When Ty Lee turned sixteen, there wasn't much that she wanted. Like any other girl, she had hoped for at least a small party with her friends and sisters-maybe a cake-and if she had been lucky, those gorgeous red-heeled pumps that she had been pining after for so long. Still, she knew better than to expect to be the exceptional case among seven daughters, so when her mother had hitched a moving trailer to her car and handed her a shotgun packed with rock-salt like she had with all of Ty Lee's sisters before her, she knew better than to complain about it.
Her father had been more sympathetic, hugging her and telling her to call anytime, that there was no shame in asking for help if she needed it. Her mother hadn't looked too happy when he had said that, but once all of Ty Lee's belongings were packed in the car, she had pulled her daughter aside and stuffed an envelope thick with cash into the girl's coat pocket, too stubborn to be dissuaded, and reminded her to always dress warmly.
The drive had taken three days, stopping in between at greasy diners and dumpy and rat-infested motels. When she finally arrived, she couldn't help but be disappointed. Ming Lee was hunting vampires in Budapest, Ai Lee was doing exorcisms in Tokyo, Qin Lee was tracking yetis in Nepal, and here she was ankle deep in rainwater and icy wind in a middle-of-nowhere city on the side of a mountain looking for God knows what.
Still, she was determined to be optimistic. This was her first hunt, and anything could happen if she didn't stay watchful and vigilant. She had researched this city for months before choosing it, monitored its fluctuating weather patterns, and electrical storms. All the classic signs of demonic omens were here, right down to the cattle mutilations, and so here she was. She just wished that "here" could have been a little bit more glamorous.
She found a job at a cafe with an owner who agreed to let her work in exchange for the room upstairs. She stuck the trailer in a storage facility, her rifles under a false bottom in her trunk, and tried to appear for all intents and purposes, normal. Blending in was the most important part of a young hunter's job, as her mother put it.
Getting a good education was the other part.
Her first day at the high school might have been her favorite thing so far. It was all about falling into old habits; there was something strangely comforting about the ubiquitous rows of lockers, the vapid-eyed teachers, and the perpetual smell of bleach and body odor. Her classes looked easy enough, as long as she remembered to keep up with the assignments. Everyone was nice for the most part (nicer than they were back home anyway) and she thought that she even succeeded in making a few friends. Out of nostalgia, she debated trying out for the cheerleading team (only to help her adjust, certainly not out of any selfish desire to relive any sense of normalcy she used to pretend to have), but decided that it would have to wait until she got settled.
The hardest part was making a network of information. She didn't know the first thing about finding the right people. It wasn't like she could just run around and ask people if they believed in ghosts or knew anybody whose eyes glowed eerily or had a craving for human flesh. The police scanner she brought was useless until she had a way of finding out which cases were leads and which were run-of-the-mill crimes. In the end, it came down to getting to know the town better, and that meant going to school, waiting tables, and keeping her ear to the ground.
She just wished she knew what she was looking for.
"Ty Lee, we have a table!"
"Be right there!" She called, elbow deep in soapy dishwater after hastily scrubbing off the remains of the pots and cups. The old man who ran the cafe was nice enough, and even let her do homework under the counter sometimes when there weren't any customers, but he worked her like a horse until closing. As far as she could tell, she was the only staff he had hired, so she didn't mind when he insisted that she help with the kitchen as well as the tables, even if it was getting to be a bit daunting.
"Don't forget to mention the specials." He said with an encouraging smile as she rushed by.
"Right, got it." She said buoyantly, tying on her apron, grabbing a tray of water, and hurrying around the bar.
The cafe was never busy around this time, and there were no other customers besides the one table. Small as the teahouse was, it had a appeal to its old-fashioned charm and quaint decor. Sometimes, when she let her imagination really get away from her, Ty Lee would imagine herself as a heroine in some cheesy novel, waiting for the arrival of a dark and handsome stranger to come and take her on a grand romantic adventure. It sure beat reality, the demon's trap hanging over her door, the line of salt on her windowsill, the coldness of the revolver under her pillow.
Walking up, she could hear snippets of the table's conversation, and instantly recognized its occupants as students from her school. The boy was easy enough to identify. He was an upperclassman and she had only seen him coming to and from campus. The scar running down the side of his face was rather distinctive, but didn't detract from his appearance except to lend him a sort of rugged attractiveness.
The girl under his arm was in the same year as Ty Lee's. She knew as much from a shared history class, but knew her even better for having a penchant for excessive eyeliner and hallway PDA.
The third occupant took a bit more thinking to place, until Ty Lee realized that she had seen her before in passing at the student lunchroom. If this girl ran the social pyramid, she certainly had the looks for it. Ty Lee had always prided herself on her ability to make friends easily, to be as fun-loving and easy-going as possible. It wasn't often (never) that someone took one look at her and left the room in disgust, but each school had their own nuances and so Ty Lee had chalked it up to plain cafeteria politics. She told herself that she wasn't here to make (lasting) friends anyways, and had forgotten all about it until now.
Inwardly, Ty Lee braced herself for confrontation.
None of them noticed her, each of them being so engrossed in their conversation that she was almost upon them and they hadn't looked up.
"So what does this...do, exactly?"
"Nothing. It doesn't do anything to me, and if you think I'm talking about this, you're sadly mistaken."
"Pretending it didn't happen isn't going to magically make this go away, genius."
"Oh I'm sorry, is this a game where you all give me the stupidest advice you can think of?"
"Whatever, I don't care."
Ty Lee cleared her throat, taking this as her cue to come in with her best smile, setting down the glasses of water. "Hi, welcome to the White Lotus Tearoom, my name is Ty Lee, and I'll be your server. Today, we have a great uh-" She looked discretely back to where Iroh stood behind the counter pointing at the chalkboard and giving her a thumbs-up. "A great osmanthus blend, if you would like to try that out. Have we all decided, or would you like a bit more time?"
Nobody answered her, and she could feel the smile on her face freeze as the silence grew with each second. For a frantic moment, she wondered if maybe she had something on her face. The boy was looking at her with something like disbelief, his girlfriend with mild shock. The other girl's face looked unchanged, but the knuckles in her hands had gone stark white, every lean muscle in her arms standing out in lines.
Ty Lee waited a little longer before deciding that this was officially awkward.
"I'll just come back." Ty Lee said, gesturing with the tip of her pen over her shoulder.
"You work here?" The question caught her by surprise, not just because of how rude it was, but also how loud it had been blurted. Ty Lee bristled, glaring back with as much steel as she could muster. If this girl thought that she could get to her by looking down on how she made a living, she had another thing coming.
"What Azula means is," Someone must have kicked someone else under the table because the girl suddenly looked away, studying the water droplets on her glass churlishly as her friend gave a thin smile up at Ty Lee. Looking furtively between the three girls, the boy looked like he had never had so much fun in his entire life. "We've never seen Iroh hire anyone before."
"Well, he hired me." Ty Lee clicked her pen open, trying to not feel badly. "Would you like those drinks?"
She and the boy replied that they would and Ty Lee took their orders with little difficulty. Not unsurprisingly, the younger girl appeared loathe to any more talking and took her time making her decision, her eyes fixed over Ty Lee's shoulder. When Ty Lee followed her gaze, she saw Iroh standing at his usual place behind the counter, flashing her a wide smile and another pair of thumb-ups.
"Americano." The girl said stiffly.
"I'm sorry, my boss really doesn't like making-
"Then he wouldn't keep that espresso machine." She said sharply, handing Ty Lee back the menu.
Iroh was suitably insulted, mumbling about the degeneration of today's youth, their poor manners, disrespect for fate-given gifts, and in-appreciation for what truly mattered in life. Ty Lee didn't see what the big deal was. It was only coffee.
She managed to placate him somewhat by making the espresso herself while he busied with the teapots and biscuits. When she arrived back at the table with the tray, they were still quiet, and remained that way while she was placing down the cups and plates. It was when she started leaving that things got weird.
"So, Ty Lee, right?" The first girl smiled at her through a tight grimace, one hand holding her knee under the table as her eyes flashing angrily to the girl across from her. "I'm Mai. I think we have a class together."
"Yeah, I think we do too." Ty Lee took the offered hand civilly, even as she looked between the two girls warily.
"This is Zuko." Mai said gesturing to the boy at her side, who lifted his hand in greeting. "And this is... his sister, Azula. She's in our year too."
There was another awkward pause as both of Azula's friends looked at their companion expectantly, each of them staring at her like they were waiting for her to jump in. The girl looked at a loss, like she was scrambling to find words. Finally, she cleared her throat politely, putting on a charming smile.
"Your hair smells nice, did you change your shampoo?"
There was a spray of tea as Zuko started choking, nearly spilling his drink as he slammed his fist onto the table repeatedly. Mai looked unfazed, pounding heartily at his back with one hand as she waved the other in flat lines across her throat at Azula. Ty Lee didn't notice, looking at the other girl in outrage.
Azula hesitated, taking Mai's signal as an indication that she should try harder. She reached over and placed a hand over Ty Lee's, continuing with a healthy display of pompousness.
"If you like mangoes, you should come to my house. It's big and I have lots of mangoes you can enjoy there."
Next to her, Azula's brother didn't look like he was going to recover from his coughing fit anytime soon, grabbing fistfuls of napkins as tears streamed from his eyes. Mai had buried her face in her hands, her shoulders quaking silently.
Ty Lee made a clear and resolute decision at that moment to never use mango-scented shampoo ever again. "Wow," She pulled her hand away and wished powerfully for a bucket of bleach and some steel wool. "I am like, so creeped out." She muttered, turning around and walking away.
"Wait stop, I can do better-"
"Okay, we're leaving." Mai said, dropping a large bill on the table and grabbing Azula by the arm. She hauled her bodily out of the booth as Zuko followed clumsily, still holding his sides as his sister glared heatedly. "Keep the change." Mai called over the bar, the door's bell ringing wildly at their hurried departure, the door slamming behind them. Distantly, Ty Lee could hear Zuko howling with laughter.
Once they were gone, Ty Lee piled their still-warm dishes into her wash bin, unable to hide the anger in her movements. She didn't even want to touch the money Mai had left behind, dropping it off at the counter for Iroh to deal with.
"Jerks." She cursed, wiping off the table a little bit more forcefully than she needed to. Every high school had its group-the kids with money who flaunted it with their expensive cars and overpriced clothing. If they thought this would be a good way to mess with her, they were going to be horribly disappointed. She was better than this, she had more important things happening in her life than to be bothered by the high school pecking order. After she bagged herself a nice big demon, she was going to travel the world, to be someone, to save people, and be ten thousand times more important than any stuck up snob living off her daddy's money. Ty Lee was going to be a hero.
"I see that you've met my niece and nephew."
The sound of Iroh's voice coming up next to her jarred her from her thoughts. He had been watching their interactions from afar and Ty Lee could see the hints of reassurement in his eyes as he looked at her.
"Please don't think too harshly of Azula, she hasn't had the easiest time lately." He said, appealing to her with a soft smile. He took the bin from her, holding it easily in one arm as he guided her back behind the counter and started pulling together a fresh set of ceramic dishware.
If there was one clear perk of the job, it was that Ty Lee was never in want of a hot drink. She was starting to believe that Iroh didn't think that there was a problem in the world that couldn't be solved with tea.
"You're related?" She blurted out incredulously, trying to put together the kind and generous old man with the snide and cruel girl that had been mocking her just moments before. "Sure could have fooled me." She allowed herself to be seated at the bar, looking out the nearby window to where Azula and her friends stood hanging around their cars. Zuko still hadn't stopped laughing, and the wry smile on Mai's face was small but visible from far away. Ty Lee couldn't hear what they were saying from inside the cafe but it was easy to read Azula's lips as the girl screamed mutely, "I'll kill all of you!"
"She's become so good at weaving hidden lies and double meanings that now it's impossible for her to say how she really feels." He sighed, returning from the fridge with creamer and sugar syrup. Iroh was a purist when it came to tea, but grudgingly kept the necessary additions to earn the tea house a broader appeal. Precise as clockwork, he reached for the teapot just as the timer chimed. "My niece has many talents, unfortunately, relating to others is not one of them. She's going through so much right now, I'm afraid it's not going to get any easier."
"I'm sure she's very nice, usually." Ty Lee said pleasantly, taking the teacup, and stirring in the milk delicately. Out the window, Azula was climbing into her car and peeling off in a fury of roaring engine and exhaust, narrowly missing taking out a lamp post and a lady walking her dog as the car swerved away.
Ty Lee knew she had said the right thing. Iroh beamed at her and she had the strangest feeling that she had just passed some sort of test. He patted her on the shoulder and offered her a saucer of cookies, which she took appreciatively.
"So Ty Lee," He went on, his voice taking on a light tone. "How are you getting along at school? I would feel awful if I was overworking my favorite employee."
"I'm your only employee!" She laughed. She hadn't known him for very long but there was something familiar about the old man that made her to feel at home. He reminded her of her own father, and while she had never doubted the love her parents gave her, she always thought back to her family life with a little coldness. "Don't worry about me Iroh, I can handle the job." Among others things. "School is easy."
He had never asked anything about her. He had hired her the same day she applied, no questions asked about where she had come from, or why she was living on her own. It was a generosity by itself, and being the only person in town who was kind to her lent itself certain leniencies in Ty Lee's mind, most principally, having a creepy self-absorbed psycho for a niece. It wasn't like you could pick your family-Ty Lee knew that personally.
"When you get more comfortable, don't be afraid to invite your friends over from time to time. Things can get difficult at your age; young people need good friends around to hold them up." Iroh said, lifting his teacup humorously to the window to where Zuko had Mai leaned up against his motorcycle, the young man's face bent over hers.
Ty Lee pulled a face. There was that PDA again. They seriously needed to stop that. They were each other's true love, everyone got the picture.
The sound of the bell ringing again reminded Ty Lee she still had a whole shift left to get through. She thanked Iroh for the tea, before being waved off when she tried to help clean up. She worked clear through the afternoon shift without pause, scrubbing dishes when she wasn't rushing to serve tables. By the time it was closing, she was burnt out from cleaning and the thought of starting homework made her want to tip over. After the register was closed and Iroh had said goodnight and left her the keys, Ty Lee climbed the stairs to her room with heavy-footed steps, and fell into bed with a withering sigh.
It took all her willpower to not fall asleep where she laid. A peek at the clock told her it was only seven in the evening, but she still had to get started on her reading assignments. And of course there were her other duties.
With great effort, she left the bed and turned on the police scanner, listening halfheartedly as she boiled a packet of ramen over the hot plate. She ate her dinner while flipping through her schoolwork, alternating between failing to care about organic chemistry and writing down the times and calls that came in over the air.
She had been checking the storm patterns continually since she had arrived. For a town that was giving off such strong paranormal indicators, there were surprisingly few incident reports in the papers or news. As far as she knew, there weren't even any local urban myths.
The scanner had been a clumsy last resort, and she spent more time trying to decipher the codes than actually finding anything useful. She waded through calculus formulas and the crackling calls of public intoxication and petty thievery with her cheek pressed against the top of her table. Her eyes were growing heavy and she was about to call it an early evening when someone relayed a call about a hiking accident.
It sounded like nothing; the forests surrounding the city were known for being treacherous, and hikers were getting lost or hurt on its mountains ever since the preservation had been established generations ago. Still, this was the only lead that she had all week, no matter how small it was. She debated going to bed anyways, but the thought of what her older sisters would say to her made her struggle with ambivalence. With a heavy groan, she picked herself up and said goodbye to any hopes of a restful night's sleep.
The park itself was easy to find; the forests were accessible through a single road, and from there only a small number of trails that disappeared off into the mountainside. The patrol cars were parked together around the gatehouse, their silent lights strobing beams of red and blue clear down the road. She drove past, pulling over after a respectable distance and hiding her car under the shadows of low hanging branches.
It was still drizzling; Ty Lee was beginning to think that it never stopped raining here in at least some form. It made everything wet and muddy, and that much harder to track in the darkness. Pulling her jacket hood over her head, she selected a rifle from the trunk, and silently prayed that she wouldn't find anything warranting too much excitement.
She doubled back through the brush, not bold enough to follow the road. The vegetation was thick, even being so far from where the trails started, and she fought to keep her movements quiet while hurrying as fast she could, twigs and branches snapping at her legs. She moved by moonlight, forcing her eyes to adjust in the darkness before she was too far into the thicket to get her bearings. It didn't take long to spy the glows of the patrolmen's flashlights, standing out from the trees like fingers of white. The sounds of voices and radio static reached her as she moved closer, her ears straining to hear parts of their conversation.
"...found them...animal...hours ago..."
"County coroner...little while longer..."
Ty Lee got as close as she dared, drawing the rifle across her lap as she knelt in the underbrush as carefully as she could. The group of men were huddled together under umbrellas, their faces drawn and grim in the shifting lights of their torches. They were from the sheriff's office, the signage on their uniforms clearly discernable in glinting shapes.
"It must have been a bear, or a mountain lion." The oldest one of them said, a grizzled officer who kept his hands tight around his thermos.
"It's rare for them to come out this season. Could have caught them by surprise." Another supplied, and they all nodded in response.
There was something in their voices. She had heard it a thousand times back home, watching her mother craft elegant and reasonable explanations to hospitals and law authorities. She knew it as the joining of disbelief and denial, the timeless ease in accepting a convenient lie over the trouble of a murky and impossible truth. A cold sense of trepidation gripped the base of Ty Lee's stomach.
"Hold on, I need to…" One of them detached himself from the group, stumbling towards the trees with an arm around his stomach. He pulled off his hat, doubling over. There was the sound of splashing and the smell of bile and stale coffee. Ty Lee clapped her hands over her nose and mouth, trying not to feel sick as the young man started heaving every last drop of his stomach contents onto the forest floor.
It took another hour for them to leave, all the while Ty Lee crouched in the mud and rain , feeling her muscles grow stiff and frozen cold. The coroner, having yet to arrive, was still late and the officers left to find a more accommodating place to stay. She waited for the sounds of their departure to fade into complete silence before trying to stand up and stir feeling back into her legs. Her shoes and jacket were sodden, and her clothes notwithstanding, Ty Lee knew that she only had a limited time to find the accident site before she risked catching a cold or someone found her.
She retraced the tracks of the rangers and sheriff deputies easily enough; they had moved as a singular group with no intentions to conceal their activity, and the marks of their travels stood well through the weather. She followed the line of broken grass and branches deeper into the wilderness, taking care to search for trail marks and shielding her rifle the best she could from the rain reaching through the canopy. Ty Lee didn't know how long she had been walking, her only confidence coming from the strength of the trail and the knowledge that she hadn't lost her direction.
She walked for a great deal longer after that. A glance at her watch revealed that it had been almost four hours since she left the tea house. The trail remained strong but now she was starting to doubt herself. There was no way it was this far out. Maybe she had missed a turn and she had been following a deer trail the entire time. The thought made her anxious and she debated turning back.
She had come across a gap in the vegetation, the trees giving away to a young meadow interspersed with outcroppings of rock. Even with a break in the forest, the moonlight penetrated thinly and couldn't help Ty Lee's continued feelings of claustrophobia, of all the shadows pressing in on her. The rock formations had odd silhouettes, jutting out of the grass in strange and unearthly shapes. The woods were eerily quiet here, entirely absent of the cries of insects or birds, and it made her senses stand on end. She had never in her life heard anything so silent.
The cloud cover hadn't improved, and it was too dark to go on. Deciding that even if she found something now she wouldn't be able to do anything useful, she slung her rifle over her shoulder and turned to leave.
Her foot hit something hard, making her stumble and she barely caught herself in time. The smell of foulness filled her nostrils, and under her feet the ground felt soft and sticky. She scanned the field with a growing sense of unease, unsure of what she was looking for. She wouldn't tell if it was her imagination or if the shadows really were moving, until she counted the rock formations and then recounted them again, coming up one short.
Fear overpowered sense of reason, and against her better judgment, she found her flashlight and turned it on.
It took all of her willpower not to vomit.
Strewn throughout the meadow were the missing hikers. What Ty Lee had taken for as stone formations were the scattered limbs and torsos of a dozen human bodies, their remains torn and mauled so that the masses of rotted flesh and jagged bone were indistinct from where one person had started, and another began.
The head that she had tripped over stared back at her with a single eye, its skull smashed away to expose brain matter and a long swollen purple tongue dangling from a shattered jawbone. Half of its skin was ripped away, by something with horrible strength and claws.
In her horror, Ty Lee still found sense enough to turn off the light, plunging the forest back into darkness.
Her hands automatically found her gun, flipping the safety off and reflexively sliding the bolt into place. Her mind was everywhere at once, unable to recall if she had seen anything else beside the flashes of corpses awash in blinding light. Instead, she thought of the silence that had had greeted her as soon as she entered the forest. Something had been stalking her, had followed her the whole time since she left the vicinity of the gatehouse. The same something that had chased the hikers here, herding them into the open where it had fallen upon them and set about devouring each man with ravenous hunger. Something smart and cunning.
Somewhere in this meadow, the missing shadow was watching Ty Lee.
Her ears strained for the faintest hint of sound as she fought the rising fear in her stomach. Her mother's words came to her unbidden, reminding her to stay calm. To breathe and be patient. To think, and act.
A hunter's greatest weapon is her wits.
She stood stock-still, listening and waiting, numb to the rain falling around her that now drenched clear through her clothes. Ty Lee closed her eyes, blind to the thing shifting in the shadows, trying to place its whereabouts. There was no use listening for it; it was a masterful hunter and predator, and difficult to track. Ty Lee had to focus on other details, like the air that smelled like putrefying meat and blood, mud-and for some reason-wet dog.
She whirled around, bringing the butt of her rifle against her shoulder and flicking on the scope light.
In response, the beast stared back at her and smiled.
Or at least, she thought it was a smile. Above a set of gleaming white fangs were ghostly blue eyes glowing emptily at her from the shadows. There might have been a growl, or maybe Ty Lee had imagined it the same way she had imagined the moving shadows and the crawling darkness. For half a second, she thought (hoped) that the abhorrent creature was just a trick of her mind, and that the tingling across her cheek had been the wind instead of the hot sickly breath from the monster's maw. But the eyes were real, and so was the razor-sharp set of jaws behind the hanging tangles of wild black hair.
In her panic, Ty Lee's finger squeezed the trigger, sending a dull crack of thunder through the woods and shattering the eerie silence. The bullet missed, slamming into the tree behind the shadowed figure, startling and sending it darting into the shrubbery.
Ty Lee cleared the shell and chambered another round with practiced motion, already in half-sprint as she did so. Without a moment's more of hesitation, and goaded on by the adrenaline of seeing her prey fleeing, she plunged into the woods after it.
Ty Lee had always been the fastest and most agile runner she knew. It was a trait that was parented by a natural athletic ability and the gifted supernatural strength that ran through her veins. Physical effort came effortlessly to her, but here she found herself struggling to keep up as the monster moved with demonic speed, flitting from tree cover to tree cover, taking every opportunity to try to lose her through turns and deceptive terrain. Being a man-eating hellspawn certainly owed itself an advantage in mobility, but Ty Lee had been training for these chases since the day she learned how to run.
She ran for as long as she could, handedly keeping pace as her lungs burned for air and the blood roared in her ears. When they came to a cresting ridge, she made a decisive move to stop at the bottom of the hill and wait for the beast's ascent. It was a clear shot with no coverage, and she had no uncertainty about making the target.
Almost as soon as she had finished her thought, the thing accelerated. It swerved sharply to the side, as if having mentally read what Ty Lee was going to do, skirting the bullet as it climbed the ridge-and was gone.
Ty Lee dropped the rifle from her shoulder, staring at the spot where the beast had disappeared in mute astonishment. She bit her lip, trying her best to not scream in frustration, and settled for kicking a nearby tree stump instead.
She had been so close. Just one second faster, or one inch closer and she could have had it. She thought back to the meadow with grimness, where her original feeling of foreboding had given away to the thrill of the hunt once she came face to face with her target. In her mind, she was already going over how to defeat it. It was clearly a demon, but the question remained what kind, and that required study. Optimistically speaking, today was useful in that she at least had gotten a look at what she was dealing with and could identify and exorcise it within the week if she worked hard.
She slung the gun over her back again and proceeded to trace her way back out the woods. All her fresh confidence vanished as she flashed back to the grizzly scene in the grass, the poor people who had been butchered and left rotting in the open field, and in its place rose a desire to destroy the monster that had inflicted such evil. She committed every detail of the demon to memory: its massive claws, the rows of elongated fangs, the glowing blue eyes staring soullessly at her from the trees before running into the dark.
It hadn't taken much to sent the creature running.
If Ty Lee were crazy, she would say that it had looked just as shocked as she was.
The next day, she was exhausted.
The first three periods were an ongoing battle to stay awake, and many times, unsuccessful. She was getting very creative with the types of angles she could tilt her head and hold her textbook so that it didn't appear obvious what she was sleeping. The prospect of finishing the rest of the day was monumentally daunting, and she wondered if Iroh would hate her very much if she asked for a coffee before work.
By the time lunch rolled around, she was feeling a little better, although not enough to eat. She kept thinking about the cadavers, and the smell of decay that seemed to have followed her out from the woods. The pile of brown and red mush on her plate that was supposed to be the cafeteria meatloaf wasn't helping her appetite by any means.
She had been up all night. Unable to sleep after the chase in the forest, she had driven out to the storage lot and spent the rest of the night locked in her mother's trailer, sifting through mountains of archaic tomes and etchings. She had narrowed it down to either a vampire or a ghoul, but the methods of vanquishing either were so particular that she had to be sure before she tried hunting it again.
She debated and then quickly threw out the idea of calling Ming Lee for advice. If she asked for help this early, she would never hear the end of it from anyone.
Letting out a sigh, she stabbed her fork into the greasy mess of her lunch and pushed the plate away from her, resting her head on her folded arms.
"You okay Ty Lee?"
She looked up and found everyone staring at her. Their faces were etched with concern and she wavered guiltily. They had been talking to her the whole time, and here she was ignoring them and being selfishly caught up in her own problems. They had opened their circle to her. The least she could do was try to be sociable.
"Sorry guys," Ty Lee said, blowing out an exaggerated breath of frustration and rolling her eyes. "I have this term paper and it's really killing me."
Song smiled sympathetically, her face falling into relief. "I don't know how you do it-coming in the middle of the school year and having to do all that work to catch up. It seems stressful."
"You can borrow my chem notes if you want." Jin said, one hand already digging through her backpack. "I saw you falling asleep in class earlier. No offense to our teacher but organic chemistry is the worst thing to start your day with."
Ty Lee thanked her, promising to return the notebook the next morning before class.
"Don't look now but I think Zuko is staring at us." Jin said incredulously with a subtle movement of her eyes towards the table behind them.
Song startled, nearly hitting her knee on the table. "What? Really?"
Ty Lee had been too distracted to notice what had been happening around her in the lunchroom, but in the reflection of her food tray, she saw the same three people that had come into the tea house that previous day. They occupied a lone table, and true to what Jin had said, Zuko was indeed staring at them.
"Interested, Song?" Jin goaded playfully.
The other girl turned away, a faint blush tinging her cheeks. "Like you can talk."
Although to Ty Lee, Zuko seemed anything except romantically interested. Her friends might have been too invested to judge for themselves, but she saw his suspicious scrutiny easily. His lips were moving, and every so often he would turn and look at Mai, who only shook her head and seemed to be trying to keep herself distanced from whatever he was trying to engage her in. She lacked the usual aloofness that Ty Lee had pegged her with when they first met. If anything, the girl seemed worried.
"He's so cool, and his scar makes him look so tough and handsome. What does he see in Mai anyways? She's so...gloomy and depressing. And boring."
Ty Lee personally felt that Zuko could have filled those last descriptions as well. She preferred more outgoing and charismatic boys, ones that had a sense of humor and knew how to have a good time and treat her well. But she wasn't about to say that aloud.
"I can't believe he has a sister like that." Song said disbelievingly. "They're so... different."
Azula was seated across the table from the other two, locked in what seemed like a heated argument with her brother. Although her body language remained relaxed, she spoke to Zuko at a vicious pace, her words appearing to only incite his temper. However whereas Zuko was just staring in their general direction, Azula was only staring at Ty Lee.
To be sure, she looked over her shoulder and found herself meeting Azula's eyes. At once, Azula's table went silent and Zuko and Mai turned hastily back to their meals. Azula, however, held her gaze.
"She's insane-like really. I was in her PE class last year and she tackled this girl and the girl went flying. Broke her arm in three places. In PE! Who does that?" Jin shuddered.
"A crazy person." Song supplied. "Azula."
"Crazula!" They both said together at once before falling into peals of laughter.
Across the room, Azula's eyes turned hard, bright amber flashing hotly as if she knew exactly what they were talking about, like she could hear every single word that they were saying about her. Which was absurd, given how large the cafeteria was and that their tables were almost on opposite sides of it. Ty Lee looked at her new friends and wondered if all the laughter at Azula's expense was a regular thing.
Azula-or all of the girl's arrogance and venom-sat at a lunch table with her brother and brother's girlfriend. What Iroh had said to her started to make sense. If she hadn't seen it for herself, Ty Lee wouldn't have believed that girls like Azula could be the butt of jokes for girls like Song and Jin. For all of her beauty and money, it hadn't helped Azula in the least. It made Ty Lee feel that maybe in a different life, the hierarchies would have been different.
Iroh's beseeching requests returned to her on an impulse. The old man hadn't been specific, but had said enough for Ty Lee to paint a vague picture. More than anything, it had been the remembrance of his despondency, the worrying of an old man for his niece that made Ty Lee do what she did.
"She came into the tea house yesterday." Ty Lee said abruptly, not sure why all of a sudden she was feeling sorry for the same girl who had taunted her relentlessly at her workplace.
"Was she mean to you? She's mean to everyone." Song offered kindheartedly, looking ready to comfort her.
Ty Lee picked up her water bottle. "She was okay." She lied painfully. "She really liked what I use to style my hair." She gave a wide smile for added effect and took a deep sip of water.
Hunting demons and defending the reputation of hardened social lepers. The work of a hero was never done.
"Wow." Jin said dumbly.
Ty Lee risked another look over her shoulder, but Azula was already gone, and so were her companions. She couldn't help but relax a little. For all of the inklings of guilt she had, it didn't negate the feelings of unease that she got whenever she found Azula staring at her. It set her on edge. If this girl was going to use her as a way to vent her social failures, it would be at her own peril.
Ty Lee's thoughts were interrupted by someone calling her name.
"Hey, Ty Lee!" The three girls looked up to see a boy in a beanie, moving towards them with a thick-lensed camera around his neck. She kept forgetting his name since they weren't in the same grade, but she knew him in passing and his energy and perpetual friendliness were infectious. "I'm trying to get everyone's picture in the yearbook. Maybe I can get the new girl too?" He asked holding the camera up hopefully. She had already seen him enthusiastically snapping photos around campus all day.
"Yeah, sure!" Ty Lee replied cheerfully, pulling her friends around her with her arms, smiling as the camera flashed.
The rest of the school day passed mundanely. Ty Lee managed to get through her classes without much more sleepiness or drooling, and by mid afternoon she was feeling much better and on her second wind. By the time the last bell of the day rang, she was feeling good enough where she was starting to plan another recon trip into the forest after her work shift. The faster she dealt with this problem, the faster she would be able to get a good night's sleep.
She was getting ready to leave campus, dropping her books into her backpack when she felt eyes at her back.
Halfway down the hall, Azula was at her own locker, looking at Ty Lee through the throngs of students rushing from the doorways. Like before in the lunchroom, her gaze didn't waver, and Ty Lee held it obstinately.
Okay, this was just ridiculous.
Grabbing her book bag and closing her locker, Ty Lee pretended a grin that felt suspiciously like her work smile, pushing her way towards Azula as quickly as possible in case the other girl tried to make a run for it.
No such luck.
"You must think really highly of yourself to try to start something here." The other girl had slammed her locker shut, facing Ty Lee with her shoulders set. The way she stood with her feet apart instinctively raised the young hunter's hackles. If she didn't know any better, it was like Azula was expecting to be physically assaulted.
Okay. "Well I was thinking that we didn't get off to a great start. You've been staring at me all day," Ty Lee said slowly for greater emphasis. Azula had been talking to her in hushed tones, and Ty Lee had followed suit. She might have been standing too close, as Azula stiffened considerably. Hastily, she stepped back to give the girl more breathing room, and the tension appeared to lessen.
"And I thought maybe you wanted to say something to me. Like you know, in case you wanted to apologize."
"Apologize for what exactly?" Azula's eyes narrowed, waiting carefully for Ty Lee's response.
For being rude and weird. For staring at me like I'm a piece of meat and being a creeper.
Ty Lee wanted to say all of that, but Azula's expression told her that the girl's inquiry had been real. She honestly didn't know what Ty Lee was talking about.
They stared at each other, baffled.
"This was a bad idea." Ty Lee decided aloud, turning away, absolutely mystified as to how anyone so pretty could be so awkward. Inwardly, she was already apologizing to Iroh for having failed so quickly and miserably to befriend his niece, but the old man was on his own now. Ty Lee was a demon slaying hero, not some miracle worker.
A hand took her by the elbow before she got too far.
"No, wait." Azula looked at war with herself, like the next words caused her physical pain to say. Her apology came out like a grimace. "I'm sorry."
Ty Lee smiled, glad that they were willing to at least meet each other halfway.
"For saying that you smelled nice." The girl finished petulantly.
Around them, other students were reveling in the end of the school day. They gathered in large flocks noisily, rushing to their clubs or to the parking lot with their friends. Their boisterous conversations cut through the silence that settled over Azula and Ty Lee uncomfortably. Distantly, Ty Lee heard the flashing of a camera.
"Maybe we should just start over." Ty Lee suggested, taking the book bag from her arm and leaving it on the ground. She held her hand out promptly, doing her best to make the greeting sincere. "Hi, I'm Ty Lee."
Azula looked at the proffered hand indignantly, like she couldn't be bothered with silly pretense. The moment hovered, and Ty Lee thought that the girl was going to blow her off before Azula eventually took it. Her grip was firm, but surprisingly soft, even with the French manicure. "Azula." She said tersely.
"Azula." Ty Lee repeated, smiling brightly. "That's a really pretty name." She had thought so ever since the initial introduction from Mai at the tea house, but now that they were trying to be civil with each other, she didn't mind saying so.
Azula shrugged offhandedly. "I know."
Ty Lee smiled, wondering what it was like to have such self-assurance undaunted in the face of beleaguering school gossip.
"How was your day?" She continued congenially without missing a beat.
"Acceptable." The other girl paused, considering Ty Lee with a flickering glance. "I was up all night with... work."
"Oh, me too!" Ty Lee blurted out, excited to find out that they had something in common, even more surprised that someone like Azula would need to pick up a part-time job. That was until Azula looked at her suspiciously, and Ty Lee remembered that their shop didn't run past evening.
"Uh, I mean tea, you know. Tea stains take forever to get out. Hours." Ty Lee winced, thinking about the gore and bone marrow that had stuck to her shoes when she got home and the fervent scrubbing it had taken to get them clean again. As if sensing her guilt, Azula's eyes dropped to Ty Lee's shuffling feet. "So where do you work?" Ty Lee asked quickly.
Azula ignored Ty Lee's question like she hadn't heard it. "If Uncle works you too hard, all you have to do is tell me."
"Oh that's nice of you," Ty Lee's mother had always been hard on her when it came to her work ethic, reminding her as often as she could that Ty Lee was the most inept out of all her sisters when it came to hunting. This first hunt was more than just a rite of passage, it was a chance for her family to finally start taking her seriously. Ty Lee could handle a couple dirty plates and tables in the meantime. "But it's my job and I should probably try for like, at least a few weeks before I start waving the white flag."
Azula looked pleased with her answer, and Ty Lee felt that she had somehow earned a little of the girl's respect. Still, she kept her usual detached air of conceit when she said, "How anyone could stand working in that miserable old dump is beyond me."
Ty Lee balked. "I kind of like it." Sure, it wasn't the most classy or modern tea house in town, but it had its own rustic charm. Ty Lee greatly preferred its homely and comforting warmth to any fancy coffeehouse full of self-important yuppies.
Azula rolled her eyes. "Please. Uncle made it so that he would have a place to grow old and die. That place is just as sad and pathetic as he is."
"I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to live out your life." She replied resentfully. Kids like Azula had always taken for granted the things that were so freely given to them, the things Ty Lee would never have.
Azula made a derisive sound, letting Ty Lee know exactly how she felt about her opinion. "Maybe not if all you've done in your life was be a useless failure."
"Iroh's great." Ty Lee protested ferociously. Her annoyance was climbing at an alarming pace towards Azula's lack of respect for someone who so clearly cared about her. "He's nice and kind and generous."
Azula seemed to feel sorry for her and wasn't afraid to show it. "You don't know what you're talking about." She stated impersonally, like she knew Ty Lee's ignorance wasn't her fault. She breezed on like it didn't even bother her.
"Trust me, he's just a disgusting, washed up old man and you're better off not being around him. If you want a better job, you can come work for me. Our house is so much better than any run down broom closet you're living in. And I'm sure my father can give you a nice and easy job like, I don't know, cleaning the pool-"
"Oh my God, you're heartless." Ty Lee muttered in disbelief, picking her backpack up and putting it over her shoulder. She berated herself for even wasting her time. She should have known that this would be a stupid idea. "This was a mistake. I knew there was no way Iroh was right."
Azula's surprise quickly melted into a matching ire, looking at the other girl incomprehensibly. "You're angry about my uncle?"
"He's worried about you, you know. He's so worried about whatever it is that he said you were going through. I don't know why he even bothers because obviously you don't care about anyone but yourself." Ty Lee said harshly, unable to maintain her modicum of restraint that been the pillar of this conversation.
"You don't know anything about me or my family." Azula stated darkly, her voice taking on a dangerous tone.
"I know that Iroh has a spoiled little princess for a niece."
"If you love my uncle so much why don't you just go sleep with-"
There was a bright flash that blinded them both, washing Ty Lee's vision into white light and dancing spots. The boy from the yearbook popped up, smiling cheerfully with his camera still held out in front of him, as he looked between the two girls expectantly. Ty Lee stared at him, bewildered.
"Do you guys wanna do another-"
"What part of 'no pictures' do you not understand?" Azula's face twisted into a snarl as she grabbed the freshman by the neck of his shirt and shoved him bodily out of her way. The push must have been harder than it looked as it sent him crashing into the lockers, tumbling to the ground and scrambling to find his camera.
Pushing Ty Lee aside with her shoulder, the girl stormed past them and the crowd of students that had paused to see what the noise had been. They were left standing, staring at the empty clanging doors where Azula had disappeared and back to where Ty Lee was helping the boy up from where he had fallen. Disappointed that there wasn't any spectacle to be had, they dispersed quickly, leaving the two to recover by themselves.
"Wow, she really didn't want her picture taken." Aang said peevishly, with a hand to his head and a look out the door to where Azula had escaped.
"I'm sorry." Ty Lee said sincerely, handing back the fallen camera. "I made her mad earlier and I think she took it out on you."
"Zuko has been complaining about her a lot more recently." The young boy said thoughtfully with a tinge of irony. "Azula's usually the more put together one."
"What's her problem?" Ty Lee wondered out loud in bewilderment.
"Beats me." Aang shrugged, inspecting his camera with a frown. He put his eye to the viewfinder and tapped fervidly at the screen. "Well, it's not like I can use this anyway, the lighting's all weird. Check it out." He tilted the screen for demonstration. "Creepy, huh?"
Even before Aang held the camera up for her to see, a part of Ty Lee already knew what the boy was referring to. Deep down, it didn't surprised her. Everything clicked into place after that, the sudden mood changes that everyone had told her about, the absurd strength that defied Azula's stature, the way Ty Lee's instincts had been screaming at her incessantly whenever she had felt Azula watching her. She should have figured this out from the beginning.
Looking at the photo, she felt a familiar chill run down her spine.
Aang's picture had captured them mid-motion, and contrary to the boy's opinion, the lighting was unremarkable. In the camera flash, she could see herself looking at the other girl in outrage as Azula had twisted to reach for Aang's camera a mere second before the shutter had gone off. Between the outstretched slender fingers, the eerie blue glow was unmistakable. Looking back at Ty Lee from the camera screen were the same empty eyes that had haunted her in the forest, the same voracious stare that had hunted her through the trees and stalked her amongst the half-eaten corpses. It shook her to her very core, but more than that, it filled her with a renewed sense of purpose.
In her excitement, Ty Lee grabbed Aang's camera with both hands, barely keeping herself from screaming with vindication.
"I knew it!"