Chapter 1: Open Secret
How the others find out about Azula and Katara...
(TW: brief mentions of homophobia/internalized homophobia)
the entries in this collection take place post-Lightning In A Bottle. i suggest you read the previous fic for context, but i think you can still enjoy these without doing so.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Toph was proud of the fact that she clocked it before everyone else.
It was hilarious, really. Everyone just going about their business weeks after the mess they just went through and here was Toph, holding the ultimate blackmail material against Katara.
“So, Katara,” she said, cornering the other woman one day. They were in Iroh’s tea shop just hanging out and it felt like the perfect time to drop the bomb on her, with all the people nearby who could see Katara’s tomato red face. “What’s up with you and Dragon Lady?”
Katara’s whole body froze for a second then quickly recovered. “Nothing. Why do you ask? I thought you don’t have a problem with her anymore?”
“I don’t. But I just couldn’t help but notice something.” Toph leaned an elbow against the table, her lips curled in a smirk. “And by something, I mean you having a big, fat, obvious crush on her.”
She sensed the increased pulse rate and just knew Katara was blushing like a preteen. Really, Toph ought to pat herself on the back. Even Sokka couldn’t pull this off.
“What? No, I don’t! That’s crazy!” Her eyes flickered over to the other side of the room, where their friends were huddled around Azula and Sokka. The two were in the middle of their second game of Pai Sho. Azula, who won the last time, was bored out of her mind, while Sokka was incredibly focused. He was probably losing again.
“You do know I can tell when you’re lying, right?” replied Toph, probably looking as smug as she felt. She let Katara’s anger simmer down and soon enough, her friend gave up— slumping against her chair in defeat. Toph guffawed.
“Shut up, this isn’t funny,” Katara said, clearly still too stuck-up to laugh this off.
“Oh, but this is the funniest thing ever!” She pounded a fist against the table as she laughed again, making their tea slosh around. “Your heartbeat is going nuts right now! It’s like that time Ty Lee got Azula drunk after the victory party and she kept leaning against you for the rest of the night. And that time you—”
“Keep your voice down!” Katara hissed through gritted teeth. She bent the spilled tea back into their cups before letting out a sigh. “Am I really that obvious?”
She bit back the urge to laugh this time. “Nah, I’m just way more perceptive than everyone.”
“I bet Azula already noticed, too,” she said, still not done feeling sorry for herself.
Katara sounded so pathetic that even Toph couldn’t get herself to poke fun at her anymore. “If it helps,” she said to her, “I’m pretty sure that Fire Princess likes you back.”
It took approximately twenty-two seconds for Katara to process that in her useless brain. Finally, she raised her head back up with a hopeful smile. “You think so?”
She palmed her face once. “And I’m the one who’s blind?”
“Cut me some slack, it’s not easy to figure out if she even likes girls in the first place.” Katara’s mood fell again. And just like that, the nervous beat in her chest took on a different note. “You- you don’t think that’s bad, right? I mean, it used to be illegal in the Fire Nation until Zuko changed things, and I don’t think it—”
“Come on, Sugar Queen. You think I’m one of those bigoted people who care about that sort of thing? So, you like a woman. I think that’s fantastic, if you ask me. Men can be so stupid.”
“But what if… I mean, I don’t care about what strangers would think, I’m just— what if the others aren’t so accepting?” Katara whispered the last question helplessly. By others, Toph knew she was talking about the rest of their little gang. She sounded like she was close to crying which, okay, Toph wasn’t expecting that. She just wanted to tease Katara and have a good laugh.
“I’m sure the others aren’t the type, but if any of them gives you shit just because you like women, I’ll beat them up myself,” Toph said with enough conviction that Katara wouldn’t doubt her. She did mean it. Katara could do it herself, of course, but still.
That was apparently the wrong thing to say because Katara was openly shedding tears now. Uh-oh. “You know, I said that to cheer you up. I meant it, but, uh… Stop crying. It’s okay.”
Katara chuckled and wiped her tears. She rose from her seat and walked over to Toph’s side of the table to hug her. Toph tried to wriggle away from her grubby hands, but Katara’s hold was fierce. “Thank you.”
Toph stopped resisting and patted her friend in the back. “Yeah, no problem. I always got your back.”
Sokka and her sister never liked hiding things from each other, so he wasn’t entirely surprised when one evening, right before the gala celebrating the first Council of Nations meeting, Katara told him about the current state of her love life. He’d outgrown his immediate urge to tease her about it, or act disgusted, or cover his ears like a petulant child. It was tempting to grate Katara's nerves, but not this time! After all, he was a man engaged himself, and Suki had been a great influence on him in being tactful.
But still, when his sister said she was dating the last person he’d think of, he couldn’t help but laugh. Loudly. His mirth echoed through Katara’s (incredibly fancy, he might add) living quarters.
Katara, who was in the middle of tidying up his traditional Water Tribe formal wear (with a bit of a modern touch to suit Sokka’s newly acquired style), slapped him in the shoulder. “Why do I even bother telling you anything?” she grumbled.
“Because you love me,” he replied with a pout. “Also, you can’t expect me to just, like, not react that way. I mean, Azula? Really?”
“You got a problem with my girlfriend?” She emphasized the last word defiantly, eyes staring daggers at him.
He raised his hands up in surrender. “Gee, little sis, I don’t mean it like that. You might not believe me, but I think Azula’s great! I mean, she did use to be the epitome of evil and I hate that she keeps beating me at Pai Sho, but she’s pretty cool. I just didn’t expect you two to be—” he shaped his hands like a heart, “—you know?”
Katara finally dropped her glare and went back to mothering him. Really, though, his clothes looked fine! It was like she could see invisible creases or something. “I didn’t expect it either, believe me.”
There was a softness in his sister’s voice that immediately made Sokka smile. He realized how she truly was happy about this unexpected progression of her relationship with Azula. When he first saw just how close his sister and their old-enemy-now-friend had grown, he had dismissed the initial weirdness of it and chalked it up to battle-forged bonding. But it was clearly more than that.
“So, are you two making it public or anything?” he asked when Katara was satisfied with her handiwork. She went to sit at a nearby chair and grabbed a small mirror from the table in her living room.
“If you mean announcing it to everyone? Definitely not,” she answered while fixing her already neatly done up hair. She was wearing a deep blue traditional dress with white fur trimmings, her arms bare. It was a good thing that her sister’s girlfriend had such an effective death glare because now he didn’t have to worry about sleazy eyes straying too long. “I just told you because you’re my brother and I don’t want you hearing about it from exaggerated rumors.”
“Does Zuko know?”
Katara shrugged. “Mai does, so it's possible that she told him. I doubt it, though.”
He perched on the armrest of her chair. “The Fire Lord is a bit slow, isn't he,” he snickered.
“As if you would notice anything if I hadn’t told you.”
“You wound me, dear sister.” He put a hand on his chest. “I’m not dense.”
A knock came and Katara called for the person to come in. The door opened to reveal Azula, stepping inside the room like it was hers. She was all dressed-up Fire Nation Royalty style: deep red and black with gold trimmings, half of her hair down and her topknot bearing the gleaming sign of royal birth. Beside him, Katara was openly eyeing the princess up and down. It took all of Sokka’s self-restraint not to laugh. He’d never seen this side of Katara before, not even when she and Aang were still all lovey-dovey.
Azula turned to him with a raised brow. “You clean up nice.”
“You know, the way you sound surprised doesn’t make it feel like a compliment.”
“It wasn’t,” said Azula plainly. “Just an observation.”
Katara snorted as she got to her feet. “Don’t worry, Sokka,” she said, walking over to Azula and linking their arms together. “I’m sure Suki won’t call off the wedding, however you end up looking.”
Great, if these two ever decide to get married, I'll have to put up with two bullies in the family.
The tree of them were joined by Mai and Zuko and together, they made their way to the Council’s newly built Grand Assembly Hall, which was converted into a setting for the gala. There were two carriages waiting for them outside the palace. Zuko and Mai took the first one, while Sokka joined his sister and Azula inside the other. The Council's Assembly Hall was on the other side of Caldera, but the journey didn’t feel long with the three of them deep in conversation about the meeting that happened earlier that day. Katara aired a few frustrations about the other representatives, but all in all she seemed satisfied and optimistic about the whole thing.
When it was time for them to emerge out of their carriage, Sokka disembarked first. He theatrically offered his hand to his sister, who rolled her eyes but let him help her step down the carriage anyway. He watched as Katara did the same for Azula, and the normally icy princess melted into an amused smirk as she grabbed her girlfriend’s hand.
Despite pretending not to be one, Sokka had always been a bit of a romantic. And the sight of Katara dragging Azula wherever she went to greet some delegates and Azula allowing her to, the way he would hear Katara’s laugh then catch them in one corner with Azula smirking and Katara’s face alight with glee (probably after Azula poked fun at everyone else in her signature cutting humor that he’d come to know these past few months) made something warm curl up in his chest. It felt nice seeing his sister happy like this.
The way Zuko found out was purely accidental.
He had been absently taking a walk about the palace (because it helped him think sometimes) one night when he saw the two of them in the royal gardens. They were sitting by the pond, glued to each other so close that it would raise some eyebrows. But Zuko knew that the two were friends and have only grown closer in the time since they rescued him and the others together, and really, Zuko was just happy that his sister had a friend like Katara.
He was about to turn away and move on when suddenly, and to his great astonishment that the Fire Lord was frozen in his feet, Azula leaned close to Katara… and pressed their lips together. His sister finally noticed the sight of him after what seemed like a minute, stunned and as flustered as he felt at being caught by her.
Now, they were in his personal study. He was seated on his chair while Azula stared him down, both of her hands leaning against his table. The tap-tapping of her fingers against the polished wood did nothing to calm his nerves.
“So, uh—” Zuko began, “…you and Katara?”
"I know you're not the sharpest knife in the drawer, brother, but the answer to that should be clear to you by now." Zuko couldn’t get a read on her expression whether she was angry or not, but the blankness and her sharp tone definitely told him she was far from pleased.
"I'm sorry, okay? I don't know how to go about talking to you about this."
Azula’s brows drew together. "Well, then let me make it clear for you Zuzu. Katara and I are together,” she said firmly. “Now that you are informed of that fact, you are well within your rights as Fire Lord and a purveyor of our nation’s values and laws to put me to prison for it."
He blinked in surprise. "What? I put an end to that nonsense, you know that."
"Oh, so should I be thanking you now? Is that what you want?” she bit back. “Shower you with praises for terminating such a backwards, obstinate law?"
"Why are you like this?"
"Like what, exactly?" she said, like she was daring him.
Zuko all but groaned. "I'm trying to talk to you!"
"We're talking right now!"
"Then why are you being so—"
"I was scared, okay?" Azula admitted. That silenced him right away. "I didn't want you to judge me, and I hate that anyone still has that power on me, even after I've come to accept who I am long before I decided to come back to this wretched place."
Zuko watched as Azula’s mouth worked up and down, her face a myriad of emotions. Pain stood out among them, dimming her bright golden eyes, the kind that had been bottled and buried long ago and found its way back to haunt her. He felt his heart break at the sight. He didn’t want to think about what their father would’ve done if he knew… if he even so much as sensed something…
"Azula, I'm happy for you and Katara," he said gently as he placed his hand atop one of hers. Azula didn't flinch away, and he counted that as a victory. He went on, "And I'm never going to judge you for who you choose to love when there’s nothing to judge in the first place. It’s a beautiful thing, and I think it’s something to be celebrated, not condemned."
His sister turned away and sniffled. There was a small smile on her face, and Zuko felt like a torn was plucked out of his chest. “Uncle has definitely rubbed off on you, Zuzu. You sound all philosophical and foolish now.”
Zuko let the teasing slide, content that Azula was far less upset. He didn’t want to dwell on how different his response would’ve been if he had found out many years ago instead, when they were younger and he was a much different man.
He wasn’t going to be like his father, or his father before him. He wasn’t going to uphold Sozin’s tainted legacy. He had sworn long ago that he would break the chain, he wasn’t about to stop now.
Zuko wanted to get up and pull Azula into a hug, but that would’ve been pushing his luck too far. Instead, he settled with a question. “Am I the first one to know?”
That drew a mocking laugh from Azula, though it didn't have the edge that used to trigger fear or anger out of him all those years ago. “Don’t be stupid, Zuzu. You forget how shrewd your dear wife is. And Katara told her brother during his last visit.”
Mai knew. Of course. Before he could start complaining about being left in the dark, and how his own wife didn’t inform him about something as significant as this, he remembered that Mai simply respected her friend’s privacy. Azula's anxiety also probably stopped her from telling him, and their relationship wasn't exactly at the stage where they would openly trade personal secrets... They were still working on being siblings, after everything. Zuko was happy enough that they weren't trying to kill each other anymore, and that Azula looked well and better than she had been the last time he saw her before she vanished, but he was going to do his best to bridge the remaining gap between them.
So, he offered his sister the warmest smile he could muster, a hint of mischief in his voice. "Well, I just hope this doesn't make things awkward during dinner."
Azula found his attempt at humor lackluster, but he noticed the way her shoulders had relaxed, the storm in her features clearing.
Ome welcomed her dear Azula with open arms. She knew the child wasn’t fond of embraces, but she had missed her so, despite her visit being not so long ago. Perhaps this was what she got for convincing her to go back into the world and fulfill the bright path that was hers for the taking, the one that had been foretold and one that she deserved.
But love did not mean keeping someone to yourself, and watching Azula soar to great heights would always be one of the greatest joys in Ome’s life.
Another reason for Ome to be happy about this visit was the company she brought with her.
“Ome, this is Katara.” Azula reached out for the hand of a young woman with eyes like the ocean and a smile like the dawn’s promise. The young woman named Katara bowed before her in the way of her people, no doubt Azula had taught her. Ome was amused.
“It is wonderful to meet you finally.” Ome skipped the rest of the pleasantries and embraced the young woman who held Azula’s heart, knowing the formal welcoming ceremony later which they held for invited outsiders was going to be more than enough. “Azula has told me marvelous things about you.”
Katara glanced at Azula briefly before turning back to her with a graceful smile. Out of the corner of her eye, she couldn’t help but notice Azula’s flustered face. “It’s also my pleasure and a great honor to meet you, O wise one.”
“Just call me Ome, Katara. You are family to me.”
Katara’s smile only grew wider, making her already beautiful face even lovelier. Azula has chosen well, it seemed.
The rest of the day went by in a festive blur. Her people were always pleased to welcome Azula back, who had been one of them for years, and to Lan the Magnificent to whom they bow down to and also let the children play with.
At some point during the day, the other young women had pulled a reluctant Azula and a willing Katara to join them in one of the dances. Azula released a jet of her flames into the bonfire and the people cheered as it burned blue. The crowd of young people paired up and Azula swayed along with practiced ease, a laughing Katara following her lead.
Ome was overwhelmed with such a deep emotion all of a sudden.
Years ago, an admirer had left Azula baffled and distressed about her regard for women, and Ome had been confused about her hesitance for something that was natural and normal to her and her tribe. They talked through it, as they always did, and Ome did her best to guide Azula so she could unlearn the false beliefs of her people and embrace herself. This was merely one of the many hurts and cracks that Ome helped Azula mend, and watching her now, laughing and dancing with her love with not a care in the world, made Ome feel the deepest of happiness.
Aang didn’t know why he felt awkward. He’d known for a while, with Sokka not being able to keep something for so long, and coupled with the fact that Aang had been over Katara for much longer and had expected something like this to happen. Was hoping for it, even. He always wanted what was best for Katara.
“So, Azula, huh?” he said. Pathetic. He couldn’t have come up with something better to say?
Katara just smiled, though. Always understanding. “Yeah… Sorry for not telling you sooner.”
“Oh, no. It’s totally fine,” he assured her profusely. “Nothing to be sorry about at all.”
A short silence.
“This is awkward,” Katara finally said.
Aang let out a relieved laugh, glad that he wasn’t the only one. “I know,” he said, scratching the back of his head. When he looked up again, Katara didn’t seem as relieved as he felt. Determined, he stepped forward and hugged her. Katara melted into it and held him back.
“I’m so happy for you,” Aang said as they pulled away. “I mean, I have to admit, I didn't see this coming. But when I thought of it, I realized it totally made sense.”
“Really?” said Katara with one of her eyebrows raised. Amused.
He nodded eagerly. “Absolutely! You two balance each other out! I think. Azula is always in a better mood around you. And, if you ask me, you two are more alike than other people would think.”
Katara laughed and Aang felt the last vestiges of awkwardness fall away. “You’re the first one to say that, so thanks,” she said.
“Not everyone has my insight,” he said, beaming at her.
The two of them laughed again. He might have been in love Katara a long time ago, and there was a part of him that would always be, but he didn’t have it in him to feel even a sliver of resentment over Katara moving on with her life and finding someone else. If he had been a lesser man, a petty and bitter one, his reaction would’ve been far different.
And when he saw Katara and Azula together that night, their silhouettes shaped to form a whole under the light of the moon, Aang thanked the spirits and smiled.
a quick FYI to those who don't know: references to the criminalization of same-sex relationships in the fire nation are based on canon, specifically from the turf wars comics (which i devoured right after finishing the legend of korra. worth it if you want korrasami content).
next up: kyoshi island...
Chapter 2: Festive spirit
Kyoshi Island is holding a festival in honor of Lan and Azula.
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.
Chapter 3: In the dark
Azula rarely talked about her nightmares. Katara never pressed her.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Azula was still plagued by nightmares. They would creep at her sporadically, an affliction that came and went like storms. Katara knew because Azula would sneak into her bedchamber in the dead of night every time.
Katara had grown to become a light sleeper over the years, one of the imprints that the war left on her. She heard the careful creak of the door opening and took a wakening breath. No one else but Azula would let herself in without knocking at this hour.
Her bed dipped as Azula got into it, an arm slipping loosely around her. Azula was as warm as a furnace against her back. Katara had long conjectured that the projection of heat was her body’s involuntary act of defense, like the nightmare had temporarily disturbed her balance. She could alleviate it with her healing water, but she knew it would only aggravate Azula’s frustrations about being vulnerable.
She rolled over, meeting Azula’s haunted eyes with her drowsy ones. She fought against her sleepiness and cupped her lover’s cheek, then she lowered her hand soothingly, resting it at the small of her back.
The first time this happened, they were in their shared room in Iroh’s guest lodgings. They all went to Ba Sing Se for the celebrations following the Earth Kingdom’s recovery from the state of confusion and tumult that the Red Lotus had left it. Azula didn’t want to come, but Zuko had profusely asked her to. It was a step forward, he said. A chance for the world to witness her return as a changed woman—that one who had helped take down their enemy—and to officially announce that she was taking part in his ongoing reparation efforts as his advisor. Zuko meant well, but being there triggered past memories. The first night, they were sleeping in their separate beds when Azula had woken with a start, panting and covered in cold sweat. Katara came to her in a rush, and Azula had flinched away, hurling curses at her. But the pain in her eyes belied the malice in her words.
In the end, Azula hesitantly circled around the room and stood on the other side of Katara’s bed. Katara reached out, and they slept beside each other for the rest of the night.
Now, Azula was gazing back at her distantly. She rarely spoke about her nightmares and Katara never pressed her. All she knew was that the dreams were never the same, but they brought back the same traumatic memories.
Her presence seemed to help Azula somehow. Comforting but not suffocating.
“I keep waking you up like this.” Azula murmured.
“I don’t mind.”
A slight rustle of sheets, Azula pressing closer. She moved like a wounded animal in the night. Katara always felt painfully helpless in moments such as this. She would never admit it, afraid that it would only encumber Azula with a needless burden.
As a draft wafted through the bedchamber, the curtains billowed. Azula held on to her tighter. Her eyes squeezed shut.
“You’re okay. I'm here.” Katara breathed out. “I’m not going anywhere.”
sorry for the angst. much fluff to follow, don't worry.
Chapter 4: A little tiff
Azula and Katara seemed to be in a quarrel. Zuko was at a loss.
featuring clueless fire lord zuko
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The four main inhabitants of the Royal Palace all made an effort to dine together at least a few times in a week. It was Zuko who insisted, really, but he liked to think it was everyone’s idea.
There was Mai, an often begrudging Azula, Zuko himself, and Katara—who had become more or less a permanent fixture in his household in the past couple of months. The other council representatives had moved to their lodgings in the Council's Assembly Hall building, but she had opted to stay in the palace. Mai suspected it was at Azula’s behest, but Zuko doubted his sister could make any demands of Katara. No one probably could. Not even her own girlfriend, he was sure.
One such dinner found the couple in question in a particularly grim mood. Azula's countenance was steelier than usual—which was saying something. Next to her sat Katara, her expression hitting Zuko with a sudden recollection of the time when she still absolutely loathed him that his mere presence was enough to get on her nerves, only this time Zuko wasn't the cause.
The two hadn’t exchanged a single word since they had sat down for dinner.
Zuko gave Mai a furtive glance. His wife was languidly picking at her food, seemingly unbothered by the tense energy in the table. He was at a loss.
Katara was the one who usually took the helm during dinner, the one who prompted and steered conversations to stay lighthearted with the same effortless proficiency she possessed as a waterbender. But with her in a gloomy spirit, the task fell to Zuko.
He was still trying to come up with an appropriate conversation starter when Azula herself punctured the silence. She was frowning at her plate like it had offended her somehow. “This braised chicken could do with a bit more spice.”
“You should help at the kitchens next time, if you’re such an expert.” muttered Katara.
“I’m no scullery maid.”
“Maybe a change of profession could help with your attitude.”
Azula kept her face cool, but her jaw was tightly clenched and the cord in her neck showed. Katara defiantly refused to spare her a glance, equally fuming. Here were two of the greatest benders in the world seething at each other. Zuko’s eyes bounced between the two of them, feeling justifiably nervous.
Mai sighed. “At least wait until dinner is over before you decide to duel each other.” she said dryly. “I hate to think of the amount of headache it would give me if I end up having to arrange for repairs.”
Katara looked sheepish. Azula shot Mai a glare. It wavered eventually, and the four of them lapsed into silence again, the sound of utensils and the quiet footsteps of attendants filling the rest of the dinner. Zuko sneaked glances towards Katara and Azula the entire time.
When he and Mai retired to their rooms, Zuko finally addressed it.
“You think the two of them got into a fight?” he asked.
Mai didn’t look up from the book she was reading. “It was pretty obvious, Zuko.”
Zuko rubbed his temples as he sank lower in their bed. His day had been quite uneventful, but seeing Azula and Katara not on good terms left him with an uneasy feeling. He knew their relationship was still new, but he couldn’t help but start to look forward to a future where Katara became an official part of their family, not that he didn’t already treat her (and his other friends) as one.
“It seemed serious.” he remarked.
Mai finally put her book down and turned to him. “Don’t even think about it.”
“Don't start meddling with other people’s affairs. Especially not your sister's.”
He was mildly offended at that. “I wasn’t going to.”
His wife leaned over to kiss him softly before collapsing back underneath the covers. “Get some sleep, Zuko.”
He lay on his side and tried to do just that. He hoped his sister was going to fix things with Katara so he wouldn’t have to pick sides. Imagine what a disaster that would be.
Azula arrived in the meeting room a bit later than usual. She looked a bit frazzled, though in other people’s standards it still meant that she was smartly dressed and in tip-top shape. But this was Azula. A few extra strands of her hair escaped her topknot as if the attendant who fixed it up was in a rush. She tried to brush it off with her hand as she made her way to sit beside Zuko, a tiny satisfied quirk of her lips taking the edge off her usually domineering features.
“Have you gone through the list of agenda I gave you yesterday?” she asked him by way of greeting.
“Twice over. Nothing to worry about.”
Azula nodded and said nothing more. While they waited for the other lords and councilmembers to arrive, Zuko surreptitiously peered at his sister to gauge for himself whether she was truly doing fine, knowing he’d get a sneer in reply if he asked her directly.
Despite his worry, Azula actually looked… relaxed. At ease. He couldn’t quite place how, but he could just sense that Azula was in a much better, breezier mood. If Ty Lee were here, she’d probably comment about her aura being bright or something, whatever that meant.
When the meeting finally started, she hadn’t even glowered at someone even once for the entirety of it, which was a rare enough case for Zuko to notice. And when everyone filtered out of the meeting room, Azula didn’t stay behind to berate him about some things she didn't approve of like she usually did. She merely gave him a half-hearted wave before leaving, an extra spring to her step as she let herself out.
Zuko shook his head, bemused. It seemed that he could never completely comprehend his sister.
Zuko had tea with Katara later that day.
He sat with his friend in his wide balcony, the cool breeze lending them a reprieve from the sweltering afternoon heat. They had just gone over a letter from Sokka together. The letter was supposed to be official, but they’d laughed through most of it as Sokka's humor leaked through every line. They sat in companionable silence after that. Katara left her tea untouched, a peculiar expression grazing her face. She looked pensive and perhaps even a bit dreamy—as hard to grasp and puzzling as Azula’s oddly glowing mood earlier that day.
“So, how are you doing?” he ventured to ask.
Katara’s face was scrunched up when she turned to him. “I’m fine. What made you ask?”
“Uh… nothing.” He held his teacup beneath his nose briefly. “It’s just that you and Azula seem to be—at odds with each other.”
“Oh, that.” To his surprise, and utter bewilderment, Katara started to blush furiously, as if he'd caught her doing something unseemly. “It’s okay now. We— uh, talked it out last night.”
“That's good. Uncle told me once that discussing your issues with your partner before things escalate or take root is a good way to keep your harmony.”
Katara nodded along. “Yeah, discussing. We definitely did that... Just talking is good.” she said, flushing a deeper shade.
Zuko tried not to frown at that. “I got a bit worried. I thought it was serious.”
“It was just a little tiff.” Her flustered face melted into a soft smile. “I appreciate the concern, though.”
Zuko returned the smile. Puzzled as he was, it was at least a relief to know that the next family dinner wouldn’t be as strained as the last one.
*insert smirk emoji*
Chapter 5: Good advice
When Katara buries herself in her work, Azula tries to intervene.
Katara had her nose half-buried in Representative Jiashe’s proposal for new trade routes in the South Sea—updated according to the Earth Kingdom’s requested vessel traffic regulations—when a discordant knock on the door jerked her back to earth.
“Come in.” she called, trying not to sound stern. She had specifically requested not to be disturbed this evening, but she didn’t want to scare off any of her personal attendants with her ire. Especially not after it took her weeks just to get them to stop treating her like some royalty.
A single rap against the wood sounded, followed by a sharp voice that said, "Open the door for me, my hands are quite full.”
She got to her feet and crossed the room. Azula was on the other side of the door, a tray with two cups of steaming hot tea in her hand. Katara looked askance at her.
“I can't even pay you a visit without you getting suspicious?” said Azula. She rolled her eyes when Katara didn't budge. “Fine, I came because one of your servants confided to me that you asked to be undisturbed again—”
“—hounded them for information, you mean.”
Azula ignored her playful goading. “I knew you’re planning to stay up until dawn to work, and I know based on experience that it will do more harm than good for someone with a demanding lifestyle such as yours.”
“So you’re here to tell me off?”
Azula made an annoyed face. “I came to intervene, obviously.”
“Did you spike that tea with some sleeping draught or something?” she asked, crossing her arms and leaning against the doorframe.
“Will you just let me in?”
With a grin, she backed away and circled back to her chair behind her wide desk. It was littered with paperwork of various kinds, a stack of unread letters on one side. She cleared a space for Azula to set the tray in.
As soon as her hands were unburdened, Azula fell back to a nearby chair. Katara picked up Jiashe’s proposal again and traced the part where she left it. All the while, she felt Azula’s eyes on her.
“You’re just going to watch me work all night?” she said, not tearing her gaze away from the proposal she was reading.
“I was going to persuade you to come to bed with me.” said Azula, likely grinning. “But that would take some effort and my head hurts something fierce after trying to dissuade Zuko from giving in to another one of those useless vanity projects that a group of nobles are pestering him for.”
Katara snorted. “How’d you manage that?”
“I told him that the outrageous expense it would cost us could instead be used to help struggling peasant farmers in less developed villages. I even had to improvise a plan for that on the spot.” When Katara peeked at her over the parchment she held, she saw the self-satisfied smile plastered on Azula's face. “He gave in, of course. Kind, sweet Zuzu’s urge to help his people outweighing his desire to placate some pathetic irate nobles in the end.”
“How cunning of you.” Katara placed Jiashe’s proposal on top of the neat pile on one side of her desk. She grasped the warm cup of tea with both hands and brought it to her nose—the soothing scent of Jasmine filling her lungs. She took a sip.
Azula reached for the other cup. “Everything going well in the Council?” she asked. She didn’t effectively hide the tinge of concern there, which made Katara’s mouth twitch.
“All is fine,” she replied. “I just feel like—it’s nothing, really. I’m just being... Everything is going along smoothly, all things considered.”
Her girlfriend, ever the eagle-eyed one, wasn’t fooled. “Obviously, there's something troubling you. Tell me.” she asked in that demanding tone of hers that slipped out of habit.
Katara leaned back against her chair. “I just want to start making positive changes. I have all these plans, but all the other representatives are busy going on about trade and securing contingencies for future security threats for the four nations, which are all important, of course.” she let out a long-suffering sigh. ”But I wish we could do more.”
Azula regarded her carefully, brows furrowing as she mulled over her words. Katara took a long sip of her tea. Airing her frustrations out made her chest feel a bit lighter, she had to admit.
“The council is still at its infancy, is it not?” Azula said at length. “It is normal that you have yet to take great strides in philanthropic endeavors. The most you could do at this stage is to plant the seeds for your ideas. Start at the smallest and most attainable one. Draw up the plans for your proposed project, have some people whose expertise you might need to go over them. Once you’re confident enough, take it up to the council. There will be some objections, I am sure, but you have to bear all of it and take notes. Find some way to appease all sides to get the votes without having to compromise your vision. Go through it one step at a time and eventually, it will all come to fruition. With your stubborn persistence, I have no doubt you can achieve it.” A smirk touched her lips. “Honestly, you should have a separate committee for this. Something to consider in the future, perhaps.”
It was so Azula to offer a thorough advice in an attempt to comfort her. Her chest swelled with affection just as her mind took her words in, organizing the information she had just gathered to be acted upon and considered.
Jiashe’s proposal and all the other bureaucratic documents that needed her attention didn’t feel so important all of a sudden. She had time tomorrow. Showing her gratitude to her girlfriend was her prime concern now.
She rose from her seat and walked around her table, her pace tantalizingly slow. Azula looked at her with the full awareness of her intentions. She arched one of her sharp eyebrows, smoldering eyes following Katara.
She sank down to Azula’s lap, pleased at how she fit perfectly there. She leaned down near Azula's ear and pitched her voice low. “Your counsel is appreciated, but I think work would have to wait for now.”
“Thank Agni, I thought you were going to keep at it until—”
Katara smothered the rest of that sentence with a searing kiss.
Chapter 6: Fire lily
A conversation about first kisses.
Katara had always liked kissing.
She was quite a tactile person, and kissing was likely the most versatile form of human contact: A kiss on the cheek as a greeting, a kiss on the forehead to reassure—a kiss on the lips alone could be chaste, or tender, or passionate.
Kissing Azula, however, scrapped her previous notions of what a kiss could mean or feel.
She knew Azula’s kisses would be fiery; she had expected that. But the past few months they had been together was filled with kisses that surprised and beguiled and charmed her in ways she never knew. She thought of her kisses as uncharted lands she would willingly wander.
There were times when Azula was diligent and careful—lips moving deliberately, every flick of her tongue measured—as calculating as her brilliant whetted mind. She could be eager, too, and sometimes this made her intoxicatingly sloppy in a way that only Katara could make her act. When she got nervous, she would show a side of her that was both awkward and determined to please.
She would never tire of Azula’s kisses, and that thought felt almost terrifying in its certitude.
Now they were inside Azula’s royal bedchamber. By some miracle, they both had an afternoon off, but instead of going outside to indulge in some outdoor activity together they chose to lounge in Azula’s pleasantly ventilated and spacious room. Katara was sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor, eyes poring over an initial draft of a royal proclamation.
“Thoughts?” Azula demanded. She was splayed on her side in the bed, her head propped up on her elbow.
“Hush, I’m not done yet.”
It was the proclamation to officially cease the tradition of hunting dragons. No one had dared to go near Lan, but Ran and Shaw’s other offsprings would appear above the skies as soon as they were deemed ready and Azula was determined to make it safe for them to do so.
Katara looked up at Azula when she finished reading the draft. The way the silk robe clung to her figure was a tempting sight she tried not to be distracted by. “It’s… meticulously composed. You definitely made it thorough enough. I didn’t notice any possible loopholes.”
“...but don’t you think ‘punishable by death’ is a bit… too much?”
“It affirms our conviction in an absolute way.” Azula said without missing a beat. “The lives of dragons are sacred, Katara. I would even go as far as to say harming one in any way is equivalent to the desecration of a god.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Katara conceded. She placed the draft on top of the desk beside Azula’s bed.
“You’re not convinced.”
“I am.” She truly was. It was perfectly reasonable, and the Fire Nation people strongly respond to a show of force or conviction. Besides, if anyone so much as scraped a scale off Lan, she would definitely wish the worst for the culprit.
With the speed of a combat-ready soldier, Azula toppled forward off her bed and towards Katara, pinning her down on the floor. Despite her surprise, Katara maneuvered herself so Azula was lying on top of her comfortably, her legs stretching and arms finding purchase on Azula’s lean back. Their lips were close enough for their breaths to mingle, and Azula curved hers in a wicked smirk. Her face had been wiped off of her makeup and Katara’s eyes flittered across every inch. She was beautiful in a way that almost hurt.
“Will a kiss persuade you that I’m right?” she murmured and her warm breath licked at Katara’s skin.
“I already agreed, didn’t I? But kiss me anyway.”
Azula dipped her head and their lips met. Colors burst forth behind Katara’s eyelids as Azula explored her mouth, a whimper escaping from deep beneath her throat. Azula pulled away for breath after a while, and when she leaned back down again her pace was slower—so dizzyingly tender—with a hand ghosting above Katara’s collarbone. Azula tasted of warm days, a marriage of spice and sweetness in her tongue. Katara raked her hands through Azula’s jet black hair and loosened it into waves down her back like bending water.
Before the kiss could turn into something more, Azula broke it off, prompting a soft whine from Katara. She was ready to be utterly consumed by her, but her lover had different ideas. Azula snuggled against Katara’s chest, her ear resting right above her thrumming heart. A long silence followed, long enough for Katara’s desire to ease down and for her mind to wander.
Deciding to word out her thoughts, she said, “Who was the first person you ever kissed?”
Azula’s immediate reaction was to chuckle, a soft vibration against her chest. Then, “It was Ty Lee.”
Katara couldn't say she was expecting that… but it made perfect sense.
“She tried to teach me how to do it right and a demonstration seemed like the most effective way to do so.” Azula added. Her voice was unadorned, an emotion trying yet failing to break through the surface. “I couldn’t admit it to myself back then, but it meant something. To me, at least.”
Katara let Azula’s words hang between them, aware that there was buried pain there. She ran her fingers along Azula’s spine, drawing out a slight shiver.
“I assume yours is the Avatar.” said Azula.
Katara grinned. “Duh.”
“I bet he fumbled right through it.”
Katara swatted at her lightly. “Give him some credit. He wasn’t terrible. It was actually quite sweet how it happened.”
“Was he the only other person you’ve ever kissed?”
Katara pushed Azula's shoulders up so she could look at her in the eye. “I can’t believe you just asked me that question.”
Azula shrugged then settled right back against Katara, nuzzling at her once. “My bad. That was a foolish thing to presume, given how irresistible you are.”
“Flatterer,” Katara rolled her eyes. “I was definitely not irresistible enough to get anyone to stay past the second date.”
“Tch,” Azula said, like this offended her personally. “That’s outrageous. They were likely intimidated by you and realized you were way too good for them. I assume these fools were men?”
“Actually, there had been a couple of women who asked me out,” she admitted, “but it was mostly men.” A lot of them had been the sons and grandsons of Gran-Gran’s friends that she set her up with. The memory made her cringe.
“How about you? Any lucky girl back in the island?” prodded Katara, eager to steer the conversation away from herself lest her brain unearthed some embarrassing memories from a few disaster dates.
“There were a few. But it took me a while to feel comfortable enough to be… intimate with someone.” she whispered. Katara knew the reason why and the knowledge came with a death grip of pain in her chest. She was starting to regret even asking when Azula went on, “Ome and the healers helped and I overcame my fears… but sometimes I'm convinced that I’m forever damaged.” A pause. “I always feel safe when I’m with you but I was scared you wouldn’t want me at first.”
This, too, she knew.
Azula’s back turned as rigid as a tree trunk. Katara tried to ease her back by draping her arms around Azula’s shoulders. She pressed her lips on the top of her head.
“I’m sorry you’re stuck with me.”
Katara felt her soul crack. She softened her voice as soothingly as she could. “Don’t say that.”
I love you, Katara’s heart screamed. She didn’t give voice to it, afraid that it would startle Azula with the intensity of the emotion—the finality of those words—and she housed a few insecurities of her own. But Katara tried her best to show it. She lifted her lover’s head gently to meet her eyes. Her hands traced the cut of her jaw. “I want you, okay? Every beautiful part of you.”
She told her the same thing on their first night together. They had been in a fight before it happened, but the annoyance molded into something else as soon as their problems had resolved, and Azula had eagerly dragged Katara to bed. Yet as soon as all the layers of clothing slipped from Azula she suddenly folded in on herself. She mumbled something about being broken, that Katara deserved better than what her body could offer. Katara had fought through the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes and approached Azula carefully, her healer’s instinct guiding her through. She whispered words that soothed and reassured; she waited for Azula herself to touch her first, let her know that they could stop if she wanted, let her lead the way and set the pace. Katara gave her as much control and space as she needed, and made sure she knew she was wanted and desired.
“I know you do.” Azula murmured with her face just inches from Katara’s. Azula looked at her with a rare and familiar expression, vulnerable affection in her amber eyes. It was the same look she gave her that first night: Azula on top of her—sated and spent, her chest flushed red and panting—staring down at Katara like she had hung the moon in the sky and bent the light of the stars to glow.
Katara loved her fire lily. She loved her stubborn heart, the resilience that made her bloom proudly amongst the ashes of her dark, painful past. She loved how she made her feel, like Katara could take on the entire world as long as Azula was by her side.
“Kiss me,” she rasped. It was almost like a demand. A need rather than a want. When Azula grinned with renewed confidence, she knew she did something right. Katara met her halfway as she bent her head down.
Chapter 7: 5 times Katara felt loved by Azula
The many ways Azula said I love you without actually saying it.
The palace training grounds were not as busy as it used to be, at least that was what Azula told her.
The Fire Nation army was reduced to a shadow of its former might after the postwar demilitarization, which meant there were much fewer soldiers. Azula still kept a strict training regimen. She confided to Katara that she did it to maintain a sense of control of herself. It was mentally therapeutic—an exercise that Ome and the Sun Warrior elders had encouraged her to continue, as long as Azula paid heed to her limits—as well as it was physically conditioning. Katara would join her sometimes, until sometimes became a regular thing.
They decided to spar on the morning after Zuko declared his latest proclamation as Fire Lord, the one Azula had drafted which would serve as the next big stride in the fulfillment of her life’s mission as the dragon’s human guardian.
Needless to say, her girlfriend was in a lively mood.
“The one who can knock the other one down first wins,” she called out to Katara, taking position a few paces away. “Loser has to give the other a massage.”
“Oh, so that’s how you want this to be?” Katara said while she stretched.
Azula, a hand on her hip, raised a taunting eyebrow at her. “Afraid you’ll lose?”
Katara didn’t indulge her cockiness with a retort.
As soon as they were ready—both of them standing on opposite sides of the yard—Katara took a deep, stilling breath. Across her, Azula was deep in a fighting stance and taut as a coiled spring, ready to be unleashed by single move from Katara.
Katara mustered multiple whips of water and advanced at Azula. The whips uncoiled like serpents, moving like an extension of herself, lightning-quick and relentless—yet Azula dodged and leaped out of the way with razor-sharp grace. Azula finally took to the offense when she threw a spiraling tongue of flame, hurtling at great speed and taking Katara slightly by surprise. Her battle-forged reflexes served her well and she reduced the speeding flame into pure white steam.
She drew out a shield of water as similar attacks came at her successively from every direction, forcing her to back away a pace. Azula was trying to overwhelm her.
Katara froze the water shield into a thick block of ice and flung it towards Azula. She managed to spring out of the way in the nick of time, yet the split second she relinquished her quick attacks allowed Katara to launch ice shards towards her. Azula deflected with a belch of fire and proceeded to advance right back.
The duel went on, an aggressive dance that exhilarated Katara, making her blood sing. They move in swift deftness that the naked eye could barely keep up.
“Already out of breath?” Azula taunted even as her face glistened with sweat. She landed on the ground in a split to avoid a spinning ice disk, scrambling back to an offensive stance effortlessly. “I thought you’d have more tricks up your sleeve than usual.”
Again, Katara didn’t fall for the bait. She was an unmovable iceberg, a high cresting wave.
She threw coils of water at Azula to trap her in, but Azula saw it coming a second ahead and thrust her hands forward. With her fingers stretched, small sparks of lightning crackled out of each tip. Katara was forced to drop the water coils before the currents reached her. If she hadn’t been fast enough, she would have been stunned.
"That was new," she said to Azula with undisguised praise. She immediately followed it with a series of whip-like slashes and strikes aimed at Azula’s feet. Azula shunted each blow with precision.
The two of them were so evenly matched, so familiar of one another’s quirks and signature moves, that the duel was as much a matter of chance just as it was a battle of elemental mastery and wits. Just when the fight seemed like it could go on forever, Katara had managed to surprise Azula momentarily. The distraction had cost Azula—Katara swiftly pounced at the opening and came at her like an unfurling storm until Azula finally fell back on the ground.
Katara stood triumphantly over Azula’s prone form, wielding an ice shard like a blade pointed at her chin.
"Fine, you win," she said, then her voice tapered off into a grating groan.
Katara giggled at her expense. “Don’t be such a sore loser.”
"I'm not," Azula said. "I just remembered I stupidly made this into a bet."
A fresh wave of glee washed her. She was laughing in earnest now, her hand slapping at her thigh.
“Yes, savor in your victory," Azula said, her lips pursed. "Now point that thing away from me and help me up."
She held out her hand to Azula, but instead of hoisting herself up, Azula pulled down hard and caught Katara in her arms. Katara let out a squeal as she landed against Azula, giggling on top of her. They were both sweaty and gross but Azula was grinning at her so wide, her face must hurt from it.
“I’m never going to admit this in front of other people but I’ve long surrendered to the fact that I’ve lost to you more times than I’m comfortable to admit.”
“You won a fair amount, too, you know. But I’ll take it.” She propped her head up to look at Azula. “That must hurt your pride beyond repair," she said in an attempt to impersonate Azula’s venomous tone.
Azula rolled her eyes, but there was a smile on her lips, soft as a fresh layer of snow. She fell even more for Azula when she was like this: content enough to be playful and comfortable enough to be candid.
“I am proud to be bested by you, though. You’re the best waterbender alive.” That wasn’t quite true but Azula said it like she truly meant it. She smirked when she added, “And it says a lot about me that I managed to snag you away from your thousands upon thousands of admirers.”
“As much as I love it when you get all soft on me,” Katara said, punctuating her words by messing up Azula’s hair, earning her a scowl. “You still owe me a massage.”
The coverlet on Katara’s bed was reduced to a heap of silk crumpled up between deeply entangled legs. She was lying skin to skin with Azula, her muscles aching with sweet exhaustion, when a thought came to her like the sun peeking out at dawn.
“We should go on a holiday," Katara said against the crook of Azula's neck. “The Council will be in recess next week and I’m sure Zuko can manage by himself for a little while.”
“We already did,” Azula drawled sleepily, her voice slightly hoarse, “two times.”
Katara caught a strand of Azula’s immaculate hair in her finger. “We were just visiting Ome then, and I’m pretty sure attending the festival was required on your part,” she reasoned. “I want to go somewhere new. Just the two us. Even for just a few days.”
A beam of moonlight danced across Azula’s skin, lending her bare arms and shoulder a milky glow. The shadows painted a stark image of her, curves even more defined like sculpted porcelain. Azula twisted her body so she was face to face with Katara. Their mouths were a hairsbreadth away when she spoke, “There is this place I want to take you, though.”
“It’s not much,” Azula hastily added. “And it’s quite remote—”
Katara held a finger up to Azula’s lips. “Say no more, I’m already convinced.”
Several days later, they set off on Lan at first light, leaving their worries behind. Azula hadn’t told her anything about their destination, but Katara liked the mystery of it.
They had been flying northwards for some time when Lan finally began to descend towards a small island some leagues away from the Fire Nation, making a soft landing with a flap of his wings on top of a seaside bluff. Azula slipped down from Lan first, then reached out to help Katara down, strong hands gripping her waist and lifting her down on her feet. Katara always allowed her to do it; she knew very well that it was an excuse to casually touch her, even though Azula didn’t need one.
Katara walked closer to the cliff's edge. Down below, waves turned to fizzling foam as they crashed against the shore. The breeze was cool against her cheeks being this close to the open sea. She drank in the view for a while, feeling Azula take up a place beside her.
“This place is beautiful,” she said with her face still turned towards the sight of the sea shimmering under the blazing sun.
“We haven't even explored the island yet,” replied Azula.
A clump of wildflowers that grew along the cliff caught Katara’s eye. Feeling bold, she bent down to pluck a few of the purplish-pink blooms, placing one of them behind Azula's ear and offering her the rest.
Azula’s mouth pressed into a thin, derisive line, but there was laughter in her eyes. “Sea thrift? It would take a lot more than that for you to sweep me off my feet.” Still, she accepted the tiny bouquet of wildflowers from Katara, clutching the delicate stems with care.
“They look very pretty on you,” Katara said. She took one of her girlfriend’s hands and tugged. “Mind showing me the rest of the place, my love?” She said those last two words in a dramatic whisper, complete with a cheesy grin on her face that Katara wouldn’t be caught dead wearing around others. It was worth it just to see Azula’s face light up in clear amusement.
They walked away from the coastal cliff as Azula led her past a flat patch of land where she had dumped their belongings and towards a meandering path embedded with pebbles and sandy loam. Their way was lined with rows of wildflowers as they threaded through the untamed wilderness, heading towards the edge of a forest.
They were already deep into the set path and surrounded by a thicket of trees when Katara spoke again. “If you wanted me all to yourself, you could’ve just told me. You didn’t have to go out of your way to bring me to a forest on a remote island.”
Azula flashed her a grin. “Just wanted to make sure not a soul could hear us.”
Katara laughed despite the ripple that ran through her spine. They truly were alone out here. Her heart pulsed giddily at the thought of it.
They talked and teased each other as they walked along the forested path, the sunlight filtering through the trees and the phantom scent of the sea creating a rustic and calming ambiance. As they got deeper into the narrow path, the air started to grow warm and misty. Right then Katara already had an idea where Azula was taking her, though she still couldn’t help but let out a gasp when they reached the hot spring.
Nestled deep in the lush forest was a pool of bubbling water. A pocket of paradise hidden from the rest of the world.
“Wow,” Katara whispered in wonder. “I thought you were just leading me in the middle of nowhere for an overly elaborate prank…”
“We are in the middle of nowhere,” said Azula beside her. “I found this place a long time ago. I’m very much certain that I’m the only person who’s been here. Save for you, of course. I made that footpath so I can always find my way here.”
Katara turned towards Azula. Her voice had been toneless save for a tinge of relief. Had she been worried I wouldn’t like this secret hideout of hers?
Katara said, “I think it’s perfect.”
“I’m glad.” Azula’s mouth lifted in a close-mouthed smile.
They both stripped down to their undergarments then dipped themselves into the warm waters of the spring. Katara heaved a satisfied sigh, soaked to the chin with her skin simultaneously relaxing and buzzing from the soothing heat. Her hands skimmed along the surface as she leaned her head back against the edge of the pool, staring up at the window of blue sky above her where the canopies of trees had parted. “I needed this. It’s so peaceful out here.”
“I know the feeling,” Azula said. "This place became a nice respite from everything, even from my own thoughts. You can just let yourself loose and heal.”
Katara looked at Azula with a gentle smile. “Thank you for taking me here.” She understood the weight of it now, the way this place was another part of Azula that no one else in the world but Katara knew of. “I wouldn’t have come up with a better vacation idea, to be honest. You really outdid me this time.”
Azula waded towards her with a look of intent gleaming in her eyes that made Katara heady all of a sudden. The flower she had tucked on her ear earlier had fallen off, now floating limply in the diminishing space between them. Azula reached her and drew her close with lithe arms, enveloping Katara with a different kind of warmth. “Don’t thank me yet. You’re stuck here with me for the next three days.”
“I’m sure we can come up with something to fill up all that time.”
“Well, I am excellent company.” Azula followed that pronouncement with a trail of kisses along the column of her neck. Katara’s eyes drooped at the sensation it brought, her legs trapping Azula close to her. Shrouded by a sentinel of trees and the vaporous breath of the hot spring, they spent hours there lavishing each other with languid attention.
When the sun descended from the sky, the two of them traced back the path they walked through to the clearing near the cliff and made camp right there under the open sky, Lan curling up on the space between them and the edge of the sea cliff. Katara huddled around a small fire with Azula after they shared a meal and settled down with her in their bedroll. Tomorrow held the promise of a seaside activity Azula had planned up for them, and Katara slept in her arms without a single worrying thought in her mind.
Katara was needed back home.
She was going to lead the Council's retinue of volunteers to help in a project she had conceived and put-together herself—a program which involved providing housing, rehabilitation, and livelihood training for previously displaced Water Tribe citizens whom they had helped resettle back to the South Pole. The delegates who would come with her would merely help with construction. Her tribe was very self-reliant, and the Council mostly just had to extend funding and some other resources.
She was excited to be home again—and to be there to help improve the lives of her people, no less—but there was one thing that soured the idea of leaving the Council of Nations headquarters for a long while.
More specifically, being away from Azula.
They had a quiet dinner together on the eve of her departure, then stayed up for most of the night to get their fill of each other to hopefully last them for the next few months.
Wrapped up in Azula, she could see the sky through her window, slowly turning grey as morning approached. She didn’t dread the idea of being back in the South Pole, in fact she was looking forward to it, but this would be the first time she and Azula would be apart for a considerable time ever since they mutually acknowledged the regard they held for each other as something that surpassed mere friendship, that they were more than just companions who had begrudgingly formed a bond. As the largest funder of the project, the Fire Nation was in a position to send an important delegate if they wished. But Azula had responsibilities of her own that would keep her in Caldera.
“I’ll miss you.”
“You won't be away for too long,” Azula assured. Katara wondered whether those words were also meant to appease Azula herself. “And I'll write to you.”
Azula accompanied her in the carriage and saw her off by the docks. The few royal guards that were lined behind her drew some onlookers, and when the people realized that their beloved princess herself was there, a small crowd started to form from a respectable distance.
Azula tilted her chin with a delicate finger and kissed her right there. It was brief, gentle, and chaste—a contrast to the impassioned ones they shared the night prior. Katara was vaguely aware of all the people who could very well see them but couldn’t bring herself to care, enthralled as she was by the softness of Azula’s lips.
“Don't miss me too much,” Azula said as they parted.
A smile tugged at Katara's lips. “I can't promise you that.”
The Fire Nation vessels her party had embarked on lent them speed and safety from the traitorous moods of the sea. Katara spent the voyage in pleasant company. She stayed abovedeck during the day talking with some of her staff and befriending the ship’s crew, while her nights were spent inside her stateroom trying not to long for a familiar warmth she had grown used to.
When they reached their destination, Katara bounced between directing her staff who awaited her instructions and reciprocating the warm affection her father and Gran-Gran showered her with. She was overjoyed to be with her family and in a village full of familiar faces, eager for the days she would spend bettering the place of her birth.
When night fell, Katara clambered tiredly inside her house, kept clean and neat by Gran-Gran when she had learned about her pending arrival. The work table on one corner not far from her bed was empty save for a crimson envelope placed right on the center, tucked carefully under a small ink bottle.
Katara picked it up; it was emblazoned in gold and she immediately recognized Azula’s seal.
She hastily prepared herself for sleep and sat on her bed, half-tucked by a pile of furs, holding the letter which bore the bold and confident strokes of Azula’s handwriting in her hands. She read, and her heart was afloat. A grin pulled at her lips and the muscles on her cheeks nearly strain from it.
If fate is kind, then this finds you all settled in the warmth of your home, wrangled to bed by your delightful grandmother after you—and I have no doubt in this—tried to tire yourself away again in your work. I know you get far too enthusiastic when you’re excited about something. You care so much about other people yet you forget about your own wellbeing sometimes, but I’m certain your father and your grandmother will have that handled.
I ought to give you an apology. Your ship will dock soon and this letter will have arrived by then. You see, I thwarted my resolve to remain patient. I'm sitting in my study as I write this, within my cavernous royal chambers, thinking about how I’m supposed to be nagged by you instead of my own, stubborn imaginings. So instead of brooding about my plight, I decided to write you a letter, albeit much earlier than I intended.
Suffice it to say that I miss you already.
It is a weakness that I’ve grown so accustomed to your constant presence so quickly. It makes me wonder whether this whole thing is a ploy for you to soften me up then pounce at me when I’m all open and laid bare. Though I can’t say I mind being pounced by you. To be frank, it sends my flesh into trills.
I hope operations are going smoothly there, but with you at the helm, I know it will be. As for me, things are going along as expected. The palace is tolerable as usual and nothing terribly interesting has disrupted the routine. Thoughts of you violate the tediousness occasionally, so you have my gratitude for that
I won’t keep you for long, but don’t think you have escaped me just yet. Expect a fleet of letters after this. Reply as often as you please, or not at all. I’m content to give without receiving knowing you’re waiting on the other end and I wouldn’t ever be speaking to the void.
“Wait, what? I thought— how did you... This is impossible!”
“Quit spluttering, have you suddenly forgotten the rules of the game? I’m quite obviously the victor.”
“Y- YOU CHEATED!”
“You dare accuse me?”
“Sokka, I’m sure Azula wouldn’t—”
“I am accusing you!”
Katara finally looked up from the book she was reading—an incredibly rare tome about ancient healing that Azula got for her as a gift when she returned to the capital a week ago, an extravagant expense but Katara liked it far too much to complain—and turned to the source of the noise.
Azula was sat in front of a Pai Sho board, while Sokka was on his feet pointing an accusatory finger at her. Aang was between them trying to deescalate the situation, while Toph was obliviously snoring against the tree near the commotion.
Katara carefully placed her tome on the bench she was sitting and walked towards them. Sokka was still thundering accusations at Azula while the latter remained unfazed.
"You can't even prove it," said Azula.
“I don’t have to!” Sokka bit back. “There’s literally no way you could win that one unless you played dirty."
With a sigh, Katara grasped her brother’s shoulder and pushed him back down to sit. “Alright, stop yelling. Let’s settle this like proper adults.”
“I was being perfectly civil until he started to hurl accusations at me," said Azula calmly while inspecting her nails.
Sokka leaned forward and bumped against the Pai Sho board. “I wouldn’t have if you didn’t cheat, cheater!”
“For the love of Yangchen, it's just a game," Katara said as she pinched him. She turned to Azula and met her gaze. She looked far too smug to be completely blameless, and Katara gave her a reprimanding smile.
“I’m going with Zuko to the Fire Sages Temple, Sokka. You should come with us.” Aang offered with a placating grin. “We could go right now. I heard there’s a bunch of old scrolls down the catacombs.”
With that, the two of them left the royal gardens. Sokka groused as he stood and glared at Azula. When they were finally gone, Katara reached forward to grasp at Azula’s earlobe and tugged. “You definitely cheated.”
“Fine, take his side.” Azula pushed her hand away. “It was only a matter of time until blood ties overpower ours. I can’t say I’m surprised.”
“I’m not surprised you cheated at Pai Sho either.”
“You think so low of me, darling.”
“I just know you too well.” Katara crawled the space between them, soft grass flattening beneath her hands and knees, and sat atop Azula’s crossed legs. She circled her arms around Azula’s neck, fingers toying lazily at her soft nape hair. She murmured, “It’s a lovely day, isn’t it?”
“I suppose it’s well-suited for a revitalizing nap. Or perhaps,” Azula amended upon seeing Katara’s expectant look, “we can take advantage of it and go for a ride.”
Katara smiled. “You read my mind.”
They were about to share a kiss when a groan emitted from behind them. Katara whipped her head around to find Toph sitting up. “Bleh, and I thought you two weren’t as bad as Sokka and Suki,” she complained.
Katara stifled Azula’s retort by clamping her palm against her mouth. She lifted herself off Azula’s lap and stood. “Don’t worry, we were just about to leave you to your snoring,” she addressed Toph cheerily.
When Azula was on her feet, Katara grabbed her hand and steered her out of the gardens. The palace staff and guards didn’t even look up from their duties as they walked past them, Katara practically dragging Azula with her. They were used to this by now.
“I kind of like it when you take charge,” Azula said slyly when they reached the courtyard, then positioned herself in the center of the wide expanse of paving.
Katara watched Azula as she fell into familiar forms that Katara had seen countless of times since that one dreadful night of their daring escape from death’s grip. It didn’t last as long as the first time, and the ray of energy she produced and pointed towards the sky was far less powerful, but it did the trick. Not long after, Lan appeared as a growing dot in the nearly cloudless sky, responding to the summons of her companion.
Katara raised a hand over her eyes to shield from the sunlight as she squinted up at Lan. “Wonder what mood he’s in.”
“I'd say he's feeling a bit playful today,” said Azula. “He did miss you.”
Two pairs of talons streaked forward and touched the paved floor of the sweeping courtyard. Katara greeted Lan by ruffling his mane and he responded by emitting a low rumbling sound of contentment before nudging at her gently. Katara nearly toppled on the ground, but she laughed and stroked his whiskered head once more. It could be a trick of the eye, but Lan looked like he had grown since the last time she had seen him. Azula got on the saddle and she followed suit, taking Azula’s proffered hand and hoisting herself up. At Azula’s urging, Lan vaulted off the ground.
Katara glanced down at the palace from her vantage point up above. The distance humbled the edifice into a miniature version of its glory, but there were other things to appreciate from this eye-view; she could clearly see how the palace was cleverly compounded from this high up, an ancient and impressive feat of architecture. She saw palace staff and courtiers alike scurrying about like an uncoordinated ant colony. Outside the palace borders, a few people paused to stare up at them, to stare at Lan.
The caldera grew smaller and smaller as Lan soared higher. Katara tucked her chin against Azula’s shoulder and inhaled her scent, pleased that it was still prominent despite the wind lashing coolly at them. “You ready for next week?” she asked carefully.
“I practically organized the entire thing,” Azula replied.
The Peace Festival would start in a few days to celebrate the anniversary of the Hundred Year War’s end. Azula had been overseeing preparations for a month or so, way before Katara had gone back to the capital.
To a stranger’s eye, Azula might seem like she was going about her duties as usual, all efficiency and critical attention to detail. Katara knew her better than most people.
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
Azula hummed. It was a common response from her—it either meant she was deep in thought or she wasn’t interested enough to reply. But this time the sound held more weight to it: a history of regrets, a memory of her utter collapse.
Katara didn’t know what to say. It pained her to remember Azula after she had defeated her, chained and wailing in a picture of utter despair. Katara wasn’t so much struck by conscience; it had to be done, she knew. She only wished it hadn’t been necessary.
Lan flew on aimlessly as a silence bloomed between them, and Azula didn’t steer him away from whichever direction he chose to go. It was a while before Azula spoke up.
“I loathed you then,” she said without preamble, and her words carried the heft of recollection. “I know you did, too. But mine was a deep, personal, hate. You were the one who brought me to my knees. I don't blame you now, of course, but I didn't know any better all those years ago."
Katara lowered her head and settled her forehead against Azula’s nape. She said, “I’m not going to apologize for what I did. You deserve better than a half-lie.” Her voice was soft, and she ran her hands against Azula’s arms slowly as she spoke. “But I am sorry it had to reach that point. I just wish I had—” she paused. Katara was also as young as Azula when it happened, a child fighting on the other side of a war with people to protect and years of oppression to avenge. Katara had lost so much in that war, too. She couldn’t have done anything to help Azula. “I wish things had been different.”
“Never apologize for that. I was the one at fault... I tried to kill you. I will never stop making up to you for that.” She paused for a moment. “Ome told me that regret and hate were like untamed flame. It will only scorch through the purest essence of yourself.” Azula said, a touch of fondness in the way she spoke. “It sounds foolish, but she makes an excellent point. She urged me to get over those feelings, to confront my sins and those of my people in order to recover myself, to pick at the parts that were ingrained in me and the ones that were my own. It took great difficulty but it did work, obviously. Notice how I didn’t murder you on the spot when I saw you in Kyoshi Island? You can thank Ome for that.”
Katara’s laughter came out breathy. “I have a lot to thank Ome for.” For being there for you in your darkest days, for reaching out a hand and bringing out this incredible and fierce, wildfire of a woman I’ve grown to love.
“I think that’s why I find it easier to open up to you,” Azula said, her voice low yet her words ringing as clear as the crack of a lightning bolt. “There's no point in stopping you from breaching my walls when you already saw me at my worst.”
It was a sad thought, tragic in its truth. Katara was thankful that they found something beautiful together despite everything—but their past was a dark pool of unbendable water.
Azula broke through her melancholic thoughts. “And I know you can pull me back if I ever drift away again.”
Katara’s spirits lifted when she heard those words, the dark clouds in her mind parted, and she could see their future clearly again… and it was painted in warm hues of gold and blue.
Katara watched as Sokka pulled Azula to her feet, hung his arm around her shoulders, and sang shamelessly while Azula was trapped in his hold with her face deep in a grimace.
“Sing with me, Azula! Come on!” Sokka urged, and Azula’s face grew even more severe. “As the bison flew, his stench had spread, and all their enemies had fled…”
It was late and Sokka was most likely drunk. Everyone was laughing at the sight of them—Sokka swaying to a tune only he could hear and Azula stiff as a plank in the middle of a windstorm. Even Zuko was amused, his shoulders shaking as he chuckled silently.
Azula wriggled out of Sokka’s hold. She stormed away before Sokka could grab hold of her again and situated herself back to Katara’s side. “I swear by Roku's hideous beard, I will murder your brother,” she muttered darkly.
“You like him, just admit it.”
A warm wind stirred the paper lanterns that were strung overhead along the courtyard. Though the merriment had dwindled and she and her friends were the only ones there save for a few guards, the entire courtyard was still glowing. She turned to Azula, watched as her eyes caught the light from the lanterns and painted them like miniature suns. It was all she could do not to kiss her then and there.
Leaning close, she said, “You tired yet?”
Azula shook her head. Her eyes were trained towards Sokka, now accompanied by Aang. They were making a game out of trying to add words to the song, which seemed to get even more ridiculous as they went on, bolstering the laughter of the others. “I’m quite content watching your brother and the Avatar make a fool of themselves,” she said.
Katara clung her arms around Azula’s, feeling the lean muscle relax at the contact. “I’m going to miss this,” she murmured so low that no one but Azula could catch her words. “I’m going to miss you.”
Tomorrow would mark the end of the week-long celebrations, and they would be off to different paths again: Sokka, Toph and Aang to Cranefish Town, Suki and Ty Lee to Kyoshi Island, and Katara to the South Pole.
Azula shifted until she was completely facing her. “I have a confession to make.”
Her voice sounded serious, her expression solemn as she twisted enough to face Katara.
“My being Zuzu’s chief advisor has given him a tremendous amount of relief, but he’s a capable enough Fire Lord. He’s learned a lot in the years since he took the throne, I think.” Katara knew this already, so she merely nodded. Azula continued a beat later, “I’ve been talking to him about my position lately. We both agreed that it wouldn’t do him good to rely too much on my counsel. Zuko is his own man, after all.”
“Where are you going with this?”
Azula bit at her lower lip—a nervous tick that rarely appeared. She let out a breath, then said, “I’ve decided to accompany you when you return home in the South Pole again.”
Katara's heart leaped.
“It would only be for the duration of your Council duties, of course. Perhaps we can return here in the capital together once you’re done and your responsibilities in the headquarters call you back. I’ll be corresponding with Zuko regularly the whole time so I won’t exactly abandon him to his own devices,” she explained further. "Though it is completely acceptable if you don’t wish me to go with—”
She stifled Azula’s rambling with a quick peck on the lips. “Don’t be stupid, I’d love for you to come.”
A gallery of possibilities flashed through her mind, all of it filling her with such giddiness that she could barely contain herself to remain seated. “You are being serious, right? Because if you’re not I swear I’m going to soak your entire bedchamber in sewer water.”
“I’m serious.” Azula tucked a strand of Katara’s hair that fell on her face. “Besides, I was only there for a few days the first time. I’m bound for another visit.”
“We were rescuing my tribe when we went there, Azula. It wasn’t exactly a leisure trip.”
Azula shrugged airily. “All the more reason to go there again.”
“Hey, lovebirds,” Someone called out. It was Sokka. His ear was being pulled by Suki, who probably tried to stop him from interrupting them. Too late, though. “Mind sharing what you two are whispering about to the group?”
Katara directed a glare at him until he held his hands up and turned his attention back to his captive audience. “I think I'm ready to head back inside,” she said as she stood, her gaze now at Azula. “Join me?”
“My pleasure,” Azula crooned.
Azula followed her as she walked past the grand palace doors, past the labyrinth of corridors and all the regal splendor the palace held, and into Katara's rooms. She knew without having Azula say it out loud that there wasn't a place in the world where Azula wouldn't willingly follow her.
Azula found that she liked the South Pole.
A powerful firebender such as herself could withstand the cold, but Katara insisted upon bringing climate-appropriate clothing so as not to deplete her inner storage of heat. Azula had to acquiesce to such idiocy—Katara could be so willful if she convinced herself she was right. She was wearing one now: a fur-lined surcoat with an outer layer of dark blue silk brocaded with golden miniature dragons and ocean waves.
The Water Tribe were a self-sufficient and skillful people. Very little vegetation could grow down the frozen tundra so they mostly hunt and fish for their food, finding some use for every part of an animal. Her nation had been providing them with other goods such as rice and grain as part of reparations, but they kept to their ways that were such a big part of their cultural identity. Azula admired that; she had encountered the same fierce ties to one’s land among the Sun Warriors.
The dinner she was now sharing with Katara further illustrated this observation of hers: utensils carved from ivory and bone in a feat of craftsmanship, a meal consisting of seal stew and sea prune soup—spiced particularly to Azula’s liking—and their table lit by tallow candles out of rendered seal fat.
Azula had spent her day with Sokka and Suki—the two were in the South Pole for a visit, though Katara had suspected they were here to officially break the news of their engagement to everyone. They visited Pakku’s waterbending school where the pupils were mostly made up of children. They all found Azula more than a little interesting. Dragon Lady, they called her. Azula remembered being referred to the same way by Toph. One girl, about twelve years old by Azula’s assumption, had stared shyly at her. “That’s Master Katara’s girlfriend.” the girl had said to another with a hint of wonder in her voice. Azula had to face the other way to hide her smirk.
“You're quite popular among the young benders,” Azula said to Katara. She carefully sipped on a spoonful of spicy prune soup and relished at the way it left a trail of warmth down her throat. The delicacy might be too gamey and foreign to her liking, but Ome had taught her to appreciate whatever food was on the table; she believed being picky about the food she ate was unbecoming of a warrior.
“I do miss them,” Katara said. “I should visit them again soon if I get another day off.”
“I’ll go with you, then.”
Katara smiled. “I’ll check my schedule first thing in the morning.”
Azula helped Katara clean up the table after they had finished eating, helped each other dress for bed, and pulled Katara into her arms underneath the furs in the bed they shared.
Katara wrapped an arm around her middle, eyes fluttering closed. “I love you,” she whispered sleepily, and Azula’s world came to a stop.
There was nothing but the sound of the crackling fire and the furious beating of Azula's own heart after that.
At the precipice of sleep, tongues could be loosened to spill truths in wisps of breath that one could barely hear. But Azula was wide awake, and she caught every word.
She knew Katara could bend water to churn into ice and will it back to its liquid state if she so wished. Her words held the same power over Azula: she could whet them to cut or soften them to soothe. Now she mindlessly rendered Azula into a floundering mess of emotions with just a few murmured words.
Before Azula’s consciousness surrendered to the welcoming arms of sleep, a thought took shape in her barely waking mind.
Love makes fools, but I will gladly be fools with you.