Chapter Twenty-Three: Only On Your Own Side
Mai sits in a canvas tent, situated in the center of a rebel camp a day's ride from the sea.
The traitors comprising the Ruthless Sun bound her wrists with rope and not a sharp object lies in sight. For the first time, she saw the sun today—briefly before it sank only moments ago—after they locked her in a pitch-black room in the belly of a metal ship fleeing the rebel attack on Caldera. Yet, despite all of this, she has not contemplated escape once; she has known for years that free will does not exist and she has no choice in this matter.
Someone enters the tent. June, her ex-girlfriend turned bodyguard turned kidnapper. June sits on one of the tatami mats in the tent and pours two strong drinks.
June comments, "You don't seem very mad about the kidnapping."
Mai sighs and stares at the alcoholic peace offering. "I have a very limited emotional range, if you haven't noticed."
June laughs and downs her drink. "I guess you've figured out you're not gonna get hurt. The rebels need you and I've noticed they're wimps compared to us."
"Then why do you work for them?" Mai dryly asks, genuinely curious. It does seem like June to have no concept of loyalty, but she did not expect her to be among those who rose up against Fire Lord Ozai.
"Double agent is a high paying job." Pause. "And I wanted to rescue the girl."
Mai cocks an eyebrow. "Do you mistakenly define rescue as abduct?"
June shrugs and explains, "In this case, they're the same thing. You were pretty brainwashed into being stuck in that place; I'd have to kidnap you to save you."
Mai does not bother arguing. Maybe June is right; maybe she is not.
"I hope you people don't expect me to help you," Mai says with a pointed sigh.
"The rebels have been trying to suck me into their ideology for years. No luck for them." June pours herself another drink.
Mai sips hers, awkwardly due to the bonds. She supposes she missed her bodyguard being something other than a test of faith. Yet, Mai has never been a fan of being a hostage. Was she anything other than a hostage in Caldera? Was she? She does not know.
"Maybe if they make a good offer," Mai says, the thought of her possible imprisonment for the past few years bitter in her mouth. "I'm not on my husband's side either. I'm only on my own."
"I'll drink to that," casually says June with a wicked wink. "To women who play for themselves and themselves only."
Mai does not bother returning the toast but June does not care. For a long while, they sit there in silence and Mai hides her wildly spiraling thoughts. She thinks about who might be looking for her; she thinks about what she might find with the rebels. She contemplates the young woman in front of her. And she hides it all behind cold cognac eyes and an unimpressed expression.
She has gotten very good at that since youth.
"So, how far away is the Rebel Base?" Mai sighs. "I hate traveling."
"I honestly don't know anyone who likes it," June remarks. "It's tedious and there aren't enough bandits to make it fun."
"Mhm." Mai pretends to pay attention to June.
June sees through it but decides to make half of an effort to make Mai trust her.
After hours of imprisonment, someone approaches Mai from behind. She sits on the grass—she hates grass—smelling mud and campfires. She watches from the shadows as the rebels enjoy their night, and she hardly notices someone entering from the other side of the tent.
Her heart surges and she silently prepares to fight.
"Fire Lady Mai," whispers the man, removing his mask. Mai does not recognize him, but no one has called her by her title here. That must mean something. "I'm here to rescue you."
"Why?" she demands, ignoring how sick she is of people assuming she needs rescuing. He withdraws a knifed and cuts the bonds on her wrists and ankles without answering her question.
"Because I'm loyal to the empire," he says and Mai wants to roll her eyes.
She stands and he helps her to feet. As she adjusts, she smells the campfires outside and hears the drunken stories and the sound of weapons being sharpened and feels damp earth squishing beneath her boots. When she glances out of the tent flap, she sees a world she forgot. She remembers the Ruthless Sun. She imagines cold hallways and priceless gifts and a beautiful, beautiful invisible cage.
She turns to face the alleged hero and steps towards him. The man does not even flinch. What an idiot.
Mai silently and smoothly grabs him by the neck, snapping it in one swift, practiced motion.
Meanwhile, on the royal flagship heading towards the North Pole, Azula and Ty Lee lie in their shared bed. It is morning and they are awake at the moment, but they have yet to get up and start their separate days. They do not say anything but nothing needs to be said.
Scratchy pillow beneath her head, Azula gazes at the ceiling with glazed eyes. The night before she left has given her so many doubts, fears and questions. But, in her position with her reputation and her mission, she cannot afford to confront them.
Why are things so much harder now than they were when she was a soldier? All she did was ravage country-sides, bending fire and breaking people while she waited for the throne to be handed to her. Now she has to choreograph a naval operation and soon take the icy plunge into motherhood. She always thought impossible was a word for things she had no tried yet, but she might have been wrong.
This new life is impossible, even for Princess Azula the Monster of the West. And her conflicted feelings and worries about eclipses and comets make everything that much worse. Ty Lee walks back towards the bed and Azula tries to focus on her, yet, she cannot.
It is all too much. She quite craves to throw herself over the side of the ship and be done with it. Just drift away and stop worrying and planning twenty steps ahead. She could be more like Ty Lee or some equally silly girl.
Ty Lee suddenly turns to Azula, wracked with dizzying, uncomfortable nausea. She sits up in their bed but Azula still does not move.
"You've seemed really bothered since we left Caldera," chirps Ty Lee, attempting a comforting smile. Maybe it comes off as insincere or too cold, but she hopes it shows the genuine warmth she feels for Azula. "Are you okay?"
"I am mostly contemplating my many options in days to come," purrs Azula, refusing to show her inner turmoil. She perceives Ty Lee as too stupid and shallow to notice anyway, but it is better safe than sorry. "I want to make the ideal plans for after my latest mark on history: the conquest of the North Pole. It will not be nearly as impressive as Ba Sing Se, of course, but nothing will."
"Oh, okay." Ty Lee beams and bats her eyelashes. Then she asks, "But isn't that up to your dad though? He assigns you this kind of stuff?"
Bitterly, Azula says, "I am not his to command."
"Are you with the rebels?" Ty Lee softly inquires with wide eyes.
Azula shakes her head, expression souring at that accusation. "I am only on my own side. That is how I always have been."
"I don't think that's a bad thing," Ty Lee chirps, smiling at her wife.
"You rest. I have to go meet with my underlings to make sure we destroy the North Pole instead of fail miserably." Azula touches Ty Lee's hand.
A brief spark, so fleeting, so small, crosses between them.
Ty Lee's heart skips a beat.
Azula turns away as quickly as she can and hurries to her meeting.
In the Colony Kingdom, at a second camp, Mai looks up at the sky. The moon is the only light in the star-studded canvas when the campfires go out. Someone sits beside her and she does not need to look up to know who it is.
"You obviously don't want to go home," says June, taking in a deep breath. Mai does not bothering analyzing it.
"I didn't hate it there," Mai says earnestly. She has been thinking about that all night, pondering every day and night she spent in Caldera, wondering if she was unhappy or not.
June laughs. "That's high praise coming from you. Why don't you want to go back then?"
"Because I want to pretend there's a such thing as free will."
"That's dark as fuck."
Mai subtly shrugs.
A memory strikes her when she turns away from June. She recalls turning away from another person, one she tried her best to love but always fell short. Mai was ready to be ignored and have her way but he grabbed her and took her back.
"When you turn away," she remembers as clearly as if he said it yesterday, "that's when I pull you back. Understood?"
And Mai had felt her heart flutter, and for the first time she wholly willingly fell into his arms.
He was not unattractive, even if he gave her no choice but to marry him. He ran his thumbs up the scars on her arms, as if admiring something so grotesque.
She remained perfectly still.
His touch transferred from her scars to her back.
She remained perfectly still.
In the Fire Nation, Ozai stands on his private patio after a day of audiences. He watches the sun set but does not pay attention to the streaks of orange. He cannot stop thinking about his daughter's mission and how he cannot control it from here. Not only is the North Pole vital and uncertain, but he needs her to find Mai before the rebels do anything reckless and permanent.
If he did not have to hold up the sky singlehandedly, he would retrieve her himself.
Unless she went willingly. No, she would not. He is an expert at assessing loyalty and his wife is on his side. He knows that to be true.
She has always sworn fealty to the Fire Nation, even before he wed her, and she has showed no unfaithfulness towards him individually.
They had problems of late, yes, because of the numerous losses they faced. But she took those in surprising stride, as much as a person can.
One night, after one of those shattering events, she turned away from him. She never cared enough to do that before.
"When you turn away," he remembers as clearly as if he said it yesterday, "that's when I pull you back. Understood?"
And Mai showed vulnerability when she fell into his arms without hesitation.
She was not resistant to him, but she had always shown so little emotion. He never knew quite what to do with her, but he knew himself to be wise enough to succeed at all things.
He examined her scars, the ones that were evidence of the choice she made. He ran his thumbs across them as soon as she slipped out of his grasp.
The energy between them surged and flared.
He crushed his lips against hers.
Her stillness was intoxicating.
He moved his hands away from her scars and used them to secure her in place.
Her stillness was intoxicating.
On the Fire Nation flagship, in a cold meeting room, Azula sits in front of a map after her morning meeting. She scowls at the lack of intelligence on the reclusive Northern Water Tribe and pokes at the stone representations of the ships and soldiers at her disposal.
Someone walks into the room from behind her and sets a cup of steaming peppermint tea by her side and she jumps. Was she that engrossed in her work or are her reflexes fading?
She looks up to see her wife.
"Ty Lee?" asks Azula.
Although she wanted to wait and make small talk first, Ty Lee blurts out, "I had a dream about our baby. In it she was something called the Avatar. What's an Avatar?"
Azula tries to ignore the chills in her body. She wonders again if her dream about her mother meant something more than evidence of stress.
"Someone who can bend all four elements," she explains, despite knowing there is more to it.
"Oh." Ty Lee tries not to look as scared as she is. "Why would that put our baby in danger? My dream was about a warning."
Azula sips her tea.
"It would put her in grave danger," Azula says, deciding to be honest. "Especially from my father. If that were true about the baby, he would kill her in an instant."
"Why?" Ty Lee asks, aghast. "Doesn't he need an heir so bad?"
Azula shakes her head. She knows very well that restoration of balance means overthrowing an empire; there is a distinct imbalance of power, but, as it benefits her, she does not want it to come to an end. "He has no need for one without a throne. The Avatar would be his undoing."
Ty Lee does not question Azula, but she still feels frightened. She already worried enough about Azula not loving their baby; she does not need to fear Ozai too.
"But you'll protect us, right?" Ty Lee kisses her wife's minty lips. "Right? Because I'm your wife and it would be your little baby?"
"Of course," Azula purrs, grabbing her tea and rising.
Ty Lee cannot accept those words; they do not ring true, no matter how much she wants to believe them.
"You're good at that," whispers Ty Lee, afraid to speak but unable to avoid it.
"At what?" Azula inquires.
"Maybe people believe they're more important to you than they actually are."
Azula fiercely shakes her head. "That is, indeed, one of my countless talents and I use it well but you have no idea how I see you. I am going to set the world on fire, but not let a single flame touch you. I will rule the entire world and you will be my empress."
Ty Lee has no words; she can only kiss her wife.
After leaving Azula's side, a bout of dizziness strikes Ty Lee. She expects to just throw up, and she clings to the wall in the hallway and retches, not planning on finding somewhere better. Her head spins far too much to think and walk like that. All she goes through is the pain of dry heaves, until she straightens her back and doubles over again to cough up blood.
She begins to panic, dizzily stepping away from the wall and going to find someone, but after a few swaying steps, she blacks out.
When she opens her eyes again, she finds herself lying on her bed in a room with guards and Azula's beautiful golden eyes fixated on her. She sees Katara, their prisoner, working on healing her.
The shock of waking up like this makes her head reel.
Once she gets her bearings, she asks, "Is the baby okay?" in a panic, eyes wide and focused intently on the imprisoned healer.
"It will be," says Katara, smiling at the Fire Nation princess.
Ty Lee breathes a sigh of relief. Azula grips her wife's wrist so tightly that her knuckles turn white. It stuns Ty Lee to see Azula so worried about a baby she always claimed not to love, and a wife she never showed too much affection for.
Ty Lee cannot think of the words to use.
She never was good at that.
All she can do is stare, heart pounding.
Katara's mind wanders while she works on saving Ty Lee's baby. Ty Lee and Zuko's baby. And Zuko's baby. Zuko's baby. She recalls being at the Rebel Base not long ago, just finishing a training session with her boyfriend on the chilly, damp, grey terrace.
He turned to her and asked out of the blue, "Do you want to have a baby?"
She, of course, was floored by the question. Katara even dropped the water she was using to practice; she was unable to bend from shock.
"We have a war to fight. The rebellion needs us."
"We can still fight and be parents. Imagine the child of the Blue Spirit and the Painted Lady."
"That's absurd," said Katara, picking up her water and returning it to its leather pouch.
"Why? We could die tomorrow."
"Exactly," said Katara. "Who will raise our baby? Your Uncle? He'd give her tea instead of milk, and worse, she would never know us."
Zuko shook his head, but he still seemed so serious. Katara shrugged him off and went to change out of her sweaty training clothes.
At the present, Katara rescues an unborn child that will one day grow up to be a cruel and terrible dictator. No, not if the rebellion has a say in it.
She manages to save Ty Lee. A guard does Azula's bidding and brings the pregnant princess a cup of sleeping tea.
Katara remembers figuring out how to brew it herself. She used it on Sokka and Suki when she first traveled away from the insane Hama—her teacher for too long—and found the sickness and suffering within the Fire Nation's borders.
She closes her eyes for a moment and recalls brushing the paint on her face with two fierce fingertips for the first time ever. When she opens her eyes again, she looks back at the princess pregnant with the Blue Spirit's child.
"I'm scared," whispers Ty Lee, uncertain why she feels so comfortable telling Katara this.
"Motherhood is scary," says Katara.
"No… I'm scared of what Fire Lord Ozai will do to my baby," she begins, but Azula shoots her a look that makes her shut up. "I don't want it to be raised so royal or as someone at war like this. I'd be too worried about it dying in battle."
Her wife somewhat approves of that alteration.
Katara says, "It's up to you."
Azula never knew how much she wanted her baby until she almost lost it. She sits that night after her war meetings and unlived visions of the future play endlessly in her mind. She sees a little girl growing up with Azula and Ty Lee. First steps, first words, first firebending, tucked in at night to the tune of sweet Fire Nation lullabies.
Azula wants this.
She wants this because when Katara was healing Ty Lee, all Azula could think was that she might never see all of those things happen.
The Monster of the West learned she had a heart the moment it broke. Honestly, this is the first time in her life she has ever felt so strongly about another person.
Not even when her mother died. That was eons ago, before Azula even became a soldier. Probably because Ursa was highly opposed to it. She would have hated that Azula conquered Ba Sing Se, while Ozai cherished her power. She was born to be the Monster of the West; she did not become it against her will, like her mother would wish.
When Azula was young, her mother became sick. Her father was distraught over it for reasons unknown to his daughter. Azula never understood how someone could feel that way about someone they did not wed out of love until right now as she stands at a bedside. Her father as much like that during her mother's hour of darkness.
Azula always liked him much better with Mail her stepmother never expresses resentment towards her and appreciated her status as someone with unstoppable destructive power.
"I can escort the prisoner," says Azula, rising as Ty Lee drinks the sleeping tea. She wants to figure out Katara, wants to comprehend this act. Not reading people with ease infuriates Azula, particularly someone as important to the shape of things to come.
"Yes, princess," says the lead of the guards.
Azula takes Katara with only two guards to accompany her. They reach the brig and Azula places Katara back in the constraints conjured up by Fire Lord Azulon when he had to imprison waterbenders.
"You saved my baby," says Azula, eyeing her prisoner with a skeptical twist of her lip. "Why did you do that?"
"I'm a healer. Did you ever learn about the enslaved Earth Kingdom waterbenders centuries ago? The Earth Kingdom had poor healthcare and, despite being captives, the waterbenders healed their enemies. Not out of fear of even genuine compassion, but because that is the sworn duty of a healer: to protect and care for everyone."
Azula asks, "Who taught you? Those rules."
"A teacher I once had, before I became the Painted Lady. Her name was Yugoda."
"Tell me about her," harshly requests Azula.
"Yugoda was from the Northern Tribe. She was one of the people who left that isolation to help the rebellion. When she lived there, she taught healing to many and of course she knew the ancient laws and history. She took me under her wing when my brother accidentally injured me and I showed an aptitude for the art. She was kind and kindness is the second rarest thing these days."
"What is the first?"
Azula scoffs, amused by the naivety. She took Katara for more jaded and clever than that.
Katara sees Azula's eyes have returned to their coldness, like the sun on a glacial day. Earlier, when she was healing Ty Lee, she saw something more akin to Zuko's.
Years ago, Katara slowly removed the mask and saw a familiar, scarred boy with golden eyes and a cruel twist of his chapped lips.
"Don't think you can win this."
"I'm the Blue Spirit."
"So? I'm the Painted Lady. I would defeat you if you tried anything."
"I mean that we're on the same side."
"No. You're Fire Nation. We are absolutely not on the same side."
"Fine. What's your story? What made you hate the Fire Nation so much that you took up arms against them."
"Other than the sick and starving?" Katara spat. "The Fire Nation took my mother from me."
"Well, we have that in common."
Katara stepped forward and tentatively touched his scar. He let her do that, the first time he has allowed anyone to lay hands on the burn.
They almost kissed but did not.
"Zuko used to talk about your mother," says Katara.
"Well, I do not," Azula coldly replies, but Katara sees through her thin disguise.
"You care more than you let on."
"Of course I care or I would not be successful. I care about efficiency, power and gaining all I ever desired."
"You care about other people too," Katara insists and Azula just wickedly smirks. Katara does not expect anything different.
"Whatever you did to Zuko to soften him up will not work on me. I was born to replace him. I was born because I am better than him."
"Maybe. But he showed me that people of the Fire Nation can be human."
"I am not sure if we have ever been properly introduced but I am called the Monster of the West. Not the Human of the West."
They sing legends about her. They say she is made of hurricanes and has a dragon's heart, that she bends lightning better than the clouds, that she can bring mountains and seas and kingdoms to their knees, that she brings order to chaos and chaos to order with a stirring of angry storm cells.
But they made those metaphors when she was fourteen. They put a title and the weight of the world on the shoulders of a child. Azula always was proud of that, but now she begins to wonder if it was cruelty to do that to her.
"I'm not sure," says Katara after a long time thinking, "if we have ever been properly introduced but I am the Painted Lady, the bane of the Fire Empire."
Azula smugly smirks as she locks eyes with her prisoner. "And you are in my brig."
"I met someone in my travels, a teacher other than Yugoda," Katara slowly says, staring deeply into those golden eyes that mock her. Now is the best time. The moon is finally on her side. "They called her the Puppet Master."
Azula does not have the opportunity to ask before Katara raises her hands.
The strength of the full moon surges through her veins.