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Deep Burn

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Katara felt Azula’s whole body tense the moment Kyoshi Island came into view like a tiny blotch of ink in the horizon. They were flying low, the sea just a few meters below them. Katara raised an arm to bend a spray of water ahead of them, a haze of colors appearing in the mist of droplets as light passed through it, and Lan flew straight ahead. It was like breaking through a rainbow.

Azula looked over to her, face damp from the spray. “You’re in a playful mood.”

“We’re getting close.”

Her girlfriend turned her eyes back to the island in question. “I can see that.”

Katara shifted forward in their now more spacious saddle and snaked her arms around Azula, placing lazy kisses along the patch of skin on the nape of her neck that wasn’t covered by her collar. She grinned when Azula let out a pleased sigh. “You should just relax.” she told her.

“I am relaxed.”

“Stop lying.” she poked her in the ribs, and Azula let out an undignified squeak.

Azula lightly smacked her hand. “Quit it.”

“I will if you stop being so nervous.” she slapped her back playfully. “Or at least talk to me about it.” Katara added in a softer tone.

That was followed by a long and silent stretch of seconds. Azula stared right ahead, her jaw working. Katara didn’t prod further, which always worked better than pushing for her to open up. As she waited, her hands traced patterns along Azula’s stomach, the fine silk smooth against the pads of her fingers.

Azula cut through the silence as she muttered, “I just don’t think I deserve it.”

Katara was the only person who could hear Azula openly admit something like that, with the exception of Ome.

On the outside, people saw the reformed princess whose history of conquering an impenetrable city and outsmarting armies still left many wary of her, the shadow of Ozai in her cold stare raising more than a few suspicious brows. She had become a symbol of strength for her people, the same way her brother was for peace and prosperity, drawing awed glances whenever she conquered the skies on her dragon. Their friends, and even Zuko, saw a person who overcame her madness and dark past, someone who had earned their trust. But it was Katara whom she allowed to see through her piercing veneer of indifference and intimidation, to look past the airy confidence she wore like an armor.

Katara rested her chin against Azula's shoulder. Her lips were close to her ear, but she didn’t say anything, not yet. Lan’s pace was slow, luxuriating in the fact that they were so close to the water. Azula didn’t have to raise her voice to be heard.

“I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and…” Azula trailed off. Katara kissed her on the side of her head once, a gesture of patience and encouragement. The sun blared down on them, but the salt wind cooled their skin, making Katara’s braid lash about behind her. “Remember when I told you about how I felt like I had to lose a large part of myself to be the the daughter my father wanted?” asked Azula a moment later.

Katara nodded, her chin bumping against Azula. “I remember.” It wasn’t a conversation she wouldn't easily forget: Azula telling her how Ome and the other elders had helped her find herself, to unearth the person beneath the trauma and the years of indoctrination under her father’s cruel eye.

“I’m not desperate for other people’s approval, all I want is to move on and live my life as I choose. But then came this prophecy, this responsibility, and now people’s expectations of me being their savior—” she scoffed bitterly. “I just don't think that's me. I can deal deal with being feared, i even enjoy it, but this is altogether different. I’m afraid that it’ll pile up and one day it will all just come crashing down. I don’t want them so see a savior when they look at me. I know who I truly am, I spent years trying to figure that out. I may not be the monster my father had shaped me to be, but that doesn't make me a hero.”

Katara weighed the words in her mind before saying anything.

“You know what,” she whispered to Azula’s ear after a while, “I think that’s a load of bison dung.”

She had to admit that was a bit… indelicate. But it did make Azula laugh. Katara smiled. “I know you think you don’t deserve it because you only helped the island to save your oldest friend.” she said, Azula’s silence confirming it to be true. “Doing things because you care for the people important to you isn’t selfish, Azula. And maybe you are right about not being the hero that they think you are, that you weren’t motivated by a selfless desire to do good, and that you think a prophecy was the only reason you’re doing something great for your nation by bringing dragons back. But in the end, what matters is that you chose to do those things. You could’ve easily just stayed with Ome, but you didn’t. You think I decided to leave my tribe at fourteen purely out of a sudden noble urge to fight in a war?”

Azula looked at her then, something shimmering behind those eyes as she held on to Katara’s words like a lifeline.

“I left because I wanted to help Aang, I wanted to master bending, and I wanted to help my father. Sokka went along because he wanted to protect me. Being motivated by reasons like that doesn’t make your actions any less good. Sokka and I kept fighting because we knew we could help, just like how you stayed in the Fire Nation to help Zuko run your nation when you could’ve just gone back to the Ome’s tribe.” Katara paused to nudge her nose against Azula’s, coaxing out a smile from her. “You wouldn’t say I don’t deserve all the good things that people are saying about me, would you?”

Azula snorted. “I know what you’re trying to do.”

“It’s working though.”

“It is.” she said, sounding grateful. Azula pecked her on the lips. “Thank you.”

Katara squeezed her close. “Anything to stop you from sulking. Seriously, we’re about to attend a festival. Loosen up a bit.”

“Funny hearing that from you.” she teased. “I could hardly drag you out of your study sometimes.”

By the time they reached the island, Azula’s taut muscles had already eased back, and her face was pleased and beaming as Ty Lee came bounding up towards them.

“Finally, my favorite couple is here,” said Ty Lee as her arms wrapped them up in a joint hug. Katara wasn’t even surprised that she knew about the two of them, with her brother having no restraint whatsoever. She knew what she was getting herself into when she decided to tell him. “Everyone else arrived yesterday.”

Katara looked up and saw Sokka, Suki, and Toph standing a bit far back from where Lan had landed. Despite being utterly awestruck by Lan, Sokka was still a bit… cautious around him. His brother and Suki waved at them, while Toph just stood with her arms crossed, grinning up at them. 

“Well,” she said, looking at Ty Lee while patting Lan’s scaly flank, “what do you guys have in store for us today?”

 

~

 

The island was the most alive Katara had ever seen it. The villagers were all astir and the streets were filled with various dragon-themed decorations. It seemed like all the residents pitched in with their own versions of Lan: long and delicately crafted paper dragons painted blue and held up by large sticks, sketches and paintings, masks depicting Lan’s snarling head, and even some children in their full self-made dragon costumes. The crowd permeating the streets were all abuzz that none of them even noticed Azula walking through the bustle, flanked by Katara and the others.

No matter how stiff an upper lip her girlfriend tried to maintain, Katara could see her wonder leak through her features as they made their way past the festivities. 

Lan swooped down for the villagers to see him, and scattered cheers burst through the crowd like a sudden wildfire. Beside her, Azula rolled her eyes. “For someone who isn’t overly fond of strangers, Lan sure is basking in the attention.”

“I wonder where he got that from,” a voice replied snidely. 

It was Suki.

Katara shared a sidelong glance with Sokka. Ty Lee, who stood between her commander and the princess, looked like she struggled to seem unbothered by the sudden tension. There had been some uneasiness between the two, with Suki still not entirely willing to embrace Azula being a part of their circle and Azula not really doing anything to help dissuade her. A confrontation seemed inevitable. 

But before any of them could cut in and stop a screaming match from happening, Azula broke the tension herself with a chuckle. “I suppose Lan has taken after me.”

Toph was the first one to react, snickering as she punched the nearest arm she could reach (Sokka’s), and gradually, the rest of them followed. Katara discreetly looked over to Suki. She was laughing along, but her eyes held a tinge of surprise in them. Suki was testing the waters, Katara realized, to see if Azula would snap at her snark and take the bait. Katara couldn’t really blame her. Unlike the others, she hadn’t spent that much time around Azula, and Azula didn’t exactly exude the friendliest presence. 

They neared the two-story meeting hall where they were supposed to meet Oyaji when someone finally spared them enough attention to be recognized.

“The dragonrider is here!” a man exclaimed, then proceeded to keel over. No one seemed to be alarmed by that. Instead all heads turned to them, instantly lighting up at the sight of Azula, prompting mutters and some pleased exclamations from the younger folk. 

“Our honored guests have finally arrived.” Oyaji’s voice knifed through the hubbub. He beckoned for them to come inside. As they filed inside the hall, Katara noticed the villagers resume their festivities with perhaps a touch more cheer. 

               

~

 

A table laden with a variety of delicacies waited for them inside: bowls of rice, soup, exotic fish cooked to perfection, roast duck, several kinds of sweet rice balls, and more she couldn't name. All this bounty was partly because of Azula herself, Katara realized. She'd been in charge of organizing the distribution of supplies and goods from the Fire Nation to foreign territories after the conflict with the Red Lotus. It was part of Zuko's lifelong dedication to extend goodwill to the other nations, but the idea had been borne out of a conversation between Katara and Azula.

Oyaji ushered Azula to her honored place in the middle of the table, Katara and Ty Lee taking their places on either side of her. The rest of their group sat across them on the opposite side of the table. 

Their attendants lavished them with courtesy and multiple servings of their finest food, which Sokka and Toph were eagerly wolfing down. Katara was struck with a sudden rush of nostalgia, recalling a similar hospitality from her first visit in the island with Aang and Sokka.

“Princess Azula, is the duck not to your liking?" said one of the attendants. “We also have some plum wine, if you want.”

“It’s quite alright, yes. And it’s a no for the wine for now.” Azula answered, barely looking at her. “Oh, and thank you,” she added as an afterthought.

When they were finally left alone, Toph leaned against the table and pointed a chopstick at Azula. “You’re kinda famous around here, Dragon Lady. You must’ve totally busted up those ships huh.”

“It’s Lan who they’re really enamored with.” said Azula airily. “I’m just his glorified chaperone.” She sat with her back straight, though her shoulders were relaxed and she clearly appreciated the food enough to have second servings.

“But he wouldn’t be here to save the village that day without you, would he?” Suki supplied. Unlike earlier, there was not a hint of snark in her tone, and a tentative smile lifted the corners of her lips as she looked at Azula.

Katara exchanged a meaningful look with Ty Lee just out of Azula's view. The two of them had been hoping for a breakthrough like this for months, and Ty Lee looked as surprised as she felt that Azula and Suki seemed to have made progress all by themselves, and all in less than an hour.

Azula shrugged and didn’t say anything. Katara could tell she was pleased, though. Azula might have trouble reconciling herself with the idea of being seen as a selfless heroic figure, but Katara knew that deep down the Azula who sought glory and praise was having a great time.

The rest of the meal was filled with pleasant conversation, which was only disturbed when Oyaji entered the room to tell them that it was time for the highlight of the day to begin. 

Azula was the first to rise. “I guess that's my cue.”

 

~

 

Azula and Lan was set to perform one of their “demonstrations” for the villagers. It was something they had learned back in the Sun Warrior tribe, when Ome had talked Azula into doing these choreographed showcases for her tribe’s many ceremonies and feasts.

The villagers packed the wide avenue lined by their homes, gazing up as Lan hovered right above Avatar Kyoshi’s statue, Azula riding him. The throng of people was positively buzzing with anticipation.

Katara stood at the front with her friends. Her brother was beside her, clutching both her hand and Suki’s. “This is so exciting!” he exclaimed. “Have you seen her do this before, Katara?”

“Once,” she answered. It had been during their visit in the Sun Warrior tribe.

“Really? Was it amazing? What does it look like? Does it involve lighting? Please let there be lighting. I've been dying to see Lan do that!”

“How about you just wait and see?” she said, rolling her eyes.

Azula began the show by taking flight towards the sky, and it bolstered the crowd instantly. Sokka let go of her hand and cheered wildly, while Ty Lee whistled with her fingers.

Lan froze mid-flight hundreds of feet up, then swerved to dive down below until he was close enough for the people below to see them clearly without having to squint. Lan paused again. He spread his wings wide, his serpentine body suspended in the air in a vertical position and his snout pointing towards the sun. His body swelled for a moment as if he was gathering a lungful of air, and opened his jaws with a roar to expel a great blast of multicolored flames.

Everyone around her fell quiet, as if the display had rendered their voices mute. Even Katara, who had witnessed this sight before, felt a staggering awe and a prickle in her neck at the sheer power Lan held. As the final belch of fire was let out, Lan swirled and soared above them in complicated rotating motions, Azula urging Lan to follow invisible patterns in the air with his body. The wind blew against them with every flap of his wings. Lan blew steam out of his nose and the vapor trail formed indecipherable shapes in the air. 

It was a dance, graceful and imposing. A dance that their meager and mortal minds could not completely understand, but could only watch in astonishment. A godly being flaunting his strength and the clear, deadly, and dazzling synchronicity between him and the woman who sat astride him.

The spectacle concluded as Lan, with his scales all aglow, released a mighty bolt of lightning out of his mouth and into the clouds. Gracefully, as if he was underwater and was swimming down towards the seafloor, he landed on the clearing behind Kyoshi’s statue. The assemblage of villagers behind Katara erupted in a thunderous amalgam of roaring cheers, astonished hollers, and even a few dumbfounded curses.

Katara’s eyes didn’t stray away from Lan, who displayed his teeth in what resembled a grin, and Azula. She slid out from Lan with a warrior's ease, a satisfied smirk gleaming on her face.

Katara recognized the feeling in her chest as pride. 

 

~

 

The villagers had prolonged the festival even after dusk fell. Lanterns and torches were lit; there were bonfires, music, and food shared between families. Eventually, the revelry began to lull as the hour grew late, and the villagers merrily retired to their homes. Sokka and Suki were long gone, and Toph was probably dozing in the guest room back at Ty Lee’s place.

“That was a lot more fun than I expected.” Katara mused. She and Azula were walking arm in arm towards the beach cabin assigned to them by Oyaji, which was erected a little ways away from Ty Lee’s house.

“I guess it wasn’t that bad.” For Azula, that equated to a profusely uttered praise. “You clearly had a great time.”

A crescent moon grazed the heavens and the scattering of stars completed the exquisite view. Their cabin looked almost spiritlike under the evening glow; the wooden walls lacquered with a pale sheen of moonlight. They climbed the steps together and went inside. It smelled new, like fresh unaged wood. The place had been built for them, which seemed a bit excessive to her since they could’ve just stayed the night at Ty Lee’s or Suki’s, but it would’ve been impolite to turn down the offer. There was ample space inside for two people, sparsely furnished but it lent a certain homey feel. Its lone room was simple yet comfortable, and she supected Ty Lee had something to do with the fact that there was only one bed.

Katara and Azula helped each other out of their clothes; Azula pulled on a silk robe and Katara kept herself snug in a cotton nightgown. Azula lay down in the bed first; Katara could feel the prickle of her gaze while she sat in front of the room's small vanity, carefully pulling out the ties binding her hair up in braids and loops. 

“Your hair looks so enchanting when you let it down, especially at night.” Azula broke the silence. “Have I ever told you that?” 

Katara looked at her through the glass, fixing her with a fond gaze. She remembered seeing her earlier with a cup of chilled plum wine in her hand which Sokka and Ty Lee kept on refilling. “And I think you’ve had one too many cups of wine.”

“Your hair is glorious all on its own.” she replied as she stretched her arms and legs. “No wine in my system needed for me to see that.”

Katara shook her head at her and got up as she finished. She climbed into bed beside Azula, drawing the covers over them both. They shifted until they were all snuggled up against each other in a tangle of limbs.

“Thanks for today.” Azula whispered. 

Katara's breath verged on a soft chuckle. “I hardly had anything to do with it.”

“I was ready to call it a farce and complain the whole way through before you talked me out of it.”

She hummed against Azula's hair, too tired to question her. Her body was pleasantly spent from the day’s activities, and it didn’t take long until her lover's warmth and steady breathing brought her to sleep.