Once again, they would step outside the Palace on that day. As safe as she felt in the Princess's room, Rei had enjoyed their last outing thoroughly and she had looked forward to the next one immensely. She enjoyed her breakfast in a blissful mood, chatting carelessly with Song as they ate together before making their way to Azula's room… and all the while, there was a glint of cleverness in the healer's eyes that Rei knew meant she was up to something. She didn't quite dare ask what it was, assuming outright that it couldn't be anything that concerned her if Song hadn't shared it right away…
That assumption was disproven once she reached Azula's room, finding the fully-dressed, smiling Princess ready to greet her with words she hadn't heard so sincerely ever before:
"Happy birthday, Rei."
Her face flushed immediately. She glanced back at Song, finding her smiling mischievously, much more openly than before. Azula had stepped forward, wrapping her arms around the youngest of their group in a gentle hug, and Rei's eyes flooded with tears as she returned the embrace.
"I refused to say it before you could…" Song remarked. The Princess chuckled, nodding in acknowledgement in her direction. "I just thought it would be most fitting for her mother to be the first to say it… but you know, I also figured she might assume I simply forgot it was her birthday, and that would have been awful of me, right?"
"I… I'm the one who forgot!" Rei exclaimed, pressing her face to Azula's shoulder. The Princess laughed, cradling her gently. "I… H-how did you…?"
"We presented you at the Temple, Rei. You revealed your birthday on that day, remember?" Azula said. Rei pulled back, still tearful, still amazed. "Even before our big plans for today, Song and I had made up our minds to celebrate it with you… I suppose you don't have a lot of experience with celebrating your birthdays, huh?"
"W-well… I don't think I ever have done it," Rei answered truthfully: while she had already suspected as much, any reminders of how painful Rei's past had been only seemed to anger Azula… but she toned down her rage quickly, knowing better than to mar what ought to be a great day with any emotional outbursts, even if on Rei's behalf. "Thank you… t-thank you for remembering. Thank you…"
"You might not be so grateful after the day becomes way more hectic than what we're used to," Azula smiled. "On the bright side… as we know, we're going to Mai's house, my father authorized our visit, and that means we'll spend most the day outside. Therefore, you don't get to clean anything at all today, Rei…"
"Y-you already made the bed…" Rei realized, with a slow smile. Azula nodded sagely.
"I've found the clothes Mai loaned me, they're in a bag waiting to be delivered already, too, so… all that's left is for the two of you to be ready so we can take off. The sooner we go, the better: Ty Lee's bound to be a whirlwind today and I don't believe she'll mind my damn bladder when she hugs me, so…"
"You did say you wanted to arrive before she did because of that, right?" Song smiled. "Well, I'm pretty sure I'm ready…"
"But is Rei?" Azula said, eyeing her daughter with a raised eyebrow. The girl blinked blankly, cheeks flushing as she wiped the tears quickly.
"D-do I need anything else…?" she asked. Azula smiled and shrugged.
"I'd say you could certainly use a fancier set of clothes than the ones you're wearing," Azula said, with a careless shrug. Rei's eyes widened. "And as it's your birthday…"
She gestured at her closet, and Rei's cheeks heated up before she shook her head. Azula smirked, glancing at Song for the complicity she knew she'd find there. The healer returned the smirk, walking carelessly towards the closet and pushing it open quickly as Rei's denial increased further.
"I… I couldn't! I couldn't! Y-your clothes…! They're very pretty and I'm not…! I'm not a real royal, I shouldn't wear them, I…!"
"Not everything in there is gold thread and priceless fabrics, Rei," Azula chuckled, patting her head gently. "Your servant uniform isn't hideous or anything of the sort, but… I'd think changing out of that outfit, if just for your birthday, wouldn't be a terrible idea, right? Consider it… a small gift?"
"A… gift? F-for my… my birthday?" Rei repeated, eyes wide.
"One of them, anyway," Azula smiled, reeling her in for a sideways hug. "I know you're not used to this… I also know it can be overwhelming. But we care about you, Rei… and if you turned my life around when you showed up on my birthday, it only seems fitting that I try to thank you for it this way on yours."
"I… I'm not…" Rei said, tearful anew upon hearing those words. "I don't know if I'm… if I'm worth all this…"
Azula's eyes softened even further as the words echoed deep within her heart. How did she always grow so deeply attached to people whose self-worth seemed even more miniscule than her own? She certainly was no paragon of self-esteem, especially these days… but Rei and Sokka both were among the most precious people she had ever known, and their instinctive responses to kindness appeared to be crippling self-doubt, bringing them to question if they deserved whatever boons they had been granted…
Which meant it was up to those who loved them to show them otherwise. To prove they were worthy of affection, of kindness, and so much more… and just as she had endeavored to do so with Sokka in the past, she meant to do the same for Rei.
"You're worthy of every single good thing that comes your way, Rei," Azula said, cupping her face in her hands. Rei blinked blankly as Azula leaned closer, pressing a kiss to her brow that caught Rei by surprise, much as everything had this morning. "And as I'm your mother, I'll be thrilled to bring good things in your direction forevermore… because, for better or for worse, I'll be your mother even if you're of age now. You're finally authorized to get sick of me and push me away whenever you want to, but…"
"No!" Rei exclaimed, in a childish reaction that saw her hugging Azula tightly again. Azula chuckled at her reaction, rubbing her back gently. "I… I'm… t-thank you. Thank you. I… I'm so glad I met you. Thank you…"
Azula smiled, holding her closely anew, letting the comfort of their bond ease her worries regarding Rei's self-worth. Perhaps one day she'd learn to see herself through different eyes… but until then, Azula intended to be by her side, offering her as many reassurances as possible that her existence was so much more valuable than Rei had ever allowed herself to believe it was.
"Okay! Found a few options, so let's see which combinations you like best, Rei," Song declared, pulling out numerous clothes from the closet and dropping them on Azula's bed, one after the other. Rei turned and winced at the numerous clothes Song had found, and the healer simply shrugged in her direction. "Don't look at me like that, it's hardly my fault that your mother has the biggest wardrobe in the history of the Fire Nation…"
"Even so, I barely wore anything other than my armor's attire, back in the day," Azula sighed, with a slow smirk. "Anyway, go on, Rei. Pick out something you like."
Rei bit her lip… but at last, she nodded. A spark of excitement gleamed in her eyes as she joined Song in looking at the admittedly most casual clothes Azula had in her closet… which were, of course, the most luxurious casual clothes Rei had ever lain eyes upon.
In the end, the young woman chose a black shirt with matching trousers, topped by a burgundy tunic that Azula hadn't even remembered was among her belongings. The Princess's teasing offer of some shoulder capes, among the more fashionable clothing items of Fire Nation, saw Rei shaking her head repeatedly and refusing to wear anything quite so fancy. She did accept a smooth silk sash, however, and she gazed at herself in Azula's tallest mirror afterwards, utterly astonished by the change in her appearance.
"See? Nothing wrong with dressing up differently for your birthday," Azula said, smiling kindly at her. "I'd do that too, you know? Though, of course, my birthday attire was usually a dress…"
"I saw a few of those in there. I figured Rei wouldn't be all that eager to wear them, though," Song smiled, and Rei's blush confirmed her suspicions.
"T-this is… it's good. I like it better than a dress," Rei said, smiling at Azula. "Thank you… the two of you. This is… it's my best birthday already and it's only beginning."
"That's the right spirit to start your birthday with, if you ask me," Azula said, with a proud smile. "And now… well, I'll go to the bathroom first, and then we'll take off. Sounds good?"
Rei nodded happily, gazing at her reflection once more: she didn't know it yet, but Azula meant to gift her the very clothes she was wearing, as well as several more of the items in her closet eventually – frankly, she had more than enough clothes she could give her daughter and that she probably should have gifted to her much sooner than this. As ever, the girl's enthusiasm seemed to sweep away everything that could ever be wrong in the world, so Azula did her best to focus on that rather than on the strange, distant emotions that had rumbled within her heart since a few days ago.
At first, the feeling had been akin to adrenaline. She had been restless, unsettled, eager to do something, even tempted to train when she, of course, wasn't supposed to do that: returning to working on her bending while six months into her pregnancy didn't sound like a wise idea. But after several hours of experiencing that odd excitement, after having even been waken by it briefly before dawn, a much bleaker sensation had spread within her chest by mid-afternoon… melancholy, remorse, twisting snakes in her gut that she knew didn't belong to her.
What was he doing? What had happened to him this time? She had no idea still. She had visited his house with Rei and Song late that night, and she had attempted to contact him from his bedroom… all to no avail. Her two companions had been working still on the systematic flipping of the floorboards, and perhaps the noise they made had interfered with her concentration… whatever the reason, however, the truth was that she had failed to contact Sokka once more.
She had little hopes of succeeding anytime soon, so she knew she was better off focusing on those under her care, looking after them as well as herself. Whatever strife Sokka was undergoing now, he'd likely be reassured to know that she wasn't as unstable lately as she had been when they had first been torn apart… with any luck, her personal peace might eventually soothe him and ease his sorrows, if that was possible. If not, she'd have to hope to reach him on their next visit to the house, which would be happening quite soon…
After all preparations were finished, Azula, Rei and Song were escorted by Renkai, dutifully carrying the bag with Mai's clothes, all the way to the Palace's gates. Azula closed her eyes, resonating in silence… and yet again she sensed the corrupt fire, no matter how weakened her own firebending was as of late. Yet again, Seethus was following them… she hoped he'd keep his distance this time, too. Whatever Mai had told Ozai, it certainly hadn't sufficed to clear Azula's name and dismiss Ozai's suspicions that she might be up to no good… so Seethus would be a guaranteed, distant companion in all their outings, it seemed. The official ones, that was…
They walked slowly, hoping not to put too much strain on Azula. While her health had certainly improved across the past months, that improvement had matched the progress of her pregnancy: her bump felt excessively prominent to her now, even if Song reassured her repeatedly that it was a perfectly reasonable size for a six-month pregnancy. As she hadn't started off on this journey at her best, she remained quite thin and that, as well, appeared to make her belly seem larger.
She didn't wear her hairpiece, she didn't dress in clothes that might make her easy to recognize. Even so, she had the feeling that the occasional passerby would do a double take as their group marched past them, on their way to Mai's house… she certainly had become far too recognizable throughout her golden years in the Gladiator League. Her heart ached with uncertainty as they progressed through the streets, hoping to focus on her companions rather than the commoners that drifted past them, attempting to ignore the many sets of eyes that appeared to follow her as she walked across the city streets for the second time in less than a week…
"So… are you ready?" Song's voice broke her from her ruminations, and Azula was deeply grateful for it.
"To talk with Mai about…?" Azula asked. Song smiled and shook her head.
"To face Ty Lee again, of course," she said. Azula let out a deep breath.
"Oh, I doubt it. I don't think anyone could be ready for that," Azula admitted, with a light chuckle. Rei blinked blankly, glancing at Azula in perplexity.
"Is your other friend a dangerous person, somehow…?" Rei asked. Azula nodded, with a melodramatic sigh.
"I'm afraid so. The kind of dangerous person who would hug you for three hours and not let go, that is," Azula said. Rei giggled at that explanation. "Seriously, if you think any of us are too given to hugging… it's because you don't know Ty Lee yet. She takes it to a whole other level, I guarantee it,"
"I expect you've already braced yourself for that, though," Song smiled, as they finally slowed down before the elegant house they'd visited less than a week ago.
Renkai, as silent and somber as ever, stepped forward to knock on the door. The others were ready to wait patiently behind him for however long it was necessary… but it wasn't necessary to wait at all.
Renkai had barely reeled his hand back when the door swung open violently.
The person standing behind it was a stranger for Rei… but Azula and Song, naturally, recognized her instantly. Where so much had seemed to change, it was odd that the free-spirited young woman would look so much like she had on the very last times they had met her, with her long hair fashioned into that braid, her midriff-baring attire and her perfectly polished physique…
And that she would act exactly like she ever did, too, by letting out an excitable scream before rushing in, predictably, to hug her childhood friend with very little caution.
"And here we go…" Azula smiled despite herself, angling her body carefully as Ty Lee cried and laughed in her ear, pressing her face to her right shoulder.
"Azula! Azula, we were so worried! I was so worried! I barely ate, and then I ate too much, and I thought my hair was starting to fall off because I was so worried about you, Azulaaaaa!" she howled: the Princess let out a sigh, patting Ty Lee's back kindly as she met Song's amused eyes. Rei, standing between them, gaped at the familiarity between Ty Lee and Azula with astonishment – the Princess's initial, inexplicably friendly demeanor with Song had still been much more restrained than what Ty Lee was displaying now.
"Well, I'm glad to see I didn't make you go bald yet, I'm sure you would have never let me live it down if I had…" Azula chuckled. "Now, now, no need to cry so much, I'm sure you've been crying too much as it is…"
"I have! And I'm finally crying for happy reasons so don't tell me not to…!" Ty Lee sniffed, pulling back to look at Azula properly again: the Princess offered her a nervous grin, and Ty Lee's attention shifted down… to the baby bump between them.
Again, Ty Lee squealed, unleashing her excitement carelessly as she hugged Azula tightly again. Azula groaned, the pressure on her bladder as unpleasant as she knew it would be…
"Ty Lee, I'd rather not make a very unsightly spectacle out here, so please no more pressure against the bump…!" she said. Ty Lee squeaked again, but this time she moved to Azula's side and continued to hug her that way. Azula sighed, shaking her head. "Oh, I'll have to go to the bathroom regardless, but thank you…"
"It's so big! It's so grown! Azula, I don't even know how long it's been…! Oh, you'll be due any day at this rate…!"
"I certainly hope not," Song chimed in, with a smirk. "That's a six-month bump, so…"
Her voice caused Ty Lee to snap back to her senses for a moment: it seemed as though she had only been able to focus on Azula alone for quite a while… and now she realized that the Princess hadn't arrived alone. It wasn't even a surprise, for she had known that would be the case all along, Mai had already told her so…
But the sight of Song's smile, hands on her hips, floored her for just one small moment that ended when Ty Lee screamed again and leapt to hug her, next.
"She's… loud," Rei remarked, blinking blankly as Ty Lee hugged Song tightly enough to hoist her up slightly: the healer laughed, and Ty Lee continued to be somewhere in the middle ground between tears and laughter, herself.
"Always has been," Azula confirmed, smirking. Ty Lee's enthusiastic hoisting of Song ended then, and now she seemed to sputter unintelligible words at alarming speed as she clasped her shoulders, no doubt failing to give her eyes any credit. "Loud, enthusiastic, emotional…"
Azula's reciting of Ty Lee's traits resulted in the excitable woman's latest realization: she turned quickly, eyes gliding past Azula and settling on the third member of their group. Rei stiffened, her cheeks reddening under Ty Lee's scrutiny: would she have a chance to introduce herself properly? Would the Princess's friend find her inexplicable and strange and…?
"T-this is…?" Ty Lee asked. Azula raised her eyebrows.
"I'm assuming Mai already told you everything, so…" Azula said, nodding. "This is Rei. This is…"
"Your… daughter," Ty Lee said: her lips curled into a joyful smile, and that was the last thing Rei saw before she was muffled by the tightest hug she had ever received. "Your daughter! You're… my niece! Oh, you're so adorable already and I've only just gotten to know you!"
"U-uh… t-thank you?" Rei said, nervously: was she supposed to thank someone for calling her adorable? What was the most reasonable response to such words, frankly?
Azula and Song only laughed as Ty Lee sobbed on Rei's shoulder now. The helpless expression on the younger woman's face shifted into an awkward smile before long: she certainly had never been hugged by a total stranger before, but as wild as Ty Lee appeared to be, Rei couldn't help but find amusement in the situation before long as well.
"See? She was as dangerous as we predicted," Azula chuckled, glancing towards the house's front door again.
Renkai seemed to have held a polite exchange with Mai, who stood at the house's threshold, and she had accepted the bag of clothes Azula had meant to return. Even Mai seemed moved by Ty Lee's emotional outburst, if just a little… but she was quick to cover for it by raising an eyebrow in Azula's direction.
"Just so you know, you couldn't have arrived before she did," she said. "Ty Lee's been here since dawn."
"She… oh, goodness. Did she wake you up?" Azula asked, stepping towards her other childhood friend, who offered her a much more tempered embrace than Ty Lee's still-ongoing one with the amused, nervous Rei.
"She did. Don't tell her I left her waiting outside for half an hour just as a manner of petty revenge, though," Mai said, lowering her voice slightly to keep Ty Lee from hearing the confession. Azula couldn't hold back a chuckle as she pulled back.
"You look… alright? Everything's good?" she asked. Mai breathed deeply and nodded.
"We'll talk some more inside. You probably do need the bathroom right away after that hug, don't you?"
"Uh, yeah. I really do," Azula admitted. Mai chuckled, letting her through and ushering Song to come inside as well.
Ty Lee and Rei were the very last ones to enter the house – for Renkai, yet again, elected to stay outside. But Azula bumped into yet another surprise before she could make her way to the bathroom: not only was Ruon Jian home, it seemed, and Yuudai squealed happily upon seeing Rei again… but a taller, dark-skinned man with a headband stood behind him too, and his emerald eyes glistened with tears and relief when they met hers.
"Haru?" Azula blurted out his name, unable to mask her surprise. He smiled warmly at her reaction, stepping past Ruon Jian to approach her. "I…! I had no idea you'd be here too, I thought…!"
"That I'd be at work? Well, both Ruon Jian and I had the same idea, it seems," he laughed softly, tears spilling down his cheeks as he clasped Azula's shoulders gently. "When Ty Lee told me she'd see you today, I took the day off and… and I'm so glad I did. I'm so glad to see you again…"
"I'm glad, too. You seem to be doing well for yourself," Azula said. Haru chuckled and nodded, leaning in to offer Azula a much more cautious and careful hug than the one Ty Lee had given her earlier.
"We've done our best to get by," he answered earnestly, offering Azula a light squeeze before pulling back. "It's such a relief to know you're okay for sure, Princess… and you're so much further along than I realized."
His hand hovered right above her bump for a moment, as though unsure if he ought to be so bold, but Azula smiled and nodded. Haru grinned back, setting his palm carefully upon her belly: he hadn't developed as thorough a seismic sense as Toph's, but he was sure he felt a light thumping… a heartbeat, he thought, smiling warmly at the sensation.
"Hi there, little one," he said. "It's nice to meet you. I'm your uncle Haru…"
"And I'm your aunt Ty Lee!" Ty Lee screamed, rushing towards Azula again and prompting her to laugh over her friend's boisterous exclamation. She slowed down next to Haru, still with a tearful smile, and Haru clasped her hand, placing her where his own had been before.
"Can you feel the heartbeat?" he asked: Azula's eyes widened upon hearing those words.
"Can… can you?" she asked. He grinned and nodded, and Azula's face flushed upon hearing as much. "Huh. Earthbending seismic sense, I take it?"
"I haven't developed it much, but I guess I did learn how to tap into it during the Race…" Haru said, with a sad smile: to think that chaotic event had happened less than a year ago…
"I… don't really feel it but I take your word for it, dear," Ty Lee said, biting her lip before smiling brightly. "Hello! Hello there! Do you hear us?"
"You don't expect the baby to respond, now, do you?" Azula asked, amused. Ty Lee shrugged. "Well, it might kick or something but that might not be a very flattering reaction…"
"I wouldn't find it all that bad, though! Oh, but has it kicked yet? Has it?!" Ty Lee exclaimed, standing upright again. "You have to tell us EVERYTHING!"
"I… have to go to the bathroom. After that, well, I might tell you a few things but I don't know if I'll have enough time in a single day to go over literally everything," Azula said, smirking and shaking her head at her friend. "And you'll have some answers to provide as well, understood?"
"Oh, I do? About what?! Azula!" Ty Lee exclaimed, as Azula marched off to the bathroom without another word. "Ah, she can't just say that and leave me hanging…!"
"Give her a moment," Song laughed, shaking her head. "That was a lot of excitement, a lot of hugs and…"
"And you're due for one more, too," Haru said, smiling fondly at her before scooping Song up into another hug as well. Song snorted with laughter, clapping Haru's back gently.
"Goodness, I didn't expect we'd see you, either," Song said, pulling back and grinning at the still-smiling Haru. "You've been okay? The two of you? And your mom, Haru…?"
"We've been quite alright, yes. Even after the League fell to shambles, we've pulled through. My job has definitely helped quite a bit," he said, biting his lip. "Being cut off from the Princess hasn't been easy, though…"
"I wouldn't have minded it as much if the circumstances had been any different, she always got busy with stuff back in the day after all. If only it had been like that…" Ty Lee said, but then she raised her tearful eyes at Song again. "B-but you've been there for her all along…!"
"Uh, well, not all along. Rei actually got there first," Song smiled at the young woman, who was chuckling as Yuudai hugged her leg tightly. Ty Lee gasped and nodded.
"And I want to hear all about that, too…! But goodness, you look so different, Song! If Mai hadn't told me…!"
"Maybe she also told you… to call me Wen?" Song asked, raising her eyebrows. Ty Lee winced, covering her mouth with her hands: Haru clasped her shoulders, soothing her kindly as he chuckled at his wife's misstep. "That's the whole reason why I look different, to begin with…"
"For what it's worth, Ty Lee's right. You're… a whole different person," Haru said, with a sad smile. "But I'm glad you were safe… or, well, as safe as anyone can be in the Palace these days."
"Eh, well, it's tricky, but we've navigated our way through it so far," Song said, with a shrug. "I'm just glad I've been able to give Azula a hand with the baby. It's been a surprisingly smooth process, even if the baby's not that active…"
"Is that something to be concerned about?" Mai chimed in, stepping closer to Song. The healer smiled and shook her head.
"All babies are different. There's been some movement, and heck, I heard Haru can sense the heartbeats because he's an earthbender? That's honestly really helpful," Song chuckled. "I do have a device that amplifies the sounds, I've used it here and there, so I've heard the heartbeats too, but it's not easy to do it when everyone's being so noisy…"
"Well, I can't help but be noisy right now!" Ty Lee exclaimed, biting her lip as she glanced between the two newcomers, their smiles awkward over Ty Lee's excitement. "Goodness, I'm sorry if I'm being too much, but I just…! I can't believe we had the chance to meet up at all, it's so…!"
A sob cut her off, and she wound up crying again, this time resting against her husband's chest. Haru chuckled, hugging her kindly and rubbing her arms reassuringly. Song smiled affectionately at Ty Lee: truthfully, she felt she was close to tears of relief herself, too. Being here, with all of them… it brought back fond memories that elevated and hurt her on equal measure. For as much as she was thrilled to see Ty Lee, Haru and Mai again, her awareness of the people missing from their group seemed to strengthen constantly. Ty Lee would likely be even louder if Toph were here, too, being as shamelessly bold as she ever was… and if Sokka were here, he'd keep warning everyone to be careful with Azula's bump, utterly paranoid about her every need.
And Rui Shi… her throat choked up at that sole thought. At the foolishness of pondering if, by any chance, he'd wonder about starting their own family too, inspired by their friends' own…
"Okay, okay, I'm better now," Azula's voice drifted towards them from the corridor, and Ty Lee's squeak brought Song out of the ruminations that she, frankly, wanted to be broken away from. She missed the man she had wished to marry… she missed him so badly she might just lose her mind to sorrow and nostalgia whenever she let herself fall into the trappings of memories, of fantasies and dreams that would likely not come true, not anytime soon.
"Azulaaaa…!" Ty Lee exclaimed again, rushing towards the Princess and hugging her from the side.
"Shouldn't we… relocate?" Mai proposed, with a sigh. "The foyer is nice and all, but I think we're slightly cramped…"
"The dining room is ready for today's feast," Ruon Jian said, smiling and startling Rei with that announcement. "Well… as far as I know, we were going to throw a party, right?"
"That was the plan, yes…" Azula smirked as her daughter's eyes widened.
"A… party?" she asked.
"Normally, I wouldn't have gone out of my way to make it one…" Mai said, with a casual shrug: Rei gaped at her in wonderment. "But a little bird mentioned on her last visit that today would be someone's birthday, so…"
"Eh… eh?!" Rei's cheeks were aflame at record speed as she processed Mai's revelation: everyone smiled at her as she seemed moments away from falling into denial. "Y-you didn't have to…!"
"I'm afraid I did. What poor excuse for an aunt would I be, otherwise?" Mai smirked at her. "Happy birthday, by the way. With all this fuss I didn't have a chance to say it, but…"
"Mai told me it would be your birthday, yes!" Ty Lee squealed, tears burning in her eyes again as she stepped closer to Rei.
"Happy birthday, Rei!" Yuudai exclaimed too, grinning up at her as Ty Lee scooped her into yet another tight hug…
And all the while, Rei stood frozen in place, jaw dropped, eyes drifting towards Azula and Song. The Princess smiled fondly at her, and Song shot her a mischievous grin that seemed to urge her to make the most of this party… the very first actual party Rei had ever participated in.
She didn't want to cry, but she couldn't help it. Her profound gratitude saw to the breaking of her walls, and she and Ty Lee wound up laughing and crying together: was someone still a stranger if you shared your emotions together to that extent? Rei certainly didn't know… but the Princess's friends already felt like her friends, too, regardless of if they'd only gotten to know her on that very day, or across less than a week.
The servants welcomed them, speaking quite formally even to someone of their standing, as Rei was. It seemed they had prepared plenty of food for the party, and Yuudai kept rambling excitedly about each dish… the dining room, where the main celebration was bound to take place, had been decorated with colorful lanterns and a few ornaments dangling from the walls. By then, even those Rei hadn't had a chance to properly speak to, namely the husbands of the Princess's friends, had offered her their birthday wishes too, and Rei's emotions appeared to overwhelm her…
"You okay?" Song asked, clasping her shoulder and reeling her close to her when Yuudai finally got distracted by his father briefly. Rei breathed deeply and glanced at her with grateful eyes.
"I… I don't think so. I'm… I've never had so many friends," she said, with a fragile smile. Song smiled, hugging her closer yet.
"Admittedly… you've had quite a quick introduction to all of them, not much time to brace yourself for meeting so many people," Song chuckled. "But they're all wonderful. Haru there, he's an earthbender, no idea if you overheard that…"
"I… didn't," Rei said, eyes widening. "Then he's… from the Earth Kingdom, too?"
"Yeah. We didn't know each other back then, but he didn't live all that far away from my old village," Song said, with a shrug. "He was Ty Lee's gladiator, though…"
"Oh…" Rei blinked blankly, casting a glance at Haru anew: yet again, her concept of gladiators seemed to crumble, for the sensitive, kind-hearted man who was offering to help the servants with that good-mannered grin couldn't be more different from Combustion Man if he tried.
"They fell in love too by working together. Happened a lot more often than you'd think," Song chuckled. "I don't really know Mai's story with her husband, but I think they were married well before I even got brought to the Capital…"
"Wow," said Rei, blinking blankly. "He wasn't a gladiator too, was he…?"
"Oh, no. I don't think so, at least," Song chuckled. "Mai never involved herself in the Gladiator League much… kind of like me, frankly."
"You didn't, either?" Rei asked. "Even when you were housemates with Sokka…?"
"Believe it or not… I never watched a single fight," Song said, with an awkward grin. Rei chuckled. "I kind of regret it, to a fault… but honestly, occasionally watching those two sparring in the backyard was probably better action than anything that happened in the Arena."
"She must have been amazing…" Rei said, smiling brightly. Song nodded sagely.
"Oh, she was. And he was too, but he'd be the first to say she was way better than him," Song chuckled. "He trained with Haru at times, too, but I never got to see that either. I missed out on a lot more things than I realized I did…"
"And now you're in the middle of… well, everything. Kind of like me," Rei said, grinning. Song chuckled and nodded.
"Yep, you and I aren't all that different in the end. So believe me, I know how crazy it is to find yourself square in the middle of this group of incredible people…" Song said, with a happy sigh. "But hey, if I managed to fit in somehow, you will too. They already love you, as you may have noticed…"
"I don't know if…" Rei said, with a shy laugh, just before someone called her name excitedly.
"Rei!" Yuudai came running towards her again: he was holding up a box that caught the young woman by surprise. "Dad told me to get it! Look, look!"
"U-uh… okay?" Rei smiled awkwardly, glancing at Ruon Jian. He grinned as he stepped closer, taking the box kindly and pulling it open.
"My son said you're good with an abacus?" he said, pulling out the delicate, ornate instrument from its box. Rei's eyes lit up with a bright grin. "It might not be the best of moments for this… but maybe you'd like to help me teach this little rascal how to use one properly? Maybe that way he'll stop asking if he can take out all the beads…"
"Oh, please don't take them out," Rei chuckled, smiling at Yuudai. "But yes, I… I'd be honored to help."
"If he gets too twitchy, we can change the subject and do something else while we wait for the food to be done," Ruon Jian chuckled, as Yuudai grinned eagerly at Rei.
Song smiled as she left them to their abacus lessons: she approached Haru instead, smiling warmly as he asked her just what sort of circumstances could have ever seen her returning under her new disguise to the Fire Nation Capital after she had been taken to safety. They withdrew to a corner of the room to speak quietly there… much as Azula, Mai and Ty Lee had taken their seat in another such corner, with Ty Lee still clinging to Azula, her face buried in her right shoulder.
"Thank you for this… it means a lot that you'd go out of your way like this for Rei, Mai," Azula said. Mai shook her head.
"You didn't have to ask. And, well, the minute I told Ty Lee you had a fully-grown daughter…"
"I was so confused. Honestly, I still kind of am," Ty Lee confessed, raising her head just slightly. "Mai did explain, but… she really was Zhao's? And he treated her so badly…?"
"Worst part is it seems everything from before Zhao was worse than anything he ever did to her," Azula said, letting out a deep sigh. "I don't think she'll ever tell me the full extent of the horrors she faced in her old life… but I do know I'll do everything in my power to ensure she never has to go back to a nightmare like that one."
"Well, whatever you need from us to see to that, just let us know," Mai said, and Ty Lee nodded. "She may not be blood-related to you, but she's your daughter all the same…"
"I… I bet Sokka would be proud of you for taking her in," Ty Lee said, biting her lip. Azula let out a soft laugh.
"Well… he probably would be, yeah. He helped me deal with Hahn… he knew of Rei's actual identity even though he never met her directly. It's hard to process that they really don't know each other at times… she's become such a big part of my life now that it's almost as though she had been here all along, even when I know that's not the case."
"Hopefully they'll meet someday, then… hopefully. Mai says… oh, Mai says you had a vision of him. You did, you did, you did…!" Ty Lee squealed much more quietly now, though the lower volume of her voice conveyed her excitement perfectly regardless. Azula sighed but smiled.
"I knew you'd go bonkers about it… yes, I did, and I still feel strange things all the time that don't seem to be, well, my feelings? So… I can't help but wonder if it's our attunement. I don't know if we're still attuned after all this time, not when my chi became the mess it was and when we've been away from each other for so long, but…"
"But if you have feelings that aren't your own, that's the most likely explanation…" Ty Lee said, beaming brightly. "Ah, I never thought you'd be a believer, Azula, but look at you now…!"
"Honestly, I'm not proud of it and if my life had turned out any differently, I really wouldn't believe in any of this myself," Azula said. Ty Lee pouted at her skeptical remarks, and Mai smirked, unsurprised to hear them. "But honestly, what happened that night wasn't just a dream. I know it wasn't…"
"Was your father… anywhere to be seen in that vision of yours?" Mai asked. Azula frowned before raising an eyebrow.
"Fortunately, no. I barely want to see him in real life these days, I sure as hell wouldn't want to see him in visions…" Azula said, rolling her eyes.
"I only ask because… well, I did what you asked me to, of course," Mai said, with a shrug. Azula's mood shifted into utter seriousness upon hearing those words. "And it definitely sounds like he's looking for any signs, any evidence that he's alive. I made up a bunch of lies to pretend that you'd found some manner of peace in the belief that he was gone, that it meant he wouldn't suffer anymore, drivel of that sort…"
"And he… bought it?" Azula asked, puzzled. Mai shrugged.
"Maybe not completely, but he certainly implied, more than implied, that he thinks Sokka might be alive," Mai said. Azula closed her eyes and breathed deeply.
"Well… shit," she said, shaking her head. "I mean… whatever deceit he pulled on my father wasn't bound to last forever, of course not. But…"
"But you wish it'd lasted longer than it did?" Mai sighed, shaking her head.
"Three months was too much, I suppose…" Azula said. "The communication network of the Fire Nation army wouldn't be so easily deceived forever."
"No, it wouldn't be, but you have to act like you still think he's dead or else your father will really think you were up to no good," Mai said, with a sigh. "By now, he might even assume I'm the one who told you…"
"He would be likely to jump to those conclusions," Azula sighed, shaking her head. "But don't worry. I spent ages lying to my father, and apparently I did it far better at it than I thought I had. Even if he's expecting only the worst from me nowadays, he'll have no reason to think I'm lying about whatever I know or don't know about Sokka's survival…"
"Not like you genuinely know anything anyway," Mai said. "You didn't exactly get to talk everything thoroughly with him in that vision, or did you?"
"Uh, no. Certainly not," Azula sighed, shaking her head. "I barely got to… to tell him about this one."
She placed her hand on her womb, and Ty Lee gasped.
"You told him, then?"
"Told the vision…" Mai said, with a skeptical smirk. Azula rolled her eyes but smiled.
"Yes, I told the vision. Just when it was about to end," Azula said. "Or, well, I implied it, I suppose, but he definitely understood…"
"Oh, Azula…" Ty Lee whimpered before crying again, hugging her friend tightly. Azula sighed, patting Ty Lee's shoulder gently.
"I only hope he didn't do something utterly stupid because I told him that…" Azula said, gritting her teeth. "It's… something that I'm a little worried about. I know that reckless fool all too well, but I did tell him to stay put and wait for me until it was safe for us to… to reunite again. We both knew it might not happen, ever, but…"
"But if he knows you're expecting his child, would he just sit tight and wait forever?" Mai asked. Azula shrugged.
"No idea. I hope so, though… his Tribe won't stay safe if he's reckless enough to come find me or whatever it is he's doing nowadays," Azula said, shaking her head. "But anyway… your dad. Was there anything about the letter that…?"
"Well, I suppose I'll know for sure when I return whenever he calls me again, but it does appear that he's displeased with my father," Mai said, frowning. "He said something about a Captain, Captain… Tseng? Is that a familiar name for you?"
"Not really," Azula said. Mai let out a sigh. "Did that Tseng report something was off?"
"I don't know. But it definitely looks like your father's out for my father's blood, somehow," Mai said, with a shrug. "The letter wasn't the starting point, there may have been a conflict between them, a feud of some sort… either way, they're not on good terms right now and it really looks like the Fire Lord's ready to tear the world to pieces all over again. You're not wrong to believe that something's out of place."
"Well… whatever it is, it better not be Sokka," Azula said, shaking her head and burying her face in her hand. "Getting this far was difficult enough. Surviving and getting by… I didn't even know if I'd have it in me, but somehow, I've managed. If he's up to something that pissed off my father, though…"
"Would he be so reckless?" Mai asked. "He's… well, I was going to say he's not stupid, but…"
"He's not, even if he tried to make the case for the opposite sometimes," Azula said, with a weak grin. "He… he has to know the precarious position I'd be in if he did anything troublesome. At least, he has to have some idea…"
"But it would be so nice if… if he could just come here and help look after you," Ty Lee sighed. Azula shook her head. "I know, I know, it can't happen, but…"
"Imagining that kind of thing generally only makes me feel worse about life, so I'd rather not think about it," Azula said. "As it is… I'm focusing on Rei, on the baby, and ever since my father started acting off again, on figuring out whatever he's hiding. You'll have to go back once he calls you in again…"
"And I'll report whatever you tell me I should," Mai confirmed, nodding. Azula bit her lip.
"Well, telling him you're trying to lower my guard by being welcoming to Rei and throwing a birthday party for her ought to be a good start," Azula proposed. Mai nodded, though Ty Lee seemed sad to hear those words, even while knowing they were a lie. "Make him think you're just wearing down my defenses to make me trust you wholeheartedly and confess all my worst sins to you, all that stuff…"
"Knowing what I already know about you, I'd rather not hear about the very worst ones…" Mai said, grimacing. Azula scoffed, shaking her head, though her amusement returned upon hearing those words.
"I wouldn't mind hearing that, though," Ty Lee grinned, and Azula laughed as Mai scowled at her opportunistic friend. "What? I always told you guys everything! Heck, we can swap sordid stories these days, it'll be fun…!"
"We sure can and we certainly won't. Honestly, one would think you'd get your head out of the gutter after all this time…" Mai said, smiling as she rose to her feet. "I'll go check on the servants, if you want to share creepy stories please do so while I'm absent…"
"Oh, oh, make it a long one so Mai hears the end of it when she comes back, Azula!" Ty Lee snickered. Azula chuckled, shaking her head as Mai groaned, walking away with amused exasperation.
As teasing as she had just presented herself, Ty Lee's vulnerabilities came back to the fore once Mai was gone. Her tearful eyes met Azula's as she offered her another snug embrace, pressing her face to her friend's right shoulder still.
"Have you… have you recovered?" Ty Lee asked, gently reaching up for Azula's left shoulder carefully. "You were still struggling with it when we last saw you…"
"Wen's done a good job at patching me back together, yeah. I'm not fully recovered still, not that anyone expected me to be, let alone after everything that's happened…" Azula said, with a half-hearted shrug. "But I have seen a few specks of blue when I bend lately. I don't do it often, I'm not training or anything, my main exercise these days is just walking, so…"
"Well, as long as you're feeling better…" Ty Lee said, biting her lip. "Oh, I was so worried. We all were, but…"
"I know. And I'd love to pretend you don't need to worry anymore, but with my father being as unpredictable and volatile as he's known to be, it feels like taking anything for granted is a bad idea," Azula admitted, with a sigh. "He's eased up on Xin Long, that's the main good thing that has changed lately… but he's been much more hostile as of late than he had been in months. It's why I came to Mai…"
"She mentioned, yeah," Ty Lee nodded. Azula sighed again.
"Beyond having strange visions he'd never believe if he heard about them, I haven't really done anything he should consider treasonous. But if there's anything to be learned from how he treated Zuko… my father simply looks for excuses to strike at whatever displeases him. I'll try not to let him find one with me, but I don't know if I'll be able to avoid it forever…"
"I hope you can. And if you can't, then I hope you can get away… for good this time," Ty Lee said, shaking her head. "I know you worry about us, but we're mortified because of the awful things you go through anyway, Azula…"
"I'm sorry for being insensitive to your pain, but… your emotional mortification feels like a lesser cruelty than letting my father set you on fire or whatever horrific shit he wants to do to people he's angry at," Azula said, gazing at Ty Lee remorsefully. "If he were rational, if I had the chance to get through to him, none of this would be happening at all. But he does whatever he wants, and the consequences don't concern him in the slightest. So… I'm just doing my best to get by despite that."
"Well… if you ever think you need help, if there's anything we can do, don't hesitate to come to us," Ty Lee said, pouting slightly. "I know we're not much use as we are, but…"
"I'd rather not involve you and Mai in unnecessary trouble, but I know I can count on you for anything, too," Azula said, offering Ty Lee a weak smile. "Mai hasn't told me a lot about how things are going for you, though, so… how are you holding up? I suppose you might be bored now that the League is, well…"
"Uh, I suppose bored is a word for it," Ty Lee said, biting her lip. "It's weird to be freaking out about things when nothing's really going on, right? But I suppose that's why I've felt so unsettled… anyway, I really haven't had a lot of stuff to do, no. Haru's doing great at his job, though! He's really revitalizing that construction business… you know, if he has differently colored sand, he can create colorful glass and then it's so beautiful once light passes through it! It's amazing what he's been doing, really… we've set up a few adornments like that in the house, but they're using his work to make windows of glass and it's so interesting…! Though I bet it sounds really boring to you, heh…"
"Why would it sound boring?" Azula chuckled. "I'm glad he's doing well for himself. Honestly, if things hadn't gone to hell, I would've been glad to hire his construction company for… well, the place we were supposed to relocate to. But, heh, no point thinking about that anymore. Either way, I'm glad he's doing well. The pay's good?"
"It is, and it's stable, too," Ty Lee nodded. "A lot more stable than the League… good times meant lots of income, bad times meant not so much. But honestly, I do miss it. I spar with Haru sometimes just for fun, when he has days off… Ran has even asked me to teach her a few techniques too, I think she worries about me whenever she sees I'm not very cheerful lately."
"I hope she's doing well," Azula said, biting her lip. "Have… have Enforcers ever checked on her? Not that they ought to have any problems with you, of course, but…"
"I can't say they have," Ty Lee confessed, shaking her head. "Honestly… nobody really has heard from them in a while, as an organization, I mean. I have heard a few things through Shoji, he's gotten to know one of their higher-ups…"
"Right. Mei Xun was there too," Azula said, with a weak smile. Ty Lee raised an eyebrow. "And Shoji? Is he coping well with the League's loss? Does he have another job yet?"
"Oh, yeah, though he definitely doesn't enjoy it. I feel like the only actual staff member that worked in the League because it was his calling was Shoji," Ty Lee sighed, shaking her head. "He drops by often, still. I always tell him to write books and stories about his time as the Arena's sponsors' clerk, but he always laughs it off and says he can't do something so controversial…"
"Well, now, he can write it and keep it stashed away safely," Azula smirked. "Then he can wait for about five decades until it's safe to publish it officially…"
"Huh… that sounds like a plan! I'll tell him to do that," Ty Lee grinned, and Azula chuckled.
"He can get pointers about how to write it from Yang, if he needs any," she said. Ty Lee's grin waned, replaced by utter perplexity.
"Yang? Uh… the guy who wrote the Chronicles?" Ty Lee said. "Ooh, they ought to collaborate at it, actually! But, um, were they friends?"
"No idea, but they're part of their little controversial group together, as far as I know," Azula said, with a nonchalant shrug.
Ty Lee's face paled upon hearing those words. She raised an eyebrow slowly, staring at Azula warily.
"And… how do you know about their little controversial group, exactly?" she asked. Azula's smile widened.
"Well… Song and Rei infiltrated one of their meetings. The one from the first day of the Festivals," Azula said. Ty Lee gasped, covering her mouth with her hands. "I wasn't there, of course, but I did ask for permission so the two of them could see the city… and they had a pretty good time. They came across a stall selling Gladiator League relics or so, and the man who owned it directed them to that meeting in a teahouse… they pretended to be fans, Shoji couldn't recognize Song… and considering that people who actually knew her on a personal level can fail to recognize her, as Mai did, is it really any surprise that he wouldn't identify her after only meeting her, what, twice in his life?"
"Well… it's definitely not strange when you put it that way," Ty Lee said, eyes wide.
"They told me about the meeting after they came back, of course… and that's how I finally learned who were the sneaky people making a clandestine group to support me, apparently," Azula said, with a sad smile. "The Head Sage told me about them long ago, but I didn't even care to guess who the members were until Rei and Song shared what they learned…"
"Makes sense, I suppose," Ty Lee said, biting her lip. "Shoji doesn't really tell us much about that group, so I didn't know the Chronicles guy was part of it… but it makes sense that he would be, if I think about it. I just… don't know if I should get involved with any of that stuff either because, well, I don't know if your father keeps me watched or whatever…"
"Hopefully he doesn't, but you're smart to be cautious," Azula said, nodding. "It's probably for the best if you keep your distance."
"Then… it's also for the best if I keep my mouth shut about everything with Shoji?" Ty Lee asked. Azula frowned, eyeing her friend with confusion. "I… I think he has a pretty good idea as to what happened to you, and to Sokka. But he doesn't want to ask, and I don't want to tell either because I don't want to put him at risk…"
"Wise of you… and admittedly, now that you bring it up, I don't know why I as good as assumed he already knew," Azula said, with a sad smile. "Still… I'm not sure he needs to know. It's not that I don't trust him, but most of his group is comprised by people who are total strangers for me. Maybe he'd mistakenly assume they're all good people only for one of them to be a spy of my father's or so…"
"You think that's possible?" Ty Lee asked, grimacing. Azula shrugged.
"At this point, I try not to rule out anything that can represent a real threat to any of us," Azula said. "If you do choose to tell him, then… make it clear that he can't spread the story around, no matter how much he might trust his friends from that group. My father has kept things quiet through all these months because he couldn't be more ashamed of my choices… if rumors about my relationship with Sokka start to take wind again, he's definitely going to lose whatever restraint he still has left. I would rather not risk that, so…"
"Yeah… yeah. Nobody should," Ty Lee agreed, nodding. "I'll think about it, then. I'll see if I can tell him safely… Ran pretty much figured it out ages ago, honestly, so he's the only one I'd have to tell at all, if I even choose to."
"I suppose we really were too obvious all along for people sharper than my father," Azula said, with a sad smile. "I suppose it's pointless to wonder when Ran realized it, so I won't even ask…"
"Pretty sure she was onto you guys all along but only figured it out for sure on my wedding," Ty Lee said, with a sad smile. Azula chuckled, shaking her head.
"Well, we were at our worst that day, for sure…" she said. Ty Lee smiled, hugging her kindly again.
"I'd say at your best, if anything. Though your dancing was pretty ridiculous…" she conceded. Azula chuckled, lowering her head and covering her face with her hands.
"Something's ridiculous? Is it already time to talk about embarrassing things Azula's been up to, then?" Mai asked, upon returning to her friends. Ty Lee giggled as Azula eyed Mai skeptically, earning herself only a smirk as a response.
"Your favorite conversation topic, yes, we know…" Azula said, with bitterness that couldn't fully mask her amusement. Mai sighed happily and nodded in agreement.
"We were talking about her dancing…" Ty Lee said. Azula rolled her eyes as Mai's smirk gained strength.
"Oh, right. On the day she tried very fruitlessly to shake me off with nonsensical excuses…" she said, shaking her head. Azula snorted, eyeing Mai skeptically.
"I'm so very sorry, Mai, but Sokka and I were being quite damning all on our own without you pushing things along further, thank you very much," she said. Mai and Ty Lee laughed as Azula smiled fondly at the thought of such a wonderful day…
It felt as though it was easier sometimes… as though looking back on the past she had wanted to cherish forever, memories that had been tarnished with the pain and strife Ozai had inflicted upon them, wasn't impossible anymore. Azula still yearned for the man she loved, she always would… but to her surprise, the pain had become easier to bear with over time. The knowledge that he hadn't perished under Ozai's attacks, that he had survived and endured elsewhere… it kept her going, no matter how fearful she was for his sake now, upon confirming Ozai might have discovered the truth of his survival.
Maybe the pain would only fade for good once they reunited anew, whether in this life or the next… but for now, it was bearable. She could face life, whatever challenges came her way, without as much fear as before… even if she would always long for him, always reach for him, it seemed her heart had found the closest thing to peace she had ever known without him by her side.
Rei's birthday party continued peacefully, as the separate groups mingled once more, with Song and Haru rejoining Azula, Mai and Ty Lee, until everyone gathered together for the feast once the food was brought to the table. For the second time, Rei enjoyed a meal among highborn people as though she were one of them… highborn who seemed to see no real difference between themselves and others of different origins from their own, she realized: Haru was an Earth Kingdom man, much as Song was from the Earth Kingdom too… and yet they were at such ease among the Princess and her friends that it was apparent that their bonds with each person in the room were personal, genuine, of true friendship and affection. That the Princess had such good friends thrilled Rei: they had welcomed her as though she had always been one of them. She had received nothing but kindness from everyone, even the hyperactive Yuudai who seemed to have taken a liking to her as an older sister of a sort.
Mai and Ty Lee surprised her, shortly before they were ready to leave in the afternoon, with two small gifts for her birthday: in Ty Lee's case, the gift was bracelet of crystalline stones that Rei mistakenly assumed for jewels. Ty Lee laughed off her bashfulness as Haru explained he had bent the crystals himself to make the bracelet… and Rei's embarrassment only increased further, as knowing it was a hand-made, earthbending gift was even more thrilling than a jewel could possibly be. Mai's present also startled Rei: she gawked with amazement at the smooth and delicate embroidered fabric of the small coin pouch, in which a couple of coins nestled already.
"T-the coins…?" she asked. Mai smiled and shook her head.
"The coins and the purse are both yours," she said. "I hear you're good with numbers, so I hope that means you'll be good with money and make up for your mother's failings on the matter…"
"Wait, what?" Azula blinked blankly, meeting Mai's accusatory smirk with a scandalized glare. "When have I ever made a mess of my money, exactly?"
"I seem to recall all too well that a certain Princess didn't carry money on her person back when she took me to a very nasty town a long time ago…" Mai said, nonchalantly. Azula's jaw dropped.
"That… that was forever ago, and I carried money on me frequently ever since," Azula said, raising her eyebrows. Mai scoffed.
"Did you? Are you carrying any now?" she asked, smirking knowingly. Azula's eyebrow twitched. "I rest my case: Rei, you'll be better off handling the finances in this family, I assure you…"
"Oh, come on…" Azula scoffed, rolling her eyes as everyone laughed softly at her playful outrage. Mai's smirk spoke for itself regarding how proud she was of her gift and the effect it had on her friend.
They said their farewells by the door – Song delivered a food package to a surprised and grateful Renkai once she stepped across the threshold. Rei smiled brightly, holding her presents to her chest as she waited for her mother to finish her goodbyes.
"We… we can try doing this more often, can't we?" Ty Lee asked, eyes tearful once more. "If your father's letting you go out more…"
"Well, I don't know if that'll last…" Azula said, glancing at Mai. "And there's also the fact that it could be potentially dangerous for Mai. But… if she's down for enduring my father's questioning later, I'll be happy to come by whenever you want me to. I think Rei would be pleased for it too, looks to me like she's quite fond of the two of you already…"
"Of course she is. Why wouldn't she be? We're perfectly agreeable people who make fun of her mother, there's no better company than that for someone her age," Mai smirked, though she stepped forward to offer Azula a friendly hug. "Take care of yourself and yours, as always. Including this one."
Azula smiled and nodded as Mai's hand fell upon her womb. Ty Lee's joined it, and she giggled carelessly, tears spilling down her cheeks…
Just so, a small movement within Azula's body startled all three friends.
"Did… did it move? Did it move?!" Ty Lee squealed, and her tears seemed to slow for a moment only to rush down even faster later. Azula laughed as Mai smiled fondly, pulling her hand back and giving the Princess room to place her own palms upon her womb. "It moved, Haru, it moved…!"
"Maybe it's restless and wants to go home," Mai said. Azula shook her head.
"I think it just… was saying goodbye, too," she said, with a warm smile directed at her womb… at the small baby growing within it.
She could barely believe herself sometimes, but even though she hadn't even held the child once, let alone spoken with it or actually gotten to know it, she already felt an overwhelming outpour of motherly pride for that small being she meant to protect with her very life.
That last moment ended their joyful afternoon on a high note, as the four visitors from the Palace returned to their confinement in Azula's room, still rejoicing in the wonderful day they'd shared between friends. Rei's excitement over her presents remained a beautiful sight to witness, but unbeknownst to her, her birthday celebration wasn't over just yet.
The three women took a careless nap upon arriving home and cleaning up after their walk. They woke up a few hours before midnight, which sufficed for their next adventure. Azula and Song ensured to gather enough supplies to bring with them to their most common tunnels' destination: Sokka's house greeted them with the same comforting silence it ever did, welcoming the three women into its partially recovered premises.
Most the floorboards had been flipped by now. The chaos, the filth, the signs of violence had been mostly cleared out even if some of them – such as the broken door – would require much more thorough repairs than what the three of them could provide. But today, of course, wasn't a day for them to work hard, regardless of Rei's expectations.
"Wait… you had more gifts? B-but today was already…!" Rei gasped, shaking her head. Song snickered, clasping her hand and guiding her to one of her greatest treasures in that house.
"See all this?" she said, planting Rei firmly before the tall, filled bookshelf. "I made it my mission to fill it with books I would read thoroughly, and… well, I think I got through well over half of them, but you know, sometimes you do buy more books than you end up reading, so…"
"S-so…?" Rei blinked blankly, looking at Song warily. Song smiled fondly at her, squeezing her shoulders gently.
"So… you can, maybe, read the ones I already read, or the ones I didn't and tell me all about them afterwards," Song chuckled. Rei's eyes widened. "What I'm saying is… take your picks, and if you want the whole bookshelf you can certainly have it. I wish I could've done more than this, second-hand books aren't exactly the most luxurious gift of all time, but…"
"It's… i-it's too much," Rei said, tearful anew. "S-Song, I… I don't have a bookshelf in my room, s-so I don't know where I'd put them…"
"Oh, that's fine. You can just take out whichever ones you want, one at a time, maybe two?" Song suggested. "At any rate… they're yours now. This way, as Azula always says, you'll end up being the one teaching us countless things rather than the other way around…"
"Y-you've already taught me so much more than I could ever…" Rei sniffed, interrupting her own words as more tears spilled down her cheeks, "t-than I could ever hope to teach anyone else. T-thank you, I… I don't know if I can read all your medicine books, but…"
"Oh, they're not exclusively about medicine, that's the fun part," Song grinned, patting Rei's head gently. "Lots of them are about stories, others about ancient history of other nations… I know you're not a fan of history, but I found it really fun to read those and find out so many things about other cultures that I'd never even known. I'd always ask Sokka a million questions to confirm if the stories about the Water Tribes were accurate… and he typically said that what I'd found was probably northern stuff, so he had no idea if it was accurate or not. But it was fun to ask him anyway…"
Song smiled fondly at the memories before focusing on Rei anew. The emotional young woman seemed to restrain her feelings quite poorly, but a smile spread over her face as she hugged Song tightly. Song chuckled, rubbing her back and hugging just as strongly.
"You're already a splendid grown-up, believe it or not, and you've only been one for a day," Song said, patting her shoulder gently. "Happy birthday, Rei."
"T-thank you. Thank you. It's… it's been the happiest day of my life…" she said anew, pressing her face to Song's shoulder. Song chuckled, cradling her kindly in her arms as she guided her to where Azula waited.
She sat by the veranda, her own gift for Rei on her lap. It wasn't too surprising that it might be a book, too… but the golden adornments on the cover and spine immediately caught Rei's attention, even under the light of a handful of lanterns.
"Now, then… ready for another gift?" Song asked. Azula shook her head, smiling sadly.
"I'm afraid this one's bound to be the most boring of them all… but, unfortunately, I couldn't come up with any grander ideas so far," Azula said. Rei shook her head, dropping to her knees beside her mother.
"Y-you didn't have to… y-you didn't have to do any of what you did today, or get me a gift… b-being your daughter is already the best gift I could've ever asked for. Spending my days with you and Song and Renkai… I'm very fortunate that I can do that. So anything more than that is… I… I don't know if I can keep up, even now…"
"Well, then, hopefully a simple gift will be good for you, if that's the case," Azula smiled, taking the small book upon her lap and handing it carefully to Rei. "This… is a surprisingly old book I found among my things. I have no memory of it, frankly, but I probably meant to use it one day and then forgot about it entirely…"
Rei blinked blankly before opening it carefully… to find nothing but blank pages within. Her eyes widened as she glanced at Azula, perplexed.
"It's not of the kinds of books you're used to, no," Azula smiled. "It can be anything you want it to be. I'd imagine a journal, a diary, might be a good idea for you, you can write down the events of the day there, reflect on things…"
"P-practice my calligraphy?" Rei asked, with a small grin. Azula chuckled and nodded.
"That would be guaranteed if you write in it, for sure," she said. "You can also use it for art, though. If you'd rather make artworks rather than writing…"
"I… I'm not so bold as to try," Rei laughed. Azula smiled fondly at her.
"Well, I'll have to get you out of your shell as far as art is concerned, too. Who knows? You might just be an art prodigy too…"
"No way, I'm not… I couldn't possibly be one," Rei laughed, shaking her head. Azula grinned and shrugged.
"It'll still be fun even if you're not one, so it's worth a shot someday, if you want to give it a try," Azula said. "But anyway… it's yours, Rei. Make whatever you wish of it. Write your own story, make up stories that entertain you more than those of the books I've given you, write down insanely complicated math operations… you can do whatever you want with it. Just let loose… and be free, okay?"
"I… I will. Though… w-what if I'd rather write your story instead of mine?" Rei asked, with an unusually mischievous smile. Azula scoffed, smirking slightly at her.
"That's what you'd do with your freedom, then? Write down my old adventures somewhere?" Azula asked. Rei grinned brightly and nodded enthusiastically. Azula's shoulders shook with her laughter as she shook her head. "Well, if we condensed it plenty it might fit in a single book, but…"
"If you keep all the sordid parts to yourself it might just fit, yes," Song teased her. Azula made a mocking face in her direction that brought Song to chuckle deviously.
"Maybe you should write Song's story, instead," Azula suggested, jerking her head in Song's direction. Rei chuckled too as Song gasped in feigned amazement. "And definitely write every filthy detail about every sordid thing she did with…"
"Oh, now, hell no…!"
"I bet there's lots of those stories, too, she likes to play coy and innocent, but I bet…"
"Absolutely not!" Song exclaimed, laughing despite being utterly flustered, to Azula's devious delight.
The laughter of the three women, the three friends, rang in the darkness of that night that closed the most blissful and peaceful day Rei had ever enjoyed before. She hugged the blank book to her chest, beaming brightly as she raised her gaze at the stars, twinkling beautifully in the skies above. She seemed to admire them even more than she ever had before, deeply grateful for the chance to indulge in that starlight with the two people who had changed her life into one worth living… perhaps even a life worth writing into a journal, like the Princess had suggested. She would have never conceived the notion before… but it sounded like a good idea, if just so she could keep days like these on record forevermore.
"Thank you…" Rei said, smiling brightly as she continued to gaze at the stars that were reflected on her kind eyes. "You… you've both done so much for me I don't think I'll ever thank you enough. But… I wanted to say it again. Thank you…"
"You deserve this, and more. I know you don't give me much credit when I say those things, but it's still true," Azula smiled, sliding over the floor and wrapping an arm around her daughter's shoulders. "As I said earlier, you're free to get rid of your meddlesome mother now, of course, as you're of age starting today…"
"And like I said earlier, I would never," Rei said, pressing her head to Azula's shoulder. Azula smiled warmly.
"That's nice to know. But even if you chose that… I hope you know you've changed my life for the better too, Rei. You've saved me in a thousand ways…"
"Well, you saved me first!" Rei chimed in, and Azula chuckled, shaking her head. "You really did…"
"I'm glad I did, but I don't know if I did it first, honestly," Azula said, resting her head on Rei's. Rei bit her lip, reaching out to clasp Song's hand, too.
"Well… whoever did it first, I don't really know, but… the truth is I didn't know what a family was until… until the two of you took me in as you have," Rei said. Azula's chest churned upon hearing those words, as did Song's. "I know you've both lost so much, a-and I'm not much of a replacement for all of it…"
"Replacement?" Song smiled, shaking her head as she stretched an arm around Rei's shoulders, clasping Azula's arm upon doing so, too. "That's definitely the wrong word for it. But… family? That one… that one's the perfect word, actually."
"It really is," Azula said, breathing deeply and resting her head on Rei's own.
"I'd never really been in a family… until now," Rei said, with a happy grin. "Nothing else I've known compares to this. So, thank you… thank you. This was… it's the first time my birthday means anything to me. And to anyone else, I guess…"
"Well… as I'm an overachiever, I'm afraid those words aren't simply compliments for me but challenges," Azula revealed, startling her daughter and amusing Song immediately. "Therefore… I will start planning ahead for your next birthday, yes. What would be the ideal present to give you a year from now…?"
"W-what, already?" Rei gasped: Song laughed beside her as Azula offered her daughter a wicked smirk. "B-but your birthday will happen first, so I should plan for yours instead! And Song's…! When's yours? Your birthday…!"
"What, mine? Nah, your birthday's way more fun than ours, let's keep planning yours," Song smirked teasingly, and Azula let out a delighted laugh as Rei blushed, covering her face in her hands and failing to hide her own laughter, too.
None of the three women who had found kindred spirits in each other had ever expected to experience any manner of peace once more: Rei had never even known true happiness, Song's life had been derailed on far too many occasions already, and Azula had found herself losing even her will to live on after her father's worst punishments… yet, together, the three of them had discovered life could still offer much more than expected, regardless of their respective tragedies and struggles. Their situation was far from ideal still, both Azula and Song felt deep in their hearts that key members of this small family were missing, and they longed for their presences every day… but for now, finding a new light in the form of the young woman that nestled between them, flustered and yet thrilled to have found her place with them, filled their hearts with hope: perhaps the darkest days fate had in store for them were already a thing of the past, and the future would be as bright and brilliant as Rei herself was, instead…
The statue was gone. Multiple reports by the latest scouts repeated the same peculiar and utterly perplexing information pertaining whatever was happening within the walls of Omashu: the statue was gone. Fire Lord Ozai's grandest tribute so far… gone.
Ukano wasn't answering. There were no responses from the city yet again. A force ought to be amassed, then, to strike away at Omashu, since the governor appeared to have betrayed his lord…
But just as he was composing a proposal for a direct confrontation of Omashu's leadership and whatever forces dwelled within it, War Minister Qin was interrupted by a flurry of messenger hawks: three had arrived within ten minutes, then five more… then they were twelve, and then they were twenty.
The first messages to arrive were confusing and perplexing. The second ones were worrisome and alarming…
The later ones chilled his blood to the bone, and he tore through each and every letter with utter desperation, hoping for information that contradicted the one he had read earlier… only to find the exact opposite thing, instead. Confirmation, over and over, of what the first of the most revealing letters had said. Of the most inconvenient development that could possibly shake the Fire Nation right now…
For it wasn't simply that Omashu had been in trouble already, and that something unsettling appeared to be brewing within the city… but the fact that Ba Sing Se would, apparently, be attacked at the very same time as they had learned of the first city's issues. And going by the letters that continued to arrive, the attack to the grand city wasn't being repealed effectively. The letters were from days ago, so unless one of them took a different turn soon, it meant something terrible was brewing in the largest of the Fire Nation Colonies…
Said news only seemed to worsen by the minute, more so once he learned the identity of the man who was said to be behind this nefarious development.
War Minister Qin, then, sat for hours in his office, eyes wide with horror, reading missive after missive, receiving bird after bird: some weren't even from Ba Sing Se directly but from other outposts that had been contacted about this emergency as well, outposts requesting orders and permission to serve as reinforcements for the city's forces… but to what avail? What could they possibly achieve in the largest city in the world if every new message conveyed a more disturbing, distressing truth…?
Omashu had turned against them. Ba Sing Se had fallen. General Tiang had been defeated… by a ghost. By a man who was supposed to be dead. A man who had been reported dead, and yet was likely very much alive, seeking vengeance against the Fire Nation… against the Fire Lord.
The Fire Lord.
How the blazes would War Minister Qin tell the Fire Lord that the Gladiator was still alive, and that he had conquered the impregnable city of Ba Sing Se in one day?