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Author Topic: The Flame in the Mountains (Azula, Buddhism, PG)  (Read 1022 times)
Tamerlan Pahlavi
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Pride above all


« on: Oct 30, 2019 03:25 pm »



"You're trembling." Azula noted about the girl sitting on her knees before her.

The newcomer sat in the center of the room, surrounded by a semi random assembly of already established students, curiously looking at her. Though, their discipline, training and sheer decency prevented them from glaring too obviously. Something about the entire situation fondly reminded her of her old life. There she was, clad ceremoniously in long and elegant orange and red robes, sitting on a throne, looking down, enjoying more genuine authority and respect among her small kingdom than Zuko in his large one, despite technically ruling on his gracious sufferance. The only thing throning above her was a huge portrait of Guan Yin, the goddess of compassion.

Compassion.

Once an utter mystery, now her greatest weapon. It would have stayed one hadn't it been for old Hakuin, or Lao as he called himself, her second father, now only fondly and longingly remembered the way her real father was.

"I'm, I'm..." the girl stuttered. Moments dragged on without her being able to continue.

"Zhurin. Yes, I'm aware of your name. I had a good friend once who had the same one as you, long ago."

She paused.

"What I want to know is why you are here. Why did you traverse the long road to see me in this remote place? Or did you want to see the portraits? They were painted by my old teacher in his last days, unsurpassable, really."

The girl was just looking at her with wide eyes. Azula pondered. How can I make this beautiful little doll speak. She didn't have to wonder for too long however. Zhurin finally bowed down her head and cried out.

"I'm afraid. I'm here because I'm afraid. I'm so scared. Scared all the time and hate it. I hate myself for being so anxious, so timid, so useless. My... my... my parents sent me to the hospital after my boyfriend left me. I don't want to go back there, you are my last chance. I know you only teach the very select but please. I might not have worth, I failed school because I was too scared of going there but please. You are my last hope. I will do everything in my power to absorb your teachings, great and wise mother. Please take me in."

By the time she was done, she was in tears.

"Fear has the power the make you feel completely alone in the world, doesn't it?"

"Yes. I feel there is no one more pathetic than me."

"Don't be so proud of such an honor."

"I'm not proud, I'm just pitiful."

"No, you are not. There are world apart between pity and compassion, between what the ignorant give and what the great mother and her disciples teach. You came here for the latter and that's what you will receive... sister Zhurin."

The girl looked up at Azula again with an unbelieving stare.

"Truth be told. Every time a new student comes, I'm afraid. Afraid I will fail her."

"But, but, I heard your teachings are perfect. That you are perfect."

"And the more I succeed the more afraid I am to break the record. You will not fail because I have no intention of failing you. Therefore, it's time you get up. Sister Wu will show you your room and introduce you to everyone. You are expected to be on time for dinner. Before you are initiated you will have to undergo training. You will need to know how to keep this sanctuary in good order. Be ready to wake up with the rise of the sun every morning. Understood?"

"Yes. I understand." she said with a huge smile.

"I hope you are not deathly terrified of messing up housework."

Zhurin's smile quickly and noticeably vanished. The next instant one appeared on Azula's lips.

"You know. You might not believe it now but one day your demons will be your friends. Right now, for example, your fear. Remember, the thing to be most afraid of here is my displeasure and I will be very displeased if you don't at least try. Remember that and you will be able to face the all the cleaning tasks expected of you."

Zhurin nodded timidly.

"Dismissed. You can go now. I wish you a good night."

And so the new student left, attended by sister Wu while Azula remained with her most senior students to discuss matters of administration.

- to be continued -
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There is no refuge but in audacity. No salvation other than in strength.

"It is better to live one hundred years in wealth than seven days in poverty." - Bob Rock
Tamerlan Pahlavi
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 9147


Pride above all


« Reply #1 on: Nov 02, 2019 05:12 am »

After a quiet meal in the cantina Zhurin found herself in her new room. There were four simple yet comfortably looking beds, on one of them was a girl around her age, sitting cross legged, eyes closed.

"I...I... I didn't want to disturb. I'm sorry." Zhurin muttered apologetically. The girl opened her eyes and smiled warmly.

"Not at all. Meditation is important, but not as important as people."

Zhurin was somewhat dumbfounded but relieved. She never heard such a statement from her fellow students at school or teachers about any matter of training and learning. Unsure how to respond she froze silently.

"I was expecting you. Mother Azula told me to take care of you and explained me to you your situation. She wants to speak to you tomorrow before the formal sitting begins. Oh, and pardon my manners, I'm Karuna."

"Karuna." Zhurin finally said. "I never heard such a name before. What does it mean?"

"Joy for others. I used to be severely envious of other people and their happiness before I came here. Azula thought me how to find happiness in the fact that other people are happy. It was extremely difficult for her as it was for me but it became easier over time until it feels now natural. That's why she thinks I can help you with training."

"I'm happy that you are happy." Zhurin said, with an ease that surprised her. These women truly do seem different than the girls she used to be surrounded by.

"Thanks... I know that you are afraid and anxious, maybe even towards me and I don't want to dismiss it. Coming here proves that you take your issues seriously. So, if you have any questions, about me, Azula, the teaching, ask them when you feel ready."

"How did you do it? How did she do? I mean, I heard Azula was a much different person in her youth, terror and cold personified. Why is she so kind to us now? I want to understand how people change so I can change."

"People don't change, they just become better version of the selves they already are. But to put it into one word, it's compassion. The highest virtue and the greatest gift. Azula received it from her master and she is now transmitting it to us."

"This master. He must have been a great person."

"He wasn't particularly tall." Karuna joked "But he had a desire and sense of duty to help, and a knack for challenge. I met him once, he said Azula was his most difficult student and thus his greatest success. There is a picture of him in her room, I'd suggest you take a long look... but I digress. What I want to say is... Azula can put it better... compassion when received and given softens the hardest hearts but makes them stronger and dissolves all fears in face of all uncertainties."

"I don't remember the last time I was brave."

"This evening, when you opened yourself before Azula and the community and spoke frankly and from your heart. That was brave. You didn't lie and tell you wanted to be an awakened one for the benefit of all beings like some do, you told us your sincere desire."

"You were present?"

Karuna nodded and continued. "I suppose no one showed you genuine compassion for your fears before, only dismissed them and told you to be strong which made them even stronger and more terrifying."

"Am I so obvious?"

"To Azula, yes. But that's only because you two are not so different, she told me. When failure is an unforgivable offense it becomes inevitable that you one day cannot make a move at all, and when that is an unforgivable offense too, that's where the terror really begins."

"I... I..."

"It's OK, it's maybe time to sleep. I hope I put you somewhat at ease. Like I said, Azula is much more wise. She will want to figure out what exercises to give you and what to teach you first."

"I feel like I won't be able to sleep now, it all sounds so big and important and if I mess that up."

"You must be exhausted. Let that feeling gently guide you to rest. Even the most awakened person needs deep slumber to remain fresh... but if you have problems with dreams I can teach you how to wake up from bad ones and invoke better ones. Want to do that first? Dream meditation was a specialty of old master Hakuin."

"That would be... that would be amazing. I... I always tried to escape my fears through sleep but they started following me even there."

"So..." Karuna smiled "Lets begin."

-to be continued-
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There is no refuge but in audacity. No salvation other than in strength.

"It is better to live one hundred years in wealth than seven days in poverty." - Bob Rock
DynaDratina
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #2 on: Nov 04, 2019 08:25 am »

Hooray, an Azula fic! I like how you start the story with Azula already having completed her journey towards healing/enlightenment and having made herself into a teacher to others. I can see how compassion would be one of the most important things she learned. It's sort of a gateway to everything else, because first and foremost, she'd have to have enough compassion towards herself to forgive her own faults, and then she'd have to have compassion for others so as not to judge them or hold grudges against them. I'm also curious about her teacher and how Azula came to meet him. This story seems to follow Zhurin so far, but maybe we'll get some Azula-POV flashbacks too?

As for Zhurin, she seems a likeable character, but it would be nice to learn a bit more about her so that she doesn't end up flat. Her backstory was interesting, and already her parents seem a bit peculiar for sending her off to a hospital after her breakup. (Because who does that o.O...) I hope we get a bit more information about that event.

Quote
"Yes. I feel there is no one more pathetic than me."

"Don't be so proud of such an honor."
That was such an Azula thing to say. Haha.

Azula seems to have retained some of her former perfectionism, but now she channels it into charitable actions. That's another thing I really like about this - enlightened Azula is still clearly Azula; it's just that she's learned to turn her more destructive personality traits into something less harmful to herself and others.

Anyway, I'm really excited to see where this goes! I hope you update soon!
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Tamerlan Pahlavi
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 9147


Pride above all


« Reply #3 on: Nov 04, 2019 02:14 pm »

"Is that him?" Zhurin asked with curious fascination, looking at the medium sized portrait of master Lao in Azula's room.

"Yes, that's him. Do you like it?"

Zhurin nodded excitedly. "He's so..." she hesitated before she said it "handsome. When was this painted?"

"Shortly before his passing."

"I can't believe he died so young."

"He didn't. He was old when he died. I painted it the way I remember him most fondly, the way he was when I met him, strong and in his prime."

"You painted it yourself?"

"Perfection, isn't it?" Azula keenly observed her reaction. After all she took great pride in her work. She labored and tweaked for months and countless drafts until the painting perfectly matched her recollection of him. She poured all that he thought her about the mind at work until she considered the painting the perfect tribute to the man and his teachings.

"Yes, my little brother paints but this... this is sure far above all his abilities."

Azula glanced at her with satisfaction, and with a small smirk. A moment later she asked: "You seem to be fond of your brother, more so than your parents, am I right?"

Zhurin's face saddened: "He burned my father on the day he took me to the hospital. I'm sure he hasn't forgiven him."

Azula listened with calmly but with interest. "Your brother brought you here, isn't that so? I read his letter that he sent here, asking us to take you in. He has nice handwriting, perhaps he would be a better calligrapher."

Zhurin smiled: "I will tell him when I meet him again, I hope he's OK."

Azula made her mental notes, if her brother could be so brave for her, perhaps she could kindle that bravery in Zhurin for him. As Hakuin would say, caring is the start of strength.

"Do you miss him?" the girl asked looking at the portrait again.

"As much as I miss my own father..." she glanced at the picture of Ozai she had on the other side of her chambers "but he will never truly die as long as I'm alive, and certainly after I'm gone as well he and I will live on through the people we taught... that's what glory and immortality is all about pretty girl."

"So how did you meet him?" I heard stories and rumors but... I want to hear it from you. If I'm allowed of course."

Azula's mind recollected all of it in a sudden instant. As she got older, instead of fading, the memories got more stronger and vivid. She would tell Zhurin the short of it but in her mind she could picture the entire scene in all it's detail.

It was in a semi-remote forest in the Fire Nation colonies. She'd been on the run for some time, evading detection, hoping to disappear from all, from herself, and the demons still plaguing her mind. She tried spiritists and exorcists but the voices and visions wouldn't go away. She hated admitting it but she was desperate. After a long search, she found the man she heard rumors as a great healer and helper, sitting on a stone, overlooking the mid spring valley.

"Are you the man known as Lao?"

He opened his eyes and turned to her and politely got up.

"Who cares to know?"

"It's bad manners to answer a question with a question. I asked first."

He observed her for a long moment, her ragged clothes and her tired look.

"I heard you were a great healer and a wise man but you look more like a deserter." she taunted.

"Never!" The insult obviously hit but he was more calm than she expected. "I served my nation to the bitter end."

"So what are you doing here?"

"Picking up the pieces, helping the men and women thrown adrift and discarded in this new great era of peace. Men and women who served loyally and who now know not how to go on. I set them on the path the great Mother laid for us all. But what would you know young lady, by the looks of you you are an escaped convict."

Now the insult hit back. This obviously wasn't some fuddly cuddly weakling. She couldn't tell his firebending ability yet but bodily he seemed strong and he seemed to be on the right side of the tracks as well.

"Maybe I am but I heard you help everyone sincerely seeking it, yet you don't look like a wise man."

"And how do you picture such a man?" he asked with admirable restraint.

"I'm not sure. Fat, bearded, jolly, with an overly great love of tea and pai sho..."

The man known as Lao shed a bitter laugh. "You are describing somebody I knew, someone I once served with faith. Someone who let his nation and the world at large down."

Azula's interest was peaked: "How so? People seem to praise that man to now end yet you seem bitter towards him?"

"How could I not? When he had the chance to end the war for good and become the ruler we all under him believed he deserved to be he let personal loss blind him and retreat from the great task he was honor bound to finish, taking the enemy capital. He dishonored the sacrifice we made for him, he abandoned us for the spirit world, he allowed to war to go on for five more bloody years with countless victims on both sides and he even allowed his brother to take the throne from him, retiring to his tea and pai sho instead of repairing the damage he did. I begged him to go on, urged him with all my wisdom and might but he just wouldn't listen to me, or men like me."

"But he lost his only kid." Azula added flatly.

"I lost my only kid as well! For him!" he regained his composure after a long deep breath. "For his glory and prestige. He disgraced himself and he disgraced us, me and my son."

Azula couldn't quite agree on what she felt at the moment, she rarely felt it for people other than her father and great ancestors but it was beginning to feel like admiration. Yet there was something else harder to describe even as he talked about his son, for it hit her very suddenly. She let him continue:

"Years later, when the city finally fell, brilliantly, without spilled blood. I found the place where my son died and celebrated in his honor and in honor of the person who delivered the city."

Now it was flattery, clearly.

"But enough of that traitor. I ask again, who are you?"

Azula, now feeling secure in having found someone loyal finally said:

"I'm that man's niece."

-to be continued

Logged

There is no refuge but in audacity. No salvation other than in strength.

"It is better to live one hundred years in wealth than seven days in poverty." - Bob Rock
Tamerlan Pahlavi
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 9147


Pride above all


« Reply #4 on: Nov 07, 2019 05:07 pm »

Lao's eyes noticeably widened as he stood still.

"That's a pretty bold claim..."

Without speaking a word, Azula lifted her hand and ignited and ignited a spark of her signature blue fire. Lao took a step back and set down on his rock again. Lifting his eyes to meet hers he said:

"So is it true?"

"Is what true? I just proved to you who I am." she said indignantly.

"That you were locked up in a madhouse after the war?"

"It is."

"Were you at least treated right, with respect and dignity?"

Azula looked away and sighed.

"I'm so sorry." Lao told her in the kindest of tones.

"Don't pity me, don't you dare."

"I don't." he said: "I'm feeling compassion."

"What's the difference?" she asked, now looking back at him tauntingly.

"Pity is the near enemy of compassion, though people mix them up they are worlds apart. When you pity someone you see their pain and distance yourself from them, hoping it won't catch. Compassion on the other hand is when you sincerely feel the suffering, you embrace the pain of the other person and are moved by a desire to help."

Azula listened keenly, carefully, each sentence stirring something.

"And what would you know of my suffering?" she snapped.

"I've been at war half my life, I've seen a lot. I've seen men go mad with boulder shock and I've seen where they take them and how they are treated, punished for their humanity. Discarded as weak despite all their bravery and effort. It pains me to hear that someone as young and accomplished as you had to go through the same."

"So you will help me?" Azula finally said.

"To the best of my ability."

"And how will you accomplish that?"

"I'll teach you what I know."

"So what teachings are those?"

"The teachings of the Tathagata, the Awakened One, the Great Mother of Compassion, Guan Yin."

"And who's that?" Azula asked with suspicion.

"The woman of my island who recognized suffering and the truth behind it and in her mercy decided to help all beings with her insights."

"But you said Iroh was weak and a traitor? So what makes me worthy to receive such wisdom? Why would you teach me."

"He is, and I'm not taking that back. I'm only human as well. My anger with him is my own issue... maybe I would forgive him if he apologized to me... but that's a what if. You are here now before me, asking for my help. You are right, I do help anyone who sincerely needs it."

"But why? Why do you do that?"

Hakuin laughed: "Well, it's a fun story. When I was very young I was very unruly and the priests told me about the realms of Hell and the beings trapped there and their suffering in vivid detail. I was so scared, traumatized even. I decided that such suffering is an injustice that cannot be borne, that neither I nor anyone else no matter how rotten deserved to suffer forever. I looked for a solution. I told my parents and they told me about Guan Yin and how in her great compassion she saved beings from such destinies. Ever since I followed her teachings."

"But you've been to war, you killed for our nation."

"I was moved by compassion for my kin. One side in this great war had to win. I was convinced victory would bring peace... and it did. It's just that it wasn't our side that won. Now we all live on the victor's mercy."

Azula pondered all that has been said. If nothing else, this man seemed ever more interesting to her.

"So, what should we do first? Do you have any great wisdom from your goddess for me right now?"

"Right now? Right now I invite you for tea. You look like you could use it. That, and a bath and some new clothes. My dojo is not too far. I'll introduce you to my wife."

"I thought you were some lone hermit?"

Lao laughed.

"A common misconception. I'll tell you more on the way."

-to be continued
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There is no refuge but in audacity. No salvation other than in strength.

"It is better to live one hundred years in wealth than seven days in poverty." - Bob Rock
Tamerlan Pahlavi
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Posts: 9147


Pride above all


« Reply #5 on: Nov 14, 2019 02:26 pm »

After a moderately long walk Azula and Lao found themselves sitting on the floor in Lao's small yet comfortably assembled living room.

"I hope you like ginseng tea. It's a favorite of our common friend perhaps but it's still good, good for the mind even."

Azula sipped the tea wordlessly, ignoring the subtle hint, wagering Lao would take her silence as a thank you. Visibly undisturbed, he continued:

"So, my honored guest. What ails you? What is it that you seek."

She put the cup down carefully and looked him straight in the eye.

"My mind."

"And how does this disturbance manifest?" Lao asked with a calm and sincere tone. He of course heard rumors about what happened to the once mighty princess but he considered it the right and polite thing to hear it from her own mouth.

"I see visions, and I hear voices. I want them gone. By now I don't really care how. Make it happen." she said, the last words with the commanding sharpness she was familiar with.

"And what kind of visions and voices do you see?" he said with barely a pause, undaunted by her tone.

Azula breathed in deeply before saying the next words: "It's my mother."

Lao's eyes widened a bit, then he went on: "I've met men who hoped I would grant them the power of visions through my teachings. Some would have certainly given their all to see a loved one."

"She is not my loved one." Azula added with a contained rage she hoped Lao would sense.

He carefully paused: "I've met men seemingly rotten to the core, steeped in every vice who still loved their mother. But I don't know yours... maybe she was a monster."

The words hit her like a sudden strike, her mind wondering if she heard the man right.

"...I... you really are ignorant. It was I who was the monster."

"And do you think you are one?"

"My mother certainly did. My brother, my uncle..."

"I'm not asking about their perception. I'm asking whether you consider it true?"

Azula kept silent, strategically, or so she hoped.

"I see..." Lao said "Either way it must hurt to viewed in such a way. None of us is truly invulnerable to other people's feelings about us. In your visions, does your mother taunt you, denigrate you, call you things again and again?"

"Worse... she lies. She claims she loved me, that she cared for me, that she was never afraid of me."

"And did you want to be loved by her?" he asked, his tone still calm but far from distant.

"What difference does it make?"

"Neither lie nor truth, neither her love nor hate for you would disturb you so much if you didn't care."

Azula had to supress the boiling lake of fire and rage burning up in her. How dare this man, whoever he might be presume to know her.

He sensed it.

"Forgive me. Whether you cared about her or not is for you to decide. It is however natural to desire the care and love of others, especially family. What she did and said to you hurt you. I can see your anger clearly written all over you."

"So you too think I'm a danger. An angry beast that needs to be chained?!"

"Let me speak." he said firmly.

"Our anger is our natural reaction to injustice. You wouldn't be shaking with rage if you had no sense of right or wrong or didn't care about those things. Clearly, you've been wronged."

Again, she didn't believe she was hearing what she heard. Iroh would have certainly never spoken that way, not to her. Where was this man before and why hadn't she heard of him?

She remembered to breathe.

"Will you help me get my revenge?"

"I will help you heal. There is no greater revenge than that."

"How...?"

"Give me time. I know justice cannot wait but I cannot impart you all the teachings in one night."

"You can try to, now!"

"I think first you need a new name. Some around here, for various reasons might not be able to handle your true identity  well. What about... Avida?"

"It has a nice ring to it. What does it mean?"

"Ignorance."

Azula didn't know whether she should laugh, or take it as an insult and rage.

"You have some nerve calling me that."

"I think it's appropriate, you came to learn. Let this be the first lesson, we all suffer because we don't know our true nature."

"And what is that true nature of mine. What is it like?"

"Fundamentally good." he said without a second's delay, looking her straight in the eye.

This time Azula laughed. It was too funny, a wise man calling her a good person.

"So you think I'm some innocent little girl lost in the woods, all full of sunshine and rainbows?"

"No, that's not what goodness is. Goodness is justice, which your anger shows you have. Goodness is compassion and many other things we are all born with. We might not develop them or show them, but they are there and they all bring lasting happiness and calm."

"So what about monsters?"

"Even the worst people have the seed of good. Like the sun on a rainy day, it is merely obscured by illusion. The illusion might be powerful but it can be disbanded, the sun cannot. We live in a world of two truths, the truth of illusion and the truth behind it."

"What's that last remark supposed to mean?"

"Gaun Yin saw the truth of our good nature clearly, others did not. I cannot say perceptions aren't real but they are not always true."

"So will I learn to see it? See this so called "good" Azula, I mean Avida?"

Lao smiled. "You will."

"When will it happen?"

"It could happen tomorrow in our first sitting, or years from now. But you will see glimmers of it more and more the more you practice and cultivate your garden, until realization sprouts like a bamboo stalk, almost instantly and with no warning."

"Did it happen to you?"

"I wouldn't be teaching you if I wasn't convinced."

Azula was prepared to ask another question when the door suddenly knocked.

-to be continued
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There is no refuge but in audacity. No salvation other than in strength.

"It is better to live one hundred years in wealth than seven days in poverty." - Bob Rock
DynaDratina
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« Reply #6 on: Nov 20, 2019 04:41 pm »

So we finally meet Lao. It's interesting how Azula has paintings of both him and Ozai on her walls and seems to have fondness towards both of them. It must have been Lao who taught her how to understand and forgive her father's faults, since I imagine Azula would go through a phase of hating Ozai once she realized how he had used her.

Anyways, Lao pretty much matches my intuition of an ideal Azula mentor. He's caring enough to let Azula be vulnerable around him, but also strict enough to maintain her respect. I especially like how they bonded over their mutual distaste for Iroh. I've been waiting for somebody else to develop this angle on Iroh abandoning Ba Sing Se, because honestly I'm convinced that most of the army did not take his decision well at all. They just spent six hundred days sieging the city, presumably losing thousands of their own number, likely including the sons/family of some of the other officers. Yet Iroh kept on going and only stopped when his own son died. That sort of screams double standards. And not only did Iroh himself stop, but he literally made everyone else under his command stop too and caused all their effort to go to waste. That's not really what you do when you're trying to win a war. The least he could have done was make his retirement personal and let someone else take his place as commanding general.

Obviously I understand why he didn't - Lu Ten's death was such a shattering event that it turned Iroh against the war. And the show did a great job making Iroh's actions plausible from his own point of view. But at the same time, I can't blame Lao for forming a bad opinion of Iroh because of it. In fact, I'd be surprised if no one in the Fire Nation had, canonically. And I don't blame Azula for sharing his mindset in "Zuko Alone". It doesn't make people like Azula or Lao evil to think this way - they were just upset that someone they had counted on in that moment failed them.

I also like how Lao makes clear that Azula essentially has a moral compass, but was led astray due to hurt and anger. That's the way I've always seen her too. What she needs is to sort through that hurt so that she stops seeing everything through its lens.

Quote
"I will help you heal. There is no greater revenge than that."
True words.

I like how Azula has to change her name. I bet it's not the one she would have wanted, haha.

Anyways, this is peppered with great ideas and philosophies, and they all fit really well in the context of an Azula-healing story. I hope you'll keep writing this!
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Tamerlan Pahlavi
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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Pride above all


« Reply #7 on: Nov 29, 2019 08:26 am »

"Come in." Lao said in a cheery tone. The knock didn't seem to surprise him as much as it irritated his guest.

The door opened, a young woman entered. By the looks of her she was maybe five or six years older than Azula. Lao got up, closed the distance between them and kissed her quickly yet lovingly. The woman then looked away from him, then to new person in the house then back to Lao and said:

"You picked up a flower. Quite a beautiful one I must say."

Azula didn't know what to make of that comment. She's been called beautiful before but looking back she wasn't sure if anyone ever really meant it or if they just said it not to displease her. Her father certainly never commented on it, only on her strength and accomplishment. She looked back at the couple unflinchingly, waiting what Lao would do next.

"She's her own person I'm afraid, but I will pick you the finest bouquet soon when your favorites come in season."

The young woman smiled. Lao sensing it was about time put an arm around her, turned to Azula and said:

"This is my wife, Maitri. And this, my dear, is our new student..." Azula starred at him intensely, carefully weighing what he would say. "Avida."

"I see you already got a new name. I assume you must have a great willingness to learn then." she said in a friendly, slightly cheery tone. Azula, not knowing whether she should feel comfortable talking to this new person shot a question to Lao the way she used to shoot lightning:

"I thought you had a grown son."

"Oh!" Lao laughed. "I understand. Well, Maitri is my second wife."

"What happened to your first?" Azula added without pause.

"She divorced me."

Her curiosity was quickly peeked: "Why, did she not have enough compassion for you or something?"

"Perhaps you could put it like that. She couldn't forgive me the fact that I took our son to war."

"I see." A certain feeling started creeping up in her, not unlike the one she had when he first talked about his fallen son. He really did sacrifice all for the nation, she thought. Perhaps it would be appropriate to add something but she didn't quite knew how to do it. "I'm..."

"It's OK, he will never forget her but he is happy with me now and that's all that matters." Maitri added before the pause could become uncomfortable. "I hope my husband will be the person you need. He helped me and I feel he could help you." She spoke in a tone that was clearly very friendly, despite not knowing her at all. Something in it all reminded Azula of her oh so cheery and kind former friend Ty Lee. With a sudden dose of spite she said:

"You said I was beautiful, aren't you afraid I'll take him away from you?"

Maitri smiled widely and laughed heartily: "I'm afraid it will take much more than good looks to accomplish that. Neither you nor I are the only beautiful women around here. He chose me because I knew a secret which I'm afraid I'm not gonna tell you. But..." she added warmly: "should you start fancying some nice young man around here, tell me and I'll make it happen, promise."

Azula now remembered with awkward pain the time she tried to get a boy to like her and how quickly it all turned to ash when in her passion for him she revealed her true colors. She now had to force herself not to look in any way embarrassed so she kept staring at Lao's wife and said:

"I never heard a name like yours, what does it mean?"

"Friendliness."

"How fitting. Were you always this eager to please people you don't know?"

Something must have hit Maitri now for she looked back at Lao for a long moment until he nodded to her.

"I actually hated people with a passion before I met Lao. I think you could learn a thing or two about kindness too. It's not about pleasing people to get something from them but about seeing their humanity and appreciating it. It's also the antidote to the pain of anger and hate."

Azula turned to Lao: "I thought you were the teacher here. You also told me my anger was just."

Lao stepped forward and sat back down to Azula, inviting Maitri to do the same. "My teachings would be worthless if others weren't able to pass them on; and neither I nor Maitri are saying your anger is unjust, only that it is still a burden to bear it. If not released in a productive way it becomes a painful shackle and I think with all sincerity that you deserve to be free."

Again, Azula was stunned by this man. Here he was speaking about her deserving to be free while somewhere around there, her brother, uncle, former friends and the enemies of their nation they befriended were all searching for her, eager to put her back in prison.

"So how can I do that, how can I be free?"

Lao paused for an intense moment: "Tonight, when you go to bed, I want you to do your first exercise. Maitri will help you with this. Put your right hand on your heart and your left hand on your stomach and repeat these words until you fall asleep. May I be happy, may I be at peace, may I know joy, may I be loved."

Azula was skeptical and it showed in her eyes. Seeing this Lao went on:

"The exercise is simple yet powerful. It might sound silly at first but you will feel its effects the more you practice it. I feel in your life you lacked compassion, both from others and towards them. So, I want you to develop it. From all that I heard about you I got the conviction that you are very dedicated and persistent at whatever you do and take great pride in your achievements. So, why not achieve happiness?"

Despite speaking calmly and with care, his words were still a challenge, and she hated backing down.

"Alright, I will do what you recommend." Despite not smiling, he looked relieved. "I have just another question for you. Is Lao even your real name?"

"No, it's Hakuin. Lao was the name of my son. I honor his memory by bearing it."

That night Azula went to bed in Maitri's room, freshly bathed and in new clothes. Tomorrow, she would be introduced to the other students and get a bed in the women's rooms. Her thoughts were running in all directions, trying to settle the events of the day. She couldn't quite sleep despite being rather tired so she started doing the exercise as both Lao and later Maitri instructed. It was good that it was a silent exercise for she couldn't speak the words aloud. After a while she felt a tingling of warmth in the area of her heart. It was pleasant, yet unbearably painful for it reminder her of all the people in her life, other than her father, who've been around her for years but never provided her even an inch of what Lao gave her in merely a day. Yet she hadn't spoken a word of thanks or apology to him. Thus, she decided not to repeat the phrases for herself anymore. Instead, in a voice barely audible to herself she spoke: "May Lao be happy, may he be at peace, may he know joy, may he be loved."

Years later she would teach this very exercise to Zhurin.

-to be continued
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There is no refuge but in audacity. No salvation other than in strength.

"It is better to live one hundred years in wealth than seven days in poverty." - Bob Rock
Tamerlan Pahlavi
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« Reply #8 on: Dec 02, 2019 02:32 pm »

Zhurin listened as Azula spoke: "So, I want you to do this exercise before you go to sleep as well. Actually, you will do it today in the formal sitting and at every chance you get too. I believe it must be very hard for you to think positively about yourself but try it, with all sincerity and effort you can muster. Think of yourself as not yourself but as if you were somebody you were entrusted to take care of."

"I'm afraid I don't quite understand. How can I look at myself like that?"

"Imagine you were your brother. He might not use the techniques we teach but his feelings are just as sincere and that matters even more. Once you can feel for yourself the love he must have for you the way you see yourself, feel about yourself will change. This love will give you strength and his bravery will become yours."

Zhurin listened wide eyed, moved by every word. For her, the words were understandable but it was almost like listening to a foreign language for no authority in her life had ever described bravery in those terms before. However, she couldn't escape her doubts in an instant quite yet, and she had many questions still.

"Is that why you were such a fearless warrior back in the war. Because you loved someone?"

"My father." Azula told her without pause.

"And, this technique..." Zhurin wasn't sure if she dared asking. Seeing her mentor's inquiring look she finally dared saying the words that were on her lips: "Do you ever perform it for your own brother as well?"

Azula paused for a long moment, closing her eyes. She finally, curtly and silently spoke:

"Yes."

Moments passed in silence, many words and questions floated around unspoken. Zhurin finally decided to leave them like that. Instead, she asked:

"Back then, before your first sitting with the students of Master Lao, were you nervous?"

Azula uttered a brief laugh: "Probably not as much as you are now but despite all instructions I wasn't sure what to expect either."

"And what were those instructions and preparations."

"You want to get into my good graces by getting me to reminisce about the good old times all day, don't you?"

"I-I... I didn't mean to influence you or anything! Please forgive me!"

Azula simply couldn't find it not amusing how easy it was to get under this girl's skin. Only years of training and the memory of Lao's stern look prevented her from exploiting the situation for her entertainment.

"Influence is a natural desire. We want to be liked and respected by the people we like and respect. The only sin is doing it wrong, through the wrong means, like seduction, blackmail or fear."

Zhuring felt at once relieved and even more intimidated. If even part of all she heard about her mentor in her youth was true then her arsenal of those wrongful means must have been impressive, and maybe it still was.

"But, we have time. It has been a while since I had a new student. If you don't mind an older woman going on about her youth I wouldn't mind telling you a bit more about it all. What interests you most?"

"You said you had a good friend who had the same name as me. I'm curious."

"That's perhaps a story for another time but I tell you this, she was brave, foolhardy perhaps. She was the only one who dared talking to me when I was at my worst."

"You mean back in-"

Azula just glanced at Zhurin, who instantly understood the answer to her question and that it would be better not to say the word.

"But back to my first morning with Lao..."

-to be continued
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There is no refuge but in audacity. No salvation other than in strength.

"It is better to live one hundred years in wealth than seven days in poverty." - Bob Rock
Tamerlan Pahlavi
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« Reply #9 on: Dec 07, 2019 05:17 am »

"How did you sleep? I hope you rested well." Maitri asked. Lao, Azula and her set together in the common room of Lao's hut and drank morning tea to wake up, breakfast itself was to be had together with the other students where "Avida" would be introduced.

Azula gave her a slightly mistrustful and annoyed look. She still wasn't sure how to act around her. Her demeanour was perfectly friendly and kind. Not even her servants back at the palace could wake her up as gently as she did that morning yet this very fact irked her. How was it possible for someone who used to be so full of hatred by their own admission to be so polite to a stranger? She suspected that it couldn't have been quite so. People are what they, they don't change so easily. She was ever more reminded of Ty Lee, once her most loyal friend, always kind and polite as well, saying all those nice things about her... until she stabbed her in the back and never looked back.

"I think I need my tea first before I can reply." she said at last. Maitri, in her politeness didn't even smile, else she annoy her further so she let her be in silence until she almost finished the tea. When this was done however she couldn't resist to ask: "Did you do the exercise."

"I tried... but I couldn't. Am I a failure?" was all Azula managed to say. Sensing that she might not want to discuss this further with her Maitri looked at her husband who put down his own cup and said:

"No. But your question answers a lot. For many people I met it was very hard to feel benevolence towards themselves. When I said the exercise was simple I didn't mean to say it was easy. But the fact that you tried means you are on the path now. It's way to early to speak of failure yet."

Azula pushed the cup aside. She couldn't claim she was untouched by his words. This was not the way her instructors at court spoke about exercises, whether for firebending or otherwise. In her mind she began noting that with Lao you had to expect something unusual every time. She looked him in the eye and said:

"I don't understand how someone as soft as you could have served in the army for so long?"

Lao's reaction was hard to read but it was not dissimilar to when he was called a deserter by her.

"I told you I served out of compassion. What you call weakness, or, what I suspect you were taught to call weakness is actually my strength, a fire even stronger than my bending. I taught my men to fight for the same reasons and with the same fire as I and on the battlefield, we were rightfully feared... My commanders had similar reprehensions about me teaching the lessons of Guan Yin but our results outweighed their suspicions. I would therefore ask you for the same leniency."

Azula carefully listened, the controlled passion with which he spoke kindled something in her. Full understanding certainly not yet but interest for sure. After he was done she granted him a pause before she said: "And, you want to teach me that same fire so I will no longer be weak? Is that what you are saying?"

"Weakling, failure, monster. These are all your words, not mine. I suspect they are not even your words either but someone else's, just nesting and squatting in your head. Who do you think you failed?"

Part of her was again stunned, almost into silence but another part felt to urge to speak, to even fight:

"Tell me you are not blind. We have lost this war yet we could have triumphed. I failed my myself, my father, my nation and by extension you. All because I was weak when it counted the most and you want me to feel benevolent towards myself? You spoke of justice yesterday, and of my uncle Iroh. What kind of justice would it be if I just forgave myself the way he did and just ignored everything that happened, all the things I did or failed to do?"

Her emotions overtook her despite her effort to still be calm. At the mention of Iroh Maitri suddenly realised who Avida was. There was however, no time to waste reacting on that. The only thing that mattered to her at that moment was that her guest was clearly suffering so without thinking she put her arms around her in an effort to calm her down. Azula pushed her aside however, but not right away. This, she took as a good sign. When Azula finally seemed ready to hear a response Lao leaned in, put his arm on her shoulder and said in tone most serious and sincere:

"And this is why I'm teaching you, not him."

"What do you mean?"

"Only a person aware of their faults can truly appreciate forgiveness."

"You said you celebrated my name when the city fell. Did you curse me when I lost against my brother?"

"No. When I heard about your fate I didn't believe it, that's why I asked. I was sad beyond words, and I still am. I wish I could have been there for you but I will do my best to help you now."

Azula, now visibly in a better shape finally said the words she so rarely managed to say in her life:

"Thank you."

Lao smiled widely, relieved that his words and actions helped.

"I just have one more question before we go, we are running late. Your visions, when and how often to they appear?"

"I can never say, they just come and they are never convenient."

"I see. Do they come only when you are alone or with people?"

Azula pondered. For the past year and a half she was almost always alone, either in the wilderness or locked and restrained in her cell.

"Alone."

"Then you are not going to be alone any longer. Me, Maitri, the rest, we will all watch over you. Should they dare to appear come to us and we'll chase them away. Now, do you feel ready to go or do you need another moment?"

Azula looked at Lao, then at Maitri and smiled a small yet triumphant smile.

"I'm ready."

- to be continued
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There is no refuge but in audacity. No salvation other than in strength.

"It is better to live one hundred years in wealth than seven days in poverty." - Bob Rock
Tamerlan Pahlavi
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #10 on: Dec 08, 2019 10:03 am »

The common room was a far cry from the palace dining chambers but it possessed a regality of its own, and a certain warmth. Azula counted about fifty people, the women at one side of the wide table, the men on the other. She wondered if they sat according to seniority, with the oldest students most closely seated to Lao and Maitri. She sat on Lao's right, the guest of honor, something she certainly didn't feel unglad about. The food on the table wasn't lavish but it looked delicious and smelt appetizing. She could feel her stomach making sounds but she vowed to be restrained for Lao had certainly something to say and the other students weren't touching their food either.

"My honored and valued students, friends. Today I have the honor to introduce you to Avida, someone who like you all came here searching for a better life, for wisdom, compassion, freedom and hope. Someone who had it tough and who in her hour of need came to me looking for guidance and help. This reputation however would have been impossible without all of you who are now here and all of our friends who left us feeling healed. I would therefore like to extend my humblest thanks to all of you."

The assembled men and women smiled and murmured in approval, some even clapped or bowed their hands. Lao, looking happy and proud continued:

"Avida has began her journey yesterday with me but from today it will become a common journey with all of you. Like so many of you know, it can be a very intense, difficult path with many obstacles. Meditation itself especially can be a challenging experience, even for someone versed in it. I would therefore appeal to your compassion when meditating together today with her and not judge her if she gets distracted or disruptive."

Some looked at Azula with a curious fascination, some smiled warmly, some even waved and one boy her age looked at her in a way she couldn't quite make out. Their eyes met for a while. Feeling an unfamiliar sense of discomfort she decided to rather focus on Lao:

"Today we will focus on a lesson many of you are familiar with but it is a topic that never dries out, the Four Immeasurables, or Heavenly Abodes: Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity of Mind."

Azula carefully listened, especially at the mention of a peaceful mind.

"It bears noting that one cannot have the last quality without properly developing the first three. A mind that is kind to itself and others, which finds joy in the fact that others are happy and which seeks to help all suffering beings is a mind that can truly withstand the toughest disturbances. We will therefore do the fivefold exercise today for this morning hour before we focus on visualization in the afternoon and on calm abiding in the evening."

Azula felt again skeptical at his words but she listened with interest nonetheless. She looked around, except at the boy, and everyone seemed... calm, happy even. She wondered if it was sincere, the way she wondered about Maitri too. For a moment she was reminded of her father's war room. Everyone in those meetings was mindful, devoted and genuine to the cause. She felt an energy in the room now that was different but just as honest. She decided that she would keep listening and trying what Lao recommended no matter how absurd it might seem at first. She mastered difficult instructions before, she wasn't about to give up now before she even properly started.

"Now, before we eat I would like for us all to speak the three gems, the four promises and the five oaths together. I take refuge in the Mother, I take refuge in her teachings, I take refuge in her community."

The whole room solemnly repeated the words. It sounded like music.

"My faults are endless, I promise to amend them all. The suffering of beings is endless, I promise to help them all. The teachings of the Mother are immeasurable, I promise to learn them all. The path of the Mother is unsurpassable, I promise to walk it to the end."

Azula had to admit that she was impressed by the sheer ambition behind every promise, it was so typical of a true firebender, a true son or daughter of her nation to want to achieve the seemingly impossible. Once these people set out to conquer the wider world, now they were devoted to conquering their minds. She felt suddenly proud to be among them.

"I swear not to unlawfully kill. I swear not to steal. I swear not to lie. I swear not to engage in sexual misconduct. I swear not to intoxicate myself."

The last two were easy, Azula thought. Although, she wondered if Lao and Maitri ever broke the fourth. That, she would find out, she thought.

After the meal was done and the tables cleaned up, everyone slowly walked to the dojo, the large meditation chamber, where everyone assumed position. One cushion was assigned to Azula by Lao himself who told her how to properly sit. He himself took a cushion not different from anyone else's in the center of the room. When everyone was comfortably seated he began to speak:

"In this exercise we are going to focus on our hearts in order to calm our minds. We are going to focus on goodwill and benevolence."

Azula's ears sprang up, he's going to focus where they left off back in the house. She knew in an instant he would be speaking almost directly to her.

"First, we are going to start with ourselves. We are going to focus on the sensations in our heart area as we speak the following words: May I be happy, may I be at peace, may I know joy, may I be loved. I know it can be very difficult for some of you to do this. We might feel guilty for one thing or the other or simply consider ourselves undeserving of these things. Perhaps not unrightly. None of us feels a certain way without reason. But I want you to imagine yourselves in a different way. At this moment I want you to look at yourself through the eyes of a person who you know has fondness for you, someone who loves you despite your faults and shortcoming and who wishes the best for you. Speak the words then and they will feel more natural."

Azula could think of only one person who truly accepted her for what she was, who made her what she was... but she was far from sure if this person would forgive her. She tried nonetheless. Many minutes passed, the room was quiet except for the occasional sigh, heavy breathing or cough. Lao spoke of focusing on the sensations of the heart. She felt heaviness. The more she repeated the words the heavier it got for the doubt grew ever more heavy. Perhaps not even her father loved her, for he left her alone on the fateful day of the last battle of the war. Later, she would put the blame on herself. He had entrusted her with managing the affairs of the nation while he went out to fight and in her weakness and disturbed state of mind she failed to defend it from her traitorous brother.

"Next, I want you to speak the words again. This time not for yourself, but for the person you care most about, whoever it might be. Someone you naturally care for and for whom you have compassion in both their good times and their bad."

Again, her mind settled on her father.

"Perhaps, this person is suffering."

Back in the madhouse, Azula was told that her father was now nothing but a dirty prisoner, stripped of his power and pride, alone, with no friends or allies. Likely degraded and abused on a daily basis with nothing to look forward to. Lao's first words about compassion resonated loudly. But what could she do? Every time she thought about it that question pained her. She was told she would never see him again.

"Perhaps you cannot help them at this very moment but it's the sincerity of thought that counts. We all feel frustrated and powerless when we cannot concretely help but there is one thing we can do. Whenever you breathe in I want you to imagine that you are taking in all the suffering that beloved person. Feel it in your heart. With every breathe out I want you to focus on all the compassion you have for that person, all your goodwill and love. Transform that suffering by speaking the words and as your breath leaves your body send them peace."

Azula felt something on her face she hoped with panic no one would see, tears. "One day I will be back with you Dad, I promise." she whispered.

Lao did indeed focus his attention on her most of all. He could sense by the sound of her breathing what an intense moment it must be for her so he gave her enough time until he focused on the next part of the lesson.

-to be continued
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There is no refuge but in audacity. No salvation other than in strength.

"It is better to live one hundred years in wealth than seven days in poverty." - Bob Rock
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