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Fair Flame

Chapter Text

The rising sun stoked the banked embers of Azula’s spirit, and she sat upright, blinking at the alien angle of the light. Every dawn in the Fire Nation was rose-golden, red and heady, and the sun sprang up over the horizon in the span of only a few minutes. In the south, the sun’s course was more elliptical, and it took almost three quarters of an hour, by Earth Kingdom measure, for the sun to fully raise his golden head above the sea. 

The odd stiffness in her muscles, and the memory of all that she had done the previous night, returned to her. She glanced to her right, expecting to find the chieftain still drowsing. He was watching her with grim, sleepless eyes. She’d seen a mountain-leopard once, poised on velvet paws in the cleft of a great cedar. Its gaze had been much the same.

He truly did not want her, then. She was surprised at the way her pride buckled under the realization. She was the Princess of the Fire Nation; didn’t he know how beautiful she was, how valuable, how desirable? Who was he, a savage barbarian, to feel anything except admiration for her? Who was he to look at her as though she were a burden?

She turned away from him, away from the coldness in his pale blue eyes. Why had he allowed her to sleep with her ear pressed to his heart, if he felt such animosity towards her? All her certainty from the previous night, her belief that she could manage him, that she could make him heed her, fled away, the way wind drives sheets of snow onwards with its gelid breath.

“How are you?” He asked. His voice was low, gentle, irreconcilable to his frigid gaze.

“It’s my custom to practice my firebending at dawn,” she responded. Her hair was loose and tangled about her neck; she needed a comb, but she had no idea where her trunks had been stored. “Where may I do so?”

“My daughter practices her bending in the open field by the South Harbor,” Hakoda said. His voice was even, emotionless. “I will ask her to show you, and if you find it acceptable, you may practice there. If not, we will find another place for you.”

“I will let you know if it displeases me,” she said, stiffly. In the light of day, she was ashamed by how she touched him, by how willingly she yielded to him. She carded her fingers through her hair, and winced when they snagged on a knot that he caused when he buried his hands in her tresses.

“At breakfast I will introduce my children to you,” he said. “I’ve asked them to make you welcome, and I’m certain Katara will be a good friend to you, but please just… just understand.” She would almost feel sorry for the way his voice trembled, if she didn’t find it so atrociously weak. What kind of a chieftain was he, if he showed so much uncertainty, if he begged favors from his wife of not yet twelve hours? Perhaps he had heard about her exceptional bending ability, and he was frightened of her.

That would warm her heart. Once she established whether or not he intended to read her letters, she would write to Zuko and let him know that she had managed to conquer the spirit of her husband, and in record time too. Undoubtedly he would appreciate knowing the chieftain of the Southern Water Tribe was just as weak as he was.

“Where are my possessions?” She asked. He glanced around the igloo.

“They must not have been moved from your mother’s hut,” he said. “I apologize. There are Katara’s furs that you can wear in the meantime, and they’ll be warmer than your silks in any case. I’m afraid we have to disregard luxury in the south, or else we risk death by exposure.”

“I need a comb,” she said. He glanced at her, a quick flash of eyes, the kind of look that she knew from her early childhood when, under her father’s tutelage, she spent the long summer days sparring with students double, or even triple, her age. She knew assessment when she was subjected to it. Let him guess about her, let him wonder. He would be surprised, no matter what.

“I will loan you my wife’s,” he said. Resentment pulsed through her, as sharp and sudden as the ache between her legs was dull and constant. He rose (she noticed the way he favored his left side, as though to compensate for an old injury. She had not noticed anything when she had lain with him the previous night.) He dug through a strange, sea-green copper chest, and pulled out a comb of carved ivory, the teeth slightly too far apart to be of much use to her.

When she was younger, her father had always said that she was born to immolate the world. He took her before the Fire Sages and demanded that they lay the old oath of Satum Ignis upon her, even though she was a child, and a girl. He saw that she was born to burn the world, that she was the ekpyrosis made flesh. He had taught her how to summon blue flames to her fists. The thought occurred to her, and almost within the same instant, she had accomplished it.

She held the comb in her right hand, and allowed her fire to swallow it. Black smoke sprang instantly from the slight flaws in the burning ivory, and it crumbled to ash in her palm in the time it took Hakoda to stretch out his arm to stop her.

The fire dissipated, and she casually blew the ash from her hand.

She was not afraid of him. Let him beat her, at least she would know how to unbalance him. Her father had always told her it was better to act than to react.

“Forgive my choice of words,” he said. His voice was tight, but she had to strain to hear the anger. It coalesced around the edges of his tone, but if she had not been listening for it, she would not have heard it. “I have spoken of Kya as my wife for more than half my life. I did not intend to disregard you.” She waited for him to strike her, her muscles all relaxed, perfectly prepared to absorb the blow, no matter where he hit her. She half-hoped that he would bloody her lip, if only because it distressed her mother to see her wounded. He did not move towards her. 

She wondered if perhaps she should have combed her hair first. It truly was a mess, and she would have to face her mother with it unkempt. The thought pricked her pride. She would look like she enjoyed it, without bruises on her body to evince his brutality.

“Sit down, Azula,” he said. For the first time, she heard the ice-cold, bone-thin sliver of authority in his voice, and she obeyed him. She sat in seiza, hands folded prettily, head bowed. The effect of her beauty and youthful loveliness would be greater, she knew, if her hair were properly coiffed, but she was aware that, nonetheless, she was stunning. Most likely, a savage like him would have no idea how to manage her. She heard him rifling through a chest, and for a half-moment, she wondered whether he intended to strike her with something other than his hands.

That would be humiliating. She wasn’t a child to be beaten with a stick, she was his wife, she at least deserved the courtesy of his clenched fists or his open palm. How was she supposed to gauge his strength, and his tolerance for her aggravations, if he wouldn’t meet flesh with flesh? Trust a barbarian to refuse to play fair.

“You’ll forgive me for not trusting you with another comb,” he said, but his tone was ironic, not furious. She felt him gather a single strand of her long, dark hair, and she felt him tease the comb through her tangles. She stiffened. Apart from Zuko, and her father when she was a girl, he was the first man to ever touch her hair. “Despite what you may have been told,” he said, almost conversationally. “The Southern Water Tribe is no more barbarous than your Fire Nation.” His hands were gentle, efficient, unsparing. He knew how to avoid tugging painfully on her scalp, he knew how to gently unsnarl the knots in her long hair.

Her mother had combed her hair like this when she was younger, before she was granted a handmaiden to perform the task for her. 

How would a chieftain, a man, come to be so well versed in this?

The brush of his fingers against her scalp sent pleasant prickles tingling down her spine.

“Only a barbarian would allow such a slight to go unpunished,” she said. Hakoda’s hands did not cease their gentle movements.

“Perhaps I did not understand it as a slight,” he said. Black bile and ice-blue fire swelled in her stomach. Who was he to define her actions for her, to impose his perspective? 

“I intended it as one.”

“I know.” His comb came to a tangled patch, and he worked through it without making her so much as wince. 

At least if her father had married her to Admiral Zhao, she would have understood him.

____________________________

His children, fur-clad and somber, presented themselves to her outside the igloo with all the warmth of an ice storm. 

“Katara, child of my hearth,” Hakoda said, gesturing to his daughter. The girl was dressed elaborately in silver furs and blue felt, but she had a bender’s poise about her, and Azula could see from the strong lines of her body that she was an accomplished one, even if she did wield the lesser element of water. “Azula, flesh of my flesh.” Katara looked at her, her eyes cool, her gaze interested. 

“Wife of my father,” she said, every word crisp. “Welcome to our hearth. I will call the sons you bear my father “brother,” and I will call the daughters you bear my father “sister,” and I will honor you as a child honors her mother for all the days of my life.”

“And Sokka, my son and the heir to my hearth,” Hakoda said, and Azula glanced at the boy, and then, despite herself, she looked again. Katara was still girlish, but Sokka was undeniably a man. His head was shaved except for the top of his head, which was braided and pulled backwards into a wolf tail. His beard was neatly trimmed, and accented his sharp cheeks. His body rippled with muscle, and he lounged against the igloo’s walls the way a wolf lies hidden in the snow. He wore a strange fur coat, and he had painted blue designs across his skin, so he looked half animal, half spirit. 

“Wife of my father,” he said, and his voice echoed in her ears and thrummed in her heart. “Welcome to our hearth. I will call the sons you bear my father “brother,” and I will call the daughters you bear my father “sister,”and I will honor you as a child honors his mother for all the days of my life.” He looked at her then, and she almost fell backwards from the intensity of his gaze. She had never seen such cold, clear blue in all her life.

“Thank you,” she said, too tremulously for a princess of the Fire Nation.

“Wonderful,” Hakoda said, and Azula turned back toward her new husband, and away from the riveting eyes of his barbarian son. At least Hakoda made an effort at civilization, unlike his feral heir. 

“It’s the middle of the muskmoose migration, Dad,” Sokka said. His voice was rough, it grated across her skin. She glanced at him, fur-clad, his cheek scarred by either a weapon or a beast, his hair absolutely uncivilized, and she shivered. She could not imagine having someone like him as her kin. “I’m going back out onto the glacier.”

“Be safe, Son,” he said. “And see if you can’t come home in time for courting season this year.”

“I think one wedding this summer is more than enough,” Sokka said, dryly, and turned on his heel and stalked away. His boots made no sound on the snow.

“Sokka hates when his hunts are interrupted,” Katara said, and Azula sniffed. (His scent lingered in the thin chill air, wild and herbal and musky.)

“How provincial,” she said, and she was pleased with how ironic she sounded. She did not miss the look that Katara cast her father, and she did not miss the way her husband glanced at his daughter.

Her skin prickled with the knowledge that she was an outsider, wed to a man who did not want her, whose loyalties to tribe and children were already firmly established.

“Azula, Katara will show you her sparring grounds while I discover what messes were made at our wedding feast. I will see you and your mother at dinner.” Katara looked for a moment as though she were going to protest, but Hakoda glared at her, and she bit her lip and fell silent.

“This way,” she said, coldly, and Azula followed in her wake.

_________________________

After Katara showed her the training ground, and informed her in no uncertain terms that she used it every evening at moonrise, during which time Azula would not be welcome.

“Do you not bend during the day?” Azula asked, careful to keep her tone neutral.

“The moon makes me more powerful,” Katara said, and Azula nodded thoughtfully. 

“I suppose that explains why the Fire Nation has always had the advantage over your people,” she said. She genuinely did not mean it as a slight, but Katara all but snarled, and turned on her, her eyes blazing.

“You think you can come into my home and insult my people, just because your uncle sold you to my father? You’re a spoiled princess who’s never known a fight in her life.”

Azula had always had a temper, and Katara’s words, and Sokka’s barbarian eyes, and Hakoda’s inscrutability and open disinterest in her had all conspired to rouse it. Without thinking, she called a wall of fire between herself and the chieftain’s daughter, who swiftly countered with a wall of ice. She was faster than Azula had imagined, and the way she moved was far, far different from the centered, balanced, predictable movements of the firebenders she sparred with in the Royal Palace.

For the first time in a few weeks, Azula felt perfectly in control of her situation. Blue fire bloomed from her feet, the girl parried and hurled shards of ice, sharp enough to blind, sharp enough to cut, which Azula turned to steam.

Katara sent a wave of cold water barreling towards her, and Azula leapt backwards and to the side, wrapping fire around her, preparing to send it outwards.

They sparred for the better part of ten minutes, longer than Azula had sparred with an individual opponent in years. She saw a flaw in the girl’s footwork, and would have won, but when she glanced sideways to ensure no trap had been laid to ensnare her, she saw Sokka, his gaze fixed on them, leaning against the wall of a drydock, some strange curved weapon in his hands.

The shock of seeing him caused her to miss Katara’s closing move, and she reacted, but too late. She held fire against the girl’s neck, and Katara held ice against her own.

“Draw?” Katara asked, amiably. Azula’s heart pounded in her throat.

“Draw,” she said, considerably less cordially. 

“I take it back,” Katara said. “You fight well for a princess.”

“I’m the greatest bender of my generation,” she said. 

“Good for you,” Katara said, and if she weren’t a barbarian savage, Azula would have admired the clear disinterest in the girl’s tone, the way her words froze over, a lake’s surface after a winter storm. Azula hadn’t overplayed her hand in years. She felt vaguely humiliated, but despite that, excitement prickled down her spine at the thought of training with the girl, of learning her strategies, and then of beating her so soundly she won’t dream of challenging her again. 

“I thought that Water Tribe women only learned healing,” Azula said. Katara scowled.

“That’s true in the North, but not here.”

Azula glanced over her shoulder. Sokka had vanished into the busy crowd at the wharfs.

“Shall I take you to your mother?” Katara asked.

“No need to inconvenience yourself,” Azula said. “I’ll find my way.”

“We should spar again,” Katara called to her retreating back. “I’ve missed having a challenge.”

“Name your time,” Azula said, already plotting to annihilate her. 

_______________________

Azula did manage to find her mother, but only after getting lost twice. She had to retrace her way to the docks and walk the route she had taken the day before. She’d eaten little at breakfast with the chieftain’s children, and less the night before, so she was starving when she finally came upon her mother, writing a letter in her little hut.

“Azula!” She exclaimed. “I must be honest, I expected you a little earlier. The chieftain kept you, did he?” Her eyes glinted with mischief, and Azula glowered at her.

“I sparred with his daughter.”

“Oh, I’m glad you’re making an effort,” her mother said. “It’s so good to see you trying, Azula.” Azula could not help the irritation that flared through her at her mother’s condescension. She spoke as though she were a child learning how to share her toys, and not a grown woman.

She chose instead to inspect a hard fruit laid out for her mother to eat, some kind of Earth Kingdom kumquat. She popped it in her mouth and chewed. It was more sour than she expected, but its aftertaste was not unpleasant, so she ate another.

“So?” Her mother asked. “Was he good to you?”

“Sure,” Azula said, turning away to hide her reddened cheeks.

“So you see, your uncle had your best interests at heart all along. You should write to him and thank him for such an advantageous match-”

“He wanted me out the way so he can ensure Zuko’s loyalty is single-minded,” Azula said, coldly. “Not that I blame him of course. If our positions were reversed, I’d have exiled him to a barbarian wasteland too. But don’t fool yourself, Mother, and certainly don’t try to fool me. My uncle would have married me to the chieftain whether or not he was good to me.”

“You are so unbelievably selfish,” her mother said, softly, almost to herself. Azula told herself the prickle she felt behind her eyes was anger at her mother’s words.

“I’ll see you at dinner, Mother,” she said, and despite her gnawing hunger, she left.

________________________

Azula had no obligations that day except for the ritual dinner at nightfall, so she resolved to walk the entire port city, to assess its strengths and weaknesses, and to learn its layout. If she determined that Hakoda did not intend to read her correspondences, she would send her observations to Zuko, so she would be invaluable to her brother, and so that he would remember her when he did ascend the Dragon Throne. 

She began close to the water, and she observed the Water Tribe boats out at sea, fishing, perhaps, or harvesting the pungent sea prunes from their underwater farms. The waterfront had stone buildings, some of imported stone from the Earth Kingdom, recognizable by its color, but most glacierstone quarried in the pole. The Water Tribe flag, a quartermoon above a cresting wave, flew from the administrative center and the quaymaster’s house, but most of the boats sailed under their own colors, usually blue or silver, and then the red, yellow, green, or gold patterns of the individual tribes. 

It was strangely liberating to wander about, unguarded and unobserved. Since her marriage to Hakoda, she had not been permitted to enter the Caldera without a palanquin, and she had not walked a city street unescorted in her entire life. Dressed in Katara’s borrowed clothes, with her hair swept beneath a fur hat, she looked indistinguishable from a tribeswoman, just so long as no one looked at her eyes. Once this anonymity might have irritated her, but a decade of Iroh’s rule had taught her to value occasional invisibility.

She saw the harbormaster inspecting Earth Kingdom junks, probably among the last of the season; his face bore the pinched, pedantic look of all low level functionaries. She watched the eaglulls wheeling above her, turning somersaults on the rough currents of glacial air. 

From the harbor, she walked up through the market district. A sign informed her that it was the Fourth Fair, and she gathered from the smell that that meant fresh fish and little else of interest. She hurried up the sharply inclined street, and at its end found the Administrative Center of the South Pole, as the sign outside it proclaimed in the three most predominant native languages, she assumed, and also in demotic.

The building was half glacierstone, half ice, just like Hakoda’s igloo, and it loomed over the little market the way a cloudbank huddles over a mountain’s peak. Comparing it to the Dragon Palace in the Caldera was like comparing a rosebush to a cypress tree.

Still, she stood for a moment in the building’s shadow, and she tried to imagine what it would be like to make the wretched little building her seat of power. At the very least it needed red accents to brighten the dull stone.

“Azula?” Even though she was completely free to go where she pleased, she still jumped guiltily at Hakoda’s voice. Her uncle would have been furious if he knew she was wandering unwatched and unguarded, but Hakoda only offered her a slight smile when he turned. She saw he was with a man slightly taller than he was, dressed in the silver, indigo, and ivory of a tribal chieftain. “Azula,” Hakoda said again. “I’d like for you to meet Bato, Chief of the Mother Mountain tribe, and my second in command. Bato, this is Ozai’s daughter and Iroh’s ward, Princess Azula of the Fire Nation, my wife.” Bato looked at her, and then looked at Hakoda.

“You weren’t joking when you said she was a girl.”

“Be polite, Bato,” Hakoda said, but his tone was not the monitory threat of an offended chieftain. Instead it was soft, almost pleading.

“Princess Azula,” Bato said, inclining his head. His words dripped venom onto the thin dusting of snow that had started to fall in the past hour. 

“Chief Bato,” she said, sweet as spun sugar. She watched the way his eyes flickered to Hakoda’s, and she knew that she had an enemy who would love to see her unseated.

“I’m glad you’re seeing the city,” Hakoda said. “Was there anything at the market that you wanted?”

“I don’t have much use for raw fish, I’m afraid,” she said. She meant it as a joke, but Bato frowned.

“Are you not interested in providing for your husband’s table?” He asked, and Azula bristled at both his tone and his insinuation.

“Bato,” Hakoda said, and this time his voice had a vein of iron in it. “Princess Azula is no doubt unaccustomed to our ways. Give her time to adjust.”

“Of course,” he said, bitterly, and Azula resolved to make him regret his rudeness, preferably sooner rather than later. Once she’d had time to adjust.

“Shall we escort you somewhere, Azula?” Hakoda asked. She was tempted to accept, if only because she saw how Bato’s knuckles whitened, but she had been enjoying her solitude, and she wanted to set a precedent for solitary walks early.

“No thank you, Hakoda,” she said, and she saw Bato’s jaw clench at Hakoda’s name in her mouth. 

“Very well then,” he said. “Bato, we have work to do. Do you want to show me the proposal the emissary from Omashu showed you earlier?” 

Azula turned from their conversation, and began her long walk into the upper regions of the city. Her stomach growled, and she told herself that dinner was at sundown, which was not too far away. She could manage until then.

________________________________


The chieftain, his daughter, Azula, and her mother sat cross legged before his hearthfire, and he and Azula poured the customary libations to the spirits and their ancestors, and her mother brushed ash from Azula’s wedding fire, almost a decade old at this point, on Hakoda’s head, and named him her son in the old language.

They ate a strange, smooth, salty, fatty meat that Hakoda informed her was blackfish, which Sokka had harpooned earlier in the season. 

“I apologize that my son could not be here, Lady Ursa,” Hakoda said. “But he is sworn to the Moon Spirit, and as a result he spends most of the summer hunting. It was all I could do to get him to return for my wedding.”

“Oh, I understand, Chief,” Azula’s mother said. “Children are difficult to manage, especially when grown.” Hakoda laughed, and Azula’s heart throbs dully. The pain angered her, and she had to breathe deeply to prevent her fingertips from sparking. “You’ll understand soon, Azula, I’m sure.” Azula dug her nails into her palms, and did not look at her mother, nor at her husband, nor at Katara, who also seemed to be studiously avoiding anyone’s gaze.

“In her own time,” Hakoda said, gently, and he covered her hand with his, in a gesture she knows is meant to be comforting. If she had needed comforting, she would have been almost grateful for it.

___________________________

Azula bade goodnight to her mother outside the igloo, and the woman clutched her tightly.

“It’s such a privilege to see you fulfilling your duties,” she said. “You looked positively regal, Azula. You should be proud.”

“Pride is generally reserved for what one has had a hand in, Mother,” she said, and her mother clucked her tongue.

“Always a sharp word,” she sighed. “But marriage tempered me, and I suppose it will temper you in time. Have a good night, Azula. Try to be soft; it’s so much more becoming of a woman.”

Azula swallowed her words, swallowed the fire the built in her throat and threatened to spill out between her teeth. Not for the first time, she wondered what it would be like to be Zuko, and to have her mother know her for Agni’s light on earth.

She’d always been a disappointment to everyone except her father. He saw her for who she was, an ekpyrosis made flesh, a cataclysm-in-skin. He would never have told her to be soft.

When she re-entered the igloo, she saw Hakoda reading in his furs before the fire, and Katara dressed in a loose tunic, obviously meant for bending.

“I’ll be about two hours, Dad,” she said, and he grunted his acknowledgement. She glanced at Azula, a quick, uncertain glance, with some strange, unreadable emotion on her face. “Sleep well,” she said, in a way that suggested she was talking to both of them.

“Watch out for the sealacanth that’s been prowling the harbors, dear.” Katara nodded, and ducked out the igloo’s entrance. “I’ve got a few reports I need to finish,” Hakoda said. The reading glasses perched on his nose cast shadows that looked like wrinkles on his face. “But feel free to doze off. I imagine you must be tired after a long day.”

“Very well,” she said. She readied herself for bed behind the small screen for privacy, grateful that her possessions had finally been delivered to the chieftain’s igloo.

She felt less gratitude for her nightdresses. They were flimsy silk, embroidered with their interlocking sigils, and when she crossed the room, conscious of the bitingly cold air, Hakoda glanced at her and frowned.

“We’ll need to get you warmer bedclothes before winter sets in,” he said, and turned back to his reading.

Azula did not take his words to heart. She didn’t care that he did not so much as spare a glance at her both, swathed in finer silk than he’d probably seen in his lifetime, barbarian savage that he was. Probably he didn't know how to appreciate it, or her. Instead, she crawled beneath the pile of furs, trying not to let her shivering show.

“Hakoda?” She asked, and she was pleased that her tone sounded suitably imperious, despite the goosebumps on her arms.

“Yes Azula?”

“What did Katara mean when she said she’d be back?”

“Well, she still lives with me,” he said, and then he set down his scroll and turned to her. Azula caught the words increased trade differential suggests Earth Kingdom intends- and then forced herself to look away. In any case, she wasn’t very interested. 

“She will sleep here?” Azula asked, and Hakoda shifted.

“Well, not in our furs, no. But she is the child of my hearth, and so she will sleep before my fire.” Azula felt a trickle of horror drip down her spine, cold water from an icicle frigid on her skin.

“Do you-” she paused, searching for words, her mother’s admonition ringing in her ears. “Do you people lie with each other in the full sight of your children?”

“No,” Hakoda said. She thought she heard anger in his voice, and that made her glad. “We value privacy just as your people do, but we also value heat in winter, and two bodies warm an igloo much less successfully than four.”

“I see,” Azula said, coldly. She thought of Katara’s exit, how carefully she had specified the time of her return, and she felt her face heat. It was- it was obscene, there was no other word for it.

“Good night, Azula,” he said, and she turned her back on him, and made no reply. When she breathed, the fire breathed with her, and sooner than she would have thought possible, she fell asleep.

_____________________________

When she awoke in the middle of the night, Hakoda was gone from her bed, and Katara was curled up before the banked fire, wrapped in her furs. Azula heard soft voices at the igloo’s entrance, and when they continued for the better part of a quarter hour, and her husband remained absent from their bed, she resolved to find out whom he was speaking to.

She crept silently across the floor, careful to give Katara a wide berth, and she crouched before the low entrance, behind the fur covering that was drawn against the cold.

“We knew this day would come eventually,” she heard Hakoda murmur. His voice seemed strangely thick. 

“That makes it no easier,” Bato responded. She had not known what she expected, but Bato was far from the top of her list.

“I must be to her what I would wish a man to be to Katara,” Hakoda said, voice low. “That which we are, we are.” Then there was silence. Belatedly, she realized she must have caught the tail end of conversation, so she scrambled back into bed, her eyes now fully adjusted to the dim light. She’d scarcely settled herself when Hakoda pulled the skin stretched over the entrance aside, allowing cold air to momentarily flood the igloo. 

He sighed, and stoked the fire to new heights, adding a few strange dried squares and a single log, and then he slipped beneath their furs, facing away from her. 

Was she such a burden? His words rankled her, her pride twinged. Why had he talked to his second, in secret and at night and about her?

__________________________

Her mother returned to the Fire Nation on the last boat north, and Azula gradually adjusted to life as a married woman. Truthfully, her days were not unpleasant. She woke at dawn and practiced her bending, sometimes with Katara, who was always willing to try something new, and very rarely tired before Azula herself, and sometimes alone. She quickly grew bored of wandering the city, and when she asked Hakoda to be placed on his military council, intending to bargain with him, and expecting to wind up on the advisory board for shipping and commerce, or something equally as dull, she was surprised when he acquiesced, although he asked her to observe before she spoke, and to avoid overtly contradicting him in public, which she mostly managed.

He wisely did not ask her to cook his dinners, but she occasionally helped him, if the mood struck her. She read what she wanted from the library, which she was pleased to discover held almost as many books as the library in the Dragon Palace, and Hakoda interfered with her life only when it was absolutely necessary. 

Her husband was true to his word in other ways. He never reached across the expanse of their furs to touch her, not even when Katara was making one of her frequent trips to the outlying villages as an instructor and healer. He never gaped at her, his hands never lingered, he never made any crude comments about her, and he certainly never tolerated them when he was present to hear them directed at her. If it wasn’t for the way his eyes flickered over her when she wore flattering furs, she would have thought him completely disinterested.

She assumed, at first, that he must keep a lover, but no women in his employ or acquaintance seemed overly familiar with him, and he slept faithfully beside her each night.

She contemplated him more and more frequently, as autumn turned to bitter winter, and the sun vanished, and she crouched, weak and wan and frigid, before the bright fires that burned across the city. He was certainly handsome, but more than that, he was one of the few tribesmen who did not seem to openly despise her for being Fire Nation. Ships could not pass through the winter storms, so she had no correspondence with her family.

When Katara was once more away, this time to guide Sokka and the other trackers who had stayed late on the glacier back to the city, Azula turned to Hakoda, who lay reading in bed, his glasses a strange bird perched on the angular stump of his nose, and she looked at his muscular arms, and his dark, not unlovely skin, and she thought of her mother’s statement that the chieftain was handsome by any standard.

The wine she’d had at dinner and afterwards hadn’t helped. It was a spirit day honoring the birth of the last Water Tribe avatar, and the alcohol sang in her veins and stoked the fire in her blood. She was lonely and cold and eager to be touched. She could not even often touch herself, because Hakoda shared her bed, and she burned with want, not for Hakoda, necessarily, but for closeness with another.

“Is everything well, Azula?” He asked, and she paused, and she swallowed, and she spoke.

“I am cold.”

“I’ll fetch you another fur,” he said. “We keep our extras in that chest over there-” he made to rise, but she touched his arm.

“Hakoda-” she said, and he looked at her, still dressed in her ridiculous thin silk nightgown. His eyes lingered slightly longer than he normally permitted on her breasts.

“What do you want, Azula?” He asked, setting aside his letter. She surged upward, and pressed her lips to his, and for a few glorious moments he kissed her back, and then he pulled away. 

“Azula,” he said. “If you want this, if we are to lie together, then you must be prepared for children. We must fulfill the terms of our wedding contract.”

She counted the days in her head. She was safe for the next week or so, provided her cycle was not wildly out of rhythm.

“Fine,” she said, and Hakoda laughed a not-unpleasant laugh, and set aside his glasses.

“Alright then,” he said. “Help me remove this ridiculous silk of yours.” Somehow undressing herself felt even more scandalous than being undressed, and if she were not a princess of the Fire Nation, she would have covered herself from his examination. But then he tangled his hands in her hair, and pressed his lips to his, and touched her bare breasts with his hands, and she shut her eyes and felt his blue gaze on her skin, so like Sokka’s when she had met him.

“My pretty girl,” he murmured, his voice almost as hoarse as his son’s. Her spine tingled at his touch and at his praise, and she let her legs fall open to his exploring hand. She hoped that he would put his mouth on her, as she had read about in the imperial library, but his touch alone was pleasant enough, and when he slipped inside her, she groaned at fullness after months of emptiness.

She curled her hands in his hair, and tugged his mouth to her neck, and she tried not to imagine that his hair was brown, instead of beginning to grey.