Occasionally, there were sparks. Brief flashes that something was wrong; that something existed beyond the blackness that was Azula's afterlife.
It had been disappointing so far. Azula had left a life of vibrant colors and sensations for one of nothingness. There was no sense of sight, smell, touch – even time. She has nothing to ground herself on to define these things other than the hole they made in her now that they were gone. Loss was the definition of the new plane she inhabited now: she could remember that things could be felt because she could no longer feel them; reality only had color because here there was none.
Azula knew she had once been a person only because she was no longer one. Time had no meaning to her, nor did it register as it once had; she simply existed. For years at a time she slipped into a dull, semi-conscious state. Every experience of her life that she could remember had already been replayed over and over again and there was nothing else to focus on. Without stimulation, Azula simply let time slip past her notice. She could no longer even gauge it.
The sparks, though…the sparks were something else. Something new. Even though they only took the briefest of instances to pass, each one shook Azula to her core. Through them she experienced things.
The first laps in the darkness had been a brush of cold, like a cold winter in one of the Fire Nation's rare northern islands in the middle of winter. Azula had only been to one in her childhood, but she remembered the strange white substance coating the ground under her feet. She had spent an entire afternoon stomping around in it only to have her new boots ruined. Back then she had decided snow was horrible. After feeling its cool embrace for the first time in forever, though, it was the most wonderful thing in the world.
From that moment Azula's entire existence started anew. It had been a new experience that dared to kindle some hope that things were moving for her again. She couldn't guess what her brief window of feeling had meant, but it was certainly the most that had happened to her since her death.
For someone who had been dead and in limbo for so much longer than she had been alive, the next few sparks blazed like wildfires to Azula. In what seemed like a heartbeat the princess felt earth, and feet to feel it with. Her toes gripped into the soil and pulled at the ground, breaking, molding, and breaking it again to match her whims. She felt the hot sand, the cool mud, and the cutting stone all at once for what seemed like hours before the experience went back to nothingness.
Azula was remembering more and more now. That was the Earth Kingdom – she was certain of that. The Fire Nation had rich, heavy soil from all of the volcanic ash while the Earth Kingdom barely had enough productive land to farm. 'Before we arrived there and used advanced irrigation techniques,' Azula thought, shocking herself with her own voice. It was the first time she'd heard it in decades.
Water and Earth, though, paled in comparison to the spark that brought Azula fire. It had been cold at first and Azula had thought she was only reliving the first spark, but then the glorious touch of heat caressed her. Memories of her childhood flooded her mind as her feet danced in the familiar patterns of her bending katas. For a moment, when the heat of a blaze lapped at her arms, she was back in the palace courtyard practicing her forms with her father, going through form after form until they were perfection.
And then, they would duel.
Her feet were moving like a duel, weaving across a hard surface. The spark was starting to sputter, but Azula focused so intensely on it that for a moment she thought that the world was a brilliant orange instead of black.
When that spark ended Azula retreated back into her mind for days, going over the entire experience detail-by-detail until it was burned into her mind just as fiercely as the fire that had ended her life. This was a memory she wanted to keep; this was the memory that would keep her occupied even if she never had another reprieve from the darkness.
But it wasn't the end; not at all. Before, the sparks had been staggered with months in between. Suddenly a swarm of them began to thunder in the void: the sounds of furious battle; a feeling of intense frustration and desperation; a voice that Azula thought she recognized and many, many more that she did not.
"You're finally connected with your spiritual self."
That was the voice. Azula knew it wasn't speaking to her, but it still rang in her ears as if she were standing next to it. An intense feeling of hatred began to bubble up within Azula as it rumbled around in her head. She knew this voice. She knew it and she hated it. Everything that was Azula knew to hate, and fear, this voice.
"When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change."
Fire filled Azula, warming her in the darkness. She remembered how viciously she had struggled at the start, when the voices and condemnation were still fresh and ringing in her ears. The difference now was that there was ground under her feet. The other glimpses had grounded her and the princess wouldn't give up this time. She felt revitalized by the flames burning within that had replaced the feeling of loss. All she felt now was rage and desperation.
And then, suddenly, something snapped, just like a kite string that had been wound too tightly. The darkness split down the middle like the seam on a dress and Azula could see the vast wasteland of the far north spread out before her. Something was happening below, but the scene was gone in the blink of an eye before she even comprehended that she could see and the north was gone, replaced with a lurching feeling of nausea and vertigo. What was once nothing was now alight with pain, the likes of which Azula had never felt. The fire was burning feverishly, raging out of control, but unlike her execution Azula couldmove and feel. And fight.
She lifted back her head and screamed, piercing the calmness of the Pro-Bending Arena as she erupted into existence wreathed in fire.
Author's Note: The first part of this chapter was exceedingly difficult to write, which is why the wait was so prolonged. This story started with a simple concept: Azula in Legend of Korra. Making that happen in a reasonable, non-AUish way was something I didn't think of at the time I wrote the first bit, but now I think I've hit a rhythm. Think of this and the last chapter as the extended prologue – now we can actually get to larger, meatier chapters.