The stairs of the shop creaked with each step she climbed, each flimsy, aged floorboard dipping slightly under her footsteps as she climbed towards the attic. The morning was still new and the sun had barely begun to hurdle the mountains. The diffusing light bathed everything in an eerie blue incandescence, and the frost clinging thick to the windows hadn't yet melted. It felt like a place stopped in time, and Azula tried heroically to quiet the dizzying pace of her heart that thundered with each step.
Azula wasn't expecting anything extraordinary. She had been to the homes of hunters before (years ago, during a series of lessons her father had been trying to teach her about the importance of discretion) and the last time had been as unimpressive as the first, and yet neither seemed to compare to the cramped attic space that Ty Lee called a home. She already knew about the hunter's journey from her home across the continent, and that each hunter's rite was supposed to be taken under spartan austerity in a lesson of wits and humility, Iroh's arrangement for the girl to live in the attic, but the real thing felt so much more stark and depressing when the lock broke under Azula's firm twist of the door handle, and she crossed the threshold.
The room smelled like pine needles and earth tracked in from the forest. The walls were bare, except for the empty shelves and a bookcase that looked more like it was being used for storage rather than a place for books. There was a half-empty can of soup sitting on an electric hot plate had started to rot days ago, and the milk in the mini-fridge would be rancid in another day, despite the label saying that it was good for another two.
Azula perused the rest of the room, walking from one wall to the other like she was moving through a museum exhibit. A repurposed utility closet doubled as the kitchen and washroom, holding a dirty sink full of cups and plates below a shelf of toothpaste and soap. An old armchair with collapsed cushion springs sat next to the broken-down radiator. The dresser was canvassed with tubes of makeup and thin films of pigmented dust. Resisting her own curiosity, the werewolf pulled her hands away from the drawers, turning around and holding her back to the armoire as she stood over what little there was to Ty Lee's room.
To the hunter's credit, it didn't look like her quarters had the space to accommodate much to begin with. Boxes marked with black lettering lay stacked in the corners, waiting for homes that didn't exist, and the carton of pots and pans was especially doomed in an apartment that didn't even have a stove. While Azula hadn't been expecting an armory, she had expected more than just a shotgun hidden under a floorboard.
There was a moldy arm chair perched over a coffee table, and Azula struggled to remain upright when she sank into the chair and found that the springs had collapsed ages ago.
Azula flipped casually through a pile of magazines, her lip curling distastefully at the titles before stacking them to the side. Underneath the mess was an assortment of aged books splayed out in no discernable order, scoured with ancient writing and its aged pages crackling with the slightest touch. Unsurprisingly, each one seemed to be related somehow to the subject of werewolves, and the hunter had clearly intended a night of studious research before being witlessly sidelined. After some hesitation, Azula selected one of the thick volumes and opened to a page.
…known for their insatiable bloodlust, the werewolf will devolve into an uncontrollable violent rage when cornered in battle, and hunters are advised to use the utmost caution as survival has rarely been documented. The werewolf is a beast of base instinct and and mind, of an unmatched brutish nature that is paralleled only by their insatiable desire for human flesh—
Shutting the book in disgust, Azula dropped it back with its other counterparts, disgruntled to find that none of the others were any less ignorant than the first. Except for what was on the table, there weren't any other books in the room outside of textbooks and trashy paperbacks. If Ty Lee had a source she was getting her research materials from, it wasn't somewhere Azula could place at the moment.
The air buzzed insidiously, humming low in her ear, making the hairs on the back of her neck bristle. Noting the naked hardwood floor, Azula's experience told her to look up and she tilted her head at the ceiling to read the crude runes of a demon trap drawn in chalk and dried pig's blood. A glance to the window confirmed Azula's suspicions when she spied the line of salt at the windowsill.
"So you're not completely lacking any survival skills." Azula muttered to the sleeping figure bundled head to toe in blankets.
To the werewolf's endless aggravation, her announcement did little to stir the hunter from her dreams. Ty Lee slumbered obliviously, her face obscured by the sheets as she lied curled into the bed, the even drawing of her breath barely a whisper in the early morning quiet. The long crest of the sheets rising and falling, and the soft waves of brown hair spilling over the pillow were the only hints of the girl underneath.
Ursa had insisted on open discourse (advice coming from a woman who had never had an honest day in her life, which Azula was unafraid to point out to her mother venomously) and her father's disappearance to the alpine tundra had left her with nothing except for the barest of instructions. "You can join me again once you finish here." He had said then, the tone of his voice saying that he was done discussing this with her when he pushed her aside, throwing the last of his bags into the backseat and closing the door after him. She had pleaded until the moment of his departure, but the look he shot her through the window froze the words in her throat, and she watched his car disappear into the forest, remaining there and listening to it carry him further and further down the mountain, standing there long after Zuko had stormed back into the house, and Ursa had left her bedroom window.
When he didn't answer her phone calls, she knew that this was her last chance. (Heirs needed broad shoulders and she had never known her father to tolerate weakness. It wasn't the way of their people and certainly not the mark of a daughter worthy of carrying their history when he had passed Zuko over for less.)
Even if she had wanted to (try as she might) she wouldn't know how to begin to explain, and was how Azula found herself now, sitting on Ty Lee's armchair, her chin propped on the back of her hand as she watched the huntress sleep.
What am I supposed to say?
Seemingly in reply to her thoughts, Ty Lee made a small noise of contentment, pulling the blankets under her chin and rolling over so that Azula could see her face nuzzled into the pillow. Exposed to the pale blue morning light (wrapped in a bundle of threadbare sheets, burrowing for warmth) Ty Lee looked vulnerable in a way that the werewolf wasn't used to. For all of their brief and fraught interactions, Azula had come to associate the young hunter with the defiance in her eyes as much as the gleam of her shotgun's muzzle.
Azula frowned at her phone and noted that it was well past five o'clock, the appointed time that they had scheduled to meet in the start of their training sessions. When the hunter hadn't responded to her calls, Azula had made the drive to the teahouse with the express purpose of reminding Ty Lee of the consequences of wasting her time. She hadn't intended to end up in the girl's apartment, going through her things and spying on her as she slept, like some sort of slavering deviant.
But here she was, running over every minute detail of Ty Lee's bedroom, hungering for any part of Ty Lee that the apartment could yield, any glimpse into the girl's personality she could divine like shafts of light dying in the winter wood.
To their various degrees (her mother's open cajoling, Mai's unmitigated exasperation, her brother's depraved amusement in seeing her brought so low) it had been decided by everyone that the best course of action was to put everything on the table, which Azula vehemently opposed. It was easy for them to criticize when they had nothing on the line, when her brother and Mai couldn't even begin to understand the weight that she bore, and her mother's lot already long-lost as she never ceased to remind her daughter with every subdued, melancholic expression that touched her so frequently that she was dying. The world wasn't so simple as they made it out to be.
What am I supposed to tell you? Azula eyes traced over Ty Lee's sleeping face, her heart hammering a thousand beats like it had the very first time she saw her across the cafeteria when her world had crashed away, leaving her with a simple and agonizing truth. Azula's blood was screaming through her veins, an intoxicated fervor clawing from inside her skin, her entire body starving for the taste of Ty Lee's lips, her touch, and she swallowed the beast staunchly back down her throat before it could bubble to the surface, afraid that the hunter would awaken inopportunely and see the desire painted across her face. Yet Ty Lee continued to sleep, blissfully and happily under the covers, with such plain softness that Azula's eyes dropped back to the pile of journals and texts that glittered with illustrations of ancient, bloody wars.
It was absurd to think that for all of the horrors her father had prepared her for, it was love that would threaten to kill her, and a hunter's love by which Azula's life would hang in the balance.
In her grew a sickness, eating her from the inside out, slowly shredding each lash of restraint that she had spent her entire life cultivating. The beasts that slept inside them were ravenous, and she knew what Ursa didn't, that what afflicted them was not a gift, but a curse, and that if she did not succeed in this undertaking that it would kill her as surely (as slowly, as painfully) as it was killing her mother. If there was anything that could have been her cure, Azula was staring at it now, watching her dream.
And all the while her mother remained steadfast in trying to convince Azula to accept the serendipitous nature of their meeting.
For how closely they guarded their secrets to save themselves from the preyings of the hunters, there were so few among them left with the potency of the old bloodlines to maintain the ability to shift, much less to phase, much less to bond. Their aim for so long had been to survive, to pass on what was left of their once illustrious culture that had been their pride hundreds of years ago. They were bereft of any ambition, of any desire to improve their lot beyond what livings they could scrape out of the wildernesses of the world. Azula had envisioned differently, and under her father's guidance had endeavoured to make it so, to bring their people out of the shadows and to reclaim what had been rightfully theirs.
Her father had instructed her to be patient but the warning was needless. Of all the options available to her, the thought of revealing the darkest truths of her soul (of laying herself bare at Ty Lee's feet) was beyond what she was willing to do. She would rather die as the person she was than sacrifice any part of the person she was supposed to be.
Unable to bring herself to wake the girl, Azula relinquished herself to the confines of the armchair, purposefully taking one of the many magazines from the table and attempted to occupy herself with discovering the importance of finding the perfect pair of jeans. Soon she was back to paging through one of Ty Lee's stacks of rubber-band bound notes, thumbing through the curled bundles and tracing the feminine slopes of the girl's script. The corner of one of the papers caught her eye, and lifting it from its buried heap, Azula found her own image staring up at her, drawn in immaculate detail and practiced skill. The drawing was fiercely lifelike, rendered in strong lines of pitch ink over charcoal upon thick parchment used for the purposes of binding into books. All hunters were excellent artists it seemed (even the young and unpracticed ones) products of humanity's need to document everything for the sake of posterity. Azula had seen their type before, and knew better than to wish that Ty Lee's immaculate detail to the curve of her mouth (frustrated repetitions drawn over again) was anything except an attempt to unravel an age old myth.
Looking over the edge of the papers in her hand to the girl asleep on the bed, Azula was overcome with the feeling that she had lost something that had been apart of her. It wasn't very long ago when she imagined fate as a momentous glory. That she would eventually risk so much for so little was beyond her belief, that she might one day end up like her mother threatened to break every fibre that had been holding her together so tenuously. She had always acted upon the concrete and the proven, and how she would now throw them wholesale to the wind in order to feed the desperation inside her was disgusting.
She lifted her gaze to look out the window over Ty Lee's bed at the perpetual fog that rolled from the forests over the town, passing a haze over the streetlights and the waning blue hour. In the glass she found her own bloodshot eyes and sallow face staring back. On some days (depending on a multitude of other things that were somehow never in her control) she looked that much more haggard and worn, aged more than her sixteen years, a face no different than her mother's.
Zuko had told her once that control for him meant dragging himself on the edge of a razor, that the more time passed the more certain it became that he would fall apart.
Be patient, her father had told her once upon a time, when his confidence hadn't waned, when she had been strong, and the life had yet to start fleeing her veins. It seemed already like a lifetime ago, a life lived by some other girl with dreams and the power to make them all come true. In the morning calm, her voice replaced his wisdom, whispered into the weaves of her laced, white-knuckled fingers. Be patient.
It was almost seven when Ty Lee was finally awake enough to pull herself from sleep, blinking blearily out the frost-laced window at the spears of light melting away the frost and fog. She groaned as she slipped an arm out to hit the snooze button, shivering in the cold as she simultaneously took out a stack of textbooks she had neglected to read over the weekend. The air in the attic was perpetually freezing, and it was always worse in the morning. She was that much more reluctant to leave the warmth of her bed.
Yawning widely, she rolled over to find the time, her blood freezing when she saw the slender dark-haired girl sitting at her armchair, barely an arm's-length away from the edge of her bed. Upon the hunter's apparent awakening, the werewolf's brow furrowed.
"You miss our appointed time." Azula said, looking up from the week-old newspaper only briefly to express her displeasure. "I'll let this go today, but if I have to come here again you can forget our arrangement." She stated calmly, the even tone of her voice undoubtedly supposed to convey indomitability and a measure of intimidation, but to Ty Lee just meant impudence. "Be ready in two minutes."
Azula folded the paper across across her lap, oblivious to Ty Lee's bewildered stare. The hunter had just become very aware that she wasn't wearing any pants under the sheets, nor a bra under her threadbare T-shirt, and how her breath was vaguely misting in the cold. She hurriedly gathered more blankets around her as she backpedaled to the other side of her bed as far as she could and started to pat around her.
"By the way, you make noises in your sleep." The werewolf said grimacing, sucking air through her teeth like she was trying to forget something painful. "Not sure you're aware of that."
The two books whizzing by her head were a surprise, but it turned out to be a feint for the desklamp that collided with her face. As the lamp broke across her forehead, Azula was distantly impressed by the hunter's strength in how fast Ty Lee was able to throw a brass fixture.
"GET OUT!" Ty Lee screamed.
Later downstairs Iroh placed a mountainous plate of ham, bacon, and sausages on the counter, shaking his head sympathetically at the girl glowering dangerously at the coffee that he had given earlier.
"I told you that wasn't going to be a good idea." He tutted as Azula dabbed at her forehead with a bag of frozen peas. "Young people need their privacy."
"Shut up, uncle." The werewolf grumbled churlishly, stabbing a fork into the pile of meat.
Mai didn't consider herself as someone easily surprised.
She imagined that it came with the territory, a side-effect of having followed Azula around for most of their lives that she knew so well how the other girl thought, and could (to the best of her skills and experience) gauge the unpredictable swells and ebbs of her behavior. Part of being the young werewolf's aide was knowing her schedule, and the other part was having whatever information was needed. Mai didn't seem to have either today when Ty Lee's dark muscle car pulled into the school parking lot fifteen minutes later than when Azula had told her, and Azula came out of the passenger's side, holding the side of her head. Whatever reason it was that they were late, Mai was glad that the parking lot was clearing out as the school waiting for morning bell so that the only people there to witness the two bickering girls were the groundskeeper and a straggling pack of first-years that shuffled by hurriedly as Azula glared at them. Mai's hazarded a guess that they had been fighting for some time, and that Ty Lee had just lost her patience as she looked to retort hotly to something Azula said, turning and leaving her standing by the car.
Mai pretended to look up from her phone and notice Ty Lee's presence for the first time, and just as the other girl was walking by, the hunter hesitated before turning to her sharply.
"Please teach her some boundaries." Ty Lee said with a tremendous amount of restraint.
Drawing from her own experience with Azula, that seemed reasonable. Mai nodded and Ty Lee brushed past her, disappearing into the hallways with a clang of the heavy doors.
Hunters were known for their extraordinary senses of hearing as well and Mai waited until she could see the back of Ty Lee's disappear into a wave of students just as the first bell rang before she turned to Azula, who appeared behind her.
Up close Mai could see the fading purple that had blossomed over Azula's eyebrow. The makeshift ice pack had helped with the swelling that by all rights should have disappeared almost as soon as it had happened. Mai didn't think that she had ever seen Azula bruise before, and the evidence of the other girl's fast-waning health made her uneasy. Ozai hadn't told her much (anything) when he tasked her with his daughter's well-being, but his command was as good as law to her clan, and if it meant putting up with Azula's stubborn, self-involved overconfidence to keep her alive, then that was her job.
"It's like you don't even care you're going to die." Mai had been unconvinced whenever Azula told her about the progress she was making with Ty Lee, but she didn't think that the werewolf could get any more pathetic. The jokes she had with Zuko at Azula's expense had somehow lost their usual appeal.
It was unfortunately for Azula's sake that there wasn't much left of their histories after the genocide. Unlike the hunters, the werewolves had considered writing anything down as a liability against their survival rather than an asset, and destroyed them all what remaining texts in their possession were regulated to the obscure and largely indecipherable. Ursa had been as much help as she could be, but as the saying went it was difficult for a fish to describe the waters they swam in, and the sad truth was knowing the exact prognosis was only half of a problem they couldn't solve.
The ability was thought to have all but disappeared with the waning of their bloodlines, before miraculously emerging in one of the few surviving noble lineages (that day hadn't been very auspicious either according to the way Mai's mother put it.) If it had to happen again, Mai supposed that it might as well happen to the daughter of the first, and while the elders made a point to use Azula as an example of the return of their strength, Mai recognized simple propaganda when she saw it, and the irony that the born and bred paragon of their people would never contribute to the furtherance of their future wasn't lost on her. The irony in that Azula might never live to see her own future, was less humorous.
"Don't be over-dramatic." Azula said, narrowing her eyes, and pulling her hand down from her throbbing head. By Mai's estimation the bruise would likely disappear by the time they got to their first class, and the less attention the better for them, especially in light of recent information. "I'm not going to die. I'm handling it." To emphasize her conviction, she tossed the bag of melting peas over her shoulder, which landed with a resounding thud into a trashbin ten yards away. Mai couldn't resist an incredulous scoff.
"That's a great start you've gotten off to." Mai evinced with a gesture to the door.
Azula flared dangerously. "It's her. She's completely irresponsible! She doesn't take anything seriously! She's supposed to be one of the best hunters and all she cares about is cheerleading or makeup or-and all she does is sleep in! She's supposed to be on the vanguard protecting humanity from evil or whatever brainwashing scheme they tell their children-"
"First, I don't even want to know how you know her sleep schedule. And second," Truthfully as she thought about it she knew that there was considerably much more at issue here than just Azula's remarkable social failings. Much more than she could summarize in this small amount of time. "Whatever, forget it." Doubling as a bodyguard and a dating coach was not in her job description, even if Azula's life was on the line concerning both. Mai made a note to have at least one serious conversation concerning human social behavior; Azula might have literally been raised by wolves but that wasn't an excuse for every off-handed slight, and if Azula was going to make insults it might as well be the intended ones.
"What did you want?" There wasn't anyone around anymore. The second bell had rung, and Mai hated having to forge signatures on detention slips she never went to.
Mai held out the manila envelope that had been waiting in her hand, and the actual reason why she had waited all morning for her arrival. "Two more people transferred in today." She had spent much of the week trying to puzzle together why such a small school in the middle of the forest could have attracted that many transfer students from abroad, without a result that implied their demise.
Azula looked at the proffered envelope apprehensively before taking it and slitting the edge open with the sharp edge of a nail. Mai could see at once that the werewolf shared her thoughts grimly, flipping from one page to the next, her eyes racing down the documents' lines. "More hunters." Whoever had forged the papers had gone an excellent job; there wasn't anything in their transcripts, immigration documents, or visas that held them out to be any anyone else than what they claimed to be, two students from abroad, coincidentally from the same country as Ty Lee, the top of their classes but now had decided to move for reasons unknown. The trick to identifying hunters was knowing which details to look for, some sort of sponsorship or legal guardian from a overseas relative yet with no ties to the area, enrollment in the lunch program, a parking pass for a vehicle large enough to travel the continent in, inconsistent school attendance (Ty Lee had been the exception to a number of these, which had allowed her to fly under Mai's radar before her sudden appearance at the school.) The ones who were less shrewd sometimes had sealed juvenile records, or doctored papers. This pair of hunters had both.
"It's likely." Mai said, echoing her sentiments. "There's a chance they followed Ty Lee here." That was when she was being optimistic. There were more realistic explanations she favored.
Ty Lee's family was old and influential, and their daughters were feared across the world. Mai had warned Azula that it wasn't a far stretch to imagine that they held connections to fringe groups that were unafraid of going beyond protocol when they felt that it was needed. The problem with hunters was that beyond oaths and protocol, they had little else governing their actions.
"I don't know these names." Azula stated grimly. Every tribe leader knew the names and families of the prominent hunters, the most dangerous, the most decorated, their locations, their hunting behaviors, and their methods of operation, their ancestry and their progeny. As her father's second, Azula had been schooled at a very young age and had an almost exhaustive list that she knew easier than the back of her hand. But hunter families did not spring up overnight. The fact that Azula was unable to place them was cause for concern.
Mai had been way ahead of her. "Me neither." For all of their barbarism and zealotry, the hunters were an overly noble bunch of humans. Although it wasn't without precedent, to strike out the lineage of one of their own from their numbers in the neverending fight against hellspawn was no small matter. If these two were indeed hunters by blood then it would have to have been a grievous sin that expelled them from their order. The possibility meant a number of things had to be taken care of, not the least of which was the security of Azula's mother, and the forever-growing list of duties that kept adding to Mai's plate. A hunter that you didn't know was the hunter that was going to kill you.
Azula committed the information and the faces on the photographs to memory before sliding the papers back into the envelope and handing it back to Mai, who tucked it into her shoulder bag.
"So what do you want to do?"
One hunter was cause for worry, but three altogether warranted outright panic. In any other situation they would have left immediately, taken Ursa with them and absconded to the ancestral homelands. Mai still hadn't entirely ruled out the option, but going over Azula's head had dangerous consequences, even if done out of genuine concern.
All things considered, it was an incredible blessing for them that Ty Lee hadn't sounded in the cavalry at her first opportunity.
After a pause, Azula spoke again, her eyes glinting with the hints of a scheme forming. "Let's wait. We might as well see what they want." That wasn't the reaction she had been hoping for, and Mai didn't like that look and all that it implied. Azula might have been the master of guile and deception but a person who put those skills towards the friends around them often wound up having very little of them.
And Azula very desperately wanted Ty Lee to be more than just a friend.
Mai noted a second time that she needed to have a very serious discussion with Azula some time soon.
"I imagine they're here to hunt werewolves." Mai deadpanned. This town didn't have much else to offer in terms of the supernatural, unless one assumed that they were like Ty Lee and had come here in search of the symptoms without paying attention to the cause. Mai figured that it was just as well that Azula had managed to bond with the one hunter who was denser than a brick, and as long as the business finished itself soon then Mai couldn't care who it was. Azula's pheromones were screaming into the ether and everything within a two hundred mile radius was answering its call.
Azula sneered. "I meant from Ty Lee."
She was hoping to see her reaction, to see how she dealt with the newcomers, the assistance that she had asked for, and all the dark intentions that came with it. As determined and driven as Ty Lee seemed, the hunter was still untested, it would soon be time to see if she had it in her to make good on what she claimed to be. The encounter with the wendigo had been a sore disappointment to Azula, who had wanted (fate or not) to find a mate as strong as she was, someone who was worthy to run at her side, to rule the tribes with. Those dreams were all ashes now, but Mai could never understand Azula's pride; it was almost like it had been a horrible let down that Ty Lee hadn't tried to gun her down and skin her pelt for a trophy like her ancestors of old.
Yet she wasn't sure that Azula understood that the time for that was past now. With every passing day she could see the wildness growing in Azula's eyes.
"How long do you have?" Mai reminded, hoping that it didn't sound like death sentence.
Azula didn't like to talk about it with them, and getting responses was like pulling teeth. Ursa had taken years, almost a half a lifetime before her body had turned against her, but Azula had been bred to champion their people into a new age, to be their strongest, to exemplify the best in them, and possessing all of their strengths it was only natural that she felt their weaknesses even more. Zuko had not known his sister long enough to recognize the change, but Mai could see when she looked close enough Azula had already begun to wear thin at her edges.
"Enough." Azula replied, her voice hard as stone.
Against her better judgment, Mai had once nearly asked Azula what the feeling was like. It was one thing to study its effects through second-hand, outdated accounts, and the curiosity had nearly overwhelmed her. She often wondered what it would be like to look at Zuko the way Azula looked at Ty Lee when the hunter wasn't looking. "Enamored" wouldn't be the word she would use to describe it, but all the same Azula was spellbound and the change that took hold of her was something she would never master, not if she were given a thousand teachings from a hundred instructors and so it had fallen to Mai to be Azula's guide at an hour when she had no one else.
It was hard to witness Azula suffering so much for so little, all of her struggles in vain each time she was spurned (by a girl as fierce and proud as she was, an heir to a powerful legacy that dwarfed their own crippled one, a match in all ways imaginable.) Mai didn't know how to deal with the sudden helplessness that had overtaken Azula, at the same time hopeful and unsure, her usual extremism and callousness tempered by an awkward gentleness that came difficult to the young werewolf who had been trained more in ways to command the obedience of strong-willed girls than in ways to woo their heart. It hobbled her usual poise and grace, and Mai had never before seen Azula fumble for anything in her life, but she was struggling now for the right words to say, to display all the things she thought Ty Lee would be impressed by. It seemed beyond the werewolf that for all of her gifts, they were none that Ty Lee wanted.
Their years spent together allowed Azula to read Mai's expressionless face as easily as a book and what she found there made her disquiet, as if she could read every thought in the other girl's mind. They had years between them but they did not have closeness, and the moment held more intimacy than Azula would have liked.
"I'm going to class." Azula announced, moving suddenly with her books gathered at her hip, indicating that she didn't care if Mai followed.
Mai watched her go and briefly entertained the idea of going directly to Ty Lee herself before Azula was sure to make another clumsy misstep in her attempts at courting. For all of her obvious faults, the young hunter was young, and tender-hearted, and Azula didn't give her nearly enough credit. Later on, she reflected that it was purely for those traits that their lives had been saved.
When the second bell had run, Ty Lee was still making her way through the halls, hurrying to get to her morning chemistry class.
Her locker had jammed and it had taken every scrap of her remaining self control to not slam the door off its hinges. She was still furious over the incident with Azula at the teahouse (Azula hadn't even apologized and worse than that couldn't understand why Ty Lee was so angry) and she was afraid it was going to ruin her whole day if she didn't calm down and get away from her. It boiled her blood to know that Azula had spent the whole morning watching her, going through her things, and just looking at her whenever and however she pleased. Remembering it was making her angry again and her cheeks burned hotly.
She had stormed off without caring how it looked, and she had felt Mai's eyes on her the whole way. As puzzling as Azula was, Mai was even harder to read, and the two of them together made a pair of enigmatic phantoms that hounded every spare thought in Ty Lee's day. Even so, Mai had always been at least civil to her, as opposed to her counterpart who sneered and mocked, who appeared to find great pleasure in violating her privacy.
She was certain that Mai had some werewolf blood in her, but Ty Lee didn't want to speculate too much into it. If her family could see what she was doing now they would not have been pleased to say the least, and it wouldn't have changed anything anyways. She had decided her (lack of) course of action and everything else would just have to wait.
It might have been that they looked so uncomfortably human, but it never felt right that the divide between good and evil should be cut in a way that risked the safety and lives of innocents. Besides, werewolves weren't demonspawn. She told herself she wasn't breaking any hunter laws if she neglected to mention the werewolves again to her family (they hadn't believed her in the first place) since neither Azula's family nor anyone associated with them had actually harmed anyone (significantly anyway, Ty Lee thought with a wince, remembering the accidents both Azula and Zuko had between them and wondered if maybe with some coaching they could both improve.) Despite all of her ill-graces, working with Azula would have its advantages; she was sure of it. The important thing was to find the nexus of the demonic activity and to destroy it before anymore lives were lost.
Azula had imperiously decided that given Ty Lee's absence that morning that they would meet again after school in the parking lot before heading up the mountain. Hearing that had set Ty Lee off the first time, and they spent the entire drive to school fighting.
It occurred to her vaguely that she might have overreacted the second time. Azula's intentions were well-meaning, but even so if the girl ever hoped to live successfully in a human town then she needed to learn to get used to being refused. Azula might be used to getting her way, but the real world was different. Granted, the girl had a point about making obligations and deadlines, but it wasn't well-made when Azula never communicated anything and had taken it upon herself to break into her apartment and wait by her bedside like a serial killer.
She was so caught up in her thoughts that she didn't notice the boy when she turned a corner. When she moved swiftly to dodge him, he moved too, and they collided in a flurry of loose papers and textbooks.
"Sorry." Ty Lee apologized the same time he did, both of them scrabbling on their knees and patting around themselves frantically to sort out which belonged to whom.
"Are you alright?" The boy asked sheepishly with a smile that she did not see as she hurried to gather her fallen things.
"Yeah, thanks." Ty Lee was making sure that none of their things were being mixed up. She double checked to make sure that she had the right notebook (stuffed with pieces from hunter journals that she had been meaning to catch up on, her own drafts for her contributions that she had yet to start recording and binding.)
She had lost her statistics book and had given up all hope getting to her class on time. Which was just as well seeing as she had done neither the homework nor the reading. She figured that it was going to be one of those weeks where nothing got done and all of her weekends would be taken up with endless mounds of late assignments and readings. When she spied her book she reached for it the same time he did, and when their fingers brushed she looked up and found herself falling into deep blue eyes that gleamed warmly at her, and it was then that she noticed him fully.
If she had to guess she would have said that he couldn't have been much older than Zuko, definitely an older classman, but not someone that she had seen before around the school. He had a lean build, lightly muscled under his clothes, his arms strong and supple like a bow when he helped her back to her feet. His boyish face was beginning to square out at his jaw, and he had a thin beard that prickled on his chin from a neglectful night's care. The hair on the sides of his head was closely cut, and the long hair at the top of his head was collected in a short ponytail at the back.
"Uh." She said elegantly, and that made him smile wider. He had a grin that was lopsided and goofy, but subtly keen, like he was sharing in on a joke that only he knew the punchline to.
"I'm Sokka." The boy said helpfully, rousing the hunter from her dazed admiration. His voice was cool and smooth like water, and she couldn't help but be swept up and pulled beneath his assured, gentle poise.
"Ty Lee." She smiled.
Out of all the classes he had, Zuko hated P.E. the most.
It was boring, unchallenging, more a test of his restraint than of his physical abilities, and an abundant waste of time. It was an inane charade spent on the failing endeavour to convince the people around them that they belonged.
Humans had a habit of sweating abundantly, everything smelled, and the entire gymnasium was rank with the odor of damp socks and shoes and grimy gym clothes. He had never learned Azula's skill of muting her senses and he experienced everything a hundred times stronger than she did; for him it was all he could do to maintain his composure when his body exerted itself beyond a point. He didn't have the refinement that Azula possessed where she chose what aspect of her body she wished to change or not change.
He was still reeling from the day before, the lingering traces of sedative still coursing through his veins and sapping his muscles of nerve and strength. He would have to be extra careful today to not slip up and do something stupid, and in terms of chosen activities, it couldn't get much worse than dodgeball. It was a favorite of the gym teachers whenever the weather outside was too wet, none of them paying attention to the students' fervent wishes against it. As the remaining students trickled in, they gave disappointed groans at the crate of heavily inflated playground balls, and looked unsurely between his sister and himself. The fault had been his own; the last time the class played the game he had sent three of them to the nurses' office with bruises.
Faltering under their hushed whispers (every word discernable and ringing in his ears) he glared at his feet.
His sister stood next to him, rapidly dribbling one of the playground ball, and reading his mind.
"Cheer up, Zuzu, I'm told humans can sustain a small amount of internal bleeding without dying." Azula said breezily when she saw his reddening tinge around his cheeks. His neverending battles within himself only seemed to amuse her. She often liked to tell him that back in the homelands children as young as fourteen had control over their transformations, and here he was, eighteen and almost a grown man. She turned to Mai, who leaned her head in to hear something Azula said that made her usual irascible mask crack with a thin smile.
He didn't like it whenever they started whispering in tones that he couldn't hear. No one ever told him anything. It reminded him of who he was: an afterthought, a perpetual outsider of both worlds and doomed to occupy the spaces between, that he never truly fit in anywhere, that we could never belong beside that of his father and his sister. He had taught himself when he was younger to not mourn the circumstances in his life, but that didn't mean that he had to enjoy whenever Azula tried to irritate him for her entertainment.
The sound of a familiar voice chiming with laughter floated over them from the hallways. He smiled at the way Azula almost (just barely, hardly noticeable to someone who didn't know as he did about the habits she cloaked herself with) startled, and he swore that if they had been running in the mountains under starlight and the smell of earth and trees that her ears would have struck straight up. "Oh, look, it's your girlfriend."
Ty Lee had entered the gymnasium, lacking her typical accompanying pair of mooning classmates for once. She was talking to a boy that he didn't recognize, laughing at something that he had been saying as they walked through the door. Her eyes were bright and full of mirth, and the boy, relishing her laughter, was egged on to tell another joke. They could hear their conversation echoing through the rest of the gym, so that it didn't require any amount of supernatural hearing for their conversation to be heard.
"Oh my God Sokka you're so funny! Where do you get all that?" Ty Lee had a bright smile and even if it didn't show, Zuko was sure that it was causing Azula no end of aggravation that it was for someone as meaningless as an insignificant human boy. Personally Zuko didn't even think the jokes were all that funny, but you wouldn't know it by the way Ty Lee was eating up everything that was coming out of the guy's mouth.
"Kind of everywhere. My family used to travel a lot." He replied nonchalantly.
Ty Lee ooed appropriately and asked him where he had been to, and Sokka enthusiastically began to tell her about his previous adventure to the Altai mountain range with his sister. Ty Lee nodded throughout the story, evidently enraptured by his stories of fishing in snow-chilled rivers and ibex hunting in the Mongolian wilds. When she recounted how she had a sister as well who had spent time in Siberia, he appeared thoroughly impressed when she described the massive quarry that had been so difficult to track, and in the end asking if Ty Lee herself was perhaps an experienced outdoorsman herself.
Zuko wasn't the only one who noticed the happy atmosphere.
Azula had fallen dangerously quiet. She had stopped dribbling the ball and Zuko was afraid by the way it bulged grotesquely between her hands that it was going to pop.
"Hey didn't dad take you there last summer?" At the time the central Asian tribes had been experiencing some trouble across their borders and had asked for their help in moving across the desert. As their father's heir, the task had fallen to Azula to enter the wilderness to act on behalf of the ruling chieftain and Ozai never refused a chance to teach his progeny worldly lessons when he could. The scars over Zuko's eye still itched from time to time.
"Ty Lee looks like she likes traveling." He hoped he sounded encouraging instead of the brittle way his voice sounded in his ears and he was almost afraid that Azula was going to say something sarcastic in return. "Why don't you try talking to her about that?" Azula had been to almost every continent in the world and her passport would have put the whole school's to shame. If Ty Lee liked hearing about adventures, Azula had plenty. Having the goods was one thing, and selling them was something else entirely. He hoped that his sister would at least try to learn some conversational skills from the boy who was giving Azula a handed demonstration in proper socialization.
Even if she would never believe it, Zuko didn't really want Azula to fail. He had lived for so long knowing what became of that failure that he simply couldn't. He had lived his whole life knowing how it lived and breathed, had seen the poison it wrought, but his sister foreclosed the chance to even talk about it with anyone since she had figured out what it was. Whenever the subject was brought up she fiercely refused it, even with their mother. Their mother had called Ty Lee Azula's "chosen," and when his sister had heard that it veritably sent her in a rage that he had never seen before in her.
Her reply had been as furious as it was savage, as if in all of her anger it could have protected her, like she could have wielded it against her fate. "I did not choose anything."
At that moment it was Sokka's turn to laugh at something Ty Lee had said.
"Looks like you got some competition." Zuko turned to Mai with a smirk but she didn't smile back at him.
She was looking instead at the second person he didn't recognize, a girl who trailed in at the very end with the rest of the students as they crowded in from the doors. Zuko didn't recognize her but that wasn't unusual; he never bothered to familiarized himself with the rest of the students at the school (small as it was, Zuko never saw the point to it.) Like with Ty Lee's new friend, Zuko assumed that they belonged to another grade level or academic track and left it alone but Mai's fixed gaze gave him second thoughts.
"What is it?" He murmured close to Mai's ear, voice held low so that even a hunter's ear could not hear him, but she regarded him with the same distracted frigidness that she had when she first came into class.
"I'll tell you later."
When Zuko looked back he realized that the girl was staring back at him. Standing side by side with Sokka, it was easy to see a family resemblance. They shared the same slender build, brown hair, and the same eyes. The girl's was bright blue and piercing with brazen contempt that flashed for a brief second before disappearing beneath a polished veneer, and after a split second she was back to talking with another one of the student's about the upcoming dance at the end of fall. He thought that he imagined it, the product of a week's long worth of paranoia and drug-addled imagination, but he knew when he was being watched, and the way her eyes flittered between him and Azula from the corners of her eyes aggravated him.
What's her problem? He thought to himself, but before he could invest more thought into it, the gym teacher had announced himself with his whistle, gesturing widely with his fleshy tremulous arms for them all to gather around him. When it came time to the division of teams, Zuko could smell their nerves in the air. Humans had long memories, and even without his numerous episodes, it wasn't that long ago that Azula (their father's golden child, who had never before had an indiscretion, not a sin on her hands, a mark against the list of impossible laws that was held out for them, until that day) had smashed a girl's arm to smithereens over a perceived insult on the football pitch. When it came to winning, Azula didn't distinguish between teammates.
The portly man blew his whistle again and each student hesitantly walked up to the edges of their lines.
Yet Azula was uncharacteristically bereft of her usual boasting. "Don't lose." She commanded them.
Zuko spared her an incredulous glance. It was only a dodgeball game, and the size of his sister's ego never failed to astound him. "Ty Lee's not going to make that much of a difference." Ty Lee might have been the best hunter that they had ever seen (the best among ants, as Azula had put it) but she was still a fledgling by her people's standards and she was only one girl. They themselves had three among them, and Ty Lee only had herself, and it wasn't like any single one of them couldn't outrun, outmuscle the hunter on their worst of days.
When the whistle blew for the final time, it vaguely occurred to him that it was not in fact Ty Lee who was the first to reach the line of dodgeballs. Neither was it Azula who hadn't moved from where she stood.
Half a heartbeat later he was standing face to face with the same girl that had troubled him earlier, reviving every shred of dread that he had managed to suppress before. This time there was no mistaking the venom in those eyes and the hateful curl of her lip, and it rooted him where he was, his shock narrowly preventing him from ducking the thrown projectile. When the dodgeball whistled dangerously past his head, he knew exactly why Azula and Mai had been so intent on the pair when they had first seen them. Next to him, a boy screamed out in pain when he took a second dodgeball in the abdomen that had been meant for Azula, who had skirted out of the way at the last moment. Distantly, he heard Azula roaring in laughter, and Ty Lee's unheeded yelling.
Zuko's life really wasn't fair. No one ever told him anything.