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the sun don’t shine underground

Chapter Text

Her firstborn comes with the dawn.

Ursa smiles tiredly from the bed with her son in her arms when her husband enters the room. Ozai can spare her a softer look, but he clearly only has eyes for the newborn blinking sleepily as dawn breaks across his face. “This is your father,” she whispers down to the boy. She turns to the man. “Meet Zuko,” she says. They’d agreed on the name.

“A son,” Ozai whispers, pride finding fertile ground in his voice. He picks up the boy and cradles him in his arms like he’s the most precious treasure in the world. “My son. My own boy. You’ll never want for anything.” Ursa hears Ozai carve his promises into the fabric of the universe, an implacable will bent towards this boy. “You’ll shine brighter than them all, brighter than your cousin, I swear you will.”

She thinks she loves him, then. She can love this Ozai, the one who sounds like he’d burn the world for his son, more than the man who has shared her bed before this.

Zuko looks up at his father, eyes a tawny burnished gold in the rising sun. He yawns and settles, seemingly content in his father’s warmth. Ozai smiles.

——

Ursa’s second child is born screaming at the sun, high above at its zenith. The girl’s cries are relentless when they clean her and bundle her up. She only falls into a grudging silence once she’s handed back to her mother, and Ursa manages to settle her against her chest. Ursa wonders if one can actually be born raging at the world; her daughter seems to be making a fine go at it.

Ozai does not visit immediately. That is understandable. Her husband is a busy man, prince that he is, and the girl came in the middle of the day. When he finally does come, just before the evening meal, he follows behind Zuko toddling into the room on unsteady legs. Zuko beelines directly for the bed and clambers onto it. He kneels next to Ursa’s side and peers seriously at the newborn in her arms.

“Zuko,” she says softly. “This is your baby sister.”

The baby returns her brother’s stare with bright, gold eyes.

Ozai isn’t frowning, but he isn’t smiling either. He looks considering. They hadn’t agreed on a name for a daughter. Ursa...she isn’t sure what to think right now, not when her husband has that look on his face, even when her children are engaged in less a staring contest and more an attempt to divine the secrets of the universe from each other.

Ozai reaches over and gently rests his hand on Zuko’s head. This breaks the boy’s attention, and he turns to his father with a beaming smile. “Baby!”

Her husband chuckles warmly and carefully runs his fingers through Zuko’s soft hair. “That’s right, Zuko. It’s your baby sister.”

Zuko tilts his head slightly. “Sister?” he asks, slightly lisping the word.

He keeps brushing his fingers through the boy’s hair. Zuko leans a little into his father’s touch, and Ursa feels her heart fill with joy at the sight. “What do you think should be the name?” she asks.

Ozai considers the girl in Ursa’s arms again. “My father,” he says slowly, “made...choices for my brother and I. Choices I...” He breathes out, seemingly weary. “I don’t want to make the same choices he did. I want Zuko to never think his sister is not watching his back.”

Ursa doesn’t need to be told more. She knows the distance between the two princes of the Fire Nation. Iroh is the Fire Lord’s preferred son, the shining heir who has proved himself on the battlefield before his brother could do more than toddle. She did not know the pain this caused her husband, and she feels now that she understands his drive to be seen, to be appreciated for the skill with words he’s honed sharper than any blade. Ozai can run circles around the court, but Azulon never saw the value in that as much as the coin of blood and ash.

Ozai...wants to do better for his children. Ursa can’t ask for anything more. “What are you thinking?”

“I think ‘Azula’. Even though I will do things differently, I still wish to honor my father.” He looks down at Zuko again; the boy’s attention is once again captured by his sister. “A strong flame to stand between you and danger, Zuko.” Ozai smiles indulgently. “A younger sister should always have her brother’s back.”

(No one notices the baby’s eyes have slightly narrowed as she watches this all. Newborns can’t see well enough anyway for it to mean anything.)

——

Ursa walks slowly with Ozai through one of the palace gardens. It’s a rare enough occurrence that she finds she can enjoy his presence beside her. He’s been busy, busier than normal. The court is rumbling, he says. (His brother’s victories on the battlefield are great, but the Fire Nation is still at war, has been at war for so long, and why isn’t progress being made? What is the Fire Lord’s plan, why is he holding his son back?) Ozai has been run ragged by damage control and carefully-placed flattery, although one would never be able to tell just from looking at him.

Ursa can. She can tell the tension in his shoulders and the pinched look in his eyes, the increased calculation in every gaze. He sees threats in every corner, knives in every compliment, fire in every dance. She’s glad they can take a moment like this, to walk in the gardens in the sunlight and maybe he can set down his troubles just for a moment.

Childish laughter captures their attention. Both turn at the same time to see Zuko stumbling up the path to them, holding his sister as best he can in his little arms. He has a broad smile on his face, excitement just about pouring out of him. “Mama! Papa!” he shouts when he sees them. (The girl’s feet just barely manage to avoid scraping the ground. The disgruntled look on the toddler’s face would speak volumes, if anyone were to bother to read it.)

She kneels down so she’s at his eye level. “What is it, Zuko?”

He thrusts his sister forward. “Zula made fire!” he declares, voice full of pride. It’s unsurprising. Zuko is a prince of the Fire Nation. He knows they have the blessing of Agni in their blood, his favor upon their brows. He himself has yet to bend, but Ozai has been patient. He’s only four. And despite that age, Zuko is doing very well. His tutors all glow with praise for their boy, how he is a joy to teach. She knows her husband hordes the praise for his son like a dragon, taking careful note of those who bestowed it, counts it up and compares it to his nephew.

(He measures Zuko against Lu Ten. She knows this, knows it feeds that dark jealousy in his heart where his brother lives. She’s not convinced it’s a bad thing. Where is the danger, if it causes Ozai to celebrate Zuko’s every achievement? Zuko is his.)

Now though, Ozai turns to the toddler dangling in her brother’s arms. “Is that so?” he asks quietly.

Zuko nods, little head bobbling up and down like a baby turtleduck. “Show Papa, Zula. Show him!” he demands as he sets her down on her feet.

The girl stumbles slightly, a tiny frown on her face. She looks back at her brother before looking up at her parents. Her hand comes up and the frown intensifies. Ursa thinks for a moment that it makes her look serious, too serious but it’s also adorable and any other thoughts are knocked to the side when a tiny orange flame flickers to life in her daughter’s palm. The girl looks up at both of them, and says nothing.

Zuko takes charge of that. “See?” he yells, nearly bouncing with his excitement. He sounds so proud.

“Well then,” she hears Ozai say softly. Ursa turns and sees the look on his face. He’s looking at the child with more interest than he ever has. “That is a development. We’ll have to hone that talent, Azula.”

Ozai is looking at his daughter with a look Ursa has never seen before. (That’s a lie.) It’s like he’s seeing her for the very first time. There’s something in his gaze, a calculating hunger, a viper that has found an unattended nest. He smiles at the girl and does not show his teeth.

(Some day, Ursa will remember he looked at the Fire Nation war machines, shining in the sunlight, lined up in perfect rows in the factory, with the same look. The look that weighed lives and costs and blood and potential and gain in some cold equation that only he knew.)

(Today is not that day. Today, Ursa’s attention is on her son, and the way he laughs in delight and swings his sister around in his arms. Today, Ursa only sees the future she wants to see.)

——

Zuko frowns at the paper in front of him, carefully dragging the brush along as he finishes the calligraphy exercise. He sits back when he lifts the brush from the paper, careful to keep ink from dripping on his work. He peers up at her, eyes bright.

Ursa smiles. “Very good, Zuko.” He beams at the praise. Her boy hasn’t started firebending yet, but that just means he has time to focus on the other parts of his education. Ursa has left his tutors strict instructions, and all of them have come back with glowing praise, reports brimming with phrases such as “quick learner” and “joy to teach”. It makes her feel a kind of warmth that doesn’t require the flame.

“Can we go feed the turtleducks?” he asks. Ursa can’t help but smile indulgently.

“Of course we can. But we have to clean up first.”

He nods seriously. “Princes shouldn’t leave messes.” Zuko carefully packs away his calligraphy practice while she hides a smile behind a sleeve. Once he’s put his things in their proper place, he scampers over to her side and they walk to into the palace garden together. She requests a loaf of bread from a passing servant, which is delivered by the time they make it to the turtleduck pond.

They spend the rest of the afternoon feeding the turtleducks. Zuko tells her about all the things he’s learning with his tutors, about the Battle of the White Cliffs, about how much he likes plays more than poetry, how his favorite character ever is the Blue Spirit. His mind jumps from topic to topic and it’s difficult to not be amazed at all that he has retained despite his age.

He’s still talking very seriously about the Blue Spirit when they meet with Ozai for dinner. At his father’s prompting, Zuko happily launches into the explanation all over again. It’s only after the soup course has been taken away that Ursa realizes something is off.

“Where’s Azula?”

Ozai jolts slightly, his attention from his son broken. “Azula?” he asks. “I was told she was tired after her lessons. I felt it best to let her sleep.”

Something...the girl is only four. What kind of training is she doing that she’s tired out by dinner? But Ozai doesn’t seem concerned, and Ursa admits he knows more about firebending than she ever will. Surely if there was a cause for concern, he would tell her. Or he would have the tutor responsible thrown out even before informing her. He loves his children; she can see that just from how enraptured he is by his son’s words.

There’s nothing to worry about.

Ursa keeps eating. She doesn’t want dinner to get cold.

—-

Ursa’s walking in one of the gardens when she sees the body. It takes her a few moments to realize that the body is actually her nephew, sprawled out in the sun on the grass. She then notices the small form draped on top of his chest.

Lu Ten looks up at her as she approaches, giving her a lop-sided grin. “Hello, Aunt Ursa,” he says quietly. One of his hands rests across the child’s back. Ursa blinks at the sight of Azula fast asleep on her cousin’s chest. The child’s hair is in disarray and there’s soot smudged across her cheek.

“Hello, Lu Ten,” she says, for lack of anything better to say. The young man recently returned home from his first tour on the front. He must have better things to do than be stuck here with a small child drooling on him. “I can take her...”

Lu Ten shakes his head. (She notes his hand curling almost possesively into the fabric of Azula’s training shirt) “No, it’s fine, she’s fine,” he says, still smiling. “I really don’t mind.”

She smiles uncertainly.

“Really,” he says, eyes crinkling. “I like spending time with my little cousins.”

“If you’re sure...” Maybe he’s practicing? For when he has his own children. Certainly he’s getting to that age when Prince Iroh will be having to consider that.

“I’m sure,” Lu Ten says firmly. “Azula’s just worn out. She was excited to show me some of the things she was learning.”

(There’s an odd quality to his voice. Ursa...isn’t sure what it means.)

“Oh? That’s nice. She’s so...cold. I can’t get her to spend time with me, so I’m glad she can be excited for someone, at least.” She tries to ignore the weird twist in her gut, the way the admission feels like a knife in her throat. Who ever heard of a child spurning her own mother?

Lu Ten’s smile shifts. It’s still present, still broad, but there’s something else there. “Maybe she just needs to find something to talk about.”

Ursa shakes her head, laughing quietly. “All that child is interested in is firebending, I swear. That’s all I ever see her doing. Zuko, you can find five different things to talk about in as many minutes.”

Her nephew doesn’t say anything, just hums, still smiling. She watches him brush strands of hair out of her daughter’s sleeping face, watches as Azula shuffles a little, almost curling closer into her cousin’s chest. Ursa...doesn’t know the last time she saw her daughter like this.

She takes her leave. The two cousins remain sprawled in the sunlight.

(She’ll remember the tone years later. It’s a little late then.)

——

Zuko bends fire for the first time when he’s seven. He ends up having the entire palace wing in an uproar because he accidentally sets his bedcurtains on fire. Ozai clearly doesn’t care about that; Ursa can see the absolute pride in his eyes as he shows his son his very first firebending kata. Despite his talent with weapons (he’s been carrying around the practice dao Lu Ten gave him for the past five weeks), he’s nervous the first time he tries to go through the motions with fire. Her heart hurts a little at his determined face after he trips a third time, clearly startled by the flames he produces.

“Zuzu, you’re doing it wrong,” Azula calls out from the side-lines. Ursa frowns a little at the commentary. Zuko is doing fine, he doesn’t need teasing.

“Azula,” Ozai snaps, turning to face her. Ursa watches as Azula’s mouth clicks shut and her face settles into a completely blank expression. Affecting boredom now?

Zuko huffs a little and glares at his little sister. However, he manages to do the next attempt at the kata without tripping, and a bright red gout of flame flares from his fists. The proud smile on his face is worth it. Ozai rewards him with a proud smile of his own.

Ursa gracefully stands and makes her way over to Zuko. He’s done very well. “I’ll have to add practice to my schedule,” he tells her seriously. “I still like the swordwork, but bending is really fun.”

Ozai smiles at that. “You have a talent,” he says. “Most boys your age would take much longer to get that kata.” His smile grows. “I’ve seen the complaints from the training camps.” He turns his head, attention caught by something else, and he loses the smile. “Azula,” he says tersely. “I believe you have training, don’t you?”

Ursa glances over in time to see the girl’s eyes go wide. She scrambles to her feet and gives them all a deep bow before racing off. That child. All she lives for is training.

Ursa sighs, and turns her attention back to her son. No sense in changing what does not want to be changed.

—-

She remembers Lu Ten’s comment from years ago. Maybe she does need to make a little more effort for her daughter. Surely she can distract the child from all this training to spend time with her mother. She has to at least try.

Ursa decides to start simple. Feeding the turtleducks is how she and Zuko bonded, and it’s the kind of low-pressure activity that might be more appealing to her daughter’s admittedly-intense tastes. The child needs to learn how to relax or else she’ll earn herself white hairs before she’s in her twenties. And Ozai mentioned that they had spent time by the pond recently.

Decision made, she asks the servants to prepare a tea service and bread by the pond and goes off to find her wayward child. Azula is surprisingly difficult to find, given that Ursa thought she knew how the girl spends her time. She’s surprised to find Azula in her room reading what looks to be the texts she’s fairly certain are used in common schools. How interesting. She never knew Azula had an interest in what the lower-classes were taught. Perhaps this endeavor isn’t as doomed as she feared.

“Azula,” she calls. The girl lifts her head and turns to stare at Ursa where she stands in the doorway. She has a blank expression on her face.

“Mother,” she says calmly, slightly tilting her head. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”

Ursa tries not to bristle. The dull tone might not mean anything. It might just be a sign that, well, Azula is well-aware that Ursa has never really come asking for her for any trivial reason. (She’s just so busy.)

Still, she refuses to be intimidated by a six-year-old. “I thought it would be nice to spend some time together. I would appreciate it if you joined me.”

Azula stares at her for a moment. Something flashes behind her eyes, a strange calculus that Ursa is startled to realize reminds her of her husband. There’s a complex web here, one that Ursa didn’t realize existed, and she wonders for a ridiculous moment if she just stepped into a tiger viper’s den. The look is gone, but Azula’s face remains a study in blankness as she sets the scroll down and slides to her feet. “Very well.”

(Unnatural, something hisses in her mind. Too loose, too graceful. Children do not move like that. This is not a child. This is something else, some shadow in a child’s skin, gold eyes hunter-cold. Tiger viper indeed.)

(Ursa tries to ignore the voice. Tries to remember instead the babe she held in her arms, tries to remember soft skin and happy smiles and bright eyes. Why are the memories so slippery? She will not be intimidated by her own child.)

Azula says nothing more as she follows, half a step behind Ursa as she makes her way to the garden. Ursa watches the girl from the corner of her eye, sees the perfect posture, spine stiff and straight, shoulders back, steps light. She walks with her hands clasped loosely behind her back (little soldier-hunter) and eyes forward. She walks so unlike Zuko, everything contained and perfect, nothing free and easy. How is it this girl’s fire can burn so hot when she herself is so very, very cold?

They enter the garden. Ursa smiles, pleased to see the tea service and bread she requested close enough to the turtleduck pond, on one of the nearby benches. From here she can spy at least one adventurous baby eyeing the basket that holds the bread, cheeping wildly as it paces underneath the bench. It is always a joy to see the little ones, especially little ones when they are so very determined such as this one.

Ursa is five steps away from the pond when she realizes Azula is no longer following her.

She turns fully and sees that her daughter has stopped at the edge of the path that leads to the pond. “Azula?”

“Mother. What are we doing?” Azula asks, gaze firmly fixed on the turtleducks. There’s a note in her voice Ursa has never heard before.

“I thought we would feed the turtleducks,” Ursa says carefully.

Something flashes in Azula’s eyes. She tenses for a second before forcibly relaxing.

“You don’t have to feed them, if you don’t want to,” Ursa tries. It’s like trying to talk down a wild animal, not her own child. She shakes her head slightly. “You can just sit by the pond, next to me. Come on.”

(Did Azula just growl?)

That something is back in her daughter’s gaze, she can see it in wide eyes just for a moment, before the girl seems to wrestle it down again. She’s still, so still and rigid that Ursa wonders if a strong enough breeze would knock her right over.

Ursa sits next to the pond and gestures to the grass next to her. “Come on, Azula. Just take some time. You can relax. Just...spend time with the turtleducks,” she tries.

Azula isn’t actually perfectly still. No, she’s breathing very, very deliberately. (Something like runs along her spine and whispers in her ear: here be monsters, child.)

“I do not,” Azula bites out, words precise enough to cut, “want to spend time with the stupid turtleducks.” She breathes in, out, deliberate. Purposeful. Wrestling something down so it doesn’t leak out. “I apologize, Mother, I have training.”

She bows stiffly then turns on her heel and leaves Ursa sitting by the pond, alone and wondering why she should even try.

(Why did that look like fear, of all things, in her daughter’s eyes? A small part of her wonders.)

(Ursa ignores it. Her daughter makes no sense.)

—-

“Which complete idiot thought I’d even want that? Just...get out! Go away!” a sharp, childish voice echoes in the halls. Ursa frowns; Azula’s snapping at the servants again. The girl’s started doing that recently, always a half-step away from looking like she’d just want to burn the place down. (She’s caught some of the drawn and disturbed looks from servants, even servants who’ve been taking care of her children for years. More than one has left in tears.)

She’s starting to sound like her father, when Ozai runs out of patience.

Sure enough, one of the older servants turns the corner and scuttles swiftly down the hall. The older woman has a pinched look on her pale face, a twist in her lips that screams displeasure. The servant sees Ursa and the look is gone, replaced with a smooth, professional look as the woman gives her a respectful bow.

Ursa doesn’t know what to say. Is there something she can say? That her child is willful, resistant to all her attempts at teaching the softer methods?

The servant continues walking and Ursa wonders how much of a firmer hand she’ll have to take.

“Zula, you know it wasn’t her fault.” A softer voice stops Ursa in her tracks. She didn’t realize her nephew was home.

“Lu!”

There’s a muffled thump (a smaller body colliding with a much larger one) and Lu Ten’s warm chuckle. The mirth fades into a hiss. “What hap — “

Azula mutters something Ursa can’t catch.

“That’s not nothing.”

Another muttler that sends Lu Ten sighing in what can only be exasperation (is it?). “Zula, you know I know those forms. You know you can tell me things, right?”

If her daughter responds, Ursa can’t even hear the barest whisper of it.

“All right,” the young man breathes out, sounding resigned (sounding sad, some kind of grief she’s never heard from him before). “Can I show you a trick I learned, then? My captain taught it to me.”

Ursa hears two pairs of footsteps fade off down the hall, away from her, and she finds herself wondering what she missed.

(At least her daughter still lets her cousin inside her walls. She doesn’t know if she should risk breaching that trust, or if it will cause everything to come tumbling down.)

—-

The sound of Zuko’s sniffles send her and Ozai running. She finds him in his room, curled up miserably on his bed and rubbing his eyes. Azula stands in the corner, scowl on her face and a pile of ashes at her feet. “Dearest, what’s wrong?” Ursa asks, immediately going to comfort the boy.

He looks up, eyes still a bit teary. “I was trying to share! Azula said she didn’t know anything about the Blue Spirit, so I wanted to help and show her and I gave her the scrolls, you know, the ones with the really pretty calligraphy, and she just burned them!” It all comes out in a rush; he’s not even trying to breathe right, he’s so upset.

Ursa sees Azula open her mouth, no doubt to say something cutting. “What do you have to say for yourself, young lady?” It’s fairly obvious what the truth is; the pile of ashes is still faintly smoking. Ursa gives it a pointed look. “Did you burn the scrolls?”

Azula’s scowl gets even fiercer. “I didn’t want the stupid scrolls.”

Well, that’s an answer.

Ozai clears his throat, and the scowl is wiped away as if it were never there. “Azula,” he says, sounding deeply disappointed. “You know better than to destroy your brother’s things.” He sighs and puts a hand on her shoulder. “Come along. It appears you and I need to have another talk about these things.”

Ozai guides the child out the door. Azula looks back a moment at herself and Zuko sitting side-by-side on the bed. She then whips her head forward, and walks out, trailing half a step behind Ozai at his side.

Ursa gathers Zuko close to comfort him. She says the right words, and he calms down, but she has a hard time remembering what she said. Instead her mind replays the sight of her daughter following so closely behind her father.

(When Ursa dreams that night, she dreams of golden eyes with pupils blown wide.)

(She can never seem to reach.)

—-

There is something she is missing. Something lurking underneath the gilt and gold of the palace, something lurking underneath the treachery and seduction in the court. It’s closer than that, like a tree in the center of the garden, roots stretching out unseen yet there beneath the feet. It’s the thing one would only notice in its absence.

Ursa stares at the tree in the center of the garden and wonders. Wonders how many generations it has seen play beneath its branches and how many more will find a home in the shadows it casts. How many times has it flowered, for only a short period of beauty, before the blood-red petals fall? (They make the ground look like it is covered in blood and fire. Beauty and danger and horror, all chasing each other. How apt is it, for this place?)

Zuko screams.

Ursa races through the garden, all other thoughts out of her head other than that mother beast screaming in her mind (protect protect protect her children are in danger and they need her). She bursts into the clearing by the pond, looks for the assassin in the shadows she needs to rend limb from limb with her bare hands.

Zuko is on the ground, wide-eyed and teary. Azula remains solid in the finishing stance of a firebending kata. There’s the smell of roasted meat and burnt feathers coming from the turtleduck motionless in the dirt.

There is no assassin.

Ursa blinks.

Zuko’s tears disappear as his face morphs into anger. He scrambles to his feet. “Azula!” he shouts.

Yes, it’s quite obvious what has happened here.

Ursa grabs her daughter by the arm and yanks Azula towards her. The girl stumbles but does not fall. She keeps her grip on the skinny arm as she hauls the girl behind her, striding back to the residence wing of the palace. “For Agni’s sake, I have no idea what is wrong with this child,” she mutters under her breath as she reaches Azula’s room and drags her inside.

Azula stumbles slightly over the threshold. “It bit Zuko!” she yelps.

Ursa turns, and levels her sternest glare at the girl. “And that’s why you lit a turtleduck on fire?”

Azula looks...

“It bit Zuko,” she repeats.

Azula looks bewildered.

Ursa...pauses. She pinches the bridge of her nose. “It bit Zuko, so you...threw fire at it?”

Azula hesitates a second, then nods. “He got hurt, and...he shouldn’t get hurt? I’m supposed to keep him from getting hurt.”

This almost makes sense. Agni, what is with this girl’s mind? Ursa is sure this would make so much more sense if turtleducks were known to be vicious monsters that had a taste for princes or...whatever it is she’s convinced herself. Because it’s clear that Azula sees nothing she did as wrong.

Ursa brings her hands up to rub her temples. Then pauses. That’s...her hand hurts. Like she was gripping something far too tightly and suddenly let go.

That was the hand that had been gripping Azula’s arm.

Ursa blanches. She pulls the girl closer (gently) as she falls to her knees. “Oh honey, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Azula looks at her blankly. Tilts her head slightly to the side. “You didn’t hurt me.”

Ursa’s hand flutters over her daughter’s arm, not daring to lay a finger on her lest she cause more harm. Her hand aches. “I didn’t realize I was gripping so tightly. I’m so sorry.”

Her daughter looks at her like she’s never seen her before, utter bafflement written all over her face. “You didn’t hurt me,” she repeats.

(Ursa is not reassured. Some part of herself deep inside her mind is baying for blood.

She does not know why.)

—-

Word comes back from the front. Word comes back from Ba Sing Se.

Lu Ten is dead.

(Ursa does not hear the sobs she was expecting when she walks past her daughter’s closed door.)

(She walks past, then goes back. The door is locked and Azula will not answer to let her in.)

—-

Ursa finds herself wondering if this is what soldiers feel like, when they have to fight Earthbenders. Does the world feel unsteady beneath their feet? Do they have a word to describe when what they thought was solid ground crumbles underneath them, when they dare look down and see nothing but a gaping abyss that’s ready to swallow them whole, grind everything they knew into dust and broken pieces? Is it dark down there, where no light reaches and no fire can burn because all the air has been sucked from their lungs? Does it feel like a slow-motion drowning with not a drop of water anywhere?

She was going to tuck her children into bed. That was the plan. That is what she does every night. (Doesn’t she?) She found Zuko distraught, again, over something Azula had told him. Again.

“Azula said grandfather wants to kill me.”

Ursa knows the words. The words make sense. The words do not make sense in that order.

“I know Azula always lies but...Mom, I can’t stop thinking about it!”

She settled him as best she could, told him he’ll be fine, that of course his grandfather wouldn’t order his father to kill him. Ozai loves Zuko, loves him enough to burn the world for him. Zuko is fine. Zuko is safe.

She needed to talk to Azula. Needed to see what thing got twisted in that girl’s head that would make her torture her brother like this. Ursa knew she’d worked herself up into a fury, into an anger without a target, and maybe she should have regretted that she was going to confront an eight-year-old in this state.

She flung open Azula’s door and all those thoughts fell out of her mind.

Azula has a knife in her belt and her hair tied back. Azula is dressed in dark colors and has a map of the palace on her desk. (Azula looks like she is going to war.) She looks up from it when Ursa enters the room and sees the blankest expression she has ever seen on her daughter’s face.

“Azula,” Ursa says slowly. (This is a trap, this is wrong, there is something wrong) “Zuko was upset. He said you told him something.”

Azula remains still, just staring at her mother. Her eyes are hunter-cold. (There is something wrong, this is not a child, there are monsters lurking here)

Ursa’s eyes flick to the map on the desk. It’s the Fire Lord’s chambers. She looks back at her daughter. “Azula, what are you doing?”

“I need to kill the Fire Lord.”

There’s a howling in Ursa’s mind, the words are damning why are they coming out of her child’s mouth, doesn’t she know the walls have ears? (Of course she does) “What?”

Azula answers in that same, perfectly reasonable tone. “I have to kill the Fire Lord, Mother.”

And Ursa knows she is not joking.

Azula tilts her head slightly, as if she can sense her mother does not understand. “He wants our Honored Father to kill Zuko. So I have to kill him.”

“Your father wouldn’t hurt Zuko.”

“No,” Azula says agreeably, turning back to the map. “Honored Father loves Zuko.” She makes a mark on the map. “But he will try something else. You do not say no to the Fire Lord. So for Zuko to live, the Fire Lord must die.”

“Azula,” Ursa tries, scrambling to make something make sense (pieces start clicking together in the back of her mind). “Azula, you’re eight years old. You can’t...you will die.”

Her daughter nods and does not look up from the paper. “I know.”

Ursa manages to cross the room in three strides and drops to her knees, spinning Azula around so she can look her daughter in the eye. Azula still has that blank look on her face and Ursa is starting to wonder if there is anything more terrifying.

“Azula, honey, please,” she begs. “I don’t understand. What are you talking about?”

Her daughter blinks, and there’s suddenly a slight confusion in her eyes. This is not reassuring. This is the opposite of reassuring. Ursa does not understand her child, does not understand her child’s mind, but Ursa knows that something is not right. And her child does not understand.

“Zuko will die, because you have to obey the Fire Lord. Zuko can’t die. The Fire Lord can’t be obeyed if he’s dead. Then Zuko will be safe.”

Azula says it like she’s stating simple facts, like she doesn’t understand what her mother is failing to see. The sky is blue. The light of Agni is warm. Zuko will die if their grandfather does not.

There’s a gaping maw where Ursa’s stomach used to be. Ursa is certain that she is falling, and she does not know where the ground is. (She knows it’s going to hurt when she hits it) But she can’t stop, not now. She needs to try. She needs to figure out this maze that is Azula’s thoughts because she’s starting to think there is a monster in here and her daughter needs her mother to slay it.

“Honey...why do you have to do it?”

Azula blinks. “I’m supposed to, Mother. That’s what I’m useful for.”

Ursa hears the monster in the center of this maze. She hears it breathing.

“What? Why do you think...?”

She knows what this monster looks like. She thinks she’s known for a very long time.

“That’s what Honored Father said.” Azula frowns slightly, head tilted to the side like an inquisitive wolf-cat pup. “Honored Father told me I’m the one who needs to protect Zuko, at any cost.”

She’s serious. Her eight-year-old daughter is actually serious. What has Ozai been telling her? What has she been learning? Because this...this isn’t taking one conversation out of context. This isn’t a childish misunderstanding, a mistake of misaimed responsibility. There is a conviction in her child’s voice, and it is that conviction that wraps around Ursa’s heart and squeezes.

Azula is standing in front of her, and Ursa stares at her as she’s never done before. She’s small, thin. No, not thin. Wiry, too much lean muscle for her age. She’s baby fat and sharp edges, bright eyes of hunter gold and dark circles underneath. She is a shadow in a child’s skin, a child that shouldn’t exist because children are not meant to be this way.

(There’s a monster at the door and he’s already devouring one of the children.)

Azula’s shirt is a little big for her. It slips a little off her shoulder, and Ursa suddenly thinks the room has gotten very, very cold. There are marks on her baby’s skin. There are scars like a tree on her baby’s skin, branching off to follow a broken path along her baby’s shoulder, and Ursa does not have to see it all to know that it has carved lines into Azula’s back.

There are marks on her baby’s skin because someone has struck her baby with lightning.

(There’s a monster at the door, and there’s a beast in her mind howling.)

Azula follows the line of her gaze and frowns faintly. “Honored Father says I need to know how the lightning feels before I can master it. I’m not there yet.” She sounds saddened.

Ursa wants to scoop her baby up and wrap her in blankets. She wants to sooth the hurts, make these damned scars go away. She wants the world to spin backwards so she can stop this from happening, whenever this started happening, because how long has this been right in front of her, but she refused to see?

(She wondered why Ozai was always “Honored Father” while she was simply “Mother”. How long has this been happening?)

She remembers finding Lu Ten and Azula in the grass years ago. She thinks she knows what the boy was saying then. How did he know?

Not that it matters. None of this matters, not right now, not right here, in this night when she stares at her baby girl prepare herself to die trying to save her brother. She will lose at least one of her children this night: her son to his grandfather’s word and father’s ambition, or her daughter to the fire.

Ursa does not like either of these two options.

So she chooses a third.

(There’s a monster at the door and a monster in the shadows. But that’s all right, baby girl.

Because they don’t know mama is a monster too.)

—-

Ursa walks quickly through the darkened hallways. She’s running out of time, but there is something she needs to do. She managed to convince Azula not to throw her life away, that this time it is Mother’s job. (She had to tell her that she could not protect her brother if she’s dead and there’s a part of Ursa that died when she had to use those words.)

Mother will take care of things. (If only this once, please trust me, baby girl.)

Ursa tucked her daughter into bed for one last time. Left her safe for at least one night. She could guarantee this one night. She hates that she cannot promise her more, not even to herself. (She hates that she has only given her this one.)

The empty poison bottle in her robe feels far heavier than it is. But Ursa knows she needed to kill the Fire Lord, or else her children will die.

(The poison was deceptively easy to make, once she burned that fact into her mind. A poison catalyzed by the most common antidote in the Fire Nation. Azulon drank the tea without a suspicion. He even complimented her on the taste.)

(Deep in his chambers, Fire Lord Azulon will go to sleep in his bed after speaking with his second son. He will not see the sunrise.)

But now, Ursa is running out of time and she has something she needs to do before she leaves for good. Her children will not die tonight. No matter what else his sins, Ozai will encircle his children like a dragon, turning fire and teeth onto the outside world who threatens them. Ursa rails against having to leave her children behind, but she has no delusions about her own survival. The only place she can flee to outside the Dragon Throne’s reach is the Earth Kingdom, right into the jaws of a beast that would gladly rend the flesh from her bones. (The Earth Kingdom would set her children’s heads on pikes, bury their bodies in earth where the flames cannot touch them, leave their spirits trapped in a tomb forever. Young dragons are still dragons, and even young dragons still have claws.)

She can accept this fate, if it means her children will live.

She quietly slips into Zuko’s room. If she has to leave for the sake of her children, she will not leave without seeing them one last time.

Apparently, she did not slip in quietly enough. Zuko rolls over and sits up, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “Mom?” He looks at her, and she can’t hide the cloak about her shoulders or the bag on her back. Zuko’s eyes grow wide, scared. “Mom? What’s going on?”

She hushes him, sitting down on the bed. He scoots backwards, eyes not leaving her face. “Mom?” he asks in a very small voice.

Ursa brushes dark hair away from his face. He always had such fluffy, soft hair, even as a baby. She’ll miss this. “I’m sorry, Zuko,” she says softly. “I need to go away for awhile.”

“Wh— why? What—” He quiets when she softly places a finger on his lips. He can’t be shouting, not now. Not if she wants this to work, wants to have successfully bought her children’s safety.

“It’s complicated. I’m sorry I don’t have time to explain everything, honey. But you need to know that I love you and your sister so very much. I wish I could stay and watch you, but I can’t.” She smiles at him, tries to ignore the way her heart is breaking as tears fall from his eyes. (Zuko always was a sensitive boy.) “I’m so proud of you. Don’t ever forget that, okay? You’re going to be great, Zuko, and I’ll always be proud of you.”

Greatness. Zuko will be great one day. It’s what her husband has been saying, ever since he was born. All the work and encouragement for her boy’s future. Ursa never questioned it before. How could she? How could she question a desire to see her child have the best? But now, looking at his little tear-streaked face, she wonders if it’s worth it. If Zuko’s future greatness is worth the sacrifices, the lives thrown into the pyre.

What worth does greatness have without goodness?

The moon is high in the sky. She’s running out of time if she wants to make it to the ship that will take her out of the Fire Nation by dawn. She needs to leave now, and she curses herself. If only she had more time, if only she could spare some words for Azula, the child she didn’t even know was so lost until a few hours ago.

(Ursa hates herself more for this than she thought was possible.)

Ursa looks to her son. “Zuko...I’m going to ask you to make me a promise, okay?”

Zuko nods, quiet and serious. She does not deserve this boy.

“I need you to look out for your sister, okay?” He frowns a little, but says nothing. Ursa feels like she needs to explain (how do you explain something you don’t even fully understand?). “She...she needs you, okay? Even if she can’t or doesn’t always show it. You were so good with her when you were small. She needs her big brother to look out for her and protect her. Can you do that for me, Zuko?”

Zuko looks at her, and she can read him like a book. It’s easy, when he wears his feelings so plainly. She can see the moment he decides to listen, the moment he decides to acquiesce, the moment he carves the request like an edict into his soul and makes it a part of himself. (Her boy never could do anything by half-measures.)

“Okay Mom,” he says, serious and quiet, “You can count on me.”

Can goodness start by saving one person?

Ursa hugs her son, tries to memorize the shape of him into her soul, the feel of his warm (fire-warm) skin and soft hair, the memory of his voice and breath, and tries not to cry.

And then she’s gone. She does not look back.

(If she looks back, she will break, and her children will burn.)

—-

Azula understands the rules. There are ways in which the world must work, and she has spent a long time (painful time) working out each of them. Fire will burn. Zuko is her prince. Honored Father should be obeyed. She knows these things with absolute certainty and she can no more change them than she can change any other rule of reality.

She thinks things would be so much simpler if everyone else understood these rules. People are confusing. People say things they do not mean, they lie with their smiles and with their frowns. They say one thing and mean another, and Azula needs to peel back all of their layers to figure it all out. If she can figure out how people work, then she can understand their rules, and then she can make them act the way she needs them to. She will not have to worry about them as a threat.

There are so many threats now. She needs to be able to meet them.

Things changed in the palace, after Mother left. Honored Father became the Fire Lord and Zuko became the Crown Prince. Azula thinks this is much better than the alternative. That alternative was an aberration, something that should not happen, and of course the world righted itself. She supposes she is glad that she didn’t die. She can continue to be useful.

That’s the important thing. Honored Father says that there is no use in broken things, and keeping things you cannot use is sentimental nonsense. Only the weak cling to the things that cannot help them.

Azula is not weak. Azula cannot afford to be weak.

(Weakness is a luxury. Zuko is allowed weakness, because Zuko has her to watch his back. She must always watch out for him, because he has more important things to do.)

Azula stares at the blue flame in her hands. Beyond the flickering light, she sees a servant leave fresh water and a clean towel for her before departing. They know better than to stay. She knows they fear her, fire and tongue and teeth, knows they whisper in the halls after her. This is fine, this is right. If they fear her, then they know what she can do, and they know not to harm what is hers. They let her move in the shadows she needs to because they do not bother to look after her.

This is the way it should be. Azula needs to stand alone.

(Don’t think about Mother’s last look, don’t think about her face that last time, don’t think about safety and warmth. These are lies. They are wrong. They did not happen and Azula needs to stop thinking about things she cannot have.)

She extinguishes the flame and finishes her cool-down set before leaving the dojo. No one stops her. She actually has a moment to herself, and she treasures these rare breaks in the schedule her Honored Father created for her. There’s not a lot she can do in these moments, but she’ll make use of it. She can do her favorite thing.

Azula turns on her heel and slips towards the garden to find Zuko.

Zuko is sitting by the turtleduck pond. Of course he is. (Azula suppresses a shudder. If Honored Father saw that...) He has a frown on his face and he’s staring at the turtleducks; he’s not even feeding them.

She lets a twig snap under her foot.

“What do you want, Azula?” he grumbles, not bothering to look at her.

She’s not sure how to answer him. He’s been upset, ever since the night Mother left. She knows he’s been irritable, and it sounds like he doesn’t want her here.

“I was looking for you, Zuzu.” She hesitates a second over the nickname. Honored Father says she’s too old to call him by such childish things, but Zuko seems to like it. Or he hasn’t said he doesn’t. Maybe she should stop.

He twists around, his face going red and eyes sharp. She stills, goes quiet. He’s not making sense, she did something wrong. (Did Zuko’s rules change?)

Then he...stops. His lips turn down, and he looks like he does when she accidentally breaks one of his things (she’s gotten better! She has! She doesn’t know what she broke now, and it’s not fair because she’s trying and he’s looking at her like that and what if Honored Father sees and —)

Zuko has his arms around her shoulders.

Azula blinks.

She didn’t even realize he stood up. Why is he here? What is he doing? She can’t move, but should she even try? Azula squeezes her eyes shut and tries to make the world make sense. She should leave. She shouldn’t be here. She should go back to training, because she needs to be useful and this does not serve that purpose.

Azula doesn’t move. Zuko does not let her go.

(She’s late for training, but she thinks it was worth it.)

—-

Zuko brought friends to the Palace.

He’ll deny it, but Azula spies the girl with the flat mouth and disinterested look (even though Azula can see her eyes flicking over everything, taking in her surroundings and constantly evaluating. She might be acceptable company for her brother) and the loud girl who smiles with too many teeth to not be a threat. She knows the first one is the daughter of some official; Zuko must have met her at some social event. Maybe they come as a pair? But the smiling one moves erratically, too light on her feet to not be practiced, flitting about but paying more attention to Zuko.

“Hey! Azula!” Zuko calls out, apparently having spied her across the courtyard. She’s on her way to training, but the sight of two kids their age with Zuko distracted her. He runs towards her. Azula pauses and turns to face him, letting her head tilt slightly to the side.

(She doesn’t even have to ask Zuko. He understands! It makes her gut feel warm and her blood feel fuzzy when he does it.)

“Come on, I want to introduce you to Mai and Ty Lee,” he says when he’s right in front of her. “I think you’ll like them!”

Azula blinks. “I...have training...” she trails off. This is true. She knows she can’t skip. Honored Father is supposed to be there.

Zuko looks at her with wide eyes, eyebrows pulled up. It’s a ridiculous expression. “Can’t you skip it just this once? Come play just this once.”

That...Zuko just gave her an order. Zuko has never done that. Honored Father should be obeyed, but Honored Father has said Zuko’s orders are absolute. Azula is supposed to listen to Zuko. She’s repeated it enough that she thinks it’s carved deep into her bones and branded on her soul, the keystone in the web she’s crafted in her mind to scaffold her reality. (She knew this even when the fire and the exhaustion made her forget her own name: Listen to Zuko)

Breaking that rule could break her.

Honored Father is waiting for training. Zuko wants her here.

“Okay, Zuko.”

Surely Honored Father will understand.

(Honored Father decides she needs more practice. After, Azula wakes up in her bed with the taste of medicine on her tongue and another lightning scar on her back.)

—-

“Come on, Azula. You enjoyed it last time, right?”

Mai and Ty Lee are here again.

“I...really have to go,” Azula says and runs off to training where Honored Father is waiting. She doesn’t look back to see the disappointed look on Zuko’s face.

(Honored Father is more displeased when he hears. On the positive side, Azula managed to coat her arm in electricity this time, lightning bending for the first time.)

—-

Zuko keeps inviting the two girls over. Azula can’t always avoid him, so when he asks (orders) her to join them, she does. She tries making it happen less, tries insults and snide commentary, anything she can think of to make the girls decide it's not worth their time.

Because she really isn’t sure why he keeps inviting them. He seems to enjoy himself more when he sees her interacting with them. And insults don’t work either. She’s not sure Ty Lee (the one who smiles with too many teeth and Azula wonders if that’s her natural state) even realizes what an insult is. Meanwhile, every time she tries, Mai just gives her a look that sees more than she lets on. Azula is pretty sure insults are supposed to have the opposite effect.

It doesn’t matter. She’ll deal with the consequences. She always does.

—-

Azula curls up tighter in the shadows, watching the generals argue-agree with Honored Father in the War Room from her hidden perch near the ceiling. She doesn’t really care what they are saying. Disgraced Uncle Iroh has dragged Zuko into this eel-shark pit and so Azula needs to keep her eyes on her brother.

(Honored Father’s mouth always twists downwards when he speaks of Disgraced Uncle Iroh. Zuko’s eyes always brighten whenever he sees Disgraced Uncle Iroh. Azula isn’t sure what to think. She knows not to call him anything else, because Honored Father’s hands get warm if she does.)

(Honored Father’s hands get warm a lot. Azula’s tried to figure out what causes it. She tried being more like Zuko but that didn’t keep them cool. She tried mimicking Honored Father, and that only made them warmer. She’s sure if she can figure out the rules, this will make sense.)

Zuko seems agitated. One of the generals (she can’t remember his name) is laying out a plan, involving sending a battalion of recruits into a doomed situation, using them as bait. Zuko’s frown gets deeper and deeper the more the general talks. Azula knows what’s going to happen. Zuko cares too much.

“Why?” he demands. “Why do we have to sacrifice them? This is the 41st’s first deployment! It’s not right! We shouldn’t just let them die because it’s the easiest option!”

Honored Father takes a moment, looks directly at Zuko. Zuko stares back, spine straight. Azula can see Honored Father smile. “Such honorable tactics,” he says in the now-silent room. He turns to his general. “Well? Can you explain yourself?”

The general’s eyes are wide, but he clears his throat and stands straighter. “The Honorable Prince is correct, that we should not value the lives of our brave soldiers so cheaply. But their sacrifice will allow our veterans to maneuver, draw the Earth Kingdom forces into a more favorable position. We spend less of their lives.” The general bows deeply. “Were our enemies all as honorable as the prince, this war would not require such sacrifices.”

(Azula narrows her eyes. What is this man’s name? She wracks her brain trying to remember. He may be a threat.)

Honored Father nods at the general. “Thank you for sharing your wisdom with my son,” he says before turning to Zuko. “It is the unfortunate reality that we live in, Zuko, where we have to favor the stronger forces.”

Zuko looks dissatisfied, but steps back, bows, and returns to his seat.

He doesn’t speak for the rest of the meeting. Azula can see his gaze is focused on the tiny figures representing the doomed battalion on the map.

The meeting ends and Azula unfolds herself from her perch as the generals file out. She can make it out of here and to her lessons before anyone realizes she eavesdropped. Slipping between shadows and behind a tapestry, she eases her way out of the meeting room and into the hall. The generals are still filing out, and the hallway is busy enough that no one will notice her as she moves past them.

She’s not even thinking about the meeting when she hears it.

“Agni help us.” It’s the general who Zuko confronted. He’s muttering to a circle of his peers, but loud enough that it’s obvious he doesn’t really care who overhears him. “We’d be better off under the Water Savages if that soft-hearted idiot manages to survive long enough to take the Dragon Throne.”

Azula stops dead in her tracks. There’s a rush in her head, like a flame devouring air. (This is a threat, there is a threat they insulted Zuko they want Zuko dead.)

(You know what you have to do, Azula.)

“How dare you,” she whispers. Suddenly, everything is very quiet. Azula looks up over the roaring in her ears to stare into the startled face of the general (Koeda, that’s his name. General Koeda. Someone who needs to know his place). “You dare utter that slander, in these halls? In front of the Fire Lord?”

Honored Father is watching. She knows this. (She always knows when his eyes rest upon her back) (She knows Zuko is also watching. She doesn’t want to know what his expression is.)

Koeda’s eyes slide towards her, then flick away dismissively. “Do not insult my honor.”

Azula laughs, forcing it into a harsh register that never fails to make adults bristle and does not fail her now. “Honor? What honor? You insult and threaten because you can’t back it up.” She eyes him. “I hear rumors, you know.”

Koeda starts choking. (That’s a fascinating reaction. She’ll have to remember that. She wonders if that simple sentence would work on other people too.) Everyone is now watching this scene play out. Koeda does not notice or he does not care. “How dare you,” he sputters.

Honored Father starts laughing. All eyes turn to him. “Well, well, well. This is the second of my children who you’ve crossed today, General Koeda.” Koeda flushes. “I think they might have a point. If you are worried about your honor, settle it in an Agni Kai.”

Zuko gapes. “Father, you...Azula is eleven.”

Honored Father pins her with his gaze. “And if she’s going to wield her tongue at a general of the Fire Nation, she should be capable enough when words fail.”

Azula stands still, barely breathing, but does not waver. If she needs to fight an Agni Kai, if Honored Father decrees that she fight an Agni Kai, she will fight in an Agni Kai.

Zuko stares at her like he’s never seen her before. It’s weird. She needs to do this, she’s supposed to do this.

That’s all there is to it.

—-

The general is good.

Azula is better.

Koeda kneels before her as she casually extinguishes the blue flames that surround them. He will not trouble her brother again. She can accept his surrender gracefully.

(From where he watches, the Fire Lord’s eyes narrow.)

—-

Azula doesn’t hear the door to her bedroom open that night. (It wouldn’t have made a difference.) She only jolts awake when she realizes someone is watching her. Two burning gold eyes stare down at her in the dark from the foot of her bed.

Azula’s mouth feels dry.

“I,” Honored Father whispers, “have apparently been too lax. Too indulgent.”

Azula can’t move, not now, not when his gaze scorches hotter than her flames, not when he stares at her and finds her wanting. She knows she’s breathing too fast, too hard. Her heart is jumping wildly in her chest and she needs to regulate her breathing, get it under control.

Honored Father’s lips twist into a sneer. “You’ve gotten ideas into your head, Azula. Do you think I had you fight that Agni Kai as a test? I did. And you failed.”

Azula’s breath stops in her throat.

“A child. Defeating a general of the Fire Nation? How will our enemies react to that? You’ve endangered us all. Worse, you endangered your brother.”

She can’t even move before Honored Father is holding her down, one hand pinning her right shoulder to the bed, the other cradling the left side of her jaw. He looks down on her, eyes colder than she’s ever seen them. (Cold in judgement because Azula has been found wanting)

She can’t pull any air into her lungs, can’t breathe, can’t even think about calling blue flames to her hands to her arms, to do anything but lay there frozen.

“You will learn to hold your tongue, and suffering will be your teacher.”

Honored Father’s hands burn.

Azula screams.

His hands are still burning when the darkness devours her. She didn’t stop screaming until then.

—-

When Azula wakes up, she is on a ship heading out of Fire Nation waters as quickly as possible. The only person on-board she knows is Disgraced Uncle Iroh.

The ship’s doctor has kind hands that try to soothe her aching shoulder. (He can do nothing more for her agonizing jaw, beyond keeping it wrapped.) His voice is even kinder when he breaks the news to her.

Honored Father has banished her.

Azula doesn’t know what to do.