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Heat Fractures

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I hope this is legible, since all those times I told my parents I was practicing calligraphy I was actually embedding poems in the wall rather than writing them with a brush.

Ty Lee had returned to Kyoshi with her new friends. They invited her, and besides, making new friends was one of the best feelings in the world. Very good for the spirit. As she soaked in the bathhouse with them after a long day of mutual lessons, she was pretty sure her aura was recovering from the nasty stains of war.

There was one spot, however, that didn’t feel right. Something was keeping her out of alignment.

That is probably not how I’m supposed to open a letter. Blah blah, seasonal nuance, blah blah, poetic reference. And we were raised to blah blah the Glorious Nation, but that’s out of style now, to say the least.

I’m really bad at this, but you’ll forgive me for not trying harder. Are you having a good time in Kyoshi? You probably are, so I feel even worse about writing this.

Mai never wrote letters. She hated to write because it was one of those things, those polite civilized things, that her family had made her sit down and do. So Ty Lee knew that something was wrong even before she’d opened the scroll.

Zuko said that after the war’s end, the road ahead would be challenging. We all know that he was right, but why does it somehow feel worse than when everyone was fighting?

Indeed, after the jubilation at the end of the war died down, and people had to take a look around and see that under the confetti there was still a century’s worth of devastation, things were grim.

“Is something the matter?” said Kazami, touching her shoulder.

That was another thing that Ty Lee liked about Kyoshi. The women were so easy and open with contact. That had been frowned upon in the Fire Nation, where the strict schooling made everyone part boarcupine. Even among friends. Especially among friends, with the ones she had found, back then.

These days, Kazami’s touch was more than friendly. That was nice, too.

But even in healing there was pain.

When I made the decision it was easy. Sure, I’d do it again. But I had no idea how easily Azula would break.

Ty Lee had known it, there at Boiling Rock. Everyone waved off the aura thing as woowoo stuff, but, well, it was hard to explain. When she learned to chi block, she had to learn to see the energy, or not really see it, but…something between feel and sight. The description of colors was more a synesthetic device.

Still, she was not a master of the art. She once told Azula that she could see the power in her aura, the lines of lightning. She must have made the mistake out of a desire to please. And it had pleased; she received a conspiratorial smirk even as Azula acted condescending at her silliness.

She’d misread it. Those lines had never been lightning at all. They were cracks.

She burned herself trying to get free. Zuko said she’s going to look much worse than him. He begged Katara to heal her, but even the prodigy of the Water Tribe had no success, because she did it to herself. Now they’re keeping her asleep with flame poppy.

I don’t think she was really trying to free herself. I think she knew she couldn’t, that even if she did she would still have nothing, and she was angry. And there was nothing else around to burn.

When Ty Lee jabbed at Azula’s pressure points, she did not find the resistance of flowing power, but the terrible give of squeezing a damaged piece of porcelain and widening its hairline fractures.

Even now it seemed bizarre to compare their fierce Princess to porcelain, but that was how it felt.

And Ty Lee knew that Azula soon would shatter, and in her cell she cried, loudly and bitterly, with other prisoners shouting at her to shut up, because no matter how good the reason, it still was betrayal.

She cried alone with the knowledge that this was what the universe had led her toward. Not following Azula, but being there to betray her.

She has fevers. As if she’s still trying to burn herself up even when sedated. I could never sustain that level of anger for very long. I get disgusted with it too quickly. You don’t stay angry, either, do you? Clouds your aura, right? But that’s Azula for you.

Ty Lee’s cheerfulness failed here. Maybe she couldn’t understand a Firebender. But what kind of anger was so terrible that it made you want to consume yourself?

The steam of the bathhouse half hid them, but fat tears were rolling down her face.

“Oh, Ty Lee, what is it?”

At school they called her the Sun Princess, do you remember? Because she shone so brightly. She scoffed at hide-and-seek—”What, so we can tiptoe around like Air Nomads? Let’s play hide-and-explode!” And we adored her because she was exciting. We followed her because she was glamour and ferocity personified in one. Her every step was the stomp of outlawed dances.

Why am I writing this? You know all of that.

Yes, she knew it. How Azula was such a singular blazing force that, one hoped, to be near her would confer some of the extraordinary on oneself. None of my sisters are friends with the Princess of the Fire Nation, Ty Lee would think, puffed up like a frilled geckomander. When Azula summoned her she didn’t hear a command, she heard a compliment—the Princess, the Princess remembered her name!

That wasn’t friendship, it was worship.

But they called it friendship, and they would forget that she could be so cruel, the way you forget that the sun can burn you.

Or even if you do remember, sometimes, you forget just how badly it can burn.

I’ve been remembering those days. Maybe I’m trying to sift through them and justify the fact that we spent time with her at all.

Anyway, it made all the sense in the world back then, but even Azula’s nickname was another lie the Nation told us. The sun can’t burn itself.

Zuko keeps assuming the worst of her. No one would blame him for that, but now he’s saying that she hurt herself on purpose to gain sympathy, so we would let her go. It was hard to keep from calling him an idiot, but somehow I managed.

I know he’s wrong because she’s too vain. If she was able to scheme, she’d find another way that didn’t involve sacrificing her beauty. And the last thing she’s ever wanted is pity.

Ty Lee didn’t pity her, not quite. It was just…sad.

“Is it about that letter you got?” said Kazami. “It was from the Fire Nation Capital, right? Did something happen?”

Ty Lee finally looked at her. “How did you know that?”

“I didn’t look at it! We used to shoot down Fire Nation messenger hawks if they flew low enough, so we recognize their insignia.”

“Oh.”

“…Do you want to talk about it?”

The others were looking now. It was pressure, but it wasn’t unfriendly. They had heard how loudly she cried in prison. And it was Kazami who had pulled her aside in the yard and said, I know that must have hurt. Sometimes it’s really painful to do the right thing.

The next day she said, Do you remember when we found the Avatar’s sky bison and you fought us? You took me down just by poking me. I thought it was pretty amazing, actually… Can you teach us how to do that?

Us, not me. The Kyoshi Warriors shared everything. Meals, chores, baths, joys and sorrows, lessons and burdens. Like sisters, one should say, but Ty Lee’s experience of sisterhood had been currents of resentment and competition running beneath everything. This was something calmer and stronger and happier. A chosen unity.

Of course he has a lot to deal with, but he won’t decide what to do about her. He just lets them drug her. He probably thinks that’s mercy. I think it’s avoidance.

I’m sorry to dump all this on you. I don’t know what to do for her, either. I don’t even know yet if I can forgive her.

But I was going to feel worse if I didn’t write to you, because when I went to see her, she was having another fever, and I think—I’m pretty sure—I heard her say your name.

She didn’t sound angry.

“I want to help Azula.”

It came out in a rush before Ty Lee had really decided to say it.

They all looked stunned, or at least surprised, Suki and Kazami a little pained.

“Are you sure?” Suki asked carefully.

What they didn’t do was look at her like she was crazy. Because that was another thing here. Respect. Even when a warrior said really unexpected and possibly dangerous things.

Ty Lee blushed and sprang into a handstand to cover her nervousness, her unbound hair spreading on the water’s surface. “Well, I want to try.”

Then Kazami blushed, her eyes drawn to Ty Lee’s upside-down body, and shook her head a bit to chase out the thoughts that were inappropriate to the moment.

“I mean, actually, I don’t know if I want to,” Ty Lee went on, “but I think I have to.”

“What do you mean, help her?” Chihiro said, not unkindly. “Are they…treating her badly?”

Finding a handwalk uncomfortable to maintain while her nose was stuffed up from crying, Ty Lee splashed down again into a split, and told them.

“Flame poppy?” Suki started. “She’ll waste away. They used to make people addicted to that in some of the colonized towns.”

“Oh, if you smoke it… In the Fire Nation we just use a tincture as a painkiller. But, yeah… It doesn’t sound good.”

“Do you think you can help her?” Kazami asked softly.

“I don’t know. But I don’t think anyone who’s there can. Azula grew up believing she had to make everyone fear her. And…maybe they still do.”

“What about you?” said Suki.

Ty Lee shook her head, pursing her lips as she remembered Azula, taken down too easily, gasping in pain and disbelief from just two swift blows, falling. They had all three of them been shocked at how quickly it was over. “Not any more.”

There was a moment of calm, the inlet splashing and an afternoon bird trilling, before Suki asked another question. “Do you want to do it for her, or for yourself?”

“Um…” Ty Lee frowned, then looked up with a sort of pleading hope. “Both?”

Then her tiny voice gained momentum. “…And Mai, too. And Zuko. And everyone. Because…well, it’s hard to make your aura change color. I think there are going to be a lot of those people, who are angry and full of hate and can’t change from the way they grew up. But I don’t know for sure that Azula is one of them.”

Suki nodded. “And we have to try to heal, anyplace and anyone we can reach, even if it might not be possible. That’s where the whole world is now.”

“Really?” Ty Lee drew herself up, incredulous. “You’ll help, too?”

“You’re one of us, right? Then don’t say you have to try. We have to try.”

Ty Lee grinned with blurry vision and hugged Suki. Which, okay, even for Kyoshi was a little bit awkward to do naked, but no one cared.

“Besides, I think some of the warriors were a bit disappointed that they didn’t get to see the action at Boiling Rock. I owe them a Fire Nation prison break.”

Chihiro and Reiko whooped.

“Wait, we’re going to kidnap her?” Ty Lee realized she hadn’t quite thought this through.

“You said that no one there can help her. So, we’ll have to try somewhere else, right?”

“Oh. Right. …Here?”

“Where better?” Suki gestured expansively. “Kyoshi is a peaceful island.”

“Yeah.” Ty Lee lay back to float. “It is…”

Then she faced the others again to say, “Thanks.”

Kazami held her hand, and even though Ty Lee knew there was an uphill battle ahead, and a lot of things that would hurt, everything started to feel a little bit more aligned.

Mai couldn’t be certain because she never wrote letters, but Ty Lee didn’t seem the type to neglect sending a reply, even if the topic was difficult.

So when no reply came she figured her friend would soon arrive in person. She wasn’t wrong, but she never saw Ty Lee. Mai felt like she should have suspected it, though, when she heard that Azula disappeared in the night, the guards complaining that something had incapacitated them with jabs at their pressure points.

“Let it go,” she told Zuko.