Takes place sometime during The Search. Snarky semi-redemption for Azula.
Disclaimer: Avatar belongs to Mike, Bryan, and Nickelodeon. Not me!
Double Disclaimer: Prescription medications are to be taken ONLY BY THE PERSON THEY ARE PERSCRIBED FOR. Do not share your medications with other people….or sky bison.
On with the story:
Aang splashed headlong into the mud, groaning with fatigue and frustration. His latest attempt to round up the group of bison was thwarted again, leaving him filthy, tired, and thoroughly bummed. Sprawled in the mud, Aang watched them scamper away and then ascend into the clouds, bellowing their displeasure. Growing up, Aang had remembered the bison as docile creatures, and Appa was still that way: gentle, amiable, and easy to train. These wild bison were just that...wild.
He'd tried talking to them, bringing Appa to them, coaxing them with every manner and means. Finally, Zuko suggested that they sneak up on them with a fishing net and try to ensnare one of the females.
He wanted to procure a mate for Appa; there were several females in that herd who would have fit the bill. It was a miracle that they'd found them. They were, as Azula liked to put it, in "the ass end of the Earth Kingdom," chasing their latest lead on the lost Princess Ursa. They were far away enough from any large civilization that it explained why no one had reported them. Zuko and Aang had stumbled across them by accident. If only they wouldn't scamper away every time they were approached.
Firelord Zuko sighed beside him. He had also face planted in the dirt. "Are you sure this is how the nuns handled these things, Aang? I mean, you weren't a nun," Zuko looked at him, "were you?"
"Funny Zuko, really funny..."
Zuko shrugged "I'm just saying. You know, I've got some Shirshu darts. We could try drugging one of the females..."
"Bison mating rituals don't work like that Zuko. Besides, that's our emergency stash in case your sister gets too out of hand," Aang grumbled, "she did kill me once you know."
# # # #
Azula had never been one to follow Zuko's advice, or lead, or anything for that matter. So when his constant insistence to "take her damned meds" became his daily mantra, Azula was compelled to do anything but. Really, it was getting tiring, and it's not like they were working anyway. She thought leaving the asylum and its blasted mirrors would cure her of the hallucinations. It turns out, Ursa's image could materialize in all reflective matter: water, bowls of soup, cups of tea, precious metals. Anything with the ability to refract light presented the broken princess with her mother's image.
In a way she was grateful that Zuzu had asked her to accompany him. The doctors were incompetent, the therapy was droll, and the medications did little more than spice up her tea. Things had become monotonous and frustrating at the asylum; so when her brother presented her with this little opportunity, she was hopeful that she could get some answers of her own. What she hadn't counted on however, was Zuko's strict adherence to the ineffective drug regimen.
At one point he'd even had the Avatar hold her down with earth bending and forced it down her throat.
It was humiliating. She always thought she was meant for so much more.
She swallowed against her thirst. There was a river nearby, but she was hesitant to go there because she knew she would be there looking up at her from the water's surface. She battled against the urge, but at long last it won out. She stormed down to the water's edge, grumbling to herself.
Had Zuzu and the Avatar not been in such a huff over those silly bison she could have had them do this for her, but no matter. She would do this, and she'd get over it, and then she'd find some way to torment them for their failure to serve her later.
She half looked into the water, and of course she was there.
Azula, her mother's image beseeched, I love you Azula. Please do what your brother says.
"Oh shut it mother, I'm just getting a drink!" Azula growled.
The mirage wavered as she plunged the canteen into the river. I'm sorry I left you. I had no choice, it still managed to say.
"No choice!" Azula fumed. "NO CHOICE?! You left because you couldn't stand to look at me anymore, to realize what YOU had done!" The princess was on her feet and snarling through her teeth at the hallucination. "You left me with Father, and look what happened! I was born for greatness, and look at me now! But you planned this didn't you?" Azula fell to her knees and clawed at the sand beside the water's surface, her nose just inches above the river. "You wanted this to happen so that your precious Zuko could take the throne!"
The image was silent.
"ANSWER ME!" Azula screamed.
The hallucination wavered a little and opened its mouth. Instead of her mother's voice, Azula heard the deep, cacophonous bellow of a sky bison.
Infuriated, Azula looked up across the lake to where a giant sky bison lumbered at the other end. Thinking it was Appa, Azula drew a deep breath, opened her mouth and managed the deepest, loudest, bellow a human being could.
The bison's ears drew back with surprise, but its eyes glazed over in anger. It slunk down and its body grew tight like a cat ready to pounce. It crept through the river with a steady growl.
Undeterred Azula drew herself up, clenched her fists and growled right back at it. "Oh don't give me that!" Azula roared. "If not for you I'd be on the throne now too!"
The beast's growling rumbled louder as it crept ever forward, rippling the gentle waters. It didn't know what Azula was saying, but it didn't like her posturing. At last it reached the center of the waters, drew itself up on its hind legs and screamed its anger to the sky.
Azula jumped on a nearby rock and pointed her hands to the heavens where she directed a loud bolt of lightning.
The crack of the bolt reverberated through the forest, scattering the birds to the heavens and the woodland creatures underground. A pervasive silence followed. The bison froze where it was, its large eyes glazed with fear.
"Well?" Azula challenged, "Just what do you say to that?!"
The bison slumped down in the middle of the river and licked its lips. It lowered its head into the water diminutively.
"There, now that's better," Azula crooned triumphantly, dismounting from the rock. "What got into you anyway? You know I get irritated whenever someone interrupts my conversations with mother."
The beast grumbled demurely as it lumbered towards Azula. It was then that the princess noted the charcoal painting its ear tufts.
"Oh, I see...you're someone different, aren't you?"
Coming ever closer, the bison sniffed in reply.
"Well that makes sense, then. My name is Azula and I'm the Fire Nation princess. According to my doctors I'm also schizophrenic, so long as you worship me like you're supposed to and don't interrupt me when I'm hallucinating, we'll get along fine."
The beast warbled a submissive agreement, then moved its head sideways, the gigantic nostrils trekking down the length of Azula in quick study. Her nostrils quivered when they made contact with Azula's belt, where a pouch of herbs rested. The beast concentrated on the foreign hints coming from it.
"Oh, you want some?" Azula asked, concerning her medicine. "I wasn't aware bison got schizophrenia. Be my guest! It doesn't' really work, but sometimes it takes the edge off. "
She untied the pouch and took a handful of the substance into her palm.
The bison warbled hesitantly.
"No really, I'm happy to share. That way Zuzu will think I took this ridiculous mess. You'll be doing me a favor, really."
Still not fully convinced, but dreadfully curious, the bison opened wide and presented the princess with its gigantic tongue. Azula tossed in the spicy flakes.
The bison chewed, perplexed as it continued to study Azula.
"And to think, Zuzu and the Avatar have been chasing you and your friends for days. All they had to do was dominate you. I keep telling people that's what you've got to do. Show you are stronger, and then practically whoever you want will do your bidding. And mother keeps going on about not using fear to make friends. What does she know?"
The bison lowered its head closer to the princess and murmured a little, as though trying to imitate Azula's words. Appa would just grunt in reply whenever anyone spoke to him, but this beast had never heard a human speak before.
There was a belief among the members of her herd that humans were dangerous and to be avoided at all costs. Something about a tragedy that had happened long ago…
Nevertheless, there was something about this human that stirred her curiosity. She wasn't like the others that had been chasing her. The beast could smell that the chemicals were off in her brain. She was sick: she seemed pre-occupied with something or someone, despite the fact that they were alone beside this river. For these reasons the bison knew Azula wouldn't hurt her. She was also the bison's best chance of learning how to avoid the other humans despite her tenuous grip on reality.
The bison continued to warble back to Azula in its language trying to ask her for help regarding her little Aang/Zuzu/Appa problem.
Amazingly, Azula understood her. "Oh, them," Azula snarked. "Well it's really quite simple: you have friends, don't you?"
The bison bellowed in affirmation.
"Just surround them at night when they're not expecting you, then thrash them a little and they'll leave you alone after that. It's all about domination really, just like I was saying. Give them a sound thrashing and they won't want to mess with you again. I would say crush them, but I need them alive. You see, Zuzu knows something about mother" Azula whispered, pointing into the water "and she won't leave me alone until I find out what that is."
Azula that hurts, Ursa whined from the river.
"Shut it mother!" Azula screamed at the water. "Just shut it!"
The bison looked into the water and saw only herself and Azula. A bison eye roll followed, and the beast sniffed once more at the pouch on Azula's belt as it simultaneously nudged her away from the river.
"Fine," Azula grumbled, "you can have some more." She handed the beast a second course, but the bison didn't look satisfied. She kept eyeing the pouch suggestively, then Azula, then the pouch. The princess finally gripped the gesture's meaning. "Maybe I will too, I am a little edgy. She makes me that way you know," the princess seethed, and Azula gathered a few flakes into her hands and popped them into her mouth. She usually made it into a tea, but was feeling too lazy for that.
Satisfied, the bison grumbled a little then bellowed over its shoulder into the woods. Then it folded its six legs underneath itself as it stretched across the beach next to Azula.
The princess climbed away from the river and slumped against a rock, letting the medication soak into her system. She knew she would still hallucinate if she looked into the water, but the herbs did help to relax her a little. "You know," Azula said reproachfully, "I could draw up a battle plan for you." She took a stick and began to draw in the sand. "It's all about your approach. You see you can't let them know you're coming. You and your associates…" Suddenly Azula heard a few branches crack behind her, and who should be looking over her shoulder but two other sky bison, their breath stirring her hair. "Perfect," she quipped, and continued to draw in the sand, explaining her 'battle plan.'
Of course, the first bison caught a few of her words, but didn't get the full gist of what she was saying. She was also beginning to feel relaxed, lightheaded, and ridiculously happy which made concentration difficult. She yawned and rolled onto her side, presenting the princess with her fluffy belly.
Azula made a face "I don't give belly rubs."
The bison pouted a little and grumbled its disbelief.
"It's not nonsense," Azula protested." I don't cuddle either! I never have. Just ask mother, she'll tell you." Azula pointed nervously at the water again.
This time Azula caught the bison eye roll.
"Oh don't give me that!" Azula snapped. "Now pay attention, and I'll tell you how to take care of your problem."
The bison yawned at her; suddenly avoiding Appa, Zuko, and Aang didn't seem so important anymore. Suddenly all that mattered was the warm, cozy feelings jetting through her bloodstream and the strange contentment that had washed over her like a flood. She was happy, tingly, and…just when did a second Azula appear?
Did it really matter?
After a minute the bison decided it did not, and neither did the elaborate battle plan that the two Azulas were explaining. Her eyelids began to close.
"Are you listening to a word I'm saying!?" she heard the princess chortle, but when it looked at the psychotic beauty it didn't see her rage, or her flaws, or anything really, except someone to cuddle with.
Without warning the beast punted Azula to the ground and pulled her into its body.
Enraged, the princess pushed and writhed in order to free herself from the hug. "Let me go I command you!" Azula repeated in a seething litany, but the bison just warbled and pulled her closer.
Azula thought about shocking it, but decided that was a bad idea given her position. She was pinned between two of its gigantic paws; the beast could crush her with a small shift of its weight. In addition, the two fluffy friends that had listened in on Azula's battle plan were now hovering over the deranged princess and her new pet, watching their every move.
Their sleepy friend smelled different and so did this strange little human; they decided to keep an eye on them both. One of them opened its giant maw and gave Azula a generous lick in an attempt to cleanse her of the strange-smelling medicine or figure out what was wrong with her.
"Well this is just peachy!" a sodden and surly Azula fumed. This thing was going to hug her whether she wanted it to or not, and its friends were determined to give her a tongue bath. She could already see the second one closing in for a lick.
Fearing more bison slobber, Aula retreated deeper into her bison's fur to hide and dry off. The companions at last relented and slumped against the shore a few yards away from where Azula was tucked into her fur cave.
"If you tell anyone about this, you're my new throw rug, get it!" Azula bit out, but it was no use.
The beast's breathing had already fallen into a slow and steady cadence. It was fast asleep.
Oh well, at least there would be no more tongue baths, Azula thought. Zuzu and the Avatar certainly wouldn't be bothering her. Neither would mother.
In spite of herself, Azula yawned and laid back into her fur. She was beginning to feel a little drowsy herself, which didn't usually happen with her medication. She should have taken the time to mix it into her tea.
Her last thought as she drifted off to sleep was that she could always try leading her small bison army into victory tomorrow.
# # # #
Zuko was beginning to worry about Azula, not that she couldn't take care of herself. She could, but he wasn't sure how stable she was. He feared for himself and Aang. The doctors had been pretty insistent about Azula following her regimen. They had been so busy with the bison that they hadn't noticed where she had gone to, and it was way past time for her next dose.
They found her tracks leading from camp to the river. They expected to see only her; instead they saw three female bison stretched near the water's edge. Two of them awoke and growled in warning, placing themselves between the two men and their companion, who was still dead to the world.
A mess of black tresses spilled out from between the sleeping bison's paws; the red jeweled hair clip was loose in the black tangles. Above the soft fur, Zuko just barely saw his sister's face.
She was smiling.
Zuko was sure that his heart skipped a couple of beats. "Aang," he choked out in disbelief. "Are you seeing what I'm seeing?"
"Whoa, it likes Azula. Zuko, she's cuddling with it!"
"But…Azula doesn't cuddle. Ever! I tried once, and I seriously regretted it," Zuko whispered.
Aang shrugged. "What can I say Zuko? Bison make great therapists!"
WTF did I just write?