It just wasn't a very pleasant dungeon.
Now he'd been around the block dungeon-wise: there weren't many pleasant dungeons. That wasn't their job. But this dungeon had not one, nor two, but all three of the elements that irked him most about dungeons: the drippy ceiling, the bones of mysterious origin in the corner, and the wind that rattled various chains eerily at extremely coincidental moments. To be fair, sometimes he had added the chain rattling himself, just to be ironic, while some overdressed villain-type chatted him up about what marvelous brand of evil they were going to unleash on the world. But when it happened all by itself, it added up to a sum that, frankly, got his chi all gunked up.
So after being offended to the very core of his being several times so far that day in that very same chi-gunking dungeon, Aang was starting to lose his center. And... he really liked his center, dammit.
"Alright, alright, okay," the Avatar finally said. "I give up, alright? I give up on trying to appeal to any sense of compassion or code of honor you might have because, as you've made clear, time and time again, you-"
"Don't have one," Azula nodded and said with him, but in a far more urbane and entirely calm manner.
Azula hadn't blinked for a while. And it was making Aang nervous. She should be blinking. Any second now, she would blink, and who knew what would happen then. Newborns might die by the droves. Winged rats might descend upon various anonymous townsfolk, consuming their faces and making them even more anonymous. Whole universes might collapse under the sheer existential strain.
Aang changed tacks. He didn't find anything particularly wrong with his previous tack, but he wasn't the one that needed convincing on the matter.
"So instead I'm appealing... to your sense.. of rationality."
Azula was mildly intrigued. "Oh?" she quirked an eyebrow.
"You consider logic to be one of your strong suits, right?" Aang tried.
"All of my suits are strong," she informed her nemesis, "But I suppose if I had to choose one..." she mused on this for a moment. "Not that I would ever have to..." Her eyes were so sharp, they could have shaved his head. Had they motive to do so.
He gave her a blank look.
"Choose one, that is," she clarified.
"Right," Aang was a piece of white paper.
"..I suppose supremely rational would be my first choice of attributes," she smiled ever so slightly.
"Great," Aang's shoulders sank, and Azula couldn't decide whether it was out of relief that he was finally getting somewhere or out of disappointment that he could not now give up on this very long and trying conversation.
"So, by all means, do go on. With your highly rational appeal," she encouraged him, wrinkling her nose for the briefest moment.
He had trouble with his continued existence for a moment when he briefly found the manner in which her nose had moved to be... Well, he hadn't found it in all ways repugnant, and that was enough.
Aang thought of that cat they'd had back at the monastery.
Yeah. Just a cat. Nothing fancy.
It hadn't had a name. The children had repeatedly tried to assign it one, but the older monks had stopped them as an exercise in detachment. The cat was natural, uncarved. Giving it one rigid, unbending name would restrict it in their minds. They were to think of it in other terms. Many terms. As many as possible. A never ending, ever changing, steady flow.
Aang had thought of the cat as many things. Graceful and pretty and petty and far too clean and standoffish and terrible and terribly greedy for any sort of attention. Mostly the kind that didn't require debasing itself in any way. Aware of nothing in the world but itself, as though every other living thing existed only to somehow make its days more pleasant. These were the things he associated with cat.
Most confounding to Aang's mind was that, day after day, it would spend hours on end entrenched in vicious warfare with the monastery's only mouse.
Yeah. Also just a mouse.
Also unnamed, but that had been so the kids wouldn't get too attached to it in case the cat ever did eat it: how that wasn't the same as their previous exercise in detachment, Aang had never been certain.
The cat would catch it. It would catch it all the time. Because that was the way of things, cats caught mice. They were simply the ones with the claws, and the inclination to use them.
But when the cat would catch the mouse, it would never eat it. It would just carry it off to some dark corner and toy with it. For hours on end.
Aang had watched it do this. For hours. He'd been unable to look away.
And in the end, the cat lost it. Every time. It was almost as though the cat had let it dart for its hole. Gyatso had often joked that it was not because the cat was kindhearted or even squeamish, but simply because once it ate the mouse, it would have nothing else to do.
"Your main objective in life is the achievement of your own happiness, right?" Aang asked Azula, rhetorically, because he was pretty sure of the answer.
Azula seemed amused, "What other rational goal could a thinking creature have?"
"And your happiness," Aang spoke as though he were simultaneously attempting to navigate his way through a Fire Nation minefield, "Is pretty much inseparable from conquering as much of the world as humanly possible?"
She agreed to this, "Happiness is control, the ability to order things as you see fit. To achieve supreme happiness one must have the power to control all elements of their environment."
"So when you kill people, you're removing elements that could have potentially been controlled at some point. You're losing that potential power."
Azula didn't like being tricked, guided, or coerced. And she certainly didn't like sore points. "I remove what few elements that are a true threat to total control," her voice was a whip, flowing and sharp, a strap of bullhog's hide at two hundred miles an hour. "The rest is.. I am not capricious about the death I deliver, it is calculated and necessary, just enough to secure the more cowable majority. I find the threat of death a far more useful tool, but words without some modicum of action mean nothing to the mindless rabble."
"But there was plenty of unnecessary brute force used by the Fire Nation during the war, though. It was almost like you guys were trying to win by attrition." And he wasn't even lying when he said, "It just... always surprised me that you, you personally, Azula, stood behind that kind of thing. I know you don't care ethically, I know that, it's just... For you? It seemed so... overt and.. messy and... simplistic. It didn't fit my image of you at all."
She looked a bit like she was trying to decide between tearing his throat out and then effectively replacing it by feeding it to him, or seppuku. But Aang was of the opinion that Azula found that to be ridiculous. Wearing white robes and composing death poems just wasn't her bag. Much less the killing oneself.
"Well I suppose there were generals in charge of most of the front warfare," Aang mused, as if to himself. "You couldn't possibly have been in charge of all of that. You weren't even ruling the Fire Nation." There seemed to be the slightest understood 'at the time' tacked onto that, from his tone of voice.
She looked abruptly away.
"But..." he almost felt bad. "It's not like any of that matters now, really. No use crying over spilt milk."
Azula had never spilt milk, he was fairly certain. But he wouldn't have bet too much money on the crying part. Not anymore.
"...You know," Azula said, and she was looking at the shadowy flickerings of enclosed torchlight on the far wall as she spoke, "Father never really thought like I did, in the end. He had as much drive and ambition, to be sure, but he was totally fueled by anger, not reason. It was all the doing of our good friends, Sozin and his favorite heavenly body, when it comes down to it. But I... I had a vision. It was beautiful, Avatar. Glorious. You should've seen it." She turned her head back, but she wasn't looking at him. She was staring right through him. "It's almost enough to make you want to do it over, isn't it? Do it right, this time around."
A strange and fitting pact settled in the dark spaces of the room.
Water dripped and shackles shook melodramatically. The bones were dead silent.
"...Listen." A key slid into manacles. "You're going to leave now, do you understand?" The lock clicked and they clattered to the ground, raucous, howling their captor's escape. "You're going to disappear down that hallway and you're going to slip past the guards and you're going to stowaway on a freighter. There are plenty of neutral ports that can get you all the way back."
"Sozin's Comet is never going to come back. That makes the field level. Truly level, for the first time in a century."
Azula stared at the mighty Avatar as he undid the restraints around her feet.
"Why?" she had never sounded quite so unsettled before. "You've spent all this time working for this, and now you're just going to give it up?"
"Well I can't kill you," Aang pointed out, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. "Or let you die. Or anything to that effect. Which, to be honest, is probably what'll happen sooner or later, whether endorsed by the law or not, since everybody's looking for a scapegoat now that the dust is settled." This was true, but it wasn't the reason. He took a deep, soothing breath, and didn't meet her eyes, "But the thing is, if I let you go, you're going to do it again... Attempt world domination, that is."
"And you want me to do that?" Azula had never been so thrown. It was.. strangely exhilarating.
"You're not going to use violence this time," Aang told her, absolutely certain of the fact. "At all. You'd just find it crude, now. Heavy-handed. Unnecessary for a mind of your caliber. I'm sure you'll find plenty of other insidious ways to do it. But the not killing people is all I care about, honestly. Because as much as I might hate it, the world needs to have conflict, in some form or other. As much as it needs peace. Without it comes complacency, stagnation. It's... balance. Yin and yang. And that's what the Avatar is supposed to bring, right?" Aang smiled wanly.
Sometimes being so wise kind of sucked.
"Besides," he said. "The Fire Nation in Civil War isn't going to do any one any good. We all need trade restored. And you just know they'll find some way to drag everyone else into the mess, eventually. Somebody needs to go take charge over there. And I really can't think of anyone better at doing that," he shrugged one shoulder.
Azula rose slowly, watching him warily, as if he were hiding the entire populations of all three of the weaker nations in the tiny dungeon room, all of whom were just waiting to pop out, laughing uproariously about the way her face had looked when he told her that one. He didn't move. She took a step closer. He didn't move. Not even his face.
So she grabbed it.
His face, that is.
He had finally met her height, a few months back. They stood, awkwardly. She knew she had some driving reason for it, because she could feel it in her spine, in her ribcage, and her collarbone. Every part of her was rigid and set to dart.
"You were and are a worthy adversary, Avatar," she told him. "You deserve to know that."
"I was never supposed to be anyone's adversary. But... thanks, I guess," he blinked twice and ignored the fact that she was touching him, and more the fact that she was shaking, just a little.
Then her hands lifted away, and curled tightly, almost as if she were restraining herself.
She punched him in the eye.
He doubled over, holding his face. "Dammit!" he protested, "That really hurt!"
Part of him was just offended about how the move had had no style.
She tilted her head, examining the slight swelling that was already beginning around his eye socket with an aniseptic eye. "Hm. I suppose they would've taken it on your honor that I just escaped. You being the Avatar and all. Ah well, consider it a parting gift," she patted him on the shoulder and disappeared down the hallway.
"What did I say about the violence!" he hissed after her, frowning.
The hardest bit for Aang to get as a child was the dots. A dot of white in yin, a dot of black in yang. He supposed this was that bit.
Still, he hated that he was somehow the cat. Because, she clearly had the claws and the inclination. She was all words and phrases cat-meaning; she had started it. But, in the end, Azula had literally never had a chance. The cleverest strategem in the world couldn't beat what Aang had had in his arsenal: fate. Pure and simple. He couldn't have lost if he tried. Even if he'd wanted to. So where did that leave him? With a mouse in his palm and no clue. And he was just sorry for that, no matter how chi-gummingly evil she was.
Because winning wasn't his job.
(A/N) I feel fairlly confident in telling you: You didn't see that comin'! Feel free to inform me otherwise, and relatedly, crush my poor, gentle soul, by clicking the little blue button to the lower left of your screen. If you didn't, in fact, see it comin', don't feel bad, I didn't see most of it coming myself at the time. Every fic I write should be labeled 'Mystery' as a result of my unconscious being in any way involved.