It was Mai's idea, one that Zuko never would have thought of, but one that Mai had thought obvious. "It's all well and good that you two get your own private closure," she said plainly to both Zuko and Azula, a few hours after they had come back. "But the Nation needs one, too."
Azula looked at her nails casually. Any trace of the sad and broken woman that she had been a few hours previous was long gone now, and Zuko wondered how she did it. "They've assumed that Mother has been dead for well over a decade, Mai," she replied, sounding bored. "What difference does it make to have it confirmed?"
"Except that everyone knows the real story by now," Zuko answered. It was practically common knowledge by now, something that went hand-in-hand with Zuko's own life story - one that the entire world knew by heart by now.
"Exactly," Mai said calmly, looking not at all phased by Azula's caustic argument. "A memorial service is what we need, and it's what we're having. Attend or abstain all you like - but it's happening."
"Wait," Azula's hand dropped suddenly. "Will it be a public or a private reception?"
Mai glanced at Zuko, who was already glancing back at her. He knew what she was silently speculating, and he silently agreed. "Public," he said. "We'll personally invite all of our friends and allies, but anyone else who knew her is welcome to come along, too."
"Ah," Azula nodded, her eyes looking suddenly panicked. She stood up from her seat slowly, then just turned and walked away without another word.
This wasn't as puzzling as it could have been. Mai cupped her chin in her hand. "She knows we're going to invite Ty Lee," she said flatly.
Zuko nodded. He wasn't sure what had happened between the two of them all of those years ago, but something had happened not too long after Azula's admittance into the asylum - something that not even Ty Lee would talk about, even when asked. "Should we hold off inviting her?"
"No," Mai answered, her eyes on the door that Azula had just left from. "This is about closure, right? Well, let's offer it - from all angles."
The service was dull.
The entire courtyard was a sea of white - even Zuko's friends were dressed in shades of it, though their clothes were styled in their own way. The Fire Sages said a few words, then Zuko - as Firelord - said much more than a few words, before breaking down and stopping himself, his words no longer comprehensible through a voice choked by tears. Then a pyre draped in white was engulfed in flames - purely ceremonial, since all it had was a picture of Ursa in her youth upon it. Azula watched as her brother kept his eyes glued to the pyre, held between Mai and Iroh, Kaida hovering close by her mother. While Zuko watched the pyre, Azula watched him.
After the last of the flames went out, the crowd began to disperse. Azula stayed where she was, keeping herself aloof from the royal family, despite knowing, deep down, that Zuko and Mai would have welcomed her at their sides. Instead, she turned her eyes to the front row, where the line of Zuko's friends stood. Her eyes didn't linger on any of them - she didn't care - but when her eyes fell on a single figure with large eyes and a wide mouth, she froze. There stood Ty Lee, looking barely a decade older, her usually happy face drawn with deep grief. She had known Ursa - known her well - and had probably hoped that she would return someday, too. Ty Lee's naivete was something Azula had both hated and exploited, much like she had Zuko's, but now she envied it.
She wondered what it was like to have that kind of hope.
Azula hadn't forgotten what had happened all of those years ago. Or, rather - she wouldn't let herself forget, no matter how much she wanted to. Everything that had happened had been her fault, and she didn't blame her former best friend - and sometimes more - from steering clear and never coming back.
There had been hateful words, hateful actions, violence and fury and fire - with Ty Lee helpless in its centre, doing everything she could to remain, even if it meant Azula's health at the cost of her own. For two months Ty Lee had put up with Azula's insanity, put up with it in its rawest form without flinching. That is, until Azula had shrieked the words that had burned hotter than her fire.
"You were useless to me! You were nothing to me! I never loved you, never loved anything about you! If it meant profit in the end, I would have killed you myself! Killed you, and enjoyed it!"
Lies. All of it. She was so hurt and so angry still, resentful of Ty Lee for betraying her, hateful of her for stopping Azula from killing Mai, who had chosen her brother over her...just like Mother.
But Ty Lee's face shone with tears that day. She took the verbal onslaught in silence, getting to her feet and leaving once the last word spilled from Azula's lips. And after that, silence. Ty Lee never came back.
A warm hand suddenly touched hers, and she started, looking towards it to find her niece staring at her. "What are you looking at, Aunt Azula?" Kaida wondered softly.
"The past," Azula answered without thinking.
It took a while for Zuko to calm down enough to visit with his friends, and even then he couldn't do it for long - he found he didn't have the strength to. He felt as if the entire day had sucked him dry of any strength he ever had. Even when Kaida picked a fight with Tyana in order to loosen the tension in the air (or at least, that was what he thought she was doing - she could have just picked a fight in general), he still felt like a sleepwalker, weighed down by grief.
It was only when he had thrown himself down on the closest piece of furniture that he noticed that Azula was missing. She had been a constant at his side throughout it all, hovering along the edges in silence, her presence silent but heavy, almost comforting. However, along the way, he had lost sight of her, and now she was nowhere to be found. He sat up and made a move to get to his feet, but Mai stopped him.
"She's in the courtyard," she said softly, her hand on his chest. "With Ty Lee."
Zuko stared, his eyes wide. "You're joking."
She smiled a little. "No. She followed Ty Lee there shortly after the service."
Zuko closed his eyes. "Should we send a guard or two?"
Mai shook her head, sitting down beside him. Without hesitation, he leaned in close, and she wrapped her arms around him and held him to her. "She'll be fine."
A pause. Then, "Zuko, I'm sorry about your mother."
Zuko nuzzled in close, sliding his arms around her waist. She had said it before, but hearing it now helped. It helped more than anything else she could do or say.
The braid was like a beacon of light, one that Azula followed without hesitation. It was a braid that was still brown, although a trace lighter in some parts, a braid that was still long and that still bounced as the owner of it walked.
Halfway into the courtyard of their childhood, Ty Lee stopped, her hands clenched into fists at her sides, her back still to Azula. Azula stopped as well, her heart racing in her breast. All of those feelings she had wished to feel in the Spirit World - the regret, the sadness, the yearning to change the past - crashed into her now, and she almost staggered from it. The only thing keeping her from collapsing and succumbing to the need to rage and give in was the sight of that white-clad figure with her back to her.
"What do you want?" Ty Lee suddenly snapped out, her voice almost the same as it had been back then, only a trace deeper, a trace more tired. She turned on her heel effortlessly and glared at Azula, the fierceness of her glare rendering the other girl speechless. "Why are you following me?"
Azula said nothing, afraid to say a word.
"For someone who is worthless to you, you sure have a way of showing it," Ty Lee went on, her fists at her hips, the stiff and unworn white robes bunching a little. "I know I mean nothing to you, and I know you don't care about me, especially now. I didn't come here for you, so don't waste your breath yelling at me. I came from Mai, and Zuko. I know better than to poke a buzzard-wasp's hive."
Say something, her mind suddenly cried, realising that she probably should. Say something, say anything to keep her here. Say something!
But nothing came out. Ty Lee's fury was visible on her face - her emotions always were - and Azula realised that Ty Lee had spent the entire time apart nursing her hurt and resentment for Azula, all without her knowing or realising. She had always assumed that, out of anyone, it would be Ty Lee who would forgive her the quickest, and it would be Ty Lee who would be at her side forever.
What an idiot I've been...
"So, what do you want?" Ty Lee demanded, her voice high-pitched with her resentment. "Come to tell me I'm useless again? Come to tell me I'm nothing again?"
"No," Azula managed, feeling her entire body sag a little in defeat. "I just...wanted to..."
"What? You wanted to what?"
"Say sorry." The word was foreign to her lips, like an archaic language she had to learn for school but didn't really care about the meaning too much. Except she really did care - and she really needed Ty Lee to care, too.
The words stopped the other girl. She stared at Azula. "Sorry?" she echoed, disbelief naked in her tone.
"Yeah," Azula looked away, the look in Ty Lee's eyes too painful to meet head-on. "Back then...when I said those things. I was wrong. You're not worthless. You're not useless. I was - and am."
"What?" came the reply, the voice soft and full of bewilderment. Azula refused to look up.
"I had lost everything..." Azula's voice caught, and she sighed, shutting her eyes in frustration. "I had lost you, too. I couldn't take it anymore."
Softly callused hands - familiar hands - suddenly held her own, but she refused to open her eyes. She refused to face it, to admit it.
"You hadn't lost me then. I only left because you hated me - or I thought you did. I had thought that I had lost you."
Azula's head jerked up, her eyes snapping open. She glared at Ty Lee, the old embers of anger flaring to life. "So you just left me alone, left me to assume that you were done with me? is that how you show loyalty to your princess?"
Ty Lee, however, was smiling, her face lit with a deep glow hat Azula had never seen before. Her eyes were full. "Ah," she said, her voice softer than the softest summer breeze. "There she is."
And when Ty Lee hugged her, she found she didn't cry - not like she had with Zuko. instead, to her surprise and delight, she laughed. She laughed with relief, with joy, with victory. She laughed from the knowledge that there was no turning back, that no matter what she did, or had done, it meant little now. Now...she had been the one to seek retribution first. And to Ty Lee, who was once burned and twice shy, that meant the world.
When Zuko was much older, and the past was merely shadows, he often went back to that day, the day he emotionally laid his mother to rest. Of all of the encounters that he had come across, that day had been the most taxing, the most challenging. No political scandal matched it, no familial conflict came close. Acceptance was a hard thing, harder still if you hoped for the opposite of what you had to accept.
But he also remembered his sister, how, on that day, she had forever changed.
He knew that Ty Lee had had something to do with it, especially since the two women were rarely seen without each other after that. Ty Lee nursed the burden of Azula's still-lingering insanity, but she nursed it with stronger skin and even stronger passion. With Ty Lee there, Azula's rages lessened. Mai had figured as much - she had admitted to Zuko once that she was pretty sure that Azula and Ty Lee were symbiotic, something that had made Zuko laugh and laugh.
With the heavy grief of his mother's death still fresh that day, the joy of seeing his sister's best friend and more return into her life was enough to bear it. Iroh had been right when he always said that grief often gave birth to hope, even in the darkest of moments.
For the first time in over a decade, Zuko could look at his family - his full family, complete with both his friends, his uncle, and finally, his sister - and feel the hope that was born from grief.