Title: Borrowed Faces
Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Characters: Ty Lee/Azula
Summary: Ty Lee is accustomed to being interchangeable, so she is drawn to those who distinguish themselves.
The power of orange knickers
under my petticoat.
The power of listening to what
you don't want me to know.
Can somebody tell me now who is this terrorist?
Those girls that smile kindly then rip your life to pieces?
Can somebody tell me now am I alone with this?
this little pill in my hand and with this secret kiss
am I alone in this?
-"The Power of Orange Knickers," Tori Amos
In all her life, she has never been stranger to compliments, especially not those about her appearance. She is beautiful, and she has that touch of novelty about her to boot. Ty Lee is a child of a matched set- identical septuplets.
Seven is a lucky number that signifies an auspicious birth. Seven girl-children, born on a summer day when the sun shines highest in the sky- an even more encouraging sign that they are to be favored children of the spirits. They are seven children born on the summer solstice, holiest celebration of the Fire Nation. On their birthday, their parents throw a highly expensive party, inviting many guests, boasting of the great fate ahead of these children. The children blink quietly at the loudness and the people, overly-loud from drinking and laughter. They don't yet know how important they are.
Out of seven, only one of them eventually serves the princess…but none of them grow up to change the world. That's not what her family is good at. They are fifth tier nobility, dutifully subservient to those above them, gracefully tending those below with the faint air of humility that their station dictates.
Ty Lee herself is a buffer, the blanket between the leather saddle and the ostrichhorseflesh. She's good at keeping things from chafing. Usually. But she has never been able to soothe the sting of identity crisis that hits when she stares at six mirror images, six identical smiles.
At the age of six, compliments no longer impress her. It's not really her face they're looking at.
Noble children either go to the Royal Fire Nation Academy (for girls or for boys, and never co-ed like the more common schools,) or they are privately tutored. The Academy is seen as the more prestigious option unless the private tutor is well-renowned, like Master Piandao, who barely ever takes students anymore. The Academy also, or so the headmistress says: 'instills a sense of national pride and reinforces the importance of rank and class.' Here, students are taught all the frills and ruffles of the aristocracy- the Tiers from first to eleventh, the protocol for members of each tier to address members of other classes and their own class.
It's all very formal and very important and entirely, brainmeltingly boring. All seven of them attend, of course, and all seven of them have the same central classes: that is, calligraphy and Fire Nation history and poetry and court training and mathematics. Court training is, in Ty Lee's opinion, very much the dullest of all the classes. They're taught by a very pale woman, even for Eastern Island standards, who has a pinched, severe expression as though she has been sucking on lemons her whole life and now her face has frozen in a perpetual pucker.
Her name is Sifu Bao Zhai, and she always wears the same faded crimson robes, as if she is afraid to even once allow some semblance of passion into her life. She separates all the young girls by tier at once, organizing the rows of cushioned benches into a miniature of court seating- the first tier children at the front, the eleventh all the way in back. They practice the proper supplication to the Fire Lord, (and the girl she learns to be Princess Azula merely genuflects with an air of irony, a childish giggle on her lips,) and perform greetings to one another in precisely the proper degrees of respect and humility required for their stations.
This practice naturally divides the children into cliques, which, to be honest, comes as a relief to them. It means they won't actually have to form them amongst themselves. And of course, among these groups based on class, there are groups based on interests, in skills, in social graces. There are groups that incorporate members of the lower tiers and members of the higher tiers, and no one really has yet to agree on any sort of proper limit to how high or low one can properly socialize with. Not yet. There's a vague agreement that eleventh shouldn't be overly familiar with first, and second probably should keep their distance from the lowest-ranking as well.
It doesn't matter to Ty Lee and her sisters. They're fifth tier. They're in the middle, so they have the luxury of blending and mingling as they wish. Theirs is the least impressive of the higher positions.
In short, they're unremarkable.
There is probably a certain comfort to be felt in that. After all, being unnoticed is certainly a positive quality in a noble system as poisonous as Fire Nation's courtiers'. Still, she can't help but fantasize. Ty Lee has dreams, sometimes. Wild and vivid daydreams, in which she is a great firebender who travels west to tame the earthbending savages, or finds a dragon and keeps it as a mount, like the old benders did before the hunts were sanctioned. She dreams of crafting fireworks for the festivals, or of becoming a general and laying siege to the icy northern wastes, where fierce, waterbending barbarians roam the glaciers.
To be honest, she is always much larger than life in her daydreams. All girls are, she tells herself. It's just that her fellow noblewomen content themselves with dreams of a life of idle beauty. Their dragons, she suspects, are already conquered.
Ty Lee always has this feeling that she's living with a rocket in her belly. If she is jostled too roughly, it might burst her open trying to blaze free.
Ty Lee is a buffer, and so she is more than welcome in any group she graces with her presence. Her sisters are quite like her in most ways, and so they are also welcome. Especially since the majority of their class can no more tell them apart than they can separate a single grain of Tai prefecture rice from a bowl of Shen prefecture short-grain.
The septuplet sisters are considered a novelty, and being with more than one of them is considered an enjoyable experience. It's something for them to be proud of, you know. They are beloved among their peers, completely outside of status, of personality, of skill. It eases their transition to this school environment quite well.
So it doesn't matter, really, when their new friends can't keep track of all their names.
"It's fine," says Hui Fang, smiling the bright and sunny smile that captures so many hearts, "We'll all share names." Hui Fang is as easygoing as a placid stream, mellow and calm. She hardly fits the creed of the Fire Nation, aggression and passion, but she is so pleasant to get along with.
"It's fine," says Lijuan, the same smile in the same degree of sparkle, "We'll all wear different jewelry, and you'll tell us apart by that." Lijuan is a prankster. The sisters can tell in her eyes she means trouble.
"It's fine," says Jia, "I know what you mean." She does. They all do. It's not that their names are unimportant, it's that they truly are the same people. And sometimes it truly feels that way, and Jia in particular likes the embracing grasp of family.
It's fine, says Mei Feng, in silence. She says it in the faint, self-deprecating smile and the crinkle below her upturned eyes. Mei Feng accepts most things in quiet pleasure.
"It's fine," Bei Jia and Wei Jia laugh in harmony, "We'll just call you the wrong names, too!" And they giggle and make faces like monkeycats and their friends laugh gleefully at them. They are the friendliest, the liveliest. The best at dancing, the best at games.
"It's fine," says Ty Lee, smiling perfectly, head tilted to the side and eyes shining. But it isn't. It isn't.
It's just that Ty Lee knows that Mei Feng eats too many tangerines. So much she eats them in bed, making silk sheets sticky and allowing ants to parade along their bedroom. She knows that Lijuan likes books about old Earth Kingdom stories, but hides it so no one may know, and that Bei Jia can whistle whole tunes by herself without missing a beat, and that Hui Fang is the best at skip rope. She can go up to a hundred beats, one, two, three, fifty, seventy, without missing a jump or touching the rope.
And she knows how Lijuan smiles with a little bit of a quirk to her right, and that Jia gets scared easily, and that Bei Jia still wets the bed, but none of them will tell on her. Both because of family honor and because they'll be mistaken for the bed-wetter themselves. She even knows how Mei Feng has a secret box hidden in a niche in their room and she writes haiku on slips of rice paper and carefully stows them away. All the sisters know that, but Mei Feng doesn't know that they know.
It's just that there's so much to know, and their classmates won't ever know it. Because all of those things belong to Lijuan and Bei Jia and Mei Feng and Wei Jia and Hui Fang and Jia and Ty Lee, and not to the septuplets. The only things that belong to the septuplets are their faces, their smiles, and their friendliness.
And their friends. Their friends belong to all of them, but not to any of them individually. She wonders if other people have friends like she has sisters: people to whom they can belong, people who know them down to the smallest crinkle in their smiles- knowing their favorite colors and their least favorite foods by memory. The septuplets' friends know their rank, their faces, their names, (but not who those names belong to,) and what all of them like as a whole.
They are like the bed they were made to share as tiny children in the nursery, pile too many in at once during the cold winter nights and it loses its warmth. Ty Lee clings strongly to her classmates, trying to edge in as close to their friendship as she can.
She remembers being so jealous of Lijuan and Bei Jia for being able to firebend. She remembers all of them getting together in the nursery they shared and demanding, demanding to be taught to bend. If their two sisters could bend, surely the rest of them could bend as well.
Because. They are sisters. They are seven identical sisters that shared everything and so of course, naturally, why shouldn't they share their abilities as well? But bending doesn't work that way. No one knows how bending works. It skips some people and chooses others, burrows deep into their bellies and fans fire into their chest and strengthens their legs.
No matter how much Lijuan and Bei Jia try to teach them, how the fire kindles in the chest and surges forth with the breath, how it rushes from arm to palm, they can't learn it. They're fire blooded, but not fire benders. Their two sisters can't change what is written in blood, no matter how much they might want to. The others ostracize them briefly, trying to punish them for breaking away from their circle, but they can't stay separated for too long. In the end, they form their group once more, that tightly knit circle of more than sisters, more than friends, but it's different now.
It's the first rift they have to deal with as sisters who are used to being alike in all things, and it never completely heals. The two sisters who are benders are now irreparably separate from the five who are not.
It's clear in how they are treated, both at home and at school. The Fire Nation prides itself on its benders, and those who have the talent are given much praise. They're given special classes, are spoken of proudly when their parents line them up in a tidy row and discuss their virtues.
Ty Lee is jealous. It's not until later that she realizes what she's envious of. She thinks that it's the firebending, the much sought-after talent that is the backbone of their nation. Or she thinks it's the praise and the attention that is heaped on her sisters who are now more than sisters, attention she longs for as much as any young child does. And it's true, these are all reasonable things to be jealous of, and she does feel a little left out from the limelight that her two sisters bask in. But it's not that entirely.
Her parents single them out as Bei Jia, as Lijuan, and not as 'our daughters' or 'this daughter'. They have names now. They are something more than a matched set.
"What's it like?" she asks them, once.
"It's warm," says Bei Jia, "It feels like a fever, but it's in my hands. And it's burning, up and down your chest, when you first start out." Lijuan nods, eyes sparkling brightly, a smile lighting her face.
"No, no," she says, "That's not what I meant."
"What do you mean?"
But she can't explain.
The princess of the Fire Nation goes to the Royal Academy, of course, and it's no real surprise because the royal family began the schools to begin with. She is also privately tutored, it's true, but a girl's social training heavily depends on the relationships they make and break with their peers. It's highly important to form connections at an early age, and nobles are always political-minded. Even their children. So it's no surprise also that everyone wants to befriend the princess, although no one really likes her personally.
While the princess is quite socially gifted, it's all superficial. She enchants all their tutors and any adult in sight with effortless ease, transforming into a chirping, precocious doll. With her classmates, she is smiling and cheerful only in the spotlight of their teachers. Ty Lee hasn't spoken much to Princess Azula, but she does admire her from afar, and she has always been especially perceptive. Upon inspection, the princess is quite possibly the most charming person that she's ever seen. It's not just the perfection of her features- shell-pale skin and eyes that curve like elegant honey-almonds, but the presence of her personality.
Some people are, put simply, larger than life. Azula seems like she carries her personality about her like the phoenix carries its fire: as a searing corona, spread out from her body like wings, touching everyone with the fingers of its flame. She can see it, almost. There it is, burning gold and crimson, wavering like a heat mirage about the princess's whole body. Other people carry different colors about them, true. Some are deep, rich purple, others hazy and muddled browns and greys. Only Azula is bright, brilliant candle flame.
Ty Lee paints, although she doesn't have the talent that others have. She doesn't paint to capture form and image, she paints to capture color. Her world is full of color. She paints purple over the teachers, yellow-green over her friend Ami's face, swirls of red and clouds of dusy grey and great, swimmy blurs of pastel blue.
Her art instructor gives her low marks and speaks disparagingly of her runaway imagination. No one else can see the colors, so it stands to reason that Ty Lee is making them up. She thinks that it's disappointing that the one thing that separates her from others must do the job so completely that she is forced to hide it.
She keeps making her pictures, overly fanciful for Fire Nation tastes. She studies her classmates as they go through their written work, trying to get down what she thinks of as their essence on the paper. The shy ones are stiff and crouched, the boisterous ones sprawl as much as they can in their chairs while the teacher looks away, and when they sit politely, they do so with an inborn sense of mockery. Her sisters she copies with a sense of love and expertise, their bodies and hearts are as familiar to her as her own.
The princess is another matter. She can't be transferred to paper. Ty Lee doesn't know why, but she doesn't show herself with her body like the other children do. Azula can only be read through slight gestures, the quirk of her lips, the sharpness of her gaze, the occasional moment where someone around her age peeks through the curtained veil of 'princess'. She can catch glimpses of her then, and it's a toss-up between being fascinated and terrified of what she finds there.
The princess becomes her favorite subject to paint. It's partly because she likes watching her and partly because it's difficult to keep her gaze hidden. Azula is sensitive to people watching her, and Ty Lee often has to glance quickly away, darting her eyes about the room as if she hadn't been looking intently at her a moment before. But then she looks away, and Ty Lee is free to continue watching.
At times, she wonders if her gaze has weight. It's mainly because she's not used to anything she does having heaviness to it, a force behind it. Thinking that just her eyes and their path might exert enough pressure to make someone turn her head and glance back at her, well. It's a blissful thought.
Azula sits elegantly, she notices. No surprise there, as everything Azula does is touched with a kind of innate, noble grace. Logically speaking, it must have been from year of courtly training, but her childish mind takes it to be some external sign of her status as a royal family member. Everyone knows the royals are a step closer to perfect than anyone else, or else they wouldn't really be royal.
Only one of the pictures of Azula gets turned in, and that's because she was pressed for time and couldn't make something up at the end of their hour. She watched her sitting in a puddle of light, a yellow-white patch of sunshine sitting lightly in her hair, and tried to make the picture stay in her paper, caged in watercolor and ink. It's not perfect, nothing she can make is anything close to what she considers good, but she likes it. A lot. Which is why she's sad when it's suddenly gone.
The painting she does of Azula, crouched low in her desk, with thready spires of flame-gold and angry red spinning about her head, suddenly disappears from the wall one day, and she mourns its loss as only a child can for a while. She thinks the art instructor threw it away because it's a disrespectful portrayal of the royal family, or someone wadded it up to throw in the trash, or other possible tragic outcomes that play out in her young mind with great drama.
"It got lost," Sifu Wu, the art instructor, informs her strictly. Her expression, irritated and dismissive, tells Ty Lee all she needs to know about possibly finding it again.
She can't help raising one small complaint. "But-"
"Really," says Sifu Wu, cutting away her sentence neatly, like sharp scissors cutting rice paper, "It's no great loss. You must learn to cultivate a more sophisticated understanding of color. Scribbling any which way is for tiny children, and you are soon becoming a young lady. Now, go and wash your brushes."
Azula watches her as she returns to her desk, and the princess's eyes are narrowed slits of amber, the twist of her mouth sharp and undefined. Unreadable.
Her sisters Bei Jia and Lijuan don't take to the princess. They share firebending lessons together, although the princess is far more advanced than them, and knows far more complicated forms. Ty Lee thinks that this might be the source of their dislike, but doesn't speak up about it. She, like the other sisters, listens with dutiful sympathy as Bei Jia and Lijuan share their laments on her royal horribleness. Apparently, she truly is a terror, for students and teachers alike.
Azula, they tell her, is very nearly perfect at all forms of bending.
She has mastered forms that sixth year students toil over.
Azula has a sharp tongue and a ready wit that she uses to keep everyone, fellow student and dutiful teacher alike, in line.
She is truly a frightening girl. If she wasn't of royal lineage, they would most likely call her a demon to her face. As it is, the younger students whisper amongst themselves, and the older students move away when she passes through.
Azula plays the meanest pranks, but no one can prove that it's her.
And the most dangerous, people believe that she will be Fire Lord one day, despite her older brother having precedence to the throne.
All of this seems to make her a more impressive figure in Ty Lee's young and imaginative mind. She doesn't bother to add to this list what she knows of the princess, the few dear facts she's gathered from watching her as she dipped her brush gently into her ink, or how she speaks with a slight cadence on her vowels. How she has a tiny lock of hair on the side of her head that she reaches back to stroke or push aside when she's thinking, jet black and wispy and tangling through her fingers. How she makes origami when the teacher isn't looking, swans and turtleducks and interesting little boats, and then combusts them so suddenly that all that's left is a faint ghost of smoke and ash, and the scent of burnt paper.
All day long, she thinks, all day long she could fill her brain with Azula, Azula, Azula, and never be satisfied. There is something special, she decides, about simply knowing so much about one individual. There must be something unique about a person if they can memorize such endless amounts of trivia about one person, for one thing. But on a deeper level, it means that they alone hold the key to that person's self. No one else knows that Azula makes the character for 'fire' look like a woman's profile, for instance. No one else has seen her with a patch of sunlight resting peacefully on her shoulders, licking at her hair like a pet phoenixcat. No one else holds these tiny, treasured sights and sounds and scraps of knowledge, what people would regard as 'trivial'. They aren't trivial. They are hers, they are pieces of a person outside of her that she has witnessed and stolen for her own.
That Azula she has seen, with her eyes half-lidded and the sunlight touching her hair, kissing it golden, is hers. Surely that means something.
"Come on," Lijuan tells her, smiling that sneaky smile, the one that crinkles around her eyes and curves at the sides of her mouth. "It's just a little prank. Azula's supposed to complete the partnered assignment with me, and if she does it with you instead, she'll lose points. We'll all of us switch places and she won't even know who it was she was doing the project with, so there's no way you'll get in trouble. Come on, mei mei."
"I'm the same age as you," Ty Lee says, stubbornly poking out her lower lip at the baby name.
Lijuan carelessly shrugs. "You're my mei mei, baby sister. I was born before you. And anyway, everyone else agrees to it. What's wrong with you?" She gives her a friendly poke to the shoulder, rocking her back a little. "Scared of her?"
Ty Lee narrows her eyes. She's not scared. Not even a little bit. "No."
"You should be. She's a mean, mean girl. She lit someone's hair on fire yesterday. They couldn't prove it was her but everyone knows she did it. Someone even saw her do it. She just snapped her fingers and a tiny flame jumped." Lijuan folds her arms, smiling her slanted, sneaky look at her. Like she knows tens of thousand things Ty Lee doesn't know about Azula, when she doesn't know anything. Not anything at all.
"That's a lie," Ty Lee says, swallowing back her anger, trying to echo her sister's lofty, know-it-all sound. "There's no way Azula could have done that. Only masters can get fire that small and send it across that far. It's really difficult to control. Even I know that."
Secretly, though, she thinks the princess could have done. She thinks Azula can do anything she wants to. It's in her eyes, and the regal lift of her chin. She's still a child yet, so she doesn't know the word for what she thinks Azula is. She doesn't have so many words for the princess, and thinks that no one really does. But something like setting a candle flame across a room must be simple for a person who looks like she can, if the mood takes her, move the sun itself.
"Azula's a prodigy, everyone knows that, too." Lijuan explains, waving a hand in the air. "It's true. And it's not like you'll be doing anything dangerous. All you need to do is walk up and ask her for the assignment. You can do that at least, can't you? It's very simple. I saved the easiest task for you. The rest of us can do the tricky ones."
It's accepted that, as the last born, Ty Lee is the youngest and treated as such. Which means she gets pampered more, but also that she gets treated like a baby. Though in this case, she's not going to be too upset. Not when they want her help playing a prank on their princess. How does Azula react to those? No one's ever tried to pull one on her before, not on the Fire Lord's daughter, even if she is the second child. Does she cry, or yell, or just get quiet? Does she tell on the teachers? Does she smile along with everyone?
Ty Lee hesitates. "I don't know…" she says, twisting her hands together.
'If you don't do it," Lijuan says, "The rest of us won't talk to you for a week."
And that's the end of that. She doesn't want to pull a trick on Azula, but she's not willing to risk losing her sisters for it, even for a week. Besides, it's just a handful of words. That's barely anything, when one thought about it. Almost a 'good morning' or 'how are you'. Something that wasn't even worth thinking about, in the long run. There's no reason to fret, or worry, or stutter in her mind over how to speak them or what to look like, especially since she will be someone else at the time. She will be Lijuan, and Lijuan never stutters or whispers or looks at her feet. It is reassuring to some degree that she has the ability to become someone else.
It's just. She wishes that her first words to Azula weren't part of someone else's game.
But then her mind says: "But they won't be your first words." And it's true, because she isn't really the one who is speaking them. She's like the trumpet for her sister to blow in: the noise isn't truly hers, because the breath of the song is coming from Lijuan's throat. So it's okay, really. Ty Lee will have time later to think of what the best thing to say would be, for that time when her words can be her own.