Chapter 12: The Three-Ring Circus
Good things came in threes.
Ty Lee wasn't sure about things that came in sevens, like her and her sisters, but she knew good things always came in threes.
There were three parts to a sandwich. Circuses had three rings. Every day had a morning, noon, and night. Every morning: breakfast, noon: lunch, and night: dinner. Stories had beginnings, middles, and ends. The coolest, prettiest, smartest girls in the Fire Nation were Mai, Ty Lee, and Azula.
Ty Lee always imagined the three of them could run away from it all and start their own circus. She would be the beautiful, death-defying acrobat, and Mai would be the sad clown with happy makeup painted on her face.
As for Azula, Ty Lee wasn't sure what she would be, as there wasn't really anything Azula couldn't do. If she wanted to tame lion-vultures, she could probably tame lion vultures. If she wanted to juggle flaming batons, she could probably juggle flaming batons. If she wanted to do a handstand on a unicycle on top of a camelephant while balancing a dozen porcelain plates on a chopstick in her mouth…well, she probably couldn't do that, but it was a silly mental image that always made Ty Lee giggle.
"What are you laughing at?" Azula asked.
"Nothing! Just thinking of the circus!"
"Again? Well, quit daydreaming and help me put these stink beetles into the lantern."
Ty Lee was often thinking about the circus, but that was because she loved it so much.
She loved lots of things, actually. She loved animals, candy, rain, sunlight, nighttime, candy, dirt, grass, wind, candy, pink, pink candy, clothes, sugar cakes, candy, shiny jewelry, soft things, makeup, and did she mention candy? Because Ty Lee loved candy.
But she really loved the circus.
The circus was always bright and cheery, even when everything else was gloomy. The circus had music and dancing, even when it was banned everywhere else. The circus was wild and chaotic, but at the same time it was tamed and controlled. The circus was dangerous and exciting, and it made her heart beat like nothing else had ever done before, and she was sure there was nothing else that would ever do it again.
But above all else, the circus was freedom. It was a momentary sanctuary from the dreariness and disappointment in her everyday life. For that reason, it was like a third home to her, after her grandparents' house and the Azula's villas in the Imperial Palace. Her grandparents used to take her and her sisters to the circus every year, before they grew too weary to handle the seven little devils on their own. The first year time they'd gone, they practically had to drag Ty Lee, high on candy and excitement, back home, even though the sun had long set and even the workers were retiring for the evening. And every day after that, she would sneak away from her daily lessons to the courtyard, where she'd close her eyes and pretend she was walking on a tightrope, or jumping through a flaming hoop, or performing a dazzling array of acrobatic stunts. The courtyard became the big top tent, the trees the audience, and the grass the safety net fifty feet below. She would listen to her heart pounding in her chest as her chi aligned itself with her imaginary world and the trees cheered her on. She was in control. She was brave. She was an acrobat. She'd throw herself into the air with gusto, and for those few precious moments, she felt like she was actually flying.
But then she would open her eyes and find herself on the ground, face full of mud and dirt, body covered in a colorful rainbow of misshapen bruises, and the laughingstock of her more studious sisters.
"Clumsy Ty Lee! Can't see her feet! Now she's got nothin' but dirt to eat!" they jeered as she wiped the salty streaks of mud from her face with her reddened hands.
"Not even grandpa will be able to fix your face if you keep falling like that," Sun Lee said as she shook her head solemnly.
"You'll never be an acrobat…and with all those cuts and scrapes, no one will ever want you as a doctor, either,"" Ky Lee said snidely, jabbing her finger at the small lump forming above Ty Lee's eyebrow.
"She'd have to actually do her homework to be a doctor…" Jun Lee muttered under her breath, not even bothering to look up from her textbook.
"You'll never amount to anything if you don't study!" My Lee said, using her talent for parroting others to mimic their father.
Ty Lee stared at the ground resolutely, dotting the blades of grass with the dirty tears she didn't want her sisters to see.
"Mind your own studies first, girls," came a stern but gentle voice from the veranda. Her sisters scattered to the four winds, and she felt a warm hand on her shoulder. "Here, let me take a look."
They went to the closest bathroom, where her grandfather pulled her into his lap. His brown eyes peered through the frames resting on his nose and studiously danced over her face. He clicked his tongue and ran his fingers through his white beard.
"What are we going to do with you, little Ty Lee?" he said, his twinkling eyes belying the small pout on his creased lips as he reached for a pink washcloth. "If your father sees you like this, he will be very angry with you."
"You mean if he even notices," Ty Lee mumbled, wincing as the washcloth scrubbed at the dirt that still clung to her face.
"He'll certainly notice if you bring home another bad grade. Future doctors don't get bad grades."
"But I don't want to be a doctor. I want to be an acwobad!" Ty Lee protested, getting a near mouthful of gritty washcloth in the process.
"Is that so?" her grandfather asked bemusedly, wrinkles etched by smiles appearing on the edges of his mouth. "Show me.""
Ty Lee looked sheepishly at her hands, picking at the dirt underneath her fingernails. "I'm…not very good…yet. But I will be."
"Well, let's see it then. Go on."
She nodded and hopped off his lap. She looked at the long stretch of hallway before her and put one foot forward, raising both arms in the air as she conjured the images and sounds of the chaotic circus. Her heart began to race, and she knew she was ready. She took one deep breath and let it go, allowing her body to follow. At once the world became a blur, and she felt her hands touch the coolness of the smooth wooden floors. Now all she needed to do was make sure her legs followed and—
The world spun back into focus, and her grandfather stood over her, clicking his tongue.
"You think too much," he said as she scrambled to her feet. "If you want to be the best at anything…doctor, surgeon, acrobat…you cannot think. Those that are truly skilled do not think. They feel. Trust in your instincts and let them to guide you. Understand?"
Ty Lee nodded slowly, letting the words sink in.
"Now, do it again. And this time, do not think."
She took another deep breath and tried to ignore the dull pain thudding in the back of her skull as she gazed down the length of the hallway once more.
"Do not think. Do not hesitate. Act."
Ty Lee raised her arms in the air and put one foot forward, just as she'd seen the acrobats do.
"Don't think. Just act."
The world fell away, and she felt her hands meet the floor, then her feet, then—
"Well…practice makes improvement. Up we go."
One day, Ty Lee would be a great acrobat. That much she was sure of. She would be the greatest acrobat the world had ever seen, and she would join the circus that she loved so much. And even though she wasn't a big fan of sharing the things she loved with others (having six older sisters who all looked exactly the same will do that to a young girl), she knew everyone could enjoy the circus. So when she heard it was in town again, after years of missing it, she immediately sought out her best friends in the whole wide world and made a brilliant proposal.
"No," Mai said flatly, leaning gloomily against a tree. "I hate clowns."
"But I haven't even gotten to the best part! There are lion vulture tamers and platypus bears and spun sugar candy and dancing camelephants and ember candy and flying acrobats and puppeteers and candied chestnuts and sword-eaters and fire gummies and firewalkers and rock candy and face-changers and magicians and candied chestnuts and knife-throwers and jugglers and candy and tightrope walkers and candy and cannons and candy—"
"The last thing you need is more sugar, Ty," Mai deadpanned.
Undeterred by her stubborn friend's negativity, she turned to her other, more receptive friend.
"Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaase?" Ty Lee begged, both hands clasped together. "It's going to be so much fun, Azula!"
"Hmm," Azula brought a finger to her chin and tapped slowly and thoughtfully. She glanced from Ty Lee's wide, pleading eyes to Mai's signature scowl and smiled. "Oh, all right. Let's all go and see what the fuss is about. We can make a day of it.""
"YAAAAY!" Ty Lee cheered, leaping forward to tightly embrace the princess as Mai simultaneously let out a long groan. "Ohmygoshwe'regoingtohavesomuchFUN!"
"Gee, I can hardly wait."
"Oh, cheer up, Glum-Glum. If you're good, maybe I'll convince mom and dad to come…they might even bring little Zu-Zu along," Azula said with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
Mai perked up slightly, but said nothing. Azula's smile deepened.
That was the first time Ty Lee went to the circus with Azula and Mai, and the only time she had gone with the rest of Azula's family. Mai had been less than thrilled at the gallivanting antics of the clowns, especially since, every single one of them, upon meeting the sullen little girl, attempted to get her to smile. Like most people trying to get Mai to crack her perpetual frown, they failed. Luckily, she seemed to take an interest in the skilled jugglers and knife-throwers, who distracted her long enough to make her forget that she was irritated at Ty Lee for bringing them there in the first place.
For Zuko, who spent nearly the entire time glued to Princess Ursa's side (something which seemed to irritate both Mai and his father), the exotic animals were the ones who captured his attention…much to the dismay of Prince Ozai, who urged his son to pay attention to the world's strongest man instead of the world's tiniest moose-pony.
Then there was Azula, who was neither easily impressed nor readily amused, but surprisingly amenable to being led around by Ty Lee for once. Ty Lee took advantage of Azula's rare agreeability and eagerly dragged her by the hand all over the circus grounds, determined to show her every single one of her most favorite things.
"And this is where they make the candymakers make fire gummies, and the fire flakers flake the fire flakes! Ooh, ooh, and here's where the vulture-lion tamer keeps vulture-lions' lunches…and this is where the knife-throwers sharpen their knives…and this is where the poop-scoopers scoop the poop!"
"Fascinating," Azula said monotonously. "I'm so glad we trekked all the way out to this filthy little place to watch commoners shovel animal leavings."
"Me too!" Ty Lee grinned, throwing both her arms around an unflinching Azula. "And we haven't even seen the best part!"
"Wow…this is so cool. Isn't it cool, Mai?" Zuko asked, staring at a giant camelephant through the bars of its cage. Ursa had gone with Ozai to get snacks for everyone, leaving the children alone together for the first time that day. "I've never seen one of these before in person! They say the trainers can even make them dance!"
"I dunno," Mai shrugged, folding her arms across her chest. "I think it's sad."
Zuko pouted slightly. "Why?"
"Being all cooped up with nowhere to go…and having to do everything you're told by some stupid little man…it's depressing."
"Yeah, well…these things are dangerous out in the wild, so it's good to keep them behind bars…" Zuko muttered, the tips of his ears tinged with red. He looked up, spying Ty Lee and Azula on the other side of the cage. "Hey Azula! This is where they found you, you know," Zuko called loudly. "Right here, in this cage. Mom and dad didn't even want you, but the Ringmaster begged them to take you."
Zuko looked thoroughly pleased with himself as Mai chuckled. Azula's eyebrow twitched, and Mai fell silent, looking off to the side.
"Very funny, Zu-Zu. Come up with it yourself?" Azula asked, her slight frown turning into a smile. "I have a joke, too.""
Azula flicked her hand open, unleashing a quick burst of flame inches away from the drinking camelephant's face. The frightened creature reared itself on its hind legs and drenched Zuko head-to-toe with its watery spray.
"That's NOT funny!" Zuko screamed as the girls pointed and laughed.
"Oh, I don't know about that," Azula said with a devious grin. "Mai seems to think it is."
There was a small smirk on Mai's lips. She shrugged and turned away. "You do look pretty miserable."
"See? You even got Mai to crack a smile. Maybe you should just stay here and become a clown instead of coming home with mom and dad and me!"
"YOU'RE the one they're going to leave here, locked away in a cage where you belong!"" Zuko growled, flinging little droplets of water at Azula as he pointed at her. "Mom! Look at what Azula did to me!"
Prince Ozai and Princess Ursa had returned, their arms filled with various sweets and edibles that made Ty Lee's mouth water. Ozai's thin mouth became a frown as he caught sight of his soaking wet son, while Ursa's brow became knit with worry.
"Oh, Zu-Zu, what happened?" Ursa asked as she deposited her share of the foodstuffs into Ozai's arms and rushed to Zuko's side.
"Azula got me all wet! Look!"
"How could I do that? I can't waterbend!" Azula scoffed, folding her arms across her chest.
"She made the camelephant do it! She scared it and it sprayed me!"
"Why would something so big be scared of someone so little? Stop lying, Zu-Zu. Besides, you needed a bath. You smell like stink beetles!"
"THAT'S YOUR FAULT, TOO! AND I'M NOT LYING! YOU ARE!" Zuko hollered, his whole face the same shade as a candied apple.
"Stop it, both of you," Ursa said sternly. "Azula, apologize to your brother immediately."
"What? You're going to believe him, just like that?!" Azula balked.
"Don't use that tone with me, young lady. Now apologize or I will send you home right now!"
"Fine." Azula rolled her eyes and turned to Zuko. "I'm sorry."
"You don't mean it! Mom, she didn't mean it!"
"Yes I did! How would you know, you Dum-Dum?"
"Don't call me Dum-Dum, you…you doo-doo head!"
"You're the stinky one, not me!"
"Enough," Ozai commanded, and Ty Lee could have sworn that the entire circus went quiet for a moment. "You're embarrassing yourselves, and more importantly, me."
Azula looked at the ground sheepishly, while Zuko continued to seethe.
"When you two learn to behave like children befitting of the Royal Family, like your two friends here, you may speak. Until then, I don't want to hear another word," Ozai said quietly. "And if I hear the slightest sound from either of you, neither of you will have anything to eat until I say so. Is that understood?"
"Yes, father," Azula said with a nod, looking and sounding very much like the soldiers in the Imperial Army.
"Dear, don't you think that's a little harsh? They're just children," Ursa said gently, placing a hand on her husband's arm.
"You're too soft. No son of mine is going to grow up sniveling like a baby every time he gets sprayed with a little water," Ozai snapped before turning back to Zuko. "The next time someone dares to hurt you, you just hurt them right back. Understand?"
"Yes, dad," Zuko mumbled, looking at the ground.
"Good. Now, come along. The show is about to begin and we're the guests of honor. We need to be punctual."
With that, Ozai strode ahead towards the big tent, with Ursa and Mai trailing slightly behind. Ty Lee kept her pace even with Azula, who was walking next to the sulking, soaking wet Zuko.
"Great, now dad's mad. I hope you're happy," Zuko growled, futilely wringing the water out of his soggy clothes.
"It wouldn't have happened if you hadn't been such a big baby about it.""
"I'm not a baby!"
"Sssshhhhhh! Shut up, or we'll both get into trouble!" Azula hissed, nervously peering at her dad.
"Since when do you care? What's the matter, scared?"
"No…shut up, dummy!"
"I'm not worried. Mom will feed me. She loves me. But no one loves you. Not even dad."
"Whatever. I don't care about them, anyway."
"Then why do you look so sad, huh?"
"Shut up! You can't even fight your own battles. At least I can take care of myself! You're nothing without mom, and she's not going to be around forever. She's going to die, just like everyone else, and then you'll have nobody!"
Zuko stopped in his tracks, stunned at the venom that spewed forth from Azula's mouth. Then, he began to cry.
Ozai whirled around, eyes looking as if they could melt iron.
And that was how Ty Lee got all the candy.
The big top tent was Ty Lee's favorite place to be. It was where all the action happened, and candy aside, the action was the best part of the circus.
"Wow," Ty Lee gasped through a mouthful of half-chewed candied chestnuts as a pair of acrobats twirled through the air like the leaves of a propeller tree. She had seen the acrobats before, but never this up close and personal. Being friends with the Royal Family certainly had its benefits. "Do you think that's what airbending looked like?"
"Who cares?" Azula muttered out of the side of her mouth. She was her resting cheek on her right fist and her elbow on the armrest. She would have been sitting on Fire Lord Ozai's left side, where four thrones had been set out for them by the circus, but as punishment for her misbehavior, she had been placed as far away from her family as possible, and her seat beside Ozai remained unoccupied.
"…Well, I was curious. It just looks so cool…I can't imagine what an airbending acrobat would look like!""
"You can't imagine it because they're all dead, Ty Lee. And do you know why? Because airbending is stupid, and it's useless compared to firebending. Otherwise the Air Nomads wouldn't have been wiped out by us all those years ago. It's not even worth thinking about, especially not by you, since you never think."
Ty Lee shrank ten sizes in her chair.
"Well, gee, Azula, I was just curious…I'm sorry…"
"Ignore her, Ty. She's just grumpy because she got yelled at," Mai explained with a customary roll of the eyes.
"He started it," Azula muttered, glaring at her mother and Zuko, who were sitting on Mai's other side, chatting away happily. Ty Lee watched Azula's eyes narrow as Ursa discreetly slipped Zuko a box of candied lotus root. For his punishment, he had been denied food by his father, but apparently it was going unenforced. For her punishment, Azula had been forced to sit away from her family and their designated thrones, which there was no way to bypass. "I wish they would both just disappear."
"Laaaaaaaaaadiiiiiiiiiies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Brace yourselves as you prepare to witness the amazing, mysterious, mystifying, magical powers of the Masked Monk, risen from the deepest darkest realms of the Spirit World!"
A bright flash, followed by a large cloud of billowing smoke, erupted from the middle of the center ring. The smoke settled and a masked man dressed as an airbender stood in the center, a burgundy cape wrapped tightly around his frame. He unfurled his cape with a flourish, and, laughing wickedly, set off another three explosions as he produced a magical monk's staff out of thin air. The audience cheered.
"How many of you believe in magic?" the monk asked, running his trembling fingers through his sharp white beard. Ty Lee's hand shot up, but she lowered it slightly when Azula did not move. "Ah, yes…I see we have some non-believers in the audience…but I guarantee, by the end of the night, I will have made believers of you all!"
The monk twirled his cape in front of his face, and his pale white mask was replaced by the glaring red of a demon's face. And despite having seen this exact same show at least several times before, Ty Lee still gasped in awe.
"It's just made of layered paper," Azula scoffed loudly. Ty Lee frowned, suddenly noticing the crinkles at the edge of the monk's mask that told her Azula was right. As always. "It's all just misdirection and showmanship," Azula continued, after thoroughly picking apart the Masked Monk's teleportation trick. "And even if this kind of magic did exist, I sincerely doubt some lowly circus performer would be privy to all the secrets of the Spirit World.
The remainder of the show proceeded in the same vein, with every one of Ty Lee's favorite magic acts dispelled and debunked by Azula, even the ones that seemed too impossible to be unreal, and too real to be impossible.
"And now…for my final act…I will require the aid of a volunteer. A beautiful, brave volunteer…"
Ty Lee's hand would have normally shot up at this point, but today it had remained stationary, folded across her chest under her other arm. Ty Lee had found herself deflating more and more with every trick Azula dissected. Ty Lee had always believed in magic, because it explained everything in the world she didn't understand, like why the sky was blue, why candy tasted so good, and why one plus one was equal to two. Hearing Azula systematically reduce the magician's tricks to nothing but a bundle of fancy lies made Ty Lee's stomach feel like it was filled with lead…or maybe that was all the spicy caramel corn she'd eaten.
But there was no way that even Azula could figure out this one. Ty Lee had seen this act so many times, and she couldn't even begin to wrap her mind around how it could possibly be fake. It had to be magic.
"I understand we have some special guests in the audience," the devilish-looking Masked Monk chuckled, twisting the end of his beard. With a wave of his hand, it went from white to black, which Azula muttered was due to pre-applied makeup powder. The magician turned towards Ty Lee, and the spotlight fell on their row of VIP seats. Azula, Ty Lee noticed, was now upright in her seat. Suddenly she was prim, proper, and looking ever the princess, even though she had been slouching grouchily mere moments beforehand. Zuko, on the other hand, was fidgeting uncomfortably and clutching onto his mother's sleeve as if she were about to float away at any moment. Ursa nudged Zuko gently, and he offered up a timid wave to the audience.
The Masked Monk clapped his hands together and bowed deeply. "It is an honor to perform for Prince Ozai and his Royal Family."
The light re-focused on Ozai, Ursa, Zuko, and the empty throne on Ozai's other side which was supposed to be Azula's. Ty Lee watched as Azula tensed ever so slightly, but managed to maintain her poise. Meanwhile, the crowd cheered loudly, almost as if on command. Ozai, perched on the black throne and looking as severe as ever, inclined his head regally.
"I can think of no better volunteer than a royal one," the Masked Monk suggested, goading the audience to agree with him with a sweeping gesture of his arms. Ozai's mouth became a thin line, the way Azula's always did whenever she was unhappy but didn't want anyone else to know about it. The Masked Monk seemed to take notice and, thankfully, moved on before it became too awkward. His eyes scanned the remaining two well-lit royals, hovering momentarily on Zuko, who shook like the little magic beans the vendors were selling outside the tent. The Masked Monk stepped forward and extended his hand to Princess Ursa with a flourish.
"What about the most lovely Princess Ursa? Would you do me the honor of aiding me in my final act?"
Ursa smiled courteously and glanced discreetly at her husband, who delivered a curt and subtle nod. She rose from her throne gracefully and took the magician's hand, allowing him to lead her into the middle of the arena, where his assistants were finishing up the preparations for his final trick. The Monk conversed briefly with Ursa, before handing her off to one of his assistants.
"This last trick is a terrible display of my mystical powers…I call it, the Taming the Dragon," the Monk laughed ominously and flourished his cape. "Don't worry, Prince Ozai…I'll be sure to return her to you in one piece…or at most, three," the monk chuckled, but Ozai did not laugh. Zuko sat on the edge of his chair, his hands digging into the armrests.
The Monk strode to the center of the ring and ascended the stairs of a makeshift platform they had just brought out. In the center of the platform was a large, ornate wooden chair with built-in restraints. The assistants spun the chair around slowly and tugged on the restraints, making sure the audience could see them from all sides. The Monk helped Ursa up the stairs and into the chair, securing her restraints with the aid of his assistants. They pulled her bonds taut and clasped them together with a large, golden padlock. The Monk clicked the padlock shut with a key, which he then promptly swallowed. Zuko gasped.
"For safekeeping," the Monk said with a grin, patting his stomach. The audience laughed as he descended from the raised platform and struck a fighting stance, breathing evenly. "Watch, and be amazed…as I unleash the dragon!" the Monk announced with a threatening laugh.
With a series of flashy moves, which earned a derisive snort from Azula, the Monk created a giant, twisting dragon from the flames surrounding the arena. The flame dragon circled above the heads of the audience several times, much to their collective delight. Then it began to surround Ursa, its flying in tighter and tighter circles as Ursa smiled nervously.
"Uh oh…it looks as if the dragon has its eyes set on our dear Princess! But fear not…for I shall tame it!"" the Monk laughed, shooting out a flaming lasso with his free hand. The lasso wrapped around the flaming dragons neck, but it continued to fly closer and closer to Ursa. "Urgh…the dragon…is too strong! I can't control it!"
Suddenly, the dragon shot straight up into the air and, turning itself around, began barreling toward Ursa at frightening speed, its fiery jaws open wide. It crashed down onto chair, exploding in a colorful burst of smoke and confetti.
"NO!" Zuko cried, leaping out of his seat. Azula, on the other hand, had her lips curled in a menacing smile.
The smoke took a while to settle, as it usually did. Ty Lee could hear the audience gasp, and she knew they were looking at an empty, burning chair, but she was too busy watching Azula's lips turn down in disappointment.
"Ladies and gentlemen…a moment of silence for Princess Ursa…and a round of applause!"
The spotlight landed near the back of the stadium, where Princess Ursa sat intact, smiling pleasantly and waving. The crowd gasped and clapped and Ty Lee closed her eyes, drinking in the reverence of an adoring audience. Even Zuko jumped up, cheering loudly, before getting pulled roughly back into his seat by Ozai.
"Of course," Azula said softly, eyes still focused on her smiling mother, and Ty Lee wondered if, for just a moment, Azula believed in magic, too.
Ty Lee knew a magic trick when she saw one. Even now, after all this time, she could hear Azula's voice lilting in her head.
Suggestion. Misdirection. Sleight of Hand. Showmanship.
Those four principles, above all else, were the most important tools in a magician's belt. Magicians were just glorified liars, and Azula was no stranger to lies. Ty Lee was no stranger to Azula, and one did not survive years of friendship with her if one couldn't separate some of the facts from the fiction.
Which is why she knew what Zuko was saying was complete and utter moosebull.
"Ty Lee, I'm afraid that I, as Fire Lord, must forbid you from visiting Azula ever again." He stood facing the window to the Imperial Garden, watching as a pair of Earth Kingdom soldiers walked by.
Ty Lee's internal alarms went blaring, the way they always did when she knew something wasn't quite right.
She had been on her way back to her room, not more than a couple of hours after having spoken with Mai, when An had intercepted her and brought her before Zuko, who looked even more serious than usual. At first she thought it was just nerves due to the presence of Earth General How in the Royal Palace, but then Zuko asked about Azula. The same Azula who had, less than eight hours ago, smuggled out a bottle containing a cryptic message, which raised about a bajillion different questions for Ty Lee, but not nearly as many as the fact that she had kissed her in order to do it.
Priorities, Ty Lee told herself, as Zuko stared her down a little too hard.
Showmanship, the little voice in the back of Ty Lee's mind drawled.
"Yes. As Fire Lord, I'm afraid I cannot condone any further visits from you to Princess Azula in any official capacity," Zuko said loudly, too loudly, before backing away from the window.
He opened one of the drawers of his desk and reached inside, pulling out something Ty Lee couldn't see. He then leaned over and patted her consolingly on the shoulder, dropping the item into her lap before taking a seat once more.
Sleight of hand.
"I'm sorry Ty Lee. Argue as much as you'd like, but the Fire Nation will not be held responsible for the actions of any one individual."
Ty Lee glanced down at the item in her lap. It was an envelope, and when she picked it up, it was heavier than expected. On the front, in neatly scrawled characters, "Tenth floor. Fifth door from the left. Bottom drawer. Do not be seen."
She glanced up and her eyes met with Zuko's. They were as they had always been; open and honest. Even when he was at his most chaotic, even when he was ablaze with turmoil and torment, even though the left one had been almost blinded by pain and anger, his eyes were always earnest. Deceit just wasn't in his nature.
He's too good to be a liar, Ty Lee thought. He's not like Azula.
He's not like you, the little voice added.
"You can't do this!" Ty Lee shouted loudly, making sure to maintain eye contact with Zuko as she discreetly tucked the envelope into her garments. There was a fleeting smile in his yes, but she'd seen it, bright as a flame.
Ty Lee knew how to play her part. She'd been trained by the best in the business.
"Yes, I know you're upset. But I'm afraid my hands are tied. Now, unless you have anything other business to tell me, I think you should get going. You'll be late for your late-night shift if you don't," Zuko said unconvincingly as he looked back down at the haphazard stack of papers on his desk. He picked up his brush and resumed working.
Ty Lee didn't have the late-night shift tonight. And Zuko was not a very good magician. Ty Lee would know.
Ty Lee nodded and bowed, exiting the office quickly but casually, making sure not to arouse suspicion from the passing Earth Kingdom guards, who were on high alert now that Earth General How was visiting.
"I-is everything all right?"
Ty Lee didn't have to turn around to recognize that stutter.
"Um, yeah, of course! Thanks…um…An, was it?" Ty Lee said with a bright smile, spinning around effortlessly to address Zuko's greenhorn General, who, according to Mai, defaulted into the position face-first by having an important father and just happening to be the eighty-third person on the chain of command, which had been thoroughly broken and dismantled thanks to the efforts of both the Earth Kingdom and the rebel forces.
"Y-you know my name," An stammered, his cheeks darkening slightly as he rubbed the back of his neck.
"…Well, yes, Zuko introduced us…and I took over one of your shifts…and you've been at every security meeting…" Ty Lee recounted, one eyebrow raised.
"O-oh. Y-yeah. That's right. Um…Ty Lee, right? It's just that…I'm not really used to people remembering my name," the taller man said with a smile that was all nerves with a dash of happiness. The whole man was a ball of nerves, Ty Lee thought dimly, so much so that he reminded her more of the twitching nose of a lop-eared rabbit than a person.
"I can't imagine why! You're very memorable," Ty Lee smiled brightly and took a step back in order to position herself for an easier escape.
"Really? Thank you! No one's ever—well, you know," he said with an awkward chuckle, taking a step forward. Ty Lee fought to keep the smile on her face. "Um…but his Excellency the Fire Lord looked rather serious. I hope everything is all right?""
"Nothing to worry about," Ty Lee lied as she looked around the hallway in an attempt to display her disinterest, but An seemed both reassured and oblivious.
"Well, if you ever need anything—anything at all—just ask," he said with a nervous laugh. Ty Lee nodded slowly and craned her neck to look past him. Maybe he would take the hint. Ty Lee'd never been good at saying "no" to people, and even less good at vanishing from unwanted conversations.
"Welp, I gotta get going now. See you around, An," Ty Lee said cheerfully, taking a step back and then sidestepping An to get past him, even as he pivoted on his heels to constantly face her. She walked backwards for a little bit, nodded slightly at him, then turned around to leave quickly.
"Bye, Ty Lee!" she heard him cry out behind her. She haphazardly threw up one arm to acknowledge him out of courtesy.
What a weird guy.
The outfit, which she'd acquired from a locked box in Zuko's old room (located on the tenth floor, fifth door from the left), was black, of all colors.
Dark, shadowy, black. The color of coal and ash. Of night and decay.
It was the color worn by liars and thieves, assassins and murderers, stagehands and spies.
And now it hung in her room like a shadow, enticing Ty Lee to transform into one.
Ty Lee had worn dozens of different costumes in her life, but none so dark and utterly…dramatic. She briefly wondered whether or not the outfit came in pink, or if it had a cool mask she could wear as an accessory.
That is, if she was even going to wear the get-up in the first place.
Because if she did, that meant she was going to do what apparently both Zuko and Azula wanted her to do. And when both of the royal siblings wanted you to do something, it had to be a sign from the universe.
But Ty Lee had danced, like some sort of well-trained poodle monkey, to the tune of the cosmic melody her whole life, and where had it gotten her? Sitting on a bed next to a set of Zuko's blueprints, with a scrap of paper from Azula in one hand, the Red Lily tile in the other, and a black uniform staring at her in her painted face. Without thinking, Ty Lee turned to the mirror, hoping to see her own resolve reflected back. Instead, she saw a clownish dullard, an aimless fool, the butt of every other clown's jokes. Even after two years, Ty Lee could still hardly recognize her own face underneath the thick battlepaint of the Kyoshi Warriors.
Why her? Why now? Were Zuko and Azula actually working together? Was it just a coincidence? Why couldn't the royal family just communicate like normal people so she didn't have to be in this mess?
Ty Lee sighed and stared out her open window. Night had already begun descending on the sky like a heavy curtain, quieting the songbirds as the fire crickets emerged to chirp. She didn't have much time.
Ty Lee knew how to play her part and she knew how to play it well. And letting down her audience was one of the worst things she'd ever had to do. She'd even surprised herself with how much it had hurt.
But Ty Lee wasn't a let-down.
Clumsy Ty Lee.
She wasn't a screw-up.
Can't see her feet.
She was NOT a clown.
Now she's got nothing but dirt to eat.
She was an acrobat.
She freed herself from the confines of her Kyoshi uniform and let it fall to the floor. If Suki had seen her treating her silk garments in such a haphazard way, Ty Lee would have had extra chores for a week. But Suki wasn't here.
She slipped on the stealthy black garb, the smooth material sliding silently over her skin. It was roughly her size, if not slightly too big, and Ty Lee mentally noted to yell at Zuko later for the offense.
She rolled up the blueprints she'd obtained from the locked box and carefully tucked it into her belt, along with the hand-drawn map from Azula. The mental facility was at least a half hour's ride from the Palace, so she'd have time to study the layout of the facility and plan her grand entrance along the way.
She climbed onto the window ledge and looked down. From here she could easily scale down the wall and make her way to the stables, where she could just borrow a mongoose dragon, and—
"Should I even ask?"
Ty Lee whipped around and saw Mai, standing in the doorway, holding a tray of tea and assorted cakes in her hands. She did not look very impressed.
"Mai!" Ty Lee squeaked, then glanced down at herself, crouching on the windowsill. She felt her face grow warm despite the cool night air. "Um…it's not what it looks like!"
Mai quirked an eyebrow before quickly scanning the room. "Looks like you're sneaking out to do something. Something you don't want anyone to know about."
"…Okay, maybe it is what it looks like, but I can explain—"
"Look, I don't know what she told you, Ty, but you can't do this. You have to stand up for yourself. You can't just blindly follow her orders anymore."
"I'm not! I have to do this…not just for her, but…" Ty Lee looked down to the ground. If Mai didn't know what was going on, then that meant Zuko hadn't told her…but why wouldn't he? Zuko wasn't the dishonest type, so if Mai didn't know, it had to be for a good reason. "But for me, as well!"
Half-lying wasn't as bad as an outright lie, Ty Lee reasoned, because half of the truth was always better than none at all.
"Stop," Mai said firmly, setting the tray down on Ty Lee's vanity with a clatter. Her eyes shone like daggers in the spotlight. "Don't you understand? She doesn't care about you. She doesn't care about anyone. She's just using you, Ty!"
Her words flew at Ty Lee and pierced her somewhere between her ribcage. Ty Lee was a tool. An empty-headed dummy dancing on strings.
She could almost hear Azula's laughter.
"No, it's not like that! You don't understand," Ty Lee insisted, jumping down from the ledge. She hadn't been around for two years, so of course Mai wouldn't understand. She was her own person now. She made her own decisions. She broke her strings the day she struck Azula and however much she thought about doing so, she'd never once looked back.
"I understand. I understand perfectly. For once in your life, Ty, can you not be so stupid?"
Ty Lee stopped.
She was an acrobat. She was a warrior. She was a friend.
But all anyone could ever see was a brainless clown, falling head over heels for crumbs and cheap laughs.
Everyone except one.
Mai's eyes darkened as she turned away. Mai was her friend. Mai was her best friend. And Mai, for all her prickliness, had never said anything so awful to her before in her life.
"M-Mai…why are you being so mean?"
"It's for your own good," Mai replied quietly, still refusing to meet Ty Lee's gaze. "I'm doing this for your own good. I don't want to see you get hurt. I won't let you leave."
Ty Lee glanced at Mai's hand. She was holding a bouquet of daggers at the ready.
"Mai…" Ty Lee pleaded, but Mai's eyes were stubbornly averted. She was running out of time, and Mai could pin her to the wall in a flash.
Ty Lee flew forward and struck Mai three times; once next to each shoulder and once in her right thigh. Mai fell to the ground on one knee, daggers clattering uselessly to the floor beside her, her head slightly bowed. She looked almost as if she was kneeling in deference, and Ty Lee felt her chest grow heavier.
"I'm really sorry. I hope…I hope you'll forgive me for this."
Ty Lee had never struck Mai before, at least not without warning, and she only hoped that she would take it better than Azula did. For all their differences, Mai and Azula had more in common in their temperament than either cared to admit.
"…" Mai remained unmoved.
"Just…just trust me for now. Please. We'll talk when I get back, okay?"
Mai said nothing, and it took no small amount of effort to turn back towards the window.
"Ty Lee," Mai managed, her voice soft but strained. "Be careful. Or I'll kill you myself."
Ty Lee turned and offered a small smile before disappearing into the night.
Ty Lee gazed up the length of the twenty-foot wall in front of her and wondered if she shouldn't have left her mongoose dragon tied to a tree about a dozen yards away.
Mongoose dragons were fantastic climbers, but Ty Lee was even better.
She scanned the different trees surrounding the area and quickly identified a tall one with a spindly branch growing just a few feet short of the top of the outer perimeter of the facility. With a running start, she jumped and sprung from tree to tree, climbing higher and higher with every bound. With one last leap, she grasped the spindly branch firmly in her hands, as if it were a trapeze, and as she swung herself around to gain momentum she felt the world melt away.
She could almost hear the roar of the crowd as she stuck her landing perfectly on top of the stone wall.
But there was no time to revel in the buzzing chi pumping throughout her body. She crouched down low and watched several small fires, likely torches held by earthbender guards, move back and forth in the distance. She studied their movement patterns and waited until the third fire disappeared from sight once again. Ty Lee launched herself from the wall and sprinted as quickly as she could towards the unguarded side entrance that had been marked on Azula's map.
She stopped in front of the door, pausing to catch her breath and pull a couple of pins from her hair. Picking locks was a skill Azula had deemed compulsory for her lieutenants, and Ty Lee's talent for chi-blocking made her almost as good at it as Mai was.
Ty Lee knelt to begin her work on the lock, when the door began to open.
She covered her mouth and rolled quickly to the hinge-side, flattening herself against the wall in the process. The door opened wide enough to obscure Ty Lee from view, and she breathed a small sigh of relief.
"…one crazy day, hasn't it?"
"Haha, yeah, you can say that again. What a damn mess he's made of everything."
"Wonder how he's gonna talk his way outta this one."
"You kidding? People like him, they always slip through. They're dishonest. It's the good ones that end up behind bars. That's the times."
"Careful. They'll lock you up, too, if they hear you talking like that."
"Who cares? At least they got rice in prison. Haven't had rice in weeks."
"Me neither. Craving was so bad I almost stole the Princess's food the other day…got chewed out by Jiao for even joking about it."
"Oh yeah, she's a real spitfire, that one. But, what do you expect from the Princess's nurse?"
"Yeah, yeah. Anyway, thanks for covering for me. Just don't let the ol' doc know, alright?"
"No problem. Take care."
Ty Lee listened as the other guard retreated back into the facility, leaving the door to close unattended behind him. She reached forward, catching the handle just before it clicked shut. She slipped in quickly and quietly, not even daring to exhale, even as the heavy door shut behind her with a loud and echoing clang.
Ty Lee counted several moments in the dark silence before releasing her breath. She crept down the hallway before slowly peeking out around the corners, to make sure the adjacent passage was unoccupied before proceeding.
Not a soul in sight. She took another slow, even breath and conjured the image of the map she'd memorized. Left at the first junction, then the second right. All the way down the stairwell and then it was a just straight shot to solitary confinement.
She took the left and passed the first intersection. So far so good.
She reached the second and took a right. If Azula's map was correct, there would be an open stairwell at the end of the narrow hallway.
Ty Lee stopped dead in her tracks. She turned around and looked back at the other hallway, making sure she'd counted right.
Then she heard footsteps. And they were getting louder.
Ty Lee cursed mentally. There was a single door on the left side of the hall. She only prayed it wasn't locked.
When the door slid open to the small, unoccupied, and dimly lit room, Ty Lee thanked every single star whose name she could remember.
She closed the door as quietly as possible and pressed herself against it, listening closely.
The footsteps, which were accompanied by a light jingling, grew louder and louder, until they stopped, right outside the door.
Ty Lee held the door shut and prayed even harder.
The jingling footsteps retreated, and Ty Lee released her iron grip on the handle.
She took a deep breath, steadying her shaking hands.
When she opened her eyes, she came face to face with a familiar painting of pink flowers.
Water color, painted on a silk scroll, hung inconspicuously on the wall.
She had seen it in almost every room she'd been in at the facility. But not from this side.
It was pretty. It was plain. And even in the low light, it was translucent.
He's been spying on us, Ty Lee thought, over and over again.
And from where she stood, the meeting room where they'd met with Azula during her first visit to the hospital was clearly visible.
"These walls may not have ears, but they're not deaf," Azula had said cryptically.
Du Yi has been spying on us this whole time.
All Ty Lee could see was red.
Without even thinking, she reached forward and tore down the scroll with one swift yank. She tossed it to the side and strode to the door, ready to continue her expedition.
Something was very wrong here, and Ty Lee was going to get to the bottom of it…Even if it had nothing to do with ghosts.
Ty Lee pressed her ear against the door, listening for the guards. Hearing nothing, she carefully slid the door open and re-entered the empty corridor. She had to find her way to solitary confinement…maybe Azula would have the answers she was looking for.
Who was Ty Lee kidding? She couldn't think of a time Azula didn't have the answers she was looking for. Well, except that one time, but—
"Y-you're here!" a voice behind Ty Lee stammered.
Ty Lee whirled around to see the crouching figure of that bearded weirdo who had been screaming about cabbages the other day. He was clutching a loop of keys in his hands and staring at her with eyes as big as…well, cabbages.
"Th-the signal!" the man continued, pointing at Ty Lee. "The signal!"
"W-wait!" Ty Lee hissed out, but it was too late. The man went tearing down the hall in the opposite direction, howling maniacally.
Don't think. Just act.
Without a moment's hesitation, Ty Lee flew after the cabbage man. If she caught him before the guards did, then maybe she could continue with her mission undetect—
She turned the corner into the main visitor's room and came face to face with a gaggle of inmates, dressed in white and looking the opposite of crazed and disoriented.
The manacles around one of the patients' wrists fell to the floor with a clatter, and the Cabbage Man howled in delight, shaking his ring of keys triumphantly. The patient, a tall, muscular man with long dark hair, looked up at Ty Lee and grinned.
"GLORY TO OZAI AND THE FIRE NATION!" the man cried as he punched outward. A ball of flame erupted from his fist, igniting the table in front of him.
"Oh, no," the words barely tumbled out of Ty Lee's lips before drowning in an orchestra of blaring alarms and flashing lights, followed by a parade of sheer chaos that trumped the most raucous circus crowds.
For a moment, the whole world slowed. Ty Lee watched in horror as the cabbage man set to work on the other patients' restraints, while the firebender set to work on the other tables in the room. She heard the panicked cries of guards, the sound of doors opening and slamming, and the stampeding footfalls of animals or tamers or both.
Three front handsprings, two light punches, and she could stop the firebender. One somersault, one high kick, and she could stop the cabbage man. One tablecloth and five aerials, and she could put out the fires.
Or, she could run and find Azula.
Don't think. Just act.
Ty Lee glanced at the wall next to her, spotting a large metal vent, the same kind of vents she'd seen on the bottom floors pumping cold air into the hallways. Without a second thought she pried the grate off the wall and shimmied inside, and was relieved to find that the entire ventilation system, though chilly, was large enough to accommodate her size. Which was odd, because Ty Lee knew that standard Fire Nation prison design standards dictated that no vent should be large enough for a child, much less an adult, to squeeze through.
Whoever designed this asylum was definitely not from the Fire Nation, and Ty Lee wasn't sure whether or not she should thank her lucky stars for that.
Ty Lee dropped into the unoccupied hallway noiselessly. As she'd descended down to the very lowest levels of the facility, the cacophony of the madhouse riot seemed to fade away. But not even a full-blown stampede could have scared Ty Lee away now, not when she was so close to the truth.
And, yet again, there was only one person standing in her way.
"Azula?" Ty Lee asked as she slid open the small metal window to one cell. Empty.
"Azula?" This one was empty, too.
"Azula?" The light from the window illuminated a familiar figure, shoulders high and hands folded behind her back, facing away from Ty Lee. She could've been mistaken for a statue, were it not for the tapping of her finger and the light trembling of her hand.
"Ty Lee," Azula said, her voice strangely forceful. She turned around, smirking, and a chill that had nothing to do with the cold air vents ran down Ty Lee's spine. In the sudden light, her pupils constricted severely, making her look even more like a fiendish cat-owl than she normally did. "Right on time."
Right on time? What the heck was that supposed to mean? And what was she smiling about, anyway? There was a circus running around in the nuthouse just a few floors above them, yet here was Azula, as calm and collected as ever, acting as if she'd been waiting for Ty Lee to show up. Had she actually been waiting for Ty Lee to show up? Was she just saying that to get under her nerves? Or was Ty Lee really that predictable?
Trap, Ty Lee thought bitterly. This was a trap. And she'd walked right into it, of course. She was no match for Azula when it came to wits. Stupid Ty Lee, falling for Azula's tricks again. When was she going to learn?
No, Ty Lee assured herself firmly. This wasn't her fault. It was Azula's. Stupid, mean, manipulative, Azula. She should've just listened to Mai and ignored Azula and stayed home and treated herself to a nice, warm, bath.
But she was here now, and if nothing else, she was going to get to the bottom of this.
"Azula, what is going on?!" Ty Lee demanded.
"Why, Ty Lee, don't you know?" Azula asked, slinking towards the window and batting her stupid eyelashes, pretending to be surprised. Badly. Actually, it was pretty good but Ty Lee knew better. Or at least, she thought she did. "You've spent so much time in the circus. You'd think you'd recognize a disappearing act when you saw one."
"Disappearing act? Wha—?" Ty Lee frowned. Another riddle? What could she possibly mean by a disappearing act? Was Azula trying to escape? "Wait…you don't mean—"
"Yes, Ty Lee," Azula continued, smirking lightly. "For one night, and one night only, the Princess Azula will attempt a death-defying escape from her underground tomb."
Azula made a small, deliberate gesture with all the flair of a practiced showman, and Ty Lee could feel her eyes bug out of their own accord.
"With the help of her lovely assistant, of course," Azula said with another predatory grin as she returned her hand behind her back.
Was Azula trying to escape…with Ty Lee's help?
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on just a second there, missy," Ty Lee said firmly, waving both her palms in the air. "If you think I'm going to help you escape…"
"Well, isn't that why you're here?" Azula asked, quirking one eyebrow elegantly. "Why else would you come all the way out to solitary confinement in the middle of the night?""
"Because you told me to!" Ty Lee protested, reaching for the bottle and miniature map in her pocket. She stopped, suddenly realizing how utterly ridiculous that sounded. She imagined herself sitting in the circus, in a cage with a sign that read "World's Prettiest Idiot", right between the bearded lady and the world's smallest camelephant.
Stupid, gullible, stupid Ty Lee.
"Oh…oh. I…I can't believe—ugh, I'm such an idiot! Why did I ever think it was a good idea to listen to you, of all people…" Ty Lee muttered angrily, smacking herself in the forehead with her gloved hand. Maybe if she hit hard enough, she'd wake up back on Kyoshi Island, ready to start another boring day of checking freights and shipments…
"Now, now, Ty Lee. Don't be so hard on yourself. You're not that much of an idiot if you managed to decipher my messages," Azula offered in her most patronizing voice, which always meant she was going to follow up with something even more horrible. "But you are an idiot if you haven't figured at least some things out by now."
Ty Lee felt her blood rising to the tips of her ears. She'd been insulted, manipulated, and forced into a kiss more times in the past three days than she had in the whole two years on Kyoshi. And to top it all off, even though she had been here to help Azula, all Azula could do was insult her.
She could have left. She could have left at any point up until now, leaving a giant, Ty Lee-shaped hole in Azula's brilliant master plan, whatever the heck that even was. That would teach Azula not to underestimate Ty Lee…unless Azula was anticipating that, too. And then Azula would just lean back and smile that little smile, with that gleam in her eyes that practically screamed, "All according to plan…"
She should just leave.
But then she would be leaving Azula here. Alone. With the doctor. Who may or may not have been spying on them, because ghosts certainly didn't need secret viewing rooms hidden behind giant wall scrolls.
Ty Lee eyed Azula for a moment. Despite the grin fixed on her face, and her even stance, proud shoulders, and folded hands…Ty Lee could tell.
Azula was trembling, ever so slightly, from head to toe, and Ty Lee's trained eyes could tell she was exerting an unusual amount of effort to appear as if she wasn't. She might have even heard the trembling in her voice, were she not speaking each syllable so forcefully.
Ty Lee closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
If she stayed, she would just be another pawn in another one of Azula's schemes. She wouldn't put it past her to tremble disturbingly just to appeal to Ty Lee's sympathy. But if she left, she could be leaving a troubled Azula in the hands of Du Yi.
Between the two of them, Ty Lee wasn't sure which one she trusted less, and she certainly wasn't sure which one of them was less evil.
But at least she knew one of them better than the other.
What was that thing that Sokka had said to Suki that one time about Ty Lee? Better the anvil you know than the anvil you don't?
Well, Ty Lee didn't know anything about anvils, but she did know a thing or two about Azula.
Azula would never let herself appear weak. Not like this.
Ty Lee opened her eyes and met Azula's slightly unsteady gaze with her own.
She needed her. Azula needed her. Azula needed Ty Lee to be here. She needed her help, otherwise she wouldn't have gone through all the trouble of getting her here. And if Ty Lee was going to help (which she was because if Azula needed help then it was a very serious situation indeed), she was going to do it on her own terms, not Azula's.
"Before I can consider helping you, you need to answer my questions."
Azula's arched brow twitched ever so slightly. "Did I say I needed your help?"
Ty Lee smiled. Azula was a magician; flashy tricks and masterful manipulation. And, like any magician, she hated it whenever anyone saw through her to the truth.
And if anyone knew about magicians and Azula, it was Ty Lee.
"You didn't have to," Ty Lee said smugly. She had managed, for once, to gain the upper hand on Azula. "Your messages did it for you."
Azula smiled back a smile that didn't reach quite her eyes, but Ty Lee didn't falter. It was just another smokescreen.
"Fair enough. I'll answer your questions…" Azula said, casually glancing at her trim and tidy nails. Another trick, meant to make Ty Lee think Azula cared less about what she was saying than she actually did. "…In due time. We have company."
Ty Lee nearly jumped at the sound of footsteps coming from the stairwell. She searched quickly for an easy escape, but the cell was inconveniently located next to the bizarrely long dead-end hallway. Without thinking, she looked back at Azula, who always had a plan for everything, and surely wouldn't allow Ty Lee to come all the way here just to be caught by some guards, right?
…Stupid, stupid Ty Lee.
"An ally," Azula said calmly, a small glint of amusement dancing in her eyes. Ty Lee allowed herself to breathe again, momentarily forgetting how annoyed she was supposed to be.
A girl, one that Ty Lee recognized from one of her earlier visits, appeared from the stairwell, holding a jangling loop of keys triumphantly in her hands. She made her way down the corridor briskly and, completely ignoring Ty Lee, opened the door to Azula's cell and entered without a moment's hesitation.
Ty Lee suddenly felt quite annoyed.
"Status report," Azula said easily; naturally. She sounded almost bored, as if demanding one to challenge her disaffectedness with good news, and Ty Lee, even though she was not the one addressed, felt compelled to oblige. Not even Suki had that kind of ease with leadership.
The girl, who stood at attention with perfect posture, nodded obediently and began rapping her knuckles erratically on the metal door.
She'd heard those rhythms before.
Tap, tap, tap…
Twitching fingers. Tapping toes. A secret code. All under her nose.
It wasn't until Ty Lee felt her nails digging into her palms that she realized how angry she was.
"Excellent," Azula said, and Min beamed. If it weren't for the sharp pains in her hands, Ty Lee could have sworn she was having an out-of-body experience and watching a younger version of herself.
The commander and the lieutenant, working in tandem. One eager to lead, the other eager to please.
Ty Lee had never been picked last for a team before, but Ky Lee had often complained about it on the playground. She imagined this would be what it felt like.
No wonder Ky Lee was so mopey all the time.
"Did you bring it?" Azula asked, in an oddly soothing voice. The quiet girl nodded again and eagerly presented Azula with what looked like a small, silver knife.
A deep smile spread itself over Azula's lips, even before she took the knife with lightly quivering fingers, and Ty Lee suddenly found herself keenly aware of how pretty the quiet girl was.
Not prettier than Ty Lee, of course, but still…not bad for an insane inmate. Especially since not many people around here were particularly well-groomed or sane, and this girl was probably the closest to Azula and Ty Lee in terms of age…heck, with a little makeup and a better hairstyle than "fresh out of the loony bin", she could be quite attractive.
But…not more attractive than Ty Lee…right?
Wait, why did she even care about Azula and her brand new not-that-pretty and actually kind of plain sidekick? And if Azula had a sidekick with a secret language (which, by the way, she never took the time to develop with Ty Lee, even though Ty Lee had tried so many times to invent a top secret code just for the two of them to use to communicate in front of Mai and Zuko so it wasn't as if she didn't try) all this time, what was Ty Lee even doing here in the first place? Was this all some sort of sick, twisted joke, and Ty Lee was the punchline?
"…Will someone PLEASE tell me what is going on?" Ty Lee spat, stomping one foot into the ground and slamming both hands onto her hips.
Oh, yeah, they definitely had to take her seriously now.
"Oh, how rude of me. Ty Lee, this is Min. Min, Ty Lee. I'd have introduced the two of you sooner, but being in here tends to dull one's common courtesy," Azula said dismissively, not even bothering to look up from the dagger in her hands.
The girl – Min – turned to Ty Lee and smiled before bowing deeply. She seemed…nice. And courteous. Pleasant, even?
It only made Ty Lee dislike her more. Which in turn made Ty Lee feel guilty for disliking her. Which made Ty Lee angry for being made to feel guilty by such a nice, courteous, average-looking girl!
Well at least Ty Lee was sane…or at least, that's what she kept telling herself.
"See? Less than an hour and you've already lost all your manners," Azula quipped, snapping Ty Lee out of her thoughts long enough to shoot a glare, which went unnoticed by its recipient, who seemed to be listening to the air intently. "I'd let you two get acquainted, but we're about to be discovered."
Ty Lee nearly leapt at the sound of heavy footsteps echoing down the hallway. Without thinking, she turned to Azula, who still managed to look smug despite her current situation.
"Close the window and conceal yourselves in here, quickly. Stay still and they won't see you in the darkness," Azula instructed as if it were the most obvious solution in the world.
Ty Lee glanced around the padded room. Even with the door open, she couldn't see where the walls stood in the darkest corners, so the plan could work. But with no windows or vents, the only way out was through the front door. And if she got locked in here with the likes of Azula and her shiny new best friend…well, she didn't want to imagine what those conversations would be like.
They'd probably just exclude her and talk about her in their super-secret language.
On the other hand, if she left right now, she'd be abandoning Azula and Min with the doctor, and her dislike of him somehow managed to outweigh her dislike of both Min and Azula combined.
Even though he'd never actually done anything to spite her, unlike Azula. And there was no concrete proof that he was potentially evil, unlike Azula. And he'd never manipulated her or toyed with her feelings in any way, unlike Azula.
…Why was she even here again?
The footsteps grew louder. There was no time to think. She had to act.
Ty Lee quickly slid the latch closed and shut the door, plunging the room into total darkness. A hand wrapped itself around her upper arm and pulled her into the corner of the room, where she collided with the soft padding. She could feel someone next to her, breathing lightly, and far too close for comfort. But all she could do was stand silently and sightlessly, counting the seconds, feeling her heart hammer away nervously in her chest.
She wondered if this is what Azula had done all day.
…If Azula even had a heart to begin with. Most days, it seemed like she didn't. But there were those times…those few precious times that only Ty Lee had ever seen—
The door flung open, illuminating Azula, who had been sitting on the floor in a meditative pose. She glanced over her shoulder casually.
"Is my time in solitary over already?" Azula asked innocently. She could teach a master class in acting, Ty Lee was sure of it.
Ty Lee had seen countless professional liars in her lifetime, from politicians to actors to conmen to magicians, but Azula could outperform them all.
The two earthbender guards grabbed Azula, yanking her to her feet and forcing her to face Du Yi, who looked almost nothing like the doctor Ty Lee knew. He was breathing hard, his normally impeccable uniform was disheveled, and there was a redness in his cheeks and quaking eyes that made him look more like a moosebull about to stampede than the squeaky-clean doctor she had become acquainted with.
"What did you do?" he hissed, his face mere inches away from Azula's. His voice was low and dangerous; completely lacking in all his normal high-pitched cordiality.
"You're going to have to be a little more specific," Azula smiled, and Ty Lee watched Du Yi take a deep, trembling breath.
"Hama is dead. And I know it was you."
Ty Lee should have never left the circus.
A/N: It's been a while, hasn't it? At least this is the longest chapter yet...? Probably not worth the wait, but it's something!
Also, whoever said it was Hama in the comments like 4+ years ago…totally called it. Nice job you-in-the-past!
See you in another four years, maybe…