It was becoming unbearable.
For weeks now, Zuko’s friends have been staying at her family's Ember Island estate for what they claimed to be a “short” vacation. As much as she possibly could, Azula had tried to steer clear of them, hoping to have moments to herself without having to interact with the fools Zuko chose to associate with. But it seemed as though wherever she turned, at least one, if not all of them, were dawdling around the corner.
There was the bald, pale boy (man? man-boy?) who looked like he would cry at the sight of a couple of trampled daisies. Azula thinks he introduced himself as Lang. Or was it Khang?
There was the Kyoshi warrior and the blind earthbender, both women she begrudgingly respected. She caught them practicing one day and what she saw surprised her. For a non-bender, the warrior easily impressed her with a fighting technique with which she was wholly unfamiliar. The earthbender was formidable in her own right—small in stature, but possessing a wildly intricate hold over her bending abilities.
The women would have been suitable guests on the island if not for the other man-boy that accompanied them. This one’s voice always sounded on the verge of reaching maturity before a wayward squeak would betray him. Whenever he was around, the whole group would fall into antics befitting of children—not twenty-something year-olds. They goofed around as if their parents had finally stopped keeping a watchful eye over them. It was exhausting.
Azula could barely take two steps in the opposite direction before having to turn around again to referee their tomfoolery. If it wasn’t for Zuko’s insistence that they stay, Azula would have had them all banished from the island immediately. She was sure they would burn the mansion down if she wasn’t there to monitor their proclivities.
Honestly, Azula could handle all of that…easily. She wasn’t new to babysitting. She practically babysat her older brother her whole life. It was the last and final visitor in their little gang that made her stay on Ember Island a chore, much less anything that vaguely resembled a vacation.
Unlike the others, the infuriatingly, head-strong woman made it very difficult for Azula to forget her name. She could feel her teeth gritting at the mere mention of the waterbender.
It felt as if Katara existed purely just to complicate Azula’s life.
At first, Azula was resolved to be indifferent towards the woman just as she was to all the other hog monkeys. She would keep their interactions short and clipped; uninterested to say the least. But quickly, she learned that Katara was not one to back down from a challenge.
—[2 Weeks Prior]—
On the third morning of their stay, Azula follows the sound of disgustingly joyful chatter to the dining room where she guesses her brother to be. She is intent on finishing their conversation from last night. They had both stomped away from each other with heat fuming from their temples from the ferocity of their argument.
No doubt the subjects of their quarrel were consuming all of the food she had acquired for her stay. She was supposed to be enjoying two months of alone time on the island. Not with Zuko and definitely not with his friends.
Azula heaves a heavy sigh.Trust Zuko to assume that all their amenities would magically replenish without any prompting. She would need to send the servants out for more supplies as soon as possible.
As she slides the panel to the dining room open, Azula lazily sifts through the endless list of insults she has prepared. Just in time, she settles on one and disrupts the jovial conversation she walked in on.
“Well Zuzu, I’m glad to see the little flames you were able to muster last night didn’t completely ruin the mop that you like to pass off as hair,” Azula drawls. “Although, it would probably be a marked improvement if it did.” It wasn’t her best quip, but it does the trick. Zuko’s previously wide smile dims to an even line.
She watches his narrowed eyes, waiting for him to reply when a loud clearing of a throat interrupts them.
“Good morning, Azula,” the water tribe woman says pointedly.
Azula’s eyes snap to the woman (Katara, was it?) with contempt and admittedly—curiosity.
The woman’s arms are tensely folded on the table, upper body leaning forward with a frown set firmly on her full lips. Bright blue eyes burn back at her and Azula is briefly reminded of her own blue flames.
Is that …disdain? If there was one thing that Azula understands, it is disdain.
But Azula couldn’t possibly understand what for. She had barely spared the woman, or the whole group no less, a passing glance since they’d arrived a few nights prior. They couldn’t possibly have interacted enough for Azula to earn that look of disgust.
Was it the petty joke she made of Zuko’s hair just now? Ah, she thought, had Zuko found himself an admirer?
With a quirk of her eyebrow, she gathers herself to her full height and sends a retort to the woman, “It seems as though I’ve somehow offended you in the short time you’ve been here since you barged into my home. I would apologize, but frankly, I don’t care. If anything, it should be you who apologizes.” Her words are accompanied with a thin, fake smile.
To her satisfaction, the woman’s slender chin lowers in obvious irritation. Azula can feel her blue eyes blaze a trail across her skin as she scrutinizes every inch of her face. It sends a spark of lightning down her spine.
“Hey guys,” a timid voice floats down from the other side of the table, “why don’t we all just get back to breakfast? We have fresh berries—”
Azula continues, as if the bald airbender hadn’t even spoken, “Go on, I would love to hear it. Maybe then, it would be a good morning,” she grins.
Katara ignores the obvious goading and says, “Listen, it wouldn’t hurt to say a few pleasantries before handing out insults so early in the morning.”
“Oh on the contrary, I’m positive it would hurt. Insulting others keeps me young you see. You should try it,” Azula gestures with a languid roll of her wrist. The look on Katara’s face darkens further; anger looking out of place on her admittedly beautiful features.
“Azula, that’s enough,” Zuko cuts in, but Katara pushes forward, voice rising.
“Well, if those frown lines are any indication, it doesn’t seem to be working,” she sneers while the blind earthbender cackles to her left.
Azula ignores the sputtering of the others seated around the low table and eyes the woman in front of her carefully.
So the cat-gator has claws…
“Funny, you should mention them,” she retorts wanting to see more of that gorgeous temper bleed through, “I was just beginning to question the efficacy of your water bending from the looks of your dry skin. What it must say about your abilities if you can’t even manage to hydrate yourself?”
Katara stands abruptly, jostling her plates and tea cup in the process.
Ah, there it is.
“You wouldn’t know good waterbending if it hit you in the face,” she fires back, any vestige of composure gone. “I wouldn’t mind being the one to serve it to you.”
She distantly hears Zuko and the other men raising their voices in panicked response, but she ignores them all. The Kyoshi warrior looks on unimpressed, chopsticks scraping against her plate as she gives herself another serving of food. The earthbender simply leans forward in anticipation.
Azula steps to Katara, inches away from her snarling face and smirks, “Oh, I’d love to see you try. After all, I love a good workout in the morning.”
Suddenly, a stream of water coils around Azula’s calf and sends her sailing towards the sandy beach of the estate. In an instant, her heart pounds with the speed at which she’s cast into the air. Before she can land on her back, she twists her torso and uses the momentum to land nimbly on her feet in a deep lunge.
Katara skates swiftly towards her using a wave of frozen seawater as the others trail behind. Her eyes are set in a resolute stare, focus never wavering despite the protests clamoring behind her.
“Katara, she’s just playing with you!”
“Yeah, Katara it’s not worth it!”
“She just wants to get a rise out of you!”
“KICK HER ROYAL ASS KATARA!”
That earthbender really is quite a character, she thinks distantly.
The familiar rush of adrenaline pumps through her veins causing her to smile inwardly—she had missed that delicious anticipation right before a fight.
“I give you a five out of ten for the distance, but honestly, that would be me being quite generous. How about instead of that apology, you gift me a thank you for my kind words?”
Azula laughs indulgently at Katara’s responding growl. The sound rumbles across the beach and sends a shockwave across her skin.
The firebending form she moves through next is a basic one, designed to throw the opponent off-balance. She intends to test the limits of her adversary before exploiting her weaknesses.
As she launches a fire blade at Katara’s legs, she notes how the woman watches every single one of her movements even after its execution. It’s clear that she had expected it by the ease of how she douses her flame with a flick of her wrists. Interesting.
“If this is how you’re gonna fight the rest of the time, we might as well stop now,” Katara shouts, “I’d rather spend my morning doing something challenging!”
Azula feels her upper lip give an involuntary twitch. “I’ll show you challenging!”
She punctuates her words with a flurry of fireballs still aimed at knocking her to the ground, she expects Katara to at least be overwhelmed by the speed at which they’re delivered.
Without faltering at her own surprise, she gathers a deep breath into her diaphragm and enters a more complicated set of movements.
But Katara matches her blow for blow; stinging water whips to her torso in exchange for a fiery arc to her own. Razor-sharp ice shards aimed at her head blocked by a hastily thrown wall of fire. Frozen shackles cementing her in place met with a thunderous slice of fire.
It seems she has woefully underestimated the water tribe peasant. She is genuinely amazed by the assault Katara manages to throw at her; no matter how much it pains her to admit. The precision at which she unleashes her attacks are indicative of a practiced hand—what Azula estimates is a result of many days and nights of disciplined training. Hard-earned skill that she knows well.
They clash and spring apart in a breathtaking display of wills and strength, mirroring the waves crashing against the stones only meters away. Their fight rages on, gaining momentum with each passing round of fire against water. She’s already lost track of their small audience, already lost track of how long they’ve been trading blows. When she takes a second to look at her surroundings, she’s surprised to realize they’ve traveled far from her family’s estate in the midst of their fight. They’ve moved closer to the uninhabited stretch of land down the southern shore.
When Azula is thrown against a stony, jagged cliffside and frozen to the rocky surface, she snarls in frustration. It feels as though Katara hasn’t been affected by any of the attacks she’s sent her way.
“Still think my waterbending is useless?” Katara taunts. Cold begins to settle into her bones at the mocking words.
She quickly schools her features into a look of indifference. She lets her opponent stride closer calculating the distance between them with every haughty step she takes. The way the woman’s hips sway distract her more than she’d care to admit.
“If I remember correctly, I questioned its efficacy, not its usefulness.”
Her nostrils flare with the sharp inhalation she forces against the restrictions of the ice around her. One.
She uses this breath to glance down Katara’s form, realizing her hits have landed more than she initially thought. Rips and tears of varying sizes trail across the woman’s clothing surrounded by the telltale presence of burned edges. The fabric of her top is singed along the side of her chest stretching to parts of her sleeve where Azula managed to land a glancing stream of fire. With every swish of Katara’s arm, she can see a strip of flesh— a hint of a soft curve belying a generous-sized breast.
Her eyebrow quirks at that. How—erm…embarrassing.
Azula ignores how a different kind of heat settles in her stomach at the sight. Katara is breathing heavily, out of breath from their non-stop sparring. She tears her eyes away from the distraction and focuses instead on the hatred in Katara’s eyes. Two.
“From the look of you frozen to that wall, I’d say it’s pretty effective,” Katara huffs.
She’s not wrong, but it still grates on her nerves. Again, she patiently waits for the waterbender to take another step forward. Closer, just a little bit more.
As the distance between them closes, she begins to take increasingly deeper breaths.
“What? Cat-gator got your tongu-”
Three. Azula releases the breath of fire she had been steadily building in her stomach in a sudden burst of blue flames. It easily melts the frigid prison encasing her body and causes Katara to gracelessly jump backwards with jets of water to avoid the intense heat.
Azula’s exhausted body slumps against the now dripping cliffside behind her. She feels gravel scratch against the patches of skin that became exposed after the barrage of ice spears Katara threw at her earlier. Her eyes lazily follow Katara as she rolls to a stop and drenches the front of her tunic with water. The flames that caught onto the clothing are immediately snuffed with the moisture.
Their eyes meet from their respective positions in the sand, carefully cataloguing the weaknesses in each other’s stances. Azula can see exhaustion in the droop of Katara’s shoulders, just as she knows her legs must be shaking with the effort of standing upright.
Waves crashing against the rocky bluffs are the only sounds Azula cares to register. She has never felt so tired from a fight before. Not since she was much younger and her father would push her until she yielded, every time they sparred. This…no, this is a shocking change from her victories over her usual, bland opponents.
Shocking and very much satisfying in the way that hurt could sometimes feel good.
Azula decides to break the tense silence between them. “You know, your concern about my tongue is what got us in this scuffle in the first place,” she says salaciously. “It is a curious thing to worry about for someone so enraptured with my brother.”
Katara’s head turns sharply at the mention of the prince in obvious confusion. Hah! Did she really think I would not notice?
Almost as if he knew he was being summoned, Zuko’s voice echoes across the thick grass bordering the top of the sand dunes behind Katara.
“Haven’t you two had enough yet?! Where even are you guys?!” He shouts from halfway across the knoll.
Before he can get close, Azula swiftly unties her outer robe and wraps it securely around Katara’s shoulders. The woman flinches at the movement bringing her arms up defensively, roughly-formed ice spears encasing both limbs.
“Relax, Avatar Kyoshi. Put your fans away,” she murmurs under her breath. “I must have torn away part of your tunic earlier.”
When she nods to Katara’s (barely) exposed chest, her eyes follow, widening at the revelation.
“Shit,” the woman curses. “How long has it been like that you…you—pervert!”
Azula visibly starts at the hostility in her voice. “Are you insinuating that it was done intentionally?!”
“I’m not insinuating anything! I know you did it intentionally!”
She is beyond furious at the accusation, ready to rescind her offer of preserving her modesty. “If you are so sure, then you can hand me my robe back!”
Katara’s eyebrows pull together sharply, simultaneously melting the weapons around her hands and clutching the crimson silk robe closer to her chest. “Fine,” she hisses. Then, motioning to the general direction of Azula’s body she asks haltingly, “what about—you? You’re all…uncovered.”
She glances down just now realizing she is left only in her chest bindings and silk sleeping shorts. Engrossed in her quick inspection, she misses the way Katara’s gaze lingers on her exposed abdomen and legs.
“I suppose your friends will just have to enjoy the show,” Azula smirks. She almost swears she feels that same blazing trail from earlier make its way down her body, but chalks it up to her tired, post-fight brain.
“Oh, SPIRITS Azula! WHY?!” They both turn in time to catch the airbender, the water tribe man, and Zuko approaching quickly—with the latter furiously slapping his hands over his eyes.
Azula simply places a hand on her hip and puffs her chest out proudly.
“Please, Zuzu. You are far too old to be that much of a prude, still,” she says flippantly. He only huffs in response. Meanwhile, the other two are valiantly trying to keep their eyes from lingering too long on her body—with varying degrees of success.
Zuko turns towards the direction of Katara, or what he must think is the right direction—it’s not—and asks, “are you alright? Did she hurt you at all?”
Azula rolls her eyes. He didn’t actually think he would hurt her, did he?
“No, no. Of course not,” Katara answers softly at first casting a curious glance to Azula, then stronger, “I can handle myself just fine, Zuko.”
“I never doubted you, sis,” the man, who, apparently is Katara’s brother, proudly adds.
The airbender, looking the most concerned than any of them, gingerly cups Katara’s elbow and leads her towards the estate. “Let’s get you back to the house and check just in case.”
Azula rolls her eyes even harder than the first time.
“Well, I am just fine if anyone bothered to care,” she announces, reluctantly moving to follow them across the beach.
She purposely lags behind the group, studying the waterbender still wearing her robe.
Azula had to admit their match was…enlightening. It had been a very long time since she met someone of similar skill. Her muscles throb as if in agreement, a delicious ache from the constant back and forth with Katara. She lets out a soft chuckle. To think this had all resulted from a stupid joke at Zuko’s expense.
She had spent her whole life training at her father’s, the fire lord’s, insistence. For what? For a war that would never come? For an endless line of insipid opponents that she could defeat with her hands tied behind her back?
All of that waiting, all of that training…it almost felt worth it.
Facing Katara’s ire felt like she had finally found the reason for all those countless hours of hard work. She felt like she finally found someone worthy to engage her blue flames. Had she found the endgame to all of this useless waiting?
At that exact moment, Katara’s head turns over her shoulder, catches Azula’s amber eyes,…and rudely sticks out her tongue.
Azula lets out an affronted gasp, startled by the unexpected childish-ness from the subject of her silent musings. Spirits, who is this woman?
“So…who even won, anyway?” Katara’s brother says, cautiously.
They both answer at the same time.
“Me, by like, a landslide.”
“Quite obviously, it was me.”
Again, Katara turns to Azula, but this time with shock stricken across her face. “What do you mean, obviously?! I had you pinned to that cliff!”
“And I, very easily I might add, escaped your hold,” she sasses back.
At that, Katara struggles to find a valid response, “But—I—you—you didn’t—”
She glares while Azula smiles smugly at the sound of her stuttering.
Then, without any indication or warning, Katara breaks into a sprint shouting over her shoulder, “last one to the house is a rotten sea prune!!”
She does not stop to think. Does not blink, does not breathe. Does not question how a random water tribe woman could possibly provoke a twenty-three year-old fire nation princess into, what boils down to, a game of tag.
Azula simply has no other choice but to chase after Katara.