Every spar ended up like this. He didn’t know why Azula bothered asking to go against him when she was obviously going to win. It wasn’t like it was a challenge for her. She knocked him into the dirt every time, and never even looked the slightest bit ruffled, leaving him to spend the rest of the day picking leaves out of his hair. As if he didn’t always look shabby compared to her anyway. He ran back to his room, pressing down the familiar sting of humiliation. If he didn’t have time to sort himself out before dinner he’d get that disgusted look from Father again. You’re not a child anymore. Learn to carry yourself with a shred of dignity and composure.
He understood that things were different now. He had to be better, he reminded himself again and again, standing in front of the mirror and smoothing down flyaway hairs. There was no-one else to hide behind anymore.
“One hair out of place,” the old bats crooned. Mocking her. She wanted badly to rip the offending strand off her forehead and burn it to cinders. Where had she slipped?
“Almost isn’t good enough.” She ran through the sequence in her mind, tracing the movements with an objective instructor’s eye, and grew even more irritated when she couldn’t find the mistake. She readied her stance again and prepared to run it through once more – no, three more times, just to be safe. Now was not the time for mistakes. The mission would be executed without a hitch, as Father expected, knowing that he could not entrust this to anyone else but her. And once Zuko and Iroh were locked away somewhere they could never again heap shame upon their family, she would succeed where they and that irritating worm Zhao had failed, and scoop up the Avatar as well. There was no margin for error.
It must have been a fluke, a brush of the wind that ruffled her. Her mood was still foul for the rest of the day.
The stylists laboured wordlessly over his unkempt, choppy hair that hadn’t been cut… ever, Zuko realised. Everything that wasn’t long enough for the topknot, which was most of it, was somehow pinned and smoothed into place, creating the illusion of greater length.
“Colour me surprised. They actually managed to make you look presentable,” Azula said when she caught sight of him. They fell into step side by side as they were escorted to the royal balcony.
He said nothing. The distant ocean-like sound of masses of people was growing louder with every step they took, until it was right there, just out of sight, and it made him want to crawl out of his body. (Father still hadn’t asked to see him.) His skin felt clammy beneath the weight of the ceremonial armour.
Azula noticed, because she always did. Her hand touched his shoulder-guard in a way that might have passed for comforting if it was anybody else, but coming from her, it felt more like she was trying to physically prop him up. It would probably reflect badly on her if he passed out on full display in front of the entire nation. He felt oddly grateful even for that support. Coming home had plunged him into this upside-down, uncertain world where Azula was somehow his anchor.
“Cheer up, dum-dum. This is the best part.” she whispered.
“-your princess, clever and beautiful, disguised herself as the enemy-“
She turned and walked into the glow, and the ocean surged with applause. For a moment, he was utterly convinced that he when he stepped out it would be to silence, or booing and jeering, like the villain in one of the more tacky festival performances he’d seen glimpses of as a child.
“-after three long years-“
Somehow, his feet carried his body forwards. He could hardly feel them.
After the banquet held in celebration of Azula’s eighth birthday, Father arranged for there to be a performance of her bending. She had perfected fifteen different forms – the masters proclaimed that she was advancing at a faster rate than any member of their line since Fire Lord Azulon himself, who, Father told her, had mastered seventeen forms by the time his eighth year was completed. She realised that meant she was doing better than Father and Uncle Iroh and Lu Ten all had. It was an achievement worthy of commemoration.
Her attendants dressed her up in the light armour that Father had commissioned especially for the occasion and styled her hair into a formal topknot that pulled tightly on her head. “Well, don’t you look like a little soldier!” one of the councilmen’s wives exclaimed. “Don’t patronise me,” Azula snapped back. Patronise. That was a new word she’d learned just that week, and it satisfied her to use it, and see the woman’s eyes widen with embarrassment.
Eventually, the tedious meal was over, and she performed her choreographed sequence before the audience. Her whole body felt fluttery and alive as she whirled and struck and executed each form perfectly. Zuzu was so jealous, she could feel it radiating off of him, and Mother looked pinched and upset because she hated anything that could bring Azula this much joy. But Father looked so, so pleased. His eyes were gleaming with pride, and it lit something bright inside her.
She finished with a bow, to rapturous applause. She looked at her father again, and followed his gaze to the Fire Lord, who looked uninterested and probably drunk. “Very impressive.” He said flatly from his high seat, with a gesture of his hand. “You are truly a great honour to our family, Princess Azula.” She knew that Grandfather was a half-senile old man whose best days were long behind him and she knew that Father would make a better Fire Lord, if only Uncle wasn’t in the way. Father confided these things in her because he knew she was smart enough to understand them – smarter than most of the men in this palace, he told her.
By the time Fire Lord Azulon was nine, he had learned twenty-five different forms. She looked at him, and thought, I can do better than that.
“What do you want to do about your hair?”
“I don’t have to cut it off.” It was half a question. His mark of shame could not be any clearer – surely he wouldn’t have to cut his hair as well.
What remained of it, anyway - a large chunk was shorn away already, skirting above his ear and the edge of his bandages. The rest was a matted, greasy mess from weeks of sweating and writhing against his pillow. He felt disgusting all over, too hot and too cold and sticky and wrong, and his legs shook when he walked from one end of his metal cabin to the other. He was the captain of this ship, he had a mission, but he hadn’t even been out to face his crew yet. He was dimly aware that Uncle must have been dealing with it, but he couldn’t bring himself to think about anything beyond the four metal walls surrounding him. How could his men ever respect him if they saw him like this? How could anyone?
“Don’t cut it off.” He repeated, quieter, aware of how pathetic it sounded. “I need to –” He couldn’t think of the right end to that sentence. Nothing made sense in the fog of his brain. There were lots of things he needed to do, one shouting louder than the others.
“I won’t.” Uncle said. “I promise. But would you at least let me wash it for you? Then we can see what we are working with.”
He sent for a basin of water to be brought to the cabin, which he heated with little more than a touch, and motioned for Zuko to sit on the floor.
As he wriggled first his fingers, then a comb, through the stubborn tangles, cutting the worst of them out, all Zuko could feel was shame at having to be taken care of like a child. The feeling of gentle hands running through his hair was something he hadn’t felt since- since. He tried to focus on the occasional sharp tugs instead, on the burning, stabbing pain that throbbed harder and deeper like it would eat his face away with every second he was upright and out of bed.
(Iroh pretended not to notice the quiet shudders shaking Zuko’s body. He kept on working. The candles around them fluttered nervously.)
“Shall I get a mirror?” he asked.
“No.” Zuko replied hastily.
“You have a great deal of faith in my hair-dressing abilities, then.” Uncle came to kneel behind him. “To shave part of the head is traditional after the loss of an Agni Kai, but I think we can get you a bit more even than this.” He set his hand on Zuko’s shoulder, and brought up the razor. “Tell me, have you ever heard of the ancient race of the Sun Warriors?”
As he worked, Iroh span him a tale of dragons and honour in ancient times. He had killed a dragon once, Zuko knew, but he didn’t tell that story.
Something about the ritual process of grooming always helped Azula to clear her head. On a quiet afternoon when she had no responsibilities, she would surrender herself up to the care of experienced fingers that fanned out her hair in the foaming water, lathered in the soaps and creams. Fingers running through the length of it, firm pressure kneading against her scalp. It felt like being taken apart and put back together, a machine having its parts oiled for maintenance and running smoothly once again.
It took two pairs of hands to bind it up as tightly as she liked it – smooth against her scalp, no bumps. Perfect symmetry.
The flame-pointed crown came last, and she always placed that in herself.
Zuko knelt on the bank, watching the last dregs of their honour wash down the river until he could feel his knees growing damp spots. Next to him Uncle made a big show of standing, stretching, and smoothing out his grey mane. Without the imperious topknot he looked older, more fragile. He had given up so much for him, and Zuko didn’t think he would ever understand why. He swallowed down the bitter thought.
“Would you like me to shave the rest, so that it can grow back even?”
“I’ll do it myself.” He muttered, but there was no bite to his voice. He held out his hand for the knife, looking away into the rippling water.
It was a long time before he caught sight of himself next. He measured his appearance by sensations: the way his head felt strangely light when he turned, the even cap of fuzz beneath his fingers. Sometimes he would catch himself idly rubbing at the jagged line where prongs of scar tissue interrupted it. Then there was the way his muscles receded before his eyes, and being able to count every rib on his chest when he stripped off to wash.
He didn’t see himself, but he knew what he looked like. He looked like a man with nothing left to lose.
Just outside a port town, a nameless girl by the roadside twisted up her long hair and sliced it through. One less identifiable feature, when he’d send people hunting for her, to drag her back to that hole. She squeezed the length of it in her fist and touched the bare nape of her neck with her other hand. She’d expected to feel more horror staring at all those years’ worth of careful maintenance separated from her body.
But it was just something dead, waiting to be ash.
The strands burned up in her hands and she watched them melt with an obsessive fascination. All she felt was hollowed out. But she was light on her feet, lighter than before. She could outrun anyone, and she could disappear, just for a little while. Long enough to think, to get a hold of herself and plan. She stood up and wiped off her hands on the loose white robes they’d dressed her in. Her next job would be to find new clothes.
Uncle was clearly more excited about the coming evening than Zuko was. He wouldn’t stop fussing.
Zuko had let him take the reins, which meant laying out the nice outfit he’d insisted on buying for him ‘just in case’, and slicking down his hair with some kind of pomade that made his head feel cold and itchy. He was chattering all the while, dispensing flirting advice (“if you feel a lull in the conversation, don’t be afraid to pepper in a compliment or two!”). Eventually he got onto the topic of his very first outing with a special young lady, which filled Zuko’s mind with all sorts of images he really didn’t want. It wasn’t technically his first date, anyway. Did walking in the palace gardens with Mai at thirteen and holding hands even count as a date? It felt like that had happened in a different life, to a different person.
“I…” Why was he so nervous? “I don’t know you’re making me do this.”
“After three years in the company of old sailors, most young men would be eager to meet people their own age. A city this size, there are so many opportunities for companionship!”
The last time he’d ‘met people his own age’ ended with him getting in a sword fight and wrecking Pao’s shop. And Pao consequently docking his pay for the next week in the name of damages. ‘Companionship’ was something that happened successfully to other people. It couldn’t be for him, especially not in this city where Zuko wasn’t allowed to exist, and Li the tea server had taken his place.
He wondered, sometimes, who exactly Uncle was comparing him to when he said most young men.
(Zuko could remember as a child watching Lu Ten flirt with girls on the beach at Ember Island, confident, instantly likeable. The look Uncle would give him that pretended to be admonishing, but was not-so-secretly very proud.)
“I told you already. I’m not trying to settle down here.”
“I’m not asking you to. All that matters is that the two of you enjoy a pleasant evening in each other’s company.”
Before Zuko could protest further, Uncle stepped back to admire his handiwork. “Oh, Zuko, you look so handsome.”
Another one of his well-intentioned lies, obviously, but Uncle genuinely looked like he might be about to cry, so Zuko muttered “If you say so.”
There was something he’d heard one of the members of his crew say, once. They said a lot of things when they thought he wasn’t listening. Y’know why we don’t have any mirrors on board? He’d shatter them every time he walked past.
“I mean it. Your lady friend is going to be fighting off the competition all night.”
His face felt very hot.
“Isn’t this exciting!” Ty Lee chirped. “It’s been a while since I went to a party.”
Of course Ty Lee had been to parties like this, Azula thought. Not for the first time, she wondered what else Ty Lee had gotten up to in the years since she ran away, tossing aside all her responsibilities for the carefree circus life. It was a nice fantasy, and Azula had let her have it for a few years, at least.
“Your hair looks so nice, Azula! Are you wearing it down tonight?”
It was loose, and wavier than usual from their day on the beach. Seeing it like that stirred some vague shadow in the back of her mind. Being on Ember Island after all these years was making her feel strange, like she was treading on memories wherever she walked.
Azula twirled a finger through it. “Do you think I should?”
It only made sense to consult her for advice, given her experience in this area. It would be foolish to head into an unknown situation without utilising her companions’ knowledge. Why else had she enlisted them? Both Ty Lee and Zuko were now intriguing oddities in their little group, with the layers of dirt they’d accumulated. It had improved them vastly- they both always needed hardening up - and, she would begrudgingly admit, it had given them perspective that she lacked in certain areas.
Azula had been to formal parties and receptions but this? This was new territory. These teenagers were the future commanders and advisers of their nation, and even if they would always be below her, she ought to be able to socialise with them on their level.
“Well, it looks super nice like that! But you could pull off any style you wanted. I’ve always been so jealous of your hair.”
“I know.” She had a sudden flash of inspiration. “Well, how would you wear it, for a party like this?”
She looked briefly surprised by the question, before her face turned to one of contemplation. “Um, how about a sort of half-up, half-down look?” She came over, tentatively scooped up the top half of Azula’s hair, and fiddled with it for a moment before tying it into place. “There! It’s kinda like a halfway between your usual style and something a little bit more, well, casual! Like, it says I’m trying, but I’m not trying too hard.”
She turned her head from side to side. It looked good – dignified, but casual. Father wore his hair like this, sometimes, in their occasional training bouts together. He was always immaculately put-together even in loose practice robes.
“Yes. This will do nicely.”
His hair was finally long enough for a real, passable topknot – more or less. Loose, it hung into his face and down around his chin.
How long would it be by the time the comet arrived? Touching his shoulders? How long until it grew as long as his father’s?
If he slumped forwards, it covered his eyes and tickled his nose. An inconvenient length for travelling, and for training.
He started gently with the scissors, gradually growing bolder until his hair started to look a little more like it did back in Ba Sing Se. Years of maintaining the harsh shave had given him a steady enough hand, though he couldn’t really reach the back. It wasn’t going to be quite even, but then again, neither was his face.
This hesitant trim by candlelight, the night before the eclipse, somehow felt more final than shearing through his phoenix tail with one clean cut. Even then, deep down, hadn’t he still believed that he could come home someday? That there was a home to come back to?
She hadn’t even really thought about what she was doing, it had just made her so angry. Why couldn’t she put her hair up herself? Why had she ever relied on someone else for something so important?
She should have been better than this. Shouldn’t have given into the temptation to actually do it, like a child having a temper tantrum. In that moment every miserable failure of judgement seemed to come crashing down in a huge wave- the Avatar, Zuko, all of it slipping through her fingers. It was gracious that despite her recent errors, despite her having the audacity to talk back to Father in front of everyone, he had still trusted her with this. She was still his heir and the only one he could rely on.
He wouldn’t be impressed at all when he saw what she’d done to herself, she dimly recognised. Maybe she wanted him to be angry again. No, that was a ridiculous thought. It was because he was far away, now, on a different level altogether, easy to put out of mind. From the airship he sailed in people would look as insignificant as beetle-moths. Would he even bother with her, with the Fire Nation at all, when he was busy ruling the entire world?
Hair grew back. Mistakes were only temporary problems waiting to be corrected.
And it would all be better now that she finally understood the truth, that everybody else turned out inadequate sooner or later. Alone she would be an impeccable ruler, nobody to let her down. No Mai and Ty Lee. No Uncle. No Zuko. No Mother, no matter how determined she was to ruin it all.
Azula wouldn’t let her. Already she was pushing her from her mind. All of them, they were nothing to her. She stood and walked away from the wreckage of her reflection (it would be swept up later, it would all be dealt with. Nobody was around to see her fumble with shaking hands as she dressed herself, so it didn’t happen.)
The palace was as silent and empty as the day of black sun. She walked the full length of the royal gallery, already feeling the comet’s force beginning to tingle beneath her skin, and let out an experimental kick. A power-drunk lash of fire poured out. Oh, that was beautiful. She thought of all her enemies and all those traitors and dared any one of them to come and fucking try her now. She wanted them to.
Along the wall the towering portraits of Fire Lords past stretched out in a long line, and she wondered what hers would look like next to them. Fire Lord Azula, conqueror of Ba Sing Se, crowned beneath the blaze of Sozin’s Comet, may her flame burn eternal. She imagined her image staring out forever and wreathed in fearsome blue flame, every mistake smoothed away into a flawless monument to her achievements. And her hair would be grown out long, and dignified, and perfect. She could see it so clearly it made her ache.
(When the fire sages came looking for her to bring her outside for her coronation, they found her standing as though frozen, staring up at her father’s portrait with vacant eyes.)
One summer evening in the beach house, Ursa had both of her children to herself.
They’d spent the day playing beside the ocean before the rain had chased them all inside. They sat around in their nightclothes, bathed and free of sand and salt. Azula was unusually quiet and complacent, straight-backed as Ursa ran the jade comb through her hair.
Ozai had left early. It seemed that every year he found excuses to stay on Ember Island with them for less and less of the summer. Perhaps eventually he would give up the pretence and stop bothering to come at all. She had barely managed to talk him out of taking Azula back with him this time. Ursa knew she would have chosen to go with her father, if she were given the choice.
“You have such beautiful hair.” She said as she set the comb down, running a hand through it. The thought ashamed her, but she wished Azula could always be like this – the way she could be sometimes, when Ozai wasn’t around. Softer, more open, her quick intelligence put to use in devising games for herself and Zuko, play-acting, harmless mischief. Like a real child. That side of her seemed to come out less and less with each summer that crept by. Something was slipping away, like an hourglass running thin on time.
But for now, the three of them had this. Ember Island, and a letter from Lu Ten on the nightstand addressed To My Favourite Aunt and Cousins that had made them all giggle with his jokes about life in the Ba Sing Se camp, and had said hope you guys aren’t having too much fun without me, Dad sends his love, we’ll be there next year for sure.
“Okay, your turn, Zuko.” She called, beckoning him with her hand. Azula scooted over on the stool and her brother squeezed himself on beside her. From behind, like this, they could almost pass for twins.
“Who has nicer hair, me or him?” Azula asked.
“Not everything’s a competition.” Zuko replied, and met Ursa’s eye in the mirror for approval.
“That’s right. You’re my beautiful little turtleducklings and I love you both, okay?” Azula looked away, distant and uncomfortable, but she didn’t argue. “Now, come on and get under the covers if you still want a story before bedtime.”
By the time she was halfway through the tale, both of them were fast asleep. They’d have kinks tomorrow, going to bed with damp hair, but how could she wake them now?
She pressed a firm kiss to the top of two clean-smelling heads, and wished she could push it all into them, somehow. But, she thought, you never know which of the things you say will stay with children. While she had them both here with her, for this brief time, she allowed herself to believe it could be enough. She snuffed out the lamp and sat there in the dark, listening to the summer rain turning torrential and fierce.