The late afternoon sunlight warmed Azula's back through the mesh roof. She leaned forward and rested her elbows on the railing, gazing out at the ocean. A refreshing breeze was blowing in off the water. The private stretch of beach was deserted, and she had the ornate gazebo all to herself for now.
...Well, almost. Her amber eyes softened as they fell on a lone figure approaching from farther up the shoreline. Ty Lee had decided in favor of a brief halter top and wraparound skirt in a dark cerise today, and the outfit revealed her toned belly and athletic arms to her lover's appreciative eyes. Azula's lips quirked as the young woman mounted the steps that led up to where she was. "Hello there," she purred softly.
"Hello, yourself." Ty Lee's gray eyes twinkled as she reached out to lace her fingers with the Fire Lord's. "It sure is nice out today, isn't it?" She took a deep breath of salt air and looked out at the ocean. "I hope we can get all this yucky stuff out of the way fast. I want to go swimming with you."
Azula grinned. "I'll do it as quickly as I can," she conceded. "After all, I promised you a vacation, didn't I?"
"Yes. You did." Ty Lee tangled her fingers in the front of Azula's kimono and tugged her closer, poking out her lower lip and narrowing her eyes in a look meant to be aggressive. It really wound up looking more adorably comical than anything else. "And I'm gonna get it, too. Even if I have to paralyze you and drag you everywhere like a floppy doll."
The Fire Lord chuckled softly and placed a tiny kiss on Ty Lee's lips. "No need for that, Ty. I'm all yours after this meeting. In fact..," and here she grinned again, "I've got a little surprise waiting for you back at the beach house."
"Really?" Ty Lee's eyes lit up. "What is it, 'Zula? Did you buy a friend for Ignis?"
"Can't tell you. Then it wouldn't be a surprise." Azula kissed her again. "But let's get the business sorted out first, all right?" The Fire Lady nodded quietly.
They'd earned this vacation, Azula thought. Her mind drifted back over the past few weeks as she leaned forward to hug her wife. Much of that time had been spent in Ba Sing Se, painstakingly putting together a new power structure for the city (and, of course, the country.) Most of that had consisted of listening to Earth Kingdom nobles complaining. Azula had gained new insight into how similar earthbenders could be to firebenders when it came to politicking. In the end, a new police force had been put together for Ba Sing Se. Several new people had been appointed to the Earth Kingdom's council, and Toph Bei Fong had been chosen as the new leader of the country.
That had taken some wrangling, although not of the Earth Kingdom nobles - they had been supportive of the idea, for the most part. Toph herself was the one who'd had to be persuaded. They'd managed it in the end, thanks to several persuasive members of the Order of the White Lotus, including King Bumi of Omashu, who had traveled to Ba Sing Se for that purpose. The blind girl had finally agreed to it on the condition that she be allowed to choose her own advisors and her own wardrobe. Azula had noted the twitches this last demand had wrung from several of the more proper Earth Kingdom nobles, with some amusement. She suspected that Toph was going to insist on her preferred tomboy-ish clothes more often than traditionalists would like.
Azula and Ty Lee had then traveled back to the Fire Nation to deal with the loose ends there. (Although Azula had made time in Ba Sing Se for Ty Lee to go and visit her old friends from her tumbling days.) For the last ten days, they'd been meeting with people and making sure of the Fire Lord's power base. A very public cremation and burial ceremony had been held the first day for Zuko, which had instantly solved many of Azula's problems; noble houses that had been cold to her rule were suddenly fawning on her now that her brother was dead. Her lips curved a touch as she thought about it.
But now, she and Ty Lee were on vacation on Ember Island. They were going to take time just to be with each other, and rest, and let their wounds - both physical and mental - heal. In particular, both of them needed time to process Zuko's death. Azula still felt some lingering grief over it, despite his treachery. Ty Lee still seemed to be carrying a burden of guilt over the incident, as well. Azula intended to help her gentle lover to deal with that.
As soon as they'd dealt with one final loose thread, that is.
The Fire Lord spotted three figures approaching the gazebo from the mainland. Her eyes sharpened as she stepped away from Ty Lee. And here's our loose thread, now, she thought. "Ah," she murmured. The acrobat turned to look, and her jaw clenched. She shot Azula a pleading look before slipping her hand into hers. Azula gave Ty Lee's fingers a reassuring squeeze.
Two of the newcomers were elite palace guards. They weren't in full armor, in deference to the Ember Island heat, and so Azula had no problem in picking out Cai Shizaki as one of them. A newly-minted medal gleamed on the breast of the captain's uniform. The Fire Lord's eyes brushed over it with a faint smile. Then her gaze moved to the prisoner walking between the soldiers, and Azula's expression hardened a bit.
The Fire Lord's security instructions had been followed to the letter. Mai was dressed in a standard-issue Fire Nation prison uniform, despite the fact that she hadn't actually been in prison. Her hands were cuffed behind her back, and her elbows were pinned to her sides with chains. More shackles had been fastened around her ankles, although they were loose enough that they didn't inhibit walking much. Azula squeezed Ty Lee's hand once more before drawing herself up and folding her arms across her chest.
Mai was led up the steps of the gazebo and pushed to her knees. Azula waved the guards away before they could force the prisoner to bow, however. "Release her chains, Captain," she instructed. "Then you two can go as you wish. I'll have no more need of your services today."
Cai obeyed in a brisk and businesslike fashion. She shot the Fire Lord a small smile before she and the other guard headed off. Azula allowed herself a private smile. She'd honored Captain Shizaki with a military ceremony, and now was essentially giving her a free vacation in the most desirable place in the Fire Nation. She thought she'd secured the young ex-admiral's permanent loyalty. Azula turned her attention to the glowering prisoner. "Hello, Mai," she said calmly.
The black-haired assassin's lip twitched. "Fire Lord."
Faint amusement rippled through Azula at this. Mai had somehow made her title sound like a slur without altering her usual deadpan tone in the slightest. It was very Mai. The Fire Lord sat down on a nearby bench, tugging Ty Lee gently down beside her, and indicated another bench hearby. "Have a seat," she said. "We need to talk, I think."
Coldly, Mai got up, dusted the sand off the knees of her trousers, and sat down. Her golden eyes were like ice as they met Azula's. "What can I do for you, my lord?"
Azula pursed her lips, considering. This sort of thing wasn't really her forte. She was glad she had Ty Lee with her, just in case she couldn't manage it herself. She leaned forward to deliberately assume a more casual pose, resting her elbows on her knees. "You know, Mai," she said, "one thing I've never been very good at is making friends." This bit of unexpected humility actually made the assassin blink in surprise. Azula hid a smile. "It's true," she said gravely. "And I'm particularly running short on friends who've known me most of my life." She let her hand drop to pat Ty Lee's knee as she said this. "So I'd rather not lose another one."
Mai studied her face in silence for a long moment. "And?" she said finally.
At this, Azula sat back and folded her arms across her chest, flicking her hawk eyes over to her wife. Ty Lee bit her lip and looked down. There was a pause. "I, um...I'm the one who killed Zuko," she said softly. "I don't know what you've been told about all that, Mai, but...well, we had just finished a battle with Long Feng and some of his guys, and I was making sure that Long Feng was out, when something hit me. I blacked out for a while." She paused, fidgeting with her hands. "When I woke up, there was fire all over the place, and Azula was standing near me." Her voice was low now, barely rising above a whisper. "Zuko was attacking her. She was wounded from the fight before, and...anyway, I saw her get knocked down against a wall, and he just blasted her, and...I heard her scream." Ty Lee inhaled through her nose. "I lost it," she admitted. "I went after him." She clenched her hands into fists, then opened them. "I broke his neck."
Azula laid a steadying hand on Ty Lee's back and addressed Mai. "Ty wanted that out in the open between us," she explained. Mai simply looked at them in silence - her stone-faced mask was firmly in place. Azula decided to take the bull by the horns. "I'll be direct," she said. "Ty Lee doesn't want to lose your friendship. I don't want to lose it. I could go on about your skills and how useful they could be to me, but frankly, those are secondary to this conversation. You and Ty Lee have known me since the three of us were still in diapers. I..." The Fire Lord stopped and grimaced. "I'd like to work together. And I, erm...appreciated your...company, I suppose. I..."
"Azula means she likes you," Ty Lee broke in gently. "And so do I. A lot of ugly stuff's happened, but it's over now, and we can get past it. And I want all of us to be friends again, Mai. Can we try that?" Her gray eyes took on a beseeching look. "Please?"
There was silence for a long beat. Then Mai uttered a disgusted sigh, and Azula had to hide another smile. She knew the assassin well enough to know that Mai was cracking under Ty Lee's pressure. Mai always did have a soft spot for Ty. "I wasn't on good terms with Zuko," Mai said coldly, "but I still find his death...troubling." The little acrobat winced and lowered her head. "All the same," the dark-haired woman went on, "I still want what's best for the Fire Nation. And with your brother dead, Your Highness, that is likely you."
The firebender arched a brow. "Thanks for the vote of confidence," she said dryly.
Mai looked at Ty Lee, whose eyes were visibly misting. Her expression remained wooden. "I will make the attempt to set aside whatever happened in the Earth Kingdom," she said stiffly. "My husband fell in battle. Perhaps that was for the best...I don't know."
The Fire Lady looked down again, but managed a wavering smile. "I'm glad we can at least try," she murmured.
Azula had to clamp down on a protective instinct that might have involved a stream of fire and the end of Mai's aristocratic nose. She clenched her jaw until the urge passed, and then cleared her throat. "Good," she said, her words clipped. "We can work on resolving this, then. My father had a guest house just down the beach from his - you know of it, I'm sure?" Mai inclined her head. "I've already instructed the servants there to expect you. Go and make yourself at home. We'll expect you tomorrow morning."
The assassin's brows lowered just a touch. "More political wrangling?"
The firebender's lips twitched. "No. Sunbathing," she said succinctly. "Followed by, I believe, a picnic on the beach. Ty Lee's idea. We're on vacation."
"Ah." Mai's expression softened very subtly. Azula suspected that the fact that she was no longer a prisoner was sinking in. "Well, that's acceptable, I imagine. Ember Island is very enjoyable this time of year."
"Yeah," Ty Lee agreed softly. "It is."
"Very well." Mai rose to her feet and stood stiffly for a moment, regarding them. "Then I shall see you both tomorrow." She bowed slightly from the waist. Without further ceremony, she turned and walked away, heading down the beach toward the distant guest house.
The two young women sat silently together for a while. Azula's hand rubbed absently at Ty Lee's bare back, smoothing over the warm skin. After a few minutes, the Fire Lord patted her. "Hey," she said quietly. "Are you ready for your surprise yet, Ty?"
"I hope it's a good surprise." Ty Lee's gray eyes were still teary.
Azula kissed her cheek. "It's a good surprise." She slid her arm around the acrobat and hugged her. Ty Lee leaned against her for a few moments. Then, with a quivering breath, she smiled at Azula and stood up, extending her hand invitingly. The firebender rose and took the proferred fingers in her own. The two of them walked back to the beach house together.
They slipped in the front door. Ty Lee looked around curiously. Ignis gave a harsh cry of welcome and beat his wings on his nearby perch. Absently, Ty Lee offered him her arm, and he hopped onto it. "So where's the surprise, 'Zula?" she asked, giving the hawk's neck a cursory scratch.
A moment later, a man appeared on the threshold from inside. He was older, perhaps in his mid-sixties, and had a kind, dark-skinned face. Ty Lee's mouth dropped open in shock - she uttered a delighted squeal and flew at him, hugging him enthusiastically. Ignis was rudely dislodged from his perch with a startled and indignant squawk. "Silas!" Ty Lee cried, wriggling like an excited puppy.
Ignis fluttered in Azula's general direction. The Fire Lord quickly held out an arm, allowing the disgruntled bird to land on it. Ignis gave several sulky croaks and glowered reproachfully in Ty Lee's direction. The firebender discarded the hawk on his perch so she could better regard the reunion that was still going on.
Ty Lee was laughing delightedly now. She released the smiling waterbender from her tight hug and clasped his hands. "Oh, Silas, I'm so glad to see you," she gushed. "I was worried about you! I thought maybe Zuko threw you in prison or something. Are you all right? Do you still run the ferry? Does Misty still pull it?"
"I'm glad to see you, too, Ty Lee." His blue eyes warmed. "I often thought of you and your injured princess, and wondered what had happened."
"So you weren't in prison?" the acrobat wanted to know.
"No. Not for long," he said. "Only a few weeks. Then Fire Lady Mai had me released. I believe she didn't agree with her esteemed husband that I was a threat." His gaze turned to Azula. "You look well, little one. Much better than when last I saw you."
Azula bowed her head gravely in assent. "I am better," she said. "The arthritis does still trouble me, but I'm much stronger." She smiled just a bit. "Thank you for coming. I wanted to thank you for your assistance when it was so much needed."
He shook his head. "No need for that, my lord," he said. "I would do the same for anyone in need that crossed my path. I don't expect rewards for that."
"Oh, let us do nice things for you," Ty Lee pleaded, grasping his hand in both of hers. "Now that everything's so much better for us, I want to do nice things for my friends. Won't you stay for supper, Silas? And I want to see Misty, too. And we're having a picnic on the beach tomorrow, would you like to come?"
The waterbender laughed. "Very well," he said. "With the Fire Lord's indulgence, I'll accept your invitations, Ty Lee. We can go and see Misty now, if you like."
"Can we?" The little acrobat turned pleading eyes on her lover.
Azula laughed. "Yes," she said. "If you want to, Ty, we'll go. We're on vacation, after all."
"Oh, goody!" Ty Lee hopped in excitement and clapped her hands.
Silas bowed his head at them. "I'll go down to the boathouse and get the old girl ready to see you young ladies, then," he said. "Come down whenever you're both ready. I'm sure Misty will be glad to see you."
Azula grinned at Ty Lee and rested her hands on the acrobat's hips after Silas had left. "Well, did you like your surprise?" she asked.
"Yes." Ty Lee smiled and kissed the Fire Lord on the mouth. "Thank you, baby. I'm so happy Silas is okay."
"You're welcome." Azula rested her forehead against Ty Lee's. "I knew you were concerned about him, so I made sure to have him found." She brought her fingers up and drew them down Ty Lee's cheek. The Fire Lady's eyes still held a hint of sadness. A lump rose in Azula's throat. I'll make that sadness go away, Ty, she promised silently. I'll do whatever it takes to make you forget what happened in Ba Sing Se - to make us both forget my brother. She hugged Ty Lee closer and held her. The little acrobat sighed softly and rested her head against Azula's shoulder. The firebender rubbed her back in silence for some time.
Finally, Ty Lee sighed again and straightened up. "Thanks, 'Zula," she murmured. "I love you."
"Mushball." The Fire Lord smirked.
"Grouch." Ty Lee smiled back and gave her lover a peck on the lips. "I guess we'd better go and see Misty now, or we'll never get back here in time for supper, huh?"
"Yes. I suppose you're right," Azula said. She took her wife by the hand and headed out into the summer evening. Ty Lee followed willingly.
The warm sunlight enveloped them like a friendly hug. Azula couldn't help smiling. She squeezed Ty Lee's hand. The acrobat smiled at her, her large gray eyes warm and full of love. The nascent sunset burnished her in shades of reddish gold. Azula's heart swelled with joy. We're together. We're safe, and we're home. She breathed deeply. I've come home.
And the two walked onward together, hand in hand, embraced by the setting sun.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Yes, this is the end of the story. No, I'm not likely to revise it or write a sequel – I'm working on my own original stories now. I'll likely finish "The Conqueror" at some point, but I think this will be it for A:tLA fics. (For a while, at least. Unless or until it grabs me again.)