Disclaimer: Not mine.
Summary: Monsters are not born; monsters are made. You want to know where she went wrong? I'll tell you where. Azula-centric. One-shot. Trigger warning.
Rating: M for adult language and themes, mentions of rape, and general unpleasantness.
A/N: I have always liked Azula. After re-watching parts of ATLA and getting into Korra, I wanted to revisit her as a character. I looked around ffnet for worthwhile reading, for something that really gets to the core of her as a character, but I didn't find anything that did it for me. If it's out there, please rec me; I know I can't be the only person writing her like this. I know the story isn't great—it's hardly readable at all—but it was cathartic in its own way. I haven't used this narrative style since… the very first fic I ever wrote, How to Disappear Completely. Scary stuff, haha. Enjoy?
Because it is Bitter
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said: "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter-bitter," he answered;
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."
By the time the ghostly white of dawn creeps through the wooden slats across the windows, the demons have gone quiet, nestled back under the layer of my epidermis but moving still, crawling along my jagged, frantic chi. Their murmurs are constant, yes, but gentle in the hollow light of day. I like this time best, before those oafish orderlies come by to empty my bedpan and serve me all manner of bitter concoctions meant to ease my frenzy. Uncle is at the helm of that monumental waste of time, I suspect, having taken it upon his laughable pride to save his mad niece. Mad? I am not mad; I'm furious. I am the sun incarnate, burning away in this rubber room. Or I would be had that tattooed, bald-headed freak not sucked up my bending with his fancy little light show.
What do I have left? I am severed inside. It's just like before, except now I'm left to roam the cluttered hallways of my mind without bending to burn the darkness back. I claw at the portraits of memories on the walls and find new languages scraped onto my skin, ugly things beneath my nails until they make me wear those goddamn socks over my hands. But I have to tear those portraits down. I don't want to remember her perfect face telling me how cruel I am. I don't want to remember the steady stream of regal well-wishers. I don't want to remember the polite admiral bowing to Grandfather just as he bowed between my quaking legs. I wonder if Uncle knows, if that bitch Ty Lee opened her fat mouth. I should've known better than to think I had a luxury as wasteful as friendship. Her pretty pink mouth; how could I have known those lips were never meant for locking secrets behind? My failures pile upon each other, their height astounding me from inside this empty room full of ghosts and demons.
They're coming in now, the orderlies, wearing those ridiculous rubber suits like I might spit fire at them. I give them a show, my legs spread wide and fingers working against me while I laugh and they pour a stream of stale piss into a bucket. The door is open wide enough for me to run through, but even I can't swim the length of the ocean. This goddamn island will be the death of me. All that water.
I come and coat my fingers with the empty tasting liquid that slides out of me, wiping it on my legs in glistening patterns. I can't see the eyes of the orderlies through those abhorrent rubber helmets, but I imagine their faces twisted up in disgust. If you won't fear me, then you'll hate me. Better than being forgotten, I suppose. Today's regiment of teas taste 1) of the sea, fizzling the fire eating my veins, 2) of the earth, muddy pools slowing my movements, and 3) of clouds, encouraging light, empty thoughts. As I drink each cup, I throw it deftly through the open door, pleased at the way they crash and echo down the hallway. There are no answering sounds today, just as there are always no answering sounds. I am still alone in this wing. Or perhaps it is just one room and one hallway on this entire forgotten island. The Fire Lord is so kind to his only sister. An entire island for myself. What a fucking honor.
I chase the fluffy thoughts around the sky, empty whimsy like phoenixes searing a path across a swelling sun, laughing as a little one is burnt up. "Can't fly too close to the sun!" the mother phoenix cries, her tears encouraging rebirth in the charred carcass of her child. And just like that I'm wandering the hallway again, pulling portraits from the walls and sending them down the hallway like that Water Tribe Boy's stupid boomerang. They come back, they always come back, and hit against my shins no matter how high I try to jump. The gilt frame of a sake-breathed nobleman sitting me on his lap before Grandfather's meeting, his too-big fingers jammed up inside me and hurting and hurting while his rough whiskers prick the shell of my ear. "Good girls don't cry," he says, smelling of our best rice wine. I kick that portrait aside, dodging one that comes hurtling toward my stomach. It catches me across the cheek, sounds like my mother slapping my face for twisting Mai's arm when she came to visit. There was one good clump of soba left, and Mai wouldn't surrender it to me. So I poured the sauce down her dress and twisted her arm behind her back. Jabbing her with my chopsticks, I insisted, "Good girls don't cry, Mai. Good girls don't cry." Mother was horrified, of course, slapping me about while Zuko peered around the threshold to my room. "What's wrong with you, Azula?" she asked, swatting me across the backs of my thighs. "I didn't raise you to be this way!" Her shouts like peals of bells, the crack of her hand across my skin like applause.
Nothing is wrong with me, Mother. Nothing was ever wrong with me. What's wrong is you, was you with your perfumed hair and jade combs. What's wrong is you, feeding the ugly turtle-ducks with ZuZu while your cherished high general ripped a hole in me, stuffed in a cleaning closet. Ammonia reminds me of feeling too full in my body, reminds me of soiling my pants with shit and his come after he was done with me, shoving his hairy knuckled fingers in my mouth where I bit out my screams of pain. Pain, mother. Pain for a week afterward, too much blood every time I used the bathroom. Too much blood, sitting in my perfumed bath, the white lotus flowers always pink after I was done. You never noticed. No one ever noticed Zuko's sister. Zuko, the heir apparent, and his strange, cruel little sister.
They clean my bedpan with ammonia.
I refuse the stale sticky rice and bitter bok choy, just like I always refuse their peasant food, so in come my rubber-suited suitors, fingers in my mouth and on my arms while I choke down the mashed up food, shuddering as it slides down my throat. I am quite accustomed to the sliding down of things, how if they are far enough toward the back of my throat, I don't even taste their bitter, meat-fed come. I was too available, waiting around for Father to show me favor while Mother nattered about with ZuZu and her empty-headed friends. Too easy to tug out of sight, a leathery hand over my mouth. I believe I developed a sort of reputation, especially after Zuko left. I sought them out, leaned casually against a column as they arrived far too early for any war meeting.
"Fancy meeting you here," I said, my lips a perfect curl of crimson.
"Grown tits, have you?" he asked after a quick glimpse around the grand foyer. No witnesses. Never any witnesses. "You're a dirty whore, 'Zula. Anyone ever tell you that?" I'd started taking them to my room. Better than that cleaning closet, than the empty meat locker in the kitchens, than a dark, disused corner of the winding gardens. I liked having my sheets taken away to be washed, my servants blushing wildly at the blood, the spit, the semen, the shit. "Planning on marrying out? Won't be much use for you after Zuko's Fire Lord and you're dried up."
He shoved into me savagely. This one liked to take me from behind, cared nothing for my pleasure, just for my pain. I clenched my teeth until I thought they'd shatter when I became a ring of scorching inferno, too full in my body where he stabbed between my legs. "General, haven't you heard that I enjoy spreading my cheeks for you?" He'd gripped my thighs then, so hard I was examining the marks for days. Savage thrust one, savage thrust two, and he spasmed erratically, thick gobs of come painting my insides. I licked my lips before turning to him. "I enjoy letting you fuck me raw just as you'll enjoy when I fuck you. Zuko is out. Father banished him three weeks ago. I'm heir apparent now." I'd shoved my tongue in his horror-stricken face before I went to take my spot of honor in the war room.
I quite enjoyed that, breaking the news to every smug-faced sonofabitch who thought I was a pretty toy meant for breaking. Imagine their shock when they realized the witty firebending prodigy would one day be their lord. Oh, my vengeance would be sweet—cloying and honey-dipped newly sprung cherry blossoms. Would've been, anyway. Still fun to imagine burning down their regal palaces with their wives and children inside. Maybe after I taught their precious pretty toy children lessons in just how much good girls never cry.
But I never did develop a taste for cocksucking. I just throw the food up into my bedpan after the rubber suitors leave, swirling the contents around and around while I laugh, counterclockwise while I cry.
I had plenty of visitors at one point, especially after the tattooed freak sucked out my soul with his Avatar Bullshit. Stupid Water Tribe Girl, Mai and her traitorous indifference, Ty Lee with her pink-lipped big mouth, Sucky Suki and her hideous clown-face makeup, Uncle, my asshole brother with his big huge newly crowned Fire Lord dick swinging all over the goddamn place. Crying ladies whose names I don't know. Some earthbending bores who offered me prayers and something else. I don't remember; I fell asleep, and when I woke up I was alone with the ghosts, with the demons. Slowly but surely I was left to my "rehabilitation." News flash: you cannot rehabilitate rape. My virginity cannot be "restored to normal." My innocence cannot be "restored to normal." You cannot rehabilitate having a blind bitch of a mother. Stuffing me full of magic tea and tropical sunshine will never unstuff me of my demons, unhaunt me of my ghosts.
Now and again a familiar face shows up, reminding me of just how much I hate this barren earth. Today it's Big Mouth Ty Lee. She's babbling about auras and fans and it's all a big three-ring circus, tottering around on her hands while I sit and play the mad girl, cackling weakly at inappropriate moments. Ty Lee the Sideshow, even when we were kids, doing anything to draw all the attention to herself, to claim her spotlight. I'm her audience now, how she performs herself for me. Why is she performing herself for me? I know Ty Lee the Desperate, showing off strips of lightly tanned skin for the gawking boys, curling the ends of her eyelashes and pinching the apples of her cheeks. Little Babydoll Ty Lee, chasing the tickling hum of attention. She's just like every last one of her bright-eyed sisters.
"Stop that," I snap. It's the most I've said to her in several months. She halts her silly routine immediately, mouth dropped open slightly, upside-down pretty eyes batting at me in astonishment.
"Stop what?" she asks, collapsing elegantly in one smooth, swift movement. She sits cross-legged, elbows balanced on her knees, leaning toward me as if I'm about to reveal some great secret.
I know her feigned ignorance is just an attempt to get me to speak. That bitch. "Your little act. No one's watching you, Ty Lee. Just me. And I'm mad."
"I don't think you're that mad," she says, peering closely. It's always the dumb ones. They aren't so dumb as all that, really. Everyone knows boys don't like the smart ones. It's quite calculating, actually. Besides her handy skill with chi-blocking, what other use is she? No, I hand-picked Ty Lee. Big Mouth Ty Lee with the babydoll eyes and cheeks and mathematician heart.
"Oh?" I ask, glancing at my sock-covered hands like I'm able to inspect my ragged, bleeding nails. I suppose someone might have an amount of success extracting oil from my hair—that's how long it's been since I last bathed. I smell of sweat and come. I smell of madness. "Mad enough, I suppose. Mad enough that you think that cutesy bullshit dazzles me."
"You're always such a bitch, Azula," Ty Lee frowns, sitting back and crossing her arms in front of her, barring the way to that manipulating little heart of hers. "I'm here for your benefit, after all, and the least you could do—"
"Is play nice?" I finish, my fingers flexing involuntarily. Here the fire springs to life in my hands. Here all my rage and all my bitter and all my lust curdles into a searing frost. A cold so cold it burns, right there in my hand until it isn't anymore. Stripped. Raped. All the same in the end. You take from me my soul. And you're supposed to be the Avatar? The fall-on-your-knees-and-worship Avatar? The let-me-suck-your-cock Avatar? That was my soul. That was my life. It was mine.
"Please, Ty Lee," I continue, smoothing back my greasy strands of haphazard hair with my sock hands. "My benefit? Let's not pretend you're pleased with playing Warrior Fan Princess with those clown-faced cunts." I yawn luxuriously, an old habit that looks natural but is put on as one puts on a frown, a smile, a well-loved dress. "You're here to check on my progress. You want to know when I'll rise from my ashes so you can claim the power as my right hand." I pause for dramatic effect, stare pointedly with as much focus as I can muster. I confess that it isn't much. "Tell me I'm wrong."
Ty Lee peers through me, seeing past the slippery sheen of body oil, the come smeared on my legs cracked around the edges like snot run dry. She sees the rubbed raw skin of a fetal creature mewling pathetically, tail between her legs. De-clawed. The once feral ferocity given way to whimpers. How the mighty are fallen. My lovely coronation in flames around me, my own blood rebelling at the sight of me. Was that all I was after all? A little girl playing dress up? No mother to scold me, no father to care. What's left is tangled hair and sad sock hands. What's left is what the Avatar left to punish me with: nothing but ghosts and demons.
"No, you're right," she sighs, shrugging lightly. "You're always right."
"Your pandering is endearing," I say stretching briefly before shouting for the orderlies at the top of my lungs. "GUARDS!" I shriek. They are guards, after all. Orderlies are for the sick who aren't war criminals. One of my many rubber suitors appears at the door. It's comical, almost, how he stands there and doesn't speak to acknowledge me. "My guest and I would like to stroll your pathetic beach." I stand and smooth my hospital gown down my diminished frame like it's fine silk. "Besides, I think some fresh air might do me some good since…" and as I pass through the threshold of my rubber cell—the first time in countless months—I hiss right in his rubber-covered face, "…it smells like bok choy and vagina in here."
No one stops our exodus to the beach. Black sand, which means there's a goddamn volcano somewhere on this shitty island. Perhaps a quick dip in a vat of lava might restore me to my former glory, firebending intact. Perhaps disappearing in slow-sunk agony is the answer to the huge, gaping question mark my life has become. Questions like: how did that Water Tribe Skank disgrace me like that? How could my hand-picked friends abandon me? Why didn't they protect me? My parents, why didn't the notice? Answers like: they knew that was the only way to buy the support of the generals, the admirals. Answers like: Mother waking me up when I was seven to burn my bloody sheets, never asking why. Answers like: holding babydoll Ty Lee by the throat and forcing my tongue past her perfect, pink lips. Answers and answers and answers, all of them wrong for a question I can't even find the words for.
The salt of the sea climbs over all my taste buds, the hint of tears snarling through my hair as we walk, arm in arm, over the black sand. The water laps at my toes. I regret that it burns, that I imagine it burns. You, waves, would drown me. You, waves, would see me sputter.
"What?" Ty Lee asks, leaning her ear toward my mouth. I speak often when I'm alone, having it out with ghosts and demons. It's not usually my habit to be overheard.
"Nothing," I snap, shoving her away from me.
"Hey!" she says, falling unceremoniously. She's seventeen, and she's falling. She's fourteen, and she's falling. She's eleven, falling. I pushed her down so many times, and I see them all together, all at once as she falls, her round face twisted up indignant.
"Stop spying on my conversations," I hiss, stomping into the waves, wandering toward the hallway. It's darker here, the lights flickering overhead. The portraits on the walls hang off-kilter, decked in cobwebs and dust. A nearly faded, crumbling black and white falls off the wall as I pass, the frame's rotted wood releasing its prize. It flutters to my feet. I inhale, pick it up with my fingertips, and wade through the pond, throwing bread at the turtle-ducks until I hit one. It quacked weakly, paddling in a circle before snapping up my soggy offering. There was a soft "tsk"ing sound behind me, and I turned to find one of father's close friends. He would grow into a fine admiral, the lines of his body bending the space around him. He was my favorite, always bringing me some sweet or soft plaything. I was four years old.
"That's not very nice, little Azula," he said, patting my head. Father never patted my head.
"I'm not little," I said. Even then I demanded to be. I was. I demanded my existence to be accepted.
"No?" He asked. I should have seen in his eyes. I was four years old. I should have known. He undresses down to his under clothes and sits shirtless in the pond while I wade, the water up to my waist. The turtle-ducks float blissfully around me as I stare at the sky and he rubs at me down there, rubbing and rubbing, sticking his fingers inside. Both places, inside he hurts me. He was my favorite.
I turned in terror, his fingers twisted up inside me, hurting. Father was leaning against ZuZu's favorite tree. He looked amused.
"She'll make a fine Fire Nation wife, one day, Ozai," he said, shoving up into me until I thought he would reach up to my heart and pull it free. I cried out, the turtle-ducks scattering.
"Azula!" Father said, stern and commanding and not caring at all that his most trusted friend had his fingers in… had his fingers… his… "I trust you'll be here when the Fire Lord appoints his new captains?"
"You can count on my full support," he said, ripping his hand away. He chuckled at the blood, reaching out to shake my father's hand. "It is a new dawn, indeed."
A new dawn, every day a new dawn. Ty Lee is screaming my name from a million miles away, the salty sea like tears in my eyes, filling my lungs. This is what they want, in the end, isn't it? The mad girl, the fire gone out of her, tossed about by the sea. I'll do them a favor. Let them have their happy, newer dawn without me.
But of course Ty Lee is an excellent swimmer. There is black sand in my hair and an ocean in my lungs, spewing up into her mouth; a sad caricature of intimacy. My ribs feel broken from where she's pushed, that curious strength in knowing exactly where to press to make a man fall down dead. To bring the dead back to life.
"Damn you," she says, spitting out the seawater. "This is a new top."
She wrings the water out of her hair, unwinding her braid and pulling through tangles while I watch from my sandy bed. It's quite lovely, catching the sun in its strands. Before she became fearful of her cold little girl, mother combed her fingers through my hair like that. "Hair that holds no light," she said. Under cover of darkness I went, wore it heavy like a crown. I never hid behind it. Why should I? What light did it need to hold when I held the power of the sun in the palms of my hands?
"Your chest shows," Ty Lee says, nodding at the soft peaks in my soaked, useless garb. I have hated my breasts since I first realized the other sex liked them, since I found them ill for transmitting pleasure as they were rumored to, experimental twists and tweaks while submerged in my lotus bath. A commander or two rolled a nipple between their lips, one of them nipping as if I were to be consumed. Just pressure. And then, just pain.
I peel off the stinking, sticky gown and lay there naked, Ty Lee frowning away at me. Yes, let her see the new languages of loss written on my arms, my legs. Let her see how the ghosts grab at me before every new dawn breaks. It's funny how your mind is clear when you have an Avatar to catch, a brother to scorn, a kingdom to run. You can forget any howling demon wandering forgotten corridors when you're bending lightning to your will, keeping your balance atop a war balloon. That's the glory of adrenaline, of glory's thirst—keep your eyes on the prize, ladies. Eyes on the prize and it's all worth it, every crooked cock knocking against your cervix, every sour word whispered behind your back. Yes, I heard you. I always heard you, head held high. I was so proud. I am so proud; even the sea laps at my feet.
By the time the sun, my glorious aching sun, arcs across the sky, I am red and feverish, shivering as we walk back through the hallway and into my cell. My cage. Ty Lee cries as the suitors usher her out, warbling about coming again soon if I promise not to drown myself. I don't think I've ever made a promise in my life, and I begin to tell her, but it is just me and the demons again. Me and the ghosts and a bowl of sticky rice and fish heads and hurting skin.
I want to cry and scream and throw things and burn down the whole goddamn world. So I cry and scream and throw my dinner across the room and reach inside myself for the power to burn, to make clean through heat this horrible mess. It doesn't come, of course. There's just me screaming with my arms rigid, fingers clawed in this rubber room on an island too far away for anyone to hear my horror. Demons dance in the dark, ripped free from my skin, so I crawl into bed and watch through my hands. Hand in hand with ghosts, bled through with memories, the macabre scene unfolds on the backs of my eyelids. You can't sleep, you can't blink. My own theatre of my own life on my own island in my own room. Thank you, Zuko. Thank you, Aang. I've always wanted my own island, my own theatre of the condemned. I get to carry it around with me inside my head. I get to take it to bed. I am alone, but I'm never lonely. No, not with the demons. Not with the ghosts.