Chapter One: Coronation
"Hail Fire Lord Azula!"
Katara watched as the ancient Fire Sage lifted the crest of the Fire Lord and slid it into Azula's hair. The movement looked fluid, but Katara had watched the metal supports braided into and then covered by Azula's hair, and she knew the crest had to be heavy.
Azula had said something about this being pure gold, versus the everyday one that was zinc. Katara didn't know why they didn't just start wearing crowns instead of those hairpieces. Zuko had stopped wearing his hair in a topknot except when in formalwear, something Katara overheard Ursa complaining about once. Azula went more often without, but 'more often' wasn't hard when she usually wore it every day.
Zuko didn't wear his Fire Lord hairpiece today, but he stood on the dais within touching distance of Azula. Apparently his hairpiece had sparked a few arguments between the royal siblings. Zuko wanted to stand with Azula to show he supported her, but he refused to wear his crest to undermine the fact that Azula was a fully-fledged Fire Lord. Azula disliked the thought of him not wearing his crest, 'as he was Fire Lord'; she'd said something about headless monarchs. Katara didn't really see how it mattered, but the Fire Nation was all about symbolism. And probably more about the fact that Zuko and Azula didn't know how to go a day without arguing with each other.
There were at least three painters at this event, but they were probably focusing on the blue dragon that was stretched along the eaves of Fire Sage temple. Rakka was fairly disinterested, but she was quiet and her bright eyes flickered across the courtyard. Occasionally she opened one wing to stretch it, prompting a few gasps from the onlookers. Katara was always fascinated to see the sparse veins that stretched through the soft membrane that spanned between the spines of her wings. Azula called them fingers.
Azula was probably pleased that her dragon gained as much attention as she did.
This courtyard was the place that Katara had defeated Azula, and now it was the place that Azula became Fire Lord. It would be the place they married here in the Fire Nation too. Katara liked the thought.
Ana had wanted to come. She'd seen them dressed up and had thrown a fit when she'd been left behind. On the way here, Azula had quietly said, "This is not something I want her to glorify."
Katara hadn't had time to comment. If Azula thought that not coming to this ceremony would keep Ana from wanting to mimic her, she was a fool. Ana wore sleeve-ties, she wanted her hair in a topknot, she wanted to wear Azula's makeup, and she wanted a hairpiece. She loved Azula, and seeing Azula wear new robes and a new hairpiece would mean she wanted to do exactly the same thing.
Maybe Ana would grow out of it. Probably not. That sparked a whole new set of worries about how disappointed Ana would be not to be able to firebend. So far she hadn't shown any aptitude for waterbending either. Not that Katara cared; she loved Ana as she was, and whether or not she was a bender was just a part of her. A Water Tribe princess of the Fire Nation… That was another set of unhappy worries that Katara pushed away.
Katara turned her attention back to Azula. She opened her sharp golden eyes and stood up. She looked huge standing next to the short, old Fire Sage. The robes were a lot heavier than what she usually wore, and with that crest on her head… Katara swallowed as she judged the fierce pride on Azula's face. She overshadowed Zuko right at that moment, even as she motioned for Zuko to stand beside her.
They looked so alike, despite Zuko's scar and Azula's makeup. The line of their jaws, the brightness of their eyes, and their glossy dark hair all folded into features that were handsome on Zuko and beautiful on Azula. The two Fire Nation sibling Fire Lords…fathered by different men. Katara didn't think that mattered in the least to them.
Azula's eyes found Katara's for a moment. Even with that foreign detachment on her face, Katara saw the woman she loved. Azula turned her eyes back to the crowd.
Unlike Zuko's coronation, this group was mainly Fire Nation. The ambassadors had all come though, including the jerk from Ba Sing Se who Katara didn't even like. Sokka, Katara, and Gran Gran were the Southern Water Tribe presence. Katara knew her father would have come, but she'd rather him make it for the wedding, an opinion that Azula shared. The biggest surprise appearance was Aang, who wore his full formal Air Tribe clothing and stood somberly to watch. He hadn't approached Katara, but he'd spoken quietly to Azula before the ceremony in full view of the watching crowd. Aang had smiled and bowed as he stepped away.
Now Azula folded her arms behind her and glanced across the courtyard. "I'm sure everyone expects a grandiose speech."
Katara didn't often think of what had happened five years ago anymore, but hearing Azula speak now… She managed to project her voice, but she wasn't hoarse. She'd been getting better and better, and Katara didn't think she'd had any of her opiate extract since the South Pole.
"I'm afraid I don't have time for speeches, and I'm sure most of you think this is a terrible idea. Thank you for coming anyway."
Just like that, Azula ended her own coronation on her terms.
Iroh laughed softly beside Katara. "That was unexpected."
Ursa heaved a dramatic sigh. "I swear, your daughter is impossible."
"I think she takes more after you, Ursa," Iroh said sagely. He smiled as soon as he said it, and Ursa only swatted him.
The crowd murmured in surprise as Azula and Zuko walked through them. Azula nodded to her parents and reached out to touch Katara's hand as she paused on her way to the waiting carriage. "I'll see you tonight. I'll try to be back before Ana goes to bed."
It had ceased to be an odd thought that Azula could be away all day even while still in the same building Katara was in. Katara brushed her finger over Azula's hand in reply. Azula turned and walked with Zuko to the open carriage awaiting them at the gates. The Dai Li and Royal Guards flanked the carriage, and the whole mass of them stepped out into the waiting crowds.
Katara had that to look forward to when they had their marriage ceremony here in a few months…or not look forward to at all.
"Hey, Aang," Sokka said. By his tone, it was more in warning for Katara.
She turned to him. Despite herself, she couldn't even summon much anger in the face of his obvious dejection. The stubborn part of herself wanted to hold everything against him forever, but she couldn't ignore the part she'd played in the entire mess. Not to mention Azula's part. Aang looked at her with quiet remorse, and despite herself, she felt a surge of guilt to match his. He said, "You don't have to say anything. I wanted to give you this." He handed her a letter. "I'm sorry. I can't say how sorry I am."
He nodded to Sokka, bowed to Iroh, and started at the fierce glare on Ursa's face.
"Are you going to read it?" Sokka asked her in the carriage.
Katara touched the paper folded in her sleeve. One thing these crazy robes did was provide plenty of places to hide things. Azula still liked to carry her dragon knife in her sleeve sometimes. It made Katara feel better about wearing her water bladder all the time.
"Maybe. Eventually. Not right now."
Aang had already done the right thing: he hadn't pushed. He'd come to support Azula and put the fish in Katara's figurative net. She was going to send him an invitation to the wedding, but she wasn't sure if she would write a personal note in that invitation or not.
Or perhaps she was just still pretending she wouldn't.
"Are there any more plans for today?" Kanna asked. She'd been surprisingly active while here, but she was a busy woman in the South Pole. There was a lot to see in Capital City, and Katara doubted she would return to the Fire Nation again.
"Azula said something about a performance tonight."
"No, not theater," Ursa interjected. "A kato drum performance. Not to my taste, but Azula has always loved them, even as a toddler."
This wasn't something Katara had heard of, despite Azula apparently enjoying it. "What is it?"
Ursa said, "Half-naked men and women beating on drums and firebending. If your ears don't ring when you leave, they've failed."
"I look forward to the half-naked women," Iroh said. Ursa pinched him.
Azula probably liked the half-naked women too. Katara wasn't sure how to feel about it.
'Half-naked' didn't do it justice. The men wore a piece of clothing that covered their privates connected together by a few pieces of string. Their butts were bare. The women wore that and something equally revealing across their breasts.
Katara stared. They were all oiled up too. They were all muscular and tanned by the sun. No wonder Iroh had been so anticipatory. Katara appreciated their shapes, but mostly in how they resembled Azula's hardened body. Katara's thoughts wandered to what Azula would look like tanned and oiled up…
Azula leaned close, bringing with her spicy scent and her delicious voice. It all got even more sensual with her quiet words, despite how mundane the words were. "These drums were created back in ancient times to lead the soldiers' march. A variety of beats signaled for the troupes to attack, withdraw, to press on, that allies or enemies were coming."
"Why the red paint?"
"To outline scars," Azula said quietly. "All of these men and women served."
To Azula, serving in the military was akin to becoming a responsible member of society, probably in the way that ice dodging or sitting on a whaling kayak defined respected tribe members in the South Pole. Katara had always thought the Fire Nation's love for war had started with Sozin. She'd been terribly wrong. From the bits and pieces Azula had given her about this country's history through the years, the Fire Nation's very foundation was of war. Even now in peacetime there were still little wars that took place in the capital, but they were political and social wars.
Katara loved Azula, and she trusted her not to be warmongering, but Katara had no doubt if someone launched an attack on the Fire Nation, Azula would be at the head of a fleet of warships to put that force down. And she wouldn't have any qualms about it either; Azula would relish in the opportunity.
What Katara feared most was Azula's characterization of war: that sacrifice and dignity came in the face of death. Katara would rather die in peace with her family nearby. But then again, Azula would be cremated and Katara would be given back to the sea.
It was not something they'd ever discussed, and back when Azula was closest to death, Katara hadn't let herself believe it would happen. She wondered now if they could reach a compromise with what would happen to their remains.
All these worries were making her morose.
Katara looked back at the man in front and center who was almost entirely red. He, like Azula, carried the majority of his scars on his left side. Azula might be as outlined as that man if she were made-up like him. It had taken years of being Azula's lover to find each irregularity of Azula's skin. For the most part her scars were small and difficult to spot, but they were numerous. The sad thing was, probably only a handful had come during the war. Most of them had come from Ozai.
The crouched men and women stood together and strode a few paces to their drums in a coordinated shift. There were lots of different sizes of drums, including one so huge that Katara had overlooked it as a piece of the stage.
They began to drum, flexing muscles and bringing up a burst of noise that thundered through her chest and brought tears to her eyes. At various moments in the deep, sonorous rhythm they pounded into their instruments, the men and women bellowed.
Katara felt the fierce spirit of the performance. This was war and battle, especially when the drummers dropped their heads back to give a bellow that also produced fire.
This was so Fire Nation, but it was beautiful.
The drummers pounded harder into a heady crescendo until finally the performance was almost too loud to hear at all. All of their heads were thrown back entirely, and they drummed without sight, bellowing fire more and more. The heat of the performance made Katara start sweating even up here in the royal balcony.
The leader, the red-painted scarred man, threw back his head. On the last thunderous note, he breathed a burst of blue fire.
It wasn't as bright as Azula's fire; it was almost clear instead of blue. The meaning was certain: he was honoring Azula. Or Katara thought so. Azula could take offense to the strangest things sometimes.
In the silence that echoed after the burst of the performance, Katara's first breath came in a gasp. All of the lamps had been brought down just before the drummers started their performance, and now the entire theater sat in darkness.
And then, the drummers started again.
Four times they built up to a crescendo that ended with a heavy thunderous rumble and a burst of blue fire breathed from the leader.
Katara itched at the unlucky number, but the Fire Nation loved the number that designated death. The Fire Nation loved the act of dying well. When other cultures did what they could to avoid that number, the Fire Nation relished it.
They sat in powerful dark silence for a long few minutes before the drummers began to chant. This time they did not beat drums, and they did not breathe fire. Instead, the lamps were slowly raised, and the stage was bathed in soft light. The drummers stood up on stage. They were all sweating through the strange oil they'd been slicked in, and their muscles were bunched and defined after their exertion. Katara noticed that their abdominal muscles flexed and swelled with each breath. Like Azula, these people breathed from their diaphragm, not their ribs.
They lifted their arms and bowed in a final coordinated move.
Finally the audience applauded.
Katara had been wrong. They had one more shift. The performers shifted on one heel, moved their hands into the fist below the fist, and bowed to the royal box.
Azula stood up, folded her arms behind her back, and lowered her head in the half-nod she used to bow. Immediately the audience was on its feet. Katara couldn't tell if they were applauding the drummers or Azula now. She glanced over at the other people in their box. They didn't rise so Katara didn't either.
Was this some sort of weird etiquette thing she was blind to?
After some amount of time, Azula sat back down. Applause continued, but Azula paid them no mind. She met Katara's eyes; by the gentle softness of her face, she was happy with the performance. "Did you enjoy it?"
"I'm not sure 'enjoy' is the right word. That was moving. Why were they oiled up?"
Azula smiled, and it was a real smile given the twitch of her right ear. "It's not oil. It's a fire retardant."
"Oh." That was pretty safety-conscious, almost too much so to be realistic for the Fire Nation. Azula seemed to guess her incredulity. She explained, "These men and women are artisans. This is their life's work, and one injury could wreck their entire season."
Katara felt childish to ask, "How long do we have to stay?"
"We don't have to stay. Are you tired?"
She was, but mainly Katara wanted Azula all to herself, something she hadn't had all day. Azula had been gone when she'd woken up, probably training earlier than Katara ever wanted to wake up. Azula had come back to their apartment and they were rushed and primped for the coronation, and then she'd come back that night just in time to kiss Ana goodnight and change her clothing for this performance.
And the performance made Katara feel so alien.
"It's been a long day."
Just like that, they were on their way home.
In the carriage, Azula closed the privacy screen and settled close to Katara to wrap her arm around her shoulders. She sighed as she leaned against Katara's ear. Apparently Katara wasn't the only tired one.
"How do you feel?"
"I have a headache from the hairpiece," Azula said dryly.
"Can you do it? You and Zuko I mean?"
"Certainly, but given such a thing has never been done before… It will be difficult to wangle."
Katara lifted her head; she was completely diverted. "To what?"
Azula didn't lift her head. "Wangle. Obtain, usually by engineering events."
Katara giggled. Azula sighed heavily on her shoulder. That particular sigh heralded an exaggerated eye-roll.
"What?!" Katara gasped. "It's a really funny sounding word."
It sort of reminded her of the uncomfortable process of inseminating Azula. No matter how uncomfortable though, Katara felt a queer shiver of ownership that she'd been the person to do it.
Both of them had been surprised to see Sokka in their den a week ago. It didn't take long to realize he'd come as much about the dragon and Aang's actions as their request. He'd had good timing though. Azula had been in her fertile days; she had a surprisingly regular cycle despite her heavy workouts. They'd gotten three sessions in, but it didn't seem like they would manage any more until next month. Sokka had left after the coronation that afternoon, but he promised to be back early for the wedding so they would try again then…if they needed to.
Katara rubbed a gentle circle just above Azula's pubic bone. There was no softness there, only hard muscle. She'd lost what little fat she'd had since she'd started firebending again. Azula had never carried much to begin with, but now her abdominal muscles were in sharp relief. "Did you eat today?"
"I'm not a child—" Azula pursed her lips at the warning look on Katara's face. "Yes. I ate three full meals."
Katara kissed those pouting lips, and Azula cupped the back of her neck to hold her still and draw out that kiss. Oh… Someone was eager to get back.
By the time they got to the palace, Azula was panting against her neck. They detangled and stepped out of the carriage. Katara hoped her desires weren't plain on her face. At least the palace was dim this time of night.
When they stepped into their apartment, Katara reached out to take Azula's hand and pull her into their bedroom. Katara was only thinking about Azula's mouth right now: her lips and teeth and tongue. She was going to put that mouth to good use, maybe with Azula still wearing that hairpiece and nothing else. The thought alone made Katara shiver.
A small, surprising voice gasped, "Azuwa!"
Azula and Katara turned. Ana ran out of their bedroom. They stopped and stared at the little girl standing in their sitting room. Even in the dim light of the room, Katara could tell Ana was covered in makeup. She'd smeared lipstick all over her chin and mouth, and she had eye-stain across her cheeks. Katara wasn't sure what to think for a moment.
Ana was supposed to be asleep in her newly converted bedroom. By the darkness of Gran Gran's room, she was asleep. Had Azula's staff not realized what had happened? As if on cue, Azula's majordomo stepped into the room, gave a gasp of horror and quickly retreated.
Katara glanced at Azula. She was silent, looking at Ana expressionlessly.
"Ana… You should be asleep."
"Am I pretty?" she asked with a big grin. Her teeth were stained red too.
"You're beautiful," Azula said gently, accepting Ana's hug. "But Fire Nation princesses should wipe their faces clean before they go to bed. Why don't you let your mother do that so you can sleep like you're supposed to be doing?"
After Katara cleaned Ana's face and changed her clothes—she'd gotten makeup all over her clothes too—she put Ana to bed and ventured to their bedroom. Azula's hairpiece had been tossed carelessly on the bed. Katara picked it up for fear of one of them sitting on it. She pricked a finger on one sharp edge experimentally. Yep, that would hurt. Maybe it was better they hadn't tried out her little fantasy.
She glanced around to see Azula was leaning over her vanity. Katara gasped. Every carefully kept makeup container on its surface was completely destroyed. There was makeup everywhere.
Azula's shoulders were shaking.
Was she angry?
Katara put her hand on Azula's shoulder, and when Azula shifted, Katara realized she was laughing. She was laughing silently in a way she rarely did. Azula pointed to the mirror. Katara glanced up and started at the sight of herself. Her neck and face were covered in lipstick. When Azula lifted her head, she looked similarly disheveled.
Azula gasped, "We look just like Ana!"
Katara started giggling. Azula grabbed onto Katara's sleeve and buried her face against Katara's shoulder, silently laughing…too hard to say anything else apparently. "She…"
"I don't think I've ever seen you laugh this hard," Katara pointed out. She was giggling more from Azula's merriment than her own amusement. In fact, she was a little embarrassed by the fact she looked like Azula had attacked her with makeup. She pulled away to wet a small towel to wipe her neck and face clean.
Azula took big breaths, and her laughter eased into giggles. "Oh… I'm not sure I have."
"You need to kiss her goodnight."
"I know. I'm just…" Azula cleared her throat and carefully wiped her eyes—not that there was much point given the lipstick smeared across her jaw. Katara reached out with the wet towel to wipe Azula's face clean. Azula smirked into that towel. "I'm a little afraid I'm going to laugh."
"What's the matter with that?" It was going to be hard to scold Ana for this, despite the enormous mess she'd made.
"Makeup is not a toy. That lip-stain is special ordered; it will take weeks before I can get more delivered." Then Azula's lips started to twitch. Katara kissed her gently.
Miza saw to Azula's hair, a few more staff members came to clean up the makeup mess, and Azula soon after left the room to say goodnight to Ana and returned a few minutes later. Katara managed to dismiss Miza, who was finally learning that Katara didn't like another person hovering around her bedroom. She released her hair, tossed her hairpiece on the vanity, and gathered her hair into a much more comfortable loose wolftail at her neck. Katara changed into her sleeping robe and walked out on the balcony to give Rakka a rub. It seemed to discourage a nighttime visit from the giant dragon that still coveted their bed.
She stopped, stared, and called out, "Azula!"
Azula spoke from within the room. "What?" She walked through the bedroom and said, "We should commission some clear lip balm for Ana. That might satiate her need to use my ma—"
Azula stood beside Katara and stared at her dragon speechlessly.
Rakka had pink lipstick smeared across her snout, and her furry face had a dusting of powder. Ana must have climbed on her to do this. Katara warred between wanting to laugh and being horrified that Ana had been climbing on the balcony like this. They'd put up high railings and screened in the gaps between the rails, but if Rakka had decided to fly away from the assault of makeup or if she decided to retaliate…
Katara had a few shivers of fear even though she'd witnessed how gentle Rakka could be.
Azula apparently didn't have the same thought. She started to laugh again. She didn't stop for a long time, even as they both carefully cleaned Rakka's face. At odd intervals she started giggling in bed that night, even when they were making love. Katara could already tell she would be the one who would have to sit down and have a talk about not playing with Azula's stuff. Or being on the balcony without adult supervision. Or climbing on a dragon.
Katara sighed and was nearly asleep when Azula began to laugh again.
Note: How many years has it been? Anyway, this story is a quiet little thing, more slice of life than actual plot. Katara POV—harder to put on than Azula, I have to say. Not sure what that says about me. Around 35k words total right now. Who knows what the editing process will add? Hoping to upload chapters one week at a time because I usually spend so much time/effort editing.