Disclaimer: None of it is mine.
Soldier in a Box
As soon as you're within eyes reach, the guard sets his shoulders and regards you with a sharp nod. "Lady Ty Lee," he says crisply, striking his fist against his open palm, and you bow your head meekly because your quieter status has settled a rust over you. You're an important asset to the Kyoshi Warriors these days and you are recognized by the paint on your face, not the fall of your braid.
Today you've forgone your typical warrior's garb. A deep crimson, three-quarter sleeved tunic reminiscent of your acrobat's uniform has taken its place.
You are about to request access beyond the chained door when he follows your gaze and his reply comes in the grave expression on his face.
"I'm afraid you won't find what you're looking for in there," his gravelly voice softens to sand and you wonder if any of these soldiers mourn her. She was ruthless, but she was the beating heart of the entire army. They respected her. Vicious or not, she was their leader.
You wonder if any of them feel as lost as you do.
"What do you mean? Azula's not here?" you try your best not to sound desperate. After all, the angles of your face are sharper now, your eyes have narrowed out. You are no longer a child.
The soldier shakes his head, lips set in a firm line, "I'll let you see for yourself." He unhooks a circle of dangling keys from his waist and a moment later the chains fall away like a dismantled, iron skeleton. Stepping aside, he gestures with a powerful, sculpted arm for you to step inside. "Call if you need anything, I'll remain here."
You nod and you can feel your heart bumping around in your chest like the roots of your veins have set it free to bruise itself against the cage of your ribs. Because what did being Azula's anything ever to lead to other than pain? You don't really know, but the ache you feel apart from her is worse than any of her words, any of her fire. You are no longer a child, but love has made a fool of you.
It takes levering all of your weight against the heavy metal door for you to push it open and the soldier outside of the cell kindly pulls it shut for you. You're not sure you would have been able to close it anyway, because upon seeing her you nearly fall to your knees.
She's there, chained to the stone wall opposite of you looking like a victim in an iron web. Shackles encase her ankles and wrists, an even larger one clasped around her slight neck. Your hand muffles your gasp and you try your hardest not to cry, you really do, but you've always been a bit of an overemotional girl and the tears are paving hot paths down your cheeks before you can begin to will them away. She watches you, but her eyes are blank slates, nothing in them at all, and you want to write your words all over her and make her remember.
Azula always hated when you cried.
Get a grip, Ty Lee, she'd say, and your blubbering would bubble down as you wondered what kinds of things Ozai said to Azula when she cried. You think most of the punctuation of his words marked her skin in burns. And you cried harder.
Your small fingers curl around the cool bars of her cell as you begin to control the awful noises erupting from your throat. She's there, watching you from her web, but she's not really there. You begin to understand what the guard meant. You won't find what you're looking for in there. But there's nowhere else to look.
The bolts are wrenched shut on the door of her cell, although there is no lock. So you undo them and the barred iron door shrieks as you pull it open. This prompts a reaction from Azula and ice grips your bones as you freeze your movements, watching her watch you. Her head is cocked to the side like a bewildered animal and those blank eyes swallow you.
When you make it over to her, she looks as though there's a question writhing on her tongue. Before long, she appears to be in pain. Whatever it is, it's burning her mouth from the inside and her eyes have been whipped to life with fear. You wait, but words never make it past her lips and then you're crying again.
"I'm sorry," you breathe, your palm curving around the shape of her cheekbone. She doesn't scream or squirm away from your touch, nor does she invite you closer.
The pain ebbs away, you can see it fleeing her golden eyes, and it's all the invitation you need.
"Azula, do you need to tell me something? I have a lot to tell you. Tons, actually. But I think it's only fair if you go first," you smooth your thumb over her grimy cheek. "You looked like you had something really important to say for a second there. It's okay, you can tell me, or ask me, or whatever it is. It's okay," you assure her.
Azula stares back at you like her very heart is on fire and smoke is climbing the chimney of her throat, and you can't stand to watch her burn.
"What? What is it?" you say, a little more desperately this time, because oh. She's begun to cry. It's an awful sound, choked sobs like she's swallowing wind and it's kicking up the fire in her chest.
You saw this once, when you were kids. Then Ozai taught her to never to do it again and you don't think she ever did.
Bruises bloom from the heavy cuffs on her wrists, busted capillaries climbing her arms like the bloodied branches of trees and she snatches the front of your tunic with her boney fingers, curling them into skeletal fists.
"Who?" the question crackles out of her throat like cheap fireworks, like her voice hasn't been used in awhile. She's pulling you uncomfortably close - a distance that would have been comfortable to you when you knew the inside of her mouth better than she did - and the tears are squeezing from the corners of her eyes out of anger and frustration rather than sorrow. And you realize she's angry - whether at you or herself is unclear - because she doesn't know who you are.
You drop your forehead onto hers, solemn.
"You don't know me?" you ask, your voice small.
She glares at you, golden eyes flashing, twin raging storms in her skull, and her lips purse.
"Who?" she demands. Hiccups, then glowers, teeth clenched despite the tears on her face. "Why are you here again?"
She says it the way she would ask why you liked the circus. You haven't been to see her since she was chained up here - Zuko asked you to stay away, your presence could trigger colossal setbacks in her recovery.
Recovery? You listen to the rickety inflation of her lungs and consider it a miracle she hasn't died.
You have not seen her face since you betrayed her and she's probably seen yours every day since. You've been swinging around the twisted branches of her mind for a year. For all the torture, all she asks for is your name and you've never denied Azula a thing.
"I'm Ty Lee," you say, and then she's gone again and you realize her voice didn't croak from lacking use. Her body twists and shudders and writhes as curses ride the waves of her tongue, your name capping every one of them.
She tears at your clothes, your flesh, and you don't care because you've been bearing her scars since you gave her your name the first time. You exit the cell because Azula isn't here anymore, not because you're afraid.
You don't have a chance to open the door yourself before a handful of soldiers beat you to it. The guard who let you in escorts you from the room as the rest of them pile into her cell and twist Azula's wrists behind her back, holding her head in their broad hands to keep her from cracking her skull against the wall. She's already dealt a successful blow to herself; blood runs red down left side of her face. Bitter words still fizz and foam from her mouth as the heavy iron door closes.
The soldier lays a weighted hand on your shoulder and asks lowly if you found it, that thing you're searching for.
You'll look again tomorrow.