A/N: Thanks to Clockworkchaos and Loopy for brainstorming in the pre-production stage. Special thanks to alpha_hydra for beta reading!


Not As Hard As You


Not being herself sucked. Azula wondered how everyone else got through life never being her.

Here she was, the greatest product of royal blood since Sozin, standing in the middle of a party and being treated like Zuzu! These people perceived no glimmer of her true worth, or of anything worthwhile. The princess had covertly eavesdropped on several conversations around the room. All anybody seemed to talk about was who was cheating on whom, the latest behind-the-scenes gossip about the Ember Island Players troupe, and idle prattle about fashion.

No court politics. Nothing about Ba Sing Se or the Avatar's death. In fact, no one was talking about the war at all! It was like nothing existed outside their precious little beachside bubble. Azula almost wondered if she was the same species as the other teenagers. All the girls did was giggle as boys chatted them (instead of Azula) up.

Not that she cared.

Azula had deigned to enter a few conversations, if only to pass the time, but the others got a funny look on their faces whenever Azula opened her mouth. It seemed she gave herself away just by trying, like a disguised Water Tribe spy called on to multiply basic sums. Everyone seemed to be using a secret code that no one had ever bothered teaching her.

Her friends were outclassing Azula here. Mai was being her usual apathetic self but had still somehow managed to snag Ruon Jian's attention. Chin Tao was the life of the party, flirting with girls left and right, which further lowered Azula's estimation of the room's collective intelligence.


Worse, the only person having as miserable a time as her was Zuzu. At least Azula tried to infiltrate her inferiors. Zuko strutted around these people like the prince they had no idea he was. (Which was another mark against their collective intelligence, because who could miss that ugly mark of shame on her brother's face?) How Zuko had survived months hiding in Ba Sing Se she just didn't know.

Sipping from her punch, Azula eyed her battlefield for a new avenue of advance. You couldn't win if you didn't attack, after all.

"I don't know! I don't know!"

The unfamiliar voice drew Azula's eye just in time to see several boys go sprawling backwards. Where they had all been facing, a top-heavy girl was flailing her arms and legs with a definite sense of purpose.

A dim mak specialist?


...and now she was cartwheeling over to the food table.


Azula approached at an angle, studying the strange girl's profile. There was something familiar about the round curve of her cheek, a vague recollection tied to the Royal Academy for Girls. Not a classmate. Azula would know. Perhaps an alumni some years Azula's senior? Or someone's poorer relation?

Azula needed more information.

Interrogation, then.

Snatching a plate as she slid up to the dim mak specialist's side, Azula mimed pursuing the snack table's pedestrian fare. The stranger was humming happily to herself when she caught the princess studying her out of the corner of her eye. Seizing the window of opportunity available, Azula went on the offensive. "You really showed those boys who was boss."

The buxom girl sighed. "They wouldn't leave me alone. I guess they all like me too much."

Azula glanced to the corner of the hall. One of the boys, the left half of his body still limp, was finally scraping himself off the floor. "I don't think you have to worry about that anymore."

"Maybe," she said, tone uncertain. "Some boys like that sort of thing."

"I wish I could meet those boys," Azula mused aloud. "All the ones here already act like I'm going to do something horrible to them."

The other girl giggled. "Those kind of boys might like that." She held out her hand to Azula.

The princess stared at the offering for a moment, then accepted it. Ty Lee's hand was warm, lacking a firebender's calluses, but not wholly supple like an idle noblewoman's would be. "A...zu. My name's Azu." Idiot!

But in reply Ty Lee smiled, open and honest and plainly empty-headed. She shook Azula's roughly skinned hand. "Nice to meet you, Azu. My name's Ty Lee. Let's be good friends!"

. . .

With only a little prompting, Ty Lee managed to move them outside to one of the seaside house's balconies where they can hear the surf's gentle shuuush shuuush shuuush. Azu's lemon-yellow aura perked up with a nice bright red glow after they left the crowded party.

Ty Lee leaned against the railing. The wood was damp against her bare lower back. The texture was interesting against her skin. Overhead the stars twinkled. Ty Lee wondered what they thought of the Earth. "Is this your first time on Ember Island?"

"No," she said, low and curt. "I used to come here years ago."

Ty Lee nodded in understanding. Her sister Ai answered without answering whenever Ty Lee asked about what happened at the North.

"It's my first time," Ty Lee said to fill the void. "I was too sick as a little girl to do much of anything except have the maids wheel me outside for fresh air. The mountains were really pretty, but it can't beat the warm salt breeze."

"From the way you took down those boys, I must say you look very healthy now."

"Thanks." She arched her shoulders back a little, pushing her breasts out as she blushed. "I've been working out."

"I do that myself. You really can't beat live opponents for training."

Ty Lee giggled. "Unless you do beat them, am I right?" She nudged Azu.

The other girl scowled in confusion for a few seconds, then belatedly laughed as the punchline came to her. Ty Lee winced at the sound. You could drive nails into timber with that laugh.

"Yes," Azu said. "You do beat up live opponents. That's factually true."

It was such a stupid thing to say that it managed to be adorable. Azu might be as awkward as a duck-eel on land, but she swam nicely with a little coaxing.

Ty Lee had missed out on a lot in life because of her childhood illness. She'd spent summers indoors, staring out windows. She hadn't been well enough to attend the Royal Academy for Girls like her sisters. She'd never made any friends besides the servants and maids back home.

But Ember Island would be different.

"Hold up," Azu began, frowning. "That boy is emptying a silver flask into the punch bowl. Why isn't someone stopping him? He could be ineptly trying to poison us all."

Who knew, with a little luck maybe she'd even luck out on romance too.

. . .

Azula was pleased with herself. This was the longest conversation she'd been able to sustain incognito all night. Somehow she'd chanced upon the perfect conversational formula to wrap this Ty Lee girl around her finger.

Mai walked out onto the balcony, flanked by Chan and Ruon-Jian.

"Your jerk brother got us thrown out of the party."

. . .

Azula brought her jerk brother down to the beach and wondered why she'd bothered. Mai, spine reinforced by a bottle of Chin Tao's medicinal 'spring water', reacted coldly to another display of his possessiveness. An equally soused Chin Tao still lacked her bikini top, not that someone as flat-chested as her needed one, apparently content to continue her weekend-long game of passing herself off as a pretty boy.

While seeing people's inner pettiness exposed was uplifting, if there was one thing worse than being the only sober person around it, was sharing that sobriety with Zuzu.

The solution was obvious: drive him to drink.

"I have to say," Azula glanced between Mai and Zuko, "you make as good a boyfriend as you do a nephew."

Zuko bristled. "Yeah, well, at least I've dated!"

Chin Tao, half-asleep, slurred, "Y'know, it might be the spring water talkin', but Two-Tone kinda has a point."

"He does not!"

Zuko said, "You wanted to see how people would treat us if they didn't know who we were, remember? It was pretty clear how everyone was treating you, Miss Winning Personality."

Azula crossed her arms and turned up her nose. "Because you're one to talk about good looks."

He jabbed a finger at his shameful brand. "It wasn't a problem for Mai or Jin."

"Right," said Mai. "Because everyone wants to hear about your ex-girlfriend." She took another pull from her bottle.

Zuko pressed, "What's your excuse, Azula?"

With forced casualness, she replied, "Obviously I was just socializing tonight. If I had bothered to try-"

"You couldn't even if you wanted to. You're not perfect, Azula."

Azula took her growing anger and stuffed it down into her stomach. It'd be more useful once it cooled. It always was. "You think I couldn't get a boyfriend if I wanted? Fine. Want to wager on it?"

Zuko regarded her suspiciously.

"I'll pick up a boyfriend this weekend and he'll even kiss me goodbye on the dock when we head home."

"Without revealing you're royalty," he demanded.

Azula rolled her eyes.

"And without buying, bribing, blackmailing, threatening, or coercing him."

"Honestly, Zuko! What do you take me for?" Curses!

"What's the prize?"

"Palanquin servants," Azula suggested. "Whoever wins gets the other's set. Good ones are so hard to find." And the knees on her set were worn out, so either way it was a win-win for her.


. . .

Buttery sunlight streamed through the open balcony doors, falling on Ty Lee's face. She rolled over, away from the dawn's light. The thought of getting out of bed to shut the door was a non-starter. Ty Lee was comfy, content, and the sea breeze smelled too good to shut away.

A lazy hour or so later, she finally sat up and stretched, purring in delight at her sore muscles. They were souvenirs of an active yesterday spent outside, far away from healers, specialists, and their rat-snake oils.

However, as nice as sore muscles were, Ember Island hadn't turned out exactly like Ty Lee had hoped. Her aunt was nice enough to let her do all the yoga and acrobatic practice she wanted, and it was great not to have her parents hovering over her, but...

Well, Ty Lee didn't like to think about sad things like that. The world had enough going on with the war that it didn't need little ol' Ty Lee spreading unhappiness around with complaints. She preferred to focus on the positives: clouds, baby turtleducks, healthy auras, smiles, and all things cute.

Like Azu.

Maybe they'd run into each other again on the beach. That'd be nice. Azu had been very friendly, and she'd said she had trouble with boys.

Whatever the case, Ty Lee was certain today was going to be the bestest day ever!

A maid entered the room. "My lady, a Miss Azu is here to see you."

. . .

Down in the front parlor, Azula was sipping an offered cup of weak, watery tea when a girlish squeal punctured the mid-morning stillness. Jolted, Azula spilt her drink down the front of her white beach dress.

"AZU!" Ty Lee literally bounced off the walls as she leapt downstairs, tackling Azula with a hug. The affect was pillowy with her womanly attributes. "Good mo~rning!"

Azula pried her off. "Hello, Ty Lee."

"How'd you find where I was staying?"

"Oh, I asked around. Broke a few fingers. That sort of thing."

Ty Lee laughed. "You're so funny."

"I was hoping we could continue our conversation from last night." She glanced at her manicured nails. "You could even show me around the island so we could do friendly things together." When she found Ty Lee staring blankly at her, Azula added sheepishly, "I'm looking for a little romance this weekend."

"Y-you are?"

"Yes. Since you seemed so capable with those boys last night, I was hoping you might give me a few lessons on finding a boyfriend."And then once I have extracted all I need from you, the student shall surpass the master.

"Oh. A boyfriend." Ty Lee said, "I can see how you'd need a lot of help."

"W-what does that mean?"

"Oh no! Your dress is ruined!"

"This old thing? It's just genuine Ba Sing Se silk," Azula mentioned casually. "I'm wearing a swimsuit underneath."

"You are?" Ty Lee took hold of her hand. "C'mon!"

. . .

"If you want a boy to like you," she told Azu, "you need to make him feel like the greatest person in the world."

"So I'm going to fake drowning because...?"

"Because what hunk doesn't dream about rescuing the prettiest girl in the world?" Ty Lee gave her new friend a reassuring smile. "Now remember: scream for help, then plunge underwater. Make him work to rescue you like a hero should."

Azu smirked. "Tricking somebody? That I can do."

. . .

In the distance, two arms waved frantically.


"Look!" said one beach-goer. "That girl's in trouble!"

"Somebody help her!"

Ty Lee, who'd cozied up to the hunkiest boy she could find on the beach, grabbed hold of his tightly muscled arm and begged, "You have to rescue her! Before it's too late!"

He nodded. "Right!" And sprinted into the waves.

. . .

As she watched her rescuer swim out to meet her, Azula took a deep breath and plunged underwater. She felt a savage surge of glee, both at triumphing in the bet and in finding someone who appreciated a good con. She'd have to keep tabs on a talent like Ty Lee in the future... her boyfriend filled future.

Strong, firm hands took hold of her and hauled her up to the surface. Bodies clasped close together, Azula set eyes on-


"Azula? What the-"




"You always ruin everything!"

. . .

Azula scowled at the seven-year-olds who raced around the carnival grounds. Really, where were the parents? If Zuko had behaved in public like that at their age even her soft-hearted mother would have punished him.

"I love this place!" Ty Lee gushed. "I've always wanted to join the circus. The traveling! The glamor! The gasping audience!"

"Gasping because of the ponygoat's smell."

"Haven't you ever ridden one? They're fun."

Azula tried to picture how small and shallow life would have to be in order to call riding a smelly, arthritic ponygoat around in circle inside a pen 'fun'. Tried and failed. "I've ridden mongoose lizards into battle, Ty Lee. Next to war-making, nothing compares."


"Er, in books. I've read about it in books. Nothing like a tightly written war novel to make you feel as if you're on the front lines."

Ty Lee nodded, buying the excuse. "I like sarashi rippers."

So did Azula, but she wasn't ever going to admit to the trashy scrolls she kept stashed in the bottom of her kit bag, princess or not. "So why are we here, besides for ponygoat rides?"

Ty Lee pointed. "That."

Ahead of them was a tall wooden board with a bell at the top. A uniformed carnie stood beside it, accepting coins from a group of rowdy boys. They were taking turns whacking a pedal at the tower's base with a mallet. A puck would shoot up the board with each strike but not one of the boys yet managed to ring the bell.

Ty Lee's eyes grew starry. "What girl wouldn't want someone to win them a giant stuffed platypus-bear?" She pressed her hands to her cheeks and sighed breathlessly.

Azula huffed. "Fine."

They approached the gaggle of boys, Azula taking the lead. Forcing a smile on, she said, "Those platypus-bears sure are cute. Too bad they're First Prize."

One of the more promising boys, with shiny patches of scars on his skin testifying he'd seen the odd agni kai or two, grinned. "Want me to win one of them for you, baby?"

"If you can."

His chest puffed up. Taking hold of the mallet, he approached the tall board, his friends divided between those encouraging him and those ragging on him. He drew back - and Azula knew before he swung that he'd fail. However good a firebender he might be, he clearly didn't know the basics of weapon handling.

He swung. The bell remained safe from the puck.

Azula accepted her Second Prize kuai ball, holding it like it was filthy with plague.

He slipped one arm over Azula's shoulders. "What do you say we get something to drink?"

Ty Lee beamed with happiness.

Azula pushed her would-be sweetheart's arm off. "I'll pass. Next time you want to impress a girl, remember there's only first place and failure."

All his friends went 'oooooooo'.

. . .

After their other attempts to win over boys at various games went just as poorly, Azu's aura shifted to a more lemony yellow than anything Ty Lee had ever seen - including actual lemons! Something had to be done, and quickly.

"All those boys were so bad," Ty Lee said, "but I think I wouldn't have won anything on my own. Do you think you could've done better?"


"Then could you win me something?" Hugging Azu's arm, she guided the other girl towards a contest stand. "I'd really like a souvenir to remember today."

"To commemorate my constant failure at romance?"

"No, silly! To remember our first day together as friends."

Azu rolled her eyes. "Fine. Somebody might as well prove they're First Prize quality today."

. . .

One bulls-eye at the fire dart shooting stand later, Ty Lee had her very own stuffed platypus-bear. It seemed to satisfy her silly desire. With first-hand knowledge of what it took to win such contests, it also confirmed for Azula that anyone who couldn't succeed at such trivial tests of skill wasn't worthy of her.

They exited the carnival and walked along Ember Island's main boulevard. Out to sea, towering white clouds drifted across the blue sky. A stiff wind played with Azula's long hair.

Ty Lee shivered. "Cold."

"I suppose." Being able to regulate their own body temperatures, master firebenders didn't really need to worry about such things. It wasn't her fault Ty Lee didn't have the good fortune to be born a firebender. "Baiting boys isn't working. Do you know any offensive strategies, Ty Lee?"

"Yes! Let's do it inside," she chattered.

They were near the theater house so they bought tickets. Other people had the same notion to avoid the afternoon's cold spell.

Inside the reception hall, Azula suddenly felt the same temperature as Ty Lee. The carpeting, lighting, decorations, even the smell were all the same as all those years ago when Mother had dragged their family here.

"So," she said to Ty Lee, "what's the plan of attack?"

The brunette grinned.

. . .

From her perch along the hall's second story railing, Ty Lee watched her friend exchange money at the concession stand below for a bag of fire flakes. Armed, the dark-haired girl began to stalk her prey.

It would have been nice if Azu had liked liked her, even if the other girl was pretty conceited. Ty Lee admired determination. Relearning how to walk had taught her its value in a person; Azu had gobs of it. She wanted a boyfriend so she went out to make one.

Downstairs, Azu's whole demeanor shifted as she found the type of person Ty Lee had talked about: good-looking with his nose buried in a programme booklet.

. . .

Her timing had to be perfect, which it always was.

Azula held her fire flakes in one hand and her programme in the other. Outwardly she was just another theatergoer reading up on the background of Downfall of the Air Nation, the night's play. In truth her eyes were focused anywhere but on dusty propaganda about airbender sister-wives kidnapping innocent Fire Nation children.

Nose buried in her booklet, she made a beeline for a spot ahead of her future boyfriend where their paths would intersect. They'd collide, spilling their snacks all over each other. Between profuse apologies, their eyes would meet and Azula would coyly suggest he make things up to her by buying a new bag of fire flakes. They'd share it together as they watched the play.

Azula had to hand it to her newest acquisition. Ty Lee wasn't half-bad at plotting. It was a shame they'd never met years ago at the Academy. All that time wasted when she could have been harvesting Ty Lee's skill set.

. . .

Hugging her stuffed animal tight, Ty Lee watched the magic happen.

Three... two... one...

Azu and the oblivious boy collided. Even from a distance, Ty Lee winced as Azu covertly buried her elbow into his gut and swept his feet out from under him. Fire flakes went flying everywhere as Azu followed up her assault by tackling the boy with a knee to the groin.

Azu babbled profuse apologies.

The boy, curled up in the fetal position, moaned pitifully.

. . .

"Your plan was a total failure!" Azu exclaimed later, once they'd managed to make a getaway from the theater before the Home Guard and Emergency Healers arrived. "Just like all the others. I'm beginning to wonder if you're really dedicated to this mission or not."

"I meant trip into him! Not mug him!"

Azu crossed her arms. "If you're done engaging in histrionics-"

"That's not even a real word!"

"Yes it is." Azu pinched the bridge of her nose. Her whole demeanor reminded Ty Lee of her mother, chiding her for leaving a window open. As if the sound of songbirds on the breeze would bring back her convulsions. "I don't know why I'm listening to you anyway. You're obviously not boyfriend material except for the obvious." Azu sent a pointed look towards Ty Lee's cleavage.

Some very un-cute words poured into her head. Instead Ty Lee just said, "You can be a real princess sometimes, Azu."

She smirked. "Imagine that."

"Look, even though you're a meanie sometimes, I really like that you try so hard even though you're not very good with people."

"I am good with people. I'm a people person!"

Ty Lee couldn't help but giggle at such earnestness. "You're SO not. Half the time you sound like you're trying to seduce everybody with that sexy voice of yours."

Azu flustered. "S-sexy voice?"

"So stop worrying about when you'll get a boyfriend," Ty Lee ordered only half-playfully. "Focus on the bright side! Think of all the memories we're making."

"Yes. Of failure."

"C'mon, haven't you had fun today?"

"No," Azu replied.

Ty Lee nudged her. "Not even a little?"

"None whatsoever. Today's been a waste." Azu turned around. "We're done."

. . .

Later, Azula wouldn't be able to put a reason to why she bothered to glance over her shoulder. It didn't matter. Even if an explanation didn't stay with her, Ty Lee's crestfallen look as she buried her face into her stuffed animal did. The sight replayed itself, unbidden, in the back of her mind as she walked back to the beach house.

When Ty Lee's gentle crying was out of earshot, Azula resolved to put the memory out of her mind.

. . .

She tried to, anyway.

Every lump in her mattress was like a knife in the back. The faint old lady stink to the house seemed suffocating now. Azula threw open her window but the breeze did nothing to help her sleep. She tossed and turned, stomach growing pained, and her mind kept replaying her parting form Ty Lee.

She was obviously coming down with something, so sometime close to dawn she kicked Chin Tao out of bed and dragged the healer into the parlor to give her a check-up.

The acupuncturist poked and prodded her. "So insomnia and stomach pain. Anything else?"

Azula hesistated.

"Darn it, Azula. I'm a healer, not a gossipmonger."

"Well," the princess said, "I keep thinking about Ty Lee's face."

"The cartwheeling girl from the other night? Why?"

Azula briefly summarized how she'd recruited Ty Lee to help win her bet with Zuko. "When she asked me if I had a good time with her, I said no. She looked so... heartbroken. It was really quite pathetic, but thinking about it twists up my stomach like bad oct-oysters."

"...Oh. Well, that explains everything."

"But I didn't eat oct-oysters today."

Chin Tao closed her healer's bag. "I meant what's bothering you is your conscience."


"It's an inner voice that tells you right from wrong."

Azula scoffed. "Only crazy people hear voices."

"You're feeling bad because of the way you treated Ty Lee," Chin Tao insisted, flicking her shiny ponytail over one shoulder. "It's a textbook case of remorse."

"How do I get it to stop so I can sleep?"

"You can't," she replied. "The only cure for a guilty conscience is to make amends."

"Amends? But only people who are wrong do that!"

Chin Tao stifled a yawn. "Look, your mind thinks you did something wrong, and until you appease it you're going to keep feeling sick. The only medicinal remedy I can offer is several stiff drinks."

"Not an option." Losing control to liquor... but was she really better off otherwise? She was being held hostage by an unstoppable force she couldn't reason with, an enemy that lived inside her own skin. Azula shivered. "All I need to do is keep my mind off Ty Lee, right? Then if I keep busy I should be fine."

It was nearly dawn anyway. She might as well start her firebending practice for the day.

. . .

Ty Lee's calf muscles smoldered as she completed another lap around the deserted beach. Her hands weren't shaking yet even though she was drenched.

Out to sea, the eastern horizon was a cloudless rosy sheet. Ty Lee found her eye drawn to the first hint of the rising sun. She slowed, stopped, settled down onto the wet sand; massaging and stretching muscles to avoid cramps. Ty Lee didn't know why she bothered. It'd be better if it hurt too much to think.

"You have good form."

Ty Lee was scowling even as she glanced over her shoulder. Azu, dressed in a blood red bathing suit, stood just past the furthest extent of the surf. Sitting as she was, Ty Lee's heart fluttered at angle she had on the underside of Azu's skirted bikini.

Tearing her eyes away from Azu's curves, she looked back towards the eastern horizon. "What do you want?"

"About yesterday..."

Sourness and heat alike churned inside Ty Lee's stomach. "I don't c-"

"No," Azu insisted, stiffly climbing down next to her onto the wet sand. "I really did have fun. Fun for myself. I hadn't done that in a long time."


The other girl peaked an eyebrow.

"You're really bad at apologizing, too." Azu's expression went flat. "My sister Ai is the same way. Are all soldiers like that?"

"I'm not a soldier."

"You don't need to hide," Ty Lee replied. She counted off on her toes. "You talk like one; mission this and plan that. Perfect posture. Expect everyone to obey your orders. Doesn't know how to deal with civilians. Dresses in fashion two years out of date-"


"-except for that cute little white dress." Ty Lee smiled. "Ba Sing Se silk, remember? You said so yourself."

Azu looked away for a moment, then turned back. "You figured me out, Ty Lee. Congratulations."

Ty Lee perked up. It really did make sense in a sad way. For a girl Azu's age to actively serve, she had to be some sort of specialist; a firebending prodigy or something. Probably plucked out of school years ago with no chance for a normal life. No wonder she was a total dork. "You must've just come off rotation like my sister, so I'll let yesterday go."


"If you apologize. REALLY apologize."

Grimacing, Azula forced out through gritted teeth, "The way I treated you last night was wr-rrrraaahh... rrrrrrronnng..."


Azu coughed into her fist, obstruction cleared. She nodded.

"I accept your apology!"

. . .

Azula sighed in relief.

You win this round, conscience, because I let you. Nothing more.


Azula frowned. "What?"

"...was thinking," Ty Lee said quietly. "I know you were looking for a boyfriend. But... what about a girlfriend?"

"A what?"

Ty Lee, having gone red-faced, slid her hand over to Azula's own. The confused princess glanced down at it.




"Y-you l-l-like me?" Azula asked.

"You have a pretty aura," Ty Lee replied, "and a sexy voice."

Azula's left breast tightened up. Rubbing the tender spot, she made a mental note to speak with Chin Tao soon. Lightningbenders had to be on guard about developing arrhythmia. "I... honestly don't know what to say."

Ty Lee leaned over and softly kissed her cheek.

Azula couldn't breathe. She wondered if this is what the Avatar felt when she shot him in the back.

The brown-haired girl hung close to her. When she spoke, her breath was hot on the curve of Azula's cheek. "Was that o-okay, Azu?"

She tried to remember the last time someone - anyone - had touched her without intending injury.

Her mother, maybe.

Azula shivered. "I don't know. I've never been kissed."

Ty Lee kissed her again, this time on the jawline.

The sun broke over the eastern horizon. Power flooded Azula's veins, but it seemed like nothing compared to heat radiating from Ty Lee's slick body.

"Was that okay?" Ty Lee asked, as if the sand around them hadn't melted to glass and the morning squeaking of the ratcadas wasn't drowned out by the pounding of blood in their ears.

"I suppose I can let Zuzu win just this once."


Azula turned and caught Ty Lee's lips in her own.

Epilogue: A Few Days Later...

Ozai froze as he looked up from his dinner plate. His son had not only uncharacteristically arrived late for their scheduled mealtime but he also sported a freshly split lip.

"Prince Zuko," he began, even before his son completed his apologetic bow, "what happened?"

"There was an... accident with my new palanquin team, Father."


"They dropped me."

"Oh my," said Azula, setting down her chopsticks. "They never had any problem carrying me, and I always demanded excellence from them. Are you sure the fault isn't yours, Zuko?"

Zuko shot a glare at his sister. "I'm sure."

"Because it's not your fault for being unused to palace life after your long, dishonorable exile." Azula patted her stomach. "Why, just a few months on the road took some pounds off me that I'm trying to keep off. That's hard if you're eating too many rich foods. Like fruit tarts."

His son choked a little.

"Perhaps you're right," Ozai said. "Zuko has been looking a little soft lately."


"Some rigorous exercise would do you well, Prince Zuko."

"And," Azula said, "to help you focus, I could take Mai out of town for a few days. Ember Island was so nice. I think she and Chin Tao would love to see it again before we're all too busy with the invasion and summer's end."

Ozai nodded. "Yes. That's an excellent idea."

Zuko muttered, "I'm not fat."

"What was that, son?"

"Nothing, Father."