I do not own these characters, or any rights to them, I am simply borrowing them to write a story for amusement purposes only.
Part 1: Aftermath
The young guard virtually jumped as one of the other sentries smirked, and the others only chortled.
"What was that?"
"You get used to it," the burly, bearded man drawled. "That one is our special guest of honor."
"Yep. The nuttiest of the nutty," another sentry, a husky woman smirked, twirling a finger around her temple. "Actually thinks she's the fire lord."
The junior guard's eyes rounded. "You're kidding. The fire lord?"
The woman sniggered. "Reminds us every day."
"And night," a more willowy guard added with a crooked grin.
The guard cringed as the scream echoed again, and the others only smirked, and again rolled their eyes.
"Don't worry," the woman told the newbie. "You get used to it."
"How," the man asked sincerely with a shudder.
"Actually," another guard remarked. "She's not quite as bad as when she first arrived. Had to keep her in chains then. She attacked anyone and everyone if you didn't."
"It doesn't sound like she's gotten better," the young man responded as a weaker, but no less furious scream echoed down the corridors that lined the most notorious prison in the Fire Nation.
The others only laughed.
In her cell, Azula picked herself off the dirty floor, and stared past her ragged, dirty bangs at the door before her.
The hated, unyielding barrier that refused to submit to her authority.
Her gaze was dark, though her eyes were overly bright with misery as she stared at the offending panel. There was a time when no one would have dared lock her anywhere. Not that they could have at the time. She was an advanced firebending prodigy, and had even mastered lightning. She was the daughter of Ozai, the first great Phoenix King himself. Until her treacherous brother, and the loathsome Avatar had destroyed him. As they had destroyed her.
First Zuko had let that waterbending peasant rob her of her victory, and then that brat Aang had actually stolen her powers with his unnatural energy-bending abilities before Zuko had actually thrown her into prison as if she were a common ruffian. Rumors tormented her that her father was now dead, and Zuko had taken the throne.
Not only taken the throne, but had shamed their once glorious kingdom by yielding the war, and making peace with the weaklings and peasants that had once cowered under her father's heel. The thought was enough to fuel her seemingly endless rage once again.
Pushing herself to her feet, she ignored her torn, dirty dress better suited for a mud-digging peasant, and glared at the offending door. Her head still throbbed, her foot ached, and her nails were jagged and bloody. But that infernal door still refused to yield.
Considering that every square inch of her cell was as metal as the door, she knew she wasn't getting out anytime soon. That didn't stop her from trying.
She gave a cry of renewed outrage, and began to hammer and kick at the door once again.
She slid down the door as her manic-fueled strength began to fade, again, and landed on her knees again, weeping bitterly as she clawed weakly at the door, wanting only to get out. Only to go home. Only to be…..free.
She spun away from the wall she was studying with intense scrutiny when the door suddenly opened, and she clenched her fists, wondering if this time she might have a chance to overwhelm a careless guard, and finally escape this hellish nightmare.
After all, if those witless children had once been able to escape…..?
She stared in shock at the richly dressed brunette with more than familiar features.
"Mai," she blinked, ignoring the two guards that woman in royal robes gestured to step back as only she entered the cell.
Azula smiled hugely. "You came for me," she cried, and flung her arms around her, squeezing so hard that even the usually impassive warrior-woman gave a grunt of surprise before she managed to detach the manic woman's arms from her body.
"I came to see how you were doing, Azula. We are all worried about you."
"All," she asked cynically, stepping back to eye her. "What do you mean….? Who do you mean? Is Ty Lee with you? Haven't you come to….?"
She stopped, her dark eyes locking on the woman's slender, yet potentially deadly hands.
"Is that….? Are you….married," Azula asked her incredulously, staring at the distinctive stone on her left hand.
"I was married five months ago, Azula. To Fire Lord Zuko. Don't you remember?"
"Fire…..Lord?" The woman burst into shrill laughter. "Zu-Zu? Fire lord? He's as much a fire lord as I am the ava….."
Her face went cold and hollow as she stared at her former companion. "You married Zuko?"
"Yes, Azula. Don't you remember," she asked again. "I asked you to put aside your hatred and join us, but you…."
"You betrayed me," she hissed, and started to step forward, but she froze when the two burly guards stepped forward first. Her eyes darkened not with hate now, but fear. Mai saw it, and knew that was very unlike the young woman she had known for many years now.
"Again," Azula growled, glaring at her. "You all betrayed me," she said. "You all turned on me. For him," she hissed, and just then, Mai wasn't sure which 'him' she meant.
"'Zula," Mai tried again.
"Just go away," she spat. "You don't fool me. You're just looking for new ways to break me. Well, you won't. Do you hear? You won't. Someday, I'll get my firebending back, and I'll destroy you all. I'll take back father's throne, and….and…."
Mai sighed, and shook her head as the woman dropped to her knees to cry, her face buried in her hands.
"Wait! Where are you going," the fallen princess demanded shrilly as looked up when Mai turned to leave.
She didn't answer as she stepped outside the cell, and let the guards close the door even as she glanced back to see a stricken princess belatedly rush toward the closing door. "No," she screeched, "Come back!" On the other side of the door, Azula stared at the door as it slammed behind Mai, and she felt the knot in her chest rise to her throat as her former comrade disappeared.
"No," she screamed, and flung herself at the door, pounding at it in vain. "Mai, come back! Don't go! Don't leave me here! You have to help me!"
Mai glanced back as the shrill, echoing screams followed her down the corridor as she walked away. Her uncle, waiting in the corridor all along, gave her a grim expression as he escorted her back to the gondola waiting on her, and her escort.
"She is getting worse every day. I don't know what Fire Lord Zuko intends for her, but I thought it best I let you know that the girl is not getting any better. If anything, I fear she will soon succumb to complete madness here."
"I will speak with my husband," Mai told him as she paused on the landing that led to the gondola where her escort, four of the Kyoshi warriors, including Ty Lee waited on her, the former looking more than a little sad. "Until then, do what you can for her," she asked him quietly.
"Of course," the old, bearded man nodded, knowing well enough that that warden was as political an office as admiral even in the new peace that seemed to have swept their nation. He might have kept his office in the new administration, but it was a close thing after his abuse of the prince. And likely only due to his niece wedding that very prince. A surprisingly forgiving prince, which he was more than grateful for just then.
Azula sat up to find she was no longer alone.
"You," she hissed, scrambling up to back into the corner of her cell, her dark eyes wide as she stared at the newcomer. "What do you want? Did you come to gloat? Or are you going to finish me off as you did my father?"
"Your father is still alive, Lady Azula," the bald teen with the airbending tattoos covering most of his body told her quietly as he continued to sit cross-legged on the floor near her worn, dirty bedding.
Aang didn't move as Azula slowly rose to her feet, back still pressed into one corner of her cell. "So, you are here to gloat," she said with false blandness, her sharp eyes locked on him as she waited for any move. Any hint of a move.
"Please, sit," he gestured to the floor before him. "I really would just like to speak with you. That is all. Just a simple conversation."
She licked dry, cracked lips, and glanced around the increasingly small room.
"Well, I suspect it's going to be a short conversation, since I doubt we have much to say to each other," she quipped irritably.
Aang studied the woman that pressed herself against the wall, eyes looking more than a little wild, and sighed.
He had seen animals look that way in some of the zoos he had visited. Still, it was better than the other look he had seen in such captives, human or feral. It told him he wasn't too late, which was what Fire Lord Zuko had wondered when he had sent him here after hearing some of the stories from the prison of late.
"Well? What's on your mind, Avatar," she demanded curtly. "If you're not going to gloat, what do you want? You already have my powers. Have you come for my life? Tell me, damn you. Say something!"
He didn't even jump when she pounded both raw, bruised fists on the wall behind her. She was surprised that he still didn't react. She was even more surprised that guards didn't fling open the door to shout, or even beat her.
"I wanted to see if I could help you," the lean, young boy who had grown up over the past two years since he had been found told her.
"Help me? Help…..me," she laughed shrilly.
"Yes, Lady Azula. Help you," he said, and slowly, but gracefully rose to his feet.
She tensed again, eyes locked on him as he stood before her. She was still taller, but he had grown, closing that gap. Not that it mattered. He was truly the avatar now. He had command of all four elements, and more. There likely wasn't anyone in all the nations that could now stand up to this…..child.
She swallowed hard.
"H-How," she choked out quietly, that hated knot rising in her throat again as she ruthlessly wiped a brimming tear from her left eye with a grimy fist. "How could you help me now?"
He smiled at her. "By being your friend. And, if you are willing, taking you out of here," he suggested quietly.
"Out….. Out….? You'd let me go," she smiled weakly, hope something she was not yet ready to grasp after more than seven months in the tiny cell that had redefined her rapidly shrinking world.
The wordless cry tore at the young avatar as she dropped to her knees. "I knew it! I knew it. You just came to torment…..!"
"No," he said, and stepped forward to take both her hands she had fisted to pound into her own temples. "No, I'm not just letting you go. But I am taking you out of here. Now, will you trust me?"
She stared up at him, frowning. "I…..I don't understand," she complained, trying to sound strong, and failing miserably.
"You are still a prisoner of war, Lady Azula. You still have a sentence to serve. But your brother, Fire Lord Zuko, is not needlessly cruel. He understands you cannot survive in here, and doesn't want you to unduly suffer."
She did scowl now.
"He…..doesn't?" She frowned again, darker than ever. "Why not?"
"Because, you are still his sister," he reminded her. "Because of that, he has put you in my care. And he is allowing me to take you to another prison where you might not only learn your lesson, but…..heal, as well."
"Another….prison? Which one? Zander's Pit?"
"No," he shook his head.
"Then…. Dragon's Nest?"
She frowned. "Then…..where?"
"My home," he nodded. "And the only way in or out of the temple is by air. You'll be a prisoner, and a guest. It is our hope you will find peace there, and in time….heal."
She stared up at him. "You'd….trust me…..in your home?"
"Can't I trust you?"
"I….." She frowned darkly, and looked away. "I don't know," she muttered. "You said…. You claimed my father is still alive?"
"He is. He's in prison, too, but he is alive."
She frowned again.
"Are you going to let him out?"
"That is up to Fire Lord Zuko."
Azula's lips worked, then compressed tightly, and then worked mutely again.
"In the end, it is your choice," Aang told her. "I will not make you follow me. I will let you choose. Stay here, or….."
"No! No, I…..I will…..go with you," she said, looking pale and shaken as she stared not at him, but at the door. "I…. I'll behave." She sniffed, then grimaced, and stiffened her back. "I promise to….try. I…. Just don't leave me here," she now rasped, staring not at him, but at the now open door a guard had opened.
"If you are really willing to follow me, then I won't leave you," he said, and stepped back, still holding to her fists as he tugged her easily to her feet with surprisingly gentle strength. She stared uneasily at the guards who did not block her way as he turned to lead her to the door, and glanced warily at them as she walked out of the cell for the first time in months at the side of the Avatar.
"You sure you want to take a chance with this one," one guard asked him curtly. "You ask me…."
"I'm sure," Aang cut him off. "After all, how can anyone earn a second chance if we don't give them the opportunity to try," he told the gaunt man.
The sentry gave him a cynical look, but for once Azula said nothing as she stayed close to the young teen's side as he walked down the catwalk that led to the exit, and the world outside. She felt the urge to bolt, wanting only to be away, but conscious of the many guards still watching her every move. She stayed close beside the eerily composed Avatar whom she had once chased halfway around the world, and almost killed on more than one occasion.
"If I….prove myself? Do I…..Do I get to go home," Azula asked as they stepped outside, and almost wept at the first breath of warm, humid air that rose from the boiling lake that surrounded Boiling Rock.
"That's up to your brother," he told her. "But so long as you are proving yourself, you will remain on Sky Island."
Then she realized they were headed for the courtyard. They were not headed for the gangplank that led to the gondolas.
"Aren't we leaving," she asked, looking more than a little worried.
The bald teen smiled as he jumped a railing, and landed twenty feet below at one end of the courtyard where a massive, ivory-furred anachronism rested. The huge sky bison rose to all six feet, and eyed her, giving a curt growl, and she felt herself cringe back on the stairs as the large eyes narrowed at the sight of her.
"Relax, buddy," the Avatar fearlessly pet the massive beast as if it were a mere pet. "She's not going to hurt you. She's going to come stay with us for a while."
Appa glared heatedly at her, and snorted, and she gasped as she felt the heated mucus coating her as she stared down at herself in horror.
"Sorry. Appa's had some rough times himself, as I'm guessing you know," Aang told her as he made a curt, waving gesture, and a blast of hot air simultaneously dried and cleaned her. At least, cleaned her of most of the slimy mucus coating her.
She stared at the huge bison, and eyed him uneasily. "We're not actually going on…..?"
"Appa? Sure," he smiled. "Don't worry. You'll be fine," he told her, and gestured for her to climb up to the saddle that she did not know had only recently been restored for her to use. Aang had not needed it himself, and had let it go neglected for the past few months as he went about his own duties in helping bring the world back to a true, harmonious balance. Something far more difficult than just defeating the Fire Lord, since some hatreds died slow, if at all after a hundred years of war.
She swallowed hard, looking back at the guards as she descended the last few steps, and approached the massive sky bison as one of the guards still behind her snickered. "Lost your courage, princess," he now taunted her.
Clenching her jaw, she stepped forward to stand beside the smiling Avatar, and looked up at the scowling animal.
"Look, I'm sorry. I….made some mistakes, and….things didn't work out. Could we…..try again?"
The bison eyed her, and then a huge, pink tongue covered her like a blanket.
"Uuuhhhhh, yuuuuuccck," she moaned as she found herself bathed in hot saliva as several of the guards sniggered at her.
"Don't worry. Appa's just saying he forgives you. Now, climb on up, and we'll get going. I have one stop to make, and then we'll head for Sky Island."
She climbed up to the saddle, and knelt near the front even as he leapt gracefully astride Appa's head, shouting, "Yip, yip," before he had even sat down.
Aang smiled faintly as she screamed the moment Appa left the ground, and he glanced back to see her clinging tightly to the front of the saddle as they soared out over the boiling lake that gave the prison its feared appellation. The fallen princess didn't look so bold or frightening just then, and she wasn't even looking at anything at all as her eyes were very tightly closed.
"It's not that bad, lady," he addressed her formally as ever as they left the volcanic cone behind, and rose over the sea as Appa continued to climb higher into the sky, leaving the heat of the volcanically heated sea behind. "Open your eyes. The view is better from up here."
He didn't laugh when she only shook her head vehemently, still clinging to the saddle without opening her eyes. Aang, long used to flying with Appa, sat on his knees facing her atop the bison's huge, shaggy head, but didn't laugh. She wasn't the first to be fearful of flying at first.
"Don't worry, Lady Azula," he told her kindly, "I'm not going to let you fall. Neither will Appa."
She peeked out of one eye. "Why are you being so nice to me," she almost complained in the same curt tone he recalled as more natural to the once pampered warrior-princess.
Aang smiled. "I really am here to help you, lady. It's what I do."
"Right. Avatar Aang, the victorious avatar, and compassionate champion of the people," she grumbled.
"Exactly," he told her with a wide smile, settling back atop Appa's head, not bothering to take the reins attached to Appa's horns for expediency's sake at the moment.
She had a mental image of him falling off to plummet to his death, but then remembered he was the last, true Airbender. Falling to him would be a game. If not an impossibility. That image, however, was not so much born of hope just then, as fear. If he left her, she feared what might happen to her. Because she had no doubt she would never be able to control this beast as his friends had done.
She swallowed hard, and risked looking out from the bald head out at the sky beyond. It was a clear, bright day, and she could see the ocean stretching out before them like a blue meadow. Or a sheet of smooth glass. She swallowed hard again, and reminded herself that she had flown before now, and had not been afraid.
But this wild animal was no airship, and it wasn't under her control.
If something happened…..
"See," Aang gestured with both hands as they flew over the glassy ocean. "Nothing to worry about. Just relax, lady, and enjoy the flight."
"Uh, Avatar…..I….. That is….. You….."
He looked back at her again, still smiling, and told her, "If you have something you want to talk about, Lady Azula, feel free to say it. As Katara is always saying, you cannot clear the air if you are choking on your own…."
He stopped and frowned.
"No, that's Toph. I think. Anyway, if you want to say something, just spit it out," he told her. "And I'm pretty sure that's Sokka's advice."
"It would be," she murmured more to herself than not as Aang only grinned, having met that...young man, too.
"It does sound like him, doesn't it," he agreed without offense.
"Well," she sighed after a moment as he turned to sit looking her way again. "I was just wondering…. Why do you keep calling me…..lady?"
She gasped when he suddenly leapt up high into the air, and somersaulted to land in the saddle behind her.
"Don't do that," she gasped, staring back at him as she still clung to the saddle. "What if you had missed? What if you had fallen? What if you….?"
"Lady, relax. Even if I jumped, Appa wouldn't let me fall. Any more than he would let you fall," he smiled as he settled cross-legged beside her, throwing out both arms as he told her. "See. Steady, and sturdy. You aren't going anywhere. I promise. Besides, I am an airbender. Remember," he smiled.
She only stared at him, but did not relax her grip on the saddle.
"As to your status, well, you are still Fire Lord Zuko's sister. You may have lost your title, and been imprisoned, but you weren't banished. And you remain his sister, and a lady by birthright. One, I feel, that still deserves respect. After all, whatever happens to you, you are still a lady. Right?"
She stared at him. "You're…. You sound pretty smart for a kid," she muttered bleakly, clearly at a loss for anything else to say just then.
"Well, I do have a lot of other lives to draw on for wisdom and guidance," he told her with a crooked grin, trying to lighten her mood.
"Right," she murmured as she looked around again, relaxing only slightly.
"Anything else worrying you," he asked as he stood up, making her look up at him fretfully again.
Azula just stared at him without saying anything at first.
"I just find it hard to believe that you, or Zuko would go to all this trouble to help…..me," she choked.
"Believe it or not, there are still people that care for you."
"I'm just surprised they didn't just execute me after…. After," she said quietly as she looked back over the ocean.
"I won't lie to you," he told her quietly as he sat on the edge of the saddle near where she clung. "There were a lot of people pressuring Lord Zuko to do just that. Some of them were even Fire Nation."
She said nothing to that.
She had heard far too many accusations, and still remmbered the sneering taunts from those she once deemed beneath her since they had dragged her to prison after that peas…. After that waterbender had beaten her.
"A lot of people were focused on vengeance, but I hope I've already proven I didn't come for that."
"I wondered why you didn't just kill us. Father and I, I mean," she murmured, finally starting to relax enough to look down a little.
"I was taught to respect life, and I do. You can't heal anyone, let alone the world, if you just go around killing and hammering everyone into submission. That only breeds more hatred. More violence. It doesn't solve anything. It….."
He sighed, and shook his head as she only stared blankly at him. "I'm sorry. You're probably tired, and don't care about my beliefs just now. Don't worry. We're almost there."
"I thought we would stop at a little village I know on the coast. You can clean up, get a hot meal, and we'll be meeting a friend of mine there. Tomorrow morning we'll start out fresh."
"I see," she murmured.
"Trust me, Lady Azula," he smiled, putting a light hand on her shoulder. "I'm here to help you."
"Why? Why would you help me, avatar?"
"It's what I do," he told her not for the first time. "And feel free to call me Aang," he smiled. "It is my name."
She could say nothing to that.
"Aang," a gruff, familiar tone shouted as Appa landed just outside the town on the outskirts of the Fire Nation. "It's about time."
Azula shuddered. The last time she had come this way, she had flown over this small fishing village, ignoring it completely. As to that voice….
"Hey, Toph. I take it from your letter that your parents still haven't come to terms with your abilities," he asked as he jumped down from the bison even before his paws hit the ground.
Azula shuddered as the big animal landed lightly enough, but still shook every bone in her body doing it. How had people traveled on this thing?
"I'm back, aren't I," the younger woman growled, still looking as disheveled and disreputable as Azula recalled. She was wearing her thick hair in a simple ponytail now, though, rather than the silly, childish bobs. It made her look…..slightly more mature. She shuddered to think what she looked like after months in that dreary metal box.
"Come on down, Lady Azula," Aang called. "We'll find an inn, and let you get cleaned up. Then we'll have a hot meal."
"So, you did bring her," Toph drawled, uncannily fixing her blank gaze on the deposed princess the moment she slipped to the ground from atop Appa.
"Yep," Aang smiled his usual smile. "Cheer up, Toph. Now you'll have someone else to annoy since Katara went back home this season to help Master Paku set up the new trading routes."
"So, where's Sokka? I thought for sure he would have gone back with his father the way he worshipped him."
"He and Suki are finally on their honeymoon," Aang smiled at Toph. "And then I think he intends to help teach her the Kyoshi way to the women of his tribe."
"Wow, that's almost…..intelligent of him."
"Well, there are still more women than men in the southern water tribes just now," he reminded her. "Oh, right. Appa," he said as he heard a curt snort. "We'll be back in the morning, buddy. You go find something to eat, buddy. Lakii's farm is just over that way, and he promised to have you some fresh hay waiting. All right?"
The big animal growled, but seemed to understand him as Azula watched the animal fly away as Aang and the earthbending prodigy started into town with more than a few people staring at them. And at her. She suddenly felt more than a little uneasy as she realized not all those stares were friendly. She rushed after the pair, realizing he had not been waiting, but giving her the chance to follow.
Was this a test of some kind, Azula wondered. Did he give her this freedom just to see if she might try running?
Then she considered what she had lost, and realized that even if he turned his back on her, there was no place for her to run. She was hated and despised by virtually the entire world. In the end, even her own friends and family had turned their backs on her. She literally had no place else to go.
Her mood, just starting to lift during the flight, sank heavily as she shadowed Aang into a very upscale inn.
"Toph Bei Fong," the pony-tailed bender informed the clerk, putting a familiar card on the desk. "And company," she added as Azula found it astonishing that this girl was supposedly from one of the richest families in the Earth Kingdom, and yet favored running around in dirty rags with the Avatar.
Then again, rumors claimed she was also the world's only metalbender. An art she supposedly created herself.
"We'd like a hot bath for our friend," Aang said as the clerk eyed him, his eyes rounding as he realized who Toph's company was only then.
"Of course. I'll have a maid bring a hot bath to your room at once, Miss Bei Fong," the man smiled at her.
"Me? I'm fine," Toph snorted. "We're talking about her," she jerked a thumb over her shoulder at Azula, who blushed at being singled out just then. Especially when the clerk's eyes narrowed on her, and he noted her ragged prison uniform, and likely guessed who she was all too easily.
"We could all use baths," Aang put in to ease the tension, and smiled at the clerk. "And we'd appreciate your discretion."
"Naturally, Avatar," he nodded, smiling hugely at the young teen, proving he knew him, too.
Of course, in her own travels, it seemed everyone knew the Avatar. And they all risked their lives to help him. Very few would turn on him even it meant losing everything. Her own friends had turned on her in his favor in the end. True, Mei was trying to help Zuko, and Ty Lee was protecting her friend. Still, in the end, it was always about the Avatar, and his friends.
She wondered what it was about him, because she still didn't see anything special about him. All right, he had the power of the four elements in his hands. He could neutralize your bending now. He seemed more powerful than any Avatar she had ever heard of in the histories. But what was it about the half-grown boy that made people…..like him?
"This way, your highness," Toph drawled when she took a key from the clerk who offered a guide for her. Her answering snort was eloquent.
"You don't have to call me that," Azula told her quietly as she noted more than a few looks her way at Toph's careless quip.
"I know. I just like rubbing people's faces in the dirt," she drawled with a grin. "It's what I do."
She stared at the back of the girl's head as Aang groaned, "Toph, behave."
"Sure, Twinkle-toes," she told him with a laugh, then added, "Like that'll ever happen."
She frowned. Surely the Avatar wouldn't put up with that kind of indignity?
"It's nice to see you haven't changed, Toph. Still, did you even try to make peace with your family?"
"Of course I did," the girl sputtered as she unerringly stopped before her own room. "I sat down and told them everything that happened. I even shared my feelings with them. Then they stuck me in a room with metal doors and bars, and refused to let me even go outside. They didn't even apologize for sending bounty hunters after me," she hugged.
"Oh," Aang grimaced. "I don't suppose I have to guess what happened next?"
"Well, I did give them time to accept me, but they just didn't listen. So...they are going to be spending a lot of money rebuilding that wing of the house. But, honestly, they didn't even listen when I told them I had created and mastered metalbending."
"Think you can handle rooming with Lady Azula for the night," he asked.
"Sure. I put up with Katara for all that time, didn't I? After that whiny brat, anyone else should be easy."
Aang only laughed as he opened his own door even as several maids appeared to start bringing hot water to their tubs already in the rooms that were obviously the better rooms in the inn. Bei Fong money did have its advantages now that they could travel openly. Or maybe it was the Avatar's reputation.
"You first, Azula," Toph gestured to the tub the maids were filling after one pulled it out of a water closet. She dropped back on one of the beds in the room, sighing with pleasure, utterly heedless of the sight she made when dusk settled around her.
"Listen," she said as the maids left, and Azula eyed the steaming water with both trepidation and anticipation. She would love a bath. She just wasn't sure how one went about tending one's self. Until this year, she had always had an army of servants waiting to do anything for her. In fact, everything.
"Yeah," the blind girl drawled, pointedly ignoring her as she 'stared' at the ceiling.
"I….I would like to ask you…..a question."
"Well, spit it out," Toph responded. "I'm not going anywhere. Yet."
"No," Toph exclaimed, sitting up to gape at her. "Really? I wondered why I couldn't see!"
"Ugh," Azula groaned. "I'm not doing this right. Am I? I mean, I've never consorted with…. That is, I don't know….."
"Will you get to the point, your highness. I doubt those girls are going to want to carry more water here because you sit around babbling until it cooled."
"Howdoyoukeepyourhairsoneatifyoucan'tseeit," she blurted out so fast her words slurred.
"Your….hair. I mean, I've never…. Well, mine is…."
"Hmmmm. Not that I can see, but it's a mess, isn't it?" Azula only glanced at a mirror and cringed at the sight before her. No wonder people had gaped. "It's past dreadful," she admitted.
"Never brushed your own hair?"
"Of course not," she sputtered. "Well, I tried. Once. It didn't go well."
"Let me tell you. It's kind of fun. You'd think you would have learned something after all this time. Okay, in the tub, and I'll show you how I do mine."
"You want me to undress? In front of you," Azula frowned.
Toph stood up, her expression eloquent even without her eyes.
"Oh. Right. I'm…..sorry."
"Wow, I'll bet that hurt," Toph remarked.
"You have no idea," Azula told her wryly as she began pulling off the prison uniform, and found she didn't mind jerking off the fetid rag after all.
To her chagrin, Toph laughed at her. "Get over yourself. Trust me, all pride gets you is a stiff neck, and a sore back. Learn to relax, and don't take yourself so seriously."
"And that fixes my hair how," she asked.
"Oh, that's not hair advice. That's life advice."
"I see," she murmured.
"Let's see," Toph snickered. Which made Azula cringe. Then the girl came over, and murmured to herself as she ran her fingers over Azula's scalp. "Wow, you are a mess," she blurted as her calloused fingers tugged and snagged at her tangled mane.
"I'm not very good with…..these kinds of things."
"C'mon," Toph huffed. "Anyone can brush hair."
"Well, I figured that out. It's….afterward that I….."
"Let's just wash it out, trim it a little, and then we'll figure out something simple for you."
"That would be….much appreciated," Azula grit out.
"Ooohhh, two complements in a row. Better watch it, your highness. I might start thinking you're an imposter," Toph exclaimed before shoving her head under the water. "Now wash. I'll get something to trim your hair."
"You keep saying that like I haven't figured that out yet," Toph teased. She didn't go for a knife, or even scissors as Azula half expected. Instead, she found two stones from the window garden box, and they danced between her calloused, yet dexterous fingers like the lightening once flowed from her own.
She watched the stones end up flatter, and sharper, and then they were lain on a bureau as Toph found a brush in her own small pack she had dropped near the bed, and started tugging at her head after she had tried to wash her hair.
"Wow, you don't even wash it very well, do you," she said even though she couldn't possibly see.
Azula found herself feeling more than a little ashamed just then, which was saying something since there was a time not that long ago when the girl's tongue would have gotten her banished, or worse. Instead, she just dropped her head.
"Let me help," she said after finally brushing out the last of her hair that proved to be ragged and uneven after her attempt at taming it all those long months ago before Zuko had surprised her by showing up to steal her crown.
She gasped as she was shoved under the water again even before those morose thoughts could lead her back into bleaker memories, and then strong fingers kneaded her scalp like bread it seemed as the blind girl soaped, washed, and rinsed her head like a peasant might scrub a child.
Then she just stared as her head was brushed out again, and then the two flattened stones were scooped up, and the earthbender's fingers fairly danced around her head as her hair was trimmed to just brush her shoulders, leaving short bangs at her brow. She then produced a mirror for her to examine herself.
"You cut it all off."
"You're not bald, are you," Toph snorted. "I just figured that for you, for now, this was the best style. Easy to manage, and easier to keep clean. You can learn to do more as it grows back out, because, I can tell you, no one is going to serve you, princess," Toph informed her. "Not where we're going."
"I don't expect it," she replied quietly, staring at her new reflection, and finding that at least she looked almost….human again. "And…..thank you, Toph. I may call you that?"
"It is my name," she snorted indifferently, and flung the stones away, Azula seeing that they landed unerringly in the middle of the window box where they had been found.
"Now, wash up. I'm hungry, and I know Aang. He'll wait all night on us without batting an eye if we wait on him."
"I….don't have any other clothes," she suddenly remembered.
"Oh, shoot. Well, I can fix that."
She walked to the door, yelled down the hall in a most unladylike fashion, "Hey, clerk-guy. My friend needs some new clothes. Chop-chop!"
Azula found herself blushing furiously as Toph just padded back to her bed, and dropped back down on it as she had before helping her. "See? That wasn't hard."
"You're a very strange girl," Azula murmured as she finished washing, finding it a curiously enjoyable experience in spite of the fact she didn't have five maids tending her bath as was once normal. Just then, the still warm water was a more than pleasant change to her own filth.
"Says you," Toph snorted back.
Azula wisely did not respond to that one.
Azula felt almost normal when she stepped out of the room wearing a traditional skirt and halter, with her hair crowned by a red ribbon like a bandana. Toph's idea, for reasons that escaped her. Even the new sandals fit surprisingly well, and seemed quite comfortable, too. It was obviously peasant gear, but she felt much better than she had in months.
She even found herself smiling faintly at her reflection before Toph dragged her out to eat after washing only her face and hands, and just shaking off her head before declaring herself 'decent.'
Aang joined them the moment Toph knocked at his door, loudly calling, "You coming, or what?"
She was obviously not a bashful creature for a blind girl.
Aang and Toph led her to a table, and she took a seat, letting them order first, then copied Toph's order. She knew what she liked, but she had no money. Toph had noticed her unease, and had told her, "Don't worry. I've got the bill this time."
Still, even she wasn't ready to eat just fruit and salads as the Avatar apparently did. After months of thin, tasteless gruel, she wanted some real food.
She tried not to notice that everyone was staring at her again, but Aang didn't seem to notice anything as he ate quietly, and Toph all but gulped her meal down like a starving refugee. Then ordered more. Hungry as she felt, she barely managed to get the delicious fish and rice down, and didn't feel like sharing the dessert Toph now topped her meal off with despite how rich it looked.
Toph finally finished, leaning back to belch loudly as she patted her stomach. "My compliments to the chief," she declared loudly. "That was very good."
"It was, wasn't it," Aang asked as he pushed his own plate aside after swallowing the last honeyed orange.
"How would you know? You're still eating twigs and berries, baldy," she accused him.
Aang still took no offense, and only laughed at her. "I'll just let you have my share," he told her. "Well, do you two want to see the town, or are you ready for bed," he asked, noting the sun was starting to set.
"I think I'll just go lay down," Azula told them, still uncomfortable with the eyes on her. "I'm… still pretty tired."
"Suit yourself. I'm going for a walk," Toph told her. "Gotta be some excitement left around here somewhere. Don't wait up."
"Hey," Toph's strong hands shook her when she woke screaming.
Her eyes locked on the Avatar's friend, but for a moment she didn't see her. She saw her tormentors. Then she focused on the dimly lit room illuminated only by the moon hanging low in the sky beyond the window, and memory filled in to remind her where she was now.
Not in a metal box.
Not slowly going insane.
Well, not in a box.
"You have those nightmares often," Toph asked with surprising kindness as she sat beside her on her bed.
Azula pulled away to sit up, reaching blindly for a pitcher of water she knew was there somewhere. Toph's hand found it first, and poured her a cup of fresh water.
"Thank…. Thank you. Again."
"Sounds pretty bad," Toph remarked. "Your dreams."
She said nothing at first, then finally nodded. "They are."
"Because of the prison?"
"Because….. Because of everything," she told her.
She wasn't sure how to take that.
"How do you do it?"
"Keep your friends even when you insult and snub them? You mock them. You demean them. You…. You act…."
"They understand me because we are friends. We went through a lot that first year together. It brought us closer together. We understand one another, and we let each other be….well, ourselves. Because, your highness, this is me. My folks don't get that. My friends do."
"My friends betrayed me," she said quietly.
"Yeah. I heard."
"My own mother turned her back on me."
"Mine would rather have me locked away forever in secrecy rather than admit what I can do," Toph informed her. "What I have done."
"Do you know why Zuko….? Fire Lord Zuko freed me?"
"Not a clue. That's Twinkle-toes' department," she told her, as Azula set her cup aside after finishing it.
"You going to be okay now," she asked after the moody princess sat quietly for a moment just staring into the darkness.
"Yes. I should be….fine," she said, but made no move to lay down.
"Goodnight, princess," Toph grunted, and went to drop back into her own bed. Then grumbled about it being too soft as she hammered her pillow.
That, Azula new, was never one of her own complaints. The young earthbender was definitely….odd.
Laying back, she stared at the dark ceiling, and tried to reorder her thoughts. Life was change, her old masters had always taught. But this was taking that adage to the extreme. Never would she have thought that her father would fail, she would end up stripped of her powers, and in the care of the Avatar and his peculiar friends. If this was change, what else would she be facing? It staggered the imagination. Unfortunately, hers was beyond bleak just then.
She spent most of the remaining night staring fearfully into the night, afraid to go back to sleep. Afraid she would wake up in that cage again.
To Be Continued….