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Cold-blooded Fire

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He’s been the Firelord for almost six months now, and today was shaping up to be like pretty much every other since he accepted the crown…exhausting. But after the morning proceedings, and the growing headache that followed, he had a quiet moment to himself and decided to spend it doing nothing important or world-changing. He took a quiet stroll around the palace perimeter, admiring the recent architectural changes to his city. Firelord Zuko walked along the stone parapet, deep in thought about nothing in particular. The sound of a loud commotion brought his attention to the palace entryway. Dozens of guards were running to the main gate and two scouts on the castle wall were waving their arms and shouting something incomprehensible. It was hard to understand everything they were saying, but one word stood out clear as day.

Azula.

It couldn’t be. Why would she come back? He would have to find time to be shocked later. He jumped from the raised stone pathway to the ground below, landing with a hand in front of him and his leg stretched out to the side. He quickly ran after the veritable army of palace guards slowly forming in front of the main gate, weaving between them and shoving past any that blocked his way, only stopping when he met indelibly familiar bronze eyes. She was really here. Zuko readied himself for the fight of his life, but noticed she wasn’t actually attacking anyone, in fact she had her hands raised above her head in surrender. Why? Zuko knew that if she wanted, she could take every guard here without breaking a sweat. Hell, even with Zuko here she would probably still win. So why was she just giving up without a fight? A very nervous young guard slowly walked behind her with a pair of iron restraints after some not so gentle nudging from his fellow patrolmen. She didn’t resist, just silently allowed herself to be bound. What was going on? Whatever she was here for, he had a feeling it wouldn’t end well. As Azula was being hauled away, she looked up into his eyes, only for the scarcest moment. In that second he could swear he saw something in her eyes, something he had never seen before, and it made his heart heavy in his chest. As soon as it appeared, it was gone and she returned her gaze to the ground.

When the crowd of soldiers started to leave, Zuko turned to a bearded fellow standing behind him.

“Sergeant!” He called.

The older gentleman stood at attention awaiting an order.

“Make sure she is put in her quarters and placed under constant guard,” he said.

“Y…yes, Lord Zuko. Right away,” the nervous guard said despite the confused look in his eyes.

Zuko walked away rubbing his eyes wearily. He didn’t know why she had returned, but putting her back in a cell felt…wrong somehow. Besides, it’s not like it could hold her any more than her room could. He sighed. This was going to be a long day.

Zuko sat in a tower window, leaning his back against the cold interior stone of the large opening and pressed his feet flat against the opposite side. He had just finished another exhausting day. First he had to explain himself to his generals, then to his advisors, and even his girlfriend. The only problem was, he didn’t have a real explanation. Honestly, he didn’t know why Azula was back, or why he put her in royal quarters instead of a cold dark cell. And telling them “If she wanted to escape, there is nothing anyone could do to stop her” didn’t really help assuage anyone’s fears, or Mai’s…mild annoyance. At least the long day of being interrogated was finally over. Didn’t the title of Firelord mean anything? His father never had to put up with being questioned all the time like this. Granted, Ozai had a tendency to maim or kill anyone that vexed him. Too bad Zuko’s citizens weren’t afraid of him like they were his father, or even Azula…especially Azula.

Zuko swung his body to the side, hanging his legs over the edge of the window. He found himself coming here on particularly stressful days. Looking out over the palace city as the sun set had a strangely calming effect on him. However, Zuko’s peace was quickly shattered by the telltale clatter of a patrol moving through the walkway below. They stopped against the tower base, seemingly to survey the same area Zuko enjoyed watching.

“Did you hear that princess Azula is back?” A male voice spoke from below.

“Really? I didn’t think we’d ever catch her,” a woman replied.

“That’s the thing, we didn’t. She just walked straight up to the palace and turned herself in,” he said, almost laughing.

“You’re kidding. After all that effort to escape, why would she come back?” She asked.

“Who knows how those royals think? But actually, I heard she didn’t really escape, Firelord Zuko let her go.”

There was a loud smacking sound, and Zuko could only assume the female guard had hit her companion in the arm or chest.

“Hush up, don’t let anyone else hear you talking like that.”

Zuko stepped back inside the tower, his relaxation spot didn’t feel very relaxing anymore.

Several days passed without incident. Azula hadn’t tried leaving her room once and Zuko decided since she obviously didn’t plan on going anywhere it was pointless to keep guards at her door. They were only really there for show anyway. It hadn’t been the most popular decision, and he knew he could expect a few visits from members of the council, but right now, he didn’t care. Zuko was stretched out under the shade of a large tree on one of his rare afternoons free of monarchical duties. He was waiting for Mai to meet him for their rendezvous, a special picnic she had planned for them since it was getting to be so uncommon that they could actually spend much time together. The warm sunlight streaming through the leaves soothed his tired body. His eyelids grew heavy watching the leaves shake in the tepid wind, he slowly let them fall, just for a minute…

His eyes fluttered open and he squinted in the harsh light of the afternoon sun, until his vision adjusted and he realized what had happened.

“Morning, sleepyhead.” A soft voice spoke into his ear. He turned his head to see his girlfriend lying next to him, using his arm for a pillow.

“Good morning,” he said with a smile, turning over to better face her. “How long was I asleep?” He asked.

“Not too long, I’ve only been here for a few minutes.”

“It’s good to see you, Mai. I missed you,” Then surprised her with a kiss.

“It’s only been a couple days.”

“I know.” He renewed the kiss, bringing her closer.

After a few moments, she broke away, pressing her hands to his chest. “The food is going to get cold.”

He looked over her shoulder at the basket resting against the tree, and created a small flame in his hands between them.

“I could always warm it up again,” he said with a grin.

She looked at him with a small frown.

“No?” He asked, still grinning.

“No.” She shoved him playfully.

He rolled back over and sat up next to her. “Alright. I am pretty hungry.”

She was already placing the basket in between them. “Good, I brought your favorites,” she said, offering a rare smile.

After the meal, Zuko rested flat against the tree with Mai curled up in his arms. They watched the sky slowly change and reminisced about the past together. Before they knew it, half the day was gone and the sun was beginning to set.

Mai knew she couldn’t put it off any longer, so she finally asked him, “Have you been to see Azula?”

He was surprised Mai would be the one to bring up Azula. As far as he knew, Mai was still angry at her. “No, I…doubt she wants to see me,” he said.

“Then you don’t know?”

Zuko looked curiously at his girlfriend, bidding her to continue.

“She hasn’t been eating. And she won’t talk to anyone, not even me.” Mai finished.

“What? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

“Maybe they figured you already went to see her,” she replied.

“I guess I should have…”

“So you’ll check on her?”

“I’ll go tomorrow. She probably…I’ll go tomorrow.”

Later that evening Zuko lay in bed desperate to find the rest that had eluded him for hours. With a weary sigh, he forced himself out of bed wearing only his sleep pants and lazily threw his shirt on, opting not to tie it, instead letting it hang open. He left his room and began a stroll to clear his head. Eventually reaching outside, he walked aimlessly around the outskirts of the palace. Without intending too, he had arrived at a small pond, usually filled with turtleducks, and one that held many memories from his childhood, some of them good. He sat down at the bank, flicking a small pebble into the pond and watching the reflection of the bright moon tremble in the ripples. Fatigue biting at his mind once again, he sprawled out on the soft grass, hoping to calm his unrest. Several minutes passed and he was no closer to the sleep he so desperately sought.

Too many thoughts plagued his mind, too many of them unsolvable. Shifting his focus to his breathing and away from his rampant thoughts, his eyes slowly fluttered shut as he exhaled a long steady breath, drifting away into welcomed darkness.

I don’t need your help…

Fire is emotion…

Zuko opened his eyes, gradually focusing on the light from the moon. “I know that,” he said softly. He sighed heavily, leaning up to a sitting position.

The soft grass no longer felt welcoming, so without another thought he stood and left to continue his slumberous journey.

Before he knew it, he found himself in a familiar place, directly below Azula’s bedroom. He groaned, rubbing his eyes and face. ‘Of course, that’s why,’ he thought. With a final glance to Azula’s open window, he left, a destination finally in mind.

A few minutes later Zuko was knocking firmly on the door to Azula’s quarters, waiting for permission to enter. Twenty seconds passed…forty…a full minute and nothing. No response, no sound of movement in the room. He exhaled sharply and knocked once again, far harder this time. Another minute of silence and a dark thought flashed through his mind. Without a moment’s hesitation he burst inside and scanned the dim moonlit room. He was relieved to see Azula, perfectly fine, sitting on the far side of her bed, staring out of the window. He didn’t have time to feel foolish, he came here for a reason and he would make sure to follow through. It was obvious even from a distance that her bed was disheveled and out of order. She must not have let the handmaidens in since she got here. He took a moment to compose himself before politely shutting the door behind him and walking toward her.

“I’m coming in,” he said, already several feet inside the room.

As he made his way around the bed and into her view, he noticed she was wearing only a dark red silk robe that barely clung onto her shoulders, and was loosely tied with a sash around her waist, revealing far too much of her upper body. She obviously hadn’t cared about her appearance when she got dressed this morning., or whenever she first put it on. He made sure to only look from her neck up as he planted his feet directly in front of her. She looked awful, her eyes were unfocused and lacked luster, her skin seemed even more pale than usual, and he couldn’t even guess at the last time she brushed her hair. Seeing her in such a state made his heart sink to his stomach. His powerful and fearsome sister, the great princess Azula, now looked so frail she might shatter if he laid a finger on her.

“Azula?” He spoke softly.

No response. He sighed and grabbed a chair from the corner, sliding it in front of her and sitting down. Now at eye level with his sister he held his hands together in his lap, wringing them in frustration.

“Talk to me, Azula,” he pleaded.

She simply stared through him. It hurt to see her like this, way more than he thought it could. Why wouldn’t she talk to him? Why did she come back in the first place? What was he supposed to do? He reached out to brush the messy hair out of her face, but quickly hesitated and instead placed it gently on her exposed knee. He was surprised, and maybe a little disappointed, that she didn’t react even to the intimate touch.

“Welcome home,” he said.

With that, he stood up, returned the chair to its corner and left unceremoniously.

Zuko walked down the long corridor heading toward the royal chambers. A servant girl carrying a stack of bed linens turned the corner.

“Ah, you there!” He called after her.

She stopped walking and turned toward Zuko who was now running up to her. He stopped just short of bumping into her. She bowed and offered a smile.

“Your Highness,” she said respectfully.

“Uh, when you’re done with…that,” he said, gesturing to the linens in her arms, “Princess Azula, ah…she needs her bedding replaced with something clean.”

The servant girl looked down the hall in the direction he was walking from so late at night, and blushed bright red at his simple request.

“Yes, o-of course, Lord Zuko. I promise to be discreet.”

Zuko pondered for a moment before realizing the outrageous misunderstanding and quickly raised his hands convincingly.

“No, not like…I didn’t…just, forget I said anything,” he sputtered.

The young woman bowed sharply and almost ran away to continue her previous duties, leaving Zuko to walk back to his room, muttering to himself.

~~~~

“It’s been three weeks and Azula hasn’t left her chambers once. She just sits on her bed and stares out the window. She won’t say a word to me, she barely eats or drinks. I don’t know what to do to help her,” Zuko said.

Mai lay on the couch watching her boyfriend pace back and forth in front of her.

“Maybe she doesn’t want help,” she stated flatly.

He stopped in his tracks and rather pitifully collapsed to the couch by her feet and sighed heavily.

“Then what am I supposed to do?” He asked.

Mai sat up and draped her arms around his shoulders, linking her hands together in front of his chest.

“You’re putting too much on yourself. You can’t fix everything,” she said into his ear. “You need to relax…” she added, planting a soft kiss on his neck.

She trailed kisses up and around his jaw, grabbing his cheek and turning him to face her. She leaned in to kiss his lips, but was stopped by Zuko forcing his face away and standing abruptly.

“I don’t need to relax, I need answers,” he said curtly.

He started to walk away, but as he made it to the door Mai called after him. He looked over his shoulder briefly, then shut the door loudly.

He would have to apologize later. He knew he messed up, but he couldn’t help it. Why couldn’t anyone understand what he was trying to do? Azula isn’t the same person anymore. She doesn’t need to be feared and shut away. She…she’s the only part of his family he has left. He isn’t going to lose her too.

It took some time, and some incinerated brushes, but Zuko had finally managed to get out of his thoughts and focus on his work. Just as he found a sort of rhythm to the daily tedium that awaits on his desk, he heard a knock on his door. He wondered who would interrupt him during the least composed part of his day until it dawned on him he had an appointment with his Royal Advisor, Nipun. Great, another round of “Are you crazy? Azula is dangerous!” Just what he needed today.

“Come in,” he said loud enough to be heard through the solid wood of his chamber’s door.

The door swung open slowly and in its frame stood a short middle-aged man with thinning black hair dressed in traditional Fire Nation garb.

“Your Majesty,” the man said with a slight bow.

“Hello, Nipun,” Zuko said, trying to hide the irritation in his voice.

“Lovely day we’re having, is it not?” Nipun said.

“Can we get on with this? I am very busy,” Zuko said.

He was lying for the most part, other than a few remaining documents to check, he was almost done for the day. But he couldn’t bring himself to care, he knew what this was about and just wanted it over and done with.

“Of course, your Majesty, I’ll get straight to the point. The council believes, and I agree, that having Azu- erm, Princess Azula here, free and without guard, is unwise, and it’s making the council…uncomfortable.”

“Nervous, you mean,” Zuko said.

“Mm, quite so,” he replied.

“Tell them to stop worrying. If she was going to hurt anyone, she would have done it by now.”

“I am not sure that will be enough to put their minds at ease.”

“Then what would?” Zuko asked. He was finding it more and more difficult to hide his anger.

“Short of locking her in a cell or removing her from the city?” He replied.

Zuko couldn’t stop the smoke rising from his clenched fists.

“Perhaps if you were to watch her, and take full responsibility for any and all of her actions while she is in the capital. That could help everyone rest easy,” he said.

“She’s my sister, her actions reflect on me anyway.”

“Then am I safe to assume she will be in your charge, Lord Zuko?” Nipun asked smugly.

Zuko walked straight up to his advisor, and glared down at him, trying his hardest not to burn the last of his hairs off his head. “I am the Firelord, everything in this nation is my responsibility. You can tell the council I said that.”

Nipun’s slimy grin immediately disappeared. “Y-yes, of course, your highness,” he said, bowing deeply and retreating backwards.

“I will let them know the situation…has been resolved,” Nipun added as he rushed out of the room.

Zuko smirked. “I guess Azula’s not the only one that can scare them.”

Azula...without even realizing it, he had gone to visit her every day since that first night. She never said a word to him, no matter what he said or did, and every day she looked paler than the last. It was driving him crazy watching her get weaker and weaker. If nothing changes, before long she will…Zuko marched out of the room.

~~~~

Azula sat on her bed silently thinking to herself. The city was especially still today, no carriages hauling shipments or children playing in the streets. At least not what could be seen from her window. She wondered when Zuko would visit today, or perhaps if he would even have the time, he’s sitting on the throne now after all. Not that she was anticipating seeing him, she was just curious. Though, it’s not as if she was exactly bothered by his little visits. Actually, they were rather…pleasant. He was so determined to get her to talk to him, it was almost admirable. Even when he would only sit across from her, tapping his foot anxiously. It was fun to see him try so hard to be patient. Usually he wouldn’t talk about anything too serious. How the latest city renovation was going or the meaningless gossip he caught wind of floating around the palace, who’s having an affair with whom, when certain couples, whose names she didn’t know were going to get married, that kind of drivel. But sometimes he would sigh and crinkle his brow in that way of his, look straight at her and ask all seriously.

“Why did you come back?”

That’s a silly question, she would always think.

This is her home, why should she not be here? Sure, she expected that after she walked through that gate she would be locked away in a deep dark hole for the rest of her life…It actually surprised her when she was brought to her room. That dummy, far too sentimental for his own good. She wondered if he would ask that silly question again today. If she gave him an answer, and if she was being honest, really honest, she supposed the reason she came back was simple. She wanted…

Zuko slammed open the door with a loud clash, and stormed in front of Azula. For a minute, he just stared down at her. She wouldn’t match his eyes, seeming to stare through him at whatever was so damn interesting outside her window.

“I see you barely touched your lunch. Again,” he said. He waited for a reply he knew wouldn’t come. “And the handmaidens said you refuse to bathe as well.”

She didn’t react, or even blink.

“Fine then,” he said.

With that, he stormed off out of sight. She thought he had given up and left her with the peace and quiet. That is, until she heard a faucet turning in her washing room. Her eyebrow raised slightly in piqued interest at the sound. What was he planning? A few minutes later, Zuko returned to block her view of the skyline once more.

“The bath is ready for you, Princess,” he said without a trace of humor.

Again, she gave no reaction.

“Have it your way.” He bent over, placing an arm around her back and the other under her legs, scooping her up in his arms. Her face flushed at the sudden action.

“Wh-what are you doing? Unhand me!” She screamed, pounding on his chest and shoulders.

“So you can speak,” He said, carrying her to the bathtub.

Of course I can speak! Don’t be a fool!” She hissed.

As soon as he reached the edge of the tub, he promptly dropped his sister. Before she could react she fell in with a large splash that overflowed the water, flooding it across the dark umber tiles of her washroom floor. She flung her head out from under the surface, sputtering and coughing out water. Her hair was dripping and clinging to her face wildly.

“Are you trying to die?” She spoke threateningly, glaring at Zuko.

“What, are you going to shoot lightning at me? Do it! Do something, anything besides sit in your room day after day.” He yelled louder than he intended.

She turned away, already tired of being angry with him.

“I can’t stand by while you waste away. Don’t make me watch you disappear,” he said, in an uncharacteristically soft voice.

She brought her legs to her chest and hugged her knees. “Get out,” She said monotonously.

“I’m not leaving until you promise to come back to me,” he said stubbornly.

Why did he have to say it like that? As if she wasn’t embarrassed enough by the situation.

“I can’t wash myself in my robe, and I am not about to undress with you staring at me,” she said plainly.

Zuko’s face turned a crimson red and he immediately took several steps back, waving his hands in front of him apologetically.“No, no, of course not.” He spat out. His back hit the door frame causing him to almost slip on the fresh lake of water on the floor, but he quickly caught himself and returned to his normal stoic pose as if nothing had just happened. She withheld a bemused smile that threatened to surface, opting rather to remain staring contrived, albeit convincing, daggers at him out of the corner of her eye.

“Just, come get me when you’re done, I’m taking you to the city,” he said as he left her room and shut the door, trailing watery footprints all through the castle halls.

Azula slowly stood out of the tub and carefully untied the sash from her waist. The silk was heavy from the water it absorbed, but still came undone with ease. She pulled the dripping robe over her shoulders, letting it fall off her back to the floor exposing her bare skin to the cold air before she finally sat down and stretched out under the hot water. After a minute or two of letting the heat relax her muscles, she noticed something felt off. She raised her hand out of the tub, examining the water that fell and its obvious lack of soaps or perfumes.

“That idiot,” she smiled.

~~~~

Zuko spent the next two hours writing letters, signing letters, burning letters and cursing letters while waiting, let’s say patiently, to be able to leave this room and this magical desk that never seems to run out of stacks of documents. Zuko heard a knock on his chamber door, so soft he almost missed it. He stopped mindlessly signing his name on a piece of parchment and set down his brush.

“Coming,” he announced loudly.

He made his way to the door, unconsciously checking his outfit for imperfections in a mirror he passed and swung the door open. The sight that greeted him was his sister Azula, staring at the ground, wearing a deep blue off-shoulder dress that flowed just below her knees and cut to perfectly accentuate her cleavage, not that he was looking. Even her hair was styled to perfection. No longer a disheveled mess, her long wavy hair cascaded down to her shoulders and shined in the light emanating from the sconces.

“You look beautiful,” he said, with maybe a touch too much surprise in his voice.

She briefly looked at him to acknowledge the compliment. “It was that servant girl, the smiley one. She kept giggling and saying you were going to love this dress.”

Her again? Zuko was really going to have to clear this up with that girl.

“Honestly, she thinks I don’t even remember how to dress myself anymore,” she said bitterly.

“You’re a princess, you don’t need to dress yourself,” he said.

“…Good point,” she replied with a typical scowl.

He closed the door behind him and stepped forward, holding his arm out in front of her. “Let’s go.”

She rolled her eyes, but eventually took his hand without much protest, and proceeded to follow him out of the palace.