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"Oops! Did I spill water on you? I'm sorry, how clumsy of me!" The gaiety in the speaker's voice betrayed the apologetic nature of the words, as did the mocking laughter a moment later.
Mai sat still, feeling the dripping water run down her neck and shoulders, soaking through her robes. Her gaze flitted left and right as she took in the sight of the four girls surrounding her.
She still didn't understand the nature of cliques and the pecking order in the Royal Academy. She was pretty sure she never wanted to.
What she did know was that, for whatever reason, this group had singled her out as an easy target.
Probably because they knew she wouldn't retaliate. Her father had drilled it into her again and again – be quiet. Behave herself. Don't make a fuss, don't do anything that would hurt her family's standing amongst the other noble houses.
Don't do anything to stand out.
Under her robes, her hands balled into fists.
"Oh, but we can't just leave her like that! The dress is dirty! might leave a stain!" Behind the lead girl, she could someone else holding up another cup of water. "Better make sure-"
"Cut it out!" An angry yell that came from behind her. Mai half-turned in time to see another young girl, this time with a wide grey eyes, rushing up to the gathered girls.
"I saw what you did! You spilled that on purpose!" The newcomer girl finally came to a halt, beside Mai, and now her eyes were narrowed in anger.
"So what if I did?" The largest of the girls had recovered from her surprise and now bore an unpleasant smirk as she stared at the new girl. "What are you going to do, snitch to the teachers?"
"Maybe I will!"
This response was met with a fresh wave of laughter. "You don't even know who I am, do you?" The leader pressed a thumb against her chest. "I'm the daughter of Admiral On! No one's going to do anything to me!"
More laughter and nods of general agreement from the girls.
"In fact, if you haven't learned your place in the academy," the girl raised a hand, and Mai's eye narrowed as she saw a tell-tale wisp of flame being clutched in it. "Maybe I should be the one to teach it to you, huh?"
"Oh, are we playing guessing games now? May I join?" A new voice sounded from behind Mai she turned to look at the third newcomer – and froze.
There wasn't a single person in the school, student or otherwise, who wouldn't recognize the girl standing there, head cocked to one side with an expression of innocent curiosity.
"How about you try guessing who I am?"
"P – p... pr..." the admiral's daughter, so full of confidence a moment ago, now appeared paralysed, and her face had taken an unhealthy grey pall to it.
"Pr?" A questioning lilt to her voice as the newest girl took a single step forward.
"Aah! Pri – princess Azula!" Even though they all knew who she was, the stammered declaration of her name caused the other bullies to back away another step, as if the words themselves held power.
"Oh, so you do have working eyes." The princess of the Fire Nation stood there now, hands folded very neatly behind her back. She took another step forward. Distantly, Mai noted that she had now placed herself between the bullies and Mai – and the other girl. "As for knowing your place in the Academy... I think you all know it very well. After all, it took four of you together to gain enough courage to try to push one girl around."
Another pause. Azula's smirk widened, just the tiniest, tiniest bit.
"Hey. How many of your cronies would you need to gather before you feel safe coming afterme?"
And that was it. The girls turned and ran, sputtering half-formed apologies even as they tore away in the direction of the dormitories.
Azula stood still, her arms folded, until the last of the bullies were out of view. And then she turned to look at the two of them.
"Thank you for saving me, your Highness," the words came automatically from Mai's mouth as she bowed. Internally, she wondered what to do now. If her father learned that Mai had received a favour from the princess herself, he'd be ecstatic, telling her to do everything she could to ingratiate herself with the royal family from then on.
Mai couldn't imagine trying to suck up to someone who clearly wasn't interested as being anything other than completely torturous.
Well, it was a rather minor incident. So maybe, just maybe, she would be able to sweep it under the rug with no one the wiser...
"I told you not to run off by yourself, Ty Lee." The harsh reprimand jolted her out of her thoughts and she looked up to see Azula glaring at the other girl – Ty Lee, apparently.
"Sorry! But... she was being picked on by the other girls! I had to help!"
At this, Azula look up at Mai – and there was cold glint in her golden eyes that made her more wary than anything the bullies had done before.
"Picked on, hm?" Though it was said in a questioning tone it was also clear that she wasn't really expecting a response, and so Mai said nothing in return.
Another moment of silence.
"You weren't scared of them at all." The statement was blunt, in the manner of someone making an observation. "But you also didn't fight back at all, either."
For a brief, wild moment Mai contemplated letting Azula know about her father's constant, onerous demands on her life – but there was no point. The princess most probably wouldn't know or care about the concept of needing to make nice with people higher than you.
"It wouldn't have solved anything," she said instead. It sounded close enough to the teachers' admonishments that the princess would probably interpret it as such.
"Hm," Azula raised an eyebrow at that before waving her hand in a gesture of dismissal. "Well, whatever. What's your name, anyway?"
"... Mai, your Highness," she replied, silently watching the faint hopes that her family wouldn't hear about this incident vanish into the ether.
"Mai... A little simple for a name, but it'll do. Well, come on then. I'm hungry and this distraction has wasted enough of my time already."
Azula had turned and taken several steps away before Mai regained enough presence of mind to sputter out a stunned reply.
"Hm?" Azula turned back to look at her. "What's the matter? As long as you're with me those cowards will leave you alone. And you could stand to look a little happier. It's not every day the princess of the Fire Nation takes enough of an interest to let you be her friend, you know."
"You – you can't just go up to someone and say you'll let them be your friend!" Mai wasn't sure how she was supposed to be feeling right then, but a sort of flummoxed confusion was rising to the top of the list very quickly. "That's not how it works!"
"Oh?" Azula cocked her head to one side again, but as she traded a quick glance with Ty Lee Mai saw the beginnings of a smile working at the edges of her lips. "Isn't it, now?"
"And that's how I became friends with Azula." Mai finished recounting the tale as she continued to idly twirl the dagger in her hand.
She didn't receive a response immediately and so she looked up at Katara.
"I'm not!" Katara paused. "Maybe a little."
"Oh, I have lots of other stories. Like the time she hatched a plan for us to go steal candy from the offerings to the spirits. Or the time she wanted to try digging a tunnel connecting my house to the royal palace. Or the time my family ran out of fire flakes and Azula nearly set our couch on fire," she paused. Twirled the knife on more time. "I don't think we have the time, though. And I don't think that's why you asked me that question, either."
A pause. And then Katara shook her head.
"I guess if I had to put it some how... I want to understand Azula more."
"I thought you hated Azula." One eyebrow was quirked in inquiry.
"I don't hate her. At least, not any more," she let out an exasperated sigh. "I don't like her, either. She's... frustrating. More than anything else."
Mai didn't respond immediately.
"So... yeah." Katara took a deep breath and let it out again. "I was kind of hoping that hearing more about her from a friend would help me understand her more. About the way she sees things."
"It's not like I agree with Azula about lots of things." Mai shrugged. "Or that I like everything about her. She's bossy. She's arrogant. She makes decisions on her own and expects you to follow. If she's feeling nice about it she'll throw you a sop later on to 'make it up to you' and all that." And sometimes you can look into her eyes and see a coldness that no one else has.
"... I wouldn't have expected something like that from one of her closest friends."
"Oh, she has her own criticisms about me too." A humourless smile crossed her lips. "Apathetic to a fault. Afraid to care too much. Infuriating to talk to when she's trying to enjoy something."
"Huh. When you put it like that, it sounds odd that-" A abrupt halt, and Katara was now chewing at her lip.
"... 'It sounds odd that we're friends at all.' Is that what you wanted to say?" Mai cocked her head to one side.
The silence that filled the room was answer enough and so Mai shrugged.
"I suppose some friendships can be made because people have great personalities and can hit it off with each other immediately. It was different for us. I ended up sticking with Azula because she took an interest in me – I think I was one of the very few students there who didn't immediately bow and scrape in her presence and that intrigued her. So we just spent a lot of time together, the three of us." Another twirl of the knife in her hands. "And... it was comfortable with each other. We didn't always like the same things... we didn't even usually like the same things. But we all knew that.
"I told you Azula was bossy. But she also knew when she had pushed too hard, and when to back off." Admittedly, that didn't happen very often, but it did. "And I knew when just spending time with them was worth sitting through their bad or boring ideas."
Suddenly it occurred to Mai that it was probably the longest she'd ever talked about herself in... a very long time. Well, almost anyone else who would have been interested enough to ask already knew their shared history. All three of them.
"I'm sorry, I-" Katara waved her hands vaguely. "I didn't mean to imply that you weren't really friends or anything like that."
"It's okay." Thoughts of Ty Lee flitted through her head and she managed a brief, melancholy smile. "When push comes to shove, I know Azula has my back, and I have hers. And that's enough."
"Okay, that's enough for now." Azula heard Zuko's voice ahead of her, distant yet distinct as she stepped into the courtyard of the house. "Let's take a breather."
A quick glance around the courtyard showed both the Avatar and her brother standing by the fountain, now taking deep breaths and wiping away their sweat with towels.
"I can't believe we're hiding from the Fire Lord in his own house." Aang shielded his eyes as he gazed up at the afternoon sky above them. "Does this seem surreal to anyone else?"
"No worries, Avatar," she said as she walked over to the two of them. "We haven't visited this vacation home since we were all one big happy family. And that was a very long time ago. No one will find us here."
A snort from Zuko, who had now finishing towelling himself off.
"Happy, huh?" With a shake of his head, he tossed the rag onto the lip of the empty fountain. "You're right about one thing, at least. It was a long time ago. Not sure if what we had could be called 'happy', though."
"Fair enough. Happier, at any rate." Hm. Zuko appears to be in a bad mood today.
"Did you need something, Azula?" The Avatar shot her a smile, as cheery and sociable as ever.
"Oh it's nothing much. I just felt like watching your latest training sessions with my brother. He is teaching you properly, isn't he?"
"He sure is!" A big, cheery smile from the Avatar. "I'm picking it up a lot faster than I thought I would be!"
"You're still nowhere the level you'd need to be before taking on the Fire Lord, though." A sigh from Zuko. "So we really need to pick up the pace."
"I'm ready when you are!" Apparently even that short break had been enough to reinvigorate the Avatar, and as Azula settled herself down on the stone fountain to watch, the two of them began to move through their next set of exercises.
Punches, high kicks and sweeps were reward with brilliant blasts of orange flame that flared across the yard.
Azula pursed her lips.
She knew the style Zuko and the Avatar were practising in now was primarily derived from what Zuko had learned from the Sun Warriors. And it was obviously effective if it had managed to restore Zuko's Firebending. She'd been preoccupied with other matters, and so she had left it at that.
But now, watching the forms and stances...
It all seemed alien to her. The way her brother was moving. The way he was fighting.
She flexed her fingers once, feeling the muscles in them tighten and relax.
Her own style of fighting worked for her.
Yet, she felt curiosity gnawing at her now.
What did Zuko learn in those ruins?
She continued to watch and ponder.
"This bites," Toph mumbled as she flopped back onto the sand.
"Not a fan of beaches?" Suki's voice came from the right, and a slight thump let Toph know she had settled herself down beside her.
"It's the sand," she waved her hand vaguely before patting the ground next to her, feeling the tiny grains clump together before giving way under her. "Makes everything blurry."
"Oh, I didn't realize it'd affect you that way."
"S'okay. I can still figure out what's what. Just need to focus more than I usually do." She lay back again on the ground for a moment, feeling the sun's warmth on her skin. "It's almost dinner time, isn't it?"
"Yes, the sun's just starting to sink below the horizon. Well, until we actually get the dinner bell it's fine if we just wait here."
"Hmph," Toph chuckled. "You know, we're still technically on the run and all, but being able to just hang out like this without being noticed or chased by anyone... I could get used to it."
"Well, the Western Air Temple was a sanctuary for us too. Right up until it stopped being one," a sigh from Suki. "We should probably try to avoid blowing our cover any more. Ember Island is right in the middle of the Fire Nation, so it's dangerous... but it's a great opportunity to strike at the heart of our enemy as well."
"Yeah, well. The royal family has its own private beach that no one comes to so unless there's a random passing airship – which I wouldn't know about so I guess it's up to the rest of you to do the spotting for me – happens to chance by we're in the clear for now."
A short chuckle from Suki that ended up fading away into silence.
"What's the matter?"
"Oh, nothing much. I was just wondering what their family vacations were like. If they had an entire vacation home just for it then it must have been a pretty regular occurrence, wouldn't it?"
"Maybe. Or maybe they just ordered it built and never used it much." She waved her hand dismissively in the general direction of the building. "Stuff like that happens when you're royalty."
"Yeah, but could you imagine someone like Azula taking a vacation on the beach?"
"Hm." Toph let out a slow sigh. "Well, sometimes I find it hard to imagine her just having fun. She'd probably just treat every game like a fight to the death or something. And you just know she'd be the world's biggest sore loser."
"This, coming from someone who spent the whole day sulking after Aang beat you in the Earth Rumble ring?"
"I did not spend the whole day sulking and how do you even know about that anyway?"
'Oh, you'd be surprised," there was the distinct quality of a smug smile in the way Suki spoke. "How much Sokka just loves talking about the adventures he had before this."
Being reminded of Sokka, Suki and intimate moments made Toph pull a face – and she wasn't sure if Suki was looking at her right at that point.
"But you're right. The princess would definitely be a sore loser," a small chuckle. "Guess it takes one to know one, huh?"
"As if. Yeah, okay we're both proud of our what we can do but it's not-" even blurred by the loose sand, the shift in Suki's posture was unmissable, and Toph frowned. "What's the matter?"
"Oh, it's them. Azula and Zuko. They just came out of the house."
"Huh. Well, maybe they wanted to see the sunset or something." Now that she focused, she could sense the two of them standing several meters away. "Well, it's not – wait."
"Why are they in battle stances?"
"A spar?" Zuko kept his arms folded, but Azula could see the questioning look in his eyes. "Why?"
"I want to see how this Dancing Dragon of your performs in practice." She shrugged. "And it's been a long time since we've actually had any real Firebending practice against each other, hasn't it?"
"Yeah? Well maybe I got tired of being kicked around like a kuai ball all the time," despite his words, there was now a smile on Zuko's face as he settled into a loose combat stance. "But, if you insist."
Azula returned the smile, a moment before she exploded into action. A kick that sent a jet of flame blasting through the air, throwing the sunlit orange of the beach into shades of vivid blue for a moment.
Zuko responded immediately, arms moving in a graceful slicing motion that dissipated her flames and sent a wave of it across the ground towards her.
Another jumping kick, countering Zuko's attack and seeking to move in closer. Even as she fought, she noted that despite the namesake of her new style, Zuko still kept a preference for a grounded stance, not moving much from his starting position unless it was her attacks that forced him to do so.
A stronger attack this time, a sheet of fire that surged forth – just as Zuko spread his arms, creating a wave of his own that cut through the centre of her attack and reducing it to so much smoking sparks.
Twin blue streams of flame lanced from her fingers – and Zuko jumped, letting the attack pass by harmlessly under him. As he landed, he kicked – and another plume of fire was rushing at her.
Azula steadied her stance, raised her hands, and struck back with an attack of her own.
The roar of two clashing explosions sounded in her eyes, and the two siblings were looking at each other once more across an empty beach.
"You have gotten better," She nodded her acknowledgement.
"I'm just getting started." And then another attack was coming her way, this time a steady stream of fire.
Darting to the side, Azula retaliated with several quick strikes – Zuko sidestepped to avoid them.
An attack from above – she replied in kind.
For one long moment, the dance continued, twin colours of blue and red painting the scene.
Azula leaped to the side once more, loosing fire from the sole of her foot to increase her momentum.
Zuko crouched to the ground, sweeping his legs out in a circle. A wave of fire jetted out, an attack that sacrificed raw power for coverage-
Except there was still power behind the attack, more power than Azula had anticipated, at any rate, and her counter blow proved inadequate. She felt the force of the glancing blow against her side – and suddenly the world was spinning crazily around her as she crashed onto the sand.
"Azula!" Her brother's cry.
"I'm fine!" she called back even as she sat up again, massaging her neck. "I'm fine. All right, that first one was free, but don't think I'm letting you land a hit on me again."
Zuko snorted. "Yeah, I know. You were holding back anyway."
"... Only a little," she conceded after a moment. "I just wanted to a get a feel for how you fight now."
At this Zuko's expression grew more pensive, and after a moment he settled down on the sand next to Azula. "It's... hm. Calling on fire is easier than ever. It really feels like... well, I'm not sure how to put it. But it's as if the energy flows freely through my body. And it's easier to control."
"Do you want to learn how to Firebend like the Sun Warriors, too?"
A small chuckle escaped her lips. "I'll pass. At least for now. My fire's never let me down yet. Why fix what's not broken?"
"You know," Zuko broke the silence with a sigh. "The way I fight now – the way the dragons Firebend. Some of the ways they move and attack? It felt... like what Uncle taught me. During our three years."
"Uncle?" Briefly she recalled reprimanding Zuko for his style of Firebending, back when they had just started together on their journey to find the Avatar. "Hm. Well, according to you he was lying about killing the last dragons, so maybe Uncle learned the same style of Firebending you did from them."
"Maybe. But if he learned about fire being life... about Firebending that wasn't fuelled by anger or emotion... why didn't he ever teach me about it instead of just teaching me a few moves?"
"I'm the last person you should ask when it comes to matters about our Uncle." Azula snorted. "Who knows? Maybe he just forgot in between rushing to Ba Sing Se and then coming home defeated. That sounds like something Uncle would do, doesn't it?"
"Sometimes I forget how much you dislike him," a sigh as Zuko slumped his head. "... I wish I knew what was going on in his head during those three years."
"You can move beyond Uncle, Zuzu." Azula kept her gaze fixed on the horizon. "So what if Uncle found out about the Sun Warriors before you did? So what if he tried to teach their style to you, in however piecemeal a fashion? You found the Sun Warriors on your own. You restored your Firebending on your own. Sure, we all have our teachers. But we take what we can use from their lessons and use it to forge our own path."
She glanced at her brother as she said that, and while he still didn't look entirely convinced, he at least appeared to be giving her words some serious thought.
And on that note. Azula took a deep breath and nodded.
"Also, there was one more reason I asked you to come with me out here," as she spoke, Azula stood and made her was several steps down the beach.
"Oh? What is it?"
She turned on her feel, planting her feet as firmly as she could on the ground, and spread her arms in a gesture of invitation.
"Shoot lightning at me."
It took a long moment for the words to register with Zuko, but when they did she could see the shock in his eyes. "What?!"
"Our father is the strongest Firebender on this planet – bar the Avatar if he ever gets around to properly mastering Firebending. And you know that if we ever face him... he's not going to hesitate to use everything he has against us. Including his lightning."
"So what, you want to practice dodging lightning bolts?"
She snorted. "Not exactly. Remember back when the Avatar first fired lightning at us?"
"Of course. If it weren't for Uncle – Uncle! He was able to redirect lightning!"
"You got it. And if Uncle could figure it out, then I can too."
"And you want me to shoot lightning at you to do that? Don't be ridiculous! Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? One wrong move and I could electrocute your heart!"
"Of course I know how dangerous it is, Zuko." Azula nodded. "That's why I didn't ask to try this exercise until I knew how good a healer the waterbender is. If anything goes wrong, she'll be able to heal me."
A long silence. And then,
"You want me to try to hit you with lightning."
"Yes. And don't hold back with it."
"And if I end up hurting my sister? Or worse?"
"You won't. Or don't you have any faith in me, Zuzu?"
Another long silence. Then, it was broken by Zuko taking a single deep breath.
"Ok. I'll trust you... Az."
"Why, thank you."
A blue-white crackling along Zuko's fingers as he shifted into position.
"Are you ready?"
She settled for a nod.
She could see Zuko moving his arms. Slow, deliberate strokes. The crackling as the chi split and came together and then-
Lightning, surging at her, cold fury given form in a lance of destructive power.
And Azula stood ready.
"I learned this style from studying waterbending."
That was what her Uncle had told her. And she supposed on an intellectual level that it made sense. Now that she had fought Katara and fought alongside Katara, she supposed she understood waterbending, at least more than she had before. The push and pull, and concept of flowing and letting a defensive move turn into a new attack.
Pulling in the raw energy of the lightning bolt and redirecting it somewhere else – she could see it.
Yes, she understood the basics of how the technique would work.
Just as clearly as she understood that she would never be able to use that technique for herself.
She was not a waterbender. She didn't have a waterbender's temperament or mentality. Trying to imitate a waterbender's form would result in her mistiming the push and pull, and lead only to disaster.
Azula was a Firebender to the bone.
And so she would accomplish this as a Firebender would.
Forge your own path.
One arm reached out, palm outstretched.
To catch the lightning itself.
The essence of Firebending lies in control.
As a young girl Azula had reached her hand out to the sky, cupping the sun in it and wondering what it would be like to hold that vast flame, that raw energy in her hands.
Something like what she felt now, perhaps.
Scarlet agony seared through her arms and shoulders as she braced herself, arresting the force of the lightning bolt. As streaks of white fire burned up her arm, she clenched down on the white-hot fury, seizing it – seizing it-
Listen to me!
To fire lightning required clarity of mind.
To seize lightning would require it too.
Fire could be stolen. It cared not for what master would wield it, and only served the strongest person to feed its flame.
Cold fire was no different.
Listen to me!
Dimly she felt the crunch of sand under one of her knees, and only then did she realized that she'd been forced into a half-kneeling position.
Empty her mind of everything else. Focus on the cold fire. Focus on the wild, twisting veins of energy that danced across her palm.
She would not lose.
Not to the lightning.
Not to herself.
Focus on control.
All of a sudden, everything and nothing changed.
The lightning still raged in the palm of her hand, a vortex of energy seeking to rampage. But now instead of pushing against her will, it pulled. Seeking release.
With a sudden, jerking motion, she swung her arm up, pointing it heavenwards.
And let go.
For a moment, the darkening sky shone silver-white.
And then it was over, and Azula was on her knees, gasping for breath and her left arm afire.
"Az!" Zuko's shout from very far away, and she looked up to see him running up to her.
"I..." She swallowed, and looked down at her palm.
Charred flesh, and wisps of smoke.
"Wow! That was awesome!" Another voice pierced the evening and Azula raised her head.
"Toph?" When did she-
"That was insanely! Reckless!" Yet another new voice as Azula saw Katara charging up to her, one hand reaching up and calling forth an orb of water from the nearby ocean.
For once, Azula didn't have a biting comeback ready and she simply raised her hand to let Katara heal it.
"Look at this! You have burn wounds all the way up to your shoulder!" Katara continued her scolding even as the water formed a shimmering wrap to coat her entire arm. "If that lightning had managed to travel even a little further before you stopped it, it'd have reached your heart!"
"I told you it was too dangerous." Zuko ran a hand through his hair as he leaned in closer to inspect the wound.
"It's fine," Azula rasped out. And only then did she realize how dry her throat felt. "I knew you'd be able to heal me if I failed, waterbender. Didn't think you'd be on the scene immediately though."
"What?" Katara blinked and looked at her.
"What was the phrase, again? Ah, yes. I trusted you." She managed a wry smirk. "Wasn't I right to do so?"
"... You're insufferable." A sigh and a shake of her head. "And the reason I was here in the first place was to let the rest of you know that dinner's ready. So come on and let me bandage that properly before you eat."
"Great timing! Toph laughed. "And then we can share stories about how Princess here caught a lightning bolt with her bare hands!"
"Were you listening in the whole time?"
"And so what if I was?"
The chatter continued as they returned to the beach house. And Azula found her gaze straying to her wounded arm.
It's not enough.
I may have been able to reflect the lightning, but in a real combat situation I'd still be helpless immediately after that.
A deep breath.
She stepped through the doorway and into the interior of the house.
I'll need to do better next time.
Thanks for reading! As always, reviews and criticisms are appreciated!