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A Nice, Calming Coup of Tea

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“Your Princess Azula, clever and beautiful, disguised herself as the enemy and entered the Earth Kingdom’s capitol.”

“In Ba Sing Se, she found her brother Zuko!”

“And by their combined power,”

“The Avatar fell! And the Earth Kingdom fell!”

“Zuko’s agents quickly overtook the entire city! They went to Ba Sing Se’s Great Wall,”

“And brought it down!”

“The armies of the Fire Nation surged through the Wall and swarmed over Ba Sing Se, securing our victory!”

“Now the heroes have returned home! Your Princess Azula!” Hearing her queue, Azula strode through the fire curtain and stood before the people, basking in their adoration. But her great-aunts weren’t done.

“And after three long years, your prince has returned.”

“ZUKO!” And with that, the prince himself walked out, smiling at seeing his own people for the first time since his banishment. The people were just as excited to see him, cheering even louder for him than his sister. He braced himself, preparing the spectacle he had spent a week practicing. Taking a deep breath and circling both hands, he let out a dragon’s roar, breathing out flames in the shape of the Fire Nation’s insignia and releasing ten bolts of lightning, one from each finger.

After a moment of awe-struck silence, the crowd erupted, celebrating the mighty Prince. As he heard the reception he was getting, the flame gained sparks of color. The more color, the more the people realized, not on a conscious level, but on a spiritual one how much they adored him. The more they showed their adoration, the more he returned it, making the plume more colorful. This lasted until he ran out of breath, at which point he looked back down at his loyal subjects. The tears on their faces triggered his own and he had to blink very rapidly to stop himself from embarrassing himself in front of everybody. He could’ve stood there all day if Azula hadn’t ushered him to their palanquin.

***

“Ping, I want you and the rest of the Earth Kingdom people we brought on espionage duty. Get a feel for the situation and how many Fire Nation citizens could be swayed to our side over Ozai’s. Report back occasionally. You already know what to do, so I won’t tell you how to do your job.”

“Thy will be done, Master,” Ping bowed. As he went to do his master’s bidding, he smiled, already having gotten started while on the ship. From what the captain had told him, the only groups within the military that weren’t at least highly respectful of him were those who had constant exposure to the Fire Lord, like the higher levels of General or the Admiralty. While it wasn’t discussed openly, just about everyone had heard about the tale of the Dragon Prince that had tried to save a clutch of 41 eggs, losing half his face in the process. The longer he went without finding the Avatar, the more the nobility and members of the War Council laughed about his misfortune and the louder everyone else found themselves crying to Agni for their Dragon Prince to come home. Then he found the Avatar, and everyone stopped laughing. Then the survivors of the Siege of the North came back with terrifying tales of the Avatar’s power and those who prayed began to cry, seeing the hopelessness of the situation.

Then a message found its way into the Fire Nation. A message that brought hope to a great many. “Ba Sing Se has fallen. The Avatar is dead. Prince Zuko killed him and took the city with his sister.” In every city, town, and village that the message circulated, there was dancing in the streets. Their Prince was coming home! A month later, when their ship was due to port, thousands flocked to the Caldera docks from miles around, some even coming from the far reaches of the Fire Nation just for the chance to greet him. The best thing he could’ve done in that moment was exactly what he did: demonstrate his power and present himself as a dragon by roaring flames. They didn’t understand why his fire started to change color, but their spirits realized that it meant he cared for them as much as they had been led to believe. And so a new story began to spread like wildfire: that of a Dragon Prince returned with mighty power who would wield it for their sake.

As the servants from the Forbidden City mingled with the servants of the Caldera Palace, they didn’t find an environment that was as hostile as the prince had warned them. Instead, while they were recognized as Earth Kingdom, that only meant that the Fire Nation servants knew who to ask about their Master. And the answers they got to the questions not only confirmed their hopes, but they exceeded their dreams. When the Earth Kingdom servants mingled, they brought with them tales of a prince that growled like a dragon, yet always had a soft, kind word to say. A prince that had claws that could rip your throat out, yet were gentle with anything and anyone he touched. A prince that devoured like a starving beast, yet always had a kind word for those who prepared and served the meal. A prince who was locked in a perpetual scowl, yet smiled at those he saw. A prince who was the most dangerous person in any room, yet protected those around him. A prince who had every reason to hate everything, yet opened his heart to all. And the more they referred to him as Master, the more everyone around them did, too. The more the Fire Nation saw the truth of the Earth Kingdom’s words, the more they adored him. When the time came for the Prince to become Fire Lord, there would be virtually no backlash from the populous. And as she heard her customers gossip about the returned royalty, a certain apothecary found less and less reason to stay so far from her son.

***

Sitting at the turtleduck pond, Zuko extended his finger and dipped his claw in, drawing circles on the water to get their attention. When the mother came over, he flipped his hand over and presented the crumbs of bread. She was naturally hesitant, seeing the food in a predator’s clawed grasp in an obvious trap, but she still took a hesitant bite. When he kept his hand, and especially his fingers, perfectly still, she got bolder, her children following her example. While they were learning how safe Zuko was, they already knew better than to stick around when his sister’s shadow fell on them.

“What are you thinking about?”

“Ozai. I haven’t seen him since I knelt at his feet and begged.”

“So?”

“So, I didn’t fulfill the terms of banishment. I’m still apprehensive about his reaction to my presence.”

“Well, he did summon you. That he assumes you’d come willingly means he’s not likely to punish you for following his new orders. Besides,” she continued with a smirk. “Royalty are known for making irrational, off-the-wall decisions at a moment’s notice and expecting everyone to follow along.” Seeing he still wasn’t convinced, she played a trump card. “Also, you saw for yourself how much the people love you. If you vanish without explanation, he might have a revolt on his hands. Even if he simply sends you away, they might start asking questions.”

“While a single pebble means nothing, a thousand is an avalanche.”

“I’m going to pretend I understood a single word of that and advise you to put Ozai’s brother out of your mind.”

“I guess he taught me more by accident than he ever did on purpose.” A sigh. “I guess that goes double for Ozai himself.”

***

Zuko stood before the curtain dividing the Throne Room from the mortal realm, breathing deeply. He summoned me. He sent someone to tell me to show up. People know where I am, so he can’t make me disappear and he would’ve been more discreet if he had sinister plans. His openness limits how badly he can treat me. Standing up straight, smoothing his hair back, he parted the curtain and reentered the scene of some of his worse nightmares. I have honor. It wasn’t his to take and I didn’t lose it by standing and defending my people.

Kneeling before the one who calls himself Zuko and Azula’s father, he didn’t have long to wait for the figure to speak.

“You have been away for a long time. I see the weight of your travels has changed you. You have redeemed yourself, my son.” As the man stood and walked through the flames, Zuko very carefully kept his mind blank, refusing to let himself think bad thoughts of the Fire Lord, lest they appear on his face. “Welcome home. I am proud of you, Prince Zuko. I am proud because you and your sister conquered Ba Sing Se. I am proud because when your loyalty was tested, by your treacherous uncle, you did the right thing and captured the traitor.”

“Iroh is no uncle of mine. He has repeatedly displayed contempt for the Fire Nation and actively worked to undermine its affairs. He was even foolish enough to think he could do so in front of me, trying to drag me into it, without consequence.”

Ozai smiled. “Good. I am pleased to hear you say that. And I am proudest of all of your most legendary accomplishment: you slayed the Avatar.” Zuko didn’t bother trying to hide his satisfied grin at that, squaring his shoulders and raising his chin. Not only that he really had managed it, but that Ozai believed it.

“What did you hear?” he asked smugly.

“Azula told me everything. She said she was amazed and impressed at your power and ferocity at the moment of truth.”

“Yes. He ran like a frightened child when he saw me. But he was no match for me. Nothing he tried could even touch me, for I had risen above him.”

Ozai was grinning now, too. “And that is why I have allowed your return. You have proven yourself stronger than you were when you left. You have shed the weaknesses of your youth. You are no longer a child, you are now a man. Rise, Crown Prince Zuko.” He did so, dazed. “I have taken enough of your time. Go now, and rest. I’m sure you are still weary from your journey.” With that, he turned and walked back to his throne. With a bow, Zuko also turned and departed. He didn’t go to bed, however. At least, not his own.

***

Azula lied on her bed, content and comfortable. She knew the men in her family and knew that they would finally get along. Unlike her brother, she had no doubt that his meeting would go well. Behind her, a certain wall panel shifted. She smirked, knowing that there was only one person who knew about that particular passageway, and relaxed her body as if she was fast asleep, curious as to how he would act.

She wasn’t disappointed. Rather than trying to wake her up, the intruder decided to take advantage of her helpless body. Opening her robe, he gently kneaded her breasts, only manipulating them enough to cop a feel and harden her nipples, which he licked, prompting a pair of sleepy gasps from her. Moving down to her womanhood, he proceeded to lick it a few times, which made her squirm. Spreading her lips, he breathed a tongue of flame into her cavern, letting it stimulate her to climax.

“Ah, wha?” She didn’t have to fake her surprise or her grogginess, considering he had never used his flames like that before and it came all at once rather than a build-up that she could ride. Suddenly going from a low arousal straight to climax threw her body for a loop.

“You like that?” Zuko asked from between her knees, to which she could only nod. Smirking, he went to do it again, with very similar results. By the end of that one, her crotch was getting sore and sensitive, so she whined when he went to do it a third time. After coming back down, she actually backed away from him and the pleasure he brought, for the first time.

“Enough. That was too fast,” she mumbled, drawing her knees to her chest.

“Too fast?” he tilted his head.

“Not only is it exhausting to spike like that, but I don’t get the chance to savor anything. I think I actually prefer the buildup more than the end.”

“Huh. So I was actually doing it right on the ship when we would go for hours without actually peaking?”

“Apparently.” At this, he disrobed and climbed in, cuddling with his sister.

“So, Ozai tells me you sang my praises earlier.”

“I only told him the truth. Say, Zuko?” she turned her head towards him. “Now that we’re home, what was it you were thinking about before I was crowned Queen? You said it was just an idle thought until we got here. Well, now we’re here. What was it?”

Zuko sighed, hoping he’d be able to actually find an answer before presenting it to her. “I’m sending someone to the eastern islands to look for any disruptions tomorrow.”

“You think the Avatar’s friends will infiltrate the Fire Nation?”

“I’m sure they still plan on invading during the eclipse. And I expect it’ll be more than just his friends.”

Azula sat up, turning fully to him. “You think he’s alive?” she asked, incredulous. “After we both shot him with lightning? The one you made was the biggest, most powerful one I’d ever seen! And you think he survived that supercharged bolt straight to the heart?”

“I don’t know. I can only hope. Just like I did for three years. He’s the only one who can stop Ozai and stop this war as it stands.”

“We could take Ozai. It wouldn’t even be hard, if we use Mother’s method.”

“That would just perpetuate the vicious cycle we find ourselves in. Ozai took the throne through murder and now look where we are. Also, it’s not a matter of power or physical might or I would’ve walked out of the throne room with a new hairpiece. The Avatar is the ultimate authority of the world, standing above all Kings, Lords, and Chiefs. Ozai needs a smackdown from a superior, not a vengeful strike, even from us, who he hurt the most.”

“So how do we fit into this?”

“They will be here for the eclipse. This invasion will fail and the Avatar will retreat with his closest allies and anyone who can fit in his bison’s saddle. The only nearby place where he can go for refuge will be the Western Air Temple, which I will follow them to. I will then appeal to the Avatar that I will have renounced Ozai as Fire Lord and request his help deposing him on the grounds that he has proven himself harmful to his own people, his own blood, the spirits that reside in his land, and the balance of the world. I will then teach him firebending, which will complete his training and make him ready to fully realize his power.”

“Why do you need to specifically say that to him?”

“It’s part of the appeal process. The only way for an Avatar to directly interfere in the goings-on of a nation is if someone in that nation brings forward a legitimate complaint about the way things are getting run and the source is high enough that the Avatar needs to take direct action. Throughout the past eight months or so that he’s been awake, he has never triumphed over the Fire Nation. He has defended himself, but the only time when the Fire Nation truly tasted defeat at his hands without him being their target was when La took over his body and power to drown the Northern Fleet. Even then La was acting in retribution and self-defense. All other times when the Fire Nation was defeated were when actual Earth Kingdom citizens took action. They were likely inspired by him or one of his friends, but they acted of their own accord.”

“This is all a moot point if he’s actually dead, though.”

“Which is why I’ll be sending a bounty hunter to the eastern islands, where they’re most likely to make landfall and start a ruckus. But if I’ve learned anything from my time chasing him, it’s that he’s as lucky as you are.” Azula nodded, trusting him to know what he was doing and returned to her prior position of leaning against him.

“Wait. If you’re headed to the Air Temple after the eclipse, what will I be doing?”

“Playing the part of the Fire Lord’s loyal daughter who would never dream of conspiring to overthrow him. I’ll take a dragon hawk with me and update you on anything I need on your end.”

“That’ll be my toughest act yet,” she sighed. “Especially if he’s going to do what we think he will.”

“I’ll also see what I can do to prepare for that, too. But that’s for later. Now is for snuggling,” he said, nuzzling her hair with a smile. She closed her eyes and rested her face against his chest with a smile of her own. Lying there, they fell asleep peacefully, sleeping easy and not thinking any chaotic or disquieting thoughts, and completely forgetting about their uncle.

***

“Master?”

Zuko groggily opened his eyes. “This feels familiar.”

“Yes. You should get going. No early morning distractions this time.”

Sighing, Zuko agreed. By the time he got dressed, Ping had vanished again. Before leaving, he leaned down and kissed his sister goodbye, which her lips returned without conscious knowledge.

When he got back to his room, he looked bitterly at his bed, hating it more than anything right then, since it represented the illusion he needed to keep. While he did get some sleep, it just wasn’t the same by himself, especially after over a month of sharing a bed with Azula. Soon the sun came up, reinvigorating him and signaling the start of his day.

As he rose from his not-so restful nap, he contemplated how he would proceed. Before he got farther than “explore”, however, there was a knock on his door. “Come in,” he called, and in walked a series of servants.

“Prince Zuko, welcome home,” one of the women bowed. “I am Hitori, and I am the servant assigned to you. I will oversee your needs around the Palace, like hygiene, cleaning, and any non-standard meals. Shall we begin with a bath?”

It took him a moment to mentally adjust back into his old pampered lifestyle after over three years without it. “Yes, that sounds good.”

Nodding, Hitori turned to the others and directed them. Not really knowing what to do with himself, Zuko followed them into his bathing room and watched them prepare. It put him at ease to see the calm efficiency before him, especially when one of the servants put her hand in the water and it started to steam. Perfectly mundane, harmless, ordinary firebending. After so long seeing it only as a weapon, both to use and to desperately hide, to see normal, one-color fire being used so casually showed him beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was home. It was awkward to get bathed after three years without that luxury, but since he grew up with it, it didn’t take long for him to grow accustomed to it and ease into the pampering. After being thoroughly washed by professionals for the first time in so long, they proceeded to steam-dry him, letting the heat from their hands evaporate the water, which also further relaxed his muscles. He reflected to himself that the only thing that would feel better than this would be if Azula were the one doing it, so he took careful note of how each component of the process felt so he could try it out with her later. Especially when they combed his hair.

Dressed in princely robes, he entered the main room of his suite, where a rather large spread awaited him. “Your Highness, I couldn’t help but notice how thin you are, so I had the chefs make this for you.”

“Thank you Hitori. I can smell the spice from here.”

“Yes, Your Highness. I felt you could use proper Fire Nation food after so long without it.”

“Careful, Hitori. I might tell the Majordomo to make your assignment permanent,” he grinned at her.

“It would be my honor to serve you in any way you require, for as long as you require it, Your Highness,” she bowed low, letting her robe open slightly to make the full meaning clear.

“I’m sure you’ll be satisfactory,” he said before tucking in. “One more thing,” he said between plates. “I’m sure you have arranged a wardrobe of attire fit for a prince, but I’d rather match Azula for the time being.”

“That arrangement was actually one of the items on my agenda this morning, merely awaiting your fitting. The tailor I had scheduled is also the one who fashioned your sister’s wardrobe, so it will be a simple matter to coordinate the two of you.”

Zuko nodded as he polished off the plate and the servers presented the final one for him. After proving the words of the Earth Kingdom servants, which had already begun to circulate among the kitchen staff, he stood. “Thank you for the meal, inform the chefs that I enjoyed the taste of home.” Turning to Hitori for his first appointment of the day, he missed the grins the serving staff exchanged.

***

“Well, Your Highness, I must say I’ve measured girls with wider arms than yours. I can almost see your ribs. That’s no look for royalty.”

“I am well aware. Just be glad you didn’t try and measure me back in Ba Sing Se. I think Azula’s clothes were actually loose around my middle.”

The tailor shuddered, hardly daring to imagine what he looked like before a month of food fit for a king. “Well, you’re here now, so you don’t have to wear women’s clothing anymore.”

“About that,” he paused, glancing at Hitori, who waved him on. “I’d actually like to match Azula’s design.”

The tailor paused, looking up at him. “You…wish to continue wearing women’s clothing…even though you’re a prince?” She could hardly believe that any man would wear something feminine, especially during Ozai’s regime.

“That’s right,” he said with the irrational confidence of a royal making a bizarre decision and expecting the world to conform to it. The tailor also glanced at Hitori, who again waved confirmation. Shaking her head, the tailor finished her measurements and packed up her equipment.

“I’ll be back tomorrow with samples.”

“Thank you,” Zuko nodded to her, dismissing her.

As she left with a bow, he turned to Hitori. “My schedule doesn’t have much on it, Your Highness. I thought you might like to refamiliarize yourself with the Palace?” Nodding, he left to wander the halls.

As he walked aimlessly in the halls of his home, he actually felt a little claustrophobic, noting that so much of the Palace was shrouded in darkness, despite the lack of a second floor. Skylights. While all the torches are thematically appropriate, our power comes from the sun, which we’re hiding away from. Something to thi-“Oof.” He suddenly found himself rocking back on his heels. Looking down, he saw a frazzled messenger servant on the ground with scrolls scattered around him.

“Ah! I’m sorry Your Highness! I’ll keep a better look out next time!” He quickly gathered the fumbled scrolls and scurried off, clearly feeling overworked running all across the Palace.

Sighing, Zuko turned back to continue when something caught his gaze. Tucked behind a pillar, almost perfectly hidden from view was one of the scrolls. Shrugging, Zuko picked it up. The black ribbon on it sharped his focus immensely, and his curiosity drove him to open it. If nothing else, I can present this as my own…what? Makai Island? This…this…this is perfect. If he’s alive and on his way here, then the invasion plan is still on. All our plans are valid. With a restored spring to his step, he retied the scroll and tucked it in his pocket for later.

“You’re looking rather cheerful today, brother. Did you spend the day cuddling with Mai?”

“Actually, I found something that will make our lives a little easier. I think I’ll sleep better at night after having found it.”

“I like it when you get all scheming,” Mai said, rubbing his arm. He could tell all three girls wanted more, but all he did was smile at them.

“Mai, you have connections to most of the prison wardens, don’t you?”

“Yeah. You want me to send out feelers?”

“Yeah. I’d like to know which prisoners are in for crimes and which simply spoke out of turn.”

“That shouldn’t take too long.”

***

That night, he arranged to meet with a certain bounty hunter. Finding himself alone in an industrial district of Caldera, he stood silent, waiting for the telltale creaking of a metal leg.

Turning to the man with an eye emblazoned on his forehead, he tossed the scroll to him. Quickly reading it, the unique firebender looked up for elaboration. “I want you to attack the Avatar. Don’t kill him, he’ll still be useful to me.” Tossing him a bag of gold, he then said “This should cover employment until the eclipse. Make it look convincing. If he can handle me, he can handle you.”

***

“Master? I have a report.” As Zuko turned from the rice field painting, his agent continued. “Across the military, the rank and file seems to be supportive of you and would not join a coup against you. There are certain companies that are led and filled by more fanatical followers of Ozai, but they are known to the colonels and can be disposed of. Most officers outside those companies are also supportive, with the only real opposition coming from the Fire Lord’s War Room itself.”

“Naturally. He’d make sure to surround himself with sycophants and like-minded individuals. And among the civilians and nobility?”

“Very few, if any, civilians support Ozai. The country is a hair’s breadth away from open revolt as it is, not helped by a certain group of teenagers making their way westward. Most of the nobility don’t seem to lean one way or the other, though I imagine Mistress would be better suited to read them.”

“She’s already given me guidance on them. I had hoped you’d be able to glean actual information, though.”

“Given more time, I’m sure I could find evidence.”

“Go ahead. Investigate the generals and admirals, too. It never hurts to be sure. You have a month to find everything you can. After that, things will be different. I’m not sure how, but I do know I won’t be here.”

“You wish to join the Avatar?”

“He needs training, and if he wants to win any battles against the Fire Lord, he’ll need my permission.”

Ping bowed. “I don’t understand, but I don’t need to. I’ll get you your information before the eclipse. And Master? Your outfit looks nice. It manages to convey the truth without making it obvious.”

“Thank you. I’ll switch over to Fire Lord’s robes in a few months, but until we can be open, this will have to do.”

As he disappeared, Zuko turned back to the painting, contemplating. I can’t do anything myself, but at least my various minions are capable.

***

“Orange is such an awful color.”

“You’re pretty when you hate the world,” Zuko smirked at her.

“I don’t hate you,” Mai gifted him with one of her rare smiles, enjoying the act she was able to play.

“I don’t hate you, too.” As they went in for a kiss, Zuko felt a warm body slump on his other side. Turning, he saw Azula, exactly as expected. “Couldn’t help yourself, could you?” he chuckled, wrapping his other arm around her and leaning back against the rock so the two ladies were lying on him.

“Of course. You two found a wonderful spot to hide beyond prying eyes. How could I resist such a perfect opportunity?”

While Zuko was amused, his “girlfriend” wasn’t. I know this is just for show, but couldn’t she have let me have even a single genuine moment?

“Girlfriend pile!” Ty Lee shouted, diving across their collective laps and startling laughter from all three. A metaphorical sword may have been swinging down on their heads, only a month from impact, but for now, life was good.