|Tales of the Tea Shop: The Wedding Gift Search
Author: Eduard Tubin PM
In this time line Suki and Sokka get married. This is the story about the preparations Azula and Karo must undertake to select the best gifts for the important wedding. This wedding takes place in the spring eight months before Aang's.Rated: Fiction T - English - Azula & Iroh - Words: 6,999 - Reviews: 3 - Favs: 2 - Published: 01-23-10 - Status: Complete - id: 5691055
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Tales of the Tea Shop
Azula and the Wedding Gift
Azula read her book hoping no one would notice her. She hated public transit and the monorails of the city of Ba Sing Se provided a cross section of all the castes in society who could not afford a team of ostrich horses and a carriage or were too bloody lazy to walk. She kept her eyes on her book and did not look up and read the posted advertisements for fear she might make eye contact with someone. The train chugged along the monorail stopping off every few minutes to dispatch and pick up passengers. Azula had worked out the 'Laws of Transit':
1: The main problem with Public Transit – they let the public use it.
2: No pleasant odor can survive in a street car or tram. The bad smell is vomit – if you are lucky.
3: The novice user of public transit has witnessed only one homicide. The experienced user has witnessed half a dozen.
4: The shortest distance between two places is a straight line – the longest is public transit.
Azula had once tried to travel in a complete circle around Ba Sing Se with one transfer but she worked out it would take her twelve days to accomplish the feat and gave up. She heard the driver announce her stop and the train slowed down. The tea shop lay in an upscale part of Ba Sing Se – Azula knew this from the more sophisticated appearance of the graffiti. She stepped off the train and onto the platform. A warm welcoming sign with deep red characters had the message 'For a Good Time See.....' with the name smeared out. The calligraphy was rather good.
Azula passed the public message board which had the usual posters about lost poodle monkeys named 'Buffy' mixed in with the announcements of street mime festivals and house cleaning services. She made her way back to the tea shop in the late afternoon heat. The climate of Ba Sing Se had two settings – hot as Hell and Hell frozen over. Azula could never work out why so many people wanted to live there – it was less awful than where the Northern Water Tribe lived but to Azula that mean dying by drowning was less awful than dying by dismemberment. Summers had heatwaves coupled with the odd sandstorm blowing in from the Seewong desert. Winters had snow – almost always urine colored – Azula did not want to think on that problem.
* * *
"Which train did you take?" Karo asked cautiously as Azula walked past the Pai Sho table. They had discovered a new game which involved making sentences out of hundreds of randomly shuffled cards with Chinese characters on them. Karo shuffled piles of cards in preparation for a short afternoon game. "The Smelly 145 or the Screaming Baby Crosstown Express?"
"Vomit Stained Floor 87." Azula replied curtly and slumped in her usual seat. "Imagine having great earth bending prowess and the one thing you aspire to is propelling a train along a stone track in Ba Sing Se. In the Fire Nation you could become a great military leader if you showed skill – in the Earth Kingdom you become a bus driver."
"The job pays well and they have a good pension plan." Karo shuffled the cards and placed them in piles. "Your Uncle rides public transit."
"He has a more 'monk like' disposition and believes a little suffering now pays off in the next life – in some way." Azula picked up the first card. The object of the game consisted in finding a set of cards that formed a legal sentence according to the small one sheet set of rules that came with the deck. Azula could stretch the rules of 'legal' by browbeating Karo. "I used to have my own palanquin and bearers who lugged me all over the Fire Nation. The card says 'Five'."
"I have 'Bachelor'." Karo saw Iroh puttering around serving customers in gleeful acceptance as his role as the owner of a critically regarded tea shop. Azula did not talk much about her past but had a bitter acceptance of her less than graceful fall into the role of Pai Sho champion. Karo decided that in order to remain friends he would not ask questions about her days as the princess.
"Five and Bachelor." Azula drew again. "Number."
"I got nothing." Karo drew again. "Is"
"The number five is a bachelor." Azula snapped her fingers.
"What?" Karo's eyes narrowed as he took on a look of confusion.
"Can you refute the statement?" Azula grinned wickedly as Karo began to feel the urge to bang his head on the table. Azula knew how to lie and knew that human language permitted an infinite number of false, stupid, outright ridiculous or obfuscated statements and only a finite number of true ones or ones that somewhat reflected reality. She viewed human language as a fine tuned mechanism for saying false or stupid things.
Uncle Iroh watched Azula and Karo. He had bad news – well good news except from Azula's perspective. He had to practice diplomacy and tact when delivering bad news to Azula. He had to tell her that he had invited Suki and Sokka to use the tea shop for their wedding ceremony. He had the same kind of problem an airline pilot had when he had to tell the passengers that the starboard engine had just ingested a goose. He breathed in, aligned his chakras and approached Azula.
"I have something to tell you." Iroh had the same tone as the airline pilot trying to translate the phrase 'we will soon slam into the surface of the planet at five hundred knots' into 'we may experience a rough landing so put your tray tables in the upright and locked position and buckle your seat belts' while hoping the passengers didn't notice one of the engines had fallen off. "I have invited Suki and Sokka to have their wedding in the tea shop."
"What the....!?" Azula acted like the irate airline passenger who had just seen the engine explode and fall off.
"Azula – please. I don't want any difficulties because this means a lot to Suki and Sokka and you will get free food." Iroh laughed in that charming manner he had. "And I made no offers on your behalf to do anything to help."
"How very nice of you." Azula sneered. "These people hate me."
"Once they get to know you they will come to love you as Karo and I do." Iroh had a pleasant smile which to Azula meant that things could get worse and the countdown had begun.
"You have to like me because I'm family and Karo is akin to a pet." Azula watched Karo cheat at the game by peering at the cards remaining in the stack. At the very least Azula could understand why they got along. "I imagine they will have invited all their friends which includes the tolerable Aang and Toph and the intolerable Mai and Fire Putz Zuko."
"You will enjoy yourself." Iroh watched Azula take the deck of game cards and spell out 'Watch me weave a noose out of my own entrails and hang myself.' Iroh calmly replied. "Please don't make a mess."
"House pet?" Karo shuffled the cards.
"I may have overstated things." Azula plucked off the top card as Karo put them down. "We seem to get along so that probably means we both have dark and deep secrets."
"If by dark you mean I come from the Fire Nation. If by deep you mean my father was the infamous war criminal Admiral Zhao." Karo examined the character for 'tree' and looked at his card which read 'chest'. "He hated me and hated my mother more so we left to seek refuge in Ba Sing Se. How does that strike you?"
"Can you fire bend?"
"Yes." Karo fingered his tea cup. "I lied when I told you my dad was a lawyer – compared to having Admiral Zhao for a father it's a step up."
* * *
"Do you know rats mate up to twenty times a day?" Azula looked at her fingernails as she remembered something she had read. Kara and Azula played an Earth Kingdom version of lawn bowling and she kept working out even more effective ways of distracting Karo. In the Avatar realm many things had profound interconnections with each other. Living things formed an interconnected web. People lived in a vast pool of history kept in balance by the Avatar and Karo and Azula played lawn bowling in Bei Fong Park. The name of the park and the last name of Toph were not one of those interconnected things. The name meant North City Park and it had a series of lawn bowling fields.
Karo had picked the large orange bowling ball and it struck the green wooden gutter and rolled away. Azula laughed loudly. She had made Karo into kind of a protege and he had taken to wearing the clothes of a Fire Nation noble and she felt proud that he had come back to his heritage. He looked angry as he brushed grass and dew off his ball. The late morning sun had some heat but the late summer had seen cool nights and the odd frost.
"Will you stop that." Karo walked back with the wooden ball in his hands. In this game the object was to knock down five wooden pins ten times and thus score fifty. "One wedding in a week and you become even more irritating."
"Hey! As a member of the Fire Nation you achieve victory through guile." Azula held a red wooden ball and began to take aim.
"Mate twenty times a day?" Karo stood next to Azula and pondered that. "I know why the sewers have so many rats."
Azula had perfect aim and the pins seemed doomed but a large muscular man with the Earth Kingdom symbol and word tattooed on his arms and a bald head stopped it with his feet.
"Fire Nation scum?" The man came with three other equally disreputable looking buddies.
"Just students." Karo straightened up his clothes. "We mean no trouble."
"What you doing here? This is an Earth Kingdom park." A tall bearded man with no shirt held a knife loosely in his hand. Two other men approached slowly – one had a stocky build and the second had a tall muscular build, long hair and a deep scar on his face.
"What if we want to bowl?" The tattooed man spoke in a slow growl.
"You bowl?" Azula stood resolutely in place and scowled.
"Lets just go." Karo could fire bend but he did not have the kind of training that made him sure of his skills. "We don't want trouble."
"We do." The man brandishing the knife threw it deftly at Karo who in a surprise to Azula and more to himself threw his bowling ball and knocked it out of the air. Karo clenched his fists and shot a gust of flames and the man stumbled back and ducked.
Azula swept her hand over the heads of the four men and drove a sheet of flame just over their heads. She wanted to send a message but not get arrested by baking one of the idiots in their skull. The tattooed man sent a sharp dagger of stone summoned out the ground straight at her but she grabbed it out of the air and threw it back. It struck the man in the leg and he limped and then fell over. His friends picked him up and ran off.
"This has not ended – Fire Nation Witch." The tattooed man managed to utter as they rushed away.
"I had no time to wet myself." Karo spoke grimly – half terrified and out of breath.
"I prefer to vomit myself." Azula patted her friend on the back. "We should go home. I don't want any unwanted attention."
* * *
"Azula?" Uncle Iroh had seen Karo and Azula leave to go lawn bowling. Iroh doubted any romance could spring up between the two of them but he felt happy that Azula had found a friend. He had noticed Karo sitting at the Pai Sho table white faced and clearly upset about something and Azula had locked herself in the guest cottage.
"A gang of thugs tried to kill Karo and me." Azula answered through the door. "If you don't mind I have some really heavy duty barfing to do."
"Does Karo need a doctor?" Iroh sounded concerned.
"Still sitting at the Pai Sho table with a pale face? We weren't hurt." Azula opened the door and rubbed her eyes. She would not admit to having cried but Iroh could sense she had an emotional outburst. "I will try talking to him."
"You?" Iroh had the look of someone who had just opened a box of spring snakes.
"If we see him on the roof of any tall buildings then I will come to you." Azula walked with Iroh to the tea shop.
"It is unmanly to cry." Karo sat at the Pai Sho table sitting in his Fire Nation clothes and trembling.
"It is even more unladylike to barf." Azula sat down and picked up a blue tile. "Do you know that my dad sent me out to kill my brother because at the time he thought Zuko had betrayed him and the Fire Nation by taking sides with the Avatar. I found him at the Western Air Temple and we battled. I fell off an airship. I managed to luck out and save myself but I recall puking for many hours. The crew gave me the nickname the Projectile Princess."
"You will think I have become a weak sissy if I cry." Karo smiled weakly.
"I already think you are a sissy." Azula said bluntly.
Karo placed his head in his hands and cried for many minutes. Azula patted him on the back in an oddly gentle moment for her as Iroh noted. Karo looked up after recovering himself and Azula fetched him a clean towel from the kitchen to clean up his face.
"Do you really think I'm a sissy?" Karo asked quietly.
"Does it matter?" Azula breathed deeply and let Karo recover. "I used to have a sort of girlfriend if you want to know. She had great beauty, a cheerful and happy disposition and the brains of a bat."
"Oh." Karo straightened up and fixed his clothing. "Did you love her?"
"I think so." Azula tapped the glass of the table. "That seems a long lifetime ago."
"You two feeling better." Iroh brought a pot of fresh tea and two cups.
"I think so." Karo smiled. "I felt like I had lost my honor and humiliated myself and it hurt."
"You make your own honor." Iroh smiled at both of them. "You build it for yourself by trying to become something better than what you once were. Take it easy Karo. Only a fool doesn't have fear – it reminds you how human you are. The difference between a coward and a honorable man is that the honorable man does the right thing in spite of his fear, the coward makes up excuses for not acting. I think the fact you worried about your honor means you have it."
"How did you become so wise?" Karo sighed and poured tea.
"Actually I get a silver piece for each word in a lecture I give." Iroh laughed and headed off to serve other customers.
* * *
"I have to put up with a long lecture on psychology this afternoon and a wedding on the weekend." Azula put her head on the small desk. Karo had the seat beside her and sat back in his chair like he had begun take off on a long international flight. They had picked a center seat in the middle of the lecture theater on the left side. The old wooden furniture in the old stone lecture theater creaked like a haunted house as students filed in.
"We almost got killed yesterday so I am hoping this class goes smoother." Karo picked up a note book and pencil and both of them waited for the professor. The professor walked in and several students looked uncomfortable. A severe looking middle aged woman in a bland tan colored pant suit and short hair walked out in front of the black board, stood in front of the lectern, stared out over a set of wire framed bifocals and plunked down a set of printed pages on a small table.
"First Year Psychology?" The woman stared out over the lecture theater. She wrote the characters for 'Dualism' and turned to face the class. "Does anyone know what the word 'Dualism' means?"
"It means that there exists a separation of mind and body – somehow mind exists detached to the body." Azula raised her hand and blurted out. Karo just looked down at the floor.
"The Fire Nation exchange student has the correct answer." The woman stepped out from behind the lectern. "I am Professor Hue and in this course we will examine what science has learned about the mind. May I ask your name?"
"Azula Kai." Azula felt that she stood out in the class. She avoided looking at the professor and examined the waxy dark brown varnish on the desks.
"Do you subscribe to the idea of dualism?" Hue asked very seriously as if she were a judge in a court.
"No." Azula answered meekly. "When I stub my toe I feel pain, when I hit my head I lose consciousness. Or to state it simply – I can alter the state of my mind with drugs or a brain injury."
"You have a good argument." Hue cracked a kind of smile that looked forced. "I will hand out a class syllabus of the assignments and readings in the class."
"I will have to cheat off of you." Karo and Azula had endured three hours of the lecture which mainly discussed the course syllabus. They walked down the large Gothic arched stone hallway that lead to the classroom wing of the Social Sciences Department of the University. Statues of luminaries stood along its entire length and the windows had stain glassed depictions of the great disciplines.
"What do all these statues have in common?" Azula mulled the sandals on the feet of one of the statues as she walked by.
"All these guys died?" Karo held his books close to his chest as he looked up.
"All of them are outstanding dead social scientists." Azula walked down and had counted twelve of them. "I didn't know the social sciences had such a long history at this institution."
"The fat guy on my left with the laurel wreath and fancy clothes is a dead economist." Karo looked at the plaque at his feet. "A dead economist? What does a dead economist do?"
"Not much." Azula looked at the statue. "Sit still? Very, very still? Decompose?"
"It says he died at the age of 56 of a heart attack." Karo had his finger on the bronze plaque.
"Why did they find that 'historically relevant'? Judging from his girth he was a cardiac time bomb." Azula walked slowly down the hall.
"Have you thought of a wedding gift?" Karo wondered if he had attracted any undue attention because of his Fire Nation clothing but the students appeared apathetic or hungover.
"I have boiled it down to a backstreet hysterectomy for Suki or neutering Sokka." Azula smirked. "I probably don't need to neuter Sokka since Katara must have done that years ago."
"A set of dishes costs less and involve much less torture." Karo opened the tall glass doors and winced in the late afternoon sunlight. "You will have to shell out for chloroform and gauze if you decide on the hysterectomy. Backstreet surgeons don't come cheap either."
"What do you have in mind?" Azula and Karo walked toward the train station.
"I have no idea." Karo pleaded. "I never met either one. I found Kyoshi Island on a map and it's in the Southern Hemisphere so maybe a trick upside down globe?"
"I met both." Azula thought about the trick globe but rejected it in favor of the image of the globe with all the nations labeled 'Fire Nation'. "Sokka has a mind like the old family china – it has quality but it never gets taken out and used. Suki has a sweet and kind personality. I captured her during the war and had orders to interrogate her for information. Never interrogate an optimist because they will make you long for death. She never lost hope or her own self contained happiness. After I tried to eat my own head three times and found out absolutely nothing I had her dragged off to the most remote prison in the Fire Nation and she escaped."
"The Boiling Rock!" Karo answered. "I didn't think escape was possible."
"You bought into the hype." Azula sneered and raised her eyebrow. "The basic flaw in the security of the Boiling Rock comes from the fact you have to get prisoners in it in some way and then find guards to run it. Then supply it with food, bog rolls and porn."
"No one ever figured out why but prison morale depends greatly on the porn supply." Azula shrugged. "You can feed prisoners cat vomit and pay the guards less than what a hobo needs to survive and things will go smoothly. Have a porn shortage and the prisoners burn their mattresses and the guards refuse to work."
"How did Suki escape?"
"Her boyfriend Sokka and my brother Zuko broke in then they had the help of Mai – Zuko's wife." Azula strode past an old maple tree and saw two students reading as they sat on the grass. "The warden of blessed memory didn't help. It makes for a long and failure ridden tale – maybe some other time."
"Warden of blessed memory?"
"He had a thing for cutting the cables out from under things." Azula hoped that the train waiting at the platform would hold up for them. She knew better because she knew the rules of Public Transit so she didn't hurry. "He retired from his position as warden of the Boiling Rock about two years ago and went to live on Ember Island. They have these nature trails and one of them has a rope bridge that spans a deep river valley and due to his advancing senility he cut one of the ropes. The bridge flipped over and tossed him into the river and they never found him."
"That sounds rather tragic." Karo heard the train begin to move.
"Yeah." Azula stepped onto the stone train platform. "I liked that bridge. I hope they repaired it."
"We could have made that train." Karo pointed at the train as it left.
"I might do what I did for my brother's wedding – a crappy set of red glass candy dishes." Azula watched and tapped her fingers in annoyance as the train they wanted to catch rolled away from the stone platform. "Last time I heard Mai broke three out of the set of six. I should have had her sterilized when I had the chance."
* * *
"What about that?" Karo pointed to a set of five porcelain cats – a Beatrice Potter like assortment of a mother cat and her ginger tabby kittens. They walked through the large Ba Sing Se Galleria – an ornate wrought iron building that amounted to a very fancy Victorian style shopping mall. The glass ceiling let the late afternoon sunshine into the mall's wide halls and kept the rain off the shoppers.
"You may feel the need to purchase it but it doesn't quite say 'me'." Azula patted on Karo's shoulder and pointed to a shop that sold all manner of clocks and gadgets. "Can they tell time?"
"A clock?" Karo looked at the shop window.
"Not just a clock but the most annoying kind of clock ever made by the hands of man." Azula grinned broadly as an evil idea ran around her brain. "Do you remember that old Fire Nation saying?"
"When in doubt obfuscate?" Karo had grown accustomed to following Azula on strange 'missions' she never explained clearly.
"No...that applies to term papers and selling real estate." Azula stood in front of the clock shop window.
"Revenge is a dish best served cold?"
"Reading my Star Voyage graphic novels? Isn't that a Greegon Warrior saying?"
"I have the whole 69 volume set." Karo smiled proudly.
"Oh cool I don't have number 67. I will want to borrow it." Azula stopped for a second. "Anyhow there are many annoying things in this world – poodle monkeys with their hair done up and dyed pink, parakeets, rashes and the mother of all irritations – the Cuckoo Clock. My mom had one placed strategically in the hallway and it would sound every hour and every half hour. She liked it and wouldn't get rid of it. I think my father had her banished so he could incinerate the thing. They look nice, last for years and have caused more bouts of insomnia than that nervous period between when you take the medical tests and when the results arrive and you find out if the lump is benign."
"If I understand you – and I am never sure I do - a cuckoo clock amounts to the wedding gift equivalent of a medical biopsy." Karo saw Azula examining a fine clock made in Omashu sitting in the window basking in the rough glow of overdone shop lights. It had the most striking degree of bad taste but decent workmanship to lurk in the dark halls of the betrothed couple's home forever.
"Let us go search for the appropriate gift that keeps on giving." Azula motioned toward the door of the shop.
"You could save a good deal of money and simply get them a bomb." Karo added his suggestion.
"Economical but far less entertaining. We want a gift that will fix our memories firmly in their minds – call it a Fire Nation tradition."
"As a Fire Nation expatriate I learn a great many new things about my homeland." Karo shrugged and Azula walked into the store. "You know the last volume of 'Five Star Stories' came back from you with some of the pages bent."
"Karo! Get in here now!" Azula shouted from the counter of the clock store.
The clock store had a darkened interior with lamps set to highlight the most interesting and profitable models available. One grandfather clock struck six and a door opened and two Kyoshi Warriors came out with fans unfurled, giggled six times and then retreated into the clock. This startled Karo and he gasped.
"What about this clock?" Karo opened the glass door and set the hands an hour ahead. Azula watched as the two Kyoshi Warriors waved their fans and giggled seven times. "Annoys and offends good taste at the same time."
"I think that is the Whorehouse 5000 model." Azula could not see a clerk and looked impatiently for a bell to ring in order to call for service. The clerk had probably taken it away to grab a few moments peace from customers. She tapped the counter impatiently and a grizzled old man appeared from a small room behind the counter.
"I am so sorry for the wait but I have been overrun with work." The old man had a head of short white hair and a white mustache. He had a slight hunch but he had a friendly face, the sweet high pitched voice of an old man and pleasant manner needed to charm people into buying expensive timepieces. "Since I moved to this new shop I have no end of my business. How may I help you today?"
"What do you have in a reliable cuckoo clock that makes a loud noise on the hour and half hour." Azula grinned as Karo shook his head.
* * *
"Evil." Karo poured himself some tea. "Pure evil."
"Yes!" Azula liked the tea shop in the early evening as the gas lamps gave the place a warm and friendly glow that had an intimate atmosphere she never experienced at the palace. She had concluded much of Iroh's decorating efforts amounted to lending that kind of intimate atmosphere to his tea shop although she thought he lacked something as a decorator. "I think it fulfills the best of both aims of a wedding gift. You wanted a tasteful gift, I wanted an annoying one. This cuckoo clock has a nice nautical theme and both of them lived near the sea."
The lighthouse had great beauty. The clock came from the finest Fire Nation craftsman and every hour the light on the light house turned around and turned red and white using a clever optical trick and a mirror to make it look like it had lit up from behind. A loud ship's horn sounded the number of the hour and sounded one blast sounded the half hour. The face of the clock had fine brass work with a nautical theme as if it belonged on a ship. The lighthouse lay below and behind the dark brown varnished wooden doors and popped out just before the hour. Karo had to admit the clock looked beautiful and finely made.
"I helped pick it out and paid for half of that." Karo put his cup down with a loud thump. "Just so you remember."
"Iroh will write that on the card that will go with the gift."
"Oh right." Karo nodded. "I remember your class notes."
"A clock?" Iroh leaned over and replaced the glass pot of honey that sat on the table and examined the clock. "A rather nice one too. I would ask what you two had plotted but I don't want to seem rude."
"We have nothing plotted." Karo noticed Iroh examining him closely. "Uh something on my face?"
"I knew it." Iroh patted Karo on the back just as Azula did. "Karo Zhao. I knew your mother before she fled here with you. Admiral Zhao had a terrible temper and she left with you to spare you the abuse she feared you might experience at his hands."
"How did you guess?" Karo had the astonished look of someone watching a magician act and seeing the stage magician swallow coins and shoot exact change out his nose. Azula sat with her arms crossed and took it all in – she had known much of this.
"You look like Lady Zhao...I mean Lady Kitsune." Iroh sat down and took a deep breath. "Karo and you are cousins. Karo's mother is your aunt. I see you have become a fine young man."
"Cousins?" Azula asked timidly.
"Indeed." Iroh said softly. "I figured you two had something in common because you have many of the same interests. You both like science, have fussy personalities and little use for people."
"Zuko will arrive soon." Azula sat up with her arms crossed in a pose that told old Iroh that she had drawn a conclusion and she had absolute certainty. "Mai will arrive with him."
"I came to tell you." Iroh looked down for a moment and then looked at Azula. "He will arrive later on this evening. He wanted no ceremony and no fuss. He will stay with Lady Mai at the Earth King palace."
"I will meet the Fire Lord!" Karo stood up excitedly. "The leader of my homeland?"
"Take this piece of paper." Azula handed him a sheet of paper from her book bag and handed it to Karo. She took a second piece and began to write on the paper. "See if you can get his autograph."
"What are you up to?" Karo glanced at Azula sensing she had a plan and nothing good could come of it.
"Making a paper airplane." Azula began folding the paper. "Fire Lord Zuko will enter the room and I bet he will have the hair ornament of the Fire Lord – the gold hair piece of the leader of our nation. I want to see if I can hit it with this." She pointed to a neat looking paper airplane. "And have it stick."
"What does the crown of the Fire Lord symbolize." Karo knew he had asked a stupid question when Azula's hairy eyebrows went up then the left one lowered and she took on the look of someone mulling over the best reply to a dumb question.
"In the glory days of the Fire Nation." Azula began in a pedantic voice. "Men were manly men, women still lived longer, fire benders were real fire benders, the iguanas grew into lizards that could level cities and deadly skin infections were real deadly skin infections. Anyhow in those days they didn't have the same conveniences we have now – houses, lawyers, gas lights and tea. The Fire lord had to lead his people away from danger and in those days he needed a weapon to fight off the evil saber tooth moose lions that threatened to kill us all so his blacksmith made a crown with a point. If he encountered the dreaded saber tooth moose lion he could point his head in the direction of the aggressive animal and charge. If he hit hard enough the point killed the saber tooth moose lion and he emerged a hero. This almost never worked so that explains why we have a list of about three hundred thousand fire lords from ancient times and most of them died from saber tooth moose lion related accidents – goring, trampling and that sort of thing."
"You could have said 'it looks like a golden flame'." Karo tapped the table. "Even 'You idiot – it is meant to look like a golden flame'."
"Yes I could." Azula placed the paper airplane in a cup. "But then I couldn't rant and I have a good few rants in me."
"Hello Azula." Fire Lord Zuko and Mai stood quietly next to the table. Zuko had come in through the back entrance to the tea shop to meet Iroh as he worked in the kitchen. Azula jumped and then examined her brother who had the fine robes of the Fire Lord and the golden flame crown as proud declaration of his position. Mai had the finest Royal robes and wore the subtly unsubdued crown of the Fire Lady. Azula could swear they had polished all their gold jewelery and wondered to herself if it could blind carriage drivers if they saw it reflecting the sun.
"Karo....meet the pimp who runs the local prostitution racket." Azula grinned slightly as she recovered her breath from the sudden start. "I can't quite recall the name of the prostitute."
"Azula oozes charm." Mai glared down at Azula. "Bad but I had expected worse."
"Hello." Karo stood up and bowed – he tried his best to practice. "My name is Karo Zhao of the Fire Nation."
"You found a clone." Mai crossed her arms and looked seriously at Azula.
"Karo Zhao's father served my father." Fire Lord Zuko tried hard to make the occasion remain civil. "Of course Azula should consider herself lucky. At least lucky concerning the former Fire Lord Ozai."
"How should I consider myself lucky to have a reckless megalomaniac as a father?" Azula stood up and faced Zuko and quietly looked at him. "A deranged military failure? The man that had the military acumen of a toucan?"
"I begin to see this won't prove easy." Zuko crossed his arms, Mai calmly looked on and Karo wanted to hide under the table or preferably under another table in a different tea shop. "Lady Ursa told me not to fight with you and to show you respect."
"Mai didn't hear that lecture I presume." Azula pointed a delicate finger at Mai as an attempt at a rude gesture.
"Can you ignore her for a moment." Zuko sighed in desperation. "Your are my sister and my mom loves you very much."
"Alright." Azula sat down and tapped her fingers. "Can we quite talking about this touchy feely crap? I can't do touchy feely – have you ever seen one of those idiotic looking dancing circus bears wearing the tutu? It looks awkward, the bear hates it and it really becomes annoying when you find out you're the bear forced to wear the tutu and dance."
"Can I help?" Karo stood up and raised his hand as if wishing to ask a question in class. "I think I can call Azula my best friend. I don't have many of those – my mom fled with me to escape my father's cruelty. Don't try to make Azula into something she can never become – the girly girl or the pretty princess. I think one day she will surpass all of you – not because she belongs to the line of Ozai and Sozin – royalty doesn't matter. She will surpass you because she thinks clearly and has ideas – real ideas – don't humble her or make her repent but just accept her as she is."
"I see." Zuko had the kind of body Karo could only dream of – muscular in all the right places with not a hint of thin awkwardness Karo had. Karo had endured Earth Kingdom bullying in school and he sat down. "Why do you speak like that?"
"Ummm." Karo wished he were able to vanish in a puff of smoke but it didn't happen. "She has a gorgeous mind – everyone who meets her sees her knows it."
"Do you love her?
"Ummm." Karo tried this time to shrink to the size of a copper coin. "When I went to school here I got beat up because they knew I was Fire Nation in spite of my disguises. She accepts me so I am her friend."
"Despite the fact he can't play Pai Sho." Azula patted his back. "We get along."
"You didn't answer my question." Zuko stared at Karo until he gave in.
"I can't – that way." Karo blush and strangely enough Azula patted his shoulder. "Do not ask me more! Oh the disgrace!"
"I am Fire Lord Zuko and I restore to you the full title of your family" Zuko looked down at Karo. Iroh grinned quietly. "I do not care about trifles but you have showed me true Fire Nation honor - so I restore your family name."
Karo began to cry and much to the surprise of Fire Lord Zuko and Lady Mai Azula put her arm around his shoulder.
* * *
Azula took the last hour of her long Thursday to sit on her bed in a comfortable night gown to wind down. Karo had gone home a very happy man and she sat in her room and went through an old box of photos to help her quiet her mind and relax. Karo had his honor but she wondered about hers. She had a box of primitive color photographs of the Fire Nation and she held each one up to the light. The Autochrome reproduced color by using a strange layering of wax, starch particles dyed red, green and blue and a photographic layer. A more advanced realm might have thought color photographs a sophisticated technology like spray cheese or the ability to send prank e-mails to various cardinals in the Vatican. In truth it amounted to a minor achievement and worked if one did not need high resolution images. The Fire Nation military used it to take pictures of enemy fortifications but the glass plates used for color images took several seconds to expose properly and while the photographer stood still the enemy crushed his head with a rock.
Color photography had made Azula's early childhood a pain. An artist used to paint the family portrait in bland pastels from sketches and produced one each year on or about the time the Fire Nation celebrated the Festival of Sozin's Comet. When Azula turned five Fire Lord Ozai had the artist sent off somewhere to learn how to paint – which amounted to a euphemism for penal servitude. Fire Lord Ozai said he didn't like the way the artist failed to capture his regal features. Azula noticed many palace officials and other knobs vanished so she took hardly any notice. The Fire Lord hired a photographer who used the latest technology which meant using the obscure 'color film'. Azula had to sit still for eight seconds in the summer heat which she could not do. Many of the worst family photos looked like something akin to the artist renditions of what the smeared electron cloud of a single atom might look like according to Quantum Physics – with Azula forming the blurred and indefinite image.
Lady Ursa lectured her on etiquette and suggested that her brother had no problem sitting still. Lady Ursa concluded the best method for getting the portrait done amounted to holding Azula in a death grip while trying to keep from getting a sharp kick in the shins. Azula sighed as she looked at the glass plate of her at age seven. She knew the camera could determine her position or direction to some degree but not both and only down to a certain level of precision.
She thought the best photo consisted of one of a large Fire Nation destroyer with all the pennants and flags out for public viewing. Sailors knew how to stand still but unlike Azula threats worked on them. Azula fell asleep as she looked at one of the last photos of Lady Ursa before she left for her banishment.