Ursa stops withdrawing from her daughter after her daughter pushes her son out of a tree. It’s perhaps not the expected response, especially when she was already wary of her daughter’s tendencies. But it’s the result of an epiphany.
The epiphany is this: this is partly Ursa’s fault.
She takes a good, hard look at her daughter’s life. Azula showed her sparks practically upon birth, and has been favoured by Ozai ever since. Ursa turned her attention to Zuko, because Zuko was more like Ursa and he needed the love, but… but Azula needs a mother’s love, too, even if she has her father’s approval. (Though she doesn’t have his love. Not really. Ursa isn’t convinced that Ozai is capable of that, which makes her concerned that Azula might not be capable, either.)
The children used to spend time together. But since Zuko has started showing that he is also a bender, just a late bloomer, Azula has turned the cruelty she’s learned from Ozai onto her brother.
Well, Ursa thinks. She has a lot to make up for as a mother.
She tries to talk to Azula about the tree incident, but Azula insists that it was an accident, and that it isn’t her fault that Zuzu has naturally bad balance.
It’s not an ideal response by any stretch of the imagination, but it prompts Ursa to shift her balance. She doesn’t spend less time with Zuko, who needs her, but she starts spending more time with Azula, too. She teaches Azula how to braid her hair, a style that is distinctly not Fire Nation, because the idea of using a private hairstyle as a form of rebellion makes Azula snicker. She invites Azula to sit with Zuko when she tells the stories of the Fire Nation’s greatest plays. And while Azula always rolls her eyes, while she seems to root for the villain in every story, she also stays and listens.
It’s slow progress. It’s so very slow, especially with Zuko’s flames being called up more and more easily. But Ursa can see the change happening.
Within a year, Azula seeks out her brother without a plan to terrorise him. Within two, when Azula gets into a surprisingly (worryingly) violent clash with a visiting dignitary’s son, Zuko quietly tells Ursa that it was because the boy made fun of him. Ursa gently brings this up with Azula, and her daughter glares and claims that only she is allowed to make fun of Zuzu, which is… not perfect, but it’s progress.
And so Ursa finds herself in a battle of sorts with her husband. Ozai tries to tear the two of them apart, tries to make Azula stronger by giving her an enemy, tries to make Zuko weaker by placing him as the second best. Ursa tries to undo the damage, all through sessions of gossiping by the turtleducks, through story time in a shared bed that Azula claims she’s too tired to leave, through ganging up on Zuko with his sister until he lets the pair of them tie messy braids into his hair.
Azula isn’t… she isn’t normal. She’s too much her father’s daughter. And she still clearly sees Zuko as a potential threat to her favour with Ozai, but it gets better, because Ursa slowly impresses upon her that they will never need to compete for her love.
Then Azulon forces her hand, and Ursa can stay no longer. She hurries to Zuko’s rooms, hoping that Azula has fallen asleep there again so that she doesn’t need to make two trips--
Only to find them both there, packing haphazardly. They look up at her and freeze.
“What are you doing?” Ursa asks, breathless and perplexed.
Azula’s face is stonier than any nine-year-old child’s should be. “I heard,” she states. “He said that Father has to lose his firstborn child. Well, then, he’s losing both of us.” She holds her head high, glaring at Ursa.
(And to think that Ursa had questioned Azula’s ability to love. Azula’s love is strange and sideways, but here she is: the favoured princess, ready to toss her life to one side for her brother's safety.)
Ursa looks to Zuko, who seems frightened and harried, but also like it hasn’t occurred to him to question Azula’s account.
(Ursa manages to be both glad for this, and also worried that his loyalty to Azula might backfire on him someday.)
“Oh, my children,” Ursa says, kneeling and opening her arms. “It will be fine. Zuko will be fine. I’ve… I’ve taken care of it.” Zuko comes to her easily. Azula waits at a distance, scowling, but follows once Zuko beckons her. “Thank you for taking care of your brother, Azula. You’re both going to need to take care of each other once I’m gone.”
Her children pull back, alarmed. “Once you’re gone? Where are you going?” Zuko asks, tears in his voice.
Ursa presses a kiss to his temple, and then to his sister’s.
“I’m going away so that you don’t have to,” she explains. “I’m sorry. I love you. I’ll always love you. Both of you. Completely, and with my whole heart.”
Ursa leaves her children behind. She hopes that they will be more loyal to one another than to the new Fire Lord. She hopes that they will both survive the reign of their father.
When Father grasps Zuko’s hair in one fist and calls fire to the other, Azula looks away.