Title: ab igne ignem capere
Chapter Title: the shadow of the dawn
Author: honestly_sangi / Sangi
Disclaimer: I don't own A:TLA or anything contained within or related to it.
Word Count: 12146
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.
**I apologize that I did not respond everyone's reviews from last chapter. Some things came up with my family and I didn't get to write for quite a while! However, I do read all of the reviews when I get them. So I would like to give out a blanket thank you to everyone! If you had questions, you can post them here again or PM me. Again, I am very sorry for this late update. I hope that in the future I can update much more quickly. Now that midterms are over I should have more time.
As a recap, this is the chapter that takes place during the time-skip. Hopefully it should explain some things. They do not necessarily go in chronological order.
Ab igne ignem capere -
To light a fire with fire
This child I would destroy
If you tried to set her free
This child I would destroy
For I hold her pain most dear
- Vienna Teng, My Medea
For the first year, Azula excitedly waits for the mail to arrive.
Eventually she stops waiting.
Jin's smile is predatory as she looks over at the Princess Azula.
The window behind her is open, and a gentle wind passes through and ruffles her dark black hair. Her eyes are a delicate and slanted gold, molten with hate and envy and everything that lies between. Her cheekbones are high and prominent in her face, the corners of her mouth lifting. Her smile does not reach her eyes, but rather ends somewhere in the middle of her face.
Azula hates Jin because she tells her lies whenever she has the chance; because Jin is a cruel little girl who likes to make other little girls cry. But Azula never cries, and Jin never stops.
"Hey, Azula," she says sweetly. Azula does not turn around but continues to watch her from the corner of her eye. "I can tell you're listening, Azula," her voice croons. "Please talk to me." Jin is cruel.
The princess turns more in her seat, facing the front of the room where the instructor would be if she hadn't left the room. The other girls are chatting together, and Mai and Ty Lee are in another class. Azula is several seats ahead of Jin, one row to the side.
Jin taps her long, red fingernails against the wood of the desk. The clacking noise echoes uneasily in the other girl's ears; the room is full of noise but all she can hear is mocking laughter and the cruel words of a cruel little girl. "I heard," Jin begins, "that your father announced that your brother is officially his heir now. Is it true?" The mocking smile lingers on her face and girls in the row in front of them turn around and watch with wide eyes.
Azula says nothing, and shrugs her shoulder in a small way. It is nothing but acquiescence to Jin. "That's really too bad," the girl pouts. "For you, I mean. Now everyone knows that your father hates you."
Silence pervades the room, nothing there now but the echoes of Jin's voice. All of the girls are watching, eyes wide and almost-excited.
After a long moment, Jin speaks again. "I thought maybe your mother or the Fire Lord would say something about it, but they didn't. I guess it's more like nobody loves you at all."
The princess stiffens in her seat. "That isn't true," she says in a low, dangerous voice. "It isn't true."
Light shines through the window and illuminates her hair, turning it into shades of black-brown and there are undertones of auburn. The sunlight creates a halo around Jin's head and darkens Azula's face and the two girls are so different, just really so different.
The smile on Jin's face wobbles, almost turning into a smirk. But the girls watch and to them she is saying what everyone wants to say anyways. "It's okay," her voice assures in a kind tone, "you don't need to worry. Everyone knows. We've always known, really."
Azula shakes her head angrily, her ponytail swishing back and forth. She doesn't look back at Jin, but the faces of the other girls are enough and her voice cracks when she speaks. "My parents love me. They do." They have to, her mind corrects. Because if they don't…
The mean little girl leans back in her seat and shrugs. "If you say so, Princess," and the title sounds mocking coming from her mouth. "But let me ask – have they ever told you so?"
With these words, the world that Azula has built around herself shakes and cracks appear in the walls. Just because they haven't said it doesn't mean anything, she thinks. I know they love me. Don't all parents love their children?
The clack of wood on wood catches her attention and all the girls hurriedly turn around in their seats, eyes still excited, and Jin settles down with a contented smile on her face. Azula watches as their instructor enters the room, an elderly woman, with scrolls in her hands.
"Now, then," she says with authority, "let us resume our lesson."
The sun only rises higher in the sky as the day goes on, and throughout all her lessons Azula keeps her eyes low and only catches half the words she is supposed to hear. Mai and Ty Lee watch, a little worried, and share secretive glances when no one else is looking. There is a look in the princess's eyes that they have never seen before; a look that they do not want to see there.
Her eyes hold defeat.
Azula knocks on Mai's door that night, while Ty Lee and the knife-thrower are studying, and brown eyes meet gold eyes and Ty Lee forces a grin to her face and catapults over to the door. She opens it and the girl stands there, a scroll tucked into her elbow and a look of listlessness about her.
The acrobat stands to the side and Azula enters and sits on the bed where the other two had been studying. Mai watches with a careful look of apathy that is betrayed by the furrowing of her brows, and Ty Lee just walks back over to the bed and sits down.
It takes only moments for her to speak.
"She asked me, and I didn't know what to say." Her voice is small and diminutive and Ty Lee doesn't like it all because this isn't Azula, this isn't the girl who stands up to everyone and cares and believes, really believes in the good in people.
Mai watches for a moment before pulling out a knife and carefully balancing it on her finger. "What did she ask you?" she wonders nonchalantly.
"She asked me if they told me that they loved me, and I didn't know what to say." Her voice shakes. "Because they haven't ever said that. I haven't spoken to my mother in such a long time I can barely remember the shape of her face."
Ty Lee's eyes are filled with concern as she reaches a hand out to the firebender's shoulder. "Azula - " she says cautiously, but the other girl shrugs the hand away.
"Don't deny it," she says. "You can't deny it, because we all know it's true and that I just really really wanted them to love me, but they don't." They love Zuko because he's the best and isn't he wonderful and why aren't I good enough? What makes me so different?
After a minute, Ty Lee speaks. "I'm sorry," she says quietly. "I'm really sorry." Mai's eyes are somewhat kind as they watch, and Azula looks at both of them carefully before glancing away.
She waits for a moment before shrugging. "It's okay. Well, I think it will be." It isn't okay, and Azula knows that. And it won't ever really be okay. But it's a lot easier to pretend to tell the truth and maybe one day she can fool herself enough that it doesn't hurt anymore.
Mai eventually says, "Everything usually turns out that way."
Azula smiles lightly. "Yeah," she says. "I hope so."
Dear Uncle Iroh,
How are you doing? I have not heard from you in a very long time. I wanted to write you this letter to tell you how I have been doing in school. Most of the time we do very boring things, and we study all the normal subjects. But I have to study more than everyone else because I am a princess, even though no one expects me to do anything right because everyone knows how Father feels about me. In a way, it's very nice because no one expects anything from me and no one sucks up to me at all. In a way, it's very bad because no one talks to me, except for a couple of people.
I can firebend now. I'm not sure if anyone has told you, but I thought you should know. I know that everyone thought that I would never be able to firebend, but I can! I really can. When you come back for a visit I will come to the palace and show you. I haven't been back yet this year but it's only been half a year since school started, so there is plenty of time.
I have made two friends named Mai and Ty Lee. I think their fathers know Father and Grandfather because they work in the military. They are very nice girls. Neither one of them can firebend, but Ty Lee is an acrobat and she wants to join the circus and Mai is a knife-thrower.
I have been getting very good marks in school, so you can be proud of me. But that is enough about me. How have you been? How does the siege of Ba Sing Se? I have never been to the Earth Kingdom before. What is it like?
I have written Father, but he does not write back. Neither does Zuko.
I hope you will write back,
Her hands shake slightly as she reads the letter, gold eyes tearing up. There is such sincerity in every word that it pains her to know that she had once been too weak to protect her daughter, and now she suffers. She had made mistake upon mistake and now…
Everything is her fault.
The second letter reads,
Dear Little Brother,
How are you doing? I am doing very well. I hope that your firebending lessons are going well. Did I tell you that I can firebend now? Well, I can. But when I firebend the flames are blue. I think it's weird, but the trainer tells me it's a good thing. I think she is just being nice.
I know that your birthday is coming up soon, and I don't know what to get you. In fact, I don't think I really can get you anything because I don't have permission to leave the school. So when I come back for a visit I will just have to bring you a gift for every birthday I have missed. How does that sound?
I was wondering if you had made any friends. When I left Mother was just beginning to set up some play-dates with other nobles' children. Were they nice? I hope so. I hope that you have made some good friends.
I have made some friends here as well. Their names are Mai and Ty Lee and they are very nice. Maybe they could come for a visit sometime.
Practice your firebending every day. That will make Grandfather proud.
The last letter is enough to break her heart.
Dear Commander Zhao,
Hello, I hope you have been well. I am doing very well in school and I hope that your journeys have taken you to magical places. The world is so big, but I've never seen anything more than the Capital and here. Maybe someday we could go on a journey together? I think that would be very nice.
I have thought about it, and I still do not like war. I think this puts me in a very awkward position because I am a Fire Nation Princess and I should like war and firebending and destruction, but I don't like it. Not at all. I don't even understand it.
What makes them so different than us? What makes them so much less than we are?
Aren't they just people, just people like us? Don't they bleed like we do?
I've seen fire burn down buildings by accidents. Does fire burn people the same way?
I don't like war. Fire burns and burns and it always seems to destroy. Does it ever bring life? Happiness? Does the fire make us bad, or have we used it for bad?
It makes me wonder, that's all. When I hold fire in my hand I know that it's power, but does power corrupt? Or do we corrupt power?
P.S. Oh, I forgot to tell you that I can firebend now. And I play pai-sho with my friend Mai.
Her fingers clench lightly over the scroll, graceful digits bending and unbending in an almost timeless agony. Something inside her twists in an ugly, horrible way and she hates the fact that this is happening to Azula, her poor little Azula. But this is the best way, after all – the only way to keep her away from her father's quest for power. She had only partially corrected her mistake.
Ursa carefully inspects the letters one last time before tossing them into the fire. The scrolls curl and crumble as the flames eat at them and the lady watches impassively. The sun is setting and its fading rays are filtered into room through the thin paper window, casting long shadows onto her face.
Prince Ozai watches from the doorway, making no sound. His eyes are a bright and glittering gold, and his fingers twitch anxiously. The scrolls burn to ash rapidly, and then the fire subsists off the air and the logs.
He moves forward and the wood creaks beneath his feet. Ursa turns around cautiously, and her shoulders relax some when she sees it is only him. "Good evening," she greets him calmly.
Ozai smirks lightly, coming forward to take her hand and nestle it into his arm. "It's almost time for dinner. What were you doing?" his question is light and frivolous, and she smiles at him coyly.
"I was simply reading some correspondence from some friends in the country," she smoothly lies.
He begins to steer them out of the room.
"Oh?" he asks. "How… interesting."
Fire is but clay in his hands, and he molds it as his body swirls majestically through space and there is really something magical about the way that fire comes from nothing but air and will. He can bend it and make it into power and it comes from nothing at all.
Earth must come from earth, air from air, water from water, but all fire needs is air and it bursts to life with vivacity and verve and it's so much more powerful than any of the others.
Zuko knows this because he's watched as fire burned down homes and villages and families; he's been to the Earth Kingdom, on the shore with his father's generals, and watched as they screamed for mercy. They received none. The smell of burning flesh is ingrained in his memory, along with the looks on their faces as the fire ate them alive.
They screamed to be forgiven. But losers, Zuko knows, are never forgiven.
Fire burns so quickly and so destructively. To the prince it's no wonder that the Fire Nation took over – their gift makes it obvious that they are much more superior; the rest of the world never stood a chance. His father is always right, he thinks with an inward smile. Father is always right.
His hands push forward, and red-hot fire that is a million shades of wonderful spills out and singes the top of the grass. With a smirk on his small face, he finishes the routine and stops. His arms are in front of him, his legs spread apart in a stable stance.
"Very good," a slow voice says from behind him. Zuko turns around, the smirk still present on his face.
The man that is standing there, almost across the yard, is vaguely familiar. It is as if the prince he had seen him from afar once or twice before. Zuko knows his father's advisors and generals by sight, and this man is not one of them. But his hands are calloused, and firebenders always have calloused hands. And to be alive and old and a firebender means that he is good. Better than good.
"Thank you," Zuko says, with a flourish of a bow. The smirk does not leave his face.
Golden eyes watch him contemplatively. "You are the young prince, I assume." He is not asking a question, and the boy does not answer. His hands itch to firebend but they lie still at his sides. "I have heard much about you."
The smirk disappears. "Thank you," he says again, and the man snorts disinterestedly.
"That wasn't a compliment." His hair is white and sticks up out of his head like bits of hay. There is a seriousness in his face that Zuko is unaccustomed to seeing. It isn't the stark solemnity of his father, because beneath everything his father always carries a tint of arrogance. But this man is different; his eyes are bright and alert and there is something that reminds him a bit of his Uncle Iroh in him.
Zuko steps a bit closer, linking his hands behind his back. "Who are you?" he asks, a little curious.
The man smiles and it is a blade of a smile. "I am a captain in the navy."
"What's your name?" The prince comes even closer, until he is close enough to see the puffy red scars that run across his face.
The firebender gives a short, perfunctory bow. "I am Jeong Jeong."
The boy has never heard his name before; there is no recognition in his eyes. But there is a smidgen of respect and curiosity and a lot of barely-concealed arrogance. He reminds Jeong Jeong of Prince Ozai, although the boy looks more like his mother. The Lady Ursa is beautiful, Jeong Jeong knows, and on her son her features look almost masculine.
"What have you heard about me?" The boy asks the master firebender.
Jeong Jeong shrugs minutely. "I have heard that you are a competent firebender for your age." His upper lip curls disgustedly. "But you still lack control."
Zuko stretches out his hand quickly and a small burst of flame flares and glows menacingly in his palm. "What do you mean?" he asks. "Is this not control?"
"Fire can never truly be controlled," the captain answers. "We may hold it in our hand, but we must remember that it is a dangerous weapon. It is not a toy, and it can destroy the world if we let it."
The fire flickers uncertainly. "Fire is a weapon," Zuko asserts, "that we should use to control the rest of the world."
Gold eyes fill with pitying amusement. "Why?" he wonders.
The prince's brow furrows and he looks confused. "What do you mean, why?"
"Why should we use our firebending to control the rest of the world?" Jeong Jeong's face is serious but there is something more sinister behind it, something that lurks and waits in the darkness. There is fear in his eyes, but not of Zuko. Of the fire itself?
The boy looks at him as if he is insane. "Because we are superior than them," Zuko explains, as if talking to a child. "We are so much better and we deserve to rule the world."
Jeong Jeong frowns and it shadows his entire face. "What makes us superior? What makes fire so much better than water, or earth, or air?"
Zuko does not answer. He watches with wide eyes, and the fire in his hands dies out with a whoosh of ominous air. Smoke curls into the air and fills his nostrils; a familiar scent. Jeong Jeong stands close to him, close enough that he can see the pain and disgust in his eyes.
"What can fire do that makes it better?" He holds out his hand, similar to Zuko's, and lets flames fly out. He then closes his hand, and opens it again. There is nothing there. "Earth builds, water heals, and air calms. But all fire does is destroy. It burns and burns and burns until there is nothing left."
His hand, so empty, stares up at Zuko. "And when it disappears," the old man says, "there is nothing left but destruction and death."
The boy looks up at Jeong Jeong, and captain instantly knows that to the prince his words mean nothing. They are the simply words, words that he may one day understand, but for now they mean nothing. He is too poisoned by his father.
"I don't understand," Zuko says. "Fire is always better than the other elements."
There is both pity and dawning comprehension in Jeong Jeong's eyes as he looks at the prince that would one day rule the world. "I once thought," he murmurs, "that you would turn out differently. I once had hope for you."
Gold, innocent yet not, stares up at him. The boy's robes are a bright red, the red of blood and burns and death, and he is truly his father's son.
Jeong Jeong closes his eyes. "It appears I was wrong."
Baozhai sits across from the Lady Ursa at a low table. Two cups of tea rest between them, the steam rising in lazy curls. From under lowered lashes, the older woman observes the sister of her daughter's friend.
The girl is everything she thought she would be. Her eyes are a brown that flashes grey in the light, and her hair is a long brown as well. She looks so much like her sisters that it would be easy to mistake her for one of them; but there's something about her, Ursa muses, that makes her different than the rest.
There is a quiet intelligence in Baozhai's eyes, masked by the polite face those of the nobility wear.
"It was so kind of you to invite me to tea," the younger girl murmurs softly, gently picking up the porcelain cup of tea and raising it to her lips.
Ursa smiles, a small and tender smile, and waits until their eyes meet. "It was no problem," she says. "I have heard so much about you."
There is a small furrow between the other girl's brows, nearly imperceptible. Then a small, slightly mocking smile comes to her lips. "Really?" The girl hmms. "What exactly have you heard?"
The lady sets down her cup and carefully folds her hands in her lap. Her robes are made of expensive silk but they chafe uncomfortably against her skin and there is a light sheen of sweat on her palms. "I have heard of your upcoming marriage. Is it not to the son of Commander Wang?"
Baozhai watches her warily for a long moment before smiling beatifically. "Yes, I am marrying Yujun, the son of Commander Wang. He is a high-ranking palace official."
A wind blows through the open doors the courtyard and ruffle the young girl's hair; something indiscernible flashes in her eyes for a moment before disappearing. Her fingers are long and graceful, still grasping the small cup in her hands. There is something in the way she holds herself and Ursa knows that she has her.
The Lady Ursa smiles and leans in a bit. Baozhai simply watches. "I know all about your husband, Baozhai. Is he not the official that watches over the mail service to the Earth Kingdom?"
Baozhai shifts uncomfortably, adjusting her folded legs on the embroidered cushion. Beneath the cushion the wood of the floor creaks loudly, echoing in the emptiness of the room. Her hair is put up in an intricate and beautiful bun with tendrils free around her face; ornate pins hold it in place. On her face is light makeup that does little to hide the lack of color.
"Yes," she answers at last. She sets down her cup of tea, empty, on the table. Her hands shake. "My fiancé has the honor of holding such a position."
"Hmm," Ursa says idly as she pours more tea into the girl's cup. "I can only imagine…"
The weight of the gold-eyed woman's stare rests on her shoulders like the weight of the world. "Imagine what?" she asks, with almost unnecessary harshness.
The woman only smiles. "Well, I only wonder… the person in that position holds so much power, don't they? Every military command, every troop movement – they all pass through him, right?"
The other girl picks up the cup of tea, sniffs it delicately and inconspicuously before taking a sip. "Yes, he does hold much power. I am fortunate that I will be his bride."
The Lady Ursa's smile turns a bit reminiscent and her eyes dim a bit. Once, a long time ago, when she had been but a child full of dreams and aspirations not yet dead, she had a storybook that her mother read to her. Her favorite story was about a princess who caught the attention of a government official. They could never be together because of the difference in stations, and she did not notice him at first. But over time, his aspirations came to her attention and she fell in love with him. They lived the rest of their lives blissfully happy.
When Ursa had learned how to read, she found out that the ending of the true story was radically different. Her fiancé, the prince of another kingdom, had killed the official. The princess had killed herself out of desperation.
Ursa had promised herself she would never do the same. She would not give up as the princess had. She would never be so weak.
Golden eyes lift back up and look into deceptive brown-gray. The girl across from her is intelligent and an almost-good actress, but there is still more for her to learn. "I would say that your husband is lucky to have you as well."
Baozhai nods her head in acknowledgement before taking another sip of the tea. It is lukewarm now, but it is not bad. And when she holds the cup of tea it is not so obvious that her entire body shakes with nervousness.
The lady watches for a moment longer, then says, "You know what I wish of you, do you not?"
The brown-haired girl looks away. "I know what you want," she says in a defeated voice. "I do not know if I can give it to you."
In that moment she is nothing but a vulnerable little girl again, her hair in pigtails and the other girls picking on her. Her body is slumped as if conquered by an invisible force and her eyes are dead, empty of life. The Lady Ursa smiles.
"I have faith in you. You will not disappoint me."
Outside, in the courtyard, the little boy that could have been hers firebends with ease. His hands move through the air and cut through it like sharpened knives. Even though there is skill in his movements, there is something lacking. He is a proficient firebender but there is something missing that he will never have. A breeze again ruffles Baozhai's hair.
Gray eyes move over to look at her. "Why?" the girl asks in a small voice. Even the teacup cannot mask the shaking of her body anymore.
"Have you ever thought that this was right, Baozhai? I know that you hate the violence, the death, just as much as I do." She leans closer to the girl, hands resting on the table between them. "Help me end it."
Baozhai snorts indelicately. "I am not stupid, Lady Ursa. That may be what you tell everyone, but we both know that is not the whole truth. Tell me, truly," fire blasts in the background, Zuko spins and spins, "why?"
Heavy silence follows her question, until: "A long time ago I made several mistakes. This is the only way to correct them."
"Why must you correct your mistakes?"
Ursa closes her eyes.
"I finally realized that I would do anything to protect the ones I love."
Once upon a time, General Iroh had a son.
The image of his golden eyes fills his mind before he falls asleep every night.
When Lu Ten had been young, his eyes had been full of life. He had looked so much like his mother that almost everyone recognized him as her son, but never as the son of General Iroh.
As the boy had grown older, he had followed in his father's footsteps, and the life never faded from his eyes. His face had matured until he resembled his father and grandfather, and he had played with his little cousin Azula and saw little Zuko and there was something about Lu Ten that attracted people to him like moths to a flame.
Children had loved him; everyone loved him the moment they met him. There was something charming in the way he talked, something both humble and extravagant that was singularly his.
Iroh can remember his face with startling clarity – the face of the boy and the face of the man. He tries to forget the moments before he died, but he stopped truly trying a long time ago. Every night he sees his son's face before he goes to sleep; he hears the dying words of his son and likes to pretend that it never happened.
Once upon a time, General Iroh had a son. But no longer.
The General takes a sip from his glass of cool, refreshing water and looks down the table at the men who serve under him. They are all weary, armor already mud-stained although all the armor is polished every morning. There are lines on their faces where there was once vitality.
Not for the first time, Iroh wonders if he is doing the right thing.
Before the thought can take hold, he lets it drift away into the far recesses of his mind. A small grimace passes over his face before he speaks. "I have called you here today to discuss and re-examine our strategy for breaking the walls."
Somewhere in the back of the tent a man sighs. Several other men look irritated, because they've had this discussion so many times before and now it's just plain repetitive. Over and over again, and the wheel turns.
"I know, I know," Iroh says placatingly. "But we all have to admit that what we are doing now is not working. We must come up with another strategy. Does anyone have any ideas?"
Silence reigns for several long moments before one man raises his hand, then another, and another. He motions to one, and they begin.
They argue for hours, voices rising over other voices and screams and shouts taking hold at more than one point. Through it all, Iroh looks out at them with unseeing eyes and lets it go on and on and on. When dusk arrives, they file out, still muttering angrily and no decisions have been made. But the General knows that they have all blown off steam, and that was the point of the exercise.
Iroh slowly makes his way over to the wall, where they have built a mechanism to lift them to the top. The workers turn the handle and the platform slowly lifts him so that he can oversee the area where green fields had once been. The sight of ash raining down on the city makes him feel better, even though he knows he is no longer that man.
He realizes that his quest for revenge is twisted and futile, but he must win this battle. Not for his country – not anymore.
For Lu Ten.
Fire still burns in the outer circle of the city; they raise the temperatures until it is simply the dirt being incinerated. They want it there as a warning and as a barrier between them and the enemy, and the scent of ash fills his nostrils reminiscently. To him the smell is nothing more than normal, but it must be frightening and new to the people of Ba Sing Se.
Good, he thinks cruelly.
"General?" a voice asks from behind him, sounding a bit annoyed. Iroh startles and turns around, coming out of his reverie. Standing there is a short man, holding official-looking papers in his hands. The little man bows once the General is facing him fully. "We found someone in the village that saw this mysterious 'Phoenix' person. They sat down and described the person for a sketch, although they never saw the person's eyes." The man pauses and eyes him contemplatively for a second. "Would you like to come and see?"
His feet move before he can answer with a coarse "Yes." He walks so fast that the little man scurries to keep up after him, and he has gone halfway across the encampment when he realizes that he has no idea where he is going. He stops abruptly, and the assistant comes up next to him, breathing heavily.
"This way, General Iroh," he says, tugging on his sleeve and heading off to the west. Iroh follows behind him, this time at a more sedate pace.
They enter a nondescript tent that is filled with tables and scrolls and papers. At one table a lamp lights the surrounding area, illuminating a single paper with a portrayal of a person on it. "Here," the official says reverentially, and carefully picks up the picture and hands it to Iroh.
He grasps it eagerly yet cautiously, making sure not to wrinkle the page.
It is a person, the top of their face covered in shadows, the length of their hair long. Their face is delicate and instantly Iroh knows that it is a woman; he does not know how, but there is something in the curve of her nose, in the shape of her lips…
In a moment it hits him and his hands shake. His whole body shakes uncontrollably and the paper drops out of his hands and flutters uselessly to the ground. His eyes cannot stop seeing the picture of her face, a face he has seen a thousand times – no, more than that. He has seen it in the light and in the dark, a face that has retained its beauty although the years have passed by.
"Sir? General Iroh?" the man asks worriedly, shaking him. The other man, the scribe, watches in fascinated horror. Iroh looks at him with unseeing eyes, his body gradually calming down, his heartbeat slowing. "Are you okay? What happened?"
"Nothing," Iroh says slowly. "Really, I am fine. It was merely a sudden ill feeling that took over my body."
The man sends him a strange look that disappears quickly as Iroh looks innocent and hale. He then picks up the paper, brushing the dirt off of it. "Did you recognize the person?" he asks curiously, admiring the Phoenix.
"No, I did not," Iroh says, folding his hands behind his back. There is a look in his eye that the other men do not recognize.
"The Phoenix will, for now, remain unknown."
The palace is beautiful, but Mai hates it. It is carefully decorated in shades of red and crimson and gold and black, but it is too perfect and Mai hates it. Usually she likes everything to be in its place, and here she hates how each tapestry hangs perfectly on the wall and how every door is perfectly spaced from the last. She hates how everything belongs; she hates how she does not.
The girl is not wearing shoes, only socks that are an unusual black. Her hair is in two impeccable buns that are tied with red ribbons in little bows. Her slanted golden eyes are lined with kohl. She is but a doll.
A tapestry hangs on the wall in front of her. It is simple: the characters for peace and prosperity. Mai stares at it blankly and wonders at the irony.
Swooshing sounds from behind her herald the approach of her mother. The silk of her robes makes the softest lullabies.
"Let me see you," her mother orders. Slowly, Mai turns around and looks up at her mother. The woman is older but still has remnants of her original beauty.
Her mother inspects her with narrowed eyes. Finally she reaches out and adjusts Mai's robes, tugging here and there to straighten out the wrinkles. "You will do," she says briskly and appraisingly. "I suppose you know where to go," she says. There is no question in her mind.
Mai says nothing; she nods silently. Her right fist clenches and wrinkles the delicate silk of her robes - patterns of white flowers against black and red swirls.
The older woman nods. Her eyes are discerning and she stares at her daughter for several long seconds. "You must not mess this up for me," she says in a low voice. "You will marry this boy. Do you understand, Mai?" She frowns when the girl does not immediately answer. "Do you understand?" she demands.
The girl's left eyebrow quirks up and she smirks ironically. "I understand, mother."
"Good." Her mother nods decisively. "If I cannot have a son, I will at least have a prince for son-in-law." Her smile can barely be called a smile. It quickly morphs into a frown. "What are you waiting for? Go."
Mai needs no further instruction. She turns around and walks down the hallway, quickly disappearing around a corner. A smile upturns the corners of her lips.
The Royal Family's rooms are not far from the center of the palace. With the stealth of an assassin she maneuvers through the many corridors until she reaches the area. There are no guards at these doors; this is too far within the labyrinth of the palace. She opens the doors and slips through like a shadow, like a wraith of a child.
Doors upon doors line the sides of the hallway. She counts four down on the left. That is his room, she knows very well. Inside there will be his large canopied bed on an elevated section of the room. That's where she'll wait, she decides. She'll wait for him there. Mai does not smile, but her face is full of raw determination.
Quietly and with her deft fingers she slides the door open. Silence. Then, "Mai?"
Mai freezes. Her hand twitches toward where she keeps a knife hidden in the folds of her robes. She clenches it shut and closes the door quickly. "Lady Mai?" the woman asks again.
The girl turns around slowly. Her eyes widen a bit when she sees who it is. "Lady Ursa?" she asks in a small voice.
There is a frown on the older woman's face. "What are you doing here?" she asks in a voice that is not kind yet not mean.
Immediately Mai becomes a young girl embarrassed and shy. She scuffs her feet against the smooth wood of the floors and looks down at the ground. She clasps her hands loosely behind her back. "I was looking around, and I got lost. I can't find my mother."
The tension in Ursa's face fades the slightest degree. There is a maternal look in her eye and Mai mentally smiles. Adults are so easy to fool. They are so willing to believe in the words of a bashful child.
"Here," the Lady Ursa says, extending her hand to the girl. "Come with me and I will help you find your mother. The palace is very extensive and it can be quite easy to find yourself lost."
Mai smiles, truly it seems the smile of a young girl found, and takes the lady's hand. "Thank you," she says quietly. Ursa begins to lead them back out of the hallway, a small and kindly smile on her face.
"It is no trouble. When I first came to the palace I got lost many times. It takes many years of living here to truly know the palace so well."
The girl does not agree, but she simply smiles. "Oh. Where did I end up?" Her voice is so utterly innocent.
Ursa sends her a quick glance but sees nothing. "You were in the royal apartments."
"Is that where you stay?" She asks curiously. "You and your husband and the Fire Lord?"
The princess by marriage lets go of Mai's hand as they emerge into a well-lit corridor. They pass a couple of young women dressed ornately, who bow their heads to the Lady Ursa as they walk by. "Yes," she answers. "We all stay there, including my son Prince Zuko."
Mai watches as the woman's eyes flash in the candlelight. "Does General Iroh stay there too?"
"Iroh also stays there, at least when he is in the Fire Nation. Right now he is in the Earth Kingdom."
I know, Mai thinks with a smirk. My father works for you. You think I don't know. "I have never met General Iroh."
They continue walking down the hallway, passing larger doors where stationed guards stand outside of them. Their masks make them look like skeletons and Mai idly wonders if killing someone takes your soul. She doesn't know. Her eyes move to look at the Lady Ursa. If the woman had not caught her, she would have safely made it to the young boy's room. She would have been able to eventually fulfill her mother's plans. Inwardly, she smirks. Unknowingly she fiddles with the knife under her robes. Oh well.
"Does the Princess Azula stay there as well?" she asks suddenly.
Ursa stops walking. "What?" she asks when Mai stops next to her.
"I asked you if the Princess Azula stays in the royal apartments as well."
The beautiful woman closes her eyes and breathes for a moment. The palace smells slightly of wax, oil, and fire. It always does. She takes a long swallow and opens her eyes. Mai sees that they are bright gold, just like hers, but there is a sadness and longing in them that she did not expect.
Lady Ursa shakes her head. "No," she says in a strange voice. "The Princess Azula's rooms are in another section of the palace." Her eyes catch Mai's. "Do you know her?"
Mai smiles mysteriously. She swivels and continues to walk down the hallway. "I know the way from here," she says over her shoulder. Ursa watches her disappear. She stands there for several minutes before she turns around and heads back to her apartments.
When the young girl finds her mother, the woman smiles and asks excitedly, "What happened?"
Her mother is still-beautiful, but there is a greed in her face that makes her ugly. Mai notices that people don't see it at first, but after enough time anyone can notice it. She hopes it isn't contagious.
The knife-thrower sends her mother a look. "I got caught," she says.
A look of despair crosses her mother's face. "Caught? By who?"
Mai shakes her head. "It doesn't matter. I got away. Let's leave."
A carefully manicured hand grabs her upper arm as she turns away. In her ear is her mother's voice, hissing angrily. "You won't mess this up again, will you Mai? Because you know how important this plan is to your father and I. You will succeed, do you understand?"
The girl shuffles her shoulder and pushes the hand off.
Ozai meets his father in his private garden.
The small space is filled with the lighthearted sound of tinkling water that comes from a miniature artificial waterfall that leads into a smaller pool. In the pool are several turtle-ducks, swimming around contentedly. Two large trees grow in the corners, completely shading the square area. The wind blows softly and causes leaves to fall to the ground.
His father is sitting on a blanket, wearing plain black robes. His hair is down, except for the strands on top that are pulled back from his face, tied unobtrusively. He wears no topknot; he wears no jewelry. Azulon watches as the turtle-ducks peacefully swim and groom each other. There is no smile on his face, but there is softness in his eyes.
The younger firebender approaches him quietly and sits next to him. His father's eyes flicker over to him, but he does not say anything.
"You asked for me?" Ozai asks after a minute of watching the turtle-ducks.
Azulon shifts a bit. "Yes," he replies. "I wished to talk to you about a matter of importance. I have just received from the Academy, detailing Princess Azula's achievements."
When Ozai adds nothing, he continues. "Her instructors tell me she has nothing less than wonderful in all her courses. Her firebending instructor wished to tell me that she is very advanced. Soon, the instructor will have nothing left to teach her."
The Fire Lord makes a quick beckoning motion with his right hand and in a moment a servant is kneeling there, eyes cast at the ground. "Bring me a pai-sho board," Azulon orders. The man scurries away.
Ozai rubs his temples. "I do not wish to play a game of pai-sho, father."
"The board is not for you, Prince Ozai. Do not worry yourself." The older man smiles. "We were talking about the Princess Azula, were we not? Yes, yes. I wanted to let you know her progress in her courses and in firebending. You should be proud of her," the Fire Lord advises his son.
He makes a noncommittal noise and leans back on his hands. "Yes," he seems to agree.
Azulon's smile is a tad ironic. "That, however, is not why I called you here."
The servant comes back out and sets another blanket next to them. He places the pai-sho board on top of it and carefully arranges the tiles in their correct places. In the middle of the board is the red dragon tile, flanked by the wheel and white dragon. He bows before moving back to his position by the door that leads inwards.
Ozai waits until the man is done before asking his father, "What did you call me here to discuss, Fire Lord?"
His father makes a small noise in the back of his throat. It is the sort of noise that a man makes when he is considering his next move in a game of pai-sho. "I wished to talk to you about your heir, the Prince Zuko."
"My heir?" Ozai asks warily.
Azulon nods slowly. "I was thinking… in light of Lu Ten's death, I am not sure that Prince Zuko is the correct choice any longer."
Ozai looks at him blankly for a moment before responding. "Who would you have me choose?" his son asks with bitterness in his voice. "There is no one else."
A cat-panda appears on the railing that surrounds the walkway. She is a mix of orange and black swirls, and her tail twists from side to side as she examines the turtle-ducks in the pond. The two men sit still and watch her curiously. The cat-panda jumps off and walks over to pond. She attempts to swat at the turtle-ducks, but they evade her and start quacking loudly.
Azulon moves his hands in a shooing motion. "Go away, little cat-panda. Leave the turtle-ducks alone."
Instead, the she moves closer to them, interest peaked by the sound of the Fire Lord's voice. She sniffs at his outstretched hand before nudging her head against it. As Azulon smiles and absently pets her, he says, "You could always choose your daughter, the Princess Azula. She is capable, and the first-born also." The cat-panda begins to purr.
Ozai's face turns into a parody of a scowl. "I would not allow such a thing," he warns in a low voice. "You know that the Princess Azula is not a full member of the family."
"I have always tolerated the Princess Azula. Indeed, she is quite a young woman now. Her firebending skills greatly exceed those of her brother." Azulon comments off-handedly. The cat-panda wanders away haughtily when he ceases to pet her.
Ozai stands. "I will not accept her as my heir," he says in a tone of finality. "May I be excused now, Fire Lord Azulon?"
Azulon waves his hand at him dismissively. "Of course, my son. I simply wanted to mention my thoughts to you. They are truly of no importance."
The prince bows to his father and begins to walk away.
"Oh, Prince Ozai? Would you ask Prince Zuko to come and visit me?"
Ozai stops walking. "Prince Zuko?" he asks guardedly.
The Fire Lord nods, although his son's back is facing him. "Yes," he answers. "I believe that it is time the Prince Zuko learns to play pai-sho. It is a mark of intelligence and greatness, the ability to play pai-sho well. Send him to me."
The younger firebender hesitates for a long moment before turning around. "Father," he begins in a nervous voice.
Azulon simply looks at him for a moment before smiling. The smile is not kind, nor is it magnanimous. It is the smile of a man who knows he has won. "Yes, my son?" he asks innocently.
In the background the water trickles softly into the pool and turtle-ducks make soft quacking noises to each other. A breeze passes through and causes dozens of red and orange leaves to flutter uselessly to the ground. "Nevermind," Ozai says. "I will send Prince Zuko to you immediately."
"Thank you, my son. You may leave me now."
Ozai turns back around and opens the sliding door that leads back into the hallways of the main palace. His eyes are not narrowed now angry; they are simply thoughtful and scheming.
The prince smiles slowly but mischievously. "I have always endeavored to please you, Fire Lord Azulon."
The room is filled with the soft sounds of the bristles of a brush pressing against paper, writing intricate characters quickly and efficiently. The night is otherwise quiet and still; cricket-flies chirp outside the window, rustling the grass. Dim light shines in through the paper window, and a tenuously flickering candle sits on the table where the man is writing. His golden eyes scan what he has written so far before nodding and setting the brush down.
He leans back and connects his hands, stretching his back. The cracking sounds resonate loudly in the quiet room.
His hair is brown, between dark and light but not quite medium, and a beard adorns the lower half of his face. His robes are red and gold, comfortable at-home clothes, not formal at all. His lips tilt a bit as he moves forward to pick up the brush and dip it into the inkwell.
Someone knocks on the door, quietly but briskly.
The man pauses for a moment before dropping the brush and walking over to the door that leads outside to the courtyard near his study. He slides it open tentatively. Cold air rushes in as the gap increases.
Slowly, a face is revealed. It is a familiar face, one from his past and one that he has not seen in many years. Zhao observes the man for a moment. "Hello, Master Jeong Jeong," he says smoothly, stepping aside and bowing.
Jeong Jeong nods his head and walks into the room. Zhao closes the door quietly. The wood snaps curtly as the door touches the wall.
When he turns around he sees his old master sitting on the cushion in front of the table, and the younger firebender shakes his head silently, a small smile on his face. "It has been a long time since I have last seen you, old Master," Zhao says as he walks back to his place. "To what do I owe the honor?"
The other man raises one eyebrow. "Have you no manners? Will you not offer me tea?"
Zhao inclines his head, hiding his growing smile. "I apologize," he murmurs, "I must have forgotten myself." His deft fingers pick up a small bell that lies beneath the table, and rings it. The sound is loud and echoes through the room.
In only a few moments, a servant opens the door, kneeling on the ground. "Is there something that you require, master Zhao?" the young woman asks quietly, head bowed to the ground.
"I would be very grateful, Meiling, if you would bring Master Jeong Jeong and I some tea." The servant further inclines her head before the door snaps shut. They can both hear the sound of her tiny feet scurrying down the hallway.
The Commander observes his old firebending teacher. His face is the same as it always was, but there is a tension there he does not understand. His eyes are harder and they stare back at him, taking in his own form. Slowly, Jeong Jeong smiles. "You have not disappointed me, young Zhao." The character of his master has tempered… there is something different in him. What is it?
Zhao closes his eyes and shrugs, seemingly nonchalant. "I have always endeavored to please you, Master Jeong Jeong." He opens his eyes to golden slits and watches as Jeong Jeong smiles a bit in return. It is a small smile, full of memories from long ago.
The door slides open almost silently. Meiling is there, holding a tray with a teapot and two cups. She shuffles over to the table and places it silently, carefully moving Zhao's documents to the side. Both men watch as she pours the tea, flavored with orange rind, into the cups. Finally, she bows and leaves.
Jeong Jeong reaches out and takes his teacup. He then raises it to his lips and takes a sip. Zhao watches for a moment before the other man opens his eyes. "This is not bad," he says.
"I enjoy it," Zhao comments. He takes a sip from his own cup before setting it back down on the table. The fingers of his left hand clench at his side. His legs are folded under him and he feels restless. "Why have you come to see me, Master Jeong Jeong? I know this is not an idle visit."
The old firebender looks away, the teacup still in his hands. "I have come to ask a favor of you, young Zhao. Several favors, truly. It is my hope that you can succeed where I have but failed."
There are lines on Jeong Jeong's face where they had once been smooth skin. Years, so many years, have passed since they have seen each other. Zhao remembers his lessons well, and often thinks on his old master. The haunted look is still there, still in his eyes, and it is both familiar and unrecognizable.
"What has happened to you, Master Jeong Jeong?" Zhao asks in a quiet voice. The old man will not meet his eyes.
The scarred man shifts uncomfortably. He takes a leisurely sip of tea before speaking. "Many things, young Zhao. Many things have come to pass since I have last seen you."
In the background the cricket-flies chirp. The sound is soothing. Zhao's eyes harden, and his fist unclenches and clenches. "What do you need of me, Master?"
"In several months a lone woman will the Southern Water Tribe. She is beautiful. Her skin is pale enough to pass for a Fire Nation citizen, and her eyes can be explained by bad heritage."
Zhao frowns. "Why do you tell me this?" he wants to know.
Jeong Jeong's head turns and finally their eyes meet. There is both harshness and despair in those of the old firebender. "I need you to get her a position in the Royal Palace; I also need you to retrieve something for us from the Southern Water Tribe."
His brows furrow deeper. "I do not understand, Master."
The man sighs. His shoulders slump slightly, but there is still determination in his eyes. Determination and something else. "I have done things, young Zhao, that I now regret. I have done things in the name of the Fire Nation that should have never been done. I have learned that war is chaos and that it is evil. Do you not think the same?"
Zhao says nothing.
"I know you do, young Zhao, for I taught you well. I also know that you have other incentives to over throw the Royal Family… do you not?"
Silence reigns. The Commander looks away.
Jeong Jeong smiles, but it is not a joyful smile. It is not cruel, either. It is simply a smile. "You know that something must be done, and we have endeavored to do this. But our efforts have not been successful so far. We need your assistance, young Zhao."
"Who are you?" His mouth is filled with raw bitterness.
The man takes a sip of his tea. "You know me. I am Master Jeong Jeong."
He snorts. "You know what I mean. Who are you?"
"We call ourselves the Order of the White Lotus. Our mission is to bring peace to a war-ridden world. We wish to end this war of lifetimes, because we will never win." Gold meets gold in a clash of wills.
At last, Zhao looks away. "Why have you not told me this before? Have you not trusted me?"
Jeong Jeong shakes his head. "Do not pretend you do not know of us; you are not a stupid boy. You have known for some time, yes?" Zhao closes his eyes for a moment. "I have always trusted you, my old student. But we did not wish to involve outsiders. It is only now that we truly need your help. You can go places we cannot; you can open doors that are closed to us. You have been to the South Pole before."
The room is again filled with silence. Jeong Jeong sets his teacup on the table. It is empty. Zhao mechanically rings the bell, and the servant girl Meiling quickly enters and takes the tray away. The door shuts quietly behind her; the haunting sound of a wolf-boar hunting in the distance reaches their ears. The howl is hair-raising.
After long minutes Zhao speaks again. "Why do you need to place a woman in the palace? I would have thought you have many agents there."
"We have an agent that is very high up; she is powerful in the Royal Palace. She is called by the Phoenix."
"Why do you need a second agent, then, Master Jeong Jeong?"
The wolf-boar howls again. "She is to ensure that the plan is fully carried out, and she is to watch the Phoenix to make sure she does her job."
Zhao frowns. "Are you unsure of the Phoenix's intentions?"
Jeong Jeong shrugs. Fire burns dimly in the back of his eyes. "We are unsure of everyone's intentions, young Zhao. I have faith that you may help us to succeed."
The younger firebender thinks for a moment. "I can get the woman a place in the palace," he says slowly. "That will not be difficult. And I will assist you in another way that I can. But you must tell me when this began."
The master raises his brows, and then they quickly furrow. There is a bit of the old Jeong Jeong in there, the anger and determination that is absent from this new man. "It will change everything you know. Are you sure that you wish to know the truth?"
"Of course, master. I want to understand."
Jeong Jeong leans back in his seat. "More than one hundred years ago, Fire Lord Sozin lied to the world in the name of greed."
Zhao shifts uncomfortably. "What do you mean?"
The other man's voice is soft but hard. "Fire Lord Sozin told the world that Avatar Roku had betrayed us all by working with the other kingdoms to overthrow the Fire Nation. This was not true. Fire Lord Sozin told the world that he defeated Avatar Roku to stop him from destroying the Fire Nation. This was not true."
The world crashes down with the words of an old man. His eyes cannot focus and there is a slight roaring in his ears.
"Fire Lord Sozin told the world that the new Avatar would be an airbender. This was true. Fire Lord Azulon told the world two months ago that the Avatar had been cornered and killed in the Earth Kingdom while in the Avatar State. He told the world that the Avatar had been a weak old man; he told the world that Avatar was forever dead." Jeong Jeong smiles, and it is now cruel. "This was untrue. The Avatar has not been found.
"The cycle continues. Somewhere, the Avatar lives on."
The air is fresh, cool but not cold. The sun shines harshly on the princess, although some clouds hang low in the sky. They are the white, puffy clouds of the end of winter. Various birds chirp in the distance; the grass is green and long, as it is after a long shower of rain. Azula closes her eyes and concentrates on the world around her – the way the spring feels on her skin.
It feels how she imagines love feels.
In a lightning-fast movement, she pushes her hand forward and blue-white fire spurts from it powerfully. With a quick breath she begins her morning practice. Her hands shape the fire and move it from side to side – when she kicks her foot out, the fire turns into nothing. It comes from air and sheer will and turns to nothing.
The sun only fuels her strength. She goes through the fast movements of a firebending pattern before slowly segueing into a slower waterbending pattern that she had read about in the library. Her hands gently lead the fire in a circle before forcing it forward. It explodes in a shower of white-hot sparks.
It's ironic, she muses, that fire dies a swift death.
She finishes her practice after several long minutes, breathing quickly and putting her hands on her knees. A hawk-cat circles the air above her, and she smiles as it swoops down to grab a toad-mouse from the high grass. It cries victorious. Azula straightens out her body and rotates her head, relaxing her neck muscles.
The princess turns around and notices several other girls are watching her across the courtyard, whispering between themselves. She frowns contemplatively as the girls cruelly giggle. Trying to ignore them, she walks back toward the school and her room. As she passes them, she catches a snippet of their conversation.
"She didn't even leave school for break, you now," a long-haired girl whispers.
A younger girl giddily giggles. "What, you mean she stayed here?"
"Yeah," the other girl replies, "I guess her parents don't even want her around anymore."
Azula continues to walk. Her fists clench at her side, and her brows furrow angrily. She hates the girls that laugh at her; she's better than them. She knows that she is better than them. She slides the door to the hallway open, ignoring the now-laughs of the gossiping girls behind her.
Her shoe-clad feet make angry claps against the wood floor. Several girls look out of their rooms as she passes, but they quickly disappear and shut their doors. Azula tries to pretend that their disdain and fear doesn't hurt.
The firebender's feet begin to slow when she sees several large, pink chests being carried into a familiar room. A loud and cheerful voice echoes loudly and Azula smiles, and although it is not a large smile, it is a kind of joyous smile. She walks for several more feet before two large men exit the room with upset expressions on their faces. The princess almost laughs; Ty Lee does that to people.
She leans against the doorway and watches as the pink-clad girl bounces around the room, unpacking her wardrobe of pink and red clothes. "I didn't know you were coming back today," Azula says after a while. The smile remains on her face as Ty Lee drops what is in her hands, red robes that slither to the floor quietly, and turns around. The other girl quickly smiles and bounces over.
"Azula!" she exclaims happily. Her arms surround the older girl in a hug. "It is so nice to see you again! I missed you so much!"
The firebender counts to ten and then wriggles out of the other girl's tight grasp. "I missed you too, Ty Lee. It has been much quieter around here without you."
Ty Lee giggles, back-flipping until she is sitting on her bed. She pats the bed next to her, and Azula walks over and sits down on the bed, kicking her shoes off on the way. They make a clatter as they land on the floor, and the acrobat simply watches amusedly. "How was your trip?" Azula asks as she settles, crossing her legs beneath her. She leans back against the wall, and watches as Ty Lee clasps her hands next to her face and closes her eyes. She is the picture of adorable, the girl thinks kindly.
"Oh, it was wonderful! I helped my sister with her wedding preparations. The marriage is not for some time, but they are already putting everything together. Oh, it is so exciting! Everything will be red and pink and wonderful!" Ty Lee opens her eyes and cocks her head to the side. "Oh, what have you been up to, Azula? Did you have a lot of fun around here?"
The smile fades off her face. "It was fine," Azula says quietly, more subdued. Ty Lee watches quizzically.
"What's wrong?" Ty Lee asks in a concerned voice.
"Just some gossip." The princess closes her eyes and turns her head away. "Ty Lee, do you think they hate me?"
The other girl frowns. "Who are you talking about, Azula?"
"My parents. Do you think they hate me?"
The acrobat's eyes widen and she shifts on the bed. Her voice is quieter than normal when she speaks, and there is a thoughtfulness in her that Azula does not see often. "I don't think that they hate you, Azula. How could they hate you?"
Princess Azula snorts unhappily. "They don't love me, so what is stopping them from hating me?" Her voice is loud and angry. For a long moment neither of the girls says anything. When Azula speaks again, her voice is soft and pained. "I am not allowed to return to my home. I have not seen them in years. What does it mean, Ty Lee?" Tears do not stain her face, because she will not cry. "What does it mean?" her voice is but a soft whisper.
Her aura is stained grey with sadness. At its heart, red pulses. Red and blue, Ty Lee sees. They are opposites yet they are the same thing; Azula has the capacity to be both sides of the coin.
The brown-eyed girl moves closer to her friend and tucks an arm around her shoulder. Azula's head falls onto it, and Ty Lee rests her head upon the princess's.
"What does it mean?" Azula desperately wants – needs – to know.
But Ty Lee cannot tell her. "I don't know," she whispers quietly. "I don't know."
The night is dark and still. Stars twinkle in the distance although dark clouds obscure most of the sky. The air presses heavily on them, full of moisture. Even though it is not hot, Ursa is sweating as she sits on the window-seat and stares out the open window into the courtyard. Her gold eyes are wide open but she sees nothing; there is a wistfulness in them that reveals her thoughts. Ozai can see, even from across the room, that she is remembering the ghosts of her past.
His upper lip curls in distaste. He quickly smoothes his face and puts on a charming smile. "I would expect you to be in bed by now," the prince says in a low voice, walking rapidly across the room to approach Ursa.
The woman turns her head to look at him. Her eyes are still blank, although her eyebrows are lowered slightly. "Ozai," she greets him emptily.
His feet come to a stop as he reaches her. The sound echoes throughout the still air. He raises a hand and brushes the back of his fingers across the smoothness of her porcelain cheek; she frowns and moves away from her husband. "You are so lovely, my wife," he murmurs.
She shifts so that she is sitting straighter than she was before; her eyes are now clearer than they had just been. Ah! he thinks, as he sees a glint of defiance in them. There it is. Just when he thought it was gone.
"What are you doing here?" his wife demands in a flat voice.
Ozai smiles, a charming smile to anyone but her, and steps even closer. She scoots backward, up against the wall. His smile turns into a smirk. "Why, I came to make sure that my wife was sleeping safe and sound in her bed."
Ursa looks away. "I don't need you looking in on me," she says. "Go away. Leave me."
His face changes in the span of a moment to look pained. He holds out his hands and gestures around. "Why do you do this, my wife? Why do you spurn my affection?"
She says nothing for a long moment. The lady stares out into the distance, serious and cold. He's right there, her mind says. Wouldn't it be so easy… but the voice fades away as she begins to speak. "Do not say such things. You hold no affection for me."
Ozai's face darkens. It is a wonder, Ursa thinks, how he can transform so easily. "Make no mistake," he says dangerously, "if I held no affection for you, I would have disposed of you long ago."
Ursa smirks darkly. "We both know you only keep me because I'm useful. I'll do all the dirty work for you, and you'll reap all the benefits."
He lays a hand against her neck; beneath his fingers he can feel her pulse. He had hoped that it would be racing. Instead, it is slow and steady. She looks up at him, defiance in every inch of her body. It is apparent that she hates him. Good, he thinks."Oh, my dear, I hold affection for you. One could even say that I loved you."
The woman's hand snaps out and pushes his hand angrily to the side. She snorts and shakes her head. "You do not love me." Ursa stands up and pushes him to the side. She crosses the room and turns to face him. She needs to get away from him, to gain distance. "You never loved me," she says.
Ozai's eyes are a molten gold. "Did you ever even give me a chance?" he wonders.
"What do you mean?" she demands.
He shrugs, brings up a hand, and inspects his hands as if she had not just insulted him. "You never let me love you. You hated me from the beginning. And you will forever hate me, hmm?"
Her eyes turn to fire, and a lone breeze blows through the room. It picks up her hair and sends it flying around her face; the lanterns shake and the candles flicker. "You know that is not true," she says in a low, treacherous voice. "There was a time when I would have given anything for you to love. There was a time when I did give everything. And you gave me nothing in return. You ruined everything."
Ozai watches her for a moment; in her anger she is so beautiful. "You loved me then, didn't you?" he asks cruelly.
The fight drains out of her face as it pales. "Yes," she whispers, looking away, suddenly ashamed.
He walks up to her slowly, as if approaching a deer-horse that may run away at any moment. When he reaches her, he hooks an arm around her waist. Ursa does not fight him, but remains tense in his half-embrace. He moves his face down so their eyes are level; his lips brush hers. "Remind me what that was like, again?" His smirk curves his lips nastily.
Her face twists until she is the image of a monster. Her arms come up to push him away. "You disgust me," she spits out. "I hate you."
"I already know that," he says, smirk still in place.
She turns until her back is facing him. "What do you want?" she asks harshly.
Ozai cannot help himself, truly; he moves until he is standing behind her. He takes a piece of her lush brown hair and twirls it around his finger. "I want another child," he says nonchalantly.
Ursa's body stills. "What?" she asks breathlessly. "Why?"
"Father has been getting these… ideas lately. I want some insurance." She says nothing, simply stares blankly. He cannot see her face. "What do you think?" he asks, still twirling her hair.
After a while, her body relaxes. "I will give you no more children," she says finally. Her voice is perilously low and dark.
His hand drops. "We had a deal," he reminds her. His eyes are now sinister.
"You blackmailed me into marriage. You made me love you, and threatened me away from my children. Do you really think I will still keep my side of the bargain?" She shakes her head. "I will not."
The prince's face is blank. "When he makes his move, it will be your fault. I want you to remember that."
Ursa closes her eyes. "When the time comes," she says mysteriously, "I will take care of it."
She points to the closed door that leads back to the hallway. It is golden and adorned with red and black dragons, all of them twisting around each other. "Leave," she orders him.
Ozai's back straightens. The lady almost smiles. Oh, his pride is offended? "Leave," she repeats. "And do not come back in here again."
He slowly moves toward the doors. As the prince opens them and prepares to walk out, he smirks and stops. "I can remember a time when you would have welcomed me with open arms. I remember breaking your heart." His smirk grows and he lowers his head as he reminisces. "I think I enjoyed it more than almost anything." He coldly walks through the doors, leaving Ursa alone in the room.
She calmly smoothes down her robes before heading to her writing desk. Carefully she opens a secret drawer on the side and pulls out a special scroll with an address marked on it. The lady takes out a brush and ink from another drawer. She uncorks the inkwell and dips the brush in it. Ursa stills her shaking hands and quickly writes.
It is time.