Notes: This is a remix of Reign Within, which is a fantastic semi-AU Avatar fic by the inestimable peri_peteia. I have been obsessed with that fic for ages, so writing this remix was a delight. It turned out EVEN MORE DISTURBING than I thought it would, which is a real accomplishment, but apparently Azula is one severely fucked-up little cookie (yeah, who knew, right?).
The title is a mixture of Fake Palindromes, which is the One True Azula Song, and Electrical Storm, which is the song for Azula in this fic.
to cover a bruise (the rainy days remix)
When they are twelve years old, someone somewhere flicks a switch, flicks their fingers like they're creating sparks, and Mai is set aside like one of those dolls that are meant to be looked at -- looked at, but not played with. Just set in a display case and left alone to increase in value. Azula isn't stupid.
And when Zuko's engagement to Mai is announced (yes, the names align themselves that way in her head -- the engagement is something that Zuko owns, or more precisely, something that the Fire Nation owns) Azula doesn't care because it's just a symbol, like half of the things in her life, and as long as everything looks proper on the outside nobody cares what happens underneath. She imagines that when the two of them eventually marry she will still be able to have Mai, just like she has everything of Zuko's now; that she will take possession of her with the same insolent smile she uses to steal his last slice of fruit and the best pieces of furniture for her room. Besides, Zuko doesn't seem to care all that much; he hardly ever engages the girl in conversation, he practically has trouble holding eye contact with her. Useless.
Azula has a faint memory of her world suddenly shrinking to a more manageable size, of adults and political references and gorgeous tapestries thrice her height being replaced by a pair of girls her own age. Light and dark, loud and quiet, nothing like a matching set. But hers. A six-year-old princess of the blood, Azula was quite accustomed to gifts; the fact that these ones talked back was just an added novelty.
"Let us know if they're not to your liking," murmured Li.
"They can be sent away," added Lo.
In those five words lay Azula's delight in her new friends. She chose them, tested and teased them and made the decision that they should stay, and she made sure that they knew it. Mai lifted her chin and flattened her voice in response to every barb, but the understanding remained: that Azula could have her replaced with someone more suitable, if she so wished.
And now? Now the idea of the station, Zuko's fiancée, is something much larger than Mai herself. Mai's parents bow and smile and thank Azula for all her kindness towards their daughter; what they mean, of course, is thank you for not discarding her before she could become this important. To her parents Mai is a piece of sharp metal with a fishing line attached, thrown out desperately and snagged in the royal tapestry. Hauling her family behind her as she attains new heights.
Azula, twice as old now and with a smile that sits on her mouth like watered-down wine, inclines her head and watches the way Mai's newly-painted face flickers as her hand is laid on top of Zuko's.
"Mai!" Ty Lee grins. "Play with us. Just once."
"I'm not dressed for it," Mai says.
"Are you telling me you can't fight in those clothes, Mai? I'm disappointed."
At the sound of Azula's voice Mai's bored expression becomes, finally, something with a hint of yearning to it, and then it dissolves again. But her hands emerge from her sleeves holding weapons.
There is something comforting, balancing, in the rhythm of these games. Ty Lee's effortless physicality is something upon which Azula finds herself depending, and it contracts nicely with Mai's habit of holding herself aloft. Now that she has been assigned a new function Mai appears more detached than ever from the action of her wrists, from the thunk of the metal as it embeds itself in wood. But she smiles in appreciation of her own aim, ever so slightly, and Azula is -- pleased. Pleased and warm and harsh with possession.
As yet, Azula's bending is nowhere near as polished as the twist of Ty Lee's slender body, but she more than makes up for it with sheer raw power. And she loves the way it feels to channel her own spirit into something tangible and deadly, she loves the hot pain that laces itself around her fingers when she tries a form that she has not quite mastered, she loves the naked admiration on Ty Lee's face and the way Mai is forced to pull her skirts sideways to avoid the flames.
Zuko is banished and Azula allows herself one moment of fear, because she now knows that her blood is not protection enough. This is only correct and proper, she tells herself: if you turn traitor to your own blood then you forfeit everything. Still, she pours her efforts into her firebending and into the balancing act of power, creating herself in her father's image. Her ambition is ruthless but tempered with patience and respect for the proper lines of succession.
Adults begin to notice her again; servants avoid her or bend themselves to her whims, depending on their personal judgements and strengths. Through experimentation, through fear and obedience and the careful use of her own position, Azula learns the currents of information that swirl through the palace as predictably as the seasonal winds, and she learns how to channel them to her own ears. And so it is not long before she discovers that Mai has been swiftly diverted from son to father, like a reverse inheritance. The girl's family has seen the potential for the unraveling of their dreams, and they have rushed to loop more threads around their hook of a daughter. Azula can almost respect the blatant nature of their ambition.
But it takes her a while to realise what her father wants, what he thinks he is gaining by pandering to their manipulations. The royal family has no need of another daughter: Azula is perfect, she is everything she needs to be. Finally, Azula intercepts and interprets the way he looks at Mai and realises that he certainly doesn't see her as a daughter, but she can't decide whether this is better or worse. Either way, she wants to knock Mai to the floor for the presumption. She wants to stand in front of him and recapture his attention -- she wants to go back to being the only girl to ever be reflected in her father's eyes.
When Mai is called again to the palace, Azula is waiting, but half the fun disappears when she discovers that Mai has no idea how she has been bargained for. Azula toys with the idea of telling her, but even she knows that there are rules to be followed here, and she only breaks the rules that do not involve her father in any way. Zuko's mistake will not be hers: never, never, never.
"We've missed your unique perspective on things, Mai," she says, and, "Such a pity Zuzu couldn't be here, he always appreciated people with no sense of humour."
But Azula's voice is too-sweet and too-hollow even to her own ears, and when Mai turns away without a word she imagines raking her nails along the girl's white shoulders.
Often Azula wishes that she could have been there in the moment when Mai was informed of her new status; it joins the other fantasy narratives in her mind as an ideal spectacle. Perhaps there would not have been much to see -- a barely-noticeable flinch of her lips, a tightening of her hand around the fabric of her dress -- but Mai's pain has always been the more fascinating for its subtlety.
These narratives harm no one. They take place inside her head, inside the moments where imagination splits the future and Mai throws her wine into Azula's face instead of bowing her head in her normal quiet dismissal of any insult. Where the Fire Lord frowns at his bride-to-be and closes his hand around her thin forearm and tells her to apologise for her disrespect.
In the darkness of her chambers Azula splits the story and splits it again. Mai leaves the table and the royal family -- family by blood -- dines alone. Mai looks Azula in the face and tells her how sorry she is; how much she misses their games. Mai's mouth cleans the spilled wine from Azula's cheek and her father watches them, his eyes shadowed and his expression proprietary.
These narratives harm no one.
Which is why Azula finds them, ultimately, unfulfilling.
In the space of ten minutes her life is shaken apart; her father's eyes glide to the corner of the room, reflecting flames and dark curtains, but then they pin her with implacable force.
"Are you or are you not my heir, Azula?"
Azula is trapped. She cannot move an inch in any direction, and she will not plead, and so she forces something like a smile onto her face.
"I will make you proud, Father."
He does not say good, or even good luck. He nods and she pulls herself upright -- marching orders received -- and doesn’t know whether to feel proud or ashamed. She walks straight to her chambers and starts firing out orders of her own, overseeing the packing of as few of her belongings as possible. If this is a test, she will pass it. If this is a punishment, she will turn it on those who dare to bring her low.
"I heard --" Ty Lee leaps to a graceful halt in the middle of the room and stares at the boxes and activity. "I heard, just Lo and Li. And you. Is that true?"
Azula grabs hold of the girl's arm and forces her to meet her eyes. "You will run away and join us," she commands, "you will not leave me alone," and it takes all of the practiced imperiousness she possesses not to sound desperate.
Ty Lee's face is white; she looks small and out-of-focus, and it takes Azula a moment to realise that this is because she isn't smiling. She says, "Of course -- of course I'll come," and she presses a kiss against the side of Azula's mouth, faster than thought.
Just for a moment, Azula is too surprised to do anything but watches the pale flash of her friend's feet as she runs away and is swallowed by the corridor's shadows.
The refrain of her new life is this: I have not been banished. Somewhere her brother is hunting the Avatar, but Azula has no need to skulk in the corners of the ocean. She has a station, a mission, a command, and before very long she has a reputation as well.
"Follow them," she says, watching the plume of smoke claw at the sky. "We cannot afford to leave any survivors."
Her captain blinks. "With all due respect, Princess Azula, their ship is crippled -- surely they won't make it to land --"
Azula doesn't raise her voice. She gives a slow smile. "Would you bet your life on that, Captain?"
He swallows visibly, and wipes soot from his palms against his armour. "No, Princess."
"I won't take the risk that they might relay information about our strategies. We will finish this. I will lead the first boarding team myself."
"Oh, good!" Ty Lee spins on one foot. "I was starting to get bored."
The captain stands to attention. "Yes, Princess. I'll give the order immediately."
Lightning spikes in Azula's hands, below the skin. She tightens her grip on the railing and tenses herself, impatiently, for a fight.
"How --" Zuko swallows. "Is Mai well?"
And Azula thinks: my gods, is there anyone in this family who doesn't want her? How has she done this to us?
It is very easy to hate Mai because Azula suspects she never did anything at all. Azula whittles the hatred into a useful blade, and then she opens her mouth and slices Zuko open with a deliberate stroke: "As well as the Fire Lord's consort can be expected to be, I suppose."
"But --" As the realisation crashes down on him Zuko looks angry, and then confused, and then like a little boy abandoned in a crowd. Banishment hasn't toughened him up at all, Azula thinks scornfully. It's a wonder he's as close to the Avatar as he is; perhaps it's sheer dumb luck.
"Oh, dear, Zuzu." Eyes wide. "Don't tell me you hadn't heard."
"That's not funny!" Zuko snaps. "Mai -- she was --"
And it's so obvious and so unfair and Azula is suddenly on fire with her own fury. "No! I chose her!" she bursts out. "She was mine first."
"But she liked me," Zuko lashes back.
And then silence.
Because as long as their father lives, they are little more than children, and neither of them is so naïve as to imagine that their desires mean anything next to Ozai's effortless claim.
The Avatar is just a little boy.
Killing him is not as satisfying as Azula imagined it might be.
On first glance, marriage doesn’t seem to have changed Mai at all, but one of the lessons that Azula has learned at war is never to trust a first glance. And it becomes obvious, over time, that her old friend has picked up a few tricks of her own when it comes to the manipulation of power. Status is complicated: Azula has the value of her blood, but Mai has been chosen, and Azula knows the strength of that. So she refrains from summoning Mai, just in case Mai summons her in turn.
Her father's bedroom is huge; Mai takes up no space at all. But she shifts her feet against the rug and looks at home, in a strange and painstaking way. As though the painted walls are protecting her even from a great distance.
"Aren't you going to ask me why I'm here?"
"I assume you're gathering information," Mai says.
"How astute of you, Mai." Azula smiles at her and then slides the smile deliberately sideways, passing it over the strong dark fixtures of the room and alighting on the bed. "I thought I'd come and ask you some questions -- in preparation for my own wedding one day, you understand. Isn't that what married girls do for their maiden friends? Give advice? Share secrets?"
"I'm not sure that would be appropriate, under the circumstances." Mai is unshaken, her hands buried in her sleeves. Azula wonders how much it would take to make her draw her weapons in anger.
"No?" Azula walks to run the flat of her palm over the rich cloth draped across the bed. She imagines it in loose midnight knots, imagines her father forcing Mai's composure to break, imagines the girl's hair falling down from its usual perfect buns and catching in her open mouth. She turns away from the bed; her head is ringing with a desire that is almost suffocating in its violence. "But we're family now, Mai. You can tell me anything."
"I think you should leave," Mai says. Her voice is as flat and sharp as the blades she wields with, Azula is certain, as much skill as ever.
She is not surprised when Zuko's rooms, occupied for just long enough to send the dust rising in sullen spirals, are vacated again. She is not upset. Nor is she triumphant. She sits with her father and Mai during the evening meal and expresses emotions that she does not feel, in a voice almost as bored as Mai's, and she watches the way Mai's fingertips act in secret code against the fabric of her father's sleeve -- oh, she is not without some understanding of her brother's actions, certainly, but to run away from his own jealousy in such a fashion proves nothing but his own weakness.
She excuses herself early, but that's normal. She considers taking a squad and training until exhaustion erases the desire to think, but when she returns to her rooms to change her clothes, Ty Lee is lying on her bed with her chin in her hands.
"We could leave too," she says as soon as Azula enters. "If you like."
"Really? And what would we do, exactly?"
The girl shrugs, undaunted by the dismissive tone. "Whatever you wanted. We could go back to the war; that was fun, I liked that, being allowed to fight all the time. I hear there's a troublesome rebellion just south of Ba Sing Se. And she's not going to sleep with you," she adds, without drawing breath. "She's got too much to lose, and I think she's still in love with your brother."
Azula feels herself inhale sharply. She says nothing for a while, putting some pieces together; she has the urge to touch her fingers to her mouth, but quashes it.
"I'm not running away," she says finally. "And you --"
"It's all right." Ty Lee lifts herself onto her elbows and kicks her feet in the air. She looks young and mature all at the same time; the maturity is in the way her fingers trace the edge of Azula's sheets. "I know you don’t really want me, not like that."
"Why don't I?" Azula steps closer and watches the graceful ripple of Ty Lee's stomach as she sits up. Somewhere in the palace is an empty suite of rooms, the dust yet unsettled on abandoned surfaces.
Ty Lee smiles. "Because there's no fun in it. Because you've already got me."
Somewhere in the palace her father and Mai are together, or maybe they aren't.
Ty Lee's hands undo her clothing and Ty Lee's smile, growing brighter, promises distraction. Azula supposes that she is grateful.
"Have I?" she says, letting her voice drop into amusement.
Ty Lee kisses her neck. Azula doesn’t close her eyes.
Her dear brother Zuko has more spine than Azula ever gave him credit for, but not quite enough: he sends orders that she must be kept alive and treated with care because she is, after all, family. The irony is beautiful. Azula submits gracefully to imprisonment within her suite of rooms and within two days has bribed one of the guards to carry messages for her. She has informers, supporters, favours owed, all over the Fire Nation. She makes meticulous plans and refuses to entertain a single thought about her father's death.
"I hope you're…well." Zuko does something stubborn with his chin and manages to meet her gaze. Azula sits next to him on her own bed and leans close.
"I suppose you're here to tell me that you're marrying Mai."
He frowns. "I'm going to propose," he says, looking away, and Azula laughs. Propose. As though he were a lovesick merchant instead of the Fire Lord; as though he thinks Mai might actually refuse. This, Azula thinks, is why taking back the empire from him is going to be almost annoyingly easy.
"Really," she drawls. "I'm disappointed in you, Zuzu."
The frown doesn't budge. "What?"
Azula drapes an arm around his shoulders; the guards at the door stand further to attention, but don't move to stop her, and she laughs inwardly at her brother's suspicious glance. As if she'd be so rash. As if she'd act without the certainty of success.
"Oh, well, I hadn't thought you were the type to settle so easily for soiled goods."
Zuko stands up in an awkward jerk, and when he spins to face her again there's something fierce in his face that she would find admirable if it didn't expose him as being so hilariously naïve. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Please." She fakes a yawn, stretches her limbs out like a cat and then lets a smile tilt across her face, enjoying the sharpness of it, like a dagger balanced between her teeth. "Are you going to be able to touch her, Zuko? Are you going to be able to kiss her now that you know where her lips have been? Or are you going to imagine our father's tongue in her mouth, our dead father's fingers all over the skin that she keeps so carefully covered up --"
"Shut up!" Zuko yells, and fire streaks out of his palm, scorching her sheets.
Azula lifts her head from where she has ducked onto the floor to avoid his outburst and she laughs and laughs at the helpless disgust on his face. "Best of luck, brother mine. I wish you every happiness."
Zuko looks like he wants to explode, or crumble into pieces; he leaves without another word and slams the door so hard that the room vibrates.
Azula lets the image linger in her own mind -- her father's strong hands pulling Mai's hair to one side of her neck, Mai averting her porcelain-doll eyes -- and is surprised but not disturbed at the arousal that coils through her body like lightning.
Lines of succession and threads of power: Mai was tangled up in Azula's choices long ago, and so it's only a matter of time before she, too, comes to visit.
She says very little, and her act must be getting better because Azula can't work out if she's pleased or upset or scared or if she's truly managed to turn herself into a mirror. Azula thinks about how Zuko still wants Mai, and how Mai will probably make some effort to be a normal girl but will end up exerting control over him through absolute submission, just as she did with his father. The cycle of inheritance is more like a downwards spiral: Mai is back where she began, but is herself changed so completely that none of them have a chance at normality.
Which is fine with Azula -- she's never cared that much for normality. And the deep fissures in Mai's personality just make her that much more interesting, that much easier for Azula to dig her fingers into and squeeze. The truth is that only Azula deserves her: only Azula sees her passive coercions for what they are, only Azula has had to learn not to need her, and so could discard her. If she wanted.
"You're planning something," Mai says. "Aren't you."
It's not a question. Azula doesn't insult her by treating it like one. Instead she laughs and places her hand, girlishly, on her oldest friend's sleeve, and then yanks Mai towards her with such force that her fingernail creates a minute tear in the fabric. She can feel it, the sudden give, the shock of scraping skin, and her own lips are smiling and hungry as they find Mai's.
Mai submits to the kiss with an apathy that Azula can't help but admire, in all its deceptive, yielding harmlessness. It's unsurprising -- Mai hasn't risen to Azula's bait, verbal or otherwise, since they were children -- but Azula wonders what she's thinking about. Whether she's weighing the dangers in her head.
To this end she searches Mai's face when she pulls away, but there's nothing there, nothing. Her face is a slate wiped clean of any marks, leaving just the glassy beauty of her eyes, and her reddened lips opening and her knife of a voice saying, "I know you, Azula. I know you haven't stopped fighting yet."
"Then I suppose you'd better think carefully about which side you're on, hadn't you?" she whispers.
Azula wonders whether she will keep the girl, when the Fire Nation's sovereignty changes hands for the second and final time, or if she will have her killed. Or if she will offer her a choice.
There is no expression on Mai's face as she leaves.