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A Nice, Calming Coup of Tea

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The day the Sun turned dark dawned bright, just like any other day. Unlike any other day, however, there was political intrigue about.

Everyone was tense in Caldera Palace, from the cleaners, to the chefs, to the various generals and admirals, to the Royal Family themselves. Everyone had a part to play, even if it was simply clearing out so they wouldn’t get in the way of the foreign invaders. This was the main source of tension, since conventional wisdom would see those same invaders crushed by the time they could even get to the beach, but the Royal Family knew better. If it wasn’t Azula’s spying telling them that the invaders had some sort of plan to reach Caldera proper, or Zuko’s understanding of the Avatar and his group to know that they’d be cunning enough to make it, then it was the Fire Lord’s arrogance and sense of ironic humor wanting them to raise their hopes only to get crushed on the precipice of victory.

But not everyone was about to play along. While the Fire Lord sat smug on his throne, Crown Prince Zuko was writing a letter. It was nothing grand or apocalyptic, just a letter to his “girlfriend”, telling her how much he regretted breaking up with her, especially like this, but he had a higher duty to perform. What mattered was that it was all a lie. He wasn’t breaking up with her, nor was he regretting it, because she was never his girlfriend. He had already said goodbye to his real lover. Hopefully she’d understand that he was never hers in the first place, especially given the small, subtle ways she tried to drive them apart, trying to get him alone without his sister, trying to make him choose between them, and insisting on activities that he found no enjoyment in, especially when his sister would’ve known those opinions.

Sealing the scroll, he removed the armor he was wearing, took off his headpiece while keeping the topknot, lit a stick of incense before his mother’s portrait, and left the palace for the mansion Mai’s family was given.

As he was delivering the mail, he glanced out the window to see how the invasion was going. With the spyglass in Mai’s table, he was able to see significantly more technology than he was expecting, with tanks and some kind of submersible. I wonder where that technology came from. We came up with the tanks, but I thought there wasn’t any way to keep water out. Ah, waterbenders. They don’t have the skin tone or…apparel to be tribesmen, but that seaweed golem looks like a monster rumored to be in the Swamp. Hidden waterbending cultures. Maybe Azula will know what implications that has.

Knowing he was pressed for time, he stowed the glass in his tunic, since he didn’t think to pack one, and went to meet his destiny.

***

“Mistress, the Avatar has crossed the lava and will enter the bunker soon.”

“Wonderful. Places everyone, it’s showtime.”

While she didn’t show it, Azula felt uneasy as she sat on her father’s throne. It wasn’t that she was scared of whoever happened to open the door, but the fact that she felt perfectly normal. She knew they wouldn’t show up in the light of the Sun, so by the time they barge in it should be dark. But even as the intruders stood at the threshold she didn’t feel her fire fade. Did the eclipse not matter? Did she not need the Sun to firebend? If she didn’t, did Ozai? Zuko wasn’t smart enough to sneak away while he could; he’d make some grand gesture on his way out. But she didn’t have time for any of that, since the doors just got blown in.

“Well, well. I had a hunch you’d somehow survived. But it doesn’t matter, I’ve known about the invasion for months.”

“Where is he? Where’s the Fire Lord?!”

“You came here looking for a sovereign, and you found one. Or is the Earth Queen not good enough for you?”

“Stop wasting our time. For one thing, you’re not the Earth Queen. The Earth King is safe in the Earth Kingdom and he’ll be reinstated soon enough.”

“Oh, I’m not, am I? Strange, since I was coronated and everything. You may kneel now.”

“We’ll never bow to you. Now give us the information we need. You’re powerless right now, so you’re in no position to refuse.”

“And stick to the truth. I can tell if you’re lying.”

Powerless, am I? You have no idea. “Oh, really? I’m a pretty good liar. I am a 400-foot-tall purple platypusbear with pink horns and silver wings.”

“…Okay, you’re good. I admit it, but you should really consider telling the truth anyway,” the blind girl said as she encased the queen in rock.

Naturally, the three intruders were shocked when the encasement crumbled. “Oh, didn’t I say? I’m the Earth Queen. I have earthbenders, too.” Only two came to assist, but that was all she really needed, since she wasn’t fighting to win here. All she needed was a few minutes of their attention.

With her physical abilities, she was able to lead them on quite the merry chase around the room. Taking a gamble, she started running towards Ozai’s real safe room, counting on one of them realizing that they were running out of time and going the other direction. She was right, of course, but it was only the nonbender that figured it out, which naturally painted a target on him.

“Say, your name’s Sokka, right?” He stopped. Hook “My favorite prisoner used to mention you all the time. She was convinced you’d come rescue her,” Line “but of course, you never came.” And sinker. Like clockwork, the only one smart enough to face her in a battle of wits cast aside his reason and charged headlong into striking range of the kunai she had borrowed. Unfortunately, the earthbender had good enough reflexes to pin that hand to the wall before she could strike.

But that didn’t matter. She had already won. Since there was pretty much just a single rock wall between her and the safe room, she could hear the lightning strike, signaling to her that everyone else had their bending back. Now, all she had to do was put on enough spectacle to get them to run away and she could go see the aftermath of Zuko’s melodrama. “You want to find Dad? Then follow me down the hall and down the secret stairway on the left. I’m sure he’d be more than happy to see you now.” With that, she ran to him, figuring they’d be out of Caldera by the time she got there.

Finding herself alone after turning the corner, she reached into her pants, trying and failing to find any relief from the stimulation she just subjected herself to. With each leg movement, the phallus had shifted ever so slightly, but not enough to do more than tease and distract her. With a frustrated snarl, she kept going.

When she opened the door, she found the Fire Lord slumped over with the Fire Nation banner draped over him. “Fire Lord?” she called out, uncertain.

“Grr, your brother has betrayed us. Find him and kill him.”

“Oh, gladly. Shouldn’t we keep this quiet, though? It might demoralize the people if his face was plastered on every noticeboard again so close to our final victory.”

“Fine, nothing will be publicized, but I still want him dead. He has proven himself to be weak. Did you know, the Avat—Wait, you were the one who told me Zuko had killed him,” Ozai said with narrow eyes.

“As far as I knew, he did. If he knew the Avatar had survived, he kept it from me, too. Remember, he’s betraying me just as much as he’s betraying the Fire Nation.”

“Hm, very well. He said he would be joining the Avatar, so if you find him Zuko shouldn’t be far.”

“I shall get right on it,” Azula bowed, turning to leave. She couldn’t see Ozai’s gaze boring into her skull, but she could feel it. As she went to “begin her search”, she knew her brother was right. Even if Ozai wasn’t on to them, she had lost her free reign. But Zuko wasn’t the only one who knew the shadows. Before she could act like the perfect princess, however, she had some pest control to take care of. Making her way to the airdock, she mobilized all the balloons and airships that were stationed at Caldera. After watching the strange boats burn, her attention was drawn to the retreating sky bison. “Let them go. They’re too fast for us to follow, and they’re not our responsibility anyway. Take position above that outcropping,” she pointed to a spot halfway up the trail where a stone awning had been erected for protection against the bombs.

Once her airship had taken position, she went down to the bow platform. The officers present braced themselves for some roasted invaders and the invaders in question looked up into the eyes of a predator looking down at its kill, ready to devour. While they were making peace with the fact that they had already said their final goodbyes to their loved ones, Azula shocked everyone by jumping off.

Normally, when someone jumps from that high up, they become a smear on the ground. The Fire Princess had no such respect for the laws of nature, however, so as she fell she began releasing plumes of flame from her feet and downward-facing palms to allow for a fairly soft landing. “Hello. Are you the leaders of this little incursion?”

An older man with a crescent moon on his chest stepped forward. Well, he hobbled with a bad scratch in his side and an arm thrown around another man with a unique tunic. “I am the leader of this invasion, yes.”

“I am Fire Princess Azula. Well, Earth Queen Azula to those of you wearing green. Are you ready to surrender to me?”

One of the Earth Kingdom men stomped forwards huffing. “You will never rule the Earth Kingdom, ashmaker!”

“Oh, really? Kneel!” Despite their best efforts, everyone in green knelt, prompting a smirk from their Queen. “Now that you understand your place, perhaps those of us who actually matter can get down to business. Now, your surrender?” She asked the injured man.

Proving his mettle, he managed to recover faster than the others. “Yes. I, High Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribes, surrender to the mercy of Fire Princess and Earth Queen Azula.”

As he was talking, Azula noticed something. “Good. Say, are you related to Sokka, by any chance?”

“He and Katara are my children.”

“That…actually explains a lot.” And it did. If two of the Avatar’s companions were her and Zuko’s counterparts in the Southern Water Tribe, then it made sense that one would have the power to defeat her and the other could outsmart her. They had superior blood, after all. With a whistle, she summoned a Dai Li agent. “Bring High Chief Hakoda and me to the Palace. Specifically, one of the out-of-the-way cells. You might as well bring along his cane.” She turned to the sergeant that had come up behind her. “Take the rest of these to holding cells. Give them orders in my name.” Satisfied at her salute, she nodded to the agent, who sent himself, his Mistress, the Chief, and his second to the top of the path. I wonder if this one will give us any useful information.

As she looked up one last time at where the Avatar’s bison had disappeared, she noticed another, slower dark speck about to do the same. “Have some of my luck, brother. Use it and your new freedom wisely,” she muttered with a small smile.

***

“Why isn’t it going out? They said the Sun would be dark by now.” Zuko, much like his sister, was rather distraught at his continued ability to firebend after the Eclipse had been scheduled to start. Unfortunately, he was on a timetable. Even if the Eclipse was late, or if the whole “losing their firebending” thing was a myth, he needed to confront Ozai before he left, which needed to be before Azula unleashed the Dirigibles so he could sneak away as just one balloon among many. With that thought, he took a fortifying breath and entered the safe room.

As he walked the length of the room, he noticed something strange: his father blowing on his tea. It wasn’t necessarily the tea, him drinking it, or him cooling it that was the issue, but the exhaling. Whenever Zuko drank tea, he would always breathe in the steam to draw out the heat, the way a firebender is supposed to. Realizing that the Eclipse must have started if Ozai wasn’t firebending, Zuko let a tiny flame dance along his tongue, confirming that yes, he could still firebend. As he approached the line of non-bending guards, he took a fortifying breath, being very careful to avoid and flames escaping and giving himself away.

“Leave,” he ordered them, looking at the Fire Lord.

“You heard him,” Ozai said with a quizzical expression. “Coming for a private conversation in the middle of an eclipse, how interesting,” he said, setting his cup down when the door shut.

“There are some things I need to say and you need to hear. Things others shouldn’t listen in on.” Another breath. “First of all, the Avatar is alive.”

“What?!”

“You heard me. He’s been active in the Fire Nation since before Azula and I returned. He’s probably leading the invasion.”

“Get out,” Ozai growled, standing up. “By letting the Avatar live, you hav-

SIT DOWN!” Zuko thundered, drawing the dao swords on his back. Ozai found himself on the ground before he could think, which was disconcerting, to say the least. “You won’t have to worry about him today, since Azula only comes up with perfect plans.”

“No, I’ll only have to worry about you, with your swords, as I sit here helpless in an otherwise empty room.”

Zuko smirked. “Oh, I’m not going to kill you. What I’m going to do is destroy everything you value. First, I’m going to train the Avatar. Then, I’ll send him to kill you, and when he does, I’ll take your crown and your throne for myself and lead my people to be the shining example Sozin wanted us to be. He started this war to enlighten the peasants and barbarians and to bring to them the very prosperity we enjoy here. I shall turn this lie into truth, break the cycle you want me and Azula to perpetuate, and we shall have…peace. No longer will they hate us, nor will we deserve that hate the way we do now. They will be grateful to us for making their lives better rather than worse as they do now. But before any of that is possible, the Avatar must kill you.”

“Too afraid to strike down your own father, boy? Your uncle has gotten to you, hasn’t he?”

“That hypocritical, two-faced traitor had nothing to do with it. Besides, what would it accomplish? I’d only be following your example, which is one of the things I’ll actively try to avoid doing.”

Now it was Ozai’s turn to smirk. “You don’t think you already are?” At Zuko’s raised eyebrow, he continued. “You didn’t think I was foolish enough to get my own hands dirty, did you?”

“I’ll admit, I actually did. Maybe not directly, but there are plenty of poisons that could do the job.”

“And who was it that taught you that? It certainly wasn’t me.”

Zuko’s eyes widened. “Mother?”

“Of course. When we were younger, I saw a streak of viciousness in her that drew me to her. A potential suitor had gotten too bold and annoyed her, and next thing I hear he’s bedridden for a week. I had thought she would teach our children how to be that vicious, but all she taught you was how to be weak.”

“What exactly happened that night?”

“Well, my father, Fire Lord Azulon, had commanded me to do the unthinkable to you, my own son. And I was going to do it, but your mother found out and swore she would protect you at any cost. She knew my ambitions, so she came up with a plan that would have us both get what we want: my ascension to Fire Lord and your life. She knew what the consequences were for such treason and accepted them: banishment.”

“So she’s alive.”

“Perhaps. It has been five years, but I’m sure she knows how to take care of herself. But I now understand that banishment is far from a suitable punishment for such treason. Unlike your mother, you won’t leave here alive.”

He felt the barest traces of sunlight returning and was about to make good on his threat when his son spoke again, with tears running down his face and a voice that was more animalistic growl than what ought to come out of a human throat.

“For so long, all I wanted was for you to love me, to accept me, to even acknowledge me in a positive light. To please you. You, my father, who banished me for talking out of turn, who challenged a 13-year-old child to an Agni-Kai. But now I know better.” He looked up, golden irises glowing around the slits of his pupils. “I reject you. I renounce you as Fire Lord on the basis of abuse towards your citizens. I renounce you as Father, for your abuse towards your children. I renounce you as the husband of my mother, who denied her the opportunity to love her children and raise them as she saw fit.” He stood tall, golden flames covered in many colors dancing up and down his form, branching from his topknot like the Fire Lord’s crown, and pluming from his mouth and nose with every breath. “I am a Son of Agni. A Dragon. No, I am a Phoenix, rising from the ashes you sought to turn me into, from the ashes of your world, and reforging it anew in my own image. Goodbye, son of Azulon. You mean nothing to me now, for you are nothing.”

At that, Ozai summoned lightning almost faster than the eye could catch, shooting it at the one he used to call “son” just as quickly, but the young phoenix had trained with his sister who was even faster at this point. He allowed the momentum to carry him most of the way to the door before shooting it back at Ozai’s feet, disappearing before the man could regain his bearings.

***

It wasn’t any harder to sneak to his hiding spot than it was to hide the balloon in the first place. He had made sure to pack the essentials: a dozen identical outfits, enough jerky, water, and rations to last him until the Comet, enough gold coins to buy beachfront property on Ember Island, and maps of every part of the world, particularly the route the Comet Fleet would take.

It was similarly simple to join the swarm of balloons as they formed up and rise above them into the clouds and out of sight. With the old map plundered from an Air Temple long ago, he was able to flow with the jet stream to go faster than any other machine currently in existence. After a few minutes, he saw a familiar white shape pass by, far below him and still faster than his balloon.

Before Caldera could pass beyond his sight, he turned back one last time. “Stay lucky, sister. Try not to get too chained down,” he muttered with a smile.