(ixx-to keep believing in me)
Azula likes anger - it helps her clear her head and shuts up her thoughts, gives her enough time to act rather than just think all the time, and even if those actions are dangerous and stupid and half-formed, she accepts them as the price she must pay for clarity.
Still, somewhere in the back of her mind, she knows that this is not one of her best ideas.
Night in the jungle is oppressively claustrophobic and breeds paranoia with every crunch of a leaf or call of an insect. There's no breeze tonight, just stifling humidity sitting on her shoulders like a huge, heavy blanket, holding her down and crushing her under its weight. The air stinks of dirt and rot and life, but all out-of-sight, lingering somewhere beyond the tiny sphere of light from the fire in her palm. Sokka stays close, but seems to be going out of his way to avoid touching her, even accidentally.
(The fire burns a little brighter with her simmering fury; if he notices, he doesn't ask.)
She doesn't know what she's going to do when she gets to Zuko's camp. Will Mother - Ursa - be there? Surely she must. Azula can't imagine the woman getting involved with this nonsense and not scrambling to see her precious Zuko.
What, then, will she do when she sees - her?
The safest option is to ignore her, but she's not entirely certain that she even can - if Ursa was working to oppose the insurgency before Father's escape, then she'll have information that Azula desperately needs, and she can't afford to ignore Ursa out of spite when so much is on the line. So perhaps she could treat Ursa with perfect, cold manners, like the way Mai treats her parents. It may work, assuming she can keep herself under control and Ursa is everything Azula remembers her to be.
Too many variables, too many what-ifs. Azula hates dangling possibilities.
They arrive at the camp abruptly, and too quickly for Azula's tastes. She catches a quick glimpse of the little group - there's a rock tent, inside of which is surely the little earthbender girl, and there are several other tents set up, but the Avatar, the waterbender, and Zuko are all sitting around the fire with -
Ursa, who looks up and whose face goes pale when she sees her.
Ursa, who stands slowly, eyes locked on Azula's face.
"Azula," her mother whispers, and then all at once, she runs forward and pulls Azula into her arms. She stiffens against the touch, but Ursa doesn't even seem to notice, running her hands through her hair and repeating her name. She is, Azula notes, crying.
Why is she crying?
"Azula, baby, Azula," she repeats over and over, and holds her so tightly that it almost hurts. "I'm so sorry, baobei, I'm so sorry." Finally, she pulls away and cradles her face in her palm. "Zuko told me everything," she says, and Azula wants to scream at him, but then - "I knew I was right about you. I knew it." But she's saying it with such love, such admiration... Azula glances to Zuko, to see if he has an answer, but he's not looking at them.
"Mother," she starts, and hates her voice for cracking.
"I am so proud of you," Mother says, smiling, and the reality hits Azula with the force of a lightning bolt: Zuko lied to their mother.
He lied to her, to his precious mother - for her.
"There's a lot to cover," Sokka says, cutting into the reunion. "Come on, sit down," he continues, and she locks eyes with him for a moment, and it's all abruptly clear. She was wrong, before, about their plan being to get Sokka into her good graces. It was always about using Ursa to bring Azula to heel, Sokka's job was merely diversion, to play the buffoon, to keep her focused on him while Zuko - dumb, foolish Zuzu - got all of his pieces into position. He knew all along that Ursa was coming - of course, she thinks, he's in the same Order that contacted Uncle, he and Zuko must have known since before they even sprung her! - but he played the part to keep her following them right to the end of the line.
Excluding her in the letter was bait, she realizes with a stab of frustration - they were always expecting her to come, so that she would reunite with her mother. Zuko knows her too damn well - or is this Mai's doing? It certainly has her touches - he knows that if Ursa believes that she suddenly became some sort of angel in her absence, if Ursa accepts her and believes in her, that she will do almost anything to keep her happy - including play by their rules, for their team, against herself.
Zuko has her in the palm of his hand, all with one lie to the one person he shouldn't have ever been able to lie to, the one person that he knows - from direct, empirical evidence - can reach through Azula's walls and tear her down from within.
He is more like her than either of them guessed.
Azula wants to burst into laughter, or maybe tears, but all she does is smile a little bitterly and take the seat next to her brother.
"I want to know," she says coldly, and is displeased to note that Mai doesn't even look slightly afraid of her, "who came up with the brilliant idea to lie to my mother about me."
"Well..." Sokka starts, but Mai cuts him off.
"Zuko did it so that she wouldn't think ill of you," she explains, casually sharpening one of her sais. "He did it to help you," she continues disdainfully, "not to control you."
"Liar," she seethes, and it's Sokka who turns to her.
"And yet," he says airily, in the tone of one who knows he's won the game, "you didn't correct her, did you?"
She looks at him, looks straight through him. She wishes that she could say that she hates him now, but this only makes him more intriguing than before. "This was your plan, wasn't it?" she breathes. "You were the one who - you came up with it."
Sokka gives her a savage smirk. "I am the plan guy," he replies. "Face it, Azula, you underestimated me. That's what's got you so mad."
"She underestimated all of us," Mai cuts in. "But then, if your enemy has a weakness, strike where he is weak," she says, and Azula takes a deep breath, jaw clenched. "That's how you think, Azula. You just never expected us to think like you."
A tiny part of her feels betrayed, the tiny part that latched onto Sokka's apparent sympathy and the tiny part that wanted to stay in her mother's embrace forever - but then, she's never been one to court self-pity. So, they played her. She underestimated them, they won - she can respect it, respect Sokka and even Zuko for how exceptionally they've plotted to bring her to heel - and now she simply has to pay the price.
But what is that price to be?
Game or no, she doesn't want her mother to know the truth about her - in particular, the truth about her breakdown, why her bangs are still uneven. She would side with Father if she thought she could trust him, but his actions on the eve of Sozin's Comet proved well enough that he sees her as a means to an end, a mere tool to use in his bid for power. Uncle is firmly against her and has been since day one. The country believes her mad, incurably insane. Chunhua is the only person on her side, but Chunhua means to use her as completely as Father did.
She has no one else to turn to, she knows, and it leaves a bitter taste in her mouth.
A/N: I went ahead and posted this in spite of my lingering uncertainties about it. I've had the idea in mind since the start that Zuko lied to Ursa about Azula, but the execution of it fought me over and over and I just had trouble writing these scenes. Tell me what you think about it, and be honest. I know there are some difficulties, like "hasn't Ursa heard about Azula's fight with Katara?" and that will be answered later on in the story.