A/N: Hello again folks, I am so sorry about the wait for this! I've been drowning within the Naruto section and barely managed to break the surface just recently. Great series with so many possibilities for fanfiction writers. But, we're here for some Avatar fiction! More specifically Avatar: Emergence fiction! I hope you all enjoy this chapter as much as I enjoyed putting it to paper/word document.
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar, just the plot to this story...and certain characters.
"Wait," Sokka asked, squinting his eyes in confusion, "your name is Archer and you just so happened to be an archer?"
Pale blue eyes glinted with suppressed mirth, "Yes, my life did wind up playing out that way."
The water tribe warrior groaned, "Man you just lost like…ten cool points. Were your parents drunk when they named you or something?" he looked over at his companions, "Honestly; who name's their kid Archer? That's like me naming my kid fighter or…or waterbender! Who does that?!"
"Sokka!" Katara and Suki shouted in unison, both of them appalled at the teen's behavior.
"That's a hell of a way to thank the guy who just saved our asses Snoozles," Toph commented, a delicate eyebrow raised in mild humor, "I think the proper way to go about this is to say 'Thank You'."
"Nah, it's fine," Archer replied with a smirk, "I always used to think the same thing when I was growing up. Why, for the love of all that is good in the world, would my parents name me Archer? It never made sense to me but I never got to ask them. A few months after I was born my mother was killed in a house fire. My father disappeared into the world and, just recently, I learned of his passing on to the next life."
Immediately, the mood dropped onboard the bison as the group digested that little bit of information. Finally, Zuko spoke.
"Was it the Fire Nation?" At Archer's questioning look the banished prince elaborated, "You said your mother died in a house fire…was the Fire Nation the cause?"
"No, nothing like that," the Yu Yan responded with a shake of his head as his face went grim, "there was a fight. My father and mother weren't exactly married when I was conceived. Don't get me wrong," he assured them with a soft smile, "they loved each other, so it wasn't forced. My mother's husband had gone off to fight in the war and word came back that he had been killed in combat."
He chuckled darkly, "Of course we all know how that goes. Her husband came back to the shock of the entire town; they were a well-known couple and news of his death had been met with great sadness. It wasn't long before my mother began to really show and people started to talk—there was no way the baby could have been her husband's as he'd only been back for a few weeks. He sent her away; he said he didn't want a cheating whore darkening his home.
"So naturally, my mother decided to live with my father. He took her in without question and I was born a month later. That's when things went south. They kept receiving death threats from her husband, but when they brought it to the authorities they were ignored; having a child out of wedlock was heavily frowned upon and a lot of the villagers were actually on her husband's side. So they arranged for me to be taken away for safety reasons. But it never got that far."
With a heavy sigh Archer ran a hand through his dark locks, leaving behind several stray tufts sticking up every which way, "On the night I was supposed to have been taken, my mother's husband came to the house with a mob—their goal was to teach mother and father a lesson. My father fought and amidst the ensuing beating someone lost the handle on the torch they were carrying and it caught on the curtains. My mother tried to intervene, tried to make everybody see reason but she was struck down—her husband wasn't in his right mind and he pulled a dagger on her.
"She was dead by the time the mob—unable to quell the blaze—fled and my father and her husband realized what had happened. My father was ordered to get out of the house and leave my mother's spouse to die with his wife. He thought it was only fair that he be together with her in death. My father gathered me up and left but he could not stand to look at me; I was too fresh a reminder of what had happened. He left me in a Fire Nation orphanage for 14 years before finding me again to tell me why I had been abandoned."
He finished his story with a matter of fact tone. To the captivated audience, it seemed that he was totally at peace with how his life had played out thus far.
Katara decided to break the ice, "So how did you wind up joining the Yu Yan archers?"
"When I was old enough, I ran away from the orphanage and was living on the streets. It was tough for a kid and I never had any money so I had to resort to pickpocketing and stealing. I got into trouble a few times with the law and every time I was taken in I saw the Yu Yan practicing on the archery range. I thought they were incredible and eventually I was getting myself caught on purpose just so I could catch a glimpse of them."
The group laughed at the goofy looking smile on Archer's face, "Eventually one of the guards caught on and he jokingly suggested that I go over and show them my stuff. So I did. They laughed at me when I asked, but I didn't let it get me down; the minute I was holding that bow in my hand I just knew archery was what I was meant to do. I hit the bull's eye on the first shot. They had me outfitted, tattooed and training the next day."
"Those are tattoos?!" Sokka shrieked, unknowingly voicing the thoughts of the others, "I thought that was just war paint! You know, a ceremonial thing you guys did when you went out on a hunt…so to speak."
"Nope," Archer grinned rubbing a hand vigorously across the markings to prove his claim, "legitimate Yu Yan tats! The procedure itself is more of an initiation right than anything and believe me when I say that it really sucks when you're an eight year old with virtually no pain tolerance."
"Suki," Sokka whispered excitedly, "my new friend is a badass." The Kyoshi Warrior giggled, while looking down at Nova to make sure she was comfortable.
Zuko shook his head and looked at the archer, his eyes narrowing, "Why did you help us escape? I'm not trying to sound ungrateful," he amended when Katara leveled a glare at him, "but I have to know. Why?"
With a sigh Archer closed his eyes and fell onto his back, hands behind his head, "To be perfectly honest with you I've been looking for an out for about a year now. Things started getting out of hand when princess Azula took control of the corps; she had us being shipped out all over the Fire Nation and put on guard duty at some of the higher security prisons. Then Fire Lord Ozai had us called us back to the capitol when he started his purge. Despite my upbringing, I've never supported Ozai's approach to the war; he had us patrolling the roofs of the city and targeting anyone suspected of being water tribe. If there's one thing I hate it's when innocent people are being oppressed by their monarch." He grit his teeth with a scowl, "Eventually we picked up a trail in the city—an old couple was rumored to be harboring a woman of the water tribe and her child. By the time we were ready to move in, they had vanished and taken the ferry to the mainland.
"When we questioned the ferry captain he confirmed that there had been an old couple on board the previous day, but no woman and young child. When we returned to the Fire Lord with the information Zhao was there waiting in the palace. Naturally, all of us were stunned: the way we had heard it the old admiral had kicked it in the North a little over a year ago and yet there he was worming his way back into Ozai's good graces. Seeing as the Fire Nation had lost its navy during Zhao's last campaign, he was given control of the Yu Yan archers and told to follow up on our last lead.
"After questioning what must have been every single person in the port city we finally caught a break. There was a farmhouse way out in the country that was kept by an old married couple and what appeared to be their daughter and grandchild. So we saddled up and moved out. We came to the farmhouse not two hours ago and ran into you guys. Prince Zuko, you were an unexpected bonus."
The silence that followed Archer's story weighed heavily on the assembled group, the reality of just what exactly Ozai and the Fire Nation had wrought upon the world settling like a lead weight in each of their stomachs.
It was Suki that decided to break the silence, her hands gently brushing Nova's fringe out of her now sleeping face, "How are we going to help Azzan and the others? From the stories that Sokka's told me, Admiral Zhao is a psychotic maniac and he's got our friends!"
Sokka frowned as the reality of their situation sunk in again, "I hate to say it guys, but right now, our top priority is going to have to be finding somewhere to hide…not breaking the others out."
Katara was about to protest but Zuko's placating hand on her shoulder quelled her words. The firebender spoke instead, "Sokka's right, no matter how much it sucks to hear it said. We need to regroup with Hakoda and the rest before we even think about doing anything else; charging head first into the heart of the Fire Nation with some half-cocked hope of breaking them out is basically signing our death warrants."
An angered grunt came from the blind earthbender sitting in between Katara and Zuko, "That's a load of bullshit Sparky and you know it! We've never left any of our friends hanging before, especially when they need our help! Azzan and Ton helped us break you out of the Boiling Rock and you're seriously thinking of leaving them to the whims of a madman?!"
Even though she couldn't see, her eyes flashed dangerously and her fists clenched, nails digging deep into her palms.
"Toph…" Zuko sighed running a hand tiredly through his ebony locks, "even if we went after them now nothing would be guaranteed. As a matter of fact, Zhao and the Yu Yan would have the advantage in numbers and weapons, not to mention they don't have to protect an infant! It's a suicide run."
The girl growled deep in her throat, "So what? Do you think they would leave us to die just because the odds weren't in their favor?! No way! We don't just give up on our friends because it's inconvenient! I thought you were better than that Zuko."
The fact that her glare—promising pain and suffering to any who disagreed with her—was directed at the open space between Katara and Zuko did absolutely nothing to dissolve the ferocity in the milky jade pools. And her words cut the former prince deeply. He was better than that. But he knew that it was stupid.
Completely, totally and utterly stupid.
Soft hands grasped his own comfortingly, the roles from only minutes before now reversed as Katara quashed the frustration and self-loathing building up within her fiancé. Softly she addressed the blind girl.
"Toph, sweetie, I know exactly how you feel, I really do: you feel like we're abandoning them, like we're not trying hard enough. You weren't the only one who felt like slapping these two," she nodded her head in the direction of her brother and lover, "for even suggesting it but they're right; we aren't exactly fresh and rested. We have to wait. We'll get them Toph…just not now."
The pint-sized powerhouse looked like she was about to continue her protest, her fists clenched and her lips set in a grim line, but Zuko quickly scooted over and wrapped her up in his arms, pulling her close against his chest.
"I'm sorry Toph, I really am. We just can't go after them right now…I'm sorry." His words seemed to finally break the girl's hard exterior as she broke down.
She gripped the front of Zuko's shirt tightly in both hands, the tears streaming down her face making quick work of the fabric, "It's not fair! W-why does it feel like there's n-never an end to all of this shit?! What did we do Sparky? What d-did we do to deserve it, huh?"
Zuko looked toward Katara, his own eyes questioning, at a loss as to what to say. The brunette stared helplessly back at him, words failing her as well as she came to join in the hug.
"I don't know Short Round," the firebender whispered, the ears of everyone aboard the flying bison vying desperately for some kind of justification even as their eyes focused anywhere else, "I just don't know."
Yet again a silence fell upon the bedraggled group, this one deafening and oppressive at the same time, each of the riders doing their best to come to terms with Zuko's statement.
Sokka drew closer to Suki and wrapped an arm around her shoulders as she leaned into his side, mindful of the sleeping bundle in her arms, seeking the familiar embrace of her boyfriend's body.
Katara wrapped her arms tightly around both Zuko and Toph, the latter still crying—though the dry heaving sobs had subsided to stifled whimpers—and the former trying to soothe the shaken girl's fragile form.
The only one not seeking comfort amidst the dead silence was Archer, the teen seemingly concentrating on the open sky before them. However, if they had seen his eyes, the quintet would have noticed the determined and defiant edge raging within the ice blue irises.
"You want to know what you did Toph?" he began, his tone soft but even, "You want to know why you've been targeted by any and all branches of the Fire Nation armed forces for the past year?"
The small girl was glancing out from the protective wall created by the arms of Katara and Zuko, one vacant eye trying to pinpoint the location of the older teen's voice, hungry for some kind of justification.
A slight gleam came to Archer's eyes as he continued to gaze out into the slowly lightening sky, the sun barely beginning its ascent, "You want to know what you did to deserve the ire of Fire Lord Ozai and, by association, the entirety of the Fire Nation? It's simple," he laughed here, a slightly manic edge creeping into his guffaw, "You made them afraid."
"W-what?" Suki whispered, her eyes flicking to Sokka's trying to see if he was making sense of what the Yu Yan was saying, "What do you mean?"
Archer turned to look at them all now, a wide smile splitting his chiseled face, no doubt defined by years of rigorous training, "You guys didn't think that it was just the Avatar that spooked Fire Lord Sozin did you? Or Azulong? Ozai? No," he snorted, "while the threat of the Avatar was a very real and pressing concern it was always expected and accounted for. It was the allies that the Avatars managed to obtain throughout their travels that frightened the royal family. Benders from all walks of life—even from the Fire Nation herself—that stood up against the tyranny and oppression dealt out by men crazed with power! Warriors who had control over no element but proudly and fearlessly fought side-by-side with Roku…with Aang."
He threw a meaningful glance at each of the teens as he spoke, eager to get his point across, "You, all of you, through your choice to follow and aid the Avatar and stand against the Fire Nation…you've made them afraid. It's one thing to gain confidence by bearing witness to the awesome powers granted to an Avatar by the spirits; the troops are humbled and star-struck, turned into mindless, gaping fish. But looking up during a seemingly fruitless battle and seeing master benders and warriors—teenagers—fighting with such heart and conviction and taking down scores of enemies….that is what truly inspires greatness in the hearts of your allies and strikes fear into those of the Fire Nation."
Archer laughed again, though this time it seemed to be less sarcastic and more sincere, "That's what you all did to deserve being chased around the world and, despite the fact that the Avatar is gone, you all still remain…that fear still remains."
It looked as if the group was going to settle into yet another bout of silence, albeit this one more baffled and stunned than somber, but Sokka managed to break the tension this time, a doubtful look on his face.
"You're joking, right?" he asked the blue-eyed bow wielder, "There is absolutely no way that we've inspired fear into the hearts of thousands of Fire Nation citizens; we've hardly even set foot in the Fire Nation! Tui and La, our leader was a monk who refused to step on an ant and did his best to avoid violence! How could we have possibly scared all those people, much less the Fire Lord?" He jerked his thumb at Zuko, "The way Zuko tells it, his father is a heartless bastard with psychopathic tendencies whose only emotions are anger and the joy he gets out of inflicting pain on the innocent! I'd be hard-pressed myself to even think about fearing anyone else! OW!"
Suki smacked the back of her boyfriend's head, glaring at him, "Sokka! Apologize!"
The water tribe boy pouted and grumbled his response, "Sorry for telling the truth Zuk—OW! Woman, I don't need nor want a concussion! OW! Alright, alright! I'm sorry for badmouthing your father, okay Zuko?"
"Thanks Sokka," Zuko replied deadpanned as he rolled his eyes, "it's always a pleasure to be reminded of my roots and of how rotten they are."
Toph snorted as she pulled away from the prince and waterbender, "Archer, do you really believe that?" She sounded hopeful, but a slight tremor remained in her voice.
A genuine smile made its way onto Archer's face this time as he looked toward the sun, now completely over the horizon, shining brightly as its warmth began to spread over the land.
"I really, truly do Toph. Ozai is right to fear you; the courage and confidence that you inspire in others through your actions is so much more a threat than the Avatar ever was. Look at it this way; it was the duty of the Avatar to fight the Fire Nation and defeat the Fire Lord to bring back the balance of the four nations sure, but was it his destiny?" Archer shook his head, "Obviously not. I believe that that destiny—defeating the Fire Lord and ending his reign of terror—belongs to you, Toph."
He turned to face the group again, "And to you, Zuko. And Katara, Sokka, Suki…myself. I believe it is the destiny of every single individual in this world who wants freedom to defeat the Fire Lord. This doesn't just fall to an individual—it never should have. Destiny is what you make it, not what someone else tells you it is. Each of us controls our own fate through the choices that we make each and every day."
The bow prodigy met each of their eyes in turn before concluding, "I choose to fight; to stand against Ozai and his bid for world domination. What say you all?"
Zuko nodded at the younger boy, his eyes alive with renewed confidence, "I choose to fight as well."
"As do I," Suki whispered assuredly, nudging Sokka lightly when he didn't immediately follow her lead.
"I'm in too," the boomerang user conceded, "as if I wouldn't be!"
Toph laughed loudly, her earlier tears and fear replaced by a glowing feeling of power instilled in her by both Archer's speech and her friends, "Oh you'd better believe I'm down for a little Ozai ass kicking!"
Only the waterbender was left and, as she grasped Zuko's hand—finding comfort in the familiar calloused palm—determination seeped into her entire body, "Let's do it. For the freedom of this world and the people that inhabit it as well as those that have given their lives for it…let's do it."
A deep roar went up from the bison beneath them as if in agreement with its passengers.
"Oh hell yeah," Toph exclaimed loudly, "even Appa wants to kick some Fire Lord ass!"
Sokka whooped as he shook Suki from side to side excitedly, "To ass kicking!"
"WAAAAH! WAAAAAH! WAAAAAAAAAAAAH!"
The zeppelin wasn't the biggest vehicle that Mai had ever traveled in—being friends with the princess of the Fire Nation made sure of that—but the cold metal halls, lit only by what little light managed to filter in through the windows, seemed depressingly empty and dark without the presence of the bubbly pink clad acrobat.
It had only been two days since Ty Lee's death and already it felt like an eternity had passed. She felt like she was in a daze, almost as if she was stuck in some kind of dream world, only this was a nightmare and she couldn't escape.
She shuddered as a cold draft made its way through her bones coming from seemingly nowhere. Things weren't right; she had found herself crying at random intervals throughout the night, her eyes red and swollen, the composure that she prided herself on forgotten.
Her friend—her last friend—was completely distraught. The princess had flown through the entire spectrum of negative emotions in a matter of seconds countless times in the last forty-eight hours. She would burst out into spontaneous rants at her brother and his accomplices, blaming them for the death of the acrobat, as she tossed around her bright blue flames before falling to her knees and crying into her pillow wondering how she could have let things get so out of hand. It was truly a disturbing sight for the emo assassin, although Mai could relate.
Ty Lee was never supposed to die.
With a sigh that nearly brought her to tears again, Mai approached Azula's room, the ornate door closed tight, though not tight enough to keep in the sounds of rage coming from the princess.
"Dammit Azula," Mai breathed sadly, resting her head against the door, "you're supposed to be the strong one…not me."
Despite her constant effort to assert her dominance and to always appear like a cold -hearted individual, Mai and Ty Lee were the only ones privy to Azula's relatively simple nature. She loved to be pampered on her off days even going so far as to rent out entire spas when the three of them were traveling. She enjoyed reading any kind of literature—particularly mushy romance novels—though her royal highness had no idea that her two friends had stumbled upon her reading said material several times. And she enjoyed just being a teenager.
That wasn't to say that she was completely innocent when it came to socializing with anyone outside of their little trio, but the times where she could just relax were few and far between thanks to the nearly constant presence of her father and what he expected of her.
Silently opening the door, Mai was barely able to dodge the jet of flames that shot toward her from across the room. The deadly plume seemed to dissipate almost on contact with the wall, leaving behind pitch-black scorch marks.
"Azula!" Mai hissed as she patted out some of the stray blue tongues that had splashed onto her robes, "Would you please calm down? Or at least watch where you're throwing fire?" The assassin winced upon noticing the red and puffy eyes of her childhood friend as well as the dark bags marring the normally flawless face of the firebending prodigy.
It looked like Azula wasn't sleeping well either.
A fierce growl tore from the ebony haired girl's throat, "Dammit Mai, this wasn't supposed to happen! We were supposed to complete a routine check-up of the Boiling Rock and come right back to the palace! No surprise prisoners or interrogations!" She pulled at her disheveled hair in anger, "My damn brother wasn't supposed to show up out of the blue and start a fucking riot! He wasn't supposed to get broken out of his interrogation by a complete idiot and a traitorous ex-navy captain! And he—"
Her voice broke here, the flames that had been encompassing her hands swiftly fading out as her eyes fell to the floor, shame filling the amber orbs, "He made me…he made me…I…Ty Lee…none of this would've happened if he had just stayed gone! Why? Why, why, why, why, why?!"
Mai was by her side in an instant, catching the distraught princess before she collapsed to the ground, wrapping her arms around the now sobbing girl, "It's all right Azula, it's okay. Just let it out, let it all out."
For a long while, the only sounds in the room were the muffled cries of the broken girl as she clung desperately to Mai, as if afraid that if she loosened her grip even slightly, her only remaining friend would vanish and leave her, just as Ty Lee had.
It wasn't as if Mai was unaffected either. She could feel the tears falling down her face, though hers were shed in silence; she had to be the strong one for Azula now, even if she herself felt like falling apart.
"M-Mai?" Azula mumbled, her voice muffled by the pale girl's robes.
Taking a deep breath to steady herself, the long haired girl answered, "Yeah?"
"Am I…am I a m-monster?" the princess stuttered, "I killed one of my closest friends…I was dead set on killing my brother too! What am I?!"
She was waiting for an answer, desperate for some kind of confirmation—be it condemnation or reassurance, it didn't matter.
She just wanted something.
"Azula," Mai began, her mind frantically trying to find the right words to say in order to console her friend, "it was an accident. You didn't mean to…to hit Ty Lee, you weren't aiming at her when you attacked you know that! Ty Lee just…you know she always had a big heart and she hated to see pointless death. She did what she did because she believed it was right. If you blame yourself for that then you might as well be condemning who Ty Lee was!"
Mai pulled away from Azula, bringing her friend to arms length and staring straight into her golden pools, "Azula, what happened at the Boiling Rock was just a freak accident! I don't blame you for it—I never will. Ty Lee was our friend and she loved us both…she never held anything against us and I don't think she would want you to fall into depression on her account. Life goes on Zula, we're still stuck in the middle of a war and I need you a lot more than you think."
The tears had stopped flowing, though a few still found their way down Azula's disheveled face, "B-but…"
With a half-hearted glare, the usually stoic specialist silenced the weak protest, "No, no buts Azula. I loved Ty Lee too, but the fact of the matter is that she's gone now and we can't do anything about it! But we're still here…we have to keep going, for Ty Lee if nothing else."
The princess wiped at her eyes, getting rid of the tear tracks that remained, and nodded, "You're right Mai. For Ty Lee we'll keep going…we'll keep on fighting just like she would want us to." There was a slight pause before she spoke again, "But what about what I did to Zuko? What I did to my own flesh and blood?"
Now here was a problem that Mai couldn't easily reconcile. Azula had been nipping at Zuko's heels, sometimes dangerously so, for as long as she could remember. She was always the first to belittle him, the first to hurt him and the first to rat him out to his father whenever she thought she could get him into trouble. Azula had always told Mai and Ty Lee that she was just acting like any regular sister would and they had never really questioned it even though, in hindsight, they had always disapproved of it.
"I think," Mai began carefully, "the fact that you're questioning your actions means that you're actually feeling remorse over it. Somewhere, deep down in your subconscious, you love your brother; really, truly love him. You've just been forced to repress it for so long by your father that you don't know how to handle it anymore, you know?"
The heir apparent took in her friend's words, turning them over and over in her mind. What she said made sense; her father's influence had obviously gotten to her at a young age and prompted her to harass her brother to no end. Eventually, the Fire Lord's hostility to anything that even remotely resembled a failure led to a similar reaction from his daughter.
But there was something else nagging at the back of her mind, an almost imperceptible feeling of guilt that didn't have its origins in the topic of Ty Lee. And then, as if someone had flicked the 'on' switch, memories started flashing before her very eyes.
She and Zuko, five and seven years old respectively, were in their playroom one day each minding their own business, when Zuko had taken out one of his new toys—a model dragon.
Frowning at her own source of entertainment—a ratty old turtle-duck doll—Azula decided that she wanted to play with her brother's toy. Quick as a flash, she was up and had wrenched the wooden carving out of his unsuspecting hands.
"Hey!" he cried angrily, his fists clenched at his sides, "Give that back Azula, that's my toy! You have your own!"
In response she stuck her tongue out at him, "Dolls are stupid and boring! Besides cool toys like this belong to cool people, not stupid dum-dums!"
And the chase was on.
She managed to get all the way out into the family's private courtyard before Zuko, with a determined cry, caught her in a flying tackle. They rolled and rolled before landing in a squealing heap right in front of the small pond where Fire Lady Ursa was feeding the turtle-ducks.
Kicking and screaming gave way to punching and biting before Ursa was able to grasp what was happening. Hurrying over to her fighting children, she pulled Azula off of a bleeding Zuko, his left eye already beginning to swell shut from his sister's assault.
"Azula! Zuko! What on earth is going on here? Why are you two fighting?"
Naturally it was Azula who spoke first, her natural tendency to shy away from trouble leading her to lie, "Zuzu and I were in the playroom playing with our new toys when I asked him if I could use his dragon for a while. He said I could. I had only had it for a few minutes when he started yelling at me and saying that "stupid dumb girls weren't supposed to be playing with boy toys". He scared me so I ran over here to try and get away from him but then he tackled me and started trying to hurt me before you managed to separate us mother."
The look in Ursa's eyes told Azula that her mother had not bought a single word of her story. Turning to her son, the matriarch asked, "Zuko?"
With tears rolling down his face, Zuko sniffled, "A-Azula and I were in the playroom and I w-was minding my own business when all of a sudden she took my dragon toy! I told her to give it back but she just told me I was a dum-dum and that I didn't deserve it before she started running. I tackled her and tried to get m-my toy back and then you stopped us."
It had been over from the minute they had tumbled into the courtyard, and, as Azula accepted her week long grounding while enviously watching her mother coddled her brother, she couldn't help but notice that the toy dragon lay forgotten on the ground.
It was always Zuko.
The next one came immediately after.
Another time, Zuko and Azula had been sparring out in one of the training fields under the watchful eye of their mother. It was one of Azula's first times bending after discovering that she could produce blue fire, so she was determined to show her brother up.
Just because he was older than her didn't mean he was better.
"Come on Zuzu," she taunted, a smirk quirking her lips, "is that really all you've got?"
Zuko, bent over and panting from exertion at trying to keep up with his sister's lithe frame and quick movements, had scowled, "Shut up LaLa. I'm supposed to go easy on you; you're my sister."
A white-hot anger had taken over at his words. He was taking it easy on her because she was his sister? She'd put him in his place. With a furious roar, Azula lit up both palms with azure fire and unleashed an assault on Zuko that he could have never hoped to defend against.
"AZULA!" her mother screeched as she ran over to the fallen form of her son, "Stop it, stop it now! The fight is over! You've won! You're being dishonorable!"
The stream of flames ceased leaving Azula breathing heavily. That was it? No 'good work Azula' or 'that was an incredible display daughter'? No, she realized, she wouldn't get that from her mother. She was too busy making sure all of her son's boo-boos were taken care of.
It was always Zuko.
Another memory hit her.
One summer the royal family had taken a vacation to Ember Island to stay at their beach house and have fun away from the responsibilities of the Fire Nation capitol. She and Zuko were playing out in the turbulent waves when a sharp pain had shot up her leg and sent her crashing into the water.
She hadn't realized how harsh the surf was as she clutched her foot in pain, too focused on her injury to care about anything else. Before she could take a breath she was pulled under the surface by the harsh surf and sent tumbling further away from shore.
The next few minutes were hazy at best, the brief respites from the watery depths not helping the princess get her breath back at all as she was repeatedly slammed by wave after wave. And then suddenly warm arms wrapped around her, comforting and reassuring, and pulled her out of the tumult and into glorious air.
Upon breaking the surface Azula greedily took in gulps of precious oxygen, her mind finally clearing up as the life giving substance flooded her body, dimly aware of the fact that she was being moved into the shallows.
"You okay LaLa?"
Looking up, Azula was stunned to see that her savior was none other than her dum-dum brother. His eyes, she noticed, were filled with genuine concern as he looked her over trying to discern if anything was wrong, his arms still wrapped securely around her.
He had saved her.
Zuko had saved her!
"I'm…I'm okay," she mumbled, hiding her face in his chest in embarrassment, "I cut my foot on a rock and tripped and then…and then…" she couldn't finish, the shame overwhelming her.
Luckily Zuko understood, "It's okay now LaLa, I've got you—you're not gonna drown on my watch!" he hugged her tightly and whispered softly in her ear, "I love you Azula; I won't let anything happen to you."
"Zuko! Azula!" Ursa came running up to them from the shore, her eyes wild with fear as she looked over her children, "Are you both okay? What happened?"
After she heard Zuko's explanation Ursa turned to her daughter who, though now out of her brother's arms, was still clinging to his hand firmly, "Azula you know better than to go out too far into the ocean! You're too young and not strong enough to be out there all by yourself, especially when the current is so wild! You're really lucky that your brother was watching out for you and was close by. No more water for you today, do you understand?"
Her head hanging, the princess nodded.
"And Zuko, my baby boy," Ursa praised, a smile lighting up her face, "you were really brave and didn't even hesitate to dive after your sister, even when you know that you're not supposed to be out that far. Don't do it again, okay?" At his nod she ruffled his hair lovingly, "Good. Now come on, lunch is ready and your father is getting restless."
Ursa picked up her daughter, frowning as she saw the cut on her foot and shaking her head, "Come here Azula, we don't want you getting swept off again."
And because of the water dripping off of her, no one noticed the silent tears running down Azula's face.
It was always Zuko.
Coming back to herself, Azula felt a bittersweet smile coming to her face as she looked up into Mai's eyes.
"I was jealous," she whispered softly, her words barely audible to the assassin, "I was jealous of what Zuko had with our mother…of the fact that he had our mother's love and I didn't. I had to fight and claw and earn my way into father's good grace and there was Zuzu basking in our mother's love…given that love freely. It always seemed like mother loved him so much more than she did me; she would go out of her way to find him in the palace to play, give him hugs for absolutely no reason whatsoever…take him out to eat and give him special treats because he was 'mommy's little boy.'"
Mai listened intently, eyes and ears riveted to the trembling girl in her arms; Azula had never really talked about her past away from Mai and Ty Lee, whatever happened when her two friends weren't present usually stayed locked up inside her.
"And then when I tried for her attention I could see it in her eyes—she thought something was wrong with me. She said as much out loud to herself a few times whenever she thought I couldn't hear her or wasn't paying attention. She had good reasons of course; I wasn't exactly the best little sister or daughter I could've been. I constantly fought with Zuko, usually instigating the confrontations, and normally gave him either a bloody lip or took shots at his confidence.
"Eventually I started to believe it, that I wasn't right. I looked at myself in the mirror for hours on end trying to figure out what was wrong with me; was it my face? Was it my hair…my nose, ears, hands or feet? What could possibly be so wrong with me that I could bring such shame to my own mother's eyes?"
She didn't realize it, but she had started crying again, "I never figured it out. And then all of a sudden, she was gone. I woke up one morning and she had vanished into thin air and my grandfather was dead. Zuko never stood a chance after that. Father despised him…despised his weakness. And finally I, the prodigy, was getting all the attention! Everything that I could have possibly wanted was give to me without question. I had everything I could ever need; except my mother's love…and there was no way I could ever get that now."
Catching Mai's eyes again, she finished, "I was jealous of Zuko Mai…I still am."
As the sunlight began to filter in through the windows, Mai saw a small flicker flash through Azula's eyes, but the emotion was so foreign on the princess that the assassin couldn't be sure it had really been there. It had looked like…Mai shook her head, deciding to leave it alone for the moment.
"I think," Azula spoke up, her voice a little unsteady, "I think I want to go to sleep now Mai. I'm kind of tired."
"Of course," the pale girl responded as she helped the younger girl up and onto her bed, "you get some sleep and I'll wake you as soon as we're back home, okay?"
A nod, "Alright. And Mai? Thank you…you know, for listening. I really needed to get that off my chest."
A smile cracked Mai's normally cold exterior, "No problem Azula. That's what friends do. Sleep well."
And with a soft click she closed the door, leaving Azula to get a restful sleep for the first time in two days.
A/N: Well there you go guys! An incredibly large amount of cookies goes to anyone who can identify the origin of Archer because he's just so badass! I hope you enjoyed the chapter and as always, drop a review and let me know what you all thought of it!
Til next time!