LAST EDITED ON Apr-25-14 AT 01:02 PM (EDT)
Thursday, September 13, 2390
00:31 hrs Asgard Standard Time
After the day she'd just had, it almost seemed surreal for Azula to be back aboard the Phoenix Queen. She knew from the empirical evidence available that she'd been gone less than a week, but as she'd come up the ramp into the familiar, handsomely appointed space of the atrium, it felt like she hadn't seen it in years - maybe decades. Some lingering echo of the failed psychic reprogramming she'd experienced at the hands of her estranged, demonic, and now twice-deceased father, perhaps, still skewing her perceptions of time and distance a little.
She put this theory to the Phoenix Queen's prototype Auto-Doc as she emerged from its treatment enclosure.
"Well, that's really outside my field," Auto-Doc admitted in his calm, unhurried synthetic drawl, "but your psychometric readings are a little disordered. Nothin' too extreme, though, and if I had to guess I'd say it should settle down with a good night's sleep."
"Hmm," said Azula thoughtfully. "I hope so. It's not debilitating, but it does feel a bit strange."
"Other than that, you're fine," Auto-Doc continued. "All your implants are in good shape and working normally, your radiation level is nominal, and your cellular regeneration rate is A-OK. You're a perfectly normal, healthy fifteen-year-old girl... if normal fifteen-year-old girls were naturally pyrokinetic and crammed full of bleeding-edge military-spec cybernetic enhancements, anyway," the medical robot added offhandedly.
Azula glanced at Auto-Doc's side-mounted diagnostic terminal, eyebrow arched. "It's not a cosmetic modification?"
"No ma'am," Auto-Doc replied. "DNA methylation doesn't lie. Damned if I know how, I never seen anything like it, but somebody rolled back your odometer for real. Hell of a thing."
Azula frowned thoughtfully. "Hmm," she repeated. "How will that affect my PHOENIX module?"
"Doesn't appear that it has, but we'll have to monitor it," said Auto-Doc. "Unsurprisingly, there's nothin' in the literature about any PHOENIX patient who suddenly reverted to mid-adolescence before," he added dryly. "You could be a case study, if there was any way anybody would believe it happened in the first place."
"What a shame there isn't, then," Azula replied, equally dryly. Then, with thanks for the checkup, she left the Phoenix Queen's sickbay and went to her quarters.
Once there, she regarded herself in the mirror by her wardrobe for a moment. She was... not vain, exactly, but she liked the way she looked and was not above pausing now and then to admire herself in reflective surfaces. She knew she had a pleasing face, a poised and elegant manner, and a slim, athletic figure; they were part of her toolset, and though less relied upon nowadays than they had been in her youth, she took pains to maintain them anyway, because that was what she was trained to do with useful tools.
This task had never been all that challenging, and since Mojave, where she'd acquired a very handy bit of 21st-century black technology, it had ceased to require any particular effort at all. Nowadays, approaching (as near as she could calculate it) the biological age of seventy, she remained satisfied with what she saw in mirrors. It would've been nice if she'd managed to stumble across the PHOENIX modification sometime before the age of sixty, but she was well aware that there were much worse draws from the life-extension deck than perpetual, well-maintained early middle age.
The face she saw now, blinking bemusedly back at her from the mirror, was much younger - herself as she had been when she'd held half of her old, lost homeworld in the palm of her hand and anticipated the day when the rest of it would lie at her feet. That version of her face wasn't as unexpected now as it had been two days ago, but it looked sharply out of place in these surroundings, like a brand-new radio mounted in the dash of an antique car.
Azula smiled ironically at herself and started hunting for something to wear besides this slightly preposterous old Fire Nation armor.
She ended up going with her old adventuring clothes from Mojave, because they were comfortable and familiar, and because they were so threadbare and many-patched that it didn't really matter they didn't quite fit properly any more. She padded out the boots with a couple of extra pairs of socks, stuffed the now-over-long legs of her trousers into them, and that was the job more or less done. She caught herself belting on her sidearm out of sheer force of habit and laughed as she hung it back on its peg by the door. She never really needed it much of anywhere, but she particularly wasn't going to need it here, tonight.
As the Phoenix Queen's ramp hummed smoothly back up behind her, Azula pulled her cloak - the one bit of her Fire Nation ensemble she'd kept - a little tighter around her and took a moment to get her bearings. The ship was parked, along with most of the others that had come from Midgard for the occasion, at the edge of the great plain of Asgard, among the still-smoldering wreckage of the (not-quite-)Last Battle. Even out here, a good half-mile from the walls of the city, she could hear the sounds of the celebrations happening inside drifting across the cold night air. Above, the sky was a riot of color and light, the most spectacular aurora she could remember seeing.
She started off toward the city gate, then drew back with a surprised sound as she nearly ran into a very tall, broad, dark-clad man. In this context, it took her a few seconds to realize that she knew him - it was Admiral MegaZone, the supreme commander of the Wedge Defense Force. Azula had heard that he was present, but hadn't seen him in the wild chaos of the battle, and she was slightly shocked by his appearance, partly because he'd just loomed up out of the chilly darkness without warning, and partly because he looked like he'd just escaped from a lunatic asylum. (Having once done so herself, she was better-positioned than most to know what that looked like.)
Azula knew him in passing, having met him a couple of times during her time as a WDF contractor, but she couldn't claim to know him well. She and the Queen had been under the direct command of Vice Admiral Kirk, commanding Red Squadron, during the Corporate War and its aftermath, and it was he who was her closest contact within the WDF's uppermost reaches. She was familiar enough with him, however, to know that he didn't normally look so haggard or so distracted, his eyes rimmed with dark circles but bright with a weird - and familiar - energy.
"Oh," he said, sounding not so much surprised as pleased. "Captain Inazuma. Nice to see you again. Glad you made it through the mayhem today." He gave her a distractedly thoughtful look. "You seem different. Did you change your hair?"
Azula didn't quite know how to respond to that; in fact she had changed her hair since the last time MegaZone had seen her, but she - or rather her father's court wizards, apparently - had changed rather more than that as well.
MegaZone chuckled at her perplexed look, took an object from one of the pockets of his long leather coat, and pressed it into her hand. "Here," he said. "For the fairest one. 'Scuse me. Stuff to do! Or stuff is doing me. Hard to tell at the moment."
So saying, he bent and gave her a friendly kiss on the cheek, then half-loped, half-staggered off into the night, muttering something about lamions having a half-integer spin, not a full integer, those are bogons.
Azula stood, even more perplexed than before, and watched him disappear into the gloom. Then, once she could no longer see him, she looked at the object he'd given her. It was an apple, plump and fresh-looking, its skin glinting a smooth, polished gold in the glow of the Queen's parking lights. It was far too light to be made of gold, and when she sniffed at it experimentally, it smelled like... well, like an apple, and reminded her suddenly that she was, in fact, ravenously hungry. She couldn't actually remember when she'd last eaten.
Ordinarily, Azula would not have eaten anything handed to her by an obviously crazy person of no better than casual acquaintance, however hungry she might be. Tonight, though... what the hell.
She bit the apple gingerly, ready to abort the operation if its skin proved to be as metallic as it looked; but it parted easily, with a crisp, fresh-picked crunch, and the flesh within was deliciously sweet and struck just the right balance between juicy and firm. It wasn't like biting into an apple so much as biting into the Platonic ideal of apples.
Smiling, Azula made for the city, munching the golden apple as she went.
"... so Caesar says, 'Now you take this fucking Platinum Chip and go destroy whatever is in that bunker,'" said Veronica, "and the Cap'n looks at him and says, just as cool as you please," (and here she adopted quite a good impression of Azula's "coolly dismissive" voice) "'Why in the world would I want to do that? Particularly for the likes of you, you foul-mouthed, misogynistic thug.'"
"I bet that didn't go over well!" said Sokka cheerfully, raising his tankard in salute as the Phoenix Queen's crew and the Einherjar of Dìqiú roared with laughter.
"You bet correctly!" Raul Tejada assured him.
"It all kicked off then," Rose of Sharon Cassidy confirmed, nodding. "We had to kill practically every Legionary in the Fort to get out of that one alive."
Boone smiled, as much as Boone ever smiled, which wasn't much. "That was a good day," he said, in all evident contentment.
From behind him, Azula's voice said with dry amusement, "Your satisfaction was naturally my highest priority, Craig."
"And much appreciated it was too," Boone replied mock-solemnly; then he turned to face her, blinked, tipped his aviator shades down his nose to look at her over them, regarded his tankard of mead with a bemused expression, shrugged, and took a long pull on it. All around him, his colleagues and the Einherjar at their table stared in slightly less philosophical astonishment at her.
"Oh. Oh my," said Veronica.
Cass performed an operation similar to Boone's, eyeing her mead with an air of faint reproach. "This is what I get for drinking something other than whiskey," she mumbled.
"My cataracts must be getting worse," said Raul matter-of-factly.
"What's the problem now?" Azula wondered, frowning quizzically, as she slid onto the bench between Ty Lee and Sokka, elbowing the latter casually over a few inches to give herself room. Then, with a thoughtful air, she looked over that end of the table, where sat a collection of her old acquaintances from the glory days in Dìqiú.
"Well, well, look at all of you," she observed, smiling wryly. "All grown up for the afterlife. Agni, Zuzu, you actually managed to be handsome, didn't you? Stayed with the same tragic haircut, though, I see." Without giving her red-faced brother an opportunity to respond, she moved on.
"These boots are killing me," she observed offhandedly, bending to tug off one of the offending articles. "Maybe three pairs of socks was overkill, but I swear it's like they've shrunk on my way over here from the Queen."
"Uh... or you've grown," said Sokka.
Azula looked up from adjusting her footwear to eye him skeptically. "I beg your pardon?"
"He's right," said Ty Lee, nodding. "You're all grown up too." Reddening slightly, she added in a lower voice, "You look amazing."
Azula frowned at her, finished removing her extra socks, put her boots back on, then turned to one of her crew. "Veronica," she said briskly. "My colleague Ty Lee here occasionally says things that are quite ridiculous. Is this one of those occasions?"
"Uh... no, 'fraid not, Cap'n," Veronica replied; then, grinning brightly, she added, "You are all grown up and you do look amazing. Is this because of what I said earlier? You shouldn't have."
"How 'all grown up'?" Azula wondered, eyeing her skeptically.
Veronica tilted her head thoughtfully. "Twenty? Twenty-five, tops, but that's pushing it."
Azula considered that for a moment; then, shrugging, she snagged a tankard of mead from the tray of a passing feasthall steward and dealt with about half of it before even putting it down.
"This has been the oddest week," she remarked casually, and that was, apparently, exactly as far as she planned to explore the matter, because the next thing she said was, "So. I don't see Aang anywhere. Is he avoiding me? Someone might want to reassure him that I hardly ever blow up any more."
Katara, who had been scowling at her as one might an uninvited wedding guest one dares not call out for fear of spoiling the occasion, blinked and looked around. "Where did he get off to?" she wondered.
"Dunno," Sokka replied. "He went to get more chips for the salsa, but there's a lot of shiny objects in this place. You better go find him, Zuko."
"Why do I always have to go find him?" Zuko grumbled, rising.
"Because your honor demands it," all his friends chorused (even, smiling more or less in spite of herself, Katara).
"Oh, right," he said, as if he'd never realized that or been told it before, and then he plunged off into the crowd in search of the Avatar.
"How's your head?" Boone inquired.
"Fine, thanks. How did you know to do that?"
"I didn't," Boone said matter-of-factly. "I intended to take you out. Mercy killing." He shrugged. "Just missed."
Azula snorted. "You never miss. Or admit it when you do," she added. Glancing to her left, she saw that one member of the Einherjar party wasn't strictly in the spirit of the thing. "Oh, do give over, Katara," she said. "Are you genuinely planning to go on nursing your grudge past the originally-prophesied expiration date of the universe? That seems petty. Besides, you're the one who nearly drowned me. It seems to me that if I'm willing to let that go, you have few grounds for continued hostility."
"She's got a point," Toph Beifong remarked offhandedly. She knocked back a pint of mead in a single pull, wiped away foam with the back of one hand, and belched with studied gusto, then went on, "She tried to kill you a bunch of times, you ruined all her dreams and put her in the crazy house. Karmically speaking, I think that's kind of a wash. Plus, ya know, end of the universe. Are there any more of those kabob things left?"
Katara sighed. "You're all idiots," she said.
"But you love us," Sokka remarked.
Ty Lee leaned over and murmured something in Azula's ear. Leaning back to regard her skeptically, Azula said, "Are you sure?" Ty Lee nodded vigorously and murmured something else. "Hmm," said Azula. "I'm skeptical, but... what the hell, it's worth a try."
Then, turning to face the glowering waterbender, she put down her tankard, composed herself into as solemn an attitude as she could manage in this setting, and said, "Katara, what do you want me to say? That I'm sorry for doing what I had been taught was right? For loving my country? For believing in what I was told was my destiny? I was wrong, Katara, but I didn't know that at the time. I genuinely believed, based on my warped understanding of the way the world worked, that I was doing the right thing, every bit as sincerely as you did. I can't apologize for that, not truthfully, not with any integrity.
"What I can apologize for," she went on before Katara could say anything, "is making it personal. I didn't just want to win, I wanted you and those you loved to suffer." She shook her head. "That wasn't right. It was spiteful and childish, and I'm sorry."
There was a brief silence at that particular table. All around them, the celebration carried raucously on, everyone else in the feasting-hall of the victorious gods unaware of the proceedings, but to those at the Dìqiú table, it was momentarily as though nobody else was even in the room. Everyone there watched one or the other of the two women, intently curious as to what would happen next.
Katara regarded Azula for several seconds, her blue eyes hard to read. She knew of old that this young-appearing woman was a consummate liar, so adept at concealing her true intent that she could even fool Toph's almost extrasensory people-reading skills. She wanted to believe what she was being told - to believe that her most despised enemy of the elder days was really sitting there apologizing, if not for her actions, at least for her needless cruelty. But knowing what she did of Azula's mercurial temper and manipulative guile, she couldn't. Not quite.
Azula read that in her face and sighed. "What else do you want from me?" she wondered. "Shall I fall on my sword in shame? Would that satisfy you? I don't need your approval, Katara. I offer you peace in the spirit of this red day we've just survived. If it suits you to throw it in my face in payment for my crimes of old, then so be it." She rose from the table. "Just ask yourself as you nurse your old hatred - which of us is being spiteful now?"
So saying, she turned on her heel and left the feasthall.
"That went well," Mai observed from somewhere near the bottom of her current tankard.
A moment later Zuko reappeared from the other direction. "Everyone can relax, I found Aang - hey, where's Azula?"
"Katara ran her off," Toph remarked.
"Just like old times," said Sokka, nudging his sister with an elbow. "Right?"
"You guys are mean," Ty Lee said disconsolately; then she got up and went off in pursuit.
One of the interesting things about Odin's palace was that it had a remarkable profusion of balconies - enough so virtually everyone present for the post-Ragnarök feast could've had one to him- or herself if the impulse had struck them all at once. Since it generally hadn't, Azula had little trouble finding an unoccupied one from which to do a little gloomy reflecting.
From somewhere down below came faint engine sounds, and occasional drunken shouts of spectators, as some kind of race was evidently in progress in the courtyard. Azula tuned the noise out and regarded the spectacular aurora and the unfamiliar stars of Asgard, wondering what she would do next. Suddenly the whole business seemed horribly anticlimactic.
She heard the sliding door open and close again behind her, and a soft tread on the stone paving of the balcony. Assuming it was someone from the party come to try and cajole her back to the table, she turned to tell whoever it was that he was wasting his time, then drew back with a surprised sound as she saw that her surmise had been wrong.
"Hello, Azula," said Ursa quietly.
"Mother!" Azula gasped, her breath making a little cloud in the frosty Asgard air.
"Do you really believe it's me this time?" Ursa wondered with a gentle smile.
Recovering some of her accustomed aplomb, Azula gave a sardonic half-smile and said, "Well, there are no mirrors out here, so I suppose you must be." Then she turned back to regarding the velvety night again as Ursa stepped to the railing beside her.
"Tell me something, Mother," said Azula after a silent minute or so. "How many of our conversations over the past few decades have been real?"
"Oh... most of them, I should think," said Ursa. "Since you were freed from the ice, at any rate."
"Hm," said Azula, and then, thoughtfully, "I always assumed you were some sort of manifestation of my unconscious mind."
"Before you left Dìqiú, that was most likely what was happening," Ursa conceded, "but afterward... no. No, those conversations were quite real. I was astonished to learn that you were still alive, and I had to pull quite a few strings to be allowed to contact you, even in such a vague and tenuous fashion... but I'm so glad I did." Smiling, she touched Azula's arm. "I got to watch you grow into the person you were always meant to be after all. Something I despaired of ever seeing after you disappeared."
Azula turned and regarded her. "You never gave up on me," she said, not certain whether it was a statement or a question.
"Neither did your brother," said Ursa. "He wondered what had happened to you all his life. On his deathbed he asked Aang's successor to find you... but she was never able to. Once she discovered that you had left Dìqiú, she was stymied, with no way of finding out where in the vast cosmos beyond you had gone, and you've never been back." She smiled, a little wryly, and said, "Zuko was a bit chagrined to arrive here and discover that he'd set the poor woman a fool's errand."
"I was never sure the world I remembered from my childhood was real," Azula admitted. "I mean... of late I've been fairly certain, but I could never find real proof, let alone a path that would lead me there."
"That time would have come soon, even without your father's interference," Ursa told her.
Azula chuckled darkly and turned her attention back to the aurora. "It's so typical of Father that the only times he ever did anyone a favor, it was accidentally, in the course of trying to destroy something."
"Yes," Ursa agreed quietly. "Yes it is."
They stood side by side for a few moments, silently contemplating the gaily coruscating Asgardian sky.
"This has been the oddest week," Azula repeated, and the two women laughed together.
"That it has," Ursa agreed. "That it has."
The door opened again behind them; they turned to see Ty Lee standing there, looking slightly surprised that she hadn't found Azula alone.
"Oh!" she said. "I'm sorry, I thought... I'll go," she said but Ursa smiled and shook her head.
"Not at all. I was about to turn in for the night anyway. It's been a long day, and despite the occasion, I'm not really in a party mood," she said. "You young people go and have a good time." She put a hand on Azula's shoulder. "I'll see you again before you leave. But before I go, I just want to make it perfectly clear how proud I am of you, Azula. You did a great thing today."
"I had a lot of help," said Azula wryly.
"That's one of the things I'm proudest of," Ursa replied, and then - slightly to Azula's shock, then entirely to her contentment - she hugged her daughter before parting from her quietly and disappearing into the interior of the palace.
When she had gone, Azula and Ty Lee stood regarding each other in silence for a moment. Then Azula gave her ironic smile again and said,
"One almost hates to say it, but being dead seems to be agreeing with you."
Ty Lee laughed. "It's not so bad when you put it that way," she admitted. "Please come back to the party? I know Katara's being difficult, but the others would really like to see you."
"And what about you?" Azula wondered, crossing the balcony with a measured, deliberate tread. "When last we saw each other, as I recall, it wasn't to part on particularly good terms."
"You couldn't help that," Ty Lee said. "You weren't well."
"No, I suppose I wasn't," Azula agreed, "but you know... I've never been entirely comfortable with using that fact to excuse myself. It's an easy way out. At the very least, I owe you - and Mai, come to that - the same apology I offered Katara. Even though I believed that what I was doing was right, I went about it the wrong way. I treated you very shabbily indeed. It could even be argued that you have greater cause to resent me than Katara ever did. After all, you two were trying to be my friends, and I repaid you by treating you little better than my enemies, even before the end." She stopped in front of her old friend and sighed, bowing her head. "You deserved better, Ty Lee. I'm sorry."
Ty Lee stared at her in stunned disbelief for a moment; then, a faint note of wonder in her voice, she said, "You've been thinking about this for a long time, haven't you?"
"By the time I regained some semblance of sense," Azula replied, not looking up, "you were probably long dead. For decades, I wasn't even sure you had ever existed in the first place. Either way, I didn't think I would ever have the chance to say what I just said." She raised her head then, looking her old friend in the face, and Ty Lee was shocked anew to see a tear tracking one of her cheeks. "So yes. You could say I've spent a fair time reflecting on it."
Ty Lee gazed silently at her for a few seconds, her grey eyes tinted a shifting green by the aurora. Azula assumed her long-lost friend was searching for words, or possibly preparing to punch her, which she was willing to accept - once - as her due after all this time.
What she did instead was somewhat more surprising, and almost as aggressive, but considerably less percussive.
When Azula (disheveled and contented) sloped back into the feasthall a while later, the party was still roaring on despite the lateness of the hour, and showed no signs of slowing down. Most of the tables were either vacant or occupied by scattered little groups now, as most of the dining appeared to be done with. Now there were more little islands of activity sprinkled around the room, as other kinds of recreation had broken out - arm wrestling, wrestling wrestling, various kinds of music and dancing, even a few boxing matches and several outright fights, all coexisted noisily and chaotically under the hall's high, vaulted roof.
Azula took a couple of seconds in the doorway to assess the new situation, then made straight for one of the smaller sub-groups. Her crew appeared to have dispersed - she caught a glimpse of Cass down at the end of one of the long tables, doing shots with a tall man in the uniform of an Asgardian Air Force colonel, and silently wished her luck - but the group from Dìqiú was still mostly together, talking and laughing. She was momentarily taken aback to see how tall Aang was as an adult - her mental image of him had still been both twelve and short for his age - but she put the thought aside for the moment. She had a different mission in mind.
Without breaking stride, she snagged a couple of narrow, stemmed glasses of something yellow and fizzy from a table in one hand as she passed, then sauntered up to the group and joined them. Katara noticed her first, looked as if she might say something, then frowned and looked away without doing so. Sokka took a moment longer, and only twigged to her presence when those opposite him in their little circle - Zuko and Aang - spotted her.
The Avatar, his startlingly long and bony grown-up face breaking into a smile, opened his mouth as if to address her, but Azula held up her free hand - one moment please - and turned to Sokka, who was giving her a slightly unfocused, befuddled look.
"Sokka, darling," she said casually, "would you be so kind as to ask your sister if she'll please have a drink with me and let the past lie where it fell?"
Sokka looked even more confused by this; Katara was, after all, standing right there, and could not possibly have failed to hear her, even in this noisy room. Then, with a whatever-you-say sort of shrug, he turned to convey the message to his sister, but before he could do so, she had replied - also addressing her remarks to him.
"Sokka," Katara said coolly, "please inform Princess Azula that it is not my policy to drink with tyrannical bitches such as herself."
Sokka blinked - he was a bit drunk, but not drunk enough to think saying that was a good idea - and replied, "Uh, that might not - "
"Tell her, Sokka," Katara snapped, her eyes glinting; then she shot a similarly flinty look at Aang and Zuko, driving them back a step and forestalling any attempt either might've made to intervene.
Azula, to both Katara's and Sokka's surprise, emitted a merry laugh at this, one entirely devoid of the dangerous edge it might've been expected to carry under the circumstances.
"She might consider who's talking," she said lightly, putting her free hand companionably on Sokka's shoulder. Then, leaning toward him with a conspiratorial air, she added, "After all, she should know full well by now that all bitches would be tyrants if they could."
Toph Beifong, who had stood gazing blankly off into a corner of the room and listening to the byplay, let out a peal of laughter at that which drew startled looks from various points around them, even through the cacophony of the celebration.
"Fire princess 2, ice princess 1," she remarked with a broad grin, then elbowed Katara hard enough to jostle her a half-step toward Azula (who had uncrossed the stems of her two glasses and now stood holding one in each hand with a wry little smile). Katara (pointlessly) shot Toph a glare, then turned and stared at Azula in disbelief for a second; then, almost unwillingly, she cracked a little smile, then a bigger one, and then laughed and took one of the glasses.
"Well," she said philosophically, "as one tyrannical bitch to another, I suppose I'll drink to that," and they tapped their glasses together and drained them.
"Tyrants If They Could" - a Twilight Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
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