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The day before Sozin’s Comet returns, Azula wakes up feeling off.

There’s a strange twinge in her core, a grating, too-persistent complaint, almost, at the heat of the day, which doesn’t make sense. Azula has always burned bright, and she’s relished doing so. It’s why her flame glows blue; it’s why she throws herself into everything to do with it, the skill imbued in every facet of her being. There is no reason for her body to feel like it’s burning too hot at the last second, but sweat beads at the back of her neck, under the collar of her armor.

In her palanquin, her mouth screws up in irritation, and she opens the curtains to yell at the men carrying her: “Come on slowpokes, faster!”

The yelling doesn’t make her feel better, but she does it anyway because she is their princess and she can—they should be grateful to be in her presence, even if she can feel something flaking off her normally unflappable demeanor.

It’s no matter. She will snuff it out. There is no room for error, not so close to the end of it all, and certainly not for her, not that she’s incompetent enough to mess up in the first place.

(But the palanquin bearers aren’t going fast enough, and her father will be waiting, and what if he’s irritated with her for not being harsh enough to bring them up to speed? What if she hasn’t done enough to satisfy him in this moment?)

Azula’s hands fist in her lap, and she ignores the sting of her pointed fingernails in the heels of her palms.

She is Princess Azula, daughter of Fire Lord Ozai, and she is perfect, she reminds herself, and behind the curtains of her palanquin, she allows herself a moment to close her eyes. She breathes in, out, and allows the sun hanging overhead to soothe some of her anxiety.

(But still, the twinge remains.)

When her palanquin brings her to the foot of the pyramid her father stands at the top of, she moves a little too quickly to greet him to feel as elegant as normal.

“Sorry I’m late, Father. Good palanquin bearers are so hard to come by these days. So, is everything ready for our departure?”

It’s dry, cursory conversation, but Azula wouldn’t dare to pretend like all is well. Her father has always caught even the smallest of slip-ups, even when she was little and first learning her katas. She hasn’t forgotten the short, quick blasts of flame he sent just to the side of her feet or hands when they landed in the wrong positions, but she’s grown, learned how to avoid corrections like those. It’s a delicate dance, but Azula, as always, has mastered it. Now, it’s time for her reward.

“There has been a change of plans, Azula.”

“What?”

It’s the only response she can come up with. This is the day before her brilliant plan falls into place, the final, decisive blow she has been anticipating for so long. It’s a massive military maneuver—how much can it have changed on such short notice?

“I’ve decided to lead the fleet of airships to Ba Sing Se alone. You will remain here, in the Fire Nation.”

And there’s her answer: nothing about the armies in play has changed, just her ability to join them.

(The twinge grows to a throb.)

She looks up at him, thrown off-balance. “But—I thought we were going to do this together.”

“My decision is final.”

There’s an edge creeping into her father’s voice, but despite knowing exactly how sharp it can be, despite how scared that might make her normally, Azula presses. “You—you can’t treat me like this! You can’t treat me like Zuko!” She is the stronger sibling. She is the one who bothered to stay and fight for their cause because she is a good princess and a better daughter, and he’s just casting her aside?

“Azula, silence yourself.”

No—no. She’s done everything asked of her. She knows she has because she never misses a beat for fear of sparks waiting to snap where she might stumble. There’s no justification for this—none—and her mouth screws up. “But it was my idea to burn everything to the ground! I deserve to be by your side!”

“Azula!”

Is that all he has to say? Her name spat out like a bad bite of food? Does he expect to tame her, just like that? Does he think he can toss her away?

(Yes, an Azula of the not-at-all-distant future would say. He does think so, and you should let him—Agni, why won’t you let him?)

Azula’s always thought of herself as a people person, but after a lifetime of knowing exactly how much to make people fear her, she forgets where her talent came from, the day she should have it all. She’s primed to attack, perched at the top of the food chain and stuffed full to bursting with the confidence of being told all her life by the man in front of her that she is indomitable.

In another universe, Azula stops. In another universe, she sees the warning signs and her fear overtakes her fury. In another universe, she remembers the twinge growing steadily more painful within her, feels the sweat on her hairline, and she accepts, just for a moment, that today, she is not flawless, so she shouldn’t push her luck. But right then, right there, Azula shoves her father over the edge, planting a daring foot forward as she shouts—roars her undoing in front of a crowd of spectators.

“You wouldn’t know what to do with the Comet without my help,” she snarls, and though she has yet to summon a flame, it feels like her tongue—her words—are fire, crackling viciously in the air as her father turns around, displeasure wrought in every line of his face.

Good, Azula thinks. That’s him cracking, giving her complaints the attention they’re owed, and if she can just prove her point, she’ll watch the Earth Kingdom burn with her at the helm like she has earned. 

“I took Ba Sing Se, not Uncle, and certainly not you; I got us this far. You’re stealing what’s rightfully mine. If anyone should get to see this, it’s me, and you should be grateful I’m here because you couldn’t end the war on your own!”

The words are tremulous with emotion, rushing and almost painful for how they scrape past her teeth, and still, even she knows they sound petulant—a child’s concern. But she is loud, and more than that, she’s right. All Azula has ever wanted is the respect of standing at her father’s side and—pitifully—the love inherent to the honor. She can’t lose it when she’s this close.

But then Azula’s father steps towards her, and his fist is wreathed in fire, the temperature of his flame so hot it’s blue—her blue—where it’s closest to his skin.

(The twinge becomes a splitting pain, a protest, the primal urge to run, why would she just stay there?)

She doesn’t have time to act—dodge, flee, try to shield herself. She’s fast—in her intellect, in her lightning, in her everything—but she learned how to be from the best. No, Azula hardly has time to process what’s going to happen at all before his palm meets her cheek in a slap.

In front of the fire sages.

In front of she-doesn’t-know-how-many guards.

In front of her nation.

Azula screams, a burst of hideous, disgraceful sound before she can bring herself under control,  and raises a hand instinctively to cradle the burn.

Her teeth rattle in her skull, and tears spring instantly to her eyes from the pain. She can feel her cheek blistering, but she doesn’t fall, just stumbles. Even in what she thinks might be the worst moment of her life—her life in which she has been her father’s beloved prodigy, why would he strike his prodigy if he loved her?—she is strong because that’s what is expected of her.

Her mouth, the traitorous, arrogant thing that did this to her, snaps shut, though she doesn’t think she could speak even if she wanted to. Her father is a hairsbreadth from her, and his eyes are so, so cold in contrast to the inferno he’s just started on Azula’s face.

She looks up, feeling like she could die from the humiliation of it all—of having misjudged her place, of loosing her tongue on her father who is more important than she will ever be, of being punished for it publicly—and he appraises her.

Though the stench of burnt flesh cloys in the air, staring at his face, one would never know he was angry.

Azula is crying, and her tears make the wound sting more, but he just looks disappointed.

She hasn’t folded against her injury, still stands despite the scream building in her throat that she desperately tamps down because she can’t make this worse—if it was that bad, there would be more than derision at worst and apathy at best on the faces of the scene’s bystanders; she’s just being dramatic. 

(But Agni, it hurts.)

She hasn’t folded against her injury, but that’s not enough.

“I thought better of you, Azula.”

Has she ever been enough?  

“I’m sorry,” she replies. “I was wrong. I—I—” She can’t say it, can’t admit what she’s done because it makes her just like—

Her father’s face twists with irritation, and it takes all the composure Azula has left not to flinch. “Haven’t you done enough today? Spit it out—don’t keep me waiting.”

“I spoke out of turn,” she finishes, swallowing and refusing to wipe the tears that come faster at the pain of speaking. She’s always thought of herself as the stronger child, but this—this makes her just like Zuko, who has always been a failure, who their father has always hated.

He didn’t relish it the way he did with Zuko, holding his palm to skin and charring while his son’s screams filled the arena, but he did it to her regardless, didn’t he? It’s a fleeting thought amongst more pressing matters, but it occurs to Azula nonetheless: her burn can’t possibly be as bad as his, but this is the most pain she’s ever been in, so what did his feel like?

Her father keeps staring at her, and Azula wants to shrink away.

(She wants to go somewhere he’ll never find her, but she’s not a coward and deserved the treatment besides. She has no right to feel that way, so she tells herself she doesn’t.)

“Regardless of your behavior today, however,” he begins, and Azula has to bite her lip, now, to keep from making a sound as the pain of the burn intensifies with time, “I need someone here to watch over the homeland. Only for lack of a better option—” Azula sucks in a breath in shame. “—I’ve decided to declare you the new Fire Lord.

Once, the thought would’ve delighted her, but suddenly the thought of sharing the same title as her father makes her feel ill. Regardless, a question forms in her mind. “But what about you?” she asks, the words eking stiffly from her mouth. 

“Fire Lord Ozai is no more,” her father explains, and as Azula watches the Phoenix flags fly up, she allows herself a moment to sob as she bows to the man who raised her because she knows the crackling of the flames framing him will cover the sound of her pain.

//

Later the day before Sozin’s Comet returns, Azula stops crying by the time her palanquin reaches the palace. The burn still hurts, of course, but she’s Azula. She’s not going to let a well-earned punishment cause her to fall apart. She goes to the palace physician, who has the sense not to ask how she received such an injury, just rubs a salve on the skin and bandages it when he’s through.

(Azula tells herself to stop crying, but when the doctor’s fingers mess with the worst of it, prod and rub at the blisters in an unavoidable step to make it better, the tears come again, so Azula makes sure the rest of her face remains unreadable to make up for it.) 

It’s perfectly normal that she sends her servants away when they come to primp her for her coronation tomorrow—a date Lo and Li have set, though it makes something adjacent to the twinge from before pang in her stomach—and otherwise try to tend to her in her bedchamber. She’s had a long day, so it makes sense that she’d need some time to rest.

Before she’s had dinner. Or done anything else expected of someone about to become Fire Lord.

(A girl about to become Fire Lord.)

Lo and Li show up as Azula rests flat-backed on her bed, pinching the skin on the inside of her wrist every time her face begins to fold with more wretched, unwarranted blubbering.

“Princess Azula,” one of them says. “There is still much to do until your coronation.”

The other—“You cannot lie down now.”

And then, together, “You must attend to the ceremonial flame.”

Azula knows what they mean. The flames barricading the throne are unique to each Fire Lord, lit by their hand. It’s tradition, one of the more important ones as far as royalty goes, but Agni, who cares?

Certainly not Azula, not now.

She sits up but shakes her head. “I will take as long as I need to compose myself,” she snaps. “The flame can wait. I won’t be Fire Lord until the comet tomorrow.”

One of them—Lo, perhaps, but Azula has never taken much time to tell them apart—doesn’t hesitate to respond. “And what about your robe fittings? Your plans for the council meeting after the coronation?”

“The events of this morning do not excuse laziness,” maybe-Li chastises, and her voice, even made weary with age, is sharp.

From her bed, Azula observes the two of them. They never had a chance at the throne, not without being able to bend, but they are Azulon’s sisters. She can see as much in their eyes, the circlets of gold so like her own. They’re not as cold as her father’s were, looking him in the eye as her skin bubbled, but it’s impressive on women of their age, just not enough to outmatch her, even—

(Even shaken, weakened, but Azula can’t let it show, she has to be perfectextraordinaryprodigious—)

Even not at her best, Azula has to be a princess.

Azula lifts her chin, and when her words come, they are exact, piercing. “Leave me, now, or the two of you can enjoy the rest of your lives in exile.”

Their gazes slide to each other, then to the wrappings on her cheek, but they bow, leave with mouths taut with disapproval.

Azula watches them go, and despite the sliver of danger present with them in the room—echoes of the princesses they once were themselves, maybe—she feels even more alone in the silence that follows their exit.

She summons a flame to her hand.

(Her hand that shakes, even though it shouldn’t, even though she presses her lips together in an effort to make it stop.)

The flame goes out, and she puts her hands under the sheets so she doesn’t have to look at it anymore and then crawls fully into bed. 

Azula falls asleep with a wet bandage plastered to her cheek.

Azula falls asleep alone in the palace her mother and brother and now her father have left, and her last thought before she drifts off is the realization she’s been fighting to keep from the forefront of her mind since the moment her father passed his title down: if being Fire Lord was truly something to treasure, her father wouldn’t have abandoned it, along with her.

//

The day Sozin’s Comet returns, a servant girl rouses Azula.

Said servant girl takes a moment to bolster herself before doing so, and having been told that calling her name won’t wake the princess, she tentatively reaches forward to shake her.

Azula knows the servants fear her, but she truly doesn’t mean to lash out at the one that wakes her. All she knows is a hand on her shoulder, which is a little too close to her face, and she’s been dreaming all night long of the reason she can only sleep on one side, and—

“Don’t touch me!” she wakes up yelling, and her fist flails up with a burst of blue flame that barely misses the girl. 

In the azure light of the wall burning behind her, the servant girl, fallen to the floor, looks terrified, and she crosses her arms in front of her face to protect herself from the blow she clearly expects to come. Azula, on the other hand, is pressed back against her headboard, holding her pillow to her chest as though it could keep her safe in the event of an attack.

If fear had a fragrance, Azula thinks the scent of the room would be strong enough to make her nauseous right then, and in her chest, something weighty and sinking makes breathing more difficult than normal. As a result, it’s harder to control the flames that want to spread from her outburst, but Azula clenches her fist, and they die.

She pants over the pillow, but as the room comes into focus—only illuminated by candlelight because she’s apparently needed before daybreak—the girl lowers her arms after a long second where she holds more tension in her waifish body than Azula thought possible.

Is that what she would’ve looked like, had she had time to brace herself?

She can’t allow herself to dwell on the thought, and she rises from her bed, though she’s reluctant to let go of her makeshift shield. The servant girl looks up, still afraid, and Azula’s instinctual response to that is as she should be.

The servants don’t trust her, but trust has never been reliable for Azula. Trust is for those like the Avatar, who must play a kind character if he’s to delude people into thinking following him will be more rewarding than obeying her nation. Trust is for those like Zuko, weak-willed and vulnerable in so many easy-to-reach places. Trust is for people who are loved, and Azula—

(She can’t allow herself to dwell on the thought.)

Fear is the only reliable way, and the girl has been startled enough to keep her in line. Azula stares down at her. “I’m awake,” she intones, voice rough with sleep. “Fetch the other servants I’ll need to begin preparations.”

Azula’s father loves her. He does—he does.

(But he’s never cared for Zuko, so why would he treat them the same?)

//

The day Sozin’s Comet returns, Azula spends eons being prepared for her coronation.

(One that makes her sick to her stomach to think about, but what choice does she have?)

She’s sure Lo and Li had a hand in the extensiveness of it. The minute she’s out of her sleepwear, they guide her to the throne room and suggest that she light the flame, their voices ringing out in tandem—“It is your duty, Princess Azula.”

She could fight it. She doesn’t particularly like being told what to do, especially by two old bitties whose suns of political power have set long ago, but her Dai Li agents ring the room as witnesses. She’s made certain that they, if no one else, fear her. It’s why they followed her instead of Long Feng, why Ba Sing Se ever fell. Even though she knows news of what happened at her father’s departure has to have spread to them, she has not yet lost face in front of them.

If she threw a fit now, refused a task pathetically easy for someone of her abilities, it would arouse suspicion, so she strides forward and sends a swift blast of fire forth that spreads across the barrier in front of the throne until a cool, unearthly light fills the room.

Azula has to work hard—too hard—to make sure she doesn’t flinch at the sight.

(Blue ringing her father’s hand, swinging towards her face—)

Lo and Li clap with icy appraisal in their eyes, and they send her on her way.

And so Azula sits with four attendants, each devoted to a different task: combing her hair, filing her nails, scrubbing her feet, and holding up a bowl of cherries, respectively. They’ve been at it for ages by then, and their current ministrations are only the latest in a long line of frivolities that Azula just can’t seem to care about, bathing, exfoliating, moisturizing her, plucking her hair. It’s all an awful lot of touching, but Azula makes herself hold still, popping the cherries delicately into her mouth.

It’s the most she’s eaten since receiving her burn, and every up and down her teeth make to chew hurts. Still, she reasons that she can’t faint during the ceremony—Agni, the ceremony is in a few hours—and makes herself keep at it.

The attendants, as constantly on-edge as everyone else in the palace, know better than to comment on her cheek, though her bandage is already dingy, will need to be replaced or removed altogether for the coronation. Azula is considering that—the clunkiness of a dressing versus the gore of the wound on full display—when she bites down hard on a cherry pit.

The consequence of that is whip-fast and hot, knifing through her jaw.

Azula cries out, the sound surprised, strangled, and just as ugly as her scream from the day before. She lurches forward—the comb yanks through her hair, the scrubber on her feet snags across her sensitive skin—and raises a hand on instinct to the source of the pain, but the pressure makes it worse. She hisses against the sensation pulsating violently through her face and, to her horror, feels tears course down her cheeks.

Her eyes widen in panic.

She’s never cried so much in her life as she has since yesterday morning, and she can’t be doing as much here, now, in front of the lowest ranking inhabitants of the palace. Word will spread of her weakness—ridiculous, repugnant as it is—and she will lose all the respect she’s spent a lifetime building. Her father would be more ashamed than he already is to see her make such an idiotic mistake, and Azula, still struggling to blink stars out of her eyes, manages to spit the pit into the palm of her hand.

“Princess?” the attendant at her feet ventures, but Azula just stares at the floor, frantically trying to figure out how she’ll deal with her blunder. 

She can’t let anyone else know about this—she can’t, and she runs through her options. 

She could threaten the women. Fear has always—will always work better for Azula than trust when she needs loyalty, but the person who scares her the most is her father, and she had the gall to speak back to him.

Fear isn’t enough, she realizes suddenly. She needs them gone.

“You’re all banished,” she whispers, so quiet she can hardly hear herself.

A beat. “I—I couldn’t hear that, Princess,” the same attendant squeaks.

“You’re all banished,” she repeats, far more sharp the second time—even she can hear how volatile she sounds. She looks up, wiping the tear tracks from her face as best as she can. “Leave this palace immediately.”

The attendants look among themselves, and Azula watches the same devastation reflect itself in each of their meek features before they scurry out of the room with their heads bowed.

Azula waits until their footsteps fade before she begins to eat again. Should she find another pit, at least now there will be no one around to see her crack.

//

The day Sozin’s Comet returns, in the absence of her normal attendants, Azula is left trying to do her hair for the coronation. It’s . . . considerably harder than expected and made worse by the fact that, in the schedule Lo and Li drew up, there’s no room for another visit to the palace physician, nothing to soothe the burn that, Azula swears, is stinging more by the hour.

She’s already tried her hand at her topknot four times before her last attempt that gets her finger stuck in the ribbon she uses, and Azula grits her teeth in frustration, turns to grab a pair of scissors, except—

She looks at herself in the mirror. Her bandage is starting to sag, and beneath, she spies the angry outline of the injury marring her otherwise smooth skin.

The burn isn’t as bad as Zuko’s, isn’t over her eye or inching into her hairline, didn’t get her ear—

Her father cares more about where the mark will be because he loves her—he has to love her.

—but it will scar, and when it does, she will not be nearly as pretty as she was before. Azula’s never considered herself vain, but she doesn’t like the thought. But maybe if her hair is still comely, an inky black and soft as silk like always, maybe it will make it better.

She sets the scissors down.

“I’m glad you decided to stop. You always had such beautiful hair.”

Azula’s head jerks up, tugs at the paste the doctor used to adhere the bandage in doing so, and she finds her mother in the mirror, her brows bunched just so, her kind mouth pursed with care. She shouldn’t be seeing her—she knows she’s not there, but who else does she have to talk to? Still, it doesn’t make sense. Her mother never cared much for being with her, so—

“What are you doing here?”

Even her voice is caring, lilting as she stares at Azula like she can’t fathom why she’d need to ask. “I didn’t want to miss my own daughter’s coronation.” 

In another universe, maybe Azula would snap back, but just then, her wrapping unsticks from her cheek and flutters to the floor. Azula is staring at her mother, but she can’t help but glance at her burn and oh.

It’s so red—red and grotesque and reminding her too much of Zuko, who her mother would rather talk to, anyway, who wears his scar, nowadays, like a badge of honor. For the umpteenth time, Azula’s eyes water, but this time, not in pain—just revulsion, and she ducks her head so she doesn’t have to look at it.

“I don’t want a coronation,” she says, and her voice, already small, cracks.

There, she said it.

What kind of coronation would put her in a position where she still has to bow to another? It’s a lesson Azula has learned over and over, that if she is not the best, she is nothing, and though she knows her distaste is treasonous, given that her father has ordered her ascension, she can’t make it go away.

“Oh, Azula,” her mother murmurs, and Azula can feel a phantom of her hand on her good cheek, impossibly comforting and everything she didn’t know she wanted.

“Don’t pretend to feel bad for me,” Azula whispers. This is all too good to be true, but though she’s never believed in deluding herself, it’s solace she can’t make herself deny. “You think I’m a monster.”

“I think you’re confused. All your life you’ve used fear to control people, like your friends Mai and Ty Lee.”

And that’s another wound in itself, the betrayal from the only friends she’s ever had. Azula hates that she knows her mother is right.

(She still doesn’t pull away from her touch, however imagined it might be.)

“It’s not working anymore. To make people fear you, they have to respect you, and—” She clenches her eyes shut, unable to say what she means, that by making her disciplining public, her father split her dignity down the middle, that those pieces have since splintered again and again as Azula has failed to keep it together. “I deserved it,” she reiterates desperately.

It’s her last defense. She can rationalize her father following through on a justified punishment, but—

“There is nothing you could have done to deserve this.”

Azula’s expression crumples in her mother’s palm at what she already knew but couldn’t admit, and at last, she confesses the most foolish thing of all: “I just wanted someone to love me.”

Is that so much to ask?

“I know,” her mother replies. “It’s not fair, but I love you, Azula. I do.”

And at that final cruelty, Azula rips herself from her mother’s touch and hurls her hairbrush at the mirror.

What does her mother’s love matter if she’s gone, she thinks, and then she sinks to her knees and shatters at the injustice.

//

The day Sozin’s Comet returns, Azula, in the end, has to call the servant she frightened that morning to make her presentable. The girl’s hands shake as she scrapes her hair into place, and it doesn’t matter that her topknot is looser than normal, that the bits of hair that frame her face aren’t as crisp. It gets done, and that’s more than Azula could do on her own.

Still, she sits in the room she used to get ready as long as she can, until she can feel the comet coming, it’s power in her bones, and Lo and Li show up.

“Azula,” they call her in tandem, “it’s time.”

She nods, stands and crosses over to them, though she feels like she could spew cherry-stained sick at a moment’s notice. She walks, lets them place the traditional robes on her shoulders, though their weight is crushing.

Azula is a good little puppet like her father wanted from the beginning, emotionless and obedient, and she kneels before the fire sages—the same ones who saw her scream the day before—with her burn bared to the blood-red sky. 

She wishes the ground beneath her would swallow her whole, and the head sage starts strong, makes Azula wish for anything that would keep her from having to accept her father’s consolation prize. “By decree of Phoenix King Ozai, I now declare you Fire Lord—”

And then that anything shows up.

Azula hears a strangely familiar groan, sees a beast she once tracked across the continent land in the courtyard, and watches her brother leap down from its head. “Sorry, but you’re not going to become Fire Lord today. I—oh Agni.”

Zuko has never been good at subtlety, and if Azula wasn’t desperate for more salve for her burn, if she didn’t feel like her face was melting off all over again, she might be able to find some sort of humor in the intensity of the horror written all over his face as he catches sight of her injury.

The water tribe peasant who climbs down after him looks similarly aghast.

(In a palace full of people who are supposed to have her best interests at heart, they are the first to seem genuinely perturbed by the wound itself.)

A retort spills from her lips, bitter and edging on hysterical as she calculates how she can make this work: “You’re hilarious.”

The water tribe girl recovers first, swallowing as she sets her expression to something fierce. “And you’re going down,” she swears.

It’s strange, but Azula thinks she can live with that.

She doesn’t care if Zuko gets the throne, not anymore, but she can’t say as much, especially not with the fire sages surrounding her, with Lo and Li watching from the sidelines, with a few of her highest-ranking Dai Li agents standing at attention. Azula is very, very dangerous, but they have numbers on their side; if she’s not careful, she’ll be forced into her coronation, and she holds up a hand to still all of them from jumping into action.

She knows how she wants to play this.

“Wait,” she begins, ignoring the image of her mother that appears in her mind, her face creased with worry at the thought of her children fighting. “You want to be Fire Lord? Fine. Let’s settle this. Just you and me, brother, the showdown that was always meant to be—Agni Kai.”

Even like this, she must be convincing, because, like the peasant, Zuko stomachs his shock and narrows his eyes. “You’re on.”

Azula plasters on a smirk that is quite literally painful, and inwardly, she breathes a sigh of relief.

//

The day Sozin’s Comet returns, Azula rises from taking a knee to face her brother and is reassured by the fact that the spectators from earlier have been banned from this match.

Still—“I’m sorry it has to end this way, brother,” she says, putting a certain haughtiness into her tone to appease the fire sage that served as the officiator and is quickly fleeing the scene. It also helps that she knows Zuko well enough to see that he eats it up.

“No, you’re not,” Zuko replies, spreading his arms to settle into an opening stance.

Azula knows his answer shouldn’t hurt. She certainly hasn’t done anything to prove him wrong, but still, she smothers the pang it causes in her with a characteristically jagged expression. The plan is for her to throw a few blows, just make it look like she tried. Then, she will very graciously allow Zuko to defeat her so that he can be Fire Lord instead of her, and people can chalk her loss up to her wound. It’s all very neat, but Azula forgets to account for one thing.

It’s only been a day since her father turned against her, since flame got closer to her than it’s ever been before and left her mangled in its wake.

In another universe, she strikes first, malicious and eager to see her brother fall, but in this one, Zuko sees her off-kilter and takes the opportunity, expecting his cunning, lightning-fast sister at full power. He punches, and Azula sees the resultant bright orange headed for her, the same color, for the most part, as her father’s was when he struck her.

And instead of blasting back, of fighting, Azula does what she wishes for the life of her she’d been able to do the first time and takes the opportunity to run, rolling to the side as she balls herself up as tight as she can get and stays like that, quavering with the juxtaposition of her bending potential coursing through her veins and pure, unadulterated terror.

Not her face again, she thinks. Her arms, her legs, her torso—somewhere she can hide.

She’s back on the top of the pyramid, skin burning, blistering, and she waits for the second blow that she knows will come once her father registers her cowardice.

(Azula has always thought herself daring, but she can’t stand the thought of having any more dishonor displayed so blatantly.)

There’s silence, but that doesn’t mean anything. Her father doesn’t always give warning before he attacks, certainly didn’t last time, and she folds tighter into herself, waiting for something—a scolding, the heat of an approaching flame, pain—

Footsteps.

When did her father get so far away, Azula wonders. How long is it going to take before he’s here?

Footsteps drawing nearer.

Not long enough is her answer.

And then—

“Azula?”

“Please don’t,” she whispers. Her father’s voice is raspier than normal, less firm, but she knew better than to trust what she hears him say long before he put his burning hand on her face. She doesn’t think her pleas will stop him, not really, but what else can she do? “I’m sorry, Father, please.”

“Azula.”

She whimpers.

He doesn’t seem as angry as he did yesterday, but he’s still close—too close—and Azula can hear the rustling of fabric from him moving—towards her face, to hurt, to mar—and she lashes out, too panicked to summon a flame, too weak without it to do anything more than limply hit what feels like his chest before warm fingers encircle her wrist.

The motion is gentle, and so is the voice that comes after it. “Azula, it’s me—it’s Zuko.”

Zuko?

It doesn’t make sense, but her father would never stoop so low as to pretend to be, in his words, his “traitor of a son”.

Azula lifts her head, and sure enough, her brother is crouched beside her, holding her hand as gently as her mother did her face a few hours previous. “I’m not Father,” he tells her. “I’m not going to hurt you, not if we end this.”

His face is sincere, and it says please too.

The peasant watching over his shoulder doesn’t seem quite so willing, but Azula doesn’t care.

She lets out a shuddering breath, and a few sparks come with the motion without her meaning to let them. “I don’t want to be Fire Lord,” she confesses, sounding pitiable and insignificant and young even in her own ears. “I never—I just thought he cared,” she tries to explain, though her breathing is beginning to hitch, though, after a day of feeling worse than she ever has before, she knows what’s coming as a result. 

On cue, tears begin to fall in time with the story from her lips that Zuko didn’t ask for but will receive anyway. “He—we were going to do the plan together, but he said I had to stay alone, and I tried to convince him to take me anyway, and I pushed him too far, and—”

The first of many guttural sobs claws its way out of her throat, a wild thing finally uncaged, and she clenches her eyes shut so she doesn’t have to see the disgust that could—should, if he had the same values as the rest of their nation—be written all over Zuko’s face. The sound of it is loud and grating and everything Azula isn’t, and she hates that she’s falling apart when she should be soaring; she can feel the comet overhead, and it seems wrong to be drowning in its radiance, but what else is there that she can do?

Azula wails, her composure whittled away even as her tears, steaming from the heat of the comet imbued in her skin, make messy paths down her cheeks.

She failed as a princess, as a warrior, as a daughter, and it all boils down to the wound spiked over her cheek as to why.

How did Zuko do it? How did he get up and start searching for the Avatar after this kind of pain, humiliation? It’s a question with an answer utterly unfathomable to her, and she sobs, for her destroyed beauty, for her loneliness, for everyone she’s lost no matter how hard she tried to sink her nails in and make them stay. Her shoulders shake with it; her gasping pants puff out flame, and then she’s in her brother’s arms.

Azula clings. Doesn’t know how long she spends with her chin tucked over his shoulder, his strong arms looped around her back and supporting her better than anything else has before. Eventually, she tries to wipe her tears, but in the fervor of the experience, she’s sloppy. Her little finger drags just so across her burn, and she chokes on the cry that tries to escape, mucus and tears morphing it into something worse than it already was.

Zuko pulls back, but no—no, not yet, please, Azula still needs him. She reaches forward—all on her own, reaches forward, and Agni, she’d be so ashamed looking at herself now a day ago—to try and tug him back, but just like before, he catches her by her wrist, except this time he stares at her—scrutinizes the burn.

She flinches from his gaze, though she’s still crying, wet sniffles filling the space between them. “It hurts,” she whispers, and his lips press into a grim line.

“I know,” he says, and then he looks back to the peasant girl. “Katara?”

Is that her name? Azula nearly forgot she was there, but at the reminder, her cheeks color with shame despite the tears still edging down their curves. It’s bad enough that Zuko has seen her like this, but a stranger?

Azula hates this, hates her weakness, hates herself.

But the peasant girl just nods, unscrewing the cap of a pouch at her side and inching closer. If Azula had any strength left in her body, she might try to move away, but as it is, she stays put, her hands gripping Zuko’s arm even as he shuffles to the side to give the peasant—Katara, room.

She makes a simple motion, and two disks of water surround her hands. “I’ll have to touch you for this to work,” she warns, kneeling next to the two of them, and though she’s offering to help, Azula can see ice in the blue of her gaze, a promise that even if Zuko chose mercy, one wrong move, and she won’t.

Azula swallows, nods, though she doesn’t know what she means, what she’s going to do, and then there’s a cool, swirling feeling at her cheek, and oh, oh.

Involuntarily, she sighs in relief. Whatever Katara is doing is much, much better than the salve from the physician, and it takes most of Azula’s remaining willpower not to sag at the sudden lack of pain. When, at last, her touch draws away, Azula stares at the ground for a moment before she looks to Zuko. “Why are you doing this?” she asks.

It doesn’t make sense. She’s driven everyone else away, and the last time she saw Zuko, the last several times she saw Zuko, she tried to kill him. Why would he stop? Trust her?

And despite everything, the caustic snarl of emotions still sitting heavy behind her ribs, the shade of the sky, the comet both of them can feel down to their toes, he manages a thin, candid smile. “You’re my little sister,” he answers. “You don’t always act like it, but today—”

Today she let him be her older brother.

Azula doesn’t understand, really. Kindness for the sake of kindness is inexplicable to her, and she huffs a tired laugh, her tears having slowed to a trickle. “And he’s our father.” It’s not a hiss, not even venomous, simply a fact Azula doesn’t think she likes anymore.

But Zuko doesn’t back down, just stands and offers her a steady hand, the scar spread across the right of his face a skewed mirror of the still-developing thing on her left. “Yeah, but we get to choose if it matters.”

Her immediate reaction is of course it matters. They’re a prince and princess—a soon-to-be Fire Lord and a princess. They wouldn’t be as much without their father, but—and it comes to Azula with a shock—he isn’t talking about something as paltry as titles. She can’t decipher what he means instead, true, but she’d like to, and more importantly, she’d bet that he’s willing to explain.

Azula takes his hand.

//

The day Sozin’s Comet returns, Azula breaks, but she has every other day to come to put herself back together.