The North's Aftermath

5

"I'm okay. It's… it's alright," Rei whispered. Azula breathed deeply: her hand gripped her daughter's firmly as they marched together down the Palace corridors.

The funerary rite hadn't taken too long. Even so, they had been among the last to leave. No one had dared approach the Princess with questions, pleas or desperation of any kind on that day: Azula certainly appreciated that, for she hadn't wanted to focus on anyone but Rei. The girl had managed to compose herself after crying unconsolably while her father's body was burned, but Azula suspected she would be prone to begin crying again whenever thoughts of her father returned to mind in the coming days.

"Feel free to go back to the Temple whenever you want to pray for him…" Azula said. "You don't have to wait for Memorial Day to honor him, if you thought you did. Whenever you wish…"

"You don't need to come with me when I do," Rei said. Azula gritted her teeth. "N-not because I wouldn't want you there, I would, but… I know he hurt you a lot. I'm sorry that he did and that I… t-that I can't seem to stop caring even when I know all this…"

"Don't be sorry for being kind, Rei. Don't be sorry for having a bigger heart than mine," Azula said, squeezing her hand gently. "If someone hurts you due to your kindness, if someone takes advantage of you through it, somehow… it isn't you who is at fault, but them for being bastards."

"W-well… I guess I can try to see it that way," Rei said, with a weak smile. She squeezed back, smiling sadly at Azula. "Don't worry about me. I'll be okay."

She had said the words over and over. Azula still didn't know how to believe her. The Princess breathed deeply, however, and nodded to reassure her daughter.

"Alright. If there's anything I can…"

Azula's footsteps slowed. Her voice faltered, as her brow drew together.

Something was off. Something was wrong.

She knew the sensation, identifying it even before she resonated deliberately: by the time she did, the echoing emptiness, the dark corruption that lingered in the air brought her to release Rei's hand and rush, at haste, down the hallway.

"Mom…?" Rei blinked blankly before following, albeit not as quickly as Azula had taken off.

She didn't care if she messed with her pristine white outfit somehow. Nothing mattered as much as reaching her bedroom at haste.

Her guards had escorted her and Rei to the Temple. Even now, they had been following them when Azula took off in such a hurry. There was no one keeping watch outside her room this time… her heart clenched as she shoved the bedroom door open.

Her eyes scanned the room hastily: she didn't feel him anymore. The miserable rotting feeling… he had left. He hadn't been here long ago… but he was gone now. She hadn't arrived on time to catch him.

Her chest heaved as Rei joined her in the room. Azula cast a quick glance over her shoulder, noticing that Renkai and another of his fellow guards seemed perplexed by her behavior.

"Close the door, Captain," she told Renkai: he nodded, obeying promptly. As curious as he might be about whatever troubled her, he'd have to endure remaining in the dark for a while longer.

"What…?" Rei asked, as Azula marched up to the trapdoor, hands trembling as she fumbled to push the rug out of the way.

She knocked at their agreed-upon rhythm, and within the tunnel, Song let out a deep breath. She was shaking too, still holding onto the sword in case of any danger… but it was her. It had to be Azula…

The Princess poured fire hastily into the trapdoor, shoving it open just as Song took to pushing it. Azula gasped at the sight of her face, eyes trailing lower in the darkness until she spotted her daughter: Hotaru lay quietly amid the blankets of her basket at first, but she cried out and raised her hands in her direction once she saw her.

"Fuck, I'm glad you're back," Song let out a wheeze as she sank against the wall, eyes closed in relief.

"What happened?" Azula asked: she rushed inside the tunnel, disregarding any and all caution as she made to collect Hotaru in her arms, hugging the cheerful girl tightly.

"I wish I knew," Song said, as Rei offered her a hand to pull her upstairs. Song picked up the lantern in the tunnel, blowing on it quickly as she climbed out of the secret trapdoor. "One minute I was almost dozing off down there, and suddenly I heard the door opening quietly. I heard footsteps, they approached your closet and wandered near the furniture, the bathroom too, I think? Either way, I… I just grabbed Wolf's Bane and waited to attack with it if someone opened the trapdoor without the code…"

"Good thing the bastard didn't think to check the trapdoor, then," Azula said, gritting her teeth as she climbed out of the tunnel with Hotaru. "Considering who it was… maybe Wolf's Bane wouldn't have sufficed."

"W-what do you mean…?" Song asked, staring at Azula in disbelief as the Princess closed the trapdoor and rolled the rug back into place.

"This spy was my father's assassin. The guy with the rotten fire who makes himself invisible," Azula hissed: her grip around Hotaru was unusually tight, and she pressed her face to the top of her daughter's head as though to reassure herself that she was safe and sound.

"You can sense him… even when he's gone?" Song asked. Azula nodded, snarling.

"His corruption lingers as tracks in the air. It will fade away in time, but I can usually resonate and find out where he's been," she said.

She backtracked all across the room, holding Hotaru tightly as she checked every location where she sensed the lingering corruption. A burst in the closet, close to her papers – she'd have to hide them in the tunnel too, she guessed –, another by Rei's books, another by her bedside – good thing she always kept Sokka's necklace with her – but the strongest bursts were by the cribs. Right at the places where Hotaru usually would rest.

"Why?" Rei asked, shivering as she gazed about the room that had become a haven that, not for the first time, had been violated. "Why would he send anyone to…?"

"Why?" Azula repeated, walking back from her daughter's secondary crib, a heavy scowl upon her face. "Hotaru. He was looking for Hotaru."

"I thought so, but I couldn't be sure," Song said, with a snarl. "The footsteps stopped specifically at Hotaru's cribs. I thought…"

"You were right," Azula said, gritting her teeth. "Guess my father wants to confirm the identity of Hotaru's father. I guess it was about time he started doing this. I figured he would have started much earlier, even."

"But then…" Rei said, shuddering. "W-what will you do? What can you do? We always bring her with us whenever we go anywhere…"

"And as far as I knew, my father brought the assassin with him most everywhere these days, too," Azula hissed. "Funny how he didn't do it today. I wonder if the damn assassin found the funeral too boring and decided to do something more challenging instead."

"Do you think he could have acted on his own?" Song asked. Azula frowned. "Or is this, for sure, your father's doing?"

"Now that you've said it, I don't know," Azula admitted, gritting her teeth. "But one thing's for sure… I'm not going to let Hotaru out of my sight whenever I notice the bastard is lurking anywhere other than by my father's side."

"If he calls you for a meeting…" Rei said, uncertain. "What will you do then?"

"Same as we've done so far," Azula said, scowling. "But I'll resonate constantly. If I even sense him coming anywhere close to my room, I'll attack him."

"You… you would?" Song asked, eyes wide.

"I'm not sure how much gold fire I could potentially create… perhaps none," Azula said, with a huff. "Especially when I'm in this kind of mood. But neither my father nor his goon knew the truth behind the gold fire. I doubt they figured out its source. So Seethus shouldn't risk my wrath, seeing as I'm the only person he knows who can genuinely fight against him."

"Well… that's a good thing, then," said Song, breathing deeply. "If just by intimidating him, you might be able to win without even fighting, but… are you sure you'll be alright? That he won't try to hurt you if you stop him from doing whatever he's doing?"

"I'm not, but I would sooner take that risk than let him anywhere close to the three of you," Azula said, gritting her teeth as she gazed upon her baby's large golden eyes. She seemed confused by Azula's behavior right now, and the Princess pressed a soft kiss to her brow, hoping to reassure her that her bad mood wasn't the child's fault. "You'll be safe, Hotaru. No matter what I have to do to make sure of that."

Song and Rei watched her, apprehensively: Azula might be expected to partake in more of the funerary rites for the other soldiers in the coming weeks. Mass services would be performed for the dead brought back to the Capital, whether those who were identified and brought back to their families, or those who weren't. It seemed likely that the Fire Lord and his daughter would be forced to attend…

But if the Fire Lord was indeed playing a dangerous game, his daughter wouldn't stand for it… and if his assassin was acting of his own accord, this time around, she would show him no mercy.


"He's dead. There was some sort of mourning ceremony for him this morning."

"And he didn't invite me? What a selfish prick."

Lady Meili had requested to speak with Aiko alone. Either she was in trouble, or there was an opportunity worth profiting in sight: as soon as the subject turned towards Zhao, it was clear to Aiko that it would be the latter.

"He never treated you right, we both know that…" Meili said, shaking her head. "But you're quite generous, aren't you? You would grieve for him, the father of your daughter, even if he's a dick. Right?"

"I… would. If you want me to," Aiko said, raising her eyebrows. "I admit I always wondered if he'd get himself killed out there. The stories he'd tell to flaunt how strong and great he was, back in the day… it sounded like he wanted to prove to the world how superior he was, what a great specimen, and so on…"

"Or he was flirting with you," said Meili, skeptical. Aiko smirked.

"He didn't need to. He wanted more than the obvious payoff from me, and likely from every girl he ever bedded," Aiko said. "He sought acknowledgement, admiration… maybe even power. Funny how, when he got them all, he went and died."

"It's tragic, not funny," Meili said: Aiko's skeptical glare opened the way to a sigh.

"Is it? How tragic?" Aiko asked.

"So tragic that we need to pay him our respects," said Meili, raising her eyebrows. Aiko blinked blankly.

"What for?" she asked. "No need to be cryptic, Lady Meili, just tell me outright what you need…"

"I need you to take advantage of the wonderful setup he left behind," Meili said, rolling her eyes at Aiko's need for bluntness. "He took the girl with him. From what the rumors say? The girl was there, at the funeral, standing right by the Princess and the Fire Lord."

"Heh. He did whine about how his wife was ruining his life far too many times… one of the problems was, apparently, Rei," said Aiko, folding her arms over her chest. "What do you want me to do? Blackmail?"

"If it comes to it, yes," said Meili. "If it's true that the Princess has taken in Rei as her own, well… her reputation is bound to take a hit if it's known that her pristine child, the one she brings with her to public funerals and so on, is the daughter of a common prostitute from Hong Qui."

"Common?" Aiko said, glaring at her boss. Meili was uninterested in sparing her ego, evidently.

"Rei herself is bound to want to protect her position. Imagine how easily we'll be able to coax them into a similar arrangement to Zhao's…" said Meili, breathing deeply and smiling. "A stipend, directly from the Princess."

"Can you really afford to do this?" Aiko asked, raising an eyebrow. "If the Fire Lord were to find out…"

"That's part of the deal, evidently. No one must know," said Meili, staring at Aiko sternly. "The Princess is no innocent, pristine girl herself, Aiko. Zhao may have pretended as much, but rumors have abounded for years about her own private affairs. Haven't you heard that she was sleeping with her gladiator?"

"Oh, of course. I'm sure that's why Zhao was forced into that marriage. She needed to save face and whatnot…" Aiko said, with a shrug. "You believe we can push her into a similar position now?"

"I'm certain of it, actually," Meili said. "All you need to do is seek out Rei. The meek fool will likely bend over backwards and ask the Princess to comply with everything we ask, all be it so we'll leave her alone and so she can continue to bask in the regal lifestyle. Right?"

"Right," said Aiko, with a dark smirk. "Well, I can't pretend I've ever cared to see the girl… but if this works out, perhaps it will be worth it for once."

"You'll go tomorrow. The sooner you make your move, the better," said Meili. Aiko nodded.

Thus, by dawn on the next morning, Aiko donned her most elegant attire and marched out of Harbor Town and into the Capital of the Fire Nation. She didn't hire a carriage – Meili had told her it would be a much more poignant message for her to go on foot, showing how precarious her circumstances were… though Aiko was certain that she simply didn't want to spare the money even for that.

She was tired upon arrival, but she hoped it would only add to the masquerade she had to put up for the guards. Coaxing compassion out of men hardly ought to be a difficult feat, especially stiff and lonely soldiers.

"State your business," said the guard by the Palace's gate. Aiko smiled as warmly as she could at the man.

"Good day. I… I'm the mother of a young woman who has been in the Fire Lord's employment for a few months now. I believe she works directly for the Princess…"

The soldier didn't respond. Aiko gritted her teeth.

"Look, I simply… I want to have a word with my daughter. Her father has only just died, and I need to talk to her. She must be so lonely… can you please let me through? I beg of you, if there's anything I could do…"

"There's nothing for you to do," the guard said, uncompromising. "The Princess is in grieving. Her own husband has passed away recently."

"Oh, so I heard," Aiko said: well, the guard was better off thinking they spoke of different people anyway. "I am truly beside myself in grief for the death of our Crown Prince. But all the more reason, see, why bonds of family should become more valuable… perhaps you could reach out to her? Ask her if…?"

"If you feel that way, grieve for the dead in the Temple. There is no authorization for a commoner or a stranger to visit the Palace today, and I will not disturb the Princess's mourning over this matter."

"B-but…"

"Leave the Palace's premises at once."

Aiko huffed: surely she would find a more malleable soldier elsewhere, perhaps at another gate… she shook her head, glaring at the man reproachfully before marching away.

There had to be another way in. Not every soldier would be able to show such restraint around a helpless woman begging for aid. She had seen enough of them across her life who had no defenses upon feeling the need to protect a woman, and she certainly would find someone as weak-willed and naïve as that sooner than later…

Or so she thought, until her rounding around the Palace walls brought the Temple into focus.

The soldier had said she should go pray for her daughter's dead father there. The idea would have been laughable… but an idea came to mind upon glimpsing clusters of people climbing up those stairs, intent on praying for their loved ones. Her eyes narrowed as she wondered if she'd be able to achieve her goal through a sage, instead, or any noble who might have a better shot at entering the Palace than she did.

Showing herself contrite and mournful, Aiko marched towards the Temple's stairs, eyes sharp, seeking any opportunities worth exploiting.

One fell upon her lap far more easily than she had anticipated it.

She'd know the hunched posture of the girl climbing those stairs anywhere. The long, dark hair, that height… she had certainly filled out some more since she had last seen her, though.

"Palace feeding you just fine, isn't it, Rei?" she said, bitterly, though her sneer shifted into a smile before long.

The girl wasn't alone: another woman, perhaps another servant, was walking the stairs of the Temple with her. Aiko breathed deeply as she watched them, keeping her distance for the time being – guards would see her talking to them if she approached them now, and she had no idea what level of protection Rei merited these days in the Palace. She'd bide her time… she'd wait. And as soon as the opportune moment arrived, Aiko would make her move.


That morning, private ceremonies would be conducted for the dead belonging to highborn families in the Capital. The more highly-ranked individuals would be given to the flames in a much more opulent ceremony by noon, but for now, the sages were mostly busy in private chapels within the Temple, comforting the grieving families with words from the Book of Fire.

The Head Sage had been taking care of organizing everything for the grander ceremony when he spotted Rei and Song in the Temple's main hall. Confused, nervous, he approached them with what he hoped would be a friendly smile rather than an apprehensive one.

"Good day. Have you come to grieve someone? Or does the Princess need anything…?" he asked, glancing between the two.

"I'm sorry. I'm sure you're quite busy today," Song said, earnestly. "Rei simply wished to know if there are any private rooms where she can pray for Zhao's soul. Is that something within the Temple's possibilities right now, or…?"

"Ah! You needn't worry, Lady Wen, of course," said the Head Sage. "I can lead you to one such private chamber for your personal use. Follow me."

"Thank you," Song smiled, a hand upon Rei's shoulder as she guided the girl deeper into the Temple.

They had only come to the Temple due to Azula's insistence: not only did she urge Rei to continue grieving, to hold nothing back on account of the circumstances, but she also seemed to be testing her father's spy assassin in her own ways by staying alone in her bedroom, holding Hotaru tightly, as if challenging him to come find her daughter. It was a bold, reckless choice, but Song and Rei didn't intend to stay long in the Temple anyways. In all likelihood, Azula's test would yield no results, too.

"I hope we're not keeping you from anything important…" Song told the Head Sage, once Rei had knelt before a small altar, eyes closed as she prayed silently.

"No, no… I'd do anything for Princess Azula, as well as her prized companions," the Head Sage said, with a kindly smile. "How is she? I haven't had the chance to speak with her as of late…"

"She's… well, the last weeks have taken their toll on her," Song said, crossing her arms over her chest. "And now that she's Crown Princess again, if just because of Zhao's death…"

"A worrisome matter," the Head Sage agreed, with a heavy sigh.

"It's not going to make things any easier for her," Song said. "Rei and I will try our best to help her, but it might not be enough."

"It certainly will be good that she won't have to fight these battles alone, but I'm afraid that it isn't simply a matter of the Fire Nation's defenses and her reinstated public role," said the Head Sage, shaking his head. "Both those things are certainly worrisome, but I fear the threats that loom closer to her than that. The loudest of all rumors is… the Blue Wolf leads this insurrection. From what I've heard, wanted posters demanding for his murder or capture have been spread in the Colonies. Is it true, or do you not know for sure, Lady Wen?"

"I… I'm afraid it is," Song said, hesitating slightly: the Head Sage had always been trustworthy, but she dreaded that he might think less of Azula for loving the man who had started such a rebellion.

The Head Sage sighed, shaking his head. His eyes narrowed, arms folded over his chest.

"I take it his goal is to return to the Princess. It must be," he said. "His choice in methods is certainly questionable… and yet unsurprising, coming from a Southern Water Tribesman."

"What do you mean by that?" Song asked, raising an eyebrow.

"After the massacres his people were subjected to, by Fire Lord Azulon's hand, it would be ridiculous for anyone to think him merciless or cruel if he has decided to fight back, especially after the suffering he experienced personally by Fire Lord Ozai's choices," the Head Sage said. "How could the Fire Nation cower and hide behind pleas for mercy that we have never showed others? And by sending back the bodies of the dead, he has granted us far more dignity than we ever granted his people, or the Earth Kingdom…"

"That's true," Song said, with a deep sigh.

"I fear he didn't quite think matters too thoroughly, or he simply decided the risks were no reason not to set his plans in motion," the Head Sage frowned. "Perhaps he overestimated the Princess's opportunities to take action and protect everyone who needed protecting. Nevertheless… the Princess is at risk in a myriad of ways. The man she loved is bringing war upon her nation, and her father is bound to be a few days away from losing whatever restraint he has left and turning on her, driven mad by paranoia…"

"What would you expect him to do?" Song asked, frowning. "I mean, we have had the sense that he's trying to spy on her more intently lately, but… other than that, what do you think we should brace ourselves for?"

"Anything and everything," the Head Sage said. Song tensed up. "Fire Lord Ozai is a fiercely passionate man. If he ever experienced those passions for the right causes, he would be an extraordinary leader… and yet that's never been the case. His wounded pride, his need to prove himself the best of all Fire Lords… he will humiliate the Princess, he will subject her to whatever indignities he cares to, he will make demands and expect her to comply with them every time. Any mistakes and danger will close in on those the Princess feels responsible for, as it was when this matter began. Her dragon, for instance… you, young lady Rei, and the child as well, would be the prime candidates for becoming the Fire Lord's best hostages. If he has any cause to fear that the Princess might turn against him, and he certainly has sufficient cause for it, considering that the man she loves is on the other side of the conflict, Ozai won't hesitate to commit to another harmful, cruel course of action. Warn the Princess to be on her guard, more than ever. To play the noble, loyal daughter more than she ever has. It isn't that Ozai deserves to have a daughter who does all those things… this is simply for the sake of her survival, as well as all of yours."

"Right," Song said, gritting her teeth. "The odds for us to get out of danger aren't very good. The people you've been in touch with… they haven't done anything dangerous, have they? Like recruiting members openly, or attempting to rebel in any significant way…"

"They haven't done anything of the sort, at least, not that I'm aware of," the Head Sage said. "I would gladly advise them to stay their hand, should they reach out with any dangerous ideas. I know better than to send a whole group of innocents to their deaths solely to make some sort of point that wouldn't be made, in the end. Nothing will ever suffice to convince Ozai that he is in the wrong, after all."

Song breathed deeply and sighed. The Head Sage's warnings weren't anything new, she knew they had to be more careful than they ever had been… but the precarious situation weighed more heavily on her than ever before. Azula had told her the situation would likely force her to make choices she didn't wish to commit to… but the longer this war was dragged out, the harder it would be to keep everyone safe. Sooner or later, Ozai's rare burst of goodwill would dry up… and the very first people who would feel the burn of his wrath would be Azula and Hotaru, surely. That was what Seethus was up to, as had been proven by the events of the previous day…

"All I can ask is that you keep the Princess safe," the Head Sage told her, startling Song. "I know, it's much easier said than done, considering the circumstances… and you're no warrior, but sometimes you don't need to be one in order to protect those who need you. I simply ask… that you shield her from whatever you may be able to shield her. Stand by her, help her see her horizon clearly. The Princess is the best hope the Fire Nation has ever had… this nation cannot afford to lose her."

"Neither can those of us who love her," Song said, gritting her teeth. "I'll… I'll do everything I can. So will Rei. Unfortunately, she has a penchant for doing whatever she wants, so… I can't swear that I'll be able to protect her. But I know that I'll devote myself to ensuring that the future I've envisioned for us all is not lost."

"Very well. Stay close to her, as often as you can," said the Head Sage, nodding. "The three of you will be better off by being together whenever possible. So, well, not that I'm rushing you, but…"

"But we should go back soon," Song sighed and nodded, glancing at Rei: the girl appeared to be focused on her prayers for the time being. She resolved to wait for Rei for a few more minutes, though Song would remind her that they should hurry back to Azula if she took too long.

She hadn't needed to worry much, however: Rei finished her prayers within five minutes of the end of Song's conversation with the Head Sage, and the girl rose back to her feet with a deep sigh.

"Thank you for letting me borrow this place…" she said. The Head Sage smiled.

"You're most welcome, Lady Rei," the Head Sage said. His choice to grant her such a title felt out of place, but Rei wasn't about to waste time protesting against it.

Rei breathed out slowly, knowing she'd need to do rites of this sort often in order to ease her heavy soul from the grief that hadn't relinquished it yet. Song clasped her shoulder gently, reassuringly, as the three of them marched out of the room, and the Head Sage led them to the main hall once more.

"Feel free to come back again whenever you need to," the Head Sage said to Rei. "I shall be here to provide you with whatever spiritual guidance you may require, should it be in my power to grant it."

"Thank you for your kindness," Rei said, with a gentle smile. "I'll keep that in mind."

"Then the best of luck to you both… please, watch over our Princess," he said, earnestly. Song nodded.

"We'll do our best to…"

Their cordial farewells were interrupted, however, by a sudden, anguished voice lower down the hall. The three of them tensed up when they heard it, though it took Rei a moment to realize that it unsettled her, most of all, for reasons deeper than she initially recognized…

A woman stood near the entrance of the building clutching her robe with a hand, the other upon the chest of a rather uncomfortable young sage.

"If only I had been able to come yesterday! Oh, I'm so sorry I couldn't be here to send off our esteemed Crown Prince! Goodness, is there a chance I might be able to pray for the safety of his spirit? Surely that's possible, isn't it?"

"U-uh, well, there are private meditation chambers deeper in the Temple, you may use one of those if you need that…"

"Ah, please! I truly need to pray for the Crown Prince, I…!"

The woman turned her gaze, feigning complete innocence as she did so: if she hadn't been planning and scheming this from the start, though, her eyes certainly wouldn't have known where to perch themselves right away.

Had she been biding her time in a corner of the Temple, waiting for Rei to show up? It couldn't be a coincidence. There was no way this could be a coincidence…

But why? What the hell was she doing here? She wasn't allowed out of the Scarlet Oasis, not unless there would be greater profit to be gained by visiting someone personally, something that scarcely happened anyway. There would be no such profit at the temple… and she was claiming to have come here to mourn for Zhao.

Rei's brow drew together as her eyes met those of the woman who had birthed her.

"Rei…?" Aiko said, quieting down her loud pretenses once she recognized the person she had been looking for. "Oh, dear, Rei! It's you!"

It was the first time the woman smiled at her with such warmth, rushing to meet her with unbridled glee. The fact that she dared do so this time caused Rei's heart to recoil… for she knew it wasn't genuine. Of course it wasn't. Aiko wanted something, to profit off this situation somehow…

But this wouldn't be a quick opportunity to do so, for even before Rei could say a word, Song stepped in front of her.

Aiko froze, her smile waning quickly as she assessed the mistrustful scowl of the young woman before her. Aiko reeled back the hand with which she had been reaching for Rei, but Song didn't lower her guard regardless.

"Who are you?" she asked, point-blank. Aiko gritted her teeth.

"W-well, I'm… I'm someone from Rei's past," she said, attempting to meet the girl's eyes over her protector's shoulder: she wouldn't acknowledge she was Rei's birth mother? Hiding it wouldn't help matters much… then again, revealing the truth wouldn't, either, whether she knew it or not. "I've only just found out about Crown Prince Zhao's passing, and… goodness, it's such a tragedy. I'm beside myself in grief, I…"

"If so, you should understand that so is she," Song said, curtly.

She didn't know for sure who the woman was, but she knew enough about Rei's past to understand that, whether this was Rei's birth mother or the infamous Lady Meili, it wasn't someone who had ever shown kindness to Rei. No one had, according to all of Rei's stories.

"I do, I… what are the chances, really?" Aiko smiled, shaking her head. "I thought I would mourn him properly, you see, so I came here…"

"Is that so? The accommodations in Hong Qui's temple aren't sufficient for you to pray there?" Song asked, point-blank.

Her blunt question caused Aiko's mask to shatter. The woman froze, and now she shot a glance at Rei that spoke of some manner of betrayal… as though it were unthinkable that the girl could have ever told anyone in her current social circles about her past.

Rei glared back, though. That, perhaps, disturbed Aiko even more.

"I… I figured it would be more appropriate to grieve for him here," Aiko said, swallowing hard. "At any rate, I apologize if I'm rude, but is it really up to you to decide how anyone else would grieve for the Crown Prince? I don't think this is appropriate…"

"Nothing about this is appropriate."

Song tensed up: she glanced over her shoulder at Rei… to find the girl stepping forward, her deep brown eyes narrow with unrestrained resentment.

"Rei…" Aiko said.

"Lady Wen…" Rei said. "We have nothing to do here anymore. We don't owe her another second of our time."

"W-what?" Aiko gasped. "You… w-what is that supposed to mean? Rei, curses… we should talk in private. I don't know what's come over you, but…"

"You don't know a damn thing about me," Rei hissed. Aiko blinked blankly. "You don't know who I am, you never did, you never cared: you're only here because you're hoping to blackmail me somehow, aren't you? How much money was he sending you and the Scarlet Oasis on a monthly, or even weekly basis, to keep you silent about who I am? About my origins?"

Aiko froze, lips parted. Song gritted her teeth, a hand balled into a fist… but she held back the urges to protect Rei. The girl was handling herself quite well so far, and clearly, the other woman was outnumbered and outmatched.

"What are you even…?" said Aiko, glancing at Song nervously, at the Head Sage, standing not too far from them and watching the argument with a keen glare. "I… goodness, child, must you make a fuss? Are you really trying to make a scene here? This is a Temple, not some street alley…"

"Indeed: you should treat it as one too. If you're really here to mourn him, do that. Leave me the hell alone," Rei said. Aiko gasped.

"Rei…!" she said: she was panicking. Her plan, whatever it was, seemed fated to fail. She hadn't wasted an entire, uncommon, wild trip all the way to the city just to be told no, though: "Is that any way to speak to your mother? Curses…!"

"Then…" Song's eyes widened: Aiko tensed up again at her reaction. "Here I was wondering which one this was. That was my first guess, but…"

"It's her, alright," Rei said, glaring at Aiko without flinching. "The woman who unwillingly birthed me."

"Unwillingly?" Aiko huffed. "I may not have been the best mother, but you cannot presume to know whether I wanted you or not…"

"You wanted me solely so you could provide Lady Meili with another source of profit as soon as Admiral Zhao learned about my existence. Which is exactly what you did," Rei hissed. "I'm not about to be swept up by whatever weak excuses you try to make for your behavior now… but more than anything, I want to make one thing clear: you are not my mother."

"Ha! So I unwillingly birthed you, but I'm not your mother? Goodness, that's a new one," said Aiko, with a disbelieving sneer. "You're impossible. How could you treat your own mother this way, denying her, refusing her…?"

"No, I've never done that to my mother," Rei said, bluntly. "She's the kindest person I know. She took me in. She adopted me. She learned everything about who I was and never thought I was insignificant and lesser. My father… he had many faults, countless faults, but I do regret I never… I never had the courage to call him my father directly. I wanted to… I never could. You, though? I'm never using that word to speak of you again. You don't deserve it."

"Is that so?" Aiko asked: her tone shifted entirely, perhaps out of some manner of misplaced jealousy, whether of Azula for having taken Rei in and taught her what a true parent was, or of Zhao, for having failed Rei and still being part of her life, her heart, as her only father… "I can only wonder if the Fire Lord's nobility would find me that unpalatable once they learn the truth about the girl their dear Princess adopted so generously. Or is it you're quite so swept up by the pretenses of the highborn that you somehow have grown to believe that they would accept you, no matter your origins? Surely even the Princess would…"

"The Princess knows everything she needs to know about who you are, and about the role you've played in Rei's life," Song said, glaring at Aiko. "As do I."

"And who the hell are you?" Aiko huffed, all pretenses of civility well and truly gone by now.

"She's my friend. The Princess's confidante," Rei said, frowning. "You think I'm worried about being shunned? About being a blow against the Princess's reputation?"

"The Princess herself has never worried about that," said Song, folding her arms over her chest: the sight of true, pure fear dawning in Aiko's eyes was certainly welcome. "The Fire Lord knows the truth, too…"

"And if you spread it far and wide, you'll only be ashaming yourself, as well as Admiral Zhao, in death," Rei said, closing her eyes and sighing. "For the Princess took me in regardless of my humble origins. She presented me at the Temple when no one else did. There's no evidence that you're my mother… because you wanted it that way, to begin with. No one has been hiding the truth, therefore: what do I have to be ashamed of?"

"What do you…?" Aiko gasped: this certainly was an unexpected upset. Could she call their bluff? Could it truly just be a bluff? That seemed unlikely: the girl truly hadn't been presented at a temple, no one had cared to do so, much as it happened with every child born in the Scarlet Oasis… but that didn't matter, did it? Rumors were harmful and complicated. They could make Rei's life a living hell if…

"There's a war going on right now," Rei growled. "And you seriously think this is the right time for you to play twisted, fucked up games to profit off my existence? You never cared for him… just as you never cared for me. We were just tools for you and Lady Meili, means to an end, and I'm not playing along ever again. You're not getting any money off the Princess. You're not going to blackmail anyone. Scream the truth of my heritage in the middle of the city if you want: no one will ever hear the story of a low-born servant, taken in and adopted by a Princess, and believe that you of all people are the victim of it all."

"Are you truly this mad? This… this doesn't make any sense, Rei," said Aiko, shaking her head. "Say what you will, you are a stain upon the Royal Family's reputation…!"

"I'm no such thing: I'm the Princess's daughter because she wanted me to be," Rei said, firmly. "And you? You're nothing to me anymore. A bad memory, and an occasional headache, should you show up like this again. But I'm done with you… and I'm never letting you threaten the Princess over me. You're not going to get away with that. Go on and regret having birthed me at all as you always have, you weren't exactly subtle about it… I was a waste of your time, a waste of resources for you and Lady Meili, and I'm damn proud of it."

Aiko's jaw dropped: the accusations Rei hurled at her weren't off-base in the least… hence her lack of an answer. Rei glared at her sharply… remembering this moment wouldn't likely give her much satisfaction in the future, she hardly felt any now, still beset as she was over her grief for Zhao. But she knew she was making the right choice… she knew she was finally facing the truths she had struggled to accept when she had been younger, helpless, with no way out of a dark life she had never asked for. Finally, she was strong enough to face Aiko and shut down he attempts to take advantage of her position as Zhao's daughter, and now, as Azula's.

"I'll never be anyone's tool again," Rei said, firmly. "Not yours, not Lady Meili's: no one's. I get to choose whatever life I want to live… and I choose a life alongside the Princess. You're not going to get in the way of that."

Aiko shuddered: she was finished. There was no fight left in her anymore: was she that shocked to see Rei had changed immensely from the helpless girl she had hardly raised her to become? All along, Rei had been compliant, submissive, subservient out of fear of violence, of punishments… in a matter of years, all those things were gone. But was it truly the years she had spent with Zhao, who certainly had been paying a stipend frequently to Lady Meili to keep her silenced about Rei's identity? Or was it simply the blasted Princess's doing…?

"We're done here," Rei said, bluntly.

She turned towards the Head Sage, who breathed out slowly and nodded.

"I will see her escorted out personally. Go on back home, Lady Rei," he said.

The nobiliary title shook Aiko even more than anything. She gasped, staring at the girl in disbelief: Rei held her gaze for a moment, as though challenging her to speak another word… and Aiko didn't dare do so.

And so, Rei walked away.

Song shuddered as she watched the brave, young woman walking with her head held high, her posture no longer as hunched as it usually was. A fire burned in Song's chest… a pride she had never quite experienced so strongly. Her heart seemed to rejoice in this strange victory, the result of a battle they hadn't even known they would be fighting on that day… a battle Rei had wound up triumphant in, largely by herself.

Still… the threat wasn't truly gone. Aiko stood there, in shock, glancing over her shoulder at the girl who walked away: there weren't many common features between the two, Song realized, besides the tan color of their skin… Rei surely was pleased to not take after her biological mother in most regards.

She had to catch up to her, though. Song bowed her head respectfully towards the Head Sage before taking a step forward… and then she stopped, right beside Aiko.

The woman glanced at her in fear: Song's eyes narrowed as she glared at Rei's birth mother.

"You no longer have a say upon what happens in Rei's life… it's not as if you made use of it much back when you still did," Song said. Aiko scowled. "You won't get out of this as easily next time… so make sure there isn't a next time."

Aiko's indignant gasp was the last thing Song heard before marching after Rei. The girl was already near the stairs when Song caught up with her: she was trembling, her brow drawn together in a heavy frown.

"I'm sorry… I'm sorry you had to see that," she said. Song shook her head, wrapping an arm protectively around Rei's shoulders.

"No need for that, Rei… I wish I could have done more to help, if anything," Song said, guiding her down the stairs carefully. "I'm sorry she showed up like that. Curses…"

"I'm glad the Princess wasn't with us," Rei said, gritting her teeth. "The last thing she needs is to worry about… about that woman leeching off her in whatever way she cared to."

"You were really brave, standing up to her like that, Rei," Song said, hugging her tightly. "Azula will be proud. Shaken up, I suspect, but proud."

"I hope so…" Rei said, shivering as tears bloomed in her eyes. "H-hell, I… to think they'd take my father's death as a chance to parasite off her? I… I'm so mad. I'm so angry, I…! I could just go right back and scream at her, I really could…"

"If you really want to, I won't stop you…" Song said, with a compassionate smile.

"I… I don't know what's come over me…" Rei said, covering her face with her hands. "But I… I won't be a liability for the Princess. I won't be a burden or a problem for my mother. I don't care what I have to do to keep that woman at bay… but I'll do it. I won't let her cause more damage than she already has. I'll… I'll make her rue the day she bore me, even more than she already does. I'm never going to be her tool… never going to let her use me to get to the Princess, no matter what."

"You've proven it by now. You left her entirely helpless back there," Song said, with a proud smile. "I wish it hadn't happened… I was ready to fight her off however I needed to, but you handled yourself amazingly, Rei…"

"It's not something I should burden you with, either," Rei said, shaking her head as she reached up to clasp Song's hand. "I… I've hidden behind you and the Princess for too long. The one time I tried to step forward, I only made matters worse when… w-when Admiral Zhao hurt me. She's not as strong as he was… she's not as strong as she pretends to be either. She's just Lady Meili's tool, herself. I only exist because they decided it was something worth gambling on… because they could profit off me. They got away with it for too long. If they're going to try to become a problem for the Princess now… then it's up to me to fight back."

"You don't have to do it alone, though… but it's quite impressive that you meant to, nonetheless," Song said, with a gentle smile. Rei raised her tearful eyes towards her. "The last days have been really difficult for you, Rei… it's okay if you need help. We're here for you."

"You are…" Rei said, swallowing hard. "But… maybe the Princess shouldn't be. She has so much to worry about too, with that assassin lurking, the war, Sokka… I don't want to need her help in sorting out more problems than she can handle. So… we'll tell her about this, but she won't have to worry about it. We'll tell her that, too."

"For sure," Song smiled. "Honestly… I have the feeling that, like you said, a threat of blackmail wouldn't pay off. Azula already has the goodwill of the people, their support, and she gained much of it by being kind to those who she should have seen as socially insignificant compared to her. I don't know if we've told you about it yet… but people started thinking of her as compassionate and kind after she carried Sokka personally, over her shoulders, out of a fight where he was defeated and he wound up badly injured. No other sponsor had ever been seen doing something like that for their gladiator before."

"Heh… that sounds like her," Rei said, with a weak smile.

"That was the starting point," Song said. "And she only continued to prove herself to her people in all the years that followed. So, yeah, it's one hell of a stupid plan to think that her adoption of you would ever reflect badly on her. Zhao may have built his reputation by hiding his past, but Azula doesn't need to do that. She never did."

Rei sighed and nodded. Her trembling was settling down, and she dabbed at the tears in her eyes as she frowned with determination.

"All the more reason to protect her however I can. I know I'm not that strong… but whatever I can do to keep her safe, I will do it. I promise."

Song nodded as she kept a protective arm around Rei's shoulders. Together, they reentered the Palace shortly afterwards and returned to the Princess's room: the guards greeted them on their way in, and they found Azula in the bathroom, nursing Hotaru privately, ensuring the guards wouldn't be able to see her child if they happened to open the door just as she was feeding her baby.

"You're back," Azula said, smiling as Rei and Song stepped into view. Her grin faded, though, at the sight of Rei's flushed face. "Was it really difficult? Rei…"

"It was, but not for the reasons you think," Rei said, swallowing hard as she stepped into the bathroom too.

Azula sat on a stool, watching both her friends as they filed into the room without a care – Hotaru watched them too, eyes flickering between them, but she continued eating regardless.

"After I was done praying… we heard a commotion near the door. Noise, a woman just… pestering a sage," Rei said, bitterly. Azula raised an eyebrow – she had never heard her daughter speaking so harshly. "It was… Aiko. My biological mother."

Azula's lips parted. Rei's fury was easily explained that way, truth be told…

"She wanted to blackmail you," Rei said, bluntly. Azula's eyes widened. "To use me as a tool to get to your money. I'm guessing that Admiral Zhao kept paying them off even after he paid them initially, to get me out of there…"

"Shit," Azula said, snarling and shaking her head. "Curses, I'm sorry, Rei. I never thought she'd seek you out…"

"I didn't either. Took him dying for her to decide to do it. Speaks for itself," Rei said, shaking her head.

"Rei bit back, though," Song said, with a small smile. Azula eyed her questioningly. "Maybe I'm wrong to hope this was enough to scare her away for good… but it might just be."

"You stood your ground against her?" Azula asked, turning towards Rei again. "I mean…"

"It's okay. You don't have to explain what you're thinking… I'll be thinking it myself, eventually, too," Rei sighed, cheeks flushed. "But it's just… I couldn't stand up to Admiral Zhao so many times. I never had the guts… and when I finally did, it didn't help. After he's died, I couldn't help but wonder if… if I could've done more. If I could have helped, if maybe I could have changed his fate if I'd just had the strength to speak my mind and… and make him respect me."

"Well… I don't know about any of that, Rei, but you're not to blame for his worst choices," Azula said, reaching out with a hand to clasp her daughter's. Rei sniffed, tears spilling down her cheeks again. "Are you alright? I mean, I know you're not in many regards, but…"

"She won't hurt me. She can't anymore," Rei said, breathing deeply and meeting her gaze with determination. "You've protected me… you and Song. You've taught me how to take a stand and fight for what I know is right. That's what I intend to do. If she ever comes back… I'll be ready. I'll never let her blackmail you, or threaten to ruin your life with stupid rumors about who I am."

"Well… I don't know how things will turn out, but if the war didn't have the worst of outcomes for us, I'd have no problem with giving a public statement about you and your status in the Royal Family," Azula said. Rei's eyes widened. "If the only way they can weaponize you against me is by spreading rumors about your true identity… then we can put an end to the rumors by telling the truth. It's only intuitive, I'd say…"

"I don't mind… as long as you're sure it's a good idea," Rei said, with a small smile. Azula smiled back, squeezing her hand gently. "There's not much I can do to help you… but I can protect you from them, for sure."

"Do you think there's a chance they'll try again? Or try another approach, as the case may be?" Azula asked, relinquishing her hold on Rei so she could prop up Hotaru more comfortably. "I don't mind if you think you can handle them yourself, though I wouldn't mind supporting you either, should you need me to. I'm just saying…"

"We should cover all our bases?" Rei finished. Azula smiled and nodded.

"Rumors about the truth are one thing… rumors based on lies, on the other hand, are worrisome," Azula said. "They might choose to spread falsehoods instead… all of which sounds rather foolish to worry about when there's a war brewing in the horizon and that I might be more involved in quite soon."

"What kind of falsehoods do you expect them to spread about you?" Song asked, frowning. "You don't think they could, maybe… know about you and Sokka?"

"A lot of people did," Azula said, meeting her gaze warily. "Rumors about it abound anyway. You and Rei proved as much after you talked with Shoji and his group during the festivals."

"B-but that's…" Rei frowned, an unpleasant chill running up her back.

"Rumors about my relationship with Sokka would have seemed… fickle, an amusement, before my downfall. After he disappeared and the League ended? Those rumors would have painted us as tragic lovers, perhaps, young and foolish, unable to resist each other when the risks were far too great to be overcome. But now? My father's bound to tell the truth regarding what's happened in the Earth Kingdom sooner than later, especially after the disastrous battle in the North Pole and the numerous funerary rites held across the Fire Nation throughout this week. By then? Sokka's no longer going to be a hero of the people, an unlikely upstart who proved himself above all expectations, or a tragic figure torn away from the woman he loved… by then, Sokka is going to be a villain. The Fire Nation won't think he's done this to come back to me… in fact, if they did? They'd think I'm in agreement with his warpath, that I'm fine with having my nation destroyed in retaliation for losing the man I love. So…"

"So, they could take advantage of that…?" asked Rei, gritting her teeth. "I don't know if Admiral Zhao told her about you and Sokka, but…"

"He might have," Azula said, breathing deeply and shaking her head. "But whether he did or didn't, there's bound to be enough rumors out there for them to learn it through other means beside him. I can very well imagine people claiming that I'll turn my back on the Fire Nation, and if it garners him sympathy when he needs it, my father might just reveal to the world what a sleazy fool his daughter was, running off with the most dangerous enemy of the Fire Nation…"

"Speaking of which… the Head Sage seems quite wary of whatever will happen now that Zhao is dead," Song said. Azula grimaced. "He asked me to help keep you safe. He still believes you're the Fire Nation's best hope…"

"I wouldn't expect otherwise from him," Azula said, with a sad smile. "Perhaps we could count on him to fight in my defense, should bad rumors begin to spread? But who knows…"

"Controlling public opinion sounds like a dangerous game to play," Song said, with a sigh. "With how complicated the war is, and how it gets even worse due to your bonds with those on the other side of the battlefield… convincing people that you're on the right side of the war won't be easy."

"Indeed. Maybe my father won't reveal anything yet… I hope he won't, even," Azula said, shaking her head: Hotaru let out a soft cooing sound, and Azula looked down at her. "The longer he delays official announcements, the safer we'll be, but… who knows if we'll be safe at all, in the coming days."

Song gritted her teeth: both she and Rei meant to stay true to their promise to the Head Sage, they meant to help protect Azula and Hotaru… but the circumstances seemed to close in around them, tightening the war's unyielding, unforgiving grip over the Princess and everyone she cared for.

Azula fixed her clothes, for Hotaru was finished eating: she marched back into her room, still holding the child in her arms as the baby continued to make meaningless sounds with her soft voice. Azula couldn't help but smile, kissing her brow as she paced with Hotaru through the room… but as soothing as it was for her to be safe with her two companions once more, the darkness of their circumstances continued to overwhelm them all.

"Did anything happen with the assassin?" asked Song, as she and Rei followed Azula out of the bathroom as well. Azula shook her head.

"The coward won't make a single move if there's guards around, looks like. Or maybe he's just scared of me," she said. "Whatever the case may be, he was entirely uninterested in coming here all through the day. I doubt he's aware that I've caught onto him… but if he comes back, he'll find out the bad way."

Rei breathed out slowly and nodded. Song gritted her teeth, eyes shifting towards the sword sitting by Azula's dresser.

The peaceful days they had been able to enjoy years ago were long gone: even the tense days of uncertainty from the past year were close to expiring entirely. No, it never had been true peace, they all knew so… but the unsettling circumstances, the precarious position in which they stood, the danger, latent and patient, suggested that they'd need to start making moves sooner than later, moves that might be profoundly dangerous, threatening everything Azula had worked for. Fighting for the Fire Lord was unthinkable for her… but fighting for the Fire Nation, something most her detractors would consider synonymous to the former, was something she couldn't stop doing. Her people needed her… her dragon needed her, as did her friends and everyone she had ever built a true connection with.

Sooner than later, the demands of their cruel world would make themselves known. By then… Azula would have to be ready to face them, be it ill-intended rumors, cruel accusations, dangerous assassins or her father's most merciless tests. She had already failed to protect the man she loved most… she couldn't afford to fail again. Their daughter, nestling in her arms, patting her collarbone with a small hand, would grow up in a safe world: that notion would be the guiding light Azula would follow… the beautiful, bright firefly in the middle of the fields of darkness that wouldn't consume her if she kept her sights set on that small, fragile light.


Night had fallen by the time he arrived in the guards' barracks. It wasn't common, these days, for him to visit General Shaofeng… but that he'd feel the need to do so, rather than summoning him to his study, was bound to be good news for the typically disgruntled general.

He glared at Ozai, who stood uneasily, unsteadily, before him.

"Out with it," Shaofeng said, curtly. Ozai snarled.

"You know all too well that our arrangement has endured since I became Fire Lord. You and your group have remained safe and undetected," Ozai said.

"No thanks to you," Shaofeng said. Ozai gritted his teeth. "The slavery laws were moments away from destroying that arrangement. Now, though, you wish to uphold it? You expect me to uphold it?"

"I do. I need you to. The world needs you to," Ozai said. Shaofeng snorted, eyeing Ozai with undisguised skepticism.

"Are you seriously attempting to appeal to my emotions, Ozai? How much lower do you intend to sink?" Shaofeng asked. Ozai gritted his teeth.

"I would not ask this of you if over half our troops had not been massacred in the North Pole," he said. Shaofeng hummed. "I need… your support. And I will remind you… it is in your best interests to preserve me as Fire Lord."

"Just as it's in yours to preserve me as the General of the Guards," Shaofeng said.

"Thus why I'm asking you to join forces with me, properly this time. I need your troops… I need your men," Ozai said. "They can reinforce the defenses in the mainland and the remaining colonies. If we don't do this, Shaofeng… our forces will die out. Our entire nation will be overrun by the White Lotus, by the Gladiator's forces. At that point, what good will it be for you to have so many men in your personal service? If the Fire Nation is overrun and defeated, Shaofeng… your forces will follow. There will be no living in the underbelly, thriving in money and the power you will be unable to use or wield anymore. You need me to serve as your shield: I need you to serve as mine now, too. Call upon your forces… and help me defend this nation."

Shaofeng glared at Ozai skeptically. Countless thoughts had to be rushing through his mind, but Ozai wasn't privy to any of them. Shaofeng clearly was savoring this situation… basking in it with delight, for it was the first time in countless years that Ozai had come to him for aid in this manner.

"You wish for my men to become reinforcements for your troops," Shaofeng said. "Most of my men, however, have been in the Fire Nation over the course of the last months. Even before this war of the Gladiator's grew to the extent it has, I had yet to send my people out there once more after the slavery laws muddled matters as much as they did. I don't dare send anyone back there, let alone now…"

"Fine. Then have them protect the mainland," Ozai said, gritting his teeth. "That isn't something beyond your troops' ability, is it? They can serve to hold the Capital safe when… when they inevitably reach it."

"The Capital?" said Shaofeng. "Well, then… I must say there are terms you'll have to abide by, accept, if this is truly how you want this to happen, Ozai."

"What terms?" Ozai said, glaring at Shaofeng.

"Yes, my troops can very well help protect the Capital and Harbor City, perhaps. That would be the ideal spectrum of operation for my forces," Shaofeng said, rubbing his knuckles softly before cracking them. "But my troops will not extend their protection to everyone in the city. To be precise… to everyone in the Palace."

Ozai's eyes narrowed. Shaofeng glared back at him.

"Why?" Ozai asked, point-blank.

"Because, as you said it yourself… it is in my best interests for you to remain in power," Shaofeng said. Ozai's eyes widened. "Anything that happens to her is of no concern to me."

"You truly…?" Ozai hissed, fists trembling. "She is my heir. The only one I have left."

"And whose fault is that, pray tell?" Shaofeng asked. Ozai snarled. "I warned you… it would be safer, better for you to forsake a marriage that was beyond your reach. We don't know what happened to her. Marry another, I said, make her bear your children… wean out the poisonous, treacherous blood she injected into your family. And yet you refused."

"I will refuse regardless," Ozai said. Shaofeng shrugged.

"And so, I will continue to treat that girl as the product of treachery and cowardice, just as she is," Shaofeng said. Ozai shuddered. "Your threats, Ozai, are empty: you need me more than I need you at this point. You constantly wave menacing words around, as though pretending I don't have power over you still. As though you could shrug everything off because you wish to, as though you have some trump card you can't wait to use against me… but look at you now, begging and pleading for me to bail you out of this war that turned out to be too big, too dangerous for you. Curious, isn't it?"

"Enough," Ozai hissed. "Azula is part of the Royal Family. As such…"

"As such, she has her own security detail and she'd do best to appreciate it," Shaofeng said, simply, smoothing the wrinkles of his black gloves as he spoke. "From my understanding, Captain Renkai has been remarkably subservient with her as of late. What more would you want? A fourth squad of Imperial Guards at her service?"

"I want you to… to not speak of her safety with as much disregard as you have," Ozai said, gritting his teeth. "This is no joking matter, Shaofeng."

"It isn't to me, either," Shaofeng said, bluntly. "I am not making a single effort to protect her any further. No troops under my command will support the likely mastermind behind the war you're so troubled by right now. She will not have any more protection than she has been granted so far. That is all I'm willing to offer you, Fire Lord Ozai."

Ozai snarled: no further protection for Azula, then… if those were the terms he had to agree to in order to access the bulk of Shaofeng's forces, wouldn't it be easy to simply send many of Ozai's loyal, lawful soldiers personally to protect her? He could do so… he could protect his daughter personally, while Shaofeng helped by bolstering the general army's numbers. If anything, considering how much Shaofeng appeared to resent Azula, this was bound to be a better deal for Ozai, overall, than anything else he could get from the General.

"Then… I accept the offer," Ozai said. Shaofeng smirked.

"Very well. Whatever happens in your next war meeting, inform me of what you require from me afterwards. Feel free to see yourself out."

How utterly demolishing to feel himself as powerless as he had been once, under the thumb of a man as merciless as Fire Lord Azulon… but Azulon was dead, and yet his lackey remained. How he loved to fashion himself as the true ruler of the Fire Nation… Shaofeng's shamelessness, greed and malice knew no boundaries, he refused to restrain them at all.

And now he sought to force Ozai to discard Azula… to withhold his protection from her. Did Shaofeng believe Ozai would leave her to her fate? Did he expect him to abandon his daughter entirely? Did he hope, perhaps, that in leaving her to defend herself, she would falter and crumble against the threat of the Gladiator's forces? Or, worse yet, that she'd show her true colors and join him instead?

Ozai had ignored Zhao's warnings about Azula for the time being. His disbelief on the matter had outraged his friend… now, in death, it was harder to dismiss his concerns. No, Ozai didn't believe Azula had conspired against the Fire Nation, or that she had worked to sabotage the war effort, not when her suggestions had been perfectly sound – without them, there would have been no weapon design for the airships, and the Mechanist would have joined the Gladiator far sooner, perhaps providing him with new inventions while the Fire Nation remained none the wiser. Just so, the Northern Water Tribe would have triumphed over the Fire Nation forces without much effort, considering how easily the Avatar had destroyed their troops when he had. With his support backing up the waterbenders, their victory would have been assured. The sacrifices were severe, and they hadn't paid off in the slightest, seeing as the Northern Water Tribe had prevailed… but, if uncontested, the waterbenders might have brought the Gladiator to the Fire Nation's doorstep by now.

So, she wasn't lying. She wasn't working against them. Even if it seemed so counterintuitive, even if she surely still held affection for that man in her heart… Ozai snarled as he marched down the Palace's corridors, unable to help the nagging voice in his head that seemed to chastise him for his every choice since that night. Had he withheld his rage, had he set aside his determinations about what was right or appropriate from a Princess… would it have been possible to avoid all this? Or had the Gladiator always set his sights on destroying the Fire Lord's control over the Colonies? Seeing how rebellious he always had been, it wouldn't surprise Ozai much if that turned out to be the case. But perhaps, if he had made other choices, if he had been more forgiving…

He, too, was guilty of leaving Azula unprotected, defenseless against the tide of danger rising in her direction. Too many times he had been the cause of her sorrows, the instigator of her misery: could he pretend to be any better than Shaofeng? Could he claim innocence when he was the first one to be proven guilty?

Perhaps it wouldn't matter in the end: perhaps Azula would be strong enough to take a stand and defend herself against the surging threats that arose around her, whether those posed by the Gladiator and his alliance with the White Lotus, or that of Shaofeng and his unrestrained hatred for her. Ozai shuddered at the thought of it: never before had he imagined that someone might draw a connection, a parallel between Azula and Ursa, to determine that they were both threats that needed to be destroyed. It was no surprise that Shaofeng would be the one to do it, though…

There had always been something twisted about the man when it came to the women in Ozai's life – not that there were too many of them, anyway. Was he simply that deeply apprehensive of all women, or was it something peculiar and specific towards the Princess and her mother? Considering how little use Shaofeng had made of the Enforcers, leaving them to pile dust and basically serve no purpose, a year after their formation, perhaps it wasn't only about the royal ones. Whatever his problem was, though, Ozai would push as best he could to ensure that all soldiers, be it the Enforcers or the personal recruits Shaofeng had favored, would work for the Fire Nation's defense.

As for Azula… whatever allies she recruited, whatever loyalties she still could awaken in others, she would be defended. Shaofeng didn't control the entirety of the Fire Nation's army, as much as he liked to pretend otherwise: Ozai would keep enough forces tasked with Azula's defense, regardless of how justified Shaofeng's suspicions of her might be. He had already disappointed and displeased his daughter enough times… he had allowed others to dictate right and wrong around her when she had looked to him for guidance and support. Perhaps she wouldn't do that anymore… but he wouldn't forsake her when she needed him. Never again.

He had done that enough times as it was, starting many years ago.

She had been a restless child, more so around anything prohibited to her, or even simply out of her reach. As she grew older, the small Princess Azula developed a streak of mischief entirely absent in her brother, who constantly chose to spend time with his mother instead, only ever comfortable in her presence. It didn't help that the mother and son would often travel east, by themselves, whenever Zuko had lessons with Piandao. Azula would be left behind with Ozai, sulking quietly over something she couldn't seem to take part in, as much as she wished to.

That she never asked to be brought with them after the first few times they had traveled alone hadn't stood out to Ozai as anything all that rare. He had business to attend to, himself – Fire Lord Azulon needed him to carry on standing in the background as he handled matters of war, of course –, and as much as he checked on Azula on occasion, he mainly left her in the care of Lo and Li, to Azula's disappointment. She didn't seem to mind her elderly caretakers that much, initially, for they were part of her life just as anyone else in her family might be… but she was growing to resent them, Ozai suspected, since being around them meant being cut off from anything important, interesting or entertaining that might be happening elsewhere.

The real reason why Azula hadn't attempted to ask for something out of her reach, though, didn't become clear until Ursa announced during one family dinner, a week after Azula's birthday, that she and Zuko would be traveling to Shu Jing again, by the end of the week. Ozai had acknowledged her plans, encouraged Zuko to do well – and the boy had smiled brightly, for he had read his simple courtesy as a display of genuine kindness from his father, kindness he typically wasn't privy to. But after dinner, instead of going to bed, Azula had rushed up to Ozai, tugging his long robes to get his attention. He had scrutinized her with a raised eyebrow, and she had offered him a delightfully mischievous smile as she let go of his robe, knowing she had overstepped a boundary that, despite everything, Ozai didn't mind all that much.

"Yes, Azula?"

"Can we go to Shu Jing too?" she asked, point-blank. Ozai frowned.

"We could, I suppose, but why would you wish to?" Ozai asked. "Your brother and your mother will return within a few days, there's no need…"

"I… I want to learn swords, too."

Ozai frowned. Azula's excitable smile faded as she bit her lip anxiously. She held her hands together nervously, staring at Ozai with large eyes… as though hoping that would make her plea more convincing, somehow.

"I'm five now," she said. Ozai raised an eyebrow. "Zuko learned when he was five. I'm the same age, so I can go now. Right, Dad?"

The logic she resorted to seemed simple, intuitive even. Why would she not be allowed to do the same thing her brother had been allowed to do, after all? Ozai stared at her intently, and Azula rubbed her hands nervously still. She knew she could be denied, but she was ready to fight for what she interpreted as her right to catch up to her brother, having waited patiently for years to access the same education he had been granted…

"I… shall think on it," Ozai said. Azula, of course, knew that wasn't sufficient.

"But Dad…"

"You're a firebender, Azula. A strong one, much stronger than your brother," Ozai said, kneeling down before her so he could be closer to her level. Azula gritted her teeth. "His apprenticeship with Piandao obeys that reason, above all else. Learning how to handle swords may not be something all that urgent for you… so why do you want to do it? Simply to catch up to him?"

"I… I like swords," Azula mumbled, looking at Ozai helplessly. Ozai huffed.

"And… you want to catch up to him," he confirmed. Azula grimaced, jumping forward and grabbing onto his bent knee.

"I'll be good! I won't be trouble!" she pleaded. "Please, Dad…! I just want to learn! I just want to…!"

"No need to use that tone with me," Ozai said, and Azula quieted down. He breathed deeply, shaking his head. "There are matters involved in this, well beyond my willingness to allow this, Azula. Piandao may refuse to train you because you're a Princess rather than a Prince…"

"Why?" Azula said, pouting. Ozai shrugged.

"It would be foolishness, yes, but I cannot presume to know what his cultural values might be," he said. Azula blinked blankly. "He may also determine you're not worthy altogether, however."

"I'm… not?" Azula asked, puzzled.

"If he does… it won't affect your understanding of yourself, will it?" Ozai asked. Azula's eyes widened. "Even if he didn't wish to teach you to fight with blades, you wouldn't grow upset about it and you would continue to focus on your firebending. Promise me this… and I shall take you, as you requested."

"You… you will? Yes! Yes, I promise!" Azula exclaimed, jumping excitedly and smiling brightly again. Ozai smiled, placing a hand over her head.

"What a wild child you can be when it suits you, Azula," he teased, rising to his feet again: Azula was giddy, enough to move in and hug his leg. Ozai crooked an eyebrow at the gesture, but he smiled as Azula pulled back, with that mischievous, guilty smile again. "Off to bed with you, now."

"Good night, Dad!"

She ran off then, a spring in her step: why was it so important to her to learn swordsmanship? Ozai wondered if it was her rivalry with Zuko… was she that eager to prove herself better than him at everything? Her brother wouldn't take it so well, if that were the case… but to Ozai, it wasn't much cause for concern. He knew, all too well, how difficult it was for the younger sibling to catch up to the older one. Azula was quite fortunate that the gap between herself and Zuko was merely that of two years, rather than ten… she might be able to prove herself, and earn the respect she was certainly worthy of. Ozai couldn't help but want to support her in this endeavor, wherever that might take her.

Thus, he entered his shared bedroom with his wife, finding her already cleaning up and readying herself for bed.

"Ursa…" he called her. She smiled at him over her shoulder, and his foolish heart somersaulted at the sight. "Would it be fine if Azula and I joined you and Zuko in Shu Jing this time?"

"Oh? You won't have any meetings with your father?" Ursa asked, with a bright smile.

"I won't, fortunately," Ozai said, nodding.

"Well, I'm sure Zuko will be thrilled to show you personally what his training sessions look like," Ursa smiled fondly, stepping up to her husband and placing a hand upon his chest. "I do so love it when we have proper family time together. I was hoping we'd travel together to Ember Island again in about a month, maybe, and we might be able to spend proper time together there, without your father's unpleasant watch upon us all…"

"Has he done anything to you recently?" Ozai asked. Ursa sighed and shook her head.

"He had some noble ladies visiting the Palace only this morning, demanded that I was there to greet them: he spent the bulk of that time praising Daiyu's memory, to which I wouldn't protest, if only he hadn't done it by constantly dismissing you as a husband while commending Iroh…"

"So, nothing out of the ordinary, at least," Ozai said, though his face gave away he wasn't exactly pleased to hear that. Ursa sighed.

"I have no idea how you've endured this madness for so long. I feel like he's constantly testing me, waiting to see if I'll ever stand up to him to defend you so he can… I don't know, feel safe and sound in attacking us both? It's maddening."

"Never defend me," Ozai said, cupping her cheek. "Do not give him the entertainment he seeks. Show him nothing of who you truly are. He'll get away with nothing if we offer him no chances to ridicule us."

"We remain a united front against him, even if he doesn't understand it," Ursa said, taking his hand in hers. "At any rate, if you can afford it, please come with us. Five days without seeing you is… well, very hard on Zuko, yes."

"On Zuko?" Ozai asked, amused. Ursa's clever smirk brought a soft laugh out of his lips.

"Why, of course. Who else would deeply, desperately miss you, my Prince?" she asked, wrapping her arms around his waist: he leaned in, kissing her lips fully, and Ursa responded in kind.

He hadn't been entirely honest with her about his reasons, but she hadn't questioned him much about them: clearly, she had other pursuits in mind as she dragged him to bed. Guilt sprawled in Ozai's chest, though, as he remembered the first promise he had made to Ursa, so long ago, once she laid in his arms, sleeping soundly: he would always be honest. He would always be forthright about his thoughts, about his feelings, about his frustrations, about everything. His plans, and the reasons why he had decided on them, surely were part of that equation as well…

But he kept his silence. He kept his intentions hidden. Why? He didn't quite know for sure. A part of him suspected Ursa would block off Azula's attempt to train under Piandao to defend Zuko's easily wounded pride. The boy was rather innocent and naïve, and he never failed to be either of those things around his parents… but his behavior towards Azula grew more hostile as time passed, and Ozai didn't fail to notice it: most of all, he resented her for her bending. It also bothered him, it seemed, that Azula made no efforts to spare his feelings whenever she hurt them: she wasn't even slightly concerned with masking her pride when she succeeded at anything her brother faltered at. Their relationship hadn't improved in the least since Zuko had first started training with Piandao… Ozai suspected it had worsened, instead. He hadn't quite sensed anything all that harmful on Azula's end… but perhaps she, too, had grown resentful of the opportunities her brother had been granted and that she lacked. That might even be what motivated her this time…

But whatever the case might be, Ozai would handle the matter of Ursa's opinion on Azula's education once he found out whether there was anything for her to have an opinion on: Piandao's choice still preceded whether Ursa would attempt to block Azula's potential swordsmanship training or not.

The trip was much like those they often set out on, and Azula and Zuko fought throughout it as recklessly as they typically did. The nights, of course, were the better moments, as Zuko and Azula fell asleep, allowing Ozai and Ursa to bask in peace and quiet, watching the stars together on deck. It was a placid, easygoing time, and nothing seemed to get in the way of their tranquility… but Ozai dreaded that would stop being the case once they reached Shu Jing.

Zuko was quick to rush into his master's mansion, eager to show off his swordsmanship abilities, sparring with Piandao to prove how much he had learned. Ozai nodded approvingly, though not as enthusiastically as Ursa, who doted on her firstborn as he proved his ability to keep up with a master who, quite clearly, was holding back. Nonetheless, Ozai could acknowledge that a seven-year-old capable of responding to an opponent as intuitively as Zuko did might just be displaying innate talent with blades. Two years' worth of training hadn't gone in vain, so either Piandao had drawn out Zuko's swordsmanship talent successfully, or he had been an effective enough master, capable of teach the boy in a productive way that the firebending masters who had taken charge of Zuko's education so far had failed to achieve.

But the exhibition match between Zuko and Piandao hardly seemed to matter to the fourth member of the family: she sat by Ozai, tugging at his sleeve often, and he'd clasp her hand and place it on Azula's own lap, urging her to be patient. Within five minutes, she'd do it again.

At last, Zuko was set to take a break, and Piandao watched him fondly as the boy rushed into his mother's arms, chipper and thrilled by his successful performance: he hadn't been upstaged, of course, by the sister who didn't know the first thing about swordsmanship just yet… he was successful, he had thrived with no competition. As much as he had appreciated his performance, a part of Ozai couldn't help but find that unsettling about the character his son appeared to be developing…

"I hope you're pleased," Piandao said to Ozai, smiling as he approached him. Ozai hummed, nodding as he rose to his feet.

"You are as impressive a master as you were said to be. I cannot presume to know if any other seven-year-old in history has ever known his way through blades as my son appears to. That being said…"

"Yes? Is something not to your liking?" Piandao asked. Ozai cleared his throat.

"I wouldn't quite put it that way. Perhaps, if anything, I'm too pleased with your services and lessons to my son. Thus… I was wondering if, perhaps, we could speak in private for a moment about something concerning this subject."

"Oh?" asked Piandao. "Privately?"

"It should be fairly quick," Ozai said: he cast a guilty glance at Ursa, who seemed to be speaking quite enthusiastically with Fat about lunch now, Zuko clinging to her hand with a bright grin.

Piandao frowned: it seemed he wasn't pleased by Ozai's evident unwillingness to let Ursa be part of the conversation, but he nodded before long.

"Come, then. This way."

Ozai reached down, clasping Azula's hand gently. The girl jolted after him, cheeks flushing with excitement as she tried to keep up with the long strides of the two taller men. Once they stood at a fair distance from the others, near the very bridge and pond Azula had fallen in, long ago, Ozai finally decided to speak his mind.

"I realize this might be a surprising, perhaps strange request… but would it be possible for you to train Azula as well?"

"Azula?" Piandao frowned: his eyes flickered towards the little girl… the apprehensive child who looked at him expectantly. "You wish for your daughter to learn from me? I was under the impression she was an extraordinary firebender…"

"She is. She has taken a liking to swords too, however, or so appears to be the case," Ozai said: beside him, still holding his hand, Azula nodded. "I only ask that you test her, figure out if she's worthy, much as you did with Zuko. She has already promised she won't be upset if you refuse her… you remember you promised that, don't you, Azula?"

She nodded, though she didn't speak. It was as if she were scared of doing or saying anything that might jeopardize her position, her opportunity…

"I see," Piandao said, crooking an eyebrow at Azula. "I'd like to hear from you personally, then: what exactly do you hope to gain from this arrangement, Princess Azula?"

She hesitated, but she swallowed hard and stepped forward, trying to show her courage as her small frame trembled before the daunting, tall sword master…

"I want to learn to fight with swords. I… I want to train with Zuko with swords too," she said. "He won't train with me with firebending anymore. So, well… I want to do it like this. I like swords. I like them."

Piandao blinked blankly: the girl blushed, pouting slightly at his lack of reaction to her words.

"I, uh, I see," he said: it seemed he was gauging what else to do to unravel just how much worth the girl might hold… "You don't like being left out, I believe. You want to explore more avenues of being a warrior, a fighter, than the ones you've learned of so far? The way of the sword, however, is nothing to trifle with. You will need to be disciplined, to show restraint and respect towards your enemies just as you would to your allies…"

"I can…" Azula said, nervously. Piandao crooked an eyebrow.

"Then you would not ridicule your brother, should you best him in combat? You would not be upset, if he ridiculed you for it either?"

"Why can't I do it if he can…?" Azula mumbled. Piandao actually smiled.

"That's what you understood from that?" he asked. "Not quite the answer I was hoping for…"

"I… I won't. I'll be good. I promise," Azula said, her voice small. Ozai, behind her, watched his daughter with amusement.

"I should hope so," Piandao sighed. "Very well, then, wait here. One more test is in order."

Azula gritted her teeth and nodded: Piandao walked away, and Azula was left behind with Ozai: he didn't want to show it, but he was anxious about whatever was taking the swordmaster's attention away right now. The sooner this matter was sorted out, the sooner he'd talk it over with Ursa and calm her down: Azula would likely be talented with a blade, but Zuko had two years of a solid head start over her. If Zuko's pride was that big of a concern, surely he would forsake those concerns once he understood how far ahead he was… but that, too, brought up other questions: what if Zuko turned out to be like Iroh? What if, in his superiority when it came to blades, he grew arrogant and mocking, ridiculing his sister, the way Piandao had said was possible, just now? Azula wasn't wrong to say it was unfair for him to be held to different standards than her, evidently… could Zuko prove to be a lot weaker, feebler, than Ozai ever imagined he would be? Would his insecurities over Azula cause him to alienate and push away his sister, or to attempt to assert his superiority through violent means…?

Piandao returned within a few minutes: a small, wooden sword sat in his hands, and he offered it to Azula. Her eyes glowed with amazement as she took it into her grip, lips parted.

"I can't presume to be completely convinced yet… but perhaps seeing your physical capabilities for myself will suffice," Piandao said. "Take this sword… and don't set it on fire, that will be the first challenge. The second one: perform your firebending katas while holding it. You know them by memory, don't you?"

"Yes…" Azula said. "Without bending?"

"Without bending."

She nodded… and she started right away: she cycled through her usual kata sequence, the one she warmed up with, performing move after move without a single spark of fire, the sword firmly in her hand. Her movements felt aimless, naturally, as they weren't meant to be performed with a sword… but Piandao's approving smile suggested that wasn't a problem. Ozai raised an eyebrow.

"Is this enough?" he asked. "Do you approve, Master Piandao?"

"Well, she shows sufficient promise," he said, with a devious smile. "I admit, I was merely curious about her firebending prowess, and I wondered how easily it would translate to blades. She seems… flexible. Malleable. Her control is impeccable too. I would have thought such a spirited child would not be all that disciplined, but she certainly appears to have learned restraint I would not anticipate from one as young as her…"

"I have overseen much of her training personally," Ozai said, tingles of pride stoking his chest pleasantly. "I cannot do it all the time, of course, but whenever I do, I have endeavored to ensure she follows suit with every indication and instruction. I can only wonder how many princes were ever as effective at that age… certainly none I've known, and I include myself in that group, too."

"You may not have been as strong at control and restraint as a child, but I'm sure you've learned better over time. The same is true to Zuko," Piandao said, with a proud smile. "Interesting, though, to imagine what can be done with someone who already seems to have such complicated process under control. Though, of course, training her and her brother together would prove complicated…"

"I'm sure we'll be able to arrange something, I'll speak with Ursa about…"

"You'll speak with me about what, exactly?"

Never before had his wife's voice felt menacing… never before had Ozai felt daunted, rather than allured, upon hearing it. Piandao, it seemed, didn't feel any more comfortable with it than Ozai did.

They turned slowly, just as Azula finished another pirouette with the wooden sword: she was in plain sight for her mother… as well as her brother, who had tagged along with Ursa when she had attempted to find them.

Her brow drew together as Azula slowed down: she held the sword still, unsure of whether she was supposed to stop or not, but not as scared as she could have been: surely Azula had heard Ozai and Piandao speaking of her skills as casually as they had, discussing the terms of her training… and she had assumed it was a done deal. There were two adults on her side, not just one… so surely, she would be trained as she wanted to be. Right?

Zuko gasped in horror at the sight of the sword in her hands: Azula didn't let it go. Ozai gritted his teeth, heart racing with uncertainty as Ursa narrowed her eyes, frowning at him, in particular:

"Ozai… what, exactly, is going on here?"