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you make a really good girl (as girls go)

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“Princess,” a voice says, and she turns towards it.

It happens to both of them at nearly the same moment, but it’s said very differently all the same.

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“We’re nearly to the North Pole, Princess Azula,” the captain says, and Azula hums and inspects her—perfect, obviously—nails. The captain is bundled up to his neck; she’s just wearing her usual armor. Any decent firebender doesn’t have to get cold, after all.

It’ll wear her out a bit by the end of the day, admittedly, but better that the North Pole know who they’re dealing with now. She isn’t interested in being underestimated again. It’s useful, being underestimated, but it also takes so much longer and she has things to do, the least of which is make this treaty. The Earth Kingdom is being difficult enough, and Zuko’s utterly failing to deal with Ba Sing Se, which means she’s going to have to step in and clean up his mess like always, and Mother will give her that look again and Father will give Zuko his own version of that look and things will progress as they always do.

They have a war to win here, and Azula isn’t interested in wasting time.

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“The Fire Nation delegation is nearly here, Princess Yue,” the steward says, and Yue makes a quiet sound of acknowledgment and turns away from the window. She was just watching the water. She does that, sometimes.

“I’ll be right down,” she says, and the steward nods and leaves her there. She thinks about sneaking out the window, as if there were any possible way she could manage that in these heavy, pretty robes. She probably couldn’t even manage it at all; it’s a very high window on a very sheer wall, and she’s never been particularly strong or fit anyway.

They say Prince Zuko is her age. He’s not well thought-of in the Fire Nation and she’s heard her father’s warriors say disparaging things about his sub-par war tactics, but there have been no rumors of unnecessary cruelty or acts of terror. At least, not as far as she’s heard. Maybe people have been avoiding mentioning that kind of thing around her.

She’d understand, she supposes, because her father is going to offer her as a wife to seal this treaty. The one and only princess of their tribe, and so the only one who could be offered.

They’d wanted her to marry Hahn, before this. She’d prayed to the spirits that she wouldn’t have to, that they’d choose someone else.

She should’ve been a bit more specific in those prayers, apparently.

But she’d already resolved to do the best thing for their tribe, and if this is the best thing . . .

Yue sighs, and looks away from the window she can’t sneak out of.

This is the best thing, she tells herself, and almost believes it.

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Azula leaves the ship, and leaves steaming footprints in her wake. She feels sharp and ready and ready to sharpen her teeth on this treaty. She’ll wring every last drop of concessions out of the Water Tribe, and her father will see how much better than Zuko she is and so will the court and so will everyone, and they’ll all finally stop pretending he could ever be the Fire Lord’s true heir.

“It’s so cold!” Ty Lee complains, wrapping herself tighter in her coat.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have worn your circus outfit under that, then,” Mai says dryly. Ty Lee huffs indignantly, and Azula smirks in amusement.

“Now, now, girls,” she drawls. “No fighting among ourselves. We have a good impression to make, don’t we?”

“Yes, Azula,” the other two say, Ty Lee’s voice sheepish and Mai’s just a sigh. They weren’t truly necessary to bring on this trip, in all honesty, but again: Azula is not interested in being underestimated, and she wants the Water Tribe to know who they’re dealing with.

There is a man in blue with a spear in hand waiting for them down the path, and she heads towards him as the obvious destination. Ty Lee and Mai flank her, and the captain follows behind. The man waits until they’re practically on top of him to speak.

“The chief will see you in the palace,” he says, speaking right over Azula’s head to the captain. Her eyes narrow; Ty Lee lets out a little hiss, and Mai taps her nails against her thigh. The captain chokes a bit, as a man with a survival instinct.

“Will he?” Azula says lightly. “How lovely.”

The man in blue gives her a strange look, clearly not having expected her to speak. Well, they do say the Water Tribe is backwards; she already knows they don’t even train their women to fight, which—hah! Imagine! That’s half the populace useless right there! Obviously not every citizen can join the army, but to reduce the pool of possible soldiers that drastically from the start . . . yes, that’s backwards, alright.

“You may take us to the palace,” Azula informs the man in blue, memorizing his face just in case a little chance for retribution pops up later. He glances at the captain quizzically, and the captain stares ahead impassively. At least someone in this conversation knows when to keep their mouth shut.

“Or we could stand around all day,” Mai deadpans. “That’s fun too.”

“Where’s your prince?” the man in blue asks the captain. Ty Lee giggles in disbelief, clapping a hand over her mouth. Mai looks bored. Azula . . . Azula arches an eyebrow, and the captain very quickly takes a step back.

“Beating his head against the walls of Ba Sing Se, last I heard,” Azula says lightly. The man in blue frowns suspiciously.

“They said the prince was coming,” he says.

“That would be the princess, actually,” Azula says pleasantly, locking her hands behind her back. Perhaps there was a translation error.

Perhaps the Water Tribe is just very, very stupid.

“Oh,” the man in blue says, his eyes widening in—alarm?

Good. Let him be alarmed; maybe then he’ll get them where they’re going in a timely fashion.

“Wait here,” he says, and Azula stares at him. He must be joking.

“Should we just head back to the Fire Nation until you can make time in your busy schedules?” she asks witheringly. The man in blue stares down at her for a moment, like he's not sure how to handle her. He's not the first person to have done that in her life.

No one knows how to handle Azula. She considers it a point of pride.

"Listen," she says magnanimously, because it's a little early in the treaty process to be throwing anyone in the ocean, "Why don't you stop worrying about things above your pay grade and just take us where we need to be, hm?"

“Wait here,” the man in blue repeats, and actually turns and leaves. Azula almost laughs in disbelief.

She’s only met one of these people, and it’s already amazing how backwards they are.

“Azula?” Ty Lee says nervously, hopping from one foot to the other. Azula stares daggers into the retreating man in blue’s back, then turns around to smirk at her.

“You heard the man,” she says lightly. “We’re waiting.”

And she’s getting an extra pound of flesh for every minute they make her do it, at the least.

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Yue steps into the throne room and hears—arguing, it sounds like? There’s no sign of her father, but . . .

“Is something wrong?” she asks, and the guards and the steward all jerk guiltily beside the door. They all stand up straight and stiff-backed and bow to her.

“No, Princess Yue,” the steward lies. Yue represses a frown. It doesn’t do, for a princess to frown.

“I see,” she says, because it doesn’t do for a princess to question too much either. It’s not her place.

Unfortunately.

She steps into the throne room outright, and the guards share a nervous look.

“Has the Fire Nation delegation arrived?” she asks, since that’s a question that’s going to dictate the rest of her life and so she feels can be forgiven.

“Er . . .” The steward winces. “Yes, Your Highness.”

Yue looks around the throne room, keeping the question off her face. She sees no sign of anyone Fire Nation, though, and no sign of anyone intending to greet them. Where else would her father meet them, though?

“Yue,” she hears, and turns. It’s her father coming into the throne room, an odd look on his face. She can’t quite tell if he’s upset or not.

“Father,” she says, and doesn’t ask is everything alright? She’ll be told one way or the other soon enough.

“A moment,” he says, taking her elbow and guiding her out of the room. She follows. Perhaps he’ll tell her something, though that’s unlikely. More likely he’ll tell her something she needs to do. Maybe her robes aren’t pretty enough for a Fire Nation boy to like, or maybe she should’ve done her hair differently.

She doesn’t know what a Fire Nation boy would like, so . . .

“There’s a problem,” her father says.

“A problem?” she asks.

“A translation error, probably,” he says. “They didn’t send the prince.”

“They didn’t?” Yue stomps down on the foolish spark of hope, because obviously that’s not enough reason for her father not to offer her hand anyway. “Who did they send?”

“The princess,” her father says. Yue . . . blinks.

“Why?” she asks, mystified. The Fire Nation knows her father doesn’t have any sons, surely. She’s his only child.

“Who knows?” her father says. “The Fire Nation seems to delight in being difficult. I assume it's a delaying tactic, though spirits know why."

"Do you think?" Yue says.

"Possibly," her father says, and that's the most he's said to her about politics in months, aside from informing her that she'd be marrying the Fire prince.

She wonders if the Fire Nation does betrothal necklaces. Not that it matters, just . . . she wonders.

She doesn't know very much about the Fire Nation. That's all.

"I don't know what they're playing at, but we'll handle it. You don't need to worry," her father says. Yue draws herself up, trying to look like a good and worthy daughter.

"Yes, Father," she says, and he heads back into the throne room. She follows a few steps behind him, trying not to worry. It's very difficult. She'd wanted to meet Zuko before the wedding, if at all possible, and now it seems there won't be any chance for that. It's . . . upsetting, a bit.

More than a bit.

She can only hope he's better than Hahn, but that seems unlikely. Maybe that’s unfair to think when she knows nothing about him, but . . .

Well. He’s the Fire Lord’s son, after all. What does she think he’s going to be like?

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Ty Lee is restless, Mai is bored out of her mind, and Azula is still counting pounds of flesh. If it wouldn’t be considered an act of war and also probably result in them getting horribly lost, she’d already have marched on the palace. She should’ve just followed the man in blue to begin with, frankly.

Another minute ticks by. Azula adds another pound of flesh to her mental count. It’s going to take a full person to satisfy her at this point, and she’s leaning strongly towards the one who left them standing here.

“Can’t we wait on the ship?” Ty Lee says nervously.

“Oh, no,” Azula says, wearing a pleasantly predatory smile. “They asked us to wait here, after all.”

“This is actually even worse than the ride over was,” Mai says dubiously.

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll be right back,” Azula says. The captain winces. They all keep standing around like idiots, because the Water Tribe are idiots, and Azula mentally adds another pound of flesh to the tally.

Eventually, more people in blue show up, and the one at the lead of the pack takes one look at them standing there and visibly blanches. Good, Azula thinks, smiling pleasantly at him.

They’re all men, she notes as they come closer. Normally she wouldn’t even pay attention to something like that, but apparently the Water Tribe does, so she is. She wonders what female waterbenders do. Construction, perhaps? That might make sense, if they were occupied maintaining the city’s defenses. She still doesn’t know why there’d be a gendered split there, though, and that doesn’t account for all the women who aren’t waterbenders.

“We’re very sorry for the delay, please, come inside,” the man in the lead says, still looking rather pale and obviously struggling not to ask what the hell they’re doing standing around out here. Azula keeps up the pleasant smile.

“Oh, we were asked to wait here,” she says. The man’s lips thin, and he very deliberately does not look back at the man behind him who told them to do said waiting. Azula keeps smiling. She's going to see that man demoted to a cadet.

Assuming the Water Tribe has cadets. Who knows? She knows the battle tactics to expect, obviously, but not all the little intricacities of their chain of command. They have a chief, and they don't have women. That's most of her knowledge.

In her defense, it'd never really been important before Zuko found out the Avatar was trying to get here, back before Father sent him to Ba Sing Se. The one not-useless thing he's done in his entirely useless life.

It drives her mad that anyone would expect to see him before her, no matter how stupid the Water Tribe is about women.

"Please, let us escort you to the palace," the man at the lead says. His clothes are slightly more ornamented than the other men's, but probably not enough to be anyone really important. Azula is willing to follow an unimportant man to get where she needs to be, though.

"How kind of you," she says, smiling with her teeth. The man gives her a wary look—good!—and gestures down the path. Azula strides ahead, and he has to hurry to catch up. Mai snorts, and Ty Lee muffles a giggle. The man gives all three of them a wide berth.

Very good.

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Father sits on the throne. Yue sits beside him, waiting. Father and his advisors are exchanging low, hurried words, and if she is very still and very silent, she can hear them clearly. And, perhaps, they’ll forget to hold their tongues.

“They mock us,” one of the advisors hisses, and a few others murmur agreement.

“The Fire Nation is different,” another advisor says. “And it may have actually been a translation error.”

“Enough of one to mix up a prince and a princess?!” the first one demands. “We are supposed to be drafting a treaty here, not suffering the Fire Lord’s pointless delaying tactics! Who knows what the man even thinks he’s doing?!”

“It’s true, it could’ve been an error,” her father says. The advisors glare at each other. “Better to assume the best, at least to start off on. We don’t want involved in this war.”

“The Southern Tribe—” an advisor starts, and several others hiss him silent. Yue . . . wonders, mostly.

A guard runs into the throne room, looking stressed.

“Chief Arnook—” he starts, and her father straightens in his seat, and his advisors scurry to the side. Another guard walks in a moment later, and on his heels comes four figures in various shades of red and black. They stand out starkly against the ice.

They stand out more starkly because three of them are girls her age.

Her father is stiff-backed in his seat, and despite his previous statement, clearly not assuming the best. Yue . . . Yue isn’t sure what to think.

“Princess Azula of the Fire Nation, and her entourage,” the guard announces, stepping to the side. One of the girls steps forward, smiling very sharply.

“Thank you for your hospitality, Chief Arnook,” she says. A few of the advisors mutter amongst themselves; Yue doesn’t turn to look at them. The girl is very pale, with very dark hair pinned up with a golden ornament on top of her head. She’s wearing armor with gold ornamentation of its own, but no coat. She must be cold, Yue thinks, but she shows no sign of it.

“Of course,” her father says coolly. “We are glad to receive you, Princess Azula.”

Princess Azula smiles wider. She’s very beautiful, Yue notes distractedly. One of the most beautiful girls she’s ever seen, in fact. She doesn’t look old enough to have had her adulthood rites, though, and . . . well, she’s a girl. Does she even have the authority to make this treaty herself? She can’t possibly.

Can she?

“There seems to have been a misunderstanding,” her father says. “We expected the prince.”

“My dearest brother is occupied with the Earth King, at the moment,” Princess Azula says easily, putting her hands behind her back. “They’re . . . negotiating.”

At war, she doesn’t say, though of course everyone in the room hears it, and everyone in the room knows how easily they could be next.

Very easily, apparently, because the Fire Lord sent his daughter to this meeting, and not anyone with actual political power. Does he want war, Yue wonders, because if so this seems like a good start towards it.

“I see,” her father says. “So you would be his stand-in.”

Princess Azula’s smile is flawless, but Yue feels like the air in the throne room just got colder all the same. Her father doesn’t seem to notice.

“Oh, I suppose you could say that,” Princess Azula says. The black-haired girl behind her arches an eyebrow; the one with the braid winces. Yue glances around the room and realizes no one else is looking at them.

Actually, most of the room isn’t even looking at the princess; they’re all looking to her chaperone, who is looking increasingly stressed.

So the peace talks are proceeding terribly already, and they haven’t even started talking.

“We’ll show you to your rooms,” her father says.

“Lovely,” Princess Azula says with that same flawless smile.

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The rooms are respectable enough, Azula supposes, for being made of snow and ice. That doesn’t mean she wants to be wasting time in them, though. Unfortunately, the Water Tribe seems determined to waste as much of her time as possible.

“They’re idiots,” she says flatly.

“I don’t think they like girls very much,” Ty Lee says with a wince.

“I think they’re going to leave us in here until we freeze,” Mai says dubiously.

“Yes, well, we won’t be staying that long,” Azula says. Thinking her father would send Zuko, really. To make a treaty alone? Zuko could barely be trusted to be competent with their stupid uncle peeking over his shoulder every five minutes!

She is not impressed with the Water Tribe.

“Oh?” Mai says, raising an eyebrow in her that sounds promising way, and Azula smirks.

“They certainly didn’t say anything about staying here,” she says, and waves dismissively at the captain. “Hold down the fort and send for the scribes. Maybe see if you can get some actual blankets in here, my bed is covered in fur.”

“Yes, Princess Azula,” the man says, looking stressed. Even the servants talked to him over them, so Azula can see why.

She heads out of the rooms without further preamble, and Mai and Ty Lee fall in behind her. She does the obvious thing first, which is to return to the throne room planning to get started. There’s no sign of the chief or his advisors, though, and she sighs in aggravation. Are they going to make her track them down? Really?

She is not impressed with the Water Tribe.

“Unbelievable,” she says.

“Did they seriously leave no one here?” Mai says. “In the middle of the day?”

“What about her?” Ty Lee says, and points out the window. Azula follows her line of sight and sees the Water Tribe princess in the courtyard below. She seems to be alone, but she’s the only person in a position of authority in convenient range.

“She’ll do,” she says, and turns on her heel to leave the throne room. If she leaves footprints in the ice, so be it. She heads down the stairs to the outside, and puts on a pleasant smile to greet the princess. She doesn’t want to be underestimated, yes, but there’s no point in antagonizing anyone yet either.

At least, not until they deserve it.

She wouldn’t be smiling this pleasantly at the chief, put it that way.

“Princess Yue,” she says as she comes down the steps of the palace, and Yue turns to look at her, looking surprised.

“Princess Azula,” she says.

“I don’t suppose you could tell us when the treaty’s drafting is going to start,” Azula says, because she likes to get to the point. Yue looks surprised to be asked.

“I don’t know,” she says. “They wouldn’t have told me.”

. . . Azula is so, so unimpressed by the Water Tribe.

She exhales steam, and pinches the bridge of her nose. Yue still looks confused, but in a very polite way.

“Hi!” Ty Lee chirps brightly at her, as the one who’s always been best at handling the social angle. “I’m Ty Lee, this is Mai.”

“A pleasure,” Mai deadpans.

“It’s lovely to meet you,” Yue says, wiping away the confused look and replacing it with a placid smile. “Are you Princess Azula’s attendants?”

Mai snorts. Ty Lee laughs. Azula puts on a smile of her own.

“You could call them that,” she says smoothly.

“We’re just here to help out!” Ty Lee says cheerfully. “Are you going to attend the meeting?”

“Oh, no,” Yue says, glancing away. “I don’t think so, anyway. I’d just be in the way.”

Azula barely resists the urge to go breathe fire at someone. Is there a single woman in this place doing anything important? Just one? She’d settle for one, at this point!

“You are the princess, yes?” she says. Maybe she’s just terribly misinformed here.

“I am,” Yue says, giving her that politely-confused look again. Azula really could breathe fire. This is not going to help with the not being underestimated angle.

“Fascinating,” she says. “I don’t suppose you could point us towards the meeting room, at least?”

“Well . . . I suppose so, yes,” Yue says, not quite frowning. “But no one will be there yet.”

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll show up soon enough,” Azula drawls. Unless they want to leave foreign dignitaries waiting, anyway.

“It’s this way,” Yue says, and gestures ahead before starting to walk. Azula matches pace with her immediately, lest anyone get any ideas. Mai and Ty Lee bring up the rear. She leaves footprints again, no doubt, but she still doesn’t particularly care about that. Any decent waterbender can smooth those out in a heartbeat, she’s sure.

And if they don’t want her leaving footprints, well, perhaps they could stop acting like she’s an unfortunate error.

Azula has never been the mistake in her life, and isn’t about to start now.

“Where’s your chaperone?” Yue asks as they walk, and Azula barks out a laugh.

“You’re joking,” she says.

“No?” Yue gives her that same confused look.

“He’s not our chaperone, he’s the ship’s captain,” Azula says. “I haven’t had a chaperone since I was six, and that was my brother making sure I didn’t burn the turtleducks’ tails.”

“But . . . you’re unmarried, aren’t you?” Yue says. Azula longs to melt something. A wall, maybe. A politician. She’s not picky.

“Yes, and?” she says. “I don’t see you with a chaperone.”

“Well, no, not in the palace,” Yue says. “But in the city, of course, and if I go anywhere else . . .”

“You’re sixteen,” Azula says incredulously. That’s a grown woman even by Water Tribe standards; Yue must’ve already had her adulthood rites. Who the hell would give a grown woman a chaperone just because she wasn’t married yet?

“I won’t need one much longer,” Yue says, sounding not quite defensive. “When I marry your brother—”

Mai twitches. Azula laughs.

“Is that why they thought Zuko was coming?” she says delightedly. “So they could make a marriage treaty?”

“Of course,” Yue says, frowning at her. “What kind of treaty doesn’t do that?”

“Oh spirits,” Azula says, grinning widely. The Water Tribe is full of idiots. “You don’t want to marry Zuko, he’s useless. Also, he’s already engaged.”

“He is?” Yue blinks at her.

“Of course he is, he’s going to be the Fire Lord, he’s been engaged since he was twelve,” Azula says. A useless Fire Lord who she’s going to have to prop up, if not outright usurp, but Fire Lord all the same.

The things she does for this family, she swears.

“We didn’t know that,” Yue says, sounding uncertain.

“If anyone did, apparently they didn’t care,” Azula says. “You could always fight Mai for him, though, I’d like to see that. Ever been in an Agni Kai?”

“Isn’t that an honor duel?” Yue asks, looking alarmed.

“Yes,” Azula says. “Thus the fighting her for him part. A regular duel wouldn’t do for that.”

“I can’t fight,” Yue says. Azula raises her eyebrows at her.

“What, not at all?” she says.

“Not at all,” Yue confirms. Spirits, the Water Tribe is stupid. A princess who can’t fight? How could she lead anyone?

“I don’t know how they expect you to run this place,” Azula says.

“They . . . don’t?” Yue says, looking confused. “I’m just a princess.”

“The only one, last I checked,” Azula says.

“Yes,” Yue says.

“. . . so who’s supposed to run this place?”

“My husband,” Yue says, her expression turning distant for a moment. “I suppose they’ll have me marry Hahn, if your brother is spoken for.”

“Who the hell is Hahn?” Azula asks. She’s never heard of a “Hahn” in her life.

“He was going to be my betrothed, before,” Yue says, touching her collarbone. “I suppose he will be again, now.”

“That’s, um, a choice?” Ty Lee says, looking skeptical. “So . . . you like him, then?”

“No,” Yue says. “But he’s the best choice for the tribe.”

“Azula, I hate it here,” Mai says flatly. Azula knows the feeling.

“And what if you don’t marry?” she says. “Who would run the place then?”

“My father’s advisors, I suppose,” Yue said. “Until a suitable husband could be found, of course. Or my father would choose a suitable heir, if I married outside the tribe.”

“Of course,” Azula echoes. Ty Lee is grimacing. Mai looks like she wants to go back to bed. Azula, personally, wants to go back to the throne room and just overthrow the entire damned government. It can’t be that hard, since apparently only half the population actually does anything around here.

“I’m not sure how they’ll want to ratify the treaty, if your brother is already engaged,” Yue says.

“I imagine by signing it, like any civilized person,” Azula says.

“The Water Tribe has always made treaty with marriages,” Yue says.

“Of course it has,” Azula mutters. And of course she doesn’t have a sacrificial brother to offer up for the job. Zuko can just never be useful, can he.

“Are we in trouble?” Ty Lee whispers in her ear. Azula waves her off dismissively. She is a daughter of the sun; she’ll figure this out.

“This is the meeting room,” Yue says, stopping by a doorway. Azula steps into the room, absently checking for assassins as she does. None are forthcoming, which is a shame. She could use the excitement.

“So it is,” she says, inspecting the place. It’s nothing on her father’s war room, but it’ll do, she supposes. It’s big enough to fit a decent amount of people, though she only brought two scribes herself. She hadn’t seen the point in bloating the party. All they need is someone to make sure the Water Tribe doesn’t try to slip anything dodgy into the actual physical treaty, and her to make sure they know their proper place in this arrangement. Everything else is just details.

“I’ll tell Father you’re waiting,” Yue says, and Azula smiles pleasantly at her.

“That would be very helpful, thank you,” she says, already planning the best way to verbally eviscerate the man when he comes in the door.

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Yue leaves Princess Azula and her attendants in the meeting room and goes to find her father and his advisors. It takes some searching, unfortunately, but she finds a servant who points her in the right direction soon enough.

“Excuse me,” she says, pausing in the doorway. Her father’s advisors are arguing, loudly, and no one seems to notice her. She debates being louder, but . . .

“They didn’t even send the prince!” one of the advisors says. “A child! A girl child!”

“Ozai cannot possibly expect us to make a treaty under these circumstances. He is toying with us,” another says. Yue’s father looks weary, and rubs his temples.

“Excuse me,” Yue says, a little louder, and her father lifts his head to see her.

“Yue?” he says. She puts on her politest smile.

“Princess Azula is waiting in the meeting room with her attendants,” she says.

“She what?” one of the advisors demands. Yue doesn’t repeat herself, since he’s obviously just incredulous.

“I’m sure they’ll be patient,” she says instead, and the entire room flies into a flurry of activity. Yue waits, because . . . well, she’s not sure why. They don’t need her for any of this, after all.

She feels like she should wait, though, so she does.

Her father and his advisors head out, and she follows behind. If she asked permission, she’s sure she’d be denied, but better to beg forgiveness, yes? And she’s . . . curious, she has to admit. She wants to see more of Princess Azula and her attendants.

She should tell her father about Prince Zuko already being engaged, she realizes belatedly, and tries to slip through the crowd of advisors to his side but can’t find the space to. She could ask them to move, but . . .

“Excuse me,” she tries, and not a one of them acknowledges her.

It makes her feel . . . well. Never mind. It’s not important.

“Excuse me,” she tries again, louder, and still none of them acknowledge her, and then they’re at the meeting room and it’s too late. She makes one last attempt to make it to her father’s side, but there’s just no space, and instead she just files in behind the last of the advisors and tries to find an out of the way spot to observe. There are a few more Fire Nation people in the room—the captain and two apparent scribes, one male and one female. Yue wonders how they found the place.

Princess Azula smiles charmingly, then performs a strange-looking bow that Yue can only assume is some form of Fire Nation manners.

“A pleasure to see you again, Princess Yue,” Azula says. “Thank you for retrieving your men.”

Yue . . . blinks, slowly. The advisors mutter. Her father steps forward, and the attention in the room shifts to him. He’s the chief; of course it does.

“Thank you for waiting,” he says neutrally. “We are eager to receive your father’s proposal.”

“Oh, it was no trouble,” Azula says, her smile serpentine and sweet. Yue feels . . . odd, in a way. Something about that smile makes her feel odd. “A minor correction, though, Chief Arnook. This is my proposal. My father is occupied with . . . other interests.”

She means the war, Yue thinks. The war they’re trying very hard to avoid right now.

Your proposal?” one of the advisors demands, at which point Yue realizes that yes, Azula had said that, hadn’t she. She hadn’t even noticed, it’d slipped out of the other girl’s mouth so naturally.

“Yes,” Azula says with that serpentine smile. That, Yue thinks, is what a dragon would smile like.

If there were any dragons left, of course.

“Chief Arnook!” another advisor hisses, and they cluster around him. Yue stays in her little out of the way corner, and says nothing. What would she say?

“I’m sorry,” her father says. “You drafted this proposal? But you can’t have had your adulthood rites yet.”

“I am a princess of the blood,” Azula says easily, putting her hands behind her back. “The Fire Lord has granted me the authority to act in his name on this matter.”

“A child,” an advisor hisses. Azula’s smile never wavers.

“A princess,” she says firmly.

That, it seems, means something different in the Fire Nation.

“I see,” Yue’s father says, doing a respectable job of not looking either stressed or upset, unlike the majority of his advisors. Yue keeps her own face blank, wondering how they can let so much show in front of . . . well, not an enemy, precisely, but certainly not yet an ally. It seems unwise, to her.

But she wouldn’t know, of course.

“We will of course allow for delays, if you are having problems . . . ?” Azula trails off meaningfully. Several of the advisors scowl or glower.

“No. No delays,” Yue’s father says shortly, stepping to the head of the room. “Let us hear . . . your proposal.”

Azula smiles.

.

.

.

Azula presents her proposal. The chief and his advisors, unsurprisingly, are not thrilled with it. But you’ll never get what you want if you come in asking for less, so Azula isn’t concerned about that. Besides, a good compromise leaves everyone miserable.

Not that she intends to be compromising all that much.

Several advisors interrupt her several times during her presentation, and she merely stares at them until they stop speaking, visibly cowed. The chief, mercifully, does not interrupt, but listens largely in silence, aside from a few clarifying questions.

Yue watches from the corner of the room the whole time and never says a word, like a very pretty statue.

“I’m sure we can all agree we’d much rather get along,” Azula finishes pleasantly, laying her proposed treaty down on the table. There’ll be rebuttals, of course, and arguments too. She’s good at getting what she wants, though, and isn’t concerned about that. She’s sure she’ll be able to draft a treaty her father will be pleased with, and—

“You did not mention your brother,” the chief says. Azula . . . pauses.

“Should I have?” she asks lightly.

“A marriage is traditional, in these cases,” the chief says. Ah. Well, apparently these deaf old fools didn’t let Yue say much when she retrieved them.

“My brother, unfortunately, is already engaged,” Azula says, inclining her head. What a stupid thing for the Water Tribe to worry about, she thinks. Trade routes and wartime alliances are far more important than a marriage pact. “The arrangement’s been in place for some years.”

“So this is the value the Fire Nation places on this treaty?” one of the advisors snipes. Azula seriously considers firebending at him. The chief just looks at her in silence.

Spirits dammit, how is this the thing they’re tripped up on? She was prepared for everything else but defending Mai’s damn marriage!

“The Fire Nation does not break its promises,” Azula says.

“The Fire Nation will not make promises, it seems,” another advisor snaps. Azula very seriously considers firebending at him.

“We only have the one prince. Can’t marry him off to everyone, unfortunately,” she says smoothly. Though maybe she should just marry Zuko off. Father would understand, probably. Mai’s family is fairly influential at court these days, though, and her parents would not take it well. Admittedly, they’d be less influential if Mai weren’t engaged to Zuko, so . . .

“Who is his bride-to-be? Surely the girl understands basic politics,” the chief says, and then Azula’s just irritated. This is entirely unnecessary, and stupid to boot. Also, she really went to a lot of trouble arranging things so Mai would be the next Fire Lady. Spirits forbid someone with ideas take the position, after all.

Not that Yue seems to have many of those, or at least not many that she’ll speak of, but still. It’s the principle of the thing.

“She does, of course,” Azula says. Mai twitches just enough so that she hears the shuriken in her sleeve hit each other. She waves the other off. She really did go to a lot of trouble, for one thing, and she’s not interested in learning some stranger as well as she already knows Mai.

Spirits, you’d think the man wanted to ship his daughter off to the Fire Nation.

“Then I see no problem,” the chief says. “We will ratify the treaty with their marriage.”

Azula does not like the Water Tribe. She’s met men who don’t think very much of women before, but not many who’d talk over them quite so recklessly. Not in the Fire Nation, at least. Clearly the Water Tribe has some issues there.

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” she says. “But I’m sure we’ll be able to come to some other arrangement.”

“Not unless your father has another son,” one of the advisors says icily, and Azula . . . pauses, and makes some very quick mental calculations. This treaty is important, unfortunately—their navy needs safe waters, for one thing, but more than that, the Avatar needs to be cut off from every possible avenue of retreat and every waterbender who might actually teach him anything dangerous.

“No, I’m afraid not,” she says, putting on her most pleasant smile again. “But fortunately for everyone, he has a daughter.”

“There is no prince in the Northern Water Tribe,” an advisor says.

“Hardly a concern,” Azula says, waving him off dismissively.

“You mean you would marry Yue,” the chief says, a strange look in his eye. Azula gives him that pleasant smile.

“Of course,” she says. “I am a princess of the blood, after all. I can do that sort of thing.”

Probably.

There’s nothing saying she can’t, anyway, as far as she knows. Li and Lo might have to do some checking, admittedly, and possibly some very strategic destruction of inconvenient scrolls, but otherwise.

“Can you,” the chief says, sounding unconvinced. Azula spares a glance for Yue, who looks startled but not upset or angry. Good. She can work with that.

“Of course!” she says breezily, as if it’s all as simple as she’s making it sound, and the advisors mutter to each other. “It would be my honor.”

“I suppose if she could prove herself worthy, perhaps,” an advisor says skeptically. Azula must have misheard the man.

“You want me to prove myself worthy of the princess’s hand,” she says. “In order to arrange this marriage. This marriage which is part of a peace treaty.”

“Yes,” the advisor says, several of the others nodding agreeingly and murmuring amongst themselves.

Azula hates these people.

“Of course,” she says again, smiling with her teeth in it this time and already planning how best to ruin their lives for this nonsense. “What’s the traditional approach?”

“Oh, no, we can’t possibly do the traditional approach,” another advisor says. “Not with a girl.”

Azula really hates these people.

“Do tell,” she says through her teeth.

“Perhaps she could demonstrate her skill at weaving or sewing, or her embroidery,” the advisor suggests, and Azula listens in disbelieving horror as they proceed to list all sorts of useless domestic skills that no decent princess would’ve ever had the time to learn.

“What is the traditional approach, if I may ask?” she finally interrupts once they get to poetry, which, just—no. Not happening.

“Oh,” the advisor says. “A challenger for the princess’s hand would merely fight any other suitors to submission.”

There they were. Thank the spirits.

“Excellent, we’ll do that,” Azula says immediately. “I’d hate to go against tradition, after all. Does dawn work for you? That’s the traditional time for an Agni Kai, but of course we’ll understand if you prefer the evening.”

“Er—no, you can’t—” the advisor starts, and Azula barrels right over him just like he and all his fellows have been trying to do to her.

“Dawn it is!” she says. “We’ll see you all bright and early! Thank you so much for your hospitality, Chief Arnook.”

She turns on her heel and leaves the room, steps no doubt steaming, and Mai and Ty Lee and the others all immediately fall in behind her.

“Did that actually work?” Mai mutters as they quickly walk away down the hall.

“You’d better hope it did, because I damn well can’t weave and I doubt they’ll let their princess into an Agni Kai for Zuko’s hand,” Azula says, her eyes narrowing.

“Yeah, probably not,” Ty Lee says, pursing her lips with a little frown. “They don’t seem to let girls do anything here!”

“Well, that’s their problem, not ours,” Azula says. “In fact, that should work out quite nicely for us, because that means there’s only half as many competent people running around and all the other positions have been filled by idiots.”

“It wouldn’t be much of an Agni Kai anyway,” Mai says neutrally. Azula remembers her last glimpse of Yue and the surprise still on the other girl’s pretty face and thinks that no, it would definitely not have been. Mai would’ve had her on the ground in seconds and been done with her, and the Water Tribe would not have taken it well.

“It’s not as if I need a proper marriage,” she says. “I don’t need a partner or an heir, I just need to keep you and Zuko from raising spoiled brats.”

“Are you sure about this, though?” Mai asks warily. “You’ll be stuck with her for the rest of your life.”

“Mai,” Azula says, fixing her with an annoyed look. “Do you know how long it took me to convince my mother that Zuko wasn’t too young to be engaged and my father that he wouldn’t make a mess of it?”

“Yes,” Mai says dryly. “You’ve mentioned it a few dozen times.”

“I am not wasting all that work so Zuko can marry some strange Water Tribe girl,” Azula says. Yue wouldn’t have half the political power of the Fire Lady, marrying her, and Mai she already knows how to control and knows won’t do anything stupid when she’s not around. Who knows what Yue might do left to her own devices with Zuko? Azula didn’t need that problem in her life when she’d already gone to the effort to arrange things so nicely for herself.

Again, the things she does for this family. Really.

“But this means you’re going to marry some strange Water Tribe girl,” Ty Lee says. “Isn’t that a little . . . awkward?”

“Why would it be?” Azula says.

“Er . . . no reason!” Ty Lee says quickly, which means there definitely is a reason but she’s afraid of Azula’s reaction to said reason, and really, Azula does not care enough to figure it out. She’s done much harder things than marry some strange princess. Yue doesn’t seem to be all that assertive, much less particularly scheming, so she won’t be very useful outside of this treaty but Azula’s sure she can figure something out. Finding uses for people is one of her specialties. Worst case scenario, well, she’ll have a harmless little wife to keep entertained with . . . whatever it is Northern Water Tribe women actually do.

Weaving, apparently. Lots and lots of weaving.

.

.

.

It’s just before dawn, and Yue doesn’t know how to feel about it. Yue usually doesn’t spend too much time worrying about how she feels about things, because she knows it’s irrelevant, but in the case of her own marriage . . .

It’s still irrelevant, but she can’t help feeling things about it all the same.

She can hear Hahn boasting from the training grounds at the bottom of the steps, and a few other boys laughing. Her father and his advisors are at the top of the steps, and Yue is stranded in the middle, looking at the servant who’s holding the fur that the betrothal necklaces are resting upon. There are only a few, and there isn’t one from Princess Azula, of course, because that’s not the Fire Nation way, but there’s been an empty space left on the fur in deference to her claim anyway.

Azula and her attendants show up the exact moment the sun crests the hills, all of them wearing black and red and gold again. Azula’s not in armor today, and is instead wearing soft cloth pants and a sleeveless shirt and skinny armbands. She’d stand out among the boys even without that, but . . .

“No armor?” one of the advisors mutters. “Surely she knows they’ll hit her, yes? Even if she is a girl.”

“At least it’ll be over quickly,” another mutters back.

Azula looks like she should be freezing, Yue thinks, but she’s so clearly not even cold.

“Good morning, Chief Arnook,” Azula greets her father pleasantly with a little bow. “You look well.”

“Good morning, Princess Azula,” he says. “You look cold.”

She laughs like he’s made a little joke, straightening up. Her boots, Yue notices, are just barely sinking into the ice. Is she a firebender? Do firebenders not get cold? Surely they must. Even waterbenders get cold, and the ice is their birthright.

Azula doesn’t look it, though.

Things start. There are several boys here, each one having brought a necklace, but everyone knows Hahn is going to win. He’s the finest warrior of their generation, and he came from good blood and a powerful family. The chances of him losing are so slim as to not even matter.

They pair Azula against one of the weaker boys for the first round, Yue assumes so she won’t be hurt when she’s defeated. Injuring the Fire Nation princess when they’re supposed to be making a treaty isn’t very, well, treaty-like.

Although is there even going to be a treaty, after this? Yue really doesn’t know.

The boy faces off with Azula, clearly uncomfortable with the idea of fighting a girl. Azula smiles pleasantly at him, her hands behind her back. Yue doesn’t know either of them very well, but the boy is wearing full armor and looks very nervous and Azula is wearing no armor at all and does not look nervous in the least.

The referee calls the start, and the boy hesitates. Azula stays in place. Somehow, those seem like different things.

“Come on, slowpokes, we haven’t got all day!” another one of the boys shouts. Yue doesn’t even look to see which one, because something about Azula is just . . .

She’s not sure what, but somehow she feels like Azula is the only thing she should be looking at right now.

The boy pulls water out of the snow, looking anxious, and wraps ice around his fists. He charges at Azula, who continues to stay in place. Yue keeps watching her, waiting for . . . for something, although it’s nothing she can name.

The boy is only a few steps away. He’ll strike Azula, and—

Azula bends her knees and leaps into a perfect backflip, her boot hitting the boy’s jaw as she spins and her landing absolutely flawless. Yue is so busy staring at her that she barely notices the boy staggering back, the ice around his fists falling away.

Azula hasn’t even taken her hands out from behind her back, and she landed right in her own footprints.

Apparently not a firebender, then. Yue could’ve sworn, though . . .

The boy is on the ground. Everyone is staring, except for Azula’s attendants. Mai looks bored; Ty Lee is politely clapping.

“Next?” Azula says pleasantly to the other boys.

They keep staring.

“What’s wrong?” she says, tilting her head. “I thought we didn’t have all day?”

“Next,” the referee says in a strangled voice, and the next boy steps onto the training ground, this one with a war club in hand. Azula’s smile is perfect.

Yue feels . . . very strange, somehow.

The boy doesn’t last fifteen seconds. The next boy doesn’t last ten. The boy after that

“Go, Azula!” Ty Lee cheers, jumping in place, and that seems to break something loose in the knot of advisors.

“What is the meaning of this?!” one of them thunders. Azula looks up from where her boot is pressing into the underside of the latest boy’s jaw as he lays on the ground beneath her. She still hasn’t moved from her original spot.

“It’s the traditional approach, isn’t it?” she says smoothly. “You did say.”

“This is impossible.”

“Unthinkable.”

“She’s a girl!”

“Yes, I’ve noticed,” Azula says. “Anyone else left?”

Hahn is left. Yue watches him strut cockily onto the field, seemingly unconcerned by the fact he just watched every other contender get thrashed in rapid succession. That . . . seems like Hahn, yes.

“I’m not gonna go easy on you, girly,” he says, swinging his club, and Azula smiles.

“Oh? Then I suppose I won’t go easy on you, either,” she says.

The fight isn’t even a fight. No one could possibly call it that. One moment Hahn is standing there and the next he’s flying head over heels as Azula literally throws him out of bounds.

She dusts her hands off, still smiling. Her hair is perfect.

Yue feels . . . very strange.

“Now then,” Azula says. “Someone said something about a marriage . . . ?”

Chapter Text

All things considered, Azula decides as the chief’s advisors whisper frantically among themselves, that went rather well. She’s certainly done harder things in her life than thrash a few subpar soldiers, and frequently for far less reward than delivering her father a treaty that will back the Avatar into a corner. She didn’t even have to break a sweat. Yes, there’s still a lot of details to quibble over and work out, but she already knows she’ll come away with a favorable treaty. The Northern Water Tribe gave her an in, and she’s going to take full advantage of it.

“They don’t look very happy, Azula,” Ty Lee whispers nervously as she steps up behind her.

“Oh, don’t they?” Azula replies with a wicked smile, unconcerned. They don’t have to be happy; they just have to do what she wants.

“Most of them, anyway,” Ty Lee says, peering across the courtyard towards Yue, who Azula can’t help noticing is the only person in the Water Tribe without an immediately obvious expression on their face. Everyone else looks alarmed or angry or, in the chief’s case, grim. Mai just sighs, stepping up on Azula’s other side.

“This is boring,” she says frankly. “That’s the best they had?”

“Apparently,” Azula says, inspecting her nails with practiced disdain. “Cheer up, it could’ve been you and the princess.”

“Maybe she can fight,” Mai says skeptically.

“I really don’t think so,” Azula says. Why not, she can’t imagine, but the Water Tribe is apparently made of idiots who want a princess who can’t lead an army or even defend her own honor in a duel.

Who’s supposed to defend her honor, come to think of it? Is that Azula’s job now?

Spirits, it is, isn’t it. This place, she swears.

"Is there a problem?" she says, raising her voice as she takes a step forward. The advisors keep hissing at each other, irritatingly, and the boys she fought are muttering darkly but paying her no mind. The chief looks at her, though, so that's something. They're making this hard enough as it is.

"You are the clear victor," the chief says in a measured tone.

"A girl can't win the princess's hand!" an advisor snaps.

"Oh?" Azula says innocently, tilting her head. "Then what was all this for?"

The man's mouth snaps shut. Well, at least he's not stupid enough to admit they were just trying to get rid of her out loud, she thinks. So far as the Water Tribe goes, that's genius-level intellect.

"Well, as long as we're all in agreement," she says, smiling pleasantly. She turns towards Yue and makes a show of bowing to her. Yue looks a little startled, but inclines her head in return. "I am, of course, honored."

"You did . . . very well, Princess Azula," Yue says, quiet but clear. Azula's smile widens. The girl's probably useless, yes, but at least she's not putting up a fuss.

"Why thank you, Princess Yue," she says smoothly.

"She's not even Tribe!" one of the boys protests loudly.

"She defeated you, Hahn," the chief says shortly, not even sparing the boy a glance. "Easily. There is no doubt that Princess Azula has satisfied our terms."

Azula smiles. She hears Mai sigh behind her, probably in relief, and Ty Lee definitely sighs in relief. She keeps her eyes on the chief, since for ridiculous Water Tribe reasons his word matters over Yue's, and he visibly steels himself.

"The treaty negotiations will proceed," he says. His advisors grimace. A few of the boys mutter to each other.

Yue looks at Azula, and doesn't do a thing.

.

.

.

“The negotiations will begin this afternoon,” Father says to Azula and her attendants. “If that is convenient for you.”

“Of course,” Azula says with a pleasant smile. She smiles a lot, Yue’s noticing, but not always the same way. “We will be delighted to attend.”

“We’ll send an escort,” Father says. Yue assumes he’s trying to get them to go back to their rooms, or maybe even all the way to their boat.

“How kind,” Azula says with the same pleasant smile, and makes a beckoning gesture towards her attendants. They all bow, presumably politely—who knows, really, with Fire Nation girls—and then Azula takes a step up the stairs and reaches out, and Yue is confused enough to mirror the gesture, not sure what to expect. She’s a beat late, but Azula doesn’t seem concerned, and simply takes her hand.

Yue regrets her gloves, suddenly, and then Azula bows again and presses her lips to the back of her hand, keeping her eyes on her face and still smiling.

It’s a different kind of smile, again, and her lips leave a red stain on Yue’s glove.

“I look forward to a long and fruitful alliance between our nations,” Azula says, probably to Father but while still looking at her.

“Yes,” Yue manages, barely. “I’m sure we can help each other very much.”

Azula steps back, and she and her attendants take their leave. The advisors start arguing again the moment they’re out of earshot. The boys all fume. Father inhales, slowly, and then turns towards his advisors. And Yue . . .

Yue doesn’t know what to do.

She looks at the stain on her glove, and then the laid-out betrothal necklaces that she will never wear, her eyes lingering on Hahn’s. She hadn’t considered if she’d liked any of them or not, before, but all the same she knows she likes his the least.

None of them will belong to her now, though. They’ll all be returned to the ice, and her neck will remain bare.

That’s a good thing, she thinks. This treaty is far better for the tribe than anything any other match could’ve brought. As long as it goes through . . .

Yue will not be a part of the treaty negotiations, of course, except in the same sense that borders and compromises and trade will be. She can’t help thinking that she wants to hear them, though. She at least wants that.

It's so little, she thinks, when it comes to the rest of her life.

She doesn’t know why she cares so much. It won’t change anything, her being there, but . . .

But.

She resists the urge to touch her naked neck, and listens to what the advisors are saying.

“My chief, we cannot marry your daughter to a princess,” one of them protests.

“Stranger marriages have been made, for treaties’ sakes,” Father says. “Certainly stranger marriages have been made in the Fire Nation.”

Yue wonders what he means, but asking would remind them she can hear them, so she doesn’t. She wouldn’t expect a real answer anyway, at least not right now. Too much else is going on, and too many other people need Father’s ear.

“The Fire Lord cannot be serious!” another advisor hisses.

“I don’t think the Fire Lord knows anything about this,” Father says. “It seems to be Princess Azula’s own idea.”

“That’s even worse!” the advisor says. “How are we to know he’ll uphold the treaty?!”

“The same way we were always to know it, I expect,” Father says wearily. Yue represses a frown, not sure what he means. They couldn’t know if the Fire Nation would uphold their treaty yet, could they? “Enough. We let her fight. She won. We cannot go back on our word now.”

“But she’s a girl!” more than one advisor protests in response, and Yue bites the inside of her cheek, her fingers curling inside her gloves. That’s . . . girls are different in the Fire Nation, clearly.

Clearly.

“Don’t worry, Yue, this’ll never happen,” a familiar and unwelcome voice says, and Yue realizes that Hahn’s approached her, along with a few of the other boys. She looks towards them and steels herself to be polite no matter what he says, because Hahn always says something that makes her not want to be polite, and she needs to—

She pauses.

She doesn’t really need to get along with Hahn anymore, does she. Not past the barest basics of civility, at least.

“I’m sorry?” she says, a little unsure what to do with that thought.

“She cheated, obviously,” Hahn says with a snort. “Beating all of us? There’s no way.”

Yue just looks at him. She doesn’t know what to say to that. They all watched Azula beat all of them; how could she have cheated? She never did a thing against the rules. She barely did anything at all, in fact. She hadn’t had to.

“It would’ve been different in a fair fight,” another boy agrees. Yue can’t imagine what any of them think was unfair about facing an unarmed girl with war clubs and waterbending, at least not from Azula’s side.

“My father has spoken,” she says, folding her hands in front of herself. Hahn scowls; the other boys mutter. Yue holds her tongue for a moment, but—“And surely if she’d cheated, one of you would’ve noticed something.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?!” Hahn says indignantly. Yue looks at him again. You can’t talk to me like that, she doesn’t say, because he’s always talked to her like that. But . . .

“You should return your necklaces to the ice,” she says, nodding towards the servant holding the betrothal necklaces. It’s bad luck to keep betrothal jewelry for a lost match. "I wouldn’t want to see any of you on the wrong side of the spirits.”

A few of the boys eye her nervously. She ignores them. If they think she knows more about the spirits than other people just because of her hair, well, then they can think that. It’s one of the only things people ever assume she knows anything about, after all.

She really doesn’t know anything special, of course. Just the same stories they all do.

“Please, there’s no way this treaty’s going through,” Hahn says with obvious scorn, waving her off. The other boys are already edging towards the necklaces, though. “She doesn’t even have the authority to do this!”

“She seems to think she does,” Yue says. And if anyone knew if she did, obviously, it’d be Azula herself.

And if she didn’t—well, then why would the Fire Lord have sent her?

“She’s a princess, not a diplomat,” Hahn says. Yue . . . dislikes him. More than she should, probably. He’s never really done anything to her, after all, but . . .

“My father has spoken,” she repeats evenly, because Azula is so clearly not the same kind of princess that she is. Not at all.

“Your father’s going to realize he’s making a mistake,” Hahn scoffs. Yue dislikes him. Why does he care? He’ll be chief no matter if he marries her or not; there’s no one else Father or his council would choose as his heir. Hahn is the strongest warrior and from the best family, and everyone already expects him to be the next chief anyway. What does it matter if she marries someone else?

“He’s doing what he thinks is best,” she says, raising her chin slightly and gripping her hands together as tightly as she can without the tension showing through her gloves. One reason not to regret them, she supposes.

Really, she’s heard worse mistakes than making a treaty marriage. And given the alternative . . .

No, that’s unfair. She doesn’t know anything about Azula. She has no idea if marrying her will be better than marrying Hahn, though she doesn’t actually know how she’s supposed to marry another girl anyway, no matter if Azula won her hand or not. How is that supposed to work, actually?

They won’t have children, she realizes abruptly. That’s . . . something she hadn’t thought of yet.

“Oh, come on,” Hahn says derisively, and Yue bites the inside of her cheek. She really . . . he’s so . . .

She asked the spirits to spare her from marrying Hahn for a reason, and apparently they agreed. If she has to sacrifice some things for that, well, then she’ll make that sacrifice. She won’t be ungrateful. She’ll be a good wife to Azula, whatever that means.

She wants to say all that to Hahn. She wants to spit it in his face, that she prayed for this; that this is what she wanted and she is going to do everything in her limited power to do it right.

There’s no point in it, though, and it’d be unbecoming of a princess. So she doesn’t.

She wants to, though.

.

.

.

Mai is throwing daggers at the icy wall and Ty Lee is stretching against it and Azula is ignoring them both in favor of the letter she’s dictating to the scribes. Well, one of the scribes, anyway. The letter won’t reach home for some time, but it’ll get there faster than they will. Azula doesn’t usually bother checking in all that much—she has her orders, and she knows how to satisfy them to her father’s satisfaction—but someone needs to prepare for her bringing back a wife, and it’s not going to be her.

She’d just write directly to the steward and servants, honestly, but she supposes the proper thing to do is write her mother. Not that they have much of a relationship, really, but the Fire Lady is the one to talk to about bringing new people into the royal family. It’s her job to see them taken care of.

She really rather would just write to the servants. It seems more practical. Her mother isn’t going to stop thinking she’s a monster just because she’s being polite about things.

The things she does for this family.

“Prepare a suitable apartment in the palace,” Azula dictates, mostly distracted with more important thoughts, i.e., thoughts of the treaty negotiations and just what she’s intending to get out of them.

“Azula!” Ty Lee pipes up, and Azula looks towards her reflexively. Ty Lee is the middle of a rather painful-looking stretch, and looks concerned.

“What?” Azula says irritably.

“Ummm . . .” Ty Lee says, straightening up with a wince that is visibly not from the stretch. “She’s going to have to stay in your rooms, isn’t she?”

Azula . . . pauses.

“That sounds miserable,” she says. “Why is that necessary?”

“Well . . . she’s going to be your wife?” Ty Lee says. “Won’t the Water Tribe be upset if, you know . . . you don’t treat her like one?”

Azula just looks at her. Ty Lee shifts in place, wearing a nervous smile.

“I think they’d be upset,” Ty Lee says.

“I really don’t care,” Azula says.

“Um . . . are you sure?” Ty Lee says. Azula scowls. What kind of question is that?

“It’s a political marriage,” Mai says, flipping a knife in her hand and sounding as bored as ever. “No one’s going to care if the princess gets put up in an apartment somewhere.”

“The Water Tribe’s different from the Fire Nation, though,” Ty Lee says, biting her lip. “Shouldn’t we, um . . . check? First?”

“Spirits,” Azula says, pinching the bridge of her nose. “If I put this girl up in my rooms I’ll never get anything done.”

“I mean, it might be fine?” Ty Lee says tentatively. “Just, you know . . . maybe we should check.”

“Belay that letter,” Azula says irritably, gesturing at the scribe. She has no intention of sticking Yue in her rooms no matter what the Water Tribe thinks, but spirits forbid her mother gets the idea that she should in her head. Ty Lee is annoyingly good at coming up with things her mother will think of and Azula never would, and usually precludes mentioning those things with a similarly hesitant approach to the one she’s currently working with.

Dammit.

“You don’t really think they’re going to care,” Mai says skeptically.

“Who knows,” Azula says, pinching the bridge of her nose. This is what she gets for not just writing directly to the steward, she thinks. “More concerningly, who knows what my mother is going to think they’ll care about. She always gets stupid ideas like that.”

“Ah,” Mai says.

“I’m going to buy her an apartment myself if I have to,” Azula says in disgust.

“I mean . . . you probably should anyway, right?” Ty Lee says. “If you don’t let her stay in your rooms. She’s gonna be, um . . . your wife. I mean, Zuko wouldn’t ask your mother to put Mai in an apartment, right?”

“I’m useful,” Mai says, looking annoyed. “Who knows what this girl is.”

“She could be useful,” Ty Lee says, biting her lip. “I mean . . . it’s not like we know.”

“The things I do for this family,” Azula mutters with a scowl, glowering at the ceiling. Useful for what? Who even does know what the Water Tribe teaches its princesses to do? “Fine. We’ll deal with this in the Fire Nation. For now, get a new scroll out, we’re starting a new letter.”

“You are?” Ty Lee asks.

“Yes,” Azula says, then turns her attention to the scribe. “Write this down. Not in High Fire. ‘Dear Princess Yue . . .’”

.

.

.

It’s late afternoon and Yue is upset and alone in her rooms. She tried to follow her father into the council room, but he sent her away. She has no idea what’s happening in there, or what anyone’s saying, or what the rest of her life is going to be like.

She’ll know soon enough, she knows, but . . .

Yue inhales. Exhales. Settles. She’ll know soon enough, she reminds herself. There’s no reason to push now; no reason to look impatient or immature in front of her future . . . wife? She supposes she should call Azula her wife. “Husband” would be stranger, after all.

. . . Azula doesn’t seem to care about pushing too much, when it’s her doing the pushing.

Would she care, Yue wonders, if she pushed too?

No. Never mind. She’s not stupid enough to throw away a lifetime of knowing better than that over the slim chance Azula won’t be appalled like Hahn or one of the other boys would have been by such unbecoming behavior. Even if Azula acts just like that, and her behavior . . .

There’s nothing unbecoming about Azula at all.

Yue doesn’t know what to do with that thought. Yue doesn’t really know what to do at all, except pace her rooms time and again and try not to let the anxiety show, just in case someone walks in. A handmaiden, or the steward, or just . . . anyone.

If this marriage were something romantic, maybe she could expect Azula to be the one to walk in. She certainly seems like the type to. Azula so clearly knows the things she wants, and so clearly will go right through whatever’s in her way. She’s like no other princess Yue’s ever heard of, but to be fair, Yue’s mostly only heard of other Water Tribe princesses. Fire Nation ones . . . no, not so much.

She inhales. Exhales. Settles.

She can wait. It’s fine. Someone will come and tell her if there’s anything she needs to know. For now, all she has to do is wait.

Someone knocks on the wall, and Yue stiffens, then forces her posture to steady and turns towards the doorway.

“You may enter,” she says, and the long woven tapestry over the doorway is pushed aside to reveal a servant holding a scroll. Yue would think it was from her father, but it’s much too soon. They’ve only just started negotiations.

And the seal on the scroll, she can’t help but notice, is in bright red wax.

“The Fire Nation princess sent a letter, Your Highness,” the servant says uneasily, holding the scroll up.

“I see,” Yue says, her heart jumping into her throat. “You may leave it on the table. I will read it when I have the time.”

Immediately. She’s going to read it immediately. It’s all she can do not to insist the servant wait so she can write back, even with no idea what’s in the letter at all. It feels . . . strange, somehow. Like a secret, except of course it’s not, of course it’s only normal behavior for an engagement. Hahn wrote to her once or twice himself, though the sight of his letters never felt like . . . this.

Anticipation. She’s feeling anticipation.

The servant bows, and leaves the letter on the table. The moment he’s gone, Yue rushes across the room and picks up the scroll. She forces herself not to tear it open too quickly and risk damaging it. The wax seal looks like a flame, to her utter lack of surprise.

She should wait to read the letter, perhaps. Should show it to her father first. Should do . . . several things, maybe.

No one told her what to do if Azula wrote her, though, and so actually, well . . .

She can do what she likes about this, can’t she?

Yue breaks the seal and unrolls the letter. It’s short and businesslike and entirely devoid of any kind of fondness or softness, of course, but cut through with a faint air of smugness all the same, the handwriting so flawless that it must belong to a scribe and not Azula herself.

Dear Princess Yue, it reads in Noble Water. Yue wonders if Azula can read or write Noble Water, though Yue is only passingly familiar with High Fire herself. Still, maybe this is her handwriting. Maybe she did write this with her own hands. Please forgive this intrusion on your time, but I expect that you are the person I should consult with in these matters.

“These matters”? Yue blinks, tipping her head. “Consult”?

Well, it’s not exactly a love letter, but of course she wasn’t expecting that.

She certainly wasn’t expecting “consulted” either, though.

As you are obviously the person to defer to, the letter continues, and Yue stops reading and . . . blinks.

As you are obviously the person to defer to, she reads again.

That is the least obvious thing she can possibly think of. Unless Azula knows about her being spirit-touched, and it’s something about that. Alright, yes, that would make sense. It must be something like that.

As you are obviously the person to defer to, I must request your assistance in ratifying this treaty, the letter says. While I have done my best in my education in regards to the Water Tribe’s court, I am unfamiliar with your marriage customs, and would be loathe to inadvertently insult or demean the importance of our arrangement. This treaty is vital to both our peoples and I would not see it compromised. If you are willing, please write back with an appropriate time and place to meet.

Yue lowers the letter. She stares at the wall. What? Just . . . what?

She can’t be serious, surely. Azula’s talking like anything about this is up to them, when . . .

Well. It is up to Azula, she remembers belatedly. Quite a lot of things seem to be up to Azula, in fact. Certainly more than are up to her. But surely Azula realizes that, after the past two days. She can’t really think Yue could offer her any helpful information. Yue doesn’t know anything.

Some things, she supposes. But not enough to be helpful.

She looks at the letter again. Perfect handwriting that is probably not actually Azula’s looks back at her.

Yours, Princess Azula, daughter of Fire Lord Ozai, the letter says, and Yue doesn’t understand anything she’s just read.

. . . Azula is hers, part of her thinks. In a sense. That’s what all this means, isn’t it?

No. It’s not. Not really.

Just . . .

Yue inhales. Exhales. Settles. She rereads the letter. It doesn’t make much more sense the second time through. It seems important to answer it, but she doesn’t actually know how to answer it. The Fire Nation isn’t technically an ally yet, but they aren’t their enemy either, and maybe she shouldn’t be helping another nation in regards to a treaty but surely a treaty should be worked on together, and surely they want a successful treaty, and surely . . .

Yue isn’t sure at all, but she sets down the letter and goes looking for her ink.

.

.

.

Azula spends the afternoon meeting having a marvelous time talking circles around idiot advisors. Chief Arnook doesn’t speak much, but when he does she refrains from being quite as brutal and puts a much subtler edge on her points. No reason to be irritating the man on the throne before he’s signed anything binding, after all, even if his entire government is full of idiots. Entire society, from what Azula’s seen.

They eventually break for dinner, and in Azula’s rooms there’s a letter waiting. It’s from Yue, of course. Azula smirks smugly and breaks the seal. She doesn’t know the girl at all, but she already knows she’s going to get what she wants out of her. It’s not going to be hard.

Well, when is it ever, really? Azula is an expert in getting what she wants. All she has to do now is figure out just where to stick the lever.

“That was so boring,” Mai mutters darkly as Ty Lee falls face-first into the furs with a moan. Azula probably would’ve left them in the rooms, normally, but she wanted to rub salt in the wound from this morning, just a bit. It wasn’t wise, strictly speaking, but it wasn’t going to sink negotiations either so she’d let herself indulge.

If the Water Tribe doesn’t know what to do with girls, well—then let them have to figure out what to do with girls.

Azula ignores Mai’s muttering and Ty Lee’s moan to unfurl the letter and inspect it, immediately encountering a problem: Yue, it seems, wrote back in Noble Water, which . . . well, the scribe did write to her in it, so she supposes that’s fair.

“Blast,” she says. She already sent the scribes back to the ship. She hadn’t considered that Yue would write back in the same language she’d been written to in, which was a gross oversight on her part—what else would she have written in? The girl can’t even fight; who knows if they bothered teaching her High Fire? It’d be the first useful thing they’d have let her learn, so far as Azula’s seen, and the Water Tribe is clearly so very stubborn about that.

“What’s wrong?” Ty Lee asks, lifting her head.

“Nothing I can’t handle,” Azula says, and steps out into the hall without bothering to change out of her armor. She catches a flash of movement at the end of the hall and just barely glimpses a pair of girls in blue ducking around the corner. She’s almost surprised—they haven’t seen many girls here. Yue, of course, and one or two of the servants, but not just girls, divorced of purpose and doing as they please.

Odd, she thinks, and follows them. They’re in the palace, after all; if they can’t read Noble Water, then what are they doing here? They’re probably attendants or handmaidens, she assumes, or perhaps petty nobles.

And she’d rather ask them than a guard, certainly.

The girls, it turns out, haven’t gone far. They’re still right around the corner, in fact, and they squeak in alarm as she turns it. Azula raises an eyebrow, then gives them a pleasant smile.

“Hello,” she says. “I am Princess Azula, daughter of Fire Lord Ozai.”

The girls giggle disbelievingly, then clap their hands over their mouths. They’re both wearing blue, like everyone else here, except for the scant few in purple, and they look young. Not quite Azula’s own age; maybe twelve or so.

“We know,” one of them says. Her hair is braided in an unusual style, though less elaborately than Yue’s had been. “You threw Hahn out of the ring this morning.”

“I threw several people out of the ring this morning; you’re going to have to be more specific,” Azula says. The girls giggle again, looking scandalized. She should’ve brought Ty Lee, she thinks resignedly, but keeps the pleasant smile in place. “I don’t suppose you have a moment?”

“A moment?” the other girl says. Her hair is loose, aside from some beads. Azula wonders if there’s some kind of significance to the style. She knows that the Water Tribe has symbolism behind most things they wear, though not what very much of that symbolism is. It looks much more complicated than a topknot, either way.

She wonders what’s behind Yue’s hair. She’d assumed it was some sort of wig before getting in close to her and seeing that it wasn’t; she can’t imagine what they do to dye it that color and how much time it must take.

“Yes,” she says, holding up Yue’s letter and dismissing the thought as irrelevant. If it matters, she’ll figure it out later. “I’m afraid I’ve received a letter I can’t read. I don’t suppose either of you read Noble Water?”

“Not me,” says the second girl, shaking her head; the first one tucks her braids behind her ears nervously.

“I’ve had lessons,” she says. “Am having lessons. I can read it better than I can speak it.”

“How perfectly convenient,” Azula says, widening her smile and holding out the letter. The girl takes it, peering down at it in obvious concentration and frowning to herself.

“It’s—well, for you,” she says. “Of course. They apologize for the delay in their response and thank you for your letter, and . . . they request to meet you in—oh! This is from Princess Yue!”

“Well, I’d hope so,” Azula says dryly, and the other two giggle again, both turning red.

“They say you’re going to marry her,” the second girl says.

“That was the point of throwing so many people around this morning, yes,” Azula agrees, then raises an eyebrow and gives the letter a meaningful look. “Meet her where, precisely?”

“Oh!” The first girl reddens again, returning her attention to the letter. “Um . . . she wants to meet tonight in the ice gardens.”

“Ah, I should’ve known,” Azula says, with no idea whatsoever where those might be. “Is there anything else?”

“No,” the girl says, shaking her head. “That’s all.”

“Um,” the second girl says hesitantly, and Azula gives her the same pleasant smile as before, just in case she’s about to say something useful. “Did you really not even bend this morning?”

Ah, well, so much for anything useful.

“Oh, no, I was bending,” Azula says. “I was regulating my body temperature. It was a bit chilly out.”

“You can do that?” the other girl says. Azula resists the urge to give her a pitying look; would she have said so if she couldn’t?

“But that’s all?” the second girl says. “Really?”

“Yes,” Azula says. “That’s all.”

“You’re amazing,” the two of them say in unison, and then both turn bright red. Azula resists the urge to sigh, although at least they’re cleverer than the men she’s been meeting so far; she has to give them that.

“I know, yes,” she says. “They didn’t exactly put on their best performance, though.”

“Hahn’s the best warrior in the tribe,” the first girl says, and ah, there’s some useful information. Azula’s smile widens. Good to know what “best” amounts to around here, which, unsurprisingly, seems to be “not much”.

“Do tell,” she says lightly. “Literally. Tell me all about it.”

.

.

.

Yue waits in the ice gardens for Azula, mostly because she came here immediately after sending the letter. She didn’t want to be just sitting around in her rooms, although now she’s just sitting around in the gardens, so that may not be an improvement. Still, she feels like it must be better.

It feels almost like she’s doing something, so it’s the best she can do right now.

She still doesn’t understand why Azula thinks she was the one to ask about anything. Maybe she’s misunderstanding how much a princess really knows in the Northern Water Tribe. Maybe she’s just being . . .

No, Yue thinks, picturing Azula’s sly crimson smile. She doesn’t think Azula was just being kind when she wrote that letter. She’s not sure if Azula’s kind at all, in fact, or ever. She doesn’t strike her as the type.

She hopes she’s a little kind, at least. It’s going to be . . . they’re going to be spending a long time together, after all. Yue isn’t silly enough to expect anything out of this marriage, but she’d at least like to be spending that time with someone she can get along with. Certainly Azula has to be better than Hahn and his casual, careless cruelties.

It’d be hard to be worse, Yue thinks privately, although she really hopes the spirits don’t take that as a challenge.

She just doesn’t know enough about Fire Nation girls to know what to expect, she thinks.

She waits until the evening falls heavy and cold, not even sure what she’s waiting for, and then Azula steps into the moonlit courtyard and Yue’s heart jumps into her throat.

“I hope I haven’t kept you waiting,” Azula says with a smooth smile.

“You haven’t,” Yue says around her heart. “Ah . . . good evening, Princess Azula.”

“Good evening, Princess Yue,” Azula says with that exact same smile. She crosses the courtyard, and Yue stands up to meet her. Azula is . . . smaller than she seems, actually, Yue can’t help but realize. Somehow she still fills up the entire garden, though. “Thank you for your swift reply.”

“Of course,” Yue says, trying not to stare too intently at her. This is going to be her wife. They’re going to spend the rest of their lives together. They’re . . .

She’s not sure, really, what else they’re going to do.

“You had—questions?” she manages.

“Several, yes,” Azula says. “If you have the time to spare for them, of course.”

“I do,” Yue says, because her life is nothing but time right now. She has her lessons, of course, education and practice for being a good wife to the chief, but that isn’t . . . that’s not a thing anymore.

“Wonderful,” Azula says, still smiling, and Yue sits back down, feeling a little weak-kneed. Azula bows to her, then sits on the bench beside her. Yue doesn’t know how to react to that.

“I . . . assumed your attendants would be with you,” she says hesitantly.

“Should they be?” Azula says, raising an eyebrow.

“Well . . . normally we’d be being . . . chaperoned,” Yue says, glancing around the empty gardens. It’s been a long time since she’s been alone with a stranger. She can’t even think of the last time, in fact, aside from the brief moments it took to lead Azula and her attendants to the meeting room yesterday.

Perhaps they don’t do chaperones in the Fire Nation, though. Azula looks amused by the idea, anyway.

“Would they really suit for that?” Azula says. She’s still only wearing her armor, no coat or furs in sight, and Yue wonders how she doesn’t feel the cold. Maybe Fire Nation girls just don’t get cold.

“I suppose not,” Yue says, not really certain if they would or not. She hadn’t really thought about it, to be honest. She just . . . hadn’t expected to be alone with Azula. “I didn’t think to bring anyone, since we’re in the palace . . .”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Azula says dismissively, waving a hand in the air. “We’re not doing anything wrong, after all.”

“We’re not,” Yue agrees slowly, folding her hands in her lap. And Azula isn’t a boy, so . . . it probably doesn’t matter anyway, right? And they are getting married, so . . .

Maybe it’s supposed to matter, she thinks, but she doesn’t say so to Azula.

“You had . . . questions?” she repeats after a moment, and Azula smiles.

“Perhaps a few,” she says. “I’d hate to misstep, you see.”

“I do, yes,” Yue says, though she can’t help feeling like Azula could handle a misstep anyway. Azula seems like she could handle just about anything.

She wishes she were a bit more like that, she thinks, and then pushes the thought aside. She handles her duties. That’s all she needs to do.

“I take it that usually it’s a prince marrying your princess, for starters,” Azula says, looking amused.

“Yes,” Yue says, though she thinks Azula might’ve been making a joke. Or . . . something like one, anyway. “It’s how we ratify treaties among our tribes. And . . . between nations, of course.” Not that that’s come up too many times. The North Pole is a bit out of the way of the other nations, and isn’t usually concerned with them. Yue can’t even think of the last time someone was married off outside the tribe—it can’t have been within the past two generations, if not longer.

“Of course,” Azula says easily, crossing her legs and leaning back on her hands. Yue notices the way she shifts into the new pose a little too intently, for some reason she can’t quite put a name to. “The Fire Nation doesn’t, obviously, but we’re quite willing to meet you in the middle, in the interest of our nations’ new friendship.”

“Yes,” Yue says again, fingers curling carefully inside her gloves. She has the strangest desire to reach out and cover Azula’s hands, bared to the icy air as they are. They aren’t even reddened, though, and Azula still doesn’t look cold at all, so Yue can’t quite place the source of that desire.

“Is there anything I’m expected to do, as the marrying-in party?” Azula asks.

“Well . . . upholding the treaty, obviously,” Yue says, absently touching her bare throat. No, she won’t be wearing an engagement necklace. It’s not the Fire Nation way. “And, ah . . . taking care of your . . . of me.”

She feels silly saying it, but it is true. A husband would be expected to do it, so Azula will be as well.

“And what does that entail, pray tell?” Azula says, raising an eyebrow.

“I suppose you won’t be hunting any elk-caribou to provide for the tribe,” Yue says, briefly wry.

“Mmm, not really my style, no,” Azula drawls. She inspects her nails. They look perfect, so far as Yue can see: faultlessly manicured and filed to unexpectedly sharp points. “Have you had hundred year-old dragon egg, though? It’s quite good.”

“I haven’t,” Yue says, briefly mystified. Surely it can’t really be a hundred years old. And aren’t the dragons, well . . . gone? “You’ll be expected to take me with you when you leave the North Pole and keep me in a position befitting my . . . station. And I’d be expected to give you a son, but I suppose that, ah, won’t be a concern for us.”

“Likely not,” Azula says. “Zuko will be having the children. I’ve got more important things to do, myself.”

“I suppose so,” Yue says. They both have more important concerns, really, especially since neither of them needs an heir for anything. They need to do what’s best for their nations.

She wonders what Zuko’s fiancee is like. Mai. She hopes . . . well. She’d like for them to be friends, if possible. She can’t imagine there being too many options for those in the Fire Nation.

Not that she’s ever had very many in the Water Tribe, either.

“We’ll be married here,” she says, folding her hands. “I’m not sure if your father would like us to have a ceremony in the Fire Nation as well, but . . . well, it’s traditional that we be wed with the signing of the treaty.”

“Quite a lot about your nation is traditional, it seems,” Azula says.

“Yes.” Yue gives her a faintly puzzled look, not sure what that means.

“Hmm,” Azula says, inspecting her nails again. They still look perfect. Yue still feels the strange desire to cover her hands with her own.

Will your father want us to have a ceremony in the Fire Nation?” she asks tentatively.

“Couldn’t tell you, I’ve never been married before,” Azula says carelessly. Yue isn’t sure if it’s a joke or not, again. “I suppose my mother might, though, that seems like the sort of thing she’d care about.”

“What are Fire Nation weddings like?” Yue says, because she wants to know and because it seems like something safe to ask. Azula shrugs.

“Gaudy and time-consuming, in my experience,” she says. “Hopefully we won’t have to sit through one. What are Water Tribe ones like?”

“. . . traditional,” Yue says, lacking a better explanation. Azula laughs, and her heart does a funny little flip in her chest. “Ah . . . there’ll be a feast, of course. And gifts.”

“Gifts?” Azula asks. “Do you mean for us or between us?”

“For,” Yue says. “And, well, there’s engagement necklaces, with tribe members, but . . .”

“Engagement necklaces?” Azula raises an eyebrow at her.

“It’s not important,” Yue says, her throat feeling naked all over again. “A boy makes you one if he wants to marry you, that’s all.”

“Hmm,” Azula says again.

“It’ll likely be soon,” Yue says, figuring the change of subject is best. “The wedding, I mean. Unless there’ve been difficulties with the treaty.”

“Oh, no, no difficulties at all,” Azula says, her mouth curving in obvious pleasure. Yue wonders, briefly, if her father and his advisors would agree.

She isn’t sure how she feels about that idea, and even less sure how she feels about Azula’s smile.

.

.

.

Yue talks for some time, Azula “hmm”-ing and questioning at appropriate points to keep her talking, and Azula gets a fairly good picture of several things, wedding traditions and the chief and Yue’s personality alike. She still can’t say she’s particularly impressed by the girl, but she doesn’t have to be, of course. Yue is dutiful and undemanding, which is all Azula really cares about; she won’t likely be a difficult wife.

She’s oddly hard to flatter, though, especially for someone who should be perfectly aware of their own value. But then again, the Water Tribe doesn’t seem to ascribe much value to its princesses, so perhaps Azula should’ve expected that.

It’s ridiculous, frankly, but she’ll work around it. She’s worked around much more complicated things.

Yue knows much more about Water Tribe marriage customs than Azula knows about Fire Nation ones, but to be fair, only one of them was supposed to be getting married anytime soon. Azula supposes she’ll have to do some reading when she gets home, or perhaps just leave the details up to her mother. She’s not particularly concerned with what the wedding’s going to be like or if her father’s going to expect a second ceremony, though; she’s much more interested in feeling out Yue and getting a better-informed read on the chief.

“They might expect you to go on the hunt the day of the wedding,” Yue says tentatively, and Azula nearly laughs. She’s very sure Yue doesn’t mean a catfox hunt. And she definitely doesn’t mean a dragon one.

“That’d be interesting,” she says in amusement. She’s going to be very unimpressed if they try, frankly. She has more important things to do than satisfy any last-minute conditions.

“It’s just, well. Normal,” Yue says, gripping her hands together a bit anxiously. She doesn’t have quite as obvious tells as the advisors do, but she has tells all the same. Everyone does, of course. “The men go on a hunt in the morning and the husband brings home a trophy to bless the marriage, and the women prepare the wedding feast. And, well . . .”

“I am the husband in this scenario, yes,” Azula agrees with a smirk. “You’re a princess. Do they actually expect you to cook?”

“Well, no,” Yue says. “I’ll be asking the spirits’ blessing. And being dressed, of course.”

“Dressed?” Azula raises an eyebrow. That sounds like a process, the way Yue says it.

“I am a princess,” Yue says, hands still holding themselves tightly. “We’re expected to look a certain way.”

“Mm, true,” Azula says, idly wondering how they expect her to look. She didn’t bring any more formal armor than the set she showed up in—she dresses her best any given day, after all—but she has no intention of wearing blue. She certainly has no intention of spending half the day getting dressed; she’d rather deal with the men and the hunt, whatever that entails.

As long as no one expects her to use a spear, anyway. Weapons really aren’t her speciality. She’s not Zuko, after all; she doesn’t need that kind of crutch. The only time she lays hands on a weapon is when she’s taking it off someone.

“I really don’t know what they’ll expect you to do,” Yue says, and Azula waves her off easily.

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll figure it all out,” she says. “How long will it take them to make the wedding preparations?”

“I . . .” Yue hesitates, and glances away. “Not long, I’d think. They were already preparing to marry me to Hahn, so my robes are already ready, and the feast’s been planned for.”

“Good,” Azula says, and then remembers—“Hahn, as in the best warrior in the tribe?”

“Yes,” Yue says, looking surprised—that she knows that, perhaps, or perhaps that she might not know that. “He’s always been the best.”

“Oh?” Azula says with a polite smile. If he’s really the best their generation has to offer . . . well, she’s not impressed.

Though these people have yet to impress her whatsoever, frankly.

“He’s going to be the next chief,” Yue says. Azula resists the urge to snort. Well, at least the Water Tribe will be easy to control in the future. She can already tell that boy’s going to be a useless leader. He’s weak, he’s cocky, and his fellow “warriors” aren’t any better. She can’t imagine suffering a leader who couldn’t even win himself a wife. Zuko could outfight him with one hand tied behind his back.

Some “best”, there.

“I imagine he will be,” Azula says, because a weak chief certainly won’t hurt the Fire Nation’s authority. As long as he’s not too stupid to recognize when he’s been bested, anyway. “So the wedding will be soon. Hm, at this rate I expect I’ll be a husband before my dear brother is.”

“Is his fiancee nice?” Yue asks, which is such a ludicrous question that Azula can’t help but laugh.

“Definitely not,” she says. “A ‘nice’ Fire Lady would be useless.”

She never has understood why anyone let her mother anywhere near the royal family, no matter who the heir was at the time. Their uncle had certainly been glad enough to get himself in the middle of every battle, for one thing.

“Oh,” Yue says, biting her lip.

“A true Fire Lady will be expected to defend her honor and our nation,” Azula says, idly wondering why the other asked about Mai being “nice” but not caring enough to actually ask herself. It’s irrelevant. “No one wants a nice person doing that.”

“Why not?” Yue says.

“Because we want someone who’ll win,” Azula replies with a sharp smile. It seems self-evident enough to her. Yue bites her lip again, glancing down at her hands, and then back to Azula.

“So you’re not a nice person either,” she says. At least the girl can follow basic logic, unlike just about everyone else she’s met here.

“Not remotely,” Azula agrees.

“Mm,” Yue says. She’s a little hard to read, but she looks troubled. Azula can’t imagine why. “I . . . suppose I knew that.”

“Did you?” Azula raises an eyebrow at her.

“A nice girl wouldn’t have won my hand,” Yue says distantly, folding her hands in her lap again and looking out across the gardens. “A nice girl wouldn’t have fought anyone at all, much less boys.”

“I assure you, Princess Yue, I am the least nice girl you will ever know,” Azula says with another sharp smile. Yue looks at her for a long moment, expression interestingly unreadable, and then dips her head. It’s not a nod, exactly, but it’s not not a nod.

“Yes,” she says. “I suppose you are.”

.

.

.

Azula takes her leave, and Yue sits in the gardens for a long time before getting up and heading back to her rooms. She feels . . . strange, still. Distant from herself, in some way.

Not the way she’s used to feeling distant from herself, though. Usually she makes herself distant, because she needs to be. Right now . . .

Right now, she should be doing any number of other things than thinking about Azula’s flint-sharp smile, or how strange it had felt sitting on that bench with her in the moonlit dark. Strange and unsafe and . . . and strange.

Azula isn’t nice. She told her that herself.

She wonders what kind of a person she is, though. Someone who fights, certainly. Someone who fights boys, and talks over royal advisors, and doesn’t ever wear a coat. Someone with attendants she doesn’t seem to need and a sly look and an observant nature.

Someone very different from Yue, but also very different from Hahn.

And if it weren’t for her, well . . .

Yue looks at the moon as she walks back towards her rooms, wondering exactly what the spirits have seen fit to give her. She hears a whisper down the hall, and her ears prick. Usually she’d ignore something like that, but the whisper was—

“Did you see Princess Azula this morning?” the whisperer says, and someone giggles, low and barely audible.

“She beat Tonraq and Yutu!” someone says. “She beat Hahn!”

“About time someone did,” the whisperer says. All their voices are pitched very low, but they echo off the ice just right for Yue to catch. She can’t place any of them, though.

“I wish I could’ve seen,” another voice sighs. “It must’ve been amazing.”

“It was!” the whisperer says. “Even the waterbenders didn’t stand a chance!”

“I wish Master Pakku could’ve seen,” someone mutters, and a few of the others laugh. “He’ll never forgive them for losing to a girl.”

“Oh, they’ll be training for weeks.”

“Good!”

Yue looks at the moon outside and listens to the tittering of the whisperer and the others. They’re all girls, she notes. She’s never heard girls talk like that before. Is that normal, when she’s not around, or is that . . .

There are a lot of things she’s been thinking about saying, since first seeing Azula. Maybe she’s not the only person Azula’s affected that way.

But that’s a strange thought to have, and it doesn’t really explain the way Azula’s slick-lipped smile makes her feel, be it sweet or subtle or sharp. It doesn’t explain why she didn’t leave when she realized they didn’t have a chaperone. It doesn’t explain . . . anything, really.

Something about Azula is special, but Yue can’t figure it out for the life of her. She speaks up, speaks out, defeats opponents in fair combat like they’re nothing, smiles that smile . . .

And Yue wants to say things she never normally would, and eavesdrops on whispers just because they’re about her.

“They say she’s going to marry Princess Yue,” the whisperer says, and Yue should leave, but she doesn’t.

“Good,” one of the others says. “Even somebody Fire has to be better than Hahn.”

“But she’s a girl!” another girl says, and the whisperer snorts.

“What do you think the boys do when they’re all out on the hunt?” she says. “Why can’t girls do the same thing?”

The other girls make scandalized and thrilled noises and Yue’s face flushes hot. She immediately starts walking again. She doesn’t know as much about life outside the palace as she could, probably, but she knows what the boys do when they’re all out on the hunt. Everyone knows that.

Somehow it hadn’t occurred to her to apply the same logic to herself and Azula, even though it should’ve been obvious.

It’s a political marriage, though, so Azula might not even be thinking of anything like that, and Yue . . .

Yue’s thinking about it quite a lot, suddenly, and some part of her wants to know very badly if Azula is too.

.

.

.

“You talked to her?” Mai says.

“No, I spent the evening in that freezing excuse for gardens for my health,” Azula drawls. Mai snorts.

“What did she say?” Ty Lee says, leaning forward curiously.

“They’ve already been preparing for a wedding, so we won’t be waiting long,” Azula says.

“Is she excited?” Ty Lee asks eagerly, bouncing in place. “Did you kiss her?”

“Did I what?” Azula sputters, and Ty Lee pauses mid-bounce and blinks at her.

“Kiss her,” she repeats. “You were on a date, weren’t you?”

“That was not a date!” Azula says, then thinks for a moment and—“Oh.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t kiss her!” Ty Lee says. “She’s so pretty, Azula! And she’s your fiancee!”

“She probably did expect you to kiss her,” Mai says. Azula curses in High Fire.

“She didn’t act like it!” she says.

“. . . do you know how people act when they want kissed?” Ty Lee asks a little skeptically, and Azula curses again. If she missed a signal like that, she deserves thrown into the damn ocean and doused.

“She didn’t,” she repeats firmly. “She barely knew how to talk to me, she’s not expecting kissed.”

“You kissed her hand in front of everybody, though!” Ty Lee says. “And you didn’t have a chaperone! Of course she’s going to expect kissed!”

“Dammit,” Azula mutters with a vague sense of dread that Ty Lee might be right. Yue was looking at her mouth for a while in there, wasn’t she. She’d just thought she was too nervous to make eye contact. In her defense, mostly people are too nervous to make eye contact with her. “I’m not a boy.”

“I mean, as far as the Water Tribe’s concerned . . .” Mai shrugs, flipping a knife along her fingers.

“You’ve been acting like one,” Ty Lee agrees. “And she’s their princess. They wouldn’t expect her to be the husband.”

“I am not a boy,” Azula repeats dubiously.

“Well, they clearly don’t know how to handle girls like us,” Mai says.

“Clearly,” Azula says.

“It’s good, though!” Ty Lee says. “You want her to want to kiss you, you’re getting married!”

“We’re making a treaty, Ty Lee,” Azula says in exasperation, shooting her an unimpressed look. “That’s hardly a reason to kiss anyone.”

“But it’s romantic,” Ty Lee says.

Azula looks at her. Ty Lee wilts slightly.

“It’s a treaty,” Azula repeats. Ty Lee frowns at her.

“It’s a marriage treaty,” she says. “You want to make her happy, don’t you?”

“Not particularly, no,” Azula says, though obviously it’d be more convenient if Yue wasn’t miserable. That doesn’t equal “happy”, though. Mai snorts again, and Ty Lee wrings her hands together.

“Azula!” she protests. “Did you even try being romantic?”

“No,” Azula says.

“You need to!” Ty Lee says. “She’s not going to want to marry you if you’re not nice to her!”

“I don’t think she has much of a choice about it,” Mai points out.

“Maybe,” Ty Lee says. “But her father might take it as an excuse not to sign the treaty if he thinks she’s unhappy.”

“Lovely,” Azula says with a distasteful grimace, because that is a good point, unfortunately. Then again, they were going to marry her to Hahn, and from what she’s heard of him she can’t imagine Yue being happy about that.

Still . . .

“Well, I didn’t kiss her, so it’s too late now,” she says.

“No it’s not!” Ty Lee says. “You should write to her again! Or send her a gift!”

“A gift,” Azula repeats incredulously. Ty Lee looks embarrassed, but stubbornly presses on, being Ty Lee.

“Yes,” she says. “Something romantic, you know? So she knows you had a nice time.”

“Ty Lee,” Azula says, pinching the bridge of her nose. “You can’t be serious.”

“She’s a girl!” Ty Lee says. “Girls like that kind of thing.”

“I don’t,” Azula says. She can think of very little less interesting than the idea of being sent a “romantic” gift, much less by someone who doesn’t even know her.

“I mean, romantic girls do,” Ty Lee says. “It’s nice knowing a boy’s thinking about you when you’re not around, you know?”

“I’m still not a boy,” Azula says dubiously.

“She’s not wrong,” Mai says with a sigh, still flipping that same knife along her fingers. As she’s the only person in the conversation with an actual boyfriend, Azula feels a vague sense of annoyance that she might be the authority on the subject. And it’s not as if Ty Lee’s never dated, of course, for whatever baffling reason Ty Lee does anything.

Dammit.

“What would I even send her?” Azula asks in exasperation. “We can’t exactly run down to the local market and ask for a gift that’ll suit a princess.”

“Well, what does she like?” Ty Lee says, tilting her head questioningly.

“How should I know?” Azula says.

“You talked to her!” Ty Lee protests.

“And I can tell you all sorts of things about her stress responses and personal boundaries, but that has nothing to do with her taste in presents,” Azula says. Ty Lee sighs.

“She didn’t mention anything? Not even traditional stuff?” she asks. “You were going to ask her what Water Tribe weddings were like, right?”

“I did, but the only things she mentioned were dead animals and jewelry,” Azula says, then pauses consideringly.

“. . . dead animals are not romantic, Azula,” Ty Lee says with obvious pain. Azula scowls at her.

“I was thinking about the jewelry, if you must know,” she says. “She said a boy makes you a necklace if he wants to marry you.”

“Oh! That’s sweet!” Ty Lee says, visibly brightening. Azula rolls her eyes.

“I’m about as much a jeweler as I am a weaver,” she reminds the other.

“Your mother did make sure the servants packed your jewelry box,” Mai mentions neutrally.

“Ugh, did she?” Azula scowls. She only has a jewelry box because of idiots like her uncle assuming she’d want jewelry, and she only kept the thing because it’s some sort of heirloom from her mother’s mother, and Azula has enough problems dealing with her mother without tossing any of her heirlooms in the pond, useless though they might be.

Not that she hasn’t considered doing it a few times all the same, mind. It’s not exactly a general’s knife or an heirloom of Sozin’s. It’s a frivolous little thing, in fact, and has never once been useful in the—

. . . wait.

Did she,” Azula repeats thoughtfully as she catches Mai’s point. “Hm.”

“Ooo, that’s right!” Ty Lee says, perking up excitedly. “Do you have any good necklaces?”

“No idea, I haven’t opened the thing in months,” Azula says with a dismissive gesture. She’s actually not sure when the last time she did open it was, come to think of it. Possibly it was when it was given to her and she’d been hoping for something actually interesting to be inside. “There must be something in the thing, though.”

“Well, let’s go see!” Ty Lee says, and Azula sighs.

“If we must,” she says. Might as well deal with it now, all things considered.

They leave their rooms to head back to the ship and Azula makes the sailors turn the hold upside-down until they find the jewelry box, and hums to herself as she inspects it. It remains a frivolous little thing, but she’s made use of stranger assets. Giving jewelry to a princess is practically normal.

Not that Azula’s ever been that kind of princess herself, of course, but Yue clearly is.

She opens the box, and, funnily enough, there’s a necklace right on top: a heavy golden thing inset with red gems and engraved with a symbol of the sun.

“Hm,” she says, tilting her head speculatively as she inspects it.

Well, that’s convenient, if a bit ironic.

It’s certainly a gift that’ll suit a princess, either way.

.

.

.

It’s morning, and Yue turns away from her window at the sound of a knock and says, “You may enter.” A servant comes into her rooms with a slightly bewildered expression. Yue doesn’t frown, but she wants to.

“Yes?” she says.

“The Fire Nation princess sent a letter, Your Highness,” the servant says, practically tone for tone and beat for beat the same as the last time. He holds up a scroll sealed in red wax. “It’s, er—heavy.”

“Heavy?” Yue blinks. It’s just a scroll, isn’t it?

She walks over and takes it, and he’s right—it is heavy. How strange, she thinks, though she still doesn’t let herself frown. She breaks the seal without even thinking about it or being careful, and the scroll unravels and something drops out of it and to the floor.

It’s a necklace.

Yue . . . blinks.

She looks down at it. It’s gold, and looks heavy. There are rubies in it, and it’s engraved with an image of the sun.

She wonders if Azula knows about . . . no, she wouldn’t.

She wonders what in the tides this is about.

The servant ducks down and picks up the necklace for her, and she accepts it.

“Thank you,” she says, and then looks at the letter.

I’m afraid I didn’t make it myself, of course, but it was my grandmother’s, it says in spiky, unfamiliar writing—not in Noble Water. Hopefully that will make up for my lack of skill in jewelry-crafting.

Yue stares at the letter. Stares at the necklace.

It’s from Azula. It’s from Azula, but surely she doesn’t mean . . .

No, she thinks, closing her fingers around the chain of the necklace. This is exactly the kind of thing Azula would mean, isn’t it.

“Thank you,” she says again to the servant, and he bows and takes his leave. Yue keeps staring at the letter for a long moment, then looks to the necklace again.

She’s wearing purple today. It’ll look terrible with it.

She puts it on all the same.

.

.

.

Azula sees Yue briefly on her way to the negotiation table, sitting just across the courtyard and seemingly occupied with staring into space. She has the oddest desire to go over and see if she’s wearing the necklace, but really, she hardly expects her to actually wear the thing. It was just to make a point.

She does go over, of course, because she needs Yue to like her at least for the moment and that’s going to take some work, no doubt. Generally speaking, people don’t like Azula. She goes to great efforts to make it that way.

“Princess Yue,” she greets with a nod, and Yue blinks up at her. She is, to Azula’s mild surprise, wearing the necklace.

“Princess Azula,” Yue says with a nod of her own, touching the engraved sun in the center of the necklace. “Thank you for your gift.”

“Not quite a proper Water Tribe engagement necklace, I suppose, but it seemed appropriate all the same,” Azula says with a smile.

“I suppose we’ll just have to consider it a Fire Nation one,” Yue says. She doesn’t smile, but her eyes soften. Azula hadn’t actually realized they weren’t soft before. Yue isn’t particularly expressive.

“I suppose we will,” she says, still smiling herself. Yue keeps looking at her. She doesn’t say anything for a moment, then inclines her head again.

“Yes,” she says. Azula’s about to say her goodbyes and move on—generally speaking it’s easier to make people like her when they don’t spend too much time with her, and also she has places to be and treaties to draft—but then Yue takes her hand and kisses the back of it, her lips pressing soft and dry against Azula’s skin.

Azula . . . pauses, just for a moment, and barely represses a frown. It’s nothing she hasn’t done herself, after all, but something about it feels . . . strange.

Her hand feels very warm, for some reason, and not in the way her bending usually makes it. Yue’s glove can’t possibly be that warm.

Yue leans back. She doesn’t let go of her hand.

“Good luck today,” Yue says, and Azula smiles at her again because she can smile through anything, quite frankly, no matter how strange it might feel.

“Oh, I won’t need it,” she says. “But how kind of you, all the same.”

Yue makes a soft noise, her eyes flicking down to Azula’s smile. Azula wonders if she does expect kissed. She’s . . . never actually kissed someone before, so that might be an issue. She’s not exactly sure how to do it.

Then again, she’s figured out more complicated things.

“Perhaps you’ll see me later, Princess Yue,” she says, leaning down in mimicry of a bow, and Yue tilts her head up towards her, looking up at her from under white lashes. Kissing her would, in fact, be easy. Effortless. The position is practically perfect for it.

Azula—doesn’t. She straightens up again a little too quickly, a little too stiffly, feeling strange all over again but still smiling. Yue is still looking at her mouth, gripping her hand just a little bit tighter.

Then she lets go, and flicks her eyes up to meet Azula’s. They’re very pretty eyes, actually, come to think of it. Azula will have to tell her that at some point. Seems like a “romantic” thing to say and all.

“I’d like that,” Yue says, and Azula has no idea what to say to that.

.

.

.

Azula leaves, and Yue watches her walk away until she’s gone, and only then lets herself lift her fingers to touch her lips. They’re tingling.

For a moment there, she’d thought Azula might . . .

It’d just . . . seemed like she might, for a moment.

Yue looks around the courtyard, and then up at the sky where it’s too early for the moon to show yet. She always knows where it is, or at least she always feels like she knows where it is. She wonders if the spirits are amused, and why Azula gave her a necklace with the sun on it, of all things. Maybe it was the only one she had. Maybe she wasn’t thinking. Maybe she wanted to stake some kind of claim, or make a point, or . . .

Yue’s face flushes hot, and she doesn’t know what to think at all.

She wishes, very briefly, that she’d been right about what she’d thought Azula was going to do.

Or maybe just that she’d been brave enough to do it herself.

Yue looks down at her hands, face still hot, and remembers the perfect print of Azula’s lips on her glove. She feels the weight of the other’s necklace around her throat, where she’ll never have to wear anyone else’s again.

She thinks about what she asked the spirits for, and wonders just what they’ve granted her.

Chapter Text

Azula is very good at people. She's made an expertise of it, in fact.

Long story short, the treaty negotiations are going marvelously.

"The advisors are making weird faces again," Ty Lee whispers in her ear as they walk into the meeting room, and Azula smiles beatifically.

"Oh, are they?" she asks lightly.

They most definitely are.

It’s gratifying. It’s only been a few days in the Northern Water Tribe, but Azula already wants to burn this whole place to the ground, or at least this whole government. She’s not picky.

Yue’s not in the meeting room again, but she rarely ever is. The chief and all of his advisors are here, though, waiting. Azula is exactly on time, so she doesn’t care. She heads straight to the table, smiling as pleasantly as ever, and Ty Lee and Mai flank her. The scribes hurry behind them, arms full of scrolls and ink.

“Good morning. Chief Arnook, a pleasure as always,” Azula says smoothly.

“Good morning, Princess Azula,” he says. He doesn’t add any pleasantries, and Azula’s smile widens. “Yue informs me you’ve found an engagement necklace for her.”

“I do of course want to respect your traditions,” Azula lies easily. That was two days ago, so clearly the chief isn’t talking to his daughter much. “It’s a family heirloom.”

“Hm,” Arnook says. He doesn't seem particularly approving, but Azula doesn't care about being approved of. Yue'd seemed happy enough with it, or at least as happy as she seems to get, and that'd been the point.

Traditionally a suitor crafts the engagement necklace themselves,” one of the advisors says snidely.

"I'm afraid we'll have to be satisfied with a master craftsman's work," Azula says. The advisor scowls at her. She smiles back pleasantly. “Now, did we want to talk trade routes today?”

“Are you prepared for the wedding?” Arnook says. Azula resists the urge to roll her eyes. That is not related to trade routes.

“Of course,” she lies easily. How the hell is she supposed to prepare anything? She didn’t pack spiritsdamn wedding clothes. They didn’t even bring a tailor! “Princess Yue has helpfully informed me of the usual traditions.”

“Have you hunted before, Princess Azula?” Arnook says. Oh, for—dammit.

“Oh, of course!” Azula lies again. “Our nobles love a good hunt.”

“They hunt for sport in the Fire Nation,” an advisor says disapprovingly. “Not for sustenance.”

“I’m sure the skills overlap,” Azula says, as if she has any skills whatsoever to be overlapping with.

“Will you need a spear, or do you have your own?” Arnook says. Azula could die. “Or do you hunt with a bow?”

“Won’t be necessary,” Azula says breezily, folding her hands behind her back.

“You can’t just firebend at it,” another advisor says witheringly. “You’ll ruin the pelt.”

. . . hell.

“Well, of course,” Azula says. “Wouldn’t do to do that, would it?”

Of all the times to need to know how to use a damn weapon.

.

.

.

Yue resists the urge to touch Azula’s engagement necklace for probably the dozenth time of the day, still barely even put together enough to leave her rooms. It’s metal, so it’s been very cold to put on in the morning; she’s considering just sleeping in it from now on.

She’s not sure how well she’ll sleep wearing a metal necklace, honestly. The servants brushing her hair are careful not to snag the chain, at least.

“The usual style, Your Highness?” one of them asks, already separating out the appropriate amount of hair for said usual.

“Yes, thank you,” Yue says, like always. There’s no reason to change, after all.

It’ll be different for the wedding, of course.

She wonders what she’ll look like in her wedding clothes. Will Azula like them?

Probably not. The Fire Nation has a very different sense of style to the Water Tribe, after all. Yue’d liked the outfit Azula had shown up to fight in, though, unusual though it had been. Her armor she likes less—it’s so stiff and formal, and Yue is long since sick of clothes like that—but the outfit she’d fought in . . . yes, she’d liked that.

She’s never seen anyone else walk around outside bare-armed like that. Azula must be a firebender. Yue hasn’t been sure about it, but she never seems to feel the cold and leaves deeper footprints than other people despite her slight frame and her breath steams just a little too much in the air. If she’s not a firebender, then Yue doesn’t know what she is.

She wonders why she hasn’t seen her really bend yet, though she supposes Azula hasn’t actually needed to. She hadn’t needed any bending to beat the boys, after all.

She’ll see it someday, she supposes. It only makes sense that she will.

The servants finish with the braids and pin the usual ornaments into Yue’s hair, and she wonders if she has anything that would look good with the necklace. She can’t think of anything, unfortunately.

Maybe she’ll be able to get something that matches it properly in the Fire Nation. Probably, since that’s where it came from. And she won’t be wearing blue or purple in the Fire Lord’s court, she’s sure. Red and black and gold seem to be the preferred colors among the Fire Nation citizens she’s seen so far. Well—Ty Lee wears pink, actually. So maybe she could wear pink.

Yue’s never worn pink in her life.

She’s going to look so strange among them, she thinks. Hopefully it won’t be too long before she can get clothes that’ll blend in a little better, but she’ll still look nothing like anyone else there.

The servants finish up with her hair and step back, and Yue thanks them quietly and they leave, because she’s all put together now and doesn’t need any more help. She could go somewhere, but the only place she really wants to go is to the treaty meeting room, and her chances of being let in are slim.

Maybe if she waits outside it, someone will tell her something when they leave. Father or Azula or even maybe Mai or Ty Lee.

She really hopes Mai at least will be her friend. Mai she’ll probably be seeing the most of, after all.

Yue hasn’t had many friends in her life, honestly, but the Fire Nation is going to be so different, and she just . . . it’d be nice, knowing someone would be around who could help her. She doesn’t know if Azula will have the time.

She doesn’t know if Azula will even want to. And she doesn’t know very much about Fire Nation marriage customs; why would she know anything about what’s going to be expected of Yue?

Yue exhales. She tells herself it’s not the time to worry about things like that. First there’s a treaty to finish and a wedding to get through. Everything else is just . . . later. Everything else can be later.

She leaves her rooms, because what else is she going to do? She walks around the halls, wondering when Father and Azula and the others will be done.

Maybe Mai and Ty Lee are in the Fire Nation delegation’s rooms, she thinks, and considers visiting. It seems like an imposition, though. They must have things to do. She’s not sure they won’t be with Azula, anyway.

It’s so hard waiting for so many things, Yue thinks.

.

.

.

Eventually they do talk trade routes, and Azula is very pleased with the way that conversation goes. The wedding hunt is going to be a problem, but the trade routes are definitely not.

They wrap up for the day and go their separate ways, and Azula heads back to the ship.

"Tell me we have a harpoon or something on this damn boat," she says to the captain.

"Er . . . we do, Princess Azula," he says.

"Good," she says. "Show me how to use it."

". . . what?"

"Show me how to use it, Captain," Azula repeats patiently, smiling pleasantly at him. "Ideally before the North Pole melts, mm?"

"Of course, Your Highness," the captain says, looking very stressed. He hurries off.

"A harpoon?" Mai says skeptically.

"Well it's that or I borrow a few of your kunai, and I doubt they'll kill anything big enough to impress the Water Tribe without needing to tear up the pelt," Azula says.

"How big a thing do you have to kill?" Ty Lee asks worriedly, glancing back towards shore.

"Fairly big, apparently," Azula says, mouth twisting in annoyance. "It's certainly not going to be a catfox hunt."

"That's inconvenient," Mai says.

"Maybe you should talk to Yue again," Ty Lee says, biting her lip. “She might have some advice?”

“She can’t even fight, Ty Lee,” Azula says in exasperation. “What’s she going to know about hunting?”

“She might’ve heard some stuff,” Ty Lee says, though she doesn’t sound particularly convinced herself. Azula snorts.

“Unless that 'stuff' involves harpoons, I can't see how it would be helpful,” she says.

"Are you really going to be able to use a harpoon, though?" Mai says skeptically.

"Not much choice about it, is there?" Azula says. "I can't burn the pelt, for whatever reason."

"They probably want to use it for something," Ty Lee says.

"Of course they do," Azula mutters.

The captain comes back out of the hold with a pair of harpoons, looking very stressed. Azula eyes him impatiently, waiting for him to cross the deck.

"Well?" she says. "Hand it over."

"Yes, Your Highness," he says, holding out a harpoon towards her and still looking stressed. Azula takes it and eyes it critically. It's in mediocre repair and also barbed, which may not be good for the pelt either. Tch.

"That's going to be a problem," Mai says neutrally.

"Well, what else am I supposed to use?" Azula asks irritably. "I'm not asking them for a weapon."

"Er . . . Princess Azula, what is this for . . . ?" the captain asks.

"Killing a large animal without ruining its pelt," Azula says. "Presumably an elk-caribou or something like that. The Water Tribe is insisting on a wedding hunt, spirits know why."

"Ah," the captain says. "Harpoons aren't really meant for . . . hunting on land like that. And the barbs . . ."

"Yes, Captain, we're all well aware of the barbs," Azula says in annoyance. "What else do we have?"

"Firebending, Your Highness," the captain says, looking pained.

"You mean to tell me that there are no weapons on this ship whatsoever?" Azula asks in exasperation.

"Only the harpoons, Your Highness," the captain says. "The soldiers are all benders."

"Of course they are," Azula mutters. "Mai!"

"Yes?" Mai raises an eyebrow at her.

"What've you got?" she says.

"Nothing bigger than this," Mai says, pulling out a long, thin blade the length of her forearm. It looks like a close-range weapon, unlike her usual ones. Well, there's always emergencies to be prepared for, Azula supposes.

"How big an animal can I kill with it?" she asks. Mai shrugs.

"I don't know," she says. "I haven't tried to kill anything with it yet."

"Of course you haven't," Azula says with a sigh.

"Hasn't really come up," Mai says with another shrug. Azula rubs at her temples.

"Fine," she says. "Show me how to use it."

"Have you ever used a knife before?" Mai says, skeptical again.

"If my idiot brother can do it, I can do it," Azula retorts witheringly.

"Zuko's been doing it almost as long as Mai, though," Ty Lee says. Azula rolls her eyes in exasperation. This is going to be a thing, isn't it.

"It's I figure out how to use a knife or they demand Zuko's hand in marriage," she says. "Which would you prefer, exactly?"

"Let's get started," Mai says, flipping her grip on the knife.

.

.

.

Yue can't go to the Fire Nation delegation’s rooms—it wouldn't be proper—but she wants to very badly. It'd be an imposition, though, and she shouldn't be doing anything that would look like she's seeking out Azula, and . . .

She stares up at her bedroom ceiling, unable to sleep, and wishes she didn't always have to be so . . . proper.

Maybe girls don't have to do that in the Fire Nation, she thinks to herself. Mai and Ty Lee aren't proper. Azula definitely isn't proper. Maybe in the Fire Nation that kind of thing is different.

She wishes she knew one way or the other.

She just . . . she wishes a lot of things right now.

It takes a long time, but eventually she does sleep, at least a little. In the morning she wakes up to the sound of a servant knocking on the wall outside her bedroom and sits up in bed, feeling no better than she felt last night. She doesn't want to get dressed or have her hair done or any of those things. She doesn't even want to leave her bed.

But Yue doesn't want to do that kind of thing a lot, so she just gets up like always and lets the servants in. They have her breakfast, just like always, and she eats it as they lay out her clothes for the day, just like always.

She wonders if Azula would like it if she did her hair a different way. If she'd care at all.

Probably not. Azula doesn't seem very interested in things like that.

Then again, Yue doesn't really know her well enough to say either way.

She's already wearing Azula's necklace, but she gets dressed and the servants do her hair—just like always—and then they take her breakfast dishes and leave her alone. She goes out into her sitting room and just . . . sits.

She wants to see Azula. She wants to learn more about her. She wants—improper things.

She can be patient, Yue tells herself. That's all she has to do.

Today's treaty negotiations should be starting soon.

Yue bites her lip and forces herself to stay in her seat. She could see Azula and the others in the hall if she left right now, but she doesn't have a good reason to.

How much longer are the negotiations going to take? How much longer is she going to have to wait?

How much longer before the servants come in in the morning and lay out her wedding clothes?

She wants to know so badly.

Someone knocks on the wall outside her rooms, and she startles out of her thoughts and turns towards the door.

"Come in?" she says, a little confused. No one should be here right now. The heavy tapestry over the door is pushed aside, and Father steps into the room.

Yue . . . blinks.

"Father?" she asks, standing up. His eyes flick to Azula’s necklace. Yue resists the urge to touch it.

"Yue," he says. "Come with me."

"Alright," she starts to say, but he's already leaving and she has to hurry after him. He strides quickly down the hall and she can barely keep up without rushing. Usually he doesn't outpace her like that, and she's not sure what to think. He seems . . . upset.

Father walks all the way to the negotiation room, and Yue’s heart jumps into her throat as he disappears through the door. She follows him in, and the advisors turn and look at them. Azula isn't here yet. Yue tries to look put-together and proper, and follows Father to the head of the table. He sits. She stands beside him.

"Princess Azula will be here shortly," he says.

"Yes, Father," she says, trying not to sound uncertain.

"The negotiations are almost over," he says, and the back of Yue’s neck prickles. "We'll be signing the treaty soon."

"Yes?" Yue says, clasping her hands together anxiously and doing her best not to let the gesture actually look that way.

"Yes," Father says. "In the next day or two, barring any unforeseen problems."

"Ah," Yue says.

He still seems upset. She's not sure what to think.

"Is there . . . anything I should do?" she asks hesitantly, not sure why she's here.

"No," Father says. He doesn't say anything else. Yue starts to say something herself, but then she hears footsteps and the Fire Nation delegation walks in the door. Azula’s in front, of course, and smiles pleasantly at them. Yue’s heart skips a beat.

"Good morning, Chief Arnook," Azula says. "Princess Yue."

"Good morning, Princess Azula," Father says.

"Good morning," Yue manages. Her hands tighten around each other.

Azula smiles that pleasant smile again and gives that odd little Fire Nation bow she always does, then sits down at the other end of the table. Mai and Ty Lee stand to either side of her. Mai looks bored. Ty Lee looks restless.

Yue tries not to look too closely at Azula.

"We've finished the amendments from last night," Father says as the scribes and advisors take their own seats. Azula's smile widens.

"Delighted to hear it," she says.

"We'll need to discuss the wedding preparations today," Father says, and Yue’s neck prickles again.

"Of course," Azula says smoothly. "Where would you like to start?"

"We'll hold the wedding the day after the treaty is finished," Father says. "The hunting party will leave in the morning and the marriage ceremony will be in the evening after you return. Then we'll sign the treaty and the wedding feast will last the night."

"Of course," Azula repeats. It's all things Yue’s already told her about, so Yue wouldn't expect any different.

"The full moon is the day after tomorrow," Father says.

"Is it?" Azula says. "Fascinating."

"It's an auspicious day for my daughter," Father says.

". . . fascinating?" Azula says, with a faint but obvious side of "and we care why?" Yue isn't really sure either, and barely keeps the frown of confusion off her face. Father never mentioned anything about the full moon before.

"You'll need a sacrifice for the moon spirit," Father says.

"I'm assuming this won't be the same as the fruits of the hunt," Azula says, raising an eyebrow. "What do I need to make a sacrifice to the spirits for?"

"Not the spirits," Father says. "The moon spirit."

"I'm afraid that hasn't cleared anything up," Azula says. The advisors mutter to each other in annoyance. Azula keeps on that pleasant smile.

"Yue has a piece of the moon spirit in her," Father says. "You owe the moon a wedding gift as well."

"What," Azula says.

Yue’s face goes hot. She straightens up as well as she can and tries to look like someone worthy of carrying a piece of a spirit inside themselves. She doesn't understand why this is coming up now. Did Hahn have to do this?

"You're taking a part of the moon with you," Father says, drumming his fingers on the table. "It's only right that you leave something behind."

"And what does the moon want, exactly?" Azula says.

"That will be between you and the moon," Father replies. "Yue will take you to the Spirit Oasis on your wedding night, as your first act as a married couple. You'll give the moon spirit what it asks for."

"I see," Azula says.

Yue wonders if Azula even knows what the Spirit Oasis is. She knows she hasn't seen it, if nothing else. She wonders if the spirits will approve of their marriage.

Their first act as a married couple.

Yue feels her face go hot again.

That's . . .

.

.

.

"If they move the goalposts one more time . . ." Azula hisses as they return to their rooms. The treaty talk went well. They'll likely be done tomorrow. The wedding talk went . . . less well.

"It's just a sacrifice," Mai says dismissively. "What's it going to be, some food or money?"

"I don't know," Ty Lee says nervously, hopping from one foot to the other. "They made it sound really important."

"I didn't exactly pack to make a sacrifice to the damn moon of all things," Azula says. "Maybe it'll want my jewelry box. That'd be convenient."

"I can't believe you're marrying a goddess," Ty Lee says. Azula gives her an incredulous look.

"Ty Lee," she says. "She's not actually a spirit."

"I mean . . . it would explain her aura," Ty Lee says.

"Her aura?" Mai says with a frown as Azula pinches the bridge of her nose. Spirits spare them.

"Yeah!" Ty Lee says, tugging her braid over her shoulder and then making a wide gesture with both hands. "It's really weird. Really big. And sparkly!"

"'Sparkly'," Mai repeats incredulously.

"Yeah!" Ty Lee nods emphatically.

"Ah-huh," Azula says. Sometimes it's best just to ignore Ty Lee.

Other times ignoring Ty Lee nearly gets them killed, though, so . . .

"Alright, fine," Azula says. "Tell me all about it."

"It's weird," Ty Lee says, gesturing at her chest. "It's like there's a normal aura at the center of her, but it's all wrapped up around something bigger that's bleeding out the edges. And it changes."

"Changes?" Azula's attention sharpens. "Changes how?"

"Well . . . I guess like the moon," Ty Lee says, gesturing with her hands again. "It sort of . . . waxes and wanes."

"That is completely useless information," Azula says. Ty Lee shrugs helplessly.

"It's just what it's like," she says. "It's a lot. It's weird she's so quiet, actually, with that powerful an aura. Usually people like that are . . . more intense. You know?"

"I do not," Azula says. She knows very little about what Ty Lee’s talking about when she talks about auras. Ty Lee isn't very good at explaining it, and she's really not that interested either. "Should we be concerned?"

"I don't know," Ty Lee says.

"Well, that's still entirely useless, Ty Lee, thank you," Azula says. Ty Lee blushes in embarrassment.

"Maybe you should ask her about it?" she says tentatively.

"Is it relevant?" Azula says.

"Um," Ty Lee says. "Well, maybe you'll know what to bring for the moon spirit if you do . . . ?"

"Fine," Azula says grudgingly. That at least makes sense. And she's asked Yue plenty of questions and the girl hasn't tried to lie to her yet, so . . .

Finding her at this hour might be something of an issue, admittedly.

"Let's see if we can't turn her up," she says, leaving their rooms. Mai and Ty Lee follow her.

"This is going to take forever," Mai says, already looking bored.

"Maybe she'll be in the ice gardens again?" Ty Lee suggests.

"Not a bad place to start," Azula says. "Ty Lee, check the gardens. Mai, check the meeting room. I'm going to see if someone in this place can actually tell me where her damn rooms are."

"Okay!" Ty Lee says.

"Okay," Mai sighs.

They split up, and Azula goes looking for a convenient servant to ask—or possibly threaten. It's a palace; there'll be someone. She wants to understand this moon thing before she's expected to make a sacrifice to it. She isn't going to start this marriage off with a mistake.

Azula doesn't make mistakes, of course. She's not Zuko.

And one of the reasons that she doesn't make mistakes is that she knows when and where to do her research. Whatever the chief was talking about, Yue’s the obvious place to start asking questions.

It takes a little searching, but eventually she finds a pair of girls who seem to be in the middle of carrying quite a lot of furs somewhere. They're both practically dressed and seem to be doing some sort of work, but aren’t in a hurry either.

Perfect.

"Excuse me," Azula says, and they both take one look at her, stop in their tracks, and burst into nervous giggles. "Do you have a moment?"

"Yes, Princess Azula," one of them says, and they both do an odd little . . . not exactly a bow, but something like one. Azula will take it. "How can we help you?"

"I don't suppose you could direct me to Princess Yue," Azula says. The girls glance at each other, then look back at her.

"I think she's in her rooms, Your Highness," the other girl says, biting her lip. Good, Azula thinks. She was on track.

"Ah, of course," she says. "Now could you tell me where those are?"

"Um," the first girl says.

"Without a chaperone?" the other girl says.

"We don't need one in the palace, surely," Azula says easily, folding her hands behind her back. The girls share another look, then giggle nervously again.

"Well . . ."

"I guess with another girl . . ."

Azula smiles winningly. The girls tell her everything she needs to know.

It's so useful, being herself.

.

.

.

Someone knocks on the wall outside Yue’s rooms, and she looks away from the window and towards the door.

"Come in," she says, expecting a servant or the steward or perhaps her father.

What she gets is . . . not any of them.

"Good evening, Princess Yue," Azula says pleasantly as she steps into the room. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything."

". . . no," Yue says, staring at her in surprise. "You're not."

"Excellent," Azula says with a wide smile. "I'd hate to be a bother."

"No bother," Yue says. She stands up, and Azula steps closer. She's not even particularly close, but Yue’s face feels hot all the same. "Can I . . . help you, Princess Azula?"

"Well, I did have a question or two," Azula says. "If it's not too inconvenient."

"Of course," Yue says. "What's the question?"

"About that sacrifice to the moon . . ." Azula says, and Yue’s face feels hotter for no good reason. It's not that it's embarrassing, just . . . "Exactly what's going on with that?"

"The moon spirit gave me life," Yue says, resisting the urge to touch her hair. "When I was born, I wasn't going to survive, so my father asked the spirits for help and the moon spirit saved me."

"Literally?" Azula asks.

"Yes," Yue says.

"Hm." Azula tilts her head.

"I assumed you knew already," Yue says. "It's not a secret. It's where my name came from."

"Unfortunately there have been several things that I did not know about the Northern Water Tribe," Azula replies with an easy shrug. "So what sort of sacrifice is appropriate for taking a piece of the moon away, then?"

"I don't know," Yue says. "No one ever has before."

"Hm," Azula says.

"Sorry," Yue says, still feeling embarrassed.

"Oh, I'm sure I'll come up with something," Azula says, waving her off. "People have been making sacrifices to the spirits for how long, after all?"

"Did you bring anything you can sacrifice?" Yue asks tentatively. She's not sure what a treaty delegation would've packed. Azula shrugs again.

"I'm sure I'll come up with something," she repeats.

"Alright," Yue says. She wishes she had a suggestion, but she really doesn't know what the moon spirit would want. She just doesn't have any special knowledge of the spirits. She knows what everyone knows about them, and nothing else. She doesn't even know why they answered Father's prayer and healed her to begin with.

It doesn't really help that she doesn't know much about Azula either, honestly. She can't say what Azula might have that the spirits would value.

She feels like that's something she should know.

"So what does having the moon in you mean?" Azula says, and Yue doesn't know how to answer her.

"I'm not sure what you're asking," she says uncertainly.

"Does anyone pray to you?" Azula asks. "Any special things they do for you?"

"No," Yue says. At least, she doesn't think anyone prays to her. Hopefully they don't. She wouldn't know how to answer them if they did.

"You really don't get much out of life, do you," Azula says. Yue bites her lip and straightens her spine.

"The moon spirit gave me life," she says. "It'd be selfish to ask for more than that."

It was selfish to ask to not have to marry Hahn, and the spirits gave her that. She can't be any greedier than that.

"Really?" Azula says. "That's the only thing you've ever wanted? A life other people dictate?"

". . . no," Yue admits. "That's . . . not the only thing."

"Well, what else?" Azula asks, and, well . . .

"You," Yue says.

Azula . . . blinks.

"Sorry?" she says.

"I prayed to the spirits for a reason not to marry Hahn," Yue says, folding her hands and lifting her chin. "And that's you."

"Ah," Azula says. If this were a story or a real romance, this would be the part where they'd kiss, Yue thinks. But of course it's not.

But she thinks it, all the same.

"It's alright," she says. "You just . . . asked."

"You think the spirits put me here," Azula says.

"Yes," Yue says.

"I'm not really the sort who gets 'put' places," Azula says.

"No one else would've been able to convince my father," Yue says. "Or defeat all the challengers for my hand."

"Really, because it wasn't especially difficult," Azula says.

"Really," Yue says, because no matter what Azula thinks, she's very certain that it's true. Maybe even because that's what Azula thinks. No one else could've just appeared unexpected out of nowhere and plowed through all of Father's advisors' protests and beaten all those boys and thrown Hahn out of the ring. She's sure of that.

"Well, they do tell me I'm good with people," Azula says with a sardonic smile.

Yue believes it.

"Father thinks the talks will be done tomorrow," she says. At least, that's what he told her.

"Seems likely," Azula says. "They want you married on the full moon."

"I think so," Yue says. Maybe it's Father's way of wishing her luck, or reminding the moon spirit that it protected her once, or . . . she's not sure, really. There's so many things it could be. Nothing that really leaps out at her, though.

The Fire Nation is going to be so different. And this wedding might be the last time she sees home again for . . . months. Years.

Maybe even ever again.

She tightens her hands around each other.

"If they don't I'd be quite surprised," Azula says.

"Do you have something to wear to the wedding?" Yue asks. She hasn't thought about it, really, but it occurs to her now. She's only seen Azula in her armor and the outfit she wore to fight the boys.

"I have my armor," Azula says. "We didn't pack a tailor, unfortunately."

"Mm," Yue says. She supposes it'll be a bit late for the advisors to complain by then, but . . . well, she doesn't want to give them the excuse to. Or give anyone the excuse to.

And Azula asked her how to avoid insulting their traditions.

"We have tailors. I can take you to them," she says. Azula looks mildly surprised.

"Seems a bit late for that," she says.

"They'll be able to come up with something, I'm sure," Yue says. There's enough of them in the palace, certainly. "If you want."

"Of course," Azula says with a pleasant smile. "I'd hate to make a poor showing for you."

Yue doesn't really believe that, but . . .

"Alright," she says. "Come with me."

.

.

.

Yue leads the way to a surprisingly large and airy room full of busy-looking women working with furs and weaving and beadwork, even this late in the evening. Generally speaking the tailors come to Azula, so she has no idea if this is normal. Then again, what about the Northern Water Tribe is?

"Excuse us," Yue says, and every woman in the room stops what she's doing to stand and do an odd little bow to her. "I'm sorry to interrupt."

"It's no trouble, Your Highness," one of the tailors says as another couple look at Azula and balk, and then, oddly, hide what they're working on. Azula's used to the balking; less so the hiding. "How can we help you?"

"The Fire Nation delegation wasn't expecting a wedding," Yue says. "Princess Azula needs something to wear."

"Er . . . the wedding is in two days, isn't it, Your Highness?" the tailor says, looking a bit ill.

"I think so," Yue says. "Is that enough time to make her something?"

"Er," the tailor says, obviously not wanting to say "no" but just as obviously needing to. "Well . . . what were you thinking, Your Highness?"

"I'm not sure," Yue says with a little frown. "Maybe just something to go with her armor, so it won't look plain during the ceremony?"

Azula might be annoyed by that statement, usually, but Yue’s clothes undeniably have much more detail work than her armor and she can only imagine what wedding clothes are going to look like. She doubts the answer is "plain".

"We can certainly do that," the tailor says, obviously seizing on the opportunity not to have to put together a full ensemble in less than two days. "A coat? A cloak?"

"What would you prefer, Princess Azula?" Yue asks, looking at Azula, who nearly laughs at the question. She wears traditional armor and very little else. She's fairly certain she doesn't even own a coat.

"I'll defer to your expertise," she replies in amusement. "I really don't know what would suit a Water Tribe wedding."

"Would blue be too strange?" Yue asks. "Or would you prefer purple?"

"Oh, I think blue suits me fine," Azula drawls. Yue tilts her head, looking puzzled, and ah, right—she wouldn't know. Azula lifts a hand in demonstration and flame bursts into existence on her palm.

"Oh!" Yue says, her eyes widening as the tailors startle. "It's blue!"

"Yes," Azula says, giving her a placid smile.

"Why?" Yue asks, still staring at the fire in surprise.

"Because I am a very, very good firebender," Azula says, holding the flame for another moment before letting it go out.

"You didn't bend when you were fighting the boys," Yue says, looking back to her face.

"Oh, did I need to?" Azula asks with a smirk.

“I suppose not,” Yue says. Azula’s smirk widens. “Um . . . then perhaps something blue?”

“We can do that, Your Highness,” the tailor says. “We’ll just need to take Princess Azula’s measurements, if that’s alright?”

“Reasonable,” Azula says. The tailor guides her further into the room and a few of the others approach her, and Azula humors them as they measure her height and the width of her shoulders and a few other body parts. Yue watches from the doorway.

“Would you prefer fur or cloth lining, Princess Azula?” one of the tailors asks. “And what kind of beadwork?”

“Oh, surprise me,” Azula says with an amused smile. If she doesn’t like it, she just won’t wear it. The tailors finish with their measurements and step back, and Azula looks back to Yue. “All good?”

“I think so,” Yue says, glancing at the tailors. “Is that all you need?”

“Ah, yes, Your Highness,” the closest one says. She looks a bit nervous, but they all do. Azula’s going to blame her own presence on that, given that they ought to be perfectly familiar with Yue. Then again, who knows how they do things in the Water Tribe. Perhaps only one or two of them ever sees her.

They leave, the tailors looking relieved, and they end up in the ice gardens again. Azula’s mostly following Yue just to see what the other has to say. If there’s anything else to mention about the moon or the hunt or any other last-minute requirements, she’d like to hear it now and not, well, at the last minute.

Yue sits down on a bench. Azula sits down with her.

“I hope you’ll like it. The cloak, I mean,” Yue says. Azula smiles at her.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she says.

“Do you wear much fur in the Fire Nation?” Yue asks.

“I’ve never worn fur in my life,” Azula says.

“Oh,” Yue says with a faint frown. “Is that . . . normal?”

“I believe I’ve seen the occasional noblewoman with a fur stole, but that’s about it,” Azula replies with a shrug.

“I’m going to look strange,” Yue says, looking briefly worried.

“You will be a bit overdressed if you show up in a parka,” Azula says wryly. Probably it’s best to make Yue feel better about that. Azula’s never particularly understood fashion as an interest, but she’s aware that other people care about it, especially in their circles, and she doesn’t need the other worrying about frivolous things when they have more important concerns. “But we have tailors of our own, of course. We’ll have you in something more suitable in no time.”

“Alright,” Yue says, biting her lip. “That’ll be . . . good.”

“It’ll give them something interesting to do,” Azula says easily. She’s really not sure what a Fire Nation tailor would come up with for a Water Tribe princess to wear, but she supposes they’ll figure something out the same way the Water Tribe tailors are figuring something out for her. It is their job, after all.

“Mm.” Yue looks away for a moment, looking out across the gardens. Azula debates what to say to her. Ty Lee would probably be able to think of something, but Ty Lee usually can. She’s out of questions, though, and at this point she’s just trying to get Yue to like her enough not to put up any unexpected protests. It doesn’t seem likely, especially not at this point, but better safe than sorry.

Besides, she’ll take any possible chance to get an idea of what she should offer the moon spirit. That’s certainly going to be a concern.

Technically she supposes the treaty will be signed by then, but she still doesn't want to chance it. Azula doesn't like leaving things up to chance.

"So why does it matter not to ruin the pelt on the wedding hunt?" she asks.

“Oh,” Yue says, her cheeks reddening slightly. "It's for our . . . marriage bed."

“Ah,” Azula says. "Of course."

Yes, it's definitely going to have to be something big, she thinks resignedly. And definitely no firebending. Dammit.

"The men will take you to the hunting grounds," Yue says. "You'll just have to track and kill something. Ideally something . . . you know, big enough for the wedding feast."

"Of course," Azula says, an aura of dread settling over her. Who the hell said anything about tracking?! No one said a damn thing about tracking!

The things she does for this family.

"Do you . . . know how to do that?" Yue asks hesitantly.

"Oh, certainly," Azula lies. "Won't be a problem."

Yue looks at her for a long moment, then dips her head in a slow nod. Azula actually isn't sure if the other believes her, but it doesn't really matter. It's the men she's going to have to convince she knows what she's doing, while also figuring out how to spiritsdamn do it. So that's going to be . . . just lovely, then.

Dammit.

"I’m sure you’ll succeed at the hunt," Yue says. “The spirits sent you, after all.”

“Oh yes, there’s that,” Azula says with a pleasant smile. Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.

“Yes,” Yue says, biting her lip again. Azula internally sighs. This is going to be so inconvenient. How does the Water Tribe expect to make a treaty when they keep coming up with all these stupid excuses to make things more complicated?

She supposes that’s just part of the process, unfortunately, and at least the negotiations have gone fairly smoothly, all things considered.

One day of those left, so . . . that’s all the time she’s going to have to figure out how to track an animal.

Ugh.

“Anyway, there’s still negotiations to get through,” Azula says dismissively, waving a hand in the air. “We can worry about the wedding necessities once we’re done working out the kinks in the treaty.”

“That’s almost done?” Yue asks, tipping her head and looking at her from under white lashes. Azula assumes they’re fake, since she doubts eyelashes dye like normal hair does. She can’t see the point of wearing them, but maybe all Water Tribe princesses do that kind of thing. It certainly seems frivolous enough for the Water Tribe to waste their women’s time on. The only remotely useful things she’s seen women doing here are tailoring and menial chores.

“Yes,” Azula says. “We only have a few more little details left to go over. They really do seem to want you married on the full moon.”

“I . . . suppose so,” Yue says. “Are you, um, happy with the conditions of the treaty?”

“Ecstatic,” Azula replies smugly. The Fire Nation had a delightful amount of leverage going into these negotiations, and she is, again, very good with people.

“Father’s advisors don’t seem as happy about things,” Yue says. Azula smirks.

“Oh, don’t they?” she says. “How unfortunate for them.”

“Mm,” Yue says. Her eyes flick downwards again. Azula isn’t sure why she keeps doing that. Avoiding eye contact, she supposes. Yue’s not the confrontational type. “Um . . .”

“Um?” Azula tilts her head.

“I . . . hope the rest of the negotiations go well,” Yue says. “For everyone, of course.”

“Of course,” Azula says lightly. “We’ll be allied nations after this, after all. Wouldn’t want to start off on the wrong foot, would we?”

“No, we wouldn’t,” Yue says. She’s still looking down. Azula can’t imagine what’s so fascinating about her mouth.

Yue flicks her eyes back up. Azula remembers she meant to compliment them at some point, since likely Yue would appreciate it, and opens her mouth to speak.

Yue leans in and presses their mouths together. Azula’s mind goes blank. Yue keeps their mouths together for a moment, then leans back, her face flushed again.

“I hope our nations’ alliance is long and fruitful,” she says in a very formal tone, and then she gets up to leave. Azula stares blankly at the place she just was, and . . . blinks.

“Yes,” she manages after a moment. “Of course.”

Yue smiles tentatively at her, and then she leaves.

Azula just . . . sits there for a while.

.

.

.

In the morning, Yue gets up so early it’s still dark out and brushes out her hair before the servants are due to arrive. She adjusts the lay of her necklace against her collarbone, then gets dressed. She’d do her hair, too, but she has no idea how to get it all to stay up like the servants can. She’s watched them do it a thousand times and she wouldn’t even know where to start.

She brushes out her hair again and thinks about last night, and how warm Azula’s lips had been.

It's . . . very hard not to think about that.

Yue keeps brushing her hair, feeling heat rise in her face. She waits for the servants to show up so they can pin it up for her, and she makes her plans for the day.

They're very simple plans.

She's going to go see Azula before the negotiations. She’s going to talk to her.

Maybe she’ll kiss her hand again, if she gets the chance.

The servants show up with breakfast and put up her hair for her, and Yue thanks them and eats a little too quickly to be polite, then heads out into the hall and heads towards the meeting room. It’s still very early, but if she’s careful about where she waits, Azula will run into her on the way to the negotiations.

There’s no good reason that Yue’s doing this, to be honest, but she very, very much wants to do it.

She passes a window, and sees movement outside it. She looks towards it automatically, and sees three small dark figures crossing the courtyard below. She recognizes them immediately, because no one else in the North Pole looks a thing like either Azula or either of her attendants. They’re headed towards their ship, it looks like.

Yue . . . pauses.

Part of her, irrationally, wants to call out to them. That’d be rude, though, and someone else might hear. She just wants to see Azula, not wake up half the palace.

It’s early enough that she could follow them, she thinks. No one in the city would see her out without a chaperone at this hour. She shouldn’t, but . . .

But.

Yue hurries down the stairs and out of the palace, careful to avoid any servants who might wonder where she’s going, and crosses the courtyard towards the distant Fire Nation ship. If she’s quick enough, she can get there and back before too many people wake up.

Azula left footprints in the ice, she notices. She’s not sure if the other does that on purpose or not.

It seems like a very Azula thing to do, though.

She should’ve grabbed a cloak, she thinks to herself as she heads towards the shore. Something to cover her hair, if nothing else.

She doesn’t go back, though.

The Fire Nation ship looms at the edge of the shore, and Yue hesitates for a moment. She could still go back. No one would ever know she’d been out here.

She heads towards the ship.

There’s a guard standing by the ramp, and Yue hesitates again. She can hear the sound of people moving on the ship, and someone shouts something she doesn’t catch to someone else.

The guard is a woman, she realizes after a moment, and isn’t sure how she feels about that.

She walks forward. The guard looks towards her and straightens her posture immediately. Yue . . . inhales.

“Excuse me,” she says as politely as she can, folding her hands together. “Is Princess Azula onboard?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” the guard says.

“I’d like to see her, please,” Yue says, and the guard steps aside like it was . . . an order, or something.

Yue isn’t sure how she feels about that, either.

“Thank you,” she says, and heads up the ramp. On the deck, Ty Lee is standing with her back to the ramp, bouncing nervously in place as Azula and Mai stand across from each other a few feet away. Azula’s holding a very long knife in one hand, and Yue’s a little surprised to see it. It doesn’t look like it belongs to her, even though its hilt is black and red and gold like just about everything else from the Fire Nation. It just . . . doesn’t seem like something that Azula would own.

She’s holding it just a little awkwardly, Yue realizes, which is why it doesn’t seem like hers. She can’t imagine Azula being awkward with anything she owned.

“Oh!” Ty Lee says, turning to see her with wide eyes.

“Sorry,” Yue says. “Am I interrupting?”

“Um, no?” Ty Lee says, and then Azula charges at Mai with the knife and tries to stab her in the face. Yue gasps, hands flying up to her mouth, but Mai dodges it easily and the knife goes through nothing but thin air. Azula curses.

“Your grip’s still off,” Mai says.

“Tch,” Azula says, glaring at the knife.

“Um, Azula?” Ty Lee says. “We’ve got company.”

“What?” Azula looks up with a scowl that immediately smooths into a pleasant smile at the sight of Yue. Yue doesn’t think it’s because she’s happy to see her so much as because that’s the way Azula always seems to look around people she doesn't know very well. “Ah, Princess Yue. What a lovely surprise.”

“Sorry,” Yue says again, lowering her hands tentatively. “Ah . . . am I interrupting?”

“Not at all,” Azula says smoothly. Mai takes the knife from her and it disappears . . . somewhere. “Did you need something?”

“No,” Yue admits. “I just wanted to see you before the final negotiations.”

“You did?” Azula looks briefly bemused.

“That’s great!” Ty Lee says brightly, clapping her hands together. “Isn’t that great, Azula?”

“. . . yes?” Azula obviously guesses. Yue bites her lip.

“I can leave,” she says.

“No, no, don’t leave!” Ty Lee says, waving her hands urgently. “We were just sparring! Do you want to watch?”

“Um . . . alright,” Yue says, sneaking an uncertain look at Azula. “You’re . . . fighting?”

“Yes,” Azula says, tilting her head and putting on another pleasant smile. Yue’s starting to wonder about how much smiling she does. “Brushing up on the knife skills, as it were.”

“More or less,” Mai says, looking bored. Yue glances around the deck, not sure what to say to them. She hadn’t known they could all fight, though she supposes she should’ve guessed.

“That’s . . . interesting,” she says, thinking of the female guard. “Do all girls in the Fire Nation fight?”

“Nope!” Ty Lee says, flipping her braid over her shoulder. “But a lot of us do!”

“Oh,” Yue says. “How do you, um . . . learn?” The other three look at each other. Azula tilts her head again, Mai shrugs, and Ty Lee hops from one foot to the other.

“Just from whoever!” she says. “Azula learned at the palace, obviously. Mai just practiced on her own. And my family’s all good at fighting!” She mimes a quick little punch in the air, her hand held oddly, and Yue startles.

“O-oh,” she says. “You just . . . punch people?”

Ty Lee laughs. Mai and Azula both snort.

“Sure!” Ty Lee says cheerfully. “You just have to do it in the right place.”

“You do?” Yue asks.

“Yup!” Ty Lee says. “That’s how I do it, anyway. I could show you sometime!”

“Um . . . so you can’t firebend,” Yue says, glancing at Azula again. She’s not really sure what to say to that offer. She feels like she’d get in trouble, one way or the other.

“Just Azula,” Ty Lee says, shaking her head. “She’s really good at it!”

“Because her fire’s blue,” Yue says.

“Well, it’s blue because I’m very good at it, rather,” Azula says, shrugging easily.

“Yeah!” Ty Lee says. “Azula, you should show her some moves!”

“I should?” Azula says, frowning faintly. Ty Lee nods eagerly, bouncing in place.

“Definitely! It’s cool, come watch!” she says to Yue, who steps up beside her hesitantly, folding her hands in front of herself again.

“Um . . . alright,” she says. It does sound interesting. She’s never actually seen firebending before, except for that brief little flame in Azula’s palm in the tailors’ room. She’s seen plenty of waterbending, of course, but she knows it’s supposed to be different. Waterbenders can’t make water out of thin air, for one thing.

“I suppose I can do a few forms,” Azula says, lips pursing for a moment. Mai comes over and stands beside them, tucking her hands into her sleeves and still looking bored.

“Do the advanced ones!” Ty Lee says excitedly.

“Ty Lee,” Azula says, looking briefly exasperated.

“Princess Yue’s never seen the advanced forms, I bet!” Ty Lee says.

“I’ve never really seen firebending before,” Yue admits.

“See?” Ty Lee says.

“Alright, alright,” Azula says, rolling her eyes. She’s not quite as . . . Yue’s not sure how to put it. She doesn’t seem so carefully composed as usual.

Still very carefully composed, just . . . different, somehow.

Maybe that’s being on a Fire Nation ship, Yue thinks, or maybe it’s Ty Lee and Mai, or maybe it’s something else altogether. It’s interesting, though, and she’s a little too fascinated by the change, slight though it is.

Azula steps into a strange pose, one that doesn’t look quite like a waterbending form, and slashes a sharp-nailed hand through the air, blue flame tracing after it. Yue’s eyes widen. She hasn’t watched much bending in her life—there’s rarely been a reason—but it’s . . .

Beautiful, actually.

Azula slides forward into a low kick, spins around, leaps up, and her every movement is followed by fire. Yue watches raptly, an odd feeling curling tight in her stomach. Azula moves from form to form so smoothly, never missing a beat, and the trail of fire around her burns brighter and brighter with every step. She’s never seen anything like it.

Azula stops and slides into a different stance, and lightning crackles down her arm, illuminating her even brighter in the dim morning light. Yue gasps in shock, covering her mouth with her hands again, and the lightning flashes across the deck and up to the lightning rod on top of the crow’s nest.

“Oh!” Yue says.

“What do you think?” Ty Lee asks, grinning widely at her as Azula straightens back up and straightens her just barely disarrayed hair, looking mildly annoyed about it.

“It’s beautiful,” Yue says honestly, still stunned. Ty Lee’s grin widens.

“‘Beautiful'?” Azula says, giving Yue an odd look.

“Yes,” Yue says, blinking the afterimages of lightning out of her eyes. “It’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Well, I’m good at it,” Azula says, her expression turning smug. “If you’re going to see firebending, it might as well be the best.”

“I didn’t know firebenders could bend lightning,” Yue says. She doesn’t even care if she might get caught out without a chaperone. It’s too incredible a sight to have missed. She supposes she could’ve always seen it later, yes, but something about the sight of it in the early morning light, about the look of concentration on Azula’s face, about the cool air and the crackle of lightning . . .

“They can’t, mostly,” Azula says, looking even more smug. “There’s about three of us who can. Zuko certainly couldn’t have done it.”

“Thank you for showing me,” Yue says, and Azula gets that odd look on her face again.

“It was no problem!” Ty Lee interjects. “Right, Azula?”

“Right,” Azula says. She comes over to the three of them. Yue bites her lip. She thinks about last night again, but they’re not married yet. She can’t go around kissing Azula in front of other people. Or . . . at all, really, but last night it’d just been . . . she’d just wanted to so badly.

“It really was beautiful,” she says. Azula brushes one last stray hair out of her eyes.

“It was nothing,” she says dismissively.

“I don’t think so,” Yue says. She resists the urge to reach out for one of Azula’s hands. She wonders if they’re warmer than usual, after firebending. “It was wonderful.”

“Well, I’ll show you something better next time,” Azula says with that odd look on her face. She folds her hands behind her back, to Yue’s regret.

“I’d like that,” Yue says. She still wants to reach out for the other’s hand, but obviously they’re not in reach now. It’s just . . . very tempting, still. “Um . . . I should go, probably. I don’t want to make you late.”

“Ah, yes,” Azula says, glancing towards shore as Ty Lee and Mai move to flank her. “It is about that time.”

“Yes,” Yue says, repressing the urge to shift awkwardly in place. She really does want to touch Azula’s hand again. And . . . kiss her, of course.

She definitely wants to do that again.

“Goodbye,” she says, a little more abruptly than she means to. “Um . . . if I don’t see you before then . . . good luck on the hunt.”

“Oh, I won’t need luck,” Azula says confidently, smirking at her, and Yue’s face heats up and something warm curls in her chest.

“Good,” she says, and then she darts in and kisses Azula’s cheek. Azula makes a surprised noise, Mai makes a mildly curious one, and Ty Lee squeaks delightedly. Yue’s face burns, and she pulls back quickly. Azula’s staring at her in obvious bemusement, and Yue feels . . . ridiculous, but also oddly pleased with herself.

Mostly ridiculous, though.

“Goodbye,” she says again, and then she hurries back down the ramp and back towards shore. She needs to get back before it gets much later, and Azula needs to go to the negotiations, and . . .

And she’s not sure what else, really, but she still feels that warmth in her chest.

Chapter Text

Yue leaves. Mai raises an eyebrow. Ty Lee beams. Azula . . .

Azula is just going to ignore them.

“Let’s get going,” she says briskly, ignoring the irrational flash of heat in her face. She's probably overcompensating for the cold with her bending. “We’ve got a treaty to wrap up.”

“Azula, she kissed you!” Ty Lee says delightedly.

“Yes, Ty Lee, we all noticed,” Azula says with a sigh. She should’ve known just ignoring her wouldn’t work.

“That’s so great!” Ty Lee says, jumping in place excitedly. “She likes you!”

“She does not,” Azula says in exasperation, folding her arms. No one likes her. Her mother doesn’t even like her, and her mother likes Zuko.

“But she did kiss you,” Mai observes neutrally.

“Yes, well, I’m not that idiot Hahn so I imagine she’s feeling grateful,” Azula says.

“Did she tell you that?” Ty Lee asks curiously, tilting her head.

“. . . well, she didn’t call him an idiot,” Azula says grudgingly. “But obviously he is.”

“Azula!” Ty Lee looks even more delighted. “She likes you!”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Azula says, striding past her towards the ship’s ramp. Obviously she needs to outrun this conversation. “Hurry up, we have work to do.”

“Azula!” Ty Lee protests as she hurries after her, and Mai brings up the rear. Azula makes sure to stay ahead of them. Mai she’s less concerned about, obviously, but Ty Lee is clearly making some serious misassumptions and Azula doesn’t want to hear them. Yue likes not marrying an idiot, because she’s not as stupid as everyone else around here seems to be. She doesn’t like her.

Azula’s very good at not being liked. She’s certainly not breaking the habit now.

They make their way to the palace, and the chief and his advisors look just as unhappy to see them as usual, which Azula takes a moment to bask in. Her father can’t possibly be dissatisfied with this treaty; it gives the Water Tribe a few little concessions, of course, but all the important details are in favor of the Fire Nation’s interests. Especially their interests in regards to the Avatar.

Azula was very careful about those particular interests. They're the real goal here, after all. If the Avatar wants to learn waterbending, he's not doing it here. And the South Pole, of course, isn't going to be any more helpful.

Really, for those results, getting married isn't much of an imposition.

Now all she has to do is stick the landing, and the Fire Nation will get everything they want.

.

.

.

Yue spends the day walking around the palace, memorizing all the little details she might never see again. She'd go into the city too, but she doesn't want to bother anyone to chaperone her and anyway, she wants to be in the palace if anything happens with the treaty. Today's the day, after all. If everything goes to plan . . .

Today's the day, if everything goes to plan.

She exhales, and resists the urge to go wait outside the meeting room for the dozenth time. She'll find out what's happening soon enough.

It won't be long now.

Yue turns a corner and nearly runs into Hahn, who's standing there with a few of the other boys.

"Oh!" she says, startled. She didn't expect to run into anyone but the servants, much less Hahn. He looks at her. He looks irritated. She starts to look for a platitude or something to say to soothe his mood, but . . . well, that's not really her responsibility anymore, is it.

Hahn's looking at her neck.

Well, no. He's looking at Azula’s necklace, obviously.

"That girl made you an engagement necklace?" he asks with a scowl.

"It was her grandmother's, actually," Yue says. "I don't know if they teach princesses how to make jewelry in the Fire Nation."

She certainly doesn't know how, herself.

"What a joke," Hahn says. Yue . . . blinks.

"Sorry?" she says uncertainly.

"She can't even make a necklace?" Hahn says with a snort, folding his arms. "And everybody knows they don't hunt in the Fire Nation. What's she going to do tomorrow? She won't bring back anything bigger than a harefox."

"I don't know," Yue says, feeling a little defensive in a way she knows better than to let show. "I suppose we'll see."

She wouldn't complain about a harefox. If Azula isn't a good hunter, well—so what? Things are different in the Fire Nation.

"That girl's gonna make a fool of herself," Hahn says. "You'll see."

"I don't care," Yue says. Hahn stares at her incredulously.

"What?" he says. Heat rises to her face, but . . .

"I don't care," Yue repeats, straightening her spine and trying to look . . . well, she's not sure how she's trying to look. Some way that'll shut Hahn's mouth, she thinks. "Princess Azula can bring me anything she wants. It doesn't matter."

"Yes it does!" Hahn says, looking insulted. "She'd never be able to take care of the tribe!"

"She's not going to be the chief," Yue says. "All she has to take care of is me."

Hahn scowls. Yue sets her jaw.

"Shouldn't you be getting ready for the hunt?" she says.

"It's not going to be a real hunt," Hahn says, still scowling. The other boys exchange awkward glances behind him.

"You don't know that," Yue says.

"I know she can't hunt," Hahn says. "She's going to embarrass herself in front of the entire tribe."

"Like when you didn't go easy on her in the fights?" Yue checks, and Hahn's face reddens and his scowl darkens.

"She cheated!" he snaps. Yue grips her hands together tight. She didn't mean to make a fuss, but . . . well. Azula's going to be her wife. Or her husband. Or . . . both, probably. She can't just let Hahn say whatever he wants about her, especially in front of other people.

"No. You lost," she says stiffly.

She wonders if he's even returned his necklace to the ice yet. That seems like the kind of thing Hahn wouldn't do.

"You're talking like you wanted her to win!" Hahn says angrily.

Are they having a fight? Yue's not sure. She hasn't really done that before. Not since she was old enough to know better, at least.

"I did," she says, because she’s not going to lie. Hahn makes an outraged sound. The other boys all stare at her. "Excuse me. Please."

She turns to leave. Hahn grabs her arm roughly and yanks her back, and she gives him a shocked look. No one touches her like that.

"Don't you walk away from me!" he says angrily.

"Let go of me," she says, pulling at her arm. He doesn't. "Hahn!"

"Listen to me!" he barks, and then his eyes bug out and his grip goes weak and he falls forward towards her. Yue barely gets out of the way in time, and he hits the floor in an awkward slump.

"Whoops," Ty Lee says, looking down at him. She's standing right where he was, holding her fists in that funny way again. Mai's behind her, looking annoyed.

"What the hell!" Hahn yells, but he doesn't move to get up. He doesn't move at all, actually. The other boys all look alarmed, but aren't saying anything.

"What did you do?" Yue asks, a little shaky.

"Ummm," Ty Lee says, wincing a bit. "Well, Azula isn't here, so . . . uh, defended your honor?"

"Since clearly no one else was," Mai says, drumming her fingers on her arm and eyeing the other boys out of the corner of her eye. They flinch. Yue isn't sure what to say.

"I thought you were at the treaty meeting," she says inanely.

"Lunch break," Ty Lee says sheepishly. "Azula's talking to the scribes. Um . . . should I not have done that?"

Yue looks down at Hahn slumped on the ice and touches her arm where he'd grabbed her. It doesn't hurt or anything like that, but she still feels . . . upset.

"No," she says after a moment. "You should've. Thank you."

"Okay!" Ty Lee says, immediately brightening.

"Take your stupid friend and get out of here," Mai says to the boys. They edge past her warily, and edge past Ty Lee very warily.

"Don't listen to them!" Hahn says.

Mai tilts her head, looking bored. The boys look at her one last time, then grab Hahn off the floor and start dragging him away. He curses at them.

Well. Azula did say Mai wasn't nice, Yue thinks.

That's . . . not something she minds right now.

The boys take Hahn away. Yue looks at Ty Lee and Mai, still not sure what to say.

"Thank you," she tries again. It makes the most sense, anyway.

"Whatever," Mai says, still looking bored.

"No problem!" Ty Lee says cheerfully, lowering her fists. "That guy was rude."

"Yes," Yue says with a helpless little laugh. "He's . . . definitely that."

"He sure seemed fine putting his hands on a princess," Mai says.

"He's going to be the chief," Yue says, though she knows it's a stupid thing to say. Mai and Ty Lee both make faces.

"I hate it here," Mai says.

"He still shouldn't have done that," Ty Lee says.

"I think I made him mad," Yue says. She's . . . never done that before.

"So?" Ty Lee says. “He’s not the chief yet. You’re still higher-ranked than him, right?”

“Well . . .” Yue trails off, then shrugs helplessly. “Yes, technically. But everyone knows he’s going to be the chief.”

“I really hate it here,” Mai says. Yue wonders if Zuko would do something like that to Mai. It doesn’t sound like it.

She wonders what Azula would do if someone made her mad.

Or if someone grabbed her like that.

“Does he do that kind of thing a lot?” Ty Lee asks, holding up one of those oddly-held fists again. Yue doesn’t really watch much fighting, but she’s still pretty sure that’s not how you make a fist. She remembers hearing Master Pakku yelling at one of the boys about how to do it, once. People don’t usually yell around her, so it’d been memorable.

“No,” she says. “He’s never done that before. I think he’s . . . upset. About, um. Azula.”

“Him and half your government,” Mai says dryly.

“Well, if he does it again . . .” Ty Lee says, and mimes an odd little one-two punch that doesn’t quite touch Mai. “You should definitely hit him.”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Yue says reflexively.

“Why not?” Ty Lee tilts her head.

“It’s . . .” Yue hesitates. She doesn’t have to get along with Hahn anymore, but . . . “I couldn’t.”

“Sure you could!” Ty Lee holds her fists up again. “Like this!”

She does that little one-two punch towards Mai again. Mai stands there for it, looking supremely bored.

“See?” Ty Lee says.

“Um,” Yue says, and hesitantly lifts her hands in mirror of Ty Lee’s. It feels . . . strange. “Like this?”

“Yeah!” Ty Lee grins at her. “Here, look—lemme show you.”

.

.

.

Ty Lee and Mai don’t come back after the lunch break, but Azula isn’t particularly concerned about that. They’re not stupid. If they’re not here, they’re doing something else she’d want done.

The advisors are visibly stressed. Chief Arnook is less obvious about it, but clearly isn't thrilled about things either.

Azula is delighted, personally. And as long as the Water Tribe understands the situation here, she's staying that way. The treaty is nearly finished, and the last little touches on it are all coming together nicely.

The Avatar is going to regret ever hearing of the North Pole.

“Are we all satisfied with the terms of this treaty, Chief Arnook?” Azula asks silkily, smiling pleasantly at the man. He looks back at her evenly.

"The Northern Water Tribe is satisfied," he says, and Azula smiles wider as the advisors grimace.

“Wonderful,” she says. “My father will be very pleased to hear that.”

“The scribes can review the treaty once more tonight,” the chief says, which is of course only reasonable. Azula’s not worried about any last-minute complications, at this point. “The wedding hunt will begin at dawn.”

“Perfect,” Azula says, still smiling. “I do so love to rise with the sun.”

.

.

.

Ty Lee is nice, Yue thinks afterwards, back in her rooms for the night and looking out the window at the water. Mai isn’t, but she already knew that, so . . .

Well. Yue’s had “nice” for her whole life. It might be about time for a change.

She’s not sure if they’ve made friends yet or not, but it’s a start, she hopes. She really wants to have friends in the Fire Nation. She’s not very good at it, but she could learn. She’s going to have a lot of things to learn in the Fire Nation, after all; what’s one more?

Someone knocks on the wall. She turns towards it.

“Come in,” she says, and Father steps through the doorway.

“Yue,” he says.

“Father,” she says, standing up. “Is everything alright?”

“Everything’s fine,” Father says. “The scribes are reviewing the treaty. The wedding will be tomorrow.”

“Oh,” Yue says, her heart jumping into her throat. She knew it was probably going to be tomorrow, but hearing it confirmed is . . .

“Everything’s planned for,” Father says as he looks around the room. “The tailors will bring your wedding robes in the morning, and the hunters will leave at dawn.”

“Yes, Father,” Yue says. He looks at her again, and the expression on his face is difficult to read.

“This is your last night in these rooms,” he says.

“I understand,” Yue says. They’ll be up all night for the wedding feast, and no one wants the Fire Nation to linger too long—including the Fire Nation, most likely. They’ll be leaving the next day, she’s sure. The servants have already packed up most of her things, ready to be transported to Azula’s ship.

Father looks at her with that difficult expression a little bit longer. Yue looks back at him uncertainly, trying not to let that uncertainty show. He . . . exhales.

“You’ve done your duty admirably, Yue,” he says quietly.

“. . . thank you, Father,” Yue says, blinking at him in confusion. She’s not sure what brought that on, and still Father is wearing that difficult expression. But she’s glad he thinks she’s done well, at least. She’s . . . tried very hard to.

“Our people could not have asked for a better princess,” Father says, and she flushes.

“Father,” she says, embarrassed. He keeps talking.

“And I could not have asked for a better daughter,” he says. Yue stares at him in surprise. She didn’t expect . . .

“Thank you, Father,” she says. “You’ve been a wonderful father.”

“A better chief than a father, I think,” Father says, his mouth twisting as his eyes flick to her necklace. Yue represses the urge to frown.

“You’ve done the right thing,” she says, and he looks back to her face. “The Tribe is safe and strong because of you.”

“I’m going to miss you like my own heart,” he says tightly.

“. . . I’ll miss you too, Father,” Yue says softly. She’d known he’d miss her, but she hadn’t expected him to say it, and hearing it’s both a little painful and a little gratifying. Azula is better than Hahn, she thinks, but marrying Hahn wouldn’t have required leaving the North Pole. But she asked the spirits for what she asked for, and she isn’t going to complain about getting it. “Very much.”

“I don’t know when we’ll see each other again,” Father says.

“You could . . . stay and talk for a while, tonight,” Yue says hesitantly. “If you’re not busy.”

“I’m not,” he says, his mouth twisting again. He looks pained. Yue feels the same way.

“Then stay,” she says. “Please.”

He sits down. She sits down with him. There are a lot of things they could talk about, Yue thinks, but she’s not sure what’s . . . appropriate. Or fitting.

“You’ll be taken care of,” Father says abruptly. “The Fire Nation wants this treaty to succeed.”

“I know, Father,” Yue says. She thinks about telling him about Ty Lee and Mai helping her this afternoon, but she’s not sure if she should. She thinks about telling him about Azula’s lightning or her questions or letters, but that she’s definitely sure she shouldn’t do that. It’s . . . delicate, she thinks. It’s delicate, and she doesn’t want to break it.

“I’ll write,” Father says. “Whenever I can.”

“I will too,” Yue says, biting the inside of her cheek. “I promise.”

“I’m so sorry,” Father says, his expression crumpling, and Yue doesn’t know what to say.

“It’s alright,” she tries after a moment, hands clasping each other. “Really.”

“You’re going to be so far away,” he says.

“I know,” Yue says. “But it’s alright. It’s what’s best for everyone.”

“You’ll be alone,” he says roughly. “I should’ve prepared for this better. Found handmaidens or guards to send with you.”

“I don’t need that,” Yue says. She doesn’t like the idea of making anyone else leave their home just so she won’t be alone. She has a duty; they don’t. “I’ll make—friends.”

“If you need someone . . .” Father trails off.

“I don’t,” she says, squeezing her hands together. “Really.”

“If you change your mind, you can write any time,” he says. “I’ll find someone to send.”

“Thank you, Father,” Yue says, though she already knows she’ll never ask for that. She’s the one who needs to do this. Not anyone else.

“Don’t thank me,” he says tiredly. “Not for sending you away. Not for making you think it’s for the best.”

“It is,” Yue says, squeezing her hands again. “It’s alright. I’m not . . . afraid, or anything like that. And Princess Azula’s attendants are very kind, and she’s very strong. I’m sure I’ll be fine with her.”

“I want you to be happy,” Father says. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t do better by you.”

“You did, Father,” Yue says. “I only lived because you prayed so hard for me. And this really is for the best.”

This is what she prayed for, after all.

“I’ll be happy,” she tells him with the kindest smile she can manage, reaching over to squeeze his hand. “Honestly.”

“I want you to be,” he says.

“I will,” she promises, and thinks of Azula’s lightning, and her smirk, and the softness of her lips.

She thinks . . . it might be a promise she can keep, she thinks.

.

.

.

Azula meets the hunters at dawn, wearing her usual armor and with Mai’s long knife strapped to her thigh. The chief isn’t among them; neither are any of his advisors. That idiot Hahn and the other boys she fought are, though. Well, they’re sure to be useless, she thinks dubiously.

There are absolutely no other women, she can’t help but notice. There are sleds and weapons and dogs, but no women.

This place.

She should’ve brought Mai and Ty Lee, she thinks in vague annoyance.

“We’ll take you to the hunting grounds,” one of the older hunters says. Azula smiles pleasantly at him, hooking her hands together behind her back.

“Of course,” she says. “Lead the way.”

The older hunters lead the way. Azula follows and the boys trail after, muttering among themselves. Azula ignores them. They're irrelevant. She has a beast to track and kill, and very little idea of how to do either of those things. She doesn't need any distractions.

It's a long walk outside the city, and the snow is deep. It takes the better part of an hour to get anywhere, but eventually the older hunters stop. Azula raises an eyebrow at them.

"The young men will attend you," the first hunter says, gesturing ahead towards the vast snowy plains stretched out before them. Azula sees literally nothing to hunt, and the snow is immaculate and barren of tracks.

"Of course," she says pleasantly.

Well, so much for using the actually experienced hunters to help with any of this, she thinks in exasperation. She knows better than to expect anything useful from the boys. Even if they knew anything, they'd never tell her after how badly she beat them all.

Well, Azula's wrung information out of less cooperative people. So maybe.

She strides out into the snow without looking back. The hunters murmur to each other, and the boys hurry after her. Between trudging through the snow and regulating her body temperature, she's already used more energy than she should've, but she'll live.

"So which one of you is in charge?" she asks idly after they've left the older hunters behind. The boys don't say anything, but Hahn tromps up beside her. She allows it.

"Do you even know where you're going?" he says, glowering at her.

"Yes, I'm very familiar with places I've never been before," Azula replies dryly. Hahn scowls.

"You're never gonna manage this, girl," he says.

"Aren't I, boy?" Azula says mildly. His scowl darkens. The other boys murmur to each other.

She keeps walking. She has literally no idea what she should be doing, so for the moment that's the best she's got. The snow is aggravatingly deep, and really not helping the situation.

She told Yue she didn't need luck, but a touch of it wouldn't go amiss right now.

“Hahn . . .” one of the boys says. Hahn waves him off.

“You only brought a knife?” he says, eyeing Mai’s knife where it’s strapped to her thigh. Azula eyes him, unimpressed, then gives him a pleasantly murderous smile.

“I brought myself,” she says. “Why? Do you need more than that?”

Hahn scowls at her again. She keeps up the smile.

“It’s understandable if you do,” she says, then glances meaningfully at his weapon. “Is that spear big enough, do you think?”

Hahn scowls. The other boys mutter.

“Oh, look, there’s some disturbed snow over there,” Azula says pleasantly, very pleased with the timing of that showing up. “Let’s go see what did it.”

They go over to the disturbed snow. It looks like it might be a trail of hoofprints, which is literally the only thing Azula can discern about the whole mess.

“Hm,” she says, looking down at the closest print. It’s enormous. But hoofprints are good, right? Hoofprints implies a herbivore, and she’d much rather track down one of those than, spirits forbid, something with actual teeth in its mouth.

“It’s an elk-caribou,” Hahn says. The other boys suddenly go from quiet to downright silent.

Well, that’s telling, Azula thinks. She doesn’t see any other tracks out here, though—at least, certainly not big ones.

. . . don’t elk-caribou come in herds, come to think? She supposes one could’ve gotten separated from the rest, but somehow she feels that’s not the case here.

Well, whatever it is, she doesn’t have a better option right now.

“How interesting,” she says easily. “Sounds like the perfect target.”

“Um . . .” one of the boys starts uncomfortably. Hahn cuts him off.

“Yeah, sure,” he says with a nasty smirk. “An elk-caribou’s perfect.”

Azula smiles at him. What a terrible excuse for a liar, she thinks. He’s going to be the worst chief.

Again, though, whatever actually left these footprints, she doesn’t have a better option.

“Excellent!” she says lightly. “Let’s get going, then. I’d hate to keep Princess Yue waiting, after all.”

Hahn’s smirk turns into a glower. Azula just keeps smiling.

They follow the tracks. They’re not very subtle, assuming Azula’s actually going the correct way, which she’s almost certain she’s managed. The boys were looking in this direction, at least.

She can’t help but notice that most of them are hanging back farther now, including Hahn.

The tracks really are enormous.

Well, the bigger the track, the bigger the pelt, she assumes. So that should work out nicely for her.

They climb a low hill. The boys fall back even farther. Azula rolls her eyes to herself. Useless, she thinks. It’s a good thing she’s not intending to rely on them for any of this. Honestly, you’d think—

They crest the hill. Azula . . . pauses.

Is that some kind of outcropping under the snow, or . . .

The massive white lump on the ground stands up. And up. It towers over the landscape, enormous limbs and wide horns casting a long shadow in the early morning light.

It stomps a heavy hoof into the snow, and gnashes its very, very large teeth.

“That’s not an elk-caribou,” Azula says.

“It’s a saber-toothed snow moose,” one of the other boys says in a small voice. “It’s their mating season.”

“Hm,” Azula says, and then it charges them.

Well. That’s going to be a problem.

The boys yell. Azula throws herself to the side and rolls down the hill, narrowly missing being trampled. The saber-toothed snow moose makes a genuinely unbelievable sound. Azula would not have expected something with “moose” in its name to roar like that, but she supposes the “saber-toothed” part is making up for the “moose”.

Then again, what does she know about moose.

It roars again, stamping and pawing at the ground. The boys have scattered in terror. Azula is covered in snow, so that’s irritating. The saber-toothed snow moose swings its massive head around and focuses on her, baring its massive teeth. They’re far bigger than Mai’s knife.

Of course, she thinks in exasperation, and pulls the knife out of its holster. She holds it the way Mai showed her, but it doesn’t feel comfortable in her grip. The moose tosses its head, then charges again.

The things she does for this family.

Azula rolls to the side again. The moose misses trampling her so narrowly that she feels its hoof scrape against her armored forearm. She spits snow out of her steaming mouth and pushes up into a crouch. The boys are still scattered uselessly, and unsurprisingly none of them seem to have any interest in helping her. Well, that’s fine—she doesn’t need the help.

At least she found a damn animal at all.

Azula inhales, and tightens her grip on the cold metal knife. She can’t firebend at it without ruining the pelt, but . . .

Hm.

Actually . . .

The saber-toothed snow moose turns and charges again, and Azula exhales, and stays right where she is. She brings up Mai’s knife. A couple of the boys scream. The moose bears down on her, jaws open wide to bite.

She lets it run its mouth right into the knife, and lightning crackles down her arm and bursts through its body.

The moose collapses, thrashing, and agony splits through Azula’s shoulder as its momentum hits her and she loses her grip on the knife and the lightning both. She goes flying and hits the snow painfully, shoulder screaming in agony again and head swimming.

She lets out a breathless little huff.

“Princess Azula!” one of the boys yells. Azula considers getting up, but no, the snow sounds much nicer right now. The snow is definitely nicer. She hears a couple of the boys running over, and a moment later they’re looming over her, looking terrified.

“How’s the pelt?” she asks mildly.

“Uh . . .” the nearest boy says. Azula pushes herself up with the arm that still works, then calmly rakes the snow out of her hair. It’s fallen loose, but the ornament is still there, so she pulls it out and sticks it into Mai’s holster. She looks a mess, no doubt, which is annoying.

“Well?” she asks.

“It’s fine,” Hahn says, sounding disgusted. “Not even scorched.”

“Oh good,” Azula says, smiling pleasantly at him. “How lovely to hear.”

.

.

.

Yue is alone in her rooms, looking at her wedding robes. The servants will be here soon to dress her, but for the moment it's just her and the robes. They're long and heavy and pure white, embroidered in purple, and truly gorgeous.

She thinks the only reason they can look gorgeous to her is because Hahn's not going to be the one marrying her in them.

She's certain, actually.

The servants show up. She smiles politely at them. They help her dress piece by piece. It's time-consuming, and she spends the process wondering how the hunt is going. Azula seemed very sure of herself, but she's getting the impression that Azula doesn't do uncertainty.

She's half-dressed when they hear the commotion outside. She looks towards the window in confusion, wondering what it's all about. One of the servants leans out of it, craning her neck curiously, then recoils with a gasp.

"It's a saber-toothed snow moose!" she exclaims.

"In the palace?!" another servant demands disbelievingly.

"No—well, yes, but—"

"Is everything alright?" Yue asks carefully.

"It's the men and Princess Azula," the servant by the window says. "They brought back a saber-toothed snow moose!"

"What?!" the others demand, and Yue . . . blinks, slowly, and thinks . . . yes, of course.

Of course.

She walks over to the window and peers out of it, still half-dressed and without her hair even combed yet. In the courtyard below, the men are dragging the body of an enormous saber-toothed snow moose on a large sled. It's so big it hangs over the sides of the sled.

Azula is following after them, her hair loose and tangled and her armor scuffed and one bloody arm held awkwardly at her side, dripping onto the snow. Somehow, she still looks perfectly controlled. The boys and Hahn are following her, looking upset.

"Oh," Yue says, staring down at Azula wonderingly. Azula smiles pleasantly at the steward as he comes up to her. They talk briefly, though Yue can't hear what about from here. She sees Madam Yugoda come hurrying over from the other side of the courtyard and assumes someone must've sent for her. Azula's arm definitely needs healing.

Yue wants very badly to run down there and check on her, but Azula's not supposed to see her yet.

"Please go find out what happened," she says, turning to the closest servant. Usually she wouldn't ask, but . . .

"Of course, Your Highness," the servant says, and hurries away. Yue inhales slowly, then returns to the other servants. They resume dressing her. She manages to stay calm for it. She has no idea how the hunting party killed a saber-toothed snow moose. She's never even seen one so close. It's . . . amazing, actually.

Somehow, she thinks, it must've been Azula.

The servant comes back when she's mostly dressed, though her hair is still down and her outer robes are still hanging by the closet.

"Princess Azula killed it," the servant says, looking incredulous. "With lightning."

"Ah," Yue says, and yes, that sounds right.

"Her shoulder is dislocated. Madam Yugoda took her to the Healing Hut," the servant says. "And her arm got scraped up too, it looks like."

"She's alright, though?" Yue says.

"Yes, Your Highness," the other says. "Um . . . the boys are upset, I think. They . . . tracked it? And it attacked them?"

"On purpose?" another servant says in disbelief. "During its mating season?! Did they want to die?!"

"They said, uh . . . Hahn said they thought it was an elk-caribou," the first servant says uncertainly. Yue . . . blinks. She can't be serious. Elk-caribou tracks don't look anything like saber-toothed snow moose tracks. Even she knows that.

"They did?" she says with a frown. "But that's . . ."

The servants share nervous looks, and Yue realizes—

They did it on purpose, she realizes, and then she's already gathered up her robes and run through the door, rushing towards the courtyard, face hot and feeling . . . feeling very . . .

"Your Highness!" one of the servants says anxiously, a few of them hurrying behind her. They probably want to stop her, but she can't even stop herself right now.

Yue bursts into the courtyard, still half-dressed, still with all her hair down. Azula's gone. The first person she actively recognizes among the hunters is Hahn.

"What did you do?" she demands, storming up to him. He looks at her in confusion. He's never seen her like this, probably. She doesn't think anyone has, and now everyone out here is all at once.

She doesn't care.

"Nothing," he lies.

"You told her it was an elk-caribou!" Yue shouts at him without meaning to shout, and he looks startled.

"She was the one who couldn't read the tracks," he says derisively, and Yue feels a rush of fury and—

"You're horrible!" she shouts again, and then she punches him in the face just like Ty Lee showed her. He yelps, probably more from shock than pain, and she kicks his shin. He yelps again. She hopes it hurt. "She beat you! What kind of chief are you going to be, that you can't even accept that?!"

"Yue, what the hell!" he sputters indignantly. She almost punches him again, but the servants catch up and swarm her.

"Your Highness!" they exclaim in worried unison.

"He tried to sabotage my wedding!" Yue fumes accusingly. If she were a waterbender, Hahn would be frozen to the ground right now. If she had something to throw, she'd have thrown it at his head. "How dare you?!"

"I didn't do anything!" Hahn snaps defensively. "She got herself in over her head!"

"She killed it just fine!" Yue shoots back, pointing at the dead saber-toothed snow moose. "You're the one who's in over his head! You could've gotten her killed, you selfish brat!"

"What did you just call me?!" Hahn says.

"You heard me!" she says, and then the crowd parts and Father's standing there, just looking at them. Yue's too angry to even be embarrassed.

"Father," she says at the same time Hahn says, "Chief Arnook." Neither of them sounds calm at all, but Yue still doesn't care.

"What happened?" Father says.

"We sent the young men with Princess Azula," one of the older hunters says sourly, jerking his head towards the sled. "They told her it was an elk-caribou's tracks."

Father's expression darkens. The boys all cringe, except for Hahn, who straightens up.

"It's her own fault! She didn't even know what it was!" he says, defensive and petulant.

"Hahn," Father says tersely. "I've never heard a warrior say something more disgraceful."

Hahn blanches, then flushes in humiliation. Yue still wants to hit him again. She puts a hand on her engagement necklace and the pressure of the cold metal almost helps her calm herself. Almost.

"He got Princess Azula injured," she says. "They had to take her to the Healing Hut."

"She's fine!" Hahn says.

"She was bleeding!"

Father looks at them. Hahn bites back whatever he was about to say. Yue draws herself up, just waiting for him to make another excuse.

"Hahn, I'll see you in the war room. We need to talk," Father says. "Yue . . . please let the servants finish dressing you. I think you've upset them."

"Yes, sir," Hahn mutters.

"Yes, Father," Yue says, face just barely flushing. She's not sorry, but . . .

Well, no. She's not sorry. She'd do exactly the same thing again.

That's a strange thought to have, but she's not sorry about that, either.

.

.

.

The old woman takes off Azula's armor and puts her hands on her throbbing shoulder.

"This will hurt," she says, then wrenches it back into place without further warning. Azula snarls in pain. She might set her on fire, usually, but she appreciates the pragmatism. She's got things to do today, after all.

"You've got quite the pain tolerance," the old woman says, drawing water out of the snow and pressing it to her bloody shoulder.

"Oh?" Azula says. "How kind of you to notice."

"Is anything else injured?" the old woman asks as the blood washes away. Azula's about to answer her when the water starts to spiritsdamn glow.

"What—"

"It's healing you," the old woman says, and Azula very vaguely remembers hearing that waterbenders could do that, but also what the hell does that actually have to do with water?

"I see," she says instead of staring at her. Apparently she knows what female waterbenders do now. "Well, that's handy."

"A bit," the old woman says, drawing the water back. "You should have most of the range of motion back. It'll be back to normal in a day or two."

"Very handy," Azula says approvingly. She doesn't get injured often, but she definitely appreciates not having to deal with the consequences. Even the scrapes are all gone.

"Azula!" Ty Lee exclaims, bursting into the hut with Mai following at a more reasonable pace. "Are you okay?!"

"Hardly a scratch," Azula replies dismissively, ignoring all the blood on her armor and tracked in through the door. She's going to have to change for the ceremony, she supposes.

"You’re bleeding!" Ty Lee says, visibly distressed.

“I was bleeding,” Azula corrects, pulling her armor back on. “Do me a favor and fix my hair, will you, it’s a mess.”

“There’s blood in it!” Ty Lee says in horror, and Azula sighs.

“Alright,” she says. “Bath first, I suppose.”

They head back to the ship and Azula washes the blood out of her hair and off her armor and gets changed. Ty Lee ties her hair up for her, and Azula inspects herself in the mirror critically.

“There we are,” she says in satisfaction. “Much better.”

“They said you killed a saber-toothed snow moose,” Mai says.

“I did,” Azula replies, returning her knife. The wrap around the handle is scorched.

“Left us out of the fun again,” Mai says, tilting her head as she inspects the wrap. Azula smirks at her.

“It was rather fun seeing their faces after,” she says smugly.

“Aren’t saber-toothed snow moose huge?” Ty Lee says.

“Yes,” Azula says. She’s still amazed she didn’t get crushed by the body, frankly. She did her best to avoid that, obviously, she just had no idea if it’d actually work. “So they ought to be quite pleased with the wedding feast and resulting pelt.”

“They’d better be,” Mai snorts.

“If they complain at this point, I’m just conquering the North Pole and calling it done,” Azula says. “Come on. Let’s get back to the palace and figure out what the hell they’re going to try and dress me in. I want time to burn it if it’s terrible.”

“Makes sense,” Mai says, and they head back to the palace. Someone’s taken the saber-toothed snow moose away, presumably to cook or something. Azula assumes that’ll be time-consuming, given its size.

She heads to the tailors’ room and finds them all in a flurry. She supposes a wedding would require a lot from the tailors, all things considered.

“Am I interrupting?” she says, raising an eyebrow. A few of the tailors squeak in surprise.

“Princess Azula!” one exclaims.

“Yes, that would be me,” Azula says, smiling pleasantly at her. “I assumed I should come to you for the wedding clothes.”

“Ah—yes, of course!” The tailor looks flustered. A few of the others flurry behind her, then come forward with a heavy white and blue cloak. Azula tilts her head, mildly curious, and they unveil it.

The blue is embroidered flames.

Isn’t that cute, she thinks.

“Oh, it’s so pretty!” Ty Lee says delightedly, clapping her hands to her cheeks. “It looks just like your fire, Azula!”

“It’ll do,” Azula says, and the tailors visibly relax. White’s a bit odd for a wedding, in her opinion, but apparently it doesn’t mean the same thing in the Water Tribe as it does the Fire Nation. At least, she’s assuming not.

“Are you ready to be dressed, Princess Azula?” the closest tailor says.

“Haven’t the faintest idea,” Azula replies with a shrug. “I already went on the hunt, I don’t know what they expect me to be doing now.”

“Princess Yue should be ready by now,” the tailor says, looking out the window. “They can’t expect to take much longer, at least.”

“They’re behind, though,” one of the tailors says with a nervous giggle.

“Behind?” The first one frowns at her. The girl gives Azula a nervous look, then giggles again.

“Princess Yue went down and shouted at Hahn after the hunt,” she says. “She punched him.”

“Oh, did she?” Ty Lee brightens as Azula stares at the girl in bemusement. “How was her form?”

“Um . . . she punched him?” the girl says.

“Shouted at him about what?” Azula asks.

“For lying to you, of course. And getting you hurt,” the girl says. Azula laughs.

“Very funny,” she says in amusement. “No, really.”

“That . . . was it?” the girl says, looking confused.

“Did she break his nose?” Mai says. “We tried to show her how to do that.”

“I don’t think so,” the girl says. Mai makes a disappointed noise; Ty Lee sighs.

“Well, she’s learning,” she says diplomatically.

“You showed her how to break someone’s nose?” Azula asks, bemused. “When?”

“While you were finishing up with the treaty!” Ty Lee says. “The boys were bothering her. We figured it’d help.”

“Technically we mostly showed her pressure points, but the nose-breaking’s usually easier,” Mai says.

“Yeah, it’s hard to hit a pressure point through a parka,” Ty Lee says with a frown. “It’s not as accurate, you know? And they’re thick, too!”

“So she punched Hahn,” Azula says speculatively. “Well, it’s a shame we missed that.”

“And she kicked him in the shin!” the girl says with a sheepish giggle. The other tailors look a bit bemused.

“That’s great!” Ty Lee says.

“It’s a start,” Mai says allowingly.

“I have no idea how to feel about this,” Azula says.

“It’s good!” Ty Lee says. “We’ll show her some more on the boat. We’re not gonna have much else to do on the trip home, right?”

“Point,” Azula allows. She supposes it can’t hurt. Yue could certainly use a little more experience hitting people.

She really does wish she’d caught her punching Hahn, though. She’d wanted to do it herself just about the whole way back, but that would’ve let him know he’d irritated her, and she’d rather he know how insignificantly unimportant he is to her than anything else.

Even if it had been very, very tempting.

“For the moment, though . . .” She gives the cloak a significant look, and the tailors immediately start fussing over it and her. It’s mildly annoying, but no more annoying than the average Fire Nation tailor. And anyway, she doesn’t want to deal with any complaints from any idiot Water Tribe men. She’s handled quite enough of those this week, thank you very much.

Anyway, it’s really not a bad cloak, when all is said and done.

.

.

.

Yue waits in her rooms as the servants flit around her doing last-minute preparations, and she rubs at her slightly sore knuckles as she sits in her seat and looks out the window at the water for the last time. She’ll never do this again. Even if she comes back to visit, she’ll be in different rooms—wherever they put up visiting Fire Nation dignitaries. So this is the last time.

She might never even set foot in the palace again, after tonight.

A servant finishes pinning back her hair. Another one smooths the line of her cloak. Another packs away the last contents of her closet. Yue feels . . . so many things.

It’s just . . . so many things.

It won’t be long now, she thinks. It won’t be long at all.

She’s ready, she thinks, or as ready as she can possibly be. The next time she sees Azula, they’ll be getting married. The next time she sees Father, he’ll be signing the treaty.

She’s ready, she tells herself again, stomach all fluttery and nauseous at the same time.

She asked for this, and this is what the spirits gave her.

Yes. She’s ready.

Yue exhales, and rubs at her sore knuckles again.

It won’t be long now.

“Princess Yue,” the steward says from the doorway. She turns to look at him. “It’s time.”

“Of course,” Yue says, and gets to her feet for the last time in these rooms. She feels the weight of Azula’s necklace around her throat, and the weight of her wedding robes on her shoulders. She hopes she’ll look pretty, to Azula. She wants to think Azula will think she’s pretty.

It’d be nice, at least.

The steward leads the way, and Yue follows him. He walks down the hall, and she wonders if this is the last time she’ll ever walk down it. She wonders if a lot of things are going to be lasts. Will she ever eat Water Tribe food again? Will she ever see snow again, or the northern lights? Will she ever see Father again?

She has so many questions, and no idea what any of the answers are going to be.

It’s not exactly the time to ask, for one thing.

The sun’s going down. The moon is rising, fat and full. Yue . . .

Yue isn’t sure how she feels right now or what she should be thinking, but she hopes that Tui will approve anyway. She prayed to the spirits for this, so . . . she thinks they should, shouldn’t they?

Or she hopes, maybe. Maybe someone else answered that particular prayer. She doesn’t have any way to know.

Azula isn’t Hahn. That’s all she asked for.

That’s all she asked for, but Azula is also a pleasant smile and a smug smirk and the crackle of lightning, shining blue fire and ruthless precision, and not a nice person, but a girl who can beat up boys and kill a saber-toothed snow moose, and . . . and . . .

And who has soft lips, and a sharp wit, and who is very, very beautiful.

So really, Yue thinks, the spirits have treated her rather well, given how few specifics she gave them to go off.

In the prettily decorated courtyard, there’s a gathered crowd of Water Tribe citizens and Fire Nation soldiers sitting at long tables loaded with festival food, and Yue pauses just outside, waiting. Father is standing at the front of things with his advisors and the scribes, Fire Nation included, and the treaty is being laid out with careful reverence for its importance. She doesn’t see Azula, but Mai and Ty Lee are sitting at one of the closer tables. Ty Lee glimpses her, and waves excitedly. Yue manages a timid smile, and waves her fingers back at her.

She wonders if they’ll get married in the Fire Nation, too. She wonders what that would be like.

She supposes it doesn’t matter, really, but she wonders all the same.

The steward goes to Father. He glances her way, and a brief flash of pain and pride crosses his face. Yue tries to look good and dutiful and happy, which is much harder than looking good and dutiful. But Father wants her to be happy, and she’s not marrying Hahn, and it’s not too much for him to ask for. She can give him that.

She’s almost sure she can, she thinks.

She doesn’t look to see if Hahn is here.

On the other side of the courtyard, Azula steps out from a doorway wearing a long white cloak emblazoned with blue flames over her armor, and Yue stares at her in wonder. The cloak is gorgeous, especially for how quickly it had to have been made, and Azula looks exactly like she’s looked every other time that Yue’s seen her, and yet . . .

Maybe it’s the low lantern light and the light of the rising full moon, she thinks to herself, but if it is, Tui is being very kind.

She really does hope Azula will think she’s pretty too.

Father beckons her, and Yue steps out into the courtyard. Too many people are looking at her, but she’s used to being looked at, so that’s . . . fine, really.

Azula’s looking at her too, wearing that pleasant smile she always wears. Yue wishes she were affecting her a little more, maybe, but then again, she doesn’t think Azula would let it show if she were. They both approach Father and the others, and they stand side by side in front of them. Yue resists the urge to watch Azula out of the corner of her eye, though she really, really wants to.

Azula really does look so pretty.

Father looks at them. Yue clasps her hands together and, again, tries to look good and dutiful and happy. She’s not sure what Azula’s doing. Probably smiling, though.

If she is, Yue wants it to be because of her.

The wedding is very simple in the end, though it’s a lot more complicated a ceremony than most people have in the Water Tribe. Yue’s only been to a few weddings, mostly between nobles, and none of them were this lavishly decorated or had so much fancy food or so many people all dressed in their best clothes. She feels a little overwhelmed, even having known what to expect. It’s . . . a lot.

Azula signs the treaty in sharp, jagged High Fire. Father signs in looping Noble Water.

Yue looks at Azula, and Azula looks back at her, and Father says, “May your union be blessed by the spirits, as our peoples’ union may be, and may it be long and happy.”

Azula smiles, wide and wicked, and Yue’s heart leaps into her throat.

“Take care of each other,” Father says.

Yue doesn’t even wait for Azula to lean in. She kisses her immediately, and Azula for a moment makes a soft, startled little noise, and then—then Yue pulls back, before anything else can happen. Her face feels hot, and her necklace feels heavy, and her robes are stifling.

She should’ve kissed her for longer, she thinks.

The watching crowd cheers, and Yue’s face burns hotter, and Azula watches her with a strange expression that she can’t quite figure out. It’s . . . confusing.

So is all of this, really.

The feast starts. They sit at the head table side by side beside Father, but it’s so loud in the courtyard that Yue’s not even sure Azula would hear her if she spoke.

She wants to touch her hand underneath the table, but isn’t quite brave enough to.

She rubs at her sore knuckles, and waits.

.

.

.

The wedding and treaty signing are both surprisingly simple. Yue’d described the likely ceremony to her in the ice gardens, but Azula’d assumed she’d been simplifying things for the cultural outsider. It’d seemed much too straightforward for either politics or royalty.

Apparently she wasn’t, though, given how quickly they get through the process and end up sitting at the head table. The chief barely even gives a speech, and neither of them have to speak at all. The Water Tribe citizens seem cheerful and talkative, and her soldiers seem to be responding in kind. They’re looking a bit too familiar, actually, but now’s not really the time to be threatening the troops into better behavior. She’s going to remember it when it’s time for morning calisthenics, though.

Ty Lee is definitely looking too familiar with the Water Tribe citizens, happily chatting up a whole tableful of girls, but that’s Ty Lee. She knows what to keep her mouth shut about.

At least Mai’s being Mai, if nothing else.

Azula feels watched, and glances over to Yue to find the other already looking at her. Yue’s face reddens and she ducks her head. Her hands are folded together under the table and she’s barely touched her food. Neither has Azula, but that’s because she has no idea what a “sea prune” is and no desire to learn. She’s mostly concentrated on the meat.

She flashes back to the ceremony for a second, and remembers the quick press of Yue’s lips against her own. That makes four times Yue’s kissed her, assuming one counts the kiss on the hand. Azula’s only kissed her once, and that only if a kiss on the hand counts.

She probably needs to adjust that ratio, she thinks, but the idea is oddly . . . not flustering, because Azula doesn’t fluster, just . . .

Just something.

She wouldn’t have expected it, honestly. Yue’s been so reserved otherwise, but apparently despite that she’s the sort of girl to kiss someone when her chaperone’s not around and punch a boy who’s offended her in the middle of the courtyard. That much will serve her well in the Fire Nation, at least. Azula doesn’t have the time to be worrying over her honor all the time; she has a war to win. It’ll be better if Yue can do at least some of it for herself.

She thinks about the kiss again, for some reason.

She’s still not flustered, but . . .

“We need to go soon,” Yue says.

“Go?” Azula raises an eyebrow at her.

“To the Spirit Oasis,” Yue says. “We have to pray to the moon spirit.”

“Ah, yes,” Azula says. She still has no idea what she’s supposed to sacrifice to the damn thing. What would a spirit even want, anyway, much less a moon? She’s nowhere near Water Tribe enough to know.

Not that Yue did either, when she asked. And if anyone should know, it’d apparently be her.

“Are you ready?” Yue says.

“Not remotely,” Azula answers, a bit more honest than she’d usually be with someone other than Mai or Ty Lee. It’s reflexive, though, and she supposes it’s something a wife would do. Who’s Yue going to tell, anyway? “I’ll work it out one way or another, though.”

“Alright,” Yue says, and seems to believe her.

Good. Yue’s long since proved herself smarter than just about everyone else on this damn iceberg.

Yue eats her meal. Azula eats . . . well, something. She doesn’t actually know what a significant share of it is, but it all appears to be digestible.

The meat is definitely preferable, either way.

The chief looks over at them and their mostly empty plates as Yue’s nibbling at a sea prune and Azula’s eyeing one with all due suspicion.

“It’s time,” he says. “The moon is nearly at its highest.”

“Yes, Father,” Yue says, dipping her head in a nod.

“Of course, Chief Arnook,” Azula says with a pleasant smile. She stands up and holds out a hand to help Yue up from her own seat. Yue looks startled, but takes it. Her face is red again, for some reason. Azula suspects the sea prunes.

“We won’t be long, Father,” Yue says. She doesn’t let go of Azula’s hand, oddly.

Well, it’s probably the sort of thing they’re expected to do, Azula supposes, and follows her out of the courtyard. Ty Lee and Mai give her questioning looks; she waves them off. They won’t be long, as Yue said. Can’t take that long to make a sacrifice, whatever that sacrifice might end up being.

“I still don’t know what the moon spirit is going to ask for.” Yue says as they walk, glancing over at her. Azula shrugs dismissively. Really, she should’ve brought her jewelry box after all. Expensive things usually suffice for offerings, in her experience.

“They’ll ask for what they ask for, I suppose,” she says.

“You’re not scared of anything, are you,” Yue says.

“Oh, no,” Azula replies easily. “Things are scared of me.”

Yue lets out a soft laugh, looking away for a moment. She tightens her grip on Azula’s hand just a bit, even though there’s no one around to be expecting them to be holding hands. Azula’s not sure what to expect from her, which is a very strange feeling. She’s normally very good at knowing what to expect from people.

Normally those people don’t hold her hand, admittedly. She can’t even remember the last time someone did. Maybe Ty Lee, at some point? Maybe Zuko, a very long time ago.

She supposes it doesn’t really matter. They haven’t known each other that long; she’ll figure Yue out soon enough.

Yue keeps leading the way. Azula keeps pace with her. She’s not really sure where they’re going, because “the Spirit Oasis” wasn’t particularly illuminating as a description. Apparently it’s somewhere she hasn’t been before, and presumably an oasis is involved. Though she’d think that’d be more a desert thing than a tundra one, so that’s an unusual choice of name, come to think.

Well, they’ll get there soon enough. It’s not really a concern.

And they do, of course, get there soon enough.

It is an oasis, at least in the sense that any place made of snow and ice can be. Yue walks to the water, and Azula continues to follow. There are two koi fish in it, one white and one black, and both are swimming in the same circle.

Yue looks at her. Azula looks back, not entirely sure what she’s expected to do.

“. . . they’re fish,” she says finally, raising an eyebrow.

“They’re Tui and La,” Yue says, squeezing her hand. “The Moon and the Ocean.”

“Ah,” Azula says. “Of course.”

She looks down at the fish. They keep swimming obliviously around each other, seeming entirely uninterested in anything else that might be going on, much less the two of them. She . . . continues to have no idea what to do.

“Yue,” she says finally, looking back to the other. “I have absolutely no clue what your fish want.”

Yue lets out another soft laugh, then smiles sheepishly at her.

“That’s the first time you’ve just called me ‘Yue’,” she says.

“Well, we are married,” Azula says, not embarrassed but . . . something. Something she’s not used to feeling.

The water starts to glow. Azula looks down at it; so does Yue. The fish keep swimming their same circle.

“Tui,” Yue says, squeezing Azula’s hand again. “I’m going to leave the North Pole. We came to ask for your permission.”

“‘Permission’?” Azula mutters. From a fish?

“Your blessing,” Yue says, touching the sun engraved in her necklace with her free hand. “If you’ll give it.”

The water glows a little brighter. Azula feels the irrational urge to tug Yue behind herself before something happens, though she has no idea what’s actually happening. Yue’s not exactly equipped for anything dangerous, though, even discounting her heavy wedding robes. The water laps at the shore.

Yue’s eyes are almost as bright as the water, she can’t help but notice.

She never did get around to complimenting them.

“Azula,” Yue says, squeezing her hand again, and it feels . . . strange, a little, hearing her say it. “You know what to give them, right?”

“I have no idea,” Azula says, looking at her eyes for a moment longer before looking back to the water. It’s still glowing. The fish are still swimming. Yue’s still holding her hand and touching her necklace.

She really doesn’t know what to do here.

.

.

.

Azula’s still looking at the water. Yue can’t take her eyes off her, though. She really is beautiful, and even more-so in the moonlight. She wants to say that, but she’s not sure if she should right now. It’d be . . . distracting, probably.

“You can figure it out,” she says, even though she has no idea either. Azula’s so clever, though. So sharp and so smart. “I know you can.”

“Mm,” Azula says. She leans down, frowning, and dips her free hand into the water. Tui and La swim a little slower, but don’t stop. Maybe she’s imagining it, Yue thinks. They might not be.

The glow of the water reflects off Azula's face. It makes her eyes look lightning-blue.

Yue bites her lip. She wants to help her with this, but she doesn't know how to. She wants to be a good wife, and do what a good wife would do.

"You can," she repeats. Azula's frown deepens.

Tui and La shift in the water, and swim around Azula's extended hand.

"Tui?" Yue says hesitantly.

The water glows even brighter; enough so Yue winces. Azula's staring straight into it.

She exhales fire, blue and bright, and Yue has to close her eyes. The light is blinding.

And then it's gone.

Yue cracks open an eye, uncertain. Azula's still staring into the water, but it's not glowing anymore. Tui and La are back to their original positions, like they’d never left them at all.

"Azula?" Yue tries. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," Azula says. She straightens back up. She looks over to Yue, still faintly frowning. "I don't know what happened."

"You don't?" Yue says.

"It just glowed," Azula says. "That's all."

"Oh." Yue looks down at Tui and La again. They keep swimming. She's . . . not sure what to think. "They didn't . . . ask for anything?"

"No," Azula says.

"Oh," Yue repeats. She has an awful thought, suddenly, and—"Can you still firebend?"

Azula opens the palm of her free hand and blue flame bursts into existence, then snuffs out and crackles into lightning. Yue feels relief, quick and sharp.

"Okay," she says. "That's good."

"I don't know what they took," Azula says warily.

"Maybe they didn't take anything?" Yue says uncertainly.

"That seems extremely unlikely," Azula says.

"You don't seem any different . . ." Yue trails off, flicking her eyes over Azula's face and body. Everything looks the same, at least under the moonlight. "Does anything hurt?"

"My shoulder, but that's been hurting since that saber-toothed snow moose nearly ripped my arm off," Azula says. "I doubt it's related."

"I suppose not," Yue says. She frowns too for a moment, but she still doesn't even know what Tui might've wanted. She can't imagine what they would've taken.

She looks down at Tui and La again, and . . . frowns. It's dim and moonlit here, so maybe she's seeing it wrong, but . . .

La didn't have golden eyes before, did they?

She flicks her own eyes back to Azula, who still doesn't look any different, moonlit or not.

"I think they gave us their blessing," she says finally, because she's not sure what else this would be.

"It seems that way," Azula says. Yue . . . pauses, then steps in closer towards her. She still hasn't been able to bring herself to let go of her hand.

"I'm glad," she says quietly.

"Certainly wouldn't want Hahn here," Azula says agreeably, which is true, but . . .

"No," Yue agrees. She doesn't really know if Tui approves, but she hopes so. This is what the spirits gave her, after all. "I'd much rather have you."

"I'd hope I was an improvement, yes," Azula says wryly.

"You are," Yue says earnestly, gripping her hand tight. Azula gives her a pleasant smile. Yue wants . . .

She wants something a little realer than that smile, she thinks.

"I wouldn't have asked for the spirits to give Hahn their blessing," she says, and then she leans in, and . . . hesitates, just a little. She keeps kissing Azula first, and she's not sure if it's welcome. She really wants to do it, but . . .

"Well, he hardly deserves it," Azula snorts. Yue really wants to kiss her. She's not sure if Azula doesn’t want to or just doesn't realize she wants to, though.

"Azula," she says.

"Hm?" Azula tilts her head. Yue can't help herself, and kisses her after all. Azula makes that quiet little surprised noise again, stilling in place. Yue wonders if she'll ever not be surprised to be kissed.

It doesn't seem like it should be a surprise, to her.

"Thank you. For coming here, I mean," she says, and then she kisses her again.

And then, after a moment, Azula kisses her back.

.

.

.

It happens to both of them at exactly the same moment, and it feels just the same.