Beyond the Rising Sun
Beyond the Rising Sun
(eight years later)
Azula blinked against the fine spray kicked up by the slicing motion of the prow, and her hands tightened their grip on the railing's edge. Directly ahead, she could see the mountains of the Southern Air Temple's islands rising from the sea in gentle foothills that smoothly descended into the pebbly beaches.
"Ah, we have almost arrived," Iroh remarked, and Azula glanced over her shoulder to see her uncle some dozen steps away. He was standing with his hands clasped behind his back and round belly proudly stuck forward; his usual smile twinkled in his eyes and carved deep wrinkles into his face.
She didn't reply, instead watching in silence as the helmsman guided their vessel into the stone harbor, the long-ago product of a few deft earthbending moves. She didn't pay much attention as they disembarked, either, feeling uncomfortably out of place.
She had felt like this often since her recovery, a near-constant uneasiness. It only diminished sometimes, mostly when she was around Mai and Ty Lee, but they had stayed back in the capital for Tom-Tom's graduation from the Academy or something. Azula had been too preoccupied by their apologies for being unable to accompany her that she'd rather missed their reason entirely.
Besides, this was her first chance to be out of the capital since the war. She hadn't been about to skip this opportunity for a change of scenery for the sake of a little solidarity amongst friends. And while she knew that she'd been given a lenient sentence—especially considering all that she'd done and wanted to do—it was still nice to finally get out of that volcano. The palace might not have been as bad as the prison, but when you weren't allowed to leave, the two places became eerily similar.
It wasn't as if she would've returned to her old, conniving ways. She didn't have the spite anymore. Or maybe she was simply sick of constantly disappointing the handful of people who actually cared enough to love her.
"Auntie Zula! Auntie Zula!"
The princess—she'd retained the title out of respect, though she was no longer a plausible heir—barely had time to brace herself before a small body hurled itself against her, hugging her legs fiercely. She patted the black-haired head uncertainly, flushing a little when Iroh chortled beside her.
"Princess Kyrah," he said, sweeping the tiny girl off her feet and into his arms. "It has been so long! Look how big you are already!"
Azula exhaled a silent sigh of relief; she never was anything but awkward around her young niece and nephews, as if she didn't quite know what to make of them. It all still seemed a bit surreal to her, despite the years she'd spent in their day-to-day presence: Zuko having children, and with a waterbender!
"You better not be filling my daughter's head with proverbs, Uncle," Katara teased—as if that were really so heinous—and she strolled down the pier at a considerably slower pace than her child, a grin pulling at the corners of her lips.
"I should hope not!" Iroh replied in kind, and he adjusted his grand-niece's position on his hip—more like on his stomach. "How old are you now, Kyrah?"
"Three!" the girl replied proudly, holding up the corresponding number of fingers.
The elderly firebender chuckled again. "I knew you were bigger! You're practically a young lady," he said, and he set her down on the dock once more. She turned big blue eyes on Azula, who smiled halfway, still not quite sure what to do with this situation. She'd seen it all, of course: Zuko and Katara's wedding, now their marriage, their joint effort to revive the Fire Nation and their marked success…but sometimes she felt as if she'd observed it all from behind a gauzy curtain because it hadn't properly sunk in yet that this was reality. It was much too different from the future she'd envisioned as a child.
"I'm glad you could make it," Katara said, beckoning her daughter, who gladly bounced up into her arms and held tightly to her mother's azure robes. Azula suppressed a start when she realized that Katara was addressing her; it surprised her even more, even now, that her sister-in-law—sister-in-law!—spoke to her so…normally, as if Azula had never been her most threatening enemy. But she supposed if Katara could marry Zuko, then perhaps it wasn't that far-fetched that she, too, be welcomed into the fold.
"Zuko wasn't certain you'd be coming," the waterbending master continued, not distracted when Kyrah tugged on one of her hair loops. "He thought you might attend Tom-Tom's celebration with Mai and Ty Lee."
Azula swallowed, hesitant. And how she hated feeling like this; she had once been so sure, and now everything was so topsy-turvy… "I…no, I wasn't…I'm not there," she finished lamely, hating the pauses in her speech, the lack of proper grammar. It was disgraceful, it really was.
Katara smiled fleetingly. "Yes. Anyway, Zuko will be very happy to see you." She hiked her daughter up, as the girl had begun slipping off her hip. "Sweetie, when did you get so heavy?" she asked rhetorically, shooting the two firebenders an amused glance.
"I'm a big girl!" Kyrah piped in response, pointing a small finger at Iroh. "Uncle Iroh said so!"
Iroh grinned, as if guiltily admitting to a crime. "It is true, my niece. But where is my namesake? I have a new tea to share," he added, hefting a cunningly crafted box.
Katara frowned and glanced around, as if her son would drop out of the sky. "Azroh is…somewhere. Have you seen your brother?" she asked Kyrah.
She nodded, her own little hair loops swinging back and forth. "Yep! Up the mountain, wi' Daddy!"
"Oh, yes, that's right," her mother agreed. "It's Daraka I lost track of."
"Raka's with Uncle Sokka," Kyrah continued helpfully, and she swiveled on Katara's hip. "Over there. Boomerang!"
Katara narrowed her eyes. "Ugh, how many times have I told him that's a weapon, not a toy? Daraka's only three, for the spirits' sakes…Sokka!" she called, a certain disciplinarian edge to her tone, and she summoned a wave with her free hand and sailed down the beach towards her brother. Her daughter's bubbly laughter hung on the air as she enjoyed the impromptu ride.
Azula watched her extended family with a somber expression. She knew better than to assume that Zuko and Katara's eldest was named after her as well as Iroh: Az was a fairly common prefix in the Fire Nation, wherein Roh was a rare suffix. Sometimes, though, she liked to think that they'd thought of her, too.
"Come," Iroh said, laying a broad hand on her shoulder. "We have your brother to see, and others besides. It won't be that bad," he consoled, understanding her hesitancy.
"I don't know," Azula mumbled, annoyed that she wasn't enunciating her words properly again but unable to force her voice to any more respectable pitch. "Perhaps I should stay on the ship."
Although after five years of house arrest and three in prison, she didn't entirely want to condemn herself to more close, iron surroundings.
"What, come all this way and then not enjoy the party? Ridiculous," Iroh dismissed, and he steered his niece along the pier and across the beach towards where the long stairs to the temple waited. They ascended without speaking, even though Iroh was humming one of his many favorite songs. Azula mostly focused on her feet and wondered bleakly if she'd ever feel like she belonged in this new world her brother had helped create.
They had barely reached the top and moved away from the edge when Zuko approached at a half-jog, his face split in a broad smile. "Azula! Uncle! You're both here!" He captured his sister in a hug, which she hardly had the mental capacity to return at even half strength, but she didn't have to linger too long, as he was moving on to embrace their uncle.
"Yes, we took our time," Iroh said with a grin. "Sometimes I like a leisurely voyage."
Zuko cast him an askance look, though the expression was executed with all fondness. "Since when have you ever liked doing anything at any other speed?" he pointed out, then asked, "Have either of you seen Katara? I thought I saw her head this way…"
"She's on the beach," Azula said, her words a little clipped. Inwardly, she groaned; she couldn't say anything right today. Not even, Hello, Zuko, it's good to see you, too.
"Giving Sokka quite a dressing-down, I imagine," Iroh elaborated. "He was trying to teach your twin son how to use the boomerang."
To Azula's surprise, Zuko only shook his head and smiled. "You should have seen her when Daraka took my swords right off the wall. The little guy shoved the furniture around to get at them and everything. I personally thought it was pretty admirable, really, the way he put it all together. Katara thought otherwise."
"Uncle Iroh!" called another small voice, and the new arrivals turned to see a boy running at them, ice-blue eyes bright and black hair swinging in the traditional ponytail. "You have something for me!"
"Don't jump to conclusions, Azroh," Zuko chuckled, laying a hand on his elder son's shoulder. "It might be for me, you know."
"It is the newest ginseng blend," Iroh explained, opening the lid of the little wooden box.
"Nope, you're right, that's yours," Zuko quipped, and he reached up to absently stroke the black hairs on his chin. Azula had noticed that he'd begun wearing the beard and growing his hair long, and she wondered if that meant he'd finally gotten over his issues with their father. She still wasn't quite sure how she felt about Ozai most of the time; that kind of betrayal was hard to forgive.
She watched as Iroh knelt before the young crown prince and excitedly—and at great length—talked about the box's contents. But she didn't have to stand in awkward silence for long, as her brother snatched onto her sleeve and led her into the temple proper. They, too, walked wordlessly along the quiet cloisters, and Azula couldn't help staring at the Air Nomads wandering around.
She had known that the Avatar had revived his people, but knowing about them and seeing them were two entirely different concepts. After all, it was her great-grandfather who had eliminated this culture in the first place—being here amongst them was like the greatest form of trespassing. But Zuko was here, wasn't he, and Sozin was just as much his ancestor as hers.
Still, she never thought she'd see anyone else with orange robes and bald heads and arrow tattoos.
They emerged onto one of the expansive balconies, and she identified a few of the people, both from their status as previous enemies and from seeing them occasionally at the Fire Nation palace. Aang was deep in conversation with a few of his airbenders, and Toph and Suki were gabbing with a man she didn't recognize but would later learn was Suki's—and also Zuko's—father-in-law, Hakoda.
Azula hung back, even after some introductions were orchestrated by Zuko, and quietly sipped the beverage she'd been provided with. She wasn't quite sure what it was, but it was cold and fruity, and she thought she heard the Avatar mention something about Sokka and deserts, but he may have meant desserts. She didn't really see how a desert could apply to this sort of situation.
She rather liked being a wallflower in some sense; she got to observe what was going on, and nobody really bothered trying to loop her into any sort of forced conversation, respecting her desire for relative privacy. She watched as Katara and Sokka and the small children eventually returned, and how Sokka and Zuko then began arguing about the best way to barbecue—to which Aang said loudly that the best meat was none at all, and got a boomerang thrown at his head by the indignant Sokka—and she couldn't quite contain a laugh at that. She hid it well enough with her hand, as if she didn't want to be caught doing something despicable.
But as the sun began sliding towards the western horizon, Katara approached, burdened with several stacked trays. "Hey, Azula—can you take the top one? Ah, thanks," she said, adjusting the remaining weight in her arms. "These things are heavy! It's as if we all eat a lot or something," she joked.
Azula fell into step behind her, and they soon reached the tables, which were arrayed on the front lawn, near the airball court. Either Katara had made a lot of trips, or she'd shanghaied someone else into her services, as the tables were already bowing beneath the weight of dozens of dishes. Azula set hers down where her sister-in-law indicated, eyeing some of the food with a mix of curiosity and displeasure; sometimes being cosmopolitan had its downside…although if you asked the other nations, they would admit that Fire's indoor plumbing vastly improved their quality of life.
"Here, Azula, you're between me and Uncle," Zuko said, appearing out of nowhere to gesture to a cushion and plant a kiss on his wife's cheek. "Katara, the kids are over there, and Aang's complaining about something. You better go find out."
Katara rolled her eyes good-naturedly and bustled off, even though Azula swore she heard her mutter something like, As if I don't already have enough to do.
The Fire Nation Princess reclined on the indicated cushion, though, and glanced around at her tablemates. It was mostly the core group from the wartime, but there were a few additional spouses and a few of the monks. Zuko sat next to her with a sigh of contentment, apparently relieved to be off his feet, and Iroh arrived moments later, still trailed by Azroh until the boy wandered off to the kids' table.
"I am so glad your son likes tea," Iroh said, speaking across Azula, who didn't mind.
"The odds were that one of them would, I suppose," Zuko agreed wryly, pouring himself some sake and offering it to Azula, who accepted with a nod. "Oh, I don't think we've seen you to tell you," he added, focusing on his sister. "Last week, Azroh was going through his firebending forms, and he managed to turn the flames blue a few times. Looks like being a prodigy runs in the family, too, eh?"
Azula blinked, and she smiled, wondering anew if maybe the boy's name weren't entirely coincidental. "That's good news," she said, for the lack of something more appropriately excited.
Just then Katara sat down, and she fixed her husband with a slightly annoyed, slightly amused look. "It seems that Aang wants to perform the whole Waltz," she informed him. "He's convinced that he and Toph have the steps down; he just wanted to make sure we didn't forget our part."
Zuko snorted and took a little sip of his drink. "Ha, as if. Uncle, I hope you brought your sumki horn."
Iroh piled stewed sea prunes with much relish on his plate; Azula eyed the gloppy food with suspicion. "I never go anywhere without it!" he declared. "Here, my niece, you should try this."
"Do I have to?" she asked, unintentionally causing her brother to snicker.
"It's not good, the first time," he let her know. "Or the second. Or tenth. But after that, you get the hang of it. Hey, Katara!" he said as she swatted his arm. "I didn't say they were bad!"
"It was hardly complimentary," she replied archly, though she had trouble fighting the grin. "The kids like it. I don't see why you don't."
"It must be a blood thing," Zuko decided, and then he glanced sidelong at his very happy uncle. "Or if you're Uncle Iroh. And I eat them now; I think that's a vast improvement."
The adults had barely delved into their meal when Daraka came over, amber eyes troubled, and held up his plate to his parents' scrutiny. "Ryoki got sea prunes on everything! I can't eat it now!"
Katara blinked, and Zuko really roared with laughter now. "I knew it! Daraka, you don't like sea prunes, do you?" he asked, grinning ear to ear.
The little boy shook his head, and Zuko fondly ruffled his short wolf-tail. "Don't worry, son; I'll get another plate for you, and I'll tell Uncle Sokka to teach his son better manners." He stood up, still chuckling, and lilted, "Doesn't like sea prunes…oh, that's too good…"
Katara shoveled some of the offending food into her mouth, saying around it, "Daraka's eaten them before; he probably just doesn't like them over everything. And I really don't see the problem. They're delicious…"
"Yes, they are," Iroh agreed, already on his third helping of the dubious vegetables.
Despite their praise, Azula steered clear of that particular offering, though she was persuaded to try several foreign dishes, and she certainly took a second piece of Aang's classic custard cakes. With her stomach warm and full and the sake running pleasantly through her veins, she eased more into her cushion, allowing herself to lounge a little less properly than usual; prison time or not, she couldn't quite beat the nobleman's severity from her posture.
She blinked when suddenly Katara, Zuko, and Iroh all rose, but they were replaced quickly by her small nephews and niece, who claimed the vacated cushions with the usual determination of children sick of being regulated to the kids' table.
"What's going on?" Azula wondered aloud, swiveling in time to see Aang, Katara, Zuko, and Toph disappear into the shadows of the Air Temple's interior.
"Dancing, Auntie Zula," Kyrah explained, wiping pink custard off the carved medallion on her over-large necklace, where the frosting had fallen from overzealous consumption. She proceeded to lick her fingers with gusto.
"Oh," she said, not having expected an answer, and she glanced to her other side, where Azroh had seized his great-uncle's cushion and was also eating a custard cake. She blankly studied her elder nephew for a long moment before she ventured, "So…I heard you can firebend blue."
He looked up at her, and for a moment, he looked so much like Zuko had that she had to blink. When she reclaimed her hold on the present, though, he was nodding. "Not always," he admitted, disheartened. "But sometimes."
"You'll get the hang of it," Azula let him know, and in demonstration, she let cobalt flames lick at her fingertips. He watched in awe, his mouth hanging open.
"Wow, Aunt Azula! You didn't even try!" he exclaimed, clearly very impressed.
She smiled, ever so slightly, and snuffed the flames effortlessly. She thought that maybe she could do this, that she could interact with the boy, but before she could give him any pointers, she was distracted by her uncle's proclamation.
"My lords and ladies!" Iroh boomed, his sumki horn cradled in his lap. "I give you…the never-before-seen…complete…Waltz of the Phoenix!"
"Mama! Daddy!" Kyrah said, standing up on her cushion and waving as the master benders filed into the open space.
Katara and Zuko offered their daughter a wave and smile before they settled into position, one pair of hands clasped and the other settling on shoulder and waist. Toph and Aang stood in opposite corners of the square floor, so that all four of them were in a straight line, and slid into their own respective stances.
Azula raised her sake dish to her lips, but she never got to take a drink; once Iroh started playing and the benders started dancing in a blur of red and blue and gold and green, she was riveted to the performance. The song was familiar—she had heard it performed at festivals before—but it seemed that Iroh had altered it somewhat, or perhaps he had simply added in a few extra arpeggios that hadn't been there before.
And it seemed that there was something perfect about the dance that didn't have anything to do with the flawless choreography—there were four of them, and they were all spinning through and around each other, but none of them collided, no one so much as hesitated—or with the uncompromising speed and accuracy of Iroh's playing.
Four elements interacting in perfectly balanced harmony.
But this dance had been created to celebrate the Avatar.
Still, though…Azula had never imagined it would be so beautiful.
As she sat there, full and content on her cushion, surrounded by her extended family, and watching this elaborate, breathtaking performance, she wondered if this were what happiness felt like. Or maybe this was the beginning of belonging, a step in happiness's right direction.
The dance ended soon enough, and she applauded as enthusiastically as anyone. The benders bowed deeply, all of them—even Toph—grinning, and then they returned to their seats, considerably more tired but at the same time more exhilarated. Katara and Zuko scooped up Kyrah and Daraka respectively and sat the children on their laps, already chatting away, and Azula was surprised but inwardly pleased when Azroh crowded her on her cushion instead of electing to share with Iroh.
She turned in bemused curiosity when Zuko threw his head back and laughed a deep, rich, shoulder-shaking laugh; she glanced past him and saw that Katara had already progressed to the silent stage, tears streaming from her eyes. The twins, despite having missed the joke, joined in anyway, their parents' joy infectious.
Azula found herself smiling, too, a quiet, sort of secretive curve of her lips. She hadn't seen her brother like this ever before; she tended to keep to herself in the palace, perpetually leery of social interactions, and he was abroad half the time anyway. But she wondered if he were like this often, if he had long ago found what she still sought.
Because Zuko, undeniably, was happy.