When Ty Lee was young, she learned that people were pillars, the product of those that stood around them, and built up by those who loved them. And like pillars, people never stood by themselves, they held up what was inherited to them and grew into their burdens (responsibilities) with a duty that grew with the passing years, and even if she was only a child, she would understand in time.
Ty Lee had been young, and silly, and broken hearted that she hadn't been allowed to attend a birthday party in lieu of the advancing pace of her studies, and the merits of this allegory were lost. When she grew up, she left to chase her dreams someplace far away and with it all the stories and fables her nursemaid had told her remained forgotten.
It's only when she comes home that she remembers.
The stories they tell now are different, the fables have changed. They call Zuko brave and strong, and Mai, virtuous and unwavering. But whenever Ty Lee thinks about strength or virtue, she thinks about Azula's shoulders and the house she inherited, how the weight of her forefathers was so great she was unable to see what she held up.
Did I cut it away from you? She says in the sudden coldness that eludes the full autumn sun. Her whisper dies in the wind and leaves with the flutter of the window drapes. When she opens her eyes, Azula is still sleeping.
Lately, Ty Lee doesn't think about anything but the past.
Azula is painfully thin, her body worn away by the years of disuse and bondage. Her arms, once lean and hard with hinted lines of power that stood across her skin, are weak and translucent like paper and disappear beneath the spiraling bandages. The gauze begins at the elbow and ends under the metal fetters, and somewhere in the middle, Azula had decided that her dignity was more important than her life.
But as she watches Azula's breath rise and fall in shallow and fitful tremors, she knows that this is just another failure for the princess. The house of Sozin is cruel, even before Ty Lee sheared away Azula's strength.
"We have the same blood." Ty Lee had heard Zuko say in the empty cell that smelled distinctly like slaughterhouses and butcher carts. "We have the same parents." He said to the caked gore and drying blood that splattered across the stone walls. But what he really meant to say was that if his uncle was right, and that the lineage of Roku had saved him, there was no reason that Azula couldn't have been saved as well.
Ty Lee smiled at the memory because it was nice for him to think so. But if Azula needed saving, it wasn't in the way that Zuko thought. It was in a way that was much more complicated than just trying to change someone. Like with many things, Zuko's intentions were kind and at the right place, but always tempered by a certain degree of ineptitude.
Ty Lee doesn't sleep anymore. At best, she closes her eyes for minutes, and tries to be someplace that isn't a hospital room that reeks of disinfectant and the faint tang of human blood. The ease with which she slips through time scares her, and she wonders if maybe she's going delusional herself. Sometimes she's four years old, back in her parents' horrible villa and stuck in a mass of miserable sobs that wear her same face and parrot the words of drilled decorum and skin-deep propriety. Then she's six and is allowed (for the first time) to touch Azula's hand; behind them, her mother and Princess Ursa smile despondently at each other. Ty Lee is unstuck in time, pulling backwards and forwards and going places she had long forgotten about. The next time she closes her eyes, she's sixteen with paint on her face, her new uniformed boots splash into the sandy shores of Kyoshi Island and she realizes that the worst thing in the world isn't the death of one's aspirations, but how one's self-determination evaporates with it.
Ty Lee saw her first dead body when she was fourteen, fresh from the bright lights and musical notes of the circus, her muscles are hardened from acrobatic routines, and not from the fighting she would re-train herself to use in a month's time. The man's muscles were rotted and shrunken, his skin perforated like a wheat cracker from the shrapnel that they said had entered his body and melted his insides. Feces and blood ooze over the lines of the tarp that held him together. His bare feet were white and blue and the air smells like smoke, shit, and rotting flesh. Mai is plainly disgusted, but Ty Lee can't stop looking. She hates Azula then, powerfully and with more anger than she's ever hated anyone. She doesn't understand (until much too late), but she smiles through the entire war, afraid that her face will betray how much she wants to break down and cry.
Her dreams pass in the blink of an eye, but when wakes she feels like she's traveled through lifetimes that weren't her own. The light through the windows tells her that it's been hours since she sat down, and the way her spine has frozen against the frame of her chair makes her wince and feel too old for her actual age.
When she looks up, Azula is awake and staring at her.
At first, she thinks she's only stuck in another memory, and is too busy trying to place it to realize that this is real. Moments pass between them, and it feels like forever when it was really only seconds. Ty Lee's heart creeps into her throat and pounds furiously against her skin; something like fear sits at the base of her stomach and eats away at her reason.
Her voice is small and fragmented when she finds it. Distantly, she says Azula's name, more out of wonder than from the hopes of reviving the other girl from her weakened daze. She finds that she has so much to say, so many things she wants to ask. Knowing that Azula didn't die in the emptiness of a prison makes Ty Lee want to sob with relief, but underneath it, she doesn't dare hope for anything more.
Azula's eyes are scattered, flittering everywhere and too tired to focus on anything for more than a few seconds. They search the room around Ty Lee-untrusting the girl sitting next to her bed-grasping and searching for the edges of the room, trying to find where it ended and where it began. Devoid and passionless, Azula waits for it to evaporate around her.
"Azula, it's me." Ty Lee says, waiting breathlessly.
The princess' gaze returns between them, hovering in the space that begins at Ty Lee's insecurities and flowers under Azula's indifference. Ty Lee feels like she's been waiting for years, leaving home to places around the world, only to return and find that the world had moved on without her. She's sick of waiting, of running to places she doesn't know where. She's tired of looking for something to free her.
She's tired and she knows Azula is too.
"Where…" Azula's voice rasps like paper in a wet breeze, drawing in windy breaths that leave in heaving coughs.
"Um." Ty Lee is terrified to find that her wits have left her. She almost knocks over her chair in her haste to stand up. Instinctively, she gropes for the water jug that rests of the nightstand. She pours a cup of water and turns to the bed with thinly-concealed nervousness. Looking into Azula's wild eyes, she inhales a deep breath that she hopes would strengthen and quell the furious trembling inside her.
"Here." She says, leaning carefully to cradle Azula in her free arm, holding the girl's head against her shoulder. She places the cup to Azula's lips and watches her gulp the water down greedily, their fingers brushing together when Azula summons the most of her strength to try to save some semblance of her pride to grip the cup herself.
When she's done, they sit apart; Azula lying limp against the pillow with her face turned to the ceiling, and Ty Lee at the edge of the bed, stunned. The silence is tenuous and frays
Slowly with each heartbeat, each second that passes when Ty Lee looks at Azula's seventeen year old face. They've never been honest with each other, never anything like real friends. They were in fact, something else entirely, bound by a common tragedy. Azula had woken up in a world she couldn't live in. Ty Lee had grown to realize that neither could she.
"What place is this?" Azula said finally after a time. Ty Lee doesn't know how to respond.
"When is this?" Azula asks, as if it was supposed to help. "I don't remember this one." Her words were painful, coming quiet and labored. A weakened hand lifted itself in a halted path to her head, and confusion etches her face when she looks down at the chains that hold her bandaged arms to the bedsides.
In spite of herself, Ty Lee gently catches Azula's hand in her own, hoping that the trembling she felt was more in her mind that in her fingers. Opening her mouth to speak, she freezes when she looks into Azula's face and is silenced by its coldness, enthralled by the familiar animalistic fervor that boiled underneath. Ty Lee is reminded how she has always felt whenever the princess looked at her. How she felt before the Agni Kai. Trying to not be conspicuous, Ty Lee drops Azula's hand.
For a second, she doesn't know what to say, and stares back at Azula, and tries hard to not remember how small they used to be.
"You're in a hospital." She says before covering her eyes with her palms. "I mean-a regular one. They moved you here after…" She can't stop thinking about the hundreds of words Zuko had said to the palace officials and news readers. She can't stop thinking about all the lies they've been so good at saying, and how she promised herself that if (when) Azula woke up that she wouldn't be too angry. "After you tried to kill yourself." She should have known by now how hard it was to keep ill-made promises.
If any realization makes it to Azula, the princess doesn't show it. She remains motionless, sagging against the pillow and away from Ty Lee. In vain, the girl tries to decipher Azula's unreadable face, looking for a glimmer of a sign, anything to give away what could have passed for an emotion. But even at her most vulnerable, Azula seems to retain all the powers that keep her hard and immovable.
Ty Lee's voice is thick when she finds it later. "Do you remember that?"
The silence that answers her is hot and tight like Azula's bandages. It constricts and binds and holds together Ty Lee's pretenses. Something burns inside her throat, flooding her blood and howling against her thin skin. It feels suspiciously like a scream, or maybe a sob.
"You're so stupid." Someone says, and the way Azula's perfectly shaped eyebrows flicker upwards and her cool eyes regard Ty Lee disquietly tells her that she's done something she wasn't supposed to. She's shocked at her own words, her own audacity. But staring into Azula's expectant gaze, one that waited for her inevitable and hurried apology and shame, Ty Lee finds that she's not very sorry at all. She's not sorry for telling the truth.
Against the illumination of the open window, Azula's gaze seems all the more intense. Ty Lee sees her clearly for the first time and it feels like the darkness of the Wuhan cells was only a dream. Azula has grown so much, and Ty Lee's certain that the princess now towers over her by at least half a head. Her fingers are slender and delicate. Her face is longer, mature and beautiful even beneath its gauntness, and in close years would echo Ursa's memory more than the princess would care to admit. Azula had left imprisonment and entered the dawning years of her adulthood.
"You're so stupid." She says again. Her voice is louder, filling the room in a giant rush of her sudden defiance. It's cathartic and self-centered, a culmination of all she had wanted to say but couldn't before. Her voice is frantic and leaves in a frenzied stream, holding all of the sadness she hadn't shown and all the anger she couldn't afford. The irony of her murderous rage isn't lost on her, she could have killed Azula then, she could have throttled the princess and sent her back into that infernal darkness she had been so eager to find. But she saves herself and surprises both of them by grabbing Azula's collar and instead of slapping her like she had wanted to, ends up pulling them together.
"You're an idiot!" She screams. "How could you do something like that? How could you do that to yourself?" How could you do that to me? It feels like she's breaking into a million pieces, falling all over the floor and disappearing. Tears fall down her face and onto Azula's shirt, dotting a constellation, imprinting a story. She clings to Azula's form, drinking in the feeling of bone and warm skin and the beating of their hearts next to each other, and the final affirmation that Azula was alive. "You can't leave me. You can't-Azula, I…"
There's a confession somewhere, hiding beneath the things that she's refused to see, and all the things she's pretended to be. If she wants to, she can grab it and make it come alive. If she's brave, she can even say it.
But Azula smells like ash and blood, the remnants of a war lost a long time ago, when she used to smell like linen (in the mornings) and saffron (at night.) Ty Lee pulls away, ashamed at the bindings that holds the princess' arms to her sides, and her own feelings that she's forced between them. She doesn't dare look at Azula's face, which she imagines would be a furious mask of outrage. Realizing what she's done, she suddenly feels a mixture of mortification and sickness.
"I'm supposed to get a doctor." She offers to the stifling stillness, murmuring hollow words to the air. The creaky mattress complains as she rises and she's sure that Azula can hear the pounding of her heart against the wall of her chest. Her long-legged strides take her to the door faster than she can think about the gaze that follows her there, or about how easy it is to run away. She takes great care not to slam the door, and slumps against the other side of it, exhausted as if she's been running for miles and miles.
It feels like all she ever does lately is cry. Pride comes from small things, like smiles and laughter, and being the bravest person she can be. But she was being mean and heartless, and all the things she had blamed Azula for, while swearing that she would never do the same. It's petty and childish.
She takes huge gulping breaths to fight the tightening of her throat; her eyes pinched shut to stop the hotness from spilling onto her face. If she started hiccupping then there would really be no pretending, even if Azula was waiting behind three inches of steel and wood. She tries to remember that she was a soldier once, as well as a girl.
It doesn't take long for her to find someone, and it seems that almost half the hospital staff conjures themselves out of thin air to lead her back towards Azula's room. The passing looks they give her are pitying, and more than occasionally, frequented by a suspicious hostility. To them, she's an enigma, somewhere between a traitor to the old crown that Azula personified, and a pariah of the new liberalists that Zuko championed. It's a line she's learned to live on with poise and a cheerful resignation; her family had served Azula's for generations, new loyalties are hard to win and traditions are hard to break. She meets them with a breaking smile.
A veritable army marches back to the princess' room, and Ty Lee tries not to think about how gratuitous it seems, the messages they're probably passing off to the Imperial Palace, or even about her own feelings. She tries very hard to not think at all.
Two years has felt like forever, but the closer they get, the more she wishes she had more time.
When someone moves to push open the door, her thudding heart leaps into her throat and for a second she feels a violent irrationality that says that this is another one of her dreams, and instead of moving back in time she's moved forward, and she's imagined a fantasy where Azula was alive when she was really dead. Or that Azula had awoken and grasped her situation enough to reattempt what she had done before. The thought floods Ty Lee with horror and regret, and no matter how sincere she might have been, she wishes with a hungering desperation that she could take back what she had said.
It takes all her self-control to stop herself from storming into the room. But when the door opens, time hasn't really moved at all. Azula remains unmoving, lying frozen, with her eyes someplace far away. She's exactly as Ty Lee had left her, giving no sign to show that she acknowledged their presence or the swarming mass of physicians that moved to surround her bed in a strategic formation that was eerily militaristic. Ty Lee was impressed, Azula looked almost bored.
"Princess-" The head physician started with a clearing of his throat. But whatever he had wanted to say, it died with the airy and delicate raising of Azula's hand.
Azula possessed very little worldly things. As the Fire Nation's princess, she had owned vast monetary sums through personal spoils of war and hereditary land holdings. Combined with the profits derived from her family's investment in the country's industries, and being her father's sole legal heir, Azula had been the wealthiest of their generation. But the end of the war left little unchanged, Zuko had expropriated the monarchy's holdings in war enterprises and whatever personal accounts Azula had were frozen. Azula had nothing to her name, but an empty title. And a legacy of fear.
"Ahem." The doctor coughed, withering pathetically as Azula's demeanor grew from aloof to a rapidly climbing vexation. Her earlier lethargy seemed to fall off her inconsequentially as she rose like a coiled serpent. The entire entourage visibly fell back, shrinking from the girl who raked her eyes hungrily across their faces. Ty Lee felt a shiver strike down her spine (like lightning) as Azula's eyes stopped on her.
"Well then." He stammered, waving obscurely to his colleagues, who in turn glanced at each other in hesitation. Taking heart in that Azula was temporarily abated, it only took a slight ushering for them to descend on the princess in packs. They pressed around her, hurried and clambering to complete their tasks, their normally clipped precision tinged with a sense of urgency and panic.
"They're afraid of you." She said, once the staff had left, fully aware that neither of them had moved and that her comment was more of a useless narration than an honest attempt at conversation.
Azula sat in clean bandages and a new cotton shirt. Her tussled and unkempt hair gave her a distinctly childish look. It was slightly comforting, and she couldn't help but cling to it, cling to the black inky curls that spills over Azula's slim and pale shoulders and not on her own feet that have mysteriously decided to fasten themselves to the ground, to the trap that opens beneath her.
"But not you." Azula says, her voice pouring over Ty Lee like a thick honey, entrapping her in the thick amber of golden eyes. It sounds like magic floating over them, erasing Ty Lee's fears that Azula would try to recall what had happened between them.
"No." Ty Lee replies, suddenly and in the inexplicable absence of reason. She's lying, and Azula's wry and cruel smile signals a mutual acknowledgement, because Ty Lee still has nightmares about it. The moment where it took one second for her to decide, where she had sheared away Azula's strength in clean, sharp blows, and Azula's pillars had fallen around them as surely as if Ty Lee had pulled them down with her own bare hands. "And yes."
It feels like everything had been made for this moment, funneled into this singular point in time, towards this one last battle. She hoped that after this, Azula would finally be able to rest. Because Ty Lee had never been like Mai, who had always been clear and whose goal had been as true and steady as the flight of arrows, who wore her crown as brightly as she wore the halo of her new love. Ty Lee, has always been-and ever will be-as flickering and wild as the lancing, surging lightning that danced from Azula's fingertips.
"Why?" Azula's question crashes like a hammer, if only to belie the whimper that Ty Lee imagines had come from the princess' throat. As clear as day, Ty Lee can hear an age-old laughter, she can see a timeless smile that existed before the discovery of all-powerful Avatars, before princesses learned to don plate armor before their first ball gown, and before she learned that servitude meant burning the nets that catch you. Twelve years ago, they had been small, and the ring of flowers that Ty Lee had woven into Azula's hair had meant more than any crown, honor, or victory. Before Ty Lee had learned the concept of tributes, she had made oaths of friendship and love.
"I couldn't stand what you were becoming." Because Mai would have died, and Ty Lee couldn't have lived her life knowing she was a part of that. She wouldn't have been able to live with herself, knowing that she had stood by and watched her best friends murder each other.
"What it was doing to us." Because she would always remember the utter betrayal written on Azula's face, the snarl that twisted her lips as she ordered them dragged away and into the dark. Because she would always remember what it was like to be stripped, tied, and beaten. "What you were doing to me."
And maybe Azula remembered the crown of flowers Ty Lee had made on the day they first met, because when she lifted her hand and it was caught on the metal cuff again, Ty Lee imagines that it was to feel the memory of red petals intertwined with soft black hair. Maybe it was why instead of growing cold and angry, Azula was sullen and quiet.