in a strange, strange world
(the spirits take what they can get)
Kuzon stumbles forwards, almost inarticulate with emotion.
"Aang! Get out—get out—you have to go—run! Get the children!"
"Wait, what's going on?"
He starts to speak, but his wide, wide eyes turn to something in the sky behind his friend's head. An unearthly glow taints his ashen face a deep, blood red.
"They had no armies."
The tutor's papery voice trails off. His nails scrape loudly against the grain of the map as he lowers his hand. He clears his throat and looks at his precocious student. A long second whispers by.
The child's voice is at once hesitant and confident, assured of the truth and yet unwilling to speak out against an elder.
"Pardon me," the tutor repeats firmly, and the discussion is closed. The lecture continues, but the rasping words are as meaningless as leaves in the wind. All Azula can hear is the boy in her head, insisting:
We had no armies.
She doesn't tell anyone about them, the ones who speak to her at night, with voices like clear, echoing bells and eyes like starlight. Then they'll know she's crazy, and even as a child, Azula knows what's best for her.
She stops hurting the servants when the ragged peasant threatens to hurt her.
She stops lying—to herself, at least—when the blind woman only stares, and waits.
She lets Ursa hug her once in a while, since it makes the yellow boy cry.
I have a mother who loves me, she taunts.
When they come to take her, Hama drives them beneath the waves, feeling only icy hatred as she senses the way their thrashing bodies make peace with the death-cold water. The eerie blue light fades from her eyes and mouth as the monsters sink to their graves.
She doesn't expect the arrow that whistles over an impossible distance from the invaders' ship, or the arrows that follow, each one piercing her heart with pinpoint accuracy, one after the other.
A boy stands translucent beside her and weeps, not shivering in the cold of the South Pole, despite the thinness of his yellow robe.
Azula likes the ragged one best. They laugh at the same things, sometimes, until the woman realizes it and purses her lips disapprovingly. At least when the peasant's around, she can feed the turtle ducks without worrying about harsh, empty stares or high-pitched whining.
She remembers plains of ice, as cold and harsh as her heart. She turned the waves against young penguin-seals, laughing as they tried to reach the shore. Mother didn't understand.
(we're kindred spirits, you and I)
Azula casts stones almost casually into the pond, sensing rapt attention in the ragged woman's silence as they watch the stupid animals mill about in confusion.
When the princess finally hits the littlest one, Hama lets out a short, involuntary bark of laughter.
The grins on their faces are identical.
You're lying, Azula thinks, but knows better than to speak out again, not after Father heard about last time and—
Well. It was only to be expected. Disrespect was to be punished.
"In the present-day colonies, Commander Cho's forces faced minimal resistance from the final stand of the Blind Avatar. His victory was celebrated by grateful locals who desired the prosperity offered by civilization…"
But she knows, she knows, with every fiber of her heart, that bastard Cho infiltrated my ranks, curse his black heart and those bloodless lying traitors, I should have known, should have felt their pulses, why couldn't I—
When she closes her eyes, she can feel the steel slide into her back as a thousand heartbeats turn to despair.
The tutor continues to pour untruths into her ears, and she hides a grimace behind a too-perfect smile.
One day, I will be Fire Lord, and no one will lie to me ever again.
Ozai really can't care less about the selection of antique toys the ex-crown prince presents to Azula. Nor, for that matter, can she: the girl sets all but four alight, much to Iroh's concern.
It is night, and Azula is more than three-thirds asleep.
"Stop right there, Dragon of the West," the old woman says, her worn green clothes entirely at odds with the Fire Nation opulence around her. Her feet rest firmly on the ground. "I know what you're here for, and you're not touching her."
A long time ago, they stood like this, on opposite sides of an endless war.
A long time ago, but not long enough.
He stops and lifts his hands wearily. He seems to have aged immensely in the past year, as if every departed family member has left their mark etched into his brow. Lu Ten, Azulon, Ursa, and now… "You would stop me from doing my duty?"
"You would stop me from doing mine?"
"Honorable Avatar, your duty is to the world—to the Balance. She cannot be trusted."
"You'd be surprised. Get out, before I make you."
The ground judders threateningly, but Iroh holds his ground, stubborn as an earthbender.
"Perhaps some tea, for old times' sake?" In one hand, he holds a Pai Sho tile between two fingers. Moonlight glints off the stylized lotus, and he prays that this Avatar, at least, is old enough to recognize it. "I think we may have much to discuss."
A moment flickers by. A smirk grows on the Avatar's face.
"You know I'm blind, don't you?"
For absolutely no reason, the blind one orders her to master Pai Sho with such uncompromising ferocity that Azula agrees almost without hesitation. Mother used to play, but she's—
—not here, so Azula finds herself across the board from the pathetic Loser of the West, looking forward to an easy game.
Her tea steams away unnoticed at her side as she lays down each tile in complete silence, internally prickling at Iroh's rambling stories and constant tea breaks, until the game is over.
The game is over.
She stares at the array in silence.
Iroh takes one last sip of tea and sighs with satisfaction. He places his dry cup lightly on the floor beside him. The teapot is precisely empty, as if he knew exactly how long the match would last.
There is not a trace of humor in her uncle's face when he says, "You need work. You lack negative jing."
Something sharp glints at her from his golden eyes, like Father's, and she meets his challenge with an equally deadly smile.
Firebending comes from the breath, Iroh says. So she holds the thought in one hand, and breathes.
She doesn't yet realize what she's done, of course, only congratulates herself for stepping beyond her limits yet again – from orange to blue to this blindingly-white blaze that far surpasses anything her illustrious grandfather had ever dreamt of.
A true prodigy.
Zuko will be jealous, and Father will be proud, and Mother…
The white fire leaps and twirls like Ty Lee, reaching up as if to consume the clouds… or perhaps to join them, floating upon the wind. Azula considers the whirling inferno and imagines a laughing, gray-eyed child playing. Dancing.
… Mother would have smiled.
"She'll always love you, no matter what," the blind woman says, uncharacteristically kind. Her voice is distant. "Mothers always do."
Azula almost argues, but facing the implacable blank gaze of a woman almost immune to lies, she finds herself murmuring, "… Yeah, they do."
Father's been distant ever since she showed him the white fire.
She watches Zuko scream, half-smiling, secure in the knowledge that Father loves me best.
Afterwards, she sneaks into the infirmary, haunted by a memory (she is a boy younger than this but not by much, and his skin is burning, burning, and then he is gone). She tries to drip water into her brother's mouth, but he spits it out, his unbandaged eye rolling madly in its socket.
He's still upset about the time she tried to smother him in his sleep.
Azula ignores his incoherent mumbles and uses the water to wash the tears and sweat and ashes from his face. "Stop crying, baby," she orders, and is nonplussed when he refuses to obey. His soft mewling noises and sniffles bother her, even as she stands by his head for long minutes, fascinated by his pain.
She pretends to waterbend like Hama for a moment, holding her cold hands over the bandage, lightly, and wishes Mother was here. Zuzu leans into her touch and stops crying, so she leaves her hands there for a while.
Later, when they take the bandage off, she feels strangely disappointed when his face is disfigured by a mottled, pale pink scar. She wishes her idle thoughts could have done something.
Sometimes she wakes up, shaking, memories of fire and screaming and dying rolling about in her head, and when she stumbles out of bed, hands of starlight catch her arm and help her stand.
"Remember," they tell her quietly, without apology or blame. She sees the proud emblem of the Fire Nation, and feels alien stirrings of hate directed against it, her country, her father.
She becomes angry, then, but the yellow boy tells her to breathe, wearing a stupid, stupid smile.
So she does, pouring fire from her mouth, setting the palace ablaze. The peasant cackles as the white flames wrap around walls and eat tapestries, like vengeful spirits coasting on an intensely hot wind. Azula imagines the superheated air rising, rising, and a pillar of swirling fire bursts through the ceiling, blooming over the palace.
Somewhere in the deeps of her mind, Azula says it is a memorial flame for unknown names and faces, people she does not care about, or people she once loved with a frightening passion; she can no longer tell the difference.
In the morning she faces her father with a completely straight face and tells him she was dreaming of conquering the Earth Kingdom.
(I am a four hundred foot tall purple platypus bear with pink horns and silver wings)
Of course he believes her. No one lies to the Fire Lord.
The teacup in her hand bursts into a cloud of steam and the ashy remains of leaves. In a low, deadly voice, she hisses, "I'm what?"