The Avatar lays out a few ground rules.
Two, to be exact.
One, she doesn't use it for the wrong reasons.
Two, she tells no one.
Truthfully, she isn't sure why he wants it to remain a secret.
Maybe he wants to see if she can behave herself. Maybe he wants to prove a point—to whom, she doesn't know—that she can be trusted, that she can be left to her own devices. Or maybe it’s meant to control her—if she can’t tell anyone, she certainly can’t use it on anyone.
But really, she thinks, it’s probably because he doesn't want everyone to think he’s soft. That he feels bad for her. That he believes in second chances a little too much.
“We were kids,” he says, like he isn't one still, “and we were at war. We had to grow up too quickly. And you were told what to do, when to do it, what to think. I—we didn’t know that. We thought you were just as bad as your father. But I don’t think that’s true.”
He pauses, nods. He’s trying to convince himself as much as he’s trying to convince her.
He looks up.
“I think you can prove us all wrong.”
He says it like he knows her. Like he sees every thought flinging through her mind, every thought she’d had in the last few years. The pain, the confusion, the regret, the rage, the emptiness, the pain, the pain, the pain.
And he leaves it at that, turns and heads out the door. He doesn't stick around for the show.
She waits until his footsteps recede.
She’s scared, too scared to try at first, terrified it simply won’t work, that this is the Avatar’s final revenge—taking away her hope.
She can barely breathe.
She closes her eyes, counts to ten before she opens them again.
For the first time in four years—over two hundred weeks, over one thousand days—a little flame dances at Azula’s fingertips, and she feels like she’s been run through with a spear. Her hands shake. She’s too stunned to cry.
She doesn’t, not until later that evening when she’s alone in the baths, where she won’t be seen, where no one will ask what happened, what’s wrong. Not that anyone would ask. No one except—
But it wouldn't change anything.
She couldn't tell the truth, anyway.
When the Avatar had first come to her, pulled her aside, told her to keep it between them, she’d thought it was a joke. A bad joke.
There wouldn't be very much use for it if she couldn't use it out where others might see. She would be left lighting candles and keeping her tea warm, always looking over her shoulder, paranoid, to make sure her secret was safe.
But she’d been wrong.
That wasn't it.
That wasn't all.
Because without it, there had been a gaping hole inside her, something invaluable carved out, numbing her to the core. Without it, it was hard to see the point of waking up every morning.
But she stares at her palm now, coated in pale tendrils of red and orange. They flicker softly, tentatively. It’s very much a reflection of what she’s feeling. The realization makes her want to laugh. She’s too overwhelmed to do much else. Her tears slide down her cheeks and drip onto the fire. It sizzles in protest.
With it, she feels whole again. She’s been patched up. She’s not bleeding out anymore.
With it comes an unfamiliar feeling, a rush of gratitude so fierce it makes her head spin, makes her nauseous. She’s been given her life back. She’s been given a hand to reach out and grab before she sank too deep beneath the waves.
And immediately, doubt poisons her mind. The voice that isn't her own creeps in, taunts her, torments her.
You don't deserve it.
And it’s right. She doesn’t.
She doesn’t, but the Avatar believes in forgiveness.
He doesn't blame her for what she’s done. Or maybe he does, but sees past it. He trusts that she’s changed.
And isn't that the craziest part—the Avatar trusts her. To be good, to prove him right, to keep a secret, the biggest secret, from everyone, to help him keep it from his friends, from the people he loves. And he won’t even tell her why.
He’s too merciful for his own good. He’s too kind and it makes her want to scream, to put her fist through something brittle, something easily shattered. He rewards her before she’s even deserving of the prize, of his otherworldly compassion.
But he’s a kid who’s been through hell and back, who understands pain, understands loss and grief and how much it tears you apart to lose something you can’t imagine life without.
And he’d seen it.
He’d seen that it was killing her, missing a part of herself.
Not that it had ever been particularly hard to notice.
She’d lost weight, she’d become quiet, too quiet, would tremble and shiver like she could never get warm. Her face had turned gaunt, almost lifeless, movements slowing, everything dwindling like her body was shutting down. Like there was no point anymore.
He’d seen and he’d understood.
He’d understood that she couldn't hold her pain anymore, that the weight of it had been suffocating her, slowly, taking more and more of her away each day.
He’d seen and he’d understood, and she sits and she cries because he’d done her a kindness she can never even begin to repay.
She holds the little flame in her cupped hands and stares at it until the tears dry, until her head aches, until her vision blurs.
That’s not to say the Avatar is particularly solemn about the whole thing.
Of course he isn’t.
He’s a sneaky, excitable kid.
He uses it to his advantage.
He visits the palace often to discuss whatever it is they discuss with the shiny, new Fire Lord. They chat and they reminisce, they go back and forth about the good old days like it’s been forty years rather than four.
But when the meetings are done and the scorching heat reaches its zenith—right around dinnertime, right before the sun sets—the Avatar drags her out to one of the more secluded beaches, one that’s concealed from the city by a thick wall of forest.
It’s not an entirely terrible idea.
She gets to practice, to make up for the lost time
He gets a new teacher—a better teacher.
And he takes it all very seriously, treats her and her skills, however rusty, with the utmost respect, pours all his effort and concentration into echoing what she does until he's red in the face and dripping with sweat.
For her, it’s embarrassing at first, failing at the simple things, having to relearn everything from the ground up.
But practice makes perfect, and she feels it kicking in again, that drive, that burning ambition to be perfect. It feels like coming back to life.
So they go at it when the sun is bright, when their fire won’t attract attention. They go at it as the waves crash against the shoreline, masking the noise, shrouding them from prying eyes.
He’s good. He makes progress.
But he’s not as clever. Not as skilled, not as thoroughly trained. For him, it’s a matter of learning something new. For her, it’s hardly more than brushing up. Some things you just couldn't forget.
Within weeks she’s on the offense, backing him up against the water’s edge with bold red-hot arcs until he chickens out and, in a moment of panic, flicks his hand and douses her with a mighty wave to avoid further damage to his person.
She very graciously doesn't kill him for that.
If anything, it’s nice to know he still fears her.
Whenever he’s around, they meet a few times a week, every other day—every day, sometimes, when the Avatar becomes overeager for more. If he’s a little too excited to be finishing his meetings with the royal posse, Zuko doesn’t seem to catch on.
They go at it until he can repeat what he sees, what she does, with an almost expert fluency.
“You’re dragging your foot.”
The Avatar scowls.
“No, I’m not.”
“You are. Point your toes, adjust the angle. It isn't supposed to touch the ground.”
“Do it again without touching the ground and I might believe you.”
She's not a patient teacher nor a particularly good one.
But he’s a good mimic. He doesn’t need much instruction; observation is perfectly enough.
He mirrors her, and he gets better, then she gets better, and he gets better, too. It’s remarkable, how well it works.
Somewhere along the way, at some moment in time she can’t quite put her finger on, she begins to properly enjoy herself.
It puts things into perspective, watching the most powerful being in the world whoop and holler when he flips just right, when he sticks a landing, when she tells him he did well. Despite all that power thrumming beneath his skin, the Avatar is just a kid messing around, having fun. And if he can do it, she can too.
He glares down at his foot as though it’s to blame for his shortcomings.
As he tries the kick again, he scrunches his face up like it’s a matter of motivation rather than skill. He takes a breath, deep and grounding, and bursts into motion.
And he does it.
“Ha! See, I didn't touch the ground!”
He whoops again and artfully flips onto the ground, inspects the sand like he means to prove he hadn't budged a single grain.
“The ground is untouched,” he confirms proudly. “We can move on now. Teach me the spinny-thingy. You promised.”
There’s just one problem with the whole arrangement.
The second rule.
She can’t tell anyone.
In hindsight, the Avatar must have thought—hell, who could she possibly tell, anyway?
She could tell Ty Lee.
But she can’t, so she doesn’t.
Guilt is abhorrent feeling. It’s a parasite that worms past her ribs, into her chest, destroys her from the inside out.
Ty Lee had been the only person—the only person other than Zuko and, really, Zuko doesn't count—not to give up on her.
For whatever reason, she’d come back to her after everything was over, stuck with her, determined, no matter what Azula said to her, yelled at her, waited patiently when Azula ignored her for days on end.
Infuriatingly, they’d both persisted, her and Zuko, for reasons that were different but ultimately the very same. They cared for her. They—
She’s unable to look back and pinpoint the exact moment that one thing had become another with Ty Lee.
There had been this relentless thing poking at her until she’d given into it. It’d started as a mild curiosity, of course. Azula was nothing if not curious, somehow calculating and incorrigibly impulsive all at once, the kind of person to wonder, hmm, what’ll happen if I do this?
And she’d done—this.
In the courtyard, late one evening, whatever was holding her composure together had snapped like a fraying cord, and she’d pushed forward and pressed her lips to Ty Lee’s. It was a split second, a rush of white noise, and then she’d stumbled back, ashamed, frightened.
Azula had never really thought about it, before. She hadn't had the time; there had been other things on her mind, like furthering her father’s bloody crusade. But she’d been sure of one thing all her life—she didn't like boys the way girls were supposed to like boys.
So it was the curiosity that did it.
She remembers how Ty Lee’s big, big eyes had gone so wide. She remembers taking a shuddering breath, a clumsy apology lodged in her throat—but Ty Lee had just shaken her head, almost like she was waking up, coming to, realizing what had happened. She’d wrapped her fingers in the front of Azula’s shirt and pulled her back in.
It’s only been a handful of months since that night.
A handful of the best months of her life.
She can’t imagine ever giving up the feeling of Ty Lee’s hands on her, of her fingers in Ty Lee’s hair, of those tiny, warm smiles directed right at her. At her, at no one else.
Nobody else looks at her like that.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, still, to map out what they’re doing and what they want. But it’s already so good. She knows that whatever it is she wants it, needs it so desperately it alarms her. It’s another reason to wake up in the morning.
It’s another reason to try, to push forward.
To try to soften her harsh lines.
To try to let go, to take a step back.
“You can’t control everything,” Ty Lee tells her one morning. “It’ll only hurt more in the long run if you take it all so seriously. It might just kill you one day, I think.”
She’s a lifesaver, in that aspect. Scratch that—in every aspect.
She does her best to convince Azula that being soft doesn't make her weak.
That asking for help doesn't make her a failure.
That sometimes all she needs to do is breathe.
She’s not worthless. She’s not a disappointment. She’s not crazy. She’s not a liability.
She goes to sleep feeling sick sometimes, wakes up feeling just as bad. Because a part of her can’t shake the thought that she doesn’t deserve this.
All she’s done, all the hurt she’s caused, and now she has this.
When she holds Ty Lee close to her chest as she sleeps she wonders how it’s even possible to work past the amount of damage she’s done, how Ty Lee could possibly forgive her for it all.
How she could last so long with her. How she still hasn't left.
Because everyone leaves.
She’s too much for them.
Apologies still taste foreign but she forces them out every chance she gets. Between kisses, at the end of long, winding sentences, when she trips at the edge of the turtle duck pond and sends Ty Lee toppling in with her.
When it’s dark and their fingers are intertwined, her lips form the words over and over, spilling into the night. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
She means to make it up to her, whatever it takes, however long it takes.
But it’s a doomed cause, isn’t it, if beneath all the pretty words and heartfelt apologies, she’s still lying about one thing.
Zuko is the first to suspect…something.
It’s the Avatar’s fault.
He’s entirely unsubtle.
But Zuko is dumb as a rock, so it all works out in the end.
They spar sometimes, their whole happy bunch, taking turns going up against one another like they would forget how to fight if they took a day off.
She sits and watches on occasion, whenever she’s bored enough to seek out their company. Being an outsider, a misfit, she curls up against the trunk of a nearby tree like she means to dissolve into the shade. She makes herself as small as possible. Her presence unnerves them and, strangely enough, she doesn't feel inclined to toss a wrench into their fun.
“Where’d you learn that?”
She looks up when Zuko’s voice carries loud and clear across the courtyard. It’s a little accusatory, a little curious.
The Avatar floats himself up from the ground and stands upright, starts swaying back and forth on his heels. He looks nervous. He’s a bad liar.
“Just…watching you, I guess. I think.”
It sounds like a question. He’s a terrible liar. She’s got their next lesson planned out. She needs to teach him how to lie.
“Huh,” Zuko says, and he doesn't sound convinced. “I can’t do that.”
He then clears his throat, makes that stupid ergh sound, ashamed of what he's said, that he’s admitted to a weakness in front of so many witnesses.
“I mean, my foot always drags,” he clarifies.
“Oh,” says the Avatar again, and fails spectacularly at hiding his conspicuous smirk. “Guess I’m finally better than you at something.”
It’s cheerful and forced and Azula doesn't have to look up at him to know he’s gone red with the stress of keeping their blasted secret.
At this rate, it would be safer to just tell everyone, for the sake of the Avatar’s health.
Zuko hums, contemplative.
He’s not buying what the kid is selling.
But he moves on, moves past it.
“Okay. Let’s go one more time from the top.”
She appreciates that about her brother—he doesn't push. It makes him a pushover but it’s all well and good in the long run. He minds his own business and gives her the privacy she wants. Most of the time.
They don’t talk much. There’s a gap that can’t be bridged. Their father made sure of that. He made sure to turn them against each other. She sees that now, but seeing it doesn't make it any easier to fix.
It’s like there’s a single puzzle piece missing, a chasm between points A and B that they’ve yet to figure out how to leap across.
Still, Zuko tries.
He’s kind, he’s patient. He plays at being the big brother, the protector. He tries to be her friend, holds out a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on.
She finds it suffocating, that he ignores the past and tries by force to build a future.
But maybe he’s not to blame.
She thinks it might be her fault, that it’s her who needs more time before she can accept what he’s offering. Part of her lingers in the past, a past that is nothing but poison. She needs more time to be able to cut herself free.
That’s not to say she doesn't do her part along the way, though.
She doesn't try to kill him.
Which is progress, really.
“You look happier,” Ty Lee tells her one night.
“I am happy.”
“Happier,” Ty Lee insists.
Ty Lee squints at her.
Ty Lee knows she’s lying—she can always tell, she’s the only one who can—but there’s no way for her to tell what about.
What Ty Lee also knows is that Azula would go to any length to keep this, that whatever she’s hiding, she’ll come clean sooner or later. What Ty Lee knows is that Azula lies and lies, but she can’t bear lying to her.
The thought comes unbidden, intrusive, that one day Ty Lee will decide that enough is enough, that she’ll walk out the door, sick of all the harmless little secrets, and never come back.
It makes her feel wretched, makes her feel like she’s burning alive.
Because she’s lying, she’s always fucking lying.
And she can’t say a word.
He’ll take it away if she says a word.
She tries very hard not to throw up.
But Ty Lee isn’t prying.
“All right,” she says amiably.
Her voice brings Azula back down to Earth, soothes her like a balm, a miracle remedy.
“Braid my hair, would you?”
And she tumbles gracefully onto the bed, sits cross-legged with her back to the window.
The sheets feel wrong—everything feels wrong and she hates that her mind does this to her—underneath her as Azula kneels behind Ty Lee. She runs her fingers through silky hair, reaches for the brush and slowly, section by section, works through it.
She concentrates on a particularly nasty knot and gently, patiently untangles it. She sweeps Ty Lee’s hair over one shoulder once she’s done, kisses her bare neck, and Ty Lee leans back into the touch, melts into the embrace, and Azula kisses her again, right by her jawline. She smells so sweet. She always smells so sweet.
“I can’t braid your hair if you’re laying on me,” she mutters.
Ty Lee makes an endearing hmpf sound and half-turns to press a soft kiss to her mouth—she tastes so sweet, too—before she turns back around and grandly presents her hair for braiding, sweeps it out onto her back with a flick of her fingers. Naturally, she smacks Azula in the face with it. Astoundingly, Azula doesn't even mind.
It’s a calming few minutes, her movements practiced, methodical. It helps clear her head.
And Ty Lee must know this.
She’s perfectly capable of doing her own hair, yet she insists Azula do it every time.
She sees more than she lets on, catches every little shadow that crosses Azula’s face, every little twitch of her hands, catches when her breathing changes pace, when her heart beats too loud.
And she knows just what to do to help, and she does it so skillfully Azula doesn't even realize it’s happening until everything is upright again, until everything feels better, until she’s in control once more.
She wraps the end of the braid, practiced movements tugging the ribbon over and under.
When she’s done and she tells Ty Lee so, Ty Lee spins almost too quickly for the human eye to follow and shoves Azula back, flat onto the bed, pins her hands above her head.
She smiles so sweetly, so innocently and ducks down to kiss her, wet and open mouthed and properly filthy. She’s a walking contradiction. She’s the most dangerous woman in the world—because no one expects her to be.
It seems a shame to mess up all her hard work, but in that moment Azula can’t bring herself to actually care. She has priorities. And her priorities are rapidly shifting, heat pooling into every limb, every nerve ending firing.
Against her lips, Ty Lee says, “I want you to do one more thing for me, Princess.”
Whatever it is, Azula thinks, yes.
“Anything,” she says.
Ty Lee lets go of her wrists but Azula knows better than to move them until she’s allowed. Ty Lee inches forward, excruciatingly slow, until her thighs are on either side of Azula’s head. She takes Azula’s hands in hers and sets them down just above her knees, an unspoken request, an order Azula dares not defy.
She does very little thinking, after that.
See, she’s a good liar. A great one, even, the very best.
But some things are impossible to hide.
Like when she’s angry, when she feels too much all at once and the force of it, the pounding in her head, the rush of noise in her ears threatens to send her over the edge.
She can’t hide her bad days any more than Zuko can hide his scar.
Out of nowhere, she wakes up feeling irritable. The bed is too warm, the sheets too suffocating. Her body feels foreign, her mind feels like an enemy. Nothing feels right.
She gets up and everything agitates her, still. Her hair refuses to cooperate, every piece of clothing she tries on is wrong. Everything is wrong. She snaps at Ty Lee for trying to help. She leaves the room and doesn't look back.
When it gets like this, when she wants nothing more than to stop and scream, she knows she’s being irrational—but there’s very little she can do about it. It’s stronger than her, bigger than her.
She disappears for hours on end, takes the empty, winding paths down, throws on a nondescript cloak and heads out into the city. She walks until the sun sets, until she’s so tired her legs start to give out under her.
Other times, she sits in her father’s darkened throne room, the one Zuko refuses to use. She slides to the cold ground, leans back against one of the pillars. It’s eerie and quiet and her mind is buzzing and buzzing and buzzing, but she’s not hurting anyone, at least. She sits and waits until it passes, the onslaught of thoughts that are not her own.
She falls asleep like that once, curled tight, and Ty Lee finds her in the dark later that night.
When Azula opens her eyes, she thinks it’s her mother at first, before everything snaps back into place.
Ty Lee never blames her for the bad days, never holds them against her, never tells her to just get a grip.
And when Azula’s anger—at everything in the world, at nothing in particular—exhausts her to the point she no longer has the strength to be testy, Ty Lee is always there. She washes her hair, helps her into a soft set of robes, guides her to bed. All the while, Azula can barely keep her eyes open. It’s draining, feeling so much.
Ty Lee doesn't blame her.
She just holds her until sleep takes over.
And Azula finds herself thinking, in those final moments of consciousness, how much she loves her, how much she doesn't deserve her.
It’s a touch more complicated when Zuko accosts her in the middle of one of her moods and insists she socialize. He’s not as perceptive as Ty Lee, he doesn’t know her nearly as well. He can’t see she’s hurting beneath her cutting smile.
On that note, he doesn’t know about Ty Lee, either. He doesn't know Azula gets plenty of socializing done.
He drags her to breakfast one morning when the Water Tribe delegation is visiting for a few weeks—the girl and her loud brother dropping by to hang out under the guise of discussing crucial matters.
They’re there at the table when Zuko walks her into the dining hall and Azula wants nothing more than to turn on her heel and flee. But Zuko looks at her imploringly and it’s such an odd feeling, not wanting to disappoint him.
So she stays, barely holds back a laugh as she sits at the far end of the table, amused at the mess she’s going to make of this through no premeditated fault of her own.
They make small talk. It makes her head hurt. She hadn't slept well and their words are inane and her migraine is killing her. The sounds of clattering cutlery make her want to vomit. She doesn't touch her food.
“What do you think?”
It takes her far too long to realize Zuko is speaking to her.
Tiredly, she looks up at the three of them. They’re watching her intently. Curtly, she says—snaps—
“See, I am extremely uninterested in whatever it is you’re talking about.”
Zuko’s stare turns into a glare of the don’t embarrass me in front of my friends variety.
“But, by all means,” she goes on, and it sounds rude and blunt and she doesn’t care in the slightest, “just pretend I’m not here. Didn't want to be, anyway.”
It’s the way he says it.
Like he means to discipline her.
She sees red.
She pushes her chair back violently and stands, leaves the hall before her composure snaps and she hurls a plate at him. It’s very mature of her, she thinks. It could have been worse. She could have thrown a proper tantrum, burned the other side of his face off. So really, she’s making valuable progress.
But her hands still shake as she heads back to her quarters.
They still shake when she goes to bed that night.
Similarly, she can’t hide when she’s unrestrainedly happy, either.
The thing is, she gets dragged along to places a lot. Naturally, as she’s not about to be the one to initiate anything with a group of people who are not her friends, who barely tolerate her presence. She’s not about to beg for the pleasure of their company.
And so she doesn't spend time with anybody but herself—and here, Ty Lee is the exception, and sometimes Mai, when she’s not too busy sucking Zuko’s face—unless she’s hauled along by force.
One sunny mid-morning finds her at the beach with Zuko’s motley crew. Ty Lee had persuaded her to come. It hadn't been easy.
She sits on a towel and enjoys the harsh burn of the sun on her shoulders—a little sun makes everything better. It’s going to hurt later, she knows this, but it’s a good pain, now, prickling at her skin.
The Avatar and his little girlfriend sway deep among the waves, showing off, harassing the girl’s brother and Zuko, too. Which, she has to admit, is quite amusing.
Mai stands by the shoreline with the angry blind girl, talking to her, apparently describing the traumatized expressions on the boys’ faces for her entertainment.
Ty Lee had bounded over just moments ago to the warrior girl for a chat, leaving Azula alone with the sand, the sun, the squeals of laughter.
But she’s back in the blink of an eye—and Azula barely has the chance to wonder if she’d zoned out for a few minutes, if she’d lost time. Because as Ty Lee runs back to her she snatches up Azula’s wrist and tugs her upright. She leaves no room for negotiation. Azula is too surprised to resist, either way.
She gets dragged—always getting dragged—to the water’s edge.
Reflexes finally kicking back in, she sinks her heels into the sand before Ty Lee can yank her any further.
“I don’t swim.”
“I know. I’m not asking you to swim,” Ty Lee says. “Just a little more. Up to, like, here. I promise. Please? For me?”
And however hard she may try, she’s unable to resist that.
She lets herself get pulled along. She allows it because she loves the feeling of her hand in Ty Lee’s. It feels right. It makes everything feel right. There’s something so comforting about it, a profound sense of security that wraps around her like a blanket.
The water is impossibly cold. She hisses from behind clenched teeth when it reaches her thighs.
She decides that’s far enough.
And however hard she may try, she’s unable to hold back the smile that tugs at the corners of her lips when faced with Ty Lee’s grin, so bright and perfect and directed right at her.
Ty Lee lets go of her hand—and Azula ignores the silly pang of hurt that runs through her at that—and takes a bracing step back like she means to do a flashy trick.
And, gracefully, she moves—but her foot catches on something at the bottom and she flails instead and crashes violently into the waves, soaks Azula from head to toe.
It’s freezing, but she can’t be bothered to complain. The laugh that bursts out of her is so genuine she surprises even herself.
And it’s loud enough to carry.
She composes her expression as quickly as she can—years of practice, a lifetime of wearing a pretty disguise—but she can’t wipe it off her face completely. She feels their eyes on her—all of their eyes are on her, she knows this—as she helps Ty Lee up.
Her hair drips in limp strands all around her face. She’s never looked more beautiful.
She then coughs and blows her nose to get the water out, and Azula takes a tiny, cautious step back out of the blast zone.
Belatedly, she realizes she’s still holding Ty Lee’s hand.
All eyes are still on them.
She doesn't let go.
She’s not going to give up her one, single comfort.
But though her smile stays on her lips, it fades from her eyes. She feels it dissipate.
They’re all wary around her. The warrior especially. She refuses to forgive and forget. She refuses to be friendly no matter what anyone else says or does or thinks. In truth, Azula can’t blame her.
She wonders, though, how the girl stomachs it, the closeness between her and Ty Lee.
One of her best friends and the person she hates most in the world, smiling and laughing, fingers curled together.
But it’s not just her.
They’re all like that, some better than others at hiding it.
It shows itself, that hesitancy, when they’re faced with the normal things, the everyday things. Like when Azula breathes, when she eats, when she laughs, when she washes her hands, when she says something that isn't a threat, when she sits in silence and says nothing at all. They stare at her like she’s grown a second head. Like they can’t believe she’s only human.
She’s never cared much, before, what anyone else thought of her. Because worship had been the default. She’d grown up believing the world was hers for the taking, that those who didn't fall to their knees before her were the ones in the wrong.
Now that everything’s a little clearer, it starts to gnaw at her. It’s been gnawing at her for a while.
Because if her humanity surprises them all so much, what did they see before?
It’s when she’s practicing with the Avatar against the backdrop of the setting sun and he hits her with a well-timed blow, sends her tumbling across the beach, and the wind whips her hair across her face as she surges back up—it’s all in good fun, it’s thrilling to finally have a worthy opponent—to retaliate, that her arc of fire comes out bright blue.
The Avatar is equally stunned, slow enough on the uptake that he barely dodges the attack. He yelps with hardly a second to spare and throws himself violently to the side.
And Azula stumbles, feet catching on nothing in particular, and then she’s sitting in the sand staring at her palms, and the Avatar is next to her, hovering like he thinks he should hug her but cherishes his limbs too dearly to try.
She’s crying again, she realizes with a twinge of hysterical self deprecation. She’s always crying, why is she always crying—
It’s not something she’s used to.
It’s been a long time.
It feels wrong.
But, hell, everything suddenly feels so right.
It’s such a silly thing to have missed, something so seemingly irrelevant.
But it had always been a part of her, something inseparable from the whole. And when she’d lost her fire, when she’d gotten it back, it had been gone. And she couldn’t, for the life of her, understand why.
But she doesn't want to dwell on that.
She doesn't want to wonder why, why now.
Why she deserves it.
If she deserves it.
Thinking too much never did her any good.
She could sit around all day staring at the sun traveling across the sky just thinking, wondering, and it wouldn’t give her the answers. She could theorize if this was her doing, if her motivation, her drive was to thank, she could entertain the notion that it was just divine intervention, or whatever the hell else.
Not that it would change anything, knowing.
If there’s one thing she’s sure of in that moment—and it’s a sharp burst of understanding—is that she wants to be deserving of it.
Of her second chance.
To make up for all the hurt she's caused, whatever it takes.
She wants to be deserving of it all.
She wants to prove them all wrong.
She wants to prove that the Avatar had been right to trust her all along.
She pushes herself upright and wipes the tears from her face with trembling fingers.
When she faces the Avatar the expression he’s wearing is so very raw, so very childlike and vulnerable. He’s too compassionate for his own good.
She smiles at him. No—it’s a wide grin, really, a touch unhinged. And she doesn't care. There’s nothing outside of this moment. There’s nothing weighing her down.
“Again,” she says, and he has only a second to smile back before she lunges.
The secret stays secret for nearly two years before it all comes undone.
And it’s not even her fault when it does.
The crux of the matter is, not everyone is particularly happy about the change in leadership. Not everyone appreciates their new Fire Lord heralding in a new era of peace and prosperity.
There are those who miss the former glory, the empire, the carnage. And they don't shy away from making themselves known.
It’s not the first assassination attempt.
But it’s certainly the first to have them outnumbered.
Zuko had asked her to tag along to a meeting with his advisors—he does that sometimes, seeks solace in the company of the one person who, unexpectedly enough, continues to stick by his side. It’s not something she can explain; she feels strangely protective of him, feels compelled to shield him, her older brother, from a room of bitter old men.
At his request, she and the Avatar—he’d been there, too, he was always just there—had stuck around after the rest had gone. Zuko had meant to follow up on some points with the two people in the room whose counsel he trusted most without the crowd of geezers scowling at him for being too young to hold so much power.
And then all hell had broken loose.
They come of nowhere, shrouded in black, with masks over their faces. They melt out of the shadows like they'd been hiding in the walls, waiting for the right moment to strike.
The rest of Zuko’s merry bunch is scattered too far and wide. There’s no time to go fetch them. There’s no time to call for help.
Really, it’s sheer desperation that does it.
In a quiet moment of clarity, the Avatar nods at her from across the hall.
But his expression is grim and his eyes serious.
And so she smiles—vicious, greedy, as ready as she’ll ever be.
Afterwards, the Avatar sits them all down. Word spreads.
They take turns glaring at her, glaring at the Avatar, at Zuko even, suspecting him, like he’d known all along.
But mostly at her. Of course they blame her. Like it was her idea to wake up one morning and just have her firebending back.
They talk over each other, voices rising and falling, asking the Avatar over and over if he's insane, if she’d blackmailed him, if she’d threatened him, you could have told us, Aang, you should have told us.
Zuko sits silently with his eyes glued to the floor, palms wrapped around a steaming cup of tea. She can’t tell what he's feeling. He’s grown better at keeping everything off his face.
And the Avatar actually sounds angry.
“Why are you all trying to shove the blame on her? I did this. I wanted to and I did. She had nothing to do with my decision. Stop staring at her. I told her not to tell you. I made her swear not to say a word, okay? I said, that if—”
He stops. He goes quiet like he’s forgotten what words are and looks down at his hands, at the ground, glances at her and quickly turns away.
He stops like it’s taken him two years to realize how seriously Azula had taken his threat. That he would take it away if she broke the cardinal rules. That it might have been cruel of him—that it might have been the kindest, yet the cruelest thing he’s ever done.
And she realizes, too, that it’s taken her two years to realize he might have been bluffing. He’s too good to torment anyone like that. But she’d been blind to that. She’d been so afraid of losing that part of herself again she would have done anything to keep it.
“I made her promise,” he repeats blandly. His eyes dart back up to hers. When he says, “I’m sorry,” he says it to the room at large, but she knows he’s speaking only to her.
“How long?” asks the girl.
For a moment, Azula is actually surprised that he hadn't told his little girlfriend. That he hadn't told any of them, for that matter. That he hadn't just been stringing her along like a fool, while everyone knew and laughed behind her back.
“Two years—almost. Almost two years.”
“Two years? Two years, and you were just not gonna tell us?” shrieks the brother. “Two years, and—she could have killed me in my sleep at any point in the last two years and you just let me live my life with my door unlocked? Have you lost it completely, Aang? I’m twenty-one! I’m too young to die! I’ve got my whole life ahead of me!”
Azula weighs her options between it was tempting and I don’t need my bending to kill you. Out loud, she says neither. She’s not in the mood to pick a fight right now. Her mind drifts elsewhere. She looks across their circle at Ty Lee—her other secret. Ty Lee doesn't look at her.
She doesn't look at her.
The Avatar keeps talking. He talks over the rest of them, all arguing, voices rising. All this time, she hasn't done a thing wrong. Why don't you take a moment to think about that? Don't you think she should get a second chance? She’s proved she deserves it. I made my decision and nothing you say will change it. I don't care if you glare at me. Ask Zuko. He trusts her. We can all trust her.
But all she hears is white noise.
It’s dark in her bedroom that night.
The carpets, the maroon tapestries, the bluish-gray sky from beyond the windows high up on the walls, it’s all so dark, and the two torches by the door send shadows crawling all over.
Thunder rumbles in the distance and she feels it rattle her bones.
And she’s terrified.
She’s terrified of what’s going to happen now.
Because she’d lied. She’d promised to be honest and she’d lied.
Ty Lee had left their little gathering early, abruptly, without so much as a wave goodbye. Mai’s eyes had followed her out.
(See, Mai had always known about them. She wasn't stupid, or blind. You couldn't hide things like that from your best friend. And, despite everything, Mai would always be her best friend.)
Azula crosses slowly to the bed and sits at the foot of it.
On the other end, up against the cushions, sits Ty Lee, her arms curled around a pillow, legs splayed out in front of her.
She doesn't look at her.
“I’m sorry,” Azula tries quietly. It’s sick, that all she does is apologize. That as hard as she might try, she hurts the people she loves, over, and over, and over. Undeserving.
Ty Lee flinches like she hadn't heard her come in. Her eyes swim into focus as she turns to face her. They’re molten silver in the flickering torchlight.
Unexpectedly, she smiles.
“Don’t be. I left early ‘cause I just needed some time to—some peace and quiet. I freaked you out, didn't I? I didn't mean to.”
“I made a promise. I broke it,” Azula says, and her voice breaks, because she’s weak, and pathetic, and a liar. “I lied. And I’m sorry.”
“Lying by omission doesn't count.”
“Yes, it does.”
Ty Lee’s smile grows wider.
“Normally, you’d be trying to convince me it doesn’t.”
“I’m not in the mood for this. I’m trying to apologize.”
“And I’m telling you, there’s nothing to apologize for.”
She twists around to set the pillow to the side, then stretches her arms out in front of her and curls her fingers, beckoning Azula to her.
And when she’s just close enough Ty Lee grabs her face in her hands and hauls her the rest of the way in, kisses her hard enough to bruise. In that moment of surprise, Azula’s coordination fails her and she stumbles, sprawls over Ty Lee in a mess of limbs.
She returns the kiss because, spirits, how could she not.
Her face feels hot. Her fingers dig into the bedsheets.
Ty Lee isn't mad at her.
Azula severs the kiss and holds herself up on her elbows over Ty Lee. She meets her eyes and fails to read them.
“You’re not mad at me?”
She asks because not knowing is killing her.
“How could I be mad?” Ty Lee says incredulously. “How—when it’s made you so happy? You know that’s all I ever wanted for you.”
Like the tide retreating before a wave, Azula feels the pressure in her chest recede completely for the first time in six years. In her life. She’s not carrying anything anymore, not a thing in the world. She feels weightless.
If she was the sort of person to cry at every little thing, she thinks, she would be sobbing, tears streaming down her cheeks like waterfalls.
It’s only when Ty Lee blurs in front of her that she realizes her eyes are wet after all. She’s gone soft. She’s gone soft and she couldn't be happier. She doesn't care. She sinks into that relief and it must be written all over her, the way she feels, because Ty Lee offers her that tiny, warm smile, so precious, she’s so precious, and drags Azula down for another kiss.
It tastes like salt. She’s crying. She’s gone so absurdly soft.
“No more secrets,” Ty Lee says.
“I promise,” Azula tells her. “You’re too good.”
“You’re too good to me.”
“Shut up and tell me you love me, Princess.”
“You know I do.”
“I love you, too.”
She curls one hand into the hair at the nape of Azula’s neck and crushes their mouths together again in an effective attempt at shutting her up. Automatically, in a subconscious act of retaliation, Azula slots her knee between Ty Lee’s legs and revels in the way Ty Lee whimpers, jerks against her, how her nails dig painfully into the bare strip of skin at Azula’s waist.
Abruptly, though, without a sliver of warning, Ty Lee pulls away. She shoves Azula backward until she’s looking her in the face.
“Do something flashy.”
“Whoosh,” Ty Lee says, splaying her fingers wide.
Azula hesitates, but Ty Lee raises her brows expectantly, and then Azula is scooting back and bringing her palm up between them. She lights up a little blue flame, sends sparks dancing up and disappearing into the dark.
Ty Lee looks seriously between Azula and the fire.
“See, this is why I’m not mad.”
“How can I be mad,” Ty Lee says, “when that is so hot.”
And Azula can’t hold herself back. It’s the perfect opening.
“Of course it’s hot, it’s fire.”
Ty Lee blinks at her. She starts laughing. She starts laughing and she can’t stop.
She and Zuko pick up where they left off—in the middle of an empty courtyard, flames swirling between them.
It’s quite friendly this time, though.
Azula taunts him and Zuko charges, she deflects and he fires at her again, she taunts him over and over, and blocks another enraged attack.
Everyone is there, the entire gang, because they’re utterly petrified of leaving the two of them alone after what happened last time.
It’s also somewhat of a public spectacle, watching the Fire Lord get his ass handed to him by his little sister.
They go at it for half an hour or so, both of them out of breath, hair plastered to their faces with sweat, before she asks Zuko—and, heavens above, it’s beyond humiliating—to teach her to redirect lightning.
To her surprise, he agrees.
Sokka and the warrior take off for lunch, but the rest of the group sticks around for lack of anything better to do. The Fire Nation is not a particularly fun place to be.
Zuko walks her through the motions, spews a lot of spiritual nonsense, courtesy of their dear Uncle Iroh no doubt. At one point, Aang joins in, because he’s suddenly an expert, too. Zuko quickly shoos him away, says three’s a crowd.
She gets the hang of the whole concept, eventually, and Zuko tells her so. It’s not even that patronizing when he does. He sounds nice about it.
It’s when she suggests putting the theory to practice that they hit their first roadblock.
Because Zuko firmly refuses to shoot her full of lightning.
“So, what’s the point, then?”
“I’m not gonna—you’re basically asking me to try and kill you.”
“That’s nothing we haven’t done before,” she says evenly, and enjoys the way it makes Zuko squirm.
While he tries to paint over their past, she turns it into a series of increasingly unfunny jokes. The more uncomfortable they make him, the better.
“Come on,” she says. She holds out her hands out and crooks her fingers in a come at me gesture. “Lightning.”
Somewhere around the time Azula sweeps him off his feet—they go back to pummeling each other without lightning—with a low arc of fire, sending him sprawling inelegantly into a nearby hedge, is when it clicks.
Zuko snaps upright and points a single finger at Azula, then swivels and points it at Aang instead. He opens and closes his mouth a few times like a fish.
“You’re a terrible person,” he says.
Aang makes a very sad, kicked-puppy face.
“This past year you had me thinking you’d gotten so good out of nowhere, and I was bending over backwards to keep up, and here you were training with her this whole time. No wonder you’re good good.”
Aang doesn't even bother to look ashamed.
“I just…watched what she did. And did it.”
“Right, Zuzu, you’ve had plenty of opportunities to watch me, and what do you have to show for it?”
Zuko turns back to her and glares. Aang tries to muffle a wheeze of laughter. Off to the side, Mai says, “You’re hurting his feelings.”
Overall, it turns out mending bridges is harder than burning them.
It’s slow work.
It’s days like these, spending time together, regardless of what they do with that time, that nudge them closer.
It’s grueling, slow work.
With every chat she has with Zuko, with every good-natured barb they exchange, with every word and every gesture, the chasm shrinks. He begins to trust her.
No, scratch that. He’d always trusted her.
But now, she thinks she might trust him, too.
Which is a terrifying notion. She doesn't trust trust.
He confides in her. He tells her about the problems he's having, the decisions he’s struggling to make. He asks for tips on how to run an empire, how to build it from the ground up and heal its long-ruined reputation. She admits she’s probably not the best person to ask.
But she hangs around to help. While he may be cut out for politics, he wasn't raised to understand political intrigue. He needs her for when the going gets tough and morality ceases to be an option.
It continues to blow her away how forgiving people can be.
She won’t admit it but it touches her that, of all the people he could handpick, Zuko turns to her, his wildcard baby sister, for advice. He chooses her to be at his right hand side. It fires up that giddy, warm feeling deep down, the one that silences the voices, crushes her doubts. She is wanted. She’s not useless.
He pulls her back, once, after a meeting with his generals.
They stand in silence, his hand around her wrist, and wait for the doors to close.
And when they’re alone in the hall, he thanks her.
She doesn't get the chance to ask what for, because he moves and suddenly his arms are wrapped around her, pulling her close to his chest. She freezes, goes stiff, but he doesn't let go.
He holds her like he knows how desperately she needs this, until she sags against him, face tucked just below his shoulder.
All she can think of in that moment, quite honestly, is how annoying it is that everyone else seems to get taller with time, yet she’s stuck at the same height as when she was fourteen. It’s no wonder she has to be scary; she does it to make up for what she lacks in intimidating stature.
He still doesn't let go.
He tells her, without saying a word, that he doesn't hate her. That he appreciates the effort she's putting into being better, being good, into getting along with him and his friends. He appreciates that she’s yet to try to stage a coup.
“And I'm sorry, too.”
It’s so quiet she barely catches it.
“What for?” she asks, and it’s muffled against his collar. “Aside from stealing my crown, of course.”
He just hugs her tighter.
It’s a deciding moment in her life when she realizes nothing will ever change this—that he’s her brother and he loves her and nothing she does could ever ruin that.
And, fuck it, she thinks. She loves him, too.
She gets dragged out to some kind of event later that year, some fundraiser or another hosted by a prominent somebody or another.
(That’s not quite the truth. She knows who, she knows what. She knows the name of every person in the room. She pretends not to. She doesn't need Zuko to know she's actually interested, that she’s engaged in the politics of everything going on. He’d probably hug her again, if he knew.)
Zuko had nagged her to come, then Ty Lee had, too.
She’s certain Zuko had put her up to it.
She’s certain Zuko knows.
Whether Mai is to blame, or Ty Lee, is unclear. Chances are, it’s Azula herself who’s at fault. She’s never exactly been one to shy away from casual affectionate displays where anyone might walk by and see.
Then again, they never meant to hide it from anybody. Nobody would ask questions, and so they’d never had to give answers. Nobody had ever thought twice about two best friends holding hands.
Sure, she’d been cautious, at times. But that had always had more to do with Azula being a public figure—next in line to the throne should a tragic accident befall her dear brother—than it did with Ty Lee being a girl. It simply wasn't proper for her to flaunt whatever she did, whoever she did.
But with one big secret out in the open now, she really doesn't care how many more follow.
She leans against the railing out on the terrace and stares blankly out at the purple sky. It’s early evening. They’re at a mansion on the outskirts of the Earth Kingdom, a huge, tastefully decorated string of rooms now packed to the brim with people from all over.
It’s not exactly her scene.
That’s another secret.
She’s yet to figure out how to interact with anyone without trying to control every aspect of the conversation. The thought of allowing a back-and-forth, of allowing the other person to take charge, the thought of not knowing the outcome of an interaction before it even begins—it all terrifies her.
But she works on it. Slowly. Baby steps.
It’s harder tonight, though. It’s not one of her bad days, per se, but it’s not a good one, either.
She sticks to the walls and corners, avoids drawing unnecessary attention to herself. It’s harder than it seems. She’s got her hair down, wears a long dress that ripples when she moves. She’s a sight to behold, whether she likes it or not.
For once, she doesn't want to be.
She’s desperate for a few minutes of silence. Some alone time. She couldn't have picked a worse day to allow herself to get dragged out and be forced to socialize.
Sokka approaches her at one point, steals her first drink and downs it, tells a terrible joke about a lemur and a platypus bear, and hands her a second, bigger drink that he’d procured from seemingly nowhere before vanishing back into the crowd.
He’s got places to go, people to see.
He’s enjoying himself, at least.
Azula is surprised to find that she doesn't hate him. She might just like him, if she were to single out one of Zuko’s buddies to bestow that honor upon. There’s something about him that sparks her interest—a sharp intellect, a singular burning focus when he’s got something on his mind.
He reminds her a bit of herself, albeit louder and not quite as attractive.
Nobody else comes to bother her, after.
To avoid falling asleep standing up she puts on her person-mask and forces herself to join the crowd. She mingles, charms her way in and out of boring conversations. She finds herself fascinated by people’s reactions to her presence—half in awe, half wary, all of them undeniably intrigued.
Her ego enjoys that.
At some point, Katara emerges from behind a curtain separating one room from another and grabs Azula like they're friends, and drags her along to the buffet.
She’s strangely genial—spirits, is she drunk?—when she insists that Azula simply must try the crab cakes, and gapes in unabashed surprise when Azula admits she’s allergic to shellfish.
Katara pauses and blinks—she is so very drunk.
“I didn’t think you could be brought down by anything,” she says. “But you can. By a crab.”
She shakes her head sadly and snatches up another two crab cakes before patting Azula comfortingly on the shoulder and returning to the party without another word.
She would never deign to say it aloud, but she's discovered that she has a begrudging respect for Katara. Because all these months, all these years later, she’s still the only one who can take Azula down in a fight.
She finds herself another flute of something fizzy and alcoholic. Not to drink—she doesn't need that tonight. It helps just to hold something solid.
It takes almost an hour before Ty Lee pops back up.
She’d wandered off, earlier, with her warrior pals, going around shaking hands with important people, making connections, spreading joy, whatever their agenda was that night.
Azula finds her out on the terrace in the exact spot she herself had been hiding earlier. Great minds, and so on.
“There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“Where were you?”
“Being threatened with crab cakes.”
Ty Lee scrunches her face up in adorable confusion.
And, heavens above, Azula had missed her. An hour apart and she’d missed her. It’s absurd how grateful she is to have her back within arm’s reach.
The urge to kiss her right then is ridiculous, it’s overwhelming, and she can’t resist. She doesn't want to.
She crosses the sliver of space between them, slides her hand around Ty Lee’s waist, curls her fingers into the silky fabric of her dress, leans down to meet her lips.
Ty Lee’s response is automatic. Her arms go up, palms settling on Azula’s chest, right beneath her collarbones, fingertips barely ghosting the line of her throat. It’s good. It’s very good. Screw the party—there’s better ways to spend the night.
“What was that for?” Ty Lee asks a moment—a minute, five minutes, maybe ten?—later, when they finally part.
“You look beautiful.”
And Ty Lee blushes, the bridge of her nose, the arches of her cheeks going peachy pink in the dim light of the lanterns overhead.
“And you’re the only person here that I tolerate.”
“Well, thank goodness you don’t tolerate the rest or you’d be kissing them, too.”
Azula smiles. She doesn't remember smiling so much, before. Or ever.
She doesn't remove her hand.
Ty Lee takes a deep, sated breath and drapes her arms lazily over Azula’s shoulders, crossing them at the wrists. It’s like she means to sway to the music echoing from inside.
But she doesn’t. Azula isn't much of a dancer. Ty Lee knows this. She wouldn't dare humiliate her in public like that.
“It’s a shame we’re stuck here, isn’t it?”
Azula says nothing.
Ty Lee continues.
“I can see it in your face. You have so many better ideas. None of which involve schmoozing. All of which involve me with my clothes off. Is that right?”
Azula continues to say nothing. She doesn't need to say anything.
“I would never have guessed you’re so easy to read. Just a little practice and I can tell exactly what you want. Your nails are digging into my spine, by the way. You think I can’t feel that?”
Azula lifts her free hand up and extends a single finger, sets it under Ty Lee’s chin to tip it up towards her. Ty Lee obliges.
“Good girl,” Azula tells her, and she can feel Ty Lee’s shiver run through her—because Azula knows what she wants, too; revenge is sweet like that. And it’s so lovely when she does that, when she curls into that touch, those words, and Azula feels herself growing hot. She feels herself growing dizzy. She loves her so much.
They meet in the middle, this time, this kiss more insistent than the first.
And from somewhere in the distance, from deep within the long-forgotten crowd, they hear Sokka holler.
“Was no one gonna tell me about that, either?”