There had been a time when waking in her old bedchamber back in the Fire Nation Royal Palace was the one thing Azula really wanted in life. To sit up amid the scarlet silk and golden trim of her old familiar bedclothes, surrounded by the palace's rather heavy and oppressive decor, and find that everything that had happened since the last time she lay down there and went to sleep had been some terrible dream.|
As the years went on, though, that scenario seemed less and less likely. She remembered reading once that dreams took as long to be experienced as the events depicted in them would have taken to play out in the real world. If that were true, she would have been asleep for something like sixty years at this point. Someone would have noticed by now. At the very least, the proposition strained credulity.
So when, one day, she did exactly that, Azula could be excused for having experienced a certain extreme of bemusement.
Blinking, she got hesitantly out of bed and stood looking around for a moment, confused, intrigued, and virtually paralyzed with déjà vu. Yes, this was her bedroom, all right, as it had been for all her short but eventful life to date: a place of which she knew every angle, corner, detail, and quirk, from the creaky floorboard near the wardrobe to the singed corner of the one tapestry by the dressing table.
She sat down at that table and tried to think. Her head felt strange, filled with a faint, hazy buzzing, but simultaneously cold and hollow. She tried to remember where she'd been last, but it wouldn't come. Instead, it hovered somewhere just out of sight of her mind's eye, almost taunting her with its nearness, but completely inaccessible. Not déjà vu but presque vu, that. She had the vague impression that there was a great deal of memory and experience over there, giggling quietly to itself as she failed to recall any of it, but she couldn't have pointed to any specific reason why she felt that way.
Azula looked up from her reverie and regarded herself in the dressing-table mirror. The face looking back at her was her own, she knew that, and yet for a moment it seemed utterly unfamiliar to her. That phenomenon, she recalled, was called jamais vu (she wondered what language those terms were borrowed from; she was sure she had known once), and so she'd completed a sort of confusional trifecta. Why had she expected herself to be older? That was ridiculous. Surely the girl she saw in the mirror was just as she should be, gracefully surfing the wave of adolescence, poised elegantly upon its very crest: Princess Azula the Conqueror, bred for supremacy and trained to perfection, as beautiful, precise, and deadly as a razor.
She smiled at the thought, rose, and went to her wardrobe. The disorientation she had felt on waking faded away as the familiar structure of reality asserted itself. By the time she reached the wardrobe, she remembered only that she'd had a series of strange dreams, but what they had entailed, she no longer recalled. It didn't seem important at the moment, anyway. Today was far too big a day for her to waste any of it mulling over anything as ephemeral as a dream. Plenty of time for that once the work was complete.
After a moment's consideration, she clothed herself in her best ceremonial armor, befitting a grand occasion of state. Then, returning to the table, she brushed her long black hair glossy and put it up in its familiar style, affixing her elaborately folded topknot with care. A touch of sparingly applied makeup, some routine maintenance to her nails...
As she saw to the latter, Azula became aware that her reflection was no longer alone in the dressing-table mirror. Without looking up, she said casually,
"Good morning, Mother. It's been a while. I trust you're well."
In the mirror, it appeared that Azula's mother, Ursa, was standing right behind her, close enough to put a hand on her shoulder, but Azula knew from long experience that if she turned and looked, she would find that she was alone in the room. At one time, this peculiar apparition would have been enough to send her flying into a rage - she'd destroyed more than one mirror - but she was so accustomed to it by now that she didn't even bother looking up to see the reflection until she'd finished with her nails.
When she did, Ursa - looking beautiful and solemn as always - gave her an earnest look and said, "Azula, you must beware. You aren't where you think you are."
Azula sighed, rolling her eyes slightly. "Oh, Mother, really?" she said wearily. "I thought we were finished with that."
She paused for a moment, looking thoughtful - there was that strange feeling again, as if she had years of experience with this phenomenon, when plainly she did not. Then, as before, it passed, and she put down her nail file and said casually,
"Well, I'd love to stay and entertain you, Mother, but I'm afraid I must be going. Father and I have a rather big day planned, you know. We're off to destroy the Earth Kingdom."
"Listen to me, Azula," Ursa pleaded. "You must open your eyes, you're in terrible danger."
Azula made a dismissive sound. "From whom?" she wondered. "Zuzu and his little pals? Please." Raising a hand in a casual backward wave, she breezed out into the hallway, adding, "Ta, Mother. I'll send you a postcard from the ruins of the old world."
The guards in the corridor, masked and silent, might as well have been mannequins in armor. Azula ignored them, as was her custom, and navigated the familiar hallways with ease to the war room. When she entered, she found her father up on the dais and his generals and admirals all standing around the map table, reviewing the strategy - her strategy - for the final reduction of the Earth Kingdom.
"Don't tell me you started without me," said Azula with a touch of playful reproach as she strolled past the line of flag officers on the left-hand side of the table. She knew them all by name, of course, and as she passed each of them, she let fall some small, cutting remark intended to remind him of his place. Some of them were less amenable than others to being commanded by a teenaged girl, however plainly superior, and for them, a little reminder of who had the whip hand wouldn't go amiss on a day like this.
"Well, Mung, don't we look eager to get started this morning. All right, Bujing? Cannons properly foddered, I hope? Don't look so glum, Shinu, it's your big day." She paused at the end of the line, wrinkling her nose delicately. "Zhao, you reek of seaweed." She glanced with distaste at the puddle beneath the admiral's feet, then shook her head dismissively - disgusting man, perpetually soggy and unkempt - and ascended the dais.
Like Azula, Fire Lord Ozai was dressed in his most elaborate ceremonial armor; befitting his station, it was even more ornate than hers, though she liked to think that it crossed a line into gaudy excess that hers did not, illustrating the fundamental lack of class that was the man's cardinal flaw in his daughter's critical eyes. He was a cunning brute, there was no denying that, but he was still a brute: bull-necked, square-jawed, and without imagination. His father, Azula remembered, was the same. So unsophisticated. She occasionally found it difficult to credit the notion that they were her forebears.
Now he smiled, though as always, it didn't reach his eyes. Azula noticed that, but didn't mind it. She hadn't been under any illusion that her father loved her for many years now. She understood him well enough by now to be well aware that there was little room in Ozai's heart for anyone but Ozai. They were much the same in that regard, though she had come to regard it as a flaw in both their characters, and occasionally to rebel against it in her own.
Where are these thoughts coming from? she wondered. Not only was this far from the time to be ruminating about such matters, these things felt like conclusions, long- and well-considered, over a span of time that her life to date was simply not long enough to have included. Azula hesitated on the top step, pressing her fingertips reflexively against her forehead for a moment, then shook her head and got hold of herself. She had far too much to do today to be giving in to existential qualms.
Ozai didn't seem to have noticed her momentary discomfort (again, not a surprise). Still not-really-smiling, he opened his hands and said, "And here's my favorite general now. Are you ready to make an end to this long business at last?"
Azula's smile was much more genuine than her father's, albeit rather cruel, as she replied, "Of course."
As she rode northward, standing up in the cupola atop her command tank, Azula found herself grappling with a strange sense of disappointment. This was a great day - the greatest day in the Fire Nation's history - and she was its acknowledged chief architect. The honor of leading the vanguard of the assault fell to her. On her head, placed in her topknot by the hand of her father himself, was the golden flame of the Fire Lord. History would never forget her name.
She turned and looked back at the forces under her command. It was a great army, as befit a great leader on a great day, but it was so... so essentially shabby. The tanks were rusty, the men's armor was in poor repair, and the troops themselves seemed ill-nourished and strangely unmoved by the patriotic excitement of participating in such an occasion. She knew, of course, that it had been a long war, and even such an economic powerhouse as the Fire Nation couldn't sustain such a war effort indefinitely without a certain slippage of purely cosmetic standards, but even so... it was a bit of a letdown to ride into history at the head of such dilapidation.
And then there was the "Fire Lord" thing. Elevation to her country's highest office should have thrilled Azula to the bone - it was the culmination of all her life's ambitions, the honor for which she'd shaped herself ruthlessly since she was old enough to stand, or at least since she was old enough to scheme against her feckless elder brother (which in her case was much the same thing). Except it wasn't, really, because Ozai had changed the game. He'd proclaimed himself king of the world, at which point "Fire Lord" was just a fancy name for one of his vassals. The golden flame Azula wore in her hair now wasn't a badge of lofty accomplishment, it was a meaningless bauble her father no longer wanted.
She shook her head. What's wrong with me today? she wondered. I swear there are days when I can find a way not to enjoy anything, no matter how much I want to.
The army marched through the night, arriving just before daybreak at the final staging area. Cursing the frigid weather - a person would think they were attacking the Water Tribe again - Azula wrapped herself in a heavy cloak and struggled through the howling, sleet-filled gale to the forward command post.
From here, at the top of a ridge, it had looked on the map like a person would be able to see their objective, the western flank of Ba Sing Se. In daylight, that might have been possible, but with only as much muddy pre-dawn light as could force its way through the storm, all that was visible over there, even through the best binoculars, was the indistinct grey shape of the wall.
That, and the campfires of an enormous army arrayed before it.
"It looks like they're expecting us," Azula mused to her orderly (whose name she hadn't bothered to learn). Then, smiling, she added, "So much the better. Mass the earthbenders and prepare to commence the assault."
The earthbenders were, if she did say it herself, the most brilliant part of her ingenious battle plan. The defenders of Ba Sing Se had counted on their monopoly on that art to protect their vaunted wall for generations, never dreaming that anyone in the Fire Nation's armed forces would think of assembling an elite counterforce of their brother elementalists - or succeed, come to that, if anyone did think of it. It didn't seem to have occurred to them that there would be plenty of earthbenders, disaffected or otherwise... reachable, who could be recruited for such an effort by one method or another.
Azula raised her binoculars again and surveyed the earthbender force as it formed up. They were even shabbier than her regular army, most of them still clad in the ragged remains of the uniform they'd betrayed to join her. She couldn't decide for certain whether that was poetic or just pathetic, but it was a bit late to do anything about it now, so she sighed and let it pass. Lowering the binoculars, she handed them to her orderly, then turned and left the tent. At least she'd be well-dressed. No patchy leather trousers and ragged old sweater for Azula the Conqueror this time!
She hesitated at the thought; then, raising her left hand, she considered the vambrace of her ceremonial armor. It was just metal, polished and uninformative. No tactical information to be had there. She wondered vaguely why she'd momentarily expected that there might be, and why her right hand seemed to want there to be something slung at her hip for it to rest on.
With an exasperated shake of her head, she shouted over the still-howling wind, "To me, my minions!"
A few soldiers (and a very startled-looking General Bujing) looked up from making final preparations - one of them even asked in a puzzled voice, "Me, Your Majesty?" - but she waved them away and stalked out of the clearing, grumbling to herself,
"Where are those two? Oh, right! I sent them to rot forever in the dungeon. Why did I do that again?" Azula sighed. "I can't remember. Ah, well. I must have had a good reason." With a slightly nostalgic smile, she added, "I bet Ty Lee drank the last Nuka-Cola Victory again." Sensing the confused eyes of General Mung on her, she rounded on him and barked, "What are you staring at!"
"Uh, n-nothing, Fire Lord," the general mumbled, blushing bright red and turning back to inspecting his tank.
"Just impossible to get decent help these days," Azula muttered, continuing on her way to her own.
By the time they were in position for the final advance, the storm had abated somewhat, the screaming wind dying down to a stiff half-gale as the pace of the sleet slackened, but the unrelieved gloom of the sky meant that dawn passed largely unnoticed apart from a brightening of the iron overcast. A few minutes past when her pocket chronometer told her that had happened, the sound of a hunting horn cut through the wind, sending a sharp thrill up Azula's spine. It appeared the defenders had noticed them.
"Advance!" she barked, raising a hand and launching a brilliant blue signal flame into the grey sky./* Bad Religion
"The Day That the Earth Stalled"
The Dissent of Man (2010 */
As the battle began, Azula acquired a new appreciation for the difficulties of keeping track of matters across such a large front, particularly in such miserable weather. The figures of her own troops and the enemy's were almost impossible to distinguish at ranges of more than a few yards. Spotting the firebenders ought to have been easy enough, but as the combat degenerated into melee, she began to realize that it wasn't such a straightforward matter. In fact, if she didn't know better, she would almost think that they had a number of firebenders among their -
"Fire Lord!" cried the commander of her tank from his own cupola, a couple of feet to her left. Pointing with the hand not holding his binoculars, he declared, "Prince Zuko approaching!"
Azula turned and scowled at him. "What do you mean, 'Prince Zuko approaching'?" she demanded; then she snatched the optics from his hand and looked for herself.
Yes indeed, there he was, all right, big as life - her elder brother Zuko, all kitted out in his best, just like her, and unmistakable with his hilarious facial scar. She wondered how he managed to avoid being backshot by his own side, fighting for the Earth Kingdom in the dress of a Fire Prince. She very nearly shouted for her tank, and the others in the headquarters platoon, to open fire with all weapons, but a millisecond before she could, she thought better of it and handed her tank's commander back his binoculars.
"I haven't seen my darling brother in a very long time," she said conversationally to him, raising herself out of her cupola's hatch. "I believe I'll go and reintroduce myself."
Half a mile away, on one of the ramparts of the Golden City, a man in a red beret peered into a telesight and said tersely into his commbud, "I've got a shot."
"Take it," replied a woman's voice in his ear.
Carefully, deliberately - as if time were no object - he finalized his aim, looking through his SRS99 anti-matériel rifle's rangefinding telesight at the slim, red-clad figure of the opposing general as she climbed up onto the top deck of her armored vehicle and prepared to take the field. The little golden badge she wore in her hair made a perfect reference point. He dialed in a minor correction for the fierce windage, drew a breath, let half of it out, and depressed the trigger.
Craig Boone was not a praying man; but just before he sent the round downrange, he took a tenth of a second to pause and think,
I hope to Christ this works...
For his part, Zuko was astonished and disheartened to realize that the figure rising from the turret of the rusty old Fire Nation command tank in front of him was his sister. For all that seeing her again was, and long had been, one of his fondest wishes, not here, not like this. He had fervently hoped that, though she reported little encouraging about the encounter, their mother might have gotten through to her the previous day after all, and he wouldn't find her here today... but there she was, young as the last time he'd seen her so many years ago, smiling her familiar vicious little smile as she climbed out of her tank to give him battle.
And then -
- Azula flinched violently, her head snapping back, and her hands clawed at empty air for a moment as if trying to find purchase on it. A flicker of gold twinkled in the air as her Fire Lord's headpiece went flying. Suddenly loosed from her topknot, her long black hair fanned out around her like a cloud, then whipped forward and obscured the infinitely startled expression on her face as she toppled backward off the tank and disappeared from sight.
"No!" Zuko cried, horrified. That shot had come from somewhere behind him. Someone in his own force, deducing that Azula was an enemy VIP, had taken swift and decisive action to decapitate the opposing force. It was the right thing to do, the obvious tactical expedient, but by all the gods, what an ending to a story as long and colorful as hers! And for what? Why was she even here?
For all his life and some considerable time after it, Zuko had contended with the fulminating temper that was the most obvious legacy he'd received from his murderous forebears. With the help of some very good friends, he had achieved, if not mastery of it, at least a certain hard-won détente with it. Now, confronted with such a sudden, shocking loss in the midst of all this chaos, he didn't bother resisting it, and the damned and dishonored dead of the Hundred Year War in the immediate vicinity had cause to regret it as he laid into them, scattering them like burning dolls.
When the red mist cleared again and he found himself alone, Zuko felt grateful that the demands of the battle meant the others were nowhere around. At the start of this bleak day, he had regretted that they wouldn't be able to face it together, but now he was glad they hadn't been around to see him lose control that way. Winded, his fury not so much slaked as temporarily without a target, he steeled himself and trudged around the burning wreckage of Azula's command tank, then fell to his knees next to her sprawled body and bowed his head over it.
"Azula... " he murmured. "What are you even doing here? This isn't your war. You should be in Midgard, getting on with your life." He smoothed a lock of her coal-black hair away from her face, cool and serene in death, and shook his head. If any part of him noticed that there was a lot less blood than he might have expected, that realization failed to penetrate the shell of his grief as he asked her, "Why did he bring you here?"
"Why do you think, boy?" said a chillingly familiar voice behind him. Zuko stiffened, eyes widening, and turned to see his father smirking at him from behind the scarlet brands of an Archduke of Muspelheim.
Fists clenching, Zuko turned away from his fallen sister and faced Ozai, straightening up. "I wouldn't presume to guess," he snarled.
Ozai laughed mockingly. "What else would get your attention?" he asked rhetorically. "You have no idea how eagerly I've awaited this moment since I arrived in Muspelheim and learned it would one day come."
"Well, you know what they say, Father," said Zuko. "Be careful what you wish for."
The first thing Azula saw when she opened her eyes was a very familiar face she had never expected to see again; but she didn't get to see it for long, because almost as soon as her eyes opened, Ty Lee shouted, "She's alive!" and hugged her fiercely, stretching them both full-length on the snowy ground.
"Well, take it easy if you want her to stay that way," said an equally familiar voice. More-or-less-gently extricating herself from Ty Lee's embrace, Azula clambered to her feet, pressing a hand to her forehead. Her skull was ringing like a temple bell, and underneath that, the strange buzzing sensation from the previous morning was back. What was Ty Lee doing here? What was she doing here? Where was here?
As she stood unsteadily in the snow and groped internally for the scattered fragments of her situational awareness, she felt the cold prickle of a spray hypo against the side of her neck; after a moment, the buzz and the ringing both cleared. She turned to see a monk-hooded woman in battered antique powered armor grinning at her and discarding a spent Vorpanol ampoule.
"Looking good, Captain," she said, then added wryly, "I think you might be a little too young for me now, though. Just my luck."
Next to the armored woman, a hideously cadaverous-looking man in a green mechanic's coverall inquired sardonically, "You back with us, boss, or are we about to regret comin' after you?"
Azula frowned at him, brow furrowing in puzzlement; then she blinked, her eyes going wide, as all the confusion and uncertainty of the past couple of days fell away and were immediately replaced by new confusion and uncertainty.
"Raul!" she blurted. "Ronni! What are you - what am I - " She looked down at herself, then around at the little knot of people surrounding her.
Not just Raul and Veronica, but virtually the whole crew of the Phoenix Queen were standing around her, all loaded for bear - and Ty Lee and Mai were with them. For a second she thought this was another mirage, but that weird blurry feeling was gone now. She was confused, yes, but she didn't have the same epic flood of cognitive dissonance washing over her perceptions of everything around her now. The current situation was weird, maybe even surreal, but it no longer felt UNreal. A snippet of an old song flickered unbidden through her mind:
It's either real or it's a dream
There's nothing that is in between
"Where are we?" she wondered, looking around at the snowy, wreckage-strewn battlefield. In the distance on all sides, she could hear the thunder of war, as of other, equally titanic battles being waged in places just out of sight.
"Do you want the short version," Mai inquired dryly, "or the really short version?"
Azula opened her mouth to answer, but as she did, another memory fragment clicked back into place. The grey man in the Lubyanka. "Know this, then, Princess: The Ragnarök impends."
"But how did - " She shook her head. "Never mind. That's not important right now." She turned to Mai. "Where's Zuzu? Did I really see him earlier, or was that another hallucination?"
Mai shook her head, looking vaguely troubled. "No, that was real," she said. "As for where he is now... " She pointed toward someplace behind Azula.
Whirling, Azula saw what she meant, and understood why she looked worried. A few hundred yards away, carried far from where she'd fallen by the currents of battle, she could just make out two figures in the sleety murk. The armies of both sides had pulled back, at least in this sector, neither force daring to intervene as the two waged their own little war in their midst. Even at this range, Azula could tell that one was Zuko; his firebending technique was nearly as distinctive as her own, apart from the pedestrian flame color he'd always stubbornly insisted was good enough. The other was... different./* Electric Light Orchestra
Time (1981) */
"What you're doing isn't really firebending, is it, Father?" Zuko inquired mockingly as he evaded another of Ozai's blasts. "It's a very convincing imitation, but something about it isn't quite right. What is it? Sorcery? Some kind of elemental charm?"
"It's real enough to burn that smirk off what's left of your face, boy," Ozai snarled, waving aside his son's counterattack.
"Fascinating," Zuko mused. "What the Avatar takes away, not even Surtur can give back? Aang will be very interested to learn that."
"Where is the Avatar today?" Ozai asked, his tone a parody of cordial inquiry. "I would have thought that today of all days, the so-called defender of all life would put in an appearance."
"He and the others are elsewhere," Zuko replied, unconcerned, then added cruelly, "They have much more important matters to deal with today than the likes of you."
In hindsight, Zuko considered a few moments later, that last taunt might have been a bridge too far. Faking it magically or not, Ozai was still an infernal archduke, and he had been a very potent adversary in life. Underestimating him wasn't a good strategy, and nor was twisting his tail unnecessarily. Besides which, there was one other thing about Zuko, besides his temper, that had dogged him all his life and beyond: He had rotten luck. If there was a rake to step on, a pebble to slip on, a twig to snap when silence was needed, or a tree root to trip over, Zuko would find it, as he now found what had to be the one patch of bare ice in this entire snow-filled valley.
The stars cleared from his vision just in time for him to see Ozai looming over him, a triumphant sneer on his face, as he drew back a hand to deliver a blow that, at the very least, was really going to hurt -
- and, a moment later, was struck by lightning before he could deliver it.
Surprised, Zuko looked in the direction it had come from - and saw Azula striding toward him across the battlefield, followed by a motley but formidable-looking little phalanx of people and robots, along with a handful of Einherjar they'd gathered to their banner on their way over here.
"Please assume the position," said one of the robots in an implacable synthetic voice.
Ozai, his armor smoking, picked himself up from the heap he'd fallen in and shook his head, the crisped remains of a few longer locks of his hair sloughing away to ask. "Wha - Azula!" he blurted. "But you - "
"Counting me out before my time, eh, Father?" she said with a cold little smile. "Don't feel bad. You're in excellent company in that regard." She broke into a run, energy crackling around her hands. "When you get back to Hell, be sure and say 'privet' to Comrade Beria for me."/* Electric Light Orchestra
Time (1981) */
One hundred seventy-one years before, Ozai had realized with a sudden, sharp horror that he had lavished a little too much care and attention on the crafting and honing of his favorite weapon - that Azula had become cleverer, more capable, more skilled, and more ruthless than even he himself, and that unless he did something to circumscribe her very soon, she would be a threat to everything he had worked for. On the other hand, he couldn't just discard her, as he had her brother; she was the only heir he had left, Ursa was lost to him, and there was far too little time for him to find another wife (even if any other would have done) and start again.
At the time, he'd congratulated himself for the solution he had found, which had shunted her out of his path without eliminating her in such a way that she would still be in reserve against future requirements. He'd even entertained the notion, while powerless and in prison, that he might find a way of exploiting the faultlines in her psyche to arrange his release and revenge - engineer a way back to some kind of position of power, in spite of his condition.
Instead she'd disappeared, and the whole thing had come to nothing. He'd rotted away in his own prison for long, slow decades, living long enough to watch his beloved Fire Nation sink into a disgusting, mongrelized, cosmopolitan morass under his son's weak and corrupt rule. When Beria had brought him Azula's file during the preparations for the Ragnarök, he'd nearly had the fool disintegrated, or at least demoted back to Larva Third Class. How dare he remind Ozai of one of his bitterest disappointments?
But then he'd thought about it some more, and the symmetry had proven too delicious to resist; and her refusal to join his cause willingly had perversely cemented his resolve. Ozai had always been a big believer in people knowing their place, after all. With a well-timed abduction and a little help from Beria's experts in the manipulation of mortal matter and memory, he could still apply leverage to his daughter's mental faultlines, gain a useful helper for the opening stage of the war... and position both of his children for his revenge.
It had never occurred to him that, in doing so, he'd positioned them for their revenge as well... or that what he remembered as faultlines in Azula's mind would have become, over the decades, the strongest parts of her.
The Einherjar and the damned of Dìqiú stood and watched in awe as Ozai's children - one an Einheri himself, the other a still-living mortal interloper - joined hands figuratively (and at one point literally) to avenge their ruined childhoods. So too did the crew of the Phoenix Queen, who had never entirely known whether to believe their captain's tales of her youth until now.
Zuko and Azula came together more or less instinctively, after a few perilous moments in which Ozai exploited their disunity in every way his brutal cunning could find. A moment's eye contact, a silent communication, and the whole game suddenly realigned. After that point, wherever their father turned, there was one or the other, and usually not the one he was expecting, nor from the most obvious angle.
Against either one or the other of his children, Archduke Ozai of Antenora would've had better-than-even odds of victory.
Against both of them, fighting him simultaneously but individually, he might still have prevailed.
Against both of them working together, in a way that he'd made certain they would never be able to do while he was alive?
Not a chance, as it were, in Hell.
They hemmed him in, swept aside his offense, shattered his defense, ran him ragged. With incredibly belated insight, Ozai suddenly realized what a fearsome engine his children would have been if he had raised them to collaborate this way in the first place instead of constantly pitting them against each other.
A moment after that, they linked their hands and engulfed him in a swirling vortex of blue and orange flame; then a shaft of lightning came up the middle like a freight train, and Archduke Ozai knew no more.
Zuko and Azula stood over the charred remains of their father and regarded each other, their instinctive collaboration wavering on the borderline of a more familiar mutual suspicion now that their joint enemy, and the immediate threat, was destroyed. Zuko seemed to realize for the first time that he was holding his sister's hand; hastily, as if embarrassed, he snatched his own back.
At that, Azula broke the brittle silence, remarking with a sardonic little smile, "Nice to see you too, Zuzu."
Zuko might have replied, but before he could do so, the sky above the snowy plain split open with a sound like doom off to the west, nearer to a distant seacoast that was barely visible in the ebbing storm. The damned dead cheered wildly; everyone else, from the Einherjar to Azula's crew, stared in stunned disbelief.
Alone among them, Azula turned and regarded the rift - and the flaming, laughing titan emerging from it - with a look of nothing more or less than frank annoyance.
"Oh now what," she grumbled.
"Nothing That Is In Between" - a Twilight Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
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