So this is how it happens.
It is Azula’s sixteenth birthday; Ty Lee bakes a cake.
There is a party; Azula is cross.
“Have another glass of wine,” Azula says, and Ty Lee does.
“Don’t dance with him,” Azula says, and Ty Lee doesn’t.
“Let’s get out of here,” Azula says, and she and Ty Lee do.
They go to Azula’s bedroom, at the top of the palace. Azula throws herself down on the big bed.
“Ty Lee, come here,” she says, and what Azula says, Ty Lee does.
Later, Ty Lee will confuse this night with other nights, not remembering what happened when. She will not remember this moment with the clarity that she tells herself, as she wraps a leg around Azula, tastes the skin below her ear, that she must have. But she will remember the first kiss, remember that there is none of the uncertainty she associates with first kisses, from the romances her sisters read.
It is a first kiss that’s not about testing each other, getting used to each other, but about exploring, tasting, finding a rhythm.
It is a first kiss that feels like a second kiss.
Ty Lee wakes up at dawn, a little bit before Azula; it’s not the first time she’s woken up in the other girl’s bed, but it is the first since childhood, the first time that was not part of the evening’s plan.
Ty Lee opens the window, feels a cool breeze float in, past her and over the sleeping princess. Her hair is mussed in a way Ty Lee knows only she and the servants have seen, and she is relaxed in a way that Ty Lee rarely has, and the servants certainly haven’t.
Azula grumbles, wakes up just enough to say, “It’s cold, Ty Lee. Close the window.”
Ty Lee rolls her eyes, mouths the word spoiled, but she does.
She talks to Mai by the fountain, after breakfast, and Mai cries. It hurts Ty Lee, who can never bear the tears of someone she loves.
“Don’t cry,” she says, aware of her selfishness.
“It’s just hard to forget,” says Mai, “that Azula’s birthday is Zuko’s as well.”
“You’re better off,” Ty Lee, who never liked Zuko, says.
“Easy for you to say,” says Mai. “You’ve got yours.”
At night, Ty Lee hesitates, then turns around, climbs to Azula’s room.
She’s sitting on the bed, poised as ever, even if Ty Lee can tell she’s as nervous as Ty Lee feels herself.
“We’re going to do it again, right?” Ty Lee says.
Azula laughs at her, and Ty Lee lets her do it.
She knows it means yes, knows it means please, knows it means thank all the spirits you asked.
So they do it again. And again.
They fuck whenever they have a spare moment, in Azula’s bed and Ty Lee’s and the gardens and the kitchen. Azula tickles her with electricity and kisses, and Ty Lee twists around her like the small green snakeflies that live by the pond.
“You’re amazing,” one of them tells the other, tongue tracing muscle.
“No, you are,” says the other girl, fingers running through hair, pulling too hard.
“I am,” says Azula, and then she shuts them up, her mouth sweet on Ty Lee’s.
Sometimes Azula is cruel; not in how she touches Ty Lee, although each gives and gets her fair share of pulled hair, nail scratches, soft bites and not-so-soft ones. But those are never cruel, however harsh, however sharp.
But sometimes Azula’s words are meant not to tease but to injure. Sometimes her carelessness is not exciting (Ty Lee should not be so excited) or unthinking (Azula should think) but a weapon aimed with precision. Azula’s bed is always a paradise, but sometimes it is also a hell.
Sometimes Azula is sweet, and then Ty Lee worries, because Azula is not sweet. Azula is—Ty Lee hesitates to sound like a character in one of her sister Bari’s romances, but Azula is like a forest fire, a harsh and beautiful force of nature. But sometimes Azula is nice to Ty Lee, or she tries to be, and then Ty Lee worries.
Azula never lets herself cry in front of Ty Lee, and Ty Lee is stupidly, selfishly grateful, because she thinks it might kill her. But she’s nice to her, sometimes, and it’s the same thing in the end.
Ty Lee decides, one day, to take Azula on a picnic, because that is, to the best of her knowledge, something lovers do, and she wants—she whispers it to herself—to be Azula’s lover, to do things that lovers do with her.
Ty Lee packs a basket with iced tea and candied violets and those spicy meat pies Azula loves, and she plans to take her to a field she knows, where this time of year she could pick wildflowers and arrange them, neatly, in Azula’s hair, to pull out later.
But it all goes wrong—Mai wants to come along, and Ty Lee can’t say no, and while Azula could, Ty Lee hasn’t found the courage to tell her why she’d planned this stupid picnic, and in the end it devolves into Azula sparring tiredly with Mai, Ty Lee rolling blades of grass between her fingers and wishing she wasn’t there.
That night, Ty Lee climbs to Azula’s room at midnight, slides into the bed, kisses her lips and her neck and her fingertips and whispers “I love you, I love you, Azula, I love you.”
She says it all the time, after that. In a note slipped under the door, the night before Ty Lee leaves for a visit home. Whispered low enough that their half-deaf governess can’t hear it. And always in bed, pressing a kiss and a promise to each one of Azula’s toes, whispering it against every part of her body, “I love you.”
Azula moves Ty Lee’s things into her room one day while Ty Lee is at dinner with her family. The notes and tokens from admirers, she burns. “They must’ve fallen into the fire,” she says, hands folded behind her back, but Ty Lee can see the last bits still burning blue.
Ty Lee loves Azula, and Azula loves her, even if she’ll never say it.
That is not to say Ty Lee is happy.
She is called the wrong name, she is asked to do the wrong things, or worse yet, there is no distinction made at all, not even the wrong one. She is forgotten and glossed over and neglected, a face in the crowd. She turns cartwheels in the courtyard and pretends the praise she gets is for her.
Azula pulls her hair so hard it comes out, sometimes.
“Ty Lee,” she whispers as she does it.
Ty Lee’s sister Bari once read a romance in which the hero was always saying to the heroine, “Let me do it.”
The woman would try to arrange her hair or write a difficult message or reach something on a high shelf and the man would say, “Let me do it,” and do it for her.
Ty Lee never says this to Azula. She doesn’t have to.
(“I don’t like the hold the princess has over you,” her sister Wiye whispers to her. You don’t know the half of it, she thinks that night, tongue sweeping as Azula strokes her head.)
It is easy to forget, sometimes, that there is a war going on outside their walls. Or, it is easy for Ty Lee to forget. Azula never forgets, constantly turns to Ty Lee and shares her dreams of going out to where the fighting is, of commanding armies or being a single spy. She trains obsessively, shooting lightning out of her fingertips with greater and greater precision, burning hotter and brighter until Ty Lee can’t stand to look at her.
She drags Ty Lee with her, makes her practice chi-blocking and moving her body for a fight rather than the sheer joy of it. Ty Lee doesn’t mind so much; she finds a lot of joy in fighting, too (more than Azula does, though she’d never suggest it), and she loves the new skill she’s gaining, a level of comfort with her body even beyond what she’d already achieved. But she doesn’t especially feel a wish to serve the Fire Nation, to gain honor in battle. Let wars go on; Ty Lee is a woman in love.
Of course, Mai never forgets either, watches each returning convoy as if any one might be bringing Zuko home. “The Avatar’s not out there to find,” Azula tells her. “Even if he were, Zuko wouldn’t catch him. He’s probably lying dead in some Ba Sing Se ditch right now.” She goes on until Mai’s face cracks, until anyone else would be crying, and Ty Lee thinks she knows what it is to have the one you love far away, and maybe never coming back.
Ty Lee loves her, she aches with how much she loves her. It hurts to be together; it hurts to be apart. Because Azula’s made of pain, from the carefully filed points of her nails (Ty Lee does them for her, sometimes, not cutting corners no matter how much she wants to) to the studiously bored tone of her voice (Ty Lee loves to make her scream with passion, let go of her attempts at control).
Ty Lee loves her, oh, how she loves her, but she cannot stop herself from remembering sometimes that she has willingly walked into a house on fire.
Ty Lee loves her, oh, how she loves her, but lately all Azula loves is war.
Ty Lee loves the dance of a fight, the rush of a win, but Ty Lee does not love war, and she cannot love it; she cannot, as Azula does, love destruction and pain and a kind of winning so complete they have to call it victory.
Azula is becoming the war, and Ty Lee is beginning to think she cannot love her (although she does, she always does).
“I loved you when I was a little girl,” Ty Lee says to Azula one moonless night, speaking to the dark room and the feel of a hand in hers. “I would’ve loved you forever and never touched you, or I would’ve done it earlier, later . . . whatever you wanted.”
“You’ve always given me whatever I wanted,” Azula says, sounding not her usual entitled self but like she truly understands how lucky that is, as Ty Lee knows she does.
“I love you,” Ty Lee whispers, and kisses Azula’s cheek, her hair, her lips. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” she says, and memorizes the taste of Azula in her mouth.
Ty Lee leaves at dawn, pack slung over her shoulder, map stolen from the palace library. She’s got a vague idea of where she’s going, but mostly she’s going away.