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Pride is the Mask that Shame Wears

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He hung there like a slaughtered pig-chicken, ready to be gutted and put in a pot. He was a child, but whoever had strung him up for the Firelord was able to ignore that. Ursa wasn’t. She ran her fingers over the fuzz coating the top of his head. “Come on love, I’ll get you out of here.”

Her swords struck the chains, shattering them. The boy slumped to the ground as Ursa caught him. The air left his body in a weak groan.

“It’s okay, Love,” she whispered, but he didn’t respond. His eyes were open, glinting in the gloom, but they were glazed over, from the drugs used to keep him docile. It was something more than memory, the way the feel of him brought her back to those early days when Iroh first brought her son to her, when Zuko would slip from lucidity into glassy-eyed fever dream. She could almost smell the putrid scent of infected burn. “Shh, Love, it’s okay.”

There wasn’t much distance between twelve and thirteen, between her child and this child. Or between thirteen and fourteen, between her son and her daughter. Even twelve and fourteen was so small a distance, between captor and captive. Ozai had a gift for hurting children, for taking their childhoods away from them. When this boy woke up, she wondered if he would see that, or if he would only see the person who had hurt him.

She wondered if she was going to be the woman who rescued him, or the woman who used him as bait.

As Ursa slid out of the prison tower and out into the wilds around the capital city, she didn’t deliberately do anything to leave a trail, but she didn’t hide it either. Every palace informant the White Lotus had said that would be enough. There were dusty footprints and trampled grasses, clear signs for anybody really looking for them. It had to be enough. Ursa just hoped it would be enough.

Her shoulder complained bitterly as she climbed a low rise and scanned the horizon. Only minutes ago she had been thinking about how young he was, too young, but now she wished he were just a little younger and smaller. A hand rose above the tall grass, waving up to her, but it disappeared, the grass parting around it’s owner as he ran toward her, the poles of his stretcher bobbing above the grass.

“You got him? It went okay?” He laid out the stretcher, and Ursa settled the Avatar onto it. “Wow, I kind of thought… He’s not very impressive, is he?”

“Twelve year old boys usually aren’t, Riku.” Ursa rubbed her shoulder gingerly. “Come on, let’s get going.”

Riku answered by hefting his side of the stretcher up onto his shoulders, and when Ursa followed suit, they took off into the grass their feet churning up the dust to drift in a cloud above them, a beacon luring Ursa’s quarry into her carefully laid trap.

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The deck rocked under her feet as she stared out over the water. A hand settled lightly on her arm. “Iroh, how is he?”

He pushed a cup of tea into her hands. “The physician says he probably will not wake up for a few more hours, but he should be okay. You did good, Ursa. He will wake up in his own people’s temple, and we will take care of him.”

“Good, I’m glad,” she said, quickly.

“And how is your daughter?”

Ursa gulped down a mouthful of tea without tasting it. “You’ve seen her. You tell me.”

Iroh shook his head. “She does not speak to me.”

“She doesn’t speak to me either. She just glowers.” Ursa supposed Azula had said all she wanted to say when she screamed that her mother was a traitor and a murderer, and that she was being kidnapped as the White Lotus warriors subdued her and dragged her onto the ship. “Reminds me of when she got caught doing something she wasn’t supposed to when she was little.”

“You have her now. My brother cannot harm her anymore.” Iroh smiled slyly. “She will come around. Zuko did.”

Ursa chuckled darkly. “At least with Zuko, you were the one he was accusing of kidnap, not me.”

“Perhaps.” He inclined his head. “But he no longer feels this way. And fourteen is not much older than thirteen. You have time.”

“I am holding my own daughter prisoner,” Ursa told him.

“That is something that happens in this family.”

Ursa let out a bark of laughter. It hurt, viscerally, after it had escaped, like it had carved a hole in her on its way out. For a moment, she wasn’t on the ship at all, but back in the palace, draped in the mourning white robes of a bride. A prisoner.

Her hands shook. The tea splashed around the cup like waves against the side of the ship. Ursa brought it to her mouth and swallowed the last of it down just to make it stop.

Iroh’s arm fell heavily around her shoulder. “Come to my cabin,” he implored. In that first instant, all she wanted was to hit him for the concern in his voice. “I will pour you another cup of tea, and you can rest before throwing yourself into battle.”

Ursa recoiled. “I’m not going in to do battle against my own daughter.”

Iroh let his arm fall back to his side with a careworn smile. “Give Azula my love,” he told her.

She almost laughed again, but she knew if she did, she would start crying, and then she would never be rid of Iroh and his horrible soft glances. “I will.”

He watched her as she walked away. She could feel his eyes on the back of her neck.

Her own words echoed back to her in the quiet. “I’m not going in to do battle against my own daughter.” What a ridiculous thing to say. Of course she was.

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“You know…” Ursa said as cheerfully as she could. “I could ask the captain if he would let you walk around on deck. You would feel a lot better, get the drugs out of your system faster.”

Azula's eyes glinted in the darkness, reflecting the solitary candle flame burning on the low table next to her cot.

“It would have to be at night though. The physician who gave me the drugs warned me that your eyes would be very sensitive.”

Azula didn’t react. Her eyes just continued to stare straight at her mother like an animal in the dark.

Ursa went on, keeping her voice as light as possible, as if she wasn’t talking about the aftereffects of the drugs she had used to kidnap her own child. “That’s why I only left you with the one candle. If you want, I can get you more, but before I do, I have to know you’d tell me if it was too bright. I don’t want to damage your vision.”

Azula just stared, eyes molten with rage.

Ursa tried a different tack. “I’ve missed you so much, Azula. When Iroh brought your brother to me, I was so happy to have him back, but I didn’t have you, and I knew after Zuko how Ozai was treating you. I had to get you back.”

Azula’s eyes narrowed down further, baleful in the darkness. But it was a change. It was a reaction.

“Your brother will be there when we land,” Ursa pressed on. “I’m sure he’ll want to see you. He missed you, even if he won’t admit it.”

Azula sucked in a breath like she was getting ready to speak, but she stopped herself in time.

Ursa suppressed a smile, but when she continued, there was nothing at all worth smiling about in what she had to say. “When I heard you were guarding the Avatar, I knew it was my chance. I know you, Azula. I know what your father did to you. I knew if I slipped away with the Avatar, you would follow by yourself, because Ozai has you convinced you have to do it all on your own, and that's the only way to be good enough. I knew you were going to make that mistake. I know you."

"I didn't make a mistake!" Azula's shriek cut through the darkness, and Ursa couldn't stop herself from sucking in a gasp of relief. "You deliberately deceived me!"

"And you fell for it." Ursa fought to keep her voice calm. "You're not the only one who gets to deceive people, Azula. You made a mistake and fell into a trap."

"You're the one who laid a trap for your own daughter," Azula spat.

"You made a mistake. You fell into a trap. And just now, you couldn't keep yourself from talking even though you tried." Excitement surged through her. "You made a mistake, and you're not perfect, and that's okay. Nobody is. You don't have to be."

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Azula launched herself off the cot, lurching toward her mother, fist wreathed in blue flame. But Ursa had barely made it to her feet before Azula fell hard to her knees. The sound that came out of her mouth tried to be a roar of fury, but it wasn't. It was choked off and full of anguish instead.

Ursa crept close. Cautiously, she knelt down next to her daughter and put a hand on her back. "Do you want to kill me, Azula? Or do you just want me to be quiet for a while?"

"I hate you," Azula hissed, almost too softly to be heard.

But Azula let her mother pull her into her arms, laying boneless against her. "I love you, Azula. I missed you so much, and I love you."

Azula tensed in her mother's arms, muscles coiled. "Don't lie to me!"

Ursa had to fight to keep her hands from clenching around her daughter. "What has your father done to you that you are convinced your own mother telling you she loves you must be a lie?"

"What he did?" Azula snarled. "You're the one who kidnapped me! And besides, I've always known what you thought of me. You're afraid of me. You think I'm a monster."

"No, Azula." Ursa hugged her daughter close. The scent of her daughter filled her nose, familiar as it had ever been, and so easy to to lose herself in it. "I love you. I fear for you. I always have."

Azula's perfectly pointed nails dug into the flesh of Ursa's arm. Blood welled up, and Ursa flinched. Azula twisted herself until her mother's face was in range and spat, a globule of saliva landing on her mother's cheek. It rolled down like a tear.

"Azula-"

"Let me go!" she howled, and as soon as Ursa's arms were no longer around her, she leapt to her feet, standing over her mother, unsteady but determined, and so angry. "Get out! get out, get out, get out!"

"As you wish, my love," Ursa told her as calmly and clearly as she could manage. As she spoke, she rose to her feet, back straight, and head high, to glide gracefully out of the room, moving as she had when she was Ozai's wife and a princess of the Fire Nation, and everything had to be perfect.

But as soon as the door to Azula's cabin was closed and locked behind her, she sagged against the wall. Wracking sobs reverberated through the woodwork. Everything in her longed to rush back inside and hold her daughter as she wept, to try to soothe dome of her pain. But Azula didn't want her, and everything she did only made it worse. Slumped against the wall, Ursa didn't bother to force her own tears back. She let them come. She let them pour down her face and coat her vision with a heavy film of salt and despair. She let them, as long as they were silent.

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The sun had only just begun to peek over the water when they dropped anchor, and the island was barely more than a shadow as they carried the Avatar into one of the rowboats. As soon as he was settled, Ursa found her daughter and seated herself in the boat her daughter had chosen.

"Get your own boat."

"There aren't enough boats for us each to have our own. You'll have to share with somebody. It might as well be me."

As the sailor who would row them to shore took his place at the oars, Azula shot her a sulky look.

"Tell me something, love," Ursa began, keeping her voice light. "What were you planning to do without me here?"

The oarsman tugged on the rope pulley, slowly lowering the boat in the water. Azula looked out over the water instead of answering.

"Were you planning to overpower our oarsman, steal the boat, and row back to the Fire Nation all by yourself?"

"You don't think I could do it?" Azula challenged. "I could set you both on fire and have you dead, roasted, and in the water in minutes. There's nothing you could do to stop me."

"Uh, hey, do you think we could talk about something else?" the oarsman asked queasily. His hands, however, were sure as the boat touched down and settled into the water.

"You would have no provisions, and this little boat isn't made for open water," Ursa told her flatly. "You would be shipwrecked and starved to death long before you made it back home."

"Actually, it would be the thirst that would get you, not the starvation," the oarsman put in helpfully.

"I thought you wanted to talk about something else," Azula snapped.

"We are," he said with a grin. "It's your grisly death we're talking about now, not mine."

"I would prefer we didn't talk about anyone's grisly death," Ursa told them. "But Azula, love, part of growing up is learning your limits."

"You need to learn to stop underestimating me!"

"Your father has you convinced you're not allowed to have limits, Azula, but you have limits whether you're allowed to have them or not." When Azula looked away from her Ursa followed her eyes out over the water, back toward the Fire Nation, unseen over the horizon. "You might as well learn where they are."

"I'm sure you think you know all about my limits," Azula's voice was low and venomous.

"You know, my love, if you're perfect right now, what's going to happen when you grow up and change? Are you going to stop being perfect then? If you're perfect now, how can change do anything but give you flaws?" She put a hand on her daughter's arm. "Ozai has you all locked up inside the version of yourself that he thinks is most useful to him. He's never going to let you grow up and figure out who you really are."

Azula refused to even look at her.

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It was Zuko's turn to hold vigil over the Avatar, and he had brought in his swords and whetstone.

"What do you think the Avatar is going to think if he wakes up and the first thing he sees is you sitting there sharpening your swords?" Ursa asked wryly, bending down to set down two bowls of noodles and kiss her son on the cheek.

"I... didn't think about that."

"It never even crossed my mind that you had, Zuko love."

Zuko looked down helplessly at his swords. "I just don't want to leave it for later. What if something happens?"

"I know the feeling." Ursa nudged one of the bowls of noodles toward her son, and picked up her own. "Don't think I didn't hear how your swords ended up this way. We are going to have a talk later about putting yourself in that kind of danger, especially when I explicitly told you to stay with the White Lotus."

Zuko scowled. "It worked, didn't it? It distracted him."

"Yes, so instead of sending the whole army after me, he sent half of it after you." Ursa raised her eyebrows at him. "Can you see why that might not be something I want?"

Instead of answering, Zuko shoved a too-large piece of komodo rhino meat into his mouth.

"We will talk about this later," she promised. "Your uncle tells me you talked to your sister."

Zuko sallowed, flushing. "I tried."

Ursa nodded. "I know. It'll get better."

"She's so angry," he told her softly. "She wasn't ever like that before. I was always the one who was angry. She was always just annoyed because I was stupid."

"You aren't stupid," she said almost reflexively.

"She thought I was."

"I know. It makes her feel better to think that." She kissed his temple before taking a bite of her noodles. Once she had swallowed, she continued, "It's easy to forget sometime just how angry you were when your uncle brought you to me. We're going to have to be very patient with Azula. She'll come around, like you did, but it'll take a long time."

Zuko opened his mouth to reply, but before he could, a groan from the bed drew both their attention. The Avatar blinked his eyes open and gazed around the room uncertainly. "I'm in an Air Temple," he mumbled. "Am I awake?"

"You are," Ursa assured him. "My name is Ursa. This young man is my son. I rescued you from the Firelord's prison."

The Avatar closed his eyes, slipping back into sleep, but it was only moments before they snapped open again. "My friends, Katara and Sokka, they were sick and-"

"Your friends made it to the Northern Water Tribe," she cut im before he could work himself up. "Katara is a student of an associate of mine. They've already been sent for and will be here soon."

"Really?" he asked, and at Ursa's nod, he beamed wide and sweet, like the child he was.

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Azula knew she was never going to admit the way the smell of burned flesh lingered in her nostrils. It didn't matter in the scheme of things that this was the first time she had killed somebody. It was going to happen again at some point, so it was best of she just got over it. It wasn't like the person she killed mattered. He was just some idiot peasant traitor ordered to be her jailor. None of it mattered. She was free.

The small sailing boat she found waiting at the dock was sleek and swift like the pleasure yachts at Ember Island, but well stocked with water barrels, dried fruit and meat, and rice. Her mother would probably call it luck. But it wasn't luck. It was divine providence smiling upon her as it always did when she worked in the service of the Fire Nation and her father.

Better still, it was probably her mother's boat, which meant by taking it, it would be some time before anyone was able to follow her. And she would have to get a new one before she could go on another one of her treasonous Blue Spirit raids. It made sense, really, that the Blue Spirit was her mother. She couldn't fade away into obscurity like she was supposed to, oh no. She had to try to ruin things. Jealous, grasping little people always did.

But she had ruined everything, hadn't she? At least for Azula. The Avatar was awake, and she and Zuko were personally tending to him. It made her want to scream. They had snatched the Avatar out of her grasp, and there was no way she could return to her father empty handed. She took her hand of the steering oar as she clenched her fist and fought to collect herself. Being alone on a boat in the middle of the ocean was no excuse. She was Princess Azula of the Fire Nation, and she couldn't afford that kind of emotional display. She was better than that, she had to be.

Especially if she wanted to convince her father that he wasn't wrong about her. She had lost the Avatar after all.

It was all her mother's fault, and she would pay.

In the mean time, she couldn't go home not until she found something really impressive to do to show her father she was still worthy. And she wasn't going to find that in the Fire Nation, now was she?

She had a choice. Perhaps the most prudent option was to head south, to sell off the boat and buy passage to the Earth Kingdom on a supply vessel, but she was the princess of the Fire Nation, and she was made to be bold, to be daring, not weak. She was in command, and no matter what her mother thought, she had no limits. She yanked the steering oar until the boat lurched around in the water, facing north to find the western wind.