The Sokka/Azula one shot, as requested. Don't worry; I'm still a devoted Sokka/Suki shipper, folks.
Yeah, this is a HUGE one. I was intending to make this a drabble, really I was: In fact, I had one partially written. Then, at about 1:00 AM one fine "day" I was struck by this idea that I decided to try. I've never seen this done before with Sokka and Azula, but I'm sure someone else has thought of it. Now that I look at it, I'm not very happy, but you can flush me down the toilet before I scrap almost 9,000 words of work.
WARNING FOR CHARACTER DEATH!!
I still don't own Avatar.
Bits and Pieces
Azula, even as a child, did not have very many dreams: Or at least, ones that she remembered when morning sun lit the red silk of her bedroom.
Usually, the forgetfulness was a good thing.
The few remaining fragments were always very dark. The older she grew, the less appealing rest itself became, until Azula often spent large portions of the night only staring at the blackness. (Her father, as it turned out, was given to similar habits.)
However, several dreams stuck to her memory like cobwebs to a curious hand, and this one was among the precious few:
At the age of five, Princess Azula dreamt she was an earthbender.
Even as she saw the foggy images in her sleeping eyes, Azula knew that it was an absurd concept. She was a daughter of fire, her spirit the reincarnation of a member of the royal family, with pure- blooded power and the mandate of the heavens to back her future position as leader. Of course, Azula was already planning what would surely be an easy rise to the throne.
(Yet anyone who knew Princess Azula would secretly say that she did have some qualities of an earthbender, with the sly gift of fire mixed in rather than the frankness of earth. She was ever-vigilant, persistent, strong and steadfast, exercising that relentless stubbornness in her pursuit of the crown as well as in her firebending.)
In spite of her waking doubts, Azula dreamt it all the same.
She was running, weaving through dark tunnels with nothing to light the path in front of her but her own intuition, foot over foot, touching the ground with perhaps every third footstep or so. If some obstacle appeared, it would be smashed to oblivion with a push of willpower and turned into rubble by the time she reached it.
Azula also remembered feeling a sense of plunging desperation, as though she were racing against time to prevent something from slipping away.
Sokka had never really wanted to be a bender. He was much too self- reliant to want that, much too proud to ever want to depend on an external element for help.
No, when Sokka was fighting, he wanted it to be just Sokka. Just a guy with a boomerang and some wits about him: he would do quite enough damage with that, thank you very much. However, the idea crossed his mind every once and again, of what he would like to be… if he were a bender. It was only when he was very bored, of course, sitting in his fishing boat or sharpening his spear, that the thought would drift through: and later on, as he watched his friends in their lessons.
After some observation about the patience and fluidity waterbending required, Sokka decided that he would not like to be a waterbender.
(Besides, the animosity for the magic water was rooted too deeply. Too many times had Sokka lost a snowball fight to his baby sister because of it.)
As for airbending?
Sokka had always had a fascination with the sky, a desire to soar higher than anyone before him: That was an aspiration of most intelligent minds, after all. However, airbending required a lighthearted freedom and 'detachment' that he, as a leader, lacked. (Sokka got his fill of the sky from flying on Appa, anyway.)
Firebending reminded him of bloodstains, and that was out of the question.
So, one night when he was lying awake and keeping watch as he always did (I'm the only responsible one around here…Why do I have to be the adult?...No one appreciates me, seriously), Sokka decided that he would make a pretty good earthbender.
He had the determination, resistance and the strength of one, he thought: The stubbornness, the "take charge" attitude.
And besides, what was more satisfying than a boot of rock to your enemies' behind? Or to be able to say "Take that, you rock!!" and mean it?
The idea of it brought a grin to his face.
Sometimes, as he slept, the Water Tribe warrior even imagined the sensation of earthbending (with a strange clarity, too.)
There was the outward shove and the obedience of the rock, the rooted feeling as an impact hit, the tremors he left in his wake….
A fine earthbender indeed.
It took a few days, following the dream of her youth, for all of the details to come back to her. But when they did, young Princess Azula analyzed them all very carefully, from a cool standpoint that she had already mastered.
Even as she scoffed at the brutish art of the earth bending compared to the deadly grace of fire, her whole body beat with a strong rhythm, and she plowed onward through the caves. Something grunted from a deep throat in the tunnel beside her, but she gave it only passing notice.
And one thought was caught in her head, like a bird helplessly flailing its wings.
'He didn't come.'
'He didn't come.'
'He didn't come.'
Moonlight suddenly touched her eyes ….and then she was sprinting through the dark, down through the thick forest of a mountainside. Her breath was coming in heavy gasps now and begging her legs to stop, stop, please stop. But as thorns and branches switched out to lash her face, Azula did not heed her body's commands.
Except, of course, the young girl knew it wasn't really her body. It looked to be the body of a woman with long, black hair, by her best guess. Azula was struck by how very vivid it seemed, as though it was not a dream at all but some sort of memory.
When Azula first saw him across the scaffolding in Omashu, there was something that was struck like a high note in her spirit, and it sent reverberations to her core.
It was the strange feeling of familiarity, the feeling that she had been here before, done this before, looked upon a similar face long ago which had been since buried in her memory.
It was odd, because she had never really seen anyone like him. The dusky skin, the blue eyes, and the scruffy brown hair: so different from her in every possible way.
So why was there still a strange yank on the corner of something inside her, the thought that she had been anticipating this meaningless meeting her whole life?
Her breath forcibly caught, and she was struck with the strangest urge to cry out a foreign name on the wind, to greet the boy as though welcoming him home. This strange rebellion of her self control alarmed the firebender, in that dangerous space of a few seconds.
But then, of course, Azula was reminded of her duties to her country, and the thought vanished like a curl of smoke.
It would return later, though, because once something was put into Princess Azula's memory, something that she did not understand, it was there to stay.
She was incapable of letting anything, no matter how trivial, go. Her thoughts and wants, like the young woman herself, were persistent beyond comprehension.
In short, Azula did not forgive, and Azula did not forget.
So it was, with the face of the Water Tribe boy.
He haunted her, followed her about like a shadow, and the question swirled around like a whirlpool in her head following the incident.
Certainly, she had never been associated with such waste as a mere peasant
Then why had that happened?
Why such a strange familiarity?
The thought, his face, which she remembered only in vague detail anyway, continued to itch at her: the questions only fueled the flames. And Azula began to do something that she had never done before, even when life pushed her to the brink and threatened to tip her over the edge.
In moments of contemplating silence, in the dark which she was so familiar with, she began to doubt herself.
The strange thing was that Sokka remembered her, as well. While the feeling of familiarity was not nearly as strong in him, there was something he remembered about the way the sun lit her dark hair, the way her pale face flushed in battle.
He, though, was able to push it out of his mind.
And then, in her dream, the brush on the steep mountainside was gone, and a field opened up before her, full of the swaying golden grass of late summer. A hot wind raced across it, and the grass cowered down submissively.
At the other edge of the wide field was a village.
A massive fire burned the homes there, sending plumes of flame into the pitch black night sky. She heard the sharp sounds of screams through the night, mingled cries of war and cries for mercy, and the wind carried on it something that made her stomach turn even as she lay sleeping.
And that was when Azula knew, without a doubt, that she was someone else in this strange dream: the Fire Princess would have stood as a spectator and worn a smile in appreciation of blaze's power, but whosever eyes she saw through were flooded only with horror.
"Why are you so familiar?" she asked point blank at him all of a sudden.
Sokka gaped and inadvertently lowered his weapon a few inches. Surprisingly, Zuko's crazy sister did not take the chance to attack him through the opening in his defenses.
Their two parties had intersected in some little seaside town in the Fire Nation, two weeks after the fall of Ba Sing Se, and engaged each other without hesitation. ("How do they always manage to find us?" Toph had growled. Aang had only shrugged tiredly in reply as they sprung into action.)
Sokka had since lost track of the other members of his "family", while the village people fled from the battle that had begun. With nothing else to do, the Water Tribe warrior had readied himself and shouted off a few orders to the others which, foolishly, nobody had listened to.
However, Sokka had not expected to be matched up against her.
The girl in the pink with freaky smile, maybe, or that one who never smiled at all…
But with Azula?
How was it that he was still alive?
Fortunately, the Water tribesman knew when, and when not, to question his luck. He looked around once, and then again at the young woman in a fighting stance across from him.
So, where's Katara, anyway? She's better suited to dealing with a firebender, to begin with…
His sister answered Sokka's unspoken question a moment later, as a massive punch of water sent none other than Zuko sliding out of an alley with a grunt. A water whip thrashed down at him without a moment's hesitation as the waterbender came into view as well.
The Fire Prince, with an exhausted, sad look on his face, rolled out from under the whip's path and sprang onto his feet, meeting her blow with a palm full of flame. Zuko shot one glance at his sister, but Katara was determined to keep him busy.
So their duel continued, and Sokka got the faint idea that there was something lying just below the surface between the two, something more than impersonal anger.
And written on Katara's face was an unreadable expression…
As though she were searching for a certain volatile, burning, ignorant emotion which was suddenly not there…
The warrior saved the thought for a better time.
As for Aang and Toph, Sokka could only imagine that one (or both) of them were protecting the Earth King from the two non-benders in Azula's little troupe: he was satisfied when he heard a jolt of rock, and a muffled "oof", from one street over.
Okay, everyone was accounted for; role calls like that were habits for natural-born leaders, after all.
So, that only left him with an insanely powerful, completely crazy bender on his hands…
Who had just asked a really strange question.
"Huh?" Sokka finally managed to reply.
As soon as the sound left his mouth, the warrior came forward with a wide swing from the machete to dig it deep into her side. Azula nimbly stepped and twisted around him, dodging the blow as the blade almost grazed her.
The very ends on a loose lock of her black hair brushed his face: that was how close she was. Several shivers scuttled up Sokka's spine, but he could give the contact no more thought as a cackle of blue flame torched the air inches from his face.
It left him two seconds or so to avoid it, but he was fast and he managed: The living energy darted past him and instead destroyed the wall of a nearby home, rubble clouding the air and spraying debris everywhere. Paying it no mind, both combatants circled in the small town square, mirroring each other's footsteps as though making the opening steps to a dance.
Both squinted their eyes.
Their existences had narrowed, until their visions were filled only with the person opposite them: that was the way a fight should be. They would have it no other way.
"I asked you, boy, why you are so familiar," Azula said slowly.
A moment of silence followed, and the princess once again questioned her own sanity.
Angered by her doubts, Azula frowned and lunged outward with another leaping flame in her hand. This time, though, Sokka was not caught off guard, and he ducked the blow to sweep his leg under her.
To his utter shock, the attack felled the ruthless princess and planted her on the hard stone street.
"Why am I so familiar? Oh, gee, lemme think…"
Steel flashed in the morning sun and sparked against the rocks where Azula had been only moments before. The Water Tribe boy's blue eyes blinked several times.
She could have killed him by now; Sokka was wise enough to admit that honestly.
So why hasn't she?
Was she toying with him?
He feigned a pensive look, and then brightened.
"..Oh yeah! You're the nut job who's always trying to KILL US," Sokka snapped, although her question had a more serious effect on him than he let slip.
She's just trying to distract me…keep a cool head, Sokka.
The princess did not respond for a moment, but only shot a second searing bolt of lighting off her fingertips. Sokka darted out of the way and sprinted down a side alley. The ruthless firebender gave chase, and a moment later she was in his path again.
"I remember you," Azula stated plainly.
He did not waste time on this one, and tried to attack her once again. If she's going to play cat and mouse with me before I die, I can at least put a few scars on her.
The blade's edge struck her, and opened a long slash in her dark red sleeve.
She looked at the wound in awe briefly, but then redirected her gaze as the weapon came again.
"I remember you…but your eyes were a different color," she spoke as she parried his blows. A boomerang swung in from nowhere and looped harmlessly past her head.
"…you were always reckless, though…."
The Water Tribe boy sprang forward and shifted his weight…
"..And you always favored your right side just a little too much."
Azula capped off the words that fell from her mouth with a sideways blow to his left, making the weight unbalanced and causing him to stumble. The movement hurt the slash the he had opened in her arm, but any pain was neutralized at what he said next, as though it sprang involuntarily from his throat.
"And you never knew when to stop talking."
The machete had already started an upwards path, and another thin cut was made on her opposite arm.
Azula hissed, but the pain didn't register. Her mind, as though a gate had been unlocked, was a slowly twirling puddle of information.
"You said it but once to me, and I never forgot it."
Sokka held his stance. The girl had cracked completely: she was crazy.
"What do you want?" he glared at her.
It seemed like a stupid question, but then again, she had already asked a few stupid questions, so he was just balancing it out.
The princess's lips tightened, a moment before she launched herself back into the fight. Azula's anger towards her human weaknesses flowed through her as she snapped at him:
"What do I want? I want to know why you follow me as I wander, whenever I close my eyes. It weakens me, and I'm no good to my father weak, now am I? You're a curse, a curse of a memory that I cannot remember. Who are you? Who are you, and why are you doing this to me?!"
In that moment, her attacks ceased abruptly, and for one very, very long second, Sokka saw something in her that floored him.
Or rather, he saw the absence of something.
He saw confusion, in place of fury, in her eyes.
He saw hurt instead of the desire to inflict pain, in the way she positioned her body with one foot tentatively stepping forward and the other reluctant to follow.
He saw a frown, rather than a cold smirk, on her lips. Sokka randomly conjured an image in his mind of a cracked plate of armor: with the small, overlooked chink that would mean death in battle.
In short, Sokka did not see her as the monster he thought he knew, the one-dimensional being only capable of hate.
And it occurred to him then, as plain as daylight, that firebenders were human. As Katara had discovered of Zuko: they were humans who could be confused and hurt, who could suffer just like the rest of the world.
She, Azula of the Fire Nation, was human.
How about that.
For him, at least, the idea was revolutionary.
As the expression disappeared to be replaced by one Sokka knew all too well, Azula made up her mind to kill him and rid herself of this niggling doubt. Even though something seemed to be holding her back, some invisible force, she tried anyway…
But suddenly, she was jarred by a punch from the rocks and hit by a gale of wind. As her new opponent entered the playing field, she leapt back onto her feet and fled as quickly as she had appeared.
Aang rushed off after the princess.
"You okay, Meathead?" Toph asked, as Mai and Ty Lee set upon them. Sokka only nodded dumbly.
There was another thought process going on behind his eyes that he did not like, but as he fought, it happened all the same.
It's almost sad, really.
Seeing Azula as a human in his mind led to other thoughts, in the days to follow: how tragic it was to see a person go to waste, raised on a diet of ruthlessness as she had probably been. Being a person who hated to acknowledge their own nature….what a way to go through life.
A glimmer of pity had slipped into him, and it would not leave despite Sokka's repeated attempts.
For Azula, however, it was the opposite.
She tried to have the wounds from his blade heal as slowly as possible, going so far as to reopen them once.
True, she had been distracted…
But Azula could not recall the last time someone had landed such blows on her.
So the thin slices of red on her arms served as reminders of him, of the strength she had not anticipated from a non-bender, and of the weakness that he brought out in her.
Did she seek to overcome that…?
Or did she welcome the ability to admit she had weaknesses?
Azula was not sure.
But the scars made her think of him nonetheless. He had held his ground, with undoubtedly the surest of convictions that he was going to die.
In all her loathing of other nations, Azula had to respect that.
The relentless woman whom Azula "inhabited" in her dream dashed forward yet again. The fields were thick and tried to shove her back, but she pushed just as hard in response, and was able to break through.
She ran into the heart of the burning village, calling out a strange, foreign name over and over.
She sprinted past a woman, clutching a limp child and wailing.
Then a soldier, fallen and gagging as he surveyed what was left of his leg.
As she slumbered, young Azula even thought that she smelled something, some horrible, hot odor she could not identify. It was everywhere.
(And it was only watching her brother's Agni Kai seven years later when Azula realized it had been the smell of burning flesh.)
For now, she just tried to ignore it. That strange name burst from her dried throat yet again.
A 'familiar' man ran past her (the smile that had seemed unbreakable was gone from his face, though, oh what have we done, what have we done?) but he stopped and blinked as though she were an apparition.
He started to speak, to question her prescence.
The woman Azula saw the world through glared at him, and that look silenced him immediately.
Then, through the chaos, Azula heard a coughed reply to her calls; a name that she knew was hers.
With a foreign sensation of fear in her, Azula felt herself turn around.
The next time she met him was under far different circumstances, to say the least.
Both traveling groups appeared to be in a race to reach the Fire Nation capitol first, with two months left until the solar eclipse Azula had learned of. The Fire Nation terrain was not exactly what could be called hospitable, especially when one was taking the most direct route to the opposite side of it.
Even from a race, though, one must stop to rest occasionally.
Under the watch of a half moon, Azula slunk through the hot early summer night and down the bank of a small river they had camped near. (Slunk? She never slunk…)
She took the night vigil.
She always took the night vigil, the thought of even more maddening dreams snapping her wide awake if she ever thought of dozing off. Azula reached the shore of the lazily flowing water, dropping to her knees in the rocky sand. She dipped her clever hands in the shimmering black, raising a handful to splash it onto her face and cleanse away some of the day's filth.
The water was bone-chillingly cold, to her shock, but it crept down her neck and was refreshing.
That was when Azula heard a disturbance across from her as well, the sound of a rock being dropped into the water, followed by the awkward ones of someone scrambling through the brush, up the bank slightly to the south.
Her body froze on instinct, and her hearing sharpened.
The river trudged on over the rocks, adding its own commentary to the scene.
"Don't move," demanded a hoarse voice which she recognized in an instant. "I've got a spot on you, and if you try anything…."
"I'm tired," Azula stated simply, sitting back to examine a thin, precise hand.
Perhaps she could draw him out and attack him, part of her thought…but also…. Talk with him, address that pang in your spirit that refuses to go away, honorable Water Tribe boy who stands and fights, because it finds a way… stop it stop it stop it….
The firebender ground her teeth, and then flashed a shallow smile at the clump of shadows she believed he was hiding in.
"Oh, so you don't feel like fighting, then?" he asked, obviously very skeptical.
"I' ll save that for the morning, Water Tribe boy."
There was a shuffling of feet and the sound of steel being idly swung back and forth, then the sound of a thin branch being hacked from its tree.
Smart boy, he wasn't falling for it.
"I have a name, you know," he finally said.
(Why he should care that Azula knew it, Sokka could not understand.)
There was no answer from the hunched figure on the far bank, so Sokka proceeded.
"Sokka," she repeated, tasting the sound. A thought bubbled up…So very different from what I knew you as…so she pushed it back down, and the boy kept talking.
"Yeah. It was my grandfather's name."
Azula's red lips twitched slightly to the side. "I, also, was named for my grandfather."
A sound which was undeniably a snicker floated through the air. The princess turned her pale face up daringly and he cut his mirth short.
"What is so amusing?"
"Nothing…but…I can't imagine a man named Azula…"
"His name was Azulon. My father named me, as my mother named Zuko." Her tone made the river water seem warm.
"Trading off, huh? Well, that's one way to avoid marital problems."
Sokka let it drift through his mind that he was making jokes with his mortal enemy. She could probably smite him with a good blast of lighting at any second and not bat an eyelash.
He also let the fact that he wasn't afraid sink in. Something felt; well, familiar, in their whispered conversation.
(Even if he was afraid, the way his logic was telling him to be, Sokka wouldn't give her the satisfaction of knowing that.)
Azula, meanwhile, was not sure how to take his comment, so she simply kept her gaze focused on the dim outline she through the trees. He cleared his throat.
"That was a joke, by the way."
"So…we're really not going to fight, then?"
"Are you hard of hearing, boy?"
"My hearing is perfect. I just don't trust a word you say, in case you don't know that already."
"I expected as much. I can assure you, Sokka, that I'll expend all of my energy hunting you and your companions come daylight."
So she wasn't going to battle him. Huh. And Sokka had more honor than to attack someone who had already stated their (seemingly) harmless business.
He cracked out a kink in his shoulders.
"Okay then. Well, your highness, it's off to bed for me. Aang gets the next shift."
There was another rustling sound, and she heard him begin to slink off into the forest on the other side of the river. The water skipped over the rocks, filling the silence, before her voice took over and she called after him.
Curse you; don't make me wait any more for an answer….
"I remember…I remember sorrow. And I remember joy: Which is odd, because joy is not something I' ve ever felt before, so how can I remember it? Answer me that, Sokka of the Water Tribe."
The sounds of his progress halted. For a brief moment, he leaned forward into a moonbeam and his eyes seemed to catch the light. With his face accentuated by shadows, there was something in the well placed features that again made her want to cry out to him.
But Azula's will was strong, and she held her lips closed.
"I remember flames," he said. "And I remember a pair of hands, pale and strong but with dirty nails and hardened palms. Beyond that, I'm not sure. Something about seeing you that makes me remember….funny, huh?"
He walked away.
"Oma," the man gasped in surprise, flat on his back beside a burning hut.
The woman named Oma, as Azula had now identified "herself", looked over the damage done to him, her wide gaze lingering on the arrow that grew from his torso. She dropped to her knees in the dust. Her body shielded his from stray sparks.
"You didn't come," she finally choked out. "We always meet, you know, in those stupid caves you insisted we carve…"
The world began to swim before her eyes like paints that had been mixed too thin, but she, this "Oma" character, held them back in order to see the dying man properly.
"Yeah, I know…Did you run all the way here?" he asked, speaking in an almost normal tone.
She didn't reply. He tried to smile, and nearly succeeded.
"Whew. I always knew you were crazy..."
"Stop it!" she ordered, cutting him off. "Stop taking this so…lightly, so…"
There was silence, except for the crackling flames.
And then she realized that he, too, was trying not to cry.
"I'm sorry," he managed.
She reached one hand out, which Azula noted was calloused and worn despite her young age, and brushed away the tears from her lover's green eyes.
"Don't be. I was given a chance to love you, and that is enough."
His calm, playful demeanor evaporated, and he grasped her hand tightly.
"But it's not! I can't leave my people; I can't leave, when our villages are so incomplete and torn by hatred…"
He tried to rise, but only groaned. She took a firm tone.
"No, you should rest…I'm here."
"I know. Gods, how did I ever earn such luck as to meet you?" he laughed weakly. He was fading, she could tell, and the heartbeat beneath her palm was growing ever fainter. "But I can't rest, Oma. I've got to end this."
She shushed him.
"This war is not your responsibility, you idiot!"
"But it is! It's my fault as much as everybody else's, because people never learn! No amount of death is enough to teach us the lesson that this doesn't work and it never will, that there must be another way. Oma, how can anyone make them see that?"
Tears started to spill.
She was watching the man she loved die.
That thought was stuck in an endless loop around her head.
"I don't know, Shu. I don't know anything."
Azula smiled smugly as she watched the figure slink through the tall grass across the clearing, the moon brighter than when they had last met.
How to greet him, though? She decided on it after a moment's contemplation.
"I knew you would be back," she called out simply in her precise voice. The princess watched the shadow stiffen in surprise and drop down, then crawl along until it came to rest atop a rock near the edge of the trees.
It was true, though: she had known.
Some part of Azula had known that he was far too curious (and mistrusting) to let her linger on the edge of his camp as she did every night… even if she had sworn to save their conflicts for the daylight hours.
Sokka only grumbled, angry that she had figured him out. He needed a retort, and fast, if he was to uphold his dignity. He found one and brandished it.
"And I knew you would be waiting for me, princess. Am I late?"
It was his turn to smile smugly, imagining the princess sitting with her mouth open in a state of ladylike shock.
"Got you there," Sokka chuckled to himself, hoping she didn't hear that.
A moment later, his boomerang was pulled out, and sent spinning lightly into the air. The crickets continued their serenade, and Sokka saw a few sparks light up as the (incredibly dangerous, murderous daughter of the Fire Lord, what's wrong with you?) girl snapped her fingers idly.
"Couldn't get me out of your head, could you?" he continued. Now he was on dangerous ground, but Sokka also knew that he did not care, just like last time.
Her response was practiced.
"Nor you me, I suppose."
The Water Tribe boy had no comment on that one.
"And I suppose asking you to explain these strange impulses would be pointless, " Azula continued calmly, "So how about you sit back and tell me about that grandfather you're named for?"
Even across the clearing, Azula could see the surprise stamped onto his face.
"And why would I do that?"
She shrugged out of her cloak and finished her thought.
"If you prefer, we can sit in silence. And you stay on that rock and wonder every second if I have slipped past your defenses and gone to kill your companions in their sleep."
She said it so casually that it turned Sokka's insides to tar. How could he feel such magnetism at one point, and then revulsion at another?
But she was right.
A conversation would be a way of keeping tabs on each other's whereabouts.
So he began.
"Well, my Dad says I got my grandfather's sense of humor, and Gran says…."
It became a routine, as though they led double lives by the sun and by the moon. Beneath the sun, during the day, they would fight when faced with each other, act like something close to their usual selves.
(Katara wondered, though, each time her brother stared at the fire with a strange sort of interest: And Zuko was confused, when he no longer heard the frustrated anger that had so long lived in his sister's voice.)
But under the secretive watch of the moon, in the darkness, a sort of door was discovered: the entrance to their memories. The door had no visible key, of course, and no easy way to step through it. But the conversations they had were good attempts to break it open, to answer the questions their minds kept asking.
And every night, a small inch between them vanished. Soon, rivers and vast clearings were not required for comfort; a few trees apart would do, or a small brook.
It both frightened and amused the two warriors, that they were locked in this strange little head game both imagined they were winning. Both, of course, had to turn everything into a contest.
What sort of price were they paying for their victory, though?
Also, Azula found something she had never had before.
She had found a companion to talk to. The barricade of night, and of the mysterious draw between them, was enough for Azula to hide behind (Ha! She hid from nothing!), enough to let her shake loose the armor around her spirit.
(It was the same armor that Sokka had perceived a flaw in, in fact.)
And she eventually found herself rambling on about everything she could think of: battles, her life, her thoughts... and found herself being interested in his replies.
He wasn't a friend, she knew that. Even though she had never had real friends before, Azula knew you did not feel a quickened thrill of the heart when you saw a friend walk towards you in the moonlight.
Sokka, also, was confused as to what sort of bond they were forming as they met, somehow finding a way despite the many separations between them.
He was fascinated by her, really. As she talked, as she gave him pieces of her soul to examine, Sokka felt as though he was being given rare treasures: and knew that Azula had never spoken to anyone else in the way she spoke to him, a simpleWater Tribe peasant.
When Sokka first heard her laugh, a real laugh not derived from the suffering of others, he was shocked for a full minute.
It was about the same time when he acknowledged that she was beautiful: The thought frightened him so much that he would not look at her for the rest of the night.
Unconsciously, though, they trusted each other.
They trusted the other not to break this odd ritual of peace, between the most unlikely members of the two traveling parties.
From trust and companionship come other things, as they learned.
Or rather, as they learned again.
"Remember when we met?" Shu asked, his voice somehow clear despite the approach of death. Oma did not respond, but Azula realized the woman was trying to drag him to a safer area.
She was exhausted though, utterly spent, and his body refused to budge. Moving it would only worsen the wound, if that was possible…
"Yes," she finally replied to him in a broken fashion. "You were chasing a boar hound."
"And you were looking for gingerroot for your stew. You nearly scared me half to death."
"I scared you? If only you knew. I thought you were going to kill me on the spot."
"If you can understand this, Oma, I was surprised I didn't."
The woman took no offense in it. She had appeared to be an enemy to him, after all, and Shu could not really be blamed for the things his people taught him.
Hers were no better, of course.
She tried to smile, just as he did.
"But in the end, you chose not to. And you decided you rather liked talking to me, hm?"
"Never had…a friend like that before…to talk to…" he huffed, struggling to reposition himself. The arrow disallowed it, and the bloodstain crept outward on his armor.
"And to think of what wonders we learned together…. You said we were chosen ones."
"We are, Oma! Look…look at how the earth obeys us, how we have learned to move in sync with it. Hopefully the…the gift may be passed down, to strengthen our Earth Kingdom ancestors…."
Oma shook her head, trying to get him to stop talking, as a small bit of blood came up from his mouth when he coughed.
Azula wanted to turn her head away in disgust, but Oma insisted on keeping eye contact with the man. Her hair fell around her face as she leaned closer.
"Rest, Shu," she whispered.
He was past help: the fact hit her like a blow. Now, she was praying only that he would not have to suffer much longer.
"No…no…I have to stop them…they'll just keep on killing each other, and there will be more like me, more, I can't let it happen…"
The pale hand was gently placed over his mouth, and in her dream the fire princess saw a few pearly tears drop onto it.
"Rest, Shu. I will do it in your stead. If this war is to be your burden, then it is mine as well."
"We're going to face your father tomorrow," came his voice from a few feet away, in the light of the full moon. They stood in the shadowed streets of the city, and Azula didn't bother to ask how he had managed to slip inside past the gates.
He had always been clever, after all.
Azula only nodded quietly. The warrior took it as a cue to keep talking.
"I'm going to do everything I can to help Aang win this fight, you know. If we meet up, don't….don't expect any…any…."
Her jaw firmed. Who did he think she was?
"I would never ask that of you, Sokka. You are a warrior, and a warrior has a duty."
Another very heavy silence (there seemed to be many of those, between them….)
His blue eyes, which she knew then had once been green, looked at her in a startled fashion, a mixture of admiration, gratitude, and sorrow.
Azula blinked her own golden-brown ones, and Sokka cleared his throat.
"I have to stop them, you know. Otherwise, we'll all just keep on killing each other, death and dying, and…"
He tried to keep going, but said nothing else...
Because a note was struck that they both heard, this time.
Sokka could not have kept talking if he wanted to, in fact, as he was hit by an impact of memory. The door opened for them, and light flooded through.
The world spun off its axis.
The ribbons of time contorted and pulled backwards.
Every muscle in him gave a violent jerk, as though two histories were colliding within him.
And Azula gasped inwardly, though her face remained stoic, as his image blurred in her vision.
The Water Tribe features changed before her, to become someone else's for one terrible, wonderful moment...
Then, everything settled into normalcy again, as the two sailed into the eye of the storm.
And Azula realized what the pang in her heart was, now. That strange feeling and the racing pulse...
She accepted it, wondering if she was strong enough to tell him.
But she refused to do so as soon as the thought came to her. (She was Azula, after all.)
The princess turned sharply to leave.
"Try not to get yourself killed, boy," was the way she intended to end their evening. The firebender began to walk away, not even realizing that she never would have turned her back to anyone, much less him, two months ago.
His reply was swift but it was truthful, and it was the sharpest hit yet to her already frayed and tattered mind.
But it also stirred her emotions, and she nearly gave in and turned back to him.
No one had ever thanked her before, ever, and Azula was left to stand there in the sliding shadows to think about it. She stood there quite a long time, arms around herself and eyes cast down, until she could hear his footsteps no more.
I have found you, at last, a soft voice sighed in relief within her, carried on the summer wind.
Took long enough, a response called back from the spirit of the Water Tribe warrior.
Princess Azula knew how her dream had ended, of course.
So she wondered why, still, she screamed out as she watched him be struck down.
Why, if she had known it was coming, did the weak tears still flow from her eyes?
And why did she not care as they fell?
The rebel army of the Avatar had stormed the gates of the city, throwing it into chaos as the black edge of shadow edged its way across the face of the sun.
She had fought, and realized that her brother was nowhere to be found in the heat of battle against the battalions of resistance. Her voice was hoarse from screaming orders, ears ringing from the sounds of steel. The very air reeked of death, and of the smell she had now become familiar with.
When Azula had a thousand other things to worry about, he still occupied her mind.
After all, they weren't really in the daylight hours, the hours she had set aside for hating him. This was her world of darkness still, the world in which they weren't enemies… and thus her heart was filled with the unusual sensation of dread for his safety.
She ground her teeth in fury.
The firebender cursed her brother for running away as he had, trying to focus her energy elsewhere as she raced through the streets and up the palace steps. Had he abandoned her? Why was he no longer where she had stationed him?
Then, in an moment of astounding clarity amidst the chaos, she discovered that little 'Zuzu' had not run away at all.
She halted in her tracks...
and glimpsed him, sprinting alongside the waterbender through the palace, the Avatar close behind them and blasting opponents out of their way as they went.
Oddly enough, she understood.
And she had no time to question her sanity this time around. At least now she had something to chase after.
So Azula pursued the Avatar through the halls where she had grown up, like the loyal daughter that some part of her still insisted she was...
But as she rounded a corner, her eyes saw it happen in the dancing firelight.
Again. Again. Again...
They refused to believe, of course, but it happened all the same.
There was the sight of the waterbender, momentarily vulnerable on the stone floor of the throne room.
And then there was a sharp, furious cry of protest from a voice Azula knew without thinking. He darted into the path of death, as fearless as the day he had faced her.
And there was the sword, wielded by her father, which cut into him. It cleaved a long, deep gash as the warrior recklessly confronted the Fire Lord to defend his sister.
So much blood.
But she realized, now, why Oma had not been repulsed by it, and her father saw Azula standing there.
The Fire L ordlocked gazes with his favored daughter... and found a stranger in her place, the eyes of another woman all together.
Ozai opened his mouth to speak.
That was a moment before the Avatar struck him from the side, emanating something like righteous fury in the form of white light, and their battle resumed.
She turned from the battle.
Azula only raced over to the fallen warrior, oblivious to the sounds of wind roaring and of the waterbender's cries, hitting her knees beside him on the cold stone. The firebender's whole life seemed to be crushing down on her heart when she looked at him, and Azula had never known any sort of pain like this before.
She was breathing even less than he was, and only managed a strangled sound.
A tear, the first one in almost ten years to come from her amber eyes, slid down her pale face.
"Shu…" she said, in a voice which she knew was not entirely her own.
"Shu, I will finish this business for you. They are my people as well, don't forget."
"Yes, I know, but…"
"Rest now, my love."
And with his lips bloody, hers dried and cracked, she kissed him, kissed him just before the life left him, and Shu heard her say one last thing as Oma stood and turned.
The ground trembled terribly beneath her feet as she did so.
"He shouldn't have…shouldn't have tried to hurt her," Sokka only coughed. "Stupid war. People never learn. Too bad I'm not going to see it end, huh?"
A grin twitched the corner of his mouth.
Her temper flared slightly, but it was too weighted by grief to do anything.
"Shut up. You will see it end, I promise you. I can't lose you again…"
Her hands were around his shoulders, and she resisted the urge to shake him, to scream and awaken herself from this cycle of dreams.
"That's just the point though. You can lose me again, doesn't it make sense? As long as there is….is war…you can always lose. And to think that I can't even finish it…."
Azula looked down at him, at the blue eyes and the dusky skin.
Like a fog lifting, she no longer saw the shadows of the past across it: she saw only him, and the feeling within her was the same.
So she leaned over, with the sounds of battle all around them, to make the same vow she had made long ago. Her voice, as well, was clear when Azula next spoke.
"I will finish it for you, Sokka of the Water Tribe. Go on ahead without me."
"Can't leave you behind…." He replied dimly.
Warmth burst to life within her, and she knew the eclipse was passed as a crackle of lighting shot from her father's hands across the throne room.
Azula took a breath.
Shu heard her, as he slipped into calming sleep, and knew that there was a tone in her voice he had never heard before.
"I will be with you, I promise….."
"…But now there is something I must do," Azula said to him as she stood, and watched the life soar from his form as it relaxed.
She straightened her back, tossed the hair from her face.
Blue flames erupted in her hands.
With a nod to herself, Azula turned and walked through the halls as though oblivious to the destruction around her, to the quake of thunder echoing to the rooftops.
Then she was outside, surveying the capitol before her on the very steps where her father had been crowned.
Her eyes narrowed, and a hot wind set her hair loose about her shoulders.
The ebony strands danced in the sparks, and her ghostly white face was as set as stone.
Yes, she had once been known as Oma, the lover of Shu, and one of the first humans to ever master the stubborn gift of earth.
However, she had been born as Azula, daughter of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai, who had come as close to loving Sokka of the Water Tribe as would ever be possible, what with only a past to build on.
Oma had been merciful.
But Azula was not in a very merciful mood.
And so it was that Princess Azula burned the capitol city to the ground, in a storm of firebending the likes of which history had never seen.
She burned it until there was almost nothing left, because she realized that no other mark would be deep enough, deep enough so that history would be forced to remember what war had done to her, to them.
This story will not be repeated again. She told herself that as another torrent of blaze, from her seemingly endless energy, burst forth.
Because while earth can bury and pulverize and mangle, it is only fire which can completely destroy in the way Azula needed it to.
The city burned on, until a general came forward, crawling on his hands and knees, and begged for surrender at her feet.
She stopped, hand half-raised.
The girl was no more than a shell at that point, exhausted beyond human belief, with only her desire to fulfill the last requests of the warrior keeping her alive. Her father was dead at the hands of the Avatar and her brother, the Water Tribe girl protecting her brother's body from the flames, with the morning sun turning the sky to color overhead.
The night which she had once loathed…it would always belong to him.
And Sokka...well, he was too honorable to attack someone when they had stated their harmless intentions.
So the pale, thin, quaking hand was lowered.
Azula only nodded in reply to the general, and then sunk to her knees. With a sigh, she closed her eyes, and soft gray light bore her gently away.
All that was left to do was wait for the dawn, that slice of time where night and day coexisted and everything began anew.
It was done.
And it really was.
History tends to repeat itself, yes, but only when there is no one strong enough to stop it from happening.
Thus the tale was remembered, the tale of the two lovers who had chased each other across time until they were reunited in different forms.
Their love was strong, and they had found a way. They had known there would be a time when such strength was needed, after all.
"And you must learn what the two lovers taught us, of course," the blue- eyed woman said to her daughter, as she ran a caring hand through her black hair.
The little girl only blinked her golden eyes, and fiddled with the crown her mother wore.
"What is that?"
"That love is brightest in the dark, but it will not shine of its own accord. It takes a faithful heart as well, to make sure it burns on."
The little princess frowned, noting that the happiness in Momma's eyes was mixed with something else.
Katara mistook it for confusion and sighed, trying to make her daughter understand.
"Well, you see…"
Her daughter spoke up. Her eyes were her father's, and they were struck with realization.
"But Momma…. if the love is strong enough…"
"Then there simply isn't any more darkness at all, right? Love chases it away."
Her daughter looked up in question.
And the Fire Lady nodded.
You have learned.
A/N; Agggh, I hate killing characters off. But I couldn't find a way around it, stupid plot. Hand too sore to say much else.
If you got through this, you deserve a medal.