Disclaimer: I own nothing.
As far as Azula was concerned, there was one major advantage to studying at the Academy.
Not the teachers. They were not only boring, but often wrong, which meant that there was really no benefit to forcing herself to pay attention to them.
Not the other students. With the exception of Mai and Ty Lee, most of them weren't worth the effort to look down upon. That so many of them had apparently been ordered to curry favour with her in some misguided attempt to gain the attention of the royal family for their household just made trying to avoid them all even more difficult.
And certainly not the Academy itself, which was a far cry from the opulent luxury that would await her when she returned to the palace.
No, the one advantage of studying in the Academy was the class size.
In the palace, she was either alone or alongside Zuko when the tutors taught them. Any lapse in her concentration was quickly noticed by the tutors. And while she didn't much care if they realized what she thought of them, it still made the lessons more unpleasant than really needed.
In the Academy, she was in a large enough class so that as long as she sat upright and appearing to be looking in the general direction of the teacher, no one noticed when she retreated off to her own little world.
So even as she sat in the class, aware that the teacher was droning on and on about the history of Firebending as an art form, she tuned him out and focused on herself.
She focused, feeling the fire that was within her surge. The inner warmth welled up within her, and she let slip the slightest smile at the effortless control of her birthright.
The world around her might as well have vanished as she embraced and exulted at the power that flowed from within.
Fire, pure and hot, the closest one could get to touching the raw energy of the spirits. No flames actually flickered from her fingertips, but she could feel the heat building within her, the fire within writhing, begging, demanding to be released and given freedom to devour whatever it wished.
At first, Azula held firm. And then, slowly, ever so slowly, she pulled back slightly, letting the fire blossom out, feeling the energy flowed through her now.
The essence of life itself.
The fire was around her and within her. Unnoticed by her classmates and the teachers, Azula reached out to touch the vast world that loomed at the edges of her perception.
Alone among a sea of people, Azula was walking on starlight.
For a moment, Toph lay there confused, wondering why she had suddenly become awake.
After sleeping on the earth with her friends for so long, she'd gotten used to people tossing and turning in the middle of the night. Sure, their every movement sent vibrations through the ground, but it wasn't as if it was hard to ignore – especially when it had become as routine as it had.
But this was different. Whatever had woke her up hadn't been turning. More like... a sudden yank or jolt.
Toph hesitated for a brief moment before, he curiosity piqued, she extended a finger and tapped it on the ground once. Most of the time she relied on her feet to figure out what was going on, but at the end of the day her hands were perfectly fine tools for her to use earthsense with.
Katara was lying on her side peacefully – Toph could tell from her deep, regular breathing that she was fast asleep.
Azula, currently bedding in the room opposite the corridor, was not.
Toph frowned. The princess was currently sitting upright, and from what she could feel, she was also breathing rather heavily.
So. Most likely explanation was that Azula had awoken very abruptly in the middle of the night (and woken Toph up as part of the bargain).
But why had the princess woken up, then? It wasn't an attack...
Toph lay still and listened as Azula's breathing gradually became slower and more calm. And then, without another word, the princess settled back down onto bed again.
Toph didn't know how long it was before she managed to fall asleep again, but she was vaguely aware that the princess was still wide awake at the point that she nodded off.
By the time Azula emerged from the hallways of the temple and stepped into the courtyard, there was no sign that she suffered a nightmare or indeed had gone through anything other than a restful night's sleep.
"Hey, Azula!" the Avatar waved to her, his expression cheery as always. At his side, the waterbender paused briefly from whatever it was she was eating for breakfast to look at her, thinly-masked hostility on her face.
The water tribe boy was off in the distance near the balcony, doing some sad combination of sword training and an attempt at showing off to the Kyoshi girl.
"Yo," Toph mumbled from her half-sitting half-lying down position by the courtyard fountain. She paused to slurp down the noodles she had remaining in her mouth before turning to face the princess. "How're you doing, princess? Had a good night's sleep?"
To most it would have seemed to be an innocent question. But there was something ever so slightly pointed about the way the earthbender had asked it that let her know that she wasn't just asking to be polite.
"I slept fine." Almost without being aware of it, she changed her standing posture, seeking to look more casual and open. Don't act like the question means anything to you, use some humour to deflect attention. "Well, as fine as could be expected in a place as drafty as this anyway."
"Hm." Toph nodded thoughtfully before swallowing and turning her attention back to grabbing more noodles with her chopsticks, but Azula could tell the little earthbender was not the least bit convinced.
Most probably she was actually awake when I... Azula let the thought trail off and instead took a seat just outside the arc of the others.
"What, the princess isn't used to living away from the finer things in life?" Katara raised an eyebrow and smirked at her, but nonetheless filled a bowl with whatever it was the rest were eating for breakfast and placed it on the ground in front of Azula. "Well, I guess that's something you have to get used to if you're really going to be one of us."
"I'm not one of you yet." Azula's voice was light and noncommital as she picked up the bowl and stared at at the soupy mess filling it. Did that stuff in the bowl truly count as food?
"Southern Water Tribe swimming noodles," the Avatar said brightly as he pointedly ignored Azula's claim about her being not being part of their group. He pushed his own empty bowl away from him. "It's really good! Give it a try!"
Oh, that explained it. Water peasant cooking. Probably based on whatever they could scrape together in the frozen wastelands that they dwelt in.
Well, it was either that or go hungry. And it wasn't like she hadn't eaten her share of unappetizing Earth Kingdom cuisine during their journey...
Grabbing a pair of chopsticks, Azula settled down on a seat and fished some of the drowned noodles out of the bowl before stuffing it into her mouth. She chewed thoughtfully for a moment before swallowing.
The broth had a tang to it that reminded her very much of the smell of sea-salt, and the noodles themselves parted easily between her teeth. What meat had been added to the broth was stringy but provided texture to the food.
"Better than I expected," she finally allowed after a moment. She caught sight of a smirk forming on the corner of Toph's mouth at the sort-of-compliment sort-of-insult.
"Oh, well then," Katara said as she stood and brushed the dirt off her tunic. "I'm so glad my cooking was good enough to suit her royal highness' refined tastes."
Toph inclined her head slightly to the right as the waterbender walked off. "Katara really doesn't like you, huh."
Azula kept her gaze even and shrugged. She could retaliate, and she couldn't deny that she felt a bit of an urge to do so, but at the same time... thinking about engaging in a verbal sparring match should not have made her feel as lethargic as it did.
Ignoring that train of thought for now, she turned to the Avatar, "Be ready for our next lesson by midday."
"Sure thing!" he nodded once. And then, as if the thought had just occurred to him, he scratched the back of his bald head. "You know, I wonder how Zuko's doing? I wonder if he's found anything yet."
"My brother?" Azula waved her hand vaguely. "He should be fine. Mai's with him, and she knows how to keep him out of trouble."
"I told you not to touch it," Mai's expression was annoyed as she stared up at the ceiling where Zuko was currently suspended in a large volume of what she could only describe as 'gunk'.
Most of the room was covered in said gunk, actually. It had spattered all over the walls and most of the floor. Fortunately, Mai's reflexes had allowed to avoid the majority of the blast and now she was standing in one of the cleaner corners of the room, arms folded as she glared up at her boyfriend.
"It was an accident, okay?" Zuko snapped back as he wriggled about in a futile attempt to escape from the solidified slime. "Anyway, do you see any way to disable the trap?"
"I've already checked the whole room, Zuko. Twice. There's nothing here," Mai shrugged. "Not that I'd even know anything about 'disabling' some kind of weird hardening slime anyway."
"... Then, could you dig me out here or something?"
"I brought knives, not trowels. I could hack away at that mass of goop for an hour and not make a dent in it," Mai sighed and rubbed her head. "You know what, stay there and try not to get into any bigger trouble. I'm going to go look for help."
"Look for help? Here?"
Mai nodded and her expression sharpened. "The traps here are all too well-maintained. Someone is still living in these ruins and I'm going to go find out who."
Azula cupped her palms, letting a tiny ball of blue fire flare into existence. She gazed at the Avatar, standing opposite her at the courtyard.
"Are you ready?"
In response, the Avatar tapped the ground with his foot once, and a raised circle appeared in the ground in between the two of them. Azula glanced over it once before nodding. It matched the specifications she had asked for.
"I told you during the previous lesson that the essence of Firebending lies in control," she turned slightly so that she was facing him directly. "Today, you will put that knowledge to practice.
"The exercise will be simple. In a moment's time, I will push this fireball towards you. You are to seize control of it and push back. Not too hard, mind. Your task will be to keep the fireball within the confines of the circle. Do you understand, Avatar?"
"I understand," Aang nodded as he settled into a stance. A rather basic one, but it would keep him firmly grounded as opposed to the more flighty actions he took while airbending.
Probably from his earthbending sessions, she thought with a mental shrug and with a gesture, the fireball in her hand began to drift in a lazy arc towards the Avatar.
She was starting slow, of course. The first real objective was to see if the Avatar could seize upon the flame and make it his. She could see his eyes narrowed in concentration, hands outstretched in an attempt to grasp the fire that burned before him.
Abruptly, the drifting ceased, and the fireball's colour began to change, turning from blue to orange-red.
Azula allowed herself to give a single nod of affirmation. "Very well. Let us proceed."
One hand outstretched, she pushed, and the fireball veered sharply towards the far end of the circle. But after a moment, it halted as the avatar pushed back, keeping the fireball in place.
For a long moment the two of them stood still, calmly assessing the force being used by the other. Then slowly, with deliberate movements, Azula took a single step to the right, altering the angle of her push.
Equally slowly, matching her movement for movement, the Avatar moved to the right as well, the shift in angles allowing him to continue keeping the fireball in place as they both exerted their will on it.
Taking a deep breath, Azula gradually increased the force pushing on the fireball towards the Avatar, sending it drifting towards him. The Avatar's eyes narrowed, and he in turn began pushing back. Keeping her expression neutral, she noted how he had overcompensated and sent the fireball jerking at her before correcting and being able to hold it in place.
Fine control isn't there yet. Well, that was acceptable. It was only his second day of Firebending, after all. Flexing her fingers, she cycled through gradually increasing and decreasing the force she was using, trying to get the Avatar used to changing the amount of power he would need to use each time.
He appeared to be getting into the rhythm of things, Azula noted. Good. Now then, time to take things in a slightly different direction...
She focused once more, and this time it was the fireball itself that flared blue and expanded rapidly, hungry flames scorching through more of the air -
And the Avatar stepped back instinctively, and suddenly the counterbalance pushing against Azula's own force was no longer there.
She clenched her fist, seizing ahold of the fireball before it could fly off and cause any real damage. With a sigh, she waved her hand once, dispersing the flame.
In the silence that followed, Azula took a deliberate moment to adjust her posture, standing straight and looking levelly at the Avatar. She had found that tended to be a more effective way to reproach someone and allow them to realize their own mistake.
A brief pause. And then,
"You lost control."
The Avatar did not deny it, but instead averted his eyes and looked rather sheepish. Azula remained silent, simply letting the weight of that simple criticism settle upon him and letting him feel the full weight that mistake.
"That's not fair!" While the Avatar may not have had anything to say in his defence, the waterbender who had been watching the training session did. "He's just starting to learn Firebending, you can't criticize him like that so early on!"
Azula took a glance at the waterbender and Toph out of the corner of her eye before shaking her head.
"I don't need to remind you that this is the most basic concept behind mastering Firebending," she directed her statement at the Avatar, making it a point not to respond directly to the waterbender. "So yes, you may have just started, but you must get this down to an instinctual level before you can proceed any further."
"I know," the Avatar nodded hastily. "It's just... when you made the fire bigger, I tried to clamp down on it, but the flames... they were fighting so hard to break free. It didn't feel..." he paused. "It didn't feel natural, trying to stifle them."
Keeping her expression neutral, Azula nodded once. "No, it's not natural. A fire's nature is to burn and consume without limits. Just as it is the earth's nature is to remain stable and unmoving. We, as benders, impose our will upon what is natural and shape it to our ends. Do you understand?"
The Avatar did not look entirely convinced, but he nodded nonetheless.
"Very well," with another wave of her hand, another fireball appeared in her palm. "Then let us continue."
She saw the Avatar taking a deep, calming breath before nodding in return and settling into a Firebending stance again.
Once more, the fireball drifted through the air.
"So you're saying you're the original Firebenders?" Zuko said as he valiantly tried to ignore the... whatever it was that was eating the goo he had been covered in.
"The original Firebenders were the dragons," the man – ostensibly the chief of the Sun Warriors – said without looking at him. "We are but guardians of the flame they bestowed upon humans."
"But you know the secrets to the origin of Firebending, then?" Mai said as she fingered a knife within the folds of her robe. "I don't want our trip all the way out here to be for nothing."
"I still say they're actually here to steal the Sun Stone," one of the men at the Sun Chieftain's side muttered, his expression dark. "Look at their robes. They're of Fire Nation make, and you know we can't trust any one of those traitors."
"Calm yourself, Ham Gao."
"Traitors?" Mai took a step closer, placing herself in between Zuko and the so-called Ham Gao. "As far as I know, the Fire Nation aren't even aware you exist anymore. How can we be traitors in that case?"
The chief stared at her for a long while, his expression calm. "It is not us that you betrayed, daughter. Not directly, at any rate. But you should know that Fire Lord Sozin ordered the slaughter of the dragons, in his fear that others could challenge the Fire Nation's mastery of flame. And so the ancient pact between humans and the sons of the sun was broken beyond repair."
"I – I know," Zuko spoke up as he stood – and an instant later, kneeled before the Chief. "I am Crown Prince Zuko, son of Fire Lord Ozai and descendant of Fire Lord Sozin."
As he spoke, a ripple of murmured consternation swept through the room.
"I have rejected the ways of the Fire Nation and their methods of Firebending. I wish to return to the original ways – the purer ways. I know that I can never truly atone for the sins committed by my family. But still, I ask..." he paused. "No, I beg you. Please, teach me what you know. Teach me the true essence of Firebending."
A dead silence feel upon the room as the Sun Warriors glanced uncertainly at each other. Finally, the chieftain nodded once.
"That will not be for us to decide. If you truly wish to learn the essence of Firebending, follow me. Our Firebending Masters, Ran and Shao, will be ones to judge you."
As they turned and began to leave the room, Mai shared a glance with Zuko. Not for the first time, she could see a faint hope kindling in his eyes."
It was nearly sunset when Azula found herself settled down near another campfire, watching Toph and the water peasant boy chewing away at some sort of gristly meat. Suki was there too, standing slightly off to the side and tucking into the stew that had been prepared for dinner. The others were mostly absent, whether for training or simply relaxing at the end of the day.
To be honest, she had considered simply staying in her room, but after a while she'd decided that the people currently eating dinner there were amongst those whose presence she found... well, more tolerable than the others, at any rate.
And so she sat down, accepted the bowl of food passed her by Sokka, and silently hoped that this session would not be an uncomfortable as she feared.
There was a silence for a few moments as the gathered people focused on their food, but as Toph finished, she let out a loud burp and shoved her bowl away from her.
"So," she said conversationally towards Azula. "You're really putting Twinkletoes throught the paces, huh?"
She'd learnt enough to know that was Toph's strange nickname for the Avatar, and so Azula merely raised and lowered one shoulder.
"I pushed him as much as I believe he is able to accomplish. He's the Avatar, he's supposed to be a prodigy at all forms of bending."
"Nah, I'm not saying that's wrong. You know, back when he started out learning earthbending, I figured the best way to get him into the swing of things was to roll boulders at him. And it worked! He figured it out by the end of day!"
The water peasant snorted into his own bowl. "Do you have any idea how much Aang complained to me about that later on?"
"Aw, it wasn't that bad. And it wasn't like you saw any of it yourself, anyway. What with being stuck in the ground all day."
"Wait, what?" Suki lowered her bowl of food. "Sokka, you told me you faced down a wild lion-moose while the others were off training that day!"
"... That statement remains technically correct, which is the best kind of correct."
Azula remained silent as she ate her dinner and watched the three of them talk among themselves. And for a brief moment, she felt a hard stab of... what? Nostalgia? Wistfulness?
She shook her head. Whatever it was, it was better to clamp down on it and ignore it for now. There would be time enough later.
"Anyway, back to the original topic," Toph said as she shifted her position slightly so that Azula knew she was talking to her, even if she didn't look directly, "I noticed that your teaching today kept coming back to the issue of control. I guess that's a big deal with Firebending?"
"Of course." Azula nodded as she set her own bowl down on the stone floor. "I'm not sure it's possible to overemphasize it. A skilled Firebender makes sure her fire burns exactly what she wants and no more. Lightning, the cold fire that only the greatest Firebenders can wield, exemplifies your control not only of fire, but of your own heart and mind. After learning the basics of generating fire, everything else is refinement of how to control it."
"I guess all the various bending styles that have some sort of concept or ideal that serves as the base, then," Suki offered with a slight smile as she sat back, leaning against a large flat rock. "I remember Aang mentioning that airbending always comes back to freedom."
"Yeah, Katara once told me waterbending is all about adaptation," the water peasant said as he glanced up, "I guess it makes sense, since the water can turn to ice and steam and all that other stuff."
"And I've studied earthbender combat enough to know that its central tenets are being straightforward and resolute," Azula said as she glanced over at Toph.
"That's what they call it?" the earthbender gave a lazy smirk. "Me, I'd prefer to stick with 'stubborn'. Gets the point across better, you know?"
"Well, are you certain you're any sort of authority on earthbending?" And before Toph's outraged retort could form, Azula held up a hand. "I'm not saying you're not one of the best earthbenders I've ever seen. But you're self taught, aren't you? Or taught mainly by the badgermoles, anyway. Maybe there's something to the earthbending philosophy others learnt about that you missed."
"Pft. As if." While mollified by Azula recognition of her skill in earthbending, Toph clearly wasn't too happy with the possibility that there were tenets of earthbending she might not have learnt yet. "I had some teacher who spent all his time giving me breathing exercises. No more of that, thank you. And while we're on the subject, I might as well let you know that I invented metalbending. If that doesn't make me an earthbending authority, I dunno what does!"
"Metalbending?" Azula raised an eyebrow and sat up. That was genuinely interesting. "Wait, then all those metal prisons the Fire Nation constructed -"
"Won't be worth a broken copper piece when I teach others how to metalbend!" Toph pumped a fist in the air for a moment before she slumped. "If, actually. If I get to teach others how to metalbend. Not exactly like I can set up a school or anything with us flying all over the world and all."
Azula was silent for a long moment before she leaned forward. "Hey, Toph. Would you be willing to give me a demonstration?"
"Huh? Right now? Sure, why not -" the earthbender raised her armed and the metal band around her wrist began to quiver.
"Not just that. Your earthbending in general. And maybe I could show you some of my Firebending too."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, Princess," now Toph was sitting up straighter too. "Am I getting you right? Are you proposing a duel?"
Azula shrugged. "Well, a spar, at any rate. I doubt the waterbender would take too kindly to one or both of us getting seriously injured."
A grin spread across Toph's face. "All right, Firebender. It is on."
A silence had descended upon both Zuko and Mai as they sat on Appa, flying back to the Air Temple where the others were waiting. After a moment, Zuko lifted her hand to the air, and an orange ball of fire sprung from it.
Mai looked at it quietly, not commenting.
"Fire... is life. The harmony of all those flames..." Zuko trailed off. "And Uncle learned this too. All those years ago."
"I suppose that's one thing we have to thank your Uncle for," Mai's own voice was soft. "If he hadn't spared and hidden the dragons, you'd be out of luck now."
"..." Mai sighed. "You don't sound convinced."
"Don't give me that, Mai," Zuko clenched his fist and the fire was gone, leaving them only starlight and the crescent moon. "You know exactly what the problem is!"
She remained silent and Zuko shook his head.
Uncle already knew. Uncle already knew. All those years... all that time we spent in exile. All those times he taught me personally.
Zuko swallowed and slumped back in his seat.
Was Uncle trying to guide me slowly? Did he try to drop subtle hints about the true nature of Firebending? If he did, then they certainly were subtle because I don't remember a single thing he taught me sounding remotely like what the Sun Warriors said!
With a deep sigh, Zuko slumped even further and hung his head.
I wonder what Azula would say about all this.
"And you guys didn't try to stop them?" Katara snapped at Sokka as the members of the gang stood at the top of the cliff, watching the carnage unfold.
"Katara." Sokka waved a hand in the vague direction where Azula and Toph were – Azula was jumping around far too much to actually get an accurate read on her position and while Toph's earthbender stances emphasized stability she had gotten very good at using rock platforms to launch herself across the arena. "If you would like to tell the two of them to stop, seriously, be my guest."
"But knowing all your relative skill levels, the only thing that'd happen is this becomes a three-way brawl," Suki added, the smile on her face indicating she was enjoying watching way more than she should.
Pillars of earth and rock jutted out across the landscape, looking for all the world like a devastating, if incredibly localized, earthquake. Blue plumes of fire raged across the uneven rocks, throwing highlights and shadows crazily all across the gloomy dusk where they were sitting.
And amidst the slabs and crushed pillars, one could spot two dark shapes engaged in the dance amongst the flames. Occasionally they would dart in close, throwing attacks at almost point blank range, before jumping apart and hurling stone and fiery darts at each other from across the duelling grounds.
Azula performed a low sweeping kick, letting a wave of fire surge out across the ground. Toph simply stamped her foot once and the land she was standing on elevated, a small platform that lifted her safely above the fire.
A rock was hurled from the ground and Azula simply leaned to the side, letting the stone fly harmlessly by, missing her by a hair before she retaliated with a blast of blue flame.
"I'll admit this looks scarily close to getting out of hand," Sokka said as he shrugged. A stone hurled by Toph and broken apart by Azula landed barely a foot in front of him, impacting the ground. "But I think this is the first time in a long while either have had the chance to just go all out. And... honestly, I think it's better that she get it out of her system. "
"Who, Azula?" Katara raised an eyebrow, but next to her Aang nodded.
"You noticed it too?"
"Kind of," Sokka sighed as he rubbed the back of his head.
"What? Noticed what?"
"That honestly," Sokka gestured, and at that moment Azula's face was lit in the brilliant glow of her own fireblast, and Katara could see a smirk on her face. And despite the sweat and grime and exertion, there was a look in her eyes that clearly said -
"This is the most relaxed she's been ever since she set foot in the Temple."
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed it, and reviews would be most appreciated.