At least being a Kyoshi warrior meant she could cover her face with thick make-up and pretend she was someone else. She would smear on the white substance, pull on the green robes, and try to forget that she was Ty Lee, the girl who had betrayed her best friend. She was an amazing actress; none of her new friends ever realized that her smile hid regret, that her laughs were mostly faked. Only Mai knew something was wrong.
The Kyoshi warriors took turns guarding the palace and Ty Lee volunteered for the position as often as she could. Seeing Mai was a painful reminder of when they were Azula's left and right hands, but Mai was the only one who understood what Ty Lee was going through. She didn't feel pity for the imprisoned ex-princess, but at the same time she was no longer angry at the girl who was prepared to kill her for interfering with her plans.
"Ty Lee, you're not yourself anymore." Mai finally pointed this out late one night. Sometimes she stayed in Fire Lord Zuko's room, and then two Kyoshi warriors would stay outside his door, but other times she stayed in her own room and had her own guard appointed to her. If it was Ty Lee, she dropped the role of guard, sleeping next to Mai just like old times.
This is nothing like old times.
"What do you mean, Mai? I'm fine!" Ty Lee assured her, turning over in bed to smile at her friend.
The lie was so blatant Mai didn't bother addressing it. "Why did you do it, Ty Lee?"
For a moment Ty Lee's smile faltered. She fidgeted, pulling at the pink satin pajamas she'd changed into, then regained her composure. "I-"
Mai sensed the coming lie and held up a hand. She was already becoming quite adept at being royalty. "Why did you choose me over Azula?"
The tears almost instantly appeared. After all, the urge to cry was becoming a natural state for the acrobat. "I didn't, Mai. I could never let her kill you, of course, but I also knew what it would do to her if she hurt someone she really did care about. She couldn't live with that pain."
"You're too naive, Ty Lee. Azula never cared for anyone but herself. We were just her weapons, and when we were no longer useful, she cast us aside-"
Ty Lee shook her head vigorously. "We really w- are her friends! She just didn't know how to show love..." she ended with a whisper.
Mai decided against arguing any further and upsetting her only real friend- unlike Ty Lee, she no longer felt Azula deserved such a title. So she said one last thing before drifting off: "If she'd ever figured out how to show love, you would have been the first, and probably only, to know..."
Ty Lee barely slept that night, evaluating Mai's words, wondering what she really meant.
"I quit," Ty Lee informed Suki. Suki blinked a few times, surprised, then nodded.
"Okay. Is everything all right?"
"Yes. But being a warrior isn't my calling." She handed over her robes, fan, and leftover make-up. Before anyone could ask any more questions, she bounded off, back to her comfortable pink attire and peach skin-tone.
"Let Ty Lee visit Azula."
Fire Lord Zuko looked up slowly from the documents he'd been studying. Mai was leaning against the doorframe of his study, looking as bored as ever.
"She's too unstable still. Aside from her doctors and guards, no one should go near her."
"I agree with you. It's dangerous. But it's also the best chance for her recovery. You told me how she was ranting after she lost the Agni Kai. She feels betrayed, Zuko. We did betray her. And it was Ty Lee's betrayal that hurt her most of all. She was the closest thing Azula ever had to a real friend, not just a servant."
Though her expression gave away nothing, just from the length of the speech, Zuko knew she felt strongly about this. He would have to trust Mai. After all, she'd spent more time with his sister than he had, what with his banishment.
"... Okay. But someone needs to be there for Ty Lee's sake, in case Azula doesn't accept her company."
"I'm going. I won't show myself to Azula. I'll stay in the shadows unless Azula lashes out."
It hadn't been a question, so Zuko didn't get to approve her idea. He sighed and followed Mai out of the room.
"Ty Lee? What are you doing?" Zuko had finally found the girl in Mai's room. For some reason, she was halfway under the bed. When she heard his voice, she rolled into sight, a pink ribbon in her hand.
"Found it! You know, if Mai didn't toss and turn so much, I wouldn't have been pushed against the wall and then I wouldn't have had to crawl under the bed after my ribbon that fell out."
Zuko suppressed a smile. He knew all too well what a restless sleeper Mai was. "I need to talk to you about something."
"What is it?" Her innocent hazel eyes locked on his expectantly.
"We- Mai and I think you should visit Azula. I know it's dangerous and probably not a good idea," he continued in one breath, "but now that I think about it, it does make sense. She's not making any progress, I've been told, and seeing you-" He had to stop when two surprisingly strong arms wrapped around him, cutting off his breath.
"Thankyouthankyouthankyou," Ty Lee exclaimed, releasing him from the deadly hug. She was grinning, but a tear had slipped down one cheek. Zuko adjusted his garments, unsure of how to respond. He certainly hadn't expected the idea to go over so well.
"Can I go now? Oh, no I need to fix my braid, and find my shoes, and should I bring her something?"
"Relax, Ty Lee," Zuko said, grabbing her shoulders so she'd stop darting about. "Mai and a few guards will escort you there tomorow morning. It isn't so far away, so you'll reach it by sunset."
"Not for Azula," Zuko admitted. "For you."
Ty Lee braided her hair with extra care the next day. She stared in the mirror for a long time, wondering what Azula would see: the cheerful girl she'd known her whole life or the traitor that had attacked her out of the blue?
She had no idea what she was going to say. She wanted Azula to forgive her, to see that Mai would be dead if she hadn't acted.
And Azula might have been hurt if that fight had been allowed to happen.
They were nearly at the hospital/prison Azula was being kept at. The terrain around them was barren and dark and Ty Lee frowned at the thought of how that was affecting Azula's aura. That is, if she was even allowed to see the outside world... Ty Lee shuddered and Mai cocked an eyebrow at her. "It's just a little chilly," she lied.
When they reached the building, more guards led them through a maze of hallways, past thick metal doors and the occasional wail. Azula had the top floor to herself, they were told. They reached the final barrier between them and the former princess Ty Lee hadn't seen for months. "Are you ready?" murmured Mai. Ty Lee shook her head and stepped through the door. There were two more guards in the room, in front of iron bars that formed Azula's home. Mai waved for them to leave as well. They would all be in the hallway in case anything went awry.
It was just fifteen feet from the door to the bars. They wouldn't have a lot of privacy, but it would have to do. Ty Lee peered through the bars and her breath caught in her throat. Azula was nearly unrecognizable. Sure, the glossy black hair, crimson attire, and amber eyes filled with hatred were familiar enough. But there was no crown, no sense of regal pride. Azula just looked broken, like an injured animal desperate to run but willing to fight. "Azula," Ty Lee finally got out.
Azula took her time switching her gaze from the opposite wall to her former companion. The only change in her expression was an increase in hatred. Ty Lee blinked back tears. Azula had never looked at her that way before. "It's me..."
"I know who it is, Ty Lee. So I have to ask- what made you think I wanted to see you?"
"I was hoping, because I wanted to see you."
"...Then you're just going to have to be disappointed. Now get out of my sight."
Ty Lee did the exact opposite. Her eyes flickered to the doorway then to the large lock on the bars. Her time as a Kyoshi warrior hadn't been a waste, after all. She'd learned this trick from Suki herself. Within moments, the lock had been opened with a tiny wire, and she shut herself inside the cell with Azula.
The guards rushed in and went for the door. "No! Leave us alone!" Ty Lee shouted, hitting the shoulder of one that got too close. "I need to talk to Azula alone, so just leave, please," she finished more civilly.
A snap from the hallway got the guards' attention. Ty Lee knew it had to be Mai, turning her words into an order from the future Fire Lady. They didn't look happy about it, but they backed out of the room, and after a moment's hesitation, shut the door to the hallway.
When Ty Lee looked back over at Azula, she saw a hint of confusion and maybe a sliver of hope in her eyes. She covered these emotions well with a sneer, saying, "That was foolish of you. My arms may be bound, but I could still easily kill you."
Ty Lee approached the chair Azula sat in and removed the chains from her arms and the weights from her ankles. She backed away and looked Azula in the eye. "I know you can easily kill me. That was obvious since we first became friends, 'Zula. But you won't kill me because we're friends."
Azula leapt up and slammed Ty Lee against the cell wall. "We are not friends! You betrayed me! You left me! And now I bet you're living a luxurious life in the palace while I waste away here!"
"I'm not living the 'luxurious life.' In fact, my aura has never been darker." She'd managed to keep her voice strong, pinned as she was, but she was starting to cry a bit. "I missed you so much, 'Zula." She attempted to hug Azula, but was forced back against the wall.
"I'm sick of everyone's lies."
"It's not a lie! I know you think I betrayed you, but I only wanted to keep Mai safe. I didn't want to leave your side, even then."
Azula scoffed, "It was a lapse in judgment to think such a concept as 'loyalty' existed. You stabbed me in the back and now you're here acting as though that could ever be justified."
"Do you remember when we became friends, Azula?"
Azula narrowed her eyes at the conversation's new direction. "What are you getting at?"
Ty Lee gently pried Azula's hands off her and sat down on Azula's bed. Azula remained standing.
"It was my first day at the Fire Nation Royal Academy for Girls. It was also all my sisters' first day. Everyone was teasing us or pointing at us, because we all looked alike. Even away from home, I was just part of a matched set. I thought about running off during lunch and joining the circus then, but you walked up to me and said, 'You're in my seat, Ty Lee.'"
Even after the turmoil Azula's mind had been in for months, she can remember this day clearly. It had been quite a spectacle when the septuplets enrolled at her school.
"I couldn't help myself. I jumped up and hugged you. You didn't like that very much. You asked me why I hugged you when you just wanted my seat. And I said-"
"'Because you knew which one I was without asking.' Honestly, I still don't see what the big deal about that was. You all introduced yourself in front the class, and even identical siblings have minor differences in their looks."
"Yes, but you were the first person I ever met that could tell the difference among us. That was when I knew I wanted to be your friend."
Azula's tone became harsh once more. "Then I suppose you've ruined that chance forever."
"You saw me for who I am," Ty Lee continued. "Not just what everyone else saw."
And then Azula knew what Ty Lee had been getting at. She had said similar words to Ty Lee once, years ago.
It had been a particularly rotten day for the princess, the anniversary of her mother's disappearance from the Fire Nation. While Zuko cried and was comforted by their relatives, Azula was asked why she wasn't equally sad. "Because Mother betrayed her nation. She deserves her exilement." That was when she was called, for the first but not the last time, a monster.
The word echoed in her mind all day, bothering her more than it should have. After all, she felt her answer had been both appropriate and correct. She took her frustration out on Ty Lee later, pushing her out of a perfect cartwheel. Rather than getting angry, Ty Lee sensed that she was upset and asked what was wrong. Azula was never one to talk about her problems, but Ty Lee had this way of getting her to open up. She told her what had happened and Ty Lee took her side, as always. "They just don't understand, I guess. But it's okay, Azula. You're not a monster. In fact, you're the best, most wonderful, perfect person I know!"
Azula found herself smiling for the first time that day. "You see me for who I am, Ty Lee. You don't care what everyone else thinks of me."
"Ty Lee... Was I wrong that day? You think I'm a monster, just like everyone else, don't you?" Azula asked in a low voice.
"I've never thought that." Ty Lee hopped up and stepped towards Azula. When Azula didn't respond negatively, she put her arms around the girl. "I think you're the most beautiful, perfect, talented, best princess in the world. The universe should have been kinder to you when choosing your parents. But you're not alone. I mean, you don't have to be. Because I love you, Azula. I always have."
Azula closed her eyes and turned away. Maybe she had been stripped of her title and most of her pride, but she still would not cry in front of anyone. She heard Ty Lee ask if she was okay and when she was fully composed, she affirmed this.
But she couldn't shake the doubts that had plagued her for so long. "If you love me, why did you go against me? Why did you... abandon me?"
"I didn't want to. I already told you, I just couldn't let Mai die. I would have visisted you sooner, but, well, Zuko thought you were too dangerous. He only let me come now. But I don't care what he says now. I'll come every day. I'll stay here with you when you're really lonely. Just... please say we're still friends, Azula."
"Hmmph. Maybe if you do what you suggested, I'll believe you're sincere. Come back every day. If I want you at night, come then too. And always send those godforsaken guards out of the room. Then... perhaps I'll consider us friends again."
"Thank you, Azula!" Ty Lee had no qualms about crying in front of others and now tears of happiness streamed down her face. "I will come. Whenever you want, however often you want, for as long as you want. 'Cause when I say I love you, 'Zula, I mean it." She allowed herself the shortest of kisses then, pressing her lips briefly to Azula's. "I really, really mean it." And this time, though Azula did not hug her back, she allowed the contact.