Disclaimer: I own nothing
One, two, three, four.
Azula kept her face passive as she moved through her katas, her attention focused solely on making sure each step was precise and steady.
Draw arm back. Slide foot in. Centre your weight.
One, two, three, four.
"You shouldn't be working yourself so hard," Katara's voice was even as she entered the courtyard from the doorway behind.
Without turning her head to look at Azula, she summoned a globe of water from her pouch and began moving through her own training routine as well.
"After all, your arm hasn't fully healed yet."
That, at least, was true enough. Azula could feel the catch in her elbow whenever she stretched it, and there was a dull throb – not exactly a pain – in her arm as she put herself through the paces.
"I know my limits," her reply was short – not due to any sort of ire, but simply because she didn't want to waste her breath in the middle of exercising.
Any reply from Katara was interrupted by the clattering sound of excited footsteps, and then Katara's brother was storming out into the courtyard, eyes wide as he waved about a scroll.
"Hey guys! Guys!"
With a mental sigh, Azula forsook the notion that she would be able to spend any more time on her training and dropped her stance, turning to face him.
"Guys! You're not gonna believe this! There's a play about us!"
"Us?" Katara had dropped her stance too – out of the corner of her eye, Azula noted the water flowing smoothly back into her pouch with barely a twitch of her fingers.
She was good.
"Well, you know. The whole gang," deciding to forgo further explanation, the boy unfurled the scroll, revealing it to be a poster of some sort. Meanwhile, the rest of their party had started wandering over, attracted by the commotion he was making. "Now let's see here...
"From acclaimed playwright Pu On Tim comes a new and thrilling adventure, based on the true story of the reborn Avatar. He scoured the globe from the frozen wastes of the South Pole to the grand city of Ba Sing Se in order to put together this play. Sources include nomads, pirates, prisoners of war, and..."
Azula had tuned him out before he'd finished the rest of the sentence. The boy's mouth really had a tendency to move on ahead of his brain, at times. And regardless, the play had nothing to do with her in the first place-
"Brought to you by the critically acclaimed Ember Island Players."
Now that was a name Azula hadn't heard in a long time. Probably for the better.
"Oh, those guys? Ugh." Zuko sighed.
"You know them, Zuko?"
"Mainly as the group that butchered "Love Amongst the Dragons" every year."
"Well, if you still went every year it couldn't have been that bad, right?" She could see Suki raising an eyebrow as she asked the question.
"Our mother loved that play," she said, and her voice came out softer than she'd intended it to. "As kids, we didn't have much of a say in whether or not we went, no matter how much we complained."
"You complained. I was just happy for the trips outside the palace walls."
Azula shrugged and conceded that statement before turning back to Sokka. "So what? You really want to spend the time to go watch a play about yourselves?"
"What, are you kidding? This is the perfect way to just let loose and spend time on some nonsense that doesn't matter! I've been missing this!"
"You don't need to come along if you don't want to," the Avatar looked up at her with a smile on his face. "But it's just one night."
Wordlessly, Azula reached over and plucked the advertisement from Sokka's hands. Turning it over, her gaze flitted over it one more time.
Our mother loved that play.
"The Ember Island Players, huh?" She said out loud, to no one in particular.
"And I managed to get us a private viewing box!"
"Sure, but did you have to get it so far away from the actual stage? My feet can barely tell what's going on!"
Azula closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and held it for several long seconds before breathing out again.
It was so noisy.
Most of the plays she'd attended had her sitting in the box reserved for the royal family, of course. And whatever muted chatters that were amongst the nobles below her rarely travelled enough to reach her ears.
Not like the plays her mother liked to attend, where they'd attended as discreetly as possible. There it had been noisy too, a roiling wave of indistinct sound that never ceased up until the curtain rose.
Of course it had been many, many years ever since she'd been to one of those.
Was that what she was feeling now? Nostalgia?
Almost, but… not quite.
Gradually she became aware of Mai's presence in the seat next to hers. Leaning back in her seat, she twisted slightly so she could better look at her.
Mai was sitting very still, radiating the aura of someone who dearly wished to be anywhere else rather than this place.
"You didn't need to come, you know. No one would have said anything if you'd just chosen to spend the evening back in the house."
To Mai's credit, she managed a half-smile as she turned to look at Azula.
"I could say the same to you."
Anything else they might have felt like saying was cut off by the sudden roar of applause that came from the direction of the stage and she looked over in time to see the curtains being drawn back.
Hm. The two actors on the stage were passable resemblances of the two siblings, she supposed. And the props were decent enough. After all, it was important to maintain the illusion so that the audience would buy into the action.
"Sokka, my only brother! We constantly roam these icy South Pole seas and yet never do we find anything fulfilling!"
And there went the illusion.
She sat back, trying not to pay too much attention to the incredibly overwrought dialogue as she watched the two actors discuss their lack of success in fishing before literally bumping into what was she supposed was some sort of iceberg.
An iceberg that split open to reveal the Avatar inside, no less.
Sure, why not. No worries about straining the willing suspension of disbelief, then.
"Wait, huh?" At her other side, Katara had a confused frown on her face. "How'd they find out we found Aang in an iceberg? I'm pretty sure Gran-gran was the only one who knew the specifics."
"You mean that's accurate?" Azula found she couldn't quite keep the incredulity out of her voice as she gestured to the stage where the 'Avatar' was demonstrating his airbending prowess via handstands.
"Yeah, the iceberg didn't get glowy and break up on its own!" Sokka chimed in from the row behind them. "Katara broke it by accident when she got mad."
"Oh, sure, let's throw that part in. Should we add the two hours before that where you failed at catching a single fish?"
Azula blinked, shifting her gaze between the actress on stage portraying Katara and the real thing beside her.
"So they're correct about you being this maudlin, too? I never took you as the sort who made tearful speeches about hope, but I've seen more drastic changes in a person before."
"No, not that part! Obviously!" Katara snapped and looked away, her arms now folded. "They've got me all wrong!"
"Oh come on," At her other side, Zuko also looked annoyed, although Azula couldn't decide if it was at the execrable performance of the actors or the complaints from the rest of the group. "It's just a play. They always try to spice things up for drama."
"I think they got you pegged." Toph's voice floated through the air, smug and self-assured as always.
With a shake of her head, Azula returned her attention to the stage, just as actors representing Uncle and Zuko stepped in.
Azula's eyes narrowed.
Did they put Zuko's scar on the wrong side?
Suppressing the urge to groan, Azula sunk back into her seat.
And then she noticed Mai.
"Why are you staring at me?"
"Why not?" Mai shrugged without breaking her gaze. "The expressions on your face are the most entertaining thing about this play."
"And it's like whoever wrote this thinks I'm an idiot who just makes bad jokes about meat all the time!"
"Yeah, you tell bad jokes about lots of things."
Zuko tuned the chat out as he glanced around the balcony. He could see Azula standing at the railing, arms folded as she looked out to the sea. With a mental shrug he walked over to her.
Azula didn't give any sign that she had noticed him at first. But after a moment she nodded once.
"Their plays haven't gotten any better over the years."
"Sure haven't." He found himself nodding in agreement as he walked to her side and leaned on the railing.
Another moment of the two of them staring out at the sea. At his other side, Mai appeared and handed him two packets of fire flakes, which he accepted with a grateful nod and a smile. None for Mai herself – she'd never liked those. The second packet, he passed to Azula, who gave a grunt of acknowledgement to Mai.
"So why did you agree to come?" He asked as he busied himself with opening the packet.
The slightest of smiles tugged at the corners of his sister's mouth.
"Let's just say… it was a moment of weakness."
From behind them came the announcement that the intermission was ending. Without missing a beat, Azula pivoted on her heel and walked back into the shadowy interior of the playhouse.
"Well, if she's not enjoying herself, then she doesn't need to stick around."
Zuko let out a snort. "Maybe at the start, but by now, as far as she's concerned, if she goes back home before the final curtain, she loses."
"Loses?" Mai cocked her head to the side, an expression akin to curiosity flickering across it. Loses what?"
"The contest between her patience and the play."
"You won't find earthbenders by looking in the sky! You have to find us in the dirt, underground!"
Azula managed a raised eyebrow as a man dressed in Earth Kingdom green stomped onto the stage.
"My name is Toph, because it sounds like tough, and that's what I am!"
"Wait, hang on. Is that me? I sound like… a guy. A really buff guy!"
She craned her neck to look behind her.
"You sound glad about it."
"Are you kidding?" Even in the gloom of the theatre, she could see the wide grin on Toph's face. "I wouldn't have it any other way!"
"BWAARGH! There, got a pretty good look at you."
A quick glance back in the direction of the stage before she returned her attention to Toph. "And the part where you apparently see people through sonic waves?"
"Well," Toph shrugged. The grin was less wide, but if anything, even more smug. "They don't know how I really do it, after all. A girl's gotta have some secrets."
"Hey, Azula! I think they're introducing you next!" Sokka's voice cut in as she caught him pointing towards the stage.
A woman in badly-fitting war armour and far too much makeup around her eyes was standing in the middle of the stage, arms outstretched.
"I am Princess Azula of the Fire Nation!" she declared to nobody in particular. Or perhaps it was towards her handmaidens standing behind her.
After that, she turned around to look at her surroundings.
"What a drab, dreary Earth Kingdom town!" she declared in what Azula surmised was supposed to be a haughty, imperious tone. "The decorations and designs are so green. And dull. And green. It would all look so much better if everything was FIRE!"
And with that, she raised her arms, and fire burst from all the buildings around her as she set them all aflame. Not real fire, of course, but Azula had seen the orange cloth that actors used as a substitute enough times to know what they were going for. And she had to admit that the way they used wind from below to make the cloth flicker like real flames was a nice touch.
"I'm not sure whether to be amused or insulted." She said as she leaned back in her seat and opened her packet of fire flakes.
"Really? Cause I think they-"
"Nailed it. Yes, Toph. Thank you for your input."
Idly, she noted that the playwright hadn't bothered to make Mai or Ty Lee actual characters.
It bothered her more than she'd thought it would.
"Ah, this reminds me. How did you lot deal with that giant drill anyway?"
"Well, because of that drill I now have a set of clothes that I can never wear again."
"And now, foolish girl, you have fallen into my cunning trap!" The man playing Long Feng pointed at her.
"No, Long Feng, it is you who has fallen into my cunning trap!" The actress playing Azula pointed back.
"Ha! You're both fools who never even realized that you have both fallen into my cunning trap!" The actor playing Jet jumped onto the stage, raising both hook hands up in a triumphant gesture.
And then a giant rock fell from the ceiling, squashing Jet under it.
Both Long Feng and Azula took a long look at the boulder, before shrugging and resuming their dramatic pointing match.
"Did Jet just... die?" Mai asked after a moment.
"Yes, that was really unclear."
"And now, Zuko, the time has come. We can conquer the Earth Kingdom, destroy the Avatar, and reclaim your honour. But only," the actress Azula held up her finger. "If you help me get rid of Uncle."
"What?" The actor Zuko looked back and forth in confusion, which had the side effect of making oversized wig wobble a lot. "But why?"
"Oh you know." Actress Azula waved her hands carelessly. "He's old. And smells. And frankly he'll probably betray us anyway so might as well get it out of the way."
"You know what? Good point." And with that, Zuko turned around to point dramatically at Iroh. "Uncle, you suck and I hate you. I hate you forever."
And with that, Iroh toppled backwards, sinking into a hole that had conveniently appeared on the stage. A faint cry of 'nooooo' echoed as he vanished. And with that, the two Fire Nation siblings shared a high five before walking off the stage.
"What are they doing?" Zuko hissed as he stared at the scene below him. "I would never hurt Uncle like that!"
"Lighten up, Zuzu," Azula didn't bother to lift her eyes from the stage as she tossed a handful of fire flakes into her mouth. "It's just a play. They need to spice things up for drama."
She didn't need to look at him to know that her brother was now glaring at her.
"There's a difference between spicing things up and – and, just making up whatever nonsense you want!"
Azula didn't reply and after a moment, Zuko sighed and leaned back.
"… I wonder where Uncle is now."
"Everyone's getting so upset about their characters." Toph yawned and leaned against the doorway of the balcony they were waiting on. "You'd think it was what really happened instead of just being a play."
"I can't say they wrote you particularly well either." Azula pointed out. Beside them, a server walked by, holding a tray of refreshments and Azula raised her hand to signal him. "Besides your introduction and that one fight scene where you took on like ten people at once, you almost never say or do anything. And do you want tea?"
"Sure. And yeah, I know I don't get much time on the stage." A careless shrug of her shoulders. "But what a fight scene! I came out looking pretty good there!"
"Well good for you." After passing a cup to Toph, Azula sipped at her own brew and made a face.
Well, it was hot at least.
"But I don't think the Avatar is quite so pleased to be reminded of times he failed. Like with the lightning bolt. And you have to admit that activating the Avatar State by saying 'Yip yip' does undermine the dignity of it a little."
"Heh," Toph smirked. "What about you, princess? You mad at how they decided to portray you back there?"
"Not really, but it does tell me how we're viewed in the Fire Nation now." Azula swivelled the drink in her cup for several seconds before tilting her head back and pouring the contents down her throat. The rush of heat in her chest was familiar, almost pleasant.
"How so?" A raised eyebrow was Toph's way of showing her curiosity.
"All new plays need approval from our cultural ministry before they can be performed, after all." She sighed and leaned her head back. "And portraying members of the royal family in a bad light is a fast way to get your approval yanked, and probably your entire troupe blacklisted."
"So, you think this means you're not really considered part of the royal family any more?"
"Probably not." She rubbed at her forehead. "If you're not quite sure what you can get away with you either try to limit their time onstage to a minimum or spend all their time getting praised. Honestly, it can make for repetitive work at times."
"But they didn't do either here," a contemplative nod. "So I guess that means-"
"It means they're not worried about upsetting royalty with this. And like I said, it tells me how they think of Zuko and Azula now," she leaned her head back against the wall, feeling the cool wood against her neck. "Well, there's very little way to interpret our actions as anything but treason, so I can't say I'm surprised."
Another silence between the two of them before Toph drew in a deep breath.
"What is it?"
"Listen, this question might be a little uncomfortable for you-"
"Always a good way to start a conversation."
"I'm trying to be sensitive here. Anyway, it might be uncomfortable and you don't need to answer if you don't wanna, but… you ever regret joining up with us?"
A moment passed.
And then Azula took in a deep breath.
"All the time. Hardly a day goes by when I don't ask myself what I'm even doing here. If I hadn't done this, I'd probably be in the palace now, relaxing. Or maybe having a late supper. Or maybe even attending a meeting. I wouldn't be here in a crowded, noisy playhouse watched people who cannot act try to convince me they can," she closed her eyes, let out a sigh. "And Ty Lee would be safe. Not captured and tossed into some light-abandoned prison no one knows of."
There was no immediate reply and when Azula opened her eyes Toph was looking thoughtful.
"You've been keeping that in for a long time, haven't you?"
"So what's stopping you? Is Zuko the only thing keeping you tied here?"
"At the beginning? Probably. There wasn't much tying me to all of you. I just wanted to keep Zuko safe. But now..." she shrugged. "I don't know. I'm not comfortable with it. Not really. But there are still answers I want to find too. If there's something, anything to the way you do things. And if you really do win, then I can help make sure the Fire Nation could still thrive in a world after the war."
Another short silence. And then Azula raised and lowered one shoulder.
"Besides, the present company isn't all bad."
A snort that Toph she couldn't quite rein in. "Love you too, Princess," then a nod. "But you know… can't say I see the world the same way you do. Heck, I can't say for sure anyone does. But if you ever need to get a load of your chest… well, I'll make the time to listen and see if I can help. Consider that a promise."
"Duly noted and appreciated." A flicker of movement and Azula was barely able to intercept the fist aimed at her shoulder. "And what was that for?'
"That's just how I show affection." A grin split the earthbender's face.
Azula rolled her eyes and resisted the urge to smile back.
"Sister." Zuko said as he cupped his chin, trying to look as if he were contemplating something.
"What is it, brother?"
"Today is the day of the invasion."
"You mean the Day of Black Sun, the invasion where the Avatar will attempt to sneak into the capital during the chaos of battle, find our father the glorious Fire Lord, and kill him?"
"Yes, sister. That invasion."
"Well then, what is it, brother?"
"I have been thinking that there is a sure-fire way to prevent the Avatar from assassinating our Father, the glorious Fire Lord."
"Really? And what is the plan of yours, brother?"
"The plan is..." and Zuko raised a clenched fist. "To assassinate the Fire Lord ourself!"
A shocked gasp rippled through the theatre.
"Brother! How could you suggest such an awful thing! In the name of the proud Fire Nation, I will stop you here and now!"
The two of them proceeded to jump around, waving coloured streamers at each other.
And another thing. Azula thought to herself. The fight choreography is terrible. It's all just jumping around and then suddenly someone loses when it's the correct time.
"Zuko, how could you turn against our father? Are you really so selfish as to sacrifice everything we've accomplished for your ambition?"
"This is not for my ambition, Azula. This is for my HONOUR!"
And with that, Zuko fell to the ground, motionless. It took Azula a second to process that it was supposed to be Zuko losing the match.
But the actress Azula had fallen to her knees as well.
"I have won, but it has cost me everything," she said as she raised her hands to the sky. "All glory to the Fire Nation!"
And with that she flopped to the ground and lay still as well.
There was a moment of stunned silence in the theatre as the stage darkened and the stagehands rushed out to create a scene transition.
Azula shared a quick glance at Zuko, and she figured she had to look as bewildered as he did just then.
"Well, that subplot went nowhere." Sokka's voice came from behind her.
"Unless this is… the future!"
"What gave that away?" Azula snapped as she rested her head on her hand. "The giant lantern comet hanging in the sky?"
"Fire Lord Ozai!" The Avatar bounded onto the stage, holding his glider in the same manner he would a sword. "This is the end! You are going down!"
"No, you foolish fool of an Avatar!" Ozai spread his arms, and Azula noted that the costumes had chosen the colouration and design on the robes so that they evoked a dragon. She wondered if father would like that comparison. "It is YOU who is going down!"
Once again, there was a fight scene. Azula supposed she derived some small amusement from seeing how the Avatar almost never tried to begin an attack. Actually striking the Fire Lord – even an actor playing one – was something that would never have made it past the censors.
Finally, after the fight had gone on long enough, Ozai thrust his arm out, and cloth-fire covered the entire stage, catching the Avatar right in the middle of the 'inferno'.
"Nooooo!" The Avatar wailed as he crouched out of sight behind the flames. "I never got to tell Katara that I loved her like a brother!"
Azula remained silent, mentally counting how long it took for the actor's screams to die down.
The flames were brought down to reveal Ozai standing alone on an empty stage.
"With the Avatar gone, the dreams of my father, and my father's father, have been realized! The world belongs to me! To the Fire Nation! Foreveeerrrr!" He raised his arms in a gesture of triumph.
"Charming," she managed to mutter into the dead silence before the a wave of thunderous applause erupted from the audience.
They had all made their way back to the beach house, all the while uttering scattered complaints about the general quality, or lack thereof, of the play.
Now it was deep night and she supposed that most of the house's inhabitants had already retired for the night.
She would join them soon enough. But for now.
The candle in front of her flickered as she drew in a deep breath.
From behind came the sound of footsteps.
"For an airbender, you have surprisingly heavy footfalls." She didn't bother to turn around to face Aang.
"Sorry, was I disturbing anything?"
"Just some breathing exercises. They can wait," as she spoke, she waved her hand and the candle flame dissipated. "And what about you? Is there a reason you're still up and came over to find me?"
The Avatar rubbed the back of his head. "Oh, I was just thinking. About the, uh, the play."
"You didn't like it?" She didn't bother trying to hide her smirk. "Well, join the crowd."
"Not that! Well, mostly." He rubbed sheepishly at the back of his head. "At the end, when I was, ah – defeated."
"There was a lot of cheering."
"You're surprised citizens of the Fire Nation are happy that the Avatar – who, by the way, is very much trying to make the Fire Nation lose the war – was defeated in a play?"
"Well, not that they won. It's more of," he grimaced, as if struggling to find the words. "How strong the reaction was? The way everyone gave it a standing ovation and all."
"Well, if anyone was unhappy at Ozai winning, they certainly weren't going to show it in public like that." Lifting a hand, Azula conjured a flame in it, watching as the blue fire flickered in her palm.
"Well, I guess."
"There are plenty of people who have every reason to hate the Fire Lord, Avatar. In the Fire Nation, included."
There was a time when I would have scorned all of them, called them all traitors to the nation. She kept her face passive as she stared at the flame, not letting any emotion show. Look at me now.
"But at the same time, there are many who have benefited from the war. From my father's rule. If you win, they will hate you for it. Not because of right and wrong. Not because of balance. But simply because you will ruin what they have, and there is no way to avoid that."
"I guess you're speaking from experience, huh?" From out of the corner of her eye, she could see that Aang had lowered his gaze. Did he feel guilty about something? Not about her, certainly. "Yeah, I guess ending the war will still hurt some people no matter what. But their prosperity came from the suffering of others. I can't condone that."
"You already made your choice, Avatar." She closed her hand into a fist, snuffing the fire in her palm. "You say this is for sake of Balance? Fine. Righting scales that have been tipped means one side needs to be brought lower. There's no other way. If that's your job as Avatar, then do it."
"I mean, you say that now, but earlier you were all gung-ho about keeping the colonies. Or at least some of them."
"Because that's my job. I can't be a representative of Balance or whatever ideal the Avatar espouses, even if I wanted to – and I don't, by the way. I'm the princess of the Fire Nation. It's my duty to fight for my country's interests."
Duty. The word had a funny ring to it. And it felt heavier than Azula would have liked.
"I get that. Really, I do," there was a melancholy smile on the Avatar's face as he spoke. "But still, it's hard to argue the war wasn't the Fire Nation's fault. The other countries will need something more to make up for the war than just laying down arms."
"Don't I know it. And that's why I can't back down," a soft sigh. "They'll happily strip this land bare for the sake of their own – and they'll feel completely justified for it, because after all, it is all our fault."
Another long silence, broken by a short laugh. "Well, that's just how it is. The decisions of a hundred years ago have caught up to the both of us now, hasn't it, Avatar?"
She stood and stretched. "The war isn't going to end once Ozai is dead. Just that the next battle will be fought across a table with papers instead of on a field with tanks and bending. And on that note, good night."
She left the balcony and returned to her room, which was why she didn't see Aang raise his head to look at the moon hanging above.
"… Dead, huh?" He murmured, to the empty night sky.
Thanks for reading. As always, reviews and criticisms are much appreciated.