Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar. I'm merely borrowing Mike and Bryan's phenomenal characters and bending them to my will.

Thanks: To easilydistracted and satyuros, who both took time out of their busy schedules to beta this fic. Your help has been invaluable to me.

A/N: Though this fic is rated M, it is almost entirely T except for a few scenes. But I didn't feel right rating it less so…yeah… Also, JianJun is not a made up character. I just decided to give a name to that head Dai Li guy, lol.

2nd A/N: This story follows the same universe as my previous stories and they fall in this order:

The Avatar and the Firelord, A Week with the Bei Fongs, The Value of Sharing, An Auspicious Beginning, Coming of Age, Comedy of Errors and finally The First Night. This story takes place a few days after The First Night. Hopefully, that helps and eases any confusion you guys might have. Sorry I wasn't more clear about that. (I always forget to make a note about that kind of stuff.)


Prologue

Solitude could sharpen the mind.

Azula learned that rather surprising truth during her first years of incarceration at Donghai Aiguo, a maximum security mental facility on a small, remote island off the Fire Nation coast. Her white-walled room was simply adorned, but comfortable with its wide, feather bed positioned upon a low dais, a small sofa facing the seaside balcony and a calligraphy desk made of dark, gleaming wood. There were plenty of windows covered with gossamer curtains to capture the brilliant ribbons of sunlight that filtered in over the mountaintops. Even the standard garb she wore was breezy and stylish, with gold threading around the collar and the sleeves. The room, the clothing…the entire facility itself was beautiful, quaint and elegant. However, Azula wasn't fooled by the holiday-like atmosphere. She knew exactly where she was and why.

Six long, bitter years had passed since her unbending. Cruel, thankless years and yet the memory of that day had not dimmed for her. With each new day, the reality that she could not bend, and would never bend again, reasserted itself. Azula could still smell the acrid smoke that had choked the air that night, the rush of adrenaline pounding in her veins. If she closed her eyes, she could still feel the Avatar's potent energy pulsating through her body. For that brief, stunning moment they had been one, fused in an unfathomable, exhilarating way. Azula had felt omnipotent, drunk with power and ability and then, without warning, she had been left empty, bereft.

Only later, when the haziness had cleared from her mind, did she have an acute understanding of what had occurred. Her bending had been stripped. She recalled how the Avatar had knelt beside her afterwards, saying nothing and surveying her with a stare full of pity and resolve. The flood of hatred she'd felt for him then had made her physically ill. She had curled herself into a ball and shaken with the force of it.

The months that followed were a blur. She'd had no will to eat, to bathe, to even lift her head from her pillow. Her days dragged on endlessly and her nights were plagued with gruesome nightmares. There had been no peace for her. She had wanted to die. She had craved death back then. It was then, when she was at her lowest, her most desolate, that JianJun came to her. That he had retained his loyalty for her, even after she had callously banished him and his cohorts from the Fire Nation, touched something deep and protected within Azula. Even when she had given the Dai Li every reason to abandon her, they had not. Though she was unable to express it, Azula was grateful.

Under normal circumstances, Azula did not have many visitors. Her devoted older brother had seen to that. The Firelord had astutely ordered that all her visitors be screened by him personally before being allowed access to the princess. Thusly, no one saw her without his strict approval. In the early years, she had received only four regular visitors to her small, pristine room: her mother, her uncle, her brother and occasionally the Avatar. Over time, those visitors dwindled down to only one, officially anyway. Azula was hardly bothered by that fact, however. She could do without her brother's constant judgment, her uncle's ridiculous anecdotes and the Avatar's unfailing "encouragement." They bored her. Besides, her brother's list hardly proved to be a stumbling block for her. As she had for most of her life, Azula did what she pleased, when she pleased.

"Princess?" Azula turned away from her view of the crashing ocean waves on the rocky cliffs below at the respectful knock that sounded at her door. She pivoted slightly to regard the attendant with raised brows as he timidly poked his head through the small opening he had made. "Lunch is being served now," he said. "Shall I bring in your tray?"

"I should like to eat on the beach today," Azula decided with a sigh. "Take my tray down to the courtyard and have my bow waiting for me when I arrive."

"Very good, Princess," the attendant agreed with a respectful nod. "Shall I have Master JianJun join you there?"

"You shall," she agreed.

As she made her way down to the courtyard, dressed in the standard garb of a red, loose shirt and trousers, unfettered and without a single guard flanking, Princess Azula received nothing more than cordial nods and well-wishes from the staff. Other patients, raving and panicked, were escorted through the gleaming corridors in tight bindings and sometimes under the influence of powerful sedatives. Azula, on the other hand, roamed where she wanted. It should have been alarming, at the very least, that the princess, a dangerous and disturbed patient, should be wandering the halls freely, as if without a single care and yet…no one batted an eyelash.

When Azula entered the courtyard, JianJun was waiting for her. He wore a deep, red cloak which concealed the green and black robes with their Dai Li insignia beneath the heavy fabric, his long, dark hair secured to the crown of his skull in a smart top knot. He looked to all the world like a typical, Fire Nation citizen. Azula smirked when she considered just how deceiving looks could be because JianJun was anything but a typical Fire Nation citizen.

"Hello, JianJun," she greeted, extending her hands forward for his dutiful kiss.

"Princess," he murmured with a respectful bow. "You are doing well, I trust."

"Very well," she replied when he straightened. "I'm disappointed, however. I expected you sooner."

"There were unexpected complications," JianJun explained as he led her over to an unoccupied bench overlooking the ocean. On the table alongside it, her lunch and crossbow waited. "Your mother was here when I arrived. I thought it best to keep out of sight until she was gone."

At the mention of her mother, some of Azula's good humor faded and her lips quirked in a sullen pout. She picked at her meal disinterestedly before shoving the platter away altogether. "Yes, she made a special trip today," she replied with a snort of disgust. "She wanted to share the good news with me in person. Apparently, I'm an aunt now. My brother has recently become a father…to twin boys."

"I had heard that," JianJun murmured.

"Hmm…a prestigious title, the adoration of his people, a doting mother, a dutiful wife and now two perfect sons." As Azula enumerated her brother's many blessings, she stroked her fingers along the smooth, bamboo lines of her crossbow. "More happiness for Zuzu. How delightful," she quipped lightly, though there was nothing akin to joy in her tone when she said it.

"And the Avatar…he recently married, did he not?" JianJun inquired carefully.

"Yes, he did," Azula confirmed. "To his precious, little waterbender. He and Zuzu continue to go along with their happy, insipid little lives while I sit here day after day, month after month, year after and year and rot."

"You know you can walk away whenever you choose, Princess," JianJun informed her softly.

In a flurry of motion, Azula leapt from the bench and swept up her crossbow, loading the steel tipped arrows with deft and fluid fingers. She aimed at the target she'd had her attendants erect for her months ago and fired off the shots in rapid succession, splitting the arrows apart with each new shot. She emptied her weapon in a matter of seconds, not having missed her target once. Without the benefit of her command, a servant materialized to remove the destroyed arrows before scuttling over to replace her spent ammunition. Azula barely spared him a glance as she reloaded her weapon and began firing again.

Unsurprisingly, she hit her target with fluid ease. Her dexterity with the crossbow was almost a beautiful thing in its chilling precision. She handled the weapon like an extension of her own body and it was amazing and fearsome that she was as deadly with the crossbow as she had been with her firebending.

"Your aim is flawless," JianJun commended. "You are so graceful and quick. I have never seen anything like it."

"I'm not perfect by any means," Azula told him, giving her head a haughty toss. "That will come with more practice. Lucky for me, there's little else to do in this place besides train."

"And they give you no trouble?" JianJun asked.

Azula flicked him with a cold smile. "No trouble at all. You and your fellow agents have been very thorough at what you do. I almost believe sometimes I'm at home in the palace myself, they treat me so well. You've made my stay here…almost bearable."

"If I am thorough, it is for you, Princess," JianJun replied with quiet sincerity.

It was on the tip of her tongue to snap at him for his sentimental foolishness, but Azula held her tongue. She knew he fancied himself in love with her, but Azula had no time for such nonsense and even less patience. She had always believed women to be the clingier sex, but JianJun had destroyed that notion in a matter of months. If she didn't know better she'd actually believe he expected them to be together always.

Azula almost snorted aloud at the idea. However, despite the minor annoyance he caused her, she recognized that JianJun was still of some use to her. She would not risk alienating him, not when her plan was finally beginning to take shape, not when she was so close to victory she could taste it. "Have you been watching him closely?" she asked the Dai Li agent as she returned her attention to her crossbow training.

JianJun nodded his confirmation, watching with infatuated eyes as Azula fired off another round of arrows. The whizzing sound her missiles made as they split the air was almost musical to him. "My sources tell me that the Avatar plans to remain in the Fire Nation indefinitely…at your brother's behest."

"I'm not surprised," Azula scoffed, more to herself than JianJun. "They have no idea what's coming, do they?"

"As far as they are concerned, the world is at peace," JianJun said.

"Because they are at peace," Azula sneered with a scornful laugh. "They consider themselves to be the greatest friends of all time, did you know that? Of course, they're arrogant enough to believe their bond has united the world. I'm going to enjoy systematically destroying everything that matters to them. It's a good thing that the Avatar is staying with us here in the Fire Nation. That makes my plan all the easier to execute."

"We have the perfect place to keep him secure and hidden, Princess," JianJun said. "No one will think to look for him there. The irony is, when they do begin to look for him, he'll be right under their noses."

"Very good work, JianJun," Azula commended. "I always did like making a fool out of Zuzu. It's not necessary, but it is entertaining nonetheless."

"I wish nothing but to please you, Princess," JianJun murmured deferentially, glowing inwardly over her rarely bestowed commendation.

"Now there are only a few more pieces of this puzzle I must put into place first and only then will we make our move. I cannot afford any loose ends this time."

"Princess, you could take him now if you wish it," JianJun assured her fervently. "You have more than enough support. And with the Avat—,"

"NO!" Azula snapped, whipping to face him so swiftly that it took him a moment to process the fact that her crossbow was aimed directly between his eyes. For a breathless second, JianJun was unsure of her plans. He swallowed audibly when Azula very slowly, very deliberately lowered her weapon. "Everything must happen in its proper time," she explained softly. "I made the mistake of acting rashly before and leading with my emotions and my shortsightedness cost me my freedom and my bending. I will never make that mistake again."

"But don't you wish to be free?" JianJun reasoned carefully, biting back the question he truly wanted to ask her. "Don't you wish to make your enemies suffer as you have suffered?"

"Oh, they will suffer," Azula vowed with a confident laugh. "But it will happen according to plan. It's not enough to merely annihilate the Avatar. It's not even enough to vanquish my brother and strip him of the crown. I want the Fire Nation…the entire world at my feet. The Earth Kingdom provinces are primed for rebellion and I must capitalize on that. I will need to raise an army. I will need Long Feng." She raised decisive eyes to JianJun. "You must make that happen for me. Convince him that he has the Dai Li's loyalty, liberate him from prison and then make him get me what I want."

"I will do as you ask," JianJun complied. "But, please know this, Princess…no matter how it seems, the Dai Li will always remain loyal to you. I remain loyal."

"I wouldn't expect anything less from you." Azula smirked at him and reached over to pluck a plump grape from her plate and pop the succulent morsel into her mouth. She was acutely aware of the avid attention JianJun paid to her lips as she chewed and she took intense satisfaction in his mesmerized stare. He nearly expelled a loud, shuddering sigh when she finally uttered the words he had been waiting to hear since she had joined him in the courtyard.

"You may kiss me now, JianJun," Azula granted him softly.

"Thank you, Princess," he whispered before settling his lips to hers.

Though her mouth and body were unbelievably warm and pliant as JianJun pulled her into his arms for an ardent and unrestrained kiss and Azula responded to him, her amber colored eyes remained open and as cold and unyielding as ever.