I have not updated this fanfiction in about two years. I do have intentions of returning to it one day, but my writing style has changed. There are many things that I want to modify about this fic: plot inconsistencies, grammar mistakes, and just poor writing, to name a few. Before I can think about updating, I would need to rewrite the majority of what is here. However, I am currently very busy and do not foresee this re-write getting finished any time soon. It's a slow-going project. I apologize to the loyal readers who are looking forward to the day this will be updated again; as of right now, I don't know when I can get around to this fic. I thought I should note this all here for old and new readers alike. Thank you.
Title: ab igne ignem capere
Chapter Title: it's now or never again
Author: honestly_sangi / Sangi
Prompt: 31_days at livejournal; june 22nd: it's now or never again
Disclaimer: I don't own A:TLA or anything contained within or related to it.
Word Count: 4133
Characters: Azula, Iroh, rest of Fire Nation royal family
Author's Notes: This is my idea of an alternate universe in which Azula was born first, is generally unloved, and turns out to be a kind-of hero. This is part one out of unknown. Out of character? Possibly. Character is relative, right?
Ab igne ignem capere -
To light a fire with fire
In another world, Azula was born first. In another world, Azula wasn't the favorite.
In a moment, the screaming ends and the wailing begins. The two sounds are so different, Iroh muses, that they really cannot be compared. His feet are wearing away at the ground as he paces outside the birthing room, waiting somewhat-patiently for the door to open.
It has been a difficult birth, Iroh knows, because it has taken so long. His wife's birth had been difficult – too difficult, for she had given life only to lose her own. He can still remember the smell of stale death and the comforting weight of his son in his arms.
Ozai is nowhere in sight, and has not been there for any of the birth.
He frowns at the bad memories and thoughts before shaking his head, scattering his thoughts. He paces the floor, and hopes that Ursa's birth had not been as difficult as his wife's.
At long last, the hinges of the door creak open. The midwife steps out, her hair in disarray and the wrinkles on her face prominent. She beckons him in.
The Dragon of the West steps into the room (in the background he can see Ursa, apparently sleeping on the bed), ignores the smell of birth and mess and miracles, and watches as a maid approaches him, a small bundle in her arms; she carefully puts the bundle in his waiting arms.
Gold eyes, sleepy and startling in their intensity, stare up at him. It isn't altogether unexpected, as children of the Royal Family always have golden eyes at birth, but there's something so different and unusual about them that he is utterly captivated.
"It's a girl," the maid says, indifference painting her face bleak. "Her name is Azula."
"Azula," Iroh breathes, and her hand reaches for him, grasping at nothing.
After six hours, and no visit from his brother, Iroh goes out to find him. He reluctantly leaves the little baby girl whose eyes were so captivating. She had not cried except for in the few moments after her birth, and she simply lay down, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling.
Her eyes were so gold that they glowed in the darkness.
Iroh leans against the doorway to his younger brother's study and watches as he works steadily through a pile of papers on the corner of his desk. The scrolls on the shelves are meticulously organized, as is everything in Ozai's life. Iroh frowns.
"Ozai," he says, and his brother hesitantly looks up. In that moment, Iroh knows the truth of Ozai. In his eyes he can see fear and indifference warring. Indifference wins.
"Yes, brother?" Ozai asks, adding the 'brother' for spite. In his hand he grasps the brush he is writing with.
"You have a daughter, brother," Iroh announces, returning the favor.
Ozai is not pleased when he learns the news. Iroh watches carefully as the man clenches and unclenches his fist, and he barely has to wonder to know what he is thinking – a daughter? A daughter?
Iroh would give everything for a daughter.
After a minute of pregnant silence, the man relaxes, and the Dragon of the West can see the cogs turning in his mind, can see him re-thinking strategy and plans and everything found in between.
"Very well." The prince says, and his head drops back down to the paperwork he had previously been working on.
Iroh leaves, after a few moments of silence, to look in on Ursa. She has been crying since the baby was born, and she will not stop for a long time.
For the first time in weeks, he enters before she has fallen asleep. Ursa waits as he undresses, moderating her breathing, both to calm herself down and to fool him into thinking she is asleep. The soft shush of silk robes only makes her more anxious, only makes her heartbeat accelerate more.
So she waits, laying on her back with the covers pulled up to her chest; she waits for Ozai to come and join her.
He takes his time, shuffling about the room, but he finally pulls back the covers on his side of the bed (so far away, she longingly thinks) and settles in on his back, like he always does.
Before, he would let her lay next to him, and she would curl around him, and his hand would rest on the small of her back…
Ursa's stomach is twisting and turning and she is so nervous, but she has to do this – "I'm sorry," she says to the darkness in front of her face.
Across the expanse of the bed Ozai shifts. She knows he is listening. "I'm so sorry," she continues, her voice shaking with nerves and sadness and remorse.
There is no response.
The lonely and sad woman turns her head to face him, to see him, but she can see nothing but the shadow of his body. "It's okay," she promises, scooting her body closer, to be closer, closer, "we can try again." Her gold eyes burn in the darkness. "We can try again," she repeats.
Ursa moves her body a bit closer, and reaches out her hand – "Ozai?" she asks quietly, probingly –
He turns over on to his side, his back facing her. The light drains out of her eyes as she stares at his back, and something inside Ursa breaks.
Her hand falls to the sheets between them.
"There is something different about her," Lu Ten says, looking at the baby in the crib in front of him. Azula is awake, eyes wide and curious, her mouth unmoving. Lu Ten laughs at her silence, and she smiles suddenly, and it is breathtakingly innocent and yet poignant.
"Yes," Iroh agrees from the table he is sitting at on the floor. A pai-sho board is set up on the low table, the pieces disordered, out of the formation they had been in earlier. A teapot and two empty cups rest next to it.
Lu Ten looks over his shoulder at his father, a smile quirking his mouth. "I was certainly never this quiet as a child," he chuckles, and Iroh laughs.
Iroh rests his hand on his palm, watching as his son teases and tickles the young baby. "No, you certainly were not afraid to make your opinion known," he reminisces.
Lu Ten laughs, a deep, throaty laugh that is one of Iroh's favorite sounds, and Azula gurgles from her crib. The time he gets to spend with son is rare these days, and he enjoys it greatly.
The younger firebender carefully extracts the small girl from her blankets and holds her up. She wriggles under his scrutiny, but makes no noise. Her eyes watch his, blinking occasionally. Finally, her brows crease as she moves, trying to get more comfortable in this not-very-comfortable position.
He tucks her into the shoulder of his arm, and makes his way back over the table. He cautiously sits down on one of the embroidered red cushions, making sure he has a hold in Azula, and settles her in his lap.
Her curious hands reach out shakily to the pai-sho board, and she grabs one of the tiles, turning it over in her hands and looking at it with wonder. Lu Ten wrestles it out of her grip, chuckling as she frowns. "Ah, so the white lotus is your choice?" He asks teasingly as she reaches her hand for it once again.
"That is my favorite tile too," Iroh comments even as his hands reach out to hold the teapot, warming the tea. Azula turns her head at the sound of his voice, eyes twinkling in interest.
The Dragon of the West smiles, and Azula gurgles delightedly and grins back.
Ursa stands next to the crib her child rests in and feels conflicted. Her daughter is sleeping peacefully, the soft tuft of hair at the top of her head sticking out in all directions, and she makes soft, contented sounds every once and awhile.
There is a part of her that loves this child, that unconditionally loves her for being her daughter and connected to her in a way no one else is. This part of her yearns to hold her child, to teach her to talk and walk, and to cuddle with her just to smell the scent of her hair, just to hold her close.
The woman lets her hand softly trace the soft skin of Azula's face. She sighs softly into the darkness of the night.
There is a part of her that hates this child, that hates her for being the reason for her husband's hatred and virtual disappearance from her life, and for being a girl; above all, for being a girl when she should have been a boy.
Part of her hates this child because Ozai is present in every part of her – the tilt of her eyes, the slant of her brows, the curl of her mouth. This part of her knows showing favor to an un-favored child will only give her more grief, and that her only chance at reuniting with her husband lies in conceiving another child, a better child - a boy.
Her hand wanders up to touch the smooth hair, to touch it and feel its gentleness.
Azula opens her eyes, and they latch immediately onto the other pair of golden eyes in the obscurity of the dark.
Ursa gasps; her daughter's eyes are intense and unyielding, yet they are innocent and guileless, and most of all - oh, most of all – they are not judging her. They are curious and sleepy, and they blink several times before closing again.
Azula is smiling.
Ursa stands in almost-silence, her breathing harsh and ragged as she tries not to cry. She watches her daughter fall back asleep, realizing that she has already missed so much. And she will miss much more.
"I'm sorry," she whispers brokenly, and leaves the room. She does not look back.
Ozai enters the room as he always does: with presence, but subtly. He slides the door open carefully, his sock-clad feet making no discernible sound. His gold eyes are narrowed as he stares around the nursery, a room both foreign and familiar to him.
He had spent his childhood here, forever in the shadow of his older brother. His lip curls his face into a sneer as he remembers some of his least favorite times.
Mentally shaking himself out of his reminiscing, he glances around the room, discovering the maid in charge of taking care of Azula was sitting near the doors to the courtyard outside, Azula sitting next to her. The maid was explaining something to her, but he was far away enough that he could not hear.
He made to move toward them, but the floorboards creak as he had moved his body in their direction. The sound had startled the maid, and she had turned around and was standing up and shaking out her skirts before hurrying to him.
"My Lord," she said hastily, bowing repeatedly, amber eyes wide in fear, "excuse me my ignorance. I did not hear you enter."
Ozai waves a hand at her to be silent, and she bows her head, staring determinedly at the ground. His daughter has turned around, looking at the intrusion. The fading sunlight frames her face, and her hair is curling around her chin.
Azula's eyes are gold and curious as they stare at him, and within her hands she grasps something with her grubby fingers. She does not make a noise.
His feet move him toward her, attracted as a moth is attracted to light in the darkness. There is something about her that is entrancing – the innocence in her eyes, the quietness in her being – and he is disgusted with himself for falling into the trap.
As he stops in front of her, he looks down to meet her eyes; Azula stares straight up at him. Slowly, she smiles, and he frowns at this response. Her smiles are given too freely.
"What is she holding?" He asks the maid. The maid skitters for a moment, then –
"A doll, my Lord, given by one of the general's wives at the announcement of her birth."
His face twists into a parody of a sneer, and he reaches out, snatching the doll out of her hands. Ozai examines it; it has the green eyes of an Earth Kingdom girl, and black hair carefully combed and styled.
In little more than a moment, it burns in his hands.
"She is not to have dolls," Ozai states. The maid nods her head repeatedly, and bows again, this time lower than the last.
His daughter is frowning now, her brows furrowed unmistakably and her mouth set in an angry, flat line. The prince turns to leave.
Azula's stare follows him out of the room.
The tea is oolong, and Ursa likes oolong tea. It had been her mother's favorite tea, when she had been alive, and she had spent many days with her mother in the gardens drinking oolong tea. There are worse teas than oolong, she muses.
Iroh watches her face as she sips her tea delicately, noticing the lines around her eyes and mouth that had not been there months before. His sister-in-law and he had never been close, but she was a kind woman. Or so he thought.
"How have you been, Ursa?" He ventures quietly, watching as she sets down her tea, hand shaking slightly.
She smoothes down the silk of her robes before answering. "I've been doing very well. Thank you, Iroh. Lately I have been studying classical poetry in my spare time."
"Oh? I did not know that poetry interested you so." Iroh says, eyes carefully taking in the nervous movements of her hands, the sadness in her eyes.
"Yes, I greatly enjoy poetry." That is a lie, and they both know it. But Iroh know that Ozai likes classical poetry, paradox that it is. He frowns slightly as he heats up his tea minutely with his hands before drinking some.
There is a flash of movement that distracts him from his next comment, followed by loud noises; Iroh and Ursa both turn their heads to see Lu Ten tumble out of the nursery doors, holding Azula above his head, spinning her in circles. She is giggling loudly, and the maid is tittering behind them, watching with a poorly concealed smile.
Ursa's face darkens. Not with the anger that usually darkens his brother's face, but with sadness and longing, and a bit of remorse.
"Azula is a very happy child." For now.
"Yes," Ursa answers.
Iroh sips his oolong. "The maid informs me that Ozai forbid her to have any dolls."
"Yes," Ursa answers. "Ozai thinks such things… frivolous."
For a few minutes they watch Iroh's son and Ursa's daughter playing in the courtyard, the soft light of the morning making their faces glow. Time passes, and the sun soon reaches its high point. He can still hear muted giggling and laughing and the sound of pure happiness. The maid calls Lu Ten and Azula back in for lunch, and they make their way over, Lu Ten cradling Azula in his arms.
Longing shadows Ursa's face as she watches them retreat.
Iroh watches Ursa gaze at her daughter disappearing back inside the palace. "Why don't you visit your daughter, Ursa?" Her head swings back around, and then her panicked eyes are staring into his.
She does not answer. Ursa chews on her bottom lip.
"Why do you not visit Azula?"
Her fingers tighten on her cup of tea, and she looks away.
It is summer in the Fire Nation, and the heat is stifling, practically suffocating. Lu Ten frowns, wiping the sweat from his brow. His bare chest is sweating also, and the sun's glare flashes off of it.
Taking a deep breath, he puts himself into a basic firebending stance. He pushes his hand forward, twisting his open palm, and – flashes of red and orange and yellow – the air ignites in a blaze, evaporating the water in the air around it.
Azula watches from the ground, clapping her hands in glee. The sight of the fire entrances her, captivates her, and she cannot look away as Lu Ten twists and turns, going through his routine practice in the morning.
His body moves as if it is a dance, sliding one way and then another, letting his fire free and allowing his bending to move him. His hands move as if casting a spell, sporadically blasting fire into the air.
In the grass that stains her clothes green, Azula sits, and her eyes follow the motions of his hands as if it is of utmost importance, similar to how a cat watches the flight of a bird. She blinks curiously as Lu Ten finishes, body back in his original stance, breathing heavily in the humid heat of a Fire Nation morning.
His head turns to look at the young child, and smiles even as he pants. "So you like firebending, huh, Azula?" Lu Ten asks, and laughs when she merely cocks her head to the side, apparently bemused.
He makes his way toward her, and crouches down on the grass in front of her. "Look cousin," he whispers as he holds out his hand. Azula's eyes are riveted to his palm, and in a moment there is a flash and a small fire is resting there, burning steadily in the absence of a breeze. She reaches out her own hand, grasping to reach the flame –
Lu Ten laughs again, and pulls his hand back, and then the fire is gone and Azula is frowning. "Don't play with fire," he warns, his eyes dancing, "you'll get burned."
Azula, still sulking, thrusts her arm out and opens her palm, and waits. Nothing happens. Her face turns up to him, beseeching and searching, and she opens and closes her palm in vain.
His face softens and he picks her up, tucking her safely into his arms, and makes his way back toward the nursery. "Don't worry," he assures, "one day you will firebend."
Her eyes blink up at him, and she makes a soft sound of contentment as he lays her down on her blankets. "One day," he promises, and she smiles softly before falling asleep.
Ursa steps out into the sunshine, sliding the door shut behind her. Shading her eyes with her hand, she spies someone near her pond; it is the nursery maid, the nursery maid and her daughter.
Her feet bring her to a stop, and she freezes as the maid speaks. Stepping into the shadows, she listens.
"Those are the turtle ducks, Azula," the maid explains seriously, resting in the shade of a tree next to a pond in a courtyard. Next to her, Azula leans against her leg, eyes curious as she looks at the strange creatures.
Absently, the maid throws some bread, the remnants of their picnic lunch, into the pond. The turtle ducks dive and push each other out of the way to get to the bread, and it is quickly gobbled up in a feeding frenzy.
"They are peaceful creatures," the woman continues, "and in the spring, their babies are born." Her fingers point out some of the small turtle ducks. "See those?" She asks needlessly, as Azula's head doesn't move, and she simply stares at the pond. "Those are the babies that were born this past spring."
Azula moves her head to look up at the maid, and she curiously reaches out to hold the finger that had been pointing. She pulls on the finger and the maid laughs, a chime-like sound that is beautiful in its lightness.
The maid picks the girl up and places her in her lap, and Azula rests her head against the maid's stomach, eyes sleepily blinking.
"Eventually, the baby turtle ducks must leave their family and go away to find their own home." The maid pushes back a strand of hair from the little child's face. "But until then, their mother stays with them and protects them."
In the shade of another tree, Ursa has her fist clenched in front of her mouth, and she desperately tries not to cry. You know the consequences, her mind warns, you know the repercussions.
The maid sighs softly, disturbing the pervading quiet. "Well, then," she murmurs, and carefully picks up Azula in one hand, and the empty picnic basket in the other. "I should put you down for you afternoon nap."
She turns, only to see the Lady Ursa not far away, quietly and slowly making her way toward the pond.
The maid awkwardly bows, cautious not to drop her precious cargo, and looks back up the Lady Ursa, who has always been kind to her. "My Lady, I'm sorry. I did not hear you approach."
Ursa smiles softly, almost pained, and her eyes are locked on the little girl sleeping peacefully in her arms. "Oh! Azula is such a nice child," she exclaims, hoping to please the mother, "she is so quiet and is not a bother to take care of at all." She smiles at Lady Ursa. "She is such a curious child. She is more intelligent than most children."
"Yes," Ursa agrees gently, tearing her eyes away from her daughter. "Continue on." And the Lady walks forward, ignoring the bowing maid, hoping that she doesn't break down.
"Strange," the maid murmurs and heads back to the nursery.
In the pond, the mother turtle duck herds her babies. She pushes the other turtle ducks away when Ursa tosses them food, and protects them when they fight over the bread.
And she can't help to wonder how things could have been different. It should have been her, she knows, it should have been her holding Azula in the garden.
(You know the consequences, her mind warns, you know the repercussions.)
Azulon watches his son as he sits before him, head bowed deferentially and hands clenched lightly in his lap. He watches through the flames and smirks. He had called his son here, and it made his son nervous.
"Yes, my Lord?" His son asks, eyes venturing up to look at him cautiously. "You called me here?"
Azulon takes a moment to answer, and instead sneers at the anxious look on his younger son's face. "I have met your child. Your daughter. Azula."
Ozai remains silent.
"She is quite a precocious child. It is too bad," he says, "that she is but a girl." A girl could become Fire Lord, of course, but a boy is always highly preferred. It has been so many generations since a girl had ascended to the throne that it is impossible to count.
"Yes," Ozai agrees heartily from his almost-prostate position on the ground in front of the dais.
Azulon shifts in his throne, and the fire glints off of his headpiece. "She reminds me of you when you were a child." Weak, insufficient, nothing but a disappointment. "But Azula is so dissimilar from all of the Royal Family's children, is she not?"
Ozai nods his head noticeably. "She is very different, my Lord."
"She is so quiet, and little can get a reaction out of her. None of the other children were that way. Most were angry and rash little children," Azulon muses, and Ozai knows what he is really trying to say: Your daughter is flawed. "It is a pity."
"Yes, my Lord, it is a pity."
Following there are moments of silence, the only sound the crackling of the fire that surrounds the throne. It flickers like a candle, but burns steadily and shadows Azulon's face. "That is all," he finally says. "You may leave, Ozai."
"My Lord?" Ozai asks, straightening out, brushing off the silk robes. On his face there is a small smirk that Azulon thinks is unwarranted at this point.
"Yes, my son?" Azulon asks carelessly, but carefully watches his son's small smirk grow until he almost-resembles Azulon. Sadly, arrogance becomes Ozai.
Ozai can feel his father's stare although he cannot see his face. "I have news for you, father," he says, and it takes effort not to sneer.
Yes, Ozai thinks, oh, yes. "My wife, the Lady Ursa, is again with child."
Azulon freezes in his movement, and it is then that Ozai knows he has him. Another child? Ozai imagines him wondering. So soon? With a final bow, Ozai leaves the room grinning wildly.
But a smirk blooms on Azulon's face, and his laugh is deep and dangerous as it rings clearly throughout the throne room. "Very good, my soon," he murmurs. "Very good."