Chapter 1: Azula, Childhood
Acceptance is much harder than rejection.
Azula was a firebending prodigy, and the apple of her father's eye. She could firebend with the best of them, and she was indeed the best. Or, at least she thought herself so. Even with all her viciousness, cunning, and power, she still did not know what to make of her older brother. She was wary of him. He was a constant figure in her life, though somewhat aloof and mysterious, and always in the background somewhere. He seemed content outside of the limelight, and she was content inside of it. She realized this early in her childhood, and the one-sided rivalry between them vanished quickly, leaving behind an awkward distance.
Zuko's actions were eternally confusing to her young and cruel self. She often pondered them during her free time, and she noticed several things. When she had a particularly rough lesson, he would always be there with a hand on her head and a familiar silence. When she lashed out at others in temper, she would find herself dunked in the palace pond. When she struggled, rarely, with something, he would be there watching, quietly supportive. When she cursed at him in jealousy of his mother's love, he stared at her with his golden eyes and took it without complaint. That was what she hated the most. His molten, amber eyes and his cold, cold gaze.
She had heard whispers around the palace, many about herself and Zuko. The guards and the nobles gossiped amongst themselves, about how her brother spent too much time with decrepit Uncle Iroh, about how he never displayed much firebending talent, about his skills with a blade and a fist, about his silent solitary nature, about how she was so much better than him... She always pranked the nobles mercilessly after, or beat up the guards, but she never knew why she did so. Azula didn't question herself.
As the years passed, Zuko grew, and she did as well. She took to her father's teachings like a bee to sweet, poisoned honey, and her heart grew hard from disuse. She distanced herself from the "failure prince" and fought with flames of wrath, as her brother watched from afar. He was still a part of her routine, a soothing, calm warmth in her raging life. But even this went away, when one day Ursa disappeared, Fire Lord Azulon died, and their father took the throne. Azula herself was ecstatic and viciously pleased with her new, coveted position, though in her triumph she still noticed the absence of her brother. She found him by the pond, with a bowed head and clenched hands, crackling energy at his closed fingertips.
"Zuzu," she said tauntingly. "Why aren't you at the festivities? Surely you are pleased with this turn of events. Or has mummy's betrayal left you emotionally damaged?"
Characteristically, he did not reply, and her face twisted into an angry scowl when he failed to pay attention to her. "Listen when I'm speaking to you!" she snarled, clamping a clawed hand on his shoulder. But when she touched him, she was badly shocked and snatched her hand back, feeling it sting and tingle. He turned around then, and for the first time, she glimpsed a dark, spiraling resentment in his eyes. Just as suddenly, he walked off, his red and gold robes rippling like wildfire behind him.
The next she saw him was at a strategy meeting in the war chamber. She had managed to weedle a seat out of her father, the fire lord, this time, and Zuko had been included as an after thought. He stood tall and firm, and his eyes were shadowed as he sat next to her at the end of the long table. During the meeting, Azula made a comment about the tactics without watching herself, and the insulted silence that followed was condemning. For the first time in her life, Azula feared something other than her brother.
"..Who said that?" spoke the silhouette behind the blinds, with controlled fury. Azula's eyes widened in dread, and her gaze flickered to Zuko, who wasn't looking at her. When he spoke, his voice cracking from puberty and much like her own, she froze in disbelief.
"I did," he said, with an unruffled air. Angry whispers broke out at this, and the room's temperature skyrocketed from the fiery tension.
"You insult our war effort, you insult me," Fire Lord Ozai said harshly. "You have thus insulted me, in my own chamber, and in my own presence." Zuko did not answer, as characteristic of him, and their father grew angrier.
"For this disrespect, I challenge you to an Agni Kai," the ruler announced, and sealed his son's fate. Azula could only watch, with a jarring numbness and a growing sense of bitter relief. When the ceremonial, deadly duel began, she watched from the sidelines as something festered in her chest and made her feel sick. Her brother had not fought back, and still he had been mercilessly injured and defeated. She stared with slight revulsion as her father burned half of his face and banished him from the Fire Nation, leaving him stranded without honor or status. Nothing to help him but a ship, and no one to aid him but Iroh and a single crew.
Zuko the Exiled Prince became the scandal of the year, but the firebending prodigy and princess could not bring herself to care. Like all circumstances and events in her life, she got over it and carried on with her busy life, as if it didn't affect her in the slightest. She was immune and immovable. Or so she thought.