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Title: Azula Bender
Author: Clocktower
Words: 66,140 - 33 Chapters

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Summary: Attempts to reform Azula while she’s in prison take unexpected turns.D/s, Dom, F/F, NonCon

*Chapter 1*: Chapter One

Chapter One.

“Eighty-nine, ninety, ninety-one,” Azula counted, one for each time she was able to extend her arms. They didn’t like it when she worked out in her cell, but the only other option was shackling her and they were too weak to take such measures.

She had taken to doing her hand stand push-ups in the middle of her cell with no aid from the wall because it disturbed the guards when they caught her doing it. She had blinded one of them, once, when she first became imprisoned, and the others didn’t look in on her anymore than they had to

“One,” she said, holding the push-up on the low end before exploding upward, “hundred!” She launched herself high enough to tuck her legs under and stand. She could barely feel her arms.

Her cell was large, but she spent her days and nights in a ten by twenty cage, with a nine foot high ceiling. It gave the illusion of space, but it wore off quickly, even with the high slitted windows that let in the sound of the churning sea.

They let her have books and tools to write should she have a mind. She kept a journal, the entries sporadic. There was only so much to think about after spending three years in a cell.

She was allowed minor fire bending, but only under supervision. After blinding the guard during her first week, she had spent a month in solitary confinement, a term that amused her as she was always alone anyway.

Solitary itself did not amuse her, however. The room’s ceiling was about six inches from the top of her head and wide enough for her to sit down over a stinking hole but nothing more. There was no window of any kind and it was cold, like a glacier. Had there been room to maneuver, she could muster some fire but the cramped space and temperature meant no flames.

They left her in there for a month, or at least they said it was that long. It could have been a year or a week and she wouldn’t have known. She lost her sense of time, measuring it only by the sparse meals and fluctuations of her bowels. She lost her sense of space and nearly lost a sense of herself.

Near the end the voices came, mostly that of her mother, telling her she was a monster and deserved to be where she was. Her father was there too, calling her weak. Zuko chimed in occasionally, along with her former friends, Mai an Ty Lee. Soon they were the only voices she heard. They talked among themselves, mainly about her, but also about other things related to that disastrous year. The Year of Sozin’s Comet.

And that was why she behaved in her lonely prison cell with the sound of fresh air and freedom mere feet away and nothing to do but workout, read, or write.

Lately she had found herself regretting the early conversations with her former friends. They had come to visit her in her cell a few months after she had been locked up, but after a few sessions of the coldest hate filled stares she had ever mustered, they gave up and stopped coming. That had felt good for a while, but now she wished she had someone to speak with.

Someone aside from that damned Avatar.

Once a week, like clockwork, he came to visit her. He told her what her brother was doing, said her uncle was doing well, and even tried to tell her that her father, the one time Phoenix King, was doing well enough to be let out of his cell on house arrest.

She had called him a liar, then. At fifteen, he had grown into quite the young man but hadn’t lost that maddening wide-eyed innocence he had carried when she first met him.

It made her want to spit. It was a veneer, a mask he wore. He was about as wide-eyed as an old badger-mole. A year ago, she thought if she played their game and pretended to reform, they would let her out and could lay plans to make them all sorry. She had been subtle, so subtle. After a lot of crying and talk of dark places and dark thoughts. She even told him about her mother, and it seemed to work.

Then it all fell apart. She had been able to fool that blind earth bender way back when, but Avatar Aang had come into his own quite nicely and had seen through her deception.

“I’m sorry, Azula,” he had said. She was on her knees with her face soaked in tears. Real tears, even. They had formed a puddle on the floor and she remembered getting her hand wet. “I want to let you out, I really do, but you’re too dangerous.”

She had sent a bolt of lighting at his heart, but he sent it out the window. Unable to control her anger, she sent a plume of fire in all directions, burning her bedding and scorching all the burnable material they had allowed her. He threw up a protective air sphere in time to avoid being burnt, then quickly used earth bending to restrain her and bent her fires out.

They had thrown her in solitary again for that, although she overheard him making her case to the guards. He was able to talk the warden down to one week, but the man insisted that outburst couldn’t be tolerated or there would be more of them and someone would get hurt.

She had been so angry she had actually vomited. She had told no one about her mother, no one. Telling it had been like spilling her own guts with a dagger and it had amounted to nothing.

Azula now jumped and grabbed the bars above her. Making her feet rigid ninety degree angles, she hooked them over the bars and began doing crunches. If she ever did get free, at least she would be in shape.

The door at the far end opened and she turned to see the upside down form of Avatar Aang enter the room. He was dressed in a loose shirt and pants that seemed to be a combination of the current Fire Nation style and that of the extinct Air Nomads.

“Hi, Azula,” he said, sitting cross legged in front of her cell.

She kept doing her crunches. Let him see that she was still Fire Lord Azula whether anyone liked it or not. “You’re early this week,” she said. “Scheduling conflict?”

“You could say that,” he said. “We had a meeting about you recently.”

“Oh, how nice. I’m so happy to see you all still care after these long years. If it were me in your position, I’d forget about you and leave you to rot.” She had learned that Aang would listen to whatever vitriol she decided to spill, and took the weekly opportunity to enjoy it. Still, she was intrigued somewhat by what he was now saying.

“I’m sure you would,” he said. “Listen, no one wants to keep you in here forever. Well…some people do. Okay, a lot of people want to keep you in here forever, but I don’t. No offense, but your mind is like poison, and keeping you locked up alone with it won’t get the poison out.”

“Then,” crunch, “let,” crunch, “me,” crunch, “out.”

“It’s not that simple. I’ve done some traveling and I’ve met with some people, and we’ve developed a rehabilitation plan for you, but I’m not sure you’re going to like it. I’m not sure I’m all that hot for it.”

Azula relaxed her feet and landed on her hands. Slowly, she curled her body so her feet were on the ground and she stood. “Get on with it. I’m busy.”

“Some of the girls are going to visit you one by one over the next few days and, uh, have a talk with you. Hopefully by the end you’ll see things a little differently, or at least be willing to listen.”

She cocked an eyebrow, as this made no sense. “I’ve been ignoring you consistently for the past three years. What makes you think I’ll listen to anyone else? And why the girls? My weak brother and that idiot water tribe savage will fail just as well.”

“They told me you sort of swing that way, so…”

“What?”

“You’ll see, there’s no need for me to get involved. But…”

“But what? Spit it out, you arrow-headed windbag.”

“If they can’t get through to you, I’ve agreed to use energy bending on you and lock your ability to bend fire.”

It was like a block of ice had formed in her stomach and her limbs had been wrapped in lead. Her heart sped up and she felt the blood drain from her face. “Y-you wouldn’t,” she said, thinking of her father. The Avatar had used some twisted form of bending on him, making him unable to bend fire. The Fire Lord, the Phoenix King, unable to bend flames, it was like a bird without wings or a fish without fins.

“I would and I will,” Aang said. “You can’t spend the rest of your life in here the way you are. For one, it’s senseless and cruel, and two, you’ll escape. I don’t know how, or when, but someday it will happen and you can’t be free the way you are.”

She felt her lips forming the word “Please,” but bit her tongue. She wouldn’t beg. She’d die first.

“I know you don’t want your bending taken away,” he said. “I don’t want to take it. I only took it from Ozai because the the only other option was killing him. It’s a part of you like it’s a part of all benders. Try to work with us. I believed what you said that one time and deep, deep, really deep down I think there’s something that could be called good in you. If we can dig it up and encourage it to grow, I think you’ll feel a lot better.”

He stood up and walked out of the room while she said nothing. The cold feeling wouldn’t leave. Hearing him had been like being told to sit down when one was already sitting. “I think you’ll feel a lot better,” he had said. She felt fine enough when left alone. There had been no inner turmoil with her, not like her brother Zuko and his supposed struggles with morality and sense of self. Sure, maybe the pressure of being the Fire Lord had gotten to her, but it had been so sudden she hadn’t had time to prepare, plus her own friends had betrayed her.

All that aside, she had felt right, and she knew she would feel that way even after this foolish game of the Avatar’s had played itself out. She would try to fake it as best she could, but he would see through her and in the end, would take away her bending. Her power. The only thing that made her worth anything, especially these days.

She conjured a small blue flame in her hand and watched it flicker. How many more times would she be able to see it? To see an expression of her very soul before her eyes giving off heat and the threat of destruction?

For the first time, she found herself wondering if she could in fact change. She had no idea what that change would look or feel like, or why anyone would want it, but with the prospect of losing her bending before her, perhaps it was something to explore.

To be continued…

*Chapter 2*: Chapter Two

Chapter Two.

Her first visitor came earlier than she expected.

The darkness of her cell was cut by beams of pale light from the full moon. If the reports were true, even the moon was a friend of the Avatar’s, meaning she was never truly free of them. In an hour or so the moon would be at an angle where she could see it through the high slits. It never looked any different to her, and she wondered if tales of the battle with the Northern Water Tribe had been exaggerated.

The door to the main room opened and admitted a figure Azula recognized and hated. Katara of Southern Water Tribe hadn’t changed her look much in three years. She still wore her bangs in those foolish loops and had that plain peasant’s necklace. She wore a plain Fire Nation style kimono with a distinctly Water Tribe flair. Azula wondered who was making their clothes and hoped she might someday give them third degree burns.

“Azula,” the water bender said, nodding politely.

“I’m sorry, what was your name again?” Azula replied.

“You’ll know it well enough by the end of tonight,” Katara said, coming within feet of Azula’s cage. She wondered how long she’d be put in solitary if she managed to burn the little water peasant. If her bending days were numbered, it would be a shame not to hurt someone before they were over.

“I’m sure I will,” Azula said. “Get on with whatever little speech you’ve prepared. If the Avatar thinks he can bore me into submission, I’d like to get it over with.”

“There isn’t going to be a speech,” Katara said, a crook of a smile appearing at the corner of her dark brown lips. A look had also come into her eyes, one that made them sparkle in contrast to her skin. “We had a long talk about this, as Aang might have mentioned. What I don’t think he mentioned is that the discussion took the better part of a year and involved a lot of research.”

Katara’s stance widened, and Azula sat forward on her wooden stool. The kimono was a tight fit to Katara’s body, showing every tense muscle about to spring. Azula couldn’t be sure in the tricky moonlight, but it didn’t seem as if the water bender was wearing anything beneath the thin cloth. “What is this? Some kind of…brain bending? Interesting but…”

It felt like a thousand tiny hands had gripped the inside of her body and were shunting her around in unison. Her muscles strained against the bizarre force, and she stood up against her will and stood still with her arms at her side and her chin up. “W-what the hell…” she managed to say before her mouth closed.

Katara was moving her own body in short, flowing movements mainly in her fingers. “It’s called blood bending,” Katara said. “You’re only the third person I’ve ever worked it on, so feel privileged.”

“Impressive,” Azula said, forcing with all her strength the jaw motions needed for the words. “But…pointless.”

“You still don’t get it, do you?” Katara said. “Actually, I kind of agree with you. This plan is shaky at best and I can’t believe we’re going through with it, but Aang wants to give you a chance and this is a favor to him.”

“Is the plan to confuse me into a state of peaceful loving weakness?” Azula said, her jaw aching. “Because the confusion phase is a success.”

“I’m not usually so crude, but it’s the best way to explain,” Katara said. Azula’s hands went to the buttons on the shirt she wore and began to undo them, starting from the bottom. “Zuko told us about your trip to Ember Island after he stabbed his uncle in the back. He told us about the party and what a complete antisocial dork you are.”

The words hit Azula like slaps to the face. She remembered that day. All the whining and complaining. Even she had been sucked into it.

“And that led to the theory that the reason you’re such a…bitch,” Katara paused, clearly not accustomed to cursing “is because you’ve never been laid.”

“Excuse me!?” Azula shouted, nearly breaking Katara’s control. “I’ll have you know I’m one of the most desirable…”

“Murderous sociopaths in the Fire Nation,” Katara finished, beads of sweat forming on her brow from the effort of holding Azula in place. “No argument here. Out of all the anti-social royals who’ve been too busy fire bending and doing awful things to get a date, you’re the hottest.”

“For the sake of argument,” Azula said, now able to move her mouth freely. Her arms, however, had slipped off her shirt and now she stood in nothing but her pants and black silken bra. “Let’s say you’re right. What does this have to do with it?”

“Zuko also told us he thinks you prefer girls,” Katara said, now doing more complicated movements with her arms. Azula, quite unwillingly, kicked off her slippers and undid the silk string around her pants. “So we’re going to see if getting you a little action mellows you out a little.”

“You can’t be serious,” Azula said, removing her pants. Her underwear matched her bra in color and material. There was no way she would have suffered cheap underwear and the guards knew it.

“Don’t worry, Azula, with luck I won’t have to touch you.”

Azula’s two fingers on her right hand went inside her mouth, lubing them up with spit. Her legs spread, and the slick fingers went down the front of her panties searching for the sweet spot between her legs. The fingers were clumsy, and Azula had a feeling she was in for a rough night.

“No good,” Katara said. “Off with them, I need to see what I’m doing.”

Azula removed her panties and flung them into a corner. Her finger went back in her mouth and she could taste herself on them. When her hand returned to the slit between her thighs she found she was excited.

“They said you might enjoy it,” Katara muttered, just loud enough for Azula to hear.

Azula was glad she took the time and effort to shave herself down there, otherwise there might be some pulling going on. Katara stepped closer so she could see and bent Azula’s fingers in ways they had never bent themselves. The feeling was intense, like nothing Azula had ever imagined. She had touched herself before, but nothing serious. Her womanhood was softer than she remembered, warmer and wetter, too. Still, it seemed to enjoy the harsh pressure of her fingers as they pressed down and swirled around.

Her knees wanted to buckle, but Katara’s will held them in place. Her other hand went to her mouth for lubrication and joined the other between her legs, holding her open so the other could go deeper. Her breathing changed and each motion of her finger sent a wave of heat and pleasure up through her body, like a fire had been lit inside.

The fire leveled off and burned, just beneath a level that might illicit a moan or a deep sigh. “Not going to work, water bender,” Azula said.

“The night’s young and the moon is full,” Katara said, willing Azula to walk backwards and fall onto her bed.

Her fingers went deeper. The hand inside her briefly left to undo her bra and giver her nipples soft pinches. “Ugh,” escaped Azula’s lips and she was annoyed to find she was slowly approaching an orgasm. Her first in a long, long time.

“You don’t do this often, do you?” Katara said, making Azula’s hand go back where it was. “You’re going to explode pretty soon, I can feel it.”

And she was right. Azula could feel the orgasm building, like a meteor screeching towards earth ready to make a world of fire when it hit. In the meantime, it burned a streak of pleasure and release through an awful cold tension she didn’t know she had been carrying.

Her fingers slowed as the comet approached and finally stopped with it hovering above her. The muscles in her nether regions twitched like she had been doing crunches for five hours and couldn’t take anymore.

She lie still, sweat having pooled into her naval where it now steamed from the flames roiling inside her. With all her effort, she tried to force her hands to work their magic but Katara held them still, like ice.

“What’s my name?” she asked.

“What?” Azula couldn’t turn her head.

“What. Is my. Name?” Katara said, rolling each syllable so she seemed to purr.

“I don’t understand you,” Azula shouted, although she did. “Just finish it, it’s what you came here to do.”

“I could shackle your hands behind your back and leave,” Katara said. “Do you want me to leave you like that?”

“No,” Azula said, most of her conscious thought bent towards one thing, the burning comet waiting to smash into her and give her release.

“Then say my name, bitch,” Katara said. “Say it. Nice and loud if you don’t mind.”

Azula tasted blood. That a person could be in hell and in the throes of ecstasy was new information to her, but she would ponder it later. “Katara,” she shouted. “Katara, Katara, Katara. Your name is Katara of the Southern Water Tribe!”

Her hands slipped back into their wet work and the comet came down, tail and all, smashing everything inside her and sending plumes of heat into her body, down her legs and up her torso into her brain where it burned up all thought.

After a while she was able to move, but her muscles ached and she was soaked in sweat.

“You didn’t deserve that, but if Aang says it might help then I hoped you learned something,” Katara said. “My name, if nothing else.”

And with that, she walked quickly out the door, leaving Azula to fall into a doze.

To be continued…

*Chapter 3*: Chapter Three

Chapter Three.

Azula woke up late and spent the day wondering how the treatment she had received at the hands of the water bender was supposed to help her.

The Avatar could have warned me, she thought, but that would have been a bad idea on his part and she had to commend him for his prudence. She expected him to pay her another visit and explain himself, but he didn’t. Instead she went through an shortened workout routine, having lost the morning to sleep.

She stopped for meal times and the guards said nothing. She scanned their faces for anything different but only saw their usual wariness. None had forgotten the blinding of their comrade years prior.

I’ll burn you all before this is over, she thought. It was worth it to undergo the Avatar’s ridiculous scheme to reform her in the off chance she could bluff him or convince him to have a change of heart, but she had no intention to let him take her fire bending quietly. He might win in the end, but she vowed it would cost him something.

After dinner, she waited. The moon was still full, and she wondered if the water bender would return or if it would be someone else. And will their intentions be the same? She wondered.

She sat cross-legged on the floor of her cell, listening. After what seemed like hours she gave a start when the door opened abruptly.

It was the earth bender. Toph Bei Fong, if Azula remembered correctly.

“Sill crazy?” she said, walking silently into the room. Azula could see why, she was barefoot.

She sees with her feet, or something, Azula thought. She hadn’t seen much of the little earth bender during the last year of the war, but she could see that she had filled out nicely. Taller, with unmistakable hips and swell in chest, Toph stood with her feet planted and her arms crossed. Like her friends, she wore flowing Fire Nation clothes with a flare from her homeland. The headband she wore was cut to look like flames.

“Still blind?” Azula said. “I’m as sane I ever was. It’s others I worry about.”

“I’d worry about myself if I were you,” Toph said. “I take it Sweetness didn’t manage to teach you anything.”

Azula scoffed. “And just what am I supposed to learn? That the Avatar and his friends are insane perverts?”

“I guess you were supposed to learn not to be such a bitch, but I guess it didn’t take. Can’t say as I’m surprised. If it works at all, it’s going to take more than a water bender to iron out the kinks in your system.”

“My kinks?” Azula said, clenching her fists. She was about to risk a little fire bending when Toph slid her foot sideways. The ground beneath Azula’s feet shifted, and she fell forward onto her hands and knees.

Her hands burst into flames but before she could move, her hands were suddenly encased in earthen mounds.

And here it comes, she thought. The part of this little farce where I’m beaten to a pulp.

But there was no beating. She looked up and saw the earth bender’s subtle movements work in time with rock bending around her. She felt delicate finger-like motions tug at her pants, pulling them down while other slabs of rock pushed up on her lower stomach.

“Again, really?” Azula said. Her words were rewarded by a segment of her cage splitting off and wrapping around her mouth.

“I don’t get it either,” Toph said.

Azula hung her head and thought of ways to end this as quickly as possible. She was completely immobilized, at least in terms of any bending. Once her pants were down, she heard more rock shift and felt something cold, hard, and smooth touch the edge of her slit.

“What’s the matter?” Toph said, and Azula could imagine the little twist of a smile on her face. “Not impressed with my earth bending? I can be gentle, you know.”

Now that she mentioned it, the bending she was doing was a miracle of control. Most earth benders, Azula had noticed, seemed to be fighting their element as much as their opponents, unlike fire which wanted nothing more than to be called into being and to burn. In her weaker moments, she had pitied the earth benders.

“Kind of fitting, really,” Toph said. “You and your family have been reaming earth benders for a hundred years and now I’m going to do the same to you. Get ready, princess.”

The stone cock pushed its way into her, slowly, letting her own moisture do its work before going deeper. Azula gritted her teeth as the thing tapered and became larger, spreading her open as it went inside. There was pain, but beneath it was the same pleasure she had felt with the water bender and her own hands.

She felt the rock twist and change shape inside her, sending up spikes of pleasure that drowned down other less pleasant sensations. “A virgin princess, no less,” Toph said. “The rocks are an extension of my senses and even if I wasn’t up in your guts I can sense your body’s rhythms.”

Vulgar little peasant, Azula thought, bitterly. Your guts will cook inside your charred corpse before it’s all over.

These were lies and part of her knew it, but it felt good to think it.

“Oh, stop,” Toph said. “You like it; don’t be angry.”

Again, Azula wondered what the lesson was here. If it was exploring how badly she wanted to kill earth benders, she was getting high marks. The rock inside her was perfectly smooth, like glass but Toph was able to twist it like water and touch her in ways nothing else would ever be able to.

“Hey!” Azula shouted through the metal bit when she felt cold stone over her sphincter.

“Yeah, you’re right. Should lube that one,” Toph said. “We’ll just switch.”

The rock inside her pulled out, making a popping sound as it left her. Slick with her own fluid, it probed around her anus before sliding gently but firmly inside. Another protrusion moved up to replace the one that had been in her vagina and now she felt them both thrusting inside her; one went in while the other pulled out, both at different speeds.

“Like that?” Toph asked. “I can rub my stomach and pat my head at the same time, too.”

As with the night before, Azula began to feel a flame building inside her, only this time it reminded her of a volcano, capped at the top but building up immense pressure and heat over thousands of years. She could tell even if Toph stopped, the boiling would remain and she would have to release it herself.

Toph expanded the rock inside her and made it give quick, short thrusts. The motion was like finding the right key in a lock and the volcano inside her exploded, sending plumes of pleasure up her body and into her brain, blotting out thought like it was daylight. Somewhere through the haze, Azula thought she heard herself screaming.

The bit fell from her mouth, covered in her spit, and clattered to the floor where she panted over it.

“Damn,” Toph said. “You come pretty hard, princess. You gotta let loose more.”

Azula looked up. “Is that it? Is that the point of all this? Tell me.”

Toph wagged her finger and the rocks inside her withdrew, eliciting a sharp intake of breath from Azula. “You gotta figure it out, Aang says. And like I said, your guess is as good as mine. See ya, psycho.”

She waved and strolled out, returning the floor and cage to normal but leaving Azula to dress herself. She wondered if that was the last of the benders would be “teaching” her and if so, what did the others have planned?

To be continued…

*Chapter 4*: Chapter Four

Chapter Four.

She woke up in the early morning hours, sore in places she didn’t realize she had. Losing her virginity to a rock had been the final humiliation; it simply couldn’t get any worse.

Is that it? She thought. Is the Avatar trying to teach me humility through all this? It wasn’t working, if that was the case. After washing herself and combing her hair, she began to do a pushup routine where she alternated punching the ground rather than pushing off with her palms. As her fist connected with the stone, she wondered if she even needed fire bending. She could cave a grown man’s chest with her fists, did she need to set him on fire, too?

“Yes,” she said, igniting her knuckles as she went through her routine. She had been practicing it long enough so her hands no longer bled, but there was pain. “Yes, they need to be set on fire.”

“Hey!” A guard shouted. “Enough of that.”

Flames shot out her nostrils and she stopped. The guards would forgive small flare-ups. You really couldn’t expect a powerful fire bender to remain completely flame-free, but anything more would cause them to take action, and she wasn’t in the mood.

She didn’t get any visitors during the day, and stuck to her normal routine. She took her meals, and received a fresh stock of clothing. Her dinner was more elaborate than usual, but it wasn’t uncommon for her to get better food now and again, likely for the sake of keeping her happy, or at least non-murderous.

About half an hour after her meal, as the sun began to dip, she noticed her fists weren’t clenching with quite the same level of strength as they did when she thought about the injustice of it all. Her limbs felt heavier as well. “Damn it,” she said. “Poisoned.”

She tried to fire bend, but found she couldn’t. Cold panic flooded her chest. Had it the deed been done already? The details on how her father’s bending had been taken by the Avatar were fuzzy, but she’d always assumed it was through chi manipulation, something akin to what Ty Lee could do, not poison.

A moan rose in her throat, and she thought that even with weak hands she’d find a way to squeeze the life out of someone for this. Perhaps the person stepping through the cell door. She didn’t immediately recognize the figure coming closer, but she had the posture of a warrior.

“Relax, the tea you drank only weakens you, it doesn’t do any lasting damage,” the young woman said.

Azula recognized her finally. She was one of the many faces she’d mediated on over the years, and used to focus while powering through tough workouts. It was Suki, the of the Kyoshi Warriors. She was dressed like a simple, if well-off, Fire Nation peasant and was not wearing her war paint.

“Let me guess, you need me weak so you can have your way with me,” Azula said. “Afraid I’ll hurt you?”

Suki smiled and narrowed he blue-green eyes. “Toph said you were a slow learner, and I didn’t want to have to hurt you so you’d cooperate.”

“I think you greatly overestimate yourself,” Azula said, trying to stand from where she had been crouched. She could, but her body felt like it weighed six times what it normally did.

“We’re never going to know,” Suki said, unlocking the door to Azula’s cage and stepping inside. “At least not today. Aang thinks this will work, and normally I trust his judgment, but I think you’re a special case. An incurable case.”

Azula struck. Her arm sailed through the air like a wet sack. Suki had time to roll her eyes as she caught the punch and twisted Azula around, pulling her arm up behind her back. “Personally,” Suki said, jerking it upward, sending a bright bolt of pain up Azula’s body, making her cry out. “I happen to think daily thrashings would do you some good, but I’m not the one calling the shots.”

Azula struggled, but her arm felt like it was about to be pulled off. “What’s the matter? Hurt? The tea you drank has some interesting side effects. Not only does it make you weak and slow, it heightens your senses.”

“How delightful,” Azula said, and stopped resisting. Suki didn’t slack up on the arm hold, however. “Maybe you can tell me what the logic behind all this is? Is forced sex with women I hate somehow going to make me see what an awful person I am so I mend my ways?”

“That’s how it was explained to me, but I think there’s more to it,” Suki said. “Now, lie down on your little bed and get comfy.”

She let Azula go. For good measure, Azula swung her elbow at Suki’s head, but it was pushed away. She stood in front of her bed and disrobed without being told. When she turned, Suki was already naked. “That was fast,” Azula said. “Aren’t you hot for that water tribe boy? How does he feel about this?”

Suki smiled, and brushed a lock of her auburn hair out of her eyes. “He’ll deal,” she said. “And if you spend as much time with women as I have, you learn to appreciate them.”

Azula laughed as she lay down on the bed, spreading herself out. She wanted Suki to see what the long years with days spent doing little more than training had done for her, wanted her to know how things would be without poison tea.

Suki knew posturing when she saw it and frowned. “I heard you’ve got a pretty intense work-out routine,” she said. “Too bad you’ve got no one to spar with.”

“Now who’s talking too much? What’s wrong, having second thoughts? The other two didn’t touch me, they used their bending, but you want to get rather personal with me…I wonder if you can, given that you hate me so much.”

Suki stepped over her and stood for a moment, looking down. Azula starred up at her, her eyes starting at the tuft of pubic hair between her legs and following up her flat stomach, ending at her round breasts. Azula wanted to punch Suki’s face, so she didn’t look at it.

“I’ll manage,” Suki said, kneeling over Azula. “You’re an evil bitch on the inside, but sadly it’s what’s on the outside that counts in your case.”

“My, the foreplay you people engage in is quite stimulating.”

“Aang said to be nice, but sometimes even the Avatar asks too much,” Suki said, taking Azula’s nipple between her fingers and giving it a firm pinch. Azula’s face hardened, but she didn’t wince or cry out. Suki’s other hand went to her other nipple and did the same. “There, nice and pert,” she said. “Remember, nothing personal.”

Suki knelt and flicked a stiffened nipple with her tongue. Azula felt herself moisten and wondered if that wasn’t something she’d be able to control through mediation. Too late now, she thought, enjoying the sensation of the other woman’s warm tongue on her skin. Suki sucked the top of her breast into her mouth and worked it with her tongue. This time Azula let out a breath.

Suki’s hand cupped and squeezed Azula’s other breast while she reached down with her free hand and found the wet spot between her legs. She’s coordinated, I’ll give her that, Azula thought.

Suki’s fingers were like a match set to dry kindling. Azula felt a wildfire of pleasure surge up her midsection and smolder, while the flames crept down her legs, curling her toes like burnt paper. She couldn’t stop a sigh from getting past her lips and glared as Suki picked her head up, letting go of Azula’s tit with a wet pop. “I’d love to say I’m that good, but the tea helps,” she said.

“I’ll be interested in seeing the point of all this, someday,” Azula said, trying to ignore the coming orgasm swelling inside her.

Suki slid her fingers out at the last second before the slightest stimulation would have sent Azula over the edge. She couldn’t hold back an exasperated sigh. “Aw, don’t worry,” Suki said. “You’ll get what you want, but not before you give a little. Psst, that’s part of the lesson. I wasn’t supposed to tell you that, though.” Suki winked, making Azula want to punch her all the more.

She slid up Azula’s body, placing her thighs on either side of her head. Azula could smell Suki’s musk and could see the pink nub of her clitoris, moist and nestled beneath a light patch of hair. Narrowing her eyes, she flicked her tongue experimentally, tasting the tang of Suki’s flesh and making her shudder.

“That’s a start,” she said. “Hurry up, I don’t have all night.”

Azula’s insides felt like they were on fire, so she send her tongue forward, touching as much of Suki as she could. When she found the spot she was looking for, she settled on it, working her tongue back and forth and in circles, varying her technique every few minutes until she found one Suki seemed to like, in which case she kept doing it for longer.

Soon, Suki was gripping one of the bars for support while her other hand held the top of Azula’s head. Azula tried to use her tongue properly, but Suki had reached a point where it didn’t matter, grinding herself against Azula, nearing orgasm.

She reached it, and Azula felt her mouth was with fluid. Suki ground to a halt, and she rolled off to the side, onto her back.

Azula tried to move, but lying still seemed to have made the drug more potent. It felt like heavy chains had been draped over her, and all her strength was sapped.

Suki stood and began putting on her clothes. “What are you doing?” Azula asked.

Suki smiled, casting a glance downward. “I got what I came for,” she said. “You’re on your own, Princess.”

“You can’t leave me like this!” Azula shouted, her arms felt glued to the floor. “I can’t move…”

“The drug is hitting its peak, then,” Suki said. “I’ll bet you’re just gushing down there, too.”

She was. Azula could feel the wetness now on her things and buttocks. The urge to get off was now a full-blown compulsion, but her body bellow her neck wouldn’t obey her commands anymore. “Damn you!” she shouted. “Why?”

“Good question,” Suki said. “My theory is this is supposed to teach you what being on the other end of selfishness is like, but I don’t quite get the teaching method…whatever, it was fun. Look me up sometime if you ever get over being a sociopath.”

“Oh, I’ll look you up alright,” Azula shouted. “I’ll…”

She wouldn’t remember the curses she hurled at Suki as she left, and later she doubted if they had even made sense, such was the torment that had been left inside her. Hours later, when she could move again and had been driven half-mad with lust, she used both hands to bring herself that extra inch to orgasm.

It was dull and unsatisfying, although it calmed the raging fire inside her. She didn’t receive visitors or food that day, and she knew why. Every hour or so, she was stuck with the urge to pleasure herself, or rather bring herself to another flat orgasm, one that took the urge away and nothing more.

If Suki had been right, and not being selfish was the lesson here she had learned something. She would escape this place, with her bending intact, and never be under another’s power again.

To be continued…

*Chapter 5*: Chapter Five.

Chapter Five.

The next morning, Azula woke up to breakfast being brought in as usual. She ate slowly, and went back to sleep, having drained herself thoroughly the day before. She woke up again in the afternoon, and while it was hard to walk, she managed some of her normal workout routine before her dinner was brought in.

It felt like the drugged tea had left her system, but she wasn’t feeling up to testing her ability to orgasm, not after the day before. Besides, the Avatar would likely send someone else she hated to have carnal relations with her soon enough.

Only no one came that evening, or the next, or the one after that. Azula went back into her normal routine of working out in her cell, thinking for the thousandth time about ways she could escape. She thought the last little learning session would have undone any progress the first two had made, had they made any progress at all, that is.

“Progress,” she said, pulling herself to the top of her cell with one arm. “Funny that I’d use that word to describe brainwashing…maybe it’s working.”

She switched arms and did pullups until it quit on her. She fell onto her back, savoring the savage pain of hitting the floor, letting it be a lesson to hold out longer next time. “Maybe my one way out of here is to let it work,” she said, quiet enough so even she couldn’t hear. “The Avatar said faking wouldn’t work, but what if I don’t fake it? Then I’d be letting them win…or maybe not.”

People convinced themselves of things all the time, she reasoned. Most people’s lives were just one grand delusion. Hadn’t the other nations convinced themselves of their worthiness compared to the Fire Nation? If people could make themselves believe in something as hollow as the Avatar rather someone as grand as the Phoenix King, then couldn’t she make herself believe it too? And if something could be believed, couldn’t it also be un-believed?

She sat up and began to meditate. First, she cleared her mind and then began to contemplate things she had never truly understood. She’d heard the rhetoric, of course. Trust people, help them, treat others as you would have them treat you. So they can betray you easier, so they can take advantage of you, and I’ll never figure out what me being nice has to do with other people being nice to me…I’ve personally messed up plenty of people who were nice to me, so I know that doesn’t work.

“And look where it’s got you,” said the voice of her mother.

She screamed and opened her eyes. Her heart thumping hard in chest, she looked around to see night had fallen. Lighting her hand on fire, she scanned the darkness for visitors, or ghosts. Seeing no one, she lit a brazier and doused her hand.

She hadn’t seen or heard her mother in a long time. “Thought I was getting better…,” she muttered. “Pick a scab and it bleeds, I suppose.”

She went back to meditating and came to the conclusion that while it was foolish to trust anyone or allow them to take advantage of her, she didn’t necessarily need to harm people. It was morning by the time she forced the words “I don’t need to hurt anyone,” past her lips.

Smiling at the depths she’d managed to sink herself to, she said it again. “Even better,” she added, “I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

During her morning sponge bath, she practiced thinking of reasons she didn’t want to kill or main people. Maybe they’d be useful later, who knew? It was also somewhat of a hassle, causing injury, especially if she did it herself. Plus, the injured person would likely try to get her back, which meant she had to then kill them, which meant their friends and family would want revenge…It’s all a big mess. I don’t know why I ever bothered with it, she thought.

Later, she woke up to the touch of a hand on her face.

The light of a tiny lamp showed Mai’s pale face looking down at her. She wore an elegant robe befitting the Fire Lady, but no crown. No underwear, either, Azula noted, seeing the tips of her old friend’s breasts beneath the thin, silk robe.

Something brushed her thigh and she picked her head up to see Ty Lee, sitting on her cot wearing a pink sash around her chest and a short skirt that left little to the imagination. “What are you two…” Mai’s finger came down on her lips.

“It’s best we don’t speak too much,” Mai said, leaning forward and planting her lips against Azula’s, who’s tongue rose to meet the other woman’s. She felt her sleeping clothes tugged at, felt them slide down her legs and off, felt Ty Lee’s face nuzzle the inside of her thigh.

Mai broke off the kiss and let her robe fall down past her shoulders, exposing her white breasts. Even her nipples were pale. Mai bent forward, letting Azula nuzzle her chest. Mai’s own hand slid beneath Azula’s night shirt and traced the bottom of her breast before sliding over the nipple.

She gasped when Ty Lee’s nimble tongue found her clitoris. She moved her tongue around in what Azula though were specific patters, and gasped louder as her entire body began to tighten, storing energy for what promised to be a colossal orgasm.

Azula sucked and caressed Mai’s breasts while Ty Lee licked her. When she stopped and Mai pulled back, Azula sat up. “Don’t leave,” she said. “Please.”

The two looked at each other, smiling. “Leave?” They said in unison.

“We’ve got all night,” Mai said.

“We just thought you liked to watch a little,” Ty Lee said, sitting back on the cot and letting Mai kneel in front of her.

Azula watched Mai pull the sash off Ty Lee’s chest and nibble at her breasts before nuzzling her way down over the other girl’s flat stomach. She hiked Ty Lee’s skirt up, and began to lick the spot between her legs.

Ty Lee closed her eyes and leaned back farther, spreading her legs. She beckoned for Azula to come closer, and she obeyed, locking lips with her flexible friend.

Azula lost track of time, as eventually the three of them wound up naked, entwined on her cot, finding every way possible three women could fit together. Azula had her orgasm, then a few more. She was able to give as good as she got, and found herself enjoying the sound of her friend’s moans and shrieks. After a while, she simply enjoyed the warmth of their skin, being sandwiched between them. She inhaled deeply, taking in their scent and trying to ingrain the imprint of their nude forms into her memory so it would stick forever.

She thought she fell asleep, and cursed herself for it. The next thing she knew, Mai and Ty Lee were on their feet, getting dressed, leaving her naked on her cot, cold. Her hair had come undone and it fell like a sheet behind her.

“Are you leaving?” she asked.

“They won’t let us stay,” Ty Lee said.

“Will you come back?” Azula asked.

Mai walked forward and knelt in front of Azula. She reached into her robe and pulled out something long and metal, which made Azula fear for her life until she saw what it was. “This unlocks every door here. You can use it to get out without attracting attention. The afternoon shift leaves a little too early, leaving you a short window to escape.”

Azula took the key, smiling. This was the break she’d been waiting for all these years.

Mai gripped her arm and pulled her close. “If you ever cared for either of us, you’ll slip out without hurting anyone, lie low for a few years, and seriously address your issues. The Avatar may want to remove your bending, but the rest of the world wants to remove your head.”

She grabbed Azula gently by the back of the head, pulled her in for a chaste kiss, and stood up.

“The Avatar is coming in a week,” Ty Lee said. “Stay if you think you’ve changed.”

Ty Lee looked like she thought it was a possibility, but Mia’s expression told her who’s idea the key had been.

After they left, Azula curled into a ball and tried to sleep.

Before leaving, she told the guard that brought her breakfast she would be going on another hunger strike. She’d played this game once before; it hadn’t ended well and the guard only smirked. “Suit yourself,” he said, scarfing her breakfast in front of her.

She took pains to make it look like she was curled up on her bed, using blankets, pillows, and even her hair, to create suitable representation of herself.

Cutting her hair short was more traumatic than she’d expected, but necessary. Escaping the prison was not the challenge and never had been. Escaping it without anyone knowing long enough for her to put distance between her and her jailers was the trick, and she thought she preformed it admirably, once she found herself down on the beach, her close-cropped hair being fluffed gently by the wind.

Once before. she had escaped her cage long enough to scope out the island through her cell’s windows. About a mile away, over open water, was a rocky little island. Past that, another two miles off, was an island more substantial in size with a tree line.

Now came the iffiest part of the escape, the part where she succeeded or drowned. Blasting jets of flame and taking flight was out of the question, as she would be seen, no matter how low she flew.

“This is it,” she said, removing all of her clothes and bundling them up with a rock. She waded out to sea over her head, let her clothes go, and swam for the rock one mile away.

The hours upon hours of working out in her cell paid off big. The water was rough, and despite her now considerable physical condition, she thought she might be getting into trouble just as her hand connected with the sharp, barnacle encrusted stone.

Breathing in as much air as she could, using the rocks for support, she made her way to the other side and rested as long as she could.

She focused on the far off island, and mustered all her courage before setting out. She learned to hate water during the hour and half swim. The waves were more powerful than they looked, and the water was cold. Above her was a distant and aloof sky, it’s only comfort being the air she drew from it into her lungs. Bellow was a cold darkness that seemed to want to suck her down and keep her.

She was sure there was something to say here about relations between elements, but they had beaten such thoughts from her mind, leaving her a thing of flesh that lived and died on their scant mercy.

By the time she thought she was truly going to die, her feet touched sand and she cried out. While there was ground beneath her, her legs didn’t have the strength to support her and all she could do was try to float and not inhale water as the waves took her to shore.

Face down in the muck of the beach, she looked to the tree line and knew she had to reach it. With luck, no one would come looking for days, but without it the Avatar could be searching from the skies even now.

Using reservoirs of energy she didn’t know she had, Azula made it into the dense undergrowth where she passed out.

To be continued…

Chapter Five.

*Chapter 6*: Chapter Six.

Chapter Six.

Aang stood at the top of the prison tower that served as a lighthouse for ships as well as a cage for dangerous high profile prisoners. Among the churning sea were several small islands and rocky shoals Azula could have swam to.

In a way, he was glad she had escaped, as now he wouldn’t have to lock her fire bending inside her. It was preferable to killing, but in Azula’s case it might amount to the same thing. Ozai hadn’t taken well to it, but he was surviving at least, something he wasn’t so sure Azula would be able to do.

A storm had come up not long after the princess escaped, cutting short a search by sea. It had now resumed, but Azula’s trail was colder now, and she was cunning. Cunning and desperate, Aang thought.

Once again he was plagued by the question, had Wan Shi Tong led him astray out of revenge? The method used to rehabilitate Azula had been found in some ancient texts the bizarre spirit had translated for him after he was allowed re-entry into the buried library, a feat that had nearly killed him.

The spirit’s patience had been thin, and its good graces in short supply, so Aang hadn’t questioned it on the strange meaning of the texts, not wanting to offend it like last time and nearly end up buried alive.

Other questions nagged him. Had the technique worked? If it had, why had she escaped? Was her escape a sign she hadn’t changed, or did it simply mean she no longer wanted to be in prison and feared losing her bending? Suki said Azula didn’t seem very different to her, but they hadn’t know each other well. Mai and Ty Lee…maybe they knew Azula too well and would be inclined to think the best of her. Or maybe the opposite?

He slapped his bald forehead under the realization that he didn’t know Azula well either, and had no business trying to play mind doctor with her.

“I told you this would happen,” said Fire Lord Zuko, who had come up behind Aang. “You should have locked her bending the day she was sent here.”

Aang sighed. Nearly everyone had given him the same advice. He expected it from non-benders, but how anyone with bending abilities could suggest something so lightly made him wonder if the war had truly taught anyone anything.

“Maybe,” he said. “We’re assuming it didn’t work. Plenty of people who aren’t psychopaths escape from jail all the time.”

Zuko’s expression didn’t change. “I’ve issued orders for her to be captured alive by any means necessary,” he said.

“I don’t think she’ll hurt anybody,” Aang said. “Even if she hasn’t changed, she won’t want to call attention to herself.”

“That’s not my concern,” Zuko said. “I mean, it is, but let’s face it, not everyone in the Fire Nation is completely loyal to me.”

Aang looked out over the sea. Saving the world from the Fire Lord had been built up as the hardest thing he would ever do, but as the Avatar, who’s job it was to bring the four elements together, his greatest task was proving to be keeping the tenuous peace between the nations together. It had been all smiles and joy for a brief period after the war ended, but one-hundred years of conflict didn’t leave people’s minds or their hearts easily.

For one thing, there were still large portions of the Fire Nation who’s thoughts were in line with Ozai’s and who considered him the rightful Fire Lord. The Fire Nation was on the cusp of a civil war, Ozai wasn’t helping matters and Azula’s escape could easily ignite that particular tinder box.

Then there was the Earth Kingdom, which hadn’t forgotten its suffering at the Fire Nation’s hands. It wanted the entire Fire Nation military, especially the navy, disbanded and for Earth Kingdom forts to dot the Fire Nation’s lands, ensuring they would never sweep over the world again, comet or no comet. No one in the Fire Nation took kindly to these ideas, and if a civil war didn’t start, then a second war between the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom probably would.

The way Aang saw it, there was a chance for peace, but some things had to come together first. His dream was to have Azula resemble a human being, at least in public, and bring the Fire Nation hawks into line with their peace-loving cohorts. With them under control, Aang himself thought he could calm the Earth Kingdom down, using his connections there and the fact that he was not only the Avatar, but the last of the Air Nomads, and if he could forgive the Fire Nation for their crimes, then anyone could.

Zuko knew this, as they had talked about it at length.

“Maybe I should have just told her the truth,” Aang said.

“You did,” Zuko said. “The Earth Kingdom is demanding she be neutralized. The only thing that’s kept them at bay is they think her mind is completely gone. If word of this reaches them, I don’t know what they’ll do.”

“No, I didn’t,” Aang said. “I think if she knew the situation, she would act the way we want. She’s not stupid.”

“Stupid has nothing to do with it,” Zuko said, crossing his arms. “She might play along for a little while, but I guarantee she’d round up the military factions loyal to her inside of a year and stage a coup. Even if she didn’t win, we’d be left weak enough so the Earth Kingdom would overrun us.”

“That’s why we need to make this work,” Aang said. “We need her. We don’t need to make her a good person, or even a very nice one, we just need to remove her need for power and control.”

“And besides,” Aang said, interrupting Zuko, who was about to speak. “If she can’t fire bend, those dissidents won’t respect her as much.”

“None of this matters if we can’t find her,” he said. “Let’s focus on that.”

Aang nodded, and once again turned his attention to the sea. Maybe she had drowned, which might satisfy the Earth Kingdom if they ever found her body. It was a terrible thought to have, but perhaps fate had solved this problem for him.

“I’m going to go look on Appa,” Aang said. “Hopefully I’ll be the one to find her.”

To be continued…

*Chapter 7*: Chapter Seven.

Chapter Seven.

Three days passed before she dared move from beneath the muck and vegetation. The island was a bowl, the center made wet and swampy by a freshwater spring. Azula was grateful for it, not having brought water.

While lying prone, sunk deep into the mud and covered with leaves, she slept and thought about how close she’d become with the elements of earth and water. She’d been grateful to stand on the earth and drink fresh water after her grueling swim, but didn’t dare light a fire to warm herself.

On the first day, she saw the Avatar’s flying bison twice, and mused that even the air was her enemy. Seeing him didn’t bother her, as she’d expected him, but her heart began to pound early on the morning of the third day when heavy footsteps came trudging through the swamp, making sucking sounds as they went. She cursed herself for a fool, as she’d done nothing to cover her trail, but fortunately the rainstorm that hit shortly after her arrival on the island had wiped away her tracks.

“Of all the islands, we get the one with the swamp,” complained one soldier who’d gotten stuck in the deep mud.

They’re searching at random,- she thought. –They don’t know I’m here.-

And that wouldn’t change, provided they didn’t step directly on her, which they didn’t. They left, and when evening crept between the trees and tussocks, Azula decided to stand. Her muscles were stiff but were no longer the bags of sand they’d been when she first came off the waves. She wiped some of the muck off her body, and went to the shore where she washed the rest of it in the sea.

She rubbed away her footprints on the beach using a branch, and found a dry spot further inland. The moon was full, and she was able to see teardrop shaped fruits half the size of her head dangling in clusters from the tops of the trees. She shimmied up a trunk, and knocked a few of the fruits down. They weren’t quite ripe, but they were soft enough to eat and she let the juice run down her chin, over chest as she gobbled them quickly.

They made her stomach hurt, and while waiting for the pain to pass she considered her next move. It would involve more waiting then a swim back to the main land. There it would depend entirely on what she encountered. She needed clothes first, and some way of walking around unnoticed. –Zuko was on the run for months with that scar of his for all to see; I should have no problem,- she thought. –Especially with my hair mutilated the way it is.-

Picking up a few more of the fruits she went deeper into the trees, avoiding the swamp and looking for a dryer place to wait.

Azula spent another week on the island, feeling more like an animal with each day spent naked, eating fruit, drinking clear but questionable water, and fearing another patrol would sweep the island, or she’d be spotted from the air. It was enough to make her miss her cell where was at least comfortable. –I was a fool to think I’d be free as soon as I escaped that place,- she thought. –True freedom won’t come for a while, yet.-

And it might never come, she had to admit. Spending the rest of her life as an outcast and a fugitive was a real possibility. She decided to punish herself for having such a thought by doing some pushups but she stopped before her arms began to truly burn. –I’m not being weak, I’m being reasonable. If I overplay my hand, I’ll be captured and my bending will be locked. Or I’ll be killed.-

Had the Avatar’s highly questionable reform methods worked? Much of her free time on the island, when not spent crouched in fear, was spent mulling this over. She decided before she set out that they had changed her, but not the way the Avatar had hoped. She was Azula, Princess of Fire, and the rightful Fire Lady. –The victor calls the shots,- she thought. –The winner has the control. I’ll show the Avatar that he was weak when he didn’t lock my bending or turn me over to the earth savages and I’ll show him that I have more influence than he thinks.-

She’d come to this conclusion in a dark cave in the early morning hours just before lying down to sleep. She stayed awake another several hours after hearing her mother’s distinctive sobbing. At first she’d thought she’d stumbled upon the place her mother had been all the years, but knew that couldn’t be true. –Maybe I’m being haunted,- she thought. –All these years I thought my mind had a crack in it. Maybe I’m truly plagued by spirits.-

The sobbing didn’t stop immediately, and she plugged her ears while whispering “I’ve changed. I’ve changed, I swear it.”

“You’re just saying that,” her mother said, her voice clear of tears an uncharacteristically sharp. “You’ll go right back to your old ways as soon as you get a chance, and then your fire will be locked inside you forever where it will smolder if you’re lucky.”

“You think so?” Azula said, alone in the dark. “I’ll show you. I’ll be powerful again. I’ll pay those Avatar sycophants back for their impertinence and I’ll do it their way. People will love me rather than fear me!”

She heard her mother clucking her tongue. “Yes, Azula, you’re very charming girl. Remember that time on Ember Island? The party? You’re as lovable as a crab shark.”

“Well I’m not going to live as a monk,” Azula said, squinting her eyes shut and hoping her mother would leave. –It’s not my mother,- she thought. –It’s some kind of brain infection. A tumor.- The Avatar would probably say it was her conscience, but he had an arrow drawn on his head, so what did he know?

She would have remained on the island longer, but with nothing to occupy her mind, she risked madness. On a moonless night she walked out into the sea and began to swim. It was as grueling an ordeal as the first time, only now she didn’t have fear of capture to motivate her. She made it, however, and as before, washed up on a beach and dragged herself into the trees where she rested. She was soon up again and running, putting as much distance between herself and the water as possible, her mind now bent on getting clothes.

Two weeks passed. Azula had stolen a simple peasant’s outfit left hanging on a line to dry early on, and later commandeered a simple traveler’s cloak, which she used to hide her face. She soon learned that such precaution wasn’t necessary, as most people in her kingdom didn’t know what she looked like even before she shortened her hair. Azula expected to see wanted posters bearing her likeness, but saw none. She did however hear people talking about her escape; efforts had likely been made to keep it secret, but soldiers talked.

She was pleased to learn she was still feared by the people, and perhaps even respected. “I can’t sleep knowing that lunatic is on the loose,” she overheard an old woman say to a friend while in a market place.

“Things were better before,” said a burly-looking farmer who’d had too much to drink at a tavern she’d stopped in. “Earth Kingdom thugs tromping through our land. Put Azula in charge, I say. She’ll show them what’s what.”

Comments like these made her smile. The Avatar and her brother were finding that governing a country wasn’t as easy as she and her father had made it look. It wasn’t hard to imagine them crawling to her, begging for her leadership skills. There’d be no civil war under her rule, and certainly no Earth Kingdom interlopers.

The peasant she’d stolen the clothes from had a small stash of money inside their home, which she’d taken. She’d consider paying it back once she was the Fire Lady again but only if she remembered. Still, her funds were running low, and so against every instinct in her body she took a job at one of the taverns, cleaning, cooking, and serving food.

She convinced herself that such low activities were another sign of her strength. They’d assume the pampered princess couldn’t bring herself to stoop so low as to do the work of a barmaid, and they’d assume wrong. She’d pay the Avatar and his friends back somehow, perhaps by assigning them a loathsome task.

The owner of the tavern let her stay there at a reduced rate. Azula learned fast and turned out to be a capable cook, even if her customer relations skills were lacking.

Knowing she would need those skills developed if she was to rule as the kinder, softer Azula, she practiced them on customers by trying to earn higher tips. She was pleased to learn that she’d always had a talent for manipulating people, but up until know had relied solely on fear. Getting Mia and Ty Lee to do things for her was a simple matter of making them think about what would happen if they didn’t. Zuko was a little different but all his strings could be pulled by fear in one form or another. The same was true for anyone, and like fire, she’d mastered nearly every way a person could use fear as a puppet string.

Being pleasant, paying false compliments, paying actual compliments, pretending she was sympathetic to a person’s plight, all netted her more tips. Soon they’d get her a kingdom.

One evening, after an unusually slow night, Azula was cleaning what little tables needed to be cleaned when she heard the door open behind her. The rain was coming down in solid sheets and she expected to find a wet, weary traveler wanting a room and dripping water all over the floor.

The person she saw was dripping wet but didn’t appear weary. Her black hair was plastered to her pale skin by the water, and the corner of her mouth was turned up in amusement. Azula, however, focused on the uncoiled whip she carried in her hand.

“This I didn’t expect,” she said. “The former Fire Lady, working as a serving girl in a dingy inn.”

“Who are you?” Azula asked, wondering if she would have to burn the place down.

“Name’s June. There’s a bounty on your head that’ll let me retire. Not that I plan to. Are you coming quietly, or are you going to do what I think you’re going to do?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Azula said. “My name is Asru.”

“It’s Azula. My Shirshu did take an unusual amount of time to track you but it doesn’t make mistakes.”

Blue flames engulfed Azula’s hands. “This is your last chance,” Azula said. “Get lost or get burned.”

June smiled. “You’re right. It’s not worth what I’m getting paid.” She turned, and with a backward flick of her wrist sent her whip at Azula’s face.

Azula ducked and shot a fire ball, which went outside into the rain where June took cover. Azula followed, her flames hissing in the rain but still burning. June’s whip snapped above her head, making her duck and throw more fireballs as she ran into the muddy yard. June’s whip snapped again, and Azula felt something wet and warm pinch the back of her neck.

All the feeling in her limbs left her, and she suddenly weighed as much as a house. She fell, her flames guttering out in the mud. –Damn! Not again!- she screamed in her mind, unable to speak. Azula was aware she was being lifted off the ground and carried back inside the tavern then upstairs to her room, the only empty one.

To be continued…

*Chapter 8*: Chapter Eight.

Chapter Eight.

“I’ll admit, I thought you’d be tougher,” June said, sitting in a chair next to Azula’s still form as she lie on a bed. Azula was slowing regaining control of her muscles and had enough to speak.

“What did you do to me?” she asked.

“My Shirshu’s tongue causes paralysis. I knew I couldn’t take you quietly in a fair fight so I tricked you.”

“What are you?”

“A bounty hunter,” June said, crossing her legs. “The Fire Lord is paying a lot to have you tracked down, and so is the Earth Kingdom.”

Azula coughed, her ability to swallow still being impaired. Luckily she hadn’t lost control of certain other muscles. “The Earth Kingdom has a bounty on me?”

“They heard you escaped. They must have spies in the Fire Nation, still. They said they’d pay more for you alive but your head was good enough.”

They were silent for a long moment. Azula felt her arms and legs begin to tingle. Her wet, muddy clothes had been removed, and she lie in her undergarments. The rain was still coming down outside but not as violently as before. She thought she heard the rumble of some creature’s throat, and wondered just what sort of beast a Shirshu was.

“So…which is the highest bidder?” Azula finally asked.

“The Earth Kingdom,” June said. “Although I’m sure I could leverage more from Zuko. Money isn’t the only thing to be considered, however.”

“What do you mean?”

“Politics,” June said, nearly spitting the word. “If I turn you over to the Earth Kingdom, I can forget about doing business in the Fire Nation. If I give you over to your little brother, I end up on the Earth Kingdom’s hit list. It stinks, but that’s the cost of doing business with high profile targets.”

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Azula said. “Here they’ll seal my bending and put me back in prison, which is about as good as what they’ll do to me in the Earth Kingdom.”

June chuckled and nudged Azula’s leg with her foot. “I’m not sure you realize how much you’re hated in the Earth Kingdom. Especially in Ba Sing Se and Omashu. I’d pick the Avatar, if I were you.”

“Fine, then. When does this poison wear off?”

“Not long,” June said. “But there’s another option you should consider.”

“What’s that?”

“I tell them all I wasn’t able to find you. It might put a dent in my reputation a little, but it’s nothing I can’t live down.”

Azula, now able to turn her head, did so and looked into the woman’s flat, gray eyes trying to figure out what she meant. “And why would you do that?” Azula asked.

“Because there’s an outside chance you’ll rise to some level of power again. I doubt you’ll be the Fire Lady, but I can see you convincing some hardline military fools to follow you in an ill-fated rebellion. You’ll have access to money, then, and you can pay me. Quietly. That way I get my money for catching you and I don’t make any powerful enemies,” June said.

Azula smiled. At least one person believed in her. Sort of. She also had to admire June’s foresight. “I think you’ll find I can do better than warlord. You’ll be richly rewarded, I assure you.”

“Not so fast,” June said. “I said there was an outside chance you’d be able to pay me, which is far from a sure thing, so I’m going to need a little down payment.”

“I work as a tavern girl,” Azula said.

June’s face split into a grin. “Let me put it this way; I like you. You over-do it a little, but I like your style, and I like the way you look. Show me a good time, and I’ll forget I ever saw you. At least until you get some more funds.”

Azula frowned and started to consider her options. The poison was wearing off, and she wouldn’t fall for the same trick twice. Then again, June seemed a capable fighter, and winning would mean burning the inn down thus tipping the Avatar off to her location. “Very well, then,” Azula said. “We fool around, you leave, I’ll pay you someday.”

“Oh, we’re going to do more than fool around,” June said, standing up. “I like it a little rough, and I like to be on top. I’m going to go tend to Nyla. Don’t do anything dumb.”

While June was gone, Azula was able to sit up and move. She considered leaving but it was clear the animal June used to track her was for real. Instead she cleaned herself using the bowl of water on the nightstand and waited.

June came back and shut the door behind her with her foot. She took the top layer of her black clothing off, letting it fall over the chair with a wet flop. She kicked off her boots, and removed her pants as well as her underwear, all of which had been soaked in the rain. “Okay, fire bender, warm me up,” June said, stepping close to Azula and laying her hands on the other woman’s bare shoulders.

Azula slid her hands around June’s cold hips and pressed her mouth against her neck, which she kissed. June made a purring sound as Azula worked her way up to her ear and felt her wet hair on her nose. To her surprise she found herself enjoying the smell of June’s skin and the sensation of her fingers gripping her back as they moved to undo the strip of cloth she wore over her breasts.

Azula was also cold from the rain, and so she backed up and lie down on the bed with June following. June was on top of her now, nuzzling her neck and working her mouth down over Azula’s chest. The inside of June’s mouth was hot and wet, and Azula’s nipple stiffened under the motions of her tongue.

June straddled Azula and sat up while she fondled the other woman’s tits. She ran her hands over Azula’s stomach going back and forth between her naval and breasts. “I’ve never done a royal before,” June said. “I’m going to enjoy it.”

And she did. Azula tried to keep up with June’s enthusiasm but it was too much. The bounty hunter’s hands touched every square inch of her body as though she were trying to imprint Azula’s shape into her muscle memory. Everywhere June’s hands went so did her mouth, lingering over her breasts and between her legs.

June took her time when she went bellow Azula’s waist. She nibbled and nuzzled her inner thighs and triangle of soft flesh above her pussy until Azula thought she would have to scream.

“Beg for it,” June said.

“What?”

“I like my prey submissive. It’ll be fun, I promise. Beg me for it.”

-Oh, what the hell,- Azula thought. “Please, do it. Get me off, please.”

“What do I get out of it?” June asked, her hands on Azula’s knees.

“Whatever you want. Please, I can’t stand it anymore.” Which was true, she couldn’t.

June’s tongue went over her clitoris with the same energy it had the rest of her body. Azula was ready to come within seconds but June’s ability to know how close Azula was to the brink was uncanny. She brought Azula within strokes of getting off half a dozen times before Azula finally felt the orgasm in her explode. June kept her attentions on Azula’s soft spots, using her free hand to grip her breast while Azula’s back arched and she tried her best to stifle loud screams.

“On your knees, princess,” June said, sitting on the edge of the bed. Azula nearly fell onto the floor and knelt between June’s legs where she dutifully began to return the affection she’d been given, although with less skill. After a while June’s hands were atop Azula’s head, and she was rocking her hips. She moaned loudly when she came.

Azula thought June would leave once she got what she wanted, but it turned out she wanted more. Again, Azula was subjected to a lot of caressing, squeezing, kissing, licking, and nuzzling. She didn’t think she’d ever had so much affection directed at her, even with Mai and Ty Lee together. June wasn’t shy about moving Azula around to positions she liked, either.

She found herself on her hands and knees with her buttocks being caressed. June paused and seemed to reach for something then Azula felt the sting of a whip across her backside. “Ow!” she cried out.

“Relax, it didn’t even leave a mark,” June said, flicking Azula’s other cheek with the end of her whip. She did this a few times before stopping, and Azula heard wet sucking sounds from behind her. Turning her head she saw June fellating the handle of her whip.

“What are you…”

June took the handle from her mouth. It glistened in the light of the lamp nearby. “I’m about to rock your world, fire bender,” June said. Azula felt the end of the handle brush against her pussy, parting the lips and twirling near the entrance, teasing her before it slid in. The handle itself wasn’t wide, but the bulge at the end that kept it from leaving June’s hand in battle filled her and spread her apart, sending what felt like gentle lightning through her body. She went down to her elbows and let her face sink into the pillow while June expertly inserted the handle, twisting it and varying the speed and depth at which she thrust.

She seemed able to sense when she’d hit a sweet spot and would stop over it, twisting the handle and squeezing out as much pleasure as she could before bringing Azula to the brink. There she would slow down and change her pattern. Azula felt like a puppet who’s strings were being pulled. She wanted to fall over the edge and orgasm but June wouldn’t let her.

“Well?” June said.

“Well what?”

“Don’t play dumb,” June said. “You can’t come without permission, and I won’t give it unless you ask.”

“Do it then,” Azula said. “I mean…please, make me come.”

June sighed.

“Please,” Azula said again. “I’ll do a better job, please let me come.” -Ugh. The things I never thought I’d do,- Azula thought. -Although this is slightly better than dealing with those other fools.-

June did as Azula asked, she was left screaming into her pillow. After she’d recovered she spent a good portion of the night on her stomach, her head between June’s legs who’d reclined with one arm behind her head and the other on the back of Azula’s. Azula thought she’d never get the taste of June out of her mouth, but finally the other woman let out a sigh and patted Azula on the head. “You’ve got potential,” she said. “All in all, I think you owe me more now, but we’ll call it even.”

Not having the energy to say anything back, Azula fell asleep where she lay.

She woke in the morning with June nowhere in sight, but there was a piece of paper lying on her nightstand. *Asru, you make a better princess than you do a slut. Try to work on that, you’ll be needed the skills of the later more than the former in the coming years. See you then, June. P.S. Burn this letter.*

She did, and tried to think about how she would pay June back for treating her such, only those thoughts wouldn’t come. What did come was the memory of June sitting on top of her touching her as though two hands weren’t enough to get the job done. All the work she’d done conditioning her body seemed to have been finally appreciated by some one and the only plans she could think for June in the future was more of what happened the night before.

To be continued…

*Chapter 9*: Chapter Nine.

Chapter Nine.

Azula didn’t stay at the inn for much longer, thinking June’s visit might attract attention, even if the bounty hunter did keep her word about being quiet. She’s saved enough money to travel a good distance away and find work at an orchard, picking fruit like the kind she’d subsisted on after escaping prison.

The days at the orchard were long and hot, but the labor made finding time to keep her body conditioned easier. She could still practice manipulating people, too, and tried to get others to carry heavy loads for her and pick the hard to reach fruits in her stead. She found that men were pathetically eager to do whatever a pretty girl asked, so she measured her success based on what she could get women to do for her. Without being able to threaten them, it was surprisingly difficult.

One day on the fall, when the shippers came to take the last of the late season harvest, Azula sat near a group of workers taking their lunch break. She was eating one of the fruits and remembering those difficult, uncertain days on the island by her former prison. The fruit was tasty, but the pain and fear of recapture were not pleasant emotions to revisit.

In recent months, whenever a group of Fire Nations citizens gathered, the talk turned to their country’s political situation. The Earth Kingdom had built a number of so-called temporary harbors on some of the Fire Nation’s outer islands, and had sent troops into Fire Nation cities under the premise of helping reconstruction. Being that there was little to reconstruct, most Fire Nation people were unhappy.

Fire Lord Puke-O and the Ava-Turd were names Azula heard more frequently during these conversations, and she had to exert immense willpower to not take part in them. Her heart burned with delight when she heard some say they preferred her father’s rule, and she became restless when some of those people went as far as to say they would happily bow to her if she ever asked.

News of her escape had traveled, and at first that made her nervous. Her fears calmed once Azula sightings started to crop up from all over the Fire Nation. Clearly very few had a clue what she really looked like, and so she felt somewhat safer.

The discussion she was now listening to suddenly turned towards an item she’d never heard before.

“Puke-O can’t even command the respect of the navy,” said a barrel chested man with a beard that drooped to his chest. He was one of the shippers from far off. He was speaking at two smaller men who’d said they thought Zuko was doing an “okay job, all things considered.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard about the Southern Raiders?,” said the big man.

The silence that followed confirmed they hadn’t. In a haughty tone, the man told the group that the Southern Raiders had essentially defected. Admiral Jon Lee, he said, was taking them around the southern islands, doing what the Southern Raiders did best to Earth Kingdom ships and temporary ports.

“They’re temporary, aren’t they? The Earth Kingdom shouldn’t have a problem with them getting burned down,” said a teenage boy, who had accompanied the large man. His comment was met with only light laughter. An entire fleet defecting was big news. Azula knew of Jon Lee. He was capable enough, if nothing terribly impressive. If a low-life like him had decided to defect, she could name a few admirals and even generals who now likely be seriously considering it.

After months on the run, she now had a path to follow, and after the final harvest was complete she set off southward.

Her journey was uneventful, and she found herself almost pining for the days when the hunt for her had been in full swing. The rumors she heard about herself came in two varieties, either she drowned in the ocean or she’d lived and was planning on living out the rest of her days in hiding. She wasn’t sure which story she found more insulting, and consoled herself with thoughts of what they’d talk about when she made her return.

The best chance she would have to encounter the Southern Raiders, she thought, would be by being there when they attacked. Soon, she found herself in coastal village where two Earth Kingdom frigates had taken port.

It was a simple fishing settlement, and the economy was in full swing as fishermen were pulling from schools migrating to warmer water from the south. The stench of fish and salt was heavy in the air, and Azula thought the place was a prime target for the Southern Raiders.

Azula wore a long cloak and wide traveling hat, an outfit more befitting a man than a young woman. She didn’t wash her face as much as she should, hoping most people would in fact mistake her for a man at a casual glance. Despite these precautions, Azula ducked behind a hut much quicker than was discrete when she saw Katara talking to two Earth Kingdom sailors in the village square.

Seeing that she’d attracted a few stares, she faced the wall and adjusted her pants, hoping they bystanders would think she’d simply forgotten to button the front of them and had panicked for fear of embarrassment. Satisfied that’s what people had thought, she leaned against the wall and tried to look casually into the square.

Katara was dressed like a member of the Southern Water Tribe, with a blue frock over black leggings. She appeared to be speaking to the Earth sailors as though she had some authority. Azula recognized the body language of a person in charge quite easily and wondered what role she might be playing in Fire Lord Puke-O’s administration, or if she was simply the bossy type.

Azula’s first thought was to leave immediately. Better than a year’s efforts would be ashes if Katara spotted her.

She was about to do just that when a little of the old Azula took over. It found its way past her new-found sense of humility and appealed directly to her base instincts. -As far as she knows, I’m dead,- Azula thought. -I’m sure to join the Southern Raiders any day now, and once that happens my existence and relative location will be known to my enemies, so there’s no harm in letting that little blood bending bitch know what I think of her.-

She admitted that it was risky, and it was putting the cart before the Komodo Rhino so to speak, but it was a chance she had to take. Playing it safe was a fine thing to do, but a little rashness was the mark of a good fire bender, or so she told herself.

The rest of the day she spent keeping out of Katara’s sight and listening to the talk of villagers and sailors carefully. She made a few inquiries into getting a job with the fish mongers so as not to look suspicious, and paid for a room at one of the inns.

She learned Katara was staying at the village headman’s home, which was at the top of a bluff overlooking the sea. It was a three story pagoda-style home, typical of successful fishing villages on the southern coast. Azula also learned that Katara was some kind of general now, in charge of the southern islands. What her exact responsibilities were Azula couldn’t determine, but it did appear she was working with the Earth Kingdom navy in defending their bases from the Southern Raiders.

Once she knew these things, Azula retreated to her room at the inn and meditated. If things were to go right, intuition and luck were going to have to come together. To squash the doubt welling up inside her, she broke into her old workout routine. It reminded her of how powerful she was, and of the humiliation she’d suffered at the water bender’s hands.

When the darkness had fully crept up from the corners of the buildings and enshrouded everything, Azula smeared her face in soot and put on a pair of tight gloves. She shed her traveling cloak and put on her darkest colored peasant’s garb; a loose shirt and and a skirt that went down to her mid-thigh. She used soot to blacken her legs as well.

There was no moon when she set out towards the headman’s house, going through the nearby woods to avoid being seen on the trail leading up to it. There were only two Earth Kingdom sailors stationed at the home’s front courtyard, making Azula think they hadn’t planned for an assault such as hers.

-Small wonder this kingdom is going to hell,- she thought. -How did these people ever defeat us? Complacency. This is what it does to people. I’ll have to have a little talk with Zu-Zu when I see him next.-

Getting into the house was easy, a second floor window had been left open to catch the breeze from the ocean. Finding Katara’s room was more difficult, but the tray of half eaten food left out in the hall told her that’s where guests stayed. Crouching in front of the door, Azula listened. She heard the breeze, heard the creaking wood as the house settled, and finally heard the heavy breathing of a sleeper within.

Quiet as a mouse, she slid the door open and stepped in. Sliding it back just as quietly, she looked to the floor mat and saw Katara, sleeping on her back, her arms above her head which was cocked to one side.

She’d brought a rope with her with slipknots tied on either end. Standing at Katara’s feet, watching her sleep, she let herself become calm. Looking around the room, Azula spied a pitcher of water, which she tiptoed over to and picked up. It only had a small amount in it, but it would be enough for Katara to weaponize, so Azula poured it gently into the basin it sat next to, sending it down a pipe which likely led out to sea.

She did the same with Katara’s flask, which she’d left lying next to her sleeping mat. -Too easy,- Azula thought.

Katara shifted, and made a snorting sound which made Azula uneasy. -It’s now or never,- she thought.

Without hesitating, she looped one end of the rope around Katara’s wrist and did the same with the other. About the time Katara opened her eyes, Azula’s hand was clamped over her mouth. She held up a finger; a tiny blue flame lit from it. “Any noise and we’ll find out if water benders can be boiled,” she said.

Katara’s bright blue eyes were wide with confusion and fear. She struggled for a moment but stopped when the flame grew. “Good,” Azula said. “Now, do exactly as I say and you won’t get hurt.”

Katara was ordered to roll onto her stomach, and she complied. Azula used more rope to bind Katara’s feet, she then drew Katara’s hands together and bound them further. She lit a candle and looked around for a piece of cloth. Finding a hand towel she tore it in half, balled it up, and stuffed it into Katara’s mouth while using a third, thinner, piece of rope to complete the gag. “There,” she said, rolling Katara onto her back. “Surprised to see me?”

The look on Katara’s face said yes. “Don’t worry,” Azula said. “I’m not going to hurt you.” She ran a finger down the side of Katara’s face. “In fact, I was thinking I should repay you for the nice time you showed me in that prison.”

She pulled a short dagger from her pocket and Katara made a whimpering sound. Azula grinned, hoping Katara thought she was about to be gutted. She put the blade under the Katara’s night shirt, a silky blue thing with a snowflake pattern, and split it. Another flick of the knife and the wraps Katara used to support her breasts were severed. Katara made more noised and brought her hands forward, but Azula caught them and held the knife in front of her face, letting the candle light catch it. “Think you could bend all your blood back inside you after I let it out?” she asked. “I didn’t think so. Calm down, or this could get ugly.”

Katara didn’t move when Azula took off her gloves and ran her bare hand over her breasts. Once Azula felt the nipples under her fingers tighten, she bent forward and playfully licked each in turn. “Too bad this had to be done at knife point,” Azula said. “I could show you a good time.”

Katara’s blue eyes were a pair of icy daggers, and Azula met them without flinching. She held Katara’s gaze while playing with her breasts, letting her hand trail over her naval now and again. Finally, Katara looked away and Azula laughed.

She picked up the knife again and this time used it to open up Katara’s clothes bellow her waist. Shifting her weight, Azula wet her fingers and worked them into Katara’s crevice, moistening it for her. “Nice, isn’t it? I don’t think I’m as good at it as you are, though.” She smiled, watching Katara’s dark complexion redden. “Hey, did I just pay you a compliment? Looks like I’m reformed!”

Her fingers went in deeper, and her grin broadened as she felt Katara become wetter. She remembered her own body’s traitorous response when she was being blood-bent and wondered if Katara felt the same way. Azula brought her moist fingers to her mouth and sucked them, tasting Katara’s musk before going back in. “Mmm,” she said. “You taste like you want it this,” she said. “I’d show you, but you seemed to be gagged.”

She let herself relax a little, keeping a close eye on Katara’s face and upper body in case she made a move Azula didn’t like. After a while, Katara began to squirm. She was quite moist, and Azula’s fingers had begun to prune. “I’m not going anywhere until you come, dear, so maybe you should stop fighting it.”

It took more time, and a sore wrist before Katara seemed to resign herself to the fact that Azula was serious. Azula laughed louder than was prudent when she felt Katara’s body begin to shudder with an orgasm.

“That’s it,” Azula said. “You like that? You little blood bending witch.”

When it was over, Katara breathed heavily though her nose. She was covered in a sheen of sweat, and opened her eyes wide when Azula stood with a fist engulfed in blue flames. “And now it’s time to say good night,” Azula said. Just as Katara began to move, Azula put the fire out. “Tell your little friends they’re turn is coming.”

She took her gloves and went out via the window, sliding down the eve of the Pagoda’s second tier, she landed in the courtyard and made her way around back. She scaled the wall with the help of the vines growing up it, and was soon running through the woods. On her way back to the village, she decided she would grab her things and head back into the forest. A few days hiding out in there would be nothing compared to what she’d already been through, but these plans were nixed when she got closer to the inn.

The sky was orange from flames. Black smoke polluted the soft glow, and she could hear screams and shouts, along with the smell of burning wood and fish.

“Ha!” she shouted, scarcely believing her luck; that the Southern Raiders had picked this night of all to do a raid was almost too much to believe, but believe it she did when she ran to the docks and saw them battling Earth Kingdom sailors, who had to pick between fighting the raiders and fighting the flames on their ships.

The sailors’ terror upon seeing her blue flames filled her heart with joy.

To be continued…

*Chapter 10*: Chapter Ten.

Chapter Ten.

Jon Lee had thick, dark hair that framed a face marked by scars, creases, and dark pouches beneath watery eyes. His uniform had seen better days. The other Raiders all appeared similar, as proud men who’d bitten off more than they could chew but weren’t prepared to admit it.

“Maybe you’ll be what it takes to get the other cowards to join us,” said Jon Lee. “I’ll admit, many were tired of our nation’s efforts to improve the world. I’m as war weary as anyone, but I can’t stand by and let Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes settle what they think is the score. It goes against everything I stand for.”

Azula nodded, more focused on the Sea Chicken leg she was eating. It had been a while since she’d had a good meal. Life on the road had been frugal, but Jon Lee’s ships were well-stocked with spoils, some Azula had seen while touring his vessel. -Not all of it came from Earth Kingdom junks, I’ll wager,- she thought.

“Glad to hear it,” Azula said, washing the food down with some wine. “I was afraid I was going to have to go through our ranks, finding who was still loyal to the Phoenix King, but you’ve saved me the trouble through your nobility,” she said, hoping she was flattering him enough.

“The morale of my men has increased significantly because of your presence. If you’ll forgive me, my lady, many of us thought you’d been secretly killed by the Fire Lord months before it leaked that you’d escaped.”

She smiled. Stories of her death were common, but this was a rarer version. While distasteful, it gave her a little more credit. “It’s probably all for the best,” Azula said. “It shows how much faith and trust the people have for my brother.”

Azula hadn’t articulated the finer points of her plans to Jon Lee. She’d told him her wish was to take the throne again, and lead the Fire Nation towards freedom and peace, in that order. That much was true, and while it galled her to think it, she might have to rule alongside the Avatar and his allies. -I’ve been over this,- she thought, now in a bad mood. -There are other forms of power besides fear, and there’s no shame in mastering all of them.-

Jon Lee, she noticed, harbored nothing but ill will towards Zuko and Katara for some inexplicable reason. He brought her up by name no less than four times since she’d met him, and she wondered just what the water bender did to scar him. -I can sympathize,- she thought.

She was now thinking about the blind earth bender. Getting a water bender away from her water was difficult, but doable. Getting an earth bender away from the earth was a greater challenge.

Jon Lee had brought up Katara again. “She’s a little tyrant,” he said. “Not long before we defected, she…”

“She’s not the most dangerous of the Avatar’s friends,” Azula said. “The earth bender, Toph Bei Fong. Not only is the best earth bender in the world, her family is wealthy.” Azula wanted information on Toph; she had a score to settle, and she couldn’t make plans if she had nothing to go on.

“I remember hearing she was being eyed for a position as the Fire Lord’s personal bodyguard, but she turned it down to go study under King Bumi, of Omashu. You’re right, many would say she’s the better earth bender. What she hopes to learn…”

“Omashu,” Azula said, remembering the city. -I would have thought the old man would be petrified by now,- she thought.

“Sorry?” Jon Lee said, leaning forward. They were sitting a small table in his cabin. He’d started at the other end, but as his meal was devoured, he’d taken to inching his chair closer to her.

“I may need to go to Omashu,” she said. “Unless more defect to our cause, we may need some leverage against the Avatar.”

“Yes,” Jon Lee said. “I’m afraid Omashu is too far inland for our cruisers. It would also require sailing through northern waters where I’m afraid we’re no match for the sheer size of Earth Kingdom navy. For now.”

“I have a few things to sort out first anyway,” Azula said, thinking the first step would be to start spreading the word she was with the Southern Raiders. It would leak out eventually, but she needed it to go faster. She was sure Katara would say something, but the Avatar might choose to cover it up. -If he’s smart, he’ll try,- she thought, happy to know that she was forcing Aang to take roads he likely would have felt too noble to walk.

“About those,” Jon Lee said, edging closer. “I was thinking, when you’re the Fire Lady, you’ll need a Fire Lord. If I may be so bold, your father’s…”

He finished the sentence with a scream. Azula had pinned his hand to the table with her dinner knife and left him to pull it out while she finished her drumstick. “Y-you bitch,” he said, freeing his hand and backing up. “Now you listen to me.” He’d drawn his saber with his good hand, and was pointing it at her. “We put up with your madness for long enough! No more!”

She finished her wine and framed Jon Lee in a circle made from her thumb and forefinger. Tiny bolts of lighting arced over the gap. “Lightning will sometimes seek out its target, but its still awfully erratic,” she said. “I’ve been working on a bending technique that focuses it to a narrow point. Useful for when I want to blast small, deep, holes in things.”

Jon Lee lowered his weapon and quietly wrapped his hand in a towel. A number of his men came bursting in the door, but he waved them out angrily. “I’ve lost everything to the Earth Kingdom’s occupation,” he said. “My holdings, my lands…all of it. I don’t give a shit who leads us, so long as I get back what’s mine. You’d do well to remember that right now you need me much more than I need you.”

“Then we see things the same way,” she said. “However I would refute that I need you more than you need me. I was prepared to encourage more to cast their lot with me before I had the opportunity of meeting you come up. Soon you’ll be one of many cogs in machine, and when I’m on top I’m going to remember which cogs turned and which ones were rusty and needed replacing.”

-Good old fear,- she thought, seeing the look on his face. Some might have taken his posture for defiance, but Azula could see the subtle signs. The slight turn of his body, where his eyes were, all showed a cowed man. She could have controlled him by making him think he had a shot at being Fire Lord, but that might have meant touching him.

“We’ll see who they follow,” Jon Lee said. “The Sozin Dynasty has held the reigns long enough, and look where it’s led us. I could easily point out to anyone who might join us that it was you an yours who led us all to this fate.”

“I plan on leading the Fire Nation back to its former glory, one way or another,” Azula said, wiping her mouth with her napkin and letting it flop on the table to soak up some of Jon Lee’s blood. “I’ll see that you’re rewarded if you put aside foolishness and simply do as I say. No more, no less.”

He looked down at the blood soaked towel he held and frowned. “Very well,” he said. “What shall we do?”

“First we’re going to burn some ports and sink ships,” she said. “I’ll write my name in fire up the eastern keys, then we’ll see who else joins us.”

“Aye,” Jon Lee said. “But I’ll give the order.”

Azula flipped him a backward wave as she left the cabin, heading towards the cabin that had been cleared for her use. Lying in her bed she thought of Toph. -I’ll figure out a way to get her,- Azula thought, now thinking about what she’d do once whatever plan she conceived to get the earth bender at her mercy succeeded.

The thought made her hand creep down between her legs.

To be continued…

*Chapter 11*: Chapter Eleven.

Chapter Eleven.

The plumes of smoke that were blown inland would be seen for miles. Towering columns of orange flames clung to ship masts, having consumed the sails. The sweet, charcoal smell of wood changing its chemical composition filled the air and clung to even what hadn’t been burnt.

Their raids were quick, and done on soft targets. The rebels could afford to loose very little in battle; the Earth Kingdom sailors they attacked usually surrendered, being caught largely unawares. Azula told Jon Lee to try and keep deaths and serious injuries to a minimum. “We don’t want to develop a bad reputation,” she said. “I’d rather see one of their ships sink to the bottom than a thousand drowned. They can replace the men faster than the ship.”

Jon Lee appreciated her logic, and the Southern Raiders, despite their reputation, kept the killing to the smallest of levels.

After a few skirmishes, Azula came to find it wasn’t killing that made her feel like herself, it was the power. Her commands were followed over Jon Lee’s in the heat of battle; it was fear of her that their enemies fled from, and it was her will that burnt the ships and fortifications the Earth Kingdom had built on Fire Nation coasts.

Killing had been the ultimate expression of power over another, or so Azula used to think. She now felt it was more akin to sweeping the pai sho board to the floor when one had clearly lost and was enraged over it. -If I could un-kill them, then that would be power,- she thought. -Death puts them beyond my control.-

As word of her ascension spread, so did the defections. In the end, a little less than half of the Fire Nations armed forces now were pledging their allegiance to Azula, equal parts navy and army.

Earth Kingdom ships were now seeking to engage them at sea, and skirmishes were occurring on land between Azula-loyal troops and Earth Kingdom battalions. Loyalists were providing auxiliary support to the Earth Kingdom, which had stopped just short of launching an actual second war, likely for fear the rest of the Fire Nation would rise up in revolt and the entire region would descend into chaos.

Her brother had begun corresponding with her, asking her to see reason and work with him to unite the Fire Nation and end the fighting. “I couldn’t agree with you more, Zu-Zu,” she said to herself one night after reading a letter from him in her cabin. She’d been given her own ship, one out of the Southern Raider’s fleet, and was keeping an eye on Jon Lee. While he’d been the first defector, he was not the most imposing personality amongst the now sizable rebel force.

She wrote Zuko back a note dripping in sarcasm. She wasn’t quite ready to lay out her terms yet. She felt she needed one more thing before she could successfully position herself for her return.

“I’m going to Omashu,” she said one day at a war meeting aboard the Ice Serpent, her ship. Admiral Gong and General Wei were present, as was Jon Lee. Communicating regularly with their admittedly scattered forces was difficult.

“Why?” Jon Lee asked.

“We need one of the Avatar’s friends in our pocket before we can put this all to an end,” she said. -Plus I have a score to settle.-

“Zuko wishes to make peace now,” said General Wei, a lean-faced man with yellow teeth. “With half our forces on our side, we can force him to accept pushing out the Earth Kingdom as an acceptable term for our capitulation.”

“You don’t know my brother, or the Avatar,” she said. “They’ll bow to the Earth King as soon as they can if left in charge, and they won’t accept my rule without some added incentive.”

“And why must they accept your rule?” asked Admiral Gong. He was a potato-shaped man with a thin wisp of gray for a beard. “Why shouldn’t one of us take charge?”

“Anyone who stands between me and my rightful place is my enemy,” Azula said. “I would caution against becoming one of my enemies.”

Azula sometimes thought they senses her new-found attitude on killing, and it emboldened them to defy her more. -It’s the fear of the death that’s important,- she thought. -Not the act of killing itself. Still, if I’ve going to cultivate a fear of death in these people, I have to lay some fertilizer now and again.-

Luckily for General Wei, he didn’t press the issue, and instead nodded as if to say “fair enough.”

“And while you are chasing Ms. Bei Fong all around an Earth Kingdom city, what should we do?” asked Jon Lee. “Our position is precarious, we can’t hold it forever.”

“Scale back on the harrying of Earth Kingdom vessels and step up the fighting on land. Zuko won’t know what to think, which will make it easier when he’s confronted with my terms.

Once the meeting concluded, she wasted no time in taking the Ice Serpent, along with a skeleton crew, north to the Earth Kingdom coast.

Her hair had grown out, and so she tied it back in the style of an Earth Kingdom peasant. Wearing Earth Kingdom-style clothing and a wide hat she entered the city of Omashu on a rainy early winter day. She’d left the Ice Serpent in what she hoped would be a hidden cove and had walked the many miles inland to the mountain city.

The mood in Omashu irritated her. Where there was talk of world events, there was the clear sentiment amongst the people that they wanted the Fire Nation subjugated. Some were tired of war to the point where they simply wanted nothing to do with the other county, but these seemed to be in the minority. -Either that or the peace lovers are keeping quiet,- she thought.

The skills she’d learned on the road came in handy in getting a job as a servant at King Bumi’s castle. It was common knowledge that Toph and Bumi got along, although what exactly he was teaching her none could say. They often spent long periods of time in the surrounding hills, or tearing around Omashu on the rock sleds the earth benders used to ship goods and mail.

It took every ounce of Azula’s skill to work her way to holding a job at the royal kitchen. The cooks there were under heavy scrutiny, but she managed to convince the supervisor she was trustworthy enough to be a serving girl.

-They’re going to make it easy for me again,- she thought one night when she was given the duty of attending to Toph’s request for room service. Toph and Bumi had come back from one of their hikes on a day when the regular waitstaff had suffered a series of misfortunes. Two were sick, another had taken a tumble down some stairs, and a fourth was just plain missing.

-She’ll be fine,- Azula thought, thinking of the frail girl she’d tied up and lowered down a well. It was the well out by the gardens, and she didn’t think it would be more than a day before someone discovered her.

Azula carried a tray of noodles and tea to Toph’s room. Both the tea and the noodles had been laced with the same cocktail of toxins that Azula had experienced when dealing with Suki. She’d made it a point while with the Southern Raider to learn what it was. She knocked on the door and set the tray down, as were Toph’s usual instructions.

Her insides froze when Toph shouted “Bring it in.”

She was in the middle of pulling her servant’s cap down as far as it would go when she rolled eyes at her foolishness. -She’s blind, fool, just don’t speak.-

She brought the tray in. Toph was lying on a feather-stuffed bed, kneading a lump of granite into different shapes. She gestured to the stand next to her, and Azula placed the tray down upon it. Toph sucked in air through her nostrils. “I hope that stuff tastes better than it smells.”

Azula made a “Hm,” sound, and made to leave. Before she could reach the door, a solid wall of rock slid up from the floor, cutting her off. She turned around, Toph was still playing with the ball of granite.

“You’re not as smart as you think,” Toph said. “In fact, you’re kind of dumb.”

“Am I now?” Azula said, feeling like she was going to scream. She could probably win against Toph, but her odds of escaping Omashu even if she did were slim.

“Yea. You were recognized by the staff right off. Seems you left an impression on them when you founded New Ozai.” The rock she was holding flattened into a short blade. “And even if I couldn’t hear your voice, I’d recognize the smell of you just about anywhere. What’s in the tea?”

“A harmless poison,” Azula said. “Ask the Kyoshi girl about its properties.”

“Ah,” said Toph. “Out for a little revenge? Can’t say as I blame you. I heard you gave Princess as good as you got.”

“She deserved worse, but I hadn’t time to prepare,” Azula said.

“Whatever,” Toph said. “Lets just get this over with.”

“Actually,” Azula said, making Toph stop after swinging her legs over the edge of the bed. “I had other plans for you that didn’t involve revenge.”

“Oh,” Toph said, taking a wide stance. “Guess I’ll never know what they were, then.”

“Hear me out,” Azula said, causing a blue fireball to swirl in her hand, in case Toph didn’t listen. “I wish to join my brother Zuko and Avatar, insofar as Fire Nation unity is concerned. I may even be open to the idea that the Fire Nation has better things to do than run the lives of less advanced civilizations.”

Toph laughed. “Turned over a new leaf? You’re still some one who’s long overdue for a severe beating.”

Azula narrowed her eyes. “I assure you, I’ve been beaten about quite enough. I’m willing to work with you, do you hear me? Answer me honestly, do you think Zuko and the Avatar have any chance of avoiding all out war on their own?”

“I think your head in a box, express mailed to the Earth King, might help,” Toph said.

“The Earth Kingdom isn’t going to forgive or forget one-hundred years of war even if you let them draw and quarter me in the middle of Ba Sing Se. The rebels hate the Earth Kingdom more than they love me, and so at the very least you’ll end up with a long, costly civil war. You need me to unite the Fire Nation military, and we need to convince the Earth Kingdom to respect our borders.”

“By making you Fire Lord? We’ll be right back where we started or worse before the year’s out.”

Azula looked around the room. With the door blocked, there was no quiet way out. She was about to fight the most powerful earth bender on the planet in a small room made of stone, with the second most powerful earth bender nearby to fight her assuming she won. -I should never have come here,- she thought. -I deluded myself into thinking it tied into my master plan, but it was just revenge I wanted.-

A quick lighting blast might finish the earth bender off, it was her only chance. -Is it?- said a voice. Her mother’s. -Not now. Don’t speak to me now, this is not the time.-

-Are you ever going to learn?-

Azula let the fire in her hand go out. She went down on her hands and knees, slapping the stone floor so there would be no mistaking what she was doing, even to a blind earth bender. “What do I have to say to make you listen?” she said.

Toph didn’t speak for a few seconds. “There’s nothing you can say,” Toph said. “I can tell when people lie, you know. I can hear and feel it in their voice. You know what creeps me out about you the most? I can’t tell when you’re lying. Even when what you’re saying is clearly not true, your voice doesn’t change, you’re heart doesn’t beat any faster…you’re scary, to be honest. Zuko told us once that the one thing we have to always keep in mind about you, is that ‘Azula always lies.'”

“I’m tired,” Azula said, feeling her eyes burn. Part of it was humiliation, but part of it was that she really was tired. “I’m tired of being Azula. I thought I had it all figured until those last few weeks before the war ended. Then Mai and Ty Lee betrayed me…my own father, he…”

“If you think I won’t wreck you while you’re on the floor feeding me a sob story, think again,” Toph said. “Get up, start slinging fire, and we’ll settle this.”

“She called me a monster,” Azula said, and bit her tongue. The blood filling her mouth made keeping her other emotions in check a little easier, but there was a crack in her voice.

“Who?” Toph said, now sounding interested. “You know, aside from anyone who’s met you.”

“My mother,” Azula said, snarling, hoping anger would cover the burning feeling that was consuming her. -I don’t believe it,- she thought. -I’m going to have a damn breakdown in front of the stupid earth bender…kidding me…-

“You have a mother?” Toph said. “Zuko said you were hatched.”

“When I was little. I overheard my mother talking about me. She said I was a monster.”

“She called it,” Toph said. “You sound upset, but that’s a lie, isn’t it?”

“What do I have to do?” Azula said. “If there’s nothing I can say, what can I do?”

Toph went to her nightstand and grabbed a spark-powder candle. “Promise me, on your honor, that you won’t bend or fight in any way for the next two hours,” Toph said. “Do that, and I’ll talk with you more about your future in the Fire Nation. Zuko and Aang…let’s just say maybe another point of view wouldn’t hurt them.”

Reigning herself in, Azula looked up. “Alright. On my honor, I promise not to fire bend or fight for the next two hours.”

“Good,” Toph said, holding the candle forward. “Er…right after you light this candle for me.”

Azula lit it and Toph put it into a holder on the nightstand. “What happens in the next two hours?” Azula asked.

“We find out just how serious you are,” Toph said.

The beating she took would be one she’d never forget. At some point, she thought Toph was trying to kill her, and the promise to not fight back had been a trick. Toph started by using earth bending; pillars of rock the width of a fist shot from the floor, striking her in the midsection. When she fell, another would hit her, forcing her back to her feet. None of the blows hit her in the head, and so she faced the pain with a clear mind.

Toph had her sandwiched between two pillars of rock, one from the floor, the other from the ceiling. The pinched her around the midsection and slowly came together over the course of half an hour, making it harder and hard to breath as they went.

Towards the end of the first hour, Toph began simply hitting her and trying out arm and leg holds that made Azula think she was going to suffer some joint damage. Through it all, every instinct told her to burn the girl, or as least hit her back. She did none of these things, and instead listened for the sound of the candle popping.

“Bet you didn’t expect this,” Toph said. Azula lie on the floor, her body feeling like it was one big bruise. Toph took the granite she’d formed into a blade and used it to cut Azula’s clothes from her. “I’ll bet your banged up pretty good. Get up,” Toph said.

Azula moaned. She couldn’t even writhe in pain, and she thought she still had another hour. The first felt like the better part of a day. “Get to your feet and the beating stops,” Toph said.

She fell twice, but through gritted teeth, Azula stood. Her knees shook, and saw the knife Toph held. “Good,” Toph said, slapping her on the arm, hard, and knocking her onto the bed. “I was going to get serious if you were too weak to stand. This is the kind of reform Aang should have had us do. Is it working? Do you feel less like a bitch now?”

Azula felt the cool sheets and hoped she’d just pass out. She physically couldn’t break her promise now, and she was sorry she’d made it. -It was a trick,- she thought. -A stupid tick, and I fell for it.-

She heard the sound of fingers being sucked, then felt them enter her, between her legs. “I have a confession to make,” Toph said. “Earth-fucking you that one time got me kind of hot.”

“Ugh,” Azula said, unable to say much else. She heard something else being sucked, then felt granite, smooth as glass and coated in warm spit, slid into her where Toph’s fingers had been.

“You’re so pathetic, Azula,” Toph said. “You should have done yourself a favor and stayed hidden, or at least stayed with the rebels. Coming after me was dumb; now you’re beaten to a pulp and I’m going to use you like a cheap whore. Stress the word cheap.

-She’s trying to goad me into breaking my word,- Azula thought. She heard Toph disrobe and felt herself being pushed forward. She looked down and saw that the earth bender had placed herself over Azula’s leg and fitted the other end of the granite cock into herself. She licked Azula’s calf, and gave it a hard nip with her teeth.

Toph ran her hands over Azula’s body, lingering on her buttocks, breasts, and face. “I guess you are hot,” Toph said. “Too bad I can’t see how smashed up you are. Does it hurt? Do you want to burn me?”

Azula said nothing.

“I didn’t say you couldn’t talk,” Toph said. “Say all the nasty stuff you want.”

“No more,” Azula said. “Stop, please.”

“No,” Toph said. “I’m going to get you to break your word.”

She nearly succeeded. The next forty-five minutes Azula spent being penetrated in one form or another. Toph was adept at making rock formations that forced Azula into humiliating positions where she could still fire bend had she the mind to.

She’d been put in a kind of chair that spread her legs and angled her lower half upward. Toph had been using her tongue to bring Azula close to orgasm and beyond, which made Azula even angrier. Toph taunted her each time she came, calling her a slut and other things.

Azula screamed when hot candle wax was dribbled down her inner thigh, close to her vagina. “You fucking bitch,” Azula shrieked.

“What are you going to do about it?” Toph asked. She then dribbled wax from the timed candle into Azula’s stomach and breasts.

Finally, as Azula lie on the cold, flat floor, the flame hit the second patch of powder and made a popping sound. Azula lie on the floor for several minutes, then she stood. “Now,” she said, her voice shaking. “Will you hear my plan and w-work with me?”

Toph lie on the bed, crossing her arms behind her head. “I’m a little too horny to think right now…” she said, letting her voice trail off.

Without speaking, Azula climbed into the bed and let her head fall between Toph’s legs, where she did her best to make her come. It was another long while, but eventually Toph let out a loud sigh of contentment and patted Azula on the head. “Good enough,” she said. “You’re probably still up to something, but I suppose we can talk about working something out.”

-Now I have two things to pay you back for,- Azula thought. “Very well,” she said.

To be continued…

*Chapter 12*: Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve.

It was decided Azula would stay in Omashu, and a messenger hawk would be sent to Avatar Aang and Fire Lord Zuko telling them to come and meet her there.

Mai and Ty Lee arrived on Appa within days.

Azula shocked them both by saying she only wished to be appointed war minister, and hold rank as princess. “To be honest,” Mai said, “we expected you to demand a little more.”

They had gathered in one of the conference rooms deep inside Bumi’s palace, far from places guards and citizens usually frequented. The stone walls were damp from being so close to the underground aquifers that fed the mountain city.

“I’ve…changed,” Azula said, her hair casting shadows over her face in the torchlight. It was the truth in a sense. “All that time I spent as a peasant made me see a side of life I’d never considered.”

She could tell by their faces they didn’t believe her completely. No one expected the truth from her, only lies. This made her want to lie to Mai and Ty Lee even more, as the thought of bearing her soul to them and being thought a liar made her sick.

“I know you don’t believe that,” Azula continued. “And you shouldn’t. ‘Azula always lies,’ right?”

They exchanged uncomfortable glances. Ty Lee shrugged. “Believe this much,” Azula said. “Our nation is in dire straights and you need me to avoid a civil war. The Earth Kingdom has to be made to understand it can’t occupy our lands and expect peace. You can also believe that I’ve had my fill of working tirelessly for someone else’s ambition.”

-I’m starting to not know what I want anymore,- she thought. -Am I lying? I can’t tell.-

“Who’s ambition? Ozai’s?” Mai asked.

Azula laughed. “Even he was following in another man’s footsteps. World domination was my great grandfather’s dream. To hell with the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes. If they wish to remain backward and insignificant, let them.”

“We know what happened with Katara,” said Ty Lee. “We know you haven’t changed that much, but…”

“It’s the best we’re going to get,” Mai finished. “We’re all sorry about the…reform methods. The Avatar was working off bogus info. We’re just glad your time in hiding showed you something.”

-Yes, it showed me the folly of being poor and friendless,- Azula thought. “I’ll admit, I take after my father some,” she said. “But I’m not stupid. Now, when do I meet with the Avatar and Zuko? I’ll need to send word to my forces before things go too far.”

They spent a long time talking about time lines and meeting schedules. Finally, before night fell, the messenger hawks were sent. Azula would meet Aang and Zuko at sea to discuss the terms of her returning to the fold.

After eating a light dinner, Azula was in her room doing as many situps as her body would allow. The bruises Toph had given her were fading and she felt better than she had in a long time.. She was certain she could unite the military, and thought she might even be able to live a life where she was outranked by her brother.

-As long as it remains clear to everyone I’m not outclassed,- she thought.

Azula was less sure of how to deal with the Earth Kingdom. They were remarkably like the rocks they bent. Hard to move when still, and hard to stop once they got rolling. -Rocks crack when put in fire,- she thought. -I conquered Ba Sing Se almost single-handed. I can do it again, if need be.-

There was a light knock at her door, and Ty Lee slipped inside without asking. She wore a dull green and yellow skirt with a brighter green band of cloth over her chest that left one shoulder exposed. “Hey,” she said.

“Hi,” said Azula, stopping her pushups. “What is it?”

“Nothing,” Ty Lee said. “I was just thinking you’ve had a lot of time to yourself.”

“I’ve always had a lot of time to myself,” Azula said.

“Is it real, Azula? I won’t tell if it isn’t, I swear. I just need to know.”

Azula stood up and took off her shirt, as she’d worked up a sweat. “For the most part,” she said. “I thought you’d all gone insane treating me like you did. It made me feel powerless, which I learned was the worst feeling I know how to feel. It got worse when you threatened to take my bending away, and so I’ve decided to never let that happen. Working with you all seems to be the best course of action.”

-And still, you lie, Azula,” chimed her mother’s voice. She blinked hard, and banished it.

“The Azula I know would want revenge,” Ty Lee said. “For everything.”

“Who says I don’t?” Azula said, her eyes flashing, making Ty Lee flinch. “Maybe I just don’t want it in the way you and the others think. Maybe I’ve come to learn that true power is the power people let you have over them. Maybe all I want is a chance to show our people how much better I am than Zuko or the Avatar. Maybe I want to sit quietly as people, of their own free will, come to grovel at my feet.”

“Maybe you do,” said Ty Lee, turning and heading for the door. “I guess that would be an improvement. I’ll never forget that day you showed up at the circus. For a moment I actually thought you just wanted to see me, but then…”

“I made it clear that something bad would happen to your friends if you didn’t come Avatar hunting with me,” Azula said. “If I told you I was sorry, would you believe me?”

Ty Lee shook her head. Azula saw by her shoulders she was fighting back tears. “No,” she said, in a high, unnaturally clear voice.

“And that’s why I won’t say it,” Azula said, now angry. “And you know, for a moment I thought you actually wanted to see me, not see if I was lying or not.”

Ty Lee spun on her heel and glared. “I came in here because I thought you might be lonely. Sometimes I forget that maybe that’s how you should just be left.”

Again, she turned and opened the door. Panic flooded Azula, and she called out. “No, stay!” Ty Lee was out the door. “Please!”

The sound of her footsteps stopped, and her head appeared around the door frame. “Am I being asked?”

“Yes, please stay with me,” Azula said. “You’re right, I have been alone for a long time. I don’t like it.”

-That’s more like it,- her mother said in her ear.

Azula bit her lip. It was one of the few tricks that kept her mother’s voice from saying too much.

Ty Lee looked like she might have a few more barbs to sting her with, but she held her tongue and sat on the bed. “Remember when we used to sit and come up with those plans to mess with Zuko?” Ty Lee said.

Azula smiled. “He was too easy a target, but he was too fun to pass up.”

“Remember when we convinced him he was adopted?”

Azula laughed, the first real one in years. It held no malicious glee behind it, as that particular prank was one of the tamer ones they’d pulled on Zuko. “Or when we played hide and seek in the forest. Zuko hid, but we didn’t seek.”

“No one saw him for three days!” Ty Lee managed to say through their laughter, which became louder.

“Where’s Mai, we should have her here,” Azula said.

“I left her alone, she’s a married woman, you know.”

“Didn’t stop her last time,” Azula said.

Ty Lee’s bare foot brushed Azula’s. “That was business,” Ty Lee said. “This is pleasure.”

Azula took hold of Ty Lee’s foot. “So sweet of you to think of me,” she said. “Look, I am who I am, but…”

“But shut up,” Ty Lee said, smiling. “I’ve had all the ‘real talk’ I can stand for one day. We’re Fire Nation, we get a bit…fiery with each other. Just promise you’ll never try to throw me in prison again and I’ll forgive you.”

She kissed Ty Lee’s foot where it joined her shin. “Ty Lee, I promise I’ll never throw you in prison again.”

“Or threaten to murder my circus friends.”

“Or threaten to murder your circus friends. I won’t have them killed in their sleep, either.”

They burst out laughing, but Azula couldn’t help noting to herself that she’d only promised no imprisonment and no threats towards circus folk. That left other options.

Azula got up and shut the door, throwing the latch as she turned and leaned against the wood. “So, let me show you what I’ve learned since we last met.”

She locked lips with Ty Lee, pushed her onto the bed, and crawled on top of her. Azula nuzzled her neck, nibbled at her ears, and felt Ty Lee’s hands working to remove her shirt. She stopped to help, and got rid of Ty Lee’s top as well.

The night she spent with June had taught her that she’d been selfish in her lovemaking. June had been selfish too, but in a way that had made Azula felt like she’d gotten something from the deal. She went at Ty Lee the same way, taking in her smell, her taste, and trying to burn the feel of her skin into her mind as she explored every inch she could reach.

“Wow,” Ty Lee said, trying not to lose her breath. “Azula…”

While Ty Lee could be put in some interesting positions, as Azula knew, she settled for lying between her friend’s legs and trying to make her squirm. Ty Lee had her turn at Azula as well, and before they finished, they tried one of their old standbys: Ty Lee between Azula’s legs, bending her back inward and putting her hips up at an impossible angle so Azula could return the favor.

They both came in that position, and Ty Lee was left to flop down on the bed, hard. “Ow,” she said, laughing. “I need to stretch more, all this diplomacy stuff is causing me to petrify or something.”

“It seems to have that affect on people,” Azula said.

“Do you think things will go back to how they were?” Ty Lee asked. “I mean, not exactly…”

“No,” Azula said, more sharply than she’d wanted. “I plan on working with the Avatar, at least as far as the Fire Nation is concerned. If he…”

“No, I mean between the three of us.”

-Not likely,- she thought, but said “Perhaps. I’m sure at least you and I will have time for some action. Mai…she’s the Fire Lady. Such a station comes with unavoidable obligations.”

“Maybe,” Ty Lee said. “I spent most of my time catching up with the circus while you were in prison. Since you’ve been out they’ve had me and Mai looking for you. Other than that, I don’t expect I’d see her much.”

“Things change,” Azula said. “Some things more than others.”

Ty Lee lie with her head on Azula’s stomach. Her small nose wrinkled. “So…what exactly did you do to that poor water bender?”

Azula told her, and wasn’t surprised to see the faint look of amusement on her friend’s face. Most people, even those close to her, thought Ty Lee a kind hearted, free spirit, and she was, but there was a darkness to her personality Azula liked.

“Sick,” Ty Lee said, a faint smile on her face. “I wonder if she secretly liked it?”

Azula snorted. “From what I gather, she holds grudges, so we’ll see. I hold grudges, too, as a mater of fact. Did you happen to notice the bruises?”

“I wasn’t going to say anything. I figured…”

“They’re from the earth bender. It’s complicated, but I owe her double now.”

Ty Lee began to walk her fingers over Azula’s stomach. “You know…I think we could convince Mai to help us…as long as you promise not to go too far…”

“Yes, yes,” Azula said, sitting up.

“Azula.”

“Ty Lee.”

“Promise me you won’t go too far. My definition of too far.”

-Damn it,- Azula thought. “Very well,” she said. “You have my word, I won’t do anything that will offend you too much.”

Ty Lee sighed. “That’s as good as I’m going to get, so lets go.”

They put their clothes back on, and went to find Mai.

To be continued…

*Chapter 13*: Chapter Thirteen.

Chapter Thirteen.

“C’mon, you can hit harder that,” Toph said, spitting a wad of blood and saliva to the floor.

The young earth bender was standing on the tips of her toes in the middle of a room. Her arms had been bound and raised above her head. Supporting her was a rope that hung from a hook expertly bent out of the rock ceiling. She wore no clothes aside from a thin green strip of cloth around her hips.

Azula cast a sideways glance to Ty Lee and Mai, who were sitting nearby watching. Ty Lee had a permanent wince on her face, but seemed interested, while Mai was managing to look bored and perplexed at the same time.

A punch to Toph’s stomach caused her to let out a breath, and Azula’s hand to sting. “Better,” Toph said. “I thought you spent all that time in prison working out?”

Azula used her fingertips to raise the hair out of Toph’s white, sightless eyes. She felt like burning them out, but some ground rules were in place, and Azula would honor them.

She recalled Mai’s words a little over an hour before.

“Maybe you should just ask her,” Mai said.

“Ask to beat and rape her?” Azula said, forgetting how sarcastic Mai could be. “Very funny…”

“Seriously,” Mai said, looking to a perplexed Ty Lee. “I don’t want to talk about how I know, but that girl is kinda kinky.”

Azula did want to get in to how she knew that, but for now she’d take her friend’s word for it. “Are you sure? Because the element of surprise…”

“Ugh. Follow me,” Mai said.

Azula settled for a slap. The rules had been no serious facial disfigurement. Toph, being an earth bender, usually had a bruise or two to show for it, but she had a reputation to uphold, or so she said. “Playground stuff,” Toph said. “I thought you’d be better at this.”

Smiling, Azula coaxed a tiny blue flame from her fingertip. She knew half of Toph’s fun came from taunting her, and that she’d dealt a fair bit of grief despite the girl’s bravado. -Too bad I didn’t get to really hurt you,- she thought. -Maybe someday.-

She’d get Toph. She’d get them all, although there might not necessarily be a single mark on their bodies after. -The new and improved Azula,- she thought, moving the flame towards one of Toph’s nipples. Toph sucked in a breath as got closer. Azula let it burn her slightly before pulling it away.

“Lame,” Toph said. “I’ve had more fun with a candlestick.”

Azula said nothing, but called a wall of fire into being and had it encircle them. She felt the heat and began to sweat, so she stripped to her undergarments. Walking slowly around Toph, watching her start to perspire, she lit her finger on fire again and stuck it into the middle of Toph’s back. “Nygh,” slipped from Toph’s mouth, as Azula’s finger nail had played a part as well.

She repeated the maneuver several times, over pressure points and chi lines she knew would hurt and leave the earth bender sore for a long time. Toph kept quiet through much of it, but began to cry out on the last few. “Better?” Azula said, stroking the back of her neck where she hadn’t burnt.

“Yeah. I almost felt those,” Toph said.

She used her finger nail on Toph’s shoulder to spin her around. Taking her by the jaw, she held her face upward and looked into her dead eyes from inches away. “You’re lucky those two talked me down,” Azula said.

Toph grinned. “I think you’re the lucky one, princess. Are you going to keep tickling me all night, or are you going to take this seriously? You’re not going to get many chances at this.”

Azula locked lips with Toph, and pushed her tongue into her mouth, tasting the blood she’d drawn before. Toph reciprocated, and had her tongue bitten. Azula broke off, licking her lips and tasting the metallic, salty fluid. She brought the flames in closer and smiled herself when Toph’s movements betrayed how uncomfortable she was. “You could bend your way out of this anytime,” Azula said. “Feel free to.”

“Guess I can relax, then,” Toph said. “Although…if you keep fire bending, all the oxygen in the room will be gone.”

Azula drew the flames in on them and let them go out, laughing when Toph shrank from them. “Are you to just going to sit there and watch?” Azula asked, looking to the other two women.

Ty Lee cartwheeled over, while Mai settled for a stately walk. “Only if we can be nice to her,” Ty Lee said, winking at Azula.

“I didn’t bring my whips,” Mai said, looking mournful. “Seems like I always leave them on trips where I want to use them.”

“Why don’t you bend us up some of those rock cocks, and we can be…nice to you,” Azula said, letting her fingers trail off Toph’s chin.

Toph pulled on the rope that held her hands aloft and took a chuck of rock with it. She caught the slab over her head and fashioned three, smooth, stone dildos. Each Fire Nation girl took one. “You know what to do with it, I hope,” Toph said to Azula.

She made Toph get on her knees and lube the dildo up with her spit by sucking on it. Once she’d done the same to the other two, Azula took her by the back of the neck and led her to a bed, she shoved Toph onto it. “Figures,” Azula said, putting two fingers into Toph, between her legs. “Did being tied up get you hot?”

“Barely,” Toph said. “I hate to tell you this, Azula, but when it comes down to it, you’ve got all the sexual sense of an old Badger Mole.”

“Ha,” said Azula, moving her fingers in and out. “Tough words, but not exactly true. Right?” She looked to Ty Lee and Mai, each having taken a seat on the bed around Toph. Ty Lee was smiling, while Mai looked away. “Right?”

“You’re totally hot, Azula,” Ty Lee said.

“I’m sure she…” Toph paused when Azula’s thumb found her clitoris. “…looks hot. I wouldn’t know, so I’m just going by the…lay of her land. Motion of her ocean…whatever. Total dead fish. I was hoping the ‘evil bitch’ thing she’s got going on might redeem her a little in the sack, but so far, nothin’.”

-She must want a permanent injury,- Azula thought. -What a twisted girl.-

“Now, Azula can be very…sweet,” Ty Lee said.

Frowning, Azula knew Ty Lee meant their last meeting in her cell. That she would bring that up here…Azula had thought about that night in her darkest hours, when it felt like no one on the planet cared for her, and that she might die alone in the wilderness with only herself for company.

“Ha, ha!” Toph said. “Sweet. You’re an acrobat with words, too I see.”

Azula took the slick dildo in her hand and used her bending to heat it to a few degrees bellow uncomfortable, then slid it into Toph. “Ye-ah,” Toph said, gripping the sheets tight in her fists. “Maybe you aren’t completely…”

“Someone please give her mouth something else to to do,” said Azula. Mai leaned over and dangled her dildo above Toph’s lips before letting her suck it. Ty Lee then crept forward, and nuzzled one of Toph’s breasts before taking it into her mouth.

-Some revenge this is turning out to be,- Azula said, watching the smooth stone phallus slide in and out of Toph at her command. -I suppose there’s worse things I could be doing right now. In fact, I think I’ve managed to make myself a little more manageable for…other people, without compromising who I am.-

-Is that so?” asked her mother.

She blinked and focused on the task at hand. Mai and Ty Lee seemed to finally be getting on board, and were taking turns between kissing each other and kissing Toph. The three of them had started putting on a little show for Azula, mixing their lips and tongues with the two stone dildos. It drove her mother’s voice back to the distant corner of her mind, where she felt sure every doubt she’d ever had went to live and fester.

To be continued…

*Chapter 14*: Chapter Fourteen.

Chapter Fourteen.

“She hasn’t changed a bit!” Katara shouted, ripping the water from some flowers in a vase by the window sill, and using it to scar the stone wall. Aang said nothing, knowing it wasn’t smart to cross Katara when she was in a rage. “When she comes she should be arrested, and you should lock her bending. I don’t know why you didn’t in the first place. She’s even worse than Ozai.”

Aang frowned. Taking away a bender’s ability to bend was a fine thing when killing was the only other option, but he’d come to wonder just how much better it really was. “Doing that won’t put a stop to the rebellion,” he said. “It might even make things worse. We need her to keep the people who think like she does on our side.”

“Why would we want anyone like that on our side?” Katara asked, crossing her arms, and fixing him with a stare. Her bright blue eyes were a marvel to him; they could melt his heart or freeze it, depending on her mood.

“Well, not exactly like her,” Aang said. “But come on, half the military has defected, and it’s only a matter of time before they start a full-blown war. The only thing that’s kept that from happening is the fact that the Earth Kingdom was more fractured most people realize. King Kuei…”

“Aang, for the love of…arrgg!” Katara stormed over to the door and kicked it open, nearly hitting Fire Lord Zuko who’d come up the stairs. “Move!” she shouted, pushing past him.

Zuko dared a baleful glance at her, but only after she’d gone by and couldn’t see his face. He shut the door behind him and noticed the mark on the wall. “She’ll be fine,” Zuko said. “She didn’t hurt the man who murdered her mother, she won’t hurt Azula.”

“It’s not Azula I’m worried about,” Aang said. “This is all my fault anyway. I shouldn’t have trusted Wan Shi Tong.”

“So you do think the spirit lied,” Zuko said, a faint smile creeping into the corners of his mouth.

“I’m sure of it now,” Aang said. “It seems so obvious…none of what it told me made any sense at all.”

Zuko fought to keep from laughing, but failed. “I-I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s-it’s just that…”

“It’s not funny,” Aang said. “That’s like, one of the worst things you can do to somebody. Suki, Toph, Katara…they trusted me.”

Zuko snickered. “I wouldn’t feel bad about corrupting Toph if I were you.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind,” Zuko said, waving. “You’re right, it’s not funny. It’s just that Azula has had a lot coming to her. I know, we need her, and this is no time for grudges, but I have to take positive energy when and where I can get it.”

Aang nodded, as he could sympathize. He’d been a failure as an avatar so far, in his own estimation. In his happier moments, the most he could do was convince himself it wasn’t truly his fault; too much bad blood had been spilled to be easily cleaned up. “Hopefully your sister will be manageable and we can start the healing process. What brings you up here, anyway?”

“Messenger hawk,” Zuko said, holding up a piece of parchment. “The Princess of Fire herself will meet with us on the deck of a ship between here and the Earth Kingdom. Three days.”

“Did she say anything else?”

“Only that she’s agreeable to the general terms we’ve mentioned so far,” Zuko said. “You know what I say about Azula.”

“Azula always lies, yes I know,” Aang said. “We’ll at least be able to keep an eye on her. Half the army defected, but that means half didn’t. I’m pretty sure quite a few people in your nation didn’t see things Ozai’s way, and now at least we know who’s trustworthy.”

“I wish I were as optimistic as you,” Zuko said. “I don’t see any other options, so let’s discuss exactly what we’re going to tell my sister. I suggest we play hardball at first, that way we can make it look like we’re giving in when she demands more…”

They discussed how they intended to manage Azula for the better part of an hour, then talk turned to how they would use her once the full military was back under control. To Aang, it looked as though every step of the process could easily end in another war.

Katara walked through the streets with her head down, not wanting to make eye contact with anyone. She was widely known to many people, being the Avatar’s lady friend, and so it was difficult to avoid attention.

She tried to force certain thoughts from her mind, but like water they kept seeping back in. Unlike water, she had little control over it. Thoughts of a bloody Azula lying on the floor of a prison cell, her bending locked away forever, were about the only elements of her mind she found remotely pleasant.

-I don’t believe I let her get away with it,- she thought, remembering the insane fire bender’s amber eyes set into her coal-blackened face. She’d let herself be separated from her water so easily…even the terrible art of blood bending had been unavailable to her, as there had been no moon to enhance her powers.

After that night in the prison tower, Katara hadn’t wanted to spare a single thought for Azula. While it made her disgusted with herself, she’d hoped Azula had simply drowned in the ocean after she’d escaped. She didn’t want to look at her, not after that she’d done to her. -I’m as bad as she is,- Katara thought. -So what if I was under Aang’s misguided direction? I deserved her revenge.-

She punched a nearby wall, making her hand sting and people stare. She bolted down an alleyway, hoping to get far from prying eyes, while she donned her hood. She took a seat next to a ruined cabbage cart and tried her best to be taken for a beggar by the few people passing through the back alleys.

-I didn’t deserve it at all,- she thought. -So what if what I…what we did…was stupid. We were trying to help. That’s all we’ve ever done. Okay, sometimes it doesn’t work, but that’s the risk you take.-

She’d heard the others talk about Azula, how she’d changed slightly over the past year since her escape. While everyone agreed prison rape likely hadn’t been the cause, Katara thought they were still giving Azula far too much credit. -No one thinks she’s a good person, but they think she can be controlled. That she’ll at least respect other people’s right to live…she’s obsessed with power, and that’s all she’ll ever care about.-

“If power’s all she understands…” Katara said, low and to herself, “then I’ll just have to make her understand who has it and who doesn’t.”

A gold piece fell at her feet, and she looked up to tell whoever it was she wasn’t really a beggar. Her face went red when she saw June standing there, hands on her hips. “I knew things were tough, but I didn’t think they were this bad,” June said.

“Oh, no,” Katara said, picking up the coin and tossing it back as she stood. “I just needed some space.”

“Let me guess, the Avatar and the Fire Lord want to make good with that lunatic who had her way with you, and you’re mad about it?”

Katara’s face went redder and she snarled. “What? How do you…”

“I’m a bounty hunter,” June said. “I’d be pretty bad at my job if I didn’t have a network of informants to tell me who’s out to get who and why.”

“Well there’s no more bounty for you to collect,” Katara said. “Like you heard, Aang and Zuko want to work with her.”

“I know if someone did that to my girl, I wouldn’t have working with her on my mind,” June said.

“Your g…?”

“You heard me,” June said, shrugging. “Men are too…you know.”

Katara nodded. “I do know,” she said. “Not to be rude, but what are you trying to say?”

“I was just thinking,” June said. “The Princess of Fire singed my reputation, and did a little more to yours. Your boyfriend and the Fire Lord are going to give her a job in return. I say we both make sure she pays what she owes first. I’ve got skills, you’ve got connections…we make the perfect team.”

Part of her knew the Fire Nation really did need Azula, but that part was drowned out by the thought of Azula actually having power again. Recent events aside, Azula had come close to killing several people she loved, and in Aang’s case, had actually killed him. -She’s not like Zuko,- Katara thought. -There’s no good in her at all.-

“All right,” Katara said. “I suppose I could use some help in teaching her a lesson. She only understands force, so I say we make it clear who’s got the power and who doesn’t.”

June smiled. “I thought there was something hard behind those blue eyes,” she said, making Katara swallow. “Follow me. The street isn’t a good place to talk about this kind of thing.”

They did surprisingly little talking. June had planned out what she wanted to do and how she wanted to do it ahead of time, all she needed was a water bender daffy enough to bend a tiny skiff into the middle of contested waters and pull it up alongside a rebel Fire Nation ship.

There weren’t any water benders that insane, but fate had conspired to gift June with Katara, a powerful water bender who’d been given ample reason to do exactly what June needed. So bent on revenge was she, that Katara didn’t seem to question why June was so well prepared.

-This will keep her mind off it, and it will give me something to do until sunset,- June thought, her hands running up the sides of Katara’s torso while her tongue played over the water bender’s lips.

June had bedded women like Katara before, angry off at their boyfriends, looking for a way to get back at them that was somewhere between flirting with another man and sleeping with him. -I should charge for it, as a service,- she thought. -No. Next I’ll be whipping men who’ve been “bad boys,” and from there it’s all downhill.-

Her big payoff was coming soon, but getting it was going to require some expert timing. She let Katara’s tongue explore mouth as she fell back on the hotel room bed. June could tell from how Katara had sex that she was probably hell in a battle. She’d learned quite a bit since that incident in the abbey years ago, a humiliating defeat June didn’t think she’d ever live down.

-If I can get to Azula somehow before this girl and the Avatar, I can get paid enough to consider taking some time off. I’m not getting any younger.-

She didn’t like having such thoughts, especially not while in bed with a girl half her age. She turned her attention to the warm body on top of her, feeling its heat and the vigor of its muscles. It wasn’t often she had someone from the Water Tribe to study, and she found she rather liked them. Earth Kingdom women had a tendency to be a little heavy set, while Fire Nation women leaned toward being thin and pale. Katara, aside from her light brown skin, was plump enough to be soft, but upon a good squeezing, had the muscle to squeeze back.

-Like a seal, or something,- June thought, and laughed.

“What?” Katara said, looking up. She’d been nuzzling June’s breasts, and had been about to nibble on one.

June pushed her head back down. “Just a funny thought I had,” said June, hoping Katara wouldn’t start a conversation. She hated talking in bed, or right after. There would have to be some talk after this, however. She’d put the moves on Katara rather fast after explaining part of her plan. She didn’t want the water bender thinking about it too much. She still needed the girl to find out as much as she could about when and where on the ship Zuko and Aang would be meeting Azula. Once that was done, they could set off and depending on how good a bender Katara was, be at the ship before Avatar and Fire Lord got there.

-It shouldn’t be too hard to get the girl to hold off for a minute while I have a little chat with her highness,- June thought. -If she doesn’t want her rise to power screwed up, she’ll pay what she owes.-

Azula had been too hard to find when she was surrounded by rebel forces, which was why June had come to the Fire Nation capital to be around the Avatar and Fire Lord, who she knew were her best chance of meeting Azula again. June also knew how royals thought, and had some doubts about how honorable Azula would be once she was holding all the cards. In truth, this was a problem June hadn’t expected to have, as she’d thought Azula would either live her life out in obscurity or die while they attempted to capture her.

She only hoped that didn’t happen now.

To be continued…

*Chapter 15*: Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Fifteen.

Azula’s feet made no sound as she walked up the metal stairs to the ship’s bridge. The helmsman was stooped in front of the wheel, while the navigator and captain sat around a pai sho board. They nearly knocked it over scrambling to stand at attention when they saw her. It took a moment for the helmsman to notice, and he quaked when he stood up straight.

“At ease,” she said, happy at their response. “Captain, have you noticed anything about the ocean?”

“Uh…” Azula’s toes curled at the fear in his voice. “Not really, my lady. Is there something amiss?”

Azula had only been curious about what she’d sensed, and wanted to know if others had detected it, but scaring people was still fun.

“The ocean seems…wavier than usual, yet there isn’t a cloud in the sky,” Azula said. “Am I going crazy?” -Say yes, I dare you,- she thought.

“Y-you know I did notice something,- said the helmsman. “M-ma’am…sir…my lady. Er…sometimes earthquakes can be felt from ships.”

“Earthquakes,” Azula said, satisfied. “Very well then; It’s been a while since I’ve been over the open ocean. Cary on.”

In the stairwell she could hear their sighs of relief. With a smile on her face, she headed back towards her quarters. Azula’s accommodations were special. After years locked in a cage, she had little interest in spending much time at sea in a typical Fire Nation ship cabin. She’d had one of the ballista ports converted into a room, and the weapon bay door fashioned into a window. There hadn’t been time or resources to install glass, so a dark colored cloth had been used to cover it. It let the breeze in, and she didn’t feel as confined.

The Avatar and her brother were due to come in via sky bison the next day, likely around mid-afternoon. The night was young, and so she decided to get some exercise before going to bed. She’d stripped to her undergarments when she heard a cough from behind, near the door.

She spun and shot a blue fire ball at the noise. Anyone fool enough to drop in on her like that deserved a third-degree burn, she decided. A dark shape had moved artfully out of the way, and a familiar face was illuminated in a blue hue.

“You,” Azula said, keeping her hands lit so she could see.

“Me,” June said. “I’ve come for my money.”

-I don’t believe I forgot about her,- Azula thought. -And of all the times for her to show up.-

“Well, as you can see, I’m not carrying that much cash on me,” Azula said. “Can this wait? I’m in the middle of something.”

“I’ve waited long enough,” June said. “There has to be gold somewhere on this ship.”

Azula ignited the chamber’s lanterns and crossed her arms. “Well there isn’t. Maybe if we went through the pockets of every sailor aboard, we could scrabble together enough for a down payment on a shack in Ba Sing Se, but with the housing market being on its way up…”

“Stuff it,” June said. “I don’t have a lot of faith you’ll cough up what you owe once your high on the hog again, and I can’t very well go claiming you stiffed me to your friends who paid me to catch you in the first place. So, are you positive there’s no gold on this ship?”

She saw June’s gloved hand tighten around the handle of her whip. -Probably coated in that damned monster’s poison,- she thought. -I’ve had about enough of her…plus it’s been a while since I injured someone who deserved it.-

“I’m positive,” Azula said. “Now, get out of here or things are going to get ugly.”

June whistled and a number of things happened at once. The cloth that served as a window blew inward with from a wave. The candles went out, and June’s whip cracked. Azula felt the sting on her midsection and she shrieked as fireballs engulfed her hands.

The flames gutted out immediately and she fell to the damp floor. Inwardly, she screamed and cursed, more furious than she’d been in a long time. “Ow!” said June, her hand having touched Azula’s arm. “She’s hot.”

Azula was glad June had been burnt, but she forced herself to calm down. Her anger, without the ability to be expressed, would cause her to spontaneously combust; she wouldn’t have been the first fire bender to reduce themselves to ash in such a fashion.

Cold water enveloped her body, and for a moment she couldn’t breath. When it left, it took the moisture in the room with it. “There,” said a familiar voice. “Let’s go. There’s no way we weren’t heard.”

June picked her up and toss her over her shoulder.

“What are you doing!” shouted Katara.

“You want your revenge, I want my money. In a way, I’m just doing what I was paid to do a long time ago.”

“You were already paid!” Katara shouted. All Azula could see was the curve of June’s backside and the metal floor of her quarters.

“I’ll explain later,” June said. “Right now you’re an accomplice, and I don’t think anyone on this boat is going to listen to you long enough for you to convince them otherwise. Lets go!”

There was a great splash, then the sound of ice creaking. Azula now could see a clear sheet of ice as June slid down it. They leveled out and soon she was face down on the deck of a wooden craft that sloshed in the water. “Go, go, go!” June said.

“I don’t believe this,” Katara was saying, sounding hysterical. “I don’t believe what I just did…why did I listen to a bounty hunter? This is bad, bad, bad…”

Azula could now close her fist and groan. She felt a heavy foot on her back. “You’re in the middle of the sea on a wooden boat, princess,” June said. “You’ll be able to move soon, and don’t you even think about fire bending. Not that I’m taking chances.”

She felt her hands and feet being bound. Katara’s muttering had become unintelligible, and it took every ounce of her willpower to keep rage from overtaking her again.

-This must be how Zuko feels all of the time,- she thought.

To be continued…

*Chapter 16*: Chapter Sixteen.

Chapter Sixteen.

Azula lie on the bottom of the skiff, tied up like a gopher-pig with her hands and feet behind her and a wide leather strap around her mouth. It had been put there to keep her from breathing fire, but didn’t interfere with her ability to talk.

“You’ve sealed your dooms,” Azula said, loud enough for her muffled voice to be heard by Katara. The sun had come up, and Azula felt its loving rays on her skin. Her captors, however, didn’t seem as glad to see it.

“Quiet,” June said. “Once I collect the bounty on you, you can seal all the doom you want.”

“Bounty? More like ransom,” Azula said. She’d been vocal about the deal she’d cut with June back at the tavern many months ago, and taken delight in Katara’s reaction to the information. It was clear to her that the water bender had been led to this on less-than-accurate pretexts. “I understand your motivation, June, but Katara? What’s led you to this suicidal business?”

Katara was spinning her arms like she was a windmill, propelling the boat against the wind on the crest of an artificial wave. Her arms slowed, stopped, and she sat down for one of the increasingly frequent breaks she had been taking since sunrise.

“Just be quiet,” Katara said.

“I think you should be informed that this will be seen as an act of highest treason,” Azula said. “The Fire Lord and the Avatar were depending on me to make peace within the Fire Nation, and you’ve screwed it up. If this leads to a war, it will all be on your heads.”

Katara’s hands clenched into fists and she stood. “Well, then I guess had better make it worth my while!” she shouted, and came forward. June got up and stood in front of her.

“Later,” June said. “We have to get to that island I was talking about so we can start negotiating for her ransom. I mean bounty.”

Katara shoved June back to her seat and pulled a globule of water from the ocean, which extended itself and flailed about like a whip. “You…you’ve lost any right to tell me what to do,” Katara said. “Once we get to the island, I’m sending word to Aang about what happened and he can meet us there. We were supposed to get our revenge and leave. That was it. I can’t believe I didn’t put a stop to this when I had the chance.”

June sighed. “Alright, have it your way,” she said. “But if that’s the case, we need to come up with a story that leaves me out of this, otherwise…”

Azula coughed. “Excuse me,” she said. “But don’t either of you meddlesome fools think for a single moment that I’m going to let you get away with this. If I don’t manage to escape and kill you both before my brother and the Avatar come, I’ll see you two behind bars.”

She bit her tongue, knowing if she really did kill Katara, her future in the Fire Nation would be in serious jeopardy.

“I’m starting to think the Water Tribe girl had a point,” June said. “If you’re not going to play ball, maybe I should let her have you.”

“Oh please,” Azula said. “She doesn’t have the guts to get her satisfaction from me.”

“Wanna bet?” Katara said, whipping the water tendril above Azula’s head. “I’ll show you who doesn’t have guts.”

She rummaged around in the pile of items near the middle of the craft and took out a long rope, which she tied around Azula’s ankles. Azula cursed as she was thrown overboard, and felt the water around her begin to move.

With the awkward position she was tied in, it took all her strength to keep from drowning as she was dragged behind the boat. Water filled her nose and more than a little got into her lungs before being coughed back out. She was reminded of her first swim after her prison break, and just as she thought her body would give out ans she would die in the stupidest way possible, the water around her slowed and she felt the rope being pulled, followed by coarse sand on her back.

She was dragged into the beach by June while Katara used her water bending to move the boat inland. June brought her past the tide line and took tight hold of the back of her neck, pushing her head downward so she was in a kneeling position. “If I see so much as a spark in your eyes, princess, I’ll make sure you regret it. Understood?”

Azula said nothing.

“Understood?” June squeezed the back of Azula’s neck, hard, and pushed her face into the sand. The leather gag she’d worn had fallen off in the ocean.

“Understood,” Azula said, thinking if things played out well, June might not make a terrible assistant. Her loyalties were simple, she was capable, ruthless, and Azula still remembered that night at the tavern.

Katara was writing something into a parchment using a piece of charcoal. The messenger hawk they’d brought sat quietly on her shoulder. June’s whip snapped and the parchment was in two pieces. Katara shrieked and dropped the charcoal. “Hey!” she shouted. “I thought…”

Another crack of the whip and Katara’s forearm had a bright red gash on it. She shrieked again and went to pull water from a pouch on her side, but again the whip snapped, forcing her to pull her hand back. Azula noticed her movements had become sluggish, and she smiled when the whip coiled lightly around her waist and yanked her forward to the ground.

“Damn it,” June said, using more rope to bind a hapless Katara in the same way she had Azula. “You know, I didn’t want to be the bad guy here.”

Katara’s mouth was slack, but Azula could see a familiar gleam in her eyes. “I can’t be chasing bounties for the rest of my life,” June continued. “I’m nowhere near retirement age, but I’ve got to start taking big score opportunities when they come up.”

She continued to talk as she dragged the bound benders into the dense forest, down an animal trail that felt to Azula like a dimly lit tunnel. When she came to a spot where some creature had spent the night, she reconfigured her rope work so that Azula and Katara were bound to each others’ wrists and ankles back to back. Her final knot was double sided noose which she fitted snugly around their necks. “Try not to strangle each other,” June said, and left.

“Oh, she’s good,” Azula said, feeling the back of Katara’s skull against hers. As an experiment, she craned her neck forward and felt the rope tighten. -Really good,- Azula thought, feeling the blood in her arteries slow and spots appear before her eyes. She heard Katara make a gagging sound and thought if she could tough it out, she could strangle the water bender.

She was about to black out when she eased off. She could hear and feel Katara’s labored breathing. -Some other time, then,- she thought. -No, no,- she quickly added. -That’s not how we do things anymore. Snuffing her would make things more difficult for me, let’s face it.-

After some long minutes, Azula spoke. “Are you conscious?”

“Yes,” Katara said, clearly not completely recovered from being paralyzed and strangled.

“I propose a truce. At least until we can think of a way out of this.”

“Fine,” Katara said. “I don’t have anything against you, anyway.”

“Nonsense,” Azula said. “You want to get me back for what I did to you.”

“I deserved it,” Katara said. “What I did to you was wrong.”

“Yes, it was,” she said. “Let that be a lesson to you not to meddle with the way people are. Besides, you taught me something very important the day I was to become Fire Lord.”

“You didn’t learn anything that day,” Katara said. “You had to be locked in a tower where you couldn’t hurt anyone. You blinded a man.”

“I learned what my weaknesses were,” Azula said. “I thought about that day for a long time afterward. When the Avatar told me he was going to lock my bending rather than keep me imprisoned forever, I pieced it all together.”

“You know, your brother tried to convince me he was good once,” Katara said. “It turned out to be empty words.” Her voice was becoming stronger, her words less slurred from June’s poison. “In the end, it wasn’t what he said that won me over, it was what he did.”

“Let me finish,” Azula said, not surprised by Katara’s sentiments. She’d heard the action versus words line before, in prison. “I was wrong about how power worked. I thought fear was the only way to ensure loyalty. I’ve learned there are other ways to keep people from betraying me, ways you and your friends might find more tolerable. I’ve chosen to favor them.”

Katara laughed, sarcastic and cruel. The sound struck Azula, surprised by the source. “Is that supposed to make me like you more? It just proves what I’ve always known; you’re nothing but a megalomaniac, just like your father. You see people as things to be controlled, nothing else. You’re sick, and no amount of treatment is ever going to cure you. There’s nothing there to cure, that’s just how you are”

-Don’t worry, Azula,- said her mother. -We both know what she says isn’t true, not really. Will you tell her what truly motivates you? Her, of all people?-

“No,” Azula said, gritting her teeth.

“Deny it all you want,” Katara said. “I don’t see how you can. I’ll never trust you, and neither will anyone else.” She laughed again, a derisive snort. “Even your so-called friends don’t dare turn their back on you completely.”

Azula felt a twinge in her chest. Ty Lee and Mai’s betrayal, deserved or not, still stung. She decided to keep quiet, as Katara apparently knew where all her old bruises were. “Maybe you could go live with your father after Aang locks your bending. But wait,” Katara continued, “I doubt even he trusts you. Didn’t he have a hand in killing your grandfather? Don’t tell me he wouldn’t expect the same amount of love from his own children. Maybe your mo…”

“You shut up about my mother,” Azula said, her voice low. “I’ll burn us both to cinders if you even dare…”

“Give it a rest,” Katara said. “You don’t care about anyone and no one cares about you. You’re the saddest, loneliest person I’ve ever met, and I’ve decided there’s nothing I can do to you that would make your pathetic life any worse than it is.”

Azula felt tears at the edges of her eyes, and didn’t think she could fight them back. -No, no, no, you bitch, you won’t make me cry. You won’t…-

But she did. Azula thought she might die of shame, or blood loss from biting her lip so hard. Once she had herself under control, she waited for Katara to speak, perhaps to mock her tears for being fake, but the water bender said nothing.

June’s footsteps crunched through the loam, and soon she stood at their feet. “Hey, you didn’t strangle each other to death,” she said. “I was kind of worried you might. Try not to, the ransom letter’s been sent. In the meantime, lets see if we can’t all agree on a nice way to spin this so we all walk away happy.”

She pulled her whip taught before cracking it in the air.

To be continued…

*Chapter 17*: Chapter Seventeen.

Chapter Seventeen.

By the time the sun went down they’d moved deeper into the forest where the trees were thicker, and found another animal clearing. It smelled heavily of animal musk, but June declared it was more secure and they all smelled bad anyway. She kept Azula and Katara tied, and fed them each half a melon as well as let them slurp from a water skin. They were both allowed one bathroom break, and it was made clear they should use it wisely.

Keeping powerful benders confined was a difficult task, but June managed it through a stock of her Shirshu’s poison, which she kept in a small leather pouch, and what looked to Azula like a small boarcupine quill she’d found at the campsite. One of many.

“Is it really necessary to keep us tied together?” Katara asked as a log on the fire snapped. The splotches of sky that could been seen through the canopy had turned purple, and stars could be seen.

“Yep,” June said, sitting with her back on a log. “Think of it this way, now you can blame the whole thing on me. Just say I convinced you to yield to the worst part of your nature, you thought it would be a quick in and out thing, no harm done, but I got you swept up into a kidnapping. Maybe you’ll do some time, but I doubt it would be much. That’s basically the truth, right?”

“I’d go with that story if I were you,” Azula said. “It’s not like anyone would believe me, anyway.”

“Boo, hoo,” Katara said.

“Ladies,” June said. “I promise you the morning after a Shirshu-coma isn’t pleasant.”

“Where is that foul beast, anyway?” Azula asked.

“Safe,” June said. “And she’s not a foul beast.”

“You know, when we met a while back, you told me you were letting me go because you didn’t want to make powerful enemies,” Azula said. “What do you think this has accomplished?”

“My guess is I’ll be popular in the Earth Kingdom,” she said. “Not amongst the higher-ups, but I’m sure the common folk will think it’s pretty hilarious.”

“Or they’ll hate you for not turning me over to them,” Azula said.

June laughed, and threw a stick into the fire. “I’m not known for my national pride,” she said. “I’ve never pretended to be anything I’m not, and the people I deal with respect that. Don’t worry about me, princess.”

“You know what, she’s right,” Katara said. “All you have to do is sit here and wait, and you’ll be back on your way into everyone’s good graces in less than a day. June can sail off into the sunset, rich, and I can go die of shame in a cell somewhere. Everyone wins.”

-She makes it too easy,- thought Azula, thinking of and letting go several good jabs. Some jabs, however, she did experience, namely in her hip. “Ow,” she whispered, shifting her body. Being bound to Katara’s wrists, ankles, and neck, there was little she could do to find a more comfortable position, and something was nettling her.

“What are you doing?” Katara said. “Stop wiggling.”

“I’m on something,” Azula muttered. “Ow. What is that…”

“Ugh,” June said, getting up and finding a short blanket they’d used to wrap provisions on the skiff. She spread it out next to Azula and Katara and rolled them onto it. “There,” she said, bending down and picking something up. “It was a boarcupine quill. You should be all set now.”

“They’re poking through the blanket,” Azula said.

“Too bad,” June said. “They’re everywhere. I pulled two out of my rear an hour ago.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything, figuring you’re a mighty hunter and all, but doesn’t this seem like a boarcupine nest?” Katara said.

June began to speak, but stopped. She looked around a little more and smelled the air. The fire had driven off some of the animal musk, but it was still there, especially near the ground. “It’s abandoned,” June said. “The young aren’t here, as you can see.”

“How big is this island?” Azula asked.

“You know what, kids, it’s bedtime,” June said. “Next person who talks gets a Shirshu shot and a kick in the stomach.” She sat back down after clearing the spot near the log with her foot. Azula and Katara remained quiet.

Azula had been left facing the woods. The fire made the trees shine and glow, but past them everything was black as ink. With the light flickering, it was impossible to tell if anything was moving past their little circle. Azula could only hope there wasn’t in fact a boarcupine roaming the woods, upset over its night spot being commandeered.

Of course there was.

It had spent the better part of two days making that nest. The dense trees were perfect for its babies, which it could feel were due soon. It had birthed children before, and knew that for a few days at least their spines were soft, making them little more than tasty balls of meat to the creatures that could catch them on their stumpy legs.

She’d cleared the spot by rolling around on the ground, flattening the trees and bushes. They were stubborn plants, but they stayed bent after some persistent rolling. Pleased with her work, she’d gone back into the woods to forage. She’d need all her strength for when her young were finally born.

About a mile from her nest, her keen nosed detected smoke. The closer she got to it, the more annoyed she became. Creatures had invaded her spot. The most annoying kind of all. They walked on two legs like a bird, but had the shape of monkeys. They made odd noises with their mouths to each other, and tended to carry pointed sticks. Some she’d seen kept fire hidden somewhere on their bodies, while others could make the rocks move. She didn’t like any variety of them, but decided to wait until these ones were asleep before she drove them out of her nest. They could be crafty, but they slept at night and weren’t as cunning when roused.

The boarcupine waited until she couldn’t hear their voices. After an undefined length of time, every muscle in her large, powerful body sprang into action and she plowed through the trees, into her stolen lair. She sent the largest intruder flying with a sweep of her nose and bore down on the second, which tried to take cover behind a log. The log was split in half by her charge, but she missed the monkey-creature and it went skittering away.

More fire appeared in the direction she’d thrown the big one. There were two pairs of shrieks and from the smell of it, the large annoying creature had somehow split into two. She ran into the circle of fire, more annoyed by their trick than afraid of the flame, and thrashed about, tearing trees and bushes.

When she calmed, the flames had been killed and there was no sign of the pesky creatures. Content, she settled down to rest. She’d clean the place up in the morning and with any luck her babies would come soon.

To be continued…

*Chapter 18*: Chapter Eighteen.

Chapter Eighteen.

-Here we go again,- had been one of Azula’s more coherent thoughts as she fled through the trees. The branches whipped and tore at her, but for a hundred yards she felt nothing so exhilarated was she to be free again. Still in her underclothes, she was better off than she had been the day she left prison, or so she thought.

By the time her limbs succumbed to fatigue and she slowed, she had come out by the beach. Kneeling in the sand, the adrenaline in her system wore off, and she paid the price for her freedom with pain.

Cuts and bruises aside, there were burns. She’d decided to fire bend once she learned her hands had come free of their bonds and they were being attacked by something, probably a boarcupine now that she had a moment to think about it. The fire had been thrown up to provide a screen, and she’d used it to burn through the ropes on her feet. Her legs now sported blisters, as did her hands and back.

-But not my face,- she thought, feeling it. It was bloody, and her lip was swollen, but didn’t have a scar to match her brother’s.

She went to take a step forward, but fell. Her right knee felt like it was on fire, and she looked to see it had puffed up and turned dark. -I’m sure running on that didn’t help,- she thought. -Oh, and look at that.- There was a boarcupine quill sticking through her calf bellow her injured knee. She was a little impressed with herself at how far she’d run with such wounds.

All she wanted to do was go back to sleep, but she forced herself to limp to the water. The quill had to come out, and she needed a stick of some sort to support her leg if she was going to try and hobble away.

-Don’t be silly, Azula,- said her mother’s voice. -Go find the other two. The bounty hunter will take care of you until her money is collected and then you can go be with Zuko. There’s no point in running.-

She nearly screamed to make her mother’s voice stop, but didn’t want to be found. -That’s not your mother, fool,- she thought. -Mother’s gone and has been for a long time, so stop talking to her in your head.-

When she went to pull the quill out, she learned something. Boarcupine quills had tiny barbs that pointed backward, making pulling them out something she wished she hadn’t tried. Lying flat on her back, she breathed heavy and thought she might vomit. Her knee was beginning to hurt more, and her calf was swelling now, too. Boarcupine quills weren’t poisonous, she knew, but they weren’t clean, either.

“I’m not going to be held for ransom,” she said, faintly. -If I’m lucky, and I usually am, that animal did worse to the other two than me.-

She lie on the beach a while longer, and decided she should move when she felt the water begin to touch her arm. The water made her notice how cold she was. Her run through the woods had made her unable to feel it, but now her body was calling in the debt she owed it. As she braced for the pain that would come when she moved, she heard footsteps over the sand. They were close.

Picking her head up, Azula called a weak ball of fire into her right palm. It was the water bender. She looked like she’d been running, but didn’t seem as injured as Azula. She held her hands up and dropped to her knees. “Stop,” she said. “Just stop, okay? I don’t want to fight.”

Azula felt the words “Well I do,” well up in her throat, but she swallowed them and doused the flickering flame. -I’m too damn cold to fire bend much anyway,- she thought. Away from the cover of the trees, the stars and moon cast enough light to see shapes. Azula let her head fall back, and felt the waves touch her more.

“Are you hurt?” Katara asked, and Azula described her injuries. “Come on, lets go farther up.”

Katara helped her stand on her good leg, and led her towards the forest, stopping just short of the trees where the sand of the beach gave way to short, hard grass. Katara pulled from the ocean a thin string of water, which she formed into a bulb around her hand. “Can you call up a little fire, I need to see.”

Blue flames danced between her fingertips and she felt something wet over her injured leg. “That quill will have to come out,” Katara said. “I’ll have to push it the rest of the way through, they’ve got bar…”

“I know. Just do it,” Azula said.

Katara pushed the quill through her leg, making Azula grit her teeth and uproot handfuls of grass. Once it was out, Katara pulled the water back into a bubble around the affected area, and it began to glow a greenish-blue.

It immediately felt better, and Katara did the same for her burns. “You burned me, too, you know,” Katara said. “You got the worst of it, it seems.”

“Just be thankful our necks weren’t snapped by that chord when we landed,” Azula said.

“Let me find you a stick or something,” Katara said. “Your knee is messed up pretty bad. I’m going to have to take a longer look at it in the daylight.”

Azula sighed, and longed for the days when she’d be rid of people who’s company she’d rather not keep. Katara found a piece of driftwood suitable for a crutch and helped her limp back into the forest. “Did you see what happened to the bounty hunter?” Azula asked.

“I saw her walking,” Katara said. “She’ll head back to the boat so we can’t escape on it. My guess is she’ll come looking for us once she’s hidden or damaged it.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Azula said, which she felt was a compliment. “Time is on our side, so all we have to do is not be captured.”

“Right,” Katara said, bending some plants out of the way to make room for them beneath a pine tree. The needles had made a kind of carpet and Azula lie flat on her back, being careful to keep her blue fire from catching. Once she was situated, the flames went out.

“Our truce still stands, right?” Katara said. “You’re not going to try anything weird in the middle of the night or the morning, are you?”

“I always lie, remember?” Azula said. “Don’t actions speak louder than words?”

Katara said nothing.

“Yes, the truce stands,” Azula said after a long moment, now feeling the cold of the night air bite her as her heart rate slowed and the sweat on her skin evaporated. “I need you to fight that woman off if she finds us, so there’s your assurance.”

“Fine,” Katara said. “That’s more like you, so I’ll believe it.”

Azula frowned. She didn’t think people who helped others were allowed to insult them while they did it. “How does it feel to know you won’t be able to lock me in a tower and forget about me? That I’ll soon be helping to rule the Fire Nation?”

“I’ve already told you what I think of you,” Katara said. “Really, I’m just sad for you. Angry, too, but mostly I can’t get over how alone you are. Using fear to control people…the people you might have loved…I wonder if you had to kill the human inside of you, or if you were just born that way. I sort of hope you’re just this spirit demon-thing that happens to look like a woman. It would be easier that way.”

“Ouch,” Azula said, rolling her eyes. “I’m not going to cry again, if that’s what you’re after.”

“No,” Katara said. “Crying is something real people do, and it freaks me out when you do it. You’re a lot easier to deal with when you’re just homicidal and mean.”

Azula licked her lips, surprised by how much these words stung her. -Why should I care?- she thought. -Nothing I could ever say or do will make her think different. Her opinion doesn’t matter anyway.-

-Then who’s opinion does?- asked her mother.

-Not this again,- Azula thought. -You’re not helping.-

-If you want to exist somewhere outside of your own mind, perhaps you should consider the opinions of others.-

“Well, since you r-requested it, I’ll be sure to be as murderous and unpleasant towards you whenever I get the chance,” Azula said, crossing her arms. She was cold and it was all she could do to keep her teeth from chattering when she spoke.

“Are you cold?” Katara asked.

“N-no,” Azula said.

“Liar.”

“Obviously I’m cold,” Azula said. “You decided to wait until I’d s-stripped half naked before kidnapping me, so it’s your fault. Don’t expect a lot of f-fire bending if June or another boarcupine shows up.”

She writhed when Katara’s warm hand clamped onto her should. “Don’t touch me,” Azula said.

“Shh,” Katara said. “You’re freezing. You broke into a sweat when you ran and your body is in too rough a shape to keep you warm. Not a lot of body fat, either.” She pinched Azula’s shoulder lightly.

“Well, Water Tribe girl, not all nations see a layer of blubber as a benefit,” Azula said.

“I should let the hypothermia take care of you,” Katara said, undoing the front of her tunic. “But that’s the kind of thinking that got me into this mess.”

“Keep your clothes on,” Azula said.

“I am,” Katara said, sliding herself flush to Azula’s prone form. She used the tunic like a blanket to cover them both while she pressed her bare skin to Azula’s.

The heat from Katara’s skin was intense, almost like a warm frying pan. -I can’t be that cold,- Azula thought, feeling the urge to hit Katara in the kidney melt away.

“I know it’s awkward, but you really were getting hypothermia,” Katara said. “Treating it in emergencies often involves getting a little intimate.”

“I’m sure your tribe has worked it into its mating rituals,” Azula said, feeling the heat slowly begin to be absorbed by her body.

“You know if you died, I could find June, tell her it’s over, and we could go our separate ways like nothing ever happened,” Katara said. “Maybe I could someday convince myself that a war would have happened anyway, with or without you. How would that be?”

“But you won’t, so stop bluffing,” Azula said.

“What happens when you’re not needed anymore? What happens to you after Zuko and Aang get things under control and the Earth Kingdom backs off? How much do you think you’ll be allowed to get away with then?”

Azula chuckled and felt some of her inner heat being retained. “I’m not sure I’ll ever be as unnecessary as you think,” she said. “You remember the Earth King Kuei, I trust? Then I’m sure you remember Long Feng and the Dia Li, the true ruler of Ba Sing Se and by extension the Earth Kingdom. I’ve come to realize I’d much rather be a Long Feng than a King Kuei.”

“I didn’t think you were stupid, Azula,” Katara said, shifting her weight so her head was resting on the fire bender’s shoulder.

“Stupid?” Azula said. “How…granted, we all know how that turned out for Long Feng, but his mistake was a simple one. His methods of ensuring loyalty failed him. He depended on fear and magic tricks, and then someone came along scarier than he was and with better magic tricks.”

“You’re so dumb,” Katara said. “You think it’s all about control and loyalty and you’ll always end up betrayed and alone.”

“If you’re going to make a speech about love and caring, then let me freeze to death in the dark, please,” she said.

“You can be hurt by love and caring, too,” Katara said. “The point isn’t not being hurt it’s…never mind. I don’t know how to say it and even if I did you’d never understand.”

Azula felt her fist clench. -This isn’t fair,- she thought. -I have no idea what these people are talking about, they don’t even know. What do they want from me?-

-Just tell her the truth,- her mother said. -If you can convince her, you can convince anyone.-

“You’re all about honor and keeping your word, right?” Azula said.

“I suppose,” Katara said, sounding tired.

“Well, if you give me your word you won’t repeat it to a soul, I’ll tell you something I’ve never told anyone.”

Silence from Katara, then a sigh. “I already told you, your words are pretty much meaningless.” Azula stiffened and Katara felt it. “But if you must, then yes, I promise I won’t repeat whatever stupid lie you’re about tell.”

Azula let her fist open and imagined her anger flowing out her fingertips. “I don’t think I was ever what you’d call a nice person. I was superior to everyone around me and I didn’t see anything wrong with letting them know it.”

“Oh no, is this going to be about how your mother didn’t love you?” Katara said. “You know I’m really thinking I should let you freeze.”

Biting her lip, Azula felt her hand clench again. “Yes, and no. It’s no secret my mother hated me, but she taught me a very important lesson. I couldn’t count on anyone to care about me, I had to force them to. Zuko used pity to secure mother’s love, and it worked. Mai and Ty Lee were only my friends because they knew what I did to my enemies. They betrayed me when something overcame their fear. My father…he feared no one and only saw me as a tool. He showed me as much on the day of the comet.

A chuckle escaped Katara’s lips. “So now you’re going make people like you by telling them sob stories about how messed up your thoughts are?”

“No,” Azula said, thinking she might kill Katara anyway, or at least burn her a little. “I’m going to do everything I can to set my country right, then I’m going to beg Ty Lee and Mai to forgive me. They’re the closest thing to friends I have. After I had them locked in prison, and my father left me for a guard dog, I…I never want to feel like I did then again. I had no one. No family, no friends, just toadies and those treacherous Dai Li agents. Fitting for someone who’s own mother loathed her.”

“Is that it?” Katara’s fingers drummed idly on her thigh, beneath the tunic-blanket.

“I still hear her voice,” Azula said. “My mother’s. I’m sure someone told you about the hallucinations. They were bad for a while when I first went to prison, but I stopped seeing her face after accepting that I’d be truly alone, locked in a cell for a long time.”

“Still crazy, got it,” Katara said. “To be honest, I’m not surprised. I guess seeing you as a maniac excuses some of what you’ve done, but not all of it.”

“Can you just accept that I’m trying? Imagine if someone asked you to, to…do the opposite of things you’re normally prone to doing, I don’t know…how hard would that be for you?”

“You mean be selfish and cruel?” Katara asked, waving her hand. Azula felt and heard the moisture being sucked from the air, then felt a block of ice encase her free hand, pinning it to the ground. She tried to move it when Katara’s fingers took a gentle but firm hold on her windpipe, but she was pinned.

Ack,” Azula said, feeling Katara’s grip tighten and her weight shift so she was pinned.

“It’s easy to be like you, Azula. It’s easy to be cruel in this world, the world I hold you and your bloodline directly responsible for creating. It’s so tempting to give into hatred with death and war and loss everywhere you turn. I almost gave up a few times, but my friends reminded me of who I was and who I didn’t want to be. I slipped when I had you at my mercy in prison. I enjoyed humiliating you more than I should have. It’s so easy to be like that; it’s hard not to. You’ve taken the easy path your entire life, and after seeing how difficult it was for your brother to change, I don’t think you’ve got what it takes.”

Katara’s grip tightened, and Azula felt her hand become numb.

“Zuko had to fight for everything in his life, while things came easy to you. You don’t know anything about perseverance. Sure, you’re a good fire bender and you’re tough, but you’re not tough where it counts. So go ahead, play the reformed villain, pretend you care about other people, but know this: I will never turn my back on you. I’ll watch you like a hawk until the day one of us dies, and if you slip back into your old ways so much as an inch, I’ll put an end to the ‘Azula problem’ once and for all.”

The grip on Azula’s throat relaxed, and the ice dissipated with a wave of Katara’s hand. Azula thought of things to say back, thought of how a rematch between them would turn out, and finally decided to tuck her cold hand under Katara’s stomach, making her wince and suck in a breath. “Fair enough,” Azula said. “Just don’t think I’ afraid of you.”

“Whatever,” Katara said.

-There, I said it,- she thought. -I told her everything and she pissed in my face. Happy?-

-You’ll see, Azula,- said her mother. -I hope.-

To be continued…

*Chapter 19*: Chapter Nineteen.

Chapter Nineteen.

When Azula woke up, she was alone, wrapped in Katara’s kimono, leaving her bare legs covered in dew and pine needles.

It felt like someone had stuffed cotton in her mouth, and she hoped Katara had left to bend up something to drink. She pushed herself against the base of the tree and sat, listening. Morning songbirds were chirping and daytime creatures were skittering about, snapping twigs and ruffling leaves. She kept her eyes closed, knowing she’d hear an enemy before she saw her.

Thinking about the night before, she felt the regret of a drunk the morning after a night of loose inhibitions. The dark had a way of loosening tongues, she’d observed. She felt stronger now that the sun was up.

-I wonder if the Avatar will pay the ransom or attempt some sort of rescue,- she wondered. -The rescue seems like something he would do, but maybe he’ll pay after all.-

A new thought occurred to her: What if the Avatar or her brother didn’t show up? The Earth Kingdom would think she was dead and might be convinced to back off, which could possibly lead to the rebels standing down. -No, they wouldn’t try such a ruse with me alive.-

She knew Aang would never kill her, but Zuko was another matter. -He can play the reformed prince act if he likes, but when backed into a corner he’s like the rest of the family, ruthless,- she thought. -Incompetent, but ruthless.-

Something larger than a squirrel was making its way through the undergrowth off to her right, but it sounded like it had four legs. -Too small for a boarcupine,- she thought, and continued to listen. Whatever it was moved off and she was left alone with her thoughts once more.

-Where is that damned Water Tribe girl?- she wondered, opening her eyes. Gritting her teeth, she reached for the stick she’d use to hobble with and got to her feet. “No more ambushes,” she muttered. “If that bounty hunter crosses me again, I’ll boil her skin. And if she and the water bender have teamed up…”

-They’d be on you by now,- she thought, now being as quiet as she could with her limp while her way towards the beach where she hoped to find some water running down from the woods, or maybe Katara.

She saw Katara sitting on the beach, facing the ocean. The waves were coming up around her and receding, but she didn’t react. -Some kind of stupid water bending meditation,- Azula thought. -How stupid to do it now.-

“Hey,” Azula said, when she was close enough not to have to raise her voice. “Fool, you’ll be seen and then we’ll have to fight the bounty hunter.”

Katara didn’t reply, and even before Azula drew closer to see a flat piece of driftwood was propping a paralyzed Katara into a sitting position, she knew it was a trick.

There was a swish in the air, and Azula ducked in time to hear the crack of a whip where the middle of her shoulders would have been. She turned on her good leg to see June standing behind her where she’d dug a shallow hole near the taller grass.

“You’re getting better, kid,” June said. “I thought for sure you’d hear me stand up. Guess the whip gave me away?”

“Maybe you’re getting old,” Azula said, wreathing her hands in blue flames. She dropped her makeshift crutch and tried not to favor her leg.

“I like you, Princess, I do, but you’ve got a stubborn streak in you that’s going to get you hurt. More hurt than you already are. How bad did that pig mess you up?”

“Not so bad I can’t eliminate you,” she said.

June began to walk around Azula, towards the water and Katara. -If I light her on fire, she can douse it, plus she thinks I won’t risk injuring the water bender with her friends coming…she’s good,- Azula thought.

“Don’t be stupid,” June said. “The ransom deal is done, you’re hurt, you’ve got other things to worry about than this nonsense…put the fire out and we’ll get you patched up and fed. Then in a few hours you’ll be on your way home.”

Azula laughed, more disappointed than amused. “Think I’m a dainty princess, do you? Clearly you’ve forgotten what I’ve been through. I’m no one’s prisoner.”

She sent a jet of flame towards June, who ducked under it, getting herself wet in the serf. Her whip sailed sideways beneath the flame, but Azula had been ready for this and kicked with her bad leg, pushing fire just behind the end of the whip, taking the snap out of it.

The leather sizzled in the wet sand. -With luck, that took care of the poison,- she thought. Seeing June’s frown, she thought it might have.

“There goes your cheap poison trick,” Azula said. “I think you’ll find that without it, you’re no match for me.”

“I don’t think you’re dainty at all, princess; I was only hoping you’d be reasonable. Guess not.”

She stood, splashing an arc of water towards Azula who turned it to steam with a wall of fire then quickly moved to her right to avoid a whip strike that never came. Instead, June ran around her and got between her and the woods. Wondering why her opponent had left the minor protection the ocean had provided, Azula hurled balls of fire in her direction, which she dodged while closing the gap between them.

June started lashing with her whip the ground near Azula’s feet. Far from precision strikes, Azula could tell she was being driven back towards the water, which would have been fine had it not been for her injured leg.

Standing had been hard, moving on the sand worse, but slogging backward into the waves was excruciating. June appeared quite able to move in the ankle high water, and she pressed forward while stinging with her whip.

The whip coiled around Azula’s thigh above her knee, the one attached to the unhurt leg, and went tight. “Got you now,” June said.

“No you don’t,” Azula said, dropping her palms behind and forcing all of her chakra energy through them. Blue flames shot out of her hands, boiling the water behind her and propelling her forward like an airship’s steam engine. Her shoulder slammed into June’s midsection, bellow her ribcage, and the two traveled up the beach and into the side of a sandy dune.

Azula let the flames go out and while straddling June, punched her in the jaw as hard as she could, then did it again.

June lie still, her eyes fluttering. Azula wished her leg would just fall off from the pain, but she gritted her teeth and rolled off June. Grabbing her whip, she turned the bounty hunter onto her stomach and tied an ugly but tight knot, binding her hands behind her back.

Looking to where Katara had been, she saw with alarm that the bender had fallen over during the battle, her head landing in the serf which covered at least half of it each time it came rolling its way up the sand. Azula let out a long, growling moan and hoped over to Katara. Her leg was throbbing now, making her want to vomit, which she considered doing on the paralyzed water bender’s head, but instead she set Katara’s cheek on her lap.

Azula sat and tried to meditate, to ignore the pain. “Wake up!” she shouted, shaking Katara, who appeared conscious but showed no sign of movement.

-I’m going to get that damned boarcupine for this,- she thought, wondering when she’d get time to arrange a safari on this island.

Hours later, all three women were at a campsite near the skiff they’d come to the island on. June hadn’t damaged the boat, but Katara nearly stepped in a covered hole lined with a few boarcupine quills, each likely covered in poison.

The simple trap had impressed Azula, who now sat on a log with her leg propped over a rock. Katara had splinted it and was now doing some advanced water healing over it. June had been tied with more ropes and was sitting by a tree, looking sullen. Katara had reduced the swelling on her jaw, but her silence told Azula it still hurt.

To her surprise, Azula found herself feeling sorry she’d hit the bounty hunter so hard. “June,” Azula said, and waited until her head turned slightly. “Exactly what did you say in your ransom note?”

“Boiler plate ransom note, Princess,” she said. “Bring eight sacks of gold to this spot in so many days, otherwise you don’t see hostage again. Simple stuff.”

“Is that it? So you didn’t sign your name or mention our friend Katara here?”

“What are you up to?” Katara said, the water she held over Azula’s knee spilled to the ground.

Azula let a large smile cross her face, one she knew made them think of a shark. “I feel we’ve all bonded during our time here and I’d hate to see anyone get in trouble for the quite understandable mistakes they’ve made,” Azula said.

“You want to blackmail us,” Katara said. “No. I’m confessing.”

“Maybe you also want to confess to what you and I did before we left?” June said, her voice like a wind chime.

Azula saw Katara’s cheeks flush, and she knew she had her. “Sounds juicy, you’ll have to give me details sometime, June,” said.

“What do you want out of me?” June asked.

“I need an assistant.”

June laughed. “I don’t do monkey work, Princess. I’d rather go to jail.”

“Trust me, you wouldn’t like prison,” Azula said. “It wouldn’t be monkey work, either. I’ll be one of the most powerful, reviled, and loved, figures in the Fire Nation, and likely the world. It will be far from dull, I assure you.”

June signed, and there was a brief silence, but Azula knew she had June as well. “I guess,” she said. “Keep it lively, though.”

-Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,- Azula thought.

“And me?” Katara said, returning the water to Azula’s leg.

“You? Keep away from me. Simple,” she said, and then in a voice only Katara could hear. “And keep your mouth shut about what I told you last night.”

“So,” Azula said, making a seagull caw and fly to another part of the beach. “How does this sound…I, Princess Azula, was caught off guard by Earth Kingdom pirates. They had a water bender with them, go figure, and they brought me here. I escaped early on, hid from them, they panicked and left. Sounds like something I could manage, right?”

“I can see it,” June said.

“I suppose,” Katara said. “Which means June and I need to be gone hours ago. We’ll also need to explain where we’ve been.”

“Work on your alibis while you practice sailing,” Azula said. “I wouldn’t untie her until you’re well past the point of no return. I’m not sure how keen she really is on this plan. No offense, June.”

“None taken,” June said.

“Fine,” Katara said, getting up and going to June. “You might want to make sure you do something about our tracks after we leave. I’m sure the rest of the mess can be explained by your valiant escape from the pirates…”

Azula frowned, but managed to stand up as June was hauled into the boat. Katara used her bending to get the craft out to sea and rolling away. She fixed Azula with a stare before turning to bend, and it was an expression Azula wasn’t sure she liked, mixing satisfaction with malice.

“Stare all you want,” Azula said to herself, now finding she could walk on her injured leg easily enough with only a slight hobble. She broke a leafy bough from a tree and used it to scuff the sand enough to where it would be hard to tell only three people had made tracks upon it.

She could count on two things, she thought, one being the Avatar and Zuko would be so glad to have her under their thumb they wouldn’t be likely to ask too many questions, even of her. They’d also assume that she had no reason to hide the identity of her kidnappers.

June and Katara had gotten off easy, but now the secrets she’d spilled were safe. The only question was June’s loyalty. -So far she’s only betrayed the Avatar,- Azula thought. -Keep her paid, keep her busy, I shouldn’t have a problem. Plus, I plan on getting to know her quite a bit better once we start to work.-

With the scene prepped to her liking, she sat down and thought about that rainy night in the inn to take her mind of how hungry she was, and the ache in her knee.

To be continued…

*Chapter 20*: Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty.

A black dot appeared on the horizon, bellow the clouds that rolled like sand dunes under the sky. When Azula stood up, eager for the chance to fly on a sky bison. She remembered the day she’d learned the great dragons were all extinct, and how angry she’d become over learning she could never fly on one’s back.

When the dot became larger, Azula felt a strange mixture of disappointment and pleasant surprise. She thought all the air ships built by the Fire Nation had been either destroyed or dismantled as part of the peace treaty, yet there was clearly one flying in her direction at cruising speed. “Either my forces have managed a coup, or Zuko and the Avatar have acquired some guts and defied the Earth Kingdom,” she said.

As the ship came closer and began to slow she could see part of the Fire Nation emblem painted on the side of the armored balloon where it bowed outward. The the sound of the reverse engines filled the air and the beach she stood on was covered in shadow.

A bird-like shape suddenly appeared and glided in a wide circle before swooping down. Avatar Aang landed like an oversized dragonfly a few feet from Azula. He was dressed in the loose fitting orange and yellow clothes of an Air Nomad; the colors made Azula want to punch him.

“Uh…,” Aang said, looking around. “What’s going on? I thought you’d been captured?”

“I was,” she said, knowing her ability to lie wouldn’t fail her now. “Earth Kingdom pirates came up on my ship and kidnapped me from my quarters. They had a water bender with them, otherwise they wouldn’t have succeeded.”

“What did you do to them?” Aang said, looking around.

“I may have burned one when I escaped but otherwise nothing. They searched for me but when I was not to be found they panicked and left.”

Aang raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t kill them?”

She let out an authentic sigh of annoyance. “No, I didn’t kill them. Did you order anymore prisoners raped on your way over here?”

His face turned red. “Fine,” he said. “Let’s go; we didn’t have time for this.”

He waved up at the ship and it dropped several feet before a rope ladder came tumbling over the edge. Azula gritted her teeth and began to climb it, letting her arms make up for her bad leg. “Are you hurt?” Aang asked when she was on the battle deck.

“I was injured while running,” she said. “It’s not serious, just a sprain.”

“Come inside. We’ll get you some clothes and something to eat,” Aang said, holding out his hand.

“I can walk,” she said, now wondering if the pain she felt in her knee would ever truly leave her.

The airships had been built for war, not comfort, but the cabin she was led to suited her fine. It was stifling and reminded her of a cell, but she’d had enough wilderness and open air for a few days. She was presented with a fresh set of soldier’s linens and her leg was seen to by a surgeon. He was young, only a few years older than she, with a thin beard.

“Huh,” he said, seemingly unaware he’d said anything. “Weird.”

“What’s weird?” she asked, now uncomfortable with her leg exposed.

“Uh…Oh, it…looks like you sprained it…I think.”

“You think?” she said, no longer overly concerned about her pirate story holding up.

“I mean…if I didn’t know any better, it feels like you completely tore a ligament then had it heal up, but you’ve only been on the island a few days, so I’d say this is just a moderate sprain…are you sure you didn’t hurt it earlier?”

“Of course I’m sure,” she said, waving him away. “You’re clearly not qualified to be treating someone of my stature. Dismissed.”

The surgeon let her see him frown then left the room quickly. Azula’s fists clenched and her teeth ground together but she forced herself to relax. “So what,” she said in a low voice. “So I’ll have a bad knee…I’m a warrior, all warriors develop injuries over time.”

It felt like molten lead had been dumped on her shoulders and so she sunk down into the stuffed chair she’d been sitting in and remembered the days when she’d been convinced she was the greatest fire bender in the world. -There’ll be time for reclaiming that distinction later,- she thought. -First I have to establish myself in this circus act my brother calls a government.-

Aang and Zuko were the next to walk into her room. Her eyes met her brother’s and she wasn’t surprised to see cold contempt in his features. The scar over his eye dominated his face, and she focused on the unburnt part, trying to remember what he’d look like before that day he’d crossed their father. She couldn’t.

“I don’t buy it,” Zuko said.

She snorted. -He defeats me with the help of that water witch and now he thinks he’s superior,- she thought, feeling familiar, hot rage begin to smoke and coil inside her. “You don’t buy what, exactly?,” she said.

“The kidnapping act,” he said. “Nobody is strong enough to just pluck you off a boat in the middle of the sea, water bender or not. This was some kind of ruse that backfired on you.”

“Are you sure it backfired?” she said.

“We don’t have time for this,” Aang said. “Like we said in the letters we’re prepared to appoint you war minister as long as you can get the other half of the army to obey the Fire Lord. As long as you obey the Fire Lord.”

Azula swallowed, her mouth had gone dry. She’d known this part was coming yet somehow hadn’t mentally prepared for it as well as she might. It had been set aside in her mind time and time again, but now was the moment it had to be done. -Please,- she thought, and an image of her mother’s face shimmered in front of her.

She stood, wincing. Aang took a step backward and her brother bristled. Her mouth had gone dry, and she thought about the twinge in her knee as she kneeled in front of Zuko. “Your wish is my command, my lord,” Azula said, and looked up at her brother.

She nearly screamed when the corner of his mouth turned up into a smile.

“I’ll take it,” Zuko said. “But don’t think I don’t see the knife you want to stick in my back.”

“I think I’ve listened to quite enough of that talk,” Azula said, rapidly standing up and sitting back down, her knee be damned. “I don’t care if you don’t trust me but bringing it up every conversation is becoming tiresome.”

“Dealing with you is becoming tiresome,” Zuko said.

“You wouldn’t have to deal with me if you hadn’t run this country into the ground,” Azula said. “Did you idiots think the world would just forgive and forget one-hundred years of war? That it was started and sustained solely on the will of our forefathers? We’re a nation of conquerors, Zuko. Fire Lord Sozin showed us that and you expect us all to forget simply because father was beaten in a duel?”

“We’re not keeping you around so you can start another war,” Zuko said, his fists clenching.

“I can’t go back to my forces and tell them they’ll be living under Earth Kingdom rule,” Azula said. “I noticed we’re in an airship, so don’t tell me you’re completely averse to defying the Earth King.”

“If it were only the Earth King we’d have peace,” Aang said. “Here’s how it is: Ba Sing Se and Omashu are the only things holding the other Earth Kingdom city states back from a complete invasion. The Northern Water Tribe is keeping out of it for now; they seem to be more interested in reconnecting with the south pole and think a new war would make travel too difficult. That said, King Bumi and King Kuei can’t call off the Earth Kingdom forces not directly under their command so parts of the Fire Nation are basically being ruled by forces in the Earth Kingdom.”

“And as long as they’re there, half the Fire Nation military will not bow to you,” she said, addressing Zuko. “What will Bumi and Kuei do if fighting breaks out between us and the Earth interlopers?”

“Bumi probably won’t attack,” Aang said. “King Kuei might. He won’t have a choice. Some of his generals have been calling for a full invasion.”

“I know you don’t want to hear it, but there’s likely going to be a war one way or another. Either the Fire Nation will fight the Fire Nation, or the Fire Nation will fight the Earth Kingdom. Personally I’d rather not slay my countrymen just so I can slay some earth benders.”

“If there’s another war, and we lose, we’re dead and the Earth Kingdom will rule the Fire Nation,” Zuko said.

“Then they’ll learn what we have, that it’s one thing to conquer and another to rule over a conquered people. The only reason we’re not still fighting Air Nomad guerrillas is because we exterminated them,” Azula said.

“Actually, the Air Nomads never had a formal millit…”

Azula waived Aang off, not caring what he had to say about ancient history; her point had been made. “We’ll just have to not lose, then,” she said. “Our military is still the largest, most advanced, and well-trained in the world. We simply lost momentum. Once our forces are unified I’ll move them as close to the invaders as possible and we’ll see who’s lost their stomach for war. With luck you two will have nothing to worry about and they’ll go sailing home.”

Zuko snorted and turned his head.

“Something funny, brother?”

“You’ve changed, but somehow stayed the same,” Zuko said, getting up without looking at her. “I want daily reports from you on all your activities, and I’ll be assigning several people to keep an eye on you. Don’t expect to see them all.”

“As you wish, my lord,” she said, watching him leave. She then turned to Aang. “Yes?”

“I think your plan is the best we’ve got,” Aang said. “I hope it works. I also hope the parts of you that needed changing changed, and you can help the Fire Nation heal some of the damage that was done.”

“I’m growing weary of being treated like a mental patient,” Azula said. “I’ve sorted out my demons, despite your so-called help, and I plan on leading a long, productive career as war minister. -And heir to the throne should something happen to Zu-Zu,- she thought.

The look of pity on Aang’s face infuriated her. It made her think about destroying him, her brother, and their friends, but that would only prove they’d been right. Proving them wrong, however, required submission and defeat. It was an old line of thought that made her want to weep.

“I hope that happens,” Aang said, getting up.

“All you can do is wait and see,” she said, as he stepped through the door. When she heard his footsteps die out she turned her mind to the logistics of her plan.

To be continued…

*Chapter 21*: Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-One.

They flew over her ship, the Ice Serpent, and she was flown down to its deck by Aang. General Gong met them, along with Jon Lee, and after some curt pleasantries were exchanged they went to a meeting room bellow deck while the zeppelin above was secured to the Serpent.

“Where is Prince Zuko?” asked Admiral Wei, who had joined them, looking flustered.

“Fire Lord Zuko,” said Azula. “The Avatar can speak for him.”

“Now wait just a minute here,” said Jon Lee, leaning forward. “What the hell happened to you? You’ve been missing for days!”

She told him the same lie she’d told Aang, all traces of anxiety now gone from her voice.

“Someone will be flogged for such a breach of security,” said Jon Lee. “To think, pirates…”

Azula waved him quiet with her hand. “My fault entirely,” she said, surprising them all. “I chose a vulnerable part of the ship as my quarters and my pride has all the flogging that’s needed. Shall we get to business or shall we let the Earth Kingdom run rampant on our lands a little longer?”

They agreed in getting to business and were even more agreeable to her plan. “We shall quickly remind them what it means to be at war with the Fire Nation,” said General Gong, as though he’d been thinking of the plan Azula had outlined all along.

“They may find they don’t have the stomach for it,” added Admiral Wei, now smiling. “This time, we shall crush the Earth Kingdom and…” a look from Azula silenced him.

“If there’s one thing the events of the past year have taught me it’s that it’s folly to try and rule over savages,” she said. “Let them be savages. We can put the time, effort, and money we were investing in endless wars and instead put it into advancing our own civilization. They’ll be begging to be ruled by us in less than a generation.”

She looked at Aang with a smile. His face was blank, neutral as a windless day. She supposed any other look would have made the men before them wary.

Jon Lee tapped the fingers of his good hand on the table nervously, looking as though he wished to speak. Azula thought he might be wondering if this wasn’t some trick to sell them out to the Earth Kingdom. -Go ahead, say it,- she thought. -Give me an excuse to burn you.-

He didn’t, and they concluded the meeting with by agreeing on a timetable for communicating the reunification to the dissenting forces and telling them where to rally.

“Do you really believe all that?” Aang asked her once they were back aboard the airship.

“Believe what?”

“That the other nations will want to be ruled by the Fire Nation?”

She laughed. “I told those fools what they needed to hear so they would cooperate,” she said. “And to answer your next question, yes, I’ve been telling you what you need to hear as well, and I plan on doing exactly as I say.”

He shrugged, and she followed him into the airship’s innards.

It took two weeks to consolidate the Fire Nation military. In the meantime the Earth Kingdom, wise to the Fire Nation’s new-found unity under War Minister Azula, invaded and occupied the string of islands that extended east from the capital. Hundreds of refugees fled but thousands more were left under the thumb of Earth Kingdom armies who took the opportunity to make up for the past 100 years of suffering they’d felt at the Fire Nation’s hands

There was only so much planning to be done while their forces gathered, and during those two weeks, Azula reacquainted herself with the palace she’d once called home.

She was surprised to find that her room, the one she’d had before being declared Fire Lord, was exactly as she’d left it. Not quite, she realized, after moving through it, hesitant to touch anything. Some of the things she’d had moved were now back, likely put there by a servant for storage purposes.

“I suggested to him that we make this a guest bedroom,” said Mai from behind her. Azula turned to see her pale form leaning against the door frame. “We had so many visitors all the time, it seemed like a good idea.”

Azula narrowed her eyes. “I was surprised to see you hadn’t walled it off completely to better forget about me,” she said, sensing the challenge in Mai’s voice and rising to it.

“I suggested that too, but he said we needed the bricks for more important things. He wasn’t very convincing. I think he thought you’d come back someday and be his sister again.”

She noticed Mai was wearing loose fitting black pants and a long sleeved red blouse. Not typical Fire Lady attire but perfect for someone adept at throwing small, lethal knives. -Did she come to pick a fight?- Azula wondered.

“I’m sure he’d be thrilled to know you’re telling me all this,” Azula said. “Zu-Zu isn’t keen on me at the moment and I harbor no illusions that he ever will be. To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit? Surely the Fire Lady had places to be in times like these.”

“Stuff it,” Mai said, coming into the room, her stance one that meant business. “Don’t think we’re friends just because of what happened in the prison and at Omashu.”

Azula felt her face stiffen into a mask and her body loosen. She knew it was time to drop her guard and hope Mai saw it was genuine, but she’d had war on her mind for the past several days. “I’m not open for apologies, today, Mai, try again after I’m done saving you, your husband, and the rest of the Fire Nation from extremely poor management.”

She saw one of Mai’s fists clench and the other retreat into her sleeve. -Is she going to draw knives on me? If she thinks I won’t burn her she must think I’ve changed more than I have.-

“Poor management?” Mai said, her lips curled into a snarl. Her expressions had always fascinated Azula, they were so rare. Her amber colored eyes appeared black in the gloom. “Forgive us if we’re having a little trouble correcting a few lifetimes worth of mistakes. It might take a few more months, you know, unless you screw it all up again.”

It felt like she’d been hit with cold water. -Screw up. A screw up, am I?-

“I told you, Mai, I’m not in the mood. If you came looking for a fight, look somewhere else.” She wanted to shout that if it hadn’t been for her and Ty Lee, she’d still rule the Fire Nation. Second to that, she wanted to drop to her knees and beg Mai’s forgiveness. Unable to do either she prayed to her ancestors, who’s spirits surely inhabited the building they stood in, that Mai would simply leave.

Mai’s anger turned to a sly smile. “You’re right, you’ve been slapped around a lot lately. Have you won a single fight since Zuko kicked your ass?”

Azula punched the air in front of her, sending a thin jet of blue flame towards Mai’s face. She ducked and sent a knife towards Azula, who’d been expecting the counter and had twirled to the side to send another jet of flame at her former friend.

As a princess, Azula had enjoyed the finer things in life. As a princess of the Fire Nation, many of those finer things were also flame retardant, and so the room didn’t catch fire easily. Where it did, Azula pulled the flame from the material and used it to attack, and to deflect incoming knives and other sharp implements Mai held hidden in her billowing sleeves.

Mai was a nightmare to her opponents when there was distance between them, and Azula sought to make sure there was as little of that as possible. She found herself constantly having to move towards the door to block Mai’s escape, lest she take the battle to the hallway with its wide floor and high ceiling.

Still, Mai had the length of Azula’s ample bedroom to hurl knives, which stuck into the walls and floor. Azula thought she’d run out eventually but it appeared that most of the woman’s body weight was blades and she managed to pick up a few she’d thrown in her bids for the door.

Finally Azula got what she wanted, and her bad knee helped her get it. She felt it twinge as she tried to flank Mai, and stumbled. Mai took the opportunity to bolt for the door, but Azula looked more hurt than she was and intercepted her.

She brought her knee up into Mai’s midsection hard enough to lift her up and knock the air from her lungs. With the fight basically won, Azula finished it by bringing her elbow down hard over Mai’s kidney.

Mai lie on her stomach, unable to even curl into the fetal position. Azula rolled her over with her foot and let herself think of all the ways she could finish Mai for good. A Knee to the throat, a heel chop over her heart, a blast of fire straight down her throat and into lungs; she let Mai see these thoughts flash across her face before she banished them.

Azula knelt beside her and took her hand. Mai was able to sit up and she pulled the hand away. Azula cleared her throat. “For the record, Zuko had help and I wasn’t feeling well,” she said.

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Mai said, her voice a pained whisper.

Azula stretched her feet out and leaned against her bed, close to Mai. “I can’t make anyone feel better. My talents lie in making them feel worse.”

“You can say that again,” Mai said, and began to cough. “I’m probably going to pee blood because of you.”

“I’m sorry,” Azula said. “I deserved to let you thrash me, but there’s only so much I can take.”

“Make it up to me, then,” Mai said.

“Here?”

Mai got to her feet and promptly collapsed on the bed. “As Fire Lady, I command you to shut that door and make up for what you just did to me.”

Azula got up, shut her bedroom door, and threw the bolt. “Does this mean you forgive me?” Perhaps it was the pain she’d freshly caused, but Azula suddenly found herself eager for redemption in Mai’s eyes. If Mai could forgive her, anyone could.

“It means,” Mai said, picking her head up. “That since you got here I’ve been wanting to either beat or fuck you, and since a beating is out…”

“Yes my lady,” Azula said, removing the leather padded vest she wore and undoing the shirt beneath.

Mai had slid herself farther up on the bed, and Azula helped her remove her shirt. Mai’s pants came off as well, and Azula noticed she had nothing else underneath, save for several small knives strapped to her thighs. “Were you planning this?” Azula asked, taking the straps off and nuzzling the skin they’d covered.

“I’m always prepared,” she said. “Now, make up for throwing me in prison and trying to kill my boyfriend.”

“One question,” Azula said, looking at the V shape between Mai’s legs. Around the pink nub in the center, the skin was shaded by short hair, the kind men grew on their faces late in the day after a shave. “How…?”

“Oh,” Mai smiled. “Waxing. It’s all the rage in the Caldera. Commoners will probably be doing it soon enough.”

“Waxing?”

Mai rolled her eyes and sighed. “Less talking, more licking.”

While the stubble prickled her face, Azula found pleasuring Mai to be one of the more pleasurable things she’d done in recent memory. She let herself relax, gripped one of Mai’s thighs, and ran her other hand up her body, playing with her breasts while she slowly moved her tongue in different patterns and rhythms. She took her time working Mai up, letting her linger near climax while Azula explored other parts of her with her mouth. When her leg began to bother her, she plunged in, licking and sucking until Mai nearly tore her sheets as she writhed.

When it was over, Mai touched Azula’s head, petting her and scratching her behind the ear.

Mai put her clothes back on without help, and wincing got to her feet. “There’s something else,” Mai said. Azula said nothing, and waited, resisting the urge to touch herself. “Convince the Fire Lord that you need me for a mission. Ty Lee might like to come along, too.”

“A mission? We might get ourselves into a full-on war.”

“I hope that doesn’t happen but I’ll die of boredom if I don’t see some action soon. I wanted to go rescue you from those pirates or whatever, but Zuko…he’s a man, what can I say.”

“Did he really want my room kept for my return?”

Mai said nothing for a while, and seemed to have several responses at her lips but they ended in silence. Finally, she said “I know he wanted it left alone. Whether he thought you’d use it again, I don’t know.”

“Oh,” she said, wanting to call her brother a sentimental fool but remembering who’s company she kept. If Mai was cursed to love the lesser of two siblings then that was her fate. “I’m sure I can make the case to the Fire Lord that I need two competent warriors like you and Ty Lee at my side. Hopefully he won’t stick me with the blind girl or the water witch.”

“Toph and Katara,” Mai said. “You’d be lucky to have them, but hopefully we can get the old band back together.”

Azula smiled. She’d never been one for social fads, but years in prison and months leading a rebel army had left her behind on some of the slang. “I’m going arrange this place to my liking,” she said. “Not a job I trust to a servant, so I’ll see you later.”

Mai smiled and went to the door. “You may be a princess and a war minister, but I am the Fire Lady. I don’t get dismissed by anyone but my husband. Keep that in mind when we’re in front of others.”

Azula felt the back of her neck grow hot and her fists clench, but she took a deep breath. If she could kneel before Zuko, she could observe court niceties with Mai. -Perhaps with some practice it will no longer make me nauseous,- she thought. -Or I could move my quarters to a fort somewhere near the border…-

To be continued…

*Chapter 22*: Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Two.

Under Azula’s command, half of the Fire Navy set sail to blockade the occupied territory along the eastern island chain. A large portion of the army was then sent to keep the Earth Kingdom ground forces there from island hoping towards the larger Fire Nation Islands.

The second half of the navy was split into two; some stayed to guard the capital while the rest went out to sea, awaiting orders to come in behind any Earth ships that attempted to break the blockade. The part of the army not directly confronting the Earth Kingdom invaders remained in the capital, preparing to be dispatched to anywhere else the Earth Kingdom chose to put forces.

“We’re spread a bit thin, aren’t we?” Zuko asked rhetorically, standing over a map that had been splayed out on a low table inside the iron walls of a mobile bunker. It was parked on a hill overlooking the Fire Nation army that faced the Earth soldiers on the eastern front.

“We can repel just about any attack they send,” Azula said. Behind her were Mai and Ty Lee, looking bored and worried respectively. Behind Zuko stood Aang, Katara, and June, the latter two had been unusually silent. “If the last one-hundred years has been any indication, their strengths lie in defending themselves, not attacking. They took the eastern islands because we didn’t know we were fighting, and they only invaded the Capital on the Day of Black Sun because I wanted them to.”

“So now what? Those islands are where a good portion of our crops come from each year, so we’re not going to starve them out like in a siege. And if they’re the masters of defense, then we can’t kick them out.”

“Tsk, tsk, dear brother,” Azula said. “You said yourself, we don’t want to fight. We want them to see how badly we can hurt them so they’ll give up and go home. Did Fong return your letter?”

Zuko looked away, his mouth pursed. “Yes,” he said.

“And the response?”

Zuko cleared his throat, closed his eyes, and recited “Dear Fire Lord, I, General Fong, will accept your terms and leave your lands upon gaining custody of your sister, the Demon Princess Azula.”

Azula couldn’t resist a smile. “Demon Princess Azula…I like it. So if they get me, they’ll leave and peace will reign? Ha. Amusing.”

She didn’t like the look on her brother’s face.

“I hardly think they’d risk another war for petty revenge,” Mai said.

“Tell me, Azula,” Zuko said. “If turning yourself over to the Earth Kingdom meant peace, would you do it?”

-You bastard,- she thought, feeling everyone’s eyes on her. She’d been gawked at by crowds before, but these eyes seemed to boil her like a desert sun. “Once they have me, there’ll be one less thing to stop them, so no.”

“I know that,” Zuko said. “But if you were certain it would lead to peace between the two nations, would you turn yourself over?”

She glared at him. “Now isn’t the time for your little tests,” she said, her voice low. “I’ve been put through enough by the lot of you and I won’t have any more.”

“I’ll talk to Fong in person,” Aang said, clearly wanting to cool the air between them. “He’s not the most reasonable person in the world but he’ll talk to me. Maybe I can get him to see Azula isn’t worth another war.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Azula said.

“I’ll remain in town for a while longer,” Zuko said. “In case Fong and I need to speak in person. I don’t expect he will, and I’ll be taking the airship when I leave. I trust you won’t need it.”

“No,” Azula said. “But if My Lord could commission a fleet of them I could make use of that.”

“Maybe,” said Zuko, getting to his feet. “I don’t want them to think we secretly want another hundred-year war. We don’t.”

-He talks like there are spies in the room,- Azula thought, wondering if her brother was more shrewd than she thought. Her eyes fell on Aang, who had also risen. -We slaughtered his people…maybe his idea of world peace is a subjugated Fire Nation…his woman can’t have much love for us, either.-

She almost asked for a word with Zuko alone but held her tongue. After his questions about her willingness to martyr herself, she didn’t think she was in a position to have her suspicions of treachery be taken seriously.

“Of course we don’t want a long war but if it comes to it, a decisive victory will ultimately cost less lives than a prolonged conflict,” Azula said.

“Don’t provoke them,” Zuko said. “Aang will talk sense into Fong, it’s what he was born to do.” He clapped the Avatar hard on the back, who grinned sheepishly. “I’ll be at the villa. The rest of you, be careful. This close to the front line, safety isn’t a guarantee.”

It was clear he was speaking to Mai, and Azula could sense her irritation. -A possible weakness between the two,- she thought, watching Zuko and Aang leave.

“Well, ladies, shall we go over some plans? In case things go bad I want to lead an elite team behind enemy lines and remove key leaders from their positions.”

They passed half an hour thinking of names for Azula’s special squad. Katara suggested the “Coal Brigade. You know, because we’re…cold hearted warriors, and…fire. This is stupid.”

June offered “The Flame Tongues,” and wagged her tongue up and down, making them all uncomfortable.

“She’s Right, this is Stupid,” Mai said, although Azula didn’t think that had much of a ring to it. Ty Lee, she thought, made a good try with “The Flamers,” but finally Azula decided upon her own idea, “The Dragon’s Paw.”

“And there’s five of us, like the claws on a dragon’s paw,” Azula said, pleased with herself.

“Don’t dragons only have three claws?” said Ty Lee.

Azula thought for a moment, trying to recall the painting’s and sculptures she’d seen. Most only showed the beasts’ heads. “This isn’t important,” she said. “To the plan.”

The plan was simple and, Azula admitted, incomplete. They would disguise themselves as Fire Nation peasant girls to move closer to the points of command, attack at night, do recon, and perhaps incite an uprising. “It’ll depend on the situation,” she said.

“We could even dress up as Kyoshi Warriors,” Katara said, the mean smile on her face was directed behind Azula, who turned to see Ty Lee frowning.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Ty Lee said. “They’ll…they won’t fall for that trick again.”

“I hope not,” Katara said. “If we got caught…I’m the Avatar’s girlfriend, you’re the Fire Lady, and here we have the war minister and Demon Princess herself…not that you two aren’t important, but it would be a big win for the Earth Kingdom.”

“Which is why I hope we won’t need to mobilize,” Azula said. “It’s the duty of royalty to take part in warfare. I’d be at the head of any attacking conventional army, risking my life, so I may as well risk it on covert operations which have proven more successful than conventional ones in the past.”

June cleared her throat. “We might be waiting her for a long time,” she said. “I’m no earth bender, but we’re essentially trying to beat them at their own game, here.”

“What do you mean?” Azula asked.

“You said it yourself, our…their strengths are in playing defense. Your brother also made a pretty good point: Those islands can sustain the Earth Kingdom army indefinitely. Their plan all along might have been to wait us out and see if we blink.”

“A staring contest!” Ty Lee said.

-Damn it, she’s right,- Azula thought. -How stupid was I not to see it.-

The Fire Nation was more powerful, she knew, and could likely scour the land and sea of the invaders, but it would cost them. They might not win against a counter attack, especially if the Water Tribes decided to help deliver the final blow. It was as Ty Lee said, a staring contest, only with a eye-lidless snake.

Azula remembered a short period in their childhood when Ty Lee was mad for staring contests. She challenged anyone and everyone, especially people who she thought had pretty eyes. She was good at them and won every time, to Azula’s annoyance.

Her winning streak was broken one day when Azula blew into Ty Lee’s eyes. Ty Lee never knew it, however. To learn fire bending properly one spent a lot of time doing breathing exercises. Apart from the Air Nomads, fire benders were some of the best breathers on the planet. They could preform all manner of feats including circular breathing, and blowing on something without another realizing it.

Aside from helping one fire bend it was only good for parlor tricks, playing instruments, and cheating at staring contests, but now Azula saw quite clearly in it a battle tactic. -I’ll blow in their eyes, make them blink, then I’ll have them,- she thought. -It may lead to a war, but that war will be over in one battle, one that will end with Fong surrendering and being sent home, escorted by our navy.-

“We’ll see what’s what when the Avatar returns,” Azula said. “In the meantime we’d best be prepared to win a fight.”

To be continued…

*Chapter 23*: Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Three.

For her quarters, Azula had claimed a large nobleman’s house left hastily abandoned by its owner. Many of its furnishings remained and neither she nor the rest of the Dragon’s Paw, who she’d ordered be quartered there as well, wanted for any comfort.

Mai and Ty Lee had taken a room together, while Katara and June kept separate bed chambers. Azula yawned, and the blue flames she kept alive in her chamber flickered. It was late, and she’d been waiting for June to return from the taverns with the hope she wouldn’t have to sleep alone. Another yawn stretched her out, and she decided it was time to sleep.

When she went to the east window to draw the curtains, she looked out over the rocky no-man’s land between the village and the Earth Kingdom held territory. It was currently covered in tide water and had the night been clearer, she fancied she’d see Earth Kingdom fires in the distance.

She pulled the drapes shut and went to a dresser where she’d found set of red, silken pajamas that fit her well enough. They were for a male, but they looked comfortable enough. She disrobed, let down her hair, and got into the pajamas, thinking they were the next best thing to warm human skin.

Running her fingers through her hair, as she didn’t have a brush handy, she felt it was closer to its old length, but still rougher and raggedy than it had been. -Like everything else in my life has become,- she thought, going to the bed and lying on top of the covers. -Wounded leg, faltering sanity, forgotten principles, pride…all but dead.-

She was, after all, waiting up late in a glorified camp hoping a drunk bounty hunter would come stumbling in to have her way with her.

Like she had many times before, she thought about the night she’d spent in the inn, paying for her freedom. The bounty hunter had been rough, thorough, and sure of herself. She got what she wanted from Azula, leaving her sore, empty, and somehow full at the same time. Full-fulling the woman’s raw need had made her feel wanted at a time when she’d felt like an old pile of dirt swept out the front door.

While she didn’t feel that way now, the memory of it all drew her hand between her legs where she put pressure on the damp flesh. She imagined June’s footsteps in the hall, the sound of her opening the door, and the sense of her presence in the room, like she could feel her weight and heat from steps away.

She didn’t want to be spent if June did show up and tried to content herself with her teasing fingers. Azula wondered if June knew how to use her whip in the bedroom, and while exploring these possibilities, decided it was too much. “Very well then,” she muttered and sucked on her index and middle fingers before sending them bellow her pajama bottoms.

It was like a lightning strike. She took in a sharp breath and after three motions of her hand, settled into the rhythm of it. She imagined June was between her legs, hungry for her and getting her fill. She remembered what June had smelled like, what she’d tasted like, and was soon writhing under a wave, one that scoured her of all concern and thought. The fires around her had flared up during the climax, but were now burning low. They grew dimmer as her head sank into the pillow and when she slept they went out completely.

Her eyes popped open and her body was both heavy and light with what in others might have given way to panic. She was about to cause the braziers to light but stopped, remembering if it was dark for her, it was dark for them, too.

She could sense them close by, like a shark senses other fish in the water around it. She’d suffered night terrors before, but in those cases she could never detect the location of the presence, but she could detect these. They were by the window, next to the bed. Her mind processed the minute creaks and rustles of clothing, which would have gone unnoticed to most.

It was within her power to blow the window out with fire, but she held off. Where Ty Lee and Mai playing a joke on her? Only if they’d been struck stupid or insane. Maybe June was playing a risky game, or the water witch hadn’t had enough of her after all.

She slid off the edge of the bed and crouched low, moving to the edge of the window. Concentrating, she made a candle on the opposite end of the room come alight.

It happened fast. The window broke, sending shards of glass to the floor and making her wish she’d put on slippers. Four dark shapes came in, the glass crunching under their shoes. They wore dark robes, but she would know the wide, bowl shaped hats anywhere. Dai Li.

She stomped downward on the right leg of the nearest one, hard and above his knee. There was a happy pop followed by a scream and the man started to fall, but not before Azula shoved him into his comrade.

Ducking the rock fists which sailed at her and instead hit the wall, she shot two jets of blue flame from her fists at the men who’d attacked. Both blasts hit one in the chest, knocking him backward and burning away the front of his robes. She lit all the braziers in the room and saw the wide eyes of the last man standing as he threw another pair of rock hands at her.

Not trusting her leg to deliver the appropriate quality kick, she struck the rocks with a flaming fist, knocking them sideways and out the window. She moved nimbly over the downed men, stepping on their soft spots, and struck at the remaining Dai Li agent with her heel.

He moved backward and her foot struck the carpet. Her cry of pain came from her mouth as a plume of blue fire, which broke over the Dai Li agent’s hat after he tipped his head. Azula came forward, grabbed the warm spike in the center of the hat, pulled, and shoved it back, hitting the top of the man’s head.

He went down, and Azula turned, hearing two of the others get to their feet. She fired jets of flame at them, which they blocked with their hats. While they were blind, she took hold of the curtain and pulled, draping the men with it then setting it on fire.

They screamed, their clothes having caught fire, and struggled to free themselves. When the door behind her burst open she spun to face more enemies but instead saw Katara, flanked by Mai and Ty Lee.

“What’s going on?” Ty Lee shouted while Katara ran forward. She pulled a coil of water from her hip flask and began whipping the flames with it, dousing them while Azula waved her arms, coaxing the flames into more manageable areas and keeping them from spreading.

“Dai Li agents,” Azula said, trying to speak as though she didn’t need to catch her breath. “How insulting of them to only send four.”

“These two are really hurt,” Katara said, kneeling over the two that had been draped.

“Keep them from dying,” Azula said. “You two, help me secure them. I have some questions I’d like to ask.”

“No,” Katara said. “These men will…”

“They should have thought about that before they attacked,” Azula said. “Let’s go.”

To her disappointment, but not surprise, she hadn’t been allowed to torture the Dai Li agents. These four had also joined and been trained after Azula’s defeat, so she had no influence over them.

It was Katara who got information out of the burned ones. “They were sent to kidnap, not kill you,” Katara said, back in the war bunker where they’d gone that afternoon. She’d spent the morning healing the men as best she could and talking to them.

“Obviously,” Azula said. “But how did they know which building to find me in?”

“Spies, obviously,” Katara said, her arms crossed. She stood far from Azula as she could while the other women sat at even intervals around the table.

“Traitors is more like it,” Azula said. “And when I find them, there will be no mercy.” She made sure to meet Katara’s gaze, trying to read fear behind her blue eyes and only seeing contempt. No one seemed ready to accuse, or even suggest, Katara was working for the other side, and Azula had to admit she had no proof. -It could be June for all I know,- she thought. -She’s is the more likely candidate.-

Her fists clenched at a sudden thought, making the others tense. “Zuko,” she hissed, to herself but loud enough for everyone to hear. -This is the exact kind of thing he’d pull. I’m a threat to his power, I’m a bruise on his ego, and I’m the one thing the Earth Kingdom wants.-

“Where is Zuko?” she asked, hoping none of them noticed her slip. They had, but it didn’t matter. Zuko knew how things stood between them.

“The Fire Lord is with the navy,” Mai said.

“The navy? Very well,” Azula said. “Where is the Avatar?”

All eyes went to Katara. “I don’t know,” she said. “He hasn’t come back. Convincing the Earth Kingdom they don’t want you drawn and quartered might take him a few days.”

Azula touched the tips of her fingers together. “There’s nothing stopping the Dai Li from sending more agents. This also means that Ba Sing Se is at least in part supporting this effort by General Fong and the others. We have to retaliate.”

“No,” from Mai and Katara, then a host of reasons why, all Azula had heard before, all she’d developed counters for.

“This can’t go unpunished,” Azula said. “Their attacks will be more brazen if we don’t show them they are consequences. Besides, we need information about what’s goin on behind their lines and if there are more Dai Li, we need to know how many and possibly remove them.”

They were more arguments, but Azula knew she’d won. When the last bit of resistance was stamped out, she said “Get some rest and meet me here an hour before sundown. We’re going into enemy territory to find and neutralize the remaining Dai Li forces. This will be a covert operation, plus they won’t think to look for me behind their own lines.”

“And if you’re captured?” Katara asked.

“Then the Earth Kingdom will have what it wants and the war will be over one way or another. Everyone wins.”

They met at the bunker dressed as Fire Nation peasants. “Kind of a cramp in my style,” June said.

“Aren’t you Earth Kingdom anyway? You could dress like you normally do.” Ty Lee said.

June shrugged. “My flag is round, about that big,” she made a circle with her thumb and forefinger about the size of a coin, “and made of gold. Also, I don’t need it getting out that June the Bounty Hunter fights guerrilla wars for the Fire Nation.”

“Why are you even here, may I ask?” Mai said.

“Body guard,” June said. “I work for Princess Azula, who pays quite well.”

“So you’re fine with being Azula’s body guard, but fighting for the Fire Nation, that’s too much?” said Mai, crossing her arms under her sleeves.

“I don’t have time to explain the finer points of professional commitments versus personal ones, so if we could stop with the questions that’d be great.”

“Enough,” Azula said. “We’re all here and we’re all under my orders, that’s what counts. We go in two groups, Mai and Ty Lee in one, June, Katara, and myself in the other. Mai and Ty Lee, you lead the way. We’ll meet up at the first town we come to.”

Mai and Ty Lee nodded and walked down the road quickly to beat the tide. Azula watched them become dark shapes as they grew smaller under a purple sky. She turned towards Katara and June and crossed her arms. The sun had set the sky behind them on fire. “This is working out well, don’t you think?” she said.

June yawned.

“We’re this close to a second war and you seem to be doing everything you can to ignite it,” Katara said. “I suppose if you call that ‘well,’ then things are going great.”

“There isn’t going to be a second war,” Azula said. “I’ll say this much about Avatar Arrow-Head, he can make people see things a different way.”

“What if he gets back while we’re gone?” Katara asked.

“Then he’ll sit around until we return,” Azula said. “If he made Fong see reason, we’ll hear about it. If he didn’t, we’ll neutralize the Dai Li and make Fong see the error of his ways. You all forget I’m the one who conquered Ba Sing Se and I did it with two people. Now I have four, and General Fong is no Ba Sing Se.”

She watched Katara’s face harden as it tended to do when she had nothing to say. They stood around for an hour after Mai and Ty Lee were out of sight, then set off after them.

To be continued…

*Chapter 24*: Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Four

They spent a day pretending to be Fire Nation peasants as they headed towards the eastern end of the archipelago. The ferries were still running, such was the Earth Kingdom’s confidence there would be no insurgency. Azula felt they needn’t fear an uprising but not because the Fire Nation people felt beaten, as the Earth Kingdom likely thought, but because they assumed their country’s military wouldn’t stand an occupation for too long.

Early in the day, after spending the night in the woods, Azula wondered if she had made a mistake by coming, or at least not taking greater care to conceal her face. She was less known in southern regions, but here in the archipelagos where traffic between the capital was more brisk, she felt glances at her face linger longer than she liked. Mai experienced the same, even though she’d tied her hair different.

As Azula suspected, on each of the larger islands were stations of Earth Kingdom troops who had built earthen fortifications from the islands themselves. Each fort had a weakness, however, one she could easily see that made her breath easy. She was a prisoner when the war ended but had been dimly aware of the jubilation her enemies and supposed allies were feeling. -They didn’t learn their final lesson,- she thought. -That the Fire Nation controls the air.-

The Earth-held islands all had outward sloping rock walls with flat tops to prevent breaching by landing craft and to prevent fireballs from rolling into their centers. What they lacked were coverings on the top, and Azula guessed about five minutes with an airship floating above would be all that was needed to burn everything within to ash, their own walls making a giant fire pit.

The only problem might be convincing Zuko and the Avatar to use such a method, as it was likely Fire Nation citizens were within the forts along with Earth Kingdom soldiers.

The night of the first day they spent in a barn, this one outside an occupied town that lacked a fort but had stationed a small number of Earth Kingdom soldiers at an inn. The building Azula and the others set up in was small, perhaps the size of a house, and smelled of old hay. The roof sagged near the back and there were signs vagrants made regular use of it.

Katara made the place livable with an efficiency that impressed all, even if all didn’t say it. Azula forbid a fire, not wanting to attract any form of company. “Alright,” she said, gathering everyone close as the light of day faded. “I’ve seen no sign of the Dai Li, but I’ve gotten a good look at the Earth Kingdom’s set up. What have the rest of you got to report?”

They had spent the days mostly apart, trying to look like they were going somewhere while eavesdropping. Periodically they met with Azula, and told her what they’d seen, heard, or what they had heard from the others in the Dragon’s Paw. Azula got no new information now.

“There’s a tavern in town where the Earth Kingdom troops are holed up,” June said. “I heard them drinking and carrying on not long ago, I bet I could get loads of news there.”

“And booze,” said Katara.

“And booze,” said June. “Not that hanging around in a barn with a bunch of kids isn’t fun and all.”

Azula felt them all bristle at being called kids, and would have herself if she didn’t think June had the right idea. “Will they know who you are?” Azula asked.

“They might, ” said June. “I should keep my distance from you all later. June the Bounty Hunter might be able to learn things a bunch of orphan peasants can’t.”

“I don’t like it,” Katara said. “She could leave or betray us.”

Azula sensed Mai and Ty Lee had the same suspicion, but Azula let them all see her smile. “There isn’t a single person here I don’t trust with my life,” she said. “June, I like the way you think. So be it.”

June smiled now, too, the thought of a good time in a tavern outweighing her comrade’s mistrust.

“I’ll wait for her to return,” Azula said. “You three can sleep.”

“This early? Ugh. This army stuff is the worst,” said Ty Lee.

“I’ll admit, I liked traveling better when we were chasing the Avatar,” said Mai.

Katara snorted. “So did I. The company was better.”

“Hey,” said Ty Lee. “We’re not so bad.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean you. Forget it.”

Azula crossed her arms and leaned against the wall. She had to admit some level of harmony within a traveling group was nice, and for that Katara was a regret. “Don’t worry, Katara,” Azula said. “Once this little bit of diplomacy plays itself out, you and I will rarely have to see each other.”

Ty Lee stood from where she was sitting and moved between Katara and Azula. “I’d be a terrible person if I didn’t say this, but both your auras are angry and red when you’re around each other. It’s terrible for your health. Maybe you should talk and figure out some way to get along?”

“You’re kidding, right?” said Katara. Azula also couldn’t resist rolling her eyes. “No, we already had…look, we’re never going to get along, so lets just leave it.”

“Agreed,” said Azula. “Some people just aren’t meant to co-exist, Ty Lee, maybe you need to realize that. I’ll wait for June outside.”

The state of the barn was such that being outside meant little, so Azula comfortably stood by a tree and watched the lights from the village flicker. She could hear Ty Lee talking, and Katara’s raised voice, and was about to go in and tell them all to shut up when she decided against it. Azula kept watch, hearing the voices from the barn drop to murmurs and finally go silent, letting the sounds of animals fill her ears instead.

She felt her head snap up when the ambient sounds of the night became consistent with human footsteps. She hadn’t been asleep, only meditating, and moved slowly behind the tree before confirming it was June who approached.

“Well?” Azula said, when June was close. The smell of alcohol was on her like a morning cloud around a mountain.

“Well, well, what do we have here?” said June, her voice loud, prompting a shush from Azula. “If it isn’t Princess Azula.” these last words were spoken in a whisper, near Azula’s ear.

“I hope you’ve got information to match the state you’re in,” said Azula.

June was centimeters from Azula, and moved closer to press her against the tree. Her intentions were quite clear and despite herself, Azula felt her body melt. “Oh, I’ve got some information all right. You’re gonna love this.”

“What is it?”

June clamped a hand over Azula’s breast and forced her knee between her legs. Azula felt her skin prickle all over and the absurd desire to laugh. “I’ll tell you,” said June. “But I’ve got an itch, and you’ve got to scratch it for me.”

She swallowed the word “yes” and instead said “Fine, but tell me what you learned.”

June’s hands found her buttocks and squeezed, pulling Azula forward. “I learned drinking a room full of soldiers who want their way with me under the table makes me horny,” said June. “I might have taken one of them up to a room, but then I remembered you were here, all alone in the dark, cold. Like a Midnight Apple waiting to be plucked.” She put her hand between Azula’s legs and squeezed gently, making Azula’s breath come out in a gasp. “I also learned something quite valuable about this war nonsense, but like I said, until I get what I want, princess, my lips are sealed.”

“I’ll give it to you,” Azula said. “I’ve been wanting it, you know.”

“I know. I like to make them want it before I come and take it.” She took Azula by the side of the head and kissed her, shoving her alcohol soaked tongue deep into Azula’s mouth. She pulled back and planted one light kiss on her cheek before putting vicious love bites on Azula’s neck, making her cry out.

“Shh,” June said. “I’ll make you scream later, but we should be quiet here.”

She kissed Azula again and undid the front of her toga, slipping her hands in to touch her bare skin. June made an inarticulate sound in her throat and the next thing Azula knew she was being pulled deeper into the woods behind the barn. Pressed against a different tree, her top was pulled off and discarded while June fondled Azula’s breasts, sucking and nibbling at her neck. June’s fingers found their way down the front of Azula’s pants and put more direct pressure on the growing dampness there. “Mmm, kneel,” June said, and pushed Azula down. June opened the front of her pants and pulled Azula where she wanted her. “Yes, that’s it, right there.”

Azula licked, extending her tongue as far as she could because of the angle, and let June’s scent and taste envelope her, driving her to put her own fingers between her legs. It felt good, too good, and Azula had to pull her head back and breath while she came.

“Come on, finish,” June said, pulling her head back up. Her cheeks red from more than June’s heat, Azula did her best and soon felt hard fingers gripping her hair. “Ah, there we go,” June said, stepping back and putting her pants back together.

Azula stood and did the same. “Alright, out with it,” she said. “What did you learn?”

June let out one long breath before saying “General Fong has captured the Avatar and intends to exchange him for you.”

To be continued…

*Chapter 25*: Chapter Twenty-Five.

Chapter Twenty-Five.

Her mouth went dry and she cursed herself for her weakness. -I should have expected it,- she thought. -It’s a cunning move on their part. Something I would do, even.-

“Not a word of this, especially to the water bender,” Azula said to June, who still stood well within Azula’s personal space.

“Whatever,” said June. “But she’s going to hear about it one way or the other. The news just got here, it’ll be the talk of the town by morning.”

“So be it, but we’ll be on the move long before then and looking avoid contact with people. I think I’ve found a way to put myself beyond reproach once and for all.”

“How, by rescuing the Avatar?”

“Of course. Think we can do it?”

June hiccuped. “Better ask me when I’m sober.”

“There’s no time that. We need to move tonight.”

She grabbed June by the arm and led her to the barn where she rudely kicked her comrades awake. They spring up quickly, ready for a fight, but Azula told them to gather their meager gear and prepare to leave.

“What? Why?” Ty Lee said, yawning.

“Yeah, what gives?” said Mai.

Azula, using the blue light from a flame in her palm to see, looked at Katara as she said “The Avatar has been captured.”

The reactions were immediate, with Katara’s voice rising above the others, wanting to know how, when, and who.

“It was General Fong, of course. I wasn’t going to let you have this information, but it’s better you hear it on my terms,” said Azula. “Fong wants me in exchange for the Avatar which means I need to know where your loyalties lie.”

“With Aang,” said Katara, her hands dropping to her sides as everyone in the barn tensed for a fight.

“As expected, so now does that mean you’ll be selling me out to save your boyfriend?”

“Ha. You think I’m that stupid? I’ve done enough traveling to know the Earth Kingdom isn’t much different from the Fire Nation in a lot of ways. I could tell the first soldiers I see who you are, but that wouldn’t guarantee Aang’s safety or release.”

“Just what I wanted to hear,” Azula said, a sneer on her lips. “Now, can you find a way to make me believe you?”

“If I have to choose between you and Aang, I won’t choose you,” Katara said, her arms now folded in front of her.

Ty Lee coughed. “Um, I’m not sure that helped,” she said, and was jabbed by Mai’s elbow.

Katara sighed. “Unless you’re planning on actually sacrificing yourself, can we stop messing around and go save Aang? Fong’s a jerk, but I doubt he’ll hurt Aang unless he has something real to gain from it.”

“Not to be a buzz kill, I mean I like the guy and all, but we’re missing the bigger issue,” said Mai. “This is probably going to mean a war.”

“Then we’ll win it,” Azula said. “And the first blow we’ll strike is getting the Avatar back. Let’s go.”

Marching through the night turned out to be an unrealistic goal, and so they stopped shortly after dawn and made camp in the woods off the side of the road. They slept until late morning and were off again, with June taking the roadway to glean what she could from passers by.

Fong, June learned, was garrisoned at a coastal fort that doubled as a lighthouse. Earth benders had used their skills to isolate the fort from the coast, leaving only narrow pathways for foot travel.

Azula was told this that night. They were about four days walk, Azula guessed, from Fong’s fort where he was rumored to have the Avatar. Azula marveled at how quickly word could travel, and wished she could do the same.

“Are you sure you can’t summon that flying buffalo somehow?” Azula asked Katara one evening after they stopped and gathered around a small fire. Azula’s knee hurt from all the walking, and she was rubbing it.

“Appa is a sky bison, and no, he’s probably captured too.”

Azula laid back and let her knee go straight. It felt like the muscles around it had shortened and become harder.

“Is your leg still bothering you?” Katara asked, her voice low. June was nearby, but Mai and Ty Lee had gone to gather more firewood.

“Yes. It may rain tomorrow in case anyone was wondering.”

June chuckled. “Kids. Think you’ll be young and invincible forever.”

“Quiet, it was your fault,” Azula said, noticing Katara was looking intently at her leg. Azula had her pants pulled above the knee so she could rub it better, and there was some swelling to alleviate. “What are you staring at? I know you did shoddy work but you needn’t beat yourself up over it. The conditions you were under were far from ideal.” Katara’s face now lost all expression, aside from a bottomless look of bored contempt. “I meant,” Azula said. “It could have been far worse.”

“Thank you,” Katara said, her expression now unnaturally rosy. “If you let me, there may be some long-term treatments I can try.”

Azula picked her head up, her mistrust of Katara being weighed against wanting her leg to stop bothering her. “Such as?”

“Well…” Katara came closer and knelt by Azula’s leg. She looked up into the black sky, which was indeed threatening rain. “It might be hard tonight.”

Azula looked up and saw the same black sky, no moon. “Bl…?”

“Don’t say it,” Katara said, suddenly stern. “I don’t like to think of it like that. What I do is I push blood to the affected area, which promotes healing, but I noticed something else. It’s not just blood I can move.”

“What else can you control?”

Katara frowned again. “Muscle, tendons…I don’t know about bone. There’s water in all parts of the body, not just blood.”

“Creepy,” June said.

“If you think you can help, you’re welcome to try,” Azula said, laying her head back.

She felt Katara’s hands on her skin and her entire body stiffened. “Try and relax,” Katara said.

She did, thinking about the pain and how a small amount of humiliation was worth the trade to cure it. At first there was pain, then the sensation of being pulled on from inside the knee itself. Katara was encasing Azula’s leg in her hands bellow the knee and moving them upward. After twenty or so such movements Azula felt something come loose and it was like liquid pleasure had been poured on her leg. “Ah,” she said despite herself. “There, that’s it!”

“Take it easy, you’ll need more than one treatment.”

Azula stood and moved her leg about, twisting and hoping on it. “I’ll take them,” she said. “If you’re game.”

“I’m game. I need someone to experiment on.”

Azula wasn’t sure she liked the tone of Katara’s voice or the tiny smile on her lips, but she was too eager to walk and run. She got up and went in the direction Mai and Ty Lee had, going fast at first but then slow and silent when she heard the river. She could hear their voices now, and slowed, moving quietly now.

“What do you think Fong will do to her?” she heard Ty Lee say, and went still. She could tell the two were down a slope behind some brambles, and quite near the river as their voices were being pulled under the sound.

“If she’s lucky, jail. They might whip her in public or something but I doubt it.”

“Oh…she might like that, but knowing them they’d make it terrible,” Ty Lee said.

“Terrible indeed,” Azula said, coming out of the bushes, not sure she could bear to hear more. “Which is why they’ll never take me alive.”

“Or at all,” said Ty Lee, too quickly. “How about a light?”

Azula summoned a flame to her hand then sent it to the pile of sticks Mai had gathered at her feet. The blue flames turned orange when they took hold of the wood. “Those were for the fire,” Mai said.

“And they’re on fire, just like you planned,” Azula said, stepping closer so she was in between them, keeping each from looking at the other easily. “So, what else are you two planning?”

“We’re just worried,” Ty Lee said. “If you get captured…”

“Or betrayed again,” Azula said, regretting saying it so soon.

“Really? This crap again?” Mai said, and threw her arms to her sides.

“I’m sorry,” Azula said, putting her hands up. “I’m…” she looked around. “I don’t deserve it, but I could use you two right now. I mean, I need you…”

Like a flash flood in the monsoon season, it came from nowhere. Told the Earth Kingdom wanted her head and now had real leverage to get it, she had felt some exhilaration. She liked danger, it made life fun. Certain kinds of danger anyway, not the sort where she wondered which person would betray her next. She felt the tears come and clamped her hands over her eyes, making a choked sound in a failed effort to hold it all back at the last second.

Ty Lee was the first one to her side. Azula almost didn’t feel Mai’s hand on her head, but it was there. She took in three, deep breaths, pulling herself together a little more each time. “You were right to do what you did back then,” she managed to say without blubbering. “I just…I can’t handle it if it happens again.”

She felt Ty Lee’s had on her back, making circular motions. “You’re fighting for the right side now,” she said. “We all are. No one will betray you.”

Azula thought she could feel the look Mai was giving her and picked her head up, her red eyes reasonably dry. “You two must think I’m pathetic. Crying out of the blue…”

“It’s one of the few signs you’re human,” Mai said, not unkindly. “I’m not going to hand you over to the Earth Kingdom, regardless of the consequences.”

Azula looked Mai in the face and believed her. “Good. I’m glad I can count on you two. This time I’ll try to be worth it.”

“I know we keep telling you time will tell, but I think you’ll do it,” Mai said, giving one of her rare smiles.

“I was thinking,” Ty Lee said. “When this is all over, we won’t be able to hang out like this much.”

“She’s right,” Azula said. “Zuko will probably keep me too busy.”

“And I’ll be with the circus,” said Ty Lee.

“Let’s enjoy it while we can,” Mai said. “In all its splendor.” she looked around to the trees standing quiet in the dark beyond the now low-burning fire with a frown.

“I was thinking we could do just that,” Ty Lee said, pulling closer to Azula, who smiled and looked sideways at Mai.

Mai fixed them both with a bored, incredulous look, then let it melt into something different. “You two are complete sluts,” she said, moving in close with them. The three had their lips meet at a central point and they traded affection with their tongues. It was awkward, but it had been one of their first experiments and it still amused them years later.

As was normal, Ty Lee and Mai stripped Azula of her clothes. Azula set the other pile of sticks on fire, making Ty Lee stamp her foot. “What, it’s cold,” Azula said, as Mai cupped her left breast and Ty Lee took her right with her mouth. Mai began nibbling at Azula’s ear, who closed her eyes and felt fingers find the spot between her legs.

She went to the ground with Ty Lee, who’s fingers had found her again, and helped her remove her clothes. Mai’s thick shirt fell on her face, blotting out the light from the fires. She felt Mai over her, pulling the shirt up to uncover her mouth but not her eyes. Their lips met and Mai probed her out why Ty Lee’s tongue entered her from bellow. “You’re lucky, Azula,” Mai said, pulling her lips away. “You get all the fun when the three of us meet.”

She felt Mai straddle her, facing towards Ty Lee. She gripped Mai’s buttocks and held her while Mai aided Ty Lee in her tongue work, pausing briefly to kiss each other. Azula shook the shirt from her eyes and flicked her tongue around the outside of Mai’s pussy before slipping it in.

Fingers entered her while a tongue played over her clitoris. She tried to give as good as she got, but was soon squeezing Mai’s buttocks and riding out an orgasm. When it was over, she went back to licking Mai while Ty Lee’s weight pressed on her legs. She heard Ty Lee come, then felt Mai go, bucking her hips in time with Ty Lee’s gasps.

“So this is where you all snuck off to,” said June, her whip slapping against her palm. Azula turned her head and saw her standing near the bushes. “No one told me the fun camp was over here.”

Azula could tell Ty Lee and Mai were wary, but Azula laid her head back on Mai’s discarded shirt and let out a satisfied sigh. “We were discussing strategies on infiltrating Fong’s fort,” she said.

“Clearly,” said June. “I’d stay, but the water bender might wonder where I went.”

There was a loud cough from behind the bushes and Katara stepped into view. “The water bender isn’t that dumb,” she said, coming closer and standing next to June with a knowing smirk on her face.

“Does something amuse you?” asked Azula.

“No,” Katara said. “I just always wondered about you three; it’s sort of funny to know I was right.”

“Jealous?” asked Ty Lee.

No..ah!” Katara was smacked on her rear by June.

“Sure she is,” said June. “So am I. You drag us into enemy held territory on a dangerous mission and cut us out of the action…it’s not right.”

“I didn’t mean…” Katara said, but was pulled off balance by June into a full-lipped kiss.

“You should learn to loosen up a little, kid,” June said, breaking the kiss after Ty Lee made a wooing sound.

“I shouldn’t…I couldn’t…”

Azula stood up and brushed the leaves from her body. She felt everyone looking at her and was no longer sure what she was going to say.

“Honestly, after all this time I can’t figure out why we can’t get along,” said Azula.

“You spent months trying to kill me and my friends.”

“I’ve spent months helping you all.”

“I raped you in prison.”

“I forgive you.”

“You didn’t have to, you raped me back!”

“Wow…” muttered June. “I think I know what you two might need.”

“What?” asked the two benders.

June shrugged as though it were obvious. “Consensual sex. “You know you want in on this, water girl. Why not keep Azula busy for a bit while I have fun with those two?”

Azula felt Katara looking at her as though she might vomit. “Not in a million years,” Katara said.

“I’m up for it if she is,” said Azula. “It was, after all, your stupid idea to begin with.”

“It wasn’t my idea,” Katara said. “And it didn’t work.”

“Didn’t it?” said June. “I know you all have your issues, but as an impartial judge, Fire Princess here is way less of a bitch than she used to be.”

Azula caught Ty Lee nodding and Mai giving an resigned shrug. She held her tongue and focused back on Katara, who she noticed had loosened her arms from across her chest. “Come on,” June said, nudging Katara’s back. “Nothing’s hotter than hate-sex, trust me. Think of it like a handshake. Pretend she’s someone else. Let’s just get the damn orgy going…”

“Alright, fine,” Katara said, setting her face and removing her toga. “Two rules. Don’t look at me and don’t talk.”

“Agreed,” said Azula, and stepped closer as June walked past with a grin.

Azula and Katara were left relatively alone, facing each other. “This is ironic,” Katara said, her toga nearly off. “You of all people should know this sort of thing doesn’t help.”

Azula concentrated and the fires she’d lit flared up, bathing Katara and her in light. Katara’s brown skin was a lighter color beneath her clothes, which she shed slowly and deliberately, clearly self-conscious. “I know talking won’t help,” she said.

“Then stop it,” said Katara.

She stepped forward and their lips awkwardly met. Both attempted to cover their discomfort with enthusiasm, and some loud sucking sounds escaped between them. Azula thought it was her imagination but could swear Katara’s mouth tasted faintly of sea water. -I wonder if I taste like ashes,- she thought.

Azula stole a glance at the nearby trio. Ty Lee had wrapped her legs around June’s midsection while she stood and the two had locked lips while Mai knelt between June’s legs, dividing her attention between the bounty hunter and her acrobatic friend.

She slid her hands over Katara’s bare hips and pulled her closer, feeling the heat first from her breasts, then her torso. Her hands moved around to grip her buttocks and she felt hers grabbed in turn. In their efforts to not look at each other, they noticed the others had all but stopped what they were doing to watch them.

“Let’s give them something to look at,” Azula whispered, and knelt, pulling Katara down by her shoulders. She laid Katara on her back and positioned herself between her legs, which she held apart. With a twirl of her wrist, she created a ring of blue flames around them and kept it from burning out or in with her will.

She wetted two of her fingers and rubbed Katara’s clitoris, making it wet. She saw the others were back to having their own fun yet still watching her and Katara, so she made the flames rise higher.

“Not too high,” Katara said. “I like to watch them, too.”

The three seemed to take the hint, and changed positions. June now stood against a tree while Ty Lee licked between her legs. Beneath Ty Lee on her back was Mai, who was touching herself with a free hand. Azula now lowered herself and took the plunge into Katara, using the annoyance she felt for her to fuel her effort. Katara appreciated it and let a few stifled moans escape her throat.

When she felt the old tug between her own legs, Azula stopped licking and sat up. She put one of Katara’s legs over her shoulder and positioned herself so her womanhood pressed against Katara’s. It took some work, but being quite fit she was able to hold the position long enough to find the right angle. “Ah, yes,” she said, feeling it like a shock up her body. The flames around them flickered, and she willed them to go out rather than divert attention to controlling them.

Katara began to writhe and moan erratically under Azula, who came herself once she realized the woman under was having an orgasm. This one was more intense than her first, and she felt a small gust of flame shoot from her nose.

She heard Ty Lee giggle and say “I love it when she does that.”

Sweaty and suddenly tired, Azula let Katara’s leg down and pulled away. She looked over to the others, who all appeared to have gotten off recently. “I’m beat,” she said. “Let’s get some sleep.”

Katara did them the favor of bending river water, heated by Azula’s flames, and using it to wash the leaves and dirt that clung to their sweat soaked bodies. “Next time can we bring some blankets?” asked Mai.

“Or be inside,” said June. “Not that I’m one to complain about roughing it.”

They went back to their original camp, fully clothed, with Azula and Katara a few steps behind.

To be continued…

*Chapter 26*: Chapter Twenty-Six.

Chapter Twenty-Six.

They reached the coastal fort on a day when the sky was an unending sheet of gray and a steady breeze bent the trees, making their leaves curl. Azula’s knee was tight again, predicting rain.

From a stand of fir trees, Azula surveyed the fort. It was an old, simple design built for function, basically a cylinder with some slits for windows. The lighthouse, which rose from the middle, was a different matter. It bore numerous architectural flourishes and several shades of bright colored paint. Azula could see the mirror at the top which at night, when a fire was lit, would reflect light over the lapping sea.

She saw the earth benders had altered the landscape some, lowering it around the fort, leaving only a long, rocky causeway. Two fire nation ships, small destroyers, had been beached near the tower, angling themselves from the tower like folded wings so they could fire over the water.

“Well?” Mai said, shifting impatiently next to Azula. The others were behind them, in the woods, except for June, who had gone to the nearby fishing village to gather information.

“Getting in isn’t a problem, and I doubt we’d have much trouble finding the Avatar once inside, but getting him out and safely away is another matter,” said Azula.

“Maybe June will have something for us,” said Mai. “I sent the messenger hawk to Zuko. I wrote it like you asked.”

“I’m sure you did a fine job,” said Azula. “Hopefully Zu-Zu will take the hint and not think its a real love letter.”

“We don’t do that sort of stuff, so he’ll know what it is. I’m worried someone else might know, too, if they read it first.”

“Whoever told those Dai Li where I slept have probably warned Fong by now. Getting here has been far too easy.”

She crossed her arms and leaned against a rock. In the distance floated Earth Kingdom ships. On land, a small platoon of infantry was marching across the fort’s causeway, further scouring the coral and seaweed beneath their feet as they headed inland from the fort. Azula wondered if they would break formation and leap into the sea if set on fire, or if they were hardened soldiers, experienced in battle with the Fire Nation.

“Summon the water bender, would you? I have an idea.”

“The water bender?” Mai asked, airily. “Which one?”

“Katara,” Azula said, rolling her eyes.

“I’ll see if I can find her,” said Mai, and quietly stepped into the dark cover of the trees. Azula was starting to think she would have to get Katara herself when she appeared.

“How’s your leg?” asked Katara.

“Terrible, but that’s not why I called you,” she said. “How powerful a water bender are you?”

Katara crossed her arms and glared before turning her nose up a little. “I think you of all people know the answer to that.”

Sighing, Azula gestured to the beached ships. “Could you pull one of those out on the open water?”

Katara stepped next to Azula and made a show of inspecting the ships. “That would be…hard. I could move them, but I might not be able to keep them from damaging their bottoms on the rocks.”

“Very well. What if I wanted us to approach the fort from the sea side, could you make an ice bridge?”

“I can, or we could move under water in a bubble.”

Azula stroked her chin, considering these possibilities. “The sky bison, can it fly if injured?”

Katara cleared her throat. “I don’t know. Appa can take a lot of punishment and still fly, but he has his limits.”

“Just as well, he may not be there. Fong isn’t a complete fool, he’ll have heard tales of the Avatar’s various escapes on the back of that bea…magnificent creature. We can’t count on it.”

“I doubt he’s hurt Appa, or Aang for that matter,” said Katara. “Not that he wouldn’t if he doesn’t get what he wants.”

“Yes, you said he faked trying to kill you all to increase the Avatar’s power. I have to admit I like how the man thinks.”

Katara made a noncommittal hum. “Well, if that’s all, let me know when you have a plan.”

She turned to leave, but Azula called out “Wait. About my leg…”

Katara turned back and bid Azula to lie flat, or as flat as the uneven ground would allow. “I don’t have the moon to help, but I don’t think I need it,” Katara said, as she began rubbing the tension around Azula’s knee out. Her hands were over Azula’s pants, but after a few strokes she pulled the pant leg up and touched the bare skin.

Azula had not been aware of the discomfort she was in until it was alleviated, and she had to concentrate to keep from vocalizing her pleasure. It felt like her entire leg was having its own version of an orgasm, and it made her think of the other night by the river. They had not spoken of it between themselves, but the others mentioned enough times around their camp fires.

“Better?” Katara said after a few minutes.

“Yes. How long will it be until I see permanent improvement?”

Katara shrugged and squeezed the knee. “I don’t know. I think I might have healed it too fast.” Her voice had gone low, and she was looking at some rocks. “Like when water freezes quickly instead of over time, the structure is different.”

Katara’s guilt wafted from her like blood, trickling from an injured sailor on the open sea, touching the part of Azula’s brain that sought it out. “I guess you owe me a lot of leg rubs, then,” said Azula, a thin smile on her lips “Let’s make it a daily routine then.”

“Daily?”

“When circumstances allow, of course. Besides, you want me at my best if I’m going to rescue your boyfriend.”

Katara began lightly rubbing Azula’s leg again, feeling it for other problem areas. “That’s all I can do for it now,” she said. “I’m going back to camp.”

Azula let her go, and watched the fort until June’s footsteps could be heard behind her. “Well?”

June shrugged and stood close to Azula, clearly interested in other things than whatever she had learned in the village. “I found someone I think you aught to meet,” June said, reaching out and twirling a loose strand of Azula’s hair. Azula batted the hand lightly away and tucked the lock back behind her ear.

“Who?”

“An old man; say’s he knew the flame master at the lighthouse. “He also told me he knows a secret passage into the fort.”

Azula felt the rest of her body relax with the satisfaction of knowing luck was still on her side. “Outstanding,” she said. “Fighting on your home turf is easier than I thought. Alright, take me to him.”

“Easy, princess,” June said. “Fong has put up posters of you all over town. I guess he got word you might be out on your own. We’ll have to go tonight.”

“Just me? Fine,” said Azula. “Let’s get some rest, then. I’ve been looking at this stupid fort all day and each idea I’ve had has been more clumsy and half-baked than the last.”

June looped her whip over Azula’s neck and pulled her closer. Their lips touched and June looked past Azula, towards some high rocks. “Rest is a good idea, but maybe you need to unwind a little first,” said June.

Azula tried to think of something snappy to say, but could not and was led with the whip around the back of her neck to the place June had been looking at. There she was disrobed quickly and efficiently, and soon found herself lying on her back being used. She felt like she should be indignant or fighting back, but instead let June have her fill.

June only removed her own clothing where necessary, leaving Azula to try and put her hands beneath the cloth in order to feel her skin while she licked between the other woman’s legs. Her sent and feel made Azula writhe for the same attention, but once June finished she stood and put her outfit back together.

Azula coughed, brushing dirt from her naked backside. “Well?”

“Well what?”

“I think it’s customary to return such favors.”

June smiled. “Later. You’re better when you want it more.”

Azula felt her hands clench as June walked off. She also felt a strange thrill, deep inside next to the desire she felt. -Very well, then,- she thought. -She’s a bit crude, but she could be good for me, I suppose.-

She got up, brushed the remaining dirt off and put her clothes back on, removing the dirt from them, too. Heading back to the camp, she wondered how she would rest with the burning need she felt.

To be continued…

*Chapter 27*: Chapter Twenty-Seven.

Chapter Twenty-Seven.

The rainclouds broke not long after the sun went down, and the Dragon’s Paw, wet and eager to get somewhere warm with four walls and a roof, went down a winding pathway that took them through the woods before coming to the fishing village.

Azula wore a cloak and exaggerated her limp, letting Mai and Ty Lee help her while Katara and June kept their distance ahead. The two crossed the village’s main street and came to a modest home near the village’s eastern wall. Azula saw June knock on the door and be let in by what looked to be a small boy or tiny old man.

She waited with Mai and Ty Lee next to a house for half an hour before following June. It was indeed a small boy who opened the door, and she noticed his head had been shaved.

When she removed her hood, the house’s two regular inhabitants, an old man and the young boy, got to their knees and bowed. “It is an honor, Princess Azula,” said the old man.

-I forgot how much I missed being bowed to,- Azula thought. “Rise, citizen,” she said. “Tell me your name.”

“My name is Tazo, and this is my grandson, Bozin. I was a friend of the lighthouse’s flame master, Urdo, who showed me a secret way into the fort.”

“Was?” asked Azula, sure she would not care what happened to Urdo.

“He was killed when the Earth Kingdom invaded and conquered the fort,” said Tazo. “The rotten savages.”

She resisted smiling, lest it be taken the wrong way, but she made sure to look at Katara, who had bristled. Still, something bothered her. “The fort wasn’t damaged from what I could see. How did the invasion go?”

Tazo hesitated. “I…forgive me, my lady, I’m a little intimidated by your presence. Stories of your greatness have traveled far and wide.”

“How was it the Earth Kingdom took over the fort without damaging it,” Azula asked, her voice stern. She could sense those with her were on edge, likely thinking she was about to murder this man.

“”The fort surrendered, my lady, but Urdo refused to leave or light the nightly fire, so he was killed.”

He was lying, she could see. Perhaps covering for some cowardice on his part. She imagined he was more than friends with this Urdo person and likely blamed himself for his death. “Get up,” she said. “Tell me where to find this secret passage.”

All her expectations were fulfilled within in minutes. As she guessed, there was a cave not far off that led beneath the fort. It was a tight fit and required going under water for a long stretch, which was why no one had ever bothered to seal it off. Tazo said it would led them to a chilly part of the lower levels where perishables were stored and irksome prisoners were held.

“With luck they’ll be keeping the Avatar in that area and we can whisk him away from under their noses,” said Azula.

Tazo coughed. “May I speak freely, your highness?”

“You’re free to give me information on the matter at hand,” said Azula.

“I worked as a custodian at the fort for many years, it’s how I knew Urdo, and I don’t think they’ll keep the Avatar in the lower levels, not if he can earth bend.”

They had all come to sit around Tazo’s table, with Bozin standing patiently off to the side, his hands folded and head down. Azula leaned forward, now interested in what the old man had to say. “Where would they be keeping the Avatar?” she asked.

“Well,” and he seemed to ponder the question as if for the first time. “Now and again an earth bender would be kept prisoner there, and they would usually lock them in a wooden cage suspended in the middle of the lighthouse tower. The tower is all wood, you know, with metal siding. We figured wood was easier to replace than stone if it got hit, as it would break anyway, so…”

“Enough,” said Azula, and the man went quiet. “So you would suspend earth benders in the middle of a wooden tower in a wooden cage, far from any rocks they could use as weapons. This is the Avatar we’re talking about, he can bend all four elements.”

This she said more to herself than the old man, but Mai spoke up. “Metal,” she said. “That’s how you trapped King Bumi.”

“That lunatic was also not the Avatar,” said Azula. “He could blow himself away, or…” she slapped the table. “Or he could be drugged, unable to use his bending. Like certain people have done in the past to keep powerful fire benders in line…” she glared at her companions and noted the confused looks on Tazo and Bozin’s faces.

“Old man,” she said. “If the Avatar were drugged, where would they likely keep him?”

“Oh, um, um…” he seemed to search for an answer. “Well if her were helpless, they could keep him pretty much anywhere.”

Azula sighed, genuine frustration now clouding her mind. Had she more time it would not be an issue, but demands were on the table by now and they would have to be answered or there would be consequences. -I have to rescue him,- she thought. -Rescue him and avoid a war, then no one will be able to speak ill of me again. I’ll have solved their stupid problems their way, and I’ll have done it in my own, superior style.-

“We knew this was going to be dangerous,” Katara said. “I’m normally all about caution, but we’re running out of time and we might have to just act on what we have.”

“Easy for you to say,” Azula said. “If we succeed, you get your boyfriend back. If we fail, odds are good Fong will let you all go and keep me. You win either way.”

“I think Katara is right,” Mai said. “And at this point I also think we all have as much to lose as you do, Azula.”

Azula turned her head and locked eyes with Mai. There she saw something like what she had seen years ago the Boiling Rock, a woman free and determined who knew she was right. -And the flavor of betrayal…- Azula thought. -Now why is that? Have I become crippled by paranoia?-

She felt her leg was going back to its now-usual tight self and remembered Katara’s healing sessions. She took a deep breath and against all her instincts decided to trust her informal advisers. “Very well,” she said. “You’ll take us to this cave tonight. Katara, you’ll bend us through the wet parts. Once we’re in, we’ll do our best to disguise ourselves or keep out of sight, and find the Avatar. We’ll plan on getting him back through the secret passage. Worst case scenario, we’ll hide there for a while. Once we have the Avatar secure, we’ll have some breathing room at least.”

The old man coughed. “If I may, your highness.”

“Is there something else?”

“My grandson, Bozin, he shaved his head after he learned what you intended to do. With some paint, he could make a convincing avatar from a distance.”

Azula looked the boy over and agreed that in bad light he could be mistaken for Avatar Aang. “Very well. I’ll see that he gets commendations for his bravery and service.” She looked to Katara again, expecting objection. “You’re not going to say anything?”

Katara shrugged. “I told you, if comes between the Fire Nation and Aang, I choose Aang.”

-That’s not exactly what you said,- thought Azula. -Does she think Fong won’t kill him? She heard what happened to the lighthouse flame master.-

Azula smiled and stood, hoping the water bender realized what she was becoming. -And when you’re all the way there, I’ll say I told you so,- she thought.

To be continued…

*Chapter 28*: Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Eight.

The cave was really a tunnel, the entrance set into the side of a mound facing the sea like the beady eye of a boarcupine. They had to crawl to enter, and it never became much wider, only narrower, its claustrophobic confines threatening to squeeze out the womens’ sanity like juice from an orange. Katara went first, knowing there was water to bend some point ahead, while Azula followed second.

The tunnel soon forced them to crawl on their stomachs, and Azula’s ears became filled with the rasping of their bodies and low murmurs of discomfort; even Ty Lee could be heard groaning.

“Water,” Katara called out, splashing it with her hand. “Uh…not a lot of room to bend.”

June’s head bumped Azula’s backside, causing her to do the same to Katara. The panic that had been slowly coiling inside inside her now threatened to blossom, and forcibly reminded herself they could always back out, even if it would be inconvenient.

“Can you get us past it?” Azula asked, looking directly at Katara’s ass.

“I think if I freeze it…” Katara moved and Azula heard the sound of water turning solid at a rapid pace. “Yes!” Katara shouted, and scooted forward, kicking Azula in the face.

The water logged area had been large, and with the water bent to ice, there was now a small cavern, letting them all room to sit up and shake off the sensation of complete entombment and suffocation that had been taking a toll.

“I really hope that kid can earth bend when we get him,” said June. “Otherwise I say we get out some other way.”

“How long will it stay frozen?” asked Azula.

She heard Katara knocking the ice in the dark. “It’s cool down here, so a day at least.”

“Leave it frozen in case something happens and you can’t come back this way,” said Azula.

The ice tunnel went on for a short distance and ended on an upward slant. It was wider, enough to allow them to stand, and the walls appeared to have been worked by tools.

“Gee, I wonder what they threw down here,” said June, making their stomachs turn.

Whatever it had been used to dispose of, it seemed as though it had not been used in a long time. The air was stale and cobwebs could be seen in the shadows created by Azula’s small hand flame. After a dip in the ceiling, their path came to a large room filled with crates and casks that was decidedly chilly. “This is it,” Azula said. “Alright, we’re officially playing it by ear. I want each of us to leave this room separately except the boy. Learn what you can, and meet back here in an hour.”

They each wore simple fire nation clothes. Tazo told them they could all pass for janitors if they carried themselves properly. Tazo had supplied the outfits himself; most were ill-fitting so they supplemented them with the clothing they had brought. Azula hoped they would not be questioned too much in the dead of the night. It helped the clothes were fitting for a male, and each woman tied her hair back so that they might be mistaken for a boy at a glance. Azula did not want midnight encounters with lonely earth soldiers.

Each left the room separately in one minute intervals. Azula was the last to go and before she left, bid Bozin to hide in the tunnel until he was called for.

Azula was able to tell the fort had been built a long time ago, before her great grandfather’s time. While cylindrical in shape, the halls were straight and angular, not the efficient spirals common to modern fortress designs. She soon found a broom and took it with her to better look her part, remembering her days as a barmaid. Coming to a flight of stairs, she went up.

She passed several Earth Kingdom soldiers, most of whom did not give her a second glance. A few noticed she was female and whistled, but she ignored them and was left alone.

“Hey,” a voice called out to her, a familiar one. “Broom jockey, get over here.”

She did a quarter turn, keeping her face down hoping to avoid a fight with Suki. The Kyoshi Warrior was in a hallway with a long window overlooking the courtyard; apparently Azula had gone up too far.

The Kyoshi Warrior was coming towards her. “I said, get over here,” she repeated.

Keeping her head down, Azula met Suki halfway and was grabbed by the shoulder. “I’ve got a mess you need to clean up. Follow me.”

She was led up more stairs and into a small room where there a few stools, a pile of hay, and a table. The room had two windows, one overlooking the courtyard, the other the causeway. Every few seconds the room became aglow in a dim orange light; from the lighthouse’s reflecting mirror, but was otherwise dark.

Azula found herself being pushed forward over the table and groped. Suki gripped her breasts and buttocks firmly before smacking her backside. “You’ll do. You must know the drill?”

Azula made a noise indicating she did not, hoping it sounded nothing like her. Suki sighed. “On your knees, tongue out. Get the picture? At least I won’t get come in your hair.”

Her annoyance was overshadowed by her twitching muscles. It was too much to believe Suki had not recognized her, or would be ignorant for much longer. Still, it was worth hoping, unless she could disable or kill Suki before she raised an alarm. Azula knelt while Suki undid her heavy robe and pulled down her pants. She pressed Azula’s face into her, and held it until Azula’s tongue found her slit. “That’s it. It’s been a long night.”

Azula decided her best strategy would be to thoroughly please the warrior and leave her panting, so she licked her like she was a piece of candy, gripping her hips to better maneuver. Suki moaned appreciatively and held Azula tighter. -Technically, I’m winning here,- Azula thought, moving her tongue like a hummingbird. She felt Suki grip the back of her head with both hands and rock her hips. She came with a deep sigh, and pressed Azula tight for a few second after.

“Good. You’re more into it than the other girls. Here.” She tucked a gold coin into Azula’s toga. “Come see me tomorrow night. Now, go.”

Keeping her head down, Azula picked up her broom and left, wiping the moisture from her chin and tossing the coin into the nearest bucket. “Her day is coming,” Azula muttered. “I’d nearly forgotten, I’m glad she reminded me.”

Azula sometimes wondered how she could forget her mistreatment in the prison. It was clear they all owed her for their transgression, and they would owe her more when she rescued the Avatar and prevented a war.

She made her way down a few levels and found the entrance to the courtyard. She hoped the others would not run afoul of the Kyoshi Warriors, as she was certain they would be recognized.

The courtyard was empty and she wondered how many earth soldiers were garrisoned at the fort. The lighthouse had been built in the middle of the yard, clearly a newer addition as it took up most of the usable space. She went to the ornate door, visible to none outside the fort, and went in, hoping it would not be thought odd for a custodian to enter at such an hour.

Inside the lighthouse was hollow, aside from a spiraling set of wooden stairs that wound up to the top, where the light from the fire kept there shone though the cracks in the floorboards. It also illuminated something odd, but Azula recognized it immediately.

-Crueler than I’d imagined,- she thought, looking to some of the lit sconces along the stairs and willing them to burn brighter.

She could see Aang clearly now. Rope hand been tied to each of his arms and legs, the other ends to the walls, holding him spread-eagle in the middle of the lighthouse like a chandelier.

-It wouldn’t take long being hung like that to make a man’s limbs useless,- she thought. -He could blow or maybe burn himself free, but then he’d have to land safely. His arms and legs are probably jelly. I’m impressed, Fong.-

She dropped the broom and stood directly beneath Aang. Taking a breath, she shot four balls of flame at his bonds, then focused all her energy into her feet. Flames shot from them, propelling her straight into the air. She reached Aang just as the ropes gave way, and caught him over her shoulder. She fell about ten feet before shooting fire from her feet again, enough to slow her descent and further scorch the stone floor.

“Ugh,” the air bender said, and she set him down, looking for a piece of cloth or a sack.

“That’ll have to do,” she said, seeing a barrel used for mopping. She opened the lid, dumped the water, and lifted Aang inside. She rolled it a few feet and heard him tumble and groan from within. “That won’t do,” she muttered, hoping to see one of the Dragon’s Paw wander by outside, but did not.

Cursing, she lifted the barrel into her shoulder, and strained to carry it back inside while thinking of all those horrible stairs she had climbed. -Don’t complain,- she thought. -This will have been too easy if it works.-

She was one level above where she wanted to go, only slightly lost, when she heard shouting and the distant ringing of bells. When the sound of dozens of heavily booted footsteps filled the air, she swore.

A door bellow her slammed open and several Earth Kingdom soldiers came running up. Two stopped while the others slowed ahead of them. “You, what the hell are you doing?” said a long-bearded soldier.

She let her fear of having to burn her way out of the fort come off as fear of the man and cowered behind the barrel, which instinct told her to protect instead. “I-I…I was told to take this to the cool cellar…”

“Get to your quarters!” the man barked.

Azula licked her lips. “Wh-what’s happening, sir?”

“Intruders, now go!” the man swatted at her, and she let the blow connect. It was glancing, but it was to the top of her head and she saw stars for a moment. She crouched, as if in fear, and tried to keep her rage in check as the soldiers thundered away.

She picked the barrel up and took it to the cellar and to the tunnel where she met Bozin. “No need for you, boy,” she said, opening the barrel and dumping out the Avatar. “Drag him down that tunnel to where it becomes ice and wait. If no one comes to you by sunrise, leave him and get your grandfather.”

Bozin nodded, his eyes wide, and Azula watched him drag the unconscious Aang out of sight.

She went to the door and waited.

To be continued…

*Chapter 29*: Chapter Twenty-Nine.

Chapter Twenty-Nine.

More than an hour went by for Azula in the chilly, dark cellar. She could feel the cold creeping into her muscles and bones as she considered what to do next. Clearly there had been some sort of delay, of what sort she could only guess. As her time in the cold cellar stretched, so did her confidence that had supported these actions. It now seemed foolish in the extreme to send both herself and the Fire Lady into an occupied fort to rescue someone like the Avatar. She should have known the Kyoshi Warriors might be about, and she cursed herself silently in the dark for being so rash.

-When Mai returns, we’ll leave and secure the Avatar. In the worst case, I can trade the Dai Li we captured back for the others…having the Avatar snatched from under their noses should drive some humility into them.-

These thoughts staved off a chill that had little to do with the air temperature, but a traveler huddled over a tiny fire in a light rainstorm, the cold was still present and creeping.

It was not Mai who came through the door as hoped, but Katara, who’s speed and demeanor caused Azula’s stomach to twist. She stumbled in, clutching her arm, her face dripping blood. “What happened?” Azula asked.

“They caught us,” Katara said, her nose plugged with blood. Azula lit her hand on fire so she could see. The water bender had taken a few good blows to the face and her arm did not look well. “They captured everyone.”

“Everyone?”

Katara nodded, shaking her head and sending droplets of blood down her front. “They didn’t expect water bending, but I got hit pretty good in the face and the arm. I don’t think it’s broken.”

“Good, we can counter attack. I have the Avatar.” Azula said.

“No,” Katara said, her voice distorted from her injured nose. “There’s too many. There’s Dai Li and…and Kyoshi Warriors. It was Suki, she was feeding them information using her connections to us.”

Azula caught Katara by the front of her toga and pulled her against the wall. She held the fire to her face, and could see her eye was swelling, too. “Have you told them anything about the passage? You were gone a while.”

“No!” Katara said, pushing Azula back. She breathed hard, and sunk to the ground. “Please, Azula…they let me go to find you, to bring you a message. You for the others. They know you have Aang somewhere.”

“Me for the others,” Azula said. “Fong loses the Avatar and gains the Fire Lady. Damn it!” she shot a bolt of flame at the wall, scorching it.

“He said you have until dawn, then he k-kills them all,” Katara said, her voice now cracking. “Please, Azula, they don’t know about the passage, I swear. Aang can hide there so we’ll be sure Fong keeps his word.”

“But there’ll be no guarantee the Earth Kingdom will withdraw its forces,” Azula heard herself say, as though she were standing feet away, watching.

“He’s going to kill them!” Katara shouted. “I saw Ty Lee go down, I know she’s hurt. They’re not playing games. Fong tricked us years ago, but he’s changed, Azula! He doesn’t see helpless prisoners, he sees enemies to kill. All he wants is you.”

Azula felt her stomach churn. The sight of Katara had made her forget the creeping cold, but now it seemed a chill from inside had risen to meet the cool air working its way into her. The room was spinning and she held into Katara’s shoulder. She tried to act like she was propping Katara up, but she felt the courage leave her like her body heat had. Hoping she sounded simply curious and not afraid, she asked “What do you think they’ll do to me?”

Katara wiped some of the blood from her face and narrowed her eyes. “I could have led them right to you. I could have taken you out myself and this would all be over…” she took a long blink. “They’ll take you to Ba Sing Se, or one of the other cities, and they’ll kill you. It’s all they’ve been talking about since they learned you were being kept in prison without your bending being locked. You and your family have made the world an ugly place, Azula. The wounds are deep and they think your death will heal them.”

Azula felt the strength leave her legs. “Why me?” she asked, wishing it sounded like a question and not a complaint. “Why don’t they call for my father’s blood the same way they do mine?”

“Aang took his bending,” she said. “I guess that satisfied them.”

“We’re right back here again, then,” Azula said.

“No,” said Katara. “Locking your bending won’t make them happy. I don’t know why, but you’ve eclipsed your father when it comes to who the Earth Kingdom hates.”

“It’s not fair,” said Azula.

Katara said nothing.

It wasn’t fair, she kept thinking. Her ancestors had been trying to do good for the world. Perhaps they had underestimated how ungrateful the savages would turn out to be, and sure they met that ingratitude with cruelty, but why should she suffer for it? Simply because she was at the pinnacle of their dynasty?

A heat began to burn behind her eyes, threatening tears. “No,” Azula said, straightening herself. She let her right hand blaze bright and brought her face close to Katara’s. “No, I won’t go out like a coward. You can call me many things, Katara, but you can’t say I’m a coward, can you?”

“No, Azula, I can’t.”

“And I rescued the Avatar, did I not?”

“You did,” she said. “Almost single handed.”

Azula swallowed hard, her mouth and throat having gone dry. “Very well, then. I’ll hand myself over to Fong, but I want you to take the Avatar back through the tunnel. Flood it and make certain you do not get caught. I’ll have the others released over the causeway.”

“Of course,” Katara said. Her bloody face had lost it’s stern, urgent look and had gone soft, making Azula bristle. Azula was breathing heavy, the effort to keep her emotions in check a strain. “I’m not a very nice person, am I?”

“No,” Katara said, not unkindly.

“I’ve been cruel and monstrous to people.”

“True.”

“Do you think I’m a monster now?”

Katara said nothing for a moment, then spit blood to the floor and spoke. “Monsters don’t ask those questions like that. They don’t have friends they’re willing to die for, either.”

Azula let the flame on her hand go out. “Friends…I can’t seem to live without them, I tried, and now it appears I can’t live with them, either. You call me cruel, but I’m nothing compared to fate. Goodbye, Katara of the Water Tribe.”

She stepped in close and planted a kiss on Katara’s bloodied lips, tasting the sweetness of it. “Sorry,” she said, pulling back. “I think that might be my last one. From anybody.”

Katara did not respond and was silent as Azula left the room and retraced her steps from before.

To be continued…

*Chapter 30*: Chapter Thirty.

Chapter Thirty.

She almost wished Fong’s troops would find her before she reached the courtyard, as the urge to flee or try something desperate was growing stronger with each step that fell flat in the empty halls and stairwells. Azula found it strange, she had never really considered the afterlife before now. Even during times when her life was in danger, or when she was alone in her prison cell, her only thoughts had been of this world, the one she would soon be leaving. She doubted her spirit would rest easy, in any event.

The fort’s soldiers had all poured into the courtyard and were working to form a solid perimeter around the lighthouse. Fire had been lit and it was starting to rain.

“It’s her! Get her!” one shouted, once she was seen. She set her arms ablaze, which made them stop but she was prevented from moving forward.

“Where is Fong?” she asked. “I wish to parlay with him.”

“Come with us,” said one of the men. “You’re under arrest.”

She let the flames flare up and focused her attention on splitting her chi just enough to cause electricity to crackle above her head. The men backed away, used to having fire shot at them but not lighting. “Escort me to him, if you must, but I’m no one’s prisoner,” she said.

“This way!” barked a man with a short beard, their commander. He signaled for his men to form lines on either side of Azula, leaving her path to the lighthouse clear.

She let the flames die down and entered. The lighthouse was the same as before, only Dai Li clung to the walls by their rock fists, and a contingent of Kyoshi Warriors stood in a V formation around June, Ty Lee, and Mai, who lay bound on the floor.

June picked her head up, her face scuffed but otherwise unharmed. She gave a weak smile and laid back down. Mai and Ty Lee did not move except to breath.

She wanted to run to them and was about to when she heard the jangle of heavy armor on the stairs. She looked to see what could only be General Fong descending with his hands clasped behind his back. His chest-length brown beard had streaks of gray and framed a satisfied smile.

“Princess Azula,” he said. “How noble of you to come here.”

“I’m aware of the terms, Fong,” she said, determined to go out just as they all likely imagined her, cold, strong, and in control. “You have me, so let them go.”

“And what if I don’t?” he said, stopping a few feet in front of her, heedless to the danger he was in being so close. “What if I decide to keep the Fire Lady and demand more concessions from your pitiful brother?”

“Then I go down fighting,” she said. “And you picked an unfortunate place to force me into something like that.” She snorted, blue flames coming out her nose.

“Blue fire,” he said. “Even among your own, you’re abnormal. Fire is a hateful element. It gives only death and must be either controlled or stamped out. That’s what you people are, and uncontrolled fire. I think snuffing you out would send a clear message to the entire world that errant flames will no longer be tolerated.”

“Nice speech,” she said. “Have you been working on it or were you caught flat-footed when your lame plan accidentally worked?”

She heard his knuckles crack behind him and prepared to be punched, but no attack came. “The Earth Kingdom has suffered enough to justify the most ruthless tactics,” he said. “But we have yet to lose our honor. Put her in chains and release the prisoners.”

“You’ve badly injured one of them,” Azula said, fidgeting as she was placed in tight shackles by the Kyoshi Warriors, who had come forward.

“Send them off on the Avatar’s bison. She can get medical attention elsewhere. Take the prisoner to the special cell and prepare to sail at first light, weather permitting,” Fong said, no longer looking at Azula. The Kyoshi Warriors surrounded the bound women on the floor, blocking Azula’s view of them. She was turned away, roughly, and ushered towards the door.

She wanted more than anything to turn her head and say something, but it was like the words were too big to leave her mouth, and she was outside before she could muster the will to speak all the same. The Kyoshi Warriors led her around the courtyard to the other side of the lighthouse and down a long, slanted hallway.

“Just to warn you, princess, any funny business and we’ve been ordered to break both your arms,” said Suki, who was leading her by the elbow. “And you know how I’d hate to have to do that.”

There was no anger or annoyance in Suki’s voice, and that made Azula roil inside. “You knew all along, didn’t you? You knew it was me in the hall.”

“Of course I did. I was planning to take you out there, but I had an itch that needed scratching and besides, I knew we’d catch the others and I wanted to see what you would do.”

Azula kept silent, now slightly puzzled over everything else. They stopped at a metal door, which one of the warriors opened, allowing her to be led inside. “Wait outside,” Suki said to them. “Come if I call, but plan on an all-nighter.”

Suki undid a few of the chains on Azula, but left her hands manacled behind her back, and her ankle bracelets on. “I’ll say this, I expected you to cut and run. Did you have something up your sleeve, or is there a human being somewhere in there?”

The door shut behind them, and Azula heard it lock. The sound echoed; the room they were in was large and cold. Aside from the few feet around where they stood, much seemed to be covered in ankle-high water. The room smelled damp, but not salty, leading Azula to believe the water was from a spring somewhere, which would account for the temperature.

“You may have killed Ty Lee, you know that?” Azula said. “She’s an honorary Kyoshi Warrior, isn’t she?”

Suki crossed her arms. “It’s too bad what happened, but she’s a warrior who chose her side in battle.”

“Aren’t you also rutting with the water bender’s brother? You did a number on her as well.”

Azula was pushed against the heavy door, and tensed for what expected would be several blows. None came, but Suki held her to the door. “I could do a number on you, too,” she said. “I was trying to pay you a compliment. Out of everyone, I’ve got the least amount of sympathy for you, and that’s saying something, so watch it.”

Gritting her teeth, Azula fought the urge to blow a jet of fire in Suki’s painted face. Having surrendered, something about fighting now seemed crass so long as Fong upheld his end of the bargain. “Fine,” she said. “But I have nothing to say to you, so perhaps you could show some decency and leave me in peace. I’ve got my mortality to contemplate, you know.”

“I’ve been ordered not to let you out of my direct line of sight,” Suki said. “And I don’t intend to leave you in peace.”

She took Azula by the shoulder and turned her around, then unlocked one of her wrist shackles. Thinking maybe she wanted to fight, Azula offered no resistance, but was puzzled when the shackle was replaced with her arms in front. Suki then picked the chain up over Azula’s head and with a small hop, hung it on something. “What’s the meaning of this?”

She was answered with a kiss, aggressive and intruding. She tasted the paint Suki wore on her lips as her tongue probed her mouth. When Suki broke away, she was touching Azula̵#8217;s neck, squeezing the side and running her hand up into her hair. “You’re two days away from leaving this world, so I don’t mind telling you this,” she said. “You’re pretty sexy.”

“Thanks,” Azula said, making sure she sounded bored when in fact she was nervous. “You’re not bad either.”

Suki laughed. “Don’t take that to mean I like you. I don’t. I just appreciate your body. It’s a shame the person on the inside hasn’t always reflected it.”

-Can’t please everyone, I suppose,- Azula thought. “So, you’ve got me shackled to the wall and now you’re going to rape me again?”

Suki turned her head away. Azula could see the white paint of her face in the dark. There was dim light coming from some where, but Azula could not spot the source. Being where she was, there was little she could do to increase the amount of light with her bending. “Not my finest moment,” Suki said. “I guess we were working from some bad information.”

“I’ll say.”

“That’s why I won’t lay another finger on you unless you ask. I said I like your body, I know you like mine, so what’s a little exchange of pleasure between warriors? Take it as a token of my respect in that regard.”

“Offering sex to condemned prisoners, you might be more twisted than you realize,” Azula said. “Let me think about it.”

Suki stepped back and removed her heavy armored robe, then took out her hairpin. She went to where the water filled the room, knelt and began washing the paint from her face.

First and foremost in Azula’s mind was Ty Lee. She supposed there was no reason to think she was dead, the girl had taken her lumps before. Behind that was the thought of what her brother would think of her sacrifice. -He’ll be happy,- she thought. -Someday he’ll realize he needs me, but not for a while yet.-

She remembered what Mai told her about him keeping her room how she had left it, and then wondered if she would see Zuko one last time before her execution. There was little hope she would see her father again, and of course her mother was probably dead, wherever she was. She certainly no longer spoke to her from behind the curtain of darkness in her mind. -And maybe that’s a good thing,- Azula thought. -No, not maybe. It is good I don’t hear her anymore.-

She tied to recall the woman’s voice, and could, but it was not as clear as it sometimes was. -She’s a memory now, as she should be,- thought Azula.

Shaking her head, she decided two days straight of such thoughts would lead her once again to madness, so she spoke. “Alright, Kyoshi Warrior, I’ve made my decision. You may pleasure me, if you wish.”

Suki laughed, shaking her head and sending water droplets rippling over the shallow pool that covered most of the room. “I think I owe you from before,” Suki said, coming over. She stopped in front of Azula and began undoing her clothes. She undid her ankle shackles and removed Azula’s pants as well as her under garments. She did the same for her top half, trusting Azula not to fight, but shackled her arms again and hung her once she was nude.

“It’s cold in here,” Azula said, feeling her skin tighten.

“Fong thinks it will dampen your bending. It worked on the Boiling Rock, but a powerful bender like you, I don’t think some damp, chilly air would do much.”

True, there was little aside from a complete eclipse that could prevent her from bending fire, but at night, underground, in the damp and the cold it would be an effort. “Even fire benders get cold,” Azula said.

“Clearly,” said Suki, lightly pinching each of Azula’s stiff nipples. “These might rip my gi.” She undid the belt she wore and took off the top half of the garment, then proceeded to undo the cloth wrap around her breasts. “Guess it is a little chilly,” she said, pressing herself against Azula, who was grateful for the warmth.

“Must I be shackled?” Azula asked as Suki began kissing her neck while her hands slid down over her backside.

“I’ll let you loose in a minute, but for now it’s kinda hot,” Suki said into her ear before nibbling the lobe.

Azula let the sensation of lips on her skin carry away the various discomforts she felt from the cold and having her arms above her head. Suki seemed to be putting special effort into making sure as much of her skin as possible was pressed to Azula’s, keeping her as warm as could be given the circumstances. Azula’s fingers clenched and unclenched, wanting to run over the other woman’s body and touch her in the same places she herself was being touched. Suki had a lean, warriors body. She could feel it’s power as it moved against her. Unlike Ty Lee’s body, Suki’s was used to holding its ground, however she could tell it was still flexible and possessed grace. There was an aggression there, unlike Mai’s form, but not ravenous like June had been. Azula felt as though she were being praised and appreciated by Suki’s attention, which had dropped bellow her now wet breasts and was at her naval.

She found herself thinking of Katara, and how it truly was a shame she would not get another chance with her. The water bender seemed like she might possess qualities found in Azula’s other lovers, but at more tolerable levels. -I should have done more than kiss her,- Azula thought, remembering the taste of Katara’s blood, a flavor she had enjoyed.

“Something on your mind, princess?” Suki said, her hands squeezing Azula’s buttocks. She was on her knees, looking up.

“A few things, yes,” Azula said, wondering why they needed to talk.

“I didn’t want you to miss this, that’s all,” Suki said, reaching over to her discarded robe and pulling something out. She stood and held it close to Azula’s face. It was a dildo, made from highly polished wood, carved so the tip was wider than the rest. Azula felt Suki’s fingers between her legs before she licked them. “You’re ready, but this thing could use some work. Help me out, here.”

She held it to Azula’s lips, and together they used their tongues to coat it in spit. In the dim light, Azula could see Suki’s eyes, filled with nothing but lust. -Good,- she thought. -Keep this nice and simple, like a last meal.-

Suki moved the dildo and their tongues met, then their lips. She let the other woman penetrate her mouth and spread her legs to allow the dildo access. Azula let out a low moan, feeling it be slid inside her. It had been a while since she had something more than fingers and tongues inside her, and the sensation was overwhelming, if a little uncomfortable.

Pulling her lips away, Suki knelt and used her other hand to help the dildo. Azula let her shackles keep her aloft, and relaxed against the cold door, trying to let gloomy thoughts be smothered by what she was feeling.

She felt the dildo pull out, and Suki was back on her feet, sucking the other end. She held it towards Azula, who let it be pushed and pulled in an out of her mouth, lubing it with her saliva. “Hang on to it,” Suki said,” letting go so it was clenched between Azula’s teeth. Suki stood, unhooking Azula’s chain.

Taking the hint, Azula sat down on her side, letting Suki put the dildo back inside her, while she positioned to fit the other end. They moved together easily, each able to anticipate the others motions and needs for balance. Azula was about to remark how well they got on together, but kept silent, that is until she felt Suki push against her.

She moaned and pushed back. They soon fell into a rhythm and despite the discomfort of the cold stone floor, Azula felt herself rushing towards and orgasm. She hit it before Suki did, who for her part thrust harder, making Azula have to fight back full on screams.

It lasted for a while, and when Azula finally finished she realized Suki had come as well. The dildo had fallen out of both women, who were too spent to move much. “I don’t have to spend the night in shackles, do I?” Azula finally asked.

“Yes, but I won’t hang you from the door,” Suki said, moving towards her clothes.

She unshackled Azula long enough for her clothes to be put on, and replaced her leg shackles, leaving her to sit against the door. Azula felt cold, and considered asking for some contact, but decided that was too much like snuggling, something she had no interest in.

“So, how am I to be executed? Crushed by rocks?”

Suki, now back in full armor, sighed. “I don’t know. I’ve heard a few ways talked about. One involves being crushed by rocks. Pressed, actually.”

“Pressed?”

“They’ll lay you on a stone slab and put something flat over you, like a plank. Then, for each crime they think you’ve committed, they’ll put a heavy stone on the plank.”

“Until I can’t breath,” Azula said. “A stone for each crime, I like it.”

“They might also tie you to a large boulder and roll it down a mountain. They could tie one half of you to something, then tie your legs to a boulder and throw the boulder off a cliff…”

“How droll,” Azula said, now less interested in the subject.

“Stoning is always a classic. The way they do it in the Earth Kingdom is they bury you up to your neck…”

“Yes, yes,” Azula said, “I’m well aware of the practice.”

“They might try to be ironic and burn you somehow. Maybe even boil you, or something.”

“I think I’d like to get some rest,” Azula said, recalling the affects of boiling oil on human skin as she had seen it applied to Earth Kingdom soldiers trying to scale the walls of a fort.

“Sweet dreams,” Suki said.

Azula lay awake, listening to Suki’s clothes shift when she moved and what she fancied was the lapping of waves outside. This she had not planned for, this waiting. She knew the end would not come right away when she surrendered, -Made the exchange,- she corrected, but did not expect time to slow down so much.

Curling into a ball, she did her best to think of nothing and let sleep take her.

To be continued…

*Chapter 31*: Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-One.

A gentle kick to her backside woke her and she was led by the Kyoshi Warriors from her cell outside the fort and down the causeway to a boat which then sailed them to a large Earth Kingdom ship that floated like a queen bee with furled sails, flanked on all sides smaller, faster craft.

Azula suppressed a smile once she was on board, seeing the wooden decks. The ship’s sides were plated well enough but it amused her to see the earth benders had not yet mastered steel-craft. -Savages,- she thought as she was led bellow decks amidst jeers and cheers from Earth Kingdom sailors. -All they had to do was bow before my fathers and we could have entered a new Golden Age. Sad, really.-

They shut her in one of the cargo holds, one that had been plated in steel and fitted with crude benches. Of course there were no windows. As before, Suki kept her under direct supervision while the other Kyoshi Warriors stood outside. She was fed oatmeal, allowed to bathe using a bucket, and permitted one bathroom break.

“I wish to make it known that I’m still royalty, and this is a poor way to treat me,” she said, nude and wiping herself down with a cold sponge.

Suki shrugged. “It’s one of the better guard details I’ve had,” she said, watching Azula bathe. “Usually its a bunch of hairy guys or one sweaty, creepy guy.”

“So, the Kyoshi Warriors are being used to do grunt work for the Earth Kingdom military? I’d be humiliated, personally.”

Suki laughed. “I feel sort of bad for you so I’ll let you go ahead and think that.”

Azula genuinely did wonder what the Kyoshi Warriors were doing under Fong’s command. The Dai Li, too, for that matter. If Fong was supposed to be a rogue general, did their involvement mean the Earth Kingdom had united against her?

A thought now entered her mind, one that had been there before but had grown in the past few hours. “Suki,” she said, hoping use of the girl’s name would add weight to her words. “Did my brother set this all up?”

The pause before Suki’s response told her all she needed to know. “It took two days for him to learn Fong had captured the Avatar, then, from what I hear, he scrambled to learn where you’d gone off to. That’s all I know.”

-You know more than that,- Azula thought. She would have no problem accusing the other woman of lying, but knew that would be the last maneuver she could use in their war of words. Better to see what she could pry out by stealth first. It was going to be a long voyage for someone under lock and key, at least.

She put her finger in the water and made it steam, keeping an eye on Suki as she did so. Suki did not look away, but did not tell her to stop either. Now with warm water to work with, Azula sat on the bench and took her time washing. She had the grime of several days travel on her, and it felt good to get clean as well as put something warm on her knee.

“I almost forgot,” Suki said when Azula had washed herself as best she could. “I had some soap for you.”

She reached into her thick robe and took out a white-gray lump and tossed it into the bucket, splashing Azula, who reached in and picked it up. “Oh my, seems I’ll have to start again,” she said, flatly. “I think being in an all-female warriors cadre has perverted you somewhat.”

Suki crossed her arms and sat back. “You don’t have to bathe, you know.”

Azula gave a sideways shrug, conceding defeat as she lathered her bad leg. It was stiff again, and the damp air of the prison had not helped it. -Oh well, I suppose I won’t have to suffer with it into old age,- she thought.

“So, just how is it that both the Kyoshi Warriors and the Dai Li have come under General Fong’s command?”

“Command is a bit of a stretch,” said Suki. “When word got out that Fong invaded the Fire Nation and was demanding your head, some of the Dai Li took a leave of absence. I guess they felt their honor had been besmirched by you. As for me and my warriors, we felt some payback was in order. Fun fact: The Dai Li were created by Avatar Kyoshi, so it’s fitting we’re working on the same project.”

“I wasn’t aware…But the Dai Li that ambushed me a few days ago were green. I didn’t know them at all.”

Another pause. “It’s a group honor thing,” Suki said. “Two of the warriors in the hall didn’t get their robes and paint until last year.”

“Indeed. So, do you think my brother will try to have my sentence reduced?”

“What makes you think he won’t try to rescue you?”

Azula laughed, lathering the side of her torso, noticing how Suki seemed quite interested in the operation. She moved the sponge slow and firm, making sure her skin would be left with a rosy tint. When she washed the soap off. “This will make the Earth Kingdom back off and it will get rid of me at the same time. The best part is those loyal to me won’t have anything to complain about, as it was me who turned myself over. Of course some will think Zuzu planned the whole thing, but you can’t help that. No, this works out quite well for my dear brother.”

“Normally I’d say that’s a terrible thing to say about your family, but I think you might be right,” said Suki. “I don’t think Zuko hates you that much, though. I’m sure he’ll ask for you to be kept in jail forever. I’m also sure he’ll be told no, but eh. Maybe you can convince them to just have Aang lock your bending.”

“I’d rather die!” Azula shouted, water dripping from her sponge as it was squeezed between her fingers. Suki looked taken aback.

“Alright, alright,” Suki said, holding her palms up.

“I was born a fire bender and I’ll die a fire bender,” Azula said. “I dare say I’m the most powerful fire bender in the world.”

Suki opened her mouth to say something, but closed it abruptly.

“What, you don’t think so?”

Suki shook her head, more a gesture of not wanting to have the discussion than refuting the point. “I’ll leave it for other benders to decide,” she said. “You’re the only one the Earth Kingdom wants dead, so I guess there’s something to you being considered the best.”

“The worst is what you truly mean to say,” Azula said, now feeling like she might want to fight after all. The Avatar was safe, so where her friends. What did she care if there was a war? The Fire Nation would win.

-If I won the war for them, I could overthrow Zuko, maybe even the Avatar. I beat him once, did I not?-

She imagined herself on a throne, surrounded by blue flames. She’d been there once before, of course, but remembered little of it. Things had been hazy then, and she could not recall details of that brief time. One detail stuck out, however. There was no one else in that blue-lit throne room, only her, alone.

There, in the cargo hold of an Earth Kingdom ship, naked and soapy in front of a Kyoshi Warrior, Azula decided she did not want to go back on that throne to sit by herself.

“You need a hobby,” Suki said, snapping Azula out of her haze. “All this war stuff has made you kinda one dimensional.”

“It’s a bit late to take any advice,” Azula said, wringing water over her back, feeling calm now.

“Want help?”

Azula looked at her, could see the hungry look in her eye. She felt like making a comment about how sad a love life Kyoshi Warriors must have, but found she did want some help after all. She could pretend Suki was someone else.

“Very well, but keep it clean. Do you have a bet going with someone to see how many times you can have before I’m executed?”

Suki laughed. “Just some back washing between girls, nothing to worry about,” Suki said, getting up and taking the sponge from Azula, who knelt on the floor next to the bucket. The water that had not found its way back in was running down a drain. “You can heat the water up more. A lukewarm sponge bath qualifies as a war crime in my land.”

Azula repeated the heating trick and Suki wetted the sponge. The hot water on her back made her feel like she was melting, and despite herself she tilted forward, which Suki corrected by holding onto her shoulder as she scrubbed with the other hand.

She moved the sponge in slow circles around Azula’s shoulders, stopping to squeeze it slightly and let water cascade down Azula’s back. Between the water and sponge movements, Azula relaxed and her mind entered a state where nothing that could be called thought was occurring. There was only heat, water, and sensation of hands and soft sponge.

She did not resist or object when the sponge came over her front, releasing water between her breasts. Suki kept a hand on her back, where it held her still and pressed against sore muscles, stiff from sleeping on the ground and hard prison floors. Azula’s mind registered this was now more than a back wash, and decided to allow it to continue. It felt good and she could sense no gloating from Suki, and there would be few pleasure’s left to her in the time she had.

-Don’t think about it,- she scolded, now fully conscious as Suki petted her breast, presumably to make sure it was clean. -There’s nothing to think about anymore, so save it for the very end.-

She had a feeling her final thoughts would not be pleasant ones, and so brought her mind to the very present, where she was sitting back with her legs out, Suki was behind her and to the side with one hand on her breast and other other between her legs. “Is my back clean?” Azula asked.

“Squeaky,” said Suki.

Her fingers went to work and Azula spread her legs to let them. Suki had been enjoying herself the night before, but Azula was pleased to see this appeared to be all about her. -Finally, the royal treatment I deserve…fingered in a cargo hold.-

She put her bitter thoughts aside and let herself enjoy the simple pleasure of being wet, semi-warm, and in contact with a warm body. Closing her eyes, she first imagined Ty Lee was next to her, touching her. Then she conjured the image of Mai holding her from behind, feeling her breasts while Ty Lee lie prone between her legs.

Her orgasm came at these memories and thoughts, and she let slip from her mouth “Ty…” before stifling it.

Suki finished scrubbing her down, and even helped her get dry. “I’ll see about some new clothes for you,” she said, and went to the door, changing places with another Kyoshi Warrior after Azula was clothed.

A few minutes later, Suki was back. She was quiet, and took her place where she had been on her bench.

“Well?” said Azula, reading an expression she was not sure she liked on Suki’s face given the circumstances.

“I asked to get some nicer clothes. They’ll get back to me.”

“If Fong has no intention of following the rules of etiquette, so be it. I intend to conduct myself with the grace befitting my station regardless of the mistreatment I suffer.”

“I don’t want argument, but didn’t you guys lock King Bumi in a big metal coffin when you took Omashu?”

“That was different,” she said.

Suki smiled. “I’ll see that you’re treated well enough. Don’t go thinking I like you or anything, but turning yourself over for execution to save your friends tells me you might not be all bad.”

Azula tossed her head, throwing locks of hair out of her face. “Think again. While I’m loathe to admit it, Mai is a weightier prize than myself, at least in Zuko’s mind. He’d trade the Avatar back for her, and then just as likely, me for the Avatar. It was a calculated decision, one I’ve made for the benefit of my country.”

Suki snorted and crossed her arms. “If you insist.”

“Tell me,” Azula said, a wry smile on her face. “Would you have let them kill Ty Lee? An honorary Kyoshi Warrior?”

She thought Suki might have turned red beneath her war paint as she fidgeted. “No, but we might not have had a choice. Fong is…he lost a lot in the war, let’s just say that.”

“And he’s going to make me pay for it because he can,” Azula said. “I suppose all is fair in war.”

“Nothing is fair in war,” said Suki. “Look, none of us is proud about helping a rogue general execute you, but it will prevent another war, that’s certain. That’s why you haven’t tried to escape, right?”

“Sure, why not,” said Azula. “It’s you I truly pity, however. You, the Avatar, and his friends. You thought once you toppled my father the entire world would join hands across the continents and sing, or something. Turns out people are people, whether they’re in the Earth Kingdom or the Fire Nation, isn’t that right?”

“That’s right,” Suki said, now sitting up straight. “Only we never had any illusions about how hard reconstruction would be. We were just happy the war was over and no new damage was being done. If you think about it, you still being around is what nearly caused the war to start again!”

Azula clenched her fists, now annoyed she had let Suki touch her. “I’ve had this conversation before and I won’t have it again. Tell Zuko if you see him again I expect a large statue to be erected in my honor for this.”

“You can tell him yourself.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

“He’ll be at your execution. I was told in the hall he insisted on a front row seat.”

To be continued…

*Chapter 32*: Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Two.

The ship reached its destination in the afternoon on a day where the weather could not make up its mind. Mostly gray with slivers of blue, the clouds rolled over the sea towards the coast at dizzying pace. Azula could not help but watch the sky as she was led from one boat to another and ferried towards the shore. Ropes bound her arms behind her and she was surrounded by white-faced Kyoshi Warriors.

She was greeted at the shore by General Fong who stood dressed for battle in heavy armor. Behind him, up a sandy hill, was a tower of yellow stone marking what was likely a fort town behind it, nestled in the rocky hills. “Princess Azula, permit me to welcome you to the Earth Kingdom,” Fong said, sweeping his arm but not bowing. He made eye contact with one of the Kyoshi Warriors, who forced Azula to her knees.

Azula spat at his feet. “I’m warning you, Fong,” she said. “I won’t be humiliated. Much more of this and I’ll be forced to stop behaving like a princess.” She snorted blue flames from her nostrils, making the warriors around her step back.

“To your feet, then,” Fong said. “Very well. If you won’t be taught humility then there’s nothing left but to dispose of you. I hope my fort is satisfactory? Ba Sing Se would be the most fitting place for your execution, but it’s not possible.”

-So Ba Sing Se doesn’t have his back,- Azula thought. -Or at least not enough to publicly show it.- She stood up and shook the dirt from her knees. She put thoughts of politics aside and focused on keeping her poise. Knowing she could see her execution ground made her skin quake, and her one goal now was to not lose her composure in front of savages.

“A border fortress is as grand as anything I’m likely to find in the Earth Kingdom, so lead on. I was told my brother might attend. Will you be kidnapping him, too?”

Fong smiled and his eyes narrowed to brown slits. “What would be the point? Your brother sees you the same way we do. This was all supposed to happen one way or another you know.”

The battle to keep her royal demeanor intact looked like a losing one with the arrival of Fong’s words. Suspicions were one thing, even strong ones, but to have them stated plainly from the mouth of an enemy was different, more real. -It changes nothing,- Azula thought. -So what if Zuko planned this. I beat him to it! I die a hero of the Fire Nation. Let him die in his sleep, old and on top of a long, ineffective rule. –

Her smile was grim, and it made Fong pause. He signaled for the procession to move, and she was led up that sandy hill to a cobblestone road that ended at the fort’s immense stone doors. They were bent aside and she was brought in where she could see a long rectangular arena flanked by roads of ascending stone benches. Their edges were rough and Azula had the impression the drill yard had only recently been converted into an execution stage.

There was a raised dais in the center, also with rough edges. Everything was made from the same yellow stone, and the benches overlooking it all were dotted with clusters of green uniforms. She was led to an empty part of the yard where some wooden tables had been laid out, and bid to sit at the head of one. “Your last meal,” said Fong. Tell the Kyoshi Warriors what you want and we’ll see if we have it. This is a border fort, remember. When you’re done, we’ll finish it on the platform over there.”

Azula remained standing. “I’m not hungry. I’ll wait for the crowd to show up.”

Fong laughed. “They’re here.”

Azula looked. There were a hundred soldiers and peasants tops in the seats. They had all splintered into smaller groups and looked bored. “That’s it?” she asked. “Do they know who I am?”

“We had little time to publicize this momentous occasion,” said Fong. “Besides, we thought a small crowd was best, and to have the entire matter over with quickly.”

No event, no thought, no plan, had brought Azula so close to an escape attempt as the sight of the dingy , murmuring crowd. She had envisioned her death to come in the middle of Ba Sing Se, or some other great city, surrounded by howling, jeering faces who hated her more than anything in their lives. Thousands of eyes would be on her when she left this world, her name on everyone’s lips. Her body would die and her spirit would flee, but the memory of Princess Azula would live on for years in the minds of many, many people, who would see her passing before them as milestone in their lives. They would tell their children about it the same tone of voice they would a great, history changing battle, or something more personal such a wedding or death.

That her death would be witnessed with the same gravity as a poorly attended handball tournament was not tolerable.

“No,” Azula said. “You get more people here and execute me proper. I demand it!”

Fong seemed taken aback. “I-no,” he said. “You will die today before you can have time to orchestrate an escape. Take her to the platform!”

The Kyoshi Warriors took hold of her and started to drag her towards the dais. Azula shook them off violently and stood straight. “You will not drag me,” she snarled. “I can walk just fine.”

A few more people had entered the stands, acting as though they had stumbled across the spectacle rather than been invited. Azula thought Fong was either a master of subtlety and guile, pushing sore spots even she did not know she had, or he was sloppy and had not planned this execution well at all.

It all made sense when she was asked to stand on the platform and could see a figure in simple red garb walking across the stone ground. His hair was let down and it blew behind him in a loose knot. The grim look on his face held satisfaction and the merest hint of guilt. -I can read you like a book, Zuzu,- she thought, bitterly. -How did I not see this, then?-

“Come to do the deed, dear brother?” she asked.

“I wanted to make sure the job got done,” Zuko said, standing less than a meter from her. “You’re the one thing that stands between the world and peace, so I’m removing you.”

“Hardly,” she said. “You didn’t plan on having the Avatar kidnapped and me going to rescue him. You’re the one who had the Dai Li try to take me as I slept. I’m the one who’s let myself be here, so don’t you dare try and take credit for it.”

Zuko frowned. “I think that’s for the best,” he said. “No one likes you, Azula, but none of them really know you. They think you’re good deep down inside or were raised wrong, but I know that’s not the case. Mother was right, there’s something wrong with you and it gets corrected today.”

He looked to Fong and nodded. She tried to catch her brother’s gaze, but he wouldn’t look at her. “Coward,” she said, meaning to only think it. He said nothing back and Azula was momentarily led aside so the earth benders could work.

Waving their hands from horse-stances, they bent the yellow stones bellow into a simple gallows. With more bending, Azula and her Kyoshi guards were raised up to the flat platform where another bender with a rope tied into a noose set to work, tossing the chord over a stone bar and letting it dangle over the center of the platform.

-Sloppy,- Azula thought, who had witnessed more than a few hangings. Done right it was a quick execution method that also allowed for some drama. After the last oaths and pleadings from the doomed, there was a brief moment of calm followed by the abrupt sound of a trap door. One could never be sure if was the snapping neck one heard, or the rope simply being pulled tight, but the kicking legs and swinging bodies left little time for a person to wonder. It was symbolic, too, she had always thought, with the victim’s body going from above where the living dwelled to bellow, the place for the dead.

As the noose was put around her neck, she could only feel annoyed at the slipshod way she was being killed. This was no way for a peasant to be slain, much less a Fire Nation princess. At least the meager audience now seemed interested, with their leaning forward on their seats.

Fong and Zuko stood side by side. Her brother still wasn’t looking her in the eye, and Fong was puffing his chest beneath his large beard, triumphant. Someone came at her with a black bag to put over her head and she glared at them, making the skinny earth bender nearly drop it.

“Any last words?” asked Fong.

She looked at Zuko, hoping he would at least meet her gaze one final time. “Two things,” she said. “One is for my brother’s ears only.”

Fong and Zuko exchanged glances and Fong nodded. Her brother came slowly towards her, clearly wary of an attack. Centimeters away, he put his dull red ear near her lips. In her mind she had a dozen ways to tell him was weak and pathetic, a traitor to his own faulty ideals, but those words fell away.

“I wish things had been different between us,” she said.

He said nothing and stepped back, meeting her gaze like she had wanted. His face looked lighter, as though he were happy. -Bastard,- she thought. -Gloat all you’ll like, you’ll wish I was still around before long.-

“And the second?” Fong said.

Azula’s lips curled into a cruel smile, one she expected would haunt all those present for years. “This is by far the least professional execution I have ever seen. If I were planning it we would be surrounded by people in a major city. The gallows would be something worthy of a landmark, that rope would have been stretched properly beforehand…”

Fong made a slicing gesture across his throat and Azula felt the stone beneath her feet disappear. As her eyes passed over the part of the platform that separated the living world from that of the dead, she saw her mother’s face. It held a kind smile, free of worry and judgment, the sort she often direction towards Zuko.

Azula had no time to think, no time to enjoy that look or truly even see it for what it was. Her body came to a sudden stop and bright bolts of pain tore through her body.

She had landed on her buttocks, the shock going through her spine and out into her limbs before she fell backward, bumping her head on the stone as rope began to coil around her. She could dimly hear muted laughter from those in the seats and the others close by were talking in urgent voices.

Looking up she could see the hole she had passed through, smooth and round. The sky was blue on the other side as gray clouds were pushed along over the light patch from a strong wind. She tried to recall the face she had seen, but could not.

To be continued…

*Chapter 33*: Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Three.

The sun shone brightly over the rooftops nestled within the bowl of the volcano. The streets were bustling and a sense of joy clung like a mist to the faces of those who walked, shopped, worked and chatted with each other. What some were calling Princess Azula Day had just passed its peak with a hastily planned parade finally concluding, leaving the people to come slowly down off the sense of lightness and irreverence festival days seemed to cause.

A day or so ago word had reached the royal city that the tensions between the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom had slackened. The story went the Avatar had been captured by Earth Kingdom spies as he was on the front lines trying to broker a peace treaty. Princess Azula, with an elite team of Fire Nation warriors at her heels, snuck behind enemy lines and retrieved him. She was known for such feats and even those who had thought her cruel before took a measure of pride in their princess and war minister’s daring and power.

Rumor also held she had been hurt in the battle, which was why she had not made an appearance on the hastily arranged day held up in her honor. Fire Lord Zuko and the Fire Lady had assured all who asked the princess would recover and was flattered by the people’s efforts to praise her.

That evening, in the palace, a small group of people sat around a long table filled with enough to food to give servants little reason to enter. Some ate with more gusto than others, but a few at the head of the table were more muted.

Avatar Aang poked at a vegetable with a pair of chopsticks, meanwhile Fire Lord Zuko had finished cutting a slice of meat into more than a dozen pieces. “Have you been to see her?” he asked Aang, who shook his head.

“She hadn’t spoken to anyone since we got to the palace,” said Mai, who sat at Zuko’s right side.

“She didn’t talk on the back of Appa, either,” said Aang.

Zuko tried to spear a sliver of meat but let it be. “Her last words were her last words,” he said. “Unless you count grunts and cold looks.”

“I knew this would happen,” said Ty Lee, who sat next to Mai. She wore a pink shirt that showed off her midsection. There were no bandages on her body. “She thinks we betrayed her again. Not that she didn’t deserve it the first time.”

“Give her a few days,” said Katara, who sat next to Aang. There was a white bandage on her nose and her arm was held in a sling. Her wounds had been real, as her part was one of the most crucial. Aang had come to the table with the aid of his staff, as his joints had suffered, too. “She’s not stupid, she’ll see this was the only way to make Fong happy and keep everyone alive.”

Zuko saw his wife exchange glances with Ty Lee and again felt as though he’d lit a long fuse on a vat of blasting jelly and was now waiting for the flame to reach its end. He supposed even if Azula resented them all, the plan worked. She was alive and while the Earth Kingdom was certainly no fan of her’s, General Fong’s acknowledgment of her would be enough to get Earth Kingdom troops out of Fire Nation lands and avert another war.

Now all he had to do was worry about Azula planning her revenge. In a way he was happy she was making such a show of being upset. Had she laughed it all off and admitted their plan was a good one, he would not have been able to sleep soundly ever again. Not making him feel better were the looks on Ty Lee and Mai’s faces, who knew Azula best.

-Is this what it means to be Fire Lord?- he wondered, not for the first time. He took a piece of meat and ate it, chewing it as though it were a battle. He was Zuko, after all. Nothing had ever been easy for him and had always risen to the challenges placed in his path. Perhaps a creature as deadly as his sister was the only thing truly worthy of him.

“Has she eaten?” Aang asked.

“I don’t think so. I’ll bring her some food,” said Katara.

“You think she’ll want to see you?” Mai asked. “You’re not her favorite person at the best of times.”

“She can see my broken nose and sprained elbow are real,” Katara said, scooping some spiced rice onto a clean plate. “Hopefully she’ll also see this was more than a prank and eventually learn to appreciate it.”

Katara left and the others continued to eat, talking about where they might go in a few days. Aang said he and Katara would likely visit the Southern Water Tribe to see how things were going. Ty Lee said she would stick around and help keep an eye on Azula.

“Good,” said Zuko. “At some point we are going to have to start actually trusting her, otherwise she’ll…”

“She’s gone!” shouted Katara, who came running in, the food nowhere in sight.

They all moved to get up, but Zuko waved a hand. “Probably out for a walk,” he said.

“No…you should come see.”

Azula darted through the dark streets like a thief. She wore the clothes of a traveler, one who was not poor, but did not have a lot of money to spend. A black cloak with red trim adorned her shoulders and a deep hood concealed her face in shadow. The main streets were filled with revelers while the back alleys held smaller groups, which she hailed loudly when they got close and began shouting Princess Azula’s praises. None recognized her, mostly because they did not expect to.

She hoped the one-word note she left would not come off as being harsh. “Goodbye” could be cooed softly to a loved one or spat venomously to an enemy. Azula was fairly certain she could tell who would take it how, but wished they would all take it as something in between.

In her bed, an hour before, she muttered to herself the first words she had spoken since dropping through death’s door. “They did well. I proved myself to them, finally, and the Earth Kingdom is no longer howling for my blood. There will be no war.”

She had uttered these words in a flat tone, loud enough for her to hear them clearly. Saying them had been like putting balm on a burn, one that still ached when touched but would heal in time.

Azula got to the giant steps that led down to the island bellow where the well-to-do citizens lived. Her face was not well-known there, but she would have to be careful all the same, lest someone pick up her trail and begin ripping at her wounds in some misguided attempt to treat them.

Perhaps she would send Zuko regular letters, which would either make him not worry she was plotting his demise, or make him fear it all the more. Silence could have the same effect, so she was torn. Azula was equally undecided on where she would go. The Earth Kingdom seemed like the best option. It was a big country and her face was not well-known in all of it.

At the bottom of the steps she slowed to a walk when moving though the quieter streets. Working people went to bed earlier, but there were still a few out and about. The island was large, and she planned on walking through the night, sleeping the next morning, and strolling to the eastern end of the crescent before finding a ship that would take her northeast.

It grew dark past the last few houses where no street lanterns burned, only stars. She stopped when a large, dark shape moved to block her path on the road. “They said you banged your head on the gallows,” came June’s voice. “Is that why you seem to be lost?”

“I’m not lost,” Azula said, bracing for a fight. “Whatever they’re paying you, do yourself a favor and forget it.”

June laughed and came closer, her pale arms and face being the only things on her clearly visible. Behind her was her Shirshu, grunting with impatience. “Who said I’m being paid? I heard you were gone and I slipped away before they could ask me to track you.”

“And yet you tracked me anyway,” said Azula, moving closer to June.

“But I don’t have to bring you back.” June’s whip looped around the back of Azula’s neck and pulled her in close. Half a head shorter, Azula had to crane her face upward to meet the other woman’s lips.

When the kiss broke, Azula looked into June’s dark eyes. “How is this going to work? I can’t imagine you’d want to split bounties?”

June’s white teeth flashed. “You think too damn much. You didn’t leave to come out here and plan every little thing, did you? You’re free, princess. Let it work however it happens to work and enjoy it.”

Azula pulled June in for another deep kiss and felt light, as though the weight of a kingdom had been dropped from her shoulders. No voices, even distant ones, called from the back of her mind either.

“You know I was in on it, right?” said June. “I went behind your back and messed with you just like everyone else.”

Azula’s hands were on her chest, pulling lightly at her shirt and revealing just a bit more of her white flesh. “I’m not mad about that,” Azula said. “I’m not mad at all, really. Okay, a little, but I’m not as stupid and spiteful as they all think I am. I’ll let them all sweat for a few months or a year then maybe I’ll come back.”

“Great idea,” said June, scratching behind Azula’s ears. “Being a bounty hunter’s consort might give you some perspective on life.”

“And being a traveling princesses concubine might give you some, too,” Azula said, moving forward with her arm around June’s waist. “Just promise me there won’t be a dull moment.”

June put her arm over Azula’s shoulder and pulled her closer as they walked with the Shirshu down the road. June squeezed Azula’s shoulder and said. “I promise, as long as you don’t change.”

End.

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