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Sad Azula
In Pursuit of Perfection
Chapter information
Written by

Sparkstoaflame

Editor(s)

Sparkstoaflame

Release date

July 4, 2014

Word count

5,567

In Pursuit of Perfection
.

Summary: Wherein Azula is a famous painter, Aang gets unwillingly dragged into all the chaos, and Zuko tries to play matchmaker but fails, horribly.


i :: pictures
.
.

(picture this.)

Picture a young woman with pale skin and devilish amber eyes. Maybe put a slight upturn to her red-painted lips, a small sneer that burns with malice and hunger. She has long, dark hair she keeps shining and sleek — an inky, jet black sort of shade that precisely matches the color of her desires. Put a paintbrush in her perfectly manicured hand, tie that black hair up into a tail.

(take that picture. take a good look at it, because right there, you have yourself a monomanic painter named azula.)

(picture this.)

Picture Azula in your head. Right there, and fix it into place. It can't be that hard. Azula cuts a very special figure, and she is very aware of this fact — she parrots this specialness around to everyone she meets. She is one of the most successful artists in the country, going on the entirety of the Four Nations. Her paintings sell for thousands and are coveted by collectors everywhere. She has, as she often puts it, a failure of a brother who is not quite as successful as she is. (Not quite's context, in this case, means that Zuko's really got the short end of the stick. Well, he's dabbled in cinematography, and that's about it.)

For your useless information, Azula considers him not even worthy to be mentioned in her presence.

(take that picture, too. take a good look at it, because right there, you've got the beginnings of a sociopathic, monomanic painter who will do anything to achieve what she wants.)

(picture this.)

Picture a very vexed and very aggravated Zuko forced to attend all of Azula's art events, where he has the difficult job of conducting damage control should Azula inadvertently offend one of her onlookers or clients. She has to do this at least once during every one of her art openings, or else she considers the evening wasted.

​— for instance —

"It's beautiful!" a vertically challenged and doll-like woman gushes during Azula's most recent show. The lady has been done up with enough makeup that it looks like there is a crusty mask about to fall straight off her face, and she's clad in so many rich fabrics and furs that an animal rights' activist probably would have screamed bloody murder at the sight of her.

Azula merely quirks an eyebrow and sighs internally, paying more attention to her champagne flute than the groveling mannequin in front of her.

The woman leans close to one of Azula's paintings and squints at the signature. "Ah, it is done by the Lady Azula! Oh, I should have known. Only her paintings look quite as beautiful as this."

Azula takes a sip of her champagne, because Agni knows she's going to need the alcohol to get her through the art opening. Snorting softly into the drink, and about to say something scandalously impolite in the face of very important guests, Zuko strides up to her shoulder and beats her to it.

"Yes, it's wonderful, isn't it," he says in a monotone, rehearsed sort of voice. Azula internally rolls her eyes and takes another sip from her flute and nearly spits it out again when Zuko continues, "In fact, Azula's right here, and she'd love to talk to you about what inspired her latest piece." His eyebrow twitches when he turns to face her, and in that small gesture he's saying, Don't you dare screw this up.

Azula maintains a stoic expression and listens to the woman babble.

"Lady Azula!" she energetically gushes. "What fabulous work you've done here!"

Azula lets out a pent-up, long-suffering sigh.

"Are you blind?" she loudly says, accentuating her words perfectly smooth and clear to accommodate the doubtlessly feeble hearing facilities of the middle-aged. She tilts her head over at the woman; allows a small sneer to curl the dark crimson of her lips, "That painting on the wall you see? It's utter trash. I hate it. You can take it for free, if you'd like, because it's so juvenile it doesn't even deserve a price."

She smartly turns around and can almost hear Zuko's facepalm while he blubbers apologies to the dismayed woman, because frankly she couldn't care less. Paying no heed, she sweeps away with a rustle of silk.

And suddenly she's feeling sick to the stomach, because even though everything's perfect, it's not.

And that is unacceptable.

(and take this picture. take a good look at it, because right there, everything is gorgeous yet unthinkably ugly, and white is a blank slate that must be covered up with warm, warm paint.)

(picture this.)

Well, alright.

If this is all hard to picture, consider this a tale wherein the two main characters are either eccentric, sociopathic perfectionists or — as we will soon discover — starry-eyed idiots with a naturally supportive complex that will prove problematic later on.

.
.
ii :: muse
.
.

The art museum at night is a clean mixture of frosted gray and steely iron. The air smells a bit like a winter snow day, perhaps with a dash of acrylic and pastel and a little bit of oils. Azula sits beside a glass case that engulfs a bust of the museum's founder, strappy heels abandoned at her side and an empty wine bottle clutched in her fingers. She's not quite drunk, only slightly tipsy, and she thinks she hears footsteps, but that can't be right, because this building isn't supposed to be open.

"Hey, are you alright?"

Azula doesn't recognize this man, and she usually recognizes most patrons who are here. He enters from a wide, gaping entrance, quite anti-climatically, to be honest. The lights are all still on, illuminating silent statues and bits of vibrant plastic and a stone carving of a woman leaning against a glass case with strappy heels at her side.

"Um, I'm Aang," says the man who actually looks like a little boy uncertainly, when Azula just stares at him coldly. "Aang."

Aang looks unbelievably young, with his round gray eyes and pockets of baby fat prominent in his cheeks when he smiles, which Azula finds he does ridiculously often. He's dressed in plain pants and a dress shirt. There's a ragtag backpack slung over his shoulders, bulging at the zip with various objects that clatter obnoxiously against each other. He's carrying a half-finished canvas painting, almost as big as he is (although that's not saying a lot). Soft iron eyes are widened in a comical look of surprise. Azula would have laughed at his expression, but she doesn't really remember how to.

"I heard you the first time. This place is closed," Azula says, turning away and shoving the wine bottle to the opposite wall. It rolls like a ship might on the surface of a stormy sea.

"Oh," says Aang, and he's breathless now. His eyes refocus to the painting behind her, and his jaw drops open. "Are you...Azula?"

"Hmph," Azula scowls. "Are you another fan?"

There's the sound of metal cans rattling as Aang drops his backpack onto the ground, setting the canvas gently on the timber, and he scoots over to where Azula sits ungracefully in her cocktail dress.

"Well...I'm not really your fan, no," Aang mumbles, blushing slightly. "Um...I'm sorry?"

Azula only stares at him, eyebrows raised, for a minute that lasts for maybe one hundred years. Aang looks back steadily, bold and gray.

And then Azula laughs.

It's a bewildering sight to behold. Azula, in all her twenty-one years of living, has never once laughed this hard before. It pours from her mouth, like a wasteland waterfall, in shocking peals of hilarity that sound so out of place, it begins to echo the call of hyenas.

Aang titters nervously along with her, unsure of how to react. When Azula finally calms down, wiping tears of mirth away, she says, "I like you. You're interesting."

"Um, thanks?" Aang tries. He then remembers his previous statement, momentarily forgotten in the sudden turn of events. "Oh! Um, about before, I didn't mean any offense. Your paintings are striking in their own way" — Azula rolls her eyes at this — "but the people in them always look so angry, and they just don't...well, they don't really speak to me."

"Speak to you?" Azula questions sharply, and Aang blinks at her change in demeanor. She's harsh, almost demanding, in the way she probes him, searching for solutions that are nothing more than bundles of words.

But Azula doesn't get her answer, because then a security guard comes along, large and rotund and utterly bored of his life, and shoos them out with a wave of his beefy hands.

.

"Azula," Zuko pops his head into her studio one day, "your next art show is in two fucking months and you haven't painted anything."

Azula glares at him, twirling the brush in between her fingers.

He gives an exasperated sigh, words tumbling from his mouth like he's reading a script. "You know Father's expecting at least twenty paintings from you, and the curators are unofficially expecting forty." Then he says blandly, with amber eyes flickering in disapproval at her inert form, "You need to paint."

"But I can't," Azula says, her voice dripping with false patience as if she's talking to a four-year-old. "And frankly, I don't feel like doing anything today."

Zuko looks like he's ready to shoot white steam out of his ears. He steps fully into Azula's studio, "You've had a whole year to do this, Azula, and you can't paint twenty pictures in the last week before the art opening, much less forty —"

"And why would you care?" Azula inquires, twirling a bang around her finger.

He furrows his eyebrows. "Because I'm your brother, and I don't want to see Father go all insane on you —"

"Ah, like he always goes on you?" Azula asks with sweet poison lacing her tone. "Go away, Zuzu."

Zuko's jaw clenches.

"Is there anything," he says through gritted teeth, "that could maybe provide a spark of inspiration?"

No is halfway through her mouth, before Azula remembers a flash of round gray eyes.

"Actually," Azula says slowly, and Zuko frowns in apparent surprise, "find me an artist called Aang."

.

It takes nearly a day, and in that time Azula stares at her tea and tries to think of a name for its tone. At the end of nearly six hours, her mind is still blank, and her teaspoon is a minute hand that's gone around the mug rim approximately two thousand three hundred and seventy-nine times.

Dragged through the door in clumsy dabs of sponge comes Aang in all his unglorified glory, in a shirt that's blotched with primary colors and a dazed sheen to his features. Zuko is panting, but Azula impatiently pushes her brother away and clamps upon Aang's wrists with fingers made of cuffs and steel.

"Come with me," Azula orders, and without explanation, he's taken downstairs into the basement, where Azula spends most of her time.

"Look, I don't know what I'm doing here," Aang says breathlessly, and he runs a paint-speckled hand through his hair, "but I was in the middle of something, and I have no idea how you found me, but I gotta go —"

"You," Azula says sharply, "are going to be my new muse."

"I...wait, what?"

"Be my muse," Azula repeats impatiently.

"Why?"

"Because you're stupid," Azula says, and she's in her own world now, hurrying back and forth, grabbing paintbrushes and a canvas and juggling buckets of paint. Aang is left standing in the middle of the flurry of activity, more than confused and very insulted.

"You're stupid," continues Azula, "and you're perfect. Just stay here and talk, yes?"

"Uh —"

Whisks of rosy pink and slate grey fly in polished ropes across the landscape, before it fades into rose quartz and sunset and the soft fingernails of a sleeping figure. Wisteria and amethyst and heliotrope dissolve into skin; jonquil and olive and ecru liquefy into strands of sunshine hair.

"What are you painting?" Aang asks cautiously, craning his neck for a better look. Azula makes a noise of discontent and turns the canvas the other way.

"Not until I'm finished," Azula mutters, as violet splatters her face like blood.

Aang gives up, and mindlessly picks up a small square canvas lying on the side and a brush, and begins fiddling around with a painting of his own.

It takes nearly four hours, but they finish at the same time. Azula, in an almost savage flourish of the final stroke, and Aang with one last gentle quiver as he daubs the burnished brass of the eye.

"Look," Azula instructs haughtily. Her painting is of a dozing man, general enough. But as Aang keeps gawking, he can see why Azula is considered a prodigy at her work. There is something about her style, her ferocious strokes that effortlessly blends lime into auburn, flesh into ash, in a way no other artist can replicate. It's a beautiful rendition of a section of humanity, but Aang still feels as if Azula can do better.

"It's sort of..." Aang struggles to say it without being disrespectful, "sort of...emotionless? And sort of...mad?"

"What do you mean?" Azula says. Aang notes with relief that she doesn't appear hurt in any way. Just...angrily curious.

"As in, like, it's kind of lifeless. Dead. It has no feeling," Aang tries to explain. "It's beautiful, but it's cold. And he looks furious at the same time, which is kind of creepy, because now he looks like a maniac."

The painting is tossed to the side, landing face down on the tiles, and Aang chokes in horror.

"It's trash, then," Azula says bluntly. She drags a hand down her face, spreading still-wet smudges of waxen green across her features. She then catches sight of the small painting Aang was working on, and she says, "What's that?"

"Oh," Aang mumbles in embarrassment. "It's nothing; not as good as yours, of course. But I was bored and you were busy so I just painted —"

"Me," Azula says softly, and she traces the painting with a tenderness Aang didn't know she possessed.

A portrait of Azula, brows furrowed in concentration. Aang has painted her, while she was working on the dozing man. He has blurred the inky black of her hair into the pale gray background, her hand and the paintbrush drizzling into cerise and smoldering iris. But he has captured her eyes, bringing them to life with so many shades of amber and gold, it seems so fake that it's real.

"It's nice, but there are too many different tones," Azula says dryly. She turns away. "Don't paint me without my permission ever again."

.

There is a loud cry as Azula overturns her palette into her work, creating bulges of thick, unmixed colors into the spine of a barebacked woman.

"It's not working," Azula snarls, and she flings her brush away. Aang, startled, almost falls off the stool he's sitting on, sketching a flower in his tattered notebook. She rounds to him, blazing in anger and frustration. "You, boy! Why aren't you talking?"

"I —" Aang says, thoroughly disconcerted and perplexed, and withering under her rage. "I didn't know you wanted me to talk —"

"You must talk. You're my muse, so talk. Talk and give me ideas to work with, damn it! I need to paint something worthy of perfection."

"I'm sorry," Aang says meekly. Azula shows no sign that she's heard him, only pulls a fresh canvas out of its wrapping and scrabbles distractedly for another brush.

"Talk," Azula hisses through her teeth.

"I think you're really pretty," Aang blurts out in a second of insanity caused by the pressure Azula casts upon him. Azula doesn't answer, only keeps on moving her fingers in wide arcs, the tip of the brush coated in a heap of tan brown. "And, um, yeah."

After a few minutes, Azula stops and looks at Aang. "Why did you stop talking?" she asks.

Aang stammers something unintelligible, and begins chatting about the weather.

.

"So," Zuko says dryly. "What's the deal with Aang and you?"

"Him?" Azula looks up from tearing her toast into ten million little pieces, her normally sharp amber eyes cloudy and disinterested. "There's nothing going on."

Zuko snorts and takes the plate away, so that Azula has no choice but to look at him. "Come on, Azula. He's here every day, he's your muse, you can't paint without him around. How obvious can it be?"

"Not everything needs to be romanticized, Zuko," Azula criticizes flatly, turning back to her food.

Rolling his eyes, Zuko says, "Not the point. You push everyone away from you, Azula. I think you need someone even so remotely special to you in your life."

"I can live a life without my supposed other half, you know," Azula dryly says. "I don't need someone else to 'complete' me. Soul mates are just fantasies."

"So warm and fuzzy, aren't you." Zuko's voice is sarcastic.

"I just want to paint," Azula says plainly. She stands up and brushes invisible dirt from her pants. "That's all I live for."

.
.
iii :: love
.
.

Staying awake for over twenty-four hours is enough to drive anyone insane. Azula is on what Zuko calls her "sprees of exploding paint." She's just gotten a new idea, and when she gets new ideas, she refuses to eat, drink, or sleep until that idea is out of her system. Unfortunately, it usually takes about a full day or two to pass.

Aang has been taken prisoner, and he's curled up like a small cat in the corner of the studio, sleeping off his exhaustion.

The smell of acrylics are strong, like bleached pearls of color. Palatinate and Eton and turquoise mix into a new shade that has no name — lavender and mulberry and indigo — forest and pine and dark spring — the colors are bands across the canvas, spots and curves and bends, opposites merging into one, because Azula hates straight lines more than anything. They are vibrant, serene, clashing themes somehow generating the perfect ambiance, an atmosphere of suppressed calm, volatile excitement. Azula, with her hand of genius, manages to shove all of this into a painting of an alarmed woman, and the result is something she's never created before.

"You, boy — wake up," Azula snaps irritably, "this is no time to be sleeping."

Aang jerks and opens his eyes blearily. "Wha — ?"

"What do you think?" Azula asks, and her fervor is so great it scares him, and he unconsciously shrinks back.

Aang squints; Azula hasn't turned on the lights, and only the light of the moon illuminates anything. It's a wonder she can see her canvas at all.

"That's...a lot of, um, color," Aang says, his voice still cracked from sleep. "What is it, exactly?"

"A woman," Azula snaps, impatiently gesturing, "and she's feeling something."

"What's she feeling?" Aang presses, fully awake now. He's watching Azula with an intensity that's foreign to her, and she dislikes the way her stomach flips.

Azula is at a loss for words at his question, though. "I don't know." She freezes for a second, and, once again, she growls and throws the still-wet painting to the other side of the room and stamps her foot. "I don't know."

The painting lands face down, and Aang hurries over to peel it off. But it's too late; the features have smeared, colors milked together. He sighs.

"Listen," Aang says gently. "Azula, you can't keep doing this yourself. I know you're trying to put some life into your pictures, but you have to find some other way. Painting like a lunatic, starving yourself until you're finished, then getting angry after it doesn't work, and it isn't a very healthy option."

Azula flinches when Aang puts a hand on her shoulder, her eyes unreadable as she gazes at him.

"I wonder if my style will change if I try warm paint," Azula says distractedly instead, giving no indication that she's paid any heed to his words. Aang withdraws his hand and sighs; she's always been like this, avoiding anything that might pertain to feelings. "What do you think?"

"You could give it a go," Aang shrugs, stuffing his hands into his pockets. He's tired, it's three in the morning, and he's been sleeping on a cold basement floor for two hours.

"Yes," Azula says, and she patters away and digs through a chest. "I might."

.

A month passes in a manner similar to this, Aang coming in nearly every afternoon for Azula's inspiration after teaching an art class for most of the day. Zuko takes a liking to him, urging him to stay for dinner, and it settles into a routine.

"So, Aang," Zuko says at one point, spearing a piece of meat with his fork and looking at him. "Any girlfriends recently?"

"Nope," Aang says easily, mindlessly cutting up his own food. "Too busy; your sister's got me coming in every day, so I've got no time."

"Why do you come in?" Zuko asks, as if he doesn't know the answer. "I mean, it's not like she's paying you or anything, right?"

"Oh, no, of course not," Aang says, laughing almost sheepishly. "I'm just doing it as a favor as a — friend."

Right.

Zuko almost glares meaningfully at Azula, but Azula is busy pressing her rare steak with her knife so that the juices come out in oily currents. She's lost in thought, and doesn't hear Zuko calling her name five times.

"Azula," Zuko hisses, kicking her sister under the table. Azula shoots him a scowl. "What are you painting? You never let anyone down there except Aang."

"I'm in the middle of a process," Azula says automatically. "Aang helps speed it along. I just need to find out what's missing."

"Love," Aang says suddenly. Azula turns to him slowly, and the look at her face is so awfully blank that Aang feels his joint seize up.

"You're right," Azula says slowly, and her face suddenly lights up. "It needs love."

Zuko can only stare.

.

There's a prestigious art competition that Azula submits a piece to, and Aang somehow passes into the final rounds as well. She detests these things, because art is not a race, not a contest to see whose scatters of russet are more picturesque than the other. But Zuko insists, and Azula grudgingly hands over a canvas that's bruised black and blue.

Azula is actually a judge at this event, but she's called upon to paint a piece for general viewing, as if her work is for decoration instead of being seen as the masterpiece it truly is.

"I'm so nervous," Aang says quietly in her ear. The pair stands together in front of the paintings that have reached the finals, five pieces of work that all depict emotion in one form or other.

"Don't be," Azula says dismissively. "These things are a waste of time."

She studies his piece, with all its informal brush strokes that gleam in gamboge and gold and flame. It's delicate, the way he paints, staying within his lines, sometimes skittering out in spots of salmon and apricot, bold black stripes of charcoal creating a huge swirl of something that Azula doesn't quite understand.

"What emotion are you trying to portray?" she asks Aang, who's watching the head judge with almost fearful scrutiny.

"Joy," says Aang. His voice is mellow, and he tears his eyes away, "Joy, and also the undertones of envy. For example, when you're happy for your friend who got something, but you wanted that something as well."

Her brows furrow, but Azula doesn't comment any further.

"What about yours?" Aang asks. He's curious, what made her paint in shattering blows of graphite and ebony and sweltering blue, what made her feel as if an emotion of boiling rage would be eye-catching in any way.

Azula opens her mouth, but the words don't come out. "It's," she says lamely, and then she's struck by the notion that she doesn't understand. She has no idea what she's just painted; there's no emotion in her work, no nothing, and she doesn't know why.

Aang's work, titled something in a language that Azula doesn't know how to pronounce, wins first place.

"It's amazing, his style," beams the head judge. He turns to Azula with wonder shining in every crevice of his face. "He might even be better than you, Azula!"

Azula smiles something synthetic. "Well, there's always someone better than me. No one is ever faultless."

"Well, his art is certainly close to perfection," says the head judge, and he stands up in order to shake Aang's hand.

"Wow," says the third judge, staring at Aang's work with awe. "Unfortunately, I'm only an art auctioneer, but I would kill to be able to paint like that."

"Me too," Azula agrees with a small chuckle, and she shuffles her notes accordingly.

.

One night, when the stars bathe Azula and Aang in battleship silver and gunmetal, Azula experiences another slip in rage, actually taking a penknife and slashing through the canvas with huge, angry swings.

"Azula," Aang begins, but when Azula twists towards him, the expression on her face is so terrifying it stops him in his place.

"Tell me," Azula interrupts, and there's a wild edge to her voice that prompts Aang to close his mouth, "how do you feel when you've created the perfect painting?"

The question leaves Aang speechless for a few seconds. "Uh," he falters, "I — I wouldn't know; I've never created a painting that I thought was perfect."

"But theoretically," Azula pushes on. She waves her hand at the stands that hold partially empty frames, at the canvases that have been ripped to shreds because a tiny drop of blue had fallen onto a forever-stretching sea of orange, "what do you think you would feel?"

"Well, to be honest," Aang begins carefully, "I don't believe in things such as perfection. As humans, everything we do, everything we are, is just another state of imperfection."

Azula clicks her tongue irritably and paces around her studio. "But don't you understand? Perfection is when you get the combination of colors at exactly the ratio you want. When the clear-cut lines become blurred and peonies are swallowed by sunflowers, and iron is just another word for gray and fibers are sweep strokes across the landscape, that's when art is at its pinnacle, at its point of flawlessness."

Aang just gazes at her helplessly, and he doesn't say a word. Because, truthfully, he doesn't understand, and he's left wondering just how mechanic Azula could be, and how far she is willing to stretch to obtain her ultimate goal.

But Azula catches his look, and then the wrath dissipates. And underneath, Aang glimpses something vulnerable and alone. Scared.

"You think I'm crazy," Azula croaks out finally. "You think...I'm crazy."

"Azula," Aang says again, but Azula just sinks to the ground and covers her face with her hands.

"I can't do it," Azula almost sobs. "I'm a failure as an artist; I can't do it."

Aang, who had stuck himself to the wall to get out of her way, warily goes toward her after Azula chucks the penknife to the ground. She lies in a heaped mess in the middle of a whirlwind of wrecked easels and buckets, curled into a ball and crying. It actually comforts him to see her like this, because recently she has been so caught up in her work, she's almost become a human robot.

"Hey," Aang says, and after a moment's hesitation, he wraps his arms around her. Azula stiffens, but doesn't push him away. "I think you need to take a break, okay?"

"I — can't," Azula chokes. "All my life, my father — wanted me — to be perfect. No breaks, no games, no play, no nothing. Perfection. I need to be perfect. I need to create the perfect painting. For him."

Understanding dawns on Aang's features, and he hugs her tighter and says, "I get it. But you need to rest, Azula. Really. You've barely slept for more than an hour or two."

"Okay," Azula just says, eyes fluttering shut.

.
.
iv :: humanity
.
.

The next time Azula feels the urge to paint, she almost physically holds herself back. Subtle, fragile marks with a tiny brush, placid slops of taupe, small dots of mahogany, slurs of chocolate. She's trying to paint love.

"Most people wouldn't paint love in brown," Aang says with interest as he peers over her thin shoulders. "It's a cool concept."

Azula exhales in a breath she didn't know she had been holding. Aang's approval jolts something in her that she hasn't felt before.

"You know what I think?" Aang says with a grin. "I reckon you should change your style a little. Experiment, you know? You're always painting in color, so why don't you try monochrome? I've noticed you never use basic white in your pictures."

"I hate white," Azula confesses. "It's too blank. Incomplete."

Cocking his head, Aang says, "That could go either way. It might just be the most complete thing you've ever painted."

"Like love is supposed to complete you," Azula says.

Aang just gives her a small smile, a hint of sadness in the creases of his eyes. "Yeah."

"I think I understand," Azula hums, and a smile curls around her lips.

.

"Do you know why I hate my art?" Azula asks abruptly, when she's sitting on her stool and Aang's leaning against the wall of the studio.

"Hm?" Aang murmurs sleepily. "Why?"

"Because you were right," Azula says. "It has no life. It has no emotion. My art is dead. Or angry. Like a zombie?"

"You're getting better," Aang argues softly.

"No," Azula says, her eyes narrowing imperceptibly. "I need one more thing. I need something alive."

"Okay," Aang says, because he's learned that once Azula goes off on tangents, it's better to just agree to whatever she's rambling about.

"Will you help me?" Azula turns to him, and Aang rolls his eyes.

"Of course," he says.

.

One final time, Azula goes off on one of her infamous crazed painting sprees. This time, though, she knows exactly what she's doing. The thing she's been missing all along has been right in front of her, and she's been too blind to notice.

It's Aang. Aang is the last puzzle piece to her elusive flawless painting. With this thought in mind, Azula decides that her ultimate masterpiece would be in monochrome, just as he suggested earlier.

So jet turns into midnight, smoke wisps into cadet grey. Chalk fuses into eggshells, cream morphing into curving lines. Azula had never really noticed just how beautiful the color white is. It brings a whole new dimension to her paintings. Grey, gray, greys, grays, a polish of confusion, drops of betrayal, a wash of fear.

And finally, red. Azula takes it from Aang, quietly steals it from him. She cracks open his bones, leaves an almost gentle cut to the neck, looks into gray eyes wide with horror. For the scarlet and the crimson, the new technique of painting with warm paint, and the result is so beautifully perfect that Azula feels a grin breaking out on her lips, and she breathes in the scent of acrylic and canvas and blood.

.

Rénwén becomes one of Azula's most famous art openings. Artists from the Four Nations all over arrive to marvel at her work, gape over her skillfulness, and, most of all, to stare at her trophy, a painting of a man with an indescribable look on his face, one that, over time, will become one of the most studied paintings in history.

"This is the first time you've named any of your paintings," says Zuko, gazing at the portrait. "Why?"

Azula smiles at him, and for a second, she is a stranger, cold and unforgiving, but pulsing with an emotion that's so wildly out of control it's almost inhuman. Transcendent. Zuko swallows, and then the illusion is gone.

"Well," Azula says smoothly. "Àiqíng. Don't you think it looks like love to you?"

Zuko cocks his head. "A little. But...it kind of scares me. It smells funny, too."

"It's a new type of paint I used," Azula says easily. "It's supposed to smell like that."

"Is that how you got the red to fade to brown like that?" Zuko asks, and Azula nods. "Huh. I've never seen anything like it before. You really are a genius."

Humming, Azula observes the painting with lips curled up at the corners.

It's silent, and then Zuko nudges her and says, "Hey, have you seen Aang around? He's disappeared, and I can't get a hold of him."

"Aang's fine," Azula laughs, and Zuko feels chills creep down his spine, and his fingers tighten around the rope separating Azula's painting from gawking onlookers. "He's gone out of town, left to do something better."

"Right," Zuko says slowly, and he can't shake off the feeling that something is very, very wrong.

Azula leaves to get drinks, and Zuko is left standing in front of Àiqíng, and there's something about the painting that he can't quite put a finger on. But then a buyer calls for his attention, and just before Zuko turns away, he has a fleeting thought that disappears as quickly as it comes.

The man in the painting looks a lot like Aang. And the painting itself smells a little bit like blood.

Notes

Terminology:

Rénwén (人文) - humanity

Àiqíng (爱情) - love

these are cool

and i wouldn't have gotten them without you. thanks a billion to everyone who voted :)



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