A/N: This chapter is a flashback sandwich: present on the beginning and end, flashbacks all through the middle. Cuz I need to get the plot rolling and drag Haru back into this (don't worry, he should be here to stay either next chapter or the one after).
Chapter 7 – Objects and Confrontations
Bangs. She had bangs now.
Azula had finally been allowed out of bed today after three miserable days of being too weak to move and another of being told she wasn't ready yet.
Now that she was finally allowed out of bed (but not out of the room), her first order of business was to look in the mirror. She had spent the past ten minutes standing just out of line with her vanity, telling herself that she just didn't want to know if her bangs were ridiculously thick like Mai's.
That was, of course, part of it. But if she was honest with herself – a practice she was unaccustomed to – she would admit that she just didn't want another hallucination of her mother.
She could now see that these were hallucinations; her mother looked so different now, but the image she saw of her looked exactly as she had before she'd abandoned her only daughter. Now her face was tanned and lined, her hair was streaked with gray, and her clothes were made of cheap linen and wool rather than silk.
Something in her had changed since she'd woken from her fever dream. Maybe she had awakened in more ways than one. Though she was still uncertain whether she trusted those around her, though she still was taunted by visions of her mother, she now knew the truth. She knew in her head that her friends would not betray her again, that her mother would not abandon her as she had twice before.
It was getting her heart to believe it that was the problem.
She was still as sick as she was before, she knew. Still paranoid, still hallucinating. And the fact infuriated her. The only true difference was that now she wanted to get better. For years, she had relied on her mind more than anything else. The fact that it was no longer working properly was driving her... well, not crazy. She'd crossed that line weeks ago.
Azula eyed the small pile of her things on the vanity. There was her makeup, of course, her comb and hair ribbon, and the occasional piece of jewelry for parties, but very little in the way of personal items. The same went for when she had traveled. Only necessities, no objects of sentimental value. She couldn't say the same for everyone else she knew. Mai always traveled with a picture of Zuko, and Ty Lee had never gotten rid of that ridiculous gold-leaf flame headdress from the circus. Even Zuko never went anywhere without that knife Uncle had given him.
Even after all these years, that tiny dagger could still ignite a spark of jealousy in Azula's chest. Who wanted a stupid doll to play with, when they could have a knife like that?
That charred doll was actually on her vanity now, along with all of the other items Mai had found in her spot in the library.
"Thought you might want these back," the weapons master said, placing the small pile of items on her lap.
Azula was appalled to feel her cheeks heating up at the thought of anyone finding these personal possessions of hers. Nobody had gone into the library for years; that was why she had used it as a child. Her own secret place, where nobody could find her. She examined each item one by one, reliving childhood memories.
When she finished, she noticed that Mai was still in the room, watching her. If she'd only come to drop off these little knick-knacks, she would have left by now.
"Whatever you're going to say, say it and get it over with." This was as close as Azula got to being encouraging.
"I get everything else," Mai began, "but why the lipstick? You could have it made for you any time."
Azula's first instinct was to make a biting remark about the wonders makeup would do for Mai. She swallowed the comment down. What purpose would it serve? Yes, Mai's facial structure was unconventional, but not really ugly. Besides, she didn't care about her appearance anyway.
And really, Azula was sick of being alone. As much as she loathed the part of her that admitted that, she now realized that she couldn't do everything alone. She had come to realize that she had been depending on people all her life. For Agni's sake, she couldn't even put her hair in a simple topknot without mucking it up! And yet she had tried to run an entire nation without any help whatsoever. No wonder she had failed so miserably.
"It belonged to my mother," she replied reluctantly. This whole "sharing the feelings" thing was new to her, and she wasn't sure she liked it. "I snuck into her room after she left, before Father cleared it out." She didn't add that she had started wearing the shade, no matter how much the cosmetician had urged her to try another shade, because some childish part of her had hoped it would bring her mother back, show her that she wasn't a monster.
"So what do you think you're going to do after you get better?"
Mai, asking two questions willingly? Zuzu must be getting her out of her shell. "I don't know," she confessed. "I'm not going after the throne; I didn't exactly make a good impression on my last attempt. But I refuse to just sit around waiting for things to happen for the rest of my life."
Mai nodded. "I used to do that," she admitted. "Why do you think I was bored all the time? I always reacted; never acted. Dating Zuko only made it worse, with servants doing everything for me, so I found a hobby."
Odd. Mai was being downright talkative. And not about how bored she was, or how much she hated everything. She wondered at that, but didn't question it.
The projectile master shook her head. "I'm just reorganizing the library," she said. "Not something I see you getting into."
Well, that was true. Azula needed something set a bit more to her speed. Like... like...
The sudden realization came that Azula had no hobbies. Not one. Between the constant lessons, war meetings, pleasing her father and plotting the downfalls of family members, gods born in flesh and two nations, she hadn't exactly had time for a social life or her own interests. Of course, it hadn't helped that all of those things had been her interests. Had she changed so much?
This whole revelation was both shocking and sad. Well, pathetic might be a better word. Or disgusting. She would simply have to remedy the situation as soon as she was allowed out of this Agni-forsaken bed.
How did one go about finding their interests, anyway? She had no idea. It rankled her that she was clueless about a subject the average child probably had mastered. She would have to take this under serious consideration.
Zuko glanced over to the vanity. "Is that the doll Uncle gave you?" he inquired.
Azula glanced in the direction he was looking from. Her vanity, of course. She had no other dolls in the room, hadn't for as long as she could remember. Honestly she was surprised that her brother could even identify it; it looked like no more than a blackened lump with highlights of green to it.
Why was he even visiting her, anyway? It was the middle of the day, and she knew he must have obligations as Fire Lord. Peace talks, paperwork and the like. He wasn't even in the traditional robes, choosing instead to wear casual but expensive garments and keep his hair loose.
They weren't on good terms, so he shouldn't want to take time out of his day to see her. For the past twenty minutes the two of them had sat in complete silence, Azula in bed propped up with pillows and Zuko on an ornately carved wooden chair.
"What about it?" she demanded. "It's not like I held onto the worthless thing all these years. I put it somewhere and forgot about it, and Mai happened to find it."
Zuko nodded absently, lost in thought.
Though she was loath to admit it, Zuko's visit wasn't entirely unwelcome. Being bedridden didn't suit her at all; she was a person of action, and being stuck in one place with nothing to do did nothing for her disposition. So while his presence was uncomfortable, it broke the monotony quite nicely.
"Why did you burn it?"
"Hm?" Azula refocused her attention on her older brother, and he repeated the question. "Because I could," she responded. "Why else?"
The older boy shook his head. "You know, even a month ago I would've believed that," he admitted. "You always seemed like you wanted to hurt everything you came across. Especially me." A long pause, as though there was something he wanted to say but wasn't sure he should. In the end, though, he seemed to decide to say it. "I always hated you."
A quirk of her lips into a familiar smirk. "The feeling was mutual, Zuzu."
Her brother's brow lowered. "Is that why you stole our father from me?" he demanded.
"Oh please," she scoffed, "that had nothing to do with it." He opened his mouth to protest, but she projected her voice to continue over him. "It was always a competition between you and me to see who he liked better. You chose the route of blind loyalty, and I chose to hone my skills. Three guesses which he preferred, and the first two don't count."
And it was true. Azula had never been as warm as Zuko – not that it mattered. She excelled at everything else – studies, firebending, subtlety. Everything that made her father look at her favorably. So of course she'd chosen to improve her already considerable skills. Who was Zuko to tell her what she did was wrong?
"You still didn't have to take him from me completely," he snapped. "You could have taught me how to firebend like you did, or helped me with lessons."
Another scoff. "Since when is the younger female supposed to coddle the older brother?" she asked. "Seems like you've got our roles reversed. Just because you were too incompetent to pay attention or spend your free time doing extra work instead of playing doesn't mean I should be held responsible."
"I was a child, Azula!" he yelled. "Just because you were already a bitter old lady by the time you were five doesn't mean you had the right to deprive me of a parent!"
"Well then by your logic, your ineptitude shouldn't have done the same to me!" she screamed back.
That apparently gave Zuko pause. "What?"
"Don't act dumb, Zuko," she sniped. "The day Father chose me over you was the day Mom stopped giving a snake-rat's ass about me. So excuse me for not simpering over your loss, but I felt the loss even more keenly than you did!" Breathe. Just breathe, and calm down. She was revealing far more than she wanted.
A snort. "More? You never used to play the victim, Azula."
All thought of control fled her mind with that comment. "You got to spend time with Mom," she snarled. "She touched you, she played with you, she read to you, she even fed the stupid turtle-ducks with you! You know what Father did?" She didn't wait for an answer. "He shoved me in more lessons, and showed me off for brownie points with Grandfather! I felt like a bigger circus freak than Ty Lee!"
"Why didn't you say anything?" he asked quietly.
"Yeah, right," she muttered. "When I heard you making fun of me to Mom, and her not even scolding you for it? She used to love both of us, but you stole her love and hogged it all to yourself. It was only fair that I enjoyed Father's attention just as much."
The Fire Lord sighed. "So both of us thought the other stole something," he reasoned. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you feel like that."
"Well I did," she responded. And it had been worth it, to see the hurt expression, the tears, every time she was praised and he ignored. But... "I guess I'm sorry too," she conceded.
Her brother's gaze wandered back to her vanity. "So did you really burn the doll just because?" he asked.
Well, she had shared and humiliated herself enough, what would a little more hurt? "No," she admitted. "If your knife was ignitable, I would have burned that instead."
Zuko reached into his obi and pulled the ivory blade out, sliding its sheath off with practiced ease. "Why?" was all he said.
"Because it was more proof that people liked you more than me," she grumbled. "Uncle gave you a token of a victorious battle, a symbol of honor with a significant message engraved. He gave me a doll, something he could have bought anywhere."
"I don't think that's what he meant," Zuko protested. "Maybe he just thought you'd want a doll or something. Besides, didn't he get that from Ba Sing Se? Probably the Upper Ring too, since it was made with silk clothes. Doesn't that mean he might've risked getting caught to get you a present?"
That hadn't really occurred to her. Still, there was no proof, so why should she believe it? Maybe he'd had an insignificant soldier risk his life for him, or he could have had it delivered or something.
"Whatever," she muttered. "Anyway, don't you have responsibilities to tend to?"
The Fire Lord nodded, rising. He must have understood a dismissal when he heard one; apparently he had gained a sense of subtlety lately. "I'm glad we got to talk, Azula," he told her firmly. "I don't think we'll ever be best friends, but maybe we got to know each other a little."
A fuzzy sort of warmth spread through her chest, not a feeling she was used to. "Don't think we'll be making a habit of this," she informed him. "This was a one-time thing, only because I'm stuck in bed."
A smile was the only reply she got, and as he left Azula was left to marvel at the difference in her brother. Only a month or so ago he'd been so angry all the time, always doubting himself and taking his angst out on everybody. Whatever change had been the catalyst for this obviously agreed with him.
A flash of jealousy shot through her, a very familiar sensation she'd come to associate with Zuko. She didn't think she could ever say she was unconditionally happy; there was always something that seemed to get in the way. As usual, everything came so easily to Zuzu, while she had to struggle to get anything.
When Ty Lee came to see her the next morning, she couldn't say she was surprised.
"No time for the ugly confrontations like when you've got a bedridden captive audience," she commented as the acrobat perched on the edge of her bed.
"Hey Azula," she greeted the princess. "How are you feeling?"
"Quit the pleasantries and get to the point, Ty Lee," she snapped with an impatient sigh. "Just because I'm stuck here doesn't mean it's okay to waste my time."
As soon as she saw the hurt expression in her friend's eyes she realized that she'd taken it a step too far.
"So that's how it is? Me wanting to spend time with my friend, to make sure she's alright, is a waste of time?" Standing, she continued with the coldest tone Azula had ever heard from the cheerful girl. "Fine. I'll leave."
"Wait – Ty Lee - " Another sigh, this one frustrated. "I didn't mean it. Come back." The pink-clad girl didn't return to her seat or even look at her, but neither did she turn away. "This is all strange for me. I need you to bear with me."
"Oh yeah?" she asked, fists clenched. She whirled around with such a look of fury in her grey eyes that Azula flinched. "Well, Azula, it feels like I've been bearing with you for years, and haven't gotten anything for it! If you haven't changed in eight years, why should I think you'll change now?"
What was she talking about? Azula repeated her thoughts aloud.
"How could you not know?" she demanded. "Ever since I met you, you've done nothing but make me feel bad! Pushing me around, making fun of me, bullying me into doing what you want me to do, it never stops!" She stamped her foot in a rare display of temper. "I came halfway across the world to make sure you were okay, left all my new friends behind and spent constant time with you, and it's still not good enough for you!"
"I can explain all of that," Azula offered.
Arms crossed, Ty Lee commanded, "So tell me."
An easy shrug preceded her words. "Because you didn't matter."
The effect was immediate. Ty Lee always had been quick to cry, and this was no exception. Her face reddened, the corners of her lips tugged downward, and tears spilled over onto her cheeks, a few fat drops clinging to her lashes. "How could you say that?" she sobbed.
"Because it's true," was the reply. "Don't get me wrong, I liked you, but you didn't really matter. Nothing mattered to me as much as myself." Seeing that her friend's shoulders still convulsed under the power of her emotions, she rolled her eyes. "I didn't say that was how I feel now, just that that's how I used to feel. Calm down, already."
Her exasperated tone seemed to work, as Ty Lee reined in her sobs and smeared at her cheeks with the back of her hand. A few hiccups and she was calm, though her face and eyes were still red. "You can't just start over, you know," she finally said. "You really hurt me, and you can't expect me to just drop everything and pretend it didn't happen."
Azula turned her head toward the window, focusing her gaze out on the courtyard. "I know," she admitted. "I guess it never really occurred to me that my actions would have any consequences, other than getting what I wanted. I knew I could make you and Mai afraid of me, but I didn't think about how you'd feel about it, that it would make you hate me." Closing her eyes, she added quietly, half hoping Ty Lee wouldn't hear: "I guess I can't blame you for abandoning me."
"We didn't want to," the brunette insisted. "We like you, Azula. We like being your friends. But you always take things too far, and I guess we both got sick of being dragged along for the ride. It was one thing when you picked on us when we were little, or when we were chasing after somebody we didn't know to capture him, but then you wanted us to kill your brother. We couldn't do that." A pause, and then: "We couldn't let you do it, either. We didn't want you to have to live with that."
So they were protecting her conscience, were they? Azula wasn't completely sure it was necessary. Would she have even felt badly for killing her brother back then? For that matter, would she now? It was hard to say.
"Well," she finally said, "I won't grovel on hands and knees for your forgiveness, but I will say I'm sorry. Maybe we can eventually put it behind us, but that'll have to be enough for now."
Ty Lee nodded, a smile shining through her tear-reddened face. "Deal," she agreed.
And of course, with all the other confrontations done and over with, that only left one more, the one she dreaded more than anything.
"I hope you realize that I'm only allowing you to do this because I'm confined to my bed," she informed her mother.
The older woman nodded, not pausing from her task of clipping the girl's black locks with the gold-plated scissors in her hand. "I know," she added unnecessarily. Almost to herself, she murmured, "Why did you do this to your beautiful hair?"
"It wouldn't cooperate," the princess replied. "When parts of a whole don't function as they should, when they compromise the overall effectiveness of the system, you cut them out. Sacrifice the individual to save the whole." They both knew she was referring to more than just the hair.
"But forcing those parts to do more than they were made to will ensure that they eventually rebel or fail," her mother protested quietly. "The whole must learn the limitations of the parts, as well as how to care for them."
Azula didn't reply. She'd finally learned that lesson weeks ago, and didn't need any reminders of that harsh period.
Ursa finished snipping her hair several tense, silent moments later, brushing the stray severed hairs from the bedspread. Wrinkling her nose, Azula dispelled a few from her face with a quick puff of air from her mouth.
"You can go now," she finally said when her mother didn't move from her perch on the edge of the bed. "I've recovered, my hair is cut, and soon I'll be able to get out of this bed. There's no reason for you to stay in the Fire Nation." And afterthought caused her to add, "Unless you think Zuzu needs you to pick up after him."
"Are you so anxious to get rid of me?"
That wasn't a question she wanted to answer. "What if I do?" she asked instead.
"I'm not so sure you do," Ursa asserted. "Your mind doesn't create images of a person you don't care about." More silence, and Azula risked a glance at her mother's face. Dark golden eyes met her own amber ones, and the princess retreated her gaze immediately. "All you have to do is tell me to stay and I will."
"Right," came the scoffed reply. "Is that why you spent so much time anywhere but here while I was sick? Because you wanted to make yourself readily available to me?"
The older woman had the decency to blush. "I won't deny that I've made mistakes," she admitted. "If you'd tell me any others I made, maybe we can try to fix them."
Azula snorted, wincing internally at the undignified sound that escaped her. "After so many times of you telling me that 'we don't talk that way' any time I mentioned something unpleasant? I don't think so."
"Then I won't be leaving."
Really, these sullen stretches of silence were starting to get old. It seemed as though Azula had no choice but to speak, if she wanted the woman gone. "Fine," she acquiesced, "but after this you leave me alone. No more misguided bonding sessions. You leave and never return." She took the silence that met her as an agreement. "Why don't we address your blatant favoritism toward my brother," she said more than asked in a flat tone.
Surprisingly, her mother didn't deny it. "I thought I was doing the right thing," she said. "You had your father, so I thought Zuko should have his mother."
Fine. Azula didn't feel like revealing what she'd said to Zuko earlier. She was positive that Zuko cared enough to be discreet. This woman was an unknown factor.
"Fine," she said, "but that doesn't explain what made you hate me."
"What? Azula, how could I hate you? You're my daughter."
"Lying doesn't become you, Mother. Honestly I don't care," she lied. "But really, you might have used a bit of subtlety; you can't argue against something as blatantly obvious as this."
Labor-roughened hands suddenly grabbed her shoulders and shook her a bit. "I didn't and don't hate you," Ursa insisted, her eyes radiating a quiet fury Azula had only seen once – when her mother had learned that Zuko was going to be murdered by her husband.
"Please," the girl scoffed, "just admit it and make things easier for everyone involved. You - " A slap to her left cheek stunned her into silence for a long moment. Now her own glower met her mother's. "So it comes out," she hissed. "If not in words, then in deeds. Just call me what you've always thought of me: a monster."
Ursa's narrowed eyes suddenly widened. "A monster? Where would you get such an idea?"
"From the truth," came the snarling reply. "You expected a monster from me, so a monster was what you got. Go ahead and say it. Monster. Two little syllables will get you off the hook, so just say it." At her mother's continued quiet, she repeated it louder. "Say it!" The blood drained from her livid face as she shrieked, "SAY IT!"
"NO!" A fist powered by years of manual labor impacted her face, snapping her head to the side. What an open hand failed to do, a punch accomplished: keeping Azula quiet. "I never thought of you as anything but my daughter, a girl who sometimes needed more than I could give her."
"Then why did you say something was wrong with me?" the teen demanded.
A furrowed brow. "What are you talking about?"
"Right before Father was ordered to kill Zuko! I mentioned that Father would be Fire Lord with Grandfather and Uncle out of the way, and you scolded me, and you said something was wrong with me before I even left the room!" Her breath came in harsh gasps, and she angrily swiped a bit of moisture from one cheek.
Ursa, for her part, grew pale when she heard that. "You weren't supposed to hear that," she whispered.
"Oh yes, and that makes it all better – you still feel that way, but you're sorry you got caught!" More moisture, another swipe.
Ursa was wiping tears of her own from her face. "I'm so sorry, Azula," she muttered. "I never meant for you to think that." Before Azula could stop her, she'd wrapped her arms around her daughter and hauled her in close to her chest, where the moisture now fell into green robes rather than onto Azula's cheeks. The choked whimpers escaping her throat were of course from continued weakness from her recent illness.
The girl inhaled deeply, shudderingly, relaxing as her mother's scent invaded her lungs. Despite its differences – more earthy than she remembered, without the scent of the perfume on her vanity, the perfume she'd stolen from Ursa's room the day she'd left – it brought the same comfort it had years before. As did the drops of wetness landing into her hair.
Azula blushed a little at the memory. She was not a child who still needed a mother's comfort. She didn't need to be coddled.
She ran her fingers idly through her bangs, trying to get used to the hair lying against her forehead. At least they weren't as thick as Mai's.
In any case, it was time for the most important order of business: bathing. She had done without for days on end now, and she frankly offended her own senses. Turning from her mirror, she dropped her bedclothes on the floor. She would call a servant to have her sheets and blankets changed, as well as bring her some proper clothes as she had a nice long soak. She risked one last peek over her shoulder at her haircut, before doing a quick double-take.
Her eyes widened in horror as she took in the skin at her back. Thick, angry, pink, and uneven, like some kind of hideous rode-colored paste smeared haphazardly over the once smooth pale curve.
One hand bent awkwardly to touch the mass, reminiscent of her brother's scar. Though the senses seemed dull back there, there was no denying that this skin was her own.
She was scarred. Maimed. Hideous. No more the perfect daughter, the perfect princess. Now nothing more than a deformed freak.
A piercing, high-pitched sound violated her ears, and it took her a second to realize that it was her own voice raised in a scream. Her knees buckled underneath her, and she vaguely registered the door to her room banging open as she was surrounded by pink and burgundy, light brown and jet black. Her vision spun dizzily before blacking out completely.
A/N: Ugh, sorry the update took so long; I've been incredibly busy for the past two weeks. I'll be busy for a large part of this week as well, packing for school and then leaving for it. Yay college dorm privacy!