Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar! *cries*

Author's Note: Yay! Another chapter! It's terribly late, but please…Read and review anyway!


CHAPTHER THREE: THE MASQUERADE


Zuko peeked through the curtain that separated his lonely corridor from the grand ball room. He watched silently, like a hawk perched upon a lofty tree, as the first guests began to file in. The Fire Nation Prince sighed heavily.

Tonight was the night of the Royal Masquerade Ball. Despite all his hoping and praying, the night that had terrified him so much the last few days had swooped upon him. Now he was busy praying that this time would pass quickly and that he could resume his role of a respectable Prince of the Fire Nation instead of parading about ridiculously at a dance. As he watched more guests enter the giant chamber and the last servants hastily prepare for the event, Zuko suddenly found that scene growing and shifting in front of him incredibly boring and snapped shut the curtain.

The Prince stalked up the corridor to the royal dressing rooms, where Azula was standing statuesquely on a short stood while several seamstresses and servants fluttered about her like flies. Every once in a while the Princess would swat one of them away and bark out orders for them to busy themselves elsewhere. As the bodies shuffled around her, working to complete her elaborate costume in time, Azula noticed the shadow of her brother reflecting on the mirror. She turned her head and glanced at him over her shoulder.

"Zuko, you're already dressed! I'm so pleased to see you're excited for the Masquerade," she marveled sarcastically.

Zuko looked down at his gleaming gold costume. He'd made sure to dress early because he'd known that Azula would occupy the entire dressing room for some time with her own costume. His eyes flickered towards his reflection in the mirror, and once again the Prince had to look twice to remind himself that the golden likeness there was actually himself. He was still too proud to admit to his sister that he'd actually grown somewhat fond of the way he looked in his magnificent golden armor. To mask his feelings, Zuko hastily clamped his mask over his face and head, and then scowled at his sister.

"You know that I'm not excited in the least, Azula." He insisted, leaning up against the wall next to the dressing room door.

The Prince's voice had some bite in it, and Azula sensed it and shot him a dagger-like stare. Zuko returned it a thousand times sharper, but then the Princess smiled slyly at him. She swatted the last of the servants away from her and gracefully stepped down from her lofty perch and sauntered towards her sulking brother.

"You never know—maybe you'll be asked to dance," she teased. "I know how much you like dancing."

Zuko threw another sharp glance at his sister. "I might hate dancing, but at least I'm good at it," he muttered in protest.

Azula rolled her eyes, then turned around and leaned close to one of the many tall mirrors in the room, inspecting her make up. When she found that it was to her satisfaction, she leaned back and rolled her eyes at Zuko one more time.

"It figures that the one thing you hate most is the only thing you're better than me at doing," she sighed heavily. "Well, shall we?"

Zuko reluctantly nodded and moved to trod out the door towards the ball room, when suddenly a brightly-clad, masked figure burst in. This one was followed by a much bigger, bulkier, and uglier body. The Prince blinked as the first figure skipped merrily up to a semi-surprised Azula and waved enthusiastically in the Princess's face.

"Azula! Guess who?"

From behind the mask came the delighted voice that both royal siblings recognized, but the person hiding behind it didn't give either one of them a chance to react. The beaming face of Ty Lee emerged from behind the mask, and she smiled towards her friend.

Azula smiled a small smile. "Ty Lee—it's great to see you. But isn't the point of a masquerade to conceal your identity?"

"Oh, I would never want to conceal my identity from you, Azula!" Chirped the other girl. "Besides, you're so smart—you'd probably figure out it was me in no time!"

"Ah. I see," Azula blinked at the oafish counterpart that had followed Ty Lee into the room. "Who's that?"

Ty Lee immediately twirled and fluttered beside the larger figure, who took off his mask. It was a boy that neither Azula or Zuko could recognize, but he had a strong, chiseled, overly-handsome face and muscles bulging from underneath his costume. Ty Lee pawed at the boy's arm affectionately.

"This is Qin. He's my date!" The excited girl held up her mask and encouraged Qin to display his as well. "Guess what we're going as?"

Zuko rolled his eyes from behind the happy couple while Azula carefully studied their costumes. The Princess held her hand up to her lips as her dangerously narrowed eyes darted from Ty Lee to Qin and back again.

Ty Lee was wearing a very pink, very controversial dress. It featured a low collar that showed a considerable amount of the young woman's ample cleavage, and from his position, Zuko could see her date oogling at it hungrily. The back of the girl's dress was cut even lower, adding to the costume's promiscuity. The gown extended gracefully to the floor, with a small slit stretching from the hem to just above Ty Lee's knees, giving her a chance to show off more than just her chest. Her mask was a delicate porcelain face of a beautiful young lady, with blushed cheeks and plush red lips.

Ty Lee's counterpart was her opposite in costume as well as in bulk. Qin's costume consisted mostly of scraps of browned, aged fabric and fur bits sewn together to form a modest tunic and pants. His mask was a grotesquely carved, monstrous-looking thing, with a gaping mouth complete with ivory fangs jutting out from the jaw. Matching horns protruded from the mask's brow, giving Qin the overall appearance of some massive beast.

The idea flickered in Zuko's mind like dim candlelight, but he went ahead and let what he was thinking roll off his tongue for once.

"You're Beauty and the Beast," he concluded, remembering the popular fairy tale, and both Ty Lee and Qin spun around to regard him.

Ty Lee peeked out from behind her mask and blinked at the Prince. "Wow, Zuko—you're pretty good! That's right!"

Zuko's gaze wavered momentarily past the excited girl and her muscle-bound companion towards his sister, who was glaring at him—obviously angered that he'd guessed their friend's disguise before she had. Zuko offered her a small smirk in return.

When he looked back at Ty Lee, she'd suddenly closed in on him and was busy admiring the costume he was wearing. "Wow—" she said in awe. "Zuko, you look so handsome! Your costume is amazing—but what are you?"

"The Sun," Zuko muttered, unimpressed by his own choice. The costume looked better than it sounded, but Ty Lee clasped her hands together in delight.

"The Sun! Of course!" cried the girl. "Wow—but—where's Mai?"

"Mai didn't want to come," Azula informed her friend matter-of-factly, successfully regaining the attention away from Zuko. "She doesn't like things like this."

Ty Lee's beaming smile momentarily wavered. "Oh, well that's too bad." She whirled around to face Zuko once more. "But I'm sure you'll get plenty of girls asking you to dance in that costume, Zuko!"

The Prince blinked in surprise as the pink-clad girl grinned widely and then went on admiring Azula's dark, terrifying outfit, attempting to figure out what it was. Sure—Zuko had admitted to himself that he looked pretty good in this shining armor, and even his sister had admitted the same thing—but now he was suddenly dashing enough for girls to want to ask him to dance? And plenty of them? Zuko might have seriously underestimated his appearance.

But that was coming from Ty Lee, he reminded himself silently. She's honest enough, but she's also not the brightest flame in the fire.

The Prince turned his thoughts and his eyes back to the three figures in front of him, watching them interact intently.

"Wow, Azula!" exclaimed Ty Lee once more. "You look beautiful and elegant, but also scary in a good way!"

"Thank you," replied the Princess. "I'm going as War."

"War? Ooooh…"

"Zuko was a poor sport and didn't want to be my opposite as Peace," Azula added, flashing a white, evil grin at her brother from across the room.

Zuko's eyes flared in annoyance. "That costume was stupid," he defended, crossing his arms as best as he could with the large, metal gauntlets covering his forearms. "Besides, I seem to be getting a lot of compliments on my choice of costume."

Azula frowned at him and then rolled her eyes, choosing to ignore his remark. "Well, then—come on! The masquerade will start without us."

She waved Ty Lee and her giant date out of the dressing room with her hands, as if she were herding some sort of animal. Glancing at Zuko, she gestured for him to follow behind the three of them, and the group of Fire Nation youths placed their masks firmly in place and walked briskly down the brightly lit corridor towards the royal ball room. Azula threw back the curtain dramatically, revealing her terrifyingly beautiful visage to those already inside. The Princess casually reached inside her wide, red obi belt and pulled a large fan. She fluttered it gently; the feathers poking out from her piled hair waved in the gentle breeze.

Ty Lee and Qin stepped gingerly through the door, and took in their surroundings. Candles were everywhere—set atop the tables piled high with food, hung from chandeliers high above the dance floor, and displayed atop delicate brass candelabras set in various places around the room. The entire room seemed to flicker like one collective flame. The mood was perfect for a dance filled with a host of mysterious masked people. Ty Lee gasped in delight and quickly pulled her date onto the floor as the first song was struck up by the band, hidden in the corner. Only the lead singer was visible in the dim light.

Zuko stepped out last, and reluctantly. His eyes flickered thoughtfully about him, and he observed the multitude of bodies already festively dancing. Various others were gathered near the tables full of food; still more were still entering through the main entrance of the Fire Nation Palace. All of them were clad in elaborate costumes from head to foot, complete with masks. The Prince frowned and wondered where his place would be for the remainder of the night.

He felt a hand on his shoulder suddenly, and spun around to face his sister.

For once, Azula offered Zuko a smile that was half-genuine. "Hey," she told him with very little venom poisoning her voice. "Try and enjoy yourself, okay?"

Zuko didn't answer, but nodded slowly. He watched as the first of Azula's admirers climbed the staircase to the platform they stood upon, bravely touched the Princess's arm, and asked her shyly for a dance. His sister turned and regarded the boy curiously—he was dressed as a warrior of some sort—and seemed to approve and accept his advance. She took his arm and lead him away, leaving Zuko alone.

The Prince was tempted to spin around, take a few steps, and retreat back into the safety and comfort behind the curtain and into the corridors beyond. But instead he descended the staircase, his eyes flickering left and right, searching for someplace dark to lurk until he worked up the courage to talk to someone. Zuko desperately wished that Mai had agreed to come with him, and he felt a twinge of anger fester in his heart at her refusal to accompany him. He wouldn't be in this predicament—alone at one of the largest social events of the year—if it weren't for her refusal.

Frowning, Zuko stomped across the dance floor to a place that was hidden from the flickering light of the candles—where his glittering costume wouldn't draw too much attention—and where he could watch the party unfold without disturbance.

It was going to be a long night.


"I can't believe we're about to infiltrate the Fire Nation Palace dressed as a Pauper, the Moon, and—well—whatever Sokka is."

"I'm Happy and Sad, for the last time already!"

Katara watched and rolled her eyes as the two boys squabbled in front of her. Finally, she got sick of it, and swatted the two boys apart with her hands. "Listen, you guys—don't make a scene, alright! I'm already nervous about doing this."

The three teenagers were waiting across the courtyard from the Fire Nation Palace, watching as other, small dark figures crossed in front of them towards the large, open, and inviting door at the front of the palace. They were all fully dressed, only daring to peek out from behind their masks to speak to one another. Katara was excited at first, but as soon as the Fire Nation Palace came into view her anxiousness had sprung to life—and she began to wonder if this was actually a good idea. But there was no turning back now—especially with an over-excited Sokka egging her on.

"Katara, relax! Whose going to recognize us?" Sokka said casually, waving his hand and placing his mask over his face. "We're perfectly safe."

"Yeah, but what about Azula and Zuko?" Aang echoed Katara's worrisome thoughts. "They live in the Fire Nation Palace; don't you think they'd attend their own dance? What if the Fire Lord himself is there?"

"Then Katara should ask him for a dance," Sokka jeered, laughing as his sister's jaw dropped. "Listen, you two—Aang is still safe because the world still believes that he's dead. No one will be looking for him. As for Katara and I, we'll be masked, in costume, and mingling among hundreds of other guests—what are the chances that they'd discover us?"

Katara eyed her brother curiously, and then frowned. "You know," she said matter-of-factly. "For a guy who was dead set against this plan when we first mentioned it, you're awfully excited about it now."

"It grew on me," Sokka replied briefly, shrugging his black and white shoulders.

Aang leaned over and whispered playfully in Katara's ear. "I think he means that the idea of dancing with a bunch of girls grew on him," he said, and the waterbender giggled, a sound that was rewarding to the young Avatar.

"Come on, let's go!" Sokka urged, stepping forward into the courtyard and gesturing for Aang and Katara to follow him. "The more time we spend at the dance, the longer we have to observe the Fire Lord's surroundings."

"And the more time he can spend gawking at pretty girls," Katara whispered to Aang.

The two benders laughed, then obediently followed the older boy across the courtyard. They crossed through the cobblestone paths and avoided stepping through the gardens that bloomed with various types of flowers and sweet-smelling plants. Katara sucked in the perfumed air and watched as the glowing orange outline of the open palace door grew nearer. Finally, the trio reached the palace entrance and was joined by several other elaborately-dressed guests and a pair of Fire Nation guards.

"Tickets please," one of the guards requested as Katara, Aang, and Sokka stepped close to the door.

Katara stared up at the face hidden by that terrifyingly familiar masked helmet. It was so strange hearing a polite, friendly request come from inside that mask when the three had been chased, captured, or otherwise by others dressed exactly the same. The waterbender reminded herself that all three of them were wearing masks and were unrecognizable to the firebending guards. She smiled kindly and handed the guard their three tickets.

The guard inspected each ticket closely, then nodded in approval. "The Fire Lord and his family welcome you," he said warmly as the three teens stepped inside the ball room.

Instantly, Katara's breath was taken away by the sheer beauty and vastness of the space. The entire, huge room was lit with candles—shadows flickered and danced everywhere—among the large stone pillars surrounding the dance floor, in doorways, and among the dancers. Music was playing in the background and echoed against the high ceiling and immense stone walls. Accenting the room were subtle details identifying it as Fire Nation—the Fire Nation insignia carved into the crown molding at every corner, the huge tapestries displayed on the far wall depicting past Fire Lords, and the characteristic color palette of reds, crimsons, and maroons.

"Wow," Aang said quietly, as he gazed up in wonder at the high ceiling. "It's actually beautiful."

"Aang, don't say that!" Sokka hissed. "This is where the meanest man on the planet grew up!"

"Obviously it didn't have to do with the decorating, Sokka." Katara cut in, crossing her arms in front of her chest disapprovingly. "Don't you have dozens of ladies to check out now that you're here?"

"Stop it!"

Aang laughed. "Good one, Katara!"

Katara smiled heartily, and Sokka wrung and arm around each bender's neck gently, pulling them group into a sort of huddle. "Okay, despite what Katara thinks I'm still here to get an edge on the Fire Lord. We need to be looking for doors, windows, or other entrances that can lead deeper into the palace, but stay in this room. We can't have anyone get lost in a place like this."

Katara and Aang glanced at each other through their masks, nodded at the older boy, and the group separated. They all turned and glanced onto the vast dance floor, which was flooded with couples dancing gracefully to the rhythm of the music. All three of the teenagers gulped, and Sokka scratched the back of his head.

"So…" said the boy to the others, who watched him curiously. "Now what?"


PERSONAL THINGY:

I'm sorry the ending is absolutely, irrevocably, terribly terrible! I just couldn't write anymore and I needed to end somewhere! But you can bet your life's savings that in the next chapter the Zutaraian goodness will commence! DRUM ROLL PLEASE….