Kuebiko

BY : Death_Rattle
Category: Avatar - The Last Airbender > AU/AR - Alternate Universe/Alternate Reality
Dragon prints: 5257
Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to Avatar: the Last Airbender or any of the characters. I do not profit from my writing.

Much to Katara's surprise, the latter half of the royal couple's honeymoon had been largely uneventful. Without her servant agitating her, Azula fell back into being the loyal, dutiful, and obedient wife that the Phoenix King wanted. The waterbender never inquired about the jade comb she found on her pillow on the fourth night, the implication of silence being obvious. She made sure to attend to her Mistress without fail, even though it disgusted her at times. She also noticed that the Dai Li no longer seemed to pay attention to her quarter, leaving her free to bend in her small room by night. When she worked up the courage to ask the Phoenix Queen, she simply called her secret agents 'inattentive' and thanked her for 'reporting their failure'. Nothing changed the following nights.

The leash stayed, on and off. Sometimes Azula would have just the collar, sometimes Ozai would lead her, other times she'd be free of both, depending on the circumstance and the Phoenix King's whim. When she spoke to Azula about it, she never had much more to say other than that she was proud that her father and husband wanted to claim her so publicly. The waterbender had to resist rolling her tired eyes (it isn't easy sleeping with those two so... active).

Aside from their rampant trysts, the newlyweds were fairly aloof, though Katara had noticed that Ozai was up to something, with irregular, short outings. They were disturbed twice (news from the Capital, Katara assumed, though her Mistress would say no more than that it was 'important Fire Nation business' and 'not really interesting', which she could more or less believe). Though other than them, the messenger, and the Dai Li, nobody else had been seen near the royal estate.

It was the final day and night, and Katara had finally completed her duties for the day, the sun falling steadily, not several hours from the horizon. She wasn't sure that she wanted the return to the Capital, the heart of her enemies. The waterbender couldn't deny that Ember Island was nice, even though she was a prisoner there. Even though she was forbidden from approaching it, the shores being so close gave her a sense of calm that she hadn't felt since the Western Air Temple. Azula seemed calm too. She wondered if that would be the case when they returned, and the royals had to resume their duties, commanding the Fire Nation's evils. Katara dreaded the day she would hear the Phoenix Queen discussing the plans to attack her sister tribe - the last outpost against her enemies. The last place where people were free. She wondered if Sokka would be there to stop them, along with everyone el-

Both unannounced and uninvited, Azula burst through the door, unable to contain her excitement. "Have you seen this!?" she demanded, unveiling one of many posters which were littered throughout the island's marketplaces and tourist attractions, advertising the Ember Island Players' latest endeavor.

The Tale of Two Phoenix

Katara looked upon the printed poster, reading the finely-printed characters. A Story of Love and War. Illustrated in color on the surface were the Phoenix King and Queen in their full glory (in a bit more than their full glory, Katara thought). Below them, she could make out her friends. Zuko, who had a single bloody sword in his hand and the mask of the Blue Spirit. Sokka, who definitely wasn't that brutish. Toph, who wasn't a man and had never picked up a sledgehammer as far as she knew. And, in the center of the group standing taller than all three (what, was he on a soapbox?) was Aang, eyes glowing red.

Where am I?

She scanned the poster, ignoring the names of the actors, crude depictions of locations and a man she thought might be Zuko's uncle. There, to the right of Azula, in her shadow. Standing tall with her hands together on her chest, head down and eyes closed. The waterbender thought darkly at what that might mean.

She shook her head. "I haven't." she said honestly, her answer coming off a bit more crudely than she intended due to her thoughts. "...are you going to see it, Your Highness?" she asked, Azula's title rolling off the tongue almost naturally, Katara having had three weeks to acquire a habit for its usage.

"Of course!" Azula exclaimed. "Hmm..." golden eyes narrowed, scrutinizing the poster once more. "I do hope Daddy isn't too disappointed. He's much more handsome than this actor, don't you think?" Smirking, she resolved to answer her own question before the waterbender could. "I certainly think so..."

"...anyways, run along and get cleaned up. We're leaving within the hour."

And what do you need me for, to kneel and hold up a bowl of cherries for you?, she thought, before frowning. Azula had certainly had a softer edge when dealing with her, but doing exactly that certainly wasn't above her Mistress, who definitely enjoyed giving the waterbender demeaning work.

"Of course" she bowed her head.

⁂⁂⁂

"Azula" Ozai invited himself into the washroom where his daughter was making some final preparations, looking at her reflection in the flawless mirror and smiling.

Turning to face her King, the Phoenix Queen smiled back. "Father," she greeted, having just finished painting her lips - bright crimson as was her wont. Secretly, or perhaps not so secretly Azula wished he would kiss her, smear that red lip paint all over. She had time to restore her appearance, should it somehow become askew. "Have I kept you waiting? I do apologize..."

"...I only wanted to look nice for you" she offered, sweetly.

But wait..?

Golden eyes narrowed in suspicion.

What's that Daddy's got behind his back?

"That is one goal I support wholeheartedly." he said with a smirk, approaching. "In fact, I have come to give you aid in achieving it." her husband finished, still not revealing why both his arms were behind him.

"Oh?" Her heart thrummed wildly with anticipation. "Hm, now how do you propose to do that?" Her curiosity now fully piqued, Azula was left to wonder ...what did her Daddy have in mind, what was he hiding? ...a gift, perhaps? Agni, she felt like a little girl again.

“First, I need you to close your eyes”

"Of course." Eyelids fluttering shut, Azula obeyed without question - she was a good girl. As such, she required no hands to cover her eyes for good measure (good girls did not peek!).

Ozai ran a hand through his daughter's raven hair. Slowly. From the crown of her head, back, an index finger tracing her scalp, catching each dark lock. Down, down until the nape of her neck was just bare skin, exposed to the elements. Exposed to the Phoenix King's short, slow cold breaths. He smiled as his daughter shivered from the frigid anticipation. He reached around his other hand from his back, unfurling his new creation which Azula could as of yet only hear the faint clink of metal. She shivered, the cold brass faintly running over the skin of her neck, only to intensify and then dull as his creation was tightened around her throat, the heat of her body combining with an inner lining of silk to create comfort where there was none.

Click

"You can open them now"

Azula's golden eyes finally got to witness his secret creation in full fidelity thanks to the flawless mirror. She could see the finely-cut blood red rubies that lined the buckle like little droplets, ending at a strange mechanism that shone dully in the light - a single keyhole. Looking closer, she could see the faint embroidery - far too dull to be seen from a distance. Symbols, imagery of the Phoenix and Agni - indeed, the very same symbolism that was crudely carved into the gold artifact they had obtained from that old archeologist's emporium. And finally, she could see the centerpiece. Carved and smoothed Ember Island moonstone-jade in the shape of a teardrop flame - inside was depicted a single word, her name (though the Phoenix Queen could not see the other side).

The delicate fingers of a manicured hand assessed, gingerly, almost in disbelief. Surely, so beautiful a thing could not be real- but it was. It was real. As were Ozai's words (not that Azula had doubted them, of course).

I want everyone to know that you're mine

Having been lead around a few times throughout the course of their honeymoon, by way of a simple collar and leash made from treated rhino-cow leather was one thing - this was different! This was no ordinary collar- Hmm something more than just a collar, ostensibly. This was pretty. She could wear this every day (not that she had much of a choice in the matter, of course). This locked and Ozai held the key. In more ways than one.

Turning the smoothed, moonstone-jade flame within her hand, Azula noted a second inscription.

"Property of Phoenix King Ozai," she read aloud, now facing her husband as opposed to cold reflections in the mirror. "Mm, I quite like the sound of that." Then she kissed him, with no regard for ruined lip paint.

Standing on her toes, she whispered "Thank you. I love it, Daddy."

Ozai pulled away from Azula's wet lips, holding a hand to her head instead. "I'm glad. I couldn't have my queen walking around with just anything wrapped around her neck. No, you're special, and you deserve something special to mark you" he concluded, turning slightly to awkwardly wipe the blood red from his lips. "Now, are you ready to show everyone else?" he said, offering the final component: a similarly embroidered leash that attached to the ring of her collar.

You're special

Hearing it never got old, no matter that Father had been insisting as much for about as long- longer perhaps than his 'special little girl' could recall. Smiling, Azula shifted her golden gaze toward the floor as her face (among... other things) flushed with heat.

"Of course" she replied, maneuvering herself in order to grant him access to the back of her neck, ensuring as well that her hair (which had been left mostly down) would present no complications - instead it would rest neatly upon her left shoulder.

click

"How do I look?" the Phoenix Queen asked, hopeful, apparently ignorant of a smear of crimson marring porcelain.

"Really, Azula, you shouldn't be so careless" Ozai said as he wiped away the last remaining imperfection on his daughter before leading her from the washroom. "Is that why you're bringing the water bitch? So she can fix your paints and creams in case you smear them all over me?"

If only for an instant, Azula found herself rendered speechless. Why indeed? Why was she bringing the water b-

Katara.

She soon realized there was no reason. No good reason, anyhow. She just... wanted to. But of course, she could never admit such a thing - least of all to Father!

"Alright, you've caught me!" She threw her hands up in mock surrender.

A pause.

"What? That is a legitimate concern..." she laughed. "...unless, of course, you'd rather I not kiss you tonight."

"Agreed" Ozai hummed in agreement. "In fact, perhaps a little more..."

The pair walked onto the deck where the subject of their conversation was waiting obediently. "And here I thought we'd be left waiting" he said, looking over at the water bitch, who by now had learned not look back.

The trio (or more precisely, the pair and their servant, who was walking somewhat behind) walked on the sand toward the village center, waves crashing on one side and the silent movements of the tracking agents on the other.

The small town was bustling, and not just because the 'famed' Ember Island Players were having a show. Agni, it could have been some no-names from Hira'a and it would have attracted the same crowd, Ozai mused. The names didn't matter, the fact that the play was about the newlywed Phoenix King and Queen did. And the fact that said royal couple would be personally attending. Yes it was quite the event indeed. The poor players would have probably paid them to turn up. Though the Phoenix King was not nearly as daft or as cheap to extort some acting troupe for a public appearance. That was a service he was willing to provide for free.

In that moment, the Phoenix Queen couldn't care less about the play - even if she and her husband were the stars! Agni, she was hardly cognizant of where she was going or why, the short walk was a dream-like daze and all she cared about were eyes- hundreds of eyes upon the glorious collar fastened about her neck weeping ruby tears, marking her as Property of Phoenix King Ozai in such a way that bruises never could.

Clinging to her father's strong arm, Azula beamed with pride, having all but forgotten about the waterbender who shuffled along in silence a few paces behind...

The crowds were thicker than you'd expect. About as concentrated as people got on Ember Island, Katara mused - usually the island's population was about as sparse as you could get, everyone enjoying their own personal corner of paradise. But not today, today everyone wanted to see the Phoenix Queen and the Phoenix King. The stars of the show, after all. And they didn't disappoint, all eyes were on Azula. I guess that explains all the little trips, she thought, picturing Ozai's little gift. At least nobody was looking at the waterbender anymore, except for a few people looking left and right comparing the suspicious woman following the royal couple to the one on the poster.

A man was there to greet them as they entered, saying things Katara couldn't hear but that certainly made Ozai laugh, before leading the couple (her following). The halls grew increasingly both lavish and empty of people as they moved on, moreso than she remembered from her last visit from the theater. Probably because they were headed to the royal box - which definitely hadn't been occupied in a while. Dust could be seen sitting in corners - the whole area hastily cleaned.

"Excuse me... are you Miss Katara?"

'Miss' Katara...? The waterbender paused, looking over at the royal couple, who were currently being ass-kissed by the playwright, who had prepared an ample selection of wines and other boring luxuries as an attempt to make his highborn guests feel comfortable. "...yeah. That's me" she finally answered, scratching her head. The Phoenix Queen was too enamored with her gift and all the attention she was getting to notice or care about what she was doing.

For some reason the revelation seemed to electrify the woman, who smiled brightly and seemed to bounce around with excitement. "Really? Oh wow. I've heard everything about you, your story of repentance! It's amazing, I'm so glad to meet you"

Repentance? she froze up, thinking back to the poster. "Uh, that's great, I uh... got to go" the waterbender turned away, that word swirling around in her-

"Where have you been!?" Well gee I've only been away for like 30 seconds excuuuuse me "I didn't say you could wander and talk with the rabble!" Ozai barked. "Sit down, girl, and don't damage my night any further."

"I gave her leave, Father" Azula cut in, although she had not, in fact, given Katara leave. "She knows her place."

"Hm, awfully tense aren't we? Perhaps my King requires some relief..." she soothed, gliding her fingers through Ozai's sleek, black hair with no visible effort.

A smirk crept over her features. "...of course, if you'd rather not be inconvenienced by any smeared lip paint, I understand."

Ozai looked over at the relieved Katara (who seemed a bit too relieved) before looking over at the filling stands below the royal box, where peasants were filing in to see the story of their beloved King and Queen. Not enough, yet. "Behave, and perhaps I shall allow you such a reward" he said finally, before moving and tying the Phoenix Queen's leash to her seat's armrest. "Now be a good little girl and sit quietly." Ozai instructed, sitting down himself and offering a spot on his right shoulder which she could lean against.

Requiring no further instruction, Azula took her seat, along with his most gracious offer, and settled in comfortably. A shiver ran down her spine at the thought of-

Mentally chastising herself, she crossed one leg over the other.

Behave

So long as she behaved, sat quiet and still beside her daddy like a good girl, she would be rewarded.

"You- water bitch!" hissed Ozai, snapping his fingers.

She'd had only just sat down herself and already, Father was demanding she serve them wine. The Phoenix Queen spared a sympathetic glance toward the waterbender. If only for an instant, she entertained the sentiment of politely refusing (she did not much care for alcohol anyhow).

But alas, he wanted her to have a drink, and so she would.

The Phoenix King became increasingly impatient as he waited for the play to begin, downing his goblet with a single swig as he watched more no-names fill in the room. You'd think a Playwright would know not to keep his King and Queen waiting. Apparently the man didn't have as much reverence for his betters as his play would seem to imply. He frowned. "They better not keep us waiting too long or this play will be their last. The man promised me a show, not a waste of time"

This play will be their last

Azula could have rolled her eyes. Such a flair for drama her Daddy had. Perhaps he ought to join up with some acting troupe, she thought, smiling ever so slightly. "Oh hush" she pressed herself against him even more than she already was, relishing in the sensation of such close contact, his rigidness in great contrast to her softness. "Relax..." the little queen soothed. "...a few minutes is hardly a slight. Besides, I think this is nice. Don't you?" Her smile grew wider. "I like being with you."

Ozai's stern look practically dissolved into jelly upon Azula's contact and her soft words, his fists releasing themselves from their vice grip and unfurling into open palms, each with small red marks where his fingers were pressed against his skin - fading. The Phoenix King looked up - ceiling lanterns going dark one by one, fading with the marks on his palms.

"Ladies and Gentlemen"

A man had walked up on stage, his loud voice reverberating throughout the theater as he gave his short but incredibly dull introduction, making sure to emphasize his royal guests, who were also the features of the play. By then the lights had been completely dimmed and the rabble finally seated so that Ozai didn't have to listen to their bickering and shuffling anymore. And finally even the playwright fell silent, disappearing off the stage as the curtains opened, revealing a sight he was very familiar with - if only by descriptions he had heard and his own dreams in the night (Though the Phoenix Queen could tell from experience that this particular rendition of the Earth Kingdom's throne room was... deficient). Standing at the foot of the throne in the light of the magnified-oil spotlights, the actors of the royal siblings were clearly recognizable.

However The Phoenix King was only focused on the better of the two, assessing her worth in portraying his daughter. A far cry from the beauty sitting next to him, but that was to be expected, he supposed. After all it was hard to live up to a legend of royal blood.

The Phoenix Queen, too, carefully scrutinized the girl- woman. She had an air of maturity about her and was a few years older, at least. She could hardly be considered old, Azula thought, perhaps somewhere in her mid twenties though she couldn't know for sure. Age aside, the actress was pretty... not nearly pretty enough to be her, however the portrayal was inoffensive and therefore acceptable.

Golden eyes shifted toward the man onstage. Much taller than little Zuzu, Azula noted with some amusement. As well, it appeared the actor's biceps were a force to be reckoned with, unlike her brother's. It was laughable, really. Then he spoke-

"Azula-"

His voice was downright menacing (and several octaves lower than the Phoenix Queen had been expecting).

"-we did it. I defeated the Avatar, and your friends in the Dai Li managed to sneak away with Ba Sing Se" Zu-zu spoke confidently, much more than either Azula, Ozai, or even Katara could remember.

The actress's voice was much more on-point, considered Ozai. Though it lacked a certain... flair, seduction. "Indeed. Today is a great day for the Fire Nation. Our soldiers can finally stop fighting a bloody war against the savages. They can go back to their homes. You can come back home, Zuko. Firelord Ozai will be most pleased when he hears how you've helped me today." It lacked the harshness the Phoenix King was used too. Instead it was softer, almost empathetic. As if she were giving a heartfelt speech to a crowd of one.

"You're right. My father will be pleased when he hears how I single-handedly slayed the Avatar. He'll accept me back fully, as heir to the throne now that I've completed my mission"

"Single-handedly?" The faux-princess laughed. "Zuko, your participation hardly qualifies as a slaying. I'll be sure to mention your valuable contrib-"

The actor stepped forward, no longer facing the audience and letting his dark red scar (which Katara had to admit, was made-up much better than in the last play. And was on the right side) show completely as he turned to his right, towards Azula. "Except you won't mention it to Father. You'll tell him that I killed the Avatar, without your help."

"You expect him to believe that?"

"Yes. I know all about you and father. And the entire Fire Nation will know too if you don't give me the glory I rightfully deserve!"

In that moment, the real Azula could have sworn her heart skipped a beat. That was not how it happened, not by far! But as far as her father was concerned... perhaps that was exactly how it happened. He didn't know the truth. Azula's hand closed around Ozai's as if to seek reassurance, grip tightening as her actress spoke once more.

"Whatever you think you know, let me assure you-"

Actor Zuko interjected."I know everything" A most sardonic smirk livening his features as he turned toward the crowd, making an uncomfortable degree of eye contact with those seated in the first few rows. "Everything." He turned to face his sister once more. "I suppose you're wondering who told me?"

A pause.

"That doesn't matter. What matters is, you got caught. Of course, you could deny it... but it'd be your word against mine. How many people would believe you, should it come to that? I sure hope it's enough... for your sake."

The Actress-turned-Princess stood aback as her faux-brother stepped forward, menacing. Simply speechless.

"Your little relationship with father is sick and wicked" he shouted, now facing the crowd. "You don't deserve the glory for anything you've done. I do." he turned and walked towards the throne. "And if you try to take it back I'll make you the most hated girl in the Fire Nation" he said, with an almost uncanny chill that the real Zuko could never pull off as he sat on the Earth King's throne and the curtains closed in front of him.

"I knew that boy ruins everything. You were good to have defeated him, Azula." Ozai praised, simultaneously clenching his fists to know that fucking Zuko had been intent on stealing his daughter's valor, using their love as a weapon against her. And then he had the gall to claim to be fighting for good.

"More wine!" he slammed his fist upon the table, steam rising from his hand as his chi reacted strongly with rage.

Ozai was angry. Rightfully so, Azula thought, as he believed every word to be true (and with good reason). She'd never told him the truth, the lies onstage fit his narrative all too well: everything was Zuko's fault. Perhaps, sometimes, it truly was Zuko's fault but... not all the time... and most certainly not this time. This time, it was her fault. Hers and hers alone.

The Phoenix Queen felt the urge to hang her head in shame - which she then resisted.

He can't know

"You're right, Father. Zuko does ruin everything" she spat, angrily. Though it did not make her feel any better. Azula was angry, too. But was she angry at her brother? Hardly. She was angry with herself.

Even though both the royal couple and the audience seemed hellbent on sending Zuko to the gallows, the 'water bitch' wasn't so sure. Something wasn't right. Katara had known Zuko as both an enemy and a friend. Did he have capacity for violence and evil? Without a doubt. He had chased them ruthlessly, threatening innocents as if their lives were worthless in his pursuit of Aang. But she also know there was another side to the Banished Prince, one that wanted to do good, to do what was right. To restore his honor. He wasn't above fighting his sister, but blackmailing her to get some credit just didn't seem right.

The waterbender felt betrayed and confused as she poured her Mistress and her Mistress's husband more wine. It was as if-

"Get out of the way!" The Phoenix King urged as the curtains opened.

"Father, I have returned" said the voice of Azula's look alike, though duller this time. "I come bearing good news regarding my explo-"

However the actress never got to finish her sentence, as a somewhat striking actor with a crown (and, if one had a trained eye, a wig of raven hair) stepped out from the flames of the faux Dragon Throne, running towards and embracing his not-daughter in a deep hug. "Azula, it is so good to see you again." he released her, only for the two to lock themselves in a kiss.

"...I missed you too, Father"

Golden eyes swirled with conflicting emotions as the real Azula's face fell, as the audience reacted with a collective 'awwww.' Ozai wasn't... well... Ozai.

The real Ozai hadn't done such things or said such things-

Nor would he ever

Unable to push the nagging thought away, the Phoenix Queen recalled (with some... sadness?) what had really happened on the day of her return. Father had been... excited to see her, there was no denying it. Somehow though, being bent over and fucked so hard that she'd been left barely able to walk failed to qualify as a romantic reunion worthy of remembrance for years to come. If fucking was at all on that actor's mind, he was doing an excellent job at hiding it, Azula mused, sardonically. Though she noted the man onstage lacked something- a lot of things!

For one, he utterly failed to excite her. The real Ozai, however, never failed to excite. Content, Azula perked up, gaze flickering toward her Daddy with undeniable passion.

"That man is hardly handsome enough to be you" she declared.

"Nor is that woman beautiful enough to be you" he nodded in agreement, not noticing Azula's brief moment of conflict, nor sharing it - for what Ozai saw below on the stage was exactly what he perceived as reality.

"Please, tell me" the Phoenix King's counterpart continued. "I want to hear about everything my beautiful daughter accomplished in the Former Earth Kingdoms"

"Nothing you haven't heard." said the beautiful daughter, managing a faint blush. "Ba Sing Se is ours, along with its protectors, the Dai Li"

"Amazing. You have accomplished in six days what my pitiful brother could not do in six hundred." The Phoenix King gave a hearty laugh. "You are truly the picture of perfection. The city will stand forever as a monument to your achievements. Everyone will remember the great Princess Azula who conquered it, putting an end to a century-long war. You make me proud, Azula."

Though the Azula on the stage was not proud. Her head was down facing the ground, looking away from her father.

The faux Firelord gripped her hands. "What's wrong, my Princess?"

"Nothing"

A pause.

"Zuko slayed the Avatar."

"I see. Unexpected for him, but great news nonetheless. I suppose the boy has finally completed his mission." he looked down at his daughter, who was still not pleased. "I'm sure you could have defeated him if you had tried. Why, it's just a matter of you being occupied with conquering the city that you didn't do as much. It doesn't change how I feel about you, my daughter. You'll always be-"

The actress interrupted, finally looking up. "No Father, that isn't it" she managed, pulling her hands away from his.

"Then-"

"I should go" she turned to leave, face full of shame.

He reached out with his arm, beckoning her to return to his arms."Azula! Wait! You can tell me anything, you know-"

"I have to plan for the rebels' attack. Good evening father" her voice cracked as she ran offstage.

Nor is that woman beautiful enough to be you

Azula thought so too. She was beautiful - and she knew it. Nonetheless, she never tired of hearing so from Father, her cheeks flooding with heat and color as testament. Much to her amusement, Actor Ozai went on to agree as well, referring to his (not) daughter as 'beautiful'. Though the Phoenix Queen's happiness was to be short-lived...

The city will stand forever-

Except... it wouldn't.

-as a monument to your achievements.

And how often were her achievements acknowledged as just that? her achievements? ...hers and hers alone. Furthermore, Ba Sing Se now stood as a monument to her failures (not to mention her fuddy-duddy uncle's triumph).

By Agni, her failures were piling up by the minute. She could only hope her husband and father had not begun to rationalize anything of the sort...

Everyone will remember the great Princess Azula

Would they? Would anyone remember Princess Azula, great conqueror of Ba Sing Se? Or would they remember Phoenix Queen Azula, wife of Phoenix King Ozai? Worse yet... would they remember Azula, Ozai's little whore of a daughter whom he walked around on a collar and leash?

What's wrong, my Princess?

The real Azula was ten times more dejected as the one onstage, though she hid it well... ordinarily. If only the real Ozai cared enough to notice, the fact that his Queen was in distress was plain as day. She wanted her King to ask what was wrong and more than anything, she wanted him to care what was wrong.

It doesn't change how I feel about you

Buried. Azula had buried... and buried... and buried it in a hole- a tomb so dark, she was certain it would never resurface. Nothing would breathe life back into it. But in that moment, something did. Foolish as it was, a dramatized love story (her love story) resurrected something which, as far as she was concerned, ought to be dead.

A single tear slipped down her cheek. Somewhere, deep down, she'd always known...

Father's love was conditional.

You can tell me anything

And that was why she couldn't tell him what was wrong.

The Phoenix King, ignorant, ran his fingers through the hair of his daughter and wife. "Quite true. Anything. Anything at all." His head rubbed against hers. "Next time, you need not be afraid of Zuko's machinations, my little girl. If you had told me, we could have faced him together for trying to stain your honor. Something a real brother would never do" he finished darkly.

Like ice on Ember Island's scorching volcanic sands, Azula melted. "I'm sorry I lied" She spoke nothing, save for the truth. "I love you, Daddy," said Ozai's little girl as she nuzzled against him, never wanting the moment to end.

Except the playwright was not cognizant of the rendezvous going on in the royal box, the curtains already moving and the fire-lit stagelights already turning to illuminate their next targets.

"So, Avatar-Killer huh?" mocked a raven-haired woman (and are those knives in her hair?) walking up from behind the faux Fire Prince, whose attire matched the sand-filled backdrop of Ember Island.

"What do you know?!"

She laughed. "Nothing. I just never got to compliment you on your unexpected achievement. You shouldn't be so high-strung about it though, it gives people the wrong idea." the assassin lectured.

Not-Zuko, in a surprisingly quite-zuko fashion, turned to face the newcomer. "What do you want, Mai? Or should I say what does Azula want?"

"I want you, Fire Prince" she answered, each syllable emphasized by the slowing chords of the hidden musicians, who transitioned into an eerie, foreboding melody.

"What?"

The assassin scowled. "Azula wasn't interested. But I heard a fresh new Prince has recently become available again - one who could stand to benefit by having someone of my skill at his side. Am I wrong?"

The music stopped as the amber eyes of Zuko's Actor stared into the crowd.

"No"

Mai gave a sly smile. "Goo-"

But the Prince wasn't finished. "You're right. I could use someone of your skill, when I sit on my father's throne" he turned back to the faux noblewoman.

"I didn't hear anything about the Firelord announcing a new heir"

"That's because he didn't. Even though I completed my mission, killed the Avatar, he refuses to restore my rightful position as heir." he exclaimed, exhaling a puff of orange to accentuate his anger. "It's because of Azula and their twisted relationship. He always favors her, because those two have some kind of wicked, crazy relationship. Even though I'm better than her!" he practically yelled, startling the crowd and provoking a few surprised gasps.

A small silence. "So,"

"So if you help me, you don't have to settle for just being the consort of some forgotten Prince. You can be a Fire Lady."

And among those gasps was none other than the Phoenix King. "I knew that girl was too smart for her own good. And she always had a thing for Zuko. When we're out of here I'm going to make sure that bastard Ukano never spends another day wearing anything but rags and doing anything but tilling fields." he scowled, thinking back to all his interactions with that raven-haired deceiver. "And to think she granted you all those years of loyalty only to betray you over her marital options. You were rather merciful just throwing her in a cell"

Ozai's daughter and wife, meanwhile, was left reeling. Of course she could not say everything she'd witnessed tonight had been accurate (not by a longshot) but... Mai? It was as if someone had released her (former) friend from her imprisonment, shoved her out onstage, and said 'be yourself'. Every time fake, or rather not-so-fake Mai spoke, Azula believed her. The seed of doubt had been planted and with each passing minute, it was growing...

Mai was a lot of things: patient, clever, and sound of mind, to name a few. Loyalty, however, was not among her virtues. The Phoenix Queen could only wonder... was it true? Had Mai only ever wanted Zuko? Was she nothing more than a scheming, shallow social climber (just like Michi, her poor excuse for a mother) out to marry a prince? Was it all a lie, from the very beginning? Had she been too blind to see..?

Perhaps, Mai was never truly her friend.

In any case, Azula agreed with Ozai (as she often did). "It was foolish of me to trust her." Vindictive, she added "And Ukano? Please, do with him whatever you see fit, his daughter's punishment was far too merciful indeed - I never did like that man anyhow." Wrapping herself around his upper body, like a coiling snake, she purred "It was foolish of me to trust anyone other than you" Her words were poison, to herself most of all. And speaking of snakes...

Actor Zuko loudly declared "My father will rue the day he forsook his only son in favor of... perversion."

"Ozai is a fool" his counterpart concurred. "Does he really think to make his secondborn daughter the Fire Lord? As his son and his firstborn, the throne is and will always be your birthright." And, with an appropriate amount of vitriol, she scoffed "Does he think to marry her? Azula cannot rule by his side any more than she can rule alone!"

He nodded."I'm glad you agree. And what about your friend, can you get her on my side?"

The raven-haired assassin laughed. "Ty Lee? What could you possibly want from her? Don't tell me you're one of her boyfriends." she mocked.

In a strikingly inaccurate portrayal of Zuko, the actor shook his head and ignored the assassin's tease. "Both of you have Azula's trust. Trust we'll need if we're going to replace my father and my sister."

Mai's actress was silent for a moment, before sighing. "I can get her. You can convince Ty Lee of anything if you know the right words anyway."

Wrong! It was all wrong! Blaming Zuko would be easy - not right. Zuko was not to blame for her failures. If the laughably inaccurate portrayal was any indication, Azula knew just that. By the flame of Agni, her brother would never remain so level-headed upon being teased! Nor would he... plot. Zuko did not plot, least of all with Mai (who was no more to blame for her mistakes than the former prince, even despite conflicting loyalties).

Once more, Azula could only blame herself. Not Zuko. Not Mai. Not Ty- wait, had Mai's actress just suggested..?

Stupid.

People thought Ty Lee was stupid? Spirits, that was more insulting than being one of the 'bad guys'. Okay, so she was a tad gullible, that much was true. And yes, she could be manipulated (to an extent) but... Ty Lee was not stupid. Far from it.

The Phoenix Queen was beginning to think that whomever wrote this play was stupid... Little Zuzu colluding with Mai and Ty Lee to 'destroy' her and Father. The very notion was ludicrous!

The faux Fire Prince moved to follow the assassin before she raised a hand. "You should probably let me do this. Your big words and serious talk of 'wicked relationships' and 'betraying Azula' will scare her. You have to word things delicately with Ty Lee."

The curtains closed briefly, shrouding Mai's stride before opening again and revealing a new scene with a familiar beach backdrop. And... is that...

Ty Lee!? The woman, who had been 'sunning' herself in a skin-tight, white swimsuit (which could hardly qualify as such) turned her body toward the crowd and offered a smile and a wink. Barely covered... assets drew an unsurprising amount of jeers and wolf-whistles. The Phoenix Queen, however, was not amused - if a somewhat exaggerated eye roll had been any indication.

"Um, I like totally need some shade over here. The sun is like soooo hot!" the actress complained, her voice every bit as high-pitched and nasally as one would expect. Like moths to flame, several men ran out on stage to fulfill her needs, practically tripping over themselves in the process and drawing laughter from the audience.

"Mai! What are you doing here? I thought you like totally hated the beach!"

"I do" she responded in the affirmative, in a way that absolutely contrasted Ty Lee's demeaning depiction. "But I needed to-" she turned to dodge a shirtless man carrying a paper fan to his newfound mistress of beauty. "-speak with you"

"Like... right now?" she asked, somewhat dejected. Though her next line was no question, the actress portraying Ty Lee made certain it sounded as much "I'm kinda like... busy?"

"Hey!" the assassin yelled, catching the attention of all of the young men circling the actress with the gleam of a blade "Fuck off. Or you'll be going home bleeding." her harsh words sending them scrambling.

"Not anymore"

"Ugh! Rude, much?!" The accusation elicited no reaction (not that anyone had been expecting it to, of course). "Okay, like seriously, what's got your panties all in a twist?"

Mai sighed. "Nothing. Just need to let you in on a secret. I definitely can't do that with all your cute boyfriends around" she said with a visible eye roll.

"Ooooh! A secret?" Not-Ty Lee perked up in a rather Ty Lee-esque fashion (which was likely the only aspect that her real life counterpart could appreciate, should she have been made to bear witness to the atrocity that was her portrayal). "Like, why didn't you just say so!? I loooove secrets! Tell me! Tell me!"

"Well..." the actress began with obviously forced trepidation. "It's about Zuko and I" she finished, waiting for the woman in front of her to fill in the blanks herself.

"Zuko?!" she exclaimed, practically bouncing with excitement. "I knew it... I knew it!" Everything about her tone of voice, as well as her mannerisms and motions, resembled that of a small child. "You two are gonna make like, the cutest couple!"

"Yeah, we do" the assassin crossed her arms. "But there's one small problem. One that we think you can help with"

"Of course! How can I help?"

A pause.

"Wait... have you told Azula yet?" the other girl asked, a sudden realization dawning on her. "Do ya, like... think she'll be mad?"

Mai turned her head. "She suspects." she said simply. "And no she won't be happy, not after what Zuko did..."

Big doe eyes went wide with shock and Not-Ty Lee gasped loudly. "Oh no! Like, what did he do?!"

"Didn't you hear the announcement? Zuko slayed the Avatar." A pause. "Instead of Azula"

Another gasp. "Zuko?!" The actress looked as though she had seen a ghost, judging from her expression. "Ugh!" she exclaimed. "No wonder they've been acting so... weird! Azula won't even talk to me anymore, it's like... reeeeaaaally starting to freak me out."

"Yeah" the raven-haired woman confirmed. "Something to do with honor or pride or whatever. It's got them really riled up. Zuko's worried that Azula might try to block our betrothal... or..." she looked down, wiping imaginary crocodile tears.

Of course, the brunette was none the wiser. "Don't cry!" Not-Ty Lee pulled Not-Mai into an eerily familiar embrace, declaring "I won't let anyone stand in the way of true love - not Azula, not even Agni himself!"

"I knew you wouldn't. You're a good person, Ty Lee" assured the actress, grinning a wicked smile to the silent audience.

The curtains closed while the stage crew rearranged everything for the next scene, forming another faux location for the already bewildered audience to feast their eyes upon.

A familiar sight, the Dragon Throne and a curtain of flame, though this time instead of an unforgiving floor was a map of calm crimson - the Fire Islands, Katara could see clearly from her position inside the royal box. On it were placed various markers which could only be assumed to represent assorted fleets and armies (though, to the Phoenix King's amusement, weren't even remotely accurate).

"Father, you requested me?"

"Please, Azula, no need to be so formal in private. Nobody gets to call me Ozai anymore these days." replied the dark-haired Lord and Lover. "I merely wanted to go over your plans for dealing with the rebels and their planned incursion during the eclipse. It's very thorough"

Ozai gave a loose chuckle. "And to think they believe we're oh so formal. Imagine their reactions if they learned of the real truth.... though-" he gave his drink a terminal swig, slamming down the goblet so that the water bitch would know to refill it at the earliest opportunity. "some may already be guessing, after today." Another laugh, a finger brushing his daughter's raven locks and feeling the texture of the collar around her neck. "Your plans were thorough I suppose, so at least they got that right, at the very least."

Ozai took no time raising himself and pulling his daughter into an embrace. "I know that, my daughter. It's only, I don't want you to put yourself into the line of fire for the sake of capturing some foolish leaders. I don't want you to risk yourself on my account alone"

"I know, fath- Ozai. But believe me, my friends and allies will be there every step of the way. I need only distract them for a dozen or so minutes until I can bend again. I'm there to give them something to chase after, not to fight to the end"

There was silence for a long moment, with even the musicians falling quiet so only the teary-eyed crowd could be heard.

"I believe you, Azula" he finally managed, running his hands through her hair. "I only wish it didn't have to be this way"

"...what do you mean?"

"You, and me. Hiding away like this. Our love a secret. Why is it that you have to go out and face our enemies alone, while I sit in here without your touch? We should be together in all things. Husband and wife" the faux Firelord proclaimed, his voice reverberating throughout the theater no differently than the real announcement spread across the Fire Islands.

"But..."

"What of the Fire Sages. What have they ever done for anyone? After today, you'll be the only hero the people ever need. The woman to end a rebellion, the woman to end a war. Both in singular, decisive moments." he paused. "You move the nation forward, and if they oppose us, the whole nation will know that it is the Fire Sages that hold us back. When this is all over, I don't want any more hiding. I want our union to be known by all. I want to partake in the pleasures every couple should"

"As do I. Oh, Father, I love you. When this is over, I won't hide my love another day."

And with that, the royal couple locked themselves in a kiss as the lights dimmed one by one, the stage gradually growing darker as the curtains closed more slowly than usual for added dramatic effect. Unsurprisingly (at least to a seasoned playgoer) an intermission was then announced and the lights in the actual theater were lit.

Agni, this is going to be a long night, thought the Phoenix Queen, wanting more than anything to just get up and leave. She never did like plays anyhow...



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