It wasn’t fair.
“If this is how you‘re like now, I hate to be here when you get your heart broken.” Her brother said behind her back, having watched the entirety of her tantrum from the safety of the doorway, jubilant in how fast their roles had reversed. “And mom says I go crazy when I lose it.”
“Shut up! ” She whirled on him, a growl undulating her words and putting steel to her quaking voice, daring him to rise to her challenge. She would do anything for him to know what it was like, to feel what she was feeling in this moment. To have everything she did, to be robbed with such indifference, like she didn’t even matter. “Shut up, Zuko, or I swear I‘ll--” She was shaking harder, fighting the curse that screamed through her blood, proving to him (herself) that she was better than this, better than him, more than an animal. Human.
“Do it.” He said, stepping towards her, his eyes strangely devoid of any ridicule. Soft, and almost pitying.
For a second, she almost does. She wants to give in, to let the change enwrap her, devour her until all thought dissolved into scent and sound. He’s stronger but she’s smarter and she knows she’ll best him every time even if he doesn’t, and she’ll do anything, pay any amount of blood or injuries to forget the memory of soft brown hair and twinkling laughter. To forget the feeling inside her chest, poisoning her from the inside out.
“What’s going on here?” Their father’s voice catches them from the door, harsh and murderous. It takes half a second for him to look between them and to the fragments of metal and glass strewn around the room. “What is the meaning of this?” He roars at her, making Zuko flinch beside her.
For once, she doesn’t answer him. For once, she doesn’t feel like being the obedient daughter. His lessons had failed her, and the knowledge made her impervious.
Her cheeks were hot and wet and she wondered if she had been crying the whole time.
“Azula?” After a moment, her mother appeared at her elbow, taking her hands and wiping them clean with damp gauze that stung where it touched. Ursa’s voice was fraught with a fear-laced apprehension. She’s never seen her this way. None of them have. “Darling, what’s wrong?”
She didn’t know how to say it. She was afraid to put it to words.
“Azula’s imprinted.” Zuko names her fear with ease, a witness to her shame displayed so publicly for the entire school cafeteria to see when comprehension was his alone. “A new kid at school.”
“You’re too young.” Ozai said darkly--disbelieving--as if age mattered in these things. Like it could magically undo everything, like they hadn’t waited for this possibility ever since she had grown faster and stronger than any girl (or man) should have. He had warned her, like he had warned Zuko, only it was her sitting in the remains of her room and Zuko watching enviously and she would have done anything for them to have traded places.
Her mother’s face broke into a smile, relief washing over the older woman and dissipating the lines of worry. “That’s wonderful, Azula.” Ursa murmured, smoothing aside her daughter’s hair with soothing fingers. “This is great news, not something to be ashamed about. This young man, what’s his name?”
Zuko wasn’t cruel enough to answer for her this time.
“Her.” Azula said, unable to stop her voice from breaking or could even bring herself to look at her father. Her hands closed, trying to block out glimpses caught between crowds, a wide smile, and gentle eyes, the feeling of warmth that withered in her absence.
“Her name is Ty Lee.”
She had stood, transfixed, frozen, and the whole school had looked on as she stared at the new transfer student in brazen enchantment. What felt like mere seconds had been much longer, and it had taken Mai fierce coercing to snap her from her reverie. When she looked up again, everyone was watching silently and it was too late to save face, and she had fled the hall in glowing embarrassment.
At first, her humiliation had turned all her feelings to acid. Instinctively, she hated her, and Azula’s investigations only confirmed her previous thoughts that the girl was the most stupid and insipid person she had ever met in her life. There was nothing remarkable about her, nothing that distinguished her from everyone else. Nothing, except for kindness and a heart for which Azula would have forgiven anything.
It was from her father that Azula had learned the skill of making oneself unreadable, but Ursa didn’t even look fazed.
“Ty Lee is a very lucky girl then.” Ursa smiled with all the blind confidence of a mother. “I’m sure she’ll be a wonderful mate when the time comes.” When, and not if.
To Ursa, a bonding was like a gift to the most blessed of their kind. It wasn’t another curse depriving them of autonomy and choice.
This wasn’t love, it was a poison belonging to the beast waiting beneath her skin, seeping its way from her inside out. It seized her of breath, turning her body into a hollow vice that waited to come to life with every scant look or glance that she could steal from the corner of her eye, over mobs of students, hidden in plain sight.
She hadn’t known what was wrong with her. The entire world had melted away, and the only thing that existed had been the space between them. Right then a part of her had been so acutely and painfully torn away, its emptiness clawing at her, screaming to be fulfilled.
But in that moment, she had wanted nothing more than to drop before the braided girl to say I am yours, completely and wholly, from this day and until all the ones that come long after I am gone.
When she tried to find the courage to approach her later on, her nerves had so swiftly and oddly failed her. Her words left her as well, her usual wit escaping and all acceptable greetings turning into empty air when she bit her lip and succeeding in not saying, I love you, I’ve loved you since before I met you, when you were born and I was made to fit the tides and flows and all the in-betweens of your life, and I will be true to you for now and ever.
“What if she doesn’t feel the same way?”
Her vulnerability surprised them, the brittleness of her voice so uncharacteristically giving herself away.
Ursa opened her mouth to speak, stopped at Ozai’s intrusion when he pulled her away and looked down at Azula with distant regard.
She could feel her jaw clenching, the hair along her neck prickling and she waited for his judgment, her punishment.
“She will. Be patient Azula.” He said, looking at her with something not quite close to affection, but more like a muted understanding. A sympathy for her restlessness and the days to come.