. What she saw pulled her up short.
Most of the people in the area were dressed shabbily, and none of them were attired the least bit properly, but at least they appeared to be civilized. But the broken pile in front of her...
The man – it was a man, wasn't it? – was clothed in nothing more than torn rags hastily thrown together to cover himself from the cold of night. His remaining eye was bloodshot and haggard, a grimy eyepatch covering the spot where the other one should be.
"Any money to spare, little lady?" the voice came from within a ragged, unkempt beard, and a filthy hand with chipped, overgrown fingernails was shakily extended towards her.
She had just taken a step back from shock and revulsion when she heard a familiar voice calling out for her – and in the short sharp cadence that Azula had learned to associate with being in trouble.
"AZULA!" her mother was marching up to her, her face a mask of anger and worry. "Where do you think you're going, young lady? Do you know how worried I was when I noticed you were missi-" her voice broke off as she noticed the beggar slumped to the ground.
"Any spare change, lady?" the man looked at her with a hopeful expression on her face.
Azula stood and watched as her mother brought out her purse and gave him 3 silver pieces, and noted how his eye widened as he saw the amount.
"Here. Go get yourself some hot food – and some warmer clothes. The cold season is coming in."
As mother tugged at Azula's shoulder and began to lead her back into the theatre, she shook her head.
"Why did you do that, mother?"
"Give him money. He was..." Well, to be honest, words were failing her somewhat just then. "In a terrible state. He didn't deserve anything from us."
"Azula..." her mother sighed and did not look her in the eye. "Sometimes people just end up in trouble and need a little bit of help. It's not his fault he's like that – it's probably not anyone's. Things just turned out the way for him, that's all."
"Well if he found himself in a mess like that, he can get himself out of it too."
"Azula." There was an edge to her mother's voice now. "Don't speak so carelessly about something you have no idea about. If you were to end up in a situation like his, you would have absolutely no idea what to do."
Azula didn't reply. She knew speaking up again would only upset her mother and right now there wasn't any point to that.
But she swore to herself that no matter what situation she ended up in, she would never allow herself to be so pathetic as to be unable to help herself at all. That was for the weak, and Azula knew she was not weak.
No matter what situation she found herself in, she'd find a way to make a space for herself.
To do anything less would be to betray who she was.