Nine year old Azula growled as she clenched her hair in one fist, holding a ribbon in another. Normally, she was good at putting up her hair, making it neat and even as she was. It was only when she felt off that she found herself unable to make it perfect. And if she didn’t make it perfect, that would mean that she had failed. Azula did not like failure. She was not a failure, unlike her brother.
Speaking of which, here was her eleven year old brother now, barging into her room like she was wont to do to him. It was usually not the other way around, but whatever. Azula was about to turn around and “greet” him (read: snipe at him), but then she remembered the state of her hair. Temper rising, she snapped, “What, Zuko?”
Zuko narrowed his eyes at her, clearly trying to restrain his own temper, but all of a sudden, the fight seemed to deflate right out of him. Ah, that bruise on his face would explain that, she thought. Father must have come in to watch him train.
He reminded her of someone else in that moment, but she didn’t know who.
“I have trouble, too,” he said quietly. “Putting up my hair, I mean.”
This only served to aggravate the princess further. Who was stupid Zuzu to imply that they were anything alike? She said as such, and Zuko clenched his teeth in response, but didn’t say a word. Instead, he stormed out of the room.
Azula glowered at herself in the mirror. Things were not going the way she wanted them to at all. Now she couldn’t even provoke a reaction out of Zuko, her foolish brother, so easy to anger? Then, she heard a sigh. A very familiar sigh, one that always set her on edge. Mother was standing in the doorway.
Why was she here? Azula’s mind quickly raced through the possibilities. Mother wouldn’t want to see her. Mother didn’t even like her. Of course, she soon realized. Zuko. She liked Zuko, and that was why she was here, watching the two of them. And, she realized too, that Mother was most likely bemoaning the fact that, once again, her daughter was the reason for Zuko’s sulking. Or whatever he was doing now.
Mother turned, her long, elegant hair sweeping behind her, about to leave. Good, Azula thought. However, it appeared that Mother changed her mind, because she turned around again and entered Azula’s room.
Internally, Azula groaned. Was Mother simply just going to waste her time with another one of her chastisements? All this time, Azula had not turned once from her place in front of the large mirror. She pretended to study her reflection, because she didn’t want to alert Mother into the state of her hair, which was now hanging loose. She purposefully avoided eye contact, because maybe then Mother would get the hint and leave her alone.
Azula felt someone, Mother, touching her hair, and she resisted the urge to flinch. She did not flinch. She was never scared. Instead, she focused her gaze onto her lap. The hands carefully gathered up her hair, tying it up and putting it in a very familiar topknot. Azula allowed this to happen, occasionally letting her eyes flicker up to see Mother. Mother seemed intently focused on her task, but Azula knew better. She always did. She was just as uncomfortable as Azula was, and knowing that somehow, in turn, made the princess feel comfortable.
When Mother was done, Azula finally turned around. Mother’s hands fell to her sides, and both sets of golden eyes met, one set warm but weary, while the other burned a cold, cold fire. Azula carefully raised an eyebrow. She studied her Mother’s face, gauging for a reaction. She got one, if you counted getting another sigh and a slight slumping of shoulders.
Now Azula knew who Zuko had looked like. It was Mother. She couldn’t tell whether this was a good thing or not, and that bothered her. She was supposed to know.
“Azula,” Mother said, and it was the first time she’d spoken to her all day. Instead of finishing her thought, Mother went over to sit on her bed. Her hand reached out to pat the seat next to her, an unneeded invitation to join her on Azula’s own bed, the girl noted with disdain. But she was intrigued by this new set of events. She was on guard, too, as one always must be when facing the unknown. Azula hated the unknown, but then again, this was Mother. Soft, gentle, and stupid Mother, who had passed those same ugly traits to her brother. They’d never survive, she had mused more than once in the privacy of her room, not in the real world.
So she went and sat, deciding to play along with whatever her mother had in store. For now, at least. There was always a possibility of Mother getting on her nerves, something that happened more often than not. Then Azula would force her mother to leave, which was a laughibily easy thing to achieve.
“Azula,” Mother said again. Azula noted this with fond exasperation.
“Mother, you’re repeating yourself,” Azula said, voice crisp and cool. As usual. Nothing less than perfection. But Mother ignored her and continued.
“Azula, you’re young,” Mother said, and this time, Azula bristled with indignation. What was she implying? Azula knew that she had to devise a way to get Mother to leave, lest she blow up with rage. That was Zuzu’s job, and there was no way that she’d be caught looking like him.
“Get to the point,” Azula said, annoyed, as she thought of what she could do to get out of this. Maybe she should set the curtains on fire or something. That would cause a distraction, at least.
“I want you to—” Mother cut herself off, hands momentarily clenching into fists. Then, taking a deep, calming breath, Azula watched as her mother’s facial features relaxed.
“You know that Zuko loves you, right?” Mother said, and Azula wanted to laugh. Well, it was easy enough to take advantage of him. That was all that mattered. She didn’t care whether he loved her. She didn’t need him, but he needed her. That was all that mattered.
“Of course I do,” Azula said, scoffing. She didn’t offer any elaboration. Mother took this as a sign to press on.
“You know that I love you, right?” she asked.
Azula wanted to repeat what she had just said. She wanted to laugh at her mother for being so ridiculous, just as she always did.
“Don’t waste my time,” she said instead. It wasn’t as cutting as she wanted it to be, but it got the message across. Mother was leaving.
What sort of game was her mother playing, ignoring her existence one day and then pretending to like her the next day? She wasn’t a fool. She knew the truth.
Mother was leaving. Azula clenched her hands into fists. Her back was away from the door. Azula was angry. She was angry and she didn’t know why. She was supposed to know why. She was supposed to know everything. She had to know and be sure of herself in order to get the things she wanted, so what was happening? What was she doing wrong?
That day, Azula focused her energy on her training, completing each kata to perfection before moving on. Her instructors were, happy, too. She was flourishing, moving ahead leaps and bounds. This was her element.
She was glad that Zuko trained separately from her. It was their skill level, was what the nobles were told. Though who was of higher skill level was never outwardly spoken. Azula knew exactly who it was, anyway.
Heavy footsteps could be heard, and the room fell into a hush. There was only one person who could get people to do this.
What was he doing here? First mother, now him? But Azula definitely spent more time with Father than with Mother. It was a great honor, she knew, and it pleased her to think about. But for him to come on an ordinary training day?
No matter. She would simply put on her best performance.
If she had been performing well before, she performed extraordinarily well now. She put in her best effort that day, skin faintly glistening with sweat as she executed her final move flawlessly. Then, she turned and bowed to her father. Turning her eyes up from where they were on the floor, she looked up at him.
Unlike everyone else in the palace, her father’s face was the one face in which she could not read. His face continued to remain impassive.
“I wish to speak to my daughter alone,” he said finally, and everyone left with haste. Azula straightened with anticipation, and, much as she was loathe to admit, slight nervousness.
“Father?” she questioned.
“You are the one who should be on the throne,” he said, looking down at her. Then, he walked away.
There. That was it. That's what she had been telling herself from the start. It was obvious, too. Zuko was a poor firebender. She saw the disappointment in his instructor’s eyes, but no one said anything out loud, for diplomacy’s sake. That was another thing. Zuko never knew when to hold his tongue. It had already gotten him into trouble on several occasions, so how was he going to handle himself at meetings, where diplomacy was key? But there was one, major reason why Zuzu would never be fit to rule: his heart was too soft. Much like his mother, he simply cared too much, all for the sake of trust. One day, that would get him killed. She had already used his trust for her against him numerous times. Trust was for fools, she decided. Fear was the only reliable way. She had the proof, and father finally reaffirmed what she had been saying.
And in her newfound euphoria, today’s conversations floated away from her mind, forgotten, never again to be remembered.