I do not own these characters, or any rights to them, I am simply borrowing them to write a story for amusement purposes only.
"There are seven gates you must open. Seven paths that must flow as one. Otherwise, your mind and body both suffer. In you, I see that the mind is already fragmented. You are confused. Tormented. You are fighting with yourself, because you do not understand yourself."
Azula just stared at the mostly bald old man with the untamed beard as they sat in a grassy meadow on the far side of the island away from the temple that, so far as she could tell, was being raised more as memorial than not, since Aang still remained the only air-bender left alive.
"So, you're saying I'm crazy, too," she demanded bitterly.
Pithak chortled, and only reached out and swatted the top of her head.
"Actually, you're in much the same condition as Aang when he first came to me. That boy was so confused, he wasn't sure what he wanted. Or didn't want. The difference is, you have let the fragments of your divided mind take on life of their own. You saw one of those fragments in the spirit world."
"Demons are just pieces of your soul that lose their way when you let them wander. Bring them back, and regain your harmony, and the demons fade, and lend you the strength and wisdom of their essence."
Azula recalled what that sliver wanted.
"And if you don't want their guidance," she asked grimly as she sat cross-legged, trying to be patient with the strange old man.
After all, just now, it wasn't like she had a choice.
The guru smiled again.
"Every soul has dark and light in it. The choices the mind makes amplifies those characteristics. If, however, you are out of balance, as you are, those choices can lead to disaster, because you are not truly even understanding that the choice you make isn't."
"You'll figure it out," he assured her. "We all do, if we are patient enough."
"Now, the first chakra. Earth. It is blocked by fear, and you, my child, are filled with fear."
"I have never been afraid of…..!"
"Oh, yes," the man smiled, his gaze tearing into her as if he could suddenly see right through her. "Drink," he demanded, and shoved his gourd at her again.
She choked down the bitter fluid, and handed the gourd back. Better, she realized, to cooperate than have him annoying her all day.
"Now, open your mind, princess. Focus on your own demons, and then tell me you are not afraid," he said almost tauntingly.
She sighed, closed her eyes, and began to focus on her breathing as the guru had already taught her. She listened to the sounds around her. The wind. The birds. The near-distant splash of the waves far below the towering rocky plateau that formed this unlikely island.
She had a sense of movement around her, only she knew they were alone.
She knew the old man remained before her. She could still hear his own measured breathing.
She focused again, remembering the guru's lessons of distractions. Of being lost on the path to enlightenment. She sensed the movement again, but kept her eyes tightly closed.
Until they seemed to burst open of their own will.
To her horror, she found herself standing on the side of a courtyard as another Azula faced her brother.
"Why Zu-Zu, I don't think you're looking too good," the other her mocked as lightning split the air, and her brother used his own body to save the peasant she had been targeting.
Why, she had wondered even then. Why would he sacrifice himself for a mere peasant? A nobody?
She stared, watching as she grew more manic. As if the power of the comet had driven her mad that day. Only it wasn't the comet. She had already been lost in that madness that only manifested the very day, the very moment, she should have been most triumphant.
She saw herself defeated by a lesser opponent.
Now, watching with clear eyes, and a calmer mind, she saw that Katara had been the one in control. She was obviously frightened. Worried. Yet she had used her mind, and outfought her with an almost ridiculous ease.
Or so it seemed to her now.
Even as she watched herself flail and writhe, screaming in madness now as the water-bender tended her fallen sibling, she realized only then that not only had that madness already been on her, it had been born of fears. Fears denied, and repressed until they exploded at the moment of her apparent triumph.
Raised by her father to be the Fire Lord, she had occupied that office for less than an hour before deposed. Abandoned, or so it seemed to her then, by friends, companions, and even supposedly loyal servants, she was left standing alone as she faced the very world.
Or so it seemed.
And in that instant, all her fears coalesced, and crystallized in her mind. In that instant, she understood.
She did fear. Had feared. Always.
She feared being alone.
When her mother left her. Then her brother. Her friends. Even, it seemed, her father in the end. And she was left with absolutely…..nothing. Nothing at all. While the people she had long disdained seemed to have all the companions in the world flocking to them.
Hot tears drenched her cheeks as she blinked away the vision, and she found herself staring at the old man again.
"Now, you begin to understand," he smiled, and held out that gourd.
She smiled back, but couldn't help but groan as her belly churned in dismay.
It was late when Azula returned to the camp where the workers brought in to help raise the temple were sharing a thick, meaty stew with Toph, who had obviously contributed to the menu with her own stores brought from the mainland.
"That smells good," she said, and risked coming over to sit by the younger girl. "Mind if I join you."
The men all eyed her, but most shrugged, used to her presence by now.
"I don't know," Toph smiled knowingly. "Sure your guru will like you eating meat while he's doing his thing?"
"I'm kidding you. Have a bowl," she said, gesturing to the pot.
The princess wasted no time in filling a wooden bowl left near the pot, and gulping down two helpings.
"Ambrosia," she declared, finally feeling as her belly were not in hell.
"So, how's the lessons going?"
"Slowly," she sighed, trying to keep from thinking about some of the lessons learned of late. "And….humbling."
"That's what Aang said. He also said, in the end, you just have to be yourself. Uh, hopefully, your good and better self, considering, but in the end, yeah…. You still have to be yourself. Otherwise…."
She paused as Azula just frowned at her.
"I know I was making a point," the earth-bender assured her after pausing. "I'm just now sure what it was now."
"I think," Aang chuckled as he joined them just then, dropping off his glider as he seemed to appear out of nowhere to land near their fire. "You were trying to point out that it's one thing to find enlightenment. It's another to let it rule you."
"Okay, even I didn't understand that one," Azula admitted.
"That's okay, I don't understand half the things he says," Toph admitted.
"Look, when I first met Guru Pathik, he did open my eyes to a lot of things that had been….eluding me. Important things, too, and I'll be the first to admit that. Still, in the end, the price of becoming the Avatar everyone expected would have had me losing the very friends and life I wanted to protect. In the end, I turned away from that path, but in the end I still found a way to combine both by being true to myself. See?"
"He means he faked it," Toph winked at Azula. "Again."
Aang sighed as he just shook his head.
"Look. When I first appeared, let's face it, everyone had this….idea of the Avatar. What I was supposed to be, and do. I was supposed to be the embodiment of Justice. I can respect that. But they thought I was supposed to be above everyone and everything. They even wanted me to kill the Fire Lord in order to stop him. Only that wasn't the kind of Avatar I wanted to be….."
"I find myself grateful," Azula admitted, knowing if he had been, she, and her father would have been dead long ago.
"Right," the young teen smiled at her. "By finding my own way to fulfill my destiny, I not only saved lives, I give the world a better example."
"I think I understand what you're saying now," Azula murmured, setting her now empty bowl aside.
"Anything to help."
"So, tell me one thing. Do you really like that juice," she asked.
"Well, it's an acquired taste," he said tactfully. "But, it really does help….clear you out."
"I'll say," Toph chortled.
Which made the men around the fire laugh yet again.
"Can I ask you a question," Azula asked Pathik as they sat on a small, sandy outcropping they had reached by spending the morning climbing down the virtually sheer cliff.
An exercise in and of itself, or so the old man had told her.
She found it hard to doubt him. She literally had to focus on every move to the exclusion of all else, fighting her own fears as she faced a very fatal fall if she slipped even for an instant. There were no ropes. No support. If she lost her grip, she would simply fall.
Still, even the climb had not been so hard as facing, in turn, her fears. Her guild, shame, and even grief as she opened the paths in mind and body to allow her chakra to flow more naturally. She had even had to face the lies she had been telling herself all alone, and cope with the illusions she had built her life on, which only supported all those detrimental aspects of a life with no true value now that she looked at herself more objectively.
Now, she looking at the final lesson. The one Aang failed, yet still managed to surpass in the end. That of earthly attachment. The 'thought' chakra that fixated on those ambitions and desires that clouded true harmony with the greater world.
It was a lesson she still wasn't sure how to manage.
Aang had failed, and yet passed in the end. He readily admitted how, and it was a costly lesson.
Yet she wasn't the Avatar. Far from it. She wasn't even a princess any longer, no matter what Aang told her.
She really wasn't sure what she was, but she knew what she didn't want to be. At least, she did now.
So she focused, narrowing her mind on the lesson, and reached the sandy strip where she sat down and began to meditate with Guru Pathik once again as the waves lapped at her toes, and she stared out over the endless sea that surrounded the island.
Which was when the question came to mind.
Not out of nowhere, of course. It had been there all along. It had been a concern for months. Now, she had to ask yet again.
"You can always ask," the guru grinned crookedly at his pupil. "I might even be able to answer," he replied predictably.
"Will I….ever get my bending back? Is that possible?"
"Hmmmm. Anything is possible, of course. Probable? That's another question. Then again, I never thought Aang would survive after he fled the air temple without mastering the Avatar State. So, what do I know?"
"Aang said you sometimes saw the future," she murmured, her eyes closing as she tried not to fixate on the need she felt just then. Or the fear of what the answer might be.
Hopefully, she reminded herself, she had finally pushed beyond those lessons.
"I do sometimes see glimpses of the future. In your case, I can honestly say, I don't know. I do know, you will find your own way, and that is as important as being a fire-bender, isn't it?"
She sat listening to the waves for several minutes before she nodded.
"Yes. Yes, it is."
"Good. Now, focus," he told her, and again swatted her head as he often did.
This time, it seemed her knocked her flying, and suddenly she was standing in a place that wasn't where she had been.
She stared around her at the thick, lush jungle, and immediately knew what had happened.
"The spirit world," she murmured, and looked around for something to guide her.
"Well, aren't you the clever one," a perfectly dressed copy of herself sneered as she turned to see the princess she had been standing before her. She even wore the emblem of the Fire Lord upon her tunic, and the crown on her head.
She stared at the 'demon' she had birthed in her own mind, and wondered why she was here again.
Then she understood.
"We were wrong," she told the demon. The dark half of her that still wanted ambition. Power. To be untouchable. To command…..everyone. It was, she understood only in that moment, her solution to loneliness. By commanding everyone to worship her.
Only she…. She wasn't loveable.
She sighed, and shook her head.
"We were wrong," she said again.
"You think your self-deprecation will undo us? Will make you better? No one will ever trust you. No one will ever like you. Your only chance is to do as I have said. Strike, and strike now, while the Avatar is distracted. While he trusts you!"
Azula just stared this time.
She felt the fear. The pain. The utter misery that roiled around her. Around them.
This time, she stood her ground.
"No," she said quietly.
"Then you'll die here," the other half of her sneered, and her hands rose, birthing lightning. "And I'll take our body, and do what you are too weak to do! I'll shatter this false piece, and…."
"No," Azula murmured again, forcing herself to remain calm as she walked forward.
"What…? What are you doing," the furious princess seethed, increasing the power that crackled around them in the air.
"I see it now. You already tried to take over. And you almost drove us mad. You're that part that was left over when Aang used his energy-bending to defeat us."
"You're the ambition that still lurks in our heart. Demanding expression."
"You are a fool….!"
"But I understand," she murmured, and hugged the now trembling darkness that shrieked in her embrace as it sent lightning surging through them both.
She was jolted back, coughing as she tasted salt water, and splashed impotently as she realized the water was up to her neck, and still rising.
"It's about time," Pathik chortled down at her from where he somehow crouched on the rocky slope above her like a scrawny lizard. "I thought you were going to drown for a moment there."
"You could have helped," she sputtered, turning to scrabble up the cliff away from the rising tide.
"I could have," he admitted cheerfully, "But would you have learned anything?"
"I could have drowned."
"Yet you didn't," he reminded her.
"No thanks to you," she huffed.
The guru only chortled.
"Are you going to argue? Or climb?"
She looked up. And up, and up, and up.
"Don't forget to focus. I daresay you have a lot to think about on the way up, too. Don't you, Azula," he winked impenitently at her.
She forced her eyes down, groaned, and started to climb.
"I really wish I was an air nomad just now," she moaned.
"I hear Aang is looking for students," he teased.
"You're kidding? You do know I am…. Was a fire-bender."
"A bender is a bender. Only you're not, but that doesn't mean you won't be. Still, even if you aren't, it can't keep you from following other paths. See?"
"Toph is right. You're nuts."
"Yet here you are, following me," the guru beamed through his bushy beard. "What does that make you?"
"Completely insane," she declared earnestly. "Now, be quiet, and let me focus," she said, forcing herself higher on the slick rock.
Climbing up, she was fast realizing, was much harder than climbing down.
Aang came to her room later than night after the evening meal, and knocked quietly.
"Come in," she called, knowing it was him. No one else moved so quietly.
At least, no one on this island.
"Guru Pathik told me you visited the spirit world again."
"I saw her again," she nodded as she sat up on her cot, and faced the young Avatar.
"Did you," he asked, standing before her with a faint smile.
He didn't press. Didn't question her. He simply waited. As if he were just visiting a friend with no more motivation than that.
She realized, with him, it might just be that simple.
"I…. I'm not sure what happened, but I…. I think I…..reconciled with….myself. At least, to a degree."
"Master Gyatso, the monk that raised me, often said that Life is a journey. One that never truly ends. So don't think about destinations, so much as the experiences and friends that cross your path. That is what truly is important."
She nodded as she sat on the edge of her cot, still wearing the simple dress as she had yet to prepare for bed as she lay there thinking over everything she had experienced of late.
"He was," Aang nodded. "Someday, I hope to be at least as half as smart."
"I think you're already close," she admitted.
"Thanks. Even Katara thinks I have a lot to learn, though. Actually, so do I," he smiled in a bemused fashion.
"So….? Did you just come to check on me, or….?"
"Actually, I thought you'd like to visit home. Lord Zuko has given you permission, if you would like to visit."
She stared hard at him.
"He…wants to see me?"
"I did say he was worried about you. So is Mai. They would both like to see you. Espeically now that you're doing so much better."
"I don't know," she sighed, turning away now as darker memories rose.
"Azula," he murmured, stepping forward to put a hand on her shoulder. "Who you were isn't who you are. And who you are isn't who you might yet be. Don't condemn yourself when no one else is. Remember what Guru Pathik taught you. Remember what you learned."
"Not going to ask about my last lesson?"
"I don't have to," he told her. "I can see the change in you. So, would you like to visit?"
"Yes," she agreed. "Very much. But….what about after? I mean, now that I'm better, am I….going back to jail?"
"I don't know. I do know you can remain here as long as you wish. Your fate, however, is up to you, and Fire Lord Zuko. I do know he hasn't said anything about you going back to prison so long as you are in my care. That hasn't changed."
"Thank you, Aang," she told him. Then grimaced. "I guess we'll be flying again?"
"Of course," he grinned.
"Of course," she grimaced again.
"Toph isn't coming this time," she asked, noting the young earth-bender was still off with the work crews.
"She's staying to help finish the temple before the rains start. That, and I think she likes showing off," he laughed as they both knew she had been carving up and raising stone faster and easier than his work crew.
There had also been some spirited arguments over design and structure with the foreman and the willful girl, too, since her arrival.
"I've noticed," Azula had to smile as she forced herself to climb into the saddle as Appa simply eyed her with a faint grunt this time, not even snorting at her.
Azula noted the difference almost at once as they left the island, and began the long flight toward the Fire Nation.
She herself was more relaxed. They spent more time in simple, yet companionable silence. When they did stop at towns, no one cursed her, or glared. They seemed to accept her as just another woman in the Avatar's presence. Most, she realized, likely didn't even realize who she was as she had so obviously changed from just a few months ago.
She even found herself enjoying the flight as she stared out at the world beyond Appa's back, and took a solace in their quiet nights when they camped in the middle of forests, meadows, or wherever they happened to land.
Then, like a long, pleasant dream, the idyll abruptly ended when she saw the first glimpse of the now repaired palace as they neared her former home.
She grew tense, but Aang's warm smile helped reassure her as they landed behind the palace, and then led her not to the palace, but to a garden where she had spent much of her youth at times.
She found herself smiling as she remembered almost forgotten memories now, and then heard someone call her name.
Aang said nothing as he stepped back, and she turned to stare at the only other person in the garden.
She gasped aloud, genuinely stunned as the finely dressed woman with mostly graying black hair stood up from the bench where she had been reading, and looked her way with a soft simple.
"Hello, Azula," Ursa greeted her. "Welcome home, daughter."
She wanted to step forward. To do something. Say something. Yet just then, even thought was lost as she simply stared at the woman that had long been in the back of her mind.
Ursa moved forward after a moment, and gently put her arms around her.
"It is all right, 'Zula. You're home, and you're safe now. That's all that matters."
"I….I thought you hated me," the young teen choked as she looked helplessly through her own tears at the graying brunette that only smiled down at her. "I….I heard you call me….a monster."
"Azula," Ursa told her in a soft tone as she hugged her in a warm embrace that shocked the young woman. "I never liked what your father made of you, but I always loved you. That never changed," she told her, and the younger woman looked up at her in confusion. "You are my child. No mother ever truly hates their own child, even when they disappoint them."
Azula gave a cry of raw emotion, and hugged her mother in a fierce embrace.
Behind them, Zuko and Mai entered the garden, and just watched them.
"Welcome home," the Fire Lord told her when Azula finally turned, and held out his arms. She blindly staggered toward him, hugging her brother as their mother, and her best friends watched.
It was, she realized as their reunion continued with tears and laughter, the very thing she had wanted for years.
She never even noticed when Aang slipped away.