"Came to gawk at the caged wild animal?"
"Came to visit an old friend."
"Don't give me that shit. Don't pretend to care about me."
"Good. I'm not."
"Which is why you betrayed me. Because you're so devoted. Really, it makes my heart dance."
"I do care about you, Azula."
"Except when it mattered. Then you fluttered off into the sunset with Mai and Zuzu."
"I had to!"
"You could've been with me."
"You could've been with me and we could've ruled, together, we could have lived together and fought together and died together, and when we rose from the ashes as a new world, reincarnated like the phoenix, we could have done it again." Her voice was biting, mocking, sarcastic—but in a strange way that belied her sincerity. There was iron in those words.
"Give me some credit, Azula. I'm not that easily gotten rid of."
"I thought I made myself quite clear."
"I can't just leave you here, Azula."
"Don't even start that."
There was a very long silence.
"How's my dear brother doing? I can't believe those fools put him in charge of a country."
"Zuko is much smarter than you give him credit for, Azula. We've got hope. For our country. The Fire Nation can be part of a united world, for the first time in one hundred years. People are dancing in the streets."
"I know you don't want to believe it, but things are better now. Trade routes are opening up. The Earth Kingdom's lifted the embargo, and we're actually exporting goods. Our economy is stronger than ever, even with the ban on manufacturing weapons. This is a good thing, Azula."
"I didn't think you were so interested in economic policy, Ty Lee."
"I'm not, it's so boring! But it's all anyone talks about these days."
"I don't suppose we've got much of a military left."
"Part of the treaty. We're not allowed to have a formal standing army. I think the idea is that if anyone attacks us, we had it coming anyways."
"Zuko agreed to that?"
"He didn't have much of a choice. Besides, he wanted to demilitarize the government anyways."
"I suppose next you'll say he's decided to abdicate the throne in favor of a people's government, letting the peasants squabble for power while he feeds the turtleducks."
"I doubt it. Nobody wants to be Firelord. Things may be getting better but it's still a mess, politically."
"Are you leaving?"
"Yeah. I'll be back tomorrow, though."
"Well, you know where to find me. It's not as though I can leave."
"I brought you something."
"What makes you think I want anything you can offer me?"
"Please, Azula. I've known you since you were six. You're bored."
"Fine, then. Entertain me."
"You ever heard of Pai Sho?"
"Leave. Get out of my sight."
"Are you alright?"
"I said leave."
Ty Lee plopped down on the ground, facing Azula. The room they met in was comfortable, with floor cushions and a low table. There was always sunlight streaming in from the windows. Azula had been staying in the facility for a little over a year now—it wasn't a prison, it wasn't a resort, and it wasn't a hospital. After Sozin's Comet, Azula... hadn't been in the best of shape. She had needed to be cared for. Even now, Ty Lee could tell that this wasn't the same girl she'd known before the last Agni Kai. That Azula had been cold, reserved, calculating. This one was a lot more broken down. She was still strong, still clever, still sharp, but it was like she'd been stripped of her mask. Azula didn't seem to know what to make of herself. There were times when she was bright, engaged, downright happy. Those were the best.
And there were times when she got like this. When Ty Lee could see the dark, twisted-up part of her. It broke her heart to know that at least part of that was her fault.
"Why?" Azula's voice was casual and blunt. She wouldn't look at Ty Lee, though, instead talking into her hands. "Why did you betray me? Why did you choose Mai—choose Zuko—over me?"
The old Azula would never let it show when she was hurt. She would never ask a question like that.
Ty Lee hesitated.
"I did because I had to. You and Mai would've killed each other. I couldn't let that happen. I couldn't let my two best friends die before my eyes. Not when I could do something."
Ty Lee's voice had lost any sugar or bounce. She spoke plainly.
"I was tired, and scared. I didn't want to see anyone die."
"So it was to stop me from killing her?"
"And to stop her from killing you. I know you like to think you're invincible, Azula, but I don't think she'd have been aiming for your sleeves."
"But you attacked me, and not her."
"Tell me why."
"Because Mai was right."
"Right? About what? Saving Zuko?"
"Partially. She'd been hiding it from us—you know how good she is at doing that—but even before the Boiling Rock, she was thinking about betraying you. I only found out afterwards. When Zuko left, she started asking questions, trying to understand why he did it. She got a hold of some forbidden scrolls, probably stole them from the Royal Catacombs, and read about what our country did. Without the propaganda. I think she got that he was doing the right thing. I think we all knew it, deep down."
"So Mai betrayed me to stop a war and save someone she loved. You betrayed me for the same reason. I guess I'm the villain, then, huh?"
"I don't see it that way."
"Why not? Everyone else does." Her voice was vicious.
"Don't say that."
"Don't patronize me."
"We care about you, Azula. Me. Mai. Zuko, even."
Azula laughed, an excellent imitation of a deep belly laugh that settled on every available surface. She went on for a long time, brassy and hollow. It wasn't particularly happy.
Ty Lee waited, silently. She couldn't keep herself from looking worried, though. A false laugh is one of the most unnerving sounds in the world. Especially coming from Azula.
"Why won't you let me help you?" Ty Lee said once Azula's laughter finally died down.
"What makes you think you can help me? Or that I'm obligated to let you?"
"Please, Azula. I care about you. I want to do everything I can to help you get better."
"I guess you missed your chance."
"Now, isn't this a lovely surprise. To what do I owe the pleasure, Mai? A visit from the Fire Lady herself. And they didn't even make me wear a straitjacket! I must be one lucky prisoner."
"Don't be too impressed, Azula, I'm only here because Ty Lee asked me."
"She did what?"
"Asked me. To come here. Seemed to think we should—what was the phrase?—'Have a heart-to-heart.'"
"Go away. I don't want you."
"Heart-to-heart or not, Azula, we have some things to clear up."
"I can assure you, we have nothing left to say to each other."
"Well, don't you want to know why I followed you in the first place?"
"Because you were scared of me. Of course. That's why everyone did."
Mai sighed. She'd been leaning against the wall with her eyes closed, like she was asleep, but now she swung her legs around and looked Azula in the eyes.
"I was never scared of you, Azula. I never much liked you, either. My mother wanted desperately for me to be your friend. I played with you because it was slightly more interesting than sitting still in my bedroom with a doll. And when you came looking for me, ten years later, I joined you. Because I was bored. Do you know what would have happened to me if I'd stayed in—what were they calling it? New Ozai? I'd have been married off to some dull, minor noble and spent the rest of my life painting cherry blossoms or whatever. See, a commoner girl could do something with her life, and a princess like you could do whatever she liked. But the daughter of a low-ranking government official? Not so much."
"It isn't like you to be so forthcoming, Mai."
"Yeah, well, this is all stuff I've been wanting to say for a while. So please listen. I went with you because I thought of the war as a game. Fighting was fun, strategizing was fun, travelling all around the world was fun. I was never loyal to you, and I was never scared of you. I joined you because you were the only way to get what I wanted."
"And I thought I was the manipulative one."
"I know you like to think you can read people, Azula, but I am very, very good at keeping myself closed off."
"So why are you here?"
"Simple. Ty Lee asked me."
"She cares about you. She wants you to get better. Seems to think that clearing the air between us will help you."
"Do you think you can help me?"
"I think it'd be arrogant to assume so. Look, I know how you and Zuko grew up. There's nothing I can say that will undo that."
"Do you want to help me?"
"Look, Azula, I'm not going to pretend like we're friends because we're not. And we never really were. But no, I don't want to see you in pain. I think you've got issues—although if that scared me off I never would've married Zuko. And I do care about Ty Lee. And she wants you to get better. So yeah, I guess that puts us on the same side."
"I always did appreciate your bluntness, Mai. Among the subtle nuances of politicians, you always stuck out like a dead toad."
"Better that than a plum blossom."
"Did Zuko ever tell you about our dear daddy's plan?"
"The one where he wanted to murder Zuko to appease your sadistic grandfather? Yeah. Yeah, I heard."
"Did it scare you?"
"No. It told me I made the right choice."
"By saving Zuko's life?"
"By switching sides. I can tell right from wrong, thank you."
"Did you get what you wanted, then? You're the wife of a nobleman. The very life you worked so hard to escape. Are you happy?"
"Yes. People are always trying to kill us. That means we're doing something right."
"I guess we do have some things in common. Admit it, Mai, you aren't exactly a shining pillar of moral righteousness yourself. Remember when you abandoned your baby brother? Left him to the enemy?"
Mai turned abruptly towards the door.
"I'm done here. Ty Lee will be back to see you tomorrow."
Azula smiled. There was a shadow cast across her face, though, and it was impossible to tell whether it was out of true happiness.
"Oh, and Azula? Remember. You're not the only one who can be manipulative. Tom-Tom was never in any danger. They wouldn't have killed a little kid. You knew it, I knew it, everyone knew it. If that's the best you can do, then you're losing your edge. Good day."
Azula was left alone, pretty sure she'd lost.
"So, you're back."
"Yeah. I wanted to see you."
"I'm not sure what you're playing at, Ty Lee, but rest assured I will figure it out."
"I'm not playing at anything."
"Oh, come now, that's lie. Everyone's playing at something. Everyone wants something."
"Azula, you've got to stop thinking like that. Like everyone's out to get you."
"Well, look where it got me."
"I'm sorry. I know it's unfair to ask you to trust me again."
"No regrets, though, right?"
"Hundreds. But I honestly don't see what else I could've done."
"Mai seems to think so to."
"So you saw her? I was worried you'd turn her away."
"You thought that if she explained herself and her actions, I'd forgive her."
"Why? I'm not the forgiving sort. Never have been." Azula's voice was sharp and lazy.
"You like to say that, but… I'm sorry, Azula, I don't think it's true. I don't think you're as closed off as you'd like to believe and I don't think you're incapable of love."
"So now you know what's best for me?"
"If I only knew what was best for myself, I'd be thrilled. No, I don't know how to help you. I don't know if you can forgive me, or if I should be the one asking for forgiveness, or—or what. But I do care about you."
"Why should I believe you?"
"Why shouldn't you? Are you honestly going to say you never knew?"
"I—What didn't I know?"
"That I love you!" Ty Lee cried, sounding almost exasperated. She had a very clear voice, like a bell, and her words rang in Azula's ears.
"You—What?" Azula's eyes were wide, and she almost looked like a little kid. It was kind of a shock seeing the elegant, deadly princess so blank and confused.
"I love you, Azula." Quietly.
"I didn't know that. I thought… I thought that it would never happen."
"Is that your way of saying you love me too? Or is it too soon?"
"Don't put words in my mouth! And don't change the subject!"
"I'm sorry. That was presumptuous." Ty Lee paused. "I guess the best I can do is let you heal. On your own. And… hope, I suppose, that we'll end up on the same side. Good bye, Princess Azula."
"Wait! Will you come back tomorrow?"
Ty Lee turned and smiled. "If that's what you want, Azula."
The princess was left very confused.
See, Azula wasn't crazy. People thought she was. That was why she had doctors poking and prodding her at all hours—nicely, true, and they always stopped when she told them to. But still, here she was. In a mental facility.
She'd been hurt. She'd fallen apart. She'd needed help. But that didn't mean she was some sort of animal, to look at and pity but never get close to. She could love—it was there, that capacity, stunted and twisted but functional; Azula knew this. Ty Lee knew it, too.
A/N: This was supposed to be strictly Ty Zula, but then Mai showed up and I couldn't bring myself to kick her out. Oh, and funnily enough, Mai's name really does mean plum blossom.