The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Azula curls up in her bed. She hides under her blanket and hopes that if she ignores this next spirit, it will just go away. But then the spirit comes, and it is a voice she absolutely cannot ignore.
"Azula? Young Miss? Time to get up, My Little Dragonfly."
Azula flings back the blanket, her voice is shaking with a fragile, tremulous hope as she utters "Lu Ten?" in complete disbelief.
She sounds like Uncle, all those years ago.
This time, he is actually there. It is really him. Her cousin stands before, larger than life.
He does not glow like the other spirits. He does not shimmer like her hallucinations did. He looks exactly as he did, that last day she saw him. Young, strong, bold. She rushes over to him and he pulls her into a deep and comforting hug. A hug that is like a wide, deep field in springtime. A hug that is strong enough to carry all misery away. There is a solidity to this spirit. Azula thinks she can even smell him. Sandalwood soap and sweat.
"You're here. You're really here. You came back. Oh my, I must be dreaming." Azula hears herself babble, her words tumbling over each other like excited children. Lu Ten hushes her, calms her – like he used to do when she was very small.
"How are you even here?" Azula asks, incredulous. Though she knows he is but a spirit, she had never expected the Ghost of Christmas Future to look so very much like her cousin. To be so very much like her cousin.
"Perhaps I just missed my young cousin and wanted to check up on you." Lu Ten states and gives her a wide smile.
"You did?" Azula asks.
"I did." Lu Ten affirms. "How are you, little Azula? Really." He asks, his brow furrowed slightly in concern as he looks about her room. Her haven.
"Not so good, really. I've been dragged out of this room, unwilling by very insistent spirits twice this night. If it is all the same to you, I would very much like to stay." Azula replies honestly, because she and Lu Ten had never lied to each other.
"Why?" Lu Ten asks simply.
"It's scary out there." The truth at last.
"Maybe I can help?" Lu Ten offers. "I can keep the scary things away. I can make you feel safe... and give you a glimpse of what's to come, at least...then you can see for yourself, there is not so much to be frightened of."
"I don't know..."Azula is uncertain. Lu Ten seems to be giving her a choice, which is unusual. The other spirits didn't do that.
"Do you trust me?" Lu Ten says, as he offers her his hand.
"Yes" Azula replies, as she takes it.
When it came to Lu Ten, the answer was always yes.
They are somewhere snowy, but they don't feel the cold. It is Christmas eve, in a city far away. There are buildings, which stand huddled in big clusters. Everything looks unfamiliar.
"Where are we?" Azula asks.
"We are in Republic City. It does not exist yet, but it will. A marvellous city. The four elements and the four nations mix together here in the great stew of life." Lu Ten says with an expansive pass of his hand.
"The great stew of life?" Azula snorts. It is the dumbest metaphor she has ever heard.
"What? I was just trying to be poetic like my Dad." Lu Ten says with a shrug.
"You'd need to be at least four times and fat and twice as barmy – to be like your dad." Azula replies, but she says it with a smile.
"Well all I was trying to convey is that everything and everyone has poured into this city. Here everyone has a chance to build their life anew. A fresh start for all. The possibilities are endless here. Any future is possible." Lu Ten says as he once again does a big gesture with his arms, encouraging Azula to look at the world around her.
Colours. Light. Smiles.
All life is here.
She sees people from all the nations mixing together peacefully. Earth, air, fire, water, bender and non bender, all seemingly at peace.
"This is impossible." she scoffs. She would have never imagined a future where all the nations could live in harmony.
"An impossible city is full of possibilities...that's got to be some sort of proverb, hasn't it?" Lu Ten muses.
"Oh no! It's starting! You're looking for proverbs everywhere. You really are your father's son." Azula teases.
They wander in the direction of something called an Airship Port. It appears that the Airships are now used to transport people, not soldiers, between the regions. Azula sees an Airship hovering and a gangplank is lowered. There is a crowd below waiting to greet the disembarking passengers.
"So this is the future." Azula asks, softly.
"This is one of many possible futures." Lu Ten explains.
"So this won't necessarily happen?" Azula asks. She wants to be sure either way. She likes certainty.
"What happens next is for you to decide, Young Miss. You could go any number of ways, however I felt a strong connection between you and this future." Lu Ten says.
"Why?" Azula asks.
"Perhaps you will see some things here that will help you. Give you some hope, something to look forward to." Lu Ten says, as he smiles at something behind Azula.
Azula scoffs in disbelief again. Having hope was just as stupid as loving someone.
She cannot imagine that the world has anything to offer her. It certainly has nothing left for her to hope for. She tells all this to Lu Ten, but he just smiles enigmatically at her and tells her to turn around.
Azula sees herself...older.
She looks healthy. She does not stand out overly in this crowd. No one is starring at her unkindly. She is dressed in fine black woollen coat, with a red scarf around her neck and her hair pulled back into a smart bun. She smiles at a tall woman who comes over to her, with two cups of tea in hand.
Azula feels her jaw hit the floor.
It is her mother.
She is alive and well.
They are together again after all these years.
Mother hands the tea to Azula and tells her that it will warm her up. She then warns Azula to be careful, because it is still boiling hot. The older Azula tells her mother not to fuss, and sips her tea anyway – making a slight face when she scalds her mouth. Ursa tuts. Then Ursa smiles at Azula as she blows on her own tea and says "I won't say I told you so."
"You just said it." Azula of the future snaps and then shivers slightly.
Her mother shuffles closer to her. Ursa rearranges Azula's scarf. Ursa tries to warm Azula with her bending. She heats the air around them. Azula, always contradictory, smiles in gratitude at her mother, before sighing and rolling her eyes and saying "stop fussing, will you mum?"
Things are so domestic and cosy between them. So normal. Azula can hardly believe her eyes. They are almost like any other mother and daughter, mildly bickering while they wait.
They are waiting for Uncle, Zuko, Bossy, and their ever expanding brood of children. There are two already, a girl and a boy. The five of them disembark and there is much ado as they all greet each other. The kids call her Zuzie – because Azula is far too difficult for their infant tongues.
"Well, at least Zuzie is a bit more dignified than Gruncle." Uncle Iroh says as he gives her a slight hug. He has been unceremoniously dubbed Gruncle, by his much longed for grand niece and nephew. No incentive can make these children refer to him as anything other than Gruncle. He shall remain Gruncle for all time. He will never rise above the indignity of this nickname.
Bossy is inappropriately affectionate, as is fitting with the ways of her people. She gives Ursa and Azula a big, soppy hug each and then she gets a bit moist in the eyes. Zuko gives Azula the awkward hugs that are more fitting in the firenation. But the awkward hug is cut short when he sees the boy make a dash for freedom.
The boy is evidently one of those children.
Azula isn't surprised that Zuko has fathered a dasher.
A Dasher = The sort of child that wanders off on the least provocation, after shiny things and puppies, etc.
"Lu Ten – get back here." Zuko admonishes as he darts after the boy and scoops him up. Mum goes over to him and gives him and the small struggling child a huge hug than envelopes them both. Azula can hear the words "missed you" and "missed you too" between Zuko and Mum.
Mum hugs Zuko a bit longer than Azula feels is necessary and she feels a familiar flicker of jealousy. It's just a flicker though. Not the bonfire of envy that she was so used to. Azula has started to make peace with the fact that everybody loves Zuko more. She understands their reasons, at least.
Lu Ten is handed over to "Nanny" - who is eager to cuddle him. Mum bounces him on her hip and blows a raspberry on his head, delighting him endlessly. Mum tweaks the kid's nose and murmurs "Oh little Lu Ten, you are just like your cousin was at your age." in a voice that is soft and gentle and full of nostalgia.
Lu Ten stiffens beside her, as they watch the group depart. "He named him after me." Lu Ten whispers – almost to himself. He seems very pleased, but it's the sort of pleased that can be mistaken for sadness.
There's a bittersweet quality to it.
The group travel to a large, fine looking house. Lu Ten explains to her that it is the Mayor's residence. The Kyoshi Warrior Suki has just been elected Mayor of Republic City. She was the leader of the occupying peace keeping force and has won the hearts of the people. She's married Sokka, who is currently the dean of engineering at Republic University.
They live comfortably – but this does not stop Zuko's daughter, Kya, from stating bluntly "Our house is like 18 times bigger than this house!"
Ah, the girl has inherited her father's tact.
Bossy kneels in front of Kya and tries to explain why that sort of comment is inappropriate. Unsuccessfully. Kya doesn't see why they couldn't have Christmas in the firenation Palace. It's bigger, it's warmer and there's less stupid snow so Lu Ten doesn't act like a terrible show off.
Lu Ten, the dasher, is a talented waterbender like his Mother. He has spent the entirety of the trip doing tricks with water to impress Nanny and Zuzie, despite Zuko and Bossy both admonishing him. No icediscs in the carriage Lu Ten, you know the rules. Etc.
Zuko and Bossy try to explain to Kya about seeing her new cousin, and having christmas together as a family at Uncle Sokka and Auntie Suki's place. It's not fair to expect everyone to always have to come to the firenation. Kya crosses her arms and declares that she hates this christmas.
Azula feels like this Kya is a girl after her own heart.
There is a big reunion just in front of the house. There is much ado and many hugs. Sokka and Zuko's hug becomes some sort of manly competition in which they both try to see if they can "lift" the other man off his feet. It ends in inelegant struggling.
Then Suki and Bossy get clucky like mother hens and usher everyone inside, so that people don't catch their death of cold. There is a new baby who is passed around like she is a pass-the-parcel. Azula is not so interested in the baby. She is more interested in the snacks and drinks.
There are finger biscuits and gingersnaps and hot toddies. Azula is clearly fond of all three.
Bossy doesn't have a hot toddy. Her brother is suspicious. "You're not drinking? Bloody hell, You're Not Drinking!" He pulls his sister towards him in a crushing bear hug. Honestly, has Bossy become some sort of disgustingly drunken wench in the future – to warrant this sort of carry on?
It is possible...she is married to Zuko after all. That would drive anyone to drink.
"I am going to be an Uncle...Again!" Sokka announces happily.
Oh – she's not a disgustingly drunken wench. She just pregnant.
He gets a slight admonishment from Bossy – as she wanted to make her own announcement, but that is swallowed up by everyone else's effusive joy at this news. Even future Azula seems glad enough at this news. Though she only shows that by a slight smile. She catches Zuko's eye across the room and raises her glass to him, in silent salutation. He grins back at her like a big idiot.
Azula can't help but laugh her arse off as she sees the Avatar has become trapped in a worrying conversation with young Kya. He has made the rookie mistake of saying that "violence is never the answer".
Kya strikes Azula as the sort of girl who doesn't do well with absolutes.
The Avatar looks nervous, as the small girl charmingly lists all the situations that she feels would be appropriately solved by violence. She concludes by saying; "Auntie Toph uses violence when she catches very bad men who do very bad things."
"Yes...but Kya that doesn't mean that she should..." The Avatar is not used to dealing with tiny child logic. He is trying to have a deeply philosophical conversation.
"Why not? Those men are bad, bad, bad and they do very bad things to people with violence... if you don't stop them...(Kya pauses, finger raised to her lips, deep in thought) ….there there would be lots and lots and lots of violence because the bad men would keep doing it. So you need to use a bit of violence to stop more violence. So sometimes, violence must be the answer." Kya evidently feels that her logic is infallible.
"But it's not." the Avatar says gently.
"Is too." Kya fires back.
"No! It's not!" The Avatar's getting a bit frustrated.
"Okay...what if I am the best firebender the world has ever seen and I run into a man who I know is a bad man who ….like kills people with shovels all the time. So this man kills people with a shovel everyday, and I run into him and he has a shovel.... don't I have a duty to stop him, as the world's best firebender?
The Avatar blinks twice. He has never thought in depth about the moral implications of dealing with a shovel wielding serial killer, so he does not have a ready answer. Instead he looks around for someone to palm this conversation off onto. He sees the perfect someone for the job.
"Zuko – can you come here for a second." The Avatar cannot keep the twinge of desperation from his voice.
Zuko cannot help but smile when the conversation is relayed to him by Kya. He tries to hide it, but Azula can tell he's amused. He indulges Kya's shovel wielding -serial killer hypothetical. He doesn't dismiss her idea or her childlike logic. Instead they talk very seriously about the best way to deal with the shovelling, serial-killing psychopath.
Zuko convinces Kya that because the serial killer uses a shovel – he would have some connection to earth, therefore Auntie Toph would be the best person to deal with him. Kya's first duty would be to keep herself safe and go tell an adult, so that they could fetch Auntie Toph. Kya agrees that this would be the best course of action. A promise to do this is extracted from her.
Azula watches the whole conversation with some surprise.
Zuko's actually not bad at it...at the whole Dad thing.
Azula always assumed he'd be a crap father. With their Dad as an example, how could Zuko even hope to be otherwise?
Suddenly, the Ghost of Christmas Present's words pop into her head, unbidden.
Our past doesn't have to define us.
There is a game of hide and seek, to keep the kids occupied. Zuko is instructed to count to a million by Kya – so that she can find a really good hiding place. He sits on the stairs and closes his eyes and starts counting. Little Lu Ten goes and settles behind him. Without missing a beat, or opening his eyes, Zuko says "Lu Ten, hiding behind me is not a good hiding place." Lu Ten looks a bit startled that his brilliant plan has been discovered so easily and scampers off. Azula silently takes his seat.
"Lu Ten... if you keep hiding behind me, Kya will win every game." Zuko says patiently.
"It's just me." Azula of the future says. Zuko doesn't flinch at all at having her sneak up on him. Instead he opens his eyes and turns around and smiles at her. Azula of the future smiles back.
"So another one? You ready for that?"
"As I'll ever be."
"Can I ask you a question?"
"You just did."
"Oh, forget it."
"Do you think you'll have enough love for the third one?"
"What? Enough love? Of course I will. Love's not like chocolate cake you know. It doesn't run out."
"But it does. Loving people is exhausting. Aren't you tired?"
"I'm never tired of loving my family. I'm tired out by so many other things, but never them."
"Do you want to know what I think your one problem is?""
"You think I only have one? You surprise me Zuko. I thought you would have come up with numerous problems for me - listed and possibly alphabetised."
"Urgh – forget it!"
"No, tell me the one problem."
"You've always thought that love was finite and there was only so much of it to go round. That's why we had to compete so hard for it when we were kids. And now you're still scared of caring for people because you always worry that they are going to run out of love for you. But love's not like that at all. You'll see one day – the more you give, the more you get back. Love is infinite."
"Love is infinite? You got that from one of Uncle's ballards."
"Maybe I did. Doesn't mean it's not true though."
" Even if it's true – You're still the cheesiest, soppiest bastard alive for saying that."
"Well, you're still the most sarcastic smartarse to ever exist."
" You're such a dum dum."
"I'm not wrong, though."
"No, maybe you're not."
"Look, just so you know...and we don't have to make a big thing, with the hugging and the emotions and all of that crap...but ...you know...you're my sister...and I love you...I'm not going to run out of love for you ….okay."
"Okay...look, I agree about the no big thing and the no hugging. ...and maybe I agree about the other thing. Maybe...you know...I might love you too...
"Urgh, Zuzu – I thought we agreed! No Hugging!"
"Oh for once in your life, can you not be difficult!"
"Fine - just this once."
There is Zuko and Azula sitting on the stairs and hugging, in the distant, far away future. The improbable image becomes very bright, filled with a brilliant white light.
Scenes haven't faded like this before.
She turns to Lu Ten, alarmed, and asks "what's happening?"
"I think the sun is coming up. We don't have much time left Young Miss. I think you must have spent much time in the past." Lu Ten says, not accusingly, but sadly. He is sorry their time together is so short.
Azula thinks on the words of The Spirit of Christmas Present.
It does not do to dwell so much on the past that you never live in the present. You rob yourself of a future that way
They are back in the room.
Azula can feel the coming sunrise in her bones.
Lu Ten is apologetic. He is so sorry. He wished they had more time. He wanted to show her so much. He so very much wanted to help her. But now there is no time left.
Azula's default is anger. She always feels angry when she is faced with things she doesn't like, unpleasant realities and goodbyes.
She feels another goodbye is coming. She rounds on her cousin in anger, because he's going to leave her again and there is very little she can do about it...and that hurts. Feeling hurt makes her cross.
"Why are you even trying to help me?" she demands angrily.
"Because I love you and I want you to be happy." Lu Ten says like it is the simplest thing in the world.
"Nobody loves me. Not really."
"Your brother still does."
"Well he shouldn't after what I did to him. It's just because he's an idiot and he hasn't figured out that I'm not worth the effort yet."
"Maybe he thinks you are."
"I'm not. Even my own mother thought I was a monster who didn't deserve to be happy." She knows it is a lie. Mother didn't think that at all. It is easier to blame her Mother. It is easier to say that Mother thought she was a monster and that is why her life turned out the way it did. That lie is comforting.
" She didn't. Your mother's love was infinite." Lu Ten says – not letting the lie continue.
Azula doesn't know if she believes that the way that Zuko and Lu Ten do. Maybe love was infinite for them – because they both had so much love in them to begin with. Love was as unfair as money. It clustered around people who already had so much of it. There was never enough left over for Azula: and there was a reason for that.
She wasn't loveable.
She was cruel and unkind.
She had done so many bad things and hurt so many people.
"Maybe I think I'm a monster who doesn't deserve to be happy." Azula says.
The absolute truth.
The truth at the bottom of everything.
Azula knows for certain that there is something bad and monstrous in her – how else could she do all the things she's done. She is a bad person.
"Maybe I know exactly how that feels. Maybe I thought I was a monster too." Lu Ten says softly.
A surprise confession.
A sincere confession.
Azula and Lu Ten don't lie to each other.
Azula had not seen this coming. She is aghast that her wonderful cousin could think such a thing about himself. "You weren't ever a monster Lu Ten. You only pretended to be for our game." She says forcefully. It was only make-believe.
Lu Ten sits on her bed and stares at his hands a second, before he looks up. He looks her in the eye. She knows that look. She sees it in the mirror sometimes in summer.
"It wasn't a game in Ba Sing Se. kids were hurt because of me. Kids died because of me. They called me a monster. They called me a butcher. And they were right." Lu Ten says, guilt closing his throat around the word "right".
Azula understands this feeling. The throat closing guilt. It stops you from saying sorry, even if you want to.
The face in the mirror during summer is a guilty face. Lighter clothing for everyone means that she sometimes gets a look at a starburst shaped scar on her brother's chest. It pokes out from light shirts. It gleams at her from the sides of tunics. It itches in the heat...and Zuko scratches it. She tries her best to pretend she doesn't see that lightning scar. She tries to forget that actually happened. But her face remembers...and reminds her.
Azula goes and sits next to Lu Ten. She places her hand on his back. She is awkward and unused to comforting others, especially not her brave, beautiful cousin, who always seemed so strong. "But you didn't mean for that to happen." Azula says softly with certainty. She says it like intentions make all the difference.
"No I didn't. But it happened all the same. I still feel bad about it. " Lu Ten replies. His voice says that he knows full well what the road to hell is paved with.
His confession is so raw and honest – Azula feels it is only fair to match it with a confession of her own. She hesitates as she speaks. "I didn't mean to nearly kill Zuko... that time with the lightning... But it happened all the same... I still feel bad about that."
There is a silence between them for a second. A shared secret silence. Azula now knows that she is not the only person who has felt this way. She feels less alone right now. There is a moment. This moment between them is one of those pesky, blasted Moments...full of feelings.
But Moments aren't so bad, actually.
This one is warm and comforting, like hot toddies in winter.
"Have you told him?" Lu Ten asks flatly.
"What?" Azula is confused.
"That you feel bad about it. That you are sorry." Lu Ten clarifies.
"No. don't be silly." Azula replies with a dismissive wave. She doesn't do apologies. Even if she wanted to, she couldn't. The guilt closes her throat and stops her from saying the words. Zuko's never asked for the words anyway.
"You could, you know...you could say sorry. Saying sorry does wonderful things. It would be something to build on. A solid foundation. A start at least." Lu Ten suggests, before adding "It might make you feel less bad."
"Doubtful – feeling sorry hasn't made you feel less bad after all." Azula states simply.
"That's because I can't do anything with this guilt. I cannot tell those children how sorry I am. I can't make it up to their families. I can't ever atone. I'm actually, literally, properly dead, you see..." Lu Ten retorts instantly. His untimely death is evidently a sore spot for him. Understandable sore spot, really.
"But it's different for you." Lu Ten says with certainty, before explaining himself. "That's why I wanted to show you the future so badly. I thought that if I could help you..." Lu Ten trails off here, as if he foresees that all his hopes for Azula go unfinished.
Suddenly he turns and takes her by the shoulders. He says urgently "You can atone, My young Miss Azula. You have choices...You are still yet living. There is blood in your veins and thoughts in your head and so many possibilities before you."
He lifts her chin and tilts her head, so that she is looking out the window. "Think about the world outside Little Dragonfly. Surely there are some things you wish to do out there."
It is a clarion call. A call to action.
She could go forth into the world. She could say sorry. She could atone. She could build her life anew.
One day there will be a city that if full of people starting over again, and there will be a place for her there.
Azula wants to rise to the challenge, but she can't help but snap churlishly "The world outside sucks." She says this forcefully, because she is certain that it does. It sucked before she came to the institution. Her Dad sucked. Being lonely sucked. Being special sucked. Almost everything in her life sucked.
Being in the hospital doesn't suck.
Hiding here is so much easier than facing what she did.
Facing what she did will suck too – Azula is sure it will.
"The world doesn't always suck. It's not always bad. Sometimes it is so good you heart fills up with it." Lu Ten says, as he looks out the window too. Light is filling the sky. Sun up soon. Time is fleeting.
"But it's filled with bad things. Even the things that are meant to help you, like lifeboats and brothers, they can end up hurting you." Azula retorts, almost pleading for Lu Ten to give her an excuse to stay.
"That is true. There is always the risk of pain and sadness. That is the risk that you must take." Lu Ten, always honest with her. He doesn't tell her that she wont be sad or hurt. He doesn't demean her intelligence and say that there is no risk involved in venturing forward.
The sun creeps over the horizon.
Lu Ten has something he dearly wishes to say. He wastes no more time in saying it. The sunrise waits for no man, ghost or spirit after all. His young strong body fades in the sunlight.
He's just a voice in her head now.
"Think of the world, My Little Dragonfly. Think about love and atonement and forgiveness and making peace with yourself. Think about hide and seek and the song that doesn't end. Think about putting one foot in front of the other and eventually coming to a better place. Think about roast goose and new carpets and motherly fussing. Think about living in the now and how love can make things possible. Think about the world and how it might not suck."
With the chiming sound of mother's chains and a soft sigh, the voice fades away.
Azula wakes a few moments after sunrise on Christmas morning. She knows that today is Christmas day. She doesn't need to ask passing beggars to be certain.
She turns her face to the light outside her window. She wakes up thinking on the world, and how it might not suck - because she knows that Lu Ten is telling her the truth.
He's the only one who has never lied to her after all.
She thinks about love and atonement and forgiveness and making peace with herself. She thinks about how if she wants to, and if she feels ready, she can send a message to her brother.
A message that says she would like to pass the day with him, like a "normal family".
He'll come and get her, because he always does.
She thinks about how she can go to feast where there will be some togetherness.
She can go out into the world for a day.
She can stand on her own two feet.
She can take a breath.
Take a step.
She can put one foot forward.
And then another.
We have reached the end of this dickensian adventure. I changed the tone of the "ghost of Christmas Future" chapter. Azula's problem is different from Scrooge's and so it needed a different approach. Still I hope you enjoyed it all the same. and I wish you all a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year my lovely readers.
Til next time...