Zuko peered down at the small paper place card that read, "Azula, Crown Princess of the Fire Nation" with a bitter scowl. He thought by now he'd be used to being second-at-best at everything Azula ever decided to participate in, but there was something about actually seeing his title being passed over to her that made his blood boil.
His own place card, one that read "Prince Zuko, son Fire Lord Ozai" was set to be seated several places down the table, between two war Admirals older even than Uncle Iroh that smelled of rotten fruit and old feet. He thought at least his honor as the Fire Lord's son would give him a seat at his father's side. If not his right hand then, maybe, his left. But that was a child's dream and Zuko was a man grown. He knew better than to let disappointment settle on his features, especially in front of the Royal Family.
"What's the matter, Zuko?" Mai wrapped her arm around his and leaned her chin on his shoulder. "You're at the Fire Lord's Honor Feast. Only the most important figures in the Fire Nation get invited. Isn't that what you always wanted?"
Zuko plucked his place card and squinted at the glittering, golden lettering. "Azula says my father only does this dinner out of traditional obligation. It's supposed to inspire his soldiers. Make them believe that the war is just and they will be honored with titles and lordship for their service. But all he uses it for is to instill fear in his generals so that they'll want to end the rebellion before he decides to end them."
"So then, don't go. It'll probably be boring anyway." Mai shrugged and took her own place card which was placed in a pile that belonged to 'the others' before sauntering off behind red velvet drapes to seat herself for royal dinner. "Have fun sulking by yourself."
"I will," he argued, stomping one foot on the ground with such force it was by the grace of the dragons that he wasn't an Earthbender.
His father wouldn't care if he showed up. Of course, he would want to show off the infamous "Avatar killer" before mentioning that he was the lesser child and for all Zuko's success in the war and putting an end to the one force that could stop them, none of it would have been possible if it weren't for his heir – Zuko's sister, Azula. He would then go on to have Azula and Zuko make play things out of the lesser Fire Nation officers, threaten their weaknesses with banishment and death, and then send the soldiers out at first light to rape, pillage, and murder in the name of the royal family.
"Now now, Zuzu," Azula's voice rang in his head "I'm sure father wants you there. You are the avatar killer after all. Hero of the Fire Nation."
Zuko shook his head. Sometimes it made Azula's voice go away. Other times it only made her angry.
"If you can't be bothered to attend a royal dinner then maybe you don't deserve to be royalty at all!"
The place card burst into flames in his fingers, ash sprinkled off into the wind. He curled his hands into fists and threw them down in an enraged fit, pacing the length of the small table: two, maybe three feet. He groaned, gripping the sides of his head with calloused fingers, and marched through the drapes. He would show her. He would show Azula and Mai and his uncle. He would show his father too. He was more than the "Avatar Killer", he was the prince of the Fire Nation. He was every bit as royal and strong and brave as they were. He commanded a ship, found the Avatar when no one said he would. He fought and beat Commander – no, Admiral – Zhao in Agni Kai.
Beyond the drapes and into the great hall, the royal dinner consisted of two tables and a flaming throne. His father was seated behind fire and shadow, overlooking the two tables from a place of power that had no rival. Below the flaming wall that separated his father from everyone else was a long mahogany table with thirteen cushioned seats all facing the same direction as the Fire Lord so that they could look over the lesser military officers. Below the throne itself would sit Azula - as marked by the golden cutlery and matching golden cushioned seat – where she would sit between his father's most trusted General and Admiral. Zuko would also be seated at this table, four places to the left of his sister. He would sit on the Naval side, two seats shy of the table's end.
After the thirteen selected elites, was the general nobility and officers granted invitations to the feast. They were seated at the next table. it was far larger in size, and cushioned seats wrapped around either side, with less space between them than the comfort granted to the higher table. This was where Mai, Ty Lee, and other Fire Nation elites who either were themselves or had family members, serving in the war would sit.
His father was already present. He could see the shadowy figure from the corners of his eye, but he dared not look directly at him. No one ever did. He kept his head hung low, eyes averted to the tables as he counted two seats down from the high table and took his seat among the Admirals and Commanders of the Fire Nation military.
He had been careful to ensure his father's approval. His hair was finally long enough to pull into a tight, high ponytail of which his servants worked meticulously to ensure that not a single hair would fall out of place. He also had new dress silks tailored for the occasion of bright fire and deep wine red, accented in gold to distinguish himself as royal nobility. His silks were sleeveless, meant to showcase the red arrow tattoos that trailed down his arms and marked him as the killer of the Last Airbender; a move his father was sure to appreciate.
From his position, he could see every face seated at the larger table. Mai had chosen (for reasons Zuko couldn't even begin to understand) to sit with Ty Lee, a bubbly woman with a gregarious demeanor that placed them both at the center of the table, surrounded by wide-eyed, drooling men. Mai wore silks of all black that hugged close against her form. The sleeves were long and flowing, perfect for hiding knives in (which Zuko was certain she was doing) and the whole outfit was accented only by her hair piece which was a shimmering red as dark as blood. Her hair was pulled back into a single bun, rather than two, but she still let most of it fall around her cheeks and shoulders. Despite the change of attire, her expression was as dull as ever; a mixture of boredom and annoyance as her ray-of-sunshine of a friend giggled and chatted away with armored soldiers and sons of high noblemen in elaborate dress silks of their own.
"Who do they think they are?" Azula asked, glaring.
"What are you talking about, Azula?"
Azula kept her eyes locked on her friends. "Those men flocking around Ty Lee. What makes them think they're worthy suitors to a woman who helped bring down the Avatar?" Azula was dressed in silks of similar fashion to his own: wine red, trimmed black with a golden hairpiece in her bun. The difference was that Azula's silks resembled her armor in style, where Zuko's had become a sleeveless rendition of classic formal silks used hundreds of years ago. Her nails were sharp and painted – black on the fingers and red on the thumbs that dug angry marks into the fabric on her forearms, which were crossed over her chest in frustration.
"What about Mai?" Zuko asked, pointing to the other woman who was poking her cheek with chopsticks and displaying an eye-roll so intense they looked like they might get stuck like that. "She's surrounded by guys, too."
Azula laughed. "There's only one person on the entire planet crazy enough to date Mai." Her eyes glanced down at Zuko and he thought he saw her smiling. Sometimes her insults felt a lot like compliments. Sometimes her compliments felt a lot like insults. "Mostly because if anyone other than my own brother tries to lay a finger on one of my friends, I'll chop off their hands, roast them, and feed them to Puma Goats while they watch."
"I'm not interested in Mai," Zuko protested.
"And she's not interested in you." Azula went back to glaring at the men.
Zuko's eyes followed his sister's gaze. Ty Lee was wearing – to Zuko's great surprise – not pink. For once. Instead, she wore a brilliant yellow dress silk. Her shoulders were exposed, as with her midriff, in typical Ty Lee fashion, and the fabrics folded and rippled like gold melting down her hips. It was elaborate, accented in red, nothing like what Zuko ever expected Ty Lee to own herself, but she still looked extremely comfortable in the formal garb. No wonder half the table was trying to favor her as a suitor.
"Father wants you next to me tonight," Azula said at last. "Your will be taking place at my left and Admiral Tezel will take this seat. Hurry up and move before someone calls you a fool and you dishonor father all over again."
Zuko looked at her, stunned. "What made him change his mind?"
His sister flicked away her hair and cast golden daggers down at him. "Father has a job for us back in the colonies. We leave at sunrise. It will look better if you and I appear united. As we did when we destroyed the Avatar."
'We' as in 'I'. As in Azula. As in not Zuko. But neither Azula or Zuko were stupid enough to say that out loud.
Her glare traveled from his scarred face to his tattooed arms. "Those things really are tacky."
Zuko looked down at them. "You think I wanted those old crones to stab me with tebori needles for two days so I that I could look like the Avatar?"
"If you hate them so much then you should cover them up."
He shook his head, fists clenching his silk trousers. "It doesn't work that way, Azula."
Azula didn't answer right away. Zuko looked up to her to see what it was she was doing, but her eyes had settled elsewhere. She didn't bother to look at him when she told him, "Things aren't as black and white as you make them out to be, Zuzu. Now, hurry up and join me. You can't keep the Admiral waiting for his seat all night."
There was nothing left to be said between them, and so Zuko pushed himself to his feet and fell in step behind his sister.
His newly assigned seat was, like Azula's, beneath his father's throne, but otherwise provided him no difference from his formerly assigned seat other than the appearance that he, his sister, and their father were strong in their trust of one another. But, Zuko knew he wanted him nearby so when he said "I'm sending my children to the Earth Kingdom Colonies to extinguish the rebellion once and for all," it actually sounded like they were prepared and ready for the journey, instead of Zuko standing there with his mouth open.
It was also quite possible that his father was trying to prevent Zuko from speaking out of turn again.
It didn't matter in the end.
He and Azula took their places side by side as the last few stragglers of the Fire Nation elite pushed past the velvet curtains and found their place. Zuko crossed his legs and took a long, meaningful breath to calm his nerves, the heat of the flames around his father's throne singing into his shoulders. Next to him, Azula sat straight of spine with a twisted sort of grin pulling at the corners of her lips. Not the sort of twisted happy smile his sister usually had written across her features like something of a signature, but a different kind, and Zuko didn't care to find himself on the receiving end of whatever it was pissing her off just because he had stared at her for too long.
His eyes averted to the tabletop; the glossy finish reflecting the light his father's flames. He could see a shadow of an outline of himself; a messy, blurry sort of grey blob that vaguely resembled his form – dancing that same sort of listless dance as the reflection of flames in the mahogany.
Zuko looked up as the servers began to usher in the food. Every dish was brought first to Fire Lord Ozai. He would take the Lord's portion of what he wanted or wave the dish away. Each dish was then offered to Azula and Zuko. His father had taken choice servings of moo-sow steak, roast turtle-duck, mashed fire-squashes, and spicy Earth Kingdom kabobs. Azula's favorite, superspicy octopus, had been offered to her for the Lord's portion while Komodo sausages – Zuko's favorite – had been waved off by his father with an approving nod so that he may take the Lord's portion. If neither his father nor he or his sister wanted the first choice of the food, it would be waved away to one warlord or another before finally making its way down to the noble's table seated below them. Azula reminded him to send food to their friends and so he sent the sea soup to Mai and the ostrich-horse tea eggs to a soldier he recognized as having served on his ship during his exile. Later, Azula slapped his hand away as he reached for the dumplings before ushering the serving girl down to Ty Lee.
By the time the sweet cakes, pastries, and custards began to make their way into the hall, Zuko couldn't eat another bite. He waved each of the dishes away and watched as the hall rang with a chorus of excitement. A drunken haze filled the air, clamor and egos rising as the night drew on, but he and his sister remained sober and alert. Azula had helped herself to a cup of spiced wine in the early hours of the feast, but as the night drew on and the cupbearers returned to refill her drink, she waved them off with decisive apathy. She knew as well as he did that there would be no forgiveness for mistakes or foolishness tonight.
"You could loosen up, you know," Azula told him as she sipped at the wine in her cup. "There's so much tension in your jaw that it's making mine hurt."
"I am calm," he fumed, careful to contain his anger so as not to raise his voice.
"I don't know how you do it, but you become a worse liar by the year." he could see her smirking behind her cup. "You better be careful, Zuzu. You wouldn't want father to find out about our little secret, would you?"
Azula was always a master of speaking without being heard and when no one around them so much as turned to question what it was Azula was implying, Zuko wasn't surprised. He went back to picking at his food, pushing around the sesame balls he couldn't bring himself to eat.
"Zuko." He turned to face her again, raising a curious eyebrow at her tone. "Relax."
"You're one to talk," He said, stabbing the sesame ball with his chopsticks. "Your chopsticks are one splinter away from snapping"
"And you're one depressive sigh away from ruining everything." She tilted a small rice bowl to her lips and turned her gaze back towards the noble's table.
Azula didn't speak to him again. Occasionally she would turn and speak to the general next to her, exchanging war stories and military tactics, but she mostly kept her eyes forward and something pressed to her lips. Chewing, drinking, and when she was too full to continue, her laced finger masked over the cruel twitch of expression.
Zuko hid is feelings differently, or more, he struggled to hide them at all. He didn't like watching other people. Mai was bored as always, and Ty Lee was beaming with the brightest expression Zuko had ever seen, leading him to wonder if the happiness he was meant to have in his life had somehow been transferred to her. Other generals and war heroes were just as lively: rosy cheeks on faces that hurt from laughter. The ones that did lean over to speak with him wanted stories about his exile: the hunt for Avatar Aang. They wanted to know about his scar and training accident they all believed happened to him. They wanted to know about the tattoos. They wanted to know things that Zuko refused to speak about.
He told them that the trauma of war was too difficult to think about, which they all understood. He told them that his hunt for the avatar before his sister joined his crusade wasn't a tale worth telling; that Azula told it better. He told them that the 'accident' was just that – an accident. He told anything it was they wanted to hear so he could end the conversation before even began.
Behind him, watching as he always did, sat his father. The fires of his world-dominating leadership warming the hairs on his neck. He didn't know if his father was watching him, watching Azula. He very well could be, but he didn't dare to turn around face him. Even so, he could feel the exact moment in which his father decided to address them all with his plans. The heat of his father's flames singed the back of his neck, his silks felt as if they themselves were flames licking at his skin. He and his sister shared a look and then turned to the guests at the royal dinner.
"A hundred years ago, Fire Lord Sozin sought to spread the prosperity of the Fire Nation across the world with the hopes of creating unity and order to the four nations." his father's voice boomed over the hall with an eerie sense of calmness. "However, the nations rejected our ways. They rejected the equality of women, higher education, honor and respect. They rejected the equality of marriage and wealth and economic stability of a united and harmonious world. Through years of struggle and war, the Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom have finally realized the error of their ways. My daughter, Azula – champion of the Earth Kingdom and my son, Zuko – the Avatar Killer, were instrumental pieces in ending this war once and for all."
Azula stood at the mention of her name and Zuko knew to do the same when he gestured towards him. He fingers curled into fists, white-knuckled and tattooed a deep red that glowed like lava in the light of his father's fire. There were cheers for them both raining upon him. "The Avatar Killer!", "Conquer of Ba Sing Se!", "Fire Nation!", and so many others that got lost in the roaring waves that crashed upon him.
His father silenced them all again. "This war may have finally come to an end, but there are those loyal to the Avatar who still linger in the shadows. My generals speak of a resistance in the Earth Kingdom. A bug needing squashed. That is why, to honor those of you who once served the cause of our great nation during its most perilous century, my children will sail to the colonies to shine light on every corner of the world and end this resistance once and for all!"
The flames roared, licking at the ceiling as if to taste the victory thrust into the hands of the royal children. The guests roared back, "Fire Nation!" much to the delight of his devilish sister. "Fire Lord! Fire lord!" Zuko was old enough and grounded enough to know that their cheers were not for him. They cheered for the victory of war and battles won, they cheered for the prosperity of their people, they cheered for his father and his grandfather and all the Fire Lords who had ruled before them. They cheered for their heir, conquer of Ba Sing Se, and they cheered for the Avatar Killer.