LAST EDITED ON May-01-14 AT 06:34 PM (EDT)
[ So this happened... actual finale to Desolation Angel still to come, most likely not as a Forum story but rather the full arc's compilation exclusive. --G.]
Thursday, September 13, 2390
11:12 hrs Asgard Standard Time
For many, the day after the Ragnarök was little more than a continuation of the day of the Ragnarök, with the various splinters of the main celebration rolling right on through. For a large number of others, there effectively was no September 13; the day was given up entirely to sleeping off the 12th. There were those, however, who split the difference, spending the day in quiet reflection or otherwise recuperating from the ordeals of the Not-Quite-Last Battle and its titanic afterparty in low-key ways.
Aboard the starship Phoenix Queen, still parked amid the little cluster of Midgardian vessels whose crews had come to participate in the occasion, the ship's captain and a couple of visitors from Valhalla made up part of this third group. In the comfortable surroundings of the well-appointed sitting room of her quarters, Captain Sarah Inazuma sat in her favorite chair, swathed in a red terrycloth robe that was sybaritic in its plushness. She smiled through the gentle curl of steam rising from her teacup while her ship's steward finished serving her (rather more normally dressed) guests.
"Thank you," said one of those guests as he accepted a teacup of his own from the mechanical hand of the captain's steward.
"You're welcome, sir," the robot replied. "Is there anything else you require?" After a pause precisely timed for maximum effect, he added cordially, "Fisto is programmed to provide complete satisfaction."
Zuko deferred his first sip of tea just in time to avoid choking on it, took a moment to compose himself, then replied, "Er, no thank you. I'm good."
"Thank you, Fisto, that'll be all," said Captain Inazuma with a little smile and a sly wink for her discomfited guest.
"Affirmative, Captain," Fisto replied, withdrawing with a butlerly bow before discreetly leaving the compartment.
"I see you still enjoy putting me on the spot," Zuko remarked dryly as he took a sip of his tea.
"One must have one's little pleasures in life," the captain replied airily. "Besides, it's been a long time since I had the opportunity to twist your tail, Zuzu. You can't blame me if you make it so easy... "
Sitting opposite Zuko on the lounge's right-angled modular sofa, their mother smiled and chided her gently, "Azula, don't torment your brother."
"Oh, very well, Mother," said Azula with mock resignation. Then, becoming cheerfully brisk, she said, "So. Tell me all about what went on in the old country after I left. I tried to get an update or two out of Aang last night, but the only things he wanted to talk about were his children and that 'United Republic' thing, the latter of which sounded frankly ill-advised if you ask me."
Thus primed, the three commenced to catch up, trading stories and laughs, in the usual fashion of families that haven't been together in a long, eventful time. Only after a couple of hours had gone by in this pleasant fashion did it suddenly strike Azula how strange that was. She, her brother, and her mother had never actually been a family in any social sense.
"Do you know," she said suddenly, during a natural lull in the conversation, "I don't think the three of us have ever, ever done this before."
Zuko blinked in surprise and glanced at Ursa, who nodded a little sadly. "I think you're right, Azula," she said. "By the time you and Zuko were both old enough to have a day like this, you were no longer really on speaking terms... and there was always the shadow of your father," she added with a troubled frown.
"Well, we're here now," said Zuko pragmatically.
"Yes we are," Azula agreed with a dark little smile. "And Father... isn't." Then, her smile becoming less dark and more sly, she went on, "You two have me at a bit of a disadvantage. I don't know anything at all about what's been going on with you since I left Dìqiú, but it turns out Mother's been spying on me from the Great Beyond for the last sixty years, so I'm guessing you know all about what I've been up to."
"I haven't been spying on you," Ursa protested. "Only... looking in from time to time. To see how you were getting on. After the last time we saw each other in person, it seemed like the least I could do."
"Well, I'm glad you haven't been watching me all the time," Azula quipped with a sly smile. "I'm not a person easily embarrassed, but I've done a few things in my time I wouldn't have wanted my mother to watch me doing... "
Before either of the others could comment, the door behind Azula's chair, which led to her bedroom, glided quietly open. Azula, for her part, seemed unsurprised by this. She didn't even turn to look as a figure stepped, not altogether steadily, through the doorway and paused behind her chair; just sipped her tea, smiling, and said, "Good morning, sweetie."
Zuko could only stare, his jaw dropping, as Katara - still dressed in her now-very-rumpled clothes from last night, her hair in pillow-induced disarray - blinked like an owl in the gentle lights of the sitting room, then glared blearily at the back of Azula's head.
"i hate you," she muttered, her voice a dry croak, as she lurched past the chair and sank into the loveseat opposite the L-sofa.
"There's a shocking revelation," said Azula imperturbably. She casually pressed a key on the intercom panel built into her chair arm and went on, "Fisto, Empress Katara has risen and requires immediate caffeination." After a moment's consideration of Katara (who now sat with her head tipped back against the cushion, eyes closed), she added, "Better make it the special blend."
"Affirmative, Captain," Fisto's voice replied.
Zuko regarded the scene with something very like horror for a few moments, then leaned toward his sister and murmured, "Azula, I cannot believe you," in a voice full of reproach.
Azula raised a questioning eyebrow at him, replying with evidently genuine puzzlement, "What?" Then, as he scowled at her and drew breath to elaborate, she seemed to understand; with a dismissive roll of her eyes, she took a sip of her tea and said unconcernedly, "Oh, Zuzu, really. Just because you've never been able to control your baser urges, don't drag me into your private hell."
Seeing that there was no way he could approach that accusation which didn't end up making everything worse, Zuko subsided into ineffectual sputtering. A moment later, Fisto arrived with not an elegant little teacup, as the others all had, but a big, steaming mug marked with the Phoenix Queen's insignia and the name Phoenix Industries Dìqiú Limited. Katara took this without a word and downed a healthy slug of it without apparent regard for its temperature, then shook her head, opened her eyes, and sat up a little straighter, sighing.
"Thank you," she said, sounding rather more human.
"Your satisfaction is Fisto's purpose," the robot replied with a cordial bow before exiting.
"Well," said Ursa diplomatically, rising, "we had best be getting along, Zuko. We'll see you at dinner, Azula."
"Of course," said Azula. She stood as well, hugging first her mother, then her (still-slightly-befuddled) brother. "This has been lovely, you two," she said as she guided them to the exit. "We must do it again soon."
"Mother, are you sure this is a good idea?" Zuko wondered quietly as he and Ursa descended the ramp and left the ship.
"It'll be fine," Ursa told him. "You have to learn to trust your sister sooner or later, Zuko."
Back aboard, Azula closed the ramp behind them, then returned to her sitting room to find Katara still sitting on the loveseat, contemplating her mostly-empty coffee mug. As Azula entered, she glanced up, then quickly away, her expression awkward.
"I should go," she said, getting carefully to her feet.
"Nonsense," said Azula calmly. "I can't send you back to Aang in that condition, I'd never hear the end of it." Taking Katara's shoulders in her hands, she gently but firmly steered the waterbender back into the bedroom, then aimed her at another door off to one side of the rumpled double bunk. "Go on, in you get. Put your clothes in the chute and then tell the Autospa to give you a Number 34."
Katara resisted momentarily, motivated by a combination of residual distrust and instinctive contrariness, but the idea of an encounter with something called an "Autospa" just at this moment was mightily attractive. After shooting Azula a suspicious glare, she wrested her shoulders from her old enemy's hands and then took herself off to do as instructed anyway.
She emerged thirty very satisfactory minutes later to find her clean, neatly folded clothing on a shelf next to the chute she'd put it in at the beginning, got dressed, put her hair up in its long-accustomed style, and then went to see what Azula had gotten up to in her absence. The bedroom was deserted but all in order now, the bunk neatly made; the red robe Azula had been wearing was hanging on a hook next to the bathroom door. Puzzled, she went forward to find the sitting room empty as well.
Katara had only a vague idea of where anything else in this ship was; the tour she'd taken the night before had come after the feasthall but before the T'ien Zhan Reserve, so it was a bit of a blur. Out in the central corridor, the scent of something cooking simultaneously reminded her that she was catastrophically hungry and gave her all the clue she needed to find her way to the wardroom. Azula (now dressed in stylish modern street clothes, mainly red and black) was in the galley, which was separated from the wardroom only by a low counter, bustling about the compact and efficient space. At Katara's entrance, she looked up and smiled.
"Take a seat," she said, gesturing with a spatula. "Breakfast will be up momentarily."
Caution and curiosity warring within her, Katara slowly took the indicated seat. She was still trying to look suspicious, but by this point it was mainly just coming across as bemusement - which only deepened a few moments later, as Azula came out from behind the counter with a plate in one hand and a tall glass of something blue in the other, put them down in front of her, and then went back to get a similar set of items for herself.
"There," she said, sitting down opposite her guest and arranging her own place setting. "That should set you up nicely."
Katara eyed the plate, upon which a small stack of golden-brown discs gently steamed. The sight seemed to make up her mind between suspicion and confusion; with a mild scowl, she looked up from the plate and inquired sharply, "What is this, Azula?"
"A delicacy from the Big Universe," Azula replied pleasantly. "They're called 'pancakes'."
"I know what they are," Katara snapped.
Azula gave her a puzzled look. "Then why did you ask?"
Katara squelched her first response, closing her eyes for a moment to get a handle on her composure again. When she opened them again, the question she asked instead came as a slight surprise even to her:
"You can cook?"
Azula half-smiled. "Yes, Katara, I can cook. I can do quite a number of things, not to brag. I can cook, I can play drums and the guitar (not at the same time, obviously), I speak nine languages, and I'm a licensed scuba instructor. I have master's degrees in electrical engineering and business administration from the Nekomi Institute of Technology on Tomodachi. I also do calligraphy, flower arranging, and shiatsu massage."
Katara stared at her for a second or two, her expression hard to read, and then demanded, "Why are you being nice to me?"
Azula shrugged slightly. "Why not? The other way clearly never got me anywhere."
Katara closed her eyes again, pressing her fingers to her forehead. "Be serious."
"I am serious," Azula insisted. "What else can I do? Eat your pancakes before they get cold."
"... Fine," growled Katara. Picking up her knife and fork, she sawed a triangular section out of the stack and ate it, her expression slowly changing from wary annoyance to surprise as she chewed. "These are really good," she said reluctantly, as if confessing a crime.
"Thank you," said Azula cordially. "Try the bluapple juice, it's fresh."
From that point until the end of the meal, they said little, apart from the point where Azula offered and Katara accepted a second helping. After that, they lingered over another cup of coffee in a silence that had almost become companionable, until Katara asked:
"What happened last night?"
"Ahh, if I had a yuan for every time I've been asked that question over coffee," said Azula nostalgically.
Katara's cheeks reddened slightly. "No, I mean - stop that!"
"Sorry," said Azula with at least a fair semblance of sincerity. "You have to admit your wording did rather invite it," she added contritely.
Katara sighed, rubbing her forehead again. "I only agreed to have that one drink with you because if I hadn't, Aang would've given me the sad face. How did that manage to turn into a whole series of drinks, a tour of your ship, an entire bottle of wine, and waking up - fully clothed, thank you, and will you stop that - in your bed?"
Azula shrugged again, the picture of unconcern. "I have no idea," she admitted; then, with a smile that was at once slightly wry and slightly shy, she added, "But I'm glad it did. Do you remember what we discussed over the wine?"
"Only vaguely," said Katara. "I seem to recall it started with a revisitation of that half-baked non-apology you came up with at dinner."
Azula chuckled dryly. "It did, yes. From there... well, the short version is that it developed into an examination of the fruit-of-the-poison-tree doctrine vis-à-vis my actions during the War and any good I might've managed to do for anyone since." Her wry smile flickered on again as she added, "You took rather a hard line."
"Hnh," said Katara noncommittally into her coffee.
"In the end, though, I think we might've met somewhere near the middle. And, for the record, it wasn't a non-apology. You might be dissatisfied with what I apologized for, but the apology itself was sincere. I was wrong, I was cruel, I hurt you and the people you love, and I'm sorry for it."
Katara blinked at her in surprise. Azula's face had gone utterly still now, more completely serious than Katara had seen her in a long, long time - perhaps ever, because her seriousness now lacked both the manic edge it had had of old, and the slightly histrionic touch of drama she'd laced it with at the victory dinner. She was quiet, perfectly composed, her amber eyes steady and solemn, as she said,
"I suffered hardships and humiliations of my own in those days, you know." She held up a hand before Katara could say something scornful and went on, "That isn't an excuse, nor is it meant as one. On the contrary, it's an admission. It means I should have known better." She shook her head. "Instead of learning compassion from the cruelty I endured, I let it harden me."
Azula closed her eyes, and Katara was shocked to see a tear slip down her face. Her old foe had always been good at concealing her emotions, to the point where even Toph Beifong couldn't tell when she was hiding something; but this... this was different. This was new.
"Harden me... and make me brittle," Azula murmured, her eyes still closed; and then, almost inaudibly, she added in disgust: "Even when I was strong I was weak."
Katara was not a person accustomed to finding herself at a loss for words, but she did now. For a dozen or more seconds she sat regarding the still, silent figure opposite her at the wardroom table, her mind racing. A half-dozen different replies came to mind; she discarded them all before they could reach her lips, as two essential facets of her spirit battled against each other within her. On the one hand, she was a caring, compassionate woman, a doctor and healer, a person in whom hope for the future had never quite died even in the darkest moments of the war. On the other, she was a warrior of the Southern Water Tribe - tough, tenacious, a survivor; but that same tenacity made her stubborn and slow to forgive.
The latter was a side of her character of which she was not always altogether proud, but it was there and she'd long ago learned to deal with it. It was simply part of her nature, as Aang's goofy optimism, Zuko's habit of reproaching himself, Toph's megalomania, and Sokka's roving eye were parts of theirs. The important thing was to be mindful of it - to assess constantly whether it was digging in its heels for good reason, or just out of habit.
She hadn't quite decided in this case - there was so much history there, she wasn't sure she'd ever be able to just let it go - but under the present circumstances, she was shocked to find herself thinking, it might be worth at least attempting.
"You're... really serious about this," she said at length, her tone of voice suggesting that she at least wanted to believe it.
Azula opened her eyes and regarded Katara soberly for a few seconds more before replying, "I am capable of being serious; I just don't usually want to these days." She smiled bitterly. "You've seen what happens when I take life too seriously, Katara. It's why you hate me so."
Katara came halfway out of her seat and began to object automatically, "I don't - " Then she stopped, blinking in surprise at herself, and slowly resumed her seat. "... All right, maybe I do," she admitted. "I certainly used to, and... " She sighed. "I can't change overnight. Even a night like last night," she added with a wry attempt at a smile. "But... there are those here who've always had hopes for you. And your crew came all this way. Do you have any idea what an incredible achievement that is? They found their way to the Bifröst, dared to cross it, volunteered to fight in the war at the end of the world... all for you."
Azula smiled a bit wanly. "They're good people," she said.
"I know," said Katara. "I could tell. When they arrived, nobody in Valhalla Command knew what to do with them. They weren't with the rest of the WDF contingent, didn't seem to have any good reason to be here, and your man Boone was... very forceful when challenged." Azula mustered a chuckle for that as Katara went on, "They might all have ended up sitting out the Ragnarök in the stockade if Veronica hadn't mentioned Dìqiú. When the guards heard that, instead of locking them up, they brought them to me."
"And you put them in the line exactly where I would be," Azula mused. She gave her wan smile again. "Well played, General Katara. If they hadn't been there, I expect Zuzu would have had to kill me to stop me."
"I - " Katara hesitated, then said slowly, "I thought we'd have to anyway. When Boone reported that he had a shot and I told him to take it... I was expecting him to kill you."
"Ah," said Azula. "That explains why he claimed he had intended to last night; to save your blushes. Did you think I'd turned willingly? Changed my mind about rejoining Father's 'team'?"
Katara looked at her for a moment, then away. "Something like that," she admitted.
"Hm. Well, I suppose in your place I'd probably have assumed the same."
The two women sat regarding each other in contemplative silence for nearly a minute, neither moving.
Then Katara said, "This is awkward."
Azula gave an involuntary snort of laughter. "Just a bit," she allowed. Then she got to her feet, sobering again, and went on, "I don't expect you to be my friend, Katara. Not after all our history, however ancient it is now. I only hope that someday, we'll at least discover that we're no longer enemies. For now... let's just call it an armistice." She offered a hand across the table.
Katara got up and regarded the hand for a moment, then looked Azula in the eye again. Then, silently acknowledging that she would probably never really know what she saw there (and still unconsciously one-tenth-expecting some violent consequence), she took it.
"All right," she said. "Let's start there."
Azula smiled slightly. "We have to start somewhere."
The following morning, the rest of the Midgard contingent had long since departed and the spirits of the Avatars past had returned to the Spirit World. Of those who had come from without Asgard to take part in the Ragnarök, only the Phoenix Queen remained, and she too was preparing to depart. With her crew rounded up and aboard, Azula stood at the base of the ramp and said her goodbyes.
"I'd say 'look after yourselves'," she remarked, "but given that you're all dead anyway, that seems a bit silly."
"We're not dead, we're battling evil in another dimension!" Sokka insisted.
"And dead," Toph put in.
"You look after yourself, Azula," said Ursa with a smile. Beckoning her daughter into her arms, she added, "I'm looking forward to seeing you again, but I want the day when you're not just visiting to be a long time coming."
"I'll do what I can," said Azula, returning her mother's embrace. "In the meantime," she added wryly, "there are always mirrors. You'll have to show me how you do that. It has definite potential." Without entirely releasing Ursa, she turned her head and regarded Zuko for a second, and then - to his surprise - pulled him into the hug as well.
"Group hug!" Sokka declared, joining in.
"Nooope, too weird for me," said Toph.
"I know, right?" Mai agreed.
Off to one side, Suki leaned toward Katara and muttered, "Uh, did I miss a memo last night? Have they all forgotten that she's pure evil?"
"I'm... not so sure about that any more," Katara mused, drawing an incredulous look from the Kyoshi Warrior.
"Well, Mai, I guess this is goodbye again," Azula said once the others had turned her loose. "You're sure I can't convince you to run away and rejoin the circus?"
Mai actually smiled at that, albeit only faintly. "Heh, no thank you," she said. "I'm good right here."
"Suit yourself," said Azula with exaggerated resignation. "But I have to tell you, I think you're missing a good time." She ceremoniously shook her old friend's hand, then looked around. "I guess that only leaves one loose end... "
"Looking for me?" came a voice from behind her. Turning, she saw Ty Lee standing at the top of the ramp, a light travel bag slung over one shoulder, smirking faintly.
"It took you long enough to get your paperwork done," said Azula. "I was afraid I'd have to leave without you."
Ty Lee grinned. "Yeah, well, waitin' on you now," she said cheerfully, then turned and vanished into the ship.
"Out of her tiny mind," Mai deadpanned.
"I know, right?" Toph agreed.
"Well, goodbye, all," said Azula briskly. "I'd say we should do it again sometime, but frankly I think next time we should skip the end of the universe and just have lunch." She made the firebender salute and bowed, then turned and trotted up the ramp.
The group of Einherjar stood and watched, some waving, as the Phoenix Queen lifted off and winged away, disappearing into the brightly sunlit sky.
"Armistice Day" - a Twilight / Desolation Angel Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
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