And then it's just too much:
The streets, they still run with blood.
A hundred arms, a hundred years,
You can always find me here.
When Azula is nine, she becomes an only child.
She hears the Fire Lord call for her brother’s life, and Azula runs to Zuzu’s side to hold it over him. It’s funny at the time. Zuko is so scared and frustrated, and Mother is as cold and distant with Azula as she always is. Azula runs to bed and giggles into her pillows.
The next day, Zuzu and Mother are both gone.
Azula is young, but she isn’t naive like Zuko is. Like Zuko was . She knows what has happened. It takes a long time to sink in, because unlike with Lu Ten, it wasn’t an awful accident. It wasn’t the product of war. Zuzu is gone because the Fire Lord decided that he needed to be gone, and apparently the Fire Lord thought that Mother needed to die, too. And then the Fire Lord is dead, too, and Father ascends the Dragon Throne.
It’s hard to process, but Azula keeps moving. There are moments that she expects to find Zuko feeding the turtleducks, but they’re few and far between.
Azula only allows herself one moment of weakness. While hiding, she hears servants talk about how they will be clearing Zuzu’s room out the following day. It’s only been four days since he disappeared (since he died, Azula’s mind insists; you have to think the actual words), and Azula has spent most of it swept to one side in the energy of Father ascending the throne. She has been shown off, of course, but she mostly spends her time in the shadows.
Azula lets herself visit Zuzu's room one last time while everything is still in place. She stands for long moments in the middle of the room, looking to the bed where she had jumped on her brother to wake him up, to the window where Azula had held out the badgerfrog he’d found to see if it would fly, to the desk where Zuko had carefully penned out nonsense letters for practice. Zuko’s swords are sheathed and leaning up against a wall, like he had recently returned from practice. The room has clearly been tidied, but nothing seems to be missing.
And when Azula spots Zuko’s most prized possession, his pearl-handled dagger, Azula realises that she has somehow been lying to herself. As much as she has forced herself to say and think ‘Zuko died’, she hasn’t really internalised it. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she has been convinced that he got away on time.
But Zuzu would never have left that dagger behind.
It can only be here for one reason, because Zuko wouldn’t have left it willingly. Which means that…
(An emotion bubbles up within Azula, and she stamps down on it firmly.)
Azula approaches the desk where it sits and unsheathes the dagger, glancing at the inscription: never give up without a fight. She hopes that he didn’t. She hopes that he fought to the end, that he had to be taken down, even if she knows that it’s unlikely to be true.
Azula wonders if she should return the dagger to Uncle Iroh. It had been a gift from the stupid old man, of course, and Azula hasn’t seen him since Lu Ten’s death. Uncle Iroh had always liked Zuko, too. It might bring him some comfort.
But she doesn’t. Instead, Azula sheathes the dagger and takes it with her.
Goodbye, brother, she thinks as she leaves Zuko’s bedroom.
When Azula is eleven, she stands for long minutes before their family portrait.
It had been painted when Azula was eight and Zuko was ten. Azula has paused to look at it occasionally when passing by, but now Azula is eleven and she realises that she’s older than Zuko ever was. She stares at his painted face and wonders at how similar they look. (Looked.) Azula has never liked that she takes so significantly after her mother, but she did used to be secretly pleased by how she and Zuzu would sometimes be mistaken for twins. It was amusing largely because it frustrated Zuko, who was two years older than her but small for his age. Now, it makes her wonder what he would have looked like, had he been able to grow into a teenager, and then into an adult.
Would they have still looked alike as adults? Would Azula have found it amusing?
She looks at her mother’s painting every now and then, too, but she feels more detachment there. Mother had never loved Azula. But Zuzu had. Zuko had been devoted to her, once, even when Azula was cruel to him. She had once pushed him off the roof when they were playing, and then overbalanced and needed to jump. Azula had landed on her feet, Zuko had broken his wrist, and Zuko had still been worried about her.
Her brother had been an idiot. But he’d been Azula’s idiot.
(She never admits to missing him out loud. She isn’t even sure if she does, really; life is simpler as the Crown Princess. Azula had always won any competition for Father’s approval, but it was simpler not to have to compete in the first place.
But she does stop and stare at Zuko’s face.)
Which makes it all the more surprising when Azula tracks the Avatar down and fights his group of peasant friends, only to find herself staring into an eerily familiar face.