She enters, closing the door behind her and turning the lock.
Azula looks up, feigning surprise. “Oh, Admiral, I’m so sorry. I just lost track of time.”
Zhao crosses the room to stand in front of her. “Where were you?”
Her mouth curves wickedly. “With my lover.” His hands slide up her waist. She tosses her head. “We can’t resist each other, you know.”
Zhao hisses and pulls her against him. “Now, Princess, what have we said about telling lies?”
She smiles. “I love you,” she whispers.
“Another lie,” he murmurs, capturing her laughing mouth with a kiss.
The Fire Nation troops are on parade. Hundreds of girls are crowded near the Academy’s gates- trying to get a glimpse of the soldiers.
Azula pushes her way through the crowd (Get out of my way before I make you), with her two friends in tow.
They press their faces against the metal bars as the men are passing. A man in front, dressed in a captain’s uniform, looks their way and smiles.
Tai Li grins. “Looks like someone likes A~zu~la!” Mei smiles.
The princess crosses her arms and scowls. “He looks like a monkey,” she spits, her face flaming.
She is a pretty little thing. She has the face of a little girl- golden eyes, pale skin, shiny dark hair- and a woman’s body.
He takes her hand. “Hello, Princess.”
She giggles, batting long eyelashes.
He pulls her closer, whispering against her skin, barely breathing. Princess, princess.
Together they are a heated tangle of limbs, ecstasy and sin. She cries out beneath him; he savors each and every precious sound.
Then- all too soon- it is over, the illusion is gone, the prostitute has been paid and Zhao is in the room alone with his guilt and impossible desires.
“I understand your raid at Terah Sho was successful,” Azula remarked. “I suppose congratulations are in order.”
He grinned, his lips against her ear. “Surely that deserves more than a mere ‘Well done’?”
She pushed him off. “Honestly, Commander. Have some self-respect.”
Unbothered by her words, he continued to smile. “I brought you a gift,” he said.
She rolled her eyes, opening the box. “Not another useless trinket, I ho-” She stopped short.
He took the blade out and placed it in her hands. “For the future Queen.” He met her eyes. “I trust you know how to use it.”
She is rifling through his things again (the first time he had tried to stop her and she had only laughed and told him to move aside).
“Just what exactly are you looking for?”
Azula continues to sift through his possessions. “Trying to see if there is anything interesting amid all this junk.”
Zhao can feel himself grow tense at her last word. “And what exactly does Her Highness consider interesting?”
She crows triumphantly. “This.” She holds up a framed portrait. “Is this you?”
She studies the painting. “You were rather handsome, Admiral.”
She smirks. “What happened?”
It is an unspoken rule. In public, they are mere acquaintances; lovers only behind closed doors.
It is for appearance’s sake that he appears at the Fire Lord’s ball with an escort. It is for appearance’s sake that he bows deeply before her and calls her ‘Majesty'.
It is for appearance’s sake that he laughs with this other woman, looks at her and dances with her- only her- all night.
“Admiral, you’re smiling again,” his escort says, with a smile of her own.
“Am I?” Zhao asks, as Azula glares at the woman from across the room. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“You seemed to enjoy yourself,” Azula remarks lightly.
He tries to hide his grin. “The festivities were particularly impressive tonight. You must express my gratitude to your father for the invitation.”
She runs a hand through her immaculate hair. “Your friend, I assume you’ve escorted her home already?”
He smiles. “Yes, she also enjoyed it immensely.”
She scowls. “Yes, I’d imagine so.”
Zhao laughs. “Princess, are you-”
She crushes her mouth against his, pulling him back into the corner. Her hands find their way beneath his armor, raking her nails against his chest, whispering one word in his ear.
VIII. Innocence Lost
“Her Highness has grown into such a beautiful young lady,” the general comments, admiringly.
Azula smiles sweetly. “How very kind of you.” She returns her attention to her meal.
The other general gives her a knowing look. “Your father will have you betrothed soon enough.”
The first man laughs. “Why, Liang- surely the Princess is too young for that sort of thing!” He nudges the man beside him. “Don’t you agree, Admiral?”
Zhao swallows and glances over at Azula. She lifts an eyebrow, almost imperceptibly.
“All I can say is that man will be a lucky man indeed.” He smiles.
IX. Little Girls
Zhao does not know much about little girls. He admits this.
But from what little he does know, they are supposed to be sweet, mild mannered creatures. ‘Sugar and spice’ is how the old rhyme goes right?
The Fire Lord’s daughter meets none of these descriptions.
Because little girls? They’re not supposed to be merciless fighters in the ring. (Looks like I win again.)
And little girls? They aren’t supposed to give grown men suggestive looks and smiles. (Captain, you must tell me more about your victories in the Earth Kingdom.)
And dammit, little girls aren’t supposed to scare him.
X. Point of No Return
She wanted to discuss battle strategies. An odd request but she was a prodigy- surely her interest was genuine?
Later, as he watched her robe slowly slide open, it became painfully apparent that this was not the case.
“Princess,” (trying to ignore that sweet pale flesh) “I think I should leave.”
She eases closer (he can feel the heat simmering beneath her skin). “Do you want to leave?” (Her lips against his throat.)
“How old are you?” he whispers.
“Does it matter?”
“You’re trying to get me killed.”
“Maybe.” Her mouth meets his (finally) and there is no turning back.
XI. Telling Signs
She is a whirlwind of flames. Power surges from her fingertips; it twists and dances at her command. With ease she slides through the familiar steps, moving her body until she reaches it- that final form- and strikes.
It is a perfect routine. She lifts her head to view her work.
The fire crackles brilliantly. Three feet away from the target.
The old women make reproving clicks with their tongues.
“Not even close. The princess seems rather distracted today, doesn’t she?”
“She does indeed. What is on your mind, Princess?”
Azula clenches her teeth. “Nothing,” she snarls and begins again.
He returns from the Earth Kingdom; she sends a letter.
Her Royal Highness Princess Azula wishes to extend her supreme gratitude to Commander Zhao for his service to the Fire Nation.
The real message is there, between the lines, clear as day.
I want you. Now.
He obliges, slipping into the palace. When he reaches her chambers, she is there, on the bed, waiting.
“Welcome back, Commander.”
That morning as she watches him leave, there is a small gasp behind her. She turns.
Tai Li’s eyes are wide. “What-”
Azula places a finger lightly against her mouth. “You saw nothing.”
It happens in an instant- an intimate moment interrupted- the gasps of shock- Zhao as he flew across the room- her father standing over him, fire at his fists.
“Father! The Admiral, he is loyal to you- he has served you for years!”
“And defiling my daughter within my home? Is that another service the Admiral has done?”
Azula falls to her knees. “Then I ask you, as your only beloved daughter-”
“Daughter, I do love you.” Ozai smiles. “But I’m afraid your Admiral is not as fortunate.”
And there is nothing but the scent of burnt flesh and screams.
“Tell me, Admiral,” she murmurs- fingers tracing the line of his jaw. “Why did you join the army?”
“Why?” An eyebrow raised in question.
“A life of service and dedication? Submission? It doesn’t suit you at all.” A sharp look. “You aren’t of such noble character.”
He laughs. “And is that what you perceive the army to be? An organization of noble men?”
“Noble men and fools.”
“Is that so, Princess?”
“Answer my question.”
A smile. “You are right, of course- I am not quite so selfless. I have,” -a glance at the crown atop her head- “slightly higher ambitions.”
XV. Think of Me
The stars are shining in the night sky above the ocean. Zhao can see them through the window of his tiny room on this metal boat.
The view is almost enough to make him nostalgic (even though he is not that type of man- not by a long shot). He wonders if she is thinking of him.
In the Fire Nation, Azula sits in her chambers. The sky is dark- obscured by smoke and ash- and she can’t see the stars. But she can see the report of the Fire Nation’s latest victory and for Azula that’s all that matters.
It’s the same scene every night- Azula sits before the mirror, brushing her hair in long even strokes.
Zhao, having little interest in such grooming rituals, amuses himself with a hair ornament, clicking it loudly.
“Must you be so irritating?” Azula snaps.
“Must you take forever?”
“When I want your opinion, Admiral, I’ll ask for it.”
Zhao takes the brush from her. Their eyes meet in the mirror. “Princess, you are beautiful- with or without the damned brush.”
“Give me that,” Azula mutters as she looks away, grabbing the brush from him; her face suddenly and inexplicably warm.
XVII. Welcome Back
He is home, finally home. After the past few weeks surrounded by nothing but war he has thought of nothing else- longed for nothing else- except the feel of her next to him, her heart beating beneath his fingers, her body under his.
He enters the palace through an all too familiar back entrance and makes his way to the royal chambers. The door eases open quietly and slips inside.
Within moments he is beneath the red silk sheets. He whispers, just barely, “I missed you, Princess.”
“Really?” The figure beside him turns over. The Fire Lord smiles. “How much?”
XVIII. Not Quite Love
They can feel it- the fierce pull towards each other. It’s there in the intense, almost violent, way their mouths crush against each other. It’s there in the words unspoken- the words their lips would never say.
I need you. I want you.
This is their secret, their shared sin. Nothing can come of it, despite their impossible dreams and they know it. There are too many lies, too many chasms between them- in every sense of the word.
There is no future for them- the present is all that is promised to people who are not quite in love.
XIX. Broken Promises
“And this,” he points to a section on the map, “Is where we will breach the Water Tribe’s borders.”
She rolls her eyes. “I told you already- I’ve no interest in your maps.”
He sighs. “I’ll explain again-”
Azula interrupts, “I understand you. I just don’t care.”
“And what do you care about?”
“All I want is for the North Pole to be covered in Fire Nation flags.”
He laughs. “Well, Princess, I promise you- when I am finished the entire continent will be renamed in your honor.”
“I’ll hold you to that, Admiral.”
“I’m a man of my word.”
XX. See How She Lies
She walks out the throne room, smiling broadly. She stalks her way to her own quarters, slamming doors behind her, leaving confused servants in her wake.
“Our troops have been defeated at the North Pole.”
The ship has been ordered; she leaves at dawn.
The next time we meet, Princess, will be at a victory feast.
She smiles as she pulls out her boots and an array of weapons.
I’m a man of my word.
I don’t care, she thinks. He meant nothing.
And as she falls back onto her bed (sheets they had shared) Azula laughs until she cries.