Azula covered her eyes. "One thousand thirty-seven, one thousand thirty-eight," she counted.
A rustle from a few yards away distracted her. "You'll never find me!"
"One thousand thirty-nine, one thousand forty..." Azula peeked between her fingers. "Ready or not, I'm coming to get you!" She dove straight into a bush of pink flowers, dragging a shrieking little girl out.
"Not fair, not fair!" her niece yelled. "That's cheating!"
"Save your breath." Azula grinned. "No one's here to make me follow the rules. I can do anything I want! I can tickle you for all time!" Her fingers attacked the pale skin peeking out from the hem of the red and gold tunic, poking and prodding until they were both laughing too hard to breathe.
"I surrender!" Her niece gasped, still giggling. "I surrender, Aunt Azula!"
Azula stopped tickling and sat down on the dirt, making her lap into a chair. "You've lost the battle, but the war isn't over," she joked, sitting the girl on her legs. "You'll best me some day, little one. I'm certain of it."
"Don't be silly, Auntie." Tiny nostrils huffed hot air onto Azula's arm like a baby dragon. "Even Daddy can't beat you."
"Your dad didn't have me as his firebending master," Azula said.
"Maybe you and me will have a gigantic Agni Kai that will explode the whole world and burn down all the houses and trees!"
"Hmm, maybe so." Azula untangled the hair clip from her niece's hair and smoothed the frizzies with her palm. Memories pulsed into her, lodging in her throat until it was hard to breathe. In the span of one day, Dad had been the one brushing her hair at bed time, and Azula hadn't realized how much she'd liked the way Mom did it, with the oils and perfumes and patient, gentle combing, until it was gone. After Mom left, everything had been too fast and too rough. Azula had smirked with gritted teeth to keep from crying.
So talented. So determined. So much better than Zuko. Her dad had known every pressure point in her fragile psyche, and he'd massaged them until she'd been willing to endure anything if her reward was his approval. I could not craft a finer daughter if I tried. Just breathe normally, Azula. She'd taken his training more seriously than even her firebending lessons, proud and afraid and confused. You're so advanced for your age. So mature.
Azula stared down at her little doppelganger. Her niece was the same age Azula had been, and the eight-year-old was currently using her own advanced maturity to string together a crown of pretty weeds.
"That's a beautiful crown for a beautiful princess," Azula said, plucking a real, red flower from a shrub. "This one can be the jewel."
After her father's funeral, Azula had spilled wine and secrets on her mother's new white sofa. "Why would I be angry at him?" she'd demanded. "I wanted to do it. It put him right where I wanted him."
"But you were too young to make that kind of decision," Ursa had wept. Her tears had baffled Azula for years. "You were a handful, certainly, but you were a child and he was an adult. I never would have left you and Zuko if I'd known how much he'd changed. A decent man would never-"
"He was the greatest man who ever lived!" The words had felt like the wrong shape on her clumsy tongue. "You weren't even there. You don't know what you're talking about."
"I'll be angry enough for the both of us, then," Ursa had said, prying Azula's fingers off the bottle. "You'll understand it some day, Azula."
Azula had been too busy drinking wine and mourning her father's death to understand it for a long time. By the time she'd managed to build a real life for herself, she'd been too busy enjoying the way "General Azula" and "Advisor Azula" and "Auntie Azula" sounded on peoples' lips to dwell anywhere but the happy present.
But she understood now.
"If anyone ever hurt you, I would set them on fire from the inside out and watch their skin melt off their bones," Azula said, her voice even. "I'd turn their bones into charcoal for you, even if you didn't realize you were hurt yet."
Tiny eyebrows scrunched together. "How would I not know if I was hurt?"
"It's complicated." Azula crowned the princess with the weed circlet, and it looked like little white wild flowers on her hair. Azula smiled. "Shall we go investigate the source of that amazing smell, Your Majesty?"
"Indeed, General Azula." Always so serious and commanding, even when she was playing. She had too much of her aunt in her.
Azula took her by the hand and into the royal kitchen.
Ursa dropped her knife and rushed over to kiss both of their faces. "My two favorite girls in the entire world," she said. "Tell me what you think of this pie." She stuck a spoonful of warm apple and crust into Azula's mouth.
"It's delicious," Azula said. She wasn't surprised; every test bite was always delicious. She would never have regained the weight lost in the mental institution without her mother's rolling pin and recipe book.
"Me too, me too!"
Ursa blew on another bite before sticking it into her granddaughter's open mouth. "I watched you two playing through the window," she said. "It reminded me of when your father and Aunt Azula were little. I used to chase them around that same courtyard before-"
Azula couldn't wait any longer. She embraced her mom so tightly the spoon clattered to the tile floor. "I understand now," she whispered. "You don't have to be angry for me anymore."
Her mother squeezed her back. "It's part of being a mom," she said, kissing Azula's cheek. "I couldn't stop being angry for you any more than I could ever stop loving you."
"What smells so good?" Zuko's voice preceded him into the kitchen.
Azula broke away from the hug, wiping her eyes before he could see any emotion. "Ah, Zuzu. We beat you to the pie, I'm afraid. You'll just have to sweet talk Mom into making you another one."
"Yeah, this pie is ours, Daddy. We already took bites out of it."
Azula an approving nod. "She understands pie warfare. I approve of your logic, Princess."
"I'm not even going to argue," Zuko said, shaking his head. "There's no winning when the two of you team up against me." With that, he gave Ursa a sad look.
"Cheer up, Zuko," his mother laughed. "I have two more in the oven."
Azula retrieved two spoons and handed one to her niece. "To the victors goes the pie," she said. "We should eat it while it's still hot."